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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Review: Maleficent: Mistress of Evil Transforms Thorny Folklore into Fluff
In transforming folk metaphors into utilitarian attributes of an action hero, Disney exposes the emptiness of their product.1
“Once upon a time…or perhaps twice upon a time, for you may remember this story,” begins the voiceover narration of Disney’s Maleficent: Mistress of Evil. To its credit, the film opens by addressing the elephant in the castle: that we, as modern filmgoers, surely know this story well, through all its incarnations as old-fashioned fairy-tale romance and as insipid CG action-fantasy. But this sequel’s attempt to deflect attention from its own tiresomeness only highlights the cynicism of a corporation that insists on franchising the reboots of its adaptations—on repeating the process of filtering the imaginative irrationality of folk tales through layers upon layers of calculation.
Angelina Jolie returns as Maleficent, once one of the most deliciously evil villainesses in the Disney canon, who now—like Oz’s Wicked Witch of the West—has been reduced to a mildly grumpy environmentalist. Disney has erected a mythos around the character to explain her malevolent deeds—or rather, to expose them as truly good. Channeling themes of historical revisionism and post-colonial white guilt, the Malefi-verse positions its title character as defender of the marshlands known as The Moors and its multifarious magical inhabitants, the Dark Fey, against the incursions and crimes of the late-Renaissance Europeans who live nearby. In the film, whose subtitle has virtually nothing to do with its plot, she’s supplied with an army of fellow Feys primed to resist the destruction of their native lands by greedy humans. The deviousness suggested by Maleficent’s occasional wry, sharp-toothed smiles and curling horns is hardly on display in her actions, which have thoroughly virtuous motivations.
Mistress of Evil posits a “true story” behind the official one recorded in the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale, as rather than persecuting the princess subsequently known as Sleeping Beauty, Maleficent has adopted her and raised her. Aurora (Elle Fanning), though she’s grown up among the Fey, has fallen in love with Prince Phillip (Harris Dickinson). Throughout, we’re given little evidence of their mutual attraction beyond the fact that they’re both young humans, though Joachim Rønning’s film does attempt to elicit our sympathies for their union with an early scene that stages a YouTube-ready surprise proposal. Though she harbors doubts about this union, Maleficent initially tries to play the good mother, reluctantly accepting the match. But then, at the engagement dinner, Phillip’s mother, Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer), frames Maleficent for the sleeping curse that befalls King John (Robert Lindsay). Wounded in the subsequent confrontation, Maleficent flees and finds herself in an enclave of other vulture-winged, goat-horned Feys, led by Borra (Ed Skrein) and Conall (Chiwetel Ejiofor).
As played by Jolie, Maleficent is less a character than a pose. Rather than suggesting potency and confidence, the character’s impassiveness conveys indifference, a disinterested neutrality that emanates from behind Jolie’s green contacts and prosthetic cheekbones. Neither Maleficent’s anger at the humans who framed her nor her muted concern for the oppressed Fey succeeds in selling the clichéd plotline concerning indigenous rebellion. As debate rages in the ranks of the outcast Fey regarding a prospective uprising against the murderous humans—the screenplay, of course, makes Conall’s plea for a moderate response to creeping genocide more appealing than Borra’s call for a revolution—Jolie’s perpetually cool persona fails to anchor our feelings in the fate of the forest’s denizens.
The rebellious Fey recruit Maleficent for the same reason that the humans fear her: the magical powers she possesses. Yet Maleficent’s powers are ill-defined, the magical green tendrils that extend from her hands little more than a reference to visual effects devised for Disney’s classic animated Sleeping Beauty from 1959. But aspects of the magic in Mistress of Evil still draw inspiration from its diluted source material: the Grimm brothers’ fairy tale classic that the animated film was based on. In that story, the wise woman’s curse not only puts the princess to sleep, but also freezes all life in the castle in place and envelops the structure in an impenetrable thorn bush. Many princes attempt and fail to forcibly enter the castle, hacking away at the bushes, but after a century, the brambles open up on their own, at last allowing a prince to enter the princess’s chamber, so to speak.
In Mistress of Evil, we see the character that Disney has dubbed Maleficent deploy similar magical effects to much less metaphorical ends: She freezes a cat in the air mid-pounce to protect her were-raven familiar, Diaval (Sam Riley), and she conjures up spindly thorn branches to shield herself and Chonall from a volley of crossbow bolts. The filmmakers, no doubt, see such references to the original tale as forms of felicitous homage, but in transforming folk metaphors into utilitarian attributes of an action hero, Disney exposes the emptiness of their product. The film arranges a marriage between fairy-tale motifs and a CG-algorithm-driven plot that’s as bland and arbitrary as the one it stages between its nondescript human couple, processing thorny folklore into smooth, consumable pop culture.
Cast: Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Michelle Pfeiffer, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sam Riley, Ed Skrein, Harris Dickinson, Robert Lindsay, Warwick Davis Director: Joachim Rønning Screenwriter: Micah Fitzerman-Blue, Noah Harpster, Linda Woolverton Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 118 min Rating: PG Year: 2019
Review: Tell Me Who I Am Feels as One-Sided as the Curated Lie at Its Center
By focusing so narrowly on the Lewis brothers’ relationship with their mother, the film inadvertently minimizes the scope of their abuse.2
When Alex Lewis was 18 years old, he was involved in a motorcycle crash that left him with a severe case of amnesia. When he awoke in a hospital following the accident, he couldn’t recall where he lived or who his friends were. He didn’t even know his name. As for the woman babbling and pacing around the foot of his bed, he was taken aback to learn that she was his mother. The only thing Alex did remember was that the young man standing before him, Marcus, was his identical twin, and that they had a special connection.
Upon returning to their family estate, Marcus began the lengthy process of reacquainting Alex with the particulars of his life, as well as re-teaching him the basics, like how to tie his shoes. And through it all, Marcus did his best to present a rosy picture of their parents, assuring Alex that their mother, Jill, was “cool” and that they took nice vacations to France when they were kids. It wasn’t until after their parents’ death that Alex began to suspect that their upbringing may not have been as pleasant as Marcus suggested. And after Alex discovered a cabinet full of sex toys in Jill’s room and a photograph of him and his brother naked with their heads torn off, the horrible truth began to dawn on Alex: that he and his brother were sexually abused by their mother. Marcus would go on to confirm the abuse but refused to provide additional details, leaving his brother with questions that would haunt him for years.
Based on a book co-written by Alex and Marcus, Ed Perkins’s Tell Me Who I Am tells the brothers’ story with an Errol Morris-lite mix of expressionistic reenactments and interviews in which the subjects speak directly into the camera. Like the similarly themed Three Identical Strangers, the film parcels out disarming hints and shocking revelations at a steady clip, with a view toward maximizing the emotional impact of the material. It’s undeniably effective and affecting, escalating toward a harrowing confrontation-cum-reconciliation between the two brothers in which Marcus finally reveals the full horror of what they endured as kids: that, in addition to being abused by their mother, they were subjected to sexual assaults at the hands of multiple abusers, in what essentially amounted to an elite pedophilia ring.
In its richer, more rewarding moments, Tell Me Who I Am hints at the complex relationship between memory and identity. Alex relies on photographs to fill in the blanks in his memory, and yet, these seemingly objective recordings of the past, curated for him by his brother, are as conspicuous for what they reveal as for what they don’t. (As Alex muses at one point, “We take photos of weddings. You never take photos at funerals.”) But for a film about the power of getting a full and accurate accounting of the truth, it’s frustrating how little Tell Me Who I Am reckons with its own revelations. By focusing so narrowly on the Lewis brothers’ relationship with their mother, the film inadvertently minimizes the sheer scope of the boys’ abuse.
Tell Me Who I Am hints at the brothers having been caught up in a seemingly extensive sexual abuse ring, one involving aristocrats and at least one well-known artist, all of whom remain unnamed. It’s a scandal reminiscent of recently exposed conspiracies of silence that surround wrongdoing, such as those involving Jeffrey Epstein, Jimmy Savile, and the Catholic Church. And while Perkins’s film wants us to believe that the brothers’ saga reaches a definitive conclusion when they tearfully embrace after Alex learns about what happened to him, it leaves the viewer with a host of unanswered questions. Who exactly was part of Jill’s social circle? How extensive was Alex and Marcus’s abuse? Were there other victims?
Even a cursory glance at news articles about the men and reviews of their book suggests how much Perkins has massaged the details of the Lewis brothers’ lives to craft his sleek, emotionally punchy narrative. From watching Tell Me Who I Am, one wouldn’t know that there was at least one other confirmed victim: Alex and Marcus’s younger brother, whose existence the film doesn’t even acknowledge. By forcing Alex and Marcus’s story into such a rigidly linear narrative of redemption, the film ends up losing sight of its subjects altogether, reducing them to mere representations of its core theme: the brother who wants to learn about his past versus the brother who’d rather keep it buried.
That’s why Tell Me Who I Am’s attempt to end on a note of closure—“It’s over finally,” Alex says, as the camera tracks away from the house where he was abused—comes off as phony. Perhaps Alex feels that he finally understands who he really is, but the film leaves us with so many unanswered questions, it’s hard not feel that the picture we’ve been given of these men is nearly as misleading and incomplete as the one Marcus provided to Alex all those years ago.
Director: Ed Perkins Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: The Gloss of Stuffed Is at Odds with Taxidermy’s Inherent Boldness
Erin Derham’s unadventurous aesthetic inoculates her from taxidermy’s subversive spirit.1.5
Erin Derham’s Stuffed opens with a montage of the various taxidermists she profiles throughout her documentary. This opening lays bare the film’s argument in unmistakable terms: that taxidermy is an art form, closer to the work of Tim Burton than that of Norman Bates. But it also exposes the film’s most unbearable flaw, as Derham supports her hagiographic argument by sewing together her case studies with a relentless, and relentlessly generic, score that speaks to her devotion to formula.
It’s an unadventurous formula at odds with the documentary’s attempts to establish taxidermy as a highly complex, anti-paradigmatic endeavor involving great amounts of scientific precision, as well as creative audacity and whimsical experimentation. Derham insists so much on taxidermists’ labor being more than the mere production of replicas that her refusal to adopt a more playful aesthetic approach as she portrays the quirky imagination of taxidermists feels like equivocation. It’s as if she approached the documentary’s making with thick rubber gloves, thus inoculating herself from taxidermy’s subversive spirit.
This may be the result of a certain courting, conscious or not, of digital streaming platforms through the mimicry of impersonally glossy production values. In any case, it leaves the viewer in a position akin to that of the fussy eater trying to pick unwelcomed ingredients out of their food. We want to savor the taxidermists’ artistry, except the clichéd polish that envelops the film keeps getting in the way. It’s an artistry that’s bold by design, as the taxidermist utilizes dead matter not with the utilitarian goal of resurrecting it, but as raw material to sculpt something altogether new. If the Paris Museum of Hunting and Nature invited artists Sophie Calle and Serena Carone in 2018 to intervene in its collection of retired guns and taxidermic realism precisely because of the unusual juxtaposition of conceptual art and refurbished dead matter, moose in red gowns and all, Stuffed defines taxidermy itself as already marrying fanciful concepts with the illusion of beastly or avian resurrection.
Taxidermist Madison Rubin tells us she loves “seeing the insides and the anatomy of things” as she skins 11 ermines with the meticulousness of a sculptor, or a dollmaker. Others evoke the resurgence of taxidermy, which used to be particularly popular in the Victorian era, in these times of digital de-materialization. And some attest to the specificity of the medium—how no other art form can convey texture the way taxidermy does. Yet Derham seems more invested in glossing over the numerous chapters she’s divided the film’s narrative into than in exploring the depths of her story. Taxidermy and sustainability, taxidermy and climate change, the ethics of taxidermy, taxidermy and museums, taxidermy as a business, taxidermy in fashion—all of these get addressed too rapidly, sometimes in just a couple of minutes.
The rush feels particularly unfortunate when Derham turns her attention to rogue taxidermy, a Lynchean subgenre located at the intersection of dioramas, cabinets of curiosities, and surrealist art. Here, Calle and Carone’s red ballgown-wearing stuffed roadkill would feel right at home—that is, delightfully out of place in the world. Instead, Stuffed quickly continues in its quest of a happy, peppy denouement to match the pristine porelessness of its sheen.
Director: Erin Derham Distributor: Music Box Films Running Time: 84 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Trick Will Treat You to Meatheaded, Commentary-Free Ultraviolence
Patrick Lussier’s film is an incompetent, nihilistic exercise in gore and pseudophilosophy.0.0
In the 2000s, a film company called the Asylum flooded Blockbuster shelves with “mockbusters”: cheaply produced, straight-to-DVD knockoffs of box-office dominators with titles such as Transmorphers, Ghosthunters, and Snakes on a Train. Patrick Lussier’s horror mystery Trick feels like an Asylum spin on Todd Phillips’s Joker, as both are about marginalized white guys who paint their faces, start killing people, and become kings of the incels. But where the licensed DC spinoff is an irresponsible and irredeemable pity party for a creep, this cheap lookalike is just an incompetent, nihilistic exercise in gore and pseudophilosophy, assembled crudely from horror and cop-movie clichés.
Trick opens with a handy list of the dictionary definitions of its title, hinting at the filmmakers’ estimation of their target audience’s intelligence. Trick is also the name of the film’s villain, short for Patrick (Thom Niemann), an 18-year-old who, on Halloween night in 2015, attends a party with his classmates in their Hudson Valley town. During a game of spin the bottle—played with a knife—Trick is pressured to kiss another dude but instead starts stabbing and slashing everyone. (The subtext of repressed homosexuality is never alluded to again in the film.) Incapacitated and brought to urgent care, Patrick breaks free from his restraints and drops more bodies until police shoot him repeatedly in a hallway, knocking him out of a second-story window, neatly alluding simultaneously to both John Carpenter’s original Halloween (the defenestration) and Rick Rosenthal’s 1981 sequel (the hospital setting). Trick staggers to the river and vanishes, presumed dead.
But more killings follow, on or around Halloween, in towns downriver from the first. Detective Mike Denver, the only cop who believes Patrick survived, is played by Omar Epps, who credibly delivers preposterous dialogue like a pro. In the film’s most ludicrous killing, Trick uses a crane to swing the tombstone of an F.B.I. agent (Vanessa Aspillaga) he murdered the year before through the windshield of a car in order to smash a wounded police officer (Dani Shay) sitting inside, a scene Denver sums up to a colleague: “He murdered your deputy with the gravestone of a fed I got killed. Who does that?” Then, after a beat, “What does that?”
Good question. To be scary, a horror villain needs either to be a credible menace or tap into a more primal social fear. But Trick is just implausible. He’s resilient like Rasputin, more violent than a rabid animal. At a time when cellphones and social media are ubiquitous, no one ever got a photo of him, and his classmates can barely even describe his features, just that he was smart as fuck—like, smarter than the teachers. The film shows off his far-fetched cleverness when he kills a different F.B.I. agent (Robert G. McKay) with a Rube Goldbergian guillotine involving a sharp wire, a utility pole, and a bundle of cinderblocks. Its employment makes for Purge-level spectacle without the social commentary to back it up. The beheading is just meatheaded ultraviolence—as inane as any other aspect of Trick.
Cast: Omar Epps, Ellen Adair, Kristina Reyes, Tom Atkins, Max Miller, Thom Neimann, Jamie Kennedy Director: Patrick Lussier Screenwriter: Todd Farmer, Patrick Lussier Distributor: RLJE Films Running Time: 100 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Robert Forster: Winning in the Late Innings
The Oscar-nominated actor brought a sense of honor and dignity to every role he played.
David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive opens with a nighttime ride into oblivion. A limo drifts through the lightless void of the Hollywood Hills, red taillights burning in the blackness. An enigmatic woman, ebony hair and curvaceous red lips lending her the air of a tragic beauty, sits in the back by herself. The limo pulls over, and after the woman says, “We don’t stop here,” the driver aims a gun at her, but a gaggle of joyriding kids comes speeding around the curve and crashes into the vehicle. The woman climbs out of the wreckage stupefied and traipses into the hills, leaving behind the mangled metal and bodies.
Soon, a stoic detective arrives on the scene. He looks like a lawman, serious, a little sad, his face etched with the wrinkles of time. He examines the cars, offers a few terse observations, gazes out at the nocturnal city sprawling before him. It’s Robert Forster’s only scene in the film, and it’s an indelible one, imbued with mystery and menace, an attempt to explain the unexplainable. Saying fewer than 20 words and appearing in only a handful of shots, he exudes an air of wisdom and weariness—that of an indolent man who’s seen some shit and knows the horrors lurking ahead. In a film of dreamy logic and ineffaceable images, Forster’s taciturn detective acts as the final glimpse of reality before we slip into a world of Hollywood hopes and fantasy.
Forster, who died of brain cancer at the age of 78 this past Friday, was a prolific actor who experienced a remarkable second act in his mid-50s after giving a deeply empathetic and vulnerable performance as a love-struck bail bondsman in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, a film populated by wounded characters leading unamazing lives, and who aspire to transcend mediocrity. “My career by then was dead,” Forster told the AV Club’s Will Harris in a 2011 interview. “No agent, no manager, no lawyer, no nothing…I could not believe that he [Tarantino] was talking about the Max Cherry role.”
Like so many of Tarantino’s films, Jackie Brown is replete with colorful, loquacious characters whose banter is clever, trenchant, and self-referential, but Forster’s Max Cherry is reserved and crestfallen, a man who’s settled into complacency and finds in Pam Grier’s flight attendant an unexpected inspiration. It’s one of American cinema’s great unconsummated love stories. Forster is a subtle actor, playing Max as an Everyman who chases people for a living but never seems to find what he’s looking for, and who willingly embroils himself in a dangerous situation because of love. He’s smart, self-sufficient, a decent guy, and yet for Jackie Brown he’s willing to risk his life, or whatever mundane existence he calls a life.
Forster was one of those great actors who appeared in far too few great films. His filmography is rife with bad films, though he was invariably a dependable presence in everything he did. He began his career promisingly, with a supporting role in John Huston’s Reflections in a Golden Eye, and earned renown for his turn as an ambitious and ill-fated news cameraman in Haskell Wexler’s incandescent Medium Cool. He played a private eye in 1930s Hollywood in the show Banyon (his role in Mulholland Drive almost feels like a brief homage to the short-lived series) and appeared in a slew of genre movies for the rest of the 1970s and 1980s. Of note is Lewis Teague’s Alligator, in which a gargantuan reptile terrorizes a city, William Lustig’s nihilistic grindhouse flick Vigilante, and a rare villainous turn in Delta Force, opposite the indefatigable Chuck Norris.
It wasn’t until Jackie Brown and his subsequent Oscar nomination that Forster reentered the public consciousness. The way Tarantino exhumes old, often “trash” films when crafting his paeans to moving pictures, he also has a preternatural skill for resurrecting the careers of forgotten or faded actors. Tarantino fought for Forster to get the part. When news of Forster’s death went public, the director said in a statement:
“Today the world is left with one less gentlemen. One less square shooter. One less good man. One less wonderful father. One less marvelous actor. I remember all the breakfasts we had at silver spoons. All the stories. All the kind words. All the support. Casting Robert Forster in Jackie Brown was one of the best choices I’ve ever made in my life. I will miss you dearly my old friend.”
Forster appeared in a panoply of listless films and television programs throughout the 2000s (his appearance in Alexander Payne’s The Descendants in 2011 being an exception) but became a household face again in 2018, when he took on the role of Sheriff Frank Truman, Harry S. Truman’s brother, on the third season of Lynch’s Twin Peaks. Whereas Michael Ontkean exuded a mercurial youthfulness on the original series, that of a warm-hearted, just man capable of fiery spontaneity, Forster plays the elder Sheriff Truman rather pensively, sagacious and serene. Which is to say, he acts with the wisdom accrued by experience.
Forster also appeared in a season five episode of Breaking Bad, as a vacuum store owner and “disappearer” named Ed who helps Bryan Cranston’s Walt change identities. A stable presence amid the histrionic theatrics that defined the show’s approach to acting, Forster gives an understated performance and a sense of the real-world left behind by Vince Gilligan’s increasingly combustible melodrama. Forster reprised the part this year in El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, the actor’s final screen credit. In a film-stealing scene, Forster stands steadfast and stoical against Aaron Paul’s desperate, bedraggled Jesse Pinkman, refusing to perform his disappearing service over a $1,800 discrepancy. The viewer is, of course, rooting for Jesse, yet one can’t help but respect the conviction of Forster’s unruffled professional. The actor brings a sense of honor and dignity to the role, as he did with every role. Forster was a safe, reliable presence, someone you trusted, unflustered, earnest, whether he was fighting monstrous alligators or swooning after air stewardesses.
Review: Cyrano, My Love Thinks Art Is Only Born of Romantic Passion
The film is imbued with an airless blend of buoyant comedy and soap-operatic backstage drama that recalls Shakespeare in Love.1.5
Alexis Michalik’s Cyrano, My Love wears its fondness for Shakespeare in Love very much on its sleeve. Though it serves up nuggets of truth, its take on Edmond Rostand (Thomas Solivérès) and the turbulent circumstances surrounding his creation of Cyrano de Bergerac is an outlandish one, imbued with an airless blend of buoyant comedy and soap-operatic backstage drama that recalls John Madden’s Oscar winner. And while Michalik positions Rostand as the story’s triumphant artist, the French dramatist is often reduced to a skittish ninny—as opposed to the pompous ass that Joseph Fiennes’s Shakespeare was positioned as—whose great art emanates not from the mind, but the cockles of the heart.
For a film so hellbent on the notion that Cyrano de Bergerac was inspired not only by actual events, but real emotions, there’s surprisingly little effort made to articulate with any specificity the conflicted feelings behind Rostand’s penning of what would become the most famous French play of all time. The initial catalyst for his play’s central conceit occurs when he steps in to help an actor friend, Léonidas (Tom Leeb), struggling to find the words to woo a costume designer, Jeanne (Lucie Boujenah), on whom he has a crush. Rostand, in one of the film’s many blatant nods to Cyrano de Bergerac, begins to feed his friend a barrage of romantic lines and relish the secrecy with which he can play out a love affair without disturbing his marriage with his endlessly patient and supportive wife, Rosemonde (Alice de Lencquesaing).
Yet, rather than teasing out the ample psychosexual baggage that should arise from the cognitive dissonance of Rostand writing daily love letters to Jeanne, his unknowing muse, while still professing, with complete honesty, that his only true love is his wife, Michalik pivots his focus to the swirling chaos of Cyrano de Bergerac’s production. With Rostand’s emotional conflict left fairly nebulous, Cyrano, My Love never quite gets to the root of the author’s inspiration, leaving its familiar theatrical farce about the troubles of mounting a stage play grounded in neither genuine emotion nor any palpable stakes.
As the hurdles that Rostand and company face in staging Cyrano de Bergerac grow bigger and Rostand writes pages to be rehearsed before the ink dries, the film introduces a parade of quirky, ostentatious characters. From the historical, such as Sarah Bernhardt (Clémentine Célarié) and Anton Chekhov (Misha Leskot), to the imagined, such as a prostitute (Mathilde Seigner) who’s foisted into the lead role of Roxane, each one is more thinly conceived than the next, with eccentricities dialed up to 11. The most egregious of these larger-than-life characterizations, however, is Monsieur Honoré (Jean-Michel Martial), the black café owner whose sole purpose is to repeatedly tap into his struggles as a minority as a means to galvanize the all-white cast and crew, who he then cheers on from the sidelines.
Cyrano, My Love’s lone performative bright spot comes in the form of a surprisingly nimble turn by Olivier Gourmet, known primarily for his dour turns in many of the Dardenne brothers’ films. Gourmet lends both humor and pathos to the play’s famous but desperate lead actor, Constant Coquelin. But while Coquelin steals the spotlight in a number of scenes, Rostand remains little more than a perpetually anxiety-ridden artist who virtually stumbles into writing a masterpiece during a helter-skelter production. And with little care given to rendering the intense emotional tumult that spurred his artistic process, all the pandemonium of Cyrano, My Love proves to be much ado about nothing.
Cast: Thomas Solivérès, Olivier Gourmet, Mathilde Seigner, Tom Leeb, Lucie Boujenah, Alice de Lencquesaing, Clémentine Célarié, Igor Gotesman, Dominique Pinon, Simon Abkarian, Marc Andréoni, Jean-Michel Martial, Olivier Lejeune, Antoine Dulery, Alexis Michalik Director: Alexis Michalik Screenwriter: Alexis Michalik Distributor: Roadside Attractions Running Time: 112 min Rating: R Year: 2018
Review: In Greener Grass, White Picket Fences Cast Shadows Like Tendrils
In the film’s world, there can be no real resistance, as the suburbs have already won.3
The opening credits of Greener Grass linger on a twitching, toothy smile covered in braces. Everyone in the film wears braces. Everyone drives a golf cart, too, and dresses in gentle pinks and blues. The lighting is soft and sun-drenched, an effect that’s most pronounced during the film’s soccer matches. In the opening of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, the camera creeps through a suburb’s pleasant veneer to reveal the rot that festers beneath. But for Greener Grass co-directors, co-writers, and co-stars Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe, the very surface is the thing that’s so unsettling, a place populated by slithering, rictus-grinning meat puppets penned in by white picket fences and their own crippling need to conform.
The trouble, if you could call it that, begins when Jill (DeBoer) abruptly gifts Lisa (Luebbe) with her newborn baby as they watch their other children play soccer. This isn’t, in the film’s bizarre conception of suburbia, a particularly outrageous act. At worst, it’s overly generous, like giving someone a gift more expensive than they’re comfortable accepting; another neighbor, Kim Ann (Mary Holland), later laments that she wasn’t given the child instead. The children in Greener Grass are essentially property, status symbols to reflect upon their owners in their pristine homes and yards, all of which feeds into an undercurrent of pervasive competition that nonetheless reinforces conformity and simply not rocking the boat.
Everything is seemingly interchangeable in Greener Grass. At a cookout, it takes a full conversation for Jill and Lisa to notice that they’re smooching and hanging on the arms of the wrong husbands, Dennis (Neil Casey and Nick (Beck Bennett), respectively. And when Jill’s young son, Julian (Julian Hilliard), inexplicably transforms into a dog, she’s horrified, but Nick, the boy’s father, seems pleased: Julian may no longer be able to take the advanced math class, but he’s now a prodigy when it comes to playing catch in the backyard.
There isn’t much of a traditional plot to the film, which plays more as a recurring series of sketches that subtly further Jill’s downward spiral. DeBoer and Luebbe let their scenes linger long past the point of discomfort, both in the length of mannered dialogue exchanges and the amount of time they hold a shot without cutting; the camera gingerly pulls out or pushes in while characters perform odd actions in the background, like perpetually folding tighty-whities or fishing out a seemingly infinite supply of pocket change. It feels voyeuristic, and sometimes it is: In one scene, a hand appears to reveal that we’re watching a POV shot, and in another, an off-screen voice begins breathing heavily and starts mock-repeating dialogue.
A schoolteacher, Miss Human (D’Arcy Carden), fixates on the deaths of American pioneers making their way to the West. In pursuit of “a better life,” they lost things along the way, as the people of Greener Grass have lost themselves in their migration to the suburbs. The film is more unsettling for its lack of an ordinary plot structure where, say, Jill might break out of her suburban funk or get everything to explode with violence in a revolt against conformity. In the film’s world, there can be no real resistance. Here, the burbs have already won, having already sent out the white picket fences like tendrils as far as the eye can see. There is no escape.
Cast: Jocelyn DeBoer, Dawn Luebbe, Beck Bennett, Neil Casey, Mary Holland, D’Arcy Carden, Janicza Bravo, Dot-Marie Jones, Lauren Adams, Julian Hillard, Asher Miles Fallica Director: Jocelyn DeBoer, Dawn Luebbe Screenwriter: Jocelyn DeBoer, Dawn Luebbe Distributor: IFC Midnight Running Time: 100 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: The Cave Pays Wrenching Tribute to the Doctors Saving Lives in Syria
Its depiction of the perpetual terror of living in a war zone will stick with viewers long after The Cave’s doctors have left Ghouta.3
Feras Fayyad’s documentary The Cave concludes with what almost seems like a non sequitur: After the staff at a Syrian underground hospital are finally forced to evacuate their war-torn city, the film fades to a low-angle shot of a submerged World War II bomber plane. Kjetil C. Astrup’s camera tracks slowly past the moss-covered plane and an unexploded shell that lies nearby. Yes, it’s a 1940s bomber, and The Cave is about Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, that’s subjected to constant bombardment from contemporary warplanes, but what does this image have to do with the ongoing Syrian Civil War?
Given how instantly recognizable this bomber is despite decades of degradation and overgrowth speaks to how familiar we are with the massive political and moral sins of the 20th century. Fayyad’s point would appear to be that these sins are being recapitulated today in the Middle East. It’s not only the relentless bombing and devastating chemical weapon attacks captured in the film that evoke images of Europe during the West’s greatest conflict, but also the treatment of people attempting to escape the horrors of the Syrian Civil War.
Over the image of the bomber plane, Fayyad places statistics about the tens of thousands of refugees who’ve drowned fleeing the conflict. As in the omnipresent WWII stories we repeatedly tell ourselves are warnings against ever letting such things happen again, thousands of people in the Middle East are trapped, starving, and suffocating, their homes and livelihoods destroyed by a global war being carried out over their heads.
By the time the submerged bomber appears on screen, those schooled in the history of occupied Europe (or who are simply avid tourists) may have already drawn another parallel, as The Cave, the name given to the underground hospital in Ghouta, evokes the Hospital in the Rock, the Budapest hospital built within a bunker under a hill in the leadup to WWII. From inside The Cave, where the camera keeps us for almost the entirety of the documentary, the sound of bombs is muffled, but their consequences are unavoidable. After every raid, the hospital’s dimly lit underground hallway fills up with desperate families carting the wounded, weeping mothers shoving others out of the way to check on their dying sons, and orchestral music streaming on Dr. Salim’s smartphone. The Mozart helps him focus and, he explains, replaces anesthetic, to which the hospital doesn’t have access.
Heading the small staff that operates The Cave during the years-long siege of eastern Ghouta is pediatrician Dr. Amani, a physician so superhumanly dedicated that she’d come off as an idealized abstraction in a fiction film. Fayyad doesn’t delve into her backstory, but Amani appears to come from a relatively privileged background: Her family, whom she speaks to regularly on the phone, seems to be in a safe place, and she’s well-educated and a feminist, an inclination she expresses strategically to the camera and, when necessary, to defend her occupation against overtly misogynist patients. Despite her presumed access to avenues of flight, she’s stayed behind to treat juvenile victims of bombing campaigns and malnourishment, even paying dangerous house visits to diagnose the children of women who can’t leave their homes. Though brave and generous, she’s no saintly paragon of modesty; on occasion, she rages against the regime and their allies, and the 30-year-old outwardly longs for a regular day-to-day life in which she might be permitted to wear mascara.
Fayyad saves its most graphic depiction of the consequences of the siege for the latter part of the documentary, as a chemical weapon attack perpetrated by the regime and its Russian allies sends dozens of choking people—many children—rushing to The Cave for help. Fayyad ratchets up the suspense with a booming score that crescendos as the staff gradually realizes they’re handling patients who are choking rather than bleeding, and recognizes the smell of chlorine beginning to permeate the halls. Despite the real human suffering on screen, the whiff of rhetorical construction supplied by the score and the accelerating pace of the editing makes the scene feel a bit too much like a Hollywood trope, crafting suspense out of pain.
Perhaps, on the other hand, that moment of tension could be said to effectively convey some aspect of the events as the doctors felt it. Other excessively stylistic elements in The Cave, however, work against the urgency of its messaging. The handheld, intimate format of the bulk of the documentary is preceded by a still and distant opening shot of the Al Ghouta skyline, in which missiles are shown gliding into the mass of buildings and erupting into slowly moving dust and smoke. Ironically, this shot almost beautifies or poeticizes the ongoing destruction of the city, its cool perspective conflicting sharply with the later embodied close-ups of the suffering victims of the bombings.
As the film goes on, the bombings draw closer to The Cave, part of which is actually destroyed by one raid. Samaher, the doctor put in charge of preparing the hospital’s meager rations, cooks in fits and starts, running away from the stove whenever the sound of a plane rattles the nearby wall. Many of the male members of the team chide her for her skittish, sometimes nervously playful behavior, but candid shots pick up even the even-keeled Salim crying after a rare and brief Skype call with his family. The film’s depiction of the perpetual terror of living in a war zone will stick with viewers long after Amani, Salim, and Samaher have left Ghouta.
Director: Feras Fayyad Distributor: National Geographic Documentary Films Running Time: 96 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: The Addams Family Is an Ooky Show of Confused Messaging
Throughout, the film tirelessly hammers home the point of being true to yourself.1.5
The Addams family has always proudly embraced its otherness with a mix of confidence and indifference to the opinions of judgy neighbors. And Conrad Vernon and Greg Tiernan’s animated The Addams Family is no different in that regard, setting up its fish-out-of-water scenario as soon as Morticia (Charlize Theron) and Gomez (Oscar Isaac) take off to New Jersey and settle into the Goth mansion where they’ll raise their two children, Wednesday (Chloë Grace Moretz) and Pugsley (Finn Wolfhard). All, of course, with the help of their loopy Uncle Fester (Nick Kroll) and loyal servant, Lurch (Conrad Vernon), whose rocking out on the mansion’s giant pipe organ constitutes the majority of the film’s score.
With the family’s strict adherence to ceremonies steeped in their vaguely Eastern European roots, particularly the saber dance that Pugsley prepares for throughout the film, the metaphor for the immigrant experience writes itself. But The Addams Family’s targets are ultimately not the seemingly resentful bigots who fear the Addamses’ presence in their neighborhood, but an outmoded notion of suburban conformity that harks back to the 1950s. MAGA-esque indignation, which occasionally creeps in through a comment spewed from within an angry mob, is dwarfed by a distaste for, of all things, tract housing and HGTV-esque renovations.
In fact, the film’s villain, Margaux Needler (Allison Janney), doesn’t fear the Addamses for their cultural differences, but rather for the devaluing affect their eyesore of a house, perched on a hill, will have on the community of homes she’s building nearby and planning to market on her hugely popular television show. While Margaux’s town is called Assimilation, the lockstep conformity demanded here isn’t one that requires the Addamses to reject any deeply held beliefs or cultural norms, merely to apply a quick slap of paint to their home and endure a wardrobe change or two. This leaves The Addams Family feeling pretty toothless, even for a family film, as it’s unwilling to even pinpoint the true roots of the townspeople’s fears. Its eventual forgiveness of their thinly veiled jingoism, passing the enraged residents off as otherwise friendly, well-meaning people who simply fell victim to the manipulations of the greedy Margaux, only further dilutes any potentially relevant commentary.
In a subplot involving Wednesday’s venturing into Assimilation Middle School and befriending Margaux’s daughter, Parker (Elsie Fisher), The Addams Family offers an intriguing twist on the idea of the Addamses as a perfect family. When Wednesday shows signs of accepting Parker’s fashion advice, she finds in her family, particularly Morticia, the very same intolerance they’re confronted with around town. But this nugget of wisdom is soon lost in the wind when Wednesday returns home to protect her family in their hour of need. Until the finale, the film tirelessly hammers home the importance of being true to yourself, yet its ultimate resolution, one of relatively uneasy compromise, confuses even that simple point. You be you, but eventually everyone wants to fit in one way or another, so maybe change just a bit?
Cast: Oscar Isaac, Charlize Theron, Chloë Grace Moretz, Finn Wolfhard, Nick Kroll, Snoop Dogg, Bette Midler, Allison Janney, Martin Short, Catherine O’Hara, Elsie Fisher, Tituss Burgess Director: Conrad Vernon, Greg Tiernan Screenwriter: Matt Lieberman, Pamela Pettler Distributor: United Artists Releasing Running Time: 87 min Rating: PG Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack
Review: Mister America Is an Essential Addition to the On Cinema Universe
The long and circuitous narrative history of the so-called OCU weighs heavily on Eric Notarnicola’s film.3
Equal parts absurdist satire and ambitious serialized melodrama, Tim Heidecker, Gregg Turkington, and Eric Notarnicola’s online comedy series On Cinema and its extended universe—including Decker and The Trial miniseries—together comprise one of the brilliant multimedia projects of the decade. Originated in 2011 as a rambling podcast featuring the inane and unenlightening movie chatter of fictional amateur reviewers also named Tim Heidecker and Gregg Turkington, the show has since blossomed into an elaborate Siskel and Ebert-style pastiche that has increasingly focused on the ongoing drama playing out between the hosts at the expense of any critical insight, all while intersecting with and commenting on the real world in ever-elaborate ways. As a self-contained enterprise completely produced and financed by the fictional simulacrum of Heidecker, the various twists and turns of the show’s content over the course of its now 11 seasons come as a direct extension of the showrunner’s ego and overreach, with Turkington, the self-described “expert,” more often than not a misery-ridden victim of his tyrannical partner’s outrageous whims.
The long and circuitous narrative history of the so-called On Cinema universe (or OCU)—far too head-spinning a metafiction to summarize in a few sentences—weighs heavily on Mister America, the first theatrical release to emerge from the Adult Swim-sponsored fictional world. But Heidecker and company have taken steps to extend the subject matter beyond its niche audience. In a shrewd maneuver that marks a first within the OCU, Mister America is framed as the work of an outside creator: Josh Lorton, a documentary filmmaker (played by series director Notarnicola) drawn to the peculiar case of Tim’s run for district attorney of San Bernardino county—a bit carried out for several months this year on Heidecker’s real Twitter account. In presenting itself as an unbiased, third-party view, Mister America allows itself the luxury of recapping critical pieces of the fictional timeline without coming across as monotonous filler for the devoted fans, since Lorton’s position as a neutral observer simply curious about a local eccentric brings a new angle on familiar absurdities.
Playing journalist, Lorton fills in the context behind Tim’s district attorney campaign with clips from recent seasons, ersatz local news clippings, and social media posts. As part of season nine, Tim ran the Electric Sun Desert Music Festival, an EDM bacchanalia funded by scam money and fueled by suspicious vape oil that left 20 teenagers dead and put Tim on trial, facing a life sentence. This string of events led to the OCU’s most challenging and formally audacious experiment yet: the aesthetically exacting five-hour mock-broadcast, courtesy of the fictional Apple Valley News, of this weeklong trial (the judge of which, Curtis Webster’s Edward Szymczyk, appears in Mister America to provide shell-shocked commentary). One mystery member of the jury was responsible for the trial’s inconclusive verdict, and Mister America picks up with Tim having hired this person, a reactionary single woman named Toni (Terri Parks), as his campaign assistant on the basis of her dubious former ad experience.
The shady and ill-advised people Tim aligns himself with on the show—including Axiom and Manuel, the members of Tim’s nü-metal band Dekkar, and Dr. San, the spiritual guru responsible for the Electric Sun’s lethal vape oil—provide ludicrous counterpoint to the ongoing toxicity of Tim and Gregg’s relationship. Likewise, the Tim-Toni dynamic proves to be Mister America’s richest vein, as Toni’s guileless support, which verges on idol worship, if not romantic interest, periodically softens Tim’s autocratic harshness, and the scenes between the two in Tim’s Best Western “office” offer a compelling push-pull between dictatorial behavior and collaborative stupidity. In the film’s funniest scene, a boozed-up Tim tries to dictate an impromptu social media press release about his D.A. opponent, Vincent Rosetti (Don Pecchia), while Toni struggles to open a Word document, with Tim’s sudden rhetorical adrenaline gradually yielding to a resignation over his partner’s incompetence.
The wishy-washy campaign run by Tim and Toni suggests the kind of misguided political adventure many impassioned Trump supporters might theoretically embark upon in the wake of their leader’s success: an emphasis on eradicating crime, getting things back to the way they used to be, and leveraging personal vendettas for political gain. In this case, the outsized target is “Rosetti the Rat,” Tim’s moniker for the prosecutor who went after him in court, for whom he harbors such hatred that it leads to the campaign slogan, “We Have a Rat Problem.”
An uproarious montage follows Tim, fancied up in a bargain-basement beige suit and wraparound shades, as he plants signs with this slogan throughout his community, and the film’s trajectory hinges on an imagined showdown with Rosetti that’s almost guaranteed to never happen. Rather than going toe-to-toe with Rosetti on the campaign trail, Tim must instead contend with Gregg, whose participation in Lorton’s documentary throws Tim into one of his tantrums, as his On Cinema co-host knows the truth and wants nothing more than to spoil the bogus campaign—at least when not showering Lorton with unwanted movie trivia.
Just as it’s intriguing to watch Tim present himself for Lorton’s camera, outside the usual venues over which he exerts control, Gregg, too, winds up a more complex character by virtue of being observed in the film’s real-life setting. Already established within the OCU as a deeply troubled figure who medicates his loneliness via a fetishistic collector mentality, the neurotic ambassador of the rinky-dink Victorville Film Archive comes across even more sad and socially inept in Lorton’s presence. Several times, spurned by the camera crew, Gregg wanders off into the strip-mall anonymity of San Bernardino with no destination in mind. These shots, simultaneously haunting and amusing, color Gregg’s involvement in Tim’s personal affairs as the compulsions of a man with no other prospects in life beyond his cardboard boxes of useless VHS tapes—an impression created in On Cinema but given palpable heft in Mister America.
All of this may seem preposterously overcomplicated to the uninitiated, but the film is actually rather safe and inclusive in its comedic approach, leaning toward upbeat cutting and broad punchlines at the occasional expense of the drier, thornier documentation of psychological warfare on display in The Trial and On Cinema. The film’s streamlined form is justified by the journalistic framing device, of course, but Heidecker and Turkington’s combined improvisational genius is best served in the more open formats of the shows, when they have the free reign to be long-winded and dig into their characters’ respective pathologies.
That’s not to say that Mister America entirely lacks such antics—the climactic town hall meeting, which rapidly escalates toward hysteria, plays out in a convincing approximation of real time—but that it retrofits the pricklier excesses of Heidecker and Turkington’s comedy into a more recognizable mockumentary shape. In any case, what’s so fascinating about the world of On Cinema is the way each creative outgrowth expands and deepens the lore, and Mister America’s universe-specific innovations, including the introduction of Lorton’s outside observer, renders the film indispensable in context.
Cast: Tim Heidecker, Gregg Turkington, Terri Parks, Don Pecchia, Curtis Webster Director: Eric Notarnicola Screenwriter: Tim Heidecker, Gregg Turkington, Eric Notarnicola Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 89 min Rating: R Year: 2019
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