Jason Bellamy: Ed, earlier this year we had a lengthy and spirited debate about Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York. Encapsulating that exchange is difficult, but to nutshell it as best I can: I argued that Kaufman’s film is “complex for complexity’s sake” and that Synecdoche, New York’s inner themes aren’t worth the effort of their labyrinthine design; you disagreed and argued that the structure was “encoded with elegant metaphors.” Throughout our exchange, at my blog and yours, I’m not sure that the word “gimmick” was ever used, but thematically that was the bonfire we danced around.
I bring all this up because David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, inspired by a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, is a 166-minute exercise about a man (Brad Pitt’s Benjamin Button) who ages backward. He’s born, on the night after the end of World War I, the size of an infant with the physical maladies of an old man, and from there his body grows younger while his spirit and soul grow older and more experienced. Within the margins of this story are ankle-deep philosophical waxings about the aging process (body vs. mind), a fairly straightforward love story and a Forrest Gump-esque trip through American history. But I wonder: Is Benjamin Button anything more than a gimmick?
Ed Howard: Jason, while I’d still argue that Synecdoche, New York adds up to so much more than a gimmick (but that’s a debate for another day), Benjamin Button is harder for me to call. If I was going to be flippant about it, I’d say that, to paraphrase my earlier verdict on Kaufman’s film, the gimmicky structure of Benjamin Button is certainly encoded with metaphors, but in this case I’d call them anything but “elegant.” The film is stuffed with all sorts of metaphoric and thematic implications to justify the reverse aging process of the title character, not least of which is the rather ham-fisted way that the script (by Forrest Gump scribe Eric Roth) attempts to lend Benjamin’s story some contemporary relevance by making groan-inducing references to Hurricane Katrina and, more obliquely, to the Iraq War. The film’s framing narrative is obviously set in a very specific political climate, namely post-9/11 in George W. Bush’s America, but neither Fincher nor the script makes much effort to capitalize on or flesh out these reference points.
This is all the more frustrating because the film often does transcend its gimmicky nature and shallow scenario. The opening minutes are incredible. In a series of spare, bracing images, Fincher captures the uncomfortable tension of the deathbed, then introduces the old woman’s moving story about a blind clockmaker whose life’s work, a clock that runs backwards, has metaphorical implications for the film we’re about to see, and which also yields that startling and haunting image of the dead soldiers being reversed back into life. It’s a blunt, effective allegory, and perhaps the only point at which the film’s political aspirations yield any real substance. These opening minutes promise a film structured as a collage in which fables and prosaic reality exist side by side, commenting upon one another, and though I think this is what Fincher was going for by juxtaposing Benjamin’s fantastic story with the scenes set in modern New Orleans, the rest of the film just doesn’t have the weight and expressiveness that the opening suggests.
Lest I give too negative an impression of the film, though, I should say that in spite of all these reservations and limitations, I was enthralled for much of its length. There are many striking images, for one thing: Daisy’s seductive nighttime dance for Benjamin, illuminated by streetlights cutting through a pale blue fog; Benjamin showing his dying father one last rainbow-colored sunset by the waterfront; Daisy and Benjamin running through the gray early morning light to take a fog-shrouded tugboat ride. Fincher’s visual clarity gives real heft to moments that might have seemed merely sentimental otherwise. And Benjamin’s reverse aging, though undeniably gimmicky, also makes for a rather poignant treatment of mortality, which looms like the reaper over the entire film. If you ask me, Fincher has made a perversely conflicted work, which is at once visually stimulating and thought-provoking, but also nauseatingly sentimentalized and cliché.
JB: I’ll give you visually stimulating, but the only thought it provoked in me was: “What’s next?” In other words, “What does Benjamin do from here?” Most of the episodes seem so arbitrary, both as they arrive and after the fact. Daisy’s “seductive nighttime dance” is nice to look at, sure, but how does it serve the story? The attack on the submarine is chillingly executed, the bullets tracing through the limitless pitch black sky, but how does that event affect Benjamin’s development? The most captivating portion of the film, for me, is the hotel lobby romance between Benjamin and Tilda Swinton’s Elizabeth Abbott. But as quickly and unexpectedly as that arrives, it’s forgotten. It gets referenced again toward the end of the movie, almost as a point of trivia, but it has no emotional aftermath.
And that’s my problem with the film: its lack of emotion. I know what you mean when you call it “nauseatingly sentimentalized,” and yet I can’t buy into that term, because Benjamin Button is so cold and distant. In nearly three hours, it fails to make a character out of Benjamin, which is striking because Forrest Gump manages to pull off that feat with its main character while also ticking off the mileposts of its gimmick with machine-like efficiency. Fincher’s film isn’t as tied to a historical backdrop, and yet I still couldn’t tell you who Benjamin is, or what drives him (beyond his love for Daisy, which is matter-of-fact), or what moves him, or what shapes him. He is as blank a main character as I’ve ever come across in the movies. Only he ages backward. That’s the difference.
Dramatically, after the novelty wears off, what’s interesting about that? I believe that Benjamin’s journey is supposed to dispel the logic of that Rod Stewart lyric: “I wish that I knew what I know now, when I was younger.” It’s supposed to be a condemnation of America’s obsession with youthful beauty, to illustrate that life happens underneath the skin. But does the film actually achieve this, or does it merely hint at these themes while chewing up time, leaving intelligent moviegoers to fill in its gaps? If you asked me to tell you what Benjamin Button is about, I’d say it’s about a man who ages backward. But that’s not a synopsis, that’s a full report. I see the passage of time here, but I don’t see any emotional evolution. Am I wrong? Did I miss something? Does Benjamin Button possess a heart to be broken?
EH: To some extent, I agree with you about Benjamin as a character: he’s a blank slate, though I don’t think this negates the film’s rich (and often overly ripe) emotionality. To me, Fincher seems to be reaching for (and occasionally grasping) something broader than anything about Benjamin or his story. The emotion is to be found on a more abstracted level than is generally the case with epic romance pictures like this. You can say it’s a fault of the film that Benjamin isn’t more of a living, breathing character, and I’d agree with you, but I still see some merit in what the film has to say on a more conceptual level. The broken heart, if there is one, belongs to humanity as a whole rather than to cipher-like Benjamin in particular.
Thematically, I didn’t really get what you did from the film: I can’t, offhand, think of anything here that amounts to a “condemnation of America’s obsession with youthful beauty.” What I do see is a sustained rumination on the perpetual imminence of mortality, and the resultant urgency of being open to possibilities as they come. Death is continually present in the script, and this is largely the case because Benjamin’s reverse aging puts such a strong emphasis on the concept of the life cycle. The film’s implicit question is, if we all go through the same cycle—being born, growing up, living, dying—then what is the point of it all? What should we be doing with this indeterminate amount of time we have between birth and death? These are clearly not questions the film is prepared to answer, beyond a generalized insistence on such clichés as “living life to the fullest,” but their presence nevertheless adds some gravity to the proceedings.
There is also another emotional component to the film that I’m not sure I’ve seen anyone else pick up on yet. On some level, Benjamin Button is about the very public persona of Brad Pitt himself, who has aged from a twenty-something into a forty-something in the public eye, not only as a famous actor, but as a virtually universal sex symbol. Along with George Clooney, he is the closest thing we have today to an old-style “movie star” like Cary Grant or Clark Gable. The film acquires some of its resonance from the way it uses Pitt’s famous face, reversing his aging process before our eyes, reminding us of what he used to look like. The younger Benjamin in this movie, around the time he visits Daisy at her dance studio, looks uncannily like the Brad Pitt of Interview with the Vampire or Legends of the Fall. The CGI wizards behind these transformations doubtless modeled Benjamin’s younger self on Pitt’s previous movie roles, so that the film becomes a nostalgic journey into the past for those who have followed the actor’s career for some time. Far from being a condemnation of surface appearances, the film is something of an elegy for the loss of youth and beauty. Pitt’s now-vanished youth is used as a marker of the progression towards death, the distance that this actor has traveled over the years, and us along with him.
JB: The trouble I have with your elegy reading is that Pitt may have lost his youth, but he’s hardly lost his beauty. (If homeboy looked like Mickey Rourke, I might see it differently.) And that brings us back to my comment about the condemnation of America’s obsession with youthful beauty. What I meant there is that Benjamin Button frequently strikes the chord that Benjamin isn’t what he appears. First he’s younger than he looks. Then he’s older. His relationship with Daisy finds its high point when they meet in the middle, but then Benjamin goes on to look even younger. Getting back to that Rod Stewart line, many of us frequently look back on our youth with a woulda-coulda-shoulda mentality. If we had the wisdom of our 50s, we wouldn’t have wasted our youth being idle. If we had the emotional confidence of adulthood, we wouldn’t have spent our formative years breaking hearts and getting our own heart broken. And so on.
Well, Benjamin gets younger and more vital. And in a far-too-brief episode, we get a montage of him living out his bucket list, so to speak. He’s in India. He’s on a motorcycle. He’s backpacking. He’s seeing the world. He’s doing the kinds of things that most retirees would love to do, if only their bodies allowed. But, for better or worse, the film doesn’t tie Benjamin’s happiness to these events. It binds him to Daisy. And no matter how youthful Benjamin becomes in body, he ends up an old and lonely soul—not where he wants to be, not satisfied. To me, this is the message that we should give up our illusions that youth is tied to the exterior and realize that life is what our thoughts make it—a point underscored when the aged Elizabeth finally swims across the English Channel.
This is the kind of thing that I think a movie about a man aging backwards should be about—otherwise what’s the point? But Benjamin Button has such a soft punch that this reading eluded you, even after I alluded to it. And that only further convinces me that the film doesn’t get beyond its gimmick and instead goes an awful long way to go not very far.
Which brings us more directly to its length: I have no problem whatsoever with long movies (bring on Che!), but as much as I enjoyed the initial deathbed scene, and as thrilled as I was to see Julia Ormond again, it struck me that Benjamin Button could have saved 30 minutes (more?) by cutting all the hospital sequences. Other than as a method to start the story, what purpose do those scenes serve? As transitional devices, they are sloppy and tedious. At one point we cut back to the deathbed just long enough for Daisy to implore her daughter to get on with it and get back to Benjamin’s story, which pretty much nails how I felt each and every time we found ourselves back in the hospital room. Never mind, too, that the task of playing near-dead under 10 pounds of makeup can undo any actor, and it certainly gets the best of poor Cate Blanchett, who after 10 minutes started to remind me of Emperor Palpatine in Revenge of the Sith.
But here’s the damning part: As I pondered cutting the deathbed scenes, I started to think about which other scenes I might cut. Just about any with the tugboat captain, I decided, who isn’t as interesting as either he or Roth seems to think he is. And the scenes with the pygmy. And even the dancing in the park scene could go. And the hotel romance, much as I adore it, is so disjointed from the rest that it’s almost a standalone short. And so on, so that now I look at Benjamin Button and say, which scenes truly belong? If this is the story of a man’s evolution, which scenes develop his character, as opposed to just happening to his character? If this is a deeper film about life and the point of it, which scenes truly evoke those themes? Does the whole of the Benjamin story ever achieve the poignancy of the story about the clockmaker? I don’t think it does.
EH: Not to belabor my point about Pitt, but while he is certainly still handsome today, the film strikingly reminds us of how different he used to look, how much younger and fresher; and if an actor who seemingly still looks so young has actually aged this dramatically right before our eyes, how much worse is it for the rest of us?
Anyway, I see what you’re getting at with the youth/wisdom angle now, Jason, but I think—and you’d probably agree with me—that to some extent you’re reading into things that are only there in the sketchiest possible form. You may be right that Fincher was aiming for this reading, and if so I’d say he failed. In fact, the final stretch of the film, when the themes you’re talking about would really have to be driven home, is the weakest part. For a film so long, with so many incidents and “short stories” in its earlier segments, the finale is largely reduced to a series of montages, with ellipses that elide longer and longer portions of time. It’s interesting that you brought up Synecdoche, New York at the beginning of this exchange, because that film uses narrative ellipses to emphasize the protagonist’s subjective sense of his own aging, which he felt was becoming faster and faster, his life flying by him before he could really live it. What is the effect of the similarly rapid pacing of the ending in Benjamin Button? Arguably only the impression that the filmmakers have bumped up against the commercial time constraints of the three-hour film, and need to tighten things up as a result.
As for what to cut, I don’t really want to put myself in the shaky critical position of re-editing Fincher’s film for him, but there’s no getting around the fact that the framing narrative is damn near useless. After the great material at the beginning, with the blind clockmaker’s story, the framing device becomes ponderous, and neither Caroline (Ormond’s character) nor the older Daisy are ever developed much. I kept forgetting that the old woman in the bed was supposed to be Daisy, not a good sign for a movie that relied so heavily on the continuity between older and younger selves. And Caroline remains such a cipher that we don’t really even care when we’re told that she’s actually Benjamin’s daughter, as though we couldn’t see that coming anyway. Not to mention all the pointless Katrina references, which amount to what exactly? That final image of the flood waters encroaching on the backwards-running clock—washing away history?—is nice but ultimately not very meaningful. Is the flood just the film’s most numbingly literal metaphor for oncoming death? Why is there an offhand reference to the clock being replaced in 2003 (the year the U.S. invaded Iraq), accompanied by a pointed shot of an American flag? Is invoking the clock in this context meant to make us think of 9/11? Of the dead soldiers from the Iraq War? Fincher just leaves it all hanging, and it’s really unsatisfying.
That said, I don’t have as much of a problem as you with the film as a collection of short stories, as long as those stories are interesting and emotionally rich on their own. Many of them, I think, are: the hotel lobby romance, Daisy’s haunting dance in the park, the viscerally exciting tugboat battle (though its resolution is one of the film’s sillier Gumpisms, along with the appearance of the hummingbird, which even Fincher seems sheepish about).
Actually, the comparison to Forrest Gump is instructive for delineating what I find worthwhile in this movie despite all the problems we’ve been discussing here. Benjamin’s journey, like Forrest’s, takes place against the backdrop of 20th Century history, and along the way he hits a lot of the milestones of various eras: he is born on the last day of WWI, then almost accidentally finds himself on the periphery of WWII. Some of these Gumpisms are real groaners, like the sub incident, or the way he witnesses the launching of a rocket from Cape Canaveral during his first romantic idyll with Daisy. Other bits are incidental, like the way the TV is used to indicate the passage of time: Daisy and Benjamin watch an historic Beatles TV appearance together. But Fincher has more in mind than just propelling his character through a Reader’s Digest version of history. If Gump’s journey was largely a reactionary, regressive one whose main thematic thrust is the desirability of stumbling blindly and unthinkingly through life, Benjamin’s journey is about the closeness of mortality. If the parable of Forrest Gump can be reduced to an uncritical acceptance of one’s circumstances (and a dismissal of attempts at change), Benjamin Button is all about being dissatisfied, seeking more, thinking about one’s life and what should be done with it. The film is sometimes sloppy in developing its themes, but I admire its effort anyway, especially when it gives me so many great scenes and moments along the way. Contrasted against Forrest Gump’s virtual advocacy for idiocy and ignorance, it becomes obvious just how much more Fincher’s film has to offer, how much deeper and richer it is even in spite of its many flaws.
JB: Interesting, Ed, because I had the opposite reaction. Now, I wasn’t a fan of Forrest Gump from the beginning. (That it won the Oscar over Pulp Fiction, Quiz Show and, my personal favorite of the bunch, The Shawshank Redemption didn’t help, back when I still got worked up over such things.) But I see that film as designed expressly to take us on a kind of revisionist’s trip through history that manages to make us care about our tour guide along the way. Now Benjamin Button comes along and kinda-sorta embraces that model. And my question is, why? Why does living backward make Benjamin’s experiences within the evolution of America any more important than anyone else’s? The man is born old, not wise. In terms of encountering WWII, the Beatles or the race to the Moon, Benjamin’s life is no different than that of anyone else who was born on the day after WWI, and it irks me that the film implies otherwise.
That’s not the only implication that doesn’t quite work. Benjamin Button also hints that the main character’s backward-aging makes him all too familiar with death. But that’s misleading. The reason Benjamin sees so many of his friends die is because he’s raised at an old folks’ home. Whether these people are his physical peers or merely silver-haired role models makes no difference whatsoever. Benjamin is at the old folks’ home because his mother works there, not because he’s been committed based on his appearance. So, again, his sense of mortality would be no different than that of his mother’s natural (and normal) child, born later in the movie.
None of this is to dispute the larger notion that because Benjamin is different, he’s more conscious of the passing years, because he goes one way while his peers go another. I get that. And I don’t disagree entirely with your points about Pitt. But in Benjamin Button we’ve got these deathbed scenes that are essentially irrelevant, and references to Hurricane Katrina that are either underdeveloped or pathetically thin, and a latter half that feels rushed to meet commercial time constraints (or to keep from boring the audience?), and a love story that I didn’t feel invested in and historical references that I contend don’t belong (no more to Benjamin than to anyone, that is). So what have we got? We’ve got a story about a guy aging backward, who if he aged normally wouldn’t be worth examination. And thus we have a gimmick, and not much more.
EH: I won’t say you’ve convinced me, but I think we’ve both said our piece by now, so I’ll let you have the last word here. To expand our discussion beyond this particular film, I’d suggest that one of the most interesting things about Benjamin Button is trying to puzzle out how it might fit into the developing oeuvre of David Fincher as a whole. It is, on its surface, quite a different film from anything Fincher’s attempted before, though I think there are some continuities running through all of his work, even this one (not least of which is the use of CGI, which he has often applied in interesting ways that set him apart from other effects-happy Hollywood directors). Still, Fincher seems to be at a disjunctive point in his career: in my opinion, his first four personal films (ignoring the mostly awful Alien3, over which he did not have full control) are of one piece, stylistically and especially thematically, while Zodiac is self-consciously distinct from his other work. It has commonalities with the older films in terms of subject matter (most obviously with Se7en) and the obsessive quality of its protagonists, but it is quite distinct in other ways, being primarily a mood piece about obsession, the sense of place, the nature of knowledge, and the fluid passage of time. I would also argue that Benjamin Button, despite its unusual style and tone for Fincher, and despite its lesser quality, is on a stylistic and thematic level a continuation of the evolution he displayed in Zodiac, another attempt to tread new ground. It remains to be seen if these two most recent films will represent one-off anomalies, the beginnings of a new phase (or phases), or transitional works toward something else altogether. So my question for you is: what do you think is the overall shape of Fincher’s career thus far, and how does this latest film fit into that structure?
JB: I don’t know that I see Zodiac all that differently than I see Se7en, The Game and, I suppose, Fight Club and Panic Room. I think all of Fincher’s previous works (continuing to leave out his Alien installment) are indeed, as you said, mood pictures about obsession, on some level or another. And what separates Zodiac from those previous films and from Benjamin Button is that Zodiac has the least gimmicky premise. For example: Se7en, The Game and Fight Club are all magic tricks of a sort—smoke-and-mirrors entertainments that toy with the audience—and Panic Room is about a woman locked in a closet. And now Benjamin Button is about a man who lives backward. I’m oversimplifying here, I realize that, but not to the degree that I’d be oversimplifying if I called Zodiac a “serial killer movie.” Because that nutshell doesn’t represent Zodiac at all.
On paper alone, Zodiac is grander in scope than those other films. And, by nature of being based on a true story, Zodiac forces Fincher into the one place he doesn’t go by choice: daylight. The irony is that Fincher does marvelously there; the murders at Lake Berryessa are haunting and visceral. Still, when left to his own whims, Fincher prefers to linger in the shadows. Even the sepia tones of Benjamin Button provide an opportunity for that. And so if we agree—and maybe we don’t—that Zodiac is the most robust of Fincher’s films, I wonder if the biggest factor is that the material forces him out of his comfort zone. Not that there’s anything wrong with his comfort zone: I admire The Game and Panic Room, and I think Se7en is one of the most routinely underrated films of the past 25 years (part of the problem is that the title so naturally evokes the gimmick that it’s easy to forget that Se7en is richer than its murder-based structure).
So where does Benjamin Button fit into all this? It doesn’t. We seem to agree on that. And what I find so glaringly different, more than anything else, is its lack of mood, which I attribute to Pitt’s indistinctness and a love story that Fincher never jumps off the waterfall for. For those who have called Fincher a nihilist or a misanthrope, the easy conclusion would be that Fincher can’t operate in the loving, the hopeful, the heartfelt, the sweet. And I suppose that might be true. Or maybe it’s that, beyond the very specific gimmick of a man aging backward, Benjamin Button is as limitless as films get. It’s a movie that could go almost anywhere, do almost anything. And it seems to languish, as if not quite sure of where it wants to go. So I wonder if what this reveals is that Fincher is best when boxed in. Perhaps he’s a better dream-maker than dreamer.
EH: What I meant by separating Zodiac from the films that preceded it is that it works on a different level, thematically, than any of them, and to me evinces quite a different set of concerns. In one way or another, Se7en, The Game, Fight Club, and Panic Room are all about the same things: confrontations between classes in capitalistic society; the extreme measures necessary to jolt people out of complacency; the ways in which class distinctions suppress the natural instincts and morality of citizens. These themes are most obvious in the latter three films, all of which center very directly on issues of class consciousness. Nicholas (Michael Douglas) in The Game is pushed from being a corporate parasite to the edge of poverty and abjection, a journey that awakens him to life as it is lived by those previously beneath him; it places his petty problems of loneliness and familial disconnection in perspective. In Fight Club it is necessary for “Jack” (Edward Norton) to destroy all his earthly possessions, leave behind his job and friends, and go live in a rundown house in total slovenliness, all to free himself from a commercialistic culture that is smothering him. And Panic Room is nothing if not a stylized, violent ballet between a representative of the upper class (Jodie Foster, living in an expensive New York flat much too big for her and her daughter alone) and the representatives of the lower classes, as embodied by Dwight Yoakam and Forest Whitaker. Se7en is like a twisted mirror of these typical Fincher concerns, in which the director’s perspective is taken on by the serial killer himself. John Doe is the one who wants to awaken the world to its own corruption and decadence. The sins he’s targeting, like greed, pride, and envy, are the same ones singled out later by Tyler Durden or the shadowy proprietors of the Game.
All these films are about how greed undoes us, how commerce and wealth dull our emotions and reactions, and how our obsessions with acquisition can consume us. As I said, Zodiac shares certain commonalities with these films, particularly in its obsessive heroes, but it largely jettisons the class issues of Fincher’s earlier films in favor of something much more abstracted. Its themes are trickier to get ahold of, in that it often seems to be about nothing so much as the way that time slips away from us before we know it—which makes it perhaps more of a spiritual brother to Benjamin Button than we have thus far admitted. In contrast to Se7en, to which it is so often compared, the serial killer story hardly seems to be the point here. In the earlier film, the killer became more and more important, culminating in the lengthy ending sequence in which John Doe essentially takes over the film from his pursuers. In Zodiac, the killer becomes less and less important, more and more abstract, as his murders fade into memory, his letters spreading further apart. It is as though the murderer and his crimes have vanished from the film, leaving behind a profound uncertainty, a sense of absence in which Fincher crafts his treatise on obsession and the sometimes elusive attempt to find a focus for one’s life.
This is also the first of Fincher’s films to be concerned with evoking a tangible time and place, another concern carried over into Benjamin Button. All of Fincher’s previous films were set in cities, but more accurately they were set in The City, the urban center as an abstract concept. The cities in Fight Club and Se7en are unidentified and generic, while The Game and Panic Room are set in specific places (San Francisco and New York, respectively) but make little use of the distinctive character of these cities. This is especially true of Panic Room: it wasn’t even really filmed in New York and it only highlights the city during the obviously CGI-animated opening titles. Before Zodiac, Fincher thinks of geography principally as a reflection of psychological states and thematic subtexts: the city as a war zone between poverty and capitalistic privilege, with rain-soaked streets, crumbling old buildings, and towering office blocks that seem impenetrable. In the desolate finale of Se7en, the detectives are abruptly in the middle of dust bowl isolation that seems totally disconnected from the city they just left: the setting is more a reflection of the climax’s harrowing effect on the protagonists than it is an actual physical place. This is not the case in Zodiac, which is all about recreating a specific time and place, not only out of fidelity to historical accuracy, but for its own sake as well. Geography is no longer incidental for Fincher.
So I would agree with you that Zodiac is Fincher’s best and richest film thus far, precisely because its themes evolve so subtly, with mood and geography taking precedence over narrative for the first time in his career. But I would say that the earlier films also represent a body of work in themselves, obviously giving birth to the artist we see in Zodiac, but nevertheless possessing their own distinct themes and focus. You’ve made a lot of other great points I would like to return to, particularly concerning Zodiac, but for now I wonder what you think of all this.
JB: Simply put: I’m not sure I’d disagree with a letter of what you wrote. But I also don’t think that your latest analysis contradicts my reading before it. To further explain that, allow me a tangent. Of all the classes I took in college, I’m not sure any was more valuable than one of my communications courses that spent a semester finding different ways to drive home this point: the message isn’t what’s intended, it’s what’s taken away. Deep down, we all know this to be true, but it’s often forgotten. Passionate, thoughtful film fans (and I’m including myself here) do it all the time. For example, we could talk about No Country for Old Men, and I could tell you that it’s a film about fate. That’s hardly a profound reading, and you’d know exactly what I’m talking about. But guess what: before it’s a film about fate, No Country for Old Men is a film about a guy with a satchel full of money who is on the run from a guy who is a coin flip away from killing anyone he pleases. Just because we might agree on the fate reading, that doesn’t undo what the film is on the surface. And let’s be honest: it’s possible (sad, but possible) to miss the fate themes of No Country for Old Men. It’s impossible to miss the on-the-run theme.
So let’s apply this to Fincher. I love the way you align Se7en, The Game, Fight Club and Panic Room and then remove Zodiac. Your arguments are sound. I don’t disagree with any of your characterizations. However: if after Panic Room Fincher had referred to himself as a man who makes films about “class consciousness,” people would have told him to fuck off and get over himself. I’m uncomfortable with the number of times I’ve used the word gimmick in this exchange, but for the sake of consistency: the narrative gimmicks of Fincher’s first four films are so pronounced that on first glance they tend to dominate (and not entirely unfairly) those deeper themes that you’ve identified. That doesn’t necessarily mean these films are only as deep as their gimmick (as I suggested with Se7en). But I think it’s important that in looking beyond what these films are at face value that we don’t pretend that those surface-level themes or gimmicks go away.
Having said that, part of the reason that I’m so focused on these face values when it comes to Fincher is because he isn’t a screenwriter. This isn’t Woody Allen, Charlie Kaufman or Quentin Tarantino, just to name three active filmmakers who write their own material. And so I’m hesitant to take auteur theory too far in Fincher’s case and suggest that he made his first four films because he was attracted first and foremost to their inner explorations of greed and class consciousness. That’s part of the reason I’ve always thought the nihilist label was excessive. Instead, what I think is terrific about Fincher is that he’s able to infuse these slickly made, streamlined surface-level entertainments with amazing depth of mood. I think his films are a combination of my initial observations and yours.
So there’s no question in my mind that Zodiac expands Fincher’s artistry into previously unfamiliar territory, but I wonder if perhaps he’s a slave to his material. Your observations about geography are right on the money (though I’d argue that Benjamin Button isn’t as intrinsic to New Orleans as Fincher might have hoped). Then again, Se7en is perfect to unfold in The City, because the indistinct setting underlines the universal nature of the themes, whereas Zodiac is about the hysteria one man created in a very specific time and place. Give credit to Fincher for making these decisions. Just because he makes them look easy doesn’t mean a lesser director wouldn’t have fouled them up. But I’m not ready to say that Zodiac and Benjamin Button suggest that Fincher has taken some sort of intentional thematic leap. Geographically, yes, his two most recent films align. But on the surface Zodiac stands alone from all the rest of Fincher’s films due to its lack of a surface-level gimmick. And the reason Benjamin Button leaves me feeling disappointed despite all its strived-for grandeur is that it’s the first Fincher picture that fails to overpower me with its mood.
EH: You’re right that we have come to agree by disagreeing here. I don’t see what you identify as the “narrative gimmicks” in Fincher’s earlier films as necessarily opposed to the “deeper” themes I’m talking about. In other words—and you do acknowledge this—it needn’t be an either/or proposition. I’d go even further and say that in Fincher’s best work, the surface-level aesthetics and narrative devices reinforce rather than obscure what’s underneath. The twists in The Game and Fight Club might be narrative smoke-and-mirrors, ways of playing with the audience, but they’re also destabilizing techniques that dramatize and visualize the inner conflicts of the protagonists. To use your example, I don’t think No Country for Old Men would be worth much if it was just a film about a guy on the run from a coin-flipping hitman; it’s a great film because its story reflects the themes of fate, justice and history that the Coens are interested in there. The same is true of Fincher: his narrative devices resonate with the themes I’m talking about.
So obviously, I wouldn’t be as reluctant as you to attribute the subtextual content of these films to Fincher himself. True, he has never written one of his own scripts, but at the very least, he chooses his material, and he chooses how to interpret it: what to emphasize, what to play down, how to shoot each scene. I’ve been writing about Howard Hawks a lot recently, and a comparison between Fincher and the classical Hollywood auteurs seems especially apt. Hawks rarely wrote his own scripts, and unlike Fincher he also often worked on studio assignments that he might not have chosen for himself. Yet it is undeniable that Hawks’ films have a consistent worldview, a consistent set of themes and ideas—and the aesthetic means for expressing these subtexts. This is less common today, when the majority of directors seem to be either personal artists working with some level of relative independence, or straightforwardly commercial entertainers. Fincher, though, like Paul Verhoeven, is among a few current filmmakers who fit the kind of auteurist model applied to directors like Hawks, Anthony Mann, or George Cukor, all of whom brought their personal artistry and signature concerns to a variety of mainstream entertainments. Which is not to say that Fincher is on that level of achievement, or that his work is as diverse as theirs often was: he has a narrower range of material. But he’s nevertheless bringing a personal slant, and personal themes, to blockbuster material. If Fincher’s films were more thematically diverse or indifferently chosen, I probably wouldn’t be tempted to read much into the arc of his career as a whole, but his choices have indicated a fairly stable sensibility. He may not be the writer of these films, but he is most definitely the author.
That said, I like the way you’ve been grappling with what I’d consider one of the most important questions concerning Fincher: the ways in which style and substance interact within his work. We’ve been talking about this basic issue in various guises, among them the relationship between narrative and thematic subtext, or the status of the director as simultaneously a personal artist and a Hollywood entertainer. This might be a good point at which to segue from our discussion of Fincher in general into a closer look at his individual films, while keeping these questions on the table. And there is little doubt in my mind that Se7en is his most complex and conflicted film in terms of the style/substance debate. It’s a serial killer movie in which the mysterious John Doe (Kevin Spacey) commits a series of grisly murders, while being tracked by detectives Mills (Brad Pitt) and Somerset (Morgan Freeman). But I’d submit that the film’s perspective on these events is much more complicated than it is in the typical serial killer thriller: it is by no means always clear what Fincher means for us to think about the killer or his crimes, or for that matter about the cops and their tactics for finding their target. Moreover, the film has a schematic, seemingly rigid structure that then begins to loosen up (or even unravel) towards the denouement, a descent into chaos and confusion that winds up being as profound and affecting for the audience as it is for the protagonists.
JB: Se7en is indeed a film that sneaks up on the viewer. As you suggest, the structure is so seemingly rigid that it suckers us in. To watch it for the first time is to be overcome trying to puzzle out the riddle. I love John Doe’s monologue in the back of the squad car because Spacey nails it (in a role he’d never be offered now) and because it’s a tease—foreplay when we’re aching for climax. Somerset has that great line: “If John Doe’s head splits open and a UFO should fly out, I want you to have expected it.” At that point, a UFO seems plausible. We’re on edge. And so about 15 beautifully agonizing minutes later, when we find out what’s in the box, there are two shocks: the first is purely structural, an answer to the riddle; the second is the realization that, fuck, we’re smack in the middle of an ethics exercise and Mills’ gun might as well be in our hand. It’s a delicious moment, and evident therein is the quandary that dominates this year’s The Dark Knight: when is it excusable, or even proper, to violate the law (criminal or societal) for the greater good?
But what I find most intriguing is the film’s suggestion that knowledge is a hindrance. In Somerset we have a scholarly man who is defaulted to look deeper and see more. He realizes instantaneously that the murders are part of a larger act, and beyond that he realizes that John Doe’s “masterpiece” is part of an even more enormous evil. And it paralyzes him. Somerset tries to tell himself that he doesn’t care, but in reality he cares too much. Meanwhile there’s Mills, all hopped up on testosterone, driven not by his intellect but by his gut. He can’t slow down enough to see the big picture without Somerset’s help, and yet he’s the man of action, right down to the very end. Se7en tells me that I could sit here and think about the food in my refrigerator that’s past its expiration date, while around the world so many people starve, and I could think about this laptop on which I’m writing respectively frivolous thoughts about art, while so many people live without shelter, but all that would achieve is the desire to get on the floor and curl up in the fetal position. Instead, the subtext implies, I’m more apt to make a difference if I think less and react to what’s in front of me. (Fight Club explores this idea too, albeit in a contradictory way.) It’s a disquieting argument that’s as subtly executed as it is powerfully felt.
EH: What you’re getting at here is precisely what I find so simultaneously confounding and fascinating about this film: its engagement with such dark and morally complex themes, and its willingness to blur the line between good and evil. In many ways, the film and its director are on the side of the serial killer rather than the cops, something that becomes especially clear during John’s ranting monologue. The film is set in such a corrupt, dark, decaying world that there’s a frightening logic to John’s anger at the state of things. Even Mills and Somerset agree that it’s a shitty world, that it needs fixing; they disagree with John over means rather than ends. They’re hardly guiltless, either. We see the detectives investigating this case by using some blatantly illegal and unethical tactics, including the F.B.I. surveillance of library records, a surreal touch when revisited today, in light of the Bush-era initiatives that basically legalized exactly this practice. But the film never judges the cops for these actions, nor does it forgive them; if Se7en can be said to have a moral or ethical position on such matters, it’s a coldly neutral one. This extends even to Mills’ final act of wrath, which occurs in a context where it is almost impossible to judge him. The audience feels this gap that you talk about between intellectual knowledge and emotional reaction: we know, logically, that Mills is only doing exactly what John Doe wants, but we can’t reasonably fault him for it, and on some level most of us watching the film probably admit that we’d do the same thing. The “right” thing to do, logically, would be to simply walk away, but what Mills does instead certainly doesn’t feel “wrong.”
Also disquieting is the extent to which John’s killing spree is equated with a work of art, a subtext that creates a parallel between the serial killer and the film’s director. Both are assembling their “artworks,” putting the pieces in place, withholding the final touches until the very end. John explicitly compares his crimes to art, and he sounds very much like an artist when he talks about what he does. He wants people to remember his work, to talk about what he has done for a long time to come, to puzzle over it. It’s disconcerting that Fincher places himself, as the filmmaker, in the role of serial killer, and he seems to take inordinate glee in letting John do his bloody work. Fincher displays the results of John’s murders in much the same way as John displays them, by drawing the cops along on a chase, laying out clues that will lead them to further displays. The film’s structure is dictated by John, who is a mouthpiece for the filmmaker; the ending, in which audience and cops are united in being manipulated, lays bare the truth that the director is the one guiding these hideous crimes.
It’s rare that a filmmaker admits to such complicity with his own horrifying creation (it makes me think of Michael Haneke’s infamous Funny Games, a film I’ve thought of several times in connection with Fincher’s oeuvre). But it’s obvious that Fincher shares, on some level, the disgust of John Doe at the “sins” of the world. I wouldn’t agree with those who label Fincher, all too easily, as a nihilist, but I think he’s at least a pessimist, someone who’s suspicious of human nature. He ends the film with a very intriguing quote, delivered in voiceover by Morgan Freeman: “Ernest Hemingway once wrote, ’The world is a fine place and worth fighting for.’ I agree with the second part.” It’s a typically conflicted sentiment, torn between idealism and defeatism. You suggest that Se7en’s message implicitly endorses the actions of Mills, but to me the film’s sympathies lie much more directly with Somerset, who wants to fight for good but knows that his policework has been effective more as a process of documentation and record-keeping than as justice or crime prevention. He doesn’t see much use in anything he’s been doing, and certainly the bleak resolution of this case doesn’t give him any reason to reverse his low opinion of the world or the usefulness of his own actions in it.
JB: This is interesting, because I can look at the treatment of Somerset’s character in two ways. Does Se7en sympathize with him? Sure. The final note of the film even seems to admire him for his Sisyphean doggedness. But just beyond that, the film also condemns Somerset to his purgatory. Mills might be headed to jail, but to echo the Hemingway quote, at least he threw some punches, at least he engaged in the fight. And that’s an appropriate place for Se7en to end, because it foreshadows the dominant theme of Fincher’s next two films, The Game and Fight Club, which suggest that in a world tainted by the seven deadly sins, perhaps the greatest evil of all is soul-numbing complacency, marked by a willingness to settle for material success. Of the two films, Fight Club couldn’t be more blatant in its messaging (preaching), but The Game is hardly vague.
EH: Complacency might just be the cardinal sin in Fincher’s universe, and The Game is particularly scathing on this point. I noted earlier that all of these films are in some way about class consciousness, and this is particularly true here. Nicholas (Michael Douglas) is a very successful businessman, and yet it hasn’t brought him happiness. He is completely alone, rattling around his large mansion in isolation (a sensation that would return in Panic Room, suggesting that another of Fincher’s pet sins is owning too much space for oneself). As usual with Fincher, the film’s aesthetics suggest the themes boiling just below the surface; he inscribes class issues directly into the texture and composition of his images.
The homeless, the poor, the unfortunate and menial workers show up continually at the edges of the narrative, never as its focus: garbagemen emptying cans in a corner of the frame while the wealthy protagonist fills the foreground; homeless beggars outside Nicholas’ office, mostly obscured from view even though we hear their begging on the soundtrack; the desperate guy in the bathroom stall (represented only by his protruding hand) who asks Nicholas to hand him some toilet paper. When Nicholas goes to lunch with his brother Conrad (Sean Penn) at the beginning of the film, the waitress (later revealed to be Deborah Unger’s Christine) is only seen from the waist down, hovering over their table, her voice wafting downward from outside the frame. Nicholas doesn’t quite see her, even when her presence is very intrusive, and the film subtly mirrors his point of view. He is oblivious to those below his class: he doesn’t care about and won’t help anyone else, almost as a matter of principle. Would it have been so difficult for him to hand that guy a roll of toilet paper? It’s like he has a warped moral code that forbids doing anything for others. The film is about awakening Nicholas to the lives of other people. It’s only when he is at his lowest point that he begins to care: once he himself is broke, he thinks of his employees’ payroll and pensions for the first time.
JB: Very true. And how is Nicholas made to care? He has his white-collar daintiness beat out of him. The Game is rife with imagery that suggests that salvation is found by crawling through the muck, by getting dirty. Nicholas begins the film a sharp-dressed man in a fine suit with a shower conveniently located in his office. Then he has wine spilled on him in a restaurant. And he’s forced to climb up an elevator shaft and then jump into a garbage bin. And he takes a cab ride that deposits him in the San Francisco Bay. And in the film’s most surreal moment, Nicholas wakes up in a grave in Mexico. Even at the very end, he’s covered in glass. As Fight Club does even more overtly, The Game suggests that you’re not really living unless you’re shedding the social niceties of the world and reveling in life’s primal shadows. With that established, if we follow the through-line of Fincher’s films back to Se7en, perhaps the director doesn’t sympathize with Somerset so much after all. It’s Mills who gets dirty, bloody and wet. In Fincher’s world, if you don’t have a cut on your face, you’re faceless.
EH: Good points, but I think this emphasis on the viscera of these films does a disservice to their greater implications. Yes, Fincher’s characters are put through some pretty intense and violent initiations, and there is a sense in which these films are about “shedding the social niceties of the world” (a great phrase for both The Game and Fight Club). From another angle, though, there’s a greater meaning to Fincher’s penchant for putting his characters through the ringer. Maybe this is just another way of framing our earlier points about substance vs. style. But Nicholas isn’t merely covered in filth or violently assaulted; he’s shown the way that other people live their lives. In getting back to a more primal form of existence, he’s also coming into contact with the previously ignored working class: quite literally, since his fate is tied to a former waitress, but also figuratively, in that his money and privilege are stripped away from him. The bizarre sojourn to Mexico you mention is especially potent in this regard. He’s reminded, quite forcefully, of what it might be like to have no money, no resources, no way out. His watch, the last remnant of his former life, ultimately rescues him from this predicament, but not before he has a desperate period of floundering during which, to all appearances, he looks just like any other homeless beggar on the streets. In other words, the film isn’t only about physical violence and getting one’s hands dirty, it’s about the existential states underlying these material circumstances: wealth, poverty, influence, leisure.
JB: I don’t disagree in the least, insofar as The Game is concerned. The brief segment in Mexico makes for the most captivating portion of the film (and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it’s the chapter furthest removed from the elements of the screenplay’s gimmick—the titular game). I can’t think of another film in which Douglas reveals the vulnerability he has in these scenes. There’s that shot of him sitting on the bench looking utterly undone, with a fly landing on his shoulder like he’s just another piece of trash in the gutter. His absolute lowest point comes just a little bit later, before he has to turn over his watch, when he’s asked why he didn’t go to the Mexican police: “I don’t speak Spanish,” he says. Those words are the insult to his injury. Without material extravagance to prove that he’s a somebody, Nicholas becomes a nobody. He gets put on the wrong side of the negotiating table, and he looks so pathetically small. When he says he can’t speak Spanish, he might as well be admitting: “I’m inadequate.” And in that moment The Game beautifully hints at what Fight Club will say directly: material wealth is empty.
EH: These two films are very closely related, for sure. Both The Game and Fight Club are about men who are driven out of thoroughly modern, consumerist lifestyles (albeit unhappy ones) by violent, frightening outside forces. In both cases, these forces are portrayed very ambiguously: they are malign, dangerous and destructive, and yet also life-affirming in curious ways. Certainly Nicholas, and arguably Edward Norton’s “Jack” as well, wind up “better people” because of what happens to them, even if they don’t realize it while it’s actually happening. They leave behind their empty corporate lives, embrace a life of freedom outside of the normal societal system and, in a nod to commercial movie necessity, even make romantic connections. These are, in spite of everything, and in spite of the profound moral ambiguity of Fight Club’s resolution in particular, relatively optimistic endings. I said before that I think Fincher is a pessimist but not the nihilist he’s often accused of being, but now I’m starting to wonder if even this is entirely true. His vision of the world in these two films is still dark, still focused on the evil and corruption that John Doe sees in things, but Fincher offers Nicholas and Jack a way out, a path to redemption, that is not available to any of the characters in Se7en. In Se7en, the message is much darker: there is no redemption, no reversal or recovery to be found in John’s crimes against the status quo, no possibility of escape.
The assaults on the status quo in the two later films are portrayed as equally inevitable, equally unavoidable, but ultimately less malevolent. If John Doe’s murders are the extinguishing flames of an angry God wiping Sodom and Gomorrah off the map, The Game and Fight Club offer up a purifying fire, a blaze that seems destructive on its surface but actually only burns away the accumulated grime and burdens of a miserable life. Many of Fincher’s films are about personal transformations (or, as in Panic Room, the stubborn lack thereof) triggered by extreme reversals of fortune. These transformative forces are often signaled by Fincher through the use of self-conscious references to film or video media. In The Game, these media are used metaphorically in two distinct ways. The first is the metaphor of film as memory, the use of digital techniques to make Nicholas’ childhood memories appear to be “vintage” home movies—washed-out, scratched and stippled—though it becomes increasingly apparent that they are not meant to be actual films. This is just a representation of the way Nicholas sees his past, perhaps because Fincher sees film and memory as somewhat interchangeable. Benjamin Button uses a similar device, both in the clockmaker’s tale and in the brief flashbacks of the man who is hit by lightning seven times.
The other way in which The Game uses film/video manipulation points the way directly forward to Fight Club. Nicholas’ initiation into the rules of the game is accomplished when the game’s masters take control of his television set, at first subtly insinuating their own words here and there within the broadcast, before fully revealing themselves, speaking through the newscaster. And how does Tyler Durden first appear in Fight Club? As subliminal traces of filmic detritus, his image flashing by on the screen as fast as the “cigarette burn” reel change markers he points out later, or as fast as the subliminal cocks he splices into children’s movies. He’s the agent of change in the film, just as the game is in the previous film, and they both arrive by warping the fabric of the film itself. Tyler basically wills himself to appear, limited to single frames at first, then longer cameos at the periphery of the narrative, and finally as the central figure. Later, Jack and Tyler’s mutual breakdown commences when the film itself starts to slip from its sprockets, shaking and vibrating loose, revealing bits of leader and white light on the edges of the frame as Tyler delivers one of his monologues. For Fincher, film is the medium in which he sets down his thoughts, so it’s only natural that he should make his chosen medium the obvious metaphor for both his characters’ mental processes and for the destructive/redemptive forces that come to change them.
JB: I’d guess that many of us young enough to have been raised with the TV on probably share Fincher’s habit of cataloging memories and/or understanding history through cinematic motifs. (As a personal example of the latter: I found myself routinely jarred by Ken Burns’ use of rare color footage in The War, because the vibrant images felt anachronistic in a documentary about events that I tend to imagine unfolding in black-and-white, or in the unsaturated hues of Saving Private Ryan.) And that’s an interesting place for this conversation to take us as we leap into Fight Club, because this is the film in which Fincher attempts to bring the audience into the action. It’s not enough here that we recognize Jack’s malaise; Fincher wants us to identify with it. And, so, similarly to the way the audience momentarily becomes Mills at the end of Se7en, Fincher seeks to make the line between Jack and Joe Popcorn indiscernible. That’s one reason for never officially naming “Jack.” And, of course, it’s also the motivation for having Jack and Tyler break the fourth wall and talk directly to the audience, often in a way that suggests that they are observers of the action more so than players in it—just like us.
But right about now is where discussing Fight Club becomes difficult for me. Because within the framework of this larger discussion, I see Fight Club as another fine example of Fincher’s ability to tell multiple stories simultaneously. But I also see it as a film with frustratingly contradictory themes. And I see it as a film that baffles me with its widespread appeal. Those readings of Fight Club are so intertwined and so equally potent that I hardly know where to begin. So maybe I’ll begin by asking you a question. In discussing Fincher’s previous works, we’ve already identified some of Fight Club’s key themes: the emptiness of materialism, the emotionally redemptive power of crawling through the muck and perhaps, à la Se7en, the necessity of subverting the law to restore the greater order. There are others, too, I imagine. Which is why I want to ask you: As best and as precisely as you can describe, what do you think is Fight Club’s foremost intended take-away message?
EH: As you say, Fight Club is about a lot of things, many of which we have indeed already talked about because they are the same threads running through most of Fincher’s films to one degree or another. If I had to really pin it down though, I would suggest that Fight Club relocates Fincher’s signature theme of anti-materialist aggression into an examination of masculine identity. It’s about the implications of consumerism and corporate culture for a specifically male consumer. Of course, masculinity has always been a subtext in Fincher’s previous films as well; Se7en and The Game are not explicitly about gender identity but it’s clear that their protagonists are nevertheless fulfilling or trying to fulfill various masculine roles (the tough hero cop, the mercenary businessman). So in many ways Fight Club is about the same things that Se7en and The Game are about, like creating a life beyond the clearly defined, marketed boundaries dictated by corporations.
The difference is that Fincher’s critique in Fight Club is more specific, more narrowly targeted, than it is in his other films. He is not just making a generalized statement against marketing and material wealth. What he’s talking about, really, are the ways in which gender roles themselves are marketed, the ways in which we absorb through our culture what we’re supposed to be, what we mean when we say “man” or “woman.” At one point, Tyler and Jack mock the way that an underwear ad tries to sell a particular version of masculinity, but what is Tyler himself if not an alternative sales pitch? He’s just an ad for a different version of masculinity. Tyler is a hyper-masculine cliché, a product of the culture he criticizes, an abstract concept willed into life. He’s Jack’s idea of what the ultimate man should be: he’s violent, angry, sarcastic; he fucks hard and fights harder. And of course, where would Jack get his idea of the ultimate man if not from movies, if not from TV? There’s a reason that Tyler emerges into being as though he’s a glitch in the film, and it’s not just because, as I noted before, Fincher tends to view mental processes in terms of cinematic conventions. Tyler is a cinematic archetype who comes to life because he’s been so ingrained in the imagination of this ordinary, painfully shy office drone that he begins to seem real. It’s only natural that a guy like Jack, a submissive wallflower who’s obviously never stood out for a day in his life, would create a personality like Tyler, would manufacture for himself a new identity that’s basically an alpha-male fantasy, a combination of archetypes stolen from both action movies and porn: Tyler is Rambo, James Bond and Peter North all rolled into one. He’s tough, he’s clever, he gets the girl and he fucks like a machine.
Having established that Tyler is basically our culture’s idea of the ultimate macho man, the film then proceeds to really examine this walking cliché in greater depth. At first, Jack follows Tyler unquestioningly, allowing himself to be remade as the cool, sexy tough guy he always wanted to be. And Tyler quite naturally assembles a lot of very similar acolytes. But as the film progresses, and especially during its frantic final stretches as Jack desperately runs around trying to figure out what’s going on and how to stop Tyler’s insane plan, Jack begins to realize that there are (to put it mildly) drawbacks to always taking this hyper-masculine, blow-shit-up-and-ask-questions-never approach to life. If Fincher’s other films are mostly linear in their character arcs, I think this is the only one that is somewhat cyclical: Jack rejects society and embraces this hyped-up version of masculine identity, but then he belatedly steps back from it as he realizes the extremes to which it has taken him. To me, the film is about the desperation and depression associated with modern society that causes us to rally around anything that makes us feel better about ourselves, even if it means becoming an unquestioning, robotic follower like the drones uncomprehendingly repeating “his name is Robert Paulson.” This is the impulse that initially led Jack to support groups, and eventually to seek redemption in the exaggerated masculine aggression of the fight clubs. Fincher understands and even sympathizes with this impulse, but the film itself is a cautionary tale about the dangers involved in trying to embody a cultural cliché.
JB: That’s a tremendous job of filtering through all of Fight Club’s misdirections and contradictions to get at its essence (and it includes a Peter North reference—bonus!). But what maddens me is this line: “The film is about the desperation and depression associated with modern society that causes us to rally around anything that makes us feel better about ourselves, even if it means becoming an unquestioning, robotic follower like the drones uncomprehendingly repeating ’his name is Robert Paulson.’” Why does that madden me? Because it’s more on-the-nose than I think you intended. Because in my opinion Fight Club itself is something that many moviegoers have rallied around in a rather unquestioning way because it makes them feel good. Now, this is a huge can of worms I’m opening here, so before I go further let me put forth some obvious disclaimers: I don’t look down on anyone who finds Fight Club entertaining, for whatever reason. (If that’s your drug of choice, so to speak, then party away.) Nor do I think that people are unintelligent if they admire Fight Club, at whatever level. When I suggest that many people have rallied around the movie in an “unquestioning way,” it’s because I think the more closely one looks at Fight Club’s inherent contradictions, the harder it is to enjoy. And that makes me skeptical of Fight Club’s significant and passionate fan base, because the film essentially puts down the idea of being a fan of a philosophizing movie.
Having said that, there are certainly ways in which someone can see all that Fight Club is and still enjoy it and identify with it. Back in July, Jim Emerson wrote a terrific analysis for Scanners that argues that Fight Club is primarily a reflection of the effects of clinical depression. Like you, Emerson identifies Tyler as the alpha-male fantasy, and he avoids the trap of romanticizing Tyler. Of Tyler’s oft-quoted line, “The things you own end up owning you,” Emerson writes: “Is this a brilliant insight? Hardly. You should be laughing at the characters, not with them.” But I don’t think the majority of Fight Club’s fans see Tyler that way. And I don’t think that Empire magazine recently named Tyler Durden the “greatest movie character of all time” because they think he’s an empty, posturing joke. But let me stop speculating and get to the details of why I think Fight Club has inherent contradictions.
As I see it, here is the flowchart of Fight Club’s philosophizing: Jack begins the film with materialistic riches, but he’s depressed. Thus, materialism equals depression. Tyler arrives and ridicules the consumerist lifestyle point blank. He preaches against the marketing-inspired, pop-culture-manufactured idea of perfection. But Tyler, an image in Jack’s head, is himself a marketing-inspired, pop-culture-manufactured idea of perfection. Thus, Tyler is as empty an ideal as the IKEA living room sets that he derides. Thus, Tyler is a hypocrite and another facet of what ails Jack as he looks outward to try and find examples that will bring him inner satisfaction. Jack, in his depression, doesn’t recognize this at first. He chases the Tyler ideal like a yuppie who reads an article about a guy living off the land and feels inspired to go hitchhiking through South America to “find himself.” Eventually, Jack realizes that Tyler’s ideal is just the gritty, deconstructionist version of the glossy IKEA ideals he’s already learned to condemn, and so Jack denounces Tyler. Thus, Fight Club, through Jack, denounces Tyler and all his hypocritical testimonials suggesting that he was something deeper, and it warns against buying into the charismatic sermonizing of the pop culture. But, Tyler aside, what is Fight Club as a whole if not a sermonizing element of the pop culture? Follow me? Thus, Fight Club refutes itself. It’s an oxymoron, like “anarchist organization” (allusion to Project Mayhem intended). Fight Club is the guy at the microphone who says: “I’m here to tell you to not listen to a thing I say.” It’s an inherent contradiction that I find disingenuous.
EH: Follow you? I’m not sure I do, to be honest. Your interpretation of the film’s philosophy—and its shifting perspective on Tyler—lines up pretty closely with my own. But you lose me when you ask, “what is Fight Club as a whole if not a sermonizing element of the pop culture?” Well, yes, it’s a movie, and by chance it’s become a fairly popular and well-known one, so it’s certainly a component of pop culture. So what? You and I (and Jim Emerson, whose astute observations are as ever spot-on) realize that the film doesn’t glorify Tyler but in fact comes to criticize him and those who blindly follow his anarchist pseudo-philosophy. The beginning of Project Mayhem (the point when Tyler’s philosophy reaches its absurd fruition) is exactly the point at which Jack becomes more and more alienated from the whole affair, questioning things for the first time. The fact that Project Mayhem is an “anarchist organization,” the embodiment of a contradiction, is precisely why the whole thing is so ridiculous and laughable. What else to make of that scene where the Mayhem guys gleefully watch their handiwork on TV, swigging back beers, patting each other on the back and cheering like frat boys? It’s just so obvious by this point that Fincher does not intend us to admire or emulate Tyler or what he’s created. The people he surrounds himself with become drones with no free will, and he indoctrinates them with repetitive loudspeaker mantras. The scene where Robert Paulson dies is the culmination of the film’s mockery of this anarchist conformity; Jack launches into an enraged condemnation of these Tyler followers, calling them idiots, and it’s apparent that we’re meant to agree with him. As you pointed out earlier, Jack is the audience substitute, not Tyler, and as the film goes along Jack becomes increasingly alienated from Tyler and begins to see through Tyler’s shallow outlook.
Of course, I have no doubt that many people who enjoy the film admire Tyler Durden tremendously. Again, so what? This would hardly be the first piece of pop culture where legions of its fans fail to grasp what it’s actually about—how many Simpsons fans don’t get that the perspective of the show’s creators is much closer to the elitist attitude of Lisa than the proud anti-intellectualism of Bart and Homer? Neither Fight Club nor The Simpsons is (or should be) diminished by the misunderstandings of their fans.
So is it just that this is a commercial film whose message boils down to a critique of commerce? Is that what bothers you? Or is there some aesthetic/thematic inconsistency within the film itself that you find so hypocritical?
JB: It’s kind of all of the above. But I’d say my frustration has two separate but similar forms. Yes, it gets under my skin when I see Tyler’s ideals lauded by those who never notice that Fight Club ultimately exposes Tyler to be a sham. Likewise, it irked me when “Joe the Plumber” became the poster boy “victim” of the Obama tax hikes, even though Joe didn’t make enough money to have his taxes increased. And it irks me when people argue that Batman’s illegal actions are given anything more than token disparagement in The Dark Knight, when the film clearly exalts the hero’s willingness to do whatever it takes to keep Gotham safe. And on, and on. Now, part of the reason that Fight Club is so often misread is because Tyler isn’t decried with the same level of zeal with which he’s romanticized at the beginning of the film. But, yeah, so what? Fight Club does condemn Tyler, and if people don’t see that, well, it makes for some exasperating conversations, but I can live with that. As you said so well, the art shouldn’t be diminished by the misunderstandings of its fans. Amen.
But that leads me to my second frustration, which is deeper and pertains to the art itself. You’re in the neighborhood of what I mean when you say that Fight Club is a “commercial film whose message boils down to a critique of commerce.” But the contradiction is more than that: Fight Club also criticizes pop culture philosophers, even though it’s a pop culture philosopher itself. Thus, Fight Club becomes an infomercial about the emptiness of infomercials. And I don’t just find that contradictory, I find it almost cowardly. It makes the film a challenge to embrace, because after all of its sermonizing Fight Club effectively disavows itself and pleads insanity. Its final words might as well be, “Never mind!”
But having complained at length about the film as a whole, I’d very much like to turn this conversation in a different direction, because there’s no denying that Fight Club is absolutely arresting in parts, even if those parts don’t add up to a satisfying whole. You did an outstanding job of arguing that the film is an exploration of masculine identity, but even more than that I think it’s an exploration of masculine identity in a very specific time and place. What I cherish about Fight Club is that it’s a fascinating time capsule glimpse of the pre-9/11 male identity specifically—because, see, Tyler is mostly accurate when he talks about a generation of men who had no Great War or Great Depression to define them. Released in 1999, when the nation was just getting over its obsession with Bill Clinton’s penis, Fight Club reveals an era in which the American male had the luxury, if you will, to have an apartment full of IKEA furniture and be able to whine about it. It’s startling to think of how differently Jack’s depression would play if the story unfolded 10 years later.
EH: Your points about the film’s specificity to 1999 are well taken. Watching it now, it’s obvious that it is very much a millennial movie, caught up in the vague apocalyptic atmosphere that was floating around at that time. The film ends with the destruction of the credit card companies and the subsequent disappearance of electronically maintained records: Tyler’s final destructive act is a metaphor for what a lot of people thought might happen anyway as the new millennium was ushered in. Who could have imagined then that the film’s last image would have very different resonances just a couple of years later?
There are a lot of other things to like about this film that I haven’t mentioned yet—not least of which is Helena Bonham Carter’s funny, fluttery performance as Marla—but before we move on I want to focus on a particular formal strategy in Fight Club that I think is characteristic of Fincher in general. There are a few points here at which Fincher essentially detours from his narrative into nearly abstract process-oriented shots, achieved with painstaking use of CGI, in which he delves into the contours and textures of objects. It’s ironic that you don’t think the parts of this film add up to a whole, because Fincher himself takes the relationship between parts and whole very seriously. The film opens with a CGI-animated tour of the inside of Jack’s body, one that foreshadows the later fascination with internal organs as representative of the exterior person: “I am Jack’s bile duct.” The first time we see the film, we don’t realize what exactly we’re seeing, until the camera, rushing frantically up from the cellular level, through the internal structures of the body, finally pulls back through the pores of the skin, rushing along the skin’s surface and then up the barrel of Tyler’s gun. It’s a masterfully executed gimmick, a clever bit of show-off technical wizardry, but it’s also the first hint that Fincher is interested in exploring the unseen processes behind prosaic reality. Even better is that great inside-the-wastebasket shot, which treats soda cans and various other bits of branded refuse like planetary fragments in an asteroid belt, with the camera navigating around them as though it was floating through space.
Similar moments crop up throughout Fincher’s filmography, often in his credits sequences, and often involving the use of CGI. The credits for Se7en, which brought Brakhage-like montage and scratched film stock to a mainstream thriller, use disconnected bits of footage to tell the story of John Doe in miniature. The images here, momentary and framed from unusual, intimate close-up angles, would be meaningless to anyone who hasn’t seen the film before, but for those who have, they clearly show John filing the skin off his fingertips and assembling his copious journals. Even in the otherwise dismal Alien3, the credits are stunning, using disconnected, near-abstract compositions, often almost static, to suggest an alien attack; it’s the film’s best and most recognizably Fincherian sequence. There’s a real formalist sensibility in Fincher that often shows itself in these small or seemingly unimportant moments, when he can indulge his love for objects and abstract composition without becoming inaccessible.
In Panic Room, on the other hand, this sensibility basically takes over the movie, and though there are some amazing sequences, I’m not sure that Fincher is able to pull it off without sacrificing too much of the characterization and narrative drive that have propelled his more successful work. I hated the film when it first came out, finding it largely pointless and haphazard. Oddly enough, this time around I was bothered by many of the same things, but I also found a lot to admire in Fincher’s sweeping CGI shots, the way his fluid camerawork, augmented by computer tricks, gives the impression of flowing through anything in the camera’s path, peeking inside to see how objects are assembled and how things are laid out. The best scene is the early one where the robbers played by Jared Leto and Forest Whitaker are outside, preparing to break in, and the camera whirls through the inside of the house, tracking their progress from floor to floor by catching glimpses of them through windows as they systematically test one entryway after another. Shots like this save the film for me, while the actual plotting, (lack of) characterization and underdeveloped themes tend to turn me off. I view the film now as an experimental interlude for Fincher, a transitional effort that, on the whole, doesn’t quite work but has the seeds of some good ideas. What do you think?
JB: I think it’s rather remarkable that Panic Room was released only a few months after 9/11 (March 29, 2002, according to IMDb), because in so many ways it feels like a response to the post-9/11 climate of fear. If Fight Club, unaware that terrorist attacks were around the corner, was a coincidental snapshot of a mindset that would come down with the Twin Towers, Panic Room is a coincidental snapshot of the mindset afterward. In the scene where Jodie Foster’s Meg Altman is shown the house by the realtor, he says of the panic room: “One really can’t be too careful about home invasion.” If that doesn’t nail the vulnerability that was preached to all Americans, and genuinely felt by many of us, I’m not sure what does. Just after that line, Meg steps out of the panic room and the realtor closes the sliding door behind her, causing the full-length mirror hiding the concrete bunker to fall back into place. That leaves Meg to stare at her own reflection, and in that moment it’s as if she looks into her own eyes and says: “Admit it, you’re afraid.” And she is.
So, Panic Room is about fear and vulnerability. It’s another dark theme, but it’s Fincher’s lightest fare, to be sure, primarily because Panic Room’s depiction of evil is only marginally terrifying: Forest Whitaker’s character outright announces that he won’t hurt people. Jared Leto’s character is a buffoon. Which leaves Dwight Yoakam’s character as the only unflinching baddy of the three, though he pales in comparison to Se7en’s John Doe. (Furthermore, Panic Room undercuts the severity of Yoakam’s character by having him introduced as “Raoul,” an against-expectations name that’s funny on principle and downright hilarious as delivered by Leto.) Still, for well-to-do Meg, who we can assume is as cut off from society’s dark underbelly as was The Game’s Nicholas, these men are menacing enough. In another film, the fact that Meg is claustrophobic would be nothing more than a cheap device to maintain suspense while mother and daughter are locked away in the protection of the panic room. Instead, that detail fits perfectly into Fincher’s established worldview, which implies that as ugly as things are, they get uglier when you withdraw in fear. Hiding gets you nowhere.
As for technical wizardry, you have it right that this is the Fincher film in which style most overshadows substance—a charge perhaps best illustrated by the way Fincher repeatedly ogles the high-tech splendor of Foster’s cleavage-bearing tank top. But as you indicated in mentioning the scene in which the robbers show up at the house, Fincher’s style is never just style for style’s sake. Er, almost never. Using CGI to make it seem as if the camera passes through the handle of the coffeepot? That’s just a “Hey, look at me!” trick. But by putting “the camera” inside the lock of the house’s front door, Fincher underscores the flimsiness of our supposed protective measures, as if ridiculing our false sense of security (another unintentional comment on 9/11). On a larger level, I’m guessing that what drew Fincher to Panic Room was a desire to do with modern effects what Alfred Hitchcock does in Rear Window. I wouldn’t call Panic Room “Hitchcockian,” of course. But similarly to Rear Window, Panic Room is a one-set play in which the geography is so well established that it manages to seem vast. It takes skill to pull that off, and Fincher’s computer-based techniques come in handy—unnecessarily flashy though they might occasionally be.
EH: I’m glad you mention the silliness of these robbers; I thought I was the only one who found them hard to take seriously. It’s bad enough that Jared Leto turns in one of his worst-ever performances—an accumulation of tics and affectations ripped off from Brad Pitt’s turns in both Fight Club and 12 Monkeys—but the whole idea of the killers who are supposed to be simultaneously threatening and endearingly bumbling is a bit much. It all reminds me of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, which I mentioned before in connection with Se7en. Unlike Se7en, though, which genuinely engages with the morality of its killer and his pursuers, Panic Room seems like exactly the kind of movie that Haneke set out to deconstruct: the home invaders who provide comic relief even as they torment their victims, the comfortable bourgeois family whose private space is violated, the sledgehammer that replaces Haneke’s golf club. But if both Funny Games and Se7en create problems of audience identification by putting the killers in the driver’s seat, Panic Room removes identification from the equation: we don’t care about any of these characters, all of whom are so badly developed that I kept laughing every time poor Forest Whitaker has to deliver those heavy-handed expositional lines about how he’s really a sensitive father of two.
The result is schematic Fincher, with all the characterization and depth drained out of it. The usual class struggle subtext is there, but it doesn’t have nearly the weight or complexity of the last three films we’ve been discussing. And in terms of the narrative, it’s frequently just ridiculous: the lame drama drummed up by the daughter’s diabetes (talk about “a cheap device to maintain suspense”), the ridiculously unkillable Raoul, and that groan-inducing money-flying-away ending that rips off any number of genre fiction forebears, from Kubrick’s The Killing to Bresson’s L’Argent to Don Siegel’s TV remake of The Killers. Ultimately, though I keep invoking some pretty heavy films in comparison, the film it reminds me of the most is actually Home Alone, with Foster standing in for Macaulay Culkin, fending off the robbers by setting traps to burn, maim and chase them away.
JB: OK, so Macaulay Culkin and Peter North in the same Fincher conversation. I can’t say I saw either of those guys coming. I mean, um. Well, let’s just move on, shall we? I think it’s safe to say that you felt the off-the-rails disengagement with the entirety of Panic Room that I felt with the latter half of Fight Club. I have no ammunition to return fire on any of your apt criticisms, other than to say that with the exception of Fincher’s artistic flair, Leto’s totally absurd performance is my favorite thing about the film—so terrible it’s brilliant. I mean, the dude has cornrows and makes MacGyver references. You’ve gotta like that, right? Well, no. You don’t. And you didn’t. And I don’t blame you. But Leto tickles me, and I think it’s intentional and helps to define Panic Room as deliberately less severe. Perhaps after all the midnight moodiness of his previous films, Fincher needed to cleanse the palate.
If so, it worked. Because what followed is Zodiac, which we seem to agree is the pinnacle of Fincher’s career to date. What’s interesting is to note how Zodiac feels like new territory for Fincher despite the fact that it borrows so many themes and tricks from his previous works. Zodiac is a police procedural leading toward an only slightly satisfying catharsis, as is Se7en. It’s a film alive with paranoia of the unknown, as is The Game. It’s a film at least in part about a man with an almost split personality and delusions of grandeur, as is Fight Club. It’s a film that relies on Fincher’s ability to establish a specific geography, each corner of which is clouded with threat, as does Panic Room. There are other similarities, certainly, and I’m sure we’ll get to those. But for the moment I’ll ask you: In which ways does Zodiac most significantly separate itself from its predecessors?
EH: You do a great job of delineating the ways in which Zodiac exists on a continuum with Fincher’s other work. And yet you’re also right that it feels like this stunning, sui generis departure for him, unlike anything else he’s ever done. Why is that? We’ve already talked about how Zodiac evokes a specific historical time and place for the first time in Fincher’s oeuvre. And we’ve already talked about how its themes set it apart from the concerns of materialism, commercialism and class that flow through the other four pictures. But if I could express, in just one word, what separates the film most conclusively from anything else that Fincher has done, it’d be: pacing. I think it’s fair to characterize all of Fincher’s other films—no matter what their sizable ambitions or the complexities of their emotional and thematic undercurrents—as compulsively forward-moving, action-packed thrillers. Whatever else they have going for them or against them, they are at least viscerally exciting and suspenseful. In short, the emphasis in these films is on delivering ripping good stories. That they are also thematically complex and aesthetically interesting films, in all of the ways we’ve been talking about here, would be almost incidental to anyone trying to categorize them in simple genre terms. They could pretty much all be called, with some justification, thrillers.
Now Zodiac, purely in terms of subject matter, could easily be confused with a thriller on its surface—and certainly for its first hour or so it functions kind of like one. But it’s not paced like a thriller. It’s not a propulsive narrative in which we are left gasping for the next bit of the story. Partly, this is because it’s a historical film, and most people already know at least the broad outlines of what happened: a killer terrorizes a city, then begins fading away, his crimes just stopping after a while; he is never caught. So there’s a certain inevitability to the film, in that it could never be a conventional whodunit. There can be no conventional dramatic ending in which the killer is confronted and caught. Fincher gets as close as he can to that moment, but as you say, it’s not really that satisfying as dramatic resolutions go: at least in Se7en, we see the killer, we understand his purpose, and we see the heroes match wits with him. In Zodiac, the film is structured so that the ostensible narrative becomes fuzzier, less dramatically rigid, as the film goes along. As long as the killer is committing his crimes, they at least provide some forward momentum, a chance for some action/suspense set pieces. Once he stops, the film becomes about dramatizing internal processes: obsession, paranoia, self-destruction, loneliness, the desire for resolution.
Even then, the pacing is much more than a result of its historical narrative or the unconventional structure it necessitates. You can see it in the opening, that gorgeous slow motion tracking shot down a suburban street, with the sparklers sizzling in the darkness. It’s beautiful, but it’s a purely extraneous moment in terms of the narrative. So is the black-screen audio montage that Fincher wanted to insert—and which he did insert into his DVD director’s cut—of popular songs from the time, blending into one another to signify the passage of the years. It’s obvious that what Fincher is really interested in here is not the serial killer at all, certainly not in the way he was intensely interested in John Doe. Instead, he’s interested in mood, and time, and memory, and the ways things used to be. His sense of pacing is languid, and his storytelling is elliptical, sometimes settling in for a lengthy, moody evocation of a short period of time, at other times eliding years with a crisp montage. The pacing and the intentionally anticlimactic structure create a very different impression from the narrative drive of Fincher’s earlier films, all of which are quite linear and direct in their storytelling.
JB: I think you’re on to something when you say that Zodiac is about “the way things used to be.” That’s true on many levels. First, given the themes we’ve identified in his previous films, Zodiac seems to be almost nostalgic for a time in this country when hysteria could be caused by a single madman. In Se7en, John Doe, as his name suggests, is just one of many faceless forms of evil in the generic city. There’s no indication whatsoever that the general public knows this guy is at work—the implication being that there’s too much evil in the world to care. That’s part of the reason Somerset suggests they give up, realize they are helpless to stop the killings and just move on to the next wacko. By contrast, in Zodiac the actions of just one man instill fear in the entire Bay Area.
Are there still Zodiacs in operation? Sure. But since 9/11 the boogieman has had a flip-this-house-sized makeover. It’s hard to get worked up over a lone nutcase when the government is reminding us that al Qaeda could strike at any moment, killing hundreds or thousands with one blow. I bring this up because Zodiac, released in 2007, is the first Fincher film with enough distance to be able to comment on the post-9/11 world, so I don’t think it’s an accident that he gives us a fishbowl-sized recreation of our country’s post-9/11 fear and paranoia. When Jake Gyllenhaal’s Robert Graysmith panics in the basement of a man he has come to question, convincing himself that he hears footsteps upstairs, he might as well be the scared white American who sees two men in typical Arab garb dragging fertilizer into a cellar and jumps to the conclusion that they’re making a bomb.
But there’s yet another way that Zodiac seems to romanticize the past, and that’s in its depiction of good old fashioned detective work. Consider that if the Zodiac struck today, the case might be solved in 30 minutes with a pair of tweezers and a DNA lab. Open and shut. And what’s the fun of that? Instead, here’s a drama that relies on handwriting samples, timelines, informants and alibis. This is factual, of course, and many of the details come from Graysmith’s novel and James Vanderbilt’s screenplay, but there’s no question that Fincher is fascinated by the significance of the minutiae—not that it should come as a surprise. As his previous films have shown, Fincher admires those willing to slog through the unpleasantness. He likes guys who get dirty.
EH: He also loves documenting the processes involved in all this hard work, the step-by-step systematic operations behind the stories he’s telling. We’ve seen this before in isolated moments from his earlier films—the tracking shot of the break-in from Panic Room; the processes of making soap or projecting films in Fight Club; the credits of Se7en with their breakdown of John Doe’s daily activities—but Zodiac is entirely about process. It takes these moments that had always been there in Fincher’s work and makes them the center of the movie, the structural foundations for everything else that happens. Again, it’s not a surprise by any means, but it’s working on a different level than the similar elements in Fincher’s other films.
I think the nostalgic tendency you’ve teased out here is similarly a magnified version of threads that have woven through all of Fincher’s work. There is often a sense in his films that we have lost something, that there is a possibly apocryphal past that was better (morally superior, less debased or degraded) than the world we have today. Thus his characters are always rooted in the societal climate in which the film is made. And his villains reflect the elements of modern society that Fincher wants to call to his audience’s attention: the abuses of marketing, corporate greed, the invisibility of poverty. It is very rare that he represents what might be thought of as a timeless evil, the kind of evil represented by Javier Bardem’s merciless hitman Anton Chigurh in another great 2007 movie, No Country For Old Men. These two films, which came out in the same year and arguably represent their directors’ responses to the post-9/11 climate of fear and violence, actually display very different interpretations of the concept of evil that is so central to both films.
In the Coen brothers’ film, the sheriff, Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), views Chigurh’s shadowy killer in the same way as Fincher’s heroes tend to view their opposite numbers, as reflections of a degraded modern age that is much, much scarier than anything encountered in the past. In many ways, Bell is that film’s Somerset, feeling overwhelmed and outmatched by this new, modern evil. He feels incapable of dealing with what he sees, and is forced to retire, having been made obsolete by a changing world. The film doesn’t stop there, though, which is possibly where it would stop had Fincher made it. Instead, the Coens, following Cormac McCarthy’s original novel very faithfully, go further, suggesting in the film’s meditative coda that Bell is wrong, that Chigurh is not a specifically modern evil but simply the same old ancient evil in modern guise. Zodiac’s villain is, ironically, far less of a concrete presence than Chigurh, but he’s more of a flesh-and-blood person: Chigurh is an archetype, a metaphor with a pageboy haircut, while the Zodiac Killer, whoever he might be, is an actual person, most likely with psychological and emotional motivations for what he does. One thing I may have glossed over in my discussions of Fincher’s themes during this conversation is that his films are always, no matter what else they might be, about people first and foremost.
JB: They are indeed about people. You know, from a historical perspective I’m a tad uncomfortable with Zodiac’s final scene, which could be misread as a case-closed conviction of Arthur Leigh Allen, when in reality it only means that for Graysmith the case is closed. But I’m not sure I can think of another film that humanizes a killer as effectively as Zodiac does when it shows the simple Leigh in the simple hardware store, wearing his simple vest and nametag. A ruthless killer Leigh might be; Anton Chigurh he isn’t. Meanwhile, in Zodiac we also feel the geeky obsession of Gyllenhaal’s Graysmith, who is otherwise so ordinary. And we feel the frustration of the all-too-average David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), who was cool enough that Steve McQueen’s Frank Bullitt was modeled after him, but who still doesn’t have the detective smarts to bring down a killer arrogant enough to dangle clues in his face. And we feel the loneliness of Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), whose initial swagger is eventually obliterated by his ever-mounting fear.
Appropriately enough, this actually brings us back around to our initial discussion of Benjamin Button, because so much of what I feel is missing in that film can be traced to Benjamin’s un-humanness (and I’m not referring to his backward aging). You can call Benjamin a cipher, and that’s fine. I don’t dispute the point. But 166 minutes is a heck of a lot of time to spend with someone who has all the emotive range of the Terminator. There are exceptions to this, the hotel romance with Swinton’s Elizabeth being the most significant, but they are few and far between. So I think my disappointment in Benjamin Button’s lack of mood is a byproduct of the hollowness of Benjamin behind his (frequently CGI-animated) skin. In contrast, think for a moment of Mills’ face as he tries to figure out what to do with John Doe in the field. Think of Nicholas’ face on that bench in Mexico. Think of Jack’s face when he sits in those self-help meetings, seething with disdain over “tourist” Marla. Think of Meg’s face … ah, screw it, we’re always looking at her boobs. So instead think of Graysmith’s face when he excitedly confronts Toschi with yet another clue. These are the very visceral, very human emotions present in most of Fincher’s work. And I don’t see that in Benjamin Button. I wish I did.
EH: Maybe this pinpoints what constitutes a completely “Fincherian” film. You’re making a joke about Panic Room there, but it says something (and not something good) if our most tangible impressions of the film revolve around a tracking shot through a coffee pot, Jared Leto’s cornrows, and several leering shots down Jodie Foster’s tank top. By the same token, part of what makes Benjamin Button feel so distinct from Fincher’s other work, even the already-distinct Zodiac, is its treatment of characters and situations as almost entirely symbolic rather than realistic. It’s an emotional film in many ways, but its emotion functions in the abstract: it makes us feel for ourselves and our own connections to mortality and loss, rather than for Benjamin’s experience of these things. He is a stand-in for the audience, a blank slate, to an extent that few other Fincher heroes are. Now I think this actually works pretty well despite the film’s significant problems, while you don’t, but either way it’s not characteristic of Fincher in general. All of his films and characters do, as we’ve been discussing, have deeper thematic and symbolic implications, but this rarely obscures the person at the film’s center. Nicholas is a metaphorical construct, a composite of uncaring, self-absorbed corporate executives everywhere, but he’s also a sympathetic, fully developed character in his own right. The same is true even of Fincher’s most symbolic pre-Button character, Jack/Tyler in Fight Club, who manages to project an impressive emotional range even through the intervention of a narrative gimmick that might have been emotionally crippling if employed by another director.
This brings me back to Zodiac, in which you’re right that even possible killer Arthur Leigh Allen is humanized in interesting ways. I agree with your reservations about the film’s implicit endorsement of Allen as the killer; it’s a bit too tidy, and I know that many Zodiac historians disagree vehemently with the real Graysmith’s conclusions about Allen. It feels like Fincher is reaching for that resolution, that he wants that moment so badly that he’s willing to limit himself to one man’s interpretation of the historical events. In a way, though, I’d say it’s all worth it for that scene where Graysmith faces down Allen at the hardware store, and there’s this intense silent communication passing between them. What does this scene mean? The film’s ending suggests that it’s the showdown between the killer and his most dogged pursuer, but it may not even be that if Allen was not actually the Zodiac. It may be simply the ultimate consequence of Graysmith’s misplaced obsession. As much as I love the film, I do wish Fincher had preserved that ambiguity, had resisted the temptation to deliver even this partial, unsatisfying resolution. The most interesting aspect of the film, and of the real Zodiac case, is its indefinite status, the idea that decades of hard work and investigation have added up to, well, not very much.
JB: And having said that, I suppose now it’s time to ask ourselves what this conversation has added up to. It’s done a few things for me, the most significant of which is to confirm what I already believed: that Fincher is a director of substance. Yes, many of his films have a dazzling style that sometimes draws our attention like the Fourth of July fireworks at the beginning of Zodiac, so that in the moment we see nothing else. But the longer you look at a Fincher film, the more there is to consider. His remarkable ability to subtly pack the margins of his films with narrative subtext and sociological commentary, without even slightly reducing the propulsion of his film’s hook or gimmick, is arguably what leads to his inability to shed the derisive moniker of “MTV video-maker.” But the depth is there for those of us willing to get dirty to explore it.
Over the course of this discussion, my adoration of Se7en has held firm; my respect for The Game has increased; my frustration with Fight Club has subsided just a bit; my hardly unaware delight with Panic Room has remained; and I continue to think Zodiac is Fincher’s most complex and most complete picture. As for Benjamin Button, the sad truth is that I’ve almost forgotten it over the course of this conversation. With my disappointments expressed, it’s as if its already-shallow impression faded away. Perhaps, as with other Fincher films, a second viewing will reveal something more. But I’m afraid the opposite will be true. Benjamin Button, for all its attempts to showcase 20th Century history, is the first of Fincher’s films to leave me adrift: geographically, thematically and certainly emotionally. If I’m being too hard on it—and maybe I am—it’s because of something you suggested. The film might be by Fincher, and his fingerprints might be all over it, but Benjamin Button doesn’t feel Fincherian. Maybe next time.
EH: Jason, like you I’ve come away from this discussion with a renewed and newly focused appreciation for Fincher’s films—and for the question of what the adjective Fincherian might mean. I think you’re right to emphasize the director’s penchant for subterranean thematic tunneling as one of his most salient characteristics: I can only guess that the late Manny Farber might have recognized in Fincher the quality that he so appropriately (and appreciatively) called “termite art.” In revisiting these films within a short period of time, it has become clear just how deep Fincher often tunnels within his own art, just how much he packs into the multiple layers hidden beneath his slick surfaces. My admiration for his work has only grown in the process: for films I thought I knew well, and now know and love even better (Fight Club and Se7en), for a fine film I had previously only hazily remembered from a long-ago viewing (The Game), and even for a film I hated whose virtues have proven to be tightly interwoven with its failings (Panic Room). And of course, for Zodiac, the film we both regard as the director’s masterwork thus far, crystallizing his aesthetic and thematic tendencies even as it definitively sets off in a new direction.
As for Benjamin Button, the film that initiated this discussion in the first place, I retain my mixed, complicated feelings for it. I admire its ambition and its willingness to embrace abstract concepts, even as I’m disappointed by its clichéd framing narrative and the fatally limited scope of its political engagement. It may be that I’m still struggling to come to terms with Fincher’s latest film because, whatever its other merits and missteps (and there are plenty of each) I can’t entirely disagree when you declare it to be Fincher’s least characteristic work. And yet, if we were to define the Fincherian film as a morally complex parable in which a sheltered individual is forced to come to terms with the frightening larger world—a thumbnail description that nevertheless summarizes a typical Fincher narrative—then Benjamin Button might be much closer to its predecessors than expected. Aesthetically, the film dips into a wholly different (but, in terms of mainstream filmmaking, much more familiar) palette than Fincher’s previous work, and as a result its surface seldom actually feels like a Fincher film. It is perhaps fitting then, for a director who we have described as frequently working far below the surface, that it is only underneath, beneath the striking visual effects and Gumpian narrative, that Fincher himself is revealed, working hard as always, getting his hands dirty within the very workings of the film.
Jason Bellamy ruminates on cinema at The Cooler.
Ed Howard chronicles his film viewing at Only the Cinema.
Review: In Angels Are Made of Light, a Nation Rebuilds in the Ruins of War
The film is an intimate portrait of a nation terminally anxious about who will see fit to rule it next.2.5
Early in Angels Are Made of Light, a voice breaks through a sea of chatter in a classroom teeming with young boys: “I only know about the time since I was born. What’s history?” The child goes on to explain that history isn’t taught at the Daqiqi Balkhi high school in Kabul, Afghanistan. The question’s poignance is self-evident, particularly because the building itself appears to have been disturbed by the city’s recent trauma. The opening shot of James Longley’s first film since Iraq in Fragments captures splotches of sunlight entering through holes in the school’s exterior. Later, one of the building’s walls collapses, and the children relocate to a location supported by American funding.
Though it inevitably gestures toward American occupation, Angels Are Made of Light is rare in its nearly undivided attention to civilian life in a region fundamentally altered by the U.S.’s so-called war on terror. Much of the film is composed of footage Longley shot at Daqiqi Balkhi from 2011 to 2014, with a particular focus on three brothers: Rostam, Sohrab, and Yaldash. The trio speak in voiceover throughout, and seem to define themselves by their relative interest in work and studying. Sohrab excels in school and doesn’t see himself as fit for manual labor, while the older Rostam works closely with their father. Yaldash, the youngest, works at a tin shop and is anguished when his job interferes with his educational aspirations.
The documentary’s classroom scenes exude a tone of controlled chaos, shot mostly at eye level with the students as they struggle to hear and be heard over the din of their classmates. (This is particularly true at their school’s first location, where numerous classes are taught outside right next to one another.) The passage of time is marked by changes in seasons and the repetition of certain ceremonies, like a teacher appreciation day featuring musical performances by students. Concurrently, there’s a Malickian quality to the near-constant voiceover of the brothers, whose concerns veer from the quotidian (earning money for the family, achieving in school) to the philosophical. Though their voices are profound, their limited perspective yields lengthy stretches of repetitive, meandering sentiments that are inflated by John Erik Kaada’s sometimes intrusive score.
If the children aren’t taught about their country’s history as a site of hostile takeover by other countries, the Taliban, and groups of mujahideen, they have clearly internalized the trauma their homeland has endured. “Death is coming. Doomsday is coming. Everything is coming,” one says. All seem to agree that learning about computers (none of which are seen in the documentary) is the only sure ticket to an escape or a successful career.
As Angels Are Made of Light proceeds, its chorus of narrative voices expands, adding a number of teachers (including the boys’ mother) and another schoolboy who sells hot food at an open market. The teachers add flashes of historical context, which Longley plays over archival footage of Kabul and its ruling governments over the previous decades. Cuts between the city’s past and its present are stark: The contemporary skyline is pockmarked with absent buildings that have been replaced by makeshift structures, and the city’s center is now cluttered with billboards advertising mobile phones and alcohol produced in NATO countries. Eventually, Longley shows current political action in the streets, as mujahideen gather to flog themselves in public, other groups march for democracy, and all focus their attention on 2014 presidential election where Hamid Karzai democratically transfers power to his successor, Ashraf Ghani, as rumors swirl about the Americans’ sway over the vote.
Longley’s decision to avoid addressing Afghani politics until the latter half of his film is sound, perhaps a signal that his young characters are becoming more attuned to the corruption that pervades daily operations in their city, but Angels Are Made of Light lacks the sort of structural framework that can properly sustain its lack of plot and rather confusing array of editorialists speaking in voiceover. The closest the film comes to a guiding focus is the recurring image of a large, ghostly white blimp that looms over Kabul, a blot of menace as children and other citizens look to the sky in hope or prayer. Presumably an observational surveillance craft, the blimp is an ironic mirror of the documentarian’s predicament—a totem that reminds everyone who sees it of the West’s influence on their lives. Longley is aware that his camera serves a similar function, and it’s admirable that he’s able to achieve an intimate portrait of a nation terminally anxious about who will see fit to rule it next.
Director: James Longley Distributor: Grasshopper Film Running Time: 117 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
Review: Mike Wallace Is Here Honors a Legend by Arguing with Him
Much like its subject, Avi Belkin’s documentary knows how to start an argument.3
Much like its subject, Mike Wallace Is Here knows how to start an argument. Avi Belkin’s archival documentary begins with the legendary broadcaster (who died in 2012) interviewing Bill O’Reilly at the peak of the latter’s influence as a Fox News blowhard. “That is not an interview, that’s a lecture,” Wallace moans before O’Reilly calls him a “dinosaur” and then really twists the knife: “You’re the driving force behind my career,” he tells Wallace. The exchange is riveting and, in some ways, inscrutable, as both of these TV personalities are so skilled at performance it can seem impossible to know if their dialogue is in earnest or some knowing fight among titans happy to march into battle.
Though it’s almost certainly fair to say that Wallace set the stage for an era of ostentatious and increasingly dangerous “personality journalism,” the breadth and quality of Wallace’s work is rich enough to lend some tension to Belkin’s exploration of the reporter as celebrity. Assembled with a propulsive momentum from dozens of televised interviews of and by Wallace, Mike Wallace Is Here portrays its subject as a self-made man, or, as his colleague Morley Safer calls him, “an invention.” Born Myron Wallace, he adopted his broadcast name while working as a performer on radio and then television, a decision made with no shortage of anxiety due to Wallace’s self-consciousness about his acne scars from childhood.
Ironically, Wallace’s breakthrough as a broadcaster (after a series of acting and promotional gigs) came with a show that revolutionized the television interview through its intense lighting and use of invasive closeups. Clips from his show Night-Beat—the first of two Wallace-led interview programs sponsored by cigarette companies and cloaked in smoke—reveal that the media personality was already aware of the showmanship innate in his brand of journalism. He introduces the show by saying “My role is that of a reporter,” and hones his skill for unsettling his guests with obnoxious editorial comments before asking questions. (“Many people hated your husband, and you,” he once said to Eleanor Roosevelt.)
Belkin weaves Wallace’s personal story into the documentary’s parade of interviews in a manner that’s unsurprisingly superficial, glossing over his many marriages, the death of his 19-year-old son, Peter, in a mountain-climbing accident in Greece in 1962 (Wallace cites the tragedy as a pivotal moment in the creation of 60 Minutes and the revival of his career), and a suicide attempt circa 1986. In interviews where Wallace is the subject—with the likes of Barbara Walters and other 60 Minutes colleagues—he’s alternately open and evasive about these flashpoints in his life, often demonstrating the very behavior he has no patience for as an interviewer. Belkin shrewdly reveals Wallace’s hypocrisy through editing, cutting to, for instance, a clip of Wallace grilling Larry King about his string of failed marriages.
Mike Wallace Is Here only suffers in its treatment of the broadcaster’s time at 60 Minutes, dispensing with cleverly edited commentary in favor of a swift survey of the major news of the second half of the 20th century. These include necessary digressions, such as General William C. Westmoreland’s libel suit against a CBS Reports special that Wallace anchored accusing the Army general of falsifying the American military’s analysis of the strength of the Vietnamese army in order to keep the war in Vietnam going, and the tumultuous process of televising Wallace’s interview with the tobacco industry whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand (the subject of Michael Mann’s The Insider). But this extensive highlight reel seems to forget that the documentary is scrutinizing Wallace as it’s celebrating him.
At its nerviest, Mike Wallace Is Here uses the words of other celebrities to psychoanalyze Wallace. The film argues (and at times Wallace acknowledges) that his success is a product of his sense of shame, first about the way that he looked and then about the way that he behaved, loved, and parented. When Wallace is coy, Belkin effectively imagines a more honest response by cutting to someone else saying what he believes is true. After showing Wallace dancing around his lack of pride for a while, he cuts to Barbara Streisand talking about how “fear is the energy toward doing your best work.” In the very same interview, she calls Wallace “a son of a bitch,” and Mike Wallace Is Here is at its best when it seems to be in direct debate with this journalistic legend. The film honors Wallace best when it seems to be arguing with him.
Director: Avi Belkin Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 94 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Japan Cuts 2019: Demolition Girl, And Your Bird Can Sing, & Being Natural
Japan Cuts has established itself as the definitive Japanese film festival in the United States, thanks to the scope of its programming.
Japan Cuts has established itself as the definitive Japanese film festival in the United States, thanks to the scope of its programming. The 2019 edition is no exception, with over 30 events over 10 days, among them talks, screenings, and Q&A sessions with filmmakers as diverse as Macoto Tezka (The Legend of the Stardust Brothers) and Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo: The Iron Man), the latter of whom is this year’s recipient of the festival’s Cut Above award, which is given to a defining figure of Japan’s cinema, and will be awarded before the East Coast premiere of his latest film, the samurai action-drama Killing.
Lest you think Japan Cuts is only a showcase for genre exercises, the festival abounds in works that explore the struggles that erupt from the Japanese capitalist system, and are felt in different ways across generations. Demolition Girl, Genta Matsugami’s feature debut, is among the strongest of recent films to bluntly speak about class difference. It follows 17-year-old Cocoa (Aya Kitai), who, in the wake of her mother’s death, has decided to forgo a university education and get a job. But as her shifts at a local amusement park only pay so much, she starts to perform in adult fetish videos that see her stomping on cans, trash, and balloons.
At his best, the film taps into the heightened experience of the poorest of the people living on the edge. For one, whenever Cocoa’s father (Yota Kawase) has some money on hand, he yearns for instant satisfaction, spending it on expensive sushi. As for Cocoa, who’s isolation is emphasized through shots that see her alone in corridors, or studying late at night in her room, it’s almost as if she’s destined to fail. And, indeed, when her school finds out about the adult videos she’s been making, and just as she was beginning to realize her promise of going to a Tokyo university, her life falls apart. When confronted by friends about why she made the videos, all she can do is yell at them: “You wouldn’t understand, you’re rich, you wouldn’t know. Will you pay for my expenses?” In this moment, Kitai’s triumph is making her character’s wail against a cruel economic system feel as if it could be our own.
And Your Bird Can Sing, directed by Sho Miyake, is focused on two late-twentysomething slackers: the unnamed protagonist (Tasuku Emoto) and his roommate, Shizo (Himizu and Parasyte star Shōta Sometani). Both work crappy jobs, and they try to stay sane through copious amounts of drinking and pointed mockery of the economically fraught lot they’ve been handed in life. The protagonist’s attitude could be summed up by one early sequence, when he meets a co-worker and convinces her to go on a date, only to later miss the date, fall asleep, wake up, and decide to spend his night drinking with Shizo.
A love triangle between the roomies and one of the protagonist’s co-workers, Sachiko (Shizuka Ishibashi), brings some solace to the men’s lives. There’s redundancy to the way that Miyake frames these characters, showing their faces up close rather than the screens they peer at as they text each other, but his wide shots speak to how they all work to fill empty spaces. Miyake’s style is relaxed, almost as if his camera has absorbed everyone’s slacker vibes. Especially of note is a sequence that lingers at length on Sachiko paying for groceries while the two men in her life try to hold their laughter, saying to each other that she’s going to regret her purchase. Miyake’s gaze is empathetic, and there’s truth in his understanding that you have to sometimes laugh at your underprivilege in order to prevent yourself from screaming.
More tonally varied, and operating on a larger scale, director Tadashi Nagayama’s satirical Being Natural broaches the subject of gentrification as it immerses viewers in the daily routines of a middle-aged man, Taka (Yota Kawase), who lives in a small town in the countryside of Japan and works with his cousin, Mitsuaki (Shoichiro Tanigawa), and their friend, Sho (Tadahiro Tsuru), at a fishpond inherited from his deceased uncle. Everything starts to derail for the three men when a family arrives on the scene from Tokyo with the hopes of opening up an old-style café that will only sell natural and locally grown products. At the start of the film, the still-grieving Taka doesn’t fully understand what he has until someone tries to take it away from him, and by the end, a spectacular show of violence will see him finally realizing the nature of the economic system he’s trapped within.
The film’s style is initially sweet and mellow, with the softest of songs dotting the soundtrack. Taka plays bongos, and the sounds of the instrument are also heard throughout. At first, this sound creates a calm atmosphere that’s in sync with the bright cinematography. But as the film introduces a series of sinister twists, those bongos come to take on an almost murderous bent. The sounds of the instrument point to the encroachment of a capitalist economy on a place relatively untouched by it. In its final minutes, Being Natural takes a turn toward the supernatural, and it’s satisfying for giving the main characters the reprisal they want, but also poignant for the way it has us understand that it only occurs in the realm of fantasy. The film, in the end, acknowledges that it’s difficult to go against the system, and that to stay sane means finding a little pocket of happiness in the world and enjoying it while it lasts.
Japan Cuts runs from July 19—28.
Review: David Crosby: Remember My Name Sees a Legend Carrying On
The film captures a man haunted by his past mistakes and nearly certain that he doesn’t have the time left to begin making up for them.2.5
One gets the sense when hearing David Cosby perform that, like many naturally gifted vocalists, he was born to express himself through song, and given his tumultuous personal and professional life, the act of singing may be the only means through which Crosby can briefly maintain an equilibrium amid so much chaos. Womanizing, drug abuse, and band breakups are certainly par for the course for countless musicians, especially those who came up in the late 1960s, but Crosby is an extreme case even by those standards. It’s difficult to think of another living musician more strongly and uniformly despised by his former bandmates and collaborators and, aside from Keith Richards, another whose continued survival is more shocking in light of what he’s put his body through.
Aided by Cameron Crowe, who, as a Rolling Stone writer, interviewed Crosby various times and is on hand here to again pick the musician’s brain, A.J. Eaton’s David Crosby: Remember My Name opens with a fairly standard music-doc overview that traces Crosby’s productive early years with the Byrds and his ascent to fame with both iterations of Crosby, Stills & Nash. There’s no effort made to hide Crosby’s thorny personality or the chaos he brought to each of these early projects, but Eaton and Crowe seem initially content to butter Crosby up, joining him in waxing rhapsodic about his widespread influence and lasting importance as a musician.
The hagiographic tone slowly fades as the film moves past the perfunctory career retrospective and begins delving into the nitty-gritty details of Crosby’s bumpy road to stardom and his rapid descent into disgrace, spurred on by his decades-long battle with drug addiction. While Crosby often proves a tough nut to crack, rarely willing to linger too long on the painful moments of a life eventful enough to fill several documentaries, Crowe and Eaton eventually disarm him enough to tap into the frustrated, damaged, and regretful man hiding all those years beneath his patented walrus mustache and wispy, long hair. As Crosby discusses the petulance and rage he often unfairly directed at fellow bandmates and his mistreatment of many of his girlfriends, several of whom he got hooked on cocaine and heroin, one can sense not only the depth of his remorse and anguish, but also the resigned helplessness that little can be done in his twilight years to repair the many bridges he’s permanently scorched.
Throughout Remember My Name, archival interviews with Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, and Neil Young make it abundantly clear that Crosby has alienated each of his former bandmates to such a degree that none of them will talk to him again. Only former Byrds frontman Roger McGuinn appears in a newly recorded interview for the film, and he does so presumably only to describe how “insufferable” Crosby was as a fellow bandmate.
At nearly 80 years old, Crosby is happily married and in the midst of a creative resurgence with a string of acclaimed solo albums, but even these small joys are mitigated by his admission that he’s only touring, and thus often away from his wife, because he needs the money. During a leisurely drive with Crowe, Crosby visits his old stomping grounds in Laurel Canyon and the Sunset Strip and recounts those halcyon days when he lived with Joni Mitchell and sang his first song with Nash and Stills. But the magic of these locales has long since faded, leaving Crosby in an uncharacteristically introspective state and all too aware of how close he is to the end of his life. As he wistfully tells Crowe that he already has eight stents in his heart and will likely die in the next couple of years, the film captures a man haunted by his past mistakes and nearly certain that he doesn’t have the time left to begin making up for them.
Director: A.J. Eaton Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 95 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Cassandro, the Exotico! Shoulders the Strange Burden of Empathy
Marie Losier’s empathy, if not love, for Cassandro hinders her from examining his wounds with much depth.2.5
Queerness isn’t just about the relationship between bodies: the ones we desire, the ones that will never desire us back, the ones we wished we possessed. It’s also very much a matter of cloth, color, and adornment. Many a pop-cultural figure has manifested this queer sartorial drama, from Liberace to David Bowie, from Leigh Bowery to early Lady Gaga, from Pepper LaBeija to Shangela Laquifa Wadley. And with her new documentary, Cassandro, the Exotico!, Marie Losier introduces us to a lesser-known, yet just as subversive, purveyor of that drama: Mexican luchador Cassandro, a Universal Wrestling Association winner and former junkie with a penchant for gaudy garments.
Ridiculous stage wear is, of course, fundamentally associated with professional wrestling, but Cassandro’s textile-informed camp isn’t compensated by violent machismo or a heterosexist mise-en-scène. Instead, this exótico is unapologetic about the seamless kinship between his queerness and that of the clothes he wears. And the continuum between queer sexuality and fashion places him simultaneously as the exceptional gay figure in a supposedly macho sport, the Mexican lucha libre, and as the element that outs wrestling writ large as an already queer affair. Cassandro, né Saúl Armendáriz, is, then, a ready-made cinematic character, bearing the contradictions of his world from the inside—a world where, much like ours, heterosexual male violence is performed through patently homoerotic means.
Although skin, bones, and fabric are all—to various degrees of visible and invisible discomfort—stitched into the gendered body, the film is precisely concerned with the moment when these connections come apart at the seams. After decades of fighting for a living, Cassandro’s body is giving out. This is a moment of desperation for someone who turned to wrestling as something between religion and therapy. We see him literally hanging his flamboyant costumes to dry on a clotheslines as he speaks about retirement, about how quitting would appease his body but demolish his ego. As the film progresses, his dislocated chin, limited hand movements, and multiple head concussions will seem like the belated embodiment, if not the psychosomatic scream, of a childhood marked by molestation and sexual abuse. A history of spectacular violence catching up to years of a much less visible brutality.
Cassandro, the Exotico! is largely observational, with occasional interventions from Losier. It wouldn’t be fair to call the film hagiographic, but the director’s empathy, if not love, for her subject hinders her from examining Cassandro’s wounds with much depth. When faced with Cassandro’s misery, Losier’s response is to console him as if wanting to change the subject. She cuts one moment of candidness short, when Cassandro is addressing his fears via Skype, by telling him, “I wish I could give you a kiss.” It would have served the documentary better had Losier granted her subject the possibility to work through his pain in front of the camera.
Visually, the documentary, which is shot on 16mm film stock, recalls canonical diaristic works that expose people’s troublesome feelings in raw and unbridled fashion (think Jonas Mekas, Sadie Benning, and Su Friedrich). Which makes the juxtaposition of Losier’s visual language and her reluctance to examine Cassandro’s frailties feel particularly displeasing. Perhaps afraid that scrutiny would shatter Cassandro, Losier fails to realize that it’s precisely through such shattering that redemption can emerge, maybe even reparation.
Director: Marie Losier Screenwriter: Marie Losier, Antoine Barraud Distributor: Film Movement Running Time: 73 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
Interview: Marc Maron on Sword of Truth, WTF, and the Possibility of Change
Maron discusses modern media discourse, the communicative bridge linking his acting with his podcast, and how he likes to be directed.
Marc Maron is presently enjoying one of the most unlikely and inspiring success stories in Hollywood. Once known as a bitter “comic’s comic” who was eclipsed in success by contemporaries such as Louis C.K. and Jon Stewart, Maron has been reborn into a poster boy for empathy, starting with his blockbuster podcast, “WTF,” and continuing with roles in the hit television series Maron, Easy, and GLOW. With each role, Maron has rapidly evolved from a “comic who acts” into a first-rate character actor capable of subtly altering his charisma to fit a variety of oddballs who, like himself, struggle with self-doubt while attempting to walk a straight and sober path.
Now, with Sword of Truth, Maron makes his debut as a cinematic lead, playing Mel, a pawnshop owner who ends up on a road trip that stirs long-festering feelings of estrangement, which parallels the forms of isolation gripping a variety of other characters, and which the film’s director, Lynn Shelton, links to the reactionary myths and politics currently gripping this country. The role marks another career high point for Maron, who talked to me last week about the communicative bridge linking his acting with his podcast, how he likes to be directed, and the “mind-fuckery” currently gripping modern media discourse.
Given that you’ve previously worked with Lynn Shelton on Maron and GLOW, did you two have a kind of collaborative shorthand going into Sword of Trust?
Well, I’m generally filled with anxiety and resistance. I don’t know if there’s a shorthand, but Lynn knows how to get the best out of me and works with me pretty well. I like directors who’re hands on with me and guide me.
Do you like to receive a lot of explicit direction, or is your process more intuitive?
Well, I do what I do. I definitely welcome suggestions, because I’m certainly not going to think of all the possibilities of a scene. Most of my choices are not necessarily correct. I usually come in pretty intense and hot, and there’s subtleties that can be coaxed out with minor tweaks. And I like working like that. I wouldn’t have the confidence to assume that my take is the “right” one necessarily.
There’s a stillness to you in Sword of Trust that I’m not sure we’ve seen before.
Your weight as a performer is really felt here, especially in that scene when Mel first see Lynn’s character in his shop. I love how you enter the room from the closet, and how one can feel the emotion bubbling up in Mel.
Thanks, man. I think this is a heavy-hearted guy who’s sort of surrendered to his lot in life. He also has a certain amount invested in his own. I don’t know if it’s heartache, but he’s definitely a broken dude who’s making the best of whatever time he has left. I don’t know if the other characters are really like that. They are always in forward motion.
You also inform Mel’s appraising of objects with all these lovely emotional textures. He’s not only talking about a sword.
The guitar too. As I act more, I try to take some of the space that you’re talking about. With acting I feel that I’ve been learning on the job in a way, and over time I’ve started to explore different possibilities with owning whatever my space is, whether it’s a movie or on stage. Certainly, over decades of doing stand-up, I’ve figured out my space on a stage, but being on a set and pacing yourself and taking the time to engage with what’s around you I think makes a lot of difference in how a performance comes off. It’s about being present in an environment.
Has your ascending acting career changed how you relate to actors on your podcast?
Over the last few years, since I’ve started acting more, I’ve had more actors on. I tend to try to pull a nice acting class out of that. I think a lot of what my guests say makes sense. Once again, a lot of acting is about listening and being present. In another time in my life, I saw certain actors as mythic. Now that I’ve talked to so many of them, I’ve started to realize, not in a disappointing way, that…what’s the word I want? That these are people doing a job, all in their own way. Once you get upset with people, you realize, “Well, that’s how they’re approaching this job,” and when you get into the ring or the scene, you’re in it.
That inside knowledge gives “WTF” an edge too. For many interviewers, like myself, art-making is basically theory. But you have your feet on the ground so to speak.
I think that happens over time. I don’t think I ever set out to interview. I’ve framed what happens on my podcast as conversations, and they either go somewhere or they don’t. There’s a few points I may get hung up on, and there are places I go to fairly regularly in interviews, but I generally don’t see these conversations as question-and-answer situations. I don’t have any expectations really other than to feel a connection or to sort of be enlightened. I think those of you who have a job to interview, for an outlet, for the content and the word count and everything else, might have more restrictions. I don’t have to answer to anybody and I don’t know what I’m looking for half the time.
Yeah, and a challenge I’ve found with interviews is that one doesn’t always entirely know what is and isn’t in bounds, which can lead to an impersonal vibe. By contrast, your podcast has such an intimate layer throughout.
You have to feel that stuff out, you know I’m not necessarily intuitive about that. I’m not really in the business of sandbagging anybody.
Usually you get somebody comfortable and things come out. If people are comfortable and engaged it doesn’t really matter what they’re talking about. Audiences will say, “Oh, wow, I didn’t know that.” These conversations don’t require information, but an emotional connection. I’m so happy about that, especially considering the never-ending torrent of garbage that we have to move through every day.
I think about politics. Politics online are rarely civil, but when you get someone in person, and start slowly, and are willing to have a conversation, you can normally get farther than you might expect.
Online culture isn’t civil and there’s a momentum to everything that’s based on mind-fuckery. I know for myself—as somebody who was relatively disinterested and uninformed about the functions of government and why politics and leadership make a difference—that people are perfectly willing to volunteer their brains to these strange flashpoint reactors that trigger them emotionally. People live by these black-and-white decisions. It’s not good. We need to consider what we really know and how we know it and what we’re telling other people.
People are so empowered by garbage information that’s being related in a relatively shallow way, which doesn’t take into consideration the influence and context of the rest of our lives. It’s sort of a disaster. I try to stay away from that stuff in terms of the conversations that I’m having. I’m trying to deal with something more human and experiential. Most people are regurgitating talking points on both sides without thinking of how someone feels and how to affect change. I got an interview with Geena Davis [who stars in the new season of GLOW] coming up, about her work with her foundation and her work in this documentary about women in show business. It’s called This Changes Everything. I tell you man, when someone’s that personally invested in something they believe in, and it’s righteous, and they lay it out for you and it makes sense, that’s what heartens my belief in this possibility for change.
To change gears a bit, is it cathartic for you, as someone who’s long been in recovery, to play characters who’re either reformed or have drug issues?
Yeah, sure. Most obviously there’s the last season of Maron, where my character has a relapse, which frankly didn’t happen in real life. When you really understand the nature of addiction, and you’ve seen it from the inside, and know the powerlessness and the struggle to live a life that’s not in the throes of it—I mean, it’s such a common struggle. And what’s amazing to me is how many people don’t find a way out of that or don’t seek help. Or are ashamed of it or don’t know how to get the help. I never set out to do this, but I’m thrilled and humbled by the effect my work has on people who’re isolated by this sickness. It’s really one of the more satisfying results of the podcast: how much mail I get from people who’re struggling and who want advice, or who feel less alone from what I’ve said. The great thing about recovery, and about playing these parts, is that it gives you a context that’s very specific—a way to legitimately help people that can change their entire lives.
American Demons: Martin Bell’s Streetwise and Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell
Bell proves uncannily adept at capturing moments that seem to encapsulate a subject’s entire emotional temperature.
Decades after its original release, Martin Bell’s Streetwise remains a boldly empathetic work of vérité portraiture. Throughout the 1984 documentary, Bell, photographer Mary Ellen Mark, and journalist Cheryl McCall follow a motley group of kids on the streets of Seattle as they panhandle, dig food out of dumpsters, and prostitute themselves to much older men. These scenes are accompanied by voiceovers from the young subjects, who describe their actions with a heartbreaking casualness that communicates two almost contradictory meanings: that they’re seasoned hustlers, having bypassed childhood for an everyday form of hell, and that they’re desperate to be seen precisely as said hustlers. To show emotion is to be vulnerable, and these subjects can’t afford to be seen as weak, yet the filmmakers capture more here than the street children may have suspected. Streetwise is charged by a deep, subterranean yearning to be loved, or even merely felt.
A plot hasn’t been imposed on Streetwise, as the audience is allowed to feel the numbing monotony of life on the fringes. People swing in and out of prison, crash in and out of secret hovels, most notably an abandoned hotel, and practice their grifts, while struggling with overlapping tides of addiction and depression. We also learn, startlingly, that not all these children are homeless. Streetwise’s most famous subject, Erin Blackwell, a.k.a. “Tiny,” lives with her mother, a waitress and alcoholic who rationalizes her daughter’s prostitution as a phase and who seems to be impressed with Erin’s ability to make a few hundred dollars on a good day. It’s little wonder that Erin captured and continued to command the filmmakers’ attention for decades after filming Streetwise ended. She has a squinty yet expressive glare that suggests both a deep reservoir of pain as well as intense fierceness.
Bell, Mark, and McCall take Erin and her cohorts, most vividly a skinny boy with potential tonsillitis named DeWayne Pomeroy, at face value. Streetwise is pointedly devoid of the sermonizing that might allow audiences to comfortably distance themselves from these people, regarding them simply as elements of a civics lesson. The film forces us to confront the obviousness of these children’s circumstances, as people walk by them just as we all walk by the homeless on a daily basis. This sense of culpability informs Streetwise with an uncomfortable texture that’s familiar to documentaries concerned with poor or mentally and emotionally challenged people, so you may wonder how the filmmakers shot what we’re seeing without stepping in and helping these people. Particularly disturbing is when Erin, 13 years old at the start of filming, is seen getting into a car with an old man who’s obviously a john.
If Streetwise was just a portrait of damnation and delusion, it would be an important document. But the film is also haunting for Bell, Mark, and McCall’s attention to the transcendence than can be felt even in such extreme circumstances. After Erin has gotten into trouble, DeWayne tells her of how he will rescue her, and his attempt at gallantry is poignant as well as devastating. When DeWayne visits his father in prison, the old man lectures the boy about keeping his smoking down and laying off the hard drugs, commanding DeWayne to roll up his shirt sleeves for a track-mark inspection. As brutally sad as this confrontation is, one feels this father’s love and wonders if DeWayne, clearly a sensitive and lonely boy, can feel it too. Retrospectively, it hardly matters: DeWayne hung himself not long after this visit.
Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell, a 2016 sequel to Streetwise that’s been in the works for thirtysomething years, offers a variety of unmooring contrasts from its predecessor. Erin is no longer the slim spitfire of Streetwise, but an overweight fortysomething mother of 10 who understandably appears to always be on the verge of exhaustion, and who takes methadone in an attempt to keep her drug addictions at bay while wrangling with her children’s own skirmishes with the law. Looking at Erin now, one sees the scars and weariness left by a hard life, part of which was documented by Streetwise, and one can implicitly feel Erin’s need for atonement. Though Erin’s gotten off the streets, living in a large home with her partner, Will, and several of her children, the streets have never left her.
Formally, Tiny is much different from Streetwise. The 1984 film abounds in seamy noises and textures, with roving camerawork that seems to be uncovering a new lurid discovery every few seconds; it feels palpably dangerous, and probably inspired films such as Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho and Larry’s Clark’s Kids. Set predominantly in Erin’s home, Tiny is slower and more polished, reflecting the (comparative) stability that Erin has achieved since appearing in Streetwise. Tiny also has a fancier structure than Streetwise, with a framing device in which Erin watches footage of herself over the years, including unused outtakes from the first film, with Mary Ellen Mark. An autumnal tone seeps into the new film, which offers a kaleidoscopic portrait of the unending legacies of crime and addiction.
As in Streetwise, Bell proves uncannily adept at capturing moments that seem to encapsulate a subject’s entire emotional temperature. There are frequent shots in Tiny of Erin sleeping with a little dog close to her face, which suggest rare moments of repose for a woman who’s used to running her chaotic family like a hostage negotiator. Erin frequently calls the cops on her own children, especially the headstrong teenager Rayshon, which Bell unforgettably rhymes with footage of a younger Erin visiting two of her children in foster care. One of the foster care children, Keanna, is now a mother herself, and resents Erin for abandoning her and for continuing to struggle with drug use.
Which is to say that Tiny is as charged with turmoil as Streetwise, and Bell proves equally capable here of rendering full relationships with only a few images or seconds of running time. As in Streetwise, our sympathies are rarely overtly directed, as Tiny is somehow on every character’s contradictory wavelength at once, illustrating how difficult understanding can be to achieve, most notably in the face of disaster. Though it runs a trim 87 minutes, Tiny offers an epic and piercing portrait of a large biracial family that’s plagued by essentially every demon known to American society. Erin escaped the streets only to fashion a home that’s rife with the very issues that drove her away from her own mother. Like most people, regardless of social stature, Erin is stuck in the temporal loop of her own inherent nature.
Review: Radu Jude’s I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians
Jude’s film is a bitterly comic essay on nationalist mythologies and historical amnesia.3.5
Prime minister of Romania during most of World War II, Ion Antonescu is one of the era’s supreme villains: a virulent anti-Semite, Nazi collaborator, and authoritarian dictator whose troops murdered Jews with such velocity and enthusiasm that even Hitler was shocked by their actions. Upon ordering the forced expulsion—and, if necessary, genocide—of the Jews of Bessarabia and Bukovina, Antonescu proclaimed, “I do not care if we go down in history as Barbarians.” Radu Jude borrows that declaration, so haunting in its cruelty and disarming in its blitheness, for the title of his latest film, a bitterly comic essay on nationalist mythologies and historical amnesia that locates the seeds of Romania’s currently resurgent ethno-nationalism in the nation’s collective failure to truly confront its own past.
For while Antonescu was convicted of war crimes and sentenced to death by firing squad shortly after the war, there have been repeated attempts to rehabilitate his image in Romania since the fall of Nicolae Ceaușescu. Take Sergiu Nicolaescu’s 1994 film The Mirror, a hagiographic treatment of Antonescu’s rule that portrays the leader as a defiant protector of his people. Jude inserts a substantial clip of that film into I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians, having it play on a small TV set positioned in the exact center of the frame as we hear the off-screen voice of Jude’s protagonist, Mariana (Ioana Iacob), providing sardonic, outraged commentary on the film’s distorted presentation of Antonescu as a misunderstood hero. There’s an element of desperation in the scene: While Mariana offers an incontestable rebuttal, no one but her boyfriend (Alex Bogdan) is there to hear it. Meanwhile, The Mirror’s comforting nationalist lies are being beamed into homes all across Romania.
A headstrong theater director attempting to stage a public reenactment of the Odessa Massacre of 1941, in which Romanian troops slaughtered thousands of Ukrainian Jews, Mariana is obsessed with bringing the full weight of historical reality to her fellow countrymen. She obsessively reads histories of the period and drops quotations from philosophers and historical figures into everyday conversation. The film is consumed by lengthy, probing conversations—mostly shot by a statically mounted 16mm camera that pans back and forth to cover the actors’ movements—in which Mariana discusses art, philosophy, history, and politics with her various collaborators and friends.
Her most persistent interlocutor is Movilă (Alexandru Dabija), a local official tasked with overseeing the publicly funded production, who constantly pleads with Mariana to tone down her work’s unvarnished depiction of anti-Semitic violence. Movilă is a relativist, content in the knowledge that all memory is willfully selective, while Mariana truly believes in the power of stark historical truth. Though at times didactic and overloaded with quotations from the likes of Wittgenstein and Arendt, Jude’s dialogue nevertheless manages to feel remarkably naturalistic. That’s thanks in no small part to the powerfully unaffected performances of a cast that finds the subtle humor and neurotic character details embedded in Jude’s dense screenplay. Iacob captures Mariana’s unrelenting passion while also finding moments of vulnerability and self-doubt in the role, including moments of hesitation and anxiety borne of the fact that she’s a petite, cosmopolitan woman attempting to exert control over a large cast of rugged men, many of whom are diametrically opposed to the vision of her project.
Jude’s heavy themes are leavened by a self-effacing sense of modesty. Jude isn’t attempting to make grand pronouncements about the nature of memory and truth. Rather, I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians finds the director constantly interrogating his own perspective, questioning Mariana’s relationship to the wider public. That theme comes to a head in the film’s climactic presentation of the artist’s reenactment. Here, Jude switches from the warm dreaminess of 16mm to the harsh hyper-realism of digital video. The scene has the feel of a simple documentation of a live public event, but it isn’t clear that it’s actually any more “real” than the rest of the film. In particular, whether and to what extent the crowd of onlookers’ reactions are coached remains one of the film’s most intriguing enigmas.
Ultimately, Mariana finds herself perplexed and deflated by the public’s response to her work. One senses this reaction may be autobiographical for Jude, whose film Aferim! attempted to challenge Romanian audiences about the nation’s historical treatment of Roma people. As one of the few directors of the so-called Romanian New Wave whose work explores the country’s unsavory pre-Soviet past, Jude is swimming against the popular tide of revisionism and historical moral blindness. The anti-Semitic violence and hatred laid out in his latest is truly chilling, as is the contemporary tendency to diminish and obscure that dark past. But perhaps most disturbing of all is the idea put forth in the film’s conclusion: that one could present the truth to the public in all its brutality and horror, and it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.
Cast: Ioana Iacob, Alexandru Dabija, Alex Bogdan, Ilinca Manolache, Serban Pavlu, Ion Rizea, Claudia Ieremia Director: Radu Jude Screenwriter: Radu Jude Distributor: Big World Pictures Running Time: 140 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
Interview: Lynn Shelton on Honing Her Process for Sword of Trust
The filmmaker discusses how she wants viewers to feel like they’re paratrooping into her characters’ lives.
Lynn Shelton has amassed a formidable body of work between her eight features and countless television episodes. Her latest outing, the comic adventure Sword of Trust, represents her most topical work to date. After pawn shop owner Mel (played by Marc Maron) purchases an old sword, he gets plunged into world of conspiracy culture as the relic attracts legions of online prowlers convinced that the weapon represents proof that the Confederacy won the Civil War. The logline might be Shelton’s wildest yet, but the elements that have made her work indelible for over a decade remain intact: realistic conversations, emotional authenticity, and a commitment to multi-dimensional characters.
I chatted with Shelton on Sword of Trust’s opening day, which saw the director, writer, producer, editor, and occasional actress in great spirits. Our conversation covered her pursuit of Maron for this specific project, how she developed her unique script-development process, and why she wants viewers to feel like they’re paratrooping into her characters’ lives.
Last year on Marc Maron’s podcast, you mentioned that you liked exploring relationships between people who wouldn’t normally interact. Sword of Trust continues in that tradition for you. What keeps bringing you back to these dynamics?
Have you heard of this theory of multiple intelligences, like different types of intelligences we have? I can’t remember the names that [Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner] came up with, I think there’s eight. I know I’m not the brightest bulb on all of these scales, but one way that I think I’m pretty high is in emotional intelligence. I like to think I am, anyway. I’ve always been that close observer of human behavior. I also really love humans. I feel like the thing that makes humans human are their flaws. So, on screen, I don’t like to see people who are too smoothed out, all good or all bad. I’m interested in characters who are essentially good people, but they may be total fuck-ups and well-meaning who may sabotage themselves. Individual fucking up often happens in relation to other people. We may have a pre-determined need to connect to other people, but we’re constantly sabotaging ourselves.
Sometimes, like I said on the podcast, I’m much more interested in unlikely combinations of people because it’s not a prewritten script we’re handed. It’s not like, “This is who would be appropriate for you as a friend. This is the way you should act. This is the box we’ve already determined for you.” Any kind of out-of-the-box way of living one’s life or being surprised by a connection you feel to a human being, all those little happy accidents in life are the things I like to explore. To inspire people, not to just go through life in this sort of “this is what someone else had in mind for me, and I should follow that plan”—that feels very depressing to me. It’s more interesting to open your heart and your life up to other experiences.
To explore relationships in that way makes the everyday more interesting and exciting.
Yeah, exactly. It gives you a reason to stick around.
Having been a guest of Marc’s on his podcast twice, do you see any of his interviewer “persona” having an impact on the person you film on screen? Does training himself to listen and be present have any effect on making him a better screen partner?
Absolutely! The first time I directed Marc was on his TV show Maron, and I was so fascinated by his process. He’s raw and a really natural actor. He steps in front of the camera, and he’s looking at his scene partner and really knows how to listen and engage. A lot of that comes from sitting across from people and staring into their eyes. That’s why he’s such a good interviewer and has the top interview podcast, because he has a genuine conversation with people. And that’s all acting really is too. He also has this weird ability to let the camera and crew and other extraneous details just fade away for him, and a lot of people find all that really distracting and difficult to shut out. He doesn’t know where the camera is half the time. He said to me, “The next thing I want to do as an actor is figure out when the camera is on me.” I said, “What?! That camera’s right there!” He’s like, “I don’t see it. I’m not aware of it. I’m just in this scene with the person.” I’m like, “That is a gift, my friend. That is incredible that you’re able to not see the lights and craziness, just be in the scene.” He’s really able to do it. I think that definitely comes from that same skill set he’s drawing on.
Where does the genesis of your films occur? They usually have some kind of strong conceptual selling point or hook, but they’re often like a Trojan horse to get to deep conversations between the characters about something else.
It is, and the genesis of the vast majority of my films is an actor as a muse that I want to work with. Humpday was Mark Duplass, Outside In was his brother, Jay Duplass, this movie was Marc Maron, who I’ve been really wanting to make a movie with for three and a half years. Then there’s other things, like a territory I want to explore or an element I want to return to, like improvisation, which I haven’t done since Your Sister’s Sister. I’ve done several movies in between that have been scripted, but I wanted to allow myself a new genre. I knew I wanted to laugh because the last movie was a drama, and I was ready to laugh—and let myself really laugh by going into the outlandish and ridiculous, plot-wise. Go into some comedy-caper territory, which I’ve never let myself do before. I’ve been totally real in every moment, and this time I was like, “What if I have real characters who go to a crazy place?” I wanted to make a culturally relevant movie that didn’t make you want to slit your wrists. It referred to what was going on and some of the problematic elements of what we’re dealing with in society. We’re having this peak moment in conspiracy theories. They’ve always been around, but this is definitely where they’ve achieved a peak moment that I find very disturbing. So, it’s usually a territory I want to explore and an actor I want to work with.
How do you research or prepare to authentically treat conspiracy culture?
Well, there’s this thing called a computer and a thing called the internet, and boy, is it all in there! [laughs] We went down a rabbit hole with Mike O’Brien, my co-writer. It’s so fascinating because there’s little in-fighting. They really bonded over Pizzagate and the Twin Towers being an inside job, but then when it comes to hollow earth versus the earth is on fire, they’re at odds and frenemies for life. It’s insane, the shit you find.
How do you approach shooting improvisational dialogue? There’s a very naturalistic feel to it, but there are hardly any vocal fillers like “um” or “you know.”
Well, you get the right cast, so that really helps. I’ll tell you, you can do a lot in the editing room. You’ll see it on screen, there are these runs of incredible monologues. But if I’m cutting away to another actor for a reaction shot, it’s often because I’m slicing out an “um” or an “ah” or a little bauble. The edit room is the most redemptive place in the universe. It’s incredible what you can do and how you can carve out the right story. Especially with improvisation, it really is where the actual script is written. Our first cut—it didn’t feel fat, it was funny throughout—was two and a half hours long. I was like, “How am I going to cut out five to seven minutes, much less an hour?” And for me, a comedy has to be 90 minutes, so I knew I needed an hour out of there. It was like, “This is hysterical, this is gold, but it’s not serving the story. Ultimately, what is the story? It could be this, or it could include this, but let’s just hone it down to Mel’s emotional arc and make sure we can track it through the craziness.” We want to care about these people just enough and balance it. There was so much work in the edit room.
Sword of Trust is definitely a comedy, but the scene I found most striking was Mel explaining his history to your character, Deidre, and in such a matter-of-fact, serious fashion, in the back of the truck. Did you always intend to set off this important part of the story with such a stark tonal contrast?
No, it wasn’t. When Mike O’Brien really insisted that I be in the movie, I finally relented and thought I was going to be a random customer who came in for five seconds. But then, I realized she could be a device that helps us track Mel’s arc. I was really panicking for a long time because I couldn’t figure out how to make her funny. I can be comedic, but she wasn’t comedic. She was so desperate and tragic. Then I finally realized that I wasn’t going to worry about it. I wasn’t going to try to turn her into some kind of laughing-stock. I was just going to be what she feels like she needs to be. That was an indication that this movie is going to have that real element of heaviness to it, but it happened really organically. I wanted you to care about these people, but I didn’t realize there was going to be that much depth to one of them, so much poignant heart and humanity. That was a nice surprise.
You’ve described your writing process as being “upside-down,” where the script develops alongside the characters. How did you develop this writing style?
I never went to traditional film school. I had this long, circuitous route to get to what I’m doing. I started as a theater actor, then I went to photography and started doing experimental work, but everything as a solo artist. The most important work of the film, making the process of the acting, is obstructed at every turn by the process of making it. You’re out of order. In theater, you at least get to play a story from beginning to end and feel it out. You’re at scene 35 on the first day and like, “What’s happened before this? Where am I emotionally?” And then you’ve got to do it 40 times with the camera in different positions and act like nobody else is there. The whole thing is so hard, unless you’re Meryl Streep! But if you’re not working with Meryl Streep, what do you do as a director? I need real people on screen.
My second feature, My Effortless Brilliance, was a total experiment. I came up with these characters in my head and tried to cast them from a pretty small pool of actors. They were nothing like the characters. I realized, “What if you did it the other way? What if you had a person you wanted to work with…” That was where I started with that idea, and all I cared about was to make it feel like a documentary. I wanted you to turn the TV on and be like, “What am I watching? Am I in these people’s lives?” And people have said they’ve had that experience where they’ll turn it on in the middle of Showtime and have no idea what they’re watching but that it feels like a documentary. Which is like, “Yes! That’s what I meant.”
And then I honed it with Humpday. Once I knew I could work in that way, I upped the stakes. I’ll bring in a few lights. I had said, “No lights! Me and another camera operator with tiny cameras, a boom op, that’s it.” I eliminated the crew. But that was where I came up with that initial impulse, to make it feel really real. If the character fits the actor like a glove because it’s half them or three-quarters them and they’ve developed it with me…I want real humans.
I actually had that experience of picking up one of your movies and not missing a beat. I was late to my showtime of Your Sister’s Sister in the theater, but I didn’t feel like I was lost. Then a few years later I watched it at home from the beginning, which helped it make a little more sense. But I felt I had easily intuited what I had missed.
It’s funny because I want my movies to feel like you’re paratrooping into somebody’s life. We’re taking a little journey down the river of their life for a while, and then we leave again. I don’t like to tie things up too neatly at the end because I want you to get the sense that they’re continuing to live their lives, and who knows what’s going to happen in the future. But you just sort of paratrooped in a little bit later! [laughs]
On that note, there’s a line toward the end of the film where Jillian Bell’s character, Cynthia, takes a deep breath and says, “What a strange experience.” Is that line improvised or scripted? In a lot of ways, the line feels like it sums up where characters often net out at the end of your films.
That was all improvised! It’s all ordinary people going into crazy land, but yeah, ordinary people having weird dramas in their everyday lives. I mean, it can happen. I’ve heard stories of shit happening to random people that feel like…you couldn’t write that shit!
Review: Into the Ashes Brings Nothing New to the Country Noir Genre
Aaron Harvey is prone to pulling back from any moment that might give greater depth to his revenge tale.2
Aaron Harvey’s Into the Ashes is the latest in an increasing string of so-called country noirs set in the dilapidated backwoods of rural America, places ravaged by the opioid crisis and populated by jobless people long ago abandoned by politicians. It has little to distinguish itself, narratively or thematically, from similarly dour films, and it lets generic images of its rundown Alabama locale (rusted trucks, cramped houses, landlines in a wireless world) stand in as symbols of national decline without truly seeping into the complex social rot of the place. Its plot, of a reformed criminal forced to contend with his old gang leader over some stolen loot, is similarly superficial, hitting the typical beats of its genre.
Where Into the Ashes gets a boost is in its excellent cast of grizzled character actors, all of whom vibrantly express varying degrees of weariness and rage. Luke Grimes plays the erstwhile ne’er-do-well and ex-con Nick Brenner with the nervousness of a man who’s just learning to let go of his past and give in to hope. The man’s gruff, taciturn nature is leavened by his tender relationship with his wife, Tara (Marguerite Moreau), and he projects his faith in normalcy onto her. Nick relies so heavily on Tara for his emotional wellbeing that he anxiously calls home while on an overnight hunting trip just so he can hear her voice.
Equally human beneath a hard exterior is Nick’s father-in-law, Frank (Robert Taylor), the local sheriff whose intimidating Tom Waits-esque voice and stiff demeanor belie his fumbling, masculine attempts to welcome Nick into his family. Strongest of all, though, is Frank Grillo as Sloan, Nick’s recently paroled and vengeful boss. Grillo is at home playing big-fish-in-small-pond villains, and the actor makes the most of Sloan’s thin characterization, exuding psychopathic menace when Sloan confronts Nick in the latter’s home, drawing out every oblique threat as he circles the subject of the money that Nick stole from the crew’s last job before Sloan was sent to prison. Grillo expertly inflects even the silliest moments of sub-Tarantino dialogue with a disarming venom, such as an extended riff on pie and ice cream.
But if the actors are primed to explore the contours around a basic premise, Henry constantly pulls back from any moment that might give greater depth to his revenge tale. Women exist to be supportive and to become victims, while character-driven conversations between Nick and Frank devolve into asinine ethics debates over justifiable violence. Worst of all, there’s just no sense that the film is saying or revealing much of anything. There’s one moment where Into the Ashes achieves a touch of bleak grace akin to the work of Cormac McCarthy by skipping over the events leading to a shootout and focusing only on its grisly aftermath: bodies strewn about in puddles of blood that look like reflective pools of black ice in the pale moonlight. Then, not five minutes later, we get a flashback showing the lead-up to that carnage. As with so much else in the film, a haunting moment of elision is negated by literal representation.
Cast: Luke Grimes, Frank Grillo, Marguerite Moreau, James Badge Dale, Robert Taylor, Brady Smith, Jeff Pope, Andrea Frankle Director: Aaron Harvey Screenwriter: Aaron Harvey Distributor: RLJE Films Running Time: 97 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Sum 41’s Order in Decline Presents a Band in Total Control
Review: Radu Jude’s I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians
Review: Ed Sheeran’s No.6 Collaborations Project Feels Like Playacting
Interview: Lynn Shelton on Honing Her Process for Sword of Trust
Review: The Boys Is a Bleakly Cynical Take on the Superhero Genre
Review: In Angels Are Made of Light, a Nation Rebuilds in the Ruins of War
Review: Mike Wallace Is Here Honors a Legend by Arguing with Him
Review: The Boys Is a Bleakly Cynical Take on the Superhero Genre
Review: Season Three of GLOW Offers a Multifaceted Vision of the ‘80s
Review: Ealing Studios’s Dead of Night Horror Anthology on Kino Lorber Blu-ray
- Music4 days ago
Review: Sum 41’s Order in Decline Presents a Band in Total Control
- Film6 days ago
Review: Radu Jude’s I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians
- Music4 days ago
Review: Ed Sheeran’s No.6 Collaborations Project Feels Like Playacting
- Features7 days ago
Interview: Lynn Shelton on Honing Her Process for Sword of Trust