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: Richard Jewell Leans Into Courting Conservative Persecution Pity
Ironically, Clint Eastwood is as condescending of Jewell as the bureaucrats he despises.2.5
Marie Brenner’s 1997 Vanity Fair article “American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell” is a detailed cataloging of rushed judgements, lazy assumptions, and unforgiveable abuses of power. Richard Jewell was the security guard who spotted an Alice pack loaded with pipe bombs under a bench at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. The bombs exploded, directly killing one woman and injuring over a hundred others, but Jewell’s preemptive actions undeniably reduced the scope of atrocities. Jewell became a national hero, though a tip from a bitter former boss led the F.B.I. to aggressively investigate him as the prime suspect in the bombing. The news outlets ran with this information, leading to a “trial by media” that ruined Jewell’s life. In Richard Jewell, director Clint Eastwood uses this story as fodder for what he clearly sees as a fable of the evil of the F.B.I. and the media, who take down a righteous, implicitly conservative hero out of classist spite.
Richard Jewell is a political horror film that serves as a microcosm of the “deep state” conspiracies that the Republican Party trades in today. The media is represented here by essentially one person, a reporter named Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) who learns of Jewell’s investigation by sleeping with an F.B.I. agent, Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm), who serves as the film’s more or less singular representation of our domestic intelligence and security service. As such, the media and the F.B.I. are literally in bed together, and they see in the overweight, naïve, law-enforcement-worshipping Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) a readymade patsy.
Like most auteurs, Eastwood’s films are animated by his politics, in his case often featuring singular heroes who’re targeted by bureaucrats who know nothing of in-the-field work, but the productions are often complicated by the magnitude of his artistry. Sully takes simplistic swipes at regulations that save lives, glorifying the notion of the individual, but its most muscular scenes serve as startlingly beautiful celebrations of community, suggesting an ideal of a functional state that nearly refutes Eastwood’s own beliefs. By contrast, Richard Jewell finds the filmmaker more comfortably mining MAGA resentments. The film is rife with conservative Easter eggs. When we see Jewell’s attorney, Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), in his office, Eastwood highlights a sticker in a mirror that says “I Fear Government More Than I Fear Terrorism.” The film is dotted with guns, Confederate flags, and religious artifacts. And the real perpetrator of the bombing, Eric Randolph, a bigoted domestic terrorist who might interfere with Eastwood’s conservative reverie, is kept almost entirely off screen, reduced to a shadow.
Of course, Richard Jewell is set in the Bible Belt, and many of these details are pertinent. As Brenner’s article states, Bryant is a libertarian, and so that sticker accurately reflects his beliefs. But Eastwood and screenwriter Billy Ray rig the story so severely, in the service of courting conservative persecution pity, that even truthful details feel contextually false. Per Brenner, Jewell was a victim of many colliding interests, from the fading power of The Atlantic-Journal Constitution, which employed Scruggs, to internal clashes within the F.B.I.
In the film, the cops and journalists are desperate elitists just looking to finish a job, and their power is uncomplicatedly massive. The timing of Eastwood’s insinuation is unmistakable, suggesting that Jewell, the conservative Everyman, was railroaded by the government and the media in the same fashion as Trump, for possessing an uncouthness that offends “tastemaker” ideologies. The notion of political convictions as informed by image, particularly of culture and attractiveness, is a potentially brilliant one, and Eastwood’s portrait of liberal condescension isn’t entirely invalid, but he keeps scoring points at the expense of nuance.
In Brenner’s article, the F.B.I. is embarrassed to search the house of Jewell’s mother, Bobi (played here by Kathy Bates), where he lived. In the film, though, the officers storm the house in a smug and self-righteous fashion. Jewell was once actually in law enforcement and had many friendships and even a few girlfriends, while in the film he’s a pathetic wannabe eager to screw himself over for the sake of flattery. Sentiments that are attributed to Jewell in the article are transferred over to Bryant in the film, so to as to make the protagonist a more poignant fool. Ironically, Eastwood is as condescending of Jewell as the bureaucrats he despises. (The filmmaker also, weirdly, elides real-life details that would serve his demonization, such as the F.B.I. lying about there being a “hero bomber” profile.)
Even with Eastwood so explicitly grinding an ax, Richard Jewell has the visceral power of his other recent political fables. Eastwood refines a device from The 15:17 to Paris, surrounding an unknown, unpolished camera subject, in this case Hauser, with attractive famous actors so as to inherently express the profound difference between the ruling class—embodied to the public in the form of celebrities—and the eroding working class. This idea is particularly evocative when Hauser is paired with Hamm. Hauser is painfully vulnerable as Jewell, as there’s no distance between him and the character, no sense that he’s “acting.” And this impression of defenselessness, when matched against Hamm’s polish, is terrifying. Such juxtapositions fervently communicate Eastwood’s furies, however hypocritical they may be.
Eastwood continues to be a poet of American anxiety. The Atlanta bombing is boiled down to a series of chilling and uncanny details, from the public dancing to the “Macarena” before the explosion to the scattering of nails along the ground in the wake of the pipe bomb’s blast. When Scruggs pushes for the Jewell story to be published, her eyes glint with anger between the shadows of window shades—an intellectually absurd effect that emotionally sticks, embodying Eastwood’s conception of a national castigation as a noir conspiracy set in shadowy chambers populated by a mere few. Later, when Jewell is free of his ordeal, he weeps with Bryant in a café booth, a moment that Eastwood offers up as an embodiment of America stabilizing right before reaching a cultural breaking point. As stacked and calculating as Richard Jewell is, it’s a fascinating expression of the divided soul of a gifted and troubling artist. It’s a rattling expression of American bitterness.
Cast: Paul Walter Hauser, Sam Rockwell, Olivia Wilde, Jon Hamm, Kathy Bates, Nina Arianda, Ian Gomez Director: Clint Eastwood Screenwriter: Billy Ray Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 131 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Cunningham Obscures the Voice That It Wants to Celebrate
This colorful but remote-feeling documentary functions almost as though it were taking orders from the late Merce Cunningham.2.5
Alla Kovgan’s colorful but remote-feeling documentary about modern dance legend Merce Cunningham functions almost as though it were taking orders from the late choreographer himself. The film quotes him saying in various forms that he didn’t feel it appropriate or necessary to describe what his dances were about, and as such it feels appropriate that Cunningham leaves it to the dancing to deliver his story. But the problem with that approach is that it’s likely to leave many viewers, especially those who aren’t already dance aficionados, feeling somewhat at a remove from the subject matter.
Focusing on Cunningham’s works dating from 1942 to 1972, and his longtime collaborations with composer John Cage and other artists from Robert Rauschenberg to Andy Warhol, Kovgan balances loosely sketched biography with artistic recreation. The former sections are in some ways more engaging, as their often scratchy-looking archival footage provides at least some context for the sparse, ascetic, cold-water-flat milieu Cunningham was operating in. The latter sections, in which Kovgan stages a number of Cunningham’s pieces in settings ranging from a subway tunnel to a forest and are filmed in 3D with luscious colors, have a look-at-me showiness that cannot help but feel something like a betrayal of their source’s intentions.
Ascetic in approach but sometimes playful in execution, Cunningham in many ways functioned as the tip of the spear for avant-garde dance from the time he started producing work in the ‘40s. As related by the archival interviews played in the film, he didn’t appear to have much of a grand unifying theory behind his style. Rejecting the idea that he was some kind of modernist pioneer, he insists to one interviewer that he was simply “a dancer” and that he was really more interested in expanding the repertoire of movements available to performers by combining the techniques of ballet with what was already happening in modern dance in the postwar era. Quoting Cage in an old audio clip, Cunningham states with an emphatic flourish that “I have nothing to say and I am saying it.”
As you watch the dances staged in Cunningham, you may find it hard to argue with that perspective. In describing the reaction to one of his dances, Cunningham says with a barely concealed glee that “the audience was puzzled.” After a performance in Paris, food was hurled at the dancers (Cunningham joked that he looked at the tomato on the stage and wished it were an apple: “I was hungry”). Confusion about the lack of an underlying story or intent to deliver a singular emotion is understandable. Making less sense is the dismissal noted in the documentary of many of Cunningham’s pieces as “cold” and “passionless” (a charge that’s leveled at boundary-pushing art to this day). The pieces staged here by Kovgan are indeed sometimes airy and insubstantial or gangly and jagged. But just as often they’re lush and buoyant, like in “Summerspace,” in which the dancers’ fluid pivots spill over with a joy that is heightened by the bright spotted costumes and Rauschenberg backdrop.
In some of those segments, it’s hard not to feel as if Kovgan is aiming for a big splash that could introduce the rarely seen work of an oft-cited avant-garde pioneer to a wide audience, as Wim Wenders aimed to do with Pina. But unlike that 3D extravaganza, with its cunning staging and breathtaking moves, Cunningham is simply working from less accessible source material. Even when Cunningham’s work is less abstracted, such as that bouncy floating maneuver that is something of a signature, it doesn’t exactly catch one’s attention.
Time and again in the film, we hear or see Cunningham reiterate his principle that the dances aren’t intended to reference anything. Interpretation is up to the audience, he said. In this way, he isn’t far from the take-it-or-leave-it sensibility of Warhol, whose silver balloons he incorporated into one piece. But by amplifying Cunningham’s dances with sun-dappled backdrops and 3D gimmickry, Kovgan deviates from their creator’s principle in a way that almost seems to betray their original intent. By taking so much focus away from the dancers, the film’s stagings come close to obscuring the voice it’s trying to celebrate.
Director: Alla Kovgan Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 93 min Rating: PG Year: 2019
Review: The Two Popes Carefully and Dubiously Toes a Party Line
There isn’t anything in the bleeding-heart positions espoused by Jorge Bergoglio that complicates Pope Francis’s public persona.1.5
Fernando Meirelles’s The Two Popes is quick to acknowledge that Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) is a humble man of the people. The film opens with a scene that fades in on Bergoglio, recently anointed Pope Francis, as he attempts to order a plane ticket over the phone. Assuming she’s being pranked when the caller gives his name and address, the Italian operator hangs up on the generously bemused head of the Catholic Church. After centuries of pomp, the scene suggests, the world’s Catholics were unprepared for a genuine article like Francis, a corrective to an episcopal hierarchy that had drifted too far away from the people. So goes the thesis of The Two Popes, reiterated in a number of subsequent scenes: Unlike previous generations of pontiffs, Francis engages with the actual state of the world, watches soccer, listens to pop music, and speaks to economic inequality.
This brief prologue’s slight humor and documentary-style presentation give an accurate idea of where the film is headed, both thematically and formally. Throughout, Meirelles embellishes the screenplay’s often dry conversations with pseudo-improvised camerawork—unsteady framing, sudden tilts, and emphatic snap zooms—familiar from his prior films, most notably City of God and The Constant Gardner. But what seemed, in the early aughts, fresh and well-suited to gangster movies and spy thrillers, feels dated and out of place in a film that amounts to two powerful octogenarians having a series of conversations. By abruptly adjusting the lens’s focal length at almost arbitrary moments, Meirelles transparently attempts to add dynamism to a film in which powerful actors are stuck reciting staid, safe dialogue.
The hagiographic Two Popes shuffles through moments in Bergoglio’s life. Some scenes are set in Argentina in the 1970s, a tumultuous time for the country, but the film mainly focuses on the development of Bergoglio’s relationship with Joseph Ratzinger (Anthony Hopkins), Pope Benedict XVI, during the early 21st century. Flashing back to eight years before the prologue, the camera travels through the narrow alleys of Buenos Aires, arriving at an outdoor sermon that Bergoglio is delivering. Unattached to the air of benevolent superiority Catholic priests are expected to exude, Bergoglio tangentially speaks of his support for the San Lorenzo soccer team, at which revelation his congregation feels comfortable booing their diocese’s bishop.
Meanwhile, John Paul II has died, and as a cardinal, Bergoglio must return to Rome to help elect a new pope. There he encounters Ratzinger, at the time a conservative Bavarian cardinal who haughtily insists on speaking to Bergoglio in Latin when they meet in a Vatican bathroom, and who turns up his nose when the Argentinian begins humming ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” to himself while washing his hands. The inclusion of an ABBA song makes for a lighter tone that The Two Popes will unevenly revive at various moments across its running time; the film will transition between scenes using out-of-place lounge jazz and ‘60s pop, then abruptly drop the levity for dialogic lessons on the state of Catholic theology.
The dogmatic Ratzinger’s election as pope later that year would signal an end to years of liberalization within the Catholic Church, a back-to-basics gesture that ultimately failed. His short reign would be dominated by controversy, as members of his inner circle were indicted for financial crimes and a long-brewing scandal over church cover-ups of sexual abuse came to the fore. Meirelles handles this historical context through aural and visual montages of archival news reports, which fill the gap as the story fast-forwards to a moment in 2012 when Pope Benedict calls Bergoglio, his unofficial rival from the church’s liberal wing, back to Rome.
Benedict aims to convince the bishop not to resign, as it would look to the outside world—as Benedict professes it does to him—that the liberal Bergoglio is renouncing his cardinalship in protest. Strolling through the lush gardens of the Vatican, or speaking in low, strained voices in its resplendent halls, the two debate their opposing theological and political philosophies. A mutual respect develops between them, with Benedict gradually opening himself to the outside world from which he has stayed aloof; one scene has Bergoglio teaching him about the Beatles, and in another the Argentine convinces the stiff German to try out the tango.
That’s all very cute, surely, but it’s also evidence that, despite courting a gritty reality effect with its documentary-inspired aesthetic, The Two Popes is carefully toeing a party line rather than exposing any hidden truths. Though it includes (rather hammy) flashbacks to Bergoglio’s morally ambiguous interactions with the Argentinian military dictatorship of the ‘70s, there isn’t anything in the bleeding-heart positions espoused by Bergoglio that complicates Pope Francis’s public persona. For his part, Ratzinger comes off as the best version of the man one could imagine, given the turmoil that marked his tenure: old-fashioned but authentic, perhaps just a bit too aged and attached to the institution to weed out its excesses.
As, in scene after scene, the heads of the world’s most powerful religious institution neatly summarize their philosophies to one another, the viewer may sense a misdirect: What happened to the corruption? Where are the meetings about how to handle the child-abuse scandals? Such issues, which presumably would have been the subject of many a Vatican City discussion, turn out to be little more than background material to the individualized and sentimentalized story of two men with differing views becoming friends. Even when they do come up, our attention is directed elsewhere. The flashbacks to Bergoglio’s spotted past begin soon after the sexual abuse scandals are first mentioned, redirecting our piqued concern with institutional sins toward the drama of an individual man’s fateful misjudgment.
The second time the pair’s conversations drift toward the simmering abuse scandal, Meirelles actually drowns out the dialogue with a high-pitched whine on the soundtrack, and for no discernable story reason. It’s as if Bergoglio’s hearing has been impaired by the explosive truth. The moment feels less like the filmmakers protecting us from a truth too awful to hear, and much more like them shielding us from one too dangerous to be heard.
Cast: Jonathan Pryce, Anthony Hopkins, Juan Minujín, Sidney Cole, Thomas D. Williams, Federico Torre, Pablo Trimarchi Director: Fernando Meirelles Screenwriter: Anthony McCarten Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 125 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Review: Empty Metal Grapples with the Efficacy of Activist Violence
The film is greater in its confrontational force than the sum of a dozen festival breakthroughs lauded for their fearlessness.3
The idea that violence can be an effective or even necessary form of activism is one of the last remaining taboos in a contemporary discourse that holds civil debate up as the highest virtue. Empty Metal, meanwhile, reaffirms independent, artist-made cinema as a natural arena for wading through these kinds of uncomfortable notions. Greater in its confrontational force than the sum of a dozen festival breakthroughs lauded for their fearlessness, and certainly more potent than Todd Phillips’s Joker, it takes on the ambitious and possibly risky task of exploring what activist violence means in the context of a modern world where ambient forms of hostility—militarized police aggression (specifically toward people of color), mass surveillance and ongoing, never-ending wars—subtly dictate our lives.
Collaborating for the first time on what constitutes for both of them a narrative feature debut, Adam Khalil and Bayley Sweitzer have fashioned a topical lightning rod with Empty Metal, though not in a manner that suggests willful provocation. Assembled on a meager budget with friends, family, and members of the filmmakers’ extended artistic circles, the film progresses with an untamed energy and disregard for convention that suggest the manifestation of creative impulses feeding, unchecked, off one another. Juggling multiple intersecting storylines with passages of visual lyricism and diegesis-breaking reminders of contemporary injustices, Empty Metal offers an anarchic collage that careens between narrative storytelling (Sweitzer’s background) and documentary and video-art instincts (Khalil’s backgrounds).
Central to the story of Empty Metal are Rose (indie noise musician Rose Mori, a.k.a. PVSSYHEAVEN), Pam (Sam Richardson), and Devon (Austin Sley Julian), a trio of disaffected electro-punk rockers gigging around Brooklyn under the moniker of Alien. But to call them protagonists undercuts the degree to which Khalil and Sweitzer frame them less as independently motivated agents than as ciphers ushered along a path over which they appear to exert little control. More instrumental to the film’s evolution are the clairvoyant, vaguely ethereal figures—a Rastafarian chef listed in the credits as King Alpha (Oba), an older indigenous woman (Irma LaGuerre), and several of their younger accomplices—who watch over the trio and ultimately size them up as eligible candidates for a criminal plot.
Rose, Pam, and Devon are to assassinate three infamous white cops who’ve gotten away with murder, then go off the grid. Neither the names of the targets nor their specific infractions are clarified, though the connections to real-life analogues are made more or less self-evident in the series of crude 3D renderings of police violence that are periodically inserted into the middle of scenes. On the eve of a domestic Alien tour, Rose is approached at the band van by a member of King Alpha’s clan, who leans into the would-be rebel to impart a telepathic message paraphrased, as with a number of the film’s longer monologues, from William S. Burroughs’s novel The Place of Dead Roads: “I will teach you to dissociate gun, arm, and eye.”
Intuitively reading between the lines, Rose promptly loses interest in the tour and recruits, with little resistance, her bandmates to the cause. This sequence of events, along with anything else having to do with the transition of these hitherto merely frustrated musicians to insurrectionary vigilantes, hardly stands up to dramatic scrutiny, due in equal parts to Mori, Richardson, and Julian’s stilted line deliveries and the insufficient time their characters are afforded in the editing to acquire anything like psychological plausibility.
Nonetheless, there’s something of a poetic logic to the characters’ transformations, an unnerving illustration of the idea that the gap between ambient frustration and radicalism is but a short cognitive leap. There’s also a sense of fatalism that hangs over the proceedings, of an inexorable historical duty that can’t or shouldn’t be resisted. In an ominous sequence of self-actualization, Rose recites the names of historical dissidents from Ulrike Meinhof to Osama bin Laden with a mix of clinical dispassion and reverence as archival footage and animated representations of their violent acts fill the screen.
By contrast, Khalil and Sweitzer stage a lighter scene around the mid-forest meeting of King Alpha, LaGuerre’s character, and a European monk (Pawel Wojtasik) previously seen only in excerpts of a de-contextualized courtroom taping. Here, it’s casually implied that the three characters—who suddenly claim to have last seen each other at either the “L.A. riots” or Wounded Knee—are merely the corporeal containers of activist spirits who weave through the centuries, cyclically reuniting to nudge willing souls toward more proactive forms of rebellion.
Taking its title from a description of drones given by Rose in voiceover, Empty Metal questions if perhaps these transhistorical agitators have met a new and unconquerable challenger in the surveillance state, armed as it is with high-tech weaponry and vast intel on its populace. Certainly, the right-wing militia shown in another chilling subplot offers no compelling resistance to this monolithic force, even as they stash up on firearms and embark on austere training. The figurehead of this self-determined group (Jon Nandor) happens to be the son of Wojtasik’s monk, and it’s a quiet dinner table scene between the two of them that stands out among all the jarring associative edits and flicker-frame embellishments as one of the film’s strongest effects. As the father dismantles his son’s second amendment convictions, he’s left unable to contemplate an adequate alternative, and it’s telling that even a sage, potentially immortal mystic seems perplexed by our current predicament.
Cast: Rose Mori, Austin Sley Julian, Sam Richardson, Oba, Irma LaGuerre, Pawel Wojtasik, Jon Nandor Director: Adam Khalil, Bayley Sweitzer Screenwriter: Adam Khalil, Bayley Sweitzer Distributor: Factory 25 Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Beniamino Barrese’s The Disappearance of My Mother
It’s fascinating to see Benedetta Barzini in academic action, like an ethnographer of the patriarchy herself.3
Domestic ethnography typically sees a filmmaking member of a family turning the camera inward to investigate, or rewrite, a family’s history. This means that the filmmaker in question can occupy the inconvenient position of unearthing the ancient dirt on top of which the family is founded. In The Disappearance of My Mother, director Beniamino Barrese is less interested in wrestling with the maternal function in the drama of a household than in the mother’s status as his muse. The film is a love letter to the filmmaker’s mother, Benedetta Barzini, a 76-year-old former supermodel and the first Italian woman to grace the cover of American Vogue, now a feminist fashion studies lecturer in Milan. The constellation of the family is rendered useless here, as what matters to Barrese is the love affair between mother and son, forever mediated by the camera lens.
The tragedy here isn’t to be found in the regrettable actions of yore or the repressed feelings that both constitute and undermine a home, but in the unfairness of time. The film seems to say that a mother must age, a mother must die, and some of them may even want to. And it seemingly recognizes something tragic in an external world that’s obsessed with all of the things Barzini doesn’t value, despite having been a fashion industry commodity in the 1960s: beauty, youth, luxury, and cleanliness (she hardly ever showers or changes her bedsheets).
Barzini’s feminist stance appears as her most consistent motif in old interviews, in the strangely theatrical way she used to pose with garments in fashion shoots, and in her present-day statements captured in the film, both verbal and sartorial (she shows up to receive an award in her stay-at-home clothes). She is, from the beginning of her career, vocally aware that the femininity she’s paid to display is a playful one, removed from her actual self, which is itself, Barzini argues, unphotographable. She knows the existence, and persistence, of beauty stereotypes caging women to be due to the fact that men invent women through a series of prescriptions. And that they thus invent them as Jessica Rabbits, she argues at one point, wondering out loud whether it may not be best if women’s bodies disappeared altogether.
It’s fascinating to see Barzini in academic action, like an ethnographer of the patriarchy herself, bringing back news from its most glamourous yet rotten core. She lectures young college girls about the symbolic relationship between fashion, youth, and man’s fear of death, holding magazine ads in her hands as irrefutable evidence. She asks them questions like “What does ‘old age’ mean?,” “Why do imperfections bother people?,” and “What is the point of continuing to sell our bodies without any quality or talent?” These moments of pedagogical passion occur when Barzini’s presence is allowed to take over the frame precisely because the filmmaking son fades into the background. And they’re in striking contrast to Barrese’s instances of shoving the camera into his mother’s reluctant face.
That stance, though in line with some sort of undying teenage streak, reveals a misguided desire to force his mother into his cinematic paradigm. Although Barrese purposefully allows for a great degree of transparency, showing us his failed attempts to get his mother to change outfits for continuity’s sake, for instance, these sequences feel contrived when compared to those where the mother is allowed to perform in an uncontrolled fashion. When we hear him ask her, “Is there anything you want me to put in the wash?,” or “Mom, what bothers you so much about images?,” it’s impossible not to see the air of spontaneity as calculated artifice.
Many times, Barrese acts like a vulture taking something from his mother that she doesn’t want to give. Or does she? Barzini calls him a petit bourgeois for appreciating her articulations only inasmuch as they fit his filmic narrative. And she yells, “Put the camera down! Put it down!” He obeys her for a couple seconds but leaves the camera running, then grabs it back to continue interrogating her. And she lets him. Mother and son relations are often like this—full of theatrics, ambiguity, and teeming with seduction. Neither could afford losing the other’s love. And they both know it. Which forces Barrese to keep pushing the limits. He even shoots her when she’s asleep. Or, at least, when he thinks she is. It turns out that following mom is a habit from childhood. And ever since then she’s been protesting his advances. “I want to disappear, not to appear,” she says, because “the lens is the enemy.”
In a beautiful sequence toward the end of the film, after Barzini speaks about dying and the shame of belonging to this world, so sullied by white men, Barrese asks her to spin around in her courtyard, holding her dress. She says she will get dizzy. He finally listens to her and lets her stand still, spinning with his camera around her himself. She smiles, enjoying the moment. She’s happy standing still, courted in the courtyard by her child’s contemplation. Mother eventually asks her son: “Are you done playing?” He’s not, and neither is she.
Director: Beniamino Barrese Screenwriter: Beniamino Barrese Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 94 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Interview: Eddie Redmayne on The Aeronauts and Accessing Physicality
Redmayne discusses everything from calibrating his physicality in rehearsals to cultivating his imagination on a barren set.
“I can’t believe you wrote your dissertation on Les Misérables,” Eddie Redmayne says in a complete non sequitur midway through our conversation. I had a feeling it might come up at some point, so I had to lead with telling him that he featured prominently in the video essay portion of my senior thesis on how Tom Hooper’s 2012 film adaptation collapsed boundaries between stage and screen. As legend has it, Redmayne made a suggestion in post-production that led to the film’s close-up-heavy editing, a choice which sparked intense discussion around the aesthetics of the musical genre.
The episode captures something about Redmayne that sets him apart from other actors who operate in a similarly demonstrative, showy register. He’s genuinely thoughtful about the full cycle of how a performance gets created and transmitted to audiences, in everything from the rehearsal process to the editing bay. After winning an Academy Award for 2014’s The Theory of Everything and another nomination for 2015’s The Danish Girl, Redmayne took a turn toward blockbuster fare with two outings playing Newt Scamander in the Fantastic Beasts series. But now he’s back to the period dramas that made his name with The Aeronauts, an old-fashioned movie adventure that reunites him with his The Theory of Everything co-star, Felicity Jones. As scientist James Glaisher and pilot Amelia Wren, Redmayne and Jones, respectively, spends the majority of the film confined to the tight space of a gas balloon’s basket as they rise to 37,000 feet in the air in an attempt to make meteorological breakthroughs in 1860s Britain.
Redmayne’s role is a fitting lens to discuss not only The Aeronauts, but also his recent career. His craft is just as much a science as it is an art. Our conversation got into the weeds of technical details as he discussed everything from calibrating his physicality in rehearsals to cultivating his imagination on a barren set. But, first, we had to discuss Les Misérables, given the pivotal role his behind-the-scenes behavior played in my academic career.
During post-production on Les Misérables, I read that while in the editing room you encouraged Tom Hooper to hold longer on the close-up of Anne Hathaway during “I Dreamed A Dream,” setting into motion the film relying on them so heavily.
Because of the way that Les Mis was shot with live singing, you couldn’t get between different tracks because of the variation. What Tom did was make sure that you could always have the whole scene cut from one setup: a wide, a mid, [and a close-up]. There were three cameras on at the same time. He was editing the film, and the studio had put out a trailer they edited themselves that was more of the close-up. Tom and I had a discussion, and I think I mentioned that it could hold. What I find so interesting is that everyone has a specific opinion on Les Mis, whether it worked—and, of course, the close-ups are something people bring up a lot. But the live singing process dictated the way it was shot. We couldn’t shoot outside a lot because, when you shoot outside, the voice disappears. So, we had to build the barricades in a studio.
What you did with Les Misérables speaks to just how much a performance gets remade in the editing room. Are you still actively involved in that final step of the process?
What’s weird about making films is you create so much of it in a vacuum. It’s not like theater, where actors get together for months and work things out. Often you meet the person playing your mother or father two hours before [shooting]. Often you don’t know the director, meeting them a day before you start working with them. You have an idea of what the character’s arc is, and, of course, part of the joy of making films is giving over that. You put that down and hope the director observes that. But a director can often observe something different that’s more interesting! What I like to do, and I’ve been lucky enough to do, is make work and, if I’m allowed into the editing process, have a dialogue with that director. Provided you know they see what you intended, whether they use that or not is obviously their choice.
I do find that dynamic really interesting, and I’ve been lucky enough with James Marsh on The Theory of Everything, Tom Hooper, and [director] Tom Harper and [screenwriter] Jack Thorne on this. Felicity and I worked together with Jack and Tom for a couple of months beforehand working through the intricacies of the script, and Tom allowed us that bit because it’s so intimate between the two of us, almost like [working on a play] with the writer and director. He allowed us the intimacy in the process the whole way through. The reason I do it is because, as an actor, you’re never happy with what ends up in the finished product. But while you can still shift and change things, I enjoy being a part of that process.
As someone who came up through theater, where you have so much less mediation between your performance and how an audience receives it, have you found comfort in the editing process?
It was a massive adjustment because I got into acting through theater. For many years, I couldn’t get cast in TV or film because I was playing to the back of the stalls in my audition. When I did start working, it’s all been a massive learning curve.
How do you approach acting out of sequence? In both The Aeronauts and The Theory of Everything, you’re tasked with building a full and continuous character arc, but that seems tough you’re stopping and restarting.
Quite often, directors will try and keep as much in chronology as possible. A lot of the stuff we did in the basket in The Aeronauts was shot chronologically. It’s the other bits that aren’t. What you have to do is see how the director is filming it, what their process is and work out what’s best for you. For example, on The Theory of Everything, all the exteriors we were shooting in the first two days in Cambridge when all the students weren’t there. That meant that any time Stephen was outside in the entire film, we were shooting in the first two days. Which meant we had to do all different physicalities at different moments of his life in the first two days. Which meant [I] had to be able to access those different physicalities very quickly, which in itself dictated the process. I wasn’t going to spend hours getting into the zone, I have to slot into these. For me, I said, I need months to rehearse, and I need to rehearse the movement like a dance so that [I] can access it quite quickly. It’s all about the stuff you do beforehand so you’re ready when you’re working the other actor to be completely free.
You shot some of The Aeronauts outdoors in the gas balloon and then some on a soundstage against a blue screen. How did you all work to keep the authenticity consistent in your performances?
We were lucky that the first thing we shot was the real stuff. We went up in the real balloon—we had this accident, it was really terrifying—and the notion of the stakes were weirdly embedded with us from day one. Ultimately, it always feels horrendously fake when you’re in a giant basket surrounded by blue screens, but they did things like [freezing] the studio for our breath. We were shooting in the summer in the U.K., and then you had cast and crew in jackets because we were in a giant refrigerator. They also gave us freezing buckets with ice to plunge our hands into beforehand. The director really gave us everything he could to make it feel [right]. Because they had gone up in helicopters and shot the skyscapes beforehand, they had very clever technology on an iPad that lets you look at the balloon to see where the sun was and what the weather was. They spent a long time working in pre-production about how to not make it look fake, and one of the things was that it could look real, but if your eyes are totally open, the fact that there’s blinding sunlight…of course, you can look at a big, bright light without it being a stretch. It was to learn to squint a bit [to avoid] the giveaway.
Between The Aeronauts and the Fantastic Beasts series, you’ve been doing quite a bit of acting in synthetic spaces.
That’s not a value judgment! How do you go about using your imagination to bring the surroundings to life in your head while maintaining the same specificity as if you were there?
I try and do a load of research, so even if it’s on Fantastic Beasts, it’s talking to the animators, going and looking at drawings and set designs. Trying to do all of that early so it’s not in your imagination. The other process I tried to learn from Dan Fogler, who’s in Fantastic Beasts and very free. He’ll try lots of different things, and I watched him on the first film and thought he was brilliant. It’s a mixture of doing your research, then throwing it away and trying things.
Has it gotten easier over time? Like a muscle that has to be trained and toned?
Yeah, it definitely does. For example, with Pickett [a small plant creature his character keeps as a pet] on Fantastic Beasts, I was so concerned with talking to something that’s not there and make it feel real. I would over[act]. [Reenacts staring intently at the creature on his hand] You never normally look at people when you talk to them. You can have a conversation with Pinkett on your hand and not really look at him.
You’ve mentioned that the basket became like another character in the film because you and Felicity shared such tight quarters with it. How do you make spaces feel natural for your characters to inhabit?
That is rehearsals. That’s why we did them. What I love about this film, hopefully, is that it’s this thrilling adventure on a big scale. At the same time, it’s also an intimate little drama. That space is the size of a sofa. We had weeks working of thinking how to make things visually interesting for an audience. Each time the camera comes back to it, it needs to have transformed or changed. We rehearsed on it so we could find different ways: whether it was sitting on the floor or one of us up in the hoop, different angles, getting rid of carpets or some of the tools. They add character to this battered, bruised vessel that’s been pummeled.
Does that mean you all were really working out specific shots and angles within the rehearsal process?
When we were rehearsing the scenes over and over again, Tom would have suggestions and ideas from watching with the cinematographer. One of the things he found is that, early on, if the camera was ever outside of the balloon—even centimeters out—it doesn’t feel real. Any moments that are caught inside the balloon, apart from a few moments where drones fly and take close-ups, the cinematographer was always inside the balloon. He was moving with the movement. The camera, similarly, was like another character in the piece. Because just one centimeter outside, since we can’t suspend ourselves in mid-air, felt unreal.
Do you find it liberating to work within such tight confines like the basket? Does it force you to be more precise and conscious of your movement and blocking?
Yeah, it does. Because you’re confined, the freedom is in the minutiae. You can’t be making big, bold gestures. I think the intimacy plays to its favor in some ways.
The Aeronauts has a theme of looking up for inspiration amidst troubling times. The last few films you’ve made generally have some kind of optimistic feeling about them. Is that a conscious running thread running through your filmography?
I never relate my films to each other, but what I think is interesting is that the only way I choose work is by reacting to it. So maybe there’s a sense of that [optimism]. The reason I wanted to do The Aeronauts is because I got to that last passage where Felicity’s character is standing on top of the world, and I just thought I would love to see that. I loved the idea of working with Felicity again. I loved this old-school adventure thrill to it. I felt like you’ve seen space investigated, but I hadn’t seen the sky. Sometimes, on a cold, horrendously miserable day, there’s something ecstatic about a break through the clouds. And whether you can retrain an audience who’s so used to seeing the sky from planes to make it feel like something new, all those things were curious to me. I don’t specifically go looking for optimistic pieces, although there was a period in my career when I was playing incestuous teenagers and schizophrenic psychos, so maybe I need to go talk to a therapist about that!
I know some actors like Meryl Streep or David Oyelowo, just to name two that come to mind, say that they deliberately only put work out into the world that they think can make it a better place.
That’s really interesting. I haven’t read that, but I’m probably not that…selfless. It tends to be something I just react to. There’s a weird moment when you read a script and suddenly feel a bit sick. That’s when you transfer yourself from imagining it to imagine yourself doing it. That’s the reality of the responsibility.
Review: Midnight Family Is an Intimate Look at Mexico’s Ambulance Crisis
It’s the mix of the humane and the calculating that gives the film its empathetic power.3
Director Luke Lorentzen’s Midnight Family opens with a startling statistic: In Mexico City, around 45 public ambulances serve a population of over nine million people. Picking up the pieces are private ambulances, such as the one owned and operated by the Ochoa family, whom Lorentzen follows over several nights as they pick up patients from accident sites, provide immediate medical service, and deposit them at various hospitals. Every element of this process is a negotiation, and Lorentzen captures a multitude of damning and haunting details. Following this family, Lorentzen fashions a documentary that serves as a wrenchingly intimate portrait of a country’s wide-reaching healthcare crisis.
For the Ochoas, particularly their portly paterfamilias, Fernando, and his charismatic 17-year-old son, Juan, the ambulance is firstly a business—a means of barebones survival. The Ochoa ambulance often resembles a kind of medical food truck, as it roams Mexico City looking for customers, who are, of course, individuals in pronounced danger and pain. Lorentzen vividly captures the chaos of the accident sites, including the maddening array of traffic lights and people wandering haphazardly among the twisted ruins of crushed vehicles and property. Into this chaos, Fernando, Juan, and others enter with a kind of cleansing purposefulness, though they also have to watch out for cops who are looking to shake them down for pay-offs. (The legality of private ambulances is somewhat vaguely rendered here; the Ochoas may or may not have the right paperwork, though they definitely need official license plates.)
It’s the mix of the humane and the calculating that gives Midnight Family its empathetic power. While saving lives, the Ochoas must focus on means of payment. They’re not ghouls, as we come to see that their next meal, and their ability to keep the vehicle running, depends on a night-by-night payout, which is threatened by the police as well as rival private ambulances. Since the Ochoas run a private business, patients can apparently refuse to pay them without recrimination from the government, which occurs often given the poverty of their largely uninsured clientele. Lorentzen is bracingly specific about money: One pick-up, of a teenage girl battered by her boyfriend, costs 3,800 pesos, at which her well-off mother balks.
Across Lorentzen’s documentary, viewers also learn of the equipment that the Ochoas need to pass regulations, and of the consequence that expense has on their ability to eat. In one evocative illustration of the effect of their profession on private life, we see the Ochoas at a gas station making tuna salad, which they eat on saltines. This meal occurs after an elaborate debate on whether they can afford to eat more than two tacos apiece.
Yet Lorentzen doesn’t turn the Ochoas into objects of our self-congratulatory pity. The filmmaker captures the despair as well as the adventure of such a livewire way of life, especially as the Ochoas race other ambulances. Fernando places a poignant amount of trust in young Juan, who daringly drives the ambulance, cutting off other vehicles with various improvisations of navigation. These chases are filmed by Lorentzen in a mixture of first-person and mounted-camera compositions that emphasize the limitation of a driver’s sight, establishing a sense of immediacy and danger that is far more thrilling than the standardly detached, alternating coverage of a conventional action film. In this fashion, Midnight Family sometimes brings to mind the brilliant chase sequence in James Gray’s We Own the Night.
Given the privacy of the scenes we witness in Midnight Family—moments of carnage, need, poverty, corruption, and love—the invisibility of Lorentzen’s presence comes as a mild disappointment. This project begs for an examination of how the filmmaking process informs the behavior of its subjects. This quality, or lack thereof, is especially evident when a family member of a patient is seen weeping in the front passenger seat of the Ochoa ambulance. How does she feel at being filmed at this moment of extremity? Midnight Family is a rich and textured film, but it stints on this kind of auto-critical answer.
Director: Luke Lorentzen Screenwriter: Luke Lorentzen Distributor: 1091 Media Running Time: 80 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: The Aeronauts Takes to the Skies, Without Much of a Dramatic Hook
As a suspense film, it’s so sluggishly structured that it borders on the avant-garde.1.5
Tom Harper’s The Aeronauts is such a sluggishly structured suspense film that it borders on the avant-garde. James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne), a 19th-century meteorologist, is attempting to prove that man can predict weather patterns, and he plans a hot-air balloon ride high into the Earth’s troposphere to conduct high-altitude measurements. With no available technology for breathing apparatuses or other modern safety equipment, James’s gambit is a bold one, but he hopes that by traveling so high he can use the most accurate measurements to prove his meteorological theses. Accompanying him is Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones), a daredevil aeronaut with experience flying balloons at extreme altitudes. They’re practically a study in contrasts. James, humorless and bookish, talks rapidly and in fussy detail, mostly holding conversations with himself and putting others in the position of needing to interject to get a word in edgewise. Amelia, meanwhile, is filled with a certain joie de vivre, literally arriving to the balloon launch doing acrobatics to liven up the assembled crowd.
This is the second time that Redmayne and Jones have starred in a film together, but familiarity has done little to deepen their stilted chemistry. James and Amelia don’t converse so much as recite their respective credentials at each other. This might have worked if The Aeronauts gave the characters specializations that the other lacked, yet each has similar strengths: James, the less experienced balloonist, nonetheless knows enough about piloting the craft to not need instruction, while Amelia understands enough about meteorology to not require James to dumb down his scientific jargon. As a result, the pair’s dynamic is devoid of inherent conflict, which might have distracted them from the monotony of their balloon’s ascent into cloud-studded skies, which Harper stages as if in real time.
Of course, sitting in a vehicle that slowly drifts upward as its two occupants engage in, at most, haughty disagreement makes for moribund drama, so Harper fills time with flashbacks to show how James and Amelia got to this point. Anyone who’s ever seen a historical fiction about a scientific pioneer will know what to expect of James’s backstory: repeated scenes of the man explaining his ideas to academic administrators with sideburns large enough to count as mating displays, all of them mirthfully wagging their turkey necks as they respond to James’s hypotheses with sayings like, “Hitting the sherry a bit early this morning, aren’t we, Glaisher?”
Meanwhile, across a series of frenzied, chaotically edited memories of trauma, Amelia relives the death of her husband, Pierre Rennes (Vincent Perez), in a ballooning accident. It’s a hysterically lopsided distribution of character motivation. We get a few shots of Amelia and Pierre tenderly embracing, but otherwise the dead man is a mere device, and all that she can say of him to James is that “his most enduring quality was a deep, true love for the beauty of the world,” which, as far as eulogies go, is about two steps above “He loved to laugh.”
George Steel’s cinematography, namely the way it captures the balloon’s ascent, is the film’s strong suit. Especially noteworthy is when James and Amelia break past the cloud layer and are left in direct sunlight that’s rendered with brilliant white light that washes out the frame even as it communicates the rapidly falling temperatures at that altitude. And that temperature drop becomes the first catalyst for actual drama when James lets slip that he didn’t pack a warm enough coat out of concerns for the balloon’s weight, setting up the last act’s belated decision to include some kind of suspense in order to give the film a dramatic hook.
Indeed, the film’s last hour, in which James and Amelia find themselves increasingly starved for oxygen as their balloon rises higher into atmosphere, is its most engaging. Here, a violently shivering James transforms into the reckless adventure, while Amelia becomes the more anxious and fearful of the two. As she urges caution in the face of falling oxygen levels, the mild-mannered scientist is suddenly overcome with delusions of grandeur and fame and does everything to keep them rising. The camera begins to blur at the edges to reflect the characters’ fading consciousness, while a series of desperate last-ditch efforts on Amelia’s part to save them both is mounted with real tension. Still, the film’s wonky, flashback-heavy structure puts so much emphasis on the by-the-numbers backstory of the characters that the actual drama of the balloon flight itself is muted, making the eventual turn toward chaos less of a narrative culmination than a last-minute recalibration of the film’s inert quality.
Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Phoebe Fox, Himesh Patel, Vincent Perez, Anne Reid, Tom Courtenay, Tim McInnerny, Rebecca Front Director: Tom Harper Screenwriter: Jack Thorne Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 100 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Review: Jennifer Reeder’s Knives and Skin Limply Aspires to the Lynchian
The film gets so lost in its affected idiosyncrasies that it stops probing any discernible human feelings.1.5
Something terrible has happened to Carolyn Harper (Raven Whitley). But unlike Twin Peaks and its plastic-wrapped Laura Palmer, Knives and Skin makes it immediately clear what occurred to her: She was left bleeding and without her glasses in the wilderness by a vengeful jock, Andy Kitzmiller (Ty Olwin), because she wouldn’t have sex with him. She never makes it back. This transpires near the start of the film, and what transpires after this point is a dreamy, neon-tinted vision of a town overcome less by grief than ennui.
Throughout Knives and Skin, writer-director Jennifer Reeder draws heavily from the style of David Lynch, cycling through the townsfolk and their weirdest tendencies. Carolyn’s mother, Lisa (Marika Engelhardt), insists that she can smell her daughter on Andy. Andy’s sister, Joanna (Grace Smith), sells underwear to Principal Markhum (Tony Fitzpatrick), cash only. The girl’s father, Dan (Tim Hopper), who’s cheating on his wife (Audrey Francis), is seen at one point emerging from between a waitress’s (Kate Arrington) legs while wearing clown makeup. And Grandma Kitzmiller (Marilyn Dodds Frank) pesters everyone for weed. Certain objects glow, and the girls’ choir practices a series of haunting pop song arrangements, its members whispering to each other one by one while the rest of the ensemble keeps singing.
Other than Lisa’s persistent, unfounded hopes that her daughter is still alive, Carolyn’s disappearance seems to intentionally leave little impression on anyone. Everyone is wrapped up in their own concerns and pursuits, struggling to hold down jobs or dealing with disinterested partners. They’re united only by their vaguely odd feelings and a sense of being trapped, as one boy (Robert T. Cunningham) does when he stands on the roof of the high school; he doesn’t intend to jump, he just wants to see the highway that leads somewhere else.
But in untethering itself from what happened to Carolyn Harper, Knives and Skin ends up unfocused, shambling from one moment of self-conscious weirdness to another. Its themes, like the constant and varied violations of consent going on throughout the town, get lost in favor of things like the talking tiger T-shirt and the hamburger meat lobbed at a vehicle in protest until the entire purpose of these surreal flourishes seems to melt away.
The film is intermittently striking with its heavily stylized lighting and wistful electronic score, but it creates little sense of place. The town where these people all live, which seems to be affecting them to such a profound degree, is so nondescript beyond a few anonymous landscape shots that it stops evoking a place they would want to leave because it doesn’t really seem like a place at all. Rather than explorations of individual oddness, Knives and Skin becomes a rather tedious mood piece with an ethereal atmosphere so remote, so lost in its affected idiosyncrasies that it stops probing any discernible human feelings.
Cast: Marika Engelhardt, Raven Whitley, Ty Olwin, Ireon Roach, Haley Bolithon, Aurora Real de Asua, Grace Smith, Marilyn Dodds Frank, Tim Hopper, Audrey Francis, James Vincent Meredith, Kate Arrington, Kayla Carter, Robert T. Cunningham, Alex Moss Director: Jennifer Reeder Screenwriter: Jennifer Reeder Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 111 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Interview: Jessica Hausner on Little Joe and the Ways of Being and Seeing
Hausner discusses wanting to sustain the tension of the first act of a Body Snatchers production over the course of an entire narrative.
With Little Joe, director Jessica Hausner reinvigorates an Invasion of the Body Snatchers-type premise by boldly suggesting that modern humans don’t have any identities left to lose. The true body snatcher, rather than the beautiful, manipulative red flower at the film’s center, is a corporate culture that stifles our individual thought with double-speak and other subtly constant threats to personal status.
The challenge of such a premise, then, is to reveal the private individual longings that are suppressed by cultural indoctrination without breaking the film’s restrictive formal spell—a challenge that Hausner says she solved with co-writer Géraldine Bajard during a lengthy writing session. Little Joe is so carefully structured and executed that one is encouraged to become a kind of detective, parsing chilly tracking shots and flamboyant Wes Anderson-style color schemes for signs of a character’s true emotional experience.
Ahead of the film’s theatrical release, Hausner and I discussed her obsession with boiling societies down to singular metaphorical places, a tendency that unites Little Joe with her prior features, including Amour Fou and Lourdes. We also talked about the notion of social coding and pressure, and how the filmmaker was interested in sustaining the tension of the first act of a Body Snatchers production over the course of an entire narrative. For Hausner, such tension is certainly fostered with a rigorous devotion to sound and composition, which her actors found freeing, perhaps in the ironic tradition of her own characters.
Little Joe evinces a strong understanding of that staid, subtly restrictive office culture.
I think in all my films I try to find a closed space. Sometimes it’s a company or, in Amour Fou, it’s bourgeois society. I made a film called Lourdes where it was very clear it was that place in Lourdes. I’m trying to portray the hierarchies of a society, and I think it’s easier to do that if you have one place. Then you can show who are the chefs, the people in the middle, and the ones who just have to follow. Sometimes you can even see these statures on the costumes.
The brightly colored costumes are striking in Little Joe. It seems as if they’re expressing emotions the characters aren’t allowing themselves.
Yes. Well, they don’t allow themselves, or maybe I’d put it slightly differently: No one really shows their true emotions [laughs]. We all play a role in our lives and we’re all a part of some sort of hierarchy. And no matter what kind of life we live, we’re living within a society, and we do have to obey rules most of the time. My films focus on that perspective, rather than saying, “Oh, everyone has a free choice.” My experience is that free choice is very limited even in a free world. We are very much manipulated in terms of how we should think and how we should behave. Social codes are quite strong.
One of the lovely ironies of this film is that it’s difficult to discern which enslavements are caused by the flower and which are already inherently in place via society.
Absolutely. That’s the irony about it. When we worked on the script, it wasn’t so easy to build up a storyline that suggests a change that you never really see. Over the process of scriptwriting, we decided that the validity of feelings was invisible. We also had conversations with scientists, and we considered which part of the brain was responsible for emotions.
I’m curious if any singular story element led you to this premise.
I’m a big fan of science-fiction and horror films, and I do like those Invasion of the Body Snatchers films, but only the beginnings. I like the setups, those scenes where someone says, “Oh, my uncle isn’t my uncle anymore.” I had this idea to prolong this doubt about who people really are over the whole length of a feature film. Because it’s a basic human experience: You can never really understand what another person is thinking or feeling.
I love that there’s no overt monster in Little Joe. There’s no catharsis exactly.
No, there isn’t. The catharsis takes place on a very strange level, which leads to one of the other starting elements of the film. I wanted to portray a single mother who loves her job. So, the catharsis in the end is really very much centered on Alice as she finally allows herself to focus on her work and to let her son live with the father, which is okay.
You’re right that there’s a catharsis, from the fulfillment of the final line of dialogue.
This is what’s hard to reconcile: Despite the loss of self that debatably takes place over the course of the film, Alice gets exactly what she wants and the flower does exactly what it’s supposed to do.
Yes, I’m glad to hear you say that. I do get a lot of questions about the dark, dystopian perspective, but there’s no such perspective in this film. It’s a very friendly, light ending. If we all change, perhaps it’s for the better.
I’m curious about the visual design of the flower. It seems to me that it’s both male and female at once, which I think is an achievement.
What do you mean male and female? The design?
The shape seems phallic. Yet the color scheme almost has a lingerie quality.
I think the basic idea is that it’s a male plant. I wanted that basic juxtaposition between the boy and the plant. The film suggests that it’s a male plant, but yet, of course, when the plant opens and is exhaling the pollen…well, I would say it’s a very male plant. [both laugh]
The release of the pollen, especially for the first time against the glass of the lab, does feel like an ejaculation.
Yes. That was very much a part of the idea. The plant is trying to survive.
It’s like a revenge of the sex drive.
Which parallels how the humans are repressing their sex drives. It’s a lovely reverberation. What was the collaboration with the actors like? Such a careful tone of emotional modulation is maintained throughout the film.
I enjoyed the collaboration very much. the actors understood what the film’s style was about. You do have actors sometimes who are used to the fact that the camera is working around them, but in my films it’s always the other way around. The camera is determining the image and the actor has to fit in. The actors—Emily Beecham, Ben Whishaw, Kerry Fox, and the others—were able to cope with that method very well. I remember especially Ben Whishaw even liked it, because—if you don’t feel suffocated, if you’re strong enough to fight against the style—it can be a joyful way to work. The collaboration with the actors also focused very much on the undertone of what they’re saying. A lot of scenes have a double meaning. I’m always trying to show that people normally lie. So, everything that’s said is also said because it should be said, I don’t know if you know what I mean…
Yes, social coding.
I’m trying to make the actors act in a way that makes us feel a character’s position rather than any individuality, so that we know that the characters are a part of something larger and have to say whatever they’re saying now. We try to reveal the typical codes of a society.
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