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.
Jeonju IFF 2019: Coincoin and the Extra-Humans, L. Cohen, & Introduzione all’oscuro
These are three enigmatic, challenging, and weird works of art by filmmakers pushing at the boundaries of the cinematic form.
Shortly after arriving in Jeonju, the mid-sized Korean city about 200 kilometers south of Seoul that serves as the site of the Jeonju International Film Festival, I pulled my bedraggled, jet-lagged body over to the guest center to pick up my press credentials. As I made my way through the carnivalesque open-air city block known as Jeonju Cinema Town, I found myself, to my surprise, in the midst of a rather peculiar, almost surreal scenario as a bunch of white- and black-suited stormtroopers marched in lockstep toward me, weapons at the ready, flanking none other than the Grand Imperial Poobah himself, Darth Vader.
The group maneuvered around me without incident, eager to pose for selfies with the crowd of locals assembled in the area, but after over 20 hours of travel, the encounter took on a vaguely sinister air, as if the forces of Hollywood monoculture had been dispatched to this relatively remote cinephile retreat to ensure that no one here got the wrong idea: Have fun with your cute little art films, but remember who really wields the power in the world of cinema.
I suppose these are the sorts of strange inclinations that strike you when your body’s circadian rhythms have been shaken up like a snow globe, but, despite the presence of the Walt Disney Company as one of the festival’s premier sponsors, the films I saw—personal, challenging, at times exhilarating work from all across the world—couldn’t have seemed further away from the market-tested franchises that clog American cineplexes. Having said that, it’s with some irony that one of the first films I took in at Jeonju IFF was in fact a sequel—albeit one whose eccentric sense of humor and repetitive, unresolved narrative mean it’s never going to be mistaken for the latest from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The sequel in question is Coincoin and the Extra-Humans, Bruno Dumont’s follow-up to Li’l Quinquin. One of the great left turns in the history of auteurism, Dumont’s 2014 miniseries signaled his transition from austere Bressonian miserablism to a singular brand of deadpan grotesquerie that gleefully explodes the thin line between the clever and the stupid. Dumont doesn’t vary his style too much for the sequel, as it’s another bizarre sunlit mystery set in the windswept countryside of Dumont’s native Nord-Pas-de-Calais. And Dumont has reassembled the same cast of non-professional local oddballs led by Bernard Pruvost as Commandant Van der Weyden, a twitchy, hapless police detective investigating matters way beyond his depths.
Dumont, though, still finds ways to mess with his audience’s expectations, starting with the baffling and completely inexplicable change of the title character’s name. If the earlier film felt like Dumont’s riff on popular international crime dramas like Broadchurch and The Killing, Coincoin turns out to be his spin on The X-Files, a sci-fi pod-people procedural featuring a mysterious black goo from outer space that inhabits its victims and forces them to give birth to their own uncanny clones. Like many stories about body-snatching, the series is a satire—here on provincial racism, the poor treatment of African migrants, and the rise of the French far right—but Dumont isn’t simply interested in topical point-scoring against Marine Le Pen, the anti-immigrant politician who represents Nord-Pas-de-Calais.
Rather, with its ambling, directionless narrative and lackadaisical long shots that perversely undercut the screenplay’s gags, Coincoin evokes a deep-rooted spirit of reactionary malaise, of people whose lives are hopelessly circumscribed by their own fears and prejudices. Dumont rigorously resists developing his plot or deepening his characters: They’re all trapped in an absurd loop, doomed to endlessly say the same things and reenact the same jokes.
Van der Weyden sums up that mentality in a single line: “Progress isn’t inevitable.” There’s a group of black men who periodically appear throughout the film only to be consistently and summarily dismissed in a fit of racist panic. Each time, we expect the film to create some meaningful interaction between the white townsfolk and these migrants, and each time we’re rebuffed—that is, until a final musical explosion of kumbaya-like camaraderie that’s somehow goofy, moving, tedious, and invigorating all at the same time.
Dumont is one of the few artists in cinema willing to risk exhausting his audience to induce a particular effect, but he’s not the only one, as demonstrated by James Benning’s L. Cohen, a 45-minute static shot of a seemingly unremarkable field with a mountain visible in the distance. It’s an elegantly composed frame, reminiscent of an American Regionalist painting and whose centrally located peak perhaps coyly refers to the Paramount logo.
After 20 minutes, even the most hardened cinephiles are bound to be squirming in their seat, at which point Benning reveals his remarkable trump card: As the sky quickly darkens and blackness falls over the Earth, we realize that we’ve been watching the leadup to a total solar eclipse. It’s a moment of quiet astonishment and confusion for anyone who doesn’t know it’s coming, bringing us close to the feeling a caveman might’ve had when the same event occurred. With typical mathematical precision, Benning has placed the eclipse at the exact center of the film, allowing us to explore the subtle shadows that precede and follow it.
The film, however, isn’t just some academic structuralist exercise, as it’s also a meditation on death, a fact highlighted by the next startling moment: the inclusion of Leonard Cohen’s “Love Itself” on the soundtrack, a stark divergence from the ominous drone (identified by Benning during his festival Q&A as the hum of airplanes flying overhead) that fills the rest of the film. This song and the dedication of the film to the recently deceased Cohen add a deeper layer of meaning to Benning’s precisely calibrated study of light and time.
L. Cohen is in essence a meditation on temporality. All things are fleeting, even grand interplanetary ballets. Considering the brief alignment of these celestial bodies puts one in a cosmic mood and calls to mind a cryptic, haunting line from a different Cohen song, “Stories of the Street”: “We are so small between the stars, so large against the sky.”
One could also find the specter of death looming over Introduzione all’oscuro, an expressionistic tribute to director Gastón Solnicki’s good friend, Hans Hurch, the recently departed director of the Viennale, the Vienna International Film Festival. Described by the director not as a film about Hurch, but a film for him, Introduzione all’oscuro dispenses with biography entirely, instead evoking its subject’s buoyant, ragtag spirit in an almost subliminal fashion: through music, film, and the city of Vienna. Hurch “appears” in the film primarily through his letters and through his voice, recorded by Solnicki when he provided notes on one of the director’s previous films. Solnicki does appear on screen: a comically lonely figure visiting some of Hurch’s favorite Viennese haunts—such as the Café Engländer, from which he would periodically steal cups—on a journey that drolly recalls Holly Martins’s investigation into the apparent death of his pal Harry Lime in The Third Man.
Like Solnicki’s Kékszakállú before it, Introduzione all’oscuro is what might be called “slideshow cinema”—a procession of taut, piquant compositions whose relationship to one another isn’t precisely clear but which, when taken together, create an indelible impression of a highly specific milieu. Structured more like a piece of avant-garde music than a narrative work or traditional documentary, the film has a hypnotic yet often dissonant allure. It pulls us into a strange liminal zone where Hurch seems to be simultaneously present and absent, haunting the film like a benevolent spirit. Solnicki simply has one of the best eyes in cinema today, and it’s the pungency of his images which makes the film such an endlessly compelling experience, even when the reasons behind Solnicki’s individual choices remain obscure.
Abstruseness, though, is no crime. In fact, the greatest pleasures of Jeonju IFF were to be found in grappling with “difficult” films such as Coincoin and the Extra-Humans, L. Cohen, and Introduzione all’oscuro: enigmatic, challenging, and even downright weird works of art made by filmmakers pushing at the boundaries of the cinematic form.
The Jeonju International Film Festival ran from May 2—11.
Review: As Teen Comedy, Booksmart Is Sweet and Nasty in Fine Balance
It’s an R-rated teen comedy that proves that you can center girls’ experiences without sacrificing grossness.3
An uncharitable way of describing Olivia Wilde’s feature directorial debut, Booksmart, is as a gender-flipped version of Superbad. Like Greg Mottola’s 2007 film, it concerns a pair of best friends who’ve spent their high school years as outsiders but, at the end of their senior year, decide to attend the biggest, coolest graduation party imaginable. As in Superbad, getting to the party devolves into an almost picaresque gauntlet through suburban nightlife, consisting of comical encounters with outlandish characters (both films even feature a “creepy car guy”). Booksmart and Superbad also share a ribald, R-rated sense of humor and a sex scene interrupted by vomit—even the same casting director (the venerable Allison Jones).
For all that, Wilde’s film is less a derivative of Mottola’s teen comedy than a corrective to it. Its exaggerated universe is less mean-spirited than the one depicted in Superbad, where so much of the humor depended on Jonah Hill loudly proclaiming his character’s misogyny. Booksmart isn’t above getting laughs from sex jokes that land somewhere between honest and outrageous—there’s a recurring bit about Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) masturbating with her stuffed panda doll—but it does show that teenage conversations about sex can be funny without being demeaning. And its belief in its main characters as more than just stand-ins for the most distorted beliefs that virginal high schoolers have about sex gives the film a fuller, more satisfying arc.
Amy and her best friend, Molly (Beanie Feldstein), are their elite Valley High School’s A-type-personality do-gooders, well-meaning in their ambition and their wokeness, but with streaks of haughtiness and self-righteousness. Beanie is class president, the kind of kid who pushes the school principal (Jason Sudeikis) to arrange a budget meeting with the juniors on the last day of class. In contrast to the brashly assertive Molly, Amy is meek, barely able to eke out syllables when talking to her crush, Ryan (Victoria Ruesga), but she’s also intensely woke, adorning her denim jacket with feminist-slogan patches and her car with “Elizabeth Warren 2020” bumper stickers. The pair are so close that they’re often mistaken for being a couple (Amy has been out since the 10th grade), and they definitely don’t party.
As school is letting out, Molly discovers that her and Amy’s monk-like approach to high school life has been for naught. Although the two pride themselves on respectively getting into Yale and Columbia, it seems that virtually all of their classmates have a similarly propitious future lined up. Even the horny goofball Theo (Eduardo Franco), who repeated seventh grade three times, was recruited for a six-figure job with Google. Molly adopts partying as her new project, dragging the reluctant Amy, all the more anxious because Ryan will be at the party, along with her. The problem is that, not being a part of their school’s social scene, they have no idea where the party actually is, and limited means of figuring it out.
The obliviously indefatigable Molly is a star-making role for Feldstein, who keeps let her highly dynamic character—Molly can be both very rigid and very foolhardy—from feeling inconsistent, or leading to broad caricature. As the quieter Amy, Devers’s role is mostly reactive, but, in the tumultuous climax, she supplies the film’s most poignant and relatable moments. As the omnipresent Gigi, a troubled party girl who inexplicably appears at each of the girls’ wayward stops on their journey to the party, Billie Lourd channels a chaotic energy, becoming the film’s strung-out jester. Lourd is just part of an altogether impressive ensemble that also includes Jessica Williams as the teacher who loves Amy and Molly perhaps a bit too much, and Will Forte and Lisa Kudrow as Amy’s super-Christian, super-supportive parents.
For the most part sharply written, and tighter and more consistently funny than the fragmented improv-style Superbad, Booksmart nevertheless has a couple of stretches that don’t quite land. There’s a claymated ayahuasca-tripping sequence that neither suits the rest of the film nor is followed up on in any way by the narrative. And the film’s conclusion is more than a little formally messy, with Wilde relying on a too-rapid succession of non-diegetic pop songs as emotional accents and to fast-forward the plot—at one crucial moment even drowning out the dialogue. But despite these small missteps, Booksmart feels like an innovation, an R-rated teen comedy that proves that you can center girls’ experiences without sacrificing grossness, and that you can be gross without being too mean.
Cast: Kaitlyn Dever, Beanie Feldstein, Jessica Williams, Jason Sudeikis, Billie Lourd, Diana Silvers, Mason Gooding, Skyler Gisondo, Noah Galvin, Eduardo Franco, Lisa Kudrow, Will Forte, Mike O’Brien Director: Olivia Wilde Screenwriter: Olivia Wilde Katie Silberman, Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins Distributor: Annapurna Pictures Running Time: 102 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Terminator: Dark Fate Official Trailer: Going Back to the Well with Sarah Connor
Linda Hamilton at least makes a killer impression as Sarah visits fiery justice upon Gabriel Luna’s terminator.
Today, Paramount dropped the trailer for the sixth entry in the Terminator series, Terminator: Dark Fate, which promises to deliver…more of the same? With this film, Deadpool director Tim Miller aims to give the series a reboot: by pretending that none of the films that came after Terminator 2: Judgement Day ever existed (sorry, Rise of the Machines fans), maybe even Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. “Welcome to the day after judgment day,” reads the poster, promising the badass return of Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor. And on that front, the film looks to deliver, as Hamilton certainly makes a killer impression as Sarah visits fiery justice upon Gabriel Luna’s terminator.
But based on everything else that’s on display throughout the trailer, we’re worried that there’s not anything new that a film in this series stands to bring to the table besides running and gunning, with the occasional wink thrown in for good measure. Cast in point: Mackenzie Davis stars as Grace, an “enhanced human” who looks to fill the hanger-on role to Connor that Edward Furlong’s John Connor did to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800, now apparently living in woodsy retirement, and at the ready to give sage advice. In short, we’re not impressed, and that also holds true of that cover of Björk’s “Hunter” by some zombie man singer.
Watch the official trailer below:
Paramount Pictures will release Terminator Dark Fate on November 1.
Review: Woodstock Offers a New Look at the Three Days that Defined a Generation
Throughout, the era-defining yet problem-plagued music festival astounds in large part for all the disasters that didn’t occur.3
According to Woodstock: Three Days that Defined a Generation, the 1969 Woodstock festival seemed fated to fail. But a rare convergence of good luck, good intentions, and good vibes somehow snapped into place and crystallized over a few days in August the aspirations of a counterculture about to hit its peak. The festival’s planners, mostly promoters and music-industry pros, talk off-camera throughout this gloriously gleeful documentary about their somewhat spur-of-the-moment concept in a purposefully overlapping mosaic that makes it difficult to determine who’s saying what. Their original idea was simply a big concert that would celebrate the opening of a recording studio in the bucolic artist community of Woodstock, NY and take advantage of the musicians living nearby.
That conceit ballooned into a sprawling three-day cultural amoeba of feel-good psychedelia billed as “An Aquarian Exposition” to be held in a bucolic setting. It would ideally seem, according to one organizer, “like visiting another world.” Creating that gateway to paradise, however, hit one snag after another. Conservative fears about an invasion of hippies led to much anger among locals and triggered permitting issues. Original desired stars like Bob Dylan, the Doors, and the Rolling Stones all passed on the vent. Months’ worth of construction at the original site in Wallkill, NY had to be scrapped at the last minute.
But Woodstock shows also how both lucky circumstances and in-depth planning saved the day. The lineup swelled with a killer roster of acts whom David Crosby defines simply as “everybody we thought was cool”: Jimi Hendrix, the Who, Sly and the Family Stone, Santana, Creedence Clearwater, Janis Joplin, and so on. According to writer Bob Spitz, interest grew as the organizers put the word out through the underground press, and though their top estimates of attendance topped out at 150,000, the eventual total was closer to a potentially unmanageable 400,000. Seemingly foolhardy ideas like hiring Wavy Gravy’s Hog Farm commune to handle what they termed “security” and what Wavy defined as trying to “spread grooviness,” helped the increasingly massive enterprise maintain an appealingly mellow tone. Then, a Republican dairy farmer named Max Yasgur, who just happened to have a visually gorgeous sweep of land shaped like a natural amphitheater, agreed to host the festival.
Just about everyone interviewed in Barak Goodman and Jamilia Ephron’s documentary still marvels a half-century on at the scope and tranquility of what happened, though the potential for disaster provides some dramatic grit to the narrative. Much of the festival’s harmoniousnes was a result of on-the-spot empathetic resourcefulness, from Hog Farm’s thrown-together Sunday-morning “breakfast in bed” and “freak-out” tents for people on bad acid trips to the previously resentful locals who spontaneously emptied their pantries to feed the long-haired kids who had been tromping through their front yards. The crowds were soothed by the reassuring voice of the festival announcer, whose “we”-focused addresses over the PA system strengthened the communal spirit, which is then echoed in the film’s starry-eyed reminiscences of interviewees who all sound as though they wish they could go back.
Woodstock cannot hope to supplant Michael Wadleigh’s more symphonic and experiential 1970 documentary. But conversely, its tighter, narrower focus on narrative and context ultimately tells a bigger story at roughly half the length. Co-director Goodman has shown in some of his darker work for PBS’s American Experience, like his episode about the Oklahoma City bombing, a knack for building suspense. He deploys that skill here marvelously when showing the sea of humanity converging on Yasgur’s farm, balancing a fear of impending disaster (short supplies, last-minute glitches, a crowd many times larger than the highest estimates) with the dawning realization that things might just work out.
That tightrope-walking drama is maintained through the actual concert portion of the movie. The musical highs, Hendrix’s squalling “Star-Spangled Banner” and Richie Haven’s raucous two-hour jam (filling the gap while helicopters ferried musicians in over the blocked roads), play out while the vast crowd contends with food shortages and an unexpected rainstorm. But even though the attendees rushed past the mostly unbuilt fencing and by default created what organizer John Roberts here terms “the world’s greatest three-day freebie,” he and his partners appear now happier about the instant community that metamorphosed in the mud than the fact that as a business venture the concert was “in deep shit.”
Woodstock hits many of the expected notes about the concert’s place in the nation’s cultural history. But it’s refreshingly less self-satisfied than awestruck at the simple beauty of what happened at the Woodstock festival and the utopian example it provided to the world. Though unmentioned here, the disastrous music festival that occurred four months later at Altamont Speedway, in the hills of Northern California’s East Bay, where the organizers’ callous indifference to advance planning led to chaos and multiple deaths, shows just how rare the event that occurred in Bethel across three days back in August ‘69 remains to this day.
Director: Barak Goodman, Jamila Ephron Distributor: PBS Distribution Running Time: 90 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir Is a Knotty Trip Down Memory Lane
Its stylistic fluctuations are a sign of a filmmaker really wrestling with how she became the woman and artist she is today.3.5
True to the mission of its protagonist, a well-meaning student filmmaker working on a thesis feature about a community foreign to her, writer-director Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir is engaged in a running dialogue with itself around the notion of how—and how not—to make a personal narrative. Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) is a London-based, upper-middle-class young woman coming of age in Margaret Thatcher’s England who feels a moral imperative to transpose her own experiences onto a fictional story set in working-class Sunderland, and she’s given ongoing opportunities in her film workshops to try to articulate why that is. Hogg, who based the character on her own early experiences as an artist, views Julie’s trajectory tenderly but through the lens of a greater maturity, dotting the young woman’s path with interlocutors who challenge and redirect her inclinations. Gradually, Julie’s certitude seems to fall out from under her, transforming Hogg’s film in the process.
Pivotal among these forces is Anthony (Tom Burke), a spectacularly smug older man with ambiguous professional and personal affiliations who becomes inexorably drawn to Julie, and she to him. When he first appears on screen across a table from Julie at a café, Hogg frames the scene in the kind of spacious, sophisticated master shot that defined her 2013 film Exhibition, snapping The Souvenir out of the close-up-heavy, fly-on-the-wall aesthetic with which it opens. The shift in style registers the exhilarating impact Anthony has on Julie, who is up to that point seen as a wallflower at college parties, taking photos and rolling a Bolex in the corner while bouncing in and out of conversations. Sizing up Julie’s film project with suave dismissiveness, Anthony suggests that she might heed the influence of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who were able to express personal emotions free of the constraints of realism, and later proposes that “it’s not enough to be sincere or authentic.”
Julie takes such counseling in stride even when it comes from her casually condescending professors (also men), giving her a headstrong resilience that Swinton-Byrne beautifully underplays. But Julie’s toughness doesn’t equate to stubborn pride, and soon The Souvenir turns away from its portrait of early filmmaking ambition and toward the knotty dynamics of Anthony and Julie’s strengthening relationship—itself modeled off a fling in Hogg’s past. The director orchestrates this formal shapeshift with sly subtlety, first introducing the couple’s scenes together as elliptical diversions from the central storyline, then gradually lengthening them until the sequences set in and around Julie’s film school take a backseat entirely. Now sharing an apartment, Anthony and Julie go through the growing pains of coexistence—the former posits a “Wall of Jericho” made of pillows in a reference to It Happened One Night to solve his discomfort in bed—but nonetheless find a strange harmony in their dissonant personalities, with his brutal honesty charming her and her placidity disarming him.
In Anthony’s case, however, this apparent personality yardstick proves misleading, as it turns out that he’s frank about everything but his own life. Talk of a vague government job creates an impression of a posh background belied by Anthony and Julie’s trip to visit his parents, and later, an offhand remark made by one of Anthony’s friends when he’s in the bathroom yields the startling revelation—cued by spatially disorienting mirror shots and the gentle use of Dutch angles—that Julie’s boyfriend is a heroin addict. Hogg omits the scene where Julie confronts Anthony about this revelation, but the mark it leaves on their relationship is implicitly, delicately apparent in every part of The Souvenir moving forward. The neatly organized, white-walled apartment where much of the action takes place becomes charged with tension, not only from the threat of dissident bombing that percolates outside its windows (a reality contemporaneous to the film’s early-‘80s setting), but also from Anthony’s frequent, unexplained comings and goings, which starkly contrast Julie’s more fixed physicality as she spends her time hunched over a typewriter.
The Souvenir flirts with a few conventional movie premises—the doomed romance, the spiral into the hell of drug addiction, the pursuit of self-actualization—without ever fully engaging one, which doesn’t indicate an uncertainty on Hogg’s part so much as a supreme confidence in the intricacies of her own material. Likely to some viewers’ dismay, Julie’s story isn’t one that ever comes to hinge on an a-ha moment, a sudden realization that she’s strayed from her artistic passion in her entanglement with a toxic partner. Rather, Hogg evokes both the seductive appeal of an irrational romance and the less sexy but nonetheless potent comfort of falling into the role of nurturer, a discipline shown in a few touching scenes to be inherited by Julie from her mother (Tilda Swinton). What’s more, it can’t be said that Anthony’s influence is purely deleterious, as his bouts of real vulnerability, carried off with a persuasive display of wounded pride by Burke, repeatedly push Julie toward greater sensitivity and awareness.
Perhaps ambivalent herself to Anthony’s recommendation that Julie seek inspiration from Powell and Pressburger’s work, Hogg shoots in a grainy, underlit 16mm palette that has less to do with period fetishism than with draining the sparkle from Julie’s privileged upbringing. The Souvenir is shot from a measured distance, often with the camera in rooms adjacent to the actors so that walls and other objects populate the foreground, and the resulting sense is of being simultaneously immersed in the spaces of Hogg’s early adulthood and at an intellectual remove from them, a fusion seemingly reflective of the director’s own mixed emotions in revisiting this story. In this case, however, that quality of fluctuation isn’t a deficiency but a virtue, a sign of a filmmaker really wrestling with how she became the woman and artist she is today, and the mark of a film that’s beholden to no recipe but its own.
Cast: Honor Swinton Byrne, Tom Burke, Tilda Swinton, Jack McMullen, Frankie Wilson, Richard Ayoade, Jaygann Ayeh Director: Joanna Hogg Screenwriter: Joanna Hogg Distributor: A24 Running Time: 119 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Aladdin Is a Magic Corporate Ride to Nowhere Special
Guy Ritchie’s live-action remake is content to trace the original’s narrative beats with perfunctory indifference.1
Compared to a few other recent live-action remakes of Disney’s animated films, which at least attempted to bring striking story wrinkles or an auteurist perspective to bear on their interpretations, Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin is a remake in the most literal sense. Much of the film’s first act traces the narrative beats of the 1992 animated feature, and in shot-for-shot fashion: Thieving street rat Aladdin (Mena Massoud) meets and charms the princess of his native Agrabah, Jasmine (Naomi Scott), and ultimately runs afoul of scheming grand vizier Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), before obtaining a magic lamp containing a genie (Will Smith) who has the power to transform the young pauper into a prince worthy of Jasmine’s station.
The steadfastness with which every aspect of the original is replicated by this new Aladdin makes Ritchie’s film a grueling example of the streaming-era notion of art as content. Because there’s no chemistry between Massoud and Scott, the legitimacy of Aladdin and Jasmine’s flirtations is largely sold on the basis of the viewer’s preexisting knowledge that these two will become a couple. Elsewhere, the relationship between Jafar and the Sultan (Navid Negahban) is an even paler imitation. In the original, Jafar’s viciousness was at least partially driven by his hatred of the Sultan, who issued inane commands to his grand vizier in all sorts of parodically infantile and buffoonish of ways. Here, though, the Sultan is a negligible figure, neither callous nor especially influential, thus robbing his subordinate of a compelling motive. The Jafar of this film is evil simply because he’s been designated as the story’s big bad.
If the dogged faithfulness of Ritchie’s film to the original proves consistently stultifying, it’s the most noticeable deviations that ultimately damn the remake. In an attempt to give Jasmine something to do other than be the object of men’s affections, Ritchie and co-writer John August blend the character’s traditional frustrations at being trapped behind palace walls with a newfound resentment over how her capacity to rule as sultan is thwarted by traditional gender roles. Nonetheless, her desires to lead are bluntly articulated and reflective of a broader tendency among the film’s characters to express their awareness of their own repression by tilting their heads back and staring off into the distance as they speak extemporaneously about their dreams. Poor Scott is also burdened with the film’s big new song, “Speechless,” an instantly dated empowerment anthem that suggests the sonic equivalent of that old woman’s botched restoration of the Ecce Homo fresco in Borja, Spain.
The film does come somewhat to life during its musical numbers. Though these sequences are marked by simplistic and unengaging choreography, they don’t quell the verve of Howard Ashman and Tim Rice’s original songs. Less successful is Smith, who, unable to match the intensity of Robin Williams’s performance as the Genie in the original film, leans into his signature drawling sarcasm to bring his spin on the character to life, effectively draining the Genie of everything that made him so memorably larger than life in the first place. Even when portraying some of the Genie’s more antic behavior, Smith mostly takes the path of least resistance, injecting just enough energy into his performance to hint at Williams’s memorable take on the character but without seeming as if he’s actually working up a sweat.
Elsewhere, Massoud mostly goes through the motions in establishing Aladdin as a rakish pauper, but the actor comes alive in a comic scene that sees his street urchin, newly styled as a prince by the Genie, presenting himself to the Sultan’s court. Having never been trained on any points of social graces, Aladdin can only stammer out pleasantries, using strange honorifics to refer to the Sultan as he curtsies instead of bows. Later, the Genie helps Aladdin perform an elaborate dance by controlling the young man’s body in order to wow the Sultan’s court. Impressively, Massoud manages to perform complicated steps while looking as if every movement is done against his will, giving Aladdin’s flailing motions a slapstick quality.
Such flashes of personality, though, are few and far between in this remake. Certainly there was a lot of room to bring a contemporary perspective to this material—to counter the original’s problematic representation of its Middle-Eastern milieu and deepen its characters. Instead, the film settles for telling you a joke you’ve already heard and botching the delivery.
Cast: Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott, Will Smith, Marwan Kenzari, Navid Negahban, Nasim Pedrad, Alan Tudyk, Frank Welker, Billy Magnussen Director: Guy Ritchie Screenwriter: John August, Guy Ritchie Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 128 min Rating: PG Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack
Review: Brightburn Is a Soulless Mishmash of Disparate Genre Elements
The way the film shuttles through its 90 minutes, it’s as if it’s been stripped of its most crucial narrative parts.1
Like a lot of kids squirming through puberty, Brandon Breyer (Jackson A. Dunn) is an asshole. Unlike most, however, he’s from outer space and possessed of formidable superpowers. Soon after learning of his abilities, he stalks a classmate, Caitlyn (Emmie Hunter), who consoled him in class after he was teased for his incredible smarts. Brandon makes a show of controlling Caitlyn’s laptop before appearing outside her bedroom window, eerily floating in the air. By this point in director David Yarovesky’s Brightburn, one is still optimistic that Brandon’s creeper tendencies will be the most insidious of his problems. But when Caitlyn calls him a pervert, after letting him fall to the ground during a “trust fall” exercise in gym class, Brandon crushes the bones in her hand after she’s forced to help him up. By the end of the film, Caitlyn will prove to be one of the lucky ones.
That Yarovesky and screenwriters Brian and Mark Gunn don’t exactly push the link between Brandon’s pubescence and his growing self-awareness isn’t the first sign that something is amiss here. Right out of the gate, Brightburn reveals itself unwilling to animate its characters’ emotional dramas, using visual shorthand to simply hint at them. In the opening scene, set more than 10 years in the past, the camera pans across a bookshelf full of fertility books, informing the audience that Brandon’s parents, Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle (David Denman), really want to have a baby. Later, while helping his dad with chores, Brandon accidentally throws a lawnmower halfway across the family farm. This is when he recognizes that he has superpowers, but rather than prolong the kid’s doubt across more than one scene, the film zips straight to the moment where he’s about to shove his hand into the lawn mower’s spinning blades to confirm his suspicions that he’s nothing short of invincible.
More genre films—more films, period—could stand to have a lot less fat on their bones, but the way Brightburn shuttles through its 90 minutes, it’s as if it’s been stripped even of its most crucial narrative parts. Outside of one pulpy hallucination sequence, the film stubbornly refuses to give a concrete sense of the desperation that drove Tori and Kyle to adopt Brandon, just as it can’t be bothered to give shape to the mythology of his creation—or rather, his arrival. For a spell, though, this suggests a purposeful show of evasion. Much is made of the red light that peeks out from the floorboards in the family barn and to which Brandon is drawn throughout the film. If you’re a fan of Larry Cohen’s canon, you may wonder if the kid will be revealed as a kindred spirit of the ever-glowing human-alien antagonist from God Told Me To, here to make sport of our biological urge to procreate in our increasingly decaying world.
No such luck, as Brightburn is a meaningless mishmash of disparate genre elements. The truth of what lurks beneath the floorboards turns out to be of no particular consequence—not exactly a red herring, just a bit of hogwash that confirms Brandon to be a gene splice of Damien and Superman. Maybe a sense of majesty, of mythic grandeur, might have made him feel as if he was less arbitrarily willed into being, though Yarovesky certainly conveys the weight of the kid’s killing spree. Not its existential weight, only its repugnant force. At one point, one of his victims struggles to hold up the lower part of his grotesquely shattered jaw, as Brandon pulls off the mask that he wears because, presumably, he understands that that’s what someone with superhuman powers should do. Brightburn never shows us how Brandon came to such a realization, but it does let us glimpse the stone-cold delight he takes in erasing human life—a spectacle of violence that exists for its own soulless sake.
Cast: Elizabeth Banks, David Denman, Jackson A. Dunn, Jennifer Holland, Matt Jones, Meredith Hagner, Becky Wahlstrom, Gregory Alan Williams, Steve Agee, Emmie Hunter Director: David Yarovesky Screenwriter: Brian Gunn, Mark Gunn Distributor: Screen Gems Running Time: 90 min Rating: R Year: 2019
The Nightingale Trailer: Aisling Franciosi and Sam Claflin Star in Jennifer Kent’s Follow-Up to The Babadook
Today, IFC has released the first trailer for the film, which is set during the colonization of Australia in 1825.
Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale, the Aussie filmmaker’s much-anticipated follow-up to The Babadook, premiered way back in September at the Venice Film Festival, and to mostly positive notices. Today, ahead of its U.S. theatrical release in August, IFC has released the first trailer for the film, which is set during the colonization of Australia in 1825 and follows a young Irish convict settler, Clare (played by Aisling Franciosi), who, after finishing her seven-year sentence, struggles to be free of her abusive master, Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin). According to the studio’s official description of the film:
Clare’s husband Aidan (Michael Sheasby) retaliates and she becomes the victim of a harrowing crime at the hands of the lieutenant and his cronies. When British authorities fail to deliver justice, Clare decides to pursue Hawkins, who leaves his post suddenly to secure a captaincy up north. Unable to find compatriots for her journey, she is forced to enlist the help of a young Aboriginal tracker Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) who grudgingly takes her through the rugged wilderness to track down Hawkins. The terrain and the prevailing hostilities are frightening, as fighting between the original inhabitants of the land and its colonizers plays out in what is now known as “The Black War.” Clare and Billy are hostile towards each other from the outset, both suffering their own traumas and mutual distrust, but as their journey leads them deeper into the wilderness, they must learn to find empathy for one another, while weighing the true cost of revenge.
Watch the official trailer below:
IFC Films will release The Nightingale in NY and LA on August 2.
Cannes Review: The Lighthouse Is a Hilarious and Grotesque Genre Pastiche
Robert Eggers loosens the noose of veracity just enough to allow for so much absurdism to peek through.3
Willem Dafoe farts and Robert Pattinson masturbates vigorously in Robert Eggers’s creepy and unexpectedly, if grotesquely, hilarious follow-up to The Witch. Set in 1890s New England, The Lighthouse finds Eggers again mining the past for an air of mythic portent but loosening the noose of veracity that choked his meticulously researched yet painfully self-serious debut just enough to allow for so much absurdism to peek through.
From the moment that lighthouse keepers Thomas Wake (Dafoe), an experienced old “wickie” with a shuffling gait and a hair-trigger temper, and Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson), his handlebar mustache-sporting assistant, set foot on the tiny island where they’re to spend the next four weeks, they start to get on each other’s nerves. Wake is a slave driver who’s said to have made his last assistant go crazy, and who ignores any and all regulations, while Winslow, who’s on his first assignment as a lighthouse keeper, refuses to drink and be merry with Wake, which causes its own problems. Before long, the two men kick into motion a game of one-upmanship, a raising of the stakes to see who will be the first to drive the other to madness—with flatulence and horniness among the many, many factors fueling that pursuit.
Eggers’s willingness to get goofy, and to not worry about humor defusing his narrative’s macabre horror—as in, say, the cartoonish pummeling that a devious seagull receives—makes The Lighthouse something of a breakthrough for the filmmaker. Diverging from the formula of coiled tension followed by sudden and jolting release that’s favored by so many contemporary arthouse horror films, Eggers parcels out the action in the film, steadily and methodically building toward the psychological breaking point of his characters.
Dafoe and Pattinson are crucial to selling that trajectory, ensuring that every moment here bristles with performative bluster. Dafoe’s surly former sea captain is a blowhard who’s given to sentimental reverie whenever he gets hammered, while his foil is played by Pattinson with slyly vacillating docile subservience and scheming spitefulness. The veteran character actor and dressed-down movie star play off each other exceptionally well, especially when, as is often the case in a two-hander, they have to pull-off a tricky role reversal.
Taking advantage of a bigger budget than The Witch, Eggers shot The Lighthouse on 35mm film. He’s also utilized the 1.19:1 Movietone aspect ratio, which was briefly standardized in the 1920s and is tighter than the already boxy 1.37:1 academy ratio, as a means of emphasizing his vertical compositions and the at times literally stratified relationship between his main characters. At one point, Dafoe’s old codger refuses to share lantern duty, while Winslow toils down below, swabbing decks and maintaining the dilapidated station.
Eggers successfully approximates F.W. Murnau’s stark and dynamic use of light and shadow in images that ensconce his characters in darkness and place them in geometrically unbalanced positions within the frame. But the quirkiest influence on this film is Night Tide, Curtis Harrington’s 1961 supernatural farce of a noir, which Eggers cribs from blatantly in a surreal sequence where Pattinson’s character has an erotic fantasy about a mermaid, and in a delirious body-horror montage—realized through largely practical effects—that co-opts Harrington’s hybridization of Roger Corman and Kenneth Ager’s stylings.
And like Night Tide, a send-up of beach-party movies and cheap ‘50s sci-fi, The Lighthouse aims for self-aware pastiche and pulls it off without smugness. Unlike Harrington’s film, though, it doesn’t register much affection for the forms it’s working with, and can come off like a calculated exercise. Still, Eggers’s ability to take the piss out of his inflated genre movie pastiche, without lapsing into parody, is an impressive and an entertaining feat.
Cast: Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe, Valeriia Karaman Director: Robert Eggers Screenwriter: Robert Eggers, Max Eggers Distributor: A24 Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Maryland Film Festival 2019: The Hottest August, Donbass, & American Factory
This year’s selections exhibit a scope and ambition that should continue to draw adventurous filmgoers for years to come.
Judging from the enthusiasm of the surprisingly high number of New York filmmakers and critics this writer met in Baltimore this past weekend, the Maryland Film Festival isn’t seen as a pale shadow of Big Apple filmgoing. Rather, it’s a vital supplement to it—a program that compresses many of the festival season’s essential offerings into a manageable four-day run in an easily walkable city with comparatively chill crowds.
Those who made the commute to Baltimore for the festival this year had the chance to encounter one of the more trenchant New York-set films of recent memory in Brett Story’s The Hottest August, an essayistic documentary made in the intellectually vagrant spirit of Chris Marker. Shot in August of 2017 around a principle of “organized spontaneity,” per producer Danielle Varga, the film spans New York City’s five boroughs while adhering to a nebulous, difficult-to-define but nonetheless valuable objective: to take the temperature of the times we live in and tease out the collective mood of the country’s most densely populated area.
Willfully biting off more than it can chew, The Hottest August features rich people, poor people, scientists, skateboarders, entrepreneurs, intellectuals, barflies, artists, and more waxing extemporaneous on topics including climate change, economic inequality, automation, racism, and the future. The mood is off the cuff, conversational. A pair of women in lawn chairs joke about how their street’s rat population has swelled as a result of gentrifying construction in adjacent neighborhoods. Two former cops reframe the term “racism” as “resentment” in a sports bar just moments after demanding that no politics enter the hallowed space of the drinking hole. A loft-dwelling futurist pontificates on what the tax system might look like if the country embraced robotics instead of fearing it as a job killer. Occasionally we hear the filmmaker off screen, tersely prompting her subjects with open-ended questions, but mostly this is an ensemble of eager talkers, their openness running contrary to the old chestnut about closed-off New Yorkers.
Finding form in this seemingly disconnected mass is editor Nels Bangerter, who managed a similar feat with Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson. The film drifts subtly from subject to subject, pointedly using B roll not just to evocatively provide a sense of place, but to extend someone’s thought or offer counterpoint. Three streams of information exist at once: whatever opinion is being put forth by the person on screen; whatever in-the-moment perspective Story takes on her subject’s response through the questions she asks or the camera angles she chooses; and the question of how that segment ultimately interacts with the film in its final form, where images have been invested with meaning through context.
The Hottest August is a film that’s constantly “thinking,” and that thought isn’t fixed or authoritative, but rather in flux and negotiable. Story isn’t setting out to answer any pressing political issues so much as capture the tactile sense of how those issues permeate everyday settings. Hers is a form of ambient reportage that feels very welcome in our contemporary moment, when the daily barrage of information can sometimes make it difficult to recall how one felt about something two days earlier, let alone in that turbulent August of 2017.
Similarly macro in its approach is Sergei Loznitsa’s Donbass, which adopts a sprawling, vignette-driven structure as it catalogues the miseries and grotesqueries of the eponymous eastern Ukrainian territory. A region occupied by pro-Russian paramilitary forces (specifically the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics) ever since the Ukrainian Revolution in 2014, present-day Donbass is a morass of conflicting sympathies and ideologies that Loznitsa doesn’t so much seek to clarify with this film as reflect in all its muddy complexity.
In fact, Loznitsa goes so far as to call into question the very possibility of the truth of this situation he captures on camera. Whenever reporters appear on screen, they’re portrayed as ineffectual stooges waiting to be chewed out as propaganda peddlers by their political opponents, and the film’s bookending sequences, set at the trailer park of a movie set, build toward a thesis statement on the dubiousness of contemporary reporting with its tendency to stage and reframe reality according to the mandates of whatever affiliation is being placated.
Cameras, we’re repeatedly reminded by the mise-en-scène, are violators, as they merely augment the dangerous power of the person wielding them. Donbass’s most harrowing elucidation of this theme comes in a scene on a public street, where a Ukrainian loyalist, tied to a telephone pole by a pair of armed separatists, endures a humiliating beating at the hands of a growing mob of passersby, one of whom decides to record the grisly spectacle with his smartphone. As Loznitsa’s camera circles the action, the heckler’s phone presses right up into the face of the prisoner, relishing in the man’s suffering, and we get the sense that the escalation of violence may have never come to pass in quite this way were it not for the spontaneous idea to turn it into a video meme. Later, the recording gets shown to a hooting crowd of Novorossiya sympathizers at an absurdly overemphatic wedding celebration, assimilating smoothly into the atmosphere of nationalist fervor.
Donbass is fueled by such collisions between the grave and the comic, a tonal oscillation mastered by Loznitsa in his documentaries and carried over here to support a vision of a society cracking under the weight of its own inconsistencies, corruption and mob mentalities. Less tightly structured than Loznitsa’s preceding fiction work, the film adopts the immersive observation of films like Maidan and Victory Day with a more active, roving camera but a similar degree of durational endurance. In one scene, Loznitsa even seamlessly integrates an extended use of documentary language into a longer fictional setup when his camera descends into a cramped and overcrowded bomb shelter, where a local host, lit by a camera-mounted source, walks us through the destitution of those living inside. As with the later street scene, the dreariness is eventually spiked by a dash of absurdism, but the counterpunch isn’t intended to lighten the mood so much as further disorient, ultimately giving Donbass an unnerving precarity that must come somewhat near the feeling on the ground.
If these two films, content as they are to revel in ambivalence, seek to grasp the experience of the now in all its bewilderment, Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar’s American Factory takes a more committed stance on an issue that’s equally topical. Fuyao Glass America, an outgrowth of a global glass manufacturer owned by a Chinese billionaire, opened in Moraine, Ohio in the shell of a shuddered General Motors plant toward the beginning of the decade, persisted financially for years while pursuing its awkward goal of unifying Chinese and American work cultures, and then inevitably ran up against controversy in 2017 when safety concerns and low wages encouraged the local employees to vote to unionize.
American Factory charts this entire compelling history with surprising comprehensiveness: When a late scene plays out as an illicit audio recording from an employee over a black screen, it stands out for being one of the only instances when the filmmakers don’t appear to have unencumbered access. But this sprawl has its downsides. Though briskly edited and tonally varied, Reichert and Bognar’s documentary skims over the surface of some of its most fascinating threads while in pursuit of a rousing decade-long tale.
The American workers depicted in the film, disgruntled by their diminished earnings and recalling a recent past with less bureaucratic oversight, too often blend into one undistinguished mass of Midwestern homeliness, and the few individuals who do get singled out for attention—a woman living in her relative’s basement and a rancher who befriends one particular Chinese co-worker—often get neglected for long stretches of time. The Chinese are perhaps even less differentiated, their insistence on dogged work ethic and company allegiance repeatedly emphasized almost to the point of xenophobia. That Fuyao chairman Cao Dewang, who weaves through the film as an amusingly oblivious villain for its majority, eventually gets a moment to fondly reminisce on China’s pre-industrial past and contemplate his own complicity in the country’s shift to globalized capitalism comes across as penance for the film’s occasional treatment of foreigners as misguided corporate drones.
What American Factory ultimately amounts to, however, isn’t an exploration of culture clash or a penetrating depiction of rust belt dejection, but rather a rallying cry for worker solidarity (in America, if not across the globe), a message it pulls off resoundingly in the final hour. Reichert and Bognar smartly detail all the insidious ways in which corporate messengers mischaracterize unionizing as a threat to individual liberty, and the populist filmmaking vernacular they employ as the union vote nears—fluid crosscutting between different intersecting narratives, plenty of emotional close-ups, a score of almost Spielbergian grandiosity—gives the documentary a genuine shot at trafficking radical politics to a relatively wide audience. If it’s any indication of future success, American Factory was one of the most well-attended screenings I went to during my time in Baltimore, but it’s a testament to the Maryland Film Festival’s outreach that healthy crowds congregated throughout the weekend. Though modest and inviting, this year’s selections exhibit a scope and ambition that should continue to draw adventurous filmgoers for years to come.
The Maryland Film Festival ran from May 8—12.
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