Ed Howard: The sudden resolution at the end of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws is one of those great, absurd movie moments that makes me really giddy, that never fails to put a grin on my face. It’s a (literally) explosive climax to a film that, despite its reputation as a nonstop fright-fest, isn’t liberal with these kinds of grand, cathartic gestures. I realize that’s maybe an odd thing to say about a movie that’s credited with being one of the very first summer blockbusters. In 1975, buoyed by a massive national marketing campaign and one of the earliest applications of the “wide release” distribution strategy, Jaws quickly achieved unprecedented commercial success, becoming the highest grossing film of all time. Although Jaws’ record was surpassed just two years later by George Lucas’ Star Wars, another harbinger of a changing Hollywood, the success of Spielberg’s film was a big factor in shifting movie distribution from slow release patterns and word-of-mouth hype to huge marketing pushes and national saturation.
In retrospect, Jaws the film (as opposed to its marketing) is an unlikely candidate for such an important place in movie history. It is a thrilling, scary, often darkly funny movie, a great and entertaining movie, but its sensational content aside, it doesn’t have a whole lot in common with what we now think of as summer blockbusters: grandiose effects spectacles with massive budgets, amped up as loud and fast as possible. In comparison, Jaws feels like a very classical film, a taut thriller where the first half is a succession of build-and-release suspense/horror sequences, and the second half is exclusively about three men in a boat, alternately bullshitting in the cabin and chasing a killer shark. The special effects are rough, the shark is often unconvincing, and indeed Spielberg and his crew were plagued with problems involving the mechanical sharks. The effects limitations led to what turned out to be a brilliant aesthetic as well as practical decision: the shark is often not shown, especially in the first half, where the briefest glimpses of a fin or a tooth-filled maw, coupled with indirect evidence of the beast’s viciousness and tremendous size, are sufficient to induce dizzying terror.
This is a long way from Transformers: technologically of course, but also in spirit. Although Jaws wound up ushering in an era where bloody, explosive spectacles dominate the summer moviegoing season, Spielberg’s film is clearly working on a much smaller scale. The film is rooted in Hollywood classicism, populated with idiosyncratic characters who have plenty of room to speak and interact in between the action/horror set pieces. About the closest the film comes to modern blockbuster territory is the improbable mayhem of the climax, but by that point a moment of excess after two hours of simmering tension and restraint feels more than earned. That climax can still make me giddy, over thirty-five years after the film debuted, because it’s a true catharsis, a product of an era before blockbuster filmmakers strove to make every moment seem cathartic and overpowering. Unlike successors that pummel viewers with nonstop “thrills” for two hours or more, Jaws modulates its violence and action with Hitchcockian suspense and quiet character moments, and as a result its bigger notes (like that irresistibly grin-inducing final showdown) hit that much harder.
Jason Bellamy: I see where you’re coming from. Thirty-five years after its release, the effects of Jaws are glaringly dated, but the effect of Jaws remains vital. There are numerous reasons for this, and the Hollywood classicism is just one of them; also worthy of being mentioned up front are John Williams’ score, which in its own way might be the most powerful and iconic score in cinema history, and mankind’s timeless natural phobia of the ocean. (There’s a chicken-or-egg debate to be had when it comes to attributing our fear of sharks—did Jaws tap into it or create it?—but I think we’ve always been innately aware that man is a land animal by nature and that we’re vulnerable, in all sorts of ways, in water), and yet as far as Jaws feels from the Transformers series, I have no doubt that they’re related, because in the end this is an overpowering effects film, too.
As much as the brilliance of the suspense and horror are tied to what we don’t see, which was inspired at least in part by what Spielberg was too embarrassed to show us (the malfunctioning mechanical shark), Jaws is ultimately reliant upon its big whammy of a special effect: that massive shark head that chews through the stern of the Orca and then rams its way into the ship’s cabin. Spielberg gets a hell of a lot of mileage out of showing the effect of the shark without utilizing the shark effect itself, but for all of that foreplay to pay off, eventually he had to bring the suspense to climax by giving us a physical representation of the shark that lives up to all that is suggested by the scene in which the skinny-dipper is thrust around like a ragdoll, or the scene in which the dock is split in two, or the scene in which the shark manages to dive deep below the surface with three barrels harpooned into its skin. Without the mighty mechanical shark to provide the exclamation point, all of Spielberg’s much praised suspense would be nothing more than a run-on tease, or, worse, an unintentional joke.
Thus, to some degree what’s changed in the decades since Jaws premiered isn’t the blockbuster filmmaker’s need to fill the screen with incredible, impossible awesomeness so much as the amount of incredible, impossible awesomeness it takes to (metaphorically speaking) “fill the screen.” To put it another way, filmmakers like Michael Bay, Christopher Nolan and Roland Emmerich are adjusting for inflation. Whether that works is another matter. Indeed, as you implied, the typical modern blockbuster is so jammed with (supposed) awesomeness that it often throws off our sense of scale, allowing the extraordinary to become ordinary, which defeats the purpose. Still, there’s no denying that Jaws is like the modern blockbuster in at least one crucial way: it attempts to overpower us through an effect-based visual that in order to succeed must be awesome beyond the scale of our imagination.
EH: What makes Jaws special, in my opinion, is the way it balances those (necessary and satisfying) sensational moments with more nuanced effects, effects that don’t require large-scale mechanical constructions or demolitions experts but are no less special. Spielberg’s first film, the made-for-TV thriller Duel, managed to create menace and foreboding from very little, using camera angles and judicious editing to frame an ordinary truck with an unseen driver as the terrifying embodiment of masculine violence and random destruction. Jaws has a more inherently frightening villain, but it similarly creates most of its effect through pure filmmaking bravado.
The opening sequence, after the credits, is a perfect example. The film begins with a gorgeous nighttime scene as a group of young summer tourists have a party around a fire on the beach. A guy and a girl catch each other’s eyes from across the campfire and run off across the dunes, the girl stripping in silhouette, laughing as she runs, the guy stumbling drunkenly after her. Anyone who’s seen a few horror or slasher movies know that only doom is awaiting them in the dark, as it always does for young people who run off into the night to have sex. The imagery is dim and shadowy, the dark blue of the sky blending into the denser darkness of the water, which could hide anything, but the mood of these opening scenes is initially as poetic as it is foreboding. The sight of the girl’s head bobbing in the water is chilling, as are the point-of-view shots from beneath the water. Those shots, ostensibly from the shark’s perspective, recall the underwater shots in Creature From the Black Lagoon, one obvious old Hollywood reference point for Spielberg’s film, announced right up front in these early scenes. As these moody images slowly lead towards the horrifying moment when the girl first feels a faint nibble below the water and then begins frantically thrashing around, John Williams’ infamous dun-dun-dun-dun-dun shark theme starts stealthily creeping into the music, increasing the sense of dread.
Later, the girl’s hand washes up on the beach, the first evidence of the shark that will soon terrorize the area, and Spielberg delivers a sensational closeup of the detached hand with crabs scuttling all over and around it, a horrifying image that reinforces the impact of the opening sequence. But Spielberg leads into this gory image patiently, with a shot of the police officer who’d discovered the hand, blowing a whistle to summon help. The whistle slides out of his slack mouth as he sits weakly in the sand, facing away from his discovery, which is hidden from the audience as well by the tall dune in the background. Spielberg understands that this shot, in which we feel the horror through the policeman’s reaction without knowing precisely what he’d found, is just as important as the explicit closeup that follows, if not even more so.
JB: That’s very true. And it leads us to what I think is the biggest difference between Jaws and the modern blockbuster: its recognition of the significance of the loss of human life. Consider for starters that you can count on one hand the human deaths in Jaws: 1) Crissy, the skinny-dipper at the outset; 2) Alex Kintner, the boy on the inflatable raft; 3) Ben Gardner (memorably discovered after the fact); 4) the guy in the dinghy on “the pond”; and 5) Quint (Robert Shaw), the film’s Captain Ahab, whose death seems inevitable from the very start. That’s it and that’s all. Five deaths. That’s all it takes for “Jaws,” the shark, to be one of the most fearsome monsters in movie history, and it takes less than half that for the shark to be monstrous: other than the town’s mayor and the touchingly fearless kids, no one in the quaint beach village of Amity is too crazy about going in the water after Crissy’s and Alex’s deaths—and it’s Crissy’s death alone that sends this story into motion and the water-phobic police chief, Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), into panic mode. By today’s blockbuster standards, five deaths isn’t the sum of the carnage; it’s the remainder of a much larger equation.
And yet what’s so striking about Jaws isn’t the modesty (in number) of the carnage. It’s the sincerity of the horror that the carnage creates. When the police deputy, who in appearance and slumped posture in that early scene always reminds me a bit of John Cazale, comes across what’s left of Crissy, yes, his crumpled reaction beautifully heightens the tension of the reveal, as you noted, but it also reminds us of the significance of Crissy’s death. A shark has taken a beautiful young woman and shredded a night of (quasi)innocence into gruesome death and dismemberment. Through this single death, Jaws achieves the kind of impact that the Transformers films level entire cities in search of. And why? Because Jaws doesn’t treat Crissy’s death as a prelude to or sideshow of tragedy. It treats it like a tragedy in its own right.
This appreciation of the significance of death is further reinforced by the scene in which Brody’s apparent triumph—some fishermen have captured what they believe to be the deadly shark—is undercut by the arrival of the second victim’s mother, Mrs. Kintner (Lee Fierro). Clad in black, apparently coming straight from the funeral, Mrs. Kintner walks through the parting crowd at the bustling dock and slaps Brody on the face, chastising him for allowing the beaches to stay open in the aftermath of the shark attack on Crissy, thus leading to the death of her son. Most films would be unlikely to include such a scene, but even fewer would allow Mrs. Kintner’s slap to linger like Spielberg does. In the next scene, we find Brody eating a quiet dinner with his wife, clearly overcome with guilt and shame. Make no mistake, Spielberg is accomplishing other things with these scenes, too. He’s increasing our terror. He’s bonding the audience with Brody. He’s increasing Brody’s personal investment in the shark hunt. And, true enough, later on Spielberg will quickly move on from the death of the man in the dinghy without pausing to reflect. Still, Jaws avoids treating its human victims like they are merely targets in a carnival shooting gallery, made for annihilation, as so many modern blockbusters do. In one scene, in fact, Brody walks past some kids on the boardwalk playing a video game in which they blast away at attacking sharks until their quarter runs out. That shot pretty well sums up the modern approach to blockbuster death and destruction, as well as Spielberg’s awareness that real killing is never that casual.
EH: In that respect, it’s notable that when Mrs. Kintner slaps Brody, blaming him for the death of her son, he doesn’t protest but admits that yes, he does feel responsible. Spielberg doesn’t allow his hero to come out of this with completely clean hands; he knew that there was a shark in the water, and that it had killed someone already, but he caved to political pressure from above and went along with the alternate boating accident explanation. After Alex Kintner’s death, that slap resonates for quite a while, and so too does the mayor’s quiet, shamed admission that his own kids were also on the beach that day, a devastating admission that’s almost as affecting as Mrs. Kintner’s slap.
That scene on the docks, when the first shark is caught, is just so great in general. The mood is ostensibly celebratory, but it’s undercut not only by the lingering sadness of the two deaths so far, but also at a meta level by the knowledge that the movie has more or less just begun, so of course the actual killer shark is not dead. Spielberg cuts away from the dock celebration to Quint, pulling into the harbor on his own boat, laughing, as though to say, “Ha-ha you know the movie’s not over yet, right?” There’s a certain dark humor to this scene, in that the audience, merely by virtue of knowing they’re watching a movie, has access to information that the characters couldn’t possibly know. The characters, unaware they’re in a story, think that the threat has passed, and only Quint, with his knowing grin, seems to know that it can’t possibly be that easy.
As this scene shows, Jaws is distinguished not only by its serious approach to death but also by a balancing sense of playfulness that is often interwoven with the grimmer currents of the film. Even the scene where Alex Kintner dies displays Spielberg’s balance of seriousness and dark humor. The way he builds tension throughout this scene is almost playful and comical. Brody is on shore, intently watching the water, but he keeps getting interrupted by townspeople bothering him with petty troubles, to which he half-listens while craning his neck to look over the shoulders of the people he’s talking to. Out on the water, Spielberg cuts between multiple swimmers: a woman floating on her back, a couple wrestling and kissing, a dog paddling after a stick thrown by its owner, a kid on a flotation device (the doomed Alex), other kids splashing and screaming, attracting Brody’s nervous attention with each squeal or shout. The cutting is lively and playful, knowingly generating suspense that takes the form of a question: Who’s going to die? Is it this person? This one? This one? Is the shark going to appear now? Now? Now? Spielberg seems to be having fun drawing out the moment, engaging in some Hitchcockian manipulation, delivering multiple false scares before finally getting to the real deal. The scene is very complex in its tonal blend, with black humor running through the slowly building suspense, before the scene climaxes with bloody horror and then gives way to the sad aftermath.
JB: Yeah, I think one of the big reasons that Jaws is so rewarding over multiple viewings is due to Spielberg’s ability to juggle so many seemingly converse moods so adeptly (Hitchcockian, indeed). People rarely refer to Jaws as a complex film—indeed, “complex” is a word that’s hardly ever applied to summer blockbusters, unless, as with Christopher Nolan’s Inception, narrative convolution is basically the point—but what Spielberg does here is really quite intricate. The scene of Brody sitting on the beach prior to Alex’s death is probably the best example. Each time someone passes in front of Brody — blocking his vision of the beach and our vision of Brody—the ensuing camera angle of Brody is tighter. All Scheider really has to do in this scene is look toward the beach, but the cinematography makes Brody’s tension palpable. And yet, like you said, humor is just a few beats away: the gray hump headed toward the woman floating on her back turns out to be an old man in a gray swim cap; a screaming woman turns out to be wrestling with her boyfriend; and so on. Back and forth it goes: tension and release, tension and release. At one point in the sequence, Brody has to crane his head to peek over the shoulder of one of the islanders, and in the reverse shot both the man in the foreground and the people frolicking in the water in the background, over the man’s shoulder, are in focus. In that shot, we fully sense Brody’s preoccupation with what’s happening in the ocean and the intensity of the distraction he feels from everyone else.
Brody is fearful. Of the water, we’re told, but it’s deeper than that. In some sense, Jaws is a study of the human response to danger and fear. There’s a terrific sequence in which Brody is flipping through a book, reading about sharks, and he is so absorbed by the images, so gripped with fear, that he leaps in surprise when his wife sits down beside him, which in turn startles her. Brody laughs at himself, at his fear, but when he hears that his son is playing on a small boat tied to the dock, his fear instantly returns. That’s where the scene really gets interesting. As Brody yells at his son to get away from the water, his fear seems unreasonable, overprotective, and we can sense that his wife thinks he’s overreacting. But then Brody’s wife casually opens his book, and the first image she sees is an illustration of a shark tearing into a small boat, and now she’s the one screaming at her son to get off the water. That sequence is principally designed for a laugh, but it’s deeper than that: the wife’s response perfectly exemplifies how quickly our sense of security can be shattered. Is her fear reasonable? In a sense, of course it is: a shark has killed someone. And yet, what is she responding to? Actual danger, or perceived danger created by an illustration in a book? Although the man-eating shark is real, what we see from the wife is typical fear of the unknown, wherein a lack of familiarity increases one’s level of distrust and paranoia.
Of course, lack of familiarity doesn’t always lead to fear. It can lead to foolish bravado, too. The reactions of Brody and his wife stand in contrast to that of Amity’s population of dick-measuring men, who respond to the shark hunt as if it’s a game, overloading small boats with men, guns and beer. They’re fearless, so long as the danger is abstract and unseen. But in a subsequent scene, Spielberg observes what happens when danger is imminent. When a dorsal fin crests the surface of the ocean near the beach, it’s every man, woman, and child for him or herself, as everyone in the water goes stampeding toward dry land, at one point knocking over and trampling a fully grown man. That the dorsal fin turns out to be made of cardboard, belonging to two snorkeling kids pulling a prank, further underscores what seems to be the film’s point: our emotional response to danger, our sense of fear or security, is often out of balance with the actual danger at hand.
EH: That’s a good point. Back in our conversation about Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day, I suggested that really great horror movies don’t just provoke reactions of fear, they’re also about fear. You can see that in Jaws in the way that Spielberg cleverly manipulates the audience’s fear so that sometimes we’re responding to genuine threats and sometimes it’s not so clear. The dorsal fin prank is a good example, especially since it’s immediately followed with a scene in which the real shark’s fin appears, heading towards “the pond” to threaten Brody’s kids. I love that shot of the fake shark fin unobtrusively appearing in the background behind two bathers; it’s so casual that it takes a moment or two to even register, and when it does it’s utterly chilling, a moment of surreal calm before the chaos begins. Once again, there’s some meta gamesmanship going on here: the people on the beach respond more slowly to the second threat because, having been pranked already, now they’re suspicious of being fooled a second time. But the audience’s reaction is the opposite, partly because we know how narrative works: the second shark fin is unlikely to be another prank because that would be narratively pointless, whereas following a fake scare with a real one is a common horror movie device. Once again, Spielberg uses such extra-filmic knowledge to place the audience a few beats ahead of the characters in the film, ramping the levels of fear up and down as though he’s conducting an orchestra of emotions.
You’re right that this film is about fear and the loss of security. Sometimes the tension builds only to be released, generating fear from the unseen shark and then refusing to resolve the tension, letting the fear of the unknown linger. At one point, two local fishermen try to catch the shark by leaving a hunk of meat dangling in the water off a dock. Predictably, the dock gets pulled apart and one fisherman falls into the water, desperately struggling to make it back ashore ahead of the shark. A large fragment of the dock floats along in his wake, presumably pulled by the shark that’s chasing him, and the editing emphasizes that this is a chase sequence, with the detached piece of dock standing in for the unseen shark the same way Quint’s yellow barrels will in the film’s second half. We can’t see the shark, so watching the dock float along the surface, growing closer and closer to the floundering man, we can only assume that the shark is closing in and will soon devour yet another hapless victim. But then the man makes it back up onto the dock, after multiple shots of his feet dangling tantalizingly in the water or just above it, and the dock floats harmlessly back to shore nearby, seemingly pulled only by the tide. The scene ends with an unspoken question, leaving it ambiguous whether the shark was ever chasing the fisherman or if it had simply slipped off to sea again after tearing the dock apart.
This scene underscores just how much of the film’s effect depends on the viewer’s imagination, tweaked and manipulated by Spielberg: a shark could pop up at any moment, but just as often the threat fails to materialize. As you say, the men of Amity don’t fear the shark as long as it remains abstract and unseen, but Spielberg counters their unwarranted confidence with the idea that sometimes we most fear precisely those things which are unseen and unknown. The unknown often provokes anxiety and uncertainty, and Jaws remains so destabilizing because it’s never certain if and when the shark is lurking in the water nearby. As viewers, we often have to rely on indirect clues to guess at the shark’s presence, like a fin sticking out of the water or something being pulled along in the water by the shark below, but Spielberg takes care to include scenes that call into question such indirect evidence. The film is about the ways in which fears can be amplified and warped by the imagination, which inevitably leaps to wilder and wilder conclusions when confronted with an unseen, unpredictable threat. Much of the film’s first half is about misdirection, making our fears turn out to be foolish or exaggerated in comparison to what actually happens. And then, when the tremendous shark finally begins appearing with its gaping jaws and huge head, Spielberg suggests that sometimes our fears do come true, sometimes the monsters of our imaginations might make the leap into terrifying reality.
JB: That brings us back to the shark itself, the malfunctioning contraption that Spielberg famously nicknamed Bruce, after his lawyer. We’ve already touched on how the clumsiness of the shark encouraged Spielberg to predominantly rely on mystery rather than spectacle, but the primitiveness of the mechanical monster had another significant effect, too, in that its limited maneuverability also forced Spielberg to slow down the action in a way that amplifies the film’s horror. Judging by most modern blockbusters, you’d think “slow” and “action” are mutually exclusive qualities, but Jaws proves that they aren’t. Indeed, there’s something absolutely chilling about the casualness with which the shark haunts, hunts and harms, the best example being the attack on the man at the pond, when in a terrific bird’s-eye-view shot we see the shark approach the man from below, its mouth open, its pace unhurried, its target obvious. The shark doesn’t thrust itself at its prey. Rather, it recognizes it has the upper hand and proceeds accordingly, less a high-strung velociraptor in Jurassic Park than an eerily calm Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men. On the most basic level, this restrained pace has the benefit of ensuring that the action is comprehensible, and that’s no small thing (after seeing the trailer for the most recent Transformers film, I marvel that the series’s fans can apparently tell the difference between the good bots and the bad bots during fight scenes where all I see are tumbling scrap heaps). But beyond that, the slowness of the shark’s actions enhances our awareness of its primal indomitability. This is a shark that sits at the top of the food chain and knows no fear. To borrow from Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man, when I see this shark slowly opening its mouth to snare the boater, or casually lifting its head to eye Brody as he throws chum into the ocean, “I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy; I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature.”
And that leads us to the film’s almost excruciating realism. Certainly it’s a stretch when near the end of the film the shark leaps onto the Orca’s stern and, in one motion, starts it sinking, but when I say that Jaws has excruciating realism, I’m not so much referring to what is or isn’t possible or even plausible. Instead, I’m referring to the way Spielberg grounds this film in reality. For instance, the second time Brody flips through his shark book, Spielberg alternates between shots of Brody looking at the book (its pages reflected in his glasses) and the book itself, which includes photographs of actual sharks and the aftermath of actual shark attacks, the most gruesome image being the last one: a thigh with a healthy arching bite out of it. Later, when Richard Dreyfuss’ Matt Hooper enters a cage and descends into the ocean, Spielberg inserts a few tight shots of actual sharks, which allow him to get around the clumsiness of “Bruce.” And in between, Robert Shaw captivates when Quint tells the true-to-life story (embellished, of course, as are all fish tales) of the USS Indianapolis, which was torpedoed by the Japanese in World War II, leading an unknown number of momentary survivors to be attacked and killed by sharks. In these scenes, and others, many of which were shot on an actual ocean, Spielberg continually reinforces the idea that this could happen, that this shark isn’t larger than life but simply really fucking big. So many modern blockbusters thrive on escapism. Jaws comes at us from the opposite direction, as Spielberg does his best to blur the line between fiction and reality until, at least momentarily, we can’t tell the difference between them.
EH: That’s a telling line, because in so many ways Jaws is very far from realistic. We may see the “overwhelming indifference of nature” in the shark’s unblinking eyes and stiff, inexorable movements, but in fact it’s so blank and unfeeling because it’s not alive at all, just a poor facsimile of the real thing. The film is not so much realistic as it is physical; its effects are rooted in tangible reality rather than existing solely in a computer, as the shark doubtless would be were the film made now.
More importantly, what’s realistic about the film is the way people react to the threat of this not-so-realistic shark, and the way they interact with one another. Shaw’s Indianapolis monologue is riveting, but it’s not the only example of the film’s surprising facility for non-shark character-building. The entire second half of the film shifts the focus away from the seaside community besieged by the shark, and onto the three men who go out onto the ocean to kill the creature: Quint, Hooper and Brody. After the first half of the film establishes the stakes of the shark threatening this small tourism-focused community, the cast is whittled down to three men whose archetypal character traits complement each other: the grizzled veteran tough guy, the intellectual eager to prove himself, and the reluctant authority figure. The film becomes all about not only their attempts to kill the shark but about their interactions and the ways in which they come to respect and admire each other.
Late last year, Adam Zanzie wrote about Jurassic Park, claiming that it was Spielberg’s Howard Hawks movie, specifically comparing it to the John Wayne safari adventure Hatari!. I disagreed in the comments, arguing that Spielberg’s dinosaur film, while a great action flick, is too plot-driven to ever be comparable to a languidly paced Hawksian hangout movie. On reflection, I’d cite Jaws, not Jurassic Park, as Spielberg’s true Hawksian movie, with its emphasis on the theme of male bonding under pressure, its alternation of action scenes with character-building, and its quirky characters spouting idiosyncratic dialogue. I think Adam was right, though, to pinpoint Hatari! in particular as a key film for Spielberg, since that film’s sense of free-wheeling masculine adventure winds through much of Spielberg’s work. It’s a key aspect of Jaws that goes hand-in-hand with its horror: the almost boyish sense of wonder that’s so recognizable in so many of Spielberg’s films and that crops up here in the way he celebrates the heroic expedition to catch the shark. Everyone remembers John Williams’ creepy two-note shark theme from this film; it’s easier to forget the oddly jaunty, upbeat adventure themes that propel much of the film’s second half, capturing a very different mood. Spielberg wants us to be scared by his film, but he also wants us to be awed and excited.
JB: Sure. And, like Quentin Tarantino after him, Spielberg clearly wants us to enjoy Jaws not just as adventure but as a movie adventure. That is, for all the ways Jaws is grounded in realism, it has another foot (fin?) planted in celluloid staginess. We’ve already identified a few scenes that match that description, like the equally tense and comedic early beach sequence, or the mishap when the villagers go fishing for the shark with meat that’s been set aside for a winter roast. But perhaps an even better example is Quint’s arrival into the story. As some of the townspeople sit in a classroom at a hastily arranged town hall meeting, debating whether to close the beaches, Quint sits quietly in the back of the room until—SCREEEEEEEEETCH—he announces his presence by dragging his nails across the blackboard. That, in and of itself, makes for quite a colorful introduction, but the topper is that while the others were debating the safety of the beaches, Quint has managed to surreptitiously draw a cartoon on the blackboard of an enormous shark with a tiny stick-figure human in its mouth. Spielberg gives us a few shots of befuddled villagers staring at this odd man in the corner, and then he slowly zooms in on Quint, who casually snacks on crackers while warning them about the shark and offering his services to catch it. “I don’t want any volunteers,” Quint says. “I don’t want no mates. There are too many captains on this island. Ten thousand dollars for me by myself. For that you get the head, the tail, the whole damn thing.”
From that scene forward, Quint is more oversized than the shark he’s chasing. Robert Shaw is tremendous, giving a performance so memorable, so vibrant, so flamboyant yet restrained that when I noticed on IMDb that he didn’t receive an Academy Award nomination I went scrambling to the AMPAS database to see who was nominated for Best Supporting Actor that year—out of surprise more than outrage, to be clear. (If you’re curious: George Burns in The Sunshine Boys, Brad Dourif in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Burgess Meredith in The Day of the Locust, Chris Sarandon in Dog Day Afternoon and Jack Warden in Shampoo.) The tale of the plight of the Indianapolis is of course Shaw’s/Quint’s signature moment, with Spielberg keeping the camera steady as the overhead lamp in the Orca sways with the ocean’s current, enhancing the scene’s eerie tone. Quint’s eyes are fixed on Brody, off camera, and when Quint describes the sharks attacking the survivors, Spielberg doesn’t cut and Shaw doesn’t blink.
As I implied earlier, Quint is just a wooden leg short of being Captain Ahab, so there’s no question that he’s an archetypal character. But watching Shaw in Jaws makes me appreciate the degree to which Quint seems to have shaped the modern cinema version of the fearless and hell-bent dangerous hero. For example, when the shark cracks the ship’s hull and the Orca starts taking on water and a small fire breaks out, Quint’s unflustered reaction—he calmly tells Brody to put out the fire without even looking in its direction—reminds of Robert Duvall’s Kilgore four years later in Apocalypse Now, kneeling amidst warzone explosions without flinching, a move that’s been emulated ad nauseum ever since. Quint, like the shark he’s chasing, can’t seem to imagine losing the fight, even while he is thrilled by the stubbornness of his opponent. Of course, at the movies, that kind of confidence gets you killed. And so when Brody eventually reports Quint’s death to Hooper, it’s a confirmation of the inevitable.
EH: Quint, more than Brody (the ostensible lead) or even the shark itself, is really the defining character of this film. It’s Quint’s rugged, snarling masculinity and casual self-assurance that make the biggest impact out of the human cast. And if the film’s most memorable and oft-quoted line is Brody’s “You’re gonna need a bigger boat,” it’s Quint’s indifferent reaction that really solidifies the mix of humor and terror in that famous line. Quint is so focused on his work that he can’t even spare a glance or a word in response, while all Brody can do is back slowly away, repeating his words with even more desperation this time: “You’re gonna need a bigger boat, right?”
Quint’s unblinking intensity also serves as a contrast with his two companions on the shark hunt, who represent very different masculine archetypes. Quint is defined by his toughness, his grim determination, the working man’s confidence that’s grounded in a lifetime of doing everything for himself. Hooper naturally clashes with Quint, initially, because he embodies an opposing archetype, an intellectual whose ironic, twinkly-eyed demeanor and readiness with a quip is very different from the older man’s gruff, abrupt manner. In one scene, after Quint makes a show of chugging a beer and crushing the can in his fist, Hooper responds by drinking down a small Styrofoam cup and crushing it, sarcastically mocking the other man’s hyper-masculine competitiveness. It’s a clever visual joke that suggests that even if the two men are very different in how they express their masculinity, they are essentially competing on the same grounds.
This point is driven home by the scene where Quint and Hooper compare scars, competing and accumulating a grudging respect for one another as they realize that they both have lots of wounds from lives spent on the water. There’s an element of homoeroticism to it as the two men undo their clothes, wrapping their legs over each other, laughing and baring their chests, bonding and growing closer, both physically and emotionally. Brody is left out of this masculine closeness, standing nearby, glancing momentarily at the scar on his own stomach but remaining silent, aware that his own meager wounds (like this appendectomy scar) don’t belong in the competition. Quint and Hooper have both led wild and eventful lives, had lots of girls, and have the scars to show for it, including Hooper’s half-joking baring of his chest as evidence of a broken heart.
Brody, unlike these men, is a family man, settled with a wife and two young sons, and the earlier scenes of comfortable domesticity with his wife suggest a relatively happy, easy existence. He’s not made for adventure or action: he hated his job as a New York City cop, overwhelmed by all the crime and violence, and seems to have taken a job as a small-town police chief mainly because it promises to be a cushy position with not much to do. There’s irony in Brody being a police officer, because he seems like the kind of guy who requires protection rather than a defender or hero in his own right. Quint and Hooper are, in very different ways, easy to accept as heroic types—the tough guy and the clever, wise-cracking intellectual—but Brody is the audience’s stand-in and perhaps Spielberg’s as well, the ordinary guy in over his head, who’d be happiest at home with his family. Quint and Hooper live for this kind of intimate encounter with nature’s violence, but Brody, yearning for peace and quiet, for domesticity and ordinary routine, provides a subtle link back to the film’s otherwise eclipsed first half, to the families and the children for whose sake this expedition has been mounted.
JB: You’re right, of course, that Brody comes off like a man who needs security and safety more than like a man who should be counted on to provide it. Jaws is filled with nuances, provided both by Spielberg and Scheider, that evoke Brody’s anxiety and cautiousness. In the beach sequences, for instance, Brody runs toward danger while everyone else runs away, but once he gets to the water’s edge, he shuffles horizontally. Likewise, in the scene in which Hooper guts the tiger shark, Brody keeps his distance while Hooper reaches his hands inside the carcass to see what it has eaten. Then, when Brody and Hooper first go out at night looking for the shark, Brody wears a prudent yet comically awkward orange life preserver while Hooper dives into the water to investigate the wreckage of a shark attack. Brody is certainly a determined cop, and one who never shirks his duty, but to recall our first edition of The Conversations, Brody certainly isn’t a Fincherian character: he doesn’t like to get dirty.
So, yes, Brody is the fearful audience surrogate in many respects. But I’ve always felt that the primary surrogate for Spielberg was Hooper. True, Hooper is a touch too heroic, but he’s the character that a then geeky young director with “city hands” seems to have fashioned to undercut macho bravado. You mentioned already the scene in which Hooper crushes the Styrofoam cup, but from his very arrival Hooper is used to undercut “working class hero crap” with sarcasm and intellectualism. Hooper knows more about boats than most of the islanders. He’s the one who figures out that the shark that gets caught is a tiger shark (one of the villagers wonders if it’s a maco shark, which he pronounces “muh-COH,” further underlining his idiocy). He’s the one who figures out that it’s a great white shark that they’re pursuing. He’s the one who can’t help but laugh when the mayor of Amity refuses to acknowledge the imminent threat. He’s the one who turns Quint’s challenge to tie a sheepshank knot into a display of his own superiority. In short, he’s the man with all the answers. Hooper is the kind of cocky youngster rolling his eyes at the establishment that you figure Spielberg might have been at the time, or at least might have wished he were at the time. But even if that’s correct, it’s only trivia.
In the end, the most significant character isn’t Hooper, Brody or Quint. It’s the shark. The shark’s character is built of many things, from the mechanical “Bruce,” to the footage of actual great whites, to the illustrations in Brody’s book, to shots of blood rising to the surface or a severed human leg falling to the ocean floor, but the soul of the shark is provided by John Williams’ score. I mentioned at the outset that Williams’ famous theme might make for the most powerful and iconic score in cinema history, and here’s why: Can you think of any other score that’s more identifiable among the general population? Can you think of any other score that can be recognized in just two notes (DUHHHH-DUN!)? Can you think of any other score that more completely transcends its film to become the soundtrack to real life? (Put a city slicker on horseback and there are a number of Western ditties he or she might hum for the occasion. When we view sharks, however, only one tune comes to mind.) Williams’ score is more than just the shark theme, of course. And, indeed, it does well to amplify the adventurousness of the shark pursuit or the menace of the attack on Hooper in the shark cage. But what we remember are those repeating groaning strings, escalating as the shark nears and our pulse quickens.
EH: Williams’ score in general encompasses many different moods and tones, but it’s no surprise that the shark theme—simple, effective, utterly unforgettable—tends to dwarf the rest of the music, just as Spielberg’s masterfully executed suspense sequences make it easy to forget the film’s dark comedy, character nuance and thematic depth. As we’ve been discussing, this film deftly balances many different tones and ideas, and Williams’ music does the same. The shark theme, though, is so simple that when Williams first played it for Spielberg, the director thought that Williams was joking. But, as Spielberg himself quickly realized, this pulse-quickening theme is the perfect music to announce the presence of the film’s big threat. The music, in its simplicity, its unblinking forward drive, mimics the blank determination of the shark itself.
The shark’s character, such as it is, is of course much less complex than that of the men on the boat, and that’s part of the film’s point. The shark, much like the avian swarms of Hitchcock’s The Birds, represents the unthinking, unrelenting force of nature, a primal creature whose only purpose is to stalk its prey and feed. Earlier, I pointed out how Spielberg had derived his point-of-view shots from Creature From the Black Lagoon, but there’s a crucial difference. The creature’s POV in Jack Arnold’s horror classic (and even more so its sequel, Return of the Creature) suggests a psychology that is alien to our own, a relic of an earlier stage of evolution, but nevertheless comprehensible. The creature has desires and perhaps even feelings, especially sexual and romantic feelings; when the creature looks up from beneath the water at a bathing beauty, her legs flailing in the water, we feel the pathetic and impossible yearning of this primitive being. The shark, less a true character than a force of nature, doesn’t have any such feelings, and when it looks at a woman swimming in the water, all it sees is dinner.
In that respect, the shark has more in common with the truck in Spielberg’s TV movie Duel, which first demonstrated the director’s penchant for teeth-gritting suspense. Just as the protagonist of Duel is pursued and assaulted by a mysterious truck, seemingly for no reason, with no motive or explanation, the characters of Jaws are being subjected to a force beyond psychology, beyond rationality, a pre-modern creature driven by simple impulses. The film is about the loss of control, about the cruelty of nature reminding us just how fragile our seeming mastery of the world really is. This theme is especially enhanced by the setting of the film’s first half, the way that the shark disrupts the comfort and leisure of a beachside community dedicated almost exclusively to the tourism industry. There’s nothing more modern, more indicative of privilege and comfort, than the idea of a vacation, which only makes the shark attacks even more upsetting: the shark isn’t just feeding, isn’t just killing, it’s undermining one of the primary symbols of status, security and happiness in our society.
JB: You’re on to something there, because while many of Amity’s leaders and business people initially object to closing the beaches on (understandable) economic grounds, beyond that there’s also some pretty thinly veiled anger over the idea that a shark would dare to fuck with the 4th of July. The looming threat of shark attacks, in addition to the attacks themselves, shatters the spirit of innocence, playfulness and, yes, friendship that are Amity’s understood brand. Amity, after all, is the place to get away from it all, even for Brody who has arrived there as a result of fleeing New York.
Of course, to some degree setting the action in an oceanfront vacation getaway is a matter of narrative practicality. Peter Benchley, who wrote the original novel and co-authored the screenplay with Carl Gottlieb (John Milius, uncredited, reportedly helped to shape Quint’s Indianapolis monologue), needed a reason to keep people in the water where the shark could reach them. And having already praised the film’s intricacy, realism, theatricality, performances, score and more, it strikes me that the greatest achievement of Jaws isn’t just that we believe that Amity’s residents and vacationers would continue wading into the ocean after the first attack but, furthermore, that the threat of the shark is almost unceasingly omnipresent.
Truly, soak that one in for a moment: The only thing any of these people need to do to avoid the shark is to remain on dry land. That’s it. And that’s what makes Jaws so different from The Birds (where going indoors proves not protection enough), or Alien (where the humans are trapped in the same physical space), or Open Water (where the difficulty of getting to dry land is the whole point), or the dozens upon dozens of monster movies in between. The threat isn’t omnipresent; it just feels that way. And while that’s partially due to the screenwriters’ knack for keeping people in the water, it’s also due to Spielberg’s knack for bringing shark imagery to dry land, whether through Brody’s book, or Quint’s blackboard illustration, or the Amity billboard of a happy swimmer that’s been vandalized to include a menacing dorsal fin, or Quint’s business headquarters, festooned with the jaws of his kills. Mentally, we know that dry land is safe. But emotionally Spielberg makes us feel as if the shark is always close by, as if confronting the beast is unavoidable.
EH: That ties back to the scene you mentioned earlier, in which Brody’s wife is initially unconcerned about their kids playing in a boat until she sees the picture of a shark leaping out of the water to take a bite out of a similar small boat. There’s a certain amount of irrational fear in the response to the shark: yes, the shark is deadly, if one goes in the water, although Spielberg stages several scenes to suggest that dry land isn’t always entirely safe either, like the scene where the shark rips the dock to pieces. And then, in the film’s second half, the shark increasingly appears as the embodiment of everyone’s worst fears made flesh: exaggeratedly huge, implacable, stalking the Orca like prey, eventually leaping up out of the water and onto the boat’s deck just like the shark in Brody’s book. For the most part, though, the shark is a creature of the water and if everyone had just been willing to stay out of the water for a while then they would have been safe. The town of Amity, though, reacts to this sensible precaution as a violation, not only of their economy but of their deepest principles, their freedom, their whole way of life. There’s something un-American about ruining a holiday celebration like this, but the shark tramples over all of it, uncaring, and in a way that’s what really shakes everyone up so much. There’s a complicated mix of emotions here, ranging from the somewhat irrational terror of the unknown to a sense of entitlement and security so strong that it takes much more blood than it should to wake most of the townspeople up to the threat.
These tangled, surprisingly complex emotions and the at times deeply submerged subtexts of the material may account, in part, for the remarkable longevity of Spielberg’s bloody thriller. Jaws helped to usher in changes in the movie industry, but it has remained a pop culture staple for so long not for its historical importance but for its enduring ability to shock, provoke and frighten multiple generations of filmgoers. Iconic lines and images from the film are recognizable even to those who haven’t seen it, and its legendary status is unavoidable, but familiarity has done little to dull or disguise the alternately raw and sophisticated thrills of Spielberg’s visceral filmmaking.
Review: Bombshell Is a Collection of Quirks in Search of a Trenchant Criticism
The film is too irreverent in tone and narrow in scope to place Roger Ailes’s criminality in a larger, more meaningful context.1.5
With Bombshell, director Jay Roach and screenwriter Charles Randolph make heroes of the women who brought down Roger Ailes, the late chairman and CEO of Fox News who was accused by several former employees—including star anchors Megyn “Santa Just Is White” Kelly and Gretchen Carlson—of sexual harassment in 2016. The filmmakers keenly depict these women’s courage and fixate on the toxic culture at Fox that fostered so much fear and intimidation, but Bombshell is too irreverent in tone and narrow in scope to place Ailes’s criminality in a larger, more meaningful context.
The film begins in the summer of 2016 with the Republican Party presidential debate in Iowa, where Kelly (Charlize Theron), the moderator, confronts Donald Trump with highlights of his long history of misogyny. This grilling, and her increasingly—if relatively—feminist stance on the Fox News daytime program The Kelly File, is met by backlash from the ascendant Trump cult, as well as Ailes (John Lithgow), whose professional relationship with Kelly at first seems productive in spite of its combativeness. Meanwhile, Carlson (Nicole Kidman) is fired from another Fox program, The Real Story, possibly for her own newfound—if, again, relative—feminism, and counters by filing a sexual harassment suit against Ailes.
Waiting for colleagues to make similar accusations in order to bolster her case, Carlson is left twisting in the wind by a collective fearful silence—a silence that even fierce former victim Kelly obeys—while Ailes and his litigation team prepare a defense. A third storyline involves “millennial evangelical” Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie), a composite character representing the many ambitious young women who suffered Ailes’s demeaning treatment in order to get ahead at Fox and the other organizations for which he worked.
Bombshell operates in a style that has become numbingly de rigueur since Oliver Stone’s W., in which political and corporate corruption are presented in a dramatic yet amiably humorous style that takes the edge off any potentially trenchant critique. Fourth walls are broken, jokes punctuate scenes, and the ambiance remains oddly congenial despite the purportedly suffocating and repressive environment of the Fox News offices.
Thankfully, there are moments when the actors transcend the too-casual tone. Lithgow portrays Ailes not merely as a dirty old man, but as a pitiful control freak whose disgusting actions unwittingly reveal a deep insecurity. The tensely coiled Kelly is a mass of contradictions, and one argument that she has with her husband, Douglas Brunt (Mark Duplass), over an embarrassingly fawning follow-up interview with Trump is memorable for allowing Theron to reveal the strain imposed on Kelly by conflicting personal, professional, and political allegiances. Robbie—frequently playing off a versatile Kate McKinnon’s co-worker/lover—moves from bubbly naïveté to painful humiliation with convincing subtlety.
And yet, Bombshell is predicated on several dubious ideas that ultimately blunt its power. The film relishes the downfall of a public figure, as well as the growing chaos of a divided Fox News. By the end of the film, we’re expected to feel righteous satisfaction when justice comes to Ailes in the form of a disgraceful resignation. But such a response can only feel hollow when the country continues to suffer from widespread problems cultivated by Fox from the same sexist, callous, and exploitative worldview at the root of Ailes’s behavior. The film only briefly and tangentially explores this worldview, and mostly uses it to simply highlight conservative hypocrisy and the general sliminess of the Fox organization.
Bombshell also delights in referencing battles fought among high-profile public figures, emphasizing the kind of inside baseball that the media routinely focuses on instead of more complex and endemic manifestations of national issues. Rather than understand Ailes’s harassment in relation to the sexism so deeply embedded in American corporate media and culture, the filmmakers reduce that sorry tradition to the confines of the Fox News offices and elite legal channels. This approach allows viewers to understand the organizational and legal pressures that made it so hard for Carlson and others to speak out about Ailes, but once Carlson files her charges, the abuse that she and others endured becomes overshadowed by competitive backroom negotiations and maneuverings.
The film reinforces this emphasis with gratuitous appearances by actors playing famous Fox News personalities (Geraldo Rivera, Neil Cavuto, and Sean Hannity) who are tangential to the narrative, as well as cutesy direct-address segments meant to make us feel in the know about the world of Fox. This is the stuff that Roach, who’s mostly directed broad comedies, and Randolph, who co-wrote The Big Short, clearly relish, but rather than connecting with the viewer through these strategies, Bombshell mostly feels insular, remote, and superficial. It would be nice if for once an accessible mainstream film took on the institutional powers that detrimentally shape our world with anger and incisiveness rather than a bemused concern.
Cast: Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, John Lithgow, Kate McKinnon, Mark Duplass, Connie Britton, Rob Delaney, Malcolm McDowell, Allison Janney, Alice Eve Director: Jay Roach Screenwriter: Charles Randolph Distributor: Lionsgate Running Time: 108 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Richard Jewell Leans Into Courting Conservative Persecution Pity
Ironically, Clint Eastwood is as condescending of Jewell as the bureaucrats he despises.2.5
Marie Brenner’s 1997 Vanity Fair article “American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell” is a detailed cataloging of rushed judgements, lazy assumptions, and unforgiveable abuses of power. Richard Jewell was the security guard who spotted an Alice pack loaded with pipe bombs under a bench at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. The bombs exploded, directly killing one woman and injuring over a hundred others, but Jewell’s preemptive actions undeniably reduced the scope of atrocities. Jewell became a national hero, though a tip from a bitter former boss led the F.B.I. to aggressively investigate him as the prime suspect in the bombing. The news outlets ran with this information, leading to a “trial by media” that ruined Jewell’s life. In Richard Jewell, director Clint Eastwood uses this story as fodder for what he clearly sees as a fable of the evil of the F.B.I. and the media, who take down a righteous, implicitly conservative hero out of classist spite.
Richard Jewell is a political horror film that serves as a microcosm of the “deep state” conspiracies that the Republican Party trades in today. The media is represented here by essentially one person, a reporter named Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) who learns of Jewell’s investigation by sleeping with an F.B.I. agent, Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm), who serves as the film’s more or less singular representation of our domestic intelligence and security service. As such, the media and the F.B.I. are literally in bed together, and they see in the overweight, naïve, law-enforcement-worshipping Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) a readymade patsy.
Like most auteurs, Eastwood’s films are animated by his politics, in his case often featuring singular heroes who’re targeted by bureaucrats who know nothing of in-the-field work, but the productions are often complicated by the magnitude of his artistry. Sully takes simplistic swipes at regulations that save lives, glorifying the notion of the individual, but its most muscular scenes serve as startlingly beautiful celebrations of community, suggesting an ideal of a functional state that nearly refutes Eastwood’s own beliefs. By contrast, Richard Jewell finds the filmmaker more comfortably mining MAGA resentments. The film is rife with conservative Easter eggs. When we see Jewell’s attorney, Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), in his office, Eastwood highlights a sticker in a mirror that says “I Fear Government More Than I Fear Terrorism.” The film is dotted with guns, Confederate flags, and religious artifacts. And the real perpetrator of the bombing, Eric Randolph, a bigoted domestic terrorist who might interfere with Eastwood’s conservative reverie, is kept almost entirely off screen, reduced to a shadow.
Of course, Richard Jewell is set in the Bible Belt, and many of these details are pertinent. As Brenner’s article states, Bryant is a libertarian, and so that sticker accurately reflects his beliefs. But Eastwood and screenwriter Billy Ray rig the story so severely, in the service of courting conservative persecution pity, that even truthful details feel contextually false. Per Brenner, Jewell was a victim of many colliding interests, from the fading power of The Atlantic-Journal Constitution, which employed Scruggs, to internal clashes within the F.B.I.
In the film, the cops and journalists are desperate elitists just looking to finish a job, and their power is uncomplicatedly massive. The timing of Eastwood’s insinuation is unmistakable, suggesting that Jewell, the conservative Everyman, was railroaded by the government and the media in the same fashion as Trump, for possessing an uncouthness that offends “tastemaker” ideologies. The notion of political convictions as informed by image, particularly of culture and attractiveness, is a potentially brilliant one, and Eastwood’s portrait of liberal condescension isn’t entirely invalid, but he keeps scoring points at the expense of nuance.
In Brenner’s article, the F.B.I. is embarrassed to search the house of Jewell’s mother, Bobi (played here by Kathy Bates), where he lived. In the film, though, the officers storm the house in a smug and self-righteous fashion. Jewell was once actually in law enforcement and had many friendships and even a few girlfriends, while in the film he’s a pathetic wannabe eager to screw himself over for the sake of flattery. Sentiments that are attributed to Jewell in the article are transferred over to Bryant in the film, so to as to make the protagonist a more poignant fool. Ironically, Eastwood is as condescending of Jewell as the bureaucrats he despises. (The filmmaker also, weirdly, elides real-life details that would serve his demonization, such as the F.B.I. lying about there being a “hero bomber” profile.)
Even with Eastwood so explicitly grinding an ax, Richard Jewell has the visceral power of his other recent political fables. Eastwood refines a device from The 15:17 to Paris, surrounding an unknown, unpolished camera subject, in this case Hauser, with attractive famous actors so as to inherently express the profound difference between the ruling class—embodied to the public in the form of celebrities—and the eroding working class. This idea is particularly evocative when Hauser is paired with Hamm. Hauser is painfully vulnerable as Jewell, as there’s no distance between him and the character, no sense that he’s “acting.” And this impression of defenselessness, when matched against Hamm’s polish, is terrifying. Such juxtapositions fervently communicate Eastwood’s furies, however hypocritical they may be.
Eastwood continues to be a poet of American anxiety. The Atlanta bombing is boiled down to a series of chilling and uncanny details, from the public dancing to the “Macarena” before the explosion to the scattering of nails along the ground in the wake of the pipe bomb’s blast. When Scruggs pushes for the Jewell story to be published, her eyes glint with anger between the shadows of window shades—an intellectually absurd effect that emotionally sticks, embodying Eastwood’s conception of a national castigation as a noir conspiracy set in shadowy chambers populated by a mere few. Later, when Jewell is free of his ordeal, he weeps with Bryant in a café booth, a moment that Eastwood offers up as an embodiment of America stabilizing right before reaching a cultural breaking point. As stacked and calculating as Richard Jewell is, it’s a fascinating expression of the divided soul of a gifted and troubling artist. It’s a rattling expression of American bitterness.
Cast: Paul Walter Hauser, Sam Rockwell, Olivia Wilde, Jon Hamm, Kathy Bates, Nina Arianda, Ian Gomez Director: Clint Eastwood Screenwriter: Billy Ray Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 131 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Cunningham Obscures the Voice That It Wants to Celebrate
This colorful but remote-feeling documentary functions almost as though it were taking orders from the late Merce Cunningham.2.5
Alla Kovgan’s colorful but remote-feeling documentary about modern dance legend Merce Cunningham functions almost as though it were taking orders from the late choreographer himself. The film quotes him saying in various forms that he didn’t feel it appropriate or necessary to describe what his dances were about, and as such it feels appropriate that Cunningham leaves it to the dancing to deliver his story. But the problem with that approach is that it’s likely to leave many viewers, especially those who aren’t already dance aficionados, feeling somewhat at a remove from the subject matter.
Focusing on Cunningham’s works dating from 1942 to 1972, and his longtime collaborations with composer John Cage and other artists from Robert Rauschenberg to Andy Warhol, Kovgan balances loosely sketched biography with artistic recreation. The former sections are in some ways more engaging, as their often scratchy-looking archival footage provides at least some context for the sparse, ascetic, cold-water-flat milieu Cunningham was operating in. The latter sections, in which Kovgan stages a number of Cunningham’s pieces in settings ranging from a subway tunnel to a forest and are filmed in 3D with luscious colors, have a look-at-me showiness that cannot help but feel something like a betrayal of their source’s intentions.
Ascetic in approach but sometimes playful in execution, Cunningham in many ways functioned as the tip of the spear for avant-garde dance from the time he started producing work in the ‘40s. As related by the archival interviews played in the film, he didn’t appear to have much of a grand unifying theory behind his style. Rejecting the idea that he was some kind of modernist pioneer, he insists to one interviewer that he was simply “a dancer” and that he was really more interested in expanding the repertoire of movements available to performers by combining the techniques of ballet with what was already happening in modern dance in the postwar era. Quoting Cage in an old audio clip, Cunningham states with an emphatic flourish that “I have nothing to say and I am saying it.”
As you watch the dances staged in Cunningham, you may find it hard to argue with that perspective. In describing the reaction to one of his dances, Cunningham says with a barely concealed glee that “the audience was puzzled.” After a performance in Paris, food was hurled at the dancers (Cunningham joked that he looked at the tomato on the stage and wished it were an apple: “I was hungry”). Confusion about the lack of an underlying story or intent to deliver a singular emotion is understandable. Making less sense is the dismissal noted in the documentary of many of Cunningham’s pieces as “cold” and “passionless” (a charge that’s leveled at boundary-pushing art to this day). The pieces staged here by Kovgan are indeed sometimes airy and insubstantial or gangly and jagged. But just as often they’re lush and buoyant, like in “Summerspace,” in which the dancers’ fluid pivots spill over with a joy that is heightened by the bright spotted costumes and Rauschenberg backdrop.
In some of those segments, it’s hard not to feel as if Kovgan is aiming for a big splash that could introduce the rarely seen work of an oft-cited avant-garde pioneer to a wide audience, as Wim Wenders aimed to do with Pina. But unlike that 3D extravaganza, with its cunning staging and breathtaking moves, Cunningham is simply working from less accessible source material. Even when Cunningham’s work is less abstracted, such as that bouncy floating maneuver that is something of a signature, it doesn’t exactly catch one’s attention.
Time and again in the film, we hear or see Cunningham reiterate his principle that the dances aren’t intended to reference anything. Interpretation is up to the audience, he said. In this way, he isn’t far from the take-it-or-leave-it sensibility of Warhol, whose silver balloons he incorporated into one piece. But by amplifying Cunningham’s dances with sun-dappled backdrops and 3D gimmickry, Kovgan deviates from their creator’s principle in a way that almost seems to betray their original intent. By taking so much focus away from the dancers, the film’s stagings come close to obscuring the voice it’s trying to celebrate.
Director: Alla Kovgan Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 93 min Rating: PG Year: 2019
Review: The Two Popes Carefully and Dubiously Toes a Party Line
There isn’t anything in the bleeding-heart positions espoused by Jorge Bergoglio that complicates Pope Francis’s public persona.1.5
Fernando Meirelles’s The Two Popes is quick to acknowledge that Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) is a humble man of the people. The film opens with a scene that fades in on Bergoglio, recently anointed Pope Francis, as he attempts to order a plane ticket over the phone. Assuming she’s being pranked when the caller gives his name and address, the Italian operator hangs up on the generously bemused head of the Catholic Church. After centuries of pomp, the scene suggests, the world’s Catholics were unprepared for a genuine article like Francis, a corrective to an episcopal hierarchy that had drifted too far away from the people. So goes the thesis of The Two Popes, reiterated in a number of subsequent scenes: Unlike previous generations of pontiffs, Francis engages with the actual state of the world, watches soccer, listens to pop music, and speaks to economic inequality.
This brief prologue’s slight humor and documentary-style presentation give an accurate idea of where the film is headed, both thematically and formally. Throughout, Meirelles embellishes the screenplay’s often dry conversations with pseudo-improvised camerawork—unsteady framing, sudden tilts, and emphatic snap zooms—familiar from his prior films, most notably City of God and The Constant Gardner. But what seemed, in the early aughts, fresh and well-suited to gangster movies and spy thrillers, feels dated and out of place in a film that amounts to two powerful octogenarians having a series of conversations. By abruptly adjusting the lens’s focal length at almost arbitrary moments, Meirelles transparently attempts to add dynamism to a film in which powerful actors are stuck reciting staid, safe dialogue.
The hagiographic Two Popes shuffles through moments in Bergoglio’s life. Some scenes are set in Argentina in the 1970s, a tumultuous time for the country, but the film mainly focuses on the development of Bergoglio’s relationship with Joseph Ratzinger (Anthony Hopkins), Pope Benedict XVI, during the early 21st century. Flashing back to eight years before the prologue, the camera travels through the narrow alleys of Buenos Aires, arriving at an outdoor sermon that Bergoglio is delivering. Unattached to the air of benevolent superiority Catholic priests are expected to exude, Bergoglio tangentially speaks of his support for the San Lorenzo soccer team, at which revelation his congregation feels comfortable booing their diocese’s bishop.
Meanwhile, John Paul II has died, and as a cardinal, Bergoglio must return to Rome to help elect a new pope. There he encounters Ratzinger, at the time a conservative Bavarian cardinal who haughtily insists on speaking to Bergoglio in Latin when they meet in a Vatican bathroom, and who turns up his nose when the Argentinian begins humming ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” to himself while washing his hands. The inclusion of an ABBA song makes for a lighter tone that The Two Popes will unevenly revive at various moments across its running time; the film will transition between scenes using out-of-place lounge jazz and ‘60s pop, then abruptly drop the levity for dialogic lessons on the state of Catholic theology.
The dogmatic Ratzinger’s election as pope later that year would signal an end to years of liberalization within the Catholic Church, a back-to-basics gesture that ultimately failed. His short reign would be dominated by controversy, as members of his inner circle were indicted for financial crimes and a long-brewing scandal over church cover-ups of sexual abuse came to the fore. Meirelles handles this historical context through aural and visual montages of archival news reports, which fill the gap as the story fast-forwards to a moment in 2012 when Pope Benedict calls Bergoglio, his unofficial rival from the church’s liberal wing, back to Rome.
Benedict aims to convince the bishop not to resign, as it would look to the outside world—as Benedict professes it does to him—that the liberal Bergoglio is renouncing his cardinalship in protest. Strolling through the lush gardens of the Vatican, or speaking in low, strained voices in its resplendent halls, the two debate their opposing theological and political philosophies. A mutual respect develops between them, with Benedict gradually opening himself to the outside world from which he has stayed aloof; one scene has Bergoglio teaching him about the Beatles, and in another the Argentine convinces the stiff German to try out the tango.
That’s all very cute, surely, but it’s also evidence that, despite courting a gritty reality effect with its documentary-inspired aesthetic, The Two Popes is carefully toeing a party line rather than exposing any hidden truths. Though it includes (rather hammy) flashbacks to Bergoglio’s morally ambiguous interactions with the Argentinian military dictatorship of the ‘70s, there isn’t anything in the bleeding-heart positions espoused by Bergoglio that complicates Pope Francis’s public persona. For his part, Ratzinger comes off as the best version of the man one could imagine, given the turmoil that marked his tenure: old-fashioned but authentic, perhaps just a bit too aged and attached to the institution to weed out its excesses.
As, in scene after scene, the heads of the world’s most powerful religious institution neatly summarize their philosophies to one another, the viewer may sense a misdirect: What happened to the corruption? Where are the meetings about how to handle the child-abuse scandals? Such issues, which presumably would have been the subject of many a Vatican City discussion, turn out to be little more than background material to the individualized and sentimentalized story of two men with differing views becoming friends. Even when they do come up, our attention is directed elsewhere. The flashbacks to Bergoglio’s spotted past begin soon after the sexual abuse scandals are first mentioned, redirecting our piqued concern with institutional sins toward the drama of an individual man’s fateful misjudgment.
The second time the pair’s conversations drift toward the simmering abuse scandal, Meirelles actually drowns out the dialogue with a high-pitched whine on the soundtrack, and for no discernable story reason. It’s as if Bergoglio’s hearing has been impaired by the explosive truth. The moment feels less like the filmmakers protecting us from a truth too awful to hear, and much more like them shielding us from one too dangerous to be heard.
Cast: Jonathan Pryce, Anthony Hopkins, Juan Minujín, Sidney Cole, Thomas D. Williams, Federico Torre, Pablo Trimarchi Director: Fernando Meirelles Screenwriter: Anthony McCarten Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 125 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Review: Empty Metal Grapples with the Efficacy of Activist Violence
The film is greater in its confrontational force than the sum of a dozen festival breakthroughs lauded for their fearlessness.3
The idea that violence can be an effective or even necessary form of activism is one of the last remaining taboos in a contemporary discourse that holds civil debate up as the highest virtue. Empty Metal, meanwhile, reaffirms independent, artist-made cinema as a natural arena for wading through these kinds of uncomfortable notions. Greater in its confrontational force than the sum of a dozen festival breakthroughs lauded for their fearlessness, and certainly more potent than Todd Phillips’s Joker, it takes on the ambitious and possibly risky task of exploring what activist violence means in the context of a modern world where ambient forms of hostility—militarized police aggression (specifically toward people of color), mass surveillance and ongoing, never-ending wars—subtly dictate our lives.
Collaborating for the first time on what constitutes for both of them a narrative feature debut, Adam Khalil and Bayley Sweitzer have fashioned a topical lightning rod with Empty Metal, though not in a manner that suggests willful provocation. Assembled on a meager budget with friends, family, and members of the filmmakers’ extended artistic circles, the film progresses with an untamed energy and disregard for convention that suggest the manifestation of creative impulses feeding, unchecked, off one another. Juggling multiple intersecting storylines with passages of visual lyricism and diegesis-breaking reminders of contemporary injustices, Empty Metal offers an anarchic collage that careens between narrative storytelling (Sweitzer’s background) and documentary and video-art instincts (Khalil’s backgrounds).
Central to the story of Empty Metal are Rose (indie noise musician Rose Mori, a.k.a. PVSSYHEAVEN), Pam (Sam Richardson), and Devon (Austin Sley Julian), a trio of disaffected electro-punk rockers gigging around Brooklyn under the moniker of Alien. But to call them protagonists undercuts the degree to which Khalil and Sweitzer frame them less as independently motivated agents than as ciphers ushered along a path over which they appear to exert little control. More instrumental to the film’s evolution are the clairvoyant, vaguely ethereal figures—a Rastafarian chef listed in the credits as King Alpha (Oba), an older indigenous woman (Irma LaGuerre), and several of their younger accomplices—who watch over the trio and ultimately size them up as eligible candidates for a criminal plot.
Rose, Pam, and Devon are to assassinate three infamous white cops who’ve gotten away with murder, then go off the grid. Neither the names of the targets nor their specific infractions are clarified, though the connections to real-life analogues are made more or less self-evident in the series of crude 3D renderings of police violence that are periodically inserted into the middle of scenes. On the eve of a domestic Alien tour, Rose is approached at the band van by a member of King Alpha’s clan, who leans into the would-be rebel to impart a telepathic message paraphrased, as with a number of the film’s longer monologues, from William S. Burroughs’s novel The Place of Dead Roads: “I will teach you to dissociate gun, arm, and eye.”
Intuitively reading between the lines, Rose promptly loses interest in the tour and recruits, with little resistance, her bandmates to the cause. This sequence of events, along with anything else having to do with the transition of these hitherto merely frustrated musicians to insurrectionary vigilantes, hardly stands up to dramatic scrutiny, due in equal parts to Mori, Richardson, and Julian’s stilted line deliveries and the insufficient time their characters are afforded in the editing to acquire anything like psychological plausibility.
Nonetheless, there’s something of a poetic logic to the characters’ transformations, an unnerving illustration of the idea that the gap between ambient frustration and radicalism is but a short cognitive leap. There’s also a sense of fatalism that hangs over the proceedings, of an inexorable historical duty that can’t or shouldn’t be resisted. In an ominous sequence of self-actualization, Rose recites the names of historical dissidents from Ulrike Meinhof to Osama bin Laden with a mix of clinical dispassion and reverence as archival footage and animated representations of their violent acts fill the screen.
By contrast, Khalil and Sweitzer stage a lighter scene around the mid-forest meeting of King Alpha, LaGuerre’s character, and a European monk (Pawel Wojtasik) previously seen only in excerpts of a de-contextualized courtroom taping. Here, it’s casually implied that the three characters—who suddenly claim to have last seen each other at either the “L.A. riots” or Wounded Knee—are merely the corporeal containers of activist spirits who weave through the centuries, cyclically reuniting to nudge willing souls toward more proactive forms of rebellion.
Taking its title from a description of drones given by Rose in voiceover, Empty Metal questions if perhaps these transhistorical agitators have met a new and unconquerable challenger in the surveillance state, armed as it is with high-tech weaponry and vast intel on its populace. Certainly, the right-wing militia shown in another chilling subplot offers no compelling resistance to this monolithic force, even as they stash up on firearms and embark on austere training. The figurehead of this self-determined group (Jon Nandor) happens to be the son of Wojtasik’s monk, and it’s a quiet dinner table scene between the two of them that stands out among all the jarring associative edits and flicker-frame embellishments as one of the film’s strongest effects. As the father dismantles his son’s second amendment convictions, he’s left unable to contemplate an adequate alternative, and it’s telling that even a sage, potentially immortal mystic seems perplexed by our current predicament.
Cast: Rose Mori, Austin Sley Julian, Sam Richardson, Oba, Irma LaGuerre, Pawel Wojtasik, Jon Nandor Director: Adam Khalil, Bayley Sweitzer Screenwriter: Adam Khalil, Bayley Sweitzer Distributor: Factory 25 Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Beniamino Barrese’s The Disappearance of My Mother
It’s fascinating to see Benedetta Barzini in academic action, like an ethnographer of the patriarchy herself.3
Domestic ethnography typically sees a filmmaking member of a family turning the camera inward to investigate, or rewrite, a family’s history. This means that the filmmaker in question can occupy the inconvenient position of unearthing the ancient dirt on top of which the family is founded. In The Disappearance of My Mother, director Beniamino Barrese is less interested in wrestling with the maternal function in the drama of a household than in the mother’s status as his muse. The film is a love letter to the filmmaker’s mother, Benedetta Barzini, a 76-year-old former supermodel and the first Italian woman to grace the cover of American Vogue, now a feminist fashion studies lecturer in Milan. The constellation of the family is rendered useless here, as what matters to Barrese is the love affair between mother and son, forever mediated by the camera lens.
The tragedy here isn’t to be found in the regrettable actions of yore or the repressed feelings that both constitute and undermine a home, but in the unfairness of time. The film seems to say that a mother must age, a mother must die, and some of them may even want to. And it seemingly recognizes something tragic in an external world that’s obsessed with all of the things Barzini doesn’t value, despite having been a fashion industry commodity in the 1960s: beauty, youth, luxury, and cleanliness (she hardly ever showers or changes her bedsheets).
Barzini’s feminist stance appears as her most consistent motif in old interviews, in the strangely theatrical way she used to pose with garments in fashion shoots, and in her present-day statements captured in the film, both verbal and sartorial (she shows up to receive an award in her stay-at-home clothes). She is, from the beginning of her career, vocally aware that the femininity she’s paid to display is a playful one, removed from her actual self, which is itself, Barzini argues, unphotographable. She knows the existence, and persistence, of beauty stereotypes caging women to be due to the fact that men invent women through a series of prescriptions. And that they thus invent them as Jessica Rabbits, she argues at one point, wondering out loud whether it may not be best if women’s bodies disappeared altogether.
It’s fascinating to see Barzini in academic action, like an ethnographer of the patriarchy herself, bringing back news from its most glamourous yet rotten core. She lectures young college girls about the symbolic relationship between fashion, youth, and man’s fear of death, holding magazine ads in her hands as irrefutable evidence. She asks them questions like “What does ‘old age’ mean?,” “Why do imperfections bother people?,” and “What is the point of continuing to sell our bodies without any quality or talent?” These moments of pedagogical passion occur when Barzini’s presence is allowed to take over the frame precisely because the filmmaking son fades into the background. And they’re in striking contrast to Barrese’s instances of shoving the camera into his mother’s reluctant face.
That stance, though in line with some sort of undying teenage streak, reveals a misguided desire to force his mother into his cinematic paradigm. Although Barrese purposefully allows for a great degree of transparency, showing us his failed attempts to get his mother to change outfits for continuity’s sake, for instance, these sequences feel contrived when compared to those where the mother is allowed to perform in an uncontrolled fashion. When we hear him ask her, “Is there anything you want me to put in the wash?,” or “Mom, what bothers you so much about images?,” it’s impossible not to see the air of spontaneity as calculated artifice.
Many times, Barrese acts like a vulture taking something from his mother that she doesn’t want to give. Or does she? Barzini calls him a petit bourgeois for appreciating her articulations only inasmuch as they fit his filmic narrative. And she yells, “Put the camera down! Put it down!” He obeys her for a couple seconds but leaves the camera running, then grabs it back to continue interrogating her. And she lets him. Mother and son relations are often like this—full of theatrics, ambiguity, and teeming with seduction. Neither could afford losing the other’s love. And they both know it. Which forces Barrese to keep pushing the limits. He even shoots her when she’s asleep. Or, at least, when he thinks she is. It turns out that following mom is a habit from childhood. And ever since then she’s been protesting his advances. “I want to disappear, not to appear,” she says, because “the lens is the enemy.”
In a beautiful sequence toward the end of the film, after Barzini speaks about dying and the shame of belonging to this world, so sullied by white men, Barrese asks her to spin around in her courtyard, holding her dress. She says she will get dizzy. He finally listens to her and lets her stand still, spinning with his camera around her himself. She smiles, enjoying the moment. She’s happy standing still, courted in the courtyard by her child’s contemplation. Mother eventually asks her son: “Are you done playing?” He’s not, and neither is she.
Director: Beniamino Barrese Screenwriter: Beniamino Barrese Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 94 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Interview: Eddie Redmayne on The Aeronauts and Accessing Physicality
Redmayne discusses everything from calibrating his physicality in rehearsals to cultivating his imagination on a barren set.
“I can’t believe you wrote your dissertation on Les Misérables,” Eddie Redmayne says in a complete non sequitur midway through our conversation. I had a feeling it might come up at some point, so I had to lead with telling him that he featured prominently in the video essay portion of my senior thesis on how Tom Hooper’s 2012 film adaptation collapsed boundaries between stage and screen. As legend has it, Redmayne made a suggestion in post-production that led to the film’s close-up-heavy editing, a choice which sparked intense discussion around the aesthetics of the musical genre.
The episode captures something about Redmayne that sets him apart from other actors who operate in a similarly demonstrative, showy register. He’s genuinely thoughtful about the full cycle of how a performance gets created and transmitted to audiences, in everything from the rehearsal process to the editing bay. After winning an Academy Award for 2014’s The Theory of Everything and another nomination for 2015’s The Danish Girl, Redmayne took a turn toward blockbuster fare with two outings playing Newt Scamander in the Fantastic Beasts series. But now he’s back to the period dramas that made his name with The Aeronauts, an old-fashioned movie adventure that reunites him with his The Theory of Everything co-star, Felicity Jones. As scientist James Glaisher and pilot Amelia Wren, Redmayne and Jones, respectively, spends the majority of the film confined to the tight space of a gas balloon’s basket as they rise to 37,000 feet in the air in an attempt to make meteorological breakthroughs in 1860s Britain.
Redmayne’s role is a fitting lens to discuss not only The Aeronauts, but also his recent career. His craft is just as much a science as it is an art. Our conversation got into the weeds of technical details as he discussed everything from calibrating his physicality in rehearsals to cultivating his imagination on a barren set. But, first, we had to discuss Les Misérables, given the pivotal role his behind-the-scenes behavior played in my academic career.
During post-production on Les Misérables, I read that while in the editing room you encouraged Tom Hooper to hold longer on the close-up of Anne Hathaway during “I Dreamed A Dream,” setting into motion the film relying on them so heavily.
Because of the way that Les Mis was shot with live singing, you couldn’t get between different tracks because of the variation. What Tom did was make sure that you could always have the whole scene cut from one setup: a wide, a mid, [and a close-up]. There were three cameras on at the same time. He was editing the film, and the studio had put out a trailer they edited themselves that was more of the close-up. Tom and I had a discussion, and I think I mentioned that it could hold. What I find so interesting is that everyone has a specific opinion on Les Mis, whether it worked—and, of course, the close-ups are something people bring up a lot. But the live singing process dictated the way it was shot. We couldn’t shoot outside a lot because, when you shoot outside, the voice disappears. So, we had to build the barricades in a studio.
What you did with Les Misérables speaks to just how much a performance gets remade in the editing room. Are you still actively involved in that final step of the process?
What’s weird about making films is you create so much of it in a vacuum. It’s not like theater, where actors get together for months and work things out. Often you meet the person playing your mother or father two hours before [shooting]. Often you don’t know the director, meeting them a day before you start working with them. You have an idea of what the character’s arc is, and, of course, part of the joy of making films is giving over that. You put that down and hope the director observes that. But a director can often observe something different that’s more interesting! What I like to do, and I’ve been lucky enough to do, is make work and, if I’m allowed into the editing process, have a dialogue with that director. Provided you know they see what you intended, whether they use that or not is obviously their choice.
I do find that dynamic really interesting, and I’ve been lucky enough with James Marsh on The Theory of Everything, Tom Hooper, and [director] Tom Harper and [screenwriter] Jack Thorne on this. Felicity and I worked together with Jack and Tom for a couple of months beforehand working through the intricacies of the script, and Tom allowed us that bit because it’s so intimate between the two of us, almost like [working on a play] with the writer and director. He allowed us the intimacy in the process the whole way through. The reason I do it is because, as an actor, you’re never happy with what ends up in the finished product. But while you can still shift and change things, I enjoy being a part of that process.
As someone who came up through theater, where you have so much less mediation between your performance and how an audience receives it, have you found comfort in the editing process?
It was a massive adjustment because I got into acting through theater. For many years, I couldn’t get cast in TV or film because I was playing to the back of the stalls in my audition. When I did start working, it’s all been a massive learning curve.
How do you approach acting out of sequence? In both The Aeronauts and The Theory of Everything, you’re tasked with building a full and continuous character arc, but that seems tough you’re stopping and restarting.
Quite often, directors will try and keep as much in chronology as possible. A lot of the stuff we did in the basket in The Aeronauts was shot chronologically. It’s the other bits that aren’t. What you have to do is see how the director is filming it, what their process is and work out what’s best for you. For example, on The Theory of Everything, all the exteriors we were shooting in the first two days in Cambridge when all the students weren’t there. That meant that any time Stephen was outside in the entire film, we were shooting in the first two days. Which meant we had to do all different physicalities at different moments of his life in the first two days. Which meant [I] had to be able to access those different physicalities very quickly, which in itself dictated the process. I wasn’t going to spend hours getting into the zone, I have to slot into these. For me, I said, I need months to rehearse, and I need to rehearse the movement like a dance so that [I] can access it quite quickly. It’s all about the stuff you do beforehand so you’re ready when you’re working the other actor to be completely free.
You shot some of The Aeronauts outdoors in the gas balloon and then some on a soundstage against a blue screen. How did you all work to keep the authenticity consistent in your performances?
We were lucky that the first thing we shot was the real stuff. We went up in the real balloon—we had this accident, it was really terrifying—and the notion of the stakes were weirdly embedded with us from day one. Ultimately, it always feels horrendously fake when you’re in a giant basket surrounded by blue screens, but they did things like [freezing] the studio for our breath. We were shooting in the summer in the U.K., and then you had cast and crew in jackets because we were in a giant refrigerator. They also gave us freezing buckets with ice to plunge our hands into beforehand. The director really gave us everything he could to make it feel [right]. Because they had gone up in helicopters and shot the skyscapes beforehand, they had very clever technology on an iPad that lets you look at the balloon to see where the sun was and what the weather was. They spent a long time working in pre-production about how to not make it look fake, and one of the things was that it could look real, but if your eyes are totally open, the fact that there’s blinding sunlight…of course, you can look at a big, bright light without it being a stretch. It was to learn to squint a bit [to avoid] the giveaway.
Between The Aeronauts and the Fantastic Beasts series, you’ve been doing quite a bit of acting in synthetic spaces.
That’s not a value judgment! How do you go about using your imagination to bring the surroundings to life in your head while maintaining the same specificity as if you were there?
I try and do a load of research, so even if it’s on Fantastic Beasts, it’s talking to the animators, going and looking at drawings and set designs. Trying to do all of that early so it’s not in your imagination. The other process I tried to learn from Dan Fogler, who’s in Fantastic Beasts and very free. He’ll try lots of different things, and I watched him on the first film and thought he was brilliant. It’s a mixture of doing your research, then throwing it away and trying things.
Has it gotten easier over time? Like a muscle that has to be trained and toned?
Yeah, it definitely does. For example, with Pickett [a small plant creature his character keeps as a pet] on Fantastic Beasts, I was so concerned with talking to something that’s not there and make it feel real. I would over[act]. [Reenacts staring intently at the creature on his hand] You never normally look at people when you talk to them. You can have a conversation with Pinkett on your hand and not really look at him.
You’ve mentioned that the basket became like another character in the film because you and Felicity shared such tight quarters with it. How do you make spaces feel natural for your characters to inhabit?
That is rehearsals. That’s why we did them. What I love about this film, hopefully, is that it’s this thrilling adventure on a big scale. At the same time, it’s also an intimate little drama. That space is the size of a sofa. We had weeks working of thinking how to make things visually interesting for an audience. Each time the camera comes back to it, it needs to have transformed or changed. We rehearsed on it so we could find different ways: whether it was sitting on the floor or one of us up in the hoop, different angles, getting rid of carpets or some of the tools. They add character to this battered, bruised vessel that’s been pummeled.
Does that mean you all were really working out specific shots and angles within the rehearsal process?
When we were rehearsing the scenes over and over again, Tom would have suggestions and ideas from watching with the cinematographer. One of the things he found is that, early on, if the camera was ever outside of the balloon—even centimeters out—it doesn’t feel real. Any moments that are caught inside the balloon, apart from a few moments where drones fly and take close-ups, the cinematographer was always inside the balloon. He was moving with the movement. The camera, similarly, was like another character in the piece. Because just one centimeter outside, since we can’t suspend ourselves in mid-air, felt unreal.
Do you find it liberating to work within such tight confines like the basket? Does it force you to be more precise and conscious of your movement and blocking?
Yeah, it does. Because you’re confined, the freedom is in the minutiae. You can’t be making big, bold gestures. I think the intimacy plays to its favor in some ways.
The Aeronauts has a theme of looking up for inspiration amidst troubling times. The last few films you’ve made generally have some kind of optimistic feeling about them. Is that a conscious running thread running through your filmography?
I never relate my films to each other, but what I think is interesting is that the only way I choose work is by reacting to it. So maybe there’s a sense of that [optimism]. The reason I wanted to do The Aeronauts is because I got to that last passage where Felicity’s character is standing on top of the world, and I just thought I would love to see that. I loved the idea of working with Felicity again. I loved this old-school adventure thrill to it. I felt like you’ve seen space investigated, but I hadn’t seen the sky. Sometimes, on a cold, horrendously miserable day, there’s something ecstatic about a break through the clouds. And whether you can retrain an audience who’s so used to seeing the sky from planes to make it feel like something new, all those things were curious to me. I don’t specifically go looking for optimistic pieces, although there was a period in my career when I was playing incestuous teenagers and schizophrenic psychos, so maybe I need to go talk to a therapist about that!
I know some actors like Meryl Streep or David Oyelowo, just to name two that come to mind, say that they deliberately only put work out into the world that they think can make it a better place.
That’s really interesting. I haven’t read that, but I’m probably not that…selfless. It tends to be something I just react to. There’s a weird moment when you read a script and suddenly feel a bit sick. That’s when you transfer yourself from imagining it to imagine yourself doing it. That’s the reality of the responsibility.
Review: Midnight Family Is an Intimate Look at Mexico’s Ambulance Crisis
It’s the mix of the humane and the calculating that gives the film its empathetic power.3
Director Luke Lorentzen’s Midnight Family opens with a startling statistic: In Mexico City, around 45 public ambulances serve a population of over nine million people. Picking up the pieces are private ambulances, such as the one owned and operated by the Ochoa family, whom Lorentzen follows over several nights as they pick up patients from accident sites, provide immediate medical service, and deposit them at various hospitals. Every element of this process is a negotiation, and Lorentzen captures a multitude of damning and haunting details. Following this family, Lorentzen fashions a documentary that serves as a wrenchingly intimate portrait of a country’s wide-reaching healthcare crisis.
For the Ochoas, particularly their portly paterfamilias, Fernando, and his charismatic 17-year-old son, Juan, the ambulance is firstly a business—a means of barebones survival. The Ochoa ambulance often resembles a kind of medical food truck, as it roams Mexico City looking for customers, who are, of course, individuals in pronounced danger and pain. Lorentzen vividly captures the chaos of the accident sites, including the maddening array of traffic lights and people wandering haphazardly among the twisted ruins of crushed vehicles and property. Into this chaos, Fernando, Juan, and others enter with a kind of cleansing purposefulness, though they also have to watch out for cops who are looking to shake them down for pay-offs. (The legality of private ambulances is somewhat vaguely rendered here; the Ochoas may or may not have the right paperwork, though they definitely need official license plates.)
It’s the mix of the humane and the calculating that gives Midnight Family its empathetic power. While saving lives, the Ochoas must focus on means of payment. They’re not ghouls, as we come to see that their next meal, and their ability to keep the vehicle running, depends on a night-by-night payout, which is threatened by the police as well as rival private ambulances. Since the Ochoas run a private business, patients can apparently refuse to pay them without recrimination from the government, which occurs often given the poverty of their largely uninsured clientele. Lorentzen is bracingly specific about money: One pick-up, of a teenage girl battered by her boyfriend, costs 3,800 pesos, at which her well-off mother balks.
Across Lorentzen’s documentary, viewers also learn of the equipment that the Ochoas need to pass regulations, and of the consequence that expense has on their ability to eat. In one evocative illustration of the effect of their profession on private life, we see the Ochoas at a gas station making tuna salad, which they eat on saltines. This meal occurs after an elaborate debate on whether they can afford to eat more than two tacos apiece.
Yet Lorentzen doesn’t turn the Ochoas into objects of our self-congratulatory pity. The filmmaker captures the despair as well as the adventure of such a livewire way of life, especially as the Ochoas race other ambulances. Fernando places a poignant amount of trust in young Juan, who daringly drives the ambulance, cutting off other vehicles with various improvisations of navigation. These chases are filmed by Lorentzen in a mixture of first-person and mounted-camera compositions that emphasize the limitation of a driver’s sight, establishing a sense of immediacy and danger that is far more thrilling than the standardly detached, alternating coverage of a conventional action film. In this fashion, Midnight Family sometimes brings to mind the brilliant chase sequence in James Gray’s We Own the Night.
Given the privacy of the scenes we witness in Midnight Family—moments of carnage, need, poverty, corruption, and love—the invisibility of Lorentzen’s presence comes as a mild disappointment. This project begs for an examination of how the filmmaking process informs the behavior of its subjects. This quality, or lack thereof, is especially evident when a family member of a patient is seen weeping in the front passenger seat of the Ochoa ambulance. How does she feel at being filmed at this moment of extremity? Midnight Family is a rich and textured film, but it stints on this kind of auto-critical answer.
Director: Luke Lorentzen Screenwriter: Luke Lorentzen Distributor: 1091 Media Running Time: 80 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: The Aeronauts Takes to the Skies, Without Much of a Dramatic Hook
As a suspense film, it’s so sluggishly structured that it borders on the avant-garde.1.5
Tom Harper’s The Aeronauts is such a sluggishly structured suspense film that it borders on the avant-garde. James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne), a 19th-century meteorologist, is attempting to prove that man can predict weather patterns, and he plans a hot-air balloon ride high into the Earth’s troposphere to conduct high-altitude measurements. With no available technology for breathing apparatuses or other modern safety equipment, James’s gambit is a bold one, but he hopes that by traveling so high he can use the most accurate measurements to prove his meteorological theses. Accompanying him is Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones), a daredevil aeronaut with experience flying balloons at extreme altitudes. They’re practically a study in contrasts. James, humorless and bookish, talks rapidly and in fussy detail, mostly holding conversations with himself and putting others in the position of needing to interject to get a word in edgewise. Amelia, meanwhile, is filled with a certain joie de vivre, literally arriving to the balloon launch doing acrobatics to liven up the assembled crowd.
This is the second time that Redmayne and Jones have starred in a film together, but familiarity has done little to deepen their stilted chemistry. James and Amelia don’t converse so much as recite their respective credentials at each other. This might have worked if The Aeronauts gave the characters specializations that the other lacked, yet each has similar strengths: James, the less experienced balloonist, nonetheless knows enough about piloting the craft to not need instruction, while Amelia understands enough about meteorology to not require James to dumb down his scientific jargon. As a result, the pair’s dynamic is devoid of inherent conflict, which might have distracted them from the monotony of their balloon’s ascent into cloud-studded skies, which Harper stages as if in real time.
Of course, sitting in a vehicle that slowly drifts upward as its two occupants engage in, at most, haughty disagreement makes for moribund drama, so Harper fills time with flashbacks to show how James and Amelia got to this point. Anyone who’s ever seen a historical fiction about a scientific pioneer will know what to expect of James’s backstory: repeated scenes of the man explaining his ideas to academic administrators with sideburns large enough to count as mating displays, all of them mirthfully wagging their turkey necks as they respond to James’s hypotheses with sayings like, “Hitting the sherry a bit early this morning, aren’t we, Glaisher?”
Meanwhile, across a series of frenzied, chaotically edited memories of trauma, Amelia relives the death of her husband, Pierre Rennes (Vincent Perez), in a ballooning accident. It’s a hysterically lopsided distribution of character motivation. We get a few shots of Amelia and Pierre tenderly embracing, but otherwise the dead man is a mere device, and all that she can say of him to James is that “his most enduring quality was a deep, true love for the beauty of the world,” which, as far as eulogies go, is about two steps above “He loved to laugh.”
George Steel’s cinematography, namely the way it captures the balloon’s ascent, is the film’s strong suit. Especially noteworthy is when James and Amelia break past the cloud layer and are left in direct sunlight that’s rendered with brilliant white light that washes out the frame even as it communicates the rapidly falling temperatures at that altitude. And that temperature drop becomes the first catalyst for actual drama when James lets slip that he didn’t pack a warm enough coat out of concerns for the balloon’s weight, setting up the last act’s belated decision to include some kind of suspense in order to give the film a dramatic hook.
Indeed, the film’s last hour, in which James and Amelia find themselves increasingly starved for oxygen as their balloon rises higher into atmosphere, is its most engaging. Here, a violently shivering James transforms into the reckless adventure, while Amelia becomes the more anxious and fearful of the two. As she urges caution in the face of falling oxygen levels, the mild-mannered scientist is suddenly overcome with delusions of grandeur and fame and does everything to keep them rising. The camera begins to blur at the edges to reflect the characters’ fading consciousness, while a series of desperate last-ditch efforts on Amelia’s part to save them both is mounted with real tension. Still, the film’s wonky, flashback-heavy structure puts so much emphasis on the by-the-numbers backstory of the characters that the actual drama of the balloon flight itself is muted, making the eventual turn toward chaos less of a narrative culmination than a last-minute recalibration of the film’s inert quality.
Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Phoebe Fox, Himesh Patel, Vincent Perez, Anne Reid, Tom Courtenay, Tim McInnerny, Rebecca Front Director: Tom Harper Screenwriter: Jack Thorne Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 100 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Review: Jennifer Reeder’s Knives and Skin Limply Aspires to the Lynchian
The film gets so lost in its affected idiosyncrasies that it stops probing any discernible human feelings.1.5
Something terrible has happened to Carolyn Harper (Raven Whitley). But unlike Twin Peaks and its plastic-wrapped Laura Palmer, Knives and Skin makes it immediately clear what occurred to her: She was left bleeding and without her glasses in the wilderness by a vengeful jock, Andy Kitzmiller (Ty Olwin), because she wouldn’t have sex with him. She never makes it back. This transpires near the start of the film, and what transpires after this point is a dreamy, neon-tinted vision of a town overcome less by grief than ennui.
Throughout Knives and Skin, writer-director Jennifer Reeder draws heavily from the style of David Lynch, cycling through the townsfolk and their weirdest tendencies. Carolyn’s mother, Lisa (Marika Engelhardt), insists that she can smell her daughter on Andy. Andy’s sister, Joanna (Grace Smith), sells underwear to Principal Markhum (Tony Fitzpatrick), cash only. The girl’s father, Dan (Tim Hopper), who’s cheating on his wife (Audrey Francis), is seen at one point emerging from between a waitress’s (Kate Arrington) legs while wearing clown makeup. And Grandma Kitzmiller (Marilyn Dodds Frank) pesters everyone for weed. Certain objects glow, and the girls’ choir practices a series of haunting pop song arrangements, its members whispering to each other one by one while the rest of the ensemble keeps singing.
Other than Lisa’s persistent, unfounded hopes that her daughter is still alive, Carolyn’s disappearance seems to intentionally leave little impression on anyone. Everyone is wrapped up in their own concerns and pursuits, struggling to hold down jobs or dealing with disinterested partners. They’re united only by their vaguely odd feelings and a sense of being trapped, as one boy (Robert T. Cunningham) does when he stands on the roof of the high school; he doesn’t intend to jump, he just wants to see the highway that leads somewhere else.
But in untethering itself from what happened to Carolyn Harper, Knives and Skin ends up unfocused, shambling from one moment of self-conscious weirdness to another. Its themes, like the constant and varied violations of consent going on throughout the town, get lost in favor of things like the talking tiger T-shirt and the hamburger meat lobbed at a vehicle in protest until the entire purpose of these surreal flourishes seems to melt away.
The film is intermittently striking with its heavily stylized lighting and wistful electronic score, but it creates little sense of place. The town where these people all live, which seems to be affecting them to such a profound degree, is so nondescript beyond a few anonymous landscape shots that it stops evoking a place they would want to leave because it doesn’t really seem like a place at all. Rather than explorations of individual oddness, Knives and Skin becomes a rather tedious mood piece with an ethereal atmosphere so remote, so lost in its affected idiosyncrasies that it stops probing any discernible human feelings.
Cast: Marika Engelhardt, Raven Whitley, Ty Olwin, Ireon Roach, Haley Bolithon, Aurora Real de Asua, Grace Smith, Marilyn Dodds Frank, Tim Hopper, Audrey Francis, James Vincent Meredith, Kate Arrington, Kayla Carter, Robert T. Cunningham, Alex Moss Director: Jennifer Reeder Screenwriter: Jennifer Reeder Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 111 min Rating: NR Year: 2019