Jason Bellamy: “It’s the pictures that got small.” Those words make up the second half of one of the most famous quotes in movie history. They are spoken, as any good film fan knows, by Norma Desmond in 1950’s Sunset Boulevard, and yet I think of them each time I watch Lawrence of Arabia. Released in 1962, David Lean’s poetic biopic is epic by every definition of the word. It’s long—216 minutes, plus intermission. It’s grand in subject—using its title character to draw us into a historical war movie in disguise. It’s emotionally hefty—focusing on an aimless man who finds himself through great struggle, only to lose his sanity within his new identity. As if that weren’t enough, it’s held together by a sprawling Maurice Jarre score. But what best qualifies Lawrence of Arabia as “epic” in my mind is its visual enormity, pairing some of the most awe-inspiring panoramas cinema has ever provided with some equally striking closeups.
Thus far in The Conversations we’ve covered some truly modern epics (Michael Mann’s Heat comes to mind) and some modern films that evoke the spirit of epics past (The Last of the Mohicans, perhaps), but this is the first time we’ve discussed what could be called a “classic” or “traditional” epic—a film that doesn’t just represent the term but helps to define it (which isn’t to suggest that 1939’s Gone with the Wind or 1915’s Birth of a Nation didn’t get there first). For reasons I’ll describe later, Lawrence of Arabia is a film that took me a few viewings to fully appreciate, and yet I’ve been a passionate fan of it now for at least 10 years. In contrast, you hadn’t seen Lawrence of Arabia until you watched it for The Conversations.
There are numerous topics that we must cover before this discussion is over, a few of which have everything to do with when this film was made (before CGI technology was available and before adorning white actors in brownface was taboo), and picking a starting point is a bit daunting. So let’s begin here: Lawrence of Arabia is considered by many to be one of the greatest films of all time. For what it’s worth: it was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, winning seven, including Best Picture; it was No. 5 on the American Film Institute’s initial top-100 list, released in 1998; and it’s No. 3 on the British Film Institute’s latest top-100 list. With that as a snapshot of the movie’s acclaim, I’m curious: When you watched Lawrence of Arabia for the first time only recently, did it strike you as a great film, a classic and an epic? Did it live up to its reputation? Or did it leave you underwhelmed despite its enormity?
Ed Howard: As you suggest, it’s hard to know where to start with a movie like this, with its reputation as one of the greatest movies ever made. It’s up there on a tier with Citizen Kane and Casablanca as a movie that everyone is supposed to see, and that kind of canonization can be stifling. I’m not sure any movie can live up to a reputation like that, but Lawrence of Arabia certainly didn’t leave me underwhelmed, even though these kinds of sprawling old-school epics are usually not to my taste. What I appreciated about the film was how subtle it was, how introspective it was for an epic. In some ways, a lot of it doesn’t even feel like a conventional epic. Sure, it’s long, and filled with those widescreen crowd scenes that are pretty much the aesthetic bread and butter for the genre. It’s even packed with bibilical allusions and Christ allegories, aligning it with the grand religious tales, from The Ten Commandments to The Passion of the Christ, that always seem to be prime subjects for these spectacles. But what sets Lawrence of Arabia apart from typical epics (which generally underwhelm me) is its texture. David Lean has a real eye—and ear; the film’s soundtrack, beyond its bombastic score, is stunning—for details, for carving out emotions and themes from the smallest touches.
That’s why, for me, the film works best not in the moments when Lean is aiming to overwhelm with bright, busy frames bustling with activity, but when he’s crafting more subtle effects. For a grand epic, much of the film’s running time is actually dedicated to stark, minimalist sequences of wandering through the desert. In that respect, Lawrence of Arabia belongs as much to a very different continuity of films, from John Ford’s 3 Godfathers to Werner Herzog’s Fata Morgana or Gus Van Sant’s Gerry, all films where the mystical and isolating quality of the desert plays a very important role. Lean crafts many minimal, forbidding sequences dominated by Rothkoesque simple landscapes, with two colors separated from one another by a horizontal line—pale blue on top and white on the bottom, often with the black specks of camels trotting across the sand.
Images like that define Lawrence of Arabia for me. Sure, there are plenty of more traditional epic moments: big battle scenes and rousing speeches and military parades and big trains of soldiers winding through the desert. I like the film more, though, when it’s not trying to be big, when it’s working on a smaller scale within its huge canvas.
JB: What you’re getting at here is the way that Lean uses the enormity of the film’s landscape to enhance the intimacy of his storytelling. Those initial shots of Peter O’Toole’s Lawrence riding through the desert are awe-inspiring, to be sure, and any director with half a brain would jump at the chance to shoot in front of such exotic backdrops, but Lean is out to do more than capture stunning scenery. By showing Lawrence effortlessly carving his way through the rugged desert as if it’s his own playground sandbox, Lean conveys Lawrence’s early romanticism of the desert, his yearning for adventure and his sightseer’s naïveté. At the onset, Lawrence treats the desert as if it’s a fantasy camp, getting so lost in the majesty of his surroundings that he becomes blind to their inherent danger. (It’s a symbol of the way he will oversimplify his political maneuvers later on.) By capturing Lawrence at a distance, rather than relying on closeup reaction shots, Lean entices the audience into making the same mistake, so that we too fall under the spell of the desert’s breathtaking magnificence.
That’s just one example, but over and over again the epic grandeur of Lean’s film serves to illustrate its core character analysis. In that respect, Lawrence of Arabia has more in common with There Will Be Blood than with an equally massive epic like Ben-Hur, the latter of which is more about what happens to the title character than about how the character is affected by what happens. Beyond the film’s grand canvases, those sprawling crowd scenes serve a deeper purpose, too. Common at the multiplex are battle epics in which the enormity of the hero’s phalanx is representative of the character’s strength and leadership, thanks in part to the ubiquitous pep talk on horseback that always leads to a warm round of huzzahs. Here, though, Lawrence’s madness grows in proportion to the size of his army, as he routinely misinterprets their group strength for his own. In saying that I don’t mean to imply that all those army-on-the-march shots aren’t also generally indicative of the era in which Lawrence of Arabia was made—a time when Americans still loved the Western and thus directors had a fondness for filming men on horseback (or camelback, in this case). In that sense, many of Lean’s crowd shots are as characteristic of the early 1960s as rapid-fire editing is characteristic of modern filmmaking. Still, those sprawling crowd shots routinely tell us something about the psychology of the main character, which puts Lawrence of Arabia in stark contrast to so many modern epics in which the vastness of the crowds suggests little more than an effort to spend every dime of the CGI budget.
EH: I’m glad you made that distinction between the “what happens” kind of epic and Lawrence of Arabia, in which what happens is nowhere near as important as who it happens to and how it affects him, and also how it’s presented onscreen. One of my main problems with the conventional epic is how much of its emphasis is on plot. So many of these films play out like someone breathlessly blurting out an incredible story: “and then this happened, and then this happened, and then… !” (Maybe the fact that so many epics are bibilical, and thus conform to a well-established narrative mold and static character motivations, contributes to this impression.) In contrast, Lawrence of Arabia lets long stretches of time go by where, actually, not much happens at all. Lean has the self-assurance to know that he has a large canvas to work with here, and that if he wants to spend ten or fifteen minutes simply watching Lawrence and his army wander through the desert, suffocating under the hot sun, it’s okay. Lean doesn’t feel the need to cram every second of the film’s nearly four-hour running time with incident, just as he’s comfortable with the judicious use of minimalist, near-empty frames. The protagonist might in one shot be an indistinguishable black dot in a forbidding landscape, while in the next the camera might stare, in closeup, into O’Toole’s haunted blue eyes.
It’s this sensitivity to the effects of scale that makes Lawrence of Arabia great. To borrow a musical metaphor, Lean has a sense of dynamics. He’s not just doing what so many epics do, always blasting at top volume with everything piling up. Instead, he balances quiet, introspective interludes against the sporadic big battle scenes; the film’s rhythms ebb and flow like a piece of classical music, shifting from low-key movements into periodic bursts of bombast. Many epics treat form superficially, but not Lawrence of Arabia, which is very formally sophisticated. For Lean, to be epic doesn’t mean to be big and overbearing all the time, but to span a wide emotional and aesthetic range.
A perfect example is the scene where Lawrence returns to the deadly stretch of desert known as “the Sun’s Anvil” in order to rescue a missing man. This scene is structured not as a frantic action race, but as a long and languid period of waiting. For the most part, we don’t even see Lawrence himself as Lean cuts between the soldiers back in camp, waiting expectantly without really thinking their leader will return, a lookout at the edge of the desert, and the missing man, sweltering beneath the hot red sky. The sequence is dominated by long-range shots of the empty, static desert, and only at the very end does Lean introduce any movement and bombast, as the camera takes on the perspective of the lookout, speeding across the desert toward the distant blur of Lawrence approaching on camel. The white, unchanging sand rushes by beneath the camel’s hooves, as the black wavery splotch in the distance begins to resolve itself into another rider, and finally Lean pulls back for a striking wide shot of the two camels as they pass one another within this great expanse of nothingness. It’s a great sequence, and a recognizably epic, spectacular one as well, but it’s set up by Lean’s patience and ability to build suspense gradually.
JB: Agreed. That scene you cite is a terrific one, and the incredible thing is that it isn’t even the film’s most patient or suspenseful presentation of a man emerging out of the nothingness. That honor goes to the scene at the well, when we are introduced to Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif), which plays out remarkably similarly to the famous crop-duster scene in North by Northwest. In this case it’s O’Toole in Cary Grant’s role, and Lean designs the scene as Hitchcock would have: with devious patience that creates excruciating unease. Hitchcock’s brand of suspense is notable for the way it instills not fear but vulnerability—Grant at that bus stop in the middle of nowhere in North by Northwest, Janet Leigh in the shower in Psycho, Jimmy Stewart in a wheelchair in Rear Window, and so on. As Lawrence stands by the well watching that hazy apparition turn into a distant figure and then into a discernible silhouette, his vulnerability is palpable. In that instant the anonymous figure makes an entire desert seem rampant with danger, just as the entire ocean seems deadly in Jaws once we’ve laid eyes on the shark. It’s a tremendous scene, and even though Lawrence leaves his first encounter with Sherif Ali with his bravado intact we get our first indication that Lawrence’s sense of superiority is foolishly naïve.
It’s worth pointing out that the sequence in which Sherif Ali approaches from the distance is a little less than two minutes long and it has about twelve cuts in it, depending on when you start counting. In other words, it’s a cut every ten seconds or so. Even by today’s rapid-cut standards that might not seem especially patient—and in interviews Lean expressed regret that he used any cuts whatsoever—but it plays patiently because of the silence (no score) and the stillness (the characters hardly move). As a firm believer that painstakingly infrequent cuts can be just as distracting as too many, I think Lean’s scene finds the right balance. The reaction shots of Lawrence and his guide, Tafas (Zia Mohyeddin), make it clear that this approaching stranger is something to fear, not to simply regard with idle curiosity. At the same time, the wide-angle shots of the dark figure on camelback instill us with an understanding of the desert’s massiveness; we can sense how far the mysterious stranger has traveled, which makes it all the more terrifying that Lawrence and Tafas have been discovered amidst this vastness.
Each time I see that scene it strikes me that I’m watching cinematic perfection. That isn’t to suggest that there wasn’t another way of shooting that scene or to imply that it’s the greatest scene in cinema history. What I mean is that the scene is without fault. And yet the scene I just described to you isn’t the scene I saw the first time I came across Lawrence of Arabia on TV so many years ago—mutilated in fullscreen and blurry on top of that. To watch the film now on DVD, or to catch it on the big screen as I’ve had the pleasure to do, is indeed to watch a speck morph into a discernable figure. It’s beautiful. Alas, as I originally saw it on TV, Sherif Ali was too small to be recognized or was cropped so closely that the immensity of the stage was lost. Scenes like this one make me grateful for the technological advancements of the past twenty years, while also causing me to cringe at the thought of some platform-agnostic kid discovering this movie on his iPhone. Lawrence of Arabia is the rare film that demands the largest screen you can find and earns every inch you give it.
EH: Yes, in that respect it’s like Jacques Tati’s Playtime, another film that demands a large screen due to its use of scale and fine detail: they’re both films that are big and yet frequently ask us to focus intensely on the smallest minutiae within their massive frames. The particular scene you mention is definitely a great one, and I was thinking of that moment, especially, when I cited Fata Morgana earlier. Lean is evoking the hallucinatory quality of the desert. At first, it’s Hitchcockian and creepy, then lulling and seductive, as when Lawrence is hypnotized by the bobbing shadow of a camel’s head drawn out across the shifting sands. Ultimately, as in Herzog’s later film, all these images of the desert represent an inner landscape as well as an outer one: Lawrence’s loneliness, isolation and hysteria externalized onto the expanses of sand and sky.
I could gush a great deal more about all the stunning scenes in Lawrence of Arabia, because there are so many sequences where I’m simply blown away by the power of Lean’s imagery and his ability to define a character so precisely and memorably through purely formal, visual means. At this point, however, I should probably admit that the film didn’t have me quite so rapt for its entire running time. Certainly, it’s a great film, but the things I loved about it seemed to be most present in its first half, while in the second half Lean starts to fall into some of the same traps that we identified as affecting other classic epics. We’ve praised Lawrence of Arabia for not being a “what happens” movie, but in the second half, Lawrence shuttles back and forth between his nomadic desert lifestyle and the British high command based in Cairo, and, well, a lot of stuff just seems to happen. Lawrence returns to Cairo, vows to abandon his guerilla war, then reunites with his army anyway, then returns to Cairo, and so on. The second half hardly falls apart or anything—it remains a well-crafted, satisfying film—but I felt a little bit like I was just watching Lawrence change outfits over and over again, from his crisp military uniform to his rugged Arab garb. Lean has much more subtle touches than his tendency to express the shifts in Lawrence’s character through wardrobe changes.
I feel similarly about the introductory framing scenes, which take place at Lawrence’s funeral and thus establish the remaining three-plus hours of the film as a really long flashback. It’s a clumsy device, and arguably doesn’t add much to the film besides positioning its primary action, and by extension the specter of colonialism, as a thing of the past. So what do you think? Does Lean’s subtlety and restraint sometimes give way to more conventional bombast and overbearing impulses? Is the film’s uneven dramatic arc, with its “stuff happens” second half, simply a result of the shape of the real Lawrence’s life? Does the flashback framing serve to distance us from the events of the film and thus prevent its implicit anti-colonial critique from hitting too close to home? Or do you see all this differently?
JB: I never considered the possibility that the framing device is there to dull the anti-colonial criticisms, but I’d certainly agree that it has that effect, even if that isn’t Lean’s explicit intent (though maybe it is). More so, I think it’s there to establish Lawrence as a tragic figure—cheaply garnering our sympathies by showing us his death from the get-go in order that we might be less judgmental later on. But there is a deeper effect. As with the scene at the well, Lawrence’s motorcycle crash establishes his vulnerability—a vulnerability that he spends the much of the film trying to deny. To put it another way, the crash instantly brings us to the same conclusion that Anthony Quinn’s Auda Abu Tayi only comes to after no gold is found in Aqaba: “He is not perfect.” Furthermore, the scene outside of Lawrence’s funeral establishes through the diverse reactions of the mourners that what follows will be somewhat mythical, as no one can agree on how to remember him. The man who only shook Lawrence’s hand is honored to have done so (unaware that he also cursed him); the general is annoyed at the attention Lawrence received; and the American journalist is still capitalizing on Lawrence’s celebrity in an effort to create his own. That’s my long way around to agreeing with you that the framing device is clumsy and unnecessary, while acknowledging that it’s cleverer than it might first appear.
I agree wholeheartedly, however, that the second half of the film is more historical (by which I don’t mean factual) than emotional, and thus it’s less compelling. (The latter half of the film also irks me because of the grating performance of Arthur Kennedy as journalist Jackson Bentley by way of The Stereotypical Brash American. But I digress.) Then again, the latter half of the film includes two of the film’s most emotionally piercing moments: Lawrence’s rape at the prison and his subsequent “No prisoners!” battle cry. Oh, that battle cry! Lawrence of Arabia is the film that often pops to mind when I bemoan how CGI has cheapened the epic by inserting flat digital figures where beautifully three-dimensional human extras once stood, and by creating fantastical green-screen worlds that never have the depth of real locations, but even the closeup of Lawrence shouting “No prisoners!” shows the richness of good old-fashioned filmmaking. I mean, really, just look into O’Toole’s eyes in that moment. You can’t computer-generate emotion like that, though David Fincher sure tried in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of CGI, and I’m not blind to its numerous practicalities. But I can’t be alone here, you must agree with me: One of the reasons this film is so affecting is because we can feel, consciously and subconsciously, its relative reality. Right?
EH: It depends on what you mean by reality, I guess. If you just mean that the film was shot mostly on location, without recourse to fancy effects or trickery, then yes, it’s rooted in reality. But in its way the world of Lawrence of Arabia is just as artificial, just as stylized, as the lurid CGI backdrops of Benjamin Button and 300 and other modern CGI epics. Think of all those shots of the sun rising into a blood-red sky, or the hallucinatory desert mirages we’ve already mentioned. I get what you mean about the nefarious effects of CGI when it’s used indiscriminately, but I wouldn’t say that Lawrence is more real, exactly—more physical, maybe, since CGI environments often have a certain flatness of texture. In the broadest sense, though, artificiality is central to the epic genre, along with ahistoricity and big gestures: like all epics, Lawrence is, as you say, a myth, a legend, blown up from the raw facts of reality. Its relationship to reality is complicated.
As for this film’s second half, it sounds like we agree that it’s not as strong as the first half, but that it does have its high points. In fact, even Kennedy’s obnoxious reporter has at least one good scene, not coincidentally one without any spoken dialogue, its power attributable only to the film’s editing. It’s the scene where Bentley is observing a battle scene and keeps popping up like a jack-in-the-box to take pictures; Lean intercuts these scenes with the violent action, letting the rhythms add a humorous, satirical bite to the reporter’s gleeful documentation of the carnage.
I also agree with you about Lawrence’s encounter with the Turkish commander, which was based on the real-life Lawrence’s assertion that he was captured and raped while in Arabia. This scene is a perfect demonstration of Lean’s knack for visual storytelling: the scene’s emotional undercurrents and homoerotic subtexts are encoded in the mise en scène. Lawrence is held down on a bench, while the officer voyeuristically watches from the next room, just visible at the rear of the frame, half-hidden behind a door, his presence betrayed by his sickly cough. The sadomasochistic and homoerotic components of the scene are communicated entirely non-verbally, in the subtle, sinister aura that builds up throughout the scene, in the arrangement of bodies within the frame and the aural connections between different areas. This kind of thing is what sets Lawrence of Arabia apart more than its freedom from CGI over-reliance: its firm base in classical, formally engaged storytelling.
JB: Well, you’ll get no argument from me that Lawrence of Arabia engages in some rich, classical storytelling. And I want to come right back to that, and to the rape scene. But, let’s back up a second: the world of Lawrence of Arabia feels “just as artificial, just as stylized” as that of 300? Really? You can’t be serious.
EH: Hah! I did say “in its way.” So if you want me to qualify my initial assertion, I’ll admit it’s an overstatement (and I’ll further stress, just to be clear, that I find 300 a really lousy movie). My point was that effect matters more than the tools used: a given unreal-looking landscape might be CGI-generated or photographed from a real location, but does it matter if the final effect of both is of overt unreality? Certainly Lawrence is a much more realistic-looking movie than Benjamin Button and 300 and many other modern CGI epics, but Lean is frequently aiming for effects just as stylized. All those desert landscapes are filmed subjectively rather than realistically; warped and sun-hazy, conjuring up absurd images like the boat that rises out of the desert at one point, a sudden non-sequitur, during Lawrence’s somber ride back to Cairo from Aqaba. The skies above Lawrence are frequently full of hues so bright and layered that they hardly look naturalistic: more like CGI, or the kinds of equally artificial matte paintings favored by classical filmmakers like Hitchcock or Powell and Pressburger.
Basically, I’m saying that CGI doesn’t have a monopoly on artificiality, and that just because something was shot on “real” locations doesn’t mean it’s necessarily aiming for (or achieving) realism. As different as Lawrence of Arabia is from more modern epics, it does share that common ground in its emphasis on larger-than-life aesthetics.
JB: Hmm. I suppose. But as “absurd” as the image of the massive ship cutting through the desert might be, that image, so far as I know, wasn’t achieved with any kind of special effects trickery. Instead Lean just found the right place to situate his camera next to the Suez Canal. Thus, I have a hard time buying the argument that the shot isn’t realistic. Fantastic? Sure. But it’s rooted in realism. Having said that…
To your larger point, I wholeheartedly agree that it’s the ultimate effect, the image, that we should focus on, and not the means by which it is achieved. If I played Moses and handed down ten commandments for moviegoers, that directive would go on the first tablet. Still, I’d like to suggest that most of the time we instinctively know the difference between a shot that is stylized using tangible, three-dimensional “reality” (the ship in the Suez Canal) and a shot that is stylized using computer-generated effects (anything from 300), and that our awareness of that reality influences the effect. Perhaps younger audiences who have grown up with CGI don’t notice a difference; show Lawrence of Arabia to a 13-year-old and he or she might assume most of those shots are digitally enhanced. But I’m not that 13-year-old. While I’m young enough to have been raised in the Star Wars era, I’m also old enough to have been raised on the original Star Wars trilogy. By that I mean that I started watching movies during a time when George Lucas still filmed on tangible sets rather than doing everything in front of a greenscreen. Over the past ten years I’ve argued to Star Wars fans who are underwhelmed by the prequels that the biggest difference between Lucas’ trilogies isn’t the writing, acting or story but the shift away from tangible, instinctively “real” environments to digitally created ones. The difference between the effect of presenting a character who is walking through the desert and presenting a character who just looks like he’s walking through the desert can be quite significant, at least on a subconscious level. The more actual reality that is in any given shot, the less the audience has to work to bring it to life. We may not think about these things when we’re watching a movie, but nine times out of ten I think we feel them. That’s why I think the actual reality of Lawrence of Arabia is part of its magic.
Of course, as you somewhat implied, these ingredients of realism wouldn’t be worth a darn if the recipe sucked or if Lean didn’t know how to cook, and that brings us back to the rich storytelling. As we’ve already mentioned, Lawrence of Arabia is an epic presentation of a very personal character examination, and so I’d like to talk a bit more about O’Toole’s Lawrence, particularly his sexuality. Over the first half of the film, the fair-skinned O’Toole plays Lawrence in an effeminate manner that suggests homosexuality. Sitting around the campfire with Tafas in his first night in the desert, Lawrence admits “I’m different,” and O’Toole delivers the line as if that’s a significant admission. It’s somewhat surprising then that when Lawrence is captured by the Turks and made to stand in front of the commander in a row of handsome men, Lawrence seems clueless as to the purpose of the lineup. Even when the Turkish commander rips his robe and exposes his pale skin, Lawrence doesn’t catch on that he is being evaluated as sexual prey. Thus it’s as if Lawrence isn’t homosexual or heterosexual but asexual, as if traditional sexual urges are foreign to him. And yet Lawrence does seem to be sexually stimulated—not by men or women but by bloodshed. Early in the film there’s the moment in Cairo when he admits that he killed a man—a man he had previously risked his life to save—and enjoyed it. Just as telling is the look on O’Toole’s face before he screams “No prisoners!” It is the look of a man who is sexually aroused, short of breath and nearing orgasm. “No prisoners!” is his climax. Over the course of the film, Lawrence doesn’t just lose himself to his own heroic image. He also loses himself to the eroticism of war. Would you agree?
EH: You say that Lawrence comes across as asexual, and you’re right—in fact, Lawrence as presented here seems disconnected from human relationships altogether. That, if anything, is the point of the otherwise extraneous opening scenes at his funeral: none of the mourners, even those who spent significant time with him in life, really know him well, because he’s an essentially unknowable man, distant from everyone around him. That’s why he doesn’t recognize that the Turkish commander is basically cruising him, and why he never gets close enough to another person to let them understand him.
What’s most puzzling about the film, from my perspective, is that it’s a nearly four-hour character study on a grand scale, and yet I still feel that Lawrence is kept at a distance not only from other people but from the audience as well. I don’t feel like I really understand what drives him to do what he does, and maybe that’s part of the point. Certainly, the film probes his character in a way that few other large-scale epics ever attempt, but even so Lawrence’s decisions are often puzzling, his motivations remote, his emotions hidden behind the glassy façade of O’Toole’s dazed expression. Maybe it’s just that I don’t really buy into “the eroticism of war,” at least as it’s presented here. When Lawrence confesses that he enjoyed killing the man he’d previously saved, I don’t think, as you do, that it’s an expression of Lawrence’s sexual enjoyment of violence. Instead, I mainly think, “huh?” As in, where’s this coming from? When the scene actually plays out, what Lawrence seems to be feeling is guilt and shame, as well as a certain cold, utilitarian streak, the side of Lawrence that aims to accomplish his goals at whatever cost. It’s only afterward that he writes a sense of actual pleasure onto the scene when describing it; I don’t buy that he actually got anything like a sexual charge out of it.
Lawrence’s descent into the madness of bloodlust is so sudden, so at odds with everything the character had seemed to be up to that point, that I think it required a more thorough narrative treatment than Lean was able to give it. Maybe that would have required delving deeper into the weird sadomasochistic sexuality latent in that encounter with the commander—an obvious impossibility back when this was made—but in any event the film doesn’t do enough to explore Lawrence’s growing fascination with the gorier aspects of war. If a character makes a transition from pacifist to bloodthirsty warrior, that’s worthy of some substantial screentime; Lean chronicles the shift in just a few images. Powerful images, admittedly, but still not enough to really sell it to me.
JB: Interesting. This is one of those times that we’re in agreement about what the film does but stand opposed on the effect. Maybe it has something to do with the number of times I’ve seen the film, but I like the surprise of Lawrence’s admission that he got a thrill out of executing a man. To that point especially, but even afterward, Lawrence is constantly preaching against killing. He loves the politics and tactics of war but not the catastrophes. So of course he is horrified when he kills Gasim (I.S. Johar). The scene is horrific—Lean focuses on Lawrence’s face, leaving us to imagine the worst as Lawrence fires again and again, adjusting his arm each time to take aim at a moving target. It’s not an easy execution. So, yes, the admission that he enjoyed killing a man comes as a shock, even to Lawrence it seems. (Maybe it takes killing someone to know you have a desire to kill.) It’s as if he doesn’t want to face it. It’s as if the initial horror has subsided and been replaced by a thrill he cannot explain. Lawrence is ashamed of his urges and becomes like a man stranded in the middle of the desert, wishing he could go back, wanting to go forward, aware that he can’t stay where he is. For me the inexplicit and somewhat inconsistent portrayal of Lawrence’s growing bloodlust is what makes it so convincing, because it isn’t like so many other movies in which a docile pacifist turns into a ruthless killing machine. There is genuine conflict here—sudden leaps forward followed by steps backward and then forward leaps again. The “No prisoners!” scene is the moment when Lawrence can no longer restrain himself, when all his bottled desires overcome him. Fittingly, I think, Lawrence doesn’t just lose control in that scene, he loses any sense of reality. It is, for lack of a better expression, a moment of temporary insanity, and—for me—a very convincing one. O’Toole’s performance impresses me a little more each time I see it. Though some moments are now unfashionably theatrical, there’s a lot of clever subtlety here, too. For example, O’Toole often pronounces words and phrases in a way that underlines their meaning: “fat people” comes out heavy and drawn out; “I’m different” indeed sounds different than other lines in that scene; “It’s clean,” in reference to the desert, is said so crisply that it has a tinny sound.
On the list of cinema’s greatest performances by a leading man, O’Toole’s has to be near the top, but let’s talk a bit about the supporting cast: Omar Sharif as Sherif Ali, Anthony Quinn as Auda Abu Tayi and Alec Guinness as Prince Feisal. These are, I think, solid performances all the way around, but that’s presuming you can get past two things: (1) the sometimes crude looking makeup (particularly the prosthetic noses) adorning the faces of Quinn and Guinness and (2) the reason the makeup is there. I don’t want to send us on too distant a tangent in discussing the brownface issue (which I distinguish from blackface by their significantly different intents). Simply put, what is taboo now wasn’t taboo then, and, frankly, maybe things haven’t changed all that much: Just two years ago Angelina Jolie donned a curly wig and a darker complexion to portray the Afro-Cuban/Dutch Mariane Pearl in A Mighty Heart. Historically there have certainly been cases in which white actors donned makeup to play non-white characters out of a belief that only a white person could do the job, but at least as often the motivation has been financial rather than prejudicial. Stars sell movies and, according to this self-fulfilling system, there are more white stars than non-white stars. That’s true today, and it was especially true in 1962. Given that this is the first time we’ve encountered brownface in one of our discussions, I wanted to ask you if there’s any detrimental effect of these once-socially-acceptable brownface performances all these years later. At the least it’s pretty ironic that the British Guinness plays an Arab in a movie about a man who routinely preaches that Arabs are given too little credit and deserve independence from British rule, right?
EH: Yeah, to a certain extent, I’m willing to accept this stuff as a product of the times—one of the reasons that Jolie’s more recent portrayal of a brown-skinned woman is harder to swallow. Watching Lawrence of Arabia, I can accept that as much as I’m bothered by the brownface performances now, this was more or less the norm when the film was made. Which is not to say that it’s not distracting, or that it’s not interesting to think about the implications anyway.
For one thing, Lawrence of Arabia has a very complicated and contradictory treatment of race and ethnicity even if the brownface issue is left aside. One of the central thrusts of the film is Lawrence’s apparently genuine desire that the brown-skinned people of Arabia should forgo their various tribal allegiances—and the violent strife between the tribes—and unite under a common banner as Arabs. This would be a more generic ethnic identity that none of the tribes want to recognize, since it would mean acknowledging brotherhood with their enemies. So Lawrence’s narrative is partly about navigating ethnic and racial identities, and about how people define themselves or get defined by others. Lawrence’s aim for a new Arab republic is itself contradictory: he wants these people to be autonomous, to govern themselves, but in order to accomplish this goal he attempts to impose a new identity, a new label, on them from outside. He’s both a well-meaning do-gooder and a nascent imperialist, trying to control the Arab people even as he insists he wants them to seize their own destiny. How genuine could an Arab republic be if the whole concept is dreamed up by an Englishman, the very idea of the “Arab” imposed on people who would rather be identified with their tribes?
These tensions come to the forefront in the scene where Lawrence accepts the word of a British general that the British have no imperialist designs in Arabia. The scene is set up so that it’s apparent, both to us and certainly to Lawrence, that this general actually has no power to make such a promise, that such decisions are in the hands of politicians. Nevertheless, Lawrence asks if he can have the general’s word, and more importantly if he can tell the Arabs about the general’s word: thus Lawrence will be able to promise sovereignty without really lying, offering the Arabs the promise of a man who can’t possible guarantee anything of the sort. The general makes the offer flippantly, knowing it’s not his choice to make, and knowing that Lawrence understands this. It’s a complicated bit of political maneuvering, all embedded in the subtext of this scene; it establishes that Lawrence is not all good intentions and noble ideas, that he’s at least complicit with his imperialist masters and their aims to subjugate Arabia for their own purposes.
What’s really interesting is to consider whether the film, on balance, is imperialist or anti-imperialist. Certainly, to the extent that it captures this dynamic of under-the-table imperialism and double-dealing, Lawrence of Arabia is bitingly critical of the British’s sneaky approach to Middle Eastern pseudo-colonialism. On the other hand, it’s significant that the film hews to the format of the great white hero attempting to save the oppressed darker people—and that the most prominent of the oppressed darker people are also played by white people in oppression drag. As you suggest, it all comes back to the star system, to the fact that charismatic blue-eyed heroes sell well, as do big-name white stars, even if they’re covered in tan paint. The darker heroic figures—including the ones actually played by white actors—are forced to inhabit secondary roles, as sidekicks and foils and martyrs and victims, but never as heroes in their own right.
JB: Never as heroes in their own right, sure. One of the most fascinating elements along these lines is the evaporation of Sherif Ali. He gets the famous grand entrance on his camel in which only his own moral code keeps him from killing Lawrence for drinking out of his well (“You are welcome.”). Then he gets another cool entrance when he shows up in Prince Feisal’s tent. The film is telling us twice that this is Sherif Ali’s desert. He is everywhere. No one moves without his knowledge. And even though it’s Lawrence who suggests that they should cross the Sun’s Anvil against Sherif Ali’s cries of insanity, Sherif Ali is the one who successfully guides the way. All of this happens early, and yet over the second half of the film Sherif Ali is a Jiminy Cricket figure on Lawrence’s shoulder, chirping in the ear of a man who will no longer listen. On the other hand, Guinness’ Prince Feisal has to be the wisest and noblest character in the film. He’s overburdened and a bit bewildered, but he sees the bigger picture even when Lawrence doesn’t. He might not always be able to anticipate how he will be manipulated, but he knows it’s coming. So while Lawrence is the mastermind and the white savior, he is also the savage. Prince Feisal is the one with character. (Plus he frequently travels without an entourage, which is cool.)
As to whether the film is imperialist or anti-imperialist, that’s a good question. If this movie had been made today, people would suggest that it was a metaphor for America’s presence in Iraq—Lawrence offering a noble independence (and not without government motive) that the people don’t necessarily object to but don’t embrace. Chaos ensues. I think I come across feeling that it’s anti-imperialist more than anything. Lawrence puts the movement in motion, but it is portrayed that Prince Feisal was the figure who could have united the Arabs, and that the British deliberately thwarted that. I think the film treats the Arabs as victims. In the process, does it demean them? Yes. In part because victims are often demeaned. But it’s more than that. Lawrence warns Sherif Ali at the beginning of the film that the Arabs will always be a “silly people” if they don’t unite. The film does show that Lawrence is in no position to criticize others for being “barbarous and cruel,” but by the end does it refute the notion that the Arabs are “silly”? Not entirely.
EH: You make a good point about Ali. One of the things bothering me about the second half of the film, which I couldn’t quite put my finger on until you pinpointed it, is how the dynamic between Ali and Lawrence changes rather abruptly without much development. Just when do they go from combative rivals to more of a great man/sidekick relationship?
As for the “silly” Arabs, individual Arabs like Prince Feisal and Sherif Ali get more multilayered characterizations, but the overall impression of the Arab people presented by the film is of a bickering, petty, primitive people, mired in pointless conflicts and refusing to engage with the seriousness of their current situation. (One wonders how that would play out today too, mapped onto Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds in the context of the Iraq war.) The stakes are high—independence and the ability to lead themselves free of external interference—but they’d rather fight among themselves over pointless divisions, as they do when Lawrence’s dream of an Arab government falls apart. They’re depicted as incapable of getting anything done; they need the British to run the hospitals and the power stations, even though they know that bringing in the British means the end of true independence.
In the end, the film’s conflicted view of ethnic/racial tension can be summed up, whatever its good intentions, as a wholly white perspective on a non-white culture. Just as Lawrence is an outsider trying to impose his own desires on a foreign people, the filmmakers here are outsiders as well, just as inescapably British and white as Lawrence himself. Lawrence at least seems to realize what a weird place he’s in. At one point he even verbalizes his desire for darker skin, his wish to escape his whiteness and be a Bedouin, and his knowledge that this is impossible. He’s basically trapped by his skin color into being a bit of an imperialist, a bit of an exploiter, rather than the genuine desert hero he so desperately wants to be. But do the filmmakers ever have a similar moment? Is there a moment in the film when Lean acknowledges his place outside this milieu, the limitations of his attempts to represent Arab culture?
JB: I’m not sure there’s a moment in which Lean so explicitly defines his outsider’s approach, but at the same time I don’t think he ever suggests otherwise. This film isn’t just about Lawrence, it’s often experienced through him. That’s one of the reasons it’s so powerful. Again, we could go back to those initial shots of Lawrence entering this desert paradise with schoolboy glee as if he’s practicing ecotourism before it became chic. I think the film acknowledges that it, like Lawrence, is walking into another world, and it uses Lawrence’s experiences to demonstrate how little we understand that world. Though the Arabs never break out of that “silly people” identity, Lawrence is proven foolish, too. He assumes that he understands the Arab world, but he doesn’t. At least, not enough. Additionally, the film underlines its outsider status by never truly penetrating the Arab universe. As if taking the nomadic practices of the Bedouin to the extreme, Arabs are frequently emerging from and disappearing into the desert as if it’s Ray Kinsella’s cornfield in Field of Dreams. It’s as if Lean is admitting: I don’t know where they come from or where they go, I just know that they are out there. One could argue whether that’s the best approach to take, but I don’t think Lean’s filmmaking suggests he understands the Arab world any better than Lawrence does. Unless I’ve missed something.
EH: I guess I was looking for some sign of self-awareness about the film’s racial/ethnic muddle, a moment where Lean admits, yes, he’s got actors in brownface all over the place, and yes, he’s portraying the Middle East from a colonialist perspective even if he’s trying to critique colonialism at the same time. But that’s probably too much to ask, especially from a big, expensive epic made in the ‘60s. Instead, there was only one moment where I felt I was really getting a glimpse of this foreign culture, of its strangeness and remoteness from both the colonial Britain of Lawrence and the post-colonial Britain of Lean. As the departing Bedouin army is led into the desert towards Aqaba by Lawrence and Ali, on the cliffs overlooking the men, black-clad women dot the landscape, wailing and howling. Despite all the local color scattered throughout the film, this was the scene where I think Lean fully communicated this sense of a foreign culture, of something that he finds beautiful and mysterious but can’t explain or understand. Lean cuts from a shot of the women watching, their high calls so haunting and strange, then to the columns of the men, chanting themselves, the low sound of their song blending in with the wails of the women to create a complex soundscape.
Which brings me to one of the perhaps overlooked elements of this film: its exquisite sound design. It’s easy to praise the grandeur of Lean’s images, and the epic sweep of his narrative, but as I’ve said a few times during this conversation, it’s the subtle touches that I admire most in Lawrence of Arabia. The film’s soundtrack is carefully layered and orchestrated, blending together naturalistic sound, diegetic music, and the bombastic Maurice Jarre score into a totality that really rewards careful listening. After the Bedouin take Aqaba, Lawrence sits on his horse, silhouetted against the water, and we hear the grand Jarre strings, the cries of the soldiers as they ransack the nearby town, the camels’ plaintive growls, the crashing of the surf behind Lawrence as the sun sets in the background. The soundtrack is complex, never allowing the score to overwhelm the natural sounds of Lawrence’s milieu.
I also love that scene when Lawrence first meets with Prince Feisal in the latter’s tent, their hushed talk wafting above the rhythmic creak of the tent poles as they sway back and forth. The gentle wooden clanks are a subtle counterpoint to the conversation between the two principles, just as the pendulum motion of the poles draws the eye towards the background within the frame, balancing out the foreground action. It’s Lean’s way of grounding this conversation in normality: history is being made, but rather than presenting it as capital-H History, a textbook account, he underlines the prosaic reality around these two historical figures, emphasizing their surroundings. The mundane winds up on equal footing with the profound, and the film’s soundtrack communicates undercurrents of meaning.
JB: Those are terrific observations, and they point again to the intimacy of this epic. Along those lines, another element of the film that we’ve yet to discuss in detail is its presentation of violence, or lack thereof. If this movie were remade today you could be sure of three things: (1) white actors wouldn’t be playing Arabs; (2) the movie would be shorter; (3) the action sequences would be longer. For something that is kinda-sorta a war movie, Lawrence of Arabia has very little warfare—and what is there isn’t frivolous or gratuitous. The brief air raid on Prince Fiesal’s camp isn’t there to provide an adrenaline rush but to show how ill-prepared the Arabs are to fight against armies with planes and heavy artillery. The storming of Aqaba—perhaps the closest the film comes to an action setpiece—is treated as a victory lap more than a battle. In fact, the scene is memorable for the guns that aren’t fired—the ones that face the sea and are useless in the defense of the inland attack. And then there’s the “No prisoners!” scene, which is the bloodiest of the film but is there to illustrate Lawrence’s madness. For all the killing we do see in that scene, as soon as the film has established that Lawrence is an active participant in the massacre, which includes the killing of those raising their arms in surrender, Lean cuts away from the attack, confident that the grisly nature of the battle can be depicted satisfactorily via shots of the resulting carnage.
Having said the above I don’t wish to give the impression that all battle scenes in modern epics are gratuitous. Movies like Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers use battles the way Fred Astaire movies use dance numbers. But when it’s inconceivable to imagine Lawrence of Arabia being made today without extravagant action scenes, and when Lawrence of Arabia as-is doesn’t suffer from the omission of extravagant action scenes, it underlines just how superfluous and thoughtless the ubiquitous extravagant action sequence has become in many cases. Indeed, many modern filmmakers seem to employ these action scenes not because of artistic vision but, I suspect, because of a studio order to spend every penny of their CGI budget. For better or worse, overwrought CGI spectacles put butts in the seats. Just as it was fiscally advantageous but artistically dishonest to cast Guinness and Quinn as Arabs back in 1962, it is fiscally advantageous but artistically dishonest to fill out a film with thematically unnecessary action scenes in 2009. Sometimes being out of date is a good thing.
EH: Indeed. I’ve already praised the film a great deal for being such a low-key, introspective epic, lingering on long desert journeys rather than delivering over-the-top spectacle non-stop. Lean’s restraint with respect to the action scenes is part of that. It’s a shame that such restraint and artistic integrity are no longer the norm. I look back on my initial comments on this film, in which I compared it to relatively avant films like Gerry and Fata Morgana, and invoked the paintings of Mark Rothko as a reference point for its landscapes: can you imagine any contemporary mainstream war movie or epic that would evoke a similar range of references? The problem, maybe, is that genres have become more codified and calcified over time, to the point that audiences expect certain things from certain types of movies, and filmmakers seem to have forgotten that it’s possible to deliver anything different. So an epic made today has to have certain types of scenes, and a certain dramatic arc, or else it’s not recognizable as an epic at all—and the model that’s been accepted for epics today is more Ben-Hur than Lawrence of Arabia.
There is, of course, another model for the epic, one that’s not so much in play today—Mel Gibson excepted—but was very much current in the ‘60s, when Lawrence of Arabia was made. I’m talking of course about the bibilical epic, and it’s a form that Lean frequently seems to be flirting with and acknowledging in making his own non-bibilical epic. The film is dotted with Christian iconography and knowing nods to the epic spectacles that Hollywood often erects around the Bible’s framework. Partly this is just an artifact of the setting: the Middle East, the desert, not so far from the birthplace of the historical Jesus and the other events depicted in the Bible. On another level, however, I think Lean is consciously evoking these antecedents, appropriating the grandeur and spirituality of these stories for his own hero. Certainly Lawrence’s first trek into the wildness of the desert, when he goes out at night and sits in the sand, silently watched over by two servant boys, is reminiscent of Jesus’ interludes of desert isolation. In New Testament stories, the desert is a place of self-examination and self-testing—it’s where Jesus goes to be tested by Satan, spending the famous “forty days and forty nights” in its dusty expanse—and it serves a similar purpose for Lawrence. He emerges from the desert more self-assured, with a purpose and a plan, ready to lead an army to Aqaba. Later, after Lawrence is shot in the shoulder, he touches the wound and then deliberately holds up his hand, his palm facing outward, the red stain in its center looking like the stigmata of Jesus.
These Christ allegories are interesting, and I tend to view them as just another of the many elements Lean is weaving into the complicated tapestry of this film. On the other hand, I wonder about what these subtle bibilical allusions—if indeed they were intentional and not just happenstance synchronicities—add to the film’s themes. What do you think?
JB: I think you’ve skipped over the most blatant Christ allusion of the bunch: the moment when Lawrence tries on his desert robes and holds out his arms, ostensibly to enjoy the spectacle, and strikes a crucifixion pose. But maybe that one is only blatant to me; I went to a Catholic high school and had an English teacher from the Jesuit priesthood who could find Christ symbolism in anything with perpendicular lines. That said, given that this story is based on some actual history—one can find photos of the real T.E. Lawrence that closely resemble the appearance of O’Toole’s version—I think that for the most part these are happenstance synchronicities, because in the end Lawrence isn’t very Christlike. Sure, I’d bet that Lean was aware of the similarities, and maybe made subtle adjustments accordingly. But I don’t get the sense he was driven to make bibilical allusions. If anything, perhaps Lean was trying to capture the flavor of films like Ben-Hur that are deliberately evocative of the Bible. Thus these are bibilical allusions by two degrees of separation.
Tracing allegories is always a tricky thing. Lawrence of Arabia does inspire thoughts of the Bible, and therefore allusions are there to be identified. But that’s different than saying that Lean is specifically alluding to the Bible. Going back to our previous references to the Iraq War and the subsequent occupation, it’s safe to assume that if Lawrence of Arabia were released as-is today, many would suggest with absolute certainty that the film is an intentional metaphor for America’s involvements in Iraq. Yet we know that couldn’t have been Lean’s (or the screenwriter’s) intent. It’s a good reminder that we shouldn’t assume that effect and intent are always united. To look at it from another angle: Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight might be the most ardent defense yet of the war-on-terror practices employed under the reign of George W. Bush. That is, to put it very simply and avoid a long tangent, Bush sees himself as Batman does in that film: skirting the laws for the good of the people; becoming vilified in the short-term in the name of prosperity in the long-term. Now, does that mean that Nolan intended to defend the Bush administration? Absolutely not. Nevertheless The Dark Knight does create a noble hero out of a character whose most controversial methods are right out of the Bush era playbook. So the allegory is there, but we shouldn’t decide it was intentional just because of the timing of its release.
But let’s get back to Lawrence of Arabia. At the beginning of your last comment you asked, in essence, if a “contemporary mainstream war movie or epic” could ever have the range of this film. It’s a good question, and my best answer is that the closest thing I’ve seen over the past ten years or so might be Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998). Malick’s film doesn’t leap out as a natural companion to Lawrence of Arabia, but they have some similarities. First and foremost, they are intimate examinations of the effects of war—whereas Lawrence of Arabia focuses on one man, The Thin Red Line focuses on many. (“Every man fights his own war,” the very appropriate tagline reads.) Second, while Malick’s film has some of the ubiquitous Guys Getting Launched Into The Air By Explosions shots, it’s a film that puts more attention on the anticipation and aftermath of battles than on the battles themselves. Third, there’s the visual artistry—Lean and Malick movies are breathtaking to look at, and the filmmakers’ detractors sometimes suggest they are little more than that. I could go on, but in doing so we’d lose sight of this point: Does Malick make “mainstream” pictures? Not quite. Indeed these days it seems as if a film needs to be streamlined to be mainstream. And so if I were trying to recommend a recent “mainstream” (or close to it) picture that best conveys the size, aesthetics and intimacy of Lawrence of Arabia, I might go with Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. Of course, that isn’t a war movie. Nor is it a traditional epic. But it might be the closest thing we get to an intimate epic these days.
EH: There Will Be Blood is a good comparison point for all sorts of reasons, not least that both films concern themselves with monomaniacal protagonists, and that both films are introspective and “intimate” without ever really breaking through to the core of these unknowable men. The opening scenes of Lawrence of Arabia establish that this is going to be the story of a man who many people have heard of and formed opinions about, but who few if any have ever truly known or understood. Though the film then digs deeper into Lawrence’s character, suggesting a great deal about him—his white guilt, his conflicted bloodlust/pacifism, his idealism butting up against his more practical streak—he always remains a mysterious figure. Lean resists the impulse to explain too much, to make things too explicit, which is both frustrating at times and also the key to the film’s overall success.
Lawrence of Arabia is thus a contradictory and multilayered film, much like its ambiguous hero. It delves into Lawrence’s mind and motivations, but retains the sense of mystery that leads one man at his funeral to respond to the question “did you know him well?” with a qualified “I knew him.” Too many biopics pretend to know their protagonists so well that every act, every moment, can be explained and understood, and the result is that the essence of a real person is reduced to a simple and limiting interpretation. Lean’s film occasionally stumbles into this same trap, but more often allows Lawrence to simply exist onscreen, to move and act with a will of his own, avoiding pigeonhole characterizations. It’s a masterful balancing act, a description that could also apply to the film’s deft handling of both small personal moments and large-scale landscapes and action sequences. It’s a big film, but never so big that the details get lost.
Jason Bellamy ruminates on cinema at The Cooler.
Ed Howard chronicles his film viewing at Only the Cinema.
Review: Frozen II and Its Recycled Stakes Quickly Get Lost in the Snow
Woke Disney, trying to navigate a tricky representational path, steps all over itself throughout.2
Any successor to Frozen practically mandates a designated successor to “Let It Go.” And the standard-bearing song for Disney’s Frozen II is “Into the Unknown,” another bombastic earworm that’s belted out by Idina Menzel’s Queen Elsa about 20 minutes into the film, as she embraces a literal call to adventure. But the unknown is hardly a place that co-directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee care to take this sequel. If the first Frozen succeeded in rebranding the Disney Princess line of products for a more woke era, Frozen II doesn’t want to risk undoing the first film’s magic. The sequel plays things safe, hitting many of the same beats as its predecessor—and sometimes with a wink—all while making sure to introduce adorable, marketable new creatures and outfits along the way.
Such is the nature of Hollywood sequels, perhaps, but aside from a prologue that expands the fantastical, ostensibly peaceful Nordic kingdom in which the series is set with an intriguingly bellicose backstory, Frozen II doesn’t craft a strong enough story to mask its capitalist machinations. The film joins Elsa, her sister Anna (Kristen Bell), the latter’s beau Christoph (Jonathan Groff), his reindeer Sven, and the animate snowman Olaf (Josh Gad) at harvest time in Arendelle, which has about the size and cultural depth of the Swedish village at Epcot Center. Just after the four humanoid principal characters are done singing a status-quo-minded ditty, “Some Things Never Change,” Elsa, the magically attuned “snow queen,” begins hearing a wordless voice singing to her from beyond the fjord. In responding to the voice, Elsa awakens the wrath of nature’s four elements—air, earth, fire, and water—which wreak havoc on Arendelle, because, it turns out, nature’s got an axe to grind with Anna and Elsa’s family.
Frozen’s narrative trappings are all accounted for here: a malevolent magic of obscure origin, a forgotten slight that must be righted, a quest to reveal the truth. But whereas the first film had very human stakes—that of the reconciliation between Anna and Elsa—the stakes of Frozen II get lost in the snow. The imperative to redeem Arendelle in the eyes of nature remains rather abstract. Lee, also the film’s screenwriter, attempts to ground the quest in the mysterious fate of the rival clan of the Northuldra, a people who, with their darker features and leather-and-fur parkas, are coded as an indigenous Arctic culture. Something happened to these people, who haven’t been seen since a battle waged when Anna and Elsa’s father was a boy.
Frozen II suggests that the Northuldrans are the wronged party but, oddly, doesn’t posit them as the aggrieved one: It’s clear from early on that Anna and Elsa’s forbears committed some unspoken crime against their neighbors, but it’s nature, rather than the “indigenous” clan themselves, that demands redress. When Anna, Elsa, and their sidekicks find the Northuldrans in the enchanted woods, they’re perfectly friendly and ready for coexistence (the ideal natives for a film being released around the Thanksgiving holiday), and they’re happy to let Anna and Elsa do the heavy lifting when it comes to restoring balance to the world.
Woke Disney, in trying to navigate a tricky representational path with this film, steps all over itself: Seeking to address colonial shame, but also to avoid portraying natives as angry and threatening, Frozen II makes them into docile figures under the protection of a mystically empowered nature. Moreover, this maneuvering tangles the thread of the story, as these friendly forest dwellers are at once the object of Elsa and Anna’s quest and relatively inconsequential. As the quintet from the first film encounters the avatars for each of the four elements—a gust of wind named Gale that Olaf befriends, a pack of rock giants that Anna sneaks past at one point, a flaming gecko that Elsa takes as a pet, and a powerful steed composed of congealed water that she tames—these embodiments of natural phenomena prove to have more character and import to the plot than any of the Northuldrans.
This carefully orchestrated vagueness gives Frozen II a fragmentary quality, each scene standing alone as a mini-adventure. Olaf and Christoph’s solo numbers in particular feel very much like the music videos they are, fun and vibrant on their own but not particularly well integrated into the story’s trajectory. The looseness of Lee’s script also serves to foreground the more devious functions of the film as a Disney product intended to promote further consumption. It’s hard to ignore the convenience of the avatar of fire resembling in size, color, and design a collectible, cuddly doll; the way one of the heroines is magically granted a new, flowing hairdo and a bejeweled, strapless dress when she sings the song “Show Yourself”; or the calculations that must underlie the visually pleasing arrangement of the glittering geometric patterns that fill the frame during musical sequences. If, as a story, Frozen II is a tad too messy, as an advertisement it’s much too polished.
That said, Frozen II’s attempt at an enlightened fairy tale is in many aspects preferable to Disney’s recent “live action” resurrections of dated animated features. The relatively complex relationship between Anna and Elsa, as well as a subplot about Olaf the snowman’s existential musings now that his lifetime has been extended beyond winter, suggest hints of life beneath the film’s cold, corporate exterior. The series’s foregrounding of the ups and downs of a caring, if sometimes tense, connection between two women represents incremental progress at a studio whose other film franchises still favor male agency and Oedipal conflict. But given its confused ethics, narrative weaknesses, and naked function as a brand-refresher, Frozen II hardly constitutes a case for why we need more stories about fairy-tale princesses.
Cast: Idina Menzel, Kristen Bell, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad, Sterling K. Brown, Evan Rachel Wood, Alfred Molina, Jason Ritter, Martha Plimpton, Jeremy Sisto Director: Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee Screenwriter: Jennifer Lee Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 103 min Rating: PG Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack
Interview: Todd Haynes on Dark Waters and Being in the Crosshairs of Everything
Haynes discusses how the film quietly continues some of his aesthetic trademarks and thematic concerns.
For more than 40 years, Todd Haynes has made fiercely challenging, experimental, and idiosyncratic films that have left an indelible mark on both independent and mainstream cinema. But there’s no single Todd Haynes style. Sometimes his films are complexly structured and narratively polygamous, as with his trifurcated, genre-subverting feature-length debut from 1990, Poison, and I’m Not There, his 2007 anti-biopic about Bob Dylan in which six different actors play the iconic musician. At other times, Haynes works within the conventions of genres that allow him to question social and cultural values: Far from Heaven, his HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce, and Carol use the period melodrama template to examine racism, women’s independence, and queer desire, respectively, and all to stunning emotional effect.
But never before has Haynes more directly and unostentatiously confronted centers of power than with his latest project, the legal thriller Dark Waters. The film germinated with actor Mark Ruffalo’s interest in Rob Bilott, a corporate defense attorney who made partner in 1998 at the storied Cincinnati law firm of Taft, Stettinius & Hollister, commonly known as Taft. Taking on the case of Wilbur Tennant (played by Bill Camp in the film), a West Virginian farmer whose land is contaminated from toxic run-off dumped near his premises by DuPont Company, Bilott (Ruffalo) quickly encounters the gargantuan machine of corporate disinformation, negligence, cover-up, and strong-arm tactics that allow the company to shuck responsibility for causing devastating environmental destruction and an unprecedented human health crisis.
In directing Dark Waters, Haynes employs subtle, unobtrusive camerawork to complement a linear and character-centered narrative, showing with controlled objectivity Bilott’s discovery that speaking the truth and taking on corporate power comes with a major price in modern America. I spoke with Haynes last week about how the film marks a departure from his past work while quietly continuing some of his aesthetic trademarks and thematic concerns.
How did you get involved with Dark Waters?
The first draft of Matthew Michael Carnahan’s script came to me from Mark [Ruffalo] in 2017. This is all incredibly fast for the world of developing movies because Nathaniel Rich’s piece [about Bilott] had appeared [in the New York Times Magazine] just the year before. Already it had been optioned by Mark at Participant [Dark Waters’s production company], and he had decided to join forces with Matthew Michael. Then, for some reason—and I genuinely say this with modesty—Mark thought of me for it, because I’m not exactly the person one would think of for this movie right off the bat, however much he likes my other films. And I’m such an admirer of Mark on the screen, as well as his activism—and I’ve always wanted to work with him. What he didn’t know is how much of a secret fan of this genre I am. The story is gripping and enraging and shocking to me, but it also has this human component because it’s told through the narrative of Rob Bilott, an unlikely person to take on DuPont. The circumstances presented themselves to him and forced him to rethink what he does and what kind of practices he was protecting as a defense attorney.
At first, I had a busy schedule and didn’t think I was going to able to do it. But then some room cleared up about a year later and I thought I could do the film. But the first writer was busy at that time, so I thought, “Okay, let’s bring someone else in and start working on the script some more, get in deeper.”
Did you know the screenwriters, Mario Correa and Carnahan?
No, but I got to know Mario from samples of his work. I really like what I read and brought him in. There was a real urgency to get this moving on the part of Participant and Mark. And I saw why, but I wanted to see where things would go; I can’t start shooting a movie that’s not ready to be shot. So I searched for a writer and found Mario. We all got freed up by the end of May 2018 and went to Cincinnati for the first time with Mark then. And I met the entire world of the film in Cincinnati, the whole cast of characters, through the Taft law firm. Then we went off to Parkersburg [in West Virginia] and met those people—visited Wilbur’s farm and met Jim Tennant and his brother. All this is to say that Mario and I had to start fresh in talking about the script and experiencing the research together and talking with people [who were involved in the real events] together. And so we embarked on a very different version of the script together.
How did you collaborate with Mario? Did you base your work together on the scenes and moments from the article you wanted to include in the script? And how did you figure out how to make complicated legal issues and jargon and processes dramatically compelling?
Those were precisely the challenges and questions we had. The focus initially was to find the darker and more conflicted parts of the story than what we’d been introduced to in the New York Times Magazine piece and the first draft of the script. There’s a tremendous amount of pain and terror involved in challenging systems of power. And the more you learn about a story like this—and this is true in films like this that I dig, like All the President’s Men, The Parallax View, Silkwood, The Insider—the bigger the story gets, the more haunted you are by the repercussions. You’re kind of like, “Holy shit, look what I’m on to.” You feel this in All the President’s Men, when [the reporters] can’t believe how the story’s growing, and the more the story grows the more your life seems to shrink. You become more alienated, your safety is more fraught, there’s less ease to your movements. It affects all the people involved: your family, your friends, your community. People begin to turn against you; they alienate you and besmirch your reputation. All that stuff, that’s all true to these experiences. And it’s all incredibly dramatic and it’s how you relate emotionally to these stories.
Truth-telling in movies is a slippery prospect because movies have a hard time telling the truth. And it’s important to question deliberate truth being told to you from any source, particularly one that’s based on entertainment and moneymaking. I’ve been really interested and uncomfortable making movies my whole life. But that’s why I wanted to make them, because they intersect with culture and commerce and identity and desire. So, you’re really in the crosshairs of a lot of contradictory forces. And that’s an exciting place to be when you’re not just interested in replicating a sense of well-being or escapism or affirmation of the system. And I guess that’s where this kind of genre is so great, because even if we’re following a lot of its conventions in ways that I don’t always follow for the conventions of the other films I’ve made, I believe this genre is fundamentally unsettling. There’s a stigma attached to the truth-teller that you also don’t necessarily expect. You think that, well, righteous truth is on your side, what do you have to fear? Well, everything.
I was just thinking of your past films, especially Safe and the suffocating environment of that film. How did you collaborate with Edward Lachman in achieving a similar atmosphere in Dark Waters? All of the themes and ideas you just described, how did you want to express them through the film’s cinematography?
I felt that a kind of restrained, observant camera and a kind of emotional coolness—both literally and figuratively—to the subject matter was apropos, especially in regard to Rob Bilott. There’s a kind of festering subjectivity in a movie like The Insider that I love, that works really well for that film and is pure Michael Mann. It’s laid on very thick, that aggressive subjectivity and myopic camera with a focal length that keeps shifting so you can’t really tell what’s going on—it links the 60 Minutes journalist and Jeff Wigand. In this movie, I was more drawn to cooler frames and a more restrained camera and proximity, like Gordon Willis’s cinematography in those ‘70s films. Because this felt more like Rob, it felt more cautious and pulled back. And it also allowed more movement from his world to the people he has to connect with, so you can move from one place to the next in the movie with more dexterity and not be competing with an intense subjective experience. Rob’s subjectivity is something that he learns in the course of stumbling onto this story. He learns how to see and then how to speak about what he sees in ways that he had never known before. So, I didn’t want to anticipate that point of view. I wanted that point of view to be something we watch ourselves. That’s something that for today’s culture and audience, I know that that was somewhat risky.
Well, because it’s asking an audience to be patient, and it’s asking an audience to find what’s important in the frame and not hit them over the head with it. That’s why those films from the ‘70s feel like they’re regarding the audience with a great deal of intellectual respect, to kind of figure out what the attitude is here. Whether it’s the case of the paranoia films of Alan Pakula or the first two Godfather movies, that doesn’t mean that they don’t have a strong point of view because of the way they’re shot and lit. But there’s space to interpret what’s going on. That’s the choice that I made for this film. And Ed and I just liked the corporate spaces where much of the action takes place, these hollow spaces. I loved what the real Taft offices looked like.
It was shot in the real Taft offices?
Yeah, and where we built sets, the conference room and Rob’s office, we built them 10 floors up in the same building looking out over the exact skyline and with the exact same parameter of the architecture of this 1980s building. We used all the design elements from Taft: those striped frosted glass walls, the floating walls over the windows and under the ceiling, the 45-degree corridors that he sculpts through, the fact that there was no uniform size or shape to the windows across the entire parameter of the floors, and that they looked out onto these beautiful landscapes of skylines of downtown Cincinnati with flanks of interrupted space in architecture in the foreground and little surprising peaks all the way through the Ohio River if you just cocked your head a couple of inches one way or another. So, the whole sense of [Bilott’s] discovery of obfuscation was mirrored in the architecture and design of this space. You also have these surprising pockets of incredibly dark shadows and then sudden appearances of light from the windows. That was so visually informative and specific and I found it so beautiful. Some of my favorite shots of the film are these big, wide window shots with the snow falling, and a wide shot of Tom Terp [a senior partner at Taft] and Rob Bilott talking to each other from a distance. The weather contributed heavily to the look and feel of the movie; it was a bitter cold winter that we shot through. We tried to apply the same visual language to shooting at Wilbur’s farm and in Parkersburg, so you could feel these worlds were linked, that they weren’t separate.
Were you going for an Antonionian thing like in Safe, where the environment is both an influence on and reflection of the characters’ experience?
Yeah, a manifestation of their experience. And a place where you can get lost in the corridors and then places where you’re isolated in big, open spaces. It’s a place that felt both big and small intermittently, and that would sometimes alternate according to what’s going on emotionally or in the content.
That’s similar to how I felt in the scenes that take place in Parkersburg, where it’s this small, rural town and yet, from the way you capture it, it feels like it represents the entire world and its destruction from pollution. What decisions did you make in the cinematography of the film when you shot there?
Ed and I tend to favor this sort of dirty palette in almost any of my movies if you look back at them. But it shifts in tonality based on what the story is and what the time period of the story is and what the temperament of the movie is. For Dark Waters, we favored way more of a cool spectrum in the color timing, which gave the warmer interiors always this cool shadow. That meant that beige walls, you couldn’t tell if they were a warm or a cool color. Hannah Beachler designed the film, and we were all sort of in sync with picking design elements for the interiors that could move between warm and cool temperatures easily, depending on whether it’s light from outside coming in or Tungsten light from inside. You just never feel a relief of tensions and of a little bite of rigidity that invades these spaces. We certainly didn’t want to make Wilbur’s farm a place of rural pleasure or—
Yeah, and it gives you the sense that even truth is corruptible. So, Wilbur, who’s attached more to a notion of truth, he’s living in this contaminated space. Truth almost becomes a kind of toxin because it undermines the status quo and business as usual.
How did you work with some of the real-life players in the story, especially in gauging the accuracy of the film in relation to the real events?
We relied on them as much as we could. They were really eager partners in contributing to the film, and they all had to agree to that. Nobody on the DuPont side, of course, agreed to have their real names in the movie. Everyone else did and were advisors on the movie. And it was really lovely to have them come and join us on set and be pictured within scenes.
In I’m Not There, you had Heath Ledger’s version of Bob Dylan proclaim, “There’s no politics,” but only “sign language.” Throughout your career, you’ve often examined the signs and symbols through which people communicate individual, political, and cultural meaning. Was that also your concern in Dark Waters, even though the politics and social significance of the story are very much up front and center in the film and not imparted through metaphor?
I haven’t thought about that line and applying it to this movie, but I did feel with this story that the massiveness of this contamination, the fact that [C-8, a toxic chemical manufactured by DuPont] is in 98% of creatures on the planet…what can you say that about except for things as invasive and all-present as, I don’t know, capitalism or patriarchy—things that never asked for our permission for them to invade us. And so, in a way it makes us linked by these pernicious systems. We participate in them, we enable them, but what do you do? Do you pretend they don’t exist? Do you wish they could all disappear with one legal action? No. You get as knowledgeable as you can, you try to identify what they are, and you push back in certain ways. You develop a critical relationship to life and to social power, and how the individual is always the product or target of it.
The material through which systems work.
The material or outgrowth of it. I like that this movie reveals this, but there’s also no solution except how we interpret, how we stand up to small issues, bigger issues, how we engage with our system politically and culturally, and in how we live imperfectly between knowledge, ignorance, and despair. It’s a complicated and imperfect series of choices that we have to make. But what do you do instead? Do you put your head back in the sand? Do you go back and cook on Teflon [for which C-8 was manufactured]? Do you pretend that patriarchal systems don’t still function and distinguish between men and women and white people and black people? No, we need to be aware, and that’s what this film helps us do.
What are your upcoming projects?
My real passion project is a piece on Freud. That’s going to take a while to figure out because it needs to be a multi-part, episodic experience. That’s where my heart and soul are anchored, but I’ve just been busy elsewhere, as you can imagine. And there’s a Velvet Underground project; I just said yes when they came to me from the Universal Music Group that controls their music and half of all the other music that’s been recorded. I’m so into it, I’m so excited. We did 20 interviews. My decision was to only interview people who were there, band members, anybody of the surviving people who were around at the time, who really saw it up close, directly. So that meant getting Jonas Mekas on film right before he passed away, and getting John Cale, of course, and Maureen Tucker. We’ve just put together this insane archive of material, historical stuff, clips of the band, and pieces of Warhol films of the band that people have never seen before. It’s a real well, and I want to summon that time again. I want to immerse in it as much as possible. That’s our goal.
They deserve a major movie. They’re one of the greatest and most important bands ever, period.
Yeah. It’s going to be crazy good.
Review: Shooting the Mafia Is a Sketchy Tribute to an Iconic Photographer
At the center of the documentary is the struggle to reconcile the personal and political elements of art-making.2.5
At the center of director Kim Longinotto’s Shooting the Mafia is the struggle to reconcile the personal and political elements of art-making. The documentary tells the story of photographer Letizia Battaglia, who captured the brutality of the Cosa Nostra’s stranglehold over Sicily from the 1970s through the 2000s. Battaglia braved mafia funerals, taking pictures of connected associates who would have no issue with killing her. In one of the film’s juiciest moments, Battaglia, now an 80-something legend, tells of how she’d pretend to sneeze to muffle the sound of a camera. She also took photos of murder scenes, which are chilling tableaux of casual carnage. Children’s brains are seen splattered against street curbs, old women’s faces frozen in shock, cars upturned, and buildings caved in from explosions. Showing us these pictures, Longinotto illustrates Battaglia’s talent for aestheticizing tragedy, but without sentimentalizing the callousness of violence. The photographer’s compositions are beautiful wails of despair as well as acts of resistance.
Throughout Shooting the Mafia, Longinotto doesn’t entirely realize her one masterful formal conceit. The filmmaker contrasts Battaglia’s pictures with archival news footage of the crime scenes, in effect contrasting a closer approximation of “reality” with still art. In movement and in color, the crime scenes are hideous and offer true testament to the monstrousness of the Cosa Nostra, but as black-and-white stills, they’re imbued with Battaglia’s empathy and need to find grace notes in atrocity. This juxtaposition offers a thrilling illustration of the difference between art and documentation, and of the value of each. This is a kernel for a brilliant nonfiction film, but Longinotto clutters her project with less original gimmickry.
Longinotto is very much determined for her audience to see Battaglia as a feminist role model, as a beautiful young housewife who went rogue against the Italian patriarchy to actualize herself. This idea, in this context, underscores the danger of modern woke culture, which is so eager to define people with representational encouragement that it condescends to them in a different fashion. Battaglia’s photographs, and the risk she took going against the Cosa Nostra, are innately impressive. The sexism that she faced, especially as, reportedly, the first female Italian photographer, is obviously of paramount importance to her story, though Longinotto spends nearly a third of Shooting the Mafia’s 94-minute running time on Battaglia’s life as a girl and eventual coming of age after she rebelled against her husband. And this emphasis threatens to put Battaglia in a box, reductively psychoanalyzing her.
In Shooting the Mafia, we learn that Battaglia married as a teenager and had a family because that’s what you did in the 1940s and ‘50s. From the ‘60s onward, Battaglia lived a sexually and artistically open life, primarily in Palermo, becoming a journalist and a photographer, fraternizing with her younger collaborators. A beautiful and confident woman who was pushing 40 before finding her calling, Battaglia has been making up for lost time ever since, and Longinotto celebrates her awakening as an artist and lover while cheapening it with the cheesy placement of clips from Italian films, which often liken Battaglia to a gorgeous damsel in distress. The contemporary footage of Battaglia chain-smoking and holding court with her various exes is far more commanding and startlingly intimate, but Longinotto cuts these passages down to tidbits. In fact, Longinotto is so eager to celebrate her hero that she also glides past thornier portions of Battaglia’s life, such as the effect that her liberation might’ve had on the children she seems to have left behind. (Her husband is a non-entity.)
The film comes to life whenever it returns to Battaglia’s dealing with the Cosa Nostra. Longinotto skillfully sketches in a cast of pompous and frightening mafiosos, who suggest the ultimate manifestation of patriarchal madness. Especially memorable is Luciano Leggio, whom Battaglia once photographed as he was looking straight into her camera, shooting her a death stare. Those wide, smug eyes come to haunt the film, especially in an interview clip where Leggio flippantly speaks of crushing “mollusks” and “homosexuals” who come after him, he says, to prove their manhood. The most memorable image in Shooting the Mafia that isn’t shot by Battaglia is news footage of mob men in cages in court while they await hearing. They look unmistakably like wild animals, and they affirm Battaglia’s daring with graphic conviction.
Director: Kim Longinotto Distributor: Cohen Media Group Running Time: 94 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Duet for Cannibals Is an Intriguing Mix of Pastiche and Parody
Susan Sontag’s debut film serves as an intriguing cinematic extension of her more well-known written work.3
Writing on Persona for Sight & Sound in 1967, Susan Sontag rhapsodized about Ingmar Bergman’s unorthodox handling of narrative, praising his decision to utilize the story structure as a “thematic resource” rather than a means of dispensing a coherent plot. “Images and dialogue are given which the viewer cannot help but find puzzling,” she wrote, “not being able to decipher whether certain scenes take place in the past, present or future; and whether certain images and episodes belong to ‘reality’ or ‘fantasy’.”
Two years later, after securing funding from the renowned film production company Sandrews, Sontag made Duet for Cannibals, her own attempt at capturing a slipstream-like roundelay of events, and in Swedish no less. Like Persona, her directorial debut hazards a similar bid for the arrangement of narrative as “variations on a theme,” and while the results aren’t quite on the same level as Bergman, they represent a respectable, effort on Sontag’s part to both break down narrative convention and advance her own personal ideas.
The story deals with a baroque series of escalating mind games between Bauer (Lars Ekborg), a famed German leftist living in exile in Stockholm, and Tomas (Gösta Ekman), his young assistant. Taking on the position from a mixture of politically sympathetic curiosity and financial desperation, Tomas and his relationship with his live-in girlfriend, Ingrid (Agneta Ekmanner), is put under heavy strain. This worsens as Bauer demands more and more of his time, forcing him to take up residence in his apartment, to better serve at his beck and call. Things only get more confusing when Ingrid herself enters the fray, paired against Bauer’s unstable Italian wife, Francesca (Adriana Asti), in a rectangle of dysfunctional connection.
Embarking on its own Bergmanesque fantasia, the film slips freely, often confusingly, between realist and surrealist crosscurrents. In one memorable moment, Tomas and Ingrid go on a boating date that ends abruptly when he spots his employer on shore; he leaps out of the boat to join him, leaving Ingrid behind on the water. The occurrence of such disjunctions itself becomes a form of comedy, as scene after scene quavers between straight-faced severity and utter absurdism. At one point, Tomas’s frustrating encounter with one of Bauer’s dictaphone recordings segues into a head-to-head dispute, the characters’ interpersonal borders proving as porous as those of the film itself. Instances like this prove Bauer’s complete mastery over his domain, promoting the possibility that this entire enterprise is some kind of twisted attempt to cuckold himself, ensnaring his novice employee by using his vivacious wife as bait.
His actual intent remains mysterious, establishing him as the cryptic on-screen analogue to Sontag’s destabilizing formal approach. Whether we’re witnessing the tectonic plates of text and subtext colliding roughly with one another, or just an elaborate gag at the expense of viewers primed to expect impenetrable, pretentious weirdness from their Euro art cinema, is never entirely clear. The film’s ultimate liability, in fact, is that it can’t seem to decide if it’s doing pastiche or parody. It’s clearest thematic throughline remains the metaphorical transfer of horrid, self-serving behavior—disguised as rigorous intellectual purity—forced down from one generation to another. Qualities of the older couple become imprinted upon the younger, in an unnerving mode that mixes the scholarly and the familial, with a marked sexual undertone that seems requisite to this kind of boundary-pushing experimentation.
Yet the sort of theorizing that Duet for Cannibals demands is bound to inevitably draw inquisitive viewers toward the type of analytical over-examination that Sontag railed against in “Against Interpretation,” one of her most famous essays and the basis of much of her work from this time period. The most plausible, and rewarding, explanation may then be that her directorial debut represents a cross-medium introduction of this theory of sensual liberation into the cinematic bloodstream, antagonizing viewers as a further nudge to lay off the heavy textual lifting. It’s a lesson that may hold even greater relevance today, when the internet allows every inch of any given film to be picked over with a fine-toothed comb.
It also doesn’t hurt that Duet for Cannibals is frequently hilarious: An acidulous, dry humor runs beneath its formal provocations, from Bauer slowly spreading shaving cream over his car windshield to obscure the view inside, to a toned, briefs-clad man holding a handstand through the entirety of a pivotal dramatic scene. In this regard, the film feels ahead of its time, while totally leftfield in others. An interesting, if tonally inconsistent, experiment, it serves as an intriguing cinematic extension of its maker’s more well-known written work.
Cast: Gösta Ekman Jr., Lars Ekborg, Adriana Asti, Agneta Ekmanner, Stig Engström Director: Susan Sontag Screenwriter: Susan Sontag Distributor: Metrograph Pictures Running Time: 105 min Rating: NR Year: 1969
Review: The Good Liar Is Ambivalent to Both Genre and History
An airport novel of a movie, Bill Condon’s The Good Liar is efficient and consumable, if a bit hollow.2.5
An airport novel of a movie, Bill Condon’s The Good Liar is efficient and consumable, if a bit hollow. For the most part, the film successfully marries the levity of con-artist hijinks, the suspenseful ambiguity of a Hitchcockian romance, and the heightened realism of a postwar spy adventure. But like so many pulpish mysteries, its resolution fails to neatly tie up these elements, and though it’s never especially difficult to anticipate at least the general direction in which the plot’s twists are taking us, it’s an enjoyable couple of hours, held together by strong performances and an unpretentious presentation.
For reasons dictated by the protagonists’ ages and historically specific backstories, The Good Liar is set in 2009. British retirees Roy (Ian McKellan) and Betty (Helen Mirren) first meet on an online dating service, initially going by the respective pseudonyms of Brian and Estelle. Once these initial, foreshadowing lies have been dispelled, the two begin an adorably tepid romance, all handshakes and polite compliments. Betty hesitantly invites Roy over to her place when the restaurant where they planned to meet turns out to be closed. They watch Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, and the two have a cordial debate about whether the film’s ahistorical representation poisons the minds of the young.
Of course, the Roy that Betty knows is a lie: Hardly a retiree, the octogenarian is an active, high-level financial scammer. We’re acquainted to Roy’s alter ego as he abandons his cane and strides ably into a strip club—a shot presented in low angle so as to capture some gratuitous nudity on the dancers’ raised platform. Roy proceeds to a private booth, where he and his partner in crime, Vincent (Jim Carter), are meeting with a pair of investors (Mark Lewis Jones and Stefan Kalipha) they’ve planning to scam out of their money. This subplot will eventually spill over into the main romantic plot, though through a more circuitous route than expected.
If, with its “exposed breasts connote shady dealings” rhetoric, this introduction to the seedy Roy lands a bit too hard, McKellan’s performance is more successful in threading together the multiple sides of the man. Even before Roy’s criminal associates start alluding to his dark past, McKellan suggests the weight of a troubled history in his character’s actions. He communicates a sadness and resentment that isn’t manifest in the dialogue, even as Roy takes evident pleasure in the money scams he runs on investors and, eventually, on Betty.
The Good Liar is the type of neatly fabricated mystery in which every emphasized detail will prove to be significant, so when Betty’s grandson, Steven (Russell Tovey), explains that his dissertation topic is the Nazi architect Albert Speer, one can guess that WWII will play some role in the resolution of Roy and Betty’s romantic arc. When Betty suggests a continental vacation—first stop, Berlin—it’s fairly obvious that a confrontation with Roy’s shrouded war history is in the mix. Still, the final third of the film proves to be more deeply rooted in ‘40s Germany than even the pointed discussion of Speer suggests, but don’t look to the film for any particular insight into wartime Germany or the experiences of the “greatest generation.” Here, the war serves mostly as a dramatic facilitator of final twist rather than a lived experience.
Eventually, Betty, who, as the duped party throughout, comes off as far less intelligent than the former Oxford professor she’s meant to be, gets some narrative agency. But it comes so late, and in the form of a twist whose general outlines we can sense from very early on, that it hardly avoids feeling tokenistic. Playing the part of sweet Betty, fooled into all manner of duplicitous arrangements with Roy, Mirren has comparatively little to do. At times, you may expect the film to become a kind of geriatric Mr. and Mrs. Smith, but the expected turn comes too late for Betty to really get in on any action. Unlike Inglourious Basterds, with which it self-consciously contrasts itself, The Good Liar isn’t interested in a challenging remix of either genre or history—content instead with mild, safely conventional entertainment.
Cast: Helen Mirren, Ian McKellen, Russell Tovey, Jim Carter, Mark Lewis Jones, Céline Buckens, Nell Williams, Phil Dunster, Laurie Davidson, Jóhannes Kaukur Jóhannesson Director: Bill Condon Screenwriter: Jeffrey Hatcher, Nicholas Searle Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 109 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Todd Haynes’s Dark Waters Spreads the News, Without Embellishment
Haynes’s film intermittently hits upon a few original ways of representing its ripped-from-the-headlines mandate.2.5
Todd Haynes’s Dark Waters is the sort of film that may win awards and plaudits, even as it’s poised to be overlooked for its craftsmanship. Haynes and screenwriters Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan communicate their story—a true one about the ways corporate greed can lead to irreparable health crises and environmental damage—without an ounce of pretense, which also means that they risk making it seem indistinguishable from other recent topical films like Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight. Yet while it doesn’t rewrite the book on the legal thriller genre, Dark Waters also intermittently hits upon a few original ways of representing its ripped-from-the-headlines mandate. Faint praise, perhaps, but this film aims to spread the news rather than bask in its own glory.
In 1998, Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), a farmer from Parkersburg, West Virginia, attempts to enlist Cincinnati lawyer Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) to file suit against DuPont. The chemical company, it seems, has been dumping toxic chemicals in a landfill near Tennant’s farm, polluting its creek and killing its livestock. As an attorney for a firm that defends corporations, Bilott initially refuses the case but eventually goes to bat for Tennant: Bilott grew up in West Virginia and becomes emotionally invested in protecting the land he loved as a child.
In the course of his investigation, Bilott discovers links between cancers and birth defects in the Parkersburg community and Dupont’s unregulated manufacture and disposal of PFOA (or C8), an indestructible chemical prevalent in many everyday household products. Yet what should be an open-and-shut case of corporate malfeasance and corruption drags on for years due to Dupont’s legal maneuvering, which costs Bilott his health and many of Bill’s clients their patience and social inclusion in Parkersburg, a Dupont company town to its core.
Dark Water’s strong suit is its central performances. As Bilott, Ruffalo provides a bristling tension in exploring the grey area between moral conviction and obsession as the lawyer’s selflessness borders on single-mindedness. And a scene-stealing Camp uses his bulk, not to mention a convincing rural drawl, to impart various shades of frustration, outrage, sadness, and disillusionment in the face of Tennant’s near-helpless situation. Anne Hathaway, on the other hand, can only do so much in the role of Bilott’s wife, Sarah, who seems to exist only to criticize others, be it her husband for his tunnel vision or his senior partner, Tom Terp (Tim Robbins), for taking Bilott’s self-sacrifice for granted. Given Sarah’s intriguing backstory (she gave up a career in law to become a housewife), as well as Haynes’s predilection for exploring complex women, her characterization feels especially thin.
More important, perhaps, than any of these characters is West Virginia itself. The state isn’t featured often on film, which is a shame since it possesses an abundance of natural beauty. Of course, you won’t see that in Dark Waters, as Edward Lachman’s cinematography evokes the spoilage of that beauty by employing sickly, desaturated blues and greens, especially in outdoor winter scenes where you can practically feel the despair emanating from the screen. In this sense, the film harkens back to Haynes’s Safe, where toxicity appeared to suffuse the protagonist’s ordinary surroundings. The environmental details of Dark Waters reinforce the depth and expansiveness of Dupont’s crime, so that by the time John Denver’s signature “Take Me Home, Country Roads” ironically, if inevitably, plays during one of Bilott’s deflating drives through Parkersburg, Haynes has made the audience feel that this isn’t some remote, godforsaken hamlet, but rather the entire polluted planet.
Still, the best parts of Dark Waters may make you wish that there was more of Haynes in it. The filmmaker hasn’t written one of his own projects since the outstanding Mildred Pierce miniseries, but whereas Carol and Wonderstruck at least continued the director’s thematic and aesthetic preoccupations in their investigation of outcasts searching for romantic and familial connections, Dark Waters feels relatively faceless. Aside from its color scheme, there isn’t much in the film that’s particularly or uniquely cinematic; this is a dramatic rather than a visual showcase, and one often confined to legal conversations in generic offices, meeting rooms, and courts of law. But perhaps it’s to Haynes’s credit that he lets the drama speak for itself, instead of feeling the need to embellish it. After all, the point of this film is to depict how an enormous human and environmental tragedy initially affects a small community, with Tennant, Bilott, and Parkersburg suffering the full-force C-8 blast first and hardest.
Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Bill Camp, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Bill Pullman, Victor Garber, Mare Winningham, William Jackson Harper, Louisa Krause Director: Todd Haynes Screenwriter: Mario Correa, Matthew Michael Carnahan Distributor: Focus Features Running Time: 126 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Review: Charlie’s Angels Has Good Intentions but Lives in La-La Land
All the feminist virtue-signaling in the world can’t conceal the film’s creative conservatism.1.5
As a minor cultural institution, Charlie’s Angels has, in all its TV and film incarnations, operated as a kind of Rorschach test: Fans see it flying the female empowerment flag by bringing women into the traditionally male detective genre, while critics by and large view it as a symptom of feminist backlash, objectifying its stars in the service of campy male fantasy. Now, by diversifying its cast and placing a female writer-director, Elizabeth Banks, at its helm, the new Charlie’s Angels attempts to remove all political doubt: These Angels are woke and answer to no man, not even one issuing orders from a speaker box. The intention is pure, but in the end, the emancipatory aims of this reboot exist only in la-la land, its feminism failing to resonate beyond the cynicism of corporate rebranding.
Mostly remembered as a montage of iconic images, the 1970s Aaron Spelling-produced TV series was actually a bore, its success depending solely on the charisma of its lead actresses; the two early-aughts films, both directed by McG, were 100% cheesecake, hypersexualizing its actresses in what amounted to glorified music videos. The new Charlie’s Angels moves well and at least puts forth a semblance of reality, with a few moments hinting at the tense, moody spy thriller it might have been. Yet the dominant strain of its DNA is the Generic Action Movie, and all the feminist virtue-signaling in the world can’t conceal its creative conservatism.
The plot centers on the usual stuff of spies and saboteurs. Not yet an official Angel, Elena (Naomi Scott) works for a company that’s run by an Elon Musk type (Sam Claflin) and creates an electronics product that possesses deadly potential. When her superiors bury her report on its risks, Elena enlists the Angels—Sabina (Kristen Stewart) and Jane (Ella Balinska)—to help blow the whistle. But sinister parties, of course, want the gadget for themselves, and most of the film consists of a series of car chases, break-ins, and stakeouts as the Angels pursue the MacGuffin in the name of global security. Speaking of global: Charlie’s private investigation firm is now an international business, with multiple Bosleys leading their own teams of lady spies. And in a first for the franchise, our Angels’ Bosley is played by a woman (Banks).
Indeed, the film has a female-led, rather than female-focused, bent. Having nothing to do with the story, the opening credits sequence features a celebratory montage of girls from around the world, and the finale and end credits reveal Charlie’s agency to be run by women, a far cry from the TV series’s patriarchal framing: “Once upon a time there were three little girls…now they work for me. My name is Charlie.” Banks’s coup de grace “twist” on the Charlie’s Angels formula is diversity in casting, as the Angels are played by one out actress and two of color.
Stewart is the film’s most potentially interesting presence. In the opening scene, Sabina seduces a bad guy by wearing an ultra-femme disguise that includes a cascade of flowing blond hair, and when removing it to enter fight mode, she reveals a dyed, short-cropped butch ‘do. Yet the rest of the film fails to develop the code-switching possibilities of her character or anyone else’s. There’s a slew of nearly preternatural wardrobe changes (at one point, Sabina dons a jockey’s outfit for some reason), but that’s been par for the course in the world of Charlie’s Angels since the Ford administration, with much of the franchise’s appeal residing in the material fetishism attendant in an endless game of dress-up. Like their predecessors, these Angels look glamorous and gorgeous while fighting crime, and while Stewart’s queerness may qualify her objectification, and actually makes her more of a subject (as when she sneaks a lascivious peek at an attractive woman), it’s only in a relative sense. Overall, her on-screen appearance is lensed as much for exploitative pleasure as vicarious admiration.
One major appeal of the Charlie’s Angels properties is seeing men consistently underestimate the physical and intellectual capability of its female leads. But because she dares nothing visually or dramatically original, Banks prevents the Angels from exhibiting unique or surprising traits. The Angels’ bios are strictly single-line affairs: Sabina is rebellious and sarcastic, Jane is steely and professional, and Elena is goofy and wide-eyed. And all of them quip and banter in similarly sitcom-ish rhythms. Ultimately, Banks believes it’s enough that queer and brown women perform the same suspense-free action set pieces and combat choreography that their white male counterparts have performed since time immemorial.
In contrast to McG’s films, which took place in the realm of a live-action candy-colored cartoon, the world of this Charlie’s Angels vaguely resembles our own, giving Banks the opportunity to show what real—or at least real-er—women can do in seriously intense and perilous situations. But save for a few stressed situations and unique notes (such as Luis Gerardo Méndez’s Q-like Saint, who’s both the Angels’ weapons expert and their health advisor and spiritual guru), this film is so much disposable entertainment. It’s too frenetic, tongue in cheek, and impersonal to extend its vague feminism to true individualism.
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Naomi Scott, Ella Balinska, Elizabeth Banks, Patrick Stewart, Djimon Hounsou, Sam Claflin, Noah Centineo, Jonathan Tucker, Nat Faxon, Chris Pang, Luis Gerardo Méndez Director: Elizabeth Banks Screenwriter: Elizabeth Banks Distributor: Columbia Pictures Running Time: 118 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack
Interview: Lauren Greenfield on The Kingmaker and Threats to Democracy
Greenfield discusses how the film relates to her body of work and the warnings Americans ought to heed from it.
When it comes to documenting stories about the dark underbelly of wealth in contemporary society, Lauren Greenfield is like a moth drawn to a flame. A photographer by trade who has ventured into documentary filmmaking, Greenfield broke out in 2012 with The Queen of Versailles, a “riches-to-rags” tale of how billionaire Florida couple Jackie and Robert Siegel attempted to build an American equivalent to Versailles. Their absurd ambition amounts to their folly as construction kicks off at the height of the Great Recession and strains their precarious finances, leaving the mansion unfinished. Greenfield continued this theme in her 2018 documentary Generation Wealth, a companion film to her monograph of the same name that follows multiple less bombastic tales of how an unfettered pursuit of opulence and glamour results in deep emptiness.
Greenfield’s new documentary, The Kingmaker, began with her interest in another powerful symbol for the hollowness of wealth and power. In the Philippines, former First Lady Imelda Marcos evicted the native population of Calauit Island, located in the Calamian Archipelago, and replaced the inhabitants with African animals. Though the regime of her husband, Ferdinand E. Marcos, fell and drove the family into exile and disrepute, the animals remained. Generations later, the creatures’ inbreeding and the general disarray of the island’s ecosystem appears to be a fitting testament to the corruption and incompetence of their rule.
And yet, once Greenfield began to sit with the octogenarian Imelda Marcos, she found a subject spinning an alternate story, as well as a populace willing to believe it. The Kingmaker portrays the unfolding of a terrifying period in the history of the Philippines of how a political dynasty can rewrite the history of human rights abuses and corruption in order to return to power. While events continue to unfold in the country, the necessary forces and people are in place to pave the way for Imelda’s son, Bongbong Marcos, to assume the presidency in 2022.
I spoke with Greenfield prior to The Kingmaker’s premiere at DOC NYC to discuss how the documentary relates to her body of work as a whole as well as the warnings Americans ought to heed from it as a similar political dynamic to the one in the Philippines develops stateside.
You’ve said elsewhere that you liked Imelda on a personal level, but much like The Queen of Versailles, The Kingmaker itself remains a little ambiguous so the audience can come to their own conclusions about the subject. How do you finesse that ambiguity in your filmmaking and in the editing process?
It’s a little bit different with Imelda Marcos because I came in knowing the history. I was more interested in the paradox between the fact that when you’re with her, she’s kind and generous and personable, versus the terrible consequences of the huge human rights abuses she was complicit with. It wasn’t like, “Oh, I think she’s nice, let’s let the audience come to that conclusion.” I felt journalistically, ethically, and historically that I need to give the audience the information so they could see that what she was doing was telling untruths. So they could see that she was an unreliable narrator. That’s why, when I realized that about her, I brought in other voices that the audience would instinctively feel are credible.
It’s a little bit of a different journey because, in the beginning, you’re sucked into her personality, which is lovely and charismatic, and I wanted people to see that. It was the key to her political success. But, even by the end of the first act, when you know she’s depopulated an indigenous population to bring in the animals to her pet project island, I think you can’t abide by that anymore. By the time you hear about martial law and torture, you’re not thinking she’s nice anymore. Jackie Siegel was another journey because you start out thinking she’s horrible, and then you end up kind of rooting for her. For Imelda, I wanted to show her humanity, but it’s a paradox of how can a human do these terrible things and not feel any remorse.
When you started filming Imelda, you thought maybe the film would become a redemption story? At what point did you begin to realize that wasn’t going to play out?
I was still hoping for it, even at the very end—that maybe she’d have some kind of revelation. I thought there’d be a moment where she’s like, “Oh, I didn’t see it that way.” But looking back now, I was being naïve. Of course, this is not her first rodeo. She’s talked to the press a million times. During the election, I realized they were just going to lean into their story. There was a TV interview that Bongbong did, and the reporter said, “Are you going to say you’re sorry? Are you going to say you’re sorry for martial law?” That’s what people really wanted, for him to apologize. And he said, “What do I have to apologize for? Should I apologize for the roads? The infrastructure? The building that happened during that period? If I hurt somebody, I would apologize, but what do I have to apologize for?” When I heard that a few months into the election campaign, I realized they were going to lean into the story, into their rewriting of history that those were the good times, and they weren’t going to apologize. It’s kind of a Trumpian move: never apologize, never say you’re wrong, just say, “It was good, it was great!” And then people will eventually believe you.
Isn’t the film, at least for Imelda, a redemption story? She’s restoring honor to the family name and, in doing so, putting some power behind their wealth, which has become a little toothless in the absence of actual clout.
Well, she is trying to whitewash history. That’s her goal, politically, and it’s why she chose to participate in the film. She wants to put out her version of the Marcos legacy. That’s not what I meant by “redemption story.” I meant her having a moral moment of realizing she’s done something wrong. She does tell herself that she’s doing something good. I do believe she thinks she’s doing good, and that she believes her own story.
Everyone tells themselves a story of their life that makes sense, but the difference between the visions of grandeur of people like Imelda and Jackie Siegel and the average person is that they can manipulate reality to become their fantasy using wealth.
Her story helps her survive. It pushes her to keep going. Deep down, she feels like she’s doing the right thing. If she felt like she was doing terrible things, it would get in her way. It’s a strategic story that helps her live with it and get a young electorate on board for a comeback.
I found it a little difficult to discern toward the end: Does Imelda and the rest of the Marcos family see the contradictions in boosting a candidate like Rodrigo Duterte, who runs against the perceived corruption of a system only to re-legitimize a self-dealing former dynasty? Or is the irony completely lost on them?
I’m not sure that there’s a lot of irony there. Even though he pretends he’s one of the people, working class, talks trash, and swears, he’s actually from a place of privilege. There’s also a lot of corruption going on in this government. When Bongbong was campaigning, he also said he was going to go against corruption. That’s what everybody says. The reality is that Duterte’s father was in Ferdinand Marcos’s cabinet. Duterte looks up to Marcos. He’s threatened martial law. He likes the idea of the strongman. So, I think that they’re pretty aligned.
I was more surprised that Bongbong would align with Duterte because Bongbong was Western-educated and has the veneer of a legitimate politician, so I was surprised that he would go with somebody responsible for so many street killings. But, at the end of the day, it’s political. They made an alliance that’s helped them both. They could give Duterte support for becoming president, and in return they got the hero’s burial that Imelda has wanted for decades. Duterte backed the sister, Imee, for senate, and she won—as did every candidate that Duterte backed. Going into the next election, Duterte’s backing is extremely important.
A thread through your work is that people suffering from the adverse effects of wealth tend to cast themselves as victims in their own stories. From your experience, do you think that narrative holds any water? Or is it just a survival technique?
Yeah, I don’t think we need to shed any tears for Imelda. What I’m trying to do here, and in Generation Wealth, is to focus on the one percent and look at how it affects everybody else. That’s the important thing: looking at the long-term consequences of the Marcos regime and how the abuse of wealth and power affects everybody else. I came in looking at that through the animal island, but that’s really symbolic for how the Philippines was hurt by how the Marcos family, in taking five to 10 billion dollars, hurt development, created persistent poverty, and made the people vulnerable to bringing back another strongman and supporting people like Bongbong Marcos, but especially Duterte. Benigno Aquino, the president when I was filming and son of opposition leader Ninoy Aquino, said his father told him you can’t have democracy when you’re hungry. That’s what we see in the Philippines, democracy being threatened because people’s basic needs are not being met.
It almost feels like we’re doomed to live in a plutocracy forever.
That’s the irony. That’s what was so sad. It’s also similar to Trump, as people’s needs were not being met, so they voted for change only to have somebody who’s really on the side of the wealthy. It’s ironic that these people get brought in by the support of the working class. But in the Philippines, you’re not even talking about the working class. You’re talking about deep, deep poverty where people are getting money, food, or clothing in exchange for votes. And especially without proper information, the history not being taught in the schoolbooks or not as many outlets of independent journalism, it’s very hard for a democracy to thrive.
You’ve noted that Imelda is yet another adherent of the “dictator chic” style—the gauche, in-your-face extravagance that attracts aspiring autocrats from Trump to Saddam Hussein. As someone who observes the intersection of wealth and aesthetics, do you have any theories about why this phenomenon cuts across the globe?
In a way, that was a little bit more of what I looked at in Generation Wealth. There’s an aspirational nobility that people with power want, like being a king or a queen. You see that in the portrait of Imelda at the beginning of the film and in some of the commissioned portraiture she did—and, for that matter, some of what the Siegels did. You can see the love for gold that Trump has. I think it’s an association with nobility, especially for the nouveau riche and people who are ambitiously climbing their way up.
As someone who’s studied and documented wealth across the world, what do you make of this moment in America where it seems like a large portion of the country worships an opulent, self-proclaimed wealthy leader and another large portion finds inspiration in politicians who are rallying people against the idea of concentrated wealth?
Well, I definitely think we’re at a really precarious time at the moment, because the amount of inequality we have right now is dangerous for any society or democracy. And dangerous economically. We have this myth of the American dream where anyone can go from rags to riches. I think that’s what’s standing between us and revolution, even though many people are not sharing in the spoils of our economy. It’s because of this “keeping up with the Kardashians” mindset. In Generation Wealth, I looked at how in the space of a generation, people went from “keeping up with the Joneses,” their neighbors, to keeping up with the Kardashians, these ultra-wealthy people they see on TV. It’s so unrealistic, and yet there’s this deep myth in the culture that you can become that one day, through a reality show or whatever it is. Obama called that out more than two decades ago when he was a lawyer. The thing about Donald Trump is that people think they can be him one day, or maybe their child can be him. There’s this illusion that keeps people accepting the status quo.
And then I think there’s a waking up happening, particularly among young people, that that’s not going to happen, and that there’s some real rot. The game is rigged, and what they’re telling us is the goal—being rich—isn’t actually making people happy. Especially on the millennial side, there are signs of people waking up and wanting something different. The problem is that the culture and corporate capitalism are so slanted toward keeping the status quo. Just money in politics, for example, and the disinformation from social media. We saw it in the Philippines, we saw it here, we saw it with Brexit. That’s the thing Andy Bautista [former head of the Philippines’ Presidential Commission on Good Government] keeps telling me about the Philippines: If you have money, you have speech because you can put forward lies on social media and convince people of that. And it’s kind of like that here as well.
Review: The Hottest August Is a Rich Patchwork of Discontented Voices
Brett Story’s documentary represents a city ground down by inequality and division.3
Throughout The Hottest August, director Brett Story asks her interview subjects—a collection of mostly working-class, outer-borough residents of New York City—for their feelings about the future. More interesting than these people’s answers are the way their faces change as they process the question, invariably morphing into an ironic smirk. From there, the responses are despairing, even at their most hopeful, as nearly every subject answers with a summation of their career goals or their desire to earn more money.
Our collective failure to reckon with the onward march of climate change and vulture capitalism is the often unspoken subject of this structuralist documentary, which was filmed over the course of August 2017. Though Story makes her themes clear in a voiceover narrative (recited by Clare Coulter) that combines the director’s own writings with those of Karl Marx, Zadie Smith, and Annie Dillard, the people in The Hottest August have other things on their minds. A college student who works at a call center for wealthy investors describes herself as an “entrepreneur,” while a man driving a food truck has to move out of his apartment the following day without having found a new home. Periodically, the artist Ayodamola Okunseinde wanders the streets as a character he calls “The Afronaut,” clad in an Afro-futuristic spacesuit designed to encourage others to consider their own futures.
Even without this surreal image, the film’s photography (by Derek Howard) has an alien vibe, emphasizing humans that look rather small amid the buildings, beaches, and blockades they navigate every day. Apart from a ‘20s-themed costume party on Governor’s Island, a few public parks, and, of course, a subway car, most of the landscapes in The Hottest August are weirdly underpopulated. This is appropriate for a film that seems equally inspired by Chris Marker’s sci-fi-inflected essay films and Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s Chronicle of a Summer, and also for a work that must invariably address the gentrification of New York’s neighborhoods.
The middle- and upper-class New Yorkers glimpsed in The Hottest August are most often seen peering through windows or standing in desolate corporate courtyards. Gridlike compositions of air-conditioning units are dotted with running flat-screen televisions or films projected onto white walls. The public square is hard to locate, and Story finds them where she can: a Black Lives Matter rally where black speakers address an overwhelmingly white crowd; a Staten Island cop bar where politics are deemed verboten until one ex-police officer goes on a rant against a mythical welfare queen; a recreational softball league that descends into a near brawl; or the beach, where most of the subjects Story talks to are underemployed.
Near the beach in the Rockaways, one small home has been raised multiple stories on stacks of wooden pallets. Those closest to the water ignore post-Hurricane Sandy evacuation notices and dismiss climate change as Al Gore’s ploy to get rich and speaking with certainty that the hurricane’s status as a “100-year storm” means that they’re safe for another century. That’s not the most immediate delusion to be found in The Hottest August, which spends a few scenes with working-class Italian-American couple who gradually express their frustration with a diversifying neighborhood, culminating in an actual “I’m not racist, but” monologue.
Where Story’s previous film, The Prison in Twelve Landscapes, meticulously depicted how the tentacles of mass incarceration creep into civic life, The Hottest August is a more loosely guided snapshot of generalized resentment. People are mad at the rich, who they also want to be. And then there are those clever enough to seek to profit from the ambient rage of the era: an entrepreneur who runs an industrial space where clients can destroy everything in sight, or a hipster from a VR company who barely believes his own bullshit about the automation revelation yielding a universal basic income where all will be free to do as they please.
With The Hottest Summer, Story puts on display a New York City that’s very different from the one depicted in Frederick Wiseman’s In Jackson Heights, where every corner and office is teeming with representations of active, often progressive political and social discourse. While there are moments of grace and whimsy in here (a woman on a bench texting next to a duck, a smart young skateboarder who rides Story for interviewing some loudmouthed teens in the same park), the documentary represents a city ground down by inequality and division, where millions of selves who have by and large given up on one another.
Director: Brett Story Distributor: Grasshopper Film
Review: I Lost My Body Finds Poetry in Tracing Life’s Uncertainties
It focuses equally on moments of shared connection and incidental loss until the two feel indistinguishable.3
Naofel (Hakim Faris) has a small birthmark between the knuckles of his right hand’s pointer and middle fingers. This would be the appendage’s most distinctive characteristic if not for the fact that, after being severed from Naofel’s body, it develops a will of its own. Throughout I Lost My Body, the hand skitters around of its own accord, using its fingers to crawl out of the hospital lab where it was kept following Naofel’s grim accident. Jérémy Clapin’s animated film chronicles the journey of that hand through, among other places, the rooftops and gutters of Paris, into a river and across a highway, in an attempt to reunite with its owner, dodging animals and cars along the way.
Do hands have memories? Naofel’s right hand certainly seems to. As the wayward appendage propels itself through the air with an open umbrella or flicks a lighter to fend off a bunch of subway rats, flashbacks recall the young man’s troubled, lonely life. He feels adrift, barely present in a world that seems only to have harsh words and unhappiness for him. He’s at odds with the relatives who took him in after the death of his parents in a car accident, and his half of a shared room is unfurnished save for the mattress placed directly on the floor. He works as a pizza delivery boy, but he isn’t a particularly good one, as he’s often late and, in one scene, scatters his pizza boxes into the street after crashing his bike into a car.
Many of I Lost My Body’s flashbacks foreground Naofel’s hand as though presenting its perspective. People and objects loom above it, its digits taking up wide swaths of the frame as they cling with insect-like precision to boxes or hold a microphone in their grip. Tight close-ups capture the fingers tapping random objects or emerging from the sand, and there are even POV shots of the hand peeking out from a dumpster or prodding the plastic bag it’s wrapped in. These sequences are a great showcase for the film’s subdued, naturalistic, and, above all, detail-rich hand-drawn animation: We see fidgeting fingers grabbing onto a locker door, a pigeon laboriously nudging the hand out of a gutter, and Naofel penciling lines onto blocks of wood that he’ll later trace over with a saw in his woodworking apprenticeship.
The metaphor at the heart of the film seems deceptively obvious: disconnection from the world and other people, literalized through a hand severed from its rightful body. But Clapin complicates that metaphor every step of the way, as in a flashback where Naofel’s father explains to him that, in order to catch a fly, the boy must aim where the fly will be rather than where it is. But knowing how to catch the fly doesn’t necessarily make the task any easier to accomplish, and the film’s depiction of fate follows a similarly unpredictable trajectory.
Through images of loneliness, as in a wooden igloo cobbled together on a rooftop, I Lost My Body builds an atmosphere of isolation and, above all, uncertainty. Because while Naofel takes his father’s advice to heart, his own attempts to live unpredictably, ahead of fate, do not always work out for him. His infatuation with Gabrielle (Victoire Du Bois), initially so stirring as they close their eyes to listen to the rain and the wind from separate ends of an apartment intercom, goes in a few stalkerish directions. She rejects him for being a creep, and Naofel ironically comes to find fulfillment not in a relationship, as he had hoped, but in the woodworking he initially took up only to impress Gabrielle. I Lost My Body finds poetry in tracing life’s uncertainties, focusing equally on moments of shared connection and incidental loss until the two feel indistinguishable, as one part of a delicate whole.
Cast: Hakim Faris, Victoire Du Bois, Patrick d'Assumçao Director: Jérémy Clapin Screenwriter: Jérémy Clapin, Guillaume Laurant Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 81 min Rating: NR Year: 2019