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The Conversations: Minor Hitchcock

Rope in particular is “minor” in large part because Hitchcock created so many majors.

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The Conversations: Minor Hitchcock

Ed Howard: Alfred Hitchcock is one of the eternal touchstones of the cinema. He’s been a major influence for many of the best filmmakers to work in his wake, and films like Psycho, The Birds, North by Northwest, Rear Window and many others remain cultural markers that would be recognizable even to those who have never actually seen them. With a director this major, very little of his career hasn’t been explored in depth, with the possible exception of his fertile British period, which seems to get less attention than his later work. However, we’ve decided to discuss two of the master’s Hollywood films that, while perhaps not overlooked (indeed, both are remembered more or less fondly), are generally considered to be “minor” Hitchcock: Rope (1948) and To Catch a Thief (1955). My own perspective is that these supposedly “minor” films are, in their own ways, keeping in mind their quirks and undeniable limitations, major works nearly as rich and rewarding as Hitchcock’s better-known milestones.

They’re very different films, though, and there are very different reasons for their somewhat lesser stature in Hitchcock’s oeuvre. Psycho is mostly remembered for its audacious formal gimmick: it is composed entirely of a series of unbroken 10-minute-or-less takes, and the cuts between shots are often disguised in ostentatious ways to create the (not very convincing) illusion of a single take weaving through the enclosed set. This trick dominates the film to such an extent that it’s all many people remember about it, and I think this is unfortunate. If Psycho is remembered as a formal experiment and little more, To Catch a Thief is often viewed as Hitchcock making a hangout movie with some of his favorite stars, Grace Kelly and Cary Grant, on the French Riviera. Hitchcock said as much, and even opened the film with a shot of a tourism office’s front window (setting up the dark humor of the second shot, an abrupt cut to a screaming woman). So what we have here is one film that’s usually cited as a simple formal exercise, and another that’s considered a fun, sugary entertainment. Are these minor works from a major director? Or are they two more examples of Hitchcock’s mastery and genius, as well as his often-underappreciated range?

Jason Bellamy: How about both? Rope in particular is “minor” in large part because Hitchcock created so many majors. It isn’t as sinister as Psycho, as assaulting as The Birds, as epic (by Hitchcock standards) as North by Northwest, as taut as Rear Window, as moody as Vertigo, and so on. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it trails all of those more famous films (I’d certainly put it ahead of The Birds, for example). All it means is that against such iconic competition, Rope is most easily categorized by its gimmicky technique—those long unbroken takes. That’s what makes the film stand out, sometimes rightly and sometimes wrongly. To Catch a Thief, on the other hand, is certainly more of a lollipop movie. It’s fun and sugary, yes, and not much more. And yet while I’d never make the argument that it’s an overlooked masterpiece, I don’t disparage its pleasures. As you said, this is a “hangout movie” with two of cinema’s most beloved stars, and I don’t see anything wrong with that. To Catch a Thief might not be a deep film, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t genuinely entertaining (at least in places).

And that leads me to the second part of your question, because as minor as these films are in Hitchcock’s oeuvre, they certainly reveal his mastery, genius and often-underappreciated range, too. Put another way, Rope’s thrills remind of Rear Window while To Catch a Thief’s pleasures remind of (parts of) North by Northwest. I make those connections not because the former two films star Jimmy Stewart while the latter two star Cary Grant but because of the films’ designs: Rope and Rear Window are both gripping and claustrophobic pictures that play out mostly in a single set and mostly in real time; To Catch a Thief and North by Northwest are both films about a wrongfully accused man who engages in some delightfully saucy banter with a female companion. What’s interesting to me is that watching Rope and To Catch a Thief one could easily get the sense that Hitchcock is resting on his laurels, mailing it in, selling out, settling for pale imitations of his masterworks. But that would be inaccurate. It’s important to remember that Rope (1948) preceded Rear Window (1954) and To Catch a Thief (1955) preceded North by Northwest (1959). Furthermore, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), Vertigo (1958), Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963) all came after the two less-celebrated movies that are the subjects of this conversation. I don’t want to imply in any way that Hitchcock was some novice filmmaker still learning his craft when he made Rope and To Catch a Thief. But in retrospect it’s hard to ignore that these films seem to be warm-up exercises for the unquestionably major films that would follow them. Or is it just me?

To Catch a Thief

EH: In the case of Rope, certainly, it’s fair to call it a warm-up exercise. Hitchcock wanted to see if he could make a film using as few shots as possible, simple as that. It’s the kind of formal challenge he’d set for himself on occasion, as when he decided to see if he could make a film set entirely on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean (Lifeboat, of course, which really is a formal experiment that isn’t too interesting beyond its gimmick). Rope and Lifeboat were perhaps both necessary first steps towards Rear Window, which further developed the claustrophobia and formal restrictions of the earlier films.

We’ll get back to Rope, but for the moment I want to defend To Catch a Thief, since I don’t really agree with your faint praise for that one. Sure, it’s sugary and light, and easy to enjoy on a surface level as a popcorn entertainment. And it has its structural flaws as well: I’d entirely forgotten just how dull and ungainly the first half-hour is, with the awful dubbing of the French actors and Cary Grant looking really uncomfortable in some ridiculous outfits and a horrible tan. It’s a waiting game: when is Grace Kelly finally going to show up, anyway? Once she does, though, as oil heiress Francie Stevens, it’s a whole different story. Her interactions with Grant (as the one-time cat burglar John Robie) are playful, charming and charged with barely restrained sexuality and—there’s no other word for it—naughtiness. Hitchcock was always pushing the boundaries of how he could have his characters talk about sex without actually talking about it, but the approach reaches its peak here and in The Trouble With Harry, Hitchcock’s other great “light” film of the mid-‘50s. There’s so much wonderful, naughty dialogue here, so much sexual energy. Francie’s mom Jessie (Jessie Royce Landis) takes one look at Robie and says, “I wouldn’t mind buying that for you, dear.” Later, Francie promises Robie that “tonight you’re going to see one of the Riviera’s most fascinating sights,” then belatedly adds, “I was talking about the fireworks,” which of course only emphasizes that she was talking about anything but the fireworks. That’s without even getting into the famous banter about breasts and legs, or the whole extended fireworks scene, which is one of the best sequences Hitchcock ever filmed (more on that later).

More than any other Hitchcock film, then, this is a film about sex. In its basic form, it’s the most common kind of film that Hitchcock made, a “wrong man” mystery with a “saucy” love interest. Hitchcock made this film over and over again, and its roots are in his earlier British work, like The 39 Steps and Young and Innocent, both of which are built from the same basic template. Here, though, more than usual, the thriller mechanics are reduced to an afterthought, and Hitchcock, aided by screenwriter John Michael Hayes, instead concentrates on one opportunity after another to probe the mutual attraction of the leads. Does all this add up to a “deep” movie? It depends on what you mean by deep. The film doesn’t have the psychosexual darkness of Vertigo or Marnie, sure, but in many ways it’s another of Hitchcock’s characteristic examinations of sexual dynamics and sexual roles, just in a brighter and more optimistic context. And although its final joke makes marriage a trap for the man, a typical Hitchcock gag, throughout much of the rest of the film Kelly’s Francie is smart, confident and sexually open in a very refreshing way. Check out the seductive, leering look she gives Robie when he asks her what thrills her, or the “efficient” way she kisses him to signal her interest. Perhaps only Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep does a better job of generating sexual sparks from this kind of dueling banter, in which sexual prowess is evaluated by deftness with a one-liner, and the woman is at least the man’s equal in verbal dexterity and cleverness. It’s easy to say that this kind of stuff is “fun” and make it sound like a dismissal, but I think there can be—and in this case, as in the Hawks film, is—a great deal of substance in this fluffy romantic repartee.

To Catch a Thief

JB: Yes, there can be a great deal of substance in fluffy romantic repartee. But the sad truth is that there really isn’t that much of it in To Catch a Thief. Is it memorable? Oh, absolutely! It’s not only the best stuff of this movie, it’s some of the best stuff of Hitchcock. Bar none. But while you suggest that the thriller mechanics are an “afterthought,” and I don’t disagree, the truly naughty banter between Grant and Kelly actually gets less screen time. You alluded to this already, but it’s 22 minutes before we get a glimpse of Grace Kelly. Then it’s a few minutes more before she actually says something. A few minutes after that, 39 minutes into the movie, Kelly’s Francie and Grant’s Robie share their first embrace—and at that point Francie is so undeveloped that she’s nothing more than a pretty face (though Grace Kelly gets more mileage out of that than most). A few minutes later, Francie engages in the water-treading verbal spat with Brigitte Auber’s Danielle, while Robie grimaces between them. Then Robie and Francie have a few walk-and-talk scenes that really don’t amount to very much. And then, finally, almost an hour into a 106-minute movie, the two of them are in a car, Francie at the wheel and the police on Robie’s tail. “Why are we dawdling like this?” Robie asks, and indeed he might as well be speaking for the audience.

I don’t mean to imply that To Catch a Thief’s first hour is entirely without pleasure. (I’m always delighted by Francie’s spunk in the water-treading scene: “Are you sure you were talking about water skis? It looked to me like you were conjugating some irregular verbs.”) But the film is rarely worth watching when Kelly isn’t on the screen, and it takes about 45 minutes for her to be anything more than wallpaper. Beyond that, we both seem to agree that the film is at its best when Francie and Robie are engaged in their steamy repartee, but the terrific picnic scene (“Do you want a leg or a breast?”) is just four minutes long, and the fireworks scene, fantastic though it is, lasts just five minutes. Being generous, I could stuff maybe 15 more Grant-Kelly minutes into this package of goodness, but even then I’m struggling to find so much as a third of the picture that I can really rave about.

I realize I’ve just broken down the film like some baseball statistics geek debunking the legendary status of a great pitcher by talking about his WHIP and VORP, which isn’t my intent. But at the same time I find that, like you, the memory of all the wonderful Grant-Kelly verbal fireworks doesn’t line up with reality. So perhaps the thriller aspect of the film shouldn’t have been such an afterthought after all. And perhaps that’s the lesson Hitch took with him to North by Northwest.

To Catch a Thief

EH: But Hitchcock had been making films like North by Northwest for more or less his entire career—that film is a summation of his cinema to that point—and films like Saboteur, Young and Innocent and The 39 Steps have varying balances between the “wrong man” thriller plotting and the dialogue-driven romance scenes. I don’t buy that he learned any lessons from To Catch a Thief so much as he was willfully playing with the extremes of a balance he’d toyed with throughout his career. In that context, it’s possible to think of To Catch a Thief as a formalist experiment of sorts, albeit a less obvious one than Rope. The experiment here is to see how much Hitchcock can abstract the film’s focus from its ostensible suspense/mystery plot onto the romantic interaction of the leads. Is it entirely successful? No, no more than Rope is. Do I wish there was even more of that great banter? Of course, and to some extent Hitchcock delivered on that promise with The Trouble With Harry, which is all naughty banter and cleverly masked sexual metaphors. (There’s some great stuff in that one about crossing thresholds.) Maybe the problem then isn’t that Hitchcock didn’t stress the thriller plot more but that he stressed it too much. If he’d allowed it to evaporate completely, as he did in Harry, the film might’ve been even better, even more charming and funny and sexually adventurous.

As for the rest, for some reason I’ve now got this image of you sitting there watching the movie with a stopwatch in hand, or maybe a scorecard, to continue the baseball metaphor. I guess when you break it down like that, the Grant/Kelly scenes represent a surprisingly small proportion of the total screen time, especially since, as I already noted, those are the scenes that everyone remembers. It’s a good demonstration of the selectivity of memory: I’ve seen the film a few times now but I still never remember how long it takes for Kelly to appear on screen, or how shaky the film is before that point. Maybe all that matters is the memory, though. The great scenes might be statistically insignificant if we measure things in terms of screen time, but they make a powerful impact. This is a movie, not a science experiment, and a few minutes of thrilling screen time can pretty easily counterbalance a half-hour of less satisfying moments.

I mentioned Howard Hawks already, and he’s a pretty good reference point for this film, which in some ways feels more like one of his banter-packed comedies than a proper Hitchcock thriller. Hawks maintained that a good film consisted of “three great scenes, no bad ones.” In other words, the moments that stand out are the only ones that really matter. I don’t think To Catch a Thief meets that criteria about no bad scenes, but boy does it exceed its quota of great ones. That’s more important, to me, than the math. Sure, the film’s far from perfect, and it’s marred by those stretches where Grant and Kelly aren’t interacting. (Not that the rest is worthless; at the very least, there are some good scenes between Robie and Danielle, like the one where he urges her to distract a spying plane and gets an eyeful of her legs as a result.) But when I think back on the film, it’s the great scenes I remember: the fireworks, the picnic, Grace Kelly’s mischievous smile when she’s speeding along those back-projected mountain roads (a scene made poignant by subsequent real-world events), the bright artificial colors of the climactic party, the sharp wit of the dialogue in virtually every encounter between Francie and Robie. The rest just melts away, easy enough to ignore in focusing on the good stuff. So what do you think of Hawks’ criteria for judging movies? Does To Catch a Thief fare better when judged on that kind of scale?

To Catch a Thief

JB: I like Hawks’ test, but I don’t think To Catch a Thief passes it. As you said, there are some truly bad scenes here, particularly early: that awful dubbing of the French actors, the goofy scene at the market that is neither as suspenseful nor as funny as it seems to want to be, plus all the initial plot exposition in a film that doesn’t particularly care about its narrative anyway. To Catch a Thief does well upon reflection, you’re right about that, because our brains preserve those scenes we want to cherish. I have fond memories of the movie, too. But if I’m honest, part of that fondness is tied to my basic affection for Cary Grant and Grace Kelly. As I’m writing this, I’m thinking of the scene in which Robie and Francie walk around the gardens of that mansion, with Robie surreptitiously surveying the grounds, trying to determine the ways in which the imitation cat burglar will strike. In memory, flickering against the movie screen in my imagination, that’s a delightful little scene—beautiful people in a beautiful location. In the film itself, it’s nothing. There’s not much to it beyond the beauty of the subjects and the landscape.

That’s not a serious crime, don’t get me wrong. As I said at the outset, this is indeed a “hangout” picture. Simple pleasures are genuine pleasures just the same. But To Catch a Thief can be downright tedious in segments and it’s only mildly entertaining quite a bit of the rest of the time. That’s the point I was trying to get across earlier. You argued that “a few minutes of thrilling screen time can pretty easily counterbalance a half-hour of less satisfying moments,” and I don’t disagree in principle. But I wonder if the take-away “greatness” of To Catch a Thief is evidence of something else: the importance of finishing on a high note. Rightly or wrongly, most moviegoers are tremendously forgiving of a lackluster first 30 minutes so long as the final 30 minutes deliver thrills. The conclusion of To Catch a Thief doesn’t exactly pack a wallop, at least not by Hitchcock’s standards, but it’s a back-heavy film, no question about it. Even the final moment is one of its best, when we realize that the film’s title refers less to Robie’s nabbing of Danielle than to Francie’s nabbing of Robie, a quintessential Hitchcock gag.

I’ve always been torn over the added weight given to a film’s conclusion. On the one hand it’s perfectly justifiable: a movie’s early scenes are setting the stage for something later; they aren’t necessarily meant to fulfill in and of themselves, but ultimately they’re an integral part of a film’s success. On other hand, beginning or end, it’s all the same movie, and thus praising an otherwise lackluster film for the strength of its final act is just as problematic as condemning a mostly outstanding film for an arguably awkward conclusion. All of that said, it would be incorrect to imply that the first half of To Catch a Thief is truly expendable, but I don’t think this is a case in which the opening half of a picture is integral to the pleasures of its second half.

To Catch a Thief

EH: To me, there’s no question that a truly great film should be satisfying more or less the whole way through and, as you say, To Catch a Thief doesn’t meet that test at all. On the other hand, there’s a solid half-hour, maybe even an hour, of entertaining and enjoyable material here, once the opening exposition is dispensed with and Hitchcock delivers one dazzling Grant/Kelly scene after another leading up to a denouement that’s perhaps not thrilling as a solution to the (non-)mystery but is thrilling in its romance and its artificial visual beauty. Part of that is the intrinsic appeal of Grant and Kelly, of course, but that doesn’t invalidate the pleasure of seeing these Ur-glamorous megastars trading all those sexually charged lines.

I think it’s easy to underestimate how much of that is Hitchcock, too. He’s not often thought of as an actor’s director—he did famously compare his stars to cattle, after all—but there are few directors who could get as much from a star persona. Grant and Kelly aren’t exactly delivering complex performances here; they’re channeling their celebrity aura into these characters, making the characters charming and exciting and interesting merely by virtue of the people playing them. Compare the Hitchcock films with Grant, Kelly, James Stewart, and Ingrid Bergman, and the ones with outrageous villains like Joseph Cotten or Anthony Perkins, to the ones where he was unable to cast a big, charismatic star, and you can often feel that subtle absence, no matter how many other pleasures the films might offer. Like you say, Hitchcock creates this atmosphere where it’s enjoyable just to watch these people walking around, watching Robie/Grant surreptitiously surveying the estate, and Francie/Kelly doing that sidelong smirk she does so well, mysterious in its meaning, both sweet and knowingly ironic. The characters and the actors are inseparable, and it’s a delight to spend time with them.

Maybe that’s a relatively minor success, in the grand scheme of things, and Hitchcock has undoubtedly made many more sophisticated and substantial films. Still, you could do worse than this elaborate excuse to photograph exquisite French countryside vistas (with some stunning helicopter shots in the early car chase) and admire two of classic Hollywood’s most glamorous stars. There’s an attention to detail, too, that suggests that even in a lazy vacation picture like this, Hitchcock’s visual imagination was always firing on all cylinders. My favorite example: the subtle rhyming between the famous, if peripheral, moment where Jessie puts out a cigarette in an egg, and the earlier shot where the angry kitchen staff throws an egg at Robie, shattering against a window and forming an abstract smear blotting out his face. And of course all the other structural rhymes and embedded gags: the cops getting held up first by sheep, then by chickens, the chicken breasts and legs at the picnic, the down-the-blouse shot of a woman’s breasts as Robie plots to drop his gambling chip into her cleavage, Francie saying “hold them” as she hands Robie her… necklace. For me, it’s so easy to just pretend the film’s weaker moments never happened because there’s so much else here that makes me laugh with pure delight. And I still haven’t even gotten to the pivotal fireworks scene.

To Catch a Thief

JB: I think we agree on the film’s pleasures. I just seem to be more irritated by the dry patches in between. As I said previously, those more tedious moments tend to be any scenes not including Grace Kelly. I mean, good lord, what an amazing presence she has! I’m not sure any actress has ever been so effortlessly gorgeous or loveable (and, yes, I’m considering Audrey Hepburn). Furthermore, I can’t think of another actress who could be so daintily feminine while so convincingly mixing it up with the boys. The car chase is a terrific example: Kelly’s Francie wears a sheer pink top and scarf, looking like she’s dressed for Easter brunch, as she puts pedal to the metal to elude the police, an unconcerned smile on her face, all while Grant’s Robie cringes in the passenger’s seat. Every time I watch this movie I marvel at how truly girlish Francie is in that scene and yet I never doubt her tenacity or courage. Saying this, I fear that I come off like some kind of caveman who thinks that it’s impossible to be both “ladylike” and “tough,” but that’s not it at all. My amazement stems from the fact that we almost never see this combination at the movies—unless it’s some heroine in a Jane Austen adaptation or an equally plucky young queen who won’t take shit from nobody. In recent years, we’ve seen more of the sculpted, sexualized, cleavage-baring ass-kickers in the mold of G.I. Jane and Lara Croft, etc., but they’re so far removed from Kelly’s Frances “Francie” Stevens, who never stops being rose-petal soft even while she’s digging a thorn into you.

Hitchcock is famous for his universally thrilling suspense, but I think another reason that so many of his films remain so popular today is because of the strength of his female leads—women who are beautiful, bold, daring, smart, girlish and yet rough-and-tumble. Francie might not be quite as macho as Lisa Fremont, her character in Rear Window, who eagerly climbs a fire escape to enter the second-story window of a presumed murderer, but she isn’t far off. In so many Hitchcock movies, women wear the pretty dresses and the metaphorical pants. And even when they are eye-candy victims, like Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane in Psycho, they are almost never meek. (Marion is a thief before she’s a murder victim, remember.) Their glamour and their sexuality aren’t strikes against them. They are women, hear them roar… or purr, or both. Hitchcock heroines could be sexually enticing and predatory, as here: even in the moments when Robie leans in to kiss Francie, she has already implicitly made the first move. Watching this film it occurs to me that if To Catch a Thief were remade today, the depiction of Francie’s gung-ho sexuality would seem almost progressive, would it not?

To Catch a Thief

EH: Well, almost progressive is right. I don’t want to get into the whole Hitchcock misogyny debate, but it seems odd to talk about Hitchcock and women without acknowledging the ambivalence and contradictions about women that are tangled up in his oeuvre. Hitchcock’s women are frequently compelling, but remember that as often as he’s focused on strong-willed, independent women like Francie Stevens and Lisa Fremont, he’s also crafted characters like Tippie Hedron’s titular role in Marnie, a troubled woman who’s controlled and manipulated before heading towards an implied happy ending with the guy who raped her. And even with Kelly’s characters, who never suffer the abuse that Hitchcock heaped upon Hedron in Marnie and The Birds, the “sexually suggestive and predatory” qualities could be seen as both progressive signs of a woman who knows what she wants and the manipulations of a woman trying to trap a man into marriage.

Still, those uglier aspects of Hitchcock’s perspective on women have rarely seemed as remote or as incidental as they do in To Catch a Thief and Rear Window, in part because of Kelly’s natural charm and screen presence, and how perfectly Hitchcock captures the barely restrained mischievous streak behind her elegance. Nowhere is this more apparent than in that famous fireworks scene, which I’ve kept alluding to mainly because I’m so completely bowled over by it. It’s perfection. I love the editing and pacing of it, the way Hitchcock follows Francie around the room as she turns the lights out one by one, gradually letting in that unnatural green glow that represents night in this film. Slowly, everything gets bathed in shadows, leading towards that wonderful shot where Francie leans back so that her face is obscured in the darkness, emphasizing both the jewels glistening at her neck and the bare skin of her shoulders: such an abstractly sexy image. Throughout the scene, as in the film as a whole, the jewels stand in for the body, with Francie’s dialogue about the jewels (“even in this light I can tell where your eyes are looking”) doubling as an awareness of her own body, her own sexuality.

And then the pair sit down, facing each other on the couch, and the editing settles into this graceful rhythm where, in between exchanges of romantic banter, Hitchcock cuts away to the fireworks outside, and every time he cuts back inside, Francie and Robie are closer together, and the camera has moved in closer. The editing is like breathing: in, out, in, out, this measured rhythmic repetition of shots. The intimacy of it is almost overwhelming, particularly when Francie kisses each of Robie’s fingers in turn and then places his hand on her necklace, whispering “hold them.” The sexual double entendre is so obvious already that the added metaphorical implications of all those bursting fireworks make it practically seem like porn.

Beyond its obvious formal brilliance, though, what impresses me most about this scene is how it’s simultaneously so naughty and so adult. So naughty because of its wink-wink, nudge-nudge representation of sex through fireworks and coded dialogue, which makes it so much fun; though I’ll never lament the death of censorship, I do admit that I miss this kind of clever stand-in for actual sex scenes. So adult because, at a time when Hollywood’s depictions of sexual relationships were hardly progressive, here we get a couple obviously sleeping together and both enjoying it, both engaging in this playful mutual seduction as equals. We in the audience are seduced, too, as much by Hitchcock’s formal structuring of the scene as by its content; he’s establishing the rhythms of the seduction, to the point where by the end of the scene I find I’m actually breathing in sync with the edits, that’s how powerful its subtle effect is. I doubt there’s a better encapsulation of romantic love in the cinema, because each shot, each cut, adds to the accumulating mood of swoony late-night desire. By the time the final over-the-top explosion of fireworks cuts in, it’s exactly the beautiful, fiery release that’s required.

To Catch a Thief

JB: The mutual seduction you mentioned is the core of the spirit I was referring to in suggesting the depiction of Francie is almost progressive. I’m fine skipping the Hitchcock misogyny debate as a whole, but, looping back a moment, I’m glad you brought it up. Yes, movies like Marnie are more problematic in their depictions of women, and I should have called attention to that. However, I don’t see the attempts of Francie to snare Robie in marriage as anti-progressive except under some extremist view that would suggest that progressive women aren’t allowed to desire marriage, which is an attitude that seems hardly progressive at all. In the case of Francie and Robie, or Lisa and Jeff in Rear Window, marriage is something an already well-to-do woman simply desires. These women don’t need a man. They just want one. So they go out and get one, indeed partially outsmarting their targets, who come off as unthinking goons foolishly devoting themselves to some empty single-man code—the ultimate implication being that the man in question benefits from a female influence. Sure, maybe that attitude isn’t actually progressive, but even today how often do we come across movies where women are allowed to go get what they want? It’s important to note that while Francie isn’t exactly loose, she’s not withholding sex on the promise of marriage or using any other conservative or antiquated tricks. Instead she’s giving Robie exactly what she wants to give him, utterly confident that he’ll want more. If not, oh well. Again, maybe that isn’t progressive today, but for a film released in 1955 it’s surprisingly modern.

As for the fireworks scene itself, I share your affection, though I’d stop short of suggesting that it’s one of the utmost portrayals of romantic love. Maybe more like one of the ultimate encapsulations of lust or desire. That’s not a lesser achievement in my book, just a different one. You’ve exhaustively listed the highlights of the fireworks scene, and while I think the silly playfulness of the fireworks cutaways undercuts the sexual tension to a degree, I mostly agree with your analyses, including this one: I, too, miss some of the ways that filmmakers used to cleverly suggest sex without actually depicting it, whether it’s the naughty coded banter in To Catch a Thief or, more than a decade later, the erotic game of chess in Norman Jewison’s The Thomas Crown Affair. And that leads me here: The modern film that makes me think of To Catch a Thief each time I see it is Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight, with its much celebrated seduction scene between George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez. In that film, Soderbergh cuts between the flirtation and shots of actual embrace, so in at least that way Out of Sight’s seduction scene is much different than the one in To Catch a Thief. Then again, both scenes unfold in front of window views of the night sky. Both of them show characters playing with fake identities. Both of them, in different ways, show the man and the woman getting increasingly closer until finally they are locked in an embrace. Both of them have that erotic in-and-out breathing rhythm you cited. And, perhaps most importantly, both of them make us feel like we’re watching two people fucking long before they actually touch one another.

To Catch a Thief

EH: That’s a great way of putting it. I think the romantic comedy genre—to which To Catch a Thief arguably belongs more than it does to the thriller genre—has suffered from the dearth of such clever back-and-forth verbal seduction in many modern takes on the form. Out of Sight is a great counterexample, proving yet again that George Clooney is consistently the closest modern Hollywood comes to the suave, Cary Grant-style classic movie star capable of getting this kind of material across. The seduction scene between Clooney and Vera Farmiga in Jason Reitman’s recent (and uneven) Up in the Air is also very verbally clever, as these two habitual business travelers talk about frequent flyer cards and rent-a-car franchises and manage to make it sound steamy. So there are occasional flashes of this type of repartee in modern films. Soderbergh uses Clooney especially well, of course, evoking that classic Hollywood style, the banter and “hangout” feel, in both Out of Sight and the Ocean’s 11 remake. It’s a reminder of how much fun it can be just to watch talented movie stars chat and joke around: a lesson that directors like Hitchcock and Hawks understood very well, and that for all the worship of movie stars nowadays, few enough people today really seem to get.

Turning to the other Hitchcock film we’re here to discuss, there’s also a lot of talk in Rope, and a lot of rather funny talk at that, but it’s far from the sparkling banter of To Catch a Thief. Instead, as Hitchcock’s camera wheels through the enclosed space of the apartment where all of the film’s action takes place, these characters engage in cocktail party chatter in which the real meaning—the dark, morbid truth hidden beneath the party’s veneer—is obscured by the pleasantries. This is a very different kind of Hitchcock film. If To Catch a Thief is all about the glamour of movie stars and the pleasures of romantic courtship, Rope is about its own formal constraints, and also about some of Hitchcock’s favorite pet themes: the eternal allure of crime and deviancy, and the close connection of these darker undercurrents to what we call “civilization” or “society.”

Rope

JB: Rope is an interesting film to discuss alongside To Catch a Thief, because for all of their differences they do have at least one thing in common: playfulness. Oh, sure, the subject matter of Rope is dark, but the mood is often light, in large part because John Dall’s Brandon considers his crime to be a clever party game. Brandon spends most of the film grinning ear to ear, tremendously proud of himself—proud of the murder itself, proud of leaving the body in the room, proud of offering food right off the trunk containing the corpse, proud of bundling some books with the very rope that only an hour before had been used to commit murder, and so on. For Brandon, it’s all a gay affair, by both meanings of the phrase. Brandon and his accomplice Phillip (Farley Granger) are clearly suggested to be a homosexual couple, and the murder is committed not out of malice so much as, well, romance. Brandon intends his demonstration of superiority—his justification of murder—to serve as a big bouquet of roses for James Stewart’s Rupert, the old mentor who Brandon clearly adores.

Brandon is a weasel of a character. As if murdering a fellow classmate weren’t bad enough, he feels the need to meddle in the relationship of one of his ex-girlfriends—another act of playing God. Brandon’s arrogance is so extreme that, against all odds, by the end of the film it manages to be more offensive than his crime; we want Brandon to be caught not so much because he did a terrible thing but because he’s such an obnoxious jerk. Maybe that’s just my reading, but I doubt it. After all, for much of the picture Hitchcock manages to let the audience identify with Brandon and sort of admire him. Rope tempts us to wonder if we could pull off his crime and whether we’d be as bold as Brandon in the artistry of the act. In that sense, there’s something strangely appealing about Brandon’s cocksure swagger, at least for a while.

On that note, one of my favorite shots in the film is the one in which Brandon goes into the kitchen to dispose of the murder weapon. Preserving the film’s structure of long takes, Hitchcock captures Brandon not by actually entering the kitchen but by catching a peek of Brandon through the swinging kitchen door: Brandon enters the kitchen and briefly disappears, but then when the momentum of the door causes it to swing open again we see Brandon delicately drop the rope into a drawer with lighthearted glee. It’s a perfectly executed stunt, one that if mistimed would have ruined the entire take, and it’s undeniably playful—both Brandon’s handling of the rope and the way that Hitchcock captures it.

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EH: I love that shot with the swinging door. It’s all that’s best about this film: the morbid humor, the streak of playfulness, all executed with this formal flair that calls attention to its own virtuosity and to the themes of the shot. I think you’re really onto something in saying that Hitchcock invites us to initially root for Brandon before pulling the rug out from under us, and in this shot the arrogance and superiority of Hitchcock and of Brandon are one: the killer showing off his brazenness with his murder weapon and Hitchcock showing off his total confidence in his timing and ingenuity. There’s certainly a relationship between the killer eager to prove that he can commit the perfect crime and get away with it, and the director eager to prove how little he needs to cut, how long his shots can be maintained without errors. So although Brandon is more and more revealed as an insufferable asshole who richly deserves his ultimate comeuppance, there’s no question that Hitchcock also has some admiration for his daring and cunning, his artistry. It’s like in Se7en, when Kevin Spacey’s John Doe compares his crimes to an artform and it’s obvious that the director, David Fincher, is also nodding to his own cunning in devising these fiendish cinematic crimes.

For Hitchcock, it goes beyond that, even. I think it’s interesting that as the film’s alignment moves further and further away from the slimy, despicable Brandon, it doesn’t necessarily move towards anyone better. After all, Rupert is ostensibly the hero of this story—he’s the one who finally uncovers Brandon and Philip’s plan and reveals the truth—but in many ways he’s as much of a jerk as Brandon is. The two of them engage in some repartee of their own at the party, talking about how murder can be an art, a privilege of the superior few, a class that of course includes them. It is, in its own way, a kind of flirtatious banter on a par with To Catch a Thief’s dialogues about jewel robbery; Brandon is hitting on his mentor by hinting at his crime, suggesting that he’s been able to take the next step from words into action.

In the end, of course, Rupert rejects Brandon’s actions, horrified by what his pupil has done in his name. But for all the moral outrage that Rupert unleashes at the climax, doesn’t it feel a little hollow? Not too long before, he’d been playing along, saying how great murder could be, delighting in the way he was scandalizing the other party guests—and engaging in some mockery of the “inferior” Mrs. Atwater (Constance Collier) that it’s obvious Hitchcock agrees with. Sure, the ending reveals the terrible end result of Rupert’s philosophy, and makes him repent of his ideas, saying that Brandon had misinterpreted Rupert’s words. That always struck me as fairly silly; Rupert outright says that murder is okay, then he’s surprised when one of his students follows through on the concept. What a shocker, Rupert. I have to think that Hitchcock intended for the moral outrage of that final scene, in which Rupert storms around the apartment lecturing his wayward student, to come across as hypocrisy.

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JB: It’s tough to know what Hitchcock wants us to take away from that final lecture by Rupert. There’s some hypocrisy, no question, but how much? Stewart, like Tom Hanks after him, has a quality that tends to make him effortlessly likeable and relatable, which is one of the reasons Hitchcock liked to cast Stewart as an Everyman in films like Rear Window and The Man Who Knew Too Much. In the latter film there’s a terrific scene in which Stewart’s Benjamin struggles to figure out how to sit comfortably at a Moroccan restaurant. Stewart’s character is an educated man, a doctor, but he’s not so elite that he isn’t disoriented by his inability to cross his legs under the table or to lean back in his chair, and this fish-out-of-water discomfort keeps him at our level. In Rope, however, Stewart’s Rupert is far from an Everyman. He is both elite and elitist.

Rupert’s entrance into Rope is notably unusual. Like Harry Lime in The Third Man, Rupert is much talked about long before he shows up, but unlike Harry Lime he doesn’t get a memorable introduction: Phillip is playing the piano while others listen quietly when the camera slowly pans left to reveal Rupert, who has just walked into the room unnoticed. His first line is a backhanded compliment—by noting that Phillip’s “touch” on the piano has improved, Rupert reminds Phillip that his touch used to be worse, while also asserting himself as something of an expert on the subject. Soon after, Rupert is introduced to Janet (Joan Chandler), who he says Brandon has mentioned before. “Did he do me justice?” Janet asks. “Do you deserve justice?” Rupert responds dismissively, stunning Janet with the remark. Then Rupert is off to shake hands with Kenneth (Douglas Dick) who tells his old teacher that it’s good to see him again. “Why?” Rupert responds, intentionally turning a congenial gesture into an academic exercise. Rupert, it’s obvious, is above social niceties and eager to demonstrate as much. He’s out of touch with the everyman, and intentionally so. Later on, when Janet and Mrs. Atwater discuss movies they’ve seen recently, Rupert observes them like they are an alien species, perplexed not only by their inability to remember the names of films (“The something and the something.”) but by their fondness for a kind of entertainment that Rupert obviously doesn’t think is worth his time. (Though he says he’s seen a Mary Pickford film, it’s quite likely that Rupert doesn’t go to the movies at all. He’s above it.)

All of this makes Rupert surprisingly unlikeable despite the somewhat irrepressible Stewart charm. And then the film gets to the talk about murder. The scene in which Rupert explains his theories is especially difficult to read. Rupert insists that he’s serious that “superior” people should be able to commit murder, but at the same time he throws in obvious jokes that there should be some kind of murder season—“Cut a Throat Week” or “Strangulation Day”—and he notes that one of the benefits of murder would be shorter lines at popular restaurants. Mr. Kentley (Cedric Hardwicke) can’t tell whether to take Rupert seriously on the whole, and it’s hard to blame him. Brandon, of course, identifies with Rupert’s comments, but he does so while entirely ignoring the jokes mixed in. Just as Rupert suggests he’s seen a Mary Pickford film in order to get a reaction, perhaps his murder routine is merely talk. Regardless, Mr. Kentley hits the nail on the head when he says that all the theorizing on murder reveals “contempt for humanity.” Of that, certainly, Rupert is guilty.

Given that Rupert’s contempt inspired Brandon’s, Rupert is proven to be the architect of the murder at the same time he is clearly demonstrated to be an unknowing and unsupportive accomplice. Hitchcock confronts Rupert’s culpability: Rupert admits that Brandon merely acted out his own words, and as he identifies his unintentional role in Brandon’s crime he frequently glances down at the wound he suffered when wrestling the gun away from Phillip. Literally, as well as symbolically, Rupert has blood on his hands. And yet after Rupert’s kinda-sorta admission of guilt, Hitchcock allows him some wiggle room. Rupert mentions he’s ashamed, and he seems to mean it. He says that he’d never have gone through with murder himself, and we believe that, too. But does Rupert not murder because underneath it all he has strong morals, or is it because underneath it all he’s a coward? That’s the question, because as Rupert screams at Brandon that there must be something wrong with him, he seems to be trying to wash himself of any responsibility. Thus I find it fascinating that before Rupert fires the gun out the window in an effort to summon the police, he doesn’t say that Brandon and Phillip will be imprisoned for their crimes. Instead he twice yells, “You’re going to die!” So, in the end, Rupert is playing God again without actually taking action, just like before. So it’s worth asking: Does he not kill the boys himself because that’s the “right thing to do,” or is it because he’s too cowardly to carry out the death sentences he believes are perfectly justifiable?

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EH: Hitchcock makes very interesting use of Stewart’s Everyman persona in this film, twisting the actor’s laconic charm into this snide elitist who has offhand insults ready for everyone—an attribute that he seems to have passed on to Brandon, who responds to Mrs. Atwater’s admission that she “used to read” with the sarcastic, “We all do strange things in our childhood.” Stewart turns in a very different performance from his unhinged obsessive in Vertigo, but it’s a similar subversion of the actor’s likeability. All his charm here is dedicated to getting in subtle, ostentatiously clever digs at the “inferiors” he meets at this party, as though he’s always concerned with proving his superiority to everyone he encounters. It’s interesting, too, that, as you note, he uses movies as a sign of inferiority: I wonder if Hitchcock genuinely does see the movies as low-class or if Rupert’s condescension to the movies is yet another of his crimes.

For all the reasons you cite, Rupert is a very ambiguous character, and his fuzzy ethics extend to the film as a whole. It’s obvious that Rope is, in addition to a technical exercise, a moral exercise. It’s about broad moral questions probing the very nature of laws and class. Who do laws protect? What is the purpose of the law? To maintain order? To punish immorality? To codify society’s values? Should anyone be exempted from the prohibitions or protections of the law? And yet, though the “right” answer seems obvious—Brandon, his actions, and his reasons for those actions are all distasteful—only Mr. Kentley argues even remotely convincingly against the justifications for murder advanced by Brandon and Rupert, and even then Rupert manages to make Kentley seem merely over-sensitive and easily ruffled. The killers don’t get away with it in the end, but otherwise the deck seems stacked for the side of evil, when even the eventual hero of the piece has to push aside all his previous views on the subject in order to protest their crime.

There’s another question here, one that’s implied by all of Brandon and Rupert’s rhetoric about superiority. Is society truly structured to protect all equally, or are there certain “superior” classes that are placed above others? This last question is especially loaded within the context of a film where all the characters are obviously upper-class and privileged, where it seems apparent that in countless ways they are superior to the lower classes, in terms of wealth, status, opportunities, privilege and education. Brandon and Rupert, of course, view themselves as superior even in relation to these high-society aristocrats; at the very least, they believe that they possess superior taste and refinement to, say, Mrs. Atwater. But it’s obvious that Mrs. Atwater, despite what Rupert regards as her lowbrow taste in culture, is herself a cultural and societal elite. In a way, it makes the film’s surface message—that all lives are equal and equally worth protecting—ring somewhat hollow. What does a message like that mean in the context of a movie where all the characters belong to the “superior” class, where all the characters are elites and elitists?

This is a very hermetic world, where everyone has gone to the same private schools and knows the same small circle of wealthy friends. Rupert and Brandon aren’t different from Janet or Mr. Kentley (or, for that matter, David, the victim) in class, only in degree; they’re merely more elitist than even their elitist peers. It’s hard to deny, in this context, that all people within society are not treated equally, that some are placed on higher rungs than others, that there are hierarchies in which the privileged few are given greater material goods and opportunities. By emphasizing the class barriers that fence these people off from the rest of the world, the film is both providing the basis for Brandon’s arguments and confirming his impression that he’s in an elevated station. He doesn’t possess the moral superiority he believes he does, but Brandon—who obviously comes from a wealthy family and can afford a servant and a fancy apartment with a panoramic view—is unquestionably not one of the masses.

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JB: Those are good observations. On top of them, the fact that Brandon’s apartment seems to be the building’s penthouse further adds to the uppity air of these characters and their interactions. And then of course the hermetic environment you spoke of is further emphasized by the film’s one-set design.

That said, I suppose it’s time to talk in more detail about Rope’s famous construction—about the way that Hitchcock more or less attempts to provide the illusion of the whole film happening in one shot. Inspired somewhat by actual events, Rope is based on a stage play by Patrick Hamilton that was then made into a BBC television drama. It was from the latter, if legend is correct, that Hitchcock was inspired to use long takes. But we should be careful with such legends. After all, some legends suggest that Hitchcock used the long takes merely as a way to keep him interested, as a game, a personal challenge. Others, however, say the long takes had a more legitimate purpose: making us feel ever aware of the body in the room. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

You mentioned before that Hitchcock is only somewhat successful at splicing together two takes to appear cut-free. Due to the limitations of the camera, the longest take Hitchcock could film was around 10 minutes (otherwise he ran out of film). So in some cases he had to cut where he didn’t need to or want to. In those instances, Hitchcock has the camera focus tightly on an object—the back of Brandon’s jacket in one instance, the open lid of the trunk in another—to camouflage the cut. This gimmick is so memorable that it’s easy to forget that Hitchcock doesn’t attempt to disguise every cut, and in fact one of his blatant cuts is also one of the film’s richest moments.

The transition in question happens after Rupert has arrived at the party and mingled long enough to remark on Brandon’s “excited” stuttering and Phillip’s curious behavior. At Rupert’s urging, Brandon tells a story about Phillip strangling chickens and struggling to finish them off. (There’s a sexual metaphor in there somewhere, but I’m not quite sure what it is. Impotence? Ineptitude?) Phillip reacts to this too-close-to-home public humiliation by screaming that the story is a lie, and then—wham!—Hitchcock cuts to the face of Rupert, who knows the story is true, and who now detects more than ever that something unusual is going on. Rupert had suspicions before, clearly, but now he’s sure that something is amiss. This cut to a reaction shot, which in any other film might have gone unnoticed, here is remarkably powerful—a visceral symbol of Rupert’s awakening.

Hitchcock’s decision to break from his long-take form in that scene mirrors the way that he liked to judiciously employ closeups for effect. In previous conversations, particularly when we discussed David Lynch, but also when discussing Werner Herzog, we’ve debated the significance of intent and whether deliberate actions by a director have any greater value or meaning than accidental, ambiguous or abstract ones. I’m not looking to have that discussion all over again, but I will say this: as much as I think that it’s the finished product that counts, regardless of the filmmaker’s intent and regardless of the means by which the filmmaker created the shot, I find something thrilling about the obvious consciousness of Hitchcock’s filmmaking, the way nothing seems accidental. I don’t think this in and of itself makes Hitchcock a superior filmmaker, but I can’t deny that I find that naked purposefulness especially appealing.

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EH: Hitchcock is, even under ordinary circumstances, definitely one of those directors where every cut, every shot, betrays the filmmaker’s hand. There is, indeed, a sense of “naked purposefulness” to his filmmaking, a sense that everything that appears onscreen is part of a tightly constructed framework in which no object, no character, can exist for its own sake but must have some larger—often symbolic—meaning within the narrative. (In that sense, David Lynch is actually an obvious descendent, it’s just that Lynch’s symbols aren’t often as crystal clear as Hitchcock’s are.) It’s a very artificial approach to narrative, certainly, an impression enhanced by Hitchcock’s frequent reliance on rear-projected backgrounds and matte paintings and, in this film, a cityscape view that’s about as convincing as a child’s cardboard diorama for a school project. We’re constantly being reminded that this is a construction, an artifice. It’s this purposefulness and self-consciousness that gives objects such weight in Hitchcock’s work: the ROT monogram in North by Northwest, the cigarette lighter in Strangers on a Train, the glowing glass of milk in Suspicion, the handcuffs in The 39 Steps, the film reels in Sabotage, the wedding ring in Rear Window, the jewels around Grace Kelly’s neck in To Catch a Thief. Things are never just things for Hitchcock, precisely because every shot in his films comes with an implicit “look at this” stage whisper from the director, furiously underlining the images that will be important, either thematically or narratively, throughout the rest of the film.

This impression is even more pronounced in Rope, where the design of the film calls even more attention than usual to Hitchcock’s authorial presence behind the camera. (And in front of it as well; his famous cameos are yet another way in which the director reminds his audiences that we’re watching his creation, we’re watching precisely what he wants to show us.) Once again, objects take on great symbolic and thematic heft beyond their relevance to the plot. The rope that’s used to strangle David is of course central; the film’s title refers both to this object and, perhaps, to the movement of the camera, threading its way through the apartment. The rope first appears after the first cut, the abrupt shock cut following the opening credits sequence. The camera, which had been outside on the balcony, looking down at the street, pans up towards the curtained windows of the apartment, and then after a scream Hitchcock suddenly cuts to the tortured face of David as he’s killed, panning back to reveal his killers on either side of him (his death is a very homoerotic ménage a trois, after all).

The rope reappears, after Brandon and Philip have placed the body in the trunk, in the lower lefthand corner of the frame. In a neat trick, the rope is almost entirely out of view but nevertheless becomes the focus of the shot, this nagging presence that we can’t help but stare at, fascinated precisely because Hitchcock’s framing constantly threatens to cut off our glimpse of the rope altogether. It’s one of the first ways that Hitchcock subtly increases our sympathy for the killers, too; I doubt anyone, watching this shot can help but root for the killers to notice the potentially incriminating rope hanging out the side of the trunk. And they do notice, which gives rise to that gleeful swinging door shot and then, later, the re-emergence of the rope during the party, as Brandon audaciously ties up Mr. Kentley’s books with the very same rope that he’d used to murder Kentley’s son earlier. I think, yes, Hitchcock’s purposefulness, his stylized attention to objects like this, is thrilling and powerful. In the hands of a lesser director, it might seem like didacticism, like hammering home a point with a sledgehammer, but Hitchcock consistently creates self-contained worlds in which such heightened attention to symbolic details and metaphorical objects seems not only natural but compelling, in which choking a chicken and choking a friend are intimately related acts, mingling equal parts violence and sexual suggestion.

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JB: That’s right. Hitchcock had such a penchant for giving significance to key props that it’s tempting to read meaning into even the most insignificant ones. During the scene in which Brandon excitedly stutters through his first conversation with Rupert, for example, he’s grasping a champagne bottle in a way that would seem innocuously routine in most films but here seems sexually suggestive—especially when watching Rope in close proximity to the oh-so-suggestive To Catch a Thief. All that’s missing is the exploding cork, and the blatant “look here” closeup that Hitchcock did so artfully. On that note, though Rope often makes little effort to disguise its stage roots, that doesn’t prevent Hitchcock from harnessing the power of cinema, using the camera as a tool to focus our attention, whether tightening on an object, like the murder weapon, or pulling back to keep us ever aware of the proximity of the trunk. The actors deliver most of their lines in those stage-inspired open triangles, and we’re very much aware of the lack of a fourth wall in the apartment, but Rope’s roving camera allows us onto the stage and ensures that the film is cinematic as much as theatrical.

And yet, there’s at least one occasion in which Hitchcock seems to forget the inherent power of his camera. It comes in a scene you already mentioned: the moment when Hitchcock delivers a tight closeup of the bundle of books, wrapped in the titular murder weapon, as they emerge with Brandon and Mr. Kentley from the kitchen. It’s a powerful shot that disrupts a relatively tranquil mood, stunning the audience with the audacity of the prank as much as it stuns Phillip, who is standing talking to Rupert. Phillip flinches, and when he does we flinch, too, because we know that the more sympathetic of the two murderers has just given himself away. Rupert picks up on Phillip’s discomfort immediately, and in this moment all of us—Phillip, Rupert and the audience—are focused on the same menacing object: that bundle of books. Of course, Rupert doesn’t know why the bundle of books is so disturbing for Phillip.

To this point, it’s a great moment. But, noticing Phillip’s discomfort, Rupert then lightly interrogates Phillip, who draws attention to the rope itself by admitting that he doesn’t like the “clumsy” way the books are tied. And at that moment the scene’s tension begins to deflate. On stage, such prop-specific dialogue might be necessary, a way to ensure that the person sitting in the back row of the theater can tell that it’s the murder weapon, not some random string off a bakery box, that’s binding those books together. On the big screen, however, this dialogue is entirely unnecessary. The previous image, a closeup, speaks for itself. And so, once Phillip gives away that it’s the rope that bothers him, there’s no satisfactory way to explain why Rupert doesn’t press further and ask more questions. It’s as if Rupert, who is less an investigator than a courtroom lawyer, has the defendant on the verge of cracking and inconceivably lets him off the witness stand. And in that moment the previous closeup is robbed of its power.

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EH: I think that’s a fair criticism. As good as Rope mostly is, its dialogue is often a weak link, betraying its stagey origins with unnecessary exposition and some pretty contrived moments like that one. It’s frustrating, on a narrative level, that Rupert isn’t so much a good detective as he is blessed with criminals who at times seem almost eager to say or do whatever would be most incriminating. It strains credulity that Phillip, no matter how rattled he was, would simply blurt out that it’s specifically the rope that’s troubling him. And it strains credulity even further that Rupert, who’s otherwise so sharp, would let it drop like that, merely because the plot prevents him from figuring things out completely quite yet. It’s always a sign of lazy scripting when you get the sense that something is happening, or not happening, only because the script says it has to. Hitchcock generally got around those kinds of writing deficiencies by downplaying the importance of plot altogether; for all his renown as a master of suspense and twisty mysteries, many of his best films work more as a succession of clever set pieces and character moments, and quite a few of them don’t really hold up to closer scrutiny on a narrative level. That’s the point of the famed MacGuffins, plot devices that merely served to set the wheels of the plot into motion without really meaning anything in themselves. Because Rope takes place in such a confined place, with such a tightly constrained narrative, Hitchcock can’t resort to those kinds of dodges. He’s more bound than usual to his script’s strengths and weaknesses.

It’s perhaps telling, then, that one of Rope’s best sequences is one in which the dialogue is intentionally relegated to the background, reduced to inconsequential chatter that is merely a counterpoint to the images. As you say, Hitchcock is at his best when the camera has primacy, and that’s certainly the case during the lengthy shot in which Brandon’s housekeeper Mrs. Wilson (Edith Evanson) cleans off the trunk, putting away the food, the candles, the tablecloth and finally bringing the books back over in order to put them inside the trunk. During this process, Hitchcock pans away from the partygoers and their idle chit-chat, settling into a familiar composition that he’s returned to several times throughout the film: looking across the trunk towards the dining room. In this case, the composition is mostly empty, as Mrs. Wilson appears, cleans a few things off the trunk’s top, and disappears for a few moments. It’s a very tense shot despite its static and minimal composition, since with each item Mrs. Wilson removes from the top of the trunk, she comes closer and closer to opening it and seeing what’s inside. The suspense is enhanced, too, because on the soundtrack we hear—but don’t see—the party guests continuing their inane conversation just outside the frame. The words don’t matter here, only the murmur of their voices juxtaposed against the steadily ratcheting tension as Mrs. Wilson cleans up around the trunk. It’s a great demonstration of Hitchcock’s ability to generate suspense from a deceptively simple set-up, conveying as much with what’s not shown—the nearby guests, the ever-present body within the trunk—as with what’s actually within the frame.

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JB: Most definitely. The scene with the maid is another example of how Hitchcock aligns us with the killers. Earlier you mentioned the scene in which the rope hangs out of the trunk, causing us to cringe at the thought that the murderers will overlook it. Likewise, when the maid begins clearing the books off the table, I presume I’m not alone in the fact that I don’t root her on. I’m not yearning for her to throw open the trunk and find the body to expose the crime. Instead, I’m on the edge of my seat wondering how Brandon (because we know Phillip is useless) is going to dissuade the maid from opening the trunk, not to mention wondering how close he’ll let her get to that point before intervening. This is essentially an instinctual reaction. At that point of the film, it’s not so much that I’m rooting for the murderers to “get away with it,” but, at the risk of sounding like Brandon, I am hoping that they will be exposed in a way befitting their crime. I don’t want the maid to stumble into it. I don’t want them found guilty accidentally. I want someone to spot the evidence of wrongdoing and put it together and crack the case. And so while I agree with you to a point that some of the thrill is removed by the way that Brandon intentionally drops clues in front of Rupert as if they were breadcrumbs, on the other hand the gamesmanship that Brandon displays also has a way of heightening the tension. He’s daring the others to catch him. He has to. It was, after all, the “perfect” murder, and so without tempting fate there would be no tension at all, because then Brandon would get away with it all too easily. It’s a credit to the film that Brandon’s outlandish fate-tempting actions seem entirely plausible: from serving dinner on the trunk, to binding the books with rope, to letting the maid come this close to flipping open the lid of the trunk. It’s Phillip’s actions that are hard to believe.

Speaking of believability, I want to loop back to the artificiality of the setting, which you brought up earlier: According to an interview he gave at the American Film Institute in 1970, Hitchcock often used techniques like matte paintings and rear projections because he didn’t want his actors to be distracted by shooting on location. But Rope reveals how the intentional artificiality of a set can positively shape a film’s mood—much as a similarly intentional unreality shaped Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island. Rope, by never really cutting away from the action, even in the few instances it cuts to different angles, is supposed to unfold in “real time,” but, of course, it doesn’t. In the background, beyond the “cardboard diorama” of a cityscape you mentioned, the sun sets a little too quickly; all of a sudden, day becomes night. One could use this rapidly descending darkness as an argument against the film, I suppose, as evidence that it’s “unconvincing” or some such thing. But I love the effect, unrealistic though it is. The fast-arriving darkness perfectly coincides with Rupert’s escalating suspicions, nay growing certainty. It’s as if the night sky is swallowing Brandon’s previous sunny optimism that he can commit a crime and have his genius celebrated and still get away with it. There are instances in Hitchcock’s oeuvre when he certainly tried to fool us with such gimmicks—the bell tower in Vertigo comes to mind. Here, though, he’s not going for reality but is instead using darkness as a way to infuse his mostly sedentary drama with ticking-time-bomb suspense and urgency: We know, without anyone explicitly saying so, that if somehow Brandon and Phillip make it to morning without their crime being detected, they’ll have gotten away with it.

Rope

EH: That’s a great analysis of how the artificial setting works in this film. I’ve often heard the complaint that the matte paintings, rear projection and constructed backdrops in Hitchcock’s films are distracting, and the implication is that if Hitchcock could have come up with something more convincing—like CGI, I suppose—then he would have. Maybe, but I’m not so sure. He may have had practical and technical reasons for these flourishes, like avoiding location shooting, but this artificiality is so integral to his vision that I think there has to be more to it than that. The use of these devices is of a piece with Hitchcock’s holistic aesthetic, which is dedicated to a heightened sense of reality in which gestures and objects are magnified to emphasize their importance. As you say, there are times when Hitchcock uses artifice to create a more convincing illusion, but even then it’s not so simple: the bell tower added to the monastery in Vertigo is a realistic artifice, but it’s also the site of those dizzying zoom shots that make the stairway to the top seem so much steeper and higher than it is. More often, Hitchcock’s artifice is nakedly apparent, as in the matte paintings and rear projection of Marnie, which makes little attempt at verisimilitude. The titular character of that film often wanders through a flat, eerily beautiful world rather than a true 3D landscape, and in the famous horse-jumping scene she seems to be hovering ethereally against a motion-blurred nothingness. Of course, that impression is compatible with the themes Hitchcock is exploring in that film, of a woman disconnected from her own mind and from her surroundings. In The Birds, the obvious matte paintings, with their gorgeous evocations of impossible landscapes overshadowed by constant storm clouds, add to the film’s creeping sense of dread.

Which means that, yes, though Hitchcock may have been using the artificial cityscape and accelerated sunset in Rope for simple technical reasons, it’s also true that the artificiality of the set adds to the film’s claustrophobia. And the rapid changeover from day to night, as you contend, neatly signifies the shift that occurs when Rupert begins to suspect what’s going on. The “night” portion of the film culminates in his righteous speech, in which the neon signs outside the apartment provide a flimsy excuse for Hitchcock to bathe Rupert in alternating shades of red and green, suggesting the duality of this character and the stark moral dichotomy he’s talking about. In a recent post on the artificiality of Martin Scorsese, David Bordwell cites a closeup of Robert De Niro from Taxi Driver in which the actor’s face is bathed in red light, “vaguely motivated as reflected from the traffic light, but unrealistically saturated.” Bordwell argues that Scorsese frequently seeks “a realistic motivation for expressionist effects,” and I think to some extent Scorsese gets that tendency from Hitchcock, who often nods to realism while exaggerating his effects to get at emotional and thematic subtexts.

In Rope, that means constructing a set that acknowledges the film’s origins in a stage play, while also contributing to the sense of things closing in on the two murderers, who are as trapped by the confines of the apartment as by their situation. In To Catch a Thief, Hitchcock’s approach is equally stylized, if for different ends, using his aesthetic flourishes to visualize sexual desire and longing, to provide a lush counterpoint to the double entendres encoded in the dialogue. In many ways, we couldn’t have picked two more different films to represent Hitchcock, but they do share that total commitment to a hyper-stylized reality.

Rope

JB: I agree. What’s interesting to me about this topic specifically is the way it demonstrates that there are at least two different ways to think about “artificiality.” To illustrate what I mean, let me quote Hitchcock from that previously mentioned 1970 interview, which is anthologized in Conversations with the Great Moviemakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age at the American Film Institute. Hitchcock says:

We have a very strange system in this industry, that the man called the art director leaves the set the moment it is painted and finished but not dressed, not even the carpet. And the new man, called the set dresser, walks on, and he is the man who reads the script and then proceeds to dress the set. He goes out and picks furniture and carpets; he goes into the prop room, gets ornaments and paintings. This man is in charge of what is the most vital element of the décor: the atmosphere. Instead of being a set dresser he should be almost a writer because he ought to know the character of the person who lives in that room. But he doesn’t, and that is why you see so many films that have an artificial look. It is because they are very badly dressed.

In that above passage, Hitchcock uses the word “artificial” to refer to things that don’t match the specific mood or atmosphere of a film. That’s a totally justifiable definition, but of course when we say that the cityscape in the background of Rope looks artificial, we simply mean that it looks synthetic or fake. What Hitchcock is getting at is the idea that the latter kind of artificiality is perfectly okay if it helps to combat the former kind of artificiality. The mood and the atmosphere are paramount; the factuality of the effects and the means by which a filmmaker achieves them are incidental.

Obviously there are exceptions. If a shot is distractingly fake, the intended ambiance is shattered. When it comes to watching Hitchcock in 2010, I think the obstacle for cinephiles is that we tend to associate rear projections with cheapness and cheapness with hackwork. To some degree, you and I might have fallen victim to this, too. Could it be that we’ve classified these films as “minor” Hitchcock because he seems less concerned with creating a feeling of authenticity in To Catch a Thief and Rope than in some of his “major” films? I’m sure that’s part of it. In the least, I’m sure that’s part of the reason why these films aren’t generally held in the high regard of movies like Rear Window, North by Northwest and Vertigo, among others. (And, just to be clear, I’m not suggesting those films are actually more authentic; just that they have fewer moments of straightforward fakery.)

Of course, that’s not the only factor. To Catch a Thief and Rope are certainly modest pleasures compared to some of Hitchcock’s most celebrated films. And though the point of this conversation wasn’t to demonstrate as much, I think they meet the label of being “minor,” even if we could have easily picked some even lesser works to discuss instead. Despite their relative modesty, however, To Catch a Thief and Rope have moments that rival any film Hitchcock ever made. And so perhaps what we’ve learned, if we didn’t know it already, is that to be “minor” Hitchcock is to still be something very special indeed.

Jason Bellamy ruminates on cinema at The Cooler. Follow his updates on Twitter.

Ed Howard chronicles his film viewing at Only the Cinema.

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Jeonju IFF 2019: Coincoin and the Extra-Humans, L. Cohen, & Introduzione all’oscuro

These are three enigmatic, challenging, and weird works of art by filmmakers pushing at the boundaries of the cinematic form.

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Coincoin and the Extra-Humans

Shortly after arriving in Jeonju, the mid-sized Korean city about 200 kilometers south of Seoul that serves as the site of the Jeonju International Film Festival, I pulled my bedraggled, jet-lagged body over to the guest center to pick up my press credentials. As I made my way through the carnivalesque open-air city block known as Jeonju Cinema Town, I found myself, to my surprise, in the midst of a rather peculiar, almost surreal scenario as a bunch of white- and black-suited stormtroopers marched in lockstep toward me, weapons at the ready, flanking none other than the Grand Imperial Poobah himself, Darth Vader.

The group maneuvered around me without incident, eager to pose for selfies with the crowd of locals assembled in the area, but after over 20 hours of travel, the encounter took on a vaguely sinister air, as if the forces of Hollywood monoculture had been dispatched to this relatively remote cinephile retreat to ensure that no one here got the wrong idea: Have fun with your cute little art films, but remember who really wields the power in the world of cinema.

I suppose these are the sorts of strange inclinations that strike you when your body’s circadian rhythms have been shaken up like a snow globe, but, despite the presence of the Walt Disney Company as one of the festival’s premier sponsors, the films I saw—personal, challenging, at times exhilarating work from all across the world—couldn’t have seemed further away from the market-tested franchises that clog American cineplexes. Having said that, it’s with some irony that one of the first films I took in at Jeonju IFF was in fact a sequel—albeit one whose eccentric sense of humor and repetitive, unresolved narrative mean it’s never going to be mistaken for the latest from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The sequel in question is Coincoin and the Extra-Humans, Bruno Dumont’s follow-up to Li’l Quinquin. One of the great left turns in the history of auteurism, Dumont’s 2014 miniseries signaled his transition from austere Bressonian miserablism to a singular brand of deadpan grotesquerie that gleefully explodes the thin line between the clever and the stupid. Dumont doesn’t vary his style too much for the sequel, as it’s another bizarre sunlit mystery set in the windswept countryside of Dumont’s native Nord-Pas-de-Calais. And Dumont has reassembled the same cast of non-professional local oddballs led by Bernard Pruvost as Commandant Van der Weyden, a twitchy, hapless police detective investigating matters way beyond his depths.

Dumont, though, still finds ways to mess with his audience’s expectations, starting with the baffling and completely inexplicable change of the title character’s name. If the earlier film felt like Dumont’s riff on popular international crime dramas like Broadchurch and The Killing, Coincoin turns out to be his spin on The X-Files, a sci-fi pod-people procedural featuring a mysterious black goo from outer space that inhabits its victims and forces them to give birth to their own uncanny clones. Like many stories about body-snatching, the series is a satire—here on provincial racism, the poor treatment of African migrants, and the rise of the French far right—but Dumont isn’t simply interested in topical point-scoring against Marine Le Pen, the anti-immigrant politician who represents Nord-Pas-de-Calais.

Rather, with its ambling, directionless narrative and lackadaisical long shots that perversely undercut the screenplay’s gags, Coincoin evokes a deep-rooted spirit of reactionary malaise, of people whose lives are hopelessly circumscribed by their own fears and prejudices. Dumont rigorously resists developing his plot or deepening his characters: They’re all trapped in an absurd loop, doomed to endlessly say the same things and reenact the same jokes.

Van der Weyden sums up that mentality in a single line: “Progress isn’t inevitable.” There’s a group of black men who periodically appear throughout the film only to be consistently and summarily dismissed in a fit of racist panic. Each time, we expect the film to create some meaningful interaction between the white townsfolk and these migrants, and each time we’re rebuffed—that is, until a final musical explosion of kumbaya-like camaraderie that’s somehow goofy, moving, tedious, and invigorating all at the same time.

Dumont is one of the few artists in cinema willing to risk exhausting his audience to induce a particular effect, but he’s not the only one, as demonstrated by James Benning’s L. Cohen, a 45-minute static shot of a seemingly unremarkable field with a mountain visible in the distance. It’s an elegantly composed frame, reminiscent of an American Regionalist painting and whose centrally located peak perhaps coyly refers to the Paramount logo.

After 20 minutes, even the most hardened cinephiles are bound to be squirming in their seat, at which point Benning reveals his remarkable trump card: As the sky quickly darkens and blackness falls over the Earth, we realize that we’ve been watching the leadup to a total solar eclipse. It’s a moment of quiet astonishment and confusion for anyone who doesn’t know it’s coming, bringing us close to the feeling a caveman might’ve had when the same event occurred. With typical mathematical precision, Benning has placed the eclipse at the exact center of the film, allowing us to explore the subtle shadows that precede and follow it.

The film, however, isn’t just some academic structuralist exercise, as it’s also a meditation on death, a fact highlighted by the next startling moment: the inclusion of Leonard Cohen’s “Love Itself” on the soundtrack, a stark divergence from the ominous drone (identified by Benning during his festival Q&A as the hum of airplanes flying overhead) that fills the rest of the film. This song and the dedication of the film to the recently deceased Cohen add a deeper layer of meaning to Benning’s precisely calibrated study of light and time.

L. Cohen is in essence a meditation on temporality. All things are fleeting, even grand interplanetary ballets. Considering the brief alignment of these celestial bodies puts one in a cosmic mood and calls to mind a cryptic, haunting line from a different Cohen song, “Stories of the Street”: “We are so small between the stars, so large against the sky.”

One could also find the specter of death looming over Introduzione all’oscuro, an expressionistic tribute to director Gastón Solnicki’s good friend, Hans Hurch, the recently departed director of the Viennale, the Vienna International Film Festival. Described by the director not as a film about Hurch, but a film for him, Introduzione all’oscuro dispenses with biography entirely, instead evoking its subject’s buoyant, ragtag spirit in an almost subliminal fashion: through music, film, and the city of Vienna. Hurch “appears” in the film primarily through his letters and through his voice, recorded by Solnicki when he provided notes on one of the director’s previous films. Solnicki does appear on screen: a comically lonely figure visiting some of Hurch’s favorite Viennese haunts—such as the Café Engländer, from which he would periodically steal cups—on a journey that drolly recalls Holly Martins’s investigation into the apparent death of his pal Harry Lime in The Third Man.

Like Solnicki’s Kékszakállú before it, Introduzione all’oscuro is what might be called “slideshow cinema”—a procession of taut, piquant compositions whose relationship to one another isn’t precisely clear but which, when taken together, create an indelible impression of a highly specific milieu. Structured more like a piece of avant-garde music than a narrative work or traditional documentary, the film has a hypnotic yet often dissonant allure. It pulls us into a strange liminal zone where Hurch seems to be simultaneously present and absent, haunting the film like a benevolent spirit. Solnicki simply has one of the best eyes in cinema today, and it’s the pungency of his images which makes the film such an endlessly compelling experience, even when the reasons behind Solnicki’s individual choices remain obscure.

Abstruseness, though, is no crime. In fact, the greatest pleasures of Jeonju IFF were to be found in grappling with “difficult” films such as Coincoin and the Extra-Humans, L. Cohen, and Introduzione all’oscuro: enigmatic, challenging, and even downright weird works of art made by filmmakers pushing at the boundaries of the cinematic form.

The Jeonju International Film Festival ran from May 2—11.

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Review: As Teen Comedy, Booksmart Is Sweet and Nasty in Fine Balance

It’s an R-rated teen comedy that proves that you can center girls’ experiences without sacrificing grossness.

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Booksmart
Photo: Annapurna Pictures

An uncharitable way of describing Olivia Wilde’s feature directorial debut, Booksmart, is as a gender-flipped version of Superbad. Like Greg Mottola’s 2007 film, it concerns a pair of best friends who’ve spent their high school years as outsiders but, at the end of their senior year, decide to attend the biggest, coolest graduation party imaginable. As in Superbad, getting to the party devolves into an almost picaresque gauntlet through suburban nightlife, consisting of comical encounters with outlandish characters (both films even feature a “creepy car guy”). Booksmart and Superbad also share a ribald, R-rated sense of humor and a sex scene interrupted by vomit—even the same casting director (the venerable Allison Jones).

For all that, Wilde’s film is less a derivative of Mottola’s teen comedy than a corrective to it. Its exaggerated universe is less mean-spirited than the one depicted in Superbad, where so much of the humor depended on Jonah Hill loudly proclaiming his character’s misogyny. Booksmart isn’t above getting laughs from sex jokes that land somewhere between honest and outrageous—there’s a recurring bit about Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) masturbating with her stuffed panda doll—but it does show that teenage conversations about sex can be funny without being demeaning. And its belief in its main characters as more than just stand-ins for the most distorted beliefs that virginal high schoolers have about sex gives the film a fuller, more satisfying arc.

Amy and her best friend, Molly (Beanie Feldstein), are their elite Valley High School’s A-type-personality do-gooders, well-meaning in their ambition and their wokeness, but with streaks of haughtiness and self-righteousness. Beanie is class president, the kind of kid who pushes the school principal (Jason Sudeikis) to arrange a budget meeting with the juniors on the last day of class. In contrast to the brashly assertive Molly, Amy is meek, barely able to eke out syllables when talking to her crush, Ryan (Victoria Ruesga), but she’s also intensely woke, adorning her denim jacket with feminist-slogan patches and her car with “Elizabeth Warren 2020” bumper stickers. The pair are so close that they’re often mistaken for being a couple (Amy has been out since the 10th grade), and they definitely don’t party.

As school is letting out, Molly discovers that her and Amy’s monk-like approach to high school life has been for naught. Although the two pride themselves on respectively getting into Yale and Columbia, it seems that virtually all of their classmates have a similarly propitious future lined up. Even the horny goofball Theo (Eduardo Franco), who repeated seventh grade three times, was recruited for a six-figure job with Google. Molly adopts partying as her new project, dragging the reluctant Amy, all the more anxious because Ryan will be at the party, along with her. The problem is that, not being a part of their school’s social scene, they have no idea where the party actually is, and limited means of figuring it out.

The obliviously indefatigable Molly is a star-making role for Feldstein, who keeps let her highly dynamic character—Molly can be both very rigid and very foolhardy—from feeling inconsistent, or leading to broad caricature. As the quieter Amy, Devers’s role is mostly reactive, but, in the tumultuous climax, she supplies the film’s most poignant and relatable moments. As the omnipresent Gigi, a troubled party girl who inexplicably appears at each of the girls’ wayward stops on their journey to the party, Billie Lourd channels a chaotic energy, becoming the film’s strung-out jester. Lourd is just part of an altogether impressive ensemble that also includes Jessica Williams as the teacher who loves Amy and Molly perhaps a bit too much, and Will Forte and Lisa Kudrow as Amy’s super-Christian, super-supportive parents.

For the most part sharply written, and tighter and more consistently funny than the fragmented improv-style Superbad, Booksmart nevertheless has a couple of stretches that don’t quite land. There’s a claymated ayahuasca-tripping sequence that neither suits the rest of the film nor is followed up on in any way by the narrative. And the film’s conclusion is more than a little formally messy, with Wilde relying on a too-rapid succession of non-diegetic pop songs as emotional accents and to fast-forward the plot—at one crucial moment even drowning out the dialogue. But despite these small missteps, Booksmart feels like an innovation, an R-rated teen comedy that proves that you can center girls’ experiences without sacrificing grossness, and that you can be gross without being too mean.

Cast: Kaitlyn Dever, Beanie Feldstein, Jessica Williams, Jason Sudeikis, Billie Lourd, Diana Silvers, Mason Gooding, Skyler Gisondo, Noah Galvin, Eduardo Franco, Lisa Kudrow, Will Forte, Mike O’Brien Director: Olivia Wilde Screenwriter: Olivia Wilde Katie Silberman, Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins Distributor: Annapurna Pictures Running Time: 102 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Terminator: Dark Fate Official Trailer: Going Back to the Well with Sarah Connor

Linda Hamilton at least makes a killer impression as Sarah visits fiery justice upon Gabriel Luna’s terminator.

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Terminator: Dark Fate
Photo: Paramount Pictures

Today, Paramount dropped the trailer for the sixth entry in the Terminator series, Terminator: Dark Fate, which promises to deliver…more of the same? With this film, Deadpool director Tim Miller aims to give the series a reboot: by pretending that none of the films that came after Terminator 2: Judgement Day ever existed (sorry, Rise of the Machines fans), maybe even Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. “Welcome to the day after judgment day,” reads the poster, promising the badass return of Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor. And on that front, the film looks to deliver, as Hamilton certainly makes a killer impression as Sarah visits fiery justice upon Gabriel Luna’s terminator.

But based on everything else that’s on display throughout the trailer, we’re worried that there’s not anything new that a film in this series stands to bring to the table besides running and gunning, with the occasional wink thrown in for good measure. Cast in point: Mackenzie Davis stars as Grace, an “enhanced human” who looks to fill the hanger-on role to Connor that Edward Furlong’s John Connor did to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800, now apparently living in woodsy retirement, and at the ready to give sage advice. In short, we’re not impressed, and that also holds true of that cover of Björk’s “Hunter” by some zombie man singer.

Watch the official trailer below:

Paramount Pictures will release Terminator Dark Fate on November 1.

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Review: Woodstock Offers a New Look at the Three Days that Defined a Generation

Throughout, the era-defining yet problem-plagued music festival astounds in large part for all the disasters that didn’t occur.

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Woodstock: Three Days that Defined a Generation
Photo: PBS Distribution

According to Woodstock: Three Days that Defined a Generation, the 1969 Woodstock festival seemed fated to fail. But a rare convergence of good luck, good intentions, and good vibes somehow snapped into place and crystallized over a few days in August the aspirations of a counterculture about to hit its peak. The festival’s planners, mostly promoters and music-industry pros, talk off-camera throughout this gloriously gleeful documentary about their somewhat spur-of-the-moment concept in a purposefully overlapping mosaic that makes it difficult to determine who’s saying what. Their original idea was simply a big concert that would celebrate the opening of a recording studio in the bucolic artist community of Woodstock, NY and take advantage of the musicians living nearby.

That conceit ballooned into a sprawling three-day cultural amoeba of feel-good psychedelia billed as “An Aquarian Exposition” to be held in a bucolic setting. It would ideally seem, according to one organizer, “like visiting another world.” Creating that gateway to paradise, however, hit one snag after another. Conservative fears about an invasion of hippies led to much anger among locals and triggered permitting issues. Original desired stars like Bob Dylan, the Doors, and the Rolling Stones all passed on the vent. Months’ worth of construction at the original site in Wallkill, NY had to be scrapped at the last minute.

But Woodstock shows also how both lucky circumstances and in-depth planning saved the day. The lineup swelled with a killer roster of acts whom David Crosby defines simply as “everybody we thought was cool”: Jimi Hendrix, the Who, Sly and the Family Stone, Santana, Creedence Clearwater, Janis Joplin, and so on. According to writer Bob Spitz, interest grew as the organizers put the word out through the underground press, and though their top estimates of attendance topped out at 150,000, the eventual total was closer to a potentially unmanageable 400,000. Seemingly foolhardy ideas like hiring Wavy Gravy’s Hog Farm commune to handle what they termed “security” and what Wavy defined as trying to “spread grooviness,” helped the increasingly massive enterprise maintain an appealingly mellow tone. Then, a Republican dairy farmer named Max Yasgur, who just happened to have a visually gorgeous sweep of land shaped like a natural amphitheater, agreed to host the festival.

Just about everyone interviewed in Barak Goodman and Jamilia Ephron’s documentary still marvels a half-century on at the scope and tranquility of what happened, though the potential for disaster provides some dramatic grit to the narrative. Much of the festival’s harmoniousnes was a result of on-the-spot empathetic resourcefulness, from Hog Farm’s thrown-together Sunday-morning “breakfast in bed” and “freak-out” tents for people on bad acid trips to the previously resentful locals who spontaneously emptied their pantries to feed the long-haired kids who had been tromping through their front yards. The crowds were soothed by the reassuring voice of the festival announcer, whose “we”-focused addresses over the PA system strengthened the communal spirit, which is then echoed in the film’s starry-eyed reminiscences of interviewees who all sound as though they wish they could go back.

Woodstock cannot hope to supplant Michael Wadleigh’s more symphonic and experiential 1970 documentary. But conversely, its tighter, narrower focus on narrative and context ultimately tells a bigger story at roughly half the length. Co-director Goodman has shown in some of his darker work for PBS’s American Experience, like his episode about the Oklahoma City bombing, a knack for building suspense. He deploys that skill here marvelously when showing the sea of humanity converging on Yasgur’s farm, balancing a fear of impending disaster (short supplies, last-minute glitches, a crowd many times larger than the highest estimates) with the dawning realization that things might just work out.

That tightrope-walking drama is maintained through the actual concert portion of the movie. The musical highs, Hendrix’s squalling “Star-Spangled Banner” and Richie Haven’s raucous two-hour jam (filling the gap while helicopters ferried musicians in over the blocked roads), play out while the vast crowd contends with food shortages and an unexpected rainstorm. But even though the attendees rushed past the mostly unbuilt fencing and by default created what organizer John Roberts here terms “the world’s greatest three-day freebie,” he and his partners appear now happier about the instant community that metamorphosed in the mud than the fact that as a business venture the concert was “in deep shit.”

Woodstock hits many of the expected notes about the concert’s place in the nation’s cultural history. But it’s refreshingly less self-satisfied than awestruck at the simple beauty of what happened at the Woodstock festival and the utopian example it provided to the world. Though unmentioned here, the disastrous music festival that occurred four months later at Altamont Speedway, in the hills of Northern California’s East Bay, where the organizers’ callous indifference to advance planning led to chaos and multiple deaths, shows just how rare the event that occurred in Bethel across three days back in August ‘69 remains to this day.

Director: Barak Goodman, Jamila Ephron Distributor: PBS Distribution Running Time: 90 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir Is a Knotty Trip Down Memory Lane

Its stylistic fluctuations are a sign of a filmmaker really wrestling with how she became the woman and artist she is today.

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The Souvenir
Photo: A24

True to the mission of its protagonist, a well-meaning student filmmaker working on a thesis feature about a community foreign to her, writer-director Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir is engaged in a running dialogue with itself around the notion of how—and how not—to make a personal narrative. Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) is a London-based, upper-middle-class young woman coming of age in Margaret Thatcher’s England who feels a moral imperative to transpose her own experiences onto a fictional story set in working-class Sunderland, and she’s given ongoing opportunities in her film workshops to try to articulate why that is. Hogg, who based the character on her own early experiences as an artist, views Julie’s trajectory tenderly but through the lens of a greater maturity, dotting the young woman’s path with interlocutors who challenge and redirect her inclinations. Gradually, Julie’s certitude seems to fall out from under her, transforming Hogg’s film in the process.

Pivotal among these forces is Anthony (Tom Burke), a spectacularly smug older man with ambiguous professional and personal affiliations who becomes inexorably drawn to Julie, and she to him. When he first appears on screen across a table from Julie at a café, Hogg frames the scene in the kind of spacious, sophisticated master shot that defined her 2013 film Exhibition, snapping The Souvenir out of the close-up-heavy, fly-on-the-wall aesthetic with which it opens. The shift in style registers the exhilarating impact Anthony has on Julie, who is up to that point seen as a wallflower at college parties, taking photos and rolling a Bolex in the corner while bouncing in and out of conversations. Sizing up Julie’s film project with suave dismissiveness, Anthony suggests that she might heed the influence of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who were able to express personal emotions free of the constraints of realism, and later proposes that “it’s not enough to be sincere or authentic.”

Julie takes such counseling in stride even when it comes from her casually condescending professors (also men), giving her a headstrong resilience that Swinton-Byrne beautifully underplays. But Julie’s toughness doesn’t equate to stubborn pride, and soon The Souvenir turns away from its portrait of early filmmaking ambition and toward the knotty dynamics of Anthony and Julie’s strengthening relationship—itself modeled off a fling in Hogg’s past. The director orchestrates this formal shapeshift with sly subtlety, first introducing the couple’s scenes together as elliptical diversions from the central storyline, then gradually lengthening them until the sequences set in and around Julie’s film school take a backseat entirely. Now sharing an apartment, Anthony and Julie go through the growing pains of coexistence—the former posits a “Wall of Jericho” made of pillows in a reference to It Happened One Night to solve his discomfort in bed—but nonetheless find a strange harmony in their dissonant personalities, with his brutal honesty charming her and her placidity disarming him.

In Anthony’s case, however, this apparent personality yardstick proves misleading, as it turns out that he’s frank about everything but his own life. Talk of a vague government job creates an impression of a posh background belied by Anthony and Julie’s trip to visit his parents, and later, an offhand remark made by one of Anthony’s friends when he’s in the bathroom yields the startling revelation—cued by spatially disorienting mirror shots and the gentle use of Dutch angles—that Julie’s boyfriend is a heroin addict. Hogg omits the scene where Julie confronts Anthony about this revelation, but the mark it leaves on their relationship is implicitly, delicately apparent in every part of The Souvenir moving forward. The neatly organized, white-walled apartment where much of the action takes place becomes charged with tension, not only from the threat of dissident bombing that percolates outside its windows (a reality contemporaneous to the film’s early-‘80s setting), but also from Anthony’s frequent, unexplained comings and goings, which starkly contrast Julie’s more fixed physicality as she spends her time hunched over a typewriter.

The Souvenir flirts with a few conventional movie premises—the doomed romance, the spiral into the hell of drug addiction, the pursuit of self-actualization—without ever fully engaging one, which doesn’t indicate an uncertainty on Hogg’s part so much as a supreme confidence in the intricacies of her own material. Likely to some viewers’ dismay, Julie’s story isn’t one that ever comes to hinge on an a-ha moment, a sudden realization that she’s strayed from her artistic passion in her entanglement with a toxic partner. Rather, Hogg evokes both the seductive appeal of an irrational romance and the less sexy but nonetheless potent comfort of falling into the role of nurturer, a discipline shown in a few touching scenes to be inherited by Julie from her mother (Tilda Swinton). What’s more, it can’t be said that Anthony’s influence is purely deleterious, as his bouts of real vulnerability, carried off with a persuasive display of wounded pride by Burke, repeatedly push Julie toward greater sensitivity and awareness.

Perhaps ambivalent herself to Anthony’s recommendation that Julie seek inspiration from Powell and Pressburger’s work, Hogg shoots in a grainy, underlit 16mm palette that has less to do with period fetishism than with draining the sparkle from Julie’s privileged upbringing. The Souvenir is shot from a measured distance, often with the camera in rooms adjacent to the actors so that walls and other objects populate the foreground, and the resulting sense is of being simultaneously immersed in the spaces of Hogg’s early adulthood and at an intellectual remove from them, a fusion seemingly reflective of the director’s own mixed emotions in revisiting this story. In this case, however, that quality of fluctuation isn’t a deficiency but a virtue, a sign of a filmmaker really wrestling with how she became the woman and artist she is today, and the mark of a film that’s beholden to no recipe but its own.

Cast: Honor Swinton Byrne, Tom Burke, Tilda Swinton, Jack McMullen, Frankie Wilson, Richard Ayoade, Jaygann Ayeh Director: Joanna Hogg Screenwriter: Joanna Hogg Distributor: A24 Running Time: 119 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Aladdin Is a Magic Corporate Ride to Nowhere Special

Guy Ritchie’s live-action remake is content to trace the original’s narrative beats with perfunctory indifference.

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Aladdin
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Compared to a few other recent live-action remakes of Disney’s animated films, which at least attempted to bring striking story wrinkles or an auteurist perspective to bear on their interpretations, Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin is a remake in the most literal sense. Much of the film’s first act traces the narrative beats of the 1992 animated feature, and in shot-for-shot fashion: Thieving street rat Aladdin (Mena Massoud) meets and charms the princess of his native Agrabah, Jasmine (Naomi Scott), and ultimately runs afoul of scheming grand vizier Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), before obtaining a magic lamp containing a genie (Will Smith) who has the power to transform the young pauper into a prince worthy of Jasmine’s station.

The steadfastness with which every aspect of the original is replicated by this new Aladdin makes Ritchie’s film a grueling example of the streaming-era notion of art as content. Because there’s no chemistry between Massoud and Scott, the legitimacy of Aladdin and Jasmine’s flirtations is largely sold on the basis of the viewer’s preexisting knowledge that these two will become a couple. Elsewhere, the relationship between Jafar and the Sultan (Navid Negahban) is an even paler imitation. In the original, Jafar’s viciousness was at least partially driven by his hatred of the Sultan, who issued inane commands to his grand vizier in all sorts of parodically infantile and buffoonish of ways. Here, though, the Sultan is a negligible figure, neither callous nor especially influential, thus robbing his subordinate of a compelling motive. The Jafar of this film is evil simply because he’s been designated as the story’s big bad.

If the dogged faithfulness of Ritchie’s film to the original proves consistently stultifying, it’s the most noticeable deviations that ultimately damn the remake. In an attempt to give Jasmine something to do other than be the object of men’s affections, Ritchie and co-writer John August blend the character’s traditional frustrations at being trapped behind palace walls with a newfound resentment over how her capacity to rule as sultan is thwarted by traditional gender roles. Nonetheless, her desires to lead are bluntly articulated and reflective of a broader tendency among the film’s characters to express their awareness of their own repression by tilting their heads back and staring off into the distance as they speak extemporaneously about their dreams. Poor Scott is also burdened with the film’s big new song, “Speechless,” an instantly dated empowerment anthem that suggests the sonic equivalent of that old woman’s botched restoration of the Ecce Homo fresco in Borja, Spain.

The film does come somewhat to life during its musical numbers. Though these sequences are marked by simplistic and unengaging choreography, they don’t quell the verve of Howard Ashman and Tim Rice’s original songs. Less successful is Smith, who, unable to match the intensity of Robin Williams’s performance as the Genie in the original film, leans into his signature drawling sarcasm to bring his spin on the character to life, effectively draining the Genie of everything that made him so memorably larger than life in the first place. Even when portraying some of the Genie’s more antic behavior, Smith mostly takes the path of least resistance, injecting just enough energy into his performance to hint at Williams’s memorable take on the character but without seeming as if he’s actually working up a sweat.

Elsewhere, Massoud mostly goes through the motions in establishing Aladdin as a rakish pauper, but the actor comes alive in a comic scene that sees his street urchin, newly styled as a prince by the Genie, presenting himself to the Sultan’s court. Having never been trained on any points of social graces, Aladdin can only stammer out pleasantries, using strange honorifics to refer to the Sultan as he curtsies instead of bows. Later, the Genie helps Aladdin perform an elaborate dance by controlling the young man’s body in order to wow the Sultan’s court. Impressively, Massoud manages to perform complicated steps while looking as if every movement is done against his will, giving Aladdin’s flailing motions a slapstick quality.

Such flashes of personality, though, are few and far between in this remake. Certainly there was a lot of room to bring a contemporary perspective to this material—to counter the original’s problematic representation of its Middle-Eastern milieu and deepen its characters. Instead, the film settles for telling you a joke you’ve already heard and botching the delivery.

Cast: Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott, Will Smith, Marwan Kenzari, Navid Negahban, Nasim Pedrad, Alan Tudyk, Frank Welker, Billy Magnussen Director: Guy Ritchie Screenwriter: John August, Guy Ritchie Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 128 min Rating: PG Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack

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Film

Review: Brightburn Is a Soulless Mishmash of Disparate Genre Elements

The way the film shuttles through its 90 minutes, it’s as if it’s been stripped of its most crucial narrative parts.

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Brightburn
Photo: Screen Gems

Like a lot of kids squirming through puberty, Brandon Breyer (Jackson A. Dunn) is an asshole. Unlike most, however, he’s from outer space and possessed of formidable superpowers. Soon after learning of his abilities, he stalks a classmate, Caitlyn (Emmie Hunter), who consoled him in class after he was teased for his incredible smarts. Brandon makes a show of controlling Caitlyn’s laptop before appearing outside her bedroom window, eerily floating in the air. By this point in director David Yarovesky’s Brightburn, one is still optimistic that Brandon’s creeper tendencies will be the most insidious of his problems. But when Caitlyn calls him a pervert, after letting him fall to the ground during a “trust fall” exercise in gym class, Brandon crushes the bones in her hand after she’s forced to help him up. By the end of the film, Caitlyn will prove to be one of the lucky ones.

That Yarovesky and screenwriters Brian and Mark Gunn don’t exactly push the link between Brandon’s pubescence and his growing self-awareness isn’t the first sign that something is amiss here. Right out of the gate, Brightburn reveals itself unwilling to animate its characters’ emotional dramas, using visual shorthand to simply hint at them. In the opening scene, set more than 10 years in the past, the camera pans across a bookshelf full of fertility books, informing the audience that Brandon’s parents, Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle (David Denman), really want to have a baby. Later, while helping his dad with chores, Brandon accidentally throws a lawnmower halfway across the family farm. This is when he recognizes that he has superpowers, but rather than prolong the kid’s doubt across more than one scene, the film zips straight to the moment where he’s about to shove his hand into the lawn mower’s spinning blades to confirm his suspicions that he’s nothing short of invincible.

More genre films—more films, period—could stand to have a lot less fat on their bones, but the way Brightburn shuttles through its 90 minutes, it’s as if it’s been stripped even of its most crucial narrative parts. Outside of one pulpy hallucination sequence, the film stubbornly refuses to give a concrete sense of the desperation that drove Tori and Kyle to adopt Brandon, just as it can’t be bothered to give shape to the mythology of his creation—or rather, his arrival. For a spell, though, this suggests a purposeful show of evasion. Much is made of the red light that peeks out from the floorboards in the family barn and to which Brandon is drawn throughout the film. If you’re a fan of Larry Cohen’s canon, you may wonder if the kid will be revealed as a kindred spirit of the ever-glowing human-alien antagonist from God Told Me To, here to make sport of our biological urge to procreate in our increasingly decaying world.

No such luck, as Brightburn is a meaningless mishmash of disparate genre elements. The truth of what lurks beneath the floorboards turns out to be of no particular consequence—not exactly a red herring, just a bit of hogwash that confirms Brandon to be a gene splice of Damien and Superman. Maybe a sense of majesty, of mythic grandeur, might have made him feel as if he was less arbitrarily willed into being, though Yarovesky certainly conveys the weight of the kid’s killing spree. Not its existential weight, only its repugnant force. At one point, one of his victims struggles to hold up the lower part of his grotesquely shattered jaw, as Brandon pulls off the mask that he wears because, presumably, he understands that that’s what someone with superhuman powers should do. Brightburn never shows us how Brandon came to such a realization, but it does let us glimpse the stone-cold delight he takes in erasing human life—a spectacle of violence that exists for its own soulless sake.

Cast: Elizabeth Banks, David Denman, Jackson A. Dunn, Jennifer Holland, Matt Jones, Meredith Hagner, Becky Wahlstrom, Gregory Alan Williams, Steve Agee, Emmie Hunter Director: David Yarovesky Screenwriter: Brian Gunn, Mark Gunn Distributor: Screen Gems Running Time: 90 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Film

The Nightingale Trailer: Aisling Franciosi and Sam Claflin Star in Jennifer Kent’s Follow-Up to The Babadook

Today, IFC has released the first trailer for the film, which is set during the colonization of Australia in 1825.

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The Nightingale
Photo: Matt Nettheim

Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale, the Aussie filmmaker’s much-anticipated follow-up to The Babadook, premiered way back in September at the Venice Film Festival, and to mostly positive notices. Today, ahead of its U.S. theatrical release in August, IFC has released the first trailer for the film, which is set during the colonization of Australia in 1825 and follows a young Irish convict settler, Clare (played by Aisling Franciosi), who, after finishing her seven-year sentence, struggles to be free of her abusive master, Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin). According to the studio’s official description of the film:

Clare’s husband Aidan (Michael Sheasby) retaliates and she becomes the victim of a harrowing crime at the hands of the lieutenant and his cronies. When British authorities fail to deliver justice, Clare decides to pursue Hawkins, who leaves his post suddenly to secure a captaincy up north. Unable to find compatriots for her journey, she is forced to enlist the help of a young Aboriginal tracker Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) who grudgingly takes her through the rugged wilderness to track down Hawkins. The terrain and the prevailing hostilities are frightening, as fighting between the original inhabitants of the land and its colonizers plays out in what is now known as “The Black War.” Clare and Billy are hostile towards each other from the outset, both suffering their own traumas and mutual distrust, but as their journey leads them deeper into the wilderness, they must learn to find empathy for one another, while weighing the true cost of revenge.

Watch the official trailer below:

IFC Films will release The Nightingale in NY and LA on August 2.

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Film

Cannes Review: The Lighthouse Is a Hilarious and Grotesque Genre Pastiche

Robert Eggers loosens the noose of veracity just enough to allow for so much absurdism to peek through.

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The Lighthouse
Photo: A24

Willem Dafoe farts and Robert Pattinson masturbates vigorously in Robert Eggers’s creepy and unexpectedly, if grotesquely, hilarious follow-up to The Witch. Set in 1890s New England, The Lighthouse finds Eggers again mining the past for an air of mythic portent but loosening the noose of veracity that choked his meticulously researched yet painfully self-serious debut just enough to allow for so much absurdism to peek through.

From the moment that lighthouse keepers Thomas Wake (Dafoe), an experienced old “wickie” with a shuffling gait and a hair-trigger temper, and Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson), his handlebar mustache-sporting assistant, set foot on the tiny island where they’re to spend the next four weeks, they start to get on each other’s nerves. Wake is a slave driver who’s said to have made his last assistant go crazy, and who ignores any and all regulations, while Winslow, who’s on his first assignment as a lighthouse keeper, refuses to drink and be merry with Wake, which causes its own problems. Before long, the two men kick into motion a game of one-upmanship, a raising of the stakes to see who will be the first to drive the other to madness—with flatulence and horniness among the many, many factors fueling that pursuit.

Eggers’s willingness to get goofy, and to not worry about humor defusing his narrative’s macabre horror—as in, say, the cartoonish pummeling that a devious seagull receives—makes The Lighthouse something of a breakthrough for the filmmaker. Diverging from the formula of coiled tension followed by sudden and jolting release that’s favored by so many contemporary arthouse horror films, Eggers parcels out the action in the film, steadily and methodically building toward the psychological breaking point of his characters.

Dafoe and Pattinson are crucial to selling that trajectory, ensuring that every moment here bristles with performative bluster. Dafoe’s surly former sea captain is a blowhard who’s given to sentimental reverie whenever he gets hammered, while his foil is played by Pattinson with slyly vacillating docile subservience and scheming spitefulness. The veteran character actor and dressed-down movie star play off each other exceptionally well, especially when, as is often the case in a two-hander, they have to pull-off a tricky role reversal.

Taking advantage of a bigger budget than The Witch, Eggers shot The Lighthouse on 35mm film. He’s also utilized the 1.19:1 Movietone aspect ratio, which was briefly standardized in the 1920s and is tighter than the already boxy 1.37:1 academy ratio, as a means of emphasizing his vertical compositions and the at times literally stratified relationship between his main characters. At one point, Dafoe’s old codger refuses to share lantern duty, while Winslow toils down below, swabbing decks and maintaining the dilapidated station.

Eggers successfully approximates F.W. Murnau’s stark and dynamic use of light and shadow in images that ensconce his characters in darkness and place them in geometrically unbalanced positions within the frame. But the quirkiest influence on this film is Night Tide, Curtis Harrington’s 1961 supernatural farce of a noir, which Eggers cribs from blatantly in a surreal sequence where Pattinson’s character has an erotic fantasy about a mermaid, and in a delirious body-horror montage—realized through largely practical effects—that co-opts Harrington’s hybridization of Roger Corman and Kenneth Ager’s stylings.

And like Night Tide, a send-up of beach-party movies and cheap ‘50s sci-fi, The Lighthouse aims for self-aware pastiche and pulls it off without smugness. Unlike Harrington’s film, though, it doesn’t register much affection for the forms it’s working with, and can come off like a calculated exercise. Still, Eggers’s ability to take the piss out of his inflated genre movie pastiche, without lapsing into parody, is an impressive and an entertaining feat.

Cast: Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe, Valeriia Karaman Director: Robert Eggers Screenwriter: Robert Eggers, Max Eggers Distributor: A24 Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Features

Maryland Film Festival 2019: The Hottest August, Donbass, & American Factory

This year’s selections exhibit a scope and ambition that should continue to draw adventurous filmgoers for years to come.

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The Hottest August
Photo: Maryland Film Festival

Judging from the enthusiasm of the surprisingly high number of New York filmmakers and critics this writer met in Baltimore this past weekend, the Maryland Film Festival isn’t seen as a pale shadow of Big Apple filmgoing. Rather, it’s a vital supplement to it—a program that compresses many of the festival season’s essential offerings into a manageable four-day run in an easily walkable city with comparatively chill crowds.

Those who made the commute to Baltimore for the festival this year had the chance to encounter one of the more trenchant New York-set films of recent memory in Brett Story’s The Hottest August, an essayistic documentary made in the intellectually vagrant spirit of Chris Marker. Shot in August of 2017 around a principle of “organized spontaneity,” per producer Danielle Varga, the film spans New York City’s five boroughs while adhering to a nebulous, difficult-to-define but nonetheless valuable objective: to take the temperature of the times we live in and tease out the collective mood of the country’s most densely populated area.

Willfully biting off more than it can chew, The Hottest August features rich people, poor people, scientists, skateboarders, entrepreneurs, intellectuals, barflies, artists, and more waxing extemporaneous on topics including climate change, economic inequality, automation, racism, and the future. The mood is off the cuff, conversational. A pair of women in lawn chairs joke about how their street’s rat population has swelled as a result of gentrifying construction in adjacent neighborhoods. Two former cops reframe the term “racism” as “resentment” in a sports bar just moments after demanding that no politics enter the hallowed space of the drinking hole. A loft-dwelling futurist pontificates on what the tax system might look like if the country embraced robotics instead of fearing it as a job killer. Occasionally we hear the filmmaker off screen, tersely prompting her subjects with open-ended questions, but mostly this is an ensemble of eager talkers, their openness running contrary to the old chestnut about closed-off New Yorkers.

Finding form in this seemingly disconnected mass is editor Nels Bangerter, who managed a similar feat with Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson. The film drifts subtly from subject to subject, pointedly using B roll not just to evocatively provide a sense of place, but to extend someone’s thought or offer counterpoint. Three streams of information exist at once: whatever opinion is being put forth by the person on screen; whatever in-the-moment perspective Story takes on her subject’s response through the questions she asks or the camera angles she chooses; and the question of how that segment ultimately interacts with the film in its final form, where images have been invested with meaning through context.

The Hottest August is a film that’s constantly “thinking,” and that thought isn’t fixed or authoritative, but rather in flux and negotiable. Story isn’t setting out to answer any pressing political issues so much as capture the tactile sense of how those issues permeate everyday settings. Hers is a form of ambient reportage that feels very welcome in our contemporary moment, when the daily barrage of information can sometimes make it difficult to recall how one felt about something two days earlier, let alone in that turbulent August of 2017.

Similarly macro in its approach is Sergei Loznitsa’s Donbass, which adopts a sprawling, vignette-driven structure as it catalogues the miseries and grotesqueries of the eponymous eastern Ukrainian territory. A region occupied by pro-Russian paramilitary forces (specifically the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics) ever since the Ukrainian Revolution in 2014, present-day Donbass is a morass of conflicting sympathies and ideologies that Loznitsa doesn’t so much seek to clarify with this film as reflect in all its muddy complexity.

In fact, Loznitsa goes so far as to call into question the very possibility of the truth of this situation he captures on camera. Whenever reporters appear on screen, they’re portrayed as ineffectual stooges waiting to be chewed out as propaganda peddlers by their political opponents, and the film’s bookending sequences, set at the trailer park of a movie set, build toward a thesis statement on the dubiousness of contemporary reporting with its tendency to stage and reframe reality according to the mandates of whatever affiliation is being placated.

Cameras, we’re repeatedly reminded by the mise-en-scène, are violators, as they merely augment the dangerous power of the person wielding them. Donbass’s most harrowing elucidation of this theme comes in a scene on a public street, where a Ukrainian loyalist, tied to a telephone pole by a pair of armed separatists, endures a humiliating beating at the hands of a growing mob of passersby, one of whom decides to record the grisly spectacle with his smartphone. As Loznitsa’s camera circles the action, the heckler’s phone presses right up into the face of the prisoner, relishing in the man’s suffering, and we get the sense that the escalation of violence may have never come to pass in quite this way were it not for the spontaneous idea to turn it into a video meme. Later, the recording gets shown to a hooting crowd of Novorossiya sympathizers at an absurdly overemphatic wedding celebration, assimilating smoothly into the atmosphere of nationalist fervor.

Donbass is fueled by such collisions between the grave and the comic, a tonal oscillation mastered by Loznitsa in his documentaries and carried over here to support a vision of a society cracking under the weight of its own inconsistencies, corruption and mob mentalities. Less tightly structured than Loznitsa’s preceding fiction work, the film adopts the immersive observation of films like Maidan and Victory Day with a more active, roving camera but a similar degree of durational endurance. In one scene, Loznitsa even seamlessly integrates an extended use of documentary language into a longer fictional setup when his camera descends into a cramped and overcrowded bomb shelter, where a local host, lit by a camera-mounted source, walks us through the destitution of those living inside. As with the later street scene, the dreariness is eventually spiked by a dash of absurdism, but the counterpunch isn’t intended to lighten the mood so much as further disorient, ultimately giving Donbass an unnerving precarity that must come somewhat near the feeling on the ground.

If these two films, content as they are to revel in ambivalence, seek to grasp the experience of the now in all its bewilderment, Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar’s American Factory takes a more committed stance on an issue that’s equally topical. Fuyao Glass America, an outgrowth of a global glass manufacturer owned by a Chinese billionaire, opened in Moraine, Ohio in the shell of a shuddered General Motors plant toward the beginning of the decade, persisted financially for years while pursuing its awkward goal of unifying Chinese and American work cultures, and then inevitably ran up against controversy in 2017 when safety concerns and low wages encouraged the local employees to vote to unionize.

American Factory charts this entire compelling history with surprising comprehensiveness: When a late scene plays out as an illicit audio recording from an employee over a black screen, it stands out for being one of the only instances when the filmmakers don’t appear to have unencumbered access. But this sprawl has its downsides. Though briskly edited and tonally varied, Reichert and Bognar’s documentary skims over the surface of some of its most fascinating threads while in pursuit of a rousing decade-long tale.

The American workers depicted in the film, disgruntled by their diminished earnings and recalling a recent past with less bureaucratic oversight, too often blend into one undistinguished mass of Midwestern homeliness, and the few individuals who do get singled out for attention—a woman living in her relative’s basement and a rancher who befriends one particular Chinese co-worker—often get neglected for long stretches of time. The Chinese are perhaps even less differentiated, their insistence on dogged work ethic and company allegiance repeatedly emphasized almost to the point of xenophobia. That Fuyao chairman Cao Dewang, who weaves through the film as an amusingly oblivious villain for its majority, eventually gets a moment to fondly reminisce on China’s pre-industrial past and contemplate his own complicity in the country’s shift to globalized capitalism comes across as penance for the film’s occasional treatment of foreigners as misguided corporate drones.

What American Factory ultimately amounts to, however, isn’t an exploration of culture clash or a penetrating depiction of rust belt dejection, but rather a rallying cry for worker solidarity (in America, if not across the globe), a message it pulls off resoundingly in the final hour. Reichert and Bognar smartly detail all the insidious ways in which corporate messengers mischaracterize unionizing as a threat to individual liberty, and the populist filmmaking vernacular they employ as the union vote nears—fluid crosscutting between different intersecting narratives, plenty of emotional close-ups, a score of almost Spielbergian grandiosity—gives the documentary a genuine shot at trafficking radical politics to a relatively wide audience. If it’s any indication of future success, American Factory was one of the most well-attended screenings I went to during my time in Baltimore, but it’s a testament to the Maryland Film Festival’s outreach that healthy crowds congregated throughout the weekend. Though modest and inviting, this year’s selections exhibit a scope and ambition that should continue to draw adventurous filmgoers for years to come.

The Maryland Film Festival ran from May 8—12.

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