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The Conversations: Mulholland Drive

David Lynch is a filmmaker who has haunted my mind since the first moment I saw one of his films.

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The Conversations: Mulholland Drive

Ed Howard: David Lynch is a filmmaker who has haunted my mind since the first moment I saw one of his films. This is especially true of Mulholland Drive I vividly remember my confused, stunned reactions the first time I saw this film. It was in the afternoon, and when I stumbled outside afterward, into bright daylight, everything looked strange, somehow subtly changed. I’d spent over two hours in Lynch’s world, and in the time I’d been lost there it was as though the real world had been infected with Lynch’s unsettling aesthetic. It was a unique experience. I can’t remember another film that shook me up and destabilized me so thoroughly, and I’ve returned to it, and to Lynch’s work in general, compulsively ever since.

Perhaps because they have such a profound, visceral effect on me, I find the precise character of Lynch’s films to be elusive, hard to explain in concrete terms. I’ve never happened across a better synopsis of their effect, though, than the one offered by the novelist, essayist and critic David Foster Wallace. In 1996, Wallace was asked to visit the set of Lost Highway for Premiere magazine, and in response he produced a witty essay that was explicitly not a “behind the scenes” piece but an attempt to come to terms with the ineffable quality of Lynch’s cinema. In the midst of this article is a passage that I want to offer as a starting point for our discussion, since it couldn’t do a better job of encapsulating my own responses to Lynch if I had written it myself.

“David Lynch’s movies are often described as occupying a kind of middle ground between art film and commercial film. But what they really occupy is a whole third different kind of territory. Most of Lynch’s best films don’t really have much of a point, and in lots of ways they seem to resist the film-interpretative process by which movies’ (certainly avant-garde movies’) central points are understood. This is something the British critic Paul Taylor seems to get when he says that Lynch’s movies are “to be experienced rather than explained.”…

“Nor are they seductive, though, at least in the commercial senses of being comfortable or linear or High Concept or “feel-good.” You almost never in a Lynch movie get the sense that the point is to “entertain” you, and never that the point is to get you to fork over money to see it. This is one of the unsettling things about a Lynch movie: you don’t feel like you’re entering into any of the standard unspoken/unconscious contracts you normally enter into with other kinds of movies. This is unsettling because in the absence of such an unconscious contract we lose some of the psychic protections we normally (and necessarily) bring to bear on a medium as powerful as film. That is, if we know on some level what a movie wants from us, we can erect certain internal defenses that let us choose how much of ourselves we give away to it. The absence of a point or recognizable agenda in Lynch’s films, though, strips these subliminal defenses and lets Lynch get inside your head in a way movies normally don’t. This is why his best films’ effects are often so emotional and nightmarish. (We’re defenseless in our dreams too.)”

Jason Bellamy: I can’t tell if you’ve jumped into the deep end of the pool or the shallow end with that quote, and maybe that says something at the outset about the elusiveness of Lynch. In general, though, I agree with the passage by Wallace, and I surely relate to the destabilizing effect of Mulholland Drive as you described it. That’s Lynch alright. Indeed, we are defenseless to his abstractions. Watching a Lynch film is like waking up in space. We’re so accustomed to A-Z narratives—even if they start at K, flash back to A and then flash forward to T—that we are conditioned to the idea that movies move forward or backward. Lynch is too dynamic for such restraints. His films come at us from above, from below, from the side, from our blind spots, from places we didn’t know were there to be occupied. Whether this is some kind of genius filmmaking mutation, essential for the survival of the species, or some kind of disorder, interesting in its abnormality but ultimately detrimental, is a conversation for later. In the moment, we at least agree on how a Lynch film operates and affects—at least some of the time.

Mulholland Drive is an apt window into Lynch, because for so much of its running time it’s about as conventional as Lynch gets before becoming about as unconventional as Lynch gets. It’s like a boxed set experience in one film. Watching Mulholland Drive again for the purpose of this discussion, I found it to be as captivating and confounding as I’d remembered it. It’s typically inexplicable—not just in terms of plot, but in terms of its overall effect. At the moment, trying to consider the entire film in my mind—a monumental task in and of itself—I vacillate between thinking that it’s the heartbreaking work of a staggering genius and an inauthentic, glossy self-indulgence by an artist who takes himself too seriously. The real answer, I’m sure, is somewhere in the middle. These are not my conclusions. These are the emotions that Mulholland Drive stirs within me. That said, you adore this film. So let’s move away from the big picture for a moment to concentrate on the film itself. I assume you’d call it a “great” film, perhaps even a “masterpiece.” So here’s a challenge: With the knowledge that you’ll have the entirety of this conversation to state your case in detail, for the moment tell me why Mulholland Drive is great … in 250 words or less.

Mulholland Drive

EH: For me, the heart of the greatness of Mulholland Drive is the famed Club Silencio sequence, which provides the blueprint for enjoying (and understanding) the film as a whole. This is the moment where David Lynch steps into the film and announces, “Here I am,” where the magician reveals his secrets. He’s reminding us that we’re “just” watching a movie, that everything we’re seeing is fake, “an illusion,” and yet no less affecting for its artificiality. This scene is the film’s aesthetic and thematic core because Mulholland Drive is a tribute to the beautiful lie of movie magic. The preceding two hours were a mélange of self-conscious genre references (noir, Western, mystery, sexploitation, melodrama, action) but Lynch doesn’t mock or parody these genre clichés; instead he glories in the endless capacity for creativity and emotion still contained, waiting to be unleashed, in even the most hackneyed Hollywood scenario. We see this also in the audition scene, where lame material is transformed by sheer talent into something electric and awesome. It’s this generous quality that I most love in the film, the way Lynch seems to really care about art’s ability to move, change and provoke us. The film is about a young woman who tries to transform herself through an artful act of imagination, and Lynch invites us to care as deeply about her constructs, her imaginary self (or selves), as we do for the glimpse of the “real” her we see in the final half-hour of the film.

JB: And here I thought I’d given you a nearly impossible challenge. I like your encapsulation. Brief though it is, it provides me with a deeper reading of the film than I took away myself based on only limited viewings. More specifically, it takes my seemingly disparate reactions and suggests that, yes, they do fit together in a relatively tidy whole. There’s quite a bit to react to here, but you started with the Club Silencio sequence, and that seems fitting, so let’s continue.

If that surreal display is the “blueprint for enjoying (and understanding) the film,” you might also agree that it’s the linchpin, too. Already to that point, the movie has been typically Lynchian—weird, creepy, somewhat depraved, not to mention vibrant and compellingly oblique—but the Club Silencio sequence is when the LSD hits the bloodstream. In the passage you quoted from Wallace, he notes correctly that we “almost never in a Lynch movie get the sense that the point is to ’entertain.’” I agree with that, and I’m down with that. Perhaps Lynch simply intends to provoke. Good enough. But this leads me to the first of what I’m sure will be multiple Lynch-inspired philosophical questions:

If we agree that the main strength of Lynch’s filmmaking is its ability to render us defenseless, couldn’t it also be argued that the intentional inscrutability of Lynch’s work is its biggest downfall? Yes, we’re vulnerable to these images, at least at first, but the natural human reaction when violated (made uncomfortable) is to emulate an armadillo and curl into a ball—physically, emotionally or cerebrally. Some would say, “That’s on the audience. If they can’t take it, it’s their problem.” But is that accurate? Lynch might not want to entertain us, and he certainly isn’t out to set box office records, but he does want his films watched, or else he wouldn’t make and distribute them—they could just live in his head. Lynch wants to share. He wants to provoke. He wants to communicate. Yet if he causes a moviegoer to shut down, his/her experience ends before the movie does, as if waking one’s self from a nightmare. After that, the rest of the film is essentially irrelevant to that person. So I guess what I’m asking is this: If Lynch’s style is so discombobulating that it pushes me away before it finishes delivering its message, if it makes me want to give up rather than keep trying, is that a fault of Lynch or of me?

Mulholland Drive

EH: All I can say is, no matter how confounding and inscrutable Lynch’s films can be—and this one is by no means his most inscrutable—I have never been repelled by them, never tempted to “give up.” This is because Lynch’s filmmaking is very modular: he thinks as much in terms of crafting individual moments as he does of the whole film. There’s a reason that he was able to salvage Mulholland Drive from a rejected television pilot by adding new material and making it seem like the film was always meant to be like this. There’s a reason that Inland Empire is able to incorporate ideas and images from Lynch’s digital shorts and experiments (like the absurd Rabbits) and fluidly blend it all into the whole. Individual scenes, like the audition or Club Silencio or the conversation with the cowboy or the creepy Robert Blake phone call sequence in Lost Highway, can stand on their own as self-contained modules, separate from the films that contain them. This approach obviously encourages a very different kind of viewing, one that necessitates taking the film moment by moment, scene by scene, at least at first. (And the hypothetical armadillo-like viewer you mention would still have experienced many of these isolated moments before giving up, and I suspect Lynch would be OK with that.) It’s only later that one realizes there’s actually a story here (even, in the case of Mulholland Drive, a surprisingly straightforward story), that the little pieces start fitting together into something coherent. The first time one watches a Lynch film (other than, naturally, The Elephant Man or The Straight Story), it inevitably seems like just a string of random moments, most of them compelling and moody in their own right but not really logically understandable. It’s only when you return to the films, or even just turn them over in your mind for a while, that what had seemed like randomness and surrealism-for-its-own-sake begins to take on form.

This is why Wallace emphasizes watching a Lynch film as an “experience,” and certainly an active experience. These films undoubtedly require a certain level of complicity on the part of their audiences; if the viewer turns off, refuses to engage, then the film will never mean anything, will never come together in the way Lynch clearly intends it to. On some level, every film (or at least every film worth any attention) requires something of its audience. Lynch asks more than most, but then I’d argue that the rewards of his films are unique enough to warrant this extra effort; you may, of course, disagree.

It’s also probably worth pointing out that Lynch is—despite our and Wallace’s description of his disorienting qualities—often willing to give his audience at least something to hold onto. In many of his films, this something is the comforting presence of Hollywood genre clichés, which Lynch uses in quite a different way from other self-consciously referential directors like Tarantino or the Coen brothers (who Wallace quite convincingly argues were both influenced by Lynch). Lynch deploys familiar tropes and images as a way of suggesting to us that the film is not as random as it might otherwise seem: the Dragnet-style detectives in both this film and Lost Highway, the amnesiac femme fatale with a purse full of money and a mysterious key (what does it open?), the shadowy behind-the-scenes conspiracy, the gangsters and hitmen. Years of watching films in which these things appear have conditioned us to want to decode them, to want to solve the mystery, but Lynch purposefully twists the conventional meanings and gives us something unexpected. The clichéd detectives turn out to be incompetent, the femme fatale and the cheery good girl switch places, and the key seems to open a kind of psychic doorway rather than a physical object: the featureless blue box it unlocks is as nakedly symbolic as the box full of white light in Kiss Me Deadly, one of Lynch’s key reference points in his recent work. As disorienting as Lynch’s recent films have been, by making the Hollywood dream factory his subject, he’s provided at least one crucial stabilizing factor amidst all the surreality.

Mulholland Drive

JB: All true. But let me avoid the particulars of Mulholland Drive for a moment to hit on something you said so revealingly casually: “the first time one watches a Lynch film.” The first time. See, there’s an understanding among film fans educated enough to have an idea of Lynch’s canon that his films can’t be digested in one sitting. In fact, it’s not just understood, it’s accepted. I find this fascinating. First of all, why do Lynch’s films get the benefit of assumed repeat examination? Just to grab a name, let’s compare Lynch to M. Night Shyamalan, as thoughtful (as in well-intentioned) a filmmaker as any. I saw his Lady in the Water just once, but that’s all that I needed to recognize it as a jumbled failure. If I said as much, many would nod their heads and agree without hesitation. If I said the same about Mulholland Drive, I’d likely be told that I need to see it again, that the film can’t be properly appreciated in only one sitting. Well, what if the same is true of Lady in the Water? What if that film has been unfairly panned because most critics and moviegoers only sat through it once?

I want to be clear before I go any further that I support the idea of repeat viewings. I don’t think a film that one has grown to appreciate has lesser value than one that is adored immediately. At my own blog I have championed the idea of reexamining one’s position and being willing to admit initial error. But here’s the thing: If Lynch’s films are so complex that it takes more than one viewing to digest them, to the point that fans of the work might disregard an initial-viewing pan, what are immediate raves worth? In other words, if someone sees the film once and proclaims it a masterpiece, do you trust that reaction, or is it as incomplete as a one-viewing dismissal?

I bring this up because, rightly or wrongly, the vast majority of film debate is based on singular viewings, not just with new releases but with older films, too. Serious film fans don’t bat an eye at reexamining something that challenges them, yet even we don’t withhold judgment of films we’ve seen only once, nor do we always go out of our way to offer the caveat that we might feel differently if we saw it a second time. We trust our instincts, and we should. They are honest. So, to hook back into my previous question: If a Lynch film doesn’t compel me to see it the number of times necessary to fully appreciate it, isn’t that a fault of the film and filmmaker, just like my abhorrence of the idea of suffering through Lady in the Water a second time reflects the failings of that film and its creator? Has Lynch earned this stature with early successes? Does he have to re-earn it within each film, or is it a given at this point? Would Mulholland Drive receive the same flexibility if released by an unknown artist? I’m not so sure.

Mulholland Drive

EH: Here’s the thing: Lynch’s recent films might require multiple viewings to fully understand them, but not, in my experience, to enjoy or appreciate them. As I suggested in my opening, I loved Mulholland Drive the first time I saw it; I was utterly blown away by it. Did I understand it? Not even close. Subsequent viewings revealed layers of narrative and themes that I hadn’t detected the first time. But the sensation of watching the film, the mystery and beauty of its images, the ideas about imagination, fantasy, movies and loss bubbling up through its obscurity, these were all there the first time. The fact that I was compelled to revisit the film a second time—indeed, probably close to a dozen times by now—says a lot about the power of that first experience, that it made me want to return to this film so frequently. I do trust my instincts, and I trust them to know when a film has more to offer me, and when it’s Lady in the Water: Lynch’s films suggest that there’s more there, depths to be mined on subsequent viewings, while the Shyamalan film does not. My instincts might be wrong—it’s perfectly possible that Shyamalan’s film is a misunderstood masterpiece and that Lynch could make a film that would offer me nothing further after the first viewing—but so far, each time I’ve returned to one of Lynch’s films, I’ve discovered something new, something deeper that was only hinted at in earlier screenings.

This is, obviously, just my experience of Lynch, and I gather that you have had a somewhat different one. So, in an attempt to steer us into the substance of Mulholland Drive itself, what did you make of the film on first viewing and (how) have those feelings changed now? You called its plot “inexplicable” earlier, which I don’t think is really true—the narrative is one of the things about the film that started to pop into place for me the second time around—but did its story’s outlines sharpen for you on repeat screenings? What I’m asking is, basically, since we agree that watching a Lynch film is an experience, what is your experience like?

JB: In my initial encounter, seeing the movie upon its release, my brain cramped somewhere during the Club Silencio sequence and never recovered. Even knowing to not expect anything linear from Lynch, I felt convinced that I must have missed something. To that point, the film had indeed been an experience, but a somewhat maddening one in many respects. For example, Naomi Watts’ performance is marvelous, but it takes more than an hour to realize it. She spends the first half of the film acting like someone who can’t act. It isn’t until the audition scene, when her character begins to act, that we realize that, oh, fuck, this has all been a ruse. It’s a juicy ruse, and on my second viewing I adored it, but having not seen Watts previously, I spent the first half of my initial trip to Mulholland Drive genuinely annoyed at her flat, aw-shucks line readings. The joke was on me in the end, but in the beginning the intentionally robotic performance by Watts was a distraction. (Aside: Watts is hardly the only one in this picture whose acting is mechanical, and I’m not convinced that all of the other cases are by design.)

Likewise, I find many of Lynch’s why-the-fuck-not elements to be distractions. Mr. Roque, for example. Perhaps you’ve seen the film enough times to decode his meaning. Or maybe there’s no meaning at all. But for the brief time Mr. Roque is on screen, Lynch pays the kind of attention to Mr. Roque’s oddness that suggests it’s worth paying attention to. And maybe it isn’t. Maybe it’s just there. I don’t need everything to have an answer, but I have a hard time investing myself to look deeper if I’m convinced that as much as half the time I’m going to wind up in a dead end. It’s not that I don’t respect Lynch’s unconventionality, because I do. But a while back you hit the nail on the head when you said Lynch is a “modular” filmmaker. Indeed, that’s how Mulholland Drive plays for me—like a series of vignettes. Your comparison to Kiss Me Deadly is sound. Your argument that this all makes sense in the end holds water (at least I think it does). And yet to pull this off, Lynch plays the lazy storyteller’s favorite “Get out of jail free” card: It’s all just a dream (or hallucination).

Thus, upon multiple viewings, I see the Club Silencio sequence as both the moment “when the magician reveals his secrets,” to quote you, and the moment when the storyteller resorts to a whopper of a deus ex machina that rescues him from the corner he wrote himself into. I had no idea that Mulholland Drive was a TV pitch tweaked into a film, but it doesn’t surprise me to learn that. Frankly, this doesn’t strike me as the work of an artist with a grand vision. It strikes me as the work of a guy with many ideas that got thrown together. Maybe that’s genius. Maybe it’s jazz. Or maybe Lynch doesn’t know what to make of the larger whole any more than we do. Maybe the episode-by-episode intrigue of Mulholland Drive obscures an unfortunate truth: that it’s as empty at the core as that blue box.

With that latter possibility in mind, my most recent viewing of Mulholland Drive was much more enthralling—much more of an experience—because I expected as much as half the film to be plodding, stiffly acted and ultimately insignificant. Sure enough, it often was. But when I was engaged, wow! It was visceral. And it might surprise you to read this, but the most powerful part of the film for me begins with Club Silencio and carries on through to the end. I’m still not convinced that Lynch has any better idea of “what really happened” than we do, and I find curiosities like the Lilliputian senior citizens crawling under the apartment door to be mood breakers, rather than ambiance enhancers, but I can’t argue with the idea that I’m experiencing the film at that point, rather than just watching it. And that’s special.

Mulholland Drive

EH: That strained, mechanical quality you point out in the performances of Watts and many of the other actors (certainly Laura Elena Harring, Robert Forster as one of the two detectives at the beginning, Ann Miller as the willfully eccentric Coco, etc.) is something that Lynch often seems to be striving for, for better or worse. If anything, it’s even more pronounced in Lost Highway, in which Patricia Arquette and Bill Pullman are practically narcotized in their line readings. You could easily dismiss it as just one of Lynch’s weird tics, but it’s clearly intentional, clearly meant to reflect a certain dreamlike quality to his films—in this case, because the film is literally a dream, but also in films like Blue Velvet where there are no overt dream cues. Even a lot of Twin Peaks was like that. This is one reason why I don’t think “it’s all a dream” is as much of a cop-out here as you seem to think: Lynch has always explored these kinds of dream worlds, even when the events in his films ostensibly “really happened” to their characters.

It’s such a consistent trope of Lynch’s aesthetic, his way of forcibly separating his vision from reality. He wants it to be apparent, even in the way that ordinary people are saying ordinary things, that what we’re watching is artificial, constructed, fabricated, not real. And then, once we’re assured that it’s just pretend, just a fantasy, he hits us with shocking blasts of reality, like Watts’ breathless audition, or the violent sequences in Blue Velvet, or the sight of Laura Palmer’s blue-lipped corpse at the beginning of Twin Peaks. I can understand being put off by the typically Lynchian performances, but I also think that Lynch wants you to feel this way, wants you to be so destabilized that the intrusion of the real will be that much more unexpected and unsettling.

On the other hand, not every little thing Lynch does is imbued with conscious meaning. He is in many ways a very intuitive, visceral filmmaker, and a lot of his best work can’t be explained. One of the dangers of the famous Salon article analyzing the film’s plot is for people to conclude that, OK, now we understand what’s going on in the film, that’s it, it was all a dream. That seems, to me, far too glib in the face of the complexity this film has to offer. While the Salon article is compelling, and coheres with my own impressions of what’s going on in the film on a narrative level, it unfortunately creates the impression that, beneath a tricky structure that needs to be decoded, Mulholland Drive is just a narrative film like any other. I don’t think that’s true. Mulholland Drive isn’t Memento or Pulp Fiction, where time-jumping narrative gimmicks are deployed to obscure what would essentially be a rather traditional story if it were told linearly. This film can’t be told linearly, it’s not a puzzle to be solved, its knots can’t be completely unwound, even if on some level we can say it’s about a scorned, struggling, vengeful actress dreaming that she’s an innocent, talented actress just discovering love for the first time.

I think it’s a mistake to take any of this too literally, and some of the film’s elements are certainly just Lynch’s baroque flourishes: like Mr. Roque and the espresso-spitting gangster (brilliantly played by composer Angelo Badalamenti), both of whom are mostly there to suggest the grand conspiracy that Diane/Betty imagines is preventing her career from flourishing as it should. Did these figures need to be so strange and quirky to fulfill this narrative or symbolic function? Of course not, so maybe you’re right to call them Lynch’s “why-the-fuck-not” moments, but that’s just the way the Lynchian world works: people are always bigger than life, and more often than not derived from Hollywood “types” rather than realistic people. To answer your implicit question above, the “oddness” of many of Lynch’s images and characters are worth paying attention to, not necessarily for any deeper meaning or narrative function, but for their own sake, as outgrowths of Lynch’s unique aesthetic, his warped interpretation of Hollywood generic norms.

Mulholland Drive

JB: See, I don’t disagree with that. But even if one approaches Lynch expecting surreality, the blue key that unlocks Mulholland Drive doesn’t come along until late in a movie that’s just shy of two-and-a-half hours. I think it’s asking a lot of an audience to hang on so long when there’s no guarantee of eventual satisfaction. Remember: Lynchian films might be an experience, but they aren’t always pleasant—and I’m not just referring to his penchant for the macabre. I mean, Billy Ray Cyrus is in the film, for crying out loud, and his acting is no more or less stiff than most of the other actors. Honestly, I don’t even know what to think about that, but I know I don’t find it engaging. Meanwhile, I don’t buy the argument made by many (not necessarily you) that Lynch ultimately “doesn’t care.” Bullshit. Of course he cares. One can’t label the guy an abstract genius who is calculatingly daring and then turn around and say he doesn’t give a shit. But I’ve heard it done before.

Often, discussing Lynch reminds me of listening to a debate among philosophy and English majors high on innumerable drugs (or just pot), who prattle on about this author or that director, who go through their Beatnik phase, who have the whole world figured out. Some never evolve beyond that, but quite a few of them grow up and, only a few years later, look back on themselves and determine that they were full of shit. Usually this is attributed to the arrogance of youth, and that’s part of it, but there’s also this: Try hard enough, and you can project almost any meaning onto almost any thing. I would never imply that Lynch is careless or absent-minded, but then again: The swamp-thing that lives behind the diner … what the fuck? Sure, we can assign it meaning. We can explain it away. We can say that it’s a typically nightmarish vision, perfect for the plot. But, as I previously suggested, that kind of logic opens the door for anything under the sun. The “cop-out” element applies to the dream aspect of Mulholland Drive because under these non-restrictions, Lynch can’t make a wrong move. Everything is permissible, because if it doesn’t make sense it wasn’t supposed to. How convenient.

Having said that, let’s drift into the meta again for a moment by leaving Lynch aside. I’d like to propose that, connotatively speaking, there’s a difference between “suggestion” and “symbolism” in art, and it has to do with our perception of the artist’s intent. For example: At the end of The Graduate, the shot of Benjamin, his arms outstretched, banging on the church window, at least suggests Christ on the cross. That’s as far as I’d go. I see Benjamin, I see his crucifixion pose, and I make this comparison. But if I instead say that Benjamin symbolizes Christ, I’m implying that the director and actor are making a direct and purposeful allusion—that there is conscious intent to evoke Christ. If so, that might change my perception of the scene.

Now, I’m a firm believer that intent doesn’t trump realization when it comes to art. I don’t care what a filmmaker intended to do, I care what he did. So, don’t answer the riddle of the mysterious Anton Chigurh/Sheriff Bell non-confrontation at the end of No Country for Old Men by telling me what was written in the book or the screenplay, or by telling me about footage that wasn’t included in the final cut. None of that applies. The final cut is the final cut, and that’s the story, and that’s the film, for better or worse. Intent, in that context, is irrelevant.

However, as The Graduate scene perhaps reveals, perceived intent often does—should?—have an impact on our reaction to the material. And that leads me here: Ed, hypothetically speaking, what if Lynch himself doesn’t know why there’s a swamp-thing behind the diner? What if it symbolizes nothing? What if it serves no larger purpose? What if Lynch just thought it was a neat idea in and of itself, and so he threw it in there with all the care of a guy picking out his socks. If that were true, if Lynch were an accidental genius as often as a meticulous one, if in fact his films don’t make sense even to him and are just intentionally inscrutable artworks designed to have us project our own unique meanings onto them, would that lessen your appreciation of him as a filmmaker? Would it enhance your appreciation? Hypothetically speaking.

Mulholland Drive

EH: That’s not entirely hypothetical, actually. Lynch often is an accidental genius—or at least an intuitive genius, which isn’t quite the same thing but is close enough. If you asked him to explain his films or specific things in his films, you might get a gnomic “I don’t know” or “Figure it out for yourself.” If he were the kind of guy who’s more inclined to speak openly about his own art (like Lynch worshipper Richard Kelly, who does his work a grave injustice by trying to explain it), you’d probably get a really tortured pseudo-mystical rap that wouldn’t be nearly as satisfying or enthralling as the films themselves. Too-literal explanation is the enemy of art like Lynch’s. To answer your question, I don’t think it matters if Lynch is always conscious of the effects of his films; it’s enough that they’re there. In fact, his films are rich in meanings, themes and images about which Lynch would probably seem pretty inarticulate if he ever tried to speak about them.

But that’s why he works in a visual medium in the first place. Lynch isn’t a writer, or at least not a particularly great one judging by the fragments of writing I’ve seen by him. He’s a painter, and a photographer, and as a filmmaker he’s much closer to a crafter of images and moments than a proper storyteller. Lynch certainly “cares”—he wants to make deeply personal artworks and have people watch them—but he is not inclined towards analytical or explanatory thinking. His films leave a lot of loose ends as a result, things that can’t be rationally worked out the way we expect everything in a good narrative film to be. And his films are also as a result multi-layered and resonant in ways that are not necessarily obvious on first glance, and that might not even be conscious for the filmmaker.

Rather than diminishing these films, however, if anything it enriches them, because Lynch’s subconscious is apparently a deeply fascinating place, and a lot of really incredible things bubble up from the primal parts of his mind. Take, as an example, the story of the director of Mulholland Drive’s film-within-the-film, Adam (Justin Theroux). During the first two-thirds of the film, he has his movie taken away from him, his ex-wife cheats on him with the pool guy, he gets beaten up, covered in pink paint and is hunted by all sorts of shady characters. After the film descends into the blue box and out again, it becomes clear that, on the level of the film’s narrative, all of this is “just” an elaborate revenge fantasy, Diane’s projection of violence and humiliation onto the man who, in “real life,” stole Camilla from her. But what’s striking is that Lynch makes Adam a very sympathetic character. We don’t hate him the way Diane does: we feel for what he’s going through. So the director’s story takes on shadings that are not only different from its narrative meanings, but diametrically opposed to the content of the narrative. Adam, the villain of Diane’s story, becomes instead a secondary protagonist, a stand-in for the audience and, as a filmmaker character, for Lynch himself, working out anxieties about the loss of control, artistic integrity and compromise, and the degree to which our choices and attitudes are really able to affect our lives.

Is Lynch aware that all this is going on with this character? I have no idea, really. But does it matter? It’s all there in the film, working on levels both obvious and somewhat hidden, creating this dense framework of themes and ideas circling around someone who is, after all, a comparatively minor character despite Theroux’s puzzling top billing in the cast. Some of the same things are going on, in this film and its companion piece Lost Highway, with the way Lynch uses the pedigree of the “double film” to inform the psychological subtexts of his own work: the references to Persona and Vertigo that weave through both films, along with the liberal incorporation of recontextualized elements from Kiss Me Deadly. Some of this is clearly intentional (there’s no way that shot of the two women’s overlapping faces in Mulholland Drive isn’t meant to evoke Persona, or that Rita’s transformation via a blonde wig isn’t an overt nod to Vertigo) and some of it is maybe more intuitive. But just because Lynch probably couldn’t write you an essay about how or why he’s referring to these predecessors, doesn’t mean that what’s actually onscreen isn’t interesting and complicated.

Mulholland Drive

JB: I agree. Conversely though, because it’s complicated doesn’t mean it’s interesting or profound, and I think sometimes people are afraid to demand more of surreal art because by its very nature it’s so hard to assess. (How can we tell if art has cleared the bar when we can’t make out the bar in the first place?) Personally, I enjoy being challenged by filmmakers. I don’t want to be talked down to. But I also feel that if a filmmaker creates a work so elusive that it might take two viewings (or more) to make any sense of it (even emotionally), it’s the filmmaker’s responsibility to compel me to keep watching … at least once. Vertigo has that. Kiss Me Deadly has that. The latter is a talky picture that’s full of references to people we don’t know or can’t remember, and yet it’s propulsive. Its ending is arguably more ambiguous than that of Mulholland Drive, and yet the conclusion is rewarding because the journey is so exhilarating (“Calling Mr. MacGuffin…”). My initial experience with Mulholland Drive was different in that for the first half of the film I wasn’t experiencing it so much as slogging through it. Lynch wasn’t compelling me to move forward, I was compelling myself—out of habit and duty. I felt no need to see what was at the far end of the rabbit hole. I just figured that, well, I’m here, so I might as well find out. To put it bluntly, I was bored.

The shift occurred somewhere around the audition sequence, when I discovered that, hold on, this blonde can do more than match her sweater to her lipstick. My interest had been tickled before, but that’s the first moment that held me rapt, that made me sit forward in my seat. Still, as I mentioned earlier, when the Club Silencio sequence arrived, my fragile belief that I might take away something from the film was smashed—perhaps because the magician (Lynch) explained his trick before I even understood his illusion. This is probably my fault. Maybe I was trying too hard to get my bearings, or I wasn’t trying hard enough. I’m still not sure. Regardless, once off the rails, I never made forward progress again, which is a shame because the final 30 minutes or so of the film are gripping and heartbreaking if one can get to them with their wits intact. I still don’t pretend to “get” Mulholland Drive in a literal sense—and, per your previous argument, I’m happy to avoid trying—but emotionally it resonates. Now that I’ve seen it again, that is. After watching the film recently, I have developed a genuine appreciation. I find its best moments haunting. But I can’t shake the knowledge that my second viewing came about only out of a sense of duty, not because Lynch’s film created an itch that needed to be scratched. And I find that damning.

Mulholland Drive

EH: Obviously, I’ve always had a different reaction to this film, even the first time around. But rather than argue our subjective responses to Mulholland Drive any further, I want to dive a little deeper into some of the intertextual elements in Lynch’s films. You mentioned the ending of Kiss Me Deadly. That’s a good example of how Lynch’s references to other films are not just more evidence of his taste for random weirdness, but purposeful distortions of the themes and ideas of earlier films, reflecting the ways in which Lynch’s own concerns branch off from his reference points. In this respect, Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway are closely related in Lynch’s oeuvre, with both films dealing with identity, and especially with characters whose identity and mental space are defined to some extent by Hollywood pop culture. There are also the obvious similarities in the pervasive doubling: Naomi Watts and Laura Elena Harring each playing women with two distinct identities, just like Patricia Arquette does in Lost Highway, while the earlier film also has the twist of Bill Pullman and Balthazar Getty playing, Buñuel-style, more or less the same guy. Mulholland Drive has a few references to Kiss Me Deadly (Mike and Velda’s clenched-teeth embrace re-envisioned in Betty’s audition, and the mysterious blue box), but it’s in Lost Highway that Lynch is most directly cannibalizing Aldrich’s apocalyptic noir: the speed-blurred yellow line of the opening credits, the detectives trailing the hero everywhere, the garage with its overly enthusiastic proprietor (a wheelchair-bound Richard Pryor in Lynch’s version), Mr. Eddy’s hard-boiled dialogue, the pool party. And, most importantly, that recurring image of the exploding house, which can’t help but evoke Mike Hammer’s nuclear comeuppance.

What’s interesting to me about this reference point is the way Lynch tweaks it by running the exploding house footage backwards, so that several times the house reassembles itself from its wreckage, after which the normal forward flow of the film continues. It creates the impression that the cabin is perpetually on the verge of exploding, letting the atmosphere of imminent apocalypse from Kiss Me Deadly’s ending linger over the entirety of Lost Highway. This is consistent with the loop that Lynch creates at the end of his own film, in which the events cycle around to actually cause the beginning of the film: “The End is the Beginning is the End” is not the Smashing Pumpkins song on this film’s soundtrack, but it really should be. Lynch seems to be toying with the ambiguous finality of Kiss Me Deadly’s denouement, which leaves everything pretty much unresolved and yet also suggests that everything (as in, the world) is ending. Lynch takes this one step further, trapping his characters in an endless ouroboric loop that is, in the end, the result of their own actions.

If Lost Highway’s key text is Kiss Me Deadly, Lynch’s Ur-reference for Mulholland Drive is definitely Vertigo, but a twisted, dreamlike variation on Hitchcock’s bizarre masterpiece (but then, I’ve always thought that the second half of Vertigo possibly plays out only in Scotty’s damaged mind as well; is it just me?). The “plot” of Lost Highway, if you think about it a certain way, also maps fairly well onto Vertigo: a man trying to recreate the woman whose death he caused, only to discover that she’s not really dead and may have played him for a fool. Mulholland Drive tangles this story up in further layers by making the hero another woman, Naomi Watts’ Diane rather than Jimmy Stewart’s Scotty. The woman she’s trying to remake is both her lesbian lover Camilla (reborn as beautiful amnesiac Rita, as blank a slate as Kim Novak in Vertigo) and herself, re-imagined as the chipper, promising Betty. Thus, while the scenes immediately preceding the Club Silencio sequence resemble Vertigo in some ways, by cutting Rita’s hair and placing a blonde wig on her, Betty is not really remaking her lover in the image of a dead woman but creating another version of herself. The blonde wig is strikingly similar to Watts’ own hair, and when the women pose in the mirror together the large differences between the two actresses are blurred somewhat. Lynch is blending Vertigo with elements of Persona or That Obscure Object of Desire: two women becoming one. Soon enough, Betty disappears altogether, as if she had finally fused into Rita. Lynch’s camera circles away from her and once she’s offscreen, she’s gone for good, leaving behind only her newly blonde doppelganger.

By playing with Vertigo’s plot in this way, Lynch transforms it from a typical Hollywood narrative in which the man is active and the woman is the passive object of his obsession, into a complex structure wholly constructed by a female imagination. One of the film’s most emotional undercurrents, to me, is the way it turns out to be about a female actress struggling against the Hollywood machine, a subtext that became the actual surface text of Lynch’s next film, Inland Empire. Diane’s acts of imagination don’t ultimately do her much good, but they’re nevertheless moving attempts to find a role for herself, to make herself into someone different.

Mulholland Drive

JB: Believe it or not, I don’t find Mulholland Drive to be any more “twisted” than Vertigo—once all the pieces have fallen into place, of course. What Lynch has done—and this is the brilliance of the film for me—is riff on Hitchcock’s classic while altering our perspective. Vertigo is told in the third-person, but it has two audience surrogates. The first is Scotty, dutifully on the job, trying to solve the riddle of Madeleine’s odd behavior. After Madeleine’s death, however, Judy becomes the surrogate. Why? Because the audience knows long before Scotty that Judy and Madeleine are the same person (Judy’s voiceover reveals as much). Thus, even though Judy is passive, and even though Scotty maintains the demeanor of an investigator (that’s his nature), the audience aligns with Judy in that Scotty becomes the subject of curiosity rather than the examiner of it.

This shift is easy to miss for several reasons, the simplest of which is that most films select their audience surrogates from the outset and never alter them. More significantly, Hitchcock is known for his mysteries, and mysteries are almost always experienced through the eyes of the person trying to solve them. Initially, Scotty is the solver, but not after Madeleine’s death. While Scotty’s constant prodding of Judy can be misinterpreted (or misremembered) as the calculated tactics of an investigator, especially in the shadow of Rope, Scotty isn’t “on the case.” (If he were, he’d be the most clueless detective this side of Inspector Clouseau.) His manipulations of Judy are motivated by something else entirely, something dark within him.

Thus another similarity between Vertigo and Mulholland Drive is that their primary mysteries are redefined once we have the whole picture. Vertigo begins as a mystery about Madeleine before becoming a mystery about Scotty. “How come he can’t see that Judy is obviously Madeleine?” The answer, of course, is that he doesn’t want to. He’s willingly, hopefully and erotically engaging in hallucination to cope with the pain of heartbreak. Which brings us back to Mulholland Drive When Lynch’s film begins, it appears to be a third-person tale. Instead, what we’re seeing is the first-person hallucination of Watts’ “actual” character. Effectively, the first half of Mulholland Drive tells us how the second half of Vertigo would look if seen through Scotty’s eyes. It’s mesmerizing, and daring.

EH: I love your observations about the first half of Mulholland Drive mirroring the second half of Vertigo, but I’m not so sure about Judy being an audience surrogate. She’s just such a blank character, perfectly malleable, able to be transformed into a completely different person on command. This is one of the reasons that I’m tempted to think that the second half of Vertigo is as much of a fantasy as Diane’s hallucinatory Betty/Rita romance. I mean, one moment Scotty is having this baroque nightmare with his disconnected head spinning around, and the next he’s out of the asylum, standing outside of Madeleine’s old building. We never see him leave the asylum, and the rest of the film represents his fantasy of finding Madeleine again, attempting to recreate this magical could-be romance with her, only to find it all falling apart on him, much as Diane’s fantasy begins to crumble as her dream characters begin stumbling closer to the truth. Even if the second half of Vertigo is meant to be taken more objectively, Judy is still a character who is acted upon rather than acting (up until her very final moment, a way out she shares with Diane).

Lynch riffs on Vertigo, as you say, by making Betty and Rita both audience surrogates, both active and sympathetic characters, even assuming Scotty’s detective role. When Betty remakes Rita, she’s not acting on a passive object but helping her friend; it’s an emotional moment that draws the two closer, both physically (they go to bed together soon after) and metaphysically (they’re beginning to merge into one person). In the film’s second half, all of the good will we’ve developed for these surrogates is abruptly tweaked as the characters are reconfigured. This is especially jarring because there are so many appealing surrogates who have suddenly been warped into unrecognizable forms. In fact, Lynch is able to make nearly anyone a compelling audience surrogate. In this film, Adam also fulfills the role, and even the frightened guy in the diner during his one brief scene.

One of the other interesting things about the first half of Mulholland Drive is that Betty and Rita are not just wandering through a mystery story that Diane’s subconscious has concocted to bring the two together: they’re living a Hollywood movie, or more properly an amalgam of all different kinds of Hollywood movies. This goes back to your earlier point about some scenes being simply extraneous weirdness. A lot of the film’s extra little bits seem like detritus left over from all sorts of different movies. So the scene at the diner where the guy with the Fuller brush eyebrows is scared to death by a monster/homeless man behind the dumpster: that feels like it’s been chopped out of horror movie and spliced in here whole. The scene with the mobsters is a great Don Corleone pastiche. The opening jitterbug contest recalls 50s teenage rock n’ roll movies like The Girl Can’t Help It. The scene with the hitman who piles up way more dead bodies than he intended is a really funny Tarantino parody. Someone less sympathetic to the film could easily dismiss this stuff as plot threads that would’ve been developed further in the TV series that Mulholland Drive never became. I can’t do that, because, for one thing, all of it really works within the genre it’s meant to work in: the monster at the diner is genuinely creepy and frightening, the Tarantino scene is hilarious and could probably fit comfortably into any of his films. And by the same token, this genre flotsam is believable as a representation of the mental landscape of a young actress hopeful raised on a few decades of exposure to Hollywood product. This could be anyone’s mind: I can’t count the number of times I’ve had dreams that clearly incorporate big chunks of genre-style plotting and imagery. This meta-commentary on Hollywood dream-making is one of many ways in which Lynch pushes the material of Mulholland Drive beyond its humble TV origins, beyond the relatively simple narrative at its core, into a dazzling celebration of dreams, fantasies, creativity and the possibility of finding genuine sentiment and depth within kitschy artificial surfaces.

Mulholland Drive

JB: Mulholland Drive is dreamlike in its elusiveness, too. I don’t just mean its lack of literal truth. I mean that the best parts go by too quickly. (I don’t know if this is unique, but when I encounter something particularly interesting in my dreams I think, “Wow, this is cool! Slow down! Remember this! Remember this!”) Films, thank goodness, give us the opportunity to go back and re-experience those fleeting fascinations (not that the chapter-free DVD of Mulholland Drive makes it easy). Anyway, it’s interesting that Lynch’s films so often proceed at such a tedious methodical pace, stopping to smell the roses in instances when there are no roses to be smelled, only to then blitz through some of its most compelling material as if to emulate a game show’s lightning round. I understand that the power of Mulholland Drive’s final act is the direct result of all that comes before it—both parts work in harmony. Nevertheless, the stuff of the latter chapters is the film I want to watch repeatedly. To cite one example, Watts’ expression of bitterness and sadness at the dinner party is unforgettable, and worth revisiting. I just wish that it didn’t take so much effort—and for me it’s real effort—to get there.

This discussion has been fascinating for me because I expected that loving Lynch required an angle of approach with which I am unfamiliar. Instead, most of the things you have articulated in describing your fondness of Mulholland Drive are things I at least recognize and in many cases share an enthusiasm for—if not the same level of enthusiasm as you. Clearly I’m conflicted about Lynch, and Mulholland Drive specifically. Focusing on the film: My enjoyment watching it increases upon each viewing, but my dissatisfaction has by no means disappeared. What’s changed is that I have accepted the film’s shortcomings and infuriations so that they are no longer distractions. Like the homeowner next door to the person with the unkempt lawn and detritus covering the driveway, I have begrudgingly accepted the imperfections of this neighborhood, because I have no other choice.

I will always be intrigued and befuddled by the enigma that is Lynch: the way the inexplicable and/or clumsy aspects of his films are revered rather than criticized; the way his abstract style is by its very nature almost impervious to criticism; the way his fans, almost out of necessity, give Lynch more leeway than they would likely grant to any other filmmaker. But I’m glad Lynch is around, taking his boot and kicking through the white picket fence of traditional cinematic storytelling to blaze new trails. Earlier I wrote about the connotative (if not actual) difference between “suggestion” and “symbolism,” and so it’s fitting that any assessment of Lynch comes down to the words we choose. Is Mulholland Drive “modular” or is it “fragmented”? Is it “deliberate” or is it “plodding”? Is it “unconventional” or is it “sloppy”? Is it “surreal” or is it “inscrutable”? Perhaps it’s all these things. All at once. Certainly that dichotomy is what I love about the film, and what I loathe about it.

EH: You’re right that to some extent the words we choose to describe Lynch’s films make a big difference in how we perceive them, and that the same attributes of his work can be described in contradictory and (seemingly) mutually exclusive ways. This might be the case because the films are so definitively non-verbal: Lynch offers few words to tell us how to feel or what to think. He communicates through his images, while much of his dialogue is purposefully mundane and delivered with a stilted quality that keeps us from investing too much in what’s being said. He forces us to find the words ourselves, and as this discussion has suggested, there are a lot of different ways to speak about these films, many of which “feel” right even if they outright contradict other things that also feel right.

This non-verbal quality is a big part of what makes Lynch’s films so disturbing and slippery to grasp. We’re used to having words to latch onto, even in films by the most visually oriented directors. We’re used to a film’s dialogue advancing its plot, communicating its meaning and developing its themes, but Lynch does all of these things almost entirely visually and non-verbally. It’s unsettling and unusual. This is what David Foster Wallace is getting at in the quote I cited at the beginning of this conversation:

“Most of Lynch’s best films don’t really have much of a point, and in lots of ways they seem to resist the film-interpretative process…The absence of a point or recognizable agenda in Lynch’s films, though, strips [your] subliminal defenses and lets Lynch get inside your head in a way movies normally don’t. This is why his best films’ effects are often so emotional and nightmarish. (We’re defenseless in our dreams too.)”

Maybe I’m just giving Lynch too much leeway, as you say, but for me the emotional riches of his films are almost always worth the mental effort and commitment it takes to get the most out of them, to reach that open, defenseless state that seems to be necessary to the Lynchian experience. For me, the experience is ultimately, not only worthwhile, but one of the richest and strangest visions in the cinema, and the journey that one takes through these films indubitably comprises a big part of that experience. If Mulholland Drive is sometimes confounding and, yes, inscrutable on initial exposure, it expands and unpeels its multiple layers in fascinating ways over the course of subsequent viewings. What Lynch is offering us is something very much like what your own comments suggest: a dream we can revisit at our leisure, perhaps hoping to someday understand it but mostly just enjoying the opportunity to explore subconscious dream worlds with a clarity and depth that we are seldom able to bring to bear on such submerged mental regions.

Mulholland Drive

Addendum:

EH: Here’s a brief postscript, an aside that came up while Jason and I were conducting this conversation, and that we agreed was too fitting to exclude. During the course of this discussion, I’ve been reading the newest book by the cartoonist Anders Nilsen, called Monologues for Calculating the Density of Black Holes. It’s basically a collection of funny philosophical dialogues between crudely drawn characters who talk about God and robots and creativity and stuff: highly recommended, incidentally, though not quite as highly as Nilsen’s minimalist (and somewhat Lynchian) masterpiece Dogs and Water. Anyway, at one point, immediately after sending off a response to Jason, I continued reading where I’d left off, two-thirds of the way through. I was surprised to find that the characters in the book were more or less continuing our discussion about coherence, abstraction and the thin line between “surreal” and “nonsensical,” complete with references to Lynch (they seem to be talking about Inland Empire). Here’s a chunk of the dialogue between two of the characters, one of whom is a meta-representation of the author while the other is the author’s assistant.

“I know this whole enterprise seems extremely haphazard and without coherence… I just want to reassure the readers out there that at the end all of it will actually make sense. This isn’t meant to be an esoteric IQ test, or an artsy endurance contest. Like that last David Lynch movie…”
“I liked that movie.”
“What? No you didn’t. You complained about it all the way home.”
“That doesn’t mean I didn’t like it…”
“Well, this book, it’ll all be worth it at the end. That’s all I wanted to say.”
“Actually, I don’t mean to contradict you in front of the customers, but I’m not sure that’s really true. I think this might just be a big mess, actually.”

And my favorite bit, a little later:

“I don’t see what people have against artsy endurance contests, anyway.”

Jason Bellamy ruminates on cinema at The Cooler.

Ed Howard chronicles his film viewing at Only the Cinema.

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American Demons: Martin Bell’s Streetwise and Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell

Bell proves uncannily adept at capturing moments that seem to encapsulate a subject’s entire emotional temperature.

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Streetwise
Photo: Janus Films

Decades after its original release, Martin Bell’s Streetwise remains a boldly empathetic work of vérité portraiture. Throughout the 1984 documentary, Bell, photographer Mary Ellen Mark, and journalist Cheryl McCall follow a motley group of kids on the streets of Seattle as they panhandle, dig food out of dumpsters, and prostitute themselves to much older men. These scenes are accompanied by voiceovers from the young subjects, who describe their actions with a heartbreaking casualness that communicates two almost contradictory meanings: that they’re seasoned hustlers, having bypassed childhood for an everyday form of hell, and that they’re desperate to be seen precisely as said hustlers. To show emotion is to be vulnerable, and these subjects can’t afford to be seen as weak, yet the filmmakers capture more here than the street children may have suspected. Streetwise is charged by a deep, subterranean yearning to be loved, or even merely felt.

A plot hasn’t been imposed on Streetwise, as the audience is allowed to feel the numbing monotony of life on the fringes. People swing in and out of prison, crash in and out of secret hovels, most notably an abandoned hotel, and practice their grifts, while struggling with overlapping tides of addiction and depression. We also learn, startlingly, that not all these children are homeless. Streetwise’s most famous subject, Erin Blackwell, a.k.a. “Tiny,” lives with her mother, a waitress and alcoholic who rationalizes her daughter’s prostitution as a phase and who seems to be impressed with Erin’s ability to make a few hundred dollars on a good day. It’s little wonder that Erin captured and continued to command the filmmakers’ attention for decades after filming Streetwise ended. She has a squinty yet expressive glare that suggests both a deep reservoir of pain as well as intense fierceness.

Bell, Mark, and McCall take Erin and her cohorts, most vividly a skinny boy with potential tonsillitis named DeWayne Pomeroy, at face value. Streetwise is pointedly devoid of the sermonizing that might allow audiences to comfortably distance themselves from these people, regarding them simply as elements of a civics lesson. The film forces us to confront the obviousness of these children’s circumstances, as people walk by them just as we all walk by the homeless on a daily basis. This sense of culpability informs Streetwise with an uncomfortable texture that’s familiar to documentaries concerned with poor or mentally and emotionally challenged people, so you may wonder how the filmmakers shot what we’re seeing without stepping in and helping these people. Particularly disturbing is when Erin, 13 years old at the start of filming, is seen getting into a car with an old man who’s obviously a john.

If Streetwise was just a portrait of damnation and delusion, it would be an important document. But the film is also haunting for Bell, Mark, and McCall’s attention to the transcendence than can be felt even in such extreme circumstances. After Erin has gotten into trouble, DeWayne tells her of how he will rescue her, and his attempt at gallantry is poignant as well as devastating. When DeWayne visits his father in prison, the old man lectures the boy about keeping his smoking down and laying off the hard drugs, commanding DeWayne to roll up his shirt sleeves for a track-mark inspection. As brutally sad as this confrontation is, one feels this father’s love and wonders if DeWayne, clearly a sensitive and lonely boy, can feel it too. Retrospectively, it hardly matters: DeWayne hung himself not long after this visit.

Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell, a 2016 sequel to Streetwise that’s been in the works for thirtysomething years, offers a variety of unmooring contrasts from its predecessor. Erin is no longer the slim spitfire of Streetwise, but an overweight fortysomething mother of 10 who understandably appears to always be on the verge of exhaustion, and who takes methadone in an attempt to keep her drug addictions at bay while wrangling with her children’s own skirmishes with the law. Looking at Erin now, one sees the scars and weariness left by a hard life, part of which was documented by Streetwise, and one can implicitly feel Erin’s need for atonement. Though Erin’s gotten off the streets, living in a large home with her partner, Will, and several of her children, the streets have never left her.

Formally, Tiny is much different from Streetwise. The 1984 film abounds in seamy noises and textures, with roving camerawork that seems to be uncovering a new lurid discovery every few seconds; it feels palpably dangerous, and probably inspired films such as Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho and Larry’s Clark’s Kids. Set predominantly in Erin’s home, Tiny is slower and more polished, reflecting the (comparative) stability that Erin has achieved since appearing in Streetwise. Tiny also has a fancier structure than Streetwise, with a framing device in which Erin watches footage of herself over the years, including unused outtakes from the first film, with Mary Ellen Mark. An autumnal tone seeps into the new film, which offers a kaleidoscopic portrait of the unending legacies of crime and addiction.

As in Streetwise, Bell proves uncannily adept at capturing moments that seem to encapsulate a subject’s entire emotional temperature. There are frequent shots in Tiny of Erin sleeping with a little dog close to her face, which suggest rare moments of repose for a woman who’s used to running her chaotic family like a hostage negotiator. Erin frequently calls the cops on her own children, especially the headstrong teenager Rayshon, which Bell unforgettably rhymes with footage form Streetwise of a younger Erin visiting two of her children in foster care. One of the foster care children, Keanna, is now a mother herself, and resents Erin for abandoning her and for continuing to struggle with drug use.

Which is to say that Tiny is as charged with turmoil as Streetwise, and Bell proves equally capable here of rendering full relationships with only a few images or seconds of running time. As in Streetwise, our sympathies are rarely overtly directed, as Tiny is somehow on every character’s contradictory wavelength at once, illustrating how difficult understanding can be to achieve, most notably in the face of disaster. Though it runs a trim 87 minutes, Tiny offers an epic and piercing portrait of a large biracial family that’s plagued by essentially every demon known to American society. Erin escaped the streets only to fashion a home that’s rife with the very issues that drove her away from her own mother. Like most people, regardless of social stature, Erin is stuck in the temporal loop of her own inherent nature.

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Review: Radu Jude’s I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians

Jude’s film is a bitterly comic essay on nationalist mythologies and historical amnesia.

3.5

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I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians
Photo: Big World Pictures

Prime minister of Romania during most of World War II, Ion Antonescu is one of the era’s supreme villains: a virulent anti-Semite, Nazi collaborator, and authoritarian dictator whose troops murdered Jews with such velocity and enthusiasm that even Hitler was shocked by their actions. Upon ordering the forced expulsion—and, if necessary, genocide—of the Jews of Bessarabia and Bukovina, Antonescu proclaimed, “I do not care if we go down in history as Barbarians.” Radu Jude borrows that declaration, so haunting in its cruelty and disarming in its blitheness, for the title of his latest film, a bitterly comic essay on nationalist mythologies and historical amnesia that locates the seeds of Romania’s currently resurgent ethno-nationalism in the nation’s collective failure to truly confront its own past.

For while Antonescu was convicted of war crimes and sentenced to death by firing squad shortly after the war, there have been repeated attempts to rehabilitate his image in Romania since the fall of Nicolae Ceaușescu. Take Sergiu Nicolaescu’s 1994 film The Mirror, a hagiographic treatment of Antonescu’s rule that portrays the leader as a defiant protector of his people. Jude inserts a substantial clip of that film into I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians, having it play on a small TV set positioned in the exact center of the frame as we hear the off-screen voice of Jude’s protagonist, Mariana (Ioana Iacob), providing sardonic, outraged commentary on the film’s distorted presentation of Antonescu as a misunderstood hero. There’s an element of desperation in the scene: While Mariana offers an incontestable rebuttal, no one but her boyfriend (Alex Bogdan) is there to hear it. Meanwhile, The Mirror’s comforting nationalist lies are being beamed into homes all across Romania.

A headstrong theater director attempting to stage a public reenactment of the Odessa Massacre of 1941, in which Romanian troops slaughtered thousands of Ukrainian Jews, Mariana is obsessed with bringing the full weight of historical reality to her fellow countrymen. She obsessively reads histories of the period and drops quotations from philosophers and historical figures into everyday conversation. The film is consumed by lengthy, probing conversations—mostly shot by a statically mounted 16mm camera that pans back and forth to cover the actors’ movements—in which Mariana discusses art, philosophy, history, and politics with her various collaborators and friends.

Her most persistent interlocutor is Movilă (Alexandru Dabija), a local official tasked with overseeing the publicly funded production, who constantly pleads with Mariana to tone down her work’s unvarnished depiction of anti-Semitic violence. Movilă is a relativist, content in the knowledge that all memory is willfully selective, while Mariana truly believes in the power of stark historical truth. Though at times didactic and overloaded with quotations from the likes of Wittgenstein and Arendt, Jude’s dialogue nevertheless manages to feel remarkably naturalistic. That’s thanks in no small part to the powerfully unaffected performances of a cast that finds the subtle humor and neurotic character details embedded in Jude’s dense screenplay. Iacob captures Mariana’s unrelenting passion while also finding moments of vulnerability and self-doubt in the role, including moments of hesitation and anxiety borne of the fact that she’s a petite, cosmopolitan woman attempting to exert control over a large cast of rugged men, many of whom are diametrically opposed to the vision of her project.

Jude’s heavy themes are leavened by a self-effacing sense of modesty. Jude isn’t attempting to make grand pronouncements about the nature of memory and truth. Rather, I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians finds the director constantly interrogating his own perspective, questioning Mariana’s relationship to the wider public. That theme comes to a head in the film’s climactic presentation of the artist’s reenactment. Here, Jude switches from the warm dreaminess of 16mm to the harsh hyper-realism of digital video. The scene has the feel of a simple documentation of a live public event, but it isn’t clear that it’s actually any more “real” than the rest of the film. In particular, whether and to what extent the crowd of onlookers’ reactions are coached remains one of the film’s most intriguing enigmas.

Ultimately, Mariana finds herself perplexed and deflated by the public’s response to her work. One senses this reaction may be autobiographical for Jude, whose film Aferim! attempted to challenge Romanian audiences about the nation’s historical treatment of Roma people. As one of the few directors of the so-called Romanian New Wave whose work explores the country’s unsavory pre-Soviet past, Jude is swimming against the popular tide of revisionism and historical moral blindness. The anti-Semitic violence and hatred laid out in his latest is truly chilling, as is the contemporary tendency to diminish and obscure that dark past. But perhaps most disturbing of all is the idea put forth in the film’s conclusion: that one could present the truth to the public in all its brutality and horror, and it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.

Cast: Ioana Iacob, Alexandru Dabija, Alex Bogdan, Ilinca Manolache, Serban Pavlu, Ion Rizea, Claudia Ieremia Director: Radu Jude Screenwriter: Radu Jude Distributor: Big World Pictures Running Time: 140 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Interview: Lynn Shelton on Honing Her Process for Sword of Trust

The filmmaker discusses how she wants viewers to feel like they’re paratrooping into her characters’ lives.

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Lynn Shelton
Photo: IFC Films

Lynn Shelton has amassed a formidable body of work between her eight features and countless television episodes. Her latest outing, the comic adventure Sword of Trust, represents her most topical work to date. After pawn shop owner Mel (played by Marc Maron) purchases an old sword, he gets plunged into world of conspiracy culture as the relic attracts legions of online prowlers convinced that the weapon represents proof that the Confederacy won the Civil War. The logline might be Shelton’s wildest yet, but the elements that have made her work indelible for over a decade remain intact: realistic conversations, emotional authenticity, and a commitment to multi-dimensional characters.

I chatted with Shelton on Sword of Trust’s opening day, which saw the director, writer, producer, editor, and occasional actress in great spirits. Our conversation covered her pursuit of Maron for this specific project, how she developed her unique script-development process, and why she wants viewers to feel like they’re paratrooping into her characters’ lives.

Last year on Marc Maron’s podcast, you mentioned that you liked exploring relationships between people who wouldn’t normally interact. Sword of Trust continues in that tradition for you. What keeps bringing you back to these dynamics?

Have you heard of this theory of multiple intelligences, like different types of intelligences we have? I can’t remember the names that [Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner] came up with, I think there’s eight. I know I’m not the brightest bulb on all of these scales, but one way that I think I’m pretty high is in emotional intelligence. I like to think I am, anyway. I’ve always been that close observer of human behavior. I also really love humans. I feel like the thing that makes humans human are their flaws. So, on screen, I don’t like to see people who are too smoothed out, all good or all bad. I’m interested in characters who are essentially good people, but they may be total fuck-ups and well-meaning who may sabotage themselves. Individual fucking up often happens in relation to other people. We may have a pre-determined need to connect to other people, but we’re constantly sabotaging ourselves.

Sometimes, like I said on the podcast, I’m much more interested in unlikely combinations of people because it’s not a prewritten script we’re handed. It’s not like, “This is who would be appropriate for you as a friend. This is the way you should act. This is the box we’ve already determined for you.” Any kind of out-of-the-box way of living one’s life or being surprised by a connection you feel to a human being, all those little happy accidents in life are the things I like to explore. To inspire people, not to just go through life in this sort of “this is what someone else had in mind for me, and I should follow that plan”—that feels very depressing to me. It’s more interesting to open your heart and your life up to other experiences.

To explore relationships in that way makes the everyday more interesting and exciting.

Yeah, exactly. It gives you a reason to stick around.

Having been a guest of Marc’s on his podcast twice, do you see any of his interviewer “persona” having an impact on the person you film on screen? Does training himself to listen and be present have any effect on making him a better screen partner?

Absolutely! The first time I directed Marc was on his TV show Maron, and I was so fascinated by his process. He’s raw and a really natural actor. He steps in front of the camera, and he’s looking at his scene partner and really knows how to listen and engage. A lot of that comes from sitting across from people and staring into their eyes. That’s why he’s such a good interviewer and has the top interview podcast, because he has a genuine conversation with people. And that’s all acting really is too. He also has this weird ability to let the camera and crew and other extraneous details just fade away for him, and a lot of people find all that really distracting and difficult to shut out. He doesn’t know where the camera is half the time. He said to me, “The next thing I want to do as an actor is figure out when the camera is on me.” I said, “What?! That camera’s right there!” He’s like, “I don’t see it. I’m not aware of it. I’m just in this scene with the person.” I’m like, “That is a gift, my friend. That is incredible that you’re able to not see the lights and craziness, just be in the scene.” He’s really able to do it. I think that definitely comes from that same skill set he’s drawing on.

Where does the genesis of your films occur? They usually have some kind of strong conceptual selling point or hook, but they’re often like a Trojan horse to get to deep conversations between the characters about something else.

It is, and the genesis of the vast majority of my films is an actor as a muse that I want to work with. Humpday was Mark Duplass, Outside In was his brother, Jay Duplass, this movie was Marc Maron, who I’ve been really wanting to make a movie with for three and a half years. Then there’s other things, like a territory I want to explore or an element I want to return to, like improvisation, which I haven’t done since Your Sister’s Sister. I’ve done several movies in between that have been scripted, but I wanted to allow myself a new genre. I knew I wanted to laugh because the last movie was a drama, and I was ready to laugh—and let myself really laugh by going into the outlandish and ridiculous, plot-wise. Go into some comedy-caper territory, which I’ve never let myself do before. I’ve been totally real in every moment, and this time I was like, “What if I have real characters who go to a crazy place?” I wanted to make a culturally relevant movie that didn’t make you want to slit your wrists. It referred to what was going on and some of the problematic elements of what we’re dealing with in society. We’re having this peak moment in conspiracy theories. They’ve always been around, but this is definitely where they’ve achieved a peak moment that I find very disturbing. So, it’s usually a territory I want to explore and an actor I want to work with.

How do you research or prepare to authentically treat conspiracy culture?

Well, there’s this thing called a computer and a thing called the internet, and boy, is it all in there! [laughs] We went down a rabbit hole with Mike O’Brien, my co-writer. It’s so fascinating because there’s little in-fighting. They really bonded over Pizzagate and the Twin Towers being an inside job, but then when it comes to hollow earth versus the earth is on fire, they’re at odds and frenemies for life. It’s insane, the shit you find.

How do you approach shooting improvisational dialogue? There’s a very naturalistic feel to it, but there are hardly any vocal fillers like “um” or “you know.”

Well, you get the right cast, so that really helps. I’ll tell you, you can do a lot in the editing room. You’ll see it on screen, there are these runs of incredible monologues. But if I’m cutting away to another actor for a reaction shot, it’s often because I’m slicing out an “um” or an “ah” or a little bauble. The edit room is the most redemptive place in the universe. It’s incredible what you can do and how you can carve out the right story. Especially with improvisation, it really is where the actual script is written. Our first cut—it didn’t feel fat, it was funny throughout—was two and a half hours long. I was like, “How am I going to cut out five to seven minutes, much less an hour?” And for me, a comedy has to be 90 minutes, so I knew I needed an hour out of there. It was like, “This is hysterical, this is gold, but it’s not serving the story. Ultimately, what is the story? It could be this, or it could include this, but let’s just hone it down to Mel’s emotional arc and make sure we can track it through the craziness.” We want to care about these people just enough and balance it. There was so much work in the edit room.

Sword of Trust is definitely a comedy, but the scene I found most striking was Mel explaining his history to your character, Deidre, and in such a matter-of-fact, serious fashion, in the back of the truck. Did you always intend to set off this important part of the story with such a stark tonal contrast?

No, it wasn’t. When Mike O’Brien really insisted that I be in the movie, I finally relented and thought I was going to be a random customer who came in for five seconds. But then, I realized she could be a device that helps us track Mel’s arc. I was really panicking for a long time because I couldn’t figure out how to make her funny. I can be comedic, but she wasn’t comedic. She was so desperate and tragic. Then I finally realized that I wasn’t going to worry about it. I wasn’t going to try to turn her into some kind of laughing-stock. I was just going to be what she feels like she needs to be. That was an indication that this movie is going to have that real element of heaviness to it, but it happened really organically. I wanted you to care about these people, but I didn’t realize there was going to be that much depth to one of them, so much poignant heart and humanity. That was a nice surprise.

You’ve described your writing process as being “upside-down,” where the script develops alongside the characters. How did you develop this writing style?

I never went to traditional film school. I had this long, circuitous route to get to what I’m doing. I started as a theater actor, then I went to photography and started doing experimental work, but everything as a solo artist. The most important work of the film, making the process of the acting, is obstructed at every turn by the process of making it. You’re out of order. In theater, you at least get to play a story from beginning to end and feel it out. You’re at scene 35 on the first day and like, “What’s happened before this? Where am I emotionally?” And then you’ve got to do it 40 times with the camera in different positions and act like nobody else is there. The whole thing is so hard, unless you’re Meryl Streep! But if you’re not working with Meryl Streep, what do you do as a director? I need real people on screen.

My second feature, My Effortless Brilliance, was a total experiment. I came up with these characters in my head and tried to cast them from a pretty small pool of actors. They were nothing like the characters. I realized, “What if you did it the other way? What if you had a person you wanted to work with…” That was where I started with that idea, and all I cared about was to make it feel like a documentary. I wanted you to turn the TV on and be like, “What am I watching? Am I in these people’s lives?” And people have said they’ve had that experience where they’ll turn it on in the middle of Showtime and have no idea what they’re watching but that it feels like a documentary. Which is like, “Yes! That’s what I meant.”

And then I honed it with Humpday. Once I knew I could work in that way, I upped the stakes. I’ll bring in a few lights. I had said, “No lights! Me and another camera operator with tiny cameras, a boom op, that’s it.” I eliminated the crew. But that was where I came up with that initial impulse, to make it feel really real. If the character fits the actor like a glove because it’s half them or three-quarters them and they’ve developed it with me…I want real humans.

I actually had that experience of picking up one of your movies and not missing a beat. I was late to my showtime of Your Sister’s Sister in the theater, but I didn’t feel like I was lost. Then a few years later I watched it at home from the beginning, which helped it make a little more sense. But I felt I had easily intuited what I had missed.

It’s funny because I want my movies to feel like you’re paratrooping into somebody’s life. We’re taking a little journey down the river of their life for a while, and then we leave again. I don’t like to tie things up too neatly at the end because I want you to get the sense that they’re continuing to live their lives, and who knows what’s going to happen in the future. But you just sort of paratrooped in a little bit later! [laughs]

On that note, there’s a line toward the end of the film where Jillian Bell’s character, Cynthia, takes a deep breath and says, “What a strange experience.” Is that line improvised or scripted? In a lot of ways, the line feels like it sums up where characters often net out at the end of your films.

That was all improvised! It’s all ordinary people going into crazy land, but yeah, ordinary people having weird dramas in their everyday lives. I mean, it can happen. I’ve heard stories of shit happening to random people that feel like…you couldn’t write that shit!

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Review: Into the Ashes Brings Nothing New to the Country Noir Genre

Aaron Harvey is prone to pulling back from any moment that might give greater depth to his revenge tale.

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Into the Ashes
Photo: RLJE Films

Aaron Harvey’s Into the Ashes is the latest in an increasing string of so-called country noirs set in the dilapidated backwoods of rural America, places ravaged by the opioid crisis and populated by jobless people long ago abandoned by politicians. It has little to distinguish itself, narratively or thematically, from similarly dour films, and it lets generic images of its rundown Alabama locale (rusted trucks, cramped houses, landlines in a wireless world) stand in as symbols of national decline without truly seeping into the complex social rot of the place. Its plot, of a reformed criminal forced to contend with his old gang leader over some stolen loot, is similarly superficial, hitting the typical beats of its genre.

Where Into the Ashes gets a boost is in its excellent cast of grizzled character actors, all of whom vibrantly express varying degrees of weariness and rage. Luke Grimes plays the erstwhile ne’er-do-well and ex-con Nick Brenner with the nervousness of a man who’s just learning to let go of his past and give in to hope. The man’s gruff, taciturn nature is leavened by his tender relationship with his wife, Tara (Marguerite Moreau), and he projects his faith in normalcy onto her. Nick relies so heavily on Tara for his emotional wellbeing that he anxiously calls home while on an overnight hunting trip just so he can hear her voice.

Equally human beneath a hard exterior is Nick’s father-in-law, Frank (Robert Taylor), the local sheriff whose intimidating Tom Waits-esque voice and stiff demeanor belie his fumbling, masculine attempts to welcome Nick into his family. Strongest of all, though, is Frank Grillo as Sloan, Nick’s recently paroled and vengeful boss. Grillo is at home playing big-fish-in-small-pond villains, and the actor makes the most of Sloan’s thin characterization, exuding psychopathic menace when Sloan confronts Nick in the latter’s home, drawing out every oblique threat as he circles the subject of the money that Nick stole from the crew’s last job before Sloan was sent to prison. Grillo expertly inflects even the silliest moments of sub-Tarantino dialogue with a disarming venom, such as an extended riff on pie and ice cream.

But if the actors are primed to explore the contours around a basic premise, Henry constantly pulls back from any moment that might give greater depth to his revenge tale. Women exist to be supportive and to become victims, while character-driven conversations between Nick and Frank devolve into asinine ethics debates over justifiable violence. Worst of all, there’s just no sense that the film is saying or revealing much of anything. There’s one moment where Into the Ashes achieves a touch of bleak grace akin to the work of Cormac McCarthy by skipping over the events leading to a shootout and focusing only on its grisly aftermath: bodies strewn about in puddles of blood that look like reflective pools of black ice in the pale moonlight. Then, not five minutes later, we get a flashback showing the lead-up to that carnage. As with so much else in the film, a haunting moment of elision is negated by literal representation.

Cast: Luke Grimes, Frank Grillo, Marguerite Moreau, James Badge Dale, Robert Taylor, Brady Smith, Jeff Pope, Andrea Frankle Director: Aaron Harvey Screenwriter: Aaron Harvey Distributor: RLJE Films Running Time: 97 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Stéphane Brizé’s At War Is Politically Charged but Artistically Inert

The film is content to bluntly affirm that corporate attempts at compassion are always secondary to providing profit to shareholders.

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At War
Photo: Cinema Libre Studio

Seven months after the first flare-up of France’s Gilets Jaunes, the nascent populist movement shows no signs of ceasing. Combined with the country’s ongoing Telecom scandal, in which several executives have been charged with “moral harassment” after 35 workers were allegedly hounded into committing suicide, it’s evident that what’s simmering there is an extension of the same unease escalating around much of Europe, and the world at large. It’s a state of affairs that makes At War seem especially of the moment, and which leaves its eventual failure to offer any special insight so disappointing. Provided with a prime opportunity to animate the zeitgeist, Stéphane Brizé’s labor-focused drama instead uses this timeliness to prod along the most obvious of points, its nuts-and-bolts, process-oriented approach never amounting to more than a surface look at the issues it purports to confront.

The film in some ways functions as an unofficial prelude to Brizé’s prior The Measure of a Man, in which an unemployed machinist played by Vincent Lindon finds a new career as a hyper-market security guard, where he’s eventually forced to choose between serving as a traitorous management lackey and losing his job. Here, Lindon’s Laurent Amédéo is still in possession of his original occupation, though things are hanging by a thread, as a last-ditch organizing effort attempts to halt the closure of a manufacturing plant in Agen. Surrounded by a cast of convincing non-professionals, Laurent leads the picket line, refusing to waver from the straight and narrow, an intense figure of principle whose scruples are never in doubt.

At War is largely notable for its steadfast devotion to a kind of mechanistic aesthetic, which unfortunately lines up with its cheerless didacticism, the two qualities cohering in a scene-by-scene summation of a strike action that repeatedly hammers home the same general points. The scenes themselves evince heft, fluidity, and an impressive sense of improvisation, but the staging is static and the eventual outcome is always clear. The game is given away by Lindon’s stoic face and the gradual unraveling of the plot, which envisions internal disintegration—leveraged by outside pressure—as the insidious method by which solidarity is smashed. Despite some genuine drama in this dissolution, it’s always clear who’s right and who’s wrong, which material interests each is representing, and who’s lying and who’s telling the truth.

This didn’t have to be the case, as proven by David France’s procedure-focused documentary How to Survive a Plague, which balanced a similarly diagrammatic narrative with extensive character detail, expanding the stakes while affixing a deeper subtext about the ways the victory of a marginalized group eventually diminishes its radical standing. Intent on emphasizing the connections between callous corporate greed and populist unrest, Brizé’s film is bluntly focused on the bottom line. There’s a certain dramatic function to this technique, as it examines the individual human actions that allow such interests to put their will into practice, but it doesn’t justify the flat, exhortative style of address.

As another example of how well this kind of economic criticism can be carried off, there are the dazzling docu-essays of German filmmaker Harun Farocki, who routinely found surprising intricacies in the cold façade of modern capitalism, while offering empathetic alignment with workers as a matter of course. At War, on the other hand, merely summarizes what its audience already knows, affirming that corporate attempts at compassion are always secondary to providing profit to shareholders, and that genuine humanity and integrity are liabilities when confronting such an unfeeling monolith. Like Ken Loach’s recent Palme d’Or winner I, Daniel Blake, it’s a film whose political principles are hard to disagree with, yet which leans so heavily on this moral certitude as to render itself entirely inert.

Cast: Vincent Lindon, Melanie Rover, Jacques Borderie, David Rey, Olivier Lemaire Director: Stéphane Brizé Screenwriter: Stéphane Brizé, Olivier Gorce Distributor: Cinema Libre Studio Running Time: 115 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Bottom of the 9th Strikes Out with Too Much Plot Incident

Raymond De Felitta’s film offers a sampler course of formulas, which creates a strangely unfulfilling tension.

1.5

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Bottom of the 9th
Photo: Saban Films

Raymond De Felitta’s Bottom of the 9th offers a sampler course of formulas, which creates a strangely unfulfilling tension. Just when you expect the film to go in a certain direction, it goes in another, only for it to again switch routes, though there’s never a sense of expectations being deliberately challenged or tweaked. Rather, the filmmakers merely seem to be indulging a variety of passing fancies, which is a shame because the actors here are game and occasionally imbue the shopworn scenes with liveliness.

Sonny Stano (Joe Manganiello) is the perfect hero for either a noir or a redemptive sports film, a man approaching middle age who just served a 19-year sentence for manslaughter. Famous in his Bronx neighborhood for being drafted by the Yankees, only to flush his life down the toilet, Sonny is attempting to patch his life together while doing a perpetual apology tour on behalf of friends and strangers alike. He’s initially hired by an old friend, Joey (James Madio), to work in a fish market that seems to be a front for something. Joey has a cagey energy, and this narrative isn’t without intrigue, but De Felitta and screenwriter Robert Bruzio unceremoniously lose sight of it in succumbing to a number of clichés.

Of course, Sonny is revealed to have a woman who got away, Angela (Sofia Vergara), who one day runs into her old beau at a market. They clearly have chemistry, as do the actors playing them, but their dialogue is composed of nothing but redemptive platitudes. In these scenes, Manganiello and Vergara are stuck in a worst-of-all-worlds situation. Their characters are relentlessly mousey, which is appropriate to the awkward context of Sonny and Angela’s reunion, but which also robs these sexy actors of the opportunity to enjoy playing off one another. Meanwhile, said mousiness isn’t poignant either, as the characters haven’t been imagined beyond the respective stereotypes of the fallen man and jilted woman.

Bottom of the 9th then flirts with a narrative similar to that of Bull Durham and Major League, in which Sonny is hired by a local minor league ball team to rein in the fiery, egotistical talents of a rookie named Manny (Xavier Scott Evans). Evans is ferociously charismatic, suggesting a young Wesley Snipes and giving Manganiello a kinetic vibe to play off of, and so the film finally begins to come to life, with great character actors like Michael Rispoli and Burt Young riffing on the sidelines. However, this conceit is also left hanging, as the film shifts into a story of the unlikely comeback, with Sonny’s own talents taking center ring.

De Felitta might’ve gotten by with these contrivances if he were a natural showman, but the filmmaker displays little interest in the Bronx setting in which his characters live, or in rendering their experiences in a fashion that refutes screenwriterly index-card portraiture. For instance, a prison flashback in which Sonny gets into a fight during a ball game is reduced to trite and melodramatic close-ups, while much of the remainder of the film is composed of medium shots designed to accentuate only the largely uninteresting dialogue. There’s truly nothing in Bottom of the 9th but plot incident, and the leisurely, impersonal one-thing-after-another-ness of the film’s construction is stifling.

Cast: Joe Manganiello, Sofía Vergara, Denis O'Hare, Burt Young, James Madio, Yancey Arias, Michael Rispoli, Vincent Pastore, Dominik García-Lorido, Michael Maize, Kevin William Paul Director: Raymond De Felitta Screenwriter: Robert Bruzio Distributor: Saban Films Running Time: 111 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Crawl Is Fun and Economical but Lacks Go-for-Broke Inventiveness

The film is more straight-faced than Alexandre Aja’s prior work, trading absurd kills for narrow escapes from gaping alligator jaws.

2.5

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Crawl
Photo: Paramount Pictures

Unlike the giddily crass Piranha 3D, Alexandre Aja’s Crawl is a quiet beast of a film. It’s built not on a foundation of over-the-top gore, but on a series of escalations. As a hurricane barrels toward Florida, ace swimmer Haley (Kaya Scodelario) becomes worried after her father, Dave (Barry Pepper), doesn’t return her phone calls. She travels to her old family home and finds him unconscious in the house’s flooded crawl space, with large alligators swimming in the water.

Early on, the camera often lingers on the deceptive stillness of the rising water for maximum suspense. Haley and her father are trapped in the house with no more than the tools they can find or already have on hand, MacGyvering their very survival out of shovels, flashlights, and flares. The best parts of the film slyly set up those tools and other objects, including a swing set and a rat trap, only to bring them back at some later, climactic moment.

If Crawl, then, is an easily digestible piece of workmanlike thrills, its only real bit of gristle is its po-faced father-daughter bonding. Haley and Dave are somewhat estranged; the family home was meant to have been sold off after Dave’s recent divorce from Haley’s mother; and flashbacks to childhood swim meets show father and daughter tempting fate with flagrantly ironic use of the term “apex predator.” In the face of certain death, they cobble their relationship back together through Hallmark-card platitudes while sentimental music plays on the film’s soundtrack. It’s the absolute thinnest of familial drama, and it will do little to redirect your emotional investment away from the survival of the family dog.

Between these family moments, of course, the flood waters run red as people get got by gators. Aja is prone to lingering in prolonged closeup on things like a protruding bone being shoved back into place, but he otherwise seems to have gotten the most inspired bits of underwater violence out of his system with Piranha 3D. Crawl is more straight-faced than his prior work, trading absurd kills for narrow escapes from gaping alligator jaws. And while these moments are suspenseful, with nail-biting scrapes involving a handgun, some loose pipes, and one particularly clever shower-door maneuver, there’s precious little of the go-for-broke invention or outrageousness that might have made the film more than a fun and economical thriller.

Cast: Kaya Scodelario, Barry Pepper, Ross Anderson, Morfydd Clark Director: Alexandre Aja Screenwriter: Michael Rasmussen, Shawn Rasmussen Distributor: Paramount Pictures Running Time: 87 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: The Farewell Thoughtfully Braids the Somber and the Absurd

The film taps into universal truths about the passage of time, the inevitability of loss, and how we prepare one another for it.

3.5

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The Farewell
Photo: A24

In the opening scene of writer-director Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, a Chinese grandmother (Zhao Shuzhen), affectionately referred to as Nai Nai by her family, and her Chinese-American granddaughter, Billi (Awkwafina), have a warm, affectionate phone conversation in which each woman incessantly lies to the other. A professionally adrift, financially bereft millennial whose writing ambitions have come to naught, Billi lets her grandmother believe her life is busy and full of social engagements; for her part, Nai Nai insists that she’s at her sister’s house, rather than in a drably decorated doctor’s office. Wang frames Nai Nai against the kitschy, oversized picture of a lagoon that hangs on the wall, as if to emphasize the flimsiness of the illusions the pair is painting for one another.

The sequence calls to mind the advantage of audio-only phone calls: for allowing us to more easily maintain the falsehoods that comprise a not insignificant portion of our relationships. Given that minor mistruths prop up our most basic social connections, Wang focuses The Farewell on the moral quandary of whether a big lie—specifically, culturally contingent situations—might actually be an expression of genuine love. The film takes up the question with a tone of melancholic drollery, a sense of irony that doesn’t lose touch with the human feelings at its core. The Farewell is “based on an actual lie,” evidently an episode from Wang’s life, and its careful mixture of the somber and the absurd rings true to life.

As it turns out, Nai Nai has terminal lung cancer, but Billi’s father’s family elects to lie to the woman about her MRI results, an action that’s evidently within the bounds of Chinese law. But as Billi’s assimilated immigrant father, Haiyan (Tzi Ma), points out to his brother, Haibin (Jiang Yongbo), during a crisis of conscience, such a thing is both frowned upon in America and prosecutable. Struggling even more with the decision, of course, is the more Americanized Billi, who can’t reconcile her Western notions of love and the sanctity of the individual with the widespread practice of lying to family members about their impending deaths.

To create a cover for a family visit to Beijing, the family forces Billi’s cousin, Hao Hao (Chen Hanwei), who lives in Japan, to marry his girlfriend, Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara), of three months. This plan provides plenty of fodder for Wang’s dry humor, as the family attempts to maintain the veneer of celebration while also bidding farewell to their ostensibly clueless matriarch, who’s confused by Hao Hao and Aiko’s lack of affection and the generally dour mood that predominates in the lead-up to the wedding. It’s potential material for a farce, but even in its funny moments, Wang’s film is contemplative rather than frenetic, preferring to hold shots as her characters gradually, often comically adjust to the reality that Nai Nai will soon be gone.

Awkwafina, hitherto notable mostly for her comic supporting roles, gives a revelatory lead performance as Billi, the thirtysomething prone to bouts of adolescent sullenness. Perhaps playing a Bushwick-based, first-generation-American creative type isn’t much of a stretch for the Queens-born rapper/actress, but she immediately brings to the role the depth of lived experience: We believe from the first frames in the long-distance love between Billi and her grandmother, and the existential crisis the young woman feels as she negotiates two cultures’ differing approaches to death and disease. In taking us to Beijing through Billi’s eyes, which are often blinking back tears as she says goodbye without articulating “goodbye,” The Farewell’s morose but not hopeless comedy taps into universal truths about the passage of time, the inevitability of loss, and how we prepare one another for it.

Cast: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Zhao Shuzhen, Lu Hong, Jiang Yongbo, Chen Hanwei Director: Lulu Wang Screenwriter: Lulu Wang Distributor: A24 Running Time: 98 min Rating: PG Year: 2018

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Review: The Lion King Remake Finds Its Place in the Circle of Consumption

This ostentatiously expensive remake is reliant on our memory of the original to accentuate every significant moment.

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The Lion King
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

It’s somewhat paradoxical to critique Disney’s recent series of “live-action” remakes for precisely repeating the narratives, emotional cues, shot sequences, and soundscapes of their earlier animated versions. More than young children, who might well be content watching the story in vibrant 2D, it’s the parents who are the target audience of this new take on The Lion King, which aims to light up adults’ nostalgia neurons. In this sense, Jon Favreau’s film achieves its goals, running through a text beloved by an entire generation almost line for line, and shot for shot—with some scenes extended to reach the two hours seemingly required of Hollywood tentpoles. Throughout, though, one gets the impression that there’s something very cheap at the core of this overtly, ostentatiously expensive film, reliant as it is on our memory of the original to accentuate every significant moment.

The new film differs from its source in simulating a realistic African savannah and wildlife through digital animation and compositing, but it doesn’t provide anything resembling a genuinely new idea, visually or dramatically. Favreau meticulously recreates the framing and montage of 1994’s The Lion King as he runs through the unaltered storyline. The young lion prince Simba (voiced as a cub by JD McCrary and as a grown lion by Donald Glover) witnesses his father Mufasa’s (James Earl Jones) seemingly accidental death by stampede. Unknown to Simba, his uncle, Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), murdered his own brother, but the jealous would-be heir manipulates the rambunctious young lion into accepting the blame for his father’s death. In self-exile, Simba represses his guilt by adopting the carefree philosophy of meercat Timon (Billy Eichner) and warthog Pumbaa (Seth Rogen), until his long-lost betrothed, Nala (Beyoncé Knowles-Carter), happens across him and convinces him to return to reclaim his throne.

The film’s world, as conceived by Favreau’s camera and an army of CG animators, is far less expressive than the one Disney’s original artists created in 1994. Tied to the idea of recompositing a reality, the filmmakers take less license in making the elephant graveyard where malicious hyenas Shenzi (Florence Kasumba), Azizi (Eric André), and Kamari (Keegan-Michael Key) live a fantastical, nightmarish terrain, and they constrain the choreography of the animals during Simba’s performance of “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” to the bounds of actual animal physiology. Such musical sequences suffer under the regime of realism: Scar’s villainous exposition song, “Be Prepared,” appears in a truncated version spoken more than sung by Ejiofor, effectively robbing the original song of its devious exuberance.

The characters’ faces are also less pliable, less anthropomorphized—their demeanor harder to read—than in the traditional animation format of the original film. This isn’t necessarily a hindrance to crafting an affecting story (see Chris Noonan’s Babe), but the closeness with which Favreau hews to the original film means that the moments crafted for the earlier medium don’t quite land in this one. Scar isn’t nearly so menacing when he’s simply a gaunt lion with a scar, and Nala and Simba’s reunion isn’t as meaningful when their features can’t soften in humanlike fashion when they recognize each other. The Lion King invites—indeed, attempts to feed off of—reference to the original but consistently pales in comparison.

There’s another important difference one feels lurking in the margins of this film. The attitude of the first Lion King toward nature approached something like deference. The original film isn’t flawless: In its depiction of a patrilineal kingdom being saved from a usurper and his army of lazy serfs by the rightful heir, it questionably projected human politics into a nonhuman world. But it was an ambitious project by the then comparatively modest Walt Disney Studios to craft an expressive, living portrait of the animal kingdom. In contrast, there’s a hubristic quality to this CG-infused remake, as if Disney is demonstrating that its digitally fabricated imagery can fully capture the reality of a healthy, autonomous animal world—at a historical moment when that world is in danger of being totally snuffed out by the human race’s endless cycles of production and reproduction. The subject of this tiresome retread is ultimately less the “circle of life” and more the circle of consumption.

Cast: Donald Glover, James Earl Jones, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alfre Woodard, Billy Eichner, Seth Rogen, Keegan-Michael Key, Eric André, John Kani, JD McCrary, John Oliver Director: Jon Favreau Screenwriter: Jeff Nathanson, Brenda Chapman Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 118 min Rating: PG Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack

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Review: Rojo Is a Chilly Allegory for the Distance Between Classes

It masterfully sustains a sense of “wrongness” that will be felt even by those unfamiliar with Argentina’s history.

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Rojo
Photo: Distrib Films

With Rojo, writer-director Benjamín Naishtat conjures a haunting aura of debauched boredom, evoking a climate in which something vast yet barely acknowledged is happening under the characters’ noses. Though the film is set in Argentina in 1975, on the cusp of a coup and at the height of the Dirty War, when U.S.-backed far-right military groups were kidnapping, torturing, and killing perceived liberal threats, these events are never explicitly mentioned. Instead, the characters do what people choosing to ignore atrocity always have, talking around uncomfortable subjects and focusing on the mundane textures of their lives. Meanwhile, Naishtat expresses Argentina’s turmoil via symbols and sequences in which aggression erupts out of seemingly nowhere, actualizing the tension that’s hidden in plain sight. Throughout the film, Naishtat masterfully sustains a sense of “wrongness” that will be felt even by audiences who’re unfamiliar with Argentina’s history.

The film opens with a home being emptied of its belongings—an image that will come to scan as a metaphor for a country that’s “cleaning house.” Naishtat then springs an odd and creepy encounter between a famous attorney, Claudio (Darío Grandinetti), and a man who will eventually come to be known as “the hippie” (Diego Cremonesi). Claudio is sitting at a stylish restaurant minding his own business and waiting for his wife, Susana (Andrea Frigerio), when the hippie storms in and demands that Claudio give up his table. The hippie reasons that he’s ready to eat now, while Claudio is inhabiting unused space. Claudio gives up the table and proceeds, with his unexpected civility in the face of the hippie’s hostility, to humiliate this interloper. And this scene reflects how skillful Naishtat is at tying us in knots: In the moment, Claudio is the sympathetic party, but this confrontation becomes a parable of how people like the hippie are being pushed out—“disappeared”—by a country riven with political divisions.

Tensions between Claudio and the hippie escalate, and the hippie eventually shoots himself in the face with a pistol. Rather than taking the man to the hospital, Claudio drives him out to the desert, leaving his body there and allowing him to die. What’s shocking here is the matter-of-fact-ness of Claudio’s actions; based on his demeanor, Claudio might as well be carrying trash out to the dump, and he moves on with his life, returning to work and basking in the adulation that his profession has granted him. In a conventional thriller, this moral trespass would be the driving motor of the film, yet Naishtat drops the incident with the hippie for the majority of Rojo’s running time, following Claudio as he networks and engages in other scams.

Naishtat emulates, without editorializing, the casualness of his characters, and so Rojo is most disturbing for so convincingly suggesting idealism to be dead—with gritty brownish cinematography that further suggests a sensorial muddying. With little-to-no sense of stability, of faith in a social compass, the characters here often emphasize what should be trivial happenings. Susana’s decision to drink water at a gathering, rather than coffee or tea, becomes a kind of proxy gesture for the resistance that her and her social class are failing to show elsewhere, while a comic disappearance during a magic show macabrely mirrors the government’s killing and kidnapping of dissidents. Rojo’s centerpiece, however, is an eclipse that engulfs a beach in the color red, as Susana wanders a wooded area lost while Claudio, lacking sunglasses, blocks his eyes. The color red is also associated with communism, of course, as if the targets of this regime are demanding to be recognized.

Rojo eventually reprises the hippie narrative, as a famed Chilean detective, Sinclair (Alfredo Castro), comes hounding Claudio for answers, yet this development is soon revealed to be an elaborate fake-out. Out in the desert, one’s primed to expect the ruthlessly intelligent Sinclair to provide the wandering narrative a catharsis by forcing Claudio to take responsibility for something. But these men, both wealthy and respected, are of the same ilk. Though they’re each bound by routine and pretense, the death of lower classes means equally little to both of them. At this point, it’s clear that Rojo is less a thriller than a brutally chilly satire, concerning men who have the privilege, like other people who haven’t been deemed expendable by their government, to playact, offering ceremonial outrage that gratifies their egos while allowing a diseased society that benefits them to carry on with business as usual.

Cast: Darío Grandinetti, Andrea Frigerio, Alfredo Castro, Laura Grandinetti, Rafael Federman, Mara Bestelli, Claudio Martínez Bel, Abel Ledesma, Raymond E. Lee Director: Benjamín Naishtat Screenwriter: Benjamín Naishtat Distributor: Distrib Films Running Time: 109 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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