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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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Review: Bombshell Is a Collection of Quirks in Search of a Trenchant Criticism

The film is too irreverent in tone and narrow in scope to place Roger Ailes’s criminality in a larger, more meaningful context.

1.5

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Bombshell
Photo: Lionsgate

With Bombshell, director Jay Roach and screenwriter Charles Randolph make heroes of the women who brought down Roger Ailes, the late chairman and CEO of Fox News who was accused by several former employees—including star anchors Megyn “Santa Just Is White” Kelly and Gretchen Carlson—of sexual harassment in 2016. The filmmakers keenly depict these women’s courage and fixate on the toxic culture at Fox that fostered so much fear and intimidation, but Bombshell is too irreverent in tone and narrow in scope to place Ailes’s criminality in a larger, more meaningful context.

The film begins in the summer of 2016 with the Republican Party presidential debate in Iowa, where Kelly (Charlize Theron), the moderator, confronts Donald Trump with highlights of his long history of misogyny. This grilling, and her increasingly—if relatively—feminist stance on the Fox News daytime program The Kelly File, is met by backlash from the ascendant Trump cult, as well as Ailes (John Lithgow), whose professional relationship with Kelly at first seems productive in spite of its combativeness. Meanwhile, Carlson (Nicole Kidman) is fired from another Fox program, The Real Story, possibly for her own newfound—if, again, relative—feminism, and counters by filing a sexual harassment suit against Ailes.

Waiting for colleagues to make similar accusations in order to bolster her case, Carlson is left twisting in the wind by a collective fearful silence—a silence that even fierce former victim Kelly obeys—while Ailes and his litigation team prepare a defense. A third storyline involves “millennial evangelical” Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie), a composite character representing the many ambitious young women who suffered Ailes’s demeaning treatment in order to get ahead at Fox and the other organizations for which he worked.

Bombshell operates in a style that has become numbingly de rigueur since Oliver Stone’s W., in which political and corporate corruption are presented in a dramatic yet amiably humorous style that takes the edge off any potentially trenchant critique. Fourth walls are broken, jokes punctuate scenes, and the ambiance remains oddly congenial despite the purportedly suffocating and repressive environment of the Fox News offices.

Thankfully, there are moments when the actors transcend the too-casual tone. Lithgow portrays Ailes not merely as a dirty old man, but as a pitiful control freak whose disgusting actions unwittingly reveal a deep insecurity. The tensely coiled Kelly is a mass of contradictions, and one argument that she has with her husband, Douglas Brunt (Mark Duplass), over an embarrassingly fawning follow-up interview with Trump is memorable for allowing Theron to reveal the strain imposed on Kelly by conflicting personal, professional, and political allegiances. Robbie—frequently playing off a versatile Kate McKinnon’s co-worker/lover—moves from bubbly naïveté to painful humiliation with convincing subtlety.

And yet, Bombshell is predicated on several dubious ideas that ultimately blunt its power. The film relishes the downfall of a public figure, as well as the growing chaos of a divided Fox News. By the end of the film, we’re expected to feel righteous satisfaction when justice comes to Ailes in the form of a disgraceful resignation. But such a response can only feel hollow when the country continues to suffer from widespread problems cultivated by Fox from the same sexist, callous, and exploitative worldview at the root of Ailes’s behavior. The film only briefly and tangentially explores this worldview, and mostly uses it to simply highlight conservative hypocrisy and the general sliminess of the Fox organization.

Bombshell also delights in referencing battles fought among high-profile public figures, emphasizing the kind of inside baseball that the media routinely focuses on instead of more complex and endemic manifestations of national issues. Rather than understand Ailes’s harassment in relation to the sexism so deeply embedded in American corporate media and culture, the filmmakers reduce that sorry tradition to the confines of the Fox News offices and elite legal channels. This approach allows viewers to understand the organizational and legal pressures that made it so hard for Carlson and others to speak out about Ailes, but once Carlson files her charges, the abuse that she and others endured becomes overshadowed by competitive backroom negotiations and maneuverings.

The film reinforces this emphasis with gratuitous appearances by actors playing famous Fox News personalities (Geraldo Rivera, Neil Cavuto, and Sean Hannity) who are tangential to the narrative, as well as cutesy direct-address segments meant to make us feel in the know about the world of Fox. This is the stuff that Roach, who’s mostly directed broad comedies, and Randolph, who co-wrote The Big Short, clearly relish, but rather than connecting with the viewer through these strategies, Bombshell mostly feels insular, remote, and superficial. It would be nice if for once an accessible mainstream film took on the institutional powers that detrimentally shape our world with anger and incisiveness rather than a bemused concern.

Cast: Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, John Lithgow, Kate McKinnon, Mark Duplass, Connie Britton, Rob Delaney, Malcolm McDowell, Allison Janney, Alice Eve Director: Jay Roach Screenwriter: Charles Randolph Distributor: Lionsgate Running Time: 108 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Richard Jewell Leans Into Courting Conservative Persecution Pity

Ironically, Clint Eastwood is as condescending of Jewell as the bureaucrats he despises.

2.5

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Richard Jewell
Photo: Warner Bros.

Marie Brenner’s 1997 Vanity Fair article “American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell” is a detailed cataloging of rushed judgements, lazy assumptions, and unforgiveable abuses of power. Richard Jewell was the security guard who spotted an Alice pack loaded with pipe bombs under a bench at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. The bombs exploded, directly killing one woman and injuring over a hundred others, but Jewell’s preemptive actions undeniably reduced the scope of atrocities. Jewell became a national hero, though a tip from a bitter former boss led the F.B.I. to aggressively investigate him as the prime suspect in the bombing. The news outlets ran with this information, leading to a “trial by media” that ruined Jewell’s life. In Richard Jewell, director Clint Eastwood uses this story as fodder for what he clearly sees as a fable of the evil of the F.B.I. and the media, who take down a righteous, implicitly conservative hero out of classist spite.

Richard Jewell is a political horror film that serves as a microcosm of the “deep state” conspiracies that the Republican Party trades in today. The media is represented here by essentially one person, a reporter named Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) who learns of Jewell’s investigation by sleeping with an F.B.I. agent, Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm), who serves as the film’s more or less singular representation of our domestic intelligence and security service. As such, the media and the F.B.I. are literally in bed together, and they see in the overweight, naïve, law-enforcement-worshipping Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) a readymade patsy.

Like most auteurs, Eastwood’s films are animated by his politics, in his case often featuring singular heroes who’re targeted by bureaucrats who know nothing of in-the-field work, but the productions are often complicated by the magnitude of his artistry. Sully takes simplistic swipes at regulations that save lives, glorifying the notion of the individual, but its most muscular scenes serve as startlingly beautiful celebrations of community, suggesting an ideal of a functional state that nearly refutes Eastwood’s own beliefs. By contrast, Richard Jewell finds the filmmaker more comfortably mining MAGA resentments. The film is rife with conservative Easter eggs. When we see Jewell’s attorney, Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), in his office, Eastwood highlights a sticker in a mirror that says “I Fear Government More Than I Fear Terrorism.” The film is dotted with guns, Confederate flags, and religious artifacts. And the real perpetrator of the bombing, Eric Randolph, a bigoted domestic terrorist who might interfere with Eastwood’s conservative reverie, is kept almost entirely off screen, reduced to a shadow.

Of course, Richard Jewell is set in the Bible Belt, and many of these details are pertinent. As Brenner’s article states, Bryant is a libertarian, and so that sticker accurately reflects his beliefs. But Eastwood and screenwriter Billy Ray rig the story so severely, in the service of courting conservative persecution pity, that even truthful details feel contextually false. Per Brenner, Jewell was a victim of many colliding interests, from the fading power of The Atlantic-Journal Constitution, which employed Scruggs, to internal clashes within the F.B.I.

In the film, the cops and journalists are desperate elitists just looking to finish a job, and their power is uncomplicatedly massive. The timing of Eastwood’s insinuation is unmistakable, suggesting that Jewell, the conservative Everyman, was railroaded by the government and the media in the same fashion as Trump, for possessing an uncouthness that offends “tastemaker” ideologies. The notion of political convictions as informed by image, particularly of culture and attractiveness, is a potentially brilliant one, and Eastwood’s portrait of liberal condescension isn’t entirely invalid, but he keeps scoring points at the expense of nuance.

In Brenner’s article, the F.B.I. is embarrassed to search the house of Jewell’s mother, Bobi (played here by Kathy Bates), where he lived. In the film, though, the officers storm the house in a smug and self-righteous fashion. Jewell was once actually in law enforcement and had many friendships and even a few girlfriends, while in the film he’s a pathetic wannabe eager to screw himself over for the sake of flattery. Sentiments that are attributed to Jewell in the article are transferred over to Bryant in the film, so to as to make the protagonist a more poignant fool. Ironically, Eastwood is as condescending of Jewell as the bureaucrats he despises. (The filmmaker also, weirdly, elides real-life details that would serve his demonization, such as the F.B.I. lying about there being a “hero bomber” profile.)

Even with Eastwood so explicitly grinding an ax, Richard Jewell has the visceral power of his other recent political fables. Eastwood refines a device from The 15:17 to Paris, surrounding an unknown, unpolished camera subject, in this case Hauser, with attractive famous actors so as to inherently express the profound difference between the ruling class—embodied to the public in the form of celebrities—and the eroding working class. This idea is particularly evocative when Hauser is paired with Hamm. Hauser is painfully vulnerable as Jewell, as there’s no distance between him and the character, no sense that he’s “acting.” And this impression of defenselessness, when matched against Hamm’s polish, is terrifying. Such juxtapositions fervently communicate Eastwood’s furies, however hypocritical they may be.

Eastwood continues to be a poet of American anxiety. The Atlanta bombing is boiled down to a series of chilling and uncanny details, from the public dancing to the “Macarena” before the explosion to the scattering of nails along the ground in the wake of the pipe bomb’s blast. When Scruggs pushes for the Jewell story to be published, her eyes glint with anger between the shadows of window shades—an intellectually absurd effect that emotionally sticks, embodying Eastwood’s conception of a national castigation as a noir conspiracy set in shadowy chambers populated by a mere few. Later, when Jewell is free of his ordeal, he weeps with Bryant in a café booth, a moment that Eastwood offers up as an embodiment of America stabilizing right before reaching a cultural breaking point. As stacked and calculating as Richard Jewell is, it’s a fascinating expression of the divided soul of a gifted and troubling artist. It’s a rattling expression of American bitterness.

Cast: Paul Walter Hauser, Sam Rockwell, Olivia Wilde, Jon Hamm, Kathy Bates, Nina Arianda, Ian Gomez Director: Clint Eastwood Screenwriter: Billy Ray Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 131 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Cunningham Obscures the Voice That It Wants to Celebrate

This colorful but remote-feeling documentary functions almost as though it were taking orders from the late Merce Cunningham.

2.5

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Cunningham
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

Alla Kovgan’s colorful but remote-feeling documentary about modern dance legend Merce Cunningham functions almost as though it were taking orders from the late choreographer himself. The film quotes him saying in various forms that he didn’t feel it appropriate or necessary to describe what his dances were about, and as such it feels appropriate that Cunningham leaves it to the dancing to deliver his story. But the problem with that approach is that it’s likely to leave many viewers, especially those who aren’t already dance aficionados, feeling somewhat at a remove from the subject matter.

Focusing on Cunningham’s works dating from 1942 to 1972, and his longtime collaborations with composer John Cage and other artists from Robert Rauschenberg to Andy Warhol, Kovgan balances loosely sketched biography with artistic recreation. The former sections are in some ways more engaging, as their often scratchy-looking archival footage provides at least some context for the sparse, ascetic, cold-water-flat milieu Cunningham was operating in. The latter sections, in which Kovgan stages a number of Cunningham’s pieces in settings ranging from a subway tunnel to a forest and are filmed in 3D with luscious colors, have a look-at-me showiness that cannot help but feel something like a betrayal of their source’s intentions.

Ascetic in approach but sometimes playful in execution, Cunningham in many ways functioned as the tip of the spear for avant-garde dance from the time he started producing work in the ‘40s. As related by the archival interviews played in the film, he didn’t appear to have much of a grand unifying theory behind his style. Rejecting the idea that he was some kind of modernist pioneer, he insists to one interviewer that he was simply “a dancer” and that he was really more interested in expanding the repertoire of movements available to performers by combining the techniques of ballet with what was already happening in modern dance in the postwar era. Quoting Cage in an old audio clip, Cunningham states with an emphatic flourish that “I have nothing to say and I am saying it.”

As you watch the dances staged in Cunningham, you may find it hard to argue with that perspective. In describing the reaction to one of his dances, Cunningham says with a barely concealed glee that “the audience was puzzled.” After a performance in Paris, food was hurled at the dancers (Cunningham joked that he looked at the tomato on the stage and wished it were an apple: “I was hungry”). Confusion about the lack of an underlying story or intent to deliver a singular emotion is understandable. Making less sense is the dismissal noted in the documentary of many of Cunningham’s pieces as “cold” and “passionless” (a charge that’s leveled at boundary-pushing art to this day). The pieces staged here by Kovgan are indeed sometimes airy and insubstantial or gangly and jagged. But just as often they’re lush and buoyant, like in “Summerspace,” in which the dancers’ fluid pivots spill over with a joy that is heightened by the bright spotted costumes and Rauschenberg backdrop.

In some of those segments, it’s hard not to feel as if Kovgan is aiming for a big splash that could introduce the rarely seen work of an oft-cited avant-garde pioneer to a wide audience, as Wim Wenders aimed to do with Pina. But unlike that 3D extravaganza, with its cunning staging and breathtaking moves, Cunningham is simply working from less accessible source material. Even when Cunningham’s work is less abstracted, such as that bouncy floating maneuver that is something of a signature, it doesn’t exactly catch one’s attention.

Time and again in the film, we hear or see Cunningham reiterate his principle that the dances aren’t intended to reference anything. Interpretation is up to the audience, he said. In this way, he isn’t far from the take-it-or-leave-it sensibility of Warhol, whose silver balloons he incorporated into one piece. But by amplifying Cunningham’s dances with sun-dappled backdrops and 3D gimmickry, Kovgan deviates from their creator’s principle in a way that almost seems to betray their original intent. By taking so much focus away from the dancers, the film’s stagings come close to obscuring the voice it’s trying to celebrate.

Director: Alla Kovgan Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 93 min Rating: PG Year: 2019

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Review: The Two Popes Carefully and Dubiously Toes a Party Line

There isn’t anything in the bleeding-heart positions espoused by Jorge Bergoglio that complicates Pope Francis’s public persona.

1.5

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The Two Popes
Photo: Netflix

Fernando Meirelles’s The Two Popes is quick to acknowledge that Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) is a humble man of the people. The film opens with a scene that fades in on Bergoglio, recently anointed Pope Francis, as he attempts to order a plane ticket over the phone. Assuming she’s being pranked when the caller gives his name and address, the Italian operator hangs up on the generously bemused head of the Catholic Church. After centuries of pomp, the scene suggests, the world’s Catholics were unprepared for a genuine article like Francis, a corrective to an episcopal hierarchy that had drifted too far away from the people. So goes the thesis of The Two Popes, reiterated in a number of subsequent scenes: Unlike previous generations of pontiffs, Francis engages with the actual state of the world, watches soccer, listens to pop music, and speaks to economic inequality.

This brief prologue’s slight humor and documentary-style presentation give an accurate idea of where the film is headed, both thematically and formally. Throughout, Meirelles embellishes the screenplay’s often dry conversations with pseudo-improvised camerawork—unsteady framing, sudden tilts, and emphatic snap zooms—familiar from his prior films, most notably City of God and The Constant Gardner. But what seemed, in the early aughts, fresh and well-suited to gangster movies and spy thrillers, feels dated and out of place in a film that amounts to two powerful octogenarians having a series of conversations. By abruptly adjusting the lens’s focal length at almost arbitrary moments, Meirelles transparently attempts to add dynamism to a film in which powerful actors are stuck reciting staid, safe dialogue.

The hagiographic Two Popes shuffles through moments in Bergoglio’s life. Some scenes are set in Argentina in the 1970s, a tumultuous time for the country, but the film mainly focuses on the development of Bergoglio’s relationship with Joseph Ratzinger (Anthony Hopkins), Pope Benedict XVI, during the early 21st century. Flashing back to eight years before the prologue, the camera travels through the narrow alleys of Buenos Aires, arriving at an outdoor sermon that Bergoglio is delivering. Unattached to the air of benevolent superiority Catholic priests are expected to exude, Bergoglio tangentially speaks of his support for the San Lorenzo soccer team, at which revelation his congregation feels comfortable booing their diocese’s bishop.

Meanwhile, John Paul II has died, and as a cardinal, Bergoglio must return to Rome to help elect a new pope. There he encounters Ratzinger, at the time a conservative Bavarian cardinal who haughtily insists on speaking to Bergoglio in Latin when they meet in a Vatican bathroom, and who turns up his nose when the Argentinian begins humming ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” to himself while washing his hands. The inclusion of an ABBA song makes for a lighter tone that The Two Popes will unevenly revive at various moments across its running time; the film will transition between scenes using out-of-place lounge jazz and ‘60s pop, then abruptly drop the levity for dialogic lessons on the state of Catholic theology.

The dogmatic Ratzinger’s election as pope later that year would signal an end to years of liberalization within the Catholic Church, a back-to-basics gesture that ultimately failed. His short reign would be dominated by controversy, as members of his inner circle were indicted for financial crimes and a long-brewing scandal over church cover-ups of sexual abuse came to the fore. Meirelles handles this historical context through aural and visual montages of archival news reports, which fill the gap as the story fast-forwards to a moment in 2012 when Pope Benedict calls Bergoglio, his unofficial rival from the church’s liberal wing, back to Rome.

Benedict aims to convince the bishop not to resign, as it would look to the outside world—as Benedict professes it does to him—that the liberal Bergoglio is renouncing his cardinalship in protest. Strolling through the lush gardens of the Vatican, or speaking in low, strained voices in its resplendent halls, the two debate their opposing theological and political philosophies. A mutual respect develops between them, with Benedict gradually opening himself to the outside world from which he has stayed aloof; one scene has Bergoglio teaching him about the Beatles, and in another the Argentine convinces the stiff German to try out the tango.

That’s all very cute, surely, but it’s also evidence that, despite courting a gritty reality effect with its documentary-inspired aesthetic, The Two Popes is carefully toeing a party line rather than exposing any hidden truths. Though it includes (rather hammy) flashbacks to Bergoglio’s morally ambiguous interactions with the Argentinian military dictatorship of the ‘70s, there isn’t anything in the bleeding-heart positions espoused by Bergoglio that complicates Pope Francis’s public persona. For his part, Ratzinger comes off as the best version of the man one could imagine, given the turmoil that marked his tenure: old-fashioned but authentic, perhaps just a bit too aged and attached to the institution to weed out its excesses.

As, in scene after scene, the heads of the world’s most powerful religious institution neatly summarize their philosophies to one another, the viewer may sense a misdirect: What happened to the corruption? Where are the meetings about how to handle the child-abuse scandals? Such issues, which presumably would have been the subject of many a Vatican City discussion, turn out to be little more than background material to the individualized and sentimentalized story of two men with differing views becoming friends. Even when they do come up, our attention is directed elsewhere. The flashbacks to Bergoglio’s spotted past begin soon after the sexual abuse scandals are first mentioned, redirecting our piqued concern with institutional sins toward the drama of an individual man’s fateful misjudgment.

The second time the pair’s conversations drift toward the simmering abuse scandal, Meirelles actually drowns out the dialogue with a high-pitched whine on the soundtrack, and for no discernable story reason. It’s as if Bergoglio’s hearing has been impaired by the explosive truth. The moment feels less like the filmmakers protecting us from a truth too awful to hear, and much more like them shielding us from one too dangerous to be heard.

Cast: Jonathan Pryce, Anthony Hopkins, Juan Minujín, Sidney Cole, Thomas D. Williams, Federico Torre, Pablo Trimarchi Director: Fernando Meirelles Screenwriter: Anthony McCarten Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 125 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: Empty Metal Grapples with the Efficacy of Activist Violence

The film is greater in its confrontational force than the sum of a dozen festival breakthroughs lauded for their fearlessness.

3

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Empty Metal
Photo: Factory 25

The idea that violence can be an effective or even necessary form of activism is one of the last remaining taboos in a contemporary discourse that holds civil debate up as the highest virtue. Empty Metal, meanwhile, reaffirms independent, artist-made cinema as a natural arena for wading through these kinds of uncomfortable notions. Greater in its confrontational force than the sum of a dozen festival breakthroughs lauded for their fearlessness, and certainly more potent than Todd Phillips’s Joker, it takes on the ambitious and possibly risky task of exploring what activist violence means in the context of a modern world where ambient forms of hostility—militarized police aggression (specifically toward people of color), mass surveillance and ongoing, never-ending wars—subtly dictate our lives.

Collaborating for the first time on what constitutes for both of them a narrative feature debut, Adam Khalil and Bayley Sweitzer have fashioned a topical lightning rod with Empty Metal, though not in a manner that suggests willful provocation. Assembled on a meager budget with friends, family, and members of the filmmakers’ extended artistic circles, the film progresses with an untamed energy and disregard for convention that suggest the manifestation of creative impulses feeding, unchecked, off one another. Juggling multiple intersecting storylines with passages of visual lyricism and diegesis-breaking reminders of contemporary injustices, Empty Metal offers an anarchic collage that careens between narrative storytelling (Sweitzer’s background) and documentary and video-art instincts (Khalil’s backgrounds).

Central to the story of Empty Metal are Rose (indie noise musician Rose Mori, a.k.a. PVSSYHEAVEN), Pam (Sam Richardson), and Devon (Austin Sley Julian), a trio of disaffected electro-punk rockers gigging around Brooklyn under the moniker of Alien. But to call them protagonists undercuts the degree to which Khalil and Sweitzer frame them less as independently motivated agents than as ciphers ushered along a path over which they appear to exert little control. More instrumental to the film’s evolution are the clairvoyant, vaguely ethereal figures—a Rastafarian chef listed in the credits as King Alpha (Oba), an older indigenous woman (Irma LaGuerre), and several of their younger accomplices—who watch over the trio and ultimately size them up as eligible candidates for a criminal plot.

Rose, Pam, and Devon are to assassinate three infamous white cops who’ve gotten away with murder, then go off the grid. Neither the names of the targets nor their specific infractions are clarified, though the connections to real-life analogues are made more or less self-evident in the series of crude 3D renderings of police violence that are periodically inserted into the middle of scenes. On the eve of a domestic Alien tour, Rose is approached at the band van by a member of King Alpha’s clan, who leans into the would-be rebel to impart a telepathic message paraphrased, as with a number of the film’s longer monologues, from William S. Burroughs’s novel The Place of Dead Roads: “I will teach you to dissociate gun, arm, and eye.”

Intuitively reading between the lines, Rose promptly loses interest in the tour and recruits, with little resistance, her bandmates to the cause. This sequence of events, along with anything else having to do with the transition of these hitherto merely frustrated musicians to insurrectionary vigilantes, hardly stands up to dramatic scrutiny, due in equal parts to Mori, Richardson, and Julian’s stilted line deliveries and the insufficient time their characters are afforded in the editing to acquire anything like psychological plausibility.

Nonetheless, there’s something of a poetic logic to the characters’ transformations, an unnerving illustration of the idea that the gap between ambient frustration and radicalism is but a short cognitive leap. There’s also a sense of fatalism that hangs over the proceedings, of an inexorable historical duty that can’t or shouldn’t be resisted. In an ominous sequence of self-actualization, Rose recites the names of historical dissidents from Ulrike Meinhof to Osama bin Laden with a mix of clinical dispassion and reverence as archival footage and animated representations of their violent acts fill the screen.

By contrast, Khalil and Sweitzer stage a lighter scene around the mid-forest meeting of King Alpha, LaGuerre’s character, and a European monk (Pawel Wojtasik) previously seen only in excerpts of a de-contextualized courtroom taping. Here, it’s casually implied that the three characters—who suddenly claim to have last seen each other at either the “L.A. riots” or Wounded Knee—are merely the corporeal containers of activist spirits who weave through the centuries, cyclically reuniting to nudge willing souls toward more proactive forms of rebellion.

Taking its title from a description of drones given by Rose in voiceover, Empty Metal questions if perhaps these transhistorical agitators have met a new and unconquerable challenger in the surveillance state, armed as it is with high-tech weaponry and vast intel on its populace. Certainly, the right-wing militia shown in another chilling subplot offers no compelling resistance to this monolithic force, even as they stash up on firearms and embark on austere training. The figurehead of this self-determined group (Jon Nandor) happens to be the son of Wojtasik’s monk, and it’s a quiet dinner table scene between the two of them that stands out among all the jarring associative edits and flicker-frame embellishments as one of the film’s strongest effects. As the father dismantles his son’s second amendment convictions, he’s left unable to contemplate an adequate alternative, and it’s telling that even a sage, potentially immortal mystic seems perplexed by our current predicament.

Cast: Rose Mori, Austin Sley Julian, Sam Richardson, Oba, Irma LaGuerre, Pawel Wojtasik, Jon Nandor Director: Adam Khalil, Bayley Sweitzer Screenwriter: Adam Khalil, Bayley Sweitzer Distributor: Factory 25 Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Beniamino Barrese’s The Disappearance of My Mother

It’s fascinating to see Benedetta Barzini in academic action, like an ethnographer of the patriarchy herself.

3

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The Disappearance of My Mother
Photo: Kino Lorber

Domestic ethnography typically sees a filmmaking member of a family turning the camera inward to investigate, or rewrite, a family’s history. This means that the filmmaker in question can occupy the inconvenient position of unearthing the ancient dirt on top of which the family is founded. In The Disappearance of My Mother, director Beniamino Barrese is less interested in wrestling with the maternal function in the drama of a household than in the mother’s status as his muse. The film is a love letter to the filmmaker’s mother, Benedetta Barzini, a 76-year-old former supermodel and the first Italian woman to grace the cover of American Vogue, now a feminist fashion studies lecturer in Milan. The constellation of the family is rendered useless here, as what matters to Barrese is the love affair between mother and son, forever mediated by the camera lens.

The tragedy here isn’t to be found in the regrettable actions of yore or the repressed feelings that both constitute and undermine a home, but in the unfairness of time. The film seems to say that a mother must age, a mother must die, and some of them may even want to. And it seemingly recognizes something tragic in an external world that’s obsessed with all of the things Barzini doesn’t value, despite having been a fashion industry commodity in the 1960s: beauty, youth, luxury, and cleanliness (she hardly ever showers or changes her bedsheets).

Barzini’s feminist stance appears as her most consistent motif in old interviews, in the strangely theatrical way she used to pose with garments in fashion shoots, and in her present-day statements captured in the film, both verbal and sartorial (she shows up to receive an award in her stay-at-home clothes). She is, from the beginning of her career, vocally aware that the femininity she’s paid to display is a playful one, removed from her actual self, which is itself, Barzini argues, unphotographable. She knows the existence, and persistence, of beauty stereotypes caging women to be due to the fact that men invent women through a series of prescriptions. And that they thus invent them as Jessica Rabbits, she argues at one point, wondering out loud whether it may not be best if women’s bodies disappeared altogether.

It’s fascinating to see Barzini in academic action, like an ethnographer of the patriarchy herself, bringing back news from its most glamourous yet rotten core. She lectures young college girls about the symbolic relationship between fashion, youth, and man’s fear of death, holding magazine ads in her hands as irrefutable evidence. She asks them questions like “What does ‘old age’ mean?,” “Why do imperfections bother people?,” and “What is the point of continuing to sell our bodies without any quality or talent?” These moments of pedagogical passion occur when Barzini’s presence is allowed to take over the frame precisely because the filmmaking son fades into the background. And they’re in striking contrast to Barrese’s instances of shoving the camera into his mother’s reluctant face.

That stance, though in line with some sort of undying teenage streak, reveals a misguided desire to force his mother into his cinematic paradigm. Although Barrese purposefully allows for a great degree of transparency, showing us his failed attempts to get his mother to change outfits for continuity’s sake, for instance, these sequences feel contrived when compared to those where the mother is allowed to perform in an uncontrolled fashion. When we hear him ask her, “Is there anything you want me to put in the wash?,” or “Mom, what bothers you so much about images?,” it’s impossible not to see the air of spontaneity as calculated artifice.

Many times, Barrese acts like a vulture taking something from his mother that she doesn’t want to give. Or does she? Barzini calls him a petit bourgeois for appreciating her articulations only inasmuch as they fit his filmic narrative. And she yells, “Put the camera down! Put it down!” He obeys her for a couple seconds but leaves the camera running, then grabs it back to continue interrogating her. And she lets him. Mother and son relations are often like this—full of theatrics, ambiguity, and teeming with seduction. Neither could afford losing the other’s love. And they both know it. Which forces Barrese to keep pushing the limits. He even shoots her when she’s asleep. Or, at least, when he thinks she is. It turns out that following mom is a habit from childhood. And ever since then she’s been protesting his advances. “I want to disappear, not to appear,” she says, because “the lens is the enemy.”

In a beautiful sequence toward the end of the film, after Barzini speaks about dying and the shame of belonging to this world, so sullied by white men, Barrese asks her to spin around in her courtyard, holding her dress. She says she will get dizzy. He finally listens to her and lets her stand still, spinning with his camera around her himself. She smiles, enjoying the moment. She’s happy standing still, courted in the courtyard by her child’s contemplation. Mother eventually asks her son: “Are you done playing?” He’s not, and neither is she.

Director: Beniamino Barrese Screenwriter: Beniamino Barrese Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 94 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Interview: Eddie Redmayne on The Aeronauts and Accessing Physicality

Redmayne discusses everything from calibrating his physicality in rehearsals to cultivating his imagination on a barren set.

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Eddie Redmayne
Photo: Amazon Studios

“I can’t believe you wrote your dissertation on Les Misérables,” Eddie Redmayne says in a complete non sequitur midway through our conversation. I had a feeling it might come up at some point, so I had to lead with telling him that he featured prominently in the video essay portion of my senior thesis on how Tom Hooper’s 2012 film adaptation collapsed boundaries between stage and screen. As legend has it, Redmayne made a suggestion in post-production that led to the film’s close-up-heavy editing, a choice which sparked intense discussion around the aesthetics of the musical genre.

The episode captures something about Redmayne that sets him apart from other actors who operate in a similarly demonstrative, showy register. He’s genuinely thoughtful about the full cycle of how a performance gets created and transmitted to audiences, in everything from the rehearsal process to the editing bay. After winning an Academy Award for 2014’s The Theory of Everything and another nomination for 2015’s The Danish Girl, Redmayne took a turn toward blockbuster fare with two outings playing Newt Scamander in the Fantastic Beasts series. But now he’s back to the period dramas that made his name with The Aeronauts, an old-fashioned movie adventure that reunites him with his The Theory of Everything co-star, Felicity Jones. As scientist James Glaisher and pilot Amelia Wren, Redmayne and Jones, respectively, spends the majority of the film confined to the tight space of a gas balloon’s basket as they rise to 37,000 feet in the air in an attempt to make meteorological breakthroughs in 1860s Britain.

Redmayne’s role is a fitting lens to discuss not only The Aeronauts, but also his recent career. His craft is just as much a science as it is an art. Our conversation got into the weeds of technical details as he discussed everything from calibrating his physicality in rehearsals to cultivating his imagination on a barren set. But, first, we had to discuss Les Misérables, given the pivotal role his behind-the-scenes behavior played in my academic career.

During post-production on Les Misérables, I read that while in the editing room you encouraged Tom Hooper to hold longer on the close-up of Anne Hathaway during “I Dreamed A Dream,” setting into motion the film relying on them so heavily.

Because of the way that Les Mis was shot with live singing, you couldn’t get between different tracks because of the variation. What Tom did was make sure that you could always have the whole scene cut from one setup: a wide, a mid, [and a close-up]. There were three cameras on at the same time. He was editing the film, and the studio had put out a trailer they edited themselves that was more of the close-up. Tom and I had a discussion, and I think I mentioned that it could hold. What I find so interesting is that everyone has a specific opinion on Les Mis, whether it worked—and, of course, the close-ups are something people bring up a lot. But the live singing process dictated the way it was shot. We couldn’t shoot outside a lot because, when you shoot outside, the voice disappears. So, we had to build the barricades in a studio.

What you did with Les Misérables speaks to just how much a performance gets remade in the editing room. Are you still actively involved in that final step of the process?

What’s weird about making films is you create so much of it in a vacuum. It’s not like theater, where actors get together for months and work things out. Often you meet the person playing your mother or father two hours before [shooting]. Often you don’t know the director, meeting them a day before you start working with them. You have an idea of what the character’s arc is, and, of course, part of the joy of making films is giving over that. You put that down and hope the director observes that. But a director can often observe something different that’s more interesting! What I like to do, and I’ve been lucky enough to do, is make work and, if I’m allowed into the editing process, have a dialogue with that director. Provided you know they see what you intended, whether they use that or not is obviously their choice.

I do find that dynamic really interesting, and I’ve been lucky enough with James Marsh on The Theory of Everything, Tom Hooper, and [director] Tom Harper and [screenwriter] Jack Thorne on this. Felicity and I worked together with Jack and Tom for a couple of months beforehand working through the intricacies of the script, and Tom allowed us that bit because it’s so intimate between the two of us, almost like [working on a play] with the writer and director. He allowed us the intimacy in the process the whole way through. The reason I do it is because, as an actor, you’re never happy with what ends up in the finished product. But while you can still shift and change things, I enjoy being a part of that process.

As someone who came up through theater, where you have so much less mediation between your performance and how an audience receives it, have you found comfort in the editing process?

It was a massive adjustment because I got into acting through theater. For many years, I couldn’t get cast in TV or film because I was playing to the back of the stalls in my audition. When I did start working, it’s all been a massive learning curve.

How do you approach acting out of sequence? In both The Aeronauts and The Theory of Everything, you’re tasked with building a full and continuous character arc, but that seems tough you’re stopping and restarting.

Quite often, directors will try and keep as much in chronology as possible. A lot of the stuff we did in the basket in The Aeronauts was shot chronologically. It’s the other bits that aren’t. What you have to do is see how the director is filming it, what their process is and work out what’s best for you. For example, on The Theory of Everything, all the exteriors we were shooting in the first two days in Cambridge when all the students weren’t there. That meant that any time Stephen was outside in the entire film, we were shooting in the first two days. Which meant we had to do all different physicalities at different moments of his life in the first two days. Which meant [I] had to be able to access those different physicalities very quickly, which in itself dictated the process. I wasn’t going to spend hours getting into the zone, I have to slot into these. For me, I said, I need months to rehearse, and I need to rehearse the movement like a dance so that [I] can access it quite quickly. It’s all about the stuff you do beforehand so you’re ready when you’re working the other actor to be completely free.

You shot some of The Aeronauts outdoors in the gas balloon and then some on a soundstage against a blue screen. How did you all work to keep the authenticity consistent in your performances?

We were lucky that the first thing we shot was the real stuff. We went up in the real balloon—we had this accident, it was really terrifying—and the notion of the stakes were weirdly embedded with us from day one. Ultimately, it always feels horrendously fake when you’re in a giant basket surrounded by blue screens, but they did things like [freezing] the studio for our breath. We were shooting in the summer in the U.K., and then you had cast and crew in jackets because we were in a giant refrigerator. They also gave us freezing buckets with ice to plunge our hands into beforehand. The director really gave us everything he could to make it feel [right]. Because they had gone up in helicopters and shot the skyscapes beforehand, they had very clever technology on an iPad that lets you look at the balloon to see where the sun was and what the weather was. They spent a long time working in pre-production about how to not make it look fake, and one of the things was that it could look real, but if your eyes are totally open, the fact that there’s blinding sunlight…of course, you can look at a big, bright light without it being a stretch. It was to learn to squint a bit [to avoid] the giveaway.

Between The Aeronauts and the Fantastic Beasts series, you’ve been doing quite a bit of acting in synthetic spaces.

[laughs]

That’s not a value judgment! How do you go about using your imagination to bring the surroundings to life in your head while maintaining the same specificity as if you were there?

I try and do a load of research, so even if it’s on Fantastic Beasts, it’s talking to the animators, going and looking at drawings and set designs. Trying to do all of that early so it’s not in your imagination. The other process I tried to learn from Dan Fogler, who’s in Fantastic Beasts and very free. He’ll try lots of different things, and I watched him on the first film and thought he was brilliant. It’s a mixture of doing your research, then throwing it away and trying things.

Has it gotten easier over time? Like a muscle that has to be trained and toned?

Yeah, it definitely does. For example, with Pickett [a small plant creature his character keeps as a pet] on Fantastic Beasts, I was so concerned with talking to something that’s not there and make it feel real. I would over[act]. [Reenacts staring intently at the creature on his hand] You never normally look at people when you talk to them. You can have a conversation with Pinkett on your hand and not really look at him.

You’ve mentioned that the basket became like another character in the film because you and Felicity shared such tight quarters with it. How do you make spaces feel natural for your characters to inhabit?

That is rehearsals. That’s why we did them. What I love about this film, hopefully, is that it’s this thrilling adventure on a big scale. At the same time, it’s also an intimate little drama. That space is the size of a sofa. We had weeks working of thinking how to make things visually interesting for an audience. Each time the camera comes back to it, it needs to have transformed or changed. We rehearsed on it so we could find different ways: whether it was sitting on the floor or one of us up in the hoop, different angles, getting rid of carpets or some of the tools. They add character to this battered, bruised vessel that’s been pummeled.

Does that mean you all were really working out specific shots and angles within the rehearsal process?

When we were rehearsing the scenes over and over again, Tom would have suggestions and ideas from watching with the cinematographer. One of the things he found is that, early on, if the camera was ever outside of the balloon—even centimeters out—it doesn’t feel real. Any moments that are caught inside the balloon, apart from a few moments where drones fly and take close-ups, the cinematographer was always inside the balloon. He was moving with the movement. The camera, similarly, was like another character in the piece. Because just one centimeter outside, since we can’t suspend ourselves in mid-air, felt unreal.

Do you find it liberating to work within such tight confines like the basket? Does it force you to be more precise and conscious of your movement and blocking?

Yeah, it does. Because you’re confined, the freedom is in the minutiae. You can’t be making big, bold gestures. I think the intimacy plays to its favor in some ways.

The Aeronauts has a theme of looking up for inspiration amidst troubling times. The last few films you’ve made generally have some kind of optimistic feeling about them. Is that a conscious running thread running through your filmography?

I never relate my films to each other, but what I think is interesting is that the only way I choose work is by reacting to it. So maybe there’s a sense of that [optimism]. The reason I wanted to do The Aeronauts is because I got to that last passage where Felicity’s character is standing on top of the world, and I just thought I would love to see that. I loved the idea of working with Felicity again. I loved this old-school adventure thrill to it. I felt like you’ve seen space investigated, but I hadn’t seen the sky. Sometimes, on a cold, horrendously miserable day, there’s something ecstatic about a break through the clouds. And whether you can retrain an audience who’s so used to seeing the sky from planes to make it feel like something new, all those things were curious to me. I don’t specifically go looking for optimistic pieces, although there was a period in my career when I was playing incestuous teenagers and schizophrenic psychos, so maybe I need to go talk to a therapist about that!

I know some actors like Meryl Streep or David Oyelowo, just to name two that come to mind, say that they deliberately only put work out into the world that they think can make it a better place.

That’s really interesting. I haven’t read that, but I’m probably not that…selfless. It tends to be something I just react to. There’s a weird moment when you read a script and suddenly feel a bit sick. That’s when you transfer yourself from imagining it to imagine yourself doing it. That’s the reality of the responsibility.

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Review: Midnight Family Is an Intimate Look at Mexico’s Ambulance Crisis

It’s the mix of the humane and the calculating that gives the film its empathetic power.

3

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Midnight Family
Photo: 1091 Media

Director Luke Lorentzen’s Midnight Family opens with a startling statistic: In Mexico City, around 45 public ambulances serve a population of over nine million people. Picking up the pieces are private ambulances, such as the one owned and operated by the Ochoa family, whom Lorentzen follows over several nights as they pick up patients from accident sites, provide immediate medical service, and deposit them at various hospitals. Every element of this process is a negotiation, and Lorentzen captures a multitude of damning and haunting details. Following this family, Lorentzen fashions a documentary that serves as a wrenchingly intimate portrait of a country’s wide-reaching healthcare crisis.

For the Ochoas, particularly their portly paterfamilias, Fernando, and his charismatic 17-year-old son, Juan, the ambulance is firstly a business—a means of barebones survival. The Ochoa ambulance often resembles a kind of medical food truck, as it roams Mexico City looking for customers, who are, of course, individuals in pronounced danger and pain. Lorentzen vividly captures the chaos of the accident sites, including the maddening array of traffic lights and people wandering haphazardly among the twisted ruins of crushed vehicles and property. Into this chaos, Fernando, Juan, and others enter with a kind of cleansing purposefulness, though they also have to watch out for cops who are looking to shake them down for pay-offs. (The legality of private ambulances is somewhat vaguely rendered here; the Ochoas may or may not have the right paperwork, though they definitely need official license plates.)

It’s the mix of the humane and the calculating that gives Midnight Family its empathetic power. While saving lives, the Ochoas must focus on means of payment. They’re not ghouls, as we come to see that their next meal, and their ability to keep the vehicle running, depends on a night-by-night payout, which is threatened by the police as well as rival private ambulances. Since the Ochoas run a private business, patients can apparently refuse to pay them without recrimination from the government, which occurs often given the poverty of their largely uninsured clientele. Lorentzen is bracingly specific about money: One pick-up, of a teenage girl battered by her boyfriend, costs 3,800 pesos, at which her well-off mother balks.

Across Lorentzen’s documentary, viewers also learn of the equipment that the Ochoas need to pass regulations, and of the consequence that expense has on their ability to eat. In one evocative illustration of the effect of their profession on private life, we see the Ochoas at a gas station making tuna salad, which they eat on saltines. This meal occurs after an elaborate debate on whether they can afford to eat more than two tacos apiece.

Yet Lorentzen doesn’t turn the Ochoas into objects of our self-congratulatory pity. The filmmaker captures the despair as well as the adventure of such a livewire way of life, especially as the Ochoas race other ambulances. Fernando places a poignant amount of trust in young Juan, who daringly drives the ambulance, cutting off other vehicles with various improvisations of navigation. These chases are filmed by Lorentzen in a mixture of first-person and mounted-camera compositions that emphasize the limitation of a driver’s sight, establishing a sense of immediacy and danger that is far more thrilling than the standardly detached, alternating coverage of a conventional action film. In this fashion, Midnight Family sometimes brings to mind the brilliant chase sequence in James Gray’s We Own the Night.

Given the privacy of the scenes we witness in Midnight Family—moments of carnage, need, poverty, corruption, and love—the invisibility of Lorentzen’s presence comes as a mild disappointment. This project begs for an examination of how the filmmaking process informs the behavior of its subjects. This quality, or lack thereof, is especially evident when a family member of a patient is seen weeping in the front passenger seat of the Ochoa ambulance. How does she feel at being filmed at this moment of extremity? Midnight Family is a rich and textured film, but it stints on this kind of auto-critical answer.

Director: Luke Lorentzen Screenwriter: Luke Lorentzen Distributor: 1091 Media Running Time: 80 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: The Aeronauts Takes to the Skies, Without Much of a Dramatic Hook

As a suspense film, it’s so sluggishly structured that it borders on the avant-garde.

1.5

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The Aeronauts
Photo: Amazon Studios

Tom Harper’s The Aeronauts is such a sluggishly structured suspense film that it borders on the avant-garde. James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne), a 19th-century meteorologist, is attempting to prove that man can predict weather patterns, and he plans a hot-air balloon ride high into the Earth’s troposphere to conduct high-altitude measurements. With no available technology for breathing apparatuses or other modern safety equipment, James’s gambit is a bold one, but he hopes that by traveling so high he can use the most accurate measurements to prove his meteorological theses. Accompanying him is Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones), a daredevil aeronaut with experience flying balloons at extreme altitudes. They’re practically a study in contrasts. James, humorless and bookish, talks rapidly and in fussy detail, mostly holding conversations with himself and putting others in the position of needing to interject to get a word in edgewise. Amelia, meanwhile, is filled with a certain joie de vivre, literally arriving to the balloon launch doing acrobatics to liven up the assembled crowd.

This is the second time that Redmayne and Jones have starred in a film together, but familiarity has done little to deepen their stilted chemistry. James and Amelia don’t converse so much as recite their respective credentials at each other. This might have worked if The Aeronauts gave the characters specializations that the other lacked, yet each has similar strengths: James, the less experienced balloonist, nonetheless knows enough about piloting the craft to not need instruction, while Amelia understands enough about meteorology to not require James to dumb down his scientific jargon. As a result, the pair’s dynamic is devoid of inherent conflict, which might have distracted them from the monotony of their balloon’s ascent into cloud-studded skies, which Harper stages as if in real time.

Of course, sitting in a vehicle that slowly drifts upward as its two occupants engage in, at most, haughty disagreement makes for moribund drama, so Harper fills time with flashbacks to show how James and Amelia got to this point. Anyone who’s ever seen a historical fiction about a scientific pioneer will know what to expect of James’s backstory: repeated scenes of the man explaining his ideas to academic administrators with sideburns large enough to count as mating displays, all of them mirthfully wagging their turkey necks as they respond to James’s hypotheses with sayings like, “Hitting the sherry a bit early this morning, aren’t we, Glaisher?”

Meanwhile, across a series of frenzied, chaotically edited memories of trauma, Amelia relives the death of her husband, Pierre Rennes (Vincent Perez), in a ballooning accident. It’s a hysterically lopsided distribution of character motivation. We get a few shots of Amelia and Pierre tenderly embracing, but otherwise the dead man is a mere device, and all that she can say of him to James is that “his most enduring quality was a deep, true love for the beauty of the world,” which, as far as eulogies go, is about two steps above “He loved to laugh.”

George Steel’s cinematography, namely the way it captures the balloon’s ascent, is the film’s strong suit. Especially noteworthy is when James and Amelia break past the cloud layer and are left in direct sunlight that’s rendered with brilliant white light that washes out the frame even as it communicates the rapidly falling temperatures at that altitude. And that temperature drop becomes the first catalyst for actual drama when James lets slip that he didn’t pack a warm enough coat out of concerns for the balloon’s weight, setting up the last act’s belated decision to include some kind of suspense in order to give the film a dramatic hook.

Indeed, the film’s last hour, in which James and Amelia find themselves increasingly starved for oxygen as their balloon rises higher into atmosphere, is its most engaging. Here, a violently shivering James transforms into the reckless adventure, while Amelia becomes the more anxious and fearful of the two. As she urges caution in the face of falling oxygen levels, the mild-mannered scientist is suddenly overcome with delusions of grandeur and fame and does everything to keep them rising. The camera begins to blur at the edges to reflect the characters’ fading consciousness, while a series of desperate last-ditch efforts on Amelia’s part to save them both is mounted with real tension. Still, the film’s wonky, flashback-heavy structure puts so much emphasis on the by-the-numbers backstory of the characters that the actual drama of the balloon flight itself is muted, making the eventual turn toward chaos less of a narrative culmination than a last-minute recalibration of the film’s inert quality.

Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Phoebe Fox, Himesh Patel, Vincent Perez, Anne Reid, Tom Courtenay, Tim McInnerny, Rebecca Front Director: Tom Harper Screenwriter: Jack Thorne Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 100 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: Jennifer Reeder’s Knives and Skin Limply Aspires to the Lynchian

The film gets so lost in its affected idiosyncrasies that it stops probing any discernible human feelings.

1.5

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Knives and Skin
Photo: IFC Films

Something terrible has happened to Carolyn Harper (Raven Whitley). But unlike Twin Peaks and its plastic-wrapped Laura Palmer, Knives and Skin makes it immediately clear what occurred to her: She was left bleeding and without her glasses in the wilderness by a vengeful jock, Andy Kitzmiller (Ty Olwin), because she wouldn’t have sex with him. She never makes it back. This transpires near the start of the film, and what transpires after this point is a dreamy, neon-tinted vision of a town overcome less by grief than ennui.

Throughout Knives and Skin, writer-director Jennifer Reeder draws heavily from the style of David Lynch, cycling through the townsfolk and their weirdest tendencies. Carolyn’s mother, Lisa (Marika Engelhardt), insists that she can smell her daughter on Andy. Andy’s sister, Joanna (Grace Smith), sells underwear to Principal Markhum (Tony Fitzpatrick), cash only. The girl’s father, Dan (Tim Hopper), who’s cheating on his wife (Audrey Francis), is seen at one point emerging from between a waitress’s (Kate Arrington) legs while wearing clown makeup. And Grandma Kitzmiller (Marilyn Dodds Frank) pesters everyone for weed. Certain objects glow, and the girls’ choir practices a series of haunting pop song arrangements, its members whispering to each other one by one while the rest of the ensemble keeps singing.

Other than Lisa’s persistent, unfounded hopes that her daughter is still alive, Carolyn’s disappearance seems to intentionally leave little impression on anyone. Everyone is wrapped up in their own concerns and pursuits, struggling to hold down jobs or dealing with disinterested partners. They’re united only by their vaguely odd feelings and a sense of being trapped, as one boy (Robert T. Cunningham) does when he stands on the roof of the high school; he doesn’t intend to jump, he just wants to see the highway that leads somewhere else.

But in untethering itself from what happened to Carolyn Harper, Knives and Skin ends up unfocused, shambling from one moment of self-conscious weirdness to another. Its themes, like the constant and varied violations of consent going on throughout the town, get lost in favor of things like the talking tiger T-shirt and the hamburger meat lobbed at a vehicle in protest until the entire purpose of these surreal flourishes seems to melt away.

The film is intermittently striking with its heavily stylized lighting and wistful electronic score, but it creates little sense of place. The town where these people all live, which seems to be affecting them to such a profound degree, is so nondescript beyond a few anonymous landscape shots that it stops evoking a place they would want to leave because it doesn’t really seem like a place at all. Rather than explorations of individual oddness, Knives and Skin becomes a rather tedious mood piece with an ethereal atmosphere so remote, so lost in its affected idiosyncrasies that it stops probing any discernible human feelings.

Cast: Marika Engelhardt, Raven Whitley, Ty Olwin, Ireon Roach, Haley Bolithon, Aurora Real de Asua, Grace Smith, Marilyn Dodds Frank, Tim Hopper, Audrey Francis, James Vincent Meredith, Kate Arrington, Kayla Carter, Robert T. Cunningham, Alex Moss Director: Jennifer Reeder Screenwriter: Jennifer Reeder Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 111 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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