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

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

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Coincoin and the Extra-Humans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Booksmart
Photo: Annapurna Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Terminator: Dark Fate
Photo: Paramount Pictures

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

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

Watch the official trailer below:

Paramount Pictures will release Terminator Dark Fate on November 1.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Souvenir
Photo: A24

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: Aladdin Is a Magic Corporate Ride to Nowhere Special

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

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Aladdin
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: Brightburn Is a Soulless Mishmash of Disparate Genre Elements

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

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Brightburn
Photo: Screen Gems

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Nightingale
Photo: Matt Nettheim

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

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

Watch the official trailer below:

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

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

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

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The Lighthouse
Photo: A24

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Hottest August
Photo: Maryland Film Festival

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Maryland Film Festival ran from May 8—12.

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