Ed Howard: Robert Altman’s Nashville is one of those rare films that feels more timely, more relevant, the more time goes by. When Altman filmed this multi-character study, set during a few days in the United States’ country music capital, the nation was in the midst of preparations for America’s bicentennial, a celebration of the country’s heritage and culture. It was 1975. It had been twelve years since John F. Kennedy was shot and seven years since Robert Kennedy was shot, and both events still loomed large, over the country and over Altman’s film. Richard Nixon had just resigned, too, further shattering whatever naïve hopes about politics might still have been lingering anywhere. The film opens, after a breathless parody of TV hucksterism, with a roving campaign van advertising for fictional presidential candidate Hal Phillip Walker. Throughout the film, this campaign emits a steady stream of populist rhetoric, mixing genuine political reforms (taxing churches, eliminating farm subsidies) with outright absurdities (kicking all the lawyers out of Congress, rewriting the National Anthem to something “people can understand”). Altman follows this introduction with Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson) singing the kind of über-patriotic tune that Walker might have in mind, an unthinking ode to American virtue: “we must be doing something right / to last 200 years.”
What could be a better way to start a film that chronicles the values and ideas of America, both as it really is and as its people like to imagine it? And what could be a better place to start our conversation about this sprawling, iconic movie? Nashville is often thought of as a musical, a showcase for all the country songs and the singers who appear as characters, and it’s also thought of as one of Altman’s typical network narratives, where the stories of a large cast of characters interlock and intersect across a few days in a single location. Both of those descriptions are true. But Nashville is also a profoundly political movie, a movie haunted by the ghosts of then-recent political assassinations. Its resonances have only grown more potent and pronounced as the years have passed. It depicts the manipulations of image that go on in both entertainment and politics, and the ways in which supposedly populist candidates marshal power by appealing broadly to “the people” and copping anti-government attitudes.
The ironical political commentary at the film’s core has thus only become more and more prescient and insightful in the three decades since Nashville’s release. For Altman, his vision of America was always tangled up with media, entertainment and political grandstanding, concepts that for him are as American as apple pie. Altman’s actual bicentennial film, Buffalo Bill and the Indians, is similarly all about the mythmaking and exploitation of entertainment that are at the root of all power in American culture. In the modern era, surrounded by infotainment and political campaigns that are increasingly remote from reality, Altman’s satire seems truer than ever. The film is something of a time capsule, a portrait of the national mood at a particular time and place, but Nashville arguably says as much about our country today as it does about America in the ‘70s.
Jason Bellamy: That’s an interesting argument. “Prescient” might indeed be a word to apply to Nashville, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it’s “timely.” Quite the opposite, actually. Nashville is indeed a “time capsule, a portrait of the national mood at a particular time and place.” That’s perfectly stated. To suggest it is timely is to suggest this fictionalized world resembles our own, and I don’t think it does. It just points in this direction, hints at what’s next. I don’t want to send us on too distant a tangent here, but America today is worried about threats from outside, not threats from within. We are an increasingly cynical culture and an increasingly divided one, despite all the ways that technology has lumped us together. I mean, who sings the anthem that “we must be doing something right” anymore, even at those times when it’s true? Who ignores the political rhetoric of the Hal Phillip Walkers anymore, letting it drift through the ether? Who seeks to find fame with talent anymore? Who struggles to find a stage to be heard anymore? Nashville absolutely captures some of the emotion and tenor of its time. But the emotions and tenor of these times? I don’t see it.
There’s a quaintness to Nashville that I have a hard time applying to America 35 years later. There’s an earnestness to these characters that reminds me of simpler times. It seems to me that right now America is at war with itself. We begin this conversation in the aftermath of Scott Brown’s historically significant win in Massachusetts, which looks as if it will deny the key first-term objective of a president whose monumental election came only a year before. The repeated message of the past few years seems to be that America doesn’t know what it wants to become, it only wants to stop being what it is. If there is this kind of tension running through Nashville, I admit that I fail to detect it.
EH: See, for me, the dominant strain running through Nashville is exactly what you refer to in regards to today’s political climate: this conflict between idealism and cynicism, between the earnest hopes of these characters and their increasing resignation to the sad realities they have to settle for. I don’t want to make too much of these parallels between this 35-year-old film and a future it couldn’t possibly have predicted, but I guess what I’m saying is that Altman’s political satire is hardly “quaint,” by any means.
Indeed, I see our modern society in numerous moments and threads running through the film. There’s the inconsistency and shallowness of political engagement, ranging from the tireless cheerleading of Walker’s young campaigners (who at one point even paste campaign stickers on two cars that have just crashed into each other) to the disaffection of folk singer Tom (Keith Carradine), who doesn’t “vote for nobody for president.” There’s the Vietnam vet (Scott Glenn) who wanders through the film with haunted eyes, confronted with disinterest and disdain at every turn. There’s the naked cynicism of Walker’s campaign manager Triplette (Michael Murphy), whose manipulation and two-faced dealings are a stark contrast to the supposed idealism and populism of Walker’s campaign and the fresh-faced youths he surrounds himself with.
At the heart of the film’s political message is disillusionment and the destruction of ideals: The film’s icon of innocence and smiling purity, Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley), is literally destroyed, and many of the other characters encounter metaphorical destructions in various guises. The would-be star Sueleen (Gwen Welles) comes face to face with the depressing end result of her doomed do-anything quest for fame; she sacrifices her integrity and in her blank expression during the final scene, she realizes that it was for naught. Mr. Green (Keenan Wynn) loses his wife and realizes that no one seems to care or even notice. Far from being reminded of “simpler times,” I see this as a very cynical film, a film about corruption in its multitude of forms. It’s filled with distasteful characters, from Barbara Jean’s sleazy husband Barnett (Allen Garfield), who only cares about making money off of her career, even at the expense of her health, to the BBC documentarian Opal (Geraldine Chaplin), a blatant starfucker who will do anything to be close to the top, and who gets perhaps the best of many hilarious tossed-off lines when she tells Tom’s limo driver that she doesn’t “gossip with servants.” That’s without even mentioning the ways in which so many characters—Tom, Opal, casually trampy beanpole L.A. Joan (Shelley Duvall)—treat sexuality as a game to get what they want.
Arguably, only Albuquerque (Barbara Harris) really achieves her dream of a spotlight of her own, although that moment, the film’s finale, can best be described as a perfect example of “careful what you wish for.” Is this really earnestness and a lack of cynicism? Is this a portrait of a society less divided than our own, or a portrait of a society that upholds a threadbare illusion of unity and patriotism while beneath the surface it’s every bit as fragmented, self-absorbed and conflicted as our own?
JB: “Every bit as fragmented”? I don’t think so. But I see your point. Perhaps the key difference for me is that I detect an almost universal anger in American society today that I don’t see in Nashville. Hal Phillip Walker rants against everything, and yet the world around him is deaf to his anger. Indeed, even his campaigners seem indifferent to his messages. They just want to put on a good show. This is in stark contrast to what we saw in the last presidential election, for example, in which there were varying levels of “issue” comprehension among Americans but there was no shortage of passion or political identification. Sure, Scott Glenn’s Vietnam vet “wanders through the film with haunted eyes,” but do we really get any indication that he’s haunted by his wartime experiences? Or do we just assume that all men in uniform are the same? Opal makes that assumption, and the film uses it as yet another example of her foreign ignorance, the way she treats America like it’s Disneyland, so that a solider in uniform is as much a mascot as a teenager in a Mickey Mouse costume. And sure, Tom, the long-haired, free-loving folk singer, says he can’t vote for anyone and shows disdain for Glenn’s soldier. But do you detect any actual fervor in those comments, or are they just signs of a man who has bought into his own image? Heck, even Barbara Jean’s assassin doesn’t seem particularly upset about anything. He’s just mentally defective, eventually snapping at the sight of the American flag as if he’d spotted the Queen of Hearts in The Manchurian Candidate. As Manny Farber observed, these are “single note stereotypes.”
I don’t want to give the impression that these characters aren’t interesting. And I agree that this is a cynical film that is about corruption, in many ways. But Nashville still seems quaint to me, and, despite the unrelenting din of Hal Phillip Walker’s testimonials, I’m not sure this film is as explicitly political as we’ve made it sound to this point. If all the songs in Nashville were performed on behalf of Walker’s campaign, as endorsements of his proposals for change, why, yes, then this would feel timely. Under that structure, the assassination of Barbara Jean would be the buzzkill (akin to Scott Brown’s election?) exposing the naïveté of moments like 2009’s inauguration concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial—an event just over a year old that already seems quaint in its hopefulness for change and its belief that change was imminent. But Barbara Jean doesn’t sing on behalf of Walker. She’s completely ignorant of him and his politics. Today that would be impossible. In fact, today many artists seem as desperate to align themselves with politicians as politicians are eager to align themselves with artists. So, yes, Nashville’s depiction of self-absorption is certainly applicable to modern America. And Opal’s attention-span-challenged way of dealing with people is a perfect illustration of the Twitterverse, where even at 140 characters people do a whole lot more talking than listening, in my observation. But I think that’s where the timeliness mostly ends.
EH: Fair enough. As I said, I don’t want to overstress this point, and you’re right that Nashville doesn’t map exactly onto our current political situation, by any means. I never meant to suggest that it did; only that its themes and ideas remain resonant beyond their immediate “time capsule” context. What’s especially resonant in the film is the underlying uneasiness about American values and what it means to be American. You suggested that Haven Hamilton’s opening song—“we must be doing something right/ to last 200 years”—delivers a naïve sentiment that would be unimaginable today (outside of Fox News, no?). I would submit that not only was it also naïve in 1975, but that Haven is aware of the song’s naïveté, that he has his own internal doubts and insecurities about what he’s singing. Throughout that opening sequence, as the credits roll along the bottom of the screen, Altman’s camera patiently zooms in and out, mostly homing in on Haven’s face, capturing the uneasy expression in his eyes as he sings this patriotic ballad. His eyes shift from side to side, reflecting a note of nervousness beneath the song’s triumphant chorus, as though he’s fully aware of how absurd and vacant these words will seem to many people who don’t share this rosy view of America’s innate goodness. More than that, there’s a hint of fear in his face, as though he’s not quite so sure that America is in such good shape after all. By subtly undercutting the lyrics in this way, Altman turns Haven’s refrain from a forceful statement of American supremacy into a hesitant question: We must be doing something right, right?
Haven’s song, like so many others in the film, is intended as a cover-up, a gloss on more complicated ideas that no one wants to deal with or think about. Later in the film, Haven sings a rousing anthem called “Keep A’ Goin,” an ode to ignorance that advises people to deal with adversity by simply moving on, never stopping to think, as though all problems can be overcome by ignoring them: a message that might’ve been the theme song of the Bush years. Tellingly, Haven says it’s the song that made him a star; people love blind optimism. One dominant trope of the music in Nashville is that so few of these songs really mean what they say; there’s an ironic disconnect between reality and the fictions of music. In song after song, these characters dodge their true feelings and the true state of the world, offering up platitudes, not only about politics, but about romance, race and family values as well. (Haven’s ode to maintaining a marriage “for the sake of the children” is especially hilarious in light of his own apparent separation/divorce from his wife and public affair with another woman.)
The finale is probably the best example of all, as Albuquerque begins passionately singing “It Don’t Worry Me” at precisely the moment when, in fact, everyone should be worried, should be shaken by what has just happened. An American icon was just assassinated, but it don’t worry you? The audience should be fiercely protesting this banality in the face of tragedy. Instead, the song soothes the crowd’s uneasy mood, restoring tranquility and willful ignorance; by the time the film ends, everyone’s smiling again, swaying in time to the music, singing along. They’re not worried. But it’s not the moment of communal celebration that it might appear to be; it’s a moment of collective forgetting, of this massed crowd choosing happiness over consciousness, putting on blinders rather than acknowledging the corruption and violence pervading their society. Entertainment, like Haven’s politically regressive oeuvre, is a balm, a way of keeping people docile and unquestioning.
JB: Now we’re on the same page. At least mostly. I don’t see the same depth in Haven’s opening recording studio scene. I take that more or less on face value. We’ve got a guy who sings country music, which tends to be patriotic, and so he sings a patriotic song. I don’t detect a lot of thought or angst about the material. Haven strikes me as a professional making his living. A country music artist probably wouldn’t get very far tearing down America, just as it’s hard for a country music artist to get very far without wearing a cowboy hat—unless, of course, he makes up for it with an Elvis-like jumpsuit and a serious pair of sideburns. No question, Haven is obsessed with his image. Even his reaction to Barbara Jean’s assassination is image-based. “This isn’t Dallas!” he protests. “It’s Nashville!” He’s less concerned with the shooting of country music’s biggest star, the women whose return from supposed treatment at a burn center he used as an opportunity for a photo-op, than he is with the damage to Nashville’s reputation. If the illusion of Nashville dies, Haven’s status as an icon will die with it.
And yet when Haven pleads “Come on everybody, sing! Somebody, sing!” I detect a genuine concern there that I find endearing. You mentioned before that “Keep A’ Goin” could have been the theme song of the Bush administration, and along those lines Haven’s reaction to Barbara Jean’s assassination is his My Pet Goat moment. I know critics of Bush often use that 9/11 episode of inaction to highlight his fraudulence as a leader, and I see that argument, but I’ve always had extreme sympathy for him in that moment. He’s so human there. So overwhelmed. He has heard the news that America has been attacked but can’t comprehend it. Can’t believe it. For Haven it’s much the same. Just as Bush revealed something of his character by just sitting there, assuming someone would figure it out for him, Haven’s plea for song suggests that underneath it all he might really believe some of what he’s selling. Sure, it’s a bit pathetic that singing is the best thing he can suggest, but I detect in his plea a naïve belief that it will help. And so maybe Haven isn’t entirely insincere after all. This film is often extremely critical of its characters, but it operates with the idea that many of them are acting with mostly good intentions most of the time. Do you agree?
EH: I do. Whatever else Haven is, he really does seem to believe in the values and ideas in his songs, even when his own life and the world around him contradict everything he’s saying. If underneath it all there’s some hint of doubt, as I read into that opening scene, his instinctual reaction when things fall apart is to embrace his Nashville values, to encourage everybody to “keep a’ goin” in the face of tragedy. It’s not that different from our post-9/11 leaders urging Americans to “go shopping.” Don’t stop, don’t think, restore the status quo as quickly as possible. In both cases, the intentions are (presumably) good, it’s just a lack of substance that prevents more meaningful leadership. You’re right that Altman is critical of these characters, but for the most part he’s critical of their ignorance and simplistic thinking rather than any malice or ill will. Hypocrisy too, maybe, with Haven as the prime exemplar, as image-conscious and self-centered as you describe. I love that moment when he adjusts the microphone stand down to his height and his eyes again do that shifty, nervous thing that betrays his discomfort with his small physical stature in relation to his huge celebrity stature.
Altman has a lot of fun skewering this shallow celebrity mindset. Connie White (Karen Black) is portrayed as a crass opportunist, Barbara Jean’s rival who’s more or less openly using the more famous singer’s meltdown as a chance to advance her own career. She tries to be warm and playful on stage, but she’s a bitch offstage—contrast her awkwardly playing hide-and-seek with a wooden beam in a cramped bar to her despicably icy behavior with Barnett, who’s at least doing his best to be professional with her and mask his distaste. She seems somehow vacant, an empty vessel full of ambition and little more. Her banter is forced, as though she has trouble maintaining a pleasant façade. When she interacts with a trio of young fans, she can’t do more than vapidly repeat clichés, like telling them they could grow up to be president, as though politics hadn’t already been debunked as an honorable or desirable ambition. It’s fitting, though, to the extent that Altman is drawing parallels between the thirst for political power and the thirst for fame; they are interrelated ambitions, both founded on a belief that talent by itself doesn’t rise to the top, that you also need a good campaign.
Altman further mocks the idolatry of celebrity with cameo appearances by Elliott Gould and Julie Christie, playing themselves. The country musicians are almost entirely ignorant of these Hollywood stars, but it hardly matters. They have no idea who Gould is, but can’t wait to meet him once they find out he’s a big actor. By the same token, Connie White thinks Haven is joking when he tells her Julie Christie is a famous actress; she doesn’t look like anything special, Connie says, so how can she be famous? These are people who think that fame conveys some kind of magical aura on a person, that the famous are intrinsically better than everyone else. Opal thinks the same way, as evidenced by that great scene where she’s listening to a song by Haven’s son Bud (Dave Peel), intently focusing on his soft singing until her attention is distracted by the arrival of Gould. Her concentration broken, she becomes nearly ecstatic, forgets about poor non-famous Bud entirely, and rushes over to hop around Gould like a hyperactive puppy. Opal might be British, but this kind of attitude, this obsession with fame and status and appearance, is one that Altman undoubtedly sees as distinctively American.
JB: What’s interesting about Opal is that she thinks of herself as a celebrity peer, even as she’s bowing down to them. She seems to think that by being around these stars she has somehow become one of them. She’s like someone you’d see performing interviews on the red carpet on Oscar night, expecting the stars to be just as excited to see her as she is to see them. She has sex with Tom, who clearly has no interest in her beyond getting himself off, but she treats their sexual encounter as if it’s a natural byproduct of the celebrity circle that she believes they both belong to. Because she has a microphone and because she works for the BBC, she doesn’t realize that she’s just a regular old groupie. Nothing more.
She’s also blind to the fact that Tom is deeply unhappy, and not just in a poetic, ballad-singer-job-requirement sort of way. In fairness, Opal doesn’t see enough of Tom that she should detect his unhappiness. But the point is that she can’t imagine that he could be unhappy, just like Connie can’t believe Julie Christie is famous because she doesn’t have the hairstyle of a beauty pageant contestant. Opal believes that the life of a celebrity must be unceasingly extraordinary, and yet she is blind to that fact the she’s part of the hype machine that has created that myth. In Opal’s mind, Elliott Gould must have a glamorous reason for being in Nashville, for example. This is a woman who tries to make a lot full of school buses exciting (“yellow dragons watching me with their hollow, vacant eyes”), yet she can’t spot her place in the celebrity machine. She can’t comprehend that she’s seeing these celebrities the way she wants to see them, because in enhancing their myths she enhances her own feelings of self-worth.
Nashville repeatedly shows that for all the attention we give to celebrities, and that celebrities give to themselves, the person beyond the hype is lost. Heck, the presidential candidate Hal Phillip Walker never even shows himself. He’s faceless. Then there’s Tom, in love with a married woman and unable to let even her know how much. And of course there’s Barbara Jean. By the time she has her performance breakdown, there can be no doubt that her previous hospitalization must have been related to mental or emotional trauma, not a physical ailment. She’s a woman who is cracking, and while her husband certainly doesn’t look out for her best personal interests (more on him later, I hope), her fans don’t either. When she has a breakdown trying to perform, getting lost telling stories about her youth, the audience reacts not with sympathy for their beloved icon but with anger. Her job is to entertain them. That’s their reward for showing up at the airport, pretending to care about her well being when clearly they were just hoping to get close enough to catch a glimpse. Nashville demonstrates how we, the public, want to know everything we can about our celebrity heroes until we learn something that disappoints us. And then we hold them responsible.
EH: What I love about Altman’s approach to this subject is how thoroughly he strips away those illusions about celebrity, how completely he tears down the ideas about glamor and happiness and “extraordinary” lives—and not in a trashy behind-the-scenes tabloid way, either, but with a casual acknowledgement that celebrities are merely human. When Delbert (Ned Beatty) realizes that Elliott Gould is “somebody,” he falls all over himself apologizing for not treating him better; Del hadn’t actually been rude to Gould when he thought he was just some guy, but he hadn’t given him the red carpet treatment either. He’s apologizing for not treating Gould like a king, and Gould mumbles an embarrassed demurral: “I’m just like anybody else.” And that’s the point. That’s the point, also, of Barbara Jean’s breakdown, and of the scene where she sits in a darkened hospital room with Barnett, painting her toenails and getting angry at the radio when Connie comes on. It’s an intimate scene, stripped down, far away from the bustle of the Grand Ole Opry and the constant celebrity buzz that usually surrounds Barbara Jean even in the hospital. Instead, it’s simply a human moment, a moment of disconnection between a depressed wife and a callous husband, a moment of prosaic activity. When she’s not on stage—and often, even when she is—Barbara Jean is just like anybody else. That’s arguably what sets her apart from the other performers in the film, like Haven and Connie, who are constantly at least trying to maintain a persona.
The film is also very sharp in probing how celebrity is created and manufactured, how carefully the celebrity image is honed to present a certain impression. This applies especially to political celebrities. You say Walker is “faceless,” which is true, but his very anonymity allows him to present known faces and known names as surrogates, which is the whole idea behind the concert that Triplette’s putting together. At one point, someone looks at a poster of Connie bedecked with Walker slogans and cracks that Walker “looks just like Connie White!” It’s a funny comment on the way that famous faces become just so much fodder for marketing materials.
JB: It’s also another comment about how disinterested many Americans are about politics—the business end of it, as opposed to the theatrics. Speaking of that dichotomy, I suppose this is as good a time as any to loop back to discuss Barnett, Barbara Jean’s husband and manager. We’ve both been critical of him, but I wanted to spend a moment to argue in his defense. Because while it can safely be said that Barnett puts more effort into his role as manager than his role as husband, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that he “only cares about making money off of [Barbara Jean’s] career, even at the expense of her health.” As professionally focused as he is and as cold as he can be to Barbara Jean in terms of what you might expect from a marriage, he’s actually quite protective of her. He’s simply protecting her career more than her sanity.
I know that sounds unforgivable, but what evidence do we have that their marriage is anything more than a business relationship? When do we see Barbara Jean treat Barnett the way we’d expect a wife to treat a husband? Instead, she’s a child, and he’s in the role of the stage-managing parent. It isn’t pretty, and Barnett certainly isn’t to be admired for his callousness, but I think the Barnett-Barbara Jean relationship isn’t there to illustrate his corruption but to point out the corruption of the celebrity system—a game in which even mental illness must be ignored if one hopes to stay on top. If we see the marriage of Barnett and Barbara Jean as a manager-client relationship, his dogged efforts to keep her performing are, in a strange way, acts of caring. His job is to protect her career, and he sees her celebrity as the most important thing worth protecting—for her as much as him. The tragedy, as we’ve mentioned before, is that Barbara Jean has no one close to her who cares about the woman beyond the celebrity.
What’s most distasteful about Barnett, to me, isn’t his condescending treatment of Barbara Jean, which is somewhat offset by his overall concern. It’s the way he’s constantly huffing and puffing about the demands placed on him as manager. Like Opal, he wants to make himself seem as important as the celebrities around him. And like almost everyone in this film, he deems the suffering of others to be an inconvenience for him.
EH: Yes, if there’s a dominant trait shared by many of these characters, it’s definitely selfishness. The film is structured by different stories interlocking, by the characters crossing paths in a single city, but despite that there are very few moments of genuine empathy between two people. Wade (Robert DoQui) comforting and advising Sueleen after her disastrous humiliation as a stripper is perhaps the most prominent example. He’s honest and direct with her, knowing that she’s on a path towards inevitable ruin. He clearly cares about her and doesn’t want to see her get hurt, so he has the courage to tell her a possibly hurtful truth that she nevertheless needs to hear. That kind of human warmth and selflessness is so rare in this film that it’s startling when two characters actually connect beyond a superficial level. For the most part, these people are utterly wrapped up in themselves: even the soldier, one of the more sympathetic characters, is so excited about going to see Barbara Jean sing that he completely overlooks the grief of Mr. Green, with whom he’d formed a bit of companionship previously.
People often sum up the “network narrative” approach to storytelling as being about multiple characters coming together, crossing paths, their separate lives intersecting. The idea is that our lives are connected to the lives of others, that we’re not alone; that’s certainly one point of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, probably the best homage to Altman’s ensemble pieces. But in Nashville, most of these characters never intersect with others in any meaningful way. Even in crowds, they’re always alone. The extent of the interactions between separate stories within the film is thus limited to a walk-on part in the background or a brief moment of superficial conversation. As often as these characters show up in the same places—and within the same frame—they seldom go further than simply existing in the same physical space.
One intersection that initially seems like it’s going to be deeper than that is the relationship between folk singer Tom and gospel singer Linnea (Lily Tomlin), who’s married to Delbert and is raising two deaf children pretty much by herself, since Del seems frankly baffled by the complicated gestures of sign language. Throughout the film, Tom continually hounds Linnea by telephone, suggesting that they get together, and it’s obvious from his persistence that she’s not just another conquest like Opal or even his bandmate Mary (Christina Raines). Then Linnea goes to see him perform and he sings a song seemingly meant just for her—even though most of the other women in the bar assume it’s intended for them. But when Linnea leaves him after the sex, Tom makes a big show of calling another girlfriend before she’s even left, trying to hurt her. Linnea barely flinches; one gets the feeling that she wasn’t there for Tom so much as the excitement of being pursued and desired again.
There’s so much rich subtext flowing through these scenes, because even though this is a familiar story—the neglected wife, the ladies’ man who unexpectedly falls in love and doesn’t know how to deal with it—Altman doesn’t allow the characters to be mere clichés. Instead, Delbert isn’t a jerk so much as he is in over his head; he genuinely doesn’t get his wife’s connection to their kids, and feels lost whenever he tries to follow one of these “conversations” that take place half in sign language and half in garbled speech. There’s even something moving about the way Altman captures the confused, nervous expression on his face whenever he’s with his kids; it’s hard not to feel for this simple guy who doesn’t know how to talk to his own children, or his wife for that matter. Tom, for his part, tries to maintain the façade of his philandering ways, but it comes off as hollow since he can’t hide how much Linnea means to him. And Linnea, who seems so fragile and shy, turns out to be capable of hardness and forcefulness in leaving Tom; she basically uses him for a night of fun, a chance to feel wanted, but she never intends to make it more than that. The whole scenario is a very clever subversion of expectations about this kind of melodramatic subplot, suggesting a grand romance only to offer up more sexual exploitation and confused feelings.
JB: The scenes you point out are indeed very clever, but I suppose it’s time we get to this: I don’t find this to be a particularly stimulating film. More on that in a second. First, let me go back to the “I’m Easy” concert performance, because it is the first of several captivating scenes that close out the film. Tom’s supposed ode to Linnea is at once simple and complex, both straightforward and ambiguous. When he announces that he’s singing a song he wrote for someone in the audience, we know that several women will assume ownership of the dedication. Only the equally moronic Opal and L.A. Joan could think the song is for them after their one-night-stands, and of course they do, both of them barely trying to hide their smiles. Then there’s Mary, looking both scared and sad, maybe because she thinks the lyrics are for her and fears that her husband will read between the lines, or maybe because she’s so desperately in love with Tom and knows deep down that his heart lies elsewhere. And finally there’s Linnea, who Altman repeatedly finds in the back of the room, statue-still, hidden behind the heads of the crowd. Linnea hardly seems to breathe. Is she overwhelmed by her feelings for Tom or just his feelings for her? Is she imagining what her life might be like if she wasn’t a mother with so much responsibility? Is she simply in shock? It’s hard to say. A few scenes later, Linnea and Tom are in bed, and their relationship is intimate and tender but it’s hardly sexual, even though they’ve clearly just had sex. Linnea looks at him almost with a mother’s eyes. And what Tom sees in her we can’t begin to guess. Maybe he keeps advancing simply because she keeps retreating. Or maybe he really does feel “easy” in her presence. Regardless, it’s fitting that Linnea gets up to leave Tom’s bed right as his recording of “I’m Easy” stops playing in the background. For her, their relationship is a fantasy. It’s a love song—intense but fleeting.
I love those scenes. Tragic though it is, I love the moment between those scenes when Sueleen is forced to strip for applause and a chance to sing with her idol. I love the frenzy of the concert at the Parthenon, both before the assassin fires and afterward. But otherwise Nashville leaves me rather cold. In one of her most famous raves, Pauline Kael called it “an orgy for movie lovers—but an orgy without excess.” She wrote, “It’s a pure emotional high, and you don’t come down when the picture is over; you take it with you.” Frankly, I don’t know what she’s talking about. Beyond its final act, or maybe I should say final third, because Nashville certainly doesn’t follow a typical dramatic arc, I find the film all too easy to ignore. Altman frequently captures his subjects in long shots that prevent us from looking too deeply into these characters, and his famous overlapping dialogue often seems more noisome than symphonic. His film is interesting to dissect, as we’ve already demonstrated, but I don’t find it especially rewarding. In fact, sometimes I get the distinct impression that it’s just wasting time.
EH: Well, the thing is: sometimes it is just wasting time. It’s often said about filmmakers, as high praise, that not a moment is wasted in their work, but I don’t think that really applies to Altman—or, indeed, to many other filmmakers I love, among them Jacques Rivette, John Cassavetes, BÈla Tarr, Maurice Pialat and Altman’s obvious influence, Howard Hawks. What these directors, so different in so many ways, have in common is a willingness to spend time watching something that doesn’t have an obvious “point,” something that simply is. I actually have a lot of admiration for directors who aren’t afraid to meander, to observe rather than dictate. Maybe I don’t quite share Kael’s enthusiasm for this film—it doesn’t overwhelm me as it obviously did her—but in contrast to you I find it an endlessly rewarding, stimulating film, a film that just keeps revealing more depths the more I watch and think about it. If Altman’s film is full of individual moments that might seem pointless or excessive in isolation, they cumulatively add up to something that’s rich and complex and multi-faceted, that has all sorts of things to say about politics, relationships, show business and America.
What characterizes Nashville for me is Altman’s keen sense of observation. It’s fitting that we keep returning to scenes, to individual moments, because the film is structured very episodically, as a series of pointillist details. Some of these details are fascinating, others maybe aren’t. There are scenes I find tiresome, like the parts of the picnic sequence that don’t involve Opal or Elliott Gould. There are, as I’d like to get to later, some musical numbers that I have problems with. There are moments that don’t really go anywhere, and I’m not sure I get the point of Jeff Goldblum’s near-silent biker. So it’s ironic that Kael claims the film is “without excess,” since excess might just be its defining characteristic. It’s flabby, it’s messy, it’s uneven. It sometimes could be accused of wasting time, or at least spending time on things that might not be strictly necessary.
I can see why that would be frustrating for some, but then that looseness kind of comes with the territory when you’re watching an Altman film. I appreciate his sensibility because he’s so open to letting his characters simply be themselves rather than forcing them into a plot; they all wind up where they’re supposed to be at the end, of course, but I think it’s to Altman’s credit that they seem to have wandered there of their own accord rather than being moved along by the demands of plot. His improvisatory approach leaves plenty of room for diversions, for small character insights, for the kinds of revealing, psychologically probing scenes we’ve been talking about all through this conversation. If the film is on occasion less than enthralling, it is at other points virtually overflowing with wit, passion and emotional complexity. At one point, Haven’s mistress Lady Pearl (Barbara Baxley), over the course of a lengthy conversation with a flustered Opal, nearly breaks down as she remembers the Kennedy brothers and the extreme disillusionment she felt in the wake of their assassinations. It’s the kind of masterful, layered moment (and there are many of them) that, for me, justifies the film’s meanderings.
JB: In principle, meandering is certainly justifiable. There’s something to be said for allowing the drama to breathe. In our conversation about Quentin Tarantino we discussed his habit of slowing the drama to an almost painful degree so as to heighten the impact of his film’s explosive moments. In Tarantino films, the payoff is usually a burst of action—the car chase in Death Proof or the exchange of bullets in the tavern sequence of Inglourious Basterds, to name just two. With Nashville, Altman operates much the same way, albeit with dramatic elements that are more subdued. The performance of “I’m Easy” is so profoundly moving precisely because it comes late in the movie and directly follows one among the handful of performances that isn’t particularly evocative of the film’s themes. When Tom starts playing his guitar, we settle in for Yet Another Song, only to be blown away by all that follows in that scene—far more “drama,” if you will, than during any other performance. A short while later, Altman lulls us to sleep again with Barbara Jean’s performance at the Parthenon, which brings a calm that’s then shattered by the assassin’s bullet. In that way, Nashville’s meandering is effective, and I wouldn’t begin to pretend otherwise.
But at the same time I’m flummoxed when some cinephiles praise a director’s “willingness to spend time watching something that doesn’t have an obvious ’point,’” to borrow your phrase. Because, to play with the semantics a bit, what you’re praising is pointlessness, and how is that a good thing? I want to be clear that I’m not arguing with some fundamentalist’s love of plot and efficiency. I do appreciate films that are rather loose around the edges. I endorse the notion of filmmakers taking risks and of observing mundane acts as if they are profound (because often they can be). Every film doesn’t need a ticking time bomb providing a sense of urgency. Still, sometimes the praise for or defense of these entirely unnecessary and unproductive bits of filler—the Jeff Goldblum character is a particularly good example—seems misguided. To my ear, there’s frequently an anti-establishment ring to such arguments, a sense that Altman is sticking it to the (Hollywood) man by refusing to play by the “rules.” But there’s a contradiction in that. If there are no rules, or shouldn’t be, then Altman isn’t such a maverick after all. When a scene in Nashville stretches on beyond any usefulness, I don’t see anything particularly brave about that (which isn’t to imply that it’s cowardly), nor do I immediately assume that there is depth to be found in the emptiness. I guess the point I’m trying to make is that while some of Nashville’s meandering does have a cumulative effect that we might not feel in our immediate exposure to it, I’m suspicious whenever I feel like meaninglessness and even tedium is presented as worthwhile art. Maybe this is subjective, but I want a film filled with images selected by the director with a “why” in mind, not a “why not.”
EH: Those are some strong words there. I should be clear that, though not every scene or character in Nashville moves or interests me equally, I think Nashville as a whole is one of Altman’s masterworks. The lulls in the film, the supposedly wasted time you’re complaining about, represent moments when we’re allowed to settle into the rhythms of these characters’ lives: We watch Linnea conversing through sign language with her kids, or everyone going to their churches of choice for Sunday Mass, or Sueleen stuffing her bra while she rehearses, or Tom’s limo driver goofing around on a borrowed guitar. Are these scenes strictly necessary? Not really, not in the sense of adding significantly to the film’s themes or plot. If you were so inclined, you could probably cut all the scenes I just mentioned and the film’s “point” would remain unchanged. But its feel, its texture, would be altered—and for the worse, in my opinion.
The sprawl and supposed “waste” of Altman’s filmmaking is essential to the mood he creates. Daily life is sprawling, daily life is full of moments that don’t neatly tie together with everything else. It’s the richness of the detail in Altman’s films that sets them apart from those of other, more conventional directors. His refusal to play by the rules isn’t just a hollow rebellious stance, as you imply; it’s a deeply considered aesthetic choice that stems from his conviction that the mundane matters as much as things that might more obviously be deemed meaningful. I think it’s a big mistake to assume, from the looseness of Altman’s storytelling, that he has a “why not” approach, as though he doesn’t think about what’s in his films. That’s a pretty common assumption about Altman—most annoyingly put forward by Richard Schickel—and it’s frustrating because it’s so clearly remote from the experience of the films themselves. Altman’s films are densely detailed; his ensemble pieces, especially, are textural rather than narrative, with each brushstroke, no matter how seemingly incidental, contributing to the bigger picture.
Again and again, in throwaway details and brief scenes, Altman probes these characters, telling their stories as often as not beneath the surface, in the expressions on their faces, their subtle body language and gestures, and even the songs they sing. You earlier suggested that “Since You’ve Gone,” the song sung by Tom, Bill (Allan Nicholls) and Mary prior to “I’m Easy,” was simply “Yet Another Song,” but actually it’s yet another case of Altman using the film’s music to tell stories and explore the emotions of the characters. It’s a lost-love ballad, and Altman of course focuses on Mary, pointedly directing the words at Tom, who’s totally ignoring her. After a while, Altman even narrows the frame so that Mary’s oblivious husband Bill is cut out of the picture entirely, and the song’s lyrics about heartache are framed as Mary’s poignant, doomed attempt to communicate the extent of her love to Tom. It’s especially great when juxtaposed against the next scene, in which Tom more successfully sings his love to Linnea from across the room; Mary and Tom are standing right next to each other but seem to be in separate worlds, while Linnea and Tom are somehow linked from a distance. Maybe an even better example of the film’s attention to detail: Tom disdainfully throwing Mary’s sweater to her as she leaves the stage, the kind of gestural touch that works as an exclamation point to the sequence’s portrayal of shattered relationships. If you’re flummoxed by those who praise Altman’s wanderings, I’m even more flummoxed by those who don’t see that his laissez faire methods actually yield so much depth and complexity that it can’t possibly be accidental.
JB: But, see, “Since You’ve Gone” isn’t that deep or complex. The truth is, Mary looks at Tom only a few moments more than she looks at her husband Bill. Mostly she just stares off into the distance. And just when the scene starts to feel poignant, Altman pulls back and then cuts away, to Wade’s obnoxious singing in the back and to Opal being Opal. So what we’ve really got is a standard love ballad that we can easily attach to the love triangle we’re already aware of. Deep? Complex? Hardly. Mary is a singer owning her song. I see little in the way Altman presents this performance that suggests this song absolutely owns her, the way that the lyrics of “I’m Easy” seem to own Tom. Heck, Lloyd Dobler has more conviction when he holds a boombox over his head in Say Anything….
Having said that, it’s by no means “accidental” that Mary is singing about, of all things, a broken heart. But in that scene, like others, Altman thwarts our ability to connect. Earlier in the film, Lady Pearl’s heartfelt reminiscing over John F. Kennedy is one of the few times we’re allowed to look one of the characters in the eye. Usually, as during much of “Since You’ve Gone,” Altman captures characters from an angle or from a distance, cutting away at every opportunity, faithful to a fault to his code of chaos. The overlapping soundtracks add to the aloofness and the sense that the milieu is more important than anything that happens within it. In recent years many (but certainly not all) cinephiles have objected to the rapid-cut style of Paul Greengrass or to the 3-D experimentations of films like Avatar on the grounds that they are either gimmicky or assaultive or both. But Altman is playing much of the same game in Nashville, refusing to let us focus, implying that the noise of humanity is more interesting than any of the individual voices that create it. Paul Thomas Anderson is noted for making Altmanesque films, but his ensemble pictures like Boogie Nights and Magnolia are far more surgical.
The moments you mentioned above—Linnea with her kids, Sueleen stuffing her bra, etc.—aren’t what I see as “lulls” in the film. Those are what draw me to Nashville, what gives the film its heart. Those are the moments when Altman allows us to connect. And let me be clear: there are lots of those moments. But there are just as many in which the visual and aural chaos imply not complexity but insignificance. In saying this, I don’t want to be as dismissive of Altman as Schickel is when he argues that “the greats all share intentionality, the need to direct our attention to something that was on their minds. They did not leave their people flopping around until something printable happened.” The first part I obviously sort of agree with. But the second part is pure poppycock, implying that improvisation—by directors or actors—is inherently flawed. What rubbish! “Intentionality,” after all, is practiced when a director decides to continue shooting or to stick with what’s in the can. It’s exhibited most powerfully in the editing room, when the film takes its final shape. Schickel’s takedown of Altman implies that improvisation is sin and that any true artist would rigidly adhere to a storyboard. That said, I can’t pretend that I find depth or complexity in Altman’s repeated refusal to specify.
EH: I just don’t believe that Altman’s attention to the overall “noise of humanity” negates the individuals within that cacophony. It’s true that Altman seldom sticks with any one person for an extended period of time, but instead allows the bits and pieces of character detail we see throughout the film to cumulatively build character and emotional nuance. And it’s true that the “Since You’ve Gone” sequence is not a narrowly focused expression of Mary’s feelings for Tom, nor is it as powerful as Tom’s performance of “I’m Easy,” which I’d agree is one of the film’s high points. Altman is not the type to do one thing at a time—he’s a true cinematic multitasker—so during the course of the scene he cuts away to comic snippets of Wade and Opal. But, for me, the meaning of the song, and its connection to Mary, comes through loud and clear, if only in that final moment when she turns to face Tom head-on and fixes him with a fiery stare. And throughout much of the rest of the song Altman is cutting between two-shots and three-shots, shuffling through various combinations of the love triangle’s three points, and also indulging in his characteristic probing zoom, so that several times during the song he starts with a medium shot and then homes in on a closeup of Mary, further enforcing the fact that this performance is primarily about her.
In Nashville and Altman’s other great “network” films, the ensemble cast and the continually shifting focus ensure that the film is more about the group than any one individual. But while you see this as a failing, I see it as a sign of Altman’s democratic sensibility, his commitment to telling everyone’s story rather than putting the emphasis on a conventional center. To use Opal’s dismissive phrase, Altman likes to gossip with the servants. Sometimes literally, as in Gosford Park. Altman’s aesthetic is a matter of constantly directing our attention to this or that moment or line; it’s why I see Schickel’s criticisms as so absurd. Far from never asserting his intentionality, Altman is constantly directing us to look, to listen, to pay attention in order to extract the tidbits of character and incident that are always popping up out of the seeming chaos of his busy scenes. For all the noise and bustle within his frames, Altman never lets us forget that the group he’s documenting is composed of individuals, each of them with their own histories, emotions and stories to tell. If he doesn’t tell, say, the story of Mary or of Sueleen as fully as he might have if he’d made a conventional feature film based around one of these characters, he still offers up enough nuance, enough subtext, that we can fill in the blanks ourselves. That, too, is part of his democratic spirit, his willingness to leave some room for the viewer to find his or her own path through this material.
JB: Gosh, it sure sounds good when you describe it. I just can’t say I feel it. Earlier I mentioned Boogie Nights, a film with one well-developed character (Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk Diggler), two sort-of developed characters (Burt Reynolds’ Jack Horner and Julianne Moore’s Amber Waves) and everybody else. And yet I feel like I know those “everybody else” characters as well as I know anyone in Nashville. A good example might be Don Cheadle’s Buck Swope, who spends most of Anderson’s film looking for his signature style. Is Buck any deeper or more complex than Haven Hamilton? I don’t think so. Is he more significantly tied to a conventional plot? Only slightly. And yet I connect with him, instantly and effortlessly. I can only presume that it’s because Anderson is willing to let Buck own his own shots from time to time, without any sort of distraction. And yet Anderson is certainly “multitasking” in Boogie Nights, too, is he not?
It seems to me that sometimes within Nashville the extreme “multitasking” isn’t the means to an end but is the end itself. Interestingly, I didn’t fully come to this conclusion until I watched Altman’s final film, A Prairie Home Companion. It’s a terrific film, both as a stand-alone and as a tribute to Garrison Keillor’s beloved radio program, and yet for all the ways it nods back to Nashville, I found it comparatively uncluttered. Uncluttered, that is, except for the scenes between Tomlin and Meryl Streep as, respectively, Rhonda and Yolanda Johnson. Sitting backstage and chattering away, over the top of one another and over the sounds of the broadcast being piped back into their dressing room, it struck me that those scenes felt almost like a parody of Altman. That is, Tomlin and Streep were no longer acting within an Altman world but were very consciously “doing Altman,” if you understand my meaning. Those scenes felt unfortunately empty to me, and I can only conclude that there’s a link between that reaction and how I repeatedly feel underwhelmed by Nashville.
Maybe we’re in entirely subjective territory here. Maybe my ear feels the kind of dizziness that some people complained of experiencing when trying to watch Avatar in 3-D. Maybe I have too hard a time listening broadly to catch the specifics, just like some people watching 3-D can’t help but focus on specific blurry edges rather than taking in the panoramas. But while I agree with you that Altman’s approach ensures that Nashville “is more about the group than any one individual,” and while I recognize that it’s that approach that makes the film such a marvelous time capsule, I remain convinced that the chaos of his compositions sometimes slips into vacuity and gimmickry. Kael praised the film in part by saying that Altman had “evolved an organic style of moviemaking that tells a story without the clanking of plot,” and that’s true. Then again, the furious clanking of the multiple soundtracks is anything but organic.
EH: The big difference between Boogie Nights and Nashville (other than the fact that one is about porn) is, as you mention, the strong central character. Dirk Diggler’s dominance of the film makes it more of a conventional narrative—the hero with everyone else grouped around him—rather than the rambling looseness of Nashville, where there’s no true center. To me, that means that Haven Hamilton is more important, and more fleshed-out, in Nashville than Buck or any other non-Dirk character is in Boogie Nights. Anderson’s film tells Dirk’s story, and anyone else who appears is ancillary to that, while Altman is interested in checking in on everyone’s stories. For Altman, everyone’s the hero for as long as he or she is on screen. I don’t want to belabor my point, and I’m not trying to suggest that one aesthetic is superior to the other; they’re just different ways of thinking about narrative and character. I do like Boogie Nights, too, though I think it’s Anderson’s weakest film. But the two films have dramatically different approaches despite Altman’s influence on the younger director. Dirk’s epic quest for self-fulfillment is the usual (anti-)heroic narrative while Altman’s aesthetic is democratic and diffuse: it discourages treating any one character like his story is the only truly important one.
Your other comparison, to Altman’s great final film A Prairie Home Companion, is more apt, particularly in that both films express character and drama through music and performance. Which brings me to one point that I’ve been meaning to get to: At times during Nashville, I feel like certain musical performances are far better as expressions of character than as actually entertaining music. Sure, “I’m Easy” is a great song in addition to a particularly revealing one, but that’s not always true. I was especially bored to tears during much of the Grand Ole Opry sequence, because the songs sung by Connie White and Tommy Brown are just so painfully dull. The thing is, I’m pretty sure they’re dull by design, and part of the point is that Connie and Tommy are generic, boring performers. Altman encouraged the actors to write and perform their own music, music that expressed something about these characters, and they responded with songs that these middle-of-the-road second-stringers might really sing.
The dullness of Tommy’s song is especially thematically relevant, since he’s a black singer who is widely regarded as having sanitized and muted his image in order to fit in as part of a mostly white scene. He’s called out earlier as being “the whitest nigger in town,” and when we hear him sing we understand why Wade says that. Connie’s story is simpler: She’s a pale stand-in for Barbara Jean, a singer with real passion and heart, and Connie’s songs lack any of the energy or enthusiasm with which Barbara Jean sings. When Barbara Jean sings, one senses that she’s pouring everything of herself into the song, which is why when she loses it she slips so easily into rambling, confessional storytelling on stage. That could never happen to Connie, who seems to put nothing of herself into her music. All of which is to say that the very dullness of these songs adds to the portrayal of the characters who sing them, but the fact remains that for a long stretch of time there, while these people are performing, there’s nothing to do but admire Altman’s commitment to capturing their blankness, their lack of anything to say. Haven also sings awful songs, but at least they’re entertainingly, humorously awful, as when he fidgets like a perfectionist during the opening recording session, tweaking his terrible patriotic mess like it’s a masterpiece.
Now I also say this in full awareness that you could turn around and tell me you loved those songs. Taste is always especially subjective, and that’s why I hesitate to read too much into my numbed reaction to those tunes. But it does bring up another question regarding musicals, which are often thought of as living or dying on the strength of their songs. Is that necessarily the case? Can a film that’s heavily reliant on music use “bad” music in interesting ways, as I’d argue Nashville does?
JB: Clearly it can. I’d agree with you that many of the songs in Nashville are limp, and maybe that’s part of the reason why Altman is so willing to cut away from them. At the same time, though, he clearly hangs with some songs much longer than necessary. You said that in these moments there’s “nothing to do but admire Altman’s commitment to capturing [the songs’] blankness,” but I’d swap the word “endure” with “admire.” To jump back a topic, maybe that’s part of what puzzles me so much about the presentation of “Since You’ve Gone.” That’s a song that’s filled with emotion and ripe with the potential for depth. So, of all the songs in Nashville, why is that one of the few (the only?) songs that Altman doesn’t capture as it’s concluding? (His camera is elsewhere, on Opal, as the song comes to an end.) You made a cogent argument that Altman didn’t need to leave the camera on Mary or the performance overall because the meaning “comes through loud and clear” as-is. OK. Fair enough. But then why hang with Haven for so much of his two-song set at the Opry? Why hang with Barbara Jean through two songs before her meltdown in her abbreviated comeback performance? Why give Connie’s performances so much attention? Most of the time, as you’ve suggested, we can understand the meaning of these songs and how they relate to the characters by the end of the first chorus. So why repeatedly give us more than we need? “I’m Easy” isn’t just one of the more pleasing songs, it’s also one of the most complex performances—ever evolving, lacing together multiple characters. By contrast, “Keep A’ Goin’” doesn’t evolve. It just is.
Despite my objections to the way Altman’s presentation seems illogically off-balance—not enough of the performances I want to hear and too much of the ones I don’t—I don’t deny their overall effect. So the answer is that, yes, “bad” music can be used in “interesting” ways. But I don’t think we should be hesitant to call boring material boring. And I don’t think we should rush to assume that every moment is truly “by design,” or that every design is necessary or successful. When a song in Nashville fails to evolve from its first chorus to its third, the continuation of the song becomes needless repetition, turning Nashville into the guy wearing a belt and suspenders. The approach is defensibly “by design,” sure, but it’s not exactly impressive.
That said, I’m curious what Altman thinks he’s getting out of some of these extended, limitedly illuminating performances. In the case of the performances at the Opry, frankly, I think he’s in love with the setting and the ability to give us a rare performer’s-eye-view from the iconic stage. But that puzzles me, too, because despite its trappings I assume you’ll agree with me that Nashville isn’t actually about Nashville. It’s about America. Nashville merely provides Altman with a colorful milieu. This film is no more about its location than Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited is about India. (If Nashville were just about Nashville, its criticisms could all too easily be dismissed by the masses.) But it seems to me that sometimes Altman convinces himself—for a scene, a song or a shot—that his film is about Nashville, too. Maybe that would explain why he hangs with some lackluster songs for so long. Maybe he really thinks he’s telling us something about country music. What do you think?
EH: What is he telling us, then? That country music sucks? I don’t think Altman ever really intended to say anything about country music. Altman is just using the country music capital as a convenient microcosm of America as a whole. Still, you’re right that there are stretches of this film—notably the interminable Opry sequence—where it seems like Altman’s trying to deliver a pseudo-documentary on country music. I think he’s just trying to convey this milieu and maybe goes overboard. These scenes, where we watch, if not whole, unedited performances, then at least very lengthy ones with periodic cutaways, are the ones where I’d agree with your criticism that some scenes stretch out longer than necessary. Altman is good at infusing subtext, emotion and depth into musical performances—“I’m Easy,” “Since You’ve Gone,” Sueleen’s terrible croaking and lame attempts to be sexy, Lindsay Lohan’s multilayered performance in A Prairie Home Companion, even all the hilarious Harry Nilsson musical numbers in Popeye—but at other times you’re right that these songs have basically one point (Haven’s a hypocrite, Connie’s shallow, Tommy’s whitewashed) and the point comes across long before the songs are over. It says something, too, that as we’ve gone through this conversation, “I’m Easy” and “Since You’ve Gone”—hell, even “200 Years,” annoying as it is—have repeatedly gotten stuck in my head, but I barely even remember a lot of the other numbers.
That said, I’d rank Barbara Jean’s songs at her comeback show among the better ones in the film; there’s no comparison between that great scene and the dragging Connie performances. The lyrics in these songs reflect a longing for a comfy childhood and lost love, themes that obviously resonate with a woman who is adrift and unhappy in her current life, but more than that these songs are opportunities for Barbara Jean to pour herself into her music. She is one of the few characters in this film who purely enjoys singing (Albuquerque is another), and her performances are consequently both joyous and devastating. She howls about heartache and nostalgia with a wide, genuine smile, taking pleasure in the art of performance even as the lyrics reflect an inner pain. That’s why I wouldn’t agree with you when you lump Barbara Jean’s songs in with the less satisfying performances from the film. I love the genuineness of Barbara Jean during those songs. The obvious catharsis she gets out of performing only makes her emotional collapse (and, later, her death) all the more poignant. It’s like watching a bird fall out of the sky: One moment she’s gracefully soaring along, singing beautifully, and the next she’s plummeting, her voice silenced, the music stumbling to a confused halt behind her ramblings. It’s heartbreaking. And it wouldn’t be nearly as heartbreaking if Altman hadn’t so patiently watched her perform two full songs beforehand.
JB: I agree with exactly half of what you say about Barbara Jean. Your descriptions of her love of performing and the tragedy of her assassination (“like watching a bird fall out of the sky”) are right on the money. However, in general I think you’re overstating the degree to which the lyrics in her songs resonate with Barbara Jean. When it comes to “My Idaho Home,” a song dripping with love and nostalgia for parents now gone, yes, absolutely we seem to be getting a glimpse of Barbara Jean’s soul. But with almost every other song, I don’t see the connection. When she sings “It hurts so bad, it gets me down, down, down” or “When I feel my life vanishing like waves upon the sand,” I realize that a connection can be drawn to her own suffering, but I don’t feel that connection in her performance. I don’t get a sense that these words have true autobiographical meaning for Barbara Jean. In fact, if anything, I think that might be the point. Early on, Barbara Jean is singing these songs that perfectly line up with her life but she’s totally unaware of the symmetry. All she’s connecting with is her love of performing, her love of country music. Remember, Barbara Jean and Sueleen have something in common: a childlike naïveté about the world around them. Thus, Barbara Jean’s initial performances certainly show how much she loves country music and singing (no argument there), but beyond that I don’t think she’s singing about her life any more than Neil Diamond and Barbra Streisand were singing about their own lives in “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers.”
Now, let me be clear, I’m not invalidating these performances on the grounds that Barbara Jean doesn’t identify with the lyrics the way that Tom does with “I’m Easy.” I’m simply arguing that they work differently than I think you described above. Likewise, just to finish the thought, her performances are different than those of Haven, who also isn’t quite singing from the heart but seems aware of the hypocrisy of his lyrics (at least offstage). Barbara Jean is mostly unaware of how sad her life really is, which is part of what makes her such a tragic figure. She’s like the puppy that has been repeatedly mistreated but still seeks the affection of its master.
This is exciting for me, because in describing how those earlier songs work (the ones other than “My Idaho Home” or her brief performance at church), I’m actually talking myself into liking them. The coin just dropped. But initially what I was going to say is that the reason Barbara Jean’s early performances strike me as unnecessarily long and somewhat empty is because they reminded me of my youth, when a week-long stay at my grandparents’ house meant nightly inundations with Nashville Now and the Grand Ole Opry. That is, it felt like I was watching a performer perform. It felt like watching a pure concert rather than watching a drama. I was seeing a singer who loved the songs but not really their meanings. I think there’s still some truth to that. On the other hand, if I look at those early songs with the idea that Barbara Jean’s lack of personal identification with the lyrics is further evidence of her miserable existence, maybe there’s more depth to those performances than I had previously realized.
EH: My interpretation of those scenes isn’t that different from your own, actually. I purposefully didn’t stress Barbara Jean’s identification with the lyrics in her songs, because I agree that she doesn’t fuse with these songs to the extent that Tom or even Haven do with theirs. And that’s OK. The lyrics are evocative of Barbara Jean’s past and her situation, but for me, like you, her performances are much more about her love of singing and entertaining, with any autobiographical subtext as a distant undercurrent. I think this is indicative of something that Altman does very well: namely, the layering of multiple meanings and ideas within moments that look simple from afar. So while it would be easy to conclude, on cursory inspection, that Barbara Jean’s songs are simply musical showcases, that there’s nothing else there, in fact there’s a complicated interplay going on between the lyrics, the performer’s life, and her emotional engagement (or lack of engagement, as the case may be) with what she’s singing. Whether or not Barbara Jean is conscious of the parallels between her songs and her own experiences, these songs resonate very deeply with her troubled life. As Barbara Jean sings, there’s this tension between the wide, heartfelt smile on her face—evidence of her love of song, which at least for a time can overcome her general misery—and the aching emotions expressed by the lyrics. This tension is then intensified by Barbara Jean’s breakdown, as her joy in singing evaporates into confused anecdotes about the past.
Our exchange about Barbara Jean, and your discovery of unexpected depths in her songs, is to me a perfect encapsulation of how this film works. This scene, so direct on the surface, opens up the more one thinks about it and examines it: it’s rich in emotional and thematic subtext. Nashville is a very dense film, and though its density is part of what turns you off about it—contributing to the sense that we never really get too close to any of these characters for very long—the density of Altman’s filmmaking is also integral to the effects he’s after. If Nashville sometimes flirts with a cacophony of competing voices, this cacophony can be unpacked, its depths can be explored. There are few directors as detail-oriented as Altman, whether he’s pointing out the clutter of objects (including gaudy religious icons) on Sueleen’s dresser as she practices shaking her torso, or making a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it satirical jab about racism when, in a tossed-off dialogue-free scene, he has Haven sarcastically offer Tommy Brown a watermelon, with the subservient Tommy purposefully ignoring the racist jibe and asking for something else instead. The subtle shadings of meaning layered into Barbara Jean’s songs are a more potent example of the same tendency: uncovering what’s buried beneath the surface. You’ve complained repeatedly about Altman wasting time, and there are scenes in Nashville where I’d somewhat agree, but the flipside of that is Altman’s insistence on packing his movie with resonant bits and pieces, with jokes, lines and images that might seem ephemeral, but in fact create complex webs of meaning and characterization within his dense crowds.
JB: Believe it or not, we’re on the same page about a lot of things. I agree that the cacophony can be unpacked. I agree that the film “opens up the more one thinks about it and examines it.” Where I disagree is that what I’m objecting to is density. Because I think what I’m objecting to is a lack of density. Is there more richness to Nashville than can be noticed on the surface? Yes. But that doesn’t automatically make what’s under the surface “deep.” In this way we touch a bit on some of my objections to David Lynch, whose films are sometimes so indistinct that their meanings are authored more by the viewer than the artist. As with Lynch, we could compliment Nashville on those grounds, for not being didactic, for engaging the audience, but it seems to me we could also say that watching Nashville is a bit like watching clouds drift across the sky. If I look at a cloud and see rich emotional and dramatic subtext, is that a credit to the cloud or to me? I’m oversimplifying here, obviously, because Nashville isn’t as ambiguous as that, but I do think ambiguity is often overly praised.
I am aware that critics of nonlinear storylines (not that Nashville has one) will sometimes make the lazy objection that the story wouldn’t be interesting if told linearly. This is as absurd as saying a mystery wouldn’t be interesting if we always knew the answer or saying that a magic trick wouldn’t be interesting if we could see beyond the smoke and mirrors. So I want to be clear that I’m not making a similar complaint. I’m not trying to damn Nashville by saying it would be even less impressive if Altman’s approach had been more straightforward. No, what I’m saying is that even though I admit I have discovered a little more in Nashville each time I’ve watched it, and through this discussion, I have never been awed by what I’ve found. It is deeper than it first appears, but I don’t find it deep. It’s a challenge to decode, but I don’t find it challenging. I don’t loathe this film, by any means. In stretches I find it heartbreaking and in others fascinating. I wouldn’t go as far as Manny Farber, who called Nashville “pretentiously convoluted” and accused it of “sensation mongering,” but I don’t think it justifies its proud obfuscation, and that’s a significant obstacle. There are fans of this film who hear harmony in the overlapping voices. Alas, for me, too much of Nashville has always been painfully off key.
Ed Howard chronicles his film viewing at Only the Cinema.
Review: Wolfwalkers Vibrantly Confronts and Plays on the Fear of the Unknown
The storyline’s edges are frayed just enough to give it the gentle distance of a tale recalled though the gauze of myth and memory.3
Though the world of Wolfwalkers abounds with the Celtic magic of shapeshifters and healing spells, it’s the film’s art itself that sometimes seems the most enchanted. Showcasing the same hand-drawn animation that has distinguished Cartoon Saloon’s earlier Irish mythology-inspired works (The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea), Wolfwalkers pans across still, verdant landscapes that occasionally burst with life, with creatures crawling out of trees in the otherwise frozen background. Inspired by early modern woodblock prints, filmmakers Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart play with depth and texture, their vivid characters materializing in the foreground like figures in a watercolor puppet theater.
As Wolfwalkers begins, the 17th-century Irish city of Kilkenny has a wolf problem. Outside the city’s walls, the forest is inundated with them, and the Lord Protector (Simon McBurney) needs to put his farmers safely to work. Enter Bill Goodfellowe (Sean Bean), an English huntsman who’s tasked with eliminating the wolves. But as Bill scours the forest for his prey, his restless daughter, Robyn (Honor Kneafsey), sneaks off to explore the area and is promptly attacked and bitten by a wolf who’s actually a girl, Mebh (Eva Whittaker), and whose spirit takes on lupine form while her human body sleeps. Pretty quickly, Robyn is feeling the effects of that wolf bite—she’s now also a wolfwalker—and she’s eager to help Mebh find her missing mother and save their pack from Bill and the ever-angrier mob of wolf-hating citizens.
In human form, Robyn makes for a boisterously snarky hero, but she’s even more fun to follow as a wolf. The film’s most distinctive sequences depict the world from a wolf’s-eye view—or, rather, a wolf’s nose, as shimmering, colorful streaks of scent trails show how the transformed Robyn navigates the forest on all fours. While Song of the Sea dug deeply into a grief-stricken family’s healing against a background of modern Celtic myth, Wolfwalkers focuses on a different kind of reunification: the Goodfellowes becoming one with the natural world, both the fragile environment and the animals that fight for survival within it. Ecological messaging drives Will Collins’s screenplay to an inevitable, climate-centric climax, even if the film’s mystic swirls overwhelm any practical, contemporary takeaways about caring for the Earth.
Wolfwalkers growls scornfully, if imprecisely, at the herd mentality that overtakes a violent citizenry and the way that organized religion feeds this fearful frenzy. Local bullies torment Robyn, the English outsider, as they act out their fantasies of wolf slaughter, but there’s not quite enough backstory here for us to be sure whether these kids inherited their wolf anxiety unfairly or whether it’s justified by the wolves’ occasional viciousness. Moreover, the seemingly genuine piety of the anti-wolf and anti-pagan Lord Protector muddies an otherwise villainous portrait with an arc that projects neither hypocrisy nor redemption clearly.
The loveliness of Moore and Stewarts film, however, lies precisely in its reluctance to pack a punch. Just as some frames turn impressionistic, with borders of leaf patterns replacing more faithful forest scenery, the storyline’s edges are frayed just enough to give it the gentle distance of a tale recalled though the gauze of myth and memory.
Cast: Honor Kneafsey, Eva Whittaker, Sean Bean, Simon McBurney, Tommy Tiernan, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Jon Kenny, John Morton, Nora Twomey, Oliver McGrath, Paul Young, Niamh Moyles Director: Tomm Moore, Ross Stewart Screenwriter: Will Collins Distributor: GKIDS Running Time: 103 min Rating: PG Year: 2020
Review: His House Is a Creepy Allegory About Learning to Live with Trauma
Throughout, Remi Weekes forcefully, resonantly ties the film’s terror to the inner turmoil of his characters.3
British writer-director Remi Weekes’s His House opens with a striking montage of refugees crossing a war-torn Sudan and dangerously cramming onto a boat that will traverse choppy waters on an unimaginably long, treacherous journey toward England. When a loud crash is heard from the back of the boat, the film cuts to a shot of the ocean, where we witness numerous people drowning, including a young girl calling out for her mother. Before this horrific event is even resolved, Weekes again cuts away to reveal that this is neither a prologue nor a flashback, but rather the vivid nightmare of a Sudanese man, Bol (Sope Dirisu), reliving the terror of a night he experienced a year earlier alongside his wife, Rial (Wunmi Mosaku), and daughter, Nyagak (Malaika Wakoli-Abigaba).
The unresolved trauma that strips away at this family’s defenses is horrifyingly manifested when they finally move into their designated low-income housing, and struggle to navigate a foreign culture that insists on assimilation. Bol is desperate to fit in, ensuring the immigration bureau that he and his family are good people and telling his wife that, in their new surroundings, they’re “born again.” But Rial doesn’t share his eagerness, as her experiences in England have been almost entirely unpleasant, from the indifference and condescension of their smarmy, burnt-out case worker, Mark (Matt Smith), to the outright xenophobic, such as when three black neighborhood kids mock her and tell her to go back to Africa.
Weekes paints a rich portrait of the migrant experience, accounting for the inextricable nostalgia for home and the impulse to conform and cut ties with the past. These disparate approaches collide in a moving scene where Bol, after being confronted by spirits dwelling in his house, yet still in denial about their presence, burns his and Rial’s old belongings. It marks a rupture in their relationship, and where Rial is left feeling like she has nothing, Bol leaves to go shopping for Western-style clothes, at one point gazing helplessly at a cheerful white family in an in-store display before gathering the outfits they’re wearing in a futile attempt to replicate their appearance. It’s a blunt but potent illustration of how migrants’ feelings of displacement can emerge in different ways, often violently and self-destructively.
As Bol and Rial contend with their adversities, their home becomes an increasingly dangerous battleground in which they’re forced to wrestle with their inner demons and find ways to adapt without fundamentally changing who they are. This house, with its porous walls and ragged, peeling wallpaper, is eerily symbolic of its new inhabitants’ damaged psyches, their grief and guilt manifesting as ghosts—most chillingly in the form of zombified migrants who died during the perilous crossing to England that opens the film.
Throughout His House, Weekes’s seamlessly blends horror with elements of kitchen-sink drama and African folklore, morphing the domestic space into an uncanny, liminal zone where the distinctions between past and present, as well as Africa and Europe, are blurred beyond recognition. It’s an unusual combination, but one that’s rendered even more forceful and emotionally resonant by the director’s ability to tie the film’s terror so precisely to the inner turmoil of his characters and the myriad psychological and social challenges they face.
Cast: Sope Dirisu, Wunmi Mosaku, Matt Smith, Malaika Wakoli-Abigaba, Javier Botet, Yvonne Campbell, Vivienne Soan, Lola May, Kevin Layne Director: Remi Weekes Screenwriter: Remi Weekes Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 93 min Rating: R Year: 2020
The 100 Best Horror Movies of All Time
The good horror film insists on the humanity that’s inextinguishable even by severe atrocity.
One of the most common claims made about horror films is that they allow audiences to vicariously play with their fear of death. Inarguable, really, but that’s also too easy, as one doesn’t have to look too far into a genre often preoccupied with offering simulations of death to conclude that the genre in question is about death. That’s akin to saying that all an apple ever really symbolizes is an apple, and that symbols and subtexts essentially don’t exist. A more interesting question: Why do we flock to films that revel in what is, in all likelihood, our greatest fear? And why is death our greatest fear?
A startling commonality emerges if you look over the following films in short succession that’s revelatory of the entire horror genre: These works aren’t about the fear of dying, but the fear of dying alone, a subtlety that cuts to the bone of our fear of death anyway—of a life unlived. There’s an explicit current of self-loathing running through this amazing collection of films. What are Norman Bates and Jack Torrance besides eerily all-too-human monsters? Failures. Success also ultimately eludes Leatherface, as well as the socially stunted lost souls of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse. What is the imposing creature at the dark heart of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu? He makes for quite the presence, but his hungers ultimately lead him to oblivion.
So many films, particularly American ones, tell us that we can be whatever we want to be, and that people who don’t achieve their desired self-actualization are freaks. The horror film says: Wait Jack, it ain’t that easy. This genre resents platitude (certainly, you can count the happy endings among these films on one hand), but the good horror film usually isn’t cynical, as it insists on the humanity that’s inextinguishable even by severe atrocity. Which is to say there’s hope, and catharsis, offered by the horror film. It tells us bruised romantics that we’re all in this together, thus offering evidence that we may not be as alone as we may think. Chuck Bowen
Editor’s Note: Click here for a list of the titles that made the original 2013 incarnation of our list.
100. Raw (2016)
As in Ginger Snaps, which Raw thematically recalls, the protagonist’s supernatural awakening is linked predominantly to sex. At the start of the film, Justine (Garance Marillier) is a virgin who’s poked and prodded relentlessly by her classmates until she evolves only to be rebuffed for being too interested in sex—a no-win hypocrisy faced by many women. High-pressure taunts casually and constantly hang in the air, such as Alexia’s (Ella Rumpf) insistence that “beauty is pain” and a song that urges a woman to be “a whore with decorum.” In this film, a bikini wax can almost get one killed, and a drunken quest to get laid can, for a female, lead to all-too-typical humiliation and ostracizing. Throughout Raw, director Julia Ducournau exhibits a clinical pitilessness that’s reminiscent of the body-horror films of David Cronenberg, often framing scenes in symmetrical tableaus that inform the various cruelties and couplings with an impersonality that’s ironically relieved by the grotesque intimacy of the violence. We’re witnessing conditioning at work, in which Justine is inoculated into conventional adulthood, learning the self-shame that comes with it as a matter of insidiously self-censorious control. By the film’s end, Ducournau has hauntingly outlined only a few possibilities for Justine: that she’ll get with the program and regulate her hunger properly, or be killed or institutionalized. Bowen
99. A Bay of Blood (1971)
Compared to the other giallo films that comprise most of Mario Bava’s canon, A Bay of Blood (also known as Twitch of the Death Nerve) represents a more stripped-down and economic filmmaking from the Italian master. Notably absent are the supernatural undertones and fetishistic sexuality, and Bava even suppresses the vigorous impulses and desires that drive his characters to exteriorize their feelings in vicious bursts of violence by offering no valid (or convincing) psychological explanation. Despite being one of Bava’s simpler works, or perhaps because of that very reason, A Bay of Blood has proven to be the foremost progenitor of the slasher film, the one in which the Jason Voorheeses and Ghostfaces owe their blade of choice to. But it’s only the basic tenor of a psychopath slaying victims one by one that’s remained intact within the subgenre in the 40-plus years of this film’s existence. It’s in this film’s elementary plotting that Bava, by withholding information and leaning more on animalistic themes dictating bizarre character motivation, unveils a deceptive depth that the film’s acolytes can’t discern among the copious amounts of blood spilled within its frames. Wes Greene
98. Alice, Sweet Alice (1976)
Throughout Alice, Sweet Alice, Alfred Sole paints a rich and febrile portrait of how society enables dysfunction on multiple fronts, from the domestic to the religious to the psychiatric. (The police are shown to be restorers of order, though they serve that function almost inadvertently.) The filmmaker also invests his narrative with references to classic horror films, most notably Psycho, though his own direction lacks Alfred Hitchcock’s polish, which in this case is a blessing. In the film’s best sequences, particularly the moments following Karen’s (Brooke Shields) murder, Sole allows for tonal inconsistencies that reflect the true shock of violence. In such instances, Alice, Sweet Alice turns momentarily shrill, with actors screeching their lines almost directly to the camera—a device that expresses pain and refutes the fashions with which many horror directors rush through the grief process haphazardly in order to move the narrative along. In other moments, though, Sole’s directorial control is magisterial. Annie’s (Jane Lowry) near murder, when she’s stabbed on the stairway, is framed in a prismatic image, with a mirror reflecting the assault back on itself and suggesting, once again, the intense insularity of this world. Bowen
97. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
“See me. See me now,” Gary Oldman’s undead vampire intones, so as to magically compel virginal Mina Murray (Winona Ryder) to turn his way on a crowded London street. The two wind up at a cinematograph, “the greatest attraction of the century.” The intersection of vampire and victim in front of a labyrinth of movie screens is telling, as Francis Ford Coppola’s take on the classic Bram Stoker material winds up collapsing history and cinema together. Coppola shunned budding CGI technology in favor of in-camera techniques such as rear projection (as when we see Dracula’s eyes fade in over the countryside, overlooking a callow Keanu Reeves) and forced perspective (such as trick shots using miniatures of castles, which seem to loom over the full-sized actors and coaches in the foreground). However flagrantly artificial and constructed, the whole film feels uniquely alive. Dracula has “crossed oceans of time” to find Mina, and Coppola shows how the cinematically preternatural similarly finds and seduces audiences—how movies offer their own sparkle of immortality. Bram Stoker’s Dracula is noteworthy for how un-scary it is, and yet Coppola’s fanciful movie tool-box conceits, in perfect sync with Oldman’s deliciously over-the-top performance, exert an overpowering sense of the uncanny. Like the vampire, the film infects us and offers an illusory respite from death. Niles Schwartz
96. Blood for Dracula (1974)
The horror of Blood for Dracula derives in part from director Paul Morrissey’s unique ability to meld social critique, gonzo humor, and gore into a genre piece that’s ambivalent about the passing of eras. Udo Kier’s Count Dracula, unable to find virgin blood amid the sexually active women of a 19th-century Italian family, finds himself quite literally poisoned by change. As Dracula vomits up non-virgin blood like water from a fire hydrant, Morrissey films Kier’s convulsing body not for campy laughs, but to highlight its anguish and deterioration. The opening shot, set to Claudio Gizzi’s tragic score, holds on Dracula in close-up as he delicately applies make-up. The film, far too strange to be flatly interpreted as a conservative lament for lost sexual decorum, convincingly focuses on the body as the root source of all humankind’s tribulations, whether in pursuit of pleasure or gripped in pain. Clayton Dillard
95. Martyrs (2008)
Writer-director Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs leaves you with the scopophilic equivalent of shell shock. The gauntlet that his film’s heroine, a “final girl” who’s abducted and tortured by a religious cult straight out of a Clive Barker novel, is forced to endure is considerable. Which is like saying that King Kong is big, Vincent Price’s performances are campy, and blood is red. Laugier’s film is grueling because there’s no real way to easily get off on images of simulated violence. The film’s soul-crushing finale makes it impossible to feel good about anything Laugier has depicted. In it, Laugier suggests that there’s no way to escape from the pain of the exclusively physical reality of his film. You don’t watch Laugier’s harrowing feel-bad masterpiece—rather, you’re held in its thrall. Abandon hope all ye who watch here. Simon Abrams
94. Night of the Demon (1957)
With Night of the Demon, Jacques Tourneur pits logic against the boundless mysteries of the supernatural, focusing not on the fear of the unknown and unseen, but the fear of accepting and confronting the inexplicable. After asking Dana Andrews’s comically hardheaded Dr. Holden how can one differentiate between the powers of darkness and the powers of the mind, Niall MacGinnis’s wily satanic cult leader conjures up a storm of epic proportions to prove to the pragmatic doctor that the power of the dark arts is no joke. But the warning doesn’t take. Later, when a man is shredded to pieces by a demon, onlookers debate whether the death was a result of a passing train or something more nefarious, to which Holden retorts, “Maybe it’s better not to know.” Even in the face of overwhelming evidence, sometimes the easiest way to deal with the devil is to pretend he doesn’t exist. Derek Smith
93. The Devil’s Backbone (2001)
Guillermo del Toro’s films are rabid commentaries on the suspension of time, often told through the point of view of children. A bomb is dropped from the skies above an isolated Spanish orphanage, which leaves a boy bleeding to death in its mysterious, inexplosive wake. His corpse is then tied and shoved into the orphanage’s basement pool, and when a young boy, Carlos (Fernando Tielve), arrives at the ghostly facility some time later, he seemingly signals the arrival of Franco himself. A rich political allegory disguised as an art-house spooker, The Devil’s Backbone hauntingly ruminates on the decay of country whose living are so stuck in past as to seem like ghosts. But there’s hope in brotherhood, and in negotiating the ghostly Santi’s past and bandying together against the cruel Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), the film’s children ensure their survival and that of their homeland. Ed Gonzalez
92. Let the Right One In (2008)
Not unlike Matt Reeves’s American remake, Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In is, in its color scheme and emotional tenor, something almost unbearably blue. When Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant), a 12-year-old outcast perpetually bullied at school, meets Eli (Lina Leandersson), the mysterious new girl at his apartment complex, one child’s painful coming of age is conflated with another’s insatiable bloodlust. The film treats adolescence, even a vampire’s arrested own, as a prolonged horror—life’s most vicious and unforgiving set piece. This study of human loneliness and the prickly crawlspace between adolescence and adulthood is also an unexpectedly poignant queering of the horror genre. Don’t avert your eyes from Alfredson’s gorgeously, meaningfully aestheticized vision, though you may want to cover your neck. Gonzalez
91. Black Cat (1934)
Based loosely on one of Edgar Allen Poe’s most disquieting tales, 1934’s The Black Cat is one of the neglected jewels in Universal Studios’s horror crown. Edgar Ulmer’s melancholy film is a confrontation between two disturbed World War I veterans, one warped by an evil faith and the other a shattered ghost of a man driven by revenge, and the young couple that becomes entangled in their twisted game. It’s a fable of modernity darkened with war, obsession, and madness. Much like the other tone poem of the Universal horror series, Karl Freund’s gorgeously mannered The Mummy, Ulmer’s deeply elegiac film is a grief-stricken work, a spiraling ode to overwhelming loss, both personal and universal. Josh Vasquez
90. Brain Damage (1988)
Throughout Brain Damage, Frank Henenlotter’s images have a compact and gnarly vitality. He frequently cordons people off by themselves in individual frames, serving the low budget with pared-down shot selections while intensifying the lonely resonance of a man set adrift with his cravings. Bria’sn (Rick Herbst) degradation suggests the crack epidemic of the 1980s, and the threat and alienation of AIDS lingers over the outré, sexualized set pieces, especially when Brian cruises a night club called Hell and picks up a woman, who’s murdered by Aylmer (voiced by John Zacherle) just as she’s about to go down on Brian. The most hideous of this film’s images is a shot of the back of Brian’s neck after Aylmer—an eight-inch-or-so-long creature that resembles a cross between a tapeworm, a dildo, and an ambulant piece of a shit along the lines of South Park’s Mr. Hanky—has first injected him, with its cartography of blood lines that are so tactile we can nearly feel Brian’s pain as he touches it. Such moments hammer home the unnerving simplicity of the premise, likening drug addiction to volunteer parasitism, rendering self-violation relatable via its inherently paradoxical alien-ness. Bowen
89. Gremlins (1984)
Outlining his customary commentary on American society via an artistry informed by influences ranging from B horror films to Looney Tunes, Joe Dante satirizes our neglect of rationality under rampant commercialism through the nasty titular creatures. All raging id, the Gremlins want nothing more than to indulge in every vice that our increasingly corporatized culture has to offer. The resulting anarchy unleashed by the Gremlins during the yuletide season is appropriate, considering they were created when Zach Galligan’s Billy, like an official advocating free-market deregulation, ignored foreboding warnings that terror would occur if he had just stuck to the three simple rules of caring for Gizmo, the cutest of all Gremlins. Wes Greene
88. Angst (1983)
Gerald Kargl’s Angst is a 75-minute cinematic panic attack. Body-mounted cameras, high-angle tracking shots, amplified sound design, and a bone-chilling krautrock score swirl together to create a manic, propulsive energy that’s as disorienting to the viewer as the implacable urge to kill is for Erwin Leder’s unnamed psychopath. Angst elides all psychological trappings, instead tapping directly into this all-consuming desire for destruction on a purely physiological and experiential level. Kargl’s camera prowls around Leder’s madman like an ever-present ghost—a haunting, torturous presence that captures every bead of cold sweat, each anxiety-ridden movement, and the agony of all his facial expressions as he tracks his prey. Angst is as singular and exhausting an account of psychopathy as any put to celluloid, thrusting the viewer helplessly into discomfiting closeness with a killer without attempting to explain or forgive his heinous acts. Smith
87. The Devils (1971)
Ken Russell brings his unique sensibility, at once resolutely iconoclastic and excessively enamored of excess, to this adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s nonfiction novel The Devils of Loudun, which concerns accusations of witchcraft and demonic possession that run rampant in an Ursuline convent in 17th-century France. Like Michael Reeves’s Witchfinder General, and set in roughly the same time period, Russell’s film serves as an angry denunciation of social conformity and the arbitrary whims of the political elite that effectively disguises itself as a horror movie. By brazenly conflating religious and sexual hysteria, and depicting both with his characteristic lack of restraint, Russell pushes his already edgy material into places that are so intense and discomforting that the film was subsequently banned in several countries and is to this day still unavailable on home video in a complete and uncut version. Budd Wilkins
86. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Before the flourishing digital age paved the way for social-media naval-gazing, YouTube, and selfies galore, The Blair Witch Project foreshadowed the narcissism of a generation, its success unsurprisingly paving the way for an army of imitators that failed to grasp the essence of Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s terrifyingly singular and effortlessly self-reflexive genre exercise. The heartbreaking fall from sanity experienced by the trio of naïve filmmakers preys with ecstatic precision on our most instinctive fears, building to a rousing crescendo of primordial terror that’s arguably unrivaled by anything the genre has seen before or since. Rob Humanick
85. Who Can Kill a Child? (1972)
Narciso Ibáñez Serrador’s Who Can Kill a Child? takes its time building a mood of palpable dread, eking menace out of every social encounter faced by a British couple, Tom (Lewis Fiander) and Evelyn (Prunella Ransome), vacationing on the coast of Spain. When they charter a small boat and travel out to a remote island village, the streets are curiously empty and the only residents seem to be sullen, introspective children. Ibáñez Serrador methodically draws out the waiting game, and as the kids gather their sinister forces and close in on our unsuspecting couple, a moral conflict arises. The adults are forced to contemplate the unthinkable, doing battle with the little monsters and struggling with the notion that they may have to kill or be killed. Tom manages to get his hand on a machine gun, and he carries it around with him protectively as the audience wonders to themselves how he’ll answer the question posed in the title. Whether or not the answer surprises us during these cynical times, the aftermath is as disarming as it is disturbing. The closing 10 minutes come from a different era in filmmaking, when horror movies could spit in the eye of the status quo and say that good doesn’t always prevail, no matter how much we’d like it to. Jeremiah Kipp
84. The Haunting (1963)
Cacophonous knocking, inexplicable coldness, and doors that have a habit of opening and closing when no one’s looking—the horrors of Hill House are almost entirely unseen in Robert Wise’s adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s famous novel The Haunting of Hill House. But they’re nonetheless chillingly tangible, brought to life by The Haunting’s supercharged production values: Elliot Scott’s dazzlingly florid interiors; Davis Boulton’s swooping, darting wide-angle cinematography; and, most of all, a quiet-loud-quiet sound design that suggests the presence of the spirit world more forcefully than some corny translucent ghost ever could. The film’s oh-so-1960s psychosexual subtext may be slightly under-baked, but that only serves to heighten the verisimilitude of its supernatural happenings. After all, there are some things in this world even Freud can’t explain. Keith Watson
83. Häxan (1922)
Near the conclusion of Häxan, an intertitle asks: “The witch no longer flies away on her broom over the rooftops, but isn’t superstition still rampant among us?” Such a rhetorical question is in keeping with the implications of Benjamin Christensen’s eccentric historical crawl through representations of evil. Though the film begins as something of a lecture on the topic of women’s bodies as a threat, it morphs into an array of sketches, images, and dramatizations of mankind’s fundamental inability to conceive itself outside of power and difference. Contemporary footage of insane asylums and women being treated for hysteria confirms a truth that’s still with us, nearly a century later: that the horrors of the past are never so far away. Dillard
82. In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
John Carpenter’s 1995 sleeper is a lot of things: a noir, a Stephen King satire, a meta-meta-horror workout, a parody of its own mechanics. Carpenter can’t quite stick the landing(s), but watching his film twist and turn and disappear inside of itself as it twists its detective thriller beats into a full-on descent into the stygian abyss proves consistently compelling. Perhaps the best tack is that of Sam Neill’s driven-mad investigator, pictured in the film’s final frames hooting at images of himself projected in an abandoned movie theater. Perhaps the best way to enjoy In the Mouth of Madness is to relinquish your sanity, losing yourself inside of its loopy, Lovecraftian logic. John Semley
81. Near Dark (1987)
The zenith of a career phase defined by sneakily subversive genre films, Kathryn Bigelow’s melancholic Near Dark remains a singular milestone in the evolution of the vampire myth. It’s a delirious fever dream grounded periodically by masterfully constructed scenes of carnage and the rooting of its mythology in the period’s twin boogeymen of addiction and infection. An excellent cast of pulp icons—Bill Paxton and Lance Henriksen are particularly unhinged—bring restless energy to the story of itinerant vampires cruising the neon-soaked highways of a beautifully desolate Southwest. It’s Gus Van Sant through a Southern-gothic haze, thrumming with an urgency bestowed by Tangerine Dream’s score and thematic heft alike. Abhimanyu Das
Review: Robert Zemeckis’s Take on The Witches Casts a Weak Spell
This is a sleeker-looking vehicle that’s eager to be scary but not comfortable being ugly.1.5
For anybody arguing that the grand potential for boundary-breaking entertainment in 2020’s wide-open world of content-hungry streaming services has produced more mediocrity than anything else, Robert Zemeckis’s take on Roald Dahl’s dementedly fun short novel The Witches could serve as a key piece of evidence. While there are some elements to admire in this adaptation, particularly its being cast with mostly black performers, much of it falls into the category of Competent But Unnecessary Remake. In other words, another piece of family-friendly-ish content to fill the yawning hours of pandemic confinement.
While the setting is shifted from late-1980s Europe to 1968 Alabama, the bones of the story—scripted by Zemeckis along with Guillermo del Toro and Black-ish creator Kenya Barris—match those of Nicolas Roeg’s 1990 adaptation. An orphaned and unnamed young boy (Jahzir Bruno) is sent to live in with his kindly but starchy Grandma (Octavia Spencer). After a frightening run-in with a snake-carrying woman who eyes him like he was a tasty piece of candy, the boy is informed by Grandma that what he saw was no woman, but a witch. Knowing from personal experience that witches love to kidnap children and turn them into animals, Grandma decides it’s time for a vacation. Unfortunately, their destination also happens to be the site of an international witches’ convention (meeting under the tongue-in-cheek name of the International Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children).
Much of Zemeckis’s film follows the boy coming to terms with loss and trying to rediscover some sense of fun even while navigating the danger posed by the witches and the delectable chocolate bars they use as bait. Things come to a head in a showy dramatic scene roughly halfway through the film set inside a swanky hotel ballroom. That’s where the witches—who otherwise look like heavily made-up society ladies from a well-intentioned, awards-courting period film about the South—meet to remove their human camouflage and scheme about best practices for annihilating children from the planet. Trapped under the dais, the boy is treated to the spectacle of the witches removing their wigs, gloves, and shoes to reveal a sea of bald heads, claws, and monstrous, Joker-wide jaws normally hidden by pancake makeup.
While advances in the quality of special effects since 1990 should theoretically have made the ballroom scene a blockbuster showcase, the CGI deployed here is for the most part unimpressive. The rippling of the witches’ bodies as they transform is rendered almost seamlessly. But that smoothness of effect ends up achieving little of the impact delivered by the grotesque Dark Crystal-esque physical effects that Jim Henson Studios used for Roeg’s more disquieting version. This is a sleeker-looking vehicle that’s eager to be scary but not comfortable being ugly. When Anjelica Huston’s Grand High Witch in Roeg’s film removed her human guise, she was revealed as a long-beaked monster rippling with pustules and stray hairs. The Grand High Witch of this version, played by Anne Hathaway, has the same sashaying arrogance, but it’s more suited for a fashion show’s runway than a child’s nightmares.
More positively, this adaptation of The Witches benefits from the increased willingness of studio producers to greenlight projects with largely black casts for a “mainstream” audience. Also, Zemeckis fortunately didn’t feel a need to repeat the previous film’s coda, which tried in slapdash fashion to cast some light on a chilling Grimmsian fairy tale about murdered children. However, that coda is replaced by a non-Dahl framing device voiced by Chris Rock that brings a new wrinkle to the conclusion which would be more enjoyable if it weren’t doing double duty as the launch pad for potential sequels or spin-offs.
Cast: Octavia Spencer, Jahzir Bruno, Anne Hathaway, Stanley Tucci, Kristin Chenoweth, Chris Rock, Codie-Lei Eastick Director: Robert Zemeckis Screenwriter: Robert Zemeckis, Kenya Barris, Guillermo del Toro Distributor: HBO Max Running Time: 106 min Rating: PG Year: 2020
Review: Borat Subsequent Moviefilm’s Satire Could Use Sharper Teeth
Too often, the film teases big, wild comedic set pieces that end up deflating almost instantly.2.5
Following the massive global success of Borat, Sacha Baron Cohen’s most indelible comic creation became a victim of his own success. The mustachioed Kazakh journalist—whose racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism, and downright backwardness are leavened by his blithe optimism—became so recognizable—in part, through the ubiquity of bad impersonations and cheap Halloween costumes—that he had to be effectively retired. That’s a shame, because while Borat was always, at heart, a cartoonish stereotype, he was also a potent and surprisingly elastic embodiment of America’s deep ignorance about the rest of the world.
Though ostensibly a reflection of small-town Kazakh life, Cohen’s vision of Kazakhstan is really an elaborate amalgamation of various Warsaw Pact countries, including Russia and Poland, and though Borat himself would be loath to admit it, his incomprehensible language draws inspiration from Romani and Hebrew. In 2006, at the height of George W. Bush’s so-called war on terror, Borat was often mistaken for an Arab. In one of the original film’s most notorious scenes, rodeo producer Bobby Rowe advises Borat to shave his “dadgum mustache,” which makes him look suspiciously Muslim, so that he might even pass for an Italian. (All this before eagerly agreeing with Borat on the subject of executing gay people.)
In Borat’s much-belated follow-up feature—officially titled Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, with lengthy, ever-changing subtitles such as Gift of Pornographic Monkey to Vice Premier Mikhael Pence to Make Benefit Recently Diminished Nation of Kazakhstan appearing on screen throughout—Borat is coded less as an Arab and more as an avatar of Eastern Europe, that part of the world where poverty and post-Soviet collapse have fostered a climate conducive to sex trafficking. This region is where Jeffrey Epstein allegedly outright purchased a young woman, Nadia Marcinko, and where Donald Trump’s third wife (whom Epstein claimed to have introduced to the Donald) hails from as well. It’s no surprise, then, that cracks about Epstein and jokes about Melania being Trump’s golden-caged slave are frequent in the film. An important revelation is even inspired by a TV broadcast of the infamous footage of Trump and Epstein partying together. While Cohen’s satirical targets are too diverse and the film’s structure too freeform to lock the film down to a single thematic underpinning, the use and abuse of young women by powerful men is its most persistent satirical target.
After being sentenced to a gulag for disgracing his country with his prior film, Borat is offered by former Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev (Dani Popescu) a chance to redeem himself by traveling to America and gifting Vice President Mike Pence with the locally famous simian porn star Johnny the Monkey. Unfortunately for Borat, Johnny is eaten on the journey over by his 15-year-old daughter, Tutar (Maria Bakalova), who stowed away in the same shipping container as the primate. What’s Borat to do? The solution is obvious: to present Pence with his underage daughter instead—which he does, albeit from a distance, dressed as Donald Trump while Pence delivers a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference. When that fails, he chooses a much more willing recipient, one whose all-too-eager response to Tutar’s advances have already made headlines: Trump’s personal consigliere, Rudy Giuliani.
The climactic confrontation with Giuliani inside the Mark Hotel in Midtown Manhattan, during which Tutar poses as a conservative journalist in order to make her move on “America’s Mayor,” is perhaps Borat Subsequent Moviefilm’s most shocking and uncomfortably hilarious scene—not simply for the already-infamous hand-in-his-pants moment. The giddiness that Giuliani exhibits in response to Tutar’s sexual advances illustrates so starkly the lecherous sense of entitlement that drives such inappropriate and predacious behavior.
If only the entire film were up to the standard of that scene, Cohen might have achieved the impossible and lived up to the groundbreaking impact of Borat. And there are other individual sequences whose discomfiting rawness would not have been out of place in the first film, such as a trip to a Christian-run crisis pregnancy center after Tutar accidentally swallows a baby decoration on top of a cupcake. The staff member, thinking she’s pregnant and asking for an abortion, firmly assures her that the baby is in fact a blessing, even when he’s under the impression that it was the result of incestuous rape. An interview with an Instagram influencer who preaches the gospel of feminine weakness and subservience to men is on point as topical satire though not as cringe-inducingly funny as the best Cohen material.
More often, though, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm teases big, wild comedic set pieces that end up deflating almost instantly. A trip to the Texas State Fair—with Borat disguised, as he is for much of the film, as a grizzled hayseed with a Prince Valiant hairdo—would seem to offer endless opportunities for up-close-and-personal pranks, but instead it’s largely just the backdrop for a few sight gags. Similarly, Borat’s elaborate transformation into Donald Trump in order to infiltrate CPAC presents a golden opportunity for some bread-and-butter Cohen antics, providing unsuspecting reactionaries with the perfect opportunity to tell the president they love (and, unwittingly, the audience) what they really think. Instead, the whole affair is wasted on a stunt that gets Cohen immediately kicked out of the event.
Where Borat mined the humor of reaction—how do unsuspecting, and mostly well-meaning, people react when confronted with a ludicrous foreigner who says wildly un-PC things?—the sequel too often feels like it’s desperately struggling to shock its unwitting participants and coming up short, as evidenced by an outlandish fertility dance performed at a debutante ball. This absurd spectacle, which climaxes in Tutar flashing her menstruation-soaked panties, barely produces a whimper from the spectators. And while the film is, for the most part, no less crude than its predecessors—gleefully indulging in stereotypes about backwards foreigners—there are signs that Cohen may have lost some edge in the intervening decade and a half.
Cohen evidently wants us to feel for his subjects, to find even a bit of empathy for some Qanon conspiracy theorists and Trump cultists. That may be a noble goal in itself, but it’s not always the stuff of sharp satire. Nor is the film’s closing entreaty to the audience to get out and vote. Borat, like practically all satirically minded comedy in the Trump era, has been swallowed up into the all-consuming maw of electoral politics. If the idea of the original Borat ending with a plea to go to the polls would have seemed almost absurdly out of place, in 2020, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm doing the same feels almost inevitable.
Cast: Sacha Baron Cohen, Maria Bakalova Director: Jason Woliner Screenwriter: Peter Baynham, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jena Friedman, Anthony Hines, Lee Kern, Dan Mazer, Erica Rivinoja, Dan Swimer Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 96 min Rating: R Year: 2020
Adam Nayman’s Paul Thomas Anderson Masterworks Honors PTA’s Ambiguities
Nayman’s discussion of Anderson’s ellipses implicitly cuts to the heart of why some critics and audiences resist Anderson’s work.
The title of Adam Nayman’s Paul Thomas Anderson Masterworks is misleading, evoking what the author refers to in the book’s introduction as “…cheerleading—the stroking, in prose, of already tumescent reputations.” While Nayman clearly reveres one of the most acclaimed and mythologized of contemporary American filmmakers, he’s willing to take the piss out of his subject, sveltely moving between Anderson’s strengths, limitations, and the obsessions that bind them, fashioning an ornate and suggestive system of checks and balances. Like Glenn Kenny’s Made Men: The Story of Goodfellas, Masterworks pushes back against the simplistic, bro-ish language of adulation, and attending backlash, that often obscures a major artist’s achievements. In the process, Nayman achieves one of a critic’s loftiest goals: grappling with a body of work while honoring its mystery.
Masterworks is uncomfortable with the modern iteration of auteurism, which has been corrupted from its French New Wave origins by being utilized as often macho shorthand that denies the contributions of other craftspeople involved in a film’s production. (At the end of the book are several essential interviews with key Anderson collaborators, such as producer JoAnne Sellar, cinematographer Robert Elswit, production designer Jack Fisk, and composter Johnny Greenwood.) Seeking to refute the Horatio Alger element of a particular auteur worship, in which a body of work is discussed chronologically, with a filmmaker’s maturation noted with easy retrospection as a kind of manifest destiny, Nayman assembles Anderson’s films in chronological order according to the time periods in which they’re set. The book opens with 2007’s There Will Be Blood (the director’s fifth film) and penultimately concludes with 2002’s contemporary-set Punch-Drunk Love, Anderson’s final (to date) curdled valentine to San Fernando Valley, as well as his first psychodrama with a loner at its center. Nayman only deviates from this concept once, as 2017’s Phantom Thread, Anderson’s eighth and most recent film, is saved for last and presented as a culmination of a blossoming sensibility.
This structure creates a fascinating temporal zig-zag that mirrors the chaotic, uncertain highs and lows of creative work. Masterworks moves us forward in the timeline of Anderson’s America while the filmmaker himself leaps all over the place in terms of artistic control. The wrenching ambiguity of 2014’s Inherent Vice, in which Anderson fluidly dramatizes the psychosexual ecstasy, despair, and hilarity of corrosive commercialist annihilation, gives way in the book to Anderson’s 1997 breakthrough, Boogie Nights, which Nayman astutely sees as a virtuoso primitive work, an epic that (too) neatly bifurcates pleasure and pain into two distinct acts while disguising its sentimentality with astonishing camera movements and a tonal instability that’s probably equal parts intended and inadvertent.
Control is the theme of Masterworks. Nayman charts, again in a nearly reverse order, how Anderson reigned in his juvenilia—the self-consciousness, the overt debts to various filmmakers, the wild mood swings—to fashion a tonal fabric that still makes room for all of those qualities, only they’re buried and satirized, existing on the periphery. The essential valorizing of Jack Horner, the paternal porn director of Boogie Nights, eventually gives way to the richer, more fraught examinations of obsessive pseudo-father figures like Daniel Plainview, Lancaster Dodd, and Reynolds Woodcock, of There Will Be Blood, 2012’s The Master, and Phantom Thread, respectively. Anderson’s films toggle between valorizing and criticizing men of industry who’ve, with a few exceptions, made America in their own neurotic image.
As these characters grow in complexity, their ingenues also evolve in nuance, becoming less fantasy projections of Anderson’s own desire to prove himself than startlingly unique expressions of rootlessness and ambition. Boogie Nights, which Nayman calls a two-and-a-half-hour dick joke, even sets the stage for the ironic phallic references of the other films, with their plunging oil derricks, broken glass toilet plungers, and, well, Woodcocks.
No critic has written so perceptively about Anderson’s mutating aesthetic as Nayman does in Masterworks. Most immediately, it’s a pure, visceral pleasure simply to read Nayman’s descriptions of imagery. On There Will Be Blood, he notably writes the following: “Emerging and descending at his own methodical pace, he’s an infernal figure moving in a Sisyphean rhythm, and the trajectory of his movements—grueling ascents and sudden, punishing drops along a vertical axis, punctuating an otherwise steady horizontal forward progress—establishes the visual and narrative patterning of the film to come.”
Such “patterning” is an obsession of Nayman’s, as it should be given the films under consideration, and he shows how Anderson buried the overt psychosocial daddy and women issues of Boogie Nights and 1999’s Magnolia into an intricate formalism that’s complemented by a new kind of instability: unconventional, unexpected ellipses in the narratives that underscore a sense that we’re missing something in the psychology of the protagonists, in the America that contains the characters, and perhaps even in Anderson’s understanding of his own work. The obsessive nature of Anderson’s bold often “lateral” imagery is also enriched by the endless twins and doppelgangers that populate his films, suggesting that he’s chewing, with increasing sophistication, a set of preoccupations over and over, gradually triumphing over his fear of women as he sees his men with escalating clarity. Nayman uncovers many twins and cross-associations that have never personally occurred to this PTA obsessive, such as the resemblance that Vicky Krieps’s Alma of Phantom Thread bears to the many dream women haunting Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell in The Master, or how the mining of oil in There Will Be Blood is later echoed by the exploitive plumbing of minds in The Master.
Nayman’s discussion of Anderson’s ellipses—especially the bold leap 15 years in time near the end of There Will Be Blood as well as the two-year jump near the beginning of the filmmaker’s 1996 feature directorial debut, Hard Eight—implicitly cuts to the heart of why some critics and audiences resist Anderson’s work. Some people believe that Anderson uses such devices to write himself out of corners, excusing himself from the task of building relationships or establishing in more detail the contours of the history informing the films, while, for his admirers, such flourishes are suggestive and freeing—excusing not only the author, but the audience from thankless exposition so as to skip to the “good parts,” the moments that cut to the heart of the protagonists’ and Anderson’s demons. Nayman understands Anderson to be fashioning a cumulative hall-of-mirror filmography that highlights an America in elusive, surreal, even daringly comic fragments. Or, per Nayman: “His later films are masterworks that don’t quite fill their own canvases, drawing power from the negative space.”
Paul Thomas Anderson Masterworks is now available from Abrams.
NewFest 2020: Dry Wind and Alice Júnior Take Aim at the Patriarchy in Brazil
It’s a provocative juxtaposition for Dry Wind to stage its queer kinkfest at the epicenter of the land of Bolsonaro.
Daniel Nolasco’s Dry Wind and Gil Baroni’s Alice Júnior, both screening in the international section at this year’s NewFest, are refreshing in no small part because they find two Brazilian filmmakers telling stories set in regions of their country that are cinematically underrepresented and largely unknown to international audiences. Dry Wind, for one, takes place in the rustic countryside of the state of Goiás, known for its cowboy iconography, livestock music festivals, and extremely conservative politics. It is, then, a provocative juxtaposition for Nolasco to stage his queer kinkfest at the epicenter of the land of Bolsonaro.
Dry Wind follows the routines of a community of factory workers in the rural city of Catalão, where sex between soccer-loving men who wouldn’t hesitate to call themselves “discreet” always seems to be happening or about to happen. These torrid trysts mostly take place in the woods, on bare soil or parked motorcycles, and involve piss, ass-eating, and face-spitting. Throughout, Nolasco’s frames are also filled with much hair—hairy faces, butts, and backs, suggesting a queer sexuality cobbled together with the coarseness of the men’s local environment, despite the clearly foreign influence of Nolasco’s hyper-stylized aesthetics. The film’s drama lies in the decidedly Brazilian-ness of the arid landscape, the provincial accents, and the scruffy faces framed by a mishmash of international visual references whenever horny bodies escape to act out queer desire: from Tom of Finland to Tom de Pékin, from Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising to Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Querelle.
Nolasco alternates between explicitly sexual, neon-colored sequences that veer toward complete dreamscapes and the kind of European-film-festival-courting realism that Brazilian cinema is known for. The contrast can be quite bewildering, so much so that viewers may wish that Dry Wind would remain in the realm of reveries. Instead, Nolasco often tries to reassert Dry Wind as a film with an actual plot. In this case, it’s one that has to do with jealousy, or the impossibility of intimacy in such queer configurations where sex is public only if it’s clandestine but affection must be refused for the sake of social survival. Apart from a needless plotline involving a homophobic assault, it all makes perfect sense. But the film’s most interesting moments emerge precisely when it surrenders to the presumably illogical strangeness of erotic fantasy.
For instance, when Sandro (Leandro Faria Lelo)—who regularly has sex in the woods with a co-worker, Ricardo (Allan Jacinto Santana), after their shift at the factory—happens upon what looks like a leather bar, the place turns out to be an empty construction site where queer archetypes—the harnessed master, the puppy slave, the drag-queen hostess—are there to perform for Sandro and Sandro alone, in a mix of silent performance art and interactive pornography. In another moment of poetic-pornographic license, an evident nod to Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake, a generically bearded hunk (Marcelo D’Avilla) with chained nipple clamps comes out of a man-made lake, ready to take Sandro into the water for an ecstatic drowning.
Significantly more comedic, Alice Júnior focuses on a trans wannabe influencer, Alice (Anne Celestino), and her perfumer of a father, Jean Genet (Emmanuel Rosset), who move from Recife to a small town in the south of Brazil. Subtlety isn’t Baroni’s aim, which is clear in the film’s social media-like sense of pace and aesthetic bells and whistles, as well as in the obvious trans metaphor built into the narrative premise. Alice and her dad have to move down south because he wants to develop a new fragrance using pine cones local to the region, whose fruit only comes out if the person blowing through the cone has discovered the pine cone’s real essence.
One becomes accustomed to the film’s initially annoying incorporation of social media language into its aesthetic, such as the emojis that pop up on the screen whenever Alice does something or other, because it mirrors the interface through which contemporary teenagers animate everyday life. But Alice Júnior visibly struggles to differentiate itself from a soap opera. The over-the-top acting (the villains speak like Cruella de Vil) is technically in line with Baroni’s animated Insta-grammar, but it becomes a problem when the film tries to tap into something other than its cute flamboyance. The film reaches for pathos only to find tinsel instead.
As fun as Alice Júnior can be, it’s at its core a typical Brazilian kids’ movie, in the vein of on-the-nose fare about enjoying life but not doing drugs that Brazilian megastar Xuxa put out in the 1980s and ‘90s, except queered by its trans protagonist and the visual language of the times. It wears its pedagogical message on its sleeve but is betrayed by a lack of substance. Alice is at once a naïve little girl yearning for her first kiss from a boy and a queer activist with an arsenal of didactic one-liners at the ready. This means some of the plot doesn’t feel credible, as Alice masters LGBTQ resistance discourse perfectly in her interactions both on and offline, but prefers pissing her pants during a class exam, which naturally becomes a viral video, than demanding her right to use the women’s restroom. At times she’s a woke warrior, and at times she’s a helpless little girl.
Alice Júnior only manages to transcend its sparkling surface in a few sequences where it pitches itself at grownups. In one, Jean Genet gets drunk with Marisa (Katia Horn), the kooky mother of one of Alice’s gay classmates, and they start being a little too honest about what they think of their own children. The social media histrionics have nothing to offer in these incredibly entertaining scenes, which finally bring the film closer to Starrbooty than Clueless. These moments are fabulous precisely because they’re unfiltered—queer in attitude, not in wardrobe. Jean Genet and Marisa don’t toast to their kids because they’re decent human beings fighting heterosexual patriarchy, but for being the “devilish bitch” and “dirty-mouthed trans” that they are.
NewFest runs from October 16—27.
Review: Synchronic Undermines Its Delightful Strangeness with Handholding
About a drug that sends its users back in time for seven minutes, the film holds your hand and walks you through its chronology mazes.2
Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead built alluringly mysterious worlds in films like Resolution and The Endless. These works of horror-tinged science fiction draw the viewer in through their ambiguous relationships to traditional space and time; they’re complicated puzzles, and a good part of their fun is trying to fit the pieces together. But in their latest, Synchronic, the filmmakers do the fitting for you. About a drug that sends its users back in time for seven minutes, the film holds your hand and walks you through its chronology mazes, making what might otherwise be delightfully strange into something too pat and easy.
Steve (Anthony Mackie) is a hard-living EMT in New Orleans. It’s not unusual for him and his partner, Dennis (Jamie Dornan), to respond to drug calls, and the film opens with heroin overdoses at a flop house, shot in a long take as the camera drifts from one room or character to another, building up a sense of dizzying dread. But the calls soon start to get weirder: someone who seems to have spontaneously combusted, someone bitten at a hotel by a nonnative species of snake, and someone in pieces at the bottom of an elevator shaft.
They’re all victims of Synchronic, a designer drug that literally sends young people, with their soft pineal glands, into the past—and just how far depends randomly on where they are in the present. Soon, Dennis’s 18-year-old daughter, Brianna (Ally Ioannides), pops the drug at a party and disappears, trapped in history, a damsel in distress held captive by time itself. Conveniently, Steve has brain cancer, which has made his pineal gland unusually soft for his age; nearing death, dragging his knuckles across rock bottom, he decides to unstick himself in time and rescue his friend’s daughter. But first, though, he conducts a series of experiments to see how Synchronic actually works, explaining away the surreal with narrated video excerpts and white boards, suggesting a classroom lesson via Zoom.
Synchronic echoes Richard McGuire’s 2014 graphic novel Here and David Lowery’s 2017 film A Ghost Story, exploring a physical location by journeying across time but not space. And the Quibi-sized trips to the past are the high points of Benson and Moorhead’s latest, evocative glimpses of a long and diffuse history, from the wooly mammoths and prehistoric men of the Ice Age, to the conquistadors and bayou alligators of colonization, to the racist rednecks of the early 20th century. But the filmmakers often play these seven-minute scenes as much for laughs as wonder. “The past fucking sucks!” Steve cries upon returning home from one trip. And he’s not wrong—especially for a black man in Louisiana.
Benson and Moorhead, as they did in The Endless, eventually cast off the science that sets their story in motion for the melodrama at its core. There are some gaps in logic, and some cruel manipulations (including Steve losing his dog to the vagaries of pill-induced time travel), all concessions to an underlying drama about family reunion and self-sacrifice. The film isn’t nostalgic, as it argues that the past is awful, and that the present a delicious miracle.
Cast: Anthony Mackie, Jamie Dornan, Ally Ioannides, Katie Aselton Director: Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead Screenwriter: Justin Benson Distributor: Well Go USA Running Time: 96 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Sound of Metal Is a Tender, Singular Portrait of Addiction
Darius Marder’s film captures, with urgency and tenderness, just how enticing the residue of the past can be.3
“Fucked!” That’s how Michael Gira described how his hearing is after a live show in a 2015 interview with the Guardian. Admitting to not even taking the simple precaution of wearing ear plugs while playing in one of the world’s loudest bands, the Swans frontman went on to say, “It’s a fix. It must unleash endorphins, because being inside the sound is to me the ultimate. When it’s working and we’re all psychically connected and the music’s taking us over, I can’t imagine anything more exquisite.”
At the start of Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal, Ruben (Riz Ahmed), the drummer for a Swans-esque noise rock band, Blackgammon, is shown in such a state of euphoria, furiously pounding away at his drums and enraptured by the wall of sound filled out by distorted guitars and the screaming vocals of his girlfriend and bandmate, Lou (Olivia Cooke). It’s the sound of agony and ecstasy intertwined—a form of sonic transcendence that is, for Ruben, every bit as alluring as the heroin addiction that he kicked some four years earlier.
The aural assault of the band’s live shows stands in sharp contrast to Ruben and Lou’s personal life, which consists of quiet evenings dancing to soul music in their RV and waking up to health shakes and yoga. But it’s seemingly only during their performances that Ruben feels both truly alive and at peace with himself, getting his fix of the rhythmic noise that’s become his new drug of choice. So when the slight ringing in Ruben’s ears the night before turns into a dull roar, leaving all surrounding noises muffled beyond recognition, it’s not merely his professional livelihood that’s at stake, but his mental and spiritual well-being as well.
This newfound state of near-deafness thrusts Ruben suddenly into a transitional phase, and Sound of Metal is in lockstep with him, using intricate sound design to approximate his nightmare state and amplify the confusion, anger, and disorientation that grips him. Ruben’s life on the road, and thus his existence “inside the sound,” becomes a thing of the past when, at Lou’s request, he agrees to stay at a remote community for the deaf that specializes in helping recovering addicts. And it’s here that Ruben is again forced to confront his addictive tendencies. Only now he’s no longer chasing the dragon, but the chance to regain his hearing, whether through his impulsive desire to lose what remains of it by immediately returning to the stage or by holding out hope for a costly cochlear implant that, despite what he thinks, isn’t quite the guaranteed quick fix that he believes it to be.
As Ruben begins confronting his current predicament, Sound of Metal risks becoming a familiar, inspirational tale of overcoming one’s disability. But the filmmakers fill out the familiar framework of Ruben’s dilemma with an acutely detailed portrait of a deaf community headed by the serene and compassionate Joe (Paul Raci), a former addict who lost his hearing during Vietnam and firmly believes that deafness isn’t a handicap.
As the film traces Ruben’s integration into this community, and his increasing understanding of sign language, it becomes even more highly attuned to Ruben’s emotional and sensorial experiences, both in terms of his newfound physical impairment and his struggle to accept the uncertain future ahead of him. It’s a tumultuous time for Ruben, and Ahmed enlivens the character with a restless, bristling energy that constantly clashes with the sense of stillness and inner peace that Joe tries to instill in him every day. And this underlying tension between Joe’s calm and patient acceptance of reality, and all its complications, and Ruben’s undying need to return to “being inside the sound” colors the rest of the film.
Later on, Joe tells Ruben that “those moments of stillness, that place, that’s the kingdom of God. And that place will never abandon you.” Ruben’s professed atheism deflates the religious aspect of Joe’s statement, but as the final act takes an unexpected turn and the perpetual push-pull between stillness and chaos, silence and sound that grips Ruben at every turn are pushed to their breaking point, his advice takes on a newfound eloquence. For Ruben, the song may be over, but the feedback lingers on. Sound of Metal sees the value of stillness, particularly for addicts, but it also captures, with urgency and tenderness, just how enticing the residue of the past can be. In a way, it can be an addictive drug all its own.
Cast: Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke, Paul Raci, Mathieu Amalric, Lauren Ridloff, Chris Perfetti, William Xifaras, Hillary Baack, Michael Tow, Tom Kemp, Rena Maliszewski Director: Darius Marder Screenwriter: Darius Marder, Abraham Marder Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 121 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Ham on Rye Is an Elegant, Grand Chronicle of a Chaos Foretold
The film’s purposeful archness challenges the sentimentality that marks many a film and real-life ceremony.3.5
Tyler Taormina’s Ham on Rye, in which high school children come of age while moseying around the San Fernando Valley in anticipation of an undefined formal event, sets the audience up for a lark. Conflicting details give the impression that the film is divorced from time, with the children’s clothes—long and flowing dresses, gaudily ill-fitting suits—suggesting holdovers from the 1970s. Even the immaculately put-together mothers and Hawaiian shirt-clad fathers seem like vestiges from a different era. No cellphones are initially glimpsed, and there are no overt pop-cultural references, though other textures place the story in the present day. In other words, there’s a highly self-conscious, stylized, insulated innocence to the film that inspires distrust, as we’re invited to enjoy the sort of idyll proffered by many teen movies, yet we know we’re being played with. This archness, which isn’t without sincerity, challenges the sentimentality that marks many a film and real-life ceremony.
Taormina and co-writer Eric Berger don’t offer character development in a traditional sense, instead creating a free-floating and distinctly Altmanesque tapestry as they move among dozens of characters. The elegance and control of Ham on Rye’s aesthetic is breathtaking, especially considering the film’s shoestring production. Cinematographer Carson Lund bathes the story’s neighborhood settings in a pastel light that again evokes the ‘70s—or, at least, modern pop culture’s impression of the decade. And the camera lingers on details that indicate the ecstasies and miseries lingering underneath this suburban mirage, such as a shot of trash in a yard that suggests the aftermath of either indifference or violence, or of a postcard sent to a girl from her sister in college, which is written in an unnaturally, over-compensatingly proclamatory style that implies desperation while serving as a mockery of the girls’ simplified visions of future adulthood. Such details point to the influence of many titans of the cinema, among them Brian De Palma, Peter Weir, and David Lynch.
The film comprises a string of melancholic dead ends. A group of boys talk of the importance of “porking,” setting up a familiar “trying to get laid” scenario that never materializes. Later, they see another group of boys who resemble doppelgangers, and each gang puffs their bodies up, mocking the other, priming us for a fight that doesn’t occur, as the second gang jumps a chain link fence, never to be seen again. Elsewhere, a group of men, visually coded as old-school stoner types, drive around ready to raise hell, which also doesn’t come to pass. These half-formed anecdotes, and there are many more of them, come to resemble fissures in memory. We might be seeing the fuzzy, semi-sanitized, pop-mythos-addled recollections of the adult versions of these characters as they drink away their disappointments in a bar.
Once we’re sufficiently acclimated to Ham on Rye’s foreboding, wistful atmosphere, Taormina springs a poignant and satirical surprise. The children aren’t making their way toward a formal event like the traditional prom, but a ceremonial dance at a deli, in which they eat sandwiches together before forming boys- and girls-only lines so as to evaluate one another and couple. The strangeness of this arrangement, like the general timelessness of the setting, underscores the arbitrary ornateness of real ceremonies—prom, homecoming, graduation—that insidiously serve the purpose of conditioning us to become well-behaved cogs in the social machine, like all the disappointed parents who lurk in the periphery of the film.
Underneath Ham on Rye’s mystery and grandeur, then, is a theme that’s traditional to teen movies: children’s fear of selling out like their parents. Which isn’t to say that Taormina indulges snideness, as he invests this dance with an intense visual splendor that embodies the naïve, untapped passion, laced with terror, that comes with inoculation into adult rituals. This sequence has the daring rhapsody of the prolonged prom sequence in De Palma’s Carrie.
Ham on Rye’s second half is informed with a kind of survivor’s guilt that’s also reminiscent of Carrie. Haley (Haley Bodell), the closest the film has to a protagonist, flees the deli ceremony, casting herself off as Amy Irving’s character was cast off in Carrie. After her friends seem to vanish transcendently into thin air after the dance, Haley is left behind with her despondent family, perhaps stranded in childhood or simply this town, and the film abruptly shifts atmospheres. The pastels are traded in for industrial nighttime hues, and cellphones and other modern bric-a-brac are suddenly visible, while the posh suburban neighborhoods, with their kids who can afford to go to dances that whisk them off to neverland, are traded in for strip malls with disaffected teens and working-class parents who’re pushed by their disadvantaged children to the brink of insanity. Ham on Rye first shows us a dream, with its intimations of chaos, before then showing us only chaos, with its lingering echoes of the vanished dream.
Cast: Haley Bodell, Audrey Boos, Gabriella Herrera, Adam Torres, Luke Darga, Sam Hernandez, Blake Borders, Cole Devine, Timothy Taylor, Gregory Falatek, Laura Wernette, Lori Beth Denberg, Danny Tamberelli, Clayton Snyder, Aaron Schwartz Director: Tyler Taormina Screenwriter: Tyler Taormina, Eric Berger Distributor: Factory 25 Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 2019