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The Conversations: Nashville

Robert Altman’s Nashville is one of those rare films that feels more timely, more relevant, the more time goes by.

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The Conversations: Nashville

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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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?

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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.

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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 Barbara 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.

Nashville

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.

Nashville

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.

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

Ed Howard chronicles his film viewing at Only the Cinema.

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Japan Cuts 2019: Demolition Girl, And Your Bird Can Sing, & Being Natural

Japan Cuts has established itself as the definitive Japanese film festival in the United States, thanks to the scope of its programming.

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Demolition Girl
Photo: Japan Cuts

Japan Cuts has established itself as the definitive Japanese film festival in the United States, thanks to the scope of its programming. The 2019 edition is no exception, with over 30 events over 10 days, among them talks, screenings, and Q&A sessions with filmmakers as diverse as Macoto Tezka (The Legend of the Stardust Brothers) and Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo: The Iron Man), the latter of whom is this year’s recipient of the festival’s Cut Above award, which is given to a defining figure of Japan’s cinema, and will be awarded before the East Coast premiere of his latest film, the samurai action-drama Killing.

Lest you think Japan Cuts is only a showcase for genre exercises, the festival abounds in works that explore the struggles that erupt from the Japanese capitalist system, and are felt in different ways across generations. Demolition Girl, Genta Matsugami’s feature debut, is among the strongest of recent films to bluntly speak about class difference. It follows 17-year-old Cocoa (Aya Kitai), who, in the wake of her mother’s death, has decided to forgo a university education and get a job. But as her shifts at a local amusement park only pay so much, she starts to perform in adult fetish videos that see her stomping on cans, trash, and balloons.

At his best, the film taps into the heightened experience of the poorest of the people living on the edge. For one, whenever Cocoa’s father (Yota Kawase) has some money on hand, he yearns for instant satisfaction, spending it on expensive sushi. As for Cocoa, who’s isolation is emphasized through shots that see her alone in corridors, or studying late at night in her room, it’s almost as if she’s destined to fail. And, indeed, when her school finds out about the adult videos she’s been making, and just as she was beginning to realize her promise of going to a Tokyo university, her life falls apart. When confronted by friends about why she made the videos, all she can do is yell at them: “You wouldn’t understand, you’re rich, you wouldn’t know. Will you pay for my expenses?” In this moment, Kitai’s triumph is making her character’s wail against a cruel economic system feel as if it could be our own.

And Your Bird Can Sing, directed by Sho Miyake, is focused on two late-twentysomething slackers: the unnamed protagonist (Tasuku Emoto) and his roommate, Shizo (Himizu and Parasyte star Shōta Sometani). Both work crappy jobs, and they try to stay sane through copious amounts of drinking and pointed mockery of the economically fraught lot they’ve been handed in life. The protagonist’s attitude could be summed up by one early sequence, when he meets a co-worker and convinces her to go on a date, only to later miss the date, fall asleep, wake up, and decide to spend his night drinking with Shizo.

A love triangle between the roomies and one of the protagonist’s co-workers, Sachiko (Shizuka Ishibashi), brings some solace to the men’s lives. There’s redundancy to the way that Miyake frames these characters, showing their faces up close rather than the screens they peer at as they text each other, but his wide shots speak to how they all work to fill empty spaces. Miyake’s style is relaxed, almost as if his camera has absorbed everyone’s slacker vibes. Especially of note is a sequence that lingers at length on Sachiko paying for groceries while the two men in her life try to hold their laughter, saying to each other that she’s going to regret her purchase. Miyake’s gaze is empathetic, and there’s truth in his understanding that you have to sometimes laugh at your underprivilege in order to prevent yourself from screaming.

More tonally varied, and operating on a larger scale, director Tadashi Nagayama’s satirical Being Natural broaches the subject of gentrification as it immerses viewers in the daily routines of a middle-aged man, Taka (Yota Kawase), who lives in a small town in the countryside of Japan and works with his cousin, Mitsuaki (Shoichiro Tanigawa), and their friend, Sho (Tadahiro Tsuru), at a fishpond inherited from his deceased uncle. Everything starts to derail for the three men when a family arrives on the scene from Tokyo with the hopes of opening up an old-style café that will only sell natural and locally grown products. At the start of the film, the still-grieving Taka doesn’t fully understand what he has until someone tries to take it away from him, and by the end, a spectacular show of violence will see him finally realizing the nature of the economic system he’s trapped within.

The film’s style is initially sweet and mellow, with the softest of songs dotting the soundtrack. Taka plays bongos, and the sounds of the instrument are also heard throughout. At first, this sound creates a calm atmosphere that’s in sync with the bright cinematography. But as the film introduces a series of sinister twists, those bongos come to take on an almost murderous bent. The sounds of the instrument point to the encroachment of a capitalist economy on a place relatively untouched by it. In its final minutes, Being Natural takes a turn toward the supernatural, and it’s satisfying for giving the main characters the reprisal they want, but also poignant for the way it has us understand that it only occurs in the realm of fantasy. The film, in the end, acknowledges that it’s difficult to go against the system, and that to stay sane means finding a little pocket of happiness in the world and enjoying it while it lasts.

Japan Cuts runs from July 19—28.

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Review: David Crosby: Remember My Name Sees a Legend Carrying On

The film captures a man haunted by his past mistakes and nearly certain that he doesn’t have the time left to begin making up for them.

2.5

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David Crosby: Remember My Name
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

One gets the sense when hearing David Cosby perform that, like many naturally gifted vocalists, he was born to express himself through song, and given his tumultuous personal and professional life, the act of singing may be the only means through which Crosby can briefly maintain an equilibrium amid so much chaos. Womanizing, drug abuse, and band breakups are certainly par for the course for countless musicians, especially those who came up in the late 1960s, but Crosby is an extreme case even by those standards. It’s difficult to think of another living musician more strongly and uniformly despised by his former bandmates and collaborators and, aside from Keith Richards, another whose continued survival is more shocking in light of what he’s put his body through.

Aided by Cameron Crowe, who, as a Rolling Stone writer, interviewed Crosby various times and is on hand here to again pick the musician’s brain, A.J. Eaton’s David Crosby: Remember My Name opens with a fairly standard music-doc overview that traces Crosby’s productive early years with the Byrds and his ascent to fame with both iterations of Crosby, Stills & Nash. There’s no effort made to hide Crosby’s thorny personality or the chaos he brought to each of these early projects, but Eaton and Crowe seem initially content to butter Crosby up, joining him in waxing rhapsodic about his widespread influence and lasting importance as a musician.

The hagiographic tone slowly fades as the film moves past the perfunctory career retrospective and begins delving into the nitty-gritty details of Crosby’s bumpy road to stardom and his rapid descent into disgrace, spurred on by his decades-long battle with drug addiction. While Crosby often proves a tough nut to crack, rarely willing to linger too long on the painful moments of a life eventful enough to fill several documentaries, Crowe and Eaton eventually disarm him enough to tap into the frustrated, damaged, and regretful man hiding all those years beneath his patented walrus mustache and wispy, long hair. As Crosby discusses the petulance and rage he often unfairly directed at fellow bandmates and his mistreatment of many of his girlfriends, several of whom he got hooked on cocaine and heroin, one can sense not only the depth of his remorse and anguish, but also the resigned helplessness that little can be done in his twilight years to repair the many bridges he’s permanently scorched.

Throughout Remember My Name, archival interviews with Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, and Neil Young make it abundantly clear that Crosby has alienated each of his former bandmates to such a degree that none of them will talk to him again. Only former Byrds frontman Roger McGuinn appears in a newly recorded interview for the film, and he does so presumably only to describe how “insufferable” Crosby was as a fellow bandmate.

At nearly 80 years old, Crosby is happily married and in the midst of a creative resurgence with a string of acclaimed solo albums, but even these small joys are mitigated by his admission that he’s only touring, and thus often away from his wife, because he needs the money. During a leisurely drive with Crowe, Crosby visits his old stomping grounds in Laurel Canyon and the Sunset Strip and recounts those halcyon days when he lived with Joni Mitchell and sang his first song with Nash and Stills. But the magic of these locales has long since faded, leaving Crosby in an uncharacteristically introspective state and all too aware of how close he is to the end of his life. As he wistfully tells Crowe that he already has eight stents in his heart and will likely die in the next couple of years, the film captures a man haunted by his past mistakes and nearly certain that he doesn’t have the time left to begin making up for them.

Director: A.J. Eaton Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 95 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Cassandro, the Exotico! Shoulders the Strange Burden of Empathy

Marie Losier’s empathy, if not love, for Cassandro hinders her from examining his wounds with much depth.

2.5

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Cassandro, the Exotico!
Photo: Film Movement

Queerness isn’t just about the relationship between bodies: the ones we desire, the ones that will never desire us back, the ones we wished we possessed. It’s also very much a matter of cloth, color, and adornment. Many a pop-cultural figure has manifested this queer sartorial drama, from Liberace to David Bowie, from Leigh Bowery to early Lady Gaga, from Pepper LaBeija to Shangela Laquifa Wadley. And with her new documentary, Cassandro, the Exotico!, Marie Losier introduces us to a lesser-known, yet just as subversive, purveyor of that drama: Mexican luchador Cassandro, a Universal Wrestling Association winner and former junkie with a penchant for gaudy garments.

Ridiculous stage wear is, of course, fundamentally associated with professional wrestling, but Cassandro’s textile-informed camp isn’t compensated by violent machismo or a heterosexist mise-en-scène. Instead, this exótico is unapologetic about the seamless kinship between his queerness and that of the clothes he wears. And the continuum between queer sexuality and fashion places him simultaneously as the exceptional gay figure in a supposedly macho sport, the Mexican lucha libre, and as the element that outs wrestling writ large as an already queer affair. Cassandro, né Saúl Armendáriz, is, then, a ready-made cinematic character, bearing the contradictions of his world from the inside—a world where, much like ours, heterosexual male violence is performed through patently homoerotic means.

Although skin, bones, and fabric are all—to various degrees of visible and invisible discomfort—stitched into the gendered body, the film is precisely concerned with the moment when these connections come apart at the seams. After decades of fighting for a living, Cassandro’s body is giving out. This is a moment of desperation for someone who turned to wrestling as something between religion and therapy. We see him literally hanging his flamboyant costumes to dry on a clotheslines as he speaks about retirement, about how quitting would appease his body but demolish his ego. As the film progresses, his dislocated chin, limited hand movements, and multiple head concussions will seem like the belated embodiment, if not the psychosomatic scream, of a childhood marked by molestation and sexual abuse. A history of spectacular violence catching up to years of a much less visible brutality.

Cassandro, the Exotico! is largely observational, with occasional interventions from Losier. It wouldn’t be fair to call the film hagiographic, but the director’s empathy, if not love, for her subject hinders her from examining Cassandro’s wounds with much depth. When faced with Cassandro’s misery, Losier’s response is to console him as if wanting to change the subject. She cuts one moment of candidness short, when Cassandro is addressing his fears via Skype, by telling him, “I wish I could give you a kiss.” It would have served the documentary better had Losier granted her subject the possibility to work through his pain in front of the camera.

Visually, the documentary, which is shot on 16mm film stock, recalls canonical diaristic works that expose people’s troublesome feelings in raw and unbridled fashion (think Jonas Mekas, Sadie Benning, and Su Friedrich). Which makes the juxtaposition of Losier’s visual language and her reluctance to examine Cassandro’s frailties feel particularly displeasing. Perhaps afraid that scrutiny would shatter Cassandro, Losier fails to realize that it’s precisely through such shattering that redemption can emerge, maybe even reparation.

Director: Marie Losier Screenwriter: Marie Losier, Antoine Barraud Distributor: Film Movement Running Time: 73 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Interview: Marc Maron on Sword of Truth, WTF, and the Possibility of Change

Maron discusses modern media discourse, the communicative bridge linking his acting with his podcast, and how he likes to be directed.

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Marc Maron
Photo: IFC Films

Marc Maron is presently enjoying one of the most unlikely and inspiring success stories in Hollywood. Once known as a bitter “comic’s comic” who was eclipsed in success by contemporaries such as Louis C.K. and Jon Stewart, Maron has been reborn into a poster boy for empathy, starting with his blockbuster podcast, “WTF,” and continuing with roles in the hit television series Maron, Easy, and GLOW. With each role, Maron has rapidly evolved from a “comic who acts” into a first-rate character actor capable of subtly altering his charisma to fit a variety of oddballs who, like himself, struggle with self-doubt while attempting to walk a straight and sober path.

Now, with Sword of Truth, Maron makes his debut as a cinematic lead, playing Mel, a pawnshop owner who ends up on a road trip that stirs long-festering feelings of estrangement, which parallels the forms of isolation gripping a variety of other characters, and which the film’s director, Lynn Shelton, links to the reactionary myths and politics currently gripping this country. The role marks another career high point for Maron, who talked to me last week about the communicative bridge linking his acting with his podcast, how he likes to be directed, and the “mind-fuckery” currently gripping modern media discourse.

Given that you’ve previously worked with Lynn Shelton on Maron and GLOW, did you two have a kind of collaborative shorthand going into Sword of Trust?

Well, I’m generally filled with anxiety and resistance. I don’t know if there’s a shorthand, but Lynn knows how to get the best out of me and works with me pretty well. I like directors who’re hands on with me and guide me.

Do you like to receive a lot of explicit direction, or is your process more intuitive?

Well, I do what I do. I definitely welcome suggestions, because I’m certainly not going to think of all the possibilities of a scene. Most of my choices are not necessarily correct. I usually come in pretty intense and hot, and there’s subtleties that can be coaxed out with minor tweaks. And I like working like that. I wouldn’t have the confidence to assume that my take is the “right” one necessarily.

There’s a stillness to you in Sword of Trust that I’m not sure we’ve seen before.

Yeah.

Your weight as a performer is really felt here, especially in that scene when Mel first see Lynn’s character in his shop. I love how you enter the room from the closet, and how one can feel the emotion bubbling up in Mel.

Thanks, man. I think this is a heavy-hearted guy who’s sort of surrendered to his lot in life. He also has a certain amount invested in his own. I don’t know if it’s heartache, but he’s definitely a broken dude who’s making the best of whatever time he has left. I don’t know if the other characters are really like that. They are always in forward motion.

You also inform Mel’s appraising of objects with all these lovely emotional textures. He’s not only talking about a sword.

The guitar too. As I act more, I try to take some of the space that you’re talking about. With acting I feel that I’ve been learning on the job in a way, and over time I’ve started to explore different possibilities with owning whatever my space is, whether it’s a movie or on stage. Certainly, over decades of doing stand-up, I’ve figured out my space on a stage, but being on a set and pacing yourself and taking the time to engage with what’s around you I think makes a lot of difference in how a performance comes off. It’s about being present in an environment.

Has your ascending acting career changed how you relate to actors on your podcast?

Over the last few years, since I’ve started acting more, I’ve had more actors on. I tend to try to pull a nice acting class out of that. I think a lot of what my guests say makes sense. Once again, a lot of acting is about listening and being present. In another time in my life, I saw certain actors as mythic. Now that I’ve talked to so many of them, I’ve started to realize, not in a disappointing way, that…what’s the word I want? That these are people doing a job, all in their own way. Once you get upset with people, you realize, “Well, that’s how they’re approaching this job,” and when you get into the ring or the scene, you’re in it.

That inside knowledge gives “WTF” an edge too. For many interviewers, like myself, art-making is basically theory. But you have your feet on the ground so to speak.

I think that happens over time. I don’t think I ever set out to interview. I’ve framed what happens on my podcast as conversations, and they either go somewhere or they don’t. There’s a few points I may get hung up on, and there are places I go to fairly regularly in interviews, but I generally don’t see these conversations as question-and-answer situations. I don’t have any expectations really other than to feel a connection or to sort of be enlightened. I think those of you who have a job to interview, for an outlet, for the content and the word count and everything else, might have more restrictions. I don’t have to answer to anybody and I don’t know what I’m looking for half the time.

Yeah, and a challenge I’ve found with interviews is that one doesn’t always entirely know what is and isn’t in bounds, which can lead to an impersonal vibe. By contrast, your podcast has such an intimate layer throughout.

You have to feel that stuff out, you know I’m not necessarily intuitive about that. I’m not really in the business of sandbagging anybody.

Right.

Usually you get somebody comfortable and things come out. If people are comfortable and engaged it doesn’t really matter what they’re talking about. Audiences will say, “Oh, wow, I didn’t know that.” These conversations don’t require information, but an emotional connection. I’m so happy about that, especially considering the never-ending torrent of garbage that we have to move through every day.

I think about politics. Politics online are rarely civil, but when you get someone in person, and start slowly, and are willing to have a conversation, you can normally get farther than you might expect.

Online culture isn’t civil and there’s a momentum to everything that’s based on mind-fuckery. I know for myself—as somebody who was relatively disinterested and uninformed about the functions of government and why politics and leadership make a difference—that people are perfectly willing to volunteer their brains to these strange flashpoint reactors that trigger them emotionally. People live by these black-and-white decisions. It’s not good. We need to consider what we really know and how we know it and what we’re telling other people.

Yeah.

People are so empowered by garbage information that’s being related in a relatively shallow way, which doesn’t take into consideration the influence and context of the rest of our lives. It’s sort of a disaster. I try to stay away from that stuff in terms of the conversations that I’m having. I’m trying to deal with something more human and experiential. Most people are regurgitating talking points on both sides without thinking of how someone feels and how to affect change. I got an interview with Geena Davis [who stars in the new season of GLOW] coming up, about her work with her foundation and her work in this documentary about women in show business. It’s called This Changes Everything. I tell you man, when someone’s that personally invested in something they believe in, and it’s righteous, and they lay it out for you and it makes sense, that’s what heartens my belief in this possibility for change.

To change gears a bit, is it cathartic for you, as someone who’s long been in recovery, to play characters who’re either reformed or have drug issues?

Yeah, sure. Most obviously there’s the last season of Maron, where my character has a relapse, which frankly didn’t happen in real life. When you really understand the nature of addiction, and you’ve seen it from the inside, and know the powerlessness and the struggle to live a life that’s not in the throes of it—I mean, it’s such a common struggle. And what’s amazing to me is how many people don’t find a way out of that or don’t seek help. Or are ashamed of it or don’t know how to get the help. I never set out to do this, but I’m thrilled and humbled by the effect my work has on people who’re isolated by this sickness. It’s really one of the more satisfying results of the podcast: how much mail I get from people who’re struggling and who want advice, or who feel less alone from what I’ve said. The great thing about recovery, and about playing these parts, is that it gives you a context that’s very specific—a way to legitimately help people that can change their entire lives.

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

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

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Streetwise
Photo: Janus Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lynn Shelton
Photo: IFC Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2

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Into the Ashes
Photo: RLJE Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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At War
Photo: Cinema Libre Studio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.5

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Bottom of the 9th
Photo: Saban Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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