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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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Review: The Death of Dick Long Reckons with Male Fragility in Madcap Fashion

Daniel Scheinert’s film finds a very human vulnerability lurking beneath the strange and oafish behaviors of its male characters.

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The Death of Dick Long
Photo: A24

For a film populated almost completely by utter morons, Daniel Scheinert’s The Death of Dick Long is shot through with a surprising emotional complexity. While its characters may appear to be, and often behave as, stereotypical rednecks and bumbling small-town cops, the film approaches them not with contempt, but with a bemused kind of empathy, finding a very human vulnerability lurking beneath their strange and oafish behaviors.

Make no mistake, the people in the film do some pretty bizarre things. “Hey, y’all mother fuckers wanna get weird?” the soon-to-be-deceased title character (Daniel Scheinert) asks his ne’er-do-well pals, Zeke (Michael Abbott Jr.) and Earl (Andre Hyland), after they’ve just wrapped up band practice and Zeke’s wife (Virginia Newcomb) has put their little girl (Poppy Cunningham) to bed. And so they do, shotgunning beers, smoking tons of weed, shooting off fireworks, and firing rifles in a raucous intoxicated haze, all of which is captured in elegiac slow motion, and lit with chiaroscuro beauty. But The Death of Dick Long withholds the truly freaky stuff these guys get up to that night until nearly an hour into its running time. All we know is that somehow this evening of country-fried debauchery results in a fatal injury to Dick, whose near-dead body Zeke and Earl unceremoniously dump at the local hospital.

The film proceeds as a Deep South riff on the Coen brothers’ Fargo, with Zeke and Earl desperately, and very stupidly, attempting to cover their tracks. At one point, after dumping Zeke’s blood-soaked station wagon in a pond (shades of Hitchcock’s Psycho), the two men find that the water is so shallow that it only covers half the car. Meanwhile, Officer Dudley (Sarah Baker), who feels like Marge Gunderson’s supremely incompetent cousin, is, well, cold on their trail. She’s excited to be on such a big case, but her natural sunniness and trusting nature consistently blind her to the painfully obvious clues sitting right in front of her face.

When the cause of Dick’s death is finally revealed, it’s shocking, horrifying, and brutally funny, a hugely satisfying answer to the film’s central mystery. But it’s also weirdly moving, a tragicomic peek inside the fragile, fucked-up heart of the disaffected white American male. Like John Cassavetes’s Husbands or Todd Phillips’s Hangover films, The Death of Dick Long recognizes the potential for both humor and horror in a certain kind of toxic male homo-social relationship that’s based primarily around getting utterly hammered.

Scheinert approaches this tricky material with the same tone of wry pseudo-sincerity that he and Daniel Kwan brought to their 2016 film Swiss Army Man, keeping the audience at a slight remove from the characters’ outlandish travails while still investing us, on some level, in their emotional journey. Scheinert’s careful foreshadowing of the reason for Dick’s death is so subtle and clever that one is likely to identify the hints only in retrospect. If The Death of Dick Long’s Coenesque tone of ironic distance often encourages us to laugh at this collection of buffoonish weirdos, Scheinert never loses sight of their fundamental humanity.

Billy Chew’s screenplay sharply explores the bizarre and shame-filled byways that result from straight men shutting out the women in their lives in order “get weird” together. And the impact of the film’s plot revelations derives in no small part from the reactions of its female characters, who discover how little they truly know about what the men in their lives get up to when they’re not around. For Zeke, Earl, and Dick, getting drugs and going wild is their haphazard, self-destructive means of fleeing from the demands of their lives, which they’re ill-equipped to deal with responsibly. While the film never lets them off the hook, dropping countless hints about how indolent, pathetic, and dependent on the women in their lives they are, it also recognizes the loneliness and despair that lies deep in their hearts.

Cast: Michael Abbott Jr., Virginia Newcomb, Andre Hyland, Sarah Baker, Jess Weixler, Poppy Cunningham, Roy Wood Jr., Sunita Mani, Janelle Cochrane, Daniel Scheinert Director: Daniel Scheinert Screenwriter: Billy Chew Distributor: A24 Running Time: 100 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Abominable Is Both Poignant Tale of Grief and Commodity Fetish

The second half’s series of hollow visual spectacles foreground the film as a corporate product.

2.5

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Abominable
Photo: Universal Pictures

Writer-director Jill Culton’s Abominable is, by and large, a gene splice of How to Train Your Dragon and Ice Age, with its nefarious corporate-military villain drawing comparison to Incredibles 2 and its quirky background animal characters recalling the Madagascar series. By replicating proven formulas, some of them originally its own, DreamWorks Animation is no doubt counting on at least subliminally calling these other films to mind, but for the first half or so of Abominable, Culter’s screenplay effectively deflects the sense that the film is driven by marketing calculations. Yes, one of its protagonists resembles nothing more than a very cute plush doll, but a fine first act lays down a groundwork of emotional realism that elevates what might otherwise be taken as just another kid’s movie.

Abominable opens promisingly, with Yi (Chloe Bennet), a teenage girl living in a Shanghai apartment with her mother (Michelle Wong) and grandmother, Nai Nai (Tsai Chin), closed off from the world in the wake of her father’s death. Nai Nai, a diminutive Chinese-grandmother type who’s critical and loving in equal measure, worries that Yi finds any excuse she can to be out of the home. Even inside the apartment, she’s found ways to be elsewhere, having built a secluded fort on the roof of their building, where she continues to play violin, despite professing to her mother that she has given up the hobby she shared with her father.

Yi’s inner conflict, the inability she feels to cope with and fully grieve her father’s death, is vividly drawn and immediately recognizable, and despite being presented in simplified terms that the film’s intended young audience can comprehend, it doesn’t lack for poignancy. Culter finds in Yi’s violin playing an expressive device for conveying the girl’s unspoken pain, and there’s a beautiful sequence of Yi playing in the solitude of her rooftop hideout, framed against the Shanghai night sky. It’s there that she discovers the yeti she will eventually dub Everest, who’s hiding out from the forces of the nefarious Burnish Industries, whose aged head honcho—identified only by the mononym Burnish, and voiced by Eddie Izzard—is hunting the snow monster as a way of recapturing his ice-climbing youth.

Ultimately, Culton’s film lives and dies by Everest. Suggesting a cross between a polar bear and dog, he’s covered in meticulously rendered white fur, and his oversized blue eyes and gap-toothed underbite are guaranteed to activate the cuteness-receptor neurons in your brain. He doesn’t speak, but growls rather intelligently and, more remarkably, hums with the deep, resonant voice of an upright bass. When he does so, he magically affects natural objects: Initially, Everest makes things grow (a flower blooms, blueberries sprout), but as Abominable goes on, his powers become essentially boundless, morphing to suit the situation or, quite overtly, to realize some spectacular concept art, as when Everest, Yi, and her friends Jin (Tenzing Norgay Trainor) and Peng (Albert Tsai) take a ride on some dolphin-shaped clouds.

Yi, Jin, and Peng shepherd Everest all the way across China and toward the Himalayas, the home from which the young abominable snowman was taken. And they’re pursued the whole way by Burnish and his company’s resident zoologist, Dr. Zara (Sarah Paulson), who professes to believe that capturing the animal will help protect him. As the three children and the yeti make escape after escape, each set in iconic Chinese landscapes and always enabled at the last minute by Everest’s ever-changing powers—the most fun effect of which is a giant dandelion they use to waft away on the wind—Abominable grows repetitive, and the second half’s series of hollow visual spectacles foreground the film as a corporate product.

The film’s outcast-teen-meets-outcast-creature formula serves to motivate a journey that includes beautifully rendered depictions of well-known Chinese locations: the Yangtze Valley, the Gobi Desert, the Leshan Giant Buddha. Touristic photographs even play an important role in the plot, as Yi comes to understand through one photo that her adventure has realized her father’s trans-China dream trip. The film promises that the real places are even more magical than they appear in such mementos, though the sense of wonder conveyed by its images have less to do with the majesty of nature than they do with the mystic power of the commodity fetish. Something rings false about Burnish’s eventual reformation, the humility before nature that he professes while standing before the film’s depiction of a beautiful and untouched Mount Everest—an image that, these days, only exists in the fantasies of the tourism industry.

Cast: Chloe Bennet, Albert Tsai, Tenzing Norgay Trainor, Eddie Izzard, Sarah Paulson, Tsai Chin, Michelle Wong Director: Jill Culton Screenwriter: Jill Culton Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 97 min Rating: PG Year: 2019

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Review: First Love Is a Well-Oiled Genre Machine, As Bloody As It Is Haunting

First Love reveals itself to be an elegant and haunting Takashi Miike film in throwaway clothing.

3

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First Love
Photo: Well Go USA

Takashi Miike’s First Love shuffles between slapstick and disturbing violence with fluid ease. The film’s plot suggests an unpromising blend of a ‘50s noir and a ‘90s-era Quentin Tarantino joint, as it involves a variety of derivative genre types who’re sent on a collision course via a requisite drug scam gone wrong. For a while, Miike and screenwriter Masa Nakamura occupy themselves with setting up the film’s elaborate domino-effect-like structure, crisscrossing between half a dozen nearly self-contained stories of yakuza warfare, Chinese criminals, crooked Japanese cops, and wronged women on a warpath. Pointedly missing here is the gleefully unhinged sense of humor that typically marks Miike’s yakuza films, but as the plot coalesces, the filmmaker’s long game grows increasingly rewarding, and First Love reveals itself to be an elegant and haunting Miike film in throwaway clothing.

Leo (Masataka Kubota) is First Love’s most sentimental and least interesting hero, a gifted boxer who’s often lectured by his trainer for lacking a competitive edge. This notion of a man of promise who’s unable to fulfill his potential is amusingly rhymed with the plight of a coterie of yakuza killers, who bemoan their dwindling power and necessary collaboration with other gangs. The rhyming structure is bluntly asserted when Miike cuts from Leo punching an opponent to a head as it’s sliced off on a random street via a sword. This beheading is staged in Miike’s customarily flippant comic style, as if to say “murder’s a boring and tedious matter of business.” For a filmmaker who so often gets off on violence, Miike has a wonderful, nearly unparalleled ability to throw away a violent bit for the sake of a punchline.

For reasons that require less explication than the film offers, Leo gets entangled in a conspiracy engineered by Kase, a midlevel Japanese criminal who serves as a link between the yakuza and drug dealers, and who’s played by Shota Sometani in a performance of deranged and freewheeling grace. Sometani renders Kase a kind of criminal yuppie, betraying dangerous people in a blasé manner. The joke, one of First Love’s best, is that Kase’s slimy, white-collar-feeling betrayals often involve brutal murders born of unexpected complications, which he orchestrates with a matter-of-fact self-absorption that grows funnier and funnier as the film’s fuse becomes shorter. In one of the most hilarious sight gags in Miike’s vast canon, Kase attempts arson with a trap that involves a little plastic dog that’s been rigged to stroll into and ignite a pool of gas. Once again, Miike doesn’t emphasize the humor in all caps, staging it with a casualness that suggests the inherent insanity of mercenary life.

First Love is a one-thing-after-another, night-in-the-life crime comedy that gradually becomes ineffably serious and haunting. This sort of transition, a specialty of Miike’s, is signaled early on with sequences that disrupt the film’s tone of chaotic revelry. Leo meets Monica (Sakurako Konishi), a prostitute enslaved by a drug dealer connected to the yakuza, and who’s haunted by hallucinations of the corrupt father who abandoned her. When we first meet Monica, she’s trying to escape the drug dealer’s apartment, and the bed sheet she’s left on the floor rises off the ground, chillingly assuming human form. The film’s bringing together of a young man and a prostitute with a heart of gold may be an ancient, indestructible cliché, but such sequences revitalize First Love’s tropes and give them urgency. And this urgency grows as the yakuza carnage continues, its senseless endlessness becoming less absurd than tragic.

Unlike many practitioners of this sort of pulp narrative, Miike and Nakamura understand that the film’s McGuffin—in this case the bag of drugs—doesn’t matter. Kase and the yakuza and the Chinese gangsters may be chasing the booty, but the latter is an excuse for frustrated people to do what they wanted to do anyway: kill one another. Killers keep pouring into the film, and it’s sometimes difficult to tell them all apart, but Miike frames the most important characters in stylish poses that give them, and First Love at large, a comic-book grandeur—an association that’s literalized when the director audaciously segues into animation in order to realize a huge stunt that was almost certainly beyond his budget if it were to be staged for real. First Love climaxes in a department store with two men, one Japanese, one Chinese, beating and cutting each other senseless, which Miike allows to unfold at brutal length, effectively suggesting that all these genre mechanics, all the romantic window dressing, come down to this: the bloodlust shared by characters and audience alike.

Cast: Masataka Kubota, Shôta Sometani, Sakurako Konishi, Becky, Sansei Shiomi, Seiyô Uchino, Takahiro Miura, Cheng Kuo-Yen, Chun-hao Tuan Director: Takashi Miike Screenwriter: Masa Nakamura Distributor: Well Go USA Running Time: 108 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Rambo: Last Blood Wears Its Muddled Ethos Like a Purple Heart

The Looney Tunes nature of Rambo’s murder spree tempers much of the script’s ideological offense.

3

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Rambo: Last Blood
Photo: Lionsgate

When we last saw battle-scarred Vietnam veteran John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone), he was walking toward the dusty homestead of the father, and the metaphorical American fatherland, that he left behind several decades prior. That was at the end of 2008’s Rambo, a film released early in the final year of George W. Bush’s presidency. Dubya’s war-mongering doctrine was well-complemented by this tale of a steroidal white savior getting savage with big bad Burmese rebels. Body-disintegrating bullets and longing bro-ish gazes said everything words couldn’t. Mission fuckin’ accomplished! It was completely offensive and totally awesome—as long as you could key in to the undercurrent of virile camp.

Give credit to Rambo: Last Blood, capably helmed by Adrian Grunberg, for tapping that gleefully repellent vein one (apparently) final time. Rambo is still on his dad’s ranch, though the old man has departed this mortal coil, leaving behind Maria (Adriana Barraza), who has worked the farm for decades, and Gabrielle (Yvette Monreal), a college-bound 17-year-old who Rambo treats like his own flesh and blood. Gabrielle has hopeful dreams of the future and loves riding horses with her “Uncle John.” But before she heads off to school, she wants to face the abusive father (Marco de la O), now living in Mexico, who abandoned her many years ago.

Mexico, full of what our current commander in chief might term “bad hombres,” is portrayed here as a cesspool of drug addicts, sex traffickers, and violent hedonists, in addition to a single crusading journalist, Carmen Delgado (Paz Vega), because some Mexicans, we assume, are good people. Before we’ve hit the 15-minute mark (the film itself runs an exploitation-flick-friendly 89 minutes), Gabrielle finds herself in the clutches of two evil pimps, brothers Victor and Hugo Martinez (Óscar Jaenada and Sergio Peris-Mencheta), who oversee a back-alley prostitution empire. Time, then, for John Rambo to go all Taken on these mofos.

That he does, though you may be surprised to learn that the kidnapping plot is resolved by the halfway point, after which Last Blood becomes a hilariously gore-splattered variant on Home Alone, with Rambo using all of his survivalist skills to exact revenge on the brothers and their innumerable disposable henchmen. You better believe his iconic compound bow is an integral part of the plan, though his even more characteristic red headband and greasy/stringy Fabio mullet are, sadly, lost to time. In a film filled with all manner of elating kills (sawed-off shots to the head, razor-sharp machetes to the ankles and throat), nothing is more exuberantly cold-blooded than Rambo blasting the Doors’s “Five to One” as a diversionary tactic.

The Looney Tunes nature of the murder spree tempers much of the ideological offense of the screenplay, though the Rambo films have always been incoherent texts—propagandistically gung-ho in some moments, peculiarly upstart and rebellious in others. There’s a scene here in which Rambo drives up to a border fence on the Mexican side, briefly glances at the English sign warning him off, then floors the accelerator and crashes through the barbed wire. Boundaries mean nothing to Rambo; after this scene, he shuttles between the U.S. and Mexico as if he were popping down to the local grocery store. Though it’s only right to ponder whether lone-wolf actions such as this are more on the side of righteous or regressive fury.

The latter seems more likely, in no small part because of how often Rambo has been co-opted by hawkish powers-that-be. After seeing 1985’s Rambo: First Blood Part II, the second film in the series in which Rambo rescues American POWs in Vietnam, Ronald Reagan was heard to remark, “I know what to do the next time this happens.” And Reagan is alluded to in both the fourth and fifth film via the initials of the name on the family farm mailbox: R. Rambo.

Yet there’s still the matter of Stallone himself, who at 72-years-old has become even more of a gloriously sinewy sight gag, one that tends to cut against any serious ambitions or ideas that these films, this one in particular, might harbor. The degree to which he’s aware of his own absurdity is debatable; never forget that he boasts a 160 Mensa I.Q., so the joke could very well be on us. Intentional or not, he consistently courts the ridiculous to touch the sublime, and that’s certainly true in Last Blood, which he stalks through like Frankenstein’s monster.

There’s a lizard-brain thrill to his single-mindedness, and a stab, such as it is, at emotional complexity when Rambo’s killing spree culminates in a literally heartrending gesture. This is followed by a scene set on a sun-dappled country porch that draws equally on the multifaceted mytho-poeticism of John Ford and the jingoistic stupidity of John Wayne circa The Green Berets. That neither sensibility fully overwhelms the other is testament to the Rambo series’s consistently wandering convictions—a muddled ethos worn as proudly as a Purple Heart.

Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Paz Vega, Sergio Peris-Mencheta, Adriana Barraza, Yvette Monreal, Genie Kim aka Yenah Han, Joaquin Cosio, Oscar Jaenada Director: Adrian Grunberg Screenwriter: Matthew Cirulnick, Sylvester Stallone Distributor: Lionsgate Running Time: 101 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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The Films of Pedro Almodóvar Ranked

Finding the crux of a Pedro Almodóvar film is not unlike asking how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop.

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The Films of Pedro Almodóvar Ranked
Editor’s Note: This entry was originally published on November 28, 2016.

Finding the crux of a Pedro Almodóvar film is not unlike asking how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop. In each case, the supposed science of the issue at hand is often short-circuited by impatience. Lest the comparison seem too glib, Almodóvar’s entire filmography is, to varying degrees, about the performance of taste, where characters often relate to one another not through their minds, but through their fingers, eyes, and teeth. Sweet tooths are more than a matter of dental hygiene; they’re a means of defining personal placement within the broader spectrum of vivid characters and self-serving interests. The bright color scheme of Almodóvar’s mise-en-scène redoubles these matters by problematizing realism as a dissenting faction amid otherwise psychologically defined characters, whose motivations are typically for sustenance of a rather short-order sort. On that note, Almodóvar’s oeuvre, and the characters that comprise it, can perhaps be best summarized by Carmen Maura’s character in Matador, who says near the film’s end: “Some things are beyond reason. This is one of them.” Clayton Dillard

On the occasion of the release of Almodóvar’s latest, Pain and Glory, we ranked the Spanish auteur’s films from worst to best.


The Films of Pedro Almodóvar Ranked

21. I’m So Excited! (2013)

The broad comedy of I’m So Excited! stays too comfortably on airplane mode throughout the film’s brisk runtime. It’s a deliberately frivolous, tossed-off effort, with middling jokes about barbiturates and musical numbers that pander, and too nakedly appeal, to camp impulses. These shortcomings are partially assuaged by the film’s sheer pep, especially as it becomes evident that actors like Javier Cámara and Carlos Areces are having a great deal of fun in their roles as unperturbed flight attendants. Still, these fairly meager pleasures are unsatisfying consolation prizes when stacked against Almodóvar’s finest films, where there’s no evidence of an in-flight creative nap. Dillard


The Films of Pedro Almodóvar Ranked

20. Julieta (2016)

Arguably the most conventional film of Almodóvar’s career, Julieta consistently renders its titular character’s recollections in explicit terms as those of a conflicted woman whose life has been spent in the throes of filial grief. Lacking an exuberant production design, the film settles for a predictably varied visual palette that, at this point, operates only as a commercial selling point for Almodóvar’s directorial style. The screenplay’s unimaginative frame narrative isn’t helping matters either; instead of reconfiguring memory into emotionally resonant bursts or revelations of desire as in All About My Mother, Almodóvar opts for template melodrama, with cutaways to Julieta (Emma Suárez) literally scribing her recollections in the present tense. In a career defined by inventive methods of access to his characters’ lingering duress, Julieta is an unfortunately flat-footed step toward complacency. Dillard


The Films of Pedro Almodóvar Ranked

19. What Have I Done to Deserve This? (1984)

More compelling in theory than practice, What Have I Done to Deserve This? finds Almodóvar forgoing the punkish abandon of his earlier work for a calmer, if still rambunctious, domestic drama starring Carmen Maura as Gloria, a housewife whose husband and children have little respect for her. Almodóvar regular Chus Lampreave stands out as Gloria’s cupcake-hoarding mother-in-law, whose mitigating presence within the patriarchal family recalls a similar figure in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Master of the House, but several of the gags, whether a lizard being the only witness to a murder or a man’s demand for “elegant, sophisticated sadism…like in French films,” don’t resound with the same resourcefulness of those from Almodóvar’s sharpest farces. Dillard


The Films of Pedro Almodóvar Ranked

18. Broken Embraces (2009)

After the popular and critical success of Talk to Her and Volver, Almodóvar opted for a decidedly reflexive opus (Broken Embraces boasts the longest runtime in his oeuvre at 127 minutes) of self-indulgence, guided through time by the memories of Mateo (Lluís Homar), a blind filmmaker whose newfound creative partnership with the much younger Diego (Tamar Novas) breeds a series of episodes detailing past love affairs. Unwieldy by nature, Broken Embraces is in some sense the most sprawling presentation of Almodóvar’s telenovella revisionism, but the narrative net is cast so wide, and with such a decided but superficial emphasis on the tortured process of an artist, that few of the passages, let alone characters, are given the necessary affective space to blossom. Dillard


The Films of Pedro Almodóvar Ranked

17. Kika (1993)

By the early 1990s, the stakes of both Almodóvar’s perceptions on contemporary sexuality and intertextual play with film history had necessarily reached a point of no return. If the director’s films were still going to be capable of shocking or at least surprising audiences, they would require a refreshed template, one informed by but not beholden to his films of the past decade. The first of those three efforts was Kika, a wholly postmodern experiment that collages bits and pieces of classical Hollywood with Almodóvar’s fearless bid to fuse rape, cunnilingus, and the music of Bernard Herrmann into a whirligig of excesses. While there’s a certain je ne sais quoi to the film’s sheer energy, there’s also a fundamental hole at its emotional core, with flattened characters and meandering visual motifs. Dillard

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Review: James Gray’s Ad Astra Is a Deeply Felt Existential Space Odyssey

Balancing humanist optimism with a profoundly downcast view of our collective destiny, the film is inextricably of its moment.

3.5

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Ad Astra
Photo: 20th Century Fox

James Gray’s Ad Astra envisions what human civilization might look like when our notion of a globalized capitalist order turns into something more galaxy-sized. Set in the near future, this bleakly premonitory film imagines the moon and Mars as mere arms of the same techno-corporate nightmare-scape we’ve concocted here on Earth. And Gray immediately homes in on an esteemed astronaut, Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), who’s a beleaguered functionary of this newly expansive human flow, his regular trips to and from planetary pit stops haunted by contemplations of the same old “fighting over resources” he’s accustomed to from our terrestrial origin point, or even grimmer summations like “we go to work, we do our jobs and then it’s over.” As an unspecified enemy’s lunar rovers mount a hostile attack on Roy’s fleet during an outing on the moon, puncturing the wheels of his AAA-sponsored rover, killing a crew member, and wounding his sage envoy, Colonel Pruitt (Donald Sutherland), there’s a distinct sense that nothing ever changes for the better.

Ad Astra’s sobering prophecy of a future where Subway still peddles foot-long subs in the far reaches of outer space is casually and succinctly expressed through the subjectivity of Pitt’s cerebral hero, who’s tasked with his great assignment—locating the remnants of an aborted deep-space mission—in an early dialogue scene that represents one of Gray and co-screenwriter Ethan Gross’s few concessions to sci-fi movie cliché. Roy’s higher-ups intimate to him that his famed father, Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), long thought dead after pioneering the Lima Project to Neptune, may still be alive, tinkering with dark matter and unknowingly setting off destructive power surges throughout the universe. Identified as one of the few astronauts physically fit and emotionally stable enough to execute such a tremendous undertaking, Roy—fixed in his belief that his father is long gone and uninterested in dredging up painful old memories without good reason—accepts his duty ambivalently.

For the first time in his body of work, Gray renders the innermost thoughts of his protagonist as an ongoing narration track that will garner comparisons to the whispery monologues in Terrence Malick’s films, though the thoughts expressed here are less poetic than functional. Coloring in Roy’s personal backstory (his floundering marriage, recollections of growing up with a domineering father) and telegraphing his emotional state (“I’m looking forward to the day my solitude ends”), the occasionally on-the-nose voiceover might seem at first like a studio-mandated device to bring clarity and sympathy to an otherwise opaque central figure.

But Pitt’s utterances quickly become a jet stream of anxiety that throws into relief the image of the strong, stoic masculinity that Gray presents in Ad Astra, and it’s this dichotomy of ambition and self-doubt that the filmmaker thrives on. As a requirement of his daredevil occupation, Roy is subject to frequent automated therapy sessions designed to monitor his psychological fitness to perform his space work, and it’s telling that a rare emotional response on his part, triggered by a high-security session on Mars where he attempts to communicate by radio with his father, is what costs him his job and sets the film into full swing.

The Lost City of Z similarly treated personal passion as a virtue nonetheless seen by the wider society as a disqualifying liability to professionalism, and Ad Astra’s narrative again charts a leap into the unknown precipitated by an almost foolhardy display of initiative. When Helen Lantos (Ruth Negga), a native of Mars and fellow descendant of Lima Project royalty, gets wind of Roy’s dismissal, she personally sees to it that he finds his way onto the Neptune-bound shuttle, a code breach that sparks panic and ultimately a string of casualties.

Soon the mission is Roy’s alone, at which point the film’s portrait of a consummate professional ambivalently going through the motions of his job yields to something more soul-searching, with the reverberations of Roy’s past gradually superseding the hassles of his present. It all leads to a father-son confrontation near the rocky rings of Neptune—one that swiftly sidesteps the expected tone of reconciliation in favor of a startlingly bitter reunion performed by Pitt and Jones as a dance between casual hostility and repressed longing, and imaginatively staged by Gray so that Roy must literally ascend to his father’s level.

It’s here, in the anguished lack of catharsis, that Ad Astra is unmistakably revealed as James Gray’s creation. In a film that has all the hallmarks of epic science-fiction filmmaking (state-of-the-art special effects, elegant world-building, an A-list cast), yet feels distinctly small-scale in its emotional spectrum, Gray’s reckoning with the burden of a father on his son carries with it the subtext of a contemporary Hollywood auteur contemplating the legacy of those that came before him. Alongside Roy’s insecurity, Clifford represents pure, unbridled ambition, the kind that defined a director like Stanley Kubrick, whose 2001: A Space Odyssey is unavoidably in conversation with Ad Astra. As an astronaut, Roy commands respect and admiration but nonetheless feels a gaping disconnect from his father’s era of interstellar exploration, a time when, he imagines, there was a greater sense of danger and a higher capacity for discovery, given that modern man’s technological reach has managed to turn outer space into little more than an elaborate highway system.

Ad Astra is a beautiful, lovingly wrought film, from Hoyt Van Hoytema’s impeccably unfussy cinematography (much of it centered around Pitt’s restrained visage) to Max Richter’s ethereal score, but it seems fair to say that the film doesn’t possess, and arguably isn’t reaching for, the moments of jaw-dropping spectacle that epitomized 2001 or, more recently, Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity. What it does have is a palpable honesty and humility, not only with regard to the genre it’s occupying, but also in relation to the cosmos and the future of humanity. In a future where the plagues of civilization have only evolved into new shapes and sizes, it asks, in a roundabout way, if there’s anything worthier of exploration than our own relationships. Balancing this humanist optimism with a profoundly downcast view of our collective destiny, Ad Astra is a film inextricably of its moment.

Cast: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, John Ortiz, Liv Tyler, Donald Sutherland, Greg Bryk, Loren Dean, Kimberly Elise, John Finn, LisaGay Hamilton, Donnie Keshawarz, Bobby Nish, Natasha Lyonne Director: James Gray Screenwriter: James Gray, Ethan Gross Distributor: 20th Century Fox Running Time: PG-13 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 122

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Review: Judy Finds a Paint-by-Numbers Drag Revue at the End of the Rainbow

Renée Zellweger can reach all the notes and hit all the marks, but Garland’s intense emoting eludes her.

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Judy
Photo: Roadside Attractions

“Do you know how difficult it is to be Judy Garland?” said Judy Davis when she played the supremely talented and tragedy-prone actress-singer in the 2001 miniseries Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows. Difficult, indeed. The woman born Frances Ethel Gumm in 1922 is damn near inimitable. Davis’s natural neuroticism suited her high-strung, unsentimental interpretation of Garland; even the scenes in which she lip-synced to original recordings had an energy that came close to capturing the Old Hollywood starlet’s raw-nerve essence. No such vigor exists in director Rupert Goold’s Judy, a declining-years biopic that details the on- and off-stage drama during the London residency of Garland’s sold-out 1968 concert tour of Britain (less than a year before she died of a drug overdose at age 47) and mainly serves as a meager star vehicle for Renée Zellweger.

That’s not to say that Judy, adapted by Tom Edge from Peter Quilter’s fanciful, to put it kindly, stage play End of the Rainbow, is entirely without merit. Of course, it takes some time for the single point of admittedly meta interest to emerge: A prologue and several subsequent flashbacks set during her prolific MGM years situate the young Garland (Darci Shaw) as both a wide-eyed innocent in Edenic Tinseltown and, via several sinister interactions with imposing studio head Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery), a sacrificial forbear of the #MeToo era. Yet none of these scenes jibe with the mawkish main narrative in which Zellweger, leaning hard into tic-laden mimicry, plays the broke and barbiturate-addicted 46-year-old Garland.

Zellweger’s performance is all-surface—uncanny at a glance (the close-cropped wig and the anxious gestures, especially), though rarely evocative or lived in. This is acting that seems contrived to impress and to garner cheap sympathy even when the character is at her most difficult. In the early going, Garland has a belligerent blow-up with her ex-husband and manager, Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell), over the well-being of their two children, as well as a swooning first meeting with eventual fifth husband, Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), a musician and entrepreneur whose big-picture promises are mostly hollow. Money, however, proves the biggest issue. So, with financial security nonexistent, and the custody of her kids at stake, Garland accepts an offer to do a headlining season at the Talk of Town nightclub in London.

There’s a tense lead-up to opening night, since Garland fails to show up at call time and her handlers have to bend over backward to right a seemingly sinking ship; unsurprisingly, this isn’t the only time this occurs. Then, when Garland finally takes the stage, a film going through all the expected motions suddenly becomes a shade more intriguing.

This isn’t because of Zellweger’s singing, all of which she does herself, every note of course failing to emulate or equal Garland’s uninhibited authority. Compare Zellweger’s technically accomplished performance of Garland staple “By Myself,” which she croons here in full, with the real deal’s Kabuki-maniacal rendition of the same song in her final film role in Ronald Neame’s great musical melodrama I Could Go On Singing from 1963. The contrast is damning, and not just because the actual Garland, in I Could Go On Singing, has the added background benefit of a ceiling-to-floor-length crimson curtain straight out of Twin Peaks’s Red Room.

Zellweger can reach all the notes and hit all the marks, but Garland’s intense emoting—the sense that, at every moment, she’s drawing on some deep, dark recess of feeling and experience raggedly shaped by a life in the spotlight—eludes her. Yet there’s still something to her efforts that goes beyond simple awards-baiting or audience ingratiation. Like a drag queen doing a desperately full-on deconstruction of an idol that she knows she can never touch, she’s so committed to trying to be Garland that her failure to do so becomes the main allure.

Is that conceit a bit too Borgesian for a film that’s otherwise cloyingly paint-by-numbers? Take your interest where you can because you won’t find it elsewhere. Not in Garland’s many doomed or thwarted attempts at a normal romantic or social life. Not in Liza Minnelli (Gemma-Leah Devereux) tossing some in-jokey, exasperated shade Mom’s way during a swinging-‘60s shindig. And certainly not in the extended scene in which Garland goes home with a fannish gay couple (Andy Nyman and Daniel Cerqueira) for some teary talk, amid copious Judy memorabilia, about homosexual persecution. The latter sequence is particularly egregious, a feint toward pop-cultural-cum-sociopolitical significance that plays like the ultimate in blinkered wish fulfillment. That is, until an even more shameless finale in which the same two queer acolytes lead the anguished Garland’s last-ever audience in a serenade of “Over the Rainbow.” Friends of Dorothy represent and all, but this is ridiculous.

Cast: Renée Zellweger, Finn Wittrock, Jessie Buckley, Rufus Sewell, Michael Gambon, Darci Shaw, Royce Pierreson, Andy Nyman, Daniel Cerqueira, Richard Cordery Director: Rupert Goold Screenwriter: Tom Edge Distributor: Roadside Attractions Running Time: 118 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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New York Film Festival 2019

If cinema is, indeed, the domain of freedom, then the festival doesn’t see Netflix as the villain in that struggle.

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Varda by Agnès
Photo: Netflix

“Cinema is the domain of freedom, and it’s an ongoing struggle to maintain that freedom,” said New York Film Festival director and selection committee chair Kent Jones in a statement last month accompanying the announcement of the films that will screen as part of the main slate of the 57th edition of the festival. And depending on who you ask, Netflix is either the hero or villain in that struggle.

More than half of the 29 titles in the main slate enjoyed their world premiere earlier this year at Cannes, where Netflix had no film in competition, as its battle with festival director Thierry Frémaux, who requires a theatrical run for any Cannes entrant, continues unabated. (The streaming giant did walk away from the festival with acquisition rights to Jérémy Clapin’s I Lost My Body and Mati Diop’s Grand Prix winner Atlantics.) There’s no right or wrong here per se, though it’s clear that Frémaux’s edict is an extension of his nostalgia for the golden age of cinema, which he sees as sacrosanct as the length of the theatrical window, and just how steadfastly he sticks to his guns may determine the fate of the world’s most important film festival.

The New York Film Festival opens on Friday, September 27 with the world premiere of Martin Scorsese’s hotly anticipated The Irishman, almost one month to the day that it was announced that Netflix could not reach a distribution deal with major theater chains, including AMC, Regal, and Cinemark. The film will drop on Netflix less than a month after opening in some theaters across the country—a non-traditional distribution strategy that will continue to be seen as short-circuiting a Netflix film’s best picture chances at the Academy Awards, at least until one comes along and does what Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma couldn’t last year.

It remains to be seen if The Irishman will be that film. But this much is also clear, and the New York Film Festival is making no bones about it: This streamable movie is very much a movie, and to be able to see a new Scorsese film that might not have run three hours and 30 minutes had it been released by a traditional distributor is very much a win for freedom—or, at least, a certain stripe of cinephile’s idea of freedom.

In addition to The Irishman and Atlantics, Netflix also has Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, starring Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver, at the festival (the centerpiece selection no less). Baumbach’s divorce drama bowed last month at the Venice Film Festival, alongside Martin Eden, Pietro Marcello’s first feature since Lost and Beautiful, and The Wasp Network, which marks Olivier Assayas’s 10th appearance at the New York Film Festival. Among the returning auteurs are Kleber Mendonça Filho (Bacurau, co-directed with Juliano Dornelles), Kelly Reichardt (First Cow), Albert Serra (Liberté), Arnaud Desplechin (Oh Mercy!), Pedro Almodóvar (Pain and Glory), Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (Young Ahmed), and the greatest of the great, Agnès Varda, whose Varda by Agnès premiered earlier this year at Berlinale alongside Nadav Lapid’s Golden Bear winner Synonyms and Angela Schanelec’s I Was at Home, But…

Among the festival’s noteworthy sidebars are Spotlight on Documentary, which includes new works by Tim Robbins (45 Seconds of Laughter, about inmates at the Calipatria State maximum-security facility taking part in acting exercises), Michael Apted (63 Up, the latest entry in the filmmaker’s iconic, one-of-a-kind British film series), and Alla Kovgan (Cunningham, a 3D portrait of the artistic evolution of choreographer Merce Cunningham); the MUBI-sponsored Projections, which features the latest films from Éric Baudelaire (Un Film Dramatique) and Thomas Heise (Heimat Is a Space in Time); and a Special Events section that includes Todd Phillips’s surprise Golden Lion winner Joker and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Cotton Club Encore, which brings the 1984 period film back to its original length and luster. Ed Gonzalez

For a complete schedule of films, screening times, and ticket information, visit Film at Lincoln Center. And check back in the upcoming weeks for reviews of First Cow, The Irishman, Saturday Fiction, and Wasp Network.


Atlantics

Atlantics (Mati Diop)

Starved for work after the depletion of Senegal’s local fishing industry, thousands of young men take to the sea every year aboard pirogues, or small boats, fleeing their country for Spain. Those who have emigrated, died, or been incarcerated as part of the “pirogue phenomenon”—referred to colloquially as “Barcelona or death” in Senegalese communities—are the ghosts that haunt Atlantics. The forms those spirits take in the film represent just some of what’s so extraordinary about Mati Diop’s first feature as a director, a work of disparate influences and genres that pulses on its own oblique wavelength. Atlantics transitions into oblique genre fare in a manner reminiscent of Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child, with electronic musician Fatima Al Qadiri’s multifaceted score adding ghostly strings and pop guitar riffs over spiritual, syncopated Middle Eastern arrangements. Despite its wild narrative leaps, the film is undergirded with a holistic mix of serenity and trauma that recalls Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendour. Christopher Gray


Bacurau

Bacurau (Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles)

Kleber Mendoça Filho and Juliano Donnelles’s Bacurau assembles a vibrant and eclectic collage of reference points. It’s a wild neo-western that pulls into its orbit UFO-shaped drones, elaborate folklore, limb-flaying and head-exploding gore, and Udo Kier as a villain who shouts in a mockingly high-pitched voice, “Hell no!” The Bacurau of the film’s title is a fictional town in Brazil’s northeastern interior, depicted here at some point in the not-too-distant future. The citizens live in a relatively undisturbed harmony—until Bacuaru is literally wiped off the map (GPS no longer can locate the backwater), local cell service is jammed, and the people find themselves hunted, A Dangerous Game-style, by gringo infiltrators. Mendoça Filho is one of contemporary Brazilian cinema’s most sharply political filmmakers, and Bacurau solidifies his commitment to rebuking Brazil’s current administration and its willful erasure of the country’s culture and heritage. Sam C. Mac



Beanpole

Beanpole (Kantemir Balagov)

Kantemir Balagov has set Beanpole largely in tones of dark amber, bright green and red, and filthy yellow redolent of old incandescent lighting—and it’s the red of upholstery, Soviet imagery, and blood that cuts most forcefully through the brightest of those greens. Cinematographer Kseniya Sereda’s color palette recalls that of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s The Double Life of Veronique for the way it gives settings an artificiality that nonetheless brings Beanpole’s grounded sociopolitical commentary into greater focus. Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko), a nurse working at a Leningrad hospital after the end of World War II, feels trapped in trauma, suffering from recurring fits of full-body catatonia. Her psychological state is magnified by the more visible scars of the soldiers recuperating all around her, adding to the sense that Balagov’s hermetically sealed vision of Leningrad only compounds and reflects Iya’s PTSD back onto her. The filmmaker may depict the pain of his characters in blunt terms, but he traces the aftershocks of collapse with delicate subtlety. Jake Cole



Fire Will Come

Fire Will Come (Olivier Laxe)

Oliver Laxe’s Fire Will Come refreshingly occupies an almost uncategorizable cinematic realm. Were it a piece of writing it would exist at the crossroads of an essay, a reportage, and a series of haikus singing the praises and the plights of a threatened ecosystem. Although we know its images to be composed and assembled, and as such “fiction,” the film’s delicate pace and the contemplative choreography of its camerawork conjure a sense of authenticity so organic that we’re almost convinced that there’s no space between the characters and the actors, between the filmed setting and the actual landscape. This is a film where the characters’ names coincide with those of the actors playing them. It’s at once a portrait of a place and a portrait of a person—namely, of the Galician countryside and of Amador (Amador Arias), an arsonist who returns home to see his elderly mother, Benedicta (Benedicta Sánchez). Given the rich simplicity of the scenario, Laxe recognizes that even the smallest amount of traditional plot would feel excessive. Diego Semerene



A Girl Missing

A Girl Missing (Kôji Fukada)

Throughout his 2016 film Harmonium, Kôji Fukada favored ambiguous, emotionally charged tableaux over narrative mechanics, and he continues that emphasis in A Girl Missing to ambitious, evocative, and troubling effect. The film is a story driven by kidnapping that’s almost entirely disinterested in the motivations of the kidnapper and the pain of the victim and her family. Instead, the film is attached, to a consciously insular degree, to a nurse, Ichiko (Mariko Tsutsui), whose life is ruined peripherally by the kidnapping due to one peculiarly bad choice on her part. As austere as Harmonium could be, the characters were in their way dynamic and made sense. With A Girl Missing, Fukada may believe that he’s transcended the melodramatic strictures of a regular crime film or of the kind of woman’s martyr vehicle in which Joan Crawford used to specialize. Instead, he’s fashioned an occasionally haunting art object with miserable stick figures. Chuck Bowen



I Was at Home, But…

I Was at Home, But… (Angela Schanelec)

Angela Schanelec’s I Was at Home, But… take a fairly simple premise and builds a multilayered series of narrative threads around it, one filled with the detours and inconsistencies of life as it’s experienced on a day-to-day basis. In doing so, Schanelec isn’t complicating or overthinking the familiar, but, rather, inviting her audience to rethink how these seemingly universal narratives function. The film is at its in moments when Schanalec’s insight into trauma as a menace that asserts itself at inopportune and confusing moments is powerfully dramatized. It’s less successful when reaching for symbolic associations, as in the strikingly staged but inert passages of Shakespearean recitation that draw out connections between the story of Hamlet and a troubled fortysomething mother’s (Maren Eggert) life, or in the strained, bookending bits of business involving a dog and a donkey. For her part, Schanalec has preached in interviews that an experiential, non-intellectual approach to watching her films is ideal, so it’s telling that, in spite of its occasional academicism, I Was at Home, But… configures itself most potently in hindsight as a punch to the gut. Carson Lund



Liberté

Liberté (Albert Serra)

As they move inexorably forward in time, Albert Serra’s films don’t crescendo so much as peter out. In Story of My Death, the harbinger on the horizon is the return of irrational, Romantic thinking in the late 18th century, which would effectively smother the enlightened libertinism that the story otherwise wallows in. And in The Death of Louis XIV, it’s the fate promised by the title, to which the film marched with solemn certitude. Serra’s new film, the audaciously perverse and amorphous Liberté, doesn’t give up its game so readily. Nearly without narrative conflict, it homes in on a long night of sexual experimentation among a group of libertines hiding out from the French courts on the Prussian border in the late 17th century, and for much of Liberté’s duration, the only things generating forward momentum are the subtly escalating intensity of the acts themselves and the faint expectation, however ruthlessly exploited, that the sun will eventually rise again. Lund



Marriage Story

Marriage Story (Noah Baumbach)

Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story initially occupies a rather nebulous spot between broad-strokes comedy and raw melodrama. But as the initially amicable split between a playwright, Charlie (Adam Driver), and his actress wife, Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), takes a sour turn, the film becomes more acerbic, fixating on how familiarity breeds contempt. At one point, we catch a glimpse of old magazine profile of the couple—written at the height of their artistic collaboration and domestic bliss—titled “Scenes from a Marriage,” a throwaway allusion to Ingmar Bergman that’s also a winking promise of the decline and fall to come. But even at its most blistering, the film contains small moments of grace in which Nicole and Charlie reflexively help or comfort each other. These subtle glimpses of their lingering affection for one another and familiarity complicate the bitterness of their separation. Elie Wiesel once said, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference,” and only two people who were once as deeply in love as Nicole and Charlie were could have spent so long observing every minute detail of their partner to become so obsessed with each other’s flaws in the first place. Cole



Martin Eden

Martin Eden (Pietro Marcello)

Pietro Marcello’s Martin Eden works better as a story of self-loathing and self-destruction than it does as a social critique or political statement. Marcello and Luca Marinelli, as the handsome, uneducated sailor of the film’s title, don’t make the difference between Martin at the beginning and Martin at the end distinct enough for viewers to really appreciate the character’s transmogrification. But as a piece of filmmaking that’s about the craft of filmmaking, Martin Eden, which was shot on 16mm, is occasionally brilliant. It’s an amalgamation of epochal aesthetics and formal styles, from drifty handheld shots and grainy close-ups of emotional faces that recall the French and Italian films of the late-‘60s, to static compositions and inky-black shadows that threaten to swallow Martin and the bourgeoisie. The color grading lends an ethereal air to the landscape shots (the ocean, blue and writhing, looks especially beautiful). Marcello splices in clips of silent films and footage of workers in Naples, which further emphasizes the timelessness of the film’s themes. Greg Cwik



The Moneychanger

The Moneychanger (Federico Veiroj)

Federico Veiroj’s The Moneychanger charts the prosperous, morally rotten career of Humberto Brause (Daniel Handler), a prominent money changer for all manner of ne’er-do-wells. Much is made of gestures like hand-tailoring suits to transport money, but the movement of cash—from client to Humberto to various far-flung locations around the globe—is by and large curtly presented. The film eventually verges on the farcical, with Humberto engaging in a Force Majeure-esque act of cowardice during a shooting while driving with his wife (Dolores Fonzi) in Argentina and a rushed scheme to steal from a dead man before he’s interred, among other indiscretions. While these scenarios are somewhat absurd and funny, they feel calculated in their attempts to stress just how pitiful Humberto has become that he has to turn to such pathetic ploys to stay afloat. It’s apparent that Veiroj disdains no one so much as Humberto, but the film makes little of the man’s undoubtedly twisted psyche. Throughout, The Moneychanger maintains a monolithic meanness, skirting even the smallest gesture of sympathy for Humberto and bulldozing him with further proofs of his depravity. Peter Goldberg



Motherless Brooklyn

Motherless Brooklyn (Edward Norton)

Fans of Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn will be immediately struck by Edward Norton’s decision to change the novel’s time setting from 1999 to 1957 for his long-gestating film adaptation. Given how effectively the novel transplanted a classic hardboiled noir setup to contemporary New York, Norton’s popping of the novel’s anachronistic bubble is curious for how it makes literal what Lethem made so playfully postmodern. By setting his film in the ‘50s, when the noir style was at its most influential, Norton only makes it easier to spot those moments where the dialogue is trying much too hard to capture the snap, wit, and loquacious cynicism of the genre’s best films. Throughout, Norton’s too-neat visual coverage is indicative of his film’s greatest failing. At its best, noir leaves enough unsaid that, even if a mystery is solved, one is left with the distinct impression that nothing has been fixed. Motherless Brooklyn feels altogether too tidy, a film that revives many of the touchstones of noir, but never that throbbing unease that courses through the classics of the genre. Cole



Oh Mercy!

Oh Mercy! (Arnaud Desplechin)

Based on a 2008 documentary, Oh Mercy! follows a police precinct in Roubaix as it pursues various cases. Throughout, director Arnaud Desplechin is bracingly concerned less with any isolated crime or character than he is in conveying simultaneousness by seizing on stray details. There’s a sense here of the dwarfing mechanics of maintaining process amid chaos, which is rare for films and common of perfunctory crime novels. Before the authorities in Oh Mercy! can comprehend an act of arson, a serial rapist commits another assault in a subway. And before someone can make sense of that action, a girl runs away. Presiding over the madness is a police captain, Yakoub Daoud (Roschdy Zem), who’s a quiet and dignified model of patience and sobriety, who must navigate nesting strands of social tensions, on the personal as well as the political level. Oh Mercy! is a striking stylistic departure for Desplechin. By the standards of florid pseudo auto-biopics such as Kings and Queen and Ismael’s Ghosts, this film is an exercise in formal and tonal restraint. Bowen



Pain and Glory

Pain and Glory (Pedro Almodóvar)

A film about an aging artist struggling to recapture his yen for creation, Pain and Glory has the makings of a deeply personal, career-capping work for Pedro Almodóvar. His name may be Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas), but the gay filmmaker, with his tussled hair, white beard, and red turtleneck, may as well call himself Pedro. One of the very few differences between them is that Salvador has stopped making films while Almodóvar continues to work at a relatively steady clip. Pain and Glory is a ballsy admission on the Spanish auteur’s part that he hasn’t made a film in more than a decade that can compare with his most outrageous and subversive output, which makes it all the more dispiriting that his latest only occasionally captures the spry, comedic rhythms and impassioned, melodramatic intensity that defined Law of Desire and Bad Education. Still, however much Almodóvar’s formalist bona fides may have cooled, his ability to craft emotionally acute, achingly felt scenes between men in the throes of love is as vigorous as ever. Mac



Parasite

Parasite (Bong Joon-ho)

Parasite finds Bong Joon-ho scaling back the high-concept ambitions of Snowpiercer and Okja, in favor of examining a close-knit family dynamic that’s reminiscent of the one at the center of The Host. Except this time the monster isn’t some amphibious abomination that results from extreme genetic mutation, but the insidious forces of class and capital that divide a society’s people. Parasite is an excoriating indictment of South Korea’s dehumanizing social culture, mounted by Bong with a dazzling control of genre conventions that he continues to seamlessly bend to his absurd comic rhythms. The film is also reinstates the emotional core that’s been missing from Bong’s recent work, and even feigns a concise narrative structure. It’s the kind of bold and uncompromising work that confirms why Bong is one of our most exciting auteurs, for how his sociocultural criticisms can be so biting, so pungent, when they’re imbued with such great focus and sense of intent. Mac



Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma)

Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a taxonomy of gazes that’s also a discourse on them. This sweeping portrayal of a romance doomed to brevity asks how to memorialize an image, but also how to keep it eternally alive. Sciamma isn’t out to question the gazes exchanged between Marianne (Noémie Merlant) and Héloïse (Adéle Haenel), but to point out that one gaze is always met by another, and what’s most stirring about her film is the lack of artifice in Héloïse and Marianne’s feelings for one another. The film frustrates when it feels compelled to elucidate those struggles in words, or through a hokey flashback structure (that, it should be said, yields to an ecstatic final shot). Sciamma’s script has more than a handful of dazzling turns of phrase, but it’s also unnecessarily keen to give some present-day relevance to a romance that’s assuredly timeless. Where her prior films have excelled in situating their protagonists in complex, sometimes hostile societies, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is at its most beguiling and probing when the rest of the world feels far away. Gray



Sibyl

Sibyl (Justine Triet)

Justine Triet uses the relationship between the creative process and the work of psychoanalysis, or its simplified cinematic version, as raw material for her latest dramedy. Sibyl follows the madcap efforts and subterfuges that the eponymous alcoholic therapist (Virginie Efira) deploys in order to finally write a novel. And the first step she takes is to get rid of most of her patients—most, not all, so that there’s always a lifeline connecting the new Sibyl to the old one. That is, so Sibyl never has to truly let go of anything at all. This tactic, beyond mere plot device, is the first crucial clue, or symptom, that Triet discloses about Sibyl as the filmmaker smartly humanizes the figure of the therapist as someone in desperate need of a therapist herself. The initial line in Sibyl’s (non-)emancipatory equation, to start anew by keeping her old life handy, is one of the film’s many instances of mirroring, as some viewers will easily recognize in Sibyl’s pursuits their own tendency to make half-decisions. Which is to say, the way we can fool ourselves into thinking that we’re pursuing something whereas we’re secretly pursuing something else—something less avowable. Semerene



Synonyms

Synonyms (Nadav Lapid)

Nadav Lapid’s Synonyms doesn’t hew to a steadily progressing plot. The attraction Emile (Quentin Dolmaire) and Caroline (Louise Chevillotte) feel to Yoav (Tom Mercier), and the tensions that drove Yoav away from Israel, will come full circle, but only after the film takes a circuitous route through Yoav’s brief employment in security at the Israeli embassy; his friendship with a militant Zionist who tries to provoke fights he can claim as anti-Semitic attacks; and a required assimilation class he takes as he attempts to legitimately immigrate. A certain calculated inconsistency in style and pacing also makes the film feel elusive and estranging, but that’s most likely the point. Certainly one concern of Synonyms is the irrational sickness that’s nationalism: At times it appears that Israeli nationalism has driven Yoav mad, given him his detached affect and his habit of obsessively reciting synonyms in the street. Funny, frustrating, and stealthily sad, Synonyms is a bold film about the refusal to assimilate in one country, and the failure to assimilate in another. Pat Brown



To the Ends of the Earth

To the Ends of the Earth (Kiyoshi Kurosawa)

Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s latest is a radical departure for the auteur, as it isn’t beholden to a taut narrative. Instead, it’s squarely focused on character—a strategy that results in his most intricately rendered portrait of the psychology of fear to date. To the Ends of the Earth is not, by any measure, a horror film, but it uses aesthetic and philosophical foundations that Kurosawa laid in his genre work to insinuate tensions and anxieties lurking beneath the serene surface of everyday life. The film’s setup could almost be interpreted as a kind of self-aware joke: A Japanese camera crew arrives in Uzbekistan with the purpose of shooting footage for a travel show and becomes increasingly frustrated over not having enough usable material. As such, generally little in the way of incident occurs for much of the film. However, To the Ends of the Earth isn’t just a meandering film born of an auteur’s plane ticket to a foreign country: If Kurosawa is less interested in narrative dynamics, it’s because he’s focused on an acute understanding of societally and sociologically conditioned behavior. Mac



The Traitor

The Traitor (Marco Bellocchio)

Though Pierfrancesco Favino plays Sicilian mob boss turned informant Tommaso Buscetta with the stern poise of a criminal boss, the gangster easily, almost comically buckles under the slightest pressure from the state. But it’s in director Marco Bellocchio’s depiction of the “Maxi Trial” in a heavily fortified courtroom in Palermo that The Traitor completes its metamorphosis from a grisly, stone-faced drama about mob violence into an almost farcical satire of Italy’s justice system. Unfortunately, as is often the case with contemporary Italian genre pieces, the film is too brutish by half, as well as 40 minutes too long. The comic brio of Bellocchio’s staging of the “Maxi Trial” invigorates The Traitor, but he surprisingly wraps up that arc with close to an hour left in the film’s running time. The extended final act, which follows Tommaso and his family as they enter into American witness protection before ultimately returning to Italy for a series of follow-up trials, drifts along without clear purpose, unevenly oscillating between the comedic and the somber. Cole



Varda by Agnès

Varda by Agnès (Agnès Varda)

Agnès Varda’s final film is essentially a lecture, with the iconic filmmaker’s talks from multiple events threading together highlights from her oeuvre. Throughout, she shares the underlying inspiration for films like Cléo from 5 to 7 and details her creative process. While her other documentaries (among them The Gleaners and I, The Beaches of Agnès, and Faces Places) have often explored the intersection between art and life, Varda by Agnès finds the filmmaker far less able to extend her gaze beyond her own work. She allows herself to go off on tangents, and, ironically, her ancillary thoughts feel a bit less navel-gazing than the film’s main thrust. For one, the story about directing Robert De Niro for one day for her final fiction film, One Hundred and One Nights, should seem an extraneous bit of boasting, but Varda’s bashfully excited tone makes it seem generous. And whenever she talks about her beloved husband, director Jacques Demy, who died of AIDS in 1990, the film also approaches a kind of “sharing” not borrowed from her previous work. Brown



Vitalina Varela

Vitalina Varela (Pedro Costa)

As in Horse Money, shadows blanket Vitalina Varela, with slivers of light only illuminating people and whatever objects writer-director Pedro Costa wishes to call attention to. This yields images that are arresting on their face but also hint at richer meanings, as in a shot of Vitalina (Vitalina Varela) in silhouette folding the safety vest of a construction worker who stands in a doorway in the background, also in shadow, with only the reflective green-yellow of the vest giving off any light. The sight of immigrants obscured from view as a symbol of their menial labor glows in the foreground speaks volumes to a way of life that consumes the characters. Yet the film is no polemic. It raises delicate questions about postcolonial immigration, such as whether breadwinning vanguards should gamble on the allure of the unknown to make way for a possibly better life or settle for the hard but known life they already have. The film’s oblique nature elides any simple interpretations, and the irresoluteness of the social commentary mingles with Vitalina’s personal ruminations over her life. The film, like Colossal Youth and Horse Money, is a ghost story. Cole



Zombi Child

The Whistlers (Corneliu Porumboiu)

Mercilessly efficient and righteously cynical, writer-director Corneliu Porumboiu’s The Whistlers is nested with twists that place corrupt Bucharest policeman, corrupt Bucharest policeman, further and further from discovering who’s manipulating the byzantine plot he finds himself enmeshed within on La Gomera, the “pearl” of the Canary Islands. Cristi’s inability to make sense of his place in the very case he’s investigating is just one of the film’s cruel, quite funny jokes. Another is Silbo, a whistled register of the Spanish language that inspires the film’s title. Composed of a half dozen notes that each represent certain letters of the Spanish alphabet, the ancient language has been used by natives of La Gomera for generations. Throughout, Porumboiu largely handles The Whistlers’s persistent strain of artifice masterfully, hurtling his narrative ahead even as he’s jumbling timeframes and lingering in moments of ironic menace. Though the film is sometimes too liberal in its arsenal of references, Porumboiu executes his plot with a persistently low-key swagger, coaxing his actors into memorable but perfectly blank performances. Gray



The Wild Goose Lake

The Wild Goose Lake (Diao Yinan)

Diao Yinan’s The Wild Goose Lake is a crackerjack genre exercise, but it’s up to a fair bit more than it might at first seem. Diao joins other contemporary Chinese filmmakers like Vivian Qu (Trap Street) and Xin Yukun (Wrath of Silence) in recognizing that genre movies offer a kind of smokescreen for a form of sociopolitical engagement that the Chinese censors likely wouldn’t otherwise approve. Which is to say, the heightened violence and ugliness of a crime film seems to allow for a kind of depiction of Chinese social life that wouldn’t be acceptable from a “realistic” drama. Diao takes this all a bit further, however, utilizing the sprawling geography of what’s essentially a chase film to deep-dive into the sordid underbelly of a Chinese society where lawlessness trumps order. The Wild Goose Lake’s masterstroke is that its fugitive antiheroes are framed by an environment that reflects their criminal lives back at them, seemingly no matter where they turn. Mac



Young Ahmed

Young Ahmed (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)

In many of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s films, elliptical structures communicate the scattershot-ness of people’s lives, suggesting an endless string of calamity and confusion. But in Young Ahmed, the ellipses suggest an unwillingness to imagine an aspiring radical’s inner life. Initially, the Dardennes don’t exactly engender pity for Ahmed (Idir Ben Addi), as that response would compromise their fetishizing of his impenetrability as a testament to their own humanist bona fides. They maintain a distance from the Belgian teen as a way of celebrating their refusal to reduce him to any easy psychological bullet points, which ironically reduces him to a signifier of their virtue. Yet Ahmed’s seduction by a manipulative mentor, Imam Youssouf (Othmane Mouman), is still fleetingly “explained” with references to family trauma that unsurprisingly suggest that Ahmed has daddy issues and is looking for a mentor. The Dardennes don’t dramatize these traumas, as such events might destabilize the plaintive quotidian mood they cultivate throughout and require them to stretch and challenge the strict boundaries they’ve applied to this subject matter. Bowen



Zombi Child

Zombi Child (Bertrand Bonello)

Restlessly shuttling between 1960s Haiti and present-day France, Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child roils with colonialist tensions. But as with the director’s prior Nocturama, this quixotic, slow-burn genre film is political largely in the abstract. While there are moments here where a history of exploitation informs the relationship between the French, lily-white Fanny (Louise Labeque) and Haitian refugee Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat)—classmates at an all-girls school established by Napoleon Bonaparte—Bonello’s interests go much deeper than race relations. The dialectical relationship between past and present has become a central organizing principle of Bonello’s artistry, evident in his anachronistic soundtrack choices and his unmooring of characters from their period settings through decidedly modern behaviors or situations, but here he approaches that dialectic in a crucially different manner. Instead of overlaying modern-day signifiers on a period piece setting, as he did in House of Pleasures, Zombi Child suggests two temporalities that exist parallel to each other. Mac

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Review: Loro Mostly Signals Paolo Sorrentino’s Fealty to Wealth Porn

Like most of Sorrentino’s films, Loro is closer to a stylistic orgy than an existential rumination on Italy’s heritage.

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Loro
Photo: Sundance Selects

Paolo Sorrentino’s films are closer to stylistic orgies than existential ruminations on Italy’s heritage. Most of his productions are consumed in debauchery for the better part of their running times, and capped by obligatory lambasts against said behavior, which is meant to inform the narratives with “deeper” meaning. Sorrentino is so devoted to tracking shots of beautiful female bodies, to montages of drug abuse, to brief explosions of loveless, commercialized sex, that the particulars of his characters, settings, and plots are essentially interchangeable. In Loro, Sorrentino’s regular leading man, Toni Servillo, may be playing the controversial Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, but the actor could just as easily be reprising his fictional writer from The Great Beauty for all that actually matters.

If Sorrentino were to confront the fact that he’s essentially a sensationalist, his films might achieve a kind of nihilistic purity. Loro initially promises such an about face, as its opening 45 minutes have a hard and lurid pull. At first, its protagonist appears to be Sergio (Riccardo Scamarcio), a hustler who moves to Rome and builds a harem with promises of TV roles and mountains of cocaine. Sergio is a handsome and charismatic wild man, and Sorrentino characteristically fetishizes the character’s life of anonymous sex and endless partying. The point of Sergio’s networking is vague, as he references wanting to get in the same room as “him.” This desire is realized by the beautiful and mysterious Kira (Kasia Smutniak), who urges Sergio to set his act up within eyeshot of Silvio’s sprawling property. Dramatizing these negotiations, Sorrentino stages the film’s one legitimately erotic sequence: Kira dry-humping Sergio as she talks with a power broker on her phone. This moment elegantly underscores Sorrentino’s initial interest in the intersection of power, sex, and money.

One is primed, then, for a battle of the charismatic crooks, in which Sergio falls in with Silvio—a melodramatic hook that Sorrentino leaves dangling as the film devolves into a series of disconnected sketches. (It bears mentioning that this 158-minute cut was edited down from a much longer one.) Instead, Loro switches protagonists, homing in on Silvio as he attempts to become prime minister again after the leftist party has ousted him. We learn virtually nothing about Silvio’s politics or business machinations, as Sorrentino turns the figure into another of his tortured symbols of the decadence of classist culture. At a certain point in the film, Silvio decides to flip six leftist senators over to his side so that he can regain power, a potentially fascinating process that Sorrentino reduces to one (vivid) scene and a montage. What Sorrentino doesn’t skimp on, however, is the endless pillow shots and self-conscious bids for Fellini-esque surreality. The film’s title is Italian for “Them,” potentially referencing Silvio’s demonization of the liberal press, but the plot is hermetic and sentimental.

Servillo is magnetic as always, and he has a few startling moments in which he replicates Berlusconi’s smug and wax-like smile, but his kinship with Sorrentino leads the film astray. It’s distasteful and baffling to see a reactionary strongman utilized as a lonely romantic figure, which probably happens because Sorrentino’s love for his actor muddies his view of Berlusconi. The filmmaker turns the politico into a Gatsby who prowls his land fighting with his estranged wife, Veronica (Elena Sofia Ricci), who voices the film’s trite lessons on the shallowness of rich and horny old men—sentiments which ring hollow given the stature of Servillo’s presence and Sorrentino’s ongoing fealty to wealth porn.

Cast: Toni Servillo, Elena Sofia Ricci, Riccardo Scamarcio, Kasia Smutniak, Euridice Axen, Fabrizio Bentivoglio, Roberto De Francesco, Dario Cantarelli, Anna Bonaiuto, Giovanni Esposito, Ugo Pagliai Director: Paolo Sorrentino Screenwriter: Paolo Sorrentino, Umberto Contarello Distributor: Sundance Selects Running Time: 158 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Promare Finds Studio Trigger Spinning its Anime Wheels

The film often feels like a maximalist season finale trimmed of any build-up.

2.5

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Promare
Photo: GKIDS

Loud, chaotic, and borderline nonsensical, Promare is the logical result of anime studio Trigger creating what amounts to a feature-length extension of its prior work. Set in a future where high-tech firefighters clash with pyrokinetic humans called the Burnish, the film pays explicit tribute to anime series like Gurren Lagann, Kill la Kill, and others in everything from names to character and robot designs to basic personality types. The film leaves you with the sense that director Hiroyuki Imaishi, writer Kazuki Nakashima, and their frequent collaborators could create it in their sleep, both because they’re clearly great at what they do and because their ultimate product scarcely departs from established formula.

The film’s bombast is present even in its individual character introductions, which use giant block letters to name everyone from the supporting cast up through pivotal players like protagonist Galo Thymos (Kenichi Matsuyama), a blue-haired firefighter with boundless energy and determination. His long-held truth, that the world is neatly divided into firefighters and Burnish terrorists, is shaken over the course of the film as he fights the slender, melon-green-haired Lio Fotia (Taichi Saotome), who leads the rebel Burnish.

Promare is immediately striking to look at, with a style that favors a cool color palette, minimalist backgrounds, and abstract geometric shapes; fire, for one, is frequently rendered as purple triangles. The characters are drawn in pleasantly smooth lines, and they pilot chunky, ice-shooting robots whose siren lights send out solid beams of red and blue. The camera tracks each action scene, every zoom through the scenery and every collision of a fist with a face, in roving close-ups with thrilling precision. Everyone screams their feelings aloud over and over again (“Only your soul should burn!” cries Galo as he crosses swords with Lio at one point), albeit against a typically regrettable score from Hiroyuki Sawano, who leans so heavily on songs with cheesy vocals that they swiftly become a distraction.

Mixed metaphors and baffling plot twists ensure the film doesn’t totally hold up to scrutiny, but its escalating weirdness is part of the fun. All the same, its loudly repeated message remains clear: Rather than douse a fire, sometimes you need to let it burn as bright as possible. Promare is a mix of themes from Nakashima and Imaishi’s prior collaborations, wrapped up in a pat “the Other is a person, too” premise used for a familiar inspirational conceit. Galo, in looks and personality, is a clear analog for Gurren Lagann’s Kamina, who perishes early in the series so that other, less static characters may wrestle with his ideals. Leaving such a character as the hero in Promare exemplifies its rather straightforward trajectory.

While the film’s propulsive, slapdash plotting provides no shortage of frantic action, it leaves little room for the personalities, actions, and philosophies of its peripheral characters to sink in through gradual escalation. Promare often feels like a maximalist season finale trimmed of any build-up, a climax that’s outstanding to watch yet empty beyond its pure spectacle. And in this context, the fact that so many designs echo Studio Trigger’s prior work feels less like a fun reference than a concession that Imaishi and company are spinning their wheels.

Cast: Kenichi Matsuyama, Taichi Saotome, Masato Sakai, Ayane Sakura Director: Hiroyuki Imaishi Screenwriter: Kazuki Nakashima Distributor: GKIDS Running Time: 111 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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