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The Conversations: Overlooked, Part One—Undertow

For our third installment of “The Conversations,” we decided to each select a film from the past 10 years that we thought was unfortunately overlooked and/or unfairly maligned.



The Conversations: Overlooked, Part One—Undertow

Jason Bellamy: For our third installment of “The Conversations,” we decided to each select a film from the past 10 years that we thought was unfortunately overlooked and/or unfairly maligned. Serendipitously, we selected films that the other person had yet to see. You elected to champion 2004’s Undertow. I selected 2002’s Solaris. These films have few similarities, and so there will be no attempt to connect them beyond our feeling that they are deserving of increased discussion and praise.

Thus, we begin with Undertow. Prior to seeing this film, I knew exactly four things about it: 1) Its director is David Gordon Green; 2) Its star is Jamie Bell (or as I usually call him, “The kid from Billy Elliot”); 3) It’s set in the South; 4) Roger Ebert loved, loved, loved it. That’s it, and that’s all. I vaguely remember the film coming out and being interested in it. Yet somehow I never got to it until now.

If Undertow was maligned (I’ve avoided checking Metacritic to this point), I don’t remember that. Overlooked seems right. Mention of Green usually inspires reference to Undertow predecessors George Washington and All the Real Girls. I’m sure you and Ebert aren’t Undertow’s only fans, but I can’t say I remember anyone else so much as mentioning it.

Am I surprised? Having seen Undertow a few days ago, I can’t say that I am. Not even five full years since its release, Undertow strikes me as the typical forgotten film: not brilliant enough to be considered great, not faulty enough to be worthy of venomous derision, not complex or ambiguous enough to inspire endless debate. I have multiple thoughts on the film, but for the most part I’d like to approach this discussion through your views, and I’ll start by asking you a question: Did you submit Undertow for examination here because you think the film is criminally misunderstood or because you think it’s criminally unknown (or something else in between)?

Ed Howard: I wanted to talk about Undertow largely because it’s been forgotten: you’re right that almost no one brings it up these days in talking about Green, who’s mostly known for his first two films and now the Judd Apatow collaboration Pineapple Express. Ebert’s rave aside, I believe Undertow got decidedly mixed reviews upon release, including its fair share of very negative ones, but on the whole I wouldn’t say it’s maligned so much as simply overlooked. That’s unfortunate, because in my opinion it is Green’s best film thus far, the film that comes closest to fulfilling the tremendous promise he’s displayed in all his features. It’s not a perfect film by any means, not a masterpiece, but in its own strange way it is “great,” a baroque fable about the loss of childhood innocence and the totemic power of family. I don’t use that word “fable” lightly, either. I think Green is quite consciously tapping into the language and aesthetic of fables and children’s stories, especially the darkness running through the Grimm fairy tales or, in movies, Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter. This is what I like so much about this film. All of Green’s films are fables to one extent or another, heavily stylized fantasy visions of the South. It’s tempting to call George Washington or All the Real Girls “realist,” or maybe “poetic realist,” but in fact they only give the impression of realism. The rhythms of these films approximate the slow rhythms of life, with lots of start/stop conversations and languid pauses, but the language and aesthetic choices distance the films from ordinary reality.

Undertow is the first of Green’s films to fully embrace this tendency, to revel in the artificiality of his vision of the American South. The film contains realism as just one mode among many, one choice that the director might make for a time before shifting to something else. There’s a lovely, moody silent sequence in which Green cuts back and forth between the brooding John Munn (Dermot Mulroney) smoking in his den, and his rebellious son Chris (Jamie Bell) constructing a rough wooden toy for his younger brother Tim (Devon Alan). This is Green’s poetic realist moment, as is the mumbled, halting conversation between John and Chris afterwards, but the quietly realistic sensibility of these moments jars against, for example, the cartoonish performance of Josh Lucas as John’s bitter brother Deel, or the exaggerated idiot savant behavior of the paint-eating Tim, or the barrage of filters and effects applied to the opening credits. The film shifts genres fluidly: the credits seem to promise a darkly comic farce, a rural parody of 70s cop TV, while later the two brothers move from a low-key domestic drama to gory horror to a chase thriller drawn heavily from The Night of the Hunter. This is Green’s loosest and most imaginative film. Here he discards the urge toward realism that ran through his earlier films, and finally admits, “this is a myth.” And it’s a poignant, affecting myth, centered around the relationship between two young brothers and their desire for family, safety, security and love.

JB: Ebert’s review makes similar observations. He ends his assessment saying: “Films like Undertow leave some audiences unsettled, because they do not proceed predictably by the rules. But they are immediately available to our emotions, and we fall into a kind of walking trance, as if being told a story at an age when we half-believed everything we heard.” That’s right on the money. It’s to Green’s credit that Undertow shifts genres as “fluidly” as it does, and yet I wonder if these transitions are too seamless for their own good. I imagine that watching Undertow made many moviegoers feel like WALL-E in the scene when the robot goes to file away one of his latest detrital treasures and realizes with confusion that the utensil in his hand doesn’t belong in the cup of plastic spoons or the cup of plastic forks, because it’s a spork. Right or wrong, audiences and sometimes even critics tend to file cinematic sporks in the waste bin of filmmaker gaffes. But there’s no question in my mind that Green is confidently and intentionally crossing genre lines here. He’s a filmmaker who isn’t rebellious so much as he is liberated from such restrictions to the point that he almost seems oblivious. That’s a compliment.

As for the notion that Undertow is Green’s best film, I wouldn’t necessarily disagree. George Washington is the kind of picture that should (and did) make people drop everything and take notice of a filmmaker in his 20s, but there’s an intentional aimlessness about that film that I find overwhelming. In Ebert’s Undertow review he cites the moment when the girl asks, “Can I carve my name in your face?” and I laughed reading that, because George Washington is a collection of similar non sequiturs (not all of them spoken). By comparison, All the Real Girls is far more conventional, and it’s the closest Green film to my heart, because of the effortless and understated way in which Paul Schneider and Zooey Deschanel paint a heart-rending portrait of young love. That said, I’m not convinced that Green has made a “great” film as yet, though he’s certainly done enough to convince me that he’s a great filmmaker.

EH: That “carve my name” moment that both you and Ebert mention is a very good example of what Green is aiming for. As I believe Ebert points out, no one ever expresses themselves in quite that way, and yet everyone has felt the kinds of things that are being expressed: the confusion and potential pain of love, the angst of adolescence and puberty. The line is funny just because it’s so bizarre, so completely unexpected, and yet it’s not just an empty non sequitur. It’s a way of summing up, in a single line, the awkward, weird tensions of young love and desire. You get the feeling that these kids don’t know how to express themselves yet, don’t know what they want or what they mean to one another: they’re saying things, and doing things, they don’t fully understand. As good as they are, both George Washington and All the Real Girls sometimes feel self-consciously quirky, and I think Undertow is the first of Green’s films where the off-putting weirdness of his aesthetic is more purposeful. This film is a fable because fables are universal, they express feelings and fears we all have in stylized form. The distrust of strangers runs through the grisly tale of Hansel and Gretel, the desire to be able to transcend oneself drives the mermaid who wants to become a human, and Undertow is motivated, above all, by the need for family structures, for comfort and security.

When the film opens, Chris is alienated from his father, feeling trapped and confined by life on the isolated farm that John moved them to as a way of escaping from the world. When Deel arrives, Chris initially sees in him a potentially more promising father figure, something he hungers for so desperately that he doesn’t note the more sinister undercurrents of Deel’s persona. Of course, soon enough we learn that Deel is probably Chris’ biological father, and that he’s no more worthy as a father figure or role model than John is. The rest of the film continues this search for family, the desire to find someplace to simply fit in and make a comfortable home. The episodic structure allows Green to explore this central idea in several different contexts. First, Chris and Tim settle in with a black couple (Eddie Rouse and Patrice Johnson) who are badly affected by the premature death of their own child some years ago, but who are obviously deeply in love and remain joyous and appreciative of life. They provide a model for Chris and Tim, who barely remember their own mother and never experienced anything like the fun and humor that these people infuse into their clearly poor but nevertheless vibrant household. Later, the two boys attempt to create a familial structure among the homeless teens living in a kind of open-air hippie commune in the woods.

And in one of the film’s best scenes, Chris and Tim actually construct their own home from the detritus lying around a junk yard. The “Home Sweet Home” mug they place within this rusted metal structure is a bit much, an example of Green making his point too obviously, but the scene as a whole is nonetheless affecting: these two kids are so desperate for some shred of normality that they try to build a home from discarded car parts. In a lot of ways, Undertow is about America’s abandonment of its kids, the disinterest that so many people today seem to show in raising their children, providing them with the love and attention they need. The film is full of kids simply wandering, left to their own devices, saddled with parents who are either completely absent or absorbed in themselves or, at best, fiery clichés like the shotgun-wielding overprotective father who chases Chris during the opening credits. Because this is a fairy tale, Chris and Tim finally find what they need at the end, in the form of the kindly grandparents (Bill McKinney and Thelma Louise Carter) who accept them and take them in. But this happy ending doesn’t erase the violence and abjection that preceded it, the harrowing journey that these kids must take just in order to finally find a family.

JB: It’s certainly a harrowing journey. Emotionally, Undertow’s greatest triumph is the tactile vulnerability of Chris and Tim. Of all the genres that Undertow explores, from its Dukes of Hazzard meets Mark Twain opening to its Night of the Hunter-esque premise, horror isn’t one of them. Nothing goes bump in the night here—every threatening moment happens in broad daylight. And yet my stomach was in knots for Chris and Tim, even though the Southern-fried buffoonery of Deel suggests that he’s only slightly more competent than Rosco P. Coltrane. The latter half of the film is saturated with dread.

Thus, my disappointment with Undertow stems from the fact that there isn’t much else to it. In his mostly negative review for Variety, Scott Foundas notes that while “Green’s partisans claim he lyricizes the South… what Green does is more fetishization than lyricization. He wallows in the dirt, mud and sweat…piling the twangy Southern accents on extra-thick and filling the soundtrack with the incessant sound of hogs squealing.” Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly is in the same ballpark when he calls Green “an artist so sensitive that he savors every moment, to the point that you occasionally wished he’d savor it a little less.”

I’m all for meditative films, and I don’t think a picture needs to be epic to be “great” or “classic.” Still, Green’s films have a way of looking at puddles as if they are oceans. After splashing around for a while it can be unsatisfying to realize that I’m only wet up to my ankles. As Gleiberman puts it in relation to Undertow: “By the end, you realize there’s not much beneath that surface.” I’d agree. Which isn’t to suggest that Undertow is some sort of dismal failure—I have a hard time imagining how someone could get that worked up over it—it’s just to say that Undertow isn’t a film that suggests I’ll find more within it on a repeat visit.

Am I undervaluing Undertow? Let’s be direct: In your opinion, how great is it?

EH: In my opinion, yes, you’re undervaluing Undertow. Maybe I just like what Green finds in the puddles he’s looking at. Maybe I don’t think that looking at puddles is inherently less valuable or interesting than looking at oceans. After all, it’s just water either way, and by looking at puddles we might learn something about oceans. To unpack the metaphor, Green’s films locate universal truths and themes within seemingly prosaic events and characters. Basically, I don’t agree that there’s nothing deeper or more substantial to Green’s films, and to this one in particular. Beyond its genre pastiche (and would you really argue the central gory murder isn’t horror?) and its lyrical mood, the film gets at universal ideas and fears in very interesting ways. The dread we feel for Chris and Tim isn’t just—or even primarily—about Deel catching up to them. It’s more an existential dread, a fear that things aren’t going to work out for these drifting, parentless kids, that they won’t be able to find a place where they can fit in and be allowed to grow up normally.

As much as Green’s style is structured around disruptions and disjunctions, very showy intrusions of artifice, the film is emotionally complex and layered, not only in the bond between the two brothers, but in the distant, deceit-based relationship between Deel and John, the subtle parallels between the two generations of the family we see here, and the conflicted emotions of John, who seems to want desperately to be a decent father to his sons without quite having the emotional resources to carry through on it. The emotions in this film are small and subtle—in direct contrast to the outsized performance of Deel, inspired as much by Wile E. Coyote as anything else—but no less potent for their quiet simplicity. I already mentioned the scene of John contemplatively smoking while Chris assembles a wooden airplane out in the shed, but it’s a perfect example of the way Green infuses such simple moments with deeper subtexts. By fading back and forth between father and son, each quiet and alone in his separate space, Green unifies them even while emphasizing the distance between them; the camera moves as though panning from one to the other within the same space, bridging the gap between them in a way their conversations never do.

There’s a similar emotional ambiguity to the scene of John staring at his family’s portrait on the wall, which at first seems like a straightforward expression of his longing for his dead wife and the united family he’s since lost. Later, however, when we learn more about that portrait and what secret it hides, in retrospect we begin to wonder what exactly John is feeling at that moment. Greed? Foreboding? Regret? Guilt? Nostalgia? All of the above? There’s a great deal of complexity to even deceptively simple moments like that, which are opened up and complicated by the web of relationships and conflicted feelings between the characters. I’ve seen the film several times now, and each time I feel the emotions that much more intensely, see the underlying themes with that much more clarity. It’s a film that is broad and obvious in its surface effects, but much subtler and quieter beneath the surface, a strange combination that has perhaps contributed to its overall dismissal from the film conversation.

JB: Interesting. Maybe it deserves another look. (Knowing me, it’ll get one either way.) But I think one of the reasons I felt underwhelmed by Undertow had to do with an inkling that I’d seen it before. Prior to introducing myself to Green on DVD just a few years ago, I often heard it said that Terrence Malick is one of his key influences. In George Washington and All the Real Girls, I saw hints of what people were talking about, but on the whole I thought comparisons to Malick were overstated. Having now seen Undertow, I understand. This film is like a perfect hybrid of Badlands and Days of Heaven, from its muddy young runaways drifting through a ghastly fairy tale, to its ambiguous idiot-savant dialogue, to its meditative pacing, to its fondness for voiceover and, of course, its reverence for lush naturally-lit compositions. Given that Malick is known for the succulence of his images, it seems like a twisted Hollywood in-joke that Green would borrow Malick’s aesthetic so blatantly for a film that includes a character who eats every filthy (yet somehow appetizing) thing in sight. That amuses me.

To be clear, I’m not accusing Green of thievery in noting his Malick emulation, and I’ve noticed that you have found numerous ways to praise the compositions of Green’s film without mentioning the edible deliciousness of its celluloid. Still, for someone who loves Malick, Undertow’s allusions are plentiful to the point of distraction, causing my mind to wander to Badlands and Days of Heaven—which is the same thing as wanting to watch those films immediately. If Undertow wasn’t so locked in to the palette and themes of those Malick landmarks, I might have settled into its mood more freely. Instead, Undertow struck me as a film that’s better to look at than to look into. I still enjoyed it more than not, but I didn’t find the emotional heft in it that you have, certainly in comparison to a Malick picture.

EH: Well, there’s no use arguing the Malick references, since he’s an obvious influence on Green—hell, he even produced this film, so the affinities between them are apparent. I think it’s interesting, though, that you’d call Undertow “a film that’s better to look at than to look into.” Just to play devil’s advocate for a moment, I could imagine that description applying just as easily to Days of Heaven, an undeniably beautiful film that I love in many ways, but which nevertheless leaves me with the impression that Malick is sometimes more comfortable filming wheat fields than people. Now, of course, this is all a bit tongue-in-cheek: there’s a lot of emotional depth to Days of Heaven, a lot going on in between its landscape shots. But on its surface it’s a rather conventional love triangle story that happens to be graced with some of the most sumptuous cinematography in the cinema.

I won’t go so far as to argue that Undertow is a better film, by any means, but I think you’re doing to Green’s film something similar to what I just did to Malick’s. It’s very easy not to look beyond the pretty surfaces of films like this, to be seduced by the beauty of the images or the cinematic allusions and miss out on the emotional undercurrents. I think a lot of people do the same thing with Tarantino: they get so caught up with trying to spot all the kung-fu movies he references that the emotional arc of Uma Thurman’s Bride across both volumes of Kill Bill simply doesn’t make the impact it should. So I guess the question is, is originality everything? And does Green simply regurgitate Malick like so many paint chips, or does he process his influences into something new? Clearly, I believe the latter, but I’ll throw it back to you for now.

JB: I’m glad you asked. I absolutely agree that since Green so closely approximates Malick that it’s fair to presume that the same criticisms I applied to Undertow could also apply to Days of Heaven or Badlands. Thus, in a very basic respect, Undertow’s biggest burden is coming second. No, originality isn’t everything, but, from an audience perspective, discovery is a hell of a lot. For example, I’m sure that when Saving Private Ryan came out and Steven Spielberg was receiving unrestrained praise for his epic D-Day sequence, fans of Sam Fuller’s The Big Red One must have been wondering what the big fucking deal was. In this case, I wouldn’t fault Fuller followers for being emotionally attached to “their” beach storming sequence, nor would I fault those unfamiliar with The Big Red One for thinking that Spielberg had created something wildly unmatched. Those are both fair and just reactions. (And let me pause here to offer that Spielberg does just what he should with Saving Private Ryan: he borrows what works and then adds to it, enhances it, reinvents it. The influence of Fuller is undeniable, but the brushstrokes of Spielberg are recognizable, too.)

To use a different analogy, what I’m getting at is the idea that perhaps the second trip to the moon can’t possibly have the same emotional impact as the first. At the risk of implying that Green is some kind of rip-off artist, I see less enhancement and reinvention of Malick in Undertow than reflection of Malick. It’s close to being the same thing, but somehow Green’s implementation of the same techniques isn’t quite as poignant, in ways I’m not sure I could ever quantify. Essentially, it’s a gut feeling. So what’s interesting to me is that I agree with the idea you hinted at, that perhaps Green and Malick have the same fascinations or impulses or intentions. Underneath it all, maybe it’s an illusion that Malick’s films are somehow more genuine. But after falling for Malick’s artistry like I have, I can’t help but have a special reverence for it. Still, I’m open-minded enough to qualify that with this: Perhaps I’m making a mistake of Vertigo proportions. As we know, the brown-haired Judy is actually more authentic than the blonde Madeleine … but good luck getting Scottie to believe that. For him, Madeleine is the measuring stick, and always will be. The same goes for me and Malick.

Before we move on, I want to touch on your reference to Tarantino, because I was thinking of that very example as I was writing my previous comments. Without a doubt, there’s a similarity in my reactions above and those of Tarantino naysayers so consumed with identifying which films Kill Bill references that they overlook what it actually does. Also similar is that way that I’m criticizing Green for the same reason that Tarantino gets into trouble: because the emulation is so fucking skillful that it appears dangerously effortless, as if these guys are painting by number rather than creating from within. That said, I think there are two distinct differences between Tarantino’s emulation and Green’s, both of which come down to the plural vs. the singular. First, Kill Bill, to keep with the example, nakedly and wholeheartedly embraces the stylistic trademarks of multiple filmmakers, while Undertow stylistically references pretty much Malick alone. Second, Tarantino is one of many filmmakers to blatantly draw upon Sergio Leone, to pick one, while Green is the only filmmaker I can think of to so unabashedly (and adeptly) channel Malick. The result? Tarantino is like the musician who tries to emulate Dylan and the Beatles simultaneously. He’s part of a mob. He blends in a bit more. Green, on the other hand, is like the poet who is ballsy enough (or dumb enough) to write in lowercase. Just like I couldn’t possibly read that poet’s work without thinking of e.e. cummings, I can’t possibly look at Undertow without seeing Malick. I think it’s a special case.

EH: See, I don’t actually agree that Malick is the only cinematic touchstone for Green here. Maybe that’s true of George Washington and All the Real Girls, which is one of the things that makes me value them slightly less than I would otherwise, but in Undertow I see the first evidence of Green reaching beyond Malick’s influence, entering territory that his mentor never explored. Most obviously, we’ve already discussed the ways in which the film is a genre pastiche, drawing its basic story from The Night of the Hunter, visually referencing 70s cop shows, and incorporating disjunctive techniques borrowed from avant-garde film, like the freeze frames and color filters that are used most frequently during the credits but recur at key moments throughout the film.

If Green’s first two films might be reduced to Malick rip-offs—and as much as I find to like in those films, I wouldn’t disagree—Undertow cannot be dismissed so easily. With this film, he begins incorporating the influence of Malick into a larger, more idiosyncratic patchwork, becoming more like Tarantino in that he’s developing his own cinematic personality from the confluence of his influences. That’s my take on it, anyway. Though Undertow often visually recalls Malick, the texture of the film feels quite distinct from its antecedents. Most noticeably, Green subtly blends the languid moodiness of Malick with more jittery interjections, purposefully shattering the overall atmosphere with those washed-out and filtered inserts—the most powerful of which are the haunting, sustained shot of Chris staring into a bathroom mirror, and the credits shot that freezes on a closeup of Chris’ foot a half-second before he lifts it off the ground to run away. There are a lot of subtle touches in the film that owe little to Malick, that in fact show Green developing his own sensibility that incorporates Malick as only one influence among many. I think, in that respect, he has further to go from here, and I fully expect him to make better films than Undertow in the future, but for now this film is an intriguing, beautifully realized work in its own right.

And also a startlingly funny one. I don’t think we’ve touched yet on just how damn funny this film often is, perhaps because its humor is so jarringly at odds with the overall melancholy tone of its narrative that it’s easy to forget about it in retrospect. This is another crucial way in which Green diverges from Malick, who whatever else he might be, couldn’t really be called funny. There’s a streak of dark humor running throughout Undertow, but it’s not cynical mockery. It’s more like an appreciation that even the darkest, most macabre moments can look entirely different depending on one’s perspective. John phrases it best when he tells his son, “sometimes it’s the strange moments that stick with you.” That’s the closest I can get to pinning down a sensibility that’s distinctively Green’s. It’s the sensibility that stages the opening chase as an exaggerated farce in which Chris gets a nail stuck through his foot and hobbles around with a wooden board stuck to him, an image that is both painfully horrifying and, seen from an objective distance, kind of ridiculous. And it’s the sensibility that, after Chris’ dad picks him up from the police station, has the desk officer casually hand back the board to Chris as though it’s one of his possessions. There’s a real deadpan humor to this film, a sense that as dark as things are for the characters, they’re not yet so hopeless that laughter is impossible. Even Deel’s frenzied pursuit of the duo is frequently hilarious, especially when he runs into a succession of laconic rural types who might’ve been rejected extras for David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. If nothing else, I don’t think Malick has ever made a film that’s this funny, nor one where the humor rubs so uncomfortably against the darker emotions at the story’s core.

JB: Well, giving credit to someone for being funnier than Malick is a little like patting someone on the back for being more somber than Trey Parker and Matt Stone. “Frequently hilarious” seems a bit far (though it certainly applies to the tow-truck scene), but I concede the larger point. Green isn’t explicitly tied to Malick, by any stretch; thematically he mixes his influences with the gusto of Tarantino. Visually, however, I maintain that Undertow is right out of the Malick portfolio, with mostly insignificant exception. In the same way that Tarsem’s The Fall seems made to sell Blu-ray players and high definition TVs, Undertow looks like it could be a late-1970s ad for Kodak film stock—albeit with dirty-fingered models. Ebert was too forgiving when he wrote that “we never catch [Green] photographing anything for its scenic or decorative effect,” because that presumes that only traditionally beautiful things can be ogled. Regardless, if Undertow’s only fault was being easy on the eyes, that would be no fault at all.

As I filtered through reviews at Metacritic over the course of our conversation, I noticed something that seems to further underline why the film has been overlooked. In the handful of reviews I sampled, Undertow was called a “fable,” a “Brothers Grimm tale,” a “thriller,” a “’balls-to-the-wall’ revenge story” and a “deep-fried piece of Sothern Gothic.” These aren’t necessarily antithetical descriptions, but they illustrate the difficulty with which someone might describe the film. All the Real Girls remains the Green film that I most cherish, and yet I agree that Undertow doesn’t deserve to be ignored. I’m thankful to have seen it. At the same time, I wait expectantly for the day when Green creates a film that cannot be forgotten.

EH: Although I obviously appreciate Undertow much more than you, we’re not entirely at opposite poles here, in that I’m also eager to see where Green goes next: I think Undertow is a promising indication of a great director breaking out rather than a mature masterpiece. It deserves to be remembered, and I hope there are others who love and enjoy it as much as I do, but more than anything I hope that Undertow serves as a stepping stone for even better work in Green’s future. And even if it means confounding those critics who want something they can easily describe, I hope that Green remains as unclassifiable and slippery as he is here. I’ve never bought into that old maxim about a story only being worthwhile if it can be summarized in a sentence. That doesn’t mean it’s a good story; it means it’s a simple one. That’s a screenwriter’s theorem for those who believe that a film’s strength lies in clearly and powerfully expressing a single idea, which is certainly a valid thing for a film to do but hardly the only valid thing. Green’s oeuvre thus far, particularly Undertow, is an eloquent rebuttal of this too-ingrained idea. It’s a film that deliberately contains traces of all the disparate attributes those Metacritic reviews mention, and yet it cannot be completely described by any of those phrases alone. To me, this evasiveness and restless creativity can only be a good thing, even if it isn’t the best way to attain commercial success. Like you, I look forward to watching Green develop further as a filmmaker, but I think I’ll always have a soft spot for the bizarre, messy pleasures of Undertow.

Jason Bellamy ruminates on cinema at The Cooler.

Ed Howard chronicles his film viewing at Only the Cinema.



Through the Years: Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” at 30

To celebrate this sacred anniversary, we’re taking a look back at the single’s evolution over the last three decades.



Through the Years: Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” at 25

This week Madonna’s iconic hit “Like a Prayer” turns 30. The song is, by all accounts, her most broadly beloved contribution to the pop-music canon, landing at #7 on our list of the Best Singles of the 1980s. Even the singer’s most ardent critics can’t help but bow at the altar of this gospel-infused conflation of spiritual and sexual ecstasy, a song that helped transform Madge from ‘80s pop tart to bona fide icon. To celebrate this sacred anniversary, we’re taking a look back at the single’s evolution over the last three decades.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on March 3, 2014.

Pepsi Commercial

Following a teaser that aired during the 31st Annual Grammy Awards in January of 1989, Madonna premiered “Like a Prayer” in a Pepsi commercial during The Cosby Show, the #1 rated series on U.S. television at the time. Part of a $5 million sponsorship deal with the soft-drink company, the ad, titled “Make a Wish,” was an innocuous bit of nostalgia that would soon be eclipsed by the scandal surrounding the single’s forthcoming music video.

Music Video

Madonna dances in front of burning crosses and kisses a black saint in a church pew in this modern morality tale about racial profiling and pious guilt, prompting both the religious right and cultural critics, like bell hooks, to cry foul. Eventually, the mounting outrage caused Pepsi to pull out of their multi-million dollar deal with the Queen of Pop. The singer’s response was coyly defiant.

Blond Ambition Tour

Madonna’s first live incarnation of “Like a Prayer” was also her best. Sure, her voice was raw and unrefined (“Life is a misstaree, eve’one mus stan alone,” she heaves), but her 1990 tour performances of the song displayed a rapturous, almost possessed quality that she’s never been able to recapture.

Mad’House Cover

Dutch Eurotrash group Mad’House’s claim to fame is their blasphemous take on “Like a Prayer” from 2002. The glorified Madonna cover band’s version is stripped of the original’s nuance and soul, a tacky, mechanical shell of a dance track. Regrettably, this is the version you’re most likely to hear on Top 40 radio today. (Only slightly less heretical, the cast of Glee’s rendition of the song peaked at #27 in 2010.)

MTV On Stage & On the Record

Then notorious for forsaking her older material, Madonna dusted off “Like a Prayer” in 2003 during the promotion of her album American Life. Thirteen years after her last live performance of the song, even Madonna’s comparatively reedier voice and noticeably more limited range couldn’t diminish its enduring magic.

Sticky & Sweet Tour

After performing crowd-pleasing but relatively anemic versions of “Like a Prayer” during her Re-Invention Tour in 2004 and Live 8 in 2005, Madonna reinvented the song for her Sticky & Sweet Tour in 2008, using elements of Mack’s “Feels Like Home” for an amped-up techno mash-up.

Super Bowl XLVI

Madonna closed her record-breaking Super Bowl XLVI halftime show in 2012 with “Like a Prayer,” and though she wasn’t singing live, it was the closest she’s ever gotten to her ecstatic Blond Ambition performances. (For those lamenting the lip-synching, she would go on to reprise this version of the song, completely live, during her MDNA Tour later that year.) And if there were any doubt, a stadium of nearly 70,000 football fans waving flashlights and singing along is a testament to the song’s transcendent, all-encompassing appeal. The performance’s final message of “World Peace” seemed attainable, if only for a brief moment.

Met Gala 2018

Last year, Madonna dusted off her old chestnut for an epic performance at Vogue magazine’s annual Met Gala. The event’s theme was “Fashion and the Catholic Imagination,” which seemed tailor-made for both the Queen of Pop and “Like a Prayer.” Madonna slowly descended the steps of New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in a shroud, flanked on both sides by a choir of monks, as she sang a Gregorian-inspired rendition of the pop classic. The performance also featured a portion of a new song, “Beautiful Game,” and a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”

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Oscars 2019: Complete Winners List

The 91st Academy Awards are now behind us, and the telecast told us just about nothing that we don’t already know about AMPAS.



Green Book
Photo: Universal Pictures

The 91st Academy Awards are now behind us, and the telecast told us just about nothing that we don’t already know about AMPAS. Which isn’t to say that the ceremony wasn’t without its surprises. For one, whoever decided to capture Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s performance of “Shallow” from A Star Is Born in one single take that would end with the pair sitting side by side, rapt in each other and framed in Bergman-esque repose, should hereby be responsible for every Oscar ceremony moving forward.

For some, though not us, Green Book’s victory for best picture came as surprise. As our own Eric Henderson put it in his prediction: “Those attacking the film from every conceivable angle have also ignored the one that matters to most people: the pleasure principle. Can anyone blame Hollywood for getting its back up on behalf of a laughably old-fashioned but seamlessly mounted road movie-cum-buddy pic that reassures people that the world they’re leaving is better than the one they found? That’s, as they say, the future that liberals and Oscar want.”

In the end, the awards went down more or less as expected, with the only real shock of the evening being Oliva Colman’s stunning upset over Glenn Close in the best actress race. (Glenn, we hope you are on the phone right now trying to get that Sunset Boulevard remake to finally happen.) Black Panther proved more indomitable than expected, winning in three categories (none of which we predicted), and Free Solo pulling a victory over RBG that was the first big sign of the evening that, then and now, AMPAS members vote above all else with their guts.

See below for the full list of winners from the 2019 Oscars.

Black Panther
Bohemian Rhapsody
The Favourite
Green Book (WINNER)
A Star Is Born

Spike Lee, BlacKkKlansman
Pawel Pawlikowski, Cold War
Yorgos Lanthimos, The Favourite
Alfonso Cuarón, Roma (WINNER)
Adam McKay, Vice

Christian Bale, Vice
Bradley Cooper, A Star Is Born
Willem Dafoe, At Eternity’s Gate
Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody (WINNER)
Viggo Mortensen, Green Book

Yalitza Aparicio, Roma
Glenn Close, The Wife
Olivia Colman, The Favourite (WINNER)
Lady Gaga, A Star Is Born
Melissa McCarthy, Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Supporting Actor
Mahershala Ali, Green Book (WINNER)
Adam Driver, BlacKkKlansman
Sam Elliott, A Star Is Born
Richard E. Grant, Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Sam Rockwell, Vice

Supporting Actress
Amy Adams, Vice
Marina de Tavira, Roma
Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk (WINNER)
Emma Stone, The Favourite
Rachel Weisz, The Favourite

Adapted Screenplay
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
BlacKkKlansman, Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, and Spike Lee (WINNER)
Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty
If Beale Street Could Talk, Barry Jenkins
A Star Is Born, Eric Roth, Bradley Cooper, and Will Fetters

Original Screenplay
The Favourite, Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara
First Reformed, Paul Schrader
Green Book, Nick Vallelonga, Brian Currie, and Peter Farrelly (WINNER)
Roma, Alfonso Cuarón
Vice, Adam McKay

Foreign Language Film
Capernaum (Lebanon)
Cold War (Poland)
Never Look Away (Germany)
Roma (Mexico) (WINNER)
Shoplifters (Japan)

Documentary Feature
Free Solo, Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (WINNER)
Hale County This Morning, This Evening, RaMell Ross
Minding the Gap, Bing Liu
Of Fathers and Sons, Talal Derki
RBG, Betsy West and Julie Cohen

Animated Feature
Incredibles 2, Brad Bird
Isle of Dogs, Wes Anderson
Mirai, Mamoru Hosoda
Ralph Breaks the Internet, Rich Moore and Phil Johnston
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman (WINNER)

Cold War, Lukasz Zal
The Favourite, Robbie Ryan
Never Look Away, Caleb Deschanel
Roma, Alfonso Cuarón (WINNER)
A Star Is Born, Matthew Libatique

Film Editing
BlacKkKlansman, Barry Alexander Brown
Bohemian Rhapsody, John Ottman (WINNER)
Green Book, Patrick J. Don Vito
The Favourite, Yorgos Mavropsaridis
Vice, Hank Corwin

Production Design
Black Panther, Hannah Beachler (WINNER)
First Man, Nathan Crowley and Kathy Lucas
The Favourite, Fiona Crombie and Alice Felton
Mary Poppins Returns, John Myhre and Gordon Sim
Roma, Eugenio Caballero and Bárbara Enrı́quez

Original Score
BlacKkKlansman, Terence Blanchard
Black Panther, Ludwig Goransson (WINNER)
If Beale Street Could Talk, Nicholas Britell
Isle of Dogs, Alexandre Desplat
Mary Poppins Returns, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman

Original Song
All The Stars from Black Panther by Kendrick Lamar, SZA
I’ll Fight from RBG by Diane Warren, Jennifer Hudson
The Place Where Lost Things Go from Mary Poppins Returns by Marc Shaiman, Scott Wittman
Shallow from A Star Is Born by Lady Gaga, Mark Ronson, Anthony Rossomando, Andrew Wyatt and Benjamin Rice (WINNER)
When A Cowboy Trades His Spurs For Wings from The Ballad of Buster Scruggs by David Rawlings and Gillian Welch

Costume Design
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Mary Zophres
Black Panther, Ruth E. Carter (WINNER)
The Favourite, Sandy Powell
Mary Poppins Returns, Sandy Powell
Mary Queen of Scots, Alexandra Byrne

Visual Effects
Avengers: Infinity War, Dan DeLeeuw, Kelly Port, Russell Earl, and Daniel Sudick
Christopher Robin, Chris Lawrence, Mike Eames, Theo Jones, and Chris Corbould
First Man, Paul Lambert, Ian Hunter, Tristan Myles, and J.D. Schwalm (WINNER)
Ready Player One, Roger Guyett, Grady Cofer, Matthew E. Butler, and David Shirk
Solo: A Star Wars Story, Rob Bredow, Patrick Tubach, Neal Scanlan, and Dominic Tuohy

Sound Mixing
Black Panther, Steve Boeddeker, Brandon Proctor, and Peter Devlin
Bohemian Rhapsody, Paul Massey, Tim Cavagin, and John Casali (WINNER)
First Man, Jon Taylor, Frank A. Montaño, Ai-Ling Lee, and Mary H. Ellis
Roma, Skip Lievsay, Craig Henighan, and José Antonio García
A Star Is Born, Tom Ozanich, Dean Zupancic, Jason Ruder, and Steve Morrow

Sound Editing
Black Panther, Benjamin A. Burtt and Steve Boeddeker
Bohemian Rhapsody, John Warhurst (WINNER)
First Man, Ai-Ling Lee and Mildred Iatrou Morgan
A Quiet Place, Ethan Van der Ryn and Erik Aadahl
Roma, Sergio Diaz and Skip Lievsay

Makeup and Hairstyling
Border, Göran Lundström and Pamela Goldammer
Mary Queen of Scots, Jenny Shircore, Marc Pilcher, and Jessica Brooks
Vice, Greg Cannom, Kate Biscoe, and Patricia Dehaney (WINNER)

Live Action Short Film
Detainment, Vincent Lambe
Fauve, Jeremy Comte
Marguerite, Marianne Farley
Mother, Rodrigo Sorogoyen
Skin, Guy Nattiv (WINNER)

Documentary Short Subject
Black Sheep, Ed Perkins
End Game, Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman
Lifeboat, Skye Fitzgerald
A Night at the Garden, Marshall Curry
Period. End of Sentence., Rayka Zehtabchi (WINNER)

Animated Short
Animal Behaviour, Alison Snowden and David Fine
Bao, Domee Shi (WINNER)
Late Afternoon, Louise Bagnall
One Small Step, Andrew Chesworth and Bobby Pontillas
Weekends, Trevor Jimenez

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Review: Someone Is in My House Showcases the Reach of David Lynch’s Obsessions

Lynch’s paintings are beautiful yet macabre, mysterious and rich in the tactility of the methods of their creation.



Someone Is in My House

Though famous for being a filmmaker and co-creator of the TV series Twin Peaks, David Lynch works in many other mediums, including music, sculpture, photography, furniture-making, and painting, the last of which is the wellspring of his creativity. Lynch has painted since the 1960s, finding his voice among the ruinous squalor of a once-rough Philadelphia. Inspired by artists such as Francis Bacon, Lynch developed a style that’s rich in the irreconcilable contradictions that would drive his cinema. His paintings are beautiful yet macabre, mysterious and rich in the tactility of the methods of their creation.

At times, Lynch has been dismissed as a “celebrity painter” who nets prestigious exhibitions based on his fame as a filmmaker, as well as on the urge to utilize his other art as a kind of decoder ring for his films. These claims may be partially true, but this doesn’t mean that the art itself isn’t extraordinary, and there’s a concentrated effort underway to recalibrate Lynch’s reputation within pop culture. The documentary David Lynch: The Art Life featured hypnotic footage of Lynch in the studio of his Los Angeles home, smoking and creating new canvases. Last year, the book David Lynch: Nudes collected his empathetic, erotic, and astonishingly subjective photography of nude women. Now there’s David Lynch: Someone Is in My House, a gorgeous volume of Lynch’s painting, photography, sculpture, and short-film stills.

Someone Is in My House impresses one with the reach of Lynch’s ambitions and obsessions, affirming yet another contradiction of his art: that it’s vast yet repetitive and insular. Across the spectrum of over 250 stills, this volume spotlights the many techniques that Lynch utilizes. After perceptive essays by Lynch biographer Kristine McKenna, who places Lynch’s work in the context of legendary art at large, and Michael Chabon, who emphasizes Lynch’s grasp of the uncanny truth of the everyday, among others, Someone Is in My House offers a tour of Lynch’s work that’s divided by medium, starting with “Works on Paper” and continuing with “Painting/Mixed Media,” “Photography,” “Lamps,” and “Film and Video Stills.”

Each section is structured in chronological order, spanning five decades, so as to subtly assert Lynch’s ongoing evolution as an artist. The book ends with a brief biography, which will probably be well-known by anyone driven to buy it, and a list of Lynch’s exhibitions. If Someone Is in My House has one disappointment, it pertains to this structure, as a straightforward chronological organization of Lynch’s art might’ve more vividly emphasized the wild multi-pronged simultaneousness of his imagination. But this is a small issue, as this volume offers the gift of relative accessibility, allowing cinephiles and other aesthetes the opportunity to access a major and generally rarefied mine of Lynch’s workload.

To open Someone Is in My House is to plunge into landscapes of darkness inhabited by deformed humans and other creatures, who have distended, shrunken, or extended appendages, heads that are animalistic or brutalized, and bodies that are often either a collection of tumorous protuberances or are merely composed of a few lines like primitive stick figures. Among this darkness is bright color, usually red, which offers beautiful illumination that’s understood to exist at the cost of atrocity. Among darkness there’s a light of injury in other words, as Lynch is obsessed by the idea of people coming in contact with nightmarish entities and being destroyed or severely hurt in a manner that suggests enlightenment to be a kind of state of higher confusion.

Someone Is in My House

Photo: Prestel

In Lynch’s art, blood and other substances gush out of heads like geysers, and people’s faces are often twisted in knots of anxiety. As in his films, Lynch’s paintings are obsessed by the home as a symbol of our illusions of stability and how easily they can be violated. This art is surreal, in that it conforms to no requirements of literal representation, but it’s also overwhelmingly docudramatic in its emphasis on its own DNA. The lithographs on Japanese paper, for instance, which are some of the most starkly memorable of this book’s many unforgettable images, are driven in part by their sense of fragility. The ink appears to have been applied to the canvases in a frenzy, and seems as if it could quite easily be wiped away. Lynch’s multimedia work, particularly his mixtures of sculptures and paintings, are populated by lumpy figures that show the imprint of the artist’s fingerprints and are built from globs of materials, suggesting how easily they could be morphed again by another god. (Or by us, who could in turn by victimized by other gods such as Mr. Redman, a quasi-corporeal explosion of carnage that haunts Lynch’s oil and mixed media canvas of the same name.)

Lynch’s art is also driven by the preludes and aftermaths of events. In This Man Was Shot 0.9502 Seconds Ago, a phallic string of guts explodes out of a man with a characteristically vague and misshapen face—a Bacon-ish image that occurs against a symmetrical interior backdrop that would be at home in an Edward Hopper canvas. Acknowledging these influences, McKenna goes on to write one of the most profound things I’ve read about Lynch’s paintings: “They have a clumsy, accidental quality and come across as thwarted attempts to make oneself understood; they feel wrought rather than painted.” Rendering characters in the face of impending or concluding cataclysm, Lynch adapts techniques that mirror their awkwardness and alienation, and this chameleonic—at once assertive and self-effacing—style has probably been part of the reason for Lynch being taken somewhat for granted as an artist.

However, Lynch’s primitivism communicates robust emotional quandaries, especially an earnest yearning for a return to a normalcy that’s been shattered—a normalcy that never existed and which is embodied by houses that are composed of only a few skewed lines. These houses might be harbingers of nostalgia for Lynch’s characters, but they’re hollow or—in the case of Lynch’s lonely and forbiddingly poignant black-and-white photographs of snowmen—closed off and ridden with secrets that are impossible to know. Many Lynch characters also face their brutal reckonings with a becoming and majestic dignity, such as the nose-headed subject of an untitled 1971 pencil sketch.

Though Someone Is in My House is adamant that we take Lynch’s artwork on its own terms, without always connecting it to his films and TV, such an exercise isn’t entirely resistible. Lynch’s art clarifies to an extent what his films are also doing: valuing moments of privatized emotional experience, and often suspending plots in time so as to show how individual epiphanies can knock us off the course of our own “narrative”—that is to say, our lives.

Twin Peaks: The Return, which is clearly on Lynch’s mind in the art that’s included in this book from 2010 forward, is a collection of scenes and images that bind the existential cosmic with the domestic rituals of our lives. For most of us, finally connecting with a lost love at a coffee shop means more than considerations of the unknowable evil that may or may not pull the strings behind the curtains of eternity. Kyle MacLachlan’s Agent Cooper became unstuck in time because he took for granted the heaven of his kinship with the townsfolk of the hellish yet pastoral Twin Peaks. He failed to recognize what the subjects of many of Lynch’s paintings discover: that, to quote McKenna again, “Life happens through us, not because of us.” Throughout his career, Lynch has mined a vein of ecstatic powerlessness.

David Lynch: Someone Is in My House is now available from Prestel.

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