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The Conversations: Overlooked, Part Two—Solaris

You selected Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris as the film from the last few years you believe to be unfairly overlooked, and it’s not hard to see why you chose it.

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The Conversations: Overlooked, Part Two—Solaris

Ed Howard: You selected Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris as the film from the last few years you believe to be unfairly overlooked, and it’s not hard to see why you chose it. There are few types of films that are more often overlooked and forgotten, en masse, than the amorphous category of the “remake.” Fairly or unfairly, critics tend to be inherently skeptical of remake projects, even if audiences flock to genre remakes like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or the “reboots” of franchises like Friday the 13th and Halloween. In Soderbergh’s case, his film couldn’t even be called a commercial success; it was more or less a flop whose memory has almost completely faded from the popular imagination in just a few short years. When Soderbergh’s film came out in 2002, I skipped over it for the same reason that I suspect a lot of other people did: by all appearances, it was yet another Hollywood “updating” of a classic film from years before, a film that if you ask me didn’t really need to be revisited. Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 Solaris is a classic of the science fiction genre, as well-loved and admired among art-cinema fans as Stanley Kubrick’s more popularly known 2001: A Space Odyssey, to which Tarkovsky was directly responding in making his own film. Moreover, the 1961 novel of the same name by Stanislaw Lem is also a classic, one of the greatest works of sci-fi literature (and a personal favorite of mine). Soderbergh was stepping into tremendous shoes by attempting to tell this story, and I’m sure he realized that this film would inevitably be compared to its predecessors, making it difficult to evaluate on its own terms.

The question then becomes: on its own terms, what is Soderbergh’s Solaris? What was his rationale for revisiting a classic story? What does he bring to the film to make it his own? Does this new Solaris deserve its current obscurity or should it be remembered simultaneously with its predecessors (or even elevated above them)? I have my own opinions on these questions, but for now I’m interested to know what you think. Does what I’ve described gibe with your own reasons for picking this film? And why do you think Soderbergh’s Solaris deserves a second look?

Jason Bellamy: If I answered all those questions immediately, it would be a very long and very one-sided conversation. So let me focus on that last question first. Why does Solaris deserve a second look? Because I don’t think it got a fair first look, if it got a look at all. Coincidentally (or maybe not), Solaris, like Undertow, is a difficult movie to sell to the general public because it mashes together some rarely paired themes. Most obviously, Solaris is a love story set in space that’s equally passionate about both its romance and its sci-fi trappings. (Name five other films that fit that description. They’re out there, I’m sure, but it’s going to take you a while to come up with them.) Soderbergh’s Solaris is a square peg in a landscape of round holes. It doesn’t fit well into any niche, which is the recipe for commercial doom. Ironically (or maybe not), Soderbergh’s adaptation includes a line about the search for extraterrestrial life that might as well be a forecast for the film’s eventual (inevitable?) box office failings: “We don’t want other worlds,” Gibarian says. “We want mirrors.” It’s sad but true: To the general movie-going public, that which feels unfamiliar tends to feel uncomfortable.

Additionally, Fox did the film no favors by marketing Solaris according to what the average consumer hoped a George Clooney romance would be, rather than what this movie really is. Or something like that. Andrew O’Hehir of Salon best summarized the misleading marketing campaign in his review, writing: “[Fox] has primarily promoted the film as a love story starring Clooney and a beautiful woman, which has the virtue of A) being true and B) sounding like something lots of people might want to see. What the publicity doesn’t make entirely clear is that most of the movie is set on a mostly deserted space station orbiting a planet that has some kind of psychological and/or spiritual powers (never specified or defined) and that the beautiful woman in question may be an alien creature or a fantasy projection but is in either case the not-quite-convincing simulacrum of a dead person.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. I needn’t watch Mad Men to understand how advertising works. I realize that the majority of a film’s box-office take is made on opening weekend, regardless of whether folks get what they thought they were paying for. I respect that Fox financed the film, and it’s the studio’s product and Fox can market the picture however the hell it wants. And I concede that Solaris isn’t the kind of movie one could easily promote through toy giveaways at McDonald’s. Nonetheless, when people are walking out of a film after only 15 minutes—15 especially tight and propulsive minutes that we’ll talk about later—that can’t possibly be a black mark on the filmmaker or the film.

I was a witness to such walkouts. When Solaris was released, I was living in Green Bay, Wisconsin, which you won’t be surprised to learn isn’t exactly a hotbed for art films, or anything resembling art films. Solaris was the second movie I saw that chilly November day, and I remember that I had to hustle from my previous screening to get seated before the previews. Just before the lights went down, I looked around and noticed that females overwhelmingly outnumbered males in the audience. Stupefied, since that happens exactly never at sci-fi films, I immediately referenced my ticket stub, certain that I’d walked into the wrong theater. But, nope, I was in the right place. And, sure enough, I saw the kind of movie I hoped to see. In the meantime, at least a dozen people walked out over the course of the first 15 minutes, and one flock of about eight women who stayed (probably because it was a girls’ night out) started bitching about the film the second the credits appeared.

I mention all of this because it represents the uncertain reception that greeted Solaris that I’m convinced has been a factor in the film being unfairly maligned or altogether overlooked (which isn’t to suggest it was or is entirely without champions). In the above, I didn’t even touch on the skepticism of Tarkovsky loyalists (one of whom reportedly approached Soderbergh in the street and told the director that he should be “ashamed” for attempting a remake), nor did I go into detail about my hunch that, after a string of successes (Out of Sight, The Limey, Erin Brockovich, Traffic and Ocean’s Eleven) followed by a flop (Full Frontal), some critics were hesitant to re-embrace their filmmaking golden boy, as if suddenly skeptical of Soderbergh’s intentions. Heck, I have yet to argue the merits of the film. I’m eager to get to the latter, but let me shut up for a bit. You watched Soderbergh’s adaptation upon my urging, having read Lem’s story and seen Tarkovsky’s original film some time ago. What did you think?

EH: Well, I have to say, if this film was marketed primarily as a love story set in space, then I don’t think its marketing was so dishonest after all. Maybe I’m just too caught up with comparing Soderbergh’s adaptation to my previous exposure to this material, but I’m far from convinced that the film is “equally passionate about both its romance and its sci-fi trappings.” Quite to the contrary, it seems to me that the romance all but overpowers the sci-fi premise. For too much of the film, Soderbergh doesn’t exploit his setting, doesn’t deal with the nature of the living ocean below the space station. By far the most compelling concept in Solaris is Solaris itself, and it is the least-explored element in the Soderbergh film. I found myself wondering just how much this film would be changed if it was relocated to Earth, if Rheya (Natascha McElhone) was a ghost, or a figment of Kelvin’s (George Clooney) imagination, if it was all a dream or fantasy or earthbound tale of insanity brought on by grief. I tried to imagine if the film would be irrevocably altered by a change of setting, and I think the answer is, damningly, no—for a film titled Solaris, the planet is strikingly irrelevant to most of the action, to the themes that Soderbergh wants to explore. I almost laughed when, at the very end, the title dramatically appears onscreen: it seems like a non sequitur considering how little importance is given to the planet, how little the implications of Solaris’ existence are explored. It’s not a film about Solaris, it’s a film about a man who misses his dead wife, and who falls in love all over again with her doppelganger. Is it really so important to this film’s essential point that the doppelganger originated in the living ocean on Solaris?

Whereas Lem’s original novel was concerned with confronting the unknown, with the limits of human knowledge and humanity’s place in the universe and other dense, heady philosophical and scientific concepts, Soderbergh’s film is about a relationship, about loss and the desire for second chances. It’s a matter of focus and emphasis: the themes relating to the alien planet are still there, but largely relegated to the background, often literally. That line about “mirrors” is a crucial one, an important concept in both the novel and in Tarkovsky’s film, and yet Soderbergh just tosses it off, has a character speaking it on a TV set in the background and then never revisits the idea. Again and again, he downplays what should be the central ideas of the film, instead dedicating enormous amounts of time to flashbacks of Kelvin and the original Rheya’s life back on Earth, before she killed herself. These flashbacks are unique to Soderbergh, they are the primary invention of his screenplay, the most obvious way in which he diverges from his source material. And their effect is to take the emphasis off of Solaris, to move the setting from space to Earth, to replace the scientific acuity of Lem’s prose with a maudlin romantic drama.

Of course, Lem himself had similar complaints about Tarkovsky’s film, and it’s true that even Tarkovsky shifts the emphasis slightly towards the central relationship and away from the conceptual underpinnings of the story. I don’t think any adaptation of the novel could avoid that, considering how dense and technical Lem’s writing often is. But Tarkovsky does a far better job than Soderbergh of balancing the science fiction with the psychology of the characters and the romantic story. Tarkovsky’s film has the texture of conceptual sci-fi; Soderbergh’s film has the texture of a romance with incidental sci-fi trappings. I’m not one of those people who think Soderbergh should be “ashamed” for attempting to remake some sacred text—I’m not a “Tarkovsky loyalist” and in any event I don’t think Solaris is one of Tarkovsky’s best films—but I’m also not sure that Soderbergh has anything unique or interesting to say through this story.

It’s true that movie audiences generally don’t want “other worlds” but “mirrors,” and to satisfy that urge Soderbergh really tries to make this story as reflective as possible, to play down the essential strangeness and inaccessibility of Solaris and dwell on a love story that anyone could relate to. It’s ironic that, even after watering down Lem’s themes so much, the film still wasn’t simple enough or accessible enough for mainstream audiences, who apparently don’t want even the barest hint of challenging material getting in the way of their sappy romance. But ultimately, all Soderbergh’s film offers is that hint, the suggestion of deeper themes that he borrowed from Lem or Tarkovsky, and which were much more thoroughly explored in both previous takes on this story.

JB: “Maudlin”? “Dwell”? Thems fightin’ words! But I’ll respond to those jabs later. For the moment, let’s focus on the general thrust of Soderbergh’s adaptation. Is it a romance above all else? Absolutely! But let’s be realistic about those sci-fi trappings. “Incidental” or not to the romance’s evolution, they have a significant impact on the mood. This is, after all, a love story that unfolds in the surgical chill of a space station, with the hum of the ship’s operating systems routinely filling our ears. This environment hardly offers the typical ambience for a romance. I presume you’d agree with that.

Furthermore, Solaris is by no means “irrelevant.” Does the planet consume the attention of each scene? No. But it’s the key to everything that happens. And since Solaris itself cannot emote, we learn about it through what happens to Kelvin. I can see how the unveiling of the title at the end of the film might feel overly dramatic, particularly if it’s a reminder of all that Soderbergh’s adaptation isn’t. But, dude, we just finished debating Undertow. Let’s not get picky on titles. Besides, Solaris is to Soderbergh’s film what the titular wardrobe is to the first episode of the Narnia series. It doesn’t speak and it isn’t the center of attention, but we never forget it. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a character in the film, but I think you underestimate its influence over everything that happens.

In response to your earlier pondering on the topic, yes, Solaris would be irrevocably altered if Rheya were just a figure of Kelvin’s imagination on Earth. Under that design, this would be a story of Kelvin’s sanity (or lack thereof), because even if Rheya seemed to be “really there” by virtue of some inexplicable magic, like Patrick Swayze’s character in Ghost, she still wouldn’t be “really there,” and we’d know that. (Fuck. Did I just refer to Ghost?) The Solaris construct changes the recipe in a subtle but significant way. Here Rheya is a wholly “real” creation of Solaris, even if she isn’t actually Rheya. Still, undoubtedly, she’s there. Kelvin can see her, and so can the other members of the crew. Thus, Soderbergh’s film stops being a question of if this is really happening and, through its romance, the film quickly becomes an ethical examination of what to do about it. If the same events unfolded on Earth, insanity would be the root of Rheya’s appearance to Kelvin in the first place. Here, Kelvin is fully sane when Rheya arrives, and the debate becomes whether or not he should willingly and knowingly give himself over to the insanity of pretending that this faux Rheya is the real thing.

Is this what Lem’s Solaris is about? I don’t have a clue. I haven’t read it. But, as I suggested in our Undertow discussion, a good filmmaker “borrows what works and then adds to it, enhances it, reinvents it.” If as a fan of the original material you’re upset that neither Tarkovsky nor Soderbergh fully captures the complexity or the spirit of Lem’s work, fair enough. To look at it another way, Batman wouldn’t be Batman if you failed to include Gotham, the Batmobile and arch villains and instead told the story of a guy in a funny black suit who lived in Malibu, drove a Mustang and played poker all day. On that note, maybe Soderbergh did drift too far away from Lem. I wouldn’t know. Then again, if Tarkovsky was justified in calling his film an adaptation of Lem, then Soderbergh is, too.

These two films are different, without question. They even have different aims. But they’re in a similar orbit. I’d argue that the reason Tarkovsky’s film seems more dedicated to the scientific concepts of Lem is because his picture is less successful at conjuring human emotion. I’d argue that Tarkovsky’s film doesn’t go into greater depth, just into greater length (169 could-hardly-be-slower minutes vs. a lean 99). I’d argue that Soderbergh’s film is indeed “heady” and “philosophical,” it just might not seem that way, because Soderbergh weaves these elements into the tragic love story of Kelvin and Rheya, rather than resorting to overt references of Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky. But I’m prepared for you to tell me I’m wrong.

EH: I’m willing to admit that I may have overstated the irrelevance of Solaris and the space station setting to the film’s love story. And it’s certainly possible that to some extent I’m just disappointed that Soderbergh doesn’t do more justice to Lem’s ideas—though despite my similar issues with Tarkovsky’s film, I think it is unquestionably better and more complex than Soderbergh’s. Tarkovsky has substantially different concerns from Lem but the film is interesting in its own right. Soderbergh’s take on this story is distinct from both Tarkovsky’s and Lem’s, and that’s fine, as long as he’s purposefully going somewhere different. I can only assume he is, that there’s something motivating this film, but I’m not quite sure what ideas are actually being expressed.

Yes, there are tangential references to the encounter with the unknown, the mystery of Solaris, but they’re throwaways, relegated to the background like Lem’s great “mirrors” line: traces of the original story poking through here and there, that’s all. So if Soderbergh isn’t dealing with the ideas of Lem’s novel in any rigorous fashion, then what ideas is he exploring? It’s a perfectly valid choice to bring one’s own concerns and themes to the process of adapting another’s work—Tarkovsky injected a level of spiritual and theological inquiry into his Solaris that was hardly as pertinent for Lem—but this film doesn’t leave me with any profound sense of what Soderbergh saw in this story, why he thought it was so important to put his own stamp on it.

In the Salon review you quoted above, Andrew O’Hehir says that Soderbergh’s concerns are primarily formal, that he’s not deeply invested in the plot or ideas, and I think that’s about right. The film is visually striking and impeccably designed, but its beauty seems somehow empty: slick and sterile. You called the film an “ethical examination,” but of what exactly? The ethical dilemmas in both Lem and Tarkovsky had weight and substance; Soderbergh reduces everything to Gordon’s (Viola Davis) line, “Whatever it is, it’s not human and I’m threatened by that. And I want humans to win.” That kind of silly, overwritten line basically sums up my problems with Soderbergh’s film, independently of my disappointment with it as an adaptation: its themes are blunt and obvious, trafficking in the kind of “us vs. them” human/alien dichotomies that have driven countless science fiction films before it. So many of the supposed “heady” moments in this film consist simply of shouting matches between Gordon and Kelvin about whether the visitors are “real” or not. A lot of it reminded me of the debates that often take place in stories about artificial intelligence—like the Terminator films. The love story is conventional beneath its unusual exterior, but ultimately the science fiction elements in the film are even more conventional.

Indeed, the choices Soderbergh makes consistently seem designed to drain the premise of its inherent mystery and uniqueness. It starts as soon as Kelvin arrives on the spaceship, when Snow (Jeremy Davies) and Gordon are far more forthcoming than they were in either previous version, giving the opening this weird, anticlimactic atmosphere as the two of them simply pour out exposition, deflating the sense of mystery and tension. Davies is a great actor within his particular niche—currently proving on Lost that he’s the go-to guy for twitchy, nutty scientists—and he’s fun to watch as always, but his character is just another example of Soderbergh seemingly changing things just for the sake of changing them. He sheds all the abstracted and mysterious things that character says about his visitor in both previous versions of the story—intriguing hints that the ocean is not necessarily drawing only memories from the humans’ minds—for the sake of a pointless twist that I guess is meant to add shock to the climax.

I know I keep coming back to the differences between Soderbergh’s film and its predecessors, and it probably seems like I’m just the usual bitter fan upset about a remake. I’m not, really; I would’ve been very happy had Soderbergh done something different with this story and done it well. But I think the choices he made in adapting Solaris reveal the limits of his vision. There are just too many places where his changes add nothing and elide a great deal, where he seems to be aiming only at expediency, at streamlining the story’s themes, at jazzing up (and sexing up) its narrative.

JB: OK, well, let’s start with the expediency. You suggested that the cut-to-the-chase conversation between Kelvin and Snow creates an “anticlimactic atmosphere,” but I don’t see it that way at all. For me, one of the refreshing elements of Soderbergh’s version is the way that Kelvin asks all the questions that we would ask, and in about the same order that we would ask them. Yes, the early exposition resolves without difficulty many of the riddles that go unconfronted to the point of absurdity in Tarkovsky’s film. Yet it creates riddles at the same time. As if marching to the commands of Syd Field, the first 15-minute segment of Soderbergh’s screenplay introduces Kelvin and the space station, lays the foundation for the effect of Solaris and then dangles a mystery: “I could tell you what’s happening. But I don’t know if that would really tell you what’s happening.”

This isn’t anticlimactic. It’s enticing. Soon after, Kelvin, who clearly has an inkling of what he might encounter at the space station, finds himself struggling to reconcile the difference between what he knows to be untrue and what he desperately wants to be real. As I said earlier, Kelvin’s ethical dilemma is whether to give in to the illusion. One might compare his struggle with that of an addict who knows that the right thing to do is to stay clean but that greater pleasure might be found in a drug-fueled haze. Human nature attracts us not to what’s “right” but to what feels best. In this case, human nature draws Kelvin to something that isn’t human. There’s some irony there.

Now, before I go further let me compare this to Tarkovsky’s version, where it takes until the 2-hour mark for the words “copy” and “matrix” to be uttered. In that film, Kelvin comes across as hardly human. Upon arriving at the space station, he sees a woman he knows shouldn’t be there and a boy he knows shouldn’t be there… and he has no reaction to this whatsoever. The most mysterious element of Tarkovsky’s version isn’t Solaris, it’s that Kelvin goes out of his way to avoid asking questions that might result in advancing the plot or addressing the elephant in the room. (If Tarkovsky’s Kelvin found a woman lying on the sidewalk, hemorrhaging from her eyes, he’d stop to ask her about her earrings. It’s maddening.)

In contrast, by not wasting time, Soderbergh’s Solaris is able to provide a depth to Rheya that isn’t found in Tarkovsky’s film. It provides what could be considered an early commentary on the ethics of human cloning. It explores some of the same mind vs. soul ponderings that power Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It reveals long before Michael Clayton how fascinating it can be to watch a George Clooney character think. And all the while Soderbergh’s Solaris demonstrates the challenge of facing unpleasant reality. The planet Solaris is preying on the crew’s vulnerabilities, weaving together visitors from the fibers of the hosts’ memories and emotions. This isn’t a battle of “us vs. them.” It’s a battle of us vs. ourselves. In that respect, I agree with you that much of the conflict might hinge on a line from Gordon. I just disagree about the line. For me, it’s about Gordon’s need to regain control. “I want to stop it,” she says.

EH: See, I think pretty much any Gordon line is problematic, because the character is such an amalgam of sci-fi action movie “tough guy” clichés, which needless to say is really jarring in a film that’s otherwise so low-key. She’s the character who Soderbergh changed the most, and as with most of his choices, I’m not sure why: Tarkovsky’s Sartorious is less an erstwhile action hero and more an ornery man of science who, though unsympathetic, is genuinely thinking through these problems. That’s what gives the conversations between him and Kelvin such an intellectual charge in Tarkovsky’s film, something that’s sorely missing here. Tarkovsky makes the conflict between Sartorious and Kelvin an argument between rationality and spirituality, with neither obviously having the upper hand. The tension between Gordon and Kelvin is much more prosaic. Clooney’s Kelvin may ask more questions than Donatis Banionis’ Kelvin, but that’s because Clooney gets such improbably lucid and coherent answers from the people he asks, whereas in the earlier film Snaut and Sartorious seem genuinely frazzled and distant, as though in a sleepwalking daze. It’s not that Kelvin doesn’t react in the earlier film, but that he quickly realizes he’s not going to get any worthwhile answers from the people on the station. And when the characters finally begin talking later in the film, what they have to say is so much more interesting than the routine exposition of Soderbergh’s script. At one point, Tarkovsky’s Snaut tells Kelvin, “Don’t turn a scientific problem into a love story,” a piece of advice that Soderbergh might have taken more seriously in making this film.

That said, I like the way you unpack the themes of Soderbergh’s Solaris; I just wish I could agree that the film is as deep and complex as you insist it is. I wish I’d seen the film that you apparently did. I did enjoy Clooney and the unconventionally beautiful McElhone, and in fact the performances are worthwhile in general, with the exception of Davis, who’s hamstrung by some really blunt writing. I also think it’s intriguing that Soderbergh shifts some of the emphasis of the story onto Rheya herself, trying to get inside of her head, tracing her thought process as she tries to understand who or what she is. That’s interesting, but ultimately all Soderbergh does with the idea is use it as an excuse to tell the love story through multiple, lengthy flashbacks to Kelvin and Rheya’s life on Earth. Also interesting is an idea that Soderbergh introduces late in the film but, typically, doesn’t explore: the suggestion that this incarnation of Rheya is somehow different from the real woman because Kelvin has remembered her “wrong,” that her personality is crafted from his mind and thus subject to the distortions and nostalgic tendencies and selectivity of memory. Like so many of the film’s best ideas, though, it’s brought up in passing and then allowed to slip away without delving into it further.

In contrast, Tarkovsky’s film centers the drama around the question of what it means to be human. Is it our capacity for love? Our independence? Our intellect? Our thirst for knowledge? Our sympathy for fellow beings? Our spiritual longings? And though Tarkovsky spends far less time than Soderbergh considering things from the visitor’s perspective, I think the earlier film is actually just as effective in exploring her internal conflicts and questions. Tarkovsky’s Hari slowly becomes more human as she spends more time with Kelvin, and her dawning awareness of her unique situation is, to me, just as poignant and affecting in the earlier film as in the later one, despite the fact that Soderbergh spends so much more time with Rheya. It’s a kind of Pinocchio tale: am I a real girl now? Soderbergh is ostensibly dealing with similar issues but keeps getting bogged down in the details of the tragic romance instead.

JB: Right. Soderbergh’s film is “bogged down” in the romance—because Kelvin is bogged down in the romance. Clooney’s character is making the very mistake that Snaut warns against in the first film. He’s confusing a scientific problem with a love story. Appropriately, Soderbergh’s adaptation reflects Kelvin’s internal struggle. The flashbacks to life on Earth aren’t just background. More significantly, they reveal the foreground of Kelvin’s thoughts and feelings. And that’s what I love about this film. I positively ache for Kelvin and his conundrum. Here’s a man who has spent years yearning to be with this person while disbelieving in an afterlife that would make that possible. Then, by virtue of some unexplained phenomenon, Rheya arrives. Yet as soon as she does, Kelvin can’t help thinking about how he lost her in the first place. (As you just indicated, this new Rheya can never be her own self, because her DNA is made up of Kelvin’s memories. She is doomed.)

One of the things I’m finding intriguing about this discussion is that I cherish the element of Solaris that you seem to most despise: the film’s unwillingness to complete its numerous thematic and philosophical explorations. For me, this format engages the audience, forcing us to fill in the blanks. These are open-ended questions that Soderbergh’s film is asking. And whereas Tarkovsky allows ample time for rumination, Soderbergh never lets us get settled, which is part of the reason why the film lingers in my imagination while managing to feel new each time I watch it (and I’d say I’ve seen it at least once a year since it was released in 2002). There are many elements of this film worth exploring in depth that, no, Soderbergh doesn’t resolve and that, no, I haven’t resolved yet either—part of the reason being that Soderbergh doesn’t give me enough time. In that respect, Solaris is the philosophical equivalent of another sci-fi film from the past 10 years that I adore, Danny Boyle’s suspense-crazed Sunshine, which spends 107 minutes following one near-disaster with another so as to keep us in the moment. Does that make Soderbergh’s picture Philosophy Lite, compared to Tarkovsky’s adaptation and Lem’s original story? I’m sure it does. But so what? I think Soderbergh’s motive with Solaris is similar to that of Charlie Kaufman with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which came along more than a year later. Solaris utilizes an atypical premise to knock us out of our comfort zone and give us a fresh perspective on otherwise weary themes.

EH: Yeah, we seem to have run up against one of those situations where we essentially agree on what the film is doing, but can’t agree on whether it’s a good thing or not. I find the open-endedness of Soderbergh’s film frustrating rather than enticing. It hasn’t lingered in my imagination or made me want to fill in the blanks; I’ve just found myself wishing there had been more there in the film itself, more substance, more time to think about the issues raised by Kelvin’s predicament. It’s why I still believe, for all its flaws, Tarkovsky’s Solaris is the superior film. It’s got nothing on the Lem novel, and Tarkovsky himself made better, richer films (The Mirror, Stalker), but it is a serious consideration of the issues that Tarkovsky finds in this premise.

Of course, neither adaptation quite captures the essence of Lem’s novel, but that is an entirely different issue. Indeed, it may be impossible to “faithfully” adapt that book to the screen; the only way into it is probably the route that Soderbergh and Tarkovsky took, bringing their own perspectives to bear on the basic plot. The novel is very dense, very textual and abstract. Kelvin spends a lot of time in the station’s library, reading through stacks of Solaris literature in order to review the various theories and observations about the planet by other researchers. The book is as much about Solaris as it is about Kelvin; the planet is a true character in a way it isn’t in either film. The history of humanity’s interaction with Solaris is discussed in great depth and detail. There are long passages that are strikingly impersonal and objective, using scientific jargon and meticulous cataloguing to convey the exact nature and extent of the alien ocean’s strangeness—and the exact boundaries of humanity’s understanding of it.

One source of my disappointment with Soderbergh’s adaptation is certainly the sense of missed opportunities. He presumably had access to sophisticated CGI and could’ve really explored the oceanic phenomena described so wonderfully by Lem, but instead the images of the planet in Soderbergh’s film aren’t substantially any different than what Tarkovsky achieved by crudely processing images of Earth’s oceans. They’re pictorial inserts, whereas Lem’s precise descriptions of the ocean directly engage with the special problems provoked by the ocean’s unique nature.

The book communicates a sense of wonder at the unknown, but a sense of terror as well, in that humanity is constantly seeking answers without really wanting to hear them unless they conform to what’s already known. In Lem’s book, the ocean represents a terrifying unknown so alien to human understanding that the only possible way to respond is to observe, to catalogue, to maintain an objective pose, obsessively arranging details with no hope of arriving at any deeper truths.

Given his particular obsessions, Tarkovsky naturally translated this idea into spiritual terms, using the ocean as a metaphorical God to slip by the Soviet censors, but for Lem the ocean’s unknowability is explicitly not religious or God-like. Kelvin himself rejects the idea late in the novel. Lem is more interested in the metaphysical implications of it all, the idea that the pursuit of “progress” is actually just man’s search for himself. The ocean represents a challenge to humanity, something so un-human as to be beyond our ability to comprehend, beyond any question of divining its intentions or reasons or “intellect.” I’m not sure Tarkovsky gets this idea across, and I know Soderbergh doesn’t; both directors are way more interested in exploring Kelvin’s reactions to his visitor and the feelings of loss and guilt awakened in him by her presence.

There’s a reason that even most of the aliens in our fantasies and sci-fi tend to be humanoid or at least demonstrate recognizable human behaviors and motivations. It’s rare that our science fiction features a truly unfathomable creation like Solaris; instead, our imaginations keep devising endless variations on ourselves, disguised and reworked. Even in books and movies, we travel halfway across the universe to encounter a mirror. It’s thus ironic but not especially surprising that both directors who have adapted Solaris, in very different cultural and commercial contexts, have responded by psychologizing the central problem, making it about human emotions and reactions rather than the humbling encounter with an impenetrable alien intelligence. This only proves Lem’s point: we humans are extraordinarily skittish in confronting that which is truly outside us.

JB: We agree on that. Indeed, whether it’s due to fear, ego, lack of imagination or something else, we seem to be seeking mirrors. At least, that’s what much of our art suggests. I think it’s funny, with all that we know about space and science today, that we still tend to imagine that the discovery of alien life—or alien life’s discovery of us—will unfold in the same manner as Columbus reaching the New World. This seems increasingly unlikely.

If you’d kindly indulge me for a moment: The sci-fi movie I’m waiting for wouldn’t involve space expeditions or high tech machinery. Instead, one day people across the East Coast would notice in the night sky a strange light that would look like a distant planet except that it would flicker, almost like Morse code. The point of light would narrow until it was almost unnoticeable and then it would widen again. It would do this repeatedly all night, and humans would be transfixed by it. By morning, there would be no doubt that this light was something else. People on the West Coast and all around the world would see the light, too. Two days later scientists would admit that they didn’t know anything, couldn’t explain anything. But, with studies ongoing, everyone would agree that this was a signal from some other world. Some would say that this light forecasted immanent doom, and others would suggest that it was the first message in a hopefully peaceful relationship that, due to the enormity of space, might evolve for generations before it led to any kind of face-to-face encounter. But everyone would agree that man wasn’t alone in the universe. With no way to decode the message, the light would communicate only that something smarter than us, something more advanced than us and something more aware than us was reaching out to us. This would be heavy. Imagine yourself in that scenario. Imagine if tomorrow you encountered undeniable evidence that some life form more advanced than man was out there watching us. Every other element in your life would be exactly the same as it is right now except for this one monumental and yet presently innocuous change. How would you react? How would I? How would anyone? What would it mean? I think that would make for an interesting film. But I digress.

I mention all of that because I think that germ of a story, within the context of our larger conversation, indicates how staunchly we believe ourselves to be the most advanced species in existence and how truly stunned we’d be if we were proven incorrect. Lem’s story, as you describe it, has unique qualities, I give you that. But in the end it’s just like any other sci-fi yarn in that it asks us to buy into something greater than man. Deep down, I’m not sure most of us are capable of believing such a thing—God-fearers excluded. And so while I respect all the ways that Soderbergh seems to have abandoned Lem’s intent as you’ve outlined it, in the end doesn’t he get it right? If the unfathomable Solaris is the device that reveals the fraudulence of man’s search for progress, then isn’t Solaris the ultimate mirror within which man is reflected back at himself? Isn’t Lem’s Solaris a story about man after all?

EH: Of course it is. As we’ve both suggested, we humans are probably not capable, psychologically or cognitively or whatever, of telling stories that aren’t about ourselves. It’s hard to even imagine what other kinds of stories we would tell. I suppose Lem’s as trapped by that as any of the rest of us, and so are you in the very interesting story you outlined above, which is, yet again, all about humanity’s reaction to aliens. I think the interesting thing about Lem’s Solaris is that it acknowledges being trapped by this limitation, it is in fact all about this limitation, about humanity’s oft-ignored limits and boundaries. It’s about our belief in our thought processes, our certainty in the scientific method, and about what happens when we encounter something that cannot be understood, something that simply ties our brains in knots trying to decode it or communicate with it. In a very literal way in Lem’s novel, Solaris is the blinking light in the sky that you describe above; it inspires decades of research and theorizing and just sits there, doing its own strange thing, through it all. What makes Lem’s novel unique is not that it gets beyond a human perspective, which is impossible for us, but that it directly engages with the limits of the human perspective.

Compare it, for example, to 2001: A Space Odyssey, that old sci-fi warhorse, in which we travel across the universe, through a wormhole to who knows where, only to encounter, ultimately, a giant human baby. Talk about mirrors. The implication of the film is that the entire history of the universe is driving towards creating some kind of refined form of humanity. Even HAL has a human personality with very human motivations and instincts; that’s precisely what makes him so dangerous. It’s ironic then that Tarkovsky’s film was a response to Kubrick’s 2001, which Tarkovsky deemed too inhuman, too cold and clinical. He wanted to make a film about space travel that focused more on human emotions and psychology as affected by space and the prospect of alien life. But the film also contains a very interesting scene that echoes Kubrick’s space baby, when Kelvin watches a video in which a frazzled space pilot describes seeing the giant form of a human baby being constructed on the surface of Solaris. In Tarkovsky’s film, it’s just a way of exciting interest about the alien planet, a shorthand method of communicating just how weird the place is. In Lem’s novel, it’s more explicit that this incident is the planet’s first trial run of sorts for extracting memories from human minds; the baby is the result of a very creepy “psychic dissection” process. Thus, though both 2001 and Solaris involve traveling across space to encounter an image of a human child, the implications of the two scenes are very different: one assumes human superiority while the other is rather conclusive evidence of something greater than us.

Another figure to think about in relation to all this is Dr. Manhattan, the most fascinating conceptual character from Alan Moore’s Watchmen. He’s an ordinary guy who, after a lab accident that seemingly disintegrates him, reconstitutes himself as this glowing blue inhuman being with tremendous powers. He’s different from other superheroes in that what’s interesting about him is not actually his power, but the way his experience alters his outlook on life and the universe. He becomes distanced from humanity, from emotions, and comes to believe that subatomic particles only he can see are as valuable and beautiful as the entirety of human life, that inanimate rock formations on Mars dwarf all the achievements of man. Maybe that’s the key to getting beyond a human perspective. It’s hard for us to imagine valuing an infinitesimal quark as highly as even a single human life, let alone all life, but that perspective is certainly one step towards the incommunicative distance of the ocean on Solaris.

JB: I haven’t had time yet to see Watchmen, and I didn’t read the graphic novel, but I’m glad you’ve brought up 2001. I wonder if Kubrick’s space baby a) reveals an uninspired storyteller (Pauline Kael called 2001 “monumentally unimaginative”), b) acquiesces to the limited adaptability of audiences in a way David Lynch rarely does, or c) intentionally comments on man’s repeated insistence to figure human life as we know it into any rendering of progress (fuck Darwin, I guess).

As we float farther away from Solaris itself, I’m reminded of a concept that has been raised before in books ranging from Colin McGinn’s The Power of Movies to Chuck Klosterman’s Killing Yourself to Live. In a nutshell, does the way we dream enable our ability to understand movies, or have movies (and television) shaped the way we dream? Watching films, are we able to follow immediate (one-cut) leaps in time and space because our dreams include similar leaps? Or do our dreams include such leaps because of the impact of cinema and television? Put another way: Did primordial man dream about anything other than what he knew firsthand—the search for food, the fight for survival—in linear episodes? If so, when did that change?

For the moment, these are rhetorical questions. I’m not looking to send us down a rabb—, er, wormhole. But this transformation of human understanding is what Kubrick is getting at in the moment when the obelisk first appears in 2001. At some point, this scene suggests, human (or pre-human) awareness went beyond what we actually knew firsthand. Then again, as the conclusion of 2001 proves, there’s a limit to what we can imagine. More often than not, we build our otherworldly visions out of familiar materials that we have stockpiled on “islands of memory,” to borrow a phrase from Tarkovsky’s film that should keep this conversation from drifting endlessly into space.

Before I miss the opportunity, I want to be sure to say that I admire Tarkovsky’s film, especially in light of the obstacles he faced in the form of government censors. His film is indeed less inhuman, less cold and less clinical than 2001. (Of course, so is a morgue.) There are many elements of Tarkovsky’s Solaris that succeed in revealing the human spirit—the evolution of Hari (Tarkovsky’s Rheya) being my favorite. Yet while I acknowledge that Tarkovsky’s Solaris is of a different era and a different culture, there’s a hollowness to many of its scenes that makes it hard to get close to. Additionally, I question the decision to spend almost 45 minutes on Earth at the start of the story, because I don’t believe it achieves Tarkovsky’s stated intent, which was to make us long for home once the story reached space. In the Earth scenes, Kelvin is seen at a pleasant cottage that sits next to a tranquil pond, around which he likes to take walks, with a horse roaming free on the grounds. Removed from the film, it’s a rather idyllic setting. But something about the way Tarkovsky films these scenes makes it seem like Kelvin is confined there under house arrest. In any case, when Kelvin leaves Earth for the space station it feels to me like liberation—though perhaps that reveals my own impatience.

Is Soderbergh’s film better than Tarkovsky’s, or the other way around? To me it’s apples and oranges. The scenarios in which the films were made are too different. It would be like comparing a baseball slugger’s stats in the recent (current?) steroids era to those of a hitter in the “dead-ball era” of the early 1900s. In terms of reflecting Lem’s original story, it sounds as if Tarkovsky has the edge, though perhaps only slightly. If I understand you correctly, Lem’s Solaris is about the process as much as anything, the same way that All the President’s Men is about what Woodward and Bernstein do to uncover Watergate more so than it’s about what they uncover; I don’t think either Solaris film gets at that. Still, on its own terms, I find Soderbergh’s Solaris to be nearly flawless. It’s on the short list of films from the past decade that remain as engrossing to me today as it was on my initial viewing. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the score by Cliff Martinez, which is nearly as significant to the effectiveness of this picture as Clint Mansell’s Kronos Quartet-powered score is to The Fountain (for my money, the best score of this young century), but mostly I think the film succeeds because Soderbergh takes so many compelling dramatic elements and philosophical teasers and forces them through a tiny aperture. I see how coming to Soderbergh’s picture having already been exposed to Lem and Tarkovsky has a way of revealing what his Solaris isn’t. But coming from the other direction, I can’t help loving what it is.

EH: Well said. You’re right that Lem’s Solaris is about the (thought) process as much as anything, with the emphasis on concepts rather than characters. Neither film captures that, and really why should they? Neither Tarkovsky nor Soderbergh were setting out to make a Zack Snyder-style “faithful” adaptation of Lem’s work, but to create original aesthetic statements of their own using the novel as source material. You’re also right that even the two films, though similar in some ways, are fairly distinct in terms of their intentions and aesthetics. Tarkovsky’s film certainly has its problems, and I’d agree that the long opening section on Earth doesn’t really achieve what the director wanted it to: Kelvin is just so obviously miserable, sleepwalking through life, that the beautiful surroundings hardly create an idyllic portrait of life on Earth. One gets the sense that it doesn’t matter to Kelvin where he is. Still, there’s a sensual quality to these early scenes—like the one where Kelvin stands outside in a rainstorm and Tarkovsky lingers on the impacts of raindrops in a teacup—that does provide a meaningful contrast to the coldness of the Solaris station and the isolation of space. I think the early scenes are crucially important for letting us slowly acclimate to the texture of Kelvin’s life, getting a feel for his loneliness and depression and, simultaneously, his appreciation of simple sensual pleasures. It doesn’t make us long for home, that’s true, but it does align us with the film’s sad sack protagonist, and it adds poignancy to the later scenes of Kelvin’s dreamlike nostalgia for his mother, and his conflation of her with Hari—scenes that, like the lengthy opening, weren’t in the book at all.

As for Soderbergh’s Solaris, maybe I just can’t escape approaching it through the lens of the two other versions of this story, but this, not the Tarkovsky film, is the one that feels “hollow” to me. There are plenty of things to like here, of course. Martinez’s propulsive Philip Glass-like score is one of them, though few scores could match the ethereal beauty of Eduard Artemyev’s ANS synthesizer score to the first film, one of the greatest electronic scores of all time. Soderbergh for the most part gets richer and more complex performances than the flatter acting of Tarkovsky’s cast. The imagery is often stunning. I just can’t get past the impression that the film is lovingly crafted but ultimately empty, presenting a beautiful surface that’s as slick and impenetrable as the oscillations of Solaris’ ocean.

Jason Bellamy ruminates on cinema at The Cooler.

Ed Howard chronicles his film viewing at Only the Cinema.

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Watch the Trailer for Ava DuVernay’s Netflix Series When They See Us

Netflix will release the series on May 31.

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When They See Us
Photo: Netflix

In 1989, the rape and near-murder of Trisha Meili in Central Park rocked the nation. A little over a year later, a jury convicted five juvenile males—four African-American and one Hispanic—to prison sentences ranging from five to 15 years. In the end, the defendants spent between six and 13 years behind bars. Flashforward to 2002, after four of the five defendants had left prison, and Matias Reyes, a convicted murder and serial rapist serving a lifetime prison term, came forward and confessed to raping Meili. DNA evidence confirmed his guilt, and proved what many already knew about the so-called “Central Park jogger case”: that the police investigation of Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise, conducted at the beginning of the Giuliani era in New York City, was motivated less by a thirst for justice than it was by racial animus.

Last year, Oscar-nominated Selma filmmaker Ava DuVernay announced that she would be making a series based on the infamous case, and since then hasn’t been shy, on Twitter and elsewhere, about saying that she will be putting Donald J. Trump in her crosshairs. Trump, way back in 1989, ran an ad in the Daily News advocating the return of the death penalty, and as recently as 2016, claimed that McCray, Richardson, Salaam, Santana, and Wise are guilty of the crime for which they were eventually exonerated—behavior consistent with a presidential campaign that, like the case against the Central Park Five, was a full-time racist dog whistle.

Today, Netflix dropped the trailer for When They See Us, which stars Michael K. Williams, Vera Farmiga, John Leguizamo, Felicity Huffman, Niecy Nash, Blair Underwood, Christopher Jackson, Joshua Jackson, Omar J. Dorsey, Adepero Oduye, Famke Janssen, Aurora Perrineau, William Sadler, Jharrel Jerome, Jovan Adepo, Aunjanue Ellis, Kylie Bunbury, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Storm Reid, Dascha Polanco, Chris Chalk, Freddy Miyares, Justin Cunningham, Ethan Herisse, Caleel Harris, Marquis Rodriguez, and Asante Blackk.

According to the official description of the series:

Based on a true story that gripped the country, When They See Us will chronicle the notorious case of five teenagers of color, labeled the Central Park Five, who were convicted of a rape they did not commit. The four part limited series will focus on the five teenagers from Harlem—Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise. Beginning in the spring of 1989, when the teenagers were first questioned about the incident, the series will span 25 years, highlighting their exoneration in 2002 and the settlement reached with the city of New York in 2014.

See the trailer below:

Netflix will release When They See Us on May 31.

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Review: The Curse of La Llorona Is More Laugh Riot than Fright Fest

With The Curse of La Llorona, the Conjuring universe has damned itself to an eternal cycle of rinse and repeat.

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The Curse of La Llorona
Photo: Warner Bros.

Michael Chaves’s The Curse of La Llorona opens in 17th-century Mexico with an all-too-brief rundown of the legend of La Llorona. This weeping woman (Marisol Ramirez) is quickly established as a mother who, in a fit of jealousy, drowned her two children in order punish her cheating husband. And after immediately regretting her actions, she commits suicide, forever damning herself to that liminal space between the land of the living and the dead, to snatch up wandering children to replace her own.

Flash-forward to 1973 Los Angeles, where we instantly recognize an echo of La Llorana’s parental anxieties in Anna Garcia (Linda Cardellini), a widowed mother of two who struggles to balance the demands of her job as a social worker for Child Protective Services and the pressures of adjusting to single parenthood. One might expect such parallels to be further expanded upon by The Curse of La Llorona, but it quickly becomes evident that the filmmakers are less interested in character development, narrative cohesion, or the myth behind La Llorona than in lazily transposing the film’s big bad into the Conjuring universe.

It’s no surprise, then, that La Llorona, with her beady yellow eyes, blood-drained skin, and rotted mouth and fingernails is virtually indistinguishable from the antagonist from Corin Hardy’s The Nun; just swap out the evil nun’s tunic and habit for a decaying wedding dress and you’d never know the difference. Even more predictably, The Curse of La Llorona relies heavily on a near-ceaseless barrage of jump scares, creaking doors and loud, shrieking noises as La Llorona first terrorizes and murders the detained children of one of Anna’s clients (Patricia Velasquez), before then moving on to haunting Anna and her kids (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen and Roman Christou). But this family is so thinly conceived and their behavior so careless and illogical in the face of a known force of evil that viewers may find themselves less terrified by La Llorona than overjoyed by her reign of terror.

Once Rafael (Raymond Cruz), a curandero whose healing powers promise to lift La Llorona’s curse, arrives on the scene, the film makes a few concessions to Mexican cultural rituals, as well as offers brief but welcome respites of humor. But after the man rubs down the Garcia house with eggs and protects its borders with palo santo and fire tree seeds, The Curse of La Llorona continues unabated as a rote scare-a-thon. Every extended moment of silence and stillness is dutifully disrupted by sudden, overemphatic bursts of sound and fury that are meant to frighten us but are more likely to leave you feeling bludgeoned into submission.

All the while, any notions of motherhood, faith within and outside of the Catholic Church, and Mexican folklore that surface at one point or another are rendered both moot and undistinctive in the midst of so much slavish worshipping at the altar of franchise expansion. Indeed, by the time Annabelle’s Father Perez (Tony Amendola) pays a house visit in order to dutifully spout exposition about the series’s interconnected religious elements, it becomes clear that the Conjuring universe is damned to an eternal cycle of rinse and repeat.

Cast: Linda Cardellini, Roman Christou, Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen, Raymond Cruz, Marisol Ramirez, Patricia Velasquez, Sean Patrick Thomas, Tony Amendola Director: Michael Chaves Screenwriter: Mikki Daughtry, Tobias Iaconis Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 93 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: David Bordwell’s Reinventing Hollywood & W.K. Stratton’s The Wild Bunch

Stratton goes beyond the production of Sam Peckinpah’s film, on to its impact and reception and legacy.

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Reinventing Hollywood

The 1940s were the decade in which Hollywood attained what we now term “classical” status, when the innovations and developments of cinema’s formative years coalesced into a high level of sophistication across all areas—technological, visual, narrative. The narrative element is the focus of Reinventing Hollywood, film historian and University of Wisconsin-Madison professor David Bordwell’s latest deep dive into the aesthetics of film.

Bordwell begins with a series of questions: “What distinctive narrative strategies emerged in the 1940s? Where did they come from? How did various filmmakers use them? How did the innovations change the look and sound of films?” He then proceeds with quite thorough answers across 500-plus pages. The narrative developments were gradual and cumulative. While the earliest narrative cinema was static and stagebound, inheriting principles of storytelling from theater and the most basic novelistic tendencies, a richer narrativity developed throughout the 1930s, when the visual language of silent cinema melded with the oral/aural elements of “talkies” to create a more systemized approach to narrative filmmaking.

As Bordwell notes at one point in Reinventing Hollywood, “[p]rinciples of characterization and plot construction that grew up in the 1910s and 1920s were reaffirmed in the early sound era. Across the same period there emerged a clear-cut menu of choices pertaining to staging, shooting and cutting scenes.” In short, it was the process whereby “talkies” became just “movies.” Narrative techniques specifically morphed and solidified throughout the ‘30s, as screenwriters and filmmakers pushed their way toward the discovery of a truly classical style.

While the idea of a menu of set choices may sound limiting, in reality the options were numerous, as filmmakers worked out a process of invention through repetition and experimentation and refinement. Eventually these narrative properties and principles became conventionalized—not in a watered-down or day-to-day way, but rather codified or systematized, where a sort of stock set of narrative devices were continually reworked, revamped, and re-energized. It’s what Bordwell calls “an inherited pattern” or “schema.”

Also in the ‘40s, many Hollywood films traded in what Bordwell terms “mild modernism”—a kind of light borrowing from other forms and advances in so-called high modernism, such as surrealism or stream-of-consciousness narratives like James Joyce’s Ulysses: high-art means for popular-art ends (Salvador Dalí’s work on Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound being a notable example). These techniques included omniscient point of view, the novelistic ability to traverse time and space (ideally suited for cinema), and involved flashback or dream sequences. This “borrowing of storytelling techniques from adjacent arts […] encouraged a quick cadence of schema and revision,” an environment of “…novelty at almost any price.”

Such novelties included “aggregate” films that overlaid a plethora of storytelling techniques, such as Sam Wood’s 1940 adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, which employed multiple protagonists, complex flashback sequences, and voiceover narration drawn from the most advanced theater. Perhaps no other film embodied these “novelties” so sharply as Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, an “aggressive aggregate” that amounts to a specifically cinematic yet total work of art, weaving together not only narrative techniques such as multiple character or “prismatic” flashbacks (screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz’s term), but also drawing on elements from music, painting, and photography, as well as Welles’s first loves, theater and radio. In some ways, Citizen Kane may be seen as a kind of fulcrum film, incorporating nearly all that had come before it and anticipating most everything after.

Though Bordwell references the familiar culprits—Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, and, of course, Citizen Kane—he doesn’t just stick with the A films, as he goes deep into the B’s (and even some C’s and D’s), in an effort to show the wide-ranging appeal and effectiveness of these narrative models no matter their technical execution. He also alternates chapters with what he calls Interludes—that is, more intensive readings illustrating a preceding chapter’s discussion, homing in on specific films, genres and filmmakers, and not always the ones which one might expect. There’s an interlude on Joseph Mankiewicz, for example, a sort of intellectual master of multi-protagonist films like All About Eve and The Barefoot Contessa, and the truly original Preston Sturges, whose films pushed narrative norms to their absolute limits. There’s also an intriguing interlude on the boxing picture and the resiliency of certain narrative tropes—fighter refusing to throw the fight and thus imperiled by gangsters, for example—demonstrating how Hollywood’s “narrative ecosystem played host to variants.”

Reinventing Hollywood is a dense read. Its nearly 600 pages of text, including detailed notes and index, isn’t for the academically faint at heart. Often Bordwell offers frame-by-frame, even gesture-by-gesture analyses using accompanying stills, mining synoptic actions and tropes across multiple films of the era. The book can read strictly pedagogical at times, but overall, Bordwell’s writing is clear and uncluttered by jargon. Despite its comprehensive scholarly archeology (and such sweet academic euphemism as, say, “spreading the protagonist function”), the book is leveled at anyone interested in cinematic forms and norms.

The title is telling. Clearly, narrative cinema was already invented by the time the ‘40s rolled around, but in Hollywood throughout that decade it became so systematized that it progressed into something new, indeed something that exists through today: a narrative film style that’s evocative enough to affect any single viewer and effective enough to speak to a mass audience.

Part of the charm of what was invented in the ‘40s is the malleability of the product. Narrative standards and conventions were designed for maximum variation, as well as for revision and challenge. And perhaps no decade offered more revision and challenge than the 1960s, not only to film culture but world culture as a whole. By the mid-to-late ‘60s, the old Hollywood studio system had expired, leaving in its wake a splintered version of itself. Yet despite the dissolution of the big studios, the resilience of the classical film style engendered by those studios was still evident. Popular narrative films retained the clear presentation of action borne in earlier films, however much they shuffled and reimagined patterns and standards.

One such movie that both embraced and pushed against Hollywood standards is director Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 western The Wild Bunch. It possesses such richness in both themes and execution, in form and content, that there’s a lot to mine. With its tale of a band of out-of-time outlaws scamming and lamming away their fatal last days in Mexico during the country’s revolution, it revels in and reveres western conventions as much as it revises them.

The film carries a personal elusive impact, particularly on first viewing. In The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film, journalist and historian W.K. Stratton quotes filmmaker Ron Shelton on this phenomenon: “Something was different about this movie…it was more than [just another shoot-‘em-up] but I couldn’t figure out what…I’ve been trying to answer that question ever since.” The book examines the epic making of this epic film, and goes a good way toward explaining the reasons behind the film’s unique power. Stratton is a Texan and also a poet, and both of these credentials make him perhaps the ideal candidate for exploring this pure piece of western poetry.

Stratton maps the story of the film from germ to gem. Conceived in the early ‘60s by stuntman Roy N. Sickner as a somewhat typical “outlaw gringos on the lam” story, the property evolved over the course of the ensuing years as much as the country itself. America in 1967 and ‘68 was a vastly different place than it was in ‘63. Stratton notes how “[t]he picture…would never have been filmed had not circumstances come into precise alignment. It was the product of a nation torn by divisions unseen since the Civil War, a nation that was sacrificing thousands of its young to a war in Southeast Asia…a nation numbed by political assassination…where a youthful generation was wholesale rejecting values held by their parents.”

A film made in such turbulent times required its own turbulent setting. If America had become no country for old men, and Vietnam was no country for young men, then Mexico during the revolution was no country for either. Stratton gives brisk but detailed chapters on the Mexican Revolution, filling in the tumultuous history and social geography for what would become a necessarily violent film. But just as the film could never have been made in another time, it could also have never been made without Sam Peckinpah. As Stratton notes, Peckinpah was a Hollywood rarity, a director born in the actual American West who made actual westerns, and a maverick director who, like Welles, fought against the constraints of an industry in which he was a master. Peckinpah was a rarity in other ways as well. A heavy-drinking, light-fighting proto-tough guy who was also a devotee of Tennessee Williams (“I guess I’ve learned more from Williams than anyone”), Peckinpah was a storyteller who could break your heart as well as your nose. His second feature, the very fine Ride the High Country, was tough and tender; it was also, coincidentally, another story of old outlaws running out their time.

Stratton traces the entire trajectory of the film’s making, from the start-and-stop scripting to the early involvement of Lee Marvin, right on through to every aspect of production: its much-lauded gold-dust cinematography (by Lucien Ballard, who early in his career worked on Three Stooges comedies “…because it gave him a chance to experiment with camera trickery”); the elegant violence, or violent elegance, of its editing; and its casting and costuming.

The chapters on those last two elements are particularly rewarding. Costuming is a somewhat underlooked aspect of westerns, simply because the sartorial trappings seem so generic: hats, guns, boots, and bonnets. Yet period clothing is so essential to the texture of westerns because it can, or should, convey the true down and dirtiness of the time and place, the sweat, the swill and the stench. The Wild Bunch, like all great westerns, feels filthy. Wardrobe supervisor Gordon Dawson not only had the daunting task of providing authenticity in the costumes themselves—much of them period—but of overseeing the sheer volume of turnover. Because Peckinpah “planned to make heavy use of squibbing for the movie’s shoot-outs…[e]ach time a squib went off, it ripped a whole in a costume and left a bloody stain.” Considering the overwhelming bullet count of the film, in particular the barrage of the ending, it’s no wonder that “[a]ll the costumes would have to be reused and then reused again and again.”

But perhaps no aspect was more important to the success of Peckinpah’s film than its casting. While early on in the process Marvin was set to play the lead role of Pike Bishop, the actor, thankfully, bowed out, and after the consideration of other actors for the role, including Sterling Hayden and Charlton Heston, in stepped William Holden. As good as all the other actors could be, Holden projected more of the existential weariness of the Bishop character, a condition that Marvin’s coarseness, for example, might have effaced. Stratton agrees: “There could not have been a better matching of character and actor. Holden was a…deeply troubled man, a real-life killer himself…on a conditional suspended sentence for manslaughter [for a drunk driving accident, a case that was later dropped].”

This spot-on matching of actor to role extended all the way through to the rest of the Wild Bunch: Ernest Borgnine as Pike’s sidekick, Dutch Engstrom, emanating toward Pike an anguished love and loyalty; old-time actor Edmond O’Brien as old-timer Freddie Sykes; Robert Ryan as Deke Thornton, Pike’s stoic ex-partner and now head of the pursuing posse; Jaime Sanchez as the doomed Mexican Angel; and perhaps most especially Warren Oates and Ben Johnson as the wild, vile Gorch brothers. (While Oates was a member of what might be called Peckinpah’s stock company, Johnson was an estranged member of John Ford’s.)

Along with broad, illuminating biographies of these actors, Stratton presents informative material on many of the peripheral yet vital supporting cast. Because the film is set and was filmed in Mexico, much of it verisimilitude may be credited to Mexican talent. Throughout the ‘40s and ‘50s, the Mexican film industry was second only to Hollywood in terms of quality product and critical prestige. Peckinpah drew from this talent pool for many of his film’s key characters, none more indelible than that of General Mapache (to whom the bunch sell guns and, by extension, their souls), one of the vilest, most distasteful figures in any American western. For this role, Peckinpah chose Emilio Fernández, a.k.a. El Indio, recognized and revered at that time as Mexico’s greatest director. Apparently, Fernandez’s scandalous and lascivious on-set behavior paralleled the unpredictable immorality of his character. Like almost everyone involved with this film, Fernandez was taking his part to the extreme.

Stratton goes beyond the production of The Wild Bunch, on to its impact and reception and legacy. A sensation upon its release, the film was both lauded and loathed for its raw violence, with some critics recognizing Peckinpah’s “cathartic” western for what it was, others seeing nothing but sick exploitation (including in its bloody treatment of Mexican characters). While other films of the time created similar buzz for their depiction of violence, notably Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (a film often compared to The Wild Bunch), the violence of Peckinpah’s film was as much moral as physical. All one need do is compare it to a contemporary and similarly storied film like George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a winking high-jinks movie in which, in Marvin’s resonant phrase, “no one takes a shit.”

Everyone involved with The Wild Bunch attributes its power to Peckinpah and the environment he fostered in its making. “[S]omething remarkable was occurring at…rehearsal sessions,” writes Stratton. “Under Peckinpah’s direction, the actors went beyond acting and were becoming the wild bunch and the other characters in the movie.” Warren Oates confirms this sentiment: “…it wasn’t like a play…or a TV show […] It was our life. We were doing our fucking lives right there and lived it every day […] We were there in truth.”

Stratton considers The Wild Bunch “the last Western […] It placed a tombstone on the head of the grave of the old-fashioned John Wayne [films].” One may argue with this, as evidence shows that John Wayne—especially the Wayne of John Ford westerns—is still very much alive in the popular consciousness. Yet there is a fatal finality to The Wild Bunch, a sense of something lowdown being run down. The film is complex and extreme less in its physical violence than in its moral violence, as it transposes the increasing cynicism of 1968 to an equally nihilistic era, all while maintaining a moving elegiac aura. No image or action expresses this attitude clearer and more powerfully than the bunch’s iconic sacrificial end walk, four abreast, to rescue one of their own, to murder and be murdered into myth. If the film is a tombstone, Stratton’s book is a fit inscription.

David Bordwell’s Reinventing Hollywood is now available from University of Chicago Press, and W.K. Stratton’s The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film is now available from Bloomsbury Publishing.

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Film

Review: The Heart of Someone Great Is in the Details of Female Friendship

The film plays like a mixtape of various sensibilities, partly beholden to the self-contained form of the bildungsroman.

2.5

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Someone Great
Photo: Netflix

Jennifer Kaytin Robinson’s Someone Great presents a vision of New York that makes the bustling metropolis feel like a small town. The film’s setting is a utopian playground where everyone seems to know everyone else and bumping into friends and acquaintances on the street is a regular occurrence. Robinson exploits the narrative possibilities of this framework, as all it takes for three friends, Jenny (Gina Rodriguez), Erin (DeWanda Wise), and Blair (Brittany Snow), to dive into another misadventure is to simply turn a corner.

The film plays like a mixtape of various sensibilities, partly beholden to the self-contained form of the bildungsroman; surely it’s no coincidence that a James Joyce poster hangs in the background of one scene. Set to an eclectic, almost perpetual soundtrack of songs, the film follows Jenny, Erin, and Blair as they float on a wave of spontaneity. The friends are gung-ho about having one last night on the town, and as the they make plans to attend a music festival on the eve of Jenny moving to San Francisco, the film makes a vibrant show of every fallout, every sharp turn in mood and behavior across this journey, which also finds Jenny grappling with her recent breakup with Nate (Lakeith Stanfield), her boyfriend of nine years.

In the world of Someone Great, a flashily decorated room is an extension of a person’s personality, every object a vessel of human memories. Jenny is wounded, and the film tenaciously homes in how everything around her feels like a totem of lost love. Robinson elaborates on Jenny’s pain as much through the young woman’s exchanges with her two best friends, each dealing with their own emotional troubles, as through the neon-dappled flashbacks to Jenny and Nate’s time together. But if Jenny, Erin, and Blair’s scenes together are marked by an infectiousness fueled in no small part by Rodriguez, Wise, and Snow’s incredible rapport, the vignettes of Jenny and Nate’s past feel comparatively inert—an almost steady stream of generic and often awkward articulations of how it is to fall in and out of love.

Someone Great also gives itself over to a needlessly somber tone whenever Jenny reflects on her relationship with Nate, and the effect is so self-serious that you’d think she’s the first person to lose a lover in human history. Her breakup certainly stands in sharp contrast to Blair’s own split from her long-term boyfriend (Alex Moffat), the fallout of which is treated as an offhand (and very funny) joke. Fortunately, though, Robinson is always quick to reorient the focus of her film, sweetly underscoring throughout the value of Jenny’s friendship to Erin and Blair, and how their bond is bound to persist regardless of the hard knocks these women weather on the long and often bumpy road to romantic fulfillment.

Cast: Gina Rodriguez, Brittany Snow, DeWanda Wise, LaKeith Stanfield, Peter Vack, Alex Moffat, RuPaul Charles, Rosario Dawson Director: Jennifer Kaytin Robinson Screenwriter: Jennifer Kaytin Robinson Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 92 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Festivals

Cannes Lineup Includes New Films by Terrence Malick, Céline Sciamma, & More

Perhaps as notable as what made the cut is what didn’t make it onto the lineup.

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Pain and Glory
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

This morning, the lineup for the 72nd Cannes Film Festival was revealed, and just as notable as what made the cut is what didn’t. Most notably, Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in America and James Gray’s Ad Astra were nowhere to be found. Gray, whose had four of his previous films appear in competition at the festival, is still working on Ad Astra, which seems destined at this point to make its premiere at a fall festival. As for Tarantino, who’s still editing this ninth feature ahead of its July 26 theatrical release, Cannes artistic director Thierry Fremaux told press this morning that there’s still a chance that Once Upon a Time in America could be added to the festival lineup in the upcoming weeks.

Terrence Malick will return to Cannes for the first time since winning the Palme d’Or for The Tree of Life with the historical drama and ostensibly mainstream-friendly A Hidden Life, previously known as Radegund. Ken Loach and the Dardennes, both double winners of the Palme d’Or, will also debut their latest works, Sorry We Missed You and Young Ahmed, respectively, in the competition program. As previously announced, Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die will kick off the festival on May 14, and Dexter Fletcher’s Rocketman will screen out of competition on May 16, two weeks before the film hits U.S. theaters. (The Director’s Fortnight and Critics Week selections will be announced at a later date.)

See below for a complete list of this year’s competition, Un Certain Regard, out of competition, and special and midnight screenings.

Competition
Pain and Glory, Pedro Almodóvar
The Traitor, Marco Bellocchio
Wild Goose Lake, Yinan Diao
Parasite, Bong Joon-ho
Young Ahmed, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Oh Mercy! , Arnaud Desplechin
Atlantique, Mati Diop
Matthias and Maxime, Xavier Dolan
Little Joe, Jessica Hausner
Sorry We Missed You, Ken Loach
Les Misérables, Ladj Ly
A Hidden Life, Terrence Malick
Nighthawk, Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles
The Whistlers, Corneliu Porumboiu
Frankie, Ira Sachs
The Dead Don’t Die, Jim Jarmusch
Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Céline Sciamma
It Must Be Heaven, Elia Suleiman
Sybil, Justine Triet

Out of Competition
Rocketman, Dexter Fletcher
The Best Years of Life, Claude Lelouch
Maradona, Asif Kapadia
La Belle Epoque, Nicolas Bedos
Too Old to Die Young, Nicolas Winding Refn

Special Screenings
Share, Pippa Bianco
Family Romance LLC, Werner Herzog
Tommaso, Abel Ferrara
To Be Alive and Know It, Alain Cavalier
For Sama, Waad Al Kateab and Edward Watts

Midnight Screenings
The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil, Lee Won-Tae

Un Certain Regard
Invisible Life, Karim Aïnouz
Beanpole, Kantemir Balagov
The Swallows of Kabul, Zabou Breitman and Eléa Gobé Mévellec
A Brother’s Love, Monia Chokri
The Climb, Michael Covino
Joan of Arc, Bruno Dumont
A Sun That Never Sets, Olivier Laxe
Chambre 212, Christophe Honoré
Port Authority, Danielle Lessovitz
Papicha, Mounia Meddour
Adam, Maryam Touzani
Zhuo Ren Mi Mi, Midi Z
Liberte, Albert Serra
Bull, Annie Silverstein
Summer of Changsha, Zu Feng
EVGE, Nariman Aliev

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Features

The 2019 TCM Classic Film Festival

As evangelistic as I tend to get about making new discoveries at TCMFF, the familiar can also be revelatory.

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TCM Classic Film Festival
Photo: John Nowak

In 2014, on the occasion of the fifth annual TCM Classic Film Festival, even as I took the opportunity to raise a glass to an event that encourages audiences, especially younger ones, to acknowledge and embrace the past, I indulged in a little public worrying over the festival’s move toward including a heavier schedule of more “modern” films whose status as classics seemed arguable, at the very least. The presence of Mr. Holland’s Opus and The Goodbye Girl on the festival’s slate that year seemed geared toward guaranteeing that Richard Dreyfuss would make a couple of appearances, causing me not only to wonder just what constitutes a “classic” (a question this festival seems imminently qualified to answer), but also just how far down the road to appeasement of movie stars TCMFF would be willing to travel in order to bring in those festivalgoers willing to pony up for high-priced, top-tier passes.

If anything, subsequent iterations have indicated that, while its focus remains on putting classic films in front of appreciative audiences and encouraging the restoration and preservation of widely recognized and relatively obscure films, the festival’s shift toward popular hits and the folks attached to them seems to be in full swing. And from a commercial point of view, who could credibly argue against feting 1980s and ‘90s-era celebrities who can still bring the glitz and glamour, especially as it becomes increasingly more difficult to secure appearances from anyone directly involved in the production of 60-to-80-year-old films? One has to believe that the numbers would favor booking films which could afford “sexier” in-person attendees like Billy Crystal, Meg Ryan, and Rob Reiner, and maybe for a good portion of the TCMFF crowd that showed up to celebrate the festival’s 10th anniversary this year, that sort of thinking is perfectly in line with what they expect for their money.

Of course, the flip side of that coin is an opening-night gala devoted to the celebration of When Harry Met Sally, which isn’t the first film I would think of to announce to the world that TCMFF is celebrating a milestone. It’s been 10 years since the festival launched, and its mother channel is celebrating 25 years on the air this year—and, okay, the Rob Reiner-helmed, Nora Ephron-scripted comedy is now 30 years young. But I really wonder, beyond When Harry Met Sally’s most famous scene, which is all but stolen by the director’s mother and her delivery of the memorable zinger “I’ll have what she’s having,” if this dated rom-com really means enough to audiences to be included among a TCMFF schedule of films ostensibly more qualified to be considered as classics. Maybe it does. Because objections like that one were forced to fly in the face of the rest of the TCMFF 2019 schedule, populated as it was by other equally questionable attractions like Sleepless in Seattle, Steel Magnolias, Hello, Dolly!, and Out of Africa, all of which crowded screen space in the festival’s biggest auditoriums.

Speaking of amour, it was that most mysterious of emotions that was the biggest rationale other than filthy lucre for clogging the schedule with not one but two Meg Ryan “classics,” a weeper that’s broad by even the standards of borderline-campy weepers, a bloated musical nobody seems to like, a would-be epic best picture winner, and even the bromantic sentimental indulgences of the Honorary Greatest Movie for Men Who Don’t Love Movies. Because the theme of TCMFF 2019, “Follow Your Heart: Love at the Movies,” virtually guaranteed that room would be made for some of the festival’s least enticing and overseen selections, under subheadings like “Better with Age” (Love in the Afternoon, Marty), “Bromance” (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Shawshank Redemption), and, in a love letter to not romance but instead a movie studio, “A Celebration of 20th Century Fox” (Hello, Dolly!, Working Girl, Star Wars). Of course, each of those subheadings had their glories as well (I’ll get to those in a second, after I stop complaining), but it’s worth noting these selections because they seem clearly representative of the sort of programming choices that have become more dominant in the second half of TCMFF’s storied and much appreciated existence, choices that may signal a further shift away from discoveries, oddities, and rarities and toward even more mainstream appeasement in its near future.

For all of the problems that seem to be becoming hard-wired into TCMFF’s business model, however, there was plenty to get excited about as well, even when one of the weaker overall schedules in terms of cinephile catnip made maximizing the festival experience a little more challenging than usual. If that “Love in the Movies” header seemed at first a bit too generic, it also proved elastic enough to accommodate some pretty interesting variations on a obvious theme, from dysfunctional relationships (A Woman Under the Influence, whose star, Gena Rowlands, had to back out of a scheduled pre-screening appearance), to erotic obsession (Mad Love, Magnificent Obsession), to habitual obsession (Cold Turkey, Merrily We Go to Hell), to romance of a more straightforward nature rendered in various shades of not-at-all-straightforward cinematic splendor (Sunrise, Sleeping Beauty, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Tarzan and His Mate). Why, there was even a couple of straight shots of undiluted movie love in the form of François Truffaut’s Day for Night, adorned by an in-person visitation from the film’s star, Jacqueline Bisset, and a grand screening of my favorite film, Robert Altman’s Nashville, which Pauline Kael once famously described as “an orgy for movie lovers.”

My own obsessions this year ran, as they usually do, toward the unfamiliar. Six of the 11 films I saw were new to me, including the obscure, ultra-cheap film noir Open Secret, which pits John Ireland against a secret society of small-town Nazi sympathizers; the deliriously racy and surprisingly violent adventure of Tarzan and His Mate, entertainingly introduced by Star Wars sound wizard Ben Burtt and special effects whiz Craig Barron, whose pre-film multimedia presentation electronically deconstructed the Tarzan yell; and James Whale’s Waterloo Bridge, starring Mae Clarke and Kent Douglass. Also among them were two major surprises: Dorothy Arzner’s romantic drama Merrily We Go to Hell, a gloriously cinematic roller coaster of love, codependency, and betrayal starring Fredric March, forever testing the audience’s tolerance for the boundaries of bad behavior, and Sylvia Sidney, who displays a range that will surprise younger audiences who may only know her from her later work; and the rollicking, hilarious, fast-paced snap-crackle-punch of All Through the Night, in which a gaggle of Runyonesque Broadway gamblers headed up by Humphrey Bogart develop an uncharacteristic patriotic streak when they uncover a Nazi conspiracy brewing in the back alleys of the neighborhood.

As evangelistic as I tend to get about making new discoveries at TCMFF, the familiar can also be revelatory. My two favorite experiences at the festival this year were screenings of F.W. Murnau’s almost indescribably gorgeous and primally moving Sunrise and a beautiful DCP of Nashville, with screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury and actors Jeff Goldblum, Keith Carradine, and Ronee Blakely in attendance. (At one point, Blakely held court like Barbara Jean in rambling pre-meltdown mode and innocently gave away the ending of the film.) The joy contained in the five hours of those two films wasn’t necessarily matched by the gorgeous restoration of Anthony Mann’s powerful Winchester ’73, the exquisitely expressionist delirium of Karl Freund’s Mad Love, or the revelation of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, with its roots in the music of Tchaikovsky, as the partial fulfillment of the ambitions of Fantasia, the studio’s great folly. But then again, it didn’t have to be. It’s enough that those are all movies worthy of and inspired by true movie love, which is precisely what they were received with by TCMFF audiences.

Of course, the obsessive, orgiastic nature of movie love is itself the underlying subtext of any film festival, but at TCMFF that subtext is consistently resonant enough that it seems inextricable from any given moment during the long four-day Hollywood weekend over which it unspools. Some festivalgoers get dolled up in vintage clothes and five pounds of customized TCM-style flair to express it. Others rattle on endlessly about their irrational devotion to Star X and Director Y, or how some obscure B noir blew their goddamn minds, and they’re usually surrounded by a pack of fans with similarly hyperbolic stories to tell. And still others just tilt their heads down and barrel through the long lines, breathlessly scurrying between theaters in pursuit of something they’ve never seen or perhaps never even heard of. (I’ll let you speculate as to which category I belong, though I will say I have never worn a fedora or brandished a silver-tipped walking stick in public.) A good friend and former TCMFF regular once told me that the best way to be cured of a particular obsession is to suddenly find yourself surrounded by those whose individual enthusiasms match or exceed your own, and sometimes it seems that the first-world trials of the TCMFF experience as they have accumulated over the past five or so years, and contrasted as they have been by the multitude of peaks the festival has offered its most ardent fans, have been devoted to road-testing that theory.

However, no matter what TCMFF devotees do or say in between programming slots, the movies remain, providing a constant opportunity to either plumb the depths of cinema history or to simply go for the good times. With all intentions pitched toward continued prosperity, the greatest challenge for TCMFF as it enters its second decade might be finding a better balance between those deep dives and the allure of skimming the perhaps more lucrative shallows. And if genuinely great films and even greater chances to experience films one can only experience in a setting like TCMFF keep getting slotted out in favor of familiar dreck like When Harry Met Sally and Steel Magnolias, it isn’t unreasonable to imagine that TCMFF 2029 might, to its inevitable detriment, look and feel considerably less classic than it does now. No, it’s not time for sackcloth and ashes just yet when it comes to this beloved fest. But I’d be lying if I said, to purloin and repurpose the concluding sentiment of one of this year’s big TCMFF attractions, that the ultimate resolution of that dilemma don’t worry me just a little bit.

The TCM Classic Film Festival ran from April 11—14.

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Film

Review: Instant Dreams Intimately Ponders a Casualty of the Digital Age

Willem Baptist’s film is a free-form essay on the spiritual differences between analog and digital.

2.5

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Instant Dreams
Photo: Synergetic Distribution

Throughout Instant Dreams, director Willem Baptist returns to footage from “The Long Walk,” the 1970 short film in which Polaroid co-founder Edwin H. Land pulled from his coat a black device that bears an uncanny resemblance to an iPhone. Land envisioned a day in which instant photos could be taken by a device the size of a wallet, which we would use to document every moment of our lives. This dream came spectacularly true, of course, beyond even Land’s wildest fantasies, ironically paving the way for Polaroid’s irrelevancy. Polaroid stopped manufacturing instant film in 2008, an event which Baptist rues as a symptom of our increasing impersonality as a globalized culture that’s grown to take its information overload for granted. “The Long Walk” haunts Baptist’s documentary as a kind of death prophecy.

Seen in stock footage—and in the famous photo on a 1947 cover of the New York Times in which he holds up a snapshot of himself, nearly appearing to have two heads—Land proves to be one of Instant Dreams’s most fascinating and enigmatic figures. In a contemporary light, pictures taken by Polaroid instant cameras have an eerie and poignant power, as their imperfections, such as their blotchy yet vibrant colors, evoke expressionistic art. These photographs reflect the frailty and subjectivity of time, while digital images are ageless, changeable, easily distributed ciphers. The power of Polaroid pictures resides in the effort they require to create, as people had to carry a bulky camera around and wait several seconds before producing a fully developed snapshot. Following several Polaroid cultists, Baptist shares their lament for an intimate and communal culture that’s potentially been forgotten in the wake of our ability to have pristine images whenever we want them.

Stephen Herchen is a scientist who helped to buy the last remaining Polaroid factory in the Netherlands, and he’s working with a group of specialists to revive the technology, as instant film was born of a complex chemical recipe that Herchen has yet to crack. (Baptist looks on as Herchen’s pictures take nearly 30 minutes to develop, rather than a few seconds.) Meanwhile, New York magazine city editor Christopher Bonanos, author of the book Instant: The Story of Polaroid, documents the growth of his son with his stash of Polaroid film, and German artist Stefanie Schneider takes photographs with the expired stock that she keeps in the vintage refrigerator of a trailer that’s parked somewhere in the California desert.

Herchen, Bonanos, and Schneider speak over the documentary’s soundtrack, which Baptist assembles into a free-form essay on the spiritual differences between analog and digital. The filmmaker portrays analog as a kind of magic, born of a conjuring which he dramatizes with trippy images of photographic chemicals, while digital technology is represented by chilly metallic graphics that connote anonymous efficiency. (Instant Dreams exudes that simultaneously real and staged quality of an Errol Morris film.) It’s a sentimental vision, and one that provokes a question that Baptist doesn’t attempt to address: In a time of technological marvel, in which we carry what are essentially supercomputers around in our pockets, why are so many of us so miserable, so convinced that we’re living in a dark age?

The rage and ennui of our present culture is cultivated by the ease of modern media, in which we’re eternally plugged into stimulation that cancels itself out, leaving us feeling both stuffed and hollow, as well as interchangeable with one another as receptacles for corporate product. Our primary camera is now our phone, which can do hundreds of other tasks, while the Polaroid instant camera only takes pictures, relics which cannot be shared with the click of a button with other people. To long for the Polaroid, or for other objects of nostalgia such as VHS tapes, is to long for a sense of specialness and remoteness. The subjects of Baptist’s documentary seek disconnection from the cultural hive mind.

These meanings are often only implicit in Instant Dreams, and it’s a pity that Herchen and Bonanos aren’t more overtly in tune with their yearnings. They tend to speak in platitudes, which Baptist attempts to render mystical with hallucinatory imagery and a retro synth-y score that’s reminiscent of Vangelis’s compositions for Blade Runner. While Instant Dreams offers an appealingly nostalgic trance-out, it’s often short on detail, especially in terms of Herchen’s struggle to create the instant film technology, which Baptist reduces to exchanges of jargon in atmospheric laboratories. The film’s ruminations gradually grow repetitive and unfocused, especially when Baptist branches off into a fourth narrative, following a young woman who savors digital technology the way that the other subjects do Polaroids.

Schneider steals Instant Dreams from her co-stars, however, taking bold photos of young women out in the desert, cannily milking the limitations of the expired film stock to create mini canvases that suggest fever dreams. One scene is unexpectedly erotic: Schneider takes a bath in a tub outside with a beautiful model, their legs intermingling as the latter tells of a dream that suggests a metaphor for instant film. This image embodies the intimacy that Baptist’s subjects believe Polaroid stock to represent, merging the film’s emotional ambitions with its hypnotic aesthetic. In such moments, Instant Dreams truly comes alive.

Director: Willem Baptist Screenwriter: Willem Baptist Distributor: Synergetic Distribution Running Time: 91 min Rating: NR Year: 2017

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Review: Rafiki Is a Feat of Representation, If Familiar in Execution

The audacity of the film’s assertion of a queer African identity shouldn’t be overlooked.

2.5

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Rafiki
Photo: Film Movement

Wanuri Kahiu’s Rafiki is a salvo in an ongoing cultural war in Kenya over the rights of LGBTQ people, and as such, it’s difficult, and maybe even irresponsible, to judge the film in a vacuum. Homosexuality is illegal in Kenya—punishable with up to 14 years in prison—and Kahiu’s film is officially banned in the country, though that ban was temporarily lifted for a week last fall so that it might qualify for an Oscar nomination. As a romantic drama, Rafiki turns out to be conventional in most senses except that its star-crossed lovers are two women—but then, particularly in Kenya, that makes all the difference.

Rafiki’s radicalism, hardly evident in its form or narrative structure, becomes more apparent when the film is situated in the context of state censorship and socio-culturally dominant homophobia. Adapted by Kahiu and co-writer Jenna Cato Bass from a short story by Monica Arac de Nyeko, the film takes its cue from that most over-alluded-to of romantic texts, Romeo and Juliet, complete with feuding families, illicit liaisons, and impossible love.

Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and Ziki (Sheila Munyiva) are the daughters of two small-business magnates opposing each other in an upcoming city council election. They live on the outskirts of Nairobi, in an area characters refer to as Slopes, which Kaihu presents as a relatively secluded community. The story plays out over a limited number of distinctive locations—such as the church that Kena and Ziki’s families attend and consists of a purple-clad Anglican preacher leading sermons under a purple tent and a food stand where the young denizens of Slopes eat, with its nearby van on blocks where Kena and Ziki can have some privacy.

As young romantics are wont to do, the two women fall in love despite the immense familial and social pressure to avoid anything of the kind. And in addition to the mutual animosity of their respective families, they have the stigma that homosexuality carries among their friends to worry about. Kena hangs out with a pair of hypermasculine guys who routinely hurl epithets at the taciturn man everyone in the neighborhood knows is gay; when Ziki’s clique of friends start suspecting Kena is her lover, they react with a surprising outburst of violence. With its handful of locations and its small cast, Rafiki emphasizes the inescapable social gaze this queer couple is subjected to: The supporting characters are liable to pop up in any given place, making anywhere but the abandoned van a potentially threatening space for the two women.

In a country in which homosexuality is seen by a majority of the population as imported Western decadence, the audacity of the film’s assertion of a queer African identity shouldn’t be overlooked. Rafiki announces its intent with defiant opening credits, streaked with spray-painted neon colors and blasting feminist African hip-hop. But this rebellious energy also dissipates rapidly after the credits: While Christopher Wessels’s cinematography is drawn to saturated colors that recall the punkish animation of the credits, there’s a staid quality to the film that belies the intensity of the visuals. Major scenes play out with characters summarizing their feelings in sketchy dialogue, as when Kena’s mother (Nini Wacera) exposits Kenyan women’s motivations for being more homophobic than men in the midst of an argument.

While Kahiu proved herself a visionary filmmaker with her 2009 short film Pumzi, her visual ideas here are often sentimental short cuts: slow-motion close-ups of a smiling Ziki to suggest the character’s sexual longing for Kena, and slow-motion shots of birds in flight to symbolize the couple’s desire for freedom. Ziki herself, with her flashy, colorful braids and broadly sketched character arc, is little more than a romantic fantasy—and perhaps purposefully, as Kena is clearly the main character, drawn to Ziki at least in part because of her distinctive look. But it seems odd that a romance about two women should recapitulate a structure in which only one of the pair—the one in the position of looking—gets a full character arc. Regardless, Rafiki’s slotting of two African women into this familiar romantic structure represents a radical and important upending of contemporary Kenyan sexual mores.

Cast: Samantha Mugatsia, Sheila Munyiva, Neville Misati, Jimmy Gathu, Nini Wacera, Patricia Amira, Muthoni Gathecha, Dennis Musyoka, Nice Githinji, Charlie Karumi, Patricia Kihoro Director: Wanuri Kahiu Screenwriter: Wanuri Kahiu, Jenna Cato Bass Distributor: Film Movement Running Time: 82 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Film

Review: The Half-Baked Under the Silver Lake Is in Love with the Image of Itself

Even after the film (quite entertainingly) explains itself, it never feels like more than a howl of frustration and cynicism.

2

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Under the Silver Lake
Photo: A24

David Robert Mitchell’s Under the Silver Lake, a pastiche of cinematic representations of Los Angeles wrapped in a retro-fetishistic detective story, infiltrates the glittery, vapid underbelly of La-La Land, where aspiring starlets pay their rent doing sex work and popular culture turns out to be even more monolithic than one imagines. Within a few scenes, Mitchell establishes a grammar whose endless referentiality takes on a conspiratorial cast. Shortly after seeing a squirrel fall from the sky (shades of Magnolia), a layabout named Sam (Andrew Garfield) sits on his courtyard porch with a pair of binoculars, ogling a nude woman and then a self-possessed, dog-toting blonde sunning herself by his complex’s pool.

That scene evokes, among other films, Rear Window, In a Lonely Place, and Lolita, though Sam is no damaged matinee idol. Instead, he’s a no-rent riff on Elliott Gould’s riff on Philip Marlowe, unemployed and horny, and days from being evicted from his apartment. Sam is pointedly in no hurry to find work or cash; rather, he’s relentlessly distracted by women and strange happenings, like news of a rash of dog killings in East L.A. or a string of mysterious geometric signifiers scrawled on apartment walls. His unheroic quest is propelled by the girl by the pool, who he briefly comes to know as Sarah (Riley Keough) before—after a brief, unconsummated relationship—she disappears, taking on a totemic meaning that pushes Sam to tie together the increasingly odd and nefarious events happening around him.

Like Mitchell’s The Myth of the American Sleepover and It Follows, Under the Silver Lake is steeped in nostalgia and exists in an indistinct time. Though Sam carries an iPhone and peeps on a friend’s (Topher Grace) neighbor with the assistance of a video-equipped helicopter drone, the film’s ubiquitous cultural icons dwell in most of the previous century, including B noirs, Hollywood romances, and old issues of Playboy and Nintendo Power. In both Sam’s addled logic and the film’s visual code, all of these artifacts are clues of one kind or another.

A zine-maker chronicling the forgotten history of the neighborhood and Hollywood scandals further convolutes Sam’s journey, offering an interpretational lodestar in the form of a mid-century cereal box with a treasure map on its back. The artist is played by Patrick Fischler, instantly recognizable as the man who suffers a waking nightmare at Winkie’s in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. The casting confirms yet another evident inspiration for Under the Silver Lake, whose cinematography (by Mike Gioulakis) expresses a slightly dirty, ambient unease even in glittering daylight or at industry parties featuring odd performance artists.

Under the Silver Lake navigates its thicket of references with breezy confidence, undergirded by Disasterpeace’s lush, menacing score. But as with the more efficient It Follows, it’s never evident what the film’s subtexts are meant to add up to. Even after the film (quite entertainingly) explains itself, during a lengthy musical medley with a brutal climax, it never feels like more than a howl of frustration and cynicism. Mitchell’s L.A. proves to be a sort of zombie culture, one whose artists are fed notes and messages from hidden ghostwriters and where originality was unceremoniously wiped out some decades ago. Every party is designed to be an experience, but every experience is forced and fundamentally hollow.

Oddly, Under the Silver Lake comes to feel as complacent as the milieu it’s satirizing, due in large part to the void of ambition and tact at its center. Sam is at once the film’s avatar, audience surrogate, and object of ridicule. He’s forsaken worldly duties for the sake of his dick, and rather incidentally stumbles into an elaborate riddle about the meaning of art and the rot underneath his neighborhood. Sam’s enthusiasm for amateur detective work is meant to be as shaggy and winning as his other behavior is off-putting, but there’s something askew about both Garfield’s effortful performance and Mitchell’s idea of his main character.

Talking with a fitful speech impediment in lackadaisical tones, Garfield swerves from a state of passive narcolepsy to addled, sometimes aggro enthusiasm with minimal cause. Throughout the film, Sam accepts frequent offers of sex with a vacant, glassy countenance, and at one point vigorously masturbates over a vision board of naked women. He also castigates the homeless and beats up a group of marauding teenagers. Sometimes he feels like an analogue to a Reddit troll, and at others his quest for meaning seems entirely earnest. Sam is meant to be confounding, but it’s unclear if he’s meant to be so incoherent.

These problems are in step with a film that’s in complete control of its imagery but remains half-baked in its ideology and execution. Maybe it’s apropos that a film so critical of predominant cultural modes feels so oppressively patriarchal in its attitude and rolodex of references: A reading of Under the Silver Lake can accommodate how one alternative subculture (comic books) has been subsumed into and now monopolizes an entire industry, but if Mitchell’s film is about those left behind and adrift in its wake, why wouldn’t it address those almost entirely left out of the conversation? It’s difficult not to question the composition of Mitchell’s chosen milieu as its impressive artifice comes to feel entirely perfunctory, and one is left to choke on the exhaust of Under the Silver Lake loopy daisy chain of references and its disconnected series of blasé shock tactics.

Cast: Andrew Garfield, Riley Keough, Topher Grace, Patrick Fischler, Jimmi Simpson, Riki Lindhome Director: David Robert Mitchell Screenwriter: David Robert Mitchell Distributor: A24 Running Time: 139 min Rating: R Year: 2018

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Film

Review: Little Woods Is a Thriller That Thinks It’s Too Good for Thrills

Nia DaCosta indulges one of rural quasi-thriller’s most tiresome gambits: humorlessness as a mark of high seriousness.

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Little Woods
Photo: Neon

Nia DaCosta’s Little Woods belongs to a subgenre of American indie cinema concerned with poor people trying to hold on to the stability they’ve managed to carve out for themselves in forbidding places. This subgenre of film bears the influence of the western and the procedural character studies of the Dardennes and the Romanian New Wave, and it often treats disenfranchised populations as exhibits in a kind of zoo. The characters in these films are often seen only in terms of how they affirm a political thesis statement, as their individualities are eclipsed in the filmmakers’ minds by their social neediness. No matter how well-meaning such theses may be, the films usually feel incurious and condescending.

Unlike, say, Frozen River, Little Woods isn’t exactly condescending, but it lacks the poetry of the respective films of Kelly Reichardt and Debra Granik, masters of what can be called the rural quasi-thriller. Reichardt and Granik offer punishing visions of America that are nevertheless attuned to the incidental moments that enliven even fraught existences, while DaCosta often falls prey to the clichés of the subgenre. She familiarly presents lower working-class men as hairy and drunken brutes who talk only of their inherent misery, and women as living in perpetual reaction to these men’s hostilities. DaCosta, then, indulges one of the genre’s most tiresome gambits: humorlessness as a mark of high seriousness.

Ollie (Tessa Thompson) and Deb (Lily James) are sisters, via Ollie’s adoption by Deb’s now deceased mother, who live in an oil boomtown in North Dakota. The sisters are defined in terms of their desperation—through the dictates of a thriller structure—and DaCosta doles out their involved and stereotypical backstory in dribs and drabs. Ollie is the good sister, who stood by her mother while Deb was involved in her own personal calamities, having a son she can’t afford to raise with a drunk and absent father, Ian (James Badge Dale). Ollie turned to selling OxyContin on the black market, with Ian’s help, to pay for her mother’s medical bills. Eventually caught running drugs back from Canada, Ollie is now on the verge of finishing her probation as supervised by her probation officer, Carter (Lance Riddick). And, of course, on the eve of getting a respectable new job, Ollie will be pulled back into the classic Final Score.

DaCosta has a fine feel for the texture of her film’s boomtown setting, particularly in the evocative scenes in which Ollie sells the poor oil workers coffee and sandwiches at cheaper prices than the local restaurants. But the characters are dully familiar. Ollie is a saint with no apparent inner life, with no opinions or desires that don’t immediately bolster the plot. Thompson gives the role her usual intensity, though Ollie is stubbornly defined by the steadfast earnestness that’s common of protagonists in this sort of film. She refers to taking pleasure in selling black market drugs, but we never see that emotion in her face, which might’ve given Little Woods an ambiguous sense of exhilaration. And a significant detail of Ollie’s identity is pointedly ignored: that she’s an attractive woman of color who appears to live in a place that’s populated mostly by undereducated and oversexed white men. Though Ollie is harassed by men in sexualized altercations, the effect of her seeming dislocation on her identity is pushed aside. Deb, meanwhile, is a MacGuffin: a device for returning Ollie to the drug business in a fashion that doesn’t sully the latter’s unimpeachable principles.

Whenever DaCosta appears to be on the verge of staging a scene intent on surprising the audience, the writer-director nips it in the bud to move on to the next preprogrammed narrative beat. This tendency is especially galling during a scene where Deb tells Ian that she’s pregnant again and that she intends to have an abortion. We’re primed by the formula of the rural quasi-thriller, which is often intensely critical of machismo, for Ian to have a disgusting outburst. Instead, Ian gets down on his knees and puts his head between Deb’s legs, as if praying, and weeps. Unforgivably, DaCosta doesn’t treat this moving moment with the respect it’s due, cutting away from it after a second or two so as to keep the film moving along at an impersonal pace. Little Woods is concerned with topical “relevance” at the expense of drama—or, more bluntly, it’s a thriller that thinks it’s too good for thrills.

Cast: Tessa Thompson, Lily James, Luke Kirby, Lance Reddick, James Badge Dale, Elizabeth Maxwell, Luci Christian, Morgana Shaw Director: Nia DaCosta Screenwriter: Nia DaCosta Distributor: Neon Running Time: 105 min Rating: R Year: 2018

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