Jason Bellamy: For one of my younger brothers, 2010 was the summer of music. Approaching his junior year at the University of Oregon, he spent the past few months attending about every concert that came his way in the Pacific Northwest. The criteria seemed to be this: If the concert was within driving distance and featured loud (preferably metal) bands that hadn’t had a big hit since before he was born, he was going. And so he rocked to Iron Maiden, Cinderella, the Scorpions, Billy Idol, and more. He rocked at large arenas and relatively intimate county fairs, sneaking up to the front of the stage when he could to snap pictures that he would eventually file along with similar snapshots of bands like AC/DC and KISS.
My brother loves music—if he’s partial to rock and metal, he’s rather indiscriminate within that genre (if you couldn’t tell). But I think the biggest reason my brother attends concerts is because he loves the energy of the live events, where he doesn’t just hear the music but feels it, too. Even when you’re pressed shoulder to shoulder with other attendees, and even when the musicians are so far away that you need to rely on the video screens to see the musicians’ expressions, there’s something very intimate and magically visceral about concerts. You can know every note and lyric of a band’s work from listening to their albums, but somehow seeing them live makes us feel as if we know them better, or know them for the first time.
Maybe that phenomenon is what inspires filmmakers to make concert documentaries in the first place: the challenge of simulating the feeling of being there. There are numerous films about musical artists—from A Hard Day’s Night (1964) to Elvis: That’s the Way It Is (1970) to Bob Dylan: No Direction Home (2005) to This Is It (2009)—some of which go backstage, some of which play historian, some of which are hardly about music at all, and so there’s no way we could have an all-encompassing discussion about that larger cinematic genre and its many sub-genres. Still, it’s a genre worth tackling, and so in this discussion we’re going to focus on five films—Woodstock (1970), Gimme Shelter (1970), Stop Making Sense (1984), Rattle and Hum (1988) and Instrument (2001)—that despite their incredible diversity have one thing in common: their chief aim seems to be to replicate the sensation of being there. And in the case of the first film, Woodstock, the music might be the least interesting part of that experience, am I right?
Ed Howard: That’s certainly true for me. Woodstock is a fascinating film even if a lot of the music hasn’t held up as well as the iconic status of the event itself. The concert at Woodstock has symbolic power, as a signifier for an entire generation and an entire outlook on life, out of all proportion to its musical power. And Michael Wadleigh’s film about the three-day concert is a perfect document of this kind of event, placing the musical performances firmly within their immediate context: the drugs, the politics, the sex, the utopian ideas of performers and audience alike, the sense of a whole generation gathering around this pivotal event. That’s not to say the music is necessarily unimportant, but oftentimes in this documentary, one senses that the music is an excuse for everything else that happens around it, the stuff that really matters. Sometimes this context is political: Wadleigh contextualizes Joan Baez’s onstage remark about her husband David Harris being in jail by cutting in her offstage conversation with friends about Harris’ draft resistance and his dealings with threatening prison guards. Sometimes this context is more personal, as in the interlude of a group of concert-goers practicing meditation in order to remove the “energy blockages” in their bodies. And in the film’s best moments, the personal and the political come together as one: Wadleigh talks at length with a young couple who “ball” sometimes but aren’t “going together,” and who discuss their choice of lifestyle, their thoughts about world affairs and their relationships with their parents.
To me, that’s what makes Woodstock such a strong film, above and beyond the uneven quality of its music. If the music was all there was, quite frankly I doubt the film would be admired except as a nostalgia trip for those who lived through the era, or those who only wish they had. In fact, there are long stretches of the film where I found myself waiting patiently through yet another drab musical performance, hoping that the film would take a detour away from the stage soon. Offstage is where most of the film’s iconic moments happen anyway, with Jimi Hendrix’s blazing closing performance as the most notable exception. When the music isn’t playing, the camera roves among the crowds and finds so many wonderful moments: a girl who lost her sister and seems absentmindedly just a little concerned; a stoned guy who’s easily convinced that the film crew is making a movie about portable toilets (“far out!”); skinny-dippers extolling the virtues of nudity; people running and sliding through the slick mud after a rainstorm; a couple methodically stripping to make love in the grass; a nun flashing a peace sign, captured in freeze-frame; a guy shaving in the lake and grinning sheepishly with bloody cuts all over his neck. Wadleigh also interviews the locals, gathering their impressions about the festival and the young people who have overrun their town—surprisingly, most of the local old folks seem fairly open and positive towards the young hippies.
In fact, the larger point of Woodstock isn’t even a documentation of the festival so much as it is a (self-)celebration of the whole hippie generation. The film is packed with testimonials of how peaceful and carefree the event was: as several people keep repeating, a whole large city’s-worth of people inhabited the area for three days without the escalating violence and ugliness that would infect many later festivals in this vein, as seen shortly in Gimme Shelter. There’s a utopian message at the core of Woodstock, projecting the idea that peace and freedom on a large scale are possible, even if only in a single fleeting context, in a single place at a single time. There’s a sense running through the film that this was one time when the ideals of the era were enacted in reality, when an ethos of peace and love allowed half a million people to coexist, mostly happily and peacefully, in completely disorganized conditions for three days. That’s the experience that Woodstock is all about, even more than whoever happens to be onstage.
JB: That’s well said. Especially in the case of something as iconic as Woodstock, I’m not sure any film could actually replicate the experience of being there, but Wadleigh makes it crystal clear what being there was like, and that’s plenty impressive. One of the things I admire most about the film is how in the moment it feels. You mentioned that it conveys the utopian message that peace and freedom are possible, and that’s true. And yet even though Woodstock seems to have been entirely populated with drug-popping flower children whose whole self-image was dependent upon the notion that peace is possible, there is a palpable sense of surprise at just how peaceful the whole event is/was. It’s as if these hippies came for the music and stayed for the good vibes. Having attended Obama’s inauguration last year, I can somewhat identify with that feeling. I walked down to the Mall that cold January morning to be part of history, and that in and of itself was memorable. But what I think I’ll remember most was the spirit of the crowds. I came for Obama’s hope but left hopeful mostly because of the behavior of other average Americans. Time and again in Woodstock the hippies and event organizers who promised peace and music are just as blown away by the love and togetherness as any of the buttoned-up townsfolk.
The audience becomes the main event in Woodstock, but so it was. We remember Hendrix’s national anthem. We remember Joe Cocker’s “With a Little Help from My Friends.” Maybe we remember Richie Havens’ rambling “Freedom.” Maybe we remember that Baez was there, and Joplin, too. But when you think of Woodstock do you think of Sly and the Family Stone or, of all groups, Sha-Na-Na? Probably not, but they were there, too. It’s fitting then that so much of the music footage captures musicians who seem to be more excited to play for that huge crowd than the crowd was excited to hear the music. Woodstock was an event that became iconic as it was happening, and people could sense it. That’s rare. But, in the parlance of the film, no one thought the event was iconic because of how much they dug the music.
EH: Yes, one of the most potent aspects of the film is the way it conveys the sense of awe that the performers, audience members, organizers and filmmakers all felt when confronted with that tranquil sea of humanity, everyone swaying in time to the music or merely nodding along on their own individual trips. The camera often looks out over the crowd from the point of view of the performers, and at those moments there’s a profound reversal of the usual artist/audience dynamic: rather than the audience being impressed by the musicians, it’s the audience’s turn to impress the performer. More than one of the musicians seems stunned by what they see out in the crowd, by the enormity of it all and by the positivity emanating from all those people.
It’s interesting, though, that you cite Sly Stone and Sha-Na-Na as incidental acts, since for me those were probably two of the most memorable musical moments—for very different reasons, obviously. Sly and the Family Stone deliver an exhilarating performance that takes full advantage of the crowd’s overwhelming size, stirring up the audience into a funk sing-a-long, with Sly grinning the whole time as he frantically flips switches on his synthesizer or shouts exhortations into the mic. The performance is further enhanced by the late-night vibe, by the cool blue lights illuminating the musicians, making a neon glowing spectacle of it all. Maybe this funky jam, with its gospel overtones and flashy stage antics and glitzy outfits, is a bit of an outlier in the folksy context of Woodstock, but there’s no doubt that it’s a powerful performance anyway. And then there’s Sha-Na-Na, who seem so absurdly out-of-place with their ‘50s nostalgia dance act that the only possible reaction is to laugh hysterically. The film again enhances the impact of this performance through the frenetic editing, with dancers leaping across the stage, bouncing in place, flying in alternately from the left and then from the right. It’s goofy as hell, and sure to come as a shock in this setting, a sudden burst of loony energy that really stands out, even if it’s not exactly in a good way.
But these performances, like Hendrix’s set, are exceptions that stand out for one reason or another from the general (and some might say generic) hippie rock coming from most of the rest of the acts. Going into this conversation, I had the idea that the concert film is an especially subjective cinematic subgenre, in that it’s so heavily dependent on the viewer’s musical taste: who’s going to enjoy sitting through a concert documentary, however skillfully made, about music they don’t like? It’s a question I’m sure we’ll return to when we talk about Rattle and Hum. But Woodstock is fascinating as a historical document, as a film that evokes the spirit of an era, as a film where the ideas are more important than the music. Usually, that outlook annoys me in music—or in any artform, really. It annoys me even in this film, when I get the sense that guys like Country Joe or John Sebastian are “all about the message, man,” with little consideration of the artistic power of music except as a vehicle for simplistic sloganeering. The film as a whole, though, attempts to present an overall portrait of this scene and this event, and in that context it makes sense that the music, whatever one thinks of it all, is only one small part of this big cultural pivot point.
JB: A small part, but a crucial part. I don’t want us to lose sight of that. For example, it’s easy to dismiss Country Joe’s “Vietnam Song,” which in addition to being cheap sloganeering (“what are we fighting for?”) is lamely written to boot (“and it’s 5, 6, 7, open up the pearly gates”? really?). But that song is designed as a sing-a-long, and it absolutely succeeds in that respect. Sing-a-longs might not always make for great art, the same way so many run-of-the-mill Hollywood comedies don’t, but they do create a sense of togetherness, cheap though it might be. So maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that, of the crowd shots we see in Woodstock, no song triggers an audience reaction on par with the one for “Vietnam Song.” If Woodstock started out as a concert and became an exercise in peace and harmony, it makes sense that the music that had the greatest impact was the stuff that inspired that togetherness.
As for my comments about Sly and the Family Stone and Sha-Na-Na, I didn’t mean to imply that those acts are incidental, at least not within the film or even within the event as it was unfolding. I was only pointing out that those acts aren’t part of the lore of Woodstock. Canned Heat’s “Going Up the Country” inspires Woodstock-esque thoughts, while Sly and the Family Stone’s “I Want to Take You Higher” probably doesn’t. And that’s a little ironic, actually, because if Wikipedia is to be trusted Sly and the Family Stone might have been the most of-the-moment group to perform at Woodstock, having produced one of Billboard’s No. 1 hits of 1969, “Everyday People.” (Of course, one of the other big hits of that year was The 5th Dimension’s “Aquarius/Let the Sun Shine In (The Flesh Failures)” from the Hair soundtrack, which might be indicative of the spirit of the music that Woodstock’s audience wanted to groove to.) Point is, Sly and the Family Stone might have been immediately relevant at the time, even though their participation in the concert is mostly forgotten today.
In terms of the energy of the performances, and the feelings they inspire while watching this film, I agree with you that the utter exuberance and absurdity of Sha-Na-Na is irresistible, while Sly and the Family Stone’s psychedelic nighttime performance is a welcome change of pace visually, even though their version of “I Want to Take You Higher” is yet another instance in which the group on stage seems to have one goal: play the shit out of it. The other performances that are most memorable to me have more to do with the way they’re filmed. For starters, Havens’ “Handsome Johnny” is performed almost in one shot, the camera slowly panning up and down his body to give us all the views that in most films would be spliced together: his hand strumming, his foot stomping, his thumb sliding up and down the neck of the guitar, his head tilted back revealing his missing teeth. It feels as if Havens is covered by multiple cameras, which of course is the norm in this film, but, nope, it’s just one camera, and the result is surprisingly intimate. Then there’s Cocker’s performance of “With a Little Help From My Friends.” It’s one of the many performances in the film to use the split-screen approach, but what’s notable here is that most of the time Cocker is split-screened each shot is nearly identical, sometimes with one half of the split screen zoomed in just a bit closer than the other. The effect, as Cocker flails his arms and screams, is that his performance seems somehow too passionate to be contained in just one shot, as if his voice is too big to come from just one man.
And finally there’s Crosby, Stills and Nash’s performance of “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.” It’s a song that I admit I’m quite fond of in general. (I’m a sucker for songs with three acts, whether it’s this or Billy Joel’s “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” or Guns N’ Roses’ “November Rain,” and so on.) Still, I love the way the scene is edited: opening with split-screen compositions that capture Stephen Stills singing lead in one frame and Graham Nash and David Crosby harmonizing the accompaniment in another; then cutting to a few striking single-frame shots that capture the group together, either in profile or from behind, illuminated by a distant stage light; and then going back to the split-screen approach, now mostly tight closeups on their faces, which are bathed in red light. Though for the majority of the film the split-screen is effective because it allows us to keep one eye on stage and another eye on the crowd, or because it allows us to feel the wild diversity of everything happening off stage, this is a case where using both frames to capture the musicians is quite powerful. To me, the editing of the Crosby, Stills and Nash performance achieves cinematically what the Talking Heads achieve with their evolutionary beginning of Stop Making Sense (which we’ll discuss later): it calls attention to the individual pieces of the music while also allowing us to experience it as a whole.
EH: One place we definitely agree is that much of the power of the musical performances in this film derives at least equally from the cinematic presentation of the music, rather than solely from the music itself. The editing—and especially the use of split-screen—is too intrusive, too extravagant, for Woodstock to qualify as simple documentation. The filmmakers are after a feeling rather than an event. Though the split-screen technique sometimes does something as simple as showing both the musicians and the audience at the same time, more often it’s used as an expressive device, multiplying the musicians the better to emphasize their emotional investment in their songs, or examining the stage from multiple perspectives at once to capture (or enhance) the vibrancy and excitement of the performers and the music. The editing is visceral, and at times even—in my opinion, anyway—infuses some energy into this music that wouldn’t otherwise be there. The Joe Cocker performance is a good example. I’ve never much cared for that ubiquitous and facile song (maybe partly, if however subconsciously and/or unfairly, because of memories of a sixth grade graduation performance with the “I get high” lyrics altered) but there’s no denying that, on film, there’s something electric about it all, about the multiplied images of Cocker with shaggy hair hanging in his eyes, obviously wasted, playing air guitar, falling over his own feet and shambling up to the microphone to croak and wail out those familiar lyrics.
The use of split-screen is even more radical during the Who’s performance, coupled with superimpositions and overlays so at times the image becomes nearly abstract, reveling in the interplay of colors and forms rather than presenting clear images of the action onstage. At several points during this sequence, the frame is divided in two, with slightly different angles of singer Roger Daltry on each side of the split, and additional images of the other musicians superimposed within each half of the frame. This creates very complex images that are only complicated further by the frenzied movements of the performers, so that it’s often difficult to resolve what’s happening at any given moment, even though the general, visceral sense of a rock performance comes across in these dense, layered images. There’s a similar density and experimental sensibility in the Ten Years After segment, in which singer Alvin Lee often seems to be crooning to his own mirrored image, or else centered between distorted perspectives on the stage as a whole.
If the use of split-screen during “Judy Blue Eyes” is, as you say, a way of assembling a musical and visual totality from constituent parts, at other times the fragmentary editing and speed-blurred imagery seem intended to obscure rather than to elucidate. And those moments, the times when the filmmakers create hazy patchworks of loose impressions rather than definitive portraits, are perhaps the images that best capture the feel of being there at an event like this. The pastiche editing during the Who and Ten Years After sets suggests a profound lack of a straightforward linear narrative for this event: instead there is a rush of fleeting impressions, images that might resonate for a moment before fading back into the general chaos, images so cluttered and frantic that the eye hardly knows where to look. In that sense, Woodstock the film, though originally released only a year after the concert it documented, already accounted for nostalgia, for the blurring effects of memory. For every moment where the filmmakers step in to clarify, to contextualize, there’s another where they deliberately allow things—onstage and off—to remain as chaotic, overwhelming and difficult to grasp as Woodstock doubtless was for many of those who experienced it directly.
JB: Chaos is certainly a dominant strain in this film. On stage there are numerous public address announcements about everything from bad drugs to missing persons to childbirth. Supplies are brought in by helicopter to serve what we’re repeatedly told is an official disaster area. The roads are clogged. Debris is everywhere. But, darn it, people are having a good time anyway, and the filmmaking reflects that. One of the film’s most inspired offstage uses of split screen involves the rather famous scene you mentioned earlier in which a couple strips off their clothes and lies down in the grass to have sex—or, given the spirit of the event, to “make love.” That touching scene unfolds on the right half of the screen while on the left half the concert’s producers are interviewed about the event’s success and lack thereof. “Financially, this is a disaster,” one of the producers says. “But you look so happy,” the reporter observes. Now the other producer speaks up, nodding his head toward the other half of the screen, in the direction of the couple making love, as if he can see them in the other frame (in actuality, he’s nodding toward an unseen crowd in front of the stage): “Look what you got there, man. You couldn’t buy that for anything.” “Sure,” the other producer chimes in, “this is really beautiful, man.” And it is.
That’s one of the film’s most poignant scenes, along with the one in which the Port-o-San man happily goes about the business of restocking toilet paper in the outhouses and then reveals that one of his sons is off in Vietnam. You might expect bitterness from this guy—cleaning toilets for kids who are suspicious of the military in which his son serves. Instead, his heart swells for them. Yet for all the little poignant moments, I’d be remiss not to mention how funny Woodstock is. The dialogue is priceless: a TV reporter earnestly saying to a man half his age, “You dig it all?”; a young woman talking about this “cat” and that “cat”; that couple talking about “balling,” and one of them describing how he was recently on “a Hamlet trip; to be or not to be”; and I always get a special kick out of the scene in which the public address announcer refers to a helicopter as a “choppity-choppity.” These scenes aren’t meant to mock the subjects but to capture them at their essence. I think they succeed.
EH: So do I. As you say, the film is often funny but never at the expense of the concertgoers. It’s an affectionate portrait of ‘60s idealism, an ode to the belief that a sing-a-long can stop a war—and as little regard as I have for some of the music involved, I do think that kind of idealism is touching and even inspiring. As such, Woodstock and its image of this era contrast strikingly against Gimme Shelter, another 1970 film about a hippie music festival. These two films, despite being made at more or less the same time and in similar circumstances, couldn’t be more different. If Woodstock is an attempt to sum up an era, to encapsulate the hopes and dreams of the idealistic hippie generation, Gimme Shelter is the document of that era’s end, the exposé on how those dreams were smashed. It’s also an eye-opener for just how badly the Woodstock Festival could have gone if things had been just slightly different. I think there’s an obvious connection between the dazed Woodstock producers enthusing about peace and love and the ineffectual attempts to defuse the violence at Altamont, as seen in Gimme Shelter. Again and again, throughout this film, as the violence escalates and people are being hurt in the crowds, the musicians lamely repeat “cool out” and “be cool,” trying to calm down the Hell’s Angels they hired as bouncers and bodyguards, trying to turn the violence aside with a positive attitude. It all reminds me of that South Park episode where one of the characters brokers a truce between the Bloods and the Crips by bringing the rival gangs to a rec center and repeating, “Come on, guys, just come on.” Mick Jagger’s “be cool” sounds just as weak, just as naïve, the desperate words of a performer who has no idea what to do when confronted with a debacle like the one unfolding in front of that stage.
And though it never came to that at Woodstock, it’s not hard to imagine that, if it had, everyone in charge would have been just as unprepared to deal with violence or negative vibes. What Altamont and Gimme Shelter expose are the limitations of this generation and this mentality, the way the ethos of peace and love espoused by the musicians and concertgoers falls apart when confronted by those who don’t share those beliefs, who don’t play by the same rules. It’s ugly and disastrous, and particularly heartbreaking when juxtaposed against the sense of possibility and hopefulness and enthusiasm that was everywhere at Woodstock. Woodstock is the dream of the ‘60s, and Gimme Shelter is its dark flipside.
JB: The word I scribbled down while watching Gimme Shelter is “buzzkill.” These two films are both fascinating on their own, but as a double feature they’re absolutely incredible. You couldn’t write a greater contrast in moods. Woodstock is defined by producers who happily lose money, by townspeople who help feed the kids who are overrunning their quiet farmland, by musicians awed by the spectacle of peace around them. And then there’s Gimme Shelter, which chronicles a concert now synonymous with violence, which shows Mick Jagger getting sloppily punched by a fan before he even gets to his trailer at Altamont, and which, prior to all of that, allows us to be privy to negotiations in which lawyer Melvin Belli (yes, Zodiac fans, that Melvin Belli) tries to broker a deal to get the Stones to play at any San Francisco venue that will take them. It’s as if the producers of both concerts made a deal with the devil to have Woodstock triumph and had to pay their tab at Altamont.
But Gimme Shelter is a buzzkill even if you haven’t watched Woodstock, precisely because of its structure. Gimme Shelter begins with a typically lively performance of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” at a previous concert. But then it goes inside the editing room, where the Stones gather round and listen to a San Francisco radio personality talking about Altamont in the past tense. “There were four births, four deaths and an awful lot of scuffles reported,” he says. The Stones listen intently, grimacing here, smiling there. Their faces are mostly mournful. Charlie Watts is especially shaken up. After listening to a Hell’s Angel named Sonny blasting the band and defending the Hell’s Angels for kicking some hippie ass, Watts adopts this blank stare as if he’s searching the depths of his memory; he thinks that perhaps he met Sonny that night, but he can’t be sure. In any case, he responds to the tape of the radio broadcast as if he’s been witness to a profound tragedy. His is the kind of expression you would expect on the face of a teenager who has just learned that his best friend walked into the school cafeteria and opened fire with a machine gun. “Oh, dear, what a shame,” he says.
From here, the film cuts back to the Stones on stage, pre-Altamont again, as effervescent as ever. But the sense of dread never goes away. If Woodstock is a high, Altamont is a bad trip.
EH: You’re right that the structure of Gimme Shelter dictates its mood. The film follows the Stones through a few of the shows leading up to Altamont, and their performances are frequently exciting and electrifying: the band was in top form at this point, coming off of recent masterpiece Beggars Banquet, with Let It Bleed (released not even a month after Altamont), Sticky Fingers and Exile On Main Street still ahead of them. In the film, they perform chugging, high-energy versions of signature songs like “Honky Tonk Women” and “Street-Fighting Man,” the latter song especially ironic in light of its celebration of violence and aggression. They perform a heartfelt run through Robert Johnson’s ragged ballad “Love In Vain,” with Jagger’s voice straining around the lyrics, cracking and groaning with bluesy depths of feeling. Musically, the film is frequently exhilarating, as the Stones at their best couldn’t fail to be. Even when everything’s falling apart at Altamont, and the Stones have to keep halting their songs as violence erupts in the audience gathered around the stage, there’s a sense of great music struggling to come together, of this energy being translated, sporadically and unpredictably, into the band’s desperate attempts to get through a song in this oppressive atmosphere.
And yet, the filmmakers (Albert and David Maysles along with editor Charlotte Zwerin) never allow these performances to stand alone. Any sense of exhilaration or power in the music is always tempered by the aura of dread and inevitability hanging over the film. By opening with Charlie Watts’ reaction to the Altamont disaster, the filmmakers provide a context for everything that comes next, foreshadowing the tragic end of this tour. The scenes with Melvin Belli further diffuse any excitement in the pre-Altamont concert footage, detailing the mind-numbing negotiations behind the tour, the machinations of the band’s legal team as they try to secure a venue. The film makes it all but impossible to focus on the music, and in that sense it’s very much like Woodstock, in that both films attempt to reach beyond the music, to establish the broader context and social situation in which these artists exist. The difference is that Woodstock reaches beyond the music to exalt the attitude and the idealistic vision represented by the event, while Gimme Shelter provides context in order to reveal the inadequacy of the musicians’ and producers’ attempts to diffuse the violence at Altamont, as well as perhaps the inadequacy of their reactions after the fact.
In my view, the film is undoubtedly successful at establishing this context, often portraying the Rolling Stones as hopelessly lost and clueless amidst all this chaos. Watts’ “what a shame,” along with the band’s collective stunned silence when the Maysles brothers play back footage of the off-stage murder of an audience member by a Hell’s Angel, suggests that the band has no idea how to respond, no idea what to think of this disaster for which they are at least partially responsible. So it’s puzzling that so much of the initial response to the film when it was first released centered around its supposed status as an empty, Stones-sponsored spectacle. Pauline Kael essentially called it a snuff film and asserted that the film’s “facts are manufactured for the cinema,” and countless other critics of the time more or less agreed that the film freed the Stones of accountability. I don’t really understand that complaint; to me, the film seems pretty unsparing in its portrayal of everyone involved in Altamont, creating an eloquent and heartbreaking rebuttal of Woodstock’s naïve idea that peace and love can overcome violence and chaos.
JB: Kael’s finger-pointing is fascinating on a number of levels. For starters, there appear to be several things that she got wrong based on vague or inaccurate reporting of Altamont in Rolling Stone. But on top of that, there appear to be the things Kael got wrong because she wanted the facts to line up with her hypothesis. In a response to Kael’s 1970 review, Gimme Shelter’s filmmakers took the critic to task for writing as fact things that they had specifically refuted in an interview. Meanwhile, the filmmakers also pointed out that some of the arguments Kael makes in her effort to demonstrate the Stones’ partial culpability were in fact supported by, and possibly wholly derived from, a film she accuses of being an effort to “whitewash” the Stones and the filmmakers of responsibility: “All the evidence she uses in her analysis of [the Stones’] disturbing relationship to their audience is evidence supplied by the film, by the structure of the film which tries to render in its maximum complexity the very problems of Jagger’s double self, of his insolent appeal and the fury it can and in fact does provoke, and even the pathos of his final powerlessness. These are the filmmakers’ insights and Miss Kael serves them up as if they were her own discovery.”
Kael’s original review and the filmmakers’ response can be found in their entirety here. And what strikes me reading both pieces is their tendency for overstatement. Kael goes too far in her implications that the Stones themselves designed Altamont as a cinematic spectacle, at one point loosely comparing Gimme Shelter to Triumph of the Will. But then the filmmakers go too far in suggesting that Kael pins the killing on them, conveniently ignoring that she opens her review by saying that “the violence and murder weren’t scheduled” and that she later observes that “it’s impossible to know how much movie-making itself is responsible for those consequences.” (That said, Kael’s acknowledgements seem to be offered merely as loopholes for libel-avoidance. She never directly accuses the Stones of murder by extension, just like the folks at Fox News are careful to never directly call Obama a Muslim, but in the meantime that’s the theme of the narrative. If I were the filmmakers, I’d be pissed too.) So to some degree Kael vs. Gimme Shelter is evidence that even 40 years ago, like today, a film’s big picture could be lost in the controversy of tangential issues, such as Kael being miffed that Gimme Shelter isn’t forthright in detailing that the Stones themselves helped to finance the film (an omission that, Kael’s right, makes the “free” concert at Altamont a little less magnanimous).
All of that leads me here: If the controversy of Kael vs. Gimme Shelter is ageless, Kael’s specific objections are, for the most part, quaintly antiquated. The essential thrust of her objection is an implication that an event that came to be solely because it was going to be filmed is passed off as documentary fact. Whereas Woodstock was going to happen whether or not cameras showed up, the concert at Altamont was arranged precisely so it could be filmed, and even though the events themselves weren’t choreographed, and even though no one could have predicted the stabbing that made the event so memorable, Kael roughly argues that Gimme Shelter suffers from a kind of original sin that disqualifies it from being heralded as a cinematic achievement of the documentary genre. To spark this kind of reaction today it takes Casey Affleck filming Joaquin Phoenix—perhaps in character, perhaps not—for I’m Still Here, which might indeed be all performance and no documentary “truth” whatsoever. (In fact, though that film was released with its veracity uncertain, Casey Affleck has since confirmed that it was all a staged act.) Today, in this reality-TV dominated, YouTube-obsessed world in which our political leaders are more attuned to creating cinematic narratives than to outlining their policies (think of Obama’s famous Roman columns address at the Democratic National Convention), we now expect the camera’s presence to create as many events as it captures surreptitiously (“documenting” without influencing).
And so for me it’s ironic that Kael implies that much of Gimme Shelter is a pose, because watching it today I find it refreshingly unaffected. One of my favorite shots in the entire film comes in a scene in which the Stones relax and listen to a tape of their recording of “Wild Horses.” As the song plays, Keith Richards (who is credited in the film as “Keith Richard”) reclines and casually taps his boot to the music. Today, it would be hard to watch a modern version of that scene without feeling that the artist in question was playing to the camera. But in pre-reality-TV 1970, Richards’ enjoyment of the music has an earnestness that I find almost overwhelmingly touching. And I could say the same of Jagger’s feeble attempts to stop the violence at Altamont.
EH: I’m not sure Altamont was staged just to be filmed—the Salon article cited above suggests it was, at least partly, a response to complaints about the Stones’ generally high concert ticket prices—but regardless, I think you’re right that this film comes off as especially unaffected and natural in comparison to today’s concepts of “documentary” and “reality.” The film may have been a key factor in deciding to put the concert together in the first place, but I don’t get the sense that the Maysles brothers manipulated or staged much if anything that subsequently happened in front of their cameras. I took note of that “Wild Horses” scene as well, and it really does achieve a sense of casual observation that, in many ways, would be impossible today, when everyone—particularly everyone who’s in the public eye—is so hyper-aware whenever a camera’s nearby. It’s a great moment, with the camera zooming in on Richards’ boot as he taps his toes in time with the music. The laidback, fly-on-the-wall perspective of moments like that is especially affecting in the context of this band that otherwise seems to be putting up such a front of performance and posing, from Jagger’s sexualized antics to the studied intensity of Richards with his guitar.
I think that’s also why it’s so stunning when the band’s attitude collapses when confronted by violence at Altamont, and why it’s so affecting to watch them watch the slowed-down murder footage from the concert. There’s something destabilizing about seeing the performers’ masks drop, to see them revealed as awkward, uncertain, shaken humans when faced with a tragedy that they’re almost pathetically unprepared to deal with. This theme of performance versus reality is carried through the film even when the violence at Altamont isn’t the central topic. At one point, the film features a song by Ike and Tina Turner, though I don’t think Ike ever actually appears in the frame: the camera seems transfixed by Tina Turner in her short skirt, lewdly caressing the mic, projecting raw heat in her every motion and her every word. Turner’s raw, sexy performance makes Mick Jagger’s prancing antics look comparatively tame and contrived; it’s the difference between the real thing and a staged pantomime act. Kael may have made that difference the essence of her criticism of the film, but in fact the film’s own text embodies that dialectic, implicitly questioning and examining the issues of authenticity that revolve around both Altamont and the Rolling Stones.
JB: I think we should be careful not to suggest that Tina Turner’s “real” performance is entirely free from calculation or stagecraft, but relatively speaking, and in the big picture, you’re right. Gimme Shelter intentionally exposes that there’s a difference between the private Rolling Stones and the public Rolling Stones. In fact, one scene is quite blatant in this respect. Early in the film, after we’ve watched the band digesting the post-Altamont radio broadcast, there’s a scene in which a pre-Altamont Mick Jagger is questioned at a press conference about the band’s current state of satisfaction. “Do you mean sexually, or philosophically?” Jagger responds, a huge smile on his face, soaking in this moment under the spotlight. Both, the reporter responds. Jagger then delivers a rambling answer that concludes with him assessing the band this way: “Financially dissatisfied. Sexually satisfied. Philosophically trying.” From there the film cuts back to Jagger in the editing studio, watching this archival footage. Jagger is very much not “on” here. His face is blank. He seems not to comprehend that the camera nearby that’s watching Jagger watch himself will eventually produce an audience as real as the gaggle of reporters that he delighted in entertaining at the press conference. Upon seeing his response to the reporter, Jagger mumbles this as an assessment: “Rubbish.” I’m not sure how Gimme Shelter could more clearly articulate that dichotomy between genuineness and performance than it does in that moment, or, for that matter, in the scenes in which the band goes into giggle fits watching clips of their previous performances, clearly entertained by their public theatricalities.
Having said that, to me what’s so riveting about the concert at Altamont isn’t what happens out in the audience, although the growing sense of doom is palpable. What’s fascinating is that while things spin out of control we see the Stones, or at least Jagger, struggling between that private and public self. When Jagger pleads with the audience to “be cool,” the doubtfulness and trepidation in his voice are the private Jagger shining through, and yet at the same time Jagger is trying to use his status as a rock icon to suggest some sort of parental authority or God-like control. As things continue to spill out of hand you can sense Jagger realizing, as if for the first time, that in fact he can’t control the audience, and that celebrity idolatry only goes so far. And so this is probably the perfect time to turn our attention to Stop Making Sense. Because while Gimme Shelter is defined by all that a band can’t control, the 1984 Talking Heads concert—actually several edited together to appear as one—is an appreciation of onstage choreography.
EH: Yes, Stop Making Sense represents quite a contrast against both Woodstock and Gimme Shelter. While those films are constantly pushing beyond the music, encompassing external contexts and attempting to express ideas about the culture and society of the time, Stop Making Sense is so singularly focused on what’s happening onstage that there’s hardly any glimpse even of the audience until near the end of the film. As you say, it’s about the “onstage choreography,” to such an extent that it resembles a live music video, as the band’s stage show—put together by frontman David Byrne—involves minimalist design and clever conceptual routines that entertain without ever becoming the kind of flashy spectacle that detracts from the music itself. Indeed, the concept that drives the film from the beginning seems designed to focus attention wholly on the music, on the way that a band’s sound is assembled from its constituent parts.
For the first number, “Psycho Killer,” Byrne performs solo with just an acoustic guitar and a tape deck that’s supposedly the source of the simple drum machine pattern that accompanies his playing and singing. It’s a great performance of one of the band’s best songs, enhanced by Byrne’s intense stare and studied awkwardness, like his stumbling response to some machine gun-like beats during a break, a staggering walk that Stephanie Zacharek compared to Jean-Paul Belmondo’s death scene at the end of Breathless, an apt comparison in light of Godard’s fascination with musical/visual convergences and disjunctions. Then, with each subsequent song, another member of the band joins Byrne onstage, starting with bassist Tina Weymouth for the bittersweet ballad “Heaven,” and eventually culminating with the core quartet plus two dancers/backup singers, and three additional musicians, with most of the extra cast coming from a background in R&B and P-Funk. It’s a brilliant conceit, building up the typical Talking Heads sound from sparse acoustic-guitar-and-a-beat minimalism into the lively, ethnically allusive density of their studio albums. The progression is done in a completely transparent way, too, with stage crews wheeling out props and setting up even in the middle of songs, gradually adding the necessary instruments to what had started as a bare, Spartan stage.
This is thrilling, viscerally engaging filmmaking, starting with just the shadow of Byrne’s guitar neck on the floor of the stage, then following his feet as he steps up to the mic and places the boombox beside him, and finally panning up, past his guitar, to his gangly neck and wide eyes, his head bobbing hypnotically with the music. With each subsequent song, the sound deepens and grows more complicated, with Weymouth’s insistently rubbery bass eventually joined by the additional guitar lines of ex-Modern Lover Jerry Harrison and an increasingly complex rhythm section. Director Jonathan Demme maintains what seems to be a documentary objectivity, just watching as the theatrical stage show unfolds, but his darting, carefully tracking camerawork must have required as much planning as the show itself: the camera is as much a part of the choreography here as anything that happens onstage. At one point during “Psycho Killer,” Byrne even dances at the camera, staring into the lens as his steps carry him towards it and then away again, off to stagger around the perimeter of the stage with the camera in pursuit. After the questions about documentary integrity raised by Gimme Shelter, and the interest in social over musical matters in Woodstock, it’s refreshing to deal with a film that has no pretensions about its role: the simple art of presenting a great, entertaining stage show where the music is, as it should be, given first billing.
JB: Well, sort of. I mean, sure, there’s no question that compared to Woodstock and Gimme Shelter, Stop Making Sense is stripped down to its musical core. But I’m still not sure music is what’s given first billing here. Because to me this is a celebration of presentation, of performance itself, more than it is a celebration or observation of music. I think your praise for Demme is appropriate, but in this case the one with cinematic vision is Byrne, who is credited as the live show’s creator, and who, without question, is absolutely aware of his show’s visual aesthetics. This concert, in its own mostly spare way, is really as choreographed as anything Michael Jackson ever did—a reality that comes across not so much when Byrne illuminates the stage with a living room lamp or dons that trademark oversized suit but rather when he performs “Life During Wartime,” which begins with a seemingly spontaneous act of running in place and then transitions into some clearly practiced dance moves, one of which makes it look like Byrne is trying to regurgitate a frog while his arms thrust upward as if he’s a marionette.
I must admit, I found that an odd direction for Byrne’s show to take, because those opening numbers, in which the band and the instruments assemble piece by piece, don’t just draw our attention to the music but to its specific parts. Nothing is ever stopping us from listening to a song and focusing on one element, whether it’s the drumbeat or the backup vocals, but Byrne’s constructionist approach encourages us to deconstruct the music, and it’s a thrilling experience. But for me some of that enthusiasm for the music is lost in all the antics that come after it, because, again, I see those as more about performance. And, don’t get me wrong, performance is a worthy art form in its own right. But the problem with Byrne’s choreography is that once our attention is focused on that performance, it’s somewhat difficult to see—or, more accurately, to hear—beyond it. And whereas so many pop stars try to illuminate the themes of their songs—usually far too literally—Byrne’s antics are abstractionist to the point that Mick Jagger’s signature electrocuted rooster strut almost seems expressive of something more than raw energy by comparison.
If this makes it sound as if I dislike Stop Making Sense or Byrne’s staging, well, that’s not the case at all. And I think Demme does a fine job of capturing the music almost in spite of Byrne’s entertaining distractions. But if Woodstock is really about community and Gimme Shelter is really about tragedy, I think this film keeps the streak alive of music films that aren’t really about music. This is about performance. Am I right?
EH: I don’t think so. Or, perhaps more accurately, the performance aspect is so intimately tied to the music that they nearly become the same thing. Rather than distracting from the music, to me Byrne’s antics are an intrinsic part of the music. His jittery motions, his outsized persona, his nerdy enthusiasm and high-energy calisthenics routines: it all seems to feed into, and equally to derive from, the music itself, to the point that the music and the motion surrounding it become inextricable. It’s hard to separate the music—jumpy, spastic, a bundle of raw nerves and ironic sentiments—from Byrne’s persona(lity). It’s true, the opening four or five songs, where our attention is turned to each individual element of the music one instrument at a time, represent a pinnacle of musical deconstruction that’s hard to top. But I don’t see the rest of the film as a letdown so much as a natural continuation of that initial buildup. When Byrne is jogging around the stage or dancing with a floor lamp, sure, it’s performative, but it’s also very attuned to the rhythms and even the thematic subtexts of the music. Byrne’s music, with its anxious rhythms and lyrics that are alternately desperate and yearning for happiness and peace, is a kind of nervous breakdown for suburbia. Much of the stage show in Stop Making Sense reflects that aspect of the band’s music, suggesting minimalist home spaces floating in the darkness, or surreal slogans glowing neon like bizarre corporate logos.
There’s a thin line between performance elements that distract from the music, and performance elements that simply enhance and inform the substance of the music, and for me at least, the shows captured in Stop Making Sense generally fall on the right side of that line. Sure, by the end of the film it’s all devolved into a frenzied tent revival atmosphere where the music seems like the least important thing going on—particularly when Byrne, in a gesture that’s equal parts touching and showman-like, invites the stage hands out for a bow—but much of what happens before that is minimalist enough that the music is simply enriched by the little nuances of Bynre’s geeky non-dancing or the stage props. In fact, considering how much the Talking Heads’ music is about polyrhythm and syncopation, I’d argue that all the dancing and running and jittery motion merely adds another layer to the shifting percussion of the music: Byrne’s rubbery neck pulsing in time with the beat emphasizes the dominance of the rhythmic elements in this band. (And if there’s any question about how crucial Byrne is to both the music and the spectacle, check out how boring both become during the brief interlude when he cedes the stage to the Tina Weymouth/Chris Frantz side project Tom Tom Club.)
So, yes, Stop Making Sense is certainly about performance to some degree, but it’s about performance intimately wedded to music and meaning, rather than simply an empty spectacle.
JB: It’s certainly not “empty spectacle.” Furthermore, you make a great point about the way Byrne’s overall energy syncs with the music, even if each specific gyration is essentially meaningless (and, while we’re here, I agree that Byrne’s presence is missed in the Tom Tom Club interlude—a quirky ditty that I delighted in for about 15 seconds before wishing it would end already). The fun thing about watching Byrne’s antics is that as much as they justifiably inspire the question, “What is he doing!?” they also inspire the question, “Well, what else would he do?” Whether it’s because too many music stars mindlessly imitate their idols or because certain music actually inspires specific responses, each music genre tends to have its own rules for physical representation. Metal rockers slam their heads, flip their hair and grimace. Rappers strut and pose. Pop musicians do graceful, choreographed dances. Country musicians do whatever they can do while wearing a cowboy hat and boots and wrangling a big guitar. But the music of the Talking Heads doesn’t fit neatly into any box, and so it’s fitting that Byrne’s choreography doesn’t either. And so in the big picture I guess I agree with you: Byrne’s physical interpretations of his songs actually help us to understand the music itself.
In that way, watching this film made me think of another music group with a hard-to-classify sound: OK Go. This is a group less known for their music than their YouTube-sensational music videos, like the one for “Here It Goes Again”, in which the group does a choreographed routine on treadmills, or the one for “This Too Shall Pass”, which features a gloriously goofy Rube Goldberg machine. It would be tempting to dismiss OK Go as a gimmick, but instead I wonder if they’re visionaries of Byrne’s caliber. In our discussion of Gimme Shelter, we appreciated the stage presence of Tina Turner, who seemed to so effortlessly enhance her music by unleashing her raw sexuality. But when you think about it, Turner had it easy. She could suggestively stroke her microphone—a hardly original move that she just happened to do more convincingly than anyone else. And so while I do think Byrne’s stage antics overshadow the music itself, I also admire that he’s willing to do the unusual to visually express a kind of music that has no automatic interpretations.
EH: I think that’s well-stated. The Talking Heads’ stage show in this film is so striking because it does distance itself from the traditional rocker poses, because Byrne isn’t afraid to be geeky—he even engages in some playful self-mockery when the backup dancers imitate his goofy, gangly running motions while dancing with him, gently poking fun at the frontman’s antics. Stephanie Zacharek, in the review cited above, says that moment also calls attention to Byrne’s white boy nerdiness in contrast to the soulfulness of the music he’s channeling, and I think there’s some truth to that as well. One of the subtexts of this film is the idea that the Talking Heads are (yet another) white band incorporating “black music” into their sound, whether it’s funk (keyboardist Bernie Worrell and backup singer Mabry Holt are both alumni of George Clinton’s P-Funk orbit) or soul or African polyrhythms or the increasing gospel tinges that enter the music towards the end of the show. The one-by-one introductions at the beginning also emphasize this aspect of the performance, as the band starts as an all-white assemblage until, by the time everyone’s on stage, half the people playing are black. It’s an acknowledgment, perhaps, of the band’s debt to the black music that informs their style, another indication that the stage show is deeply integrated into this music.
Anyway, I like your idea that certain types of music elicit a corresponding visual language, and it’s obvious that Byrne and the Talking Heads invented their distinctive visual language more or less from scratch, just as they had with their highly original sound. That’s a key difference, incidentally, between them and the example you cite of OK Go, who much like the White Stripes consistently marry clever videos to an overly familiar sound, with the White Stripes channeling classic garage rock and OK Go fitting neatly into the current fad for dance-punk and post-punk revivalists. The Talking Heads united visual and musical originality into a coherent whole; there’s a fairly small and select group of artists who can say the same.
Speaking of musical originality, and the lack thereof, maybe it’s time to turn to Rattle and Hum, Phil Joanou’s film about U2’s 1987 US tour. I’ll say right up front: I really dislike U2, and always have, which is a pretty big hurdle to clear in trying to talk somewhat objectively about a film that’s solely about them and their music. I bring this up because I think an important point about music documentaries is that, generally speaking, they’re viewed less as standalone films than as souvenirs for fans of the bands involved. Some music films attempt to stretch beyond this narrow purview, and we’ve already discussed how Woodstock and Gimme Shelter are as much about social context and ideas as the actual music—but at the end of the day, the viewer who doesn’t enjoy the music is missing a crucial part of the intended experience of the concert film. So Rattle and Hum was admittedly a tough slog for me, between Bono’s pompous posturing and the group’s bland, slick arena rock that seems designed to be belted out in baseball stadiums. I do have some more substantive comments about the film, too, don’t worry, but for now I’ll hand this back to you with a question: can a relatively straightforward concert/tour film like Rattle and Hum (or Stop Making Sense, for that matter, though that film at least is so visually inventive that I suspect it could wow even a Talking Heads skeptic) ever resonate with those who aren’t fans of the band being profiled?
JB: That’s a great question, and my answer sends me back to the beginning of this conversation. If one of the main motives of any concert film is to replicate the experience of being there, it only makes sense that one’s personal response to the music will largely dictate our feelings about the film as a whole (if the music itself is the main attraction, that is, which is truer in these latter films we’re discussing than in the cases of Woodstock and Gimme Shelter, in which the music is a secondary part of the “experience”). This can be true of dramatic films, too, of course. If you’re turned off by blood and suffering, for example, you’d struggle to appreciate horror, or Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. If you don’t like musicals or dancing, you’re going to find West Side Story torturous. In those instances, filmmakers are attempting to deliver and/or otherwise conjure something that the viewer happens to find nauseating (for you, in this specific case, that would be Bono and U2). The more successful the filmmaker is, the more uncomfortable the viewer becomes. At least, that’s the potential. As you’ve indicated, there might still be room to recognize or appreciate the artistry of the filmmaking itself, but enjoyment and/or other forms of emotional connectivity would be close to impossible, much the same way that from a public relations standpoint I admire the excellence with which Fox News implements its agenda while at the same time being turned off by that agenda.
Having said that, I think it’s revealing that you think Stop Making Sense is “visually inventive” enough to “wow” Talking Heads skeptics, with the unspoken implication that Rattle and Hum doesn’t achieve the same. For me, both films are in the same boat. True, the clever constructionist beginning of the Talking Heads concert provides that something extra that takes the pressure off the music itself, so that someone not fond of the Talking Heads’ music would have something else to appreciate. But beyond those first five songs, I don’t think the filmmaking or the band’s stage antics are so compelling that they would overcome a significant distaste for the music. And if someone found Byrne’s all-eyes-on-me dance moves and curious wardrobe changes to be “pompous posturing,” they’d be right where you are when watching Bono and the rest of U2 in Rattle and Hum. So while it’s accurate to say that the Talking Heads concert is more visually inventive in terms of concert staging, what that observation overlooks is that Stop Making Sense never strays from the stage, whereas Rattle and Hum isn’t so confined. By saying that, I’m alluding of course to shots of the band’s various offstage wanderings, from Harlem to Graceland, but also to the film’s use of multiple concert venues, from that tranquil chapel where the band sings “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” with a church choir, to the chaotic Embarcadero Center in San Francisco where the band performs on the back of a flatbed truck, to Sun Devil Stadium in Arizona, where the film breaks from black-and-white to capture the throbbing energy of a generic arena setting in dark, moody color.
Full disclosure: I like U2, and most of this music specifically, and on top of that I once worked in an office connected to Sun Devil Stadium that I can see in this film’s dizzying helicopter shots. So in my case Rattle and Hum pulls some strings that produce some nostalgic responses. Recognizing that, no, I don’t think this film is a major triumph of its genre, nor is it the kind of thing that would likely convert a U2 skeptic—though I suppose it could. (I’d say the same thing about Stop Making Sense.) But what the film does do well is portray the spirit of a U2 concert, for better or worse, the same way Gimme Shelter presents the unique energy of the Rolling Stones. It also shows how the band’s music can be both intimate (“I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” with the choir, or “When Love Comes to Town” with B.B. King) and, yes, “slick arena rock.” And, perhaps most interesting of all, in its brief tangents from concert footage it gives us a glimpse of a foreigner’s view of American culture circa 1988 that I think is too easily written off as fluffy insert footage. I don’t want to imply that the offstage stuff in this film is profound, or that it’s anywhere near as compelling as the action around the music in Woodstock and Gimme Shelter. Not by a long shot. But it’s worth asking: What does it tell us about America—never mind U2—that two of the must-stop locations on the band’s tourist itineraries are the shrines to Martin Luther King Jr., and Elvis Presley? Again, it would be inaccurate to call Rattle and Hum a profound film. But if Woodstock and Gimme Shelter are culture films, in addition to music films, I think Rattle and Hum is, too, even if it’s a one-calorie version of those rich classics.
EH: At the end of the day, you’re right, Rattle and Hum may have more in common, in general terms, with Stop Making Sense than not, even if the U2 film does often venture beyond the concert stage. And my appreciation of the Talking Heads—I’ve never been a huge fan, but I like much of what they do and respect their originality a great deal—would make Stop Making Sense automatically more palatable than Rattle and Hum regardless of other cinematic factors. Rattle and Hum, it must be admitted, is competently made and does a decent job of blending together footage of the band offstage with songs performed in concert. As you say, it also attempts at times to stretch beyond the music and incorporate cultural context from the band’s tour of America.
I wonder, though, about the purpose of these diversions. Several times the film creates linkages between U2 and other musical and cultural heritages, with questionable effect. When the film dissolves from a Harlem street performance (by a black/white duo apparently known as Satan and Adam) to U2 performing “Silver and Gold” in concert, is it meant to suggest a spiritual and musical connection between these mega-selling pop stars and street-corner buskers? I get a similar sense out of the clumsy attempts at synthesis between U2’s slick stylings and the more soulful sound of B.B. King or a gospel choir. Later in the film, a snippet of Hendrix’s “Star-Spangled Banner” leads into “Bullet the Blue Sky,” as though Bono’s preachy, self-righteous speeches are as powerful a political statement as Hendrix’s simple act of deconstructing his country’s national anthem. Again and again, the band, and the film, seem to be suggesting that U2 is deeply connected to American culture, and more specifically to black culture, but to me there’s something shallow and superficial about U2’s attempts to evoke the deep feelings of blues and gospel. The fusions never seem organic, as the gospel segment especially proves: U2 does its thing, and then the choir does its thing, and there’s very little overlap between the two halves of the performance.
Probably the most damning scenes in the film center around the band’s transparent attempts to associate themselves with Elvis Presley, first by playing in Sun Studios with Memphis session players, then by visiting Graceland itself. At Graceland, the filmmakers dissolve from a photo of Elvis on his motorcycle to drummer Larry Mullen posing on the same motorcycle and talking about how much he idolizes Elvis, and how he wishes that Elvis’ grave wasn’t at Graceland, presumably so he could concentrate more fully on the kitsch and empty-headed hero worship without any more complicated emotions getting in the way. The motorcycle scene is a pretty amazing example of a celebrity sense of entitlement, as Bono keeps cajoling and prodding some poor staffer to let Mullen pose on the bike, something which is clearly strictly forbidden. But Bono’s charm and irrepressible sense of privilege eventually win out, and the staffer gives in with a weak caveat that no pictures are allowed—and even that is obviously a broken promise considering the footage winds up in the film. It’s amazing that the band (and the filmmakers, who don’t seem to be out to critique the musicians in any way) apparently thought this scene reflected well on them, that they weren’t embarrassed to be seen as the privileged pop royalty they are. What’s weird about the film at moments like this is that, though the filmmakers aren’t criticizing U2—indeed, the film is often overtly reverential—they do provide all the ammunition necessary for detractors. I guess that means the film is honest almost in spite of itself, or that its attempts at propaganda wind up backfiring.
JB: That’s a fair assessment, and what’s interesting about it is the way your feelings about U2 affect your feelings about the filmmaker’s intent. When we discussed Gimme Shelter, you had no doubt that the Maysles brothers knew they were showing that the Rolling Stones were at least partially responsible for the violence at Altamont, even though the film seems mostly sympathetic to the Stones (rightfully so, I think). But in this case, because you distrust the sincerity of U2, you question whether Joanou, and the band, are aware that this film might portray them in a way that is honest, yet unflattering.
I can’t help pausing here for a brief tangent: Just yesterday I happened to buy Chuck Klosterman’s latest book of essays, Eating the Dinosaur. The recurring theme of the book is truth and illusion, and so it’s packed with Klosterman’s meditations on what it means when our idea of truth proves incompatible with reality. (I recommend the book if for no other reason than that Klosterman writes about, and in the first case interviews, Errol Morris and Werner Herzog, and in doing so he touches on some of the subjects we argued about in previous editions of The Conversations.) In one essay Klosterman suggests that one of the reasons American society is so dominated by irony is because we’ve become so comfortable with lying. “To varying degrees, almost every new cultural invention is built on (a) an overt suggestion of partial dishonesty or (b) the universal inference that the artist must be lying, even if he or she insists otherwise,” Klosterman writes. “This is why we become so disoriented whenever someone tells the truth in a forthright manner; it always seems so ridiculous precisely because it is not.”
Reading that line, not long after reading your initial comments about Bono’s “pompous posturing,” I remembered yet another Klosterman essay, this one anthologized in his book IV, in which Klosterman, having spent two hours with Bono, finds himself riding in a Maserati with the singer and humanitarian (in 2004) wondering, “is Bono real, or is Bono full of shit?” Amazingly, that’s the question Klosterman asks himself before Bono stops his car to sign autographs for some teenagers hanging out by U2’s recording studio and winds up giving the kids a lift across town. Klosterman responds to that odd development by asking himself, “Did this really just happen? Am I supposed to believe he does this kind of thing all the time, even when he doesn’t have a reporter in the front seat of his car? And does that even matter?…Was this whole thing a specific performance, or is Bono’s entire life a performance? And if your entire life is a performance, does that make everything you do inherently authentic? Is this guy for real, or is this guy completely full of shit?”
I quote Klosterman’s ponderings here not because I think they provide the key to understanding Bono. Rather, it’s to offer up this possibility: What if the shots of the band at Graceland simply reveal their fan-like awe for a music icon? What if they’re not trying to “associate” with Presley at all, but rather they’re trying to walk in his footsteps, like any common fan making that kind of pilgrimage? True, the members of U2 have the ability to record at Sun Studios, and the influence to get a shot on a motorcycle, so, yes, your reading is not out of bounds, nor is your feeling that their use (or abuse) of their privilege is unflattering. But maybe they aren’t making tactical maneuvers to improve their image in those scenes, which might explain why Bono’s sense of entitlement is so easily captured. Similarly, what if those encounters in Harlem are an effort to seek that global connectivity, rather than glorify themselves for their worldliness? It looks like I’m defending U2 here, and that’s actually not my intent. I’m making this point in an effort to loop back to my previous entry when I asked what it says about America that the band’s quest to connect with America sends them to Harlem, Graceland and Martin Luther King’s grave. Because to me, for better or worse, the U2 captured in Rattle and Hum seems earnest—earnest in a way that seems ridiculous. But while I feel like the film gives me a glimpse of U2, I also feel like it gives me a sense of America’s global identity in the late 1980s. As the band walks through Harlem and looks at that busker, they regard him like he’s an animal in a zoo, a creature from another world. Flattering to U2? No. But interesting.
EH: Those Klosterman excerpts do a great job of illuminating some of what we’re talking about here. It’s true that what I’m wrestling with in regard to Bono and U2 in this film—what I always wrestle with whenever my thoughts turn to this band—is the doubt that Klosterman describes. I doubt their sincerity, in ways that go beyond the typical rock star posturing that I expect from a big rock band like them or the Stones. U2, now that I think of it, occupies something of an unusual position in modern culture, precisely because that uncertainty exists. No one has any such uncertainty about image-conscious pop idols like Britney Spears or Lady Gaga, who are always performing, always assumed to be mostly a self-aware façade. And at the other end of the spectrum, everyone assumes (rightly or wrongly) a certain amount of authenticity and sincerity in bands who exist somewhat outside the mainstream, like Fugazi, who we’ll be talking about next. U2, though, inevitably provokes these questions about the mix of posturing and earnestness in the image they project.
So while the band’s visit to Graceland is surely at least in part an authentic expression of fan admiration, it’s hard for me to get beyond the feeling that, as Klosterman says about Bono, everything they do is performance. To call back to a shot from Gimme Shelter, there isn’t a moment here that feels as genuine and unpremeditated as Keith Richards’ toe-tapping response to “Wild Horses” in the earlier film. To be fair to U2, of course, the difference may be due merely to the massive changes in media awareness that have occurred in the years between the two films. As we suggested earlier, it’s become much harder over the years to capture genuine moments and genuine human reactions on film, with reality TV, ironically, being the final nail in the coffin of real video footage. So maybe the uncertainty about how much of Rattle and Hum is genuine and how much is a put-on is, as Klosterman suggests, largely a factor of living in an era of irony, an era when both performers and audiences are hyper-aware of the media’s ability to filter and stage reality.
That said, the film’s habit of dissolving from freeze frames of some other cultural figure (B.B. King, Elvis, Martin Luther King) to a member of U2 does seem calculated to build associations between the band and their idols, as though the band yearns to be in close proximity to an unironic, un-pretentious culture, to forms of music (blues, gospel) that have the weight of tradition and (perceived) authenticity behind them. And that, as you say, is very interesting. To the extent that this film says something about America in the process of following a U2 tour, I think what it has to say is that we are a society obsessed with authenticity and history, even as so much of our mass culture is ironic, hyper-modern, inauthentic, and repetitive. There’s indeed something nearly anthropological about the way U2 watches those street performers, as though they’re observing something alien. (And the story of that street duo is fascinating in its own right, too, and resonates with these issues of authenticity.) It’s like two worlds coming face to face, the big international superstars gaping at the guys playing their raw, idiosyncratic music on a street corner. Whatever the intention behind that scene was, I’m glad it’s in the film, because it really is such a densely packed moment of cultural interaction.
JB: Right, and whatever that scene’s intent, it feels genuine to me. Or at least earnestly inauthentic, which seems to be the band’s, and especially Bono’s, default setting. Even though I agree with you that Rattle and Hum doesn’t have a scene that gets behind the curtain of U2 to the degree of the “Wild Horses” scene in Gimme Shelter, I also find the late-‘80s setting to be pre-reality-TV enough that I don’t automatically question whether each gesture is calculatingly choreographed. Of course, having said that, I also concede that U2 is so image savvy that it would only make sense that they might have been ahead of the curve in terms of grasping the importance of playing to the camera. And I also concede that the film’s predominant use of black-and-white might fool me into thinking that these scenes took place in an even simpler, more naïve time.
On that note, I think it’s altogether fitting, in a way that Joanou couldn’t have anticipated when he was shooting the film, that when the film does employ color, in the concert at Sun Devil Stadium, it has a very surreal quality to it. During the performance of “Where the Streets Have No Name,” for example, the camera is often pointing into the distant but powerful lights illuminate the stage, so that Bono is little more than a silhouette in the fog. Then, during the performance of “With or Without You,” Bono is captured in some tight closeups that more than 20 years later I find startlingly reminiscent of a Robert Zemeckis-animated motion-capture film like The Polar Express or an otherwise CGI-enhanced film like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Bono’s eyes have that somewhat empty, off-putting glassiness of those Zemeckis films while his face seems as if it might be digitally altered into its (relative) youthful perfection, as Brad Pitt’s face was in Benjamin Button. There’s just something ethereal about those shots, which, again, is quite perfect for a band whose authenticity is so often in question.
That brings us around to the last film in our discussion, Instrument, which captures a band that, as you said, is often thought of as dedicatedly authentic, assuming that isn’t a contradiction in terms. There isn’t much about Fugazi and U2 that seems similar, not their music nor their manner of performing (or not) to the camera, but Rattle and Hum and Instrument are actually quite a bit alike: both of them capture the band in question at several venues while also incorporating offstage footage that looks to reveal what the band stands for. That said, before you dive into Instrument itself, I’m curious: Do you think watching these films in close succession had an effect on how you viewed Fugazi’s authenticity? That is, did the proximity of those viewings underline the differences between U2 and Fugazi or expose their similarities?
EH: That’s a good question. I make no secret of the fact that I came into this conversation with pretty set opinions of both bands: that Fugazi is great and innovative, with an ideology I admire, while U2 is a bunch of boring posers. I can’t say either Rattle and Hum or Instrument shook up my opinion of either band to any great extent, though watching them in such close proximity did put the bands and their respective films in perspective. And, to me, the differences are only magnified by the comparison. Although Instrument and Rattle and Hum are superficially similar types of films—tour documentaries that attempt to foster some off-stage intimacy with the band—the outlook behind the two films, and the resulting attitude and aesthetic, couldn’t be more distinct. Instrument arose from the close association of filmmaker Jem Cohen with Ian MacKaye, a friendship that stretches back to when both men were in high school. Cohen was thus on hand for the very beginning of Fugazi, as an audience member and friend, casually documenting shows and private moments, initially with nothing bigger in mind. The film took shape only gradually, shot over a period of eleven years and edited (by both Cohen and the band) for over five years. The resulting film is as loose and ragged as one would expect. Much of the older footage was shot on a shoestring, without sync sound, and is consequently accompanied by instrumental demos of songs from the End Hits album. This fits nicely with the overall feel of the film as a patchwork, with live performances bleeding into recording sessions, interviews and banal moments like MacKaye washing the windows on the band’s touring car.
If Rattle and Hum presents a portrait of superstar rockers parading their privilege in front of the camera, trotting out famous guests and celebrating their exceptional access to Elvis’ legacy, Instrument is a document of a band that purposefully eschews such privilege. At one point, MacKaye and fellow singer/guitarist Guy Picciotto are by a middle-school student on a cable access channel, a gesture of accessibility and openness to their fans from a band that seems determined not to put themselves on a pedestal. Now, it’d be easy, I acknowledge, to take a more cynical perspective on Fugazi and this film, to suggest that it’s as much a consciously manipulated image as any other rock documentary, and maybe it is. That said, Instrument leaves me with an impression of a band that’s genuinely striving to live up to their image and their ideals. I believe in Fugazi’s commitment to dodging the usual commercialism and hype that surrounds rock bands: when Cohen films the band having ideological conversations, there’s a sense that they’re earnestly thinking about these issues and trying to exist as a band without compromising their principles. For me, the detail that really sells it is how bemused the band members seem by some of the more extreme rumors floating around about them—that they all live together in a communal house with no electricity, for example. They’re self-aware, and they know that their public image is perhaps an exaggerated version of the truth, but at the same time they do seem authentically idealistic and authentically political in the way they handle themselves as a band.
One interesting thing about this conversation is that watching these five films in succession has focused my attention on the ways in which musicians perform—specifically, the idea that, though different bands have very different styles of performing, it’s all nonetheless a self-conscious performance. When a band is on stage, there has to be that self-consciousness about how they present themselves, and that’s as true of Fugazi’s relatively low-key image as it is of the Talking Heads’ carefully managed stage show or U2’s grandstanding and rock star poses. Probably my favorite scene in Instrument, in that respect, is the one where MacKaye—who is so intolerant of out-of-control moshing that he’s infamous for halting shows in mid-song to break up fights—defuses a potentially violent situation by telling an aggressive fan that he’d seen him eating ice cream before the show. It’s surreal and hilarious, but also kind of brilliant because it emphasizes the common humanity of the bullies and the more peaceful rest of the audience: they’re all just young kids who enjoy ice cream cones and are there to dig the music. It’s a moment of obvious performance, with MacKaye carefully calibrating the mingled outrage and gentle mockery in his speech, but it’s also an authentic expression of the band’s values and ideas. Maybe, in the end, authenticity and performance can’t actually be untangled from one another.
JB: If that’s not a rule, I think it’s at least the ideal. I suspect that we want an element of self-aware showmanship within an artist’s performance, while at the same time we want that performance to be revealing, to give us some hint of who the artist is. To go back to Gimme Shelter, Tina Turner is obviously being dramatic when she regards her microphone like it’s the cock she can’t wait to fuck, but she’s also revealing herself (or at least appears to be). We don’t expect that Tina Turner is actually aroused by microphones or even that she turns into a porn star in the presence of an erect penis. But we do expect that she’s indeed sexual and that her antics come from some place in her heart (or her loins). Likewise, to go back to Woodstock, we know that Joe Cocker is being theatrical when he goes into convulsions while performing “A Little Help From My Friends,” just as Fugazi’s Picciotto is being theatrical when he crawls around the stage. Neither of those guys would do that sort of thing in the recording studio, without an audience. That would be absurd. But just because these artists play to the crowd doesn’t mean they cease to be themselves. Performance, after all, is its own form of expression, and it requires an audience.
And that leads me here: For as unflashy as Fugazi concerts seem to be, I wouldn’t call the band’s performances “low key.” In Instrument, we see a scene in which Picciotto climbs into a basketball hoop, wraps his legs around the rim and then dangles upside down. Instrument also indicates that there’s a healthy amount of crawling on the ground and leaping about at the band’s concerts. And there’s also the singing itself, which is less about lyrics, even if much of their audience knows the words, than about the performance of those lyrics, which seems to require a lot of screaming. (Not loud singing, for the record. Screaming. There’s a difference.) Fugazi wouldn’t be mistaken for KISS, but they’re definitely performers as much as musicians, I have no doubt about that. One of my favorite moments of the film is one of its last shots, which features Picciotto furiously playing his guitar on stage, with sweat pouring off his body with each strum. That’s one of the many moments in the film in which the audio and video are out of sync, but not even the considerably subdued instrumental background music obscures the obvious: these guys rock hard.
I admire the ferocity of their performances even while I admit that Fugazi isn’t generally my thing—not on stage, at least, where their especially noisy vocals distract from otherwise engaging music. Given that I don’t know much about the band, I assumed while watching Instrument that the solely instrumental pieces were by Fugazi as well—that only made sense—but I was disappointed there was no visual validation tying that sound to the group’s performances. We see the band rocking on stage. We see them carefully tinkering with their sound in the recording studio. But they never seem to be performing any music remotely close to the stuff that so often accompanies those out-of-sync portions. I find that odd. To the film’s credit, however, Instrument does a great job of suggesting the band’s musical diversity thanks to various fan testimonials, which range from enthusiastic to disappointed to ambivalent. Because the film lacks a distinct chronology, it’s impossible to tell which fans are right, and I like that. We don’t know how Fugazi’s music has evolved, just that it has.
EH: That’s an interesting perspective, and one that, I’ll admit, I completely overlooked as someone thoroughly familiar with Fugazi’s music: just more evidence of how much viewers can bring, or not bring, to a film. The film leaps around chronologically over the period from 1987 to 1998, which enhances the feeling of a patchwork collage but does obscure the band’s musical development. Fugazi started as an extension of the thrashy hardcore sound pioneered by MacKaye and Picciotto in their previous bands, Minor Threat and Rites of Spring. And though Fugazi never quite got away from that foundation, it’s fair to say that each successive album was more musically diverse, more experimental, incorporating more overt melodicism, dubby bass, weird sound collages and more prominent whispery sections as a contrast to all the screaming. That approach would reach its peak, though, on End Hits, the demos for which appear throughout Instrument, with the result that the film’s audio/visual disconnect at times emphasizes, or even exaggerates, the distance Fugazi has traveled from their hardcore roots. While, judging by this film, Fugazi’s stage show remained heavily tied to hardcore, their albums were stretching out in other directions—prompting some of those criticisms voiced by longtime fans in this film.
Speaking of the fans, the footage of Fugazi’s fans in Instrument is one of the most fascinating aspects of the film. Cohen holds off on interviews with the fans until the very end; before that, the fans mostly appear in montages while waiting in ticket lines. In these dialogue-free shots, the mostly young faces stare down the camera, or make goofy faces, or look awkwardly away in teenage self-consciousness. So we’re left to wonder what they’re thinking, what they make of the music and the ideas that MacKaye and the other band members have about what their own music means. When Cohen finally does include the perspectives of fans, they present a wide array of reactions: some seem attuned to the band’s ideas, some just like the sound, some just want to have a good time, and some are pissed off at perceived deficiencies in the band’s punk cred, believing that they’ve sold out or otherwise lost their touch. One fan I thought was particularly funny says that MacKaye—the guy whose song “Straight Edge” more or less invented the movement of the same name—is all about partying and having a good time. The multitude of perspectives, including the obviously silly ones, prevents the film from being a top-down portrait of a band, instead branching out into how Fugazi’s music has affected their many different types of fans, from fanatics to casual admirers. In other words, no matter what MacKaye and the rest of the band believe they’re expressing, once the art goes out into the world, it’s there to be understood or misunderstood by anyone who encounters it.
That point is also driven home by the reporter who unwittingly reverses the meaning of Fugazi’s song “Blueprint,” the lyrics to which appear on screen shortly before this segment. Introducing an interview with MacKaye, the reporter twists the couplet “never mind what’s been selling/ it’s what you’re buying” into the empty capitalist koan “never mind what you’re buying/ it’s what you’re selling.” It’s a small change of words but a big change in meaning, making nonsense of the song’s idea that consumers should reject marketing and take responsibility for their own choices. Cohen’s obviously sensitive to this interpretation of the scene, but it’s to his credit that he doesn’t lean on it too forcefully, just as he never mocks the fans he interviews. For a film about a band with such a strong ideological basis, it’s refreshingly open to the idea that people get what they want out of art and music, whether it’s the “correct” meaning that the band would prefer or not.
JB: Or Fugazi is at least willing to accept that they can’t be everything to everyone, and that they’ll likely lose old fans just as quickly as they gain new ones if they allow their music to evolve. Even before we hear the fans’ testimonials, those (mute) fan montages interspersed throughout Instrument make for some of the most striking moments in the film. From a cinematic perspective, there’s just something inherently compelling about video snapshots like those, in which the subjects’ still poses allow us to study their faces as if in a still photograph, while their subtle movements (blinking, breathing, fidgeting) emphasize that the subjects’ poses are chosen, deliberate and thus reflective (at least in theory) of who they are, whereas photo portraits have the potential to mislead us by giving us a glimpse of a position that a subject ever-so-briefly assumes on the way from one intentional pose to another.
Furthermore, those montages provide a sense of the lack of homogeneity in Fugazi’s fan base. Over the course of the film we see pierced punks; a bearded guy who looks blue-collar; a bespectacled guy who looks like a computer geek; teens who seem to be finding themselves; people in their 30s and 40s who look as if they know who they are; people who you suspect leave a Fugazi concert and go straight to a bar, and people who look as if they come to a Fugazi concert from the public library; people who seem to have put a lot of thought into what they’re wearing, and people who appear to have dressed themselves in whatever clothes happened to be close by. As a group, these aren’t the kind of people you’d expect to be hanging out together and sharing ice cream cones, to nod back to that MacKaye lecture, so that they find a common interest in Fugazi is telling. I want to be careful not to imply that Fugazi brings the world together, because to some degree they’re still a niche band. But it’s a pretty darn diverse niche; far more diverse, for example, than the enormous line of almost exclusively 30- to 40-year-old women that I saw queued up outside the Verizon Center in Washington, DC, a few years ago when I was on my way to a movie and they were champing at the bit to see New Kids on the Block.
At the outset of this discussion I suggested that concert documentaries look to replicate the feeling of “being there,” and Instrument does that, if perhaps less successfully than the other films we’ve discussed, due to its frequently asynchronous approach. But with those fan montages, and with shots of the band checking in and out of cheap motels, or shopping at convenience stores, or loading the van with their equipment, or divvying up the night’s gate, what Instrument does especially well is give us the sense of what Fugazi is—as a publicly recognized band, as a group of friends and musicians, as performers, as social crusaders. There’s no moment in this film that’s as personally revealing as the one in Gimme Shelter when a traumatized Charlie Watts listens to the radio broadcast about the tragedy at Altamont. But Instrument certainly reveals the personality of the band as a whole, which in this case I think is the point.
EH: I think that’s true, though I’d quibble with the idea that Instrument doesn’t replicate the feeling of “being there” as well as the other films we’ve been discussing. Rather, it sacrifices the specificity of “being there” in one particular time and place for a visceral and evocative sense of “being there” for the long haul. Though Stop Making Sense and Woodstock do a better job of capturing what it’s like to be at a concert, I’d argue that Instrument does a better job of capturing what it’s like to actually be a band. A decade of making music is distilled into a free-associative collage of fleeting impressions, snatches of music and lyrics, things coming together or falling apart in recording sessions, private moments and interludes of stasis and quiet. At one point, Cohen edits a live version of “Smallpox Champion” down to its first few and its last few seconds before returning to the banal details of touring, suggesting the balance between prosaic life and musical performance that defines the non-superstar touring musician.
I’ve always felt that, for depicting a long period of time through the filter of memory—in this case, the memory of the video record that Cohen initially kept only as a private document—the collage approach Cohen adopts here is far superior to trying to lay everything out in a tidy chronological narrative. Films that do this well (like Edvard Munch, Syndromes and a Century, Sans soleil) equate the art of editing with the functioning of memory, which skips around through time tracing ideas and connections between events that happened years apart. We don’t think of our lives as a chronological narrative, so why should a film about a decade of Fugazi’s life as a band be any different? Moreover, the collage aesthetic reflects the film’s method of construction, providing evidence of a film shot on the fly, a ragged punk documentary about a band of punks. There are certainly tradeoffs here, and at times the limits of Cohen’s approach (and his budget) prevent the film from being as immersive a concert documentary as some of the other films we’ve been discussing. At the very least, I wish Cohen had been able to get more sync recordings from concerts. But his approach also has its virtues. Nearly as much as Woodstock, Instrument attempts to encapsulate a scene and the ideas and people surrounding the music, and Cohen’s gestalt filmmaking is very effective at building the macro picture from the smallest details.
JB: We’re actually in agreement here. Instrument doesn’t replicate the feeling of being at a concert (on a specific date, or in general) to the same immersive degree as the other films we’ve discussed, but that’s because it has a different aim. Indeed, as you said, this film captures what it means to be a band and, even more significant, what it means to be Fugazi. That’s not a lesser achievement. And you’re absolutely right: the “free-associative collage” approach does well to match the scattershot sloppiness of memory. Furthermore, it also seems to match the spirit of a band that, if Instrument is a proper reflection, has grand, poetic visions but no specific plans—not beyond the end of their current tour, at least. Fugazi’s identity is too slippery, too fluid for a textbook approach, and so the looseness of Instrument is more than justifiable; it’s also more accurate. In that way it reminds me in general of Todd Haynes’ approach to Bob Dylan in I’m Not There and specifically of the scene in which Heath Ledger’s Robbie accidentally lets a box of snapshots spill out on the floor. It’s as if Cohen and the band dumped a bunch of memories on the table and then looked at whatever caught their eye. It works.
What’s struck me over the course of our discussion is how these five documentaries, which seem to be so unrelated, so often overlap, in ways big and small, to enhance one another as cinematic experiences. For example, Woodstock and Gimme Shelter really demand to be seen as a double feature in order to understand the flipside of what was possible at Woodstock and Altamont; Gimme Shelter and Instrument are interesting to compare if for no other reason than that they show ineffective and effective means of handling unruly crowds; Instrument and Rattle and Hum contrast one band’s intimate, motel-hopping concert tours with another band’s celebrity-hobnobbing, arena spectaculars; and Rattle and Hum and Stop Making Sense provide a contrast in calculated cool and calculated dorkiness. I could go on. The point is, by the end of this conversation, when I think of these rock documentaries I think of them as unified, yes, but not by music, which seems so odd that I almost doubt it can be true.
But it is. And maybe that shouldn’t be so surprising, because now I find myself thinking about what Mick Jagger says to some press assembled outside his trailer door in Gimme Shelter: “The concert’s just like the proscenium of a theater. It’s like an excuse for everyone to get together and talk to each other and sleep with each other, and ball each other, and get very stoned, and just have a nice night out and a good day.” If that’s even halfway right, and I think it is, then I suppose that it only makes sense that music documentaries would use music as an excuse, too. And if that’s the case, it only makes sense that the least memorable or distinguishing part of a music documentary is often the music itself.
EH: That’s both true and not true, I think. All of these films, to one extent or another, are about something other than the music: performance, social context, political engagement and so on. And yet the music is more than just an excuse for whatever else happens at a concert. What these films, together, establish, is just how intertwined music can be with the lives of the people who love it. For the fans (and the musicians) in these films, music is a placeholder for identity, it’s a way of thinking about the world, it’s an attitude, it’s an indispensable part of their lives. Music, and especially rock and pop forms like we’ve been discussing here, fulfills a social role, and this function is perhaps inseparable from the music itself. Thus, even if Fugazi’s lyrics are sometimes indecipherable in concert, Instrument is full of fans singing along with the outraged howls of MacKaye and Picciotto. Even if the music at Woodstock often seems like a mere excuse for a few days of sex and drugs, with the rock n’ roll a distinct afterthought, when we think back on that era, when we as a society collectively remember the ‘60s, it’s often through the filter of the songs that defined the times. Even if Gimme Shelter is, by necessity, more about a terrible tragedy than the music that was playing while it happened, the attitude and style of the Rolling Stones’ music is nevertheless an important part of that experience.
So if these films are all about being there, part of that is being there to listen, whether one is so familiar with a song that its lyrics can be belted out spontaneously along with the singer, or one is hearing it for the first time; whether the band is inches away in a tiny, sweaty high school gym, or barely glimpsed from the upper reaches of an arena. Whatever else these films are about, it’s the music driving everything, from the meanings embedded in the lyrics to the visceral power of the music itself. The thrill and the energy of good music are at the heart of each of these films, whatever cinematic and extramusical virtues they might possess in addition. That’s why the best moments we’ve been talking about here—Tina Turner caressing a microphone, the Talking Heads building a band one piece at a time, Mick Jagger strutting to the beat, Fugazi rocking a crowded basement—wouldn’t be anything without the music.
Ed Howard chronicles his film viewing at Only the Cinema.
Interview: Michael Apted on 63 Up and the Changing Face of a Nation
Apted discusses his relationship to his subjects, and his own transformation over the years.
The Up series began in 1964 as a Granada Television International documentary special, entitled Seven Up!, touted as “glimpse of Britain’s future.” Fourteen British seven-year-olds—nine boys and five girls—from different backgrounds and classes were interviewed about their lives. Paul Almond’s film set out to prove a motto usually attributed to a founder of the Jesuit order: “Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man.”
In 1970, director Michael Apted, a researcher on Seven Up!, took over the helming of the series with Seven Plus 7. “The series was an attempt to do a long view of English society,” the filmmaker told me in a recent conversation. “The class system needed a kick up the backside.” Every seven years, Apted dropped in on the lives of his subjects, with the goal of revealing the changing face of a nation through the words, and faces, of a generation of Brits.
The series is a fascinating sociological experimental, about how matters of class, education, and opportunity in Britain have transformed over the decades. After Seven Plus 7 came seven more films, including the latest, 63 Up. Inevitably, this entry in the series is fixated on issues of aging and retirement, given that the subjects are all mostly at the tail end of their careers.
During our conversation, Apted discussed his initial involvement in the Up series, his relationship to his subjects, and his own transformation over the years.
Do the subjects see the previous installments before filming the new episodes? Do you find a theme from past interviews to follow up on in the next installment?
I decide what I want to ask and talk about. If they want to talk about something that changed [in their lives], then they can. If something new or important happened privately…I use bits of history, but I don’t tell them what I want to ask. I see if their opinions or the atmosphere changes. I don’t want to talk about their past or do an update. I start from scratch.
Do you recall the criteria for finding the subjects, and the number of subjects? They’re all likeable, which is so gratifying.
It was accidental. We wanted to look at England in 1963, ‘64. It was loosely done. We were looking at a big picture. I had no idea it would go on as long as it did. We didn’t plan the second [entry] until five years after the first. When we decided to do it again and again, it was [about] what aspect of change in their lives or the country’s life was important.
What about issues of diversity? There’s class diversity, but the series features more men than women, one minority, and no one who’s gay.
We missed the point about the increased [engagement] of women in jobs and politics. Women became central in society. Female leadership—Thatcher, a female prime minister—happened quicker than we thought. Thatcher was unique in a way. We didn’t get enough women [in the series] when we started, so I brought wives in. Women were adjacent to the people we were interviewing, so we were able to put different female voices in the film. We were keen to have the wives and husbands [as co-subjects] and use them as if they had been there since the start.
There’s a question raised about the value of the series, generally from the subjects who find it “emotionally draining” to do the interviews. What observations do you have about the value and impact of the series?
I can’t speak highly enough about the impact of the series. No one had done it, and it was an original idea. It couldn’t be done like this again. We had inspiration and luck to keep going. People copied it. We tracked major events and progress in society. I’m glad we did it when we did it. We couldn’t have chosen a better period.
There are thoughts on aging, marriage, children, opportunity, education, and, now, Brexit. How have the subjects’ opinions dovetailed or differed from yours?
I’m not interested in using the film [as a mirror] for my own views. It’s what they think. I don’t compare how I lived my life to them. I’m quite different from them. I went through different things in life. I spent much of my time in America.
Jackie takes you to task in one of the programs about your questions toward women, suggesting you’re treating the women differently. Peter dropped out for a spell, and Suzy passes on participating because of all the baggage associated with making the program. What are your feelings about the subjects who don’t cooperate?
I’m thrilled that they opened their hearts and souls as much as they did. There were areas not to be discussed. I did not want to alienate them. If things got controversial, fair enough. I pursued the things they pursued in what they said. I didn’t say, “Why not be a doctor?”
Symon lacks ambition in his younger years. Neil struggled with homelessness in his youth. Tony makes a perhaps bad business decision. Some of the subjects—Lynn and Bruce, in particular—make efforts to give back to society. What can you say about the opportunities the subjects had being in the series? Did you ever help them?
I would help them in small ways, but I didn’t change their lives. They had opportunities that came from being on the program. But they couldn’t take advantage of [their participation], like getting a job because they were in the project.
You will primarily be known for this series, but you’ve also made classic films like Coal Miner’s Daughter, a Bond picture, even a Jennifer Lopez vehicle. What observations do you have about your career and how this program shaped your life and work?
I think it helped me a lot. The films I like best are hybrids. Coal Miner’s Daughter was a sociological film and an intimate story. I can get real performances out of people from doing documentaries. I cast well, and hope people trust me having seen these films. There has been no backlash. That was my ambition. The series kept me oriented to do what I wanted to do. Granada kept it ongoing. I convinced [executives] that if I wanted to do Gorillas in the Mist with real gorillas, then I could make that because I was a realistic documentary storyteller.
The theme of the series is “Show me the child when he is seven, and I will show you the man.” Do you think there’s a truth to that, given that you have at least one counterexample in 63 Up? What were you like at seven?
I was shy and didn’t say much at that age. I thought things, though. I went to a good secondary school in London. You would be surprised if you saw me at seven. I had lucky breaks and good luck. I was 21, 22 [when the series started in 1963]. It was a good thing that the program was embraced. I was lucky to be at the right place at the right time—the year after I left Cambridge. I made a good decision even if I wasn’t aware of it at the time.
Will there be a 70 Up? Would this series continue without you?
I don’t know if everyone will be alive, but if they are, yes. You never know. I’d like to go on for as long as I am above ground. I’d like it to continue.
Review: Michael Apted’s 63 Up Is a Grand Meditation on Mortality
Throughout, the remaining participants take stock of private and career successes as well as perceived failures.3.5
Intimations of mortality inform much of 63 Up, the ninth and latest installment of director Michael Apted’s monumental Up series, which has checked in with a representative cross-section of 14 Britons every seven years since 1964, when they were seven years old. In one sense, the elegiac edge to 63 Up can be put down to a structural factor: The participants are now in their autumn years, nearing or at retirement age, and thus in an ideal position to look back over their lives, taking stock of private and career successes as well as perceived failures. Most of them find themselves suspended, as it were, between generations: dealing with aging or infirm parents while trying to leave their mark on the next generation.
When it comes to two participants, the pall of finitude hangs all too heavy. Lynn, a librarian, passed away five years ago owing to a brain condition that had been documented earlier in the series, triggered by an almost ridiculously mundane accident: She was struck in the arm by a swing while playing with her grandchildren. In one of the film’s most unabashedly affecting sequences, Apted gathers her family around the table to discuss Lynn’s volunteer work and literacy advocation, a legacy that’s literalized when the local library endows a reading room with a plaque in her honor. Elsewhere, nuclear physicist and academician Nick has been diagnosed with throat cancer and a concomitant blood disease, leaving him to ruminate on the nature of his existence, in particular emotions brought to the fore by the recent death of his father. “All the things we repress as hard as we can,” as Nick puts it.
The phenomenon of Brexit allows Apted to delve more explicitly into politics and the British class system than he has in some of the more recent installments. Needless to say, no one thinks Brexit is a great idea, not even Tony, who works as a cab driver and initially voted for the measure but now suspects he might have been hoodwinked. More nuanced are responses to the question of where the class system is at nowadays. Some say it still thrives, some that it’s been replaced by a sort of superficial meritocracy based solely on fame and fortune. No one seems too hopeful for the future, and most of the participants speak to the steady narrowing of opportunities for well-paying jobs and quality housing.
The bedrock question of identity that the Up series explores is contained in the Jesuit motto that opened the first film, Seven Up!, and gets trotted out in every subsequent installment: “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.” To what extent, Apted’s series asks, are we made by where we came from—the legacy of our parents and our early education? How free are we to create ourselves from moment to moment? When asked, nearly every participant in 63 Up recognizes a certain truth in the Jesuitical credo, and detects a definite resemblance between who they are now and who they were then.
Watching Apted’s film shuttle back and forth through the participants’ lives, it’s abundantly clear that the trajectory of any given life can never be seen clearly from the beginning. It’s one of the reasons viewers want to keep checking back in with these folks. Even as opportunities for radical existential change seem to be funneling down toward the absolute zero of extinction, there are always developments that continue to surprise us. And, with the Up series, the one figure who’s embodied that truth more often than any other is Neil.
From college dropout to member of government, Neil’s arc certainly has been the most egregiously dramatic. At 63, he seems perched on the precise point halfway between settled and uprooted, splitting his time between rural Cumbria and rural France, between performing lay ministry and dealing with the fallout of a failed marriage. In a perfectly apt final shot, we see Neil bicycling off into the distance, the next stage in his life’s journey anybody’s guess.
Director: Michael Apted Distributor: BritBox Running Time: 139 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: 21 Bridges Is a Cop Thriller with a Confounding Sense of Timing
It’s difficult to imagine a worse time to release Brian Kirk’s 21 Bridges than the present.1
It’s difficult to imagine a worse time to release 21 Bridges than the present. The film’s premise, about police bringing Manhattan’s transit system to a complete halt in order to facilitate a manhunt for two cop killers, draws immediate parallels to the explosion of NYPD officers in the city’s already crowded subways in order to crack down on turnstile jumpers. The speed with which the NYPD seals off the borough in 21 Bridges is presented not as a chilling glimpse into police-state overreach, but as a hip montage of professional efficiency, a show of inflamed passions at the loss of several colleagues in the line of duty.
Spearheading this initiative is Detective André Davis (Chadwick Boseman), a trigger-happy cop with a history of killing perps. We meet Davis as a child sitting in a cathedral watching the funeral of his father, a cop killed by strung-out crackheads. As the reverend (John Douglas Thompson) gives a shockingly bloodthirsty eulogy, celebrating the dead policeman as a warrior for punishing the two of his three attackers by killing them, we see young André (Christian Isaiah) gradually stifle his tears, embracing the steeliness of the man he would become: a hard-edged cop eager to put any criminal who dares stand up to him in the ground.
Davis finds ample traction for this worldview among the members of a police precinct where eight officers are murdered by two thieves, Michael (Stephan James) and Ray (Taylor Kitsch). As McKenna (J.K. Simmons), the local police captain, tells Davis at one point, the wives and children of the slain cops will be so profoundly consumed with mourning that they shouldn’t have to be dealt the additional “trauma” of seeing the perpetrators going through the legal process of trials and appeals. In so many words, McKenna asks Davis to “spare” the families such a burden, and it’s an assignment that the young detective very much relishes.
21 Bridges never really pauses to consider how Davis let a childhood trauma justify a lifetime of dubious behavior under the legal protection of a badge, and indeed, it presents his dogged pursuit of the killers through the clichés of so many thrillers about loose-cannon cops driven by their take-no-prisoners intensity. Yet even before Davis enters the crime scene, we see how the murdered cops were implicated in the drug trade that Michael and Ray disrupted by robbing a cocaine stash that was clearly protected by the cops who happened upon the heist. And this advance knowledge of the dirty ties that the slain officers had to the underworld creates a potentially intriguing dramatic irony in Davis’s quest to sanctify the fallen officers.
But instead of using the audience’s awareness of the greater truth to critique its hero, the film merely barrels through a series of plot twists that are twists only to Davis. He obliviously seeks vengeance for dirty cops whose equally corrupt colleagues launch their own ruthless efforts to silence Michael and Ray, as well as anyone who could expose their involvement in New York’s drug trade. This makes Davis, in many ways, ancillary to the story, a third wheel that’s ostensibly meant to come off as sympathetic to the audience.
Of course, the only way that Davis can seem like a good guy is for 21 Bridges to never call the morality of his manhunt into question. And when the film shows any disgust at all, it’s in the way that the other cops’ unseemly connections make them unfit for the job that someone like Davis upholds so fiercely: Our protagonist quickly picks up on the suspiciousness of his colleagues’ behavior, yet the film treats the ruthlessness of crooked officers covering their asses as somehow different than his own hyper-violent sense of justice.
When, late in the film, Davis summarizes his feelings on the police getting involved with the drug trade by saying “that blood cannot be on the badge,” he sounds ridiculous, so certain of his own moral righteousness even as he, too, leaves bodies in his wake. In the end, 21 Bridges suggests that the only true problem with the increasing power of a police state is that some cops might be unworthy of the authority otherwise duly invested in them.
Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Sienna Miller, Stephan James, Keith David, Alexander Siddig, Taylor Kitsch, J.K. Simmons, Louis Cancelmi, Victoria Cartagena Director: Brian Kirk Screenwriter: Adam Mervis, Matthew Michael Carnahan Distributor: STX Entertainment Running Time: 99 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Interview: Marielle Heller on Mr. Rogers and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Our conversation led us into discussion about how far Mr. Rogers’s philosophy can extend into today’s world.
Fred Rogers had no shortage of simple yet beautiful sayings pertaining to countless people and professions, including, it appears, journalists. In a nugget from the recent New York Times profile of Tom Hanks, archival documents revealed that Mr. Rogers had laid out the principles that he hoped his Esquire profiler, Tom Junod, would adhere to when writing about him. Among them were “journalists are human beings not stenographers, human beings not automatons” and “be aware of celebrating the wonders of creation.” Junod’s piece did, ultimately, become a tribute to the life-altering power of Mr. Rogers’s empathic power and serves as the inspiration for the new film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.
“Wasn’t that so beautiful?” remarked the film’s director, Marielle Heller, when I broached the subject of Rogers’s journalistic pillars with her. I admitted that I could not feign the impartiality of an automaton in our conversation given how deeply the film moved me. After delivering two films where tenderness broke through the facades of more hardened characters, 2015’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl and 2018’s Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Heller’s third feature fully embraces sincerity and rejects cynicism without ever feeling cloying or corny.
Unlike Lloyd Vogel (played by Matthew Rhys), the film’s fictionalized avatar of Junod, I couldn’t pretend to be unmoved or skeptical of a creation that made me feel such profound emotion. Heller’s chronicle of how Mr. Rogers (embodied here by Tom Hanks) changed one person picks up and continues the television icon’s work by allowing his message of love and forgiveness to reach, and thus transform, more lives.
I spoke with Heller over the phone ahead of her sending A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood out into the world, a process she claimed would be the hardest part of the film’s journey to screen. Our conversation began with how Mr. Rogers’s legacy loomed large over the shoot and led us into discussion about how far his philosophy can extend into today’s world.
I’ve read that you attached quotes from Mr. Rogers on the daily call sheet. Was there a sense that this set and production needed to be infused with his personality and grace?
Oh my gosh, totally. I think we all felt like we were so privileged getting to work on his own story, and we were filming it in his hometown of Pittsburgh on the stage where he originally filmed the program. We were walking among the ghost of Fred Rogers the whole time, and we were trying to invoke him whenever we could.
The way Tom Hanks portrays Mr. Rogers is less of an impression and more of an inhabitation, particularly when it comes to portraying his patience and stillness. Those moments must be like walking a tightrope, so how did you find the right balance, be it in directing Tom’s performance on set or finding the rhythm in the editing room?
Truthfully, we tried to get the rhythm right on set. Part of that was because Jody [Lee Lipes, the cinematographer] and I had devised a way of filming this that wasn’t really meant to be edited super quick with lots of cutting. It was meant to sit in shots for longer and let things play in two-shots or single shots that moved. We got to rehearse, which is something I always hope to do with movies, and part of the rehearsal is about trying to find the rhythms in the script and have the actors find their pacing. I tend to approach things like theater in that way where you sit around, do table work, work through the bigger emotional beats of a scene, ask questions, comment on it and really play with it. By the time we’re shooting it, we know what we need to be hitting in a bigger emotional way and can be focusing on other things as well.
But every day, I was constantly pushing Tom to go slower and stiller than he could possibly imagine because Fred really was incredibly still and listened so intently. And Tom would say, “Really? I thought I was so still and so slow! Really, still slower? Okay!” I would say, “I want you to sit and listen and wait as long as you possibly can before you respond to this question. Sit, take him in and wait so much longer than you expect to.” We were really trying to build that pace into the actual filming. Luckily, Tom loves to be directed. He’s an actor who loves the relationship with the director. He never minded that I was nitpicking him.
How did you approach the big moment of silence in the film? Was it actually a minute long like Mr. Rogers says?
It’s a little more than a minute! [laughs] Just over a full minute. I actually held myself back from timing it when we were editing it, just because I was trying to feel it. Tom and I were just talking about that scene in a Q&A. He was saying that while we filmed it, he thought, “Are you really going to do this? Are you serious right now?” And I was like, “Yeah, that was the scene I was clearest about when I signed onto the movie.” It’s the moment that the audience becomes an active participant in the film, and that’s what Mr. Rogers does with his program. He asks the kids who’re watching the show to be active participants. He asks them, “Can you see the color green here? What do you see when you look at this picture?” And then he waits for them to respond. That’s the moment where we’re waiting for our audience to respond.
The film unfolds, to use your words, like “a big episode of Mr. Rogers for adults.” Was all of that baked in at the script level, or were there elements you added in when you boarded the project?
It was part of the script when I came on board. That was the bigger, larger conceit of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, and then figuring out how to actually make that integrate and work cinematically was our job. How do you make an episode of Mr. Rogers that can feel both bigger than an episode of Mr. Rogers, because it’s a film after all, but how do you take these elements that are very small and handmade and make them integrate with a real-life world that can feel grounded in reality and emotionally resonant? How do you take this world of Mr. Rogers and Lloyd’s world of New York and find a way to travel between them that both points out the dissonance between the two of them and the ways in which they’re connected—and become more and more alike as we go through the movie. Or get more and more confused with each other, is maybe a better way to say it. That was part of the joy of it, figuring out how this bigger conceit, which is great on paper, can actually work.
How do you thread that thin needle of returning an adult audience to a state of childlike innocence without infantilizing them?
I think it’s a fine line, and we just tried to make it with every choice and tried to be as truthful as we could. Trying to portray taking you back in time to watch episodes of the original program, we tried to recreate them in such an authentic way that they didn’t feel like we were making fun of them in any way. Trying to find truth within it. Lloyd is a very helpful conduit for bringing us into that story because his cynicism steps in for all of our cynicism. Having somebody there going, “Come on, who is this guy? He can’t be real!” is sort of helpful for those of us who come into a story with a certain amount of neurotic cynicism. And I thought that was something so smart about the script, we have this guy who can speak for the part of us that’s outgrown Mr. Rogers. And as his cynicism gets chipped away, so does ours. I was also very aware that Mr. Rogers couldn’t be the protagonist of a movie because he’s just too evolved. But he makes a really good antagonist.
You wrote the script for your first film, but then have used other people’s for your next two. How do you make these screenplays your own when bringing them to the screen when the words don’t originate from your own mind?
Even when I’m directing a movie I haven’t written, because I’m a writer, I always work on the script. For Can You Ever Forgive Me?, I worked on the script for a long time. For this film, I worked together with Noah [Harpster] and Micah [Fitzerman-Blue], who are just incredible writers, to bring in the parts of it that felt personally connected for me. It’s about finding a script that you can find your way into from an emotional point of view and know inside and out. Then it’s many, many months of going through every single scene and feeling if there’s any line, word, or phrase that isn’t quite feeling like how I would have written it, and then us working through it! We went through the script pretty meticulously, and the script evolved and changed when I came on board. It was a beautiful script to begin with, and it made me cry many times when I read it the first time, which is why I signed on.
The script kicked around for many years but really began to take off in 2015 or so. Do you think that’s because the film serves as such a tonic for our troubled times?
I think it was a year or two after that, but I can’t quite remember. Whatever you believe, I think projects happen when they’re meant to happen. It’s really hard sometimes when you’re working on a project that takes ten years to come to be and believe that because you start to think it will never happen. But, ultimately, I have a similar philosophy about casting: You’ll lose an actor, and whoever is meant to play that part, it will work out. I feel that way with when projects came to be. I think this project, yeah, it could have been made ten years ago. But it was meant to be now. This is when we need it, for whatever reason.
What challenged you the most about A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood and where did you see yourself growing as a director?
I don’t know what challenged me the most about it. The truth of the matter is that it’s been a pretty joyful experience making this movie. It’s been a gift, and I just feel really lucky that I got to make it. I feel like it gave me so much, and as you said, the reverberations of Fred’s lessons have been with me now for years. I’ve gotten to live with his voice in my head, and it changes my life. It’s been a total gift, and I feel unworthy. And the challenge is now, truthfully, putting this out into the world and deal with people [laughs]. Living up to their expectations, it’s not how they would make a movie about Fred Rogers, but up until now, it’s been a privilege and something I feel incredibly proud of. Now I just have to let it go, like a child out into the world.
I’m a sucker for a good Mr. Rogers quote, but I did come across a provocative perspective from The Atlantic suggesting a “fetishization” of some of his aphorisms. It got me wondering if there’s a point where relying on advice designed for children prevents us from fulfilling more adult responsibilities. I think we’re both true believers here, but as someone who’s been much more steeped in his philosophy and teachings, I’m curious if you have a perspective on the potential limitations of Mr. Rogers’s advice.
I don’t think there are limitations to his advice. I think he knew that you had to give children bite-sized versions of the truth. You had to give them the amount of the truth they could handle. But I think he had that wisdom for adults, and there was a period of time when he did a series for adults. The thing about him is that he didn’t shy away from the harder stuff. He did an episode on assassination after RFK was shot. He did a whole episode on divorce when people weren’t really talking about it on television. The darkest things, fear of death…
Fear of going down the drain!
Or going down the drain, which is apparently a very real fear! My kid was afraid of that.
Yes, it’s a very common fear! But I know what you mean. I think it’s taken out of context if someone is letting people off the hook with one of his quotes. The truth is, Fred was doing the tough work of being a person part of our global community. He was connecting with humanity in a deep way. He was present with people and helping people truly. It wasn’t just phrases.
I do truly feel like the film has encouraged me to be more empathetic, understanding, and present—and the effects have lasted far longer than I anticipated. Yet I do still struggle with the idea that I’m barely making a dent in the world’s problems given the magnitude of what we’re facing.
I think we all do, and I think Fred struggled with that too. There’s something that was touched on in the documentary [2018’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor?], where he was asked to come back and do a special after 9/11, and he thought, “Could it possibly be enough? How could I possibly do enough to help in this moment? Why would anyone need to hear from me right now?” I don’t think that feeling like you can’t do enough is a bad thing to be connected with.
I was talking about this in our Q&A today where I was in prep for this movie and went to hear a talk at Brooklyn Buddhist Zen Center. I think I was thinking of Fred as a Buddha-like figure. I had something in my head that the Buddha must be at peace at all times, that somehow if you reach that level of enlightenment or come to a point that far along in your emotional journey, you would feel happiness all the time. This woman who was giving this talk said, “No, you’d feel all the pain of the world. You’d actually feel it more. You’d feel everyone’s suffering. And the goal is not to not feel the suffering. The goal is to feel it even more deeply.” And it made me think about Fred because I think that’s what he did. I don’t think he was walking around with a smile on his face all the time. I think he was feeling the pain of the world.
It’s my understanding that you weren’t filming in Pittsburgh at the time of the Tree of Life synagogue massacre in Squirrel Hill, where Mr. Rogers lived, but did come back and do some pick-ups in town as they were still grieving and processing.
We had just left. We had left three days earlier to do our last days of filming in New York. We were in Pittsburgh for five months and left three days before the shooting happened. Actually, we wrapped principal photography in New York at four in the morning at Port Authority and then the shooting happened in the morning. It was so right on the heels, and then we returned to Pittsburgh two weeks later to do our miniatures shoot, which was always planned.
Did that weigh on the film at all?
Oh my gosh, are you kidding? It was so present for all of us. We felt so embraced and loved by the Pittsburgh community. Being in Pittsburgh making a movie about Mr. Rogers, we were like the most famous people in town. Everyone knew who we were and where were filming and come by to say hi to us and making sure we did Fred proud. My kid was going to school at a JCC in Squirrel Hill while we were there. That was our community. Bill Isler [former president and CEO of the Fred Rogers Company] lives there. It felt so, so close to home. When we returned to do our miniatures shoot, Tom Hanks came back too, and we all went to the city’s unity celebration. We spent a lot of time mourning together.
Interview: Rian Johnson on Knives Out and Bringing the Whodunnit to the Present
Johnson discusses his affinity for the whodunnit, his love of Agatha Christie, Star Wars, and more.
Whether paying homage to the golden age of noir in a high school setting (Brick), exploring a world in which time travel has not only been invented, but commodified and outlawed (Looper), or crafting a more intimate narrative within a beloved franchise (Star Wars: The Last Jedi), Rian Johnson’s adoration of his cinematic predecessors is undeniable. Of the multitude of career feats for which the Silver Spring native is known, redefining genres remains, arguably, his most impressive.
And this year, the filmmaker has done it again with Knives Out, a modern, politically conscious take on the whodunnit. Though infused with the staples of this class-conscious genre, from the magnanimous detective, though one of the Southern-fried variety, to the coterie of potentially guilty parties, the film is also shot through with a distinctly modern sense of meta self-awareness and sociopolitical commentary.
Johnson recently sat down with me to discuss the film, and as we exchanged niceties, he pointed out my Girls on Tops shirt, noting he has “the Jamie Lee Curtis one.” Evidently, even directors geek out on their favorite actors. During our chat, we discussed the philosophical differences between film noir and the whodunnit, Johnson’s love for Agatha Christie, some of his other genre inspirations, the brilliance of Ana de Armas among Knives Out’s seasoned cast, Steven Sondheim, Skywalker Ranch, Star Wars, and more.
Brick is a neo-noir, and Knives Out is a whodunit. To you, what are the differences between the genres?
The key difference is almost a philosophical one between fiction film noir, which is [Dashiell] Hammett and [Raymond] Chandler and [James M.] Cain, and the whodunnit genre of Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, John Dickson Carr. And the basic difference between the two of them is moral clarity, which is very interesting. The whodunit genre is a very morally unambiguous genre. There’s a crime. There’s moral chaos. The detective comes in, who’s usually the benevolent father, and he, through reason and order, sorts everything out and figures it out at the end and solves the crime and puts the universe back to sorts.
Whereas, obviously, with Chandler or Hammett, it’s the morally murky antihero, and nothing is put back right at the end of it. And everything is just as terrible as it always was. It’s fascinating, the comforting fairy-tale aspect of the whodunnit, but it’s also why I do describe the genre as comfort food for me. It’s something I keep coming back to over the years. And, goddamn, especially recently, the notion that reason and order could restore anything—the idea that goodness can bring anything back to being okay—would be nice [laughs].
No kidding. You spent 10 years developing Knives Out, and it subverts expectations until the very end. How many drafts did it take to make sure that the math and science of the script didn’t show?
That’s a good one. I [write] very structurally. Ten years ago, what I had was this very conceptual idea. It wasn’t like, “Oh, this person did it, and they did it this way with this weapon in the conservatory with the knife.” It was the very conceptual idea of taking a whodunnit, which is typically a genre that’s built on a big buildup to a surprise. Just, “Who done it?” That’s the name of the genre. And so you figure out who done it. “Oh my God, I’d never guess that,” or, “Oh, I guessed that.” And “Who cares?” That’s why Hitchcock hated whodunnits, famously, because drama built on surprise isn’t great drama. So, taking a whodunnit and putting the engine of a Hitchcock thriller in the middle of it and almost using that Hitchcock thriller as misdirection in a way so that we tell the audience very early, “Don’t worry about who done it. Don’t worry about solving this puzzle. That’s not what’s going to be entertaining for the next two hours. Here’s a person you care about. They’re threatened. Let’s all go on this ride together seeing if they can get out of this impossible situation.”
And the idea of doing that and yet still having all the pleasures of a whodunnit, basically, was the big-picture thing 10 years ago. And then I zoom in from there, and I figure out maybe it’s set in a big house with this family, and that means it’s this type of character who has this relation to this character, and this is how the detective functions in it. And I start putting the pieces together bit by bit, basically. And then the writing is where it really hits the road. Like you said, that’s when all the work goes into making the math feel like it isn’t math. I actually just sat down to write it last January. We had wrapped the movie by Christmas. I wrote it in like six months. And I still did a bunch of drafts. I did a lot of revisions to it. But when it was ready to come out, it came out very quickly, which I recently learned Christie wrote her books very quickly also. She was a big proponent of you think it, and you think it, and you think it. But then, especially with something this dense, there’s a value to not getting lost in the weeds. There’s a value to just pooping it out all at once. And I get it. It makes sense, especially if you’re trying to retain that very simple shape while it’s there.
This film is one of, if not, the funniest film that I’ve seen this year. Was it always your intention to have comedy be as much of an aspect as everything else?
I knew I wanted it to be funny. And I love all Agatha Christie adaptations. I’m a junkie. But I feel like a lot of the recent ones tend to go very serious in their tone. They tend to go dark. And that always loses me because the adaptations I grew up loving are Death on the Nile, Evil Under the Sun, the ones with Peter Ustinov as Poirot. And they all have this sense of self-aware fun, and they have all-star casts. It’s a big show that they’re putting on, but it never tips into parody. It’s not Clue. It’s not Murder by Death. It’s a real whodunnit with actual emotional stakes that rides that line of still being incredibly fun and being aware that it’s putting on a show.
That was the target for me, were those Ustinov-based adaptations. It was always something I wanted to really clearly communicate, both to the studio when we were starting and then the actors when we were casting. Every step of the way, it was, “We’re going to try and have a lot of fun with this. This, hopefully, is going to be very funny, but it’s absolutely essential that we all know that we’re not making a parody about whodunnits, that we’re making a whodunnit about something else.” And what’s on the screen, if that’s successful, it’s the actors. It takes really good actors to be able to walk that line and give performances that are this big and this on the verge of caricature, but then to never lose the grounding so much that they disconnect from planet Earth.
And that “something else” is a staple of the whodunnit genre: class. Many of the characters share unsavory opinions about immigration and take other offensive stances toward minorities while Marta is working for them. Much of their careless spitting out of Fox News soundbites signifies a cold detachment. And while his own family is so dysfunctional, the grandchild searches for another family to call his own, unfortunately finding one in the annals of internet white supremacy.
Annals or the anals, yeah, one of the two [laughs].
Exactly. Would you say that this film is just as much about upper-class American decay as it is about a murder mystery?
For me, what’s always fun about using genre is how one thing can engage the other. And it’s every movie. I can’t start making a movie until I know what it’s really about for me, and that thing it’s about is never the genre itself. It’s always got to be something else, obviously, that I care about or I’m angry about or thinking about. And it’s not trying to insert a message into a genre or trying to hide a message under a genre. For me, the “message” can’t be a message at all. It’s got to be something that every single scene in the movie engages with in some way. It’s got to be tied into the very shape and mechanics of the genre itself. And class is something that, like you mentioned, this genre is particularly good at.
Gosford Park is a brilliant example of using it to talk about class. What’s interesting to me is it’s usually done in the context of Britain, and just because of Christie. And we have this thing in America where we like to pretend that class doesn’t exist. We like to pretend we’re a classless society, so the idea of applying the genre to America in 2019 seemed like fertile soil. But if I’m doing my job right, it’s a fun whodunnit. And everything that’s fun and whodunnit-y about it is also serving the thing that this has on its mind.
Not to throw anyone under the bus—
With such an incredible cast of actors, who were you most excited about working with?
I’m not dodging it when I say every single one of them. I know I kind of am. But I’ll say this. For me, the person I’m most excited for audiences to see and discover in it is Ana [de Armas]. She’s great. Of a cast full of huge, amazing actors and movie stars, [she] is maybe the least known, and she plays the central part in the movie. And it’s a really tricky part because she has to bring so much to it for it to actually work. And for her to confidently step into the middle of a cast like this and carry the movie to the extent that she does, she’s absolutely extraordinary.
Yeah. She was amazing in it.
Isn’t she great? And she’s been working forever. She did Spanish TV. She was in Blade Runner 2049 and a couple other American films, but I have a feeling you’re going to see a lot more of her over the next couple of years. My casting director, Mary Vernieu, brought her to my attention. I’d seen her in Blade Runner 2049, but I wasn’t really familiar with her work. She’s really something special. And she’s playing Marilyn Monroe in Andrew Dominik’s Blonde, which is crazy because she was camera testing for that while we were shooting. She would show me these video tests of her done up as Marilyn in the middle of shooting this with her as Marta. Like, de-glamorized Marta. And then she shows me, and I’m like, “Wow! Who are you?”
I’m looking forward to that one. The Assassination of Jesse James was—
A fucking masterpiece. Incredible. He’s an amazing director. So, so good.
It was interesting that you had the cast spend time in the film’s gothic mansion for three weeks ahead of shooting in order to allow for “family bonding.” Do you have a fun story to share from the set?
There was one day where Frank Oz did a cameo, so he was on set. And it was really fun because everyone would just hang out in this little basement rec room down in the basement of this house. It felt like summer camp for movie stars. It was crazy. But the day Frank was on set, it was amazing seeing all these movie stars just gathered at his feet. Everybody was just in awe of him, and rightly so, trying to get stories about him doing Miss Piggy and Yoda. But Frank is a fantastic director: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, What About Bob?, The Little Shop of Horrors, which is one the all-time great movie musicals. He’s an extraordinary, multi-talented guy. So that was an amazing day, just seeing all these actors bow down to the mighty Frank.
Are you planning any Agatha Christie-esque Knives Out sequels?
I would be thrilled, man. Yeah. We’ll see how this one does. You never know with an original thing. But god, I hope it does well because it would be so much fun to get together with Daniel [Craig] every few years and make a new one. You can tell how much fun he’s having doing this [laughs]. And it’s such a malleable genre. You can do so many different things with it, so that would be really, really fun.
Speaking of fun, the Sondheim song that Craig sings in the car was such a great scene [laughs]. You both must have had a blast shooting that.
Yes! Oh my god! “Losing My Mind.” That scene was so good.
Does Craig play F on the piano throughout the film? Because “Losing My Mind” is in the key of E.
Oh! Is that the song that’s going in his head while he’s doing it? I forget what note it is. Next time I’m watching, I’m going to look, and I’m sure we can see which one he’s hitting. Shit, where were you on set? I can claim it. I will retroactively claim it. I could have actually had it be a slightly different note he’s chiming, playing the tune of “Losing My Mind.” Shit! I have to go back and redo it [laughs].
Shall we do some last-minute reshoots?
Yeah. Let’s get back in, man. We’re going up to Skywalker this afternoon. We can do a remix. We’ll get [Daniel] up there.
Speaking of Skywalker, you’re still planning on writing and directing a Star Wars trilogy, correct?
I’m still talking to Lucasfilm about it. They haven’t announced anything. They’re still figuring out what they’re doing.
You confronted Rey’s parental lineage in The Last Jedi, seemingly putting an end to the many fan theories, while subverting expectations for a portion of toxic fans. Has any further information on Rey’s family been shared with you since The Rise of Skywalker began production, and are you concerned what J.J. Abrams might do with Rey’s lineage?
I’m not concerned at all. I’m 0% concerned. I’m thrilled. I cannot wait to see Episode IX. I’ll preface this by saying I’m going to be going in clean. I’ve tried to stay out of the process as much as possible. I can just be a Star Wars fan and sit down and watch. And I want to be thrilled. I want to be surprised. I cannot wait to see what happens next. I’ve never really understood the attitude that some people come at the movies with of, “I have my very specific list of things I want to see, and if those don’t happen, I’m going to be upset.” That I don’t get. And just in terms of movies, in general, I don’t know why you would sit down to watch a movie and feel like that and want that. So, to me, it’s all storytelling, man, and so push the story forward, have it make emotional sense, and take me someplace I’ve never been. And I know J.J.’s going to do that. I can’t wait.
Review: The Hard-Earned Richness of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Marielle Heller takes a script that many filmmakers would turn into cringe-inducing treacle and interrogates the sentimental trappings.3.5
All of it is so eerily familiar: the gently comforting music, the hand-built miniature buildings. Even the televisual texture of the image is exactly as anyone who watched the beloved children’s series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood might recollect. Then Fred Rogers himself walks into frame—or, rather, Tom Hanks, the actor playing him. He sings the famous theme song. He changes from his outdoor to his indoor clothes. And he breaks the fourth wall with that tranquil gaze that lets each person watching know that they’re gloriously unique. You’ll likely never doubt the reality of what you’re seeing at any point, though there’s something unsettling about the precision of both Hanks’s performance and the frame housing it—uncanny valley effects that have been achieved through fully analog means.
The tension that emanates out of this opening scene, and many more besides it, isn’t a fault, but a virtue of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. This is a knotty film masquerading as a simple one. Director Marielle Heller proves that the equally steely and empathetic eye that she brought to last year’s Can You Ever Forgive Me? was no fluke. She takes a screenplay by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster that many filmmakers would turn into cringe-inducing treacle and consistently interrogates the sentimental trappings.
Rogers isn’t even the primary focus here. Rather, it’s Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), an Esquire writer based loosely on columnist Tom Junod, who profiled Rogers back in 1998 (also the year the film is set). Lloyd is both a new father and a damaged son. He’s been estranged from his own dad, Jerry (Chris Cooper), for years, and he’s developed a reputation for work that takes his subjects down several pegs. Lloyd loves his wife, Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson), and their infant child, but cynicism and anger are his go-to modes. Right after he gets into fisticuffs with Jerry at a family wedding, Lloyd’s editor (Christine Lahti) assigns him to profile Mister Rogers for an Esquire issue about heroes. An unwitting disciple is about to meet his guru.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a spiritual film of sorts, though it doesn’t make the mistake of presuming Mister Rogers or his perspective to be above doubt or suspicion. “How does it feel to be married to a living saint?” Lloyd asks Rogers’s wife, Joanne (Maryann Plunkett), in one scene. She proceeds to bring that lofty sentiment down to earth, noting her husband’s temper and hinting at other day-to-day challenges that his public will never see. The image Mister Rogers projects is sincere, but it takes work to maintain. And it only helps other people insofar as they’re able to access the truth underlying the benevolent illusion.
This gets to the heart of Heller’s approach. Time and again she and her keen-eyed DP, Jody Lee Lipes, draw our attention to the falsity of Rogers’s world, most notably in the sections in which Lloyd visits the WQED studios in Pittsburgh where Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood is filmed. In one scene, the camera pulls back from within one of the show’s many miniature models to reveal Lloyd hovering over it like a colossus. In another, a musical interlude between Lady Aberlin (Maddie Corman) and the Rogers-performed puppet Daniel Striped Tiger is shown from the perspective of Lloyd and the on-set crew so that we see the machinery, such as it is, undergirding a childlike song about controlling your anger. Heller isn’t exposing or devaluing the beliefs that are being extolled, but is showing us the place from which they spring. It’s left to the audience, as it is to Lloyd, to assess how applicable Rogers’s lessons are to life itself.
The narrative, of course, proceeds along exactly the redemptive and reconciliatory paths you might expect. There are ways in which Heller can’t avoid the “movie we need right now” aura of the script. But even in scenes where the scales tip toward mawkishness, as when a group of subway riders serenades Mister Rogers with his own theme song, Heller makes sure to emphasize a look or a line reading that complicates our sense of the sentimentality.
It helps that Rhys is the king of a certain world-weary expression that he’s been honing since FX’s The Americans, and that Heller has directed Hanks so that his innate and often irritating mildness comes off much more enigmatic than usual. When Lloyd tries to press Mister Rogers’s buttons during one of their lengthy interviews, his eyes briefly cloud over with anger. The moment is particularly striking because you can see that he chooses not to act on the destructive emotion and instead take a more peaceable route.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is similarly perched on the razor’s edge of compassion and cruelty. It’s not surprising that tenderness ultimately triumphs, but the film acknowledges, with shrewd subtlety, that it could easily go the other way. The warmth and humanity at the heart of this deceptively modest parable aren’t easy virtues, but hard-earned ones.
Cast: Tom Hanks, Matthew Rhys, Susan Kelechi Watson, Chris Cooper, Enrico Colantoni, Maryann Plunkett, Tammy Blanchard, Wendy Makkena, Sakina Jaffrey, Carmen Cusack Director: Marielle Heller Screenwriter: Noah Harpster, Micah Fitzerman-Blue Distributor: TriStar Pictures Running Time: 107 min Rating: PG Year: 2019
Review: Frozen II and Its Recycled Stakes Quickly Get Lost in the Snow
Woke Disney, trying to navigate a tricky representational path, steps all over itself throughout.2
Any successor to Frozen practically mandates a designated successor to “Let It Go.” And the standard-bearing song for Disney’s Frozen II is “Into the Unknown,” another bombastic earworm that’s belted out by Idina Menzel’s Queen Elsa about 20 minutes into the film, as she embraces a literal call to adventure. But the unknown is hardly a place that co-directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee care to take this sequel. If the first Frozen succeeded in rebranding the Disney Princess line of products for a more woke era, Frozen II doesn’t want to risk undoing the first film’s magic. The sequel plays things safe, hitting many of the same beats as its predecessor—and sometimes with a wink—all while making sure to introduce adorable, marketable new creatures and outfits along the way.
Such is the nature of Hollywood sequels, perhaps, but aside from a prologue that expands the fantastical, ostensibly peaceful Nordic kingdom in which the series is set with an intriguingly bellicose backstory, Frozen II doesn’t craft a strong enough story to mask its capitalist machinations. The film joins Elsa, her sister Anna (Kristen Bell), the latter’s beau Christoph (Jonathan Groff), his reindeer Sven, and the animate snowman Olaf (Josh Gad) at harvest time in Arendelle, which has about the size and cultural depth of the Swedish village at Epcot Center. Just after the four humanoid principal characters are done singing a status-quo-minded ditty, “Some Things Never Change,” Elsa, the magically attuned “snow queen,” begins hearing a wordless voice singing to her from beyond the fjord. In responding to the voice, Elsa awakens the wrath of nature’s four elements—air, earth, fire, and water—which wreak havoc on Arendelle, because, it turns out, nature’s got an axe to grind with Anna and Elsa’s family.
Frozen’s narrative trappings are all accounted for here: a malevolent magic of obscure origin, a forgotten slight that must be righted, a quest to reveal the truth. But whereas the first film had very human stakes—that of the reconciliation between Anna and Elsa—the stakes of Frozen II get lost in the snow. The imperative to redeem Arendelle in the eyes of nature remains rather abstract. Lee, also the film’s screenwriter, attempts to ground the quest in the mysterious fate of the rival clan of the Northuldra, a people who, with their darker features and leather-and-fur parkas, are coded as an indigenous Arctic culture. Something happened to these people, who haven’t been seen since a battle waged when Anna and Elsa’s father was a boy.
Frozen II suggests that the Northuldrans are the wronged party but, oddly, doesn’t posit them as the aggrieved one: It’s clear from early on that Anna and Elsa’s forbears committed some unspoken crime against their neighbors, but it’s nature, rather than the “indigenous” clan themselves, that demands redress. When Anna, Elsa, and their sidekicks find the Northuldrans in the enchanted woods, they’re perfectly friendly and ready for coexistence (the ideal natives for a film being released around the Thanksgiving holiday), and they’re happy to let Anna and Elsa do the heavy lifting when it comes to restoring balance to the world.
Woke Disney, in trying to navigate a tricky representational path with this film, steps all over itself: Seeking to address colonial shame, but also to avoid portraying natives as angry and threatening, Frozen II makes them into docile figures under the protection of a mystically empowered nature. Moreover, this maneuvering tangles the thread of the story, as these friendly forest dwellers are at once the object of Elsa and Anna’s quest and relatively inconsequential. As the quintet from the first film encounters the avatars for each of the four elements—a gust of wind named Gale that Olaf befriends, a pack of rock giants that Anna sneaks past at one point, a flaming gecko that Elsa takes as a pet, and a powerful steed composed of congealed water that she tames—these embodiments of natural phenomena prove to have more character and import to the plot than any of the Northuldrans.
This carefully orchestrated vagueness gives Frozen II a fragmentary quality, each scene standing alone as a mini-adventure. Olaf and Christoph’s solo numbers in particular feel very much like the music videos they are, fun and vibrant on their own but not particularly well integrated into the story’s trajectory. The looseness of Lee’s script also serves to foreground the more devious functions of the film as a Disney product intended to promote further consumption. It’s hard to ignore the convenience of the avatar of fire resembling in size, color, and design a collectible, cuddly doll; the way one of the heroines is magically granted a new, flowing hairdo and a bejeweled, strapless dress when she sings the song “Show Yourself”; or the calculations that must underlie the visually pleasing arrangement of the glittering geometric patterns that fill the frame during musical sequences. If, as a story, Frozen II is a tad too messy, as an advertisement it’s much too polished.
That said, Frozen II’s attempt at an enlightened fairy tale is in many aspects preferable to Disney’s recent “live action” resurrections of dated animated features. The relatively complex relationship between Anna and Elsa, as well as a subplot about Olaf the snowman’s existential musings now that his lifetime has been extended beyond winter, suggest hints of life beneath the film’s cold, corporate exterior. The series’s foregrounding of the ups and downs of a caring, if sometimes tense, connection between two women represents incremental progress at a studio whose other film franchises still favor male agency and Oedipal conflict. But given its confused ethics, narrative weaknesses, and naked function as a brand-refresher, Frozen II hardly constitutes a case for why we need more stories about fairy-tale princesses.
Cast: Idina Menzel, Kristen Bell, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad, Sterling K. Brown, Evan Rachel Wood, Alfred Molina, Jason Ritter, Martha Plimpton, Jeremy Sisto Director: Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee Screenwriter: Jennifer Lee Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 103 min Rating: PG Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack
Interview: Todd Haynes on Dark Waters and Being in the Crosshairs of Everything
Haynes discusses how the film quietly continues some of his aesthetic trademarks and thematic concerns.
For more than 40 years, Todd Haynes has made fiercely challenging, experimental, and idiosyncratic films that have left an indelible mark on both independent and mainstream cinema. But there’s no single Todd Haynes style. Sometimes his films are complexly structured and narratively polygamous, as with his trifurcated, genre-subverting feature-length debut from 1990, Poison, and I’m Not There, his 2007 anti-biopic about Bob Dylan in which six different actors play the iconic musician. At other times, Haynes works within the conventions of genres that allow him to question social and cultural values: Far from Heaven, his HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce, and Carol use the period melodrama template to examine racism, women’s independence, and queer desire, respectively, and all to stunning emotional effect.
But never before has Haynes more directly and unostentatiously confronted centers of power than with his latest project, the legal thriller Dark Waters. The film germinated with actor Mark Ruffalo’s interest in Rob Bilott, a corporate defense attorney who made partner in 1998 at the storied Cincinnati law firm of Taft, Stettinius & Hollister, commonly known as Taft. Taking on the case of Wilbur Tennant (played by Bill Camp in the film), a West Virginian farmer whose land is contaminated from toxic run-off dumped near his premises by DuPont Company, Bilott (Ruffalo) quickly encounters the gargantuan machine of corporate disinformation, negligence, cover-up, and strong-arm tactics that allow the company to shuck responsibility for causing devastating environmental destruction and an unprecedented human health crisis.
In directing Dark Waters, Haynes employs subtle, unobtrusive camerawork to complement a linear and character-centered narrative, showing with controlled objectivity Bilott’s discovery that speaking the truth and taking on corporate power comes with a major price in modern America. I spoke with Haynes last week about how the film marks a departure from his past work while quietly continuing some of his aesthetic trademarks and thematic concerns.
How did you get involved with Dark Waters?
The first draft of Matthew Michael Carnahan’s script came to me from Mark [Ruffalo] in 2017. This is all incredibly fast for the world of developing movies because Nathaniel Rich’s piece [about Bilott] had appeared [in the New York Times Magazine] just the year before. Already it had been optioned by Mark at Participant [Dark Waters’s production company], and he had decided to join forces with Matthew Michael. Then, for some reason—and I genuinely say this with modesty—Mark thought of me for it, because I’m not exactly the person one would think of for this movie right off the bat, however much he likes my other films. And I’m such an admirer of Mark on the screen, as well as his activism—and I’ve always wanted to work with him. What he didn’t know is how much of a secret fan of this genre I am. The story is gripping and enraging and shocking to me, but it also has this human component because it’s told through the narrative of Rob Bilott, an unlikely person to take on DuPont. The circumstances presented themselves to him and forced him to rethink what he does and what kind of practices he was protecting as a defense attorney.
At first, I had a busy schedule and didn’t think I was going to able to do it. But then some room cleared up about a year later and I thought I could do the film. But the first writer was busy at that time, so I thought, “Okay, let’s bring someone else in and start working on the script some more, get in deeper.”
Did you know the screenwriters, Mario Correa and Carnahan?
No, but I got to know Mario from samples of his work. I really like what I read and brought him in. There was a real urgency to get this moving on the part of Participant and Mark. And I saw why, but I wanted to see where things would go; I can’t start shooting a movie that’s not ready to be shot. So I searched for a writer and found Mario. We all got freed up by the end of May 2018 and went to Cincinnati for the first time with Mark then. And I met the entire world of the film in Cincinnati, the whole cast of characters, through the Taft law firm. Then we went off to Parkersburg [in West Virginia] and met those people—visited Wilbur’s farm and met Jim Tennant and his brother. All this is to say that Mario and I had to start fresh in talking about the script and experiencing the research together and talking with people [who were involved in the real events] together. And so we embarked on a very different version of the script together.
How did you collaborate with Mario? Did you base your work together on the scenes and moments from the article you wanted to include in the script? And how did you figure out how to make complicated legal issues and jargon and processes dramatically compelling?
Those were precisely the challenges and questions we had. The focus initially was to find the darker and more conflicted parts of the story than what we’d been introduced to in the New York Times Magazine piece and the first draft of the script. There’s a tremendous amount of pain and terror involved in challenging systems of power. And the more you learn about a story like this—and this is true in films like this that I dig, like All the President’s Men, The Parallax View, Silkwood, The Insider—the bigger the story gets, the more haunted you are by the repercussions. You’re kind of like, “Holy shit, look what I’m on to.” You feel this in All the President’s Men, when [the reporters] can’t believe how the story’s growing, and the more the story grows the more your life seems to shrink. You become more alienated, your safety is more fraught, there’s less ease to your movements. It affects all the people involved: your family, your friends, your community. People begin to turn against you; they alienate you and besmirch your reputation. All that stuff, that’s all true to these experiences. And it’s all incredibly dramatic and it’s how you relate emotionally to these stories.
Truth-telling in movies is a slippery prospect because movies have a hard time telling the truth. And it’s important to question deliberate truth being told to you from any source, particularly one that’s based on entertainment and moneymaking. I’ve been really interested and uncomfortable making movies my whole life. But that’s why I wanted to make them, because they intersect with culture and commerce and identity and desire. So, you’re really in the crosshairs of a lot of contradictory forces. And that’s an exciting place to be when you’re not just interested in replicating a sense of well-being or escapism or affirmation of the system. And I guess that’s where this kind of genre is so great, because even if we’re following a lot of its conventions in ways that I don’t always follow for the conventions of the other films I’ve made, I believe this genre is fundamentally unsettling. There’s a stigma attached to the truth-teller that you also don’t necessarily expect. You think that, well, righteous truth is on your side, what do you have to fear? Well, everything.
I was just thinking of your past films, especially Safe and the suffocating environment of that film. How did you collaborate with Edward Lachman in achieving a similar atmosphere in Dark Waters? All of the themes and ideas you just described, how did you want to express them through the film’s cinematography?
I felt that a kind of restrained, observant camera and a kind of emotional coolness—both literally and figuratively—to the subject matter was apropos, especially in regard to Rob Bilott. There’s a kind of festering subjectivity in a movie like The Insider that I love, that works really well for that film and is pure Michael Mann. It’s laid on very thick, that aggressive subjectivity and myopic camera with a focal length that keeps shifting so you can’t really tell what’s going on—it links the 60 Minutes journalist and Jeff Wigand. In this movie, I was more drawn to cooler frames and a more restrained camera and proximity, like Gordon Willis’s cinematography in those ‘70s films. Because this felt more like Rob, it felt more cautious and pulled back. And it also allowed more movement from his world to the people he has to connect with, so you can move from one place to the next in the movie with more dexterity and not be competing with an intense subjective experience. Rob’s subjectivity is something that he learns in the course of stumbling onto this story. He learns how to see and then how to speak about what he sees in ways that he had never known before. So, I didn’t want to anticipate that point of view. I wanted that point of view to be something we watch ourselves. That’s something that for today’s culture and audience, I know that that was somewhat risky.
Well, because it’s asking an audience to be patient, and it’s asking an audience to find what’s important in the frame and not hit them over the head with it. That’s why those films from the ‘70s feel like they’re regarding the audience with a great deal of intellectual respect, to kind of figure out what the attitude is here. Whether it’s the case of the paranoia films of Alan Pakula or the first two Godfather movies, that doesn’t mean that they don’t have a strong point of view because of the way they’re shot and lit. But there’s space to interpret what’s going on. That’s the choice that I made for this film. And Ed and I just liked the corporate spaces where much of the action takes place, these hollow spaces. I loved what the real Taft offices looked like.
It was shot in the real Taft offices?
Yeah, and where we built sets, the conference room and Rob’s office, we built them 10 floors up in the same building looking out over the exact skyline and with the exact same parameter of the architecture of this 1980s building. We used all the design elements from Taft: those striped frosted glass walls, the floating walls over the windows and under the ceiling, the 45-degree corridors that he sculpts through, the fact that there was no uniform size or shape to the windows across the entire parameter of the floors, and that they looked out onto these beautiful landscapes of skylines of downtown Cincinnati with flanks of interrupted space in architecture in the foreground and little surprising peaks all the way through the Ohio River if you just cocked your head a couple of inches one way or another. So, the whole sense of [Bilott’s] discovery of obfuscation was mirrored in the architecture and design of this space. You also have these surprising pockets of incredibly dark shadows and then sudden appearances of light from the windows. That was so visually informative and specific and I found it so beautiful. Some of my favorite shots of the film are these big, wide window shots with the snow falling, and a wide shot of Tom Terp [a senior partner at Taft] and Rob Bilott talking to each other from a distance. The weather contributed heavily to the look and feel of the movie; it was a bitter cold winter that we shot through. We tried to apply the same visual language to shooting at Wilbur’s farm and in Parkersburg, so you could feel these worlds were linked, that they weren’t separate.
Were you going for an Antonionian thing like in Safe, where the environment is both an influence on and reflection of the characters’ experience?
Yeah, a manifestation of their experience. And a place where you can get lost in the corridors and then places where you’re isolated in big, open spaces. It’s a place that felt both big and small intermittently, and that would sometimes alternate according to what’s going on emotionally or in the content.
That’s similar to how I felt in the scenes that take place in Parkersburg, where it’s this small, rural town and yet, from the way you capture it, it feels like it represents the entire world and its destruction from pollution. What decisions did you make in the cinematography of the film when you shot there?
Ed and I tend to favor this sort of dirty palette in almost any of my movies if you look back at them. But it shifts in tonality based on what the story is and what the time period of the story is and what the temperament of the movie is. For Dark Waters, we favored way more of a cool spectrum in the color timing, which gave the warmer interiors always this cool shadow. That meant that beige walls, you couldn’t tell if they were a warm or a cool color. Hannah Beachler designed the film, and we were all sort of in sync with picking design elements for the interiors that could move between warm and cool temperatures easily, depending on whether it’s light from outside coming in or Tungsten light from inside. You just never feel a relief of tensions and of a little bite of rigidity that invades these spaces. We certainly didn’t want to make Wilbur’s farm a place of rural pleasure or—
Yeah, and it gives you the sense that even truth is corruptible. So, Wilbur, who’s attached more to a notion of truth, he’s living in this contaminated space. Truth almost becomes a kind of toxin because it undermines the status quo and business as usual.
How did you work with some of the real-life players in the story, especially in gauging the accuracy of the film in relation to the real events?
We relied on them as much as we could. They were really eager partners in contributing to the film, and they all had to agree to that. Nobody on the DuPont side, of course, agreed to have their real names in the movie. Everyone else did and were advisors on the movie. And it was really lovely to have them come and join us on set and be pictured within scenes.
In I’m Not There, you had Heath Ledger’s version of Bob Dylan proclaim, “There’s no politics,” but only “sign language.” Throughout your career, you’ve often examined the signs and symbols through which people communicate individual, political, and cultural meaning. Was that also your concern in Dark Waters, even though the politics and social significance of the story are very much up front and center in the film and not imparted through metaphor?
I haven’t thought about that line and applying it to this movie, but I did feel with this story that the massiveness of this contamination, the fact that [C-8, a toxic chemical manufactured by DuPont] is in 98% of creatures on the planet…what can you say that about except for things as invasive and all-present as, I don’t know, capitalism or patriarchy—things that never asked for our permission for them to invade us. And so, in a way it makes us linked by these pernicious systems. We participate in them, we enable them, but what do you do? Do you pretend they don’t exist? Do you wish they could all disappear with one legal action? No. You get as knowledgeable as you can, you try to identify what they are, and you push back in certain ways. You develop a critical relationship to life and to social power, and how the individual is always the product or target of it.
The material through which systems work.
The material or outgrowth of it. I like that this movie reveals this, but there’s also no solution except how we interpret, how we stand up to small issues, bigger issues, how we engage with our system politically and culturally, and in how we live imperfectly between knowledge, ignorance, and despair. It’s a complicated and imperfect series of choices that we have to make. But what do you do instead? Do you put your head back in the sand? Do you go back and cook on Teflon [for which C-8 was manufactured]? Do you pretend that patriarchal systems don’t still function and distinguish between men and women and white people and black people? No, we need to be aware, and that’s what this film helps us do.
What are your upcoming projects?
My real passion project is a piece on Freud. That’s going to take a while to figure out because it needs to be a multi-part, episodic experience. That’s where my heart and soul are anchored, but I’ve just been busy elsewhere, as you can imagine. And there’s a Velvet Underground project; I just said yes when they came to me from the Universal Music Group that controls their music and half of all the other music that’s been recorded. I’m so into it, I’m so excited. We did 20 interviews. My decision was to only interview people who were there, band members, anybody of the surviving people who were around at the time, who really saw it up close, directly. So that meant getting Jonas Mekas on film right before he passed away, and getting John Cale, of course, and Maureen Tucker. We’ve just put together this insane archive of material, historical stuff, clips of the band, and pieces of Warhol films of the band that people have never seen before. It’s a real well, and I want to summon that time again. I want to immerse in it as much as possible. That’s our goal.
They deserve a major movie. They’re one of the greatest and most important bands ever, period.
Yeah. It’s going to be crazy good.
Review: Shooting the Mafia Is a Sketchy Tribute to an Iconic Photographer
At the center of the documentary is the struggle to reconcile the personal and political elements of art-making.2.5
At the center of director Kim Longinotto’s Shooting the Mafia is the struggle to reconcile the personal and political elements of art-making. The documentary tells the story of photographer Letizia Battaglia, who captured the brutality of the Cosa Nostra’s stranglehold over Sicily from the 1970s through the 2000s. Battaglia braved mafia funerals, taking pictures of connected associates who would have no issue with killing her. In one of the film’s juiciest moments, Battaglia, now an 80-something legend, tells of how she’d pretend to sneeze to muffle the sound of a camera. She also took photos of murder scenes, which are chilling tableaux of casual carnage. Children’s brains are seen splattered against street curbs, old women’s faces frozen in shock, cars upturned, and buildings caved in from explosions. Showing us these pictures, Longinotto illustrates Battaglia’s talent for aestheticizing tragedy, but without sentimentalizing the callousness of violence. The photographer’s compositions are beautiful wails of despair as well as acts of resistance.
Throughout Shooting the Mafia, Longinotto doesn’t entirely realize her one masterful formal conceit. The filmmaker contrasts Battaglia’s pictures with archival news footage of the crime scenes, in effect contrasting a closer approximation of “reality” with still art. In movement and in color, the crime scenes are hideous and offer true testament to the monstrousness of the Cosa Nostra, but as black-and-white stills, they’re imbued with Battaglia’s empathy and need to find grace notes in atrocity. This juxtaposition offers a thrilling illustration of the difference between art and documentation, and of the value of each. This is a kernel for a brilliant nonfiction film, but Longinotto clutters her project with less original gimmickry.
Longinotto is very much determined for her audience to see Battaglia as a feminist role model, as a beautiful young housewife who went rogue against the Italian patriarchy to actualize herself. This idea, in this context, underscores the danger of modern woke culture, which is so eager to define people with representational encouragement that it condescends to them in a different fashion. Battaglia’s photographs, and the risk she took going against the Cosa Nostra, are innately impressive. The sexism that she faced, especially as, reportedly, the first female Italian photographer, is obviously of paramount importance to her story, though Longinotto spends nearly a third of Shooting the Mafia’s 94-minute running time on Battaglia’s life as a girl and eventual coming of age after she rebelled against her husband. And this emphasis threatens to put Battaglia in a box, reductively psychoanalyzing her.
In Shooting the Mafia, we learn that Battaglia married as a teenager and had a family because that’s what you did in the 1940s and ‘50s. From the ‘60s onward, Battaglia lived a sexually and artistically open life, primarily in Palermo, becoming a journalist and a photographer, fraternizing with her younger collaborators. A beautiful and confident woman who was pushing 40 before finding her calling, Battaglia has been making up for lost time ever since, and Longinotto celebrates her awakening as an artist and lover while cheapening it with the cheesy placement of clips from Italian films, which often liken Battaglia to a gorgeous damsel in distress. The contemporary footage of Battaglia chain-smoking and holding court with her various exes is far more commanding and startlingly intimate, but Longinotto cuts these passages down to tidbits. In fact, Longinotto is so eager to celebrate her hero that she also glides past thornier portions of Battaglia’s life, such as the effect that her liberation might’ve had on the children she seems to have left behind. (Her husband is a non-entity.)
The film comes to life whenever it returns to Battaglia’s dealing with the Cosa Nostra. Longinotto skillfully sketches in a cast of pompous and frightening mafiosos, who suggest the ultimate manifestation of patriarchal madness. Especially memorable is Luciano Leggio, whom Battaglia once photographed as he was looking straight into her camera, shooting her a death stare. Those wide, smug eyes come to haunt the film, especially in an interview clip where Leggio flippantly speaks of crushing “mollusks” and “homosexuals” who come after him, he says, to prove their manhood. The most memorable image in Shooting the Mafia that isn’t shot by Battaglia is news footage of mob men in cages in court while they await hearing. They look unmistakably like wild animals, and they affirm Battaglia’s daring with graphic conviction.
Director: Kim Longinotto Distributor: Cohen Media Group Running Time: 94 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Duet for Cannibals Is an Intriguing Mix of Pastiche and Parody
Susan Sontag’s debut film serves as an intriguing cinematic extension of her more well-known written work.3
Writing on Persona for Sight & Sound in 1967, Susan Sontag rhapsodized about Ingmar Bergman’s unorthodox handling of narrative, praising his decision to utilize the story structure as a “thematic resource” rather than a means of dispensing a coherent plot. “Images and dialogue are given which the viewer cannot help but find puzzling,” she wrote, “not being able to decipher whether certain scenes take place in the past, present or future; and whether certain images and episodes belong to ‘reality’ or ‘fantasy’.”
Two years later, after securing funding from the renowned film production company Sandrews, Sontag made Duet for Cannibals, her own attempt at capturing a slipstream-like roundelay of events, and in Swedish no less. Like Persona, her directorial debut hazards a similar bid for the arrangement of narrative as “variations on a theme,” and while the results aren’t quite on the same level as Bergman, they represent a respectable, effort on Sontag’s part to both break down narrative convention and advance her own personal ideas.
The story deals with a baroque series of escalating mind games between Bauer (Lars Ekborg), a famed German leftist living in exile in Stockholm, and Tomas (Gösta Ekman), his young assistant. Taking on the position from a mixture of politically sympathetic curiosity and financial desperation, Tomas and his relationship with his live-in girlfriend, Ingrid (Agneta Ekmanner), is put under heavy strain. This worsens as Bauer demands more and more of his time, forcing him to take up residence in his apartment, to better serve at his beck and call. Things only get more confusing when Ingrid herself enters the fray, paired against Bauer’s unstable Italian wife, Francesca (Adriana Asti), in a rectangle of dysfunctional connection.
Embarking on its own Bergmanesque fantasia, the film slips freely, often confusingly, between realist and surrealist crosscurrents. In one memorable moment, Tomas and Ingrid go on a boating date that ends abruptly when he spots his employer on shore; he leaps out of the boat to join him, leaving Ingrid behind on the water. The occurrence of such disjunctions itself becomes a form of comedy, as scene after scene quavers between straight-faced severity and utter absurdism. At one point, Tomas’s frustrating encounter with one of Bauer’s dictaphone recordings segues into a head-to-head dispute, the characters’ interpersonal borders proving as porous as those of the film itself. Instances like this prove Bauer’s complete mastery over his domain, promoting the possibility that this entire enterprise is some kind of twisted attempt to cuckold himself, ensnaring his novice employee by using his vivacious wife as bait.
His actual intent remains mysterious, establishing him as the cryptic on-screen analogue to Sontag’s destabilizing formal approach. Whether we’re witnessing the tectonic plates of text and subtext colliding roughly with one another, or just an elaborate gag at the expense of viewers primed to expect impenetrable, pretentious weirdness from their Euro art cinema, is never entirely clear. The film’s ultimate liability, in fact, is that it can’t seem to decide if it’s doing pastiche or parody. It’s clearest thematic throughline remains the metaphorical transfer of horrid, self-serving behavior—disguised as rigorous intellectual purity—forced down from one generation to another. Qualities of the older couple become imprinted upon the younger, in an unnerving mode that mixes the scholarly and the familial, with a marked sexual undertone that seems requisite to this kind of boundary-pushing experimentation.
Yet the sort of theorizing that Duet for Cannibals demands is bound to inevitably draw inquisitive viewers toward the type of analytical over-examination that Sontag railed against in “Against Interpretation,” one of her most famous essays and the basis of much of her work from this time period. The most plausible, and rewarding, explanation may then be that her directorial debut represents a cross-medium introduction of this theory of sensual liberation into the cinematic bloodstream, antagonizing viewers as a further nudge to lay off the heavy textual lifting. It’s a lesson that may hold even greater relevance today, when the internet allows every inch of any given film to be picked over with a fine-toothed comb.
It also doesn’t hurt that Duet for Cannibals is frequently hilarious: An acidulous, dry humor runs beneath its formal provocations, from Bauer slowly spreading shaving cream over his car windshield to obscure the view inside, to a toned, briefs-clad man holding a handstand through the entirety of a pivotal dramatic scene. In this regard, the film feels ahead of its time, while totally leftfield in others. An interesting, if tonally inconsistent, experiment, it serves as an intriguing cinematic extension of its maker’s more well-known written work.
Cast: Gösta Ekman Jr., Lars Ekborg, Adriana Asti, Agneta Ekmanner, Stig Engström Director: Susan Sontag Screenwriter: Susan Sontag Distributor: Metrograph Pictures Running Time: 105 min Rating: NR Year: 1969