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.
Review: Another Round Honestly and Poignantly Grapples with Alcohol’s Pull
Thomas Vinterberg’s latest, like The Hunt, is ultimately a parable about breaking a social contract.3
There’s a revealing moment early in Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round when high school teacher Martin (Mads Mikkelsen) and his friends and colleagues—Tommy (Thomas Bo Larsen), Peter (Lars Ranthe), and Nikolaj (Magnus Millang)—are out for a birthday dinner. By this point, the audience knows that Martin is in the throes of a midlife crisis, sleepwalking through his history courses, inspiring the ire of students and parents alike, while regarding his family as little more than roommates. (Throughout, Mikkelsen doesn’t foreground self-pity or defensiveness, suggesting that Martin is too far gone to rouse himself to indignation, hiding under a veil of accommodation.) Because he’s driving, Martin initially resists drinking at the dinner, though his friends talk him into changing his mind, and soon he’s downing a shot of vodka and a few glasses of red wine in quick succession. Mikkelsen shows us the alcohol taking control of Martin in something like real time, his studious reserve vanishing to reveal great waves of sadness, bitterness, and salvation.
Anyone who knows alcoholism knows that face—of completion and fulfillment at the cost of alienation. The poignant terror of the scene resides in how quickly the booze grabs Martin, as if he’s an empty vessel waiting for his charge. In this light, Martin’s prior aloofness takes on new meaning. Though he has many real disappointments familiar to midlife, he was probably a dry drunk who didn’t know it. Over dinner, Nikolaj mentions the Norwegian psychiatrist Finn Skårderud, who said that people are born with a blood alcohol content that’s .05 percent too low, and that people should maintain a higher level in order to bring out their potential. We know from Martin’s face that he should stay away from alcohol, but he takes this idea at face value and begins drinking at school. Once the first day is over, he asks Nikolaj for a ride home, claiming that he can’t drive, revealing that he’s begun to experiment with the Skårderud philosophy. We expect Nikolaj to insist that Martin get help, but he and the others immediately join in, claiming that their boozing will be the basis of a future report.
The suspense of Another Round has little to do with whether or not these men will “prove” if day-drinking boosts livelihood. Rather, it’s derived from two nervous mysteries: the question of how long it will take them to recognize this idea for the rationalizing cry for help that it is, and how much damage will be done in the meantime. There’s also a kernel of satire here that one wishes Vinterberg had mined more fulsomely: that the men are taking to the next level a social obsession with alcohol and the various mythologies that we utilize to justify it. Alcohol is still greatly mythologized, associated with virile (masculine) creativity, with great writers and movers and shakers. Martin works the most famous boozers into his lectures, such as Hemingway and Churchill, and his literal and figurative intoxication brings his classes to life. Initially, the theory works, mostly for Martin, but for the other men as well.
In 1995, Vinterberg and Lars von Trier co-founded the Dogme 95 movement, which, broadly speaking, stresses found lighting and parred productions as resistance to the bloat of studio productions. Today, Vinterberg’s films still reflect this ideology, favoring handheld, docudramatic camerawork and few overtly expressionistic frills, which has often seemed prosaically “realistic” in the past. But this aesthetic serves a masterful purpose in Another Round, as his characters are calmly, objectively regarded as they drift further into alcoholism.
Their debauchery is clearly pleasurable in the moment, as benders with friends can be, but the camera is mercilessly attentive to the toll the booze takes—to the confusion, the staggering, the babbling, and especially to the existential pain of a massive hangover after days of being at sea. Overt formal fireworks might’ve glorified this behavior (think of Mike Figgis’s Leaving Las Vegas, which equated a prolonged suicide-by-liquor to a stylish, woozy jazz concert), whereas Vinterberg honors the lure and the danger of drinking simultaneously.
Still, it doesn’t require much artistic ingenuity to make the case that addiction is bad. Another Round is elevated by its cast, especially Mikkelsen, who gives one of the greatest, most lived-in performances of his career, and by a nagging ambiguity. Even as booze begins to destroy these men, the film doesn’t entirely refute the Skårderud philosophy. Someone dies, a marriage nearly dissolves, and the other men sober up, which they soon tire of in the tradition of many people who feel incomplete without indulging in their governing habit. They’re happier after returning to booze, and the teachers among them accomplish the mission of energizing their students. Martin, once a dancer, even begins to dance again.
Like every alcoholic, the film’s main characters are nagged by the exceptions to the rule (the Churchills of the world), by the possibility that they can keep their hungers within a certain perimeter. Another Round, like Vinterberg’s The Hunt, is ultimately a parable about breaking a social contract. Martin and his friends break a code by day-drinking, but perhaps they refuted a larger contract by going sober in a world that values casual lubrication. Every recovering alcoholic is intimately familiar with such a contract, which is among the profound challenges of putting the bottle down and keeping it down. One is reminded of that haunting line from Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master: “You can’t take this life straight, can you?”
Cast: Mads Mikkelsen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Lars Ranthe, Magnus Millang, Maria Bonnevie, Susse Wold, Helene Reingaard Neumann, Michael Asmussen, Martin Greis-Rosenthal Director: Thomas Vinterberg Screenwriter: Tobias Lindholm, Thomas Vinterberg Running Time: 115 min Rating: 2020 Year: 2020
Review: Wildfire Vibrantly Entwines Personal and Political Trauma
The structure of Wildfire’s narrative doesn’t emerge out of a simplistic progression from strife to reconciliation.3
The archival footage of the Troubles that opens Cathy Brady’s Wildfire constitutes a remembrance of an era that’s barely bygone. Indeed, as celebratory clips of the peacemaking Good Friday Agreement replace images of gunsmoke, fire, and post-bombing rubble, the film smash cuts to more recent news footage about Brexit and its possible impact on the Irish border, a reminder that the past, and certainly this one, is never past.
The uncertainty surrounding the border of Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland is evident in Kelly’s (Nika McGuigan) belabored entry into the latter at the start of the film. Stopped for a heightened security search, the shabbily dressed woman must empty everything out of her camping backpack and strip before being let go, as well as told that it’s been a year since she was reported missing. Comparatively, her journey to her hometown on the Northern Irish border goes significantly easier, but as she slips into the country, the ease of her passage is undermined by the worry that future crossings could be more fraught.
The legacy of the Troubles and the wider history of British colonialism hangs heavy over the film’s early stretches. Kelly crosses the border next to a sign welcoming people to Northern Ireland, but someone, in a unionist gesture, has spray-painted “One” over the “Northern.” In contrast, she encounters Union Jack flags blowing in the wind as she walks down the street, even a building plastered with a giant loyalist motto: “Prepared for Peace. Ready for War.” Yet these omnipresent reminders of national violence give way to more personal legacies of trauma when Kelly heads to the home of her sister, Lauren (Nora-Jane Noone), who had all but given her up for dead. Lauren has struggled to deal with Kelly’s disappearance, and her return conjures ghosts from their past, including the long-repressed memory of their mother’s death.
The sisters’ denial regarding their family history is reflected in a Northern Ireland working to leave its own past behind. Lauren works for an Amazon-esque company that epitomizes post-national globalism; she spends her days in a warehouse so massive that the end of the building disappears at the vanishing point of the frame, suggesting the storage facility at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. A generational divide also reflects how quickly tragedy is forgotten. Lauren’s younger co-workers came of age after the Troubles, and as such they’re completely removed from its horrors, sniggering at the prosthetic leg of a manager who lost her limb in an explosion as those old enough to remember the constant terror of the time fume at the show of insensitivity. And the sectarian nature of that history of violence is subtly born out in the judgmental whispers about whether Lauren and Kelly’s mother died by suicide, a reminder of the influence still exerted by religion and dogma on people who seem otherwise secular.
Slowly, though, the film’s focus shifts away from its social backdrop and toward the increasingly raw emotions that McGuigan and Noone evoke as they chart their characters’ frayed relationship. McGuigan (who passed away of cancer soon after completing the film) emphasizes Kelly’s wild, fatalistic spirit, as if she had inherited it from her mother, always nervous and casting one eye toward the exit even as she attempts to repair her relationship to her sister. Noone, meanwhile, captures the rage of someone who’s learned to accept the loss of a loved one, only to have that person re-enter their life and reignite all the anger and pain that they learned to compartmentalize. Lauren’s veneer of stability starts to crumble almost immediately, as she simultaneously unleashes her fury at her sister and anyone who dares to gossip about her. The sisters each embody a wildly different response to trauma (flight versus fight), though neither approach truly confronts the underlying tragedies that shaped them.
The structure of Wildfire’s narrative doesn’t emerge out of a simplistic progression from strife to reconciliation, as Brady has Kelly and Lauren follow a realistically erratic trajectory. Indeed, no sooner does Lauren reunite with Kelly than she screams for her sister to leave, only to then share a moment of fond nostalgia before bristling again at the memories that Kelly revives. Mutual and individual efforts to make good are constantly thwarted, while occasional moments of joyous interaction between them speak to a lifelong bond that not even decades-suppressed agony can undo. In the film’s most mesmerizing scene, the sisters suddenly cut loose and dance to Them’s “Gloria” inside a seemingly empty pub, working up an ecstatic sweat before it’s ultimately revealed that the space is filled with befuddled onlookers.
Lauren and Kelly’s tumultuous confrontations with their pasts and each other naturally has echoes in the film’s nods to Ireland’s fraught, and by no means settled, modern history. Yet Wildfire crucially never reduces itself to allegory, instead living through the unpredictable, jagged arcs of its characters as they work toward an understanding of themselves and each other. The militarized social strife that informed Lauren and Kelly’s childhoods is but one piece in a larger tapestry of horrors that must be dealt with, and Brady suggests that it’s only through reconciling personal conflicts that a populace can improve its political future.
Cast: Nika McGuigan, Nora-Jane Noone, Martin McCann, Kate Dickie, Aiste Gramantaite, David Pearse, Joanne Crawford Director: Cathy Brady Screenwriter: Cathy Brady Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
Review: The Truffle Hunters Warmly Regards a Disappearing Way of Life
The film’s reminder of the fragility of agrarian traditions in the face of a merciless profit motive is delivered with tact and subtlety.2.5
The boom in farm-to-table cuisine over the past decade, in both fine-dining circles and more modest gastropubs, has led to restaurants pointing out on their menus the suppliers and farms from which their ingredients have been sourced. Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw’s documentary The Truffle Hunters taps into this cultural conversation, tracing a line from the food on the plate back to the laborers who harvest it, and yet what it implies is that even with the increased transparency around food sourcing, there remains an essential mystique that must go unpunctured when it comes to certain foods.
Profiling a handful of elderly men from Piedmont, Italy, who pursue precious white alba truffles in the forests of the country’s northern region, the film tries to thread the needle between shining a light on its subjects’ niche trade and not spoiling their secrets. It does so by placing the emphasis on the people themselves over the treasures they dig up, a strategy that aligns the film more with the cine-portraits of Les Blank than, say, Netflix’s Chef’s Table.
Unlike Blank’s nonchalantly matter-of-fact films, though, The Truffle Hunters is shot in a painterly visual style that creates a degree of distance from its subjects. Clearly identifying with and celebrating the expertise of these devoted practitioners and their resistance to nosy profiteers, Dweck and Kershaw seem driven by a desire to enshrine the men in timeless tableaux, the likes of which you might see hung on the walls of a museum next to a Vermeer. To this end they’ve made a lovely film, one teeming with punctilious frames in which everything has been arranged just so. But it also prompts the assumption that the filmmakers took their fair share of liberties with the art direction in the hunters’ homes, which, despite being well within their rights as artists, keeps the film from ever feeling truly spontaneous.
The Truffle Hunters concerns itself with a handful of characters: a few expert foragers; their beloved fungi-sniffing canines; an urban buyer who’s always chasing the suppliers’ elusive secrets; and a crotchety gourmand who samples the delicacies brought his way by other such buyers. Dweck and Kershaw establish a leisurely movement between these different threads, presenting each in the same handsome, methodical manner so as to encourage viewers to draw their own conclusions about the ethics of the buyer-supplier dynamic.
The sequences devoted to the highbrow arena of truffle auctions, where enthusiasts come to sniff and evaluate samples of the earthy substance, are no less detailed in their observation than the passages in the forest and at country homes. But what eventually becomes self-evident is the warmth, self-sufficiency, and camaraderie of the hunters compared to the businesslike aloofness of those on the receiving end of their labor—insatiable careerists who, in a handful of scenes, are shown to barely even evince much pleasure for the food itself.
This reminder of the fragility of agrarian traditions in the face of a merciless profit motive is a welcome one delivered with tact and subtlety, but Dweck and Kershaw occasionally deliver it at the expense of their titular subjects. The highlight of The Truffle Hunters is the hilarious rapport between one persevering scavenger and his grumpy wife, who’s fed up with her husband’s imperiling trips into the woods at night—and for good reason, as several scenes illustrate just how physically taxing the process can be for an ailing body. These sketches of domestic life are rich with lived-in authenticity, and the proximity they grant us to a unique, off-the-grid way of life recalls a similar quality that defines Blank’s films about gumbo sorcerers in the bayou. It’s hard not to wonder how much more of that magic could have been captured had Dweck and Kershaw not bothered to so carefully compose and light their shots.
Director: Michael Dweck, Gregory Kershaw Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 84 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
Review: Concrete Cowboy Is Detail-Rich for What’s Basically an Afterschool Special
Concrete Cowboy is stirring when it really dives into specificity.
Ricky Staub’s Concrete Cowboy is based on the real-life Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club of Northern Philadelphia, where African-Americans teach potentially troubled children to ride and care for horses as a way of avoiding the temptations of the streets. The reveal of this club is gracefully handled by Staub, as the film’s young protagonist, Cole (Caleb McLaughlin), is dropped off on the doorstep of his father, Harp (Idris Elba), after his mother has given up trying to rein in the delinquent teen. This drop-off occurs at night, and Harp clearly doesn’t live in the best part of town. Scared, Cole asks a neighbor about his father’s current whereabouts and is directed to the nearby “stable,” which sounds in this context like a bar. Cole follows a street and a slum opens up into a literal stable, carved out of dilapidated buildings, with a field where horses roam while cowboys bullshit over a fire and beer. Staub stages this scene with offhand matter-of-factness, allowing us to feel the magic of Cole’s discovery—of a hopeful place existing where it, by all odds, should not.
Adapted from G. Neri’s 2009 novel Ghetto Cowboy, the film is involving when Staub and co-screenwriter Dan Walser stick to the particulars of Harp and the other cowboys’ lives as well as the general working culture of the stable. The horses are kept behind a brick wall in a building that was once suburban, which is rich in cobwebs that bring to mind Miss Havisham’s mansion in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations. Before he can ride a horse, Cole must of course pay his dues, shoveling horse shit out of the stable into a dumpster across the street. Staub fashions an entire, richly specific sequence out of this single action, offering a tribute to the pride of diligent work, especially when it’s servicing passion rather than mere survival. Some of the cowboys are also played by their actual counterparts, and their conversation is similarly detailed, rooted in the legacy of Philly and the Fletcher Street club.
Sadly, these details aren’t allowed to dictate the terms of the narrative, existing instead as window dressing for what amounts to an Afterschool Special. Too much of the film’s runtime is devoted to a shopworn conflict: Will Cole turn to dealing drugs or will he stick with the club? We know the answer to that question 10 minutes into the film, and so the perfunctory scenes of Cole riding around and surveying late-night parties and drop-offs feel like an unnecessary distraction from the cowboys. And Concrete Cowboy grows less detailed as it progresses. We’re not told how the cowboys barely subsidize their lifestyle (based on the news, the real-life Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club appears to be more organized, and funded), or if they work other jobs. The cowboys’ relationship to their surrounding community is also glossed over in the film, more or less dramatized by a single celebration sequence.
The delicacy of the film’s early scenes is regrettably missing from other moments that have the potential to be moving. When Harp fashions a special saddle so that a paralyzed cowboy may ride a horse again, we don’t need derivative slow-motion and music to comprehend the poignancy of such a gesture. We also don’t require expository dialogue to tell us that Cole feels excluded in this moment from a father who’s never shown him such generosity, as we glimpse this embittered yet admiring heartbreak in the boy’s face. However, Cole’s wound is cauterized in another wonderful scene, when Harp plays John Coltrane on vinyl and explains to Cole that he was named after the jazz legend. Again, Concrete Cowboy is stirring when it really dives into specificity, avoiding what the New Yorker literature critic James Wood recently defined as our original sin: cliché, which, according to Wood, blocks our apprehension of reality.
Cast: Caleb McLaughlin, Idris Elba, Method Man, Lorraine Toussaint, Jharrel Jerome, Swen Temmel, Byron Bowers, Lamont Fountain, Liz Priestley Director: Ricky Staub Screenwriter: Ricky Staub, Dan Walser Running Time: 113 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
Review: Pieces of a Woman Is a Patchy but Well-Acted Portrait of Unravelling Lives
When the film’s actors are given space to etch their characters’ feelings, they turn in strikingly naturalistic performances.2.5
Kornél Mundruczó’s Pieces of a Woman swiftly and neatly—perhaps too neatly—establishes its core characters and their relationships to one another. Sean (Shia LaBeouf), a construction worker, is the gruff but loving husband. His wife, Martha (Vanessa Kirby), is the expectant mother who’s eager to start her maternity leave. And her mother, Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn), is your stereotypical mother-in-law, buying the couple a new minivan just to spite Sean, who pointedly grumbles at one point that he can afford to support his family. These are familiar tensions that the audience is primed to expect will come to a head as husband and wife blissfully await the next stage in their lives.
Prior to the arrival of Martha and Sean’s midwife, Eva (Molly Parker), as golden light reflects off of the white walls of their home, Martha’s water breaks and Sean calms her with affirmations and silly jokes. This will be understood as the calm before the storm of Martha’s labor, which is captured in a single unbroken take. At first, the shot resolutely focuses on the characters’ faces, registering how Martha’s breathing quickens as her contractions grow more pronounced, and how Sean’s façade of stoicism drops whenever his wife takes her eyes off of him, allowing himself to fully feel the panic of a man about to become a father.
But soon, as the increasing chatter between characters starts to produce a current of tension, the protracted steps of the home birth compound the anxiety of the scene. By the time Eva prepares for the final pushing stages and reveals that the baby’s heart rate isn’t meeting normal levels, the tone of the sequence becomes more fraught. And just as things finally seem to build to a happy conclusion, the sound of a ragged breath causes Eva’s face to freeze, and a fade forward in time to a dour autumnal cityscape hints at the newborn’s fate.
It’s at this point that Pieces of a Woman’s narrative splits itself in two. On one side, we follow Martha and Sean as they struggle to cope with their loss, their relationship barely hanging together by a few threads. The focus remains mostly on Martha, who Kirby plays as trapped between poles of numb detachment and rage. As both Martha and Sean turn to others for physical comfort and escape, it’s Kirby who captures the full range of pain’s dissociative properties, stumbling around Boston in a fugue state, searching for some kind of meaning.
The other half of the narrative concerns Eva being brought up on charges of negligence. As a coroner informs Martha and Sean, the baby showed no signs of defects, and that few cases of infant mortality have satisfactory explanations. But friends make comments in which they hope that Eva faces “consequences,” while Elizabeth is determined to put the woman in prison. That the same long take that made Martha’s birthing process feel so immersive also showed how quickly Eva sprang into action to alert a hospital removes any ambiguity about her professional conduct. As such, her legal case becomes nothing more than a way for the bereaved to lay the blame at someone’s feet for a tragic but natural fact of life.
The trial makes sense as a manifestation of that aspect of the trauma process, particularly in a climactic scene where Martha finally weighs in on a legal action that everyone has taken on her behalf. But the time given over to the question of the case’s outcome too stiffly weds a film that’s at its best when living with characters’ emotional torpor to a conventional plot.
When Pieces of a Woman’s actors are given space to etch their characters’ feelings, they turn in strikingly naturalistic performances. Kirby walks a tightrope without collapsing into histrionics, and she conveys Martha’s increasing outbursts less as a show of a loss of control than of slowly regaining it. Elsewhere, LaBeouf soulfully charts the struggle of a man desperately trying to tamp down his sorrow over the death of his child in a last-ditch effort to hold onto the one person left in his life. Even when Sean is scheming behind Martha’s back with her mother or having an affair out of loneliness, LaBeouf stresses the man’s vulnerability and desire to pull his marriage out of the ditch in the face of inevitability. And in a monologue late in the film, in which Elizabeth forcefully explains what life experiences hardened her, Burstyn impressively pushes her character past cookie-cutter status. It’s a show-stopping moment that communicates far more than anything in the last-act coverage of Eva’s trial, which simplistically highlights breakthroughs that are more tacitly conveyed elsewhere.
Cast: Vanessa Kirby, Shia LaBeouf, Molly Parker, Sarah Snook, Iliza Shlesinger, Benny Safdie, Jimmie Fails, Ellen Burstyn Director: Kornél Mundruczó Screenwriter: Kata Wéber Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 120 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
New York Film Festival 2020
There’s something equal parts twisted and romantic about the left-for-dead format of the drive-in theater uniting with theater-killing streaming technology to preserve the institution of the film festival.
Film festivals, like the rest of us, are still adapting to the unique challenges posed by the Covid pandemic, with major ones drastically scaling back their lineups or devising a hybrid physical-virtual screening schedules. The 58th New York Film Festival will kick off on September 17 with simultaneous screenings of Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock at two drive-in theaters in Brooklyn and Queens (the festival will also be using another drive-in in the Bronx for further screenings). Lovers Rock is the first episode of McQueen’s five-part Small Axe miniseries, set among London’s West Indian community; the “film,” along with two others in the anthology (Mangrove and Red, White And Blue) will also be available to ticket-holders for designated four-hour windows online. After the cancellation of this year’s Cannes Film Festival, it’s been encouraging to see so many festivals coping with the impacts of the pandemic, even if it seems somewhat antithetical for a film festival like this one to be effectively dispersed across the globe rather than concentrated in a single communal event.
The festival’s socially minded main slate features a wealth of new works from master documentarians like Fredrick Wiseman (City Hall), Jia Zhang-ke (Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue), and Gianfranco Rossi (Notturno). And particularly notable among the works of nonfiction in this year’s slate is Garrett Bradley’s Time, a stirring look at 21 years in the life of a family that’s been irrevocably altered by the prison-industrial complex. On the fiction side, the lineup is no less auteur-friendly, with the festival presenting the latest works by Christian Petzold (Undine), Tsai Ming-Liang (Days), Hong Sang-soo (The Woman Who Ran), Cristi Puiu (Malmkrog), and more. And this year’s much-anticipated centerpiece selection is Chloé Zhao’s follow-up to The Rider, Nomadland, about a woman (played by Frances MacDormand) who lost everything in the Great Recession and travels the country in a camper in the wake of her husband’s death.
This mix of socio-politically engaged documentaries and auteurist cinema also marks the festival’s Spotlight section. There, you’ll find new films by Pedro Almodóvar (the short drama The Human Voice starring Tilda Swinton), Sofia Coppola (On the Rocks), and the prolific-in-death Orson Welles (Hopper/Welles), as well as David Dufresne’s The Monopoly of Violence, about police violence in France, and Lisa Cortes and Liz Garbus’s All In: The Fight for Democracy, which is concerned with the history and current activism against voter suppression and is based around interviews with American politician Stacey Abrams.
Elsewhere, 59 films with a more experimental bent, interweaving fiction and nonfiction, will screen as part of the Currents program. Of particular note is the latest from Nicolás Pereda (Fauna) and another dispatch from beyond the grave by Raúl Ruiz (The Tango of the Widower and Its Distorting Mirror, co-directed by his widow and collaborator, Valeria Sarmiento). And among the notable titles slotted in the Revivals section, which “connects cinema’s rich past to its dynamic present through an eclectic assortment of new restorations,” are Béla Tarr’s Damnation, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Flowers of Shanghai, and Jean Vigo’s Zero for Conduct.
Right now, even the films most engaged with reality can feel out of date if they happen to have been shot more than eight months ago; seeing everyday people on screen shaking hands or standing in lines can have an uncanny effect. But then, watching art flicks at a drive-in might serve as a constant reminder to festivalgoers how much stranger the world has gotten than last year’s already-unnerving status quo. There’s something equal parts twisted and romantic about the left-for-dead format of the drive-in theater uniting with theater-killing streaming technology to preserve the institution of the film festival. It’s like temporal streams have been crossed, the mid-20th-century society of the auto hybridized with the 21st-century society of the mobile phone. The erstwhile downsides of these formats—the isolation of the home theater or hermetically sealed family car—turn out to be their primary advantages in our current context. Pat Brown
For a complete schedule of films, screening times, and ticket information, visit Film at Lincoln Center. Capsule reviews of films in the main slate appear below; check back as more titles are added, with links to full reviews.
Beginning (Dea Kulumbegashvili)
Dea Kulumbegashvili’s Beginning centers around a Jehovah’s Witness missionary, Yana (Ia Sukhitashvili), who lives with her husband, David (Rati Oneli), and young son in a remote village in the mountains outside of Tbilisi. The close-knit community they tend to faces extreme prejudice and persecution from the local Orthodox Christian majority, as illustrated in the film’s startling opening. Foreshadowing another shocking event late in the film, one that shows the imperceptible force of religious scripture weighing on the characters, this opening’s blurring of boundaries between spiritual imagination and reality reveals itself to be a key theme of the narrative. Though a strictly minimalist approach means that her visual motifs emerge organically from the action, Kulumbegashvili makes a few unexpected, rather Hanekian compositional choices that break with the film’s sense of naturalism to more explicitly wring allegorical significance from certain sequences. Demonstrating the extent of Yana’s resilience in facing the most extreme and personal tests of faith, and her willingness to sacrifice everything for her community, Kulumbegashvili vividly imagines powerlessness and despair being transformed into a supernatural, redemptive force. David Robb
The Calming (Song Fang)
The meticulousness and control of Song Fang’s feature-length directorial debut, Memories Look at Me, gave the film a specific conceptual focus. The Chinese actress and filmmaker’s follow-up feature, The Calming, places a similar emphasis on technique, but its scrupulously shot and staged compositions tend to suck the life out of every frame. The narrative is simple, and again loosely autobiographical: Song surrogate Lin Tong (Qi Xi), a documentary filmmaker who we learn early on has recently been through a breakup, drifts between Japan, China, and Hong Kong—locations with stated sentimental value to Song, who drew on her memories of visiting them during the film festival run of Memories Look at Me. That sense of personal meaning is meant to be conveyed through a film’s worth of immaculate long takes of Lin inhabiting different spaces, from bustling cityscapes to minimally furnished apartments, to lush, sprawling natural environments. But as a result of Song’s seeming unwillingness to give us much understanding of this character and her limited formalist vocabulary, The Calming is left unable to connect angst to anything significantly deeper. Sam C. Mac
City Hall (Frederick Wiseman)
Frederick Wiseman never steps in the same river twice, though the methods of this prolific, preeminent documentarian are, with rare exception, unchanging. So it is with City Hall, Wiseman’s formidable and incisive exploration of local government in Boston, Massachusetts. Non-diegetic score and identifying on-screen titles are eschewed throughout, while the film’s duration is well past the feature-length norm—in this case, four-and-a-half engrossing hours. The camerawork, courtesy of Wiseman’s longtime collaborator John Davey, is mostly fly-on-the-wall, swish-panning between or settling for extended periods on a given scene’s subjects. Mundanities that many other artists would turn away from are manna to Wiseman. He gets as much poetic and provocative mileage out of a budget meeting that projects the fiscal year to come as he does a glass skyscraper reflecting a magic-hour sunset. The film’s provocations can seem savage at a glance, but they emerge from an observational tranquility that is uniquely Wiseman’s own, and which leave room for individual interpretation. What each of us sees is what each of us gets. But how do we arrive at our respective ideological terminus? City Hall isn’t an incitement, so much as an invitation to serenely reflect on and think through systems of power that are, like the people who labor within them, constantly evolving—for better and for worse. Keith Uhlich
Days (Tsai Ming-liang)
Centered on the quotidian lives of two unnamed men (played by Lee Kang-sheng and Anong Houngheuangsy), Days finds Taiwanese auteur Tsai Ming-liang reflecting once again on people’s unspeakable loneliness and alienation in a world lacking in reciprocity. In a series of tableaux vivants, where the camera remains mostly still and sound is entirely diegetic, the uneventful days of the two men unfold, or, considering the film’s meticulous attention to such elements as water and fire, you could say that they burn slowly. Indeed, the younger man (Houngheuangsy) stokes the embers of a fire so he can methodically make his lunch, washing vegetables and fish in buckets inside his bathroom and concocting a makeshift stove by placing a pot on top of the other one containing the embers. The older man (Lee), in turn, is seen taking a bath, stretching his sore body in the woods, and staring out a window for what feels like an entire afternoon, as he listens to the sound of water. Were Lee facing the lens, the sequence would belong to the same documentary universe of Wang Xiaoshuai or Sergei Loznitsa—of evidence through dogged visual persistence. Diego Semerene
Gunda (Viktor Kossakovsky)
On paper, Victor Kossakovsky’s Gunda, a wordless documentary about the everyday life of a few farm animals may suggest a quiet idyll in the vein of the goatherding sequences from Michelangelo Frammartino’s Le Quattro Volte. But with its stark, forbidding black-and-white cinematography and dense, unsettling sound design, the film resembles nothing so much as Eraserhead. The newborn piglets in the film, whose faces look surprisingly alien-like in extreme close-up and whose aching squeals can be rather unnerving, even at times resemble the baby from David Lynch’s cult classic. By eschewing the Disneyfied anthropomorphism of Luc Jacquet’s March of the Penguins and the tidy narrativizing of the Planet Earth series, Kossakovsky refuses to resort to the old cliché that animals are “just like us.” They’re not, really. And in Gunda, common farm animals have rarely seemed so un-human. Which isn’t to say that we don’t form a relationship with these creatures. Relying heavily on shallow-focus shots often positioned near ground level—and thus close to its subjects’ eyeline—the film gives us something of the experience of being a farm animal: of grazing in a field, caring for a newborn, and aimelessly roaming around a farm. And by the time the credits roll on the film, we realize we’ve been watching not so much a sketch of the lives of farm animals as a threnody for their deaths. Keith Watson
Isabella (Matías Piñeiro)
Matías Piñeiro’s Isabella, a cubist riddle composed of elliptical scenes that hint at conflict, finds the Argentine writer-director sliding further into abstraction than ever before. The film cloaks its muted, wispy narrative in symbolic digressions and repetitive formal gestures that imply some grand design just beyond comprehension—a fitting analogy given the recurring presence of an overhead shot of hands arranging a puzzle consisting only of differently shaded notecards. Piñeiro remains a superlative director of actors and a careful modulator of rhythm, and part of the film’s longueurs have to do with an effort to provide respite from just how fast everyone talks and walks. But the drama of external turbulence and internal reckoning being sketched in the film, particularly as it relates to emerging motherhood, feels emotionally distinct from the amorous entanglements that Piñeiro was reveling in just half a decade ago, and if he’s indeed entering a phase of middle-aged concerns, it’s easy to feel primed for something deeply moving to come next. If that’s the case, then Isabella feels like a stylistic and thematic trial run. Carson Lund
Lovers Rock (Steve McQueen)
One of three episodes from his upcoming miniseries, Small Axe, that will world premiere at the New York Film Festival, Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock is nothing if not a mood piece. For McQueen, who’s of Grenadian and Trinidadian descent, the series is his most personal project to date, weaving together various stories within London’s West Indian community in the 1980s. Set largely over one night at a house party and gently tracing the growing attraction between Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) and the mysterious Franklyn (Micheal Ward), Lovers Rock lovingly captures the sense of community that’s fostered within the house right out the gate, as the musicians set up the sound system and the jolly cooks in the kitchen start banging out curry goat and ackee and saltfish. The film’s centerpiece, set to Janet Kay’s lovers rock hit “Silly Games,” plays out across a sea of polyester, beautiful Black bodies rapturously entwined. The social world that McQueen envisions is lived-in, tactile, and especially wondrous across scenes that fixate on the temperature of a song (from Carl Douglas’s “Kung Fu Fighting” to the Revolutionaries “Kunta Kinte”) turning the dial up on people’s libidos. Luckily that’s the better part of Lovers Rock’s 70-minute runtime, because whenever it follows Martha out of the house and puts her in the crosshairs of a potential threat or generally catches her in a moment of confusion about some incident that feels every bit as alien to us, it’s difficult to not see the film’s episodic roots. Ed Gonzalez
Isabella (Matías Piñeiro)
Matías Piñeiro’s Isabella, a cubist riddle composed of elliptical scenes that hint at conflict, finds the Argentine writer-director sliding further into abstraction than ever before. The film cloaks its muted, wispy narrative in symbolic digressions and repetitive formal gestures that imply some grand design just beyond comprehension—a fitting analogy given the recurring presence of an overhead shot of hands arranging a puzzle consisting only of differently shaded notecards. Piñeiro remains a superlative director of actors and a careful modulator of rhythm, and part of the film’s longueurs have to do with an effort to provide respite from just how fast everyone talks and walks. But the drama of external turbulence and internal reckoning being sketched in the film, particularly as it relates to emerging motherhood, feels emotionally distinct from the amorous entanglements that Piñeiro was reveling in just half a decade ago, and if he’s indeed entering a phase of middle-aged concerns, it’s easy to feel primed for something deeply moving to come next. If that’s the case, then Isabella feels like a stylistic and thematic trial run. Ed Gonzalez
Malmkrog (Cristi Puiu)
Cristi Puiu’s Malmkrog is based on 19th-century Russian philosopher and mystic Vladimir Solovyov’s prophetic Three Conversations, which, through a series of dialectical maneuvers, addresses such topics as economic materialism, nationalism, and abstract moralism. The film takes place on a snow-covered hillside, where a large pastel-pink mansion sits and Puiu turns the philosophical into drama. Sheltered in the mansion’s walls are a small group of aristocrats that includes a politician, a general and his wife, and a young countess. It all has the makings of a game of Clue, but the mysteries here are linguistic. A Christmas gathering stretches on in what seems to be real time, as the party’s high-minded philosophical and political chatter takes on an increasingly strained air. That tension is heightened by the obstacles that Puiu uses to discombobulate his audience. Malmkrog is the Transylvanian village where the film takes place, yet the characters, who speak primarily in French, talk of being in Russia. And as they discuss imminent war and the potential outcomes of violence, it’s as if the film appears to exist outside of time and place. Ben Flanagan
MLK/FBI (Sam Pollard)
Sam Pollard’s MLK/FBI is an impressive reassessment of an American icon, approaching sensational material in forthright terms and without devolving into sensationalism. Based largely on Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Garrow’s 2015 book The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr.: From “Solo” to Memphis, this knotty and compelling documentary threads together the story of the F.B.I.’s obsession with finding compromising secrets about King with an unusually frank accounting of what some of those secrets were. When Garrow published a blockbuster story in 2019 alleging that King had witnessed or potentially even taken part in a 1964 rape at a hotel, it caused a brief flutter but was largely overlooked in the mainstream media. Pollard handles this explosive issue with restraint and intelligence. The film shows no illusions about the extent of King’s affairs. But it also refrains from any dubious moral calculations by giving his personal deceptions the same weight as his public morality. Pollard also deals carefully with Garrow’s most damning allegation, giving the thinly documented charge its due but carving out space around it for uncertainty. While the film doesn’t try to elevate King’s pedestal any higher, it also doesn’t try to knock him off of it. Chris Barsanti
Night of the Kings (Philippe Lacôte)
Inside the La MACA prison in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, a newly arrived prisoner (Bakary Koné) becomes a “Roman,” a storyteller tasked with spinning yarns as entertainment, with the threat of being hung on an iron hook if he fails to hold everyone’s attention. This unlucky Scheherazade-like character thus finds himself at the center of an explosion of activity as the other prisoners prepare for this ritualistic evening. The most striking aspect of Night of the Kings is the way in which the prisoners begin to act out Roman’s story, voicing characters and even engaging in interpretive song and dance as if possessed by the spirit to act. The camera regularly shifts away from Roman to move in lockstep with the prisoners’ contortions and twirling movements, resulting in a poetry of motion that illuminates his improvised tale better than the actual depictions of it. Despite its bleak context, the film is a celebration of oral traditions as a means of giving purpose to even the most hopeless of lives. That a film so frequently harrowing can so often feel joyous without every trivializing the state of its characters’ imprisonment is a testament to the way that writer-director Philippe Lacôte resolutely finds the meaning embedded within ritual, and how the activities of the inmates, however strange, constitute routines every bit as normalizing as the daily tasks of those living their lives outside the walls of the prison. Jake Cole
Nomadland (Chloé Zhao)
“I’m not homeless,” Fern (Frances McDormand) says in response to the concerned query of an old friend in Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland. “I’m just houseless.” And she says it in a distinctly sharp, guarded, and prideful tone that McDormand expertly deploys throughout the film. I’m fine, her voice and slightly narrowed eyes say, but don’t come any closer. Her standoffishness points to the pride of a van-dwelling and only occasionally employed woman who spurns pity while trying to carve out a place for herself in a society that doesn’t leave space for people not defined by steady careers or well-rooted homes. Using a minimal and improvised-feeling script that emphasizes interaction and happenstance over story, Zhao places Fern and the gorgeous landscapes she travels through at the forefront of the film. There are times when Joshua James Richards’s sweeping cinematography and Ludovico Einaudi’s gently emotive music point to a far more romantic vision than that suggested by Fern’s hard-bitten attitude. But by juxtaposing beautiful vistas filled with promise, a rotted social safety net, and the scrappy itinerant workers navigating the space in between, Zhao generates a gradually swelling tension underneath her film’s somewhat placid surface. In the end, whether Fern roams the desert or returns to housed life, the unfulfilled promise of America will keep pushing her back to the horizon. Barsanti
Notturno (Gianfranco Rosi)
The common understanding of documentaries is that they’re intended to inform in particular ways: candid footage often complemented by explanatory text and graphics, testimony of witnesses and experts who frame and flesh out the events in question, contemplative pans across archival evidence, and, in the age of reality TV, extended interviews with the subjects themselves in close-up, providing a kind of running interior monologue. Gianfranco Rosi’s documentaries, though they take on topics of great socio-political import, eschew virtually all of these conventions and thus demand a different kind of engagement—one rooted in empathy for the experiences of his essentially anonymous human subjects. His refusal to firmly place the segments of life that he captures within an explicit broader framework might be seen as an effort to keep his images resolutely in the present. The unpredictable power outages and food shortages in major cities, the unsettling presence of foreign armies, the mental and physical suffering of children whose families and neighbors have been slaughtered by ISIS—the dreadful beauty of Notturno’s experiential approach to cinema emphasizes that these aren’t impersonal events on a timeline, but the current life as lived by millions in the Near East. Brown
The Salt of Tears (Philippe Garrel)
Despite so much identification, and despite the fact that some of the best films ever made, from Scenes from a Marriage to A Summer’s Tale, are precisely about masculine cowardliness and feminine despair, why is it that The Salt of Tears makes no room for genuine emotion to emerge? Which is peculiar given that Philippe Garrel so recently, with In the Shadow of Women and Lover for a Day, documented the impossibility of monogamy with not only a no-nonsense sensibility but also profound gravitas. Maybe the failure of the film is in Garrel’s use of melodramatic music during transitional scenes, a device at odds with the detached style of the rest of the film. Maybe it’s in the overtly fable-like structure that reduces the characters to not just archetypes, but cutouts. Maybe it’s in the omniscient voiceover narration that punctuates the film with such disaffection and irregularity. Garrel illustrates the absurdity behind the myth of the complementary couple with the same cynicism that permeates his previous work but none of the humor or wit. He thus elevates The Salt of Tears to the status of a work to be enjoyed only intellectually, as if, like Luc (Logann Antuofermo), he, too, had learned to foreclose feeling for the sake of some fantasy of self-preservation or pride. Semerene
Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue (Jia Zhang-ke)
Divided into 18 titled chapters, Jia Zhang-ke’s documentary Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue is a quietly reflective, intermittently rambling rumination on an explosively momentous period in history. In the film, a 2019 literary festival in Jia’s home province of Shanxi is the springboard for three writers’ takes on how China has been transformed since the 1940s. Although the style and manner of the writers vary widely, they each describe a time of radical change, particularly how small villages like Jia’s were rocked by the tumult of the Communist Party takeover in 1949, then the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, and then the turbo-charged urbanization of the new millennium. Taking a quieter and less barbed approach to addressing the state of modern China than fans of his work are likely used to from such politically pointed dramas as A Touch of Sin, Jia refers to the documentary as a “symphony.” As such, it features discrete movements and some repeated themes, like the beautiful interludes in which farm workers recite short snippets from the books being discussed. What it doesn’t have, however, is much of a crescendo. Barsanti
Time (Garrett Bradley)
In 1997, Robert Richardson was convicted along with his wife, Sibil, of robbing a credit union in Shreveport, Louisiana. At the time, the couple had four sons, and Sibil was pregnant with twin boys. Considering her situation, Sibil took a plea bargain and was sentenced to 12 years, though she was out on parole after only three-and-a-half. Meanwhile, Robert was sentenced to 65 years without parole. Time doesn’t, and perhaps doesn’t need to, trot out statistics to make the case that Robert’s draconian sentence represents a perpetuation of anti-Black racism. That’s because director Garrett Bradley has the receipts: years of home-video diaries that Sibil recorded for Robert as she worked tirelessly to support her family while also trying to secure legal motions for his re-sentencing. The film’s title evokes “doing time,” but we don’t see Robert actually serving his sentence; instead, we feel its duration in the gap it’s left in his family’s life, and in their words we’re offered an oblique commentary on the history of Black incarceration. Bradley’s film is about feeling time, about conveying some idea of what 21 years feels like to someone else. Far more than a polemic against the prison-industrial complex, Time reminds us in eminently cinematic ways that behind the numbers and procedures of a court case are actual lives existing in actual, human time. Brown
The Truffle Hunters (Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw)
Clearly identifying with and celebrating the expertise of their subjects—a handful of elderly men from Piedmont, Italy, who pursue precious white alba truffles in the forests of the country’s northern region—and their resistance to nosy profiteers, The Truffle Hunters seems driven by a desire to enshrine the men in a timeless tableaux. Directors Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw establish a leisurely movement between the film’s different threads, presenting each in the same handsome, methodical manner so as to encourage viewers to draw their own conclusions about the ethics of the buyer-supplier dynamic. The sequences devoted to the highbrow arena of truffle auctions, where enthusiasts come to sniff and evaluate samples of the earthy substance, are no less detailed in their observation than the passages in the forests and at country homes. But what eventually becomes self-evident is the warmth, self-sufficiency, and camaraderie of the hunters compared to the businesslike aloofness of those on the receiving end of their labor—insatiable careerists who, in a handful of scenes, are shown to barely even evince much pleasure for the food itself. This reminder of the fragility of agrarian traditions in the face of a merciless profit motive is a welcome one delivered with tact and subtlety, but Dweck and Kershaw occasionally deliver it at the expense of their titular subjects. Lund
Undine (Christian Petzold)
Throughout his increasingly formidable oeuvre, Christian Petzold has nested stories of doomed love in surveys of his home nation’s reaction to economic or historical upheavals. Though at once lighter and stranger than any of his earlier work, Undine makes the melodramatic trappings of the director’s previous films its explicit subject, questioning the fixed nature of human behavior in a world whose borders are constantly shifting. It’s ironic and puzzling, then, that Undine’s eponymous character (Paula Beer) is both human and a water sprite. As this typically compact but deceptively rich film moves along, flashes of dislocation proliferate, undermining its seemingly contemporary setting and leaving us to wonder whether love and logic are compatible. As Petzold ushers his lovers toward doom, the film almost seems to rewind, revisiting most of its settings and turning sites of passion into mausoleums of aching and regret. “Form follows function,” Undine says at one point, and with minor alterations in framing and presentation Petzold fundamentally shifts our sense of these locations. Apparently the first in a trilogy of modern stories based on fables, Undine is a striking change of pace that sacrifices none of the director’s intellect or ambition. Christopher Gray
The Woman Who Ran (Hong Sang-soo)
Hong Sang-soo’s The Woman Who Ran is defined by absences: by who isn’t in the frame and by what isn’t said throughout conversations that appear to be determinedly trivial. Returning to Seoul after years away, Gam-hee (Kim Min-hee) reconnects with a trio of female friends, and they talk of the food they eat and indulge in local gossip, repeating observations with a fervor that feels obsessive and mindless, as if these women have gotten too calcified in their own lives to utter anything but mantras. Yet Hong and his actors communicate the disappointment and sadness that’s being suppressed by well-practiced politeness, offering anecdotes that abound in pointed loose ends. Throughout, you may recall that audacious sequence in Grass in which a woman repeatedly went up and down a flight of stairs, as Hong fashions a similar yet subtler portrait of stasis with his latest. Many Hong films examine romantic pressures from the POV of a surrogate for the director himself, while The Woman Who Ran suggests Hong’s fantasy of how women discuss him when he’s not around. Chuck Bowen
Review: The Nest Is a Morality Tale Caught Between Black Comedy and Horror
Sean Durkin’s sweated-over filmmaking tediously lifts a familiar tale of domestic dysfunction to the level of myth.2
Like real estate, cinema is all about location, location, location. Sean Durkin has picked the right one with The Nest, while his characters have most certainly picked the wrong one. Often feeling as though it were reverse-engineered around a deluxe location hookup in Durkin’s native England, The Nest wrings tension out of the cavernous hallways and stygian shadows of the countryside manor where white-collar stooge Rory O’Hara (Jude Law) has brought his family on the promise of a financial windfall. Nearly every exactingly framed establishing shot in the film creeps toward the action at a snail’s pace, implying the presence of some malevolent force at work in the floorboards and walls themselves. But while the film adopts the semantics of a horror film, it’s really just a gussied-up domestic melodrama, its skewering of the father-knows-best ethos calling to mind midcentury classics like Nicholas Ray’s Bigger than Life or Vincente Minnelli’s Home from the Hill.
The Nest is set in Ronald Reagan’s ‘80s, a period whose individualist economic philosophies have polluted Rory’s brain to such a degree that the quaint slow-growth attitudes of his old-money colleagues in London start to look preferable by comparison. Having fallen hook, line, and sinker for the illusion of upward mobility after a stint in the American suburbs (where the film begins), the English-born Rory’s business ambitions lead him back to the exurbs of London, where he hopes that he can corner the market on globalizing prospects in the home country. His wife, Allison (Carrie Coon), a horse trainer who so gamely sees through her husband’s bullshit that it’s a bit hard to believe she keeps going along with it, hates the move at face value, and her immediate and increasing distaste of the ghoulish, Gothic-like property is telegraphed by the accelerating rate of her portentous chain smoking.
As in his acclaimed debut feature, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Durkin favors an aesthetic of frigid calculation reminiscent of the work of frequent collaborator Antonio Campos: a color palette evoking soil and pine overseen by German cinematographer Mátyás Erdély; close-ups used more for graphic punctuation than vicarious engagement; and hard-edged compositions that make pointed use of blurred negative space and vanishing points. The narrative is unfurled as a volley between Rory’s exploits among the London financial elite and the unraveling order back at the homestead, with razor-sharp edits timed for maximum unease to bridge the two spheres. His disaffected teenage daughter, Samantha (Oona Roche), starts amassing enough cigarette butts to rival her mother when she realizes that she’s being shunned by Rory in favor of her docile younger brother, Benjamin (Charlie Shotwell), who’s been enrolled in a fancy private school in a show of Daddy’s favoritism. Meanwhile, the neglected Allison escapes the pressure of her husband’s mounting debts by caring for her beloved horse—an outlet that’s cruelly vacated when the animal inexplicably drops dead.
Durkin’s sweated-over filmmaking tediously lifts a familiar tale of domestic dysfunction to the level of myth. More compelling are the diversions to London high-rises and white-tablecloth soirees, where Durkin, who grew up outside the city in the era depicted in the film, offers a caustic take on the fusty value system of the upper classes—which Rory first conforms to and later rebels against. The scenes between Law and Michael Culkin, playing Rory’s old stuck-in-his-ways boss, Arthur, alight with the sense of two actors energized by their combative material, with Law leaning into his knack for bratty selfishness as his character tries to strong-arm his steely superior into a deal that’s evidently not in his interest. Rory does a similarly groveling act when he entertains his associates at dinner parties, which gives Allison a chance to balk at her husband’s Janus-faced insincerity. Such scenes point toward a culture-clash black comedy that The Nest never fully embraces, as it’s too busy flirting with intimations of paranormal activity, from creepy silences to doors mysteriously opening.
Of course, these gestures toward otherworldliness aren’t an accident, but rather a considered metaphor, as the only thing haunting this family is their own internal strife. The figurative demons are exorcised in a histrionic third act that intercuts between three different breaking points: Samantha’s takeover of the house for a rowdy high school bash, Allison’s escape into London side streets to liquor up and dance away her frustration, and Rory’s dark night of the soul, a humiliating evening of failed transactions that finds him trudging down a dirt road at dawn in a tracking shot that quotes Sátántangó. Durkin remains a filmmaker of clear skill and promise, but The Nest too often strains for effect, saddling the actors, especially Law, with groaner dialogue that underlines the story’s subtext. “I had a shitty childhood and I deserve this and I deserve a lot more,” hisses Rory when confronted by Allison on his delusions, reinforcing the already self-evident theme of this dreary morality tale: that worshiping wealth is an illness. Odds are good that the freaks who don’t already know that will not see this film.
Cast: Jude Law, Carrie Coon, Oona Roche, Charlie Shotwell, Michael Culkin, Adeel Akhtar Director: Sean Durkin Screenwriter: Sean Durkin Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 107 min Rating: R Year: 2020
Review: I Care a Lot, Before Losing the Thread, Is a Barbed Satire of Capitalism
Throughout, J Blakeson crafts sharp, curt dialogue that makes a fashion statement out of contempt.2.5
J Blakeson’s I Care a Lot initially cuts to the heart of one of many American sicknesses. A legal guardian, Marla Grayson (Rosamund Pike), tells us at the start of the film that notions of playing fair were invented by the rich to sucker the poor, and anyone who’s paying attention understands that in our country only viciousness is rewarded. This claim serves as a screenwriter’s baldly articulated thesis while reflecting Marla’s self-rationalization as well as the simple truth. We quickly learn that Marla has concocted a scam so inventive and heartless it might even make our commander in chief blush with envy.
Working with a doctor, Amos (Alicia Witt), the head of an assisted living home, Sam Rice (Damian Young), and a clueless judge, Lomax (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), Marla conspires to have aging people falsely declared mentally incompetent so that she may become their legal guardian, imprison them in the home, and gradually liquefy their belongings, from which she takes a large cut. Blakeson’s script initially mines our fears of exploitation, giddily indicting a national health care system that serves as a huge, faceless, unsympathetic profit center that intersects with other profit centers such as the judiciary and incarceration systems. Marla clearly feels that her elderly targets are going to be fucked over anyway, so why not grab a piece for herself, prying it away from an infrastructural monolith?
Blakeson crafts sharp, curt dialogue that makes a fashion statement out of contempt, and it’s particularly nightmarish to see chic, slick Marla ransack the home like some yuppie conqueror or vampire. Marla represents the zero-sum mentality of capitalism, but she’s also meant to suggest fear of castration. She emasculates the unkempt (read: beta) son of one of her charges early on, and continues to confront and outwit men on various rungs of the social ladder (one of whom is played with indelible sleaze by Chris Messina), until finally meeting one who matches or exceeds her ruthlessness: a mysterious gangster named Roman (Peter Dinklage).
Roman’s entrance into the film represents a disappointment and a coup. As Marla and Roman go to war over the fate of Marla’s recent victim, Jennifer Preston (Dianne Wiest), I Care a Lot drifts toward escalating and increasingly conventional acts of thriller-movie cruelty. However, Blakeson springs a good sick joke with Roman, as this sex-trafficking, murdering outlaw scans as a more sympathetic antihero than Marla. Roman, in his attachment to Jennifer, who’s been mercilessly tormented by Marla, occasionally displays recognizable emotions, while Marla remains mercenary until I Care a Lot goes soft in the last act.
Marla nevertheless grows tedious, as filmmakers have become too comfortable utilizing Pike as an embodiment of suppressed female wrath. The scenes meant to indicate that Marla is capable of vulnerability, opposite her equally ruthless associate and lover, Fran (Eiza González), are perfunctory, while Roman’s rage and desperation deepen his stature, allowing him to arise as a monster with a degree of pathos. Perhaps Dinklage is more capable of surprising us than Pike, investing mundane commands (like “make it look organic”) with weirdly poignant comic menace. Marla doesn’t even flinch when she’s on the verge of being tortured to death, and she eventually becomes an action hero by the dictates of the plot—a white-collar crook who can turn ridiculously on a dime into a blue-collar bad ass.
Quoting Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest and Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Volume 2, it appears that Blakeson means for us to champion Marla as a feminist icon for a while, though he deflates this potential moral idiocy with an ironic ending. Blakeson does lose track of the health-care hook, though, to the point that Jennifer, who’s played cunningly by Wiest, is essentially forgotten. Of course, the notion of an elderly person locked away, invisible, while younger people eat one another alive for her spoils is certainly resonant in its own right.
Cast: Rosamund Pike, Peter Dinklage, Eiza González, Dianne Wiest, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Macon Blair, Alicia Witt, Damian Young, Nicholas Logan, Liz Eng, Celeste Oliva, Georgia Lyman, Moira Driscoll, Chris Messina Director: J Blakeson Screenwriter: J Blakeson Running Time: 118 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
Review: MLK/FBI Is a Compelling Look at J. Edgar Hoover’s Anti-King Crusade
The film refrains from any dubious moral calculations by giving King’s personal deceptions the same weight as his public morality.3
Sam Pollard’s MLK/FBI is an impressive reassessment of an American icon, approaching sensational material in forthright terms and without devolving into sensationalism. Based largely on Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Garrow’s 2015 book The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr.: From “Solo” to Memphis, this knotty and compelling documentary threads together the story of the F.B.I.’s obsession with finding compromising secrets about King with an unusually frank accounting of what some of those secrets were.
With Garrow, a handful of other historians, and a couple of King colleagues (Andrew Young and Clarence B. Jones) providing voiceover, Pollard unspools a stream of grainy archival footage to illustrate J. Edgar Hoover’s years-long anti-King crusade. Long obsessed with the idea that a “Black messiah” who could stir America’s Black population into political action was a central hazard to the nation, Hoover not unsurprisingly saw this threat manifested in King’s stirring moral authority. The discovery that one of King’s closest advisors, Stanley Levison, was a longtime fixture in Hoover’s other bugaboo, the Communist Party, just fed the F.B.I. director’s paranoia. Hoover then aimed the agency’s COINTELPRO project at King and his civil rights group, the Southern Christian Leadership Coalition, to do what it did best: infiltrate, disrupt, and dig up dirt. Much of the dirt they uncovered concerned King’s extramarital affairs.
Much of this is familiar territory, though Pollard lays it out with dramatic panache—footage from cornball films like The FBI Story provides comedic evidence of the titular agency’s carefully nurtured image—that doesn’t sacrifice nuance. The film paints a harrowing portrait of Hoover’s monomaniacal fixation on destroying King: tailing him, tapping his phones, and bugging his rooms (King refused for a while to believe this, insisting that the F.B.I. had better things to do and actual criminals to catch). Garrow pushes back on the popular conception that the F.B.I. was a rogue agency under Hoover, arguing that as idiosyncratic as the director was, his determination to cut down anything that threatened white male capitalist Christian hegemony was strictly in line with the American power structure at the time.
When the discussion of F.B.I. tactics turns to one of its most scurrilously strange plans—the 1964 mailing of tapes with graphic audio of King’s affairs to his wife, Coretta Scott King, along with a letter advising King to kill himself—former F.B.I. director James Comey appears briefly to describe it as “the darkest period of the Bureau’s history.” His point isn’t hard to argue with, given that Hoover’s frustration with King appeared to stem mostly from personal animus and prurience. The tape tactic was apparently used after a whisper campaign passing rumors about King’s infidelities to church leaders and the media caused nary a ripple of interest.
MLK/FBI addresses another widely ignored charge against King. When Garrow published a blockbuster story in 2019 alleging that King had witnessed or potentially even taken part in a 1964 rape at a hotel, it caused a brief flutter but was largely overlooked in the mainstream media. Given the horrific nature of the charges and Garrow’s status—he won the Pulitzer for his 1986 biography on King—the muted reaction was somewhat surprising. It’s possible that this had something to do with the critiques some historians leveled at Garrow for hanging his entire case on a few handwritten notes on an F.B.I. transcript from the agency’s bug in the hotel room. But the disinterest of most media organizations and the general public in the story can more likely be chalked up to a preference for leaving certain icons mostly as they are.
Pollard handles this explosive issue with restraint and intelligence. The film shows no illusions about the extent of King’s affairs. But it also refrains from any dubious moral calculations by giving his personal deceptions the same weight as his public morality. Pollard also deals carefully with Garrow’s most damning allegation, giving the thinly documented charge its due but carving out space around it for uncertainty. While the film doesn’t try to elevate King’s pedestal any higher, it also doesn’t try to knock him off of it.
Director: Sam Pollard Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 108 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
Review: As Pulp Fiction, The Secrets We Keep Never Goes into Overdrive
The film is ultimately too tidy to embrace anything truly startling or unexpected, either stylistically or narratively.2.5
Set in an archetypal American suburb in the 1950s, Yuval Adler’s The Secrets We Keep centers the wartime trauma of a Romanian woman, Maja (Noomi Rapace), who’s convinced that a recent transplant to the neighborhood, Thomas (Joel Kinnaman), is the Nazi who raped her and helped execute her family during the war. Playing out primarily as a modest three-hander, with Maja’s husband, Lewis (Chris Messina), essentially functioning as the arbitrator between his wife and Thomas, the film is initially fixated on probing the thorny nature of a woman’s memory, so tinged with remorse and anger.
The film is at its most taut during its opening act, when Maja’s initial assumption about Thomas leads her to assault and kidnap the man, leaving him tied up in her basement to be interrogated and, potentially, murdered. Here, Maja’s emotional instability gives way to an encroaching doubt, which is only further intensified by Lewis. Although he knew his wife suffered from nightmares about the war, he was unaware of the details about her horrific experiences, and thus hesitates to believe that Thomas is the man that she thinks he is. Adler and Ryan Covington’s script glistens with delicate ambiguities during these early stretches, not only bringing into question the moral rectitude of Maja’s vigilante tactics, but also the logical, though perhaps disloyal, steps taken by Lewis to mitigate the damage caused by his wife’s recklessness, as well as the potential innocence of the bewildered Thomas.
When the film homes in on the rising tensions between Maja and Lewis as they struggle to determine the endgame to their self-made quagmire, it remains a penetrating examination of a marriage that’s suddenly thrust into the irresolvable anguish of the past. As the helpless husband—stuck between fully supporting his wife’s bloodlust and ensuring himself that Thomas, a seemingly mild-mannered Swiss man, is the monster she says he is—Messina brings a crucial mix of empathy and pragmatism to his role, helping to ground an otherwise outlandish scenario. And Thomas’s pushback against Maja’s gung-ho yearning for retribution complicates what could otherwise have been a straightforward revenge tale, both in terms of the effects that her decision has on their entire family, including their son (Jackson Vincent), and the trust issues that arise when Lewis learns the secrets of her traumatic past.
But as The Secrets We Keep opens itself up to peer at the world outside of Maja and Lewis’s home, it not only begins to really stretch the plausibility of its scenario, it also focuses more unwaveringly on the mystery of whether or not Thomas is actually a Nazi in hiding. The meddling of a next-door neighbor (Jeff Pope) and a police officer (David Maldonado) offers little more than cheap suspense as to whether or not Maja and Lewis will be found out. And the late-in-the-game arrival of Thomas’s wife, Rachel (Amy Seimetz), exists for no other reason than to highlight her fast rapport with Maja, as well as, in a distasteful attempt to make us further question Thomas’s guilt, to reveal that she, too, is Jewish.
These supporting characters are so thinly sketched that they come to feel like expats from some stereotypical drama about ‘50s suburbia. And while the film uses them as a means to suggest that Maja and Lewis’s illegal acts, and the dirty little secret hidden away in their basement, are representative of the dark underbelly of post-war America, it’s an impression that doesn’t transcend triteness. Adler flirts with pulp, particularly during Maja’s more violent interrogation sessions with Thomas, but the film is ultimately too tidy to embrace anything truly startling or unexpected, either stylistically or narratively. And as The Secrets We Keep settles into the predictable trajectory of a more traditional mystery, Maja’s once intense rage and indignation is stifled as all clouds of uncertainty are conveniently cleared away.
Cast: Noomi Rapace, Joel Kinnaman, Chris Messina, Amy Seimetz, Jackson Dean Vincent, Madison Paige Jones, Jeff Pope, David Maldonado, Ed Amatrudo Director: Yuval Adler Screenwriter: Yuval Adler, Ryan Covington Distributor: Bleecker Street Running Time: 97 min Rating: R Year: 2020