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The Conversations: Todd Haynes

In all of his films, Todd Haynes takes elements of gaudy tabloid culture and warps them to his own purposes.

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The Conversations: Todd Haynes
Photo: The Weinstein Company

Ed Howard: In all of his films, Todd Haynes takes elements of gaudy tabloid culture and warps them to his own purposes, because he sees—in the lurid stories about sexuality and decadence and violence that we like to tell ourselves, in the celebrity gossip rags and TV news and hyped-up movies—deeper truths about identity, gender, politics, entertainment and sexuality. Haynes finds, within the sensationalist and the melodramatic, a culture’s vision of itself, distorted by a funhouse mirror but nevertheless evocative of the unvarnished truth. Or maybe the truth really is as strange as the mirror suggests: entertainers as plastic action figures, made to be manipulated and posed; sexuality as a plague, terrifying and mysterious; suburbia as a deadening cage for the emotions; the past as a manufactured façade, rendered superficially safe by the suppression (or ignorance) of all those impulses that go unchecked in the present; identity as malleable and fluid, the true self supplanted by endless masks and games. Haynes’ appropriation of the language of media—the docudrama, the genre film, the educational documentary, all eras and styles collaged together in his cinematic blender—is an examination of the ways in which culture both disguises and probes the truths about individuals, their secret desires and fears and fantasies.

Haynes has so far examined these themes over the course of five feature films and a smattering of shorts, ranging from his suppressed short film Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987) to his most recent feature, a kaleidoscopic semi-biography of Bob Dylan titled I’m Not There (2007). The fascinations and techniques that drive Haynes’ work are apparent even in his obscure second film, Superstar (his first, Assassins: A Film Concerning Rimbaud, is even more obscure and difficult to see). On paper, the premise of Superstar makes it sound like a cheap gag: it’s the story of the life and death of ‘70s pop icon Karen Carpenter, with all of the characters played by Barbie dolls and rendered in the style of a TV documentary. This description belies the film’s true depth, its emotional impact, and its surprising insights into anorexia, the strange intertwining of music and politics, and the pressures that are placed on those in the public light, particularly women. Even in the lousy bootlegged copies that are currently the only way to see the film—because of the harsh but predictable legal responses from both Mattel and the Carpenter Estate—it’s apparent that Superstar is a remarkable early work, an act of music criticism in film form, much as Haynes’ later Velvet Goldmine and I’m Not There would be. It points the way forward to the rest of Haynes’ oeuvre, but it also stands on its own as a bracing, poignant look at body image and the rapaciousness with which America’s entertainment culture can devour vulnerable young female performers.

Jason Bellamy: Superstar is an excellent launch point for a discussion of Haynes’ career, not just because the short is one of the auteur’s early works but also because it’s perhaps the best encapsulation of who Haynes is as a filmmaker. In the film’s focus on Karen Carpenter we see Haynes’ fascination with celebrity and, in particular, musical icons. In its use of Barbie dolls as puppets we see Haynes’ mastery of genre forms, his vivid imagination and his knack for examining the world through the eyes of children. In its focus on anorexia we see Haynes’ interest in isolating human conditions, in the way things beyond our control—disease, sexual desire, skin color, etc.—don’t just influence our identities but actually define us, shaping our visions of ourselves and how we are perceived by others. Superstar also reveals Haynes’ curiosity for and identity with the female mindset. And, as a whole, Superstar demonstrates the intellectualism of Haynes’ work, a quality that, perhaps more than any other, unifies both his filmmaking and his films, and that I’ll argue is perhaps his greatest weakness as much as it might be his greatest strength. We have time for that discussion later. For now I’ll simply wrap up this line of thought by saying that perhaps the only predominant characteristics of Haynes’ oeuvre that Superstar, by itself, doesn’t reflect would be his comfort with nonlinear storytelling and his penchant for specifically exploring elements of homosexuality (which isn’t to imply that Carpenter’s closeted battle with anorexia doesn’t have overlapping themes with some of Haynes’ explorations of what it means, or has meant, to be homosexual in America).

Superstar is also a fun place to begin this discussion because it might be my favorite Haynes film. I admire it for some of the things that we’ve hinted at so far: its creativity, mastery of technique and cogent social commentary. But maybe the thing I like most about it is its surprising emotional depth. I watched Superstar for the first time in preparation for this conversation—it was actually the last Haynes film that I watched or rewatched, which might be significant (more on that later)—and I don’t think any other Haynes film has cut me so deeply for such a sustained period of time. Here’s a film that came out 23 years ago, that uses Barbies as puppets, that I encountered in the aftermath of Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s gonzo marionette comedy Team America: World Police (2004) and that I watched on YouTube, which has become the go-to forum for all things sophomoric, and yet Superstar is decidedly unfunny. I don’t mean to imply that Haynes doesn’t exhibit a wry sense of humor with the film, just that it’s far from foolish, far from frivolous. It’s a movie that breaks your heart. In recent years critics have been awed at the ability of animation to be—gasp!—solemn in films like Persepolis or Waltz With Bashir, as if animation is inherently funny. Superstar, by comparison, is something truly awe-inspiring—the manipulation of universally-recognized childlike toys to take on a very mature subject with a very cerebral sensibility. Let me be clear: Nodding back to our Pixar conversation, I’m not praising Superstar solely or even primarily for rising above a low bar of expectations, for escaping some genre ghetto of its own creation. Rather I’m attempting to point out that Haynes approaches the Karen Carpenter story in the most unorthodox of ways and yet creates a film so note-perfect that within minutes the Barbie doll puppet show approach doesn’t even seem unorthodox. Or is it just me?

EH: I think you’ve nailed it. I’ve always been blown away by this film. It does pack quite an emotional wallop, which is surprising for a film in which all the characters are literally made out of plastic—introducing a sense of distance that’s compounded by the fact that the film can only be seen in dodgy, blurry bootlegs on YouTube and the like. And yet there’s no question that Haynes very quickly bridges this Brechtian gap, making us care about these characters and forget that they’re Barbie dolls. After a while, we start thinking of them as people. In a way, that can be summarized as the film’s radical agenda: to treat what could’ve been a subject of kitsch with respect, affection and empathy. There’s an affinity between the Barbie doll and Karen Carpenter that goes beyond the most obvious level, the idea that we, as a culture, view celebrities as plastic icons to play with until we get bored. The Carpenters’ music is also widely perceived as kitschy and shallow, as a symbol for the complacency and regression of the ‘70s, a criticism that Haynes acknowledges in examining the group’s music. At the same time, he encourages a perspective that treats the woman behind the music as an earnest performer who wasn’t some corporate shill, who wasn’t responsible for the ways in which her songs were used as marketing material for conservative forces, who was more than anything a victim of a system that didn’t care a bit about her personal health or self-image.

There’s another obvious reason for the “casting” of Barbie dolls that goes along with this critique of media and culture: Barbie’s status as a ubiquitous symbol of female beauty, female perfection even. Barbie stands in for a whole culture that encourages women to pursue unrealistic and unhealthy images of bodily “perfection,” to spurn food, to shrink themselves down into stick-figure skeletons. By embodying Karen Carpenter in the form of an American feminine ideal, the impossible body of the Barbie doll, Haynes is ridiculing the absurdity of this pressure. The tabloids, represented in the film with sensationalist headlines that periodically splash across the screen, are obsessed with weight, with the female body. In a cruel irony, the same commentators who will call a female performer “chubby” will soon enough feign astonishment and disgust at the skeletal, anorexic form that results from her response to this complaint.

These are familiar problems, and familiar pressures—sadly, one imagines a similar film could be made about someone like Britney Spears someday—but Haynes dramatizes and humanizes these issues. As you alluded to above, the film is intellectual, but Haynes never loses sight of the woman at the center of this story. Therefore, when the film detours, as it often does, into pseudo-documentary segments about marketing, politics or the medical and psychological foundations of anorexia, there’s a real human component to the recitations of facts and figures. This is made especially poignant in the scenes revolving around Karen’s anorexia, as Haynes shows her family, well-meaning but pushy and controlling, reacting with anger to her anorexic habits, forcing her to eat, and praising her eating habits when she’s “recovered”—all actions that, the documentary segment suggests, will unwittingly only worsen Karen’s unhealthy obsessions with food and weight. This gets to the heart of how Haynes uses the language of the documentary in his films, taking the dry, objective stance of the conventional documentary and relating it to the human realities that lie beneath its facts and figures. He similarly deconstructs tabloid culture, adopting its rhetoric only to critique it, to demonstrate the effects of this exploitative entertainment apparatus on those trapped within it. Karen, for Haynes, is not just a celebrity, not just an anorexic, not just a singer, not just a symbol; she’s a woman, and she’s her own individual self.

JB: She really is. This is an effect pulled off in large part thanks to Carpenter herself, who we get to hear singing some of her greatest hits, from the upbeat “Top of the World” to the melancholy “Rainy Days and Mondays.” I say “get to,” because Carpenter had an absolutely remarkable voice, whatever one might have thought of her music. And by reminding us of Carpenter’s grisly death at the start of the film, Haynes ensures that we see the songstress as a caged bird, rather than a pop icon spewing vapid lyrics; he focuses our attention on the emotions in Carpenter’s voice, rather than those articulated in the pat melodrama of the music. Interestingly enough, whether the emotions of Carpenter’s songs contrast her own mood or perfectly reflect it, the juxtaposition is always tragic. I think it’s safe to say that a heartbreaking Barbie doll puppet drama couldn’t be made about just anyone; Carpenter’s story is inherently sad, and since her music is so recognizable we bring to the film our own nostalgia, even if hearing Carpenter sing simply reminds us of the way we were. (Wait, now I’m quoting Barbra Streisand. What just happened?)

Point is, Superstar is grounded in a specific reality, stirring us with images of Carpenter’s era as much as Carpenter herself. It’s amazing, for example, how well Haynes recreates those televised musical performances of the late 1970s that were so often shot on cold, modestly decorated stages, under medium light, with an inevitable mid-song cut to a profile of the singer in front of some soft, moody offstage lights. Beyond such intricacies, Superstar also incorporates references to Richard Nixon and Vietnam. Haynes reminds us that the Carpenters’ fans idolized them in part as an antidote to something—a common theme in his work. Karen Carpenter was angelic purity bringing sunlight amidst the thunderstorms of a bloody war and the grim scowl of Tricky Dick. It’s interesting then that, considering their dark secrets and tendencies for self-destruction, Carpenter and Nixon were more alike than anyone could have guessed. Though I agree that the use of Barbies illustrates America’s unrealistic expectations about female beauty and our habit of treating celebrities like disposable toys, it also underlines the utter fantasy of celebrity iconography and idolization. Haynes suggests with Superstar that the Karen Carpenter we thought we “knew” was as much an invention of our own hopeful imaginations as anything we might have played out as children using puppets or dolls.

EH: I agree that Haynes makes good use of the Carpenters’ music and era as well as the tragic story of Karen herself. If you’d told me a few years ago, before I saw this film for the first time, that I could be moved by listening to “Rainy Days and Mondays,” I would’ve said you were nuts. But sure enough, Haynes contextualizes these tunes so perfectly that it’s possible to get past the utter blandness of the music and writing to focus on Karen’s unexpectedly nuanced vocals, which Haynes calls attention to through the in-film commentators. I said earlier that Superstar is a work of music criticism, among other things, and in fact it’s one of the best pieces of music criticism in the cinema (Haynes has also made two of the others, and we’ll get to them later). Superstar attempts to strip away some of the preconceptions that many listeners are likely to bring to the Carpenters’ music, and the film makes it possible to embrace and understand what was worthy in their music, or at least what was worth considering.

What’s interesting is that, as you imply, this openness to the virtues of the Carpenters’ commercial tripe—and particularly to the quality of Karen’s pure, warm voice—coexists with Haynes’ rather harsh appraisal of the group’s place within their musical and historic context. The film does pose the Carpenters as an antidote to something—an antidote, more than anything, to the fiery ‘60s spirit of rebellion, the constant questioning of traditional values, and the corresponding rawness and adventurousness that briefly inflected the popular music of the era. The film portrays the Carpenters as ushering in a new era, laying a thin carpet of smooth sounds over the rowdiness and resistance that had characterized the previous era in both popular culture and the wider society. It’s a heavy weight to place on a single act, but they’re a perfect symbol for this glossing-over of the past, this retreat into safety and security. If the previous era was symbolized by Hendrix setting his guitar on fire, literally and metaphorically, or Jim Morrison intoning drug-addled poetry, or the Stones celebrating “street fighting” and then getting the real thing at Altamont, the squeaky family image and unthreatening music of the Carpenters surely represented a clear alternative and opposition.

The film balances this strain of sociopolitical criticism against the emotional narrative of Karen Carpenter, treating the music simultaneously as a sign of the times, a musical and social regression, and yet, in the slight quaver and dynamics of Karen Carpenter’s voice, also an indirect expression of the singer’s behind-the-scenes dramas.

JB: One of the things that blows me away about Superstar is the utter confidence of the filmmaking, which starts with the boldness of the gesture (trying to make a somber drama using Barbie dolls) and extends to the skill of the technique. Using Barbie dolls in place of actors was, I’m sure, a financially prudent option for a young filmmaker at the start of his career, but it certainly didn’t make Haynes’ job easier. He couldn’t rely on the skills of his actors, because they had none. He couldn’t cut to a closeup of their haunted eyes, as he would numerous times in Velvet Goldmine, because there was no emotion there. He couldn’t afford mistakes, because there was no one or nothing else to mask them. With Superstar, Haynes put the responsibility of the film squarely on his shoulders, getting an assist from Karen Carpenter’s vocals but otherwise going it alone.

In that light, Superstar is a validation of auteur theory that lends weight to the suggestion by Hitchcock—one of the godfathers of daring technique—that actors are nothing more than cattle. Armed with his cast of inanimate players, Haynes finds emotions not in the faces of his characters but in his cuts and camera movements. Memorable is the scene in which Haynes quick-cuts back and forth between the face of Karen and the hand of a record producer who is reaching out for her trust. Effective is the Altmanesque slow zoom toward Karen and Richard Carpenter having dinner at a restaurant, our view becoming tighter as the tension of the scene rises, with Karen insisting that she isn’t hungry and Richard pleading/demanding that she eat something. Also notable is the scene in which Haynes employs a slow pan that searches for Karen across her seemingly empty room as Richard calls out for his sister, only to find her face down on her makeup table next to a box of Ex-Lax. Given this mÈlange of techniques, I suppose Superstar could have come off like a class project, an exercise designed to teach a novice film student about the inherent effects of basic editing and cinematography. Instead, Superstar comes across like the product of a practiced filmmaker who, like Hithcock before him, understood the emotions of every scene just by diagramming the camera angles. Haynes’ next film, Poison, would seem in some ways experimental. Superstar, by contrast, seems entirely assured.

EH: That’s a great point. However unusual Superstar might be in terms of its non-human “actors” and some of its genre mashups, in other ways it’s a marvel of classical filmmaking technique. It’s also a pretty durable example of just how powerful classical filmmaking can be even in the absence of other conventional elements of film form, like the expressiveness of a good performance. In addition to the scenes you mention, I’m reminded of the one where Karen, after collapsing on stage, wakes up to find her family hovering above her, chattering about how they’re going to cure her. Haynes shows the well-meaning relatives from Karen’s point-of-view, their heads poking into the frame from every angle, and the sense of claustrophobia that Karen feels is palpable even though her face betrays no expression. Moreover, the smiling, motionless faces of her parents and brother add a creepy vibe to the scene, deepening the sense that Karen’s lack of control over her own life is unhealthy and only getting worse. As we’ve suggested, it’s remarkable how much emotional nuance Haynes conveys in scenes like this without being able to rely on the frozen faces of the Barbie dolls to communicate emotion.

You’re also right that Poison is comparatively experimental, in the literal sense of the word. The film’s experimental nature is revealed even its structure: though technically Haynes’ first feature-length film, it’s actually an anthology of three shorter stories, completely separate in terms of narrative and characters but thematically linked. Haynes cuts between the three stories—the documentary-style “Hero,” the Universal horror pastiche “Horror” and the gay prison drama “Homo”—throughout the film, blending them together and exploring the resonances between them. Poison seems like the early work of a director just finding his voice, toying with different storytelling techniques and developing his later themes in sketchy form, whereas Superstar is the fully developed final product, even though it actually came first. The main difference, I think, is that Poison lacks the overwhelming emotional impact of Superstar. There are moments of bracing catharsis in this film—notably the final sequence, which I find nearly as moving and startling as Superstar—but otherwise it’s too fragmented, too abstracted, at times even too jokey, though I do appreciate the broad Hollywood parodies of the “Horror” sequence.

Which is not to say that Poison is without merit, by any means. It’s an interesting film, if not quite a fully realized one, and it’s packed with the inventiveness and insight that one expects from Haynes. Of the three sections, I think it’s no coincidence that the most affecting is the one most closely related to Superstar in terms of style. “Hero” concerns itself with a young boy named Richie Beacon who is mocked and abused at school, and who suffers equally at home as his parents fight and ignore him. This goes on until he walks in on his father beating his mother and saves her by shooting his father. And then, according to his mother’s awed testimony, he flies out a window and floats away. Haynes allows the story to develop between the lines, hinted at in the anecdotes related by schoolmates, teachers and especially his mother (Edith Meeks). A picture gradually emerges of Richie as a confused young boy with a masochistic streak, as someone whose troubled childhood has left a mark on his developing sexuality. One of the few reenactments in this mockumentary is reserved for the primal scene of Richie discovering his mother having sex with the gardener; Haynes places the boy in the foreground, disconnected from the sexual scene that’s playing out in a video image superimposed within the frame.

“Hero” is the one part of Poison I could imagine as a standalone short film like Superstar, and it’s nearly as powerful, particularly its haunting final images from Richie’s point-of-view as he leaps out the window and drifts away into the clouds, the camera trained on the house at first until it turns around, looking up at the sky, leaving the past behind to float ever upward. It’s a mysterious and beautiful image, and if the rest of Poison is more uneven in its effectiveness, it’s still a strangely compelling film as a whole.

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Books

Interview: J. Hoberman Talks Make My Day, Ronald Reagan, and ‘80s Movie Culture

Hoberman discusses how the art of filmmaking, and the business of moviegoing, influenced, mirrored, and altered Reagan’s presidency.

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They Live
Photo: Film at Lincoln Center

The poster boy of American conservatism, the bar to which all Republicans would unashamedly evaluate future candidates, and yet now seemingly lower on a weekly basis, Ronald Reagan was an ideal movie star with an idealized view of the past. His perfect America would be equivalent to the opening shots of red roses, green lawns, and white picket fences that kick off Blue Velvet, while America’s reality would be what transpires once Bobby Vinton’s song concludes and the swarming ants are revealed beneath the surface.

A time of Hollywood blockbusters and silver screen patriots, macho men and teens headed back to the future, the 1980s, while not considered a golden movie age, saw a symbiotic relationship between American film and the nation’s chosen leader. How else to account for Reagan proposing his “Star Wars” strategic defense initiative in March of 1983, a mere two months before the release of the year’s top grossing film, Star Wars: Return of the Jedi?

With his methodically researched new book, Make My Day: Movie Culture in the Age of Reagan, former Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman takes a sociological approach to discovering how the art of filmmaking, and the business of moviegoing, influenced, mirrored, and altered the goings-on of our 40th president’s administration. And on the occasion of the book’s release and accompanying Film at Lincoln Center series, which samples feature films from the ‘80s, I spoke with Hoberman about the first Reagan screen performance he ever saw, being a working film critic during the “Age of Reagan,” and the unexpected rise of real estate mogul and Celebrity Apprentice host Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States.

One of your most revered books is Vulgar Modernism, a collection of reviews and essays written during the ‘80s without the benefit, or trappings, of historical hindsight. Now 30-some-odd years later, you’ve taken a step back to take a look at the bigger picture of the decade. What was that experience like?

I should say that this book was the culmination of two earlier books, The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties and An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War. Make My Day is the end of a trilogy. When I began writing the trilogy, I didn’t realize how central Reagan would be to it, but by the time I started Make My Day, he had become, in effect, the protagonist of the entire trilogy. Make My Day was different from the other two books. It’s not just that I lived through this period, but that I was then a working critic. How was I going to deal with that? In the earlier books, I went out of my way to quote critics and others who wrote about movies because I was very interested in how these films were initially received. In the case of Make My Day, however, it seemed absurd to quote other critics when I was there myself. It took me a while to come to that conclusion because my impulse wasn’t to put myself in the book and yet I realized that I would ultimately have to.

I found that my opinion of the various movies discussed hadn’t changed all that much. My opinion of Reagan was modified somewhat, in that I saw him as a more complicated figure than I did during the 1980s, but I also believe my response to him in the ‘80s was true to the moment. That’s why I included a number of longer pieces in the book, while also annotating them, so that one could see that I wasn’t just reusing the material without thinking about it.

You note that each volume can be read in chronological order, the order in which they were published, or as standalone installments. I took it up after finishing your and Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Midnight Movies, and it felt like I was emerging from the pre-’80s underground to a Reaganized American society that had become depressingly anything but countercultural. What was it like being on the underground and Hollywood beat as a critic throughout those years?

I didn’t really start reviewing the blockbuster films until around 1984. I was the Village Voice’s second-string critic when Andrew Sarris, the first-string critic, fell ill, and I took his spot for a while. As a result, I was reviewing movies that I might otherwise not have. To make things interesting for myself, I began reviewing these movies from a political and ideological perspective. Even when Andy came back, that stayed with me. So, for example, there were a lot of action films during that period that Andy was very glad not to review, like Top Gun, but I did those while also reviewing foreign films, avant-garde films, documentaries, and so on. I always said that I could never be a first-string critic for a newspaper. I would have lost my mind having a steady diet of big Hollywood movies! I would have had to mix things up.

While midnight movies aren’t the primary focus of Make My Day, the underground did find a way into your reviews of ‘80s blockbusters. I recall a review in the Voice titled “White Boys: Lucas, Spielberg, and the Temple of Dumb” in which you tear down the nostalgic Indiana Jones prequel while praising Jack Smith’s nostalgic Normal Love. Was it maddening for you to review the latest Spielberg while underground artists concurrently made the same points to much smaller audiences?

That was really something that came from the heart. I was outraged by Temple of Doom, by its attitude, and I was really sick of these guys, Spielberg and Lucas. I wanted to bring out that there were other forms of filmmaking and other ways of dealing with this material. I was making a point, yes, but it was something that was fueled by emotion rather than reason.

Were there any Spielberg films, or Spielberg-adjacent films like Gremlins or Poltergeist, that you found less than risible throughout the Reagan years?

There were some that I preferred. I liked Gremlins quite a bit, and I enjoyed Back to the Future, which is Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis. At the time, I didn’t much care for Poltergeist, but when I looked at it again for the book, I thought it was interesting in terms of its pathology. I should also say that I liked Jaws and E.T., to a degree, although it was no Blade Runner.

Though primarily concerned with Regan’s political reign, you also dig deep into his filmography, noting how his sole villainous role, in The Killers, has always prompted a vocal reaction from every audience you’ve watched it with. Why do you think that is?

Well, I’m not sure that’s still true. A friend recently saw The Killers at Film Forum and told me he was sort of shocked that people didn’t respond to the scene where Reagan slaps Angie Dickinson. The first time I saw The Killers, which was, I think, in June of 1969, I didn’t expect to see Reagan in it. I don’t think I had seen him in a movie before. I was well aware of who he was, of course, and I hated him because I had been at Berkeley the previous summer, when students were public enemy number one and there were disturbances every night—the whole thing was extremely compelling for me as a 19-year-old. The point I wanted to make was that my whole view of Reagan was predicated on The Killers. To me, he seemed to be playing himself. I had a very naïve response. I couldn’t understand why he would do the role. I mean, what crazy hubris prompted him to show what he dreamed of becoming on screen? I recognize my response as primitive, but it also demonstrates the power of movie images. I didn’t see him as acting, even though he clearly is. I saw it as him projecting his evil, bastardly essence.

Speaking of essence, it’s odd re-watching Donald Trump’s numerous cameos in American film and television. Unlike Reagan’s silver-screen presence, Trump literally always played himself: an obscenely rich braggadocio. Whereas Reagan’s “lovable” persona no doubt helped his later career in politics, Trump’s media appearances helped to fortify his reputation as an arrogant huckster.

This is the point I tried to make at the end of the book. I was surely thinking about Trump a lot while writing the book, but he only became president when I was close to finishing it. Trump may have a star on Hollywood Boulevard, but it doesn’t come as a result of the movies. He’s a celebrity and a celebrity is someone who’s able to project a cartoon version of themselves, or a larger-than-life version of themselves, into the media world: TV, the tabloid press, and so on. Trump is being true to this persona. I didn’t really see Trump’s presidency coming. For me, he was a New York City character, a local celebrity who was regularly exposed in the Village Voice’s narrative of New York City corruption. I had no sense of how he existed to the rest of America, in Celebrity Apprentice. Clearly that’s what put him over, or at least helped to put him over. That and his appearances on Fox News as a kind of pundit and even his involvement with professional wrestling.

As you mention in your book, the uncomfortably awkward 1979 CBS Ted Kennedy sit-down interview with Roger Mudd ultimately derailed Kennedy’s attempt at a presidential run. It’s hard to imagine, given the feckless attempts by our current political leaders to appear like an everyman, that current presidential candidates’ chances could be derailed by the televised struggle to answer a basic question. If anything, we might view the guffaw as endearing and humanizing. Trump says dumb stuff on a daily basis, and we all just accept it. Have we become desensitized to politicians being put on the spot and not being able to come up with succinct answers?

I think it’s different for different candidates. Being the younger brother of J.F.K., who was the first real political star, created a lot of expectations. People credit Kennedy’s success in the 1960 election with his appearance in the first debate, for looking so much better than Nixon. That may be simplistic, but it’s not simplistic for people to think that TV had something to do with Kennedy becoming president. I think this is a case of “live by the sword, die by the sword,” that his brother just stumbled so badly in that interview, in what was essentially his television debut. He did go on all the way to the 1980 Democratic National Convention, but the myth of the Kennedy charm and invincibility was destroyed by that interview.

Looking at subsequent presidents, Reagan certainly had an elastic sense of reality. But in his distortions and lies and misstatements, he was by and large upbeat and, when he wasn’t, he was at least coherent. Trump lies so continuously that you feel that that must be part of his appeal for his base, that he’s just going to make this stuff up. They think it’s funny or entertaining or maybe that it represents a “greater degree of authenticity.”

There had been a very interesting point made by Theodor W. Adorno about Hitler’s appeal. I’m not saying that Trump is Hitler, but he’s a demagogue and Hitler was too. Adorno, who lived through Hitler’s lies, made the point that intellectuals and serious people didn’t get Hitler’s appeal. Before he came to power, he just seemed like a clown. There was something ridiculous about Hitler’s assertions and his tantrums. What they didn’t realize was that’s precisely what his fans liked about him. I think that’s also the case with Trump and his supporters.

If Nashville, as you point out in the book, foresaw the real-life presidential assassination attempts that were soon to come, could you see the same cinematic influences happening today? Are there films today that you think are foreshadowing things that could come into fruition within our own political future?

Nashville was a movie made at a time when movies were much more central to American culture than they are now. It was made by a filmmaker, Robert Altman, who was directly addressing, as an artist, what was going on. I bracketed Nashville with Jaws because in some respects, Jaws is a similar movie, although I’m not sure if Spielberg was consciously making an allegory. Some things in the film are political, for example the behavior of the Mayor of Amity, but beyond that the movie itself was utterly central to American culture. There was nothing more important during the summer of 1975 than Jaws. There’s no movie that has that kind of centrality anymore, nor do movies as a whole.

A number of television shows seemed to be predicting Hillary Clinton before the 2016 election. There were shows like Madam Secretary and Veep and Homeland, strong, female, political heroes, or, in the case of Veep, comic. But what were they compared to Celebrity Apprentice? Those aforementioned shows were very feeble in terms of reaching an audience and I think it was more a projection of the people who made it. When I look at movies now, and I have to say that I don’t see as many movies as I used to, I see some that seem to manifest things that are in the air. Jordan Peele’s Get Out would be the best example of this. That movie was made and conceived while Obama was president, but it certainly projected the post-Trump mood. Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is interesting because, on the one hand, it’s a movie about 1969, and yet it’s also a movie about 2019. It can’t help but manifest some of our current fantasies and tensions. But even if it had a bigger audience than Nashville, people just aren’t taking it the same way.

And Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood presents a cinematic take that has a romanticized, almost fetishistic view of a 1969 that never truly existed, at least not the way Tarantino wishes it did…

Well, that’s certainly one way to look at it. I would put it somewhat differently, but we can let people discover for themselves if they haven’t seen it!

The book also talks a great deal about the revisionism and idealization of specific time periods that were said to represent wholesome Americana. The ‘50s is a big one, but as you point out, the movies’ view of the ‘50s were drastically different from the one the world actually experienced. I remember growing up in the ‘90s convinced Happy Days was a TV show not just about the ‘50s, but from the ‘50s itself.

That makes perfect sense, and I think other people share that same experience. The genius of that show is that it portrayed the ‘50s “as it should have been.” Jean Baudrillard has a memorable description of walking in to see Peter Bogdanovich’s 1971 black-and-white film The Last Picture Show and, for a moment, thinking it was actually a movie from the period it depicted: the early ‘50s. It was a hyper-real version of it. That’s what Happy Days was. I think Reagan’s genius was to be able to do that on a larger scale, to conjure up an idealized ‘60s almost out of whole cloth, vague memories, old television, and old movies in his own conviction, even if that was ultimately a fantasy. It was an idealization of the period.

On the occasion of your book’s release, you’ve programmed a selection of double features for an upcoming series at Film at Lincoln Center. Outside of a closeness in release dates, like The Last Temptation of Christ and They Live, what went into the pairing up of certain titles?

I appreciate that question. I really love the concept of double bills. Whenever it’s possible, I like to teach using double bills, because then the movies can talk to each other—and I don’t have to talk as much. Ideally the movies should comment on each other. The reason for including The Last Temptation of Christ was a bit tricky. I thought that the response that it got certainly looked forward to the culture wars of the ‘90s. There was such hostility directed toward that movie and, by extension, the movie industry as a whole. As Trump would say, it was as “an enemy of the people.” And to me, They Live seems to be the bluntest, most direct critique of Reaganism ever delivered, and it was delivered at the very, very end of his presidency. In a sense, it was already over, as the film came out just before the 1988 presidential election. I see both They Live and The Last Temptation as political movies, one overtly political and one that was taken in a political manner.

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Review: Vita & Virginia Leaves the Nuances of a Love Affair to the Imagination

The film frequently falls back on the stately demeanor of countless other historical biopics and period pieces.

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Vita & Virginia
Photo: IFC Films

When capricious socialite and writer Vita Sackville-West (Gemma Arterton) first glimpses Virginia Woolf (Elizabeth Debicki) at a bohemian party in Chanya Button’s Vita & Virginia, the latter is the midst of a dance, her head leaning back and arms freely swaying in the air. It’s an uncharacteristic moment of outgoingness for the author, who by this time in the early 1920s has had only modest success, and the throbbing ambient techno music that underscores the scene lends her and Vita’s desires a strange and striking modernity. But the film doesn’t fully commit to such anachronistic flourishes in its portrait of the two women’s tumultuous love affair, instead frequently falling back on the stately demeanor of countless other historical biopics and period pieces.

Vita’s deviousness and unpredictability does, for a time, make for some compelling proto-feminist drama, thanks in large part to Arterton’s bold performance. Vita is amusingly blasé in the face of both her heiress mother, Lady Sackville (Isabella Rossellini), who protests to her dressing as a man and openly having affairs with women, and her diplomat husband, Harold (Rupert Penry-Jones), completely dismissing his concerns about maintaining their marriage of convenience. Elsewhere, Debicki is left with the difficult task of dramatizing Virginia’s escalating strife, and with little help from a script that basically skirts over the serious mental health issues that plagued Woolf throughout her life. In fact, Virginia’s joys and struggles as they arise from Vita’s hot-and-cold treatment of her are rarely given any concrete form aside from the occasional ham-fisted touch of CGI-enhanced magical realism, as when vines grow out of the woodwork when Virginia returns home after first sleeping with Vita.

Outside of these moments, Virginia’s interiority is given similarly blunt expression through her relationships with her passive yet understanding husband, Leonard (Peter Ferdinando), her lively artist sister, Vanessa (Emerald Fennell), and Vanessa’s roommate, the flamboyant painter Duncan Grant (Adam Gillen). Each of these archetypes always seems to be conveniently on hand to explicitly outline the details of Virginia’s emotional state. The only time her thoughts and emotions, as well as Vita’s, are articulated with any nuance is through a series of epistolary interludes that see Arterton and Debicki reading the love letters that Sackville-West and Woolf wrote to one another. And yet, these moments are so awkwardly and unimaginatively incorporated into the film, with the actresses speaking their words directly into the camera, that the letters’ flowery language is effectively drained of its poeticism.

Vita & Virginia eventually lands on Woolf writing her breakthrough novel, Orlando, which was inspired by her relationship with Sackville-West. But as Button gives us only a vague sense of what drew these two vastly different women together, she leaves to the imagination how Sackville-West had such a lasting and profound effect on one of the great authors of the 20th century. In Orlando, Woolf writes, “Illusions are to the soul what atmosphere is to the earth.” There’s more ambiguity, complexity, or passion in that one line regarding the elusive and illusory qualities of Vita’s love for Virginia than there is in all of Button’s film.

Cast: Gemma Arterton, Elizabeth Debicki, Isabella Rossellini, Rupert Penry-Jones, Peter Ferdinando, Emerald Fennell, Gethin Anthony, Rory Fleck Byrne, Karla Crome Director: Chanya Button Screenwriter: Chanya Button Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Ready or Not Ribs the One Percent with More Laughs than Horror

Only in its giddily gory finale does the outrageousness of the film’s violence come close to matching that of its plot.

2.5

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Ready or Not
Fox Searchlight Pictures

Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett’s horror film Ready or Not is centered around a high-stakes game of hide-and-seek, and if that sounds unconscionably silly, at least the filmmakers are aware of that. Guy Busick and Ryan Murphy’s screenplay embraces the inherent absurdity of this premise, concocting an elaborate narrative justification as to why a bunch of grown-ups would be engaged in a murderous version of the classic kids’ game. It all boils down to a family ritual: Anyone marrying into the obscenely wealthy Le Domas clan must play a game at midnight on their wedding night, and this game, which is selected at random by a puzzle box, could be anything from old maid to checkers.

Bright-eyed good girl Grace (Samara Weaving), who’s just wedded the family’s favorite son, Alex (Mark O’Brien), gets picked to play hide-and-seek, and that’s where the trouble begins. Because while the other games proceed in perfectly ordinary fashion, the Le Domases have made a violent mythology surrounding this one game: The family must capture its newest member and slaughter them in a ritual sacrifice before sunrise, or else each family member will be cursed to die. And so, the Le Domases give Grace time to hide anywhere she likes in their sprawling country manor before they set out with rifles and crossbows to find her.

Gradually, the convoluted family mythology comes to overtake the goofy simplicity of the film’s premise, and to the point that one is apt to forget that a game of hide-and-seek is even going on. But Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett keep things lively with a lavish visual style that nods toward Kubrick’s The Shining, Eyes Wide Shut, and even Barry Lyndon, while still maintaining an identity of its own. Lit mostly with candles, the sprawling villa in which the film mostly takes place assumes a creepy aura reminiscent of the opulently spooky house in Robert Wise’s The Haunting. Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett’s mildly showy use of long takes and lithe camera movements exhibit an ironic grandiosity that suits the film’s light-hearted sadism.

Funny but not quite a comedy, Ready or Not, to its credit, leans in to the arbitrariness of its own myths and rules. Some of the members of the Le Domas clan aren’t even sure they believe in their family curse, and they bicker over whether they should be allowed to utilize modern technology, such as their mansion’s security cameras, to track Grace down. But the film’s constant reiteration and reevaluation of the Le Domases’ goofy traditions can sometimes make things feel repetitive and slightly exhausting, impressions which are enhanced by the lackadaisical handling of the film’s kills. Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett primarily employ violence for laughs, but they frequently flub the punchline with a confusingly quick edit or an awkwardly shaky handheld shot. Only in its giddily gory finale does the outrageousness of the film’s violence come close to matching that of its plot. But this gonzo capper has the effect of retroactively diminishing the tame, uninventive bloodshed that preceded it.

Cast: Samara Weaving, Adam Brody, Mark O'Brien, Henry Czerny, Andie MacDowell, Melanie Scrofano, Kristian Bruun, Nicky Guadagni, Elyse Levesque, John Ralston Director: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett Screenwriter: Guy Busick, Ryan Murphy Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures Running Time: 95 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Jawline Takes a Measured Look at Social Media Stardom

The film is refreshing for its lack of pearl-clutching, its ambivalence in assessing what it’s like to be a commodity with a nervous system.

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Jawline
Photo: Hulu

The perma-glossy avatar of our profit-minded social media era is the cheery influencer, that species of professional bon vivant who seems perpetually more put together than anyone could be. Liza Mandelup’s debut documentary feature, Jawline, traces the dynamics that drive such influencers, their intensely adoring fans, and the malicious managers who try to turn a profit on them, and it’s refreshing for its lack of pearl-clutching, its ambivalence in assessing what it’s like to be a commodity with a nervous system.

The film begins on Austyn Tester, a sweet, poor Tennessee teen with a few thousand followers across Instagram, Twitter, Musical.ly, and YouNow who’s itching to escape his hometown and become an online celebrity. Mandelup mostly focuses on his daily efforts toward achieving that fame, including his semi-disciplined uploading regimen and the many retakes required to snag the perfect post. He spends much of his times posting, singing, and assuaging his young fans’ personal frustration on live chat. Only a slight variant on his actual personality, Austyn’s online brand, a “follow your dreams, no matter what” sort of positivity, would be unremarkable if it weren’t for its apparent impact on his teen girl fans.

Several of these fans are interviewed throughout the film. Each one is grappling with unique problems, from abusive families to bullying, though all of them justify their interest in Austyn and his peers for their willingness to listen, emphasizing the therapeutic effect of his livestreams. Jawline displays a certain evenhandedness here. The girls’ intense reliance on a stranger for comfort is uncomfortable to watch, but the film doesn’t trivialize this dependence. In an act of fan service, Austyn meets with a small group of girls at a local mall where their intense affections make themselves plain. Mandelup records them pushing an uncomfortable Austyn to ride around motorized stuffed animals so they can post it on Instagram, all the while demanding affirmations from him. Later, one girl forces him to share his phone number with her. Here, Jawline suggests a limit to his affection for them, if it ever existed, as well as the emotionally transactional nature of the relationship between fan and influencer.

The libidinal peak of this surreal relationship, though, occurs when Austyn and other influencers go on tour, performing shows for adoring fans with the hopes of upping their follower count in the process. On stage, the teens pose with fans, sing, and dance, all without any clear knack for it, in what amount to in-person livestreams. In this moment, there isn’t much that can be said about these largely cookie-cutter performers except that they’re toned, twinky, and peppy, and their fans love them for it. Mandelup’s footage of their displays is transfixing, not because the performances are spectacular—the shows are expensive to attend but often happen in dingy unadorned venues—but because the nearly contentless shows are only about the fans’ adulation. From an outsiders’ perspective, there’s a dizzying mismatch between the palpable intensity of their fervor and what they’re actually responding to.

How to relate to teen girls, how to monetize what’s relatable, and how to make the content more relatable and more profitable? These are the sorts of questions pondered by social media talent manager Michael Weist. He’s great to watch in the way reality TV villains are, as his success is propelled by a well-known combo of business sense, greed, and probable chicanery (appropriately, he finds himself in legal trouble by the film’s end). Around 21 years old, Weist has somehow marketed himself into a role as an authority figure on social media stardom, roping in young wannabe celebs and growing their followings. He’s turned a house in L.A. into a content factory, living there with his clients while haranguing them into posting, recording, and being on call 24/7 for their needs. Ever-candid, Weist reveals his long game at one point without being prompted: to run influencers through the content mill before they’re old enough to drink, at which point he can move on to the next hot prospect seeking fame.

At the heart of Weist’s efforts is the exploitation of Austyn’s more successful colleagues to commodify young girls’ emotions. Jawline is most fascinating when it tracks this process in action. Mandelup doesn’t draw as much attention to it as she could, meandering through IRL details that don’t quite elucidate or explain as much as they pretend to and don’t measure up to the retina-display realities of virtual stardom. A similar problem shows up in the documentary’s way of depicting tween girls. One notable scene involves slow-motion portraits of the fans accompanied by their disembodied voiceovers explaining why they spend so much time online. The scene is conceived in the spirit of chromatic maximalism, with the girls brightly lit against floral-print and pastel backgrounds, in a manner that humanizes their experience but flattens their differences, as if one were the precondition of the other. The style presents their range of justifications for standom as more or less equivalent to each other, reducing these girls to the same faceless morass of drives that Weist cashes in on.

More importantly, while Jawline’s depictions of predatory managers, overblown hopes, and obsessive followers spell out reasons to be despondent about the way this economy works, the film doesn’t look past its narrow horizon. There’s little indication of how this phenomenon is so profitable or how wide reaching this it is. Instead, Jawline offers a deflationary, measured suggestion that the current crop of influencers differs only in quantity from celebrity cults in Hollywood or the music industry. The latest iteration of celebrity is just monetizing a new type of media. All that’s really changed is that the stars burn dimmer and fade younger.

Director: Liza Mandelup Distributor: Hulu Running Time: 99 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Brittany Runs a Marathon Is a Moralizing Buzzkill of a Comedy

The film is inspirational only in the sense that it may inspire an uptick in Amazon searches for running gear.

1.5

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Brittany Runs a Marathon
Photo: Amazon Studios

Watching writer-director Paul Downs Colaizzo’s Brittany Runs a Marathon is a bit like listening to a runner describe a motivational poster—the type with a single-word slogan below a stock photograph—that inspired them to persevere as they trained themselves to be a serious runner. Sensing that such overt preachiness would be irksome, the film cloaks its proselytizing in self-aware jokes about how much more pleasurable sitting around is than running and a token acknowledgment that there’s nothing wrong with being out of shape. But the screenplay’s cute, if somewhat insipid, humor doesn’t prevent the film from feeling self-righteous. Indeed, for a comedy about a woman who makes a personal decision to get in shape, Brittany Runs a Marathon sure engages in a lot of moralizing.

At the start of the film, twentysomething Brittany (Jillian Bell) is overweight and working part time as an usher for a small off-Broadway theater, which somehow provides enough income for her to regularly drink champagne at high-end clubs with her roommate, Gretchen (Alice Lee). Walking back to their Queens apartment after nights of hard drinking and eating greasy food, they often catch their uptight, bougie neighbor, Catherine (Erica Hernandez), going out for an early morning run, seemingly judging them for their indulgence. It’s only a matter of time, then, before Brittany is informed by a Yelp-recommended doctor (Patch Darragh) that her lifestyle has led to elevated blood pressure and an unhealthy body mass index—and an ominous close-up on the doctor’s chart shows us that she’s crossed over into obese terrain.

And so Brittany begins running, ill-advisedly, in her beat-up Chuck Taylors, which she soon upgrades to spotless, turquoise New Balances. Catherine, for some reason forgiving of Brittany’s persistent churlishness, introduces the young woman to a local running club. What follows is surely intended to inspire laughs of recognition in audience members who picked up running in adulthood, as the neophyte Brittany hangs out at the back of the group with a fellow reformed slacker, Seth (Micah Stock). The new trio sets themselves an ambitious goal: to complete the New York Marathon the following November.

The film makes jokes about how hard running can be, but there’s an earnestness behind such humor that leaves certain sacred cows untouched. Most of these have to do with the self—namely, self-discipline, self-love, and self-actualization. As the film sees it, all those things can be realized through running. Seth may joke about how ready he is to stop, or how much he’d rather be doing something else, but he keeps going, and if Brittany cheats on her diet and eats some cheese fries, it’s portrayed as a dramatic, shameful misstep. We’re told over and over that Brittany is valued by her friends, old and new, because she’s funny, but we see scant evidence of this, particularly as her devotion to running takes on a quite pious dimension.

Arriving for comic relief and romantic interest is Jern (Utkarsh Ambudkar), who works the night shifts at the same house-sitting service where Brittany has begun picking up hours during the day to fund her marathon training. Casually trashing the house they’re meant to be looking after, Jern supplies Brittany Runs a Marathon with the levity that began to evaporate from the film as soon as Brittany started exercising. But as her flirtatiously contentious relationship with Jern deepens, the other parts of her life become a plodding series of confrontations. Her improving self-image emboldens Brittany to kick Gretchen to the curb, accusing her friend of having always viewed her as a “fat sidekick.”

It’s a fair enough grievance for the character to have, but at a certain point in Brittany’s active defense of herself, the film takes on a self-righteous tone, associating its protagonist’s newfound healthy living with virtuousness and seeing Gretchen as despicable for her profligate lifestyle. Brittany Runs a Marathon’s positioning of exercise as a moral triumph is nothing more than a marketing technique, as Colaizzo’s film is “inspirational” only in the sense that it may inspire an uptick in Amazon searches for running gear.

Cast: Jillian Bell, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Michaela Watkins, Lil Rel Howrey, Micah Stock, Mikey Day, Alice Lee, Dan Bittner, Peter Vack, Patch Darragh Director: Paul Downs Colaizzo Screenwriter: Paul Downs Colaizzo Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 103 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Official Secrets Is an Ambitious Muckraking Thriller Prone to Melodrama

Gavin Hood wrings suspense out of the parsing of the nuances of evidence and the tapping of mysterious contacts.

2.5

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Official Secrets
Photo: IFC Films

Gavin Hood’s Official Secrets is a muckraking thriller that revels in wonderfully lived-in details as well as generic biopic platitudes. The film tells a story that might have caused a sensation in Britain and the U.S. had it not been drowned out by those nations’ war machines. In 2003, Katherine Gun, a British translator for an intelligence agency, leaked an email in which the American National Security Agency urged for surveillance of pivotal members of the U.N. Security Council. This operation was for the purpose of blackmailing the U.N. into voting for the American invasion of Iraq (which President George W. Bush authorized later that year anyway, without the U.N.’s approval). Katherine leaked this email, and faced prosecution from her government under the Official Secrets Act of 1989.

In the film’s first half, the filmmakers offer a fastidious glimpse at how the press responds to Katherine’s (Kiera Knightley) whistleblowing. Peter Beaumont (Matthew Goode), Martin Bright (Matt Smith), and Ed Vulliamy (Rhys Ifans) are anti-war reporters for The Observer, which is in favor of the war and eager to maintain its relationship with Tony Blair’s government. Hood wrings suspense, and docudramatic fascination, out of the parsing of the nuances of evidence and the tapping of mysterious contacts. Various jargon in the N.S.A. email is decoded, as insiders weigh its legitimacy. An intensification of surveillance is referred to as a “surge effort,” intelligence sources are “product lines,” and so forth.

This sort of commitment to texture is reminiscent of the novels of John Le Carré, as are the juicy scenes in which Beaumont and Bright reach out to people in the MI6 and the British government. Though Hood isn’t a moody stylist in the key of, say, Alan J. Pakula, his handling of the film’s actors is sharp, as their crisp and musical cadences allow the audience to understand that every spoken word matters, and that, if the reporters misstep at any time, they could potentially lose more than their contacts.

Katherine is eventually defended by an attorney, Ben Emmerson (Ralph Fiennes), who has vast experience with human rights cases and with working within the labyrinthine British government. Fiennes’s probing, tormented, erudite charisma is always pleasurable, but this section of Official Secrets, meant to provide the legal counterpoint to the journalism thread, is shortchanged, as Hood starts to juggle too many balls at once. Interspersed with Emmerson’s adventurous interpretation of the Official Secrets Act are moments in which Katherine must rush to prevent her Turkish-Kurdish husband, Yasar (Adam Bakri), from being deported out of an obvious retaliation against Katherine. These scenes are unimaginatively staged and unmoving—a sop to melodrama that temporarily halts the film’s procedural momentum.

It’s strange that the domestic dimension of the protagonist’s life should feel like clutter, which underscores a larger issue with Official Secrets: Katherine herself isn’t especially compelling as rendered here, as she almost entirely operates in the formula mode of aggrieved, persecuted, self-righteous avenger. A major ellipsis in the narrative is telling, as the British government forces Katherine to wait almost a year in limbo before deciding whether or not to persecute her, which Hood skips to keep the story moving. The emotional toil of such a year could’ve provided a personal counterpoint to the film’s political gamesmanship. As it is, the filmmaker reduces Katherine to a supporting character in her own story.

Cast: Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Ralph Fiennes, Matt Smith, Indira Varma, MyAnna Buring, Rhys Ifans, Tamsin Greig, Jack Farthing, Hattie Morahan, Conleth Hill, Katherine Kelly, Kenneth Cranham, Hanako Footman, Adam Bakri Director: Gavin Hood Screenwriter: Gregory Bernstein, Sara Bernstein, Gavin Hood Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 112 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Tigers Are Not Afraid Wrings Preciousness from a Drug War’s Carnage

It never resolves its commingling of the fanciful and the mundane into a particularly compelling argument about the legacy of trauma.

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Tigers Are Not Afraid
Photo: Shudder

Writer-director Issa López’s Tigers Are Not Afraid is a tapestry of flourishes. All are inseparable from Mexico’s gangland carnage, but its most memorable one is also rooted in magical-realist tradition, namely 100 Years of Solitude. The novel tells the multi-generational story of the Buendía family, and in one particularly exacting and vivid passage, master fabulist Gabriel García Márquez details how the seemingly eternal Ursula Iguarán learns of her son José Arcadio’s death after a trickle of blood from his body winds its way through war-torn Macondo, around corners, across terraces, down steps, and over curbs, before finally arriving at his mother’s doorstep. “Holy mother of God,” she says.

Ursula comprehends the truth of that thread of blood even before it leads her back to her son’s body. By contrast, the protagonist of Tigers Are Not Afraid, Estrella (Paola Lara), prevaricates so as to put distance between herself and the horrors around her. “We forget who we are, when the things from outside come to get us,” she says in voiceover at the start of the film. She doesn’t see the line of blood that runs from a dead man’s head and follows her all the way home until it’s already tracing a path across her living room floor and up a wall, finally creating the shape of an insect on a dress that hangs from the ceiling. Estrella’s mother is missing, and in this moment, the girl seems to know that she’s being sent a message, which she won’t learn to decipher until she becomes more fluent in the language of fairy tales.

At its most assured, Tigers Are Not Afraid strikingly literalizes the idea of the ties that bind, suggesting how the living and the dead walk hand in hand, almost as a matter of course, in a modern-day Mexico where 160,000 have been killed and 53,000 have disappeared since the beginning of the drug war in 2006. Before Estrella stumbles upon the aforementioned dead man’s body, you get the sense that today isn’t the first time she’s seen boys use police tape as limbo sticks, or dragged her fingers across walls riddled with bullet holes. Which isn’t to say that the girl is desensitized to this violence. She seems to almost exist at a remove from it, and López sensitively syncs the swaying of her camera to the girl’s visible numbness.

That sensitivity, however, proves to be a kind of redundancy. Throughout Tigers Are Not Afraid, López effectively conjures an aura of ordinariness, but she never resolves her commingling of the fanciful and the mundane into a particularly compelling argument about the legacy of trauma. The film concerns Estrella and a group of orphaned boys going head to head with a cartel after young El Shine (Juan Ramón López) swipes a gun and phone from the treacherous El Chino (Tenoch Huerta), and when that narrative isn’t picking up signals from the supernatural realm, you sense its allegiance to so many films indebted to the neorealist tradition, from Luis Buñuel’s Los Olvidados to Héctor Babenco’s Pixote. Tigers Are Not Afraid is alive to the harsh reality of its main characters’ lives, though at times it feels as if López’s only means of accessing that truth is by conspicuously shaking her camera.

As for the film’s supernatural flourishes, none are as inspired as that thread of blood that trails Estrella at various points. Little flying creatures suggest visitors from Guillermo del Toro’s cabinet of curiosities, while a gathering of ghosts inside an expansive, derelict building brings to mind a Silent Hill freak-out. And in the case of the tiger graffiti on a wall that comes to life at one point, there isn’t even the sense that we’re watching the dead’s handiwork. After a while, death’s intrusions come to feel more cosmetic than substantial.

Early in the film, López fascinatingly suggests that Estrella’s perception of the world, after a teacher grants her three wishes, is both shield and sword. But after the girl uses one of those wishes to commit an act of brutality, the film’s fairy-tale conceit reveals itself as an engine for easy absolution. By the time the girl arrives at an understanding of her world that isn’t too far removed from the logic of her opening voiceover, Tigers Are Not Afraid has so given itself over to feeling the innocence of cocooning that it only effectively haunts us with its preciousness.

Cast: Paola Lara, Juan Ramón López, Hanssel Casillas, Tenoch Huerta, Nery Arredondo, Rodrigo Cortes, Ianis Guerrero Director: Issa López Screenwriter: Issa López Distributor: Shudder Running Time: 83 min Rating: NR Year: 2017

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Review: Where’d You Go, Bernadette Serves Up Lifetime-Grade Chestnuts of Wisdom

The film is a curiously anodyne affair that proposes the distinctly unenlightening idea that the medicine against despair is just a little R&R.

1.5

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Where’d You Go, Bernadette
Photo: Annapurna Pictures

The opening passages of Where’d You Go, Bernadette include a handful of scenes in which an agoraphobic architect and mother, Bernadette Fox (Cate Blanchett), restlessly expresses her internal thoughts inside the empty rooms of her Seattle mansion. Observed in flowing Steadicam shots, these soliloquies—recorded and translated to text by Manjula, the digital assistant on Bernadette’s smartphone—give space to reflect on how the woman’s eclectic furnishings grow out of her racing mental landscape. And in performing them, Blanchett offers the rare cinematic spectacle of a mother in her alone time, compelled to let her imagination and anxieties loose outside the pressures of maternal duty. In these moments, the film, an unapologetically straightforward adaptation of Maria Semple’s best-selling novel, briefly takes on the tone of something candidly personal.

It’s a shame, then, that Where’d You Go, Bernadette is cloyingly beholden to the demands of its crowd-pleasing narrative arc—that of a creative woman driven to ennui by motherhood and middle age yet rescued from the brink by an inspiring vacation and the love of her family. It’s nice, reassuring stuff, not false by any standard, but told with such didacticism and cuteness that one can’t help but be bewildered by the fact that the film was co-written and directed by Richard Linklater. Where the Texas auteur’s leisurely paced Boyhood and Everybody Wants Some!! excel in their attention to the nuanced spectacle of characters changing over time, Where’d You Go, Bernadette plays like all of its air has been sucked out in the interest of plot progression, which it conducts with the workshopped efficiency of a television movie mindful of commercial breaks. In fact, with its coverage-dependent mise-en-scène, off-the-rack musical score, and tacked-on bookending voiceovers, Linklater’s latest feels strangely close to something Lifetime might have churned out in the early aughts.

The film establishes its narrative conflicts quickly and bluntly, often through dialogue, simple juxtaposition, and, in one particularly dull case, a YouTube mini-documentary about Bernadette that plays in full in order to clarify her backstory. A brilliant and influential architect in the midst of a long hiatus after a demoralizing relocation and a series of miscarriages, she displaces her creative frustration on her city and its inhabitants, including her prosperous, TED Talks-giving husband, Elgie (Billy Crudup); stuffy neighbor, Audrey (Kristen Wiig); and Soo-Lin (Zoe Chao), a gossipy associate of Elgie and friend of Audrey. Her only routine source of joy is her wise-beyond-her-years daughter, Bee (Emma Nelson), who loves her unconditionally and whom she treats perhaps a bit too much like a peer.

Symptomatic of Linklater’s always-generous worldview, the film sees Bernadette’s quirks not as deficiencies, but as inevitable side effects of life’s persistent curveballs. When the character refers to herself as a “creative problem solver with good taste and a soft spot for logistical nightmares,” it’s clear that the filmmaker endorses that assessment, and perhaps even recognizes it as a description of his own artistic career. For all their suspicion toward Bernadette, Elgie and Audrey aren’t characterized entirely negatively either, for each is given a path to redemption, and Wiig’s portrayal of her character’s transition from belligerence to empathy in particular is one of the highpoints of Where’d You Go, Bernadette.

Rather, in true boomer fashion, Linklater reserves his cynicism for technology, kickstarting the film’s third act with the contrived revelation that Manjula is actually a Russian-operated phishing scheme seeking to steal Bernadette’s identity. This development briefly gets a Department of Homeland Security agent, Marcus Strang (James Urbaniak), and a therapist, Dr. Kurtz (Judy Greer), caught up in the narrative, but it’s all really just a busy preamble to the Antarctica family vacation that’s hinted at from the very first scene. Bernadette has her reservations about the trip, Bee thinks it will be cathartic for the family, Elgie is too preoccupied with his career to concern himself with the logistics, and the shadowy forces behind Manjula are poised to swoop in and cause chaos during the scheduled dates.

What ends up happening is neither the transporting escape Bee wants nor the complete disaster Manjula intends to enact, but something messily in between that triggers a coordinated stream of life lessons—and a few uninspired drone shots of icebergs. Indeed, in its eagerness to diagnose Bernadette’s existential impasse, the film lays on thick the kind of back-patting chestnuts of wisdom that have become increasingly common in Linklater’s recent films, groaners like “Popularity is overrated” and “You don’t have to do anything you don’t wanna do.” Such sentiments have always been window dressing in Linklater’s nonchalantly libertarian body of work, but if in many cases his films have tacitly acknowledged the limits of language to articulate life’s mysteries, here there’s very little sense of a frontier to be explored. If Bernadette is Linklater and Blanchett’s collaborative expression of the right balance between parenting and artistry, it’s a curiously anodyne affair that proposes the distinctly unenlightening—and privileged—idea that the medicine against despair is just a little R&R.

Cast: Cate Blanchett, Billy Crudup, Kristen Wiig, Emma Nelson, Zoe Chao, James Urbaniak, Judy Greer Director: Richard Linklater Screenwriter: Richard Linklater, Holly Gent, Vincent Palmo Jr. Distributor: Annapurna Pictures Running Time: 130 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: Roberto Minervini’s What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?

The film is beautiful and occasionally quite moving, but its subject matter deserves more than art-house irresolution.

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What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?
Photo: KimStim

With What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?, Roberto Minervini returns to the American South to tell the stories of several African-Americans living in New Orleans, over the summer of 2017. These stories are so self-contained that the documentary comes to suggest an anthology film, which, in this case, has been organized around a pervading theme of how political and personal textures intersect in everyday black life. And in the tradition of the anthology film, Minervini’s material is also variable, suggesting that the filmmaker could’ve been more ruthless in the editing room and less beholden to the pleasures of his self-consciously neat aesthetic.

Violence, poverty, incarceration, and sexual abuse haunt Minervini’s subjects, and his film is most powerful when it shows how casually people have acclimated themselves to systemic failure. Two half-brothers, 14-year-old Ronaldo King and nine-year-old Titus Turner, are lectured by their mother, Ashlei, about meeting a 7 p.m. curfew that’s clearly been implemented to steer them away from crime, the dangers of which she explains to Titus. In this moment, Minervini dramatizes Titus’s inoculation into a volatile world, capturing how the boy gradually sheds his innocence—an impression that’s affirmed later in the film when Ronaldo tutors Titus on fighting. Duct-taping towels around Titus’s hands in place of boxing gloves, Ronaldo tells his little brother to hit him with decisiveness, while admitting that, once one gets older, most fights are settled with guns. Ronaldo dispenses such advice with a matter-of-fact-ness that’s bone-chilling, and with a brotherly love that’s deeply poignant.

Juxtaposed with this coming-of-age youth narrative are stories of a recovering crack addict, Judy Hill, who’s realized her dream of opening a bar, and of a local chapter of the New Black Panthers, which is investigating and protesting several murders, such as the recent decapitation and burning of a local black man. Intellectually, one can see why Minervini believes these threads belong together, as they both illustrate how African-Americans foster their own infrastructures as a reaction to the corruption and indifference of governments on various levels. But Minervini’s cross-cutting shortchanges both of these story threads. Minervini reveals preciously little about the principle murder that the New Black Panthers are seeking to avenge, using it vaguely as a symbol of Southern atrocity at large, and the practical details of operating Judy’s bar are reduced to sketches. In both cases, the specifics of the subjects’ concerns haven’t been entirely dramatized.

In certain portions of What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?, particularly those featuring the New Black Panthers, Minervini taps into reservoirs of anger that are nearly at odds with his chilly formalism. The film was shot by D.P. Diego Romero in pristine black and white, with long takes that drink in the details of the landscapes and people’s bodies. One is often encouraged to savor the beauty of the lighting, especially in Judy’s bar, and Minervini eschews typical documentary devices like narration and interviews. In terms of gliding, sumptuous style, What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? is reminiscent of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, as both films verge on turning class struggles into moving coffee-table books.

We’re supposed to feel as if we’ve slipped effortlessly into the lives of Minervini’s subjects, which might have been possible if more time had been devoted to pivotal moments. If Minervini wasn’t able to capture the moment when Judy learns that she must close the bar, then perhaps he could’ve wrestled with his inability to capture it. Judy demands a meta-textual approach anyway, as she is a highly charismatic and self-absorbed person who is often clearly performing for the camera, most gratingly when she responds to her mother’s fear of homelessness with a monologue about her own generosity. A filmmaker like Robert Greene might’ve challenged Judy and utilized her for a riff on the power of self-mythology, but Minervini prizes his faux-objectivity; he’s more interested in mood than process or character. What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? is beautiful and occasionally quite moving, but its subject matter deserves more than art-house irresolution.

Director: Roberto Minervini Screenwriter: Roberto Minervini Distributor: KimStim Running Time: 123 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Good Boys’s Raunchy Take on Tweendom Is the Same Old Shtick

Gene Stupnitsky’s film is Big Mouth for those who prefer ribald humor about tweenage sexuality in live action.

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Good Boys
Photo: Universal Pictures

Gene Stupnitsky’s Good Boys is Big Mouth for those who prefer ribald humor about tweenage sexuality in live action, though it lacks the Netflix show’s frankness and authenticity. While hearing sixth graders curse and exhibit their burgeoning sexual awareness constitutes the film’s entire gimmick, its coarse language and surprising displays of sexual material mask an inner timidity. In the post-“puberty monster” world ushered in by Big Mouth, a show that cares to acknowledge that girls also experience puberty, both the film’s jokes and easy coming-of-age morality tale seem tame, beautified for an audience it assumes will not want to confront the abjectness of tweens’ emotional and sexual imaginations.

That said, there are laughs to be had in Good Boys, many of them deriving from the main characters’ mistaken understanding of the adult world. Max (Jacob Tremblay), for example, believes that his college-age neighbor, Hannah (Molly Gordon), is a “nymphomaniac” because she has sex both on land and at sea. Thor (Brady Noon), who pretends to possess advanced knowledge and experience in all areas, misinterprets his parents’ sex toys as weapons. And Lucas (Keith L. Williams) comes to believe that Hannah and her friend, Lily (Midori Francis), are irredeemable drug addicts because they want to do the “sex drug” molly.

Max doesn’t know how to kiss girls, and his middle-school mind tells him that the best way to learn is by using his father’s (Will Forte) drone to spy on Hannah kissing her boyfriend, Benji (Josh Caras). That leads to Hannah and Lily taking the drone, and as recompense, Thor steals Hannah’s purse, which contains a vitamin bottle full of molly that the boys promptly lose. Part of the film’s at least outwardly risqué treatment of tween boyhood is that the boys’ possession of and efforts to procure a party drug drives much of the story. And that story is a chain of cause and effect that abides by the protagonists’ middle-school priorities: If Max doesn’t find more molly, he will lose his father’s drone, which means that he never gets to kiss a girl.

The cascading series of absurd situations that are driven by Max’s desire to kiss his crush, Brixlee (Millie Davis), includes the boys trashing a frat house, selling a sex doll to a weirdo (Stephen Merchant), and handing over the bottle full of molly to an oblivious cop (Sam Richardson). (This last bit is as tenuous as a dangling thread for conspicuously missing a punchline, almost as if the filmmakers never got around to shooting it.) In the end, the trio, the so-called “bean bag boys,” must learn that middle school will mean growing apart to some extent: Max is into girls and the sixth-grade social scene, Thor loves theater, and Lucas is a kindly nerd who enjoys card games. That these interests aren’t in the least mutually exclusive, particularly for Generation Z, proves beyond the film’s capacity to acknowledge.

Good Boys’s humor is by and large the same as that of any other male-centric R-rated comedy; if it differentiates itself from other iterations of the genre, it’s through a group of pre-teens making verbosely obscene comments and engaging in gross-out physical comedy. There’s a sense that Good Boys draws open a curtain and peeks into a rarely seen and dimly remembered space of tweendom. But it’s satisfied with just this peek—and as convincingly as the filmmakers can compel their child stars to enunciate obscene exclamations, the film never captures much of the feeling, of the world of childhood experience, in which they might be based. As a result, Good Boys never transcends its Superbad-but-with-11-year-olds shtick.

Cast: Jacob Tremblay, Keith L. Williams, Brady Noon, Molly Gordon, Midori Francis, Izaac Wang, Millie Davis, Josh Caras, Will Forte, Retta, Lil Rel Howery, Sam Richardson, Stephen Merchant Director: Gene Stupnitsky Screenwriter: Lee Eisenberg, Gene Stupnitsky Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 89 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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