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The Grainy Haze of Dreams: Movie Year 2006, and the Death and Rebirth of Cinema

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The Grainy Haze of Dreams: Movie Year 2006, and the Death and Rebirth of Cinema

1. CINEMA: DEAD AGAIN

MZS: We just came through a pretty tumultuous year for movies, and for the media and the entertainment industry in general. Although it’s not possible to cover everything, I’d like for us to at least touch on some of what I think were evolutionary highlights—moments, movements, trends or developments that altered movies, or how we perceive movies.

Right after the first of the year, David Denby tried to to get at a big part of this—specifically the effect of technological change—in his New Yorker piece “Big Pictures.” But it didn’t satisfy me. In fact, parts of it were so out-of-it that they reminded me of an old episode of Gilligan’s Island where the castaways run into a Japanese soldier who wanders out of the bushes where he’s been for 20 years not knowing that the war is over.

KU: “I went to LA, and here’s what I’m bringing back to you New Yorkers—the world is ending.” It’s the sort of thing I expect from him. I recall Jonathan Rosenbaum pointing out in his book Movie Wars that both Denby and David Thomson declared movies dead one week, and then, when L.A. Confidential came out, they resurrected them.

MZS: In fact, Denby, who was one of the guys I admired and read very closely coming up, has declared movies dead on more than one occasion. Declaring cinema dead is a favorite hobby of critics. Armond White’s done it, I’ve done it. Peter Rainer, who’s now at the Christian Science Monitor, did it back in 1998, when he reviewed Armageddon for the now-defunct Los Angeles New Times. But that’s the salient point here: Denby’s piece reads suspiciously like what Godfrey Cheshire would call a “Death of Cinema” piece. Even though the intent of this New Yorker article is supposedly to suss out how the delivery system that brings movies to us is changing, what really comes through is a kind of mourning for the way things used to be.

KU: If, indeed, things used to be the way he remembers. But Denby’s already made up his mind. His enthusiasm is in the past.

MZS: Writing about the experience of watching Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl on a video iPod, he writes:

Pirates has lots of wide vistas and noisy tumult—a vast ocean under the dazzling sun and nighttime roughhousing in colonial towns, with deep-cleavaged prostitutes and toothless drunks. What I saw, mainly, was a looming ship the size of a twig, patches of sparkling blue, and a face or a skull flashing by. The interiors were as dark as caves. My ears, fed by headphones, were filled with such details as the chafing of hawsers and feet stomping on straw, but there below me Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom were dueling like two angry mosquitoes in a jar.”

That’s a really funny description, but it fails to take into account what I like about watching movies on an iPod, which is that sense of intimacy. And yes, of course, when you’re dealing with something that includes a number of wide shots, an iPod is not the way to experience it. But there are compensations, and one of them is the sense of the movie being inside your head, which you can only get when you watch a movie with headphones on. And then, over and above that, there’s the idea of literally being able to hold a movie in the palm of your hand, which I think is just incredible. I think the thrill of that, the intimacy of that, really does compensate for the lack of scale. And I say that as somebody who loves the big screen experience, and who ten years ago never would have imagined myself saying something like that. But I do watch movies and television programs and other things on my iPod, and I enjoy it. It’s a different experience, it brings out different qualities in what you’re experiencing. Which is not to say it’s how I’d like to watch Lawrence of Arabia, because it’s not. But I’ve watched a lot of stuff on the train going to and from work, and loved it.

KU: Something I read a while ago that strikes me now is a piece on Titanic where the writer talked about how the film was shot so that it could be masked for both television and theatrical exhibition and not lose anything.

MZS: Right. James Cameron always shoots in Super 35mm, which has an image that’s 4×3 originally. But he simultaneously frames his movies in the viewfinder so that, for theaters, he can crop out a narrow, rectangular piece that matches the dimensions of CinemaScope, which has a 2:35 to 1 aspect ratio. So the whole time Cameron is shooting something, he’s simultaneously envisioning a movie that can be shown in a wide, narrow format in theaters and also on standard, squarish TV monitors, without losing what Cameron thinks is essential information. Basically, Cameron is making sure he can always cut a narrow rectangle out of an almost-square. As he shoots, he’s picturing his movie in two formats.

KU: It calls into question something you and I have often talked about, which is, “What is a true CinemaScope film and what is a mock ’Scope film?”

MZS: True CinemaScope horizontally squeezes a wide rectangular image into a more squarish frame of 35mm film. Then, when the movie is projected in theaters, a ’Scope lens in the projector will unsqueeze the image, to re-create that wide rectangular frame. True CinemaScope uses the entire film frame. But cropped Super 35mm only uses part of the frame, a rectangular swath of it. That swath is then squeezed during post-production and printed to film or DVD, then it’s unsqueezed again when you watch the movie. Aren’t we wandering far afield here?

KU: I was about to bring it back: You said you didn’t want to watch Lawrence of Arabia on an iPod, and no, you wouldn’t, because David Lean didn’t think to compose simultaneously for CinemaScope and also for an iPod.

MZS: Right.

KU: But I wonder, what is in directors’ heads today when they think about all the different modes of exhibition? What does that create in the product? Is it a detriment? Is it a positive? Is it all of these things at once?

MZS: Then you get into a really thorny area for classicists, perhaps an area they don’t want to go, which raises the question, “How critical is the aspect ratio of the frame to whatever it is that the filmmaker is trying to express?” And the obvious answer is, maybe it’s not as critical as we think. If, in fact, you can simultaneously compose for a theatrical print of CinemaScope dimensions and a 4×3 image that can show on a standard TV or an iPod, and preserve most of the information that you think is essential and not feel you’re compromising too much either way, then maybe the aspect ratio is not crucial.

And this brings us to what I’d really like to talk about: What do all of these technological changes, and the reaction against them by folks like Denby, tell us about the essence of cinema? What is the essence of cinema?

When Godfrey Cheshire wrote his “Death of Film/Decay of Cinema” article, one of the most important pieces of film criticism published in this country in the last 20 years, he identified not just what was happening, but what choices we were going to have to make as consumers and as patrons of the arts. And what he was getting at was that we need to rethink our frame of reference—we need to rethink our terms. He later gave an example in a review for the North Carolina Independent of Toy Story 2, which was created entirely without film, then printed to film for theaters, most of which did not yet have digital projection in 1999. In the review, Godfrey said that throughout his career, he’d habitually referred to any feature length motion picture as a film, and now felt he needed to break himself of that habit, so he made a point of referring to Toy Story 2 as a “movie,” because for Godfrey, the essence of cinema was bound up in film.

But now, is it? When we say “cinema,” do we mean film, and do we always necessarily have to mean film? And beyond that, do we have to mean all of the things that have traditionally been associated with film, namely a film projected in 35mm in a theater for a paying audience of strangers?

KU: I would say no. Film is where it all began. However, there have been all kinds of film used in production, and all types of film processing. Jacques Tati was one of the first people to use video for a feature, in his movie Parade (1974), though I’m willing to bet there are examples even before that.

It occurs to me that one of the problems with what you call “classicists”—especially in America, but probably abroad, too—is that, for them, the Hollywood model is the dominant model.

MZS: Let’s define what you mean by the Hollywood model.

KU: Narrative storytelling, genre, actors performing a plot—

MZS: Meaning a goal-directed narrative?

KU: A goal-directed narrative, a goal-oriented story. Something akin to that. And perhaps awards recognition can be brought into it as well—something that’s seen as the end result of all of that.

MZS: And when you talk about the Hollywood model, I assume you mean not just the movies that come out of Hollywood, but perhaps the cinema that comes out of other countries, which is often either aping Hollywood or attempting to react against Hollywood?

KU: What I’m talking about is the tendency of critics to hold Hollywood up as the high standard against which everything must be measured, even though they criticize it heavily nowadays and talk about how it’s not what it used to be. In this way, Rosenbaum was clearly onto something when he pointed out how Denby and Thomson declared movies dead and then used L.A. Confidential to resurrect them. I do my best not to be closed off to the potentialities of any motion picture: “Hollywood films”, “Foreign films”, “Avant-garde films”, “Home videos”—at a very basic, gut level these distinctions are anathema to me.

One of the greatest movies I’ve ever seen is Abbas Kiarostami’s Five Dedicated to Ozu, which is a five-sequence video. Funny, I was just reading The Hollywood Reporter review of the movie before you called, though I won’t deign to call it a review, because it’s basically just a snarky takedown of it. And then there was something on the blog too, where Sean Burns got on, and he was talking about Children of Men, and how shocked he was that you and I and some other people didn’t like it. “I thought this board was full of Brian De Palma apologists,” he said, and (the coup de grâce), “If the rest of us “squint really really hard” might Inland Empire look slightly less like it was photographed inside a toilet?”

MZS: Man, that hurt.

KU: Then Odie came back in another thread, “If Lynch pulled a Warhol, and shot three hours of my toes, scoring the “footage” to Nina Simone, critics would hail it a masterpiece because Lynch’s name was on it.” Myself, I think that if David Lynch’s name wasn’t on it, said “footage” would look, sound, and feel completely different.

What Inland Empire proves to me—a belief I’ve long held—is that the camera betrays the true intent of the person who’s using it. They can state their aims and goals but, as Spielberg has shown, stated aims don’t always hold water, which is why I wish he (and Tarantino, too), would just shut up some of the time. That’s one of the reasons I admire Terrence Malick so much, because he doesn’t speak—he just lets the movies talk for themselves. It’s also why I appreciate Robert Altman’s view of his movies as children that he’s nurtured up to a point before they just up and walk away from him. The point being, I think, that when a director’s name—or the name of whoever you consider the auteur—is on a film, they have created it, it’s unique to them and you have to deal with that.

2. FILM & VIDEO

MZS: In that spirit, let’s focus on a few movies that are undeniably expressions of a singular viewpoint, and that all have one conspicuous thing in common. I have an asterisk next to this moviegoing year, so there are probably a lot of movies that I should bring into this discussion that I can’t, but five of the movies that I saw this year that made a really, really strong impression on me were shot on video. And they are all movies where the fact that they were shot on video was intentional, and integral to what the movies are and what they wanted to achieve. Those five movies are Superman Returns, A Prairie Home Companion, Iraq in Fragments, Miami Vice and Inland Empire. They were shot with different types of equipment, different budget levels, different aims. I’d like to go through them one by one and try to get at what I think video brought to each movie.

In the case of Superman Returns, which was on the high end of the scale, shooting on high-definition video was a means to exercise tighter aesthetic control over a big-budget superhero movie, from the digital effects to the color scheme, and probably to keep costs down, though the budget on that movie was so enormous that I can’t imagine it saved them very much. I read a lot of reviews of that movie. Few of them mentioned that it was shot on video, which is a tangential issue that I’m not going to harp on too much, but it annoys the shit out of me that many critics who believe cinema equals film only point out that something was shot on video if they didn’t like it. If they did like it, they don’t deign to mention it in their review.

KU: Maybe they don’t notice it.

MZS: I’m not a mind-reader, and I wouldn’t presume to guess. But I do think that if you’re in that camp, you need to be consistent on this point and address it whenever it comes up, even if it means a throwaway parenthetical, because the alternative is hypocrisy. What we’re talking about here is the essence of cinema and whether film is what defines it. My point is, while Superman Returns is not that different in its style from many grandiose, imaginatively produced superhero pictures, what’s special about it can be somewhat traced back to the decision to shoot on high-def.

But then you get something like Robert Altman’s A Prairie Home Companion. In Altman on Altman, he talks throughout about how picture is not the most important thing. That’s a heretical thing for an auteur to be saying, but he says it over and over and over again in that book. He talks about how, when he was making McCabe & Mrs. Miller, he put multiple fog filters over the lens to degrade the image as much as possible. He wanted it to be murky, he wanted it to be hazy, he wanted it to be as difficult as possible to make out details. That was part of the aesthetic. Sound was more important to him than picture. Movement of people within the frame, and the seeming randomness of it, was more important to him than tight classical compositions. All of this stuff is very intentional, just as it was intentional for Cassavetes.

So it was not a shock to me at all when Altman gravitated toward video—first in the 80s with projects like Tanner ’88, then again with high definition when he shot The Company—he claimed it, loved it, shouted his love from the rooftops. In A Prairie Home Companion he uses it to cover rather than shoot his actors, to get in there with them in a way that’s very intimate even for him, to open up and explore a limited interior set in ways that remind me of the small films and the TV work that he did in the 80s, particularly play adaptations like The Dumbwaiter and The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial.

Then there’s Iraq in Fragments, which Steven Boone did a great job of explicating technically and aesthetically, and which achieved impressionistic, visionary effects with nonfiction footage that were likely only possible because the movie was shot on video. Obviously it’s the documentary filmmaker’s tool almost by default, because of cost, portability and relative unobtrusiveness, but there’s a powerful sensibility to that movie nonetheless.

I’m kind of moving up the chain here in order of the radical intent of the director, so the next one has to be Miami Vice. Michael Mann has often been criticized for being slick, particularly in the first half of his career, when he shot mostly with a single camera and micromanaged every frame, from the lighting to the décor. Supposedly he once re-shot an entire scene from The Insider because he didn’t like the tie a particular actor was wearing. But all in all, The Insider was looser and more spontaneous than anything he’d made before, and so was Ali, the first Mann film to use high-definition video in certain scenes, a fact that few critics noticed at the time. Robbery Homicide Division, Mann’s short-lived CBS show that was shot on high-def, was a natural outgrowth of the looser style of The Insider and Ali, and it predicted where he was going to go with Collateral, which mixed 35mm film and high-def video, and then Miami Vice, which was shot almost entirely on high-def.

On all three of these productions, Mann shot with multiple cameras, he used available light whenever possible, even during street scenes at night, and if somebody’s face was in shadow at a moment when they were saying something important, or if they were slightly out-of-focus as a result of the project being shot on the fly, he didn’t give a shit. In Miami Vice, which takes that approach further than anything he’s ever done, if there wasn’t enough light in the shot, he just cranked up the gain on the camera, which brings out detail but also increases the amount of grain in the image, which any professional DP will tell you you’re not supposed to do in a dramatic feature—and here’s what blows my mind: he left the grain in! There is software that can go through the finished cut of a movie, shot on film or video, and remove grain; there’s a way to make the texture consistent from shot to shot. Yet Mann apparently chose not to use it.

Detractors of Miami Vice sometimes complained that there were differing levels of grain from shot to shot, particularly in the night scenes. Well, put two and two together. If Michael Mann is a technical obsessive, which he certainly is, that stuff would not be in there if he didn’t want it to be in there—if he didn’t want you to notice it. And then next question is, why does he want you to notice it?

3. REMBRANDT’S CRAYONS

KU: I’d like to leap off from that to the David Lynch story that About.com critic Jürgen Fauth (aka “muckster”) posted on the blog, which is apropos of this. Following up on a discussion of whether Lynch’s use of consumer video was the movie equivalent of a painter trading oil for watercolor, Fauth wrote that mini-DV was

“…a different medium with different (blurrier) results, with its own aesthetic properties. It’s a choice….

Here’s what Lynch says about it in his upcoming book Catching the Big Fish, under the heading of “DV Quality”:

“The DV camera I currently use is a Sony PD-150, which is a lower quality than HD. And I love this lower quality. I love the small cameras.

“The quality reminds me of the films of the 1930s. In the early days, the emulsion wasn’t so good, so there was less information on the screen. The Sony PD result is a bit like that; it’s nowhere near hi-def. And sometimes, in a frame, if there’s some question about what you’re seeing, or some dark corner, the mind can go dreaming. If everything is crystal clear in that frame, that’s what it is—that’s all it is.

“And high-def, unfortunately, is so crystal clear. I saw a piece of film on the screen in my mixing room shot in high-def; it was some kind of science fiction. And in the background I could see wood screws in what was supposed to be a metal console. It’s going to be far more difficult to build sets for high-def film.”

If you look on YouTube, you’ll see a short that Lynch made before embarking on Inland Empire, featuring some of the same supporting cast. It’s called “Room to Dream.”

MZS: Right.

KU: It’s his video experiment. Eric Rohmer collaborated on a similar short right before he embarked on his own digital production, The Lady and the Duke—that was called La Cambrure (The Curve), and it’s on the Criterion Moral Tales box set. “Room to Dream,” I think, is a great title, because what it’s suggesting—and what some of the Inland Empire interviews with Lynch suggest as well—is that he used the Sony PD-150 because the blotchiness and the darkness of certain areas of the image make people wonder what’s going on there. It’s like you can’t see that part of the frame. It’s imperfect. Room to dream.

MZS: It’s imperfect, and that’s particularly noticeable in wide shots. It’s telling to me that so many people who did not like the movie hammered Lynch for the lack of resolution in the image. Here again, though, we have to ask ourselves, “David Lynch, who is as much a technical perfectionist as Michael Mann, and absolutely as anal as it gets when it comes to composition and lighting, decided to shoot with about the lowest end prosumer video camera, the workhorse of the independent documentary filmmaker—why did he do it?”

KU: Not for the same reasons, I think, that Gary Winick set up the company InDiGent: to essentially make movies on video that they couldn’t afford to make on film. There were more economic reasons behind that decision. With Lynch, I think it was an intentional artistic choice.

MZS: It was an intentional artistic choice. If he’d wanted to, he could have shot on high def. That would have solved the so-called resolution problems and given him some of the freedom that he wanted, but not all of it, because the lighting would need to be subtler and the camera would have to be bigger. He wouldn’t have been able to—and here’s that phrase again—hold it in his hand.

KU: It’s interesting, of course, that both the means of capturing the image and the means of viewing the image can be held in your hand.

MZS: That’s right. You can stand there with your actors and show their work to them almost instantly on the camera’s flip-out monitor without even waiting for a playback from a video tap, which is what they’d use to check their work on film shoots. That not only lends a sense of intimacy and momentum that doesn’t exist on film shoots, or even high-def shoots, it encourages a more free-flowing collaboration between the directors and the actors, who are more likely to suggest dramatic changes in a scene or a sequence knowing that it won’t be quite as time-consuming or expensive to change things up as it would have been on a film shoot.

I want to come back to the lack of resolution, though, because I think it’s a make-or-break proposition in Inland Empire. What are the things that lack of resolution does for Inland Empire? Chief among them is that it lends a certain haziness, an indistinctness, to the entire movie. For me, Inland Empire comes closer to the sensation of remembering a dream than any movie I’ve ever seen in my life. And I’m not talking about the act of dreaming, which none of us can truthfully testify to, because all we have to go on is our memory when we’re awake, and that’s always hazy. We may describe a dream as “intense,” but what are we talking about? Not necessarily the visuals. More likely the emotions, which we’re also remembering later, not experiencing present-tense. For me, I find that when I try to recall a dream, certain images are a little bit fuzzy and, on top of that, they may take on the form and the look of whatever media I was experiencing before I went to sleep: movies, television, etc.

Lynch understands this. When he puts dots over people’s faces so that you don’t quite know who you’re seeing or what they’re involved in, or when the movie’s lack of resolution reminds you of surveillance footage or a homemade porn tape, or a reality TV show—there are scenes following Laura Dern in and around her house that intentionally seem designed to recall reality TV shows—this, too, is intentional.

KU: I think we should discuss something you pointed out to me, which is that Inland Empire was not simply shot and then projected on video. It was shot on video and then transferred to film.

MZS: That’s right. There are qualities to Inland Empire that cannot be produced by film alone, that cannot be produced simply by projecting video directly onto a screen. You can only achieve them by combining film and video. Lynch knows this, too; there are hues and textures in Inland Empire that I’ve never seen before in any movie, film or video. He’s not just pushing the properties of film or video, he’s pushing both of them, to see what he can come up with. I’m curious to see, when this movie comes on DVD, if it’s going to be a transfer of the film print of the video, or if it’s going to be a straight transfer of the video itself, without the intercession of film. Knowing Lynch, I suspect it’s going to be the former.

KU: Video and film together.

MZS: Yeah. I think so. A film print of the video. The filmmaker Greg Pak, who has a great site called Film Help.com, has written quite extensively about film-to-video transfer. On the post-production menu of the site, there a useful “Case study” of transferring Pak’s Mini-DV feature Robot Stories to 35mm film. Pak talks about the chemical process of exposing film—how no matter what you’re putting on celluloid, even if it’s a record of a video image, the celluloid itself somehow alchemizes the image. Pak writes:

“Transferring to film gave the black parts of the images true blackness. So I found that when watching close-ups of characters, I could lose myself in their eyes. I wasn’t looking at the image; I was looking into it.”

The process brings out things that were not visible to you when you were just looking at it on a tape. It’s almost like it fills in the blanks to the degree that it can. And it makes the result a hybrid. It’s not film, it’s not video, it’s something else.

Lynch will, I’m sure, shoot again on video. He’ll probably, despite his statements to the contrary, shoot again on film as well. Either way, it’s important to talk about this stuff, because when you do, you can’t help getting pulled away from the old binary distinctions: either video or film. You also force yourself not to take the word “medium” for granted when having these sorts of discussions.

When people talk about the “medium” of cinema, it’s understood that they’re talking about celluloid. But I think the word “medium” confuses the issue because there are two different ways to look at the word “medium.” We can take it to mean the actual substance that is used to fix a work of art, whether it’s celluloid or, say, oil paint, or watercolor. Or we can talk about a means of transmitting ideas—in which case what we’re talking about isn’t the physical substance of film, but the language of film, the language of cinema.

When I use the word “medium” to describe cinema, I’m talking about a visual language in which shots and cuts are used to tell a story or convey an idea or emotion. I’m not talking about the physical substance of celluloid. To think that the essence of cinema is bound up in celluloid is a mistake, one that we’re going to look back on in 20 years and think that we were very retrograde to have embraced. To me it’s a semantic blunder that leads to a conceptual one. It’s like saying the essence of literature is paper or, more precisely, that the essence of visual art is oil painting. The essence of visual art is not oil painting; the essence of visual art is visual art. Visual art can be made of oil paint, or it can be crayon. In the case of Inland Empire, Rembrandt decided to work with crayons.

KU: As far as painting goes, we’re always told that there is a historically recorded Renaissance, and I wonder if—towards the end of that period, whenever people decided it was—there were a bunch of “Death of Painting” treatises? And of course, did painting die? No. It’s still ongoing, which suggests to me that movies will continue as well, in a variety of forms and formats.

MZS: It may be possible that what we perceive as death is in fact just one stage in our evolution. I don’t think that the current establishment of critics whose tastes and opinions were formed in the ‘60s and ‘70s are going to rush to embrace this notion. And there are a lot of younger critics who I think adhere to that school of thought as well—Mike D’Angelo, for instance, who’s about my age, and with whom I’ve argued this topic. His enthusiasm for Sin City notwithstanding, he’s very much a “celluloid equals cinema” type of guy.

Such preconceived notions are only natural considering that for the first 100 years of its existence, cinema was a story recorded on celluloid, shown in a dark theater to a paid audience of strangers. The generation that was born after 1980 does not automatically equate that with cinema. They grew up with videotape. They grew up with cable television and later with DVDs. They are used to popular entertainment, moving pictures, being available to them in a form that they can hold in their hands, a form that they can put in their backpack, in their pocket, or load up on their computer. They don’t have any less appreciation for the language of cinema than their elders—they’re just not encumbered by the preconceived notions.

4. PARADIGMS LOST

KU: You talked about the establishment having a certain view. I question myself if the alternatives to the establishment are even living up to their “alternativeness,” for lack of a better descriptor, in discussing these issues. I feel terms like “establishment” and “alternative” are a somewhat antiquated product of the ‘60s and ‘70s that have managed to persist and linger. I wonder if that dichotomy is more harmful now.

MZS: Well, it is. It’s a little embarrassing at this point to still be debating the issue of whether or not a movie is less of a movie because it was shot with a camcorder; and whether television can be art; and whether series television is inherently less worthy of attention than, say, your typical mainstream Hollywood genre film. People who catch themselves talking in those terms should cringe and correct themselves, because it’s 20th century thinking.

KU: I think this connects to the Caveh Zahedi thing I keep mentioning to you, that back-and-forth on Zahedi’s blog between the filmmaker and Nathan Lee, who reviewed Zahedi’s movie I Am a Sex Addict for The New York Times. Lee categorized the film as a “minor triumph of sincerity,” which Zahedi interpreted as meaning that his movie was a minor work. In their exchange, Lee clarified, “’A minor triumph of sincerity’ was not meant as a backhanded compliment. ’Triumph’ isn’t a word I use lightly, modified or not. There is a triumphant quality to your cine-confession (no small feat), the defining quality of which I take to be sincerity. ’Major,’ however, the film is not (in my estimation), and a step too close to lazy blurb whoring. I hedged the phrase to calibrate my opinion with exactitude, not superiority.’”

Later, Zahedi came back with this:

“As for the major/minor thing, it all depends on what one values in a film. What do you, personally, consider major?

“For me, what constitutes a major as opposed to a minor work is something that embodies a paradigm shift. It has very little to do with a certain notion of quality or craft. Warhol embodies, it seems to me, a very radical paradigm shift, whereas the quality or craft of his films is arguably quite low. Spielberg is, I think, a minor artist, because despite the undeniable quality and craft of his films, none of them embody a truly radical paradigm shift. This is why Godard is a major filmmaker and Chabrol a minor one, or why Weerasethakul is a major filmmaker and Ang Lee a minor one, despite his obvious talent.

“The reason I disagree with you on the major/minor issue is because I believe that my films, despite their undeniable weaknesses and limitations, embody a paradigm shift.

“John Pierson once said of one of my films: “I don’t even know if one can call it a film.” This hurt my feelings at the time, but looking back on it, I think it was a great compliment.

“The problem with any paradigm shift is that it is inevitably seen through the misprision of the previous operative paradigm, and is thus inevitably misread.

“This was true of Warhol’s films, certainly, but also, to a lesser extent, of the films of Godard and Weerasethakul.

“My contention is that you do not in fact really and truly understand my film because despite your perspicaciousness, you are still seeing it through the looking glass of a previous paradigm, and the film represents something paradigmatically new in the cinematic landscape, something for which there are not yet any viable categories.”

I think the paradigm shift Zahedi mentions is of crucial importance. As critics, as viewers, as fellow artists, if we’re talking about minor and major works, then we’re missing something.

MZS: That’s true. It’s like when Altman accepted his honorary Oscar last year and said, “To me, I’ve just made one long film.”

This all feeds into the idea of a continuity of experience that occurs on two sides of the realm—in the life of the artist and in the hearts of the spectator. That continuum, I think, has become increasingly clear with the explosion of Internet film criticism. What you see when you read Internet film criticism is criticism that is not constrained by word count. You don’t have to cram it into 30 or 60 seconds or less, like a lot of TV-based reviewers do. The presence or absence of a still picture illustrating the text, or the decision to run the piece on the front of the section versus inside—none of this stuff has any bearing anymore, it’s all about the content of the piece. Not only can you go long if you want, you can do multiple posts on the same film, or on the same director. You can write about a movie that’s 30 or 40 years old and connect it to something today, and nobody can say boo to you. You can illustrate your essay with frame grabs, to indicate visually exactly what it is that you’re talking about. Or you can refer readers to YouTube if there’s a relevant clip up there. Or if you have a lot of server space you can pull your own clip and hope the studio doesn’t sue you.

What we’re talking about here is an ever-evolving experience of media. You don’t so much consume it as dip into it. It has no beginning. It has no end. It has no past. It has no future. It is in that continuous present that you talked about in your Miami Vice review. For an internet critic like, say, Dennis Cozzalio, an old film directed by Robert Aldrich and the new Peter Jackson version of King Kong are equally present-tense. Dennis is a little bit older than me—he just has the reckless adventurousness of a college kid in this respect. Internet-based criticism doesn’t just encourage this type of thinking, it demands it. To be an Internet-based critic is to be free of previous paradigms—except the new ones that you can’t see right now, because you and other Internet critics are actively in the process of constructing them.

5. CANON FODDER

KU: Your saying that reminds me of something I read in the Rosenbaum/Adrian Martin-edited book Movie Mutations, where Rosenbaum said, “… a big stage in my education about Iran was learning from Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa how Bresson could speak directly to the experience of post-revolutionary Iran—not only in A Man Escaped (1956), which deals directly with the French Occupation and Resistance, but more generally through the notion of souls in hiding.” I think that touches on what you’re getting at with the eternal present idea: movies are not just enslaved to the periods in which they come out in.

MZS: Right, and that automatically strikes a major blow to the idea of a hierarchy or a canon.

KU: Did you read Paul Schrader’s canon article in Film Comment?

MZS: I did.

KU: And how did you feel about that?

MZS: I think Paul Schrader needs to get out more.

KU: (laughs) Well I guess that pretty much settles it. Ryland Knight and I were talking about it. He disagreed with a lot of what Schrader had to say, but he felt that it was intentionally written as something that would spark debate, and so on that level it was worthy of consideration.

MZS: I think any critic who provokes an argument or discussion is doing at least part of their job right so, yeah, I commend Schrader for that, but again we’re talking about, to borrow Zahedi’s phrasing, a filmmaker viewing new paradigms through the lens of what he’s always known. I mean, this is a guy who has very eclectic tastes in genres and in periods, but when you look at his picks for the Schrader canon, we’re still talking for the most part about classical narrative models.

KU: And we’re losing people like Stan Brakhage and Andy Warhol.

MZS: And we’re implicitly excluding filmmakers who do radical things within the context of formats that are quite well-established. Circling back to where we were a minute ago, I think that to have been made within the commercial exhibition system, Miami Vice and Inland Empire are, hands down, the two most radical works of popular culture to have appeared on American screens in 2006. Nothing else comes close.

On this wonderful blog called “My Five Year Plan”, the film critic Brendon Bouzard suggests how—and you kinda got at some of this in your review, too—that in Mann’s films, the basic aesthetic unit is not the scene, not the sequence, not the shot, but the moment. The moment can be defined as that wonderful cutaway of those kids’ legs passing in front of the hubcap when Crockett and Isabella are obliquely discussing their future. Or it can be the final shootout, which I believe clocks in at eight or so minutes; that whole sequence counts as a moment in my book. I’m talking about an attempt to obliterate traditional concepts of time, traditional concepts of a storytelling unit or of a three-act structure or of an arc or of a goal-directed narrative or even an idea of an individual, discrete personality that’s not an extension of the environment. You know how in Mann, as in Malick’s films, and as in Wong Kar-wai’s films, the universe seems to be flowing in and out of these characters, and kind of jerking them around like puppets on a string? This is not an arbitrary, “artsy” storytelling tic. It’s a philosophical position. It’s an artist’s direct response to cultural and technological changes that are happening all over the world, changes that are altering not just the means by which we experience and evaluate popular entertainment, but the thought processes by which we define ourselves as individuals and as a species.

Picking Miami Vice as his #1 movie of 2006, Bouzard writes:

Miami Vice is an absolutely critical work on the nature of identity in a globalizing society…Form and function offer perfect balance—the slickness, the flatness of the film’s digital compositions—the way the infinite expanses of Miami skyline captured by Dion Beebe’s ViperStream cameras seem to recede into palpable abandon. Are we all surface? Is there any inner life to be found anymore, or are we crude automatons? How do we find our own redemption?”

He goes on to write:

“It’s the only film of the year that truly attempts (and succeeds) in bargaining new syntactical approaches to cinematic language. It moves so far beyond the formal confines of its genre and mode of production that it feels entirely rare—this is the movie Mann has spent his entire career moving toward, [and was] only able to produce because of past successes. Never again will he be granted as much freedom as he is here, and he knows it—he uses every frame of the film, every beat, to flesh out an entirely self-contained universe teetering between surrealism and brutalism. Miami Vice is the most exploratory and revolutionary work of its year. And it’s my favorite. I’m consumed by it emotionally and enthralled by its explosive energies.”

These are all very valid and very important things to be getting at, and the fact that Mann is doing it in the cops ’n’ robbers movie is mind-boggling. We’re moving beyond geography, beyond space, beyond time, beyond race and ethnicity. Nobody knows where we’re going, but in their own way, movies like Miami Vice are reflecting the collective journey. They’re not just regurgitating the same structures, the same assumptions.

KU: You’re talking about movies made in the Hollywood model, the popular culture model, that are avant-garde in various ways. I know you have a great deal of love right now for The Good Shepherd, so where does that fit in?

MZS: Well, The Good Shepherd is an oil painting. And I love me some good oil paintings. I know it’s a cliche and every fucking critic in the country has probably said it by this point, but it’s the truth: it’s a Godfather movie. And it’s about the unacknowledged, invisible upper layer of our world, the true ruling class in this country, which is propertied WASP males and the institutions they’ve constructed around themselves. That is a hierarchy that has eroded somewhat over the decades, but that’s still essentially running things. The fact that this movie gets at it—and gets at the idea of an ethnic and class pecking order, and a gender pecking order, and a geographical pecking order, and insists that these are all facts of life that are going to erode slowly, if at all—is as impressive in its own way as Miami Vice and Inland Empire, which are much more radical in their form.

KU: So there needs to be room for films that are advancing things aesthetically. But is The Good Shepherd advancing things or is it adhering to something that’s already been done, but doing it very well?

MZS: I think it’s the latter. But at the same time it does kind of circle back around to what we’re talking about, which is the idea of time, of historical periods, of discreet chapters in American history being arbitrary markers that are often enforced in order to get us to forget, to put things behind us, to believe that a certain era was different than the one we’re living in now. That’s what I mean when I say that this a politically radical movie, for a mainstream movie. It’s about what happened in a particular era, but it’s also about what keeps happening. It’s not about what’s changed, it’s about what’s never changed. Stylistically, it’s not even as adventurous as, say, The Battle of Algiers or Army of Shadows, but to be a $60 or $70 million Hollywood movie chock full of stars, playing in multiplexes all over North America, it’s mad crazy 1975 radical.

KU: Let’s bring this around to distribution. Does The Good Shepherd only work within the context of the Hollywood business model context, the multiplex model, or as a personal experience? Do you feel that it would work as well on your iPod?

MZS: I think it would, because so much of the story is told through juxtaposition of shots, many of them are close-ups, and also it’s a heavily-narrated movie—a lot of the information is conveyed through dialogue. So yes, I think it would probably work on an iPod. Something essential would be lost because the photography is so dark, and so far the iPod does not handle high contrast very well. Gordon Willis is fucked on an iPod.

But to answer what I think is your larger question, no, I would never say that a work is inherently less worthy of note because it doesn’t advance the ball aesthetically for cinema, whatever we define that to mean. But I do think that there needs to be a level playing field. And I think that there is an unfortunate, in some cases almost unconscious strain of thought in criticism in this country that penalizes people who take risks with form of any kind, who deviate in any way from the classical Hollywood model, however you define it. In Miami Vice there were complaints that the characters were thinly drawn and that the story was hard to follow, and that there was a lot of time spent on things that didn’t advance the plot. To which I respond, “Yes, and so what?” Let’s not penalize risotto for not being a cheeseburger.

Again we come back to the intent of the artists. When you engage with any work of art, particularly a work of art that’s trying to do something even marginally different from what’s come before, you first have to meet the artist on his terms, not yours, and ask yourself what is the artist trying, intentionally, to do here. Why are they making the choices they’re making? Is it a happy or unhappy accident? Is it incompetence? Or is there perhaps a conscious aesthetic strategy? That’s why I bring up the deliberate mismatching of grain in night shots in Miami Vice and the fact that there are some important scenes between characters in that movie where the focus on one of them is slightly soft. In addition to the other things Bouzard lays out in his writing on the movie, Mann is calling your attention to the video-ness of video. It’s like he is trying to undermine, in some cases even destroy, our assumptions about what a good movie is, in order to reveal that there is more to a good movie than a nice crane shot or a kind of classical mise en scène, or a three-act structure, or a goal-directed narrative about a hero’s progress.

6. NEW CARRIAGES, OLD ROADS

KU: Where did this idea of the classical narrative come from? Is it traceable back to Griffith? Is it really a product of the studio system? Are people too influenced by ‘70s filmmaking at this point?

MZS: No I don’t think so. But people who hold up the Boomers’ formative moviegoing years as the aesthetic peak of filmmaking conveniently forget that most of the ‘70s movies that we know and love were basically classically structured, linear narratives. There are certain exceptions to that—off the top of my head, some of Antonioni’s work, 2001, All That Jazz, that wonderful Stanley Donen picture Two for the Road, Point Blank. I know you could cite a lot more examples. Still, many of the movies that we think of as highlights of ‘60s and ‘70s and early ‘80s cinema, including work by Spielberg and Scorsese and Coppola and Hal Ashby and Arthur Penn and other giants, are, by the standards of Miami Vice or Inland Empire, pretty conservatively directed. Most of them even have a neatly regimented three-act structure that Syd Field could teach in a class.

This is not to denigrate those films in any way—a lot of them are great, great movies—but rather to suggest that there’s more than one way to skin a cat, and the cat’s been skinned mostly one way for so long, and critics have been explicitly or implicitly sending the message that there’s only one way, that a lot of viewers out there have absolutely no idea that there are alternatives, however modest. These great ‘60s and ‘70s and early ‘80s movies I’m talking about were products of the same mindset as films from Hollywood’s so-called Golden Age, the 1940s. They’re products of the very same mindset that made movies possible as a popular phenomenon—which is to say, an assembly line mindset, characteristic of a wealthy, industrialized nation. Filmmakers who worked outside the system had to try to either adhere to that model or fight against it and define themselves in opposition to it—and that was never easy.

There was a New York Times Magazine story many years ago about how standards are established. It was about why Microsoft’s computer operating system was the dominant one at the time. Along the way it talked about why roads were a particular width. I really fixated on this part of the article because it explained so much more than roads. All over the world, the article said, roads are more or less the same width, and they’ve been the same width as long as there have been automobiles. Before that, they were the same width when there were horses and wagons being drawn on them. The standard width of a road goes back to the construction of the earliest roads thousands of years ago. They were built wide enough to accommodate one wagon—or for a major thoroughfare, two wagons, one going in each direction. Because the underlying structures of transportation had been decided upon and literally laid down, any future upgrades of roads, and any future innovations in transportation technology, had to take the standards into account, because it was simply too expensive and too bothersome and too mindblowing to redefine what a road was. All these factors combined to make it impossible for a person to just wake up one morning and suddenly say, “I think I want to make a carriage that’s one meter wider than the norm.” If you do that, you’re not gonna be able to drive on the road.

These are the same realities that have governed filmmaking, commercial filmmaking, all over the world for a hundred years. The technical, material and aesthetic standards have been laid down. The industry, the media and audiences are all used to them. If, so to speak, you decide to design a car that doesn’t fit on the road, or perhaps a vehicle that’s not designed to drive on roads at all, you pay the price. If, like Zahedi, you make a movie that embodies a paradigm shift, however minor, it’s harder to convince people to loan you money to make it, it’s harder to shoot it and finish it, it’s harder to sell it to distributors, it’s harder to get it mentioned in the media, and it’s harder to get it seen.

KU: Although the boundaries seem to be breaking. It’s like the knife has been slipped in without a lot of people even realizing it. Miami Vice is, I think, an avant-garde movie and it’s bankrolled and made in a commercial context, which is rather incredible. But there are probably a lot of examples of that. It’s also knocking down ideas about plot, and how plot functions within a movie, asking if the story needs to come to a completely satisfying end. Maybe the fact that the story falls apart can be part of what makes a movie great. This is the case, to my mind, with The Black Dahlia. There, as in much of James Ellroy’s fiction, the plot tends to get lost, but because the plot gets lost the lead character or characters come to the forefront.

MZS: Well, form ought to always follow function, and I think form absolutely follows function in that movie. The Black Dahlia is another movie that I would call radical, because the function of the movie is to tell a story from a singular point of view, literally from inside the head of this character of Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett). And it’s a story that’s colored not just by Bucky’s emotions in the moment as he experiences those events for the first time, but also as he recollects them later. He’s revising his own feelings towards his experiences as he tells us the story, and that accounts for the movie’s shifts in tone within a sequence or scene or even within a particular shot. It accounts for the shifts in style, and in some cases the ellipses in the narrative. Those are qualities that The Black Dahlia has common with Miami Vice and INLAND EMPIRE: they all find ways to obliterate our sense of time and space. They all take place in what you’ve called “a perpetual present,” where everything from narrative to emotion to our sense of time itself is in a constant state of flux.

KU: Both novel and film are set up as stories that the Bleichert character feels can be resolved. The ultimate tragedy—if you want to call it a tragedy (maybe it’s a triumph, or maybe it’s both simultaneously)—is that he realizes it can’t be resolved. Everything he knows is a quagmire and clusterfuck that he, and we, just have to navigate.

MZS: Right, or as Ellroy is fond of saying, “Closure is bullshit.” And I think if you put Miami Vice and INLAND EMPIRE and The Black Dahlia on a triple bill, in many ways they’d feel like brothers—or sisters, as the case may be. Certainly there’s no substitute for a neat, efficient forward-moving, well-told story. I love the Coen Brothers and{C}—with a couple of exceptions{C}—that’s all they make. Hitchcock only makes that kind of movie, for the most part, and when he doesn’t{C}—for example, Psycho{C}—boy do you notice. But it bugs me that what is arguably, in its overall aesthetic, De Palma’s most radical, big-budget movie got basically bitch-slapped in this country. There was a similar critical befuddlement—not universal, but pretty widespread—over Miami Vice. Even a lot of the reviews that liked it dismissed it as a glamorous, empty-headed fashion show, and didn’t take any notice of the filmmaking or what Mann might be trying to say with it.

KU: I find that when I watch these video films, or video movies, that are coming out, my feelings and emotions are engaged in ways that I haven’t experienced before, that are really very new to me, and I’m loving navigating it. I think what critics need to have is a curiosity about every era that they are going through. I also believe that with each piece you write, you need to reinvent the wheel. To take account of where you are in the world and where the world is in relation to you. I don’t think Denby did that in his New Yorker piece. I think he was trying to be a reporter, in the sense of, “I go out and I interview people, and I use their quotes to support something that I’ve believed since 1980.” You know what? I’m gonna say 1977, because I see he mentions Star Wars in the article as another divisive marker, and I think that needs to stop. The idea that Star Wars killed the movies is ridiculous.

MZS: If you go back and look at Star Wars now, it looks as classical as Casablanca. It seems slow, square and linear. At the time there were criticisms that it was too fast, too shallow, not interested in character. These criticisms were leveled against Spielberg’s movies in the ‘70s as well.

7. “I CAN’T WAIT TO GET HOME AND CHOP SOME WOOD.”

KU: Bringing it back to Lynch, I think that before INLAND EMPIRE, his best movie was Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. That was so insanely radical for the medium of film, and I think with INLAND EMPIRE he has just gone into some kind of new stratosphere.

MZS: None of us have caught up to Lynch yet. And why do you think he seems to be in such a great mood? He fuckin’ knows it.

KU: But I don’t get the sense that he lords it over everyone. I think he genuinely, selflessly wants people to come to where he is.

MZS: I think so too. He has a very generous spirit.

KU: I often think of a video I saw on his Transcendental Meditation site where he was being introduced at a seminar by a friend of his who said (paraphrased), “I was riding in the car with David just the other day. He turned to me at one point and said, ’You know, I really can’t wait to get home and chop some wood.’ And I asked, ’What do you mean, David?’ And he said, ’What do you mean, what do I mean? I can’t wait to get home and chop some wood.’”

MZS: (hysterical laughter) Well that’s about as in the moment as you can get.

KU: He wants to chop some wood. You know that’s the kind of mindset that I admire and try to emulate—the simple pleasures and profundities.

MZS: I want to double back on something that you mentioned, when you talked about how you find that movies shot on video seem to be more engaging or more intimate in some way. I have to think a lot of that is because the camera doesn’t just record light, it records emotion. And any professional actor who has worked on a traditional film shoot and then worked on a run-’n’-gun movie that was shot on video will tell you that it’s more exciting to work on video because there’s less of a machine rumbling along. There’s less money at stake. There are fewer people standing over your shoulder. The collaboration between the director and the cast is more intimate, more spontaneous, and it’s just more open. It’s very spontaneous, and I think that sense of immediacy that you get is because they’re in the moment, truly in the moment, and they’re not thinking, “Holy shit, I’ve got three tries to get this right, otherwise we blow our day.” I wonder if that sense of freedom and excitement isn’t somehow captured in the images themselves.

KU: But let’s bring that back to something like Superman Returns, which cost upwards of $180 million, but was shot on video. Is that an example of video trying to be film? Or do you think that that also has a hit-’n’-run kind of quality?

MZS: Oh certainly not, because there were so many special effects involved that that thing had to be planned down to the millisecond.

KU: Just because you shoot on video doesn’t necessarily mean that it is a hit and run thing. To me, it’s another choice on the artist’s palette.

MZS: It is another choice on the palette. And it’s a much more economically and logistically friendly choice, for almost every filmmaker. And I think as resolution improves{C}—and here’s another thing that the cinema-equals-film adherents are just gonna have to face up to—as the hi-definition video image keeps improving, and as the process of editing and manipulating the image becomes more sophisticated, directors are going to be able to simulate any kind of film stock that they want. It’s a matter of time. Right now you can go through Photoshop and make a digital picture that you shot last week look like an 1880s Matthew Brady photograph, and if you’re not somebody who’s spent time in a darkroom, you’d never know. A synthesizer can call up sampled horns—stored recordings of actual brass—and create a new sequence that is actually made with real horns, but assembled in a computer, and who the fuck would know it’s not “real,” except for an audio engineer? Eventually{C}—I don’t know when, but could be five years, could be 10, could be 20—post-production software will be able to do an incredible simulation of film with digital video, if that’s what the director wants. You’ll be able to choose what speed film you want, whether it’s Kodak or Fuji, and whether the film is fresh out of the can or if it’s damaged from sitting in the trunk of somebody’s car for ten years.

KU: But do you think that maybe we do know subconsciously with certain of these things? Can we really be fooled that it’s not film?

MZS: Well, possibly—if we’re looking for tell-tale signs. I think you can still make a case that vinyl sounds warmer than a CD. There are still people who can distinguish the sound of a digital recording of a scratchy vinyl record from the actual record being played. After a point, though, such distinctions become interesting mainly to technical obsessives, because the essence of the work lies elsewhere. On CD, the sound quality is so amazing{C}—so deep and so subtle in ways that elude vinyl{C}—that in a general sense, you gotta give the edge to CDs. And over and above that, these distinctions are academic, because you don’t have a choice. Unless you’re a band that wants to make a vanity statement by putting something out on vinyl or perhaps hoping that a DJ will pick it up and use it in a club, there’s absolutely no reason to record anything to vinyl, and everybody knows that. It’s a nostalgic act, and you know what? The listeners don’t care anymore. You can treat that as a tragedy if you want, or you can simply accept it as a fact, and realize there is more to music than the substance it’s recorded on.

KU: So comes a point where it’s better to accept the mutation, to deal with it and move on?

MZS: Yeah. And I don’t think our accepting it or rejecting it makes any difference to the mutation. I mean, we don’t really have a say in this. No one ever had a say in it. We don’t need to be worrying about this so much because when we talk about cinema, we’re not talking about a substance, we are talking about a language. And what can you do with a language? You can do whatever you want.

Matt Zoller Seitz is editor-in-chief and publisher of The House Next Door, a contributor to the The New York Times film section, and a former columnist for NYPress and The Star-Ledger. Keith Uhlich is managing editor of The House Next Door, a staff critic for Slant Magazine, and a contributor to a variety of print and online publications.

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

Netflix will release the series on May 31.

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When They See Us
Photo: Netflix

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

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

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

According to the official description of the series:

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

See the trailer below:

Netflix will release When They See Us on May 31.

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

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

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The Curse of La Llorona
Photo: Warner Bros.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Reinventing Hollywood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Film

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

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

2.5

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Someone Great
Photo: Netflix

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

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

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

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

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

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Festivals

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

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

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Pain and Glory
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Features

The 2019 TCM Classic Film Festival

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

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TCM Classic Film Festival
Photo: John Nowak

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Film

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

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

2.5

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Instant Dreams
Photo: Synergetic Distribution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Film

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

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

2.5

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Rafiki
Photo: Film Movement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2

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Under the Silver Lake
Photo: A24

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2

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Little Woods
Photo: Neon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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