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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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Review: Days of Cannibalism Bears Witness to a Culture War, Western Style

The film ultimately depicts a world in which people are left with no other option but to devour their own.

3.5

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Days of Cannibalism
Photo: Berlinale

A frontier story about the tension between settlers and natives, director Teboho Edkins’s Days of Cannibalism may technically be a documentary, but at heart it’s a western. Filmed in and around a small cattle-herding community in Lesotho, where Chinese immigrants have recently begun to settle and open up various types of stores, the film is packed with mythopoeic vistas of men on horseback roaming through fearsome yet spectacular mountain landscapes—shots that feel like they could’ve been cribbed straight from an Anthony Mann oater. There are scenes of cattle rustling, banditry, and frontier justice, as well as a Leone-esque vision of a town riven by suspicion, resentment, and racial hostility.

Edkins’s artistic project here isn’t simply to make a documentary that feels like a genre film, but rather to use the trappings of the western to explore the power dynamics at play on the extreme margins of global capitalism. Edkins’s former film professor at the dffb Film Academy in Berlin, Valeska Grisebach, has described the western as “a film about a space in which the rules are still in flux, and the balance of power is in negotiation.” And that struggle for authority and dominance is precisely what Days of Cannibalism explores.

Edkins casts the local Basotho people as “indians” and the Chinese migrants as the “pioneers,” but he then spends much of the film problematizing these distinctions. The Basotho are neither the bloodthirsty savages of early westerns nor the forlorn, eternally wronged victims of the genre’s revisionist period. Rather, they’re basically just ordinary people struggling to find a sense of equilibrium in a fast-changing world that seems to be leaving them behind.

The spiritual significance that the Basotho impute to cattle—cows are even referred to as the “wet-nosed god”—may at first seem like superstitious animism. But the belief turns out to also have a ruthlessly economic basis, as we see when some local men, who’ve turned to cattle rustling after being unable to find work, are hit with a lengthy prison sentence for the crime of stealing a couple of cows. Their crime isn’t a spiritual one so much as a social one: As the judge informs them, to steal a cow is to steal a community member’s livelihood.

Days of Cannibalism reveals the Chinese immigrants’ unwillingness to understand the Basotho people’s cow-herding practices as one of the major sources of resentment between the two groups. The immigrants make money by setting up small shops, as well as Walmart-like “wholesale stores.” “The Chinese have no idea how to take care of cattle,” one Lesotho herder angrily laments. Another more rueful local—the host of a radio show that interweaves pop music with thoughtful discussions of issues impacting the community—wonders why the Chinese immigrants can’t teach the locals how to set up shops in exchange for the Lesotho training them in the ways of cattle-herding. Instead, the two groups remain hopelessly alienated from each other, rarely interacting outside of business transactions.

But this isn’t a clear-cut tale of settler colonialism. The Chinese people who come to this underdeveloped corner of the globe don’t do so with any grand scheme of displacement and exploitation, as they’ve also been shunted aside by the savage machinery of globalization. In Lesotho, which is surrounded by South Africa, they simply seek to carve out some kind of life for themselves. With its microcosmic focus on this one particular community, the film exposes the brutal dynamics that undergird a globalist system that pits not only nation against nation, but people against each other. The violence of the system simmers beneath the surface of Days of Cannibalism until it finally boils over in a scene, captured in security camera footage, of an armed robbery at a wholesale store. As its title suggests, the film ultimately depicts a world in which people are left with no other option but to devour their own.

Days of Cannibalism had its world premiere last month at the Berlin International Film Festival and was slated to screen at the now-delayed New Directors/New Films. For sales information, please contact Indie Sales.

Director: Teboho Edkins Screenwriter: Teboho Edkins Running Time: 78 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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The 100 Best Westerns of All Time

The western has proved itself a durable and influential way of talking about the human condition.

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The 100 Best Westerns of All Time
Photo: United Artists

The classic western was conceived from an undeniably Euro-centric, colonial perspective, with white characters upholding their supposed birthright of freedom and property. In the western, the immense country beyond the Mississippi River figures at once as the sublime object that exceeds the human grasp and as a quantifiable possession. And the prototypical cowboy straddles these paradoxical poles: at home on the dusty, timeless landscape, but also facilitating its incorporation into a society marching toward the Pacific. In 1925’s Tumbleweeds, the herder hero played by William S. Hart reluctantly makes way for the newly arrived homesteaders; in 1953’s Shane, Alan Ladd’s eponymous character rides off after making the West safe for the American family; and in Sergio Leone’s 1968 opus Once Upon a Time in the West, Jason Robards’s Cheyenne sacrifices his life not to end the expansion of the American empire, but to facilitate a more just one.

But this standard narrative mold, to paraphrase John Ford’s 1962 classic The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, only represents the printed legend. The historical American West was more diverse and less male-dominated than the one Hollywood imagined for many years. Life in the Western territories demanded just as many determined women as it did men, and suffragettes had their first major victories in the West: Wyoming was the first state to grant women the vote, and the first to have a woman governor. A third of all cowboys herding cattle on the Great Plains were black—a fact that’s only surprising until you consider which groups were most in need of self-reliant vocation and freedom from the long arm of the law in the wake of the Civil War. Every once in a while, these historical realities break through the filtered screen of the Hollywood western: Joan Crawford and Marlene Dietrich play no-nonsense saloon owners in Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar and Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious, respectively, and Sidney Poitier’s often overlooked Buck and the Preacher from 1972 is one of the too-few films that are centered around black frontiersmen.

When Europeans, influenced by decades of dime novels and Hollywood flicks, got around to making westerns, the resulting films would be part of this swing toward revisionism. By this time, European filmmakers were coping with the aftermath of the most devastating conflict in human history, and Italian westerns like Sergio Corbucci’s The Great Silence and Leone’s The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly are infused with the lived-in existentialism of postwar Europe. In them, the American West becomes an otherworldly wasteland of pure brutality and diminished—rather than heightened—agency. Europeans’ estrangement of western film tropes would help spur a revisionist take on the standards of the genre that infuses films produced to this day.

However, for all the observations that such “postmodern” westerns are about the end of the West—in Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales and elsewhere, represented by the arrival of new technologies like the Gatling gun—the western has always been about endings. It’s no coincidence that the genre’s proverbial image is that of a figure “riding off into the sunset.” The American frontier was declared closed after the 1890 census, a decade before the first western on our list (Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery) was produced. Right-wing New Hollywood directors like Sam Peckinpah, Don Siegel, and Eastwood have tended to identify this perpetual fading of the West with the decline of a virile and violent, but honorable masculinity.

The bloodbaths that end films like Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch arguably represent what Freud would have called “screen memories,” a compromise between repressed memory and images we’ve invented to defend ourselves against terrible truths. The true bloodbaths in the West were the military campaigns against Native Americans, genocidal conflicts that many big-budget westerns keep on the margins, with natives appearing as stereotypical noble savages or town drunks. Ford’s films, as often as they rely on racist characterizations, were often the prestige westerns to look most directly at these wars: The Searchers and Fort Apache explore, in their own flawed fashion, the morally degrading racism in their main characters’ hearts. Some decades later, Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves became the paradigm of a post-‘70s cultural sea change: When it comes to “cowboys versus Indians,” the cowboys are no longer the automatic locus of our sympathy.

Today, infusing familiar iconography with new meaning, such revisionist representations of the American West have helped to explode the boundaries of the genre, allowing filmmakers as well as critics to explore cinematic tropes about life on the frontier in non-conventional western narratives. In contemporary films like Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain and Chloé Zhao’s The Rider—and looking back to ones like Victor Sjöström’s The Wind and John Huston’s The Misfits—we can recognize something like a western mode, a broader and more expansive cinematic language that has been suffused by the symbols of the American West. The western has proved itself a durable and influential way of talking about the human condition—one that needs not be confined within the frontiers drawn by the Euro-American colonial imagination. Pat Brown


Drums Along the Mohawk

100. Drums Along the Mohawk (John Ford, 1939)

If John Ford was, per Jonathan Lethem, “a poet in black and white,” he became a sharp impressionist in color. The finely calibrated stillness of his shots, occasionally ravished by the greens, reds, and blues of the colonial wardrobe, gives Drums Along the Mohawk a painterly quality, as if Ford had animated a William Ranney portrait. Each frame radiates rugged beauty, but this doesn’t soften the filmmaker’s no-bull directness when depicting the eruptive landscape of the Revolutionary War. Frontier man Gil (Henry Fonda) and his new wife, Lana Martin (Claudette Colbert), are without a home of their own for most of the film, their first cabin being burned to the ground during an attack, and when Gil and the troops return from the bloody Battle of Oriskany, the director details their immense casualties and injuries with unsparing detail. Chris Cabin


Tombstone

99. Tombstone (George P. Cosmatos, 1993)

Tombstone succeeds by re-appropriating the stylistic quirks of many a great western before it, from “the long walk” of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch to the candlelit saloons of Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs Miller, spitting them out in a spectacle of pure pop pastiche. It tells much the same story as John Ford’s My Darling Clementine, but it reinterprets that film’s mythical, elegiac sense of wonder through bombastic action and performances. There probably isn’t a western as quotable as this one, which also succeeds through its rogues’ gallery of memorable character actors and firecracker script. A drunken Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer), when accused of seeing double, says, “I have two guns, one for each of you.” Wyatt Earp (Kurt Russell), as he pistol-whips Johnny Tyler (Billy Bob Thornton), belts out, “You gonna do something? Or are you just gonna stand there and bleed?” The lines between good and evil blur as the law switches sides to fit the plot. Cliché layers over cliché, exposing what the genre is all about: the foundations of American myth, told again and again to suit each generation. The ‘90s was the remix era and Tombstone fits it perfectly. Ben Flanagan


True Grit

98. True Grit (Henry Hathaway, 1969)

The Duke casts a large shadow in any instance, but especially here. Rooster Cogburn is one of John Wayne’s most identifiable roles, not just because he won an Oscar for it, or because his True Grit is popular, or because he played the character twice (the second time in 1975’s Rooster Cogburn), but mostly because Rooster’s personality is so intertwined with Wayne’s iconic persona. Wayne’s detractors often note that Wayne lacked range, and that, given his consistent trademark drawl, about the only way to distinguish one Wayne character from another is by observing his costume. But while that’s roughly accurate, it doesn’t mean that every character Wayne ever played had a similar effect. His Rooster is one of those special roles that seemed indelibly Wayne’s—because he wore that eye patch so well, because his inherent presence and stature made him a natural to play the “meanest” marshal around, because his inner softness allowed the bond between Rooster and Mattie (Kim Darby) to feel convincing and because Wayne was born to be the cowboy who puts the reins in his teeth and rides toward four armed men with a gun in each hand. Jason Bellamy


Death Rides a Horse

97. Death Rides a Horse (Giulio Petroni, 1967)

In 1967’s boldly cinematic Death Rides a Horse, Giulio Petroni fixates on the inextricable link between a man’s memory and his thirst for vengeance. In the 15 years since watching his entire family get murdered by bloodthirsty bandits, Bill (John Phillip Law) has carried with him a single physical relic of this trauma: a lone spur. His memories, meanwhile, are filled with haunting and vivid reminders of that moment when his life changed forever, but also with specific visual cues related to each of the bandits: a silver earring, a chest tattoo of playing cards, a skull necklace. Bill’s overwhelmingly obsessive quest for revenge takes on an extra layer of perverseness once he’s paired up with the mysterious Ryan (Lee Van Cleef), an older man who playfully competes with Bill to hunt down and kill these same men first. Through an array of carefully crafted visual and aural motifs, and clever, judiciously employed narrative twists, Petroni weaves together these two crusades, building to an explosive finale that delivers equally cathartic doses of redemption and rage. Derek Smith


The Violent Men

96. The Violent Men (Rudolph Maté, 1955)

Polish-born filmmaker Rudolph Maté worked for a little over a decade as a cinematographer in Hollywood before starting to crank out potboilers as a director in the late ‘40s, many of them marked by a distinct pictorial flair. He was a mainstay by the mid-‘50s, and The Violent Men counts among his most ravishingly shot films, and indeed one of the unheralded Technicolor westerns of the golden era. The central California frontier, where the majestic flatland meets the imposing Sierras, has rarely been more reverently photographed, and a single montage of Glenn Ford’s John Parrish galloping from one range to another as Max Steiner’s strings howl on the soundtrack is stirring enough to validate the invention of CinemaScope. Fittingly, the land itself provides the conflict here, with Ford’s Union veteran-cum-landowner trotting out his old fighting spirit when the vicious owners of a neighboring estate—Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson in wonderfully belligerent performances—try to exploit his ranch for pennies. A cathartic war against greed ensues, and the result is finely wrought big-screen entertainment. Carson Lund


Westward the Women

95. Westward the Women (William A. Wellman, 1951)

Based on a story by Frank Capra, William Wellman’s Westward the Women shares the collective triumphalism of Capra’s greatest films but salts it with the grueling hardship and random cruelty that are hallmarks of Wellman’s storytelling. The premise is ludicrous on paper: A large farm in a California valley is suffering a shortage of the fairer sex, so it sends a wagon train headed by Robert Taylor to Chicago to haul back 150 brides for the workers—no short order in the middle of the 19th century. Several treacherous landscapes, bleakly depicted deaths, and a mid-film memorial service later, the plan is fulfilled in grandly hokey fashion, though not without a striking reordering of business-as-usual sexual politics. As the women prove as resilient, if not more so, than the men, ideals of male heroism fall by the cliffside (literally) and members of the ensemble who would normally be relegated to extras emerge as fully shaded and complex heroines. As a result, the film amounts to a portrait of hard-won joy that’s nearly spiritual in its belief in the power of cooperation. Lund


The Gold Rush

94. The Gold Rush (Charles Chaplin, 1925)

What’s surprising when one takes a fresh look at The Gold Rush is how serious it is about depicting the hard life of prospectors. The comic soul of the film is, in fact, quite black, even if Charlie Chaplin exploits every opportunity (beautifully) to transform the environment into a vaudeville stage. Lonely as the wastes are, the town in the film is sinister and lurid, full of sex and violence, despite the fact that Chaplin always seems to find a way to invest in it the personality and tone of his early one-reelers. He makes the town funny but retains its barbarism. Chaplin pursues deliverance not in the miracle of hitting pay dirt, but in the promise of a woman, and it’s this promise that Chaplin would keep after, well into his sync-sound period. Around the film’s midpoint comes a sequence that cuts between the townsfolk singing “Auld Lange Syne,” and the Tramp, alone in his cabin, listening, longingly. It’s as perfect a moment as any other in the great silent period. Some accuse the director of succumbing to sentimentality, but he’s never less sublime than when he reaches for ridiculous, grandiose highs in romance, coincidence, and naked emotion. Jaime N. Christley


Destry Rides Again

93. Destry Rides Again (George Marshall, 1939)

Destry Rides Again’s Bottleneck is essentially the same town as the one in “Drip-Along Daffy.” The opening crane shots of Bottleneck show the standard storefronts that western audiences are accustomed to seeing: feed and general stores, the jail, the Saloon. As the camera moves along the street, we see just about every possible vice happening all at once with bullets whizzing about the crowded streets—and all the while, Frank Skinner’s intense score adds to the feeling of utter lawlessness. Every stereotype of the wild western town is represented in George Marshall’s film: crooked gambling above the saloon, land-hungry town bosses, a hot dancing girl named Frenchy who can douse the fires of her rowdy fans with a shot of whisky, and killin’. Lots of killin’. Back when the western was really coming into its own in 1939, the genre had already been around long enough to warrant this satire. Bottleneck is a parody of the western town. Jeffrey Hill


The Wind

92. The Wind (Victor Sjöström, 1927)

So many late silent films are infused with a delirious energy, a sheer delight in the transportive powers of the cinema, and Sweden’s original film genius, Victor Sjöström, was renowned as a master of subjective, otherworldly moving images. With the hallucinatory The Wind, he delivered his most captivating visual play of subjective and objective realities, casting Dorothy Gish as an East Coast virgin who’s tormented on an ineffable psychical (and ambiguously erotic) level by the overbearing winds of the Great Plains. After circumstances force her into an unwanted marriage, she’s left alone in the small cottage she shares with her unloved husband as the personified wind blows open doors, whips up dust, and…takes the shape of giant stark-white colts who buck across the open sky. In a career-defining role, Gish grounds the film, giving a performance that humanizes the sensational and sensual inner conflict of a woman left alone in a vast, empty wilderness. Brown


Run of the Arrow

91. Run of the Arrow (Samuel Fuller, 1957)

Writer-director Samuel Fuller’s Run of the Arrow stars Rod Steiger as Private O’Meara, a disaffected Confederate soldier who lights out for the western territories, only to wind up living among (and ultimately adopting the ways of) a Native American tribe. Fuller’s typically two-fisted tale essentially prefigures Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves, absent all the bombast and self-aggrandizement. Granted, the film succumbs to the longstanding Hollywood tradition of utilizing a motley crew of decidedly non-native actors in pigment-darkening makeup to portray its Sioux tribe, including a young Charles Bronson and Spanish actress Sara Montiel, but it also endows these characters with a degree of respect and agency practically unprecedented in a 1950s American western. As the film comes full circle with the return of the man O’Meara shot and then saved in the opening scene, Fuller’s story reveals itself as a morality play concerning the destructive nature of hatred and bigotry, as well as a touchingly earnest plea for tolerance. Budd Wilkins

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Review: Vivarium Looks Aloofly at the Nightmare of Conformity

This a parable about adulthood boasts deeply cynical takes on home, community, and childrearing.

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Vivarium
Photo: Saban Films

Lorcan Finnegan’s high-concept sci-fi mystery Vivarium is a parable about adulthood with deeply cynical takes on home, community, and childrearing. Gemma (Imogen Poots) and Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) are a young couple who one afternoon tour a housing development called Yonder with its sales agent, Martin (Jonathan Aris), who dresses like a Mormon missionary. The colorless subdivision is startlingly homogenous, with identical homes in creepily neat rows (shades of Edward Scissorhands), stretching from horizon to horizon. Martin shows them house “number 9,” then disappears, and when they also try to leave the neighborhood, every road circles back to the house until their car runs out of gas. Yonder is, well, not quite even a maze, because there’s no way out. It’s a trap.

The couple is thus ushered into a nightmare of conformity, emphasized by the film’s production design. The streetscapes, often seen from overhead, are vividly and uneasily artificial, suggesting a model town; even the clouds appear painted onto the sky above. The sound design is deathly quiet except for the echoes of Gemma and Tom’s footsteps, evoking a soundstage. Yonder is a windless place, the ultimate in featureless suburbs that young city dwellers fear, where the air is odorless and the strawberries flavorless. There are no neighbors and no friends, just forced isolation—an extreme form of social distancing.

The couple is coerced into this life in service of the next generation. After trying to burn down house number nine (which just reappears in the morning), they receive a box containing a baby and a message, instructing them to raise the boy in order to be released. It’s as if bringing up children were just a form of forced labor resulting from a mistake—in this case, having toured Yonder. The boy (Senan Jennings) grows at a rate faster than dog years, reaching about seven years old in just 98 days. He screeches when he’s hungry and is otherwise eerily precocious, like a tiny adult; suspiciously observant, he recites his adoptive parents’ spats and quarrels back to them verbatim. He’s terrifying, like some sort of alien spy, and Tom and Gemma despise him, becoming physically and psychologically abusive.

Finnegan and screenwriter Garret Shanley strip away the comforts and niceties we associate with concepts of home and family, as the neighborhood here is a prison, the house a cell, and children are creepy invaders who torment their parents. It’s a fully nightmarish vision of adulting; Tom starts digging a hole in the yard, which consumes his daytime hours, keeping him from his family, as though it were his job—a jab at the meaninglessness of middle-class employment. Stuffing a lifetime into the span of less than a year, the film posits the nuclear family as something you have to submit to or go crazy should you fight against it.

As intriguing as this allegory can be to parse, it weighs down the storytelling. Vivarium, at heart, is populated with stock characters trapped less in a purgatorial suburbia than in a metaphor. Eisenberg invests Tom with his trademark arrogance, which here just makes the character flatly unlikeable. Tom comes off as a schlub, a rotten guardian and an irredeemable partner, yet the film suggests his wife loves him. Poots sells that with a rawer and more nuanced performance, making Gemma hateful yet decent, bitter but loving, trying yet fed-up. Her character is awful, like Tom, but she’s also sympathetic.

Gemma complains that all she and Tom wanted was a home, and she’s told she is home—as though this hellscape is all that a home could be. It’s an indictment of bourgeois living that stings less than it’s meant to. Vivarium is sad, but it’s too removed to be devastating, lost inside itself and its puzzles of meaning. It’s not a drama so much as an intellectual exercise.

Cast: Imogen Poots, Jesse Eisenberg, Senan Jennings, Eanna Hardwicke, Jonathan Aris Director: Lorcan Finnegan Screenwriter: Garret Shanley Distributor: Saban Films Running Time: 97 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Resistance Is an Old-Fashioned Tribute to Marcel Marceau

The film is an old-fashioned and straightforward tale of brave opposition to the Nazi occupation of France.

2.5

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Resistance
Photo: IFC Films

Writer-director Jonathan Jakubowicz’s Resistance is an old-fashioned and straightforward tale of brave opposition to the Nazi occupation of France whose most potentially intriguing angle becomes its least satisfying dimension. While featuring many familiar elements, including a sarcastically reluctant hero, a mentally unbalanced sadistic villain, and nail-biter last-minute escapes, it’s centered on a character who one doesn’t often see in World War II movies: a Nazi-fighting mime.

The mime in question is Marcel Mangel (Jesse Eisenberg)—he later changed his surname to Marceau—the son of a Jewish butcher living in Strasbourg, France. Tired of wearing a smock and cutting up meat in his father’s shop, he prefers putting on a Chaplin mustache and applying greasepaint to his face in order to clown around in cabarets. His more traditionally minded father, Charles (Karl Markovics), disapproves of Marcel’s creative life, while the audiences who Marcel performs for are clearly more interested in the dancing girls.

This light family drama might seem inappropriate following the gutting opening scene, in which Elsbeth (Bella Ramsey), a young Jewish girl in Munich, sees her parents gunned down during the Kristallnacht pogrom. But the comfortingly low-stakes nature of these early scenes skillfully illustrates the gently melancholic nature of Marcel’s clowning. At the same time, they also establish just how little the future superstar and his community appreciate the extent of the genocidal danger brewing just a few miles away in Germany.

Marcel’s call to arms comes with the arrival of a truckload of Jewish orphans, including Elsbeth. Ransomed from the Nazis, the orphans are put up in a nearby castle and watched over by a troop of somewhat adult-looking Jewish Boy and Girl Scouts. Guilted by his activist brother, Sigmund (Édgar Ramirez), into helping out, and eager to impress the willowy Emma (Clemence Poesy), Marcel uses his clowning to keep the kids entertained.

At this point, with its light comedy and rapturously beautiful Rhone Valley scenery, Resistance runs the clear risk of traipsing into Life Is Beautiful territory. But with the exception of one awkward scene, in which Marcel and Emma dress up as brownshirts and mug buffoonishly while trying to scare the kids into learning how to hide, Jakubowicz mostly steers clear of any unctuous sentimentalizing of responses to genocidal evil.

This determination to keep the story’s focus on the fight against the Nazis becomes clearer once war breaks out, France is occupied, and all Jews in the country have targets on their backs. Now responsible for even more orphans, Marcel and his compatriots relocate to Lyon and join the resistance. Heightening the stakes in Lyon is the presence of Gestapo chief Klaus Barbie (Matthias Schweighofer), a blithe sadist who likes to play the piano while executing people in the drained pool of his luxury headquarters at the Hotel Terminus. While Schweighofer’s portrayal of Barbie as a bright-eyed torture-happy sociopath who always looks on the verge of giggling veers close to movie-villain shtick, the character’s dark presence keeps the immediacy of Marcel’s mission front and center.

Jakubowicz’s strengths as a director become more clear in some of the set pieces staged after the action shifts to Lyon and Marcel’s group has to balance keeping themselves and the orphans alive in France or escaping to Switzerland. Showing a strong feel for crisply capturing the tense and buttoned-down panic of undercover operatives in occupied territory, Jakubowicz also leverages Eisenberg’s skill for simultaneously signaling vulnerability and resolve.

Where Resistance is likely least effective for many audiences is its attempt to portray Marcel as a masterful performer. It’s hard not to think of Richard Attenborough’s pushy and unfunny Chaplin in some of Eisenberg’s energetic but flat scenes performing as a clown or a mime. A couple of these are fairly stiff, particularly one where Marcel clowns to keep the orphans quiet while German soldiers prowl nearby, and another of him miming for a rapt crowd of American soldiers after being introduced by General George Patton (Ed Harris). (While this latter scene is somewhat inexplicable, it appears to have actually happened, following Marcel’s work for Patton as a liaison officer—a phenomenal pairing of sunny-gruff personalities that seems worthy of its own film.) In most other aspects, however, Resistance functions as a handsomely mounted biopic that tells a little-known story with considerable passion.

Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Clemence Poesy, Édgar Ramirez, Bella Ramsey, Géza Röhrig, Matthias Schweighofer, Karl Markovics, Ed Harris Director: Jonathan Jakubowicz Screenwriter: Jonathan Jakubowicz Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 121 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: Atlantis’s Future Vision Grapples with a Past That Never Was

The film’s use of scale to drive home the absurdity of its characters’ actions recalls Werner Herzog’s tragicomic existentialism.

3

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Atlantis
Photo: Best Friend Forever

The use of apocalyptic settings has become so prevalent in fiction over the past couple of decades, perhaps more than in any time since the Cold War era, that it seems difficult to find new ways to make the concept resonate. This is particularly true as the real world starts to resemble a uniquely mundane version of the most vivid renderings of dystopia. Atlantis, Ukrainian director Valentyn Vasyanovych’s fourth feature-length fiction film, succeeds in part because the situation it depicts is barely even fictional.

Vasyanovych was inspired to make the film by a visit to the Donbass region in the eastern part of his home country, which is the site of regular clashes between government troops and pro-Russian separatists, and which has been left environmentally ravaged due to the war there. Atlantis is set in an imagined 2025, five years after the war has ended, with the Donbass area no longer fit for human habitation—as will likely be the case in reality.

Sergiy (Andriy Rymaruk) and Ivan (Vasyl Antoniak) are PTSD-addled ex-soldiers who fought and killed for a place that wasn’t worth saving, and who are under no illusions of finding a better life elsewhere. They now work at a steel mill that’s about to fall victim to the same capitalist whims they were defending as part of the victorious pro-Western forces. A glimmer of hope is eventually offered by a volunteer group that drives around the region picking up the bodies of those who fell in the war, to identify them and provide them with proper burials.

Despite the film’s basis in current geo-political and economic realities and its obvious parallels with the broader climate crisis faced by the world, it rarely engages directly with these themes. Instead, it’s more interested in how people adjust to desperation and scarcity, showing a society where armed conflict and corporate neglect have poisoned the environment and devalued human life to such an extent that people aren’t even able to grieve their losses. Vasyanovych employs long takes with almost no camera movement, combining naturalistic lighting with pictorial framing and a relatively large depth of field. As well as affording the time and space to appreciate the routines of their hardscrabble existence, this striking aesthetic serves to distance the viewer from the characters, showing these stoical figures alienated from themselves as much as they’re dwarfed by desolate industrial landscapes.

The unrelenting bleakness of this situation often becomes almost cartoonish in proportion, and the film’s slow pace occasionally conjures a tone of deadpan humor. An early scene sees Sergiy and Ivan setting up a row of life-sized dummies in the snow for shooting practice, and the depiction of this task in real time, with their truck’s engine running conspicuously in the background throughout, draws out the childish inanity of their adherence to military discipline. Later, a 1984-aping scene of assembled workers being informed of their impending redundancy by a face on a giant projector screen, with an interpreter’s Ukrainian translation disrupting the flow of this British company executive’s ruthless corporate-speak, wouldn’t be out of place in a more straightforward work of political satire.

The film’s use of scale to drive home the absurdity of its characters’ actions sometimes calls to mind Werner Herzog’s tragicomic existentialism, as well as early silent cinema. In a feat of resolve and improvisation that would make Fitzcarraldo proud (not to mention Charlie Chaplin’s shoe-eating tramp from a similarly barren locale a century prior), Sergiy cobbles together a hot tub for himself in the middle of the wasteland, filling a large digger’s bucket with water from a hose and burning petrol-soaked timber underneath it for heat. His soak in this makeshift bath is Atlantis’s most indelible image, a sight gag that also underlines his stubborn but admirable commitment to making a home where few other people dare to stay.

Appropriately for a study of humans physically engulfed by their surroundings, Atlantis is bookended by shots apparently captured with a thermal imaging camera. Initially coming across as gimmicky, representative of a broader style-over-substance artificiality that prevents the film from reaching the heights of its cinematic forebears, its final use is still surprisingly affecting. It highlights two people merging together in the warmth of postcoital intimacy, finding a new sense of belonging in the ruins. They jointly refuse to mourn a lost Atlantis that, given the state of our current reality, likely never existed for them in the first place.

Atlantis premiered last year at the Venice Film Festival and was slated to screen at the now-delayed New Directors/New Films. For sales information, please contact Best Friend Forever.

Cast: Andriy Rymaruk, Liudmyla Bileka, Vasyl Antoniak Director: Valentyn Vasyanovych Screenwriter: Valentyn Vasyanovych Running Time: 106 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Red Moon Tide Is a Haunting Elegy to Nature’s Supremacy

The film is predicated on such ineffable dread that the impact of climate change becomes a sort of Lovecraftian force.

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Red Moon Tide
Photo: Berlinale

Lois Patiño’s Red Moon Tide is a work of unmistakable horror, one predicated on such ineffable dread that the impact of climate change becomes a sort of Lovecraftian force. Shots of flooded plains next to stagnant and drying reservoirs capture the contrasting, even contradictory ways that the world is being destroyed by the rippling effects of our hubris. The opening title sequence is a roving close-up of an ancient maritime map dotted with mythical, perilous creatures, and the hypothetical existence of a nautical monster pervades the entire film. Yet the true threats here are invisible, malignant forces of misery that cast a pall over everything, poisoning nature and rendering humans motionless.

Patiño’s extreme long shots conjure unsettling moods through their use of natural backdrops and light. Waves at moonlight crash onto a beach, the ocean as dark as arterial blood. And in a recurring image, we glimpse an inactive hydroelectric dam, its face shot at angles that turn the concrete into a frame-spanning expanse of blank space. The soaked floodplains, meanwhile, fill the air with so much mist that sunlight casts a spectral glow over the Galician countryside.

This is the perfect backdrop for the loose, haunted narrative of a local fisherman, Rubio (Rubio de Camelle), who becomes convinced that a monster is hunting the shores of his coastal town as he discovers more and more human corpses when he takes his boat out each morning. At the start of Red Moon Tide, Rubio’s boat has run around and the man himself is missing, making him a protagonist referenced more than seen as other townsfolk ruminate on whether or not the man’s hunch was right as they themselves sink deeper into malaise.

The town where these locals dwell is shot in even starker terms than the landscapes, evoking Hopper-esque portraits of stasis and alienation. The non-professional actors are arranged like mannequins and frequently silhouetted, distanced from each other and often looking in opposite directions. People rarely speak aloud, instead silently stewing in internal monologues heard in somber voiceovers in which they contemplate the monster, giving it mythological properties such as having its behaviors dictated by the wax and wane of the moon.

Mythology is a crucial element of Red Moon Tide, with a trio of witches appearing nearly a half-hour into the film in search of the missing Rubio. These women spend the remainder of the film roaming around the countryside and the seaside town, often the only people in motion in the frame. Eventually, the witches start to drape the stock-still townspeople in sheets, making them look like ghosts. Rubio himself, well before he appears on screen, becomes an unwitting Charon figure ferrying the dead when his nets turn up fewer fish than corpses of those slain by the monster, returning their bodies to land for burial.

Buried beneath this mythic text are contemporary anxieties about climate change that gives Red Moon Tide an underlying logic, but the film is at its best when surrendering entirely to its hypnotic imagery. Andrei Tarkovsky is invoked at several junctures, from a shot that studies grass waving like strands of hair in a gently flowing brook to an image that moves through silhouetted trees with mountains in the distance that fittingly reflects the last shot of 1975’s Mirror. The film thus ends with an apocalyptic intensity that gives a climactic confrontation with the lurking monster a feeling of meeting with destiny, of the creature embodying mankind’s accelerating self-destruction in the face of nature reclaiming its supremacy.

Red Moon Tide had its world premiere last month at the Berlin International Film Festival and was slated to screen at the now-delayed New Directors/New Films. For sales information, please contact Lights On.

Cast: Rubio de Camelle, Ana Marra, Carmen Martinez, Pilar Rodlos Director: Lois Patiño Screenwriter: Lois Patiño Running Time: 84 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Pushpendra Singh’s The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs

The film speaks lyrically to a peoples’ determination to find a meaningful way to live in a rapidly changing modern world.

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The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs
Photo: Berlinale

Based on a folktale by Vijaydan Detha and further influenced by the life and poetry of 14th-century Kashmiri mystic Lalleshwari, Pushpendra Singh’s The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs tells the story of a young nomadic shepherdess, Laila (Navjot Randhawa), who finds herself exploited by foolish, lustful men. Using traditional folk songs—each revolving around a central idea, such as marriage, migration, and attraction—Singh loosely divides the film into seven parts. Each of these musical interludes—some diegetic, some not—mark a transitionary phase in Laila’s spiritual growth and path to self-realization as she navigates a world that remains indifferent to her own dreams and desires.

After being taken as a bride by a spineless young herdsman named Tanvir (Sadakkit Bijran), Laila migrates, along with their Bakarwal clan, to a more populated area of Kashmir, where we get clear sense of the territorial conflict currently playing out between India and Pakistan. Border police and local officials badger the nomadic shepherds, asking for permits and identification cards that have never before been required of them. This rapid social change limits the mobility of the clan and threatens their way of life, but once they arrive at their destination, it’s talk of Laila’s great beauty that spreads rapidly throughout the land.

As the young woman is met by unwanted advances by the regional inspector (Ranjit Khajuria) and his goofy but somewhat charming subordinate, Mushtaq (Shahnawaz Bhat), she’s left to fend for herself by her feckless husband who constantly kowtows to their authority. Laila uses both her fearlessness and intelligence to protect herself, first pushing and slapping the inspector and, later, fooling Mushtaq time and again by setting up nighttime meetings with him, only to thwart his plans by showing up with Tanvir by her side.

These various nocturnal rendezvous with Mushtaq play out in a repetitious manner, like the episodes of a fable. While Mushtaq is relentlessly aggressive in his pursuit of Laila, Tanvir’s oblivious, overly deferential responses to the increasingly absurd manners in which the man shows up on his land in need of bananas or a sheep are threaded with deadpan humor. When Tanvir calmly says of Mushtaq, “What a kind man. He cares so much for us,” a look of resignation and frustration settles on Laila’s face as she realizes how vulnerable she is and that she alone must cope with the dangers and challenges of her life.

As Laila is further isolated and confronted with her lack of agency, the film draws parallels between her vibrance, toughness, and persistence in the face of oppression and that of the Bakarwal community, who’ve roamed the Kashmir region and maintained their cultural mores there for centuries. The forest is marked early on as not only a space that requires great fortitude in which to survive, but also a realm of potentially fantastical transformation. When Laila’s friend asks her when she began to fear the forest, she replies that she never has and that Lalleshwari “also discovered herself here” and “abandoned everything to find God.”

This proclamation foreshadows Laila’s own journey of self-discovery and enlightenment just as a gorgeous shot in which Tanvir, sitting on a tree stump below his wife, transforms into a sheep alludes to the brief flashes of magical realism that will creep into The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs from time to time. Such poetic scenes are more frequent as the film proceeds, and enhanced particularly by the cinematography, which features slow, roving camerawork that, as in Terrence Malick and Andrei Tarkovsky’s films, exhibits a reverence for and connection to the landscape and the protagonist’s deep connection to it.

In its final minutes, the film becomes increasingly expressionistic, as Laila symbolically sheds her clothes and wanders from the forest into the rocky landscape of the Himalayas. There’s a remarkable visual play between darkness and light and aural juxtaposition of folkloric music (a song of renunciation) and the crashing sounds of thunder as Laila drapes a snakeskin over her shoulder and contemplates her position in life with a pensive stare into a mirror. It’s a stunningly beautiful and mystical passage laden with sorrow, uncertainty, and the inevitability of change. But it also speaks quite lyrically and evocatively to both Laila’s, and, by extension, her peoples’ enduring determination to find a meaningful way to live in a rapidly changing modern world that’s less and less inclined to ensure their survival.

The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs had its world premiere last month at the Berlin International Film Festival and was slated to screen at the now-delayed New Directors/New Films. For sales information, please contact Pascale Ramonda.

Cast: Shahnawaz Bhat, Sadakkit Bijran, Ranjit Khajuria, Navjot Randhawa, Mohammed Yassen Director: Pushpendra Singh Screenwriter: Pushpendra Singh Running Time: 98 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Blow the Man Down Is a Sharp and Memorable Nautical Noir

The film never veers into wink-wink self-consciousness that its opening might have suggested.

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Blow the Man Down
Photo: Amazon Studios

Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy’s Blow the Man Down starts on a literally self-aware note. The opening sequence shows the fishermen of a coastal Maine hamlet not just hard at work netting, spiking, and chopping up their catch, but also singing a rousing rendition of the 19th-century sailors’ song that gives the film its title. Full-throated and haunting, the piece is sung right to the camera as though it were a music video for some Americana band. But even though what follows is shot through with a keen understanding of genre necessities and an impatience for wasting more time on them than is necessary, the film never veers into wink-wink self-consciousness that its opening might have suggested.

When we first meet the ghostly pale Priscilla Connolly (Sophie Lowe) and her anxious and messy sister, Mary Beth (Morgan Saylor), they’ve just buried their mother and are trying to extract themselves from the hole she left them in. While Pris takes the need to keep running the family store and the looming loss of the family home somewhat in stride, Mary Beth is furious. Hating their “shithole” town and eager to leave for college, she goes to a bar to blow off steam following their mother’s wake and makes a poorly considered connection with a scuzzily larcenous-looking guy named Gorski (Ebon Moss-Bachrach). Many drinks, some bad driving, a baggie of cocaine, and one well-aimed harpoon later, Mary Beth has a body on her hands and a situation that suggests calling the police would be a poor idea.

Blow the Man Down’s first third or so moves briskly along the well-traveled terrain of the What Do We Do with the Body? genre. Savage Cole and Krudy seed their screenplay with somewhat stock elements, from the sack of cash that causes more problems than it’s worth to the small town rife with hypocrisy to the inexpertly cleaned crime scene with one crucial clue left behind that could send Pris and Mary Beth to prison. But even though some of these narrative beats are highly familiar, the filmmakers handle them with a light touch that keeps things fresh and entertaining until the film throws viewers a neat curveball.

At first, the three tsk-tsking women (June Squibb, Marceline Hugot, and Annette O’Toole) in matching pale Talbots-like outfits who drift through the film appear to be merely a decorative chorus of crones. They’re initially somewhat like the fishermen who come back in from time to time to deliver more bloody-minded sea shanties. But once the women start targeting their disapproval at Enid (Margo Martindale), the apparent proprietor of a cozy old bed and breakfast, the film opens up an entire secret and seamy underbelly to the town that the sisters are about to be pulled right into even if they manage not to be charged with murder.

In between the choral interludes, Blow the Man Down is layered with a discordant and eerie yet also slightly playful soundtrack that enhances both the setting’s chilly isolation and the sisters’ sense of panic and displacement. Overall, the performances are solid, if short of standout, with the great exception of Martindale’s. In her role as the town’s unapologetic scarlet woman, the character actress swings Enid through her scenes, balancing on a cane and fueled by whiskey and a white-hot sense of grievance. “Go back to your casseroles and crochet,” Enid tells the chorus of three old busybodies with a dry and spare tone that pushes the line from petty insult into veiled threat. Without Martindale, Blow the Man Down would be a sharp and tightly constructed nautical noir. With her, it becomes a memorable one.

Cast: Sophie Lowe, Morgan Saylor, Margot Martindale, June Squibb, Marceline Hugot, Annette O’Toole, Gayle Rankin, Will Brittain, Ebon Moss-Bachrach Director: Bridget Savage Cole, Danielle Krudy Screenwriter: Bridget Savage Cole, Danielle Krudy Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 90 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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25 Underrated Movie Gems to Stream Right Now on the Criterion Channel

It’s worth taking a dive into the channel’s obscure but vibrant depths.

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25 Underrated Movie Gems to Stream Right Now on the Criterion Channel
Photo: Janus Films

It’s encouraging that, about a year after its launch, the Criterion Channel remains with us. Less encouraging—from an end-of-days perspective—is that most of us now have an abundance of time to explore it. If self-isolating to prevent the spread of a deadly pandemic has upsides, though, having time enough to poke around the varied corners and depths of the streaming service counts as one of them.

The selection of films on the Criterion Channel rotate quickly, making the films it highlights as “leaving at the end of the month” more vital than most other sites’ similar sections. In a sense, this makes the Criterion Collection’s streaming platform feel more alive than services that have more stable caches and their own in-house content. The new films that pop up at the beginning of the month—in March, the channel has included Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Trilogy of Life and a number of German silents—are akin to special events. The shifting library of films functions like a vast, curated program available in our homes.

The sense that the channel is driven by curation rather than algorithm is no doubt intentional. If, with its esoteric film library and novel programming, the streaming service seems rather offbeat, this is in large part because we’re now used to receiving viewing suggestions from systems that emulate only in outline the mechanism of recommendation. We’ve grown reliant on the facile generic groupings (“drama,” “adventure,” “comedy”) typical of algorithm-driven services. Criterion pointedly ignores genre in favor of auteur, country of origin, or cultural context; a mainstay on the site for several months, amid the controversy over another male-dominated Oscars season, has been its prominent featuring of women filmmakers.

As the Criterion Collection continues to hold on to its niche in an arena dominated by Amazon, Netflix, Disney, among other hopefuls, it’s worth taking a dive into the channel’s obscure but vibrant depths. Many of the films below are rare finds—not only in the world of streaming, but in the era of home video. Pat Brown

Editor’s Note: Click here to sign up for the Criterion Channel.


The Adventures of Prince Achmed

The Adventures of Prince Achmed (Lotte Reiniger, 1926)

Now justly recognized as the first fully animated feature film, Lotte Reiniger’s masterpiece—composed of cut-out animation of silhouettes on monochromatic painted backdrops—transports us to dreamlike realm. Closely related to the contemporaneous experimentations in animation carried out by figures like Oscar Fischinger and Walther Hans Richter, The Adventures of Prince Achmed lends the orientalist fairy tales it recounts a rhythmic grace. As Prince Achmed journeys through various motifs from the “Thousand and One Nights,” the visual pleasure lies in the reverie of watching the cinema imbue mere shapes with life. Brown


The Ascent

The Ascent (Larisa Shepitko, 1977)

A World War II film in which heroism is a myth, Larisa Shepitko’s The Ascent focuses on two Soviet partisans (Boris Plotnikov and Vladimir Gostyukhin) who are left for dead in the snow-covered Russian countryside. Shepitko’s camera alternates between passages of realism and lyricism, entrenching her characters within a course of almost certain death. If Sheptiko’s soldiers experience only pain at the hands of their merciless German captors, it’s to better articulate the tragedy of their fundamental innocence within the war machine. Clayton Dillard


Asparagus

Asparagus (Suzan Pitt, 1979)

A Jungian psychosexual mescaline trip in the form of an 18-minute animated short, Asparagus is at once a vibrant blast of psychedelia and an unsettling journey into the depths of the subconscious. Suzan Pitt’s film was famously paired with Eraserhead on the midnight-movie circuit back in the late ‘70s, and it’s as equally resistant to interpretation as David Lynch’s classic. Proceeding with a dream logic that recalls the symbolist experimentalism of Maya Deren, Asparagus’s imagery ranges from the lushly verdant to the uncannily profane—often within the same scene, as in the film’s haunting climax in which a faceless woman robotically fellates an asparagus spear. Watson


Begone Dull care

Begone Dull Care (Norman McLaren and Evelyn Lambart, 1951)

If a jazz combo hired Stan Brakhage to direct their music video, the result might look something like Begone Dull Care. Set to the buoyant bebop of the Oscar Peterson Trio, Evelyn Lambart and Norman McLaren’s zippy animated short is one of the purest marriages of music and image in the history of cinema. Using lines, shapes, and abstract textures painted and drawn directly onto celluloid, the film grooves along to the jazz music—at times using particular colors to represent individual instruments, at others delivering a frenetic freeform visual accompaniment to the music, but always delivering a dazzling showcase of the animators’ inventiveness and dynamism. Watson


Body and Soul

Body and Soul (Oscar Micheaux, 1925)

Body and Soul, Oscar Micheaux’s melodrama about sexual violence within a southern black community, was controversial even among black audiences. Noted as the film debut of Paul Robeson, the film bucks expectations by casting the handsome singer as Isaiah T. Jenkins, a criminal masquerading as a preacher. Jenkins beguiles a local worshipper, Martha Jane (Mercedes Gilbert) into leaving him alone with her daughter, Isabelle (Julia Theresa Russell). He rapes Isabelle and steals Martha Jane’s savings. As Jenkins palms the hard-earned cash, Micheaux inserts a woeful montage: Martha Jane’s hands ironing clothing, anonymous black hands picking cotton off the plant. Brown

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Review: Deerskin Eerily and Evocatively Reflects on a Man’s Fragility

In Deerskin, Quentin Dupieux mines the absurdism that is his signature with newfound forcefulness.

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Deerskin
Photo: Greenwich Entertainment

Underneath the absurdism and narrative mindfuckery of Quentin Dupieux’s films resides a sadness that the French writer-director mines with newfound forcefulness in Deerskin. The film has an eerie, evocative premise. Drifting through a mountainous town in France, Georges (Jean Dujardin) tracks down a vintage deerskin jacket. Smitten with the garment, Georges spends his entire savings on it, before then holing up in a nearly abandoned hotel and passing himself off as a filmmaker to the locals, especially to a young and attractive bartender, Denise (Adèle Haenel), who claims to be an aspiring film editor. We also learn that Georges is navigating a divorce, and that his wife has frozen his savings, which obviously leads one to believe that he’s in the midst of some sort of midlife crisis, electing to buy a jacket instead of, say, a Porsche, which he couldn’t afford anyway.

A little heftier than he was in The Artist, with an elegant graying beard, Dujardin bears a resemblance to Terrence Malick, and Georges, in his ludicrous way, even goes about pretending to make films in Malick’s register, shooting footage that Denise will shape into something free-flowing and subjective. Georges, like many a failure, is obsessed with the image of success above all, as a gratification of himself, and seems to have few passions or interests that might lead to its actual realization. An early scene suggests that Georges may have been a bored office drone, as he stops in a store and makes a ritual out of attempting to flush his old blazer down the toilet; he requires a more obvious totem of manliness, and he frequently references the deerskin jacket’s “killer style,” even talking to it on occasion.

These masculine symbols are somehow explicit and mysterious at once. If Dupieux had added any expositional dialogue, having Georges openly riff on his frustrations for instance, Deerskin’s spell would probably be dispelled. The film’s melancholic, comic charge springs from Georges’s commitment to his new reality, which comes to mirror the commitment of a real artist. The town is also visually resonant, suggesting a secluded village in a western; its landscapes imbue the film with a beauty that’s ironic—suggesting our addictions to the illusions of westerns and other masculine pop art—as well as wistful.

This beauty is also counterpointed with the crushing loneliness of the town’s citizens. Denise goes along with Georges’s schemes because she’s looking for direction, and there’s a brutally effective joke in which Georges is informed that a hotel clerk has killed himself—information that’s related with the sort of casualness that one might reserve for ordering breakfast. Georges walks into a room to steal something from the corpse, which is revealed to be a mannequin with a hole in its face. This is one of the great surreal flourishes of Dupiex’s career, the mannequin suggesting the desolation of people who choose to annihilate themselves.

Deerskin eventually takes a gruesome turn, as Georges decides that he must be the only person in the world with any jacket. As he begins a killing spree, the film, in its rhyming of the vocations of art-making and serial murder, recalls a lean and more playful version of The House that Jack Built, minus Lars von Trier’s laborious self-justifications. Dupiex, then, finds another macho totem to parody: the self-consciously intellectual art-house auteur who lards their fantasies with delusions of grandeur. But Dupiex also has a kindship with Georges, recognizing him to be the epitome of the toxic male as well as a lost soul in the tradition of men who are conditioned to play it safe with boring jobs, only to be self-shamed for that very dependency on safety. By killing others, Georges is announcing that he wants to die.

Cast: Jean Dujardin, Adèle Haenel, Albert Delpy, Coralie Russier, Marie Bunel, Panayotis Pascot Director: Quentin Dupieux Screenwriter: Quentin Dupieux Distributor: Greenwich Entertainment Running Time: 77 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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