When Pulp Fiction hit the movie landscape like a tornado in 1994-—the film surprised almost everyone by picking up a Palme d’Or at Cannes that year-—it wasn’t only moviegoers lapping up writer/director Quentin Tarantino’s irresistible circular triptych of blood, guts, bullets and gleeful postmodern hip. Critics, by and large, bought into the hype for it too. When he reviewed it for the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert called Tarantino “the Jerry Lee Lewis of cinema, a pounding performer who doesn’t care if he tears up the piano, as long as everybody is rocking.” Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly called it “quite simply, the most exhilarating piece of filmmaking to come along in the nearly five years I’ve been writing for this magazine.”
However, the most interesting critical reaction that came out of the Pulp Fiction bubble—at least, the thing that caught my eye the most—was voiced by David Denby, who wrote for New York magazine at the time. In his review of the film, Denby compared Tarantino not to Jerry Lee Lewis, but to the famous 1960s French New Wave auteur Jean-Luc Godard. According to Denby:
”Pulp Fiction is play, a commentary on old movies. Tarantino works with trash, and by analyzing, criticizing, and formalizing it, he emerges with something new, just as Godard made a lyrical work of art in Breathless out of his memories of casually crappy American B-movies. Of course Godard was, and is, a Swiss-Parisian intellectual, and the tonalities of his work are drier, more cerebral. Pulp Fiction, by contrast, displays an entertainer’s talent for luridness.”
As a recent convert to the Jean-Luc Godard bandwagon myself, I admit that my initial reaction was to take Denby’s and others’ critical declarations of this sort as proof of Tarantino’s inferiority to Godard as an artist. Sure, both directors share a lot of surface similarities: they both have certain stylistic likenesses, and they both dabble in the postmodern genre of self-reflexivity—making movies that make you aware that you are watching a movie, to put it simply. But the differences are more telling: Godard, the cinema philosopher who likes to use popular American movie genres for his own intellectual and socially critical ends, seems to have totally different artistic priorities from Tarantino, the self-professed trash movie geek who often seems more interested in having fun with those same popular genres than in rigorously exploring anything political, semiotic or philosophical except in the most movie-based terms. A close look at Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction versus, say, Godard’s Band of Outsiders (1964) and one could perhaps detect a sense of real world melancholy underlying the surface playfulness of Godard’s little heist picture that is hardly present amidst the unabashed pop trashiness of Pulp Fiction.
But then I got to wondering: could it just be that Tarantino and Godard are essentially the same filmmaker, except part of different time periods and totally different societies? Certainly, there are quite a number of noticeable differences between the France of the politically tumultuous 1960s—when Godard was making his mark on world art cinema—and the media-saturated, relatively more politically apathetic America of the 1990s, during which Tarantino first burst onto the scene with Reservoir Dogs (1992). Perhaps those who try to make a case for the artistic superiority of one director over another are, at least for the moment, forgetting that both directors come from such diverse backgrounds, and that all films speak of the contexts in which they are made and seen. Films, as do all works of art, do not exist in a vacuum, and to treat them as entities separate from time and space is to engage in only a superficial level of interpretation, at best.
I think that this is an important distinction to make, especially when it brings into clearer focus the fact that both directors, to admittedly varying degrees, are working in basically the same tradition of the self-reflexive work of art, a tradition that goes all the way back to Cervantes and even Shakespeare—with its self-consciousness and its implicit allegory of readership—and maybe beyond. So while Godard is always aware of the social function of the cinematic image, Tarantino turns self-reflexivity into a form of genre pastiche. Does that automatically make one director’s work more important than the other? Godard fans might prefer his social analysis and critique to the self-absorbed playfulness of Tarantino, but what explains Tarantino’s immense popularity all over the world on the basis of Pulp Fiction or his recent two-part trash epic Kill Bill (2003, 2004)? Godard, by comparison, may command only an intense cult following outside France at best, particularly now that he has remained fairly reclusive over the past couple of decades. One would certainly not see recent Godard works like In Praise of Love (2001) or Notre Musique (2004) headlining the marquees of big multiplexes nationwide.
Thus, in this weeklong series—and in celebration of both Film Forum’s revival of Godard’s La Chinoise starting Wednesday and the recent DVD release of Tarantino’s Death Proof—I would like to examine the similarities and differences between Godard and Tarantino in many of their different facets. I plan to explore this comparison not only by examining their respective work and comparing and contrasting them, but also by considering both directors in terms of both their personal biographies and objective historical contexts. I will then draw on all this to evaluate how both directors are similar yet temperamentally and substantively different, and how each is representative of his particular era and social environment. As for their body of work: because Godard has been so prolific for over four decades now, it would simply be unwieldy to try to encompass his entire body of work (a lot of which isn’t even readily available on video). For that reason, I will focus almost entirely on the bulk of his groundbreaking oeuvre from the 1960s—his most popular period, arguably, and the one most comparable to Tarantino’s—when comparing it to Tarantino’s comparably meager, yet equally varied and fascinating output.
Ultimately, the broad question I would like to pose is: is Tarantino really a Jean-Luc Godard of the 1990s and today? Maybe there is something to the comparison after all, and not just technically or stylistically speaking. If Godard is a reflection of a politically-conflicted, self-aware, industrializing society, Tarantino is perhaps an example of Godard’s convictions taken to a perversely logical conclusion. In a society that has already been industrialized and invaded by pop culture as America has, maybe it is only logical that a Tarantino would take that self-awareness and popularize it for the mass American audience—an audience, some might say, that prefers its entertainment to be pure escapism, something that Tarantino provides even as he occasionally makes gestures toward something deeper. And what of Tarantino’s worldwide popular success compared to Godard’s relatively provincial success? What does that suggest about the societies and audiences from which both filmmakers came? And, if they are so different, does that necessarily mean that they are both incomparable? Or could it just mean that Tarantino is a kind of Godard stripped of political content (and perhaps creating an implicit stance of its own: apathy) and raised on a diet of both high art and pop culture?
At one point in Band of Outsiders, all three main characters—Franz (Sami Frey), Arthur (Claude Brasseur) and Odile (Anna Karina)—impulsively decide to share a minute of silence amongst one another because, as Franz says, they don’t have anything left to say to each other at that particular point. When they do initiate their minute of silence, however, Godard suddenly silences the soundtrack as well—almost as if Godard wants you to feel in your gut just how long a minute of silence can really be.
In Pulp Fiction, when Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) responds to Vincent Vega’s (John Travolta) befuddlement (“What the fuck is this place?”) after they both get to Jackrabbit Slim’s, Mia coaxes him by saying “Don’t be a…” and then drawing a rectangle in the air to visually denote “square.” But when she draws that rectangle, Tarantino visually emphasizes it so that she seems to be drawing an actual physical rectangle—one made up of tiny brightly-lit bulbs—onscreen.
Both of these moments have the effect of breaking the fourth wall, of deliberately throwing us out of the movie for that one brief period of time—in effect, to remind us that what we are watching is a movie. In other words, those two examples evince self-consciousness about their artistic selves that courses through not only both films, but also through both directors’ bodies of work as a whole. Furthermore, it is this tradition of self-consciousness in which both Godard and Tarantino consistently work—it is, in a broad sense, what is so strikingly similar about both directors.
First things first: what makes up a “self-conscious” work of art? A self-conscious work of art signifies a work that consistently makes the audience aware of its sheer movie-ness (to put it in fairly crude terms). Many fiction films demand that audience members assent to the illusion that the filmmakers—the director, the actors, the behind-the-scenes crews—are presenting to us. For that reason, classical Hollywood films are known for their unobtrusive style: invisible editing, carefully-structured plotting, and well-placed camerawork, among other attributes. Better to use cinematic materials to tell the story well rather than experiment too much and risk impairing our willing suspension of disbelief.
Self-conscious artists, however, are less interested in immersing their audience in their films’ illusions than in exposing the gears underlying those illusions, in making us aware of how fake those illusions actually are. Look, self-conscious filmmakers seem to say to their audience, I could tell this story in the familiar classical manner. I could make more of an effort to immerse you in the lives of these characters and the world they inhabit. But that would only be false to reality, because classically-told stories simply aren’t real, as much as we might want to believe they are. As Robert Stam puts it:
“In their freedom and creativity, anti-illusionistic artists imitate the freedom and creativity of the gods. Like gods at play, reflexive artists see themselves as unbound by life as it is perceived (Reality), by stories as they have been told (Genre), or by a nebulous probability (Verisimilitude). … The god of anti-illusionist art is not an immanent pantheistic deity but an Olympian, making noisy intrusion into fictive events. We are torn away from the events and the characters and made aware of the pen, or brush, or camera that has created them.”
If art is all about raising our consciousness of the world around us, of looking at certain previously-taken-for-granted things anew, self-conscious works of art use, as their playing field, previous works of art instead of something from the outside world. Self-conscious artists take apart what has already been done before, try to understand what previous artists were trying to do with those elements and how they went about doing it, and put all those elements back together again to create something new.
Stam notes that this approach has roots all the way back to Shakespeare; he cites the use of the play-within-a-play in Hamlet as an early example of self-reflexivity even before Cervantes picked it up and pushed it further in Don Quixote. Only relatively recently, however, has this kind of approach been taken seriously as an artistic style in the cinema.
Both Quentin Tarantino and Jean-Luc Godard fit right into this mold of the postmodern self-conscious artist. Their works deliberately take you out of your involvement in the film’s story and point up the artificiality of the construct. Though their purposes for doing so may be different (as we will see later on), their means are often surprisingly similar.
Reworking classical narrative
Neither Godard nor Tarantino show much interest in telling stories in any conventional sense. Indeed, Godard—in films like Masculin féminin (1966), Two or Three Things I Know About Her (1967) and Weekend (1968)—barely shows any interest in telling any kind of story at all, instead preferring to essentially make either portrait films (his fascinated-yet-critical look at French youth and the sexual divide in 1960s France in Masculin féminin, for instance) or essay films (his seemingly stream-of-consciousness philosophical ruminations on the power of the image in an increasingly industrialized Paris that form the backbone of Two or Three Things). Godard’s deliberate disregard for classical narrative convention goes all the way down to the level of technique, most notably editing (his celebrated use of jump cuts and mismatched shots from Breathless (1960) on) and sound (his playful experiments with music and sound in A Woman is a Woman (1961) or his random dropping-out of sound at certain points in Band of Outsiders and Masculin féminin).
On the other hand, Tarantino often sticks to a fairly unobtrusive technical style. Much like Godard, he is an actor’s director, sometimes preferring long takes to allow his actors to strut their stuff, other times cutting back and forth between actors who are conversing with each other. Tarantino’s innovations of narrative are temporal rather than technical. Pulp Fiction is known for its circular, three-story plot structure, in which the film starts and ends in the same setting; in which a threatening incident in an apartment cuts away in media res only to resume in the third story; and in which a major character killed off in the second story returns very much alive in the third story, which had taken place beforehand. Reservoir Dogs and the Kill Bill films all play with this kind of non-chronological storytelling—the former in particular cuts back and forth between past and present in dissecting how a robbery attempt went horribly wrong. Even Tarantino’s most linear film, Jackie Brown (1997), has one show-stopping sequence—a homage to Stanley Kubrick’s early heist thriller The Killing (1956)—that replays a theft from three different points of view. And his most recent film, Death Proof (2007), still manages a measure of structural rigor even while remaining linear all the way through: it’s a two-part work, with rhyming motifs giving it an underlying sense of unity.
The point here is that neither director makes films that fall neatly into typical Hollywood storytelling structures, even though both directors unapologetically dabble in well-worn Hollywood genres. This has the effect of taking a viewer out of his/her Hollywood-induced comfort zone as far as storytelling is concerned.
The films of both Godard and Tarantino are often layered—or littered, depending on whom you ask—with references: to pop culture, politics, other films, popular music, literature, etc. Take Godard’s crime films, like Breathless and Band of Outsiders: they are full of references to both literature (the Dolores Hitchens novel that Godard credits as the inspiration for Band of Outsiders is referenced visually and verbally in the film; one of the characters is named Arthur Rimbaud) and cinema (the poster of Humphrey Bogart that seemingly stares at Michel in Breathless; the use of legendary filmmaker Fritz Lang playing himself in the film-about-filmmaking Contempt (1963); the paraphrasing of narration from Fritz Lang’s 1950 thriller House by the River to alert “latecomers” to the theater at one point in Band of Outsiders); later films such as Pierrot le Fou, Masculin féminin and Weekend would also add explicit and implicit allusions to the contentious political events of the day—Vietnam in particular—to his burgeoning plate of references. (But then, even the relatively lightweight Band of Outsiders finds Godard in a serious-enough mood to make a random yet poignant reference to Rwandan atrocities as Franz is reading the newspaper out loud at one moment.)
Tarantino tends to limit his references simply to cinematic ones—movies were the biggest part of his upbringing after all, as we shall see later—but Roger Ebert does note one interesting literary allusion: “the opening exchange between Jules and Vincent about what the French call Quarter-Pounders, for example, is a reminder of the conversation between Jim and Huckleberry Finn about why the French don’t speak English.” As he does with movies, Tarantino is taking a literary trope from a classic American novel and updating it on film for a newer audience. Also interesting to note are Tarantino’s references to Godard himself. In the unrated version of Death Proof, for instance, one lengthy sequence that kicks off the film’s second half is shown in black-and-white until the film suddenly reverts back to color, in a piece of technique that may remind some viewers of Godard’s switching of color filters in an opening sequence of Contempt. Or consider the twist sequence in Pulp Fiction, which recalls the Madison dance sequence of Band of Outsiders in its randomness and sense of isolation. Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction is also done up like Anna Karina in My Life to Live (1962), short black hair and all, even if Mia Wallace comes off more like a gangster’s wife playacting at being a gun moll than Karina’s Nana ever does throughout Godard’s film. (In some cases with Tarantino’s references, context matters less than the fact that he makes the reference in the first place.)
But such references often aren’t simply mere mentions or hints of that sort. Often, Godard and Tarantino run deeper, trying to allude to whole genres or styles with their references. Godard’s voiceover narration of Band of Outsiders is full of comparisons: when Arthur decides to delay the robbery, Godard says that such an act is “in keeping with the tradition of bad B movies”; when Franz decides to turn around to try to save his friend, he’s compared to “the hero of a legendary romance.” (Ironic, because Band of Outsiders, though it may seem like a similar kind of bad B movie or legendary romance when you hear a plot description, certainly doesn’t play like either; if anything, it is a romantically anti-heroic film that often alludes to a heroic tradition.) Even his characters diegetically evoke such movie-conscious associations: Arthur thinks of Franz as “a good shield…like in the movies”; one random character asks his teacher how to translate “a big million-dollar film” to English.
Tarantino does something similar—taking recognized genre characteristics and putting them into entirely new situations—except his references simply stay on the level of iconography. Thus, Pulp Fiction doesn’t so much impose genre conventions onto grounded characters as basically conceive characters as icons from the start and then fashion them in a manner that feels more pop-contemporary and wink-wink existential than such characters usually are in classic noir genre pictures. Unlike Franz and Arthur in Band of Outsiders, Jules and Vincent aren’t regular folks who try to be glamorous movie hit men. They are glamorous movie hit men through and through—their black-and-white suit-and-tie wardrobe recalls any number of Jean-Pierre Melville’s quietly existential heroes from 1960s noirs like Le Samourai. It’s just that they talk like stoned pop philosophers when they discuss the minutiae of daily life in ways that make such minutiae seem more significant than they really are. Many of Melville’s heroes, by contrast, spoke barely a word. Then there is troubled boxer Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis), who seems to have walked right out of the 1949 real-time boxing noir The Set-Up, especially since the character is saddled with a plot that recalls similar situations in Robert Wise’s film. And when Butch feels compelled to save an angry Marcellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) from sex-crazed male hicks, the various weapons he examines, before deciding upon a samurai sword as his weapon of choice, implicitly act as representations of the kinds of trash genres—action, horror, martial arts—that obsess Tarantino himself.
Yet, as different as their approaches may be, Godard and Tarantino are essentially playing the same game: making films that are heavily intertextual, depending to a certain extent on their—and our—knowledge of other works outside of the one we are currently watching. In a way, they are creating both a cinematic meta-context and a community of viewers who get that context.
Choice of genres
Godard and Tarantino’s references to “lower” genres which I referred to above is also a characteristic of postmodernism, and is thus important to articulate here for the purposes to establishing the tradition out of which both directors create in the cinema.
In his essay “Postmodernism and Consumer Society,” Fredric Jameson believes that one of the tenets of postmodernism is the blurring of the lines between high culture and pop culture. As he explains it:
“…[M]any of the newer postmodernisms have been fascinated by that whole landscape of advertising and motels, of the Las Vegas strip, of the late show and Grade-B Hollywood film, of so-called paraliterature with its airport paperback categories of the gothic and the romance, the popular biography, the murder mystery and the science fiction or fantasy novel. They no longer “quote” such “texts” as a Joyce might have done, or a Mahler; they incorporate them, to the point where the line between high art and commercial forms seems increasingly difficult to draw.”
This would seem especially appropriate to Tarantino, whose films are almost entirely about his mixing of “texts”; Pulp Fiction, after all, references and borrows from a whole host of films and genres (principally noir films like the aforementioned The Set-Up, but also such diverse sources as Saturday morning cartoons, Saturday Night Fever, even 1960s Godard films like My Life to Live and Band of Outsiders). Even Jackie Brown, arguably Tarantino’s most “down-to-earth” feature, constructs its universe out of remnants of 1970s blaxpoitation flicks (with its star, Pam Grier, its most obvious icon). But keep in mind that Jameson published his article a decade before the Tarantino cult exploded. Godard did this kind of wholesale rummaging of pop culture in many of his ‘60s features before Tarantino picked up on it for his films. While many of his ‘60s films deconstruct popular American genres—Breathless, Band of Outsiders (crime drama), A Woman is a Woman (musical comedy), Contempt (Hollywood melodrama), Alphaville (1965, science fiction), Made in U.S.A. (1966, spy thriller), Pierrot le Fou (as many genres as possible)—they also exude the kind of fascination with “low” culture that Jameson is talking about. Appropriate, then, that some early-‘60s Godard works like Band of Outsiders and Pierrot le Fou are based on supposedly inferior literary material—a cheap American thriller entitled Fool’s Gold in the case of the former, a Lolita knockoff called Obsession in the case of the latter. Even when Godard credits or quotes “high” literary, artistic or philosophical sources in film—Pierrot le Fou, for example, is loaded with such allusions, from Diego Velázquez to James Joyce—Godard places them in a distinctly modern context that doesn’t immediately call to mind something that one might initially consider “high” art.
Because both Godard and Tarantino dabble so unreservedly in “lower” genres, and take such an interest in popular culture, many who simply look at the playful surfaces of Band of Outsiders or Pulp Fiction have sometimes perceived the films of both directors as trivial and “fun” at best. As much as they might prefer to play around with the archetypes of crime drama or the musical or whatever, when you see such clichés in their films, they certainly don’t play and feel like any of their sources. Such deconstructions of genre, in addition to embracing a measure of romanticism toward the movie-influenced characters that they sometimes simultaneously debunk, is what intrigues me the most about their work. It is a vivid illustration of the “increasing difficulty” of drawing the line between high and popular art as anything that Jameson points out in his essay.
When it comes to both directors’ self-reflexivity, I think the most important similarity to note is that, because of the distance they instill between the viewer and what is happening onscreen, in their films one often ends up caring less about the ostensible plots and more about other things—for instance, the artificial, movie-based nature of it all. It is almost as if Godard and Tarantino assume that you are quite familiar with all the conventions of the genres in which they work, that you’ve basically seen it all before, and that there is nothing more to do with genre clichés except to try to mock them or think of them in a new way.
Of course, this raises the question: why are Godard and Tarantino playing this self-reflexive game in the first place?
Review: Tommaso Both Rues and Relishes the Power of the Artist
Abel Ferrara’s film is about that precise feeling of living with an itch unscratched.3
Many films have dealt with the highs and lows of addiction, even the challenges of recovery. Less common are films about living at length with sobriety, about the peace it can bring and the lingering absence that an addict in recovery must learn to accept. To live in recovery is to live with a kind of death: of your warped sense of normalcy for the sake of functionality. A quote from Peter Schjeldahl’s New Yorker piece “The Art of Dying” sums this tension up beautifully and painfully: “If you’re a real alcoholic, you will never feel quite right. Whatever you want will be a little bit out of reach. Can’t handle that? Get the fuck out of here and get drunk.” Abel Ferrara’s Tommaso is about that precise feeling of living with an itch unscratched, which the protagonist manages with a life of fetishistic interiority.
Here, Willem Dafoe again plays a surrogate of Ferrara: a filmmaker, Tommaso, living in Rome, where he can readily finance his arty productions. Early passages linger attentively on the everyday textures of Tommaso’s existence. He sips espresso served to him by a barista who asks him for updates on his life; studies Italian; shops for fresh produce at a nearby market; makes pasta for his much younger wife, Nikki (Cristina Chiriac), and their daughter; works on a script that will eventually turn into Ferrara’s Siberia; and coaches young and attractive actors on the art of feeling pure feelings for a role, without self-consciousness. For a while, Tommaso serves as a straight male aesthete’s dream of the successful artist’s way of being, as the protagonist is a good-looking, authoritative older man who enjoys financial freedom as well as the attention of young women. And he appears to be sensitive and thoughtful to boot.
This lovely idyll serves several purposes for Ferrara. Simply, this atmosphere offers a fulfillment of wishes, as it’s an act of masturbation and perhaps of self-congratulation, an impression that’s affirmed by the several excuses that are made for young female nudity. Yet Ferrara, a significant artist and a recovering alcoholic and drug addict, also understands that Tommaso’s open sensitivity and sensuality are ironically evasive.
After a while, we notice that we don’t see Nikki and their daughter that often. Gradually, we learn that Tommaso is a recovering addict, going to N.A. meetings that are populated by a few striking characters who offer realistic testimonials to the struggles of dependency. Evocatively, Tommaso talks of once trying to remake La Dolce Vita in Miami with an actor who was also an addict, and he shares a heartbreaking story of a daughter from a previous marriage asking if he was leaving the house, drunk, because of her. Tommaso’s tranquil rhythms are misleading, as we see that the protagonist has insulated himself not only from temptation but connection; his very fear of losing his family is what threatens to drive them away. Underneath his manners, Tommaso feels the alienation, the missing-ness, of living sober as an addict.
Tommaso has a glancing, sketchbook-like quality. Through elegant long takes and stately pace, the audience becomes privy to the entire spectrum of Tomasso’s daily physical and emotional experience. Certain episodes in the film occur with so little context that they don’t seem to be literally believable, yet they aren’t quite visually coded as fantasy, as many scenes in Siberia are. For one, when Nikki is seen making out with a man in a park where Tommaso is playing with their daughter, we can’t tell if this moment is real or a paranoid projection. But the distinction barely matters, as we’re confronting Tommaso’s emotional reality.
Another episode is even more strikingly specific: Tommaso is insulted that Nikki didn’t wake him for a family lunch. In the moment, one is sympathetic toward Tommaso, though Ferrara establishes just how often Tommaso is in his own world, whether he’s teaching classes, surveying Rome, or honing his script; he presents as courtly and empathetic in public, and to himself, while casually thinking mostly of himself, a resonance that Ferrara allows us to gradually discern. Nikki doesn’t check on him because it doesn’t occur to her that it would matter, an instinct that signifies her immaturity as well as his essential selfishness.
Ferrara has mastered a type of scene in which the ecstatic intersects with the ordinary. In Welcome to New York, a rapist’s prolonged physical humiliation upon his arrest and processing became a casual indictment of the legal system—complicated morally by the fact that he deserved it. In 4:44 Last Day on Earth, Ferrara stages an essay on the comforts of rarefied life upon its impending demise. In Tommaso, we’re allowed to feel both the comfort and limitation of prescribed rituals. In Tommaso’s case, said rituals, which include meditation in addition to his other daily activities, stave off and replace more damaging hungers. Late in the film, a shockingly violent encounter, potentially imaginary, embodies the fear addicts have of reverting to their worst and most impulsive tendencies.
Ferrara’s collaborations with Dafoe, including the extraordinary Pasolini, are studies of privilege, power, fantasy, and loneliness. They’re also surveys of Dafoe’s remarkably suggestive presence and physicality, as well as flirtations with European artiness. Tommaso is erotic in a manner that’s unusual for American films, suggesting that Ferrara has truly gotten Italy into his bloodstream. Almost every encounter here is freighted with the promise of sex—the kind that’s understood to be possible primarily because of Tommaso’s success and station. These wandering, episodic films are politically conscious, yet they’re also about the lurid pleasure of being a man with a certain degree of reputation. In Tommaso, Ferrara both rues and enjoys his protagonist’s power and insularity, which scans less as hypocrisy than as an honest admission of the difficulty of navigating the divide between accountability and temptation.
Cast: Willem Dafoe, Cristina Chiriac, Anna Ferrara, Stella Mastrantonio, Alessandra Scarci Director: Abel Ferrara Screenwriter: Abel Ferrara Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 115 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Shirley Is an Astonishingly Frenzied Portrait of Creation and Madness
Every scene in Josephine Decker’s film operates at a maximum frenzy fraught with subtext.3
Even the most daring or imaginative films can get bogged down by moments of unnecessary exposition. By contrast, Josephine Decker’s Shirley doesn’t take any encounter as a given, as every scene operates at a maximum frenzy fraught with subtext—with sexual tension, bitterness, class and gender resentment, and acidic comedy that springs from the intersection of all of the aforementioned pressures. At any moment in this astonishing, frustrating film, we’re alternately in and out of the characters’ wavelengths, and continually forced to reorient our perceptions of the various relationships driving the narrative. Next to Decker’s films, the rigid staging of most cinematic conversations feels prim.
There are no ordinary images in Shirley. Decker and cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen give the film a hazy look that suggests an act of recollection, in which autumnal colors bleed together while certain objects and portions of settings and actors pristinely peek through the frame. Meanwhile, the camera is often moving, as in Decker’s previous films, switching between point-of-view shots and compositions in which characters look directly at us, or homing in on close-ups that allow for other characters to enter scenes unnoticed, paving the way for jarring surprises. Individually, none of these devices is original to Decker, but she’s united them with a fluidity and a sensual puckishness that’s all her own.
Shirley and Decker’s prior film, Madeline’s Madeline, both concern the porous boundaries separating creativity from madness and collaboration from exploitation. Adapted by screenwriter Sarah Gubbins from the 2014 novel of the same name by Susan Scarf Merrell, Shirley focuses on iconic short story author and novelist Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) and her life with her husband, professor and critic Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), in North Bennington, Vermont. Hyman is tenured at Bennington College, and he’s invited a newlywed couple, Fred (Logan Lerman) and Rose (Odessa Young), to live with him and Shirley for a period of time. Over several months, the two couples play escalating mind games as Shirley attempts to write a novel about the disappearance of a local college girl.
Shirley and Stanley and Rose and Fred often suggest the same couple from two different periods of time (before and after success), and Decker’s hallucinatory style occasionally leaves us wondering if the film is building toward this revelation. After all, Shirley and Stanley have what Fred at the very least wants: acclaim and status. Fred thinks he’s going to be Stanley’s apprentice and eventual successor, while Stanley seems to regard him as an errand boy. (Stanley also smugly recruits Rose as the housekeeper, or Shirley’s minder.)
Rose’s motivations are murkier: She’s pregnant and initially seems to enjoy playing housewife, until we learn that she quit college for Fred and the baby. It gradually comes to light that Shirley, already legendary for “The Lottery,” and who carries far more weight with Stanley than Rose appears to with Fred, also has something that Rose longs: respect. On the other hand, the romance between Rose and Fred feels kinder, more idealized, than the manipulative parlor games played by Shirley and Stanley, though this juxtaposition is ironic as well. Stanley and Shirley’s overt cruelty toward one another suggests truthfulness, a willingness to honor one another’s eccentricities, while Rose and Fred play into courtly tropes.
Shirley recalls Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Phantom Thread. Like the former, it features elaborate, self-consciously performative scenes of drunk and talented characters airing their resentments, turning their outbursts into a kind of weird and potentially cathartic poetry. And like the latter, it’s concerned with the atmosphere that a potentially disturbed artist must cultivate in order to create. The comparison to the Paul Thomas Anderson film may be particularly instructive, as Shirley also derives its emotional suspense by gradually revealing to viewers the “rules of the house.” In Phantom Thread, we learn that a young innocent is capable of ruthless adaptation that benefits her artist-lover’s need for domination while bettering her own station. In Shirley, we learn the extent to which each couple is manipulating the other, and how Shirley’s creative drive is also fueled by a form of role play.
The notion of role play is affirmed by the film’s stylized performances. Moss and Stuhlbarg deliver their lines as if they were stanzas, and the actors’ vocal precision is complemented by piercing physical gestures that suggest periods and commas. Stuhlbarg has never before been this gloriously full of himself, and he has a particularly evocative moment in which Stanley disparages Fred’s dissertation, stretching the word “derivative” out as if it were taffy. In another scene, Stanley coaxes the agoraphobic, alcoholic Shirley out of bed with a cigarette, tossing it to her like a snack. In such moments, we’re allowed to feel the intimacy as well as the cruelty of this relationship, qualities which are essentially inseparable. (Shirley needs Stanley to be a jerk so she can rebel against him, as this is the source of her inspiration—a notion that’s also reminiscent of Phantom Thread.)
However, Moss also underscores the potential limitations of Decker’s florid excess, rendering Shirley climactically unhinged from the outset, riding high on the character’s flamboyant oddness, as she did with her roles in Her Smell and The Invisible Man. The former film had tonal contrast, allowing Moss to eventually ease up on the melodramatics and offer moments of delicate beauty. In The Invisible Man and Shirley, Moss puts on a hell of a show, but you’re conscious of the work behind her performance. Shirley’s always “on,” either drunk, enraged, manipulative, stumbling, glinting, castigating whoever’s around, or all of the above, allowing Moss to continually run at fever pitch; she’s the mad hatter as master of ceremonies, and she grows rather repetitive as the film itself comes to spin in circles. This self-consciousness is justified by the film’s final reveal, and by this conception of Shirley as a character, but it grows stifling nevertheless. Moss, like Shirley in general, is always in your face.
As with Madeline’s Madeline, there’s sentimentality running underneath Shirley’s bravura, as this is another film that glorifies madness as a tool of an artist’s trade—a way-too-common notion in cinema that cheapens the pain of madness itself. Decker implicitly presents Shirley’s neuroses as a weapon against sexism, as a refusal to merely be an administrator’s wife, which means that we’re introduced to the usual clichés of hypocritical women who bought into the system that Shirley fights. Shirley also, of course, serves as a warning to Rose, whom she conflates with the woman driving her novel, another person dashed by patriarchy.
Jackson’s writing isn’t this tidy. Eleanor, the lonely heart at the center of The Haunting of Hill House, isn’t a thesis marker, but a miserable, uncertain, talented, and intelligent person who’s potentially without a purpose, at least to herself; her pain is wrenching, while Moss renders Shirley’s craziness powerful and affirming. If there was more than just a hint of Eleanor’s vulnerability in Moss’s Shirley, this might have been an unruly classic. Decker is too mighty an artist to go in for trendy girl power. In fact, Decker, with her ferocious subjective poetry, could probably make a brilliant adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House.
Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Michael Stuhlbarg, Logan Lerman, Odessa Young, Molly Fahey, Adelind Horan, Allen McCullough, Edward O’Blenis Director: Josephine Decker Screenwriter: Sarah Gubbins Distributor: Neon Running Time: 107 min Rating: R Year: 2020
Review: The Infiltrators Uneasily Marries the Real and the Performed
The film is never more compelling than when relying on footage of the real NIYA DREAMers.2
At the start of Cristina Ibarra and Alex Rivera’s The Infiltrators, photo-negative infrared shots conjure the imposing nature of border enforcement. The miles of fencing along the United States border with Mexico come through as a flickering whiteness, with the migrants walking across the desert suggesting truly alien forms. In voiceover, 22-year-old Marco Saavedra (Maynor Alvarado) discusses being undocumented and the intense fear that young immigrants and second-generation Americas have for their parents. Documentary footage depicts ICE and CBP agents arresting people like Marco in front of their families, tearful children giving press conferences, and the menacing detention facilities where undocumented persons are held in limbo. Then, Marco relates that as much as any immigrant would do to stay out of such a place, he hatched a plan to deliberately be placed in one.
Blending archival footage, interviews with real people, and dramatized reenactments, Ibarra and Rivera’s film traces the efforts of Marco and the group of radical DREAMers to which he belongs, the National Immigrant Youth Alliance, to assist detainees to prevent their deportation. The dramatizations frame the film as a thriller, one in which detainees have to constantly slip papers to each other and visit lawyers under the noses of guards who seethe with resentment. More than once, detainees are surprised with news of their sudden deportation, forcing Marco and his comrades on the outside to scramble to save them. Yet the most troubling aspect depicted here is how detention facilities, in which people are deliberately kept without being charged to limit their legal rights to attorneys, are designed to induce hopelessness. It isn’t the abruptness with which guards summon detainees to get on planes that causes the most stress here, but the purgatorial waiting that precedes it.
The juxtaposition of real and fictionalized elements, complete with chyrons identifying individuals and the actors playing them, isn’t exactly new to nonfiction filmmaking, and several documentarians have compellingly used such techniques to unpack the lines between performance and reality. At times in The Infiltrators, the real people involved in the story talk about how they approached their attempts to infiltrate detention facilities as actors, finding ways to look sufficiently guilty to officers who’re understandably quick to suspect why undocumented immigrants would volunteer to be deported. This dimension to the young adults’ actions is intriguing but left dangling by the film, which mostly sticks to unsuspenseful reenactments of Marco’s mildly clandestine activities within one detention center.
The film is never more compelling than when relying on footage of the real NIYA DREAMers, teenagers and twentysomethings who put themselves at severe risk by publicly protesting for their rights and those of their families and others like them. There’s far more urgency in watching Mohammed, a gay Iranian youth, confront politicians while at risk for deportation to a country he’s never known and is openly hostile to his sexual identity than there is in shots of Marco and others strategically handing off manila folders set to suspenseful music. The young people’s ability to create and exploit media for outreach likewise feels like an exciting subject that The Infiltrators fails to deeply explore, where it could have illuminated just how well activists can mobilize modern technology and media with minimal resources.
Cast: Maynor Alvarado, Chelsea Rendon, Manuel Uriza, Juan Gabriel Pareja, Vik Sahay Director: Cristina Ibarra, Alex Rivera Screenwriter: Alex Rivera, Aldo Velasco Distributor: Oscilloscope Laboratories Running Time: 95 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Aya Koretzky’s Around the World When You Were My Age
Across the film, the most idiosyncratic reactions of an ordinary human become real documents of human history.3.5
Jiro Koretzky left his native Japan in 1979 for a year-long trip around the world, from Moscow all the way to Beirut, mostly traveling in his white Ford Taunus. Jiro spent time in Scandinavia, Yugoslavia, North Africa, and Syria, and by the time he was ready to fly back home, the young man had discovered the one thing missing from the hyper-organization of Japanese cities: passion. Almost four decades later, his daughter, filmmaker Aya Koretzky, happened upon a metallic box full of photographic slides and detailed diary entries that Jiro amassed during his journey and decided to make a film about it. The result is Around the World When You Were My Age, and it’s a beautiful tribute to her father’s passion.
The boxy format of Koretzky’s Bolex camera mimics the proportions of her father’s original 16mm and 35mm slides. This may give the impression of a filmmaker who’s merely stitching old swatches together, but Around the World When You Were My Age isn’t a found-footage film. Koretzky’s poetic interventions, through reenactment and narration, attest to a self-ethnography bearing the freshest of fruits. This is a case of cinematic intimacy that renders visible old transmissions between father and daughter as much as it yields new ones.
Here, Koretzky’s opening of her father’s box, where Jiro’s memories lay dormant for so long, is a kind of cracking of her symbolic DNA—the one that carries the key to the generational transmission of emotions instead of genetic material. Or, perhaps, the filmmaker’s unearthing of what the father once buried is something like the reading of a father’s will before his demise. Except the inheritance here has already been distributed throughout Koretzky’s upbringing: her artistic sensibility, her fondness for silence, and her peripatetic urge. As the unconscious and the ineffable are made tangible through the cinematic image in a delicate father-daughter duet, she now knows where her own passions came from.
Koretzky performs her excavations gently and respectfully, refusing the position of the filmmaker offspring hellbent on settling old scores or demystifying the presumable bliss of family albums. Instead, she performs the humble contemplation of those who are genuinely curious—the ones we would trust to peruse our most special private collections. Koretzy is open to whatever the archive happens to bring without hoping to impose order in what is, by design, volatile and loose, like the most inextinguishable of sensations. Around the World When You Were My Age, then, is much closer to a series of lyrical vignettes (shades of Jonas Mekas and Michel de Montaigne) than to what we have come to expect from filmmakers who utilize their own relatives to (re-)write family narratives.
Across the film, the most idiosyncratic reactions of an ordinary human become real documents of human history. We see what the world looked like in 1979 and what it felt like to exist in it as a foreign flaneur. We learn that Moscow felt so large that it was as if there was “no human scale,” that the comforts of Helsinki were only rivaled by its monotony and absence of human presence, that everything in Stockholm was expensive except for milk, and that in the south of Italy one could sense “the whole of Europe condensed” in one little instant, while eating spaghetti to the sound of an accordion played by the homeless.
The film’s voiceover, by father and daughter, mostly consists of readings from Jiro’s diary. But Koretzky also knows exactly when narration, no matter how pretty, must go quiet—so that the objects in the frame can speak for themselves. Some of the most memorable sequences in the film are when all we hear are the noises made by scissors, a broom, an analog camera, the waiving of a polaroid, a finger retracing a journey on a paper map, or a slug slithering on a globe. Sudden moments of complete silence also remind us that the filmmaker’s commitment isn’t necessarily to information or knowledge, but to the poetics of feeling.
Director: Aya Koretzky Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
Review: The Vast of Night Is a Wistful Riff on the Intimacy of Radio Dramas
The filmmakers patiently savor the great thrill of genre stories: anticipation.3
Early in The Vast of Night, there’s a striking tracking shot through the gymnasium of a high school in the fictional 1950s-era town of Cayuga, New Mexico. The gym is being prepared for the big basketball game that night, and we’re shown how various students and professionals work together to complete this task, talking over one another with a propulsive snappiness that evokes a Howard Hawks comedy. The sequence is exhilarating, especially because one doesn’t normally encounter such verbal and visual intricacy in a genre film. But it’s also misleading, as it suggests that The Vast of Night will involve a wide cast of characters, though it’s closer to a two-hander between a local radio DJ, Everett (Jake Horowitz), and a high school student, Fay (Sierra McCormick), who works the town switchboard and shares Everett’s fascination with radios, recorders, and the like.
As Everett and Fay converge inside the gym, director Andrew Patterson has the wit to allow us to believe that we’re discovering these characters for ourselves as the camera just happens to land on them. Right away, they radiate their intelligence in contrasting fashions: Everett is confident yet sarcastic, on the border of being a know-it-all, while Faye is earnest and attentive. They exist somewhat apart from the Cayuga community at large, and they quickly shunt off to their respective offices, the churches of their obsessions. The Vast of Night is a homage to genre shows like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, even featuring its own faux credits montage, but it’s truly a riff on the intimacy of radio dramas.
Patterson’s tracking shots and big, soft, beautiful Scope images are clearly indebted to John Carpenter’s films. Yet Patterson has absorbed more than Carpenter’s pyrotechnical style, as he understands the melancholy soulfulness of the legend’s best work. With its obsession with radio callers, who gradually reveal a potential alien invasion, The Vast of Night most explicitly suggests the radio station-set scenes from The Fog if they were to be expanded to compose an entire film. Talking to people in radio land who recognize an eerie droning sound that comes through on a phone line, Everett and Faye clearly relish the collaboration of solving a mystery and of symbolically assembling their own radio thriller. And Patterson and screenwriters James Montague and Craig W. Sanger never break the incantatory spell with pointless freneticism, patiently savoring the great thrill of genre stories: anticipation.
The Vast of Night features several long monologues in which older people tell Everett and Faye of their experiences with clandestine military projects. Informed with a hushed intensity, these monologues allow various political resonances to seep into the narrative. For example, one caller (Bruce Davis) to Everett’s radio show doesn’t expect anyone to believe him because he’s black and elderly, a suspicion that he acknowledges with a poignant matter-of-factness. And as Everett and Faye hear increasingly odd stories, you may find yourself reconsidering that tracking shot at the start of the film, which captured a breadth of community from which Everett and Faye largely exclude themselves. They’re uncovering the sadness lurking under a small town—the racism, communist paranoia, and heartbreaks that cause people to yearn for a supernatural explanation as a way of evading their sense of helplessness.
Late into The Vast of Night, Patterson springs another tracking shot that reveals the proximity of Cayuga High School, the town’s switchboard, and the radio station to each other. They’re all close to one another but separated at night by gulfs of darkness and emptiness. The film doesn’t offer much in the way of a payoff, lacking the kinetic savagery of Bruce McDonald’s similarly themed Pontypool, but that’s the point. The lovely, wistful The Vast of Night pivots instead on a decidedly friendlier vision of localized culture, decades before corporations would unify most radio into a detached, impersonal stream of advertisements.
Cast: Sierra McCormick, Jake Horowitz, Gail Cronauer, Bruce Davis, Cheyenne Barton, Gregory Peyton, Mallorie Rodak, Mollie Milligan, Ingrid Fease, Pam Dougherty Director: Andrew Patterson Screenwriter: James Montague, Craig W. Sanger Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 91 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Review: On the Record Is a Richly Contextualized Look at Rape Culture
On the Record implicates nothing less than the entirety of American culture in hip-hop’s sins.3
Misogyny has been a sticking point for critics of hip-hop ever since the genre became a cultural phenomenon in the late 1980s and ‘90s. For those who not only value the artistry of hip-hop, but also recognize it as the defiant aesthetic expression of an oppressed population, calling out systemic sexism within that culture is a fraught undertaking. The accusation that rappers perpetuate demeaning ideas about women can also serve as ammunition for conservatives uncomfortable with black self-expression—and, moreover, can feed into historical representations of black men as inherently sexually aggressive.
As Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s documentary On The Record stresses, a fear of betraying black America as a whole has led to a culture of silence among black women involved in the music industry that may be even more pervasive than that in the white Hollywood circles where the Me Too movement has been the most visible. When they do come forward, these women are inevitably speaking against the backdrop of the sordid, shameful role black sexuality has played in America’s oppression of its black population—to the lynchings of black men on accusations of sexual transgression, to the Senate’s steamrolling of Anita Hill in 1992.
The film focuses on the sexual assault allegations that led to hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons’s 2017 fall from grace, and in particular on former Def Jam executive Drew Dixon’s mindset as she brings herself to tell her story to the New York Times. But thanks to dips into history that show the roots of black misogyny in the abuses and iniquities of a racist society, as well as a critical mass of testimonies from activists and academics that provide a contextual framework, On the Record implicates nothing less than the entirety of American culture in hip-hop’s sins. At the origin of black women’s reticence stands nothing other than slavery, the U.S.’s original sin, which began the dehumanizing tradition of treating black women as disposable sexual objects and viewing black men as potentially dangerous sexual predators.
Simmons’ victims’ sense of their own complex relations to such historical power structures emerges from the film’s lucid recounting of the sexual assault allegations against him. “I didn’t want to let the culture down,” Dixon explains of her decision to keep the fact that Simmons raped her in 1995 private for more than two decades. As a black woman, she felt she faced additional pressure to stay quiet and limit her—and Simmons’s—exposure. Beyond her concern about detonating the career of an important black figure, she recalls watching Hill’s testimony during Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings and realizing that when a woman publicly accuses a man of serious sexual violations, the perverse result is that the perpetrator is able to align his reaction with that of the public, affecting disgust and outrage. As the accuser, she says, “you are defiled again because you have to tell people, and it’s on your lips.”
There’s a tragic irony here that a more literary-minded documentary might bring to the fore: that a musical form focused so intently on the power of the spoken word—and on the black voice in particular—gives rise, in its thoroughly capitalized form, to a culture that denies the voices of black women. Hip-hop attained mass appeal in part by leaning hard into hypermasculine display and “explicit” lyrics, but now, like the old boys’ club of the 1991 U.S. Senate, institutional hip-hop stands aghast at the words on the lips of abused women. Simmons has persisted in his denial of any wrongdoing whatsoever, and as with so many powerful men, the chorus that sprung up to defend him was only slightly tempered by the accelerating accumulation of accusers. (Dixon was among the first four accusers; there have been 16 more, many of whom appear in the documentary.)
On the Record lets such abstract themes as who gets a voice in hip-hop remain mostly implicit. As in Dick’s The Hunting Ground, which Ziering produced and documented the prevalence of rape on college campuses, the filmmakers approach their subject with journalistic rigor, leaving the interpretation to Dixon and the other interviewees. “We all lose when brilliant women go away,” rues former Source writer Kiera Mayo toward the end of the film, reflecting on how, despite her successes, Dixon left the industry after continued harassment by Simmons and Arista chief L.A. Reid. It’s a melancholy realization. While the culture of ‘90s hip-hop has become an object of nostalgic longing akin to boomers’ beloved classic rock (as evidenced by films like Straight Outta Compton), On the Record suggests a different vision of the era—one that longs more for what could have been than what was.
Director: Kirby Dick, Amy Ziering Distributor: HBO Max Running Time: 97 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
Review: As Melodrama, The High Note Barely Strikes a Chord
Everything here wraps up as tidily as it does in your average Hallmark Channel movie.1.5
Nisha Ganatra’s The High Note is ostensibly about the virtues of taking risks in art-making, of sacrificing the comforts of coasting on past successes for the hard-won rewards of creating something new. And yet the film itself is as formulaic as they come, an agglomeration of soap-operatic story beats and music-industry clichés whose low-key tone may be an attempt at channeling the naturalism of Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born but comes off instead as tentative, as if Ganatra were afraid of really leaning into the big, unruly emotions simmering beneath The High Note’s placid surface.
At the heart of the film is the ambition and self-doubt of Maggie Sherwood (Dakota Johnson), a personal assistant who dreams of producing records, and her boss, Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross), a Diana Ross-like diva facing a crossroads in her career. Grace is deciding whether she wants to risk her legacy by releasing a new album or take the easy road by accepting an offer to headline her own show at Caesars Palace. Her longtime manager (Ice Cube) presses her to cash out with the Vegas residency, but Maggie encourages her—as much as she can, given her relatively junior position—to make some new music. Meanwhile, Maggie covertly produces her own mixes of Grace’s live recordings in the hopes that she can convince Grace to hire her instead of a slick EDM producer (Diplo, playing an air-headed version of himself) who wants to bury her soulful pipes under layers of Auto-Tune and pounding beats.
Flora Greeson’s screenplay is peppered with some clear-eyed wisdom about the entertainment world, such as its observations about the way that so much of the music industry is based around managing artists’ deep-seated insecurities. The characters’ occasional speechifying about the difficult position that women in music often face is on point, if a bit perfunctory, but more incisively, it’s used to subtly suggest the way that these very real obstacles can be used as scapegoats by people, like Grace, who are afraid to simply put themselves out there. But these brief moments of insight are largely overridden by the film’s weak-kneed plotting, repetitiveness, and corny contrivances. Practically every conflict the film raises is resolved just a few scenes later. The film never allows its characters to do anything cruel or mean or misguided without almost immediately absolving them of responsibility.
Nowhere is this tendency more prevalent than in a subplot involving Maggie’s relationship with a talented but self-doubting musician, David Cliff (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). Everything comes to a head when Maggie attempts to orchestrate a plan to get the opening act (Eddie Izzard) for Grace’s live-album release party to drop out, which will give David the opportunity to perform in front of a bunch of industry big wigs, not to mention Grace herself. While in a different film, this scheme might have served as a big hokey climax, here the whole thing summarily blows up in Maggie’s face, causing her to get fired by Grace and get dumped by David. But while that semi-subversion of our expectations is certainly welcome, The High Note simply trades one unconvincing plot contrivance for another when, just a few scenes later, a major revelation precipitates a rapid succession of reconciliations between characters.
Everything wraps up as tidily as it does in your average Hallmark Channel movie, with no character being forced to sacrifice anything or make a truly difficult decision. Maggie, Grace, and David all make up and record an album together (Maggie naturally produces), and the film closes with Grace and David performing a triumphant concert for a huge crowd of screaming fans as Maggie watches adoringly from backstage. The characters in The High Note talk a lot about the unfair challenges of the music world, but the film ultimately reaffirms what the audience already knows: that success has a lot more to do with who you know—and who you’re related to—than it does about hard work or artistic integrity.
Cast: Dakota Johnson, Tracee Ellis Ross, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Zoë Chao, Ice Cube, June Diane Raphael, Deniz Akdeniz, Bill Pullman, Eddie Izzard, Diplo Director: Nisha Ganatra Screenwriter: Flora Greeson Distributor: Focus Features Running Time: 113 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020
Review: In Darya Zhuk’s Crystal Swan, Touching Is Dreaming
Throughout the film, it’s as if mundane objects hold the remedies for the wretchedness of everyday life.3
Darya Zhuk’s 1990s-set Crystal Swan centers around Velya (Alina Nasibullina), a young woman who refuses to conform to the provincial miserabilism of Belarusian life. Being a DJ, house music provides her with some much-needed escapism, but she dreams of fleeing to America—or, at least, a fantasy of America where every kid has their own bedroom and parents knock before they come in. That’s the antithesis of Velya’s life in Minsk, where her mother (Svetlana Anikey) spends her days chastising Velya and mourning the troubles caused by the collapse of communism: no money, no pension, no rules.
In order to obtain a tourist visa, Velya needs to show the American embassy that she has strong links to her place of residence. The jobless young woman pretends, then, that she’s a manager at a crystal-making factory, putting down a fake number for the workplace on the application form. But when she’s told that the embassy will call her back in the next few days, Velya rushes to find the home associated with the random number she made up.
Eventually, Velya discovers that the number belongs to a family in the countryside who are in the midst of making preparations for the wedding of their eldest son, Stepan (Ivan Mulin), a bitter young man traumatized by his days in the army and resigned to marrying a woman he doesn’t love. Velya ends up spending the next two days with the dysfunctional family as she tries to convince them to lie for her when the embassy calls. The presence of a weird girl from Minsk trying to use the supposed simpletons so she can flee to America makes some in the family resent her and others to question their previously held truths, as if Velya brought with her from the big city the prickly reminder that resignation is not all there is to life.
Zhuk crafts an exquisite tale of doom and gloom colored by a farcical ethos, from Velya’s no-holds-barred audacity and kookiness (shades of Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan) to the physical comedy-derived drunkenness as the lingua franca of family get-togethers. But the film’s most remarkable quality is perhaps the way Zhuk so delicately arranges these two currents—namely, the more absurd elements that initiate the film and the progressively visceral sequences where Velya might as well be the little girl with the dead cat in Sátántangó, a much more nihilistic take on post-Soviet desolation. In the latter moments, Velya assumes the position of the terrified child watching the pathetic theater of her elders through the window, and the desolate future that awaits her if she doesn’t run for the hills.
Crystal Swan is also rich in analogical pleasures, which are rooted in the film’s narrative premise and rife with metaphorical possibilities, as in the way Zhuk pays special attention to the materiality of ‘90s objects and the sounds they make. The entire plot revolves around a telephone that will supposedly ring. But when and if it does, will Velya be there to answer it? Will anyone be around to hear it? Bulky phonebooths, posters on teenager’s walls, the mechanical clicking of a photo camera—none of it feels like anodyne technological kinks.
When a VHS tape gets stuck in a VCR, people are forced to go outside and play. Cassette tapes appear as a potentially radical archive passed on to Stepan’s younger brother, Kostya (Ilya Kapanets), who may think twice—thanks to the liberating power of house music—about the naturalization of violence. It’s as if mundane objects hold the remedies for the wretchedness of everyday life. How they work and how they break appear as opportunities for daring to seize the possibility of going elsewhere and for debunking supposedly irreversible things.
Cast: Alina Nasibullina, Ivan Mulin, Yuriy Borisov, Svetlana Anikey, Ilya Kapanets, Anastasia Garvey, Lyudmila Razumova Director: Darya Zhuk Screenwriter: Helga Landauer, Darya Zhuk Running Time: 94 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
Review: The Lovebirds Is Weighed Down by Plot Incident and Silly Twists
Once the film shifts into a broader comedic register, it no longer capitalizes on Kumail Nanjiani and Issa Rae’s gift for gab.2
Jibran (Kumail Nanjiani) and Leilani (Issa Rae) are past the honeymoon phase depicted in the brief prologue to The Lovebirds. When we pick up with them four years later, they’re in the midst of a heated argument that, after some time, reveals itself to be about something far more petty than it first appears: whether they can win The Amazing Race.
At its best, Michael Showalter’s film revels in loose, digressive humor, as in a scene where Jibran and Leilani discuss the differences between a gangbang and an orgy. The couple is playful and clever in equal measure, yet every fight between them confirms that their relationship is past its due date. That is, until an encounter with a killer cop (Paul Sparks) on their way to a friend’s party that makes them realize that they’re better off together—at least until they can exonerate themselves for the crime that will likely be pinned on them.
The film’s opening act banks heavily on the chemistry between Nanjiani and Rae, who effortlessly bounce witty, seemingly improvised lines off one another. Throughout, you don’t doubt that their characters are still very much in love, even as you understand that they’ve grown tired of dealing with each other’s shortcomings. When the film rests primarily on Nanjiani and Rae’s verbal riffing, it’s quite winning and consistent in delivering jokes that are not only funny, but also speak to the root causes of Jibran and Leilani’s personality clashes.
While it’s initially content to keep its focus on the bickering duo as they continue to drive each other mad while trying to solve the murder they witnessed, The Lovebirds regrettably becomes weighed down by plot incident and silly twists. The film foists the couple into a bizarre underworld of political corruption, widespread blackmail, and sex cults, shifting into a significantly broader comedic register that no longer capitalizes on its stars’ gift for gab. As Jibran and Leilani’s relationship woes progressively take a back seat to the formulaic unfolding of a needlessly convoluted, and rather dull, mystery, The Lovebirds slowly derails as it settles into the predictable patterns of many of the action rom-coms that have come before it.
Cast: Kumail Nanjiani, Issa Rae, Paul Sparks, Anna Camp, Kyle Bornheimer, Catherine Cohen, Barry Rothbart, Andrene Ward-Hammond, Moses Storm Director: Michael Showalter Screenwriter: Aaron Abrams, Brendan Gall Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 87 min Rating: R Year: 2020
Review: The Painter and the Thief Suggests an Intimate Hall of Mirrors
Throughout the documentary, Benjamin Ree upsets conventions, offering a moving portrait of two lost souls.3
For The Painter and the Thief, director Benjamin Ree filmed Oslo-based painter Barbora Kysilkova for three years as she befriended Karl-Bertil Nordland, a drug addict who was convicted of stealing two of her paintings from a museum. The documentary initially thrives on forms of misdirection, as Ree allows us to believe that we’re watching a traditional study of contrasts: between an established professional woman and a tormented bad boy. We’re also led to assume, potentially by our own prejudices, that Kysilkova will be the film’s central consciousness, with Nordland as an intimidating and remote “other.” Through skillful chronological scrambling that consistently redefines moments, underscoring the subjectivity of each person, Ree upsets these conventions, offering a moving portrait of two lost souls.
The Painter and the Thief suggests an intimate hall of mirrors, in which artistic creation parallels addiction. Kysilkova responds to Nordland’s life force, basing several drawings on him, while Ree utilizes them both for his cinema, while Nordland at times consumes drugs, particularly during a painful relapse. No person is singularly understood as being “used” here, as the various relationships are symbiotic, with Nordland’s addiction suggesting a substitute for the intoxication that Kysilkova and Ree achieve through art-making. Nordland has the soul of an artist as well, as he’s sensitive, observant, and given to poetic observations, suggesting a vessel who’s looking for a purpose, which Ree and Kysilkova each provide. (You may wish that Ree had brought himself more into his own frames, adding another mirror and deepening the film’s auto-critical texture in the tradition of, say, Robert Greene’s work, but Ree probably, and understandably, didn’t wish to distract from his commanding subjects.)
In a primordially powerful moment, Nordland weeps when he sees the first photoreal canvas that Kysilkova has rendered of him, as she’s turned him into an elegant man in a white hoodie swishing a glass of red wine. In her lifelike yet slightly stylized paintings, Kysilkova physicalizes Nordland’s dreams of stability and respectability, granting him the gift of her attention. The paintings allow Nordland to enter a world he felt beyond him, symbolically rejoining community after years of the semi-isolation that’s fostered by addiction. Little of these impressions are directly expressed, which would dilute the spell, but Ree’s intimate compositions allow us to feel as if we can read the stirrings of Kysilkova and Nordland’s souls.
We first see the thief through the painter’s eyes. Tall, with a lean, tatted-up frame, Nordland is charismatic and sexy, suggesting an outlaw version of actor Timothy Olyphant. There’s something else about Nordland that perhaps only people with experience with addiction will be especially alive to: His visceral emotional pain suggests a perpetual atonement for his wrongdoings, and this atonement suggest the potential for transcendence, which appeals to artists and people with savior complexes, such as Kysilkova.
Transcendence arrives much later when Nordland goes to prison for another crime, after a lengthy stay in a hospital for a car accident that nearly killed him, and gradually cleans up, grows out a beard, and puts flesh as well as muscle on his body. Nordland is a stubborn survivor who’s willing to suffer for the camera and canvas alike; he’s volatile, profoundly lucky, and seems to achieve a hard-won grace. Drinking coffee with Kysilkova near the end of The Painter and the Thief, he’s softer, cuddlier, and less threatening that he was before prison, and, rediscovering carpentry, he’s even becoming an artist. At a certain point in the film, Nordland resembles less a subject of Kysilkova’s than an old coconspirator.
The viewer also sees the painter through the thief’s eyes, though these alternating perspectives harmonize as Ree continues to hopscotch around in time, offering more context and allowing us to grow to love both people equally. While Kysilkova sees Nordland, Ree sees both of them, to whom he has astonishing access. Meanwhile, Nordland also sees more of Kysilkova than she probably knows, as Ree has an acute understanding of how people can damn near smell one another’s pain, finding their own emotional water level. Kysilkova was once abused by a boyfriend and fled to Oslo to escape him. Devastated, she gave up painting for a while until a new boyfriend helped to rehabilitate her self-confidence. And the first painting she created upon her rebirth, “Swan Song,” is one of the ones that Nordland stole with an accomplice who wasn’t caught. This resonance is almost too good to be true, as Nordland almost literally accessed the secret heart of Kysilkova’s torment.
One of the film’s most palpable tensions is pointedly undiscussed. Kysilkova and Nordland appear to be attracted to one another, and they touch and converse with the sort of casual sureness that usually arises from sustained romance. Perhaps Ree believes that the distinction between a sexual and artistic union is unimportant or none of our business, though Kysilkova’s boyfriend is clearly concerned at times. And maybe the distinction doesn’t matter, as Kysilkova and Nordland have enjoyed a relationship that seems to have healed them, allowing them to face their gnawing hatred of themselves. Whatever labels are applied and whatever other additional actions were taken, Ree has caught a love story in a bottle.
Regardless of their romantic status, The Painter and the Thief ends with an unmistakable consummation: on a medium shot of Kysilkova’s painting of the pair laying intimately on a couch together, Kysilkova’s face replacing that of Nordland’s ex-girlfriend, the actual model for the painting. This is a projection of Kysilkova’s, perhaps of a desire she won’t or can’t actualize, which she instead utilizes to fashion a beguiling, idealized communion. In this canvas, the various social distinctions between Kysilkova and Nordland have been obliterated. Ree has enabled two people to broker a connection on camera in front of us. To capture such a birth, or to at least appear to, is to perform a kind of magic act.
Director: Benjamin Ree Distributor: Neon Running Time: 102 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
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