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The Plausibles: The Problems of Make-Believe in the Age of Reason

I’ve heard this a lot lately; I suppose you have too. We may have said it ourselves on occasion.

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The Plausibles: The Problems of Make-Believe in the Age of Reason

Editor’s Note: In the coming weeks, we’re proud to reissue a series of articles developed at 24LiesASecond, a now-defunct platform for provocative criticism with an underdog bite. The essay below was first published on 04/29/2004, under the editorial guidance of James M. Moran.

Yeah, right.

I’ve heard this a lot lately; I suppose you have too. We may have said it ourselves on occasion. It’s the common phrase uttered by people who believe a piece of fiction has drifted a little too far from reality. Alfred Hitchcock had a name for these people. He called them “the plausibles.”

Take a closer look

Spotting the flaws in films has become quite a popular game these days. Websites like MovieMistakes.com and MovieBloopers.com (ed. note: now defunct) contain vast collections of goofs, gaffes, glitches, flubs and mishaps divided into categories named “continuity,” “factual,” “anachronisms,” “plot holes,” “geography,” “visible crew/equipment” and “revealing mistakes.” In an ongoing quest to uncover the most blatant blunders ever committed to celluloid, anyone online is encouraged to submit a newfound error, and the most frequent contributors earn themselves a spot in the Member Top 20. “Take a closer look” is the proud tagline of the site Whoops! Movie Goofs. Indeed, all that nitpicking may seem pretty clever, but is it not the most rudimentary way of evaluating a work of art: to see if it resembles real life accurately? “Picasso, he can’t paint! My five-year-old can do that.”

Filmmaker Brian De Palma has often been ridiculed because of the supposedly ludicrous elements in some of his thrillers. His twisty plots and ultra-stylized visions are sometimes hard to swallow and provoke skeptical remarks like: How come the gangster still stands after being shot so many times? (Scarface) Why are the blood stains on the jewel thief’s shirt still bright red when they should have dried to a brown color during the seven years he spent in prison? (Femme Fatale) Why does the Indian take forever to kill a woman with that awkward giant drill? (Body Double) Why does the sound technician go through so much trouble to wire the call girl and send her off to meet a famous news reporter when he could have gone himself (and isn’t it a little too “convenient” that she is not able to recognize this reporter because she never watches the news)? (Blow Out)

Yeah, right.

Suspension of disbelief

De Palma never made much of an effort to defend these creative liberties, other than to say he is “bored by” or “too old for” reality to even care. The thriller genre has always been an easy target for the plausibles. Unlike the horror genre, thrillers cannot rely on the supernatural as the element of surprise and depend instead on ordinary factors such as chance, cause and effect. Consequently, if a logical error in a thriller seems blatant, the entire narrative construction may appear to fall down like a house of cards. On the other hand, drama has a logic of its own that needs to be taken into consideration too, otherwise there will be hardly a narrative to speak of. Paradoxes thus make suspension of disbelief a delicate balancing act. An emphasis on the sensible may make a movie more representative of real life, but all the exposition and excuses needed to cover up or fix the improbabilities tend to get in the way of the flow of the narrative. Hitchcock was very clear on this point:

“Aside from the waste of time, they make for gaps and flaws in the picture. Let’s be logical if you’re going to analyze everything in terms of plausibility and credibility, then no fiction can stand up to that approach, and you wind up doing a documentary.”

Hitchcock’s particular brand of storytelling was often improbable, but banal it was not. In order to achieve drama, the old master of manipulation argued that the dull bits of life have to be cut out, resulting in “a slice of cake” rather than a slice of life. He even went so far to claim that filmmakers should have total freedom to do as they like, “just as long as it’s not dull.” Still, as much as Hitchcock would have liked the contrary, the members of the audience do need some convincing. After all, without make-believe there is no movie magic. In the 1990s the Coen brothers came up with a marvelous workaround by opening up their purely fictional Fargo with the following title:

“This is a true story. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.”

A crude way of suspending disbelief, perhaps, but to those who took the message seriously—and there were many—the false introduction turned out to be sublimely effective. The profound influence of such a simply stated lie on the overall viewing experience says something about the value we attach to real events and about how little it takes to alter perception. The trick of the Coen brothers was later repeated to similar effect in movies like The Blair Witch Project and dozens of mockumentaries.

The rules of plausibility

Stanley Kubrick once observed that “most films don’t have any purpose other than to mechanically figure out what people want and to construct some artificial form of entertainment for them.” Our increasing focus on logic and cynical delight in spotting inconsistencies have made plausibility one of the main criteria for evaluation. We’ve collectively robbed the filmmaker of his poetic license and have pushed the artform in a corner where suspension of disbelief, a mere storytelling tool, seems to have become the highest obtainable goal for a filmmaker to achieve. This self-declared No-Bullshit position has increased public interest in films like The Usual Suspects and TV series like CSI; clever variations on straightforward narrative development that sidetrack skepticism by examining a series of “facts” in pursuit of Absolute Truth. Solid entertainment, for sure, but little more than a jigsaw puzzle to kill the time. Ironically enough, these popular examples have as little to do with the real world as any other piece of fiction out there. As long as everything is played by the rules of dramatic convention, the audience does not seem to notice.

Our frame of reference is formed by what we are accustomed to. Traditional Hollywood scriptwriting based on three-act structures, life-defining dilemmas, melodramatic character arcs and emotional pay-offs have seriously screwed up our sense of realism. What we experience as naturalistic in a movie is often nothing but a worn-out stereotype. We are conditioned to accept a hero who does not eat, sleep or shit for days in a row, that the light from the moon is blue, that cars explode as soon as crucial passengers have had the time to crawl out, that thunder and lightning is perceived in perfect sync, that no one bothers to say goodbye at the end of a telephone conversation and that leading ladies in full make-up wrap sheets around their naked bodies as soon as they rise from their beds. We ask no questions about all of this, but we wince at the “incoherencies” in movies that make a genuine effort to stray away from predictable paths.

Looking for truth

Why is realism held in such high regard anyway? Back in 1967 François Truffaut posed the following, most obvious explanation, aimed at the critical establishment:

“It’s sometimes said that a critic, by the very nature of his work, is unimaginative, and in a way, that makes sense, since imagination may be a deterrent to his objectivity. That lack of imagination might account for a predeliction for films that are close to real life.”

Everybody is a critic nowadays. The cult of plausibility might be our way of filtering a culture of information overload. With endless streams of images mirroring each other and continuous loops of resampled soundbites numbing our senses every second of the day, authenticity has become a thing to cherish. So much so that anything with a sheen of realism is automatically construed as more truthful. It is reasonable to assume that the Danish Dogme 95 movement has profited considerably from a cultural elite that had grown weary of audiovisual excess at the close of the 20th century and applauded a return to basic “truths,” not quite realizing that this hardcore take on cinéma vérité was just another opportunity for Lars von Trier and his fellow rebels to mislead the skeptical spectator all over again.

Context is king

Belief is a funny thing. Chuck Jones once said about the sense of absurdity in his animated work: “It doesn’t have to be realistic, as long as it’s believable.” It makes you wonder why a coyote surviving a fall from a cliff for the umpteenth time in a row is somehow more “believable” than Tony Montana taking a few bullets more than medically feasible. And now we’re asking ourselves that question: why do the plausibles seem to have less of a problem with Peter Jackson’s fantastical vision of Middle-earth or the mind-blowing fever dreams of David Lynch?

It has to do with context and expectation. A literal-minded audience that watches a Roadrunner cartoon is more than willing to stretch the imagination because the action takes place in a wacky universe where a total disregard for logic is part of the fun. Its far-outness makes it immune to a sensical approach. The reverse is true for Peter Jackson’s take on Tolkien’s trilogy, in which a mythical world is presented with a sense of authenticity that many appreciate for its extraordinary attention to detail. Because Jackson’s screen retelling was treated as the reconstruction of a historical event, brought to life by elaborate visual effects, art direction, costume and set design founded upon a thoroughly formulated hypothetical culture, millions of people bought into it. And as far as Lynch is concerned—however weird and improbable his twisted tales may be, nowadays they fit more or less conveniently within the extremely flexible parameters of a genre he pioneered: the “mindfuck movie.” Much like Jacob’s Ladder, Abre Los Ojos, Pi, The Sixth Sense, Fight Club, Memento and Donnie Darko, Lynch’s films are surrealistic extravaganzas treading overtly subconscious territory, where we perceive the world distorted through the eyes of an outsider who lost all touch with reality.

Breaking the pattern

Things get much more confusing whenever something with a surface of reliability unravels on the screen. Comforted initially by the prospect of following a recognizable story logic, some viewers come to expect the certainties such a familiar narrative structure implies. Then, if something happens that falls outside the established framework, the plausibles spot it as fakery and cease caring.

Enter Brian De Palma: Ever the non-conformist, De Palma lures the spectator into familiar waters and then, halfway into the movie, flushes all certainties down the drain, reverses the roles of his antagonists, shifts drastically in tone, unveils the identity of the bad guy too early, uses deus ex machina to drown dramatic logic altogether, or worse: makes his femme fatale wake up in a bathtub to show it was all just a bloody dream! When traditional plotting prescribes that subtle clues must be handed out in advance to give the audience a fair shot at guessing the final twist, De Palma turns that expectation against us by subverting the genre itself as a form of misdirection. Providing reliable hints is not what this man is about. De Palma is interested in pulling the rug from under our feet and he does so with a graceful, almost sadistic style that borders on parody and often calls attention to itself. It is hardly surprising that such anarchic behavior has frequently maddened an audience spoon-fed on formulaic crowdpleasers.

Believe it or not, it’s the relative subtlety of De Palma’s deceptions that most infuriates his detractors. To literalists who take his films at face value Brian De Palma doesn’t exaggerate enough to be forgiven for his stylistic eccentricities, schizophrenic obsessions, filmic references, Brechtian devices, off-the-wall inversions and violations of convention. In this light, the plausibles may not view De Palma as a delirious postmodernist, but as a painfully inept, cheating realist. His self-reflexive use of the medium alienates them as much as it mesmerizes others. To be reminded that they are watching “only a movie” pulls the plausibles out of the dream and makes them wonder why they wasted their time looking at something that did not, will not, could not actually happen.

The paradox of fiction

A fair question, actually. Why are we compelled to believe in something that we know to be untrue? How can we be emotionally moved, sometimes to the core, by anything lacking a reasonable dose of verity? Many books and articles have been written about what Noël Caroll called the “Paradox of Fiction.” All of them go out of their way to explain what intellectual mechanism enables fiction to convince our minds that a murder is taking place in front of our eyes, without causing the proper response for us to get up and call 911. In his wonderful article, “How is Disbelief Suspended?” Pablo Ortega-Rodriguez comes to the conclusion that human beings are able to hold a certain “double belief”:

“Think of cases where we execute actions which only make sense if we believe that it is at least reasonably possible to succeed in their objective, although we are in some level deeply convinced that they are completely pointless, as when we are watching the last minutes of a football match wherein our team is losing by many goals: very rarely do we turn off the TV set before the final whistle, and there is a sudden and vivid upset when that ending occurs, although a few seconds before we stated with complete sincerity (seconded by our knowledge of the game) that nothing could be done. In such cases, hope makes us irrational, in that it is not settled with the things we do know and believe about the real world, forming a kind of second ’blind’ belief simultaneous with our ’intelligent’ belief, to the point of seeming to pertain to a second individual inside us.”

Sometimes the improbable makes perfect sense. Not only because escapism helps us to cope with reality, but just as much because fantasy can function as a short-cut to a deeper, poetic truth. Fiction has always been about imagining our lives in a wholly different light, testing ordinary dilemmas within extreme situations and projecting ourselves onto anything we’re not. Metaphors and hyperbole provide a level of abstraction that is often needed to illuminate universal concerns. Faith, fear, love, hope, sex and death: they’re all very much part of the fabric of everyday reality.

Realism versus formalism

Director Todd Haynes defended his radical stylizing in the critically acclaimed Far from Heaven as follows:

“I think the best movies are the ones where the limitations of representation are acknowledged, where the filmmakers don’t pretend those limitations don’t exist. Films aren’t real; they’re completely constructed. All forms of film language are a choice, and none of it is the truth.”

The “impassive lens, stripping its object of all those ways of seeing it” is a more romantic notion than André Bazin has led us to believe. Cinematic realism is only superficial; no matter how naturalistic a filmmaker intends to record reality, what ends up on the screen is hardly objective. What is in or out of the frame depends on perspective, focus and selection, just as much as editing is a manipulative process that places things out of context and modulates time into bits that “matter” and bits that “don’t.” The same can be said about every other part of the filmmaking process, right up to the illusion of movement caused by the projection of a succession of stills. Brian De Palma makes no secret of it: he refuted Jean-Luc Godard’s credo “cinema is truth 24 frames a second” by restating that “the camera lies 24 times a second.”

The above can easily be read as a plea for the formalist tradition, were it not that such one-sided devotion is what has made the plausible argument so problematic to begin with. Film theory would be better off if it moved beyond the classical realist-formalist opposition, since a preference for one school of aesthetics over the other is counter-productive and simply not very relevant anymore. The truth can be revealed in the most accurately visualized naturalistic detail, just as much as it can in the most wildly imaginative allegory. In the most interesting cases, film does both at once. Of all the arts, cinema is unique in its ability to simultaneously capture the world as it is and the way we interpret it, juxtaposing objective and subjective points of view in a curious blend of fact with personal ideology. De Palma’s openly manipulative directing style and self-reflexive deconstructions of the form are ways of showing that perception is limited, that looks deceive and that we should never, ever judge on appearances. This is the truth within the lie. Apparantly, cinema is truth at 24 lies a second.

It takes a certain degree of sophistication to recognize dualities like these and with it comes an acknowledgment of the mechanics behind the magic. Sadly, even though the value of self-reflexivity is widely embraced in literature, theatre and painting, it is far from popular in the movies. Unless a touch of irony delivers us from the medium’s misleading photorealistic surface that blinds us to the layers of meaning underneath, self-conscious cinema mainly succeeds at taking audiences “out of it.” As if escapism is all the medium is good for.

Reevaluating De Palma

Let’s get back to the “flukes” mentioned earlier and see how well they stand up to a closer examination:

How come the gangster still stands after being shot so many times?
De Palma elevates the deplorable career of Tony “Scarface” Montana to equally mythic proportions as the American Dream of which he represents the flip side.

Why are the blood stains on the jewel thief’s shirt still bright red when they should have dried to a brown colour during the seven years he spent in prison?
Because Black Tie’s release in Femme Fatale is a brilliant visual gag that practically oozes tongue-in-cheek. And if you haven’t been paying attention: this image is part of a dream.

Why is the Indian taking forever to kill a woman with that awkward giant drill?
No matter what De Palma has said to defend himself from allegations of misogyny, the drill scene really does a magnificent job of symbolizing the act of penetration, or even rape. Body Double is a story that deals with issues like voyeurism, sexual obsession and female objectification. In an obvious provocation to his detractors at the time, De Palma forces the spectator into the role of the voyeur and makes them complicit in the action. During the prolonged murder scene, we are torn between wanting to save Jake’s object of desire and wanting to have her for ourselves, which makes Jake’s fruitless rescue attempt, the unseen kill and the streams of blood pouring from the hole an analogy for a number of things, along them being premature ejaculation.

Why does the sound technician go through so much trouble to wire the callgirl and send her off to meet a famous news reporter when he could have gone himself (and isn’t it a little too “convenient” that she is not able to recognize this reporter because she never watches the news)?
For Jack Terri in Blow Out, the situation at hand is an ideal excuse to try and win his dignity back. By making his odd decision, he consciously grabs the chance to reenact a traumatic event from his past in the hope to redeem himself by “covering all the bases” this time. If Blow Out is a microcosm for the political scandals and assassinations that took hold of the United States throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s, then Sally’s death can be seen as America’s loss of innocence personified. The fact that Sally does not watch the news emphasizes her naïve purity (despite her job as a call girl, which hints at the fact that America was never that innocent to begin with), while Frank Donahue’s identity as a mask for the evil Burke illustrates the corrupting forces behind mass media.

Yeah, right.

Although these explanations are my own and won’t please everyone, they at least show how open the films of De Palma are to interpretation and how heavy they are on subtext. Surely a lot of people will have overlooked this significant quality in De Palma’s oeuvre, too busy as they were pointing out the pathetic “slip-ups.” It just proves how hard it is to beguile the skeptic. In order to let a work of fiction speak to you, you must be willing to believe.

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Actor

Luckily for Joaquin Phoenix, he’s not up against anyone playing a real-life individual.

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Joker
Photo: Warner Bros.

We’ve reached the halfway point of our rolling Oscar prediction coverage, and I think I speak on behalf of Ed and myself when I say we’re already absolutely spent. Yes, we still have some major rounds of mental gymnastics to undergo for best picture, which most people believe can be won by no fewer than three and as many as six films, and a few other races feel ripe for an upset (we’ve got all eyes on both screenplay categories). But nowhere does the fatigue of even an accelerated Oscar season feel most evident than it does in the acting categories, which at an increasing rate seem to be nailed down even before the Golden Globe and SAG award winners are announced each year.

Yes, we still have the image of Glenn Close nodding and grimly grinning while resignedly slumped over in her front-row chair at the Oscar ceremony last year imprinted in our memory bank, but that universe-disrupting exception only proved the rule. And it’s a rule that, incidentally, is only rivaled in rigidity by what Ed mentioned last week when predicting Renée Zellweger at the beginning of this year’s marathon: “There’s nothing more unwavering than Hollywood’s support for actors playing real-life individuals.”

Luckily for Joaquin Phoenix, who’s going to win the Oscar, he’s not up against anyone playing a real-life individual. Sure, he’s up against Adam Driver playing a thinly veiled version of director Noah Baumbach in Marriage Story, and Antonio Banderas playing a thinly veiled version of director Pedro Almodóvar in Pain and Glory, and Jonathan Pryce playing a thinly veiled version of the faultless, approachable, non-slappy Pope Francis that director Fernando Meirelles sells to the world in The Two Popes. But none of them are in the same class of mimicry-first winners as Rami Malek, Gary Oldman, and Eddie Redmayne.

Add to that the fact that the historically prickly Phoenix has proven himself capable this Oscar season of not only directing his pugilism at worthy causes (being arrested alongside Jane Fonda protesting climate change enablers, comforting slaughterhouse pigs), but also coming off as a genuinely effusive member of the acting community, as when he spent his speech time at the SAG awards paying tribute to his co-nominees and, then, Heath Ledger. He’d have the award even if he wasn’t playing Joker’s real-life version of Donald Trump.

Will Win: Joaquin Phoenix, Joker

Could Win: Adam Driver, Marriage Story

Should Win: Antonio Banderas, Pain and Glory

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Documentary Short

Bet against a message of hope and you may find yourself losing an Oscar pool.

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Learning to Skate in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl)
Photo: Grain Media

Our track record here is spotty, but we’re on a roll, having correctly guessed the winner three years in a row. Just as every film up for the documentary feature prize grapples with the nature of freedom in a world gripped by war, every one nominated for best documentary short concerns the aftermath of trauma. And this category’s history tells us that academy members are quite keen on a certain angle on the process of coping with trauma, which is implicit even in the titles of the films that won here but whose chances we underestimated, such as Mighty Times: The Children’s March and A Note of Triumph.

There isn’t a single dud in this bunch, but a few feel only half-formed. Smriti Mundhra and Sami Khan’s St. Louis Superman, which earned MTV its first Oscar nod, concerns Ferguson activist and battle rapper Bruce Franks Jr. and his efforts to pass a bill recognizing youth violence as a public health crisis after being sworn into the Missouri House of Representatives. A powerful sequence set during a rap battle gives us a complete picture of how the trauma of his younger brother’s death—and, simply, living while black—has come to shape Franks’s politics, but if the short successfully attests to his accomplishments against all odds, it remains conspicuously tight-lipped about his home life and has a final title credits sequence tell us about his future in government that we wished it had actually processed on screen.

John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson’s gripping Life Overtakes Me, the only short in this category with Netflix’s muscle behind it, feels as if it could benefit from simply reporting on a relatively unknown matter: the dissociative condition known as resignation syndrome, a response to the trauma of refugee limbo that has been predominantly observed in children from the Balkans now living in Sweden with their families. The filmmakers vigilantly depict the day-to-day routines of parents struggling to feed their comatose children and keep their limbs as lithe as possible. But the short doesn’t offer enough context about the struggles that brought these families to Sweden and, like St. Louis Superman, it has one read a little too much between the lines, sometimes literally so, as information relating to the asylum process and evolving opinions about resignation syndrome is largely conveyed via on-screen text.

Yi Seung-jun and Gary Byung-seok Kam’s In the Absence plays out like a ghost story, and it’s much less withholding than both St. Louis Superman and Life Overtakes Me. Concerning the 2014 MV Sewol ferry disaster in South Korea, this hauntingly cool-headed short doesn’t lack for astonishing footage of the incident, some of it pulled from the phones of those who were aboard the ship; the shots of the protests that followed the incident, as well as the talking-head interviews from the families of the deceased, are no less harrowing. The filmmakers are ferocious in their condemnation of the various failures of communication that led to the deaths of hundreds aboard the ship, and one deserved target of their contempt is South Korea’s former president, Park Geun-hye. Still, if we have any reservations about our favorite short in this category, it’s over the way it risks leaving some with the impression that the Sewol disaster was largely responsible for the disgraced politico’s downfall.

Now, for those who couldn’t read between the lines of this post’s first paragraph: Bet against a message of hope, as we did in the past when we didn’t rally behind Music by Prudence and Strangers No More, and you may find yourself losing an Oscar pool. As such, In the Absence faces stiff competition from Laura Nix and Colette Sandstedt’s touching but somewhat featherweight Walk Run Cha-Cha, about a young man and woman who, 40 years after being separated during the Vietnam War, and especially Carol Dysinger and Elena Andreicheva’s Learning to Skate in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl), which, spite of its cloying score, chronicles a resistance in a language that will be impossible for most to resist.

Learning to Skate in a Warzone tells the story of a school in Kabul that teaches young girls to skateboard and, by extension, take on the patriarchy. “I don’t want to grow up so I can skate forever,” one girl says at one point. Hopeful words, yes, but we can see their melancholic roots. The filmmakers may not have bombard us with images of violence, but you don’t walk away from this short without understanding the risk of simply seeing that girl’s face speaking those words, in a country where so many girls are destined to become prisoners in their own homes, and are more prone than boys to be the victims of terrorism.

Will Win: Learning to Skate in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl)

Could Win: In the Absence

Should Win: In the Absence

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Live Action Short

It never hurts to let this academy feel as though they’re just liberal enough.

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Brotherhood
Photo: Cinétéléfilms

If last year’s slate in this category reflected, as Ed pointed out, children in peril as the “fetish du jour” for the academy’s shorts committee, the trend certainly didn’t carry over into this year, with only one nominated film dealing with such subject matter. That said, it’s characteristic of this particular category’s history in that it’s among the most galling, sermonizing screeds nominated for any Academy Award this year.

Unlike such previously slated diatribes as That Wasn’t Me or One Day, however, Bryan Buckley’s Saria is explicitly a recreation of a real-life tragedy, a 2017 fire that killed 41 girls in a Guatemalan orphanage, potentially sparked by one of the girls in an act of political protest against their gorgonesque caretakers. That the entire episode touches on just about everything wrong with the world today means it can’t be fully counted out. But it’d be a lot easier to get in the filmmakers’ corner if it didn’t so strongly feel as though they turned the slow-crawling death toll into a bizarre sort of victory lap in the final credits reel. And Oscar voters haven’t been too tacit lately about their aversion of tough messages being shoved down their throats.

Among other nominees with seemingly very little chance at winning, Delphine Girard’s A Sister gave us major déjà vu, and not only from its narrative echoes of recent short Oscar winners The Phone Call and Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1. A well-made exercise in escalating alarm in miniature, this Belgian thriller centers around an emergency operator (Veerle Baetens) who quickly and professionally ascertains the coded cry for help from a caller (Selma Alaoui) being held hostage in the car of a dangerously irrational man (Guillaume Duhesme). Confidently but abstractly directed, the film joins a very long line of Eurocentric thrillers about domestic violence nominated in this category, including Miracle Fish, Just Before Losing Everything, Everything Will Be Okay, and DeKalb Elementary. And if these sorts of films always seem to get nominated, they also never win.

So what does? At this point, this category has a long-ish history of rewarding candidates that are either the only English-language nominee, the most hipster-friendly ironic in nature, or both (Stutterer and Curfew, to name two examples of having those bases covered). This year that sets up a battle between Yves Piat’s Nefta Football Club and Marshall Curry’s The Neighbor’s Window. The former has all the makings of a winner for most of its running time. In it, a pair of brothers (Eltayef Dhaoui and Mohamed Ali Ayari) in Tunisia find a drug mule—an actual mule, that is—wandering around because the pink headphones his handlers (Lyès Salem and Hichem Mesbah) placed on him are playing not Adele’s “Someone Like You,” which would cue the trained animal to return home, but Cheik Hadel. One of the two boys recognizes the mule’s stash for what it is, but the other one presumes it’s laundry detergent, rubbing enough on his tongue that he really should spend the rest of the short tripping balls. The EC Comics-reminiscent twist ensures that the short is never less than glibly cavalier toward geopolitical readings but also comes off like a damp squib compared to the declarative setup.

Similarly anecdotal, The Neighbor’s Window is a schematic empathy fable in Rear Window drag about a ennui-ridden, middle-aged mother (Maria Dizzia) of three captivated by the twentysomething couple (Juliana Canfield and Bret Lada) living in the building across the way. While the short’s milieu offers every opportunity to lean right into the brand of snarky irony that this category favors—the woman’s voyeurism is kicked off when she and her husband (Greg Keller) spy on the younger couple fucking in full view of the rest of the neighborhood—the film remains almost doggedly like a “we all want what we cannot have” teleplay updated for Gen Xers. Still, in that it validates the struggles of the world’s haves, it’s very much in play.

But we’re tempting fate and picking Meryam Joobeur’s Brotherhood as the spoiler. It centers around a Tunisian patriarch (Mohamed Grayaâ) whose oldest son (Malek Mechergui) comes back after years spent in Syria, with a new wife (Salha Nasraoui) whose face-hiding niqāb all but confirms the father’s suspicion that the son has been recruited by ISIS. It’s a minor miracle that the film doesn’t come off as one big finger wag, in part because it comes at the whole “world is going to hell in a handbasket” angle by highlighting mankind’s universal failure to communicate. Equally miraculous is that its shock finale doesn’t resonate as a hectoring “gotcha,” but instead as a proper outgrowth of its reactionary main character’s failure to live up to his own, presumably, liberal identification. Post-Green Book, it never hurts to let this academy feel as though, unlike Brotherhood’s doomed father, they’re just liberal enough.

Will Win: Brotherhood

Could Win: The Neighbor’s Window

Should Win: Brotherhood

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Review: The Turning’s Horror Elements Add Up More to Insult Than Ambiguity

It casts its source as a delusional fantasy through which to enact the effects of possible traumas that go completely unexplored.

1.5

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The Turning
Photo: Universal Pictures

The cultivation of ambiguity has long been integral to the successful horror narrative. The oppressiveness of our fears is always somehow diminished following the explication of their source, and nowhere is this more true than in the subgenre of psychological horror, reliant as these stories are on our ability to trust the perspective of a particular protagonist. We see the world only through their eyes, and therefore we must decide what to believe is true about what has otherwise been presented to us as reality.

Henry James’s 1898 novella “The Turn of the Screw,” previously adapted in 1961 by Jack Clayton as The Innocents and revisited now by Floria Sigismondi as The Turning, is a ghost story that revels in a sense of doubt on behalf of its audience. The novella tells the story of a young and inexperienced governess called upon to care for two children named Flora and Miles, following the death of their parents, in a sprawling mansion called Bly that may or may not be haunted. This is a straightforward premise that offers sinister delights because of our bearing witness to its narrator’s slippage—either into delusion, or into a world where the dead actually walk among us as spectral presences aiming to possess the innocent.

The Turning’s camera often tracks and frames its subjects in purposeful, often striking shots that manage to convey the bigness and intricacy of Bly without sacrificing intimacy with the characters. And the production design is steeped firmly in the tradition of haunted house films, every room and mantelpiece creepily cluttered with dolls and mannequins, gothic mirrors in every corner threatening to expose unseen inhabitants of dark and dusty rooms. The walls along Bly’s claustrophobic and seemingly endless hallways close in on the governess, Kate (Mackenzie Davis), like a vice. Sigismondi brings to the screen a lush and stylish perspective to her material, an attention to detail cultivated in her photography and music video work. And as Flora and Miles, the haunted children who Kate has come to educate and oversee, Brooklynn Prince and Finn Wolfhard deliver sophisticated performances that delicately suggest the inner turmoil of children who have been faced too soon with death.

There’s a pivotal moment around the middle of The Turning where Kate receives a package containing a sheaf of menacing paintings created by her mentally ill mother (Joely Richardson), delivered from the hospital where Kate visited her before leaving for her new post at Bly. The mansion’s stern housekeeper, Mrs. Grose (Barbara Marten), already skeptical of Kate’s merits, has clearly rifled through the artwork and taken note of its sender. Before leaving Kate to examine the paintings alone, Mrs. Grose archly raises aloud the question of whether Kate might have inherited any of her mother’s supposed madness, and this kernel of suspicion regarding the veracity of Kate’s observations about the house and its inhabitants unfortunately serves as conspicuous foreshadowing to the film’s careless conclusion.

In her book of essays The Collected Schizophrenias, which lays bare the experience of mental illness and the various stigmas associated with its diagnosis in contemporary culture, Esmé Weijun Wang writes, “Schizophrenia and its ilk are not seen by society as conditions that coexist with the potential for being high-functioning, and are therefore terrifying.” And it’s no wonder that the horror genre has plumbed the narrative possibilities of instability so completely, presenting countless protagonists over the years whose relative grip on reality provides a story with necessary tension. But the best of these examples use the destabilization provided by a possibly mentally ill character to make broader connections, speaking often, for example, to the subjugation of women in a patriarchal society, such as with the “madwoman in the attic” trope explored by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in “The Yellow Wallpaper.”

Here, though, without any evidence aside from genetics to suggest the possibility of Kate’s cognitive disintegration, The Turning casts its source narrative—the psychosexual haunting of the house by a deceased former governess and valet who had once watched over the children—as a delusional fantasy through which to enact the effects of possible traumas that go completely unexplored. The film’s abrupt ending succeeds only at undercutting and cheapening everything that came before, dressing a vague yet potentially resonant paranoia about sexual violence and male predation as a simple case of undiagnosed mental illness, with no hint at all of the origins of these particular points of stress in its protagonist’s psyche. This kind of ambiguity—not about whether or not Kate has gone mad, but rather about why it actually matters—is a cop out rather than a display of control.

Cast: Mackenzie Davis, Finn Wolfhard, Brooklynn Prince, Barbara Marten Director: Floria Sigismondi Screenwriter: Chad Hayes, Carey W. Hayes Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 93 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Animated Short

Another year, another reminder to take our prediction in this category with a grain of salt.

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Memorable
Photo: Vivement Lundi

Another year, another reminder to take our prediction in this category with a grain of salt. Since 2002, when we first started predicting the Oscar winners, we’ve guessed correctly in this category only eight times, and five of those were in the aughts, when one or more Disney shorts consistently lost to considerably more outré productions. It was a long dry spell for the studio between For the Birds taking the prize in 2002 and Paperman doing so in 2012. Disney now perseveres more times than not, which is why we’re given pause by the fact that, even though this is only the third time since 2002 that the studio doesn’t have a film in the lineup, two nominees here could be described as “Disney-adjacent.”

One of those, Matthew A. Cherry and Karen Rupert Toliver’s charming and poignant Hair Love, had us busting out the hashtags (#OscarsSoWhite, #EverythingIsSoWhite, #WhiteWhiteWhiteIsTheColorOfOurCarpet), wondering if the guilt that AMPAS has about its diversity problems may be a victory-securing source of momentum. That Issa Rae, who saltily congratulated the men in the best director category when she announced this year’s Oscar nominees alongside John Cho, provides the voice for this short about a black father who learns to style his daughter’s hair in the absence of the girl’s mother feels as if it can only help.

At the same time, each day since the Oscar nominations were announced last week seems to bring one of those dreaded articles in which some anonymous academy member is asked about their picks ahead of deadline, and Michael Musto’s recent chat with one such voter has us convinced more than ever that guilt isn’t the average academy member’s chief motivator. Besides, Hair Love faces stiff competition from another Disney-ish, hit-‘em-in-the-feels candidate, Kitbull, which concerns the unlikely kinship that forms between a cat and a dog. It certainly tugged at our heartstrings, and in spite of the short’s bug-eyed cat at times alternately, and distractingly, reminding us of a mouse and an inkblot.

Perhaps inevitably, we found ourselves drawn to the more outré nominees. Siqi Song’s beautifully textured Sister doesn’t lack for memorable images, but my favorite is the one where the brother at the center of the short pulls on his giant baby sister’s outie-cum-Silly-String-umbilical-cord until the child shrinks down to size. This is an at once idiosyncratic and somber meditation on China’s one-child policy, but it left one of us wondering, in the wake of Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang’s One Child Nation being snubbed this year by the academy, if it would resonate with enough voters, and two of us certain that a sizeable portion of the academy’s more liberal members would take more than just the “I had fingerprints four weeks after conception” bit as something akin to a big pro-life billboard.

Remember this old Sesame Street bit? Eric sure did while watching Daughter, a striking rumination about the emotional distance between a father and daughter. Daria Kashcheeva’s expressionistic use of stop motion is haunting, even if the short, amid so much abstraction, doesn’t always evoke believable people. More approachable is Memorable, where the very nature of what can be believed and remembered is the governing principle. All the way until its stunning finale, Bruno Collet and Jean-François Le Corre’s confluence of styles (there are shades here of the “psychorealism” that won Chris Landreth an Oscar in 2005 for Ryan) is in profound conversation with the idea of dementia as a destructuring agent. We’re no strangers to wrongly betting on our favorite short persevering on Oscar night, but Disney consistently loses in years where it has more than one film gunning for this award, so we’re betting that the two Disney-ish shorts will split the vote and pave the way for a Memorable victory.

Will Win: Memorable

Could Win: Hair Love

Should Win: Memorable

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Review: The Last Full Measure Trades Institutional Critique for Hero Worship

The film largely evades any perspectives that might question the institutions that put our soldiers in harm’s way.

1.5

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The Last Full Measure
Photo: Roadside Attractions

Speaking about the time when Air Force pararescue medic William “Pits” Pitsenbarger descended from a helicopter to aid wounded soldiers trapped in an ambush during the Battle of Xa Cam My, a former soldier, Kepper (John Savage), says, “I thought I saw an angel. There he was right in front of me, all clean and pressed.” Pits’s courageous actions during one of the Vietnam War’s bloodiest battles, where he saved nearly 60 lives and perished after refusing to board the last chopper out of the area so he could continue helping out on the ground, are certainly deserving of the Medal of Honor that he was denied for over 30 years. But writer-director Todd Robinson’s hagiographic The Last Full Measure is frustratingly limited in its scope, stubbornly fixating on the heroism of one man and the grateful yet tortured men he saved while largely evading any perspectives that might question the institutions that needlessly put those soldiers in harm’s way in the first place.

Following Scott Huffman (Sebastian Stan), an up-and-coming Pentagon staffer assigned to investigate a Congressional Medal of Honor request for Pits three decades after his death, The Last Full Measure takes on the point of view of an indifferent outsider who doesn’t understand the value of awarding a posthumous medal. Unsurprisingly, as Scott travels the country to meet with several of the soldiers whose lives Pits saved, he slowly comes to revere the man and the lasting impact of his actions. In the roles of these wounded survivors, Ed Harris, William Hurt, Samuel L. Jackson, and Peter Fonda each offer glimpses at the feelings of guilt and mental anguish that continue to haunt the men. Yet before we can get a hold of just what eats away at the former soldiers, and what living with their pain is really like, Robinson repeatedly whisks us via flashback to a dreadfully familiar-looking scene of combat, attempting to uplift the spirits with scene after scene of Pits (Jeremy Irvine) saving various men, all with the cool-headedness and unflappable bravery one expects from an action movie hero.

Throughout numerous walk-and-talk scenes set inside the Pentagon, The Last Full Measure manages to convey some of the countless bureaucratic hoops that must be jumped through to get a Medal of Honor request approved. But the murky subplot involving Scott’s boss, Carlton Stanton (Bradley Whitford), and a supposed cover-up of Operation Abilene, the mission that led to the ambush in the village of Cam My, does nothing but pin the blame for all wrongdoing on a mid-level Pentagon director. And even in that, the film’s only qualms are with a cover-up that prevented Pits from being properly recognized, with no thought whatsoever given to the disastrous wartime decisions that were also being hidden from the public.

In the end, Robinson’s portrayal of a scheming Washington insider suppressing the actions of an infallible, almost angelic fallen soldier lends the film a naively simplistic morality. By fixating on the good that came out of a horrifying situation, and painting institutional corruption as a case of one bad apple, The Last Full Measure practically lets the state off the hook, all the while mindlessly promoting nationalistic ideals of unquestioned duty and honor.

Cast: Sebastian Stan, Christopher Plummer, Samuel L. Jackson, Bradley Whitford, Ed Harris, Diane Ladd, Jeremy Irvine, Michael Imperioli, Alison Sudal, Peter Fonda, William Hurt Director: Todd Robinson Screenwriter: Todd Robinson Distributor: Roadside Attractions Running Time: 115 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Sound Editing

It’s not difficult to rationalize picking the same film to win both sound editing and sound mixing.

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Ford v. Ferrari
Photo: 20th Century Fox

The movement to merge the two Oscar categories for sound into just one is finally picking up some steam after an academy subcommittee favored consolidation in December, but we regret to inform you that the exceptionally rational decision hasn’t yet been ratified, and thus won’t spare us one more year of double-feature kvetching. While the nominating members of the sound branch might know the exact difference between sound mixing and sound editing, and while compulsory Oscar blogging has forced us to know the exact difference as well, numerous academy members clearly don’t.

Case in point: Last year they awarded Bohemian Rhapsody its expected award in sound mixing, where musicals always have an advantage, but also an upset win in sound editing. Unless voters metabolized Singer’s violent blitzkrieg of a film and simply misremembered hearing explosions throughout, that’s not the vote of an informed electorate.

From our perspective as prognosticators, though, it’s not difficult to rationalize picking the same film to win both awards, especially in the absence of a musical. While there have been plenty of years we’ve carbon-copied our predicted winner in both categories only to see them split (even three ways, as in 2012, when Les Misérables took sound mixing, and Skyfall and Zero Dark Thirty tied for sound editing), getting one prediction right is better than getting none at all, especially in a year like this where, to judge from both slates, sound equals fury.

One thing’s fairly certain: You can probably go ahead and count out Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. The new trilogy failed to add any more Oscar wins to the franchise, and, in fact, a Star Wars film has never won a competitive award for sound editing. Episodes seven and eight lost to, respectively, a chase movie and a war movie, and this year’s top two contenders here are arguably the exact same pairing. While 1917 is still considered by many to be a frontrunner for best picture, we’re pretty sure the onslaught of vintage motors roaring for the climactic quarter-hour of Ford v. Ferrari will get voters right in the dad spot.

Will Win: Ford v. Ferrari

Could Win: 1917

Should Win: Ford v. Ferrari

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Review: Guns of the Trees Wears Its Looseness as a Badge of Honor

The film is but one deliberately imperfect piece of a vast slipstream.

2.5

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Guns of the Trees
Photo: Anthology Film Archives

Jonas Mekas establishes the tone of 1961’s Guns of the Trees with a director’s statement, declaring that the “mad heart of the insane world” has prevented him from finishing the film. What follows, Mekas asserts, is “a sketchbook,” a “madhouse sutra,” “a cry.” And such a description aptly articulates the film’s melodramatic, self-pitying sense of yearning, which is driven by Mekas’s career-spanning need to contexualize the divide of artifice that separates artist from audience. To Mekas, sketch-like scenes represent a refutation of staid, insidious craftsmanship that can smooth out rougher and more resonant contours.

In the case of the quasi-fictional Guns of the Trees, Mekas follows a handful of young people in New York City as they hang out and grapple with the state of modern existence, decrying America’s involvement in Cuba, the development of the atom bomb, and various other atrocities that underscore the awfulness of the imperial machine. Occasionally, Allen Ginsberg reads his poetry over the soundtrack, his scalding free-associational verse conjuring an anger that the film’s characters can’t quite articulate, while providing Guns of the Trees with another element of the literary. A little of Ginsberg’s poetry goes a long way. What is the “hunger of the cannibal abstract” and why can’t man endure it for long?

Ginsberg’s bebop phrasing complements Mekas’s fragmentary images, which are alternately ludicrous and lovely. In keeping with the sketchbook concept, the film wears its unevenness and looseness as aesthetic badges of honor. A framing device in which two businessmen in white mime makeup wander a cabbage patch in near hysteria, in all likelihood embodying the ageless corruption of man, is self-consciously oblique and edgy, feeling like an earnest film student’s pastiche of 1920s-era avant-garde tropes. Other scenes, however, poignantly detail life in the early ‘60s, such as when a woman sits her husband down in a chair in their loft and cuts his hair, or when a man tries to talk his drinking buddy down from an intoxicated rant. These scenes have the humor and behavioral specificity of John Cassasvetes’s films, evoking the comforting rhythm of the little moments that come to define us.

Guns of the Trees belongs to an easily mocked beatnik era, when people discussed whether to conform or be free while listening to folk music and reading Ginsberg and smoking grass. At times, even Mekas seems to be on the verge of ribbing his subjects’ sincerity. For all their thrashing about, these people seem prosperous and more interested in speaking of revolution than in truly sparking it. Ben (Ben Carruthers) sells life insurance, prompting the film’s funniest line, when a potential client asks, “Don’t you still believe in death?” A young woman named Barbara (Frances Stillman) is gripped by authentic depression though, and her suicide haunts Ben, Gregory (Adolphus Mekas), and Ben’s wife, Argus (Argus Spear Julliard).

If the beatnik navel-gazing dates Guns of the Trees, Mekas’s docudramatic eye memorably revels in poetic details throughout. His protagonists wander through fields, which suggest the rice fields of Vietnam, and junkyards that testify both to the beauty and the waste of mainstream society. The play of light off the twisted metal of the trashed cars suggests found sculpture, while indirectly conjuring the wreckage wrought by the wars the characters protest. Such images, which include profoundly intimate close-ups of the characters’ faces, also anticipate the rapture offered by future Mekas “sketchbook” films such as Walden.

Mekas would go on to pare away the preachiness of Guns of the Trees from his subsequent work, as he increasingly honed a personal style that would make ecstasy out of the commonplace, utilizing multimedia and a restless syntax to suggest how memory intricately shapes life. Guns of the Trees is but one deliberately imperfect piece of a vast slipstream.

Cast: Adolfas Mekas, Frances Stillman, Ben Carruthers, Argus Spear Juillard, Frank Kuenstler, Louis Brigante Director: Jonas Mekas Screenwriter: Jonas Mekas Running Time: 86 min Rating: NR Year: 1961

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Animated Feature

Forky rules.

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Toy Story 4
Photo: Walt Disney Studios

Completist-prone Oscar prognosticators were dealt a merciful hand last week when the Oscar nominations were announced and Frozen II didn’t show up in this category. But the winning hand belongs to Toy Story 4, which likely lost the Golden Globe to Missing Link as a result of a vote split between the two Disney properties. Sentiment to reward the American-based production studio Laika is brewing, and the fitfully droll Missing Link will, like Kubo and the Two Strings before it, probably find favor at the BAFTAs, but Laika’s latest and most expensive production to date dramatically bombed at the box office. And while no one will be weighing between the film and I Lost My Body, a singularly and actively morose and creepy film that won’t appeal to the academy at large, this category’s short history tells us that the Mouse House is only vulnerable to the biggest money makers. Also, Forky rules.

Will Win: Toy Story 4

Could Win: Missing Link

Should Win: I Lost My Body

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Supporting Actor

Pitt winning here will seem like the stars are lining up given what went down when he was first nominated in 1995.

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Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood
Photo: Columbia Pictures

We didn’t predict Anthony Hopkins to get nominated here, thinking that the Golden Globes’s enthusiasm for The Two Popes was a fluke. We were wrong, and he ended up becoming the elder statesman in an acting lineup that contains, on average, by far the oldest nominees. The person we predicted to get in instead, Marriage Story’s Alan Alda, is a year older than Hopkins, so we certainly weren’t betting the farm on any male ingénues.

On the other hand, it sure feels like spry 56-year-old Brad Pitt, who opened his acceptance speech at last night’s SAG Awards with a joke about having a Tinder profile, had this award in the bag the moment his Marlboro Man-ish handyman hopped atop his buddy’s roof to fix the antenna in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, whipping off his shirt to reveal a tawny, fully-abbed torso that scarcely seems to have aged in the nearly 30 years since he seduced the country in Thelma & Louise. He, as Leonardo DiCaprio’s co-lead, has a lot more to do throughout than just doff tees, but the “I’m still here” virility of that moment embodies the entire film’s love letter to old-guard masculinity in Tinseltown.

Not that anyone’s reading too deeply into it, not when there’s good old-fashioned awards numerology to fall back on. Within minutes of the nominations being announced, Oscar Twitter jumped on the fact that the best supporting actor slate this year is composed of acting winners from 1990 (Joe Pesci), 1991 (Anthony Hopkins), 1992 (Al Pacino), and 1993 and 1994 (Tom Hanks). Fewer pointed out that Pitt was also a nominee in 1995 for 12 Monkeys, losing out to the now-canceled Kevin Spacey. Which makes it seem all the more poetically like the stars are lining up when Pitt wins for a film whose finale proposes a rousing bit of alternate, corrective history in which the “good” guys obliterate the “bad” ones.

Will Win: Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Could Win: Joe Pesci, The Irishman

Should Win: Tom Hanks, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

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