Editor’s Note: The House Next Door is 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 09/17/2005, under the editorial guidance of James M. Moran.
Maybe our mothers were right all along. Maybe true beauty really does come from within. Or doesn’t it? A considerable part of today’s critical establishment would seem to agree with Mom’s assertion, for the tired “style over substance” rant is currently all too frequently aimed at films that display a dash of visual flair. In fact, some reviewers are so taken by the concept that they will praise a movie’s aesthetic only to lay bare the gaping emptiness underneath.
Just ask yourself how many times you’ve come across the following platitudes:
“For all its visual splendor, this movie is really just a mindless piece of crap.”
“The film’s technical bravura can’t make up for its sluggish plot.”
“A typical case of flashy pictures camouflaging for shallowness.”
“Fortunately the director has kept the stylistic tomfoolery to a minimum.”
“If you like gee-whiz visual pyrotechnics above a decent story, this one’s for you.”
Apparently, looks are deceiving and we’d better believe the critics instead, for according to those who know best, the Holy Grail of cinema lies buried deep below its silver surface where absolutely no one is able see it.
The treachery of images
It’s not hard to figure out where this skepticism of visual style comes from. After all, we’ve all been fooled by appearances before. Whether it’s the luring call of commerce or the friendly face of politics, reality proved to us time and again that looks are not to be trusted. Much like our mothers used to tell us, it’s what’s inside the packaging that counts. So whenever we come face to face with a slick presentation, our antennae go up, our faith crumbles and the magic comes to a screeching halt as we try to see through the magician’s trick. If it looks impressive on the outside, we reckon, something rotten must be at the core: All style and no substance. It’s the knee-jerk response of a mediawise audience that has trained itself to distrust glossy surfaces. Seen through our world-weary eyes a pretty visage has thus become suspicious by definition and every blinking light, every bell and every whistle is more evidence against the defendant.
Fair enough, the entertainment industry sure loves those bells and whistles. And in spite of our skepticism, a part of us must love them too, because the average moviegoer pays big bucks to behold them. Without the slightest hint of guilt, we marvel at the latest breakthrough achievement in special effects, outrageous art direction, bling bling costume design or a set-wrecking stunt sequence. As long as we’re not expected to take the thrill anymore seriously than a theme park ride, we relish in superficiality as much as we look down upon it. Hardly surprising then, that directors of eye-popping Hollywood extravaganzas like The Mummy Returns, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, Bad Boys II, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Catwoman are more than happy to dazzle their audiences without having anything particular to say. If it’s flashy pictures we ask for, it is flashy pictures we’ll get.
But if we are to believe the critical “connoisseurs,” these derivative box office attractions are only the tip of the iceberg. Just check the reviews, in print and on the Web, and you’ll notice that the style-over-substance accusation is just as easily brought up in reference to offbeat fare like Lola Rennt, The Limey, Fight Club, In The Mood For Love, Elephant and Oldboy. This would imply that, according to quite a number of (largely self-proclaimed) experts, the names Tom Tykwer, Steven Soderbergh, David Fincher, Wong Kar-wai, Gus Van Sant and Chan-wook Park deserve to be thrown on the same pile as Stephen Sommers, Simon West, McG, Michael Bay, Stephen Norrington and Pitof. With all due respect to the latter league of hard-working gentlemen: Jean-Claude Van Damme may kick serious butt, he’s not exactly Sean Penn either, is he?
Even if we have good reasons to frown upon the hollow spectacle of the average blockbuster, it’s quite a different thing—not to say rather crass—to claim that a medium’s formalist qualities are only skin-deep. To claim that is to confuse aesthetics with cosmetics and to ridicule the meaning of form altogether. But precisely this has become the order of the day. A persistent focus on false appearances and communicative noise has caused audiences and critics alike to mistake the exception for the rule. As a result, we’ve arrived at a point where style in film is hardly taken seriously at all.
Have we forgotten that once upon a time, long long ago, style was not supposed to distract from the message, let alone disguise a lack of content? To the contrary: that style was supposed to express substance, reveal it, enhance it, complement it? And if we did forget all about pure cinema and effective communication, are we still able to separate the fancy gift wraps from the real thing?
Form Follows Function and other dictums
As it seems, evaluative film criticism analyzes style from a predominantly functionalist standpoint. There’d better be a solid motivation behind whatever fills the screen, no matter what. Actually, this very motive is about the only thing that interests most reviewers—the visuals themselves, or how they make us feel, pretty much leave them cold. It is telling for how lazy film criticism has become that reviewers don’t even bother to look for the meaning encrypted in the images. They’re attempting to read without an interest in the vocabulary.
In line with the famous modernist motto Form Follows Function—a principle that justifies stylistic choices as the organic consequence of a certain intended purpose—filmic form is almost exclusively appreciated for its utilitarian potential to ensure the fulfillment of a much Higher Goal: the story, or more particularly, its substance. This humble design philosophy never discouraged true modernists from establishing a not-so-humble artistic idiom all of their own. Some would even argue the Form-Follows-Function dictum was their mythical excuse to legitimize an out-and-out formalist aesthetic indeed. Cinema’s contemporary critical elite has all the same dispensed with every possible grain of salt to take the functionalist doctrine to new extremes.
In a nutshell, the “culturally correct” assumption is this: a substantial story equals a ripping yarn built around a lofty theme, played out by characters you can believe in and backed up by a fair amount of logic. Compared to this giant cornerstone of Good Taste, a movie style or form is seen as a redundant triviality, acceptable only insofar it doesn’t overshadow the fundamental narrative and serves the aforementioned intended purpose, being the narrative. Note the word “serves”—the substance police make it abundantly clear that the dominant position is already taken. Style has become the slave to story’s dominion instead of the elemental means of expression it ought to be.
I am not implying that there is something wrong with narrative film. Neither am I placing formalism above realism. The heart of the problem lies in a rather pointless but seemingly ineradicable distinction in film criticism that keeps emphasizing style as a separate entity from substance, whereas the one should be biologically connected to the other. Nouvelle Vague director Jean-Luc Godard described this natural synthesis better than anybody else:
“To me, style is just the outside of content, and content the inside of style, like the outside and the inside of the human body—both go together, they can’t be separated.”
And still critics choose to splice the unity of style and content over and over again. A real pity, because Godard’s formulation carries style beyond the mere serviceable and offers a way of acknowledging form as the outward manifestation of content. This criterion—style as the shape of substance—may sound pretentious, but those who examine films accordingly are likely to hit upon levels of meaning overlooked by others.
Three degrees of style-driven cinema
Valid points could be made in favor of specific films that do value style over substance. To name but one: if style over substance is as despicable as some experts believe it to be, what makes substance over style more praiseworthy? But before we can truly begin to get our head around style’s significance, it should be made clear that the style-over-substance label isn’t just sloppily applied, but insufficient to begin with. The word “over” suggests that style prevails at the cost of substance—as if style by itself is incapable of prompting any thought. True in the case of Catwoman, for sure, but Elephant or The Limey hardly deserve the same qualification. With this in mind, it is reasonable to propose two degrees of style-driven cinema independent from style over substance: style as substance and substance in style.
In films that fall under the style as substance category, style takes on a substance of its own. These movies are, quite literally, about their style. In a visually oriented world, that must count for something. Estimable examples are just about any film by Quentin Tarantino, as well as Baz Luhrman’s Moulin Rouge, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Le Fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain, the Coen brother’s The Man Who Wasn’t There, Roman Coppola’s CQ, Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers and Sin City by Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller. Such titles are so filled to the brink with aesthetic value, mood, kinetic poetry and cultural reference that their stylistic bravado alone functions as a sort of exoskeleton holding the film together, even without the holy trinity of plot, theme and character development as traditional backbone. Predictable enough for something so dependent on style, whether you dig these movies or not is more a question of personal taste than anything else. No matter how well they’re put together, they are only as profound as they resonate for you. But however you may feel about them, at least they have plentiful personality.
Substance in style, the third degree of style-driven cinema, is something else entirely. And apart from the nametag I just gave it, it’s nothing new either; going back as it does to the cinema of old school formalists like Fritz Lang, Michael Powell and Orson Welles. These renowned visual stylists used form to evoke and flesh out an inherent message—hence substance in style. Lang, Powell and Welles never settled for style as the proverbial icing on the cake; their aesthetic sense was always an integral part of the whole baking process, down to the careful selection of only the finest spices and freshest ingredients to bring out that special pastry flavor. The result? Not your average brownie, that’s for sure. Their films are so tightly composed that form and content become near inseparable. A perfect harmony is achieved in a style that reinforces the story and a story that elicits the style in return. Sadly, new releases that pick up on this almost forgotten recipe are likely to be mistaken for brainless eye candy.
To say that substance in style is underrated these days would be an understatement. It is in desperate need of a re-appraisal. So let’s concentrate on the highest degree of style-driven cinema, then, and investigate a prime example. And while we’re conducting this inquiry, why not treat it like an actual case? We could assemble the facts and handle them as they would in court. You, the reader, can be the jury. Let’s see… Which visual stylist will we sue for this? But of course! Who else could be more appropriate than the usual suspect?
Your Honor, in the case of Style vs. Substance, I call to the stand the defendant:
Brian De Palma.
The peculiar case of Brian De Palma
How ironic can you get? The filmmaker who has arguably suffered most from the style-over-substance stigma—in itself the product of a deep-rooted skepticism of fancy appearances—has spent the better part of a career spanning four decades exploring the treachery of images as a central theme. Yet somehow, Brian De Palma’s stylistic sensibility consistently has been taken at face value.
What is behind this peculiar case of film critic’s myopia? Diversion, mostly. In a sense, De Palma made it way too easy for the prosecution to defeat him, having regularly handed his detractors the beating stick on a silver platter. Especially De Palma’s fondness for bloody set pieces involving luscious ladies in peril made him the favorite whipping boy for critics with a nut to crack about the deteriorating state of cinema.
An over-confident prosecution warms up the jury:
Look at all that gratuitous sex and violence! Look at all that high-buffed gloss, those showy camera angles! Those ridiculously far-fetched plot twists! Just look at the ripped-off sequences this fraud wants us to call “homages!” Surely such an oversized bag of tricks must mean the filmmaker in question has a lot of shallowness to compensate for.
The defense rises:
Objection, Your Honor! Counsel is arguing his case.
Objection sustained. Signature De Palma techniques like the split screen, the long take, slow motion and the stalking camera are usually dismissed as style for style’s sake, simply because they attract so much attention to themselves. It never occurs to the De Palma naysayers that these techniques do so for a reason: because there are messages encrypted in the form. Indeed, to “see through” the surface of De Palma’s cinematic design means missing the point completely. Its substance is in the style.
The prosecution bites:
Very well, let’s shed some light on this supposed collective blind spot to get a hint of what we are missing, shall we? How about Mr. De Palma’s self-reflexive use of slow motion? Surely there’s no way to defend this frivolous indulgence of the shameless aesthete?
The defense takes up the challenge and explains how slow motion is a technique De Palma has developed over many years and that its application can be justified for various reasons. To heighten the sense of urgency and create suspense in what normally would be surprise (Carrie, The Fury). To add emotional resonance and dramatically punctuate the narrative (Obsession, Casualties of War). To analyze cause and effect and deconstruct the method in the temporal madness (The Untouchables, Raising Cain). To give grace to tragedy and amplify the inevitable by suspending and almost freezing the time that’s bringing it (Blow Out, Femme Fatale). And finally to sustain moments that usually pass us by much too quickly and enrapture us with life’s naked essence. One could call that a “frivolous indulgence,” the defense calls it “pretty damn substantial.”
But we’re only scratching the surface, really. Let’s not isolate one technique from the larger objective. If we track back and overview De Palma’s erratic filmography—shifting as it does between hit and flop, cult, mainstream and avant-garde—a returning stylistic pattern becomes evident. Not only do his films frequently contradict with each other, they each contain a multitude of antagonisms of their own. They’re at once moral and manipulative, compassionate and calculating, gorgeous and repellent, spellbinding and unsettling, sardonic and rhapsodic, gloomy and sublime. Looking at a De Palma film is entering a land of paradox. No wonder the man has always inspired controversy: De Palma’s entire oeuvre is the pinnacle of conflict.
The prosecution can’t stand it any longer:
Objection, Your Honor. Lack of foundation. Pretty pictures may be the defendant’s specialty, but what’s the point? Stylistic coherence cannot pass for substance when ultimately it leads to nothing. Forget the form, where’s the meaning?
Overruled. The meaning is right there in the form. Right there in that recurring paradox motif. De Palma has explained himself as an artist who works on moral outrage. Another typical De Palma axiom: no matter how immoral his movies may appear (his talent for infusing all things nasty with poetry is legendary), at the heart they are intricate tales of morality. From the revenge fantasies that make up Carrie and The Fury to the cathartic moment of forgiveness in Casualties of War; from the fruitless run for redemption at the close of Blow Out to the divine second chance given in Femme Fatale; from the sleazy adventures of an all-American housewife to the hooker with a heart of gold in Dressed to Kill—they’re all vivid representations of the dualism between the righteous and the crooked, the vulnerable and the obscene, of predestination versus willpower, of crime and punishment.
De Palma’s characteristic use of discordant style elements like the double, parallel action sequences, split screen and split-diopter shots, rear projection, reverse angles, clashing archetypes and symbolic inversions serve not to show off his directing skills, but are there to help the viewer see both sides of the moral coin and explore the effect of contrarian choices during similar opportunities. What better way to lay bare the mechanisms of fate, choice, power, obsession and betrayal than to let your audience experience the subjectivity of truth firsthand through multiple points of view, or to follow two people who are either polar opposites or a close match within the same storyline? If the similarity is obvious, the difference will be easier to detect. And it’s the difference that matters in a morality tale; the difference between fortune and tragedy, life and death, innocence and guilt, failure and success. Knowing that nuance is to know right from wrong, or to realize how hard it is to make that difference.
Despite the archetypes and schematic structures, De Palma never arrives at a black and white conclusion. He deceives expectation to reveal there is no such thing as a single truth, or that our perception of it is incomplete. Even when his doubles expose a yin/yang dynamic right from the beginning, he complicates matters by reversing roles halfway through the film (Rick Santoro and Kevin Dunne in Snake Eyes), juggling around with false identities (Gloria Revelle and Holly Body in Body Double, the face swapping in Mission: Impossible) or fusing his antagonists (Dr. Robert Elliott and Bobbi in Dressed to Kill, Carter and Cain in Raising Cain). This eloquent masquerade and constant shifting of perspective is what makes De Palma’s oeuvre so fascinatingly ambiguous. Ultimately, all his works share a uniquely personal vision on the duality of Man.
Kubrick vs. De Palma: two kinds of visual stylists
The trial suddenly takes a shocking turn when the prosecution is permitted to call for a surprise witness: none other that the great Stanley Kubrick! We hear a loud gasp and muttering from the corner of the defense. Just now that Style was making progress, in comes this other bearded American auteur known and, yes, actually respected for his formalistic excellence. This powerhouse director should be on the defendant’s side—they’re even linked thematically!—but oddly enough he’s here to testify in the name of Substance instead. Beads of sweat form on Mr. De Palma’s forehead. If there were one visionary with the baggage to crush his defense at the final hour, it would be this revered colleague.
The prosecution thanks the late Mr. Kubrick for coming:
We know you’re not much of a talker, especially in your current condition, so we’ll keep it short. You are without a doubt familiar with the defendant’s… how shall we put it… baroque stylistic idiom. The evidence shown over the course of this trial—location photographs, storyboards, computer models—have given us an idea about the excessive lengths Mr. De Palma is willing to go in order to establish his cinematic vision prior to shooting. One would presume that a skilled director like yourself is as concerned as Mr. De Palma when it comes to aesthetic matters like, say, the placing of the camera or the staging of a scene. Could you please tell the Court if you approve the formalist working tactic of the defendant?
From the witness box, Mr. Kubrick lets out a deep sigh:
I find that, with very few exceptions, it’s important to save your cinematic ideas until you have rehearsed the scene in the actual place you’re going to film it. The first thing to do is to rehearse the scene until something happens that is worth putting on film—only then should you worry about how to film it. The what must always precede the how.
Sound bites like these may not have won Kubrick any Oscars during his lifetime, but the members of the jury are nodding approvingly today. Aha! The what must always precede the how: Form Follows Function. This sounds more assuring than what the furious Mr. De Palma proclaimed earlier in the trial, when he interrupted the examination of substance-expert Marcia Pally by banging his fist on the table, shouting:
I’m a visual stylist, a VISUAL STYLIST! I’m dealing with a white canvas up there and I may be one of the few practitioners doing that today. […] The content of my films is a secondary issue. I don’t start with an idea about content; I start with a VISUAL IMAGE.
There it is. Style shapes substance instead of style serves substance. De Palma’s formalist working method is the antipode to Kubrick’s more widely accepted functionalist approach. His most personal films are, in his own words, “driven by visual ideas, as opposed to character-driven or story-driven.” Just listen to De Palma’s initial inspiration for making neo-noir thriller Femme Fatale:
I always wanted to make a movie with a film noir protagonist because I think these women are so much fun—they’re dark, they’re sexy, they’re manipulative. I tried to find a venue to make that work in and then I got this idea of putting this noir story into this dream sequence, because I don’t think you can do noir straight in a kind of realistic setting.
In De Palma’s case, form finds function. He uses a style element as starting point—in this case an archetype belonging to a specific genre he finds amusing—to later spin a story around it. Does this reversed working order have a noticeable impact over the end result? The judge gives the last word to Mr. Kubrick:
I think it’s worthwhile for anyone interested in filmmaking to study the contrast between the films of Eisenstein and those of Chaplin, which is another way of referring to the difference between style and content. The greatness of Eisenstein’s films represents the triumph of cinematic style over heavy-handed, often simple-minded content. Chaplin’s films are masterpieces of content, taste, and sensibility over what is virtually a noncinematic kind of technique. If I had to choose between the two, I would take Chaplin.
Ah, that settles it then! The prosecution smiles and lets the judge know it has no further questions. Mr. Kubrick continues:
Fortunately, the two approaches are not mutually exclusive…
Absolute silence in the courtroom. Oh my, the witness just blew the case! Read Kubrick’s last sentence again: The two approaches are not mutually exclusive. This goes a long way to explaining why Kubrick’s films were stylistically just as revisionist as they were in terms of content, and why the seemingly superficial qualities of De Palma’s films prove more complex and multilayered with each subsequent viewing.
Even if De Palma’s working method might not have worked for Kubrick, it’s just another approach to arrive at basically the same thing. Whereas Kubrick’s cinematic visions were tailor-made to fit a predetermined subject of interest, De Palma trusts his formalist instincts to intuitively lead him to the root of his obsession. That doesn’t mean that Kubrick was a poorer visual stylist or that De Palma has fewer things to say; it just means different artists draw from different sources of inspiration. De Palma’s starting point is the form, for Kubrick it was content. Yet unlike Chaplin and Eisenstein, these two visual stylists meet each other halfway because of a shared interest in using the medium to its fullest.
My impression is that “style over substance” is less the skeptic’s phrase than it is the cynic’s. Its increased usage within critical circles indicates an ignorance of, or even latent contempt for, the unique possibilities of the cinematic art form. I wonder where this sarcasm stems from. Is it because reviewers today hold craftsmanship in higher esteem than artistry? Is it because film criticism puts too much emphasis on the mighty mechanics of plot, psychology and plausibility? Or is it simply the medium’s unparalleled photographic realism that urges critics to judge movies by naturalistic rather than aesthetic standards?
Probably all of the above. But whatever the reasons, they can’t be reason enough for style to be critically less regarded in the world of cinema than it is in the realms of literature, painting, design, architecture and performing arts. Have you ever stumbled upon a critical bashing of Shakespeare’s ornamental use of the iambic pentameter? I didn’t think so.
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury… Have you reached a verdict?
Review: Martin Margiela: In His Own Words Celebrates Secrecy as Fashion Power
Reiner Holzemer’s adulation of his subject feels most credible because he spends a lot of time focusing on the clothes.3
A major reason behind Maison Martin Margiela’s appeal was the French luxury fashion house’s embrace of secrecy and anonymity. The company’s eponymous founder stopped doing interviews or allowing himself to be photographed as his brand grew in popularity throughout the 1990s. Seating at his runaway shows became available on a first-come-first-serve basis. The runway models’ faces were often obstructed by veils and masks. The labels on the fashion house’s clothing bore no name, only four white stitches. Even Margiela’s stores lacked signage and weren’t listed in the yellow pages.
Keeping in line with this commitment to counter the cultural injunction of hyper-presence, Reiner Holzemer’s documentary Martin Margiela: In His Own Words comes to life through Margiela’s narration, though all we see of the Belgian-born designer are his hands and the subversive artifacts that comprise his oeuvre. We don’t see what Margiela looks like, only what he makes. This self-imposed obstruction points the film toward a less conventional direction, preventing it from becoming an all-to-familiar fashion hagiography rife with talking heads. And the effacing of Margiela’s face replicates the conceptual framework of the designer’s own practice while also forcing the film to inhabit a self-reflective sphere.
That sphere, which allowed for Margiela’s ethics to emerge and blossom, was one of crisis and contemplation in the wake of self-centered ‘80s excess. And those ethics involved a critical, playful, and at times even a mocking stance vis-à-vis the fashion industry’s tendency toward ephemerality, feminine objectification, and wasteful luxury, all while profiting from them. In sartorial terms, that meant that Margiela’s models wore dry-cleaning plastic bags atop their garments; that collections were staged at such locations as a subway stations and a Salvation Army; that the models’ necks were accessorized with colorful ice jewels that, as they melted, stained the garments; and that the red paint applied to the bottom of models’ heels just before the start of a runaway show led to catwalks looking like a Tarantino bloodbath.
Margiela is obviously not the only designer to instill meta-critiques into fashion spectacle. Jum Nakao’s shows have featured elaborate gowns made out of paper that the models rip at the end, and Alexander McQueen’s ready-to-wear collection from 2001 included impossibly sexy models in hospital headbands and a Leigh Bowery-esque masked figure surrounded by moths. The latter show remains a classic example of fashion doing two presumably antithetical things at once: protesting the sale of bodies as high-priced goods by selling bodies as high-priced goods. Holzemer’s documentary makes the case for Margiela’s revolutionary ethos to be understood as akin to Andy Warhol’s and establishes his critical approach as less of a trick than a genuine life principle that’s guided him from the start, as a child fabricating kooky wigs for his Barbies, to his divesting from his own company in 2009.
Holzemer’s adulation of his subject feels most credible because he spends a lot of time focusing on the clothes. The images of collections and the occasional animation of sartorial sketches serve less as evidence of glamour than of technique—or how abstract principles such as ecology and honesty take shape in the materiality of the garment, its design, and the assembly process. A contextualization of the artist’s approach to his craft escapes boring biographical expectation (we’re introduced to Margiela’s childhood midway through the film) and allows us to see—at the level of the fabric and its mise-en-scène—how the designer borrowed from Rei Kawakubo’s deconstructive aesthetics, Pierre Cardin’s theatrics, Jean Paul Gaultier’s rock concert atmosphere, and Brigitte Bardot’s unflappable femininity.
Holzemer doesn’t shy away from exploring Margiela’s commercial failures, such as his critically panned collaboration with Hermes. The director is smart to, once again, let Margiela’s creations do the talking, which here means exposing the fashion critics at the time as simply unable to see the sophistication in the presumably simple. The juxtaposition of Margiela’s subversion with Hermes’s aristo-bourgeois classicism was supposed to produce some kind of scandalous monster. The collection was instead received as a buzz-killing disappointment for its restraint. But as its delicately trimmed coats and Gilda Hayworth gloves prove, the extravagance lay in Margiela’s refusal to provide what audiences anticipated and what critics prescribed. Once that model became unsustainable the designer chose consistency over compromise, rejecting the vulgarity of fast fashion and perpetual visibility. The kind of classy exit that separates ethics as mere rhetoric from ethics itself.
Director: Reiner Holzemer Screenwriter: Reiner Holzemer Distributor: Oscilloscope Running Time: 90 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Boys State Presents an Aptly Dire Microcosm of American Politics
The film suggests that our political system is a popularity contest that functions for no one but those jockeying for power.3
Initiatives to get young people involved in politics are often organized in service of a given party agenda, but the “non-partisan” Americanism of the American Legion’s Boys and Girls State programs differentiates them from groups like the Young Republicans, while somehow also managing to make the blind enthusiasm of youthful politics even more off-putting. Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss’s Boys State offers a skeptical take on the eponymous summer leadership and citizenship programs. A disconcerting mix of a Boy Scouts outing and Model U.N., the Boys State program, based on the evidence presented in the film, appears to be less an educational tool or a communal gathering of like-minded youth, and more an indoctrination into a cultish fetishization of American power politics.
McBaine and Moss predominantly focus on four boys participating in the Texas iteration of the annual gathering in which, as the opening-credits graphics inform us, such dubious luminaries as Dick Cheney and Rush Limbaugh also participated in their youth. While the program’s participants are overwhelmingly white, able-bodied, and conservative, the four boys who rise to fake-government power don’t quite fit that stereotyped Texan mold: René Otero is a black, liberal Chicago transplant (“I’ve never seen so many white people in one place in my life,” he confesses at one point); Steven Garza is Latino, and was inspired to get into politics by Bernie Sanders; Ben Feinstein is a Reagan-worshipping arch-conservative with two prosthetic legs (he had meningitis as a child); and Rob Macdougall, a breezily confident white boy who publicly plays the right-wing All-American, privately harbors pro-choice convictions.
After the program’s 1,100-plus participants arrive in Austin—all clad in the same white uniform shirts, like members of a religious mission—they’re randomly split into two political parties, the Federalists and the Nationalists, in reference to the constitutional debate of the 1780s, though the particulars of that nation-founding conversation play no part in how each party is meant to behave. Instead, each group organizes and forms a contemporary party platform, and, using the actual facilities of the Texas state government, runs candidates for governor against one another. This, presumably, is how it came to pass that in 2017, the year before the documentary was filmed, Texas Boys State voted to secede from the Union.
One might be tempted to conclude that the Nationalists won the mock gubernatorial election that year, but, again, the party names mean nothing. Indeed, Boys State shows the entire program as a form of social conditioning that compels its participants to talk without saying very much at all, and teaches them how best to make cynically calculated power moves. The worst culprit in this regard is Ben, who arrives fully formed as a self-styled political wheeler and dealer, and who, despite espousing some conservative convictions, mostly sees politics as a zero-sum game of self-fulfillment. Elected as the Federalists’ state chair, Ben runs his party by the mantra that “you have to find divisive issues in order to differentiate yourself at all.”
In such moments, McBaine and Moss capture the way teenagers can be adept at obliviously, even innocently articulating the subtext of the politics of corruption. After confessing he gave a stump speech misrepresenting his true views, Rob explains with a final note of uncertainty, “That’s politics…I think.” Few of these kids really have a fully formed idea of their own political identity: The purportedly left-leaning Steven, while achieving unlikely popularity among a body politic almost unanimously against background checks and immigrant rights, professes an open admiration for Napoleon Bonaparte. In his final pitch for governorship he even quotes the French emperor who displaced a democratic republic.
Boys State initially looks askance at all this naïve politicking, mixing a sympathetic view of the teens with ironic commentary, delivered by judicious cuts to interviews or metaphorical images that undermine the sentiment of the prior scene. After a visibly nervous Steven, uncertain of his political platform, rises to the occasion with a primary debate performance that’s surprisingly fluid and honest-sounding but absent of detailed policy proposals, there’s a cut to a racoon outside the debate hall diving headfirst into a trash can. Point taken.
At the same time, however, Steven’s rise through the ranks of the tumultuous Nationalist party—a concurrent plotline sees René, the group’s chair, doing battle with racist party members want to see him impeached and removed for declining to move forward with a secession platform—gets plotted as something like an inspirational tale, the American dream in miniature. It’s easy to identify with the humble Steven as he forms an inchoate political voice, but the way that voice only reflects the crowd’s own pleasurable ideal of itself back to it constitutes a development more tragic than the documentary appears to realize.
In assembling Boys State as a rise-to-the-top narrative, the filmmakers dull a potential critical edge that might have allowed them to ask more pointed questions about actual policy, history, and political science at this camp. If women have nominally been full participants in U.S. politics since 1920, then why does the American Legion train politically interested youth to address only the (often frivolous and always underthought) concerns that arise from homosocial teen groupings? But even if it sometimes emphasizes the individualized drama of a political contest over such critical matters, Boys State presents a fittingly dire microcosm of American politics, suggesting that our political system as an exclusionary and essentially contentless popularity contest functions for no one but those jockeying for power.
Director: Amanda McBaine, Jesse Moss Distributor: Apple TV+, A24
Review: Sputnik Toils in the Long Shadow Cast by Ridley Scott’s Alien
Sputnik is an egregious missed opportunity that bites off more formulas than it can chew.2
Ridley Scott’s Alien has cast a long shadow. Certain images in the film conjure an unshakeable terror of violation, which is afforded a brutal catharsis when one creature, suggesting a cross between a tapeworm, a snake, and a phallus, rips its way out of a man’s ribcage in one of the most brutal “births” in cinema history. Many movie monsters since have been compared to the various creatures of Alien, just as virtually every slasher movie owes some form of allegiance to Psycho. Egor Abramenko’s Sputnik is already at least the second film to riff on Alien this year alone, after William Eubank’s Underwater, and it adds one promising gimmick to the body-horror formula: The alien here is a symbiote rather than a parasite, entering and exiting its host over and over again. The violation is ongoing.
Sputnik is set in the Soviet Union in 1983, and Abramenko subtly allows us to feel the pall of the Cold War as it’s entering its death rattle. It’s cast in lonely, shadowy hues, and the soft, warm, and grainy cinematography un-showily suggests that the film has been beamed in from the analog era, in the tradition of Andrew Patterson’s The Vast of Night, also from this year. The Soviets are concerned with heroes to keep morale up, and cosmonaut Konstantin Veshnyakov (Pyotr Fyodorov) will do nicely. He’s returned from a space mission that’s vaguely defined by the filmmakers, which is an evocative touch that suggests that when heroes are needed by a society the specifics of their aspirational accomplishments hardly matter. Something happened in space though: A shadow drifted over Konstantin’s vessel, and his fellow cosmonaut is now in a coma. Konstantin has amnesia and is being held in a bunker presided over by Semiradov (Fedor Bondarchuk), who’s pressing scientists to solve the mystery of the time he lost in space. Semiradov recruits a doctor who’s in hot water for unorthodox measures, Tatyana Klimova (Oksana Akinshina), in an effort to crack Konstantin.
Sputnik’s first act is eerie, strange, and unusually character-centric for a monster movie. The film initially suggests many episodes of The Outer Limits, in which the audience was chilled by the implications of what happened to characters who ventured into outer space. And Abramenko doesn’t tease the audience as long as one might expect: Soon, Semiradov reveals more details of the situation to Tatyana, inviting her to watch Konstantin in his holding cell in the middle of the night, when he convulses in his sleep while a creature gradually crawls out of his mouth. This sequence is unnerving, showing the creature’s emergence partially from the point of view of laboratory cameras, lending the event a patina of casualness and “reality.” The creature itself is, in design, beholden less to Alien than to the mutations of that film’s prequel, Prometheus, as it’s pale and amphibian in nature, suggesting a miniature manta ray or hammerhead shark, with little legs and a gelatinous tail that is, of course, so very phallic.
Like the various otherworldly beings of Prometheus, Sputnik’s monster is disappointing, timidly designed for the sake of a supposed, greatly overrated notion of believability. It doesn’t seem especially plausible that a tapeworm creature would evolve, seemingly overnight, into the metallic praying mantis colossus of Alien, and this irrationality, coupled with the primordial design itself, is terrifying. By contrast, Sputnik’s wan creature ushers forth a series of anticlimaxes that ripple through the film. After the alien’s symbiotic relationship with Konstantin is explained via amusing pseudo-science, Sputnik changes formulas, becoming a story of a special man who must be saved from evil military industrialists. At times, Abramenko even seems to be visually quoting Ang Lee’s Hulk.
But a story of a special man must be fixated, as Hulk was, with the psychology of said man. Konstantin’s anguish at being invaded, and the weird elation he might feel at discovering that he can control his interloper, are glossed over by Abramenko. Sputnik’s third act is a rush of formulaic action meant, perhaps, to compensate for the interminably repetitive and impersonal second act, which is mostly concerned with reinforcing a set of foregone conclusions. Incredibly, the central notion of the film—of an alien that symbolically rapes its host over and over—is relegated to an inciting incident. Sputnik is an egregious missed opportunity that bites off more formulas than it can chew.
Cast: Oksana Akinshina, Fedor Bondarchuk, Pyotr Fyodorov, Albrecht Zander, Anna Nazarova, Vasiliy Zotov Director: Egor Abramenko Screenwriter: Oleg Malovichko, Andrei Zolotarev Distributor: IFC Midnight Running Time: 113 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
Interview: Alejandro Jodorowsky on Psychomagic, the Theater of Cruelty, and More
The maverick filmmaker discusses working with the tarot, the surrealist moviement, and more.
At the age of 91, maverick Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky has made his first ever documentary, Psychomagic, a Healing Art. In many ways, it’s a companion piece to his recent self-reflexive and semi-autobiographical films The Dance of Reality and Endless Poetry, in which Jodorowsky inserted his present-day self into the narrative of his own boyhood and youth. Where the earlier films show Jodorowsky arriving at private rituals and symbolic acts to deal with his own issues, Psychomagic expands his sphere of influence to include men and women who find themselves in a cul-de-sac of existential distress.
Essentially a daisy chain of case histories, the film allows Jodorowsky to demonstrate the unconventional psychotherapeutic techniques he’s developed over a lifetime spent studying various psychological systems and an astonishing variety of Eastern and Western spiritual practices. As you might expect from the man behind El Topo and The Holy Mountain, it can be a wild ride, full of sometimes totally bonkers, even grotesque imagery, yet also betraying Jodorowsky’s full-blooded compassion for the vicissitudes of human suffering.
Ahead of the VOD release of Psychomagic, I had the opportunity to speak with Jodorowsky via Skype. We touched upon a far-ranging assortment of topics including working with the tarot, Antonin Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty, the “last days” of the surrealist movement, and the films of Dario Argento and Luis Buñuel.
Early in your new documentary you mention your work with the tarot deck. How did that contribute to your development of psychomagic?
For me, the tarot isn’t magic that let’s you see the future. It’s only a language to open the unconscious. That is all. It’s to work with the dreams like Sigmund Freud worked with dreams. My films help me to speak about dreams, and put you on the table [in a tarot spread]. I use tarot to do that. But, in order to do that, I needed 50 years of working with the tarot, learning how to memorize the tarot deck. I memorized every line, every color, every meaning. [Jodorowsky proceeds to give a quick three-card tarot reading.]
Psychomagic techniques seem to involve a dreamlike, poetic logic. How do you arrive at the specific details of the treatments?
When you’re working with me, first I make your genealogical tree. You have the son, you have the partner, the father and mother, the grandfather. Then I know where you are, what formed you. And then, when I know that, I will not experience you in a psychoanalytic way, an intellectual way. That is for psychoanalysts, who take dreams and teach you what is real life. I am different. I take what you think with the reality and I put it into the image of the dream. I use the language of acting, not speaking, doing things you never did before. New things. I am breaking your psychological defense with an image to go do something. I will say, “Paint your beard gold and kiss a woman, or a man, who has silver hair.” I will say that’s an image. That will open to you the unconscious, something you will discover. That is the work of psychomagic.
With most of the participants in the film, all we see is their short-term response to the treatment. What made you follow up with the woman who had throat cancer after almost 10 years?
What I did in the theater was an experience. Because I had a theater. I had to pay to have that theater. Because every healing I do is free. I’m not a psychoanalyst, so nobody paid me. It’s free. Because I had a big theater, and in Chile I am very well known, I will have a conference in the theater. Five thousand people came. And then I decided to make an experience. I didn’t know if collective thinking, like quantum theory says, could change reality, if we have a group of people who do the same thing. Can we heal this woman? She thinks she will die very quickly. And then I take the woman and I make the experience. And then I didn’t speak with her. And then, when I made the picture 10 years later, I wanted to know, because I never repeated it. In order to teach healing, you need 5,000 doctors! It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I wanted to know, with thinking, do we or don’t we have the power? The cancer, they say we cannot heal that. I don’t know if they fought the cancer for years because it’s a big, big business, and they don’t want to find the solution. That I don’t know. When healing becomes a business, it cannot heal for me. Healing is an act of love. You have to take the person in your arms. The psychoanalyst doesn’t take you in his arms!
And then I get a telephone call from a friend of the woman, a student of mine. I asked him if she had died. He said no, she’s alive. I asked if I could make an interview for the film. She tells how the experience was. She said it was very good. I don’t know if it was a placebo. Placebos can be good also.
Yes, if it works, it’s good.
But it was only an experience that I did once. I can’t find 5,000 people for every person who has an illness.
Psychomagic includes short clips from many of your earlier films. Do you see this film, and the therapeutic work it illustrates, as an encapsulation of your entire career?
From the theater I came to the “happening,” improvised theater, the theater of action, then to psychomagic. I came to it. I didn’t create it. But, in all my pictures, I was searching for something. I respect very much the industrial movies. Movies from the beginning were an industry. Their goal from the beginning was to make big money. And then they discovered Hollywood and all that. But there was not one real truth, one real feeling, it was acting feelings. The show must go on! But for me movies are not a show, they’re an art.
What is art? It’s open for the person who does the work, new horizons, they will open the human soul. That’s what I did in my pictures. I started to put real things into the picture. Reality says, “Problem! I am having problems with my mother, problems with my father.” I was telling it all. Step by step, I was coming to introduce my real life into the pictures. I was having problems with my father in Endless Poetry, and I was shooting, and suddenly I jumped into the picture! Psychomagic is only real feelings, not an imitation. And that’s what I was searching for. I put examples in my pictures, saying I am speaking always of the same thing, but in an artistic way. I show a guy closed in a tower [in El Topo] and in Psychomagic I show a guy breaking pumpkins. I did that in El Topo, but in a metaphorical way, not directly. And then I show in my film that it was the same position, but in another language: artistic language, therapeutic language.
Can you tell me something about your encounters with André Breton and other surrealists in the Paris of the 1960s?
I will speak about that in my third film. It’s a trilogy: The Dance of Reality, Endless Poetry, and Essential Journey. That’s number three. I hope, if I am alive, because I am an old person, to start it in January. The script I’ve done already. I am very happy with it. I speak about that time, until I started to be a movie director. I stop there. In it, I am going to France to work with the surrealists, with the theater of Marcel Marceau, with the philosopher Gaston Bachelard. I have those three worlds.
My mind was opened with philosophy. With surrealism, I think I am the last surrealistic moviemaker who’s really surrealistic. But I am a little step farther, because surrealism doesn’t show, doesn’t explain. It’s the mystery of something you don’t understand. That is surrealism. A dream image you don’t understand, you have no need to explain that. In the art I do, you know what you’re doing. It has a finality. It has to solve your problem and come to felicity. Felicity of life. That’s what I feel with the idiotic love story. Love is not like love with a star. Love is love. We need to show what love is. Tell the things that are true, make you go to happiness. Not an idiotic happiness, not Disneyland, a real internal life. Happy to be alive. I am alive. It’s fantastic. What an incredible thing. Art has to give you with possibility to be what you are, not what the moviemaker is. Not what the actor is, you. It’s complicated, no?
Speaking of surrealistic filmmakers, what do you think about the films of Luis Buñuel?
He was a surrealist, yes, but he’s too realistic for me. He was a real person, in the real. And for me the pictures have not only a meaning, they’re a painting. You can shoot something like that [mimes different angles], traveling shots, etcetera. Everything speaks. Buñuel’s show only one point of view. He’s sitting and everything is in the size of someone sitting. But he doesn’t go out [he mimes leaving the Skype frame], he doesn’t make other things. Hollywood discovered camera movement. Camera movement is fantastic! I need to have Buñuel in Hollywood and that would be good. He could show a deep meaning but with greater freedom of form.
When you worked with Claudio Argento on Santa Sangre did you know anything about the films of his brother Dario?
Yes, I like them a lot. He was a guy who doesn’t give too much importance to the script. He can be not logical. The pleasure to shoot something that’s weird! And I liked that. No message, no meaning. Very aesthetical.
Do you have a favorite film of his?
I am very old. I don’t remember the names. I’ve seen it a lot of times, this picture. He goes into a building, he goes inside the house.
Deep Red. Profondo Rosso.
Yes! Profondo Rosso. Fantastic picture. A film like that, for his time, he made explosive cinema. Because it was the film of a director. Generally, in the industrial film, the director is an employee. The studios are surveying the script. You aren’t free with the script. You need to shoot what’s right there. Because, when you’re free, you make the script to start the picture. But in the middle of the picture you can change whatever you want and put new things in. Because there are magic things that happen when you’re shooting. In Santa Sangre, when the father commits suicide, the naked father, it was in Mexico, in the street. A very old woman was singing, drunk. There were a lot of bars there. I said, “Go find me this drunk woman, because it’s the music I need for that suicide.” And then he will kill himself, but in the image there’s a real song of a person who’s really suffering. And it’s fantastic, like that. You need to be free. When you make the picture, the director is the poet. In Hollywood, the poet is the money. More money, more happiness. I say, “No.” More poetical, more artistical—that is good. Like the tarot, that isn’t a business. I know I’m crazy, but you need some crazy person in the generality, then somebody will use it in another way.
We certainly need more people in the world who are crazy in that way.
Yes, because crazy people aren’t crazy. They’re just using their mind in another way. And it’s very interesting.
How closely did you collaborate with David Lynch on your King Shot project?
He was very gentle with me. He said, “Maybe we can make a picture.” But my project was so crazy. Maybe I wanted to shoot in Spain. I wanted to do what I always do. But he had a little company at that moment. He was not able to have the money to do that. So, since I didn’t have the money, I didn’t do it. It was too expensive.
What can you tell me about your time with Arrabal and Roland Topor in the Panic Movement?
That was really a fantastic moment in my life. Because we were accepted within the surrealist group. That was the end of surrealism. A lot of surrealists were into politics. They were Trotskyists. Into the Romantic realization of the woman, not the real woman. Arrabal, Topor, and I were searching for absolute freedom. The artist needs to be inside the play, for example, inside what you’re shooting or playing. You need to be inside, in your body. You are there. Not out of the work. You need to go farther than the intellect, farther than the unconscious. Farther than the religions. You need to find the panic. Panic isn’t fear, panic is the totality. You need to find what a man is in totality. And then, if you are an artist in totality, you need to be a painter, dancer, mime, cinematographic creator, marionette. All the things I did. Because it’s the totality. Searching the totality of expression, that’s what we did. It wasn’t a movement, it was only three persons. And we called it a movement. We wanted to show that culture was fake, was an illusion. Because three persons will go into history as a movement that doesn’t exist!
Your performances sound a lot like what was called “happenings” in other countries or what the Vienna Aktionists were doing with their films. Would you say that’s accurate?
No, the happenings were going on in the milieu of painting and sculpture. It was a way to develop the plastic arts. I made ephemera. Ephemera is not that. Ephemera is a kind of theater, psychoanalysis, dreams, surrealism. The language of art, with meaning. Happening is an expression of freedom, but only freedom.
So the performances were closer to what Antonin Artaud was talking about with his Theater of Cruelty?
I was a big admirer of The Theater and Its Double. I started from there. He opened my eyes. In Fando y Lis, you have a little influence of Artaud. I had a theater play of Arrabal, with Fando y Lis, but I didn’t use the play, I used the memory I had as director of the play. With a lot of violence coming from Artaud. And then in El Topo, I had a Japanese Zen Master, Ejo Takata. Zen meditation, not like a hippie, real Zen meditation. Seven-day meditating without sleep. I was sleeping every night for 30 minutes, that’s all. Terrible, incredible! I brought this experience to El Topo. Because Artaud made the Theater of Cruelty. When you see the cruelty, you are open. But then I didn’t want any more cruelty. I decided I wanted to make the encounter with our self, make the cathedral [forms a steeple with his hands]. You are a cathedral. You aren’t a butcher. You’re creating the sacred. Some religions are fanatical. But I read the teachings of the Buddha, and I think there’s something more true than Artaud.
Is it true that René Daumal’s novel Mount Analogue was an influence on The Holy Mountain?
Yes. I love René Daumal, because I love his teacher. He had a great teacher, who was Gurdjieff. And in that novel, Daumal is speaking about his experience with Gurdjieff. More than surrealism, Daumal took it a step farther: The Great Game [a “counter-surrealist” journal founded by Daumal and friends]. He started to choke himself to see how it was to almost die. He was searching for stronger things, real metaphysical searching. I wanted to do his unfinished novel, Mount Analogue. He never finished it because he died very young from tuberculosis. But the family didn’t want to give me the rights. I said, “Well, I will make my own Holy Mountain!” What I directed depicts Daumal’s book. It’s a group that goes with a teacher to find immortality on a mountain. That I took. Then I developed my ideas.
So, at the end of the film, when we see the making of the film, when you turn one camera on another, was that a way of opening it up to the interpretation of the viewer?
I never thought of it the way you are saying now. Maybe, yes. I went to a real mountain in Mexico. I brought a tiger, a monk, actors, all that. And the Mexicans told me it was dangerous. Why? “Because there are tempests, and when there are tempests, you can die. Be careful.” No, I will go, because it’s beautiful, the weather is so fantastic. I shoot what I shoot, and when I finished shooting, the tempest came. And then we started to run in concert, to get off the mountain, because it was dangerous! I was running and I slipped and [mimes rolling down the mountain]. But I had a hammer and [mimes jamming it into the ground]. “No! I don’t want to die, I need to finish this damn picture!” I am making a picture. Like this, I will finish. This is the end of the picture, because it was the real end. It wasn’t as good, but I put in reality into my film. I wanted to make real things, and that, for me, was a real thing!
We’re making a picture. It’s not a comedy. There are real sentiments, because all those people I found were not actors. Every person I showed had the problem I show in the picture. Real people I used, real tiger! I’m not a Hollywood company making fake everything. I asked Hollywood that I want a stampede of tarantulas, big spiders on a body. They made fake ones. So we went out and bought spiders and had their fangs cut out. We made up the body and then we used the spiders. Real spiders came out there. And the person who did that, also myself, never liked spiders! There he was, suffering something enormous with those spiders!
Are you currently working on any new graphic novels?
Graphic novels. That is my industrial business. Because I have The Incal, Metabarons, Sons of El Topo. That I am doing all the time. That is normal for me, because I have a big imagination. If I didn’t have imagination, I would die. I am taking a step farther than Psychomagic with Psychotrance. It’s a kind of literature, but at the same time you’re reading, I’m giving you exercises. It’s mixing a lecture with exercises to inspire what you do, the impact of having a trance. With drugs, you have a trance. I say no drugs. We can do it without drugs. How to do it like this. Not only meditation. Go farther than meditation. Go immediately to what you are when you’re not intellect. What is in you? You don’t need to take LSD. You don’t need to take ayahuasca. Because those are dreams. I am saying do the same thing I do in movies. In movies, in a century of fake feelings, I am making real feelings. In a culture full of drugs, psychological drugs, I am putting in a real hallucination, guiding how you can do it.
Translation by Pascale Montandon.
Interview: Kate Lyn Sheil on Calibrating Her Performance in She Dies Tomorrow
Sheil discusses how she situates the specifics of work within such an ambiguous and allegorical film.
Amy Seimetz’s She Dies Tomorrow is of obvious relevance in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. The film, which had been set to premiere at this year’s SXSW, grapples with the contagious nature of despondency and angst in a contemporary milieu that so often seeks to minimize or ignore them. These amorphous feelings prove to be an inexplicably transmissible disease passed from character to character, each of which stops in their tracks and calmly declares, “I’m going to die tomorrow.”
That She Dies Tomorrow doesn’t buckle under the weight of its heady themes and supernatural premise is a testament to how the performances ground the film in reality. In the film, Kate Lyn Sheil stars as Amy, a surrogate character for the director who quietly yet urgently probes the boundaries of the anxieties that ensnare her. Sheil, who commands the most screen time, captivates as she wields her mastery of minutiae. She’s capable of precisely executing small physical gestures to convey forceful intent.
It’s merely the latest in a line of exciting and unpredictable performances from Sheil, whose prolific presence in the New York independent film scene spans from working with early mumblecore pioneers like Joe Swanberg in Silver Bullets to partnering with boundary-pushing luminaries such as Robert Greene on Kate Plays Christine. She’s equally as revelatory appearing briefly in a short film, the latest Alex Ross Perry project, an episode of House of Cards, or working through the very ethics of her trade as herself in documentary format.
I caught up with Sheil prior to the digital release of She Dies Tomorrow to discuss how she approaches conveying such potent interiority, her long-term collaboration with Seimetz, and how she situates the specifics of work within such an ambiguous and allegorical film.
What are the ripple effects of Kate Plays Christine in your work and career, given that it’s such a meta performance about the nature of performance?
I worked with a director afterward who said that he wanted to work with me after he saw Kate Plays Christine because it made him feel like I would be honest with him if I didn’t like the way that he was directing me. And I was like, “Oh, no, you’re mistaken. I probably will not say anything at all and just try and toe the party line.” Because that movie plays with what is real and what is fake, I feel like there could potentially be a misconception that I yell. Which is…not the case. Your guess is as good as mine.
That scene where you really snap was staged too, right? It was something Robert Greene invented to see what would happen when you felt boxed in by the experiment.
Yeah, it was scripted, essentially.
Is the movie at all a window into the way you work?
I think I spoke honestly about some ways that I approach acting roles in Kate Plays Christine, while lots of it is scripted, embellished or made up to create a narrative arc. I think there are moments that I speak truthfully about the way I do approach a role. I, personally, would never go to Sarasota and think that I had to interview people in order to play a part correctly. But I think I talk about my—I hate to say it—“process” in a truthful manner at a certain point, and that’s how I would [do it]. That’s probably how I approached this movie. Amy wrote this role, and then the best that I can do is just to try to find ways that I relate to the character and use substitutions to think of times when I maybe felt analogous.
Part of what makes Kate Plays Christine so fascinating is the way the camera allows you to externalize the process of thinking and deliberating. Was that at all helpful for She Dies Tomorrow?
Yeah, that’s all that’s all Amy’s writing though. That was baked into the script from the earliest stages of it. She wanted the character to be very physical in the way that she was exploring that house and touching things in a way that, at least from the outside if someone were to catch you doing it, it doesn’t seem like normal behavior. But when faced with the enormity of this thing, normalcy doesn’t really mean anything anymore.
Amy Seimetz has said that the tactile details of touching the house came from her own experience grappling with the weird mix of emotions that arose from her becoming a homeowner. How do you find your way into this compulsion that’s so visceral and unique?
It’s Amy, she wrote it for me, and then she creates an environment on set where—I don’t want to say it’s not difficult, because I certainly was afraid the entire time that I maybe wasn’t doing as good a job as I could. I didn’t want to let Amy down. She creates an environment where you can sort of slip into it. We’ve known each other for such a long time, and we’ve worked together before. I love the way that she directs me. She’s not precious with me at all. She will quite literally show me what she wants if I’m not getting it. [laughs, mimes direction] “Okay, that’s what I’m supposed to do, cool!”
The beginning of the film is largely free of dialogue. How much of what we see was scripted or pre-planned versus discovered once the camera rolled?
Not much of an element of discovery once the camera starts rolling. Amy is pretty precise in her visuals, and she has worked with Jake Keitel, who shot the movie, for like 17 years now. They share a brain in certain ways in terms of lighting the shots. Because that element is so important to her, there really wasn’t much of the “go with the flow, we’ll just find it in the moment.” There’s a level of precision to it, which I like and appreciate. But that’s not to say that she doesn’t give you as much room as you need to emotionally find the scene. But, in terms of physicality, she really has planned it out pretty precisely beforehand.
Was that at all different from Sun Don’t Shine? Since that was such a scrappy, on-the-go road movie, did really planting your feet in a location change the nature of your collaboration with Amy at all?
With Sun Don’t Shine, yeah, certain things are obviously outside your control if you’re shooting outside. But also with that, the economy of the way that she approaches making the movie, she still has a scrappy sensibility. That’s my favorite thing because I think if you know how to make a movie for no money, then you can use those skills and continue to apply that to whatever budget you happen to be working with. She had everything on Sun Don’t Shine so precisely planned out in terms of how to shoot the car because she and Jake didn’t want it to become monotonous. In a way, that required a great deal of precision too. But then, of course, for that movie, you’re shooting in Florida in the middle of summer. There are just variables. I got very sick when we were making that movie, so there are scenes where [they] had one thing in mind. And then she’s like, “Okay, you’re just gonna be sitting because you can’t do anything.”
Since you mentioned that Amy and her cinematographer share the same brain, do you feel the same kinship with her or other directors? A lot of your work comes from collaboration with people like Amy Seimetz, Alex Ross Perry, Robert Greene, among others, with whom you share a social circle. How does the process of working with them, where you might be more involved at the ground level of a project, compare with something where you’re brought in through a more traditional casting process?
I love working with all the people that you just mentioned, and I think it’s very lucky that I happen to know people that, by my estimation, are incredible. It’s so wonderful to work with them because there is a shared history and a shorthand. It just so happens, as I said before, that I like their work a lot, so it’s more bang for your buck. Not only do you get to work with friends, but you get to be in a project that you’re probably going to like or would like, even if you had nothing to do with it. But, at the same time, there’s something really something very fun about showing up to a set and just trying your best to execute the thing, do your job and then go home at the end of the day and it’s not your old, close friends. There’s something nice about both.
What’s the best way to describe your relationship to that extended Kim’s Video orbit? Muse, co-conspirator, something else entirely?
I’m so close to it that it’s hard to think of what to call it. But that place meant everything to me. It’s where I feel like I got my education in film. I think my life would be completely different if it hadn’t existed. It truly does mean so much to me. Surprisingly, though I don’t think any of us truly saw it coming at the time, a bunch of people who have worked there at a certain time actually started making their own projects. I feel very fortunate that I was around at that time. And it’s nice to make movies with people [for whom] the impetus is a love of watching them. That’s a very joyous experience.
I know you kind of scoffed at the word “process” earlier and put it in scare quotes…
Yeah, but…I used it! [laughs]
Well, we can just caveat that. I know your training as an actress primarily came from a theatrical background at NYU. She Dies Tomorrow is about the farthest thing from a theatrical performance: The film opens on a shot of your eye, and meaning gets conveyed through how your pupil moves. How did you learn to communicate in these micro moments? Did it involve “unlearning” any theatrical training?
Yes and no. I feel like it’s all the same skill set. And then, of course, when you get in front of the camera, you learn to adjust and have a relationship with the camera also. Rather than acting for an audience, you’re trying to be present with your fellow actor, more present in the moment. If there isn’t anybody else there, which is largely the case for my stuff in She Dies Tomorrow, the camera’s your audience. I haven’t acted in a play in a very long time. I miss it, personally. I left school, and I never wanted to do to theater again. I was obsessed with movies, and I still am. But at a certain point, maybe a few years ago, I was like, “You know what, it would be fun to do to do a play!” But, I mean, I still struggle with it. I feel like a lot of my close friends who are actors talk about it too. I still walk away at the end of some days being like, “I was too big, or I was too aware of the camera. So I tried to be small, and I think it was too small.” You still have these anxieties about that exact thing, calibrating your performance to the medium.
As an actress in a film like this, do you feel the need to “understand” the rest of the film like the nature of the contagion or the impressionistic transitions? Or is it a matter of performing your part and trusting that the rest of the film will fall into place around you?
I think it’s important to make it make sense for you, but I don’t think it’s important for me to understand the structure of the entire film. But it’s always very important for me to know what I’m doing to understand where, in particular, I’m coming from. I definitely trusted that Amy was doing something great with those parts of the movie. When she told me that’s how the movie was going to proceed, that it was going to expand and extrapolate in that way, I was very, very happy. I was happy that there were going to be other people for the audience to sit with for a while. And I also love those scenes. The dinner scene, I think is so funny. Everything in the movie is wonderful, but [that’s what is] coming to mind right now. I like the way that those scenes bounced around with my scenes and recontextualize my scenes to a certain degree.
I’m always fascinated with this duality that to communicate something existential and widely recognizable, it’s often rooted in such personal and intimate performance. How do you manage the balance between the general and the specific, especially in a film like She Dies Tomorrow that has a more allegorical or representational edge to it?
I think that certain things are just outside of my control. The most that I can control is to try and make the character specific for me and then I can’t get too caught up in thinking of the overarching themes. I just try and stay in my lane, stay focused and make it specific and individual. But if the person directing movie is creating something allegorical, then hopefully my performance lends itself to that goal.
What are your thoughts on the meta element of anxiety and death premonitions being contagious? Do you think the screen is porous enough that the audience could, or should, catch it? By the end of the film, I was wondering if I would end up saying “I’m going to die tomorrow” like all the characters.
We’re obviously living in such a strange time right now that Amy never could have anticipated. Hopefully what people would feel more than anything is recognition, or that some experience that they’ve had is being reflected back to them. Hopefully that would make someone feel better potentially, less alone or less crazy. Something like that. But I mean, the movie is about ideas being contagious. So, maybe.
It was so interesting to watch in the back half of the film where, for certain characters, you can tell that the ability to express and verbalize their anxiety helps them manage it. Maybe that’s the more constructive takeaway.
Yeah, there you go!
Interview: Seth Rogen on An American Pickle and Reconnecting with His Roots
Rogen discusses collaborating with Simon Rich, how the film enriched his understanding of Judaism, the exhibition prospects of comedy in the streaming era, and more.
It’s been over two decades since Seth Rogen made his small-screen debut in Freaks and Geeks, though one could be forgiven for assuming he’s been in the business much longer given all that he’s accomplished since then. He wrote for the acclaimed shows Da Ali G Show and Undeclared in the early aughts, before then breaking out in front of the camera in two comedy smashes released in the summer of 2007, Knocked Up and Superbad, the latter of which he co-wrote with creative partner Evan Goldberg. Rogen helped usher in the still-dominant Apatow era of big-screen comedy, a reign that not even the North Korean government could topple with the cyber-attack launched in response to his 2014 Kim Jong-un assassination satire The Interview.
While Rogen’s on-camera appearances have waned slightly over the past few years, his creative output hasn’t, as he and his partners at Point Grey continue to ramp up production across film, TV, and streaming. Their latest effort, An American Pickle, holds the distinction of being HBO Max’s first original narrative feature to premiere on the platform. But it also portends a distinctly more mature and reflective shift in Rogen’s own work as the cinematic face of exuberant millennial prolonged adolescence nears middle age.
The film stars Rogen in dual roles as Ben, a contemporary secular Brooklynite app developer, and Herschel, his devoutly Jewish great-grandfather who emigrated from eastern Europe and reemerges in the present day after being brined in a vat of pickles for a century. Neither the film or the characters in it dwell much on the absurd premise, and An American Pickle blossoms into a silly but sweet tale of misunderstanding and reconciliation between distant generations that share little other than a bloodline.
I chatted with Rogen on the eve of An American Pickle’s release. Our discussion covered how he collaborated with writer Simon Rich, how the film enriched his own understanding of Judaism, and how he envisions the exhibition prospects of comedy in the streaming era.
I saw Knocked Up as a teenager, and now it weirds me out that I’m older than you were when you made it. While working on it, were you aware that it might become such a generational touchstone for millennials? How do you feel about it now that it’s almost like a period piece?
I think when you make a movie you never truly know how it’s going to be received, honestly. Watch Hearts of Darkness, that’s a good lesson in that! There’s people on the set of the worst movie you’ve ever seen who think they’re making a masterpiece, and there’s people on the set of a masterpiece thinking that no one’s going to watch or see it ever—and even if they do, they’ll hate it. It’s not uncontrollable, but it’s hard to control and almost impossible to do with some sort of consistency. To that end, I’m glad that people still like any of our movies. The fact that any of them are viewed as remotely relevant in some way is lovely. You really don’t know what’s going to stand the test of time until time has passed, really.
I ask about that film partly because I feel there’s an interesting evolution we can chart from there to An American Pickle, which has an insight and understanding that feels like it can only be conveyed by learning and living. Is this the kind of film you could only have made at this point in your life?
Yeah, I think it’s definitely born of an older brain. Especially the themes of grief and how to process things we learned as kids, how we may have rejected those things even though they might add value to our lives, those themes are much more prevalent in my life as I get closer to 40 than when I was in my mid-20s. The idea of making a movie about grief and reconnecting with my roots was not prominent on my radar! [laughs]
There’s such poignancy to the way the film shows how past generations, be it through religion or some other factor, are better equipped to handle grief and hardship. Has any of that been valuable, pandemic or otherwise, in your life?
Yeah, I think religion specifically. My wife’s mother passed away earlier this year, and her uncle, actually. I’ve just seen with that specifically. Judaism has actionable protocols that do help. At one point in my life, I would probably write off all of it and say there was nothing helpful I was ever taught about religion. Now as I get older, I can cherry-pick and say you can take elements of this and apply them to your life as you find them helpful. Not all of this was born out of fooling people. Some of it was born out of truly trying to help people.
You’ve obviously done quite a bit of writing yourself on other projects. When it comes to something like An American Pickle, do you mostly just stay in your lane as an actor and let Simon Rich tailor the script to you? Or are you still involved in some writerly capacity?
I’m definitely still involved in some writerly capacity. I respect the writer and know their name is the one that’s on it ultimately, and they have to be able to stand behind all of it and take ownership over it. But I try to be constructive! I just try to help and support the ideas that I can. I try to acknowledge it and say this isn’t what I would do, always, but I’m not the writer! I try to respect that.
This film was originally geared toward theaters and is now going directly to streaming on HBO Max. In your mind, does the method of distribution affect the work you make? Or are you a platform agnostic and a laugh is a laugh on a big or a small screen?
We definitely make some films that are geared more toward a big-screen experience, in our minds at least, and some we are much more comfortable with that not being the experience. This being the perfect example of one of those! We understand that if we intend to keep making films for theaters, then they have to earn that right to be in a theater. Not every film automatically is granted that at this moment, and we understand that those are different types of films sometimes. It’s not always based on budget or anything like that. Good Boys, although it wasn’t expensive, is a movie we were confident would do well in theaters. There are some more expensive movies we would not be as confident that would be the best place for them. It’s an active conversation, but I do think some movies are better geared towards a cinematic experience and some towards a streaming one.
It still strikes me as crazy that so much data shows comedy is one of the genres people most want to view at home instead of in a room full of people.
I think people just like comedy! But to me, some of the greatest experiences I’ve had in a theater, I don’t think of the action movies I saw. I think about when I saw There’s Something About Mary or South Park in theaters, the Jackass movies, these wild experiences where you can barely hear what’s happening. Those are my favorite moviegoing experiences, and I think a lot of people feel that way.
Any chance you’d do a This Is the End sequel? It’s a movie I’ve thought about a lot over the last few months each time celebrities try to center themselves in the dialogue around a moment of crisis.
Not a sequel, specifically, but we do talk about building on the genre of famous people playing themselves interacting with supernatural situations. There maybe is more to be done with that.
Review: The Secret Garden Is a Pale Imitation of Its Enchanting Source
Its emphasis on the achievement of the individual is practically antithetical to the conclusion drawn by Frances Hodgson Burnett.2
Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, the story of a young girl who opens herself up the possibilities of human compassion after rejuvenating a garden and caring for her sickly cousin, has resonated with readers of all ages since its publication. And it’s clear from the brooding start of this latest cinematic adaptation that the filmmakers seek to amplify the book’s darker themes. A title card announces that the turbulent post-World War I India that newly orphaned Mary (Dixie Egerickx) finds herself in has been ravaged by a series of violent conflicts, and director Marc Munden initially does a fine job of mirroring the girl’s confusion and insecurity over losing her parents in the uncertainty of her surroundings.
Once Mary moves to the Yorkshire estate of her uncle, Archibald Craven (Colin Firth), the filmmakers also gesture beyond the novel’s thematic borders by having multiple characters—including Craven, who’s still grieving the death of his wife, and his infirm son, Colin (Edan Hayhurst)—face a collective trauma that leaves them unsure of how to deal with their feelings. Unfortunately, the film fails to deliver on its initial promise of branching the story out into bold new emotional terrain after the narrative begins to diminish many of the characters and aspects that made Burnett’s book such a stirring vision of morality.
The secret life and death of the woman who was Craven’s wife and Colin’s mother is only a minor part of the book, but this adaptation pushes this mystery to the narrative forefront and vastly yet uninspiringly expands on it. In a departure from the novel, this rote mystery plotline largely centers on Mary, which only makes her quest feel conspicuously insular and self-serving. This emphasis on the achievement of the individual is practically antithetical to the very conclusion drawn by Burnett in the book: that enrichment and satisfaction is a shared experience that comes through something as simple as human kindness.
The focus on Mary’s plight in the film comes at the expense of capturing the idyllic beauty of the titular hideaway, whose function ultimately feels like an afterthought; it’s but a convenient plot device that exists solely to help Mary solve a problem that very much defies her efforts until the last act. Imbued with the power to cure ailments and react to people’s feelings like a sentient being, the garden offers a dose of fantasy to the film, and, predictably, it’s been rendered with a heavy dose of CGI that makes it feel cold and soulless, never eliciting the sense of calm that the characters feel while gallivanting its grounds.
As in the book, Mary learns to overcome her selfishness by helping to heal Colin, but where Burnett’s story slowly detailed the increasingly invigorating power of Mary and Colin’s friendship and mutual affection, Munden fails to show how Mary’s sleuthing ignites her spirit of generosity. It feels like a cop-out when Colin is healed by the garden’s mysterious properties, causing him to praise Mary for showing him that real magic exists. In lieu of pluming the emotional states of the characters, the film resorts to a whimsical, otherworldly fantasy element as an easy resolution. It’s the sort of fantasy that Burnett didn’t need to make room for in the book, because it recognized something more profound: that real magic isn’t necessary in a world where human beings possess the capacity for compassion.
Cast: Dixie Egerickx, Colin Firth, Julie Walters, Edan Hayhurst, Amir Wilson, Isis Davis, Maeve Dermody, Jemma Powell Director: Marc Munden Screenwriter: Jack Thorne Distributor: STXfilms Running Time: 99 min Rating: PG Year: 2020
Review: Psychomagic, a Healing Art Is a Moving Look at Therapeutic Interventions
The film could stand as a fitting encapsulation of the themes that have run throughout Alejandro Jodorowsky’s work.3
Alejandro Jodorowsky’s first documentary, Psychomagic, a Healing Art, is a moving, visually striking exploration of the unconventional psychotherapeutic techniques that the filmmaker has developed over a lifetime of reading tarot cards and studying various psychological systems and an assortment of Eastern and Western spiritual practices. After a brief introduction, during which Jodorowsky lays out the major tenets of his technique, we witness a selection of individual case histories. The format for these therapeutic interventions varies only slightly: a preliminary interview describes the issues at hand; the particular treatment is undertaken, an activity that seems pitched somewhere between ritual and performance art; and then a follow-up interview permits the participant(s)—some of them are couples—to describe the therapy’s impact on their lives. These episodes are often intercut with a thematically or pictorially related moment from one of Jodorowsky’s earlier films, as though to emphasize the continuity of his vision from narrative cinema to documentary.
Throughout Psychomagic, individual treatments unfold according to a dreamlike, poetic logic. Many of them involve the participant undergoing some sort of symbolic death and rebirth. Often this entails nothing more radical than stripping off one’s old clothes and donning new ones. Sometimes it means reenacting the moment of birth through what Jodorowsky calls “initiatic massage,” a hands-on bit of dialogue-free theater. But the most intense version of this psychic renascence on display here starts with burying a suicidal man up to his neck in the Spanish desert. A glass dish (replete with air holes) covers his exposed head. Slabs of raw meat are spread over his “grave,” and a wake of vultures come to devour the uncooked flesh. Then he’s dug up, cleaned up, and dressed up in an expensive-looking new suit.
Later, there’s a section given over to “social psychomagic,” ritual manifestations that most resemble mass demonstrations. One of them, known as “the Walk of the Dead,” a protest against drug war fatalities that features large groups donning traditional Day of the Dead skeleton costumes, could have been lifted straight from a similar scene in Endless Poetry. Although, on this occasion, at least, Jodorowsky himself doesn’t make that connection.
One segment, involving a woman suffering from throat cancer, comes perilously close to making false claims for the powers of psychomagic but luckily skirts the issue entirely through some well-deployed disclaimers. Jodorowsky invites the woman on stage at a conference with 5,000 attendees, to see whether or not their combined energies can help or heal her, and without making any promises. It’s never entirely clear whether or not she’s cured, but 10 years later, she’s still alive. Nor does she claim in her follow-up interview to have been cured. The “experiment” merely “opened a door” for her healing process to begin.
What most shines through all the therapeutic interventions detailed in the Psychomagic is the scrupulousness of Jodorowsky’s compassion and his deep-seated desire to render whatever assistance he can. As he mentions at one point in the documentary, he never charges money for these treatments. Whether or not the 91-year-old director makes another film, Psychomagic could easily stand as a fitting encapsulation of the themes of suffering and transcendence that have run throughout his entire career.
Director: Alejandro Jodorowsky Screenwriter: Alejandro Jodorowsky Distributor: ABKCO Running Time: 105 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Sunless Shadows Is a Wrenching View of Patriarchal Power in Iran
Mehrdad Oskouei’s documentary is striking for the way its subjects describe horrific forms of violence in the plainest of language.3
Mehrdad Oskouei’s Starless Dreams is striking for the way that it unhurriedly paints a portrait of its subjects, a group of teenage girls at a juvenile detention center in Iran, before then shocking us with matter-of-factly stated admissions of murder. At first, you may find yourself trying to determine the documentary’s reason for being, alongside wanting to know the girls’ reasons for being incarcerated. We sense that the film is supposed to have a cumulative effect, built on prolonged observation followed by intellectual reflection—until we hear one of the girls say, point blank, that she killed her father. Her no-nonsense statement is in chilling lockstep with the lack of prudishness to Oskouei’s line of questioning throughout Starless Dreams. Whether he’s asking the detainees for their names or details about their traumas and crimes, his disembodied voice maintains the same level of cool.
Sunless Shadows, Oskouei’s second look at the same detention facility, initially focuses on its subjects describing horrific forms of violence in the plainest of language. When a girl remembers the abuse she suffered, all that matters is her words. Redolent of Claude Lanzmann’s approach, Oskouei strips his images to their barest bones as his subjects openly speak about their traumas, as if trying to avoid aestheticizing their pain.
In Sunless Shadows, though, Oskouei eventually digresses from this no-frills approach. By design, the film lacks the astonishment of Starless Dreams, suggesting a great story being told anew and now given over to a sort of formula. A similar relationship can be drawn between Joshua Oppenheimer’s harrowing The Act of Killing and its follow-up, The Look of Silence. Order is the essential culprit in both filmmakers’ attempts to take a second look at the same subject matter. The first film takes advantage of the emotional possibilities of shock or fright, but the force of an unexpected blow is difficult to repeat. By the time we come to the second film, we’re already literate in and, in some ways, inoculated by the banality of evil.
At times, Oskouei also uses a more readily recognizable setup for his interviews. Although most of sequences here take place in the girls’ dormitories, with them sitting haphazardly on the floor surrounded by their bunkbeds, Sunless Shadows is punctuated by interviews with the girls’ mothers, who are also incarcerated (and on death row), and scenes where each girl enters a room and looks straight into the camera to address the family member they’ve killed. These moments bring to mind a reality TV confessional, and their gracelessness is replicated by sequences where the girls’ family members are presumably watching this footage and crying.
The film rekindles the aura of Starless Dreams more faithfully when it doesn’t try to dress up the scenario that links them—patriarchy as an interminable metastasis—with forms that deny the dramatic sufficiency of the girls’ accounts. Theirs are stories of parent-child relations mediated by chicken-carving knives, of a father driving to the desert with the intention of pummeling his daughter to death, of sons fighting tooth and nail for their mother’s execution, unless she pays up. Overtly calculated mise-en-scène in this context feels like an affront.
It’s refreshing, then, when Oskouei harkens back to the core of his project, the ultimately futile killing of the father, the acting out of the unthinkable, the avowing of the unsayable. He does this when he allows language do the talking by itself and when he reduces the cinematic encounter to a matter of language: sincere questions followed by disarming answers. As when the filmmaker asks one of the girls, “Is killing difficult?” To which the girl answers, unwaveringly, “At the time you feel nothing, except for the joy of having done it.”
Director: Mehrdad Oskouei Screenwriter: Mehrdad Oskouei Distributor: Cinema Guild Running Time: 74 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Song Without a Name Boldly Confronts a Legacy of Marginalization
The film is strikingly fixated on exploring loss and pain on an intimate and personal scale.
Georgina (Pamela Mendoza) wakes up in the early hours of the morning to walk with her husband, Leo (Lucio Rojas), into Lima from their shack in a coastal shantytown on the outskirts of the city. Because she has few alternatives, her late-stage pregnancy doesn’t deter her as she sits in the street selling potatoes to passersby. It’s only natural, then, that when she hears a health clinic’s radio ad offering care to pregnant women, it sounds like a godsend. But once Georgina gives birth to her daughter, the clinic whisks the child off for some supposed medical tests, shoos her out the door, and then seems to vacate the location entirely. In an instant, her life is upended, but as Song Without a Name sensitively makes clear, the indigenous Georgina’s degradation is an all too familiar one in Peruvian society.
Though Melina León’s feature-length directorial debut is set in 1988, it appears as if it’s been beamed from an even earlier time. Its images, captured in boxy Academy ratio, are visibly aged, its faded edges and conspicuously distorted elements bringing to mind an old photograph. As a result, the scenes depicting government officials disregarding the needs of the indigenous Georgina gain a grave sense of timelessness, a feeling emphasized by the lack of period-specific markers amid the ramshackle houses. The events become detached from their specific historical backdrop, suggesting nothing less than the perpetuity of disenfranchisement.
In Song Without a Name, the only person who lends Georgina a sympathetic ear is Pedro (Tommy Párraga), a journalist who, as a gay man, understands what it means to be an outsider, though he initially tries to pass her story off to someone else, as he’s reporting on a paramilitary death squad whose handiwork he observes early in the film. And just when you think that León is going to steer the film into the terrain of a conventional investigative thriller, she remains fixated on exploring loss and pain on an intimate and personal scale, through the despair on people’s faces as much as through the formal touches that reflect it.
The film’s backdrop is tumultuous, and the characters have to move on from the kidnapping without truly wanting to because they need to eat, to pay for the roof over their heads, to live. In a haunting moment that evokes how tragedy diminishes the connection between people, Georgina mournfully stays in bed as Leo goes to work alone, but not before he leaves a handprint on the window, barely visible in the black and white of the frame.
León depicts anguish in such stark, all-encompassing terms that she risks overplaying her hand at times, like one scene that positions the closeted Pedro and his lover, Isa (Maykol Hernández), on opposite sides of a thick line of tiles that’s only made more prominent by the camera’s distant position. But mostly, she weaves an atmosphere that borders on ethereal through the jerky distortions of Georgina walking home at night and the ease with which certain pieces of Pedro’s investigation seem to fall into place. León channels Georgina’s devastation to particularly powerful effect in one long take where the mother is taken out of the clinic but continues pleading and crying, unseen, from the other side of the door. Across the minute-long shot, Georgina is determined not to go away, and the scene fades to black with such painful slowness that she seems to be prolonging the transition through force of will, beyond the point where the audience might normally look away.
Cast: Pamela Mendoza, Tommy Párraga, Lucio Rojas, Maykol Hernández, Lidia Quispe Director: Melina León Screenwriter: Melina León, Michael J. White Distributor: Film Movement Running Time: 96 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
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