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: Cunningham Obscures the Voice That It Wants to Celebrate
This colorful but remote-feeling documentary functions almost as though it were taking orders from the late Merce Cunningham.2.5
Alla Kovgan’s colorful but remote-feeling documentary about modern dance legend Merce Cunningham functions almost as though it were taking orders from the late choreographer himself. The film quotes him saying in various forms that he didn’t feel it appropriate or necessary to describe what his dances were about, and as such it feels appropriate that Cunningham leaves it to the dancing to deliver his story. But the problem with that approach is that it’s likely to leave many viewers, especially those who aren’t already dance aficionados, feeling somewhat at a remove from the subject matter.
Focusing on Cunningham’s works dating from 1942 to 1972, and his longtime collaborations with composer John Cage and other artists from Robert Rauschenberg to Andy Warhol, Kovgan balances loosely sketched biography with artistic recreation. The former sections are in some ways more engaging, as their often scratchy-looking archival footage provides at least some context for the sparse, ascetic, cold-water-flat milieu Cunningham was operating in. The latter sections, in which Kovgan stages a number of Cunningham’s pieces in settings ranging from a subway tunnel to a forest and are filmed in 3D with luscious colors, have a look-at-me showiness that cannot help but feel something like a betrayal of their source’s intentions.
Ascetic in approach but sometimes playful in execution, Cunningham in many ways functioned as the tip of the spear for avant-garde dance from the time he started producing work in the ‘40s. As related by the archival interviews played in the film, he didn’t appear to have much of a grand unifying theory behind his style. Rejecting the idea that he was some kind of modernist pioneer, he insists to one interviewer that he was simply “a dancer” and that he was really more interested in expanding the repertoire of movements available to performers by combining the techniques of ballet with what was already happening in modern dance in the postwar era. Quoting Cage in an old audio clip, Cunningham states with an emphatic flourish that “I have nothing to say and I am saying it.”
As you watch the dances staged in Cunningham, you may find it hard to argue with that perspective. In describing the reaction to one of his dances, Cunningham says with a barely concealed glee that “the audience was puzzled.” After a performance in Paris, food was hurled at the dancers (Cunningham joked that he looked at the tomato on the stage and wished it were an apple: “I was hungry”). Confusion about the lack of an underlying story or intent to deliver a singular emotion is understandable. Making less sense is the dismissal noted in the documentary of many of Cunningham’s pieces as “cold” and “passionless” (a charge that’s leveled at boundary-pushing art to this day). The pieces staged here by Kovgan are indeed sometimes airy and insubstantial or gangly and jagged. But just as often they’re lush and buoyant, like in “Summerspace,” in which the dancers’ fluid pivots spill over with a joy that is heightened by the bright spotted costumes and Rauschenberg backdrop.
In some of those segments, it’s hard not to feel as if Kovgan is aiming for a big splash that could introduce the rarely seen work of an oft-cited avant-garde pioneer to a wide audience, as Wim Wenders aimed to do with Pina. But unlike that 3D extravaganza, with its cunning staging and breathtaking moves, Cunningham is simply working from less accessible source material. Even when Cunningham’s work is less abstracted, such as that bouncy floating maneuver that is something of a signature, it doesn’t exactly catch one’s attention.
Time and again in the film, we hear or see Cunningham reiterate his principle that the dances aren’t intended to reference anything. Interpretation is up to the audience, he said. In this way, he isn’t far from the take-it-or-leave-it sensibility of Warhol, whose silver balloons he incorporated into one piece. But by amplifying Cunningham’s dances with sun-dappled backdrops and 3D gimmickry, Kovgan deviates from their creator’s principle in a way that almost seems to betray their original intent. By taking so much focus away from the dancers, the film’s stagings come close to obscuring the voice it’s trying to celebrate.
Director: Alla Kovgan Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 93 min Rating: PG Year: 2019
Review: The Two Popes Carefully and Dubiously Toes a Party Line
There isn’t anything in the bleeding-heart positions espoused by Jorge Bergoglio that complicates Pope Francis’s public persona.1.5
Fernando Meirelles’s The Two Popes is quick to acknowledge that Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) is a humble man of the people. The film opens with a scene that fades in on Bergoglio, recently anointed Pope Francis, as he attempts to order a plane ticket over the phone. Assuming she’s being pranked when the caller gives his name and address, the Italian operator hangs up on the generously bemused head of the Catholic Church. After centuries of pomp, the scene suggests, the world’s Catholics were unprepared for a genuine article like Francis, a corrective to an episcopal hierarchy that had drifted too far away from the people. So goes the thesis of The Two Popes, reiterated in a number of subsequent scenes: Unlike previous generations of pontiffs, Francis engages with the actual state of the world, watches soccer, listens to pop music, and speaks to economic inequality.
This brief prologue’s slight humor and documentary-style presentation give an accurate idea of where the film is headed, both thematically and formally. Throughout, Meirelles embellishes the screenplay’s often dry conversations with pseudo-improvised camerawork—unsteady framing, sudden tilts, and emphatic snap zooms—familiar from his prior films, most notably City of God and The Constant Gardner. But what seemed, in the early aughts, fresh and well-suited to gangster movies and spy thrillers, feels dated and out of place in a film that amounts to two powerful octogenarians having a series of conversations. By abruptly adjusting the lens’s focal length at almost arbitrary moments, Meirelles transparently attempts to add dynamism to a film in which powerful actors are stuck reciting staid, safe dialogue.
The hagiographic Two Popes shuffles through moments in Bergoglio’s life. Some scenes are set in Argentina in the 1970s, a tumultuous time for the country, but the film mainly focuses on the development of Bergoglio’s relationship with Joseph Ratzinger (Anthony Hopkins), Pope Benedict XVI, during the early 21st century. Flashing back to eight years before the prologue, the camera travels through the narrow alleys of Buenos Aires, arriving at an outdoor sermon that Bergoglio is delivering. Unattached to the air of benevolent superiority Catholic priests are expected to exude, Bergoglio tangentially speaks of his support for the San Lorenzo soccer team, at which revelation his congregation feels comfortable booing their diocese’s bishop.
Meanwhile, John Paul II has died, and as a cardinal, Bergoglio must return to Rome to help elect a new pope. There he encounters Ratzinger, at the time a conservative Bavarian cardinal who haughtily insists on speaking to Bergoglio in Latin when they meet in a Vatican bathroom, and who turns up his nose when the Argentinian begins humming ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” to himself while washing his hands. The inclusion of an ABBA song makes for a lighter tone that The Two Popes will unevenly revive at various moments across its running time; the film will transition between scenes using out-of-place lounge jazz and ‘60s pop, then abruptly drop the levity for dialogic lessons on the state of Catholic theology.
The dogmatic Ratzinger’s election as pope later that year would signal an end to years of liberalization within the Catholic Church, a back-to-basics gesture that ultimately failed. His short reign would be dominated by controversy, as members of his inner circle were indicted for financial crimes and a long-brewing scandal over church cover-ups of sexual abuse came to the fore. Meirelles handles this historical context through aural and visual montages of archival news reports, which fill the gap as the story fast-forwards to a moment in 2012 when Pope Benedict calls Bergoglio, his unofficial rival from the church’s liberal wing, back to Rome.
Benedict aims to convince the bishop not to resign, as it would look to the outside world—as Benedict professes it does to him—that the liberal Bergoglio is renouncing his cardinalship in protest. Strolling through the lush gardens of the Vatican, or speaking in low, strained voices in its resplendent halls, the two debate their opposing theological and political philosophies. A mutual respect develops between them, with Benedict gradually opening himself to the outside world from which he has stayed aloof; one scene has Bergoglio teaching him about the Beatles, and in another the Argentine convinces the stiff German to try out the tango.
That’s all very cute, surely, but it’s also evidence that, despite courting a gritty reality effect with its documentary-inspired aesthetic, The Two Popes is carefully toeing a party line rather than exposing any hidden truths. Though it includes (rather hammy) flashbacks to Bergoglio’s morally ambiguous interactions with the Argentinian military dictatorship of the ‘70s, there isn’t anything in the bleeding-heart positions espoused by Bergoglio that complicates Pope Francis’s public persona. For his part, Ratzinger comes off as the best version of the man one could imagine, given the turmoil that marked his tenure: old-fashioned but authentic, perhaps just a bit too aged and attached to the institution to weed out its excesses.
As, in scene after scene, the heads of the world’s most powerful religious institution neatly summarize their philosophies to one another, the viewer may sense a misdirect: What happened to the corruption? Where are the meetings about how to handle the child-abuse scandals? Such issues, which presumably would have been the subject of many a Vatican City discussion, turn out to be little more than background material to the individualized and sentimentalized story of two men with differing views becoming friends. Even when they do come up, our attention is directed elsewhere. The flashbacks to Bergoglio’s spotted past begin soon after the sexual abuse scandals are first mentioned, redirecting our piqued concern with institutional sins toward the drama of an individual man’s fateful misjudgment.
The second time the pair’s conversations drift toward the simmering abuse scandal, Meirelles actually drowns out the dialogue with a high-pitched whine on the soundtrack, and for no discernable story reason. It’s as if Bergoglio’s hearing has been impaired by the explosive truth. The moment feels less like the filmmakers protecting us from a truth too awful to hear, and much more like them shielding us from one too dangerous to be heard.
Cast: Jonathan Pryce, Anthony Hopkins, Juan Minujín, Sidney Cole, Thomas D. Williams, Federico Torre, Pablo Trimarchi Director: Fernando Meirelles Screenwriter: Anthony McCarten Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 125 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Review: Empty Metal Grapples with the Efficacy of Activist Violence
The film is greater in its confrontational force than the sum of a dozen festival breakthroughs lauded for their fearlessness.3
The idea that violence can be an effective or even necessary form of activism is one of the last remaining taboos in a contemporary discourse that holds civil debate up as the highest virtue. Empty Metal, meanwhile, reaffirms independent, artist-made cinema as a natural arena for wading through these kinds of uncomfortable notions. Greater in its confrontational force than the sum of a dozen festival breakthroughs lauded for their fearlessness, and certainly more potent than Todd Phillips’s Joker, it takes on the ambitious and possibly risky task of exploring what activist violence means in the context of a modern world where ambient forms of hostility—militarized police aggression (specifically toward people of color), mass surveillance and ongoing, never-ending wars—subtly dictate our lives.
Collaborating for the first time on what constitutes for both of them a narrative feature debut, Adam Khalil and Bayley Sweitzer have fashioned a topical lightning rod with Empty Metal, though not in a manner that suggests willful provocation. Assembled on a meager budget with friends, family, and members of the filmmakers’ extended artistic circles, the film progresses with an untamed energy and disregard for convention that suggest the manifestation of creative impulses feeding, unchecked, off one another. Juggling multiple intersecting storylines with passages of visual lyricism and diegesis-breaking reminders of contemporary injustices, Empty Metal offers an anarchic collage that careens between narrative storytelling (Sweitzer’s background) and documentary and video-art instincts (Khalil’s backgrounds).
Central to the story of Empty Metal are Rose (indie noise musician Rose Mori, a.k.a. PVSSYHEAVEN), Pam (Sam Richardson), and Devon (Austin Sley Julian), a trio of disaffected electro-punk rockers gigging around Brooklyn under the moniker of Alien. But to call them protagonists undercuts the degree to which Khalil and Sweitzer frame them less as independently motivated agents than as ciphers ushered along a path over which they appear to exert little control. More instrumental to the film’s evolution are the clairvoyant, vaguely ethereal figures—a Rastafarian chef listed in the credits as King Alpha (Oba), an older indigenous woman (Irma LaGuerre), and several of their younger accomplices—who watch over the trio and ultimately size them up as eligible candidates for a criminal plot.
Rose, Pam, and Devon are to assassinate three infamous white cops who’ve gotten away with murder, then go off the grid. Neither the names of the targets nor their specific infractions are clarified, though the connections to real-life analogues are made more or less self-evident in the series of crude 3D renderings of police violence that are periodically inserted into the middle of scenes. On the eve of a domestic Alien tour, Rose is approached at the band van by a member of King Alpha’s clan, who leans into the would-be rebel to impart a telepathic message paraphrased, as with a number of the film’s longer monologues, from William S. Burroughs’s novel The Place of Dead Roads: “I will teach you to dissociate gun, arm, and eye.”
Intuitively reading between the lines, Rose promptly loses interest in the tour and recruits, with little resistance, her bandmates to the cause. This sequence of events, along with anything else having to do with the transition of these hitherto merely frustrated musicians to insurrectionary vigilantes, hardly stands up to dramatic scrutiny, due in equal parts to Mori, Richardson, and Julian’s stilted line deliveries and the insufficient time their characters are afforded in the editing to acquire anything like psychological plausibility.
Nonetheless, there’s something of a poetic logic to the characters’ transformations, an unnerving illustration of the idea that the gap between ambient frustration and radicalism is but a short cognitive leap. There’s also a sense of fatalism that hangs over the proceedings, of an inexorable historical duty that can’t or shouldn’t be resisted. In an ominous sequence of self-actualization, Rose recites the names of historical dissidents from Ulrike Meinhof to Osama bin Laden with a mix of clinical dispassion and reverence as archival footage and animated representations of their violent acts fill the screen.
By contrast, Khalil and Sweitzer stage a lighter scene around the mid-forest meeting of King Alpha, LaGuerre’s character, and a European monk (Pawel Wojtasik) previously seen only in excerpts of a de-contextualized courtroom taping. Here, it’s casually implied that the three characters—who suddenly claim to have last seen each other at either the “L.A. riots” or Wounded Knee—are merely the corporeal containers of activist spirits who weave through the centuries, cyclically reuniting to nudge willing souls toward more proactive forms of rebellion.
Taking its title from a description of drones given by Rose in voiceover, Empty Metal questions if perhaps these transhistorical agitators have met a new and unconquerable challenger in the surveillance state, armed as it is with high-tech weaponry and vast intel on its populace. Certainly, the right-wing militia shown in another chilling subplot offers no compelling resistance to this monolithic force, even as they stash up on firearms and embark on austere training. The figurehead of this self-determined group (Jon Nandor) happens to be the son of Wojtasik’s monk, and it’s a quiet dinner table scene between the two of them that stands out among all the jarring associative edits and flicker-frame embellishments as one of the film’s strongest effects. As the father dismantles his son’s second amendment convictions, he’s left unable to contemplate an adequate alternative, and it’s telling that even a sage, potentially immortal mystic seems perplexed by our current predicament.
Cast: Rose Mori, Austin Sley Julian, Sam Richardson, Oba, Irma LaGuerre, Pawel Wojtasik, Jon Nandor Director: Adam Khalil, Bayley Sweitzer Screenwriter: Adam Khalil, Bayley Sweitzer Distributor: Factory 25 Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Beniamino Barrese’s The Disappearance of My Mother
It’s fascinating to see Benedetta Barzini in academic action, like an ethnographer of the patriarchy herself.3
Domestic ethnography typically sees a filmmaking member of a family turning the camera inward to investigate, or rewrite, a family’s history. This means that the filmmaker in question can occupy the inconvenient position of unearthing the ancient dirt on top of which the family is founded. In The Disappearance of My Mother, director Beniamino Barrese is less interested in wrestling with the maternal function in the drama of a household than in the mother’s status as his muse. The film is a love letter to the filmmaker’s mother, Benedetta Barzini, a 76-year-old former supermodel and the first Italian woman to grace the cover of American Vogue, now a feminist fashion studies lecturer in Milan. The constellation of the family is rendered useless here, as what matters to Barrese is the love affair between mother and son, forever mediated by the camera lens.
The tragedy here isn’t to be found in the regrettable actions of yore or the repressed feelings that both constitute and undermine a home, but in the unfairness of time. The film seems to say that a mother must age, a mother must die, and some of them may even want to. And it seemingly recognizes something tragic in an external world that’s obsessed with all of the things Barzini doesn’t value, despite having been a fashion industry commodity in the 1960s: beauty, youth, luxury, and cleanliness (she hardly ever showers or changes her bedsheets).
Barzini’s feminist stance appears as her most consistent motif in old interviews, in the strangely theatrical way she used to pose with garments in fashion shoots, and in her present-day statements captured in the film, both verbal and sartorial (she shows up to receive an award in her stay-at-home clothes). She is, from the beginning of her career, vocally aware that the femininity she’s paid to display is a playful one, removed from her actual self, which is itself, Barzini argues, unphotographable. She knows the existence, and persistence, of beauty stereotypes caging women to be due to the fact that men invent women through a series of prescriptions. And that they thus invent them as Jessica Rabbits, she argues at one point, wondering out loud whether it may not be best if women’s bodies disappeared altogether.
It’s fascinating to see Barzini in academic action, like an ethnographer of the patriarchy herself, bringing back news from its most glamourous yet rotten core. She lectures young college girls about the symbolic relationship between fashion, youth, and man’s fear of death, holding magazine ads in her hands as irrefutable evidence. She asks them questions like “What does ‘old age’ mean?,” “Why do imperfections bother people?,” and “What is the point of continuing to sell our bodies without any quality or talent?” These moments of pedagogical passion occur when Barzini’s presence is allowed to take over the frame precisely because the filmmaking son fades into the background. And they’re in striking contrast to Barrese’s instances of shoving the camera into his mother’s reluctant face.
That stance, though in line with some sort of undying teenage streak, reveals a misguided desire to force his mother into his cinematic paradigm. Although Barrese purposefully allows for a great degree of transparency, showing us his failed attempts to get his mother to change outfits for continuity’s sake, for instance, these sequences feel contrived when compared to those where the mother is allowed to perform in an uncontrolled fashion. When we hear him ask her, “Is there anything you want me to put in the wash?,” or “Mom, what bothers you so much about images?,” it’s impossible not to see the air of spontaneity as calculated artifice.
Many times, Barrese acts like a vulture taking something from his mother that she doesn’t want to give. Or does she? Barzini calls him a petit bourgeois for appreciating her articulations only inasmuch as they fit his filmic narrative. And she yells, “Put the camera down! Put it down!” He obeys her for a couple seconds but leaves the camera running, then grabs it back to continue interrogating her. And she lets him. Mother and son relations are often like this—full of theatrics, ambiguity, and teeming with seduction. Neither could afford losing the other’s love. And they both know it. Which forces Barrese to keep pushing the limits. He even shoots her when she’s asleep. Or, at least, when he thinks she is. It turns out that following mom is a habit from childhood. And ever since then she’s been protesting his advances. “I want to disappear, not to appear,” she says, because “the lens is the enemy.”
In a beautiful sequence toward the end of the film, after Barzini speaks about dying and the shame of belonging to this world, so sullied by white men, Barrese asks her to spin around in her courtyard, holding her dress. She says she will get dizzy. He finally listens to her and lets her stand still, spinning with his camera around her himself. She smiles, enjoying the moment. She’s happy standing still, courted in the courtyard by her child’s contemplation. Mother eventually asks her son: “Are you done playing?” He’s not, and neither is she.
Director: Beniamino Barrese Screenwriter: Beniamino Barrese Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 94 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Interview: Eddie Redmayne on The Aeronauts and Accessing Physicality
Redmayne discusses everything from calibrating his physicality in rehearsals to cultivating his imagination on a barren set.
“I can’t believe you wrote your dissertation on Les Misérables,” Eddie Redmayne says in a complete non sequitur midway through our conversation. I had a feeling it might come up at some point, so I had to lead with telling him that he featured prominently in the video essay portion of my senior thesis on how Tom Hooper’s 2012 film adaptation collapsed boundaries between stage and screen. As legend has it, Redmayne made a suggestion in post-production that led to the film’s close-up-heavy editing, a choice which sparked intense discussion around the aesthetics of the musical genre.
The episode captures something about Redmayne that sets him apart from other actors who operate in a similarly demonstrative, showy register. He’s genuinely thoughtful about the full cycle of how a performance gets created and transmitted to audiences, in everything from the rehearsal process to the editing bay. After winning an Academy Award for 2014’s The Theory of Everything and another nomination for 2015’s The Danish Girl, Redmayne took a turn toward blockbuster fare with two outings playing Newt Scamander in the Fantastic Beasts series. But now he’s back to the period dramas that made his name with The Aeronauts, an old-fashioned movie adventure that reunites him with his The Theory of Everything co-star, Felicity Jones. As scientist James Glaisher and pilot Amelia Wren, Redmayne and Jones, respectively, spends the majority of the film confined to the tight space of a gas balloon’s basket as they rise to 37,000 feet in the air in an attempt to make meteorological breakthroughs in 1860s Britain.
Redmayne’s role is a fitting lens to discuss not only The Aeronauts, but also his recent career. His craft is just as much a science as it is an art. Our conversation got into the weeds of technical details as he discussed everything from calibrating his physicality in rehearsals to cultivating his imagination on a barren set. But, first, we had to discuss Les Misérables, given the pivotal role his behind-the-scenes behavior played in my academic career.
During post-production on Les Misérables, I read that while in the editing room you encouraged Tom Hooper to hold longer on the close-up of Anne Hathaway during “I Dreamed A Dream,” setting into motion the film relying on them so heavily.
Because of the way that Les Mis was shot with live singing, you couldn’t get between different tracks because of the variation. What Tom did was make sure that you could always have the whole scene cut from one setup: a wide, a mid, [and a close-up]. There were three cameras on at the same time. He was editing the film, and the studio had put out a trailer they edited themselves that was more of the close-up. Tom and I had a discussion, and I think I mentioned that it could hold. What I find so interesting is that everyone has a specific opinion on Les Mis, whether it worked—and, of course, the close-ups are something people bring up a lot. But the live singing process dictated the way it was shot. We couldn’t shoot outside a lot because, when you shoot outside, the voice disappears. So, we had to build the barricades in a studio.
What you did with Les Misérables speaks to just how much a performance gets remade in the editing room. Are you still actively involved in that final step of the process?
What’s weird about making films is you create so much of it in a vacuum. It’s not like theater, where actors get together for months and work things out. Often you meet the person playing your mother or father two hours before [shooting]. Often you don’t know the director, meeting them a day before you start working with them. You have an idea of what the character’s arc is, and, of course, part of the joy of making films is giving over that. You put that down and hope the director observes that. But a director can often observe something different that’s more interesting! What I like to do, and I’ve been lucky enough to do, is make work and, if I’m allowed into the editing process, have a dialogue with that director. Provided you know they see what you intended, whether they use that or not is obviously their choice.
I do find that dynamic really interesting, and I’ve been lucky enough with James Marsh on The Theory of Everything, Tom Hooper, and [director] Tom Harper and [screenwriter] Jack Thorne on this. Felicity and I worked together with Jack and Tom for a couple of months beforehand working through the intricacies of the script, and Tom allowed us that bit because it’s so intimate between the two of us, almost like [working on a play] with the writer and director. He allowed us the intimacy in the process the whole way through. The reason I do it is because, as an actor, you’re never happy with what ends up in the finished product. But while you can still shift and change things, I enjoy being a part of that process.
As someone who came up through theater, where you have so much less mediation between your performance and how an audience receives it, have you found comfort in the editing process?
It was a massive adjustment because I got into acting through theater. For many years, I couldn’t get cast in TV or film because I was playing to the back of the stalls in my audition. When I did start working, it’s all been a massive learning curve.
How do you approach acting out of sequence? In both The Aeronauts and The Theory of Everything, you’re tasked with building a full and continuous character arc, but that seems tough you’re stopping and restarting.
Quite often, directors will try and keep as much in chronology as possible. A lot of the stuff we did in the basket in The Aeronauts was shot chronologically. It’s the other bits that aren’t. What you have to do is see how the director is filming it, what their process is and work out what’s best for you. For example, on The Theory of Everything, all the exteriors we were shooting in the first two days in Cambridge when all the students weren’t there. That meant that any time Stephen was outside in the entire film, we were shooting in the first two days. Which meant we had to do all different physicalities at different moments of his life in the first two days. Which meant [I] had to be able to access those different physicalities very quickly, which in itself dictated the process. I wasn’t going to spend hours getting into the zone, I have to slot into these. For me, I said, I need months to rehearse, and I need to rehearse the movement like a dance so that [I] can access it quite quickly. It’s all about the stuff you do beforehand so you’re ready when you’re working the other actor to be completely free.
You shot some of The Aeronauts outdoors in the gas balloon and then some on a soundstage against a blue screen. How did you all work to keep the authenticity consistent in your performances?
We were lucky that the first thing we shot was the real stuff. We went up in the real balloon—we had this accident, it was really terrifying—and the notion of the stakes were weirdly embedded with us from day one. Ultimately, it always feels horrendously fake when you’re in a giant basket surrounded by blue screens, but they did things like [freezing] the studio for our breath. We were shooting in the summer in the U.K., and then you had cast and crew in jackets because we were in a giant refrigerator. They also gave us freezing buckets with ice to plunge our hands into beforehand. The director really gave us everything he could to make it feel [right]. Because they had gone up in helicopters and shot the skyscapes beforehand, they had very clever technology on an iPad that lets you look at the balloon to see where the sun was and what the weather was. They spent a long time working in pre-production about how to not make it look fake, and one of the things was that it could look real, but if your eyes are totally open, the fact that there’s blinding sunlight…of course, you can look at a big, bright light without it being a stretch. It was to learn to squint a bit [to avoid] the giveaway.
Between The Aeronauts and the Fantastic Beasts series, you’ve been doing quite a bit of acting in synthetic spaces.
That’s not a value judgment! How do you go about using your imagination to bring the surroundings to life in your head while maintaining the same specificity as if you were there?
I try and do a load of research, so even if it’s on Fantastic Beasts, it’s talking to the animators, going and looking at drawings and set designs. Trying to do all of that early so it’s not in your imagination. The other process I tried to learn from Dan Fogler, who’s in Fantastic Beasts and very free. He’ll try lots of different things, and I watched him on the first film and thought he was brilliant. It’s a mixture of doing your research, then throwing it away and trying things.
Has it gotten easier over time? Like a muscle that has to be trained and toned?
Yeah, it definitely does. For example, with Pickett [a small plant creature his character keeps as a pet] on Fantastic Beasts, I was so concerned with talking to something that’s not there and make it feel real. I would over[act]. [Reenacts staring intently at the creature on his hand] You never normally look at people when you talk to them. You can have a conversation with Pinkett on your hand and not really look at him.
You’ve mentioned that the basket became like another character in the film because you and Felicity shared such tight quarters with it. How do you make spaces feel natural for your characters to inhabit?
That is rehearsals. That’s why we did them. What I love about this film, hopefully, is that it’s this thrilling adventure on a big scale. At the same time, it’s also an intimate little drama. That space is the size of a sofa. We had weeks working of thinking how to make things visually interesting for an audience. Each time the camera comes back to it, it needs to have transformed or changed. We rehearsed on it so we could find different ways: whether it was sitting on the floor or one of us up in the hoop, different angles, getting rid of carpets or some of the tools. They add character to this battered, bruised vessel that’s been pummeled.
Does that mean you all were really working out specific shots and angles within the rehearsal process?
When we were rehearsing the scenes over and over again, Tom would have suggestions and ideas from watching with the cinematographer. One of the things he found is that, early on, if the camera was ever outside of the balloon—even centimeters out—it doesn’t feel real. Any moments that are caught inside the balloon, apart from a few moments where drones fly and take close-ups, the cinematographer was always inside the balloon. He was moving with the movement. The camera, similarly, was like another character in the piece. Because just one centimeter outside, since we can’t suspend ourselves in mid-air, felt unreal.
Do you find it liberating to work within such tight confines like the basket? Does it force you to be more precise and conscious of your movement and blocking?
Yeah, it does. Because you’re confined, the freedom is in the minutiae. You can’t be making big, bold gestures. I think the intimacy plays to its favor in some ways.
The Aeronauts has a theme of looking up for inspiration amidst troubling times. The last few films you’ve made generally have some kind of optimistic feeling about them. Is that a conscious running thread running through your filmography?
I never relate my films to each other, but what I think is interesting is that the only way I choose work is by reacting to it. So maybe there’s a sense of that [optimism]. The reason I wanted to do The Aeronauts is because I got to that last passage where Felicity’s character is standing on top of the world, and I just thought I would love to see that. I loved the idea of working with Felicity again. I loved this old-school adventure thrill to it. I felt like you’ve seen space investigated, but I hadn’t seen the sky. Sometimes, on a cold, horrendously miserable day, there’s something ecstatic about a break through the clouds. And whether you can retrain an audience who’s so used to seeing the sky from planes to make it feel like something new, all those things were curious to me. I don’t specifically go looking for optimistic pieces, although there was a period in my career when I was playing incestuous teenagers and schizophrenic psychos, so maybe I need to go talk to a therapist about that!
I know some actors like Meryl Streep or David Oyelowo, just to name two that come to mind, say that they deliberately only put work out into the world that they think can make it a better place.
That’s really interesting. I haven’t read that, but I’m probably not that…selfless. It tends to be something I just react to. There’s a weird moment when you read a script and suddenly feel a bit sick. That’s when you transfer yourself from imagining it to imagine yourself doing it. That’s the reality of the responsibility.
Review: Midnight Family Is an Intimate Look at Mexico’s Ambulance Crisis
It’s the mix of the humane and the calculating that gives the film its empathetic power.3
Director Luke Lorentzen’s Midnight Family opens with a startling statistic: In Mexico City, around 45 public ambulances serve a population of over nine million people. Picking up the pieces are private ambulances, such as the one owned and operated by the Ochoa family, whom Lorentzen follows over several nights as they pick up patients from accident sites, provide immediate medical service, and deposit them at various hospitals. Every element of this process is a negotiation, and Lorentzen captures a multitude of damning and haunting details. Following this family, Lorentzen fashions a documentary that serves as a wrenchingly intimate portrait of a country’s wide-reaching healthcare crisis.
For the Ochoas, particularly their portly paterfamilias, Fernando, and his charismatic 17-year-old son, Juan, the ambulance is firstly a business—a means of barebones survival. The Ochoa ambulance often resembles a kind of medical food truck, as it roams Mexico City looking for customers, who are, of course, individuals in pronounced danger and pain. Lorentzen vividly captures the chaos of the accident sites, including the maddening array of traffic lights and people wandering haphazardly among the twisted ruins of crushed vehicles and property. Into this chaos, Fernando, Juan, and others enter with a kind of cleansing purposefulness, though they also have to watch out for cops who are looking to shake them down for pay-offs. (The legality of private ambulances is somewhat vaguely rendered here; the Ochoas may or may not have the right paperwork, though they definitely need official license plates.)
It’s the mix of the humane and the calculating that gives Midnight Family its empathetic power. While saving lives, the Ochoas must focus on means of payment. They’re not ghouls, as we come to see that their next meal, and their ability to keep the vehicle running, depends on a night-by-night payout, which is threatened by the police as well as rival private ambulances. Since the Ochoas run a private business, patients can apparently refuse to pay them without recrimination from the government, which occurs often given the poverty of their largely uninsured clientele. Lorentzen is bracingly specific about money: One pick-up, of a teenage girl battered by her boyfriend, costs 3,800 pesos, at which her well-off mother balks.
Across Lorentzen’s documentary, viewers also learn of the equipment that the Ochoas need to pass regulations, and of the consequence that expense has on their ability to eat. In one evocative illustration of the effect of their profession on private life, we see the Ochoas at a gas station making tuna salad, which they eat on saltines. This meal occurs after an elaborate debate on whether they can afford to eat more than two tacos apiece.
Yet Lorentzen doesn’t turn the Ochoas into objects of our self-congratulatory pity. The filmmaker captures the despair as well as the adventure of such a livewire way of life, especially as the Ochoas race other ambulances. Fernando places a poignant amount of trust in young Juan, who daringly drives the ambulance, cutting off other vehicles with various improvisations of navigation. These chases are filmed by Lorentzen in a mixture of first-person and mounted-camera compositions that emphasize the limitation of a driver’s sight, establishing a sense of immediacy and danger that is far more thrilling than the standardly detached, alternating coverage of a conventional action film. In this fashion, Midnight Family sometimes brings to mind the brilliant chase sequence in James Gray’s We Own the Night.
Given the privacy of the scenes we witness in Midnight Family—moments of carnage, need, poverty, corruption, and love—the invisibility of Lorentzen’s presence comes as a mild disappointment. This project begs for an examination of how the filmmaking process informs the behavior of its subjects. This quality, or lack thereof, is especially evident when a family member of a patient is seen weeping in the front passenger seat of the Ochoa ambulance. How does she feel at being filmed at this moment of extremity? Midnight Family is a rich and textured film, but it stints on this kind of auto-critical answer.
Director: Luke Lorentzen Screenwriter: Luke Lorentzen Distributor: 1091 Media Running Time: 80 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: The Aeronauts Takes to the Skies, Without Much of a Dramatic Hook
As a suspense film, it’s so sluggishly structured that it borders on the avant-garde.1.5
Tom Harper’s The Aeronauts is such a sluggishly structured suspense film that it borders on the avant-garde. James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne), a 19th-century meteorologist, is attempting to prove that man can predict weather patterns, and he plans a hot-air balloon ride high into the Earth’s troposphere to conduct high-altitude measurements. With no available technology for breathing apparatuses or other modern safety equipment, James’s gambit is a bold one, but he hopes that by traveling so high he can use the most accurate measurements to prove his meteorological theses. Accompanying him is Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones), a daredevil aeronaut with experience flying balloons at extreme altitudes. They’re practically a study in contrasts. James, humorless and bookish, talks rapidly and in fussy detail, mostly holding conversations with himself and putting others in the position of needing to interject to get a word in edgewise. Amelia, meanwhile, is filled with a certain joie de vivre, literally arriving to the balloon launch doing acrobatics to liven up the assembled crowd.
This is the second time that Redmayne and Jones have starred in a film together, but familiarity has done little to deepen their stilted chemistry. James and Amelia don’t converse so much as recite their respective credentials at each other. This might have worked if The Aeronauts gave the characters specializations that the other lacked, yet each has similar strengths: James, the less experienced balloonist, nonetheless knows enough about piloting the craft to not need instruction, while Amelia understands enough about meteorology to not require James to dumb down his scientific jargon. As a result, the pair’s dynamic is devoid of inherent conflict, which might have distracted them from the monotony of their balloon’s ascent into cloud-studded skies, which Harper stages as if in real time.
Of course, sitting in a vehicle that slowly drifts upward as its two occupants engage in, at most, haughty disagreement makes for moribund drama, so Harper fills time with flashbacks to show how James and Amelia got to this point. Anyone who’s ever seen a historical fiction about a scientific pioneer will know what to expect of James’s backstory: repeated scenes of the man explaining his ideas to academic administrators with sideburns large enough to count as mating displays, all of them mirthfully wagging their turkey necks as they respond to James’s hypotheses with sayings like, “Hitting the sherry a bit early this morning, aren’t we, Glaisher?”
Meanwhile, across a series of frenzied, chaotically edited memories of trauma, Amelia relives the death of her husband, Pierre Rennes (Vincent Perez), in a ballooning accident. It’s a hysterically lopsided distribution of character motivation. We get a few shots of Amelia and Pierre tenderly embracing, but otherwise the dead man is a mere device, and all that she can say of him to James is that “his most enduring quality was a deep, true love for the beauty of the world,” which, as far as eulogies go, is about two steps above “He loved to laugh.”
George Steel’s cinematography, namely the way it captures the balloon’s ascent, is the film’s strong suit. Especially noteworthy is when James and Amelia break past the cloud layer and are left in direct sunlight that’s rendered with brilliant white light that washes out the frame even as it communicates the rapidly falling temperatures at that altitude. And that temperature drop becomes the first catalyst for actual drama when James lets slip that he didn’t pack a warm enough coat out of concerns for the balloon’s weight, setting up the last act’s belated decision to include some kind of suspense in order to give the film a dramatic hook.
Indeed, the film’s last hour, in which James and Amelia find themselves increasingly starved for oxygen as their balloon rises higher into atmosphere, is its most engaging. Here, a violently shivering James transforms into the reckless adventure, while Amelia becomes the more anxious and fearful of the two. As she urges caution in the face of falling oxygen levels, the mild-mannered scientist is suddenly overcome with delusions of grandeur and fame and does everything to keep them rising. The camera begins to blur at the edges to reflect the characters’ fading consciousness, while a series of desperate last-ditch efforts on Amelia’s part to save them both is mounted with real tension. Still, the film’s wonky, flashback-heavy structure puts so much emphasis on the by-the-numbers backstory of the characters that the actual drama of the balloon flight itself is muted, making the eventual turn toward chaos less of a narrative culmination than a last-minute recalibration of the film’s inert quality.
Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Phoebe Fox, Himesh Patel, Vincent Perez, Anne Reid, Tom Courtenay, Tim McInnerny, Rebecca Front Director: Tom Harper Screenwriter: Jack Thorne Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 100 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Review: Jennifer Reeder’s Knives and Skin Limply Aspires to the Lynchian
The film gets so lost in its affected idiosyncrasies that it stops probing any discernible human feelings.1.5
Something terrible has happened to Carolyn Harper (Raven Whitley). But unlike Twin Peaks and its plastic-wrapped Laura Palmer, Knives and Skin makes it immediately clear what occurred to her: She was left bleeding and without her glasses in the wilderness by a vengeful jock, Andy Kitzmiller (Ty Olwin), because she wouldn’t have sex with him. She never makes it back. This transpires near the start of the film, and what transpires after this point is a dreamy, neon-tinted vision of a town overcome less by grief than ennui.
Throughout Knives and Skin, writer-director Jennifer Reeder draws heavily from the style of David Lynch, cycling through the townsfolk and their weirdest tendencies. Carolyn’s mother, Lisa (Marika Engelhardt), insists that she can smell her daughter on Andy. Andy’s sister, Joanna (Grace Smith), sells underwear to Principal Markhum (Tony Fitzpatrick), cash only. The girl’s father, Dan (Tim Hopper), who’s cheating on his wife (Audrey Francis), is seen at one point emerging from between a waitress’s (Kate Arrington) legs while wearing clown makeup. And Grandma Kitzmiller (Marilyn Dodds Frank) pesters everyone for weed. Certain objects glow, and the girls’ choir practices a series of haunting pop song arrangements, its members whispering to each other one by one while the rest of the ensemble keeps singing.
Other than Lisa’s persistent, unfounded hopes that her daughter is still alive, Carolyn’s disappearance seems to intentionally leave little impression on anyone. Everyone is wrapped up in their own concerns and pursuits, struggling to hold down jobs or dealing with disinterested partners. They’re united only by their vaguely odd feelings and a sense of being trapped, as one boy (Robert T. Cunningham) does when he stands on the roof of the high school; he doesn’t intend to jump, he just wants to see the highway that leads somewhere else.
But in untethering itself from what happened to Carolyn Harper, Knives and Skin ends up unfocused, shambling from one moment of self-conscious weirdness to another. Its themes, like the constant and varied violations of consent going on throughout the town, get lost in favor of things like the talking tiger T-shirt and the hamburger meat lobbed at a vehicle in protest until the entire purpose of these surreal flourishes seems to melt away.
The film is intermittently striking with its heavily stylized lighting and wistful electronic score, but it creates little sense of place. The town where these people all live, which seems to be affecting them to such a profound degree, is so nondescript beyond a few anonymous landscape shots that it stops evoking a place they would want to leave because it doesn’t really seem like a place at all. Rather than explorations of individual oddness, Knives and Skin becomes a rather tedious mood piece with an ethereal atmosphere so remote, so lost in its affected idiosyncrasies that it stops probing any discernible human feelings.
Cast: Marika Engelhardt, Raven Whitley, Ty Olwin, Ireon Roach, Haley Bolithon, Aurora Real de Asua, Grace Smith, Marilyn Dodds Frank, Tim Hopper, Audrey Francis, James Vincent Meredith, Kate Arrington, Kayla Carter, Robert T. Cunningham, Alex Moss Director: Jennifer Reeder Screenwriter: Jennifer Reeder Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 111 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Interview: Jessica Hausner on Little Joe and the Ways of Being and Seeing
Hausner discusses wanting to sustain the tension of the first act of a Body Snatchers production over the course of an entire narrative.
With Little Joe, director Jessica Hausner reinvigorates an Invasion of the Body Snatchers-type premise by boldly suggesting that modern humans don’t have any identities left to lose. The true body snatcher, rather than the beautiful, manipulative red flower at the film’s center, is a corporate culture that stifles our individual thought with double-speak and other subtly constant threats to personal status.
The challenge of such a premise, then, is to reveal the private individual longings that are suppressed by cultural indoctrination without breaking the film’s restrictive formal spell—a challenge that Hausner says she solved with co-writer Géraldine Bajard during a lengthy writing session. Little Joe is so carefully structured and executed that one is encouraged to become a kind of detective, parsing chilly tracking shots and flamboyant Wes Anderson-style color schemes for signs of a character’s true emotional experience.
Ahead of the film’s theatrical release, Hausner and I discussed her obsession with boiling societies down to singular metaphorical places, a tendency that unites Little Joe with her prior features, including Amour Fou and Lourdes. We also talked about the notion of social coding and pressure, and how the filmmaker was interested in sustaining the tension of the first act of a Body Snatchers production over the course of an entire narrative. For Hausner, such tension is certainly fostered with a rigorous devotion to sound and composition, which her actors found freeing, perhaps in the ironic tradition of her own characters.
Little Joe evinces a strong understanding of that staid, subtly restrictive office culture.
I think in all my films I try to find a closed space. Sometimes it’s a company or, in Amour Fou, it’s bourgeois society. I made a film called Lourdes where it was very clear it was that place in Lourdes. I’m trying to portray the hierarchies of a society, and I think it’s easier to do that if you have one place. Then you can show who are the chefs, the people in the middle, and the ones who just have to follow. Sometimes you can even see these statures on the costumes.
The brightly colored costumes are striking in Little Joe. It seems as if they’re expressing emotions the characters aren’t allowing themselves.
Yes. Well, they don’t allow themselves, or maybe I’d put it slightly differently: No one really shows their true emotions [laughs]. We all play a role in our lives and we’re all a part of some sort of hierarchy. And no matter what kind of life we live, we’re living within a society, and we do have to obey rules most of the time. My films focus on that perspective, rather than saying, “Oh, everyone has a free choice.” My experience is that free choice is very limited even in a free world. We are very much manipulated in terms of how we should think and how we should behave. Social codes are quite strong.
One of the lovely ironies of this film is that it’s difficult to discern which enslavements are caused by the flower and which are already inherently in place via society.
Absolutely. That’s the irony about it. When we worked on the script, it wasn’t so easy to build up a storyline that suggests a change that you never really see. Over the process of scriptwriting, we decided that the validity of feelings was invisible. We also had conversations with scientists, and we considered which part of the brain was responsible for emotions.
I’m curious if any singular story element led you to this premise.
I’m a big fan of science-fiction and horror films, and I do like those Invasion of the Body Snatchers films, but only the beginnings. I like the setups, those scenes where someone says, “Oh, my uncle isn’t my uncle anymore.” I had this idea to prolong this doubt about who people really are over the whole length of a feature film. Because it’s a basic human experience: You can never really understand what another person is thinking or feeling.
I love that there’s no overt monster in Little Joe. There’s no catharsis exactly.
No, there isn’t. The catharsis takes place on a very strange level, which leads to one of the other starting elements of the film. I wanted to portray a single mother who loves her job. So, the catharsis in the end is really very much centered on Alice as she finally allows herself to focus on her work and to let her son live with the father, which is okay.
You’re right that there’s a catharsis, from the fulfillment of the final line of dialogue.
This is what’s hard to reconcile: Despite the loss of self that debatably takes place over the course of the film, Alice gets exactly what she wants and the flower does exactly what it’s supposed to do.
Yes, I’m glad to hear you say that. I do get a lot of questions about the dark, dystopian perspective, but there’s no such perspective in this film. It’s a very friendly, light ending. If we all change, perhaps it’s for the better.
I’m curious about the visual design of the flower. It seems to me that it’s both male and female at once, which I think is an achievement.
What do you mean male and female? The design?
The shape seems phallic. Yet the color scheme almost has a lingerie quality.
I think the basic idea is that it’s a male plant. I wanted that basic juxtaposition between the boy and the plant. The film suggests that it’s a male plant, but yet, of course, when the plant opens and is exhaling the pollen…well, I would say it’s a very male plant. [both laugh]
The release of the pollen, especially for the first time against the glass of the lab, does feel like an ejaculation.
Yes. That was very much a part of the idea. The plant is trying to survive.
It’s like a revenge of the sex drive.
Which parallels how the humans are repressing their sex drives. It’s a lovely reverberation. What was the collaboration with the actors like? Such a careful tone of emotional modulation is maintained throughout the film.
I enjoyed the collaboration very much. the actors understood what the film’s style was about. You do have actors sometimes who are used to the fact that the camera is working around them, but in my films it’s always the other way around. The camera is determining the image and the actor has to fit in. The actors—Emily Beecham, Ben Whishaw, Kerry Fox, and the others—were able to cope with that method very well. I remember especially Ben Whishaw even liked it, because—if you don’t feel suffocated, if you’re strong enough to fight against the style—it can be a joyful way to work. The collaboration with the actors also focused very much on the undertone of what they’re saying. A lot of scenes have a double meaning. I’m always trying to show that people normally lie. So, everything that’s said is also said because it should be said, I don’t know if you know what I mean…
Yes, social coding.
I’m trying to make the actors act in a way that makes us feel a character’s position rather than any individuality, so that we know that the characters are a part of something larger and have to say whatever they’re saying now. We try to reveal the typical codes of a society.
Review: The Wolf Hour Is Dubiously Content to Watch Its Protagonist Squirm
The film is all surface, and its depiction of trauma becomes increasingly exploitative and hollow as it moves along.2
An air of decay and discomfort pervades the dingy Manhattan apartment where nearly all of The Wolf Hour unfolds. An agoraphobic recluse, June Leigh (Naomi Watts) languishes in the unit, overwhelmed with guilt from a past misdeed. The cramped, underlit apartment, full of dusty old books and overstuffed trash bags, takes on an increasingly oppressive quality as the door buzzer continues to go off with unnerving frequency. Despite June’s pleas to whomever is on the other end, all she gets in response is an ominous, crackling static. It’s an unsettling sound that’s a fitting approximation of the feminist icon and writer’s brittle mental state, which is inextricably tied to the decrepit state of a 1977 New York City plagued by sweltering summer heat and the Son of Sam killer’s reign of terror.
From the limited perspective of this tiny apartment, writer-director Alistair Banks Griffin constructs an aura of danger and alienation, filling out the broader scope of the citywide upheaval with street scuffles and snippets of news coverage that June overhears on the radio or television. It’s a provocative setting, which could have served as a compelling backdrop for June’s mental unraveling, but the acutely detailed portrait of this specific time and place never extends to that of the muddled, half-baked characterization of the woman who inhabits it.
Watts has made a career playing the most brooding and agitated of characters, and with a practically unparalleled visceral depth. Here, her subtly skittish gestures and facial expressions lend June a raw, nervous energy that suggests a woman on the verge of losing her mind. Strange, cathartic scenes, such as when June abruptly lets loose and feverishly dances to Suicide’s “Ghost Rider,” gives a strong sense of how far she’s strayed from the person she once was. But such unexpected character beats arise too infrequently throughout the film, and for all of Watts’s efforts, the roots of June’s anguish are never more than vaguely explored.
In an attempt to flesh out June’s interiority, Griffin’s script works in a handful of people who visit her apartment. But none of these characters, from her sister (Jennifer Ehle) to a grocery deliveryman (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) to a compassionate gigolo (Emory Cohen), offer much insight into the celebrated genius that June used to be. In fact, it’s only through June’s viewing of a contentious TV interview that she gave when her first book was released that we get any sense of the catalyst for her downward spiral. It’s a remarkably contrived manner of inserting much-needed backstory into The Wolf Hour, but even worse, it hints at a story far more intriguing than the miserabilism that quickly reveals itself to be the film’s default mode.
That interview reveals that June had a tumultuous fallout with her family due to her leftist screed’s thinly veiled criticism of her businessman father. It’s a turn that suggests something akin to the complicated father-daughter antagonism between Shiv and Logan on HBO’s Succession, yet Griffin does nothing with this bombshell, simply returning to June as she continues to drown in her paralyzing guilt. An abrupt and woefully misguided deus ex machina attempts to do some heavy narrative lifting, but it changes our perception of June without laying the sort of groundwork needed to make such a twist land with any gravitas.
In the end, June remains an enigma and the film’s finale only solidifies the notion that Griffin never had any interest in plumbing June’s emotional struggles. Like the sweat covering June’s face at all times or the dust that coats her apartment, The Wolf Hour is all surface, and its depiction of trauma only becomes increasingly exploitative and hollow as it moves along.
Cast: Naomi Watts, Brennan Brown, Jennifer Ehle, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Emory Cohen, Jeremy Bobb, Maritza Veer, Justin Clarke Director: Alistair Banks Griffin Screenwriter: Alistair Banks Griffin Distributor: Brainstorm Media Running Time: 99 min Rating: R Year: 2019
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