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The Spielberg Blogathon: Indy Edition

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The Spielberg Blogathon: Indy Edition

Today marks the start of Ryan Kelly and Adam Zanzie’s Spielberg blogathon. Click this link to visit the hosting site. In honor of the event, the House here reposts our 2008 coverage of the four Indiana Jones films: Odienator on Raiders of the Lost Ark, Matt Zoller Seitz on Temple of Doom and myself on Last Crusade and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.—Keith Uhlich

A Well-Oiled Machine: Raiders of the Lost Ark

When re-releasing their beloved E.T. and Star Wars trilogy for a new generation of viewers, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas angered the films’ original fans by committing crimes of digital alteration. Spielberg turned government agents’ guns into walkie-talkies, removing the few justifiable hints of menace in E.T. Lucas’ sins guaranteed him a lower circle of Hell: he added special effects using technology then unavailable to him, which upset purists like me; he changed character motivations; worst of all, he recast an actor in the ghostly final shot of Return of the Jedi (substituting Hayden Christensen, young Anakin Skywalker in the prequels, for Sebastian Shaw, who played the older, unmasked Anakin in the film proper) for the sole purpose of trying to convince us that the second trilogy deserved to be mentioned in the same breath as the first. Granted, these are Spielberg and Lucas’ films, and they can butcher them at will, but in making the original versions hard to obtain on home video, it felt as if they were rewriting history. Imagine the rabid anti-smokers digitally redoing Paul Henreid’s famous Now, Voyager cigarette lighting scene with Twizzlers.

Lucas and Spielberg collaborated on Raiders of the Lost Ark, a movie I resisted buying on any media until a widescreen version was available. The duo released the entire original trilogy in a DVD box set, along with a bonus DVD detailing all aspects of the filmmaking process. News of the release horrified me at first, as I expected some form of alteration to befall the series, which I could deal with only if it involved erasing the second installment, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Thankfully, the only thing these guys put their damn dirty paws all over was the title of the movie that started it all. Raiders of the Lost Ark, at least on the box and the DVD menus, became the unwieldy Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark.

People always ask me, “What’s your favorite movie?” or “Who’s your favorite actor/director?” My opinions have changed slightly over the years, but there is one question I doubt will ever be subjected to the kind of dirty pool changes I’ve just bitched about: If someone asks me what was the best time I had at the movies, the answer is, and will always be, the day I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark. I read somewhere that every generation gets the James Bond it deserves. For me, that Bond was Roger Moore. Or so I thought. After watching Raiders of the Lost Ark again for the first time in several years, I noticed how much it plays into the conventions of the Bond genre. There’s an opening adventure to establish the hero’s feats of derring-do (though this occurs post-credits sequence), an M-like figure (Denholm Elliott) to assign adventures to the hero, a sidekick (John Rhys-Davies) who occasionally provides local information, spectacular action set pieces with suspenseful last minute escapes, and a feisty woman to add eye candy for the adolescent boys. Raiders of the Lost Ark has all of these, recasting and returning the Bond formula to its earlier, more chaste incarnation in the serials George Lucas loved as a kid.

Raiders of the Lost Ark has an odd pedigree and an even odder legend of its creation. The story is credited to Lucas and Philip Kaufman, two outer space-loving guys, and written by Big Chill-helmer Lawrence Kasdan. Kasdan had just worked with Lucas prior, reshaping Leigh Brackett’s script for The Empire Strikes Back. The idea for the script came, according to both Spielberg and Lucas, from stories Lucas would tell about a hero named after his dog. After Close Encounters and Empire, Raiders of the Lost Ark came into being with Tom Selleck as Indiana Jones. Thanks to CBS, however, Selleck was unable to fulfill his obligation to the feature, leaving Harrison Ford the opportunity to create another trilogy-based character who will live forever. Selleck looks more like a serial character than Ford, but this would have been a different movie if Magnum P.I. hadn’t been contractually bound; Indy would have been more suave and less dangerous.

Speaking of danger, Mr. Jones can’t seem to stay out of it. Raiders of the Lost Ark opens with one of the greatest sequences ever committed to film, a mini-masterpiece of storytelling and editing that establishes the character’s motivations, enemies, skills, flaws and temperament better than pages of exposition. Indiana Jones is on some kind of mission in the jungle, looking for an artifact that its prior owners have suitably booby-trapped. Jones shows his vast knowledge of archeology early, preventing his subordinate (a pre Doc-Ock Alfred Molina) from stepping on the same fatal booby trap that will later repay his underling’s treachery. Indy retrieves the idol he is seeking, but sets off the ancient burglar alarm in the process. What happens next is thrilling: Indy outruns poison arrows, his guide’s treachery, and a boulder the size of Jupiter. Just when you think our hero’s home free, he is then robbed by his arch-enemy, a Nazi named Belloq (Paul Freeman). Belloq is armed with far more natives than Indy is, and Jones doesn’t speak their language. This leads to even more running, a quick escape, and the movie’s revelation that Jones has ophidiophobia.

Raiders of the Lost Ark has little time to stop and tell you All About Indy. The film’s dialogue sequences seem to be impatiently waiting for the action to begin; the storyteller is speeding up the tale to get you to the good parts. This isn’t a criticism, as Kasdan’s script moves through the important details and Spielberg’s camera provides reminders by mirroring scenes or repeating pieces of earlier dialogue. Raiders of the Lost Ark reveals a lot about its characters by showing rather than telling. When we meet Marion (Karen Allen), Indy’s former love interest and the daughter of his mentor, she is drinking people under the table at the bar she owns. This seems like a throwaway character trait at first, like the skill a Bond girl is given to hide that she’s really just fodder for the hero’s loins. Indy’s character even seems to overshadow her (literally at one point—Spielberg reintroduces Marion to Indy by projecting his shadow on the wall behind her). Yet in a later scene, that throwaway detail becomes a major plot point, and Marion becomes more complicated than any Bond girl ever could be.

In their first scene together, Marion and Indy provide us with enough detail to invest in their relationship. They talk quickly, for as soon as Indy shows up looking for an artifact Marion’s father used to own, so do the Nazis. The chase is on, with Marion as Indy’s self-proclaimed “goddamned partner” in search of the Ark of the Covenant, a large MacGuffin that turns out not to be a MacGuffin after all. During the course of the film, Marion saves Indy and, to balance out the show for those teenage boys who get fidgety when a woman is effective, Indy saves Marion. Of the three women Jones encounters in the first three films, Marion is the most interesting and the least aggravating. The filmmakers were wise to bring her back for the fourth film, if only to save me from Cate Blanchett’s Natasha Fatale.

The original trilogy’s penchant for strange sidekicks for Indy also starts here with a Benedict Arnold of a monkey. The monkey latches onto Marion and Indy, then provides details of their whereabouts to their enemies. Kasdan and company find a clever use of the monkey; we hiss at him at first, but his accidental redemption saves Indy from a literal date with death. Later sidekicks will include the annoying Short Round in the second movie and the film’s acknowledgement of its Bondian lineage, The Last Crusade’s Indy Sr., Sean Connery.

I read an interview with Spielberg where he mentioned that he probably wouldn’t have used the Nazi plotlines if he’d made the original trilogy later in his career. (Thank God he didn’t digitally replace them with gigantic talking walkie-talkies on the DVDs.) This partially explains why the newest installment of the film, the forthcoming Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, is set in the postwar era. The Nazis support the premise that Raiders of the Lost Ark is a throwback to a time when they were the villains to be mocked and hated in films and cartoons; Belloq’s bespectacled lead henchman, Toht (Ronald Lacey), is truly menacing in every scene in which he appears. At the same time, though, the film’s bad guys are permitted a little complexity. Belloq is allowed some form of identifiable and relatable human failing—it seems he really is taken with Marion and that clouds his judgment. He has a scene of dialogue where he gives Indy the standard-issue “we’re two sides of the same coin” speech, but by film’s end, I realized that he was right. If the Nazis hadn’t opened the Ark of the Covenant when they got it, wouldn’t Jones (or his benefactor) have done so himself, inheriting the splitting headache that Belloq eventually earns?

Enough details and ramblings. Why Raiders of the Lost Ark remains my favorite time at the movies is simply this: It is damn exciting, technically crafted by Lucas, Kasdan, Spielberg, editor Michael Kahn (who won an Oscar for this) and composer John Williams into a well-oiled machine with well-timed shocks, how-did-he-do-that escapes and gory mayhem. Lucas may have re-edited so that Han Solo doesn’t shoot first, but Spielberg still allows Jones to commit the overly ruthless execution of the Nazi driving the Mercedes Benz whose ornament Indy thrillingly hangs onto in (for me) the iconic shot of the film.

As the ornament bends and Ford’s facial expression becomes more panicked, you can feel the movie pulling you to the edge of your seat. Kahn’s editing, Williams’ music, the stunt work and Spielberg’s direction conspire to grab you by the windpipe. This is great moviemaking, and Ford holds the entire contraption together. After playing Han Solo, his casting served as a form of shorthand, telling audiences to expect an adventurous type with a sense of humor who doesn’t play by the rules; yet this same expectation allows Ford to play with the more subtle details of his character. When a student in Indy’s archeology class sends him a message with her eyelids, Ford seems genuinely taken aback—his “OH NO SHE DIDN’T!!” expression is great—and Ford’s looks of frustration whenever Indy has been bested have a boyish “Aw, shucks” charm that shines through the cracks of the character’s seemingly impregnable façade. The much maligned (and deservingly so) Temple of Doom gets a lot of flak for being violent, but Raiders of the Lost Ark is equally violent. The tone is different, however, and that carries a double edged sword. Doom is far darker, and the violence takes on a more appropriate, accurate sense of its disturbing nature, but in doing so it pulls the series into a place it didn’t seem designed to go. Why thrill us with mayhem only to slap our hands for enjoying it later?—Odienator

Childish Things: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom has the series’s simplest plot, most annoying love interest, most casually racist and imperialist attitudes and most grotesque imagery (Doom and its summer-of-’84 blockbuster cousin, the Spielberg-produced Gremlins, sparked the creation of a new MPAA rating, PG-13). At the same time, though, it’s the most viscerally intense entry in the series and the most wide-ranging in its moods, spotlighting the imaginations of Spielberg and his co-producer, George Lucas, at their most freewheeling. It’s a blast from the id—like Close Encounters, 1941, E.T. and A.I, a rare instance of the director appearing to construct images and situations for his own private reasons, rather than keeping his eyes and ears attuned for signs of viewer discontent.

Spielberg was shocked by the negative response to the movie (robust box-office notwithstanding) and subsequently characterized it as a miscalculation, even a mistake; it’s surely no coincidence that he followed Doom with back-to-back adaptations of critically acclaimed historical novels (The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun) and returned to the Indiana Jones saga with The Last Crusade. The latter has charm and heart, but compared to Doom, it’s mild stuff—a salve for Indy fans that still felt burned. Doom does whatever it pleases, even if it means chucking commercial cinema’s knee-jerk insistence on “plausibility”—a requirement Spielberg and Lucas observed whenever possible in the innately preposterous Raiders of the Lost Ark—out the nearest window.

The film declares its “What the hell, let’s try it” swagger in its first two shots: (1) a dissolve from the Paramount logo to a brass mountain-emblazoned gong on a Shanghai nightclub stage being struck by a burly ringer, and (2) a whip-pan from the ringer to the nightclub’s main stage, which dollies into the stage’s central prop, a dragon statue with a mouth that disgorges our heroine, the nightclub singer Willie Best (Kate Capshaw, the soon-to-be second Mrs. Spielberg). As Douglas Slocombe’s camera keeps rolling (this is a surprisingly long shot), Willie sings Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes” in Mandarin, addressing the lyrics to the viewer, not the nightclub patrons, and capping the third “Anything goes” with a knowing smile into the lens. Then she turns her back to the camera and leads us through the portal, revealing a backstage area big enough to accommodate a Busby Berkeley-style all-gal chorus line.

What are we looking at? Is this an unseen spectator’s fantasy? Willie’s grandiose daydream? An alternate reality? It’s no real-world nightclub routine, that’s for sure. What stage director in his right mind would choreograph a dance routine in a style that’s not theatrical but cinematic (the dancers obviously arranged for an unseen movie camera’s benefit), and stage it in a room that the club’s patrons can’t even see? Anything goes, indeed.

Spielberg and his partner Lucas always worked very close to their subconscious minds; with Temple of Doom they outdid themselves, for better or worse. Raiders of the Lost Ark promises extreme brutality, then either averts its gaze (envisioning a German strongman’s decapitation-by-propeller by showing blood hitting a fuselage) or serves up a sight gag instead (Nazi torture master Toht hauling out what one assumes are nunchaku, then folding them into a coat hanger). The supernatural blowout finale plays less as pornographic gore than supernatural spectacle: God’s punishment as sound-and-light show. Doom starts out in more or less the same helium-high action mode as Raiders of the Lost Ark, but stirs in wacky slapstick and surrealism, then piles on nightmare logic: by its midpoint, a seeming escapist action picture has become a horror film.

Set in 1935, a year before the events of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Doom kicks off in a Shanghai nightclub (Club Obi-Wan, alas) with a business-deal-turned-brawl between Indy and some gangster patrons; then it moves lickety-split through a tire-squealing car chase and a should-be-escape via cargo aircraft that becomes yet another nail-biting setpiece when the pilots (the gangster’s minions) wait until their passengers—Indy, Willie and Indy’s boy sidekick, Short Round (Ke Huy Quan)—fall asleep, then dump the fuel and bail out over India, forcing our heroes to sky-dive on a raft that becomes a makeshift bobsled that carries them down a snowy mountainside and lands them in the Ganges, which spirits them over a waterfall and deposits them near a village plagued by a Thuggee cult that stole their mystical Sankara stone and their children.

Doom’s first 15 minutes are even more exhausting than the sentence you just finished reading; many viewers find its jumbled energy as grating as Capshaw’s bimbo-in-peril shrieks. A major complaint—admittedly one among many—is that because Doom occurs in a Looney Tunes dimension in which humans can leap from a crashing plane on a raft, slalom down a mountain and dive off a waterfall without sustaining a scratch, one can’t get too invested in what happens; if anything goes, nothing matters.

I see the point of such gripes, but for me, Doom’s sheer audacity remains a tonic. As I’ve written elsewhere on this blog, Raiders of the Lost Ark was the first film that made me realize that movies were directed: that they didn’t just appear mysteriously on theater screens fully-formed. Doom was just as significant to me as Raiders of the Lost Ark and in some ways more important, because it was the first contemporary escapist picture I’d seen that struck me as unquestionably the work of an artist—a snapshot of the contents of the director’s head. That realization—prompted by Doom’s Buster Keaton-style action choreography, with runaway mine cars literalizing the notion of movie-as-roller-coaster and lines of henchman toppling like dominoes—entranced me as deeply as the more measured kineticism of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Spielberg, Lucas and their screenwriters, Williard Huyck and Gloria Katz, spark sense memories of the unfettered free-association that humans rarely enjoy past childhood. Seeing the film reminded me of what it felt like to be eight or nine, shoehorning seemingly incompatible objects and characters (say, a Shogun warrior, Star Wars figures and Tonka trucks) into the same willy-nilly plot.

Yet Doom is remarkable not just because it evokes the id-play of childhood, but because it destroys that same innocence on behalf of a story that’s as much a fable of maturation as The Last Crusade. Raiders of the Lost Ark puts a smile on your face, and the prequel wipes it off: to quote Trey Wilson in Raising Arizona, that’s its whole goddamn raisin d’etra.

Doom’s fairy tale-dark vision is presaged by the village scene in which a wizened shaman recounts how representatives of an ancient, reawakened evil, the Thuggees, stole their children along with a sacred Sankara stone. Then it moves through a juvenile “Can-you-top-this?” phase: a gross-out palace dinner where decadent pashas dine on snakes, beetles, eyeball soup, and chilled monkey brains; a sex farce interlude between Indy and Willie that climaxes with Indy’s near-strangulation by a Thuggee assassin and Indy and Short Round’s narrow escape from a bug-infested spike chamber. Then the film descends (narratively and geographically) into more sinister terrain, an underground lair in which Thuggee boss Mola Ram (Amrish Puri) rips still-beating hearts from the chests of sacrifice victims and then dunks them (still alive, somehow!) into boiling lava while child slaves toil in diamond mines overseen by whip-toting goons.

Doom signals each stage of its descent into horror with an unambiguous cue—starting with the opening sequence, which finds Willie entering the nightclub through a dragon’s mouth (the mouth of Hell), then leading us back through it to reveal an unseen secret universe. (The Busby Berkeley set is to Club Obi-Wan as the Thuggee lair is to Pankot Palace.) When the travelers’ raft arrives at the devastated village, the film announces its shift into mystical/menacing mode by slow-dollying into a tight close-up of the shaman: his grim face signals his people’s misery and his determination to end it by treating a grave-robber as a liberator. (When Indy suggests that chance brought them here, the Shaman laughs, insisting it was prayer.) At the start of the temple section, Indy descends from a protected perch to the main platform of the Thuggees’ sacrificial altar to swipe the Sankara stones, then pauses to stare at human skins stretched out like shawls (a Holocaust image); the rack-focus from Indy’s face to the skins and back is accompanied by off-camera wails of agony.

The film’s next section is the nastiest, depicting Indy and Short Round’s torture by the Thuggees; Indy’s conversion to evil by being force-fed a potion contained in a skull-shaped pitcher (its mouth spigot delivering a figurative kiss of death); Short Round’s brief stint as a diamond-digger terrorized by vicious slave-masters; Willie’s near-deep-frying in the Thuggee lava pit (it’s not necessary for Mola Ram to tear her heart out; the sight of Indy enslaved by the dark side suffices), and Short Round morally and physically re-awakening Indy by searing his side with a torch while crying, “I love you!” (Short Round’s action is the antidote to Mola Ram’s poison—a moment foreshadowed in the opening sequence, which finds Indy accidentally ingesting poison and then scampering after a vial containing the antidote.)

It’s easy to dismiss Doom as a parade of bizarre, sometimes wantonly cruel setpieces, set in a xenophobic fantasy version of Asia that’s as untethered from cultural reality as Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan stories. (One could argue that Indy and Willie are unflattering national stereotypes, too—caricatures of American self-interest—but because they’re the film’s romantic leads and are ultimately more sinned-against than sinning, the defense won’t wash.) Yet there’s method in the film’s madness: more than anything else, Doom is a sordid-fantastical origin story about trivial people deepened by trauma. Its intent unfurls during the first village sequence, beginning with the shaman’s spooky riverbank close-up and accelerating with the arrival of the escaped slave boy who collapses at Indy’s feet.

The adventurer’s reaction is unlike any we’ve seen in this film or in Raiders of the Lost Ark: shock, helplessness and seemingly instinctive, involuntary tenderness. Then Indy examines a scrap of cloth the boy carried—emblazoned with a painted image confirming that the stone taken from the village was one of the fabled Sankara stones, and therefore quite valuable—and his face is animated by a nearly demonic greed as he says, “Sankara.” (Ford’s expression here is—intentionally I think—similar to Indy’s expressions in the sequence where’s he’s ingested the potion.)

The subsequent scene on the hilltop (marked by the appearance of one of Spielberg’s signature shooting stars) is more complex than it initially seems. Short Round tells Indy that the boy was a slave who escaped from Pankot Palace. “What are we going to do, Dr. Jones?” he asks, meaning, “What are you going to do about these children?” Indy, who was clearly discombobulated by the slave child, tells Short Round they’re going to Pankot to recover the lost Sankara stones. “What is Sankara?” Short Round asks. “Fortune and glory, kid… Fortune and glory,” Indy replies. But note his tone of voice: it’s flat, almost monotone, arguably the least expressive line reading in either of the first two Indy films. One could write it off as a bum take that somehow found its way into the final cut. But if one places it within the movie’s clearly intended context—an origin story about a freebooting rascal remaking himself as a righteous hero—it seems not just intentional, but inevitable, perhaps even the key that unlocks Indy’s iconic persona.

When Spielberg described the movie as Indiana Jones Goes to Hell, he wasn’t kidding. The dragon’s mouth, the banquet hall decorations, Mola Ram’s skull paint and sash, the evil-Indy poison, the magma pools and the interior of the barricaded mine-car shaft are all the same hellish red. The movie is a crucible in which the hero is melted down and remade. It introduces Indy as a tuxedoed, single black-marketeer, a man so mean he tries to force payment for a job by threatening to stab a woman with a fork. The film’s emotional zenith finds Indy dying a figurative (moral) death after ingesting the potion and succumbing to a sinister sleep that literalizes the moral sleep in which he had previously existed; he is reawakened by love (corny, but that’s how it plays) and emerges a new Indy, a man less interested in personal gain (“fortune and glory”) than restoration (telling Indy and Willie, “let’s get out of here… all of us”). This evolution, too, is foreshadowed in the film’s opening nightclub brawl: while Indy fumbles after the antidote to the poison he drank, Willie simultaneously grasps at the diamond that the gangster boss gave Indy as payment for his grave-robbing—a diamond that means nothing to a man on the brink of death.

Doom ends with Indy liberating children from slavery, reanimating a nearly-dead countryside and entering (for the time being) a facsimile of a nuclear family. Returning the Sankara stone to the shaman, Indy says quietly, “I understand its power.” The trip to hell and back burns off Indy’s selfishness and foregrounds the decency and sense of moral responsibility he once sublimated. A single man-child goes to Pankot Palace and returns as a family man reuniting lost children with their parents. In its madcap-picaresque way, Temple of Doom echoes 1 Corinthians 13:11: “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”

Flash back to that starlit hilltop: given what Indy is about to experience, the changes that are about to be beaten and burned out of him, his rote pronunciation of “fortune and glory” makes sense. He’s about to do the right thing for the wrong reasons. “Fortune and glory” is the lie that the old Indy has to tell himself, in order to give himself permission to start the adventure that will birth the new Indy: a man willing to risk his life for principle. Nestled in the midst of Spielberg’s most disreputable action movie is one of the most psychologically true moments he’s ever filmed—a moment in which a man’s life changes and he doesn’t even know it.—Matt Zoller Seitz

All Is One: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

The title promises an epic kind of finality, so it’s only fitting that Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade opens at the proverbial start of its globetrotting protagonist’s career. Clad in Boy Scout uniform, emerging from the shadows—both geographically literal and Fordian symbolic—of Utah’s craggy Moab arches, Henry Jones Jr. (River Phoenix) is all raw energy and American pluck, his ideals, as so often in Spielberg, potently reduced to an oft-repeated phrase (“It belongs in a museum.”).

He’s a knight-in-training, a quintessentially Western conqueror—enough of a freethinker that he gets by moment-to-moment, but still subservient (and often unknowingly) to a power structure greater than himself. His true instincts (all throughout his life) are base, improvisatory, brutal: the scoutwear here is as much a guise as the suit and spectacles he’ll adopt as an adult academic. As he makes off with the jewel-encrusted Cross of Coronado, he sheds (or shreds) the trappings. The hat goes flying, the clothes become tattered, caked with dirt and blood—experience sticks, makes its mark, sculpting the boy into the man.

A circus train is the conduit between Jones Jr.’s past, present, and future—it’s the three (soon to be four) film series’s madeleine in the tea, a remembrance (and a search) unburdened by time. Here, car by car, is the Jones legacy in miniature: a crate of snakes burrowing their way into, and unlocking, a fear-tinged subconscious; a rhino’s tusk, wittily placed so as to suggest a stunted, yet perpetually unbridled sexual urge; a lion (king of the jungle vs. usurper of the throne) to be tamed by bloodletting whip; and a magic box, a caboose-residing deus ex machina, that leads (per P.T. Barnum) to a great and expansive unknown. “Damn,” says Jones’ antagonist Fedora (Richard Young), as his quarry, prize in tow, runs off into the deserted distance. Then, same shot, a smile: beaming, ever-widening—the sacred melded with the profane.

Home, then, to father, so disinterested in his son’s adventures that he resorts to a dunce cap exercise (“count to ten… in Greek”). With no common ground on which to meet, they separate, Jones Sr. muttering to himself a selfishly guarded epiphany-cum-invocation (“may he who illuminated this, illuminate me”). The “rightful owner” of the cross comes calling, the town sheriff in his employ (no place, here, for idealized figures of authority). Jones Jr. relinquishes the prize, but gains something, perhaps, far more valuable. “You lost today, kid,” says Fedora (suddenly a surrogate), “but that doesn’t mean you have to like it.” He crowns him with the iconic chapeau, shadowing the fresh-faced youngster and bringing out, in a years-spanning jump cut (simple, resonant, sublime), the world-weary adult (Harrison Ford). No longer “Junior,” henceforth Indiana Jones.

Tempting to call this sequence Spielberg’s finest achievement, though the hyperbole, let’s admit, would be entirely personal, hardly supportable by fact. But: “Archaeology is the search for fact,” says Professor Indiana Jones in one of The Last Crusade’s early scenes, “not truth”—a statement, an ideology, easily proven within the walls of academe, less so in the complicated hash of the world at large. The facts, then (at least to me), are these:

In terms of purity (of theme, rhythm, meaning, metaphor, and movement), Spielberg never tops his opener, though I don’t think he’s out to. Coming as the third panel in a masterful triptych which includes The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun, The Last Crusade is quite apparently a fade-out, a slow diminuendo—trace the bell curve from Color Purple’s orgasmic explosion of community, through Empire’s sustained cri de coeur for childhood lost, to The Last Crusade’s end-credits ride into (a Spielberg favorite) a perspective-obliterating sunset. “The search for the cup of Christ is the search for the divine in all of us,” says Indy’s confidante Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliott), just before they embark on a quest, initiated by Indy’s missing father (Sean Connery), for the Holy Grail. That suggests a journey both outward and inward (what we see, what is hidden, and, resulting, what comes to the fore) that Spielberg and his collaborators—among them, George Lucas and Menno Meyjes on story, Jeffrey Boam on script, John Williams, as ever, on score, Douglas Slocombe, final film, on photography—consistently parallel and explode onscreen.

This push-and-pull between the secular and the spiritual is perhaps best embodied by the Venice locale where Indy, Marcus, and Dr. Elsa Schneider (Alison Doody) begin their crusade—a library housed in a former church. Using clues gathered from both his father’s grail diary and a stained glass window depicting the Christian trinity, Indy uncovers the edifice’s heretofore unspoken “truth.” “X marks the spot,” he smirks, pointing at a hidden-in-plain-sight Roman numeral, and sheepishly contradicting, though not canceling out, a formerly confident classroom pronouncement. Per Roland Barthes: “… the subject gains access to bliss by the cohabitation of languages working side by side: the text of pleasure is a sanctioned Babel.” In a sense, then, this crusade is about the co-existence, and the acceptance, of the multiple natures within and without.

Thus, when Dr. Schneider is revealed as a two-faced antagonist (during Indy’s rescue of his father from an Austrian castle), it comes as something of a meta-shock considering the Marions and Willies of yore. The love in this Indiana Jones film is familial rather than sexual, though Spielberg complicates, or better, perverts it by having Schneider be the sensuous, Mata Hari-like link between father and son. It’s poisonous, yes, but it cuts both ways: when Indy (disguised as Gestapo) seeks her out during a Berlin book-burning rally, they have a brief semantic argument (all sound and fury) before coming to the plangent philosophical point: “All I have to do is squeeze,” says Indy, his hand violently at his former lover’s throat. “All I have to do is scream,” she whispers. Neither of them does—the acknowledgment is enough.

This collision of ideals (cloaked in and revealed by threats) leads to an indelible punchline, as Indy comes face-to-face with Der Führer himself (Michael Sheard). Two creatures of myth (one fictional, one horribly real) stare each other down, silently, mysteriously, iconically (fatherland locking eyes with a cautiously defiant snake in the grass). The grail diary exchanges hands, but Hitler can’t see the forest for the trees—he’s an image man, plain and simple, and must maintain an immediate illusion of power. Unknowingly, he inscribes the very thing that would give him all he purports to desire; he makes his mark on the quest, but, by that action, is brought down to earth and put in harsh perspective. The only thing that might have deepened the gag would be to have Riefenstahl on hand, filming the exchange and setting the epitaph in emulsified stone (reportedly, the wonderful, horrible Leni was indeed present in an early rough cut).

“What do you want to talk about?” asks an indignant Jones Sr. of his son, both of them sharing a quiet moment on board a zeppelin. There are innumerable lost years here, but Indy “can’t think of anything” to bridge the gap. Our turmoils, Spielberg seems to say, are mostly our own creations. And besides… in this world, action (whether by plane, car, boat, gun, or tank) always intrudes on the chatter. So it is more the pregnant pause, the sidelong, tossed-off glance that reveals the profound truths, as when Jones Sr. (ever the bookish fish-out-of-water) lets loose a flock of seagulls to bring down a Nazi fighter plane. He proudly quotes Charlemagne (“Let my armies be the rocks and the trees and the birds in the sky”) as he walks past his son with the knowingly smug look of an educating elder, but Indy looks after him with a genuine surprise and a determined love, the gulf of time collapsed, even if only by a fraction.

Abysses abound in The Last Crusade (it’s in one of these very crevasses that Indy comes to his ultimate, life-altering realization). But first: “It’s time to ask yourself what you believe,” says suit-and-tie baddie Walter Donovan (Julian Glover), just before he sends Indy off (a bullet to his father’s gut as blackmail) on the journey’s final leg, which encompasses a trio (a trinity) of challenges—essentially to be humble before, walk in the name of, and leap for the glory of God. Not to say that Indy becomes a blind believer: he’s as secular as they come, but it’s this quality of to-hell-with-it openness that helps him to recognize the mortal realities of the tasks before him, without dismissing their simultaneous otherworldliness. (In Spielberg’s oeuvre, the mundane and the metaphysical feed off of and into each other as surely as do the dual forces of commerce and art.) Indy’s earthbound wisdom and perseverance (in concert with his trust, when called for, in thaumaturgy) grants him entrance to a small antechamber inhabited only by a centuries-old knight of the Crusades and numerous, shimmering chalices (photographed so as to seem both tantalizing and pornographic).

As Hitler was oblivious to the power of the grail diary (seeing only kindling or a blank space on which to scribble his devil’s mark), so Donovan, a more placidly powerful antagonist, is blinded by the Grail’s own purported beauty. He lets Dr. Schneider pick out the supposed cup of Christ (true to the character, a smirk flickers across her face, as if she might intentionally be choosing in error) and then drinks from it without question. His hubris, his unfailing certainty, does him in. Per the old knight’s warning, the false grail takes Donovan’s life from him, drying him to brittle bone, a Nazi button insignia emerging from his ashes as the only enduring remnant/legacy. Indy grasps the implication (the fact, if you will): that myth and spirit are too often couched in glittering terms. Symbols and signs must be brought down to earth, but, befitting the archaeologist’s credo, the mystery must remain intact. So it is: the Grail is actually the humble cup of a carpenter, and its promised gift of eternal life is given with little pomp and circumstance, merely a kindly nod and assent from one in the know (“You have chosen wisely,” says the knight).

Son and father (the latter healed by the Grail’s mystical powers) now connect over the artifact, a fleeting moment, for how can the end of a quest (of even, so it seemed at the time, a film trilogy) compare to the journey itself? What it begets is one last challenge. For Indy’s immortality, even if canceled out by Dr. Schneider’s selfish removal of the Grail from its sacrosanct resting place, is assured on the level of cinema. The character will live on, even if he, now hanging over that aforementioned abyss, reaches for the Grail and dies the death of an object-besotten conqueror. These too, it would seem (the Grail and Indy both), belong in a museum. Father breaks the spell, addressing his son on terms both reel and real:

“Indiana… Indiana… let it go.”

The choice to live on, even beyond the borders of the current quest, is the better one. So the family reunites, connected in bliss, in transcendence, in—per Jones Sr.’s own words (his bookends)—“illumination.” But old habits die hard: Indy’s moniker, no longer needed for redemptive purposes, is brought down to the level of dogs (as long as life courses through us, we tread both great heights and great depths). The prickly status quo returns, but the just-passed, irrevocably etched experience remains—even if only, for the immediate moment, below the skin, hidden from view.

Now only twilight and sunset. Illumination fades; the self annihilates in silhouette. And all (father, son, and spirit) is one.—Keith Uhlich

Migration and Exodus: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

“The writer is too well acquainted with the laws of narration to be unaware of the nature of the pledge given by this brief preface; but, at the same time, he knows enough of the history of the Thirteen to feel confident that he shall not disappoint any expectations raised by the programme. Tragedies dripping with gore, comedies piled up with horrors, tales of heads taken off in secret have been confided to him. If any reader has not had enough of the ghastly tales served up to the public for some time past, he has only to express his wish; the author is in a position to reveal cold-blooded atrocities and family secrets of a gloomy and astonishing nature. But in preference he has chosen those pleasanter stories in which stormy passions are succeeded by purer scenes, where the beauty and goodness of woman shine out the brighter for the darkness. And, to the honor of the Thirteen, such episodes as these are not wanting. Some day perhaps it may be thought worth while to give their whole history to the world; in which case it might form a pendant to the history of the buccaneers—that race apart so curiously energetic, so attractive in spite of their crimes.” —Honoré de Balzac, from the Author’s Preface to History of the Thirteen

The Thirteen in question in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull are a so-called “hive mind,” a race of beings that the mad-as-a-hatter Professor Oxley (John Hurt) might describe, quite seriously, sans irony, as “interterrestrials.” Call them—in deference to the late-‘50s setting of this fourth Indiana Jones adventure—fellow travelers, those creatures that move around, per Oxley again, in “the space between spaces.” Alien life forms not from without, but within. To some they are gods; to Professor Henry “Indiana” Jones Jr. (Harrison Ford) they are the supernal means to a seemingly fateful end (for the immediate moment, at least).

An end needs a beginning: here it is a Nevada desert molehill, wittily juxtaposed with the snow-capped Paramount Pictures logo (returned to a rough ’n’ ragged two-dimensionality, circa-1981), then destroyed, dually, by joyriding teenagers and a “Hound Dog”-bleating Elvis Presley. Roll opening titles. What’s past is past and time waits for no one, not even Indiana Jones, currently locked in the trunk of a car driven by stoic KGB agents, who lighten up long enough to engage the fresh-faced Presley fanatics in a friendly bout of vehicle-to-vehicle combat (the white picket fence vs. the Iron Curtain). Nobody wins, they only diverge, the lonely Atomic Café marking the spot that leads either away from or toward the purported mother lode: Area 51. (But whichever way we go, we have to always, always be looking.)

Every Indiana Jones film tells us, upfront, how to read and experience it. It’s clear now (if it wasn’t already) that each installment, whatever the shared similarities, has its own tenor, rhythm, and approach. As compared to what has come before, the dissonance of Crystal Skull’s credits sequence and the immediately following chase through, around, under, and out of a government facility cosmopolitan enough to contain both the Ark of the Covenant and the Roswell UFO remains is bracing and beautiful, the Spielberg shorthand (oft-profound, as often piteous) in full-on, awe-inspiring bloom. A bloom of another kind climaxes Crystal Skull’s prologue as Indy—betrayed by his wartime buddy ’Mac’ McHale (Ray Winstone) to a Russkie mafia led by the Garbo-cum-Brooks-sculpted sword-swisher Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett)—races around a plasticine ‘50s suburbia, a horror show of brightly colored homes and gaping, gawking mannequins (several of whom, in their jaw-dropped countenances, recall Raiders of the Lost Ark’s awestruck, flesh-melting Nazis). It’s a brilliantly banal pantomime of watering lawns, walking dogs, and watching Howdy Doody. It also happens to be an atomic bomb test site, and the countdown’s already begun.

In conception, Spielberg and screenwriter David Koepp’s analogy is bludgeoning (the nuclear family laid literally, brutally to waste), but in execution it is thrilling and, in retrospect of the film entire, deeply moving. This is no world for Indiana Jones, who climbs into a lead-lined Frigidaire (brushing aside, at the last second, an obstructing container of Crisco™) and is then launched miles through the air, deep into the barren desert, expelled from Ike-era Eden. Nary a surface scratch, of course, when he finally emerges (shaken, not stirred), but the pluming mushroom cloud wreaks havoc with the heroic iconography. Was a time when Spielberg might have had Indy rising into frame full-face and body, the blast behind him merely a source of Slocombe-superintended backlight. But here, in concert with his visual Herrmann—from Schindler’s List on—Janusz Kamiński, he makes sure to dwarf Indy, obliterating him (as per the final sequence of The Last Crusade) into silhouette, forcing character and audience alike to bear witness to the glory and the horror, to reconcile the realities of mankind with its no less tangible myths.

Note Indy’s placement in the image—frame-right, diminutive, photographed, with Antonioni-esque remove, from behind. It will find its mirror opposite at Crystal Skull’s end when he comes face-to-face with another icon of ‘50s-era fascination, this one fictional, though still carrying the heady, expansive weight of metaphor. The hemisphere-traversing journey between these visual bookends is best explicated by an offhand order the soon-to-be-blacklisted Indy gives to his university class: to study and then expound on “the difference between migration and exodus.”

The Indy series’s push-and-pull between the secular and the spiritual is as strong as ever, though it takes on a more labyrinthine resonance here what with primary characters’ quotations of Oppenheimer (“Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds”—itself a sadly knowing invocation of the Bhagavad Gita) and Milton (from Comus: “To lay their just hands on that Golden Key/That ope’s the Palace of Eternity”), to say nothing of the thematic meta-mix of practical sets and locations (expected) with Computer Generated Imagery (unexpected). The lie of CGI (one at times perpetuated by Spielberg and his peers) is that it is meant to extend reality, when the truth is that, in its best uses, it is a falsity that helps us to see, feel, and experience more clearly.

There are points, few and far between, when Crystal Skull’s effects distract (mostly in regards to animals, one scene in particular conjuring up memories of executive producer George Lucas’ sad bit of monkey-on-the-back graffiti in the re-released THX-1138), but Spielberg’s sheer talent for everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink-and-more momentum pretty much smooths out the rough patches. More often, the effects work/production design helps to sell this particular installment’s immersive, illusory sheen. It’s probably the “falsest” looking Indiana Jones film, but to a degree that near-entirely enhances the fantasy and its signifiers.

More than once, Jones and his companions—among them Shia LaBeouf’s switchblade-wielding greaser Mutt Williams and Karen Allen’s Raiders of the Lost Ark-returning love interest Marion Ravenwood (she of the infectiously beatific smile)—engage in ingenious semiotic play. Marion and Indy have a hot-blooded reunion (piled on high with acerbic remarks and familial revelations) while sinking in quicksand, the sequence climaxing with an extended gag involving a snake that Indy hilariously insists on calling a “rope.” The wordplay extends to the primary quest (a search for a lost Mayan city to which Indy and his companions must return an oblong-shaped and psychic mind-melding Crystal Skull), which hinges on the multiple meanings inherent within a long-dead language (“gold” equals “knowledge” and vice-versa).

A particularly memorable Kaminski composition has Indy and Spalko placed on opposite sides and varying regions of the ’Scope frame, their shadows cast onto a foreground scrim so that they are encompassed within their own outlines. The implicit query: Which is the true self before us—the flesh-and-blood, walking-and-talking facsimile or the dark-night projection? Do the characters, like the movie they inhabit, contain worlds, or are they empty vessels fed by a potent mix, from Creator and viewer alike, of nostalgia and memory?

Tempting to call Crystal Skull Spielberg’s own Youth Without Youth (a perfect subtitle for this enterprise in more ways than one). It shares with Francis Ford Coppola’s unjustly maligned time-traversing romance an elder man’s world-weary sensibilities (“We’re at the age where life stops giving us things and starts taking them away,” says Indy’s academe confidante Charles Stanforth (Jim Broadbent), paying homage to the story-deceased Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliott) and Henry Jones Sr. (Sean Connery) as well as a penchant for refracting era-specific fears and proclivities through the prism of pulp fiction. Yet this Indiana Jones distinguishes itself, too, as the first film in the series to take place during a time of which Spielberg has actual recall. No longer solely couched in a movie-geek’s distanced obsession with old-time serials, Crystal Skull is a simultaneously multifaceted ode to an artist’s formative years, to an imagination stoked as much by the possibilities of destruction as by the worlds out of sight.

It is the collision of such extremes that results in Professor Oxley’s “space between spaces,” though even this observation has its grounded, mortal corollary, as the suddenly sane Oxley is later heard to express (during a sublime moment of long-delayed sanctification, complicated by its numerous parallels to the prologue’s nuclear suburbia) “how much of human life is lost in wait.” As befits Spielberg’s artistry, the statement resonates at once backwards and forwards: back to Irina Spalko’s ultimately self-destructive desire to possess all the knowledge of the ages (a Thirteen-bestowed “gift” no one human being could ever hope to retain); forward to, in the final shot, Mutt’s raw, instinctive presumption to assume, via Indy’s chapeau, a singularly iconic mantle. It’s a pure John Ford setup (jokey and profound all at once, touched—deliriously, irrevocably—by both glee and loneliness) with the added benefit of Spielberg’s inimitable hovering camera, which acts as an expressive “god’s eye” conduit. Is this the artist’s perspective, the viewer’s, the Thirteen’s—all of us, whether fictional or actual, inhabiting some nonpareil form (sometimes harmonized, as often discordant) of inner space?

Final thought, on that note, from Indy: “Depends on who your god is.”—Keith Uhlich

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Japan Cuts 2019: Demolition Girl, And Your Bird Can Sing, & Being Natural

Japan Cuts has established itself as the definitive Japanese film festival in the United States, thanks to the scope of its programming.

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Demolition Girl
Photo: Japan Cuts

Japan Cuts has established itself as the definitive Japanese film festival in the United States, thanks to the scope of its programming. The 2019 edition is no exception, with over 30 events over 10 days, among them talks, screenings, and Q&A sessions with filmmakers as diverse as Macoto Tezka (The Legend of the Stardust Brothers) and Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo: The Iron Man), the latter of whom is this year’s recipient of the festival’s Cut Above award, which is given to a defining figure of Japan’s cinema, and will be awarded before the East Coast premiere of his latest film, the samurai action-drama Killing.

Lest you think Japan Cuts is only a showcase for genre exercises, the festival abounds in works that explore the struggles that erupt from the Japanese capitalist system, and are felt in different ways across generations. Demolition Girl, Genta Matsugami’s feature debut, is among the strongest of recent films to bluntly speak about class difference. It follows 17-year-old Cocoa (Aya Kitai), who, in the wake of her mother’s death, has decided to forgo a university education and get a job. But as her shifts at a local amusement park only pay so much, she starts to perform in adult fetish videos that see her stomping on cans, trash, and balloons.

At his best, the film taps into the heightened experience of the poorest of the people living on the edge. For one, whenever Cocoa’s father (Yota Kawase) has some money on hand, he yearns for instant satisfaction, spending it on expensive sushi. As for Cocoa, who’s isolation is emphasized through shots that see her alone in corridors, or studying late at night in her room, it’s almost as if she’s destined to fail. And, indeed, when her school finds out about the adult videos she’s been making, and just as she was beginning to realize her promise of going to a Tokyo university, her life falls apart. When confronted by friends about why she made the videos, all she can do is yell at them: “You wouldn’t understand, you’re rich, you wouldn’t know. Will you pay for my expenses?” In this moment, Kitai’s triumph is making her character’s wail against a cruel economic system feel as if it could be our own.

And Your Bird Can Sing, directed by Sho Miyake, is focused on two late-twentysomething slackers: the unnamed protagonist (Tasuku Emoto) and his roommate, Shizo (Himizu and Parasyte star Shōta Sometani). Both work crappy jobs, and they try to stay sane through copious amounts of drinking and pointed mockery of the economically fraught lot they’ve been handed in life. The protagonist’s attitude could be summed up by one early sequence, when he meets a co-worker and convinces her to go on a date, only to later miss the date, fall asleep, wake up, and decide to spend his night drinking with Shizo.

A love triangle between the roomies and one of the protagonist’s co-workers, Sachiko (Shizuka Ishibashi), brings some solace to the men’s lives. There’s redundancy to the way that Miyake frames these characters, showing their faces up close rather than the screens they peer at as they text each other, but his wide shots speak to how they all work to fill empty spaces. Miyake’s style is relaxed, almost as if his camera has absorbed everyone’s slacker vibes. Especially of note is a sequence that lingers at length on Sachiko paying for groceries while the two men in her life try to hold their laughter, saying to each other that she’s going to regret her purchase. Miyake’s gaze is empathetic, and there’s truth in his understanding that you have to sometimes laugh at your underprivilege in order to prevent yourself from screaming.

More tonally varied, and operating on a larger scale, director Tadashi Nagayama’s satirical Being Natural broaches the subject of gentrification as it immerses viewers in the daily routines of a middle-aged man, Taka (Yota Kawase), who lives in a small town in the countryside of Japan and works with his cousin, Mitsuaki (Shoichiro Tanigawa), and their friend, Sho (Tadahiro Tsuru), at a fishpond inherited from his deceased uncle. Everything starts to derail for the three men when a family arrives on the scene from Tokyo with the hopes of opening up an old-style café that will only sell natural and locally grown products. At the start of the film, the still-grieving Taka doesn’t fully understand what he has until someone tries to take it away from him, and by the end, a spectacular show of violence will see him finally realizing the nature of the economic system he’s trapped within.

The film’s style is initially sweet and mellow, with the softest of songs dotting the soundtrack. Taka plays bongos, and the sounds of the instrument are also heard throughout. At first, this sound creates a calm atmosphere that’s in sync with the bright cinematography. But as the film introduces a series of sinister twists, those bongos come to take on an almost murderous bent. The sounds of the instrument point to the encroachment of a capitalist economy on a place relatively untouched by it. In its final minutes, Being Natural takes a turn toward the supernatural, and it’s satisfying for giving the main characters the reprisal they want, but also poignant for the way it has us understand that it only occurs in the realm of fantasy. The film, in the end, acknowledges that it’s difficult to go against the system, and that to stay sane means finding a little pocket of happiness in the world and enjoying it while it lasts.

Japan Cuts runs from July 19—28.

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Review: David Crosby: Remember My Name Sees a Legend Carrying On

The film captures a man haunted by his past mistakes and nearly certain that he doesn’t have the time left to begin making up for them.

2.5

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David Crosby: Remember My Name
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

One gets the sense when hearing David Cosby perform that, like many naturally gifted vocalists, he was born to express himself through song, and given his tumultuous personal and professional life, the act of singing may be the only means through which Crosby can briefly maintain an equilibrium amid so much chaos. Womanizing, drug abuse, and band breakups are certainly par for the course for countless musicians, especially those who came up in the late 1960s, but Crosby is an extreme case even by those standards. It’s difficult to think of another living musician more strongly and uniformly despised by his former bandmates and collaborators and, aside from Keith Richards, another whose continued survival is more shocking in light of what he’s put his body through.

Aided by Cameron Crowe, who, as a Rolling Stone writer, interviewed Crosby various times and is on hand here to again pick the musician’s brain, A.J. Eaton’s David Crosby: Remember My Name opens with a fairly standard music-doc overview that traces Crosby’s productive early years with the Byrds and his ascent to fame with both iterations of Crosby, Stills & Nash. There’s no effort made to hide Crosby’s thorny personality or the chaos he brought to each of these early projects, but Eaton and Crowe seem initially content to butter Crosby up, joining him in waxing rhapsodic about his widespread influence and lasting importance as a musician.

The hagiographic tone slowly fades as the film moves past the perfunctory career retrospective and begins delving into the nitty-gritty details of Crosby’s bumpy road to stardom and his rapid descent into disgrace, spurred on by his decades-long battle with drug addiction. While Crosby often proves a tough nut to crack, rarely willing to linger too long on the painful moments of a life eventful enough to fill several documentaries, Crowe and Eaton eventually disarm him enough to tap into the frustrated, damaged, and regretful man hiding all those years beneath his patented walrus mustache and wispy, long hair. As Crosby discusses the petulance and rage he often unfairly directed at fellow bandmates and his mistreatment of many of his girlfriends, several of whom he got hooked on cocaine and heroin, one can sense not only the depth of his remorse and anguish, but also the resigned helplessness that little can be done in his twilight years to repair the many bridges he’s permanently scorched.

Throughout Remember My Name, archival interviews with Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, and Neil Young make it abundantly clear that Crosby has alienated each of his former bandmates to such a degree that none of them will talk to him again. Only former Byrds frontman Roger McGuinn appears in a newly recorded interview for the film, and he does so presumably only to describe how “insufferable” Crosby was as a fellow bandmate.

At nearly 80 years old, Crosby is happily married and in the midst of a creative resurgence with a string of acclaimed solo albums, but even these small joys are mitigated by his admission that he’s only touring, and thus often away from his wife, because he needs the money. During a leisurely drive with Crowe, Crosby visits his old stomping grounds in Laurel Canyon and the Sunset Strip and recounts those halcyon days when he lived with Joni Mitchell and sang his first song with Nash and Stills. But the magic of these locales has long since faded, leaving Crosby in an uncharacteristically introspective state and all too aware of how close he is to the end of his life. As he wistfully tells Crowe that he already has eight stents in his heart and will likely die in the next couple of years, the film captures a man haunted by his past mistakes and nearly certain that he doesn’t have the time left to begin making up for them.

Director: A.J. Eaton Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 95 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Cassandro, the Exotico! Shoulders the Strange Burden of Empathy

Marie Losier’s empathy, if not love, for Cassandro hinders her from examining his wounds with much depth.

2.5

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Cassandro, the Exotico!
Photo: Film Movement

Queerness isn’t just about the relationship between bodies: the ones we desire, the ones that will never desire us back, the ones we wished we possessed. It’s also very much a matter of cloth, color, and adornment. Many a pop-cultural figure has manifested this queer sartorial drama, from Liberace to David Bowie, from Leigh Bowery to early Lady Gaga, from Pepper LaBeija to Shangela Laquifa Wadley. And with her new documentary, Cassandro, the Exotico!, Marie Losier introduces us to a lesser-known, yet just as subversive, purveyor of that drama: Mexican luchador Cassandro, a Universal Wrestling Association winner and former junkie with a penchant for gaudy garments.

Ridiculous stage wear is, of course, fundamentally associated with professional wrestling, but Cassandro’s textile-informed camp isn’t compensated by violent machismo or a heterosexist mise-en-scène. Instead, this exótico is unapologetic about the seamless kinship between his queerness and that of the clothes he wears. And the continuum between queer sexuality and fashion places him simultaneously as the exceptional gay figure in a supposedly macho sport, the Mexican lucha libre, and as the element that outs wrestling writ large as an already queer affair. Cassandro, né Saúl Armendáriz, is, then, a ready-made cinematic character, bearing the contradictions of his world from the inside—a world where, much like ours, heterosexual male violence is performed through patently homoerotic means.

Although skin, bones, and fabric are all—to various degrees of visible and invisible discomfort—stitched into the gendered body, the film is precisely concerned with the moment when these connections come apart at the seams. After decades of fighting for a living, Cassandro’s body is giving out. This is a moment of desperation for someone who turned to wrestling as something between religion and therapy. We see him literally hanging his flamboyant costumes to dry on a clotheslines as he speaks about retirement, about how quitting would appease his body but demolish his ego. As the film progresses, his dislocated chin, limited hand movements, and multiple head concussions will seem like the belated embodiment, if not the psychosomatic scream, of a childhood marked by molestation and sexual abuse. A history of spectacular violence catching up to years of a much less visible brutality.

Cassandro, the Exotico! is largely observational, with occasional interventions from Losier. It wouldn’t be fair to call the film hagiographic, but the director’s empathy, if not love, for her subject hinders her from examining Cassandro’s wounds with much depth. When faced with Cassandro’s misery, Losier’s response is to console him as if wanting to change the subject. She cuts one moment of candidness short, when Cassandro is addressing his fears via Skype, by telling him, “I wish I could give you a kiss.” It would have served the documentary better had Losier granted her subject the possibility to work through his pain in front of the camera.

Visually, the documentary, which is shot on 16mm film stock, recalls canonical diaristic works that expose people’s troublesome feelings in raw and unbridled fashion (think Jonas Mekas, Sadie Benning, and Su Friedrich). Which makes the juxtaposition of Losier’s visual language and her reluctance to examine Cassandro’s frailties feel particularly displeasing. Perhaps afraid that scrutiny would shatter Cassandro, Losier fails to realize that it’s precisely through such shattering that redemption can emerge, maybe even reparation.

Director: Marie Losier Screenwriter: Marie Losier, Antoine Barraud Distributor: Film Movement Running Time: 73 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Interview: Marc Maron on Sword of Truth, WTF, and the Possibility of Change

Maron discusses modern media discourse, the communicative bridge linking his acting with his podcast, and how he likes to be directed.

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Marc Maron
Photo: IFC Films

Marc Maron is presently enjoying one of the most unlikely and inspiring success stories in Hollywood. Once known as a bitter “comic’s comic” who was eclipsed in success by contemporaries such as Louis C.K. and Jon Stewart, Maron has been reborn into a poster boy for empathy, starting with his blockbuster podcast, “WTF,” and continuing with roles in the hit television series Maron, Easy, and GLOW. With each role, Maron has rapidly evolved from a “comic who acts” into a first-rate character actor capable of subtly altering his charisma to fit a variety of oddballs who, like himself, struggle with self-doubt while attempting to walk a straight and sober path.

Now, with Sword of Truth, Maron makes his debut as a cinematic lead, playing Mel, a pawnshop owner who ends up on a road trip that stirs long-festering feelings of estrangement, which parallels the forms of isolation gripping a variety of other characters, and which the film’s director, Lynn Shelton, links to the reactionary myths and politics currently gripping this country. The role marks another career high point for Maron, who talked to me last week about the communicative bridge linking his acting with his podcast, how he likes to be directed, and the “mind-fuckery” currently gripping modern media discourse.

Given that you’ve previously worked with Lynn Shelton on Maron and GLOW, did you two have a kind of collaborative shorthand going into Sword of Trust?

Well, I’m generally filled with anxiety and resistance. I don’t know if there’s a shorthand, but Lynn knows how to get the best out of me and works with me pretty well. I like directors who’re hands on with me and guide me.

Do you like to receive a lot of explicit direction, or is your process more intuitive?

Well, I do what I do. I definitely welcome suggestions, because I’m certainly not going to think of all the possibilities of a scene. Most of my choices are not necessarily correct. I usually come in pretty intense and hot, and there’s subtleties that can be coaxed out with minor tweaks. And I like working like that. I wouldn’t have the confidence to assume that my take is the “right” one necessarily.

There’s a stillness to you in Sword of Trust that I’m not sure we’ve seen before.

Yeah.

Your weight as a performer is really felt here, especially in that scene when Mel first see Lynn’s character in his shop. I love how you enter the room from the closet, and how one can feel the emotion bubbling up in Mel.

Thanks, man. I think this is a heavy-hearted guy who’s sort of surrendered to his lot in life. He also has a certain amount invested in his own. I don’t know if it’s heartache, but he’s definitely a broken dude who’s making the best of whatever time he has left. I don’t know if the other characters are really like that. They are always in forward motion.

You also inform Mel’s appraising of objects with all these lovely emotional textures. He’s not only talking about a sword.

The guitar too. As I act more, I try to take some of the space that you’re talking about. With acting I feel that I’ve been learning on the job in a way, and over time I’ve started to explore different possibilities with owning whatever my space is, whether it’s a movie or on stage. Certainly, over decades of doing stand-up, I’ve figured out my space on a stage, but being on a set and pacing yourself and taking the time to engage with what’s around you I think makes a lot of difference in how a performance comes off. It’s about being present in an environment.

Has your ascending acting career changed how you relate to actors on your podcast?

Over the last few years, since I’ve started acting more, I’ve had more actors on. I tend to try to pull a nice acting class out of that. I think a lot of what my guests say makes sense. Once again, a lot of acting is about listening and being present. In another time in my life, I saw certain actors as mythic. Now that I’ve talked to so many of them, I’ve started to realize, not in a disappointing way, that…what’s the word I want? That these are people doing a job, all in their own way. Once you get upset with people, you realize, “Well, that’s how they’re approaching this job,” and when you get into the ring or the scene, you’re in it.

That inside knowledge gives “WTF” an edge too. For many interviewers, like myself, art-making is basically theory. But you have your feet on the ground so to speak.

I think that happens over time. I don’t think I ever set out to interview. I’ve framed what happens on my podcast as conversations, and they either go somewhere or they don’t. There’s a few points I may get hung up on, and there are places I go to fairly regularly in interviews, but I generally don’t see these conversations as question-and-answer situations. I don’t have any expectations really other than to feel a connection or to sort of be enlightened. I think those of you who have a job to interview, for an outlet, for the content and the word count and everything else, might have more restrictions. I don’t have to answer to anybody and I don’t know what I’m looking for half the time.

Yeah, and a challenge I’ve found with interviews is that one doesn’t always entirely know what is and isn’t in bounds, which can lead to an impersonal vibe. By contrast, your podcast has such an intimate layer throughout.

You have to feel that stuff out, you know I’m not necessarily intuitive about that. I’m not really in the business of sandbagging anybody.

Right.

Usually you get somebody comfortable and things come out. If people are comfortable and engaged it doesn’t really matter what they’re talking about. Audiences will say, “Oh, wow, I didn’t know that.” These conversations don’t require information, but an emotional connection. I’m so happy about that, especially considering the never-ending torrent of garbage that we have to move through every day.

I think about politics. Politics online are rarely civil, but when you get someone in person, and start slowly, and are willing to have a conversation, you can normally get farther than you might expect.

Online culture isn’t civil and there’s a momentum to everything that’s based on mind-fuckery. I know for myself—as somebody who was relatively disinterested and uninformed about the functions of government and why politics and leadership make a difference—that people are perfectly willing to volunteer their brains to these strange flashpoint reactors that trigger them emotionally. People live by these black-and-white decisions. It’s not good. We need to consider what we really know and how we know it and what we’re telling other people.

Yeah.

People are so empowered by garbage information that’s being related in a relatively shallow way, which doesn’t take into consideration the influence and context of the rest of our lives. It’s sort of a disaster. I try to stay away from that stuff in terms of the conversations that I’m having. I’m trying to deal with something more human and experiential. Most people are regurgitating talking points on both sides without thinking of how someone feels and how to affect change. I got an interview with Geena Davis [who stars in the new season of GLOW] coming up, about her work with her foundation and her work in this documentary about women in show business. It’s called This Changes Everything. I tell you man, when someone’s that personally invested in something they believe in, and it’s righteous, and they lay it out for you and it makes sense, that’s what heartens my belief in this possibility for change.

To change gears a bit, is it cathartic for you, as someone who’s long been in recovery, to play characters who’re either reformed or have drug issues?

Yeah, sure. Most obviously there’s the last season of Maron, where my character has a relapse, which frankly didn’t happen in real life. When you really understand the nature of addiction, and you’ve seen it from the inside, and know the powerlessness and the struggle to live a life that’s not in the throes of it—I mean, it’s such a common struggle. And what’s amazing to me is how many people don’t find a way out of that or don’t seek help. Or are ashamed of it or don’t know how to get the help. I never set out to do this, but I’m thrilled and humbled by the effect my work has on people who’re isolated by this sickness. It’s really one of the more satisfying results of the podcast: how much mail I get from people who’re struggling and who want advice, or who feel less alone from what I’ve said. The great thing about recovery, and about playing these parts, is that it gives you a context that’s very specific—a way to legitimately help people that can change their entire lives.

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American Demons: Martin Bell’s Streetwise and Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell

Bell proves uncannily adept at capturing moments that seem to encapsulate a subject’s entire emotional temperature.

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Streetwise
Photo: Janus Films

Decades after its original release, Martin Bell’s Streetwise remains a boldly empathetic work of vérité portraiture. Throughout the 1984 documentary, Bell, photographer Mary Ellen Mark, and journalist Cheryl McCall follow a motley group of kids on the streets of Seattle as they panhandle, dig food out of dumpsters, and prostitute themselves to much older men. These scenes are accompanied by voiceovers from the young subjects, who describe their actions with a heartbreaking casualness that communicates two almost contradictory meanings: that they’re seasoned hustlers, having bypassed childhood for an everyday form of hell, and that they’re desperate to be seen precisely as said hustlers. To show emotion is to be vulnerable, and these subjects can’t afford to be seen as weak, yet the filmmakers capture more here than the street children may have suspected. Streetwise is charged by a deep, subterranean yearning to be loved, or even merely felt.

A plot hasn’t been imposed on Streetwise, as the audience is allowed to feel the numbing monotony of life on the fringes. People swing in and out of prison, crash in and out of secret hovels, most notably an abandoned hotel, and practice their grifts, while struggling with overlapping tides of addiction and depression. We also learn, startlingly, that not all these children are homeless. Streetwise’s most famous subject, Erin Blackwell, a.k.a. “Tiny,” lives with her mother, a waitress and alcoholic who rationalizes her daughter’s prostitution as a phase and who seems to be impressed with Erin’s ability to make a few hundred dollars on a good day. It’s little wonder that Erin captured and continued to command the filmmakers’ attention for decades after filming Streetwise ended. She has a squinty yet expressive glare that suggests both a deep reservoir of pain as well as intense fierceness.

Bell, Mark, and McCall take Erin and her cohorts, most vividly a skinny boy with potential tonsillitis named DeWayne Pomeroy, at face value. Streetwise is pointedly devoid of the sermonizing that might allow audiences to comfortably distance themselves from these people, regarding them simply as elements of a civics lesson. The film forces us to confront the obviousness of these children’s circumstances, as people walk by them just as we all walk by the homeless on a daily basis. This sense of culpability informs Streetwise with an uncomfortable texture that’s familiar to documentaries concerned with poor or mentally and emotionally challenged people, so you may wonder how the filmmakers shot what we’re seeing without stepping in and helping these people. Particularly disturbing is when Erin, 13 years old at the start of filming, is seen getting into a car with an old man who’s obviously a john.

If Streetwise was just a portrait of damnation and delusion, it would be an important document. But the film is also haunting for Bell, Mark, and McCall’s attention to the transcendence than can be felt even in such extreme circumstances. After Erin has gotten into trouble, DeWayne tells her of how he will rescue her, and his attempt at gallantry is poignant as well as devastating. When DeWayne visits his father in prison, the old man lectures the boy about keeping his smoking down and laying off the hard drugs, commanding DeWayne to roll up his shirt sleeves for a track-mark inspection. As brutally sad as this confrontation is, one feels this father’s love and wonders if DeWayne, clearly a sensitive and lonely boy, can feel it too. Retrospectively, it hardly matters: DeWayne hung himself not long after this visit.

Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell, a 2016 sequel to Streetwise that’s been in the works for thirtysomething years, offers a variety of unmooring contrasts from its predecessor. Erin is no longer the slim spitfire of Streetwise, but an overweight fortysomething mother of 10 who understandably appears to always be on the verge of exhaustion, and who takes methadone in an attempt to keep her drug addictions at bay while wrangling with her children’s own skirmishes with the law. Looking at Erin now, one sees the scars and weariness left by a hard life, part of which was documented by Streetwise, and one can implicitly feel Erin’s need for atonement. Though Erin’s gotten off the streets, living in a large home with her partner, Will, and several of her children, the streets have never left her.

Formally, Tiny is much different from Streetwise. The 1984 film abounds in seamy noises and textures, with roving camerawork that seems to be uncovering a new lurid discovery every few seconds; it feels palpably dangerous, and probably inspired films such as Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho and Larry’s Clark’s Kids. Set predominantly in Erin’s home, Tiny is slower and more polished, reflecting the (comparative) stability that Erin has achieved since appearing in Streetwise. Tiny also has a fancier structure than Streetwise, with a framing device in which Erin watches footage of herself over the years, including unused outtakes from the first film, with Mary Ellen Mark. An autumnal tone seeps into the new film, which offers a kaleidoscopic portrait of the unending legacies of crime and addiction.

As in Streetwise, Bell proves uncannily adept at capturing moments that seem to encapsulate a subject’s entire emotional temperature. There are frequent shots in Tiny of Erin sleeping with a little dog close to her face, which suggest rare moments of repose for a woman who’s used to running her chaotic family like a hostage negotiator. Erin frequently calls the cops on her own children, especially the headstrong teenager Rayshon, which Bell unforgettably rhymes with footage form Streetwise of a younger Erin visiting two of her children in foster care. One of the foster care children, Keanna, is now a mother herself, and resents Erin for abandoning her and for continuing to struggle with drug use.

Which is to say that Tiny is as charged with turmoil as Streetwise, and Bell proves equally capable here of rendering full relationships with only a few images or seconds of running time. As in Streetwise, our sympathies are rarely overtly directed, as Tiny is somehow on every character’s contradictory wavelength at once, illustrating how difficult understanding can be to achieve, most notably in the face of disaster. Though it runs a trim 87 minutes, Tiny offers an epic and piercing portrait of a large biracial family that’s plagued by essentially every demon known to American society. Erin escaped the streets only to fashion a home that’s rife with the very issues that drove her away from her own mother. Like most people, regardless of social stature, Erin is stuck in the temporal loop of her own inherent nature.

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Review: Radu Jude’s I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians

Jude’s film is a bitterly comic essay on nationalist mythologies and historical amnesia.

3.5

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I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians
Photo: Big World Pictures

Prime minister of Romania during most of World War II, Ion Antonescu is one of the era’s supreme villains: a virulent anti-Semite, Nazi collaborator, and authoritarian dictator whose troops murdered Jews with such velocity and enthusiasm that even Hitler was shocked by their actions. Upon ordering the forced expulsion—and, if necessary, genocide—of the Jews of Bessarabia and Bukovina, Antonescu proclaimed, “I do not care if we go down in history as Barbarians.” Radu Jude borrows that declaration, so haunting in its cruelty and disarming in its blitheness, for the title of his latest film, a bitterly comic essay on nationalist mythologies and historical amnesia that locates the seeds of Romania’s currently resurgent ethno-nationalism in the nation’s collective failure to truly confront its own past.

For while Antonescu was convicted of war crimes and sentenced to death by firing squad shortly after the war, there have been repeated attempts to rehabilitate his image in Romania since the fall of Nicolae Ceaușescu. Take Sergiu Nicolaescu’s 1994 film The Mirror, a hagiographic treatment of Antonescu’s rule that portrays the leader as a defiant protector of his people. Jude inserts a substantial clip of that film into I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians, having it play on a small TV set positioned in the exact center of the frame as we hear the off-screen voice of Jude’s protagonist, Mariana (Ioana Iacob), providing sardonic, outraged commentary on the film’s distorted presentation of Antonescu as a misunderstood hero. There’s an element of desperation in the scene: While Mariana offers an incontestable rebuttal, no one but her boyfriend (Alex Bogdan) is there to hear it. Meanwhile, The Mirror’s comforting nationalist lies are being beamed into homes all across Romania.

A headstrong theater director attempting to stage a public reenactment of the Odessa Massacre of 1941, in which Romanian troops slaughtered thousands of Ukrainian Jews, Mariana is obsessed with bringing the full weight of historical reality to her fellow countrymen. She obsessively reads histories of the period and drops quotations from philosophers and historical figures into everyday conversation. The film is consumed by lengthy, probing conversations—mostly shot by a statically mounted 16mm camera that pans back and forth to cover the actors’ movements—in which Mariana discusses art, philosophy, history, and politics with her various collaborators and friends.

Her most persistent interlocutor is Movilă (Alexandru Dabija), a local official tasked with overseeing the publicly funded production, who constantly pleads with Mariana to tone down her work’s unvarnished depiction of anti-Semitic violence. Movilă is a relativist, content in the knowledge that all memory is willfully selective, while Mariana truly believes in the power of stark historical truth. Though at times didactic and overloaded with quotations from the likes of Wittgenstein and Arendt, Jude’s dialogue nevertheless manages to feel remarkably naturalistic. That’s thanks in no small part to the powerfully unaffected performances of a cast that finds the subtle humor and neurotic character details embedded in Jude’s dense screenplay. Iacob captures Mariana’s unrelenting passion while also finding moments of vulnerability and self-doubt in the role, including moments of hesitation and anxiety borne of the fact that she’s a petite, cosmopolitan woman attempting to exert control over a large cast of rugged men, many of whom are diametrically opposed to the vision of her project.

Jude’s heavy themes are leavened by a self-effacing sense of modesty. Jude isn’t attempting to make grand pronouncements about the nature of memory and truth. Rather, I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians finds the director constantly interrogating his own perspective, questioning Mariana’s relationship to the wider public. That theme comes to a head in the film’s climactic presentation of the artist’s reenactment. Here, Jude switches from the warm dreaminess of 16mm to the harsh hyper-realism of digital video. The scene has the feel of a simple documentation of a live public event, but it isn’t clear that it’s actually any more “real” than the rest of the film. In particular, whether and to what extent the crowd of onlookers’ reactions are coached remains one of the film’s most intriguing enigmas.

Ultimately, Mariana finds herself perplexed and deflated by the public’s response to her work. One senses this reaction may be autobiographical for Jude, whose film Aferim! attempted to challenge Romanian audiences about the nation’s historical treatment of Roma people. As one of the few directors of the so-called Romanian New Wave whose work explores the country’s unsavory pre-Soviet past, Jude is swimming against the popular tide of revisionism and historical moral blindness. The anti-Semitic violence and hatred laid out in his latest is truly chilling, as is the contemporary tendency to diminish and obscure that dark past. But perhaps most disturbing of all is the idea put forth in the film’s conclusion: that one could present the truth to the public in all its brutality and horror, and it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.

Cast: Ioana Iacob, Alexandru Dabija, Alex Bogdan, Ilinca Manolache, Serban Pavlu, Ion Rizea, Claudia Ieremia Director: Radu Jude Screenwriter: Radu Jude Distributor: Big World Pictures Running Time: 140 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Interview: Lynn Shelton on Honing Her Process for Sword of Trust

The filmmaker discusses how she wants viewers to feel like they’re paratrooping into her characters’ lives.

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Lynn Shelton
Photo: IFC Films

Lynn Shelton has amassed a formidable body of work between her eight features and countless television episodes. Her latest outing, the comic adventure Sword of Trust, represents her most topical work to date. After pawn shop owner Mel (played by Marc Maron) purchases an old sword, he gets plunged into world of conspiracy culture as the relic attracts legions of online prowlers convinced that the weapon represents proof that the Confederacy won the Civil War. The logline might be Shelton’s wildest yet, but the elements that have made her work indelible for over a decade remain intact: realistic conversations, emotional authenticity, and a commitment to multi-dimensional characters.

I chatted with Shelton on Sword of Trust’s opening day, which saw the director, writer, producer, editor, and occasional actress in great spirits. Our conversation covered her pursuit of Maron for this specific project, how she developed her unique script-development process, and why she wants viewers to feel like they’re paratrooping into her characters’ lives.

Last year on Marc Maron’s podcast, you mentioned that you liked exploring relationships between people who wouldn’t normally interact. Sword of Trust continues in that tradition for you. What keeps bringing you back to these dynamics?

Have you heard of this theory of multiple intelligences, like different types of intelligences we have? I can’t remember the names that [Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner] came up with, I think there’s eight. I know I’m not the brightest bulb on all of these scales, but one way that I think I’m pretty high is in emotional intelligence. I like to think I am, anyway. I’ve always been that close observer of human behavior. I also really love humans. I feel like the thing that makes humans human are their flaws. So, on screen, I don’t like to see people who are too smoothed out, all good or all bad. I’m interested in characters who are essentially good people, but they may be total fuck-ups and well-meaning who may sabotage themselves. Individual fucking up often happens in relation to other people. We may have a pre-determined need to connect to other people, but we’re constantly sabotaging ourselves.

Sometimes, like I said on the podcast, I’m much more interested in unlikely combinations of people because it’s not a prewritten script we’re handed. It’s not like, “This is who would be appropriate for you as a friend. This is the way you should act. This is the box we’ve already determined for you.” Any kind of out-of-the-box way of living one’s life or being surprised by a connection you feel to a human being, all those little happy accidents in life are the things I like to explore. To inspire people, not to just go through life in this sort of “this is what someone else had in mind for me, and I should follow that plan”—that feels very depressing to me. It’s more interesting to open your heart and your life up to other experiences.

To explore relationships in that way makes the everyday more interesting and exciting.

Yeah, exactly. It gives you a reason to stick around.

Having been a guest of Marc’s on his podcast twice, do you see any of his interviewer “persona” having an impact on the person you film on screen? Does training himself to listen and be present have any effect on making him a better screen partner?

Absolutely! The first time I directed Marc was on his TV show Maron, and I was so fascinated by his process. He’s raw and a really natural actor. He steps in front of the camera, and he’s looking at his scene partner and really knows how to listen and engage. A lot of that comes from sitting across from people and staring into their eyes. That’s why he’s such a good interviewer and has the top interview podcast, because he has a genuine conversation with people. And that’s all acting really is too. He also has this weird ability to let the camera and crew and other extraneous details just fade away for him, and a lot of people find all that really distracting and difficult to shut out. He doesn’t know where the camera is half the time. He said to me, “The next thing I want to do as an actor is figure out when the camera is on me.” I said, “What?! That camera’s right there!” He’s like, “I don’t see it. I’m not aware of it. I’m just in this scene with the person.” I’m like, “That is a gift, my friend. That is incredible that you’re able to not see the lights and craziness, just be in the scene.” He’s really able to do it. I think that definitely comes from that same skill set he’s drawing on.

Where does the genesis of your films occur? They usually have some kind of strong conceptual selling point or hook, but they’re often like a Trojan horse to get to deep conversations between the characters about something else.

It is, and the genesis of the vast majority of my films is an actor as a muse that I want to work with. Humpday was Mark Duplass, Outside In was his brother, Jay Duplass, this movie was Marc Maron, who I’ve been really wanting to make a movie with for three and a half years. Then there’s other things, like a territory I want to explore or an element I want to return to, like improvisation, which I haven’t done since Your Sister’s Sister. I’ve done several movies in between that have been scripted, but I wanted to allow myself a new genre. I knew I wanted to laugh because the last movie was a drama, and I was ready to laugh—and let myself really laugh by going into the outlandish and ridiculous, plot-wise. Go into some comedy-caper territory, which I’ve never let myself do before. I’ve been totally real in every moment, and this time I was like, “What if I have real characters who go to a crazy place?” I wanted to make a culturally relevant movie that didn’t make you want to slit your wrists. It referred to what was going on and some of the problematic elements of what we’re dealing with in society. We’re having this peak moment in conspiracy theories. They’ve always been around, but this is definitely where they’ve achieved a peak moment that I find very disturbing. So, it’s usually a territory I want to explore and an actor I want to work with.

How do you research or prepare to authentically treat conspiracy culture?

Well, there’s this thing called a computer and a thing called the internet, and boy, is it all in there! [laughs] We went down a rabbit hole with Mike O’Brien, my co-writer. It’s so fascinating because there’s little in-fighting. They really bonded over Pizzagate and the Twin Towers being an inside job, but then when it comes to hollow earth versus the earth is on fire, they’re at odds and frenemies for life. It’s insane, the shit you find.

How do you approach shooting improvisational dialogue? There’s a very naturalistic feel to it, but there are hardly any vocal fillers like “um” or “you know.”

Well, you get the right cast, so that really helps. I’ll tell you, you can do a lot in the editing room. You’ll see it on screen, there are these runs of incredible monologues. But if I’m cutting away to another actor for a reaction shot, it’s often because I’m slicing out an “um” or an “ah” or a little bauble. The edit room is the most redemptive place in the universe. It’s incredible what you can do and how you can carve out the right story. Especially with improvisation, it really is where the actual script is written. Our first cut—it didn’t feel fat, it was funny throughout—was two and a half hours long. I was like, “How am I going to cut out five to seven minutes, much less an hour?” And for me, a comedy has to be 90 minutes, so I knew I needed an hour out of there. It was like, “This is hysterical, this is gold, but it’s not serving the story. Ultimately, what is the story? It could be this, or it could include this, but let’s just hone it down to Mel’s emotional arc and make sure we can track it through the craziness.” We want to care about these people just enough and balance it. There was so much work in the edit room.

Sword of Trust is definitely a comedy, but the scene I found most striking was Mel explaining his history to your character, Deidre, and in such a matter-of-fact, serious fashion, in the back of the truck. Did you always intend to set off this important part of the story with such a stark tonal contrast?

No, it wasn’t. When Mike O’Brien really insisted that I be in the movie, I finally relented and thought I was going to be a random customer who came in for five seconds. But then, I realized she could be a device that helps us track Mel’s arc. I was really panicking for a long time because I couldn’t figure out how to make her funny. I can be comedic, but she wasn’t comedic. She was so desperate and tragic. Then I finally realized that I wasn’t going to worry about it. I wasn’t going to try to turn her into some kind of laughing-stock. I was just going to be what she feels like she needs to be. That was an indication that this movie is going to have that real element of heaviness to it, but it happened really organically. I wanted you to care about these people, but I didn’t realize there was going to be that much depth to one of them, so much poignant heart and humanity. That was a nice surprise.

You’ve described your writing process as being “upside-down,” where the script develops alongside the characters. How did you develop this writing style?

I never went to traditional film school. I had this long, circuitous route to get to what I’m doing. I started as a theater actor, then I went to photography and started doing experimental work, but everything as a solo artist. The most important work of the film, making the process of the acting, is obstructed at every turn by the process of making it. You’re out of order. In theater, you at least get to play a story from beginning to end and feel it out. You’re at scene 35 on the first day and like, “What’s happened before this? Where am I emotionally?” And then you’ve got to do it 40 times with the camera in different positions and act like nobody else is there. The whole thing is so hard, unless you’re Meryl Streep! But if you’re not working with Meryl Streep, what do you do as a director? I need real people on screen.

My second feature, My Effortless Brilliance, was a total experiment. I came up with these characters in my head and tried to cast them from a pretty small pool of actors. They were nothing like the characters. I realized, “What if you did it the other way? What if you had a person you wanted to work with…” That was where I started with that idea, and all I cared about was to make it feel like a documentary. I wanted you to turn the TV on and be like, “What am I watching? Am I in these people’s lives?” And people have said they’ve had that experience where they’ll turn it on in the middle of Showtime and have no idea what they’re watching but that it feels like a documentary. Which is like, “Yes! That’s what I meant.”

And then I honed it with Humpday. Once I knew I could work in that way, I upped the stakes. I’ll bring in a few lights. I had said, “No lights! Me and another camera operator with tiny cameras, a boom op, that’s it.” I eliminated the crew. But that was where I came up with that initial impulse, to make it feel really real. If the character fits the actor like a glove because it’s half them or three-quarters them and they’ve developed it with me…I want real humans.

I actually had that experience of picking up one of your movies and not missing a beat. I was late to my showtime of Your Sister’s Sister in the theater, but I didn’t feel like I was lost. Then a few years later I watched it at home from the beginning, which helped it make a little more sense. But I felt I had easily intuited what I had missed.

It’s funny because I want my movies to feel like you’re paratrooping into somebody’s life. We’re taking a little journey down the river of their life for a while, and then we leave again. I don’t like to tie things up too neatly at the end because I want you to get the sense that they’re continuing to live their lives, and who knows what’s going to happen in the future. But you just sort of paratrooped in a little bit later! [laughs]

On that note, there’s a line toward the end of the film where Jillian Bell’s character, Cynthia, takes a deep breath and says, “What a strange experience.” Is that line improvised or scripted? In a lot of ways, the line feels like it sums up where characters often net out at the end of your films.

That was all improvised! It’s all ordinary people going into crazy land, but yeah, ordinary people having weird dramas in their everyday lives. I mean, it can happen. I’ve heard stories of shit happening to random people that feel like…you couldn’t write that shit!

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Review: Into the Ashes Brings Nothing New to the Country Noir Genre

Aaron Harvey is prone to pulling back from any moment that might give greater depth to his revenge tale.

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Into the Ashes
Photo: RLJE Films

Aaron Harvey’s Into the Ashes is the latest in an increasing string of so-called country noirs set in the dilapidated backwoods of rural America, places ravaged by the opioid crisis and populated by jobless people long ago abandoned by politicians. It has little to distinguish itself, narratively or thematically, from similarly dour films, and it lets generic images of its rundown Alabama locale (rusted trucks, cramped houses, landlines in a wireless world) stand in as symbols of national decline without truly seeping into the complex social rot of the place. Its plot, of a reformed criminal forced to contend with his old gang leader over some stolen loot, is similarly superficial, hitting the typical beats of its genre.

Where Into the Ashes gets a boost is in its excellent cast of grizzled character actors, all of whom vibrantly express varying degrees of weariness and rage. Luke Grimes plays the erstwhile ne’er-do-well and ex-con Nick Brenner with the nervousness of a man who’s just learning to let go of his past and give in to hope. The man’s gruff, taciturn nature is leavened by his tender relationship with his wife, Tara (Marguerite Moreau), and he projects his faith in normalcy onto her. Nick relies so heavily on Tara for his emotional wellbeing that he anxiously calls home while on an overnight hunting trip just so he can hear her voice.

Equally human beneath a hard exterior is Nick’s father-in-law, Frank (Robert Taylor), the local sheriff whose intimidating Tom Waits-esque voice and stiff demeanor belie his fumbling, masculine attempts to welcome Nick into his family. Strongest of all, though, is Frank Grillo as Sloan, Nick’s recently paroled and vengeful boss. Grillo is at home playing big-fish-in-small-pond villains, and the actor makes the most of Sloan’s thin characterization, exuding psychopathic menace when Sloan confronts Nick in the latter’s home, drawing out every oblique threat as he circles the subject of the money that Nick stole from the crew’s last job before Sloan was sent to prison. Grillo expertly inflects even the silliest moments of sub-Tarantino dialogue with a disarming venom, such as an extended riff on pie and ice cream.

But if the actors are primed to explore the contours around a basic premise, Henry constantly pulls back from any moment that might give greater depth to his revenge tale. Women exist to be supportive and to become victims, while character-driven conversations between Nick and Frank devolve into asinine ethics debates over justifiable violence. Worst of all, there’s just no sense that the film is saying or revealing much of anything. There’s one moment where Into the Ashes achieves a touch of bleak grace akin to the work of Cormac McCarthy by skipping over the events leading to a shootout and focusing only on its grisly aftermath: bodies strewn about in puddles of blood that look like reflective pools of black ice in the pale moonlight. Then, not five minutes later, we get a flashback showing the lead-up to that carnage. As with so much else in the film, a haunting moment of elision is negated by literal representation.

Cast: Luke Grimes, Frank Grillo, Marguerite Moreau, James Badge Dale, Robert Taylor, Brady Smith, Jeff Pope, Andrea Frankle Director: Aaron Harvey Screenwriter: Aaron Harvey Distributor: RLJE Films Running Time: 97 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Stéphane Brizé’s At War Is Politically Charged but Artistically Inert

The film is content to bluntly affirm that corporate attempts at compassion are always secondary to providing profit to shareholders.

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At War
Photo: Cinema Libre Studio

Seven months after the first flare-up of France’s Gilets Jaunes, the nascent populist movement shows no signs of ceasing. Combined with the country’s ongoing Telecom scandal, in which several executives have been charged with “moral harassment” after 35 workers were allegedly hounded into committing suicide, it’s evident that what’s simmering there is an extension of the same unease escalating around much of Europe, and the world at large. It’s a state of affairs that makes At War seem especially of the moment, and which leaves its eventual failure to offer any special insight so disappointing. Provided with a prime opportunity to animate the zeitgeist, Stéphane Brizé’s labor-focused drama instead uses this timeliness to prod along the most obvious of points, its nuts-and-bolts, process-oriented approach never amounting to more than a surface look at the issues it purports to confront.

The film in some ways functions as an unofficial prelude to Brizé’s prior The Measure of a Man, in which an unemployed machinist played by Vincent Lindon finds a new career as a hyper-market security guard, where he’s eventually forced to choose between serving as a traitorous management lackey and losing his job. Here, Lindon’s Laurent Amédéo is still in possession of his original occupation, though things are hanging by a thread, as a last-ditch organizing effort attempts to halt the closure of a manufacturing plant in Agen. Surrounded by a cast of convincing non-professionals, Laurent leads the picket line, refusing to waver from the straight and narrow, an intense figure of principle whose scruples are never in doubt.

At War is largely notable for its steadfast devotion to a kind of mechanistic aesthetic, which unfortunately lines up with its cheerless didacticism, the two qualities cohering in a scene-by-scene summation of a strike action that repeatedly hammers home the same general points. The scenes themselves evince heft, fluidity, and an impressive sense of improvisation, but the staging is static and the eventual outcome is always clear. The game is given away by Lindon’s stoic face and the gradual unraveling of the plot, which envisions internal disintegration—leveraged by outside pressure—as the insidious method by which solidarity is smashed. Despite some genuine drama in this dissolution, it’s always clear who’s right and who’s wrong, which material interests each is representing, and who’s lying and who’s telling the truth.

This didn’t have to be the case, as proven by David France’s procedure-focused documentary How to Survive a Plague, which balanced a similarly diagrammatic narrative with extensive character detail, expanding the stakes while affixing a deeper subtext about the ways the victory of a marginalized group eventually diminishes its radical standing. Intent on emphasizing the connections between callous corporate greed and populist unrest, Brizé’s film is bluntly focused on the bottom line. There’s a certain dramatic function to this technique, as it examines the individual human actions that allow such interests to put their will into practice, but it doesn’t justify the flat, exhortative style of address.

As another example of how well this kind of economic criticism can be carried off, there are the dazzling docu-essays of German filmmaker Harun Farocki, who routinely found surprising intricacies in the cold façade of modern capitalism, while offering empathetic alignment with workers as a matter of course. At War, on the other hand, merely summarizes what its audience already knows, affirming that corporate attempts at compassion are always secondary to providing profit to shareholders, and that genuine humanity and integrity are liabilities when confronting such an unfeeling monolith. Like Ken Loach’s recent Palme d’Or winner I, Daniel Blake, it’s a film whose political principles are hard to disagree with, yet which leans so heavily on this moral certitude as to render itself entirely inert.

Cast: Vincent Lindon, Melanie Rover, Jacques Borderie, David Rey, Olivier Lemaire Director: Stéphane Brizé Screenwriter: Stéphane Brizé, Olivier Gorce Distributor: Cinema Libre Studio Running Time: 115 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Bottom of the 9th Strikes Out with Too Much Plot Incident

Raymond De Felitta’s film offers a sampler course of formulas, which creates a strangely unfulfilling tension.

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Bottom of the 9th
Photo: Saban Films

Raymond De Felitta’s Bottom of the 9th offers a sampler course of formulas, which creates a strangely unfulfilling tension. Just when you expect the film to go in a certain direction, it goes in another, only for it to again switch routes, though there’s never a sense of expectations being deliberately challenged or tweaked. Rather, the filmmakers merely seem to be indulging a variety of passing fancies, which is a shame because the actors here are game and occasionally imbue the shopworn scenes with liveliness.

Sonny Stano (Joe Manganiello) is the perfect hero for either a noir or a redemptive sports film, a man approaching middle age who just served a 19-year sentence for manslaughter. Famous in his Bronx neighborhood for being drafted by the Yankees, only to flush his life down the toilet, Sonny is attempting to patch his life together while doing a perpetual apology tour on behalf of friends and strangers alike. He’s initially hired by an old friend, Joey (James Madio), to work in a fish market that seems to be a front for something. Joey has a cagey energy, and this narrative isn’t without intrigue, but De Felitta and screenwriter Robert Bruzio unceremoniously lose sight of it in succumbing to a number of clichés.

Of course, Sonny is revealed to have a woman who got away, Angela (Sofia Vergara), who one day runs into her old beau at a market. They clearly have chemistry, as do the actors playing them, but their dialogue is composed of nothing but redemptive platitudes. In these scenes, Manganiello and Vergara are stuck in a worst-of-all-worlds situation. Their characters are relentlessly mousey, which is appropriate to the awkward context of Sonny and Angela’s reunion, but which also robs these sexy actors of the opportunity to enjoy playing off one another. Meanwhile, said mousiness isn’t poignant either, as the characters haven’t been imagined beyond the respective stereotypes of the fallen man and jilted woman.

Bottom of the 9th then flirts with a narrative similar to that of Bull Durham and Major League, in which Sonny is hired by a local minor league ball team to rein in the fiery, egotistical talents of a rookie named Manny (Xavier Scott Evans). Evans is ferociously charismatic, suggesting a young Wesley Snipes and giving Manganiello a kinetic vibe to play off of, and so the film finally begins to come to life, with great character actors like Michael Rispoli and Burt Young riffing on the sidelines. However, this conceit is also left hanging, as the film shifts into a story of the unlikely comeback, with Sonny’s own talents taking center ring.

De Felitta might’ve gotten by with these contrivances if he were a natural showman, but the filmmaker displays little interest in the Bronx setting in which his characters live, or in rendering their experiences in a fashion that refutes screenwriterly index-card portraiture. For instance, a prison flashback in which Sonny gets into a fight during a ball game is reduced to trite and melodramatic close-ups, while much of the remainder of the film is composed of medium shots designed to accentuate only the largely uninteresting dialogue. There’s truly nothing in Bottom of the 9th but plot incident, and the leisurely, impersonal one-thing-after-another-ness of the film’s construction is stifling.

Cast: Joe Manganiello, Sofía Vergara, Denis O'Hare, Burt Young, James Madio, Yancey Arias, Michael Rispoli, Vincent Pastore, Dominik García-Lorido, Michael Maize, Kevin William Paul Director: Raymond De Felitta Screenwriter: Robert Bruzio Distributor: Saban Films Running Time: 111 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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