From greedy optimism to ignominious deathâthe trajectory of film noir rarely changes, only the particulars that dot that downward path. So it is with The Square, director Nash Edgertonâs tale of sought-after escape and freedom stymied by unforeseen quirks of circumstance. In a cheery Australian suburb, married Ray (David Roberts) runs a construction business currently working on a resort, his run-of-the-mill existence complicated by the affair heâs carrying on under highway overpasses and in hotel rooms with his married neighbor-across-the-pond, Carla (Claire van der Boom). When Carla spies her criminal spouse Greg (Anthony Hayes) hiding a bag full of cash, the opportunity to steal the money and finally abscond with Ray seems too good to pass up.
Yet as suggested by probing, harsh daylight-drenched camerawork prone to reveal hidden objects at the end of unsettling pans or zooms, pitfalls lay ahead for the couple. They do, albeit not from predictable sources, as Joel Edgerton and Matthew Dabnerâs script creates a clusterfuck scenario for Ray and Carlaâinvolving hiring an arsonist named Billy (Joel Edgerton) to burn Carlaâs house down to cover up their robbery, a suspicious friend of Gregâs whoâs sweet on Carla, and a shady contractor from whom Ray is receiving kickbacksâthat keeps the action taut and fleet.
Its title referring to a spot of Rayâs under-development land but also, more subtly, the personal boundaries Ray and Carla both deliberately step over, The Square has a toughness, gallows wit, and sense of impending tragedy amplified by its grainy, gliding aesthetics and an agitated performance by Roberts, his stout frame belying his increasing powerlessness over events. Edgerton slips slightly by thrusting his protagonists spiraling toward catastrophe a tad too early, his refusal to even humor any notions of hope somewhat sabotaging his storyâs suspense. And given his sharp attention to detail, those few finer plot points which are casually glossed over wind up calling undue attention to themselves (for example, why donât any of Rayâs employees notice that heâs filled in a giant hole during the rainy dead of night?)
Still, thereâs workmanlike craft to the proceedingsâ portrait of Ray and Carlaâs foolhardy quest to break their self-imposed chains. A saga of fateâs cruel hand toward those endeavoring to be more than they are, this neo-noirâs narrative gears turn with predestined precision, the miserable outcome of the central coupleâs scheme epitomized by the sight of a dog drowning while trying to reach its beloved, and so set in stone that, from filmâs outset, one can see the doom etched in the lines of Robertsâs harried face.
Cast: David Roberts, Claire van der Bloom, Anthony Hayes, Joel Edgerton Director: Nash Edgerton Screenwriter: Joel Edgerton, Matthew Dabner Distributor: Apparition Running Time: 101 min Rating: R Year: 2008 Buy: Video
Review: Chasing Portraits Is Welcome Personal Testimony, but Its Scope Is Narrow
Its major contribution, as one museum curator suggests, may be to bring the works of Moshe Rynecki back into prominence.2.5
Before World War II, Polandâs Jewish population was the largest in Europe, numbering over three million. Afterward, only 10% of that populace remained. Although the current right-wing Polish government prefers to suppress this fact, the 300,000 surviving Jews faced continued persecution at the hands of gentile Polesâthemselves the victims (though to a much lesser degree) of Nazi persecution. Today, when the number of Jews in Poland is well under 10,000, one can visit the old Jewish quarters in cities like Warsaw and Krakow, where street kiosks sell small plastic caricatures of Hasidic Jews. On the streets, though, youâre unlikely to encounter any actual Hasids.
In her trip to Warsaw in search of her great-grandfatherâs lost paintings, Chasing Portraits director Elizabeth Rynecki stumbles across these figurines. As she observes in voiceover, thereâs nothing overtly demeaning about the miniature, jovial, cartoonish Jews, but the image they project doesnât feel right, given local history. And one must agree that thereâs an undeniable aspect of minstrelsy to them: Unlike her great-grandfather Mosheâs textured scenes of Jewish life in Warsaw, theyâre almost certainly not self-representations. Given the Jewish culture that was destroyed in Polandâand whose richness is embodied by Mosheâs few surviving paintingsâthe grinning trinkets seem all the more like frivolous kitsch.
Ryneckiâs discovery of these unsettling souvenirs is potentially one of the most interesting parts of Chasing Portraits, given that she happens across them while on the trail of lost Jewish art. As a curator at a Warsaw museum observes to the filmmaker, Mosheâs work depicts traditional moments of Jewish culture in a distinctly modern sensibility, attesting to the robustness of the Jewish culture on the eve of its destruction. In this way, his paintings are the opposite of the post-facto plastic caricatures, and Ryneckiâs confrontation with the mass-produced simulacra of absent Jews is a moment when her highly personal documentary almost extends toward a wider perspective. But she doesnât linger for too long on what the Holocaust and Judaism mean in Poland today, as sheâs on her way to ask a private collector named Wertheim about how his family managed to acquire some of Mosheâs works.
Ryneckiâs insular approach works well early on in the film, when she, in conversations with her father, outlines who her great-grandfather was and what his surviving paintings mean to the family. Of around 800 works that Moshe painted before he was murdered at the Majdanek death camp, just over 100 survive in the possession of the family, with an unknown number in the hands of private collections and Polish museums. That much is a miracle, but Ryneckiâmore so, it seems, than her father, a Holocaust survivor himselfâwants to discover more. In the film, we see her consult with historians, compose emails to private collectors, and read excerpts of her grandfather Georgeâs memoirs, in preparation for her trip to Poland.
Chasing Portraits is about Ryneckiâs investigative process rather than Mosheâs paintings themselves; in voiceover, she narrates each step of her process as she takes on the role of amateur historian. And in maintaining an intense focus on her investigationâhow she reads out the emails she writes to institutions, and shows us footage from each flight she takes from one corner of the world to anotherâthe film raises probing questions that it dutifully bypasses. Her encounters with the Wertheim family are a case in point: The first Wertheim brother claims the family own paintings by Moshe because they bought it from a farmer, but the second tells the more plausible story that they have the paintings because their parents, resistance fighters hiding in the Polish woods, raided them from a bombed-out train.
In Ryneckiâs narrative, these conflicting stories become a personal conundrum: If the paintings were looted rather than bought, she may be able to make a claim on them. In the end, itâs Ryneckiâs growth, her decision about whether or not to become a claimant, that structures the film. But this approach means skirting over other thematic threads that might have emerged from this project, such as the ethics of museum versus private ownership of recovered art like Mosheâs, the meaning of art in desperate times, the politics of remembrance in Poland. Chasing Portraits is thus valuable as part of an expansive mosaic of personal testimonies to the legacy of the Holocaust, but itâs a documentary of sometimes disappointingly narrow scope. Its major contribution, as one museum curator suggests, may be to bring the works of Moshe Rynecki back into prominence.
Director: Elizabeth Rynecki Screenwriter: Elizabeth Rynecki Distributor: First Run Features Running Time: 78 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
Review: If the Dancer Dances Diminishes Its Subject by Succumbing to Hagiography
The documentary is incessant about reminding us of the late Merce Cunninghamâs achievements.2
More than once in Maia Wechslerâs If the Dancer Dances, a dance is described by one of numerous talking heads as existing only in the moment; once any movement or routine is complete, it essentially can never be replicated to an exacting degree. But the film inadvertently appears as if itâs trying to prove that poetic and insightful observation wrong, which becomes increasingly clear as we follow choreographer Stephen Petronio as he and his dance company work on a production of Merce Cunninghamâs RainForest.
Wechslerâs depiction of the company seems unwilling to step out of Cunninghamâs shadow, given the extent to which the members of the current production and Cunninghamâs former pupils happily provide hagiographic accounts of the groundbreaking avant-garde choreographer and his work. In an about-face from the repeated description of danceâs unreplicable nature, the new RainForestâs choreographers and dancers set out to duplicate rather than interpret the work. The fawning over Cunningham, and the implication from the company that theyâll never be able to live up to his vision, only exposes an overbearing inferiority complex running throughout the documentary.
If the Dancer Dances really only comes to life when showcasing the companyâs rehearsals, throughout camera movements that match the gracefulness of the dancers and compositions that incorporate multiple points of action. Wechslerâs observational methods in these sequences capture mini-dramas in themselves, such as when choreographers quietly confer, attempting to adjust the dance routine thatâs playing out in front of them.
Still, rather than letting the audience simply observe the company at work and letting the process speak for itself, Wechsler incessantly reminds us of Cunninghamâs monolithic presence via scores of interviews that laud his work process. The filmâs constant lionizing of the man amid so much rehearsal footage has the unintended effect of sapping the dancers of agency. Throughout, itâs as if Wechsler is judging the companyâs artistic decisions based on whether or not Cunningham himself would consider them right or wrong.
At one point in the film, a former colleague of Cunninghamâs explains that the late choreographer, in an effort to ensure that his works felt fresh, tried to never be influenced by other productions. This anecdote rings of irony, given how the film includes numerous sequences of Petronioâs choreographers discussing how to ape Cunninghamâs aesthetic in precise detailâand often in incomprehensibly abstract directions that even some of the dancers appear not to grasp. The film operates under the impression that for any present or future company to change any one aspect of Cunninghamâs original vision would be blasphemous and offensive, which turns If the Dancer Dances less into the insightful backstage documentary it wants to be, and more into a gushing, sycophantic love letter.
Director: Maia Wechsler Distributor: Monument Releasing Running Time: 86 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
Watch the Trailer for Ava DuVernayâs Netflix Series When They See Us
Netflix will release the series on May 31.
In 1989, the rape and near-murder of Trisha Meili in Central Park rocked the nation. A little over a year later, a jury convicted five juvenile malesâfour African-American and one Hispanicâto prison sentences ranging from five to 15 years. In the end, the defendants spent between six and 13 years behind bars. Flashforward to 2002, after four of the five defendants had left prison, and Matias Reyes, a convicted murder and serial rapist serving a lifetime prison term, came forward and confessed to raping Meili. DNA evidence confirmed his guilt, and proved what many already knew about the so-called âCentral Park jogger caseâ: that the police investigation of Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise, conducted at the beginning of the Giuliani era in New York City, was motivated less by a thirst for justice than it was by racial animus.
Last year, Oscar-nominated Selma filmmaker Ava DuVernay announced that she would be making a series based on the infamous case, and since then hasnât been shy, on Twitter and elsewhere, about saying that she will be putting Donald J. Trump in her crosshairs. Trump, way back in 1989, ran an ad in the Daily News advocating the return of the death penalty, and as recently as 2016, claimed that McCray, Richardson, Salaam, Santana, and Wise are guilty of the crime for which they were eventually exoneratedâbehavior consistent with a presidential campaign that, like the case against the Central Park Five, was a full-time racist dog whistle.
Today, Netflix dropped the trailer for When They See Us, which stars Michael K. Williams, Vera Farmiga, John Leguizamo, Felicity Huffman, Niecy Nash, Blair Underwood, Christopher Jackson, Joshua Jackson, Omar J. Dorsey, Adepero Oduye, Famke Janssen, Aurora Perrineau, William Sadler, Jharrel Jerome, Jovan Adepo, Aunjanue Ellis, Kylie Bunbury, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Storm Reid, Dascha Polanco, Chris Chalk, Freddy Miyares, Justin Cunningham, Ethan Herisse, Caleel Harris, Marquis Rodriguez, and Asante Blackk.
According to the official description of the series:
Based on a true story that gripped the country, When They See Us will chronicle the notorious case of five teenagers of color, labeled the Central Park Five, who were convicted of a rape they did not commit. The four part limited series will focus on the five teenagers from HarlemâAntron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise. Beginning in the spring of 1989, when the teenagers were first questioned about the incident, the series will span 25 years, highlighting their exoneration in 2002 and the settlement reached with the city of New York in 2014.
See the trailer below:
Netflix will release When They See Us on May 31.
Review: The Curse of La Llorona Is More Laugh Riot than Fright Fest
With The Curse of La Llorona, the Conjuring universe has damned itself to an eternal cycle of rinse and repeat.1
Michael Chavesâs The Curse of La Llorona opens in 17th-century Mexico with an all-too-brief rundown of the legend of La Llorona. This weeping woman (Marisol Ramirez) is quickly established as a mother who, in a fit of jealousy, drowned her two children in order punish her cheating husband. And after immediately regretting her actions, she commits suicide, forever damning herself to that liminal space between the land of the living and the dead, to snatch up wandering children to replace her own.
Flash-forward to 1973 Los Angeles, where we instantly recognize an echo of La Lloranaâs parental anxieties in Anna Garcia (Linda Cardellini), a widowed mother of two who struggles to balance the demands of her job as a social worker for Child Protective Services and the pressures of adjusting to single parenthood. One might expect such parallels to be further expanded upon by The Curse of La Llorona, but it quickly becomes evident that the filmmakers are less interested in character development, narrative cohesion, or the myth behind La Llorona than in lazily transposing the filmâs big bad into the Conjuring universe.
Itâs no surprise, then, that La Llorona, with her beady yellow eyes, blood-drained skin, and rotted mouth and fingernails is virtually indistinguishable from the antagonist from Corin Hardyâs The Nun; just swap out the evil nunâs tunic and habit for a decaying wedding dress and youâd never know the difference. Even more predictably, The Curse of La Llorona relies heavily on a near-ceaseless barrage of jump scares, creaking doors and loud, shrieking noises as La Llorona first terrorizes and murders the detained children of one of Annaâs clients (Patricia Velasquez), before then moving on to haunting Anna and her kids (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen and Roman Christou). But this family is so thinly conceived and their behavior so careless and illogical in the face of a known force of evil that viewers may find themselves less terrified by La Llorona than overjoyed by her reign of terror.
Once Rafael (Raymond Cruz), a curandero whose healing powers promise to lift La Lloronaâs curse, arrives on the scene, the film makes a few concessions to Mexican cultural rituals, as well as offers brief but welcome respites of humor. But after the man rubs down the Garcia house with eggs and protects its borders with palo santo and fire tree seeds, The Curse of La Llorona continues unabated as a rote scare-a-thon. Every extended moment of silence and stillness is dutifully disrupted by sudden, overemphatic bursts of sound and fury that are meant to frighten us but are more likely to leave you feeling bludgeoned into submission.
All the while, any notions of motherhood, faith within and outside of the Catholic Church, and Mexican folklore that surface at one point or another are rendered both moot and undistinctive in the midst of so much slavish worshipping at the altar of franchise expansion. Indeed, by the time Annabelleâs Father Perez (Tony Amendola) pays a house visit in order to dutifully spout exposition about the seriesâs interconnected religious elements, it becomes clear that the Conjuring universe is damned to an eternal cycle of rinse and repeat.
Cast: Linda Cardellini, Roman Christou, Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen, Raymond Cruz, Marisol Ramirez, Patricia Velasquez, Sean Patrick Thomas, Tony Amendola Director: Michael Chaves Screenwriter: Mikki Daughtry, Tobias Iaconis Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 93 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: David Bordwellâs Reinventing Hollywood & W.K. Strattonâs The Wild Bunch
Stratton goes beyond the production of Sam Peckinpah’s film, on to its impact and reception and legacy.
The 1940s were the decade in which Hollywood attained what we now term âclassicalâ status, when the innovations and developments of cinemaâs formative years coalesced into a high level of sophistication across all areasâtechnological, visual, narrative. The narrative element is the focus of Reinventing Hollywood, film historian and University of Wisconsin-Madison professor David Bordwellâs latest deep dive into the aesthetics of film.
Bordwell begins with a series of questions: âWhat distinctive narrative strategies emerged in the 1940s? Where did they come from? How did various filmmakers use them? How did the innovations change the look and sound of films?â He then proceeds with quite thorough answers across 500-plus pages. The narrative developments were gradual and cumulative. While the earliest narrative cinema was static and stagebound, inheriting principles of storytelling from theater and the most basic novelistic tendencies, a richer narrativity developed throughout the 1930s, when the visual language of silent cinema melded with the oral/aural elements of âtalkiesâ to create a more systemized approach to narrative filmmaking.
As Bordwell notes at one point in Reinventing Hollywood, â[p]rinciples of characterization and plot construction that grew up in the 1910s and 1920s were reaffirmed in the early sound era. Across the same period there emerged a clear-cut menu of choices pertaining to staging, shooting and cutting scenes.â In short, it was the process whereby âtalkiesâ became just âmovies.â Narrative techniques specifically morphed and solidified throughout the â30s, as screenwriters and filmmakers pushed their way toward the discovery of a truly classical style.
While the idea of a menu of set choices may sound limiting, in reality the options were numerous, as filmmakers worked out a process of invention through repetition and experimentation and refinement. Eventually these narrative properties and principles became conventionalizedânot in a watered-down or day-to-day way, but rather codified or systematized, where a sort of stock set of narrative devices were continually reworked, revamped, and re-energized. Itâs what Bordwell calls âan inherited patternâ or âschema.â
Also in the â40s, many Hollywood films traded in what Bordwell terms âmild modernismââa kind of light borrowing from other forms and advances in so-called high modernism, such as surrealism or stream-of-consciousness narratives like James Joyceâs Ulysses: high-art means for popular-art ends (Salvador DalĂâs work on Alfred Hitchcockâs Spellbound being a notable example). These techniques included omniscient point of view, the novelistic ability to traverse time and space (ideally suited for cinema), and involved flashback or dream sequences. This âborrowing of storytelling techniques from adjacent arts [âŠ] encouraged a quick cadence of schema and revision,â an environment of ââŠnovelty at almost any price.â
Such novelties included âaggregateâ films that overlaid a plethora of storytelling techniques, such as Sam Woodâs 1940 adaptation of Thornton Wilderâs Our Town, which employed multiple protagonists, complex flashback sequences, and voiceover narration drawn from the most advanced theater. Perhaps no other film embodied these ânoveltiesâ so sharply as Orson Wellesâs Citizen Kane, an âaggressive aggregateâ that amounts to a specifically cinematic yet total work of art, weaving together not only narrative techniques such as multiple character or âprismaticâ flashbacks (screenwriter Herman Mankiewiczâs term), but also drawing on elements from music, painting, and photography, as well as Wellesâs first loves, theater and radio. In some ways, Citizen Kane may be seen as a kind of fulcrum film, incorporating nearly all that had come before it and anticipating most everything after.
Though Bordwell references the familiar culpritsâCasablanca, Gone with the Wind, and, of course, Citizen Kaneâhe doesnât just stick with the A films, as he goes deep into the Bâs (and even some Câs and Dâs), in an effort to show the wide-ranging appeal and effectiveness of these narrative models no matter their technical execution. He also alternates chapters with what he calls Interludesâthat is, more intensive readings illustrating a preceding chapterâs discussion, homing in on specific films, genres and filmmakers, and not always the ones which one might expect. Thereâs an interlude on Joseph Mankiewicz, for example, a sort of intellectual master of multi-protagonist films like All About Eve and The Barefoot Contessa, and the truly original Preston Sturges, whose films pushed narrative norms to their absolute limits. Thereâs also an intriguing interlude on the boxing picture and the resiliency of certain narrative tropesâfighter refusing to throw the fight and thus imperiled by gangsters, for exampleâdemonstrating how Hollywoodâs ânarrative ecosystem played host to variants.â
Reinventing Hollywood is a dense read. Its nearly 600 pages of text, including detailed notes and index, isnât for the academically faint at heart. Often Bordwell offers frame-by-frame, even gesture-by-gesture analyses using accompanying stills, mining synoptic actions and tropes across multiple films of the era. The book can read strictly pedagogical at times, but overall, Bordwellâs writing is clear and uncluttered by jargon. Despite its comprehensive scholarly archeology (and such sweet academic euphemism as, say, âspreading the protagonist functionâ), the book is leveled at anyone interested in cinematic forms and norms.
The title is telling. Clearly, narrative cinema was already invented by the time the â40s rolled around, but in Hollywood throughout that decade it became so systematized that it progressed into something new, indeed something that exists through today: a narrative film style thatâs evocative enough to affect any single viewer and effective enough to speak to a mass audience.
Part of the charm of what was invented in the â40s is the malleability of the product. Narrative standards and conventions were designed for maximum variation, as well as for revision and challenge. And perhaps no decade offered more revision and challenge than the 1960s, not only to film culture but world culture as a whole. By the mid-to-late â60s, the old Hollywood studio system had expired, leaving in its wake a splintered version of itself. Yet despite the dissolution of the big studios, the resilience of the classical film style engendered by those studios was still evident. Popular narrative films retained the clear presentation of action borne in earlier films, however much they shuffled and reimagined patterns and standards.
One such movie that both embraced and pushed against Hollywood standards is director Sam Peckinpahâs 1969 western The Wild Bunch. It possesses such richness in both themes and execution, in form and content, that thereâs a lot to mine. With its tale of a band of out-of-time outlaws scamming and lamming away their fatal last days in Mexico during the countryâs revolution, it revels in and reveres western conventions as much as it revises them.
The film carries a personal elusive impact, particularly on first viewing. In The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film, journalist and historian W.K. Stratton quotes filmmaker Ron Shelton on this phenomenon: âSomething was different about this movieâŠit was more than [just another shoot-âem-up] but I couldnât figure out whatâŠIâve been trying to answer that question ever since.â The book examines the epic making of this epic film, and goes a good way toward explaining the reasons behind the filmâs unique power. Stratton is a Texan and also a poet, and both of these credentials make him perhaps the ideal candidate for exploring this pure piece of western poetry.
Stratton maps the story of the film from germ to gem. Conceived in the early â60s by stuntman Roy N. Sickner as a somewhat typical âoutlaw gringos on the lamâ story, the property evolved over the course of the ensuing years as much as the country itself. America in 1967 and â68 was a vastly different place than it was in â63. Stratton notes how â[t]he pictureâŠwould never have been filmed had not circumstances come into precise alignment. It was the product of a nation torn by divisions unseen since the Civil War, a nation that was sacrificing thousands of its young to a war in Southeast AsiaâŠa nation numbed by political assassinationâŠwhere a youthful generation was wholesale rejecting values held by their parents.â
A film made in such turbulent times required its own turbulent setting. If America had become no country for old men, and Vietnam was no country for young men, then Mexico during the revolution was no country for either. Stratton gives brisk but detailed chapters on the Mexican Revolution, filling in the tumultuous history and social geography for what would become a necessarily violent film. But just as the film could never have been made in another time, it could also have never been made without Sam Peckinpah. As Stratton notes, Peckinpah was a Hollywood rarity, a director born in the actual American West who made actual westerns, and a maverick director who, like Welles, fought against the constraints of an industry in which he was a master. Peckinpah was a rarity in other ways as well. A heavy-drinking, light-fighting proto-tough guy who was also a devotee of Tennessee Williams (âI guess Iâve learned more from Williams than anyoneâ), Peckinpah was a storyteller who could break your heart as well as your nose. His second feature, the very fine Ride the High Country, was tough and tender; it was also, coincidentally, another story of old outlaws running out their time.
Stratton traces the entire trajectory of the filmâs making, from the start-and-stop scripting to the early involvement of Lee Marvin, right on through to every aspect of production: its much-lauded gold-dust cinematography (by Lucien Ballard, who early in his career worked on Three Stooges comedies ââŠbecause it gave him a chance to experiment with camera trickeryâ); the elegant violence, or violent elegance, of its editing; and its casting and costuming.
The chapters on those last two elements are particularly rewarding. Costuming is a somewhat underlooked aspect of westerns, simply because the sartorial trappings seem so generic: hats, guns, boots, and bonnets. Yet period clothing is so essential to the texture of westerns because it can, or should, convey the true down and dirtiness of the time and place, the sweat, the swill and the stench. The Wild Bunch, like all great westerns, feels filthy. Wardrobe supervisor Gordon Dawson not only had the daunting task of providing authenticity in the costumes themselvesâmuch of them periodâbut of overseeing the sheer volume of turnover. Because Peckinpah âplanned to make heavy use of squibbing for the movieâs shoot-outsâŠ[e]ach time a squib went off, it ripped a whole in a costume and left a bloody stain.â Considering the overwhelming bullet count of the film, in particular the barrage of the ending, itâs no wonder that â[a]ll the costumes would have to be reused and then reused again and again.â
But perhaps no aspect was more important to the success of Peckinpahâs film than its casting. While early on in the process Marvin was set to play the lead role of Pike Bishop, the actor, thankfully, bowed out, and after the consideration of other actors for the role, including Sterling Hayden and Charlton Heston, in stepped William Holden. As good as all the other actors could be, Holden projected more of the existential weariness of the Bishop character, a condition that Marvinâs coarseness, for example, might have effaced. Stratton agrees: âThere could not have been a better matching of character and actor. Holden was aâŠdeeply troubled man, a real-life killer himselfâŠon a conditional suspended sentence for manslaughter [for a drunk driving accident, a case that was later dropped].â
This spot-on matching of actor to role extended all the way through to the rest of the Wild Bunch: Ernest Borgnine as Pikeâs sidekick, Dutch Engstrom, emanating toward Pike an anguished love and loyalty; old-time actor Edmond OâBrien as old-timer Freddie Sykes; Robert Ryan as Deke Thornton, Pikeâs stoic ex-partner and now head of the pursuing posse; Jaime Sanchez as the doomed Mexican Angel; and perhaps most especially Warren Oates and Ben Johnson as the wild, vile Gorch brothers. (While Oates was a member of what might be called Peckinpahâs stock company, Johnson was an estranged member of John Fordâs.)
Along with broad, illuminating biographies of these actors, Stratton presents informative material on many of the peripheral yet vital supporting cast. Because the film is set and was filmed in Mexico, much of it verisimilitude may be credited to Mexican talent. Throughout the â40s and â50s, the Mexican film industry was second only to Hollywood in terms of quality product and critical prestige. Peckinpah drew from this talent pool for many of his filmâs key characters, none more indelible than that of General Mapache (to whom the bunch sell guns and, by extension, their souls), one of the vilest, most distasteful figures in any American western. For this role, Peckinpah chose Emilio FernĂĄndez, a.k.a. El Indio, recognized and revered at that time as Mexicoâs greatest director. Apparently, Fernandezâs scandalous and lascivious on-set behavior paralleled the unpredictable immorality of his character. Like almost everyone involved with this film, Fernandez was taking his part to the extreme.
Stratton goes beyond the production of The Wild Bunch, on to its impact and reception and legacy. A sensation upon its release, the film was both lauded and loathed for its raw violence, with some critics recognizing Peckinpahâs âcatharticâ western for what it was, others seeing nothing but sick exploitation (including in its bloody treatment of Mexican characters). While other films of the time created similar buzz for their depiction of violence, notably Arthur Pennâs Bonnie and Clyde (a film often compared to The Wild Bunch), the violence of Peckinpahâs film was as much moral as physical. All one need do is compare it to a contemporary and similarly storied film like George Roy Hillâs Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a winking high-jinks movie in which, in Marvinâs resonant phrase, âno one takes a shit.â
Everyone involved with The Wild Bunch attributes its power to Peckinpah and the environment he fostered in its making. â[S]omething remarkable was occurring atâŠrehearsal sessions,â writes Stratton. âUnder Peckinpahâs direction, the actors went beyond acting and were becoming the wild bunch and the other characters in the movie.â Warren Oates confirms this sentiment: ââŠit wasnât like a playâŠor a TV show [âŠ] It was our life. We were doing our fucking lives right there and lived it every day [âŠ] We were there in truth.â
Stratton considers The Wild Bunch âthe last Western [âŠ] It placed a tombstone on the head of the grave of the old-fashioned John Wayne [films].â One may argue with this, as evidence shows that John Wayneâespecially the Wayne of John Ford westernsâis still very much alive in the popular consciousness. Yet there is a fatal finality to The Wild Bunch, a sense of something lowdown being run down. The film is complex and extreme less in its physical violence than in its moral violence, as it transposes the increasing cynicism of 1968 to an equally nihilistic era, all while maintaining a moving elegiac aura. No image or action expresses this attitude clearer and more powerfully than the bunchâs iconic sacrificial end walk, four abreast, to rescue one of their own, to murder and be murdered into myth. If the film is a tombstone, Strattonâs book is a fit inscription.
David Bordwellâs Reinventing Hollywood is now available from University of Chicago Press, and W.K. Strattonâs The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film is now available from Bloomsbury Publishing.
Review: The Heart of Someone Great Is in the Details of Female Friendship
The film plays like a mixtape of various sensibilities, partly beholden to the self-contained form of the bildungsroman.2.5
Jennifer Kaytin Robinsonâs Someone Great presents a vision of New York that makes the bustling metropolis feel like a small town. The filmâs setting is a utopian playground where everyone seems to know everyone else and bumping into friends and acquaintances on the street is a regular occurrence. Robinson exploits the narrative possibilities of this framework, as all it takes for three friends, Jenny (Gina Rodriguez), Erin (DeWanda Wise), and Blair (Brittany Snow), to dive into another misadventure is to simply turn a corner.
The film plays like a mixtape of various sensibilities, partly beholden to the self-contained form of the bildungsroman; surely itâs no coincidence that a James Joyce poster hangs in the background of one scene. Set to an eclectic, almost perpetual soundtrack of songs, the film follows Jenny, Erin, and Blair as they float on a wave of spontaneity. The friends are gung-ho about having one last night on the town, and as the they make plans to attend a music festival on the eve of Jenny moving to San Francisco, the film makes a vibrant show of every fallout, every sharp turn in mood and behavior across this journey, which also finds Jenny grappling with her recent breakup with Nate (Lakeith Stanfield), her boyfriend of nine years.
In the world of Someone Great, a flashily decorated room is an extension of a personâs personality, every object a vessel of human memories. Jenny is wounded, and the film tenaciously homes in how everything around her feels like a totem of lost love. Robinson elaborates on Jennyâs pain as much through the young womanâs exchanges with her two best friends, each dealing with their own emotional troubles, as through the neon-dappled flashbacks to Jenny and Nateâs time together. But if Jenny, Erin, and Blairâs scenes together are marked by an infectiousness fueled in no small part by Rodriguez, Wise, and Snowâs incredible rapport, the vignettes of Jenny and Nateâs past feel comparatively inertâan almost steady stream of generic and often awkward articulations of how it is to fall in and out of love.
Someone Great also gives itself over to a needlessly somber tone whenever Jenny reflects on her relationship with Nate, and the effect is so self-serious that youâd think sheâs the first person to lose a lover in human history. Her breakup certainly stands in sharp contrast to Blairâs own split from her long-term boyfriend (Alex Moffat), the fallout of which is treated as an offhand (and very funny) joke. Fortunately, though, Robinson is always quick to reorient the focus of her film, sweetly underscoring throughout the value of Jennyâs friendship to Erin and Blair, and how their bond is bound to persist regardless of the hard knocks these women weather on the long and often bumpy road to romantic fulfillment.
Cast: Gina Rodriguez, Brittany Snow, DeWanda Wise, LaKeith Stanfield, Peter Vack, Alex Moffat, RuPaul Charles, Rosario Dawson Director: Jennifer Kaytin Robinson Screenwriter: Jennifer Kaytin Robinson Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 92 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Cannes Lineup Includes New Films by Terrence Malick, CĂ©line Sciamma, & More
Perhaps as notable as what made the cut is what didnât make it onto the lineup.
This morning, the lineup for the 72nd Cannes Film Festival was revealed, and just as notable as what made the cut is what didnât. Most notably, Quentin Tarantinoâs Once Upon a Time in America and James Grayâs Ad Astra were nowhere to be found. Gray, whose had four of his previous films appear in competition at the festival, is still working on Ad Astra, which seems destined at this point to make its premiere at a fall festival. As for Tarantino, whoâs still editing this ninth feature ahead of its July 26 theatrical release, Cannes artistic director Thierry Fremaux told press this morning that thereâs still a chance that Once Upon a Time in America could be added to the festival lineup in the upcoming weeks.
Terrence Malick will return to Cannes for the first time since winning the Palme dâOr for The Tree of Life with the historical drama and ostensibly mainstream-friendly A Hidden Life, previously known as Radegund. Ken Loach and the Dardennes, both double winners of the Palme dâOr, will also debut their latest works, Sorry We Missed You and Young Ahmed, respectively, in the competition program. As previously announced, Jim Jarmuschâs The Dead Donât Die will kick off the festival on May 14, and Dexter Fletcherâs Rocketman will screen out of competition on May 16, two weeks before the film hits U.S. theaters. (The Directorâs Fortnight and Critics Week selections will be announced at a later date.)
See below for a complete list of this yearâs competition, Un Certain Regard, out of competition, and special and midnight screenings.
Pain and Glory, Pedro AlmodĂłvar
The Traitor, Marco Bellocchio
Wild Goose Lake, Yinan Diao
Parasite, Bong Joon-ho
Young Ahmed, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Oh Mercy! , Arnaud Desplechin
Atlantique, Mati Diop
Matthias and Maxime, Xavier Dolan
Little Joe, Jessica Hausner
Sorry We Missed You, Ken Loach
Les MisĂ©rables, Ladj Ly
A Hidden Life, Terrence Malick
Nighthawk, Kleber MendonĂ§a Filho and Juliano Dornelles
The Whistlers, Corneliu Porumboiu
Frankie, Ira Sachs
The Dead Donât Die, Jim Jarmusch
Portrait of a Lady on Fire, CĂ©line Sciamma
It Must Be Heaven, Elia Suleiman
Sybil, Justine Triet
Out of Competition
Rocketman, Dexter Fletcher
The Best Years of Life, Claude Lelouch
Maradona, Asif Kapadia
La Belle Epoque, Nicolas Bedos
Too Old to Die Young, Nicolas Winding Refn
Share, Pippa Bianco
Family Romance LLC, Werner Herzog
Tommaso, Abel Ferrara
To Be Alive and Know It, Alain Cavalier
For Sama, Waad Al Kateab and Edward Watts
The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil, Lee Won-Tae
Un Certain Regard
Invisible Life, Karim AĂŻnouz
Beanpole, Kantemir Balagov
The Swallows of Kabul, Zabou Breitman and ElĂ©a GobĂ© MĂ©vellec
A Brotherâs Love, Monia Chokri
The Climb, Michael Covino
Joan of Arc, Bruno Dumont
A Sun That Never Sets, Olivier Laxe
Chambre 212, Christophe HonorĂ©
Port Authority, Danielle Lessovitz
Papicha, Mounia Meddour
Adam, Maryam Touzani
Zhuo Ren Mi Mi, Midi Z
Liberte, Albert Serra
Bull, Annie Silverstein
Summer of Changsha, Zu Feng
EVGE, Nariman Aliev
The 2019 TCM Classic Film Festival
As evangelistic as I tend to get about making new discoveries at TCMFF, the familiar can also be revelatory.
In 2014, on the occasion of the fifth annual TCM Classic Film Festival, even as I took the opportunity to raise a glass to an event that encourages audiences, especially younger ones, to acknowledge and embrace the past, I indulged in a little public worrying over the festivalâs move toward including a heavier schedule of more âmodernâ films whose status as classics seemed arguable, at the very least. The presence of Mr. Hollandâs Opus and The Goodbye Girl on the festivalâs slate that year seemed geared toward guaranteeing that Richard Dreyfuss would make a couple of appearances, causing me not only to wonder just what constitutes a âclassicâ (a question this festival seems imminently qualified to answer), but also just how far down the road to appeasement of movie stars TCMFF would be willing to travel in order to bring in those festivalgoers willing to pony up for high-priced, top-tier passes.
If anything, subsequent iterations have indicated that, while its focus remains on putting classic films in front of appreciative audiences and encouraging the restoration and preservation of widely recognized and relatively obscure films, the festivalâs shift toward popular hits and the folks attached to them seems to be in full swing. And from a commercial point of view, who could credibly argue against feting 1980s and â90s-era celebrities who can still bring the glitz and glamour, especially as it becomes increasingly more difficult to secure appearances from anyone directly involved in the production of 60-to-80-year-old films? One has to believe that the numbers would favor booking films which could afford âsexierâ in-person attendees like Billy Crystal, Meg Ryan, and Rob Reiner, and maybe for a good portion of the TCMFF crowd that showed up to celebrate the festivalâs 10th anniversary this year, that sort of thinking is perfectly in line with what they expect for their money.
Of course, the flip side of that coin is an opening-night gala devoted to the celebration of When Harry Met Sally, which isnât the first film I would think of to announce to the world that TCMFF is celebrating a milestone. Itâs been 10 years since the festival launched, and its mother channel is celebrating 25 years on the air this yearâand, okay, the Rob Reiner-helmed, Nora Ephron-scripted comedy is now 30 years young. But I really wonder, beyond When Harry Met Sallyâs most famous scene, which is all but stolen by the directorâs mother and her delivery of the memorable zinger âIâll have what sheâs having,â if this dated rom-com really means enough to audiences to be included among a TCMFF schedule of films ostensibly more qualified to be considered as classics. Maybe it does. Because objections like that one were forced to fly in the face of the rest of the TCMFF 2019 schedule, populated as it was by other equally questionable attractions like Sleepless in Seattle, Steel Magnolias, Hello, Dolly!, and Out of Africa, all of which crowded screen space in the festivalâs biggest auditoriums.
Speaking of amour, it was that most mysterious of emotions that was the biggest rationale other than filthy lucre for clogging the schedule with not one but two Meg Ryan âclassics,â a weeper thatâs broad by even the standards of borderline-campy weepers, a bloated musical nobody seems to like, a would-be epic best picture winner, and even the bromantic sentimental indulgences of the Honorary Greatest Movie for Men Who Donât Love Movies. Because the theme of TCMFF 2019, âFollow Your Heart: Love at the Movies,â virtually guaranteed that room would be made for some of the festivalâs least enticing and overseen selections, under subheadings like âBetter with Ageâ (Love in the Afternoon, Marty), âBromanceâ (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Shawshank Redemption), and, in a love letter to not romance but instead a movie studio, âA Celebration of 20th Century Foxâ (Hello, Dolly!, Working Girl, Star Wars). Of course, each of those subheadings had their glories as well (Iâll get to those in a second, after I stop complaining), but itâs worth noting these selections because they seem clearly representative of the sort of programming choices that have become more dominant in the second half of TCMFFâs storied and much appreciated existence, choices that may signal a further shift away from discoveries, oddities, and rarities and toward even more mainstream appeasement in its near future.
For all of the problems that seem to be becoming hard-wired into TCMFFâs business model, however, there was plenty to get excited about as well, even when one of the weaker overall schedules in terms of cinephile catnip made maximizing the festival experience a little more challenging than usual. If that âLove in the Moviesâ header seemed at first a bit too generic, it also proved elastic enough to accommodate some pretty interesting variations on a obvious theme, from dysfunctional relationships (A Woman Under the Influence, whose star, Gena Rowlands, had to back out of a scheduled pre-screening appearance), to erotic obsession (Mad Love, Magnificent Obsession), to habitual obsession (Cold Turkey, Merrily We Go to Hell), to romance of a more straightforward nature rendered in various shades of not-at-all-straightforward cinematic splendor (Sunrise, Sleeping Beauty, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Tarzan and His Mate). Why, there was even a couple of straight shots of undiluted movie love in the form of FranĂ§ois Truffautâs Day for Night, adorned by an in-person visitation from the filmâs star, Jacqueline Bisset, and a grand screening of my favorite film, Robert Altmanâs Nashville, which Pauline Kael once famously described as âan orgy for movie lovers.â
My own obsessions this year ran, as they usually do, toward the unfamiliar. Six of the 11 films I saw were new to me, including the obscure, ultra-cheap film noir Open Secret, which pits John Ireland against a secret society of small-town Nazi sympathizers; the deliriously racy and surprisingly violent adventure of Tarzan and His Mate, entertainingly introduced by Star Wars sound wizard Ben Burtt and special effects whiz Craig Barron, whose pre-film multimedia presentation electronically deconstructed the Tarzan yell; and James Whaleâs Waterloo Bridge, starring Mae Clarke and Kent Douglass. Also among them were two major surprises: Dorothy Arznerâs romantic drama Merrily We Go to Hell, a gloriously cinematic roller coaster of love, codependency, and betrayal starring Fredric March, forever testing the audienceâs tolerance for the boundaries of bad behavior, and Sylvia Sidney, who displays a range that will surprise younger audiences who may only know her from her later work; and the rollicking, hilarious, fast-paced snap-crackle-punch of All Through the Night, in which a gaggle of Runyonesque Broadway gamblers headed up by Humphrey Bogart develop an uncharacteristic patriotic streak when they uncover a Nazi conspiracy brewing in the back alleys of the neighborhood.
As evangelistic as I tend to get about making new discoveries at TCMFF, the familiar can also be revelatory. My two favorite experiences at the festival this year were screenings of F.W. Murnauâs almost indescribably gorgeous and primally moving Sunrise and a beautiful DCP of Nashville, with screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury and actors Jeff Goldblum, Keith Carradine, and Ronee Blakely in attendance. (At one point, Blakely held court like Barbara Jean in rambling pre-meltdown mode and innocently gave away the ending of the film.) The joy contained in the five hours of those two films wasnât necessarily matched by the gorgeous restoration of Anthony Mannâs powerful Winchester â73, the exquisitely expressionist delirium of Karl Freundâs Mad Love, or the revelation of Disneyâs Sleeping Beauty, with its roots in the music of Tchaikovsky, as the partial fulfillment of the ambitions of Fantasia, the studioâs great folly. But then again, it didnât have to be. Itâs enough that those are all movies worthy of and inspired by true movie love, which is precisely what they were received with by TCMFF audiences.
Of course, the obsessive, orgiastic nature of movie love is itself the underlying subtext of any film festival, but at TCMFF that subtext is consistently resonant enough that it seems inextricable from any given moment during the long four-day Hollywood weekend over which it unspools. Some festivalgoers get dolled up in vintage clothes and five pounds of customized TCM-style flair to express it. Others rattle on endlessly about their irrational devotion to Star X and Director Y, or how some obscure B noir blew their goddamn minds, and theyâre usually surrounded by a pack of fans with similarly hyperbolic stories to tell. And still others just tilt their heads down and barrel through the long lines, breathlessly scurrying between theaters in pursuit of something theyâve never seen or perhaps never even heard of. (Iâll let you speculate as to which category I belong, though I will say I have never worn a fedora or brandished a silver-tipped walking stick in public.) A good friend and former TCMFF regular once told me that the best way to be cured of a particular obsession is to suddenly find yourself surrounded by those whose individual enthusiasms match or exceed your own, and sometimes it seems that the first-world trials of the TCMFF experience as they have accumulated over the past five or so years, and contrasted as they have been by the multitude of peaks the festival has offered its most ardent fans, have been devoted to road-testing that theory.
However, no matter what TCMFF devotees do or say in between programming slots, the movies remain, providing a constant opportunity to either plumb the depths of cinema history or to simply go for the good times. With all intentions pitched toward continued prosperity, the greatest challenge for TCMFF as it enters its second decade might be finding a better balance between those deep dives and the allure of skimming the perhaps more lucrative shallows. And if genuinely great films and even greater chances to experience films one can only experience in a setting like TCMFF keep getting slotted out in favor of familiar dreck like When Harry Met Sally and Steel Magnolias, it isnât unreasonable to imagine that TCMFF 2029 might, to its inevitable detriment, look and feel considerably less classic than it does now. No, itâs not time for sackcloth and ashes just yet when it comes to this beloved fest. But Iâd be lying if I said, to purloin and repurpose the concluding sentiment of one of this yearâs big TCMFF attractions, that the ultimate resolution of that dilemma donât worry me just a little bit.
The TCM Classic Film Festival ran from April 11â14.
Review: Instant Dreams Intimately Ponders a Casualty of the Digital Age
Willem Baptistâs film is a free-form essay on the spiritual differences between analog and digital.2.5
Throughout Instant Dreams, director Willem Baptist returns to footage from âThe Long Walk,â the 1970 short film in which Polaroid co-founder Edwin H. Land pulled from his coat a black device that bears an uncanny resemblance to an iPhone. Land envisioned a day in which instant photos could be taken by a device the size of a wallet, which we would use to document every moment of our lives. This dream came spectacularly true, of course, beyond even Landâs wildest fantasies, ironically paving the way for Polaroidâs irrelevancy. Polaroid stopped manufacturing instant film in 2008, an event which Baptist rues as a symptom of our increasing impersonality as a globalized culture thatâs grown to take its information overload for granted. âThe Long Walkâ haunts Baptistâs documentary as a kind of death prophecy.
Seen in stock footageâand in the famous photo on a 1947 cover of the New York Times in which he holds up a snapshot of himself, nearly appearing to have two headsâLand proves to be one of Instant Dreamsâs most fascinating and enigmatic figures. In a contemporary light, pictures taken by Polaroid instant cameras have an eerie and poignant power, as their imperfections, such as their blotchy yet vibrant colors, evoke expressionistic art. These photographs reflect the frailty and subjectivity of time, while digital images are ageless, changeable, easily distributed ciphers. The power of Polaroid pictures resides in the effort they require to create, as people had to carry a bulky camera around and wait several seconds before producing a fully developed snapshot. Following several Polaroid cultists, Baptist shares their lament for an intimate and communal culture thatâs potentially been forgotten in the wake of our ability to have pristine images whenever we want them.
Stephen Herchen is a scientist who helped to buy the last remaining Polaroid factory in the Netherlands, and heâs working with a group of specialists to revive the technology, as instant film was born of a complex chemical recipe that Herchen has yet to crack. (Baptist looks on as Herchenâs pictures take nearly 30 minutes to develop, rather than a few seconds.) Meanwhile, New York magazine city editor Christopher Bonanos, author of the book Instant: The Story of Polaroid, documents the growth of his son with his stash of Polaroid film, and German artist Stefanie Schneider takes photographs with the expired stock that she keeps in the vintage refrigerator of a trailer thatâs parked somewhere in the California desert.
Herchen, Bonanos, and Schneider speak over the documentaryâs soundtrack, which Baptist assembles into a free-form essay on the spiritual differences between analog and digital. The filmmaker portrays analog as a kind of magic, born of a conjuring which he dramatizes with trippy images of photographic chemicals, while digital technology is represented by chilly metallic graphics that connote anonymous efficiency. (Instant Dreams exudes that simultaneously real and staged quality of an Errol Morris film.) Itâs a sentimental vision, and one that provokes a question that Baptist doesnât attempt to address: In a time of technological marvel, in which we carry what are essentially supercomputers around in our pockets, why are so many of us so miserable, so convinced that weâre living in a dark age?
The rage and ennui of our present culture is cultivated by the ease of modern media, in which weâre eternally plugged into stimulation that cancels itself out, leaving us feeling both stuffed and hollow, as well as interchangeable with one another as receptacles for corporate product. Our primary camera is now our phone, which can do hundreds of other tasks, while the Polaroid instant camera only takes pictures, relics which cannot be shared with the click of a button with other people. To long for the Polaroid, or for other objects of nostalgia such as VHS tapes, is to long for a sense of specialness and remoteness. The subjects of Baptistâs documentary seek disconnection from the cultural hive mind.
These meanings are often only implicit in Instant Dreams, and itâs a pity that Herchen and Bonanos arenât more overtly in tune with their yearnings. They tend to speak in platitudes, which Baptist attempts to render mystical with hallucinatory imagery and a retro synth-y score thatâs reminiscent of Vangelisâs compositions for Blade Runner. While Instant Dreams offers an appealingly nostalgic trance-out, itâs often short on detail, especially in terms of Herchenâs struggle to create the instant film technology, which Baptist reduces to exchanges of jargon in atmospheric laboratories. The filmâs ruminations gradually grow repetitive and unfocused, especially when Baptist branches off into a fourth narrative, following a young woman who savors digital technology the way that the other subjects do Polaroids.
Schneider steals Instant Dreams from her co-stars, however, taking bold photos of young women out in the desert, cannily milking the limitations of the expired film stock to create mini canvases that suggest fever dreams. One scene is unexpectedly erotic: Schneider takes a bath in a tub outside with a beautiful model, their legs intermingling as the latter tells of a dream that suggests a metaphor for instant film. This image embodies the intimacy that Baptistâs subjects believe Polaroid stock to represent, merging the filmâs emotional ambitions with its hypnotic aesthetic. In such moments, Instant Dreams truly comes alive.
Director: Willem Baptist Screenwriter: Willem Baptist Distributor: Synergetic Distribution Running Time: 91 min Rating: NR Year: 2017
Review: Rafiki Is a Feat of Representation, If Familiar in Execution
The audacity of the filmâs assertion of a queer African identity shouldnât be overlooked.2.5
Wanuri Kahiuâs Rafiki is a salvo in an ongoing cultural war in Kenya over the rights of LGBTQ people, and as such, itâs difficult, and maybe even irresponsible, to judge the film in a vacuum. Homosexuality is illegal in Kenyaâpunishable with up to 14 years in prisonâand Kahiuâs film is officially banned in the country, though that ban was temporarily lifted for a week last fall so that it might qualify for an Oscar nomination. As a romantic drama, Rafiki turns out to be conventional in most senses except that its star-crossed lovers are two womenâbut then, particularly in Kenya, that makes all the difference.
Rafikiâs radicalism, hardly evident in its form or narrative structure, becomes more apparent when the film is situated in the context of state censorship and socio-culturally dominant homophobia. Adapted by Kahiu and co-writer Jenna Cato Bass from a short story by Monica Arac de Nyeko, the film takes its cue from that most over-alluded-to of romantic texts, Romeo and Juliet, complete with feuding families, illicit liaisons, and impossible love.
Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and Ziki (Sheila Munyiva) are the daughters of two small-business magnates opposing each other in an upcoming city council election. They live on the outskirts of Nairobi, in an area characters refer to as Slopes, which Kaihu presents as a relatively secluded community. The story plays out over a limited number of distinctive locationsâsuch as the church that Kena and Zikiâs families attend and consists of a purple-clad Anglican preacher leading sermons under a purple tent and a food stand where the young denizens of Slopes eat, with its nearby van on blocks where Kena and Ziki can have some privacy.
As young romantics are wont to do, the two women fall in love despite the immense familial and social pressure to avoid anything of the kind. And in addition to the mutual animosity of their respective families, they have the stigma that homosexuality carries among their friends to worry about. Kena hangs out with a pair of hypermasculine guys who routinely hurl epithets at the taciturn man everyone in the neighborhood knows is gay; when Zikiâs clique of friends start suspecting Kena is her lover, they react with a surprising outburst of violence. With its handful of locations and its small cast, Rafiki emphasizes the inescapable social gaze this queer couple is subjected to: The supporting characters are liable to pop up in any given place, making anywhere but the abandoned van a potentially threatening space for the two women.
In a country in which homosexuality is seen by a majority of the population as imported Western decadence, the audacity of the filmâs assertion of a queer African identity shouldnât be overlooked. Rafiki announces its intent with defiant opening credits, streaked with spray-painted neon colors and blasting feminist African hip-hop. But this rebellious energy also dissipates rapidly after the credits: While Christopher Wesselsâs cinematography is drawn to saturated colors that recall the punkish animation of the credits, thereâs a staid quality to the film that belies the intensity of the visuals. Major scenes play out with characters summarizing their feelings in sketchy dialogue, as when Kenaâs mother (Nini Wacera) exposits Kenyan womenâs motivations for being more homophobic than men in the midst of an argument.
While Kahiu proved herself a visionary filmmaker with her 2009 short film Pumzi, her visual ideas here are often sentimental short cuts: slow-motion close-ups of a smiling Ziki to suggest the characterâs sexual longing for Kena, and slow-motion shots of birds in flight to symbolize the coupleâs desire for freedom. Ziki herself, with her flashy, colorful braids and broadly sketched character arc, is little more than a romantic fantasyâand perhaps purposefully, as Kena is clearly the main character, drawn to Ziki at least in part because of her distinctive look. But it seems odd that a romance about two women should recapitulate a structure in which only one of the pairâthe one in the position of lookingâgets a full character arc. Regardless, Rafikiâs slotting of two African women into this familiar romantic structure represents a radical and important upending of contemporary Kenyan sexual mores.
Cast: Samantha Mugatsia, Sheila Munyiva, Neville Misati, Jimmy Gathu, Nini Wacera, Patricia Amira, Muthoni Gathecha, Dennis Musyoka, Nice Githinji, Charlie Karumi, Patricia Kihoro Director: Wanuri Kahiu Screenwriter: Wanuri Kahiu, Jenna Cato Bass Distributor: Film Movement Running Time: 82 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
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