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To Live Is To Learn: Kenji Mizoguchi on Screen, on DVD

So I bought the Criterion disc of Sansho the Bailiff blind and told Keith Uhlich I would write it up.

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To Live Is To Learn: Kenji Mizoguchi on Screen, on DVD

E-mail I: Unveiling Myself

Hey Steve,

So I bought the Criterion disc of Sansho the Bailiff blind and told Keith Uhlich I would write it up. After watching the film two times now, about a week apart, I still have no idea what to write. To be honest: I know it’s a marvel of a film but it still doesn’t touch me the way I’ve read people describe it as having affected them. My mood is changed, and I am wholly devastated, but I do not know why there is a value in that any more. I’ve long thought that when a movie provokes such a depressed response it should be to show you the world is alive, and substantive, despite the sour times, but both Ugestu and Sansho, the two Kenji Mizoguchi films that I’ve seen, only appear a series of denials. Freedom is only ever achieved at a price, the price of a loved one’s death, in both films. Perhaps this is realism? It certainly is crushing.

Let me be clear: I am fascinated by these films, and this director. All the visual rhymes and storytelling patterns—the overall structure—are glorious, and perhaps genius. Sansho opens with the mother telling her son to be careful in the world, to remember his father and his father’s teachings, after which the film then travels back in time to show you those precise, compassionate moral teachings. Sansho closes in a minor beach community, ravaged by a tidal wave, attempting to secure itself anew. Here, the covenant between mother and son is reconstituted thanks to the son’s faithful devotion to his father’s moral teachings, proving their worth and resonance. Mizoguchi’s ability to synthesize his morals into the structure of the film and its varied, complex and shifting storylines inspires awe. Yet, I am not moved as much by this ending as I am by the final shot of, say, Ugetsu; or, really, the whole of, say, Rear Window, another film from 1954; or, say, the finale of Breathless, an often hilarious downer film made by one of Mizoguchi’s famed trumpeters, Godard; or, possibly most damning, another Japanese milestone from 1954, Seven Samurai, by Mizoguchi’s celebrated former assistant, Akira Kurosawa, who has clearly eclipsed him in terms of Western fame since then.

To further unveil myself: I bought Ugetsu blind, too, when it came out from Criterion Collection in late 2005, and while I was blown away by its images and structure, I found it hard to figure out what I liked about it beyond its visual flair and formal precision. Indeed, I am still having trouble understanding why I own the films. I really do not want to watch them again (that often? ever?) no matter how great they may be. And while their packaging is delovely, and the essays insightful (Lopate’s essay accompanying Ugestu is better than the one Le Fanu wrote for the Sansho disc), and the supplements worthy of the cost, I’m still nagged by how difficult it is to actually watch these films. Perhaps it’s a similar thing to your Antonioni problem: on a small screen, the majestic images and structural genius are not as imposing, or evident, or something. I imagine watching these films in a theatre is an entirely different experience. It’s funny, too, that I have this problem as I keep missing the retrospectives that have been popping up around the country in the last year. While I prepared to leave New York (for the West Coast) last summer, the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley was running “Seven Classic Mizoguchi”. After I was back in Berkeley, the Film Forum in New York played a series of Mizoguchi classics. And then, after I left Seattle last winter, the series traveled to the Northwest Film Forum. It seems I’m fated to watch the films on DVD, like most of the rest of the Region-1 world, which is a shame.

I know you attended the New York Film Forum retrospective last year and I was curious what your take on both of these films, and any others, might be. Have you seen these Criterion discs? Are there other films of Mizoguchi’s you like more? you think work better? you find more joy within? Why do you think, perhaps, Kurosawa is more famous? Simply because his films are more immediately satisfying and less austere? I am wary of all of this. But I trust you.

later, ryland.

E-mail II: The Plasma Can’t Cut It

Ry,

Like the nerd I am, I still have the tickets for all the Film Forum Mizoguchi screenings I saw last summer: Story of Late Chrysanthemums, Ugetsu, Sansho the Bailiff, Life of Oharu and Street of Shame. I love them all, but have no desire to own or view a DVD of any of them. These are pure theatrical experiences. I can’t imagine sitting through Chrysanthemum’s epic, super long, room-to-room master shots while eating grilled cheese in my apartment. In the theater, the last pan-and-crane shot of Ugetsu gathered up the audience and lifted us into the sky. It was pure religion. Mizoguchi is one of the all-time masters at designing shot sequences, not just for the big screen, but for public consumption. Like those dag-blasted superhero flicks y’all mysteriously champion, Mizoguchi’s working with national myths and parables; they don’t really resound so well unless you’re watching with a packed house of neighbors and strangers. (Imagine watching an immortal performance of a great stage play in an empty playhouse. The audience electricity is a crucial ingredient.) When the father in Sansho, a politician banished for doing the right thing, gives his son a lesson in compassion and mercy before being taken away, I was moved to leave these comments on a film geek forum:

“In just the first five minutes of Sansho the Bailiff, Mizoguchi hands you a treasure you wouldn’t trade for a trillion yen: An official in feudal Japan has gotten into hot water by defying his superiors on behalf of aggrieved peasants. He’s about to be jailed or exiled for doing the right fucking thing, so he takes his last few moments at home to impart some wisdom to his son, who it’s clear he will never see again.

“The advice he gives his boy stands in sharp contrast to every father-son talking-to in Western cinema. Take, um, Conan the Barbarian. Conan’s dad tells him to trust no one or nothing but his sword. Trust nothing but an instrument of death. Thanks, dad. By the end of the flick, Conan has survived by trusting only his sword, killing hundreds, and has worked up the balls to defy even God (Crom): “Don’t like it? To hell with you.”

“The father in Sansho delivers to his son a clear, stirring set of virtues comparable to Jesus’ sermon on the mount. But shorter. Mizoguchi is drawing from tenets of Buddhism and elements of Japanese myth, but I don’t see any western filmmaker from that time engaging so directly and intimately with the meaning of, say, the Gospels. Over here it’s greeting cards.

“John Wayne and Mel Gibson and all the other soldiers of Christ trust their swords first. Alls I’m saying is, I would trade all the Westerns and DeMille epics and morality plays gaudying up Ho’wood’s history for just those three minutes of the father-son lesson in Sansho. If we had more stuff like that in our culture, who knows what we’d be?”

This trans-Pacific cultural communication I perceived wouldn’t be so forceful if just me and maybe a homeboy/girl or two were sitting at home staring at the flick on the 50” plasma.

Speaking of plays, I’m starting to question the whole notion of a good film as something you can revisit frequently and see something new in each time—the return-to-the-well theory. Those five Mizoguchi films live in my mind the way a performance of the play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom still marks my soul. I know I can be a drama queen with the hyperbole, but I mean it here: I can recall those hauntings as vividly as the time I got stuck up on 241st Street. No need for a refresher.

Ry, if you had been there for the Mizoguchi fest, I think you would know why you own those discs. You’d have them for the same reason that those ticket stubs are in my wallet: to trigger powerful memories, to go over the crime scene occasionally, to figure out how the whole thing was brought off. At this point, DVD is my ongoing film school. I might put on a disc of Ugetsu if I’m planning to shoot something and want to see how the director handled a particular sequence. Even though the world doesn’t know it, films on DVD and all their supplemental material are really for filmmakers, scholars and critics. Film buffs and fanboys might get something out of hearing a director’s commentary, but the ideal presentation format for most films is theatrical. In the last few years, despite all the valuable schooling, I’ve fallen out of love with DVD as a way of experiencing flicks for the first time. I do my best to get my ass to the theater if something rare comes to town. (Easy for me to say, right? So many great venues in NYC.) The 50” plasma still can’t cut it.

Kurosawa? A few months ago, a complete stranger who liked my online writing heard I was too broke to catch a screening of Ran at MoMA, so she comp’d me a ticket. She said I haven’t seen it if I’d only seen it on tape or DVD. I’d attempted to sit through Ran many times on cable and home video over the years; glanced at and been impressed by the famous battle sequence. But watching the whole thing hovering above me, 20 feet tall, I finally saw the film as the epic poem that it was (and, ultimately, Kurosawa’s perfect valediction). Toru Takemitsu’s score riding across the cutaways to the sky during the battle scene moved me more than any Ozu pillow shot I’ve yet seen.

And, yes, I do suspect my problems with Godard, Antonioni, The Life Aquatic and that goddamned Superman flick have much to do with the fact that I’ve tried engaging them on DVD first. I have to make more time for priceless theatrical screenings in this town, despite tickets that now cost more than my shoes. Also, whoever that nice lady who treated me to Ran is, I’m gonna find out if she’s single.

Steve

E-mail III: To Live Is to Learn

My friend,

A day after my first missive, I am renewed. Your response helped me locate not just my own thoughts on the films, but myself in relation to the films; I even re-watched pieces of both. Those final shots of uplift are wondrous, in particular the finale of Ugetsu: it is the formal echo of the film’s opener, opening the film back up to the world, offering the viewer the world. The final shot of Sansho, while still magical, is more subtle a move. First, the camera is not as choreographed as in Ugetsu; it is simply a crane and pan, without any tracking, and without worrying about capturing movement through the frame (by a child actor). Second, in lieu of the protagonist’s child as the preserving, sustaining humanistic life force Mizoguchi invests us in, it is seaweed scattered on the beach: gathered from the ocean, associated with death and patience and separation throughout the film, it is, here in the end, what will provide sustenance for this wrecked hamlet—and this renewed family. That, I think, was where I found Sansho so devastating: its humanism is less overt than that of Ugetsu. At first glance, the beach is empty and the frame is dominated by that island smack in the middle of the frame. Yet, if you follow the contours of the image, from the mound in the middle down along the beach to the seaweed-gatherer and his odd flock of leaves, you find yourself at once drawn into the metaphor of renewal (invested in an item gathered from a previously devilish entity) and shown the world outside the film. As I said in my earlier email, Mizoguchi’s ability to tie theme to structure and form is dazzling, and complex. And yet, still, the films are rather dour to watch alone. In a way, after reading your response, I felt, for a minute, that I had hardly—that is, actually—seen the films.

Another peek behind the curtain: both initial viewings of both films saw me briefly nod off. “What?!” you may be thinking. To answer, I must first say this is outright not a bad thing. As Keith Uhlich has relayed to me, Abbas Kiarostami once said, “I love a film that affords me a nap.” That’s a delicious bit of endorsement. I have fallen asleep in many of my so-called favorite films, from time to time, including the first time. Perhaps I’m just a nut, but perhaps it’s something else—perhaps the naps force me to question why I slid a little lower and pay better attention. Perhaps a nap is worthwhile. And yet, perhaps a nap is an outright sin on a first viewing. I’m still not sure about that; it warrants more investigation. If it means I am drawn back into the film, or the film has somehow seeped into my pores as a result—an odd, spectral osmosis—then, okay, I’m sold. If it means I’m just lazy, I am sorry. I am apt to think the films I return to after a nap are the ones I usually enjoy more, and further, in time. Some films appear designed to facilitate a nap.

Last weekend I indulged in Jacques Rivette’s near-13 hour Out 1 at Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive over Saturday and Sunday. I napped for a bit of, I think, one episode on each day. It is one of my favorite movie-going experiences ever. Last December I saw Sátántangó at Seattle’s Northwest Film Forum and after an early nap about two hours into the seven-and-a-half hour picture I was wide awake the rest of the way. It was a defining experience. (However, given the opportunity, I would much rather revisit Rivette’s film than Tarr’s film any day, or pair of days, as the case may be.) There’s a magic to the theatrical experience, it is true. In fact, after reading Walter Chaw’s recent blog post “Ten Films That Changed The Way I Look At Film” I made a list, for myself alone, of “Ten Defining Movie-Going Experiences”. Both the marathon films are on the list, but neither can top seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey in 70mm at The Castro in San Francisco in the summer of 2005. I remember walking out of that screening practically yelling that it was the best film ever made and I refused to watch it on DVD ever again. So I thank you for clarifying the Mizoguchi run(s) as those kinds of defining cinematic experiences. I know I’m missing something here at home on my laptop. (Yes, I do not have a television anymore; I watch films on a 13” laptop monitor with headphones when not attending the theatre. Yet, this does not diminish a great film, in general; instead, intimacy works better for some films rather than others, as watching Kiarostami’s Taste Of Cherry last week—my first encounter with his films—alone in my room was as close to a religious film experience as I’ve encountered with a computer-viewing. On the flip side, I have only watched The New World once on DVD.)

To bring it back to Mizoguchi, and the two of his films we are discussing, I should also like to say, in addition to reading over your response, I received two other emails about my conundrum I would like to share, in parts:

“I was to see a triple feature of Mizoguchi once. Started with The Life of Oharu and was so devastated that I couldn’t bear to watch the others. It’s funny: Naruse I couldn’t get enough of. But Mizoguchi, for me at least, needs to be taken in slowly, with space in between.”—Keith Uhlich

“Watching Mizoguchi films in those [undergraduate] days, I was struck by the combination of formal and thematic beauty. It caught my own sense of the world, or of the world as I wanted it to be, not sad and painful (I took that for granted), but powerful and profound in its sadness and pain. I continue to admire Mizoguchi’s films tremendously. I know a lot more about film as an art form now, and I admire his films’ formal properties more and more articulately than I did back then. I have to admit, however, that I’d rather watch Kung Fu Hustle.”—low proFile

I think this insistence on letting Mizoguchi’s films sit, to allow them to work on one’s mind over time, is crucial, for me. His films (or at least these two I’ve seen) rigorously foreground temporal space, and actions through time, as when he shoots scenes without edits, like the hillside ambush of Miyagi, the potter’s wife, in Ugetsu. As it happens, after reading D K Holm’s appreciation of the man last week, I checked out Robin Wood’s Personal Views from the UC Berkeley library (further distracting me from many projects) and immediately skipped to the final essay (in this early edition) titled, “The Ghost Princess and the Seaweed-Gatherer: Ugetsu Monogatari and Sansho Dayu”. It was a pleasant entry into Wood’s work. He has a keen, discerning eye and offers insightful reads. (Perhaps an additional element of my resistance to write anything is that Mizoguchi already has so much good written about him, and that it is, in general, written so well.) This passage from Wood’s essay, describing the sequence of Miyagi’s ambush in Ugetsu that I mentioned above, seems the most relevant to our discussion:

“Miyagi, trying to return home with her child, is attacked on a mountain path by three starving outcasts (perhaps deserters) who steal the rice-cakes she has been given. When she protests, one of them drives a spear into her. Her little boy still on her back, she staggers on, supporting herself on a stick. Here, there is no cutting: the scene is a classic example of what the French call the plan-séquence, the ’sequence’ organized within a single shot. But the preservation of spatial reality within the image, and the preservation of the spectator’s distance from the action, are again crucial to the total effect.

“…Mizoguchi’s long take hold the spectator at a distance throughout, preserves the unity and continuity of the action, and preserves the sense of environment—of the action situated in a real world governed by the realities of time and space. We are not asked to respond simply and directly to the physical horror of a spear entering a woman’s belly, but to an event existing in a context. The detachment with which the camera compels us to watch the action makes the emotion it evokes much less immediate and overwhelming, but also much finer and deeper: we are free to contemplate the scene’s wider implications, to reflect on the events that have preceded it and its likely consequences.

“The organization of the complex action over a large area within a singe take is remarkable: one would call it virtuoso did not the word carry connotations of display, the technique here being self-effacing in the extreme. The staging has many of the features one thinks of as characteristically Mizoguchian. The camera position is slightly above the action, in the interests of clarity: from it, we can see not only the path and the hut, but down into the valley below.”

Wood’s synthesis of how Mizoguchi’s long-takes work (in tandem with his deft compositional eye) can help us understand why it may take more time for one to deal with his films, especially in the home setting. It’s that phrase, “we are free to contemplate the scene’s wider implications, to reflect on the events that have preceded it and its likely consequences.” However, I would argue, we are not simply free to contemplate, we are forced to contemplate, and pay attention, to the action on screen with the aid of the long take. I know that’s why I’m so enamored with Tarkovsky’s films. What I don’t know is how those films feel closer to me than these. I want to refuse the notion that it is simply because of skin-tone and ethnicity but that may be the root, no matter how much I tell my (other) friends, “I just watch movies; foreign movies don’t feel foreign to me as much as intriguing. I feel more at home watching Mirror than I do watching Manhattan—but I love both films.” That said, I also like Pirates and Superman Returns and EPIII so who knows what my problem is with calculating and articulating my somewhat tempered response to Mizoguchi, an artist I prize and admire. Perhaps it’s that temporal element.

Which is not to say initial reactions are useless. Or that one must return to films to understand them. My point is more about being open to changing one’s mind; or to recognize that one’s mind has changed over time. I think to allow that is a part of being human, and part of valuable criticism: the ability to refine and focus one’s attention to an object as well as to life. So it’s not that I feel too optimistic to appreciate the Mizoguchi films, or his world view—I believe in Zushio’s father’s teachings, too—it’s more that I feel I need some time, like Zushio. An education is never finite. I am, regrettably, a latecomer to this criticism practice, as I was to the values of a college education. And, as I’ve said before, I am willing to risk making mistakes: I think to live is to learn. And I love learning. Especially at the movies, over time.

word up,
ry.

E-mail IV: Unguarded

Ry,

I will go out on that limb with you regarding dozing off at flicks you love. My initial reaction to your theory was hell naw, that you wouldn’t accept such a rationalization regarding a lapdance or a milkshake. After a little thought, however, I realize that you’re only acknowledging your specific personal response in flux. Maybe a film that you can love and drift away from/with and allow to seep into your dreams (it happened to me watching The Lady from Shanghai once—“Michael, do you think the wooorld is coming to an end?”) is like a lover you’re comfortable with, comfortable enough to curl up beside, unguarded. Maybe the charm/attraction of some films is their calm and patience.

Wait, no “maybe”: I just saw such a film tonight, Rolf de Heer’s aborigine epic Ten Canoes. Oh, Ry, you have to see this one when it hits your town. The film is all about stories that are so ancient and embedded in the fabric of daily life that pauses, jokes, asides and detours do nothing but add to their already tensile strength. The narrator calls his stories trees. He openly teases us for our presumed impatience and coaxes us to stay with him, advising us that there is something useful even in the apparently random ethnographic scenes of tribesmen on an egg hunt or constructing canoes. Ah, man, I can’t wait to hear your take on this, the most charismatic film I’ve seen in a while.

Getting back to Mizoguchi’s trees: You were right to correct Robin Wood’s statements about what that killing scene in Ugetsu was doing to us. Wood: “The detachment with which the camera compels us to watch the action makes the emotion it evokes much less immediate and overwhelming…” Hogwash. Ry: “However, I would argue, we are not simply free to contemplate, we are forced to contemplate, and pay attention, to the action on screen with the aid of the long take.” Right on. The key to all the Mizoguchi masterpieces I saw last summer is that his restrained camera gets us ever more desperately invested in the fate of his characters. Seen on the big screen, these films are as intimate as a sonogram.

your friend,

Steve

Ryland Walker Knight and Steven Boone first met under aliases on one such film geek board. Ry said, “You got style, and smarts,” and Steve said, “You got smarts, and style.” Since then they have collaborated off and on, here and there: both on Vinyl Is Heavy and Big Media Vandalism and, of course, here, at The House Next Door.

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Maryland Film Festival 2019: The Hottest August, Donbass, & American Factory

This year’s selections exhibit a scope and ambition that should continue to draw adventurous filmgoers for years to come.

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The Hottest August
Photo: Maryland Film Festival

Judging from the enthusiasm of the surprisingly high number of New York filmmakers and critics this writer met in Baltimore this past weekend, the Maryland Film Festival isn’t seen as a pale shadow of Big Apple filmgoing. Rather, it’s a vital supplement to it—a program that compresses many of the festival season’s essential offerings into a manageable four-day run in an easily walkable city with comparatively chill crowds.

Those who made the commute to Baltimore for the festival this year had the chance to encounter one of the more trenchant New York-set films of recent memory in Brett Story’s The Hottest August, an essayistic documentary made in the intellectually vagrant spirit of Chris Marker. Shot in August of 2017 around a principle of “organized spontaneity,” per producer Danielle Varga, the film spans New York City’s five boroughs while adhering to a nebulous, difficult-to-define but nonetheless valuable objective: to take the temperature of the times we live in and tease out the collective mood of the country’s most densely populated area.

Willfully biting off more than it can chew, The Hottest August features rich people, poor people, scientists, skateboarders, entrepreneurs, intellectuals, barflies, artists, and more waxing extemporaneous on topics including climate change, economic inequality, automation, racism, and the future. The mood is off the cuff, conversational. A pair of women in lawn chairs joke about how their street’s rat population has swelled as a result of gentrifying construction in adjacent neighborhoods. Two former cops reframe the term “racism” as “resentment” in a sports bar just moments after demanding that no politics enter the hallowed space of the drinking hole. A loft-dwelling futurist pontificates on what the tax system might look like if the country embraced robotics instead of fearing it as a job killer. Occasionally we hear the filmmaker off screen, tersely prompting her subjects with open-ended questions, but mostly this is an ensemble of eager talkers, their openness running contrary to the old chestnut about closed-off New Yorkers.

Finding form in this seemingly disconnected mass is editor Nels Bangerter, who managed a similar feat with Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson. The film drifts subtly from subject to subject, pointedly using B roll not just to evocatively provide a sense of place, but to extend someone’s thought or offer counterpoint. Three streams of information exist at once: whatever opinion is being put forth by the person on screen; whatever in-the-moment perspective Story takes on her subject’s response through the questions she asks or the camera angles she chooses; and the question of how that segment ultimately interacts with the film in its final form, where images have been invested with meaning through context.

The Hottest August is a film that’s constantly “thinking,” and that thought isn’t fixed or authoritative, but rather in flux and negotiable. Story isn’t setting out to answer any pressing political issues so much as capture the tactile sense of how those issues permeate everyday settings. Hers is a form of ambient reportage that feels very welcome in our contemporary moment, when the daily barrage of information can sometimes make it difficult to recall how one felt about something two days earlier, let alone in that turbulent August of 2017.

Similarly macro in its approach is Sergei Loznitsa’s Donbass, which adopts a sprawling, vignette-driven structure as it catalogues the miseries and grotesqueries of the eponymous eastern Ukrainian territory. A region occupied by pro-Russian paramilitary forces (specifically the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics) ever since the Ukrainian Revolution in 2014, present-day Donbass is a morass of conflicting sympathies and ideologies that Loznitsa doesn’t so much seek to clarify with this film as reflect in all its muddy complexity.

In fact, Loznitsa goes so far as to call into question the very possibility of the truth of this situation he captures on camera. Whenever reporters appear on screen, they’re portrayed as ineffectual stooges waiting to be chewed out as propaganda peddlers by their political opponents, and the film’s bookending sequences, set at the trailer park of a movie set, build toward a thesis statement on the dubiousness of contemporary reporting with its tendency to stage and reframe reality according to the mandates of whatever affiliation is being placated.

Cameras, we’re repeatedly reminded by the mise-en-scène, are violators, as they merely augment the dangerous power of the person wielding them. Donbass’s most harrowing elucidation of this theme comes in a scene on a public street, where a Ukrainian loyalist, tied to a telephone pole by a pair of armed separatists, endures a humiliating beating at the hands of a growing mob of passersby, one of whom decides to record the grisly spectacle with his smartphone. As Loznitsa’s camera circles the action, the heckler’s phone presses right up into the face of the prisoner, relishing in the man’s suffering, and we get the sense that the escalation of violence may have never come to pass in quite this way were it not for the spontaneous idea to turn it into a video meme. Later, the recording gets shown to a hooting crowd of Novorossiya sympathizers at an absurdly overemphatic wedding celebration, assimilating smoothly into the atmosphere of nationalist fervor.

Donbass is fueled by such collisions between the grave and the comic, a tonal oscillation mastered by Loznitsa in his documentaries and carried over here to support a vision of a society cracking under the weight of its own inconsistencies, corruption and mob mentalities. Less tightly structured than Loznitsa’s preceding fiction work, the film adopts the immersive observation of films like Maidan and Victory Day with a more active, roving camera but a similar degree of durational endurance. In one scene, Loznitsa even seamlessly integrates an extended use of documentary language into a longer fictional setup when his camera descends into a cramped and overcrowded bomb shelter, where a local host, lit by a camera-mounted source, walks us through the destitution of those living inside. As with the later street scene, the dreariness is eventually spiked by a dash of absurdism, but the counterpunch isn’t intended to lighten the mood so much as further disorient, ultimately giving Donbass an unnerving precarity that must come somewhat near the feeling on the ground.

If these two films, content as they are to revel in ambivalence, seek to grasp the experience of the now in all its bewilderment, Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar’s American Factory takes a more committed stance on an issue that’s equally topical. Fuyao Glass America, an outgrowth of a global glass manufacturer owned by a Chinese billionaire, opened in Moraine, Ohio in the shell of a shuddered General Motors plant toward the beginning of the decade, persisted financially for years while pursuing its awkward goal of unifying Chinese and American work cultures, and then inevitably ran up against controversy in 2017 when safety concerns and low wages encouraged the local employees to vote to unionize.

American Factory charts this entire compelling history with surprising comprehensiveness: When a late scene plays out as an illicit audio recording from an employee over a black screen, it stands out for being one of the only instances when the filmmakers don’t appear to have unencumbered access. But this sprawl has its downsides. Though briskly edited and tonally varied, Reichert and Bognar’s documentary skims over the surface of some of its most fascinating threads while in pursuit of a rousing decade-long tale.

The American workers depicted in the film, disgruntled by their diminished earnings and recalling a recent past with less bureaucratic oversight, too often blend into one undistinguished mass of Midwestern homeliness, and the few individuals who do get singled out for attention—a woman living in her relative’s basement and a rancher who befriends one particular Chinese co-worker—often get neglected for long stretches of time. The Chinese are perhaps even less differentiated, their insistence on dogged work ethic and company allegiance repeatedly emphasized almost to the point of xenophobia. That Fuyao chairman Cao Dewang, who weaves through the film as an amusingly oblivious villain for its majority, eventually gets a moment to fondly reminisce on China’s pre-industrial past and contemplate his own complicity in the country’s shift to globalized capitalism comes across as penance for the film’s occasional treatment of foreigners as misguided corporate drones.

What American Factory ultimately amounts to, however, isn’t an exploration of culture clash or a penetrating depiction of rust belt dejection, but rather a rallying cry for worker solidarity (in America, if not across the globe), a message it pulls off resoundingly in the final hour. Reichert and Bognar smartly detail all the insidious ways in which corporate messengers mischaracterize unionizing as a threat to individual liberty, and the populist filmmaking vernacular they employ as the union vote nears—fluid crosscutting between different intersecting narratives, plenty of emotional close-ups, a score of almost Spielbergian grandiosity—gives the documentary a genuine shot at trafficking radical politics to a relatively wide audience. If it’s any indication of future success, American Factory was one of the most well-attended screenings I went to during my time in Baltimore, but it’s a testament to the Maryland Film Festival’s outreach that healthy crowds congregated throughout the weekend. Though modest and inviting, this year’s selections exhibit a scope and ambition that should continue to draw adventurous filmgoers for years to come.

The Maryland Film Festival ran from May 8—12.

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Downton Abbey Trailer Sees the Crawley Clan Prepping for a Royal Arrival

Kippers for breakfast, Aunt Helga? Is it St. Swithin’s Day already? No, it ain’t, dear. ‘Tis Downtown Abbey Day.

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Downton Abbey
Photo: Focus Features

Kippers for breakfast, Aunt Helga? Is it St. Swithin’s Day already? No, it ain’t, dear. ‘Tis Downton Abbey Day—that is, the release of the official trailer for the Downton Abbey movie. It’s been some three years since we’ve gotten to sip tea with the Crawley clan and hang out downstairs with the servants making sure that the biscuits are placed just right on the proper fine bone china tea set. And from the looks of the two-and-a-half-minute trailer, it would appear that nothing has changed at Downton Abbey since the series’s finale.

In the tradition of Mad Men’s episode-ending “next week on AMC’s Mad Men” teasers, it’s just a series of snappy snippets that suggest we’re in for more of the same, from Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess of Grantham snarking up a storm to Robert James-Collier’s Thomas Barrow getting his gay on. And we are here for it. The cherry on top? The king and queen are coming to Downton! And as everything must be in tip-top shape for their arrival, the Crawley’s must enlist the help of the one and only Charles Carson (Jim Carter), who is treated here with the reverence of a god, or a superhero from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Downton Abbey is directed by Michael Engler and written by Oscar- and Emmy-winning screenwriter Julian Fellowes. And in addition to the aforementioned actors, the film stars Hugh Bonneville, Laura Carmichael, Brendan Coyle, Michelle Dockery, Kevin Doyle, Joanne Froggatt, Matthew Goode, Harry Hadden-Paton, David Haig, Geraldine James, Simon Jones, Allen Leech, Phyllis Logan, Elizabeth McGovern, Sophie McShera, Tuppence Middleton, Stephen Campbell Moore, Lesley Nicol, Kate Phillips, Imelda Staunton, and Penelope Wilton.

Watch the official trailer below:

Focus Features will release Downton Abbey on September 20.

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Cannes Review: A Hidden Life Lyrically Attests to a Man’s Quest for Moral Purity

Terrence Malick’s film means to seek out souls caught in the tide of history, but which move against its current.

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A Hidden Life
Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures

With A Hidden Life, the Christian God that Terrence Malick has ordained as omnipotent in so many of his films seems, for the first time, on the verge of defeat. To Malick, the hate and devastation of the Third Reich during World War II brought not only death to the mortal body, but threatened annihilating the moral soul. No less than this weighs on Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), an Austrian farmer who risks imprisonment, and worse, by refusing to fight for Adolf Hitler in the early 1940s.

Malick makes Diehl’s conscientious objector the human center of A Hidden Life, and the bearer of its two colossal forms of internal torment: a waning fealty to country and the loss of faith in God. Franz’s path from forceful rejection of his nation’s shifting values to his questioning of the church isn’t only A Hidden Life’s most compelling through line, but also one of the few substantive deviations from Malick’s signature thematic fixations.

Franz’s crisis of faith otherwise plays out in a formal register that’s of a piece with Malick’s prior work. This is evident right away in the film’s first section, set mostly in Radegund, a small Austrian village surrounded by rolling hills and flowing streams, and throughout which the camera lingers on scythes gliding through cornfields, braying farm animals, afternoon strolls down rough-trod dirt pathways, and silken blankets of fog over acres of forest.

The imagery is predictably gorgeous, but these sequences don’t offer the sense of progression that the overtures of Malick’s films often do. The Tree of Life spirits us through the birth of a family, its children coming of age, and a world-altering tragedy, all in its first moments. In A Hidden Life, we see, via flashback, how Franz met his wife, Franzi (Valerie Pachner), with usual Malickian hushed and reverent narration accompanying the scene of the couple’s first encounter and instant infatuation. Malick then launches into a string of scenes that show Franz and Franzi in the throes of domestic bliss, but the sweeping romance of these moments grows repetitive, and for maybe the first time, the director’s form verges on the monotonous.

Malick’s working method in recent years is quicker and less precise than it used to be, an approach that’s yielded profound rewards, as most of the films are set in contemporary times and depict a fast-paced world lacking in human contact. However, A Hidden Life, being Malick’s first historical epic in over a decade, could have greatly benefited from the longer gestation period that a film like The New World was allowed.

A Hidden Life eventually moves past its unhurried opening, as Franz is thrust from his home in the foothills of Radegund, first to a German military base after he’s drafted, and later to Berlin, where he’s imprisoned and condemned to death. In these later sections, the film sees Malick working with more plot than in almost any other film he’s made, which is one change that does at least open A Hidden Life up to some unexpectedly impactful dramatic moments. Unfortunately, the need to attend to matters of plot distracts Malick from summoning the sort of grace notes that typically accumulate with such phenomenal ease across his films.

A Hidden Life is a deeply interiorized movie—a war film about the battle between one man’s mind, heart, and soul—that also functions on a more macro level. At various points, Malick cuts from the personal narrative to black-and-white archival footage, which features Berlin during the war, steam-powered trains, and Hitler in a promo reel playing with a child. Franz himself also facilitates broader implications about the world around him, and its inability to comprehend the damage caused by unmitigated hate and intolerance, through the reverberating effects of his oppression: As society ostracizes him, the intensity of his moral conviction—the refusal to comply with the German’s Oath of the Leader—is projected outward, imprinted on spaces he occupies, and on the people whom he influences.

Malick stresses this idea at various points in A Hidden Life, especially in a scene that’s bound to cause controversy: Bruno Ganz, as a high-ranking Nazi officer, conducts a one-on-one meeting with the condemned Franz, trying to understand why he believes his cause is a just one. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with humanizing an officer of the Third Reich—an earnest extension of Malick’s boundless commitment to humanism—the scene contrives moments of such earnest reflection that it verges on maudlin.

The film’s strongest section is its final stretch, which encompasses some of Malick’s most ambitious, probing, philosophical ideas since The Tree of Life. It’s also here where Malick adds another wrenching layer to Franz’s struggle, as the man must weigh the moral imperative of refusing to play a part in Germany’s conquest against the responsibilities that he will not be able to perform as a husband and father if he’s put to death. Malick renders Franz’s final months and days through the lens of the evocative, semi-surrealist Christian imagery that he employed in The Tree of Life, but that imagery—such as a door left ajar, revealing only darkness beyond—carries darker connotations here, as Franz faces his impending execution.

The first line that we hear in A Hidden Life is a telling one: “We thought we could make our nest high up in the trees.” If Malick’s art had ever offered one essential means through which to understand it, it’s that with the loftiest of beliefs and ambitions comes the greatest risk. The filmmaker’s work has often teetered on the brink of folly, and here it builds on a foundation that isn’t as sturdy as it used to be. But Malick still dares to push his moral inquiry further than he ever has before. A Hidden Life means to seek out souls caught in the tide of history, but which move against its current. It’s a quietly radical, if problematic, effort, as Malick’s baseline faith in humanity becomes uncomfortable when it resonates on the faces of soldiers throughout a Nazi war camp. But Malick owns that hire-wire risk, and when his filmmaking matches that level of commitment, as it often does here, he reaps the reward.

Cast: August Diehl, Valerie Pachner, Maria Simon, Tobias Moretti, Bruno Ganz, Matthias Schoenaerts, Karin Neuhäuser, Ulrich Matthes Director: Terrence Malick Screenwriter: Terrence Malick Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures Running Time: 174 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Rocketman Is Dynamic and Formulaic in Equal Measure

As a musical, Dexter Fletcher’s film is just fun enough to (mostly) distract us from its superficiality.

2.5

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Rocketman
Photo: Paramount Pictures

Dexter Fletcher’s Rocketman is yet another biopic about the psycho-sensual highs and lows of being a rock star. The story of Elton John’s life suggests a narrative arc that is, at this point, awfully familiar: a musically gifted boy from working-class England is inspired by the sonic freedom evoked by American rock music; his dissatisfaction with his own life propels him to great success but also makes him susceptible to the temptations of the decadent pop-star lifestyle; his drug habit ruins his personal relationships and even threatens his career; he eventually confronts his demons and stages a comeback—with his new, healthy attitude mirrored by renewed professional success. Roll titles telling us where Elton is now.

To its credit, Rocketman is at least partially aware that we’re familiar with these types of Behind the Music-style biopics. It doesn’t abandon the template, but it does toss us a colorful, energetic musical sequence whenever the protagonist’s family life or struggles with stardom threaten to get too dark. Fantastical song-and-dance scenes, built around some of Elton’s most well-known songs and enhanced by CG effects, serve to express the characters’ submerged feelings (“I Want Love”), transition between Elton’s childhood and adulthood (“Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting”), link the performative decadence of mid-‘70s glam rock to that of mid-‘70s sex (“Bennie and the Jets,” somewhat oddly), and simply offer some visually pleasing spectacle (“Crocodile Rock”). Their main effect, though, is to give the film the quality of a karaoke stage musical: Even as Elton nearly overdoses on prescription meds, we’re not here to contemplate mortality, but to enjoy some fondly remembered pop songs. As a musical, Rocketman is just fun enough to (mostly) distract us from its superficiality.

In between the musical sequences, Elton (Taron Egerton), born Reginald Dwight, is portrayed as the unhappy genius inside the sequined chicken costume. Loved insufficiently by his selfish mother (Bruce Dallas Howard) and not at all by his stiff-upper-lipped father (Steven Mackintosh), the young Reggie longs to be somewhere and someone else. It turns out that he’s almost preternaturally gifted at the piano, able to reproduce complex pieces upon hearing them once, and this gift turns out to be his ticket out of working-class London. Starting as a back-up musician for Motown artists on tour in Britain, Reggie soon breaks out on his own, inventing his new stage name by stealing the first name of one of his bandmates, and taking the last name from John Lennon—improvising the latter when he sees a photo of the Beatles hanging in the office of Dick James (Stephen Graham), head of his first record label, DJM.

Rocketman makes clear that Reggie’s adoption of a stage name is more than just marketing, as he’ll insist, later in the film, that his family also call him Elton. The invention of a new persona allows him to escape his humble origins and demeanor. As one of the Motown performers advises him in one of those programmatic lines that these sorts of films specialize in, “Kill the person you are in order to become the person you want to be.” The irony of John’s public image—the mild manner and small stature offset by flamboyant, glittering stage performances—is expanded into a Reggie/Elton dialectic in Rocketman, in which the adult Elton must eventually learn to reconcile himself with his inner child. It’s a reconciliation that will be presented in the most literal of images toward the end of the film.

At DJM, Elton is paired with lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), and the two form an instant bond. Together, they write many popular songs, some seemingly inspired by their friendship. There’s an ambiguous sexual tension between them, and the film implies that the duo’s “Your Song” may have been an outgrowth of this tension—or, at the very least, that the lonely Elton mistook it as such. Elton’s ultimately platonic friendship with Bernie is the emotional core of Rocketman, depicted as the most stable relationship of Elton’s life. (The film concludes in the ‘80s, just before the singer would meet his eventual husband, David Furnish.)

Fletcher’s film is less squeamish about Elton’s love life—including sex—than a big-budget biopic about a gay star would have been years ago—or, rather, as recent as last year. Elton has an intense and predictably doomed romance with callous music manager John Reid (Richard Madden), but what drives him to booze and drugs is a loneliness and discomfort with himself that goes beyond his marginalized sexual identity. Which is to say, the Elton John of Rocketman doesn’t fit into to the stereotype of the tragic, self-destructive gay man.

There isn’t much to Bernie and Elton’s creative process as depicted in the film. Repeatedly, Bernie shows up with lyrics, and Elton comes up with the music on the spot, as if the tunes came to him from on high. At one point, his mother claims accusatorily that everything has always been too easy for Elton, and as a viewer, one is tempted to agree. Here, Elton’s music is less the outgrowth of hard work and more on the order of religious revelation: Witness, for example, the trippy musical number in which “Crocodile Rock” makes the audience at the famous Troubadour club in Los Angeles levitate. The visually engrossing title-song sequence plays, in overblown glam-rock fashion, with Christ-like images of death and ascension.

Egerton delivers a dynamic performance as the alternatingly sullen and exuberant star, one that fits in perfectly with the film’s embrace of Elton’s loud, diamond-encrusted aesthetic. But if the musical sequences feature spirited performances and colorful mise-en-scène that are pleasurably diverting, much of what surrounds them is bound to elicit groans, from the hackneyed way the film uses minor black characters as props to legitimize its aspiring white rock star, to the one-dimensionality of every character who isn’t Elton or Bernie, to the final delivery of a complacent moral. As a vision Elton has of his beloved grandmother (Gemma Jones) tells him during his stint in rehab, “You write songs millions of people love, and that’s what’s important.” Is it, though? This seems less like a reassurance for a character in the grips of addiction, and more like a reassurance to the audience that they matter.

Cast: Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, Gemma Jones, Bryce Dallas Howard, Steven Mackintosh Director: Dexter Fletcher Screenwriter: Lee Hall Distributor: Paramount Pictures Running Time: 121 min Rating: R Year: 2019 Buy: Video

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Cannes Review: In Pain and Glory, Life and Art Are Wistful Bedfellows

Pedro Almodóvar’s latest only occasionally captures the spry, comedic rhythms and impassioned intensity of his finest work.

2.5

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Pain and Glory
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

A film about an aging artist struggling to recapture his yen for creation, Pain and Glory has the makings of a deeply personal, career-capping work for Pedro Almodóvar. His name may be Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas), but the gay filmmaker, with his tussled hair, white beard, and red turtleneck, may as well call himself Pedro. One of the very few differences between them is that Salvador has stopped making films while Almodóvar continues to work at a relatively steady clip. Pain and Glory is a ballsy admission on the Spanish auteur’s part that he hasn’t made a film in more than a decade that can compare with his most outrageous and subversive output, which makes it all the more dispiriting that his latest only occasionally captures the spry, comedic rhythms and impassioned, melodramatic intensity that defined, say, Law of Desire, Matador, and Bad Education.

Pain and Glory is most surprising at the outset, as the stern narration that we’ve come to expect from an Almodóvar film is audaciously paired with CG graphics and abstract animations that illustrate Salvador’s anatomical and psychosomatic conditions. The man suffers from tinnitus, chronic back pain, severe headaches, anxiety, depression, and various other ailments. It’s a literally visceral way to begin a film that soon settles into the more familiar pattern of a two-track narrative: There’s Salvador in the present, who works toward repairing a friendship with the heroin-addicted star, Alberto (Asier Etxeandia), of his recently restored and most celebrated film, Subor, and there’s Salvador as a young boy (Asier Flores), preternaturally intelligent and perpetually optimistic, living in poverty with his ever-harried mother, Jacinta (Penélope Cruz), until he’s finally sent off to a seminary.

Perhaps all of this might have landed with a little more impact if Almodóvar hadn’t already covered so much of the same territory in Bad Education, which also centers itself around a film director’s relationship with an actor and tells the story of a young altar boy’s life, much of it spent at a seminary, through a series of flashbacks. Another rehash of a nearly identical plot point from that 2004 film is Pain and Glory’s intriguing meta conceit: Alberto convinces Salvador to let him perform a one-man stage adaptation of a monologue the former wrote long ago, an obvious nod to Almodóvar’s longtime collaborator, Banderas, playing a version of the filmmaker here. Pain and Glory is, in fact, defined by its abundance of conspicuously placed Easter eggs. Even in the scenes between the present-day Salvador and his dying mother (Julietta Serrano), namely the moment she tells him not to make films about her, Almodóvar points to the personal turmoil that led to the making of All About My Mother.

Putting aside the boldness of the sequences that kick Pain and Glory into motion, Almodóvar’s formal approach is generally subdued and disciplined throughout. His screenplay is also quite neat in its structure, relating its two plotlines in almost stubbornly linear fashion, reliably hitting standard narrative beats of interpersonal conflict and reconciliation. Almodóvar wouldn’t be the first filmmaker in the history of cinema to mellow with age, and there’s a sense that Pain and Glory’s artistry is a reflection of that trajectory, but that only makes the too-fleeting snapshots of Salvador’s hard-scrabble early years—which includes living inside a white cave with Jacinta and other migrants—feel as if they never transcend easy nostalgia.

Still, Almodóvar’s singular use of color as a barometer of characters’ interiorities and the emotional temperature of a scene remains on vibrant display throughout Pain and Glory. There’s also some wonderful comic repartee between the disheveled Banderas, so exquisitely committed to imparting a sense of his character’s almost ghostly status, and the perpetually bug-eyed Etxeandia. Alberto, upon reuniting with Salvador, almost immediately introduces him to heroin, and, improbably, the way in which they bond through their horrible addiction results in some of the funniest scenes in an Almodóvar film in some time.

It’s another reunion, though, between Salvador and Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), an ex-lover he hasn’t seen since the ‘80s, that finds Almodóvar delivering on the heightened promise of the film’s title. The men are brought back together through an absurd coincidence, after Federico wanders into the performance of Salvador’s play and recognizes that his life has been incorporated into the monologue, but the scene thrums with that distinctly magnetic force of love that’s fundamental to Almodóvar’s best work. Also, the actual moment of Salvador and Federico’s reunion is a gracefully staged dance of advance and retreat, beginning with a late-night conversation at Salvador’s apartment that never leaves the common area. Finally, after an intense kiss, Federico departs, and though he invites Salvador to come visit him and his family, both men seem to implicitly realize that they’ll never see each other again.

Salvador and Federico’s meeting unfolds almost in real time, and touches on their shared past, the lives they lived in the interim, and how much they’ve always meant to each other. The scene recalls other intense emotional meetings in prior Almodóvar films, but more than that, in its duration and focus, it seems drawn from more contemporary inspirations: Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, the final stretch of Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, even “Looking for the Future,” the finest episode of Andrew Haigh’s Looking. It also arguably packs even more of an expressive force than any of those works, and serves as a reminder that, however much Almodóvar’s formalist bona fides may have cooled, his ability to craft emotionally acute, achingly felt scenes between men in the throes of love is as vigorous as ever.

Cast: Antonio Banderas, Asier Etxeandia, Penélope Cruz, Leonardo Sbaraglia, Nora Navas, Julieta Serrano, César Vicente, Asier Flores, Julieta Serrano Director: Pedro Almodóvar Screenwriter: Pedro Almodóvar Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 113 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Cannes Review: Joan of Arc Never Coalesces into a Fully Rounded Character Study

Bruno Dumont seems perpetually aware of the trap of familiarity, which may be why he indulges in some of his most inscrutable filmmaking.

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Joan of Arc
Photo: 3P Productions

Bruno Dumont’s Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc may not have earned the French filmmaker many new fans, but it did serve to further his apparent embrace of a more mirthful directorial approach. As radical as any film that the New French Extremity-adjacent auteur has made, Jeanette is also unexpectedly accessible: a full-blown pop-rock musical in which a preteen Joan of Arc frets over her God-given mission to save France during the Hundred Years’ War, all the while head-banging to heavy metal music.

Dumont’s follow-up, Joan of Arc, now takes on the task of covering the “adult” years of the martyred saint, from her waning days as a warlord to her trial and inevitable execution for heresy. And while it’s almost as surprising as its predecessor, it’s considerably less exhilarating. Whereas the latter half of Jeanette, following a time jump, replaced child actor Lise Leplat Prudhomme with the teenaged Jeanne Voisin, the now 10-year-old Prudhomme has been reinstated in the title role here as the 19-year-old Joan. Right away, this recalibration is extremely dissonant, and it’s one that Dumont exploits particularly well in the lengthy scenes depicting Joan’s trial, during which she’s lectured and berated—like the child that she physically is—by misogynistic, condescending “graduates of theology.”

Much less easy to parse, in terms of intentionality and of classification, is the film’s proximity to the musical genre. An early scene features a suite of songs—sung theatrically by French indie-pop group Kid Wise’s Augustin Charnet—that play over a series of stoical tableaux shots of Prudhumme’s armor-clad Joan, looking pensively into the camera. Dumont briefly seems to be up to something rather brilliant here, reconfiguring the musical tropes of his Joan of Arc saga as a means to manifest the “voices” that the Joan of historical record claimed she heard in her head. But that interpretation gets ever more foggy as the filmmaker goes on to present various musical-esque scenes, but in fractured and recontexualized forms. The most jarring example of this is a lengthy, wordless interlude that features a battalion of soldiers on horseback moving in elaborate patterns, dance-like, a sequence which Dumont shoots in a way that recalls Busby Berkley musicals, with shots from above of the choreographed horses.

At least one aesthetic decision carries over from Jeanette: Only a handful of sets are used in Joan of Arc, and each change usually heralds a major shift in Joan’s lived experience, from battle to trial to imprisonment. (The film’s first third is largely adapted from French Catholic poet Charles Péguy’s play Les Batailles, while the remainder, almost entirely concerned with Joan’s trial and punishment, is based on another Péguy work, Rouen.) However, whereas Jeanette mostly limited itself to exterior shots of the idyllic French countryside, the contrasts in Joan of Arc are striking: The film moves from its opening passage, set amid cascading dunes, to the clean, vertiginous, and imposing interior space of the Royal Chapel, a place that serves to decisively dwarf an already diminutive Joan.

It’s in the pristine halls of the Royal Chapel that ornately dressed men of aristocratic pedigree and high authority—each drolly introduced in a kind of roll call—gather and almost instantly turn into savages, indiscriminately lobbing insults and explicating their own intolerance with unfeeling displays of intellectualized theological reasoning. Naturally, Joan retaliates, steadfastly refusing to disavow her devotion to her own spiritual dogma.

The best part of these trial scenes, and of Joan of Arc in general, is Prudhomme, who, despite her age, gives an extraordinarily committed, and convincing, performance as the teenaged Joan. The cinema is filled with iconic portrayals of the Maid of Orléans, but Prudhomme fully deserves a place among those. It’s a pity, then, that Dumont’s film doesn’t really manage to find many new dimensions to the Joan of Arc mythos—apart from its one inspired casting choice. The filmmaker’s effort to tap into the currents of modernity that run through this centuries-old story can be traced back through film history, at least as far as Robert Bresson’s The Trial of Joan of Arc, if not to Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc—which is, of course, predicated on the particular presentation of the cinematic image.

Dumont does, at least, seem perpetually aware of the trap of familiarity, which may be why he indulges in some of his most inscrutable filmmaking—the aforementioned horse dance, and a musical cameo from the film’s composer, French popstar Christophe—and attempts subtle gestures of subversion. Take the final shot of Joan of Arc, which is not unlike the last act of grace and salvation (and blatant homage to Robert Bresson’s Mouchette) that concludes 2010’s Hadewijch. Here, the instantly recognizable composition from the Dreyer film—for which Bresson infamously voiced his distaste—is rejected twofold, as Dumont shoots Joan’s fatal immolation in profile, and from a considerable distance.

Joan of Arc, though, has bigger problems than an over familiarity with its source, as its themes and dynamics also recall other, stronger Dumont films. The articulation of interiority through stylized visualizations of the adolescent Joan is audacious and intriguing, but its philosophical meaning isn’t nearly as fleshed out, nor as emotionally accessible, as the transformation undergone by a devout young woman into a radicalized religious extremist in Hadewijch. And the psychological understanding of Joan—the process of her victimization—isn’t as acute, nor as visceral, as Dumont’s similar biopic on institutionalized sculptor Camille Claudel. Joan of Arc can’t even claim to have the same conceptual rigor that ignited Jeanette—all of which amounts to a film that feels like a nexus point for Dumont’s influences and his preoccupations, but one that never coalesces its potential into the major work it clearly strives to be.

Cast: Lise Leplat Prudhomme, Jean-François Causeret, Daniel Dienne, Fabien Fenet, Robert Hanicotte, Yves Habert, Fabrice Luchini, Christophe Director: Bruno Dumont Screenwriter: Bruno Dumont Running Time: 138 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Cannes Review: Zombi Child Radically Grapples with Colonialism’s Legacy

Bertrand Bonello’s quixotic, slow-burn genre film is political largely in the abstract.

3.5

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Zombi Child
Photo: Arte France Cinéma

Restlessly shuttling between 1960s Haiti and present-day France, Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child roils with colonialist tensions. But as with the director’s prior Nocturama, this quixotic, slow-burn genre film is political largely in the abstract. While there are moments here where a history of exploitation informs the relationship between the French, lily-white Fanny (Louise Labeque) and Haitian refugee Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat)—classmates at an all-girls school established by Napoleon Bonaparte—Bonello’s interests go much deeper then race relations. Indeed, the decision to switch back and forth between Mélissa and Fanny’s perspectives in the film’s present-day scenes opens the story up to a more complex examination of how the girls view and relate to their own heritage and culture.

Not unlike Bonello’s House of Pleasures, which in its final moments made a jarring jump from a brothel in the early 20th century to modern-day Paris and prostitutes working a city street, Zombi Child explores the factors that have allowed a social practice, voodoo, to become a constant of history. Mélissa’s aunt, Katy (Katiana Milfort), is a “mambo,” or voodoo priestess, and she’s the only surviving member of Mélissa’s family in the wake of Haiti’s 2010 earthquake. Mélissa is drawn to Fanny because the two share an affinity for Stephen King and horror fiction, and as they get closer, Fanny facilitates Mélissa’s initiation into her tight-knit “literary sorority.” But after this act of bonding, the young women begin to move in opposite directions: Mélissa makes an effort to fit into the sorority, singing along to angry French rap when she’d rather be listening to music sung in her native Créole language, while Fanny, reeling from her sudden breakup with her long distance lover, Pablo (Sayyid El Alami), discreetly digs into Mélissa’s past and decides to use voodoo as a remedy for her heartbreak.

The other half of the film’s time-jumping narrative concerns Fanny’s grandfather, Clairvius (Mackenson Bijou), who, in 1962, becomes the victim of a voodoo curse that puts him in an early grave and results in the reanimation of his corpse and him having to perform manual plantation labor in a perpetually “zombified” state. Throughout this section of Zombi Child, Bonello fractures the spatial and temporal coherence of scenes, stringing together elemental, horror movie-adjacent visuals, like the recurring image of an iridescent moon shrouded in clouds and first-person perspective shots that careen through dense sugarcane fields. A clear contrast is established early on between the perpetually dark Haitian landscape and the antiseptic, white-walled interiors of the classrooms in which Fanny and Mélissa are lectured by professors spouting one-sided lessons on world history. But just as its racial politics start to seem too explicit, Zombi Child suddenly and radically reframes itself.

Clairvius’s death turns out to have been the consequence of familial jealousy, and his exploitation as a slave comes at the hands of black plantation farmers, not white men—at least not that we’re made aware of. And if the film is rendered with a veracity that a documentarian would envy, that’s a result of Bonello drawing inspiration from accounts of Haitian slaves being put in medically induced states of “zombification” during the early 20th century. This has the effect of recasting a supernatural fiction narrative as reconstructed history.

Bonello also never gives us the racially charged confrontation that Mélissa and Fanny’s relationship seems to be building toward, as he’s interested in their racial backgrounds only insofar as it shapes their modes of self-identification. Fanny’s refusal to accept her life in the present sets her on a collision course with the forces of Mélissa’s ancestry, and leads to a cataclysm of psychological horror that sees one of these forces to take possession over the other—an undead history rising up to claim a living one. Mélissa, though, draws her identity from her past and her present, and in the same moment that Fanny has her communion with the spiritual forces of voodoo, Mélissa delivers an aural history on the subject—a kind of counter-lecture to those of the white, blowhard professors in Zombi Child.

The film’s off-kilter mix of horror, historiography, and youth movie affords Bonello plenty of opportunity to indulge his pet themes and motifs. He spends much time lingering throughout scenes set at the academy on the sociality of the young women and their engagement with pop culture (notably, Mélissa gives a presentation to her class on Rihanna). In fact, Bonello’s fascination with the dynamics of these relationships seems to drive his interest in the horror genre more so even than the film’s most obvious antecedent, Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie—as is indicated by a pretty explicit homage to Brian De Palma’s Carrie.

The film’s most intriguing facet, though, is the way Bonello plays with temporality. The dialectical relationship between past and present has become a central organizing principle of Bonello’s artistry, evident in his anachronistic soundtrack choices and his unmooring of characters from their period settings through decidedly modern behaviors or situations, but here he approaches that dialectic in a crucially different manner. Instead of overlaying modern-day signifiers on a period piece setting, as he did in House of Pleasures, Zombi Child suggests two temporalities that exist parallel to each other. And the anxiety this creates—through discursive editing and match cuts—leads to a feverish payoff, one that uses genre and supernatural elements to further Bonello’s idea of there being one historical continuity.

Cast: Adilé David, Ginite Popote, Louise Labeque, Mackenson Bijou, Mathilde Riu, Ninon François, Patrick Boucheron, Saadia Bentaïeb, Sayyid El Alami, Wislanda Louimat, Katiana Milfort Director: Bertrand Bonello Screenwriter: Bertrand Bonello Running Time: 103 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: In Diamantino, Strident Political Satire and Whimsy Go Toe to Toe

The film is at its strongest when depicting how Diamantino becomes a tool of politicians hoping to oust Portugal from the EU.

2.5

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Diamantino
Photo: Kino Lorber

Part absurdist character study, part satire of various European political crises, Diamantino envisions a Candide-like soccer megastar, Diamantino Matamouros (Carloto Cotta), possessed of naïve but intense imaginations. He lives in a colossal chateau and sleeps on pillows and sheets with his face printed on them, and spends much of his waking life riding the seas on a yacht that’s big enough to ferry a small army. Despite being arguably the most famous person in Portugal, and among the most famous in the world, he’s oblivious to his star power and the weighty expectations placed on him by soccer fans.

Throughout the film, writer-directors Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt delight in playing up the precarious balance between Diamantino’s self-absorption and his sweet absent-mindedness. Unencumbered by an entourage, Diamantino rarely interacts with anyone besides his loving, supportive father, Chico (Chico Chapas), whose humble kindness is rather jarring when set against the palatial trappings of the family’s digs. Even on the soccer pitch, Diamantino doesn’t exude the focus one associates with an elite athlete, as he spends matches fantasizing about running with colossal, fluffy puppies—playful daydreams that somehow guide his movements as he slips past other players and scores goals.

Diamantino’s carefree, seemingly unflappable temperament, however, is disrupted when he spots a raft of refugees while boating, and his glimpse at real human misery shakes him to the core—so much so that during a make-or-break penalty kick that will decide the World Cup final, he’s too distracted to make the shot, costing Portugal the match. The film’s manic tone swings into overdrive at this point, as Diamantino’s daydreams of haunted refugees are contrasted with his tear-streaked face when it’s blown up on jumbotrons, effectively positioning him as a symbol of his country’s spectacular defeat. And all the while his evil twin sisters (Anabela Moreira and Margarida Moreira) scream at the television set playing the game inside the family’s living room, causing Chico to have a fatal stroke.

This delirious sequence, touching on a celebrity’s political preoccupation and viral media culture, exhibits an audaciousness that’s disappeared from much contemporary comedy, and it sets the tone for the film’s freewheeling style. Humiliated into early retirement, Diamantino announces his embrace of the sort of celebrity activism that regularly comes in for ridicule, declaring that he will adopt a refugee child to honor both the humanitarian crisis and his late father. The Portuguese secret service, already investigating him for suspected money laundering, uses Diamantino’s proclamation to set up an undercover agent, Aisha (Cleo Tavares), to pose as a Cape Verdean refugee child, Rahim, in order to get into his house to gather clues for their case. And while Aisha only finds hilarious evidence of the player’s innocence (his computer files consist of nothing but pet photos), she continues her ruse, if only for the filmmakers to add yet another wrinkle—a lesbian relationship with her colleague, Lucia (Maria Leite)—to the film’s already dense array of plots and themes.

Aisha and Lucia’s presence in Diamantino may turn the dial up on the film’s hijinks, but in the process stalls its satirical thrust. To be sure, the film wrings much humor from Aisha’s infiltration of Diamantino’s home, mostly from how quickly she discovers that his innocence is beyond a doubt and that his cruel sisters are comically guilty, as they keep their offshore accounts on a desktop shortcut. Diamantino’s interactions with Aisha are amusing insofar as Cotta commits fully to his character’s over-eager treatment of “Rahim,” serving his adopted child breakfast in bed and getting into tickle fights that underscore the man’s emotional stuntedness. Yet these moments soon come to feel redundant, leaning too much on Lucia’s petulant anger for comic effect as Aisha grows increasingly close to Diamantino.

That Diamantino and Aisha’s relationship comes to define the last act of the film ultimately detracts from the riotous vision that Abrantes and Schmidt sketch of roiling EU tensions and the way celebrity culture can be just another element in the viral branding of extreme politics. Diamantino is on its strongest footing when depicting how its main character becomes a tool of politicians hoping to oust Portugal from the EU. One scene sees him starring in “Pexit” commercial as a folk hero from the Reconquista, during which Muslims were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula. The right-wing politicians who fund the ad clearly pledge allegiance to the historical figure’s Islamophobia, though it’s also obvious that they hope that the pleasure Diamantino takes in dancing around in his costume will undercut that impression.

Elsewhere, Diamantino is used as a lab rat for a company that attempts to clone him in order to produce the world’s best soccer team. This stretch finds the film at its most profound, in part because it’s impossible to believe that scientists and supercomputers fail to fathom how a man who lives on an all-sugar diet and daydreams about puppies on the pitch could be the world’s best athlete. The filmmakers draw a line between the absurdity of these experiments and the insidious quest for racial purity behind most eugenics movements, suggesting that neo-fascists are so prone to celebrity worship that they might mistake their favorite star for the master race. It’s rich, relevant material for satire, so it’s a shame that the film pivots away from it to resolve around Diamantino’s relatively straightforward pursuit of happiness.

Cast: Carloto Cotta, Cleo Tavares, Anabela Moreira, Margarida Moreira, Carla Maciel, Chico Chapas, Maria Leite, Filipe Vargas, Joana Barrios Director: Gabriel Abrantes, Daniel Schmidt Screenwriter: Gabriel Abrantes, Daniel Schmidt Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 96 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: The Tomorrow Man Gets Too Caught Up in Its Pursuit of Preciousness

The film is content to peddle the naïve notion that love is the panacea for all that ails you.

2

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The Tomorrow Man
Photo: Bleecker Street

The retired recluse at the center of writer-director Noble Jones’s The Tomorrow Man spends his days intensely preparing for the apocalypse. When Ed Hemsler (John Lithgow) isn’t meticulously organizing his home and secret fallout shelter, he’s posting conspiracy theories on an internet forum or glued to the local news. At least, that is, until a female news anchor (Wendy Makkena) starts to directly address him, at which point he turns off his television and tries to get his head straight. But Ed can’t really seem to find a way of easing his troubled mind. Indeed, even after engaging in extended human contact via phone conversations with his son, Brian (Derek Cecil), the old man inevitably launches into diatribes packed with half-baked ideas and comprehensive survival advice.

You’d be correct in thinking that Ed sounds a lot like Michael Shannon’s Curtis from Take Shelter, and for a short time, he follows a similar trajectory. But where Jeff Nichols’s film thrives in the ambiguous space between objective reality and the mind of its strange yet plausibly prescient protagonist, The Tomorrow Man never gives credence to any of Ed’s protestations of doom and gloom, seeing them as symptoms of his loneliness and isolation. And while his extreme paranoia is unmistakably a form of mental illness, Jones increasingly treats it with less and less concern as the film moves forward, instead using it as fodder for both quirky comedy and the catalyst for a light-hearted septuagenarian romance.

Enter Ronnie (Blythe Danner), the beautiful but equally socially awkward woman whom Ed meets while stocking up on supplies at the local grocery store. Her subtly twitchy awkwardness serves as the perfect balance to Ed’s boisterous neuroticism; her steadfast use of cash and strategic purchasing leads Ed to believe that he’s found a kindred spirit, one who’s equally prepped for the end of the world. Naturally, there’s a catch, and the ever-fastidious Ed eventually discovers Ronnie’s deep, dark secret: that she’s a hoarder.

It’s a fairly ridiculous odd-couple scenario, but when Jones keeps things small and focuses on Ed and Ronnie’s burgeoning love affair and Ronnie’s clumsy efforts at tempering Ed’s cantankerousness, Lithgow and Danner imbue the film with a warmth and generosity that lends their characters a bit of humanity. The two actors’ effortlessly charming rapport enlivens, at least in brief spurts, a film that otherwise reduces its characters to their eccentricities, from her love of war documentaries to his appreciation of ball bearings.

But The Tomorrow Man displays an utter lack of interest in exploring how Ed and Ronnie came to be so reclusive. Following their initial meet cute, the film gets caught up in its pursuit of preciousness. And Jones’s indifference to the more disturbing elements of his characters’ interior worlds effectively reduces serious mental health issues to harmless neuroses. Late into The Tomorrow Man, Ed takes to the message boards to post that “sometimes people need to be who they are even if they don’t want to be who they are.” It’s a sentiment of acceptance that’s hard to argue against, but one that ignores the fact that Ed and Ronnie are in dire need of psychiatric help. And that’s because Jones is content to peddle the naïve notion that, regardless of your situation, love is the panacea for all that ails you.

Cast: John Lithgow, Blythe Danner, Derek Cecil, Katie Aselton, Sophie Thatcher, Eve Harlow, Wendy Makkena Director: Noble Jones Screenwriter: Noble Jones Distributor: Bleecker Street Running Time: 94 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Cannes Review: The Dead Don’t Die Is Undone by its Meta-Film Aspirations

In Jim Jarmusch’s film, what starts as a subtle undercurrent of knowing humor curdles into overt self-referentiality.

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Dead Don't Die
Photo: Focus Features

Jim Jarmusch’s strength has always been his ability to craft films that seem lackadaisical and navel-gazing on the surface, but which are actually very methodical, revealing essential truths about the socioeconomic conditions of modern American life. The filmmaker’s latest, The Dead Don’t Die, zips through vignettes set in the small town of Centerville in the days leading up to the zombie apocalypse, and for an hour-plus, the film is sharp, acerbic, and surprisingly melancholic, probing at the generational divides between its characters, who behave in vastly different ways throughout the end of days.

Eventually, however, and perhaps because Jarmusch senses that his trademark deadpan doesn’t have the same novel appeal that it once did, what starts as a subtle undercurrent of knowing humor curdles into overt self-referentiality. It’s not so much a snapping-into-focus as a whiplash-inducing lurch into meta-film territory that Jarmusch doesn’t seem to realize is already a very stale play for this genre of film.

Or maybe he just doesn’t care. There’s much evidence here to suggest that Jarmusch’s prime interest in making a zombie movie is to emphasize the soul-deadening state of America, maybe even the world. So when the film’s zombies roam around murmuring the names of the products they consumed when they were alive (Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, coffee, and so on), writing this all off as a lame literalization of the most prevalent theme from George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead isn’t so much a scathing critique of his approach as a confirmation of the message he’s imparting: that our culture is nothing but a zombified version of itself.

The Dead Don’t Die is at its best when mulling the contours of the relationships between the cross-generational cast of characters. Neither Cliff (Bill Murray), the resigned, veteran cop, nor Ronnie (Adam Driver), his self-aware but generally unfeeling rookie partner, are particularly well drawn in and of themselves, but their repartee makes them interesting, as Cliff’s air of wisdom and experience dissipates when he finally realizes that Ronnie understands the rules of their genre-inflected universe better than he ever will, and Ronnie, all stoical resolve, is unable to process Cliff’s sobering, earnest emotional outbursts.

The Venn diagram of all things Jarmuschian and all things Lynchian has always shown a significant bit of overlap, but in working with an ensemble cast that throws together longtime collaborators with a gallery of fresh faces—all populating a mosaic of small-town life that’s pervaded by ethereal dread—Jarmusch mounts something akin to his own Twin Peaks: The Return. The greatest affinity between The Dead Don’t Die and David Lynch’s series, though, is the shared interest in investigating how a younger generation can assimilate into the filmmakers’ highly idiosyncratic styles and affect the tenor of their worldviews.

To that end, The Dead Don’t Die feels most poignant when it threads the experience of its various characters and exerts a kind of equalizing force over them. The best example of this, and also something like the film’s philosophical lodestone, is the eponymous country theme song, recorded by Sturgill Simpson and played in various contexts throughout. The song’s ingratiating, hummable melody eventually illuminates how art can have disparate effects on audiences. For the carefree hipster played by Selena Gomez, the tune is an outlet for escape as she drives through the countryside. But it becomes downright oppressive when Cliff gets sick of Ronnie playing it in their police car and chucks the CD out the window.

That range of response is also reflected in the overall trajectory of the film, which begins in a register of playful irreverence—even as characters spout pronouncements of environmental disaster wrought by fracking, or ponder what kind of creature may have mauled two women found dead at a diner—before gradually succumbing to its anger. That isn’t inherently bad, of course, but the film’s dreary, didactic denouement proves that Jarmusch is unable to translate his righteous fury at the state of the world into a cinematic statement as compelling, creative, or weird as The Dead Don’t Die manages to be when it’s simply content to be a hangout movie that just so happens to be set during the zombie apocalypse.

Cast: Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton, Chloë Sevigny, Danny Glover, Caleb Landry Jones, Selena Gomez, Austin Butler, Luka Sabbat, Rosie Perez, Eszter Balint, Iggy Pop, Sara Driver, RZA, Carol Kane, Larry Fessenden, Tom Waits Director: Jim Jarmusch Screenwriter: Jim Jarmusch Distributor: Focus Features Running Time: 103 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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