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Tribeca Film Festival Review: Flames

Flames grows tougher, weirder, and more ambiguous, casting much of its early cuteness in a starker light.

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Tribeca Film Festival Review: Flames
Photo: Tribeca Film Festival

Early in Flames, we see the film’s co-writers, co-editors, co-directors, and co-stars, Zefrey Throwell and Josephine Decker, in the first of many compromising positions. Decker’s hanging off a bed upside down and naked, while Throwell, standing right-side up, has comically unglamorous sex with her, his pumping ass facing the camera while they both laugh. We’re seeing a real side of sex that Joe Swanberg explored in his early films but that’s not often acknowledged by cinema (which usually offers erotic and romantic titillation that’s self-seriously sanitized): its potentialities as a hang-out activity, when one’s grown so comfortable with a partner that self-consciousness eases and pleasure deepens. Knowledge that one doesn’t have to elicit an orgasm per minute from their partner is freedom—a step toward lovers allowing themselves to be human in one another’s company.

This intimacy, however, is partially an illusion. Throwell and Decker never entirely lower their guard, as they’re obviously aware that a camera is in the room with them. Flames was shot on and off over a period of several years as an experiment in creating an in-the-moment account of a relationship. As Throwell and Decker say in couple’s therapy near the end of the film, that aspiration almost certainly doomed their romance, because neither of them could be sure of what’s “real,” though one also assumes that that was the point of their relationship. Throwell doesn’t know when Decker is authentically confiding in him or when she’s playing to the camera, and vice versa, or even if there’s an importance to this distinction. Compounding this insecurity is the fact that Throwell and Decker are both performance artists, living perpetually in a blur of life and art, and that Decker becomes an acclaimed filmmaker and actress over the course of shooting Flames.

The film is one of those documentaries that’s intended to eat itself alive, then, seeking to mine the clarifying truth that paradoxically arises from its failure to achieve unvarnished objectivity, which doesn’t exist. This is an increasingly common kind of modern nonfiction film, embodied by Kate Plays Christine, which serves as a logical and intuitive outgrowth of our society of media surveillance. People want to be seen, as we commoditize visibility in an age in which everyone’s visible, which also serves as an incessant reminder of our collective, inherent ordinariness. Though pop culture also abounds in compensating martyr tales that assert our specialness, refuting the aforementioned evidence to the contrary. This stew of conflicting implications inspires a cultural whiplash that’s a breeding ground for estrangement and insecurity, leading to lives spent as voyeurs witnessing other lives that appear to satisfy the impossibly inchoate standards we’ve set for ourselves. This atmosphere has understandably imperiled any idea of “truth”—an instability with which our most ambitious and sensitive young filmmakers are in tune.

Flames can’t decide whether it’s a document of a relationship or a performative stunt intended to highlight the inherent narcissism of new romance, and this indecision has been consciously captured by Throwell and Decker. This mixture of intentionality and spontaneity is head-spinning, and conjures a barely controlled and intensely figurative chaos. The film’s most evocative and ambiguous moments suggest that all romance is performance art, even if staged for an audience of two. Throwell and Decker dare you to find them rarefied and precious, as they’re hip and attractive artists in New York City who can apparently afford to go to the Maldives on a whim so as to prove something about their relationship to themselves. Early in the film, we see them playing with sock puppets as they lay under the covers naked in bed, enacting a broad sex sketch in which Throwell is a stereotypically randy Frenchman. Such moments are poignant and insufferable in a manner that’s truthful to obsequious couples in the thrall of self-love.

Near its midway point, Flames grows tougher, weirder, and more ambiguous, casting much of its early cuteness in a starker light. Throwell and Decker are riding high until their relationship curdles off screen, and a flash forward shows the filmmakers a few years later, watching this footage, which they’re editing into the film we’re watching, commenting on events that we’ve yet to see. The cause of the couple’s dissolution is mysterious to them but may be more explicable to their audience. Based on the footage we see, Throwell and Decker are drawn to emotional extremes in the tradition of many artists, and appear incapable of experiencing simple and behaviorally unadorned moments, as every gesture must be grand, tragic, and their version of fascinating. Throwell and Decker appear incapable of unceremoniously inhabiting space, and their relationship collapses under the subsequent strain, though there’s also a profound sense of none of this is being real anyway. Ironically, the scenes in which the directors question the reality of their relationship seem more staged than any other moments in the film. Hyper-reality has a way of looking false, as we’re conditioned to think of “realism” in terms of smoothly modulated fiction.

As with many experimental nonfiction films, it’s beside the point to fact-check Flames, despite the pretense that Throwell and Decker make of doing just that. Reality becomes so muddy here that we’re left with a sensorial tapestry of vividly rendered scenes, anecdotes, and grace notes. The film’s second half dives deep into Throwell and Decker’s respective performance arts, which finds them getting lost again, disoriented from the boundary between fact and myth. A performance piece in which Throwell, Decker, and friends play strip poker on display for passersby in New York City culminates in an unforgettable image of Decker, naked except for a gecko mask, pressing against the glass window of the room, feeling exploited, and rebelling against Throwell and her snapshot-taking audience. In another piece, Throwell crawls along the streets of NYC, possibly in a gesture of self-laceration.

Stylistically, Flames bears a great resemblance to Decker’s other films, reveling in an unhinged and musical rhythm that suggests the work of Terrence Malick, with an object-centric hardness that’s reminiscent of the cinema of Chris Marker and Robert Greene. Decker’s formalism is extremely and sensually textural, emphasizing micro minutiae, fluidly alternating between wide landscapes and close-ups of faces, fingers, feet, and architecture and furniture that’s imbued with symbolic emotional force, such as a concrete table and chair set in which the table has been knocked over. But for all of her influences, Decker has one of the most personal and recognizable aesthetics in contemporary cinema, an aesthetic that defies description, an expansive sense of staging that flirts with a true merging of stream-of-consciousness with pop. Flames exhilaratingly reveals a portion of this sensibility’s birth, in which notions of self and society and reality and illusion become indistinguishable, achieving a purity of resonant mystery.

The Tribeca Film Festival runs from April 19—30.

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Awards

Oscars 2019: Who Will Win? Who Should Win? Our Final Predictions

No one is okay with the Academy Awards the way they are, and everyone seems sure that they know how to fix them.

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Roma
Photo: Netflix

No one is okay with the Academy Awards the way they are, and everyone seems sure that they know how to fix them. Cut out the montages, bring back honorary award presentations, give stunt performers their own category, let ranked-choice voting determine every category and not just best picture, overhaul the membership ranks, hold the event before the guilds spoil the surprise, find a host with the magic demographic-spanning mojo necessary to double the show’s recent audience pools, nominate bigger hits, nominate only hits. Across the last 24 days, Ed Gonzalez and I have mulled over the academy’s existential crisis and how it’s polluted this year’s Oscar race so thoroughly that it feels eerily similar to the 2016 election cycle all over again. We’re spent, and while we don’t know if we have it in us to do this next year, we just might give it another go if Oscar proves us wrong on Sunday in more than just one category.

Below are our final Oscar predictions. Want more? Click on the individual articles for our justifications and more, including who we think should win in all 24 categories.

Picture: Green Book
Director: Alfonso Cuarón, Roma
Actor: Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody
Actress: Glenn Close, The Wife
Supporting Actor: Mahershala Ali, Green Book
Supporting Actress: Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk
Original Screenplay: Green Book
Adapted Screenplay: BlacKkKlansman
Foreign Language: Roma
Documentary Feature: RBG
Animated Feature Film: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Documentary Short: Period. End of Sentence
Animated Short: Weekends
Live Action Short: Skin
Film Editing: Bohemian Rhapsody
Production Design: The Favourite
Cinematography: Cold War
Costume Design: The Favourite
Makeup and Hairstyling: Vice
Score: If Beale Street Could Talk
Song: “Shallow,” A Star Is Born
Sound Editing: First Man
Sound Mixing: Bohemian Rhapsody
Visual Effects: First Man

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Picture

The industry’s existential crisis has polluted this race so thoroughly that it feels eerily similar to the 2016 election cycle all over again.

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Green Book
Photo: Universal Pictures

“I’m hyperventilating a little. If I fall over pick me up because I’ve got something to say,” deadpanned Frances McDormand upon winning her best actress Oscar last year. From her lips to Hollywood’s ears. No one is okay with the Academy Awards the way they are, and everyone seems sure that they know how to fix them. Cut out the montages, bring back honorary award presentations, give stunt performers their own category, let ranked-choice voting determine every category and not just best picture, overhaul the membership ranks, hold the event before the guilds spoil the surprise, find a host with the magic demographic-spanning mojo necessary to double the show’s recent audience pools, nominate bigger hits, nominate only hits.

But first, as McDormand herself called for during her speech, “a moment of perspective.” A crop of articles have popped up over the last two weeks looking back at the brutal showdown between Saving Private Ryan and Shakespeare In Love at the 1999 Academy Awards, when Harvey Weinstein was at the height of his nefarious powers. Every retrospective piece accepts as common wisdom that it was probably the most obnoxious awards season in history, one that indeed set the stage for every grinding assault we’ve paid witness to ever since. But did anyone two decades ago have to endure dozens of weekly Oscar podcasters and hundreds of underpaid web writers musing, “What do the Academy Awards want to be moving forward, exactly? Who should voters represent in this fractured media environment, exactly?” How much whiskey we can safely use to wash down our Lexapro, exactly?

Amid the fox-in-a-henhouse milieu of ceaseless moral outrage serving as this awards season’s backdrop, and amid the self-obsessed entertainers now wrestling with the idea that they now have to be “content providers,” all anyone seems concerned about is what an Oscar means in the future, and whether next year’s versions of Black Panther and Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody have a seat at the table. What everyone’s forgetting is what the Oscars have always been. In other words, the industry’s existential crisis has polluted this race so thoroughly that it feels eerily similar to the 2016 election cycle all over again, and Oscar’s clearly splintered voting blocs may become ground zero for a Make the Academy Great Again watershed.

In 1956, the Oscars took a turn toward small, quotidian, neo-realish movies, awarding Marty the top prize. The correction was swift and sure the following year, with a full slate of elephantine epics underlining the movie industry’s intimidation at the new threat of television. Moonlight’s shocking triumph two years ago was similarly answered by the safe, whimsical The Shape of Water, a choice that reaffirmed the academy’s commitment to politically innocuous liberalism in artistically conservative digs. Call us cynical, but we know which of the last couple go-arounds feels like the real academy. Which is why so many are banking on the formally dazzling humanism of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma and so few on the vital, merciless fury of Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman.

And even if we give the benefit of the doubt to the academy’s new members, there’s that righteous, reactionary fervor in the air against those attempting to “cancel” Green Book. Those attacking the film from every conceivable angle have also ignored the one that matters to most people: the pleasure principle. Can anyone blame Hollywood for getting its back up on behalf of a laughably old-fashioned but seamlessly mounted road movie-cum-buddy pic that reassures people that the world they’re leaving is better than the one they found? That’s, as they say, the future that liberals and Oscar want.

Will Win: Green Book

Could Win: Roma or BlacKkKlansman

Should Win: BlacKkKlansman

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Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Adapted Screenplay

After walking back almost all of its bad decisions ahead of this year’s Oscars, there’s no way AMPAS isn’t going to do the right thing here.

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BlacKkKlansman
Photo: Focus Features

Eric and I have done a good job this year of only selectively stealing each other’s behind-the-scenes jokes. We have, though, not been polite about stepping on each other’s toes in other ways. Okay, maybe just Eric, who in his impeccable take on the original screenplay free-for-all detailed how the guilds this year have almost willfully gone out of their way to “not tip the Oscar race too clearly toward any one film.” Case in point: Can You Ever Forgive Me? winning the WGA’s adapted screenplay trophy over presumed Oscar frontrunner BlacKkKlansman. A glitch in the matrix? We think so. Eric and I are still in agreement that the race for best picture this year is pretty wide open, though maybe a little less so in the wake of what seemed like an easy win for the Spike Lee joint. Nevertheless, we all know that there’s no Oscar narrative more powerful than “it’s about goddamn time,” and it was so powerful this year that even the diversity-challenged BAFTAs got the memo, giving their adapted screenplay prize to Lee, Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, and Kevin Willmott. To bamboozle Lee at this point would, admittedly, be so very 2019, but given that it’s walked back almost all of its bad decisions ahead of this year’s Oscars, there’s no way AMPAS isn’t going to do the right thing.

Will Win: BlacKkKlansman

Could Win: Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Should Win: BlacKkKlansman

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