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Understanding Screenwriting #105: Django Unchained, Amour, Banjo on My Knee, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #105: Django Unchained, Amour, Banjo on My Knee, & More

Coming Up in This Column: Django Unchained, Amour, Banjo on my Knee, Life Begins at Eight-Thirty, Casablanca, Restless, but first…

Fan Mail: One note before you even ask. Yes, I have seen Zero Dark Thirty, but I am collecting information (not via torture, I assure you) about it from various sources that I want to have before I write about it. Rest assured it will dealt with in #106.

On the fan mail front, it was just another day at the office with David E. and me agreeing yet again on something, this time Tony Kushner. Yawn.

Django Unchained (2012. Written by Quentin Tarantino. 165 minutes.)

Lotsa stuff, including our ideas of history, blowed up real good: You may remember from US#32 that I liked Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009) a lot. As I said in that column “Like many American screenwriters, who are after all part of the American storytelling tradition, he wants to tell a tale. And as much or more than any other American screenwriter, he wants to tell off-the-wall, wildly entertaining stories.” One thing I liked about Inglourious Basterds is that Tarantino was not just ripping off other movies. In his own freewheeling way, he was taking on history as much as other movies, and he was focusing on characters. He was also finally accepting the fact that violence can hurt people, not only those who are victims of it, but those who perpetrate it. All of those elements are back in Django Unchained, and in a year in which many big-budget movies played it as safe as they could, it is nice to see a movie that plays it anything but safe.

The subject in Inglourious Basterds was killing Nazis during World War II, and here it is pre-Civil War slavery in the South. Nazis are dead and buried, but the issue of racism is still a very live wire in America, which has caused splits among the audiences for the film. Some viewers, both black and white, love it and some hate it. Some both love it and hate it. The split may come from treating the storyline as very, very dark comedy, with the usual violence found in Tarantino’s scripts. The predominantly white audience I saw the film with seemed to like it, and like the white audiences forty years ago for black exploitation films, they were rooting for the black underdog getting revenge against The Man. As for the complaints that you cannot treat a serious subject as dark comedy, come on folks, it is nearly fifty years since Dr. Strangelove (1964). Some people complained about Strangelove in the same tone they now complain about Django.

Tarantino very quickly establishes the world in which we are going to live in for 165 minutes. A couple of hunters of runaway slaves are leading a group of captured slaves through the desert (my beloved Alabama Hills) and the woods when they come across Dr. King Schultz, a former dentist driving a wagon with a large tooth on it (see, what did I tell you in US#99). Within a few minutes the slavehunters are dead or dying, and Schultz has freed Django because he needs him to identify the Brittle Brothers. Schultz is a bounty hunter, and soon pairs up with Django. We are in the South and the West, and the spaghetti-western music tells us that there is going to be a lot of blood spilled before our adventures are done. Tarantino’s homage to Italian westerns is one of the few remaining references to old movies that appear in this film, and it is really unneeded because the film is compelling enough without it. There is the additional irony that rather than filming in Spain, where the Italians filmed, Tarantino has filmed in American locations like the Alabama Hills, Jackson Hole in Wyoming, and Louisiana.

King Schultz is one of the greatest characters Tarantino has created. He is German, a former dentist, and speaks better and more elaborate English than anybody else in the film. Tarantino has created him for Christoph Waltz, who is even better here than he was as Colonel Landa in Inglourious Basterds. Unfortunately, while Tarantino is great at dialogue (duh), he does not provide a lot of dialogue or especially reaction shots for Django. I mentioned in my item on Inglourious Basterds that Tarantino gave Shosanna a great reaction, but then cut the shot short. Here he does not give Jamie Foxx enough to say or do to stand up to Waltz’s performance, and I think it hurts the film. Maybe another draft of the script was called for just simply to work out reactions, although I have heard that the script was constantly undergoing revisions as they filmed it.

After some bounty-hunting action (more than they really need after two major sequences), Schultz agrees to help Django rescue his wife Broomhilda. That name got a laugh from a couple of people in the audience I saw it with who obviously remembered the comic strip witch, but you find out later why Tarantino has given her that name. Broomhilda was sold to another plantation and that gives Tarantino the opportunity to show us how brutal slavery really was. We are not in The Birth of a Nation (1915) or Gone with the Wind (1939) territory here, and I say, “About bloody time.” And this being Tarantino, it is very bloody and very brutal, unnerving in exactly the way it is supposed to be. And yet Tarantino does bring in humor as a counterpoint. After Django and Schultz kill three men working as overseers at a plantation for the bounty, the plantation owner and his friends go out to try to track down and kill them. And to protect their identity they wear bags over their heads. One of the men’s wives spent all day cutting eyeholes…that aren’t quite big enough. In a scene where Birth of a Nation meets Blazing Saddles, the men complain about the bags. It is a very funny scene…and almost did not make it into the film. In the editing process, Tarantino thought about dropping it because the film was running long. Amy Pascal, the head of Sony Pictures, which is co-releasing the film, told him that was the one scene that made her want to be involved with the film. They had a preview with the scene and it played better than anything else in the picture. Thanks Amy.

Our guys track Broomhilda to the lavish plantation Candieland, run by Calvin Candie. Candie is the other great character in the film, and like Schultz he is a talker. He is played, in his first out-and-out villain role, by Leonardio DiCaprio, and the scenes between Waltz and DiCaprio are the best in the picture, so much so that in the remaining half hour after they are over, the film loses some of its energy. There are two big bloody shootouts, but Tarantino could have made do with one. But then he wouldn’t be Tarantino, would he?

Amour (2012. Written by Michael Haneke. 127 minutes.)

Amour

…and marriage: My wife and I were very hesitant about seeing this one, even with all its critical acclaim and awards. It is a simple story of Anne and Georges, a French couple in their eighties. She has a series of strokes that weaken her, and he takes care of her because he loves her, as the title of the film suggests. My wife and I are in our early seventies, and she has had a variety of medical problems over the last few years (nothing as bad as what Anne goes through, thank God) that have required a certain amount of time and attention on my part. So we were afraid it might hit too close to home as a look at what we might be facing in the future. That did not turn out to be the problem with the film.

Before Anne’s first mini-stroke, we get a little sense of what their life is like. Very little. This appears to be a couple who have had a very long marriage, since their daughter Eva is in her late forties-early fifties (OK, she’s played by Isabelle Huppert, who will turn 60 next year, but still can pass for a lot younger). We see them at a concert where Alexandre Tharaud, one of Ann’s students, is giving a concert. (Tharaud, a real pianist, is playing himself, sort of.) Alexandre later visits them at their home. And their daughter visits them, talking about her husband, whom we do see briefly, and her kids, whom we do not see. That’s about it for their lives. They appear to have no other friends. They appear to have no particular interests. OK, I can understand an older couple into classical music (it is not clear if Georges is a teacher as well) not having either a computer or a television set, but they seem to have nothing else in their lives, not even the kind of inside jokes and behavioral connections a couple together that long would develop. OK, Haneke’s films are never laugh riots, but not having details dehumanizes the characters. Haneke’s sole interest is in her illnesses and Georges taking care of her. We get that in excruciating and repetitive detail. Yes, he loves her, and he occasionally gets grumpy, but that alone is not enough for us to get as deeply involved in them.

The film ends with a typical Haneke touch. We know that she has died. But we have no idea what happened to Georges. Did he jump out the window? He has a delusion that he walks out the door with a healthy Ann, but does that mean he just walked out? Is he lying dead in a gutter somewhere? Sometime Haneke may make a film which answers all the questions it brings up, but this one stays in the tradition of Caché (2005) and The White Ribbon (2009).

Banjo on My Knee (1936. Screenplay by Nunnally Johnson based on the novel by Harry Hamilton. 95 minutes.)

Banjo on My Knee

One minor Nunnally: In 1968-69, when I was doing my oral history interview with Nunnally Johnson, there were a number of his early films that I did not ask about. This was one of them. I had not only never seen it, I had never heard of it. This was long before there was the Internet Movie Database and assorted other sources both on- and off-line. And it never showed up on television, at least until recently, when it showed up on both Fox Movie Channel and TCM. There are reasons why it’s not well known.

The storyline is a lot more haphazard than usual in a Nunnally Johnson work. We begin with a wedding among the boat people along the river, a slightly more hygienic crowd than you get in Beasts of the Southern Wild. Ernie Holley is marrying Pearl, much to the delight of his father Newt. Newt has lost several of his kids to the river, and is eager for Ernie and Pearl to give him grandchildren. But it looks as though Ernie kills one of the locals at the wedding and he takes off. And twenty minutes later he is back, having sailed the world. He finds out he did not kill the man (who floated upriver instead of down when Ernie knocked him into the water) so that ends that plot. He wants to go off again and find a nice place for him and Pearl to live, but she’s so upset she leaves. And then he leaves again. They have adventures on their own and eventually wind up together in New Orleans. While the film is early in Johnson’s career, he had already done several films with stronger narrative drives, such as The House of Rothschild (1934), which straightened out a messy play.

I suspect what drew Nunnally to the material was the down home Southern humor, which appealed to the native Georgian. You see the same humor in Jesse James (1939), Tobacco Road (1941), and even in The Grapes of Wrath (1940). The wedding has an earthy tone to it, particularly with Walter Brennan as Newt playing his “contraption,” a one-man band. You also get Buddy Ebsen as one of the locals doing a dance number or two. The film is sort of unofficially a musical, with a variety of numbers, including “St. Louis Blues” sung by the all-black Hall Johnson Choir. But you also get some of Johnson’s ability to be sympathetic to a variety of characters. When Pearl ends up in New Orleans, she is courted by Chick Bean, a semi-suave singer played by “Antonio Martin,” whom we later knew as Tony Martin. When Chick proposes to Pearl, it is not in a florid, romantic way, but with a simple listing of what his good qualities are and why that should be enough. While she is thinking it over, Ernie shows up and in a nice close-up, Chick realizes with a look that he does not have a chance. A little more sophisticated than the rustic humor of the boat scenes.

Life Begins at Eight-Thirty (1942. Screenplay by Nunnally Johnson, based on the play The Light of Heart by Emlyn Williams. 85 minutes.)

Life Begins at Eight-Thirty

A second minor Nunnally: This one I did ask Nunnally about, but got a strange reaction. I mentioned in my question that it was based on the Emlyn Williams play. That took Nunnally aback. He had not remembered that was the source for it, but had just had dinner with Williams a year before. Johnson had forgotten the source was Williams, and Williams did not bring it up. Johnson said to me, “So, I suppose it’s just another proof that the author doesn’t care of the screenwriter.” But then he added, “God, I should have said something. We got along famously.”

There was another writer on the project before Nunnally came on it. This was the last screenplay that F. Scott Fitzgerald was working on when he died. My notes on what I found in the Fox files are not as complete as I now would have liked them to be, and I am not sure if I saw the stage play there. I did read Fitzgerald’s script, and it’s rather depressing. I suspect the play, given its title, is one of those pieces of the time that finds drunks mostly funny, which certainly dates the film. The Lost Weekend came along three years later and started to change all that. In the story Madden Thomas (he has a different name in the play and Fitzgerald’s screenplay, but I am sticking to the names in the film) is a classical actor who has ruined his career through alcoholism. He is taken care of by his daughter Kathi, who has a club foot. She falls in love with Robert, a composer, but does not want to leave her father. A producer arranges a production of King Lear, but Madden gets drunk on opening night after learning Kathi is leaving with Robert. Mrs. Lothian, an older woman who has long loved Madden, proposes marriage to him, since she is now well off and can take care of him. Fitzgerald, who certainly knew the dark side of alcoholism, makes his script rather grim.

It is also not that well written. Fitzgerald opens on a long scene where Madden is one of twelve department store Santas. Madden starts giving away the display toys, having become convinced in his drunken stupor that he really is Santa. Chaos ensues at the store and Madden is fired. (Some of the extended details here are from Aaron Latham’s 1971 book F. Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood.) Nunnally’s opening is simpler: We open on a skinny, scraggly Santa, cigar in mouth, ringing a bell outside the store. Madden gets out of a cab beautifully costumed. He looks the other Santa up and down and says, “I have never seen anything so revolting.” Then Madden goes into a bar and loads up his hot water bottle with doubles of Alabama Fog Cutters, which he sips while talking to the kids. Soon he is obviously drunk and thrown out of the store. As I wrote in my biography of Nunnally, “Fitzgerald’s…writing is tired and heavy, while Johnson’s script has the smoothness and grace one normally associates with Fitzgerald’s prose.”

I wrote that without having seen the film, since this is another one that never shows up on television. Fox now has a Fox Archives DVD unit, which releases barebones DVDs of some of the titles they don’t have much faith in. I got it for my birthday this year and finally got around to seeing it. I had asked Nunnally how he came to write it, and he said it was probably because they were trying to find stories for Monty Woolley, a specialist in playing older curmudgeons. Nunnally usually did not write for stars, but he had some success with Woolley. Their first picture together was the 1942 The Pied Piper, in which Woolley’s character leads a growing group of children out of France ahead of the Nazi invasion. It is a mild charmer. Life Begins at Eight-Thirty was their second collaboration, and their third was the 1943 Holy Matrimony, the best of the three, also now available from Fox Cinema Archives. With Life Begins at Eight-Thirty there is no real feeling in the film as to why anybody wanted to make it. You know why people wanted to make Jesse James and The Grapes of Wrath, but Life Begins at Eight-Thirty is merely a nice professional job that never grabs you by the throat. Johnson has, as usual, written a couple of great parts for the actors. Woolley gives one of his richer and subtler performances as Madden, and Ida Lupino brings more than you might expect to Kathi. This is not one of her tough Warner Brothers dames.

Casablanca (1943. Screenplay by Julius J. Epstein & Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch, and uncredited, Casey Robinson, based on the play Everybody Comes to Rick’s by Murray Burnett and Joan Allison. 102 minutes.)

Casablanca

Moving parts: In US#103 I did a brief item on the 1944 Warners film The Conspirators, which I pointed out was a mediocre rip-off of the studio’s Casablanca. When Casablanca showed up, as it very often does on TCM, I hesitated a bit before I watched it. It has been years since I saw it on the small screen, since every time I have run it in class, I ran either the 16mm print we had or the DVD when that became available. It looks so impressive on a big screen. But I went ahead and watched it, and the writing is even more impressive on the small screen.

I made the point about The Conspirators that its moving parts did not all work together and that those in Casablanca did. That’s in spite of the fact that the production of Casablanca was even more chaotic than most major studio productions. But Howard Koch, who followed the Epstein twins on the script, notes in his memoir As Time Goes By, that at one point in the middle of production the director, Michael Curtiz, wanted some script changes. Koch writes, “Despite the multiplicity of writers working in relays—usually fatal to any dramatic work—I felt that a certain unity had been achieved that could easily be destroyed by tampering with the emerging script.”

The legend is that the original play was terrible and nobody would produce it on Broadway, which is not quite the truth. The play was picked up by the producing team of Carly Warton and Martin Gabel. The team finally passed on it because Warton had trouble with the fact that Lois, the American woman who was the forerunner of Ilsa, clearly sleeps with Rick to get the letters of transit. She felt American audiences would not accept this. So the writers’ agent sold it to Warner Brothers, where Hal Wallis was smart enough to realize that while audiences would not buy an American woman doing that, they would accept a European woman. So Lois early on became Ilsa.

I have not read the play, but in a package of material the late Ron Haver of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art put together for a screening of the film, there is the studio reader’s report on the play. It is clear that the plot, for all Koch’s insistence that nobody knew what the story was, was pretty much followed in the script as it developed. After all, both well-known playwrights Robert Sherwood and Ben Hecht had told the play’s potential producers that it needed no major changes. The screenwriters, probably Koch, carefully re-wrote the second scene where Ilsa comes to Rick for the letters so that the studio could make the case to the censors they did not sleep together. We never see them in bed, we never get any indication they were ever undressed, there is no cut away from kissing to curtains blowing in the wind. But adults in the audience probably figured out she was boffing his brains out to get the letters. Whoever wrote the scene did a very nice job.

We do know that it was Koch who added the political details about Rick’s past. In the play he was just a lawyer in Paris. Koch wanted the flashback to be about Rick’s running guns and fighting in Spain, but Curtiz and Wallis wanted it to be about Paris. So Wallis got Robinson to write the Paris sequence, and it is a beautiful example of not telling us too much. Rick and Ilsa have fallen in love, but decided it will only be a short-lived romance, so they don’t ask each other about the other’s past. If he asks and she tells him about Victor, the movie is over at that point. The next time you watch the film, look at how short the Paris sequence is. Vivid, but short. But that’s true of most of the film’s scenes. I mentioned in writing about The Conspirators that Peter Lorre’s scene with Bogart is shorter than the screen time he has in the latter film, but it sticks in the mind. The same is true of all of the secondary characters. I have no idea how many of them are in the play, but it is typical Warner Brothers screenwriting style to pile on the number of characters. Look at the 1938 The Adventures of Robin Hood for another example. The Epsteins were noted for their wit, and that probably extends to the characterization in addition to the great dialogue. But Koch contributed to the dialogue as well. Bogart was not happy with the part of Rick, since he felt he sulked too much. To liven things up, Koch was the one who changed “Of all the cafes in all the world, she walks into my café” to the infinitely superior, “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine!”

The Epsteins started the script, then went off to write Prelude to War (1942), the first of the Frank Capra’s Why We Fight propaganda films for the government. Koch continued writing, then the Epsteins returned. The ending of the play has Rick getting the drop on Rinaldi (Renault in the film) and forcing Ilsa to go with Victor. Then he turns himself into Rinaldi and Strasser, his “self-respect redeemed,” as the Warner Brothers reader Stephen Karnot puts it. Many different endings were considered, and the Epsteins came up with the one used in to film. And Michael Curtiz almost killed it. After it was shot, Wallis called up the Epsteins and said their ending didn’t work. They had had doubts about it, but strongly defended it to Wallis. Wallis ran what Curtiz had shot for them, and they noticed the flaw immediately. After Rick shoots Strasser, Renault says to the arriving police, “Major Strasser has been shot. Round up the usual suspects.” Claude Rains had read the line straight through, and Curtiz, not a whiz with the English language, had let him. The Epsteins pointed out there needs to be a pause between the two sentences as Renault thinks about it. (I am not sure if the pause is in the shooting script: it is in the published version, but I seem to recall seeing somewhere—how about that for thorough research?—a copy of the last page in which there is no pause.) Wallis ordered Curtiz to shoot two additional shots of close-ups that could be cut in. The next time you see the film you will notice there is virtually nothing in the background of those two shots and the cut to the medium shot of Renault saying the second line is a bit awkward. But that ending is perfect example of all the moving parts working together.

Restless (2012. Written by William Boyd, based on his novel. 180 minutes.)

Restless

Who do you want to watch?: A woman in her thirties is—what the hell?—it’s Lady Mary of Downton Abbey. Except she’s wearing bell bottoms, a paisley blouse, and her hair very straight. OK, the actress is Michelle Dockery, and if you thought she could only do heritage drama, guess again—unless you think of a film made for television set in the ‘70s is now heritage. She is Ruth Gilmartin and she is off to visit her Mum, Sally. Except Sally is toting a shotgun and thinks somebody is out to get her. And she’s played by Charlotte Rampling, Lucia Atherton of The Night Porter (1974) her ownself. Not your typical Mum. She gives Ruth her memoirs, which reveal that Sally is really Eva Delectorskaya, a Russian woman who worked for British Intelligence during World War II. As we begin to go into the flashbacks of Eva’s story, I said to my wife, “I’m perfectly willing to forgo whatever the plot is going to be just to watch Dockery and Rampling go at each other.” But instead we get Haley Atwell as the younger Eva, and while I am sure Ms. Atwell is kind to widows and orphans, in terms of screen presence she cannot hold a candle to Dockery and Rampling. I am not the only one who felt that way. Matt Roush, the critic for TV Guide, wrote in the December 3-9 issue, “I often got antsy to return to the ‘70s, where the well-matched Dockery and Rampling make an uncommonly tart team…” The World War II storyline is interesting enough with shootouts and chases, but the character work is what makes the script for this British television work. You will not be surprised to learn that Boyd has signed up to write the next couple of Bond movies, since they are focusing now on character. Maybe they will kill off Ralph Fiennes as M in the next one and have him replaced by Charlotte Rampling.

Tom Stempel is the author of several books on film. His most recent is Understanding Screenwriting: Learning From Good, Not-Quite-So Good, and Bad Screenplays.

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Film Editing

Sigh, can we just edit this whole Oscar season from our memories?

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Bohemian Rhapsody
Photo: 20th Century Fox

Sigh, can we just edit this whole Oscar season from our memories? AMPAS has officially brought more queens back from the brink than this year’s season of RuPaul’s Drag Race All-Stars. Now that the academy has reneged on its plans to snip four categories from the live Oscar telecast, after first attempting damage control and assuring members that it will still run those four awards as not-so-instant replays in edited-down form later on in the show, we can once again turn our attention to the other editing that’s so vexed Film Twitter this Oscar season. We yield the floor to Twitter user Pramit Chatterjee:

Very fuck! The academy would’ve been shooting itself in the foot by not airing what’s starting to feel like one of this year’s most competitive Oscar categories—a category that feels like it’s at the center of ground zero for the voters who, as a fresh New York Times survey of anonymous Oscar ballots confirms, are as unashamedly entertained by a blockbuster that critics called utterly worthless as they are feeling vengeful against those who would dare call a film they loved racist. Interestingly enough, the New York Times’s panel of voters seems palpably aware that Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman is the nominee this year that’s going to go down in history as the “right thing” they’ll be embarrassed for not “doing.” No arguments from this corner. Lee’s film is narratively propulsive and knotty in ways that ought to translate into a no-brainer win here. (My cohort Ed recently mused that he’d give the film the Oscar just for the energy it displays cutting back and forth during phone conversations.)

We’re glad that the academy walked back its decision to not honor two of the most crucial elements of the medium (editing and cinematography) on the live Oscar telecast, but what we’re left with is the dawning horror that the formless flailing exemplified by the clip above might actually win this damned award. Guy Lodge sarcastically mused on the upside of Pramit’s incredulous tweet, “I’ve never seen so many people on Twitter discussing the art of film editing before,” and honestly, it does feel like Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody getting publicly dog-walked like this stands to teach baby cinephiles-in-training the language of the cut as well as any of the myriad montages the show producers intended on airing in lieu of, you know, actually awarding craftspeople. But only a fraction of the voting body has to feel sympathy for John Ottman (whose career, for the record, goes all the way back with Bryan Singer), or express admiration that he managed to assemble the raw materials from a legendarily chaotic project into an international blockbuster. The rest of the academy has their ostrich heads plunged far enough into the sand to take care of the rest.

Will Win: Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody

Could Win: BlacKkKlansman

Should Win: BlacKkKlansman

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Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Costume Design

Honestly, we’re so gobsmacked by AMPAS’s skullduggery that we can’t even see what’s right in front of us.

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The Favourite
Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures

In less than a week, AMPAS has successfully stoked the anger of just about every creative in Hollywood, and perhaps sensing a widespread boycott of the Oscar telecast in response to the banishment of four awards to commercial breaks, the academy has now “clarified” its latest attempt to reboot the Oscars for the TL;DR generation. Yesterday, in a letter signed by the academy’s board of governors—which includes president, director of photography, and hater of cinematography John Bailey—members were assured that the four winning speeches will in fact be included in the broadcast, but with all the walking and talking that it takes to announce the winners edited out. Also, those four categories may or may not be given the short shrift in 2020, as apparently there’s a “rotation” system in place that will, I guess, leave the door open for us to not see Lady Gaga walk on stage next year to accept the best actress award for her performance accepting the Golden Globe this year for “Shallow.”

Honestly, we’re so gobsmacked by AMPAS’s skullduggery that we can’t even see what’s right in front of us. Case in point: When I sat down to write this article, I thought this award was going to be a slam dunk for Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody, but as it turns out, the film isn’t even nominated for its costumes. Because sanity prevailed when voters decided they didn’t find any kind of magic in Brian May pulling out his old Queen outfits for the making of Bryan Singer’s film, maybe it will prevail again and AMPAS will take the Oscars off its planned keto diet. And if it doesn’t, we’ll take some solace in three-time Oscar winner Sandy Powell—who for the third time in her career has been nominated twice in the same year—collecting this award for her gloriously ostentatious, stitch-perfect garbs for The Favourite.

Will Win: The Favourite

Could Win: Black Panther

Should Win: The Favourite

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Berlinale 2019: Out Stealing Horses, A Tale of Three Sisters, & Öndög

These films suggest the cinema as another place where we can simulate and reflect on life within and surrounded by natural landscapes.

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Out Stealing Horses
Photo: Berlinale

On the way into Berlin from Tegel Airport, one of the first signs of the city you see is a large tract of land divided into rectangular plots, on each a shed in a variable state of repair. In fact, you can find such areas dispersed throughout the city. Visitors can easily mistake these colonies for third world-style shantytowns, but in fact they’re the bougiest things imaginable: privately owned allotments, known as kleingärten, that aren’t used as primary residences. It’s an institution that allows urban dwellers with enough money to simulate life “on the land,” a slice of rural life plopped down within the city.

As goes Berlin, so goes Berlinale. Several films in this year’s competition suggest the cinema as another place where we can simulate and reflect on life within and surrounded by natural landscapes. There’s a certain nostalgia in these films’ contemplation of the relationship between people and nature—in an age where our actions have precipitated an ongoing ecological cataclysm, the depiction of natural spaces almost immediately invokes the past.

A particularly wistful note is struck by Hans Petter Moland’s Out Stealing Horses, a film about—stop me if you’ve heard this before—sexual awakening set during a rural Scandinavian summer. The film begins in the dark, cold New Year’s Eve of 1999, as an aged and lonesome Trond Sander (Stellan Skarsgård) hides out in Sweden from his troubled recent past. When the 66-year-old Norwegian meets his closest neighbor, Lars (Bjørn Floberg), the film flashes back to the summer of 1948, which Trond spent at his father’s country house in Norway. In voiceover, Skarsgård’s weathered baritone guides us through his character’s reminiscences concerning the tragedy that befell a neighboring family, and how his relationship with his father (Tobias Santelmann) was altered forever when they both became entangled in it.

Although the bulk of its action takes place in the postwar Norwegian woods, Out Stealing Horses regularly brings us back to 1999, contrasting the gray-and-blue perpetual night of a Swedish winter with the variegated colors of summer. Such blatant romantic symbolism doesn’t initially detract from a film that seems at the outset to promise a thoughtful contemplation of mortality. But as the symbols start to multiply—winter for old age and impending death; summer for youth; flowers, birds, and bees for burgeoning sexuality; thunder for emotional turmoil; water for femininity—and the melodrama becomes conventional and bloated, Moland and co-screenwriter Per Petterson’s subordination of natural objects to human meanings becomes increasingly one-dimensional.

Emin Alper’s A Tale of Three Sisters opens with a car driving into a remote, mountainous area of central Anatolia in Turkey. The car, whose hood takes up the foreground of the frame, belongs to Mr. Necati, a well-to-do city dweller on whom Sevkit (Müfit Kayacan) and his three daughters rely for their livelihood. The four live in a small village nestled in the mountains, and since their mother’s death, each of the three girls has tried and failed to serve as Necati’s family’s maid in the city. Nurhan (Ece Yüksel) and Havva (Helin Kandemir) have just returned from their stint, one that ended because the irascible Nurhan was beating the Necati children, and Reyhan (Cemre Ebuzziya) was returned some years ago when she got pregnant, upon which her father swiftly married her off to Veysel (Kayhan Açikgöz).

Veysel, a reluctant and lazy shepherd by trade, is a hapless fool, the kind of guy who will accidentally piss on a grave, then worriedly pose to his village superiors the question: “Is pissing on graves a sin?” Sevkit and the other men regularly laugh at his expense, and Reyhan and her sisters have little patience for her husband-of-necessity. The village’s mistreatment of the earnest but perpetually outmatched Veysel will have tragic consequences.

Tale of Three Sisters isn’t interested in tidy narrative resolutions. Much of the film consists of evocative scenes set amid the glowing brown-red hues of the area’s mountains and the hearth of Sivket’s family home—one of the most memorable of which is a comic, sexually suggestive sequence involving a huge jug of ayran, a foamy yogurt-based drink popular in Turkey. The film works its way toward a kind of moral resolution, though at times the journey there is a bit of a slog. Sevkit is a domineering father, his words taking over both his home and the film, which occasionally feels as tedious as his daughters find it.

Öndög, by Chinese director Wang Quan’an, is a film that takes an elemental approach to the human condition. A good portion of its running time is made up of long exterior shots of the Mongolian plains held for minutes at a time, the frame cleanly divided between the elements of earth and sky. The action, such that it is, often takes place at dusk, which flattens the silhouettes of the diminutive human figures against the blue-orange twilight sky; at times they look like shadow puppets inching their way across an ersatz, cardboard stage. The film’s aesthetics are grandiose in the same measure that they are playful.

Naturally, Öndög is concerned with life and death, and in a manner that evokes cyclical time. It opens with a pair of deaths—a woman’s body is discovered in a field, and a sheep is slaughtered on camera—and it closes with a pair of births (no spoilers here, but, then again, it’s doubtful spoilers can exist in cyclical time). Landing upon the same symbol of eternal recurrence as Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, Wang evokes dinosaur life: One character shares with another that the ancient reptiles were first discovered in Mongolia, making Mongolians their descendants, destined in millions of years to be discovered again, by dinosaur scientists.

Though the film opens with police discovering the aforementioned woman’s body and a young officer (Norovsambuu) left alone in the field to guard it until it can be retrieved, it leaves this plot thread unresolved, subsuming itself in the anti-drama of the herdswoman (Dulamjav Enkhtaivan) who’s asked to keep the officer company. Roaming around the plains on her distinctive camel and tending to her livestock with only the occasional help of a neighboring, motorcycle-riding herdsman (Aorigeletu), the herdswoman is a model of autonomy and self-determination. She’s faster and better with a gun than the police, and flat-out ignores the herdsman’s constant suggestions that she needs to find a man.

Quan’an addresses eternal, cosmic themes through a portrait of rural characters living in a desolate setting, but even if his interest is in the primeval, he doesn’t make his characters “primitive.” They live closer to death and to birth, but they still play Elvis songs on their cellphones, call the police when they’re in trouble, and have medical abortions. And Öndög’s portrait of the human condition also isn’t portentous or overly self-serious; for one, this is a film that will give you a new appreciation for the inherent humor of camel sounds. Slow but never tedious, set under sky and stars but not in the least bit sentimental, Öndög is the festival’s most profound story of human life on the land.

Berlinale runs from February 7—17.

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