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Understanding Screenwriting #12: John Michael Hayes, Quantum of Solace, Boomerang!, Boston Legal, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #12: John Michael Hayes, Quantum of Solace, Boomerang!, Boston Legal, & More

Coming Up In This Column: John Michael Hayes, Quantum of Solace, Boomerang!, Boston Legal, Law & Order, Two and a Half Men, Desperate Housewives, The Twilight premiere and opening.

John Michael Hayes (1919 – 2008): An appreciation.

Screenwriter John Michael Hayes died November 19th at the age of 89. It took The New York Times six days and the Los Angeles Times eight days to get around to doing an obituary on him. Score one for the East Coast.

Hayes was one of the best screenwriters of the fifties and sixties, moving into films after being a successful radio writer in the forties and early fifties. His most commercially successful film in the fifties was Peyton Place (1957). You might think that would be an easy one: adapt a hugely successful novel. But for the fifties it was virtually unfilmable because it told in lurid detail the secrets, mostly sexual, of nearly everyone in a small New England town. Hayes got the job because he had let his agent know he wanted to do a small town story since he had grown up in one. At first he could not get a handle on the book. Finally he talked to the producer Jerry Wald “because he was like Knute Rockne at halftime,” as Hayes put it. Wald encouraged him not to give up. Finally the solution occurred to Hayes: tell the story from the point of view of Allison McKenzie, the teenage girl who was more or less the author’s surrogate. The script humanized the story and, yes, certainly softened it, but as critics noted, it also made the film much fuller and richer than the novel.

Hayes went on to do many other high profile adaptations, including the 1964 film of the Harold Robbins novel The Carpetbaggers, a VERY thinly disguised take on Howard Hughes. Hughes was very much alive and so were his lawyers, to the point that Hayes said later, “The end of it was written more by lawyers than by myself.” The film is not good, but is a lot of trashy fun, more so than some of Hayes’s other Robbins adaptations such as Where Love Has Gone. Hayes was also the writer, credited or not, on such films as The Matchmaker, Separate Tables, BUtterfield 8, and The Children’s Hour.

The headline for the Los Angeles Times obituary was “Screenwriter wrote 4 Hitchcock films,” which is probably how Hayes will be most remembered. The films were Rear Window, The Trouble with Harry, To Catch a Thief, and The Man Who Knew Too Much. When Hitchcock asked Hayes to adapt the Cornell Woolrich story “Rear Window,” Hitchcock had not had a successful film for several years. Three of the four films that Hayes wrote for him put him back on top, and the fourth, The Trouble with Harry, I think is better than both To Catch a Thief and The Man Who Knew Too Much.

The Woolrich story gave Hayes only a rough idea to work with: a man unable to get around suspects a neighbor of murder. Woolrich has his main character slowly realize what happened. Hayes has him jump to conclusions, proved wrong, jump to more conclusions, proved wrong again, etc, until it turns out he is right. Much more dramatic. Hayes created a character for Jeff, as well as a girlfriend for him and a wonderful insurance nurse, who can say all the grotesque things everybody in the audience is thinking. What Hayes brought to the table was a sense of humor and an ability to create characters. (For a more detailed look at the development of Rear Window, see the chapter on it in my book Understanding Screenwriting, and if that is not long enough for you, look up my article on it in the Winter 1997 issue of Creative Screenwriting, and if THAT is not long enough for you, read Steven DeRosa’s excellent 2001 book Writing with Hitchcock, which deals with the entire Hayes-Hitchcock collaboration. Better yet, just start with DeRosa’s book.)

Hayes brought something else to the table. When he and Hitchcock first discussed Rear Window, Hitchcock said he wanted Grace Kelly to play Jeff’s girlfriend. Hitchcock was then making his first film with Kelly (Dial M for Murder) and told Hayes she was a little “stiff,” which Hayes agreed with. Hayes and his wife Mel spent a week and a half with Kelly and discovered that she was “full of life, bright, and snappy,” as Hayes puts it in the fifteen minute interview that appears on the DVD of Rear Window. Since Mel had been a fashion model, Hayes put Lisa into the world of fashion, and several of Mel’s comments into her mouth. Look at Kelly in Dial M for Murder and then Rear Window. See the difference? That comes from Hayes both understanding Kelly and creating a character for her.

It doesn’t come from Hitchcock. OK, sacrilege time. Hitchcock, like a lot of directors enamored of the technical side of movies, had very little interest in character, which made him a terrible director of actors. Yes, there are many good performances in Hitchcock’s films, but they usually come when the writers have written great characters and the parts are well cast. When you have Charles Bennett (without whom there is simply no Hitchcock), Robert Sherwood, Thornton Wilder, Ben Hecht, John Michael Hayes, and Ernest Lehman creating characters for you, it is easy for the actors to be good. When the writing is not there, or when the parts are miscast, Hitchcock did not know how to work around it, as indicated by Kelly’s performance in Dial M for Murder. Look at all the BAD performances in Hitchcock’s films: Robert Cummings in Saboteur, Alida Valli in The Paradine Case, John Dall and Farley Granger in Rope, Ruth Roman in Strangers on a Train (Roman had a wonderful earthiness in her other films, but Hitchcock had not a clue how to make it work in this film), Kim Novak in Vertigo, Tippi Hedren in The Birds and Marnie, Sean Connery in Marnie, and Julie Andrews and Paul Newman in Torn Curtain. And that’s just the stars; the list goes on and on when you count supporting actors.

Hitchcock occasionally showed a brilliant instinct for casting, such as putting Robert Walker in Strangers on a Train and, in his wildest and most successful casting decision, putting Anthony Perkins, at the time a sort of junior-varsity James Dean, into Psycho. For all his use of stars, Hitchcock seems to have thought actors were interchangeable. Need a good looking guy in a suit and you can’t get Cary Grant? Put Frederick Stafford into Topaz. It’s not the same thing. Need a cool blonde and you can’t use Madeline Carroll? Get this new girl Grace Kelly. It was not the same thing in Dial M for Murder. It was in Rear Window. Because of John Michael Hayes.

And Hitchcock’s gratitude? When François Truffaut asked Hitchcock about Hayes’s contribution to Rear Window, all Hitchcock said was, “John Michael Hayes is a radio writer and he wrote the dialogue.”

Quantum of Solace(2008. Written by Paul Haggis, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade. 105 minutes): William Wyler was right.

In 1958, when Wyler was directing the big budget western The Big Country, he recalled in an interview that the B westerns he did in the silent days at Universal all had the same structure: Action-plot-action-plot-action-plot-big action at the end. There you have the basic structure not only for B westerns, but boxing movies, auto race movies, musicals (musical numbers instead of action scenes), pornos, and almost any kind of action movie.

North by Northwest was the template for the James Bond series in many ways. One of Hitchcock’s great looking guys in an even greater looking suit gets involved with suave spies and beautiful treacherous women. Outdoor action. Trains. Technicolor. Big Screen. And the old B western structure: plot and character scenes around the action scenes: driving the car while drunk, the killing at the U.N., the crop duster, the finale on Mount Rushmore. In writing contemporary reviews of Hitchcock’s films in the early thirties (see the essay “Directors of the Thirties” in Grierson on Documentary), John Grierson noted Hitchcock’s basic flaw was that he was more interested in scenes than stories. That remained true the rest of Hitchcock’s career, and has often been true of the Bond films. And many contemporary action films.

The trick in writing the Bond films is to balance the plot and action. The writers of Quantum of Solace have unbalanced the formula by throwing in too much action. Or rather the plot and character scenes are underwritten and underdeveloped. Where are John Michael Hayes or Ernest Lehman when you need them? In the series reboot, Casino Royale, the writers gave us a younger, rawer Bond, which Daniel Craig was the perfect actor for. Here the “character” scenes do not give him the kind of emotional scenes he had with Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale. Bond is one-note here. M and Felix Leiter seem to have more to do emotionally than Bond. The dialogue is very flat. I don’t think they need to return to the wise-cracking era of the Roger Moore Bonds, but an occasional Conneryesque pun might provide a little counterpoint.

This is the first Bond film that is a direct sequel to the previous one, and the writers run into the problem of all sequel writers. How much of the previous story and characters do you need to recap for the audience? We all remember that Vesper was killed, but how many of us remember who was involved or why? This gets to be a problem at the very end, where we meet a character who was involved with Vesper, but for the life of me I could not remember how. So the scene did not have the impact it should have. See the chapters on the Jurassic Park and American Pie movies in my Understanding Screenwriting book for discussions of this problem and some of the other problems in writing sequels.

Boomerang! (1947. Screenplay by Richard Murphy, based on the article “The Perfect Case” by “Anthony Abbot” (Fulton Oursler) in the December 1945 Reader’s Digest. 88 minutes): In spite of what the Fox DVD marketing department tells you in their packaging, Boomerang! is not a film noir.

Louis de Rochemont, the producer of Boomerang!, first came to the public’s attention as the producer on the documentary series The March of Time in the thirties. One feature of those shorts was the recreation of events, often using the real people as themselves. You have no idea how bad an actor Albert Einstein was until you see him try to play himself in Atomic Power. After World War II, de Rochemont produced a group of semi-documentaries based on real events. Boomerang! was his third such film. It was acclaimed at the time for its documentary quality, since it was shot entirely on location in Connecticut.

Later the film was viewed as an early example of its director’s work. He was Elia Kazan, and this was his third feature. Looked at that way, it was seen as a mostly a warm-up exercise for the masterpieces that came later, A Streetcar Named Desire and especially On the Waterfront, which was marked by its location shooting. Now that we are so familiar with On the Waterfront, it takes a little getting used to watching Lee J. Cobb and Karl Malden, the antagonistic characters representing Evil and Good in that film, working together as cops in Boomerang!.

The recent DVD release of Boomerang! is part of the Fox Film Noir series. The only possible way you could consider Boomerang! a film noir is that it was made in 1947, is shot in black and white, and deals with a crime. There is no doomed hero, no femme fatale, no sense of existential dread. Film noir was not even a term in use when the film was made. In the seventies the term became a favorite of film critics and historians. In the 1971 first edition of Gerald Mast’s A Short History of the Movies, there is no reference to the term. By the sixth edition in 1996, there are references on 18 pages. The term has worked its way so much into public use it is now a marketing ploy.

Looking at the film itself and not its marketing, Richard Murphy’s screenplay is a fast, tight tale of an unusual case. A priest is shot on the street and a man is arrested. The case against him seems solid, but the prosecuting attorney begins to have doubts. When the case goes to trial, the prosecutor begins the case by laying out all the reasons he thinks he does NOT have a case. Not the usual situation with an ambitious prosecutor. The case is dismissed and I will not tell you what Murphy’s (and probably Oursler’s) great punchline to the whole story is.

What Murphy does so well is give you the case in the context of the small town. The prosecutor’s wife is seen early as part of a committee trying to get a park built. That seems like just a textural detail, but one of the city fathers she is dealing with is also putting pressure on the prosecutor. The current local administration is a reform administration attacked by the local newspaper, which supports the previous administration. Murphy, a World War II veteran, would go on to write excellent scripts in the same vein, such as Panic in the Streets.

Kazan directed Panic as well, since he had come to appreciate Murphy. His first reaction to the script for Boomerang! was “I thought it a routine little drama, and it had no interest for me.” It was his wife Molly, the intellectual one in the marriage, who convinced him “something good could be made of it,” according to Kazan. Sometimes you have to hit directors upside the head with a two-by-four to get their attention.

Perhaps now that Fox is quickly coming to the end of films they can fit into their film noir marketing, they should consider marketing boxed sets of the work of their screenwriters. You could get several out of the films of Nunnally Johnson, Philip Dunne, and Lamar Trotti. How about a Richard Murphy four-pack, with Boomerang!, Cry of the City, Slattery’s Hurricane, and Panic in the Streets?

Boston Legal (2008. Episodes “Kill, Baby, Kill” written by Lawrence Broch & David E. Kelly, and “Thanksgiving” written by David E. Kelly. 60 minutes each): Torn from the headlines!

One of the reasons Darryl F. Zanuck, the head of production at 20th Century-Fox, encouraged the Louis de Rochemont films mentioned above is that Zanuck started the whole “torn from the headlines” genre back when he was at Warner Brothers in the early thirties. Television has of course picked up on that, even more so these days than theatrical films, since television can speed things to audiences more quickly. These two Boston Legal episodes are such examples. “Kill, Baby, Kill,” which was broadcast less than two weeks after the election, includes discussion of the election. But if you listen carefully, a lot of the discussion is very generic and was probably written before the voting. There are only a couple of lines that mention the outcome and were written and shot after the election. Setting up the script that way is rather tricky and very inventive. “Thanksgiving,” in which most of the major cast members, and some minor ones, end up at Shirley Schmidt’s house for Thanksgiving dinner, ran the following week. It includes long, typical David E. Kellyish discussions of the election. Kelly does love his talk, but at least the conversation occasionally goes around corners you did not know were there.

Law & Order(2008. Episode “Falling” written by Stephanie Sengupta & Keith Eisner. 60 minutes): Talking as we were about stories torn from the headlines.

Dick Wolf is our Darryl F. Zanuck. In this series, which has been running since before the birth of Philo T. Farnsworth, he goes Zanuck one better. Zanuck and a million movie and television producers since simply tell the stories, with an occasional variation. (See my comments on Changeling in US#11.) Wolf, the super showrunner of the Law & Order franchise, has recognized that the docudrama approach has been done to death. When Law & Order, the mothership series, takes a well-known public incident, it uses it only as the jumping off point. Wolf’s writers quickly turn it on its head, upsetting audience expectations. Although by now, our expectations are that Wolf’s writers will do this, and we tune in to show how perversely inventive they can be. “Falling” is a good an example of their approach.

Everybody read the stories this past summer about a couple of construction cranes collapsing in New York City. A show of hands please as to how many of us knew that was an L&O episode waiting to be written. So we start “Falling” with a woman complaining of the noise on a construction site to Talbot, the foreman. She goes back to her apartment and almost before she can talk to her husband, the house shakes as the crane collapses. The two detectives tell the builder that until they determine the cause of death, the collapse is a crime scene. Ca-Ching, opening credits. I love, by the way, how the series writers come up with characters for the opening who have nothing to do with the main story except, usually, to discover the body.

Right away the cops discover the crane was smaller than called for, so to an L&O virgin, if there are any left, you would think the show is going to be about corruption and payoffs. The first act seems to be about that, including the fact that Talbot has been using money to pay for the medical care of Emilia, the wife of the workman who was killed in the collapse. But at the beginning of the second act, the corruption case is being put on the back burner, since Emilia’s coma is now suspicious, as is Talbot paying money that was supposed to be for bribes for her care. The cops assume she and Talbot were having an affair. No, she was working for Talbot’s wife Sandra, taking care of the Talbots’ disabled daughter. Emilia was objecting to a surgical procedure the Talbots were going to have to—well, you see what I mean about twisting the “headline” story into something else all together.

Eventually Cutter, the Deputy District Attorney, tries to work out a plea arrangement for Sandra, who sort of attempted to kill Emilia. Part of the deal is that the Talbots will not have the operation, which would prevent her from growing into an adult, on their daughter. Jack McCoy, now the District Attorney, not only objects, but comes into court while Cutter is trying to close the deal. McCoy withdraws the provision. Later, Cutter is upset and points out than in a previous case McCoy had set up a similar provision. McCoy admits he had been wrong then. What we get is a nice character scene, which we generally don’t get among the stars on L&O, if only because the storytelling is so fast. Look at this way: Wolf and his writers are squeezing a one-hour cop show and a one-hour lawyer show into a single hour. Speed is of the essence.

Two and a Half Men (2008. Episode “The Mooch at the Boo” written by Eddie Gorodetsky & Susan Beavers, story by Lee Aronsohn & Chuck Lorre. 30 minutes): Jake and a girl! Sort of.

In US#7, I made the point that this show was going to have to deal with Jake and Angus T. Jones, the actor who plays him, reaching puberty. The writers (the story is by the two show runners) sort of do that in this episode. Charlie catches Jake looking at their new next door neighbors, especially the daughter, and he takes Jake over to introduce him. Jake and the girl go off together. Then the dad, Jerome “Mad Dog” Burnett, an ex pro football player, comes looking for her, since he can’t get her on her cellphone. The rest of this story is played out with Charlie and Jerome, rather than with Jake and the girl, Celeste. Charlie of course is the main character in the show, and him dealing with an alternately outraged and tearful father by telling him about all the women with father issues he has dated is right in the writers’ comfort zone.

And they deliver at least one great scene. Charlie calls Jake on his cellphone. Which Jake has left on the table by the door. Its ring tone is a rather nasty rap song. Did I mention that Jerome and Celeste are black? There is approximately a minute of Charlie reacting to the phone, Jerome reacting to the phone, Charlie trying unsuccessfully to stop it, and Jerome glaring at him. Some of this I am sure was in the script. Given the way television shows are made, I am sure some of it was developed in rehearsal. The writers’ job here was to set up the situation, provide the general action and let the actors and director see how they can develop it. It helps that you have Charlie Sheen as Charlie. Sheen does not get enough credit for making it look so easy. It also helps that you have Michael Clarke Duncan, who gives great glare, as Jerome.

Eventually Jake and Celeste come home and Charlie and Jerome find them kissing at the front door. That’s the Act II curtain, and the end teaser has Jerome telling Charlie that Celeste said Jake was a perfect gentleman and she kissed him. Well, it is a 30 minute (22 minutes of actual screen time) sitcom episode, so you do need your happy ending.

Desperate Housewives(2008. Episodes “City on Fire” written by Bob Daily and “Me and My Town” written by Lori Kirkland Baker. 60 minutes): Plots and characters.

The “City on Fire” episode was the last sweeps episode and was designed to bring in twists to send us into the period before the next sweeps. In the episode the men of Wisteria Lane have actually arranged to play at a local club’s Battle of the Bands, so nearly everybody in the show is there. Julie, Susan’s daughter, has brought her much older and much married boyfriend to town. He has the club play a CD for Julie so he can propose, but she eventually, to everybody’s relief, turns him down. She has always seemed the smartest person on the show. Lynette is trying to deal with Porter’s affair with Anne, but in rather conventional scenes. Anne’s husband runs the club, and Porter threatens the husband in public for beating up Anne. David’s shrink is in Fairview, alerted by the call from the McCluskey sisters, whom we are seeing less and less of; I only hope the show is saving some good scenes for them for later. The shrink confronts David after realizing that “he” (presumably the person David has come to town to harm) is in the band. David kills him and sets a slow-starting fire, which destroys the club. David manages to save Mike, saying to his unconscious form, “Hang in there. I’m not done with you yet.” In many other shows that would tell us Mike is the one he is after, but not on this show and not with David.

Somebody has died, but we do not learn who.

In “Me and My Town,” we learn that seven people died in the fire, but we still do not know who. Mrs. Hildebrand, whom we saw talking to Gaby in the club, is the logical choice, since there is no appearance or even mention of her in this episode. It may have been the McCluskey sisters, since they don’t appear either.

One of the difficulties of writing for a large ensemble is servicing all of the major characters. This is one reason actors leave what to us mere mortals seem like good jobs: not getting as much screen time as they want. Often a showrunner’s time is taken up dealing with actors who want more scenes. And who then complain when they get too many. What Baker does in this episode is give us some terrific scenes with the major characters. Gaby becomes determined to get her looks back (although in any real universe there is nothing wrong with Eva Longoria Parker) and starts eating right. Parker gets a great scene with her two, ahem, zaftig daughters trying to convince them to eat right too. Later Gaby learns than an operation will let Carlos see again, so she is more determined than ever to get back into shape. When the operation is moved up three weeks, she tries to delay it. Parker has always been great at Gaby’s turn-on-a-dime emotions and is so here.

Susan is worried that Mike is dating a friend of hers, since she still has not dealt with the end of her marriage. She realizes it is Catherine, and the two of them have a couple of good scenes together, one the recognition scene (good use of cookies as props in this one), the other the reconciliation scene.

Lynette drives Anne to the bus station, giving her cash so she can go away. We get a nice, slightly off-center scene between the two them, and one that plays to Felicity Huffman’s (Lynette) strengths (edgy but powerful). The great punchline is Anne’s: she is not pregnant at all. But by then she’s got Lynette’s money.

Orson has resisted Bree’s request that he get an operation to cure his snoring, but after he messes up, a gleeful Bree explains to the doctor who proposed the operation that power shifts in relationships. Quintessential Bree. And Baker’s punchline is good here too. After Bree leaves, the doctor calls his significant other to say he never wants them to become like that. The other is Andrew, Bree’s gay son.

The Twilight Premiere and Opening: SHRIEK!

On November 17th I got a call from my daughter asking if I would be a good grandpa and take my 16 year-old granddaughter Ilana into Westwood to see the premiere festivities for Twilight. Ilana grew up in Denver and they only recently moved to the Los Angeles area. She is a huge fan of the books and wanted to see what a real Hollywood premiere (most of which are held in Westwood) was like. Well, sure, I’ll do it, because that’s the kind of grandpa I am. The pictures that accompany this item were taken by Ilana.

Don’t believe what you heard about there being thousands of people there. It was MAYBE one thousand, tops, and some of those were just trying to get through the crowd to the local restaurants. The premieres are held in Westwood because there are two theaters on opposite corners they can use. (And you had better believe that there are screaming matches over which theater you are assigned if you have tickets. Hollywood people can turn anything into a question of status.)

The crowd was of course mostly teenage girls. They shrieked when each of the actors arrived. They shrieked when the actors were introduced by the local DJ’s emceeing the event. They really shrieked when one of the actors came over and shook hands and signed autographs. They shrieked when the creators of one of the songs was introduced. They shrieked when the director was introduced. They did not shriek when the screenwriter was introduced.

She is Melissa Rosenberg. We need to start teaching the children earlier.

The following weekend the film opened to a weekend gross estimated at $70.5 million (later adjusted to just under $70 million). The highest estimate anybody in the industry made before was that it might, possibly, maybe, stretch to $60 million. As one studio guy (of course) was quoted, “It’s only a quadrant and a half movie,” meaning it would bring in young girls and some slightly older women, as opposed to a “four quadrant” movie that brings in young and old, male and female.

When the first Harry Potter movie opened, the Time-Warner marketing crew nearly broke their arms patting themselves on the back for “opening” the film so well. They were full of crap. The one person who “opened” that film was J.K. Rowling.

Twilight is being released by Summit Entertainment, a small company without the marketing manpower, skill, energy, experience, and clout of Time-Warner. The one person who “opened” Twilight was the author of the novels, Stephenie Meyer.

To paraphrase the slogan from Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign: IT’S THE WRITERS, STUPID.

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

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

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Demolition Girl
Photo: Japan Cuts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Japan Cuts runs from July 19—28.

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

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

2.5

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David Crosby: Remember My Name
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.5

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Cassandro, the Exotico!
Photo: Film Movement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Marc Maron
Photo: IFC Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right.

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

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

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

Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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Streetwise
Photo: Janus Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lynn Shelton
Photo: IFC Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Into the Ashes
Photo: RLJE Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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At War
Photo: Cinema Libre Studio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bottom of the 9th
Photo: Saban Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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