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Understanding Screenwriting #16: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon, 30 Rock, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #16: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon, 30 Rock, & More

Coming Up In This Column: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon, Abe Lincoln in Illinois, Seven Days to Noon, Desperate Housewives, NCIS, Privileged, 30 Rock, and Damages, but first…

Fan Mail: Matt Maul raises the question of Robert Wise’s complicity in the gutting of The Magnificent Ambersons, so let me shock you with this: I think the film is better for Wise’s cutting. And worse than that, I think the final scene as it appears in the film is better than the one in the script.

I had an opportunity years ago to read Welles’ screenplay for the film. I liked the script, but it is very wordy. There are a number of long dialogue scenes that were blessedly cut from the final film. In the end of the script, Eugene goes to the hospital, but no scene is played there. Instead he goes home and writes a letter to Isabel, describing being with Lucy at George’s bedside in the hospital. We hear it in voiceover. Putting the scene in as a scene works better in the film, I think.

And both the script and the film have a major problem: we don’t see George’s accident. We only see a newspaper clipping of it, and get some narration. I’m sorry, but the movie has been promising us George’s “comeuppance” since the opening montage. Not showing it to us is like not blowing up the Death Star at the end of Star Wars. If you are going to promise the audience something, you had better deliver it.

The Curse of Benjamin Button (2008. Screenplay by Eric Roth, screen story by Eric Roth and Robin Swicord, from a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. 166 minutes): Poor Scott.

F. Scott Fitzgerald spent time as a screenwriter in Hollywood, but never truly learned the craft. The films based on his novels, missing the elegance of his prose, do not work. The current film, even though based on a whimsical 1922 short story that is not his finest writing, continues the trend.

The short story follows the life, from birth to death, of a man who is born old and grows younger, eventually dying as a baby. It is set in Baltimore from the beginning of the Civil War to the 1920s as we watch his family and friends deal with his peculiarity. He attends Harvard, later tries to attend Yale, gets married, and inherits his father’s button business. The story is about Benjamin dealing with his world. Characterization is slight, which is acceptable in a short fable.

You can see why the idea of the story has appealed to any number of film people along the way. There are all kinds of ways to play with the central conceit. What Roth has done is update the story, taking it from Benjamin’s birth at the end of World War I through to 2005. The script is a picaresque tale, very similar in structure to Roth’s screenplay for Forrest Gump: Benjamin has a strong mother figure, then goes out into the world and meets a gallery of characters, including the love of his life. Both Forrest and Benjamin are primarily reactive characters. In Gump, part of the fun is the blankness of Forrest’s reactions to the world, since he does not quite know what is going on. In Button, Roth has not created much of a character for Benjamin, and his reactions seem very conventional. Look at the scene where the middle-aged Benjamin meets his love, Daisy, during her dancing days in New York and realizes she has other friends and probably lovers. He is pained. Yeah, so? Roth is not helped here by Brad Pitt, who is awfully uneven as Benjamin. In my book Understanding Screenwriting, I made the distinction between Brad Pitt, the character actor, and Brad Pitt, the movie star. The character actor is the more interesting of the two, as we see here in the earlier scenes when he is an old man, but Pitt is not all that good as the middle-aged Benjamin. As Benjamin grows “younger,” we get the movie star, who is gorgeous but inexpressive.

The other characters should take up the slack, but they are simply not that interesting. Queenie, his black adopted mother, starts out as a quiet, solid mother figure, but in the middle of the story she shows up as a noisy black stereotype. The tug captain Benjamin sails with is a conventional sea dog. The wife of a British trade representative he seduces/is seduced by has a little more edge to her, but that may come as much from the wondrous Tilda Swinton as the script.

For all the traveling in the film, we don’t get as much of a sense of activity of the world as we did in Gump. In that film, the people Forrest met, such as Jenny, Lt. Dan, and Bubba not only have more character than the people in Button, but have more connection to the real world. Daisy in Button is a dancer, Jenny was involved in all kinds of issues. Gump’s lack of understanding of what was going on in their worlds was part of the intended satire of the film. (What, you didn’t realize Forrest Gump was intended as a satire of the stupidity of average Americans? Audiences took it seriously, which conservatives loved, because the film suggested white male Americans who accepted everything they were told would survived, but those who wanted change in the world, women like Jenny and blacks like Bubba, would die. Robert Zemeckis, the director, was gobsmacked that people took the film as seriously as they did, a fact he has generally avoided discussing, although if you listen to one of the interviews with him on the DVD of Gump it sort of slips out. Look at Zemeckis’ Used Cars and Back to the Future to see where he was coming from.)

Because of the lack of characterization and reactions, the scenes do not have the emotional punch they should have. Would they have worked better with a director more suited to the material? Possibly. Look at the emotions John Ford gets out of the scripts for Fort Apache and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, which I discussed in US#15. Ford was a master at getting the emotions in a scene, or even a single shot. Look at the farewell scenes in those films, or any scene in any Ford film. David Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club) is a rather cold director and the material needs more warmth than he can provide. He is so focused on the production values and technical aspects (and the film is vastly overproduced, with more sets, costumes, extras, and CGI effects than needed) he loses the core emotions of the story.

And Fincher is not the only director not appropriate for Fitzgerald. Entertainment Weekly is reporting that Baz Luhrmann is considering directing a new film of The Great Gatsby. Be afraid, be very afraid.

Frost/Nixon (2008. Screenplay by Peter Morgan, based on his play. 122 minutes): Character. Drama. And Opie.

I was sort of not looking forward to seeing Frost/Nixon. It is in theaters now and the stage version will finally show up in Los Angeles later this spring. How much Tricky Dick can one person be expected to absorb? Well, having seen the film, I am dying to see the play.

If you did not know it going in, you would probably not guess that the film is based on a play. Not having seen the play (and I may return to this after I see it), I do not know how Morgan handled it on stage, but the script flows as though it was conceived for film. We get a montage that establishes the fall of the Nixon presidency, and short scenes setting up both Nixon and Frost. We SEE by their actions how different they are. Frost is a smarmy talk show host, Nixon is a lion in winter. Morgan is also great at setting up the secondary characters, especially the three who help Frost. Nixon’s entourage is slightly smaller and Morgan focuses on Jack Brennan. Given how rich most of the characters are, I assume it is part of the joke that one of Nixon’s assistants, Diane Sawyer, yes, THAT Diane Sawyer, is given virtually nothing to do or say.

Very quickly Morgan sets up not only the characters, but the drama. Unlike Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon is FOCUSED. Frost sees the interviews with Nixon as a way to regain his diminished celebrity. Nixon sees them as a way to get some sort of redemption. Everything is at stake for both men. We are rooting for Frost (well, at least most of us are) so Morgan gives him the most difficult problems to overcome (the networks refuse to be part of the programs, major sponsors pull out, Frost has to invest his own money). Both Frost and Nixon are their own worst enemies, Frost a lightweight, Nixon too much a heavyweight.

When the taping of the interviews begins, a little after halfway into the film, you might expect the film to get less interesting as it gets more talky. Was it talky? It didn’t seem that way to me. Yes, on the one hand it is, but on the other hand, well, if you have been reading this column for any length of time you know where I am going with this … Yes, dammit: REACTIONS. At least half of what we get in the second half of the film we get from the reactions. Remember how I said that Morgan is good at setting up characters? Here is where it pays off. When any one of the characters (except Diane Sawyer) reacts, we know where the reaction comes from and why.

Much of the film is based on the public record, but Morgan has created a scene that probably never took place. He has a drunk Nixon call Frost before the final interview. This is probably Nixon’s scene on stage, since he has most of the dialogue. After all, Nixon is the smarter of the two, so it makes sense that he can articulate how the two men, whom Morgan has made us see are so different, are in fact very much alike, which Morgan has much more subtly set up. But Frost’s reactions are crucial. We can see him realizing, finally, what he is up against and what he has to do to win. And Morgan gives us a great moment in the final scene between the two, days after the final interview. Nixon cannot remember the phone call. He asks Frost what they discussed, and Frost accurately if not completely tells him. “Cheeseburgers.”

If David Fincher was the wrong director for Benjamin Button, Ron Howard is the perfect director for Frost/Nixon. I had not thought so when I first heard he was doing it, but seeing is believing. Howard is an underrated director critically. He is not very flashy in his direction, although here he uses the differences between film and video effectively. He shoots in video for the “after the fact” interviews with the participants that are so convincing that my wife, who is not stupid in these matters, thought they were interviews with the “real” people rather than the actors. As an actor for fifty years, he understands actors, and better, he understands character (not always the same thing; look at early Spielberg). All the actors are on the top of their game here, one of the best signs a picture has been well directed. Even the often stiff Rebecca Hall, playing a girlfriend of Frost’s, is loose and charming.

Abe Lincoln in Illinois(1940. Screenplay by Robert E. Sherwood, adaptation by Grover Jones, based on the play by Robert E. Sherwood. 110 minutes): Different president, different film.

Of the two Lincoln films from 1939-1940, this is the one that rarely gets shown. Everybody knows Young Mr. Lincoln, simply because of John Ford’s reputation, but it works better because Lamar Trotti’s screenplay is thought out in terms of film. I am sure it was the script that gave Ford the idea to say to Henry Fonda, when Fonda demurred about playing the future president, “He’s not the president. He’s a young, jacklegged lawyer out in Springfield.” (Ford undoubtedly threw in some harder-edged expletives, but that’s the gist of what he said.)

Abe Lincoln in Illinois is based on Sherwood’s 1938 Pulitzer Prize winning play and you can see the scene breaks. There are some cinematic details (a flatboat stuck on a film dam), but mostly it is talk (a bit of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Lincoln’s farewell as he leaves for the White House). Even in his early scenes, Lincoln is talking like he is going to be president. A folksy president, but still. The dialogue is theatrical rather than cinematic. Lincoln is played by Raymond Massey, who won plaudits for his performance on stage. Unfortunately, the director here, John Cromwell, was not John Ford, and let him get away with playing the Future President of the United States. Look at him as he takes the oath of office as postmaster for New Salem, Illinois. Massey was 44 when he made the film and is completely unconvincing in the early scenes where he is playing Lincoln in his twenties. He is better in the later scenes, but it is still a stage performance of a stage play.

Sherwood, who was best known as a playwright, had written for movies off and on since the twenties, but he really only developed as a screenwriter after this film. He eventually won an Academy Award for his near-great screenplay for the hugely popular film The Best Years of Our Lives. He won three Pulitzer Prizes for drama and one for his nonfiction book on Franklin Roosevelt. If there was anybody the Pulitzer committee would have given a Pulitzer Prize for screenwriting to, if they gave such a prize, it would have been Sherwood.

Seven Days to Noon (1950. Screenplay by Frank Harvey and Roy Boulting, story by Paul Dehn and James Bernard. 94 minutes): The granddaddy of all “red wire, blue wire” thrillers.

A letter arrives at 10 Downing Street. It is passed on to Special Branch at Scotland Yard. An underling does not take it seriously. Superintendent Folland thinks it is worth looking into. He goes down to the government laboratories and inquires about a Professor Willingdon, who seems to have gone missing. He takes one of Willingdon’s assistants to the professor’s house. The professor’s wife and daughter don’t know where he has gone. We are ten minutes into the film and we still don’t know what’s in the letter. As Folland and the assistant drive away, Folland tells him the letter says that unless the PM declares by the following Sunday that England will destroy all its nuclear weapons, Willingdon will explode an atomic bomb in London.

Now that we are on the edge of our seats, we are all going to sweat while Folland and the cops try to find Wellingdon, since the technology he has can only set off the bomb on a 15 minute timer. We have learned that the device is small enough to fit into his suitcase. Lots of shots of the suitcase, anyone? We meet the professor and he is not the wild-eyed crazy we expect, just a man who has been driven to this act by his awareness of what he has been doing by creating bombs. We also meet a cross section of Londoners whom he and the police meet.

The script works in the first half because of the documentary quality not unlike that in a number of police procedurals both before and after this film. Made only five years after the end of the war, it harks back to the British wartime documentaries, especially when we get into scenes of the more or less calm evacuations of London. With all the ghostly shots of empty streets, the film is also at least a granduncle of the end-of-civilization films of the fifties and later, such as The World, the Flesh, and the Devil and the more recent I Am Legend. As the net tightens around the professor, the film starts to go a little flat, at least for a contemporary audience, simply because we have seen so many of its children, grandchildren, grandnephews, and great-grandchildren. The restraint, which helps the suspense in the first half, seems a little too much toward the end, although the writers and directors (the Boulting Brothers) do give us a lot of sweaty close-ups as Wellingdon’s assistant tries to disarm the bomb. No, there are no discussions of which wire to cut. You can’t expect grandpa to do everything; he’s got to leave something for future generations to do.

Desperate Housewives(2009. Episode “Home is the Place,” written by Jamie Gorenberg. 60 minutes): The laughers.

The networks, including the cable networks, have finished running their repeats of old holiday specials and are back with some new episodes. This one is a relatively minor one, but Gorenberg does something I have been waiting for a long time for the show to do. In her talk show appearances, Eva Longoria Parker has demonstrated that she has a wonderful, borderline lewd, laugh. Gaby takes herself so seriously we never get to hear the laugh on the show. In this episode, Gaby is listening to Susan dither over whether she had sex with Lee, one of the gay men in the neighborhood, and Gaby lets loose with Longoria Parker’s great laugh.

That alone would have made the episode for me, but Gorenberg also introduced a new character, Melina, who is the mother of Alex, the gay doctor Bree’s son Andrew is now engaged to. Bree and Melina duel over who can get the kids to love each of them the most. Melina is a definite contrast to Bree: casual and earthy. And the show has cast in the role Joanna Cassidy, perfect for the part. Gorenberg has given her and Marcia Cross a lot of fun scenes to play. But here is the potential beauty part: Cassidy has one of the greatest laughs in the history of movies. You don’t get her laugh in this episode, but I for one am looking for a laugh-off between Cassidy and Longoria Parker. As a British critic wrote several years ago, there is no more revolutionary image than that of a woman laughing. How about two?

Alas, in the following episode, “Connect! Connect!” Malina was nowhere to be seen. Bring back the laughs and the laughers.

NCIS (2009. Episode “Caged” written by Alfonso H. Moreno. 60 minutes): Know it all.

I’ve never gotten caught up in NCIS, since it is usually on Tuesday nights when I teach and I have enough on my DVR. My wife is a big fan (she remembers when hunky Mark Harmon was the quarterback at UCLA), so since I am off teaching during January, I gave it another watch. Nice set of characters. Interesting actors. In this episode, McGee, the geekiest investigator of the bunch, is sent into a woman’s prison to try to get a confession from a woman prisoner for a decades-old murder. The inmates riot and McGee is held hostage. So Harmon’s Special Agent Jethro Gibbs comes into the prison and gives the warden a hard time, repeatedly asking him if he has ever dealt with this kind of situation. The warden gets flustered, and Gibbs takes over. Why is it that the stars in these shows always know best? Why doesn’t the warden tell Gibbs that he has dealt with these situations many times. Or why doesn’t he ask Gibbs if HE has ever dealt with this situation? I know, the star’s the star, but still. Make your supporting characters strong and interesting and it challenges you to make your lead characters all that much more stronger.

Privileged(2009. Episode “All About What Lies Beneath” written by Anna Fricke. 60 minutes): Clueless meets The Gilmore Girls.

I had never seen this show before, but in the coverage on LA’s Channel 5 (the local CW outlet) of the Rose Parade they kept running trailers for this episode. It had a scene you don’t often see in teen romantic comedies. One of the girls is trying to seduce one of the guys and jumps on her bed. Forgetting the bedspread is satin. She slides off and lands on the floor.

So I gave it shot, without looking up anywhere what it was about. There are three girls whom we take to be teenagers, although played by actresses in their twenties. I assumed they were sisters, but it turns one of them is actually supposed to be in her twenties, and she has been hired to tutor the younger girls. The younger girls are living in a mansion in Palm Beach, I think with their grandmother, although in this episode we do not see her. In this episode we never see Megan, the Yale grad in her twenties, teach the kids anything. The kids decide that since they have to give away some of their foundation money, they will have a benefit lunch for Cuban children. They decide on this since one of the girls has the hots for the Latino chief of the house, assuming he is Cuban. He is not, and the girls’ lack of interest in Cuba is about to be revealed to all at the lunch when it turns out one of the girls actually knows about Cuba. Where did she learn that? Or rather when did she learn that? The show is trying to have it both ways: the girls are silly rich girls, but they are not that silly. The movie Clueless sort of managed that, but Privileged is rather clunky about it.

Oh, the scene with satin bedspread? Funny, and there ought to be more of it.

30 Rock(2009. Episode “Senor Macho Solo” written by Ron Wiener. 30 minutes): Do not adjust your set. Salma Hayek is taking over Thursday nights on all networks.

In US#13, I expressed delight that 30 Rock was getting away from using guest stars. Well, consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds, as Madonna always says. Here we have two guest stars, both beautifully used. Liz is still obsessed about having a baby and is cooing at every baby she sees, as well as patting kids on the head. Oops, that one is not a kid. It is Stuart, a little person, played by Peter Dinklage. Liz insists she did not think he was a kid, and they try to date. It does not work out. She wants another chance and they agree to meet on the Brooklyn Bridge at a certain time. Well, of course, the Empire State Building is booked for years in advance for that sort of thing. They meet, she screws up again. So we may not see Stuart again, but I hope we do. Anytime you can get Dinklage being testy, you are ahead on points.

The other guest star is Salma Hayek. Not content with exec producing Ugly Betty, here she’s a nurse Jack hires to take care of his mother. The writing between her and Jack is not as sharp as the Liz-Stuart scenes, since it involves Jack getting sentimental about her family, but the acting chemistry between Alec Baldwin and Hayek is dandy. They kiss at the end of the episode, so she may be back. Unless she shows up as Laurence Fishbourne’s new boss on CSI in the May sweeps.

Damages(2009. Episode “I Lie, Too,” written by Todd A. Kessler & Glenn Kessler & Daniel Zelman. 70 minutes): Patty’s back.

I watched most of the first season of this show, but eventually it got wearying. All those people doing nasty things to each other, most of them in secret. Yes, the acting was great, but the plotting got excessive.

Now the gang is back, including Arthur Frobisher, whom we all assumed was dead. This first episode spends most of its time setting up the several hundred plot and character lines we are going to have to follow. Like a lot of good openings—see the summary of the opening of Seven Days to Noon above—it raises more questions than it answers. But it is 70 minutes’ worth of questions, and the question I was left with is, do I really want to invest the amount of time it is going to take to work all this out? The characters are not as fresh as they were last year, and we are EXPECTING the surprises this year, so they probably won’t be that surprising.

What Damages is running into here is the problem that many shows have: they develop such complicated plots and mythologies (24, Lost, Battlestar Galactica) that it takes an enormous effort to keep up. Is it worth it? As you may guess from that, I’m still undecided on Damages.

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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Review: In Angels Are Made of Light, a Nation Rebuilds in the Ruins of War

The film is an intimate portrait of a nation terminally anxious about who will see fit to rule it next.

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Angels Are Made of Light
Photo: Grasshopper Film

Early in Angels Are Made of Light, a voice breaks through a sea of chatter in a classroom teeming with young boys: “I only know about the time since I was born. What’s history?” The child goes on to explain that history isn’t taught at the Daqiqi Balkhi high school in Kabul, Afghanistan. The question’s poignance is self-evident, particularly because the building itself appears to have been disturbed by the city’s recent trauma. The opening shot of James Longley’s first film since Iraq in Fragments captures splotches of sunlight entering through holes in the school’s exterior. Later, one of the building’s walls collapses, and the children relocate to a location supported by American funding.

Though it inevitably gestures toward American occupation, Angels Are Made of Light is rare in its nearly undivided attention to civilian life in a region fundamentally altered by the U.S.’s so-called war on terror. Much of the film is composed of footage Longley shot at Daqiqi Balkhi from 2011 to 2014, with a particular focus on three brothers: Rostam, Sohrab, and Yaldash. The trio speak in voiceover throughout, and seem to define themselves by their relative interest in work and studying. Sohrab excels in school and doesn’t see himself as fit for manual labor, while the older Rostam works closely with their father. Yaldash, the youngest, works at a tin shop and is anguished when his job interferes with his educational aspirations.

The documentary’s classroom scenes exude a tone of controlled chaos, shot mostly at eye level with the students as they struggle to hear and be heard over the din of their classmates. (This is particularly true at their school’s first location, where numerous classes are taught outside right next to one another.) The passage of time is marked by changes in seasons and the repetition of certain ceremonies, like a teacher appreciation day featuring musical performances by students. Concurrently, there’s a Malickian quality to the near-constant voiceover of the brothers, whose concerns veer from the quotidian (earning money for the family, achieving in school) to the philosophical. Though their voices are profound, their limited perspective yields lengthy stretches of repetitive, meandering sentiments that are inflated by John Erik Kaada’s sometimes intrusive score.

If the children aren’t taught about their country’s history as a site of hostile takeover by other countries, the Taliban, and groups of mujahideen, they have clearly internalized the trauma their homeland has endured. “Death is coming. Doomsday is coming. Everything is coming,” one says. All seem to agree that learning about computers (none of which are seen in the documentary) is the only sure ticket to an escape or a successful career.

As Angels Are Made of Light proceeds, its chorus of narrative voices expands, adding a number of teachers (including the boys’ mother) and another schoolboy who sells hot food at an open market. The teachers add flashes of historical context, which Longley plays over archival footage of Kabul and its ruling governments over the previous decades. Cuts between the city’s past and its present are stark: The contemporary skyline is pockmarked with absent buildings that have been replaced by makeshift structures, and the city’s center is now cluttered with billboards advertising mobile phones and alcohol produced in NATO countries. Eventually, Longley shows current political action in the streets, as mujahideen gather to flog themselves in public, other groups march for democracy, and all focus their attention on 2014 presidential election where Hamid Karzai democratically transfers power to his successor, Ashraf Ghani, as rumors swirl about the Americans’ sway over the vote.

Longley’s decision to avoid addressing Afghani politics until the latter half of his film is sound, perhaps a signal that his young characters are becoming more attuned to the corruption that pervades daily operations in their city, but Angels Are Made of Light lacks the sort of structural framework that can properly sustain its lack of plot and rather confusing array of editorialists speaking in voiceover. The closest the film comes to a guiding focus is the recurring image of a large, ghostly white blimp that looms over Kabul, a blot of menace as children and other citizens look to the sky in hope or prayer. Presumably an observational surveillance craft, the blimp is an ironic mirror of the documentarian’s predicament—a totem that reminds everyone who sees it of the West’s influence on their lives. Longley is aware that his camera serves a similar function, and it’s admirable that he’s able to achieve an intimate portrait of a nation terminally anxious about who will see fit to rule it next.

Director: James Longley Distributor: Grasshopper Film Running Time: 117 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Mike Wallace Is Here Honors a Legend by Arguing with Him

Much like its subject, Avi Belkin’s documentary knows how to start an argument.

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Mike Wallace Is Here
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

Much like its subject, Mike Wallace Is Here knows how to start an argument. Avi Belkin’s archival documentary begins with the legendary broadcaster (who died in 2012) interviewing Bill O’Reilly at the peak of the latter’s influence as a Fox News blowhard. “That is not an interview, that’s a lecture,” Wallace moans before O’Reilly calls him a “dinosaur” and then really twists the knife: “You’re the driving force behind my career,” he tells Wallace. The exchange is riveting and, in some ways, inscrutable, as both of these TV personalities are so skilled at performance it can seem impossible to know if their dialogue is in earnest or some knowing fight among titans happy to march into battle.

Though it’s almost certainly fair to say that Wallace set the stage for an era of ostentatious and increasingly dangerous “personality journalism,” the breadth and quality of Wallace’s work is rich enough to lend some tension to Belkin’s exploration of the reporter as celebrity. Assembled with a propulsive momentum from dozens of televised interviews of and by Wallace, Mike Wallace Is Here portrays its subject as a self-made man, or, as his colleague Morley Safer calls him, “an invention.” Born Myron Wallace, he adopted his broadcast name while working as a performer on radio and then television, a decision made with no shortage of anxiety due to Wallace’s self-consciousness about his acne scars from childhood.

Ironically, Wallace’s breakthrough as a broadcaster (after a series of acting and promotional gigs) came with a show that revolutionized the television interview through its intense lighting and use of invasive closeups. Clips from his show Night-Beat—the first of two Wallace-led interview programs sponsored by cigarette companies and cloaked in smoke—reveal that the media personality was already aware of the showmanship innate in his brand of journalism. He introduces the show by saying “My role is that of a reporter,” and hones his skill for unsettling his guests with obnoxious editorial comments before asking questions. (“Many people hated your husband, and you,” he once said to Eleanor Roosevelt.)

Belkin weaves Wallace’s personal story into the documentary’s parade of interviews in a manner that’s unsurprisingly superficial, glossing over his many marriages, the death of his 19-year-old son, Peter, in a mountain-climbing accident in Greece in 1962 (Wallace cites the tragedy as a pivotal moment in the creation of 60 Minutes and the revival of his career), and a suicide attempt circa 1986. In interviews where Wallace is the subject—with the likes of Barbara Walters and other 60 Minutes colleagues—he’s alternately open and evasive about these flashpoints in his life, often demonstrating the very behavior he has no patience for as an interviewer. Belkin shrewdly reveals Wallace’s hypocrisy through editing, cutting to, for instance, a clip of Wallace grilling Larry King about his string of failed marriages.

Mike Wallace Is Here only suffers in its treatment of the broadcaster’s time at 60 Minutes, dispensing with cleverly edited commentary in favor of a swift survey of the major news of the second half of the 20th century. These include necessary digressions, such as General William C. Westmoreland’s libel suit against a CBS Reports special that Wallace anchored accusing the Army general of falsifying the American military’s analysis of the strength of the Vietnamese army in order to keep the war in Vietnam going, and the tumultuous process of televising Wallace’s interview with the tobacco industry whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand (the subject of Michael Mann’s The Insider). But this extensive highlight reel seems to forget that the documentary is scrutinizing Wallace as it’s celebrating him.

At its nerviest, Mike Wallace Is Here uses the words of other celebrities to psychoanalyze Wallace. The film argues (and at times Wallace acknowledges) that his success is a product of his sense of shame, first about the way that he looked and then about the way that he behaved, loved, and parented. When Wallace is coy, Belkin effectively imagines a more honest response by cutting to someone else saying what he believes is true. After showing Wallace dancing around his lack of pride for a while, he cuts to Barbara Streisand talking about how “fear is the energy toward doing your best work.” In the very same interview, she calls Wallace “a son of a bitch,” and Mike Wallace Is Here is at its best when it seems to be in direct debate with this journalistic legend. The film honors Wallace best when it seems to be arguing with him.

Director: Avi Belkin Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 94 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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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 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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