Coming Up In This Column: Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, Angels & Demons, The Dam Busters, In Plain Sight, Glee, The End of the Television Season, but first…
Fan Mail: First of all, thanks to those who mentioned in their comments on US#25 that they liked the column even if they disagreed with it. As I said near the beginning of the run of the column, I like to start discussions.
A couple of readers took me to task for not understanding Sugar. “Wrongshore” listed a number of reasons he felt Sugar had left the farm team, so it was clear to him as it was not to me. I agreed with him that every one of the reasons he mentioned might be the reasons, but I just did not think the film did the work that Wrongshore did in figuring out what the reasons were. “Anonymous” mentioned that a Chinese woman and a Thai woman at a Q&A in San Francisco both felt the film was their lives. I’m glad they did, but there are a number of films that cover the immigrant experience better. I have mentioned El Norte in writing about a couple of films and it is still one of the best. A more obscure one that I just love (and showed again a couple of weeks ago in my History of Documentary Film class at LACC) is Mai’s America, about a teenaged Vietnamese girl who comes to the U.S. as an exchange student. My foreign students feel that film is their life. I think it’s available on DVD, or you could just come and take my class the next time I show it.
I agree with “Max Winter” that State of Play is not as rushed as we were all afraid it might have been, what with condensing a mini-series into a feature. Credit the three screenwriters with knowing what they needed to have. “Anonymous” thought the miniseries was great, which means I will have to check it out some time. Meanwhile, here’s some stuff I have checked out lately.
Ghosts of Gilfriends Past (2009. Written by Jon Lucas & Scott Moore. 100 minutes): Sometimes it’s the writers.
To see or not to see? The trailers for this one looked moderately amusing, and I like Jennifer Garner enough to put up with Matthew McConaughey. There were at least a couple of good lines in the trailer. Then the reviews were generally poor. And a clip on one of the talk shows suggested nobody knew how to cut the cake-falling scene. But then I learned that the writers were two of the four writers on Four Christmases, which you will remember from US#13 that I liked a whole lot more than the critics.
Well, this one has its moments, but is not quite up to that one. The structure of Four Christmases, which probably came from the other two writers (they get credit for the story and are the first credited on the screenplay, which usually means they worked on it first), was more inventive than this one. While the earlier film worked several variations on the family-holiday genre, this one at first seems to be a wedding film, although that turns out to be less true than you might think. Then there is the obvious romantic comedy element: Connor Mead, a womanizer, will realize the error of his ways and end up with Jenny, the girl he has had an off-and-on crush on since they were kids. So we pretty much know the road we are taking in a way we did not in Four Christmases. As anyone can tell from the trailer, that road is a variation on A Christmas Carol (and Charlie Dickens needs to get a new agent—he is not mentioned anywhere in the credits). So Lucas and Moore have three sets of constraints to work with.
Which they do reasonably effectively. Conner’s anti-love attitude is as much a disruption at the wedding as Kym’s was in Rachel Getting Married, and his change of heart rectifies the problems he causes earlier. One problem is that the writers keep harping on Conner’s horn-dog attitudes, which you do not need to do if you have cast Matthew McConaughey. If you have Clint Eastwood walk into the film as a tough cop, you don’t need to keep telling us he’s tough. After McConaughey was cast, they should have gone through the script and condensed it a lot. On the other hand, Lucas and Moore write several other interesting characters for the wedding, including the bride’s father, an old (older in the script than he can possibly be in Robert Forster’s performance) Army man. The bride’s mother, is not given a lot to do, other than a nice early scene with Conner. I like that Lucas and Moore have continued what they started in Four Christmases in creating some nice roles for more mature actors. Men of a certain age such as myself still think Anne Archer, who plays the mother, is a fox.
Jenny is a good fit for Jennifer Garner, since it enables her to use her considerable charm. Jenny is also smart. Let me say that again. She is also smart. I don’t know if this is in the script, or just a great detail from the set decorator, but she has an uneven stack of books on the floor by her bed. Like she actually reads them. She is a doctor and we believe she is, unlike Cameron Diaz in There’s Something About Mary. From very early in the picture, Jenny has Conner’s number and on several occasions takes him down a peg. Not quite up to Hildy and Walter in His Girl Friday, but the thinking is the same.
The writers have written a nice version of Marley’s Ghost for Michael Douglas to play, and the first ghost that visits Conner is Allison Vandermeersh, the 16-year-old he lost his virginity to. Emma Stone is terrific, even if she does overdo it. At one point she shows Conner a lineup of all the women he has ever had, and several of them tell him how long they were his girlfriends. Some for a very short time. This is a domesticated version of the great harem sequence in Fellini’s 8 ½ and funny, if not quite as magical. The ghost of the present is Melanie, Conner’s assistant, whom we just thought was a minor character in the opening scene, but she gets more to do in the center of the film. The ghost of things yet to come is a blonde in a diaphanous gown who never says a word, a nice change of pace from all the talk in the other scenes. She does get one great bit of business near the end of the film. In the morning after, Lucas and Moore throw in one direct steal from A Christmas Carol that produced the best laugh in the film for me. By then we are into Conner’s story more than the Carol connection, but pay attention to the little kid shoveling snow.
Not only do Lucas and Moore make Jenny smart, they give her another potential boyfriend, whom the bride (who is not written as a conventional bridezilla, just a woman who wants her wedding to be perfect) has invited as a possible hookup for Jenny. He is Brad, he is a doctor, and he is wonderful. In many ways we would be happier if Jenny went with him (how much you feel that way may depend on what you think of McConaughey). I don’t know when he was cast, but it may not be an accident that he looks more than a little like Barack Obama. When Jenny and Connor finally get together, I kept wondering what happened to Brad. The writers did not let me down: he gets paired off quickly with someone you would not expect.
Oh, and the editing of the cake scene. It is much better in the film than it was in the trailer or the film clip. Leave film editing to the professionals.
Angels & Demons (2009. Screenplay by David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman, based on the novel by Dan Brown. 138 minutes): Sometimes it’s not the writers.
To see or not to see, take two. You may remember (US#2) that I really did not like The DaVinci Code. So what am I doing seeing the sequel? In a theater, no less First of all, it’s May and the BIG summer movies are coming out one a week, and I was in the mood for a big noisy movie. Since I have no taste for or intention to see stuff like Wolverine, Star Trek, Terminator or the upcoming Transformers, that sort of leaves Angels & Demons. The trailer has its interesting moments, including a relatively light one in which Tom Hanks’s Professor Langdon reacts to some problems the Vatican guys are giving him with, “Hey, you fellows called me.” A perfect line for Hanks. Then it seemed as though it was going to have a little more action than the first one. A friend of mine who has read both The DaVinci Code and this book said this one was more likely to make an interesting film. Ewan McGregor, who plays McKenna, showed up with a clip on The Tonight Show and suggested he and Hanks were able to get a little actor stuff going. And the deal maker was that it was shot in some of my favorite places in Rome, one of my most favorite cities in the world. So why not?
Well, it’s no Roman Holiday or Three Coins in the Fountain, but it is not as awful as The DaVinci Code. I suspect that Goldsman, who wrote the first one, and Ron Howard, who directed both, realized this was a chance at a do-over to show they were not as incompetent as the first film suggested. (I have always thought that Spielberg did the second Jurassic Park movie because he knew how badly he had geeked the first one—see the chapter on the three Jurassic Park movies in my book Understanding Screenwriting for details.) The Koepp-Goldsman script here is much less talky than Goldsman’s for Code. We get some lengthy, repetitive exposition (the newscast voiceover at the beginning made me a little nervous), but nothing like Sir Leigh Teabing in the first one. And a lot of the exposition is delivered while everybody in the movie is running around all those great Roman locales, such as the Pantheon and the Bernini Four Rivers fountain in the Piazza Navona. I did not notice any credits for physical trainers for the cast, but they must have had them, given all that running.
The plot, while preposterous in MANY different ways, at least moves fast, so you do not have time to think about it. All right, sometimes you cannot avoid noticing the plot holes. How can one guy have kidnapped the four cardinals? How did that other guy know that they would find the canister at exactly that time? Why did the College of Cardinals let McKenna into their conference? And then why did they let him make the longest and dullest speech in the film? Generally though, the story moves quickly enough, and with a lot more suspense than that of The DaVinci Code. There is more at stake here than the doctrinal question in the earlier film, and the find-them-before-they-blow-up-the-Vatican timeline keeps our attention.
The script does go on too long after the big St. Peter’s Square scene. I must admit I looked at my watch when that scene was finished and said to myself, “This is going to go on for another twenty minutes?” It does, and not in a good way.
While there is nothing in here like the story in Code that will offend the Church, the script does get in a couple of little digs that Howard skates over in his direction. For example, at one point after an early vote for the Pope, newscasters from each country are shown announcing that the cardinals from their country are the favorites. It doesn’t have the comic punch it should. And a reference to the Vatican not being a large corporation is done while passing a Mercedes the Vatican owns. O.K., but you could do more with it.
A scene early in the film is a good demonstration of the hit-and-miss quality of the film. Langdon and Vittoria Vetra (I can only assume that name is Dan Brown’s inside joke, since it is close to Victoria Vetri, the 1968 Playmate of the Year who, under her stage name Angela Dorian, appeared in Rosemary’s Baby, in which Mia Farrow asks her character if she is Victoria Vetri) have been granted access to the Vatican Archives. They find the rare manuscript they are seeking and then, even though the lives of the kidnapped cardinals are at stake, TALK about the meaning of it. Maybe that is Ron Howard’s fault, but I would have thought that Langdon would start looking through it AS they talk. But then Vetra brings the scene to a funny and surprising close. Vetra, by the way, is played by the great Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer, who was Avner’s wife in Munich. Unlike Audrey Tautou in Code or, going back further, Emmanuelle Béart in Mission Impossible, she is a non-American actress who instinctively understands how to hold her own is a big noisy American film. She even steals a couple of shots from Tom Hanks, which is more than just petty larceny.
The Dam Busters (1955. Screenplay by R. C. Sherriff, based on the book by Paul Brickhill and the book Enemy Coast Ahead by Wing Comdr. Guy Gibson. 125 minutes): The British version, “N” word and all.
Nearly every Memorial Day I pay tribute to those who served in the armed forces by watching a war movie. You have to pick carefully, of course. One year it was Bridge on the River Kwai, which does not exactly honor those in the military. I figured this year it would be my DVD of The Great Escape. I recently read Glenn Lovell’s Escape Artist: The Life and Films of John Sturges, a solid, modest (under 300 pages, in comparison with those door-stop director biographies we usually get) book on a director whose films (Bad Day at Black Rock and The Magnificent Seven in addition to Escape) give as much pleasure as anybody’s. Then TCM, in its usual 36 hours of war movies on the Memorial Day weekend, ran the British version of The Dam Busters. So even though Memorial Day is an American holiday, I paid tribute to our cousins and their efforts to blow up three important German dams during World War II.
I had seen and liked the American cut when I saw it in 1955 and have not seen it since. The American cut is 22 to 23 minutes shorter depending on who’s counting. There were two obvious areas that were probably cut (I remember a lot about movies, but there are limits, even to my movie memory) for the American release. The first half-hour of the film includes some nice scenes of B.N. Wallis, the Vickers engineer who devised the scheme, trying to convince the British bureaucrats it might work. The bureaucrats are not shown as stupid, just skeptical, as well they should be. Wallis’ idea was to drop a bomb on the reservoirs behind the days and have it bounce over the defenses, then sink to 30 feet under water, and explode at the base of the dam. Would you believe such an idea? The second section that was probably condensed was the slower portion leading up to the raid, where we watch the airman writing letters to loved ones and getting their affairs in order. While I am generally of the opinion, often expressed here, that longer is not better, both sets of scenes add to the film.
One change that had to have been made for the American market was the nickname of Wing Comdr. Gibson’s dog. Apparently he really was called a word beginning with “N” that rhymes with digger. It’s there all the way through this version, but it was probably looped in the American version.
The film is very much in the tradition of the British documentaries of the war, and a lot of the bombing raid, which takes up the last 45- or so minutes of the film could come straight out of Harry Watt’s 1941 Target for Tonight. There is the usual British understatement throughout the film. Michael Redgrave plays Wallis as one of those slightly distracted but obsessive British scientists, the forerunner of Q in the Bond films. Richard Todd plays Gibson as a little nicer than he apparently was in real life, but with more of a hearty, friendly quality than a stiff upper lip.
Sherriff’s script is great at not telling us things until we need to know them. We have no idea in the opening scene why Wallis is skimming marbles out of a water tub, but we want to find out, so we are hooked. It is well past the hour mark when Wallis finally tells the bureaucrats where the idea originally came from. The one scene everybody who saw the film remembers is Gibson getting the idea of how to keep the plane at the right height—since they have to fly so low the altimeters do not work. We have already been told what the problem is, and then we have what we first think is a little throwaway scene of Gibson and a friend at a theatrical show. We see Gibson thinking, and we see what he looks at, but there is no dialogue about it. Next we see his plan in action. And only in the next scene do we get an explanation, which by then we really want to hear.
Rumor has it that Peter Jackson is producing a remake. I am sure it will be bigger, and the special effects (which seem chintzy to us these days, but which got an Oscar nomination) will be much more elaborate. I am not sure he can improve on Sherriff’s script, but if he does not mess up the story and have Hobbits flying the planes, I’ll be there.
In Plain Sight (2009. Episode “Rubble With a Cause” written by Alexander Cary. Episode “Aguna Matatala,” written by David Slack. Each episode 60 minutes): Ah, the road not taken.
In “Rubble,” Lewis, a witness in a bombing, got heroic when he saw another building bombed and went in to try to save people. Unfortunately this got his face on television before he was trapped under some of the rubble. So Mary and her team have to try to a) protect him from being shot by a sniper, b) protect him from being outed by a nosy reporter, and c) keep him from dying. Mary of course is the one who threads through the rubble to sit by him. After all, she’s the star of show. Unlike a lot of other episodes, there is not a lot of running around in this one. And the witness is not a flake, unlike the pot farmer and the woman with three kids (see US#25). Lewis is an ex-military man who now works for a private security firm. In one of the best scenes, he and Mary talk about how you deal with having killed somebody. The suspense is structured well and there are multiple twists. What Mary’s partner Marshall thinks is a sniper on a roof is just the reporter and her cameraman. Lewis’s former partner, the defendant in the case, is not trying to kill him as we all thought. This A story is a good one, well told.
The problem is Brandi. She keeps calling Peter, the man she met at AA when she pretended to be her mom. He won’t return her calls. She goes to the meeting place, but he won’t talk to her. She shows up at a meeting and admits to one and all what she did. She apologizes, says they are doing a great thing, and leaves.
In “Aguna Matatala” Peter shows up at Mary’s house to thank Brandi for speaking up and ask her out. It also turns out he’s very rich. So what does he want with Brandi? Has his sobriety made him so dense he does not realize she is a flake? He wants to take her to a swell society function. What is this man thinking? The episode ends with Peter and Brandi, who does look gorgeous (with a little help from Jinx, who is visiting on a day off from rehab) heading off to the ball. Do you have the same suspicion I do that the AA Thought Police forced the showrunners to turn Peter and Brandi into something conventional, rather than the unconventional approach I suggested in US#25?
Glee (2009. Episode “Pilot” written by Ryan Murphy & Brad Flachuck & Ian Brennan. 60 minutes): Not as smart-assed as it thinks it is.
Fox promoted this new show as being so good they could show the pilot in May and then not run the rest of the series until the Fall. Good luck with that. The hype was that this was fresh and original, like Murphy’s cable show Nip/Tuck. It is not that fresh nor original. The setup is that Will Schuester, a high school teacher, is taking over running the glee club. Ah yes, another straight white male who will enlighten the multi-culti heathens. We also have the dumb football coach, the uncaring principal, the sports jock who can sing, the talented but bossy girl, the nerd in the wheelchair and of the course the fat and sassy Black girl. There is also a lot of snarky dialogue, which gets tiresome very quickly, since there does not seem to be a lot of point to it. The intent was to be a sort of satire of the “high school musical” type. There are moments that suggest that, but then there are other moments when the writers seem to be taking all this seriously, as in Will’s dropping the club, then deciding to come back. That is played for unearned sentiment. O.K., this is the pilot, and there are trying to stuff as much into it as they can, a flaw in most pilots, but they simply have not got the balance right.
The End of the Season: And maybe an era.
While cable tends to go on year around, or at least at times the networks are into reruns, the network shows are finishing their seasons. In this item I am going to look at a few of them, and make a few guesses on what the future will bring for writing for the networks. First up is Castle, which has developed nicely since I first wrote about in US#21. There has been a lot less smirking by Castle and eye-rolling by Beckett. Castle’s daughter Alexis is still the most mature one of the bunch, and Susan Sullivan has been given several good scenes as Castle’s mom. As I suspected when I first wrote about it, they have not repeated Castle’s poker games with real mystery writers. Castle and Beckett have developed a working relationship that is not all flirting and bantering. Beckett seems a real professional.
The story structures seem to borrow from Law & Order: what we first suspect is true turns out not to be, as is the next thing, etc. This works nicely with Castle coming up with way out suggestions for what the case may be about. Beckett and the other cops know he is probably wrong, as Castle will cheerfully admit when he is proved wrong. Castle also uses his connections, including those on the other side of the law. In the final episode, “A Death in the Family” (teleplay by Andrew W. Marlowe, story by Marlowe and Barry Schindel), Castle talks to a Mafia guy he knows to find out whom the mob has put out a hit on. Beckett couldn’t do that, but it is useful information.
In the “Little Girl Lost” episode (written by Elizabeth Davis) we meet F.B.I. agent Sorenson, with whom Beckett had an affair. The affair ended when he moved to the Boston office, but he is now back in New York and ready to take up with Beckett again. She is not so sure she wants to do that, although she is clearly still attracted. We also find out in that episode from Sorenson that Beckett has been a big fan of Castle’s books since long before he came to work with her. Nothing more is done with that at this point. In “A Death in the Family” Castle goes looking into the murder of Beckett’s mother even after Beckett has told him not to. A forensic scientist looks at the file and tells Castle the mother was probably the victim of a serial killer. Castle is reluctant to tell Beckett, but his mother insists he should. He is about to when the final fadeout comes.
CSI has still not found its bearings since Grissom left. Catherine has taken over command of the unit, but the various writers have not written her as though she has taken over. Marg Helgenberg could certainly play that (look at her as K.C. in China Beach), but the writing is not there. The writers are giving a lot of screen time to Langston, but he is not the one in charge, since he is the newbie. Laurence Fishburne certainly has command presence, but they have not created a character that lets him use it.
How I Met Your Mother IS still playing us and Ted’s kids along as to who the mother is. Are you getting as tired of this as the kids must be? The kids have been on that damned couch for four years listening to dad tell these stories. Hasn’t it occurred to either of them just to get up, go in the kitchen and get the short version from their mom so they can all get on with their lives? Or is Ted more sadistic than we thought? Is that going to be the finale of the show: Child Protective Services breaking down the door and rescuing the kids?
The “Right Place Right Time” episode (written by Stephen Lloyd) ran an elaborate set of actions that showed how Ted, carrying the all-important yellow umbrella, ended up on a street corner where he met, ta-da, Stella. Who left him at the altar earlier in the season. But in the “As Far As She Can” episode (written by Carter Bays & Craig Thomas) the next week, we learn Stella is not their mom. She is still with Tony, who wants to make it up to Ted for Stella dumping him. Not much good comes out of that, although there is a hint that something will in the future. In other words, exactly the thing that keeps clogging up the show. In the season finale “The Leap” (written by Bays and Thomas), Ted gives up architecture and turns to teaching. He tells us in the narration that the mother is in his class. Pull out to reveal a class of several hundred people.
Meanwhile, Bays and Thomas have finally gotten back to Barney and Robin. Barney is about to tell Robin he loves her when she tells him she loves him. And Barney replies that they are just friends. We find out that Robin had heard Barney telling Ted he was in love with her, so she discussed it with Lily, who suggested she tell him first, which would naturally make him have second thoughts. This eventually leads to a scene in which Robin and Barney are alternately admitting and retracting their love. Neil Patrick Harris and Cobie Smulders have a fine time with it.
I do, by the way, have a little sympathy for the show’s writers in the second half of the season. Both Cobie Smulders (Robin) and Alyson Hannigan (Lily) are very, very pregnant. Neither pregnancy was written into the show, so for the last several episodes both actresses have been sitting down a lot, holding LARGE purses in front of them, etc. It limits what the writers can do.
The writers of Two and a Half Men have been writing themselves into a corner. Charlie and Chelsea are engaged and appear to be headed for marriage. This happened several years ago with Charlie and Mia and the writers wrote their way out of that one. In “Good Morning Mrs. Butterworth” (teleplay by Eddie Gorodetsky & Mark Roberts, story by Don Foster & Sid Youngers), the next to the last episode, they lay out an interesting possibility that would have, alas, completely changed the character of the show. In the episode, Alan and Chelsea are becoming good friends. He goes shopping with her at the Farmer’s Market and discusses physical exercises. As Berta points out to Charlie, Alan is Chelsea’s gay best friend. Alan of course is straight and one can imagine what might happen if he took Chelsea away from Charlie. Like I say, it would completely disrupt the show.
The writers’ solution to the problem, or the possible solution, showed up in the last episode, “Baseball Was Better with Steroids” (teleplay by Chuck Lorre and Lee Aronsohn, story by Mark Roberts & Susan Beavers). Alan, who tried ventriloquism as a hobby in the previous episode, is now in a coffee shop trying to write a screenplay. Who shows up but Mia. She is divorced and back in town. When Alan tells Charlie, Charlie realizes he still has feelings for Mia, which is essentially where the season ends (after Judith has given birth to what we all know is Alan’s baby). Not a big cliffhanger, but enough to give them something to work with next year.
Desperate Housewives got rid of Edie (US#24) and in the two-part season finale (“Everybody Says Don’t” written by John Pardee & Joey Murphy, “It’s Only in Your Head” written by Jeffrey Richmond) they also finish off the Dave storyline. Dave has tried and failed to kill Mike, Susan, and finally their son, M.J. Dave has been shipped off to the hospital for the criminally insane, so presumably we won’t be seeing him any time soon. In “The Born Identity” episode (written by Steven Ross) of Ugly Betty they sent Betty’s one true friend at Mode, Christina, back to Scotland. They had earlier gotten rid of Betty’s two boyfriends, Henry and Gio, and sent Helena off to a new job. In the two-part season finale (“Curveball” written by Terry Proust & Jon Kinally, “The Fall Issue” written by Silvia Horta) they kill off Daniel’s bride Molly, and it looks as though they may be getting rid of Marc, although that is left very much up in the air. I hope they keep him, since he provides a nice wacky presence, and both the writers and actor Michael Urie have done some nice work deepening a character you would not have thought was very deep. Henry was brought back in this two-parter, but only temporarily, so he is now gone for a second time.
The attrition rate on network shows is an effect of the recession on network television. The big sponsors, like the car companies, will have less and less to spend on advertising, and the networks will have to get along with less money for programming. So next season will see more “reality” shows as well as NBC having nothing but Jay Leno at 10 p.m. five nights a week, eliminating the time slots where they used to have ER, Homicide: Life on the Streets, L.A. Law, Hill Street Blues, and a few others. What we are seeing at the end of this season is the beginning of the cuts that will be more obvious over the next seasons.
What does all this mean for both television writing and writers? First, the budgets for shows will be more limited, so writers will have to have less action and fewer characters. Instead of car crashes, there will be more and probably longer dialogue scenes, not necessarily a bad thing. Special effects will be cut back, which may hurt the science fiction shows and even a show like CSI. I for one could do with a lot less CGI and prosthetic gore on CSI, so that might also not be a bad thing. There will ultimately be fewer shows with large ensemble casts. In other words, network shows will look more like cable shows, with their limited casts and budgets. Given the quality of writing on cable shows, all of this may not be a bad thing.
The new situation may not be so good for writers, which the networks and studios won’t shed any tears over, since they still hold a grudge from last year’s writers’ strike. There will be a lot fewer jobs for writers, and some of those will have moved to Canada and other countries where production costs are cheaper. Writing staffs, including all those executive producers who are essentially writers with bigger titles, will be smaller. So the writers will be writing more, and the writing will probably be more rushed. Writers may not have time to revise a script from the Not-Quite-So Good category to the Good category. This has always been a problem with network television with its orders for 22 episodes per season. One reason writing on cable often seems better is that cable needs fewer episodes, and the writers have a chance to polish the scripts before they are shot. It is not unusual for the scripts for a mini-season to be completed before any of them are shot, which ultimately also helps keeping production costs down. That probably would not be possible with a 22-episode order, and we have already begun to see shorter orders from the networks, as with Castle in the last part of the season.
So we may be at the end, at least temporarily, of the era of the big network shows. And by big, I do not mean just in terms of production values. Will any network be able to afford an ER, with its large cast and long narrative lines? I like the under-populated Monk and In Plain Sight, but there was, and still is, some satisfaction to be found on a different level of magnitude in a great network show.
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.
Review: Vivarium Looks Aloofly at the Nightmare of Conformity
This a parable about adulthood boasts deeply cynical takes on home, community, and childrearing.2
Lorcan Finnegan’s high-concept sci-fi mystery Vivarium is a parable about adulthood with deeply cynical takes on home, community, and childrearing. Gemma (Imogen Poots) and Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) are a young couple who one afternoon tour a housing development called Yonder with its sales agent, Martin (Jonathan Aris), who dresses like a Mormon missionary. The colorless subdivision is startlingly homogenous, with identical homes in creepily neat rows (shades of Edward Scissorhands), stretching from horizon to horizon. Martin shows them house “number 9,” then disappears, and when they also try to leave the neighborhood, every road circles back to the house until their car runs out of gas. Yonder is, well, not quite even a maze, because there’s no way out. It’s a trap.
The couple is thus ushered into a nightmare of conformity, emphasized by the film’s production design. The streetscapes, often seen from overhead, are vividly and uneasily artificial, suggesting a model town; even the clouds appear painted onto the sky above. The sound design is deathly quiet except for the echoes of Gemma and Tom’s footsteps, evoking a soundstage. Yonder is a windless place, the ultimate in featureless suburbs that young city dwellers fear, where the air is odorless and the strawberries flavorless. There are no neighbors and no friends, just forced isolation—an extreme form of social distancing.
The couple is coerced into this life in service of the next generation. After trying to burn down house number nine (which just reappears in the morning), they receive a box containing a baby and a message, instructing them to raise the boy in order to be released. It’s as if bringing up children were just a form of forced labor resulting from a mistake—in this case, having toured Yonder. The boy (Senan Jennings) grows at a rate faster than dog years, reaching about seven years old in just 98 days. He screeches when he’s hungry and is otherwise eerily precocious, like a tiny adult; suspiciously observant, he recites his adoptive parents’ spats and quarrels back to them verbatim. He’s terrifying, like some sort of alien spy, and Tom and Gemma despise him, becoming physically and psychologically abusive.
Finnegan and screenwriter Garret Shanley strip away the comforts and niceties we associate with concepts of home and family, as the neighborhood here is a prison, the house a cell, and children are creepy invaders who torment their parents. It’s a fully nightmarish vision of adulting; Tom starts digging a hole in the yard, which consumes his daytime hours, keeping him from his family, as though it were his job—a jab at the meaninglessness of middle-class employment. Stuffing a lifetime into the span of less than a year, the film posits the nuclear family as something you have to submit to or go crazy should you fight against it.
As intriguing as this allegory can be to parse, it weighs down the storytelling. Vivarium, at heart, is populated with stock characters trapped less in a purgatorial suburbia than in a metaphor. Eisenberg invests Tom with his trademark arrogance, which here just makes the character flatly unlikeable. Tom comes off as a schlub, a rotten guardian and an irredeemable partner, yet the film suggests his wife loves him. Poots sells that with a rawer and more nuanced performance, making Gemma hateful yet decent, bitter but loving, trying yet fed-up. Her character is awful, like Tom, but she’s also sympathetic.
Gemma complains that all she and Tom wanted was a home, and she’s told she is home—as though this hellscape is all that a home could be. It’s an indictment of bourgeois living that stings less than it’s meant to. Vivarium is sad, but it’s too removed to be devastating, lost inside itself and its puzzles of meaning. It’s not a drama so much as an intellectual exercise.
Cast: Imogen Poots, Jesse Eisenberg, Senan Jennings, Eanna Hardwicke, Jonathan Aris Director: Lorcan Finnegan Screenwriter: Garret Shanley Distributor: Saban Films Running Time: 97 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Resistance Is an Old-Fashioned Tribute to Marcel Marceau
The film is an old-fashioned and straightforward tale of brave opposition to the Nazi occupation of France.2.5
Writer-director Jonathan Jakubowicz’s Resistance is an old-fashioned and straightforward tale of brave opposition to the Nazi occupation of France whose most potentially intriguing angle becomes its least satisfying dimension. While featuring many familiar elements, including a sarcastically reluctant hero, a mentally unbalanced sadistic villain, and nail-biter last-minute escapes, it’s centered on a character who one doesn’t often see in World War II movies: a Nazi-fighting mime.
The mime in question is Marcel Mangel (Jesse Eisenberg)—he later changed his surname to Marceau—the son of a Jewish butcher living in Strasbourg, France. Tired of wearing a smock and cutting up meat in his father’s shop, he prefers putting on a Chaplin mustache and applying greasepaint to his face in order to clown around in cabarets. His more traditionally minded father, Charles (Karl Markovics), disapproves of Marcel’s creative life, while the audiences who Marcel performs for are clearly more interested in the dancing girls.
This light family drama might seem inappropriate following the gutting opening scene, in which Elsbeth (Bella Ramsey), a young Jewish girl in Munich, sees her parents gunned down during the Kristallnacht pogrom. But the comfortingly low-stakes nature of these early scenes skillfully illustrates the gently melancholic nature of Marcel’s clowning. At the same time, they also establish just how little the future superstar and his community appreciate the extent of the genocidal danger brewing just a few miles away in Germany.
Marcel’s call to arms comes with the arrival of a truckload of Jewish orphans, including Elsbeth. Ransomed from the Nazis, the orphans are put up in a nearby castle and watched over by a troop of somewhat adult-looking Jewish Boy and Girl Scouts. Guilted by his activist brother, Sigmund (Édgar Ramirez), into helping out, and eager to impress the willowy Emma (Clemence Poesy), Marcel uses his clowning to keep the kids entertained.
At this point, with its light comedy and rapturously beautiful Rhone Valley scenery, Resistance runs the clear risk of traipsing into Life Is Beautiful territory. But with the exception of one awkward scene, in which Marcel and Emma dress up as brownshirts and mug buffoonishly while trying to scare the kids into learning how to hide, Jakubowicz mostly steers clear of any unctuous sentimentalizing of responses to genocidal evil.
This determination to keep the story’s focus on the fight against the Nazis becomes clearer once war breaks out, France is occupied, and all Jews in the country have targets on their backs. Now responsible for even more orphans, Marcel and his compatriots relocate to Lyon and join the resistance. Heightening the stakes in Lyon is the presence of Gestapo chief Klaus Barbie (Matthias Schweighofer), a blithe sadist who likes to play the piano while executing people in the drained pool of his luxury headquarters at the Hotel Terminus. While Schweighofer’s portrayal of Barbie as a bright-eyed torture-happy sociopath who always looks on the verge of giggling veers close to movie-villain shtick, the character’s dark presence keeps the immediacy of Marcel’s mission front and center.
Jakubowicz’s strengths as a director become more clear in some of the set pieces staged after the action shifts to Lyon and Marcel’s group has to balance keeping themselves and the orphans alive in France or escaping to Switzerland. Showing a strong feel for crisply capturing the tense and buttoned-down panic of undercover operatives in occupied territory, Jakubowicz also leverages Eisenberg’s skill for simultaneously signaling vulnerability and resolve.
Where Resistance is likely least effective for many audiences is its attempt to portray Marcel as a masterful performer. It’s hard not to think of Richard Attenborough’s pushy and unfunny Chaplin in some of Eisenberg’s energetic but flat scenes performing as a clown or a mime. A couple of these are fairly stiff, particularly one where Marcel clowns to keep the orphans quiet while German soldiers prowl nearby, and another of him miming for a rapt crowd of American soldiers after being introduced by General George Patton (Ed Harris). (While this latter scene is somewhat inexplicable, it appears to have actually happened, following Marcel’s work for Patton as a liaison officer—a phenomenal pairing of sunny-gruff personalities that seems worthy of its own film.) In most other aspects, however, Resistance functions as a handsomely mounted biopic that tells a little-known story with considerable passion.
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Clemence Poesy, Édgar Ramirez, Bella Ramsey, Géza Röhrig, Matthias Schweighofer, Karl Markovics, Ed Harris Director: Jonathan Jakubowicz Screenwriter: Jonathan Jakubowicz Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 121 min Rating: R Year: 2020
Review: Atlantis’s Future Vision Grapples with a Past That Never Was
The film’s use of scale to drive home the absurdity of its characters’ actions recalls Werner Herzog’s tragicomic existentialism.3
The use of apocalyptic settings has become so prevalent in fiction over the past couple of decades, perhaps more than in any time since the Cold War era, that it seems difficult to find new ways to make the concept resonate. This is particularly true as the real world starts to resemble a uniquely mundane version of the most vivid renderings of dystopia. Atlantis, Ukrainian director Valentyn Vasyanovych’s fourth feature-length fiction film, succeeds in part because the situation it depicts is barely even fictional.
Vasyanovych was inspired to make the film by a visit to the Donbass region in the eastern part of his home country, which is the site of regular clashes between government troops and pro-Russian separatists, and which has been left environmentally ravaged due to the war there. Atlantis is set in an imagined 2025, five years after the war has ended, with the Donbass area no longer fit for human habitation—as will likely be the case in reality.
Sergiy (Andriy Rymaruk) and Ivan (Vasyl Antoniak) are PTSD-addled ex-soldiers who fought and killed for a place that wasn’t worth saving, and who are under no illusions of finding a better life elsewhere. They now work at a steel mill that’s about to fall victim to the same capitalist whims they were defending as part of the victorious pro-Western forces. A glimmer of hope is eventually offered by a volunteer group that drives around the region picking up the bodies of those who fell in the war, to identify them and provide them with proper burials.
Despite the film’s basis in current geo-political and economic realities and its obvious parallels with the broader climate crisis faced by the world, it rarely engages directly with these themes. Instead, it’s more interested in how people adjust to desperation and scarcity, showing a society where armed conflict and corporate neglect have poisoned the environment and devalued human life to such an extent that people aren’t even able to grieve their losses. Vasyanovych employs long takes with almost no camera movement, combining naturalistic lighting with pictorial framing and a relatively large depth of field. As well as affording the time and space to appreciate the routines of their hardscrabble existence, this striking aesthetic serves to distance the viewer from the characters, showing these stoical figures alienated from themselves as much as they’re dwarfed by desolate industrial landscapes.
The unrelenting bleakness of this situation often becomes almost cartoonish in proportion, and the film’s slow pace occasionally conjures a tone of deadpan humor. An early scene sees Sergiy and Ivan setting up a row of life-sized dummies in the snow for shooting practice, and the depiction of this task in real time, with their truck’s engine running conspicuously in the background throughout, draws out the childish inanity of their adherence to military discipline. Later, a 1984-aping scene of assembled workers being informed of their impending redundancy by a face on a giant projector screen, with an interpreter’s Ukrainian translation disrupting the flow of this British company executive’s ruthless corporate-speak, wouldn’t be out of place in a more straightforward work of political satire.
The film’s use of scale to drive home the absurdity of its characters’ actions sometimes calls to mind Werner Herzog’s tragicomic existentialism, as well as early silent cinema. In a feat of resolve and improvisation that would make Fitzcarraldo proud (not to mention Charlie Chaplin’s shoe-eating tramp from a similarly barren locale a century prior), Sergiy cobbles together a hot tub for himself in the middle of the wasteland, filling a large digger’s bucket with water from a hose and burning petrol-soaked timber underneath it for heat. His soak in this makeshift bath is Atlantis’s most indelible image, a sight gag that also underlines his stubborn but admirable commitment to making a home where few other people dare to stay.
Appropriately for a study of humans physically engulfed by their surroundings, Atlantis is bookended by shots apparently captured with a thermal imaging camera. Initially coming across as gimmicky, representative of a broader style-over-substance artificiality that prevents the film from reaching the heights of its cinematic forebears, its final use is still surprisingly affecting. It highlights two people merging together in the warmth of postcoital intimacy, finding a new sense of belonging in the ruins. They jointly refuse to mourn a lost Atlantis that, given the state of our current reality, likely never existed for them in the first place.
Atlantis premiered last year at the Venice Film Festival and was slated to screen at the now-delayed New Directors/New Films. For sales information, please contact Best Friend Forever.
Cast: Andriy Rymaruk, Liudmyla Bileka, Vasyl Antoniak Director: Valentyn Vasyanovych Screenwriter: Valentyn Vasyanovych Running Time: 106 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Red Moon Tide Is a Haunting Elegy to Nature’s Supremacy
The film is predicated on such ineffable dread that the impact of climate change becomes a sort of Lovecraftian force.3
Lois Patiño’s Red Moon Tide is a work of unmistakable horror, one predicated on such ineffable dread that the impact of climate change becomes a sort of Lovecraftian force. Shots of flooded plains next to stagnant and drying reservoirs capture the contrasting, even contradictory ways that the world is being destroyed by the rippling effects of our hubris. The opening title sequence is a roving close-up of an ancient maritime map dotted with mythical, perilous creatures, and the hypothetical existence of a nautical monster pervades the entire film. Yet the true threats here are invisible, malignant forces of misery that cast a pall over everything, poisoning nature and rendering humans motionless.
Patiño’s extreme long shots conjure unsettling moods through their use of natural backdrops and light. Waves at moonlight crash onto a beach, the ocean as dark as arterial blood. And in a recurring image, we glimpse an inactive hydroelectric dam, its face shot at angles that turn the concrete into a frame-spanning expanse of blank space. The soaked floodplains, meanwhile, fill the air with so much mist that sunlight casts a spectral glow over the Galician countryside.
This is the perfect backdrop for the loose, haunted narrative of a local fisherman, Rubio (Rubio de Camelle), who becomes convinced that a monster is hunting the shores of his coastal town as he discovers more and more human corpses when he takes his boat out each morning. At the start of Red Moon Tide, Rubio’s boat has run around and the man himself is missing, making him a protagonist referenced more than seen as other townsfolk ruminate on whether or not the man’s hunch was right as they themselves sink deeper into malaise.
The town where these locals dwell is shot in even starker terms than the landscapes, evoking Hopper-esque portraits of stasis and alienation. The non-professional actors are arranged like mannequins and frequently silhouetted, distanced from each other and often looking in opposite directions. People rarely speak aloud, instead silently stewing in internal monologues heard in somber voiceovers in which they contemplate the monster, giving it mythological properties such as having its behaviors dictated by the wax and wane of the moon.
Mythology is a crucial element of Red Moon Tide, with a trio of witches appearing nearly a half-hour into the film in search of the missing Rubio. These women spend the remainder of the film roaming around the countryside and the seaside town, often the only people in motion in the frame. Eventually, the witches start to drape the stock-still townspeople in sheets, making them look like ghosts. Rubio himself, well before he appears on screen, becomes an unwitting Charon figure ferrying the dead when his nets turn up fewer fish than corpses of those slain by the monster, returning their bodies to land for burial.
Buried beneath this mythic text are contemporary anxieties about climate change that gives Red Moon Tide an underlying logic, but the film is at its best when surrendering entirely to its hypnotic imagery. Andrei Tarkovsky is invoked at several junctures, from a shot that studies grass waving like strands of hair in a gently flowing brook to an image that moves through silhouetted trees with mountains in the distance that fittingly reflects the last shot of 1975’s Mirror. The film thus ends with an apocalyptic intensity that gives a climactic confrontation with the lurking monster a feeling of meeting with destiny, of the creature embodying mankind’s accelerating self-destruction in the face of nature reclaiming its supremacy.
Red Moon Tide had its world premiere last month at the Berlin International Film Festival and was slated to screen at the now-delayed New Directors/New Films. For sales information, please contact Lights On.
Cast: Rubio de Camelle, Ana Marra, Carmen Martinez, Pilar Rodlos Director: Lois Patiño Screenwriter: Lois Patiño Running Time: 84 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
Review: Pushpendra Singh’s The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs
The film speaks lyrically to a peoples’ determination to find a meaningful way to live in a rapidly changing modern world.3
Based on a folktale by Vijaydan Detha and further influenced by the life and poetry of 14th-century Kashmiri mystic Lalleshwari, Pushpendra Singh’s The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs tells the story of a young nomadic shepherdess, Laila (Navjot Randhawa), who finds herself exploited by foolish, lustful men. Using traditional folk songs—each revolving around a central idea, such as marriage, migration, and attraction—Singh loosely divides the film into seven parts. Each of these musical interludes—some diegetic, some not—mark a transitionary phase in Laila’s spiritual growth and path to self-realization as she navigates a world that remains indifferent to her own dreams and desires.
After being taken as a bride by a spineless young herdsman named Tanvir (Sadakkit Bijran), Laila migrates, along with their Bakarwal clan, to a more populated area of Kashmir, where we get clear sense of the territorial conflict currently playing out between India and Pakistan. Border police and local officials badger the nomadic shepherds, asking for permits and identification cards that have never before been required of them. This rapid social change limits the mobility of the clan and threatens their way of life, but once they arrive at their destination, it’s talk of Laila’s great beauty that spreads rapidly throughout the land.
As the young woman is met by unwanted advances by the regional inspector (Ranjit Khajuria) and his goofy but somewhat charming subordinate, Mushtaq (Shahnawaz Bhat), she’s left to fend for herself by her feckless husband who constantly kowtows to their authority. Laila uses both her fearlessness and intelligence to protect herself, first pushing and slapping the inspector and, later, fooling Mushtaq time and again by setting up nighttime meetings with him, only to thwart his plans by showing up with Tanvir by her side.
These various nocturnal rendezvous with Mushtaq play out in a repetitious manner, like the episodes of a fable. While Mushtaq is relentlessly aggressive in his pursuit of Laila, Tanvir’s oblivious, overly deferential responses to the increasingly absurd manners in which the man shows up on his land in need of bananas or a sheep are threaded with deadpan humor. When Tanvir calmly says of Mushtaq, “What a kind man. He cares so much for us,” a look of resignation and frustration settles on Laila’s face as she realizes how vulnerable she is and that she alone must cope with the dangers and challenges of her life.
As Laila is further isolated and confronted with her lack of agency, the film draws parallels between her vibrance, toughness, and persistence in the face of oppression and that of the Bakarwal community, who’ve roamed the Kashmir region and maintained their cultural mores there for centuries. The forest is marked early on as not only a space that requires great fortitude in which to survive, but also a realm of potentially fantastical transformation. When Laila’s friend asks her when she began to fear the forest, she replies that she never has and that Lalleshwari “also discovered herself here” and “abandoned everything to find God.”
This proclamation foreshadows Laila’s own journey of self-discovery and enlightenment just as a gorgeous shot in which Tanvir, sitting on a tree stump below his wife, transforms into a sheep alludes to the brief flashes of magical realism that will creep into The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs from time to time. Such poetic scenes are more frequent as the film proceeds, and enhanced particularly by the cinematography, which features slow, roving camerawork that, as in Terrence Malick and Andrei Tarkovsky’s films, exhibits a reverence for and connection to the landscape and the protagonist’s deep connection to it.
In its final minutes, the film becomes increasingly expressionistic, as Laila symbolically sheds her clothes and wanders from the forest into the rocky landscape of the Himalayas. There’s a remarkable visual play between darkness and light and aural juxtaposition of folkloric music (a song of renunciation) and the crashing sounds of thunder as Laila drapes a snakeskin over her shoulder and contemplates her position in life with a pensive stare into a mirror. It’s a stunningly beautiful and mystical passage laden with sorrow, uncertainty, and the inevitability of change. But it also speaks quite lyrically and evocatively to both Laila’s, and, by extension, her peoples’ enduring determination to find a meaningful way to live in a rapidly changing modern world that’s less and less inclined to ensure their survival.
The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs had its world premiere last month at the Berlin International Film Festival and was slated to screen at the now-delayed New Directors/New Films. For sales information, please contact Pascale Ramonda.
Cast: Shahnawaz Bhat, Sadakkit Bijran, Ranjit Khajuria, Navjot Randhawa, Mohammed Yassen Director: Pushpendra Singh Screenwriter: Pushpendra Singh Running Time: 98 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
Review: Blow the Man Down Is a Sharp and Memorable Nautical Noir
The film never veers into wink-wink self-consciousness that its opening might have suggested.3
Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy’s Blow the Man Down starts on a literally self-aware note. The opening sequence shows the fishermen of a coastal Maine hamlet not just hard at work netting, spiking, and chopping up their catch, but also singing a rousing rendition of the 19th-century sailors’ song that gives the film its title. Full-throated and haunting, the piece is sung right to the camera as though it were a music video for some Americana band. But even though what follows is shot through with a keen understanding of genre necessities and an impatience for wasting more time on them than is necessary, the film never veers into wink-wink self-consciousness that its opening might have suggested.
When we first meet the ghostly pale Priscilla Connolly (Sophie Lowe) and her anxious and messy sister, Mary Beth (Morgan Saylor), they’ve just buried their mother and are trying to extract themselves from the hole she left them in. While Pris takes the need to keep running the family store and the looming loss of the family home somewhat in stride, Mary Beth is furious. Hating their “shithole” town and eager to leave for college, she goes to a bar to blow off steam following their mother’s wake and makes a poorly considered connection with a scuzzily larcenous-looking guy named Gorski (Ebon Moss-Bachrach). Many drinks, some bad driving, a baggie of cocaine, and one well-aimed harpoon later, Mary Beth has a body on her hands and a situation that suggests calling the police would be a poor idea.
Blow the Man Down’s first third or so moves briskly along the well-traveled terrain of the What Do We Do with the Body? genre. Savage Cole and Krudy seed their screenplay with somewhat stock elements, from the sack of cash that causes more problems than it’s worth to the small town rife with hypocrisy to the inexpertly cleaned crime scene with one crucial clue left behind that could send Pris and Mary Beth to prison. But even though some of these narrative beats are highly familiar, the filmmakers handle them with a light touch that keeps things fresh and entertaining until the film throws viewers a neat curveball.
At first, the three tsk-tsking women (June Squibb, Marceline Hugot, and Annette O’Toole) in matching pale Talbots-like outfits who drift through the film appear to be merely a decorative chorus of crones. They’re initially somewhat like the fishermen who come back in from time to time to deliver more bloody-minded sea shanties. But once the women start targeting their disapproval at Enid (Margo Martindale), the apparent proprietor of a cozy old bed and breakfast, the film opens up an entire secret and seamy underbelly to the town that the sisters are about to be pulled right into even if they manage not to be charged with murder.
In between the choral interludes, Blow the Man Down is layered with a discordant and eerie yet also slightly playful soundtrack that enhances both the setting’s chilly isolation and the sisters’ sense of panic and displacement. Overall, the performances are solid, if short of standout, with the great exception of Martindale’s. In her role as the town’s unapologetic scarlet woman, the character actress swings Enid through her scenes, balancing on a cane and fueled by whiskey and a white-hot sense of grievance. “Go back to your casseroles and crochet,” Enid tells the chorus of three old busybodies with a dry and spare tone that pushes the line from petty insult into veiled threat. Without Martindale, Blow the Man Down would be a sharp and tightly constructed nautical noir. With her, it becomes a memorable one.
Cast: Sophie Lowe, Morgan Saylor, Margot Martindale, June Squibb, Marceline Hugot, Annette O’Toole, Gayle Rankin, Will Brittain, Ebon Moss-Bachrach Director: Bridget Savage Cole, Danielle Krudy Screenwriter: Bridget Savage Cole, Danielle Krudy Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 90 min Rating: R Year: 2020
25 Underrated Movie Gems to Stream Right Now on the Criterion Channel
It’s worth taking a dive into the channel’s obscure but vibrant depths.
It’s encouraging that, about a year after its launch, the Criterion Channel remains with us. Less encouraging—from an end-of-days perspective—is that most of us now have an abundance of time to explore it. If self-isolating to prevent the spread of a deadly pandemic has upsides, though, having time enough to poke around the varied corners and depths of the streaming service counts as one of them.
The selection of films on the Criterion Channel rotate quickly, making the films it highlights as “leaving at the end of the month” more vital than most other sites’ similar sections. In a sense, this makes the Criterion Collection’s streaming platform feel more alive than services that have more stable caches and their own in-house content. The new films that pop up at the beginning of the month—in March, the channel has included Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Trilogy of Life and a number of German silents—are akin to special events. The shifting library of films functions like a vast, curated program available in our homes.
The sense that the channel is driven by curation rather than algorithm is no doubt intentional. If, with its esoteric film library and novel programming, the streaming service seems rather offbeat, this is in large part because we’re now used to receiving viewing suggestions from systems that emulate only in outline the mechanism of recommendation. We’ve grown reliant on the facile generic groupings (“drama,” “adventure,” “comedy”) typical of algorithm-driven services. Criterion pointedly ignores genre in favor of auteur, country of origin, or cultural context; a mainstay on the site for several months, amid the controversy over another male-dominated Oscars season, has been its prominent featuring of women filmmakers.
As the Criterion Collection continues to hold on to its niche in an arena dominated by Amazon, Netflix, Disney, among other hopefuls, it’s worth taking a dive into the channel’s obscure but vibrant depths. Many of the films below are rare finds—not only in the world of streaming, but in the era of home video. Pat Brown
Editor’s Note: Click here to sign up for the Criterion Channel.
The Adventures of Prince Achmed (Lotte Reiniger, 1926)
Now justly recognized as the first fully animated feature film, Lotte Reiniger’s masterpiece—composed of cut-out animation of silhouettes on monochromatic painted backdrops—transports us to dreamlike realm. Closely related to the contemporaneous experimentations in animation carried out by figures like Oscar Fischinger and Walther Hans Richter, The Adventures of Prince Achmed lends the orientalist fairy tales it recounts a rhythmic grace. As Prince Achmed journeys through various motifs from the “Thousand and One Nights,” the visual pleasure lies in the reverie of watching the cinema imbue mere shapes with life. Brown
The Ascent (Larisa Shepitko, 1977)
A World War II film in which heroism is a myth, Larisa Shepitko’s The Ascent focuses on two Soviet partisans (Boris Plotnikov and Vladimir Gostyukhin) who are left for dead in the snow-covered Russian countryside. Shepitko’s camera alternates between passages of realism and lyricism, entrenching her characters within a course of almost certain death. If Sheptiko’s soldiers experience only pain at the hands of their merciless German captors, it’s to better articulate the tragedy of their fundamental innocence within the war machine. Clayton Dillard
Asparagus (Suzan Pitt, 1979)
A Jungian psychosexual mescaline trip in the form of an 18-minute animated short, Asparagus is at once a vibrant blast of psychedelia and an unsettling journey into the depths of the subconscious. Suzan Pitt’s film was famously paired with Eraserhead on the midnight-movie circuit back in the late ‘70s, and it’s as equally resistant to interpretation as David Lynch’s classic. Proceeding with a dream logic that recalls the symbolist experimentalism of Maya Deren, Asparagus’s imagery ranges from the lushly verdant to the uncannily profane—often within the same scene, as in the film’s haunting climax in which a faceless woman robotically fellates an asparagus spear. Watson
Begone Dull Care (Norman McLaren and Evelyn Lambart, 1951)
If a jazz combo hired Stan Brakhage to direct their music video, the result might look something like Begone Dull Care. Set to the buoyant bebop of the Oscar Peterson Trio, Evelyn Lambart and Norman McLaren’s zippy animated short is one of the purest marriages of music and image in the history of cinema. Using lines, shapes, and abstract textures painted and drawn directly onto celluloid, the film grooves along to the jazz music—at times using particular colors to represent individual instruments, at others delivering a frenetic freeform visual accompaniment to the music, but always delivering a dazzling showcase of the animators’ inventiveness and dynamism. Watson
Body and Soul (Oscar Micheaux, 1925)
Body and Soul, Oscar Micheaux’s melodrama about sexual violence within a southern black community, was controversial even among black audiences. Noted as the film debut of Paul Robeson, the film bucks expectations by casting the handsome singer as Isaiah T. Jenkins, a criminal masquerading as a preacher. Jenkins beguiles a local worshipper, Martha Jane (Mercedes Gilbert) into leaving him alone with her daughter, Isabelle (Julia Theresa Russell). He rapes Isabelle and steals Martha Jane’s savings. As Jenkins palms the hard-earned cash, Micheaux inserts a woeful montage: Martha Jane’s hands ironing clothing, anonymous black hands picking cotton off the plant. Brown
Review: Deerskin Eerily and Evocatively Reflects on a Man’s Fragility
In Deerskin, Quentin Dupieux mines the absurdism that is his signature with newfound forcefulness.3
Underneath the absurdism and narrative mindfuckery of Quentin Dupieux’s films resides a sadness that the French writer-director mines with newfound forcefulness in Deerskin. The film has an eerie, evocative premise. Drifting through a mountainous town in France, Georges (Jean Dujardin) tracks down a vintage deerskin jacket. Smitten with the garment, Georges spends his entire savings on it, before then holing up in a nearly abandoned hotel and passing himself off as a filmmaker to the locals, especially to a young and attractive bartender, Denise (Adèle Haenel), who claims to be an aspiring film editor. We also learn that Georges is navigating a divorce, and that his wife has frozen his savings, which obviously leads one to believe that he’s in the midst of some sort of midlife crisis, electing to buy a jacket instead of, say, a Porsche, which he couldn’t afford anyway.
A little heftier than he was in The Artist, with an elegant graying beard, Dujardin bears a resemblance to Terrence Malick, and Georges, in his ludicrous way, even goes about pretending to make films in Malick’s register, shooting footage that Denise will shape into something free-flowing and subjective. Georges, like many a failure, is obsessed with the image of success above all, as a gratification of himself, and seems to have few passions or interests that might lead to its actual realization. An early scene suggests that Georges may have been a bored office drone, as he stops in a store and makes a ritual out of attempting to flush his old blazer down the toilet; he requires a more obvious totem of manliness, and he frequently references the deerskin jacket’s “killer style,” even talking to it on occasion.
These masculine symbols are somehow explicit and mysterious at once. If Dupieux had added any expositional dialogue, having Georges openly riff on his frustrations for instance, Deerskin’s spell would probably be dispelled. The film’s melancholic, comic charge springs from Georges’s commitment to his new reality, which comes to mirror the commitment of a real artist. The town is also visually resonant, suggesting a secluded village in a western; its landscapes imbue the film with a beauty that’s ironic—suggesting our addictions to the illusions of westerns and other masculine pop art—as well as wistful.
This beauty is also counterpointed with the crushing loneliness of the town’s citizens. Denise goes along with Georges’s schemes because she’s looking for direction, and there’s a brutally effective joke in which Georges is informed that a hotel clerk has killed himself—information that’s related with the sort of casualness that one might reserve for ordering breakfast. Georges walks into a room to steal something from the corpse, which is revealed to be a mannequin with a hole in its face. This is one of the great surreal flourishes of Dupiex’s career, the mannequin suggesting the desolation of people who choose to annihilate themselves.
Deerskin eventually takes a gruesome turn, as Georges decides that he must be the only person in the world with any jacket. As he begins a killing spree, the film, in its rhyming of the vocations of art-making and serial murder, recalls a lean and more playful version of The House that Jack Built, minus Lars von Trier’s laborious self-justifications. Dupiex, then, finds another macho totem to parody: the self-consciously intellectual art-house auteur who lards their fantasies with delusions of grandeur. But Dupiex also has a kindship with Georges, recognizing him to be the epitome of the toxic male as well as a lost soul in the tradition of men who are conditioned to play it safe with boring jobs, only to be self-shamed for that very dependency on safety. By killing others, Georges is announcing that he wants to die.
Cast: Jean Dujardin, Adèle Haenel, Albert Delpy, Coralie Russier, Marie Bunel, Panayotis Pascot Director: Quentin Dupieux Screenwriter: Quentin Dupieux Distributor: Greenwich Entertainment Running Time: 77 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Interview: Eliza Hittman on the Poetic Odyssey of Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Never Rarely Sometimes Always breaks new ground for Hittman as a filmmaker.
The level of vivid detail with which writer-director Eliza Hittman renders the procedural elements of procuring an abortion in Never Rarely Sometimes Always might stand out as the film’s most obvious point of discussion. A teenager’s journey to assert her bodily autonomy spans from a “crisis pregnancy center” in rural Pennsylvania meant to trick women out of terminating a pregnancy to the halls of a Planned Parenthood in Manhattan, illuminating structural biases and barriers along the way. But a focus primarily on what happens in Never Rarely Sometimes Always overlooks aspects of Hittman’s filmmaking that prevent the film from seeming like a sermon, or agenda-driven.
Don’t call Never Rarely Sometimes Always a neorealistic film, Hittman told me during a recent conversation, in spite of what the title of the special prize she received at this year’s Sundance Film Festival might suggest. As in her prior two features, It Felt Like Love and Beach Rats, Hittman both effectively dramatizes and stylizes the interior struggles of teenage characters forced to define their sense of self and sexuality in an unforgiving society.
But even as Autumn (Sidney Flanagan) takes on a relentless series of bureaucratic challenges, struggling to receive the medical care she seeks without parental permission, she can at least rely on the steadying presence of her cousin and confidant, Skylar (Talia Ryder). Their empathetic relationship operates on such a deep level of understanding that Skylar requires no protestation or persuasion to accompany Autumn on the journey. In the film, Hittman proves as adept at translating these ethereal and non-verbal moments of sororal support into grace notes as she does chunks of dialogue full of legal and medical jargon.
I interviewed Hittman the week of the film’s opening in New York. Our conversation covered how Never Rarely Sometimes Always expands and explores some of her previously evinced fascinations while also breaking new ground for her as a filmmaker.
Your films all have such distinct opening scenes, usually revolving around some measure of kind of performance for an audience or for the camera. How are you developing these first touch points that the audience has with the characters?
They’re all very different, I think. With Never Rarely Sometimes Always, I really wanted to playfully disorient the audience about the period of the movie.
That was successful. I was like, wait, what’s going on here?
And as a kid, I used to do all these really cheesy ‘50s talent shows. And it’s this moment in time that we romanticize, and the music is all saccharine about the myth of romantic love. Things that I’m interested in challenging. I thought it would be an interesting way to bring in the audience into the themes and the worlds. Set it in high school, because none of it really takes place in a high school. Introduce the character instantly as somebody who is in opposition to the feelings of the moment.
Aren’t the lyrics of the song Autumn sings “he makes me” or something like that?
“He makes me do things I don’t want to do.” It’s an Exciters song from the ‘60s.
Your films put on display this dichotomy between how teenagers conduct themselves in public versus how they do so in private. You’ve discussed watching them and developing your observations from an anthropological lens. How have you sharpened your instincts to tell whenever they’re performing and when they’re being authentic?
I think my goal, primarily, is to bring audiences into these private and painful moments. I’m giving this perspective about what they’re thinking and feeling lonely and isolated. I don’t know if Autumn is performing so well in public. We can feel her discomfort in the world and the weight of what she’s going through. It’s more than Harris’s character [Frankie, the closeted male protagonist of Beach Rats] performing masculinity. I don’t think that Sydney’s character is performing femininity as much in the world. She’s hiding herself. She’s wearing these clothes that hide her body. In a way, she’s pushing against showing her body and herself.
Your films capture the solitude of being young. It’s so crucial to that period of your life, but it’s very tough to render on screen. How are you taking this space for your characters to deal with their feelings from the concept or the script to the screen?
I think that there’s a lot of threads that the film juggles. You know, one is the sort of painful moment alone, you know, where she’s trying to terminate her own pregnancy. But it’s also about the friendship and the procedural aspect of what she’s going through.
And how do you go about bringing all that to life?
Originally, when I wrote the treatment for the film in 2013, it was actually just trauma. And I felt like that didn’t work. So, I knew that the narrative wouldn’t be successful if it was just her alone. It’s about her alone in the most vulnerable places in the story, like the procedure, navigating these adult situations and clinics by herself. Her cousin never has perspective on these things. So, I was just interested in [the fact that] even though she has somebody on that journey with her, she’s still very much alone with the burden of the pregnancy.
The way that you shoot a lot of those scenes with those really tight close-ups puts us right there with her.
They’re all subjective. The visual strategy is all subjective. And it’s about proximity and aligning the audience with what she’s thinking and feeling. It’s not just optically. So, the camera lingers close to her and then is wider on other people because it represents her distance and her keeping people from a distance. That’s all shaped on the page that way to conceptualize in the shot list that way.
Like the scene from which Never Rarely Sometimes Always derives its title, you also shot a scene from It Felt Like Love where the protagonist talks with her doctor about emergency contraception in a single unbroken close-up. As a man, I don’t pretend to understand what that moment feels like, so would you mind elaborating on why you’ve chosen to portray this moment in such a way?
The other one is definitely part of a building block to know what happens. The one in It Felt Like Love is different because she’s never had sex. So, she’s going through the discomfort of this kind of sexual history questionnaire. But she’s very innocent, and that’s the tension of the scene. But yeah, there’s a long take in it, so it has a similar shooting strategy. I think that scene was, in a way, the basis for the scene in Never Rarely Sometimes Always. I think it’s important that men watching it are never in those rooms. And they’re never asked those questions. And I think when men watch the scene, they always talk about it as being really invasive, and women watch it and talk about it as being really empathetic. Men are always, like [switches into a macho voice], “the scene is so invasive.”
Invasive in a good way, or invasive in a bad way?
In a really uncomfortable way. Whereas women are more accustomed to that sort of medical, clinical interrogation.
You mentioned starting Never Rarely Sometimes Always with the head fake that it might be a high school movie. The film also somewhat belongs to another genre, the New York movie. We see stories all the time about young people who come to the city to get what they want, and it’s usually some kind of magical or transformative experience for them. And in some ways, this kind of is that, because she comes here and gets what she wants, but it doesn’t feel particularly inspiring.
No, it’s not a sentimental or romantic look at New York. Her experience here is almost liminal, and she’s in liminal spaces. Wherever she’s in Port Authority, on the train, on the subway, she never has a moment to get comfortable or really take anything in.
Were you aware of and engaging with those tropes?
I was aware of them. I think New York is a really hard place to visit. And I don’t think people from out of town necessarily love it. I don’t think there’s anything intuitive about the way that it’s organized. And I don’t think it appeals to everybody.
The scene where Autumn emerges from Port Authority and kind of comes to the edges of Time Square was so striking because that’s a space that’s usually shot in such a fun way. But this is the actual experience going to Times Square. It’s terrifying.
Yeah, with that scene in particular, I wanted to show how disorienting it can be.
Your films put faces to a lot of things that we often engage with primarily on a conceptual level: toxic masculinity, homophobia, and the pro-birth extremism as shown by the crisis pregnancy centers. How do you go about personifying these things without turning them into caricature?
I mean, I think some men are a bit grumpy about the representation of men in the movie. But I think, for me, I was really trying to explore the tension that exists as a young woman, between you and an environment full of men. You learn to navigate their advances and how you can deflect…and ultimately become desensitized to it. I tried to find the balance between all of those male characters in their moments and glimpses; that part of the story is maybe a little bit conceptual. With the women in the crisis center in Pennsylvania, I went and met those women and took that test. Because I was concerned there about Christian caricatures. I’m just trying to do the best job that I can do and not make them things that I’ve seen before.
I don’t need to tell you we’re in a scary time with the Supreme Court even just last week, hearing this Louisiana case that could potentially imperil Roe v. Wade. What is the impact that you hope to have with this movie right now?
I think that the film is effective in putting a face to somebody who might otherwise be faceless and just a statistic and giving a voice to voiceless in a way. And I hope that the film helps people see the deep impact that these barriers have on lives. It’s a real impact. I think with documentary, and even in the research of this film, it’s harder to find because of confidentiality. You know, it’s hard to find people who really speak up about these issues.
With the freedoms of fictional filmmaking, too, and not having to be quite so married to the actuality or the reality, you can probe more deeply.
I didn’t want to be didactic. I really wanted to explore it from the point of view of a character study, and a poetic odyssey, a movie about friendship, and it’s not just about the issue. I hope that the story for people is layered and dimensional, not overly political or message-driven.
Interview: Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles on Bacurau’s Politics
In our wide-ranging conversation, we covered the hazy distinctions between past, present, and future in both Brazil and the United States.
It takes a rich cinematic text to inspire not one but two separate repertory programs in New York, and Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles’s Bacurau fits the bill. When I caught up with the Brazilian filmmaking team, they were in town for an extended stay to help kick off Film at Lincoln Center’s “Mapping Bacurau,” a series of their genre influences ranging from horror to action to westerns. (This series, unfortunately, will no longer proceed due to the COVID-19 outbreak.) While they had a direct hand in choosing the films in that lineup, they had no involvement in the second program, BAM’s “Rise Up!: Portraits of Resistance,” which placed Bacurau in conversation with such protest films as Glauber Rocha’s Antonio das Mortes, Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, and Mati Diop’s Atlantics.
It’s the latter thematic thread that I spent most of my time discussing with Mendonça Filho and Dornelles, his longtime friend and collaborator. While an appreciation of their cinematic antecedents and inspirations for Bacurau enhances the viewing experience, it isn’t as vital as a knowledge of Brazilian history and politics. Mendonça Filho’s third film, his first sharing a directing credit with Dornelles, feels like both a continuation and escalation of his previous features, Neighboring Sounds and Aquarius. Both films located simmering tensions in Brazilian society surrounding corruption and inequality that explode in the near future of Bacurau. Residents of the titular village, facing an invasion by mercenaries willing to quite literally wipe them off the map, must take up arms in solidarity to protect their lives and land.
Don’t mistake the film for a statement on Jair Bolsonaro, however, as it was conceived years ago and shot months prior to his election. As Mendonça Filho and Dornelles pointed out, Bacurau speaks to the present only by coincidence. Yet in their recognition of history’s cyclical nature, their dystopian romp about society’s unaddressed faults can remain relevant through just about any president or administration. In our wide-ranging conversation, we covered the hazy distinctions between past, present, and future in both Brazil and the United States.
Your three features feel like they’re circling similar questions about land, heritage, and resistance, and community against a backdrop of capitalist crisis and inequality. In Bacurau, there’s this all-out warfare against imperialist intruders. Is that a reflection of the country and the world around you, or something completely separate?
Kleber Mendonça Filho: It’s interesting how we never really discussed any of that while making the films. But once we begin to talk about them, we learn a lot from critics and observers. It’s then that we realize that each one of the films has a very specific tone and speed, and it seems to match the times in which they were made. So, Brazil was actually very stable in the later years of the last decade when I wrote and shot Neighboring Sounds, but, of course, stable doesn’t mean that everything is fine. It means that there’s some disturbance, some diffused tension in society like all societies have. And I think that’s what the idea of “neighboring sounds” is. It’s kind of ethereal, and you can’t quite put your finger on what exactly is wrong and what [has the potential to] happen. Then there’s Aquarius, which was done in 2015. By 2013, things were beginning to go very wrong in Brazil, and I think the film rose out of that. We have been talking for years about Bacurau, and, of course, with everything that happened in 2016 in Brazil, when millions of Brazilians saw a soft coup d’etat—
Juliano Dornelles: I don’t see it as soft.
KMF: It’s soft because you expect tanks. That’s when Brazil began to deviate from what we see as democracy. And then, incredibly, we got to Bacurau, and it’s almost like we’re entering what should be dystopian fiction, literature or film, but it’s actually reality. I have to say, Mr. Trump’s election in the U.S. was part of what we were feeling, a change in the rotation of the political temperature. And then, we just wrote the film, feeling very connected [to the moment]. Then people, even in Cannes, tried to insinuate that the film was, or even interpreted the film as, a vision of Bolsonaro’s Brazil. This, of course, doesn’t make any sense because we shot the film seven months before he was elected. When we were shooting the film, I don’t know if you [to Darnelles] ever thought…he wasn’t even a candidate.
JD: It wasn’t even a possibility in the same year that he got elected. The beginning of the year, it was just a joke. It all happened pretty fast.
KMF: But it’s fascinating how you can be truthful to tone and atmosphere, which doesn’t really go through fact. I think truth is stronger in the atmosphere of things in society, than if you start discussing actual fact. I think we were truthful to what was happening.
Each of the films, by chance of what happened in between the time that they were shot or conceived and when they were released, looks prophetic in a way. You’re picking up on the tremors that lead to these earthquakes that we see and observe.
JD: Yeah. It’s interesting because we’re about to show 20 Years Later, Cabra Marcado [the directing duo had programmed this film in Film at Lincoln Center’s “Mapping Bacurau” series]. It’s a documentary about, how can you say?
KMF: A community leader and a peasant…
JD: …a community leader in the moment of the dictatorship, the ‘60s and ‘70s. He got assassinated in ‘64, the same year of the beginning of the coup. The other coup.
KMF: A hard coup, with attacks and guns.
JD: In this film, it’s crazy because it started like your definition [of how the film picked up on political undercurrents]. And then began to be an idea.
KMF: Maybe we’re moving on to the second [a hard coup in Brazil].
JD: Probably, I don’t know. So, in this film, they show some images of newspapers. The film is filled with fake news, calling people communists. They aren’t communists, but they’re called that. So it’s crazy because it’s the same thing. It’s crazy because this film is prophetic, and now Bacurau can be called prophetic. But it’s interesting because it’s just a look into the past. You can find the same situations all of our history.
KMF: I can almost see some place in the world using guillotines to punish people, kill people through the power of the state. And then, of course, we go back to almost 300 years to the French Revolution. I don’t think that’s too far off. It’s very scary to think about that.
Nowadays, I think you could get away with that but for the optics. If you could somehow do it in a more palatable way—
KMF: There’s a very frightening moment that I don’t know why we didn’t subtitle. Maybe because we thought it would become a political event inside the film, and it was designed just to be on the corner of the screen, which is a very white screen. When Terry [one of the mercenaries] is inside one of the houses in Bacurau, there’s a television which is on. And it says that public executions are restarting at 2 p.m. And it’s like a live feed. So, there are executions. There are executions all over the world. They’re in Brazil, in America, in Mexico.
JD: Black and poor people are being executed. Right now [points to watch]. Another one. Another one.
KMF: We don’t quite have a public execution on television at 2 p.m. That’s one thing we don’t have, but we have all kinds of different executions. It’s a fascinating idea when just the use of words takes things one notch up, and it becomes tougher.
The setting of Bacurau is “a few years from now.” Was it always this indefinite looming specter of the future as supposed to a fixed date? If you enumerate it, you start thinking, “Okay, how long did it take to get to this point, and that point?”
KMF: I love those questions the viewers find themselves with when they see the film. We always talk that it’s the best and cheapest special effect in film. Just five words.
JD: A few years from now.
KMF: It puts you in a heightened state of alert. So, you begin to scan the screen and look for evidence of the future. There’s very little evidence of anything related to the future because the future is actually now.
Neighboring Sounds and Aquarius open with montages of black-and-white vintage photographs of the past. It’s not how Bacurau opens, but we see the same types of photos inside the museum and inside the houses. It doesn’t strike me as a coincidence that the climactic battle takes place inside the museum, the past and the future overlapping.
KMF: My mother was a historian so maybe that’s one explanation. I love documents, photographs, archives. Aquarius is actually about that, but it doesn’t tell you that. You can tell by watching the film that this is gone. This [film] is completely obsessed with objects, archives. Neighboring Sounds doesn’t really feel that way. But it’s very much about the weight of history and how people carry history on their back. And of course, in Bacurau, people keep inviting other people to come visit the museum.
JD: One thing that I like to think also is that we come from the big city, not from that particular region. We’re from the northeast region, which is a huge region. So, the culture is very different there. We were always concerned about not making a film of people that we don’t really know. So, I think this contact, this wish to use archive images and history, it kind of gives us more safety to walk into this terrain. And, yeah, it brought a beautiful confirmation when we started to look for this particular location, that village, we discovered that many other little villages like that had their own museums. But these museums, we didn’t know about them, and we just wrote them. It was great.
KMF: But I think we were familiar with the kind of cultural profile that these communities have. We loved them very much. And they’re so full of culture and understanding of history. It doesn’t mean that everybody is into all of that. We have the special people in each community.
JD: And this kind of thing about people from the sertão [the “outback” region in which the film is set] is starting to change more and more because, of course, everything that happened in the bigger cities is starting to happen there. The growing of the evangelical Pentecostal churches, for example. And everybody is very connected to the internet. So, they have access to the same stuff that we do so. They’re starting to change.
KMF: Have you seen Central Station by Walter Salles?
I have not.
KMF: It was shot in ‘97. The sertão that Walter shot doesn’t exist anymore. That was 20 years ago. But the sertão he shot still resembles very much the sertão from the ‘80s, ‘70s, and ‘60s, which means that, economically speaking, it’s a region that was pretty much left to its own devices. Just by having a complete lack of access to goods from the industry, it protected itself. Not because it wanted to, but just because it had to, in terms of not really changing much architecture and clothing and colors and things like that. But then, in the last 20 years, two things happened: the internet and Lula’s presidency, which brought quite a lot of change to the sertão. So, the sertão we shot in Bacurau is actually, I think, a modified version of the classic images of the sertão. It’s not the only film project [to depict the region]. There are a number of other interesting films: Love for Sale by Karim Aïnouz, and I Travel Because I Have to, I Come Back Because I Love You is a wonderful documentary.
JD: They have already observed those kinds of changes.
KMF: And then when we do the futuristic thing, we basically use the system we have now with some touches [of the future], which come from costumes, art direction, and production design.
That’s a very interesting way to kind of approach the past because a lot of filmmakers, whenever they look backwards, employ a nostalgic glance. And you’re recognizing that it’s not just that. The past is a prologue. We’re living with the past all the time in the present, and when we try to go forward, we can’t seem to escape our history. We’re locked into repeating the cycle.
JD: We actually say this a lot in the Q&As!
KMF: You’re saying that we look towards the future by thinking about the past. Yeah, that’s what I said about the guillotines. We made a film about the future, which is basically about all the mistakes and keep being repeated in Brazilian society and, well, maybe other societies also. It’s a classic situation. For instance, we have a classic problem with water in the northeastern region, and it’s been going on for over 100 years. And, of course, we have the technology, and Brazil is a rich country. Brazil can fix that, but apparently, a number of people aren’t interested in fixing that. I don’t know why.
JD: Uh, we can guess why! [laughs]
We’re sitting here eye-rolling about how the past is going to keep repeating itself, and I’m curious, do you feel any hope that maybe we can break the cycle? Is it going to take all-out violent rebellion to arrive there, or even move the needle at all?
JD: My way of thinking is that we have this kind of cycle that always tries to go backwards, and we have other cycles where we try to make some advances. We start to do it, and we build something. I’m trying to believe that what we build in people’s spirits and minds, maybe it’s hard to destroy. Because talking about the Brazilian government, they can instantaneously destroy a lot of stuff. But it’s kind of hard now to convince a lot of poor people that were used to being helped with money, actual money from the government, to improve their lives. It’s very difficult now to take this [back] again. So, he [Bolsonaro] tried, and he couldn’t do this, he needed to restart. Everybody will understand that 10 years ago, 15 years ago, life was much better. So, I think this is some something that it’s not easy to just destroy. And, on the matter of the education also, I think we didn’t advance everything that we could. But we were seeing many people from lower classes, black people are just getting their college degrees now.
KMF: Because of the investment that was done 15 years ago.
JD: This can be something that will make some difference in the future.
KMF: The investments done 15 years ago are beginning to bear fruit. Now we’re beginning to get doctors, engineers, and judges coming from the lower classes and from people coming from the racial divide. Now, we have a government that actually believes that the poor part of the population really has to basically only do manual labor. Not necessarily go to university because universities are for those who “deserve” to. You actually hear people from the government saying that. We are now stuck in a moment of history, which will inevitably lead to good things, but there’s a lot of terrible events, which are still taking place.
JD: We are in the middle of the bad cycle, but I believe that it will change.
KMF: Juliano made an interesting point about how people remember. The problem is, I’m not sure they remember. We all go and have an amazing time at a friend’s house some Saturday evening, and we all remember that evening with great affection. It was a wonderful gathering of people. And then, over the following months, we begin to read about that gathering as the worst, most horrible, nastiest experience that human beings have ever experienced. And then, slowly, we begin to change our own memory of what happened that day. And now, we believe what was written about that evening, and we never say, “But wait, guys, we were there. It was. It was amazing. It was just wonderful people. We had great conversations. It was fantastic.” But, no, people are actually believing the official story. And the way this has been rewritten is quite scary. Because they use technology and the internet for bombardment of this other version. And now, in Brazil, it’s crazy because people just do not remember what was happening in the last decade. They’re now using the official version, which came in the shape of press, the internet, and what we now understand as fake news.
JD: I want to believe that there are two ways. One, all that suffering from before the Lula years…[there] was huge suffering, hunger, and poverty. The highest rates of poverty that are still the same now. If this kind of thing returns, maybe they will remember, that’s my point. Because now we’re on the verge of currency devaluation. So, people will start to not be able to buy anything more. And when it starts to hurt their pockets, they will [remember].
KMF: The Financial Times ran a great piece on us in London on Saturday. However, in one paragraph, he writes about when [the cast and crew of] Aquarius did the protests on the red carpets against the ousting of Dilma Rousseff, who at the time was facing corruption charges, which means we support a corrupt president. The word that was missing in the piece was who was facing trumped-up corruption charges. That’s the way it should have been written. And I wish I could have a cup of coffee with that journalist and say, “Listen, do you know what you’re doing? Are you aware of what you’re doing?” Because it’s not accurate information.
It’s buying into the alternate history that you’re talking about and erasing what actually happened.
KMF: Exactly. It’s very subtle, but I keep thinking about, I don’t know, some student in Berlin reading this over breakfast, or some guy reading this in South Africa, and then you spread this version of things, which I find quite incredibly naïve.
It’s an interesting choice that, at the end of the film, the villagers choose to bury Udo Kier’s mercenary character alive rather than just finishing him off. That feels like it’s setting the stage for this to happen again, as we all know what happens to bodies that get buried in genre films.
KMF: We actually wrote a war-style execution engine, like with hands tied in the Second World War. Pacote [a villager] would come and just shoot him in the head, and he would fall into the hole. But I just told Juliano, I don’t want to shoot this.
JD: It’s boring.
If you’d done that, too, I think you might have opened up the film to “both sides” criticism around violence.
KMF: We have this image of fascism coming back. It’s a little plant, which it is, over the last 10 years.
JD: It starts little, and then it’s a big tree.
KMF: I remember 20 years ago, when I was a child, the whole idea of fascism was just impossible. It never worked. It’s horrible. It killed millions of people. And now, it’s like, time has passed. It’s like [people think], oh, maybe fascism is interesting.
JD: It’s started to flourish again.
KMF: So, Udo is like a seed. A plant.