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Understanding Screenwriting #29: Departures, Tetro, The Proposal, Fellini Satyricon, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #29: Departures, Tetro, The Proposal, Fellini Satyricon, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Departures, Tetro, The Proposal, Fellini Satyricon, Fellini’s Roma, Singin’ in the Rain: The Making of an American Masterpiece (book), and the beginning of the cable season, but first…

Fan Mail: Daniel Iffland wrote in about enjoying The Hangover because it is a shaggy dog story, which I agree is part of its charm. As you will see from an item below, Daniel, I am a fan of shaggy dog stories, even if they are not films one usually puts in that category. For example I like and classify as shaggy dog stories The Magician, Touch of Evil, Psycho, and the one discussed below.

Both “JD” and David Marin-Guzman wondered about what happens as a project moves from script to film, again in relation to The Hangover. David was thinking the move from a PG-13 script to an R-rated one may have caused the humor to become lame. It is very possible, since what often happens in the development process is a shift from the tone the original writers wanted. In JD’s case he was bothered by the extremely effeminate performance of the character of Mr. Chow and “wondered if the performance was the same as written on the page or embellished by the actor.” Not having seen any of the drafts of the script, I cannot tell you for sure. But the possibilities are even more complicated than JD suggested. Here is a list of possibilities of what might have happened, along with my guesses as to the probability of those being the case:

1. The character may have been that way in the script from the beginning (possible).

2. The character may have had a hint of that in the Lucas and Moore drafts, then expanded in the “uncredited rewrites” (probable).

3. The actor may have come in with that interpretation, even without it being in the script (unlikely).

4. The director may have seen a bit of that potential in the actor’s performance and pushed him in that direction (probable).

5. The actor and director may have just taken off in that direction, knowing the script always planned to have the photograph at the end with Mr. Chow and the women, figuring that would take the edge off (possible).

6. Same as above, but with the producers, realizing they had gone too far, adding the photograph to take the edge off (probable).

As you can see, making a movie has a lot of moving parts, and unless you were there, you may not know exactly what happened.

Departures (2008. Written by Kundo Koyama. 130 minutes): Yeah, it deserved it.

Several people got very upset when Departures beat out Waltz with Bashir and The Class for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film this year. You may remember from US#15 that I was not fond of Waltz. I do have to admit that I did not see The Class (it sounded too much like what I go through every day teaching; why I would I want to pay money to see that?), but I can see why the Academy voted for Departures. It is a lovely, moving, funny, and hugely satisfying film.

You may know the story from having read about it. Daigo, a young Japanese cellist, loses his job when his orchestra disbands. He and his wife Mika go to his hometown on the coast and live in his late mother’s house. Daigo inadvertently ends up with a job as an encoffiner, somebody who prepares dead bodies to be put in coffins. In America, given our attitudes about death, all of that is done in private. In Japan, it has come to be a ceremony, with family and friends watching.

The obvious place to start the script is with the cellist losing his job, and then once we get to know the characters, getting him involved in his new job. Koyama plays it differently. He starts with Daigo and his older boss, Sasaki, going out to a ceremony. We find out what the job entails as we get caught up in the process. Koyama then gives it a great twist to show this is not going to be all death and sadness. Only then do we get the flashbacks that tell us how he came to that moment.

Koyama spaces the ceremonies through the film like numbers in a musical: Some virtual solos, some ensemble pieces, some quiet, some loud, and all of them revealing the character of Daigo, Sasaki, or others, as well as of Japanese attitudes towards death. The final two ceremonies are rich with details about characters we have met. In the second to last a character we have assumed was just a minor player turns out to have much more to do with the story and its themes than we could have guessed. The final ceremony, away from Daigo’s home town, is a counterpoint to what we have seen Daigo do and a satisfying finish for the film for many reasons.

Daigo’s character is established early in a subtle way as someone who does not tell his wife everything. When she eventually learns of his job, she is turned off, as are many people who knew him when he was growing up. Mika leaves him, then later returns, and in that second-to-last ceremony comes to appreciate the value of what he does to the family of the dead woman, someone Mika came to know when she first came to town. At the last ceremony, Daigo is trying to slow down the funeral directors, who don’t want to bother with a ceremony. When they object, it is Mika who says, “My husband is a professional.” A great, simple line.

The character of Sasaki is played by the wonderful Japanese actor, Tsutomu Yamazaki, whom you may remember as the Japanese equivalent of the lone gunslinger who rides into town and saves the widow’s noodle shop in the great 1985 Itami classic Tampopo. He is older now, but his Gregory Peck-Buster Keaton deadpan is a marvelous counterpoint to Masahiro Motoki’s occasionally frazzled Daigo. Koyama has written them a great pair of characters to play.

Koyama not only handles the story and characters well, but is especially good at the interweaving of themes. We first assume the film is about death, which it is. But then it is also about work. And about marriage. And about friendship. And about nature. Koyama’s touch at shifting from one theme to another is masterful, one of the best examples of its kind I have ever seen. His script is very much in the tradition of the arts of Asia, where elements are seen not only for themselves, but as parts of a much larger whole.

You may be surprised that, in the last paragraph, I did not say the film was about music. It is, of course, but the photograph used in the newspaper ads of Daigo playing his cello out by the mountains in the winter (how does he keep it in tune?) is the only clunky shot in the entire film. That is probably why the marketing people used it. Everything else in the film is so much subtler and so much better.

Tetro (2009. Written by Francis Ford Coppola. 127 minutes): Not easy to write about.

Given that I have been thinking and writing about screenplays for a long time, my comments on most of the scripts, especially for the American films, come fairly easily to me. Experience counts. Sometimes foreign films are also relatively easy to deal with, as was Departures, even as complex as that script was. But there are some scripts that take a lot more effort. Up (US#27) was one, Tetro is another. (Speaking of Up, I went back to see it again, this time in 3-D. I was so caught up again in the story and characters that I was constantly forgetting it was in 3-D. When I did remember I felt the GAPS were usually it effectively, but then they are the GAPS, after all. That’s Geniuses At Pixar, for those of you who missed the reference in US#27.)

I have been watching Coppola’s movies since before many of you were born. No, I did not see his early sixties’ nudies Tonight for Sure or The Bellboy and the Playgirls. As a graduate student at UCLA in the late sixties, though, studying screenwriting with the man who had been his instructor, the late Marvin Borowsky, I was aware of Coppola’s work long before that one he did about the Italian-American family that keeps getting into trouble. I am a huge fan of The Conversation, and since we were able at LACC to score a 35mm print of it at one of Zoetrope’s bankruptcy auctions, I show it almost every semester in my film history course. I do admit to a preference for his narrative films such as The Godfather and The Rainmaker more than his “expand the nature of cinema as we know it” projects, so you can imagine I approached Tetro with a little trepidation. The upside going in was that reviews had indicated he was dealing with character and issues, not just showing off in terms of style.

Bennie, an about-to-be 18-year-old boy, gets off a cruise ship where he works as a waiter, in Buenos Aires. He is tracking down his brother Angelo, who now wants to be called Tetro. Angelo had left the family (they are both sons of a famous classical music conductor), promising to come back to get Bennie, which he did not. The woman who answers the door at the apartment, Miranda, is Tetro’s girl friend. One of Coppola’s weakness as both writer and director is that the women characters are often underdeveloped and/or not well directed. Diane Keaton, who is wonderful in The Godfather II, is awful in the first Godfather. Anjelica Huston gives one of her worst performances in Gardens of Stone. Coppola directed his daughter Sofia, who was good in Inside Monkey Zetterland, like a father rather than a director in Godfather III. Here Miranda is the most likable of the three major characters, and Coppola has beautifully directed the great Spanish actress Mirabel Verdú in the role. Tetro is not the nicest person in the world, and Coppola spends way more time than he needs showing what a pain he can be. On the other hand, Coppola does show us that he is tortured and not just an asshole. One of Coppola’s great skills is his work with actors, and the script provides the opportunity to do that. Why Tetro is so tortured we do not find out until late in the film.

We see Bennie try to redevelop the relationship he once had with his brother, and we see it in the context of music, dance, theater, film and writing. When I wrote about Summer Hours (US#27) I mentioned that it deals with French culture as well as with the family and that American films generally do not do that. Tetro is one that does, and it seems odd but enormously satisfying in an American film.

Bennie discovers the writing that Tetro has been doing, but not publishing, and he begins to copy it out in a legible way. The writing appears to be in prose, but Bennie turns it into a stage play, without Tetro’s knowing it. This is where I think the script begins to go wrong. We have not had any indication Bennie had any thoughts about becoming a writer, so it seems an odd, unmotivated move for him. Tetro is understandably upset, but the scene where Miranda talks to him about it seems to only skim the surface of the issue. There is a lot more both of them could have said. Tetro does not stop the play, and he goes along with the troupe to an arts festival in Patagonia to present it. (The black-and-white cinematography, both of Buenos Aires and Patagonia, is worth seeing the film in a theater for, especially if, like me, you love black-and-white.) The festival seems more like a film festival than a theater festival, and it is there that Tetro finally explains the family secret to Bennie. In, alas, one of the least dramatic revelation scenes I have ever seen. At this point it becomes apparent that as a writer Coppola has not really prepared us for this moment, either in Bennie’s reactions to Tetro or Tetro’s reactions to Bennie in the preceding scenes. Then we get the scene of their father’s funeral, which just turns weird, especially in Tetro’s disruption, which does not seem to bother the other people very much. And Bennie starting to wear a leather jacket like Tetro’s is not an encouraging sign, either.

So. Here you have a screenplay by a master screenwriter that gives us a lot. There are interesting characters (I like the theater folk the brothers deal with, but “Alone,” the mysterious critic is more a concept than a character, which gives that other great Spanish actress Carmen Maura not enough to do), interesting locations, an interesting setup, but an unsatisfying payoff. I like so much of it that I wish it were better, and I am not sorry I saw it.

The Proposal (2009. Written by Peter Chiarelli. 108 minutes): Sanity prevailed.

No, not in the movie, which I will get to in a minute. But when I looking up the credits on the IMDb in late June, I was horrified to find that IMDb had stopped listing the writers at the top of the first page, which they have done as long as I have been using it. It always seemed to me that giving the writers billing right next to directors was a step in the right direction. I thought for a bit that if you wanted to find the writers now you would have to click on “full cast and crew.” But they had moved them down the first page to the “Additional details” under the cast. A quick check on some older titles showed they did it for every title, not just the new ones. I suspect that too many actors may have complained about writers being billed above them. The good news is that a day later when I checked, they had restored writers to the top of the page. My thanks to any of you who had noticed and complained to IMDb. I had not gotten around to it yet before they changed.

Now then, where were we? Ah, yes, The Proposal. This is a perfect example of how screenwriters and movie audiences are smarter than the marketing people (those idiots again!). In the trailer for this film, we get Sandra Bullock’s Margaret as the Boss From Hell, with her being snippy and everybody afraid of her. Then we see her uncomfortable as she goes off to pretend she is getting married to Andrew, her assistant, and avoid being deported to Canada. The trailer makes Margaret seem just as bad as Jean, the bitch Bullock portrayed in Crash. Don’t the marketers remember that we adore Bullock when she is lovable? They seemed to, since later trailers included at least one shot of her laughing warmly.

Well, in spite of the marketing miscue, audiences turned out in droves for the opening week, and business seems to be holding up. What Chiarelli does at the beginning of the film is not only show Margaret as the Boss From Hell, but as an efficient schmoozer who talks a reclusive author into an appearance on Oprah. She is also a focused worker who does not like incompetents and someone with at least a little sense of humor about herself. So we can see that there is possibility for change with her, which is essential for the film to work. Audiences can look forward to seeing our Sandy.

Chiarelli also sets up her assistant Andrew as more than just the put-upon schlub the trailer makes him out to be. He’s smart and he realizes her demand that she marry him gives him some leverage, which he is determined to use. He has a bit of a ruthless side as well. What we have here is a couple with some balance, again in spite of what the trailer shows you. That makes watching them fun. Andrew is played by Ryan Reynolds, whom I suggested in US#19 was not quite up to the demands of the starring role in Definitely, Maybe. Well, he is here. Probably because his character is better defined than it was in the earlier film. And he has somebody great to play off. Reynolds and Bullock, who have been friends for a while, have great chemistry together and it makes the picture.

Margaret and Andrew fly up to his hometown of Sitka, Alaska for the 90th birthday of his grandmother, the always-welcome Betty White. What keeps this from being just a retread of Meet the Parents is that both Margaret and Andrew have a lot to hide from his family, which gives each scene some dynamics. Needless to say, everything seems to work out, but stick through the end credits. We see bits of Margaret and Andrew’s post-weekend interview with an immigration officer, who also seems to be interviewing some of the characters from Sitka as well. The material is not quite strong enough for a final scene, but with enough good bits and pieces to work under the credits. Never throw anything away.

Fellini Satyricon (1969. Story and screenplay by Federico Fellini and Bernadino Zapponi, additional screenplay material by Brunello Rondi, freely adapted from “Satyricon” by Petronius. 128 minutes): A match not necessarily made in heaven.

In the late sixties, after the enormous successes of La Dolce Vita and 8 ½, Fellini found himself drawn toward the idea of making a film from Satyricon. What we have of the literary Satyricon is about a fourth of the first century book supposedly written by Petronius, an official in Nero’s court. (For a rather nice portrayal of Petronius, look at Leo Genn’s performance in MGM’s otherwise blunderbuss 1951 production of Quo Vadis?.) Satyricon is sort of a novel, but with various diversions, stories, et al. Fellini was interested in it as a demonstration of the “voids, the dark places” we don’t see in the official versions of history, according to Hollis Alpert’s stolid but informative biography, Fellini, A Life. You’d think that the Fellini who made a film about modern Roman decadence (La Dolce Vita) would do something wonderful with ancient Roman decadence.

Well, the decadence is there, but it overpowers everything else. The two main characters, taken from Petronius, are Encolpius and Ascyltus, two young men Fellini saw as hippies of their day. Those characters, and the others, are all surface, with no interior life. They have none of the richness one sees in the characters in Nights of Cabiria or 8 ½. Encolpius and Ascyltus fight over a beautiful 16-year-old boy, Giton, whom Encolpius loves. Giton is even blanker than the other two. We have no idea what if anything is going on inside that pretty little head of his, and when he disappears halfway through the film, we don’t miss him. Encolpius’s attempts to get Giton back take him to a show put on by the actor Vernaccio—the ancient Roman equivalent of the music halls that show up in other Fellini films, but here it has the feeling of being researched rather than felt. Encolpius and Giton pass by a brothel, but it is just faces in windows (see below for the brothels in Fellini’s Roma). One of the centerpieces of the book is Trimalchio’s banquet, in which Petronius satirized the nouveau riche of his day, but in Fellini and Zapponi’s hands, it is just excess, with very little point. We have a sequence with our guys as galley slaves, and quite frankly it is less interesting than the equivalent scene in the 1959 American version of Ben-Hur because we do not care about the characters, and the semi-historical details are not particularly compelling. The writers give us a long scene, not as far as I can tell in the original, of a Roman nobleman sending his children away before killing himself and his wife, but we have no idea who they are or how they relate to anything else in the film. They may have been meant as a shout-out to the actual Petronius, who killed himself in a particularly elegant way, according to Tacitus, but there is nothing in the film that tells us that. Encolpius and Ascyltus arrive at the nobleman’s house later, see the bodies and then have a frolic with the lone surviving maid, who does not seem to mind. Encolpius finds himself in an arena with a man dressed as a minotaur, but the scene is not as compelling as any number of gladiator scenes in American-made Roman epics. The lack of characters and continuity means these scenes must stand on their own, which they do not.

Bernadino Zapponi, Fellini’s co-writer on this, had written a book of stories Fellini liked and had co-written the “Toby Dammit” episode Fellini directed for the 1968 filmed called Spirits of the Dead. Fellini had moved away from the other writers he had worked with before, although one of them, Brunello Rondi, is credited with additional screenplay material in the film’s credits. Whatever he did, it was not enough.

Fellini’s Roma (1972. Story and Screenplay by Federico Fellini and Bernardino Zapponi. 119 minutes [American version]; 128 minutes [original version]): A match a little closer to being made in heaven.

This film should not work for all the reasons Fellini Satyricon does not work: The characters are not very deep, and like a lot of directors Fellini became enamored of scenes more than stories. This film is a collection of scenes in and about Rome. “Fellini” (and I am not sure it is really him, at least in the American version Turner Classic Movies ran in June) tells us in the opening narration that the film does not have conventional characters or story. That may be in response to the fact that Satyricon did not do that well at the American box office, since we like movies that tell stories.

So it’s a documentary, right? Don’t bet the farm on that. They begin with a number of scenes that recreate moments in Fellini’s childhood in Rimini in which he learns about Rome. These scenes could easily fit into Fellini’s next film Amarcord. They are amusing because, unlike the scenes in Satyricon, we can see the connection with real life. They have a warmth missing in the earlier film. Then in a long sequence Fellini recounts his arrival in Rome in the late thirties. He has an actor playing his young self, and the actor is not a lot more expressive than the leads in Satyricon, but he has details to react to. Fellini jumps ahead thirty years and gives us a real documentary sequence of what it is like to arrive in Rome on one of the major motorways. A real documentary? Some of it is, but some of it was done on a set for the motorway Fellini had built. A scene that starts out as documentary turns Fellini-esque. The last time I saw this in a theater, the audience was a bit baffled by this, as younger audiences often are at Fellini, because they do not realize he is a teller of shaggy dog stories. They didn’t realize that Fellini is funny.

A little later we get what again starts out as a documentary episode, of a film crew going into an excavation for the new subway. Except they break through into rooms that have ancient mosaics on the wall. OK, but then the air coming in makes the paintings vanish. Does that really happen? I told you he was a teller of shaggy dog stories, and this one is haunting and poetic.

We get a sequence in a forties music hall, and it is much more detailed and realistic than the similar sequence in Satyricon, as are a couple of lively brothel scenes, one a poor brothel, one a rich one. The women there are not just faces in windows, but march around the men, demanding them to make a choice. Like the music hall sequence, it has a lived, rather that researched feeling.

What starts out to be an interview with an aging aristocrat turns into a fashion show. Of ecclesiastical clothing. If the audience is not laughing by this scene, there is no hope for them with Fellini. Zapponi claims that he came up with the idea for this scene based on the fact that there are a number of stores in Rome that handle such clothing. Whoever came up with it, and I am willing to take Zapponi’s word, it is a simple, but very imaginative jump from that to a fashion show.

The writers have an outdoor festival, which connects with the first night young Fellini came to Rome. Then a group of motorcyclists roar through Rome, and we see the monuments of Rome zip past from the point of view of the cyclists, which connects with the way the past is disappearing in the mosaic scene.

No, there are not conventional characters nor a conventional story, but unlike Satyricon, the individual sequences are so rich and vivid by themselves, and connect up in subtle ways, that the film, in spite of sequences that don’t work, is a satisfying whole. It is not up to the best of Fellini, but how many movies, including those of Fellini, are?

Singin’ in the Rain: The Making of an American Masterpiece (2009. Book by Earl J. Hess and Pratibha A. Dabholkar. 321 pages): More collaboration.

In 1973 Donald Knox did a terrific book called The Magic Factory: How MGM Made An American in Paris. As much as I liked that book, I always thought he should have done it about Singin’ in the Rain, which, American’s Best Picture Oscar aside, is a much better film. Thirty-six years later Hess and Dabholkar have finally gotten around to doing that book. And it’s even better than I hoped.

When Knox was collecting material for his book, the studio files at all studios were generally closed to scholars, so following in the path of people like Kevin Brownlow, he conducted detailed oral history interviews with the collaborators on American. There was a great push at that time, inspired by Brownlow’s monumental book of oral history interviews with survivors of the silent film era, The Parade’s Gone By, to get people on tape before they passed away. Many of the people who worked on Singin’ have since passed away, but many were interviewed by various oral history projects, and the authors have access to all of those. We who were involved in collecting oral histories were told what we were doing was the “first draft of history,” and I find it satisfying Hess and Dabholkar are using them now, and in an interesting way. When you interview people, you usually develop some kind of fondness for them. So you tend to believe what they tell you. Because Hess and Dabholkar are working from transcripts, interviews, and autobiographies, they are very good are telling you that these Hollywood storytellers have often told very different versions over the years of what happened making the film.

The authors use not only those oral histories involving famous people like Gene Kelly. For example there is Rudy Behlmer’s interview with Lela Simone. And who was she? She was a music coordinator and assistant to Arthur Freed, the producer of Singin’. She supervised a lot of the post-production work, including sound effects on the title number. We get not only her recollections, but her notes, since the studios have donated/dumped a lot of their paper archives into university libraries and the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy. As I mentioned above, there are a lot moving parts in the making of any movie. Pauline Kael, writing about Doctor Zhivago, said, “It’s not art, it’s heavy labor.” Making any movie involves heavy labor, and Hess and Dabholkar’s book lets you know how much heavy labor went into the making of one the lightest and most charming American films.

The most detailed account of the script development of the film we have had so far comes from an essay the two screenwriters, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, wrote for the 1972 publication of the script. Hess and Dabholkar follow that, but they also have looked at the surviving script materials. That shows, even more than Comden and Green’s essay, how much collaboration was constantly going on with them and Gene Kelly and the others. The basics of the film were there in the first drafts, but there were constant changes and improvements. And also some possible disasters they avoided. Comden and Green had to go back to New York to work on a show, and at one point they suggested playwright Joseph Fields come in and work with Kelly. Hess and Dabholkar tell what some of Fields’ suggestions were. How could a guy that talented be that wrongheaded? Fortunately sanity prevailed there as well.

I have actually come across a few of my students over the years who do not like Singin’ in the Rain. They are not cretins, nor are they morally deficient. For all the rest of us, this book will tell you everything you ever wanted to know about how the film was made. You may find yourself so exhausted after reading it from the descriptions of all the heavy lifting that went on that you will want to rest a while before looking at the film again.

The Beginning of the Cable Season: Returns and newbies.

In US#26, I wrote about the end of the network television season. It has been followed of course, by the arrival of the summer season on cable, which means the returns of some favorites and some new shows.

Season Three of Burn Notice picks up where season two left off: Michael had jumped out of a helicopter that “Management” had taken him up in to tell him that they were no longer going to protect him. As I suggested in US#21, this opens up a whole new set of people who wish Michael ill. Michael knows he is suddenly showing up on computer lists and in police files. In the first episode, “Friends and Family” (written by Matt Nix), he is approached by an old colleague, Harlan, who says he needs his help. By now Michael should realize people like that are up to no good. In the second episode, “End Run” (written by Craig O’Neill), local detective Paxson picks up Michael’s brother Nate in an effort to get Michael to talk about assorted semi-legal things he has been involved in in the first two seasons. Michael outwits her, and in episode four, “Fearless Leader” (written by Michael Horowitz), Michael manages to find out what cases Paxson is working on and arrange for her to capture one of the biggest fish she is after. She agrees not to go after Michael, but I doubt if we have seen the last of her. Throughout these episodes Madeline (Michael’s mother), Sam, and especially Fiona have been pushing Michael to stop trying to get back into intelligence work and just agree to work with them on cases. Michael is determined to get back in, so we are going to have that as the running theme for the season.

The Closer started up its season differently. In the last episode of the previous season, Brenda and Fritz, the F.B.I. agent, got married. So do we see their period of adjustment? Not so much. In the first episode, “Products of Discovery” (written by Michael Alaimo), it is several months after the wedding, and we are well into the episode before we even get a scene with Fritz. And then it is about their sick cat. I know the kitten is supposed to be a human interest story, but it just came across as weird. Especially when they kept returning to the cat in subsequent episodes. And even after they had to have the cat euthanized, the following week, in “Walking Back the Cat” (written by Leo Geter), Brenda is carrying around a container with kitty’s ashes, which leads to all the obvious sight gags and one-liners. In this episode, we do get to see a little more of Brenda and Fritz working together, since he asks her to see if she can track down a missing person the F.B.I. has an interest in. It is of course a lot more complicated than that, and there is a disagreement between the two of them on procedure, since as a cop she is allowed to lie to a suspect, while he is not. Not as much is made of that as you could. The writers of all the episodes so far are not getting into what a marriage between these two means.

Saving Grace, having killed off Leon at the end of last season, is now dancing around “coma girl,” as Grace refers to the black girl she thinks knows Earl. Three episodes in the girl has still not awakened, although in “Watch Siggybaby Burn” (written by Denitria Harris-Lawrence & Jessica Mecklenberg) we learn that Earl has been taking coma girl on trips and apparently getting her drunk, since alcohol is showing up in her blood stream. We get no indication what the doctors think about that. Meanwhile, Grace, having been behaving herself in the last season, has returned to her wild ways, and in “Watch Siggybaby Burn” she and her pal Rhetta spend a lot of time behaving like teenagers on a bender.

Since my Time-Warner system does not deign to give us Showtime, I have had to pass on Nurse Jackie, but I did pick up a couple of episodes of the other new nurse show, HawthoRNe on TNT. The “Pilot” was written by John Masius, an old St. Elsewhere vet, but you could not tell it. In it we are introduced to Christina Hawthorne, the head nurse at a hospital in Richmond, Virginia, although no one talks in a southern accent. She is of course SuperNurse, saying and doing all the right things, challenging the doctors, and fighting for the patients. When someone asks her, “Who’s side are you on?” Christina of course replies, “Right now, the patient’s.” Yeah, and that makes her different from every other nurse how? I loved Jada Pinkett Smith in Collateral, but mostly she has played supporting roles. She is not yet giving a star performance here that will carry the show. She and everybody else in this episode and the following one, “Healing Time,” are just a little too good-natured and easygoing. The staffs in both St. Elsewhere and ER had a lot of edges to them. The one semi-non-cliched character is nurse Bobbie Jackson, Christina’s best friend, who has an artificial leg. We know because she gets stabbed in it and it doesn’t hurt. Then a guy who wants to date her brings along spackle to their first date. I am not sure how much more you can do with that, and it is not a reason all by itself to watch the show.

I almost did not watch the opener of HBO’s Hung. The premise is ridiculous: A high school basketball coach decides to supplement his meager income by hiring out as a male prostitute, since he has a large penis. Then all of the hype about the show was that it was more than its premise. Then several critics agreed that it was more than its premise. I know, the joke here should be that it is not, but the hype and the critics were right, at least about the “Pilot” episode (written by Dimitry Lipkin & Colette Burson). The episode starts off slowly, setting up the context: We are in Detroit and financially times are bad for everybody. Ray Drecker’s wife has left him for a dermatologist who had been a nerd when they were all in school together. He has had to move into his late parents’ house, which is nearly destroyed in a fire. He gets re-involved with a poet, Tanya, he had a one-night stand with, and they inadvertently come up with the idea of him becoming a male prostitute. It is all done in a very low-key, even realistic, way, and some of the dialogue is rather sharp, as are the reactions of the characters. Look at Tanya’s reaction when Ray asks her if she intends to be his pimp: She just looks at him and quietly says, “Yes.” The tone is very interesting. But tone alone cannot carry a show. I am not entirely sure where they can go with the basic idea. Ray is sort of a blank, and can you do this with a Special Guest Star customer every week? It is worth checking out to see what they can do with it.

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

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Review: Vivarium Looks Aloofly at the Nightmare of Conformity

This a parable about adulthood boasts deeply cynical takes on home, community, and childrearing.

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Vivarium
Photo: Saban Films

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

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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

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Resistance
Photo: IFC Films

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

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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

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Atlantis
Photo: Best Friend Forever

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

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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.

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Red Moon Tide
Photo: Berlinale

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

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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.

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The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs
Photo: Berlinale

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

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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

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Blow the Man Down
Photo: Amazon Studios

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

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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.

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25 Underrated Movie Gems to Stream Right Now on the Criterion Channel
Photo: Janus Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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Deerskin
Photo: Greenwich Entertainment

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

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Interview: Eliza Hittman on the Poetic Odyssey of Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Never Rarely Sometimes Always breaks new ground for Hittman as a filmmaker.

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Eliza Hittman
Photo: Angal Field/Focus Features

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.

Sidney Flanagan in Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Sidney Flanagan in a scene from Never Rarely Sometimes Always. @ Angal Field/Focus Features

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.

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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.

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Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles
Photo: Victor Jucá

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.

Bacurau

A scene from Bacurau © Kino Lorber

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.

Bacurau

A scene from Bacurau © Kino Lorber

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.

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