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Understanding Screenwriting #30: The Hurt Locker, (500) Days of Summer, Chéri, Public Enemies, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #30: The Hurt Locker, (500) Days of Summer, Chéri, Public Enemies, & More

Coming Up In This Column: The Hurt Locker, (500) Days of Summer, Chéri, Public Enemies, The Undercover Man, Union Pacific, 1939: Hollywood’s Greatest Year, Moonfleet, The Mouse That Roared, Drop Dead Diva, Disneyland Summer 2009 but first…

Fan Mail: You guys are letting me down. I would have figured that in US#29 my comments on Departures, Tetro and two Fellini films would have ticked off somebody enough to comment, but I guess not. So on to the newest haul of goodies.

The Hurt Locker (2008. Written by Mark Boal. 131 minutes): Sometimes first-timers get it right.

The film opens in Iraq in 2004. We are with a three-man bomb disposal squad. The leader, a careful veteran named Thompson, prepares to deal with a possible bomb by the side of the road. He sends out the robot, then goes himself. The other two hang back, since they are clearly supporting characters and may get zapped quickly. Thompson is the star of the unit, and since he is played by Guy Pearce, the one recognizable face, he is obviously the star of the-BOOM-he’s dead. If they are going to kill off Guy Pearce so quickly, nobody is safe, which Boal needs to establish. The scene also establishes the careful techniques required in bomb disposal.

So Thompson’s replacement, Staff Sgt. James, shows up and he does not follow any of Thompson’s procedures, but recklessly jumps right in to deal with the next bomb, which turns out to be several wired together. You may have seen this shot either in the trailer or as the photo in the ad. It is as creepy in the film as it is in the photo, if not creepier. Given what we know about the process from the first scene, his behavior shows us his character. This script is a great example of the truism that action is character. Mark Boal is a journalist who covered Iraq and wrote the article that In the Valley of Elah was based on. He is in the grand tradition of journalists who went on to become good screenwriters, from Roy McCardell through Herman J. Mankiewicz and Nunnally Johnson up to Cameron Crowe and Joe Eszterhas. As a journalist he was used to recording what people said, not what as a writer he thought they ought to say. The dialogue in The Hurt Locker is generally very natural, with only a couple of scenes where you hear the clicking of the writer’s computer keyboard.

Structurally the film is very episodic, as the lives of the bomb disposal people tend to be, but Boal has made each episode different, with new challenges for us as well as for the soldiers. What starts out as a demolition in the desert of assorted bombs they have found turns into a meeting with a group of British mercenaries tracking down members of Hussein’s government. The lead mercenary turns out to be played by Ralph Fiennes, so you know from Guy Pearce’s fate that he will not be around long. He’s not, but the firefight turns into a long, suspenseful sequence, not just an action sequence. And it is a sequence that lets the relationship of James and Sgt. Sanborn, who first resented James, develop out of the action. Sanborn was one of those we thought in the opening scene was going to get killed quickly, but he has turned into a major character. The relationships and revelations about character provide a spine for the episodes without being obvious the way it would if done by a screenwriter who had spent his time reading screenwriting manuals rather than living the experience with the bomb disposal guys.

Titles tell us how long the unit has on its rotation, and then we get a short sequence of James back in the States. We can see he is unhappy not being where the action is. Boal gives us a great single moment of James in a large, really large, supermarket, baffled by all the cereal choices. A friend of mine who saw the film with his wife said his wife came back from shopping later and said it was just like The Hurt Locker. No surprise that by the end of the picture James is back in action in Iraq. Listen to how little in terms of dialogue it takes to tell us he is going back. Show, don’t tell.

(500) Days of Summer (2009. Written by Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber. 95 minutes): Wait for it.

This rom-com opened to reviewers going on and on about its freshness, enough so that, contrarian that I am, I began to check the similarities to other movies. The writers have turned this into Annie Hall meets Hiroshima Mon Amour. It is about an ordinary guy, Tom, and the woman he is convinced is “the one,” Summer, told not in chronological order, but by skipping around the 500 days of the relationship. That works rather well, as in when we see the couple late in the relationship but early in the picture moping about Ikea and only later in the picture but earlier in the relationship do we see their early, funny days at Ikea. OK, but Woody and Alain have been there before, although Neustadter and Weber handle it very well.

Early in the film/later in the relationship we get a great scene in which Tom’s prepubescent sister is called in as the wise one in an intervention with Tom about Summer. Nice character, but I saw her before as the little sister in Gregory’s Girl (1981). Then a scene of Tom, a wannabe architect, showing Summer buildings of L.A. is a nice variation, but still a variation, of the similar scene in Hannah and Her Sisters. On the bright side, unlike Monsters vs. Aliens (see US#24) this is not just a checklist of other films. The writers use these elements well enough on their own, and with Tom they have created a character we can all sympathize with. He is convinced Summer is “the one” but she does not want to get serious. Since this is written by guys, she is not as well developed as Tom is, although a lot of that in the first part of the movie is her resisting getting serious.

Then, an hour into the movie, the film begins to change and deepen in some very interesting ways. We go to a wedding of a former co-worker of Tom and Summer. Even though at that point the relationship is officially over we know from the number of the day that precedes the scene that it is not really over. Tom and Summer have a couple of nice scenes about a couple trying to figure out what their relationship is now that their “relationship” is over. This is not a typical rom-com scene, although it does have an Annie Hall-ish flavor to it, but by then we are so into the two characters and their story that we don’t mind. Then Neustadter and Weber pull their two best tricks, and we learn something very interesting about Summer and her attitudes, which makes her as equally interesting in terms of this relationship as Tom. The second trick builds from that beautifully and ends the movie with what other critics have called the funniest closing line of any movie this year. I cannot disagree.

Chéri (2009. Screenplay by Christopher Hampton, based on the novels Chéri and La Fin de Chéri by Colette. 92 minutes): Wait for it, but you may not find it worth the wait.

I was very disappointed in this, since I like a lot of Christopher Hampton’s previous work. His stage play and later screenplay for his adaptation of Les liaisons dangereuses (the 1988 film was called Dangerous Liaisons just to make sure American audiences would not think it was in French) shows that he is one of the few English writers who can deal with the French. You could not tell it from his script for Chéri, which starts out with a lot of very clunky voiceover exposition, some of which is covered in more dialogue in the opening scenes. The dialogue then becomes rather flat and Stephen Frears, who directed Dangerous Liaisons, has let or encouraged the actors to overact, especially Kathy Bates in one of her worst performances.

Part of the problem in the first half of the movie is that so much of what is going on is inside the heads of the characters. Hampton has not found a way to get it out in dialogue. Instead we get a lot of shots of Lea, the aging courtesan, and her much younger lover, Chéri, moping about. She is more active than he is, which is part of Colette’s joke, although not as amusing as it was in 1920 when she wrote the novel. The picture picks up in the second half, which is based on the second of the two novels. Chéri has let himself be married off at his mother’s insistence to a rather shallow young girl. Both Lea and Chéri thought, like Summer in (500) Days, that this was just a passing thing, but they realize they were and still are in love. Now Hampton has given the actors something to do: Suffer, which both Michelle Pfieffer as Lea and Rupert Friend as Chéri do well. Whereas (500) Days has built up enough good will toward the characters and the story to make the stronger ending pay off, Chéri has not, and the ending is not as devastating as it should be.

Public Enemies (2009. Screenplay by Ronan Bennett and Michael Mann & Ann Biderman, based on the book “Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the F.B.I. 1933-1934” by Bryan Burrough. 140 minutes): When a screenwriter dies, he becomes a DIRECTOR.

Michael Mann first came to attention as a television writer, particularly on the great seventies series Police Story. Joseph Wambaugh, the cop-turned-novelist who was one of the creators of the show, was particularly impressed with Mann’s ability to do research. Wambaugh was hesitant to criticize the accuracy of Mann’s scripts, which he did a lot of with other writers. See the chapter on Police Story in my Storytellers to the Nation: A History of American Television Writing for some of his comments. In spite of the legends that grew up about it, Mann was not the creator of the series Miami Vice. That was Anthony Yerkovich, coming off Hill Street Blues, but Mann took over as executive producer from Yerkovich and made it his own. Not necessarily for the better. Ed Waters, who wrote on the show in its second season, later said, “In an effort to keep that visual look that they did so successfully on that show, they would go to a location that would take them three or four hours to get to, and they would shoot a page and a half that day, so something had to give. You have a 55-page script and seven days to shoot it in, you have to shoot seven and a half pages, or whatever, and if you shoot one and a half pages one day, you’re in trouble. So a lot of things were sacrificed to preserve that style. Many of the stories suffered. When you are scrambling to meet the schedule, story values and plot points are going to fall by the wayside. They did.”

When Mann began to move from television into feature films, both as writer and director, he used the bigger budgets and longer production schedules available in features to make the productions as detailed as his previous interest in research could make them. Sometimes, as in The Last of the Mohicans (1992), his script supported the production. Sometimes, as in the film version of Miami Vice (2006), the script did not. What Mann has been falling into is the trap that many screenwriters fall into when they become directors: They become so desirous of playing with as many of the toys of film production as they can that they lose sight of their original talent as writers. You can see this in the careers of Francis Ford Coppola, the Wachowski Brothers, Oliver Stone, and James Cameron, to name only a few. John Grierson once wrote, referring to Josef Von Sternberg, that when a director dies, he becomes a cinematographer. I think when a screenwriter dies, he becomes a DIRECTOR. It’s happened to Mann.

The book Public Enemies is based on is a wide-ranging study of crime in the Depression, but aside from some brief cameos by Pretty Boy Floyd and Baby Face Nelson, the focus is on John Dillinger. Mann and his writers’ view of Dillinger was that he was cool. Unfortunately that is about it for characterization of Dillinger in the film. When the F.B.I. begins to close in on him, his coolness seems more like stupidity than high style. It is a limited view of the film’s hero.

Out of the research in the book, Mann and his second co-writer, Ann Biderman, began to focus on the rise of the F.B.I.. Unfortunately this is put in terms of making J. Edgar Hoover seem like a thirties Dick Cheney (yeah, I know, he sort of was, but still) and the techniques of the F.B.I., particularly the interrogation of Billie Frechette, seem like the Bush years. I mentioned in US#24 in writing about both Monsters vs. Aliens and Parks and Recreation that those seemed to have been conceived in the Bush era and now seem dated. The same is true of this element of Public Enemies.

Part of the problem with the script is that the writers have not given Mann many actual scenes. There is nothing in here that is the equivalent of the coffee shop scene between De Niro and Pacino in Heat. What we get instead is the buildup to the scenes—a LOT of shots of characters walking into buildings, rooms, etc. Mann’s direction here is like that of the late career Otto Preminger: More establishing shots than there are scenes (look at Advise & Consent [1962] and In Harm’s Way [1965] and you’ll see what I mean). I suppose Mann could defend it here in that it shows Dillinger always in motion, but it leaves his film rather shallow. Even when there is a scene, like the shootout at the Little Bohemia Lodge, the writers have not shaped it as a scene. It is just a lot of men firing a lot of guns.

Dillinger is not the only one with very little characterization. There are a lot of supporting actors, but with a couple of exceptions, they are given very little to do. The major exception is Peter Gerety, who puts a lot of life into the lawyer the mob gets for Dillinger. Giovanni Ribisi does a couple of interesting things in his one moderately large scene as Alvin Karpis, but it is too little, too late.

The Undercover Man (1949. Screenplay by Sydney Boehm, additional dialogue by Malvin Wald, adaptation by Jack Rubin of the article “Undercover Man: He Trapped Capone” by Frank J. Wilson. 85 minutes): Public Enemies, 1949 style.

The day after I saw Public Enemies I caught this one on TCM. The obvious thing to say is that this film is better than the new film because the script is better. Yes and yes, but… In this script, we have characters, which we don’t much in Public Enemies. Frank Warren is a Treasury accountant involved in the effort to bring down the “Big Fellow,” who is never named. He is obviously Al Capone, but Capone was caught in the early thirties, so that might have made it seem dated by 1949. Warren is concerned about how his obsessive hunt for documents is not helpful to his marriage, a fact he and his wife talk about. Every time Warren seems to find a potential informant, they get killed. One of the Big Fellow’s accountants has squirreled away a ledger and just as he decides to turn it in, he is killed. His mother and daughter bring it to Warren just as Warren is about to quit. They persuade him that for the sake of his family as well as theirs, he has to go on.

In addition to Warren, his wife, the criminal accountant and his family, and assorted potential informants, we also get a nice characterization of the Big Fellow’s lawyer, very well played by Barry Kelley.

The picture was made as a B-picture at Columbia, and the director was Joseph H. Lewis. The following year Lewis would make the film he is best known for, Gun Crazy. Here the budget undercuts the story. If Public Enemies is overproduced for its script, The Undercover Man is underproduced, all backlots and quick location shots that do not necessarily match the studio streets. It is impossible to tell what city the film is supposed to take place in, since location shots are clearly Los Angeles, but the studio street is more New York or Chicago. There is at least one flubbed line that was not reshot. Unlike Mann, Lewis hardly ever moves his camera, but when he does, as in the killing of the account on the Columbia backlot city street, he gets the most out of it. According to a 1974 article on Lewis by Myron Meisel that appears in the anthology Kings of the Bs, in the big dramatic scenes, Lewis used three cameras and let the actors improvise the scene. I seriously doubt if Harry Cohn, the head of Columbia, would have let Lewis have three cameras, and the dialogue is a little too well-shaped to have been improvised. But then Meisel was writing in the day when everybody believed everything directors told them.

Union Pacific (1939. Screenplay by Walter DeLeon, C. Gardner Sullivan, and Jesse Laskey Jr., based on Jack Cunningham’s adaptation of the novel Trouble Shooter by Ernest Haycox, with uncredited additional writing by Frederick Hazlitt Brennan, Stanley Robb, Jeanie Macpherson, Stuart Anthony, and Harold Lamb. 135 minutes): De Mille and his cast of thousands of writers.

In writing about Cecil D. De Mille and his use of writers in FrameWork: A History of Screenwriting in the American Film, I noted that “The screenwriting style of the De Mille films is just as suited to his star-director personality as the style of the Marx Brothers films [De Mille and the Marx Brothers were at Paramount at the same time], films suited to their star-actor personalities.” De Mille of course focused on spectacle (there are two train wrecks in Union Pacific), but there is also a pompous solemnity in the writing, no matter who the writers were. De Mille, who was his own producer, pushed all the writers (the list of uncredited writers comes from Robert S. Birchard’s thoroughly researched book Cecil B. De Mille’s Hollywood) to adopt his particular house style. The result in Union Pacific is dramatically very clumsy. As often in De Mille films, there is a lot of setup before he gets to the good stuff. The first two hours of his 1956 version of The Ten Commandments are virtually unwatchable now, but the second two hours at least have some energy. In Union Pacific we get a lot of plotting against the railroad by Barrows, a businessman who is supposedly supporting the Union Pacific in its trek west but is in fact betting most of his money on the Central Pacific coming east from California. Barrows sets up Campeau to run a gambling and liquor operation along the route to slow down the Union Pacific. The Campeau story seems to be the main story, but about 2/3 of the way through he goes missing and does not show up again until De Mille needs a shootout at the end. The first of the two train wrecks does not come until almost an hour and a half into the picture. The second one comes very quickly after the first. Jeff, the trouble shooter, has suggested that they can lay track over the snow rather than going through a mountain. They try it and the track collapses, killing the engineer. Did I mention that Jeff is the hero in this movie? Nobody blames him for his really bad idea. Not even Mollie, the woman who loves him, even though it is her father who was killed in the wreck. De Mille and his writers simply do not take the time to deal with trivial issues like those.

In FrameWork I mentioned that the writing in Union Pacific has a kind of crude energy, but looking at the film again recently, I am not sure it does. The script spends a lot more time than it needs to on the romance of Jeff, Mollie and Dick, an old army buddy of Jeff and now Campeau’s partner. For a film about the building of the railroad, we are indoors a lot, or at least on soundstages. The second unit train scenes, done on location in Utah and California, have a little energy, but are not a patch on those in the 1924 film The Iron Horse, where the conventional plot is less of a downer to the epic scale of the film.

Union Pacific was criticized at the time for its portrayal of the Indians, and rightly so. There is no Indian character that we come to know in the film, and the Indians generally behave stupidly. Their one smart move is to topple the water tower to make the train crash into it in the film’s first train wreck. Then they just dance around and loot the train, waiting for the cavalry to show up and kill them. The other character in the script that raises my PC hackles these days is the hero’s sidekick, Fiesta. As played by Akim Tamiroff, he is as clichéd a Mexican-American as you could find, constantly talking about his different wives in various towns. He reminds us this picture was made in Hollywood’s Greatest Year, 1939. The same year we had the awful Mexican-American stereotypes in Stagecoach and Prissy et al in Gone with the Wind. Some things have improved in American films.

1939: Hollywood’s Greatest Year (2009. Written by Gary Leva and Constantine Nasr. 68 minutes): See, I told you it was Hollywood’s Greatest Year.

This was a documentary produced by Warners that showed up on TCM as a companion piece to their running a lot of the films from that year. As you might expect, we get the usual film historian and critic suspects, and as usual, not much mention of screenwriters. In fact, there are only two. At 47-minutes in, critic F.X. Feeney mentions in passing that Young Mr. Lincoln was written by Lamar Trotti. The second one, three minutes later comes from, whoa, not an historian, but an…actress. Claire Trevor mentions that Dudley Nichols’s screenplay for Stagecoach didn’t have one wasted word in it. I could argue that point, but for now let it stand. Fellow film historians and critics, if an actor, who has to say the words in the script, recognizes the value of a screenplay, shouldn’t the rest of us?

On the other hand, I know several of the people interviewed and they all have shown appreciation for the work of screenwriters before, so they may well have mentioned some writers and had those comments cut out.

Moonfleet (1955. Screenplay by Jan Lustig and Margaret Fitts, based on the novel by J. Meade Faulkner. 87 minutes): Treasure Island meets Great Expectations.

I was not going to write about this one, since it is such a dud, but I got to browsing in the second volume of John Houseman’s memoirs, Front & Center. This was one of the films Houseman produced for MGM in the middle of the fifties. It was based on a novel that had been a hit in its day and had been recently reissued. Houseman inherited the project from a producer who had left the studio. He recalls, “When I came to examine the novel I discovered that it was a sparse, rather somber tale of a boy and a gentleman-smuggler operating on the southwest coast of England. The screenplay by Jan Lustig and Margaret Fitts had sought to liven it up through the injection of a whole slew of eighteenth century clichés: A wild gypsy girl; a jealous, slightly insane mistress; a wicked Lord; a mysterious titled lady in a gilded coach; a Byronic hero-villain who finally sacrifices his life to save the boy’s.” OK, clichés are our friends, as Crash Davis has told us, but here they are just tacked onto a not-very-interesting story. The gypsy shows up at the beginning, gets a nice dance number and then disappears. I kept hoping for the gypsy girl to come back. No such luck.

The director is the humorless Fritz Lang who obviously had no feel for the material. To make matters worse, Houseman and MGM made the picture in CinemaScope. On the soundstages. In Hollywood. With ’Scope, you’d think there would be more than one brief second unit shot of a castle in England.

The Mouse That Roared (1959. Screenplay by Roger MacDougall and Stanley Mann, based on the novel by Leonard Wibberley. 83 minutes): Silly fun, but not much more.

The setup of the Wibberley novel is amusing: The Duchy of Fenwick has its famous wine hurt by the marketing of a similar American wine and decides to declare war on the United States. They assume they will lose and the Americans will be as generous to them as they were to the Germans and the Japanese after World War II. Unfortunately, they win.

This was one of the first pictures to make fun of the Cold War and possible nuclear war, and it deserves recognition for that. It has been overshadowed by the films that followed, especially Dr. Strangelove (1964). Even in its first release, Mouse was criticized for not doing as much with its idea as it could. The jokes tend to be rather obvious, and there is a lot more slapstick than it needs. One of the writers of the film was Roger MacDougall, who had written the play and screenplay based on the play for The Man in the White Suit (1951). That film does everything right that Mouse doesn’t—it is a very sharply observed comedy of attitudes.

There were two reasons that Mouse did well. It made Peter Sellers a star. Somewhere along the line, it was decided that, like Alec Guiness in the 1949 film Kind Hearts and Coronets, Sellers would play multiple parts: The Grand Duchess (in makeup and dress similar to the Lady Agatha that Guinness plays), the Prime Minister, and the nominal hero of the film, Tully Bascome, a gamekeeper who leads the invasion army. Sellers does not show the range that Guinness did, but the script does not call for it. Still, he is amusing, and you can see his multiple characterizations for Kubrick in Dr. Strangelove coming. Strangelove does everything Mouse would like to do, but does it with, well, genius.

Ah, the second reason. Never underestimate the importance of getting a comedy going with a great laugh. It disarms the audience and puts you ahead of them. Here the best laugh in the film comes even before the credits. We get the Columbia logo, except the lady with the torch is a real woman. Who picks up her dress, shows her legs, sees a mouse, shrieks and runs off the pedestal.

Drop Dead Diva (2009. “Pilot” written by Josh Berman. “The ’F’ Word” written by Joshn Berman & Carla Kettner. “Do Over” written by Alex Taub. Each episode 60 minutes): Here Comes Mr. Jordan meets All of Me meets Legally Blonde meets Samantha Who? meets…

Yeah, it’s recombinant. And complicated to set up. Which Berman does with considerable economy in the pilot. Deb, a ditzy would-be model, dies in a car accident, but when she gets to the pearly gates, or rather office, she manages to get her soul sent back to Earth. But into the body of a plus-size lawyer named Jane, who was shot at the office. Fred, the bureaucrat at the pearly office, comes down as Jane/Deb’s guardian angel, and he helps explain the ground rules. Deb’s soul is inside Jane’s body, but Jane’s brain retains her legal knowledge. Berman has shrewdly established that Jane was already reading self-help books when she was shot, so Deb’s Elle Woods-Stuart Smalley self-improvement affirmations strike a chord. So, why watch, other than to play spot the reference?

Unlike Samantha Who?, Berman has really thought through what it would be like for Jane/Deb to go through this, and he has written a variety of reactions for her to have. Brooke Elliott, most of whose work has been in theater, is great at channeling both Jane and Deb. Look at the Jane in her lust after doughnuts while the Deb in her resists. Look at Jane’s joy at remembering legal information while at the same time having the Deb part of her head hurt from having to actually, like, you know, think. Elliott is just as good at this as Steve Martin was in All of Me.

The plotting of the pilot gets Jane/Deb involved in a couple of cases that Deb can help out with, and I am not sure how often the writers will be able to go to that well. There is also a running plot of Deb’s grieving boyfriend just having been hired at Jane’s law firm, which may give us some scenes, but if he is the sort of smart guy who likes a skinny airhead, would he be attracted to Jane?

And the show is going to have problems with its sponsors. Jane is a “plain jane” and Deb will undoubtedly give her a makeover of some kind, which should make the cosmetic advertisers happy, but at least one commercial on the premiere was for a weight-loss program. Isn’t that slapping your star in the face? And will Elliott manage to avoid having to become anorexic? I hope so. There are too many skinny women on television already. Although I have to tell you that Stacy, one of Deb’s friends, is played by April Bowlby, who was spectacular as Alan’s girlfriend Kandi on Two and a Half Men. She is very thin, but I don’t mind because she can be very funny. She and Elliott did not get much going in the pilot, but the two of them are reason to keep looking in on the show.

“The ’F’ Word” seemed to backslide a little bit from the pilot. Stacy is already working on a plan to have Jane slim down and the new Jane is already wearing more makeup than the old Jane did. And nobody seems to have noticed. The legal cases are not that interesting, and to top it off, the writers end the episode with Jane and Fred talking over one of the cases…out on the balcony. Come on, folks, I know three or four months is forever in television, but some of us still remember Alan and Denny Crane and their balcony.

“Do Over” is a little better. Taub is giving Elliott and Bowlby the right kind of lines to get a little comic rhythm going. I am not sure having Stacy, a would-be actress, play a business woman to put a person Jane is suing on the defensive is really convincing, since it seems to be Bowlby playing the businesswoman, not Stacy. The structure is still two legal stories per episode, but in this one they gave the wrong one to Jane. She should have had the one about the shrink who “killed off” the wrong multiple personality, since that would have resonated with Jane more than the story she got. And haven’t any of the writers ever seen any of Shakespeare’s comedies? Surely Deb’s ex-boyfriend Grayson could have the same kind of confusion with Jane/Deb that the heroes in Will’s plays have when they are confronted with beautiful women pretending to be men.

Disneyland, Summer 2009: Spare parts.

My daughter and I took my grandson to Disneyland and California Adventure the other day, and the contrast between the old Disneyland and the new Disneyland/California Adventure was more striking than ever.

Walt Disney himself was never much interested in the present. Main Street is not Main Street Los Angeles 1955 but turn-of-the century small town America. Frontierland is the past. And both of those are the past seen as nostalgia rather than history. Nostalgia sells, history doesn’t. And Tomorrowland looked to the future. One of the reasons that California Adventure, the park across the plaza from Disneyland has never worked very well, either artistically or commercially, is that it has never had the magic of the original park.

One of Walt Disney’s great skills was his ability to focus on story, as we have discussed before in relation to John Lasseter and Pixar. That focus is a part of the original rides in the park. The Peter Pan flight over London in Fantasyland takes you on a trip. The Pirates of the Caribbean ride takes you into the bayous of south Florida, then past the caves, the castle, the pillaging and burning of Port Royal, the pirates in jail, and finally back into the “real” world. (Kudos to the folks who did the remodeling of Pirates; they have not laid on stuff from the movie too heavily. The captain of the ship opposite the castle is now Barbossa, but Captain Jack Sparrow is almost hidden in his first two appearances. He shows up full form at the end of the ride, and the audio-animatronic people have outdone themselves in capturing the nuances of Johnny Depp’s performance.) The Indiana Jones Adventure is very much in the tradition of the storytelling rides. The best of the California Adventure rides, like the Grizzly River Run (a white water rapids ride) and Soarin’ Over California, take us on a trip, but the other attractions are more conventional. They, and the original idea of the park, are too closely aligned with reality to work in the Disney context.

The big show this summer at Disneyland is Fantasmic, a sound-and-light spectacle at the Rivers of America in front of New Orleans square. Unfortunately, in its taking up of Walt’s interest in technology, there is more sound and light then there is narrative form. We get songs, water plumes, dancers, fire, a group of actors doing Peter Pan shtick on the sailing ship Columbia, fireworks and probably more things I cannot remember. I think, but cannot be sure, that it is about Mickey outdoing an evil queen. My daughter said the show included everything my 17-year-old granddaughter hates about Disney: The misogyny of evil queens and surrealism. In between the plumes of water and the fireworks, there are images projected against a curtain of smoke. Some of them are identifiable to Disney fans. When Mickey first comes on, we get bits and pieces of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice from Fantasia. Later we get similar bits and pieces from one of my favorite pieces of Disney surrealism, the Pink Elephants on Parade from Dumbo. But since they are all projected into smoke, you cannot see them very well. I realize the studio owns the material, but I am sure if anybody else wanted to use the material in this way, the studio would say no. It seemed to me to be nothing more than cannibalizing the past for spare parts, expecting us to be nostalgic about them. He said, tugging at his Mickey Mouse T-shirt.

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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Film

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

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

2.5

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Angels Are Made of Light
Photo: Grasshopper Film

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mike Wallace Is Here
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Demolition Girl
Photo: Japan Cuts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Japan Cuts runs from July 19—28.

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

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

2.5

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David Crosby: Remember My Name
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.5

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Cassandro, the Exotico!
Photo: Film Movement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Marc Maron
Photo: IFC Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right.

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

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

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

Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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Streetwise
Photo: Janus Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lynn Shelton
Photo: IFC Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2

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Into the Ashes
Photo: RLJE Films

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

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

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

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

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

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