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Understanding Screenwriting #34: Jennifer’s Body, Paris, Art & Copy, We’re Not Married!, The Good Wife, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #34: Jennifer’s Body, Paris, Art & Copy, We’re Not Married!, The Good Wife, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Jennifer’s Body, Paris, Art & Copy, We’re Not Married!, The Good Wife, Community, The First Week of the 2009-2010 Television Season, but first…

Fan Mail: I need to catch up on comments not only from US#33 but a couple from US#32 as well.

In 32, Jamie suggested I try The Last Temptation of Christ again since I never watched the whole thing. Thanks for the suggestion Jamie, but when you get to be my age, you can tell pretty quickly that a picture is not going to work for you, so I think in my remaining years I will probably not get to Last Temptation. Jason Bellamy raised several problems he had with the script for District 9. I can see his points (and that’s the kind of comments and discussions I love), but with that film I found myself in a common situation: the writers had so hooked me in that I was willing to overlook the flaws. If the picture is working for you, you won’t be bothered by the flaws. A classic example: has anybody ever hated Jaws because the weather in every shot in the last half-hour is completely different from the previous shot?

In 33, Matt Zoller Seitz thought it was “great to see some love for Ghost Town.” That’s one of the reasons I don’t just write about new movies. Sometimes we pick up on earlier films that we missed, or are seeing again, and find something new in them. “Female geek” liked the Masterpiece Theatre version of Sense & Sensibility more than I did, although mostly for location, art direction, and acting reasons. Hey, we all like movies for a lot of reasons. “dfantico” wondered if given my comment about Amreeka “not being as good as it could have been” what my take was on Law Abiding Citizen. He thought the idea sounded interesting and wondered what went wrong. As with Last Temptation, I am pretty sure I am going to give this one a miss, so the following is just a guess. Most artists are delusional, which is what makes them interesting. Sometimes those delusions tell us stuff in entertaining ways and those delusions become our delusions. Sometimes the artists’ delusions are so unconnected to ours they don’t work for us. I gather from some interviews I have read with the makers of Law Abiding Citizen that they thought they were making a more serious film than viewers thought it was. The filmmakers apparently did not get far enough beyond the revenge elements of the story for at least the critics. Anyway, that’s my guess, and now on to movies I have seen.

Jennifer’s Body (2009. Written by Diablo Cody. 102 minutes): Not one of the Mistress’s finest, but amusing.

As I am sure you have noticed, there is an enormous backlash against FORMER-STRIPPER-TURNED-AWARD-WINNING-SCREENWRITER Diablo Cody, and a lot of it is showing up in the reviews of this film. Those of you who are long-time readers of this column will remember from US#4 that I was a big fan of Cody’s Juno, even more after looking at it again. One aspect of Cody’s script for Juno that several people complained about was that the dialogue was too cute and everybody talked alike. I shot down that last one in the comments in my column. I happened to like the archness of the dialogue. I happen to like smart-mouthed women, especially smart-mouthed women writers. If we will let Tarantino write like that, why not Cody? Is her being a former stripper more discrediting than him being a former video store clerk?

On the surface, this is a teen horror movie and it appears to bother people that she is not writing a high-minded, award-seeking screenplay. Well, Juno was not that high-minded until it started winning stuff. Liking both Juno and Cody’s wonderful book Candy Girl, I’m willing to cut her some slack. Especially when she gives us, as she does in Jennifer’s Body, some interesting characters. Jennifer is a typical stuck-up beautiful teenage girl who, through assorted hijinks, becomes evil. As the ads say, using one of the lines from Cody’s script, “She’s evil…and not just high school evil.” Her evil takes the form of killing and partially eating boys. Well, you can see why the fanboy critics are a bit upset. Her best friend forever, Needy, finally twigs to what is wrong with Jennifer and realizes she is after Chip, Needy’s boyfriend. A battle ensues, but there is more after that, although some of it seems rushed.

Because she is working in a recognizable genre, Cody’s work here is not as fresh as it seemed in Juno. We get the standard-issue teen horror stuff, but Cody’s heart is more in the Jennifer-Needy relationship. This is not a feminist or even post-feminist take on the horror genre. Cody is not writing like a Woman Writer, but like a woman who writes, with her own particular and sometimes peculiar sensibilities. Cody likes both Jennifer and Needy for different reasons and feels the conflict between them and the hurt it causes, especially to Needy. But she probably sees what finally happens to Needy and what she does about it as a good thing. In the context of the film it is, which is what makes it even creepier than it might otherwise have been.

As with Juno, a good script gets you a good cast. All kinds of interesting people show up in smaller parts, such as J.K. Simmons as a teacher with a hook for a hand and the most outrageous wig I have seen in years. Amy Sedaris is Needy’s mom, and Cynthia Stevenson is Needy’s boyfriend’s mom. And there is a great, unsettling, uncredited cameo near the end by…

The two leads reminded me of Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot. Megan Fox, the hottie du jour, is Jennifer and like Curtis, she gives a good movie-star performance. You may remember that in writing about Fox in the first Transformers movie in US#3, I mentioned she either decided not to or was not directed to bring out the white trash fun of the character. There is a similar problem here, and I think it could come from one of two things. The first would be that she is in her “young movie star” mode and just decided that all she had to do was show up in front of the camera and say the lines, which she does o.k. The second option is that she does not (yet) have the instincts of a true actor to fill out the role. Looking at her performances on the September 26th Saturday Night Live, the first option seems more likely. In the film, she does nice stuff scene by scene, but she doesn’t seem to have an overview of the character. Needy is Amanda Seyfried and like Lemmon she gives a great comic performance, with all kinds of actorly twists and turns. I always thought Seyfried never got the credit she deserved for her work in Mamma Mia!. Her performance in the first scene of that film sets exactly the right tone.

Even though this is a film written and directed by women about women, the opening day audience I saw it with was predominantly young men, undoubtedly there to dribble in their pants over Megan Fox. The picture did not open well, and the box office has declined. I suspect the word-of-mouth from the boys was not good, and potential women viewers were put off by Megan Fox. Too bad. They might enjoy it more than they think.

Paris (2008. Written by Cédric Klapisch. 130 minutes): Trés, trés, trés French.

If you are looking for a moody Romanian movie, skip this. If you are looking for a British heritage costume drama, skip this. If you are looking for an American comic book adaptation, skip this. But, if like me, you enjoyed Paris, je t’aime or Avenue Montaigne, or even Private Fears in Public Places, all from 2006, then this one is for you.

It is yet another multi-character story of a variety of people living in Paris. Klapisch, who is best known for his two other multi-character pieces, L’auberge espagnole (2002) and its sequel Russian Dolls (2005), got the first inspiration for Paris years ago when he met a man going to the hospital in a taxi who was not sure he was going to come back. According to an interview in the Los Angeles Times, Klapisch said, “He was looking at the people in the streets saying to himself that all of those people were so lucky because they were able to walk in the street. That story struck me so much I wanted to use that in the movie.” In the film that guy becomes Pierre, a former dancer now suffering from heart problems. He spends his time looking out his balcony window at people going by. He becomes this film’s equivalent of Lillian Gish rocking the cradle in Intolerance, “uniter of the here and hereafter.” It is Pierre in the cab at the end on his way to a heart transplant, and we see several characters from the film from the cab.

Klapisch shows Paris as very much a multicultural city, which the three films mentioned above do not do, or do not do as much as this one. And Paris certainly does this better than its American equivalents like Short Cuts (1993) and it is much subtler than Crash (2004). Listen to the owner of the bakery talk about the foreign workers she has had. And we also get several working class characters, which is also not common in these kinds of films. One group is several street salespeople and through them we go to the Forum des Halles, the newer and more modern version of Les Halles, the famous Paris wholesale market. And who shows up there but a group of fashion models who just got out from a runway show. We know all the jokes about how unsanitary the French can be, so I was delighted to see one of the salespeople and one of the models not actually have sex in the meat locker.

Klapisch, as he did in L’auberge espagnole, gives us a great gallery of characters and has gotten first-rate actors to play them. Repeat after me: you write scripts with good characters, you can get good actors to play them—and without having to pay them $20 million a picture, which is what you have to pay them to do crap. Paris is definitely not merde.

Art & Copy (2009. A film by Doug Pray, from an original concept by Gregory Beauchamp & Kirk Souder, narrative consultant Timothy J. Sexton. 89 minutes): The real Mad Men.

This is another of the documentaries that slipped into Los Angeles in September. It’s about the world of advertising from the sixties to the present. The structure is something of a mess, with a lot of material that takes away from the heart of the movie. We get several segments of a guy whose job is to change large billboards. A little of that goes a long way. There are also recurring shots of a rocket being prepared to launch, which is supposed to connect with the fact there are a lot of satellites up there spewing out ads on cable systems. But at the end of the film, the rocket launches, and we get the closing line, “Creativity can do anything,” which in the context of the film suggests advertising is like rocket science. Bizarre.

The heart of the movie is the interviews with the ad men and women who have changed the world of advertising from the sixties to the present. They are a wonderful gallery of characters, another example of the general truth that characters in documentaries are often more interesting than those in fiction films. These folks seem much more alive and energetic than the ad men on Mad Men, although some photographs of them from the sixties make them look exactly like Don, Pete, Paul and the gang at Sterling Cooper. Here is a difference between documentary and fiction. In this film, the characters are self-created, with great variations in attitude and behavior. In Mad Men, the characters come out of Matthew Weiner’s singular vision, both of the characters and their place in the world. Art & Copy, as second rate as it is, is showing us the real world and the real people. Mad Men is giving us Weiner’s singular vision of a world. Now, a good documentary can also give us a vision of the world. And an expansive fictional film or series can give us a richly detailed world, which I think Mad Men does. The difference is one of kind rather than degree. In a fiction film you go and live in the world the writers and filmmakers create. In a documentary, you face the real world. Which is why I often find myself watching a documentary and forgetting to breathe. Watching Barbet Schroeder’s great 1976 documentary General Idi Amin Dada: A Self-Portrait I did not exhale in the last twenty minutes of the film until I knew that Schroeder had gotten out alive.

One other flaw in the film: The ad men of course talk about their successes, such as the Volkswagen campaign in the sixties or the “Morning in America” Reagan campaign in 1984. There is very little discussion of the campaigns that did not work. Nor is there any discussion of the fact that most advertising does not work. Think about it: how many commercials have you seen that actually made you try a product or a service? If advertising were that good, we would all be drinking New Coke and driving Edsels. My conclusion, based on years of study, is that the media are not nearly as influential as they think they are.

We’re Not Married! (1952. Screenplay by Nunnally Johnson, based on the story “If I Could Remarry” by Gina Kaus and Jay Dratler, adaptation by Dwight Taylor. 86 minutes): Not one of the Master’s finest, but amusing.

I have mentioned before that I wrote a biography of Nunnally Johnson, haven’t I? Well, I did. He is of course best known as the screenwriter of The Dirty Dozen, The World of Henry Orient, The Three Faces of Eve, How to Marry a Millionaire, Woman in the Window, Jesse James and, of course, The Grapes of Wrath. We’re Not Married! is minor Johnson at best, but not without its pleasures. It popped up recently in the rotation on the Fox Movie Channel and it was good for 86 minutes of relief from the cares of the day.

The setup is that Justice of the Peace Bush married six couples before his license took effect. One case has come to the attention of Governor Bush’s office through Attorney General Bush, and the governor’s secretary, also a Bush family member (we are in a southern state, after all) suggests simply sending out letters to the other five couples. Hijinks ensue. This is one of those early fifties films that has multiple stories, like O. Henry’s Full House the same year. Nunnally, by the way, wrote the “Ransom of Red Chief” episode for the latter film, but took his name off when director Howard Hawks turned his sly comedy into a slapstick farce.

I have not read the story the film is based on, but I know from talking to Nunnally that the first two episodes are his. Well, the first one, about a radio couple that hate each other off the air but are lovebirds on the air actually comes from a radio sketch by Fred Allen, who stars in the episode with Ginger Rogers. Allen was a huge star in radio who, unlike Jack Benny, never successfully made the transition to television or film. He made a few films, but he was not a visual actor. What Nunnally added to the sketch was a sequence of the couple’s morning routine as they glide wordlessly around their bedroom and bathroom. It is purely visual and a nice counterpoint to all the talk in the radio studio, which has a lot of Allen’s satire of commercials. And you think product placement on television today is excessive. The upshot is that the couple has to remarry to continue their high-paying radio jobs. Yes, this was Hollywood avoiding television in its early days.

The second episode is the best known. Annabel Norris is a young married mother competing in the under-funded Mrs. Mississippi contest. When she learns she is not married, she is at first sad, then realizes she can now compete in the Miss Mississippi contest. A young Marilyn Monroe plays Annabel. Nunnally had met her years before but was not particularly impressed with her, either as an actress or as a person. But he noticed the studio was sending around pinup photos of her, and the idea for the story “came to me out of her figure.” The film used several “professional beauty contestants” as extras, and Johnson asked one of them how Monroe would do in a real competition. The woman replied, “She’d win them all.” Monroe handles the shot where she goes from sad to happy rather well.

The third couple is the Woodruffs, and Nunnally’s writing suggests, without being specific about it, that Mr. Woodruff has had several girlfriends. When he reads the letter, he has a dream montage of possible girlfriends. It ends with a bill for $72 at a nightclub, which is enough in 1952 terms to make him burn the letter.

Things start to go wrong for the film with the fourth couple. He is a rich Texas oil man, she is a gold digger. She arranges to meet him at his hotel after a business meeting in New Orleans, but she sends another woman, a private detective, and a witness. She then files for divorce, using the evidence of his “infidelity” as blackmail to get more than just half of his money. Guess when the letter arrives. The writing is nice, but the sequence is badly directed by Edmund Goulding, whose direction gets worse as the film progresses. Here he lets normally reliable character actor Paul Stewart overact as the woman’s lawyer, and he lets Louis Calhern be rather cute as the oil man. Calhern does not do cute well. You know the episode is badly directed when a young(er) Zsa Zsa Gabor gives the best performance in it.

The failure of the last episode is both Nunnally’s and Goulding’s. Willie Reynolds is going off with the Army and has already received his letter. He plans to remarry his wife later, but as the train is pulling out, she arrives from a doctor’s appointment to tell him that she “is.” That’s fifties dialogue for her being pregnant. Now Willie becomes obsessed that his baby should not be “illegitimate.” Nobody says “bastard” although someone does use the term “foul ball.” Willie jumps off the train, gets his wife to fly to the port and tries to get married while avoiding the shore patrol. Yes, it does seem to be a mix of Miracle of Morgan’s Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero (both 1944) especially when you know that Willie is played by Eddie Bracken. Nunnally, bless his heart, was simply not as ruthless as Preston Sturges as a writer, and Goulding, who could handle dramas like Dark Victory (1939) and film noirs like Nightmare Alley (1947), certainly was not as ruthless as Sturges the director.

Undoubtedly in deference to the censors, we see the four couples remarry, even though Mr. Woodruff burned his letter. Not of course the Texas couple. Even the fifties censors may have agreed that some dissolved marriages should stay that way.

The Good Wife (2009. “Pilot” episode written by Robert King & Michelle King. 60 minutes): Writing for The Face.

When Julianna Margulies first got into acting, she was told that she did not have “the face” for movies. She was not an All-American girl and she was not ethnic enough. Or she was too ethnic, which in Hollywood terms means any woman with black hair. Fortunately the creators of ER realized she had a great face: expressive, capable of happiness but with an undercurrent of sadness. Originally Carol Hathaway died in the pilot of ER, but they realized what they had with her, and the rest, as they say, is history. Except that other writers have had great difficulty writing for that face. Her films after she left ER are mediocre uses of her talent. Her series last year, Canterbury’s Law, was not awful, but she was playing a conventional tough lawyer. Fortunately Robert and Michelle King have figured out what to do with the face. Yes, this is a form of what I have called on many occasions writing for performance. Alicia Florrick is the wife of a politician caught in a sex scandal. In the opening scene she is “standing by her man” at the inevitable press conference. She has that sad look that women in that situation tend to. In a great writing detail, she sees a loose thread on her husband’s coat and is hesitant about pulling it off. Do you really want to start unraveling your life? She reaches for it and he takes her hand and they leave. And in the hallway she slaps him. Not hard enough for me, but she still loves him.

So you think the show is going to be about her dealing with the immediate aftermath of the scandal, which would maybe last a season, but then the Kings jump ahead six months. Smart move. The husband’s in prison, although trying to weasel his way out. She has had to go to work to pay the bills, so she is starting a new job at a law firm, not having practiced for 15 years. So it’s just going to be another damned lawyer show. Not so fast. Yes, there are law cases. In the pilot she handles a second trial for a pro bono client and gets her off, but a lot of the hour is taken up with Alicia dealing with the new organization of her life. Yes, that includes the job, but also the kids, and a mother-in-law who is staying with them temporarily (great touch: the teenaged daughter has set Alicia’s cellphone ring tone for calls from the mother-in-law to play the Twilight Zone theme). And she still has to deal with her husband, so the subtext of sadness in Margulies’s face is a recurring base line. And she has to work with people who worked with her husband and against him when he was the State’s Attorney for Chicago.

The pilot is one of the most relaxed pilots I have ever seen. It does not feel like the writers are trying to push everything into the first hour. We meet several of the people she works with and even though we do not see that much of them, they all look to have real potential for the show.

I also like the legal details. Having served on several juries, I am always disappointed that legal shows do not really show what goes on with juries. Here Alicia talks to the jurors on the first trial of her client. Officially they split 6-6, but she finds out they were really 11 firmly for conviction and 1 for acquittal. Except the one for acquittal is not Henry Fonda in Twelve Angry Men, but a crazy cat lady who had no substantial reasons for voting for acquittal. The jury decided to tell the judge the vote was 6-6 or else he would not have let them go. I hope the series gets into jury territory again. Meanwhile I will settle for The Face in the best role she’s had since ER.

Community (2009. “Pilot” and “Spanish 101” episodes written by Dan Harmon. Each episode 30 minutes): This ain’t it.

There is a wonderful sitcom to be written about community colleges, but this one is not it. Its basic premise is flawed. Jeff, a lawyer, is discovered by the Bar Association not to have completed his BA, so he is suspended until he can. As John Cleason, the Attorney Regulation Counsel for the Colorado Supreme Court, noted in the September 28-October 4 issue of TV Guide, a lawyer who was found to have lied in this way would have been disbarred for eight years, with the likelihood that he would never get reinstated. Here Jeff decides to go to a community college to get his BA. CCs do not offer BAs. The highest they offer is an Associate of Arts degree. Jeff talks to a CC professor whom he got out of a DUI and hustles him into getting the answers for “all the tests in all the courses” Jeff will be taking this semester. There is no way the prof can get all that, but he gives him an envelope that appears to have them in it. At least the envelope turns out to have blank pieces of paper in it, but the prof mentions that Jeff would probably be demanding this stuff for four years. CC’s are only two years. Then we see the prof drinking wine in his office. And to get the pilot off to an even worse start, before the bad plotting kicks in, we have a scene of a dean talking on the campus quad in what appears to be a formal meeting of a large group of students about their first week at school. The meeting would be indoors, so the bullhorn would not disrupt classes.

By now you have guessed that I teach at a CC. Not only that, but the exteriors of the pilot were shot at Los Angeles City College where I teach. You can see why I tuned in to the show, and why it pisses me off. Jeff is one of those wiseass guys that network executives, who are wiseass guys themselves, seem to like to head up shows. There is otherwise nothing appealing about him. Now if they had made him one of Diablo Cody’s wiseass women… The “study group” he forms primarily to hit on a cute blonde is at least made up of the kind of variety of people you might meet on a CC campus. The single thing that rings even partially true about the show is Jeff’s speech to them after they find out he is not really a tutor. He tells them that despite the problems they as individuals have had, they are all valuable people and are now part of a community. He means the study group, but it could apply to the college as well.

The second episode, “Spanish 101” thought that having an Asia guy teaching the Spanish class was funny. Maybe, but Harmon turned him into a cliché. Although Harmon went to a real CC once, he shows not only no understanding of the heart of such a college, but is completely condescending to the people who attend. In “Spanish 101,” two of the women in the student set up an on-campus protest against the death of a journalist in Latin America. Great, except that Harmon has written them as idiots for doing so.

Maybe Harmon and his writers will begin to get it right as the show develops, but I am not holding my breath.

The First Week of the 2009 – 2010 Television Season: More or less, new and used.

It was September again, the kids were back in school and the networks rolled out new and returning shows. Here are some of each.

HBO is turning into a real network, premiering a show in September. Who’da thunk it? The show is Bored to Death and the title is not completely accurate. The pilot episode “Stockholm Syndrome” was written by Jonathan Ames and is about “Jonathan Ames,” a writer whose girlfriend has just left him. Loving classic detective stories, he puts an ad on Craigslist as an investigator. Soon he is investigating a missing persons case. Maybe, but once you get over the Craigslist gimmick, it’s another amateur detective show. And there’s not much new about the love of Raymond Chandler that Ames brings to it.

The season opener of How I Met Your Mother, “Definitions” (written by Carter Bays & Craig Thomas) indicates the show is finally going to deal with Robin and Barney. Lily locks them in a room until they have “the talk” about what their relationship is. The problem is, they don’t know, which can be interesting to deal with. They decide to tell Lily they are a couple. She lets them out, and as they walk down the street, Ted says to Lily, “You do realize they’re lying,” to which she replies, “They don’t realize they are not lying.” Quite frankly all of that is a lot more interesting than Ted teaching a class where we have been relentlessly told the mother is going to show up.

Accidentally on Purpose is Knocked Up with Jenna Elfman in place of Katherine Heigl. The idea is still stupid: smart woman gets knocked up by idiot guy, and instead of dumping him, she stays with him. The only improvement is that the guy is not the complete slob that Seth Rogen’s Ben Stone was in the movie. But at least in the “Pilot” (written by Claudia Lonow), he is not particularly distinctive or memorable. Sometimes having a woman writer doesn’t help.

Leave to the writers of Two and a Half Men to find an inventive way to get rid of Mia, at least for now. In “818-jikpuzo” (teleplay by Don Foster & Eddie Gorodetsky & Susan Beavers, story by Chuck Lorre & Lee Aronsohn & Mark Roberts), Mia asks Charlie to help her develop her singing career. She turns out to be a terrible singer. Charlie tells her the truth, and that’s it. Now they just have to figure out how to keep him from marrying Chelsea. Meanwhile we get a great line for Berta (about Mia’s mouth, “That’s a pretty mouth, but it ain’t made for singing”) and a great scene with Jane Lynch as his shrink. Charlie is constipated from trying to decide which woman he wants. The shrink says, “As soon as you pick one, you can go two.” That’s why all those writers make all that money.

With “Deep in Death” (written by Andrew J. Marlowe) Castle brings back the poker game, this time with Stephen J. Cannell and Michael Connelly. Since Castle had looked into Beckett’s mother’s murder and told her about it, there is now an additional layer of irritation on her part towards him, which will help keep the show going. Based on something his daughter says, Castle finally apologizes to Beckett for investigating. She does not fall into his arms, but lets him continue to tag along, which she was threatening to stop. After all, if she stops him, there is no show. The plot on this episode was wonderfully complicated, involving a body in a tree that was stolen out of the Medical Examiner’s van and the Russian Mafia, some of whom turn out to be fans of Castle’s books.

Modern Family is one of the most critically acclaimed shows of the new season, but I have my doubts. In the “Pilot” (written by Steven Levitan & Christopher Lloyd), we are introduced to three branches of what turns out to be the same family. The father, Jay, is now married to a second younger wife, Gloria, who as one critic noted, borrowed a little too much cuchi cuchi from Charo. Jay’s daughter Claire is married to Phil, who is trying to be a cool dad. Jay’s son Mitchell is gay and living with Cameron. They have adopted a Vietnamese baby. Yes, it is a step in the right direction that they are accepted, more or less (Jay’s a little iffy) as part of the family. The problem, however, is that the writing is mostly in the traditional sitcom rhythm: setup, setup, punchline; setup, setup, punchline. Fine, except that the show is filmed in a faux documentary style, and the rhythm simply does not fit. The show runs into some of the same problems I mentioned in US#24 in writing about Parks and Recreation.

You would think that since I love Two and a Half Men, which is all about sex, that I would love Cougar Town, which is all about sex. Well, Men is not ALL about sex. It is also about the characters. Based on the “Pilot” (written by Bill Lawrence & Kevin Biegel) this show is all about sex. Jules is a fortysomething divorced mother who hasn’t had any for a while, and she talks to all her friends entirely about sex. When she is at the high school football game, she drools over the teen boys. She goes to a bar with Laurie, her employee (she runs a real estate office, so there is in the episode a line or two about real estate and not sex) and picks up a younger guy. And gets caught having oral sex with him by her teenage son. And her divorced husband. The relentlessness of the talk about sex makes this seem like a porn movie, where the only interest of any of the characters is sex. It’s just creepy. Like Groucho Marx said, I like cigars, but I take them out of my mouth once in a while.

CSI is trying to make up for mishandling the transition of Grissom’s leaving. In “Family Affair” (written by Bradley Thompson & David Weddle) we learn that when Riley left, she criticized Catherine’s leadership. Nice try guys, but the problem was not Catherine, but the way the writers did not deal with her taking command. I am not sure bringing back Sara is going to help that much.

Eastwick has some potential. It is based on the book The Witches of Eastwick by John Updike and the screenplay for the 1987 film by Michael Christopher. The “Pilot” (written by Maggie Friedman) introduces us to three women in the small New England town of Eastwick. Roxie makes arts and crafts, Joanna is a reporter for the local paper, and Kat is a frazzled housewife. The pilot spends most of its time setting up that by simultaneously throwing coins into a fountain, the women gets specific special powers. This in turn seems to attract Darryl Van Horn, who buys up a local mansion, the newspaper, and the wick factory and takes the women under his wing. We don’t yet know why, but we can bet hijinks will ensue, especially since we find out at the end of the pilot that the real Darryl Van Horn died some time ago.

This being television, and this being the third attempt to turn this into a series, there are elements that call to mind other series. The voiceover is so Desperate Housewives, you expect the women to live on Wisteria Lane. The main town square set was the square in Star’s Hollow on Gilmore Girls. And the idea of the three witches got a workout in Charmed. One difference from Charmed is that the women here are grownups. Rebecca Romijn as Roxie is as beautiful as ever and she is voluptuously sensuous here in a way she’s never been before, not even in Femme Fatale (2002). Lindsey Price as Joanna, once she takes off her glasses and dresses up a bit, is a not-too-distant second. Darryl is played by Paul Gross, who was wonderful as the unhinged stage director in the great 2003-2006 Canadian series Slings and Arrows. He does not have Nicholson’s eyebrows, thank goodness, but he is making the part his own. This one is worth checking in on.

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: Skin Confronts White Supremacy from a Dubious Point of View

The film’s not-strictly-linear structure and handheld camerawork come to feel like attempts at masking a certain conventionality.

2.5

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Skin
Photo: A24

In 1951’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt identifies the early adherents of the Nazi movement in Germany as belonging to a “mob,” which she distinguishes from the “mass” as a motley group of the disaffected who felt themselves in various ways betrayed by the dominant institutions of society—in essence, the outcasts from the masses. Guy Nattiv’s Skin finds this mob of resentment thriving in the American Rust Belt, where neo-Nazi leader Fred “Hammer” Krager (Bill Camp) recruits young runaways to his organization, baiting them with hot meals and a simulacrum of family warmth. He and his wife, Shareen (Vera Farmiga), indoctrinate young drifters into their disciplinary, Oedipal clan, with Fred as the fearful father figure and Shareen as the mother whose affection they must earn.

A remake of Nattiv’s Oscar-winning short of the same name, Skin is based on the true story of Byron “Babs” Widner (Jamie Bell), who grew up under Fred and Shareen’s tutelage but is beginning to harbor doubts about the group’s cause. The film opens with a confrontation between a march of allied neo-Nazi groups and a counter protest headed by the activist Daryle Jenkins (Mike Colter), in which Babs and other skinheads corner and assault a black protestor, disfiguring the young man and running off. Babs has a conscience, and he slowly comes to regret this assault. Early on, the film gives us another example of his cloaked sense of right and wrong: At a rally where Fred announces his congressional candidacy, another white nationalist verbally accosts a trio of young girls singing a folkish—or rather, völkisch—tune, and Babs defends them, beating up the much larger man with a mic stand.

In Nattiv’s film, the face-tatted Babs’s practiced, neutral expression becomes an ambivalent mask hiding wounded insecurity, explosive rage, or both. His violent defense of the young girls earns him gratitude from their mother, Julie Price (Danielle Macdonald), a legacy member of the white power movement who’s decided to begin to removing herself from her family’s milieu. As Julie and Babs’s connection becomes romance—and as Jenkins pursues Babs, thinking he might be able to convince the neo-Nazi to become an informant—the couple puts more and more distance between themselves and Fred and Shareen’s perverse surrogate family, placing themselves in direct conflict with a dangerous mob.

To symbolize Babs’s gradual break-up with his violent family, the film periodically flashes forward to the grueling, years-long process of removing the racist tattoos plastered across his body. Close-ups on ink being pulled out through skin, accompanied by Babs’s fraught screams, suggest that the pain his skin causes him in these scenes is just recompense for the crimes he committed and endorsed on behalf of an ideology built around the color of that skin.

Skin offers some insight to the appeal and functioning of white supremacist groupings, but after a while, the film’s not-strictly-linear structure and handheld camerawork come to feel like self-conscious signs of “gritty” realism, attempts at masking a certain conventionality. This is, in the end, the story of a bad man being redeemed by the love of a good woman, and it’s worth questioning why Babs, rather than Jenkins, is at the center of the film. As Skin illustrates in an early, exposition-heavy scene, Jenkins has facilitated the turning of around a half-dozen Nazis. That a black man would dedicate so much time, at great personal risk, to penetrating the minds of avowed, violent racists seems the much more interesting—and relevant—story here. It’s not that anything in Skin runs egregiously contrary to the facts, or that Babs’s story isn’t moving as presented, but one may be justified in contemplating why his turn away from Nazism is presented primarily as a personal redemption arc, and not primarily one of tireless activism and resistance by the opponents of fascism like Jenkins.

Cast: Jamie Bell, Danielle Macdonald, Daniel Henshall, Bill Kamp, Vera Farmiga, Mike Colter, Louisa Krause, Zoe Margaret Colletti, Kylie Rogers, Colbi Gannett Director: Guy Nattiv Screenwriter: Guy Nattiv Distributor: A24 Running Time: 120 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Odessa IFF 2019: The Cossacks, Queen of Hearts, Monos, & Projectionist

The festival feels like a long-awaited apparition in a place where events of its magnitude might be scarce.

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Monos
Photo: Neon

At first glance, Odessa recalls the Algeria of the 1980s as described by playwright Jean-Luc Lagarce, a place where local “currency has no value and there is nothing to buy anyway.” Odessa seems coy about offering a fantasy version of itself to those who aren’t already confined to it and to whom displaying the city—in the shape of superfluous possessions or souvenirs—would amount to a perverse redundancy. It’s a city coherent to the brutal honesty of its human faces, a city virtually without store windows to hawk unessential goods to passersby—unless one traverses its center, where a McDonald’s and a Reebok shop appear as reminders of a glossier elsewhere. Perhaps the way Cameroon, as one Cameroonian once told me, is a country without sidewalks, “unless you go to Douala.” This is, of course, a respite from the capitalist assaults of places where to experience the city is to stack up on its mementos. It’s this context that made the Odessa International Film Festival (OIFF) feel like a long-awaited apparition in a place where events of its magnitude might be scarce.

By the Lermontovskiy Hotel, where the international journalists covering the OIFF stay, only food seems to be for sale. There’s a 24/7 supermarket that closes when the security guard sees fit, a “Japanese and Thai Asian Café,” and a regal restaurant named Aleksandrovskiy, which sits inside a garden full of Versailles-esque fountains and statues, and where a select few can feast on a scrumptious leg of lamb on a bed of polenta for 12 euros. Perhaps the same select few who show up for OIFF’s outdoor screening of the 1928 film The Cossacks at the Potemkin Stairs but don’t use the steps as bleachers, like the rest of us, instead taking their seats in the large cordoned-off VIP section close to the live orchestra for a few selfies and then dashing off.

A brief video pleading for the release of Crimean filmmaker Oleg Sentsov from a Russian prison preceded the film, eliciting passionate applause. Those actually using the steps as seats seemed to truly savor the event, which took the shape of what film screenings were probably more like in the early 20th century: raucous fair-like happenings with lots of talking and where the film was only one of many multi-sensorial elements. In many ways, The Cossacks is about how the production of a nation is entwined with the production of gender norms. Lukashka (John Gilbert) is seen as a softie. He’s derided as being a fraction of a man, or a half-Cossack, because he would rather spend his time reading than fighting, to the horror of his entourage. He ends up going to war in order to legitimize his status as a man for his family and his beloved Maryana (Renée Adorée). In the world of the film, becoming a man involves killing at least one Turk or two, and becoming a woman means marrying a man who has killed Turks.

The Cossacks was a fascinating selection to screen at the Potemkin Stairs because it wrapped a critique of normativity in some of the most sexist of cinematic languages, female ass shots as gags and all, making it hard to know what kind of selective reading of the film the audience might be making. The men on the screen are always either accosting, harassing, molesting, or trying to rape Maryana, which might be what triggered Rose McGowan, one of the festival’s celebrity guests, to leave just a few minutes into the screening.

As much as watching a film such as George Hill and Clarence Brown’s silent drama at the place where one of cinema’s most iconic sequences was shot feels like the crossing off of a bucket-list item we didn’t realize was on that list until we experienced it, the off-screen drama was just as enticing. There was, for instance, the blatant spectacle of Ukrainian income inequality with “the people” huddled up on the uncomfortable steps for two hours eager to engage with a silent film while Ukrainian socialites decked out in animal prints treated the event more like a vernissage. There was also the impossible quest for a public bathroom mid-screening. This involved walking into a half-closed market across from the Potemkin Stairs and interrupting a loud quarrel between a mother and her adult son, who worked at one of the market stalls.

It’s difficult to guess where queerness goes in Odessa. Maybe it only lives as disavowal, as in The Cossacks, which ends with Lukashka, after anointing his masculinity by slaughtering 10 Turks, stating to Maryana heterosexuality’s mathematical logic in its simplest form: “I am your man. You are my woman. I want you.” And the anointing is never final, the film seems to say. Indeed, as his father lies dying in his arms, Lukashka asks him: “Father, am I Cossack?” The question of where queerness might live, in this context, would be finally answered a few days later when I visit the only gay club in Odessa, Libertin, and meet a trans woman name Jalala, who confides that there’s a “place” in Odessa where straight men can go to to have sex with women like her. “Is it an app?” I ask. Jalala smiles and says that it’s a park. “But it’s dangerous,” she tells me. “It’s very exciting and very dangerous.” Because there are skinheads, she says. “Do the skinheads want to kill you or fuck you, or fuck you and then kill you?” I ask her. “I don’t know,” she responded. “That’s why it’s dangerous.”

The festival main grounds, in front of the majestic Odessa Academic Theatre of Musical Comedy, aren’t unlike London’s Southbank Centre in the early days of summer, where visitors and locals are both sold the idea that the city is this fun all year long. The atmosphere is cosmopolitan, with Nina Simone remixes or early Erykah Badu playing in the background, food trucks, a Mastercard stall, and outdoor sitting poufs. There’s also no stress in the air, no suffocating crowds, and as such no anxiety about being turned away from a screening.

When looking at the festival’s program, one may scoff at the apparent lack of diversity and, more specifically, queerness. After a few screenings, though, one may get the sense that queerness does live at the Odessa International Film Festival and, per Jalala’s account, in Odessa more generally—it just isn’t publicized. In Queen of Hearts, for instance, director May el-Toukhy takes the age-old narrative of the stranger who turns up to disrupt domestic bliss, or ennui, and gives it a daring incestuous twist. Anne (Trine Dyrholm) and Peter (Magnus Krepper) live an idyllic life in a mansion somewhere in Denmark with two young, and creepily angelic, twin daughters (Liv and Silja Esmår Dannemann). There’s something eerie about this setup even before Peter’s problematic teenage son, Gustav (Gustav Lindh), from another marriage is shipped from Sweden to live with his dad and unsettle everything.

What’s uncanny about Anne and Peter’s home is, of course, the way it gleams a kind of speckless completion of the heterosexual project, which could only ever be possible as a mirage. Theirs is the home of dreams bound to become nightmares by the introduction of even the most vaguely foreign element. Such as reality, that most irksome of registers, or a long-lost son. The house of Queen of Hearts, whose drama is so latent you’d only have to snap your fingers for chaos to erupt, evokes the house of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, the kind of immaculate luxury that could only be sitting on top of some macabre bunker full of roaches and well-fed zombies. The drama that links these homes is the notion that the epitome of the heterosexual family bliss borders its very obliteration, with the unruly resurfacing of all the gunk that had been swept underneath, as the very foundation for its habitat.

When Gustav arrives, then, and ends up having an affair with his stepmom, a trench coat-wearing lawyer for young victims of sexual abuse, we’re only surprised at how careless they seem to be about being found out. El-Toukhy is smart to avoid sensationalizing the taboo-breaking premise of the narrative with a camera that sides with Anne: her sexual hunger, her contradictions, her stretch marks. This isn’t a film about roundabout incest, but one about the impossibility of satisfaction even for the most privileged woman, one with a high-powered and socially engaged job, money to spare, and a mansion by the lake in a Scandinavian country.

Queen of Hearts focuses on Anne’s paradoxes: She’s a savior and a monster, a middle-aged mother and a horny teenager, unabashedly exposing the inconvenient pores that remain underneath even the most beautifully made-up Nordic skin. And the film is about skin, ultimately. In the way Anne and Gustav have raw sex and the marks on Anne’s stomach are filmed with purpose, sincerity, and no apology. The affair begins when Anne walks into Gustav’s bedroom and gives him a handjob without bothering to lock the door. This comes soon after he brought a girl his own age home and Anne had to sit in her living room, staring at her laptop and drinking a glass of wine, while listening to the teenagers having sex. By the time Anne goes to the lake with Gustav and one of her twin girls, and Anne decides to get in the water, we know the deal is done. “But you never swim,” says the girl. Water in Queen of Hearts bears the same prophetic sexual force that’s appeared in many films, queer or not, from F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise to Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake.

The affair isn’t about love, of course, or passion. It’s not even about the sex itself. The affair is a settling of accounts, a vampiric attempt to deny the passing of time, which, by virtue of having passed, feels like it’s been wasted. For Anne, the culprit is Peter, who becomes a cock-blocking nuisance. The film, a melodrama with a superb final shot that offers no closure, at times tries too hard to provide a cause for Anne’s passage à l’acte. When Gustav asks Anne who she lost her virginity to, she answers, “With someone it shouldn’t have been,” which makes it seem like the film is suggesting that predatorial behavior is a sort of damned inheritance. The Queen of Hearts is much more successful, and courageous, when it follows the logic of sexual yearning itself, not worrying about rational justifications.

The first few sequences of Alejandro Landes’s Monos evoke Claire Denis’s Beau Travail, except it isn’t only men training in the deserted landscape. A few young women join them, which, inevitably takes the narrative elsewhere, even if the films’ basic premises are similar. In Monos, teenage guerilla fighters are supposed to guard a foreign hostage, Doctora Sara Watson (Julianne Nicholson), and a conscripted cow named Shakira. Intrigue and sexual tension ensure that nothing goes according to plan. The only thing that never finds any respite is the flow of violence, which increasingly loses its metaphorical sheen, becoming gratuitous toward the end. What starts out like a social critique gains the aura of an unnecessarily grisly horror film, more about overtly visible chains than the allegorical slaughtering of cows by paramilitary children named Rambo, Lady, Bigfoot, and Smurf.

It turns out that queerness lives even in the faraway mountaintops of the Colombian jungle, as one of the guerilla girls makes two boys kiss at the start of the film, which brought a discrete discomfort to the screening room I was seated in. By the time Nicholson’s character shares a brief lesbian kiss with a reluctant fighter who’s supposed to watch over her, later in the film, queerness is no longer a conceptual surprise hinting at meaningful registers beyond the narrative’s surface, but a kind of desperate attempt to make the plot seem cryptic. Like The Cossacks, Landes’s film is also about the impossibility of maintaining complete control over one’s claim of masculinity, or power more generally. In moments of crisis, the line between predator and prey get very thin, and even the most well-armed warriors have a way of becoming disarmed, naked, and sentimental.

Yuriy Shylov’s Projectionist follows the frailty of all flesh, hawkish accessory in hand or not, through the portrayal of the end of a film projectionist’s 44-year tenure at one of Kiev’s oldest movie theaters. It’s an end that coincides with the crumbling of projectionist Valentin’s own coughing body, and that of his bedridden mother. It turns out that the movie theater, too, is reaching its expiration point. Soon, its doors will close and its employees will be fired, and there’s a sense throughout Shylov’s documentary that analog cinema will be dealt a major blow with the theater’s closure. What will become of the space? Perhaps a Reebok or a McDonald’s. Perhaps a derelict muse for a Nikolaus Geyrhalter portrait of decay.

“You think you’re loud, but in reality you can only hear yourself,” Valentin tells his mother at one point. Her futile yelling of her son’s name from her bed is one of the most haunting motifs in the film. An uttering for uttering’s sake, a demand without expectations of an actual response, a mantra to remind oneself that one is, for now, still alive. Valentin has installed a whistle next to the bed, which he would actually be able to hear when she called if only she’d use it. But the mother mostly refuses to blow in the pragmatic apparatus, instead finding solace in the calling that won’t be heard and, thus, will need to be repeated ad nauseam.

Projectionist can feel a bit aimless, but it’s a welcome reminder of how the materiality of film, and thus its finitude, has something in common with our own—a kinship of frailty that the flawlessness of the digital image erases. Analog is the only technology that Valentin knows, whether he’s sewing, as he’s seen doing in the film, fixing a neighbor’s straightening iron, or projecting old home videos on filthy kitchen tiles. There’s pleasure to be found, for Valentin, not just in the stories, concepts, and metaphors of cinema, but in the very stuff that supports his craft, the paraphernalia of cinema that’s bound to crack, to dry out, to turn to dust, to disappear forever: film stock, Movieolas, spools, and so forth. Cinema, we’re reminded, is necessarily a tool of exposure, not just of the human condition in the face of death, but the human condition as an always gendered affair. It’s a tool that’s never settled, never comfortable, and never forgotten. “Men are cowards, didn’t you know that?” is how Valentin puts it toward the end of Projectionist. In his world, one would know, by looking at the projector, at the very stuff of cinema, how much longer a film would last. The remainder of the film’s “life” is perfectly real, perfectly tangible, and alive because it’s in constant danger of being jammed up and torn by the very engine that ensured its running.

The Odessa International Film Festival runs from July 12—20.

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

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

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.

3

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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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