Coming up in this column: Tales from the Script, Waking Sleeping Beauty, Alice in Wonderland, How to Train Your Dragon, Ambush, Fort Worth, No Questions Asked, The Las Vegas Story, Some Spring 2010 Television, but first:
Fan mail: Matt Maul in his comments on US#44 obviously did not like You Only Live Twice (1967) as much as I did, and he is in some good company with several critics of the time and since. He did help me make my case for the Bond films being producers’ films, whether he intended to or not. He mentions that one of the Bond films he liked least was Never Say Never Again (1983). It stars Sean Connery of course, but it is not one of the Broccoli family-produced Bond films, which is one reason why it does not work as well as the others. Matt also mentions that he liked On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) which does not star Connery, but is produced by the Broccoli family. Aside from George Lazenby as Bond, it is one of the best made of the Bond films, and I think Matt is right to give some credit to the former editor of the series Peter Hunt, who directed it. He obviously understood what the Bond films were all about, even if he could not do anything about Lazenby. But then no other director has been able to either.
I also go along with Matt’s admiration of Ken Adam’s production designs, and as much as I love the volcano in You Only Live Twice, I would be hard put to say it was better than the war room in Dr. Strangelove (1964). My point about the volcano is that unlike a lot of big sets directors have built, this one is used, as opposed to say the forecourt of Babylon in Intolerance (1916), which Griffith never quite figured out how to use. And when is somebody going to find the footage of the food fight in the war room that originally was the end of Strangelove?
Thanks to “Agor” for saying this column is one reason he comes to the House Next Door. I myself read HND for all the stuff, since as Matt Zoller Seitz once said, you never know what is going to show up. And in answer to his question, I will be dealing with Treme in US#46. Meanwhile…
Tales from the Script (2009. Written by Peter Hanson and Robert Paul Herman, based on an idea by Robert Paul Herman. 105 minutes)
Lots of wonderful talking heads: For years I used to keep track of the number of books of interviews with screenwriters, but I had to give it up. There were simply too many. The appeal to an “author” of such a book is obvious. Screenwriters are smart, quick, literate, and have collected and burnished a lot of great stories that they are more than willing to tell. All you have to do is ask them. And they know how to do it, because storytelling is their life. And they know how to use the fewest number of words, because that’s their job. So I am guessing that the “idea” for this film that Herman came up with was simple: let’s interview a bunch of screenwriters on camera. Very often the single decision to make the picture is the most crucial one.
This is not to say it was as easy as it looks. First of all, they decided to include a LOT of screenwriters, 45 according to the cast list on IMDb. But what did I tell you about screenwriters being quick and able to tell stories in the fewest number of words? Then they included a great variety of screenwriters. Melville Shavelson’s credits go back to the early ‘40s, and he passed away while the film was being completed. Ari Rubin, the son of Bruce Joel Rubin, does not yet have a credit. There are big names like William Goldman and Paul Schrader and several you may never have heard of. As you would expect in a film about Hollywood screenwriting, there are not a lot of people of color.
I like the way the filmmakers have organized the film into sections, which at least gives the illusion of forward momentum. The sections are ones you might suspect, but I particularly liked the sections about dealing with directors and stars. In the old studio system, writers almost never talked to directors and stars, only to producers. Nowadays they have to talk to everybody. Ronald Shusett tells a wonderful tale of convincing Dino De Laurentiis to use his idea for King Kong Lives (1986), which unfortunately led to a terrible movie. Guinevere Turner’s comments on director Uwe Boll and what he did to her script of BloodRayne (2005) are even better. Justin Zackham’s description on the first reading of his script for The Bucket List (2007) with Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson shows you what stars mean to writers.
The film recently played for one week in Los Angeles, and it is due to come out on DVD later in the spring. Or if you cannot wait, the book of the same title is now available. But see the movie as well, since it shows you what these guys (and gals) are like in a room pitching a story.
Waking Sleeping Beauty (2009. Screenplay by Patrick Pacheco. 86 minutes)
Another great documentary from Disney: When we think Disney, we think animation. But old Uncle Walt got into making documentaries early on. In 1943 he was so taken with Alexander de Seversky’s book, Victory Through Air Power, that he made an animated documentary from it to promote strategic bombing as a way to win World War II. In the late ‘40s Disney started the True Life Adventure series of shorts and eventually features about nature, proving there was a commercial market for them. I recently saw the trailer for the new Disney Oceans, and shots it in could have come from the earlier TLA films Seal Island (1949) and Water Birds (1952). In the first season of his Disneyland television show in 1954-55, there was each week a mini-documentary about the progress on the building of the theme park, culminating in an entire one-hour program at the end of the season. Bill Foster, the director of that episode, was still amazed, over 30 years later when he talked to a class at LACC, that the film had won an Emmy, since it was essentially a “one-hour commercial.”
Recently Disney has done several documentaries on aspects of the history of the company. I wrote about The Boys: The Sherman Brothers’ Story (2009) in US#27 and Walt & El Grupo (2008) in US#33. This new one is about the revival of Disney animation from 1984 to 1994. Success, as the saying goes, has a thousand fathers, and the filmmakers have interviews with nearly all of the prospective dads. Talk about an ego-fest! I had gotten the impression during those years that the major force behind the push in animation was Jeffrey “3D NOW AND FOREVER!!!” Katzenberg, but it appears, note I say appears, from the documentary that may just have been Katzenberg’s self-promotion. Keep in mind that the director of this film is Don Hahn, who was the producer of Beauty and the Beast (1991) and The Lion King (1994). Hahn’s co-producer is Peter Schneider, who was the direct head of the animation unit during those years. To be fair, Schneider does not come off as an easy guy to work with. The filmmakers have collected interviews with nearly all the major players, and then bounce these off each other as off-screen narration. Sometimes the interviewees are just self-promoting, and sometimes they are reasonably honest. I was particularly struck by Katzenberg talking about a New York Times article promoting Katzenberg’s image that was published on the eve of the release of The Lion King. He recognized when he read it how arrogant he came across and, as he told his wife that morning, he knew he was through at Disney. Which turned out to be true.
If we hear the clashing egos, we also get some wonderful home movies the animation crews filmed of themselves at the time that show why the unit needed tough guys like Michael Eisner, Katzenberg, and Schneider to run the place. The artists were of course crazy. That’s why they are artists. And that’s why they needed the grown-up supervision their bosses provided. We like to think that artists deserve complete creative freedom, but they don’t, really. Every artist needs a good sounding board who can tell them when they are full of shit. Which they are more times than they would like to admit. The trick, which the Disney studio managed for ten years, was to keep the elements balanced. John Lasseter is now doing that at Pixar/Disney, although the theater people quoted in the article mentioned below dismiss the Pixar crowd as “boys with their toys” for not making the kind of animated musicals they did. Did I mention ego-fest? Meanwhile, Katzenberg is now balancing the elements at DreamWorks Animation, as we will see below. Maybe he was right about his contribution to Disney.
When the film opened in Los Angeles recently, there was an interesting article about it in the Los Angeles Times. Writing from New York, James C. Taylor pointed out that a lot of the impact of Disney animation in the period the movie deals with came from the theater people connected with the films. Peter Schneider had a theater background and later went into Disney Theatricals. He and his partner Tomas Schumacher there raised the ire of Los Angeles theater people by saying they were not going to try out the stage version of The Lion King in Los Angeles because L.A. was not a good theatre town. That’s the reason several of us refused to ever see the show. But there is evidence in the film that Taylor has a point. One of the most fascinating scenes is Howard Ashman, the lyricist on The Little Mermaid, working with Jodi Benson, who sings Ariel. Well, as we learned from Tales from the Script, writers do sometimes get to talk to performers these days. The scene is way too short, and Schneider says in the article that the entire session will be seen on the DVD. Nothing like a chance to see real creativity at work.
Alice in Wonderland (2010. Screenplay by Linda Woolverton, based on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll. 109 minutes)
Progress marches on—another live Disney mother: For all the hype and titles that tell us this is A TIM BURTON FILM, it’s really more A LINDA WOOLVERTON FILM. She is the screenwriter of Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. And Mr. Hahn and Mr. Schneider, why the hell is she NOT in Waking Sleeping Beauty? Did I tell you about the latter being an ego-fest?
It was Woolverton who had the idea of a new take on Alice and her adventures, according to Peter Clines’s article on the film in the March/April 2010 issue of Creative Screenwriting. It was her pitch to producing sisters Suzanne and Jennifer Todd that was taken to Disney back in 2006. Woolverton’s idea was “Wouldn’t it be cooler if she was older and went back?” Yes, Linda, it is. I always thought Alice was a little brat who deserved everything the Red Queen wanted to give her. Woolverton makes her a 19-year-old who is being forced by her mother into an engagement with a real twit. Her father, whom we meet briefly in the prologue, is very understanding. Woolverton had me at hello when the six-year-old Alice asks him, “Am I going around the bend?” He replies that all the best people are crazy. (Yes, a very young and already very strange Tim Burton shows up in Waking Sleeping Beauty.) His widow is not quite so understanding; sometimes a live mother is a problem. Avoiding the twit’s proposal, Alice slips down the rabbit hole, and meets her old friends. Except she thinks it is just a dream, like the other dreams she has had of the place. It takes her a while to twig that it’s real and she is the Chosen One. The place has gone to hell since she was there last, and it is up to her to set things right, which provides a dramatic structure Lewis Carroll could not be bothered with. This structure means turning her into a warrior princess. Mia Wasikowka, who plays Alice (brilliantly—she and Anne Hathway, who has a wonderfully ditzy turn as the White Queen, give the best performances in the film), and her stunt double Tarah Paige, make her completely convincing as she battles the Jabberwocky at the end.
Woolverton finished the screenplay in 2007 and it got the attention of Burton. According to Woolverton, his suggestions were mostly for different ways to do things, and the plot remained unchanged. She also talked to Johnny Depp, who plays the Mad Hatter, and his suggestions about the real mercury poisoning hatters developed made the character more “mercurial.” Woolverton says, “I went through the character and sort of re-vamped it according to some of his thoughts. It was very cool.” It may have been for her, but not necessarily for us. You can defend his performance intellectually, but compared to Wasikowska and Hathaway, it seems completely unfocused, with his accent shifting from scene to scene. Sometimes stars ought to be stomped on. And directors: Burton’s direction and visual look for the film are just as overly busy as Depp’s performance. I had the good fortune to see the film in 2-D rather than 3-D and I suspect it is even busier in 3-D.
How to Train Your Dragon (2010. Screenplay by Dean DeBlois & Chris Sanders, based on the novel by Cressida Cowell. 98 minutes)
Yeah, it’s in 3-D, Jeffrey. So?: DreamWorks animation had been working on this one for a while and not getting anywhere. Well, not anywhere they wanted to go. The kids’ novel it is based on is a slight, simple story of a pre-teen Viking boy who finds a baby dragon the size of an iguana and makes friends. The earliest drafts by various writers stuck pretty much to that, although they did add a girl who was not in the book to the mix. According to Peter Clines’s interview with Sanders and De Blois in the March 26 Creative Screenwriting Weekly, DreamWorks “loved the idea and aspects of the plot.” In October 2008, Jeffrey Katzenberg and another executive, Bill Damaschke, called in Chris Sanders to see if he wanted to have a go at it. He had worked on the stories for, among others, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Aladdin (1992), and co-wrote the screenplays for Mulan (1998) and Lilo and Stitch (2002). Sanders asked his co-writer on Lilo and Stitch, Dean DeBlois, to join him. (And where are they in Waking—oh, never mind.) The writers worked on a regular basis with Katzenberg and Damaschke. They made the kid, Hiccup, a teenager. They made the dragon, Toothless, the size of real dragon. The turned the girl Astrid into a star athlete (remember that Sanders had worked on Mulan). They had Hiccup fly the dragon, which he does not do in the book. They figured in an animated film he could not NOT fly the dragon. OK, sometimes the magic works, and sometimes it doesn’t.
In the book, some of the dragons are friendly to the Vikings and some are not. Sanders and DeBlois made them all the bad guys, which creates more dramatic tension when Hiccup befriends one. Unfortunately, it also means the film starts off with an over-the-top attack on the Viking village that plays like something out of a really bad Michael Bay film (no, that’s not redundant). The final battle with the biggest dragon of them all is also Michael Bay-like. In between, some of what was probably the charm of the book comes through. Yes, Hiccup is a typical nerdy teen, and do we really need another one of those? But when he discovers Toothless and realizes he is missing part of his tailfin, Hiccup uses his day job as an assistant to the local blacksmith to design and build an artificial fin. If the mechanics look a little familiar here, it is because the writers are big fans of Hayao Miyazaki. Film is good for showing process and the training scenes here are beautiful examples of that. The first flight—and boy were they right to include Hiccup flying the dragon—is such a sheer delight I assumed it was from the book, but it is not. The flight Hiccup and Toothless take Astrid on is as charming as the flight Superman takes Lois on in the 1978 Superman. And then it is back to the action.
Tell you what. Come in 15 minutes into the movie and leave when the last battle starts and you will probably enjoy it more.
Ambush (1950. Screenplay by Marguerite Roberts, based on a story by Luke Short. 90 minutes)
Meanwhile, back at Fort Apache: When they say they don’t make movies like they used to, this is the kind of movie they are talking about. First of all, it’s a western. And a relatively modest western at that. But one with a bunch of stars in it (Robert Taylor, John Hodiak, Arlene Dahl), since this was an MGM production. And it is in black-and-white. It’s not great, but it’s not terrible either.
Luke Short wrote a pile of western novels and stories, many of them made into films. The screenwriter in this case, Marguerite Roberts, started writing films in the ‘30s, and spent the early part of her career at MGM, where her credits include such star vehicles as the 1941 Clark Gable-Lana Turner Honky Tonk. Shortly after Ambush, she was blacklisted and did not have an on-screen credit for ten years. In the second part of her career, she wrote the script she is best remembered for, the 1969 film True Grit, which won John Wayne his Oscar. Whoa! Wait a minute! John Wayne agreeing to appear in a script that a once-blacklisted writer had written? People in Hollywood were often not as doctrinaire about the connections between their professional and political lives as legend would have it. If you were Wayne, would you have turned down True Grit for political reasons?
Besides, Roberts appears to have had an ability to get along with the right-wingers in Hollywood. Ambush was produced and directed by Sam Wood, just as much a virulent anti-Communist as Wayne, which explains the literal flag-waving in the final scene at the fort. I suspect that Wood wanted to do this film to show he could bring off a classic western the way Ford had two years before with Fort Apache. He can’t, but that may explain why the script makes such an effort to identify some of the cavalry soldiers as Irish. And it may explain why the fort sequences were shot at the fort built for Fort Apache out in the northwestern part of the San Fernando Valley. According to David Rothel’s entertaining book An Ambush of Ghosts: A Personal Guide to Favorite Western Film Locations, the fort was used in western movies and television shows throughout the ‘50s. It may look like Fort Apache in Ambush, but it does not feel like it. Sam Wood was not John Ford.
The script for Ambush is fairly straightforward stuff. A prospector and scout, Kinsman, is talked into helping the cavalry run down the renegade Indian Diablito, since he has kidnapped a white woman. Her sister shows up at the fort to encourage the expedition, and Kinsman falls in love with her. This is only one of two love triangles that bog down the central part of the film, as Roberts gives the stars emotional moments to play. Before you assume this is because she was a woman, keep in mind she wrote a lot of westerns, and Sam Wood usually directed more emotional dramas, like the 1942 Kings Row. Never make assumptions about women writers in Hollywood.
Fort Worth (1951. Screenplay by John Twist. 80 minutes)
The advantages of writing for a big studio: You may remember that in US#17 I gave you a list of ingredients in the 1939 Warner Brothers epic western Dodge City. Included in that were a race between a stagecoach and a train, and a fight in a burning railroad baggage car. Guess what shows up in this film? The very same footage.
This was not uncommon in the days of the major studios, and it still happens. Material that is shot for one of their expensive A-pictures gets recycled for an A-/B+ picture like this to give it a little more size. Somebody, whether it is the writer, the producer, or the studio executive, thinks “Hmm, you remember that great scene in Dodge City? We can use that here.” So the writer is instructed to build, if not the entire story, at least a scene or two around the material that was already shot. On How to Train Your Dragon, DeBlois and Sanders had a similar situation. They had to fit what they were doing with what had already been designed for the film. As Sanders said, “So there was a little bit of…a puzzle. In the best sense.”
At Warners they did that a lot in the ‘50s when they went into television, which made their television series look a lot more lavishly produced than the syndicated series smaller companies were making. The second season episode of Maverick entitled “The Brasada Spur” makes no sense at all in terms of story as Bart Maverick gets involved with railroad men. The story ends up with a spectacular head-on train collision and brawl that was taken from the 1945 Warners’ release Saratoga Trunk.
In more recent times, studios buy footage from each other. The 1976 Universal release Midway begins with footage of Doolittle’s raid on Tokyo from the 1944 MGM classic Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo. The footage was in black-and-white, but tinted to look sepia-toned. The model shots of the Japanese carriers are from a Japanese film. With the exception of a guard tower falling over, all the footage of the attack on Midway Island is made up of footage, including outtakes shot, but not used, from Fox’s 1970 Tora! Tora! Tora!.
No Questions Asked (1951. Screenplay by Sidney Sheldon, story by Berne Giler. 80 minutes)
A good idea, but: How about this for a movie: A lawyer, working for an insurance company, hears his boss say the company would be glad to pay to get back stolen property, no questions asked, if it will save them having to pay out the insurance claims. Keiver, the lawyer, starts getting back a LOT of stolen stuff. The cops are not happy. The crooks are not either, because they don’t trust Keiver. Throw in an ex-girlfriend who may not be a nice person, and hijinks ensue. So what went wrong?
The story is by Berne Giler, who wrote just about every kind of story you could imagine for both movies and television. The screenplay was turned over to Sidney Seldon. Yes, that Sidney Sheldon, who after a long career in movies got into writing best-selling potboiler novels. In his movie days, though, Sheldon specialized in comedies and musicals. He won his Oscar in 1947 for the story for The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer, then did the scripts for the 1948 Easter Parade and the 1950 Annie Get Your Gun. He later created two famous TV series, The Patty Duke Show (1963-66) and I Dream of Jeannie (1965-69). You see anything in there that would suggest an ability to do film noir? The plotting here is lackluster and there are not nearly enough interesting and interestingly sleazy characters to make it go.
There is one good line. When Keiver is about to introduce his current girlfriend Joan to his ex, Ellen, Joan’s comment is simply, “Goodie.” It helps that you have Lina Lamont her ownself, Jean Hagen, delivering it.
The Las Vegas Story (1952. Screenplay by Earl Felton and Harry Essex, and uncredited, Paul Jarrico, story by Jay Dratler. 88 minutes)
Casablanca goes to Las Vegas: Here’s the story. A woman and her husband show up in a party town. The woman runs into an old boyfriend she dumped some time back because of the war. The husband gets into trouble with the local law, and the ex-boyfriend helps out.
Here’s why you need screenwriters and producers who help, like Hal Wallis on Casablanca, instead of screwing it up, like Howard Hughes on this one. The Casablanca screenplay is teeming with rich characters, lots of plot turns, and great texture. The main cast of characters here is skimpy. In addition to the woman, her husband, the ex-boyfriend, we have a folksy sheriff, who is not a patch on Renault’s “poor, corrupt official.” We have a piano player, and he has a little more to do than Sam, but is not as crucial to the plot. I suppose they have cast Hoagy Carmichael so that people will think of his Cricket in the 1944 To Have and Have Not, but that was already a rip-off of Casablanca. The insurance investigator tracking down the husband I suppose is the equivalent of Colonel Strasser, but he is not as sleek nor as shifty. There is about 50 minutes of story here, if that, and we keep waiting around for it to get going. The murder at the heart of the story does not take place until nearly an hour into it. As for texture, we get a lot more second unit shots of Vegas than we need, and the interiors shot on the RKO lot give us nothing to look at.
This was one of the films Hughes produced when he ran RKO, and his main creative contribution here is to have as many close-ups as he can squeeze in of his star Jane Russell. Well, I have loved Jane Russell ever since I hit puberty. There are two kinds of straight men in the world: those who love Russell in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and those who love Monroe. As a guy who has always liked smart women, I prefer Russell. But still. She does get to show a bit of a lighter side here, as well as that great sullen look that made her a star in Hughes’ 1943 The Outlaw. What, you thought it was just her cleavage? The problem is that Hughes, unlike Wallis, was simply unable to focus on what Fitzgerald called “The Whole Equation” of producing a film. If you want a more detailed examination of what that meant in filmmaking at RKO during the Hughes years, read the section in Richard Fleischer’s memoir Just Tell Me When to Cry on the making, unmaking, and remaking of the 1951 film His Kind of Woman.
Hughes, who had no sympathy for the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, still took Jarrico’s name off the credits of the film when Jarrico was blacklisted. Both the Screen Writers Guild, the forerunner of the Writers Guild of America, and Jarrico sued Hughes and both lost. Not one of America’s finest hours, but in the long run, it may be just as well Jarrico did not have his name on the film. Except for a nice helicopter chase at the end, there is not a lot you would want credit for.
Some Spring 2010 Television
Some quick takes: First of all, I have given up on Parenthood and The Pacific, for reasons discussed in US#44.
30 Rock finished the Jack and Nancy story with a line that she has gone back to her husband, so we probably won’t be getting Alec and Julianne having fun anymore. On the upside, the various writers have been having a lot of fun with NBC’s sale to “Kabletown.” Why not call it by its real name: Comcast? Simply so they can get some great moments out of 91% of Kabletown’s profits coming out of cable porn, as “Don Geiss, American Hope,” written by Jack Burditt & Tracey Wigfield, tells us.
Justified’s pilot, “Fire in the Hole,” written by Graham Yost, did not turn me on. It is based on a story of the same name by Elmore Leonard and the episode did not have that distinctive Leonard tone in either character or dialogue. Leonard’s characters see the world in unusual but not always the most accurate ways and that vision comes out in their dialogue. I figured that if the show could not get it right working from a Leonard story, there probably was not much hope for the rest of the series. Guess again, Tom. This is why you have to look at more than the pilot. Once they got away from the original story, the tone got more Leonard rather than less. Go figure. Maybe they were less intimidated. Raylan Givens is a U.S. marshal who guns down a gangster in Miami after telling him to get out of town. For his sins, Raylan is sent back to his hometown of Lexington, Kentucky. He knows the people there, and they know him, not always for the best in either case. The show is introducing us to those characters fairly slowly, but at least, unlike Parenthood, you have a sense there are characters there. In the second episode, “Riverbrook,” also by Yost, there is a nice scene with Raylan sitting around on a stakeout in a car with another deputy, just talking. It’s what we expect from Leonard.
Saving Grace came back and I am still having a hard time understanding anything Holly Hunter and several of the other actors are saying. Would it kill them to open their mouths? In the “Let’s Talk” episode, written by Sibyl Gardner & Annie Brunner, there was a lot more about religion than about detective work, which since the show is in its last episodes, makes sense. It makes sense, but it doesn’t make it dramatic.
In Plain Sight also came back, but a bit livelier than Saving Grace. In “When Mary Met Marshall,” written by Brynn Malone, we not only get flashbacks of when Mary and Marshall met on a case, but the introduction of Allison Pearson, a senior U.S. Marshal who has come to Albuquerque to examine the budget of the WitSec office. It is established before she shows up that she is a political appointee and not highly thought of. So who walks in the door as Allison but Allison Janney, C.J. Craig from The West Wing, which leads to a great in-joke about Allison and the President. Now here is somebody who can stand up to Mary McCormack’s Mary. Allison leaves at the end of the episode but promises to come back, since she admits she is impressed by Mary calling her on leaving her security badge where one of the witnesses could use it to escape from the building. I for one look forward to seeing Allison and Mary going head to head.
Castle did something similar in its two parter, “Tick, tick, tick,” written by Moira Kirkland, and “Boom,” written by Elizabeth Davis. A case brings in Jordan Shaw, an F.B.I. Special Agent, whom Castle is entranced by, because she is even better at her job than Beckett is at hers. So Beckett is a little jealous, which everybody else assumes must be because she and Castle are sleeping together. They’re not, but nobody is convinced. This all ups the pressure on finding the serial killer who is obsessed with “Nikki Heat,” the version of Beckett Castle has created in his novels. The addition of Jordan really gave a jolt to the show, but there was no indication at the end of the two-parter that she would be back. And she is played by Dana Delany, who at least for now has a day job over at Desperate Housewives, but given the way Marc Cherry kills off people…
The Good Wife came up with a doozy of an episode with “Doubt,” written by Robert King & Michelle King & Barry Schkolnick. Way back in US#34 I mentioned that I liked that the first episode this show got into some details about the jury on a case, something most law shows never do. I wrote at the time that I hoped they would do it again, and with this episode they have. Gosh, do you suppose somebody connected with the show actually reads this column? Don’t bet the farm on it. I suspect the writers just saw an opportunity that was too good to pass up. The episode begins with the jury coming into the jury room talking about the case the way real juries do, e.g., somebody vaguely remembers that Alicia is the wife of a politician who got caught in a sex scandal, but they get the details wrong. The jurors noticed that Alicia was there to support the defendant, a college girl accused of murder. As we go through the case, we cut back to the jury room and get their take on the participants: lawyers, witnesses, people in the courtroom. Late in the jury’s deliberation, one male juror says that he feels they were not given enough information. I have been on five juries and everybody on the juries always feels that way. In discussing the question of reasonable doubt, the man says he feels he has “reasonable ignorance,” which nails it beautifully. Just as they have reached the verdict, the judge comes in and tells them they are excused. The defendant has taken a plea bargain. The last thing we see is that the jury had voted her “not guilty.” Yeah, that’s the way the American judicial system works. And thank God for that, because if it didn’t, we wouldn’t have all these great lawyer shows.
Tom Stempel is the author of several books on film. His most recent is Understanding Screenwriting: Learning From Good, Not-Quite-So Good, and Bad Screenplays.
Review: The Two Popes Carefully and Dubiously Toes a Party Line
There isn’t anything in the bleeding-heart positions espoused by Jorge Bergoglio that complicates Pope Francis’s public persona.1.5
Fernando Meirelles’s The Two Popes is quick to acknowledge that Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) is a humble man of the people. The film opens with a scene that fades in on Bergoglio, recently anointed Pope Francis, as he attempts to order a plane ticket over the phone. Assuming she’s being pranked when the caller gives his name and address, the Italian operator hangs up on the generously bemused head of the Catholic Church. After centuries of pomp, the scene suggests, the world’s Catholics were unprepared for a genuine article like Francis, a corrective to an episcopal hierarchy that had drifted too far away from the people. So goes the thesis of The Two Popes, reiterated in a number of subsequent scenes: Unlike previous generations of pontiffs, Francis engages with the actual state of the world, watches soccer, listens to pop music, and speaks to economic inequality.
This brief prologue’s slight humor and documentary-style presentation give an accurate idea of where the film is headed, both thematically and formally. Throughout, Meirelles embellishes the screenplay’s often dry conversations with pseudo-improvised camerawork—unsteady framing, sudden tilts, and emphatic snap zooms—familiar from his prior films, most notably City of God and The Constant Gardner. But what seemed, in the early aughts, fresh and well-suited to gangster movies and spy thrillers, feels dated and out of place in a film that amounts to two powerful octogenarians having a series of conversations. By abruptly adjusting the lens’s focal length at almost arbitrary moments, Meirelles transparently attempts to add dynamism to a film in which powerful actors are stuck reciting staid, safe dialogue.
The hagiographic Two Popes shuffles through moments in Bergoglio’s life. Some scenes are set in Argentina in the 1970s, a tumultuous time for the country, but the film mainly focuses on the development of Bergoglio’s relationship with Joseph Ratzinger (Anthony Hopkins), Pope Benedict XVI, during the early 21st century. Flashing back to eight years before the prologue, the camera travels through the narrow alleys of Buenos Aires, arriving at an outdoor sermon that Bergoglio is delivering. Unattached to the air of benevolent superiority Catholic priests are expected to exude, Bergoglio tangentially speaks of his support for the San Lorenzo soccer team, at which revelation his congregation feels comfortable booing their diocese’s bishop.
Meanwhile, John Paul II has died, and as a cardinal, Bergoglio must return to Rome to help elect a new pope. There he encounters Ratzinger, at the time a conservative Bavarian cardinal who haughtily insists on speaking to Bergoglio in Latin when they meet in a Vatican bathroom, and who turns up his nose when the Argentinian begins humming ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” to himself while washing his hands. The inclusion of an ABBA song makes for a lighter tone that The Two Popes will unevenly revive at various moments across its running time; the film will transition between scenes using out-of-place lounge jazz and ‘60s pop, then abruptly drop the levity for dialogic lessons on the state of Catholic theology.
The dogmatic Ratzinger’s election as pope later that year would signal an end to years of liberalization within the Catholic Church, a back-to-basics gesture that ultimately failed. His short reign would be dominated by controversy, as members of his inner circle were indicted for financial crimes and a long-brewing scandal over church cover-ups of sexual abuse came to the fore. Meirelles handles this historical context through aural and visual montages of archival news reports, which fill the gap as the story fast-forwards to a moment in 2012 when Pope Benedict calls Bergoglio, his unofficial rival from the church’s liberal wing, back to Rome.
Benedict aims to convince the bishop not to resign, as it would look to the outside world—as Benedict professes it does to him—that the liberal Bergoglio is renouncing his cardinalship in protest. Strolling through the lush gardens of the Vatican, or speaking in low, strained voices in its resplendent halls, the two debate their opposing theological and political philosophies. A mutual respect develops between them, with Benedict gradually opening himself to the outside world from which he has stayed aloof; one scene has Bergoglio teaching him about the Beatles, and in another the Argentine convinces the stiff German to try out the tango.
That’s all very cute, surely, but it’s also evidence that, despite courting a gritty reality effect with its documentary-inspired aesthetic, The Two Popes is carefully toeing a party line rather than exposing any hidden truths. Though it includes (rather hammy) flashbacks to Bergoglio’s morally ambiguous interactions with the Argentinian military dictatorship of the ‘70s, there isn’t anything in the bleeding-heart positions espoused by Bergoglio that complicates Pope Francis’s public persona. For his part, Ratzinger comes off as the best version of the man one could imagine, given the turmoil that marked his tenure: old-fashioned but authentic, perhaps just a bit too aged and attached to the institution to weed out its excesses.
As, in scene after scene, the heads of the world’s most powerful religious institution neatly summarize their philosophies to one another, the viewer may sense a misdirect: What happened to the corruption? Where are the meetings about how to handle the child-abuse scandals? Such issues, which presumably would have been the subject of many a Vatican City discussion, turn out to be little more than background material to the individualized and sentimentalized story of two men with differing views becoming friends. Even when they do come up, our attention is directed elsewhere. The flashbacks to Bergoglio’s spotted past begin soon after the sexual abuse scandals are first mentioned, redirecting our piqued concern with institutional sins toward the drama of an individual man’s fateful misjudgment.
The second time the pair’s conversations drift toward the simmering abuse scandal, Meirelles actually drowns out the dialogue with a high-pitched whine on the soundtrack, and for no discernable story reason. It’s as if Bergoglio’s hearing has been impaired by the explosive truth. The moment feels less like the filmmakers protecting us from a truth too awful to hear, and much more like them shielding us from one too dangerous to be heard.
Cast: Jonathan Pryce, Anthony Hopkins, Juan Minujín, Sidney Cole, Thomas D. Williams, Federico Torre, Pablo Trimarchi Director: Fernando Meirelles Screenwriter: Anthony McCarten Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 125 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Review: Empty Metal Grapples with the Efficacy of Activist Violence
The film is greater in its confrontational force than the sum of a dozen festival breakthroughs lauded for their fearlessness.3
The idea that violence can be an effective or even necessary form of activism is one of the last remaining taboos in a contemporary discourse that holds civil debate up as the highest virtue. Empty Metal, meanwhile, reaffirms independent, artist-made cinema as a natural arena for wading through these kinds of uncomfortable notions. Greater in its confrontational force than the sum of a dozen festival breakthroughs lauded for their fearlessness, and certainly more potent than Todd Phillips’s Joker, it takes on the ambitious and possibly risky task of exploring what activist violence means in the context of a modern world where ambient forms of hostility—militarized police aggression (specifically toward people of color), mass surveillance and ongoing, never-ending wars—subtly dictate our lives.
Collaborating for the first time on what constitutes for both of them a narrative feature debut, Adam Khalil and Bayley Sweitzer have fashioned a topical lightning rod with Empty Metal, though not in a manner that suggests willful provocation. Assembled on a meager budget with friends, family, and members of the filmmakers’ extended artistic circles, the film progresses with an untamed energy and disregard for convention that suggest the manifestation of creative impulses feeding, unchecked, off one another. Juggling multiple intersecting storylines with passages of visual lyricism and diegesis-breaking reminders of contemporary injustices, Empty Metal offers an anarchic collage that careens between narrative storytelling (Sweitzer’s background) and documentary and video-art instincts (Khalil’s backgrounds).
Central to the story of Empty Metal are Rose (indie noise musician Rose Mori, a.k.a. PVSSYHEAVEN), Pam (Sam Richardson), and Devon (Austin Sley Julian), a trio of disaffected electro-punk rockers gigging around Brooklyn under the moniker of Alien. But to call them protagonists undercuts the degree to which Khalil and Sweitzer frame them less as independently motivated agents than as ciphers ushered along a path over which they appear to exert little control. More instrumental to the film’s evolution are the clairvoyant, vaguely ethereal figures—a Rastafarian chef listed in the credits as King Alpha (Oba), an older indigenous woman (Irma LaGuerre), and several of their younger accomplices—who watch over the trio and ultimately size them up as eligible candidates for a criminal plot.
Rose, Pam, and Devon are to assassinate three infamous white cops who’ve gotten away with murder, then go off the grid. Neither the names of the targets nor their specific infractions are clarified, though the connections to real-life analogues are made more or less self-evident in the series of crude 3D renderings of police violence that are periodically inserted into the middle of scenes. On the eve of a domestic Alien tour, Rose is approached at the band van by a member of King Alpha’s clan, who leans into the would-be rebel to impart a telepathic message paraphrased, as with a number of the film’s longer monologues, from William S. Burroughs’s novel The Place of Dead Roads: “I will teach you to dissociate gun, arm, and eye.”
Intuitively reading between the lines, Rose promptly loses interest in the tour and recruits, with little resistance, her bandmates to the cause. This sequence of events, along with anything else having to do with the transition of these hitherto merely frustrated musicians to insurrectionary vigilantes, hardly stands up to dramatic scrutiny, due in equal parts to Mori, Richardson, and Julian’s stilted line deliveries and the insufficient time their characters are afforded in the editing to acquire anything like psychological plausibility.
Nonetheless, there’s something of a poetic logic to the characters’ transformations, an unnerving illustration of the idea that the gap between ambient frustration and radicalism is but a short cognitive leap. There’s also a sense of fatalism that hangs over the proceedings, of an inexorable historical duty that can’t or shouldn’t be resisted. In an ominous sequence of self-actualization, Rose recites the names of historical dissidents from Ulrike Meinhof to Osama bin Laden with a mix of clinical dispassion and reverence as archival footage and animated representations of their violent acts fill the screen.
By contrast, Khalil and Sweitzer stage a lighter scene around the mid-forest meeting of King Alpha, LaGuerre’s character, and a European monk (Pawel Wojtasik) previously seen only in excerpts of a de-contextualized courtroom taping. Here, it’s casually implied that the three characters—who suddenly claim to have last seen each other at either the “L.A. riots” or Wounded Knee—are merely the corporeal containers of activist spirits who weave through the centuries, cyclically reuniting to nudge willing souls toward more proactive forms of rebellion.
Taking its title from a description of drones given by Rose in voiceover, Empty Metal questions if perhaps these transhistorical agitators have met a new and unconquerable challenger in the surveillance state, armed as it is with high-tech weaponry and vast intel on its populace. Certainly, the right-wing militia shown in another chilling subplot offers no compelling resistance to this monolithic force, even as they stash up on firearms and embark on austere training. The figurehead of this self-determined group (Jon Nandor) happens to be the son of Wojtasik’s monk, and it’s a quiet dinner table scene between the two of them that stands out among all the jarring associative edits and flicker-frame embellishments as one of the film’s strongest effects. As the father dismantles his son’s second amendment convictions, he’s left unable to contemplate an adequate alternative, and it’s telling that even a sage, potentially immortal mystic seems perplexed by our current predicament.
Cast: Rose Mori, Austin Sley Julian, Sam Richardson, Oba, Irma LaGuerre, Pawel Wojtasik, Jon Nandor Director: Adam Khalil, Bayley Sweitzer Screenwriter: Adam Khalil, Bayley Sweitzer Distributor: Factory 25 Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Beniamino Barrese’s The Disappearance of My Mother
It’s fascinating to see Benedetta Barzini in academic action, like an ethnographer of the patriarchy herself.3
Domestic ethnography typically sees a filmmaking member of a family turning the camera inward to investigate, or rewrite, a family’s history. This means that the filmmaker in question can occupy the inconvenient position of unearthing the ancient dirt on top of which the family is founded. In The Disappearance of My Mother, director Beniamino Barrese is less interested in wrestling with the maternal function in the drama of a household than in the mother’s status as his muse. The film is a love letter to the filmmaker’s mother, Benedetta Barzini, a 76-year-old former supermodel and the first Italian woman to grace the cover of American Vogue, now a feminist fashion studies lecturer in Milan. The constellation of the family is rendered useless here, as what matters to Barrese is the love affair between mother and son, forever mediated by the camera lens.
The tragedy here isn’t to be found in the regrettable actions of yore or the repressed feelings that both constitute and undermine a home, but in the unfairness of time. The film seems to say that a mother must age, a mother must die, and some of them may even want to. And it seemingly recognizes something tragic in an external world that’s obsessed with all of the things Barzini doesn’t value, despite having been a fashion industry commodity in the 1960s: beauty, youth, luxury, and cleanliness (she hardly ever showers or changes her bedsheets).
Barzini’s feminist stance appears as her most consistent motif in old interviews, in the strangely theatrical way she used to pose with garments in fashion shoots, and in her present-day statements captured in the film, both verbal and sartorial (she shows up to receive an award in her stay-at-home clothes). She is, from the beginning of her career, vocally aware that the femininity she’s paid to display is a playful one, removed from her actual self, which is itself, Barzini argues, unphotographable. She knows the existence, and persistence, of beauty stereotypes caging women to be due to the fact that men invent women through a series of prescriptions. And that they thus invent them as Jessica Rabbits, she argues at one point, wondering out loud whether it may not be best if women’s bodies disappeared altogether.
It’s fascinating to see Barzini in academic action, like an ethnographer of the patriarchy herself, bringing back news from its most glamourous yet rotten core. She lectures young college girls about the symbolic relationship between fashion, youth, and man’s fear of death, holding magazine ads in her hands as irrefutable evidence. She asks them questions like “What does ‘old age’ mean?,” “Why do imperfections bother people?,” and “What is the point of continuing to sell our bodies without any quality or talent?” These moments of pedagogical passion occur when Barzini’s presence is allowed to take over the frame precisely because the filmmaking son fades into the background. And they’re in striking contrast to Barrese’s instances of shoving the camera into his mother’s reluctant face.
That stance, though in line with some sort of undying teenage streak, reveals a misguided desire to force his mother into his cinematic paradigm. Although Barrese purposefully allows for a great degree of transparency, showing us his failed attempts to get his mother to change outfits for continuity’s sake, for instance, these sequences feel contrived when compared to those where the mother is allowed to perform in an uncontrolled fashion. When we hear him ask her, “Is there anything you want me to put in the wash?,” or “Mom, what bothers you so much about images?,” it’s impossible not to see the air of spontaneity as calculated artifice.
Many times, Barrese acts like a vulture taking something from his mother that she doesn’t want to give. Or does she? Barzini calls him a petit bourgeois for appreciating her articulations only inasmuch as they fit his filmic narrative. And she yells, “Put the camera down! Put it down!” He obeys her for a couple seconds but leaves the camera running, then grabs it back to continue interrogating her. And she lets him. Mother and son relations are often like this—full of theatrics, ambiguity, and teeming with seduction. Neither could afford losing the other’s love. And they both know it. Which forces Barrese to keep pushing the limits. He even shoots her when she’s asleep. Or, at least, when he thinks she is. It turns out that following mom is a habit from childhood. And ever since then she’s been protesting his advances. “I want to disappear, not to appear,” she says, because “the lens is the enemy.”
In a beautiful sequence toward the end of the film, after Barzini speaks about dying and the shame of belonging to this world, so sullied by white men, Barrese asks her to spin around in her courtyard, holding her dress. She says she will get dizzy. He finally listens to her and lets her stand still, spinning with his camera around her himself. She smiles, enjoying the moment. She’s happy standing still, courted in the courtyard by her child’s contemplation. Mother eventually asks her son: “Are you done playing?” He’s not, and neither is she.
Director: Beniamino Barrese Screenwriter: Beniamino Barrese Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 94 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Interview: Eddie Redmayne on The Aeronauts and Accessing Physicality
Redmayne discusses everything from calibrating his physicality in rehearsals to cultivating his imagination on a barren set.
“I can’t believe you wrote your dissertation on Les Misérables,” Eddie Redmayne says in a complete non sequitur midway through our conversation. I had a feeling it might come up at some point, so I had to lead with telling him that he featured prominently in the video essay portion of my senior thesis on how Tom Hooper’s 2012 film adaptation collapsed boundaries between stage and screen. As legend has it, Redmayne made a suggestion in post-production that led to the film’s close-up-heavy editing, a choice which sparked intense discussion around the aesthetics of the musical genre.
The episode captures something about Redmayne that sets him apart from other actors who operate in a similarly demonstrative, showy register. He’s genuinely thoughtful about the full cycle of how a performance gets created and transmitted to audiences, in everything from the rehearsal process to the editing bay. After winning an Academy Award for 2014’s The Theory of Everything and another nomination for 2015’s The Danish Girl, Redmayne took a turn toward blockbuster fare with two outings playing Newt Scamander in the Fantastic Beasts series. But now he’s back to the period dramas that made his name with The Aeronauts, an old-fashioned movie adventure that reunites him with his The Theory of Everything co-star, Felicity Jones. As scientist James Glaisher and pilot Amelia Wren, Redmayne and Jones, respectively, spends the majority of the film confined to the tight space of a gas balloon’s basket as they rise to 37,000 feet in the air in an attempt to make meteorological breakthroughs in 1860s Britain.
Redmayne’s role is a fitting lens to discuss not only The Aeronauts, but also his recent career. His craft is just as much a science as it is an art. Our conversation got into the weeds of technical details as he discussed everything from calibrating his physicality in rehearsals to cultivating his imagination on a barren set. But, first, we had to discuss Les Misérables, given the pivotal role his behind-the-scenes behavior played in my academic career.
During post-production on Les Misérables, I read that while in the editing room you encouraged Tom Hooper to hold longer on the close-up of Anne Hathaway during “I Dreamed A Dream,” setting into motion the film relying on them so heavily.
Because of the way that Les Mis was shot with live singing, you couldn’t get between different tracks because of the variation. What Tom did was make sure that you could always have the whole scene cut from one setup: a wide, a mid, [and a close-up]. There were three cameras on at the same time. He was editing the film, and the studio had put out a trailer they edited themselves that was more of the close-up. Tom and I had a discussion, and I think I mentioned that it could hold. What I find so interesting is that everyone has a specific opinion on Les Mis, whether it worked—and, of course, the close-ups are something people bring up a lot. But the live singing process dictated the way it was shot. We couldn’t shoot outside a lot because, when you shoot outside, the voice disappears. So, we had to build the barricades in a studio.
What you did with Les Misérables speaks to just how much a performance gets remade in the editing room. Are you still actively involved in that final step of the process?
What’s weird about making films is you create so much of it in a vacuum. It’s not like theater, where actors get together for months and work things out. Often you meet the person playing your mother or father two hours before [shooting]. Often you don’t know the director, meeting them a day before you start working with them. You have an idea of what the character’s arc is, and, of course, part of the joy of making films is giving over that. You put that down and hope the director observes that. But a director can often observe something different that’s more interesting! What I like to do, and I’ve been lucky enough to do, is make work and, if I’m allowed into the editing process, have a dialogue with that director. Provided you know they see what you intended, whether they use that or not is obviously their choice.
I do find that dynamic really interesting, and I’ve been lucky enough with James Marsh on The Theory of Everything, Tom Hooper, and [director] Tom Harper and [screenwriter] Jack Thorne on this. Felicity and I worked together with Jack and Tom for a couple of months beforehand working through the intricacies of the script, and Tom allowed us that bit because it’s so intimate between the two of us, almost like [working on a play] with the writer and director. He allowed us the intimacy in the process the whole way through. The reason I do it is because, as an actor, you’re never happy with what ends up in the finished product. But while you can still shift and change things, I enjoy being a part of that process.
As someone who came up through theater, where you have so much less mediation between your performance and how an audience receives it, have you found comfort in the editing process?
It was a massive adjustment because I got into acting through theater. For many years, I couldn’t get cast in TV or film because I was playing to the back of the stalls in my audition. When I did start working, it’s all been a massive learning curve.
How do you approach acting out of sequence? In both The Aeronauts and The Theory of Everything, you’re tasked with building a full and continuous character arc, but that seems tough you’re stopping and restarting.
Quite often, directors will try and keep as much in chronology as possible. A lot of the stuff we did in the basket in The Aeronauts was shot chronologically. It’s the other bits that aren’t. What you have to do is see how the director is filming it, what their process is and work out what’s best for you. For example, on The Theory of Everything, all the exteriors we were shooting in the first two days in Cambridge when all the students weren’t there. That meant that any time Stephen was outside in the entire film, we were shooting in the first two days. Which meant we had to do all different physicalities at different moments of his life in the first two days. Which meant [I] had to be able to access those different physicalities very quickly, which in itself dictated the process. I wasn’t going to spend hours getting into the zone, I have to slot into these. For me, I said, I need months to rehearse, and I need to rehearse the movement like a dance so that [I] can access it quite quickly. It’s all about the stuff you do beforehand so you’re ready when you’re working the other actor to be completely free.
You shot some of The Aeronauts outdoors in the gas balloon and then some on a soundstage against a blue screen. How did you all work to keep the authenticity consistent in your performances?
We were lucky that the first thing we shot was the real stuff. We went up in the real balloon—we had this accident, it was really terrifying—and the notion of the stakes were weirdly embedded with us from day one. Ultimately, it always feels horrendously fake when you’re in a giant basket surrounded by blue screens, but they did things like [freezing] the studio for our breath. We were shooting in the summer in the U.K., and then you had cast and crew in jackets because we were in a giant refrigerator. They also gave us freezing buckets with ice to plunge our hands into beforehand. The director really gave us everything he could to make it feel [right]. Because they had gone up in helicopters and shot the skyscapes beforehand, they had very clever technology on an iPad that lets you look at the balloon to see where the sun was and what the weather was. They spent a long time working in pre-production about how to not make it look fake, and one of the things was that it could look real, but if your eyes are totally open, the fact that there’s blinding sunlight…of course, you can look at a big, bright light without it being a stretch. It was to learn to squint a bit [to avoid] the giveaway.
Between The Aeronauts and the Fantastic Beasts series, you’ve been doing quite a bit of acting in synthetic spaces.
That’s not a value judgment! How do you go about using your imagination to bring the surroundings to life in your head while maintaining the same specificity as if you were there?
I try and do a load of research, so even if it’s on Fantastic Beasts, it’s talking to the animators, going and looking at drawings and set designs. Trying to do all of that early so it’s not in your imagination. The other process I tried to learn from Dan Fogler, who’s in Fantastic Beasts and very free. He’ll try lots of different things, and I watched him on the first film and thought he was brilliant. It’s a mixture of doing your research, then throwing it away and trying things.
Has it gotten easier over time? Like a muscle that has to be trained and toned?
Yeah, it definitely does. For example, with Pickett [a small plant creature his character keeps as a pet] on Fantastic Beasts, I was so concerned with talking to something that’s not there and make it feel real. I would over[act]. [Reenacts staring intently at the creature on his hand] You never normally look at people when you talk to them. You can have a conversation with Pinkett on your hand and not really look at him.
You’ve mentioned that the basket became like another character in the film because you and Felicity shared such tight quarters with it. How do you make spaces feel natural for your characters to inhabit?
That is rehearsals. That’s why we did them. What I love about this film, hopefully, is that it’s this thrilling adventure on a big scale. At the same time, it’s also an intimate little drama. That space is the size of a sofa. We had weeks working of thinking how to make things visually interesting for an audience. Each time the camera comes back to it, it needs to have transformed or changed. We rehearsed on it so we could find different ways: whether it was sitting on the floor or one of us up in the hoop, different angles, getting rid of carpets or some of the tools. They add character to this battered, bruised vessel that’s been pummeled.
Does that mean you all were really working out specific shots and angles within the rehearsal process?
When we were rehearsing the scenes over and over again, Tom would have suggestions and ideas from watching with the cinematographer. One of the things he found is that, early on, if the camera was ever outside of the balloon—even centimeters out—it doesn’t feel real. Any moments that are caught inside the balloon, apart from a few moments where drones fly and take close-ups, the cinematographer was always inside the balloon. He was moving with the movement. The camera, similarly, was like another character in the piece. Because just one centimeter outside, since we can’t suspend ourselves in mid-air, felt unreal.
Do you find it liberating to work within such tight confines like the basket? Does it force you to be more precise and conscious of your movement and blocking?
Yeah, it does. Because you’re confined, the freedom is in the minutiae. You can’t be making big, bold gestures. I think the intimacy plays to its favor in some ways.
The Aeronauts has a theme of looking up for inspiration amidst troubling times. The last few films you’ve made generally have some kind of optimistic feeling about them. Is that a conscious running thread running through your filmography?
I never relate my films to each other, but what I think is interesting is that the only way I choose work is by reacting to it. So maybe there’s a sense of that [optimism]. The reason I wanted to do The Aeronauts is because I got to that last passage where Felicity’s character is standing on top of the world, and I just thought I would love to see that. I loved the idea of working with Felicity again. I loved this old-school adventure thrill to it. I felt like you’ve seen space investigated, but I hadn’t seen the sky. Sometimes, on a cold, horrendously miserable day, there’s something ecstatic about a break through the clouds. And whether you can retrain an audience who’s so used to seeing the sky from planes to make it feel like something new, all those things were curious to me. I don’t specifically go looking for optimistic pieces, although there was a period in my career when I was playing incestuous teenagers and schizophrenic psychos, so maybe I need to go talk to a therapist about that!
I know some actors like Meryl Streep or David Oyelowo, just to name two that come to mind, say that they deliberately only put work out into the world that they think can make it a better place.
That’s really interesting. I haven’t read that, but I’m probably not that…selfless. It tends to be something I just react to. There’s a weird moment when you read a script and suddenly feel a bit sick. That’s when you transfer yourself from imagining it to imagine yourself doing it. That’s the reality of the responsibility.
Review: Midnight Family Is an Intimate Look at Mexico’s Ambulance Crisis
It’s the mix of the humane and the calculating that gives the film its empathetic power.3
Director Luke Lorentzen’s Midnight Family opens with a startling statistic: In Mexico City, around 45 public ambulances serve a population of over nine million people. Picking up the pieces are private ambulances, such as the one owned and operated by the Ochoa family, whom Lorentzen follows over several nights as they pick up patients from accident sites, provide immediate medical service, and deposit them at various hospitals. Every element of this process is a negotiation, and Lorentzen captures a multitude of damning and haunting details. Following this family, Lorentzen fashions a documentary that serves as a wrenchingly intimate portrait of a country’s wide-reaching healthcare crisis.
For the Ochoas, particularly their portly paterfamilias, Fernando, and his charismatic 17-year-old son, Juan, the ambulance is firstly a business—a means of barebones survival. The Ochoa ambulance often resembles a kind of medical food truck, as it roams Mexico City looking for customers, who are, of course, individuals in pronounced danger and pain. Lorentzen vividly captures the chaos of the accident sites, including the maddening array of traffic lights and people wandering haphazardly among the twisted ruins of crushed vehicles and property. Into this chaos, Fernando, Juan, and others enter with a kind of cleansing purposefulness, though they also have to watch out for cops who are looking to shake them down for pay-offs. (The legality of private ambulances is somewhat vaguely rendered here; the Ochoas may or may not have the right paperwork, though they definitely need official license plates.)
It’s the mix of the humane and the calculating that gives Midnight Family its empathetic power. While saving lives, the Ochoas must focus on means of payment. They’re not ghouls, as we come to see that their next meal, and their ability to keep the vehicle running, depends on a night-by-night payout, which is threatened by the police as well as rival private ambulances. Since the Ochoas run a private business, patients can apparently refuse to pay them without recrimination from the government, which occurs often given the poverty of their largely uninsured clientele. Lorentzen is bracingly specific about money: One pick-up, of a teenage girl battered by her boyfriend, costs 3,800 pesos, at which her well-off mother balks.
Across Lorentzen’s documentary, viewers also learn of the equipment that the Ochoas need to pass regulations, and of the consequence that expense has on their ability to eat. In one evocative illustration of the effect of their profession on private life, we see the Ochoas at a gas station making tuna salad, which they eat on saltines. This meal occurs after an elaborate debate on whether they can afford to eat more than two tacos apiece.
Yet Lorentzen doesn’t turn the Ochoas into objects of our self-congratulatory pity. The filmmaker captures the despair as well as the adventure of such a livewire way of life, especially as the Ochoas race other ambulances. Fernando places a poignant amount of trust in young Juan, who daringly drives the ambulance, cutting off other vehicles with various improvisations of navigation. These chases are filmed by Lorentzen in a mixture of first-person and mounted-camera compositions that emphasize the limitation of a driver’s sight, establishing a sense of immediacy and danger that is far more thrilling than the standardly detached, alternating coverage of a conventional action film. In this fashion, Midnight Family sometimes brings to mind the brilliant chase sequence in James Gray’s We Own the Night.
Given the privacy of the scenes we witness in Midnight Family—moments of carnage, need, poverty, corruption, and love—the invisibility of Lorentzen’s presence comes as a mild disappointment. This project begs for an examination of how the filmmaking process informs the behavior of its subjects. This quality, or lack thereof, is especially evident when a family member of a patient is seen weeping in the front passenger seat of the Ochoa ambulance. How does she feel at being filmed at this moment of extremity? Midnight Family is a rich and textured film, but it stints on this kind of auto-critical answer.
Director: Luke Lorentzen Screenwriter: Luke Lorentzen Distributor: 1091 Media Running Time: 80 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: The Aeronauts Takes to the Skies, Without Much of a Dramatic Hook
As a suspense film, it’s so sluggishly structured that it borders on the avant-garde.1.5
Tom Harper’s The Aeronauts is such a sluggishly structured suspense film that it borders on the avant-garde. James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne), a 19th-century meteorologist, is attempting to prove that man can predict weather patterns, and he plans a hot-air balloon ride high into the Earth’s troposphere to conduct high-altitude measurements. With no available technology for breathing apparatuses or other modern safety equipment, James’s gambit is a bold one, but he hopes that by traveling so high he can use the most accurate measurements to prove his meteorological theses. Accompanying him is Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones), a daredevil aeronaut with experience flying balloons at extreme altitudes. They’re practically a study in contrasts. James, humorless and bookish, talks rapidly and in fussy detail, mostly holding conversations with himself and putting others in the position of needing to interject to get a word in edgewise. Amelia, meanwhile, is filled with a certain joie de vivre, literally arriving to the balloon launch doing acrobatics to liven up the assembled crowd.
This is the second time that Redmayne and Jones have starred in a film together, but familiarity has done little to deepen their stilted chemistry. James and Amelia don’t converse so much as recite their respective credentials at each other. This might have worked if The Aeronauts gave the characters specializations that the other lacked, yet each has similar strengths: James, the less experienced balloonist, nonetheless knows enough about piloting the craft to not need instruction, while Amelia understands enough about meteorology to not require James to dumb down his scientific jargon. As a result, the pair’s dynamic is devoid of inherent conflict, which might have distracted them from the monotony of their balloon’s ascent into cloud-studded skies, which Harper stages as if in real time.
Of course, sitting in a vehicle that slowly drifts upward as its two occupants engage in, at most, haughty disagreement makes for moribund drama, so Harper fills time with flashbacks to show how James and Amelia got to this point. Anyone who’s ever seen a historical fiction about a scientific pioneer will know what to expect of James’s backstory: repeated scenes of the man explaining his ideas to academic administrators with sideburns large enough to count as mating displays, all of them mirthfully wagging their turkey necks as they respond to James’s hypotheses with sayings like, “Hitting the sherry a bit early this morning, aren’t we, Glaisher?”
Meanwhile, across a series of frenzied, chaotically edited memories of trauma, Amelia relives the death of her husband, Pierre Rennes (Vincent Perez), in a ballooning accident. It’s a hysterically lopsided distribution of character motivation. We get a few shots of Amelia and Pierre tenderly embracing, but otherwise the dead man is a mere device, and all that she can say of him to James is that “his most enduring quality was a deep, true love for the beauty of the world,” which, as far as eulogies go, is about two steps above “He loved to laugh.”
George Steel’s cinematography, namely the way it captures the balloon’s ascent, is the film’s strong suit. Especially noteworthy is when James and Amelia break past the cloud layer and are left in direct sunlight that’s rendered with brilliant white light that washes out the frame even as it communicates the rapidly falling temperatures at that altitude. And that temperature drop becomes the first catalyst for actual drama when James lets slip that he didn’t pack a warm enough coat out of concerns for the balloon’s weight, setting up the last act’s belated decision to include some kind of suspense in order to give the film a dramatic hook.
Indeed, the film’s last hour, in which James and Amelia find themselves increasingly starved for oxygen as their balloon rises higher into atmosphere, is its most engaging. Here, a violently shivering James transforms into the reckless adventure, while Amelia becomes the more anxious and fearful of the two. As she urges caution in the face of falling oxygen levels, the mild-mannered scientist is suddenly overcome with delusions of grandeur and fame and does everything to keep them rising. The camera begins to blur at the edges to reflect the characters’ fading consciousness, while a series of desperate last-ditch efforts on Amelia’s part to save them both is mounted with real tension. Still, the film’s wonky, flashback-heavy structure puts so much emphasis on the by-the-numbers backstory of the characters that the actual drama of the balloon flight itself is muted, making the eventual turn toward chaos less of a narrative culmination than a last-minute recalibration of the film’s inert quality.
Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Phoebe Fox, Himesh Patel, Vincent Perez, Anne Reid, Tom Courtenay, Tim McInnerny, Rebecca Front Director: Tom Harper Screenwriter: Jack Thorne Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 100 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Review: Jennifer Reeder’s Knives and Skin Limply Aspires to the Lynchian
The film gets so lost in its affected idiosyncrasies that it stops probing any discernible human feelings.1.5
Something terrible has happened to Carolyn Harper (Raven Whitley). But unlike Twin Peaks and its plastic-wrapped Laura Palmer, Knives and Skin makes it immediately clear what occurred to her: She was left bleeding and without her glasses in the wilderness by a vengeful jock, Andy Kitzmiller (Ty Olwin), because she wouldn’t have sex with him. She never makes it back. This transpires near the start of the film, and what transpires after this point is a dreamy, neon-tinted vision of a town overcome less by grief than ennui.
Throughout Knives and Skin, writer-director Jennifer Reeder draws heavily from the style of David Lynch, cycling through the townsfolk and their weirdest tendencies. Carolyn’s mother, Lisa (Marika Engelhardt), insists that she can smell her daughter on Andy. Andy’s sister, Joanna (Grace Smith), sells underwear to Principal Markhum (Tony Fitzpatrick), cash only. The girl’s father, Dan (Tim Hopper), who’s cheating on his wife (Audrey Francis), is seen at one point emerging from between a waitress’s (Kate Arrington) legs while wearing clown makeup. And Grandma Kitzmiller (Marilyn Dodds Frank) pesters everyone for weed. Certain objects glow, and the girls’ choir practices a series of haunting pop song arrangements, its members whispering to each other one by one while the rest of the ensemble keeps singing.
Other than Lisa’s persistent, unfounded hopes that her daughter is still alive, Carolyn’s disappearance seems to intentionally leave little impression on anyone. Everyone is wrapped up in their own concerns and pursuits, struggling to hold down jobs or dealing with disinterested partners. They’re united only by their vaguely odd feelings and a sense of being trapped, as one boy (Robert T. Cunningham) does when he stands on the roof of the high school; he doesn’t intend to jump, he just wants to see the highway that leads somewhere else.
But in untethering itself from what happened to Carolyn Harper, Knives and Skin ends up unfocused, shambling from one moment of self-conscious weirdness to another. Its themes, like the constant and varied violations of consent going on throughout the town, get lost in favor of things like the talking tiger T-shirt and the hamburger meat lobbed at a vehicle in protest until the entire purpose of these surreal flourishes seems to melt away.
The film is intermittently striking with its heavily stylized lighting and wistful electronic score, but it creates little sense of place. The town where these people all live, which seems to be affecting them to such a profound degree, is so nondescript beyond a few anonymous landscape shots that it stops evoking a place they would want to leave because it doesn’t really seem like a place at all. Rather than explorations of individual oddness, Knives and Skin becomes a rather tedious mood piece with an ethereal atmosphere so remote, so lost in its affected idiosyncrasies that it stops probing any discernible human feelings.
Cast: Marika Engelhardt, Raven Whitley, Ty Olwin, Ireon Roach, Haley Bolithon, Aurora Real de Asua, Grace Smith, Marilyn Dodds Frank, Tim Hopper, Audrey Francis, James Vincent Meredith, Kate Arrington, Kayla Carter, Robert T. Cunningham, Alex Moss Director: Jennifer Reeder Screenwriter: Jennifer Reeder Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 111 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Interview: Jessica Hausner on Little Joe and the Ways of Being and Seeing
Hausner discusses wanting to sustain the tension of the first act of a Body Snatchers production over the course of an entire narrative.
With Little Joe, director Jessica Hausner reinvigorates an Invasion of the Body Snatchers-type premise by boldly suggesting that modern humans don’t have any identities left to lose. The true body snatcher, rather than the beautiful, manipulative red flower at the film’s center, is a corporate culture that stifles our individual thought with double-speak and other subtly constant threats to personal status.
The challenge of such a premise, then, is to reveal the private individual longings that are suppressed by cultural indoctrination without breaking the film’s restrictive formal spell—a challenge that Hausner says she solved with co-writer Géraldine Bajard during a lengthy writing session. Little Joe is so carefully structured and executed that one is encouraged to become a kind of detective, parsing chilly tracking shots and flamboyant Wes Anderson-style color schemes for signs of a character’s true emotional experience.
Ahead of the film’s theatrical release, Hausner and I discussed her obsession with boiling societies down to singular metaphorical places, a tendency that unites Little Joe with her prior features, including Amour Fou and Lourdes. We also talked about the notion of social coding and pressure, and how the filmmaker was interested in sustaining the tension of the first act of a Body Snatchers production over the course of an entire narrative. For Hausner, such tension is certainly fostered with a rigorous devotion to sound and composition, which her actors found freeing, perhaps in the ironic tradition of her own characters.
Little Joe evinces a strong understanding of that staid, subtly restrictive office culture.
I think in all my films I try to find a closed space. Sometimes it’s a company or, in Amour Fou, it’s bourgeois society. I made a film called Lourdes where it was very clear it was that place in Lourdes. I’m trying to portray the hierarchies of a society, and I think it’s easier to do that if you have one place. Then you can show who are the chefs, the people in the middle, and the ones who just have to follow. Sometimes you can even see these statures on the costumes.
The brightly colored costumes are striking in Little Joe. It seems as if they’re expressing emotions the characters aren’t allowing themselves.
Yes. Well, they don’t allow themselves, or maybe I’d put it slightly differently: No one really shows their true emotions [laughs]. We all play a role in our lives and we’re all a part of some sort of hierarchy. And no matter what kind of life we live, we’re living within a society, and we do have to obey rules most of the time. My films focus on that perspective, rather than saying, “Oh, everyone has a free choice.” My experience is that free choice is very limited even in a free world. We are very much manipulated in terms of how we should think and how we should behave. Social codes are quite strong.
One of the lovely ironies of this film is that it’s difficult to discern which enslavements are caused by the flower and which are already inherently in place via society.
Absolutely. That’s the irony about it. When we worked on the script, it wasn’t so easy to build up a storyline that suggests a change that you never really see. Over the process of scriptwriting, we decided that the validity of feelings was invisible. We also had conversations with scientists, and we considered which part of the brain was responsible for emotions.
I’m curious if any singular story element led you to this premise.
I’m a big fan of science-fiction and horror films, and I do like those Invasion of the Body Snatchers films, but only the beginnings. I like the setups, those scenes where someone says, “Oh, my uncle isn’t my uncle anymore.” I had this idea to prolong this doubt about who people really are over the whole length of a feature film. Because it’s a basic human experience: You can never really understand what another person is thinking or feeling.
I love that there’s no overt monster in Little Joe. There’s no catharsis exactly.
No, there isn’t. The catharsis takes place on a very strange level, which leads to one of the other starting elements of the film. I wanted to portray a single mother who loves her job. So, the catharsis in the end is really very much centered on Alice as she finally allows herself to focus on her work and to let her son live with the father, which is okay.
You’re right that there’s a catharsis, from the fulfillment of the final line of dialogue.
This is what’s hard to reconcile: Despite the loss of self that debatably takes place over the course of the film, Alice gets exactly what she wants and the flower does exactly what it’s supposed to do.
Yes, I’m glad to hear you say that. I do get a lot of questions about the dark, dystopian perspective, but there’s no such perspective in this film. It’s a very friendly, light ending. If we all change, perhaps it’s for the better.
I’m curious about the visual design of the flower. It seems to me that it’s both male and female at once, which I think is an achievement.
What do you mean male and female? The design?
The shape seems phallic. Yet the color scheme almost has a lingerie quality.
I think the basic idea is that it’s a male plant. I wanted that basic juxtaposition between the boy and the plant. The film suggests that it’s a male plant, but yet, of course, when the plant opens and is exhaling the pollen…well, I would say it’s a very male plant. [both laugh]
The release of the pollen, especially for the first time against the glass of the lab, does feel like an ejaculation.
Yes. That was very much a part of the idea. The plant is trying to survive.
It’s like a revenge of the sex drive.
Which parallels how the humans are repressing their sex drives. It’s a lovely reverberation. What was the collaboration with the actors like? Such a careful tone of emotional modulation is maintained throughout the film.
I enjoyed the collaboration very much. the actors understood what the film’s style was about. You do have actors sometimes who are used to the fact that the camera is working around them, but in my films it’s always the other way around. The camera is determining the image and the actor has to fit in. The actors—Emily Beecham, Ben Whishaw, Kerry Fox, and the others—were able to cope with that method very well. I remember especially Ben Whishaw even liked it, because—if you don’t feel suffocated, if you’re strong enough to fight against the style—it can be a joyful way to work. The collaboration with the actors also focused very much on the undertone of what they’re saying. A lot of scenes have a double meaning. I’m always trying to show that people normally lie. So, everything that’s said is also said because it should be said, I don’t know if you know what I mean…
Yes, social coding.
I’m trying to make the actors act in a way that makes us feel a character’s position rather than any individuality, so that we know that the characters are a part of something larger and have to say whatever they’re saying now. We try to reveal the typical codes of a society.
Review: The Wolf Hour Is Dubiously Content to Watch Its Protagonist Squirm
The film is all surface, and its depiction of trauma becomes increasingly exploitative and hollow as it moves along.2
An air of decay and discomfort pervades the dingy Manhattan apartment where nearly all of The Wolf Hour unfolds. An agoraphobic recluse, June Leigh (Naomi Watts) languishes in the unit, overwhelmed with guilt from a past misdeed. The cramped, underlit apartment, full of dusty old books and overstuffed trash bags, takes on an increasingly oppressive quality as the door buzzer continues to go off with unnerving frequency. Despite June’s pleas to whomever is on the other end, all she gets in response is an ominous, crackling static. It’s an unsettling sound that’s a fitting approximation of the feminist icon and writer’s brittle mental state, which is inextricably tied to the decrepit state of a 1977 New York City plagued by sweltering summer heat and the Son of Sam killer’s reign of terror.
From the limited perspective of this tiny apartment, writer-director Alistair Banks Griffin constructs an aura of danger and alienation, filling out the broader scope of the citywide upheaval with street scuffles and snippets of news coverage that June overhears on the radio or television. It’s a provocative setting, which could have served as a compelling backdrop for June’s mental unraveling, but the acutely detailed portrait of this specific time and place never extends to that of the muddled, half-baked characterization of the woman who inhabits it.
Watts has made a career playing the most brooding and agitated of characters, and with a practically unparalleled visceral depth. Here, her subtly skittish gestures and facial expressions lend June a raw, nervous energy that suggests a woman on the verge of losing her mind. Strange, cathartic scenes, such as when June abruptly lets loose and feverishly dances to Suicide’s “Ghost Rider,” gives a strong sense of how far she’s strayed from the person she once was. But such unexpected character beats arise too infrequently throughout the film, and for all of Watts’s efforts, the roots of June’s anguish are never more than vaguely explored.
In an attempt to flesh out June’s interiority, Griffin’s script works in a handful of people who visit her apartment. But none of these characters, from her sister (Jennifer Ehle) to a grocery deliveryman (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) to a compassionate gigolo (Emory Cohen), offer much insight into the celebrated genius that June used to be. In fact, it’s only through June’s viewing of a contentious TV interview that she gave when her first book was released that we get any sense of the catalyst for her downward spiral. It’s a remarkably contrived manner of inserting much-needed backstory into The Wolf Hour, but even worse, it hints at a story far more intriguing than the miserabilism that quickly reveals itself to be the film’s default mode.
That interview reveals that June had a tumultuous fallout with her family due to her leftist screed’s thinly veiled criticism of her businessman father. It’s a turn that suggests something akin to the complicated father-daughter antagonism between Shiv and Logan on HBO’s Succession, yet Griffin does nothing with this bombshell, simply returning to June as she continues to drown in her paralyzing guilt. An abrupt and woefully misguided deus ex machina attempts to do some heavy narrative lifting, but it changes our perception of June without laying the sort of groundwork needed to make such a twist land with any gravitas.
In the end, June remains an enigma and the film’s finale only solidifies the notion that Griffin never had any interest in plumbing June’s emotional struggles. Like the sweat covering June’s face at all times or the dust that coats her apartment, The Wolf Hour is all surface, and its depiction of trauma only becomes increasingly exploitative and hollow as it moves along.
Cast: Naomi Watts, Brennan Brown, Jennifer Ehle, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Emory Cohen, Jeremy Bobb, Maritza Veer, Justin Clarke Director: Alistair Banks Griffin Screenwriter: Alistair Banks Griffin Distributor: Brainstorm Media Running Time: 99 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Interview: Céline Sciamma on Redefining the Muse with Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Our talk ranged from the personal to the political, her singular work to the cinema at large.
My experience talking with directors leads me to informally sort them into three categories based on what element of their work they can speak most eloquently about: theory, emotion, and technical execution. Few have straddled all aspects of the filmmaking process quite like French writer-director Céline Sciamma, the mind and muscle behind Portrait of a Lady on Fire. She’s able to deftly answer questions that address the end-to-end process of how a moment germinates in her head, how an audience will interpret it, and how theory can explain why they feel the way they do.
Sciamma’s latest directorial outing relegates her minimalism primarily to the screenplay, which revolves around the interactions between a painter, Noémie Merlant’s Marianne, and the subject, Adèle Haenel’s Héloïse, that she’s been commissioned to covertly paint. The deceptively simple contours of Portrait of a Lady on Fire belie the ambition of the film, which sets out to achieve nothing less than a complete deconstruction of the artist-muse relationship. What Sciamma proposes in its place is a love story between the two women rooted in equality and artistry rather than in domination and lust.
I spoke with Sciamma after the film’s premiere at the New York Film Festival in September. Our talk ranged from the personal to the political, her singular work to the cinema at large, our present moment’s liberation to the centuries of patriarchal influence over our shared historical narrative. In short, a full spectrum of conversation that few directors can match.
You’ve placed Portrait of a Lady on Fire in conversation with discourse around the subject of muses. Does the film suggest that we need to dispense with this ideal altogether, or that we just need to update and revise our notions of what it means?
Well, it’s a contemporary conversation, and even though the movie’s set in the past, it definitely could be something that could have been set in 2019. It’s been a long [journey] for me, because it’s been five years from my previous film, and I thought about this for years. Within these five years, a lot happened. [The time] gave me confidence and new tools and ideas—also less loneliness—to be radical and without compromise. It gives you strength and structure to be radical with all the ideas. The movie is full of them.
Women artists have always existed. They’ve had more flourishing moments, like that time in the mid-18th century when there were a lot of women painters. That’s why we set [the film] in that period, of course, but mostly women were in the workshop as models or companions. That was their part in artistry, so that’s how they’re told [in cultural narratives]. The real part they took in creation isn’t told. Something is happening in art history because there are women researchers on the other side. Dora Maar was the muse of Picasso, but actually, she was a part of the Surrealist group. There’s a lot of them we know now. It was a way to tell the story again to reactivate this nature of art history. But I’m sure it’s true; it’s not this anachronistic vision.
You hired an “art sociologist” to help develop Portrait of a Lady on Fire. What did you learn from this person, and how did that affect the film?
It was a woman who [studied] that period when there were a lot of women painters. The fact that she’s a sociologist and not a historian actually was really important for me because, as we were inventing this character, sociology was really important to make her true to all of these women. Whereas if we’d picked [one historical figure], it would be about destiny. She read the script, and [determined that] there were no anachronisms. What I learned is that it gave me confidence to trust this character all the way. It was something I could hand to Noémie on set.
Is the notion of the “muse” inherently incompatible with equality?
The fact that you could be inspiring just by being there, beautiful and silent, there’s definitely domination. The fact that it’s told as something that always has to do with [being] in a relationship, even the love in creation in the muse—you have to fall in love with your actresses or models—is a fantasy that allows abuse of power. Even the possessive, sometimes I’m asked about my actresses. They’re not asked about their directors; they’re asked about the director.
When I wrote the part for Adèle, she was the model. When I talked about the film, and not much because I’m very secretive, people told me, “So, Adèle’s going to be the painter?” And I said, “No, Adèle is going to be the model!” People were like, “Why? She should be the painter.” And I was like, “Oh, so you find that the model is too narrow for her? You find that this isn’t the dynamic of power she’s entitled to. She should be the painter.” She and I laughed and thought, “Of course, [Adèle] should be the model because I’m the actress.” So, what are they saying? That it’s too small for her? That was also very nourishing, the idea today that she shouldn’t be in that position. It would be a weak position. And it isn’t.
I was surprised to learn that you didn’t write Marianne’s character from the start as someone assigned to paint Héloïse covertly. What did that discovery in the writing process unlock in the story for you?
When I got the idea, I was like, “Now the movie’s got a chance.” The movie is very full of ideas and has some theory of cinema, but that’s why it should be strongly dramatically charged. The fact that we embodied these problematic [ideas] really is important. The journey of the gaze, the fact that it’s stolen at first, then consensual, then mutual, then…we don’t even know who’s looking at who. It makes it really physical and organic. And also, it’s true that all my films are [thematically] bound with a character having a secret. Usually it lasts until the end, but this time it’s only half an hour of being secretive. The secret becomes this reservoir of what’s going to be said and what’s going to unfold, which felt different.
Unlike Tomboy, where schoolyard bullies embody the antagonistic forces of transphobia and heteronormativity, the villain in Portrait of a Lady on Fire seems to be time and the reality of Héloïse’s marriage on the horizon. Was this always your intent to write a story with a more abstract foe?
Yeah, because I really wanted not to go through the same negotiations and conflicts. I wanted it to be a new journey for the audience. Their love dialogue relies on a new ideal that’s equality. There’s no gender domination because they’re two women. That’s practical. But there’s no intellectual domination. We didn’t play with social hierarchy, either. We know their love is impossible, but we aren’t going to play with that. We aren’t going to try and project them into the future. Some people, the old culture, wants you to do that. Show the taboo, the impossibility, the struggle, the conflict with yourself. And we didn’t want to do that.
Because it’s about what you put in the frame. We’re just looking at what’s possible, that suspension of time, and we know very well the frame. We don’t have to tell you the prospects for these women, especially because it’s set in the past. They’re shitty. Lousy. We’re not going to waste time and put you in that position where you will go through this conflict to tell the same thing, that it’s impossible. The real tragedy is that it is possible, but it’s made impossible—by the world of men, mostly. That’s also why there are no men in the film. It would mean portraying a character whose sole purpose is to be the enemy, which isn’t something that interests me at all. I don’t need to take time to portray that. It’s not generous enough.
Are we to take the shot of Héloise on fire literally? That scene seems to enter such a representational, abstract realm, and then we’re jolted back into the reality of her walks with Marianne with that match cut of her extending a hand.
That [says] a lot about the film. It wants to be very embodied in a very simple but kind of brave [way], not just purely theoretical. She’s really going to be on fire! That was one of the key scenes I had in mind as the compass of the film. If you’re really setting her on fire, you’re setting the bar for the other scenes. They have to be in dialogue with this [moment]. It shouldn’t be this unique thing out of the whole language of the film.
I was so struck by the shot toward the end of the film where Marianne sketches herself in a mirror placed over Héloïse’s nether regions. It’s a masterly composition that also feels like a real thematic lynchpin. Can you describe both how the shot developed intellectually and how you executed it on set?
It’s about where you put the focus. In the mirror, she’s blurry. It’s about trust, about being playful, about going all the way with your ideas. But also, it’s fun. It’s a fun thing to do. Even the difficulty of it makes you think about cinema and how we’re going to do this. It’s a way to always be woke about your craft and having new challenges, solving old questions with new ideas. Really trying to harvest most of the situation of people looking at each other. It’s a very simple [way to] access ideas. She’s portraying herself with this mirror, this woman is naked, and her head is where her sex is. It’s really overt, so you don’t have to think about it. But, still, it’s this idea that’s given to you through a sensation. It should always be about this, I think.
I didn’t think it would be possible to top something like the “Diamonds” scene in Girlhood, but here you have a three-minute scene that features Adèle Haenel reacting to music. How do you go about shooting these scenes in a way that allows the audience to understand the impact the music has on the characters?
For Girlhood, I really tried to think of [the scene] as if it were a scene in a musical. When they start to sing in a musical, [they’re] very strong moments within the characters’ relationships. They’re saying things to each other, and, if they’re dancing, their bodies are expressing themselves. It’s about the music not being the commentary, but really thinking about it like, “Okay, if there was a Fred Astaire film, when would this thing happen? What would it say?” It’s always about the intimacy between the characters and what their bodies can express.
But this is kind of different because it’s the final scene. It unveils the fact that it’s cinema. It’s a shot-reverse shot. At first, you’re looking at Héloïse and Marianne looking at Héloïse. But, at some point, it’s about you the audience looking at Adèle performing. It’s about cinema. It leaves room for you. It’s the same in the “Diamonds” scene in Girlhood; it doesn’t become a clip if suddenly there’s room for the viewer. When we talk about the female gaze, of course it’s about not objectifying women, it’s also about mostly how you experience the journey of the character. You experience it with your body and mind. You’re fully aware. It’s not about you being fully inside the film; it’s about the film being inside you. I think that’s what we can offer.
You’ve talked about needing to develop a new grammar to tell the story of Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Now that you have developed it, do you think it will be applicable to other films? Or will you have to reinvent the wheel again?
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is my fourth film, and it felt like a departure. But it’s also a growing of a lot of decisions and myself as a 40-year-old woman. So next time, I never know what I’m going to do next. I really feel like I’ve said all I have to say right now. I feel relieved of something also. And now that we are having this discussion around the film, it puts it in the world. It’s something we share. When you craft a film, it’s really your secret for so long. Now I feel like I’m going to have to find a new secret for myself.
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