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: Skin Confronts White Supremacy from a Dubious Point of View
The film’s not-strictly-linear structure and handheld camerawork come to feel like attempts at masking a certain conventionality.2.5
In 1951’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt identifies the early adherents of the Nazi movement in Germany as belonging to a “mob,” which she distinguishes from the “mass” as a motley group of the disaffected who felt themselves in various ways betrayed by the dominant institutions of society—in essence, the outcasts from the masses. Guy Nattiv’s Skin finds this mob of resentment thriving in the American Rust Belt, where neo-Nazi leader Fred “Hammer” Krager (Bill Camp) recruits young runaways to his organization, baiting them with hot meals and a simulacrum of family warmth. He and his wife, Shareen (Vera Farmiga), indoctrinate young drifters into their disciplinary, Oedipal clan, with Fred as the fearful father figure and Shareen as the mother whose affection they must earn.
A remake of Nattiv’s Oscar-winning short of the same name, Skin is based on the true story of Byron “Babs” Widner (Jamie Bell), who grew up under Fred and Shareen’s tutelage but is beginning to harbor doubts about the group’s cause. The film opens with a confrontation between a march of allied neo-Nazi groups and a counter protest headed by the activist Daryle Jenkins (Mike Colter), in which Babs and other skinheads corner and assault a black protestor, disfiguring the young man and running off. Babs has a conscience, and he slowly comes to regret this assault. Early on, the film gives us another example of his cloaked sense of right and wrong: At a rally where Fred announces his congressional candidacy, another white nationalist verbally accosts a trio of young girls singing a folkish—or rather, völkisch—tune, and Babs defends them, beating up the much larger man with a mic stand.
In Nattiv’s film, the face-tatted Babs’s practiced, neutral expression becomes an ambivalent mask hiding wounded insecurity, explosive rage, or both. His violent defense of the young girls earns him gratitude from their mother, Julie Price (Danielle Macdonald), a legacy member of the white power movement who’s decided to begin to removing herself from her family’s milieu. As Julie and Babs’s connection becomes romance—and as Jenkins pursues Babs, thinking he might be able to convince the neo-Nazi to become an informant—the couple puts more and more distance between themselves and Fred and Shareen’s perverse surrogate family, placing themselves in direct conflict with a dangerous mob.
To symbolize Babs’s gradual break-up with his violent family, the film periodically flashes forward to the grueling, years-long process of removing the racist tattoos plastered across his body. Close-ups on ink being pulled out through skin, accompanied by Babs’s fraught screams, suggest that the pain his skin causes him in these scenes is just recompense for the crimes he committed and endorsed on behalf of an ideology built around the color of that skin.
Skin offers some insight to the appeal and functioning of white supremacist groupings, but after a while, the film’s not-strictly-linear structure and handheld camerawork come to feel like self-conscious signs of “gritty” realism, attempts at masking a certain conventionality. This is, in the end, the story of a bad man being redeemed by the love of a good woman, and it’s worth questioning why Babs, rather than Jenkins, is at the center of the film. As Skin illustrates in an early, exposition-heavy scene, Jenkins has facilitated the turning of around a half-dozen Nazis. That a black man would dedicate so much time, at great personal risk, to penetrating the minds of avowed, violent racists seems the much more interesting—and relevant—story here. It’s not that anything in Skin runs egregiously contrary to the facts, or that Babs’s story isn’t moving as presented, but one may be justified in contemplating why his turn away from Nazism is presented primarily as a personal redemption arc, and not primarily one of tireless activism and resistance by the opponents of fascism like Jenkins.
Cast: Jamie Bell, Danielle Macdonald, Daniel Henshall, Bill Kamp, Vera Farmiga, Mike Colter, Louisa Krause, Zoe Margaret Colletti, Kylie Rogers, Colbi Gannett Director: Guy Nattiv Screenwriter: Guy Nattiv Distributor: A24 Running Time: 120 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Odessa IFF 2019: The Cossacks, Queen of Hearts, Monos, & Projectionist
The festival feels like a long-awaited apparition in a place where events of its magnitude might be scarce.
At first glance, Odessa recalls the Algeria of the 1980s as described by playwright Jean-Luc Lagarce, a place where local “currency has no value and there is nothing to buy anyway.” Odessa seems coy about offering a fantasy version of itself to those who aren’t already confined to it and to whom displaying the city—in the shape of superfluous possessions or souvenirs—would amount to a perverse redundancy. It’s a city coherent to the brutal honesty of its human faces, a city virtually without store windows to hawk unessential goods to passersby—unless one traverses its center, where a McDonald’s and a Reebok shop appear as reminders of a glossier elsewhere. Perhaps the way Cameroon, as one Cameroonian once told me, is a country without sidewalks, “unless you go to Douala.” This is, of course, a respite from the capitalist assaults of places where to experience the city is to stack up on its mementos. It’s this context that made the Odessa International Film Festival (OIFF) feel like a long-awaited apparition in a place where events of its magnitude might be scarce.
By the Lermontovskiy Hotel, where the international journalists covering the OIFF stay, only food seems to be for sale. There’s a 24/7 supermarket that closes when the security guard sees fit, a “Japanese and Thai Asian Café,” and a regal restaurant named Aleksandrovskiy, which sits inside a garden full of Versailles-esque fountains and statues, and where a select few can feast on a scrumptious leg of lamb on a bed of polenta for 12 euros. Perhaps the same select few who show up for OIFF’s outdoor screening of the 1928 film The Cossacks at the Potemkin Stairs but don’t use the steps as bleachers, like the rest of us, instead taking their seats in the large cordoned-off VIP section close to the live orchestra for a few selfies and then dashing off.
A brief video pleading for the release of Crimean filmmaker Oleg Sentsov from a Russian prison preceded the film, eliciting passionate applause. Those actually using the steps as seats seemed to truly savor the event, which took the shape of what film screenings were probably more like in the early 20th century: raucous fair-like happenings with lots of talking and where the film was only one of many multi-sensorial elements. In many ways, The Cossacks is about how the production of a nation is entwined with the production of gender norms. Lukashka (John Gilbert) is seen as a softie. He’s derided as being a fraction of a man, or a half-Cossack, because he would rather spend his time reading than fighting, to the horror of his entourage. He ends up going to war in order to legitimize his status as a man for his family and his beloved Maryana (Renée Adorée). In the world of the film, becoming a man involves killing at least one Turk or two, and becoming a woman means marrying a man who has killed Turks.
The Cossacks was a fascinating selection to screen at the Potemkin Stairs because it wrapped a critique of normativity in some of the most sexist of cinematic languages, female ass shots as gags and all, making it hard to know what kind of selective reading of the film the audience might be making. The men on the screen are always either accosting, harassing, molesting, or trying to rape Maryana, which might be what triggered Rose McGowan, one of the festival’s celebrity guests, to leave just a few minutes into the screening.
As much as watching a film such as George Hill and Clarence Brown’s silent drama at the place where one of cinema’s most iconic sequences was shot feels like the crossing off of a bucket-list item we didn’t realize was on that list until we experienced it, the off-screen drama was just as enticing. There was, for instance, the blatant spectacle of Ukrainian income inequality with “the people” huddled up on the uncomfortable steps for two hours eager to engage with a silent film while Ukrainian socialites decked out in animal prints treated the event more like a vernissage. There was also the impossible quest for a public bathroom mid-screening. This involved walking into a half-closed market across from the Potemkin Stairs and interrupting a loud quarrel between a mother and her adult son, who worked at one of the market stalls.
It’s difficult to guess where queerness goes in Odessa. Maybe it only lives as disavowal, as in The Cossacks, which ends with Lukashka, after anointing his masculinity by slaughtering 10 Turks, stating to Maryana heterosexuality’s mathematical logic in its simplest form: “I am your man. You are my woman. I want you.” And the anointing is never final, the film seems to say. Indeed, as his father lies dying in his arms, Lukashka asks him: “Father, am I Cossack?” The question of where queerness might live, in this context, would be finally answered a few days later when I visit the only gay club in Odessa, Libertin, and meet a trans woman name Jalala, who confides that there’s a “place” in Odessa where straight men can go to to have sex with women like her. “Is it an app?” I ask. Jalala smiles and says that it’s a park. “But it’s dangerous,” she tells me. “It’s very exciting and very dangerous.” Because there are skinheads, she says. “Do the skinheads want to kill you or fuck you, or fuck you and then kill you?” I ask her. “I don’t know,” she responded. “That’s why it’s dangerous.”
The festival main grounds, in front of the majestic Odessa Academic Theatre of Musical Comedy, aren’t unlike London’s Southbank Centre in the early days of summer, where visitors and locals are both sold the idea that the city is this fun all year long. The atmosphere is cosmopolitan, with Nina Simone remixes or early Erykah Badu playing in the background, food trucks, a Mastercard stall, and outdoor sitting poufs. There’s also no stress in the air, no suffocating crowds, and as such no anxiety about being turned away from a screening.
When looking at the festival’s program, one may scoff at the apparent lack of diversity and, more specifically, queerness. After a few screenings, though, one may get the sense that queerness does live at the Odessa International Film Festival and, per Jalala’s account, in Odessa more generally—it just isn’t publicized. In Queen of Hearts, for instance, director May el-Toukhy takes the age-old narrative of the stranger who turns up to disrupt domestic bliss, or ennui, and gives it a daring incestuous twist. Anne (Trine Dyrholm) and Peter (Magnus Krepper) live an idyllic life in a mansion somewhere in Denmark with two young, and creepily angelic, twin daughters (Liv and Silja Esmår Dannemann). There’s something eerie about this setup even before Peter’s problematic teenage son, Gustav (Gustav Lindh), from another marriage is shipped from Sweden to live with his dad and unsettle everything.
What’s uncanny about Anne and Peter’s home is, of course, the way it gleams a kind of speckless completion of the heterosexual project, which could only ever be possible as a mirage. Theirs is the home of dreams bound to become nightmares by the introduction of even the most vaguely foreign element. Such as reality, that most irksome of registers, or a long-lost son. The house of Queen of Hearts, whose drama is so latent you’d only have to snap your fingers for chaos to erupt, evokes the house of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, the kind of immaculate luxury that could only be sitting on top of some macabre bunker full of roaches and well-fed zombies. The drama that links these homes is the notion that the epitome of the heterosexual family bliss borders its very obliteration, with the unruly resurfacing of all the gunk that had been swept underneath, as the very foundation for its habitat.
When Gustav arrives, then, and ends up having an affair with his stepmom, a trench coat-wearing lawyer for young victims of sexual abuse, we’re only surprised at how careless they seem to be about being found out. El-Toukhy is smart to avoid sensationalizing the taboo-breaking premise of the narrative with a camera that sides with Anne: her sexual hunger, her contradictions, her stretch marks. This isn’t a film about roundabout incest, but one about the impossibility of satisfaction even for the most privileged woman, one with a high-powered and socially engaged job, money to spare, and a mansion by the lake in a Scandinavian country.
Queen of Hearts focuses on Anne’s paradoxes: She’s a savior and a monster, a middle-aged mother and a horny teenager, unabashedly exposing the inconvenient pores that remain underneath even the most beautifully made-up Nordic skin. And the film is about skin, ultimately. In the way Anne and Gustav have raw sex and the marks on Anne’s stomach are filmed with purpose, sincerity, and no apology. The affair begins when Anne walks into Gustav’s bedroom and gives him a handjob without bothering to lock the door. This comes soon after he brought a girl his own age home and Anne had to sit in her living room, staring at her laptop and drinking a glass of wine, while listening to the teenagers having sex. By the time Anne goes to the lake with Gustav and one of her twin girls, and Anne decides to get in the water, we know the deal is done. “But you never swim,” says the girl. Water in Queen of Hearts bears the same prophetic sexual force that’s appeared in many films, queer or not, from F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise to Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake.
The affair isn’t about love, of course, or passion. It’s not even about the sex itself. The affair is a settling of accounts, a vampiric attempt to deny the passing of time, which, by virtue of having passed, feels like it’s been wasted. For Anne, the culprit is Peter, who becomes a cock-blocking nuisance. The film, a melodrama with a superb final shot that offers no closure, at times tries too hard to provide a cause for Anne’s passage à l’acte. When Gustav asks Anne who she lost her virginity to, she answers, “With someone it shouldn’t have been,” which makes it seem like the film is suggesting that predatorial behavior is a sort of damned inheritance. The Queen of Hearts is much more successful, and courageous, when it follows the logic of sexual yearning itself, not worrying about rational justifications.
The first few sequences of Alejandro Landes’s Monos evoke Claire Denis’s Beau Travail, except it isn’t only men training in the deserted landscape. A few young women join them, which, inevitably takes the narrative elsewhere, even if the films’ basic premises are similar. In Monos, teenage guerilla fighters are supposed to guard a foreign hostage, Doctora Sara Watson (Julianne Nicholson), and a conscripted cow named Shakira. Intrigue and sexual tension ensure that nothing goes according to plan. The only thing that never finds any respite is the flow of violence, which increasingly loses its metaphorical sheen, becoming gratuitous toward the end. What starts out like a social critique gains the aura of an unnecessarily grisly horror film, more about overtly visible chains than the allegorical slaughtering of cows by paramilitary children named Rambo, Lady, Bigfoot, and Smurf.
It turns out that queerness lives even in the faraway mountaintops of the Colombian jungle, as one of the guerilla girls makes two boys kiss at the start of the film, which brought a discrete discomfort to the screening room I was seated in. By the time Nicholson’s character shares a brief lesbian kiss with a reluctant fighter who’s supposed to watch over her, later in the film, queerness is no longer a conceptual surprise hinting at meaningful registers beyond the narrative’s surface, but a kind of desperate attempt to make the plot seem cryptic. Like The Cossacks, Landes’s film is also about the impossibility of maintaining complete control over one’s claim of masculinity, or power more generally. In moments of crisis, the line between predator and prey get very thin, and even the most well-armed warriors have a way of becoming disarmed, naked, and sentimental.
Yuriy Shylov’s Projectionist follows the frailty of all flesh, hawkish accessory in hand or not, through the portrayal of the end of a film projectionist’s 44-year tenure at one of Kiev’s oldest movie theaters. It’s an end that coincides with the crumbling of projectionist Valentin’s own coughing body, and that of his bedridden mother. It turns out that the movie theater, too, is reaching its expiration point. Soon, its doors will close and its employees will be fired, and there’s a sense throughout Shylov’s documentary that analog cinema will be dealt a major blow with the theater’s closure. What will become of the space? Perhaps a Reebok or a McDonald’s. Perhaps a derelict muse for a Nikolaus Geyrhalter portrait of decay.
“You think you’re loud, but in reality you can only hear yourself,” Valentin tells his mother at one point. Her futile yelling of her son’s name from her bed is one of the most haunting motifs in the film. An uttering for uttering’s sake, a demand without expectations of an actual response, a mantra to remind oneself that one is, for now, still alive. Valentin has installed a whistle next to the bed, which he would actually be able to hear when she called if only she’d use it. But the mother mostly refuses to blow in the pragmatic apparatus, instead finding solace in the calling that won’t be heard and, thus, will need to be repeated ad nauseam.
Projectionist can feel a bit aimless, but it’s a welcome reminder of how the materiality of film, and thus its finitude, has something in common with our own—a kinship of frailty that the flawlessness of the digital image erases. Analog is the only technology that Valentin knows, whether he’s sewing, as he’s seen doing in the film, fixing a neighbor’s straightening iron, or projecting old home videos on filthy kitchen tiles. There’s pleasure to be found, for Valentin, not just in the stories, concepts, and metaphors of cinema, but in the very stuff that supports his craft, the paraphernalia of cinema that’s bound to crack, to dry out, to turn to dust, to disappear forever: film stock, Movieolas, spools, and so forth. Cinema, we’re reminded, is necessarily a tool of exposure, not just of the human condition in the face of death, but the human condition as an always gendered affair. It’s a tool that’s never settled, never comfortable, and never forgotten. “Men are cowards, didn’t you know that?” is how Valentin puts it toward the end of Projectionist. In his world, one would know, by looking at the projector, at the very stuff of cinema, how much longer a film would last. The remainder of the film’s “life” is perfectly real, perfectly tangible, and alive because it’s in constant danger of being jammed up and torn by the very engine that ensured its running.
The Odessa International Film Festival runs from July 12—20.
Review: In Angels Are Made of Light, a Nation Rebuilds in the Ruins of War
The film is an intimate portrait of a nation terminally anxious about who will see fit to rule it next.2.5
Early in Angels Are Made of Light, a voice breaks through a sea of chatter in a classroom teeming with young boys: “I only know about the time since I was born. What’s history?” The child goes on to explain that history isn’t taught at the Daqiqi Balkhi high school in Kabul, Afghanistan. The question’s poignance is self-evident, particularly because the building itself appears to have been disturbed by the city’s recent trauma. The opening shot of James Longley’s first film since Iraq in Fragments captures splotches of sunlight entering through holes in the school’s exterior. Later, one of the building’s walls collapses, and the children relocate to a location supported by American funding.
Though it inevitably gestures toward American occupation, Angels Are Made of Light is rare in its nearly undivided attention to civilian life in a region fundamentally altered by the U.S.’s so-called war on terror. Much of the film is composed of footage Longley shot at Daqiqi Balkhi from 2011 to 2014, with a particular focus on three brothers: Rostam, Sohrab, and Yaldash. The trio speak in voiceover throughout, and seem to define themselves by their relative interest in work and studying. Sohrab excels in school and doesn’t see himself as fit for manual labor, while the older Rostam works closely with their father. Yaldash, the youngest, works at a tin shop and is anguished when his job interferes with his educational aspirations.
The documentary’s classroom scenes exude a tone of controlled chaos, shot mostly at eye level with the students as they struggle to hear and be heard over the din of their classmates. (This is particularly true at their school’s first location, where numerous classes are taught outside right next to one another.) The passage of time is marked by changes in seasons and the repetition of certain ceremonies, like a teacher appreciation day featuring musical performances by students. Concurrently, there’s a Malickian quality to the near-constant voiceover of the brothers, whose concerns veer from the quotidian (earning money for the family, achieving in school) to the philosophical. Though their voices are profound, their limited perspective yields lengthy stretches of repetitive, meandering sentiments that are inflated by John Erik Kaada’s sometimes intrusive score.
If the children aren’t taught about their country’s history as a site of hostile takeover by other countries, the Taliban, and groups of mujahideen, they have clearly internalized the trauma their homeland has endured. “Death is coming. Doomsday is coming. Everything is coming,” one says. All seem to agree that learning about computers (none of which are seen in the documentary) is the only sure ticket to an escape or a successful career.
As Angels Are Made of Light proceeds, its chorus of narrative voices expands, adding a number of teachers (including the boys’ mother) and another schoolboy who sells hot food at an open market. The teachers add flashes of historical context, which Longley plays over archival footage of Kabul and its ruling governments over the previous decades. Cuts between the city’s past and its present are stark: The contemporary skyline is pockmarked with absent buildings that have been replaced by makeshift structures, and the city’s center is now cluttered with billboards advertising mobile phones and alcohol produced in NATO countries. Eventually, Longley shows current political action in the streets, as mujahideen gather to flog themselves in public, other groups march for democracy, and all focus their attention on 2014 presidential election where Hamid Karzai democratically transfers power to his successor, Ashraf Ghani, as rumors swirl about the Americans’ sway over the vote.
Longley’s decision to avoid addressing Afghani politics until the latter half of his film is sound, perhaps a signal that his young characters are becoming more attuned to the corruption that pervades daily operations in their city, but Angels Are Made of Light lacks the sort of structural framework that can properly sustain its lack of plot and rather confusing array of editorialists speaking in voiceover. The closest the film comes to a guiding focus is the recurring image of a large, ghostly white blimp that looms over Kabul, a blot of menace as children and other citizens look to the sky in hope or prayer. Presumably an observational surveillance craft, the blimp is an ironic mirror of the documentarian’s predicament—a totem that reminds everyone who sees it of the West’s influence on their lives. Longley is aware that his camera serves a similar function, and it’s admirable that he’s able to achieve an intimate portrait of a nation terminally anxious about who will see fit to rule it next.
Director: James Longley Distributor: Grasshopper Film Running Time: 117 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
Review: Mike Wallace Is Here Honors a Legend by Arguing with Him
Much like its subject, Avi Belkin’s documentary knows how to start an argument.3
Much like its subject, Mike Wallace Is Here knows how to start an argument. Avi Belkin’s archival documentary begins with the legendary broadcaster (who died in 2012) interviewing Bill O’Reilly at the peak of the latter’s influence as a Fox News blowhard. “That is not an interview, that’s a lecture,” Wallace moans before O’Reilly calls him a “dinosaur” and then really twists the knife: “You’re the driving force behind my career,” he tells Wallace. The exchange is riveting and, in some ways, inscrutable, as both of these TV personalities are so skilled at performance it can seem impossible to know if their dialogue is in earnest or some knowing fight among titans happy to march into battle.
Though it’s almost certainly fair to say that Wallace set the stage for an era of ostentatious and increasingly dangerous “personality journalism,” the breadth and quality of Wallace’s work is rich enough to lend some tension to Belkin’s exploration of the reporter as celebrity. Assembled with a propulsive momentum from dozens of televised interviews of and by Wallace, Mike Wallace Is Here portrays its subject as a self-made man, or, as his colleague Morley Safer calls him, “an invention.” Born Myron Wallace, he adopted his broadcast name while working as a performer on radio and then television, a decision made with no shortage of anxiety due to Wallace’s self-consciousness about his acne scars from childhood.
Ironically, Wallace’s breakthrough as a broadcaster (after a series of acting and promotional gigs) came with a show that revolutionized the television interview through its intense lighting and use of invasive closeups. Clips from his show Night-Beat—the first of two Wallace-led interview programs sponsored by cigarette companies and cloaked in smoke—reveal that the media personality was already aware of the showmanship innate in his brand of journalism. He introduces the show by saying “My role is that of a reporter,” and hones his skill for unsettling his guests with obnoxious editorial comments before asking questions. (“Many people hated your husband, and you,” he once said to Eleanor Roosevelt.)
Belkin weaves Wallace’s personal story into the documentary’s parade of interviews in a manner that’s unsurprisingly superficial, glossing over his many marriages, the death of his 19-year-old son, Peter, in a mountain-climbing accident in Greece in 1962 (Wallace cites the tragedy as a pivotal moment in the creation of 60 Minutes and the revival of his career), and a suicide attempt circa 1986. In interviews where Wallace is the subject—with the likes of Barbara Walters and other 60 Minutes colleagues—he’s alternately open and evasive about these flashpoints in his life, often demonstrating the very behavior he has no patience for as an interviewer. Belkin shrewdly reveals Wallace’s hypocrisy through editing, cutting to, for instance, a clip of Wallace grilling Larry King about his string of failed marriages.
Mike Wallace Is Here only suffers in its treatment of the broadcaster’s time at 60 Minutes, dispensing with cleverly edited commentary in favor of a swift survey of the major news of the second half of the 20th century. These include necessary digressions, such as General William C. Westmoreland’s libel suit against a CBS Reports special that Wallace anchored accusing the Army general of falsifying the American military’s analysis of the strength of the Vietnamese army in order to keep the war in Vietnam going, and the tumultuous process of televising Wallace’s interview with the tobacco industry whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand (the subject of Michael Mann’s The Insider). But this extensive highlight reel seems to forget that the documentary is scrutinizing Wallace as it’s celebrating him.
At its nerviest, Mike Wallace Is Here uses the words of other celebrities to psychoanalyze Wallace. The film argues (and at times Wallace acknowledges) that his success is a product of his sense of shame, first about the way that he looked and then about the way that he behaved, loved, and parented. When Wallace is coy, Belkin effectively imagines a more honest response by cutting to someone else saying what he believes is true. After showing Wallace dancing around his lack of pride for a while, he cuts to Barbara Streisand talking about how “fear is the energy toward doing your best work.” In the very same interview, she calls Wallace “a son of a bitch,” and Mike Wallace Is Here is at its best when it seems to be in direct debate with this journalistic legend. The film honors Wallace best when it seems to be arguing with him.
Director: Avi Belkin Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 94 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Japan Cuts 2019: Demolition Girl, And Your Bird Can Sing, & Being Natural
Japan Cuts has established itself as the definitive Japanese film festival in the United States, thanks to the scope of its programming.
Japan Cuts has established itself as the definitive Japanese film festival in the United States, thanks to the scope of its programming. The 2019 edition is no exception, with over 30 events over 10 days, among them talks, screenings, and Q&A sessions with filmmakers as diverse as Macoto Tezka (The Legend of the Stardust Brothers) and Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo: The Iron Man), the latter of whom is this year’s recipient of the festival’s Cut Above award, which is given to a defining figure of Japan’s cinema, and will be awarded before the East Coast premiere of his latest film, the samurai action-drama Killing.
Lest you think Japan Cuts is only a showcase for genre exercises, the festival abounds in works that explore the struggles that erupt from the Japanese capitalist system, and are felt in different ways across generations. Demolition Girl, Genta Matsugami’s feature debut, is among the strongest of recent films to bluntly speak about class difference. It follows 17-year-old Cocoa (Aya Kitai), who, in the wake of her mother’s death, has decided to forgo a university education and get a job. But as her shifts at a local amusement park only pay so much, she starts to perform in adult fetish videos that see her stomping on cans, trash, and balloons.
At his best, the film taps into the heightened experience of the poorest of the people living on the edge. For one, whenever Cocoa’s father (Yota Kawase) has some money on hand, he yearns for instant satisfaction, spending it on expensive sushi. As for Cocoa, who’s isolation is emphasized through shots that see her alone in corridors, or studying late at night in her room, it’s almost as if she’s destined to fail. And, indeed, when her school finds out about the adult videos she’s been making, and just as she was beginning to realize her promise of going to a Tokyo university, her life falls apart. When confronted by friends about why she made the videos, all she can do is yell at them: “You wouldn’t understand, you’re rich, you wouldn’t know. Will you pay for my expenses?” In this moment, Kitai’s triumph is making her character’s wail against a cruel economic system feel as if it could be our own.
And Your Bird Can Sing, directed by Sho Miyake, is focused on two late-twentysomething slackers: the unnamed protagonist (Tasuku Emoto) and his roommate, Shizo (Himizu and Parasyte star Shōta Sometani). Both work crappy jobs, and they try to stay sane through copious amounts of drinking and pointed mockery of the economically fraught lot they’ve been handed in life. The protagonist’s attitude could be summed up by one early sequence, when he meets a co-worker and convinces her to go on a date, only to later miss the date, fall asleep, wake up, and decide to spend his night drinking with Shizo.
A love triangle between the roomies and one of the protagonist’s co-workers, Sachiko (Shizuka Ishibashi), brings some solace to the men’s lives. There’s redundancy to the way that Miyake frames these characters, showing their faces up close rather than the screens they peer at as they text each other, but his wide shots speak to how they all work to fill empty spaces. Miyake’s style is relaxed, almost as if his camera has absorbed everyone’s slacker vibes. Especially of note is a sequence that lingers at length on Sachiko paying for groceries while the two men in her life try to hold their laughter, saying to each other that she’s going to regret her purchase. Miyake’s gaze is empathetic, and there’s truth in his understanding that you have to sometimes laugh at your underprivilege in order to prevent yourself from screaming.
More tonally varied, and operating on a larger scale, director Tadashi Nagayama’s satirical Being Natural broaches the subject of gentrification as it immerses viewers in the daily routines of a middle-aged man, Taka (Yota Kawase), who lives in a small town in the countryside of Japan and works with his cousin, Mitsuaki (Shoichiro Tanigawa), and their friend, Sho (Tadahiro Tsuru), at a fishpond inherited from his deceased uncle. Everything starts to derail for the three men when a family arrives on the scene from Tokyo with the hopes of opening up an old-style café that will only sell natural and locally grown products. At the start of the film, the still-grieving Taka doesn’t fully understand what he has until someone tries to take it away from him, and by the end, a spectacular show of violence will see him finally realizing the nature of the economic system he’s trapped within.
The film’s style is initially sweet and mellow, with the softest of songs dotting the soundtrack. Taka plays bongos, and the sounds of the instrument are also heard throughout. At first, this sound creates a calm atmosphere that’s in sync with the bright cinematography. But as the film introduces a series of sinister twists, those bongos come to take on an almost murderous bent. The sounds of the instrument point to the encroachment of a capitalist economy on a place relatively untouched by it. In its final minutes, Being Natural takes a turn toward the supernatural, and it’s satisfying for giving the main characters the reprisal they want, but also poignant for the way it has us understand that it only occurs in the realm of fantasy. The film, in the end, acknowledges that it’s difficult to go against the system, and that to stay sane means finding a little pocket of happiness in the world and enjoying it while it lasts.
Japan Cuts runs from July 19—28.
Review: David Crosby: Remember My Name Sees a Legend Carrying On
The film captures a man haunted by his past mistakes and nearly certain that he doesn’t have the time left to begin making up for them.2.5
One gets the sense when hearing David Cosby perform that, like many naturally gifted vocalists, he was born to express himself through song, and given his tumultuous personal and professional life, the act of singing may be the only means through which Crosby can briefly maintain an equilibrium amid so much chaos. Womanizing, drug abuse, and band breakups are certainly par for the course for countless musicians, especially those who came up in the late 1960s, but Crosby is an extreme case even by those standards. It’s difficult to think of another living musician more strongly and uniformly despised by his former bandmates and collaborators and, aside from Keith Richards, another whose continued survival is more shocking in light of what he’s put his body through.
Aided by Cameron Crowe, who, as a Rolling Stone writer, interviewed Crosby various times and is on hand here to again pick the musician’s brain, A.J. Eaton’s David Crosby: Remember My Name opens with a fairly standard music-doc overview that traces Crosby’s productive early years with the Byrds and his ascent to fame with both iterations of Crosby, Stills & Nash. There’s no effort made to hide Crosby’s thorny personality or the chaos he brought to each of these early projects, but Eaton and Crowe seem initially content to butter Crosby up, joining him in waxing rhapsodic about his widespread influence and lasting importance as a musician.
The hagiographic tone slowly fades as the film moves past the perfunctory career retrospective and begins delving into the nitty-gritty details of Crosby’s bumpy road to stardom and his rapid descent into disgrace, spurred on by his decades-long battle with drug addiction. While Crosby often proves a tough nut to crack, rarely willing to linger too long on the painful moments of a life eventful enough to fill several documentaries, Crowe and Eaton eventually disarm him enough to tap into the frustrated, damaged, and regretful man hiding all those years beneath his patented walrus mustache and wispy, long hair. As Crosby discusses the petulance and rage he often unfairly directed at fellow bandmates and his mistreatment of many of his girlfriends, several of whom he got hooked on cocaine and heroin, one can sense not only the depth of his remorse and anguish, but also the resigned helplessness that little can be done in his twilight years to repair the many bridges he’s permanently scorched.
Throughout Remember My Name, archival interviews with Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, and Neil Young make it abundantly clear that Crosby has alienated each of his former bandmates to such a degree that none of them will talk to him again. Only former Byrds frontman Roger McGuinn appears in a newly recorded interview for the film, and he does so presumably only to describe how “insufferable” Crosby was as a fellow bandmate.
At nearly 80 years old, Crosby is happily married and in the midst of a creative resurgence with a string of acclaimed solo albums, but even these small joys are mitigated by his admission that he’s only touring, and thus often away from his wife, because he needs the money. During a leisurely drive with Crowe, Crosby visits his old stomping grounds in Laurel Canyon and the Sunset Strip and recounts those halcyon days when he lived with Joni Mitchell and sang his first song with Nash and Stills. But the magic of these locales has long since faded, leaving Crosby in an uncharacteristically introspective state and all too aware of how close he is to the end of his life. As he wistfully tells Crowe that he already has eight stents in his heart and will likely die in the next couple of years, the film captures a man haunted by his past mistakes and nearly certain that he doesn’t have the time left to begin making up for them.
Director: A.J. Eaton Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 95 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Cassandro, the Exotico! Shoulders the Strange Burden of Empathy
Marie Losier’s empathy, if not love, for Cassandro hinders her from examining his wounds with much depth.2.5
Queerness isn’t just about the relationship between bodies: the ones we desire, the ones that will never desire us back, the ones we wished we possessed. It’s also very much a matter of cloth, color, and adornment. Many a pop-cultural figure has manifested this queer sartorial drama, from Liberace to David Bowie, from Leigh Bowery to early Lady Gaga, from Pepper LaBeija to Shangela Laquifa Wadley. And with her new documentary, Cassandro, the Exotico!, Marie Losier introduces us to a lesser-known, yet just as subversive, purveyor of that drama: Mexican luchador Cassandro, a Universal Wrestling Association winner and former junkie with a penchant for gaudy garments.
Ridiculous stage wear is, of course, fundamentally associated with professional wrestling, but Cassandro’s textile-informed camp isn’t compensated by violent machismo or a heterosexist mise-en-scène. Instead, this exótico is unapologetic about the seamless kinship between his queerness and that of the clothes he wears. And the continuum between queer sexuality and fashion places him simultaneously as the exceptional gay figure in a supposedly macho sport, the Mexican lucha libre, and as the element that outs wrestling writ large as an already queer affair. Cassandro, né Saúl Armendáriz, is, then, a ready-made cinematic character, bearing the contradictions of his world from the inside—a world where, much like ours, heterosexual male violence is performed through patently homoerotic means.
Although skin, bones, and fabric are all—to various degrees of visible and invisible discomfort—stitched into the gendered body, the film is precisely concerned with the moment when these connections come apart at the seams. After decades of fighting for a living, Cassandro’s body is giving out. This is a moment of desperation for someone who turned to wrestling as something between religion and therapy. We see him literally hanging his flamboyant costumes to dry on a clotheslines as he speaks about retirement, about how quitting would appease his body but demolish his ego. As the film progresses, his dislocated chin, limited hand movements, and multiple head concussions will seem like the belated embodiment, if not the psychosomatic scream, of a childhood marked by molestation and sexual abuse. A history of spectacular violence catching up to years of a much less visible brutality.
Cassandro, the Exotico! is largely observational, with occasional interventions from Losier. It wouldn’t be fair to call the film hagiographic, but the director’s empathy, if not love, for her subject hinders her from examining Cassandro’s wounds with much depth. When faced with Cassandro’s misery, Losier’s response is to console him as if wanting to change the subject. She cuts one moment of candidness short, when Cassandro is addressing his fears via Skype, by telling him, “I wish I could give you a kiss.” It would have served the documentary better had Losier granted her subject the possibility to work through his pain in front of the camera.
Visually, the documentary, which is shot on 16mm film stock, recalls canonical diaristic works that expose people’s troublesome feelings in raw and unbridled fashion (think Jonas Mekas, Sadie Benning, and Su Friedrich). Which makes the juxtaposition of Losier’s visual language and her reluctance to examine Cassandro’s frailties feel particularly displeasing. Perhaps afraid that scrutiny would shatter Cassandro, Losier fails to realize that it’s precisely through such shattering that redemption can emerge, maybe even reparation.
Director: Marie Losier Screenwriter: Marie Losier, Antoine Barraud Distributor: Film Movement Running Time: 73 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
Interview: Marc Maron on Sword of Truth, WTF, and the Possibility of Change
Maron discusses modern media discourse, the communicative bridge linking his acting with his podcast, and how he likes to be directed.
Marc Maron is presently enjoying one of the most unlikely and inspiring success stories in Hollywood. Once known as a bitter “comic’s comic” who was eclipsed in success by contemporaries such as Louis C.K. and Jon Stewart, Maron has been reborn into a poster boy for empathy, starting with his blockbuster podcast, “WTF,” and continuing with roles in the hit television series Maron, Easy, and GLOW. With each role, Maron has rapidly evolved from a “comic who acts” into a first-rate character actor capable of subtly altering his charisma to fit a variety of oddballs who, like himself, struggle with self-doubt while attempting to walk a straight and sober path.
Now, with Sword of Truth, Maron makes his debut as a cinematic lead, playing Mel, a pawnshop owner who ends up on a road trip that stirs long-festering feelings of estrangement, which parallels the forms of isolation gripping a variety of other characters, and which the film’s director, Lynn Shelton, links to the reactionary myths and politics currently gripping this country. The role marks another career high point for Maron, who talked to me last week about the communicative bridge linking his acting with his podcast, how he likes to be directed, and the “mind-fuckery” currently gripping modern media discourse.
Given that you’ve previously worked with Lynn Shelton on Maron and GLOW, did you two have a kind of collaborative shorthand going into Sword of Trust?
Well, I’m generally filled with anxiety and resistance. I don’t know if there’s a shorthand, but Lynn knows how to get the best out of me and works with me pretty well. I like directors who’re hands on with me and guide me.
Do you like to receive a lot of explicit direction, or is your process more intuitive?
Well, I do what I do. I definitely welcome suggestions, because I’m certainly not going to think of all the possibilities of a scene. Most of my choices are not necessarily correct. I usually come in pretty intense and hot, and there’s subtleties that can be coaxed out with minor tweaks. And I like working like that. I wouldn’t have the confidence to assume that my take is the “right” one necessarily.
There’s a stillness to you in Sword of Trust that I’m not sure we’ve seen before.
Your weight as a performer is really felt here, especially in that scene when Mel first see Lynn’s character in his shop. I love how you enter the room from the closet, and how one can feel the emotion bubbling up in Mel.
Thanks, man. I think this is a heavy-hearted guy who’s sort of surrendered to his lot in life. He also has a certain amount invested in his own. I don’t know if it’s heartache, but he’s definitely a broken dude who’s making the best of whatever time he has left. I don’t know if the other characters are really like that. They are always in forward motion.
You also inform Mel’s appraising of objects with all these lovely emotional textures. He’s not only talking about a sword.
The guitar too. As I act more, I try to take some of the space that you’re talking about. With acting I feel that I’ve been learning on the job in a way, and over time I’ve started to explore different possibilities with owning whatever my space is, whether it’s a movie or on stage. Certainly, over decades of doing stand-up, I’ve figured out my space on a stage, but being on a set and pacing yourself and taking the time to engage with what’s around you I think makes a lot of difference in how a performance comes off. It’s about being present in an environment.
Has your ascending acting career changed how you relate to actors on your podcast?
Over the last few years, since I’ve started acting more, I’ve had more actors on. I tend to try to pull a nice acting class out of that. I think a lot of what my guests say makes sense. Once again, a lot of acting is about listening and being present. In another time in my life, I saw certain actors as mythic. Now that I’ve talked to so many of them, I’ve started to realize, not in a disappointing way, that…what’s the word I want? That these are people doing a job, all in their own way. Once you get upset with people, you realize, “Well, that’s how they’re approaching this job,” and when you get into the ring or the scene, you’re in it.
That inside knowledge gives “WTF” an edge too. For many interviewers, like myself, art-making is basically theory. But you have your feet on the ground so to speak.
I think that happens over time. I don’t think I ever set out to interview. I’ve framed what happens on my podcast as conversations, and they either go somewhere or they don’t. There’s a few points I may get hung up on, and there are places I go to fairly regularly in interviews, but I generally don’t see these conversations as question-and-answer situations. I don’t have any expectations really other than to feel a connection or to sort of be enlightened. I think those of you who have a job to interview, for an outlet, for the content and the word count and everything else, might have more restrictions. I don’t have to answer to anybody and I don’t know what I’m looking for half the time.
Yeah, and a challenge I’ve found with interviews is that one doesn’t always entirely know what is and isn’t in bounds, which can lead to an impersonal vibe. By contrast, your podcast has such an intimate layer throughout.
You have to feel that stuff out, you know I’m not necessarily intuitive about that. I’m not really in the business of sandbagging anybody.
Usually you get somebody comfortable and things come out. If people are comfortable and engaged it doesn’t really matter what they’re talking about. Audiences will say, “Oh, wow, I didn’t know that.” These conversations don’t require information, but an emotional connection. I’m so happy about that, especially considering the never-ending torrent of garbage that we have to move through every day.
I think about politics. Politics online are rarely civil, but when you get someone in person, and start slowly, and are willing to have a conversation, you can normally get farther than you might expect.
Online culture isn’t civil and there’s a momentum to everything that’s based on mind-fuckery. I know for myself—as somebody who was relatively disinterested and uninformed about the functions of government and why politics and leadership make a difference—that people are perfectly willing to volunteer their brains to these strange flashpoint reactors that trigger them emotionally. People live by these black-and-white decisions. It’s not good. We need to consider what we really know and how we know it and what we’re telling other people.
People are so empowered by garbage information that’s being related in a relatively shallow way, which doesn’t take into consideration the influence and context of the rest of our lives. It’s sort of a disaster. I try to stay away from that stuff in terms of the conversations that I’m having. I’m trying to deal with something more human and experiential. Most people are regurgitating talking points on both sides without thinking of how someone feels and how to affect change. I got an interview with Geena Davis [who stars in the new season of GLOW] coming up, about her work with her foundation and her work in this documentary about women in show business. It’s called This Changes Everything. I tell you man, when someone’s that personally invested in something they believe in, and it’s righteous, and they lay it out for you and it makes sense, that’s what heartens my belief in this possibility for change.
To change gears a bit, is it cathartic for you, as someone who’s long been in recovery, to play characters who’re either reformed or have drug issues?
Yeah, sure. Most obviously there’s the last season of Maron, where my character has a relapse, which frankly didn’t happen in real life. When you really understand the nature of addiction, and you’ve seen it from the inside, and know the powerlessness and the struggle to live a life that’s not in the throes of it—I mean, it’s such a common struggle. And what’s amazing to me is how many people don’t find a way out of that or don’t seek help. Or are ashamed of it or don’t know how to get the help. I never set out to do this, but I’m thrilled and humbled by the effect my work has on people who’re isolated by this sickness. It’s really one of the more satisfying results of the podcast: how much mail I get from people who’re struggling and who want advice, or who feel less alone from what I’ve said. The great thing about recovery, and about playing these parts, is that it gives you a context that’s very specific—a way to legitimately help people that can change their entire lives.
American Demons: Martin Bell’s Streetwise and Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell
Bell proves uncannily adept at capturing moments that seem to encapsulate a subject’s entire emotional temperature.
Decades after its original release, Martin Bell’s Streetwise remains a boldly empathetic work of vérité portraiture. Throughout the 1984 documentary, Bell, photographer Mary Ellen Mark, and journalist Cheryl McCall follow a motley group of kids on the streets of Seattle as they panhandle, dig food out of dumpsters, and prostitute themselves to much older men. These scenes are accompanied by voiceovers from the young subjects, who describe their actions with a heartbreaking casualness that communicates two almost contradictory meanings: that they’re seasoned hustlers, having bypassed childhood for an everyday form of hell, and that they’re desperate to be seen precisely as said hustlers. To show emotion is to be vulnerable, and these subjects can’t afford to be seen as weak, yet the filmmakers capture more here than the street children may have suspected. Streetwise is charged by a deep, subterranean yearning to be loved, or even merely felt.
A plot hasn’t been imposed on Streetwise, as the audience is allowed to feel the numbing monotony of life on the fringes. People swing in and out of prison, crash in and out of secret hovels, most notably an abandoned hotel, and practice their grifts, while struggling with overlapping tides of addiction and depression. We also learn, startlingly, that not all these children are homeless. Streetwise’s most famous subject, Erin Blackwell, a.k.a. “Tiny,” lives with her mother, a waitress and alcoholic who rationalizes her daughter’s prostitution as a phase and who seems to be impressed with Erin’s ability to make a few hundred dollars on a good day. It’s little wonder that Erin captured and continued to command the filmmakers’ attention for decades after filming Streetwise ended. She has a squinty yet expressive glare that suggests both a deep reservoir of pain as well as intense fierceness.
Bell, Mark, and McCall take Erin and her cohorts, most vividly a skinny boy with potential tonsillitis named DeWayne Pomeroy, at face value. Streetwise is pointedly devoid of the sermonizing that might allow audiences to comfortably distance themselves from these people, regarding them simply as elements of a civics lesson. The film forces us to confront the obviousness of these children’s circumstances, as people walk by them just as we all walk by the homeless on a daily basis. This sense of culpability informs Streetwise with an uncomfortable texture that’s familiar to documentaries concerned with poor or mentally and emotionally challenged people, so you may wonder how the filmmakers shot what we’re seeing without stepping in and helping these people. Particularly disturbing is when Erin, 13 years old at the start of filming, is seen getting into a car with an old man who’s obviously a john.
If Streetwise was just a portrait of damnation and delusion, it would be an important document. But the film is also haunting for Bell, Mark, and McCall’s attention to the transcendence than can be felt even in such extreme circumstances. After Erin has gotten into trouble, DeWayne tells her of how he will rescue her, and his attempt at gallantry is poignant as well as devastating. When DeWayne visits his father in prison, the old man lectures the boy about keeping his smoking down and laying off the hard drugs, commanding DeWayne to roll up his shirt sleeves for a track-mark inspection. As brutally sad as this confrontation is, one feels this father’s love and wonders if DeWayne, clearly a sensitive and lonely boy, can feel it too. Retrospectively, it hardly matters: DeWayne hung himself not long after this visit.
Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell, a 2016 sequel to Streetwise that’s been in the works for thirtysomething years, offers a variety of unmooring contrasts from its predecessor. Erin is no longer the slim spitfire of Streetwise, but an overweight fortysomething mother of 10 who understandably appears to always be on the verge of exhaustion, and who takes methadone in an attempt to keep her drug addictions at bay while wrangling with her children’s own skirmishes with the law. Looking at Erin now, one sees the scars and weariness left by a hard life, part of which was documented by Streetwise, and one can implicitly feel Erin’s need for atonement. Though Erin’s gotten off the streets, living in a large home with her partner, Will, and several of her children, the streets have never left her.
Formally, Tiny is much different from Streetwise. The 1984 film abounds in seamy noises and textures, with roving camerawork that seems to be uncovering a new lurid discovery every few seconds; it feels palpably dangerous, and probably inspired films such as Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho and Larry’s Clark’s Kids. Set predominantly in Erin’s home, Tiny is slower and more polished, reflecting the (comparative) stability that Erin has achieved since appearing in Streetwise. Tiny also has a fancier structure than Streetwise, with a framing device in which Erin watches footage of herself over the years, including unused outtakes from the first film, with Mary Ellen Mark. An autumnal tone seeps into the new film, which offers a kaleidoscopic portrait of the unending legacies of crime and addiction.
As in Streetwise, Bell proves uncannily adept at capturing moments that seem to encapsulate a subject’s entire emotional temperature. There are frequent shots in Tiny of Erin sleeping with a little dog close to her face, which suggest rare moments of repose for a woman who’s used to running her chaotic family like a hostage negotiator. Erin frequently calls the cops on her own children, especially the headstrong teenager Rayshon, which Bell unforgettably rhymes with footage of a younger Erin visiting two of her children in foster care. One of the foster care children, Keanna, is now a mother herself, and resents Erin for abandoning her and for continuing to struggle with drug use.
Which is to say that Tiny is as charged with turmoil as Streetwise, and Bell proves equally capable here of rendering full relationships with only a few images or seconds of running time. As in Streetwise, our sympathies are rarely overtly directed, as Tiny is somehow on every character’s contradictory wavelength at once, illustrating how difficult understanding can be to achieve, most notably in the face of disaster. Though it runs a trim 87 minutes, Tiny offers an epic and piercing portrait of a large biracial family that’s plagued by essentially every demon known to American society. Erin escaped the streets only to fashion a home that’s rife with the very issues that drove her away from her own mother. Like most people, regardless of social stature, Erin is stuck in the temporal loop of her own inherent nature.
Review: Radu Jude’s I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians
Jude’s film is a bitterly comic essay on nationalist mythologies and historical amnesia.3.5
Prime minister of Romania during most of World War II, Ion Antonescu is one of the era’s supreme villains: a virulent anti-Semite, Nazi collaborator, and authoritarian dictator whose troops murdered Jews with such velocity and enthusiasm that even Hitler was shocked by their actions. Upon ordering the forced expulsion—and, if necessary, genocide—of the Jews of Bessarabia and Bukovina, Antonescu proclaimed, “I do not care if we go down in history as Barbarians.” Radu Jude borrows that declaration, so haunting in its cruelty and disarming in its blitheness, for the title of his latest film, a bitterly comic essay on nationalist mythologies and historical amnesia that locates the seeds of Romania’s currently resurgent ethno-nationalism in the nation’s collective failure to truly confront its own past.
For while Antonescu was convicted of war crimes and sentenced to death by firing squad shortly after the war, there have been repeated attempts to rehabilitate his image in Romania since the fall of Nicolae Ceaușescu. Take Sergiu Nicolaescu’s 1994 film The Mirror, a hagiographic treatment of Antonescu’s rule that portrays the leader as a defiant protector of his people. Jude inserts a substantial clip of that film into I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians, having it play on a small TV set positioned in the exact center of the frame as we hear the off-screen voice of Jude’s protagonist, Mariana (Ioana Iacob), providing sardonic, outraged commentary on the film’s distorted presentation of Antonescu as a misunderstood hero. There’s an element of desperation in the scene: While Mariana offers an incontestable rebuttal, no one but her boyfriend (Alex Bogdan) is there to hear it. Meanwhile, The Mirror’s comforting nationalist lies are being beamed into homes all across Romania.
A headstrong theater director attempting to stage a public reenactment of the Odessa Massacre of 1941, in which Romanian troops slaughtered thousands of Ukrainian Jews, Mariana is obsessed with bringing the full weight of historical reality to her fellow countrymen. She obsessively reads histories of the period and drops quotations from philosophers and historical figures into everyday conversation. The film is consumed by lengthy, probing conversations—mostly shot by a statically mounted 16mm camera that pans back and forth to cover the actors’ movements—in which Mariana discusses art, philosophy, history, and politics with her various collaborators and friends.
Her most persistent interlocutor is Movilă (Alexandru Dabija), a local official tasked with overseeing the publicly funded production, who constantly pleads with Mariana to tone down her work’s unvarnished depiction of anti-Semitic violence. Movilă is a relativist, content in the knowledge that all memory is willfully selective, while Mariana truly believes in the power of stark historical truth. Though at times didactic and overloaded with quotations from the likes of Wittgenstein and Arendt, Jude’s dialogue nevertheless manages to feel remarkably naturalistic. That’s thanks in no small part to the powerfully unaffected performances of a cast that finds the subtle humor and neurotic character details embedded in Jude’s dense screenplay. Iacob captures Mariana’s unrelenting passion while also finding moments of vulnerability and self-doubt in the role, including moments of hesitation and anxiety borne of the fact that she’s a petite, cosmopolitan woman attempting to exert control over a large cast of rugged men, many of whom are diametrically opposed to the vision of her project.
Jude’s heavy themes are leavened by a self-effacing sense of modesty. Jude isn’t attempting to make grand pronouncements about the nature of memory and truth. Rather, I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians finds the director constantly interrogating his own perspective, questioning Mariana’s relationship to the wider public. That theme comes to a head in the film’s climactic presentation of the artist’s reenactment. Here, Jude switches from the warm dreaminess of 16mm to the harsh hyper-realism of digital video. The scene has the feel of a simple documentation of a live public event, but it isn’t clear that it’s actually any more “real” than the rest of the film. In particular, whether and to what extent the crowd of onlookers’ reactions are coached remains one of the film’s most intriguing enigmas.
Ultimately, Mariana finds herself perplexed and deflated by the public’s response to her work. One senses this reaction may be autobiographical for Jude, whose film Aferim! attempted to challenge Romanian audiences about the nation’s historical treatment of Roma people. As one of the few directors of the so-called Romanian New Wave whose work explores the country’s unsavory pre-Soviet past, Jude is swimming against the popular tide of revisionism and historical moral blindness. The anti-Semitic violence and hatred laid out in his latest is truly chilling, as is the contemporary tendency to diminish and obscure that dark past. But perhaps most disturbing of all is the idea put forth in the film’s conclusion: that one could present the truth to the public in all its brutality and horror, and it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.
Cast: Ioana Iacob, Alexandru Dabija, Alex Bogdan, Ilinca Manolache, Serban Pavlu, Ion Rizea, Claudia Ieremia Director: Radu Jude Screenwriter: Radu Jude Distributor: Big World Pictures Running Time: 140 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
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