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Understanding Screenwriting #49: I Am Love, Winter’s Bone, This Is Korea!, Hot in Cleveland, & More



Understanding Screenwriting #49: I Am Love, Winter’s Bone, This Is Korea!, Hot in Cleveland, & More

Coming up in this column: I Am Love, Winter’s Bone, Video Slut: How I Shoved Madonna off an Olympic High Dive, Got Prince into a Pair of Tiny Purple Woolen Underpants, Ran Away from Michael Jackson’s Dad, and Got a Waterfall to Flow Backwards so I Could Bring Rock Videos to the Masses (book), This Is Korea!, The Desert Rats, Hot in Cleveland, Some Summer 2010 Television, but first…

Fan mail: If you read #48 right after its posting, you may have missed an interesting comment on it from Ed Sikov. He’s the author of On Sunset Boulevard, the great Billy Wilder biography I mentioned in the item on Stalag 17. I said in the column that Sikov had not told us what Wilder thought of the TV series Hogan’s Heroes, which bore a more than passing resemblance to Wilder’s film. Sikov commented that he did not include that because he never got to interview Wilder for the book. His description in his comments of meeting Wilder later is worth going back and looking at.

I suppose I picked up while reading his book that he had not interviewed Wilder (he mentions it in the Preface), but I had forgotten it in the twelve years since his book came out. His book is so good and so thoroughly researched that it does not make any difference. This goes to a point I have made about this column before: there are a lot of ways to understand screenwriting. You will notice sometimes I have quotes from the writers. Sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I discuss producers’ contributions, both good and bad, to screenplays. Sometimes I will discuss studios and networks and their part in the collaborative process. What I try to do in the column, and what Sikov does brilliantly in his book, is gather as great a variety of information as we can and organize it in ways that will educate and entertain readers. If you have any interest in Wilder, you probably have already read Sikov’s book. If you haven’t read it, it really is required reading.

I Am Love (2009. Screenplay by Luca Guadagnino & Barbara Alberti & Ivan Cotroneo & Walter Fasano, story by Luca Guadagnino. 120 minutes.)

I Am Love

Letters to Juliet goes to the art house: A serious, sweeping, romantic story set in Italy with one of our finest actresses in a part developed specifically for and with her. What could possibly go wrong? A lot, it turns out.

Guadagnino, who also directs, has worked with Tilda Swinton before on two films, and they have been talking about this one for several years. According to Peter Debruge’s article on the film in the May/June issue of Creative Screenwriting, Guadagnino came up with the original story, then worked with Alberti to fill in the details. Then Guadagnino had Cotroneo cut down the overlong script Guadagnino and Alberti had written. Guadagnino felt Cotroneo’s draft “lost complexity and pace,” so he worked with Fasano on another draft. They have all certainly created a star vehicle for Swinton, and she gives it everything she’s got. What got lost along the way was a lot of material on, for example, the problems of the Recchi family, which was influenced by Guadagnino’s love of Thomas Mann’s novel Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family. What the writers ended up doing (and there were rewrites up through the production) was dropping everything else needed to make the film work as anything other than a vehicle.

I liked the opening shots of the film. If you know the film is set in Italy, you are expecting warmth and sun, but what we get are shots of Milan in the dead of winter, covered in snow. Who knew they had snow in Italy? Well, what other Italian films have you seen that had a lot of snow? Then we get a family dinner with the Recchis, who own a large textile business. It is Christmastime, but it is also the birthday of the grandfather, who is announcing he is turning over the business to his son and grandson. Because of the cuts in the script, we don’t really get to know the family members here, or get much beyond the change of the family business. Compare it to the opening half hour of The Godfather (1972) in which we get to know a lot of people and are introduced to a lot of plot lines. Or, more recently, the opening sequence in Summer Hours (2008, See US #27), where we get hints of the characters that are later developed. The other characters in I Am Love, especially the other family members, are generally not developed. I have written on many occasions about the importance of establishing characters and situations, and we will see in this film how not doing well in this opening scene—and elsewhere—hurts the film.

So we get sort of introduced to the family, but then we do not get any forward movement until 26 minutes into the film. (That is exactly when screenwriting guru Syd Field says the first plot point should come. I cannot imagine the four writers here read Field, but you never know.) The plot point here is a relatively small one: Emma (Swinton), the wife and mother, discovers her daughter, Elisabetta, is gay. And doesn’t have much of a reaction to it. Compare the lack of reaction to the Suarez family’s set of reactions to Justin coming out in the last episodes of Ugly Betty.

An hour into the two-hour movie, the story finally picks up with Emma falling in love with her son’s friend Antonio. She is a Russian who has married into this great Italian family; he appears to have a middle or lower-class background. What do they see in each other? We have no idea. They kiss, in an out-of-focus shot, or did they? It is not immediately clear if they did, or if it is just Emma’s fantasy. Swinton’s reaction in the next shot is interesting, but does not make clear that it was only a fantasy. A later fantasy appears to be one both of them are having, but again it is not clear. Anyway, they eventually start making love, out in the lovely Italian countryside. Relax, they are not freezing their privates; several months have passed since the first scene, and it is now summer. We literally get the birds (on the soundtrack) and bees (in close-up) as they roll around nude. The writers and the director fall into the classic problem of doing a sex scene: it is all too generic. We have no idea how THESE two people make love. Go back and look at the sex scenes between Nuke and Annie and Crash and Annie in Bull Durham (1988). Annie and Nuke do not do it the same way Annie and Crash do it.

Antonio is a chef, and Emma teaches him how to make a Russian soup she used to make for her son, Edoardo. You can see what is going to happen. Antonio prepares it for a big Recchi family dinner. Now how would you play the scene where Edoardo realizes what is going on? Simpler is better: he could see the soup and expressions of surprise, amusement, bafflement, jealousy, and realization can all cross his face. Nope, the writers give us a whole pile of cutaway shots that pound into our minds what he is thinking.

Later Emma and her husband, Tancredi, are in an empty church after a family tragedy. He gives her his coat to ward off the chill. She admits to her affair. His reaction? He takes back his coat. If Tancredi had been written and played as anything other than a block of wood, that detail could be telling. Here it’s not. It just seems silly. The writers have simply not established Tancredi well enough for it to pay off.

Emma decides to leave the family. The family housekeeper, who is presented as simply a loving soul, helps Emma pack. What other reactions can the housekeeper have? What if she says, “Take me with you”? Then what happens? No such luck. There is a moment as Emma is leaving where she faces Elisabetta. I think we are supposed to believe that Emma’s discovery of Elisabetta’s lesbianism has helped free her own inhibitions, but that has not been developed. If it had been, then Elisabetta’s slight nod of approval to her mother would have been a heart-stopping moment.

Emma leaves, leaving the door to the garden open. Well, it’s a nice garden—this is Italy after all—but Ibsen has pretty much told us that in situations like this, you slam the door.

Winter’s Bone (2010. Screenplay by Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini, based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell. 100 minutes.)

Winter's Bone

Meanwhile, back in the real world…: In writing about Hamlet 2 in US#42 I mentioned it was one of those films that seemed to the audience at Sundance that it was a lot better than general audiences later thought it was. The same thing may be true, although not so drastically, with Winter’s Bone. The film won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, which may tell you more about Sundance than it does about the film.

Like I Am Love, it starts out OK. In this case we learn visually that seventeen-year-old Ree Dolly lives in a cabin the backwoods of Missouri, takes care of her younger brother and sister because their dad, Jessup, has taken off and their mom is sick. Then we get the clear set-up for the story. The local sheriff comes by to tell them that Jessup had put up the house as collateral for his bail. He’s skipped out and if he does not show up for court, the family will lose the house. So far, so good. Ree is going to try to track down Jessup. Since he spends his time cooking up meth in a variety of locations, that may not be so easy.

So Ree goes off to talk to people who may know where Jessup is, many of whom are relations, both close and distant. This is the backwoods after all. So we get scene after scene of Ree going to people’s houses/shacks, asking the woman of the house if they have seen Jessup, and then being run off by the man of the house, usually with a weapon. I am sure the characterizations of all these people are completely accurate, but they are not very interesting. They all have the same sullen look and attitude, and it gets real hard to tell them apart. You keep hoping Ree will run into somebody with a little emotional flare. Hell, I’d settle for somebody who cracks a smile once or twice. The writing is very repetitive. Backwoods folks don’t want to snitch on their relatives. We get a little beyond that in what we find out about Jessup, but not much. Ree is a plucky character, but only within the limits of her world. Yes, she gets off a couple of zingers at all her sullen relatives, but that is hardly enough to hold our interest. Several reviews of this film have compared it to Precious (2009), and I have several of the same problems with this one that I did with that one (see US#38 for details on Precious).

The writers do give us a potentially great scene, which Granik as director does not get as much out of as she could. Without giving anything away, Ree is taken to see Jessup, but not in the way she thinks. Her relatives instruct her on how to get the information she needs to save the family home. It is scary and creepy, but Granik and Rosellini seem to be missing a humor gene that could turn the scene into a classic. After all, remember what happens after Norman Bates pushes Marion’s car into the swamp?

Video Slut: How I Shoved Madonna off an Olympic High Dive, Got Prince into a Pair of Tiny Purple Woolen Underpants, Ran Away from Michael Jackson’s Dad, and Got a Waterfall to Flow Backwards so I Could Bring Rock Videos to the Masses (2010. Book by Sharon Oreck. 245 pages)

Video SlutSorry, but I just couldn’t resist: I have never been much of a fan of music videos for exactly the same reasons I have never been a fan of porno movies: not enough plot or character. I know that is very old-fashioned of me, but it is just one of my character flaws. So what am I doing even reading a memoir by one of the leading producers of music videos in the ’80 and ‘90s, let alone writing about it in “Understanding Screenwriting”?

Sharon Oreck, the author and producer, was a student of mine at Los Angeles City College in the mid-‘70s. She came to us as an unwed mother in her teens who had dropped out of high school. As she says in the book, the LACC Cinema program was a perfect fit for her. She made friends there that got her jobs working on low-budget features, which led to her producing music videos in 1984. Since I don’t watch music videos, I haven’t seen most of the ones she writes about, but the rest of you may have.

The book, as you might guess from the title, is hilarious, and I laughed my ass off all the way through it. Oreck is a wonderful writer. The book is also moving in several sections, where she deals with her pregnancy and her having to close down her company. It is also wonderfully observant about the people she dealt with, and not just the stars like Prince and the Jacksons, but also all the bodyguards, hangers-on, crew people, music executives, et al. From a distance, making movies and music videos sounds glamorous, but it is hard work, and you have to deal with gigantic egos. The book is one of the most accurate portrayals I have read on trying to work with people who think they are geniuses.

There is very little discussion in the book about the writing of scripts for videos, since the scripts are more vague concepts than scripts as we know them, which is exactly why I have problems with videos: they are all concept and very little development. For all the surrealism in them, they tend to be visually repetitive, since the genre generally requires continually cutting back to the performer at least pretending to sing. OK, you see, I can bring anything around to screenwriting. So now go read the book and laugh your ass off.

This Is Korea! (1951. Narration written by James Warner Bellah, Frank Nugent, and John Ford, all uncredited. 50 minutes.)

This is KoreaUnseen, and understandably so: You may be aware that John Ford made documentaries for the government during World War II. You may even have seen his classic 1942 film Battle of Midway. And if you are lucky, you may have already laughed your ass off watching his 1941 Navy film Sex Hygiene. This is Korea! you probably have missed, unless you caught it a few weeks ago when Turner Classic Movies ran it as part of a program of films about the Korean War.

Since Ford was still in the Navy Reserve when the Korean War broke out, the Navy asked him to do a film about the war. The war started in June 1950, and in early 1951 he and several cameramen went to Korea. They were there for a month, and then Ford came back to the States and cut the picture. One of Ford’s weaknesses as a director was the lack of a strong sense of structure. See my comments on Fort Apache (1948) and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) in US#15. Here he simply had a lot of unrelated footage and did not find a way to put it together. Unlike Battle of Midway or its closest relative, John Huston’s San Pietro (1945), which deal with specific battles, there is no dramatic structure. We see a collection of shots of Korean children (Huston puts the Italian children at the end of San Pietro in a wonderful montage; Ford just starts with a bunch of kids), then shots of American soldiers marching and fighting. Ford cuts away to military leaders he admires, but for no other reason than his admiration.

Ford got James Warner Bellah, who had written the stories Fort Apache and Yellow Ribbon were based on, to write a narration for the film. Ford also got Frank Nugent, who had written the scripts for those two, to write another narration. As Ford’s grandson Dan Ford says in his book Pappy: The Life of John Ford, “Nugent’s narration was more cinematic and logical, but it lacked the emotion and intensity of Bellah’s.” Ford edited the two versions into one. On Midway, he had had James Kevin MacGuinness rewrite Dudley Nichols poetic narration into something more emotional, and he was trying to do the same thing here, but the final narration in Korea is simply unfocused. Not unlike the war itself, which may have been the problem, as in the final section of the film, where the narration suggests that the soldiers do not know what the war was about, which contradicts the occasional fervent anti-communism of the first part.

The film was released briefly in theatres, with Herbert J. Yates, the head of Republic Pictures, which distributed it, and the Navy arguing who would get the profits. There were no profits, and the film slipped into oblivion.

The Desert Rats (1953. Written by Richard Murphy. 88 minutes.)

The Desert RatsAre we apologizing this year?: As I mentioned in US#15 while writing about Valkyrie (2008), in 1950 Nunnally Johnson wrote and produced The Desert Fox, an intelligent look at Field Marshal Rommel’s involvement in the July 20th plot to kill Hitler. The film was a hit, but there were complaints both in the United States and Britain about so sympathetic portrait of a German officer only five years after the end of the war. Normally studios do not make reparations for films that make money, but Fox followed Fox up with Rats three years later, and even a dunderhead critic like the New York Times’ Bosley Crowther thought that it showed signs of being an apology.

The script in this case is by Richard Murphy, whom you may remember I have written favorably about before. In US#12, I suggested Fox put out a four-pack DVD of his films. The current script is one not up to the two I dealt with before, Boomerang! (1947) and Panic in the Streets (1950), even though it was nominated for an Oscar for best story and screenplay. The script deals with the British defense of Tobruk during the African campaign in 1941. Capt. Roberts, a Scottish officer (although Richard Burton makes him vocally Welsh), takes over a new unit of Australian soldiers. He tightens up the discipline, a plot line not unlike that of Fox’s much better 1949 film Twelve O’Clock High, and they put up a spirited and successful defense against Rommel. The script is rather lumpy and episodic. We get a first battle on the front lines, then a night raid against a German ammunition dump, and finally Roberts’s unit holding the perimeter until re-enforcements from Cairo arrive. In addition to all this there is Roberts’s relationship with an unlisted man, Tommy, who used to be his teacher years before. Tommy is something of a coward, but nothing much comes out of that.

The film seems an apology for The Desert Fox in two ways. First, it praises the Brits and the Aussies who beat Rommel. The second way is more interesting. James Mason plays Rommel both in Fox and here. In Fox, his Rommel is subtle, intelligent, witty, a bit vain and, like all the other Germans, he speaks the King’s English flawlessly. In Rats there is nothing subtle about him. He speaks German in his first two scenes, and then very guttural English in a scene where he talks to the captured Capt. Roberts. In other words, same actor, but the writing and the performance have turned the character into a conventional Nazi.

Oddly enough, I think it is the Roberts-Rommel scene that may have been what got the script its nomination. Even though Rommel is something of a cliché in the scene, we still see some of the intelligence we saw in Fox as he tries to get information out of Roberts. And Roberts is just as intelligent in parrying Rommel’s thrusts. It also helps, of course that you have James Mason and Richard Burton carrying your water.

Hot in Cleveland (2010. “Pilot” and “Who’s Your Momma?” episodes written by Suzanne Martin. Each episode 30 minutes.)

Hot in Cleveland

What do you believe?: In the opening scene of the pilot, Melanie, Joy and Victoria are on a plane flying to Paris for a vacation. The jokes start fast about these women being over the hill. I am sorry, but Valerie Bertinelli, Jane Leeves and Wendie Mallick are not over the hill. Bertinelli does not look as though she has aged a day since she was a teenager in One Day at a Time back in the ‘70s. So the jokes do not have a ring of truth about them, which the best jokes usually do. But both the women characters and the show itself seem to buy into the Hollywood idea that any woman over the age of 21 is on a downhill slide. Now you might get away with having the women believe that, but it seems really stupid for the show to believe it. The show seems to think that the humor will be in making fun of the women’s ages rather than in the more transgressive approach of assuming the women are not over the hill and making the attitude that they are look ridiculous. And the women behave stupidly in the first scene as well, especially when they think the plane may crash. Wouldn’t at least one of them not shriek?

So the plane makes an emergency landing in Cleveland, the three women go into a bar and, lo and behold, the men look at them as though they are as attractive as they really are. Granted, the women are from L.A., so one can understand their surprise, but the show seems to think men finding women their own age attractive is a bizarre occurrence that can only happen in Cleveland. Melanie, who met her ex-husband and his younger trophy fiancee on the plane, hooks up with a plumber and spends the night with him. She decides to stay in Cleveland, even though she finds out later he is married. Joy and Victoria decide to stay with her in Cleveland for the two weeks they had planned to be in Paris. Obviously they will stay longer, or there is no series.

The second episode, “Who’s Your Momma?”, is a little bit better. Martin is not beating us over the head with the age business, but way too much of the show is still jokes rather than character humor. The women are not completely stupid in this episode, and Victoria’s hanging out at the Big ’n’ Easy store, where customers recognize her from her years on a soap opera makes sense. We get a potential character story arc with Joy, who dates a young man she realizes may be the son he had as a teenager and gave up for adoption. The scenes that work out that story are not as well written as they might be.

It remains to be seen as to whether the attitude of the show towards these three women can develop beyond the cliché. It also remains to be seen what the franchise of the show is. The setup for the show is that they are women of a certain age dealing with their new life, but the franchise is: what do they do? Lucy Ricardo wanted to get into show business. Detectives solve crimes. Doctors treat patients. What are we going to want to watch these women do for 13, 22, 44, or however many, episodes?

Some Summer 2010 Television


Just a few to catch up on:

Justified came to a nice conclusion, sort of leaving it up in the air as to how straight Boyd Crowder has really gone. The two drivers from Miami kill Bo, Boyd’s dad, and while Boyd had it in mind to kill him himself, he’s got to light out after the one surviving driver, because, well, they killed his Pa. The backwoods characters in this show are much more interesting than those in Winter’s Bone, which raises a question. The people at Sundance saw Bone before Justified began its run. Would that have liked it as much if they saw the film after they saw the show, as I did? Or would I have liked the film better if I had not been watching Justified?

In Plain Sight has not brought Allison Janney-Pearson back, but has alas brought sister Brandi back, along with a guy who claims to be Brandi and Mary’s stepbrother. Kill him and bring back Allison, please.

Burn Notice has returned. Michael woke up in a room somewhere, and Vaughn, who presumably is with the Company or the Organization or whatever they call it, congratulates Michael for leading them to Simon, who is now locked away. So Michael is back in everybody’s good graces, except that he knows the people who worked to get Simon free are still out there. So Vaughn puts Michael to work and his first job ends up unknowingly burning another spy, Jesse. Oops. Needless to say, Michael is sympathetic to Jesse’s predicament and offers to help him, without telling him it was him who burned him. Jesse says that he will find whoever burned him and kill him. So we have that to look forward to in this season. Meanwhile, Jesse joins the team, and the various writers have created an interesting situation of the new kid trying to fit into the threesome. Fi doesn’t like him, then does when he suggests some kind of violence. Jesse changes the group dynamics in some ways that are going to be fun to watch. Well, of course they will be.

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.



Cannes Directors’ Fortnight Lineup Includes The Lighthouse, Zombi Child, and More

In addition to Directors’ Fortnight, the festival announced the films that would screen as part of the ACID lineup.



The Lighthouse
Photo: A24

Five days after Cannes artistic director Thierry Fremaux revealed the films that would be competing for the Palm d’Or this year on the Croisette, the Cannes Film Festival has announced the films that will screen as part of the prestigious Directors’ Fortnight. Among those are Robert Eggers’s The Lighthouse, a dark fantasy horror film starring Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson shot on 35mm black-and-white film stock, and Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child, which recounts the destiny of Clairvius Narcisse, a Haitian man who was famously said to have been turned him into a zombie.

See below for the full lineup, followed by the ACID slate.

Directors’ Fortnight Lineup:

Opening Film

Deerskin (Quentin Dupieux)

Official Selection

Alice and the Mayor (Nicolas Pariser)
And Then We Danced (Levan Akin)
The Halt (Lav Diaz)
Dogs Don’t Wear Pants (Jukka-Pekka Valkeapää)
Song Without a Name (Melina León)
Ghost Tropic (Bas Devos)
Give Me Liberty (Kirill Mikhanvovsky)
First Love (Takashi Miike)
The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers)
Lillian (Andreas Horwath)
Oleg (Juris Kursietis)
Blow It to Bits (Lech Kowalski)
The Orphanage (Shahrbanoo Sadat)
Les Particules (Blaise Harrison)
Perdrix (Erwan Le Duc)
For the Money (Alejo Moguillansky)
Sick Sick Sick (Alice Furtado)
Tlamess (Ala Eddine Slim)
To Live to Sing (Johnny Ma)
An Easy Girl (Rebecca Zlotowski)
Wounds (Babak Anvari)
Zombi Child (Bertrand Bonello)

Closing Film

Yves (Benoît Forgeard)

Special Screenings

Red 11 (Roberto Rodriguez)
The Staggering Girl (Luca Guadagnino)


Two Sisters Who Are Not Sisters (Beatrice Gibson)
The Marvelous Misadventures of the Stone Lady (Gabriel Abrantes)
Grand Bouquet (Nao Yoshigai)
Je Te Tiens (Sergio Caballero)
Movements (Dahee Jeong)
Olla (Ariane Labed)
Piece of Meat (Jerrold Chong and Huang Junxiang)
Ghost Pleasure (Morgan Simon)
Stay Awake, Be Ready (An Pham Thien)

ACID Lineup:


Blind Spot (Pierre Trividic, Patrick-Mario Bernard)
Des Hommes (Jean-Robert Viallet, Alice Odiot)
Indianara (Aude Chevalier-Beaumel, Marcello Barbosa)
Kongo (Hadrien La Vapeur, Corto Vaclav)
Mickey and the Bear (Annabelle Attanasio)
Solo (Artemio Benki)
As Happy as Possible (Alain Raoust)
Take Me Somewhere Nice (Ena Sendijarevic)
Vif-Argent (Stéphane Batut)

Third Annual ACID Trip

Las Vegas (Juan Villegas)
Brief Story from the Green Planet (Santiago Loza)
Sangre Blanca (Barbara Sarasola-Day)

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Review: Carmine Street Guitars Is a Beautiful Portrait of an Everyday Paradise

The film celebrates the thingness of things, as well as the assuring clarity and lucidity that can arise from devotion to knowledge.




Carmine Street Guitars
Photo: Sphinx Productions

The concept of Carmine Street Guitars is simplicity itself. Director Ron Mann documents the legendary Greenwich Village guitar store of the film’s title over a period of five days, watching as mostly famous customers stroll in to peruse and play instruments and shoot the breeze with guitar maker Rick Kelly. There’s no voiceover, no overt narrative, and little orienting text—and none of the encounters in this film are structured or presented as info-bite-style interviews. Mann artfully sustains the illusion of someone who’s just hanging out, capturing whatever draws his attention. Consequentially, the documentary communicates the magic of this place even to someone who’s never been to New York City.

Mann has a knack for telling you more than he appears to be. Fashioning intimate compositions, he surveys Kelly and his apprentice, Cindy Hulej, as they build guitars together in companionable silence. Kelly and Hulej are a poignant study in contrasts: Kelly is a graying sixtysomething man with a bit of a belly, while Cindy is a lean twentysomething woman who, with her bright blond hair and multiple tattoos, suggests a rock star. Occasionally, Hulej will solicit Kelly’s approval for one of her designs or for the artwork or poetry she’s burning into the back of a guitar, which he grants with a humble hesitation that subtly says, “You don’t need my approval.” Meanwhile, up front in the store, Kelly’s mother answers the phone. At one point, she says she’s happy to be here, though, at her age, she’s happy to be anywhere.

Shots of Kelly and Hulej working also allow one to savor the tactility of Carmine Street Guitars itself. Hulej works to the left of the back of the store, while Kelly stays to the right of it. Above Kelly is a storage of wooden planks taken from various landmarks of New York, such as Chumley’s and McSorley’s. Kelly poetically says that he likes to build guitars from the “bones of New York.” The resin dries out in older wood, allowing for more openings in the material which in turn yields greater resonation. Such fascinating details arise naturally in the film’s images and conversations. Over the course of Carmine Street Guitars, Kelly fashions a McSorley’s plank into an incredibly evocative guitar, as the gnarled wood gives it the appearance of possessing scar tissue. Near the end of the documentary, musician Charlie Sexton walks in and plays this guitar, and the idea of scar tissue takes on a different meaning. Sexton, Kelly, and the store itself are textured survivors of another era.

This is never explicitly stated in Carmine Street Guitars, but the film offers an analogue daydream in a 21st century that’s been nearly gentrified to death by corporations. The building next to Carmine Street Guitars was once used by Jackson Pollack and is now being sold by a yuppie real estate agent for six million dollars. The yuppie walks into the guitar shop, drooling over the potential sales opportunity, and his entrance feels like an obscenity—a return to the reality that we frequent stores like Carmine Street Guitars, and films like Carmine Street Guitars, in order to evade. It’s only at this point that Kelly’s democratic bonhomie hardens into defensive contempt, as he virtually refuses to speak to the agent. This episode haunts the film, suggesting a fate that can only be bidden off for so much longer.

Carmine Street Guitars celebrates the thingness of things, as well as the assuring clarity and lucidity that can arise from devotion to knowledge. Kelly’s guitar shop is a cocoon, a place of contemplation, and so it feels inevitable when Jim Jarmusch walks into the store. After all, Jarmusch’s recent films, like Only Lovers Left Alive and Paterson, also celebrate creation and erudition while ruing the arrival of a new culture that’s hostile to such desires. Kelly and Jarmusch talk about the filmmaker’s new guitar, which is partially made from Catalpa wood, leading to a riff on the trees that have been formative in each man’s life. In another moving interlude, Wilco guitarist Nels Cline searches for a guitar for frontman Jeff Tweedy, settling on an instrument that reflects Kelly’s own characteristic design: a telecaster with a dropped horn. Such moments reveal artisanship to be a form of communion, as a personal object for Kelly has been refashioned into a symbol of another artistic partnership.

These themes and associations bob under Carmine Street Guitars’s surface, as musicians noodle around with Kelly. This pregnant sense of implication is Mann’s supreme achievement, and as such the film risks being taken for granted as a charming little diversion, when it should be celebrated as a beautiful portrait of an everyday paradise. When Hulej weeps in gratitude, on her fifth anniversary of working for Carmine Street Guitars, you want to weep with her.

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Review: Hyènas Brilliantly Chips Away at a City’s Colonialist Architecture

Djibril Diop Mambéty’s 1992 film resonates primarily for its lacerating comedic writing and pacing.




Photo: Metrograph Pictures

Djibril Diop Mambéty spared no one when mercilessly depicting populations who were simultaneously eating themselves from within and being exploited by the economic interests of outside forces. Mambéty’s great Touki Bouki from 1973 viewed this dual process through the prism of the postcolonial relationship between Senegal and France. And in Mambéty’s second feature, 1992’s Hyènas, Senegal is pitted against larger global institutions, such as the World Bank, that prey on small nations whose financial instability makes them more likely to embrace warped logic and false promises at their own expense.

Mambéty confines the proceedings to Colobane, a small commune in Dakar, where its population and governmental order are turned upside down by the return of former resident Linguere Ramatou (Ami Diakhate), whose newfound wealth has become a subject of much dispute and angst within the community. The woman, who’s said by locals to be “richer than the World Bank,” becomes Mambéty’s stand-in for how an institutional form of thinking, with its financial rather than human emphasis, corrupts local interests by vacuously promising short-term riches to citizens that, in turn, produce long-term financial crises.

One of Mambéty’s primary strengths is how his sense of detail instantly brings the locations of his films to life. Hyènas opens within the market owned by Dramaan (Mansour Diouf), a beloved local merchant whose generosity with patrons is almost immediately apparent, as he allows several customers to purchase expensive goods on credit rather than having them pay up front. Mambéty establishes each nook and cranny of the market’s space through a series of static shots that gradually reveal the amount of people—none of which offer payment for their acquisitions—toiling around the premises. When Dramaan’s wife (Faly Gueye) appears, and Dramaan says, out of her earshot, that she disapproves of his business practices, it’s the first suggestion in Mambéty’s carefully plotted script that mutual trust is the first casualty in the exchange of money between people linked to differing motivations. As the Colobane community takes even greater advantage of Dramaan later in the film, Hyènas further turns the man’s plight into an absurdist tale of capitalism’s follies.

Linguere’s return to Colobane provides the film with its driving plot device, as she announces to the population that she will pump hundreds of millions of dollars into the community in exchange for Dramaan’s murder. Linguere was abandoned by Dramaan years prior after giving birth to their daughter and has come back with the sole intention of wreaking havoc on the man’s life. At least, it initially seems that way; in a later scene, Linguere explains, “The world has made me a whore,” and so she plans to “turn the world into a whorehouse.”

Mambéty imagines how Linguere’s wealth co-signs her agenda of revenge; her dangling of expensive goods over the heads of locals hungry for their piece of the pie is akin to the lie of global monetary cooperation promised by organizations like the International Monetary Fund. Senegal, once again, becomes dependent on global rather than local sources of income and exchange. Mambéty, though, follows the thematic example set by Ousmane Sembène’s Xala, in which a Senegalese politician’s sexual impotence is a symbol of his corruption, by refusing to exonerate local officials within Senegal for their complicity in embracing Westernization. When Dramaan meets with Colobane’s mayor (Mamadou Mahourédia Gueye) to discuss the bounty that’s been placed on his head, the latter says, “[Leopold] Senghor himself went for a walk with the Queen of England…if we were savages, they would not come here.” By implicating the mayor’s deference to Western forms of knowledge and self-definition, Mambéty deftly wrestles with the complexity of corruption’s reach.

Despite its rather serious and finally tragic appraisal of Senegal’s quagmire within the world system, Hyènas resonates primarily for its lacerating comedic writing and pacing. As Dramaan comes to mistakenly believe that he will be elected Colobane’s next mayor, only to learn that, in fact, he’s more likely to be killed before an election takes place, Mambéty ratchets up the film’s ludicrousness to simultaneously critique the Senegalese government and widespread consumerism, and with equal ferocity. This is best encapsulated by the moment where Dramaan realizes that everyone who isn’t paying him seems to own the same, new pair of yellow boots made in Burkina Faso. Dramaan’s market, filled with foreign goods ranging from European tobacco to Coca-Cola, is itself exploiting its owner; the man has paid a high price for quality only for the local marketplace to abuse his ambitions.

These ideas also propelled Touki Bouki, in which a pair of college-aged youths from Dakar, a city adored with so many Pepsi logos and Mobil oil towers, (dream of migrating to France. In a memorable scene from that film, a pair of French professors dismiss Senegal’s local culture by articulating the distinctly colonialist logic of France’s superiority. While Hyènas forgoes such an explicit drag of French supremacy, the film’s lucid indignation and satirical take on Senegal’s raw deal proves just as convincing.

Cast: Ami Diakhate, Mansour Diouf, Calgou Fall, Faly Gueye, Mamadou Mahourédia Gueye, Issa Ramagelissa Samb, Dijbril Diop Mambéty Director: Djibril Diop Mambéty Screenwriter: Djibril Diop Mambéty Distributor: Metrograph Pictures Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 1992

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Review: Chasing Portraits Is Welcome Personal Testimony, but Its Scope Is Narrow

Its major contribution, as one museum curator suggests, may be to bring the works of Moshe Rynecki back into prominence.




Chasing Portraits
Photo: First Run Features

Before World War II, Poland’s Jewish population was the largest in Europe, numbering over three million. Afterward, only 10% of that populace remained. Although the current right-wing Polish government prefers to suppress this fact, the 300,000 surviving Jews faced continued persecution at the hands of gentile Poles—themselves the victims (though to a much lesser degree) of Nazi persecution. Today, when the number of Jews in Poland is well under 10,000, one can visit the old Jewish quarters in cities like Warsaw and Krakow, where street kiosks sell small plastic caricatures of Hasidic Jews. On the streets, though, you’re unlikely to encounter any actual Hasids.

In her trip to Warsaw in search of her great-grandfather’s lost paintings, Chasing Portraits director Elizabeth Rynecki stumbles across these figurines. As she observes in voiceover, there’s nothing overtly demeaning about the miniature, jovial, cartoonish Jews, but the image they project doesn’t feel right, given local history. And one must agree that there’s an undeniable aspect of minstrelsy to them: Unlike her great-grandfather Moshe’s textured scenes of Jewish life in Warsaw, they’re almost certainly not self-representations. Given the Jewish culture that was destroyed in Poland—and whose richness is embodied by Moshe’s few surviving paintings—the grinning trinkets seem all the more like frivolous kitsch.

Rynecki’s discovery of these unsettling souvenirs is potentially one of the most interesting parts of Chasing Portraits, given that she happens across them while on the trail of lost Jewish art. As a curator at a Warsaw museum observes to the filmmaker, Moshe’s work depicts traditional moments of Jewish culture in a distinctly modern sensibility, attesting to the robustness of the Jewish culture on the eve of its destruction. In this way, his paintings are the opposite of the post-facto plastic caricatures, and Rynecki’s confrontation with the mass-produced simulacra of absent Jews is a moment when her highly personal documentary almost extends toward a wider perspective. But she doesn’t linger for too long on what the Holocaust and Judaism mean in Poland today, as she’s on her way to ask a private collector named Wertheim about how his family managed to acquire some of Moshe’s works.

Rynecki’s insular approach works well early on in the film, when she, in conversations with her father, outlines who her great-grandfather was and what his surviving paintings mean to the family. Of around 800 works that Moshe painted before he was murdered at the Majdanek death camp, just over 100 survive in the possession of the family, with an unknown number in the hands of private collections and Polish museums. That much is a miracle, but Rynecki—more so, it seems, than her father, a Holocaust survivor himself—wants to discover more. In the film, we see her consult with historians, compose emails to private collectors, and read excerpts of her grandfather George’s memoirs, in preparation for her trip to Poland.

Chasing Portraits is about Rynecki’s investigative process rather than Moshe’s paintings themselves; in voiceover, she narrates each step of her process as she takes on the role of amateur historian. And in maintaining an intense focus on her investigation—how she reads out the emails she writes to institutions, and shows us footage from each flight she takes from one corner of the world to another—the film raises probing questions that it dutifully bypasses. Her encounters with the Wertheim family are a case in point: The first Wertheim brother claims the family own paintings by Moshe because they bought it from a farmer, but the second tells the more plausible story that they have the paintings because their parents, resistance fighters hiding in the Polish woods, raided them from a bombed-out train.

In Rynecki’s narrative, these conflicting stories become a personal conundrum: If the paintings were looted rather than bought, she may be able to make a claim on them. In the end, it’s Rynecki’s growth, her decision about whether or not to become a claimant, that structures the film. But this approach means skirting over other thematic threads that might have emerged from this project, such as the ethics of museum versus private ownership of recovered art like Moshe’s, the meaning of art in desperate times, the politics of remembrance in Poland. Chasing Portraits is thus valuable as part of an expansive mosaic of personal testimonies to the legacy of the Holocaust, but it’s a documentary of sometimes disappointingly narrow scope. Its major contribution, as one museum curator suggests, may be to bring the works of Moshe Rynecki back into prominence.

Director: Elizabeth Rynecki Screenwriter: Elizabeth Rynecki Distributor: First Run Features Running Time: 78 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: If the Dancer Dances Diminishes Its Subject by Succumbing to Hagiography

The documentary is incessant about reminding us of the late Merce Cunningham’s achievements.




If the Dancer Dances
Photo: Monument Releasing

More than once in Maia Wechsler’s If the Dancer Dances, a dance is described by one of numerous talking heads as existing only in the moment; once any movement or routine is complete, it essentially can never be replicated to an exacting degree. But the film inadvertently appears as if it’s trying to prove that poetic and insightful observation wrong, which becomes increasingly clear as we follow choreographer Stephen Petronio as he and his dance company work on a production of Merce Cunningham’s RainForest.

Wechsler’s depiction of the company seems unwilling to step out of Cunningham’s shadow, given the extent to which the members of the current production and Cunningham’s former pupils happily provide hagiographic accounts of the groundbreaking avant-garde choreographer and his work. In an about-face from the repeated description of dance’s unreplicable nature, the new RainForest’s choreographers and dancers set out to duplicate rather than interpret the work. The fawning over Cunningham, and the implication from the company that they’ll never be able to live up to his vision, only exposes an overbearing inferiority complex running throughout the documentary.

If the Dancer Dances really only comes to life when showcasing the company’s rehearsals, throughout camera movements that match the gracefulness of the dancers and compositions that incorporate multiple points of action. Wechsler’s observational methods in these sequences capture mini-dramas in themselves, such as when choreographers quietly confer, attempting to adjust the dance routine that’s playing out in front of them.

Still, rather than letting the audience simply observe the company at work and letting the process speak for itself, Wechsler incessantly reminds us of Cunningham’s monolithic presence via scores of interviews that laud his work process. The film’s constant lionizing of the man amid so much rehearsal footage has the unintended effect of sapping the dancers of agency. Throughout, it’s as if Wechsler is judging the company’s artistic decisions based on whether or not Cunningham himself would consider them right or wrong.

At one point in the film, a former colleague of Cunningham’s explains that the late choreographer, in an effort to ensure that his works felt fresh, tried to never be influenced by other productions. This anecdote rings of irony, given how the film includes numerous sequences of Petronio’s choreographers discussing how to ape Cunningham’s aesthetic in precise detail—and often in incomprehensibly abstract directions that even some of the dancers appear not to grasp. The film operates under the impression that for any present or future company to change any one aspect of Cunningham’s original vision would be blasphemous and offensive, which turns If the Dancer Dances less into the insightful backstage documentary it wants to be, and more into a gushing, sycophantic love letter.

Director: Maia Wechsler Distributor: Monument Releasing Running Time: 86 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Watch the Trailer for Ava DuVernay’s Netflix Series When They See Us

Netflix will release the series on May 31.



When They See Us
Photo: Netflix

In 1989, the rape and near-murder of Trisha Meili in Central Park rocked the nation. A little over a year later, a jury convicted five juvenile males—four African-American and one Hispanic—to prison sentences ranging from five to 15 years. In the end, the defendants spent between six and 13 years behind bars. Flashforward to 2002, after four of the five defendants had left prison, and Matias Reyes, a convicted murder and serial rapist serving a lifetime prison term, came forward and confessed to raping Meili. DNA evidence confirmed his guilt, and proved what many already knew about the so-called “Central Park jogger case”: that the police investigation of Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise, conducted at the beginning of the Giuliani era in New York City, was motivated less by a thirst for justice than it was by racial animus.

Last year, Oscar-nominated Selma filmmaker Ava DuVernay announced that she would be making a series based on the infamous case, and since then hasn’t been shy, on Twitter and elsewhere, about saying that she will be putting Donald J. Trump in her crosshairs. Trump, way back in 1989, ran an ad in the Daily News advocating the return of the death penalty, and as recently as 2016, claimed that McCray, Richardson, Salaam, Santana, and Wise are guilty of the crime for which they were eventually exonerated—behavior consistent with a presidential campaign that, like the case against the Central Park Five, was a full-time racist dog whistle.

Today, Netflix dropped the trailer for When They See Us, which stars Michael K. Williams, Vera Farmiga, John Leguizamo, Felicity Huffman, Niecy Nash, Blair Underwood, Christopher Jackson, Joshua Jackson, Omar J. Dorsey, Adepero Oduye, Famke Janssen, Aurora Perrineau, William Sadler, Jharrel Jerome, Jovan Adepo, Aunjanue Ellis, Kylie Bunbury, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Storm Reid, Dascha Polanco, Chris Chalk, Freddy Miyares, Justin Cunningham, Ethan Herisse, Caleel Harris, Marquis Rodriguez, and Asante Blackk.

According to the official description of the series:

Based on a true story that gripped the country, When They See Us will chronicle the notorious case of five teenagers of color, labeled the Central Park Five, who were convicted of a rape they did not commit. The four part limited series will focus on the five teenagers from Harlem—Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise. Beginning in the spring of 1989, when the teenagers were first questioned about the incident, the series will span 25 years, highlighting their exoneration in 2002 and the settlement reached with the city of New York in 2014.

See the trailer below:

Netflix will release When They See Us on May 31.

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Review: The Curse of La Llorona Is More Laugh Riot than Fright Fest

With The Curse of La Llorona, the Conjuring universe has damned itself to an eternal cycle of rinse and repeat.




The Curse of La Llorona
Photo: Warner Bros.

Michael Chaves’s The Curse of La Llorona opens in 17th-century Mexico with an all-too-brief rundown of the legend of La Llorona. This weeping woman (Marisol Ramirez) is quickly established as a mother who, in a fit of jealousy, drowned her two children in order punish her cheating husband. And after immediately regretting her actions, she commits suicide, forever damning herself to that liminal space between the land of the living and the dead, to snatch up wandering children to replace her own.

Flash-forward to 1973 Los Angeles, where we instantly recognize an echo of La Llorana’s parental anxieties in Anna Garcia (Linda Cardellini), a widowed mother of two who struggles to balance the demands of her job as a social worker for Child Protective Services and the pressures of adjusting to single parenthood. One might expect such parallels to be further expanded upon by The Curse of La Llorona, but it quickly becomes evident that the filmmakers are less interested in character development, narrative cohesion, or the myth behind La Llorona than in lazily transposing the film’s big bad into the Conjuring universe.

It’s no surprise, then, that La Llorona, with her beady yellow eyes, blood-drained skin, and rotted mouth and fingernails is virtually indistinguishable from the antagonist from Corin Hardy’s The Nun; just swap out the evil nun’s tunic and habit for a decaying wedding dress and you’d never know the difference. Even more predictably, The Curse of La Llorona relies heavily on a near-ceaseless barrage of jump scares, creaking doors and loud, shrieking noises as La Llorona first terrorizes and murders the detained children of one of Anna’s clients (Patricia Velasquez), before then moving on to haunting Anna and her kids (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen and Roman Christou). But this family is so thinly conceived and their behavior so careless and illogical in the face of a known force of evil that viewers may find themselves less terrified by La Llorona than overjoyed by her reign of terror.

Once Rafael (Raymond Cruz), a curandero whose healing powers promise to lift La Llorona’s curse, arrives on the scene, the film makes a few concessions to Mexican cultural rituals, as well as offers brief but welcome respites of humor. But after the man rubs down the Garcia house with eggs and protects its borders with palo santo and fire tree seeds, The Curse of La Llorona continues unabated as a rote scare-a-thon. Every extended moment of silence and stillness is dutifully disrupted by sudden, overemphatic bursts of sound and fury that are meant to frighten us but are more likely to leave you feeling bludgeoned into submission.

All the while, any notions of motherhood, faith within and outside of the Catholic Church, and Mexican folklore that surface at one point or another are rendered both moot and undistinctive in the midst of so much slavish worshipping at the altar of franchise expansion. Indeed, by the time Annabelle’s Father Perez (Tony Amendola) pays a house visit in order to dutifully spout exposition about the series’s interconnected religious elements, it becomes clear that the Conjuring universe is damned to an eternal cycle of rinse and repeat.

Cast: Linda Cardellini, Roman Christou, Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen, Raymond Cruz, Marisol Ramirez, Patricia Velasquez, Sean Patrick Thomas, Tony Amendola Director: Michael Chaves Screenwriter: Mikki Daughtry, Tobias Iaconis Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 93 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: David Bordwell’s Reinventing Hollywood & W.K. Stratton’s The Wild Bunch

Stratton goes beyond the production of Sam Peckinpah’s film, on to its impact and reception and legacy.



Reinventing Hollywood

The 1940s were the decade in which Hollywood attained what we now term “classical” status, when the innovations and developments of cinema’s formative years coalesced into a high level of sophistication across all areas—technological, visual, narrative. The narrative element is the focus of Reinventing Hollywood, film historian and University of Wisconsin-Madison professor David Bordwell’s latest deep dive into the aesthetics of film.

Bordwell begins with a series of questions: “What distinctive narrative strategies emerged in the 1940s? Where did they come from? How did various filmmakers use them? How did the innovations change the look and sound of films?” He then proceeds with quite thorough answers across 500-plus pages. The narrative developments were gradual and cumulative. While the earliest narrative cinema was static and stagebound, inheriting principles of storytelling from theater and the most basic novelistic tendencies, a richer narrativity developed throughout the 1930s, when the visual language of silent cinema melded with the oral/aural elements of “talkies” to create a more systemized approach to narrative filmmaking.

As Bordwell notes at one point in Reinventing Hollywood, “[p]rinciples of characterization and plot construction that grew up in the 1910s and 1920s were reaffirmed in the early sound era. Across the same period there emerged a clear-cut menu of choices pertaining to staging, shooting and cutting scenes.” In short, it was the process whereby “talkies” became just “movies.” Narrative techniques specifically morphed and solidified throughout the ‘30s, as screenwriters and filmmakers pushed their way toward the discovery of a truly classical style.

While the idea of a menu of set choices may sound limiting, in reality the options were numerous, as filmmakers worked out a process of invention through repetition and experimentation and refinement. Eventually these narrative properties and principles became conventionalized—not in a watered-down or day-to-day way, but rather codified or systematized, where a sort of stock set of narrative devices were continually reworked, revamped, and re-energized. It’s what Bordwell calls “an inherited pattern” or “schema.”

Also in the ‘40s, many Hollywood films traded in what Bordwell terms “mild modernism”—a kind of light borrowing from other forms and advances in so-called high modernism, such as surrealism or stream-of-consciousness narratives like James Joyce’s Ulysses: high-art means for popular-art ends (Salvador Dalí’s work on Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound being a notable example). These techniques included omniscient point of view, the novelistic ability to traverse time and space (ideally suited for cinema), and involved flashback or dream sequences. This “borrowing of storytelling techniques from adjacent arts […] encouraged a quick cadence of schema and revision,” an environment of “…novelty at almost any price.”

Such novelties included “aggregate” films that overlaid a plethora of storytelling techniques, such as Sam Wood’s 1940 adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, which employed multiple protagonists, complex flashback sequences, and voiceover narration drawn from the most advanced theater. Perhaps no other film embodied these “novelties” so sharply as Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, an “aggressive aggregate” that amounts to a specifically cinematic yet total work of art, weaving together not only narrative techniques such as multiple character or “prismatic” flashbacks (screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz’s term), but also drawing on elements from music, painting, and photography, as well as Welles’s first loves, theater and radio. In some ways, Citizen Kane may be seen as a kind of fulcrum film, incorporating nearly all that had come before it and anticipating most everything after.

Though Bordwell references the familiar culprits—Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, and, of course, Citizen Kane—he doesn’t just stick with the A films, as he goes deep into the B’s (and even some C’s and D’s), in an effort to show the wide-ranging appeal and effectiveness of these narrative models no matter their technical execution. He also alternates chapters with what he calls Interludes—that is, more intensive readings illustrating a preceding chapter’s discussion, homing in on specific films, genres and filmmakers, and not always the ones which one might expect. There’s an interlude on Joseph Mankiewicz, for example, a sort of intellectual master of multi-protagonist films like All About Eve and The Barefoot Contessa, and the truly original Preston Sturges, whose films pushed narrative norms to their absolute limits. There’s also an intriguing interlude on the boxing picture and the resiliency of certain narrative tropes—fighter refusing to throw the fight and thus imperiled by gangsters, for example—demonstrating how Hollywood’s “narrative ecosystem played host to variants.”

Reinventing Hollywood is a dense read. Its nearly 600 pages of text, including detailed notes and index, isn’t for the academically faint at heart. Often Bordwell offers frame-by-frame, even gesture-by-gesture analyses using accompanying stills, mining synoptic actions and tropes across multiple films of the era. The book can read strictly pedagogical at times, but overall, Bordwell’s writing is clear and uncluttered by jargon. Despite its comprehensive scholarly archeology (and such sweet academic euphemism as, say, “spreading the protagonist function”), the book is leveled at anyone interested in cinematic forms and norms.

The title is telling. Clearly, narrative cinema was already invented by the time the ‘40s rolled around, but in Hollywood throughout that decade it became so systematized that it progressed into something new, indeed something that exists through today: a narrative film style that’s evocative enough to affect any single viewer and effective enough to speak to a mass audience.

Part of the charm of what was invented in the ‘40s is the malleability of the product. Narrative standards and conventions were designed for maximum variation, as well as for revision and challenge. And perhaps no decade offered more revision and challenge than the 1960s, not only to film culture but world culture as a whole. By the mid-to-late ‘60s, the old Hollywood studio system had expired, leaving in its wake a splintered version of itself. Yet despite the dissolution of the big studios, the resilience of the classical film style engendered by those studios was still evident. Popular narrative films retained the clear presentation of action borne in earlier films, however much they shuffled and reimagined patterns and standards.

One such movie that both embraced and pushed against Hollywood standards is director Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 western The Wild Bunch. It possesses such richness in both themes and execution, in form and content, that there’s a lot to mine. With its tale of a band of out-of-time outlaws scamming and lamming away their fatal last days in Mexico during the country’s revolution, it revels in and reveres western conventions as much as it revises them.

The film carries a personal elusive impact, particularly on first viewing. In The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film, journalist and historian W.K. Stratton quotes filmmaker Ron Shelton on this phenomenon: “Something was different about this movie…it was more than [just another shoot-‘em-up] but I couldn’t figure out what…I’ve been trying to answer that question ever since.” The book examines the epic making of this epic film, and goes a good way toward explaining the reasons behind the film’s unique power. Stratton is a Texan and also a poet, and both of these credentials make him perhaps the ideal candidate for exploring this pure piece of western poetry.

Stratton maps the story of the film from germ to gem. Conceived in the early ‘60s by stuntman Roy N. Sickner as a somewhat typical “outlaw gringos on the lam” story, the property evolved over the course of the ensuing years as much as the country itself. America in 1967 and ‘68 was a vastly different place than it was in ‘63. Stratton notes how “[t]he picture…would never have been filmed had not circumstances come into precise alignment. It was the product of a nation torn by divisions unseen since the Civil War, a nation that was sacrificing thousands of its young to a war in Southeast Asia…a nation numbed by political assassination…where a youthful generation was wholesale rejecting values held by their parents.”

A film made in such turbulent times required its own turbulent setting. If America had become no country for old men, and Vietnam was no country for young men, then Mexico during the revolution was no country for either. Stratton gives brisk but detailed chapters on the Mexican Revolution, filling in the tumultuous history and social geography for what would become a necessarily violent film. But just as the film could never have been made in another time, it could also have never been made without Sam Peckinpah. As Stratton notes, Peckinpah was a Hollywood rarity, a director born in the actual American West who made actual westerns, and a maverick director who, like Welles, fought against the constraints of an industry in which he was a master. Peckinpah was a rarity in other ways as well. A heavy-drinking, light-fighting proto-tough guy who was also a devotee of Tennessee Williams (“I guess I’ve learned more from Williams than anyone”), Peckinpah was a storyteller who could break your heart as well as your nose. His second feature, the very fine Ride the High Country, was tough and tender; it was also, coincidentally, another story of old outlaws running out their time.

Stratton traces the entire trajectory of the film’s making, from the start-and-stop scripting to the early involvement of Lee Marvin, right on through to every aspect of production: its much-lauded gold-dust cinematography (by Lucien Ballard, who early in his career worked on Three Stooges comedies “…because it gave him a chance to experiment with camera trickery”); the elegant violence, or violent elegance, of its editing; and its casting and costuming.

The chapters on those last two elements are particularly rewarding. Costuming is a somewhat underlooked aspect of westerns, simply because the sartorial trappings seem so generic: hats, guns, boots, and bonnets. Yet period clothing is so essential to the texture of westerns because it can, or should, convey the true down and dirtiness of the time and place, the sweat, the swill and the stench. The Wild Bunch, like all great westerns, feels filthy. Wardrobe supervisor Gordon Dawson not only had the daunting task of providing authenticity in the costumes themselves—much of them period—but of overseeing the sheer volume of turnover. Because Peckinpah “planned to make heavy use of squibbing for the movie’s shoot-outs…[e]ach time a squib went off, it ripped a whole in a costume and left a bloody stain.” Considering the overwhelming bullet count of the film, in particular the barrage of the ending, it’s no wonder that “[a]ll the costumes would have to be reused and then reused again and again.”

But perhaps no aspect was more important to the success of Peckinpah’s film than its casting. While early on in the process Marvin was set to play the lead role of Pike Bishop, the actor, thankfully, bowed out, and after the consideration of other actors for the role, including Sterling Hayden and Charlton Heston, in stepped William Holden. As good as all the other actors could be, Holden projected more of the existential weariness of the Bishop character, a condition that Marvin’s coarseness, for example, might have effaced. Stratton agrees: “There could not have been a better matching of character and actor. Holden was a…deeply troubled man, a real-life killer himself…on a conditional suspended sentence for manslaughter [for a drunk driving accident, a case that was later dropped].”

This spot-on matching of actor to role extended all the way through to the rest of the Wild Bunch: Ernest Borgnine as Pike’s sidekick, Dutch Engstrom, emanating toward Pike an anguished love and loyalty; old-time actor Edmond O’Brien as old-timer Freddie Sykes; Robert Ryan as Deke Thornton, Pike’s stoic ex-partner and now head of the pursuing posse; Jaime Sanchez as the doomed Mexican Angel; and perhaps most especially Warren Oates and Ben Johnson as the wild, vile Gorch brothers. (While Oates was a member of what might be called Peckinpah’s stock company, Johnson was an estranged member of John Ford’s.)

Along with broad, illuminating biographies of these actors, Stratton presents informative material on many of the peripheral yet vital supporting cast. Because the film is set and was filmed in Mexico, much of it verisimilitude may be credited to Mexican talent. Throughout the ‘40s and ‘50s, the Mexican film industry was second only to Hollywood in terms of quality product and critical prestige. Peckinpah drew from this talent pool for many of his film’s key characters, none more indelible than that of General Mapache (to whom the bunch sell guns and, by extension, their souls), one of the vilest, most distasteful figures in any American western. For this role, Peckinpah chose Emilio Fernández, a.k.a. El Indio, recognized and revered at that time as Mexico’s greatest director. Apparently, Fernandez’s scandalous and lascivious on-set behavior paralleled the unpredictable immorality of his character. Like almost everyone involved with this film, Fernandez was taking his part to the extreme.

Stratton goes beyond the production of The Wild Bunch, on to its impact and reception and legacy. A sensation upon its release, the film was both lauded and loathed for its raw violence, with some critics recognizing Peckinpah’s “cathartic” western for what it was, others seeing nothing but sick exploitation (including in its bloody treatment of Mexican characters). While other films of the time created similar buzz for their depiction of violence, notably Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (a film often compared to The Wild Bunch), the violence of Peckinpah’s film was as much moral as physical. All one need do is compare it to a contemporary and similarly storied film like George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a winking high-jinks movie in which, in Marvin’s resonant phrase, “no one takes a shit.”

Everyone involved with The Wild Bunch attributes its power to Peckinpah and the environment he fostered in its making. “[S]omething remarkable was occurring at…rehearsal sessions,” writes Stratton. “Under Peckinpah’s direction, the actors went beyond acting and were becoming the wild bunch and the other characters in the movie.” Warren Oates confirms this sentiment: “…it wasn’t like a play…or a TV show […] It was our life. We were doing our fucking lives right there and lived it every day […] We were there in truth.”

Stratton considers The Wild Bunch “the last Western […] It placed a tombstone on the head of the grave of the old-fashioned John Wayne [films].” One may argue with this, as evidence shows that John Wayne—especially the Wayne of John Ford westerns—is still very much alive in the popular consciousness. Yet there is a fatal finality to The Wild Bunch, a sense of something lowdown being run down. The film is complex and extreme less in its physical violence than in its moral violence, as it transposes the increasing cynicism of 1968 to an equally nihilistic era, all while maintaining a moving elegiac aura. No image or action expresses this attitude clearer and more powerfully than the bunch’s iconic sacrificial end walk, four abreast, to rescue one of their own, to murder and be murdered into myth. If the film is a tombstone, Stratton’s book is a fit inscription.

David Bordwell’s Reinventing Hollywood is now available from University of Chicago Press, and W.K. Stratton’s The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film is now available from Bloomsbury Publishing.

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Review: The Heart of Someone Great Is in the Details of Female Friendship

The film plays like a mixtape of various sensibilities, partly beholden to the self-contained form of the bildungsroman.




Someone Great
Photo: Netflix

Jennifer Kaytin Robinson’s Someone Great presents a vision of New York that makes the bustling metropolis feel like a small town. The film’s setting is a utopian playground where everyone seems to know everyone else and bumping into friends and acquaintances on the street is a regular occurrence. Robinson exploits the narrative possibilities of this framework, as all it takes for three friends, Jenny (Gina Rodriguez), Erin (DeWanda Wise), and Blair (Brittany Snow), to dive into another misadventure is to simply turn a corner.

The film plays like a mixtape of various sensibilities, partly beholden to the self-contained form of the bildungsroman; surely it’s no coincidence that a James Joyce poster hangs in the background of one scene. Set to an eclectic, almost perpetual soundtrack of songs, the film follows Jenny, Erin, and Blair as they float on a wave of spontaneity. The friends are gung-ho about having one last night on the town, and as the they make plans to attend a music festival on the eve of Jenny moving to San Francisco, the film makes a vibrant show of every fallout, every sharp turn in mood and behavior across this journey, which also finds Jenny grappling with her recent breakup with Nate (Lakeith Stanfield), her boyfriend of nine years.

In the world of Someone Great, a flashily decorated room is an extension of a person’s personality, every object a vessel of human memories. Jenny is wounded, and the film tenaciously homes in how everything around her feels like a totem of lost love. Robinson elaborates on Jenny’s pain as much through the young woman’s exchanges with her two best friends, each dealing with their own emotional troubles, as through the neon-dappled flashbacks to Jenny and Nate’s time together. But if Jenny, Erin, and Blair’s scenes together are marked by an infectiousness fueled in no small part by Rodriguez, Wise, and Snow’s incredible rapport, the vignettes of Jenny and Nate’s past feel comparatively inert—an almost steady stream of generic and often awkward articulations of how it is to fall in and out of love.

Someone Great also gives itself over to a needlessly somber tone whenever Jenny reflects on her relationship with Nate, and the effect is so self-serious that you’d think she’s the first person to lose a lover in human history. Her breakup certainly stands in sharp contrast to Blair’s own split from her long-term boyfriend (Alex Moffat), the fallout of which is treated as an offhand (and very funny) joke. Fortunately, though, Robinson is always quick to reorient the focus of her film, sweetly underscoring throughout the value of Jenny’s friendship to Erin and Blair, and how their bond is bound to persist regardless of the hard knocks these women weather on the long and often bumpy road to romantic fulfillment.

Cast: Gina Rodriguez, Brittany Snow, DeWanda Wise, LaKeith Stanfield, Peter Vack, Alex Moffat, RuPaul Charles, Rosario Dawson Director: Jennifer Kaytin Robinson Screenwriter: Jennifer Kaytin Robinson Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 92 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Cannes Lineup Includes New Films by Terrence Malick, Céline Sciamma, & More

Perhaps as notable as what made the cut is what didn’t make it onto the lineup.



Pain and Glory
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

This morning, the lineup for the 72nd Cannes Film Festival was revealed, and just as notable as what made the cut is what didn’t. Most notably, Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in America and James Gray’s Ad Astra were nowhere to be found. Gray, whose had four of his previous films appear in competition at the festival, is still working on Ad Astra, which seems destined at this point to make its premiere at a fall festival. As for Tarantino, who’s still editing this ninth feature ahead of its July 26 theatrical release, Cannes artistic director Thierry Fremaux told press this morning that there’s still a chance that Once Upon a Time in America could be added to the festival lineup in the upcoming weeks.

Terrence Malick will return to Cannes for the first time since winning the Palme d’Or for The Tree of Life with the historical drama and ostensibly mainstream-friendly A Hidden Life, previously known as Radegund. Ken Loach and the Dardennes, both double winners of the Palme d’Or, will also debut their latest works, Sorry We Missed You and Young Ahmed, respectively, in the competition program. As previously announced, Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die will kick off the festival on May 14, and Dexter Fletcher’s Rocketman will screen out of competition on May 16, two weeks before the film hits U.S. theaters. (The Director’s Fortnight and Critics Week selections will be announced at a later date.)

See below for a complete list of this year’s competition, Un Certain Regard, out of competition, and special and midnight screenings.

Pain and Glory, Pedro Almodóvar
The Traitor, Marco Bellocchio
Wild Goose Lake, Yinan Diao
Parasite, Bong Joon-ho
Young Ahmed, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Oh Mercy! , Arnaud Desplechin
Atlantique, Mati Diop
Matthias and Maxime, Xavier Dolan
Little Joe, Jessica Hausner
Sorry We Missed You, Ken Loach
Les Misérables, Ladj Ly
A Hidden Life, Terrence Malick
Nighthawk, Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles
The Whistlers, Corneliu Porumboiu
Frankie, Ira Sachs
The Dead Don’t Die, Jim Jarmusch
Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Céline Sciamma
It Must Be Heaven, Elia Suleiman
Sybil, Justine Triet

Out of Competition
Rocketman, Dexter Fletcher
The Best Years of Life, Claude Lelouch
Maradona, Asif Kapadia
La Belle Epoque, Nicolas Bedos
Too Old to Die Young, Nicolas Winding Refn

Special Screenings
Share, Pippa Bianco
Family Romance LLC, Werner Herzog
Tommaso, Abel Ferrara
To Be Alive and Know It, Alain Cavalier
For Sama, Waad Al Kateab and Edward Watts

Midnight Screenings
The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil, Lee Won-Tae

Un Certain Regard
Invisible Life, Karim Aïnouz
Beanpole, Kantemir Balagov
The Swallows of Kabul, Zabou Breitman and Eléa Gobé Mévellec
A Brother’s Love, Monia Chokri
The Climb, Michael Covino
Joan of Arc, Bruno Dumont
A Sun That Never Sets, Olivier Laxe
Chambre 212, Christophe Honoré
Port Authority, Danielle Lessovitz
Papicha, Mounia Meddour
Adam, Maryam Touzani
Zhuo Ren Mi Mi, Midi Z
Liberte, Albert Serra
Bull, Annie Silverstein
Summer of Changsha, Zu Feng
EVGE, Nariman Aliev

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