Connect with us

Film

Understanding Screenwriting #54: The Kids Are All Right, The Informant!, Siberiade, Rubicon, & More

Published

on

Understanding Screenwriting #54: The Kids Are All Right, The Informant!, Siberiade, Rubicon, & More

Coming Up in this Column: The Kids Are All Right, Tom Mankiewicz: an Appreciation, The Informant!, Siberiade, Manhattan Melodrama, Rubicon, White Collar, Covert Affairs, but first…

Fan Mail: You may have missed Elaine Lennon’s comments on Inception, which were a late addition in the comments section on US#52. She is very perceptive about what the lack of Christopher Nolan’s brother Jonathan working on the Inception screenplay may have meant for it.

When I turned in US#53, my computer was misbehaving and dropped a section where I was writing about the scholarly article I had written. The paragraph just stopped when it got sent off to a publisher’s reader. To find out what happened you can go back to #53, where Keith and I have added the section that got dropped. It will also give you a link to the article.

On US#53, David Ehrenstein caught one of my occasional errors. I had the last name of the director as Waters, not Walters. Now you know why I do not wear a robe and a pointy hat and claim to infallibility. He also asked about my not mentioning the director Jacques Tourneur in the item on Canyon Passage. I had thought about it, since I liked Tourneur’s direction, especially his handling of Ward Bond and Brian Donlevy, but passed on it. I do sometimes mention directors, and sometimes don’t. After all, this is a column on screenwriting. And I also consider it a kind of karmic payback for all those times directors get mentioned and often credited with stuff the writer did while the writer does not get mentioned at all. David and others mentioned Tourneur’s other westerns, including Great Day in the Morning (1956), which I intend to watch when TCM shows it on Monday, August 16th.

I know Tourneur is something of a cult figure, but at least one person who worked with him was not enormously impressed. Tourneur did two films that Philip Dunne wrote, Anne of the Indies (1951), which I will have to tell you about some time, and Way of the Gaucho (1952), which Dunne was the producer on. The latter was shot in Argentina to use up Fox funds frozen by the government, and Zanuck assigned Dunne to produce it in Argentina. Zanuck figured that since Dunne loved politics, he would have fun playing with the Juan Peron regime. You can read Dunne’s autobiography Take Two: A Life in Movies and Politics for the details. Anyway, when I did an oral history with Dunne, I asked what he thought of Tourneur. He said, “Jacques is a very, very nice fellow, perfectly competent and capable. He’s a very decent man. We had no problems at all… I did the script and I was the producer, but I would listen to him. He is not a creative man in that sense. He was not really a script man at all. You gave him the stuff and he shot it.” As we talked about several times before, a lot of directors, including many critical favorites are like that: you give them a good script and they give you a good movie.

“BilliPilgrim,” just back from Tramalfador I would guess, liked the discussion of spy films (see below for another item about Covert Affairs) and suggested other theme weeks. I really work more by targets of opportunity than thinking out grand strategic designs. He does suggest dealing with films about hit men, which I am not likely to do. As I tell my screenwriting students, if you believe American films and television, most American men work as cops or hit men or both and most American women work as strippers or hookers or both. I think it is about time for a moratorium on movies about hit men.

The Kids Are All Right (2010. Written by Lisa Cholodenko & Stuart Blumberg. 106 minutes)

The Kids Are All Right

And the grown-ups are even better: This picture started with Lisa Cholodenko, who also directed, having two ideas. The first was to show a functional lesbian family. That’s a situation, not a story. The second was, what would happen if a child in that family grew up wanting to know about the man who donated the sperm. That’s a story: the characters in the family are going to do certain things, other family members are going to have reactions to that, and the donor may turn out to be…well, who? And what happens then? That’s where the estimated fifty drafts of the script started.

Cholodenko started writing on her own, as she had on her two previous features, the 1998 High Art and the 2002 Laurel Canyon. She ran into Stuart Blumberg, who wrote more commercial films than she did, such as Keeping the Faith (2000) and The Girl Next Door (2004). He brought some comedy chops to the project, which helped make the characters more accessible, since Cholodenko wanted to go beyond the art house niche of her previous films. Cholodenko and Blumberg discussed almost every possible option for every event. Think of all the possibilities that could go wrong. The choices they make of which option they pick could be the wrong ones. The comedy could trivialize the material. It’s not enough to come up with a pile of good ideas. Creative work is not just coming up with great ideas. Selection of which ones you use is crucial: you have to pick the ones that will work best for your script. (The background on the development of the screenplay is from Peter Debruge’s article in the July/August 2010 issue of Creative Screenwriting.)

Fortunately, Cholodenko and Blumberg picked right. Let’s start with the family. This script gives us one of the best looks I have ever seen at what I would call a “lived-in marriage.” Nic and Jules have been together for a long time and it shows. They love each other; they get on each other’s nerves. They are not, thank God, the standard “love us because we are neurotic” types that Nora Ephron gives us. They have their flaws, but they have their strengths as well. And they are a great couple: Nic, the doctor, is hard charging (for better or worse), while Jules is more down-to-earth (also for better or worse). The writers have come up with a lot of details about these two that ring true of any married couple. I particularly love that they watch gay male porn in their bedroom.

The kids are nicely drawn as well. Laser, the younger brother, ticks off his parents by hanging out with Clay, whom we and his parents can see is nothing but trouble on a stick. How much more interesting that is than if, as they had thought at one point, Laser had a relationship with his sister’s slutty friend Sasha. Then you would be in typical teen movie land. Joni, the elder sister, has just finished high school and is preparing to go away to college, which provides a structural tension to the film. It is Laser, along with Clay of course, who finds the gay porn, which we thought was just a comic detail. This leads to a terrific scene of Nic and Jules talking to Clay, thinking he might be gay. How do you liberal gay women deal with the possibility he is gay. However, he only wants to know why they watch it. And we get an interesting answer from them.

It is Laser who wants to track down the father. Joni is reluctant, but since she is eighteen, she can get the information from the adoption agency. And Paul, the father, turns out to be an equally multi-faceted character. He is nice and at the first dinner with the family, he makes a good impression, although less so on Nic. Now the family dynamic changes, which gives Cholodenko and Blumberg new scenes to write. Cholodenko’s earlier films were weak on structure, and Blumberg obviously helped here. We get a sense of the story moving, as the scenes fit into place. The turning point is when Jules has sex with Paul. Wait a minute, she’s gay. But he is paying attention to her, as she designs his garden, which Jules feels Nic is not doing. This is easily the trickiest scene in the film. If Cholodenko and Blumberg had not made all the right choices leading up to it and in the scene itself, the scene could have been a disaster and killed the picture. As it is, the Jules-Paul affair has caused a lot of discussion on the Internet and elsewhere. What the writers avoid suggesting is that Jules is just temporarily gay and can be “cured” by a “real man.” The film does not think that, as indicated by Jules knowing the affair is wrong and eventually dumping Paul, and the film also subtly lets us know that Paul does not think that either. He is just a guy who has been doing what he wants for most of his life and more or less getting away with it. Notice how his relationship with Tanya, one of the workers in his restaurant, establishes his attitudes toward relationships, which helps us see his affair with Jules accurately. And since Jules is the earthy but flaky one, the affair with Paul is something she could easily fall into, as she does in the film.

I have written a lot about the characters here, which leads to one of my mantras about screenwriting. When you are writing for the screen (or the stage), you are writing for performance. The writers have created a gallery of great roles for the actors to play. And, boy, do they play the hell out of them. I have always found Annette Bening a little cold and distant, both on film and in the stage productions she has done in LA. That fits Nic’s brittle personality, as in her wonderful outburst about composting. The writers and Cholodenko have given her a lot more to play as well. Look at the variety of reactions she has as she discovers the “evidence” of Jules and Paul’s affair. Bening gives us an aria of visual reactions. This may be her richest performance ever. Julianne Moore gets her moments as Jules as well. The writers, following in the Nicole Holofcener pattern (see US#47), give their characters unpleasant sides as well. Look at Jules firing her Latino gardner helper because he sort-of knows about her and Paul. Maybe Holofcener’s Catherine Keener is the only other actress alive who could make us both irritated and sympathetic in that scene, but Moore manages it here. Listen to and watch Jules’s “apology” to her family at the end. It’s a verbal aria and Moore gives it a great reading.

As good as Bening and Moore are individually, they are also great at getting that “live-in marriage” feeling the writers provide. You believe these two are married and have been for years, not only in what they say, but how they physically deal with each other, and I don’t mean sexually. And they also play well off the two actors playing their kids, especially Mia Wasikowska as Joni. You may remember I thought she was brilliant as Alice in this year’s version of Alice in Wonderland, and she is just as good here. Unless she goes all Lindsay Lohan on us, she is going to be a BIG star. Josh Hutcherson as Laser is not bad, but he suffers in comparison with the three women. On the other hand, he gets and beautifully delivers a great payoff line at the end of the film.

Tom MankiewiczTom Mankiewicz: An Appreciation: While I was working on this column, I came across a notice that Tom Mankiewicz died of cancer on July 31st. As I mentioned in US#44, Tom was a Yale classmate of mine who went on to write three of the James Bond films. You can check out what he had to say about writing Bond films in that column. We were more acquaintances than friends in college. I think he thought I was a hillbilly from the Midwest and I thought he was an East Coast snob. I may have just been put off by the fact that the would-be actresses in the Yale Drama School found him a lot more interesting than they did me, especially after they found out he was the son of Joseph L. Mankiewicz (All About Eve [1950], et al). We met up again about ten years later when he came to one of my classes at LACC and talked about his adventures in screenwriting. We had both matured a bit by then, and he was charming and delightful. When he was directing on Hart to Hart in the early ‘80s I tried to arrange to go on the set and see him work. Unfortunately, the one day I was available, they were shooting with a live lion and the insurance company would not let anybody else on the set.

While Tom is best known for his work on the Bond films, he also worked on the ‘70s-‘80s Superman films, and did a lot of script doctoring. The best piece I have found on him is on a British website on all things Bond, although the Los Angeles Times obituary has some nice quotes from people who worked with him. His career was not quite up to that of his father or his uncle Herman, but then whose is? Tom certainly entertained us over the years. And he was happy with that. As he told the Miami Herald in 1987, “I don’t apologize for entertaining people.”

The Informant! (2009. Screenplay by Scott Z. Burns, based on the book The Informant by Kurt Eichenwald. 108 minutes)

The Informant!

Talk about your unreliable narrator!: I had missed this one when it came out last year, but I wanted to take a look at it. Or rather a listen to it, since it has an extreme example of what is called, in literary circles, an unreliable narrator.

When Burns came across the non-fiction book by Eichenwald, what struck him was not only the story, but the main character. Mark Whitacre was a vice-president at Archer Daniels Midlands in the early ‘90s. He eventually became an informant for the F.B.I. about price-fixing at ADM. Except that there were all sorts of things that he did not tell the F.B.I.. As in the close to eleven million dollars he arranged to have himself paid in the form of kickbacks. Burns figured that the time was ripe for an informant story, since The Insider (1999) and Erin Brockovich (2000) had just come out. But Burns had a problem. The more he looked into the story, the funnier he found it. It was not unlike the problem T.E.B. Clarke had in the early ‘50s when he started out to write a screenplay about heisting gold bars from the Bank of England. Clarke intended it to be serious, but the details seemed funny to him. So he turned it into the classic 1951 comedy The Lavender Hill Mob. Fortunately, Burns’s pitch was picked up by Steven Soderbergh, the director of Erin Brockovich. (The background is from Peter Clines’s article in the September/October 2009 issue of Creative Screenwriting.) Soderbergh had done his serious version with Brockovich, and he felt that The Insider was the definitive whistle-blower movie. And he found the material funny as well.

What struck Burns about Whitacre (from the book; Burns did not meet him or his wife while he was working on the script) was that he seemed bi-polar. Burns told Clines that he had always liked the unreliable narrator in Melville’s The Confidence Man adding, “I always thought that would be a really cool device to have in a movie. When you start looking at Whitacre as a character and his demons, it lends itself perfectly to the idea of an unreliable narrator, because that’s how the world experienced him. I hope the fun is in some ways like the experience that Shephard and Herndon (the two primary F.B.I. agents) had of him or that his friends had of him. He’s the charming, funny, kind of goofy guy who seems, if nothing else, kind of harmless and nerdy. He’s a Ph.D. in some very arcane field. And then all of a sudden you realize there are inconsistencies in his story and then the fun begins. You go on this ride of realizing, ’Oh my God, did this guy take us in because he’s a master criminal? Or is he someone who—because he has a real psychological disorder—can’t control himself?’”

But Burns goes beyond just unreliable. Yes, there is information we get that turns out not to be true. But one of Whitacre’s characteristics is that he goes off on tangents, and that becomes part of the narration as well. You know how I always say that you shouldn’t write anything in the script you don’t need? Well, this is sort of an exception. We don’t need to hear the tangents in story terms, but we do in terms of Whitacre’s character, as well as in terms of making the film different from the whistle-blower movies that have come before. One of the few things Marx (Karl not Groucho) said that is still true is that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce. If you are writing a film about a subject that has been done to death seriously, it is probably time to to do it as farce.

The Informant! (both the exclamation point in the title and Marvin Hamlisch’s relentlessly jaunty score make sure we know it’s a comedy) did not do well at the box office, and I suspect the total unreliability of the narration may be the cause. The narration is funny, bizarre, and inventive, but it may have been too much for regular audiences. There is also a bit of Hollywood condescension towards the people of the Midwest that did not help. But somebody else is going to do what Burns did and make it work better. It is too interesting a technique not to use again sometime.

Siberiade (1979. Written by Valentin Ezhov and Andrey Konchalovskiy. 260 minutes on the current DVD. Check the IMDb for other running times)

Siberiade

Not Doctor Zhivago: This is one of those legendary Russian films I have heard about for years and never seen. I found it browsing through the foreign film sections of Netflix. Given its running time, it may be best to watch on home video when you can take as many potty breaks as you need.

As you might guess from its length, this is an epic. It begins in the early years of the 20th century and goes up to the late ‘60s. Mostly we are in the village of Elan in Siberia, and we follow members of two families, The Solonins, who are the richest people in the village, which does not mean much, except to them and the villagers. The other family is the Ustyuzhanins, who are poorer. That description suggests more of a family saga than the film turns out to be, since we tend to focus on individuals in different parts of the film. The film was made at the beginning of the last decade of the Soviet Union, so it is still sympathetic to Communism, although we do get a variety of responses to it over the years from the characters. In the last hour or so it is critical of the bureaucrats in Moscow, but only to a limited degree. I ended up not finding this film as compelling as the 1999 film Sunshine, which follows a Hungarian family through most of the twentieth century. Because it was made after the fall of the Soviet Empire, it can deal with the politics better than Siberiade. Sunshine’s characters are also better drawn than the ones here.

We are introduced to Kolya Ustyuzhanin as a boy stealing dumplings from the Solonins. Even as a kid, he is flirting with Anastasia Solonin, and she with him. But it is not a Romeo and Juliet romance. Kolya becomes enchanted with a revolutionary, Rodin, who hides out in the village. Kolya grows up to be Nikolai, who runs off with Anastasia to join the revolution. She is killed, but he comes back with their son, Alexei, to try to find oil in the area. Nikolai is killed by one of the Solonins, and Alexei goes to World War II, where he saves the life of Phil Solinin, without realizing who it is. Alexei becomes an oil driller and returns to the area, as does Phil, who is now the Party Regional Secretary. Phil hopes they find oil, since otherwise Moscow wants to flood the whole area. The well finally comes in—in terms of Russia in the ‘60s, that’s a happy ending.

Yes, it is very Russian. Kolya’s father hears the trees weeping when he cuts them down to make a road. Everybody is superstitiously afraid of the Devil’s Mane, one of the local natural landmarks. They all drink a lot, and laugh uproariously. The characterizations are rather shallow, and the acting variable. Andrey Konchalovskiy also directs, and his brother, Nikita Mikhalkov (also a director) plays the adult Alexei, and Andrey lets him get away with a little too much. Igor Okhulpin is too much of a blank as Phil, especially since he is the dominant character in the last hour.

Yes, the film is not as sentimental and soap opera-ish as Doctor Zhivago (1965) and probably more authentically Russian. On the other hand, as nicely photographed as it is in Russia, I missed Freddy Young’s brilliant cinematography that convinces you Spain, Finland, and Canada are Russia. Not to mention Maurice Jarre’s score and the definitive Lara, Julie Christie. On the other hand, if you happen to be near a haystack with Natalya Andreychenk’s grownup Anastasia…

Manhattan Melodrama (1934. Screenplay by Oliver H.P. Garrett and Joseph L. Mankiewicz, based on the story “Three Men” by Arthur Caesar. 93 minutes)

Manhattan MelodramaMelodrama’s the word for it: This one is famous for being the film John Dillinger went out to see the night he was shot. Michael Mann uses clips from it in last year’s Public Enemies, but I found that the clips only emphasized how little dramatic action there is in Public Enemies. There is a lot of drama going on in Manhattan Melodrama, which lives up to both words in its title.

Manhattan Melodrama sets the pattern for most of the Warner Brothers gangster movies of the later ‘30s: Two kids, Blackie and Jim Wade, are orphaned at a young age. They grow up to be on opposite sides of the law. Blackie runs gambling clubs and occasionally shoots people, but only those who deserve it. Jim grows up to be a fighting D.A. and later governor, Blackie having conveniently killed off the one guy who threatened to ruin Jim’s campaign. Blackie is eventually convicted of another murder, and when Jim offers him a pardon, Blackie tells Jim of the other murder and nobly agrees to go to the chair.

Wait a minute. Warner Brothers? Manhattan Melodrama was an MGM film. Well, the studios all stole from each other, and if MGM was going to lay down a good template, why not steal it? Especially since Manhattan Melodrama won an Oscar for Best Story. (See the discussion of The Dark Mirror in US#51 for the nuances of the writing awards in those days.)

Well, at least it’s got the MGM gloss. Not really. This was produced by David O. Selznick during one of his stays at his father-in-law’s studio before he went independent. The budget, according to Thomas Schatz’s The Genius of the System, was only about $300,000, while Selznick’s production of David Copperfield (1935) was a little over $1,000,000. The budget limitations show. Yes, the fire on the cruise boat is a nice Slavko Vorkapich montage but it’s not expensive, and the political convention where Jim is nominated for governor is done with one large closeup of a man making the nominating speech. Yes, Clark Gable, who plays Blackie, was one of MGM’s biggest stars, but Myrna Loy, who plays Eleanor, his girlfriend who marries Jim (I told you it was melodrama), was not yet a big star. And Selznick had to fight to cast William Powell as Jim, since everybody else at MGM thought his career was over. Early in the picture, Blackie sends Eleanor to let Jim know Blackie will be late for a meeting. Eleanor jumps into Jim’s car. They have never met before and they sit in the car and get acquainted. Pretty straightforward scene. Except that this is the first teaming of Loy and Powell, and boy, does the chemistry between them just jump off the screen. They followed this a few months later with The Thin Man, also a low-budget movie, just in case everybody had guessed wrong about the Loy-Powell chemistry. They weren’t wrong, and the sequel two years later had all the MGM production gloss that Manhattan Melodrama and The Thin Man do not have.

The film helped the career of Tom’s dad Joseph L. Mankiewicz as well, although there is very little that is distinctively Mankiewiczian about the script. Mankiewicz had come out to Hollywood at the encouragement of his brother Herman and worked at Paramount. According to Mankiewicz’s biographer, Kenneth L. Geist, he came to MGM and proceeded to turn down the first three assignments he was given, infuriating the powerful producer Harry Rapf. He ended up on this one, and it was a hit while all the other three were flops. He stayed at MGM until the early ‘40s, when he moved to 20th Century-Fox and eventually took up directing.

Rubicon (2010. “Gone in the Teeth” episode written by James Horwitch. “The First Day of School” episode teleplay by Henry Bromell, story by Henry Bromell & James Horwitch. Each episode 60 minutes)

Rubicon

Agreeing with Robert Lloyd: The Los Angeles Times television critic Robert Lloyd began his review of the two-part series opener of this show this way: “With its new series Rubicon, AMC appears to have set itself the challenge of mounting a show even slower than its Mad Men. And it has succeeded.” He’s right. Boy, is he ever right.

I don’t mind slow. See my comments in US#40 on the Romanian film Police, Adjective (2009) for a discussion on the uses of slow. Or my comments on any of the Mad Men episodes. But if you are going to go as slowly as this show goes, you had better give us something in return. Look at my comments on Don’s first date on the season opener of Mad Men in US#53. Or look at the “morning after, in the office” scene in the “Christmas Comes But Once a Year” episode of Mad Men, written by Tracy McMillan & Matthew Weiner, in which Don, who has seduced his secretary the night before doesn’t talk to her about it. Both are slow scenes, especially the latter, but there is a lot of character detail we get.

No such luck in this show. Will Travers, our hero, is an intelligence analyst at one of those many private firms that contract work from the government. But he’s been a really bad mood since his wife and child were killed in the Twin Towers on 9/11. OK, he deserves to grieve, but it does not make him much fun to watch, since all he seems to do is sulk. There appear to be no other colors to his personality. The same is true of the other characters. In “Gone in the Teeth” we do get a lively character, Will’s boss David, but he is killed off early on. Will’s associates are one-note at best.

We might stick with them if we saw them actually doing any intelligence analysis. Process is always a useful thing to show, since it can involve the audience. Look at Thomas looking at the blowups of his photographs in Blow-Up (1966) trying to figure out if a murder has been committed. We get virtually nothing here in terms of the process of analysis. At one point Will and his team (he has taken over from the late David as head of the team by the second episode) are tasked with finding out who a couple of people in a photograph are. They find out about one of them, but we have no idea how. Think of how previous films and series have used the occupations of their characters, such as making Don Draper as an ad man.

White Collar (2010. “By the Book” episode written by Alexandra McNally. 60 minutes)

White Collar

Tuesday August 3rd was a good night from the USA network, take one: One of the advantages of creating a whole gallery of interesting characters in a series is that every so often you can let one of the minor ones be the focus of an episode. It was Mozzie’s turn on this one. Mozzie, for those of you who don’t watch, is a friend of Neal, the con man working with Peter, the F.B.I. guy who captured him. Mozzie is into all kinds of not so legal stuff, as we saw in the “Need to Know” episode. Here we find out he has a crush on Gina, a waitress in a local coffee shop. When he thinks she has been kidnapped, he asks Neal to see what the F.B.I. can find. Eventually Peter et al realize what Neal is up to, and McNally neatly balances the professionalism of the F.B.I. against the rogue antics of Mozzie, who threatens to upset everybody’s plans. The F.B.I. is going to send Tommy, Gina’s boyfriend who has stolen money from a weapons dealer, to make the exchange, but Mozzie gets there first and bluffs his way in. Meanwhile, he has left Neal a message that he is setting up a “perfect exchange,” a plan he and Neal worked up. Unfortunately they never had a chance to try it and they discover it is not so perfect: the weapons dealer can kill the middle man, Mozzie, once he tells him the details of the exchange. Mozzie gets rescued, thank goodness. He is too much fun to kill off.

Covert Affairs (2010. “No Quarter” episode written by Steven Hootstein in the on-screen credits, or by Meredith Lavender and Marcie Ulin on IMDb. 60 minutes)

Covert Affairs

Tuesday August 3rd was a good night from the USA network, take two: The Company obviously does not want to send Annie Walker out on a difficult assignment, so she is assigned an easy one: go to Zurich to trade suitcases in the airport with an agent of the Mossad, Eyal. If everything goes well, the episode is over in two minutes. Everything does not go well. A grenade goes off in the airport, but Annie manages to hold on to her case. She eventually ends up at the safe house where she is nearly killed by Eyal, since he didn’t think she would be there. Well, what with budget cuts, the Company and Mossad have to share safe houses (that’s not my line, it’s Eyal’s). Can she trust him? Can he trust her? He’s almost as good looking as she is, so is romance going to blossom? And who’s trying to kill them? The writer(s) get a lot out of the by-play between them, both dramatic and romantic, and it is obvious Piper Perabo (Annie) and Oded Fehr (Eyal) are having a lot of fun. There is action (Annie rappelling down an elevator shaft) and comedy (trying to get a bride in a leg cast up to dance so they can recover Annie’s briefcase hidden under the table), as well as some interesting reactions. Eyal figures out the guy trying to kill them is a rogue Mossad agent by the way he attacks the building, and Eyal says at the end he is rather ashamed that such a well-trained rogue agent was not able to kill him and Annie. We think he is probably joking.

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.

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Advertisement
Comments

Film

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

Published

on

Cassandro, the Exotico!
Photo: Film Movement

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Features

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.

Published

on

Marc Maron
Photo: IFC Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right.

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

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

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

Yeah.

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

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

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

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Film

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.

Published

on

Streetwise
Photo: Janus Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

As in Streetwise, Bell proves uncannily adept at capturing moments that seem to encapsulate a subject’s entire emotional temperature. There are frequent shots in Tiny of Erin sleeping with a little dog close to her face, which suggest rare moments of repose for a woman who’s used to running her chaotic family like a hostage negotiator. Erin frequently calls the cops on her own children, especially the headstrong teenager Rayshon, which Bell unforgettably rhymes with footage form Streetwise 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.

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Film

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

Published

on

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Features

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

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

Published

on

Lynn Shelton
Photo: IFC Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Film

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

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

2

Published

on

Into the Ashes
Photo: RLJE Films

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

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

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

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

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

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Film

Review: Stéphane Brizé’s At War Is Politically Charged but Artistically Inert

The film is content to bluntly affirm that corporate attempts at compassion are always secondary to providing profit to shareholders.

2

Published

on

At War
Photo: Cinema Libre Studio

Seven months after the first flare-up of France’s Gilets Jaunes, the nascent populist movement shows no signs of ceasing. Combined with the country’s ongoing Telecom scandal, in which several executives have been charged with “moral harassment” after 35 workers were allegedly hounded into committing suicide, it’s evident that what’s simmering there is an extension of the same unease escalating around much of Europe, and the world at large. It’s a state of affairs that makes At War seem especially of the moment, and which leaves its eventual failure to offer any special insight so disappointing. Provided with a prime opportunity to animate the zeitgeist, Stéphane Brizé’s labor-focused drama instead uses this timeliness to prod along the most obvious of points, its nuts-and-bolts, process-oriented approach never amounting to more than a surface look at the issues it purports to confront.

The film in some ways functions as an unofficial prelude to Brizé’s prior The Measure of a Man, in which an unemployed machinist played by Vincent Lindon finds a new career as a hyper-market security guard, where he’s eventually forced to choose between serving as a traitorous management lackey and losing his job. Here, Lindon’s Laurent Amédéo is still in possession of his original occupation, though things are hanging by a thread, as a last-ditch organizing effort attempts to halt the closure of a manufacturing plant in Agen. Surrounded by a cast of convincing non-professionals, Laurent leads the picket line, refusing to waver from the straight and narrow, an intense figure of principle whose scruples are never in doubt.

At War is largely notable for its steadfast devotion to a kind of mechanistic aesthetic, which unfortunately lines up with its cheerless didacticism, the two qualities cohering in a scene-by-scene summation of a strike action that repeatedly hammers home the same general points. The scenes themselves evince heft, fluidity, and an impressive sense of improvisation, but the staging is static and the eventual outcome is always clear. The game is given away by Lindon’s stoic face and the gradual unraveling of the plot, which envisions internal disintegration—leveraged by outside pressure—as the insidious method by which solidarity is smashed. Despite some genuine drama in this dissolution, it’s always clear who’s right and who’s wrong, which material interests each is representing, and who’s lying and who’s telling the truth.

This didn’t have to be the case, as proven by David France’s procedure-focused documentary How to Survive a Plague, which balanced a similarly diagrammatic narrative with extensive character detail, expanding the stakes while affixing a deeper subtext about the ways the victory of a marginalized group eventually diminishes its radical standing. Intent on emphasizing the connections between callous corporate greed and populist unrest, Brizé’s film is bluntly focused on the bottom line. There’s a certain dramatic function to this technique, as it examines the individual human actions that allow such interests to put their will into practice, but it doesn’t justify the flat, exhortative style of address.

As another example of how well this kind of economic criticism can be carried off, there are the dazzling docu-essays of German filmmaker Harun Farocki, who routinely found surprising intricacies in the cold façade of modern capitalism, while offering empathetic alignment with workers as a matter of course. At War, on the other hand, merely summarizes what its audience already knows, affirming that corporate attempts at compassion are always secondary to providing profit to shareholders, and that genuine humanity and integrity are liabilities when confronting such an unfeeling monolith. Like Ken Loach’s recent Palme d’Or winner I, Daniel Blake, it’s a film whose political principles are hard to disagree with, yet which leans so heavily on this moral certitude as to render itself entirely inert.

Cast: Vincent Lindon, Melanie Rover, Jacques Borderie, David Rey, Olivier Lemaire Director: Stéphane Brizé Screenwriter: Stéphane Brizé, Olivier Gorce Distributor: Cinema Libre Studio Running Time: 115 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Film

Review: Bottom of the 9th Strikes Out with Too Much Plot Incident

Raymond De Felitta’s film offers a sampler course of formulas, which creates a strangely unfulfilling tension.

1.5

Published

on

Bottom of the 9th
Photo: Saban Films

Raymond De Felitta’s Bottom of the 9th offers a sampler course of formulas, which creates a strangely unfulfilling tension. Just when you expect the film to go in a certain direction, it goes in another, only for it to again switch routes, though there’s never a sense of expectations being deliberately challenged or tweaked. Rather, the filmmakers merely seem to be indulging a variety of passing fancies, which is a shame because the actors here are game and occasionally imbue the shopworn scenes with liveliness.

Sonny Stano (Joe Manganiello) is the perfect hero for either a noir or a redemptive sports film, a man approaching middle age who just served a 19-year sentence for manslaughter. Famous in his Bronx neighborhood for being drafted by the Yankees, only to flush his life down the toilet, Sonny is attempting to patch his life together while doing a perpetual apology tour on behalf of friends and strangers alike. He’s initially hired by an old friend, Joey (James Madio), to work in a fish market that seems to be a front for something. Joey has a cagey energy, and this narrative isn’t without intrigue, but De Felitta and screenwriter Robert Bruzio unceremoniously lose sight of it in succumbing to a number of clichés.

Of course, Sonny is revealed to have a woman who got away, Angela (Sofia Vergara), who one day runs into her old beau at a market. They clearly have chemistry, as do the actors playing them, but their dialogue is composed of nothing but redemptive platitudes. In these scenes, Manganiello and Vergara are stuck in a worst-of-all-worlds situation. Their characters are relentlessly mousey, which is appropriate to the awkward context of Sonny and Angela’s reunion, but which also robs these sexy actors of the opportunity to enjoy playing off one another. Meanwhile, said mousiness isn’t poignant either, as the characters haven’t been imagined beyond the respective stereotypes of the fallen man and jilted woman.

Bottom of the 9th then flirts with a narrative similar to that of Bull Durham and Major League, in which Sonny is hired by a local minor league ball team to rein in the fiery, egotistical talents of a rookie named Manny (Xavier Scott Evans). Evans is ferociously charismatic, suggesting a young Wesley Snipes and giving Manganiello a kinetic vibe to play off of, and so the film finally begins to come to life, with great character actors like Michael Rispoli and Burt Young riffing on the sidelines. However, this conceit is also left hanging, as the film shifts into a story of the unlikely comeback, with Sonny’s own talents taking center ring.

De Felitta might’ve gotten by with these contrivances if he were a natural showman, but the filmmaker displays little interest in the Bronx setting in which his characters live, or in rendering their experiences in a fashion that refutes screenwriterly index-card portraiture. For instance, a prison flashback in which Sonny gets into a fight during a ball game is reduced to trite and melodramatic close-ups, while much of the remainder of the film is composed of medium shots designed to accentuate only the largely uninteresting dialogue. There’s truly nothing in Bottom of the 9th but plot incident, and the leisurely, impersonal one-thing-after-another-ness of the film’s construction is stifling.

Cast: Joe Manganiello, Sofía Vergara, Denis O'Hare, Burt Young, James Madio, Yancey Arias, Michael Rispoli, Vincent Pastore, Dominik García-Lorido, Michael Maize, Kevin William Paul Director: Raymond De Felitta Screenwriter: Robert Bruzio Distributor: Saban Films Running Time: 111 min Rating: R Year: 2019

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Film

Review: Crawl Is Fun and Economical but Lacks Go-for-Broke Inventiveness

The film is more straight-faced than Alexandre Aja’s prior work, trading absurd kills for narrow escapes from gaping alligator jaws.

2.5

Published

on

Crawl
Photo: Paramount Pictures

Unlike the giddily crass Piranha 3D, Alexandre Aja’s Crawl is a quiet beast of a film. It’s built not on a foundation of over-the-top gore, but on a series of escalations. As a hurricane barrels toward Florida, ace swimmer Haley (Kaya Scodelario) becomes worried after her father, Dave (Barry Pepper), doesn’t return her phone calls. She travels to her old family home and finds him unconscious in the house’s flooded crawl space, with large alligators swimming in the water.

Early on, the camera often lingers on the deceptive stillness of the rising water for maximum suspense. Haley and her father are trapped in the house with no more than the tools they can find or already have on hand, MacGyvering their very survival out of shovels, flashlights, and flares. The best parts of the film slyly set up those tools and other objects, including a swing set and a rat trap, only to bring them back at some later, climactic moment.

If Crawl, then, is an easily digestible piece of workmanlike thrills, its only real bit of gristle is its po-faced father-daughter bonding. Haley and Dave are somewhat estranged; the family home was meant to have been sold off after Dave’s recent divorce from Haley’s mother; and flashbacks to childhood swim meets show father and daughter tempting fate with flagrantly ironic use of the term “apex predator.” In the face of certain death, they cobble their relationship back together through Hallmark-card platitudes while sentimental music plays on the film’s soundtrack. It’s the absolute thinnest of familial drama, and it will do little to redirect your emotional investment away from the survival of the family dog.

Between these family moments, of course, the flood waters run red as people get got by gators. Aja is prone to lingering in prolonged closeup on things like a protruding bone being shoved back into place, but he otherwise seems to have gotten the most inspired bits of underwater violence out of his system with Piranha 3D. Crawl is more straight-faced than his prior work, trading absurd kills for narrow escapes from gaping alligator jaws. And while these moments are suspenseful, with nail-biting scrapes involving a handgun, some loose pipes, and one particularly clever shower-door maneuver, there’s precious little of the go-for-broke invention or outrageousness that might have made the film more than a fun and economical thriller.

Cast: Kaya Scodelario, Barry Pepper, Ross Anderson, Morfydd Clark Director: Alexandre Aja Screenwriter: Michael Rasmussen, Shawn Rasmussen Distributor: Paramount Pictures Running Time: 87 min Rating: R Year: 2019

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Film

Review: The Farewell Thoughtfully Braids the Somber and the Absurd

The film taps into universal truths about the passage of time, the inevitability of loss, and how we prepare one another for it.

3.5

Published

on

The Farewell
Photo: A24

In the opening scene of writer-director Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, a Chinese grandmother (Zhao Shuzhen), affectionately referred to as Nai Nai by her family, and her Chinese-American granddaughter, Billi (Awkwafina), have a warm, affectionate phone conversation in which each woman incessantly lies to the other. A professionally adrift, financially bereft millennial whose writing ambitions have come to naught, Billi lets her grandmother believe her life is busy and full of social engagements; for her part, Nai Nai insists that she’s at her sister’s house, rather than in a drably decorated doctor’s office. Wang frames Nai Nai against the kitschy, oversized picture of a lagoon that hangs on the wall, as if to emphasize the flimsiness of the illusions the pair is painting for one another.

The sequence calls to mind the advantage of audio-only phone calls: for allowing us to more easily maintain the falsehoods that comprise a not insignificant portion of our relationships. Given that minor mistruths prop up our most basic social connections, Wang focuses The Farewell on the moral quandary of whether a big lie—specifically, culturally contingent situations—might actually be an expression of genuine love. The film takes up the question with a tone of melancholic drollery, a sense of irony that doesn’t lose touch with the human feelings at its core. The Farewell is “based on an actual lie,” evidently an episode from Wang’s life, and its careful mixture of the somber and the absurd rings true to life.

As it turns out, Nai Nai has terminal lung cancer, but Billi’s father’s family elects to lie to the woman about her MRI results, an action that’s evidently within the bounds of Chinese law. But as Billi’s assimilated immigrant father, Haiyan (Tzi Ma), points out to his brother, Haibin (Jiang Yongbo), during a crisis of conscience, such a thing is both frowned upon in America and prosecutable. Struggling even more with the decision, of course, is the more Americanized Billi, who can’t reconcile her Western notions of love and the sanctity of the individual with the widespread practice of lying to family members about their impending deaths.

To create a cover for a family visit to Beijing, the family forces Billi’s cousin, Hao Hao (Chen Hanwei), who lives in Japan, to marry his girlfriend, Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara), of three months. This plan provides plenty of fodder for Wang’s dry humor, as the family attempts to maintain the veneer of celebration while also bidding farewell to their ostensibly clueless matriarch, who’s confused by Hao Hao and Aiko’s lack of affection and the generally dour mood that predominates in the lead-up to the wedding. It’s potential material for a farce, but even in its funny moments, Wang’s film is contemplative rather than frenetic, preferring to hold shots as her characters gradually, often comically adjust to the reality that Nai Nai will soon be gone.

Awkwafina, hitherto notable mostly for her comic supporting roles, gives a revelatory lead performance as Billi, the thirtysomething prone to bouts of adolescent sullenness. Perhaps playing a Bushwick-based, first-generation-American creative type isn’t much of a stretch for the Queens-born rapper/actress, but she immediately brings to the role the depth of lived experience: We believe from the first frames in the long-distance love between Billi and her grandmother, and the existential crisis the young woman feels as she negotiates two cultures’ differing approaches to death and disease. In taking us to Beijing through Billi’s eyes, which are often blinking back tears as she says goodbye without articulating “goodbye,” The Farewell’s morose but not hopeless comedy taps into universal truths about the passage of time, the inevitability of loss, and how we prepare one another for it.

Cast: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Zhao Shuzhen, Lu Hong, Jiang Yongbo, Chen Hanwei Director: Lulu Wang Screenwriter: Lulu Wang Distributor: A24 Running Time: 98 min Rating: PG Year: 2018

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading
Advertisement

Giveaways

Advertisement

Newsletter

Advertisement

Preview

Trending