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

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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.

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All of Quentin Tarantino’s Movies Ranked

On the occasion of the release of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, we ranked Tarantino’s feature films.

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Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood
Photo: Columbia Pictures

Quentin Tarantino’s commitment to fortifying the themes of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood with layers of self-reflexivity, while still anchoring its concepts to fully realized, emotionally invested characters, makes the film one of his greatest—a dense but focused effort that validates the divisive artist’s status as one of American cinema’s preeminent pop-cultural figures. The film navigates late-‘60s Hollywood, an immersive playground of opulence and iconicity, alongside Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a fading star of TV westerns trying to break into the movies, and his best friend and longtime stuntman, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), before then jumping six months ahead to take the temperature of Hollywood on the eve of the Charles Manson murders. As the landscape and the sociocultural identity of Hollywood continue to change, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood takes on an elegiac quality, with Dalton and Booth returning to L.A. from a sojourn to Europe and a pregnant Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) preparing her home for the arrival of her baby boy.

The flash and fun of the film’s first half gives way to a haunting decline into the valley of alcoholism, and to increasing signs that a new generation is about to push the old one out. And, then, inevitably, those tensions come to a head one August night on Cielo Drive in the Hollywood Hills. We won’t spoil the ending here, but we will tell you below where Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood falls on our ranked list of Tarantino’s features. Sam C. Mac


Death Proof

10. Death Proof (2007)

With his hair combed in a flashy pompadour and a white scar running down his cheek, Kurt Russell plays evil Stuntman Mike as a swaggering, folksy raconteur. Even in the universe of Tarantino, which suggests a self-contained and increasingly self-referential cinephile’s mixtape of the countless films he’s absorbed throughout his life, Russell feels like a living, breathing human being. By comparison, Mike’s victims simply suggest regurgitating pop-culture sponges. Indeed, by the time Mike comes after them in his skull-painted hellmobile, we connect more to the graphic image of the stunningly crafted gore than we do to the loss of life. When the female characters turn into avenging angels, their motivations seem to turn on a dime. Their attitude toward life and death, whether it be their own (“I’m okay!” one of them happily beams right after she’s almost been decimated by Mike’s muscle car) or Mike’s, is so casually flippant that we’re denied that sense of righteous rage. Maybe it’s a joke on those old drive-in movies, which never gave much thought to life or death either, but somehow the reverent self-referential quality of Death Proof is more offensive than those old grindhouse filmmakers who were in it simply to make a buck. Jeremiah Kipp


Django Unchained

9. Django Unchained (2012)

With Django Unchained, Tarantino doesn’t transcend the tropes of the revenge film, or the odd-couple buddy comedy for that matter. For all the film’s ostentatiously shocking imagery and dialogue (Tarantino employs the n-word in a fashion that resembles the gimmicky scare tactics associated with director William Castle), one can’t escape the suspicion that this film’s a bloated vanity project with delusions of grandeur. Django Unchained features a blunter treatment of slavery than we routinely encounter in mainstream American cinema, but the garish fantasy violence only superficially distracts from Tarantino’s allegiance to the same damn clichés that govern politer “issue” films. Django Unchained is ultimately a white fantasy of purging shared cultural guilt, one that follows a benevolent white man (Christoph Waltz is the lead regardless of what his Oscar may say) as he befriends and liberates an appreciative black man who goes on to symbolically wipe the slate clean on subjugation. Chuck Bowen


Kill Bill: Vol. 1

8. Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003)

Even when he isn’t at the top of his artistic game, Tarantino, like Jean-Luc Godard, is talented enough that he doesn’t put this kind of spot-the-references playfulness front and center in his films: Tarantino always provides us with some kind of plot or emotional context in which such references—and in a QT film, they’re legion—mean something to viewers other than the fact that they’re referencing something. In other words, you don’t have to know a great deal about the martial arts genre to enjoy the sheer kinetic energy of Kill Bill, Vol. 1 any more than you have to know about the various crime thrillers Godard references in order to enjoy Breathless or Band of Outsiders. It might enhance one’s appreciation of those films more, but there’s more to them than just showing off how encyclopedic their movie knowledge is. Although Tarantino’s films sometimes make recognitions toward real-world hurt and pain, they almost invariably take place in a movie-induced fantasy world, one that takes no part in political discourse and prefers instead to wallow in the detritus of popular culture and movie history—entertainment, in other words. Kenji Fujishima


The Hateful Eight

7. The Hateful Eight (2015)

Rather than following a clean genealogical path back to Hollywood westerns of the Golden Age, The Hateful Eight often resembles Italian giallo horror, less for that subgenre’s tendency to luxuriate in synth scores and extravagant lighting setups than for its less-celebrated preoccupation with cruelty and pain. As in those extravagant and supernaturally tinged slashers, characters in The Hateful Eight who choose to have any agency apart from maintaining a cover story find a nebulous reward for forcing fate’s hand. When the gun smoke clears, we somehow end up with more dead bodies than we had living ones at the start, and the film proves to have quite a lot in common with John Carpenter’s The Thing, apart from having the same lead actor (Kurt Russell) and largely identical blizzard conditions: Death emerges from the floorboards, and, following a crisis, an impromptu “court” is established to distinguish between friend and foe. Even the final moments echo the creature classic: Having dispensed justice at long last, two doomed men share a laugh over a great lie, and the camera retreats upward and away from their near-lifeless detente. The haberdashery, by design a sanctuary, has been transformed into a self-cleaning oven, now strewn with an assortment of particulate matter, and we arrive at an unexpected Reservoir Dogs callback: a vetting of moral arithmetic that leaves no survivors. Jaime N. Christley


Kill Bill: Vol. 2

6. Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004)

From a structural standpoint, Kill Bill’s two volumes connect us to serial cinema past, specifically the two-part films of Fritz Lang. It’s a mess at times, but a seemingly intentional and glorious one. Certainly, Tarantino’s greatest skills are literary and his numerous digressions recall the stylistic flourishes of Thomas Pynchon. When Tarantino abandons the Bride (Uma Thurman) in her premature burial deathtrap to focus on an extended flashback of her martial arts training, it’s reminiscent of Pynchon’s nine-page aside in Gravity’s Rainbow, which details the biography of a light bulb named Byron. If that comparison makes Kill Bill sound like so much compulsive masturbation, rest assured that Tarantino has a point. Consider the movie’s two volumes as yin and yang: The first installment, focusing primarily on the Bride, corresponds to the Chinese principle of darkness, negativity, and femininity, while the second, with a tone heavily influenced by the charming and seductive Bill (David Carradine), corresponds to the opposing principle of light, heat, motivation, and masculinity. Tarantino revels in the filmic power of verbal and (meta)physical pas de deux, and it’s in the final section of the second part, detailing the Bride and Bill’s surprising confrontation, that the entire enterprise reveals its profoundly mortal (and moral) soul. Keith Uhlich

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Review: The Great Hack Is an Elusive Look at the Cambridge Analytica Scandal

It seems so invested in a rehabilitation of Brittany Kaiser’s image that the filmmakers’ own motives end up being its most interesting subject.

1.5

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The Great Hack
Photo: Netflix

Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim’s documentary The Great Hack opens with a sweeping and essentially meaningless drone shot. “Somewhere in Nevada” a sole title reads over the image of a city that sprawls across the desert in the shadow of a rather stubby mountain range. Tedium has already begun to set in as ominous strings fade in on the soundtrack and the film cuts to the opening of the Burning Man festival, where Brittany Kaiser—former business development director at notorious data-mining firm Cambridge Analytica—sets out to do whatever it is that privileged white people do at Burning Man.

The Great Hack turns an undeniably important series of political events into a two-hour look at a wealthy criminal lounging in pools and riding in Ubers. The doc fakes its viewers out, though, after its pointless Burning Man prologue, introducing us to Professor David Carroll, an expert in social media marketing whose interest in recovering the data profile Cambridge Analytica illegally compiled of him—as it did of most every American—is meant to form something like the film’s impetus. Carroll explains, in terms a tad too elementary for a digital-native audience, that he’s concerned with the effect that targeted misinformation campaigns directed at specific users are having on global democracy. Or, in his both too lofty and too simple words, “How did the dream of a connected world tear us apart?”

One of the answers to Carroll’s question is that very specific people—people like Brittany Kaiser—decided to use the internet for precisely that purpose. In voiceover, Carroll explains what Cambridge Analytica was and, in broad strokes, how its methods of data collection and analysis helped sway both the British EU referendum and the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Carroll’s explanation is illustrated with animated visualizations more concerned with appearing complex and sensational than they are with clearly presenting information. The corporate structure of Cambridge Analytica is presented with a conspiratorial air, as if the web of profile photos that the The Great Hack pieces together represents something far more nefarious and mysterious than a company’s personnel page.

In its first act, the documentary makes ample use of such CG animations, including a rather repetitive motif in which photographed objects appear to pixelate and float up into the sky. We understand well before the fifth time we see this effect the metaphor that all that’s real is moving willy-nilly into the cloud. But after Carroll makes it to London to sue Cambridge Analytica for his data, Amer and Noujaim more or less abandons him and his pedagogical approach for Kaiser, whom the filmmakers track down in Thailand, sipping a Mai Thai poolside. Kaiser is despicable, but The Great Hack appears to never tire of watching her stare pseudo-pensively out of car and airplane windows, or inventing new ways to rationalize her work for Cambridge, even as she turns state’s witness in Britain.

The film spends so much time lingering on the mini-dramas of Kaiser’s jet-set life—and so little time detailing exactly what it was that Cambridge Analytica did, or investigating how we might stop it from happening again—that one can conclude that in Kaiser the filmmakers believed they had found some kind of key to understanding our ongoing digitally fueled social catastrophe. The Great Hack befuddlingly includes a sequence in which Kaiser panics because she thinks she’s lost her passport on her way to Heathrow, only to find it seconds later in her bag. Why include such an insignificant moment—or, for that matter, other sequences of Kaiser simply en route somewhere or waiting for something? What Amer and Noujaim see in Kaiser remains elusive. In fact, this meandering documentary seems so invested in a rehabilitation of her image that the filmmakers’ own motives end up being its most interesting subject.

Director: Karim Amer, Jehane Moujaim Screenwriter: Karim Amer, Erin Barnett, Pedro Kos Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 113 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Skin Confronts White Supremacy from a Dubious Point of View

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

2.5

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Skin
Photo: A24

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Monos
Photo: Neon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.5

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Angels Are Made of Light
Photo: Grasshopper Film

Early in Angels Are Made of Light, a voice breaks through a sea of chatter in a classroom teeming with young boys: “I only know about the time since I was born. What’s history?” The child goes on to explain that history isn’t taught at the Daqiqi Balkhi high school in Kabul, Afghanistan. The question’s poignance is self-evident, particularly because the building itself appears to have been disturbed by the city’s recent trauma. The opening shot of James Longley’s first film since Iraq in Fragments captures splotches of sunlight entering through holes in the school’s exterior. Later, one of the building’s walls collapses, and the children relocate to a location supported by American funding.

Though it inevitably gestures toward American occupation, Angels Are Made of Light is rare in its nearly undivided attention to civilian life in a region fundamentally altered by the U.S.’s so-called war on terror. Much of the film is composed of footage Longley shot at Daqiqi Balkhi from 2011 to 2014, with a particular focus on three brothers: Rostam, Sohrab, and Yaldash. The trio speak in voiceover throughout, and seem to define themselves by their relative interest in work and studying. Sohrab excels in school and doesn’t see himself as fit for manual labor, while the older Rostam works closely with their father. Yaldash, the youngest, works at a tin shop and is anguished when his job interferes with his educational aspirations.

The documentary’s classroom scenes exude a tone of controlled chaos, shot mostly at eye level with the students as they struggle to hear and be heard over the din of their classmates. (This is particularly true at their school’s first location, where numerous classes are taught outside right next to one another.) The passage of time is marked by changes in seasons and the repetition of certain ceremonies, like a teacher appreciation day featuring musical performances by students. Concurrently, there’s a Malickian quality to the near-constant voiceover of the brothers, whose concerns veer from the quotidian (earning money for the family, achieving in school) to the philosophical. Though their voices are profound, their limited perspective yields lengthy stretches of repetitive, meandering sentiments that are inflated by John Erik Kaada’s sometimes intrusive score.

If the children aren’t taught about their country’s history as a site of hostile takeover by other countries, the Taliban, and groups of mujahideen, they have clearly internalized the trauma their homeland has endured. “Death is coming. Doomsday is coming. Everything is coming,” one says. All seem to agree that learning about computers (none of which are seen in the documentary) is the only sure ticket to an escape or a successful career.

As Angels Are Made of Light proceeds, its chorus of narrative voices expands, adding a number of teachers (including the boys’ mother) and another schoolboy who sells hot food at an open market. The teachers add flashes of historical context, which Longley plays over archival footage of Kabul and its ruling governments over the previous decades. Cuts between the city’s past and its present are stark: The contemporary skyline is pockmarked with absent buildings that have been replaced by makeshift structures, and the city’s center is now cluttered with billboards advertising mobile phones and alcohol produced in NATO countries. Eventually, Longley shows current political action in the streets, as mujahideen gather to flog themselves in public, other groups march for democracy, and all focus their attention on 2014 presidential election where Hamid Karzai democratically transfers power to his successor, Ashraf Ghani, as rumors swirl about the Americans’ sway over the vote.

Longley’s decision to avoid addressing Afghani politics until the latter half of his film is sound, perhaps a signal that his young characters are becoming more attuned to the corruption that pervades daily operations in their city, but Angels Are Made of Light lacks the sort of structural framework that can properly sustain its lack of plot and rather confusing array of editorialists speaking in voiceover. The closest the film comes to a guiding focus is the recurring image of a large, ghostly white blimp that looms over Kabul, a blot of menace as children and other citizens look to the sky in hope or prayer. Presumably an observational surveillance craft, the blimp is an ironic mirror of the documentarian’s predicament—a totem that reminds everyone who sees it of the West’s influence on their lives. Longley is aware that his camera serves a similar function, and it’s admirable that he’s able to achieve an intimate portrait of a nation terminally anxious about who will see fit to rule it next.

Director: James Longley Distributor: Grasshopper Film Running Time: 117 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Mike Wallace Is Here Honors a Legend by Arguing with Him

Much like its subject, Avi Belkin’s documentary knows how to start an argument.

3

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Mike Wallace Is Here
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

Much like its subject, Mike Wallace Is Here knows how to start an argument. Avi Belkin’s archival documentary begins with the legendary broadcaster (who died in 2012) interviewing Bill O’Reilly at the peak of the latter’s influence as a Fox News blowhard. “That is not an interview, that’s a lecture,” Wallace moans before O’Reilly calls him a “dinosaur” and then really twists the knife: “You’re the driving force behind my career,” he tells Wallace. The exchange is riveting and, in some ways, inscrutable, as both of these TV personalities are so skilled at performance it can seem impossible to know if their dialogue is in earnest or some knowing fight among titans happy to march into battle.

Though it’s almost certainly fair to say that Wallace set the stage for an era of ostentatious and increasingly dangerous “personality journalism,” the breadth and quality of Wallace’s work is rich enough to lend some tension to Belkin’s exploration of the reporter as celebrity. Assembled with a propulsive momentum from dozens of televised interviews of and by Wallace, Mike Wallace Is Here portrays its subject as a self-made man, or, as his colleague Morley Safer calls him, “an invention.” Born Myron Wallace, he adopted his broadcast name while working as a performer on radio and then television, a decision made with no shortage of anxiety due to Wallace’s self-consciousness about his acne scars from childhood.

Ironically, Wallace’s breakthrough as a broadcaster (after a series of acting and promotional gigs) came with a show that revolutionized the television interview through its intense lighting and use of invasive closeups. Clips from his show Night-Beat—the first of two Wallace-led interview programs sponsored by cigarette companies and cloaked in smoke—reveal that the media personality was already aware of the showmanship innate in his brand of journalism. He introduces the show by saying “My role is that of a reporter,” and hones his skill for unsettling his guests with obnoxious editorial comments before asking questions. (“Many people hated your husband, and you,” he once said to Eleanor Roosevelt.)

Belkin weaves Wallace’s personal story into the documentary’s parade of interviews in a manner that’s unsurprisingly superficial, glossing over his many marriages, the death of his 19-year-old son, Peter, in a mountain-climbing accident in Greece in 1962 (Wallace cites the tragedy as a pivotal moment in the creation of 60 Minutes and the revival of his career), and a suicide attempt circa 1986. In interviews where Wallace is the subject—with the likes of Barbara Walters and other 60 Minutes colleagues—he’s alternately open and evasive about these flashpoints in his life, often demonstrating the very behavior he has no patience for as an interviewer. Belkin shrewdly reveals Wallace’s hypocrisy through editing, cutting to, for instance, a clip of Wallace grilling Larry King about his string of failed marriages.

Mike Wallace Is Here only suffers in its treatment of the broadcaster’s time at 60 Minutes, dispensing with cleverly edited commentary in favor of a swift survey of the major news of the second half of the 20th century. These include necessary digressions, such as General William C. Westmoreland’s libel suit against a CBS Reports special that Wallace anchored accusing the Army general of falsifying the American military’s analysis of the strength of the Vietnamese army in order to keep the war in Vietnam going, and the tumultuous process of televising Wallace’s interview with the tobacco industry whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand (the subject of Michael Mann’s The Insider). But this extensive highlight reel seems to forget that the documentary is scrutinizing Wallace as it’s celebrating him.

At its nerviest, Mike Wallace Is Here uses the words of other celebrities to psychoanalyze Wallace. The film argues (and at times Wallace acknowledges) that his success is a product of his sense of shame, first about the way that he looked and then about the way that he behaved, loved, and parented. When Wallace is coy, Belkin effectively imagines a more honest response by cutting to someone else saying what he believes is true. After showing Wallace dancing around his lack of pride for a while, he cuts to Barbara Streisand talking about how “fear is the energy toward doing your best work.” In the very same interview, she calls Wallace “a son of a bitch,” and Mike Wallace Is Here is at its best when it seems to be in direct debate with this journalistic legend. The film honors Wallace best when it seems to be arguing with him.

Director: Avi Belkin Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 94 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Japan Cuts 2019: Demolition Girl, And Your Bird Can Sing, & Being Natural

Japan Cuts has established itself as the definitive Japanese film festival in the United States, thanks to the scope of its programming.

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Demolition Girl
Photo: Japan Cuts

Japan Cuts has established itself as the definitive Japanese film festival in the United States, thanks to the scope of its programming. The 2019 edition is no exception, with over 30 events over 10 days, among them talks, screenings, and Q&A sessions with filmmakers as diverse as Macoto Tezka (The Legend of the Stardust Brothers) and Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo: The Iron Man), the latter of whom is this year’s recipient of the festival’s Cut Above award, which is given to a defining figure of Japan’s cinema, and will be awarded before the East Coast premiere of his latest film, the samurai action-drama Killing.

Lest you think Japan Cuts is only a showcase for genre exercises, the festival abounds in works that explore the struggles that erupt from the Japanese capitalist system, and are felt in different ways across generations. Demolition Girl, Genta Matsugami’s feature debut, is among the strongest of recent films to bluntly speak about class difference. It follows 17-year-old Cocoa (Aya Kitai), who, in the wake of her mother’s death, has decided to forgo a university education and get a job. But as her shifts at a local amusement park only pay so much, she starts to perform in adult fetish videos that see her stomping on cans, trash, and balloons.

At his best, the film taps into the heightened experience of the poorest of the people living on the edge. For one, whenever Cocoa’s father (Yota Kawase) has some money on hand, he yearns for instant satisfaction, spending it on expensive sushi. As for Cocoa, who’s isolation is emphasized through shots that see her alone in corridors, or studying late at night in her room, it’s almost as if she’s destined to fail. And, indeed, when her school finds out about the adult videos she’s been making, and just as she was beginning to realize her promise of going to a Tokyo university, her life falls apart. When confronted by friends about why she made the videos, all she can do is yell at them: “You wouldn’t understand, you’re rich, you wouldn’t know. Will you pay for my expenses?” In this moment, Kitai’s triumph is making her character’s wail against a cruel economic system feel as if it could be our own.

And Your Bird Can Sing, directed by Sho Miyake, is focused on two late-twentysomething slackers: the unnamed protagonist (Tasuku Emoto) and his roommate, Shizo (Himizu and Parasyte star Shōta Sometani). Both work crappy jobs, and they try to stay sane through copious amounts of drinking and pointed mockery of the economically fraught lot they’ve been handed in life. The protagonist’s attitude could be summed up by one early sequence, when he meets a co-worker and convinces her to go on a date, only to later miss the date, fall asleep, wake up, and decide to spend his night drinking with Shizo.

A love triangle between the roomies and one of the protagonist’s co-workers, Sachiko (Shizuka Ishibashi), brings some solace to the men’s lives. There’s redundancy to the way that Miyake frames these characters, showing their faces up close rather than the screens they peer at as they text each other, but his wide shots speak to how they all work to fill empty spaces. Miyake’s style is relaxed, almost as if his camera has absorbed everyone’s slacker vibes. Especially of note is a sequence that lingers at length on Sachiko paying for groceries while the two men in her life try to hold their laughter, saying to each other that she’s going to regret her purchase. Miyake’s gaze is empathetic, and there’s truth in his understanding that you have to sometimes laugh at your underprivilege in order to prevent yourself from screaming.

More tonally varied, and operating on a larger scale, director Tadashi Nagayama’s satirical Being Natural broaches the subject of gentrification as it immerses viewers in the daily routines of a middle-aged man, Taka (Yota Kawase), who lives in a small town in the countryside of Japan and works with his cousin, Mitsuaki (Shoichiro Tanigawa), and their friend, Sho (Tadahiro Tsuru), at a fishpond inherited from his deceased uncle. Everything starts to derail for the three men when a family arrives on the scene from Tokyo with the hopes of opening up an old-style café that will only sell natural and locally grown products. At the start of the film, the still-grieving Taka doesn’t fully understand what he has until someone tries to take it away from him, and by the end, a spectacular show of violence will see him finally realizing the nature of the economic system he’s trapped within.

The film’s style is initially sweet and mellow, with the softest of songs dotting the soundtrack. Taka plays bongos, and the sounds of the instrument are also heard throughout. At first, this sound creates a calm atmosphere that’s in sync with the bright cinematography. But as the film introduces a series of sinister twists, those bongos come to take on an almost murderous bent. The sounds of the instrument point to the encroachment of a capitalist economy on a place relatively untouched by it. In its final minutes, Being Natural takes a turn toward the supernatural, and it’s satisfying for giving the main characters the reprisal they want, but also poignant for the way it has us understand that it only occurs in the realm of fantasy. The film, in the end, acknowledges that it’s difficult to go against the system, and that to stay sane means finding a little pocket of happiness in the world and enjoying it while it lasts.

Japan Cuts runs from July 19—28.

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Review: David Crosby: Remember My Name Sees a Legend Carrying On

The film captures a man haunted by his past mistakes and nearly certain that he doesn’t have the time left to begin making up for them.

2.5

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David Crosby: Remember My Name
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

One gets the sense when hearing David Cosby perform that, like many naturally gifted vocalists, he was born to express himself through song, and given his tumultuous personal and professional life, the act of singing may be the only means through which Crosby can briefly maintain an equilibrium amid so much chaos. Womanizing, drug abuse, and band breakups are certainly par for the course for countless musicians, especially those who came up in the late 1960s, but Crosby is an extreme case even by those standards. It’s difficult to think of another living musician more strongly and uniformly despised by his former bandmates and collaborators and, aside from Keith Richards, another whose continued survival is more shocking in light of what he’s put his body through.

Aided by Cameron Crowe, who, as a Rolling Stone writer, interviewed Crosby various times and is on hand here to again pick the musician’s brain, A.J. Eaton’s David Crosby: Remember My Name opens with a fairly standard music-doc overview that traces Crosby’s productive early years with the Byrds and his ascent to fame with both iterations of Crosby, Stills & Nash. There’s no effort made to hide Crosby’s thorny personality or the chaos he brought to each of these early projects, but Eaton and Crowe seem initially content to butter Crosby up, joining him in waxing rhapsodic about his widespread influence and lasting importance as a musician.

The hagiographic tone slowly fades as the film moves past the perfunctory career retrospective and begins delving into the nitty-gritty details of Crosby’s bumpy road to stardom and his rapid descent into disgrace, spurred on by his decades-long battle with drug addiction. While Crosby often proves a tough nut to crack, rarely willing to linger too long on the painful moments of a life eventful enough to fill several documentaries, Crowe and Eaton eventually disarm him enough to tap into the frustrated, damaged, and regretful man hiding all those years beneath his patented walrus mustache and wispy, long hair. As Crosby discusses the petulance and rage he often unfairly directed at fellow bandmates and his mistreatment of many of his girlfriends, several of whom he got hooked on cocaine and heroin, one can sense not only the depth of his remorse and anguish, but also the resigned helplessness that little can be done in his twilight years to repair the many bridges he’s permanently scorched.

Throughout Remember My Name, archival interviews with Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, and Neil Young make it abundantly clear that Crosby has alienated each of his former bandmates to such a degree that none of them will talk to him again. Only former Byrds frontman Roger McGuinn appears in a newly recorded interview for the film, and he does so presumably only to describe how “insufferable” Crosby was as a fellow bandmate.

At nearly 80 years old, Crosby is happily married and in the midst of a creative resurgence with a string of acclaimed solo albums, but even these small joys are mitigated by his admission that he’s only touring, and thus often away from his wife, because he needs the money. During a leisurely drive with Crowe, Crosby visits his old stomping grounds in Laurel Canyon and the Sunset Strip and recounts those halcyon days when he lived with Joni Mitchell and sang his first song with Nash and Stills. But the magic of these locales has long since faded, leaving Crosby in an uncharacteristically introspective state and all too aware of how close he is to the end of his life. As he wistfully tells Crowe that he already has eight stents in his heart and will likely die in the next couple of years, the film captures a man haunted by his past mistakes and nearly certain that he doesn’t have the time left to begin making up for them.

Director: A.J. Eaton Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 95 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Cassandro, the Exotico! Shoulders the Strange Burden of Empathy

Marie Losier’s empathy, if not love, for Cassandro hinders her from examining his wounds with much depth.

2.5

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Cassandro, the Exotico!
Photo: Film Movement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Interview: Marc Maron on Sword of Truth, WTF, and the Possibility of Change

Maron discusses modern media discourse, the communicative bridge linking his acting with his podcast, and how he likes to be directed.

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Marc Maron
Photo: IFC Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right.

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

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

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

Yeah.

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

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

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

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