Coming Up in This Column: Carlos, The Plainsmen, 30 Rock, Mad Men
Carlos (2010. Written by Olivier Assayas and Daniel Franck, based on an idea by Daniel Leconte. 335 minutes)
I don’t know if this is a great movie, but… it’ll do until something better comes along. According to an interview with Assayas by David Thompson in the November 2010 issue of Sight & Sound, Assayas was sent about four pages of material by Daniel LeConte, the producer of the film. It was a summary of the life and career of the notorious terrorist “Carlos,” aka the Jackal. Assayas was interested in the character (always a good sign), but not the summary. So Leconte sent him research done by journalist Stephen Smith, an expert in the field. What Assayas discovered was that there was more material available about Carlos’s operation and the geopolitical background than he had thought. In other words, it was getting longer. The film was originally supposed to be a 90-minute film for French television. Assayas told that to Leconte, who was reluctant, but they got approval from Canal Plus to do two 90-minute films. Then Assayas sat down with Daniel Franck, a screenwriter attached to the project, and after one meeting they both realized that three hours was not going to be enough, especially when they got into the material on the attack on the OPEC meeting in Vienna in 1975. Back to Canal Plus and an OK for a three-part film. Now as you know, if you have read this column for any length of time, that I do not believe as a general rule that longer is better. Look at any “director’s cut” if you don’t believe me. Carlos is the exception that proves the rule. Yes, there is a 2 ½ hour version that will play theatres, and it may be wonderful, but try to see the full version.
Part One, the first 105 minutes, gets us off to a nice start. We see a guy we don’t know in bed with a pretty woman. OK, he may be our hero. He gets dressed, goes outside. And checks his car for any car bombs. Smart guy. He doesn’t find any, so he gets in the car, turns on the ig—KABOOM. He’s not quite as smart as he thought, and we are now on our toes, knowing anybody can get it at any time. What the writers have done in the rest of the first part is alternate the terrorists’ actions with quieter scenes with Carlos, whom we learn had set the car bomb in the opening scene, although we never learn exactly why.
The action scenes include the invasion of the French embassy at the Hague and two wonderfully bungled attempts to shoot down an airliner at Orly Airport in Paris. The writers pace these scenes throughout the first part, so you know during the dialogue scenes that there will be some blow-’em-up-real-good stuff coming soon. Carlos was so active that there will always be some action right around the corner. Indeed, Carlos is going around corners a lot. In US#30 I got on the script for last year’s Public Enemies because there was so much running around from one place to another. I wrote at the time that may be true of Dillinger’s life on the run, but it makes him rather shallow because the script then does not provide scenes that give us the character. Assayas and Franck give us the character scenes between the running around. In the first part we get scenes of Carlos, who never seemed to be without a girlfriend of one kind or another, using his “revolutionary” ideas to seduce women. We are never quite sure, especially in this part, how serious a revolutionary he is. Is he in it for his beliefs? Or for the adrenaline rush? Or both? The writers are certainly establishing Carlos as a man of action, but Part One speeds along so fast we don’t get any deeper into him. At this point. Which is part of what the writers are doing, setting up questions in our mind while holding our interest with the action. Carlos is not a sympathetic character, but we want to watch him because when he is on-screen, stuff happens. Not very nice stuff, true, but stuff.
By the end of Part One, Carlos has convinced Wadie Haddad, the chief terrorist of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), to let him handle their operations for Europe. We have seen Carlos cool and collected, but in the suspenseful scene where he kills two members of DST, the French security services, we also see he can be impulsive. So Haddad wants him to run the OPEC operation. Carlos and his crew, including Angie and Nada, two Germans, get off the streetcar at the OPEC meeting as Part One ends.
The first hour of the 110-minute Part Two is the OPEC operation. That’s a long time, but it is a change in rhythm from the first part of the movie, and we are perfectly willing to slow down, especially since we see Carlos in action. In several of the operations in the first part, we only see the people working for Carlos, and they are often close to incompetent. Carlos at OPEC is very competent, maybe a little too much so. When they first invade the conference room, one of the people Carlos inadvertently kills is the OPEC minister from Libya. This pisses off Qaddafi, whom we never see in the film, and ends any chance they can land in Libya as part of their escape. Carlos’s discussions with the various ministers tell us a lot about Carlos as well as the ministers. As does the outcome. Haddad wanted Carlos to kill the Saudi oil minister, but Carlos could not resist the opportunity to accept a $20 million ransom. Carlos and Haddad have a great scene where Haddad “fires” Carlos from his group, saying Carlos is now a celebrity and “celebrities don’t take orders.” Haddad assigns the next big operation to friends of Carlos, a group of pro-Palestine Germans. It is the highjacking of an Air France airliner, which they take to Entebbe. Needless to say, that does not end well for the terrorists.
Carlos now has to create his own group, financed by Baghdad. His previous friends are getting out of the business, either voluntarily or involuntarily. Angie, who was wounded in the OPEC operation, goes on the run. Nada is eventually arrested. Magdalena, a German woman, comes to Baghdad, and we get a great “job interview” scene between her and Carlos that ends with sex. His use of revolutionary rhetoric for seduction has become more complex.
Andropov, a Russian, comes to tell Carlos that they are offering $1 million for the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Needless to say, the pro-Palestinians would be delighted to get rid of the man who signed the Camp David accords. You don’t remember that it was Carlos who killed Sadat? Well, he didn’t. The writers structure this very nicely, with several mentions of the money that is out there for someone to take out Sadat and how difficult it is going to be. The preparations are ongoing, until a group of fundamentalists do the job, leaving Carlos and his crew with two wasted years of planning. Sometimes the amateurs can screw up the lives of the professionals. By the end of Part Two, Carlos has the backing of Syria. But the world is changing.
According to the Assayas interview, much of the material in the first hour of Part Three has been cut from the shorter theatrical version, which is too bad. The first two parts have dealt primarily with Carlos and his connections in the Middle East, but in Part Three, we begin to see how connected the terrorist groups were with the communist countries. One of the points Thompson brought up in his interview is that most movies about terrorist groups suggest they were a local or national phenomenon, whereas Carlos shows us the international connections. Part Three opens with Carlos, Magdalena, and Weinrich, a German collaborator, living in a safe house in Budapest. The Hungarian State Security Service knows they are there and also knows that it cannot bother them or the Soviet Union will cause problems. The Hungarians still try, without much success, to get information on Carlos using undercover hookers. The writers give us a couple of nervous, maybe even bumbling, Hungarian Security men who are sent to the house to tell Carlos they are going to take care of his security. Carlos is not impressed. The Stasi tell Carlos he is no longer welcome in East Berlin, since the East Germans are afraid the Western Intelligence services will bug them and track them down. We get a real sense of how complex the political connections are in the terrorist world, a situation that has only gotten worse in the years after Carlos.
Carlos sets up a bombing of an Arab newspaper in Paris, but it goes wrong. Magdalena fights a lot with Carlos because she does not want to stay cooped up in her darkroom forging passports (Carlos has to do it on his own, as opposed to the days when the PFLP provided all of that). She wants to do “field work,” so he lets her go on the bombing. But the person who left the Peugeot with the bomb in a parking garage forgot to give them the parking ticket and Magdalena gets arrested. Carlos sends letters demanding her release, without success. He sets off a bomb intended to kill Chirac, then the mayor of Paris, but it only wounds him and stiffens the French resolve to fight back. If other films on terrorist groups are hermetically sealed in the worlds of the groups, one of the great things about Carlos is that it has such a broad vision, at least in the longer version, of the place of those groups in the real world. This has the striking effect of showing, not telling, how mentally isolated such groups are. Which is why so many of their activities are ultimately counter-productive. I know of no other film that shows that.
The nervous Hungarian Security Service guys tell Carlos that Western Intelligence is on to him and they have to dismantle their safe house in Budapest. Carlos ends up in Syria, supposedly a “successful businessman.” Magdalena is finally released from prison. She almost got out once before, but was kidnapped by the French—yes, the same people who had her in prison—and turned over to the West Germans for another term. She joins him there, and they seem happy. But Syria doesn’t want him any more. Neither does Libya. The Berlin Wall has fallen, and the Cold War support with it. As Weinrich says to Carlos, “The war is over and we lost.” Carlos has a child with Magdalena and we see him chasing the child around the garden. This is likely a conscious reference to the garden scene with Don Corleone in The Godfather (1972)—two similar domesticated monsters. Magdalena gets fed up and takes the child with her to Venezuela? Why Venezuela? Because that is where Carlos is from. She is going to live with Carlos’s mother and brother. And what was the brother doing while Carlos was being a celebrity terrorist? Making a fortune in the construction business. The writers don’t beat us over the head with this, but just give it to us as a throwaway line. Like I say, the writers are very aware of the outside world, which I always admire in a screenplay.
Carlos and the girlfriend Magdalena knew he had are now in Khartoum. He is a teacher. In one short scene he is teaching guerilla tactics in a classroom, using as one of his textbooks Seven Pillars of Wisdom. By T.E. Lawrence. As in, of Arabia. Again, not stressed by the writers, but part of the pattern. At least one review of the film said that they felt the last half-hour or so goes on too long, and I can see what they mean, since we are waiting around for Carlos to get captured. Nothing blows up real good. But because of the context the writers have established in the first five hours, it makes every scene suspenseful. In this film, you never know when something is going to happen, which adds to the tension in the last thirty minutes. Carlos is finally captured, but in a very Carlos way. Ali, one of his connections to the Arab world, has to prove his loyalty to Syria, so he gives them Carlos’s address in Khartoum. Which Syria sells to the C.I.A.. But the C.I.A. don’t want him. So they trade him to the French, who definitely want him. So members of the DST—remember that Carlos killed some of their colleagues at the end of Part One?—pick him up and take him back to France. We don’t see the trial or Carlos in prison, but I am not sure we need to see that. What we do get in the end credits are photographs of the actors and their real-life counterparts and what happened, if known, to the real people. I was impressed by the casting and performances as the film was on, but even more so when I saw the photographs. The woman playing Nada does not bear a perfect physical resemblance to the original, but boy does she capture the attitude that comes across in the still photograph.
Now you may well ask, if there is all this good stuff in the script and the film, why were you quibbling at the beginning on whether it is a great film or not? As I was watching the film, I kept having niggling problems. I was not sure in Part One if they were getting into Carlos’s character as deeply as they could. Even in the remaining parts I had some reservations. On the other hand, they do suggest that Carlos was not that deep. He certainly was not an intellectual, and he used the revolutionary ideas as an excuse to get into action. Here I am reminded of the critics’ reaction to Lawrence of Arabia (1962) Many critics felt, and still feel, that the film does not get into Lawrence’s character as deeply as it should. I dealt with this in the book Understanding Screenwriting, where I wrote, that the film, instead of “explaining” his character, “shows us, which is what screenwriting ought to be about… One of the smartest comments in the original reviews was one critic’s line that Lawrence was most himself not in close-up, but in the long shots where he is riding a camel across the desert.” True for Lawrence, and maybe true for Carlos, but I still came away feeling I wanted a little more on Carlos. There is also the last half-hour, which could be shortened a bit. Maybe those are just minor complaints.
Consider this as well. One thing a great movie does is make you see the world in its terms, which often affects the next movie or piece of art or music you see or hear. If you see D.W. Griffith’s 1916 epic Intolerance, you will see its influence in almost every movie you see afterward. After I finished the last part of Carlos, I cued up on my DVR the “Harbor City” episode of Law & Order: Los Angeles (written by Judith McCreary). The speed and rhythm seemed very like Carlos. That night my wife and I went to see a new musical premiering at the Ahmanson Theater. It is Leap of Faith, based on the obscure 1992 film of the same name. The book for the show is written by Janus Cercone, who wrote the screenplay, and Glenn Slater, who also wrote the lyrics. It’s a hodgepodge of material, pushed together in a rather haphazard way. I kept thinking of Carlos, where the writers take an enormous range of material and find the ways to make it fit, in ways the musical never manages. And the next night, we heard the LA Philharmonic play Olivier Messiaen’s Turnagalila-symphonie, an eighty-minute epic consideration of love in all its forms. Messiaen used the long form the way Assayas and Franck do: to tie together multiple related themes. Messiaen and the screenwriters do it brilliantly. They made their work part of my world. You can’t ask for more than that.
The Plainsman (1936. Screenplay by Waldemar Young, Harold Lamb and Lynn Riggs, from material compiled by Jeanie Macpherson, based on stories by Courtney Ryley Cooper and Frank J. Wilstach, with additional uncredited writing by Wallace Smith, Stuart Anthony, and Virginia Van Upp. 113 minutes)
Way too many cooks: When I was in a western mood a few weeks ago, I got this one from Netflix, along with Buffalo Bill (1944), which I wrote about in the last column. If too many writers spoiled that one, the boys and girls here really made a mess of this one. Well, not surpising. The producer-director of this was Cecil B. DeMille, and I talked about him and his 1939 film Union Pacific in US#30. Much of what I said there applies to this one. DeMille was coming off the lack of financial success of his 1935 spectacle The Crusades. (The background on the film, including the uncredited writers, is as before from Robert S. Birchard’s Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood.) Paramount wanted DeMille’s spectacle, but they really didn’t want to pay for it. DeMille first wanted to do a film on Buffalo Bill, which could have been a wonderful subject for him, but the 1935 film Annie Oakley had covered a lot of that. So he settled on Wild Bill Hickok as the main character, with Buffalo Bill as a supporting character (the two were friends) and Calamity Jane as the love interest. Hickok and Jane knew each other, but since she was as ugly and sin and seldom took a bath, there was probably not a romance. As in the later Union Pacific, DeMille had his writers focus on the love story. Paramount insisted DeMille use their biggest star, Gary Cooper, as Hickok, and DeMille got Jean Arthur for Jane, probably because a few month before The Plainsman went into production Cooper and Arthur had a great teaming in the 1936 film Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. In that film they had Robert Riskin writing a great script for them. Not so here. There are some nice scenes, but nothing that shows them, especially Arthur, at their best.
Waldemar Young has been writing movies since the early silent era, and he was one of the writers on DeMille’s 1934 Cleopatra as well as The Crusades. Harold Lamb worked on The Crusades as well, and spent most of his time in the business with DeMille. Lynn Riggs, hmm, where have we heard that name before? Probably not for her screenplay credits, but as the author of the stage play Green Grow the Lilacs, which became the basis for the great American stage and later so-so screen musical, Oklahoma!. So at least two of the three writers knew the DeMille style: epic action and a love story, with not a lot of concern for dramatic structure or historical accuracy. The love story is very much a star vehicle for Cooper and Arthur, although as noted above, not a very good one. The epic elements have their limitations, and not just because of the budget restrictions the studio put on the film. I noted in writing about Union Pacific that a lot of it was shot on sound stages. That is even truer of The Plainsman. According to Birchard, 29 days of the original 46-day schedule were on the sound stages. Thirteen days were to be on the studio backlot. Only four days of principal photography were to be shot on locations near the studio. DeMille, unlike directors such as John Ford, Henry King and David Lean, appears to have preferred not to go on location. DeMille was a notorious control freak and he could control the production better on the lot. He did send director Arthur Rosson up to Montana to shoot a lot, and I mean a lot, of second unit footage of the cavalry, the Indians, and assorted other outdoor stuff. His footage was cut into the film, and used as rear projection on the sound stages. Like Union Pacific, it’s very stage-bound for a western. DeMille knew that was going to be how the film was done, so that was how he had the writers write the script.
In spite of all that, the picture was a big hit, and DeMille followed it up with more American historical films. They are not any better.
30 Rock (2010. “Live Show” written by Robert Carlock and Tina Fey. 30 minutes)
Boy, did this not work: Remember the Golden Age of American Television? It was the ‘50s and all the major shows were live. Yes, live. From New York City, the home of live theatre. None of this crappy little cheap filmed stuff that was syndicated to local stations. Live! It was great. Well, no, it really wasn’t all that great. While many of the television writers who worked in live television that I interviewed for Storytellers to the Nation: A History of American Television Writing thought live television was great, some had their reservations. The late E. Jack Neuman told me, “The best of it was really a third-rate movie, the very best. [On] Playhouse 90 I was always thinking about what I could do on a movie set, and how terribly limited and awkward [it was].” And here comes 30 Rock to prove how right Neuman was.
Yes, this episode was done live, once for the East Coast and once for the West Coast. I saw the West Coast feed, so if you want to tell me the East Coast version was better, you can try, but you’ll have a hard time convincing me. Doing it live killed the rhythm of the show, which is based on short, quick scenes. Here they dragged out the scenes to the point of killing the jokes. There were what I take to be some joke references to doing a live show, but they were not particularly subtle and often played directly to the camera, which also not part of the world of 30 Rock. Because of the limitations of the live studio in which they were broadcasting from, the sets looked a lot smaller and cheaper than the ones in the filmed episodes. See what E. Jack Neuman meant? And the live audience also threw off the acting, since the actors had to wait for the audience reactions. This led to the actors overacting, which also killed what funny stuff there was in the screenplay. The quick subtlety of the show was lost. Back to film, please, where you can do it right.
Mad Men (2010. “Tomorrowland” written by Jonathan Igla and Matthew Weiner. 62 minutes)
And so ends one of the best seasons of Mad Men: You know now that I like Mad Men, in spite of it moving at a snail’s pace during the first few seasons. One thing I loved most about this season was that they picked up the pace, without losing any of the other elements that make the show so great: great characters, great scenes, and a wonderful sense of the period the show is set in. Most of those elements are present in this episode. Don has written off Lucky Strike and any tobacco clients with his ad in the New York Times, but he’s got a meeting with the American Cancer Society. They are interested in starting an anti-smoking campaign and why not get the best guy around to do it? And Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce needs the business, since they haven’t landed a new client in weeks.
Betty fires Carla, the Black nanny who has been with them forever, since she let Glen, the creepy little boy, say goodbye to Sally. Don is upset that Betty did this now, since he is taking the kids on a trip to California and he was expecting Carla to take care of them while he was in meetings. Geez, who can he get at the last minute to go to California? Well, Megan, his new secretary, was good with Sally several episodes back when she showed up at her dad’s office. See how Weiner and the gang have been setting things up? Now what would have happened if Mrs. Blankenship had not died? Actually, Mrs. Blankenship as a nanny could have been fun…
Meanwhile Peggy learns that Topaz pantyhose has fired their agency. How does she find out? Her lesbian friend brings around a model who was part of the fired ad campaign. Harry Crane is busy flirting with her, but Peggy sees an opportunity and arranges a meeting with the guys at Topaz. Peggy being Peggy, she comes up with a couple of ideas on the spot, and she lands the first big account SCDP has gotten in weeks. Boy, is that going to be a big deal at the office. Not so fast.
Because of budget limitations (do you want to pay to recreate the Disneyland of the mid-’60?), we don’t see Don and the kids go to Disneyland, but we hear about it, but not so much we miss the scenes there. Mostly we see the kids and Megan in the hotel swimming pool. Don, who had sex once with Megan in the office, has sex with her again in California. After all, she has seen him with Stephanie, Anna’s niece, and knows he is a good guy. Megan tells him, “I know who you are now,” which probably means more to Don than Megan intends. He later tells her, “I feel like myself with you.” You can understand the impact of that on Don, who has very seldom felt like himself anywhere. No wonder he proposes, using Anna’s engagement ring from the “real” Don Draper that Stephanie has told him Anna wanted him to have.
So when they get back to SCDP, Don tells Joan, Lane, and Roger, who are a bit gobsmacked. Even more gobsmacked is Peggy, for about six million reasons. See the advantage of the way the writers for the series have developed the Don-Peggy relationship? Is she pissed because she wanted Don for herself? Wanted him sexually, or just professionally? Or is she pissed, as she says to Joan in a wonderful scene, because his news has overshadowed hers in everybody’s mind. Remember the elevator scene in “The Summer Man”? Their relationship is developing as well
My God, what about Faye, the audience analyst he’s been sleeping with? He calls her, and she refuses to meet him. That’s smart writing. It’s better to do this scene on the phone so we can have some “privileged moments,” as actors call them, with her. Faye is not happy.
Joan has a nice phone conversation with her husband. Remember that abortion she had? Well, neither she nor anybody else ever said she went through with it. She’s still pregnant, but has convinced her husband it’s his. Joan is very persuasive, as we know. And what is Roger going to think when she goes all swelly-belly in the office?
Don ends up at his old house to meet with a real estate agent, and who shows up with Betty. She is not surprised he is getting married again, and she knows without being told that it is the secretary. We can tell she’s a little envious. Things are not going well with her and Henry.
So, we have come through a season in which the new agency got its start, and went through a rocky period. It’s also been a season that has seen Don more depressed and disconnected than we have ever seen him before. It’s a season where Peggy is coming into her own in all kinds of ways.
I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait for the next season.
Tom Stempel is the author of several books on film. His most recent is Understanding Screenwriting: Learning From Good, Not-Quite-So Good, and Bad Screenplays.
Review: Cassandro, the Exotico! Shoulders the Strange Burden of Empathy
Marie Losier’s empathy, if not love, for Cassandro hinders her from examining his wounds with much depth.2.5
Queerness isn’t just about the relationship between bodies: the ones we desire, the ones that will never desire us back, the ones we wished we possessed. It’s also very much a matter of cloth, color, and adornment. Many a pop-cultural figure has manifested this queer sartorial drama, from Liberace to David Bowie, from Leigh Bowery to early Lady Gaga, from Pepper LaBeija to Shangela Laquifa Wadley. And with her new documentary, Cassandro, the Exotico!, Marie Losier introduces us to a lesser-known, yet just as subversive, purveyor of that drama: Mexican luchador Cassandro, a Universal Wrestling Association winner and former junkie with a penchant for gaudy garments.
Ridiculous stage wear is, of course, fundamentally associated with professional wrestling, but Cassandro’s textile-informed camp isn’t compensated by violent machismo or a heterosexist mise-en-scène. Instead, this exótico is unapologetic about the seamless kinship between his queerness and that of the clothes he wears. And the continuum between queer sexuality and fashion places him simultaneously as the exceptional gay figure in a supposedly macho sport, the Mexican lucha libre, and as the element that outs wrestling writ large as an already queer affair. Cassandro, né Saúl Armendáriz, is, then, a ready-made cinematic character, bearing the contradictions of his world from the inside—a world where, much like ours, heterosexual male violence is performed through patently homoerotic means.
Although skin, bones, and fabric are all—to various degrees of visible and invisible discomfort—stitched into the gendered body, the film is precisely concerned with the moment when these connections come apart at the seams. After decades of fighting for a living, Cassandro’s body is giving out. This is a moment of desperation for someone who turned to wrestling as something between religion and therapy. We see him literally hanging his flamboyant costumes to dry on a clotheslines as he speaks about retirement, about how quitting would appease his body but demolish his ego. As the film progresses, his dislocated chin, limited hand movements, and multiple head concussions will seem like the belated embodiment, if not the psychosomatic scream, of a childhood marked by molestation and sexual abuse. A history of spectacular violence catching up to years of a much less visible brutality.
Cassandro, the Exotico! is largely observational, with occasional interventions from Losier. It wouldn’t be fair to call the film hagiographic, but the director’s empathy, if not love, for her subject hinders her from examining Cassandro’s wounds with much depth. When faced with Cassandro’s misery, Losier’s response is to console him as if wanting to change the subject. She cuts one moment of candidness short, when Cassandro is addressing his fears via Skype, by telling him, “I wish I could give you a kiss.” It would have served the documentary better had Losier granted her subject the possibility to work through his pain in front of the camera.
Visually, the documentary, which is shot on 16mm film stock, recalls canonical diaristic works that expose people’s troublesome feelings in raw and unbridled fashion (think Jonas Mekas, Sadie Benning, and Su Friedrich). Which makes the juxtaposition of Losier’s visual language and her reluctance to examine Cassandro’s frailties feel particularly displeasing. Perhaps afraid that scrutiny would shatter Cassandro, Losier fails to realize that it’s precisely through such shattering that redemption can emerge, maybe even reparation.
Director: Marie Losier Screenwriter: Marie Losier, Antoine Barraud Distributor: Film Movement Running Time: 73 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
Interview: Marc Maron on Sword of Truth, WTF, and the Possibility of Change
Maron discusses modern media discourse, the communicative bridge linking his acting with his podcast, and how he likes to be directed.
Marc Maron is presently enjoying one of the most unlikely and inspiring success stories in Hollywood. Once known as a bitter “comic’s comic” who was eclipsed in success by contemporaries such as Louis C.K. and Jon Stewart, Maron has been reborn into a poster boy for empathy, starting with his blockbuster podcast, “WTF,” and continuing with roles in the hit television series Maron, Easy, and GLOW. With each role, Maron has rapidly evolved from a “comic who acts” into a first-rate character actor capable of subtly altering his charisma to fit a variety of oddballs who, like himself, struggle with self-doubt while attempting to walk a straight and sober path.
Now, with Sword of Truth, Maron makes his debut as a cinematic lead, playing Mel, a pawnshop owner who ends up on a road trip that stirs long-festering feelings of estrangement, which parallels the forms of isolation gripping a variety of other characters, and which the film’s director, Lynn Shelton, links to the reactionary myths and politics currently gripping this country. The role marks another career high point for Maron, who talked to me last week about the communicative bridge linking his acting with his podcast, how he likes to be directed, and the “mind-fuckery” currently gripping modern media discourse.
Given that you’ve previously worked with Lynn Shelton on Maron and GLOW, did you two have a kind of collaborative shorthand going into Sword of Trust?
Well, I’m generally filled with anxiety and resistance. I don’t know if there’s a shorthand, but Lynn knows how to get the best out of me and works with me pretty well. I like directors who’re hands on with me and guide me.
Do you like to receive a lot of explicit direction, or is your process more intuitive?
Well, I do what I do. I definitely welcome suggestions, because I’m certainly not going to think of all the possibilities of a scene. Most of my choices are not necessarily correct. I usually come in pretty intense and hot, and there’s subtleties that can be coaxed out with minor tweaks. And I like working like that. I wouldn’t have the confidence to assume that my take is the “right” one necessarily.
There’s a stillness to you in Sword of Trust that I’m not sure we’ve seen before.
Your weight as a performer is really felt here, especially in that scene when Mel first see Lynn’s character in his shop. I love how you enter the room from the closet, and how one can feel the emotion bubbling up in Mel.
Thanks, man. I think this is a heavy-hearted guy who’s sort of surrendered to his lot in life. He also has a certain amount invested in his own. I don’t know if it’s heartache, but he’s definitely a broken dude who’s making the best of whatever time he has left. I don’t know if the other characters are really like that. They are always in forward motion.
You also inform Mel’s appraising of objects with all these lovely emotional textures. He’s not only talking about a sword.
The guitar too. As I act more, I try to take some of the space that you’re talking about. With acting I feel that I’ve been learning on the job in a way, and over time I’ve started to explore different possibilities with owning whatever my space is, whether it’s a movie or on stage. Certainly, over decades of doing stand-up, I’ve figured out my space on a stage, but being on a set and pacing yourself and taking the time to engage with what’s around you I think makes a lot of difference in how a performance comes off. It’s about being present in an environment.
Has your ascending acting career changed how you relate to actors on your podcast?
Over the last few years, since I’ve started acting more, I’ve had more actors on. I tend to try to pull a nice acting class out of that. I think a lot of what my guests say makes sense. Once again, a lot of acting is about listening and being present. In another time in my life, I saw certain actors as mythic. Now that I’ve talked to so many of them, I’ve started to realize, not in a disappointing way, that…what’s the word I want? That these are people doing a job, all in their own way. Once you get upset with people, you realize, “Well, that’s how they’re approaching this job,” and when you get into the ring or the scene, you’re in it.
That inside knowledge gives “WTF” an edge too. For many interviewers, like myself, art-making is basically theory. But you have your feet on the ground so to speak.
I think that happens over time. I don’t think I ever set out to interview. I’ve framed what happens on my podcast as conversations, and they either go somewhere or they don’t. There’s a few points I may get hung up on, and there are places I go to fairly regularly in interviews, but I generally don’t see these conversations as question-and-answer situations. I don’t have any expectations really other than to feel a connection or to sort of be enlightened. I think those of you who have a job to interview, for an outlet, for the content and the word count and everything else, might have more restrictions. I don’t have to answer to anybody and I don’t know what I’m looking for half the time.
Yeah, and a challenge I’ve found with interviews is that one doesn’t always entirely know what is and isn’t in bounds, which can lead to an impersonal vibe. By contrast, your podcast has such an intimate layer throughout.
You have to feel that stuff out, you know I’m not necessarily intuitive about that. I’m not really in the business of sandbagging anybody.
Usually you get somebody comfortable and things come out. If people are comfortable and engaged it doesn’t really matter what they’re talking about. Audiences will say, “Oh, wow, I didn’t know that.” These conversations don’t require information, but an emotional connection. I’m so happy about that, especially considering the never-ending torrent of garbage that we have to move through every day.
I think about politics. Politics online are rarely civil, but when you get someone in person, and start slowly, and are willing to have a conversation, you can normally get farther than you might expect.
Online culture isn’t civil and there’s a momentum to everything that’s based on mind-fuckery. I know for myself—as somebody who was relatively disinterested and uninformed about the functions of government and why politics and leadership make a difference—that people are perfectly willing to volunteer their brains to these strange flashpoint reactors that trigger them emotionally. People live by these black-and-white decisions. It’s not good. We need to consider what we really know and how we know it and what we’re telling other people.
People are so empowered by garbage information that’s being related in a relatively shallow way, which doesn’t take into consideration the influence and context of the rest of our lives. It’s sort of a disaster. I try to stay away from that stuff in terms of the conversations that I’m having. I’m trying to deal with something more human and experiential. Most people are regurgitating talking points on both sides without thinking of how someone feels and how to affect change. I got an interview with Geena Davis [who stars in the new season of GLOW] coming up, about her work with her foundation and her work in this documentary about women in show business. It’s called This Changes Everything. I tell you man, when someone’s that personally invested in something they believe in, and it’s righteous, and they lay it out for you and it makes sense, that’s what heartens my belief in this possibility for change.
To change gears a bit, is it cathartic for you, as someone who’s long been in recovery, to play characters who’re either reformed or have drug issues?
Yeah, sure. Most obviously there’s the last season of Maron, where my character has a relapse, which frankly didn’t happen in real life. When you really understand the nature of addiction, and you’ve seen it from the inside, and know the powerlessness and the struggle to live a life that’s not in the throes of it—I mean, it’s such a common struggle. And what’s amazing to me is how many people don’t find a way out of that or don’t seek help. Or are ashamed of it or don’t know how to get the help. I never set out to do this, but I’m thrilled and humbled by the effect my work has on people who’re isolated by this sickness. It’s really one of the more satisfying results of the podcast: how much mail I get from people who’re struggling and who want advice, or who feel less alone from what I’ve said. The great thing about recovery, and about playing these parts, is that it gives you a context that’s very specific—a way to legitimately help people that can change their entire lives.
American Demons: Martin Bell’s Streetwise and Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell
Bell proves uncannily adept at capturing moments that seem to encapsulate a subject’s entire emotional temperature.
Decades after its original release, Martin Bell’s Streetwise remains a boldly empathetic work of vérité portraiture. Throughout the 1984 documentary, Bell, photographer Mary Ellen Mark, and journalist Cheryl McCall follow a motley group of kids on the streets of Seattle as they panhandle, dig food out of dumpsters, and prostitute themselves to much older men. These scenes are accompanied by voiceovers from the young subjects, who describe their actions with a heartbreaking casualness that communicates two almost contradictory meanings: that they’re seasoned hustlers, having bypassed childhood for an everyday form of hell, and that they’re desperate to be seen precisely as said hustlers. To show emotion is to be vulnerable, and these subjects can’t afford to be seen as weak, yet the filmmakers capture more here than the street children may have suspected. Streetwise is charged by a deep, subterranean yearning to be loved, or even merely felt.
A plot hasn’t been imposed on Streetwise, as the audience is allowed to feel the numbing monotony of life on the fringes. People swing in and out of prison, crash in and out of secret hovels, most notably an abandoned hotel, and practice their grifts, while struggling with overlapping tides of addiction and depression. We also learn, startlingly, that not all these children are homeless. Streetwise’s most famous subject, Erin Blackwell, a.k.a. “Tiny,” lives with her mother, a waitress and alcoholic who rationalizes her daughter’s prostitution as a phase and who seems to be impressed with Erin’s ability to make a few hundred dollars on a good day. It’s little wonder that Erin captured and continued to command the filmmakers’ attention for decades after filming Streetwise ended. She has a squinty yet expressive glare that suggests both a deep reservoir of pain as well as intense fierceness.
Bell, Mark, and McCall take Erin and her cohorts, most vividly a skinny boy with potential tonsillitis named DeWayne Pomeroy, at face value. Streetwise is pointedly devoid of the sermonizing that might allow audiences to comfortably distance themselves from these people, regarding them simply as elements of a civics lesson. The film forces us to confront the obviousness of these children’s circumstances, as people walk by them just as we all walk by the homeless on a daily basis. This sense of culpability informs Streetwise with an uncomfortable texture that’s familiar to documentaries concerned with poor or mentally and emotionally challenged people, so you may wonder how the filmmakers shot what we’re seeing without stepping in and helping these people. Particularly disturbing is when Erin, 13 years old at the start of filming, is seen getting into a car with an old man who’s obviously a john.
If Streetwise was just a portrait of damnation and delusion, it would be an important document. But the film is also haunting for Bell, Mark, and McCall’s attention to the transcendence than can be felt even in such extreme circumstances. After Erin has gotten into trouble, DeWayne tells her of how he will rescue her, and his attempt at gallantry is poignant as well as devastating. When DeWayne visits his father in prison, the old man lectures the boy about keeping his smoking down and laying off the hard drugs, commanding DeWayne to roll up his shirt sleeves for a track-mark inspection. As brutally sad as this confrontation is, one feels this father’s love and wonders if DeWayne, clearly a sensitive and lonely boy, can feel it too. Retrospectively, it hardly matters: DeWayne hung himself not long after this visit.
Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell, a 2016 sequel to Streetwise that’s been in the works for thirtysomething years, offers a variety of unmooring contrasts from its predecessor. Erin is no longer the slim spitfire of Streetwise, but an overweight fortysomething mother of 10 who understandably appears to always be on the verge of exhaustion, and who takes methadone in an attempt to keep her drug addictions at bay while wrangling with her children’s own skirmishes with the law. Looking at Erin now, one sees the scars and weariness left by a hard life, part of which was documented by Streetwise, and one can implicitly feel Erin’s need for atonement. Though Erin’s gotten off the streets, living in a large home with her partner, Will, and several of her children, the streets have never left her.
Formally, Tiny is much different from Streetwise. The 1984 film abounds in seamy noises and textures, with roving camerawork that seems to be uncovering a new lurid discovery every few seconds; it feels palpably dangerous, and probably inspired films such as Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho and Larry’s Clark’s Kids. Set predominantly in Erin’s home, Tiny is slower and more polished, reflecting the (comparative) stability that Erin has achieved since appearing in Streetwise. Tiny also has a fancier structure than Streetwise, with a framing device in which Erin watches footage of herself over the years, including unused outtakes from the first film, with Mary Ellen Mark. An autumnal tone seeps into the new film, which offers a kaleidoscopic portrait of the unending legacies of crime and addiction.
As in Streetwise, Bell proves uncannily adept at capturing moments that seem to encapsulate a subject’s entire emotional temperature. There are frequent shots in Tiny of Erin sleeping with a little dog close to her face, which suggest rare moments of repose for a woman who’s used to running her chaotic family like a hostage negotiator. Erin frequently calls the cops on her own children, especially the headstrong teenager Rayshon, which Bell unforgettably rhymes with footage form Streetwise of a younger Erin visiting two of her children in foster care. One of the foster care children, Keanna, is now a mother herself, and resents Erin for abandoning her and for continuing to struggle with drug use.
Which is to say that Tiny is as charged with turmoil as Streetwise, and Bell proves equally capable here of rendering full relationships with only a few images or seconds of running time. As in Streetwise, our sympathies are rarely overtly directed, as Tiny is somehow on every character’s contradictory wavelength at once, illustrating how difficult understanding can be to achieve, most notably in the face of disaster. Though it runs a trim 87 minutes, Tiny offers an epic and piercing portrait of a large biracial family that’s plagued by essentially every demon known to American society. Erin escaped the streets only to fashion a home that’s rife with the very issues that drove her away from her own mother. Like most people, regardless of social stature, Erin is stuck in the temporal loop of her own inherent nature.
Review: Radu Jude’s I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians
Jude’s film is a bitterly comic essay on nationalist mythologies and historical amnesia.3.5
Prime minister of Romania during most of World War II, Ion Antonescu is one of the era’s supreme villains: a virulent anti-Semite, Nazi collaborator, and authoritarian dictator whose troops murdered Jews with such velocity and enthusiasm that even Hitler was shocked by their actions. Upon ordering the forced expulsion—and, if necessary, genocide—of the Jews of Bessarabia and Bukovina, Antonescu proclaimed, “I do not care if we go down in history as Barbarians.” Radu Jude borrows that declaration, so haunting in its cruelty and disarming in its blitheness, for the title of his latest film, a bitterly comic essay on nationalist mythologies and historical amnesia that locates the seeds of Romania’s currently resurgent ethno-nationalism in the nation’s collective failure to truly confront its own past.
For while Antonescu was convicted of war crimes and sentenced to death by firing squad shortly after the war, there have been repeated attempts to rehabilitate his image in Romania since the fall of Nicolae Ceaușescu. Take Sergiu Nicolaescu’s 1994 film The Mirror, a hagiographic treatment of Antonescu’s rule that portrays the leader as a defiant protector of his people. Jude inserts a substantial clip of that film into I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians, having it play on a small TV set positioned in the exact center of the frame as we hear the off-screen voice of Jude’s protagonist, Mariana (Ioana Iacob), providing sardonic, outraged commentary on the film’s distorted presentation of Antonescu as a misunderstood hero. There’s an element of desperation in the scene: While Mariana offers an incontestable rebuttal, no one but her boyfriend (Alex Bogdan) is there to hear it. Meanwhile, The Mirror’s comforting nationalist lies are being beamed into homes all across Romania.
A headstrong theater director attempting to stage a public reenactment of the Odessa Massacre of 1941, in which Romanian troops slaughtered thousands of Ukrainian Jews, Mariana is obsessed with bringing the full weight of historical reality to her fellow countrymen. She obsessively reads histories of the period and drops quotations from philosophers and historical figures into everyday conversation. The film is consumed by lengthy, probing conversations—mostly shot by a statically mounted 16mm camera that pans back and forth to cover the actors’ movements—in which Mariana discusses art, philosophy, history, and politics with her various collaborators and friends.
Her most persistent interlocutor is Movilă (Alexandru Dabija), a local official tasked with overseeing the publicly funded production, who constantly pleads with Mariana to tone down her work’s unvarnished depiction of anti-Semitic violence. Movilă is a relativist, content in the knowledge that all memory is willfully selective, while Mariana truly believes in the power of stark historical truth. Though at times didactic and overloaded with quotations from the likes of Wittgenstein and Arendt, Jude’s dialogue nevertheless manages to feel remarkably naturalistic. That’s thanks in no small part to the powerfully unaffected performances of a cast that finds the subtle humor and neurotic character details embedded in Jude’s dense screenplay. Iacob captures Mariana’s unrelenting passion while also finding moments of vulnerability and self-doubt in the role, including moments of hesitation and anxiety borne of the fact that she’s a petite, cosmopolitan woman attempting to exert control over a large cast of rugged men, many of whom are diametrically opposed to the vision of her project.
Jude’s heavy themes are leavened by a self-effacing sense of modesty. Jude isn’t attempting to make grand pronouncements about the nature of memory and truth. Rather, I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians finds the director constantly interrogating his own perspective, questioning Mariana’s relationship to the wider public. That theme comes to a head in the film’s climactic presentation of the artist’s reenactment. Here, Jude switches from the warm dreaminess of 16mm to the harsh hyper-realism of digital video. The scene has the feel of a simple documentation of a live public event, but it isn’t clear that it’s actually any more “real” than the rest of the film. In particular, whether and to what extent the crowd of onlookers’ reactions are coached remains one of the film’s most intriguing enigmas.
Ultimately, Mariana finds herself perplexed and deflated by the public’s response to her work. One senses this reaction may be autobiographical for Jude, whose film Aferim! attempted to challenge Romanian audiences about the nation’s historical treatment of Roma people. As one of the few directors of the so-called Romanian New Wave whose work explores the country’s unsavory pre-Soviet past, Jude is swimming against the popular tide of revisionism and historical moral blindness. The anti-Semitic violence and hatred laid out in his latest is truly chilling, as is the contemporary tendency to diminish and obscure that dark past. But perhaps most disturbing of all is the idea put forth in the film’s conclusion: that one could present the truth to the public in all its brutality and horror, and it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.
Cast: Ioana Iacob, Alexandru Dabija, Alex Bogdan, Ilinca Manolache, Serban Pavlu, Ion Rizea, Claudia Ieremia Director: Radu Jude Screenwriter: Radu Jude Distributor: Big World Pictures Running Time: 140 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
Interview: Lynn Shelton on Honing Her Process for Sword of Trust
The filmmaker discusses how she wants viewers to feel like they’re paratrooping into her characters’ lives.
Lynn Shelton has amassed a formidable body of work between her eight features and countless television episodes. Her latest outing, the comic adventure Sword of Trust, represents her most topical work to date. After pawn shop owner Mel (played by Marc Maron) purchases an old sword, he gets plunged into world of conspiracy culture as the relic attracts legions of online prowlers convinced that the weapon represents proof that the Confederacy won the Civil War. The logline might be Shelton’s wildest yet, but the elements that have made her work indelible for over a decade remain intact: realistic conversations, emotional authenticity, and a commitment to multi-dimensional characters.
I chatted with Shelton on Sword of Trust’s opening day, which saw the director, writer, producer, editor, and occasional actress in great spirits. Our conversation covered her pursuit of Maron for this specific project, how she developed her unique script-development process, and why she wants viewers to feel like they’re paratrooping into her characters’ lives.
Last year on Marc Maron’s podcast, you mentioned that you liked exploring relationships between people who wouldn’t normally interact. Sword of Trust continues in that tradition for you. What keeps bringing you back to these dynamics?
Have you heard of this theory of multiple intelligences, like different types of intelligences we have? I can’t remember the names that [Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner] came up with, I think there’s eight. I know I’m not the brightest bulb on all of these scales, but one way that I think I’m pretty high is in emotional intelligence. I like to think I am, anyway. I’ve always been that close observer of human behavior. I also really love humans. I feel like the thing that makes humans human are their flaws. So, on screen, I don’t like to see people who are too smoothed out, all good or all bad. I’m interested in characters who are essentially good people, but they may be total fuck-ups and well-meaning who may sabotage themselves. Individual fucking up often happens in relation to other people. We may have a pre-determined need to connect to other people, but we’re constantly sabotaging ourselves.
Sometimes, like I said on the podcast, I’m much more interested in unlikely combinations of people because it’s not a prewritten script we’re handed. It’s not like, “This is who would be appropriate for you as a friend. This is the way you should act. This is the box we’ve already determined for you.” Any kind of out-of-the-box way of living one’s life or being surprised by a connection you feel to a human being, all those little happy accidents in life are the things I like to explore. To inspire people, not to just go through life in this sort of “this is what someone else had in mind for me, and I should follow that plan”—that feels very depressing to me. It’s more interesting to open your heart and your life up to other experiences.
To explore relationships in that way makes the everyday more interesting and exciting.
Yeah, exactly. It gives you a reason to stick around.
Having been a guest of Marc’s on his podcast twice, do you see any of his interviewer “persona” having an impact on the person you film on screen? Does training himself to listen and be present have any effect on making him a better screen partner?
Absolutely! The first time I directed Marc was on his TV show Maron, and I was so fascinated by his process. He’s raw and a really natural actor. He steps in front of the camera, and he’s looking at his scene partner and really knows how to listen and engage. A lot of that comes from sitting across from people and staring into their eyes. That’s why he’s such a good interviewer and has the top interview podcast, because he has a genuine conversation with people. And that’s all acting really is too. He also has this weird ability to let the camera and crew and other extraneous details just fade away for him, and a lot of people find all that really distracting and difficult to shut out. He doesn’t know where the camera is half the time. He said to me, “The next thing I want to do as an actor is figure out when the camera is on me.” I said, “What?! That camera’s right there!” He’s like, “I don’t see it. I’m not aware of it. I’m just in this scene with the person.” I’m like, “That is a gift, my friend. That is incredible that you’re able to not see the lights and craziness, just be in the scene.” He’s really able to do it. I think that definitely comes from that same skill set he’s drawing on.
Where does the genesis of your films occur? They usually have some kind of strong conceptual selling point or hook, but they’re often like a Trojan horse to get to deep conversations between the characters about something else.
It is, and the genesis of the vast majority of my films is an actor as a muse that I want to work with. Humpday was Mark Duplass, Outside In was his brother, Jay Duplass, this movie was Marc Maron, who I’ve been really wanting to make a movie with for three and a half years. Then there’s other things, like a territory I want to explore or an element I want to return to, like improvisation, which I haven’t done since Your Sister’s Sister. I’ve done several movies in between that have been scripted, but I wanted to allow myself a new genre. I knew I wanted to laugh because the last movie was a drama, and I was ready to laugh—and let myself really laugh by going into the outlandish and ridiculous, plot-wise. Go into some comedy-caper territory, which I’ve never let myself do before. I’ve been totally real in every moment, and this time I was like, “What if I have real characters who go to a crazy place?” I wanted to make a culturally relevant movie that didn’t make you want to slit your wrists. It referred to what was going on and some of the problematic elements of what we’re dealing with in society. We’re having this peak moment in conspiracy theories. They’ve always been around, but this is definitely where they’ve achieved a peak moment that I find very disturbing. So, it’s usually a territory I want to explore and an actor I want to work with.
How do you research or prepare to authentically treat conspiracy culture?
Well, there’s this thing called a computer and a thing called the internet, and boy, is it all in there! [laughs] We went down a rabbit hole with Mike O’Brien, my co-writer. It’s so fascinating because there’s little in-fighting. They really bonded over Pizzagate and the Twin Towers being an inside job, but then when it comes to hollow earth versus the earth is on fire, they’re at odds and frenemies for life. It’s insane, the shit you find.
How do you approach shooting improvisational dialogue? There’s a very naturalistic feel to it, but there are hardly any vocal fillers like “um” or “you know.”
Well, you get the right cast, so that really helps. I’ll tell you, you can do a lot in the editing room. You’ll see it on screen, there are these runs of incredible monologues. But if I’m cutting away to another actor for a reaction shot, it’s often because I’m slicing out an “um” or an “ah” or a little bauble. The edit room is the most redemptive place in the universe. It’s incredible what you can do and how you can carve out the right story. Especially with improvisation, it really is where the actual script is written. Our first cut—it didn’t feel fat, it was funny throughout—was two and a half hours long. I was like, “How am I going to cut out five to seven minutes, much less an hour?” And for me, a comedy has to be 90 minutes, so I knew I needed an hour out of there. It was like, “This is hysterical, this is gold, but it’s not serving the story. Ultimately, what is the story? It could be this, or it could include this, but let’s just hone it down to Mel’s emotional arc and make sure we can track it through the craziness.” We want to care about these people just enough and balance it. There was so much work in the edit room.
Sword of Trust is definitely a comedy, but the scene I found most striking was Mel explaining his history to your character, Deidre, and in such a matter-of-fact, serious fashion, in the back of the truck. Did you always intend to set off this important part of the story with such a stark tonal contrast?
No, it wasn’t. When Mike O’Brien really insisted that I be in the movie, I finally relented and thought I was going to be a random customer who came in for five seconds. But then, I realized she could be a device that helps us track Mel’s arc. I was really panicking for a long time because I couldn’t figure out how to make her funny. I can be comedic, but she wasn’t comedic. She was so desperate and tragic. Then I finally realized that I wasn’t going to worry about it. I wasn’t going to try to turn her into some kind of laughing-stock. I was just going to be what she feels like she needs to be. That was an indication that this movie is going to have that real element of heaviness to it, but it happened really organically. I wanted you to care about these people, but I didn’t realize there was going to be that much depth to one of them, so much poignant heart and humanity. That was a nice surprise.
You’ve described your writing process as being “upside-down,” where the script develops alongside the characters. How did you develop this writing style?
I never went to traditional film school. I had this long, circuitous route to get to what I’m doing. I started as a theater actor, then I went to photography and started doing experimental work, but everything as a solo artist. The most important work of the film, making the process of the acting, is obstructed at every turn by the process of making it. You’re out of order. In theater, you at least get to play a story from beginning to end and feel it out. You’re at scene 35 on the first day and like, “What’s happened before this? Where am I emotionally?” And then you’ve got to do it 40 times with the camera in different positions and act like nobody else is there. The whole thing is so hard, unless you’re Meryl Streep! But if you’re not working with Meryl Streep, what do you do as a director? I need real people on screen.
My second feature, My Effortless Brilliance, was a total experiment. I came up with these characters in my head and tried to cast them from a pretty small pool of actors. They were nothing like the characters. I realized, “What if you did it the other way? What if you had a person you wanted to work with…” That was where I started with that idea, and all I cared about was to make it feel like a documentary. I wanted you to turn the TV on and be like, “What am I watching? Am I in these people’s lives?” And people have said they’ve had that experience where they’ll turn it on in the middle of Showtime and have no idea what they’re watching but that it feels like a documentary. Which is like, “Yes! That’s what I meant.”
And then I honed it with Humpday. Once I knew I could work in that way, I upped the stakes. I’ll bring in a few lights. I had said, “No lights! Me and another camera operator with tiny cameras, a boom op, that’s it.” I eliminated the crew. But that was where I came up with that initial impulse, to make it feel really real. If the character fits the actor like a glove because it’s half them or three-quarters them and they’ve developed it with me…I want real humans.
I actually had that experience of picking up one of your movies and not missing a beat. I was late to my showtime of Your Sister’s Sister in the theater, but I didn’t feel like I was lost. Then a few years later I watched it at home from the beginning, which helped it make a little more sense. But I felt I had easily intuited what I had missed.
It’s funny because I want my movies to feel like you’re paratrooping into somebody’s life. We’re taking a little journey down the river of their life for a while, and then we leave again. I don’t like to tie things up too neatly at the end because I want you to get the sense that they’re continuing to live their lives, and who knows what’s going to happen in the future. But you just sort of paratrooped in a little bit later! [laughs]
On that note, there’s a line toward the end of the film where Jillian Bell’s character, Cynthia, takes a deep breath and says, “What a strange experience.” Is that line improvised or scripted? In a lot of ways, the line feels like it sums up where characters often net out at the end of your films.
That was all improvised! It’s all ordinary people going into crazy land, but yeah, ordinary people having weird dramas in their everyday lives. I mean, it can happen. I’ve heard stories of shit happening to random people that feel like…you couldn’t write that shit!
Review: Into the Ashes Brings Nothing New to the Country Noir Genre
Aaron Harvey is prone to pulling back from any moment that might give greater depth to his revenge tale.2
Aaron Harvey’s Into the Ashes is the latest in an increasing string of so-called country noirs set in the dilapidated backwoods of rural America, places ravaged by the opioid crisis and populated by jobless people long ago abandoned by politicians. It has little to distinguish itself, narratively or thematically, from similarly dour films, and it lets generic images of its rundown Alabama locale (rusted trucks, cramped houses, landlines in a wireless world) stand in as symbols of national decline without truly seeping into the complex social rot of the place. Its plot, of a reformed criminal forced to contend with his old gang leader over some stolen loot, is similarly superficial, hitting the typical beats of its genre.
Where Into the Ashes gets a boost is in its excellent cast of grizzled character actors, all of whom vibrantly express varying degrees of weariness and rage. Luke Grimes plays the erstwhile ne’er-do-well and ex-con Nick Brenner with the nervousness of a man who’s just learning to let go of his past and give in to hope. The man’s gruff, taciturn nature is leavened by his tender relationship with his wife, Tara (Marguerite Moreau), and he projects his faith in normalcy onto her. Nick relies so heavily on Tara for his emotional wellbeing that he anxiously calls home while on an overnight hunting trip just so he can hear her voice.
Equally human beneath a hard exterior is Nick’s father-in-law, Frank (Robert Taylor), the local sheriff whose intimidating Tom Waits-esque voice and stiff demeanor belie his fumbling, masculine attempts to welcome Nick into his family. Strongest of all, though, is Frank Grillo as Sloan, Nick’s recently paroled and vengeful boss. Grillo is at home playing big-fish-in-small-pond villains, and the actor makes the most of Sloan’s thin characterization, exuding psychopathic menace when Sloan confronts Nick in the latter’s home, drawing out every oblique threat as he circles the subject of the money that Nick stole from the crew’s last job before Sloan was sent to prison. Grillo expertly inflects even the silliest moments of sub-Tarantino dialogue with a disarming venom, such as an extended riff on pie and ice cream.
But if the actors are primed to explore the contours around a basic premise, Henry constantly pulls back from any moment that might give greater depth to his revenge tale. Women exist to be supportive and to become victims, while character-driven conversations between Nick and Frank devolve into asinine ethics debates over justifiable violence. Worst of all, there’s just no sense that the film is saying or revealing much of anything. There’s one moment where Into the Ashes achieves a touch of bleak grace akin to the work of Cormac McCarthy by skipping over the events leading to a shootout and focusing only on its grisly aftermath: bodies strewn about in puddles of blood that look like reflective pools of black ice in the pale moonlight. Then, not five minutes later, we get a flashback showing the lead-up to that carnage. As with so much else in the film, a haunting moment of elision is negated by literal representation.
Cast: Luke Grimes, Frank Grillo, Marguerite Moreau, James Badge Dale, Robert Taylor, Brady Smith, Jeff Pope, Andrea Frankle Director: Aaron Harvey Screenwriter: Aaron Harvey Distributor: RLJE Films Running Time: 97 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Stéphane Brizé’s At War Is Politically Charged but Artistically Inert
The film is content to bluntly affirm that corporate attempts at compassion are always secondary to providing profit to shareholders.2
Seven months after the first flare-up of France’s Gilets Jaunes, the nascent populist movement shows no signs of ceasing. Combined with the country’s ongoing Telecom scandal, in which several executives have been charged with “moral harassment” after 35 workers were allegedly hounded into committing suicide, it’s evident that what’s simmering there is an extension of the same unease escalating around much of Europe, and the world at large. It’s a state of affairs that makes At War seem especially of the moment, and which leaves its eventual failure to offer any special insight so disappointing. Provided with a prime opportunity to animate the zeitgeist, Stéphane Brizé’s labor-focused drama instead uses this timeliness to prod along the most obvious of points, its nuts-and-bolts, process-oriented approach never amounting to more than a surface look at the issues it purports to confront.
The film in some ways functions as an unofficial prelude to Brizé’s prior The Measure of a Man, in which an unemployed machinist played by Vincent Lindon finds a new career as a hyper-market security guard, where he’s eventually forced to choose between serving as a traitorous management lackey and losing his job. Here, Lindon’s Laurent Amédéo is still in possession of his original occupation, though things are hanging by a thread, as a last-ditch organizing effort attempts to halt the closure of a manufacturing plant in Agen. Surrounded by a cast of convincing non-professionals, Laurent leads the picket line, refusing to waver from the straight and narrow, an intense figure of principle whose scruples are never in doubt.
At War is largely notable for its steadfast devotion to a kind of mechanistic aesthetic, which unfortunately lines up with its cheerless didacticism, the two qualities cohering in a scene-by-scene summation of a strike action that repeatedly hammers home the same general points. The scenes themselves evince heft, fluidity, and an impressive sense of improvisation, but the staging is static and the eventual outcome is always clear. The game is given away by Lindon’s stoic face and the gradual unraveling of the plot, which envisions internal disintegration—leveraged by outside pressure—as the insidious method by which solidarity is smashed. Despite some genuine drama in this dissolution, it’s always clear who’s right and who’s wrong, which material interests each is representing, and who’s lying and who’s telling the truth.
This didn’t have to be the case, as proven by David France’s procedure-focused documentary How to Survive a Plague, which balanced a similarly diagrammatic narrative with extensive character detail, expanding the stakes while affixing a deeper subtext about the ways the victory of a marginalized group eventually diminishes its radical standing. Intent on emphasizing the connections between callous corporate greed and populist unrest, Brizé’s film is bluntly focused on the bottom line. There’s a certain dramatic function to this technique, as it examines the individual human actions that allow such interests to put their will into practice, but it doesn’t justify the flat, exhortative style of address.
As another example of how well this kind of economic criticism can be carried off, there are the dazzling docu-essays of German filmmaker Harun Farocki, who routinely found surprising intricacies in the cold façade of modern capitalism, while offering empathetic alignment with workers as a matter of course. At War, on the other hand, merely summarizes what its audience already knows, affirming that corporate attempts at compassion are always secondary to providing profit to shareholders, and that genuine humanity and integrity are liabilities when confronting such an unfeeling monolith. Like Ken Loach’s recent Palme d’Or winner I, Daniel Blake, it’s a film whose political principles are hard to disagree with, yet which leans so heavily on this moral certitude as to render itself entirely inert.
Cast: Vincent Lindon, Melanie Rover, Jacques Borderie, David Rey, Olivier Lemaire Director: Stéphane Brizé Screenwriter: Stéphane Brizé, Olivier Gorce Distributor: Cinema Libre Studio Running Time: 115 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Bottom of the 9th Strikes Out with Too Much Plot Incident
Raymond De Felitta’s film offers a sampler course of formulas, which creates a strangely unfulfilling tension.1.5
Raymond De Felitta’s Bottom of the 9th offers a sampler course of formulas, which creates a strangely unfulfilling tension. Just when you expect the film to go in a certain direction, it goes in another, only for it to again switch routes, though there’s never a sense of expectations being deliberately challenged or tweaked. Rather, the filmmakers merely seem to be indulging a variety of passing fancies, which is a shame because the actors here are game and occasionally imbue the shopworn scenes with liveliness.
Sonny Stano (Joe Manganiello) is the perfect hero for either a noir or a redemptive sports film, a man approaching middle age who just served a 19-year sentence for manslaughter. Famous in his Bronx neighborhood for being drafted by the Yankees, only to flush his life down the toilet, Sonny is attempting to patch his life together while doing a perpetual apology tour on behalf of friends and strangers alike. He’s initially hired by an old friend, Joey (James Madio), to work in a fish market that seems to be a front for something. Joey has a cagey energy, and this narrative isn’t without intrigue, but De Felitta and screenwriter Robert Bruzio unceremoniously lose sight of it in succumbing to a number of clichés.
Of course, Sonny is revealed to have a woman who got away, Angela (Sofia Vergara), who one day runs into her old beau at a market. They clearly have chemistry, as do the actors playing them, but their dialogue is composed of nothing but redemptive platitudes. In these scenes, Manganiello and Vergara are stuck in a worst-of-all-worlds situation. Their characters are relentlessly mousey, which is appropriate to the awkward context of Sonny and Angela’s reunion, but which also robs these sexy actors of the opportunity to enjoy playing off one another. Meanwhile, said mousiness isn’t poignant either, as the characters haven’t been imagined beyond the respective stereotypes of the fallen man and jilted woman.
Bottom of the 9th then flirts with a narrative similar to that of Bull Durham and Major League, in which Sonny is hired by a local minor league ball team to rein in the fiery, egotistical talents of a rookie named Manny (Xavier Scott Evans). Evans is ferociously charismatic, suggesting a young Wesley Snipes and giving Manganiello a kinetic vibe to play off of, and so the film finally begins to come to life, with great character actors like Michael Rispoli and Burt Young riffing on the sidelines. However, this conceit is also left hanging, as the film shifts into a story of the unlikely comeback, with Sonny’s own talents taking center ring.
De Felitta might’ve gotten by with these contrivances if he were a natural showman, but the filmmaker displays little interest in the Bronx setting in which his characters live, or in rendering their experiences in a fashion that refutes screenwriterly index-card portraiture. For instance, a prison flashback in which Sonny gets into a fight during a ball game is reduced to trite and melodramatic close-ups, while much of the remainder of the film is composed of medium shots designed to accentuate only the largely uninteresting dialogue. There’s truly nothing in Bottom of the 9th but plot incident, and the leisurely, impersonal one-thing-after-another-ness of the film’s construction is stifling.
Cast: Joe Manganiello, Sofía Vergara, Denis O'Hare, Burt Young, James Madio, Yancey Arias, Michael Rispoli, Vincent Pastore, Dominik García-Lorido, Michael Maize, Kevin William Paul Director: Raymond De Felitta Screenwriter: Robert Bruzio Distributor: Saban Films Running Time: 111 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Crawl Is Fun and Economical but Lacks Go-for-Broke Inventiveness
The film is more straight-faced than Alexandre Aja’s prior work, trading absurd kills for narrow escapes from gaping alligator jaws.2.5
Unlike the giddily crass Piranha 3D, Alexandre Aja’s Crawl is a quiet beast of a film. It’s built not on a foundation of over-the-top gore, but on a series of escalations. As a hurricane barrels toward Florida, ace swimmer Haley (Kaya Scodelario) becomes worried after her father, Dave (Barry Pepper), doesn’t return her phone calls. She travels to her old family home and finds him unconscious in the house’s flooded crawl space, with large alligators swimming in the water.
Early on, the camera often lingers on the deceptive stillness of the rising water for maximum suspense. Haley and her father are trapped in the house with no more than the tools they can find or already have on hand, MacGyvering their very survival out of shovels, flashlights, and flares. The best parts of the film slyly set up those tools and other objects, including a swing set and a rat trap, only to bring them back at some later, climactic moment.
If Crawl, then, is an easily digestible piece of workmanlike thrills, its only real bit of gristle is its po-faced father-daughter bonding. Haley and Dave are somewhat estranged; the family home was meant to have been sold off after Dave’s recent divorce from Haley’s mother; and flashbacks to childhood swim meets show father and daughter tempting fate with flagrantly ironic use of the term “apex predator.” In the face of certain death, they cobble their relationship back together through Hallmark-card platitudes while sentimental music plays on the film’s soundtrack. It’s the absolute thinnest of familial drama, and it will do little to redirect your emotional investment away from the survival of the family dog.
Between these family moments, of course, the flood waters run red as people get got by gators. Aja is prone to lingering in prolonged closeup on things like a protruding bone being shoved back into place, but he otherwise seems to have gotten the most inspired bits of underwater violence out of his system with Piranha 3D. Crawl is more straight-faced than his prior work, trading absurd kills for narrow escapes from gaping alligator jaws. And while these moments are suspenseful, with nail-biting scrapes involving a handgun, some loose pipes, and one particularly clever shower-door maneuver, there’s precious little of the go-for-broke invention or outrageousness that might have made the film more than a fun and economical thriller.
Cast: Kaya Scodelario, Barry Pepper, Ross Anderson, Morfydd Clark Director: Alexandre Aja Screenwriter: Michael Rasmussen, Shawn Rasmussen Distributor: Paramount Pictures Running Time: 87 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: The Farewell Thoughtfully Braids the Somber and the Absurd
The film taps into universal truths about the passage of time, the inevitability of loss, and how we prepare one another for it.3.5
In the opening scene of writer-director Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, a Chinese grandmother (Zhao Shuzhen), affectionately referred to as Nai Nai by her family, and her Chinese-American granddaughter, Billi (Awkwafina), have a warm, affectionate phone conversation in which each woman incessantly lies to the other. A professionally adrift, financially bereft millennial whose writing ambitions have come to naught, Billi lets her grandmother believe her life is busy and full of social engagements; for her part, Nai Nai insists that she’s at her sister’s house, rather than in a drably decorated doctor’s office. Wang frames Nai Nai against the kitschy, oversized picture of a lagoon that hangs on the wall, as if to emphasize the flimsiness of the illusions the pair is painting for one another.
The sequence calls to mind the advantage of audio-only phone calls: for allowing us to more easily maintain the falsehoods that comprise a not insignificant portion of our relationships. Given that minor mistruths prop up our most basic social connections, Wang focuses The Farewell on the moral quandary of whether a big lie—specifically, culturally contingent situations—might actually be an expression of genuine love. The film takes up the question with a tone of melancholic drollery, a sense of irony that doesn’t lose touch with the human feelings at its core. The Farewell is “based on an actual lie,” evidently an episode from Wang’s life, and its careful mixture of the somber and the absurd rings true to life.
As it turns out, Nai Nai has terminal lung cancer, but Billi’s father’s family elects to lie to the woman about her MRI results, an action that’s evidently within the bounds of Chinese law. But as Billi’s assimilated immigrant father, Haiyan (Tzi Ma), points out to his brother, Haibin (Jiang Yongbo), during a crisis of conscience, such a thing is both frowned upon in America and prosecutable. Struggling even more with the decision, of course, is the more Americanized Billi, who can’t reconcile her Western notions of love and the sanctity of the individual with the widespread practice of lying to family members about their impending deaths.
To create a cover for a family visit to Beijing, the family forces Billi’s cousin, Hao Hao (Chen Hanwei), who lives in Japan, to marry his girlfriend, Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara), of three months. This plan provides plenty of fodder for Wang’s dry humor, as the family attempts to maintain the veneer of celebration while also bidding farewell to their ostensibly clueless matriarch, who’s confused by Hao Hao and Aiko’s lack of affection and the generally dour mood that predominates in the lead-up to the wedding. It’s potential material for a farce, but even in its funny moments, Wang’s film is contemplative rather than frenetic, preferring to hold shots as her characters gradually, often comically adjust to the reality that Nai Nai will soon be gone.
Awkwafina, hitherto notable mostly for her comic supporting roles, gives a revelatory lead performance as Billi, the thirtysomething prone to bouts of adolescent sullenness. Perhaps playing a Bushwick-based, first-generation-American creative type isn’t much of a stretch for the Queens-born rapper/actress, but she immediately brings to the role the depth of lived experience: We believe from the first frames in the long-distance love between Billi and her grandmother, and the existential crisis the young woman feels as she negotiates two cultures’ differing approaches to death and disease. In taking us to Beijing through Billi’s eyes, which are often blinking back tears as she says goodbye without articulating “goodbye,” The Farewell’s morose but not hopeless comedy taps into universal truths about the passage of time, the inevitability of loss, and how we prepare one another for it.
Cast: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Zhao Shuzhen, Lu Hong, Jiang Yongbo, Chen Hanwei Director: Lulu Wang Screenwriter: Lulu Wang Distributor: A24 Running Time: 98 min Rating: PG Year: 2018
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