Coming Up in This Column: The Social Network, Inside Job, Capitalism: A Love Story, It’s Kind of a Funny Story, Red, Two and a Half Men, CSI.
The Social Network (2010. Screenplay by Aaron Sorkin, inspired by the book The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich. 121 minutes.)
…and the rest of the movie’s not bad either: The Social Network has the best opening scene in a movie since that great montage of Carl and Ellie’s marriage in Up (2009). What I said about that applies here: “Pay attention to the details in the montage; EVERYTHING in it comes back throughout the picture, sometimes in surprising ways. Meanwhile, it works because you are so caught up in the story and the characters.” Like the sequence in Up, The Social Network’s opener is fast and inventive. But unlike that montage, this is an all-dialogue scene. Mark, a Harvard student, and Erica, a Boston University student, are having drinks in a bar. Mark is putting down Harvard and especially its social upper class. Listen to the details he mentions, such as the sport of rowing, the A Cappella singing group, and the Final (secretive) clubs, all of which show up again. Mark’s brain and mouth work at warp speed, but he seems unable to control them both in a social situation like this. This will also come back into play in several different ways in the film. We may agree with some of Mark’s put-downs of the social elite at Harvard, but he has no concept of how obnoxious he is to Erica. He is not a nice person, but you can’t take your eyes or ears off him.
No, the development people did not insist on Sorkin writing in a “pet-the-dog” scene to show you he is really a nice guy. He is not a nice guy, but we can’t not watch him. Casting Jesse Eisenberg is a smart move, because Eisenberg has that sensitive, hangdog look and persona in his other films that he plays against here beautifully. And Erica does not wilt under the onslaught of Mark’s words. She is played by Rooney Mara, who will take over as Lisbeth Salander in the American version of The Girl With… films, and after this scene, I have a little more hope about the American versions. Erica dumps Mark with a great final speech. She tells him, “You’re going to go through life thinking that girls don’t like you because you’re a tech geek. And I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that that won’t be true. It’ll be because you are an asshole.” She’s right, we agree with her, and we are still willing to follow Mark because we want to know what he is going to do about all this. This scene is great screenwriting, and her line “And I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that that won’t be true” is one of the best set-up lines in movies since “Dammit, Osgood, I’m a man.”
Now jump ahead to the final scene. We have followed the deposition-taking in the two cases of people suing Mark. Marilyn, one of the young women attorneys on Mark’s legal team, has looked as though she might be interested in Mark. In the final scene she tells them his primary lawyer is working on a settlement agreement that Mark will be asked to sign the next day. Mark is baffled. He is ready to go to court. Marilyn tells him her job is as a jury analyst, and in less than a minute she lays out why Mark’s behavior in the deposition hearings will destroy his case if it goes to a jury. She’s right. Then she tells him that she does not think he is an asshole, but that he is trying to be one. And she leaves. And what does Mark, the founder of Facebook, do? He is on his computer, goes on Facebook and tries to befriend…Erica. Who is not responding. See how the opening scene plays out at the end?
To go back to the beginning: After the scene with Eric, we follow Mark as he goes back to his room, noticing all the other couples on campus. And being a computer geek, he writes nasty things about Eric in his blog, which come back to haunt him when he runs into her later in the film. So then he decides to set up a website of sorts in which Harvard guys can vote on who the hot chicks are. He does it very quickly, because we know he has a quick mind. One other way the opening scene sets the tone for the film is that the dialogue is as speedy as that in His Girl Friday (1940), so it establishes the pace of the film. We know we are going to have to run to catch up, always a good sign. Just as we may not have caught everything Mark said in the opening scene, we certainly, unless we are computer geeks ourselves, are not going to follow all of the techno-babble of setting up this website, or the Facebook that follows. Sorkin is smart enough and experienced enough, especially with The West Wing, to know that the audience does not have to understand everything the characters say. A lot of the political dialogue in The West Wing and the techno-babble here is the MacGuffin in the series and the film. The characters know what they are talking about, and we know they know what they are talking about and we don’t need to understand all the nuances.
As Mark begins to develop what becomes Facebook, we suddenly get thrown ahead into the two sets of depositions. Well, we know the film is moving at a fast clip, so we take the change in stride. We are also far enough along in the story that the depositions are not giving us anything new. What they are giving us are alternative views of what happened at Harvard in 2003-2004. Eduardo Saverin, the closest person Mark has to a best friend, comes up with suggestions and money to start Facebook, and then Mark pushes him out. The Winklevoss twins, the epitome of Harvard types, approach Mark with an idea for a social website. He agrees to work on it, then leads them on while he develops Facebook. Eduardo has one lawsuit against Mark, the Winklevii, as they are referred to, have another.
At about the halfway point in the film, Sorkin gives us a new character, Sean Parker. I have always thought the third quarter of a film is the most difficult to write. You have established your main characters and their situation, but you are not ready to end the story. You need to develop it in some way and/or divert us. Big action sequences, such as the chariot race in Ben-Hur (1959) or the car chase in Bullitt (1968) are usually in the third quarter, and the arrival and departure of the Jack Nicholson character in Easy Rider (1969) takes up exactly the third quarter of that film. In The Social Network we have spent the first hour in the hothouse of Harvard, complete with everybody’s sense of entitlement that comes with it. The Winklevii arrange a meeting with the then-president of Harvard, Larry Summers, and Sorkin gives us a great scene of dueling entitlements. Mark, in his own way, feels entitled to join one of the final clubs as well as hitting on Boston U. coeds. At this halfway point Mark is not thinking beyond Harvard and perhaps a few other Ivy League schools. One thing the film gets beautifully is how haphazardly Facebook developed. Usually in “great inventor” movies, the genius sees it all at once, not so here. Sean Parker, an entrepreneur who invented Napster, sees a much larger potential for Facebook, so he helps Mark take it out of Harvard. Sean is also everything that Mark wants to be: handsome, sexy, free, and easy—a little too easy—with money. Mark realizes that he and Facebook do not have to stay in the gilded cage of Harvard. He also learns from Sean how to be an even bigger son of a bitch than he already was.
Sorkin’s screenplay is beautifully structured, with one notable exception. As Mark expands Facebook to other colleges, the Winklevii go off to England to row in a regatta. The regatta scene goes on, and on, and on, and then is followed by a scene of the twins meeting Prince Albert of Monaco, which has nothing to do with the story Sorkin is telling. All we need to know is that the twins are in England and learn that Facebook is now available in England. You could do that with a couple of stock shots of the regatta and a short scene in a British-looking room. So how did this sequence get into and stay in the picture? I have mentioned before that when you are writing screenplays you are writing for performance. That usually means for the actors, but it also means you should, particularly if you are writing a script on spec, give the director something to show off with. The director in this case is David Fincher and with the exception of the regatta sequence, this is his best film. It’s his best because unlike all of his others, it is not over-directed. As with many directors who come out of music videos, Fincher wants to stuff everything he can into every shot. Here he doesn’t really have time, since Sorkin’s script moves at such a blistering pace. Fincher’s direction is rich and full (look at the scene of Mark going back to his room after Erica dumps him), but unlike Se7en (1995) or The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), Fincher’s talents, which are considerable, are put to the service of the story and the characters. Amazing what a director can truly accomplish if he does that.
Inside Job (2010. Written by Chad Beck and Adam Bolt. 120 minutes according to IMDb, 107 minutes by my count) and Capitalism: A Love Story (2009. Written by Michael Moore. 127 minutes.)
The ways we got screwed: I finally got around to watching Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story a couple of weeks ago and found it had dated badly. At one point he is comparing the incompetence of American carmakers with the Japanese, who are wonderf—oops, this was done before the current troubles with Toyota. Since Moore’s film was made in the early months of the Obama administration, Moore assumes the problems are going to be taken care of. As Inside Job makes devastatingly clear, it didn’t quite happen. Moore’s filmmaking is his usual casually structured, funny, manipulative, over-the-top style, which is entertaining, but suffers very much in comparison with the narrative drive of Inside Job.
The director of Inside Job is Charles Ferguson, who previously made the great, chilling 2007 documentary No End in Sight. In that film, Ferguson managed to land interviews with a lot of government officials who were involved in the run-up to and management of the Iraq War. He treated even the idiots like adults and got great material on what happened. I have no idea how Ferguson gets those kinds of people to talk to him, but he does it well, and does again in Inside Job. We have talked before about how documentaries can introduce us to fascinating characters, and Feguson’s docs are beautiful examples of that.
In Inside Job he is dealing with the financial collapse of the last few years. Naturally he starts in Iceland. I was a bit surprised when I got into the theater showing the film and saw that the screen masking was set for the 2:35 to 1 widescreen ratio of Panavision, but in the opening scenes it is clear why Ferguson is going wide. Iceland is a gorgeous country. But what are we doing there in a movie about the financial meltdown? Well, Iceland is the perfect storm. They had a wonderful, conservative banking system that got deregulated and started making huge, ridiculous loans. It is a model for the American disaster in simpler terms and helps give us our bearings as the film tracks the American story. (The wide screen is also nicely used for the explanatory graphics.) We get economists who recognized the potential problems, and those who did not. Harvard, which took its lumps in The Social Network, really gets raked over the coals here, since its economists were heavy promoters of deregulation of banking and the stock market. Ferguson has some wonderful interviews with the Harvard economists who still don’t understand, or at least will not admit, that they contributed to the debacle. One of the great running gags in the film is Beck and Bolt’s narration telling how some of the big names (Bernanke, Geithner, etc) screwed things up and then having a title that each one refused to be interviewed for the film. One of those was Larry Summers. Yup, the same character we see in The Social Network. It’s not a good time for Harvard and Summers.
It’s Kind of a Funny Story (2010. Screenplay by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, based on the novel by Ned Vizzini. 101 minutes.)
Very lite: The credits on this one do not come up until the end of the film, so I did not know as I was watching it it was based on a novel. But early on I began to suspect. Why? First of all, it is very talky, and not in the good Social Network–Aaron Sorkin way. The characters are just standing around chatting about various situations. Not only will they not shut up, but Craig, the main character, has a voiceover that also will not shut up. I suspected the voiceover came from the first person writing in the novel, which turns out to be the case. One advantage to seeing a movie in a multiplex in a shopping mall is that you can go into the mall bookstore and check this stuff out after the film. Another giveaway of its novelistic origins is that it is not very dramatic. Craig, a troubled-but-not-too-troubled teen, is feeling suicidal and checks himself into a psychiatric hospital. He thinks he will only be there overnight, but they insist he stay five days. His stress, which mostly comes from having to fill out an application form for a school his father wants him to attend, is rather bland, and the film does not make us feel how stressful this is for Craig. It may come across in the writing in the novel, but not in the film. On film he is mostly a whiny teenager. So we assume he is going to come through this OK, which eliminates most of the drama.
The writers do try to give us some “cinematic” elements, but most of them fall flat. When Craig is promoted to being the lead singer in a musical therapy group session, the song turns into a music video. That could be fun, but the writers keep it as just a performance video, which gets tiresome rather quickly. Although Craig is a teenager, he is placed on an adult floor, with of course a cute teenage girl, Noelle, and late in the picture they “escape” the floor and dash to the roof. We are now in Truffaut-land or at the least in Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night (1964), without alas the cinematic panache.
Craig meets and talks with some of the other patients, but we get very little characterization of them. None of them seem to have problems that are that serious. Craig very easily gets his roommate, who has not left his room in months, out into a music session. The most interesting character is Bobby, who is sort of Craig’s guide, but we learn very little about him. Zach Galifianakis gives a nice, muted performance as Bobby, but the writers have not given him much to dig into. Craig does have a sort-of girlfriend on the outside, Nia, but his being torn between her and Noelle turns the third quarter into typical teen romantic angst. Now what would have happened if instead of Noelle, the girl in the hospital had been Precious?
One of the lines several reviewers have used about this film is that it is One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) lite. Very, very lite. There is not even an equivalent to Nurse Ratched, which certainly provided drama in the earlier film. Here the staff is loving and helpful. A note in the novel tells us that Vizzini spent some time as a patient in an adult psychiatric hospital the year before he wrote the book, so I suspect he feels grateful to the people who helped him. But if you are writing a novel or a film, you can give it a lot more edge. The great Viola Davis plays Dr. Eden Minerva—can the name be any more obvious?—and she is effectively collecting unemployment benefits. Imagine what she could do if they gave her even half a Nurse Ratched to play.
Red (2010. Screenplay by Jon Hoeber & Erich Hoeber, based on the graphic novel by Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner. 111 minutes.)
Yeah, it’s based on a graphic novel. So what?: Readers from the very early days of this column in 2008 will remember that I got into trouble with the fanboy crowd by whacking graphic novels and the movies made from them. See US#2 and US#3 for some of the reactions, comments, and replies. So guess what, folks? I enjoyed Red enormously. Partly this is because it is one of those geezer action movies that we have had a couple of this year. I passed on The Expendables since it just seemed to be a bunch of aging muscle men, although audiences liked it. Here we have some interesting characters of a certain age. Frank Moses is a retired government official of some kind who spends his days tearing up his benefits checks so he can call Sarah Ross at the disbursement office and complain he did not get them. They have developed a nice little phone flirtation. Suddenly a lot of guys with guns show up and destroy his house, but he manages to escape.
He goes to Kansas City and semi-kidnaps Sarah, since he figures she is in danger. Well, she is once he kidnaps her. She’s not just a cute bimbo, but a smart woman who is worried she is not going to have any excitement in her life. Well, she doesn’t have to worry about that. The writers have given Frank and Sarah a nice relationship and some good lines, as in her “And I was hoping you would have hair.” It is not a part of great depth—none of the characters are—but it gives Mary-Louise Parker some nice moments. The same is true of the other characters. Frank begins to put together a team of retired operatives (he was a lot more than just the researcher he claimed to be) and each gets their moments. Yes, Marvin Boggs is a typical John Malkovich weirdo, but Malkovich doesn’t push it. Yes, I agree with some critics that we get to Helen Mirren’s Victoria later in the film than we might like, but who can resist Mirren using heavier artillery than she was allowed on Prime Suspect? The gravitas the actors bring makes it seem less like just another adaptation of a graphic novel, and more like a real movie. Even the bad guys are given some texture, notably the hit man given the job of getting Frank and the others. It turns out he has a family he loves very much. Richard Dreyfusss brings his best Dick Chaney impression over from Oliver Stone’s 2008 W. and it fits right in.
Yes, the plotting is a little sloppy, and maybe they did not need to fire that many rounds of ammunition, but the dry deadpan tone carries us through those excesses. And there is not a teenager in sight, glory be.
Two and a Half Men (2010. “Twanging Your Magic Clanger” episode teleplay by Eddie Gorodetsky & Chuck Lorre & Jim Patterson, story by Lee Aronsohn & Dan Foster. “The Crazy Bitch Gazette” episode teleplay by Dan Foster & Eddie Gorodetsky, story by Chuck Lorre & Lee Aronsohn. 30 minutes each.)
Old age is creeping up on Charlie: As I mentioned in US#60, it looked as though the first episode(s) of this season were at least conceived when it was not yet clear if Charlie Sheen was going to be back on the show. These two episodes, broadcast immediately before and after his recent adventures in New York, focused on Charlie. In the first, he’s started dating Michelle, a dermatologist who took a growth off his ass. He is horrified to discover she is 47, at least, depending on who is counting, five years older than he is. Well, I can see his surprise. She is played by Liz Vassey, formerly Wendy Sims, one of the lab rats in CSI. Vassey is 38 and does not look older than 32, so in Hollywood terms, she was very brave to take this role. Charlie is bothered by the fact that he is dating an “older woman,” no matter how young she looks. He’s about accepted it when Michelle dumps him, telling him he is still thinking about Chelsea. Before then he’s learned Michelle has a babe-alicious daughter Shauna. We can tell he’s thinking of making out with her, but she tells him she once had sex with an old guy—who was 35. She says, “It was like having sex with my grandfather.” Charlie turns around, knocks on Michelle’s door and says, “Good news, I’m over Chelsea.”
In the next episode, Charlie and Michelle are having a nice dinner at a restaurant when Charlie’s mother Evelyn shows up. And then Alan. Michelle asks them to join her and Charlie. So she gets a first-hand view of his family. Here’s what makes the writing of this episode so good. We know Charlie and his family, so what we see and hear them do seems “natural” to us. But we can also see them from Michelle’s point of view. Charlie and Michelle go back to his house and are about to get it on when Jake knocks on the bedroom door. Charlie says he is not alone, and Jake starts guessing: Chelsea’s back? Mia? The hooker who—Charlie decides to let him have the car keys he asked for. Next morning Michelle meets Berta, who asks Charlie if she should make up his bed or if they are just taking a breather. Michelle seems to be taking all this surprisingly well, but then Rose, Charlie’s stalker, pops up over the railing of the balcony. It is just one crazy person too much for Michelle, and she leaves. Too bad, because Rose tells Charlie that she is getting married to a guy named Manfred Quinn. Alan starts looking for wedding presents, but Charlie is convinced the wedding will not take place. Alan and Charlie go to the church and peek inside and it looks like a wedding. They wander off and we see that except for Rose and the minister, everbody else is a plastic mannequin. We end with Alan and Charlie standing by a truck saying they are happy Rose is marrying good old Manny Quinn. They move and we see a truck labeled “Mannequins” on it. Rose triumphs again.
CSI (2010. “House of Hoarders” episode written by Christopher Barbour. 60 minutes.)
It’s full employment week for set decorators here at CSI: As I mentioned above, if you are writing screenplays, you are writing for performance. Usually that refers to the actors, or to the directors, as I did above, but it can also refer to the production designers and set decorators. In US#44 and the comments on it, we talked about what the writer of You Only Live Twice (1967) gave production designer Ken Adam to work with. In this episode of CSI, Barbour gave the set decorators a wonderful situation.
Nick and Sarah are called to a house full of junk. I mean really full, as in they can hardly get in the front door. The set folks have provided wonderful mountains of stuff they have to wade through. At which point they find a decaying corpse. Obviously the woman who owns the house. Except she soon turns up alive in one of the other rooms. OK, that’s the set-up, but having established the house full of junk, Barbour and the set decorators then develop it further. The corpse is the woman’s daughter. Ah, only one of the woman’s daughters. Eventually the CSI’s find a relatively clean area of the house where the owner has stashed stuff in nice, neat tupperware baskets. And the baskets are in a certain order. Which of course lead to…well, I’m not going to tell you, but it’s a corker and totally in keeping with what the writer and decorators have set up. You can look for the episode in reruns or on DVD or wherever you watch television these days.
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: Boys State Presents an Aptly Dire Microcosm of American Politics
The film suggests that our political system is a popularity contest that functions for no one but those jockeying for power.3
Initiatives to get young people involved in politics are often organized in service of a given party agenda, but the “non-partisan” Americanism of the American Legion’s Boys and Girls State programs differentiates them from groups like the Young Republicans, while somehow also managing to make the blind enthusiasm of youthful politics even more off-putting. Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss’s Boys State offers a skeptical take on the eponymous summer leadership and citizenship programs. A disconcerting mix of a Boy Scouts outing and Model U.N., the Boys State program, based on the evidence presented in the film, appears to be less an educational tool or a communal gathering of like-minded youth, and more an indoctrination into a cultish fetishization of American power politics.
McBaine and Moss predominantly focus on four boys participating in the Texas iteration of the annual gathering in which, as the opening-credits graphics inform us, such dubious luminaries as Dick Cheney and Rush Limbaugh also participated in their youth. While the program’s participants are overwhelmingly white, able-bodied, and conservative, the four boys who rise to fake-government power don’t quite fit that stereotyped Texan mold: René Otero is a black, liberal Chicago transplant (“I’ve never seen so many white people in one place in my life,” he confesses at one point); Steven Garza is Latino, and was inspired to get into politics by Bernie Sanders; Ben Feinstein is a Reagan-worshipping arch-conservative with two prosthetic legs (he had meningitis as a child); and Rob Macdougall, a breezily confident white boy who publicly plays the right-wing All-American, privately harbors pro-choice convictions.
After the program’s 1,100-plus participants arrive in Austin—all clad in the same white uniform shirts, like members of a religious mission—they’re randomly split into two political parties, the Federalists and the Nationalists, in reference to the constitutional debate of the 1780s, though the particulars of that nation-founding conversation play no part in how each party is meant to behave. Instead, each group organizes and forms a contemporary party platform, and, using the actual facilities of the Texas state government, runs candidates for governor against one another. This, presumably, is how it came to pass that in 2017, the year before the documentary was filmed, Texas Boys State voted to secede from the Union.
One might be tempted to conclude that the Nationalists won the mock gubernatorial election that year, but, again, the party names mean nothing. Indeed, Boys State shows the entire program as a form of social conditioning that compels its participants to talk without saying very much at all, and teaches them how best to make cynically calculated power moves. The worst culprit in this regard is Ben, who arrives fully formed as a self-styled political wheeler and dealer, and who, despite espousing some conservative convictions, mostly sees politics as a zero-sum game of self-fulfillment. Elected as the Federalists’ state chair, Ben runs his party by the mantra that “you have to find divisive issues in order to differentiate yourself at all.”
In such moments, McBaine and Moss capture the way teenagers can be adept at obliviously, even innocently articulating the subtext of the politics of corruption. After confessing he gave a stump speech misrepresenting his true views, Rob explains with a final note of uncertainty, “That’s politics…I think.” Few of these kids really have a fully formed idea of their own political identity: The purportedly left-leaning Steven, while achieving unlikely popularity among a body politic almost unanimously against background checks and immigrant rights, professes an open admiration for Napoleon Bonaparte. In his final pitch for governorship he even quotes the French emperor who displaced a democratic republic.
Boys State initially looks askance at all this naïve politicking, mixing a sympathetic view of the teens with ironic commentary, delivered by judicious cuts to interviews or metaphorical images that undermine the sentiment of the prior scene. After a visibly nervous Steven, uncertain of his political platform, rises to the occasion with a primary debate performance that’s surprisingly fluid and honest-sounding but absent of detailed policy proposals, there’s a cut to a racoon outside the debate hall diving headfirst into a trash can. Point taken.
At the same time, however, Steven’s rise through the ranks of the tumultuous Nationalist party—a concurrent plotline sees René, the group’s chair, doing battle with racist party members want to see him impeached and removed for declining to move forward with a secession platform—gets plotted as something like an inspirational tale, the American dream in miniature. It’s easy to identify with the humble Steven as he forms an inchoate political voice, but the way that voice only reflects the crowd’s own pleasurable ideal of itself back to it constitutes a development more tragic than the documentary appears to realize.
In assembling Boys State as a rise-to-the-top narrative, the filmmakers dull a potential critical edge that might have allowed them to ask more pointed questions about actual policy, history, and political science at this camp. If women have nominally been full participants in U.S. politics since 1920, then why does the American Legion train politically interested youth to address only the (often frivolous and always underthought) concerns that arise from homosocial teen groupings? But even if it sometimes emphasizes the individualized drama of a political contest over such critical matters, Boys State presents a fittingly dire microcosm of American politics, suggesting that our political system as an exclusionary and essentially contentless popularity contest functions for no one but those jockeying for power.
Director: Amanda McBaine, Jesse Moss Distributor: A24
Review: Sputnik Toils in the Long Shadow Cast by Ridley Scott’s Alien
Sputnik is an egregious missed opportunity that bites off more formulas than it can chew.2
Ridley Scott’s Alien has cast a long shadow. Certain images in the film conjure an unshakeable terror of violation, which is afforded a brutal catharsis when one creature, suggesting a cross between a tapeworm, a snake, and a phallus, rips its way out of a man’s ribcage in one of the most brutal “births” in cinema history. Many movie monsters since have been compared to the various creatures of Alien, just as virtually every slasher movie owes some form of allegiance to Psycho. Egor Abramenko’s Sputnik is already at least the second film to riff on Alien this year alone, after William Eubank’s Underwater, and it adds one promising gimmick to the body-horror formula: The alien here is a symbiote rather than a parasite, entering and exiting its host over and over again. The violation is ongoing.
Sputnik is set in the Soviet Union in 1983, and Abramenko subtly allows us to feel the pall of the Cold War as it’s entering its death rattle. It’s cast in lonely, shadowy hues, and the soft, warm, and grainy cinematography un-showily suggests that the film has been beamed in from the analog era, in the tradition of Andrew Patterson’s The Vast of Night, also from this year. The Soviets are concerned with heroes to keep morale up, and cosmonaut Konstantin Veshnyakov (Pyotr Fyodorov) will do nicely. He’s returned from a space mission that’s vaguely defined by the filmmakers, which is an evocative touch that suggests that when heroes are needed by a society the specifics of their aspirational accomplishments hardly matter. Something happened in space though: A shadow drifted over Konstantin’s vessel, and his fellow cosmonaut is now in a coma. Konstantin has amnesia and is being held in a bunker presided over by Semiradov (Fedor Bondarchuk), who’s pressing scientists to solve the mystery of the time he lost in space. Semiradov recruits a doctor who’s in hot water for unorthodox measures, Tatyana Klimova (Oksana Akinshina), in an effort to crack Konstantin.
Sputnik’s first act is eerie, strange, and unusually character-centric for a monster movie. The film initially suggests many episodes of The Outer Limits, in which the audience was chilled by the implications of what happened to characters who ventured into outer space. And Abramenko doesn’t tease the audience as long as one might expect: Soon, Semiradov reveals more details of the situation to Tatyana, inviting her to watch Konstantin in his holding cell in the middle of the night, when he convulses in his sleep while a creature gradually crawls out of his mouth. This sequence is unnerving, showing the creature’s emergence partially from the point of view of laboratory cameras, lending the event a patina of casualness and “reality.” The creature itself is, in design, beholden less to Alien than to the mutations of that film’s prequel, Prometheus, as it’s pale and amphibian in nature, suggesting a miniature manta ray or hammerhead shark, with little legs and a gelatinous tail that is, of course, so very phallic.
Like the various otherworldly beings of Prometheus, Sputnik’s monster is disappointing, timidly designed for the sake of a supposed, greatly overrated notion of believability. It doesn’t seem especially plausible that a tapeworm creature would evolve, seemingly overnight, into the metallic praying mantis colossus of Alien, and this irrationality, coupled with the primordial design itself, is terrifying. By contrast, Sputnik’s wan creature ushers forth a series of anticlimaxes that ripple through the film. After the alien’s symbiotic relationship with Konstantin is explained via amusing pseudo-science, Sputnik changes formulas, becoming a story of a special man who must be saved from evil military industrialists. At times, Abramenko even seems to be visually quoting Ang Lee’s Hulk.
But a story of a special man must be fixated, as Hulk was, with the psychology of said man. Konstantin’s anguish at being invaded, and the weird elation he might feel at discovering that he can control his interloper, are glossed over by Abramenko. Sputnik’s third act is a rush of formulaic action meant, perhaps, to compensate for the interminably repetitive and impersonal second act, which is mostly concerned with reinforcing a set of foregone conclusions. Incredibly, the central notion of the film—of an alien that symbolically rapes its host over and over—is relegated to an inciting incident. Sputnik is an egregious missed opportunity that bites off more formulas than it can chew.
Cast: Oksana Akinshina, Fedor Bondarchuk, Pyotr Fyodorov, Albrecht Zander, Anna Nazarova, Vasiliy Zotov Director: Egor Abramenko Screenwriter: Oleg Malovichko, Andrei Zolotarev Distributor: IFC Midnight Running Time: 113 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
Interview: Alejandro Jodorowsky on Psychomagic, the Theater of Cruelty, and More
The maverick filmmaker discusses working with the tarot, the surrealist moviement, and more.
At the age of 91, maverick Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky has made his first ever documentary, Psychomagic, a Healing Art. In many ways, it’s a companion piece to his recent self-reflexive and semi-autobiographical films The Dance of Reality and Endless Poetry, in which Jodorowsky inserted his present-day self into the narrative of his own boyhood and youth. Where the earlier films show Jodorowsky arriving at private rituals and symbolic acts to deal with his own issues, Psychomagic expands his sphere of influence to include men and women who find themselves in a cul-de-sac of existential distress.
Essentially a daisy chain of case histories, the film allows Jodorowsky to demonstrate the unconventional psychotherapeutic techniques he’s developed over a lifetime spent studying various psychological systems and an astonishing variety of Eastern and Western spiritual practices. As you might expect from the man behind El Topo and The Holy Mountain, it can be a wild ride, full of sometimes totally bonkers, even grotesque imagery, yet also betraying Jodorowsky’s full-blooded compassion for the vicissitudes of human suffering.
Ahead of the VOD release of Psychomagic, I had the opportunity to speak with Jodorowsky via Skype. We touched upon a far-ranging assortment of topics including working with the tarot, Antonin Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty, the “last days” of the surrealist movement, and the films of Dario Argento and Luis Buñuel.
Early in your new documentary you mention your work with the tarot deck. How did that contribute to your development of psychomagic?
For me, the tarot isn’t magic that let’s you see the future. It’s only a language to open the unconscious. That is all. It’s to work with the dreams like Sigmund Freud worked with dreams. My films help me to speak about dreams, and put you on the table [in a tarot spread]. I use tarot to do that. But, in order to do that, I needed 50 years of working with the tarot, learning how to memorize the tarot deck. I memorized every line, every color, every meaning. [Jodorowsky proceeds to give a quick three-card tarot reading.]
Psychomagic techniques seem to involve a dreamlike, poetic logic. How do you arrive at the specific details of the treatments?
When you’re working with me, first I make your genealogical tree. You have the son, you have the partner, the father and mother, the grandfather. Then I know where you are, what formed you. And then, when I know that, I will not experience you in a psychoanalytic way, an intellectual way. That is for psychoanalysts, who take dreams and teach you what is real life. I am different. I take what you think with the reality and I put it into the image of the dream. I use the language of acting, not speaking, doing things you never did before. New things. I am breaking your psychological defense with an image to go do something. I will say, “Paint your beard gold and kiss a woman, or a man, who has silver hair.” I will say that’s an image. That will open to you the unconscious, something you will discover. That is the work of psychomagic.
With most of the participants in the film, all we see is their short-term response to the treatment. What made you follow up with the woman who had throat cancer after almost 10 years?
What I did in the theater was an experience. Because I had a theater. I had to pay to have that theater. Because every healing I do is free. I’m not a psychoanalyst, so nobody paid me. It’s free. Because I had a big theater, and in Chile I am very well known, I will have a conference in the theater. Five thousand people came. And then I decided to make an experience. I didn’t know if collective thinking, like quantum theory says, could change reality, if we have a group of people who do the same thing. Can we heal this woman? She thinks she will die very quickly. And then I take the woman and I make the experience. And then I didn’t speak with her. And then, when I made the picture 10 years later, I wanted to know, because I never repeated it. In order to teach healing, you need 5,000 doctors! It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I wanted to know, with thinking, do we or don’t we have the power? The cancer, they say we cannot heal that. I don’t know if they fought the cancer for years because it’s a big, big business, and they don’t want to find the solution. That I don’t know. When healing becomes a business, it cannot heal for me. Healing is an act of love. You have to take the person in your arms. The psychoanalyst doesn’t take you in his arms!
And then I get a telephone call from a friend of the woman, a student of mine. I asked him if she had died. He said no, she’s alive. I asked if I could make an interview for the film. She tells how the experience was. She said it was very good. I don’t know if it was a placebo. Placebos can be good also.
Yes, if it works, it’s good.
But it was only an experience that I did once. I can’t find 5,000 people for every person who has an illness.
Psychomagic includes short clips from many of your earlier films. Do you see this film, and the therapeutic work it illustrates, as an encapsulation of your entire career?
From the theater I came to the “happening,” improvised theater, the theater of action, then to psychomagic. I came to it. I didn’t create it. But, in all my pictures, I was searching for something. I respect very much the industrial movies. Movies from the beginning were an industry. Their goal from the beginning was to make big money. And then they discovered Hollywood and all that. But there was not one real truth, one real feeling, it was acting feelings. The show must go on! But for me movies are not a show, they’re an art.
What is art? It’s open for the person who does the work, new horizons, they will open the human soul. That’s what I did in my pictures. I started to put real things into the picture. Reality says, “Problem! I am having problems with my mother, problems with my father.” I was telling it all. Step by step, I was coming to introduce my real life into the pictures. I was having problems with my father in Endless Poetry, and I was shooting, and suddenly I jumped into the picture! Psychomagic is only real feelings, not an imitation. And that’s what I was searching for. I put examples in my pictures, saying I am speaking always of the same thing, but in an artistic way. I show a guy closed in a tower [in El Topo] and in Psychomagic I show a guy breaking pumpkins. I did that in El Topo, but in a metaphorical way, not directly. And then I show in my film that it was the same position, but in another language: artistic language, therapeutic language.
Can you tell me something about your encounters with André Breton and other surrealists in the Paris of the 1960s?
I will speak about that in my third film. It’s a trilogy: The Dance of Reality, Endless Poetry, and Essential Journey. That’s number three. I hope, if I am alive, because I am an old person, to start it in January. The script I’ve done already. I am very happy with it. I speak about that time, until I started to be a movie director. I stop there. In it, I am going to France to work with the surrealists, with the theater of Marcel Marceau, with the philosopher Gaston Bachelard. I have those three worlds.
My mind was opened with philosophy. With surrealism, I think I am the last surrealistic moviemaker who’s really surrealistic. But I am a little step farther, because surrealism doesn’t show, doesn’t explain. It’s the mystery of something you don’t understand. That is surrealism. A dream image you don’t understand, you have no need to explain that. In the art I do, you know what you’re doing. It has a finality. It has to solve your problem and come to felicity. Felicity of life. That’s what I feel with the idiotic love story. Love is not like love with a star. Love is love. We need to show what love is. Tell the things that are true, make you go to happiness. Not an idiotic happiness, not Disneyland, a real internal life. Happy to be alive. I am alive. It’s fantastic. What an incredible thing. Art has to give you with possibility to be what you are, not what the moviemaker is. Not what the actor is, you. It’s complicated, no?
Speaking of surrealistic filmmakers, what do you think about the films of Luis Buñuel?
He was a surrealist, yes, but he’s too realistic for me. He was a real person, in the real. And for me the pictures have not only a meaning, they’re a painting. You can shoot something like that [mimes different angles], traveling shots, etcetera. Everything speaks. Buñuel’s show only one point of view. He’s sitting and everything is in the size of someone sitting. But he doesn’t go out [he mimes leaving the Skype frame], he doesn’t make other things. Hollywood discovered camera movement. Camera movement is fantastic! I need to have Buñuel in Hollywood and that would be good. He could show a deep meaning but with greater freedom of form.
When you worked with Claudio Argento on Santa Sangre did you know anything about the films of his brother Dario?
Yes, I like them a lot. He was a guy who doesn’t give too much importance to the script. He can be not logical. The pleasure to shoot something that’s weird! And I liked that. No message, no meaning. Very aesthetical.
Do you have a favorite film of his?
I am very old. I don’t remember the names. I’ve seen it a lot of times, this picture. He goes into a building, he goes inside the house.
Deep Red. Profondo Rosso.
Yes! Profondo Rosso. Fantastic picture. A film like that, for his time, he made explosive cinema. Because it was the film of a director. Generally, in the industrial film, the director is an employee. The studios are surveying the script. You aren’t free with the script. You need to shoot what’s right there. Because, when you’re free, you make the script to start the picture. But in the middle of the picture you can change whatever you want and put new things in. Because there are magic things that happen when you’re shooting. In Santa Sangre, when the father commits suicide, the naked father, it was in Mexico, in the street. A very old woman was singing, drunk. There were a lot of bars there. I said, “Go find me this drunk woman, because it’s the music I need for that suicide.” And then he will kill himself, but in the image there’s a real song of a person who’s really suffering. And it’s fantastic, like that. You need to be free. When you make the picture, the director is the poet. In Hollywood, the poet is the money. More money, more happiness. I say, “No.” More poetical, more artistical—that is good. Like the tarot, that isn’t a business. I know I’m crazy, but you need some crazy person in the generality, then somebody will use it in another way.
We certainly need more people in the world who are crazy in that way.
Yes, because crazy people aren’t crazy. They’re just using their mind in another way. And it’s very interesting.
How closely did you collaborate with David Lynch on your King Shot project?
He was very gentle with me. He said, “Maybe we can make a picture.” But my project was so crazy. Maybe I wanted to shoot in Spain. I wanted to do what I always do. But he had a little company at that moment. He was not able to have the money to do that. So, since I didn’t have the money, I didn’t do it. It was too expensive.
What can you tell me about your time with Arrabal and Roland Topor in the Panic Movement?
That was really a fantastic moment in my life. Because we were accepted within the surrealist group. That was the end of surrealism. A lot of surrealists were into politics. They were Trotskyists. Into the Romantic realization of the woman, not the real woman. Arrabal, Topor, and I were searching for absolute freedom. The artist needs to be inside the play, for example, inside what you’re shooting or playing. You need to be inside, in your body. You are there. Not out of the work. You need to go farther than the intellect, farther than the unconscious. Farther than the religions. You need to find the panic. Panic isn’t fear, panic is the totality. You need to find what a man is in totality. And then, if you are an artist in totality, you need to be a painter, dancer, mime, cinematographic creator, marionette. All the things I did. Because it’s the totality. Searching the totality of expression, that’s what we did. It wasn’t a movement, it was only three persons. And we called it a movement. We wanted to show that culture was fake, was an illusion. Because three persons will go into history as a movement that doesn’t exist!
Your performances sound a lot like what was called “happenings” in other countries or what the Vienna Aktionists were doing with their films. Would you say that’s accurate?
No, the happenings were going on in the milieu of painting and sculpture. It was a way to develop the plastic arts. I made ephemera. Ephemera is not that. Ephemera is a kind of theater, psychoanalysis, dreams, surrealism. The language of art, with meaning. Happening is an expression of freedom, but only freedom.
So the performances were closer to what Antonin Artaud was talking about with his Theater of Cruelty?
I was a big admirer of The Theater and Its Double. I started from there. He opened my eyes. In Fando y Lis, you have a little influence of Artaud. I had a theater play of Arrabal, with Fando y Lis, but I didn’t use the play, I used the memory I had as director of the play. With a lot of violence coming from Artaud. And then in El Topo, I had a Japanese Zen Master, Ejo Takata. Zen meditation, not like a hippie, real Zen meditation. Seven-day meditating without sleep. I was sleeping every night for 30 minutes, that’s all. Terrible, incredible! I brought this experience to El Topo. Because Artaud made the Theater of Cruelty. When you see the cruelty, you are open. But then I didn’t want any more cruelty. I decided I wanted to make the encounter with our self, make the cathedral [forms a steeple with his hands]. You are a cathedral. You aren’t a butcher. You’re creating the sacred. Some religions are fanatical. But I read the teachings of the Buddha, and I think there’s something more true than Artaud.
Is it true that René Daumal’s novel Mount Analogue was an influence on The Holy Mountain?
Yes. I love René Daumal, because I love his teacher. He had a great teacher, who was Gurdjieff. And in that novel, Daumal is speaking about his experience with Gurdjieff. More than surrealism, Daumal took it a step farther: The Great Game [a “counter-surrealist” journal founded by Daumal and friends]. He started to choke himself to see how it was to almost die. He was searching for stronger things, real metaphysical searching. I wanted to do his unfinished novel, Mount Analogue. He never finished it because he died very young from tuberculosis. But the family didn’t want to give me the rights. I said, “Well, I will make my own Holy Mountain!” What I directed depicts Daumal’s book. It’s a group that goes with a teacher to find immortality on a mountain. That I took. Then I developed my ideas.
So, at the end of the film, when we see the making of the film, when you turn one camera on another, was that a way of opening it up to the interpretation of the viewer?
I never thought of it the way you are saying now. Maybe, yes. I went to a real mountain in Mexico. I brought a tiger, a monk, actors, all that. And the Mexicans told me it was dangerous. Why? “Because there are tempests, and when there are tempests, you can die. Be careful.” No, I will go, because it’s beautiful, the weather is so fantastic. I shoot what I shoot, and when I finished shooting, the tempest came. And then we started to run in concert, to get off the mountain, because it was dangerous! I was running and I slipped and [mimes rolling down the mountain]. But I had a hammer and [mimes jamming it into the ground]. “No! I don’t want to die, I need to finish this damn picture!” I am making a picture. Like this, I will finish. This is the end of the picture, because it was the real end. It wasn’t as good, but I put in reality into my film. I wanted to make real things, and that, for me, was a real thing!
We’re making a picture. It’s not a comedy. There are real sentiments, because all those people I found were not actors. Every person I showed had the problem I show in the picture. Real people I used, real tiger! I’m not a Hollywood company making fake everything. I asked Hollywood that I want a stampede of tarantulas, big spiders on a body. They made fake ones. So we went out and bought spiders and had their fangs cut out. We made up the body and then we used the spiders. Real spiders came out there. And the person who did that, also myself, never liked spiders! There he was, suffering something enormous with those spiders!
Are you currently working on any new graphic novels?
Graphic novels. That is my industrial business. Because I have The Incal, Metabarons, Sons of El Topo. That I am doing all the time. That is normal for me, because I have a big imagination. If I didn’t have imagination, I would die. I am taking a step farther than Psychomagic with Psychotrance. It’s a kind of literature, but at the same time you’re reading, I’m giving you exercises. It’s mixing a lecture with exercises to inspire what you do, the impact of having a trance. With drugs, you have a trance. I say no drugs. We can do it without drugs. How to do it like this. Not only meditation. Go farther than meditation. Go immediately to what you are when you’re not intellect. What is in you? You don’t need to take LSD. You don’t need to take ayahuasca. Because those are dreams. I am saying do the same thing I do in movies. In movies, in a century of fake feelings, I am making real feelings. In a culture full of drugs, psychological drugs, I am putting in a real hallucination, guiding how you can do it.
Translation by Pascale Montandon.
Interview: Kate Lyn Sheil on Calibrating Her Performance in She Dies Tomorrow
Sheil discusses how she situates the specifics of work within such an ambiguous and allegorical film.
Amy Seimetz’s She Dies Tomorrow is of obvious relevance in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. The film, which had been set to premiere at this year’s SXSW, grapples with the contagious nature of despondency and angst in a contemporary milieu that so often seeks to minimize or ignore them. These amorphous feelings prove to be an inexplicably transmissible disease passed from character to character, each of which stops in their tracks and calmly declares, “I’m going to die tomorrow.”
That She Dies Tomorrow doesn’t buckle under the weight of its heady themes and supernatural premise is a testament to how the performances ground the film in reality. In the film, Kate Lyn Sheil stars as Amy, a surrogate character for the director who quietly yet urgently probes the boundaries of the anxieties that ensnare her. Sheil, who commands the most screen time, captivates as she wields her mastery of minutiae. She’s capable of precisely executing small physical gestures to convey forceful intent.
It’s merely the latest in a line of exciting and unpredictable performances from Sheil, whose prolific presence in the New York independent film scene spans from working with early mumblecore pioneers like Joe Swanberg in Silver Bullets to partnering with boundary-pushing luminaries such as Robert Greene on Kate Plays Christine. She’s equally as revelatory appearing briefly in a short film, the latest Alex Ross Perry project, an episode of House of Cards, or working through the very ethics of her trade as herself in documentary format.
I caught up with Sheil prior to the digital release of She Dies Tomorrow to discuss how she approaches conveying such potent interiority, her long-term collaboration with Seimetz, and how she situates the specifics of work within such an ambiguous and allegorical film.
What are the ripple effects of Kate Plays Christine in your work and career, given that it’s such a meta performance about the nature of performance?
I worked with a director afterward who said that he wanted to work with me after he saw Kate Plays Christine because it made him feel like I would be honest with him if I didn’t like the way that he was directing me. And I was like, “Oh, no, you’re mistaken. I probably will not say anything at all and just try and toe the party line.” Because that movie plays with what is real and what is fake, I feel like there could potentially be a misconception that I yell. Which is…not the case. Your guess is as good as mine.
That scene where you really snap was staged too, right? It was something Robert Greene invented to see what would happen when you felt boxed in by the experiment.
Yeah, it was scripted, essentially.
Is the movie at all a window into the way you work?
I think I spoke honestly about some ways that I approach acting roles in Kate Plays Christine, while lots of it is scripted, embellished or made up to create a narrative arc. I think there are moments that I speak truthfully about the way I do approach a role. I, personally, would never go to Sarasota and think that I had to interview people in order to play a part correctly. But I think I talk about my—I hate to say it—“process” in a truthful manner at a certain point, and that’s how I would [do it]. That’s probably how I approached this movie. Amy wrote this role, and then the best that I can do is just to try to find ways that I relate to the character and use substitutions to think of times when I maybe felt analogous.
Part of what makes Kate Plays Christine so fascinating is the way the camera allows you to externalize the process of thinking and deliberating. Was that at all helpful for She Dies Tomorrow?
Yeah, that’s all that’s all Amy’s writing though. That was baked into the script from the earliest stages of it. She wanted the character to be very physical in the way that she was exploring that house and touching things in a way that, at least from the outside if someone were to catch you doing it, it doesn’t seem like normal behavior. But when faced with the enormity of this thing, normalcy doesn’t really mean anything anymore.
Amy Seimetz has said that the tactile details of touching the house came from her own experience grappling with the weird mix of emotions that arose from her becoming a homeowner. How do you find your way into this compulsion that’s so visceral and unique?
It’s Amy, she wrote it for me, and then she creates an environment on set where—I don’t want to say it’s not difficult, because I certainly was afraid the entire time that I maybe wasn’t doing as good a job as I could. I didn’t want to let Amy down. She creates an environment where you can sort of slip into it. We’ve known each other for such a long time, and we’ve worked together before. I love the way that she directs me. She’s not precious with me at all. She will quite literally show me what she wants if I’m not getting it. [laughs, mimes direction] “Okay, that’s what I’m supposed to do, cool!”
The beginning of the film is largely free of dialogue. How much of what we see was scripted or pre-planned versus discovered once the camera rolled?
Not much of an element of discovery once the camera starts rolling. Amy is pretty precise in her visuals, and she has worked with Jake Keitel, who shot the movie, for like 17 years now. They share a brain in certain ways in terms of lighting the shots. Because that element is so important to her, there really wasn’t much of the “go with the flow, we’ll just find it in the moment.” There’s a level of precision to it, which I like and appreciate. But that’s not to say that she doesn’t give you as much room as you need to emotionally find the scene. But, in terms of physicality, she really has planned it out pretty precisely beforehand.
Was that at all different from Sun Don’t Shine? Since that was such a scrappy, on-the-go road movie, did really planting your feet in a location change the nature of your collaboration with Amy at all?
With Sun Don’t Shine, yeah, certain things are obviously outside your control if you’re shooting outside. But also with that, the economy of the way that she approaches making the movie, she still has a scrappy sensibility. That’s my favorite thing because I think if you know how to make a movie for no money, then you can use those skills and continue to apply that to whatever budget you happen to be working with. She had everything on Sun Don’t Shine so precisely planned out in terms of how to shoot the car because she and Jake didn’t want it to become monotonous. In a way, that required a great deal of precision too. But then, of course, for that movie, you’re shooting in Florida in the middle of summer. There are just variables. I got very sick when we were making that movie, so there are scenes where [they] had one thing in mind. And then she’s like, “Okay, you’re just gonna be sitting because you can’t do anything.”
Since you mentioned that Amy and her cinematographer share the same brain, do you feel the same kinship with her or other directors? A lot of your work comes from collaboration with people like Amy Seimetz, Alex Ross Perry, Robert Greene, among others, with whom you share a social circle. How does the process of working with them, where you might be more involved at the ground level of a project, compare with something where you’re brought in through a more traditional casting process?
I love working with all the people that you just mentioned, and I think it’s very lucky that I happen to know people that, by my estimation, are incredible. It’s so wonderful to work with them because there is a shared history and a shorthand. It just so happens, as I said before, that I like their work a lot, so it’s more bang for your buck. Not only do you get to work with friends, but you get to be in a project that you’re probably going to like or would like, even if you had nothing to do with it. But, at the same time, there’s something really something very fun about showing up to a set and just trying your best to execute the thing, do your job and then go home at the end of the day and it’s not your old, close friends. There’s something nice about both.
What’s the best way to describe your relationship to that extended Kim’s Video orbit? Muse, co-conspirator, something else entirely?
I’m so close to it that it’s hard to think of what to call it. But that place meant everything to me. It’s where I feel like I got my education in film. I think my life would be completely different if it hadn’t existed. It truly does mean so much to me. Surprisingly, though I don’t think any of us truly saw it coming at the time, a bunch of people who have worked there at a certain time actually started making their own projects. I feel very fortunate that I was around at that time. And it’s nice to make movies with people [for whom] the impetus is a love of watching them. That’s a very joyous experience.
I know you kind of scoffed at the word “process” earlier and put it in scare quotes…
Yeah, but…I used it! [laughs]
Well, we can just caveat that. I know your training as an actress primarily came from a theatrical background at NYU. She Dies Tomorrow is about the farthest thing from a theatrical performance: The film opens on a shot of your eye, and meaning gets conveyed through how your pupil moves. How did you learn to communicate in these micro moments? Did it involve “unlearning” any theatrical training?
Yes and no. I feel like it’s all the same skill set. And then, of course, when you get in front of the camera, you learn to adjust and have a relationship with the camera also. Rather than acting for an audience, you’re trying to be present with your fellow actor, more present in the moment. If there isn’t anybody else there, which is largely the case for my stuff in She Dies Tomorrow, the camera’s your audience. I haven’t acted in a play in a very long time. I miss it, personally. I left school, and I never wanted to do to theater again. I was obsessed with movies, and I still am. But at a certain point, maybe a few years ago, I was like, “You know what, it would be fun to do to do a play!” But, I mean, I still struggle with it. I feel like a lot of my close friends who are actors talk about it too. I still walk away at the end of some days being like, “I was too big, or I was too aware of the camera. So I tried to be small, and I think it was too small.” You still have these anxieties about that exact thing, calibrating your performance to the medium.
As an actress in a film like this, do you feel the need to “understand” the rest of the film like the nature of the contagion or the impressionistic transitions? Or is it a matter of performing your part and trusting that the rest of the film will fall into place around you?
I think it’s important to make it make sense for you, but I don’t think it’s important for me to understand the structure of the entire film. But it’s always very important for me to know what I’m doing to understand where, in particular, I’m coming from. I definitely trusted that Amy was doing something great with those parts of the movie. When she told me that’s how the movie was going to proceed, that it was going to expand and extrapolate in that way, I was very, very happy. I was happy that there were going to be other people for the audience to sit with for a while. And I also love those scenes. The dinner scene, I think is so funny. Everything in the movie is wonderful, but [that’s what is] coming to mind right now. I like the way that those scenes bounced around with my scenes and recontextualize my scenes to a certain degree.
I’m always fascinated with this duality that to communicate something existential and widely recognizable, it’s often rooted in such personal and intimate performance. How do you manage the balance between the general and the specific, especially in a film like She Dies Tomorrow that has a more allegorical or representational edge to it?
I think that certain things are just outside of my control. The most that I can control is to try and make the character specific for me and then I can’t get too caught up in thinking of the overarching themes. I just try and stay in my lane, stay focused and make it specific and individual. But if the person directing movie is creating something allegorical, then hopefully my performance lends itself to that goal.
What are your thoughts on the meta element of anxiety and death premonitions being contagious? Do you think the screen is porous enough that the audience could, or should, catch it? By the end of the film, I was wondering if I would end up saying “I’m going to die tomorrow” like all the characters.
We’re obviously living in such a strange time right now that Amy never could have anticipated. Hopefully what people would feel more than anything is recognition, or that some experience that they’ve had is being reflected back to them. Hopefully that would make someone feel better potentially, less alone or less crazy. Something like that. But I mean, the movie is about ideas being contagious. So, maybe.
It was so interesting to watch in the back half of the film where, for certain characters, you can tell that the ability to express and verbalize their anxiety helps them manage it. Maybe that’s the more constructive takeaway.
Yeah, there you go!
Interview: Seth Rogen on An American Pickle and Reconnecting with His Roots
Rogen discusses collaborating with Simon Rich, how the film enriched his understanding of Judaism, the exhibition prospects of comedy in the streaming era, and more.
It’s been over two decades since Seth Rogen made his small-screen debut in Freaks and Geeks, though one could be forgiven for assuming he’s been in the business much longer given all that he’s accomplished since then. He wrote for the acclaimed shows Da Ali G Show and Undeclared in the early aughts, before then breaking out in front of the camera in two comedy smashes released in the summer of 2007, Knocked Up and Superbad, the latter of which he co-wrote with creative partner Evan Goldberg. Rogen helped usher in the still-dominant Apatow era of big-screen comedy, a reign that not even the North Korean government could topple with the cyber-attack launched in response to his 2014 Kim Jong-un assassination satire The Interview.
While Rogen’s on-camera appearances have waned slightly over the past few years, his creative output hasn’t, as he and his partners at Point Grey continue to ramp up production across film, TV, and streaming. Their latest effort, An American Pickle, holds the distinction of being HBO Max’s first original narrative feature to premiere on the platform. But it also portends a distinctly more mature and reflective shift in Rogen’s own work as the cinematic face of exuberant millennial prolonged adolescence nears middle age.
The film stars Rogen in dual roles as Ben, a contemporary secular Brooklynite app developer, and Herschel, his devoutly Jewish great-grandfather who emigrated from eastern Europe and reemerges in the present day after being brined in a vat of pickles for a century. Neither the film or the characters in it dwell much on the absurd premise, and An American Pickle blossoms into a silly but sweet tale of misunderstanding and reconciliation between distant generations that share little other than a bloodline.
I chatted with Rogen on the eve of An American Pickle’s release. Our discussion covered how he collaborated with writer Simon Rich, how the film enriched his own understanding of Judaism, and how he envisions the exhibition prospects of comedy in the streaming era.
I saw Knocked Up as a teenager, and now it weirds me out that I’m older than you were when you made it. While working on it, were you aware that it might become such a generational touchstone for millennials? How do you feel about it now that it’s almost like a period piece?
I think when you make a movie you never truly know how it’s going to be received, honestly. Watch Hearts of Darkness, that’s a good lesson in that! There’s people on the set of the worst movie you’ve ever seen who think they’re making a masterpiece, and there’s people on the set of a masterpiece thinking that no one’s going to watch or see it ever—and even if they do, they’ll hate it. It’s not uncontrollable, but it’s hard to control and almost impossible to do with some sort of consistency. To that end, I’m glad that people still like any of our movies. The fact that any of them are viewed as remotely relevant in some way is lovely. You really don’t know what’s going to stand the test of time until time has passed, really.
I ask about that film partly because I feel there’s an interesting evolution we can chart from there to An American Pickle, which has an insight and understanding that feels like it can only be conveyed by learning and living. Is this the kind of film you could only have made at this point in your life?
Yeah, I think it’s definitely born of an older brain. Especially the themes of grief and how to process things we learned as kids, how we may have rejected those things even though they might add value to our lives, those themes are much more prevalent in my life as I get closer to 40 than when I was in my mid-20s. The idea of making a movie about grief and reconnecting with my roots was not prominent on my radar! [laughs]
There’s such poignancy to the way the film shows how past generations, be it through religion or some other factor, are better equipped to handle grief and hardship. Has any of that been valuable, pandemic or otherwise, in your life?
Yeah, I think religion specifically. My wife’s mother passed away earlier this year, and her uncle, actually. I’ve just seen with that specifically. Judaism has actionable protocols that do help. At one point in my life, I would probably write off all of it and say there was nothing helpful I was ever taught about religion. Now as I get older, I can cherry-pick and say you can take elements of this and apply them to your life as you find them helpful. Not all of this was born out of fooling people. Some of it was born out of truly trying to help people.
You’ve obviously done quite a bit of writing yourself on other projects. When it comes to something like An American Pickle, do you mostly just stay in your lane as an actor and let Simon Rich tailor the script to you? Or are you still involved in some writerly capacity?
I’m definitely still involved in some writerly capacity. I respect the writer and know their name is the one that’s on it ultimately, and they have to be able to stand behind all of it and take ownership over it. But I try to be constructive! I just try to help and support the ideas that I can. I try to acknowledge it and say this isn’t what I would do, always, but I’m not the writer! I try to respect that.
This film was originally geared toward theaters and is now going directly to streaming on HBO Max. In your mind, does the method of distribution affect the work you make? Or are you a platform agnostic and a laugh is a laugh on a big or a small screen?
We definitely make some films that are geared more toward a big-screen experience, in our minds at least, and some we are much more comfortable with that not being the experience. This being the perfect example of one of those! We understand that if we intend to keep making films for theaters, then they have to earn that right to be in a theater. Not every film automatically is granted that at this moment, and we understand that those are different types of films sometimes. It’s not always based on budget or anything like that. Good Boys, although it wasn’t expensive, is a movie we were confident would do well in theaters. There are some more expensive movies we would not be as confident that would be the best place for them. It’s an active conversation, but I do think some movies are better geared towards a cinematic experience and some towards a streaming one.
It still strikes me as crazy that so much data shows comedy is one of the genres people most want to view at home instead of in a room full of people.
I think people just like comedy! But to me, some of the greatest experiences I’ve had in a theater, I don’t think of the action movies I saw. I think about when I saw There’s Something About Mary or South Park in theaters, the Jackass movies, these wild experiences where you can barely hear what’s happening. Those are my favorite moviegoing experiences, and I think a lot of people feel that way.
Any chance you’d do a This Is the End sequel? It’s a movie I’ve thought about a lot over the last few months each time celebrities try to center themselves in the dialogue around a moment of crisis.
Not a sequel, specifically, but we do talk about building on the genre of famous people playing themselves interacting with supernatural situations. There maybe is more to be done with that.
Review: The Secret Garden Is a Pale Imitation of Its Enchanting Source
Its emphasis on the achievement of the individual is practically antithetical to the conclusion drawn by Frances Hodgson Burnett.2
Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, the story of a young girl who opens herself up the possibilities of human compassion after rejuvenating a garden and caring for her sickly cousin, has resonated with readers of all ages since its publication. And it’s clear from the brooding start of this latest cinematic adaptation that the filmmakers seek to amplify the book’s darker themes. A title card announces that the turbulent post-World War I India that newly orphaned Mary (Dixie Egerickx) finds herself in has been ravaged by a series of violent conflicts, and director Marc Munden initially does a fine job of mirroring the girl’s confusion and insecurity over losing her parents in the uncertainty of her surroundings.
Once Mary moves to the Yorkshire estate of her uncle, Archibald Craven (Colin Firth), the filmmakers also gesture beyond the novel’s thematic borders by having multiple characters—including Craven, who’s still grieving the death of his wife, and his infirm son, Colin (Edan Hayhurst)—face a collective trauma that leaves them unsure of how to deal with their feelings. Unfortunately, the film fails to deliver on its initial promise of branching the story out into bold new emotional terrain after the narrative begins to diminish many of the characters and aspects that made Burnett’s book such a stirring vision of morality.
The secret life and death of the woman who was Craven’s wife and Colin’s mother is only a minor part of the book, but this adaptation pushes this mystery to the narrative forefront and vastly yet uninspiringly expands on it. In a departure from the novel, this rote mystery plotline largely centers on Mary, which only makes her quest feel conspicuously insular and self-serving. This emphasis on the achievement of the individual is practically antithetical to the very conclusion drawn by Burnett in the book: that enrichment and satisfaction is a shared experience that comes through something as simple as human kindness.
The focus on Mary’s plight in the film comes at the expense of capturing the idyllic beauty of the titular hideaway, whose function ultimately feels like an afterthought; it’s but a convenient plot device that exists solely to help Mary solve a problem that very much defies her efforts until the last act. Imbued with the power to cure ailments and react to people’s feelings like a sentient being, the garden offers a dose of fantasy to the film, and, predictably, it’s been rendered with a heavy dose of CGI that makes it feel cold and soulless, never eliciting the sense of calm that the characters feel while gallivanting its grounds.
As in the book, Mary learns to overcome her selfishness by helping to heal Colin, but where Burnett’s story slowly detailed the increasingly invigorating power of Mary and Colin’s friendship and mutual affection, Munden fails to show how Mary’s sleuthing ignites her spirit of generosity. It feels like a cop-out when Colin is healed by the garden’s mysterious properties, causing him to praise Mary for showing him that real magic exists. In lieu of pluming the emotional states of the characters, the film resorts to a whimsical, otherworldly fantasy element as an easy resolution. It’s the sort of fantasy that Burnett didn’t need to make room for in the book, because it recognized something more profound: that real magic isn’t necessary in a world where human beings possess the capacity for compassion.
Cast: Dixie Egerickx, Colin Firth, Julie Walters, Edan Hayhurst, Amir Wilson, Isis Davis, Maeve Dermody, Jemma Powell Director: Marc Munden Screenwriter: Jack Thorne Distributor: STXfilms Running Time: 99 min Rating: PG Year: 2020
Review: Psychomagic, a Healing Art Is a Moving Look at Therapeutic Interventions
The film could stand as a fitting encapsulation of the themes that have run throughout Alejandro Jodorowsky’s work.3
Alejandro Jodorowsky’s first documentary, Psychomagic, a Healing Art, is a moving, visually striking exploration of the unconventional psychotherapeutic techniques that the filmmaker has developed over a lifetime of reading tarot cards and studying various psychological systems and an assortment of Eastern and Western spiritual practices. After a brief introduction, during which Jodorowsky lays out the major tenets of his technique, we witness a selection of individual case histories. The format for these therapeutic interventions varies only slightly: a preliminary interview describes the issues at hand; the particular treatment is undertaken, an activity that seems pitched somewhere between ritual and performance art; and then a follow-up interview permits the participant(s)—some of them are couples—to describe the therapy’s impact on their lives. These episodes are often intercut with a thematically or pictorially related moment from one of Jodorowsky’s earlier films, as though to emphasize the continuity of his vision from narrative cinema to documentary.
Throughout Psychomagic, individual treatments unfold according to a dreamlike, poetic logic. Many of them involve the participant undergoing some sort of symbolic death and rebirth. Often this entails nothing more radical than stripping off one’s old clothes and donning new ones. Sometimes it means reenacting the moment of birth through what Jodorowsky calls “initiatic massage,” a hands-on bit of dialogue-free theater. But the most intense version of this psychic renascence on display here starts with burying a suicidal man up to his neck in the Spanish desert. A glass dish (replete with air holes) covers his exposed head. Slabs of raw meat are spread over his “grave,” and a wake of vultures come to devour the uncooked flesh. Then he’s dug up, cleaned up, and dressed up in an expensive-looking new suit.
Later, there’s a section given over to “social psychomagic,” ritual manifestations that most resemble mass demonstrations. One of them, known as “the Walk of the Dead,” a protest against drug war fatalities that features large groups donning traditional Day of the Dead skeleton costumes, could have been lifted straight from a similar scene in Endless Poetry. Although, on this occasion, at least, Jodorowsky himself doesn’t make that connection.
One segment, involving a woman suffering from throat cancer, comes perilously close to making false claims for the powers of psychomagic but luckily skirts the issue entirely through some well-deployed disclaimers. Jodorowsky invites the woman on stage at a conference with 5,000 attendees, to see whether or not their combined energies can help or heal her, and without making any promises. It’s never entirely clear whether or not she’s cured, but 10 years later, she’s still alive. Nor does she claim in her follow-up interview to have been cured. The “experiment” merely “opened a door” for her healing process to begin.
What most shines through all the therapeutic interventions detailed in the Psychomagic is the scrupulousness of Jodorowsky’s compassion and his deep-seated desire to render whatever assistance he can. As he mentions at one point in the documentary, he never charges money for these treatments. Whether or not the 91-year-old director makes another film, Psychomagic could easily stand as a fitting encapsulation of the themes of suffering and transcendence that have run throughout his entire career.
Director: Alejandro Jodorowsky Screenwriter: Alejandro Jodorowsky Distributor: ABKCO Running Time: 105 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Sunless Shadows Is a Wrenching View of Patriarchal Power in Iran
Mehrdad Oskouei’s documentary is striking for the way its subjects describe horrific forms of violence in the plainest of language.3
Mehrdad Oskouei’s Starless Dreams is striking for the way that it unhurriedly paints a portrait of its subjects, a group of teenage girls at a juvenile detention center in Iran, before then shocking us with matter-of-factly stated admissions of murder. At first, you may find yourself trying to determine the documentary’s reason for being, alongside wanting to know the girls’ reasons for being incarcerated. We sense that the film is supposed to have a cumulative effect, built on prolonged observation followed by intellectual reflection—until we hear one of the girls say, point blank, that she killed her father. Her no-nonsense statement is in chilling lockstep with the lack of prudishness to Oskouei’s line of questioning throughout Starless Dreams. Whether he’s asking the detainees for their names or details about their traumas and crimes, his disembodied voice maintains the same level of cool.
Sunless Shadows, Oskouei’s second look at the same detention facility, initially focuses on its subjects describing horrific forms of violence in the plainest of language. When a girl remembers the abuse she suffered, all that matters is her words. Redolent of Claude Lanzmann’s approach, Oskouei strips his images to their barest bones as his subjects openly speak about their traumas, as if trying to avoid aestheticizing their pain.
In Sunless Shadows, though, Oskouei eventually digresses from this no-frills approach. By design, the film lacks the astonishment of Starless Dreams, suggesting a great story being told anew and now given over to a sort of formula. A similar relationship can be drawn between Joshua Oppenheimer’s harrowing The Act of Killing and its follow-up, The Look of Silence. Order is the essential culprit in both filmmakers’ attempts to take a second look at the same subject matter. The first film takes advantage of the emotional possibilities of shock or fright, but the force of an unexpected blow is difficult to repeat. By the time we come to the second film, we’re already literate in and, in some ways, inoculated by the banality of evil.
At times, Oskouei also uses a more readily recognizable setup for his interviews. Although most of sequences here take place in the girls’ dormitories, with them sitting haphazardly on the floor surrounded by their bunkbeds, Sunless Shadows is punctuated by interviews with the girls’ mothers, who are also incarcerated (and on death row), and scenes where each girl enters a room and looks straight into the camera to address the family member they’ve killed. These moments bring to mind a reality TV confessional, and their gracelessness is replicated by sequences where the girls’ family members are presumably watching this footage and crying.
The film rekindles the aura of Starless Dreams more faithfully when it doesn’t try to dress up the scenario that links them—patriarchy as an interminable metastasis—with forms that deny the dramatic sufficiency of the girls’ accounts. Theirs are stories of parent-child relations mediated by chicken-carving knives, of a father driving to the desert with the intention of pummeling his daughter to death, of sons fighting tooth and nail for their mother’s execution, unless she pays up. Overtly calculated mise-en-scène in this context feels like an affront.
It’s refreshing, then, when Oskouei harkens back to the core of his project, the ultimately futile killing of the father, the acting out of the unthinkable, the avowing of the unsayable. He does this when he allows language do the talking by itself and when he reduces the cinematic encounter to a matter of language: sincere questions followed by disarming answers. As when the filmmaker asks one of the girls, “Is killing difficult?” To which the girl answers, unwaveringly, “At the time you feel nothing, except for the joy of having done it.”
Director: Mehrdad Oskouei Screenwriter: Mehrdad Oskouei Distributor: Cinema Guild Running Time: 74 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Song Without a Name Boldly Confronts a Legacy of Marginalization
The film is strikingly fixated on exploring loss and pain on an intimate and personal scale.
Georgina (Pamela Mendoza) wakes up in the early hours of the morning to walk with her husband, Leo (Lucio Rojas), into Lima from their shack in a coastal shantytown on the outskirts of the city. Because she has few alternatives, her late-stage pregnancy doesn’t deter her as she sits in the street selling potatoes to passersby. It’s only natural, then, that when she hears a health clinic’s radio ad offering care to pregnant women, it sounds like a godsend. But once Georgina gives birth to her daughter, the clinic whisks the child off for some supposed medical tests, shoos her out the door, and then seems to vacate the location entirely. In an instant, her life is upended, but as Song Without a Name sensitively makes clear, the indigenous Georgina’s degradation is an all too familiar one in Peruvian society.
Though Melina León’s feature-length directorial debut is set in 1988, it appears as if it’s been beamed from an even earlier time. Its images, captured in boxy Academy ratio, are visibly aged, its faded edges and conspicuously distorted elements bringing to mind an old photograph. As a result, the scenes depicting government officials disregarding the needs of the indigenous Georgina gain a grave sense of timelessness, a feeling emphasized by the lack of period-specific markers amid the ramshackle houses. The events become detached from their specific historical backdrop, suggesting nothing less than the perpetuity of disenfranchisement.
In Song Without a Name, the only person who lends Georgina a sympathetic ear is Pedro (Tommy Párraga), a journalist who, as a gay man, understands what it means to be an outsider, though he initially tries to pass her story off to someone else, as he’s reporting on a paramilitary death squad whose handiwork he observes early in the film. And just when you think that León is going to steer the film into the terrain of a conventional investigative thriller, she remains fixated on exploring loss and pain on an intimate and personal scale, through the despair on people’s faces as much as through the formal touches that reflect it.
The film’s backdrop is tumultuous, and the characters have to move on from the kidnapping without truly wanting to because they need to eat, to pay for the roof over their heads, to live. In a haunting moment that evokes how tragedy diminishes the connection between people, Georgina mournfully stays in bed as Leo goes to work alone, but not before he leaves a handprint on the window, barely visible in the black and white of the frame.
León depicts anguish in such stark, all-encompassing terms that she risks overplaying her hand at times, like one scene that positions the closeted Pedro and his lover, Isa (Maykol Hernández), on opposite sides of a thick line of tiles that’s only made more prominent by the camera’s distant position. But mostly, she weaves an atmosphere that borders on ethereal through the jerky distortions of Georgina walking home at night and the ease with which certain pieces of Pedro’s investigation seem to fall into place. León channels Georgina’s devastation to particularly powerful effect in one long take where the mother is taken out of the clinic but continues pleading and crying, unseen, from the other side of the door. Across the minute-long shot, Georgina is determined not to go away, and the scene fades to black with such painful slowness that she seems to be prolonging the transition through force of will, beyond the point where the audience might normally look away.
Cast: Pamela Mendoza, Tommy Párraga, Lucio Rojas, Maykol Hernández, Lidia Quispe Director: Melina León Screenwriter: Melina León, Michael J. White Distributor: Film Movement Running Time: 96 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Beyoncé’s Black Is King Is a Visual Love Letter to the Black Diaspora
The visual album proposes a pan-African vision of legacy, abundance, and unity.3
For Beyoncé, it’s no longer enough for us to listen to her music. We must witness and viscerally feel it. Which is why the visual album is increasingly becoming her preferred mode of expression. As she did with last year’s The Lion King: The Gift soundtrack, the singer recruited heavyweights from West African dance music like Nigeria’s WizKid and Ghana’s Shatta Wale, as well as emerging artists like South Africa’s Busiswa, to star in Black Is King, which Beyoncé based on the music from The Gift. Out of a dazzling fusion of the hottest R&B and Afrobeat trends, this visual album proposes a pan-African vision of legacy, abundance, and unity, making it Beyoncé’s most wide-reaching and ambitious effort yet.
Black Is King is largely inseparable from Disney’s live-action remake of the The Lion King, and to a fault at times. The project follows the arc of the film’s plot, personifying the animal characters with human actors. A young prince (Folajomi Akinmurele), the human stand-in for young Simba, falls from grace and embarks on a coming-of-age odyssey that eventually leads him back home to reclaim the throne. Throughout, large-scale sets, wide shots of the Saharan desert, and eye-catching dance routines distract from this plot. Indeed, it’s difficult to catch when the young prince grows into a young man (Nyaniso Dzedze) as the two actors abruptly switch places between songs without warning, and the introduction of an underdeveloped subplot involving a mysterious artifact may leave viewers scratching their heads.
But Black Is King is no traditional cinematic experience, because it’s performance, symbolism, and music that are integral to it, not any narrative minutiae. To wit, unlike the original version of the album, the deluxe edition of The Gift, which was released alongside Black Is King, forgoes the intermissions lifted from The Lion King’s dialogue, as if to suggest that the songs speak for themselves, without strict adherence to the film it draws from as inspiration.
Beyoncé, who co-directed the visual album, interprets Simba’s reclaiming of the throne for her ends; his royal lineage is evocative of the rich cultural heritage of Africa and her people, and his homecoming is representative of the Black diaspora’s turning to that heritage as a source of strength. The animated and live-action versions of the The Lion King are beloved, if not equally so, and they remain among the few Disney films to be set in Africa, but as they’re both devoid of Black bodies, there’s something galvanizing about witnessing the lavishness of The Lion King interpreted by Black actors, dancers, and musicians.
Black Is King will inevitably be criticized for its ostentatious display of wealth and ostensible failure to represent the day-to-day realities of African countries—which is to say, what the rest of the world hastily and egregiously presumes to be struggle and impoverishment. The visual album’s purpose isn’t to draft some documentary-style exegesis, but to illustrate an imaginative wonderland of possibility and celebration. Black Is King may well be steeped in the opulence of drifting, pimped-out cars (“Ja Ara E”), and a head-spinning wardrobe of designer clothing (“Water”), but this grandiosity is empowering and subversive in its own way. The “Mood 4 Eva” sequence boasts a splendor fit for a Baz Luhrmann film, complete with a breathtaking synchronized swimming routine. Generations of families, from regal grandparents to rambunctious five-year-olds, reside in a mansion and partake in elitist traditions brought to the African continent by European colonizers. All the while, white servants wait on them as they drink tea and play tennis in a verdant garden.
Although Black Is King preaches the moral that Black kingship amounts to responsible manhood, Black femininity is just as integral to Beyoncé’s conceptualization of the visual album. As an unidentified male speaker relates in one voiceover: “Many times, it’s the women that reassemble us. Men taught me some things, but women taught me a whole lot more.” Beyoncé embodies a maternal figure at several points, cradling a baby in “Bigger” and playing a handclap game with her daughter, Blue Ivy, in “Brown Skin Girl.”
It’s this last song that is the film’s most stirring dedication to Black women. Overhead shots of a ballroom depict a formation of debutante dancers, fanning in and out like a flower in bloom. Interspersed throughout are glamor shots of the dark-skinned women Beyoncé sings praise of: Naomi Campbell, Lupita Nyong’o, and Kelly Rowland. For all of its larger-than-life grandeur, Black Is King still succeeds in conveying the stark intimacy between two people in a scene in which Rowland and Beyoncé share an embrace and gaze at each other lovingly.
If The Gift is a love letter to Africa—as Beyoncé herself described the album—then Black Is King is a love letter to the Black diaspora. In her narration, Beyoncé remarks of “lost languages [that] spill out of our mouths,” and an American flag bearing the red, black, and green of Pan-Africanism proudly waves during “Power.” Like the ‘90s hip-hop MCs who espoused Afrocentricity before her, Beyoncé turns to the African motherland to reconstruct a heritage and identity stolen by slavery and the erosion of time. At the film’s beginning, young Simba hurtles toward Earth from among the stars, leaving the streak of a comet’s tail behind him. No matter how far you stray from home, Beyoncé reminds viewers throughout Black is King that the great Black ancestors can immediately be felt in the stars they inhabit in the night skies.
Cast: Beyoncé, Naomi Campbell, Lupita Nyong’o, Kelly Rowland, Folajomi Akinmurele, Connie Chiume, Nyaniso Ntsikelelo Dzedze, Nandi Madida, Warren Masemola, Sibusiso Mbeje, Fumi Odeje, Stephen Ojo, Mary Twala, Blue Ivy Carter Director: Emmanuel Adjei, Blitz Bazawule, Beyoncé Screenwriter: Beyoncé, Yrsa Daley-Ward, Clover Hope, Andrew Morrow Distributor: Disney+ Running Time: 85 min Rating: NA Year: 2020
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