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Understanding Screenwriting #65: Hereafter, Fair Game, Morocco, The Good Wife, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #65: Hereafter, Fair Game, Morocco, The Good Wife, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Hereafter, Fair Game, Morocco, Casanova Brown, Yellow Sky, The Good Wife, but first…

Fan Mail: What we all hoped would be a lively discussion of the Hero’s Journey sort of fizzled out. As always David Ehrenstein had a couple of good zingers about the Journey’s use in Hollywood, and I loved “Joel”’s logic on why it makes all movies good. But “Juicer243” really let the side down. Rather than engaging with the issues I raised, he simply repeated his ad for a website and then resorted to the old, “if you don’t like it, it’s probably that you don’t really get it.” The other possibility is that I really get it and that’s why I don’t like it. As we have all discovered in politics, religion and film, it’s hard to have an interesting discussion with a True Believer.

The problem I have with any doctrinaire approach to screenwriting (or the creation of any art for that matter) is that it limits the creative mind. I mentioned three films in my rant that you could maybe fit into the Hero’s Journey: Citizen Kane (1941), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and Fellini’s 8 ½ (1963), but what makes those films interesting is not the Hero’s Journey pattern, but all the details the writers of those films use to fill out the patterns (yes, that’s plural) of the film. Look at them if you don’t believe me.

Hereafter (2010. Written by Peter Morgan. 129 minutes)

Will somebody around here please call rewrite?: I am afraid I have beaten you over the head (in US#11, 18, 40, among others) about how Clint Eastwood tends to shoot first drafts, even when the scripts need work. Well, here’s another one that needed a lot of revision, and Peter Morgan knew it, as he told an interviewer in the November 6th Creative Screenwriting Weekly. He had done a first draft and passed it to his agent, just to gets notes on it. The agent passed it on to producer Kathleen Kennedy, who passed it to her producing partner Steven Spielberg, who passed it on to Eastwood. Who wanted to do it and did not go along with Morgan’s request to do revisions.

As often with first drafts, the script is very slow getting going. That may sound odd since the opening scene is French journalist Marie LeLay getting caught in a large tsunami and drowning. She comes back to life, but is haunted by the other side that she has seen. The sequence is spectacular, but the script slows down after that. We then meet George, who has the gift for communicating with those who have passed over. He used to do it professionally, but has given up. He finds it more of a curse than a blessing, especially since he is legitimate. We get a lot more than we need about his not wanting to do it and a job he has on the docks of San Francisco. Why do we need all that stuff about his job? We don’t and it should have been cut. We then meet twin boys in London, Marcus and Jason, and we get a lot more than we need about them before Jason is killed in an accident. Then we get a lot more than we need about Marie’s job as a television host of a newsmagazine in France. She’s still feeling the effects of her death-experience, so her boss and lover encourages her to take time off and write a book. So she gets a contract to write a book about…François Mitterand. Huh? What does that have to do with death experiences? So after a long discussion with the publisher about Mitterand, she ends up writing a book about, well, it’s sort of hard to say what it’s about. Some of what we hear makes it appear to be about her own death experiences. But on the other hand, she goes to visit a scholar of death and death-like experiences, who assures her it’s all real and there are mountains of scientific evidence. The good scholar gives her piles of folders, but we never find out what is in them. Morgan is trying to do what Spielberg claimed he was trying to do in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). Morgan is using a fiction film to try to persuade us of a scientific truth, just as Spielberg said that he hoped audiences would believe there really were flying saucers after they saw his film. Sorry guys, I love many films by both of you, but that’s something that fiction does not do. Why not? Because you are trying to provide fictional evidence of factual events. For purposes of fiction we will, at least for the length of the work, believe anything that entertains us, whether we accept it in real life or not. How many people who like Shakespeare’s Macbeth actually believe in witches?

So Marie takes her manuscript back to the publisher, who does not want to publish it, and the film implies he’s a bad person for doing this. Sorry, but Marie, who seems reasonably smart elsewhere in the film, comes across as the idiot here. She has contracted with a publisher of political books to do a book about a politician, and then violates her contract by delivering a manuscript that has nothing to do with politics. One of the elements I like in both Morgan and Eastwood’s work elsewhere is that both men seem to have a sense of humor, which has totally gone missing here. The French publisher suggests that maybe an English or American publisher might be interested, and it is written and played as though he is just trying to be helpful. Did neither Morgan nor Eastwood get the joke? The French guy thinks that the English and the Americans are the only ones gullible enough to want to read her story.

Back in San Francisco, George is taking a class in Italian cooking (and way too much time is spent on that as well) and he is paired up with Melanie. This leads to one of the best scenes in the picture, in which George tells her why he has given up doing readings, and then agrees to do a reading with her that does not go that well. In this scene there is something at stake emotionally for both of them, and it is dramatic rather than ploddingly literal the way other scenes have been. It is a given in the script that George truly does have the gift, but it might be more fun if we, and/or him, never knew for sure. Morgan does deal with the fake psychics, but confines them to a sequence were Marcus is trying to find somebody to connect him with his dead brother. Morgan and Eastwood skate over what could be a terrific counterpoint to the rest of the story.

With a lot of pulling and shoving, Morgan gets the three characters we have been following to London. Marcus, who has seen George’s website, recognizes him at a book fair, and wears him down into doing a reading. George connects with Jason, although I thought I detected a slight glint in Matt Damon’s eye that suggested George was just telling Marcus what he needed to hear, but by then it was late in a picture that was not working for me. George/Jason gives Marcus the sort of homilies you would expect a dead ten-year-old to give to his brother. Meanwhile, George has heard Melanie give a reading and is attracted to her. He writes a letter to her, presumably asking her to meet him at a mall coffee shop. She does and they are—wait a minute. What did he say in the letter? We never get to read it, and we never hear from it in either his or her voiceover. And why would George be interested, aside from the fact that Damon and Cécile de France, who plays Marie, are the two prettiest people in the film? We have no idea, since one of the big plot holes in the film is that while George and Marcus have a connection (George talks to dead people, Marcus wants to talk to one), George and Marie don’t. Yes, she was dead, but now she is back among the living, and we have had no indication that there was anybody on the other side she needed to talk to.

Another small point, this one about characterization. George listens to audio book versions of Charles Dickens novels and when he is at the book fair, he attends a reading from Little Dorritt by Derek Jacobi, playing himself. I saw Jacobi play Cyrano brilliantly at the Olympic Arts Festival in Los Angeles in 1984, and then off-stage with his cast-mates going wherever they were off to. Jacobi is a much more interesting character in person than Morgan makes him out to be.

Fair Game (2010. Screenplay by Jez Butterworth & John-Henry Butterworth, based on the books The Politics of Truth by Joseph Wilson and Fair Game by Valerie Plame. 108 minutes)

Fair Game

A slightly different screenwriting problem: If Peter Morgan’s job on Hereafter was to get us to buy the premise so we would buy the bit, as Johnny Carson used to put it, the Butterworths have a more complicated job. Morgan simply had to establish for that film that the rules involved life after death. The Butterworths are condensing into less than two hours several events that not only happened in real life, but were publicly known and argued about in the media. In case you missed it, Valerie Plame was an undercover C.I.A. agent who was outed by the Bush administration. Joe Wilson, her husband, had pointed out in a New York Times piece that he found there was no evidence that Iraq was trying to buy yellow cake uranium from Niger. The sale of yellow cake uranium was one of the pieces of “intelligence” the Bush administration used to try to persuade people that Saddam Hussein was building weapons of mass destruction. So what the Butterworths are dealing with is a very complicated story that is also politically controversial. They have to keep the story clear to the audience, but not simplify it so much we don’t believe it. They do an adequate but not perfect job.

They focus on Plame and Wilson, particularly the former. We meet her in the middle of an operation, and over the opening scenes she changes identity at least a couple of times. She is smart and professional. Once we get her established as an experienced agent, we get her with her husband, and one of the major focuses of the film is on how their marriage survived throughout their ordeal. I suspect this comes from the two books, but it is also in the American film tradition of telling political stories through individual characters. At least some of the reviews have felt there may be too much family material. I am not sure there is too much of it, but some of those scenes have the feeling of the writers reading them in the books or hearing about them from the principals and deciding, “That’s too good to pass up.” Some, such as Wilson’s pre-Iraq War talk to a small class, have some nice lines in them, but I am not sure you needed that entire scene. Even though they are telling a “true story” here, the Butterworths could have condensed the family material even more than they probably already did. I notice that there are a couple of scenes with the Wilsons and their friends, and I suspect there were probably more in the earlier drafts of the script, since the friends include such relatively high-priced actors as Ty Burrell and Jessica Hecht. We may yet see a “director’s cut” that includes more of those scenes.

The Butterworths have made some interesting choices in handling the political side of the story. President Bush and Vice President Cheney are only seen on television in news clips, while Karl Rove and Scooter Libby are played by actors. Adam LeFevre looks so much like Rove that when we see the real Rove in the TV clips, we hardly notice the difference. Rove is not a particularly well-written part, rather like Jacobi in Hereafter, and LeFevre does not do that much with it. David Andrews is fine as Libby, partially because he is given more to work with, and the character really carries the burden in the film of the nastiness of the Bush administration. We do get other scenes that at least show some of the determination of the administration to find the right kind of intelligence so they can go to war. There is a particularly good scene early in the film where a flunky from Cheney’s office comes to the C.I.A. to persuade them that the aluminum tubes are for nuclear materials, and the C.I.A. analysts, including Plame, just take him apart. It makes you wish the media had done that in the run-up to the war.

If you followed the story in the press, you may be bothered by missing details, since as the U.N. nuclear inspection teams visits to Iraq and what they found and did not find. I am sure that if you are a Bush supporter, you may be appalled that the film is making heroes about of people you feel were traitors. There is a nice emotional scene where Wilson is trying to restart his consulting business. He is having lunch with two potential clients in a Washington restaurant when what I think is supposed to be a reporter comes up and starts yelling at the potential clients about what a traitor Wilson is. It is the feature film equivalent of what Robert Greenwald has done in a number of his films that show the wretched excesses of the political right. That the filmmakers could have done more of. The filmmakers on this one may have tried to be too balanced.

Morocco (1930. Screenplay by Jules Furthman, based on the play Amy Jolly by Benno Vigny. 92 minutes)

Morocco

Good script, terrible direction: As I mentioned in writing about Nightmare Alley in US#46, the Screenwriting Historiographers Code require that any time Jules Furthman is mentioned, Pauline Kael’s line that Furthman “has written about half of the most entertaining movies to come out of Hollywood” must be used. You can read a little more about Furthman in that item. Now, down to business.

Furthman had been contributing stories and screenplays to movies since 1915, and in the late ‘20s, he wrote five screenplays that were directed by Josef Von Sternberg. Those scripts tended to be in the realistic vein that Von Sternberg favored at the time, as in the 1928 film The Docks of New York. Von Sternberg went off to Germany and made The Blue Angel (1930), which made a star of Marlene Dietrich and convinced Von Sternberg to move more towards the exotic. Given Furthman’s versatility, it is not surprising that he wrote three films in that style for Von Sternberg. Morocco is the first of the three, and while Furthman found his footing right away, it took Von Sternberg another picture to get into the groove.

Morocco begins with a French Foreign Legion unit returning to town. Furthman had just written another Foreign Legion picture, Renegades, before taking on Morocco, so maybe he was in the right mood. As the soldiers are lined up in town, one Legionnaire, Tom Brown, is making hand signals to a woman he intends to meet later. His sergeant asks him what he is doing with this hands, and this being a pre-Production Code film, Brown replies, “Nothing…yet.” Unfortunately, Von Sternberg’s direction takes forever to get to the line. We see more marching of the Legion than we need, both here and everywhere else in the picture. And Von Sternberg loves his shadows, often holding a beautiful shot Lee Garmes, his cinematographer, has set up for him.

Brown becomes attracted to the new singer in the nightclub, Amy Jolly, and they flirt and more. Brown is played by Gary Cooper before he resorted to being excessively folksy (see below) and boy, is he sexy. Dietrich smolders as Amy, but Von Sternberg has her, and everybody else, read their lines at a snail’s pace, with enough pauses for any two Antonioni films you could name. Cooper and Adolphe Menjou, who plays the older man Amy is also involved with, are good enough to make the slow delivery work for them, but the others are at sea. So you have to wait for the good Furthman lines. Just try not to fall asleep.

Two years later Furthman’s script for Shanghai Express is even better and tighter and Von Sternberg learned how to direct that sort of thing. Someday I’ll deal with that film in this column.

Casanova Brown (1944. Screenplay by Nunnally Johnson, based on the play The Little Accident by Thomas Mitchell and Floyd Dell, and the book An Unmarried Father by Floyd Dell. 94 minutes)

Casanova Brown

Gary Cooper, post Production Code: In 1943 Nunnally Johnson left his contract at 20th Century-Fox, and on the advice of his lawyers and agents became a partner in a new company called International. They pointed out to him that as a co-owner in the company he would be making money that was taxed at a lower rate than his salary at Fox had been. Johnson also thought he might not be tied down as much in terms of subject matter as he had been working for Darryl Zanuck at Fox. Johnson’s first International project is the sort of thing that Zanuck and Fox might have stayed away from.

Casanova Brown is based on a novel by Floyd Dell and a Broadway play by Dell and Thomas Mitchell. Dell is virtually forgotten now, but he was a very influential left-wing critic and author in the first decades of the twentieth century. He hung out with the New York left-wing intelligentsia, including John Reed and Louise Bryant (Max Wright, who is not nearly as handsome as Dell was, plays him in what amounts to a cameo in the 1981 film Reds). He actively supported feminist causes, and was writing about feminism early in the teens. His 1927 novel An Unmarried Father is about a man about to be married who discovers that a woman he had a quick fling with is giving up the baby she had with him. She has no desire to be a mother. The man kidnaps the baby and shows that fathers can take care of kids as well as or better than mothers. The following year Dell, who also wrote plays, collaborated with the actor Thomas Mitchell on an adaptation of the novel called The Little Accident. What appealed to Mitchell was the potential farce of a father taking care of a baby. The play had a good run of 303 performances, and became the basis for a 1930 film of the same name, although in that film the man discovers that his fiancée is the one who had the baby. There was also a French version in 1932 called A Father Without Knowning It (the title suggests it was more faithful to the play than the 1930 film), as well as a 1939 American film under the original title, but with the plot changed to be about the baby after the father gives it up.

Nunnally had seen the original play and liked it, but he realized that although International was an independent company, it still had to submit films to the Production Code. So while there are a lot of jokes that suggest Casanova Brown is an unmarried father, we learn about half an hour into the film that he had in fact married Isabel. James Agee hit the nail on the head in his review in The Nation (reprinted in Agee on Film, Volume One) when he noted “It is also the first production of International Pictures, a new ’independent’ corporation for which both [Gary] Cooper and Johnson will produce from now on. I put independent in quotes without vindictiveness or deep sorrow, merely to indicate that, judging by Casanova Brown, nothing independent in any interesting sense is likely to come from the new studio. It’s just Hollywood with its stays a little loosened; but even that is better than nothing, and far better than the bad serious stuff which independent producers sometimes attempt.” Looking at the film now, almost seventy years later, it seems even more dated than it did to Agee. We get a lot more explicitness about sex every night on network television, not to mention cable.

There was another problem with the script. I used to think that Nunnally, because he was something of an old-fashioned Southern gentleman, probably could not conceive, as Floyd Dell could, of a woman who would give up a baby. However, I was mentioning this movie to Nunnally’s daughter Roxie, and she told me that Nunnally’s first wife Alice left their daughter Marjorie (who grew up to become a film editor) with her mother after the divorce so she could go off and have adventures. I knew Alice was an adventurous free-spirit, but I did not know that included passing off the baby to her mom. So Nunnally had a first-hand example of Dell’s character in his own experience. Perhaps his Isabel is an attempt to write the Alice-Marjorie story. In Nunnally’s script, Isabel is obviously letting Casanova know about the baby because she wants to get back together with him. That is obvious to us, but not to Casanova, but which makes him a little on the stupid side. It also takes away any motivation to steal the baby. Nunnally was normally great at giving all his characters motivations, but he does not here. This is one of the very few films I know, from Nunnally Johnson or anyone else, where the movie is better than the script. It is not because of the director (Sam Wood’s direction is lethargic), but because of the star. Gary Cooper, even in his folksy mode here, makes us believe he is doing the right thing because, well, he is Gary Cooper, for God’s sake.

Yellow Sky (1948. Screenplay by Lamar Trotti, based on a story by W.R. Burnett. 98 minutes)

Yellow Sky

No, it’s not another adaptation of Burnett’s The Asphalt Jungle: See US#58 for an explanation of that snarky sub-head.

The 1950 film The Gunfighter is now considered one of the classic westerns, and a forerunner of the adult westerns of the ‘50s and beyond. Yellow Sky, on the other hand, is almost forgotten now, which is too bad, because it’s a solid picture. Trotti gets things off to a nice start when a group of seven guys ride into town, have a couple of drinks at the saloon, lustfully eye the painting of the naked lady above the bar, and then very politely…rob the bank. A posse gives chase, killing one of the gang, but the gang escapes across what was probably Death Valley. The gang ends up in Yellow Sky, a ghost town. They intend to hide out while their horses recover from the desert. The only people living near the town are “Mike,” a tough tomboy, and her grandfather. It slowly dawns on the gang that the only reason Mike and the grandfather are there is that they must have struck gold or silver and are hiding it somewhere. We get a lot of nice character scenes as everybody decides what to do about the situation, and we end up back in the bank that was robbed in a scene that nicely mirrors the robbery.

Trotti, one of the top writers at Fox, gives us some wonderful characterizations for the gang members as well as Mike and Grandpa, so we are perfectly willing to sit around and listen to them. That is also because Trotti as producer, William Wellman as director, and Joe MacDonald as cinematographer have beautifully utilized the locations of the first town, the salt flats and especially the ghost town. According to a trivia item on the IMDb, Gregory Peck thought he was miscast as the gang leader, but he’s not. He’s tough, but not mean, and we can believe how gentlemanly he becomes.

I mentioned The Gunfighter earlier because in spite of its critical acclaim at the time, it did less business than Yellow Sky. Rudy Behlmer, in his book Memo from Darryl F. Zanuck, includes a memo Zanuck wrote to Nunnally Johnson, who produced The Gunfighter and wrote the last draft of the screenplay for it. Zanuck is writing during the first weeks of The Gunfighter’s release and comparing how it did in relation to Yellow Sky. He thinks that Gunfighter broke too many rules (Peck wearing a moustache, which audiences of young girls at the Roxy Theater in New York hated; Peck dying at the end, etc). He writes, “Yellow Sky, in my opinion, is not half the picture that The Gunfighter is. Yet it went more into a formula mold and obviously had broader popular appeal.” Then he added, “But, on the other hand, there was certainly no formula mold about The Snake Pit (1948; an exposé of conditions in mental hospitals that was a big hit) and look what it did…” According to Aubrey Solomon’s book Twentieth Century-Fox: A Corporate and Financial History, Yellow Sky brought in $2.8 million dollars in film rentals, while The Gunfighter made only $1.95 million.

The Good Wife (2010. “On Tap” episode written by Leonard Dick. 30 minutes)

The Good Wife

Using the material the story gives you: This episode is one of the best examples I have seen of using a plot detail as fully as you can. Alicia’s firm is hired to defend Matthew Wade, a Chicago alderman, who is accused of taking money from Muslim extremists. Part of the government’s evidence that is turned over to the firm is hours and hours of wiretaps. O., you are the writer, what can you do with wiretaps from this case? The first thing is that they help the case. So our guys find that Wade was just joking around about Muslim extremists. Yeah, but was he really joking? Well, late in the episode (you don’t want to have it too early for obvious reasons), we learn one of the people whom he was joking with was a Chicago politician who now works for…a certain family living in a big white house in Washington, D.C. Needless to say, the prosecutors beat a hasty retreat. If you watch the episode, listen to how Dick lets us know slowly as we listen to the tape and the lawyers involved talk about it what the significance of it is.

Fine, that’s the main plot. But what else can you do with the taps? What else can Alicia hear? For one thing, she hears Eli Gold on the tapes, and realizes it is not just Wade’s phone that is being tapped, but Eli’s. Yeah, her husband’s campaign manager, whom she talks to all the time about…everything. Watch her try to avoid talking to Eli the next time he is on the phone. Does she tell Eli or not? In terms of legal ethics she is not supposed to reveal what she hears. Fortunately Diane takes that out of her hands and tells Eli, since Eli a) is a client of the firm, and b) Diane is setting up to leave the firm (I hope she doesn’t; we’ll miss her) and wants to take Eli’s business with her.

One of the reasons the firm is taking Wade’s case is that Will and Wade are buddies who play basketball together. So Will shows up on one of the tapes. Guess what he’s talking about? About how he sent those two messages to Alicia, one calling it all off, and the second saying he did not want to call it off between them. You may remember that Eli had Alicia’s cellphone at the time, heard both messages and deleted the second one. So Alicia never heard it, but Will assumes she did and did not want to restart their not-yet affair. Now Alicia knows about the second call. So she goes to Will’s office, and is about to say something when Will’s new fling comes in. Another missed opportunity.

And that’s how you use what may at first seem like just a single plot element in as many interesting ways as you can.

Tom Stempel is the author of several books on film. His most recent is Understanding Screenwriting: Learning From Good, Not-Quite-So Good, and Bad Screenplays.

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

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

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Demolition Girl
Photo: Japan Cuts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Japan Cuts runs from July 19—28.

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

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

2.5

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David Crosby: Remember My Name
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.5

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Cassandro, the Exotico!
Photo: Film Movement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Marc Maron
Photo: IFC Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right.

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

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

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

Yeah.

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

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

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

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American Demons: Martin Bell’s Streetwise and Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell

Bell proves uncannily adept at capturing moments that seem to encapsulate a subject’s entire emotional temperature.

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Streetwise
Photo: Janus Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

As in Streetwise, Bell proves uncannily adept at capturing moments that seem to encapsulate a subject’s entire emotional temperature. There are frequent shots in Tiny of Erin sleeping with a little dog close to her face, which suggest rare moments of repose for a woman who’s used to running her chaotic family like a hostage negotiator. Erin frequently calls the cops on her own children, especially the headstrong teenager Rayshon, which Bell unforgettably rhymes with footage of a younger Erin visiting two of her children in foster care. One of the foster care children, Keanna, is now a mother herself, and resents Erin for abandoning her and for continuing to struggle with drug use.

Which is to say that Tiny is as charged with turmoil as Streetwise, and Bell proves equally capable here of rendering full relationships with only a few images or seconds of running time. As in Streetwise, our sympathies are rarely overtly directed, as Tiny is somehow on every character’s contradictory wavelength at once, illustrating how difficult understanding can be to achieve, most notably in the face of disaster. Though it runs a trim 87 minutes, Tiny offers an epic and piercing portrait of a large biracial family that’s plagued by essentially every demon known to American society. Erin escaped the streets only to fashion a home that’s rife with the very issues that drove her away from her own mother. Like most people, regardless of social stature, Erin is stuck in the temporal loop of her own inherent nature.

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Review: Radu Jude’s I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians

Jude’s film is a bitterly comic essay on nationalist mythologies and historical amnesia.

3.5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lynn Shelton
Photo: IFC Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Into the Ashes
Photo: RLJE Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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At War
Photo: Cinema Libre Studio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bottom of the 9th
Photo: Saban Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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