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Understanding Screenwriting #67: True Grit, The Tourist, & Black Swan

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Understanding Screenwriting #67: True Grit, The Tourist, & Black Swan

Coming Up in This Column: True Grit, The Tourist, Black Swan, but first…

Fan Mail: I’m sorry David, but Ryan’s Daughter is “all that bad.”

True Grit (1969. Screenplay by Marguerite Roberts. 128 minutes; 2010. Screenplay by Joel and Ethan Coen. 110 minutes. Based on the novel by Charles Portis.)

How is this movie different from the other?: Charles Portis’s novel came out in 1968 and everybody, and I mean everybody, knew that the role of “Rooster” Cogburn, a fat, one-eyed marshal dragged by a tough 14 year-old-girl into tracking down her father’s killer, was perfect for John Wayne. Wayne knew it and bid for the film rights. He was outbid by producer Hal Wallis. Wayne called Wallis to complain, and Wallis told him there was only one actor he wanted for the role: Wayne.

The screenplay was assigned to Roberts, whom I wrote about in US#45. She had been blacklisted in the ‘50s, but came back in the ‘60s, and by this time had already written one western for Wallis, Five Card Stud (1968). She was a perfect choice for the script. She had grown up in Colorado and California, loved horses, and loved men. Since the main character of the novel was the girl, Mattie Ross, Roberts’s being a woman helped as well. Roberts agreed with interviewer Tina Daniell that True Grit was probably her “most fully realized screenplay,” at least in part because nobody changed anything. (The interview with Roberts is in Patrick McGilligan and Paul Buhle’s hugely entertaining and informative 1997 book Tender Comrades: A Backstory of the Hollywood Blacklist. The material above on Wallis and Wayne is from Bernard F. Dick’s Hal Wallis: Producer to the Stars and Randy Roberts and James S. Olson’s John Wayne: American [the most thorough biography of Wayne I’ve found]. Additional material is going to be from and Polly Platt’s oral history interview with Henry Hathaway in Henry Hathaway, edited by Rudy Behlmer.)

Roberts’s screenplay begins with Mattie’s father about to go off to Fort Smith to buy ponies for their farm. He is shot and killed there by his drunken farmhand Tom Chaney as he tries to keep Chaney from killing somebody else. I suspect Roberts spends as much time as she does on these scenes because the story is Mattie’s story and Roberts wants to establish her at the farm with her father before Cogburn shows up and Wayne takes over the picture. Roberts also foregoes what must have been an enormous temptation to use the language of the novel as narration. Portis writes the story as an older Mattie’s first person account of what happened, and more than one critic has compared the writing, not unfavorably, to Mark Twain, particularly The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Roberts foregoes narration and lets the story play out on its own, letting Portis’s dialogue carry the literary load.

Mattie “hires” Cogburn to go into the Indian territories to hunt down Chaney. Accompanying them is a Texas Ranger, La Boeuf, who is on Chaney’s trail as well. La Boeuf, as Roberts writes him, is a young guy who is not particularly impressed with Cogburn, so we have a now standard-issue young cop-old cop relationship. Cogburn is colorful and bombastic, but Roberts has written some nice quieter moments for him as well, including a campfire scene where he tells Mattie about his wife going back to her first husband. Roberts, as well as everybody else on the picture, knew this was a John Wayne movie, and her writing plays to his strengths. That’s not only his image as the great American cowboy, but also his warmth, which had begun to show up in his westerns in the ‘60s. Ethan Edwards was not a warm person. Roberts of course gives Cogburn and Wayne the scene everybody remembers from the film: Cogburn riding down on the Ned Pepper gang, reins in his teeth, firing guns in both hands.

But then Roberts, following the novel, goes on for nearly another twenty minutes as Mattie falls into a cave with snakes, and Rooster has to rescue her, since Chaney has killed La Boeuf. We then get a long ride to civilization to get medical help for Mattie. All of this could have been condensed a lot. Roberts also gives a final scene not in the book. In the novel the story jumps ahead to Rooster’s death many years later, while Roberts ends the film with a scene on Mattie’s farm where she offers Rooster a plot in the family grave. It is shorter and simpler than the ending of the book.

When Daniell asked Roberts why she thought the film turned out so well, Roberts replied, “The chemistry was right. It was a marvelous little novel. The casting was very good. The direction was perfect.” She is right about it being a marvelous novel, but less so about the other elements. The chemistry was adequate at best, and there were two major casting flaws. The minor one was to put country singer Glen Campbell in the role of La Boeuf. Granted Roberts’s writing of the part is not that great, but Campbell simply was not an actor. The major casting flaw was Kim Darby as Mattie. Wallis was originally interested in Mia Farrow, who was 22 but looked younger. She wanted to do it until Robert Mitchum told her what a son of a bitch the director Henry Hathaway was. Wallis settled on Darby, who was 21 and looked only a little bit younger. Mattie is supposed to be 14, and Darby is so unconvincing that Roberts’s script never mentions her age, which takes some edge off the story. Darby and Hathaway did not get along, and Hathaway nailed the problem in his interview with Polly Platt: “Her bag of tricks consisted mostly of being a little cute. All through the film, I had to stop her from acting funny, doing bits of business, and so forth.” Cute may be what Darby was about, but cute is not what Mattie Ross is about, and she puts a big gash in the center of the film.

Other than not getting more out of Darby, Hathaway’s direction is excellent. He knew how to handle Wayne (they had worked together on several films by this time), and he had a feeling for the wonderful grotesque characters Roberts had included from Portis’s novel. Strother Martin has a wonderful scene as Stonehill, the owner of a stable being out hustled by Mattie in a horse trade, and Jeff Corey nails Chaney. Roberts focused on Chaney’s insistence that it’s not his fault all these bad things happen, and Corey runs with it. Hathaway is also perfectly at home with the violence and the blood in the story, within the limits of a family film in 1969. In the dugout scene, you know the fingers are being cut without closeups.

I saw the 1969 version of True Grit the night before I saw the new version, and what struck me about the ’69 version was that it was perfect material for the Woodchipper Brothers, sorry, the Coen Brothers. There is more than enough darkness in the material for the makers of Fargo (1996) and No Country for Old Men (2007), as well as the kind of quirky characters they love. They could have shot Roberts’s script and still had a Coen Brothers movie. And while that is not quite what they did, there are a lot of scenes in the new version very similar to those in the Roberts script.

The new version gets off to a great start by not having a God-awful title song, which the ’69 version did. The song was nominated for an Academy Award, but the Music Branch of the Academy was way behind the times in those days. The Coens’ screenplay starts much faster: we see the dead body of Mattie’s father in the street as a voiceover from the book tells us what we saw in the first fifteen minutes of the ’69 version. The Brothers know that we will learn about Mattie by what she says and does once she gets to Fort Smith. And so she arrives, and the Brothers as directors give her a big, long closeup in the train window. She is Hailee Steinfeld, who is 14, like Mattie, and her face just pops off the screen. She is more expressive in her first two or three shots than Darby is in the entire ’69 film. And she does not have a cute bone in her body, at least as far as she lets us know in this film. She can also read Mattie’s long, complicated lines as fast as the grownups read theirs. If the ’69 version was a star vehicle, this one is more of an ensemble piece.

We get the trial scene where Cogburn testifies and it is a little longer and more detailed than Roberts’s version, but much of the dialogue is the same, as is the scene where Mattie approaches Cogburn about the job. If Roberts provides a few warm moments for Wayne, the Coens provide some darker moments for their Cogburn, Jeff Bridges. If anything, Bridges’s big moments are bigger than Wayne’s (look at the shooting contest between him and La Boeuf), so the quieter moments are more useful and noticeable in his performance. The Brothers do unfortunately play the “first wife” scene on horseback instead of at a campfire, so we do not get as much of an impact from it as we did in the earlier version. We are, however, constantly aware that Bridges—and maybe Cogburn—is acting, whereas Wayne seems to be the character. I generally prefer Wayne’s version, but that may just be because of everything I bring to his performance. Ask somebody in forty years what they think of Bridges’s performance.

The Stonehill scene is very close to the ’69 version. The great character actor here is Dakin Matthews and he is just as good as Strother Martin was. I suspect you could take the Matthews version and cut it in in place of the Martin version, and vice versa and they would work. One of the great improvements in the Coens’ script is the character of La Boeuf, who is much more specifically drawn. (I cannot seem to find my copy of the novel, and it has been forty years since I read it, so I cannot tell how much of the Coens’ version is from the book.) It helps, of course, that they have Matt Damon playing the part. He gets everything there is to get out of the role, although the Coens having him bite his tongue never quite works. On the other hand, the Coens have not really focused the Chaney character the way Roberts did, and Josh Brolin’s performance is similarly unfocused. Other details that seem very Coen-inspired are in the ’69 version, such as the outlaw who talks in animal noises. Their version of the finger-cutting scene is a little bloodier, but well within the limits of the PG-13 rating. The man in the bearskin is, however, not in ’69 version. I have no recollection if he is in the novel or not.

The Coens still go on way too long after the shootout with Ned Pepper and his gang (and I think Hathaway directs the shootout better than the Coens do), but unlike Roberts, they do not kill off La Boeuf. They also add the ending from the book: an older Mattie (with the return of the voiceover narration, which they have wisely dropped everywhere else) going to get Cogburn’s body at a sideshow and meeting an elderly Cole Younger and Frank James. (An historical note here: The Coens, and this may be in the novel, make Cole the polite one, whereas in real life Frank was more of a gentleman.) At this late date in the picture, we do not really need this scene. The film ends with Mattie having buried Cogburn in the family plot, although because the film has a somewhat limited budget, we never see the farm, since we never saw it in the opening scenes.

So which version is “better”? Hard to say. I much prefer Steinfeld to Darby, but Wayne over Bridges. Damon beats out Campbell. Martin and Matthews are a tie, but Corey outscores Brolin. Lucien Ballard’s autumnal cinematography of Colorado in the ’69 version is more expressive than Roger Deakins’s cinematography of New Mexico and Texas in the new version. Hathaway’s direction is more rousing, but the Coens’s is more nuanced. I love Elmer Bernstein in general, but his score for the ’69 version is one of his lesser ones; Carter Burwell’s is better although it leans more than it needs to on “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” As for the screenplays, I’d call it a draw.

The Tourist (2010. Screenplay by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck and Christopher McQuarrie and Julian Fellowes, based on the screenplay by Jérôme Salle for the film Anthony Zimmer. 103 minutes.)

The Tourist

Not Hitchcock: The Tourist opened in America to scathing reviews and not as much business as people thought a Johnny Depp-Angelina Jolie movie should open to. Hi, I am one of the few people in America to like this film.

I think both the critics and the public assumed that since a) it starred Depp and Jolie, b) was being released in the middle of “Kudos Season,” c) seemed to have some action in it, that this was another imitation Hitchcock: big stars, witty comedy, and given that it is a modern film, a little more action-packed than Hitch might have made it. It is not that, but in many ways a much more interesting film. I once heard Robert Benton talking about his then-latest film Still of the Night (1982). He said he started out trying to avoid imitating Hitchcock, but then he realized “Hitchcock owned the farm.” Hitchcock defined a certain kind of picture, and not just suspense films. If you were working in Hitchcock’s genre, it is very difficult to do things differently. I suppose Benton could have had the femme fatale in Still of the Night be a brunette not a blonde, but…I thought from time to time that Brian De Palma was getting beyond Hitch, but he never quite managed it. In his 1980 film Dressed to Kill, De Palma starts out as though he is going to be dealing with the sex life of an adult woman, not a usual Hitchcock subject, but then he kills her off and the film turns into a bad imitation of Psycho (1960). What we are up to now is a generation of writers and filmmakers who have internalized Hitichcock and can go off down different paths. The guys on The Tourist have made, in all kinds of ways, a non-Hitchcock film. Which is probably what pissed everybody off.

Von Donnersmarck is best known as the writer and director of the brilliant film The Lives of Others (2006). It’s about an East German Stasi surveillance specialist who gets emotionally involved with a playwright and his girlfriend he has been assigned to follow. Well, that sounds sort of Hitchcockian, but von Donnersmarck gets more into the emotions of the characters and the nuances of their behavior than Charles Bennett’s Fat Little English Friend did. What he brings to The Tourist, as both co-writer and director, is a European sensibility that is not as obviously witty as the Master’s, but slyer. The film begins in von Donnersmarck territory: several people are engaged in surveillance of Elise Clifton-Ward. She’s a sleek, glamorous, well, she’s Angelina Jolie at her most mysterious. When she leaves her Paris apartment, one of her watchers asks another in their van if he thinks she is wearing underwear today. And we cut to a shot following Elise down the street. Go on, try to convince me you are not trying to figure out if she is wearing underwear. That’s a lot quicker, a lot subtler, and a lot slyer than Hitchcock looking at voyeurism in Rear Window (1954), and just as involving.

Elise is the mistress of Alexander, who stole a lot of money from a British crook. The crook and several law enforcement organizations are looking for him. She gets a note from Alexander telling her to take the train to Venice, and pick some man on the train who vaguely resembles him. This is obviously to throw everybody off Alexander’s track. She ends up with Frank, a community college teacher from Wisconsin. Lots of running around in Venice follows, with a few dandy plot twists. Very likely because of those twists, the characters of Frank and Elise are not written so that Depp and Jolie need to give big movie star performances. They don’t, but they give great acting performances, and I suspect that if you go back and see the film a second time, knowing what plot twists are coming, you may admire their acting even more. Audiences who were expecting Captain Jack Sparrow and Evelyn Salt were disappointed.

One of the running gags in the film is Frank’s tendency to try to speak Spanish rather than Italian, which gets a nice payoff in a clever little scene with Frank in an Italian police official’s office. Another running element, although it is not funny until the end, is the character identified in the credits as The Englishman, played by Rufus Sewell. We think at various times we know who he is, although our thinking changes over the course of the film. I talked to my daughter after she had seen the film, and her thinking about him and the other characters changed at different points in the picture than mine did, always a nice sign that the filmmakers are mystifying in the way they need to be. We find out the identity of the Englishman at the end in a slight, charming scene, followed by a nice payoff line from Jolie to Depp.

Changing the locale from Nice in the original French film this was based on to Venice does give the film a little larger scope. We get elements of Venice seen in past films, such as Summertime (1955) and Don’t Look Now (1973), which is a little unnerving, which is exactly as it needs to be for the film. Look at the prisoner exchange at night along a dark canal. Yes, the dialogue in the train scenes is not up to Ernest Lehman’s great exchanges between Roger O. Thornhill and Eve Kendall. Here we are encouraged to look at their characters and their reactions to each other, not just to watch Photographs of People Talking, as one famous director once put it.

Black Swan (2010. Screenplay by Mark Heyman and Andres Heinz and John McLaughlin, story by Andres Heinz. 108 minutes.)

Black Swan

Thank the Lord for Mila Kunis. Amen: Nina is a ballerina at a New York City ballet company. In Andres Heinz’s original screenplay The Understudy, according to information on the IMDb, the setting was the theater world. It was the director Darren Aronofsky who suggested the change to ballet, probably because he hoped people would be less likely to notice the story was All About Eve (1950). Thomas, the director and choreographer of the company, has eased out Beth, the reigning prima ballerina, and is casting a new white swan/black swan for Swan Lake. He picks Nina early in the film. I would say the film falls apart at this point, but it has already fallen apart. Nina is beyond tightly wound. She is obviously mentally disturbed, which is clear from the beginning. Now why should that be a problem for the movie? Because her lack of mental balance is both not convincing and not very interesting.

Yes, we all know artists are crazy. There is a reason Plato did not want them in his Republic. Artists are anarchists and if you are trying to run a country or a company, you want people who see things your way rather than some really odd way. Which is the public value of artists: they let us see the world differently. But artists are crazy because they are creative, and most creative people have masses and masses of ideas. I have never met an artist yet who was not incredibly prolific with his or her ideas. This is why Nina is not convincing. She is a very one-note character, focused on her fears. Yes, artists can be and often are driven by their fears, but that usually expresses itself in a variety of ways. Nina is not interesting because she does not get beyond the surface of her fears. She, and Natalie Portman’s performance of her, becomes repetitive and not compelling to watch. This has to be one of Portman’s worst performances and every moment she is onscreen, you keep wanting the camera to move to something or somebody else.

So why does Thomas pick her? Well, he’s not all that bright either. He explains at one point what he sees in her that he thinks will make her a good white swan, but the only quality he mentions that we see in Portman’s Nina is fear. And the character is so tightly wound I was surprised she could dance at all. Artists need a balance between concentration and relaxation to get into their groove, and Nina is all concentration and no relaxation. So Thomas tries to get her to loosen up so she can play the black swan as well, and this being a movie, he does this by suggesting she have sex. Nina insists she is not a virgin, but I am not buying it, especially since she has a mother who stalks her every step. Given all that build up, when Nina finally makes a breakthrough as the black swan, the moment is almost glossed over.

Thomas may have realized he miscast Nina, since he brings in Lily, a dancer from San Francisco. I assume the writers have her from San Francisco to let us know she is going to be free and easy, unlike Nina. So Eve, sorry, Lily seems to start undercutting Nina, but is she really? One element of Mankiewicz’s script for All About Eve is that there is never a point where he tells us exactly what Eve is up to. When do you know Eve is a bitch? The writers may have been trying the same thing here, but it seems more confusing than in All About Eve, since we are seeing all this through Nina’s mind and we know from before Lily’s arrival that she’s a little funny in the head. So Lily’s behavior seems more a function in the film of Nina’s brain than anything she does in “reality.”

As if all that were not enough, Nina, Thomas, Beth and Erica (Nina’s mom) are, how shall we say, humor impaired. As is the film. No, I am not asking for the wit of All About Eve, but does nearly everybody in this film have to take themselves so bloody seriously? Artists are not only creative, they are also funny, as are, quite frankly, most professionals if you get them talking about their work. None of the four mentioned ever make a joke, and the one or two smiles they crack seem painful to them. Lily is an exception, and I have no idea how much of that is in the script. While the other characters are caught up in their neuroses, Lily is by definition more free form. The casting of Mila Kunis helps enormously. She does not seem to be given any funny lines in the script, but Kunis is alive on the screen in the way nobody else in the picture is. Did Aronofsky encourage this, or did Kunis slip it by him when he wasn’t looking? You would be surprised how often that happens in films. I have written about Kunis before, in US#42 and #47, and it may just be the company she keeps in this film but she steals the whole picture here by being the only person on screen worth watching.

Black Swan has received very mixed reviews, but it is turning into an art-house hit, particularly among younger moviegoers. This surprises me, since this is one of the most un-ironic movies to come down the pike in years. Maybe it is the Recession we are in that makes people take it seriously. I suspect that some of it is that younger people can relate to the Nina-Erica mother-daughter relationship. With movies and their audiences, you just never know for sure what is going to work and why.

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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Ange Lee’s Gemini Man, Starring Will Smith, Gets Official Trailer

Ang Lee’s three-year marriage to the 120fps format appears to be in strong shape.

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Gemini Man
Photo: Paramount Pictures

Ang Lee’s last film, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk was praised on these pages for astoundingly animating the mind of its young soldier. The film, shot in 3D at a resolution of 4K, was supposed to be some kind of game-changer. But its 120fps, which is almost three times the 48fps that Peter Jackson used for The Hobbit, annoyed just about everyone for resembling a soap opera, including my mother, who likes soap operas.

Nonetheless, Lee’s has remained committed to the format. His latest film, Gemini Man, tells the story of an aging assassin (played by Will Smith) who’s being chased by a younger clone of himself. Admittedly, the hyper-real textures of the film look more convincing than those of either Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk or The Hobbit. But you can make your own assessment from the two-minute trailer that Paramount Pictures released today:

Paramount Pictures will release Gemini Man on October 11.

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Review: Avengers: Endgame Is, Above All Else, a Triumph of Corporate Synergy

Every serious narrative beat in the film is ultimately undercut by pro-forma storytelling, or by faux-improvised humor.

1.5

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Avengers: Endgame
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

“Let’s get that son of a bitch,” says Captain America (Chris Evans) near the beginning of Anthony and Joe Russo’s Avengers: Endgame, the supposed big-screen finale to the Marvel Cinematic Universe as we now know it. Cap, that sacred symbol of American might, is of course profaning Thanos (Josh Brolin), the purple colossus whose hand of fate, bedecked with the six Infinity Stones, erased half the world’s population during the cliffhanger climax of last year’s Avengers: Infinity War. The victims included many among the superheroic, several of whom have movies on the docket. So there’s no way the remaining commodities—I mean, Avengers—are going to go down without a fight.

It’ll take a while to get to the final showdown, of course. About two hours and 45 minutes of the three-hour running time, to be exact, all of it filled to bursting with goofy one-liners, aching stares into the middle distance, and lots and lots of wibbly wobbly, timey wimey digressions. Almost all of the Avengers’s founding team members are on hand, with a considerably more grizzled and cynical Clint “Hawkeye” Barton (Jeremy Renner) providing most of the pathos. Also in attendance are Scott “Ant-Man” Lang (Paul Rudd) and Carol “Captain Marvel” Danvers (Brie Larson), the latter of whose won’t-take-no-guff brashness is especially endearing to a certain gruff, hammer-wielding Asgardian.

I’d tell you more about the film, but then I’d have to kill myself at the spoiler-averse Marvel Studios’s behest. Even noting certain elements out of context—like, say, “Nerd Hulk” or “Lebowski Thor”—might be considered too revealing by the powers that be. So, let’s dance around the narrative architecture and instead ruminate on whether this 22nd entry in the MCU serves as a satisfying culmination of all that’s preceded it.

That’s a firm no, though the Russo brothers and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely certainly lean hard into the dewy-eyed, apocalyptic sturm und drang. You’d think they were putting the finishing touches on the Bible. There are allusions to The Leftovers, J.G. Ballard’s The Terminal Beach, and Picasso’s Guernica, though there’s never a sense, as in those works, that society is truly in irrevocable decay. It’s all good, even when it isn’t: Death is a mostly reversible ploy, and sacrifice is a self-centered concept, a burnish to the ego above all else. It’s telling that, in one scene, Captain America stops to admire his own ass.

There’s some fleeting fun to be had when Endgame turns into a sort of heist film, occasioning what effectively amounts to an in-motion recap of prior entries in the MCU. Yet every serious narrative beat is ultimately undercut by pro-forma storytelling (the emotional beats never linger, as the characters are always race-race-racing to the next big plot point), or by faux-improvised humor, with ringmaster Tony “Iron Man” Stark (Robert Downey Jr., so clearly ready to be done with this universe) leading the sardonic-tongued charge. Elsewhere, bona fide celebs like Michael Douglas, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Natalie Portman are reduced to glorified extras. Even the glow of movie stardom is dimmed by the supernova that is the Marvel machine’s at best competently produced weightlessness.

Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Paul Rudd, Brie Larson, Karen Gillan, Danai Gurira, Benedict Wong, Jon Favreau, Bradley Cooper, Gwyneth Paltrow, Josh Brolin, Evangeline Lilly, Tessa Thompson, Frank Grillo, Winston Duke Director: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo Screenwriter: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 181 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Cannes Directors’ Fortnight Lineup Includes The Lighthouse, Zombi Child, and More

In addition to Directors’ Fortnight, the festival announced the films that would screen as part of the ACID lineup.

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The Lighthouse
Photo: A24

Five days after Cannes artistic director Thierry Fremaux revealed the films that would be competing for the Palm d’Or this year on the Croisette, the Cannes Film Festival has announced the films that will screen as part of the prestigious Directors’ Fortnight. Among those are Robert Eggers’s The Lighthouse, a dark fantasy horror film starring Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson shot on 35mm black-and-white film stock, and Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child, which recounts the destiny of Clairvius Narcisse, a Haitian man who was famously said to have been turned him into a zombie.

See below for the full lineup, followed by the ACID slate.

Directors’ Fortnight Lineup:

Opening Film

Deerskin (Quentin Dupieux)

Official Selection

Alice and the Mayor (Nicolas Pariser)
And Then We Danced (Levan Akin)
The Halt (Lav Diaz)
Dogs Don’t Wear Pants (Jukka-Pekka Valkeapää)
Song Without a Name (Melina León)
Ghost Tropic (Bas Devos)
Give Me Liberty (Kirill Mikhanvovsky)
First Love (Takashi Miike)
The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers)
Lillian (Andreas Horwath)
Oleg (Juris Kursietis)
Blow It to Bits (Lech Kowalski)
The Orphanage (Shahrbanoo Sadat)
Les Particules (Blaise Harrison)
Perdrix (Erwan Le Duc)
For the Money (Alejo Moguillansky)
Sick Sick Sick (Alice Furtado)
Tlamess (Ala Eddine Slim)
To Live to Sing (Johnny Ma)
An Easy Girl (Rebecca Zlotowski)
Wounds (Babak Anvari)
Zombi Child (Bertrand Bonello)

Closing Film

Yves (Benoît Forgeard)

Special Screenings

Red 11 (Roberto Rodriguez)
The Staggering Girl (Luca Guadagnino)

Shorts

Two Sisters Who Are Not Sisters (Beatrice Gibson)
The Marvelous Misadventures of the Stone Lady (Gabriel Abrantes)
Grand Bouquet (Nao Yoshigai)
Je Te Tiens (Sergio Caballero)
Movements (Dahee Jeong)
Olla (Ariane Labed)
Piece of Meat (Jerrold Chong and Huang Junxiang)
Ghost Pleasure (Morgan Simon)
Stay Awake, Be Ready (An Pham Thien)

ACID Lineup:

Features

Blind Spot (Pierre Trividic, Patrick-Mario Bernard)
Des Hommes (Jean-Robert Viallet, Alice Odiot)
Indianara (Aude Chevalier-Beaumel, Marcello Barbosa)
Kongo (Hadrien La Vapeur, Corto Vaclav)
Mickey and the Bear (Annabelle Attanasio)
Solo (Artemio Benki)
As Happy as Possible (Alain Raoust)
Take Me Somewhere Nice (Ena Sendijarevic)
Vif-Argent (Stéphane Batut)

Third Annual ACID Trip

Las Vegas (Juan Villegas)
Brief Story from the Green Planet (Santiago Loza)
Sangre Blanca (Barbara Sarasola-Day)

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Film

Review: Carmine Street Guitars Is a Beautiful Portrait of an Everyday Paradise

The film celebrates the thingness of things, as well as the assuring clarity and lucidity that can arise from devotion to knowledge.

3.5

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Carmine Street Guitars
Photo: Sphinx Productions

The concept of Carmine Street Guitars is simplicity itself. Director Ron Mann documents the legendary Greenwich Village guitar store of the film’s title over a period of five days, watching as mostly famous customers stroll in to peruse and play instruments and shoot the breeze with guitar maker Rick Kelly. There’s no voiceover, no overt narrative, and little orienting text—and none of the encounters in this film are structured or presented as info-bite-style interviews. Mann artfully sustains the illusion of someone who’s just hanging out, capturing whatever draws his attention. Consequentially, the documentary communicates the magic of this place even to someone who’s never been to New York City.

Mann has a knack for telling you more than he appears to be. Fashioning intimate compositions, he surveys Kelly and his apprentice, Cindy Hulej, as they build guitars together in companionable silence. Kelly and Hulej are a poignant study in contrasts: Kelly is a graying sixtysomething man with a bit of a belly, while Cindy is a lean twentysomething woman who, with her bright blond hair and multiple tattoos, suggests a rock star. Occasionally, Hulej will solicit Kelly’s approval for one of her designs or for the artwork or poetry she’s burning into the back of a guitar, which he grants with a humble hesitation that subtly says, “You don’t need my approval.” Meanwhile, up front in the store, Kelly’s mother answers the phone. At one point, she says she’s happy to be here, though, at her age, she’s happy to be anywhere.

Shots of Kelly and Hulej working also allow one to savor the tactility of Carmine Street Guitars itself. Hulej works to the left of the back of the store, while Kelly stays to the right of it. Above Kelly is a storage of wooden planks taken from various landmarks of New York, such as Chumley’s and McSorley’s. Kelly poetically says that he likes to build guitars from the “bones of New York.” The resin dries out in older wood, allowing for more openings in the material which in turn yields greater resonation. Such fascinating details arise naturally in the film’s images and conversations. Over the course of Carmine Street Guitars, Kelly fashions a McSorley’s plank into an incredibly evocative guitar, as the gnarled wood gives it the appearance of possessing scar tissue. Near the end of the documentary, musician Charlie Sexton walks in and plays this guitar, and the idea of scar tissue takes on a different meaning. Sexton, Kelly, and the store itself are textured survivors of another era.

This is never explicitly stated in Carmine Street Guitars, but the film offers an analogue daydream in a 21st century that’s been nearly gentrified to death by corporations. The building next to Carmine Street Guitars was once used by Jackson Pollack and is now being sold by a yuppie real estate agent for six million dollars. The yuppie walks into the guitar shop, drooling over the potential sales opportunity, and his entrance feels like an obscenity—a return to the reality that we frequent stores like Carmine Street Guitars, and films like Carmine Street Guitars, in order to evade. It’s only at this point that Kelly’s democratic bonhomie hardens into defensive contempt, as he virtually refuses to speak to the agent. This episode haunts the film, suggesting a fate that can only be bidden off for so much longer.

Carmine Street Guitars celebrates the thingness of things, as well as the assuring clarity and lucidity that can arise from devotion to knowledge. Kelly’s guitar shop is a cocoon, a place of contemplation, and so it feels inevitable when Jim Jarmusch walks into the store. After all, Jarmusch’s recent films, like Only Lovers Left Alive and Paterson, also celebrate creation and erudition while ruing the arrival of a new culture that’s hostile to such desires. Kelly and Jarmusch talk about the filmmaker’s new guitar, which is partially made from Catalpa wood, leading to a riff on the trees that have been formative in each man’s life. In another moving interlude, Wilco guitarist Nels Cline searches for a guitar for frontman Jeff Tweedy, settling on an instrument that reflects Kelly’s own characteristic design: a telecaster with a dropped horn. Such moments reveal artisanship to be a form of communion, as a personal object for Kelly has been refashioned into a symbol of another artistic partnership.

These themes and associations bob under Carmine Street Guitars’s surface, as musicians noodle around with Kelly. This pregnant sense of implication is Mann’s supreme achievement, and as such the film risks being taken for granted as a charming little diversion, when it should be celebrated as a beautiful portrait of an everyday paradise. When Hulej weeps in gratitude, on her fifth anniversary of working for Carmine Street Guitars, you want to weep with her.

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Review: Hyènas Brilliantly Chips Away at a City’s Colonialist Architecture

Djibril Diop Mambéty’s 1992 film resonates primarily for its lacerating comedic writing and pacing.

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Hyènas
Photo: Metrograph Pictures

Djibril Diop Mambéty spared no one when mercilessly depicting populations who were simultaneously eating themselves from within and being exploited by the economic interests of outside forces. Mambéty’s great Touki Bouki from 1973 viewed this dual process through the prism of the postcolonial relationship between Senegal and France. And in Mambéty’s second feature, 1992’s Hyènas, Senegal is pitted against larger global institutions, such as the World Bank, that prey on small nations whose financial instability makes them more likely to embrace warped logic and false promises at their own expense.

Mambéty confines the proceedings to Colobane, a small commune in Dakar, where its population and governmental order are turned upside down by the return of former resident Linguere Ramatou (Ami Diakhate), whose newfound wealth has become a subject of much dispute and angst within the community. The woman, who’s said by locals to be “richer than the World Bank,” becomes Mambéty’s stand-in for how an institutional form of thinking, with its financial rather than human emphasis, corrupts local interests by vacuously promising short-term riches to citizens that, in turn, produce long-term financial crises.

One of Mambéty’s primary strengths is how his sense of detail instantly brings the locations of his films to life. Hyènas opens within the market owned by Dramaan (Mansour Diouf), a beloved local merchant whose generosity with patrons is almost immediately apparent, as he allows several customers to purchase expensive goods on credit rather than having them pay up front. Mambéty establishes each nook and cranny of the market’s space through a series of static shots that gradually reveal the amount of people—none of which offer payment for their acquisitions—toiling around the premises. When Dramaan’s wife (Faly Gueye) appears, and Dramaan says, out of her earshot, that she disapproves of his business practices, it’s the first suggestion in Mambéty’s carefully plotted script that mutual trust is the first casualty in the exchange of money between people linked to differing motivations. As the Colobane community takes even greater advantage of Dramaan later in the film, Hyènas further turns the man’s plight into an absurdist tale of capitalism’s follies.

Linguere’s return to Colobane provides the film with its driving plot device, as she announces to the population that she will pump hundreds of millions of dollars into the community in exchange for Dramaan’s murder. Linguere was abandoned by Dramaan years prior after giving birth to their daughter and has come back with the sole intention of wreaking havoc on the man’s life. At least, it initially seems that way; in a later scene, Linguere explains, “The world has made me a whore,” and so she plans to “turn the world into a whorehouse.”

Mambéty imagines how Linguere’s wealth co-signs her agenda of revenge; her dangling of expensive goods over the heads of locals hungry for their piece of the pie is akin to the lie of global monetary cooperation promised by organizations like the International Monetary Fund. Senegal, once again, becomes dependent on global rather than local sources of income and exchange. Mambéty, though, follows the thematic example set by Ousmane Sembène’s Xala, in which a Senegalese politician’s sexual impotence is a symbol of his corruption, by refusing to exonerate local officials within Senegal for their complicity in embracing Westernization. When Dramaan meets with Colobane’s mayor (Mamadou Mahourédia Gueye) to discuss the bounty that’s been placed on his head, the latter says, “[Leopold] Senghor himself went for a walk with the Queen of England…if we were savages, they would not come here.” By implicating the mayor’s deference to Western forms of knowledge and self-definition, Mambéty deftly wrestles with the complexity of corruption’s reach.

Despite its rather serious and finally tragic appraisal of Senegal’s quagmire within the world system, Hyènas resonates primarily for its lacerating comedic writing and pacing. As Dramaan comes to mistakenly believe that he will be elected Colobane’s next mayor, only to learn that, in fact, he’s more likely to be killed before an election takes place, Mambéty ratchets up the film’s ludicrousness to simultaneously critique the Senegalese government and widespread consumerism, and with equal ferocity. This is best encapsulated by the moment where Dramaan realizes that everyone who isn’t paying him seems to own the same, new pair of yellow boots made in Burkina Faso. Dramaan’s market, filled with foreign goods ranging from European tobacco to Coca-Cola, is itself exploiting its owner; the man has paid a high price for quality only for the local marketplace to abuse his ambitions.

These ideas also propelled Touki Bouki, in which a pair of college-aged youths from Dakar, a city adored with so many Pepsi logos and Mobil oil towers, (dream of migrating to France. In a memorable scene from that film, a pair of French professors dismiss Senegal’s local culture by articulating the distinctly colonialist logic of France’s superiority. While Hyènas forgoes such an explicit drag of French supremacy, the film’s lucid indignation and satirical take on Senegal’s raw deal proves just as convincing.

Cast: Ami Diakhate, Mansour Diouf, Calgou Fall, Faly Gueye, Mamadou Mahourédia Gueye, Issa Ramagelissa Samb, Dijbril Diop Mambéty Director: Djibril Diop Mambéty Screenwriter: Djibril Diop Mambéty Distributor: Metrograph Pictures Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 1992

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Review: Chasing Portraits Is Welcome Personal Testimony, but Its Scope Is Narrow

Its major contribution, as one museum curator suggests, may be to bring the works of Moshe Rynecki back into prominence.

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Chasing Portraits
Photo: First Run Features

Before World War II, Poland’s Jewish population was the largest in Europe, numbering over three million. Afterward, only 10% of that populace remained. Although the current right-wing Polish government prefers to suppress this fact, the 300,000 surviving Jews faced continued persecution at the hands of gentile Poles—themselves the victims (though to a much lesser degree) of Nazi persecution. Today, when the number of Jews in Poland is well under 10,000, one can visit the old Jewish quarters in cities like Warsaw and Krakow, where street kiosks sell small plastic caricatures of Hasidic Jews. On the streets, though, you’re unlikely to encounter any actual Hasids.

In her trip to Warsaw in search of her great-grandfather’s lost paintings, Chasing Portraits director Elizabeth Rynecki stumbles across these figurines. As she observes in voiceover, there’s nothing overtly demeaning about the miniature, jovial, cartoonish Jews, but the image they project doesn’t feel right, given local history. And one must agree that there’s an undeniable aspect of minstrelsy to them: Unlike her great-grandfather Moshe’s textured scenes of Jewish life in Warsaw, they’re almost certainly not self-representations. Given the Jewish culture that was destroyed in Poland—and whose richness is embodied by Moshe’s few surviving paintings—the grinning trinkets seem all the more like frivolous kitsch.

Rynecki’s discovery of these unsettling souvenirs is potentially one of the most interesting parts of Chasing Portraits, given that she happens across them while on the trail of lost Jewish art. As a curator at a Warsaw museum observes to the filmmaker, Moshe’s work depicts traditional moments of Jewish culture in a distinctly modern sensibility, attesting to the robustness of the Jewish culture on the eve of its destruction. In this way, his paintings are the opposite of the post-facto plastic caricatures, and Rynecki’s confrontation with the mass-produced simulacra of absent Jews is a moment when her highly personal documentary almost extends toward a wider perspective. But she doesn’t linger for too long on what the Holocaust and Judaism mean in Poland today, as she’s on her way to ask a private collector named Wertheim about how his family managed to acquire some of Moshe’s works.

Rynecki’s insular approach works well early on in the film, when she, in conversations with her father, outlines who her great-grandfather was and what his surviving paintings mean to the family. Of around 800 works that Moshe painted before he was murdered at the Majdanek death camp, just over 100 survive in the possession of the family, with an unknown number in the hands of private collections and Polish museums. That much is a miracle, but Rynecki—more so, it seems, than her father, a Holocaust survivor himself—wants to discover more. In the film, we see her consult with historians, compose emails to private collectors, and read excerpts of her grandfather George’s memoirs, in preparation for her trip to Poland.

Chasing Portraits is about Rynecki’s investigative process rather than Moshe’s paintings themselves; in voiceover, she narrates each step of her process as she takes on the role of amateur historian. And in maintaining an intense focus on her investigation—how she reads out the emails she writes to institutions, and shows us footage from each flight she takes from one corner of the world to another—the film raises probing questions that it dutifully bypasses. Her encounters with the Wertheim family are a case in point: The first Wertheim brother claims the family own paintings by Moshe because they bought it from a farmer, but the second tells the more plausible story that they have the paintings because their parents, resistance fighters hiding in the Polish woods, raided them from a bombed-out train.

In Rynecki’s narrative, these conflicting stories become a personal conundrum: If the paintings were looted rather than bought, she may be able to make a claim on them. In the end, it’s Rynecki’s growth, her decision about whether or not to become a claimant, that structures the film. But this approach means skirting over other thematic threads that might have emerged from this project, such as the ethics of museum versus private ownership of recovered art like Moshe’s, the meaning of art in desperate times, the politics of remembrance in Poland. Chasing Portraits is thus valuable as part of an expansive mosaic of personal testimonies to the legacy of the Holocaust, but it’s a documentary of sometimes disappointingly narrow scope. Its major contribution, as one museum curator suggests, may be to bring the works of Moshe Rynecki back into prominence.

Director: Elizabeth Rynecki Screenwriter: Elizabeth Rynecki Distributor: First Run Features Running Time: 78 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: If the Dancer Dances Diminishes Its Subject by Succumbing to Hagiography

The documentary is incessant about reminding us of the late Merce Cunningham’s achievements.

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If the Dancer Dances
Photo: Monument Releasing

More than once in Maia Wechsler’s If the Dancer Dances, a dance is described by one of numerous talking heads as existing only in the moment; once any movement or routine is complete, it essentially can never be replicated to an exacting degree. But the film inadvertently appears as if it’s trying to prove that poetic and insightful observation wrong, which becomes increasingly clear as we follow choreographer Stephen Petronio as he and his dance company work on a production of Merce Cunningham’s RainForest.

Wechsler’s depiction of the company seems unwilling to step out of Cunningham’s shadow, given the extent to which the members of the current production and Cunningham’s former pupils happily provide hagiographic accounts of the groundbreaking avant-garde choreographer and his work. In an about-face from the repeated description of dance’s unreplicable nature, the new RainForest’s choreographers and dancers set out to duplicate rather than interpret the work. The fawning over Cunningham, and the implication from the company that they’ll never be able to live up to his vision, only exposes an overbearing inferiority complex running throughout the documentary.

If the Dancer Dances really only comes to life when showcasing the company’s rehearsals, throughout camera movements that match the gracefulness of the dancers and compositions that incorporate multiple points of action. Wechsler’s observational methods in these sequences capture mini-dramas in themselves, such as when choreographers quietly confer, attempting to adjust the dance routine that’s playing out in front of them.

Still, rather than letting the audience simply observe the company at work and letting the process speak for itself, Wechsler incessantly reminds us of Cunningham’s monolithic presence via scores of interviews that laud his work process. The film’s constant lionizing of the man amid so much rehearsal footage has the unintended effect of sapping the dancers of agency. Throughout, it’s as if Wechsler is judging the company’s artistic decisions based on whether or not Cunningham himself would consider them right or wrong.

At one point in the film, a former colleague of Cunningham’s explains that the late choreographer, in an effort to ensure that his works felt fresh, tried to never be influenced by other productions. This anecdote rings of irony, given how the film includes numerous sequences of Petronio’s choreographers discussing how to ape Cunningham’s aesthetic in precise detail—and often in incomprehensibly abstract directions that even some of the dancers appear not to grasp. The film operates under the impression that for any present or future company to change any one aspect of Cunningham’s original vision would be blasphemous and offensive, which turns If the Dancer Dances less into the insightful backstage documentary it wants to be, and more into a gushing, sycophantic love letter.

Director: Maia Wechsler Distributor: Monument Releasing Running Time: 86 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Watch the Trailer for Ava DuVernay’s Netflix Series When They See Us

Netflix will release the series on May 31.

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When They See Us
Photo: Netflix

In 1989, the rape and near-murder of Trisha Meili in Central Park rocked the nation. A little over a year later, a jury convicted five juvenile males—four African-American and one Hispanic—to prison sentences ranging from five to 15 years. In the end, the defendants spent between six and 13 years behind bars. Flashforward to 2002, after four of the five defendants had left prison, and Matias Reyes, a convicted murder and serial rapist serving a lifetime prison term, came forward and confessed to raping Meili. DNA evidence confirmed his guilt, and proved what many already knew about the so-called “Central Park jogger case”: that the police investigation of Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise, conducted at the beginning of the Giuliani era in New York City, was motivated less by a thirst for justice than it was by racial animus.

Last year, Oscar-nominated Selma filmmaker Ava DuVernay announced that she would be making a series based on the infamous case, and since then hasn’t been shy, on Twitter and elsewhere, about saying that she will be putting Donald J. Trump in her crosshairs. Trump, way back in 1989, ran an ad in the Daily News advocating the return of the death penalty, and as recently as 2016, claimed that McCray, Richardson, Salaam, Santana, and Wise are guilty of the crime for which they were eventually exonerated—behavior consistent with a presidential campaign that, like the case against the Central Park Five, was a full-time racist dog whistle.

Today, Netflix dropped the trailer for When They See Us, which stars Michael K. Williams, Vera Farmiga, John Leguizamo, Felicity Huffman, Niecy Nash, Blair Underwood, Christopher Jackson, Joshua Jackson, Omar J. Dorsey, Adepero Oduye, Famke Janssen, Aurora Perrineau, William Sadler, Jharrel Jerome, Jovan Adepo, Aunjanue Ellis, Kylie Bunbury, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Storm Reid, Dascha Polanco, Chris Chalk, Freddy Miyares, Justin Cunningham, Ethan Herisse, Caleel Harris, Marquis Rodriguez, and Asante Blackk.

According to the official description of the series:

Based on a true story that gripped the country, When They See Us will chronicle the notorious case of five teenagers of color, labeled the Central Park Five, who were convicted of a rape they did not commit. The four part limited series will focus on the five teenagers from Harlem—Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise. Beginning in the spring of 1989, when the teenagers were first questioned about the incident, the series will span 25 years, highlighting their exoneration in 2002 and the settlement reached with the city of New York in 2014.

See the trailer below:

Netflix will release When They See Us on May 31.

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Review: The Curse of La Llorona Is More Laugh Riot than Fright Fest

With The Curse of La Llorona, the Conjuring universe has damned itself to an eternal cycle of rinse and repeat.

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The Curse of La Llorona
Photo: Warner Bros.

Michael Chaves’s The Curse of La Llorona opens in 17th-century Mexico with an all-too-brief rundown of the legend of La Llorona. This weeping woman (Marisol Ramirez) is quickly established as a mother who, in a fit of jealousy, drowned her two children in order punish her cheating husband. And after immediately regretting her actions, she commits suicide, forever damning herself to that liminal space between the land of the living and the dead, to snatch up wandering children to replace her own.

Flash-forward to 1973 Los Angeles, where we instantly recognize an echo of La Llorana’s parental anxieties in Anna Garcia (Linda Cardellini), a widowed mother of two who struggles to balance the demands of her job as a social worker for Child Protective Services and the pressures of adjusting to single parenthood. One might expect such parallels to be further expanded upon by The Curse of La Llorona, but it quickly becomes evident that the filmmakers are less interested in character development, narrative cohesion, or the myth behind La Llorona than in lazily transposing the film’s big bad into the Conjuring universe.

It’s no surprise, then, that La Llorona, with her beady yellow eyes, blood-drained skin, and rotted mouth and fingernails is virtually indistinguishable from the antagonist from Corin Hardy’s The Nun; just swap out the evil nun’s tunic and habit for a decaying wedding dress and you’d never know the difference. Even more predictably, The Curse of La Llorona relies heavily on a near-ceaseless barrage of jump scares, creaking doors and loud, shrieking noises as La Llorona first terrorizes and murders the detained children of one of Anna’s clients (Patricia Velasquez), before then moving on to haunting Anna and her kids (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen and Roman Christou). But this family is so thinly conceived and their behavior so careless and illogical in the face of a known force of evil that viewers may find themselves less terrified by La Llorona than overjoyed by her reign of terror.

Once Rafael (Raymond Cruz), a curandero whose healing powers promise to lift La Llorona’s curse, arrives on the scene, the film makes a few concessions to Mexican cultural rituals, as well as offers brief but welcome respites of humor. But after the man rubs down the Garcia house with eggs and protects its borders with palo santo and fire tree seeds, The Curse of La Llorona continues unabated as a rote scare-a-thon. Every extended moment of silence and stillness is dutifully disrupted by sudden, overemphatic bursts of sound and fury that are meant to frighten us but are more likely to leave you feeling bludgeoned into submission.

All the while, any notions of motherhood, faith within and outside of the Catholic Church, and Mexican folklore that surface at one point or another are rendered both moot and undistinctive in the midst of so much slavish worshipping at the altar of franchise expansion. Indeed, by the time Annabelle’s Father Perez (Tony Amendola) pays a house visit in order to dutifully spout exposition about the series’s interconnected religious elements, it becomes clear that the Conjuring universe is damned to an eternal cycle of rinse and repeat.

Cast: Linda Cardellini, Roman Christou, Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen, Raymond Cruz, Marisol Ramirez, Patricia Velasquez, Sean Patrick Thomas, Tony Amendola Director: Michael Chaves Screenwriter: Mikki Daughtry, Tobias Iaconis Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 93 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: David Bordwell’s Reinventing Hollywood & W.K. Stratton’s The Wild Bunch

Stratton goes beyond the production of Sam Peckinpah’s film, on to its impact and reception and legacy.

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Reinventing Hollywood

The 1940s were the decade in which Hollywood attained what we now term “classical” status, when the innovations and developments of cinema’s formative years coalesced into a high level of sophistication across all areas—technological, visual, narrative. The narrative element is the focus of Reinventing Hollywood, film historian and University of Wisconsin-Madison professor David Bordwell’s latest deep dive into the aesthetics of film.

Bordwell begins with a series of questions: “What distinctive narrative strategies emerged in the 1940s? Where did they come from? How did various filmmakers use them? How did the innovations change the look and sound of films?” He then proceeds with quite thorough answers across 500-plus pages. The narrative developments were gradual and cumulative. While the earliest narrative cinema was static and stagebound, inheriting principles of storytelling from theater and the most basic novelistic tendencies, a richer narrativity developed throughout the 1930s, when the visual language of silent cinema melded with the oral/aural elements of “talkies” to create a more systemized approach to narrative filmmaking.

As Bordwell notes at one point in Reinventing Hollywood, “[p]rinciples of characterization and plot construction that grew up in the 1910s and 1920s were reaffirmed in the early sound era. Across the same period there emerged a clear-cut menu of choices pertaining to staging, shooting and cutting scenes.” In short, it was the process whereby “talkies” became just “movies.” Narrative techniques specifically morphed and solidified throughout the ‘30s, as screenwriters and filmmakers pushed their way toward the discovery of a truly classical style.

While the idea of a menu of set choices may sound limiting, in reality the options were numerous, as filmmakers worked out a process of invention through repetition and experimentation and refinement. Eventually these narrative properties and principles became conventionalized—not in a watered-down or day-to-day way, but rather codified or systematized, where a sort of stock set of narrative devices were continually reworked, revamped, and re-energized. It’s what Bordwell calls “an inherited pattern” or “schema.”

Also in the ‘40s, many Hollywood films traded in what Bordwell terms “mild modernism”—a kind of light borrowing from other forms and advances in so-called high modernism, such as surrealism or stream-of-consciousness narratives like James Joyce’s Ulysses: high-art means for popular-art ends (Salvador Dalí’s work on Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound being a notable example). These techniques included omniscient point of view, the novelistic ability to traverse time and space (ideally suited for cinema), and involved flashback or dream sequences. This “borrowing of storytelling techniques from adjacent arts […] encouraged a quick cadence of schema and revision,” an environment of “…novelty at almost any price.”

Such novelties included “aggregate” films that overlaid a plethora of storytelling techniques, such as Sam Wood’s 1940 adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, which employed multiple protagonists, complex flashback sequences, and voiceover narration drawn from the most advanced theater. Perhaps no other film embodied these “novelties” so sharply as Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, an “aggressive aggregate” that amounts to a specifically cinematic yet total work of art, weaving together not only narrative techniques such as multiple character or “prismatic” flashbacks (screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz’s term), but also drawing on elements from music, painting, and photography, as well as Welles’s first loves, theater and radio. In some ways, Citizen Kane may be seen as a kind of fulcrum film, incorporating nearly all that had come before it and anticipating most everything after.

Though Bordwell references the familiar culprits—Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, and, of course, Citizen Kane—he doesn’t just stick with the A films, as he goes deep into the B’s (and even some C’s and D’s), in an effort to show the wide-ranging appeal and effectiveness of these narrative models no matter their technical execution. He also alternates chapters with what he calls Interludes—that is, more intensive readings illustrating a preceding chapter’s discussion, homing in on specific films, genres and filmmakers, and not always the ones which one might expect. There’s an interlude on Joseph Mankiewicz, for example, a sort of intellectual master of multi-protagonist films like All About Eve and The Barefoot Contessa, and the truly original Preston Sturges, whose films pushed narrative norms to their absolute limits. There’s also an intriguing interlude on the boxing picture and the resiliency of certain narrative tropes—fighter refusing to throw the fight and thus imperiled by gangsters, for example—demonstrating how Hollywood’s “narrative ecosystem played host to variants.”

Reinventing Hollywood is a dense read. Its nearly 600 pages of text, including detailed notes and index, isn’t for the academically faint at heart. Often Bordwell offers frame-by-frame, even gesture-by-gesture analyses using accompanying stills, mining synoptic actions and tropes across multiple films of the era. The book can read strictly pedagogical at times, but overall, Bordwell’s writing is clear and uncluttered by jargon. Despite its comprehensive scholarly archeology (and such sweet academic euphemism as, say, “spreading the protagonist function”), the book is leveled at anyone interested in cinematic forms and norms.

The title is telling. Clearly, narrative cinema was already invented by the time the ‘40s rolled around, but in Hollywood throughout that decade it became so systematized that it progressed into something new, indeed something that exists through today: a narrative film style that’s evocative enough to affect any single viewer and effective enough to speak to a mass audience.

Part of the charm of what was invented in the ‘40s is the malleability of the product. Narrative standards and conventions were designed for maximum variation, as well as for revision and challenge. And perhaps no decade offered more revision and challenge than the 1960s, not only to film culture but world culture as a whole. By the mid-to-late ‘60s, the old Hollywood studio system had expired, leaving in its wake a splintered version of itself. Yet despite the dissolution of the big studios, the resilience of the classical film style engendered by those studios was still evident. Popular narrative films retained the clear presentation of action borne in earlier films, however much they shuffled and reimagined patterns and standards.

One such movie that both embraced and pushed against Hollywood standards is director Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 western The Wild Bunch. It possesses such richness in both themes and execution, in form and content, that there’s a lot to mine. With its tale of a band of out-of-time outlaws scamming and lamming away their fatal last days in Mexico during the country’s revolution, it revels in and reveres western conventions as much as it revises them.

The film carries a personal elusive impact, particularly on first viewing. In The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film, journalist and historian W.K. Stratton quotes filmmaker Ron Shelton on this phenomenon: “Something was different about this movie…it was more than [just another shoot-‘em-up] but I couldn’t figure out what…I’ve been trying to answer that question ever since.” The book examines the epic making of this epic film, and goes a good way toward explaining the reasons behind the film’s unique power. Stratton is a Texan and also a poet, and both of these credentials make him perhaps the ideal candidate for exploring this pure piece of western poetry.

Stratton maps the story of the film from germ to gem. Conceived in the early ‘60s by stuntman Roy N. Sickner as a somewhat typical “outlaw gringos on the lam” story, the property evolved over the course of the ensuing years as much as the country itself. America in 1967 and ‘68 was a vastly different place than it was in ‘63. Stratton notes how “[t]he picture…would never have been filmed had not circumstances come into precise alignment. It was the product of a nation torn by divisions unseen since the Civil War, a nation that was sacrificing thousands of its young to a war in Southeast Asia…a nation numbed by political assassination…where a youthful generation was wholesale rejecting values held by their parents.”

A film made in such turbulent times required its own turbulent setting. If America had become no country for old men, and Vietnam was no country for young men, then Mexico during the revolution was no country for either. Stratton gives brisk but detailed chapters on the Mexican Revolution, filling in the tumultuous history and social geography for what would become a necessarily violent film. But just as the film could never have been made in another time, it could also have never been made without Sam Peckinpah. As Stratton notes, Peckinpah was a Hollywood rarity, a director born in the actual American West who made actual westerns, and a maverick director who, like Welles, fought against the constraints of an industry in which he was a master. Peckinpah was a rarity in other ways as well. A heavy-drinking, light-fighting proto-tough guy who was also a devotee of Tennessee Williams (“I guess I’ve learned more from Williams than anyone”), Peckinpah was a storyteller who could break your heart as well as your nose. His second feature, the very fine Ride the High Country, was tough and tender; it was also, coincidentally, another story of old outlaws running out their time.

Stratton traces the entire trajectory of the film’s making, from the start-and-stop scripting to the early involvement of Lee Marvin, right on through to every aspect of production: its much-lauded gold-dust cinematography (by Lucien Ballard, who early in his career worked on Three Stooges comedies “…because it gave him a chance to experiment with camera trickery”); the elegant violence, or violent elegance, of its editing; and its casting and costuming.

The chapters on those last two elements are particularly rewarding. Costuming is a somewhat underlooked aspect of westerns, simply because the sartorial trappings seem so generic: hats, guns, boots, and bonnets. Yet period clothing is so essential to the texture of westerns because it can, or should, convey the true down and dirtiness of the time and place, the sweat, the swill and the stench. The Wild Bunch, like all great westerns, feels filthy. Wardrobe supervisor Gordon Dawson not only had the daunting task of providing authenticity in the costumes themselves—much of them period—but of overseeing the sheer volume of turnover. Because Peckinpah “planned to make heavy use of squibbing for the movie’s shoot-outs…[e]ach time a squib went off, it ripped a whole in a costume and left a bloody stain.” Considering the overwhelming bullet count of the film, in particular the barrage of the ending, it’s no wonder that “[a]ll the costumes would have to be reused and then reused again and again.”

But perhaps no aspect was more important to the success of Peckinpah’s film than its casting. While early on in the process Marvin was set to play the lead role of Pike Bishop, the actor, thankfully, bowed out, and after the consideration of other actors for the role, including Sterling Hayden and Charlton Heston, in stepped William Holden. As good as all the other actors could be, Holden projected more of the existential weariness of the Bishop character, a condition that Marvin’s coarseness, for example, might have effaced. Stratton agrees: “There could not have been a better matching of character and actor. Holden was a…deeply troubled man, a real-life killer himself…on a conditional suspended sentence for manslaughter [for a drunk driving accident, a case that was later dropped].”

This spot-on matching of actor to role extended all the way through to the rest of the Wild Bunch: Ernest Borgnine as Pike’s sidekick, Dutch Engstrom, emanating toward Pike an anguished love and loyalty; old-time actor Edmond O’Brien as old-timer Freddie Sykes; Robert Ryan as Deke Thornton, Pike’s stoic ex-partner and now head of the pursuing posse; Jaime Sanchez as the doomed Mexican Angel; and perhaps most especially Warren Oates and Ben Johnson as the wild, vile Gorch brothers. (While Oates was a member of what might be called Peckinpah’s stock company, Johnson was an estranged member of John Ford’s.)

Along with broad, illuminating biographies of these actors, Stratton presents informative material on many of the peripheral yet vital supporting cast. Because the film is set and was filmed in Mexico, much of it verisimilitude may be credited to Mexican talent. Throughout the ‘40s and ‘50s, the Mexican film industry was second only to Hollywood in terms of quality product and critical prestige. Peckinpah drew from this talent pool for many of his film’s key characters, none more indelible than that of General Mapache (to whom the bunch sell guns and, by extension, their souls), one of the vilest, most distasteful figures in any American western. For this role, Peckinpah chose Emilio Fernández, a.k.a. El Indio, recognized and revered at that time as Mexico’s greatest director. Apparently, Fernandez’s scandalous and lascivious on-set behavior paralleled the unpredictable immorality of his character. Like almost everyone involved with this film, Fernandez was taking his part to the extreme.

Stratton goes beyond the production of The Wild Bunch, on to its impact and reception and legacy. A sensation upon its release, the film was both lauded and loathed for its raw violence, with some critics recognizing Peckinpah’s “cathartic” western for what it was, others seeing nothing but sick exploitation (including in its bloody treatment of Mexican characters). While other films of the time created similar buzz for their depiction of violence, notably Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (a film often compared to The Wild Bunch), the violence of Peckinpah’s film was as much moral as physical. All one need do is compare it to a contemporary and similarly storied film like George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a winking high-jinks movie in which, in Marvin’s resonant phrase, “no one takes a shit.”

Everyone involved with The Wild Bunch attributes its power to Peckinpah and the environment he fostered in its making. “[S]omething remarkable was occurring at…rehearsal sessions,” writes Stratton. “Under Peckinpah’s direction, the actors went beyond acting and were becoming the wild bunch and the other characters in the movie.” Warren Oates confirms this sentiment: “…it wasn’t like a play…or a TV show […] It was our life. We were doing our fucking lives right there and lived it every day […] We were there in truth.”

Stratton considers The Wild Bunch “the last Western […] It placed a tombstone on the head of the grave of the old-fashioned John Wayne [films].” One may argue with this, as evidence shows that John Wayne—especially the Wayne of John Ford westerns—is still very much alive in the popular consciousness. Yet there is a fatal finality to The Wild Bunch, a sense of something lowdown being run down. The film is complex and extreme less in its physical violence than in its moral violence, as it transposes the increasing cynicism of 1968 to an equally nihilistic era, all while maintaining a moving elegiac aura. No image or action expresses this attitude clearer and more powerfully than the bunch’s iconic sacrificial end walk, four abreast, to rescue one of their own, to murder and be murdered into myth. If the film is a tombstone, Stratton’s book is a fit inscription.

David Bordwell’s Reinventing Hollywood is now available from University of Chicago Press, and W.K. Stratton’s The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film is now available from Bloomsbury Publishing.

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