Fan Mail: As I suspected, my comments on Uncle Boonmee pissed off some people. Both the ever-vigilant David Ehrenstein and “JF” felt I was not appreciating the complexity of the film. The problem I had was that it was not complex enough. I was ready, willing and able to deal with those elements. As I made clear in my opening comments, I was greatly looking forward to seeing the film precisely because of the elements critics have liked. What bothered me is that “Joe,” as Apichatpong Weerasethakul likes to be called in the West, had not done enough of that sort of thing. As for David’s comments on many people finding Imitation of Life (1959) emotionally overwhelming, I know that they do, and for a great variety of reasons. The script problems I pointed out make it difficult for the film to work that way for me.
JF makes a very compelling point when he says that while I deal with mainstream film and television well, I don’t deal with the arthouse cinema with the same skill. That has been rattling around in my head since I read it. He may well have a point. Admittedly, American narrative film is my native language. On the other hand, I have been going beyond that since I was a kid. I grew up in Bloomington, Indiana, in the ‘40s and ‘50s. Being a college town, it had an arthouse theater, the Von Lee. That’s where I was first exposed to Italian neorealist films, French films, and the first two films of Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy. I went east to college (Yale, if you don’t remember) in 1959, just in time to catch the French New Wave, as well as Felllini, Antonioni, and that crowd. I was immediately taken with Resnais’s Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959), one of the first films to break down the traditional narrative style. When I first saw Fellini’s 8 ½ in 1963, it became one of my favorite films, which it remains to this day. It is hardly in the American narrative tradition. So if I major in American narrative film, I also have a strong minor in arthouse cinema.
There are I think two issues here. One is the degree of interest I have in films of other cultures. David was suggesting in his comments that I was not getting the Thai cultural elements of Uncle Boonmee. That may be true, but one of the reasons I like films from other countries is that they educate us about the culture of those countries. If you will go down the list of films I have dealt with in this column over the last three years, you will find a lot of foreign films that I have liked, and liked specifically because of those cultural elements. Look at my comments on, just to name a few, Departures (US#29), The Secret in Their Eyes (US#46) and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (US#47).
The second issue is one of what might perhaps be called tone. I have always thought that if I had a motto to go on a family crest, it would be “Serious, but not Solemn.” I love movies and I take them seriously, but I try my damnedest to avoid the kind of pontificating that a lot of people get into. Just to take another whack at the East Coast Intellectual Establishment, I suspect that solemnity in dealing with foreign films comes from that disdain the Establishment had for years toward Hollywood. The reviews of Hollywood films could be frivolous because the films were frivolous, but one had to take foreign films seriously because they were Art. Well, now we know that Hollywood films can be serious as well, but we have not yet come to recognize that sometimes the foreign emperors have very little clothes, if any at all. I tend to take the same tone for both American and foreign films, and I can see why that bothers devotees of the arthouse circuit.
“Samm” raised the old question of me just reviewing films and not promoting “understanding” of screenwriting. As I have mentioned before, I am not a great believer in grand theories of screenwriting. You can get those anywhere. What I try to do in this column is help you understand screenwriting by looking at how it works—or doesn’t—in actual practice. It is only one of many ways one can “understand” screenwriting, but I think it is a valuable one. Samm then added that “from the screenwriting perspective, all these movies are more or less the same,” which sounds suspiciously like the fellow a few months ago who kept insisting that all movies are the Hero’s Journey. From the screenwriting perspective, movies are not all alike, and if you really want to understand screenwriting, you will be looking for the ways they are different, rather than the same.
Having said all of that, on to this column’s haul of goodies, in which you will find many of the issues I just discussed coming to play.
Certified Copy (2010. Written by Abbas Kiarostami. 106 minutes.)
A shaggy dog story. Really. Really?: We think we know right where we are when the movie starts. We are in a copy of Before Sunset (2004). We are in a European country, an English-speaking author is about to talk about his book, a beautiful woman comes in to hear him, and eventually they go off together to walk about the countryside. Except we quickly realize it’s not Before Sunset. It’s not a sequel. We don’t know whether the woman knows the man, as we do in Sunset. She seems to be paying more attention to the teenage boy she brought with her, and she eventually leaves before the man stops talking. And he’s not filling us in on what happened in the first movie, because there is no first movie here. Instead he is talking about the subject of his book, how copies of art works can be just as moving and provide as great an experience as the original. Well, how well did you like Before Sunset, which was, after all, a sequel?
Before she leaves, “Elle,” which is how she is identified in the credits, gives her number to the moderator, and James, the author, shows up at her shop. She sells art, some of it real, some of it copies, which explains her interest in his book. And just like the writers of Before Sunset, Kiarostami is smart not to have them just sit around and chat. She takes him around Tuscany and they talk about art, people, etc. So far, so Before Sunset. One of the reasons I liked Before Sunset better than Before Sunrise (1995) is that Jesse and Celine are ten years older in the sequel and have more experience in life. Elle and James are well into their forties at least, definitely adults who talk like adults.
They stop at a small restaurant and while James steps out to take a cellphone call, the owner talks to Elle. The owner assumes Elle and James are married. Elle, who has had her ditzy moments (Juliette Binoche, running on all twelve cylinders), plays along. James (William Shimell, an opera singer in his first straight acting role, and holding his own against Binoche, no small feat) plays along too, when he finds out. So we have a copy of a relationship. But the deeper we get into the film, the more we suspect that maybe they are married, or were once, or at least met in Vienna, no, sorry, that last was Jesse and Celine. Or was it in Marienbad? Gosh, they argue like a real married couple. They seem like they have known each other, but then they seem like they haven’t.
Obviously the ending is going to be us finding out whether they are/were a real couple. But we don’t. See what I mean about it being a shaggy dog story?
Oh, speaking of screenwriting, the man of the couple they meet in a piazza in the best scene in the film is played by screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière. He wrote screenplays for, among others, Luis Buñuel. No wonder he seems right at home here.
Win Win (2011. Screenplay by Tom McCarthy, story by Tom McCarthy & Joe Tiboni. 106 minutes.)
“Shit” as a structural element: In the mid-‘90s I once suggested to the editor of Creative Screenwriting that someone should do an article on the opening scene of Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) and discuss how the word “fuck” is used as the organizing principle of the scene. Nobody rose to that bait, but you could do the same thing with the use of “shit” in the opening scene of Win Win. Look at the characters who say it and in what circumstances. McCarthy, whose previous credits as a writer-director include The Station Agent (2003) and The Visitor (2007), very nicely lays out the main characters. Mike is a lawyer who is not making a lot of money these days (who is?), Jackie is his acerbic but loving wife, and he has a couple of kids, one of whom gets to start the “shit” parade. They are all fresh characters we haven’t seen before. Mike deals with a few clients and a boiler in the basement of his office that is about to die. One of his clients is Leo, a nice old guy falling into dementia. We know Mike is a nice guy when he agrees to act as guardian for Leon. But we also know he is doing it for the $1500 the state pays him to do it. So Mike slips Leon into a very nice retirement home, using Leo’s money and pocking the $1500. Leo has a daughter, but nobody can find her. Who will ever know?
Guess who shows up on Mike’s doorstep? Nope, not the daughter, but Kyle, Leo’s grandson. He’s got no place else to stay, so Jackie insists he stay with them. Mike also is an amateur coach for the high school wrestling team. Guess who used to be a wrestler back in Ohio? Who nearly won the state championship. Mike enrolls him in the high school, puts him on the team. Happy ending all around. Not so fast. The shit hasn’t stopped flying yet.
Guess who shows up on Mike’s doorstep? Right this time: Leo’s daughter Cindy, fresh off her last stint in rehab. She would be happy to take over Leo’s guardianship because she would love to have his money, even just the $1500 guardianship fee. She seems to care for her dad, but she is a druggie after all. And she really gets pissed when she learns that Leo had not included her in his will. She brings along a lawyer, Eleanor, and the lawyer discovers that Mike is taking the guardianship fee illegally. I thought Mike was really in deep stuff here, especially since Eleanor is played by Margo Martindale, the spectacularly evil Mags Bennett on Justified. But she has no poison moonshine for Mike. He proposes a deal that would let Cindy take Leo back to Ohio but with only the guardianship fee and without Kyle. Cindy says no dice.
Cindy shows up for the regional wrestling match. Obviously there is going to be a tearful reunion between Kyle and Cindy, the end, fade out. Guess again. Kyle is so distracted by Cindy, he loses the match big time. So a final showdown between them all is set up in court. Except Cindy tells Mike in the hallway she’ll take his original deal offer, which we have almost forgotten by now. The deal scene seemed like just a step towards the big showdown, and we don’t get it. It’s like Star Wars ending without the Death Star blowing up. Don’t promise the audience what you are not going to deliver.
I think that McCarthy probably liked his main characters a little too much and didn’t want too much bad shit to happen to them, but he should have taken his cue from Billy Wilder. Wilder was a master of “what’s the worst that can happen to these characters?” Two straight guys dress up as women to join an all-girls band. What’s the worst that can happen? One guy falls in love with a girl in the band, the other guy has a rich old geezer fall in love with him. Here McCarthy lets everybody off the hook, which leads to a sappy coda that feels like it was imposed by Louis B. Mayer on a really bad day. Mike and Jackie and the kids are all happy. Kyle is staying with them and is buddies with one of the guys from the wrestling team. Mike still has his law firm, but does have to make a little extra as a bartender at night. Oh, the suffering humanity of it.
My recommendation is you see the movie for the great scenes with the great actors (Paul Giamatti as Mike, Amy Reynolds as Jackie, Melanie Lynskey in a wonderfully edgy turn as Cindy, Martindale, and Jeffrey Tambor and Bobby Cannavale as two of Mike’s friends), then leave when Cindy accepts the deal. Don’t blame me if you stay and the final sequence puts you in a diabetic coma.
Potiche (2010. Screenplay adaptation by François Ozon from a play by Pierre Barillet & Jean-Pierre Grédy. 103 minutes.)
Pop quiz: Who are Barillet & Grédy?: Well, if you were paying close attention in the item on Just Go With It in US#71, you would remember they are the French guys who wrote the play that that film was based on. Loosely based on at best. This film is based on a play they wrote in 1980, and Ozon, working with Barillet, has kept it very much in the period in which the play was set. Barillet plays a small part in the film; between this and Carrière in Certified Copy maybe putting screenwriters in small parts is a new trend in French cinema: making up for all the years of the auteur theory by showcasing screenwriters. Well, a boy can dream, can’t he?
It is 1977 and Suzanne Pujol, another of B&G’s women of a certain age, is the potiche or “trophy wife” of Robert Pujol. Remember how I mentioned in the item on Just Go With It that Jennifer Aniston is in her forties and looks like she’s in her twenties? Well, the French don’t fool around with children like that. Suzanne is at least in her fifties and looks it. Or rather she looks like Catherine Deneuve, who is actually 67 and looks like, well, Catherine Deneuve. Robert runs the umbrella factor that Suzanne’s father established. He’s a right-wing stuffed shirt, played by the French master of stuffed shirts, Fabrice Luchini. After establishing that Suzanne, in her beautiful sweatsuit, communes with nature, the film takes off with Robert having a heart attack just as the workers go on strike. My gosh, are the B&G, the masters of boulevard farce, turning political? Yes they are, and bringing the same comedic craft to the issue of women’s liberation. Suzanne takes over the factory, runs it better than Robert does, and re-connects with an old-left wing politician, Maurice Babin, she once had a fling with. He helps her run the plant and takes her to the Badaboom Club where her husband used to sneak off to see the hookers. Which naturally leads us to Deneuve and Gérard Depardieu (well, who else would you get for Babin?) doing a great disco number. Which fits beautifully into the story. The level of craft of the writing and acting by a first team of French actors is impeccable.
Needless to say, Robert is upset when he realizes what has happened, and with the help of his right wing daughter, kicks Suzanne out of the company. Suzanne seriously considers divorcing Robert. End of story. Not alas, the end of the movie. We are about 80 minutes into the film and it drags on another 23 minutes. Everything that was fast and funny sags. The jokes about male chauvinism become obvious as Suzanne runs for political office, which pits her more against Babin than with him, which does not make sense in story terms. The scenes here are not sharply drawn, as if everybody gave up and said let’s let Deneuve save it all with her charm. It does not work, and when she wins the election, the big musical number, unlike the earlier disco scene, seems tacked on. I can’t help but wondering if the original play stopped at the stage equivalent of the 80-minute mark.
The Lincoln Lawyer (2011. Screenplay by John Roman, based on the novel by Michael Connelly. 118 minutes.)
I Confess done right: My wife is a big fan of Michael Connelly’s crime novels, and liked the novel of this film. Connelly is trying out a new character, a hustling lawyer named Mick Haller who does business out of his car. Yes, we have seen a lot of hustling lawyers, especially in David E. Kelley’s shows, but Mick is fun to watch. In the opening scenes we get a quick succession of cases which we assume are just exposition to tell us about Mick, but all of them come back to play in the main storyline. Mick is called upon to defend a rich young man, Louis Roulet, who is accused of beating up a woman. Roulet swears he is innocent, but the evidence piles up against him. Then the plot twists begin an hour into the film and Mick is faced with a problem: he knows Roulet is guilty. How does he know? Because Roulet tells him. And Mick has a legal obligation to his client not to tell anyone. Even worse, there is growing evidence that Roulet also committed a similar crime that one of Mick’s other clients was convicted of.
I liked the film, although I am not sure it is a great legal thriller. But the day after I saw it, I realized Connelly and Romano have done something I have been waiting 50 years for somebody to do: remake I Confess (1953) and do it right. I Confess has always been my exhibit A of the idea of remaking a flop instead of a hit and getting it right. The plot is that a man confesses he has murdered someone to a Catholic priest. The priest of course is bound by the rules of the confessional and cannot tell. Even when he later becomes the chief suspect. It’s a great idea for a film, but I would guess the 1902 play it is based on (Nos Deux Consciences by Paul Bourde, writing as “Paul Anthelme”) as well as the screenplay by George Tabori and William Archibald (and other uncredited writers) have the same problem: the priest does not do anything. He sits around looking longsuffering, like the Christian martyr he is supposed to be. That may be religiously right, but it is dramatically dull. Mick Haller does stuff. He (and Connelly and Romano) are very inventive as to how Mick skirts the legal niceties and makes it all work out in the end. I’ll let you see for yourself how they do that.
White Savage (1943. Screenplay by Richard Brooks, story by Peter Milne. 75 minutes.)
Richard Brooks?!!: Yes, the writer-director of The Blackboard Jungle (1955), Elmer Gantry (1960), and In Cold Blood (1967) had to start somewhere. He had worked as a journalist and done radio dramas when he got into screenwriting in the early ‘40s. White Savage was his first job, although it was released after a couple of other movies he worked on. Brooks told Pat McGilligan in Backstory 2: Interviews with Screenwriters of the 1940s and 1950s that he worked on it for eight days. I can believe it.
Universal had been making movies in black and white and decided to try color, so the idea was to be as flashy as possible. The story is about Kaloe, a shark hunter who wants to get permission from Princess Tahia of Temple Island to fish in the island waters. They fall in love, of course, and deal with Miller, the crooked businessman on the main island. Miller wants to steal the gold inlays from the Princess’s swimming pool. Needless to say, the sea God Taroaro (I can’t vouch for the spelling of his name) sends an earthquake to kill Miller. All of this in eye-popping color, I mean seriously EYE-POPPING TECHNICOLOR. Universal put together a cast of most of the “exotic” actors in Hollywood. Kaloe is Jon Hall, of the 1937 version of The Hurricane. The daughter of a Tahitian woman, Hall jumped back and forth between white and ethnic parts. It’s hard to tell what he is supposed to be here. The Princess is Maria Montez, the daughter of a Spanish diplomat born in the Dominican Republic. Her brother is Turhan Bey, an Austrian who played almost everything but an Austrian in his film career. Kaloe’s friend is Robert Flaherty’s Indian discovery Sabu. And Mr. Wong is played by the white actor Sidney Toler, but here in the same makeup and accent he used as Charlie Chan.
Are you beginning to get an idea of how frivolous this movie is? So is there anything in the script that would give us a hint as to where Richard Brooks was headed? Surprisingly, yes. The opening sequence has a fisherman run through the port village on the Universal backlot to talk to Miller. The fisherman wants to make a deal for the gold. Miller listens, then kills him. Miller already knows about the gold and is just waiting for the right time to take it. He also has hopes to take the Princess as well. Later on there is a very Brooksian poker game between Miller, the brother and Kaloe. Miller has his cook prepare a double-decker sandwich with several spare aces on the second deck. Does Kaloe realize it? Maybe. At the end of the game, just before Miller is going to slip the aces into his hand, Kaloe stabs his knife into the sandwich, divides it in half, and takes a half before leaving. A cohort of Miller’s then says to him, “There was something poison in the sandwich, Sam.” That’s the Brooks we know and love. The rest of the film is beyond camp, and in the middle of World War II its escapism made it a huge hit. Brooks wrote another Montez film, Cobra Woman (1944), but by then he was fed up with the all the geographical, cultural and logical inaccuracies. Temple Island is somewhere in the Pacific (the map in the opening credits is one of the most ridiculous things in the movie), and it has lions on it. Brooks gave up and joined the Marines to fight in the Pacific.
Key Largo (1948. Screenplay by Richard Brooks and John Huston, based on the play by Maxwell Anderson. 100 minutes.)
Now that’s better: Brooks came back to Hollywood after the war and got back into screenwriting. He and Huston met and worked together on this script. Brooks did most of the writing, with Huston pushing him to dig deeper into the characters. The script is nominally based on a 1939 play by Anderson that only ran 104 performances. Anderson, who had an interest in grand historical subjects (see the item on The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex  in US#19), tried to write this modern play in blank verse. None of that survives in the film. In the play, the main character is a deserter from the Spanish Civil War, who protects a family of a true war hero in the Florida Keys. Huston hated the story (and Anderson), so he and Brooks went off to the Keys. Huston went out fishing every day while Brooks wrote. The main character, now called Frank McCloud, is a World War II veteran, and he was at the battle of San Pietro, which was the subject for Huston’s great war documentary. He also seems to be suffering a little bit emotionally, which may come from Huston’s other documentary about the treatment of soldiers with combat fatigue, Let There be Light (1946). The characters are all tougher than I suspect they were in Anderson’s original play, and this being a Huston movie, we watch them sweat, both literally and figuratively. Sam Miller in White Savage is played by Thomas Gomez. He is the most Brooksian character in that film, and Gomez shows up here as one of the gangster’s henchman. He is much more in his element in this film than in the earlier one, as is Brooks. Huston not only let Brooks take top billing on the script, but insisted he stick around during production so he could learn how movies actually get made. Huston was preparing Brooks to be a director, which he became two years later with Crisis.
The reason I happened to see these two Brooks films is that the UCLA Film Archives is running a retrospective of Brooks’s films in April and May. I take it as a good sign that they are not only showing the ones he directed, but the ones he “just” wrote. The film series is also being done in connection with a new book about Brooks. It is called Tough as Nails: The Life and Films of Richard Brooks, and the author is Douglass K. Daniel. I won’t have time to read it until this summer, but I will let you know more about it when I do.
The Starter Screenplay (2010. Book by Adam Levenberg. 236 pages.)
The voice of experience: This entertaining and informative little book, currently published by Capable Media, came to my attention last fall and I have been meaning to mention it in a column. Levenberg worked for years as an executive in the development system in Hollywood, and his book is a compilation of the wisdom, if you want to call it that, which he built up reading bad screenplay after bad screenplay. There is absolutely nothing theoretical about this book. It is very, very practical. That is, if you want to write screenplays Hollywood readers will tell their bosses they ought to look at. Readers are, after all, the system’s first line of defense you have to break through. I am still amazed that young male writers still write the character of the Girl as a stripper or hooker or both, not realizing that at least half if not more of the readers in Hollywood are women. If all you want to do is write low-budget art films, you still might want to look at this and see why even more art-house indies than Hollywood films fail.
Levenberg’s idea of a Starter Screenplay is a simple script that will call attention to the writer by giving what he calls “moments of value”: something flashy, like Bruce Willis throwing a dead body out the window in Die Hard (1989). But he also warns about what not to write. His list of no-nos include: no biopics, no musicals, no Hollywood satires, no struggling writers or actors as heroes, and the list goes on. He says to limit yourself to one hero. I am not sure I agree with him when he says your hero should be an extrovert, but he makes a reasonable case. I would put it a different way: your hero had better do something, not just sit around sucking his thumb, or being a martyr like the priest in I Confess. See Mick Haller in The Lincoln Lawyer for one example of how to do it.
You can email Levenberg at [email protected] for more information and to buy a copy if you feel so inclined. If you buy a copy, he’ll autograph it for you.
The Escort (2011. Stage Play by Jane Anderson. 150 minutes.)
Sex on stage: When I write about a stage play in this column, it is usually because there is a specific film connection. See my comments on 9 to 5 in US#8 and Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps in US#47. This play, premiering at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood, has no direct connection with film. The indirect connection is the playwright, Jane Anderson. Like many playwrights these days, she goes back and forth between theater and television. That’s not as precedent-setting as you might think. During the ‘30s through the ‘60s, the attitude in the East Coast Intellectual Establishment was that whenever a writer of plays or novels or short stories went west to work in the fleshpots of Hollywood, he or she was lost to civilization, i.e., the New York theater, forever. What is becoming more apparent as the careers of classic screenwriters are written about is that this was never truly the case. One of the best recent (2001) screenwriter biographies is The Real Nick and Nora by David L. Goodrich. He is the nephew of Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, and the book shows how Goodrich and Hackett moved very easily between New York and Hollywood. They wrote The Thin Man movies, the 1946 It’s a Wonderful Life (which they hated, by the way), and then returned to New York to write the stage adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank.
Jane Anderson’s stage credits include The Quality of Life, The Baby Dance and Looking for Normal. She adapted the latter in the HBO film Normal, which she also directed. My favorite of her scripts is HBO’s The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader Murdering Mom. So she thinks in both theater and film terms, and she decided to do The Escort as a stage play. You can see why. The play follows the relationship between Rhona, a middle-aged gynocologist, and Charlotte, a very high-end call girl. Rhona is intrigued by Charlotte’s life, and even lets Charlotte set her up with Matthew, a male escort friend of hers. That does not go as well as it might. Rhona also has an ex-husband, a urologist she sends Charlotte to, and a teenage son who is not only doing his homework on his computer. What makes it work as a stage play is that we are constantly getting the attitudes of these characters and how they change. Anderson is not afraid of long dialogue scenes, longer than you might want to let run on film. What she nails beautifully is how everybody’s attitudes about sex, including Charlotte’s, are constantly changing. As a result, our attitudes about the characters keep changing as well, especially in the longer scenes, such as Charlotte and Rhona at lunch in a museum, or Rhona and Matthew.
A couple of nights before we saw The Escort my wife and I saw God of Carnage, which is now playing in Los Angeles with its great original cast (Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, James Gandolfini and Marcia Gay Harden). The play is more a theater piece than a play, but wonderfully funny, especially with that cast. We did not laugh as much at The Escort, but I think it is a better play. It gets deeper into character and attitudes than Carnage does, and provides equally great roles of the four actors: Polly Draper as Rhona (although she was a bit too soft-spoken the night we saw her), James Eckhouse as her ex, Gabriel Sunday as both her son and the escort, and especially Maggie Siff (Rachel Menken on Mad Men) as Charlotte.
I would guess the play will eventually get to New York and I recommend it. Would it ever be a movie, even for HBO? I thought not as I was watching it. One of the great theatrical touches is that there is no actual nudity (Charlotte has a great opening monologue explaining why) but nude body stockings. That would look silly on film. But on film you could frame the shots so you would not need to do that. The longer scenes might work as well.
Another thing. Writers are not the only ones who move easily between theater, television, and film. Look at that list of actors in both The Escort and God of Carnage. My guess is you can reel off more of their TV credits than their film or theater credits.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
Review: Cassandro, the Exotico! Shoulders the Strange Burden of Empathy
Marie Losier’s empathy, if not love, for Cassandro hinders her from examining his wounds with much depth.2.5
Queerness isn’t just about the relationship between bodies: the ones we desire, the ones that will never desire us back, the ones we wished we possessed. It’s also very much a matter of cloth, color, and adornment. Many a pop-cultural figure has manifested this queer sartorial drama, from Liberace to David Bowie, from Leigh Bowery to early Lady Gaga, from Pepper LaBeija to Shangela Laquifa Wadley. And with her new documentary, Cassandro, the Exotico!, Marie Losier introduces us to a lesser-known, yet just as subversive, purveyor of that drama: Mexican luchador Cassandro, a Universal Wrestling Association winner and former junkie with a penchant for gaudy garments.
Ridiculous stage wear is, of course, fundamentally associated with professional wrestling, but Cassandro’s textile-informed camp isn’t compensated by violent machismo or a heterosexist mise-en-scène. Instead, this exótico is unapologetic about the seamless kinship between his queerness and that of the clothes he wears. And the continuum between queer sexuality and fashion places him simultaneously as the exceptional gay figure in a supposedly macho sport, the Mexican lucha libre, and as the element that outs wrestling writ large as an already queer affair. Cassandro, né Saúl Armendáriz, is, then, a ready-made cinematic character, bearing the contradictions of his world from the inside—a world where, much like ours, heterosexual male violence is performed through patently homoerotic means.
Although skin, bones, and fabric are all—to various degrees of visible and invisible discomfort—stitched into the gendered body, the film is precisely concerned with the moment when these connections come apart at the seams. After decades of fighting for a living, Cassandro’s body is giving out. This is a moment of desperation for someone who turned to wrestling as something between religion and therapy. We see him literally hanging his flamboyant costumes to dry on a clotheslines as he speaks about retirement, about how quitting would appease his body but demolish his ego. As the film progresses, his dislocated chin, limited hand movements, and multiple head concussions will seem like the belated embodiment, if not the psychosomatic scream, of a childhood marked by molestation and sexual abuse. A history of spectacular violence catching up to years of a much less visible brutality.
Cassandro, the Exotico! is largely observational, with occasional interventions from Losier. It wouldn’t be fair to call the film hagiographic, but the director’s empathy, if not love, for her subject hinders her from examining Cassandro’s wounds with much depth. When faced with Cassandro’s misery, Losier’s response is to console him as if wanting to change the subject. She cuts one moment of candidness short, when Cassandro is addressing his fears via Skype, by telling him, “I wish I could give you a kiss.” It would have served the documentary better had Losier granted her subject the possibility to work through his pain in front of the camera.
Visually, the documentary, which is shot on 16mm film stock, recalls canonical diaristic works that expose people’s troublesome feelings in raw and unbridled fashion (think Jonas Mekas, Sadie Benning, and Su Friedrich). Which makes the juxtaposition of Losier’s visual language and her reluctance to examine Cassandro’s frailties feel particularly displeasing. Perhaps afraid that scrutiny would shatter Cassandro, Losier fails to realize that it’s precisely through such shattering that redemption can emerge, maybe even reparation.
Director: Marie Losier Screenwriter: Marie Losier, Antoine Barraud Distributor: Film Movement Running Time: 73 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
Interview: Marc Maron on Sword of Truth, WTF, and the Possibility of Change
Maron discusses modern media discourse, the communicative bridge linking his acting with his podcast, and how he likes to be directed.
Marc Maron is presently enjoying one of the most unlikely and inspiring success stories in Hollywood. Once known as a bitter “comic’s comic” who was eclipsed in success by contemporaries such as Louis C.K. and Jon Stewart, Maron has been reborn into a poster boy for empathy, starting with his blockbuster podcast, “WTF,” and continuing with roles in the hit television series Maron, Easy, and GLOW. With each role, Maron has rapidly evolved from a “comic who acts” into a first-rate character actor capable of subtly altering his charisma to fit a variety of oddballs who, like himself, struggle with self-doubt while attempting to walk a straight and sober path.
Now, with Sword of Truth, Maron makes his debut as a cinematic lead, playing Mel, a pawnshop owner who ends up on a road trip that stirs long-festering feelings of estrangement, which parallels the forms of isolation gripping a variety of other characters, and which the film’s director, Lynn Shelton, links to the reactionary myths and politics currently gripping this country. The role marks another career high point for Maron, who talked to me last week about the communicative bridge linking his acting with his podcast, how he likes to be directed, and the “mind-fuckery” currently gripping modern media discourse.
Given that you’ve previously worked with Lynn Shelton on Maron and GLOW, did you two have a kind of collaborative shorthand going into Sword of Trust?
Well, I’m generally filled with anxiety and resistance. I don’t know if there’s a shorthand, but Lynn knows how to get the best out of me and works with me pretty well. I like directors who’re hands on with me and guide me.
Do you like to receive a lot of explicit direction, or is your process more intuitive?
Well, I do what I do. I definitely welcome suggestions, because I’m certainly not going to think of all the possibilities of a scene. Most of my choices are not necessarily correct. I usually come in pretty intense and hot, and there’s subtleties that can be coaxed out with minor tweaks. And I like working like that. I wouldn’t have the confidence to assume that my take is the “right” one necessarily.
There’s a stillness to you in Sword of Trust that I’m not sure we’ve seen before.
Your weight as a performer is really felt here, especially in that scene when Mel first see Lynn’s character in his shop. I love how you enter the room from the closet, and how one can feel the emotion bubbling up in Mel.
Thanks, man. I think this is a heavy-hearted guy who’s sort of surrendered to his lot in life. He also has a certain amount invested in his own. I don’t know if it’s heartache, but he’s definitely a broken dude who’s making the best of whatever time he has left. I don’t know if the other characters are really like that. They are always in forward motion.
You also inform Mel’s appraising of objects with all these lovely emotional textures. He’s not only talking about a sword.
The guitar too. As I act more, I try to take some of the space that you’re talking about. With acting I feel that I’ve been learning on the job in a way, and over time I’ve started to explore different possibilities with owning whatever my space is, whether it’s a movie or on stage. Certainly, over decades of doing stand-up, I’ve figured out my space on a stage, but being on a set and pacing yourself and taking the time to engage with what’s around you I think makes a lot of difference in how a performance comes off. It’s about being present in an environment.
Has your ascending acting career changed how you relate to actors on your podcast?
Over the last few years, since I’ve started acting more, I’ve had more actors on. I tend to try to pull a nice acting class out of that. I think a lot of what my guests say makes sense. Once again, a lot of acting is about listening and being present. In another time in my life, I saw certain actors as mythic. Now that I’ve talked to so many of them, I’ve started to realize, not in a disappointing way, that…what’s the word I want? That these are people doing a job, all in their own way. Once you get upset with people, you realize, “Well, that’s how they’re approaching this job,” and when you get into the ring or the scene, you’re in it.
That inside knowledge gives “WTF” an edge too. For many interviewers, like myself, art-making is basically theory. But you have your feet on the ground so to speak.
I think that happens over time. I don’t think I ever set out to interview. I’ve framed what happens on my podcast as conversations, and they either go somewhere or they don’t. There’s a few points I may get hung up on, and there are places I go to fairly regularly in interviews, but I generally don’t see these conversations as question-and-answer situations. I don’t have any expectations really other than to feel a connection or to sort of be enlightened. I think those of you who have a job to interview, for an outlet, for the content and the word count and everything else, might have more restrictions. I don’t have to answer to anybody and I don’t know what I’m looking for half the time.
Yeah, and a challenge I’ve found with interviews is that one doesn’t always entirely know what is and isn’t in bounds, which can lead to an impersonal vibe. By contrast, your podcast has such an intimate layer throughout.
You have to feel that stuff out, you know I’m not necessarily intuitive about that. I’m not really in the business of sandbagging anybody.
Usually you get somebody comfortable and things come out. If people are comfortable and engaged it doesn’t really matter what they’re talking about. Audiences will say, “Oh, wow, I didn’t know that.” These conversations don’t require information, but an emotional connection. I’m so happy about that, especially considering the never-ending torrent of garbage that we have to move through every day.
I think about politics. Politics online are rarely civil, but when you get someone in person, and start slowly, and are willing to have a conversation, you can normally get farther than you might expect.
Online culture isn’t civil and there’s a momentum to everything that’s based on mind-fuckery. I know for myself—as somebody who was relatively disinterested and uninformed about the functions of government and why politics and leadership make a difference—that people are perfectly willing to volunteer their brains to these strange flashpoint reactors that trigger them emotionally. People live by these black-and-white decisions. It’s not good. We need to consider what we really know and how we know it and what we’re telling other people.
People are so empowered by garbage information that’s being related in a relatively shallow way, which doesn’t take into consideration the influence and context of the rest of our lives. It’s sort of a disaster. I try to stay away from that stuff in terms of the conversations that I’m having. I’m trying to deal with something more human and experiential. Most people are regurgitating talking points on both sides without thinking of how someone feels and how to affect change. I got an interview with Geena Davis [who stars in the new season of GLOW] coming up, about her work with her foundation and her work in this documentary about women in show business. It’s called This Changes Everything. I tell you man, when someone’s that personally invested in something they believe in, and it’s righteous, and they lay it out for you and it makes sense, that’s what heartens my belief in this possibility for change.
To change gears a bit, is it cathartic for you, as someone who’s long been in recovery, to play characters who’re either reformed or have drug issues?
Yeah, sure. Most obviously there’s the last season of Maron, where my character has a relapse, which frankly didn’t happen in real life. When you really understand the nature of addiction, and you’ve seen it from the inside, and know the powerlessness and the struggle to live a life that’s not in the throes of it—I mean, it’s such a common struggle. And what’s amazing to me is how many people don’t find a way out of that or don’t seek help. Or are ashamed of it or don’t know how to get the help. I never set out to do this, but I’m thrilled and humbled by the effect my work has on people who’re isolated by this sickness. It’s really one of the more satisfying results of the podcast: how much mail I get from people who’re struggling and who want advice, or who feel less alone from what I’ve said. The great thing about recovery, and about playing these parts, is that it gives you a context that’s very specific—a way to legitimately help people that can change their entire lives.
American Demons: Martin Bell’s Streetwise and Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell
Bell proves uncannily adept at capturing moments that seem to encapsulate a subject’s entire emotional temperature.
Decades after its original release, Martin Bell’s Streetwise remains a boldly empathetic work of vérité portraiture. Throughout the 1984 documentary, Bell, photographer Mary Ellen Mark, and journalist Cheryl McCall follow a motley group of kids on the streets of Seattle as they panhandle, dig food out of dumpsters, and prostitute themselves to much older men. These scenes are accompanied by voiceovers from the young subjects, who describe their actions with a heartbreaking casualness that communicates two almost contradictory meanings: that they’re seasoned hustlers, having bypassed childhood for an everyday form of hell, and that they’re desperate to be seen precisely as said hustlers. To show emotion is to be vulnerable, and these subjects can’t afford to be seen as weak, yet the filmmakers capture more here than the street children may have suspected. Streetwise is charged by a deep, subterranean yearning to be loved, or even merely felt.
A plot hasn’t been imposed on Streetwise, as the audience is allowed to feel the numbing monotony of life on the fringes. People swing in and out of prison, crash in and out of secret hovels, most notably an abandoned hotel, and practice their grifts, while struggling with overlapping tides of addiction and depression. We also learn, startlingly, that not all these children are homeless. Streetwise’s most famous subject, Erin Blackwell, a.k.a. “Tiny,” lives with her mother, a waitress and alcoholic who rationalizes her daughter’s prostitution as a phase and who seems to be impressed with Erin’s ability to make a few hundred dollars on a good day. It’s little wonder that Erin captured and continued to command the filmmakers’ attention for decades after filming Streetwise ended. She has a squinty yet expressive glare that suggests both a deep reservoir of pain as well as intense fierceness.
Bell, Mark, and McCall take Erin and her cohorts, most vividly a skinny boy with potential tonsillitis named DeWayne Pomeroy, at face value. Streetwise is pointedly devoid of the sermonizing that might allow audiences to comfortably distance themselves from these people, regarding them simply as elements of a civics lesson. The film forces us to confront the obviousness of these children’s circumstances, as people walk by them just as we all walk by the homeless on a daily basis. This sense of culpability informs Streetwise with an uncomfortable texture that’s familiar to documentaries concerned with poor or mentally and emotionally challenged people, so you may wonder how the filmmakers shot what we’re seeing without stepping in and helping these people. Particularly disturbing is when Erin, 13 years old at the start of filming, is seen getting into a car with an old man who’s obviously a john.
If Streetwise was just a portrait of damnation and delusion, it would be an important document. But the film is also haunting for Bell, Mark, and McCall’s attention to the transcendence than can be felt even in such extreme circumstances. After Erin has gotten into trouble, DeWayne tells her of how he will rescue her, and his attempt at gallantry is poignant as well as devastating. When DeWayne visits his father in prison, the old man lectures the boy about keeping his smoking down and laying off the hard drugs, commanding DeWayne to roll up his shirt sleeves for a track-mark inspection. As brutally sad as this confrontation is, one feels this father’s love and wonders if DeWayne, clearly a sensitive and lonely boy, can feel it too. Retrospectively, it hardly matters: DeWayne hung himself not long after this visit.
Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell, a 2016 sequel to Streetwise that’s been in the works for thirtysomething years, offers a variety of unmooring contrasts from its predecessor. Erin is no longer the slim spitfire of Streetwise, but an overweight fortysomething mother of 10 who understandably appears to always be on the verge of exhaustion, and who takes methadone in an attempt to keep her drug addictions at bay while wrangling with her children’s own skirmishes with the law. Looking at Erin now, one sees the scars and weariness left by a hard life, part of which was documented by Streetwise, and one can implicitly feel Erin’s need for atonement. Though Erin’s gotten off the streets, living in a large home with her partner, Will, and several of her children, the streets have never left her.
Formally, Tiny is much different from Streetwise. The 1984 film abounds in seamy noises and textures, with roving camerawork that seems to be uncovering a new lurid discovery every few seconds; it feels palpably dangerous, and probably inspired films such as Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho and Larry’s Clark’s Kids. Set predominantly in Erin’s home, Tiny is slower and more polished, reflecting the (comparative) stability that Erin has achieved since appearing in Streetwise. Tiny also has a fancier structure than Streetwise, with a framing device in which Erin watches footage of herself over the years, including unused outtakes from the first film, with Mary Ellen Mark. An autumnal tone seeps into the new film, which offers a kaleidoscopic portrait of the unending legacies of crime and addiction.
As in Streetwise, Bell proves uncannily adept at capturing moments that seem to encapsulate a subject’s entire emotional temperature. There are frequent shots in Tiny of Erin sleeping with a little dog close to her face, which suggest rare moments of repose for a woman who’s used to running her chaotic family like a hostage negotiator. Erin frequently calls the cops on her own children, especially the headstrong teenager Rayshon, which Bell unforgettably rhymes with footage of a younger Erin visiting two of her children in foster care. One of the foster care children, Keanna, is now a mother herself, and resents Erin for abandoning her and for continuing to struggle with drug use.
Which is to say that Tiny is as charged with turmoil as Streetwise, and Bell proves equally capable here of rendering full relationships with only a few images or seconds of running time. As in Streetwise, our sympathies are rarely overtly directed, as Tiny is somehow on every character’s contradictory wavelength at once, illustrating how difficult understanding can be to achieve, most notably in the face of disaster. Though it runs a trim 87 minutes, Tiny offers an epic and piercing portrait of a large biracial family that’s plagued by essentially every demon known to American society. Erin escaped the streets only to fashion a home that’s rife with the very issues that drove her away from her own mother. Like most people, regardless of social stature, Erin is stuck in the temporal loop of her own inherent nature.
Review: Radu Jude’s I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians
Jude’s film is a bitterly comic essay on nationalist mythologies and historical amnesia.3.5
Prime minister of Romania during most of World War II, Ion Antonescu is one of the era’s supreme villains: a virulent anti-Semite, Nazi collaborator, and authoritarian dictator whose troops murdered Jews with such velocity and enthusiasm that even Hitler was shocked by their actions. Upon ordering the forced expulsion—and, if necessary, genocide—of the Jews of Bessarabia and Bukovina, Antonescu proclaimed, “I do not care if we go down in history as Barbarians.” Radu Jude borrows that declaration, so haunting in its cruelty and disarming in its blitheness, for the title of his latest film, a bitterly comic essay on nationalist mythologies and historical amnesia that locates the seeds of Romania’s currently resurgent ethno-nationalism in the nation’s collective failure to truly confront its own past.
For while Antonescu was convicted of war crimes and sentenced to death by firing squad shortly after the war, there have been repeated attempts to rehabilitate his image in Romania since the fall of Nicolae Ceaușescu. Take Sergiu Nicolaescu’s 1994 film The Mirror, a hagiographic treatment of Antonescu’s rule that portrays the leader as a defiant protector of his people. Jude inserts a substantial clip of that film into I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians, having it play on a small TV set positioned in the exact center of the frame as we hear the off-screen voice of Jude’s protagonist, Mariana (Ioana Iacob), providing sardonic, outraged commentary on the film’s distorted presentation of Antonescu as a misunderstood hero. There’s an element of desperation in the scene: While Mariana offers an incontestable rebuttal, no one but her boyfriend (Alex Bogdan) is there to hear it. Meanwhile, The Mirror’s comforting nationalist lies are being beamed into homes all across Romania.
A headstrong theater director attempting to stage a public reenactment of the Odessa Massacre of 1941, in which Romanian troops slaughtered thousands of Ukrainian Jews, Mariana is obsessed with bringing the full weight of historical reality to her fellow countrymen. She obsessively reads histories of the period and drops quotations from philosophers and historical figures into everyday conversation. The film is consumed by lengthy, probing conversations—mostly shot by a statically mounted 16mm camera that pans back and forth to cover the actors’ movements—in which Mariana discusses art, philosophy, history, and politics with her various collaborators and friends.
Her most persistent interlocutor is Movilă (Alexandru Dabija), a local official tasked with overseeing the publicly funded production, who constantly pleads with Mariana to tone down her work’s unvarnished depiction of anti-Semitic violence. Movilă is a relativist, content in the knowledge that all memory is willfully selective, while Mariana truly believes in the power of stark historical truth. Though at times didactic and overloaded with quotations from the likes of Wittgenstein and Arendt, Jude’s dialogue nevertheless manages to feel remarkably naturalistic. That’s thanks in no small part to the powerfully unaffected performances of a cast that finds the subtle humor and neurotic character details embedded in Jude’s dense screenplay. Iacob captures Mariana’s unrelenting passion while also finding moments of vulnerability and self-doubt in the role, including moments of hesitation and anxiety borne of the fact that she’s a petite, cosmopolitan woman attempting to exert control over a large cast of rugged men, many of whom are diametrically opposed to the vision of her project.
Jude’s heavy themes are leavened by a self-effacing sense of modesty. Jude isn’t attempting to make grand pronouncements about the nature of memory and truth. Rather, I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians finds the director constantly interrogating his own perspective, questioning Mariana’s relationship to the wider public. That theme comes to a head in the film’s climactic presentation of the artist’s reenactment. Here, Jude switches from the warm dreaminess of 16mm to the harsh hyper-realism of digital video. The scene has the feel of a simple documentation of a live public event, but it isn’t clear that it’s actually any more “real” than the rest of the film. In particular, whether and to what extent the crowd of onlookers’ reactions are coached remains one of the film’s most intriguing enigmas.
Ultimately, Mariana finds herself perplexed and deflated by the public’s response to her work. One senses this reaction may be autobiographical for Jude, whose film Aferim! attempted to challenge Romanian audiences about the nation’s historical treatment of Roma people. As one of the few directors of the so-called Romanian New Wave whose work explores the country’s unsavory pre-Soviet past, Jude is swimming against the popular tide of revisionism and historical moral blindness. The anti-Semitic violence and hatred laid out in his latest is truly chilling, as is the contemporary tendency to diminish and obscure that dark past. But perhaps most disturbing of all is the idea put forth in the film’s conclusion: that one could present the truth to the public in all its brutality and horror, and it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.
Cast: Ioana Iacob, Alexandru Dabija, Alex Bogdan, Ilinca Manolache, Serban Pavlu, Ion Rizea, Claudia Ieremia Director: Radu Jude Screenwriter: Radu Jude Distributor: Big World Pictures Running Time: 140 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
Interview: Lynn Shelton on Honing Her Process for Sword of Trust
The filmmaker discusses how she wants viewers to feel like they’re paratrooping into her characters’ lives.
Lynn Shelton has amassed a formidable body of work between her eight features and countless television episodes. Her latest outing, the comic adventure Sword of Trust, represents her most topical work to date. After pawn shop owner Mel (played by Marc Maron) purchases an old sword, he gets plunged into world of conspiracy culture as the relic attracts legions of online prowlers convinced that the weapon represents proof that the Confederacy won the Civil War. The logline might be Shelton’s wildest yet, but the elements that have made her work indelible for over a decade remain intact: realistic conversations, emotional authenticity, and a commitment to multi-dimensional characters.
I chatted with Shelton on Sword of Trust’s opening day, which saw the director, writer, producer, editor, and occasional actress in great spirits. Our conversation covered her pursuit of Maron for this specific project, how she developed her unique script-development process, and why she wants viewers to feel like they’re paratrooping into her characters’ lives.
Last year on Marc Maron’s podcast, you mentioned that you liked exploring relationships between people who wouldn’t normally interact. Sword of Trust continues in that tradition for you. What keeps bringing you back to these dynamics?
Have you heard of this theory of multiple intelligences, like different types of intelligences we have? I can’t remember the names that [Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner] came up with, I think there’s eight. I know I’m not the brightest bulb on all of these scales, but one way that I think I’m pretty high is in emotional intelligence. I like to think I am, anyway. I’ve always been that close observer of human behavior. I also really love humans. I feel like the thing that makes humans human are their flaws. So, on screen, I don’t like to see people who are too smoothed out, all good or all bad. I’m interested in characters who are essentially good people, but they may be total fuck-ups and well-meaning who may sabotage themselves. Individual fucking up often happens in relation to other people. We may have a pre-determined need to connect to other people, but we’re constantly sabotaging ourselves.
Sometimes, like I said on the podcast, I’m much more interested in unlikely combinations of people because it’s not a prewritten script we’re handed. It’s not like, “This is who would be appropriate for you as a friend. This is the way you should act. This is the box we’ve already determined for you.” Any kind of out-of-the-box way of living one’s life or being surprised by a connection you feel to a human being, all those little happy accidents in life are the things I like to explore. To inspire people, not to just go through life in this sort of “this is what someone else had in mind for me, and I should follow that plan”—that feels very depressing to me. It’s more interesting to open your heart and your life up to other experiences.
To explore relationships in that way makes the everyday more interesting and exciting.
Yeah, exactly. It gives you a reason to stick around.
Having been a guest of Marc’s on his podcast twice, do you see any of his interviewer “persona” having an impact on the person you film on screen? Does training himself to listen and be present have any effect on making him a better screen partner?
Absolutely! The first time I directed Marc was on his TV show Maron, and I was so fascinated by his process. He’s raw and a really natural actor. He steps in front of the camera, and he’s looking at his scene partner and really knows how to listen and engage. A lot of that comes from sitting across from people and staring into their eyes. That’s why he’s such a good interviewer and has the top interview podcast, because he has a genuine conversation with people. And that’s all acting really is too. He also has this weird ability to let the camera and crew and other extraneous details just fade away for him, and a lot of people find all that really distracting and difficult to shut out. He doesn’t know where the camera is half the time. He said to me, “The next thing I want to do as an actor is figure out when the camera is on me.” I said, “What?! That camera’s right there!” He’s like, “I don’t see it. I’m not aware of it. I’m just in this scene with the person.” I’m like, “That is a gift, my friend. That is incredible that you’re able to not see the lights and craziness, just be in the scene.” He’s really able to do it. I think that definitely comes from that same skill set he’s drawing on.
Where does the genesis of your films occur? They usually have some kind of strong conceptual selling point or hook, but they’re often like a Trojan horse to get to deep conversations between the characters about something else.
It is, and the genesis of the vast majority of my films is an actor as a muse that I want to work with. Humpday was Mark Duplass, Outside In was his brother, Jay Duplass, this movie was Marc Maron, who I’ve been really wanting to make a movie with for three and a half years. Then there’s other things, like a territory I want to explore or an element I want to return to, like improvisation, which I haven’t done since Your Sister’s Sister. I’ve done several movies in between that have been scripted, but I wanted to allow myself a new genre. I knew I wanted to laugh because the last movie was a drama, and I was ready to laugh—and let myself really laugh by going into the outlandish and ridiculous, plot-wise. Go into some comedy-caper territory, which I’ve never let myself do before. I’ve been totally real in every moment, and this time I was like, “What if I have real characters who go to a crazy place?” I wanted to make a culturally relevant movie that didn’t make you want to slit your wrists. It referred to what was going on and some of the problematic elements of what we’re dealing with in society. We’re having this peak moment in conspiracy theories. They’ve always been around, but this is definitely where they’ve achieved a peak moment that I find very disturbing. So, it’s usually a territory I want to explore and an actor I want to work with.
How do you research or prepare to authentically treat conspiracy culture?
Well, there’s this thing called a computer and a thing called the internet, and boy, is it all in there! [laughs] We went down a rabbit hole with Mike O’Brien, my co-writer. It’s so fascinating because there’s little in-fighting. They really bonded over Pizzagate and the Twin Towers being an inside job, but then when it comes to hollow earth versus the earth is on fire, they’re at odds and frenemies for life. It’s insane, the shit you find.
How do you approach shooting improvisational dialogue? There’s a very naturalistic feel to it, but there are hardly any vocal fillers like “um” or “you know.”
Well, you get the right cast, so that really helps. I’ll tell you, you can do a lot in the editing room. You’ll see it on screen, there are these runs of incredible monologues. But if I’m cutting away to another actor for a reaction shot, it’s often because I’m slicing out an “um” or an “ah” or a little bauble. The edit room is the most redemptive place in the universe. It’s incredible what you can do and how you can carve out the right story. Especially with improvisation, it really is where the actual script is written. Our first cut—it didn’t feel fat, it was funny throughout—was two and a half hours long. I was like, “How am I going to cut out five to seven minutes, much less an hour?” And for me, a comedy has to be 90 minutes, so I knew I needed an hour out of there. It was like, “This is hysterical, this is gold, but it’s not serving the story. Ultimately, what is the story? It could be this, or it could include this, but let’s just hone it down to Mel’s emotional arc and make sure we can track it through the craziness.” We want to care about these people just enough and balance it. There was so much work in the edit room.
Sword of Trust is definitely a comedy, but the scene I found most striking was Mel explaining his history to your character, Deidre, and in such a matter-of-fact, serious fashion, in the back of the truck. Did you always intend to set off this important part of the story with such a stark tonal contrast?
No, it wasn’t. When Mike O’Brien really insisted that I be in the movie, I finally relented and thought I was going to be a random customer who came in for five seconds. But then, I realized she could be a device that helps us track Mel’s arc. I was really panicking for a long time because I couldn’t figure out how to make her funny. I can be comedic, but she wasn’t comedic. She was so desperate and tragic. Then I finally realized that I wasn’t going to worry about it. I wasn’t going to try to turn her into some kind of laughing-stock. I was just going to be what she feels like she needs to be. That was an indication that this movie is going to have that real element of heaviness to it, but it happened really organically. I wanted you to care about these people, but I didn’t realize there was going to be that much depth to one of them, so much poignant heart and humanity. That was a nice surprise.
You’ve described your writing process as being “upside-down,” where the script develops alongside the characters. How did you develop this writing style?
I never went to traditional film school. I had this long, circuitous route to get to what I’m doing. I started as a theater actor, then I went to photography and started doing experimental work, but everything as a solo artist. The most important work of the film, making the process of the acting, is obstructed at every turn by the process of making it. You’re out of order. In theater, you at least get to play a story from beginning to end and feel it out. You’re at scene 35 on the first day and like, “What’s happened before this? Where am I emotionally?” And then you’ve got to do it 40 times with the camera in different positions and act like nobody else is there. The whole thing is so hard, unless you’re Meryl Streep! But if you’re not working with Meryl Streep, what do you do as a director? I need real people on screen.
My second feature, My Effortless Brilliance, was a total experiment. I came up with these characters in my head and tried to cast them from a pretty small pool of actors. They were nothing like the characters. I realized, “What if you did it the other way? What if you had a person you wanted to work with…” That was where I started with that idea, and all I cared about was to make it feel like a documentary. I wanted you to turn the TV on and be like, “What am I watching? Am I in these people’s lives?” And people have said they’ve had that experience where they’ll turn it on in the middle of Showtime and have no idea what they’re watching but that it feels like a documentary. Which is like, “Yes! That’s what I meant.”
And then I honed it with Humpday. Once I knew I could work in that way, I upped the stakes. I’ll bring in a few lights. I had said, “No lights! Me and another camera operator with tiny cameras, a boom op, that’s it.” I eliminated the crew. But that was where I came up with that initial impulse, to make it feel really real. If the character fits the actor like a glove because it’s half them or three-quarters them and they’ve developed it with me…I want real humans.
I actually had that experience of picking up one of your movies and not missing a beat. I was late to my showtime of Your Sister’s Sister in the theater, but I didn’t feel like I was lost. Then a few years later I watched it at home from the beginning, which helped it make a little more sense. But I felt I had easily intuited what I had missed.
It’s funny because I want my movies to feel like you’re paratrooping into somebody’s life. We’re taking a little journey down the river of their life for a while, and then we leave again. I don’t like to tie things up too neatly at the end because I want you to get the sense that they’re continuing to live their lives, and who knows what’s going to happen in the future. But you just sort of paratrooped in a little bit later! [laughs]
On that note, there’s a line toward the end of the film where Jillian Bell’s character, Cynthia, takes a deep breath and says, “What a strange experience.” Is that line improvised or scripted? In a lot of ways, the line feels like it sums up where characters often net out at the end of your films.
That was all improvised! It’s all ordinary people going into crazy land, but yeah, ordinary people having weird dramas in their everyday lives. I mean, it can happen. I’ve heard stories of shit happening to random people that feel like…you couldn’t write that shit!
Review: Into the Ashes Brings Nothing New to the Country Noir Genre
Aaron Harvey is prone to pulling back from any moment that might give greater depth to his revenge tale.2
Aaron Harvey’s Into the Ashes is the latest in an increasing string of so-called country noirs set in the dilapidated backwoods of rural America, places ravaged by the opioid crisis and populated by jobless people long ago abandoned by politicians. It has little to distinguish itself, narratively or thematically, from similarly dour films, and it lets generic images of its rundown Alabama locale (rusted trucks, cramped houses, landlines in a wireless world) stand in as symbols of national decline without truly seeping into the complex social rot of the place. Its plot, of a reformed criminal forced to contend with his old gang leader over some stolen loot, is similarly superficial, hitting the typical beats of its genre.
Where Into the Ashes gets a boost is in its excellent cast of grizzled character actors, all of whom vibrantly express varying degrees of weariness and rage. Luke Grimes plays the erstwhile ne’er-do-well and ex-con Nick Brenner with the nervousness of a man who’s just learning to let go of his past and give in to hope. The man’s gruff, taciturn nature is leavened by his tender relationship with his wife, Tara (Marguerite Moreau), and he projects his faith in normalcy onto her. Nick relies so heavily on Tara for his emotional wellbeing that he anxiously calls home while on an overnight hunting trip just so he can hear her voice.
Equally human beneath a hard exterior is Nick’s father-in-law, Frank (Robert Taylor), the local sheriff whose intimidating Tom Waits-esque voice and stiff demeanor belie his fumbling, masculine attempts to welcome Nick into his family. Strongest of all, though, is Frank Grillo as Sloan, Nick’s recently paroled and vengeful boss. Grillo is at home playing big-fish-in-small-pond villains, and the actor makes the most of Sloan’s thin characterization, exuding psychopathic menace when Sloan confronts Nick in the latter’s home, drawing out every oblique threat as he circles the subject of the money that Nick stole from the crew’s last job before Sloan was sent to prison. Grillo expertly inflects even the silliest moments of sub-Tarantino dialogue with a disarming venom, such as an extended riff on pie and ice cream.
But if the actors are primed to explore the contours around a basic premise, Henry constantly pulls back from any moment that might give greater depth to his revenge tale. Women exist to be supportive and to become victims, while character-driven conversations between Nick and Frank devolve into asinine ethics debates over justifiable violence. Worst of all, there’s just no sense that the film is saying or revealing much of anything. There’s one moment where Into the Ashes achieves a touch of bleak grace akin to the work of Cormac McCarthy by skipping over the events leading to a shootout and focusing only on its grisly aftermath: bodies strewn about in puddles of blood that look like reflective pools of black ice in the pale moonlight. Then, not five minutes later, we get a flashback showing the lead-up to that carnage. As with so much else in the film, a haunting moment of elision is negated by literal representation.
Cast: Luke Grimes, Frank Grillo, Marguerite Moreau, James Badge Dale, Robert Taylor, Brady Smith, Jeff Pope, Andrea Frankle Director: Aaron Harvey Screenwriter: Aaron Harvey Distributor: RLJE Films Running Time: 97 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Stéphane Brizé’s At War Is Politically Charged but Artistically Inert
The film is content to bluntly affirm that corporate attempts at compassion are always secondary to providing profit to shareholders.2
Seven months after the first flare-up of France’s Gilets Jaunes, the nascent populist movement shows no signs of ceasing. Combined with the country’s ongoing Telecom scandal, in which several executives have been charged with “moral harassment” after 35 workers were allegedly hounded into committing suicide, it’s evident that what’s simmering there is an extension of the same unease escalating around much of Europe, and the world at large. It’s a state of affairs that makes At War seem especially of the moment, and which leaves its eventual failure to offer any special insight so disappointing. Provided with a prime opportunity to animate the zeitgeist, Stéphane Brizé’s labor-focused drama instead uses this timeliness to prod along the most obvious of points, its nuts-and-bolts, process-oriented approach never amounting to more than a surface look at the issues it purports to confront.
The film in some ways functions as an unofficial prelude to Brizé’s prior The Measure of a Man, in which an unemployed machinist played by Vincent Lindon finds a new career as a hyper-market security guard, where he’s eventually forced to choose between serving as a traitorous management lackey and losing his job. Here, Lindon’s Laurent Amédéo is still in possession of his original occupation, though things are hanging by a thread, as a last-ditch organizing effort attempts to halt the closure of a manufacturing plant in Agen. Surrounded by a cast of convincing non-professionals, Laurent leads the picket line, refusing to waver from the straight and narrow, an intense figure of principle whose scruples are never in doubt.
At War is largely notable for its steadfast devotion to a kind of mechanistic aesthetic, which unfortunately lines up with its cheerless didacticism, the two qualities cohering in a scene-by-scene summation of a strike action that repeatedly hammers home the same general points. The scenes themselves evince heft, fluidity, and an impressive sense of improvisation, but the staging is static and the eventual outcome is always clear. The game is given away by Lindon’s stoic face and the gradual unraveling of the plot, which envisions internal disintegration—leveraged by outside pressure—as the insidious method by which solidarity is smashed. Despite some genuine drama in this dissolution, it’s always clear who’s right and who’s wrong, which material interests each is representing, and who’s lying and who’s telling the truth.
This didn’t have to be the case, as proven by David France’s procedure-focused documentary How to Survive a Plague, which balanced a similarly diagrammatic narrative with extensive character detail, expanding the stakes while affixing a deeper subtext about the ways the victory of a marginalized group eventually diminishes its radical standing. Intent on emphasizing the connections between callous corporate greed and populist unrest, Brizé’s film is bluntly focused on the bottom line. There’s a certain dramatic function to this technique, as it examines the individual human actions that allow such interests to put their will into practice, but it doesn’t justify the flat, exhortative style of address.
As another example of how well this kind of economic criticism can be carried off, there are the dazzling docu-essays of German filmmaker Harun Farocki, who routinely found surprising intricacies in the cold façade of modern capitalism, while offering empathetic alignment with workers as a matter of course. At War, on the other hand, merely summarizes what its audience already knows, affirming that corporate attempts at compassion are always secondary to providing profit to shareholders, and that genuine humanity and integrity are liabilities when confronting such an unfeeling monolith. Like Ken Loach’s recent Palme d’Or winner I, Daniel Blake, it’s a film whose political principles are hard to disagree with, yet which leans so heavily on this moral certitude as to render itself entirely inert.
Cast: Vincent Lindon, Melanie Rover, Jacques Borderie, David Rey, Olivier Lemaire Director: Stéphane Brizé Screenwriter: Stéphane Brizé, Olivier Gorce Distributor: Cinema Libre Studio Running Time: 115 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Bottom of the 9th Strikes Out with Too Much Plot Incident
Raymond De Felitta’s film offers a sampler course of formulas, which creates a strangely unfulfilling tension.1.5
Raymond De Felitta’s Bottom of the 9th offers a sampler course of formulas, which creates a strangely unfulfilling tension. Just when you expect the film to go in a certain direction, it goes in another, only for it to again switch routes, though there’s never a sense of expectations being deliberately challenged or tweaked. Rather, the filmmakers merely seem to be indulging a variety of passing fancies, which is a shame because the actors here are game and occasionally imbue the shopworn scenes with liveliness.
Sonny Stano (Joe Manganiello) is the perfect hero for either a noir or a redemptive sports film, a man approaching middle age who just served a 19-year sentence for manslaughter. Famous in his Bronx neighborhood for being drafted by the Yankees, only to flush his life down the toilet, Sonny is attempting to patch his life together while doing a perpetual apology tour on behalf of friends and strangers alike. He’s initially hired by an old friend, Joey (James Madio), to work in a fish market that seems to be a front for something. Joey has a cagey energy, and this narrative isn’t without intrigue, but De Felitta and screenwriter Robert Bruzio unceremoniously lose sight of it in succumbing to a number of clichés.
Of course, Sonny is revealed to have a woman who got away, Angela (Sofia Vergara), who one day runs into her old beau at a market. They clearly have chemistry, as do the actors playing them, but their dialogue is composed of nothing but redemptive platitudes. In these scenes, Manganiello and Vergara are stuck in a worst-of-all-worlds situation. Their characters are relentlessly mousey, which is appropriate to the awkward context of Sonny and Angela’s reunion, but which also robs these sexy actors of the opportunity to enjoy playing off one another. Meanwhile, said mousiness isn’t poignant either, as the characters haven’t been imagined beyond the respective stereotypes of the fallen man and jilted woman.
Bottom of the 9th then flirts with a narrative similar to that of Bull Durham and Major League, in which Sonny is hired by a local minor league ball team to rein in the fiery, egotistical talents of a rookie named Manny (Xavier Scott Evans). Evans is ferociously charismatic, suggesting a young Wesley Snipes and giving Manganiello a kinetic vibe to play off of, and so the film finally begins to come to life, with great character actors like Michael Rispoli and Burt Young riffing on the sidelines. However, this conceit is also left hanging, as the film shifts into a story of the unlikely comeback, with Sonny’s own talents taking center ring.
De Felitta might’ve gotten by with these contrivances if he were a natural showman, but the filmmaker displays little interest in the Bronx setting in which his characters live, or in rendering their experiences in a fashion that refutes screenwriterly index-card portraiture. For instance, a prison flashback in which Sonny gets into a fight during a ball game is reduced to trite and melodramatic close-ups, while much of the remainder of the film is composed of medium shots designed to accentuate only the largely uninteresting dialogue. There’s truly nothing in Bottom of the 9th but plot incident, and the leisurely, impersonal one-thing-after-another-ness of the film’s construction is stifling.
Cast: Joe Manganiello, Sofía Vergara, Denis O'Hare, Burt Young, James Madio, Yancey Arias, Michael Rispoli, Vincent Pastore, Dominik García-Lorido, Michael Maize, Kevin William Paul Director: Raymond De Felitta Screenwriter: Robert Bruzio Distributor: Saban Films Running Time: 111 min Rating: R Year: 2019
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