Connect with us

Film

Understanding Screenwriting #75: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Midnight in Paris, The Wooden Horse, & More

Published

on

Understanding Screenwriting #75: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Midnight in Paris, The Wooden Horse, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Midnight in Paris, The Wooden Horse, The Colditz Story, Helen of Troy, but first…

Fan Mail: My comment in US#74 that Lance Loud was “the first gay character on American television that viewers of the time spent more than a minute-and-a-half with” upset David Ehrenstein. He thought I was using “character” as in “what a weird person” rather than as a person in a work of art. This led to a three-way debate between David, Matt Maul and me. You can read the comments at the bottom of that column. In his last comment, David suggested several films I could show in my course. As far as I can tell, most of those films are fiction films, and I was talking in my comments about my History of Documentary Film course.

However, the issue of showing films in my courses is now moot. As of this month I have retired after forty years of teaching film history and screenwriting courses at Los Angeles City College, so I will not be scheduling any more course screenings. It has been a terrific forty years, teaching at what is as far as I know the only community college film program whose former students have 12 Academy Award nominations (with five wins), 27 Emmy nominations (with at least three wins, but we are not done counting yet), and at least 2 Grammy nominations (we are not done counting all those either). And since the campus is located a block and a half away from the former site of the only film studio built for a woman director (Lois Webber in the ‘20s), it should not be surprising that we are the only film school, college or university, anywhere I know that had two films given wide releases in one year, each directed by a different woman alumnae.

Just because I am retiring from teaching, however, does not mean I am giving up this column. I intend to keep doing it as long as they will let me, since I don’t want my brain to atrophy. Although David Ehrenstein may sometimes think it already has atrophied.

Now, onto this load of films, and even though I am not yet dealing with The Tree of Life, I assure you I will eventually. I believe that is a legal requirement for writing for the House.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011. Screenplay by Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio, screen story by Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio, based on characters created by Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio and Stuart Beattie and Jay Wolpert, suggested by the novel On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers. 137 minutes.)

Johnny Depp is an ungrateful miscreant: When Elliott & Rossio pitched the idea to Disney in the early ‘90s of doing a film based on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, they were told Disney was not making movies based on their rides. But Disney eventually rethought it and hired Jay Wolpert to come up with a story. Wolpert made a crucial decision: that the movie should be fun. There had not been a great pirate movie since The Crimson Pirate in 1952. There had been several B-movie pirate movies, but the big-budget ones, such as Swashbuckler (1976) and Pirates (1986) were ponderous. The producers of those seemed to have forgotten that the pirate movies of yore were written by Hollywood wits like Ben Hecht (The Black Swan [1942]) and Herman J. Mankiewicz (The Spanish Main [1945]). Wolpert was replaced by Stuart Beattie, who worked out the story and named the characters after birds (Swann, Sparrow, etc). Then Disney approached Elliott & Rossio, who by then had been nominated for an Academy Award for their screenplay for Shrek (2001). The boys went in and made the same pitch they had made ten years before: it will be a Gothic swashbuckler. When Disney hesitated, the boys said, “Hey, the ride starts with a talking skull.” The deal was on. When they were writing Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003), neither they nor anybody at Disney had any notion of doing a sequel. So when Disney later wanted two sequels, to be shot at the same time, Elliott & Rossio had to decide: 1) do we make them totally separate adventures, like the Bond movies?, or 2) do we pretend we had a trilogy in mind all along? They went the latter route and came up with the best written film trilogy ever.

What? What? The reviews for #2 and especially #3 were terrible. But if you pay attention to the scripts, which most critics tend not to do, you will find that Elliott & Rossio have indeed told a coherent story, even though it is not the one you think it is. Yes, especially in the third film, people are constantly changing sides, but that’s because they’re PIRATES, folks. Yes, Elliott & Rossio had to make up a set of cards for themselves for the sea battle in the Vortex to remind themselves who was on what ship when. And at one point Johnny Depp told the director, Gore Verbinski, about a detail in the script, “I don’t really know what this means,” to which Verbinski replied, “Neither do I, but let’s just shoot it.” Now, the common way to read that exchange is that the script was a mess. The other way is that Verbinski, who had worked with Elliott & Rossio, knew that the writers knew what they were doing and trusted them and their script. At one point in #3, a navy officer says of Captain Jack Sparrow, “Do you think he plans it all out, or just makes it up as he goes along?” The correct answer for Sparrow and the writers is…both.

In Captain Jack Sparrow, Elliott & Rossio and the writers before them had created a great screen character, one that cemented Johnny Depp as a Movie Star. And Depp’s response? In the May 13, 2011 issue of Entertainment Weekly, Depp spends most of the article about the making of On Stranger Tides complaining about how confusing the script for #3 was. (The quote above is from that article.) A nice way to treat the boys who, in #1 gave Depp some exposition, which Depp hates to do, but added the word “miscreant” to the speech. Depp then thought it was a fair trade. Depp, by the way, never mentions Elliott & Rossio by name in the article, and they are mentioned only in passing in an article in the Los Angeles Times about the making of #4 (“On lower ’Tides,’” May 19th in the print edition, but a search of the Times website shows no trace of it). When the first three Pirates films opened, there were interviews with Elliott & Rossio in Creative Screenwriting, but neither the current issue of CS nor the current issue of Script has interviews with them. Trouble in the Magic Kingdom, do you think?

The Times article, as well the stuff not about Johnny Depp in the Entertainment Weekly piece, make a point that Disney had told Elliott & Rossio that they had to cut back on the special effects to reduce the budget. So in Stranger Tides we get no sea battle in the Vortex, no Kraken devouring ships, and no Davy Jones with his CGI tentacles. And we do not get a hugely complicated story (although if this turns out to be the first of a new trilogy, they may be laying in stuff that will pay off later, like the broken compass in #1). This, unlike the first three, is not an over-the-top movie. The storyline is fairly straightforward: assorted groups of pirates and navies try to find the legendary Fountain of Youth. The novel that “suggested” the film is about the search for the Fountain by Blackbeard and his zombie cohorts, and we follow a young puppeteer, John Chandagnac, who gets shanghaied by Blackbeard. It appears that what Elliott & Rossio brought over from the book were just Blackbeard, the zombies (although they are not used very effectively), and the Fountain.

The review in Variety (May 16-22 in the weekly edition) notes early on that this film has dropped “two key protagonists without explanation,” which means the reviewer paid no attention at all to the first three films. Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann’s story was over at the end of the first trilogy. Here’s the thing many people do not realize about the first three films: they are not Jack Sparrow’s movie. He is not the main character in those stories. He is a supporting character. Yes, yes, I know, Johnny Depp, big star, name above the title, nominated for an Oscar for the first one for Best Actor in a Leading Role. But Brando won the same Oscar for The Godfather in what is a supporting role in Michael’s movie. Many critics complained that in #3, we don’t see Captain Jack for the first half hour of the film. No, we don’t. It’s not his movie, and Elliott & Rossio, trying to keep their name-above-the-title actor onscreen as much as they can, write in all kinds of surreal scenes for him that are not really needed in the story they are telling. See what I meant earlier about them not telling the story you think they are?

So now, with Will and Elizabeth gone, they move Captain Jack into the lead role, and it is not that great a fit. Owen Gleiberman, in his review in the May 27th Entertainment Weekly, begins to see the problem: “Jack, more than ever, is now front and center, the focal point of every scene, and the result is that he’s become less of a jester and more of a colorless expository hero. He ticks off the story for us, point by point, instead of standing to the side lobbing little verbal bombs at it. Depp’s delivery is still amusingly sozzled, but the performance has lost any trace of surprise or merry deranged zing. The more Jack says, the less funny he is.”

While Elliott & Rossio have had to cut down on the special effects, they have alas also cut down on the gallery of interesting supporting characters they came up with for the first three. Yes, Disney probably did not want to pay for those actors to return, but their “replacements” are just plain dull. There is no equivalent of Pintel and Ragetti, whose philosophical discussions were fun diversions. There is no equivalent of Murtogg and Mullroy, the British soldiers who keep popping up in the trilogy. The “young lover” leads are not a patch on Will and Elizabeth, and the actors playing them have none of the charisma of Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley. There is also a problem with taking Blackbeard over from Powers’ novel. He is essentially Barbossa. And Barbossa is back in this one, so we have two bad pirates it is hard to tell apart. Elliott & Rossio have made the “real” Barbossa a privateer for the king, but they don’t do a lot with that.

The one great addition to the cast is Angelica, a female pirate from the get-go. She doesn’t have to grow into it in the way Elizabeth did in the trilogy. It helps that they have Penélope Cruz at her most radiant and feisty in the part, although she’s sometimes caught without as much to do as they might have given her. The boys have also done better this time by Keith Richards as Jack’s dad. In #3 he showed up at the meeting of the pirate kings where Richards, not an actor, was blown off the screen by the other actors. Here he has a very short scene with Depp that gives him a great line and then he’s gone, a much better use of his limited talents.

Even within the budget limitations, the boys have given us some nice scenes. There is a chase through London that is fun, as well as a great swordfight with Captain Jack and a person who turns out to be Angelica. It is in the storage room of an inn, and like the first duel in #1 in the blacksmith shop between Captain Jack and Will, it very effectively uses the set and props. We do eventually get Ponce de Leon in his bed, a reference to a “scene” in the ride, and there is a nice special effect of one of the major characters dying. Less is more in that case. Well, dying for now, but there is very little feeling in this film of Elliott & Rossio’s idea that the first trilogy was a Gothic swashbuckler, so the character may actually be dead.

The script is also funnier than you will probably think it is as you watch it. Line after line went by with me thinking, “That was funny.” But the director of this one, Rob Marshall, apparently never got the memo from Jay Wolpert that these movies are supposed to be fun. Marshall can direct the action, but he is one of the most humor-impaired directors working in movies today. Chicago (2002) does not have nearly the laughs its predecessor Roxie Hart (1942) does, and Memoirs of a Geisha (2005) is not exactly a barrel of yucks.

The last fifteen minutes of the film are the best, with a nice final scene for the two young lovers, and a funny scene with Captain Jack leaving Angelica on a desert island, even though she claims to be pregnant by him. And then the old freewheeling plotting that Elliott & Rossi are so great at finally kicks in. Gibbs has rescued something, or somethings, from Blackbeard’s ship. We saw them before, but just assumed they were part of a scene with Blackbeard. Not a chance. And as usual with the Pirates films, stay through the credits for the final post-credit scene. If you did with #3, you finally got the answer to the question of whose movie the trilogy was. Here we get yet another detail that we thought was a nice one-off that answers the question an earlier scene in these last minutes have raised. It suggests there will be a next one. Free Elliott & Rossio! And maybe bring back Gore Verbinski.

Midnight in Paris (2011. Written by Woody Allen. 94 minutes.)

Midnight in Paris

Woody Allen is also an ungrateful miscreant: This is one of Allen’s most charming films in recent years. With one small exception, which we will talk about later, there is none of the misanthropy that mars many of his later films. See my comments on Whatever Works (2009) in US#61 for an example.

The setup is simple: Gil and his fiancee Inez have piggybacked a vacation in Paris with her rich parents. Gil loves Paris and thinks about moving there, but Inez is expecting him to stay put in Malibu. Gil is out walking one night and as the church bells ring midnight, a cab from the ‘20s pulls up and its occupants invite Gil to go to a party with them. He assumes it is a costume party until he gets there and realizes he is back in Paris. In the 1920s. And the couple he meets at the party really are Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and that really is Cole Porter playing the piano and singing. He keeps coming back to the same spot each midnight and meets more and more famous people from the ‘20s, some he gets to know well, some briefly. You never know whom he is going to run into, which becomes a great running gag.

Gil is a screenwriter working on a novel about a guy who works in a nostalgia shop, so if you had not guessed by the time you learn that, the movie is about nostalgia. Gil is nostalgic for the Paris he once visited and for Paris in the ‘20s. Adriana, a ‘20s artists’ muse and mistress he meets, is nostalgic for turn-of-the-century Paris, a great twist in the plot that carries out the theme of nostalgia. You can easily imagine Gil played by a young Woody Allen, but he is played by Owen Wilson, who is the perfect choice. Unlike John Cusack is Bullets Over Broadway (1994) or Kenneth Branagh in Celebrity (1998), he does not fall into an imitation of Allen. His California surfer-dude quality works surprisingly well delivering Allen’s lines and gives the character a charm that’s missing in the leads in a lot of Allen’s movies.

The other cast members are impeccable, especially those portraying the famous ones. If you only know Corey Stoll as the bald-headed cop in Law & Order: LA, you will probably not recognize him as Hemingway, but he brilliantly delivers Allen’s faux-Hemingway language. Adrien de Van as Luis Buñuel has a priceless reaction to Gil trying to suggest what obviously will become well, you figure it out. But the best combination of actor, character and the writing comes from Adrien Brody’s Salvador Dalí. Allen has written a scene in which Dalí becomes fascinated with the word “rhinoceros.” I have no idea how often the word was in the original script, but Brody does incredible things with it every time he pronounces it, and it gets funnier each time. A perfect example of my mantra that when writing a screenplay you are writing for performance.

Ah, yes, the one small exception. As much I loved this film (more than any Allen picture in years), I kept getting put off by his snotty attitude toward California and Hollywood screenwriters. OK, we are used to Allen’s anti-California zingers. The ones in Annie Hall (1977) was the reason the film was booed when it was shown at the Los Angeles International Film Festival. In this film, however, he has Gil being a Hollywood screenwriter who hates his work and is writing a novel. OK, but Allen is very, and I mean very, careful not to tell us anything about what Gil has written. For all we know Gil might have written something as rich and complex as the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, or as morally compelling as Steve Zallian’s script of Schindler’s List (1993), or as fast and funny as Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay for last year’s The Social Network. I know Allen is a New Yorker born and bred and grew up with that New York attitude about screenwriting that is the reason for this column, but you would have thought that by now he would have learned better. I generally did not agree with a lot of what Timothy Leary said, but I loved his comment in the ‘70s that Woody Allen needed to come out to California and get a tan.

The Wooden Horse (1950. Screenplay by Eric Williams, based on his novel. 101 minutes.)

The Wooden Horse

Where’s Steven McQueen when you need him?: A sub-genre of World War II films that emerged in the post-war era was the prisoner-of-war film. Some of them became classics, like The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and The Great Escape (1963). Some, like this one, didn’t.

Eric Williams was a POW during the early years of the war and his novel is based on his actual escape from Stalag Luft III, the site of the activities shown in The Great Escape. Why he turned it into a novel I have no idea, since it follows the events rather closely, but with the names changed. The story shows us how a group of British POWs come up with an ingenious idea for a tunnel. They don’t start under the barracks, which as you may remember from The Great Escape are a fair distance from the barbed wire fences. They construct a wooden vaulting horse from assorted wood found around the camp. It is closed on both sides so a man or two can hide inside. The prisoners bring the horse out to the exercise area and the man inside digs the tunnel while the others exercise. Then he crawls back up into the horse, covers the hole, and is carried back to the barracks. Yes, the Germans seem really stupid not to guess what’s going on, but they were big on physical health so maybe it all seemed natural to them. Eventually three of the prisoners escape and make their way to Sweden. If my telling of the story seems rather flat, it’s because the movie is flat. As I mentioned, the script is based on a novel. I have not read the novel, but based on the film, it does not look like Williams took advantage of fictionalizing the material. The script falls into the trap so many films “based on true events” do: the makers assume that because the story is true, it will be interesting. The characters are bland, and the storytelling is as slow as molasses. If the characters were livelier, we wouldn’t mind the pace. The film is not helped by casting Leo Genn in one of the two leading roles. He was a terrific character actor but not a leading man. The other “star” was Anthony Steel, who had a minor career as a minor star, but is, shall we say, charisma-challenged. When he came to Hollywood a few years after this film with his then-wife, you can understand why he was known around town as “Mr. Anita Ekberg.”

The Colditz Story (1955. Adaptation and screenplay by Ivan Foxwell and Guy Hamilton, from the book by P.R. Reid, dialogue by William Douglas Home. 94 minutes.)

The Colditz Story

When you have John Mills, you don’t need McQueen: This one is a better known and much more successful POW story. And that’s because the screenplay is much better. The source material is sometimes identified as a novel, but it is appears to be more a non-fiction account. Its author, Pat Reid, was the head of escape attempts at Colditz, a castle in Saxony where, early in the war, the Germans put the most incorrigible POWs. For some reason the Germans felt that the smart thing to do was to take all the prisoners who made the most escapes and collect them in one place. It did not work here, just as it did not work later in Stalag Luft III (see above and The Great Escape). Colditz had one of the highest escape rates of all German POW camps.

Reid’s book is apparently a livelier read than Williams’, going by comments on Amazon.com, and the script is a whole lot livelier than Williams. I am sure that it is helped by the dialogue writing of William Douglas-Home, working here without his hyphen. He was a hugely successful playwright, perhaps best known in this country for his play and screenplay of The Reluctant Debutante (1958). The later was remade in 2003 as What a Girl Wants starring Amanda Bynes. Sorry, but I could not resist a paragraph that connected Amanda Bynes to Colditz. You may sing a chorus of “It’s a Small World” if you like.

What the script, complete with Douglas-Home’s dialogue, does is give us a great gallery of characters. Pat Reid is right in the younger John Mills’s wheelhouse and he carries the picture. But Colonel Richmond, the senior officer of the British group, has several sharp corners to him. I first assumed the character Theodore Bikel was playing was Russian, but he turns out to be Dutch. The script gets some entertainment value out of the different nationalities at Colditz, including the Germans. It’s been a couple of weeks since I saw these two films, and I can’t remember Brian Forbes’s Paul in The Wooden Horse, but his Jimmy Winslow here is still fresh in my mind.

The Wooden Horse drags out its single escape attempt to 101 minutes, but within the 94 minutes here, we get several escape attempts, some of them successful and some not. You never know which ones are going to work and which are not. In Horse, you pretty much know they are going to get out. Here, not so much.

If you are beginning to think there were so many escape attempts at Colditz that it should have been a TV series, the Brits were way ahead of you. In 1972-74, the BBC ran the series Colditz, with some material from Reid’s book and another one he wrote about Colditz. In 2005, Granada Television in England did a four-hour television movie on the subject. I haven’t seen that one yet.

Helen of Troy (1956. Screenplay by John Twist and Hugh Gray, adaptation by Hugh Gray and N. Richard Nash, uncredited adaptation of The Illiad by Homer. 111 minutes.)

Helen of TroyNot as bad as I remember it: In the book Understanding Screenwriting I have a chapter in the Not-Quite-So Good section called “Some Lawrence Wannabes.” I start the book with a discussion of Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and this chapter deals with recent epics that are influenced by Lawrence. One of them was the 2004 film Troy, written by David Benioff. Benioff does some nice things in the script, but the film suffers from having Brad Pitt as Achilles. Achilles is the fiercest warrior of them all, and fierceness is not really in Pitt’s range. I mention in passing that Helen of Troy at least gets Achilles right and imply that is about the only thing it got right. My memories of the film, which I saw when it first came out, were not good. So when it popped up on TCM recently, I gave it a second try. It’s not that good a movie, not even as good as Troy, but it’s not terrible.

I had another reason to want to watch the film. As a grad student at UCLA in the late ‘60s, I had Hugh Gray as a teacher in a class or two. I was not impressed. He flaunted his classical education a little more than I thought seemly. I suspect he did it because of his credits on films like this one and the 1951 Quo Vadis? On the latter he contributed to the writing of the Roman songs used in the film. In 1954 he was one of the co-writers, along with Ben Hecht and Irwin Shaw of the clunky but entertaining Ulysses. He later got into academia, and was perhaps best known for his translation of André Bazin’s essay collection What is Cinema? In spite of the fact that several reviewers noticed that his translations were awful.

Gray and Twist run into the same problem that Benioff does: what the hell do you do with Paris and Helen, the great lovers? In fact, in The Illiad Paris is pretty much a narcissistic jerk and a coward, and while Homer is somewhat sympathetic to Helen, there are still problems using her as a dramatic character. As I wrote in the book, “William Shakespeare, who was no slouch at writing romantic heroines (Cleopatra in Antony and, Juliet in Romeo and), knew enough to avoid Helen as a major character. In his one Trojan War play, Troilus and Cressida, Helen is a very minor supporting role. And Christopher Marlowe just makes her a walk-on in The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, so that Faustus can get off the great line about hers being the ’face that launched a thousand ships.’ The problem dramatically is that Helen is inert: everybody adores her (why, other than her good looks?), but she is acted upon rather than taking action. Will was one smart playwright: Cleopatra and Juliet do stuff.”

Benioff focuses on Achilles as his main character, but Gray and Twist focus on the love story. While Benioff gets us right into the affair, Gray and Twist start out with Paris’s trip to Menelaus’s court to try to establish a treaty with the Greeks. That does not work out well. He meets Helen before he knows she is a queen. Then a lot of time is taken up with the romance. These writers’ Helen at least has a little grit to her, unlike Benioff’s. Paris is played by the French actor Jacques Sernas (here credited as Jack), but his voice is dubbed by the English actor Edmund Purdom. Both Sernas and Purdom are blocks of wood visually, but Purdom’s voice gives the character a little heft. Helen is the Italian actress Rosanna Podesta, whose face could launch three, four hundred ships tops, but who at least shows some spark of life.

Because we are so focused on Paris and Helen, the other major characters in the story become minor. As I remembered, Stanley Baker is the perfect Achilles, and he gets a great entrance. If the writers had given the other actors more to do, they could have done more than they do here. Since the writers are not focused on Achilles, they do not give us the most moving scene in The Illiad (which Benioff does). Achilles has killed the Trojan hero Hector and dragged his body around Troy. Priam, Hector’s father, comes to Achilles under a flag of truce to ask for the body back. We just don’t get that scene here.

The battle scenes are spectacular and this being 1956, not overload with CGI as Troy is. The original wooden horse (you don’t think I would have left that unreferenced do you?) shows up because, well, it has to. One thing everybody knows about the Trojan War is the Trojan Horse. Except it is not in either The Illiad or The Odyssey. It does not show up until Virgil’s Aeneid. But the audience would have thrown things at the screen if it were not included.

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.

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Advertisement
Comments

Features

All of Quentin Tarantino’s Movies Ranked

On the occasion of the release of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, we ranked Tarantino’s feature films.

Published

on

Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood
Photo: Columbia Pictures

Quentin Tarantino’s commitment to fortifying the themes of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood with layers of self-reflexivity, while still anchoring its concepts to fully realized, emotionally invested characters, makes the film one of his greatest—a dense but focused effort that validates the divisive artist’s status as one of American cinema’s preeminent pop-cultural figures. The film navigates late-‘60s Hollywood, an immersive playground of opulence and iconicity, alongside Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a fading star of TV westerns trying to break into the movies, and his best friend and longtime stuntman, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), before then jumping six months ahead to take the temperature of Hollywood on the eve of the Charles Manson murders. As the landscape and the sociocultural identity of Hollywood continue to change, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood takes on an elegiac quality, with Dalton and Booth returning to L.A. from a sojourn to Europe and a pregnant Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) preparing her home for the arrival of her baby boy.

The flash and fun of the film’s first half gives way to a haunting decline into the valley of alcoholism, and to increasing signs that a new generation is about to push the old one out. And, then, inevitably, those tensions come to a head one August night on Cielo Drive in the Hollywood Hills. We won’t spoil the ending here, but we will tell you below where Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood falls on our ranked list of Tarantino’s features. Sam C. Mac


Death Proof

10. Death Proof (2007)

With his hair combed in a flashy pompadour and a white scar running down his cheek, Kurt Russell plays evil Stuntman Mike as a swaggering, folksy raconteur. Even in the universe of Tarantino, which suggests a self-contained and increasingly self-referential cinephile’s mixtape of the countless films he’s absorbed throughout his life, Russell feels like a living, breathing human being. By comparison, Mike’s victims simply suggest regurgitating pop-culture sponges. Indeed, by the time Mike comes after them in his skull-painted hellmobile, we connect more to the graphic image of the stunningly crafted gore than we do to the loss of life. When the female characters turn into avenging angels, their motivations seem to turn on a dime. Their attitude toward life and death, whether it be their own (“I’m okay!” one of them happily beams right after she’s almost been decimated by Mike’s muscle car) or Mike’s, is so casually flippant that we’re denied that sense of righteous rage. Maybe it’s a joke on those old drive-in movies, which never gave much thought to life or death either, but somehow the reverent self-referential quality of Death Proof is more offensive than those old grindhouse filmmakers who were in it simply to make a buck. Jeremiah Kipp


Django Unchained

9. Django Unchained (2012)

With Django Unchained, Tarantino doesn’t transcend the tropes of the revenge film, or the odd-couple buddy comedy for that matter. For all the film’s ostentatiously shocking imagery and dialogue (Tarantino employs the n-word in a fashion that resembles the gimmicky scare tactics associated with director William Castle), one can’t escape the suspicion that this film’s a bloated vanity project with delusions of grandeur. Django Unchained features a blunter treatment of slavery than we routinely encounter in mainstream American cinema, but the garish fantasy violence only superficially distracts from Tarantino’s allegiance to the same damn clichés that govern politer “issue” films. Django Unchained is ultimately a white fantasy of purging shared cultural guilt, one that follows a benevolent white man (Christoph Waltz is the lead regardless of what his Oscar may say) as he befriends and liberates an appreciative black man who goes on to symbolically wipe the slate clean on subjugation. Chuck Bowen


Kill Bill: Vol. 1

8. Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003)

Even when he isn’t at the top of his artistic game, Tarantino, like Jean-Luc Godard, is talented enough that he doesn’t put this kind of spot-the-references playfulness front and center in his films: Tarantino always provides us with some kind of plot or emotional context in which such references—and in a QT film, they’re legion—mean something to viewers other than the fact that they’re referencing something. In other words, you don’t have to know a great deal about the martial arts genre to enjoy the sheer kinetic energy of Kill Bill, Vol. 1 any more than you have to know about the various crime thrillers Godard references in order to enjoy Breathless or Band of Outsiders. It might enhance one’s appreciation of those films more, but there’s more to them than just showing off how encyclopedic their movie knowledge is. Although Tarantino’s films sometimes make recognitions toward real-world hurt and pain, they almost invariably take place in a movie-induced fantasy world, one that takes no part in political discourse and prefers instead to wallow in the detritus of popular culture and movie history—entertainment, in other words. Kenji Fujishima


The Hateful Eight

7. The Hateful Eight (2015)

Rather than following a clean genealogical path back to Hollywood westerns of the Golden Age, The Hateful Eight often resembles Italian giallo horror, less for that subgenre’s tendency to luxuriate in synth scores and extravagant lighting setups than for its less-celebrated preoccupation with cruelty and pain. As in those extravagant and supernaturally tinged slashers, characters in The Hateful Eight who choose to have any agency apart from maintaining a cover story find a nebulous reward for forcing fate’s hand. When the gun smoke clears, we somehow end up with more dead bodies than we had living ones at the start, and the film proves to have quite a lot in common with John Carpenter’s The Thing, apart from having the same lead actor (Kurt Russell) and largely identical blizzard conditions: Death emerges from the floorboards, and, following a crisis, an impromptu “court” is established to distinguish between friend and foe. Even the final moments echo the creature classic: Having dispensed justice at long last, two doomed men share a laugh over a great lie, and the camera retreats upward and away from their near-lifeless detente. The haberdashery, by design a sanctuary, has been transformed into a self-cleaning oven, now strewn with an assortment of particulate matter, and we arrive at an unexpected Reservoir Dogs callback: a vetting of moral arithmetic that leaves no survivors. Jaime N. Christley


Kill Bill: Vol. 2

6. Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004)

From a structural standpoint, Kill Bill’s two volumes connect us to serial cinema past, specifically the two-part films of Fritz Lang. It’s a mess at times, but a seemingly intentional and glorious one. Certainly, Tarantino’s greatest skills are literary and his numerous digressions recall the stylistic flourishes of Thomas Pynchon. When Tarantino abandons the Bride (Uma Thurman) in her premature burial deathtrap to focus on an extended flashback of her martial arts training, it’s reminiscent of Pynchon’s nine-page aside in Gravity’s Rainbow, which details the biography of a light bulb named Byron. If that comparison makes Kill Bill sound like so much compulsive masturbation, rest assured that Tarantino has a point. Consider the movie’s two volumes as yin and yang: The first installment, focusing primarily on the Bride, corresponds to the Chinese principle of darkness, negativity, and femininity, while the second, with a tone heavily influenced by the charming and seductive Bill (David Carradine), corresponds to the opposing principle of light, heat, motivation, and masculinity. Tarantino revels in the filmic power of verbal and (meta)physical pas de deux, and it’s in the final section of the second part, detailing the Bride and Bill’s surprising confrontation, that the entire enterprise reveals its profoundly mortal (and moral) soul. Keith Uhlich

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Film

Review: The Great Hack Is an Elusive Look at the Cambridge Analytica Scandal

It seems so invested in a rehabilitation of Brittany Kaiser’s image that the filmmakers’ own motives end up being its most interesting subject.

1.5

Published

on

The Great Hack
Photo: Netflix

Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim’s documentary The Great Hack opens with a sweeping and essentially meaningless drone shot. “Somewhere in Nevada” a sole title reads over the image of a city that sprawls across the desert in the shadow of a rather stubby mountain range. Tedium has already begun to set in as ominous strings fade in on the soundtrack and the film cuts to the opening of the Burning Man festival, where Brittany Kaiser—former business development director at notorious data-mining firm Cambridge Analytica—sets out to do whatever it is that privileged white people do at Burning Man.

The Great Hack turns an undeniably important series of political events into a two-hour look at a wealthy criminal lounging in pools and riding in Ubers. The doc fakes its viewers out, though, after its pointless Burning Man prologue, introducing us to Professor David Carroll, an expert in social media marketing whose interest in recovering the data profile Cambridge Analytica illegally compiled of him—as it did of most every American—is meant to form something like the film’s impetus. Carroll explains, in terms a tad too elementary for a digital-native audience, that he’s concerned with the effect that targeted misinformation campaigns directed at specific users are having on global democracy. Or, in his both too lofty and too simple words, “How did the dream of a connected world tear us apart?”

One of the answers to Carroll’s question is that very specific people—people like Brittany Kaiser—decided to use the internet for precisely that purpose. In voiceover, Carroll explains what Cambridge Analytica was and, in broad strokes, how its methods of data collection and analysis helped sway both the British EU referendum and the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Carroll’s explanation is illustrated with animated visualizations more concerned with appearing complex and sensational than they are with clearly presenting information. The corporate structure of Cambridge Analytica is presented with a conspiratorial air, as if the web of profile photos that the The Great Hack pieces together represents something far more nefarious and mysterious than a company’s personnel page.

In its first act, the documentary makes ample use of such CG animations, including a rather repetitive motif in which photographed objects appear to pixelate and float up into the sky. We understand well before the fifth time we see this effect the metaphor that all that’s real is moving willy-nilly into the cloud. But after Carroll makes it to London to sue Cambridge Analytica for his data, Amer and Noujaim more or less abandons him and his pedagogical approach for Kaiser, whom the filmmakers track down in Thailand, sipping a Mai Thai poolside. Kaiser is despicable, but The Great Hack appears to never tire of watching her stare pseudo-pensively out of car and airplane windows, or inventing new ways to rationalize her work for Cambridge, even as she turns state’s witness in Britain.

The film spends so much time lingering on the mini-dramas of Kaiser’s jet-set life—and so little time detailing exactly what it was that Cambridge Analytica did, or investigating how we might stop it from happening again—that one can conclude that in Kaiser the filmmakers believed they had found some kind of key to understanding our ongoing digitally fueled social catastrophe. The Great Hack befuddlingly includes a sequence in which Kaiser panics because she thinks she’s lost her passport on her way to Heathrow, only to find it seconds later in her bag. Why include such an insignificant moment—or, for that matter, other sequences of Kaiser simply en route somewhere or waiting for something? What Amer and Noujaim see in Kaiser remains elusive. In fact, this meandering documentary seems so invested in a rehabilitation of her image that the filmmakers’ own motives end up being its most interesting subject.

Director: Karim Amer, Jehane Moujaim Screenwriter: Karim Amer, Erin Barnett, Pedro Kos Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 113 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Film

Review: Skin Confronts White Supremacy from a Dubious Point of View

The film’s not-strictly-linear structure and handheld camerawork come to feel like attempts at masking a certain conventionality.

2.5

Published

on

Skin
Photo: A24

In 1951’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt identifies the early adherents of the Nazi movement in Germany as belonging to a “mob,” which she distinguishes from the “mass” as a motley group of the disaffected who felt themselves in various ways betrayed by the dominant institutions of society—in essence, the outcasts from the masses. Guy Nattiv’s Skin finds this mob of resentment thriving in the American Rust Belt, where neo-Nazi leader Fred “Hammer” Krager (Bill Camp) recruits young runaways to his organization, baiting them with hot meals and a simulacrum of family warmth. He and his wife, Shareen (Vera Farmiga), indoctrinate young drifters into their disciplinary, Oedipal clan, with Fred as the fearful father figure and Shareen as the mother whose affection they must earn.

A remake of Nattiv’s Oscar-winning short of the same name, Skin is based on the true story of Byron “Babs” Widner (Jamie Bell), who grew up under Fred and Shareen’s tutelage but is beginning to harbor doubts about the group’s cause. The film opens with a confrontation between a march of allied neo-Nazi groups and a counter protest headed by the activist Daryle Jenkins (Mike Colter), in which Babs and other skinheads corner and assault a black protestor, disfiguring the young man and running off. Babs has a conscience, and he slowly comes to regret this assault. Early on, the film gives us another example of his cloaked sense of right and wrong: At a rally where Fred announces his congressional candidacy, another white nationalist verbally accosts a trio of young girls singing a folkish—or rather, völkisch—tune, and Babs defends them, beating up the much larger man with a mic stand.

In Nattiv’s film, the face-tatted Babs’s practiced, neutral expression becomes an ambivalent mask hiding wounded insecurity, explosive rage, or both. His violent defense of the young girls earns him gratitude from their mother, Julie Price (Danielle Macdonald), a legacy member of the white power movement who’s decided to begin to removing herself from her family’s milieu. As Julie and Babs’s connection becomes romance—and as Jenkins pursues Babs, thinking he might be able to convince the neo-Nazi to become an informant—the couple puts more and more distance between themselves and Fred and Shareen’s perverse surrogate family, placing themselves in direct conflict with a dangerous mob.

To symbolize Babs’s gradual break-up with his violent family, the film periodically flashes forward to the grueling, years-long process of removing the racist tattoos plastered across his body. Close-ups on ink being pulled out through skin, accompanied by Babs’s fraught screams, suggest that the pain his skin causes him in these scenes is just recompense for the crimes he committed and endorsed on behalf of an ideology built around the color of that skin.

Skin offers some insight to the appeal and functioning of white supremacist groupings, but after a while, the film’s not-strictly-linear structure and handheld camerawork come to feel like self-conscious signs of “gritty” realism, attempts at masking a certain conventionality. This is, in the end, the story of a bad man being redeemed by the love of a good woman, and it’s worth questioning why Babs, rather than Jenkins, is at the center of the film. As Skin illustrates in an early, exposition-heavy scene, Jenkins has facilitated the turning of around a half-dozen Nazis. That a black man would dedicate so much time, at great personal risk, to penetrating the minds of avowed, violent racists seems the much more interesting—and relevant—story here. It’s not that anything in Skin runs egregiously contrary to the facts, or that Babs’s story isn’t moving as presented, but one may be justified in contemplating why his turn away from Nazism is presented primarily as a personal redemption arc, and not primarily one of tireless activism and resistance by the opponents of fascism like Jenkins.

Cast: Jamie Bell, Danielle Macdonald, Daniel Henshall, Bill Kamp, Vera Farmiga, Mike Colter, Louisa Krause, Zoe Margaret Colletti, Kylie Rogers, Colbi Gannett Director: Guy Nattiv Screenwriter: Guy Nattiv Distributor: A24 Running Time: 120 min Rating: R Year: 2019

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Features

Odessa IFF 2019: The Cossacks, Queen of Hearts, Monos, & Projectionist

The festival feels like a long-awaited apparition in a place where events of its magnitude might be scarce.

Published

on

Monos
Photo: Neon

At first glance, Odessa recalls the Algeria of the 1980s as described by playwright Jean-Luc Lagarce, a place where local “currency has no value and there is nothing to buy anyway.” Odessa seems coy about offering a fantasy version of itself to those who aren’t already confined to it and to whom displaying the city—in the shape of superfluous possessions or souvenirs—would amount to a perverse redundancy. It’s a city coherent to the brutal honesty of its human faces, a city virtually without store windows to hawk unessential goods to passersby—unless one traverses its center, where a McDonald’s and a Reebok shop appear as reminders of a glossier elsewhere. Perhaps the way Cameroon, as one Cameroonian once told me, is a country without sidewalks, “unless you go to Douala.” This is, of course, a respite from the capitalist assaults of places where to experience the city is to stack up on its mementos. It’s this context that made the Odessa International Film Festival (OIFF) feel like a long-awaited apparition in a place where events of its magnitude might be scarce.

By the Lermontovskiy Hotel, where the international journalists covering the OIFF stay, only food seems to be for sale. There’s a 24/7 supermarket that closes when the security guard sees fit, a “Japanese and Thai Asian Café,” and a regal restaurant named Aleksandrovskiy, which sits inside a garden full of Versailles-esque fountains and statues, and where a select few can feast on a scrumptious leg of lamb on a bed of polenta for 12 euros. Perhaps the same select few who show up for OIFF’s outdoor screening of the 1928 film The Cossacks at the Potemkin Stairs but don’t use the steps as bleachers, like the rest of us, instead taking their seats in the large cordoned-off VIP section close to the live orchestra for a few selfies and then dashing off.

A brief video pleading for the release of Crimean filmmaker Oleg Sentsov from a Russian prison preceded the film, eliciting passionate applause. Those actually using the steps as seats seemed to truly savor the event, which took the shape of what film screenings were probably more like in the early 20th century: raucous fair-like happenings with lots of talking and where the film was only one of many multi-sensorial elements. In many ways, The Cossacks is about how the production of a nation is entwined with the production of gender norms. Lukashka (John Gilbert) is seen as a softie. He’s derided as being a fraction of a man, or a half-Cossack, because he would rather spend his time reading than fighting, to the horror of his entourage. He ends up going to war in order to legitimize his status as a man for his family and his beloved Maryana (Renée Adorée). In the world of the film, becoming a man involves killing at least one Turk or two, and becoming a woman means marrying a man who has killed Turks.

The Cossacks was a fascinating selection to screen at the Potemkin Stairs because it wrapped a critique of normativity in some of the most sexist of cinematic languages, female ass shots as gags and all, making it hard to know what kind of selective reading of the film the audience might be making. The men on the screen are always either accosting, harassing, molesting, or trying to rape Maryana, which might be what triggered Rose McGowan, one of the festival’s celebrity guests, to leave just a few minutes into the screening.

As much as watching a film such as George Hill and Clarence Brown’s silent drama at the place where one of cinema’s most iconic sequences was shot feels like the crossing off of a bucket-list item we didn’t realize was on that list until we experienced it, the off-screen drama was just as enticing. There was, for instance, the blatant spectacle of Ukrainian income inequality with “the people” huddled up on the uncomfortable steps for two hours eager to engage with a silent film while Ukrainian socialites decked out in animal prints treated the event more like a vernissage. There was also the impossible quest for a public bathroom mid-screening. This involved walking into a half-closed market across from the Potemkin Stairs and interrupting a loud quarrel between a mother and her adult son, who worked at one of the market stalls.

It’s difficult to guess where queerness goes in Odessa. Maybe it only lives as disavowal, as in The Cossacks, which ends with Lukashka, after anointing his masculinity by slaughtering 10 Turks, stating to Maryana heterosexuality’s mathematical logic in its simplest form: “I am your man. You are my woman. I want you.” And the anointing is never final, the film seems to say. Indeed, as his father lies dying in his arms, Lukashka asks him: “Father, am I Cossack?” The question of where queerness might live, in this context, would be finally answered a few days later when I visit the only gay club in Odessa, Libertin, and meet a trans woman name Jalala, who confides that there’s a “place” in Odessa where straight men can go to to have sex with women like her. “Is it an app?” I ask. Jalala smiles and says that it’s a park. “But it’s dangerous,” she tells me. “It’s very exciting and very dangerous.” Because there are skinheads, she says. “Do the skinheads want to kill you or fuck you, or fuck you and then kill you?” I ask her. “I don’t know,” she responded. “That’s why it’s dangerous.”

The festival main grounds, in front of the majestic Odessa Academic Theatre of Musical Comedy, aren’t unlike London’s Southbank Centre in the early days of summer, where visitors and locals are both sold the idea that the city is this fun all year long. The atmosphere is cosmopolitan, with Nina Simone remixes or early Erykah Badu playing in the background, food trucks, a Mastercard stall, and outdoor sitting poufs. There’s also no stress in the air, no suffocating crowds, and as such no anxiety about being turned away from a screening.

When looking at the festival’s program, one may scoff at the apparent lack of diversity and, more specifically, queerness. After a few screenings, though, one may get the sense that queerness does live at the Odessa International Film Festival and, per Jalala’s account, in Odessa more generally—it just isn’t publicized. In Queen of Hearts, for instance, director May el-Toukhy takes the age-old narrative of the stranger who turns up to disrupt domestic bliss, or ennui, and gives it a daring incestuous twist. Anne (Trine Dyrholm) and Peter (Magnus Krepper) live an idyllic life in a mansion somewhere in Denmark with two young, and creepily angelic, twin daughters (Liv and Silja Esmår Dannemann). There’s something eerie about this setup even before Peter’s problematic teenage son, Gustav (Gustav Lindh), from another marriage is shipped from Sweden to live with his dad and unsettle everything.

What’s uncanny about Anne and Peter’s home is, of course, the way it gleams a kind of speckless completion of the heterosexual project, which could only ever be possible as a mirage. Theirs is the home of dreams bound to become nightmares by the introduction of even the most vaguely foreign element. Such as reality, that most irksome of registers, or a long-lost son. The house of Queen of Hearts, whose drama is so latent you’d only have to snap your fingers for chaos to erupt, evokes the house of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, the kind of immaculate luxury that could only be sitting on top of some macabre bunker full of roaches and well-fed zombies. The drama that links these homes is the notion that the epitome of the heterosexual family bliss borders its very obliteration, with the unruly resurfacing of all the gunk that had been swept underneath, as the very foundation for its habitat.

When Gustav arrives, then, and ends up having an affair with his stepmom, a trench coat-wearing lawyer for young victims of sexual abuse, we’re only surprised at how careless they seem to be about being found out. El-Toukhy is smart to avoid sensationalizing the taboo-breaking premise of the narrative with a camera that sides with Anne: her sexual hunger, her contradictions, her stretch marks. This isn’t a film about roundabout incest, but one about the impossibility of satisfaction even for the most privileged woman, one with a high-powered and socially engaged job, money to spare, and a mansion by the lake in a Scandinavian country.

Queen of Hearts focuses on Anne’s paradoxes: She’s a savior and a monster, a middle-aged mother and a horny teenager, unabashedly exposing the inconvenient pores that remain underneath even the most beautifully made-up Nordic skin. And the film is about skin, ultimately. In the way Anne and Gustav have raw sex and the marks on Anne’s stomach are filmed with purpose, sincerity, and no apology. The affair begins when Anne walks into Gustav’s bedroom and gives him a handjob without bothering to lock the door. This comes soon after he brought a girl his own age home and Anne had to sit in her living room, staring at her laptop and drinking a glass of wine, while listening to the teenagers having sex. By the time Anne goes to the lake with Gustav and one of her twin girls, and Anne decides to get in the water, we know the deal is done. “But you never swim,” says the girl. Water in Queen of Hearts bears the same prophetic sexual force that’s appeared in many films, queer or not, from F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise to Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake.

The affair isn’t about love, of course, or passion. It’s not even about the sex itself. The affair is a settling of accounts, a vampiric attempt to deny the passing of time, which, by virtue of having passed, feels like it’s been wasted. For Anne, the culprit is Peter, who becomes a cock-blocking nuisance. The film, a melodrama with a superb final shot that offers no closure, at times tries too hard to provide a cause for Anne’s passage à l’acte. When Gustav asks Anne who she lost her virginity to, she answers, “With someone it shouldn’t have been,” which makes it seem like the film is suggesting that predatorial behavior is a sort of damned inheritance. The Queen of Hearts is much more successful, and courageous, when it follows the logic of sexual yearning itself, not worrying about rational justifications.

The first few sequences of Alejandro Landes’s Monos evoke Claire Denis’s Beau Travail, except it isn’t only men training in the deserted landscape. A few young women join them, which, inevitably takes the narrative elsewhere, even if the films’ basic premises are similar. In Monos, teenage guerilla fighters are supposed to guard a foreign hostage, Doctora Sara Watson (Julianne Nicholson), and a conscripted cow named Shakira. Intrigue and sexual tension ensure that nothing goes according to plan. The only thing that never finds any respite is the flow of violence, which increasingly loses its metaphorical sheen, becoming gratuitous toward the end. What starts out like a social critique gains the aura of an unnecessarily grisly horror film, more about overtly visible chains than the allegorical slaughtering of cows by paramilitary children named Rambo, Lady, Bigfoot, and Smurf.

It turns out that queerness lives even in the faraway mountaintops of the Colombian jungle, as one of the guerilla girls makes two boys kiss at the start of the film, which brought a discrete discomfort to the screening room I was seated in. By the time Nicholson’s character shares a brief lesbian kiss with a reluctant fighter who’s supposed to watch over her, later in the film, queerness is no longer a conceptual surprise hinting at meaningful registers beyond the narrative’s surface, but a kind of desperate attempt to make the plot seem cryptic. Like The Cossacks, Landes’s film is also about the impossibility of maintaining complete control over one’s claim of masculinity, or power more generally. In moments of crisis, the line between predator and prey get very thin, and even the most well-armed warriors have a way of becoming disarmed, naked, and sentimental.

Yuriy Shylov’s Projectionist follows the frailty of all flesh, hawkish accessory in hand or not, through the portrayal of the end of a film projectionist’s 44-year tenure at one of Kiev’s oldest movie theaters. It’s an end that coincides with the crumbling of projectionist Valentin’s own coughing body, and that of his bedridden mother. It turns out that the movie theater, too, is reaching its expiration point. Soon, its doors will close and its employees will be fired, and there’s a sense throughout Shylov’s documentary that analog cinema will be dealt a major blow with the theater’s closure. What will become of the space? Perhaps a Reebok or a McDonald’s. Perhaps a derelict muse for a Nikolaus Geyrhalter portrait of decay.

“You think you’re loud, but in reality you can only hear yourself,” Valentin tells his mother at one point. Her futile yelling of her son’s name from her bed is one of the most haunting motifs in the film. An uttering for uttering’s sake, a demand without expectations of an actual response, a mantra to remind oneself that one is, for now, still alive. Valentin has installed a whistle next to the bed, which he would actually be able to hear when she called if only she’d use it. But the mother mostly refuses to blow in the pragmatic apparatus, instead finding solace in the calling that won’t be heard and, thus, will need to be repeated ad nauseam.

Projectionist can feel a bit aimless, but it’s a welcome reminder of how the materiality of film, and thus its finitude, has something in common with our own—a kinship of frailty that the flawlessness of the digital image erases. Analog is the only technology that Valentin knows, whether he’s sewing, as he’s seen doing in the film, fixing a neighbor’s straightening iron, or projecting old home videos on filthy kitchen tiles. There’s pleasure to be found, for Valentin, not just in the stories, concepts, and metaphors of cinema, but in the very stuff that supports his craft, the paraphernalia of cinema that’s bound to crack, to dry out, to turn to dust, to disappear forever: film stock, Movieolas, spools, and so forth. Cinema, we’re reminded, is necessarily a tool of exposure, not just of the human condition in the face of death, but the human condition as an always gendered affair. It’s a tool that’s never settled, never comfortable, and never forgotten. “Men are cowards, didn’t you know that?” is how Valentin puts it toward the end of Projectionist. In his world, one would know, by looking at the projector, at the very stuff of cinema, how much longer a film would last. The remainder of the film’s “life” is perfectly real, perfectly tangible, and alive because it’s in constant danger of being jammed up and torn by the very engine that ensured its running.

The Odessa International Film Festival runs from July 12—20.

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Film

Review: In Angels Are Made of Light, a Nation Rebuilds in the Ruins of War

The film is an intimate portrait of a nation terminally anxious about who will see fit to rule it next.

2.5

Published

on

Angels Are Made of Light
Photo: Grasshopper Film

Early in Angels Are Made of Light, a voice breaks through a sea of chatter in a classroom teeming with young boys: “I only know about the time since I was born. What’s history?” The child goes on to explain that history isn’t taught at the Daqiqi Balkhi high school in Kabul, Afghanistan. The question’s poignance is self-evident, particularly because the building itself appears to have been disturbed by the city’s recent trauma. The opening shot of James Longley’s first film since Iraq in Fragments captures splotches of sunlight entering through holes in the school’s exterior. Later, one of the building’s walls collapses, and the children relocate to a location supported by American funding.

Though it inevitably gestures toward American occupation, Angels Are Made of Light is rare in its nearly undivided attention to civilian life in a region fundamentally altered by the U.S.’s so-called war on terror. Much of the film is composed of footage Longley shot at Daqiqi Balkhi from 2011 to 2014, with a particular focus on three brothers: Rostam, Sohrab, and Yaldash. The trio speak in voiceover throughout, and seem to define themselves by their relative interest in work and studying. Sohrab excels in school and doesn’t see himself as fit for manual labor, while the older Rostam works closely with their father. Yaldash, the youngest, works at a tin shop and is anguished when his job interferes with his educational aspirations.

The documentary’s classroom scenes exude a tone of controlled chaos, shot mostly at eye level with the students as they struggle to hear and be heard over the din of their classmates. (This is particularly true at their school’s first location, where numerous classes are taught outside right next to one another.) The passage of time is marked by changes in seasons and the repetition of certain ceremonies, like a teacher appreciation day featuring musical performances by students. Concurrently, there’s a Malickian quality to the near-constant voiceover of the brothers, whose concerns veer from the quotidian (earning money for the family, achieving in school) to the philosophical. Though their voices are profound, their limited perspective yields lengthy stretches of repetitive, meandering sentiments that are inflated by John Erik Kaada’s sometimes intrusive score.

If the children aren’t taught about their country’s history as a site of hostile takeover by other countries, the Taliban, and groups of mujahideen, they have clearly internalized the trauma their homeland has endured. “Death is coming. Doomsday is coming. Everything is coming,” one says. All seem to agree that learning about computers (none of which are seen in the documentary) is the only sure ticket to an escape or a successful career.

As Angels Are Made of Light proceeds, its chorus of narrative voices expands, adding a number of teachers (including the boys’ mother) and another schoolboy who sells hot food at an open market. The teachers add flashes of historical context, which Longley plays over archival footage of Kabul and its ruling governments over the previous decades. Cuts between the city’s past and its present are stark: The contemporary skyline is pockmarked with absent buildings that have been replaced by makeshift structures, and the city’s center is now cluttered with billboards advertising mobile phones and alcohol produced in NATO countries. Eventually, Longley shows current political action in the streets, as mujahideen gather to flog themselves in public, other groups march for democracy, and all focus their attention on 2014 presidential election where Hamid Karzai democratically transfers power to his successor, Ashraf Ghani, as rumors swirl about the Americans’ sway over the vote.

Longley’s decision to avoid addressing Afghani politics until the latter half of his film is sound, perhaps a signal that his young characters are becoming more attuned to the corruption that pervades daily operations in their city, but Angels Are Made of Light lacks the sort of structural framework that can properly sustain its lack of plot and rather confusing array of editorialists speaking in voiceover. The closest the film comes to a guiding focus is the recurring image of a large, ghostly white blimp that looms over Kabul, a blot of menace as children and other citizens look to the sky in hope or prayer. Presumably an observational surveillance craft, the blimp is an ironic mirror of the documentarian’s predicament—a totem that reminds everyone who sees it of the West’s influence on their lives. Longley is aware that his camera serves a similar function, and it’s admirable that he’s able to achieve an intimate portrait of a nation terminally anxious about who will see fit to rule it next.

Director: James Longley Distributor: Grasshopper Film Running Time: 117 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Film

Review: Mike Wallace Is Here Honors a Legend by Arguing with Him

Much like its subject, Avi Belkin’s documentary knows how to start an argument.

3

Published

on

Mike Wallace Is Here
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

Much like its subject, Mike Wallace Is Here knows how to start an argument. Avi Belkin’s archival documentary begins with the legendary broadcaster (who died in 2012) interviewing Bill O’Reilly at the peak of the latter’s influence as a Fox News blowhard. “That is not an interview, that’s a lecture,” Wallace moans before O’Reilly calls him a “dinosaur” and then really twists the knife: “You’re the driving force behind my career,” he tells Wallace. The exchange is riveting and, in some ways, inscrutable, as both of these TV personalities are so skilled at performance it can seem impossible to know if their dialogue is in earnest or some knowing fight among titans happy to march into battle.

Though it’s almost certainly fair to say that Wallace set the stage for an era of ostentatious and increasingly dangerous “personality journalism,” the breadth and quality of Wallace’s work is rich enough to lend some tension to Belkin’s exploration of the reporter as celebrity. Assembled with a propulsive momentum from dozens of televised interviews of and by Wallace, Mike Wallace Is Here portrays its subject as a self-made man, or, as his colleague Morley Safer calls him, “an invention.” Born Myron Wallace, he adopted his broadcast name while working as a performer on radio and then television, a decision made with no shortage of anxiety due to Wallace’s self-consciousness about his acne scars from childhood.

Ironically, Wallace’s breakthrough as a broadcaster (after a series of acting and promotional gigs) came with a show that revolutionized the television interview through its intense lighting and use of invasive closeups. Clips from his show Night-Beat—the first of two Wallace-led interview programs sponsored by cigarette companies and cloaked in smoke—reveal that the media personality was already aware of the showmanship innate in his brand of journalism. He introduces the show by saying “My role is that of a reporter,” and hones his skill for unsettling his guests with obnoxious editorial comments before asking questions. (“Many people hated your husband, and you,” he once said to Eleanor Roosevelt.)

Belkin weaves Wallace’s personal story into the documentary’s parade of interviews in a manner that’s unsurprisingly superficial, glossing over his many marriages, the death of his 19-year-old son, Peter, in a mountain-climbing accident in Greece in 1962 (Wallace cites the tragedy as a pivotal moment in the creation of 60 Minutes and the revival of his career), and a suicide attempt circa 1986. In interviews where Wallace is the subject—with the likes of Barbara Walters and other 60 Minutes colleagues—he’s alternately open and evasive about these flashpoints in his life, often demonstrating the very behavior he has no patience for as an interviewer. Belkin shrewdly reveals Wallace’s hypocrisy through editing, cutting to, for instance, a clip of Wallace grilling Larry King about his string of failed marriages.

Mike Wallace Is Here only suffers in its treatment of the broadcaster’s time at 60 Minutes, dispensing with cleverly edited commentary in favor of a swift survey of the major news of the second half of the 20th century. These include necessary digressions, such as General William C. Westmoreland’s libel suit against a CBS Reports special that Wallace anchored accusing the Army general of falsifying the American military’s analysis of the strength of the Vietnamese army in order to keep the war in Vietnam going, and the tumultuous process of televising Wallace’s interview with the tobacco industry whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand (the subject of Michael Mann’s The Insider). But this extensive highlight reel seems to forget that the documentary is scrutinizing Wallace as it’s celebrating him.

At its nerviest, Mike Wallace Is Here uses the words of other celebrities to psychoanalyze Wallace. The film argues (and at times Wallace acknowledges) that his success is a product of his sense of shame, first about the way that he looked and then about the way that he behaved, loved, and parented. When Wallace is coy, Belkin effectively imagines a more honest response by cutting to someone else saying what he believes is true. After showing Wallace dancing around his lack of pride for a while, he cuts to Barbara Streisand talking about how “fear is the energy toward doing your best work.” In the very same interview, she calls Wallace “a son of a bitch,” and Mike Wallace Is Here is at its best when it seems to be in direct debate with this journalistic legend. The film honors Wallace best when it seems to be arguing with him.

Director: Avi Belkin Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 94 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Features

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.

Published

on

Demolition Girl
Photo: Japan Cuts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Japan Cuts runs from July 19—28.

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Film

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

Published

on

David Crosby: Remember My Name
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Film

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

Published

on

Cassandro, the Exotico!
Photo: Film Movement

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Features

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.

Published

on

Marc Maron
Photo: IFC Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right.

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

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

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

Yeah.

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

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

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

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading
Advertisement

Giveaways

Advertisement

Newsletter

Advertisement

Preview

Trending