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Understanding Screenwriting #80: Amigo, Circumstance, The Debt, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #80: Amigo, Circumstance, The Debt, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Amigo, Circumstance, The Debt, The Guard, Tough as Nails: The Life and Films of Richard Brooks (book), The Spy in Black, Contraband, Escape, but first…

Fan Mail: David Ehrenstein took grave exception to my observation that The Help was not just another “white person saves the day for black” viewpoint. My point was that the film goes beyond that. I realize there is a great split on that point, as about the film as well. I always love it when a film stirs up the kind on controversy The Help has. I think in this case it is because the film has gone some places other films have not, even if it has not gone as far as David and many, many others think it should. I’m looking forward to films that do go further than The Help, as much as I love that film.

“Denvercash77” asks what the “official opinion” of Slant is on The Help. My own view of that, and others who write and edit Slant and the House are free to disagree, is that both operations encourage a great variety of opinion about whatever we write about. That’s what leads to the kind of ongoing discussions David and I have had about nearly everything since he discovered “Understanding Screenwriting.” One of the things that writing my book American Audiences on Movies and Moviegoing re-enforced in me was the enormous variety of responses people can have to a single movie. And how even a single person’s response to a film can change over time, as we have seen in some of the “Summer of ’86” pieces. There is no “official opinion,” especially in a blog like the House. If you want an “official version,” read the New York Times. They specialize in that sort of thing. We don’t.

Amigo (2010. Written by John Sayles. 128 minutes)

Are water buffalos this year’s Ishtar? Ishtar was the Babylonian goddess of fertility, war and sex. You would think with a resume like that, she’d be big in pictures. Unfortunately, no. She is one of the goddesses prayed to in D.W. Griffith’s 1916 Intolerance, which was not a hit. And she lent her name as the title for Elaine May’s 1987 disaster. Well, water buffalos are turning into this year’s Ishtar. First there is a long series of shots at the beginning of Uncle Boonmee (2010), which you may remember from US#72 did not put me in the contemplative mood the film intended. Then a couple of weeks later oxen, the American equivalent, showed up in the opening of Meek’s Cutoff (2010) and that one ended badly, or rather didn’t end at all, but just stopped. So you can imagine my trepidation when one of the opening shots of Amigo has an honest-to-God water buffalo. Unfortunately water buffalo movies are 0-for-3 this season.

I love John Sayles, his scripts, and his films. His 1979 Return of the Secaucus Seven started the indie film movement of the last thirty years by being a fresh, inventive look at the ‘60s generation. Aside from a bad experience with Paramount on Baby, It’s You in 1983, he has avoided dealing with the major studios, except for doing script doctoring on films like Apollo 13 (1995). He writes and directs on his own films, selecting the kind of stories that nobody else is telling. The hallmarks of his films are his ability to write an enormous range of characters and his great ear for dialogue. The flaws in his films is that he is not as accomplished a director as he is as a screenwriter, and he can get overly preachy on the liberal side of the pulpit.

Amigo has none of his virtues and all of his flaws. It’s the story of the involvement of the U.S. Army in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War. We are with a small group of soldiers who are asked to pacify a village in the middle of the jungle. The Americans are very standard-issue ugly Americans, or if not ugly, certainly naïve. None of them pop off the screen the way Sayles’s characters usually do. Nor do the Filipino characters. The head man of the village and the leading man of the film is Rafael, played by Filipino star Joel Torre with, alas, a very 2010 movie star haircut. Sayles is ordinarily good at getting into characters from other cultures, but not with Rafael. The rest of the villagers are not particularly distinctive either. Compare them to the ensembles in Sayles’s films such as City of Hope (1991), Lone Star (1996) and Sunshine State (2002). So we spend a lot of time with the characters, both American and Filipino, but they are not very interesting to hang out with. The dialogue is alas Sayles in his preachy mode, and the insights Lt. Compton, the officer heading the unit, comes up with are about what you would expect and very bland.

Sayles’s direction does not make the best of what the script provides. I kept thinking of the hypnotic spell Terrence Malick cast with another group of American soldiers in the jungle in The Thin Red Line (1998). Were there any water buffalos in Thin Red Line?

So, John, sorry I didn’t like this one, but I will be there for your next one. Unless it is entitled The Water Buffalos of Ishtar. There are limits, even for me.

Circumstance (2011. Written by Maryam Keshavarz. 107 minutes)

Circumstance

Just your typical below-average Persian Lesbian romance: Although there are no water buffalos in this film, it still gets off to a bad start. We are in Tehran and hanging out with two teenage girls, Atafeh and Shireen. They are best friends forever, they dream of going away somewhere else where they will have more freedom (cue fantasy scenes), they flirt with boys, they flirt with each other. But their flirting with each other is written and more crucially directed by Keshavarz so that it seems more serious than it might be. So we get that there will be a lesbian romance. This is Keshavarz’s first feature as a writer and director, and she doesn’t get the tone right in this scene, which gives away way too soon what the movie is about. So the film then spends way more time than it needs to with the girls larking about while we are a good twenty to thirty minutes ahead of the movie. The first hour has a lot of stuff we don’t have to know. This is a typical first-timer’s mistake, assuming we need a lot more exposition than we do. How quickly do you think it takes Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson to do the following in the opening of Lawrence of Arabia (1962): Lawrence dies; there is service more him; we meet Brighton, Allenby, Bentley, the Medical Officer, and Murray; we learn they all have different views of Lawrence; and we get to Cairo? Five minutes and forty seconds, and that includes the credits.

We do get some amusing scenes with the two girls hanging out with sort-of boyfriends. The guys take them to a hidden video store where they watch Milk (2008), which leads them to a dubbing session (how? Not clear) in which they are dubbing the sex scenes of Sex and the City (2008) into Farsi. These are amusing scenes, but what movie are they from? They don’t seem to be from this one, at least as written and played. And they are not so good that you can’t not include them, although presumably Keshavarz thought so. You’ve got to kill all your darlings, kid. Several scenes give us a look at Iranian culture, but not with any depth or freshness. At the end of the film, some of the credits mention this was developed in the Sundance Institute. We know the development process in Hollywood can flatten out scripts for studio films, but the same thing can happen in indie development as well. The dubbing scenes probably played well in a workshop and the assumption was they would work in the film. Likewise, the assumption on the development level was that the story of two girls in Tehran who become lovers was going to be enough to carry the picture. It’s not, and a whole lot more sharpening of the script in terms of character and plotting needed to be done.

Having said that, the film begins to pick up in the last half hour. Atafeh’s brother, Mehran, has come out of either jail or rehab, and is now a member of the Morality Police. He rats out the girls (not for their lesbianism, but because they drive around in cars with boys) to the Morality Police. That’s even though he has the hots for Shireen (whom he has sexual dreams about—one nice shot in the film is his reaction to waking up from one of those dreams). Merhan manipulates the situation so that her family is glad to marry her off to Mehran to keep her out of trouble. Atafeh and Shireen are miserable about this, since it never occurs to them they can use their situation as sisters-in-law to continue their romance. Mehran has set up surveillance cameras in his house and he catches Atafeh being emotionally if not sexually intimate with Shireen. Atafeh finds the cameras and what he has recorded, but doesn’t do much with the information. She goes to Shireen and asks her to leave Tehran and go to their dream county, Dubai. (These are not worldly girls.) Their final scene ought to be a killer, but there is nothing there. Atafeh asks, Shireen doesn’t do or say anything, and we see Atafeh leaving in a car. I suspect part of the problem is that while Nikohl Boosheri, who plays Atafeh, has a lively presence on camera, Sarah Kazemy, who plays Shireen, is beautiful but completely unexpressive. She is not up to what should have been the demands of the scene.

The Debt (2010. Screenplay by Mathew Vaughn & Jane Goldman and Peter Straughn, based on the screenplay for the film Ha-Hov by Assaf Bernstein & Ido Rosenblum. 114 minutes)

The Debt

Finally, I picked a good one to go see: I have no complaints about the first ten minutes or so of this one. We are introduced to the young versions of Rachel, Stephan and David, three Mossad agents in 1966, who have come back to Israel after killing the notorious Dieter Vogel, the notorious “Surgeon of Birkenau.” Then we get introduced to the same characters in 1997, who are celebrating the publication of a book by Rachel and Stephan’s daughter about the mission. At the celebration Rachel reads aloud the passage where Vogel is killed and we see it acted out in flashback. And we see the older David throw himself in front of a truck rather than go to the celebration. No nonsense about us being twenty minutes ahead of the film, it’s way ahead of us, and we are running to catch up.

Finally we settle into a lengthy flashback sequence of the mission in 1965-66. The Israeli version this one is based on has less of the flashbacks and focuses more on the older characters. (I have not seen the Israeli film, but Michele Gendelman, a screenwriter and colleague of mine at LACC—she has taken over my screenwriting course—has, and points of comparison come from her.) The three younger agents are in East Berlin (West Berlin in the Israeli version; the writers of the new version are making it more difficult for the agents), and Rachel, on her first field mission, is required to identify Vogel, who is now a kindly gynecologist. The examination sequences, also in the Israeli version, are even more squirm-inducing that the dentist scenes with Szell in Marathon Man (1976). The plan is to kidnap Vogel, put him on a trolley stop in East Berlin that is nominally closed because it is part of the West Berlin rail system. See the advantage of East Berlin? In a great hair-raising sequence not in the earlier version, the transfer goes wrong and the trio is stuck with Vogel in a small apartment. The pressure on all the characters, including Vogel, builds up until he escapes, as we saw in the earlier flashback. Except this time Rachel does not shoot him. He gets away, and the trio decides to tell their bosses that they killed him and got rid of the body. They come home as heroes, which they remain to this day, telling their story to future generations. Yes indeed, this is a classic “When the legend becomes the truth, print the legend” situation.

Making a movie in which the same character is played at two different ages is enormously difficult. You have to write both versions of the characters so we believe them not only in their own scenes, but that the young ones will become the older ones. Movie after movie geeks that. In the 1994 version of Little Women, I just never believed that Kristen Dunst’s young Amy would grow up to be Samantha Mathis’s older Amy. The best example of it working is Kate Winslet as the young Iris and Judi Dench as the older Iris in Iris (2001). The Debt comes close to that standard, and does it with three sets of characters. The younger Rachel is on her first assignment, still a little green, but up to the job. The older Rachel is a tough cookie. We see the beginnings of that in the young Rachel, and the writers give us a one-off, a nice single scene set in 1970 in which we see the young Rachel, now married to Stephan, turning brittle. It helps of course that you have the fabulous Jessica Chastain (is there nothing this actress can’t do?) as the young Rachel, giving an even better performance than she does in The Help. It’s also useful to have Helen Mirren as the older Rachel, so that when we come out of the long flashback Mirren is there to grab us into the modern story.

The quality of the writing and casting extends to the two men. When I first saw Martin Csokas and Sam Worthington as the young Stephan and David, respectively, I thought they should have been playing the other parts. Worthington physically looks more like Tom Wilkinson, who plays the older Stephan, and Csokas looks more like Ciarán Hinds, who plays the older David. But the emotional temperature of the actors are perfectly matched. The casting works, as it does with Chastain and Mirren. The characters at both ages are so beautifully written (the film is as much a character study as a thriller) that we believe everybody at every age.

So then what happens? Why did David kill himself? Because he learned that there is an old man in a hospital in Ukraine claiming to be…Vogel. This happens a lot earlier in the Israeli version. Stephan, now high up in the Mossad, can’t go tie up loose ends because he is in a wheelchair. David is dead, and that leaves…Rachel. After all, she’s the one who had the gynecological exam from Vogel. So she goes off, breaks into several offices (I thought she was retired from the service, but once a sneaky one, always a sneaky one), and the hospital room and discovers the man…is not Vogel. Whew! Don’t get up to leave just yet…

The Guard (2011. Written by John Michael McDonagh. 96 minutes)

The Guard

And another entertaining one: You know a picture has you when you start laughing before anybody says anything. A carload of probably drunken young Irish kids are zipping down the highway, rock and roll blaring. Their car zips past a cop car. The camera stays on the cop in the car, Sergeant Gerry Boyle. He makes no move to give chase. We hear a crash off-screen. Boyle has no reaction. The audience laughs. He turns his car’s engine on and goes to investigate. There are bodies all over the road. He checks A) to see if they are dead, and B) their pockets to see which of their drugs he wants to keep for himself. What we have here is a small town Irish Andy Sipowitz, and he is going to be even more fun to watch.

John Michael McDonagh is the brother of playwright (Beauty Queen of Leenane, Lieutenant of Inishmore, The Pillowman) Martin McDonagh. As a filmgoer you know Martin McDonagh best from his writing and directing In Bruges (2008). If that film’s combination of language foul and otherwise, comedy, and violence appealed to you as it did to me, you are going to feel right at home with The Guard. It helps that this McDonagh uses his brother’s favorite actor, Brendon Gleeson, to play Boyle. It appears that the McDonagh brothers and Gleeson are going to be one of those writer-actor combinations like Loos and Harlow (see US #79). Not only has this McDonagh written another great part for Gleeson, he has made it a little deeper than the ones his brother has given him.

Although it may seem like it at the beginning of the film, there is more to the film than just Boyle being a character and offending everybody with his language and behavior. We are afraid in the opening scenes this is going to be an old cop/young cop movie, but the young cop leaves the picture abruptly. Boyle is soon partnered up with a prissy—compared to him—African-American F.B.I. agent Wendell Everett. That produces scenes that are more interesting than the ones with the young cop. Everett is in Ireland investigating the possible landing of a drug smuggling boat with $500 million worth of drugs (and listen to the fun McDonagh has with that number in the dialogue). It turns out that for all Boyle’s vices, he is one of the few honest cops in the neighborhood, maybe in Ireland, which leads to a wonderful line about the impossibility of bribing Americans. At least compared to the Irish.

As the plot gets more complicated, we continue to laugh, especially at Don Cheadle’s reactions of Everett to Boyle’s excesses. McDonagh, who also directed, understands as did Buster Keaton that the reaction to something is just as funny or funnier than the thing itself. In addition, McDonagh is sneaking up on us. We begin to see that Boyle is facing some serious moral and ethical decisions, and since we like him as a character so much, we emotionally involved in his choices. He and Everett get into a shootout with the bad guys, and it appears that Boyle has either died in the fire on the boat, or else drowned. Except that a twerpy little kid reminds Everett of some stuff we thought was just one-offs and typical Boyle bullshit. Maybe it was, and maybe it wasn’t, and McDonagh leaves it very, very open at the end. Sometimes, and this time is one of them, not knowing is the most satisfying ending of them all.

Tough as Nails: The Life and Times of Richard Brooks (2011. Book written by Douglass K. Daniel. 249 pages)

Tough as Nails: The Life and Times of Richard BrooksA disappointment: In US#73 I mentioned this book when I talked about two Richard Brooks films that showed up in a retrospective of Brooks films at the UCLA Film Archives. I finally got around to reading it and I have to say it is second rate. But that’s not third, fourth, or fifth rate as so many film books are.

As the subtitle says, it is about Brooks’s life and films. The films pretty much were his life, since he was a workaholic from the get-go. He was a journalist, both in print and radio before World War II, then wrote a novel called The Brick Foxhole while still in the service. It was eventually made into Crossfire (1947), but with the murder victim changed from a homosexual in the novel to a Jew in the film. Brooks’s first big credit, as I mentioned in US#78, was Key Largo (1948), and he soon landed at MGM and began directing in the early ‘50s. His filmography includes Blackboard Jungle (1955), Elmer Gantry (1960), The Professionals (1966) and In Cold Blood (1967).

Daniel does give us a lot of details about the films, mostly about Brooks directing, since that produces lively quotes about him being a holy terror on the set. But there is also good material about the writing. Sinclair Lewis, the author of the novel of Elmer Gantry, told Brooks to read the reviews of the book, which Lewis thought had pointed out many legitimate flaws in the book. Brooks did and it helped him focus the material for the film. Daniel is good on the way Brooks dealt with the censorship of the time in adapting two Tennessee Williams play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) and Sweet Bird of Youth (1962), whatever you may think of the results.

Although Daniel had a researcher working on digging up stuff, Daniel, whose two previous books are about television, doesn’t seem that well versed in film history. He mentions that a minor Brooks script, To the Victor (1948) was filmed on location in Paris, “an extravagance for the time,” but that was a period when Hollywood was beginning to shoot on locations, particularly overseas ones, a lot. Daniel writes that “By the summer of 1947 the House Committee on Un-American activities…was preparing for hearings…” HUAC had been looking into Communism in Hollywood for several years, and in fact had some hearings in Los Angeles in the spring of 1947. And nobody seems to have caught the irony of Robert Black having a line in In Cold Blood about a bunch of trash being the treasure of the Sierra Madre. Blake appeared in the Huston film as a child actor.
Daniel is also a very sloppy writer. Blackboard Jungle was released in 1955. Daniel writes, “The biggest controversy erupted that fall when the Venice Film Festival selected Blackboard Jungle for exhibition. (It had been awarded a diploma of merit at the Edinburgh Film Festival the previous November.)” OK, what year did it go to Venice and what year did it go to Edinburgh? It’s not clear in the book.

This book is part of the Wisconsin Film Studies series from the University of Wisconsin Press, which produced the excellent Glenn Lovell biography of John Sturges I have mentioned. The series editor is Pat McGilligan, whom I think almost as highly of as I do John Sayles, but it looks like McGilligan and Sayles, like Homer, are nodding this time around. Make up your own water buffalo joke here.

The Spy in Black (1939. Screenplay by Emeric Pressburger, scenario by Roland Pertwee, based on the novel by Storer Clouston. 82 minutes)

The Spy in Black

The beginning of a beautiful relationship: Pressburger was a Hungarian screenwriter who worked in Germany before escaping to France in 1934 and then to Britain in 1936. He is best known for his long-time collaboration with director Michael Powell on such elaborate and exotic films as The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948). But even they started small. This film is their first collaboration.

In the summer of 1938 Pressburger had already written one script for Alexander Korda, the Hungarian producer working in England. Korda called him into the office one day. Korda said he did not have any more work for him, unless (Pressburger later said, “I was soon to learn that with Korda there was always an ’unless’”) he might like to try to save a project called The Spy in Black. Korda and London Films had the great German actor Conrad Veidt under contract. Veidt’s place in film history was already secure with his classic performance as Cesare, the somnabulist, in the 1919 German film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Veidt had also left Germany in the ‘30s and ended up in London, but nobody could find a project for him. Korda and his American executive producer on loan from Columbia Pictures had tried to get a script, but nothing worked, probably because there was no obvious part in the novel for Veidt. Pressburger was given the latest script, by Roland Pertwee, and came into a meeting a few days later with Asher (the American), Pertwee, Korda and Michael Powell, who had already made a name for himself with the 1936 film The Edge of the World.

Pressburger proceeded to outline a totally new story that had almost no relationship to the novel. It not only was a better story, but it had a great part for Veidt. Asher and Pertwee were furious, but Korda assigned Pressburger and Powell to work on the script with Veidt. Pertwee’s name stayed on the credits, although very little of his work remained in the script. (This backstory is from Pressburger’s grandson Kevin Macdonald 1994 biography, Emeric Pressburger: The Life and Death of a Screenwriter. Macdonald’s comment on Pertwee’s credit is that “Throughout the Thirties the writing credits on British films are often better fiction than the films themselves.” True in America as well, as we have discussed.)

The story they came up with has Veidt as Captain Hardt, a German submarine captain in World War I. (There is no submarine captain in the novel; the spy is a minister.) He is assigned a mission to go to the Orkney Islands, off the upper tip of Scotland, and make contact with a woman who is a German spy (a variation on the minister in the book). She knows a drunken traitorous British Naval officer who will give her the sailing orders for the British fleet. She will pass this on to Hardt, who will then be able to torpedo the British ships. But the Brits have discovered the plot and replaced the German spy with a British one. And she and Hardt develop an attraction.

What Pressburger brings to the script is a wonderful light touch. The film is very much in the tradition of the British Hitchcock movies of the late ‘30s, but there is more warmth and feeling than Hitch managed. We first meet Hardt when he is coming off a long mission, and he and his First Mate go into a fancy restaurant in Germany hoping for a great meal. But the restaurant is out of everything they want. We get that Hardt is cool and sophisticated as well as in charge. We are then introduced to Anne Burnett, the teacher going to the Orkney Islands that Hardt is to meet. Unfortunately, either the writing, or the cinematography, or just the print TCM showed leaves us very confused as to what happens to her. She’s kidnapped, but by the Germans or the British? And when she shows up on the islands, is it the same woman? The actresses look a lot alike, but they are different. The explanation of what happened comes much later in the film, and makes even less sense than the kidnapping scenes in the dark, as well as not being particularly believable. But then Hardt and the teacher, now played by a young and glowing Valerie Hobson, meet, and the movie takes off. Powell, whose Edge of the World was acclaimed for its location filming, wanted to shoot on the islands, but Asher, watching the American money that made up some of the budget, refused. Powell was eventually allowed three days of shooting on the islands, but with none of the cast.

When it turns out the teacher is in fact an English counterspy, Hardt becomes a tough, but not mean, military leader, trying to escape, commandeering a ferry, and trying to rescue some trapped German sailors. He fails of course, and the teacher looks noble as she realizes she has done the right thing for King and Country.

The Spy in Black was shot in late 1938 and released August 12, 1939. Within a month World War II had started and what had been a light thriller was now one of the first wartime propaganda films. And sometimes you get even luckier: In October the British battleship Royal Oak was sunk, probably by a German submarine, off the Orkneys. OK, not lucky for the men on the ship, but for the box office. Let’s keep our priorities straight here, folks.

Contraband (1940. Screenplay and Original Story by Emeric Pressburger, scenario by Michael Powell and Brock Williams. 92 minutes)

Contraband

We’ll always have the Three Vikings: Needless to say, after the success of The Spy in Black, Korda and everybody else thought the team should make another one. So Pressburger came up with the script for this. (I have no idea what the “scenario” credit is in this case. On Spy it was to give a credit to an earlier writer; here it may be something more like a shooting script that Powell worked out with Williams, a journeyman writer with no distinguished credits. See Macdonald’s comment above on screenwriting credits; he makes no mention of Williams in his book.) He could not make Veidt a sympathetic German after the war started, so he is now Captain Andersen, a Danish sea captain, whose cargo ship is stopped by the British Contraband Control. The first twenty minutes or so of the film is almost a documentary on the Contraband Control offices and how they work, part of the propaganda aspect of the film. Powell was now able to get outdoors, and the ship sequences are great to look at it. It helps of course that he has F.A. Young as his cinematographer. If you don’t know who he is and what he did later, look him up.

While the ship is at anchor, Mrs. Sorensen, a Danish woman who has been living in America, gets off the ship, along with Mr. Pidgeon, a talent scout who is always reading Variety. Mrs. Sorensen has snitched the leave papers the Brits gave to Captain Andersen. So Andersen goes ashore and tracks her down. We get a lot of scenes of Veidt and the still young and glowing Valerie Hobson doing all the charming stuff that Pressburger writes for them. By now the three knew each other well, and Pressburger put in stuff based on what he knew of them. The couple ends up at a restaurant called The Three Vikings; typical in-joke: Pressburger making fun of Veidt’s problem with English pronunciation, as he did in Spy, in this case with the word “viking.” The restaurant was a virtual duplicate of one Veidt and Hobson ate at in real life. The restaurant is run by the twin brother of Andersen’s first officer, although he and the staff seem more like natives of Pressburger’s Hungary than Danes.

About halfway into the picture, the spy stuff starts. Mrs. Sorensen and Mr. Pidgeon as well turn out to be spies, tracking down a German spy ring in London. Action ensues, including a fight in a warehouse filled with busts of Neville Chamberlain. Andersen uses one to knock out a bad guy, then says, “I always thought he was tough.” In both Spy and even more so here, Pressburger has written scenes that let Powell and his crew develop a German Expressionistic visual style. Well, if you have the star of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, it makes sense to surround him with a look that he will feel at home in. Here the film uses the fact that the blackouts have started at the beginning of the war to add to the visual subtlety. The film grossed more than Spy. Pressburger and Powell would move from these two into more expressionistic films. Hobson later went on to star in Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) and marry politician John Profumo, the swine. And what of Veidt?

Escape (1940. Screenplay by Arch Oboler and Marguerite Roberts, based on the novel by Ethel Vance. 104 minutes)

Escape

Round up the usual suspect: Veidt came to America. Contraband was released in England on May 11, 1940, but not in America until the end of November. In he meanwhile Veidt had made Escape, which was released in early November 1940. The film was based on a best-selling novel about an American who goes to Germany (although the country is never mentioned by name in the film; the Swastikas do give it away though) to try to track down his mother. She was German born, as was Mark, the American. She returned to Germany, but he has lost track of her. She is in fact not only in a concentration camp but soon to be executed. Mark makes friends with the Countess, an American woman who is the mistress of General von Kolb. Guess which part Veidt plays?

Arch Oboler was best known for the radio show Lights Out, which started in the ‘30s and continued through the mid-‘40s. Which may explain why the first hour or so of Escape, his first screenplay, is so bloody talky. The director is Mervyn LeRoy (see US # 79), who by this time had moved over to MGM from Warners. His directorial style had become more typically MGM: slow and stately, with lots of Jack Conway-type two-shots of actors talking nose to nose. LeRoy says in his autobiography Take One that Veidt was his original choice for the role, but was unavailable. LeRoy started shooting with Paul Lukas, but had to let him go, since the part was not right for him. Boy, that’s the truth. Von Kolb is a general, but not a Nazi, and is rather disdainful of the Nazis. In his earliest scenes, he shows the charm that Veidt showed in the two Pressburger films. Veidt was a hell of a lot more charming on screen than Lukas, who had other skills. The combination of charm and threat was necessary for the part, since the Countess was being played by Mrs. Thalberg herself, Norma Shearer. We have to see that von Kolb has some appeal, and Veidt gives him that. In terms of the balance of the film, he gives him too much. Mark is played by Robert Taylor, who never seemed more like a block of wood than he does here. Everybody else is livelier than he is, but Veidt especially. Pauline Kael, as she often did, pretty much got it right when she wrote that “the villain is so much more attractive than the hero that the whole thing turns into a feeble and overproduced joke.”

The film is a little better than that in the second half, which I suspect was written by Roberts, our old friend from Ambush (1950, see US#45) and True Grit (1969, see US#67). Mark, with help of assorted people, arranges to get his mother out of the camp. The camp doctor gives her a drug that makes her appear dead, then signs the death certificate. An old friend of Mark’s, who has been established as the person who carts the coffins out of the camp, arranges to take this coffin. Circumstances force them to go to the Countess’s house. Guess who shows up there? The scenes in the house should be a lot more suspenseful on screen than they are. Think of the final twenty minutes of Notorious (1946) and you can see what they could have been. I ping on Charles Bennett’s Fat English Friend, but the son of a bitch could direct.

Veidt does get a nice death scene, with Shearer, livelier than usual, talking him into a fatal heart attack. MGM really was too genteel a studio for Veidt. He soon moved to Warner Brothers, where he went head to head with Humphrey Bogart, a more fitting adversary than, eew, Robert Taylor. And in his second to last film before his death at the age of 50, Cesare of Dr. Caligari got something not many actors get: a second role that secured his place in film history. He was Major Strasser in Casablanca (1942).

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

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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.

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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

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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

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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

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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.

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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.

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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

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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

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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

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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

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

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

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Demolition Girl
Photo: Japan Cuts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Japan Cuts runs from July 19—28.

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

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

2.5

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David Crosby: Remember My Name
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.5

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Cassandro, the Exotico!
Photo: Film Movement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Marc Maron
Photo: IFC Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Streetwise
Photo: Janus Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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