Fan Mail: David Ehrenstein commented that the collaboration between Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell, which I discussed a bit in US#80, was worthy of further examination. It definitely is, as are the collaborations of not only the other writers I have written about, but many more. The historiography of screenwriting is not an area where a lot of film historians, especially academic ones, work. It’s not a smart career move for opportunistic academics, given the old guys on their dissertation committees who still believe that directors make their movies as they go along. I have been promoting the idea that screenwriters should be examined in more detail for decades now. Being the Midwestern optimist I am, I see the glass as half full. Well, maybe a quarter full. There have been biographies of screenwriters, and in US#82 I will be writing about Pat McGilligan’s Backstory 5, the latest in the gold standard of screenwriter interview books. On the other hand, I recently saw a list of the Ph.D. dissertations done since 1975 at UCLA on film subjects. There were more than you can shake a stick at on film noir and feminist theory, but not a lot on screenwriting.
Iris (2011. Stage production written by Philippe Decoufle. 135 minutes)
Half a disaster: My wife and I have been huge fans of the Canadian Cirque du Soleil since it first played in Los Angeles at an Arts Festival in 1986. If you have never seen a Cirque production, you should. It is a circus without animals, but usually with incredible athletic performers (gymnasts, contortionists, aerialists, and other people who do things there are no names for) and incredibly funny clowns. The atmosphere is more European than American, and some of the acts, especially the clowns, are existentialism in motion. The organization started in 1984 with a collection of street performers in Montreal and now runs 21 shows around the world, some touring, and some (several in Las Vegas) in permanent residence. Iris is the new Cirque production settling down for what they hope will be a long run at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood. That’s where the Oscars are held, so it will not surprise you to learn that the theme of Iris is Cinema. Previous Cirque shows have subtly referenced film before. Their 2007 show Corteo was very much late-period Fellini, with elaborate surrealism and special effects. The 2009 show Kooza was early Fellini, without the special effects, and a bit of an Ingmar Bergman aura as well.
So you can imagine how disappointed I am that Iris is, if not a total disaster, at least half a disaster. Even though this is a column on screenwriting, I have in the past written about stage productions that connect with films in a variety of ways. Iris raises all kinds of questions about the relationship between theater, circus and film, and the differences of writing for them. Let’s start with the issue of structure. What, you fans of Cirque say, these shows do not have a structure? Oh yes they do. It is usually in the simple form of a sometimes innocent, sometimes not-so-innocent, character who gets involved with the circus, or whatever the circus in a given production represents. He reacts to the acts, becomes part of them, and comes out either a better person or else dead. The structure is minimal, but it makes the shows hold together in a way that most circuses don’t. Here the structure seems to focus on two characters. One is Buster, the young man. He is described in the free program (just get the free program; it is the only one that tells you anything about the show. The $15 souvenir program is all pictures and no information, part of the longstanding if irritating Cirque tradition) as “a lonely young man yearning for romance.”
Well, that sounds like typical Cirque, but as written and performed, we get no feeling that a) he is lonely, or b) he is yearning for romance. Now you would think that with a name like Buster, he remind us of Keaton, but he doesn’t. In the program photographs, but not in the show, he wears horn-rimmed glasses. The program says he resembles “such humble heroes of the silent screen as Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd,” but he doesn’t. He looks and acts more like Donald O’Conner in the early numbers in Singin’ in the Rain, especially when he does the walk up the wall and backflip O’Conner does in the “Make ’em Laugh” number. If one got the sense that the show was playing around with a variety of icons, it might make sense, but here it just feels haphazard.
The other major character is Scarlett, the girl. Well, the only Scarlett we know is O’Hara, and the girl here is nothing like her. This one is a generic innocent girl who ends up becoming a movie star (although a photo spread in the September 18th Los Angeles Times makes it clearer than onstage that she is played by several different performers. If you are going to call Buster Buster and if you are going to call Scarlett Scarlett, we had better see the connection with their forebears, or else make it a non sequitur so we see there is no connection. In a film it would need to be more specific, but in a Cirque show you could get away with them being more abstract. An ongoing problem is that for all the money Cirque spent on the show and refurbishing the Kodak Theatre, they couldn’t be bothered to get the rights to portray real actors or use real film clips. The movies are a very concrete medium: Charlie Chaplin turns a corner in a different way than Keaton or Lloyd do. Cirque shows are often wonderfully abstract and movies are not (with the exception of certain art films). If you are going to do a show about Cinema, you may need to be more specific. On the other hand, they may just have had their “abstract” caps on and figured they could be more general. But then they shouldn’t call them Buster and Scarlett.
Even if you make Buster and Scarlett more specific, the next problem with Act One is that they very seldom show up. Traditionally the “access characters” relate to the performing acts, but that does not happen here. That would not be a problem if the acts themselves were better. I have always judged Cirque shows by how early in the show I think “A human body cannot do what I just saw a human body do.” Often it’s in the first ten or fifteen minutes. Here it never happened. Not in Act One, not in Act Two. It may be that with 21 shows running around the world, plus all the imitation Cirques floating around, that the world has run out of astonishing acts. If that’s true, the world is a much sadder place than I want to live in. The aerialists and the contortionists here are good, but they are never dazzling. It may also be that since Iris is in a big, 2,500-seat theater rather that in a tent, the audience (we were in the mezzanine) is perhaps a little too far away to be overwhelmed.
The best number in Act One is a “Filmstrip,” where there are seven panels, each representing a frame of film, with people in each one performing the same motions one after the other, so it looks like a Zoetrope strip. The supertitle over the set reads “In Motion We Trust,” which is a great motto for both Cirque in general and this production, but the show only fitfully lives up to it. Act One focuses on motion, and the show seems obsessed with the early motion films of the Zoetropes and Muybridge film series. One of the characters is a woman dressed in a device that appears to be sort of a hulahoop with a what the Times piece calls a Praxinoscope strip inside, so when she twirls we see two boxers fighting. At least that’s what I think it is. The characters work the main floor, but did not come up to the mezzanine. And even though the characters are oddly dressed, especially the clowns, they don’t look all that different from people you see every day outside the theater on Hollywood Boulevard. In the “pre-game” period before the show proper begins, it was hard to tell the “characters” from some members of the audience.
Fortunately Act Two gets better. Buster and Scarlett are a little more involved in the action, and the opening number should have been the opening number of the show. We are on a soundstage/location where all kinds of characters are running in and out, bouncing up and down, and swinging through the multiple levels of the set. It is an imaginative recreation of all those scenes you have seen in films set in movie studios where suddenly somebody in a weird costume walks by. Here everybody is in a weird costume, and they walk, swing, bounce and fly. That is matched by a later number called “Noir,” which is exactly what you think it is: There is a slinky dame, although it’s not clear if it’s supposed to be Scarlett. She is blonde like Scarlett, but played by a gymnast rather than the women playing her elsewhere. There is also a lot of bouncing around on trampolines that are the roofs of the buildings. Who knew somebody who was shot could bounce so high when they hit a “roof”? The show might be better off if it had more numbers like “Noir” that reference other genres like westerns, musicals, fantasy films, and especially for the Cirque tradition, sci-fi. The Chinese girl contortionists would fit nicely in the latter, and the two guys on ropes could be a twin Tarzan act in an Indiana Jones adventure ripoff.
I mentioned earlier that one of the glories of Cirque shows were the clowns. The clowns here are just not funny. That’s not helped by them being given some truly stale jokes about Hollywood and the Oscars. And the jokes are not even true enough to be funny. In the Act Two opener, somebody asks the “writer,” one of the clowns, what his name is. He replies “Alan Smithee.” Now in Los Angeles, even four-year olds know that “Alan Smithee” is the pseudonym directors use when they don’t want their name on the credits. What could he reply? How about “Joe Gillis”? Or “Robert Rich”? OK, “Rich” is a little too obscure for the masses (it was Dalton Trumbo’s pseudonym on the story he won an Oscar for when he was blacklisted), but “Gillis” would get at least as much a laugh as “Smithee” did, and a more comfortable laugh at that. Or. Given that the clown runs around, try “Aaron Sorkin.” One gets the feeling that this show was put together by people who have never seen a movie. I am not asking for everything to be historically correct, since in a Cirque show what we want is an imaginative view. With the few exceptions mentioned, we don’t get that. In an audience participation number mimicking the Oscars, they include a film clip that is a parody of the shower scene in Psycho (1960), but it is very amateurishly done. I have had first semester students who have done more imaginative rip-offs, including one who showed a murder in a lawn sprinkler.
Iris was still officially in previews when we saw it. Traditionally one does not review shows in previews, although the Broadway production of Spiderman having seven years of previews has pretty much killed off that tradition. Iris has been running since July and its opening date is September 24th, so by the time you read this it will have officially opened. Cirque du Soleil does have a long history of continuing to work on their shows after they open as acts come and go. The one thing they definitely ought to keep is Danny Elfman’s music, which I liked a lot better than most Cirque scores. It might be worth it to check in a couple of years from now, assuming it runs that long, to see what the Cirque kids have done. One bad show should not be enough for any of us to give up on Cirque forever.
Sarah’s Key (2010. Screenplay by Gilles Paquet-Brenner and Serge Joncour, based on the novel by Tatiana De Rosnay. 111 minutes)
Doing what The Debt does, but not as well: We are time-traveling with the Jews again, this time between 1942 and 2009, but with one exception we do not have to worry about multiple castings of the same character. We start in Paris in July 1942 as Jews are being rounded up to be sent to concentration camps. Sarah, a young girl, locks her brother in the closet of their apartment to keep him from being taken by the police. She then spends the first hour of the film escaping from the Vélodrome d’Hiver, where the Jews are being temporarily held, so she can rescue the brother. She does get back to the apartment, but it is too late. He’s dead. Meanwhile, we are intercutting with Julia, a journalist who in 2009 is writing a piece on the roundup of the Jews. It is she, in the second scene of the film, who tells some younger journalists that it was not the Germans who ran the roundup, but the French. The youngsters are shocked, but if you are familiar with history, it may not be that much of a surprise to you. The 1942 sequences are very dramatic, but in very obvious ways. There is a lot of yelling and crying, as you would expect, but it is all too much on the nose. There is no subtlety in the presentation of any of the characters. The filmmakers (Paquet-Brenner also directed) should have gone back and looked at the great Marcel Ophuls documentaries The Sorrow and the Pity (1969) and Hotel Terminus (1988) for richly detailed looks at the attitudes of the French toward the Jews. We have often talked here about how documentaries are often better at showing us characters than fiction films are, and that is true of these two. For a documentary that shows the attitudes of the Vichy government they should have looked at Claude Chabrol’s The Eye of Vichy (1993), a documentary made up entirely of excerpts of Vichy newsreel and propaganda films. It is a bizarre alternate look at the reality of German-occupied France, which, since it was put together by Cabrol, shouldn’t surprise you.
While we are following Sarah, we are also following Julia as she comes to realize that the apartment she and her husband have just rented, which is the apartment he grew up in, was where Sarah and her family lived. The husband’s family moved in in August of 1942, and Julia upsets the elders of the family by digging into the history. Her husband’s father admits he was there the day little Sarah showed up and they discovered what the smell in the place really was. That’s at the one-hour mark, and you could finish the film at that point. But Julia becomes determined to track down what happened to Sarah. Two problems here. The first is that the role of Sarah, who as a child has been played in a stunningly feral performance by Mélusine Mayance, is now taken over by an attractive but totally unexpressive actress in her twenties. Worse, the older version of Sarah is not given anything to do. And Julia discovers Sarah committed suicide in the mid-‘60s. Well, the movie could end there. But Julia keeps searching and eventually finds her son, William. It is awfully late in the film to introduce a new major character. She tells him Sarah’s backstory, which he did not know, and he is upset to learn he is Jewish. Now that, like so many other reactions in the film, is standard issue. What if he loves the idea? Or at least it means certain things in his life make sense, like his love of gefilte fish? A constant problem throughout the film is that the writers and director are settling on the most obvious reactions, rather than digging deeper into the characters and their attitudes. I don’t know how much of that problem is from the novel, but the filmmakers should have fixed it.
As the film goes on, the action becomes one damned thing after another, and the writers are missing wonderful opportunities to examine attitudes not only of the French in 1942, but of the French in more recent times as well as Americans. Granted this is something the novel may well have done better, but if you are telling the story on film, you ought to get the most out of it that you can.
Bobby (2006. Written by Emilio Estevez. 120 minutes)
Grand Hotel with politics: This is one I missed in theaters and caught up with recently on cable. It is a very ambitious movie that doesn’t fulfill its promise. We are in and around the venerable Ambassador Hotel on June 4th and 5th, 1968, the night Bobby Kennedy was assassinated. You know Estevez, who also directed, was aware of the connection to the 1932 classic, since a couple of character refer to it early in the film. Fortunately that is the only reference to it, since Estevez is more interested in the politics involved. Too much so, since he loads up the film with several montages of newsreel and television coverage of Kennedy campaigning. This pulls us out of the film, since it takes us away from the multiple storylines and characters we are following. Yes, Estevez obviously idolizes Kennedy, but that could be and is better expressed in the characters he selects. And there is a whole pile of characters, nearly all of them sympathetic to Bobby. Some don’t care much, but Estevez does not go so far as to throw an anti-Kennedy Democrat or even a pro-Nixon Republican into the mix. That certainly would have made the film a little less like preaching to the choir.
Estevez, being an actor, is good at writing and directing scenes, but often the scenes are more like acting exercises than parts of a complete film. The scenes could have been sharpened to focus as much on the ideas and themes of the film and still not have lost the opportunities they give the actors. And Estevez has put together a heavyweight cast. Sharon Stone, in ‘60s hair and makeup, is unrecognizable as the beautician in the hotel beauty shop. She gets a couple of great scenes, one with Lindsay Lohan, back in the day when Lohan was a real actress, and another with William H. Macy as her husband. Freddy Rodríguez holds the screen as a busboy who has tickets to the Dodger game that night but has to work. Estevez’s father, Martin Sheen, and Helen Hunt played an established married couple with some personal problems, but their scenes are typical of the ones that don’t necessarily connect well to the Kennedy story.
As we get closer to the assassination, the tension naturally picks up, and the immediate aftermath is well handled by Estevez as both writer and director, but the ending is confusing. The way Estevez has directed the scenes, it looks as though several of “our” cast members have been killed. Given the blood that is coming out of them, I cannot see how they survived, but there is no indication in the scenes that they do. But an end title says that nobody but Kennedy was killed that night. I have the suspicion that Estevez wrote and directed those scenes intending the characters to die, but when somebody pointed out the reality of the night, the title was added later.
Shakespeare Wallah (1965. Screenplay and Story by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. 120 minutes)
Near the beginning of a beautiful relationship: In 1961 the young team of producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory decided to make their first feature film. They bought the film rights to the novel The Householder by Jhabvala. Since they had never made a film before, they figured why not ask the novelist to adapt it into a screenplay. As Jhabvala later told interview Vincent LoBrutto (the interview is in Backstory 4), “We made a lot of mistakes.” But they all learned and went on to have a legendary artistic collaboration that included A Room With a View (1986), Howards End (1991), and The Remains of the Day (1993). Shakespeare Wallah was their second film.
Even before he met Jhabvala, Ivory had wanted to make a film about a group of traveling actors. He originally wanted to make them Indian actors, but then he met a troupe of English actors. Jhabvala read the diary of one of them and thought the story would give them an opportunity to show the end of the British Empire in India. Ivory was in America and Jhabvala was in India, so they collaborated by letter on the story and screenplay. Unfortunately, Jhabvala is still too much the novelist, and the film is long, slow, and very sluggish. She later learned that you do not need nearly as much dialogue in the film as you do in a novel, and she became a master of adaptation. The problem with a lot of the dialogue here is that it is very flat, as is the characterization of the actors. The head of the troupe and his wife are played by actors whom the film is based on. Their daughter in real life plays the daughter in the film. In spite of all that reality behind the scenes, the script simply does not give us the kind of backstage texture it should. Jhabvala does not begin to bring in the connection to the end of the Empire until midway through the film, but then in very literal chunks of dialogue in three or four scenes that are played one after the other.
The two characters who are not based on real people are more interesting to watch. One is an Indian playboy who falls in love with Lizzie, the daughter. He is rich enough to follow her around on her travels. The other is his mistress, who is a spoiled movie star. We meet her when she is filming a very “Bollywood” musical number and for a minute we think the projectionist had switched reels. The best scene in the picture is when the playboy convinces the mistress to come and see the troupe perform. She is bored out of her skull, and begins to call attention to herself. The crowd is more impressed that there is a movie star present than by the play. Unlike most of the other scenes, it has very little dialogue. Jhabvala was beginning to learn the difference between novels and film.
End of the summer 2011 cable TV season: I have been watching a bunch of shows over the summer, although I haven’t seen that much I wanted to write about. They were all doing reasonably well, and were certainly entertaining. What struck me over the last week or so is the different way they ended their half seasons.
Burn Notice has had Michael dealing with someone trying to frame him for the shooting of Max, his contact at the C.I.A.. Michael has managed to throw Pearce, the C.I.A. officer investigating the shooting, off his trail, but only by withholding information from her. He has tracked down the real killer, Tavian, but at the end of “Better Halves” (written by Lisa Joy) Pearce has finally figured out that Michael “is” Max’s killer and arrests him. At the beginning of the next episode “Dead to Rights” (written by Jason Tracey), Michael convinces Pearce to let him go to the meeting he has set up with Tavian, but with a wire. She agrees, Tavian admits he killed Max, and then commits suicide, so Michael is still at a dead end as to who has set him up and why. Pearce has cleared Michael, but we are early in the show. Who shows up but Larry, Michael’s mentor who had gone over to the dark side, not a long trip for him. He has managed to get out of the Albanian prison he went to several episodes ago, and he now wants Michael’s help to break into the British consulate. To do this Larry has kidnapped a psychiatrist, Anson, and is holding Anson’s wife with a bomb attached to her neck. Typical Larry. Anson has the access codes they need. On the way to the consulate Michael tells Anson how to escape, which he does and contacts Fi and Sam. We learn that it was Larry who got Michael burned because Michael “let” Larry kill a pile of people in Chechnya. Fi manages to attach one of her special bombs on the window of the room Larry is in and blows him up. At least we think he is dead. So that’s all to the—BOOM!—several other bombs go off around the consulate. When did Larry have time to set them? He didn’t. Who did? If you have not seen this episode, do not drink or take drugs before the last ten minutes or you will be completely lost. It was not Larry who planned all this. It was Anson, who was the one remaining person who set up the unit that burned Michael. He has manipulated all this to get a lot of nasty information on Michael that he can use to get him to do all sorts of nasty things in the next season. Oh, and he really is a shrink. And one of his patients is Maddy, Michael’s mom, which is why he knows a lot about Michael. We will see what happens when the show returns in November.
The Closer’s ongoing plot this season has been the civil case against Brenda and the LAPD on behalf of the family of Terrell Baylor, whom Brenda let out of a police car in front of his house knowing his gang would probably kill him, which they did. Brenda got herself a very smart and expensive lawyer, Gavin, who sometimes doesn’t seem as focused on the case as he should be. The Baylor family has hired Peter Goldman, and over several episodes we have seen the pre-trial events go for and against Brenda. In the season finale, “Fresh Pursuit” (written by Adam Belanoff), Gavin is asking for a summary judgment in favor of Brenda, based on Goldman’s failure to present evidence on the killing itself. That sounds like very shaky grounds for a summary judgment, but then I am not a lawyer. At the end of the episode the judgment is granted. But as with Burn Notice, that only makes things worse. Goldman comes to Brenda’s office during the celebration party and lays out the federal civil rights case he intends to file. He pulls a lot of files out of his box on a lot of Brenda’s cases where she may have cut corners. The series will end with the next set of episodes as we will see how the federal case works out. The word on the street is that there will be a spinoff series with Mary McDonnell’s Captain Raydor as the main character. Well, she has certainly developed into an interesting character, going from Brenda’s nemesis to a sort of partner. In “Death Warrant” (written by Steven Kane) she was involved in a chase after a bad guy. They had him cornered, but in a group of civilians. Raydor took a bean bag gun out of her trunk and hit with a shot right between the eyes. She told the other cops it was a “lucky shot,” and said the recoil on that gun was nasty. She’ll do.
Rizzoli and Isles, on the other hand, is just finishing up its second season, so its season finale did not have quite the elaborate continuing storylines as the other two. The finale, “Remember Me” (teleplay by Janet Tamaro, story by David J. North and Janet Tamaro), did bring back the serial killer Hoyt, who nearly killed Rizzoli on more than one occasion. Hoyt is in prison, but is somehow connected with the killing of a prisoner just about to be released on bail. When Isles does the autopsy on the prisoner, she finds a balloon full of teeth in his digestive system. Human teeth, which turn out to belong to a family Hoyt killed. Hoyt gets another chance at Rizzoli when she and Isles come to the prison hospital where Hoyt is dying of cancer. With the help of his newest acolyte, a prison guard, Hoyt nearly kills Rizzoli, but she manages to stab him with his own scalpel. So he really seems to be dead this time, although as with Larry on Burn Notice, I wouldn’t bet the farm on either one of them not appearing again.
Necessary Roughness has moved along nicely. It has not ladled on the psychobabble as much as it could have, for which much thanks. It has also kept Terence “T.K.” King, the New York Hawks football player Dani was treating in the first episode, as a recurring character, so we see that he was not immediately “cured” with his first set of treatments with Dani. A much more realistic approach than many movies and shows about shrinks. Dani has also had several very interesting other clients. For example, in “Whose Team Are You On?” (written by Antoinette Stella) Dani has to defuse fighting among the wives and girlfriends of the Hawks players. Since she is a psychologist, it all came down to an emotional problem with one of wives. By focusing on the individual, the episode passed on the opportunity to deal with the whole culture the wives of pro football players live in. In the season finale, “Goal Line,” Dani is back dealing with T.K., who has a mental block against the defender he has to deal with on the field. Dani also has to deal with Nico, the team’s Mr. Fixit. He always seems in charge and several moves ahead of everybody else, but he’s been asked by the boss’s lawyer to dig up whatever dirt he can on the boss’s wife, Gabriella (shades of the McCourt divorce and the L.A. Dodgers). One problem: Nico had an affair with Gabriella before she married the boss. Even bigger problem: she can still get him into bed. So, without telling Dani any of the details (nice writing in this scene: we know what he’s talking about, Dani doesn’t), he tries to get her advice. He decides his loyalties are with the team rather than Gabriella. T.K. actually performs selflessly in the playoff game. The cliffhanger is that he gets shot, but not killed, by an angry fan of the other team. Boy, is he going to have emotional problems for Dani to deal with next season.
Death Valley, a new show, popped up in the late summer on MTV. Here, I think, are the writing credits for the “Pilot,” which are more complicated than most television shows. It was conceived by Spider.com, developed by Erick Weinberg, created by Curtis Gwinn, the story was by Curtis Gwinn, and the teleplay was by Curtis Gwinn and Eric Weinberg. Don’t worry, there will not be a quiz later. The setup is that it is another mockumentary, this time about police fighting supernatural beings. For all the writers involved, that was as far as the development went. Cops fight supernatural beings, photographed in a documentary style. The makers seemed to think that simply having a cop fighting a zombie was funny. The show was reminiscent of such movies as Date Movie (2006) and Meet the Spartans (2008), which assume that just mentioning what you are parodying will get laughs. Sorry, guys, but it does not work that way. The writing and the show need an attitude toward the material, which this show does not have. In style it is similar to the great Reno 911, but that show has plenty of attitude. It also has very specific characters. I have not seen Reno 911 for a while, but I remember the characters more vividly than the ones in Death Valley, which I only saw a couple of weeks ago.
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.
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
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
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
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
Japan Cuts 2019: Demolition Girl, And Your Bird Can Sing, & Being Natural
Japan Cuts has established itself as the definitive Japanese film festival in the United States, thanks to the scope of its programming.
Japan Cuts has established itself as the definitive Japanese film festival in the United States, thanks to the scope of its programming. The 2019 edition is no exception, with over 30 events over 10 days, among them talks, screenings, and Q&A sessions with filmmakers as diverse as Macoto Tezka (The Legend of the Stardust Brothers) and Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo: The Iron Man), the latter of whom is this year’s recipient of the festival’s Cut Above award, which is given to a defining figure of Japan’s cinema, and will be awarded before the East Coast premiere of his latest film, the samurai action-drama Killing.
Lest you think Japan Cuts is only a showcase for genre exercises, the festival abounds in works that explore the struggles that erupt from the Japanese capitalist system, and are felt in different ways across generations. Demolition Girl, Genta Matsugami’s feature debut, is among the strongest of recent films to bluntly speak about class difference. It follows 17-year-old Cocoa (Aya Kitai), who, in the wake of her mother’s death, has decided to forgo a university education and get a job. But as her shifts at a local amusement park only pay so much, she starts to perform in adult fetish videos that see her stomping on cans, trash, and balloons.
At his best, the film taps into the heightened experience of the poorest of the people living on the edge. For one, whenever Cocoa’s father (Yota Kawase) has some money on hand, he yearns for instant satisfaction, spending it on expensive sushi. As for Cocoa, who’s isolation is emphasized through shots that see her alone in corridors, or studying late at night in her room, it’s almost as if she’s destined to fail. And, indeed, when her school finds out about the adult videos she’s been making, and just as she was beginning to realize her promise of going to a Tokyo university, her life falls apart. When confronted by friends about why she made the videos, all she can do is yell at them: “You wouldn’t understand, you’re rich, you wouldn’t know. Will you pay for my expenses?” In this moment, Kitai’s triumph is making her character’s wail against a cruel economic system feel as if it could be our own.
And Your Bird Can Sing, directed by Sho Miyake, is focused on two late-twentysomething slackers: the unnamed protagonist (Tasuku Emoto) and his roommate, Shizo (Himizu and Parasyte star Shōta Sometani). Both work crappy jobs, and they try to stay sane through copious amounts of drinking and pointed mockery of the economically fraught lot they’ve been handed in life. The protagonist’s attitude could be summed up by one early sequence, when he meets a co-worker and convinces her to go on a date, only to later miss the date, fall asleep, wake up, and decide to spend his night drinking with Shizo.
A love triangle between the roomies and one of the protagonist’s co-workers, Sachiko (Shizuka Ishibashi), brings some solace to the men’s lives. There’s redundancy to the way that Miyake frames these characters, showing their faces up close rather than the screens they peer at as they text each other, but his wide shots speak to how they all work to fill empty spaces. Miyake’s style is relaxed, almost as if his camera has absorbed everyone’s slacker vibes. Especially of note is a sequence that lingers at length on Sachiko paying for groceries while the two men in her life try to hold their laughter, saying to each other that she’s going to regret her purchase. Miyake’s gaze is empathetic, and there’s truth in his understanding that you have to sometimes laugh at your underprivilege in order to prevent yourself from screaming.
More tonally varied, and operating on a larger scale, director Tadashi Nagayama’s satirical Being Natural broaches the subject of gentrification as it immerses viewers in the daily routines of a middle-aged man, Taka (Yota Kawase), who lives in a small town in the countryside of Japan and works with his cousin, Mitsuaki (Shoichiro Tanigawa), and their friend, Sho (Tadahiro Tsuru), at a fishpond inherited from his deceased uncle. Everything starts to derail for the three men when a family arrives on the scene from Tokyo with the hopes of opening up an old-style café that will only sell natural and locally grown products. At the start of the film, the still-grieving Taka doesn’t fully understand what he has until someone tries to take it away from him, and by the end, a spectacular show of violence will see him finally realizing the nature of the economic system he’s trapped within.
The film’s style is initially sweet and mellow, with the softest of songs dotting the soundtrack. Taka plays bongos, and the sounds of the instrument are also heard throughout. At first, this sound creates a calm atmosphere that’s in sync with the bright cinematography. But as the film introduces a series of sinister twists, those bongos come to take on an almost murderous bent. The sounds of the instrument point to the encroachment of a capitalist economy on a place relatively untouched by it. In its final minutes, Being Natural takes a turn toward the supernatural, and it’s satisfying for giving the main characters the reprisal they want, but also poignant for the way it has us understand that it only occurs in the realm of fantasy. The film, in the end, acknowledges that it’s difficult to go against the system, and that to stay sane means finding a little pocket of happiness in the world and enjoying it while it lasts.
Japan Cuts runs from July 19—28.
Review: David Crosby: Remember My Name Sees a Legend Carrying On
The film captures a man haunted by his past mistakes and nearly certain that he doesn’t have the time left to begin making up for them.2.5
One gets the sense when hearing David Cosby perform that, like many naturally gifted vocalists, he was born to express himself through song, and given his tumultuous personal and professional life, the act of singing may be the only means through which Crosby can briefly maintain an equilibrium amid so much chaos. Womanizing, drug abuse, and band breakups are certainly par for the course for countless musicians, especially those who came up in the late 1960s, but Crosby is an extreme case even by those standards. It’s difficult to think of another living musician more strongly and uniformly despised by his former bandmates and collaborators and, aside from Keith Richards, another whose continued survival is more shocking in light of what he’s put his body through.
Aided by Cameron Crowe, who, as a Rolling Stone writer, interviewed Crosby various times and is on hand here to again pick the musician’s brain, A.J. Eaton’s David Crosby: Remember My Name opens with a fairly standard music-doc overview that traces Crosby’s productive early years with the Byrds and his ascent to fame with both iterations of Crosby, Stills & Nash. There’s no effort made to hide Crosby’s thorny personality or the chaos he brought to each of these early projects, but Eaton and Crowe seem initially content to butter Crosby up, joining him in waxing rhapsodic about his widespread influence and lasting importance as a musician.
The hagiographic tone slowly fades as the film moves past the perfunctory career retrospective and begins delving into the nitty-gritty details of Crosby’s bumpy road to stardom and his rapid descent into disgrace, spurred on by his decades-long battle with drug addiction. While Crosby often proves a tough nut to crack, rarely willing to linger too long on the painful moments of a life eventful enough to fill several documentaries, Crowe and Eaton eventually disarm him enough to tap into the frustrated, damaged, and regretful man hiding all those years beneath his patented walrus mustache and wispy, long hair. As Crosby discusses the petulance and rage he often unfairly directed at fellow bandmates and his mistreatment of many of his girlfriends, several of whom he got hooked on cocaine and heroin, one can sense not only the depth of his remorse and anguish, but also the resigned helplessness that little can be done in his twilight years to repair the many bridges he’s permanently scorched.
Throughout Remember My Name, archival interviews with Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, and Neil Young make it abundantly clear that Crosby has alienated each of his former bandmates to such a degree that none of them will talk to him again. Only former Byrds frontman Roger McGuinn appears in a newly recorded interview for the film, and he does so presumably only to describe how “insufferable” Crosby was as a fellow bandmate.
At nearly 80 years old, Crosby is happily married and in the midst of a creative resurgence with a string of acclaimed solo albums, but even these small joys are mitigated by his admission that he’s only touring, and thus often away from his wife, because he needs the money. During a leisurely drive with Crowe, Crosby visits his old stomping grounds in Laurel Canyon and the Sunset Strip and recounts those halcyon days when he lived with Joni Mitchell and sang his first song with Nash and Stills. But the magic of these locales has long since faded, leaving Crosby in an uncharacteristically introspective state and all too aware of how close he is to the end of his life. As he wistfully tells Crowe that he already has eight stents in his heart and will likely die in the next couple of years, the film captures a man haunted by his past mistakes and nearly certain that he doesn’t have the time left to begin making up for them.
Director: A.J. Eaton Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 95 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Cassandro, the Exotico! Shoulders the Strange Burden of Empathy
Marie Losier’s empathy, if not love, for Cassandro hinders her from examining his wounds with much depth.2.5
Queerness isn’t just about the relationship between bodies: the ones we desire, the ones that will never desire us back, the ones we wished we possessed. It’s also very much a matter of cloth, color, and adornment. Many a pop-cultural figure has manifested this queer sartorial drama, from Liberace to David Bowie, from Leigh Bowery to early Lady Gaga, from Pepper LaBeija to Shangela Laquifa Wadley. And with her new documentary, Cassandro, the Exotico!, Marie Losier introduces us to a lesser-known, yet just as subversive, purveyor of that drama: Mexican luchador Cassandro, a Universal Wrestling Association winner and former junkie with a penchant for gaudy garments.
Ridiculous stage wear is, of course, fundamentally associated with professional wrestling, but Cassandro’s textile-informed camp isn’t compensated by violent machismo or a heterosexist mise-en-scène. Instead, this exótico is unapologetic about the seamless kinship between his queerness and that of the clothes he wears. And the continuum between queer sexuality and fashion places him simultaneously as the exceptional gay figure in a supposedly macho sport, the Mexican lucha libre, and as the element that outs wrestling writ large as an already queer affair. Cassandro, né Saúl Armendáriz, is, then, a ready-made cinematic character, bearing the contradictions of his world from the inside—a world where, much like ours, heterosexual male violence is performed through patently homoerotic means.
Although skin, bones, and fabric are all—to various degrees of visible and invisible discomfort—stitched into the gendered body, the film is precisely concerned with the moment when these connections come apart at the seams. After decades of fighting for a living, Cassandro’s body is giving out. This is a moment of desperation for someone who turned to wrestling as something between religion and therapy. We see him literally hanging his flamboyant costumes to dry on a clotheslines as he speaks about retirement, about how quitting would appease his body but demolish his ego. As the film progresses, his dislocated chin, limited hand movements, and multiple head concussions will seem like the belated embodiment, if not the psychosomatic scream, of a childhood marked by molestation and sexual abuse. A history of spectacular violence catching up to years of a much less visible brutality.
Cassandro, the Exotico! is largely observational, with occasional interventions from Losier. It wouldn’t be fair to call the film hagiographic, but the director’s empathy, if not love, for her subject hinders her from examining Cassandro’s wounds with much depth. When faced with Cassandro’s misery, Losier’s response is to console him as if wanting to change the subject. She cuts one moment of candidness short, when Cassandro is addressing his fears via Skype, by telling him, “I wish I could give you a kiss.” It would have served the documentary better had Losier granted her subject the possibility to work through his pain in front of the camera.
Visually, the documentary, which is shot on 16mm film stock, recalls canonical diaristic works that expose people’s troublesome feelings in raw and unbridled fashion (think Jonas Mekas, Sadie Benning, and Su Friedrich). Which makes the juxtaposition of Losier’s visual language and her reluctance to examine Cassandro’s frailties feel particularly displeasing. Perhaps afraid that scrutiny would shatter Cassandro, Losier fails to realize that it’s precisely through such shattering that redemption can emerge, maybe even reparation.
Director: Marie Losier Screenwriter: Marie Losier, Antoine Barraud Distributor: Film Movement Running Time: 73 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
Interview: Marc Maron on Sword of Truth, WTF, and the Possibility of Change
Maron discusses modern media discourse, the communicative bridge linking his acting with his podcast, and how he likes to be directed.
Marc Maron is presently enjoying one of the most unlikely and inspiring success stories in Hollywood. Once known as a bitter “comic’s comic” who was eclipsed in success by contemporaries such as Louis C.K. and Jon Stewart, Maron has been reborn into a poster boy for empathy, starting with his blockbuster podcast, “WTF,” and continuing with roles in the hit television series Maron, Easy, and GLOW. With each role, Maron has rapidly evolved from a “comic who acts” into a first-rate character actor capable of subtly altering his charisma to fit a variety of oddballs who, like himself, struggle with self-doubt while attempting to walk a straight and sober path.
Now, with Sword of Truth, Maron makes his debut as a cinematic lead, playing Mel, a pawnshop owner who ends up on a road trip that stirs long-festering feelings of estrangement, which parallels the forms of isolation gripping a variety of other characters, and which the film’s director, Lynn Shelton, links to the reactionary myths and politics currently gripping this country. The role marks another career high point for Maron, who talked to me last week about the communicative bridge linking his acting with his podcast, how he likes to be directed, and the “mind-fuckery” currently gripping modern media discourse.
Given that you’ve previously worked with Lynn Shelton on Maron and GLOW, did you two have a kind of collaborative shorthand going into Sword of Trust?
Well, I’m generally filled with anxiety and resistance. I don’t know if there’s a shorthand, but Lynn knows how to get the best out of me and works with me pretty well. I like directors who’re hands on with me and guide me.
Do you like to receive a lot of explicit direction, or is your process more intuitive?
Well, I do what I do. I definitely welcome suggestions, because I’m certainly not going to think of all the possibilities of a scene. Most of my choices are not necessarily correct. I usually come in pretty intense and hot, and there’s subtleties that can be coaxed out with minor tweaks. And I like working like that. I wouldn’t have the confidence to assume that my take is the “right” one necessarily.
There’s a stillness to you in Sword of Trust that I’m not sure we’ve seen before.
Your weight as a performer is really felt here, especially in that scene when Mel first see Lynn’s character in his shop. I love how you enter the room from the closet, and how one can feel the emotion bubbling up in Mel.
Thanks, man. I think this is a heavy-hearted guy who’s sort of surrendered to his lot in life. He also has a certain amount invested in his own. I don’t know if it’s heartache, but he’s definitely a broken dude who’s making the best of whatever time he has left. I don’t know if the other characters are really like that. They are always in forward motion.
You also inform Mel’s appraising of objects with all these lovely emotional textures. He’s not only talking about a sword.
The guitar too. As I act more, I try to take some of the space that you’re talking about. With acting I feel that I’ve been learning on the job in a way, and over time I’ve started to explore different possibilities with owning whatever my space is, whether it’s a movie or on stage. Certainly, over decades of doing stand-up, I’ve figured out my space on a stage, but being on a set and pacing yourself and taking the time to engage with what’s around you I think makes a lot of difference in how a performance comes off. It’s about being present in an environment.
Has your ascending acting career changed how you relate to actors on your podcast?
Over the last few years, since I’ve started acting more, I’ve had more actors on. I tend to try to pull a nice acting class out of that. I think a lot of what my guests say makes sense. Once again, a lot of acting is about listening and being present. In another time in my life, I saw certain actors as mythic. Now that I’ve talked to so many of them, I’ve started to realize, not in a disappointing way, that…what’s the word I want? That these are people doing a job, all in their own way. Once you get upset with people, you realize, “Well, that’s how they’re approaching this job,” and when you get into the ring or the scene, you’re in it.
That inside knowledge gives “WTF” an edge too. For many interviewers, like myself, art-making is basically theory. But you have your feet on the ground so to speak.
I think that happens over time. I don’t think I ever set out to interview. I’ve framed what happens on my podcast as conversations, and they either go somewhere or they don’t. There’s a few points I may get hung up on, and there are places I go to fairly regularly in interviews, but I generally don’t see these conversations as question-and-answer situations. I don’t have any expectations really other than to feel a connection or to sort of be enlightened. I think those of you who have a job to interview, for an outlet, for the content and the word count and everything else, might have more restrictions. I don’t have to answer to anybody and I don’t know what I’m looking for half the time.
Yeah, and a challenge I’ve found with interviews is that one doesn’t always entirely know what is and isn’t in bounds, which can lead to an impersonal vibe. By contrast, your podcast has such an intimate layer throughout.
You have to feel that stuff out, you know I’m not necessarily intuitive about that. I’m not really in the business of sandbagging anybody.
Usually you get somebody comfortable and things come out. If people are comfortable and engaged it doesn’t really matter what they’re talking about. Audiences will say, “Oh, wow, I didn’t know that.” These conversations don’t require information, but an emotional connection. I’m so happy about that, especially considering the never-ending torrent of garbage that we have to move through every day.
I think about politics. Politics online are rarely civil, but when you get someone in person, and start slowly, and are willing to have a conversation, you can normally get farther than you might expect.
Online culture isn’t civil and there’s a momentum to everything that’s based on mind-fuckery. I know for myself—as somebody who was relatively disinterested and uninformed about the functions of government and why politics and leadership make a difference—that people are perfectly willing to volunteer their brains to these strange flashpoint reactors that trigger them emotionally. People live by these black-and-white decisions. It’s not good. We need to consider what we really know and how we know it and what we’re telling other people.
People are so empowered by garbage information that’s being related in a relatively shallow way, which doesn’t take into consideration the influence and context of the rest of our lives. It’s sort of a disaster. I try to stay away from that stuff in terms of the conversations that I’m having. I’m trying to deal with something more human and experiential. Most people are regurgitating talking points on both sides without thinking of how someone feels and how to affect change. I got an interview with Geena Davis [who stars in the new season of GLOW] coming up, about her work with her foundation and her work in this documentary about women in show business. It’s called This Changes Everything. I tell you man, when someone’s that personally invested in something they believe in, and it’s righteous, and they lay it out for you and it makes sense, that’s what heartens my belief in this possibility for change.
To change gears a bit, is it cathartic for you, as someone who’s long been in recovery, to play characters who’re either reformed or have drug issues?
Yeah, sure. Most obviously there’s the last season of Maron, where my character has a relapse, which frankly didn’t happen in real life. When you really understand the nature of addiction, and you’ve seen it from the inside, and know the powerlessness and the struggle to live a life that’s not in the throes of it—I mean, it’s such a common struggle. And what’s amazing to me is how many people don’t find a way out of that or don’t seek help. Or are ashamed of it or don’t know how to get the help. I never set out to do this, but I’m thrilled and humbled by the effect my work has on people who’re isolated by this sickness. It’s really one of the more satisfying results of the podcast: how much mail I get from people who’re struggling and who want advice, or who feel less alone from what I’ve said. The great thing about recovery, and about playing these parts, is that it gives you a context that’s very specific—a way to legitimately help people that can change their entire lives.
American Demons: Martin Bell’s Streetwise and Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell
Bell proves uncannily adept at capturing moments that seem to encapsulate a subject’s entire emotional temperature.
Decades after its original release, Martin Bell’s Streetwise remains a boldly empathetic work of vérité portraiture. Throughout the 1984 documentary, Bell, photographer Mary Ellen Mark, and journalist Cheryl McCall follow a motley group of kids on the streets of Seattle as they panhandle, dig food out of dumpsters, and prostitute themselves to much older men. These scenes are accompanied by voiceovers from the young subjects, who describe their actions with a heartbreaking casualness that communicates two almost contradictory meanings: that they’re seasoned hustlers, having bypassed childhood for an everyday form of hell, and that they’re desperate to be seen precisely as said hustlers. To show emotion is to be vulnerable, and these subjects can’t afford to be seen as weak, yet the filmmakers capture more here than the street children may have suspected. Streetwise is charged by a deep, subterranean yearning to be loved, or even merely felt.
A plot hasn’t been imposed on Streetwise, as the audience is allowed to feel the numbing monotony of life on the fringes. People swing in and out of prison, crash in and out of secret hovels, most notably an abandoned hotel, and practice their grifts, while struggling with overlapping tides of addiction and depression. We also learn, startlingly, that not all these children are homeless. Streetwise’s most famous subject, Erin Blackwell, a.k.a. “Tiny,” lives with her mother, a waitress and alcoholic who rationalizes her daughter’s prostitution as a phase and who seems to be impressed with Erin’s ability to make a few hundred dollars on a good day. It’s little wonder that Erin captured and continued to command the filmmakers’ attention for decades after filming Streetwise ended. She has a squinty yet expressive glare that suggests both a deep reservoir of pain as well as intense fierceness.
Bell, Mark, and McCall take Erin and her cohorts, most vividly a skinny boy with potential tonsillitis named DeWayne Pomeroy, at face value. Streetwise is pointedly devoid of the sermonizing that might allow audiences to comfortably distance themselves from these people, regarding them simply as elements of a civics lesson. The film forces us to confront the obviousness of these children’s circumstances, as people walk by them just as we all walk by the homeless on a daily basis. This sense of culpability informs Streetwise with an uncomfortable texture that’s familiar to documentaries concerned with poor or mentally and emotionally challenged people, so you may wonder how the filmmakers shot what we’re seeing without stepping in and helping these people. Particularly disturbing is when Erin, 13 years old at the start of filming, is seen getting into a car with an old man who’s obviously a john.
If Streetwise was just a portrait of damnation and delusion, it would be an important document. But the film is also haunting for Bell, Mark, and McCall’s attention to the transcendence than can be felt even in such extreme circumstances. After Erin has gotten into trouble, DeWayne tells her of how he will rescue her, and his attempt at gallantry is poignant as well as devastating. When DeWayne visits his father in prison, the old man lectures the boy about keeping his smoking down and laying off the hard drugs, commanding DeWayne to roll up his shirt sleeves for a track-mark inspection. As brutally sad as this confrontation is, one feels this father’s love and wonders if DeWayne, clearly a sensitive and lonely boy, can feel it too. Retrospectively, it hardly matters: DeWayne hung himself not long after this visit.
Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell, a 2016 sequel to Streetwise that’s been in the works for thirtysomething years, offers a variety of unmooring contrasts from its predecessor. Erin is no longer the slim spitfire of Streetwise, but an overweight fortysomething mother of 10 who understandably appears to always be on the verge of exhaustion, and who takes methadone in an attempt to keep her drug addictions at bay while wrangling with her children’s own skirmishes with the law. Looking at Erin now, one sees the scars and weariness left by a hard life, part of which was documented by Streetwise, and one can implicitly feel Erin’s need for atonement. Though Erin’s gotten off the streets, living in a large home with her partner, Will, and several of her children, the streets have never left her.
Formally, Tiny is much different from Streetwise. The 1984 film abounds in seamy noises and textures, with roving camerawork that seems to be uncovering a new lurid discovery every few seconds; it feels palpably dangerous, and probably inspired films such as Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho and Larry’s Clark’s Kids. Set predominantly in Erin’s home, Tiny is slower and more polished, reflecting the (comparative) stability that Erin has achieved since appearing in Streetwise. Tiny also has a fancier structure than Streetwise, with a framing device in which Erin watches footage of herself over the years, including unused outtakes from the first film, with Mary Ellen Mark. An autumnal tone seeps into the new film, which offers a kaleidoscopic portrait of the unending legacies of crime and addiction.
As in Streetwise, Bell proves uncannily adept at capturing moments that seem to encapsulate a subject’s entire emotional temperature. There are frequent shots in Tiny of Erin sleeping with a little dog close to her face, which suggest rare moments of repose for a woman who’s used to running her chaotic family like a hostage negotiator. Erin frequently calls the cops on her own children, especially the headstrong teenager Rayshon, which Bell unforgettably rhymes with footage of a younger Erin visiting two of her children in foster care. One of the foster care children, Keanna, is now a mother herself, and resents Erin for abandoning her and for continuing to struggle with drug use.
Which is to say that Tiny is as charged with turmoil as Streetwise, and Bell proves equally capable here of rendering full relationships with only a few images or seconds of running time. As in Streetwise, our sympathies are rarely overtly directed, as Tiny is somehow on every character’s contradictory wavelength at once, illustrating how difficult understanding can be to achieve, most notably in the face of disaster. Though it runs a trim 87 minutes, Tiny offers an epic and piercing portrait of a large biracial family that’s plagued by essentially every demon known to American society. Erin escaped the streets only to fashion a home that’s rife with the very issues that drove her away from her own mother. Like most people, regardless of social stature, Erin is stuck in the temporal loop of her own inherent nature.
Review: Radu Jude’s I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians
Jude’s film is a bitterly comic essay on nationalist mythologies and historical amnesia.3.5
Prime minister of Romania during most of World War II, Ion Antonescu is one of the era’s supreme villains: a virulent anti-Semite, Nazi collaborator, and authoritarian dictator whose troops murdered Jews with such velocity and enthusiasm that even Hitler was shocked by their actions. Upon ordering the forced expulsion—and, if necessary, genocide—of the Jews of Bessarabia and Bukovina, Antonescu proclaimed, “I do not care if we go down in history as Barbarians.” Radu Jude borrows that declaration, so haunting in its cruelty and disarming in its blitheness, for the title of his latest film, a bitterly comic essay on nationalist mythologies and historical amnesia that locates the seeds of Romania’s currently resurgent ethno-nationalism in the nation’s collective failure to truly confront its own past.
For while Antonescu was convicted of war crimes and sentenced to death by firing squad shortly after the war, there have been repeated attempts to rehabilitate his image in Romania since the fall of Nicolae Ceaușescu. Take Sergiu Nicolaescu’s 1994 film The Mirror, a hagiographic treatment of Antonescu’s rule that portrays the leader as a defiant protector of his people. Jude inserts a substantial clip of that film into I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians, having it play on a small TV set positioned in the exact center of the frame as we hear the off-screen voice of Jude’s protagonist, Mariana (Ioana Iacob), providing sardonic, outraged commentary on the film’s distorted presentation of Antonescu as a misunderstood hero. There’s an element of desperation in the scene: While Mariana offers an incontestable rebuttal, no one but her boyfriend (Alex Bogdan) is there to hear it. Meanwhile, The Mirror’s comforting nationalist lies are being beamed into homes all across Romania.
A headstrong theater director attempting to stage a public reenactment of the Odessa Massacre of 1941, in which Romanian troops slaughtered thousands of Ukrainian Jews, Mariana is obsessed with bringing the full weight of historical reality to her fellow countrymen. She obsessively reads histories of the period and drops quotations from philosophers and historical figures into everyday conversation. The film is consumed by lengthy, probing conversations—mostly shot by a statically mounted 16mm camera that pans back and forth to cover the actors’ movements—in which Mariana discusses art, philosophy, history, and politics with her various collaborators and friends.
Her most persistent interlocutor is Movilă (Alexandru Dabija), a local official tasked with overseeing the publicly funded production, who constantly pleads with Mariana to tone down her work’s unvarnished depiction of anti-Semitic violence. Movilă is a relativist, content in the knowledge that all memory is willfully selective, while Mariana truly believes in the power of stark historical truth. Though at times didactic and overloaded with quotations from the likes of Wittgenstein and Arendt, Jude’s dialogue nevertheless manages to feel remarkably naturalistic. That’s thanks in no small part to the powerfully unaffected performances of a cast that finds the subtle humor and neurotic character details embedded in Jude’s dense screenplay. Iacob captures Mariana’s unrelenting passion while also finding moments of vulnerability and self-doubt in the role, including moments of hesitation and anxiety borne of the fact that she’s a petite, cosmopolitan woman attempting to exert control over a large cast of rugged men, many of whom are diametrically opposed to the vision of her project.
Jude’s heavy themes are leavened by a self-effacing sense of modesty. Jude isn’t attempting to make grand pronouncements about the nature of memory and truth. Rather, I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians finds the director constantly interrogating his own perspective, questioning Mariana’s relationship to the wider public. That theme comes to a head in the film’s climactic presentation of the artist’s reenactment. Here, Jude switches from the warm dreaminess of 16mm to the harsh hyper-realism of digital video. The scene has the feel of a simple documentation of a live public event, but it isn’t clear that it’s actually any more “real” than the rest of the film. In particular, whether and to what extent the crowd of onlookers’ reactions are coached remains one of the film’s most intriguing enigmas.
Ultimately, Mariana finds herself perplexed and deflated by the public’s response to her work. One senses this reaction may be autobiographical for Jude, whose film Aferim! attempted to challenge Romanian audiences about the nation’s historical treatment of Roma people. As one of the few directors of the so-called Romanian New Wave whose work explores the country’s unsavory pre-Soviet past, Jude is swimming against the popular tide of revisionism and historical moral blindness. The anti-Semitic violence and hatred laid out in his latest is truly chilling, as is the contemporary tendency to diminish and obscure that dark past. But perhaps most disturbing of all is the idea put forth in the film’s conclusion: that one could present the truth to the public in all its brutality and horror, and it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.
Cast: Ioana Iacob, Alexandru Dabija, Alex Bogdan, Ilinca Manolache, Serban Pavlu, Ion Rizea, Claudia Ieremia Director: Radu Jude Screenwriter: Radu Jude Distributor: Big World Pictures Running Time: 140 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
Interview: Lynn Shelton on Honing Her Process for Sword of Trust
The filmmaker discusses how she wants viewers to feel like they’re paratrooping into her characters’ lives.
Lynn Shelton has amassed a formidable body of work between her eight features and countless television episodes. Her latest outing, the comic adventure Sword of Trust, represents her most topical work to date. After pawn shop owner Mel (played by Marc Maron) purchases an old sword, he gets plunged into world of conspiracy culture as the relic attracts legions of online prowlers convinced that the weapon represents proof that the Confederacy won the Civil War. The logline might be Shelton’s wildest yet, but the elements that have made her work indelible for over a decade remain intact: realistic conversations, emotional authenticity, and a commitment to multi-dimensional characters.
I chatted with Shelton on Sword of Trust’s opening day, which saw the director, writer, producer, editor, and occasional actress in great spirits. Our conversation covered her pursuit of Maron for this specific project, how she developed her unique script-development process, and why she wants viewers to feel like they’re paratrooping into her characters’ lives.
Last year on Marc Maron’s podcast, you mentioned that you liked exploring relationships between people who wouldn’t normally interact. Sword of Trust continues in that tradition for you. What keeps bringing you back to these dynamics?
Have you heard of this theory of multiple intelligences, like different types of intelligences we have? I can’t remember the names that [Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner] came up with, I think there’s eight. I know I’m not the brightest bulb on all of these scales, but one way that I think I’m pretty high is in emotional intelligence. I like to think I am, anyway. I’ve always been that close observer of human behavior. I also really love humans. I feel like the thing that makes humans human are their flaws. So, on screen, I don’t like to see people who are too smoothed out, all good or all bad. I’m interested in characters who are essentially good people, but they may be total fuck-ups and well-meaning who may sabotage themselves. Individual fucking up often happens in relation to other people. We may have a pre-determined need to connect to other people, but we’re constantly sabotaging ourselves.
Sometimes, like I said on the podcast, I’m much more interested in unlikely combinations of people because it’s not a prewritten script we’re handed. It’s not like, “This is who would be appropriate for you as a friend. This is the way you should act. This is the box we’ve already determined for you.” Any kind of out-of-the-box way of living one’s life or being surprised by a connection you feel to a human being, all those little happy accidents in life are the things I like to explore. To inspire people, not to just go through life in this sort of “this is what someone else had in mind for me, and I should follow that plan”—that feels very depressing to me. It’s more interesting to open your heart and your life up to other experiences.
To explore relationships in that way makes the everyday more interesting and exciting.
Yeah, exactly. It gives you a reason to stick around.
Having been a guest of Marc’s on his podcast twice, do you see any of his interviewer “persona” having an impact on the person you film on screen? Does training himself to listen and be present have any effect on making him a better screen partner?
Absolutely! The first time I directed Marc was on his TV show Maron, and I was so fascinated by his process. He’s raw and a really natural actor. He steps in front of the camera, and he’s looking at his scene partner and really knows how to listen and engage. A lot of that comes from sitting across from people and staring into their eyes. That’s why he’s such a good interviewer and has the top interview podcast, because he has a genuine conversation with people. And that’s all acting really is too. He also has this weird ability to let the camera and crew and other extraneous details just fade away for him, and a lot of people find all that really distracting and difficult to shut out. He doesn’t know where the camera is half the time. He said to me, “The next thing I want to do as an actor is figure out when the camera is on me.” I said, “What?! That camera’s right there!” He’s like, “I don’t see it. I’m not aware of it. I’m just in this scene with the person.” I’m like, “That is a gift, my friend. That is incredible that you’re able to not see the lights and craziness, just be in the scene.” He’s really able to do it. I think that definitely comes from that same skill set he’s drawing on.
Where does the genesis of your films occur? They usually have some kind of strong conceptual selling point or hook, but they’re often like a Trojan horse to get to deep conversations between the characters about something else.
It is, and the genesis of the vast majority of my films is an actor as a muse that I want to work with. Humpday was Mark Duplass, Outside In was his brother, Jay Duplass, this movie was Marc Maron, who I’ve been really wanting to make a movie with for three and a half years. Then there’s other things, like a territory I want to explore or an element I want to return to, like improvisation, which I haven’t done since Your Sister’s Sister. I’ve done several movies in between that have been scripted, but I wanted to allow myself a new genre. I knew I wanted to laugh because the last movie was a drama, and I was ready to laugh—and let myself really laugh by going into the outlandish and ridiculous, plot-wise. Go into some comedy-caper territory, which I’ve never let myself do before. I’ve been totally real in every moment, and this time I was like, “What if I have real characters who go to a crazy place?” I wanted to make a culturally relevant movie that didn’t make you want to slit your wrists. It referred to what was going on and some of the problematic elements of what we’re dealing with in society. We’re having this peak moment in conspiracy theories. They’ve always been around, but this is definitely where they’ve achieved a peak moment that I find very disturbing. So, it’s usually a territory I want to explore and an actor I want to work with.
How do you research or prepare to authentically treat conspiracy culture?
Well, there’s this thing called a computer and a thing called the internet, and boy, is it all in there! [laughs] We went down a rabbit hole with Mike O’Brien, my co-writer. It’s so fascinating because there’s little in-fighting. They really bonded over Pizzagate and the Twin Towers being an inside job, but then when it comes to hollow earth versus the earth is on fire, they’re at odds and frenemies for life. It’s insane, the shit you find.
How do you approach shooting improvisational dialogue? There’s a very naturalistic feel to it, but there are hardly any vocal fillers like “um” or “you know.”
Well, you get the right cast, so that really helps. I’ll tell you, you can do a lot in the editing room. You’ll see it on screen, there are these runs of incredible monologues. But if I’m cutting away to another actor for a reaction shot, it’s often because I’m slicing out an “um” or an “ah” or a little bauble. The edit room is the most redemptive place in the universe. It’s incredible what you can do and how you can carve out the right story. Especially with improvisation, it really is where the actual script is written. Our first cut—it didn’t feel fat, it was funny throughout—was two and a half hours long. I was like, “How am I going to cut out five to seven minutes, much less an hour?” And for me, a comedy has to be 90 minutes, so I knew I needed an hour out of there. It was like, “This is hysterical, this is gold, but it’s not serving the story. Ultimately, what is the story? It could be this, or it could include this, but let’s just hone it down to Mel’s emotional arc and make sure we can track it through the craziness.” We want to care about these people just enough and balance it. There was so much work in the edit room.
Sword of Trust is definitely a comedy, but the scene I found most striking was Mel explaining his history to your character, Deidre, and in such a matter-of-fact, serious fashion, in the back of the truck. Did you always intend to set off this important part of the story with such a stark tonal contrast?
No, it wasn’t. When Mike O’Brien really insisted that I be in the movie, I finally relented and thought I was going to be a random customer who came in for five seconds. But then, I realized she could be a device that helps us track Mel’s arc. I was really panicking for a long time because I couldn’t figure out how to make her funny. I can be comedic, but she wasn’t comedic. She was so desperate and tragic. Then I finally realized that I wasn’t going to worry about it. I wasn’t going to try to turn her into some kind of laughing-stock. I was just going to be what she feels like she needs to be. That was an indication that this movie is going to have that real element of heaviness to it, but it happened really organically. I wanted you to care about these people, but I didn’t realize there was going to be that much depth to one of them, so much poignant heart and humanity. That was a nice surprise.
You’ve described your writing process as being “upside-down,” where the script develops alongside the characters. How did you develop this writing style?
I never went to traditional film school. I had this long, circuitous route to get to what I’m doing. I started as a theater actor, then I went to photography and started doing experimental work, but everything as a solo artist. The most important work of the film, making the process of the acting, is obstructed at every turn by the process of making it. You’re out of order. In theater, you at least get to play a story from beginning to end and feel it out. You’re at scene 35 on the first day and like, “What’s happened before this? Where am I emotionally?” And then you’ve got to do it 40 times with the camera in different positions and act like nobody else is there. The whole thing is so hard, unless you’re Meryl Streep! But if you’re not working with Meryl Streep, what do you do as a director? I need real people on screen.
My second feature, My Effortless Brilliance, was a total experiment. I came up with these characters in my head and tried to cast them from a pretty small pool of actors. They were nothing like the characters. I realized, “What if you did it the other way? What if you had a person you wanted to work with…” That was where I started with that idea, and all I cared about was to make it feel like a documentary. I wanted you to turn the TV on and be like, “What am I watching? Am I in these people’s lives?” And people have said they’ve had that experience where they’ll turn it on in the middle of Showtime and have no idea what they’re watching but that it feels like a documentary. Which is like, “Yes! That’s what I meant.”
And then I honed it with Humpday. Once I knew I could work in that way, I upped the stakes. I’ll bring in a few lights. I had said, “No lights! Me and another camera operator with tiny cameras, a boom op, that’s it.” I eliminated the crew. But that was where I came up with that initial impulse, to make it feel really real. If the character fits the actor like a glove because it’s half them or three-quarters them and they’ve developed it with me…I want real humans.
I actually had that experience of picking up one of your movies and not missing a beat. I was late to my showtime of Your Sister’s Sister in the theater, but I didn’t feel like I was lost. Then a few years later I watched it at home from the beginning, which helped it make a little more sense. But I felt I had easily intuited what I had missed.
It’s funny because I want my movies to feel like you’re paratrooping into somebody’s life. We’re taking a little journey down the river of their life for a while, and then we leave again. I don’t like to tie things up too neatly at the end because I want you to get the sense that they’re continuing to live their lives, and who knows what’s going to happen in the future. But you just sort of paratrooped in a little bit later! [laughs]
On that note, there’s a line toward the end of the film where Jillian Bell’s character, Cynthia, takes a deep breath and says, “What a strange experience.” Is that line improvised or scripted? In a lot of ways, the line feels like it sums up where characters often net out at the end of your films.
That was all improvised! It’s all ordinary people going into crazy land, but yeah, ordinary people having weird dramas in their everyday lives. I mean, it can happen. I’ve heard stories of shit happening to random people that feel like…you couldn’t write that shit!
Review: Into the Ashes Brings Nothing New to the Country Noir Genre
Aaron Harvey is prone to pulling back from any moment that might give greater depth to his revenge tale.2
Aaron Harvey’s Into the Ashes is the latest in an increasing string of so-called country noirs set in the dilapidated backwoods of rural America, places ravaged by the opioid crisis and populated by jobless people long ago abandoned by politicians. It has little to distinguish itself, narratively or thematically, from similarly dour films, and it lets generic images of its rundown Alabama locale (rusted trucks, cramped houses, landlines in a wireless world) stand in as symbols of national decline without truly seeping into the complex social rot of the place. Its plot, of a reformed criminal forced to contend with his old gang leader over some stolen loot, is similarly superficial, hitting the typical beats of its genre.
Where Into the Ashes gets a boost is in its excellent cast of grizzled character actors, all of whom vibrantly express varying degrees of weariness and rage. Luke Grimes plays the erstwhile ne’er-do-well and ex-con Nick Brenner with the nervousness of a man who’s just learning to let go of his past and give in to hope. The man’s gruff, taciturn nature is leavened by his tender relationship with his wife, Tara (Marguerite Moreau), and he projects his faith in normalcy onto her. Nick relies so heavily on Tara for his emotional wellbeing that he anxiously calls home while on an overnight hunting trip just so he can hear her voice.
Equally human beneath a hard exterior is Nick’s father-in-law, Frank (Robert Taylor), the local sheriff whose intimidating Tom Waits-esque voice and stiff demeanor belie his fumbling, masculine attempts to welcome Nick into his family. Strongest of all, though, is Frank Grillo as Sloan, Nick’s recently paroled and vengeful boss. Grillo is at home playing big-fish-in-small-pond villains, and the actor makes the most of Sloan’s thin characterization, exuding psychopathic menace when Sloan confronts Nick in the latter’s home, drawing out every oblique threat as he circles the subject of the money that Nick stole from the crew’s last job before Sloan was sent to prison. Grillo expertly inflects even the silliest moments of sub-Tarantino dialogue with a disarming venom, such as an extended riff on pie and ice cream.
But if the actors are primed to explore the contours around a basic premise, Henry constantly pulls back from any moment that might give greater depth to his revenge tale. Women exist to be supportive and to become victims, while character-driven conversations between Nick and Frank devolve into asinine ethics debates over justifiable violence. Worst of all, there’s just no sense that the film is saying or revealing much of anything. There’s one moment where Into the Ashes achieves a touch of bleak grace akin to the work of Cormac McCarthy by skipping over the events leading to a shootout and focusing only on its grisly aftermath: bodies strewn about in puddles of blood that look like reflective pools of black ice in the pale moonlight. Then, not five minutes later, we get a flashback showing the lead-up to that carnage. As with so much else in the film, a haunting moment of elision is negated by literal representation.
Cast: Luke Grimes, Frank Grillo, Marguerite Moreau, James Badge Dale, Robert Taylor, Brady Smith, Jeff Pope, Andrea Frankle Director: Aaron Harvey Screenwriter: Aaron Harvey Distributor: RLJE Films Running Time: 97 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
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