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Understanding Screenwriting #87: J. Edgar, Hugo, Sullivan’s Travels, A More

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Understanding Screenwriting #87: J. Edgar, Hugo, Sullivan’s Travels, A More

Coming Up in This Column: J. Edgar, Hugo, Sullivan’s Travels, Hell on Wheels, The Closer, but first…

Fan Mail: Happy New Year, and welcome to pigs flying and Hell freezing over: David Ehrenstein actually had complimentary things to say about stuff in this column TWO columns in a row.

And thanks to “Keith” for clearing up where the “Marlene” in Martha Marcy May Marlene came from. I can now sleep better at night.

J. Edgar (2011. Written by Dustin Lance Black. 137 minutes.)

On the one hand…: Writing about Dustin Lance Black’s script for Milk (2008; see US#14) I gave Black a hard time for the lack of characterization for most people in the film. It was an example of the “characters” in a documentary, in this case the 1984 The Times of Harvey Milk, being more interesting than his fictionalized versions. I am glad to see the awards, including the Oscar, that he won for that script did not prevent him from trying to improve his work. The characterizations in this script are terrific, from his version of J. Edgar Hoover down to the smaller parts. This gives us a wide range of great character scenes. We see Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) with his domineering mother (Judi Dench) in a couple of doozies. Throughout the film we get great scenes between Hoover and his second-in-command Clyde Tolson. I particularly liked two Tolson scenes. In the first Tolson kisses J. Edgar and the latter reacts violently. It could easily have become camp, but Black, DiCaprio, Armie Hammer (as Tolson), and director Clint Eastwood keep it from getting out of hand. The second is late in the picture when an aging Tolson “corrects” Hoover’s recollections and we see what really happened in multiple previous scenes. Those scenes were flashbacks as J. Edgar is dictating his memoirs.

One reason the first of those two Tolson scenes works so well is that Black deals with Hoover’s possible homosexual feelings in wonderfully subtle ways. It would have been way too easy to make him a simple closet case, but Black goes into why Hoover had trouble admitting to any homosexual feelings. Black gets that across by giving us a sense of the attitudes of the time and how they affected individuals. I pinged on the script of Milk for often being politically “on the nose,” but that is definitely not the case here, or at least not culturally “on the nose.” The film spends most of its time in the ‘20s, ‘30s, and ‘60s, so we do get a sense of how things changed over that period of time. In the ‘20s and ‘30s Hoover is almost an heroic figure as he establishes the Federal Bureau of Investigation. We see him fight for fingerprinting and other scientific crime-fighting techniques that old-timers put down, but we also see him be very picky about the personal details of his agents. Television writers I talked to about working on the ‘60s series The F.B.I. told me that Hoover was still that way. At one point a writer wanted to give Inspector Erskine a cold, but Hoover insisted F.B.I. agents did not get colds. Although there were still very few black agents in the Bureau in the late ‘60s, Hoover was agreeable to having a black agent on the show, probably to make the Bureau more modern than it was at the time.

Since Hoover ran the Bureau for fifty years, there is a lot that is left out, enough to make another film. We get nothing from the ‘40s (capturing Nazi spies) or the ‘50s (searching for Communists). I missed those periods, but Black is probably smart not in include them in an already long film. By dropping them, he may give us a better sense of the changes in attitudes between the early and later years. If you are jumping from the ‘30s to the ‘60s, the visual changes alone will help shift our minds a bit before anybody says or does anything.

On the other hand, as much as I like a lot of this film, it is in one way a complete mess. Black is constantly cutting back and forth from time periods and it is hard to adjust to, even given the visual clues. He will give you a great scene, say one between Hoover and his mom, then cut to some different time period. He will get us involved in the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, then not pay it off until we have time-jumped several times. We are constantly losing the emotional threads, which takes us out of the picture. I admire Clint Eastwood a lot as a director, but handling this kind of time-jumping has never been his strong suit. You can see what I mean in Bird (1988) and Hereafter (2010).

Hugo (2011. Screenplay by John Logan, inspired by the book The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick. 126 minutes.)

Hugo

Lumpy: We sweep into a Paris train station in the 1930s and meet Hugo, a boy of about ten who lurks in the upper reaches of the station. His uncle used to keep the clocks running, but when he disappeared, Hugo continued the job, unbeknownst to anybody in the station. So he spies on the other people in the station, which gives us good visuals: the people who work there and Hugo’s reactions to them. OK, fine, but the film takes forever to establish all that. Hugo loses a notebook he cherishes, and Georges, the old man running a newstand, refuses to give it back. Hugo will not tell him what’s in the book. And doesn’t tell him. And doesn’t tell him. It is 45 minutes into the film before we find out about the automaton that Hugo is repairing, based on his dead father’s notes in the notebook. Georges tells Hugo he burned the notebook, but Georges’s ward, Isabelle, gives it back to Hugo and they become buddies. It is an hour into the film before we find out that Georges is in fact Georges Méliès, the great pioneering French filmmaker. Through Tabbard, a French film scholar, we get a flashback of a visit Tabbard made to Méliès’s studio as a boy. It is beautiful recreation of the studio, but Tabbard is a minor character, so we wonder, why are we getting his flashback? Especially since later Hugo and Isabelle persuade Georges to tell them about his work, and we see essentially the same material. It would have been much more dramatic if we saw it through Hugo and Isabelle’s eyes as Georges tells us all about it.

It has also taken us half an hour to get from finding out who Georges is to getting his version. Like so much in the film, it could go quicker, a lot quicker. Much as I love, film historian that I am, the recreations of Méliès’s studio and work, there is almost too much of them, since it takes us away from Hugo. The movie shifts from being Hugo’s movie to Georges’s movie. I know the filmmakers love old films, and as much as I love luxuriating in the material about Méliès, it throws the film a bit out of whack. And as a film historian, I also noticed some historical glitches. Méliès’s career did not end because World War I changed audience attitudes, as the film states, but because Méliès kept making the same kinds of films over and over and over again. His 1912 film A Voyage to the North Pole is hardly different from his classic 1902 film A Trip to the Moon. He simply did not grow with his audiences. Now there’s a lesson for filmmakers.

Two other minor details. Some critics have complained that the character of the Station Inspector seems like a slapstick intrusion, but to me he fit nicely into the film, and I think the director did a very nice job getting Sacha Baron Cohen to give a nuanced performance. The other detail: Hugo is in 3D, and because the director (Martin Scorsese) and his cinematographer (Robert Richardson) know film as well as any two guys around, the use of 3D to give us a sense of the space of the station is brilliant. Psst, don’t tell Marty I said that. He’ll think I am going soft in my old age, although based on some evidence below, I may be.

Sullivan’s Travels (1941. Written by Preston Sturges. 90 minutes.)

Sullivan's Travels

The Sturges Project, Take Four: After the success of The Great McGinty and Christmas in July (both 1940), Sturges was afraid he was due for a flop with The Lady Eve (1941), but it turned out to be a big hit as well. Zanuck had loaned Henry Fonda for Paramount for Eve in return for Sturges coming to Fox to make a film. Sturges passed another of his trunk items, Song of Joy, to Zanuck, who thought it was second rate and guessed that it had come out of the trunk. The Zanuck-Sturges collaboration would have to wait. According to Brian Henderson in Five Screenplays by Preston Sturges, Song of Joy was something of a meta-cinema satire on Hollywood, with Sturges constantly pulling the rug out from under us as to which movie we are watching. That appears to be the only element that he brought over to Sullivan’s Travels. According to Sturges’s biographer James Curtis (in Between Flops), Sturges intended to make fun of directors whom he felt were getting too much into sending messages. Curtis does not indicate which directors Sturges had in mind, but there were plenty around. Capra is name-checked in the film, and Sullivan’s first name John may be a reference to John Ford. Sullivan’s middle name is Lloyd, which may be a reference to Sturges’s Paramount stable mate, Frank Lloyd. Sturges started writing Sullivan’s Travels in February 1941 and he started shooting in early May. Henderson points out that there are fewer changes from draft to draft in Travels than there are in earlier Sturges screenplays. Partly that was because it was not based on previous scripts, and partly it was because Sturges was getting more confident. He may also have been getting sloppier.

Henderson mentions there are a number of logical holes in the script. We start with a clip from a melodrama that supposed to be about the conflict of labor and capital, but in the office scene that follows it is never made clear whether this is a film somebody else made, or whether it is the one Sullivan wants to make. It appears to be the former, and it also appears that Sullivan wants to make a film of a book, but he hardly mentions it in the office scene. Henderson also seems a bit huffy about the mixture of seriousness and slapstick in the film. As I was reading his essay I was bothered by his comments, since Travels is one of my favorite Sturges films. Then I read the screenplay. It simply did not live up to the film.

Oh my God! What happened? Partly it may have been that Henderson’s essay turned me hypercritical, and I began to find other inconsistencies, e.g., why in the chain gang sequences is the Trusty carrying around a newspaper that must be at least a couple of weeks old? The classic opening scene in the studio office seemed as good as I remembered it, but then the script becomes, as Henderson noted, uneven. You could defend the script against that on the grounds that it is a picaresque tale, but in the script I found a lack of connections. I had an even bigger problem when Sullivan meets The Girl. I always got on my screenwriting students for not giving their characters, especially the majors ones, names, and here is the great Preston Sturges doing just that. There did not seem to be much going on between Sullivan and The Girl in terms of what we will watch, and I was never clear in the script what she was after. She does not seem sexually interested in Sullivan, and she is very casual about his being a big director who might give her aspiring actress a break.

It may also have been that I am simply getting old and not as perceptive about screenplays as I used to be. I have always prided myself on being able to spot what is playable in a script and what isn’t. I have been wrong before, of course, as in looking at a middle draft of the screenplay of Jaws (1975) and thinking the shark jumping up on the boat and eating Quint would be totally ridiculous on film. Or, it occurred to me that this may be one of those very rare cases (see the notes in US#65 on Casanova Brown [1944] for an example) where the film is better than the script.

As you can imagine, I then sat down to watch the film with a combination of dread and hopeful anticipation. The film gets off to a rousing start with the clip from the drama. It does not look like anything else we have seen in Sturges. It’s visually darker, for one thing. Sturges’s cameraman on The Great McGinty was William Mellor, who had a distinguished career shooting such films as Giant (1956) and Peyton Place (1957), but had been very condescending to Sturges. The cameraman on Christmas in July and The Lady Eve was Victor Millner, who had shot films for De Mille (The Crusades [1935] and The Plainsman [1936]), but also shot 1932’s Trouble in Paradise for Lubtisch. Milner obviously learned how to fill the screen from De Mille. In the De Mille films he fills the screen with props and set decoration; in the Sturges films he fills them with Sturges’s stock company of character actors. Milner was unavailable for Travels and was replaced by John Seitz, whom we talked about a little bit in the comments on The Badlanders in US#58. He could handle the mixture of light and dark Sturges wanted in the film, and he makes this scene dark but still with the energetic action Sturges stages. It may not look like a Sturges scene, but it feels like one. That’s not the last time we will see that in this picture.

Seitz was also not above goading Sturges. As they got ready to shoot the studio office scene, Sturges was considering the various angles he might use and Seitz said, “I dare you to do it all in one take.” Sturges replied, “Well, I have never refused a dare in my life.” Sturges had written the role of Sullivan specifically for Joel McCrea, who insisted that nobody wrote scripts for him; they wrote scripts for Gary Cooper and any that Cooper turned down went to McCrea. McCrea had only had limited stage experience and most movie actors were not required to do long takes. But he was game, after Sturges assured him that if it didn’t work they could cut it up into smaller segments. So they shot it in a four-minute take, which is what you see in the picture. Like the Bildocker-Parker scene in Christmas (see US#85) the result is a scene that could only be in a movie written and directed by Sturges. McCrea’s Sullivan is a slightly pompous guy whom McCrea gives a likeable quality to. He is arguing to be allowed to make a serious picture. Sturges has given him not one but two studio executives to fight. Why two? One would make the scene more focused. But two makes it more lively as they double team Sullivan, so the dialogue goes back and forth in a zingier way. And Sturges has made LeBrand (probably named after his studio patron William Le Baron) and Hadrian not unsympathetic. They are not above comparing their hardscrabble backgrounds with Sullivan’s privileged life. And here’s the real reason you have two of them: after Sullivan leaves, LeBrand and Hadrian call each other for lying through their teeth about their poor younger days. McCrea may have not had much stage experience, but he recognized great dialogue when he read it. He said of Sturges’s scripts, “He wrote dialogue I could just look at once and do.” In this scene the writing is wonderfully poetic, with recurring phrases, like LeBrand’s insistence on having “a little sex” in Sullivan’s movie. Next time you watch the scene, count the number of times the phrase comes up, and who says it and how. Well, I was relieved that scene worked on film at least. The first two scenes also reminded me of the varied visual styles of the three opening scenes of Citizen Kane, which was just going into release in May 1941 when Sturges started shooting. Kane probably did not influence the script, but it may have made Sturges and Seitz realize you how many varieties of visual looks you could have within the same film.

Next we see Sullivan preparing to go out as a hobo with only ten cents in his pocket. His Butler, played by Robert Greig, who appeared in three Sturges films, objects to treating poverty as simply something to be studied. It is one of those smart off-the-wall speeches that Struges wrote better than anybody, and Sturges gives it its due by shooting Greig in closeup. Sullivan is then on the road and we get the slapstick scene with the “land yacht,” the trailer the studio has following him. It seems a little too frantic, but the script and the film have established that we are going to see everything in this film. Struges does not stage it as well as some other directors might. Then, in the script, Sullivan is picked up by Mr. Carson, who asks him about his travels. Carson turns out to be the local sheriff and threatens to throw him in jail for vagrancy. The scene was cut from the picture, perhaps for length, but it may have been too much foreshadowing of the hobo scenes later on. It may also have been cut because it was too similar to the scene with the truck driver who gives Tom Joad a ride at the beginning of The Grapes of Wrath (1940). Both Carson and the trucker notice that Tom and Sullivan’s hands are not working man hands.

The film goes from Sullivan escaping the land yacht directly to the scenes with Miz Zeffie and her sister Usula. In the script the sequence seems like just a picaresque diversion, but the scene in which the three of them are watching a movie is developed with a little more detail in the film than in the script. It becomes the forerunner of the famous movie scene at the end of the film. Sullivan escapes the sister in another slapstick scene and ends up…back in Hollywood, which becomes a nice running gag in the film as well as a unifying element in the film. The movie scene and the returning to Hollywood work on screen as connective material.

He goes into a diner and meets The Girl. Sturges had passed over a lot of other female stars to go with Veronica Lake. He had seen her in the rushes of I Wanted Wings (1941) and liked how she read her lines in a way that dominated the scene. She stole that picture when it was released. And she was perfect for the part of The Girl. And here, my children, is why Preston Sturges is PRESTON STURGES and Brian Henderson and Tom Stempel aren’t. Lake was known in her later starring parts, such as in This Gun For Hire (1942), for her sexual insolence. What Sturges saw was that he could have her use that insolence in a non-sexual way. Yes, it’s in the lines, but Sturges’s understanding of how she could deliver those lines makes it play on film. As a writer and director, you have to understand the dynamics between the lines and the performer. The lines are not bad, but you have to have been Sturges to know how they needed to be read. The script is good, but subtle in a way we do not expect in Sturges. And that kind of subtlety is tricky for a reader, even one as experienced as I am, to get. The Girl is constantly challenging Sullivan, and he and we never know what she is going to say to him. Sturges and McCrea didn’t know either. Lake had already begun to develop a terrible reputation, and she showed why on this production. She was late and hardly ever knew her lines. By the time she got them after several takes, McCrea, who was better on the early takes, was worn out. Lake is the reason the film went over schedule and over budget. She is also one of the many reasons the picture works. When McCrea was offered the lead in her 1942 film I Married a Witch, he turned it down, saying, according to Robert Osborne, “Life’s too short for two films with Veronica Lake.”

So Sullivan and The Girl go on adventures, always ending up back in Hollywood. When they hop aboard a freight, the picture begins to darken, visually and emotionally. At one point Sturges and Seitz have a long montage of Sullivan and The Girl walking through the slums of a big city. After all the non-stop dialogue, it is strikingly visual. The print quality of Travels on the boxed set is not top drawer, and I suspect, given their reputation, the stand-alone DVD of Travels from the Criterion Collection is probably better, but I can assure you that neither one can hold a candle to a great 35mm print. Once at LACC we rented a 35mm print from Universal and ended up getting a brand new one, fresh out of the lab, without a mark on it. My projectionist and I sat there slack-jawed at the brilliance of Seitz’s cinematography. His ability to combine of light and dark provide another method of holding the film together.

Henderson points out that Sturges, in his direction, does not give us a close-up of the hobo who steals Sullivan’s shoes so that we will recognize him later. But I think Sturges is, once again, ahead of Henderson and me. Sturges understands that we do not have to see that it is the same guy. We can assume that it was, or, given that this is a picaresque tale, we may think the shoes have changed hands several times before they show up on the bum who is killed.

Sullivan ends up on a chain gang, and who is The “Mr,” the man in charge? Our old friend Al Bridge, here not in a comic part as we have seen him, but as a real hard-ass. And he is just as good in this as he was in those parts. And because we “know” from previous Sturges films that he can be funny, Sturges has him laughing the loudest as the chain gang watch a Mickey Mouse cartoon in the black church. Jimmy Conlin, the shortest actor in the Sturges stock company (he appears in all eight of the films we will be discussing), gets one of his biggest roles of The Trusty, who has a wonderful scene, shot all in shadows, as he tells Sullivan how to survive, a scene that would not be out of place in any drama of the period.

Watching the Mickey Mouse cartoon is, along with the first scene in the studio office, the best known in Travels. Sturges wrote in the screenplay that on the screen “…we see a silent comedy, possibly Chaplin in The Gold Rush, possibly a Laurel and Hardy two-reeler.” He settled on the Mickey Mouse cartoon. I think Sturges’s direction, and or editing, is a little off in this scene, since he has the audience laughing a lot quicker than we do, but the message is so great we don’t mind too much. When Sturges started writing the script, he had no idea what Sullivan would discover on his travels. Sturges took away everything from Sullivan and discovered that the one thing he still had was his ability to laugh.

So naturally he ends up back in Hollywood and no longer wants to make Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? This now irritates the studio people because his adventures have produced great publicity for it. In his final speech, Sullivan says, “…there’s a lot to be said for making people laugh…did you know that’s all some people have? It isn’t much…but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan…”

When Sullivan’s Travels was completed, the new executives at Paramount liked it, but realized with its tonal shifts it would be a difficult film to sell. So the poster consisted of a drawing of Veronica Lake with her by-now-famous peek-a-boo hairdo, which never really appears in the film. Joel McCrea is nowhere to be found, and the ad line is “Veronica Lake is on the take.” That would have been perfect if the film was The Lady Eve, but it’s not. Audiences who went expecting Eve redux were disappointed and the business never picked up. Pop quiz: how would you sell Sullivan’s Travels to an audience in 1941?

Hell on Wheels (2011. Multiple episodes. 60 minutes.)

Hell on Wheels

You’d think…: By now you know I love westerns. And you know I love train movies. For all my reservations about John Ford’s 1924 classic The Iron Horse, I’ve seen it several times. You know from US#30 how I feel about De Mille’s 1939 Union Pacific, but I am probably not yet finished watching it, either. So this new series should have been right up my alley. It is set in the Post Civil War era and like the Ford and De Mille films deals with the Union Pacific building its westward link of the Transcontinental Railroad. I will even buy that the plains of Alberta, Canada, where it is shot, can more or less pass for the American plans of Iowa and Nebraska. But the writing is sorely lacking.

The “Pilot,” written by Tony Gayton & Joe Gayton, the show’s creators, begins with a man going into church in Washington D.C. He goes into a confessional, but he does not confess. So the man on the other side takes out a gun and shoots him. No, the Catholic Church did not develop a stricter no-confession policy in the 1860s. The shooter is Cullen Bohanan, an ex-Confederate soldier who is hunting down the Union soldiers who killed his wife. He squints under his wide-brimmed hat and seldom smiles, so we are maybe in Outlaw Josey Wales territory. But Cullen is simply not that interesting a character (not a patch on Josey) and Anson Mount, who plays him, does not give us any look into his soul. Cullen joins the railroad to look for the other killers, like The Iron Horse’s Davy Brandon, who is searching for the man who killed his father. Since he had slaves before the war, he is put in charge of the black laborers, including Elam, who does not have much of a characterization either. Durant, the boss of the railroad is a standard corrupt businessman, but not particularly distinctive. The only interesting character in the pilot is Johnson, the yard boss. He is given a very rich performance, better than the script deserves, by Ted Levine, more recently known as Captain Leland Stottlemeyer on Monk. Johnson knows the whereabouts of the men Cullen is looking for, but just before he can tell Cullen where the men are, Elam kills him. I almost gave up on the show at that instant. Killing off your most interesting character, guys? Jeez.

I went back for two more episodes. The second was “Immoral Mathematics,” written by Tony Gayton & Joe Gayton, which spends its first 33 minutes with Cullen imprisoned in a boxcar. Oh, like that’s really visual. He makes his escape and ultimately convinces Durant to let him take over Johnson’s job. Cullen’s nemesis in this episode is the Swede, a large man, dressed in black, who is Durant’s enforcer. He is the most interesting character in this episode, so I figured he would not last out the episode. He did. The third was “A New Birth of Freedom,” written by John Shibau. Cullen has found Johnson’s papers, which leads him to thinking he knows where one of his wife’s killers is. So he rides out to find him. Wait a minute. He has just been given the new job of yard boss, and already he’s leaving the yard for several days? And Durant does not fire his ass? Cullen finds Lily, the widow of the railroad surveyor, who was killed by a group of Indians John Ford would have rejected as politically incorrect. Lily has been wandering around in the wilderness, wounded, but smart enough to know that if she ever gets back to the railroad, the tube she holds onto with his late husband’s maps will be a nice bargaining chip. They make it back to the camp just as there is a funeral for her husband and his associates. Wow, a funeral at a railroad camp out on the Great Plains. You and I don’t have to think too hard to imagine what Ford or Stevens or Hawks or Mann or Boetticher or Peckinpah or even H. Bruce “Lucky” Humberstone (see US#28) could have done with that. Here we get a couple of speeches in a tent. I’m leavin’ Cheyenne, pardners, and lighting out for the Territory.

The Closer (2011. “You Have the Right to Remain Jolly” episode written by James Duff & Michael Alaimo. 60 minutes.)

The Closer

Ho, ho, ho: The Closer has been mostly a dramatic show (Detective Brenda Leigh Johnson and her team solve crimes), and the comic moments come mostly from the great set of supporting characters in Brenda’s team. This episode does deal a bit with the Federal case against her, but it mostly focuses on a much lighter murder case. Buzz, the team’s videographer, and his visiting sister Casey, are at a Santa theme park they used to go to as kids. Santa, in a new twist, is to arrive flying through the sky on a zipline. Somebody has tampered with the equipment, and while he does hit the chimney, it is only to splat against it. There are immediately suspects: the dead Santa Randy was married, but fooling around with one or more of the Elves. His wife and the Elves get into a fight as Brenda and her team arrive. The male members of the team are very taken by Casey, and we get recurring bits of them trying to cozy up to her during the case.

The owner of the park is Santa Jack. He smokes, drinks, and during one drunken talk, alas before he has been Mirandized, almost confesses to fixing the equipment. Is this a perfect part for Fred Willard or not? That’s who they got, and he’s terrific. Buzz is very disappointed to have his Christmas ideals about Santa broken, although Casey, the smarter of the two, is not surprised. It turns out Santa Jack’s niece was trying to kill Jack so she could take over the park and sell it to developers. She goes to jail, and Jack sells the park anyway.

In a one-hour procedural, there is not time for as many Christmas jokes as there are in this year’s A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas, but some are wonderful. Willard works his Santa beard as well as Joe Pesci works his hairpiece in JFK (1991). And stay through to the closing tag in which Casey, a TV weatherperson in Seattle, goes through her usual “We’re keeping track of the weather for Santa” bit, and then reacts differently when the camera goes off.

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: 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 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.

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 form Streetwise 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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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

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I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians
Photo: Big World Pictures

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

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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.

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Lynn Shelton
Photo: IFC Films

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!

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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.

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Into the Ashes
Photo: RLJE Films

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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Review: Stéphane Brizé’s At War Is Politically Charged but Artistically Inert

The film is content to bluntly affirm that corporate attempts at compassion are always secondary to providing profit to shareholders.

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At War
Photo: Cinema Libre Studio

Seven months after the first flare-up of France’s Gilets Jaunes, the nascent populist movement shows no signs of ceasing. Combined with the country’s ongoing Telecom scandal, in which several executives have been charged with “moral harassment” after 35 workers were allegedly hounded into committing suicide, it’s evident that what’s simmering there is an extension of the same unease escalating around much of Europe, and the world at large. It’s a state of affairs that makes At War seem especially of the moment, and which leaves its eventual failure to offer any special insight so disappointing. Provided with a prime opportunity to animate the zeitgeist, Stéphane Brizé’s labor-focused drama instead uses this timeliness to prod along the most obvious of points, its nuts-and-bolts, process-oriented approach never amounting to more than a surface look at the issues it purports to confront.

The film in some ways functions as an unofficial prelude to Brizé’s prior The Measure of a Man, in which an unemployed machinist played by Vincent Lindon finds a new career as a hyper-market security guard, where he’s eventually forced to choose between serving as a traitorous management lackey and losing his job. Here, Lindon’s Laurent Amédéo is still in possession of his original occupation, though things are hanging by a thread, as a last-ditch organizing effort attempts to halt the closure of a manufacturing plant in Agen. Surrounded by a cast of convincing non-professionals, Laurent leads the picket line, refusing to waver from the straight and narrow, an intense figure of principle whose scruples are never in doubt.

At War is largely notable for its steadfast devotion to a kind of mechanistic aesthetic, which unfortunately lines up with its cheerless didacticism, the two qualities cohering in a scene-by-scene summation of a strike action that repeatedly hammers home the same general points. The scenes themselves evince heft, fluidity, and an impressive sense of improvisation, but the staging is static and the eventual outcome is always clear. The game is given away by Lindon’s stoic face and the gradual unraveling of the plot, which envisions internal disintegration—leveraged by outside pressure—as the insidious method by which solidarity is smashed. Despite some genuine drama in this dissolution, it’s always clear who’s right and who’s wrong, which material interests each is representing, and who’s lying and who’s telling the truth.

This didn’t have to be the case, as proven by David France’s procedure-focused documentary How to Survive a Plague, which balanced a similarly diagrammatic narrative with extensive character detail, expanding the stakes while affixing a deeper subtext about the ways the victory of a marginalized group eventually diminishes its radical standing. Intent on emphasizing the connections between callous corporate greed and populist unrest, Brizé’s film is bluntly focused on the bottom line. There’s a certain dramatic function to this technique, as it examines the individual human actions that allow such interests to put their will into practice, but it doesn’t justify the flat, exhortative style of address.

As another example of how well this kind of economic criticism can be carried off, there are the dazzling docu-essays of German filmmaker Harun Farocki, who routinely found surprising intricacies in the cold façade of modern capitalism, while offering empathetic alignment with workers as a matter of course. At War, on the other hand, merely summarizes what its audience already knows, affirming that corporate attempts at compassion are always secondary to providing profit to shareholders, and that genuine humanity and integrity are liabilities when confronting such an unfeeling monolith. Like Ken Loach’s recent Palme d’Or winner I, Daniel Blake, it’s a film whose political principles are hard to disagree with, yet which leans so heavily on this moral certitude as to render itself entirely inert.

Cast: Vincent Lindon, Melanie Rover, Jacques Borderie, David Rey, Olivier Lemaire Director: Stéphane Brizé Screenwriter: Stéphane Brizé, Olivier Gorce Distributor: Cinema Libre Studio Running Time: 115 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Bottom of the 9th Strikes Out with Too Much Plot Incident

Raymond De Felitta’s film offers a sampler course of formulas, which creates a strangely unfulfilling tension.

1.5

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Bottom of the 9th
Photo: Saban Films

Raymond De Felitta’s Bottom of the 9th offers a sampler course of formulas, which creates a strangely unfulfilling tension. Just when you expect the film to go in a certain direction, it goes in another, only for it to again switch routes, though there’s never a sense of expectations being deliberately challenged or tweaked. Rather, the filmmakers merely seem to be indulging a variety of passing fancies, which is a shame because the actors here are game and occasionally imbue the shopworn scenes with liveliness.

Sonny Stano (Joe Manganiello) is the perfect hero for either a noir or a redemptive sports film, a man approaching middle age who just served a 19-year sentence for manslaughter. Famous in his Bronx neighborhood for being drafted by the Yankees, only to flush his life down the toilet, Sonny is attempting to patch his life together while doing a perpetual apology tour on behalf of friends and strangers alike. He’s initially hired by an old friend, Joey (James Madio), to work in a fish market that seems to be a front for something. Joey has a cagey energy, and this narrative isn’t without intrigue, but De Felitta and screenwriter Robert Bruzio unceremoniously lose sight of it in succumbing to a number of clichés.

Of course, Sonny is revealed to have a woman who got away, Angela (Sofia Vergara), who one day runs into her old beau at a market. They clearly have chemistry, as do the actors playing them, but their dialogue is composed of nothing but redemptive platitudes. In these scenes, Manganiello and Vergara are stuck in a worst-of-all-worlds situation. Their characters are relentlessly mousey, which is appropriate to the awkward context of Sonny and Angela’s reunion, but which also robs these sexy actors of the opportunity to enjoy playing off one another. Meanwhile, said mousiness isn’t poignant either, as the characters haven’t been imagined beyond the respective stereotypes of the fallen man and jilted woman.

Bottom of the 9th then flirts with a narrative similar to that of Bull Durham and Major League, in which Sonny is hired by a local minor league ball team to rein in the fiery, egotistical talents of a rookie named Manny (Xavier Scott Evans). Evans is ferociously charismatic, suggesting a young Wesley Snipes and giving Manganiello a kinetic vibe to play off of, and so the film finally begins to come to life, with great character actors like Michael Rispoli and Burt Young riffing on the sidelines. However, this conceit is also left hanging, as the film shifts into a story of the unlikely comeback, with Sonny’s own talents taking center ring.

De Felitta might’ve gotten by with these contrivances if he were a natural showman, but the filmmaker displays little interest in the Bronx setting in which his characters live, or in rendering their experiences in a fashion that refutes screenwriterly index-card portraiture. For instance, a prison flashback in which Sonny gets into a fight during a ball game is reduced to trite and melodramatic close-ups, while much of the remainder of the film is composed of medium shots designed to accentuate only the largely uninteresting dialogue. There’s truly nothing in Bottom of the 9th but plot incident, and the leisurely, impersonal one-thing-after-another-ness of the film’s construction is stifling.

Cast: Joe Manganiello, Sofía Vergara, Denis O'Hare, Burt Young, James Madio, Yancey Arias, Michael Rispoli, Vincent Pastore, Dominik García-Lorido, Michael Maize, Kevin William Paul Director: Raymond De Felitta Screenwriter: Robert Bruzio Distributor: Saban Films Running Time: 111 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Crawl Is Fun and Economical but Lacks Go-for-Broke Inventiveness

The film is more straight-faced than Alexandre Aja’s prior work, trading absurd kills for narrow escapes from gaping alligator jaws.

2.5

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Crawl
Photo: Paramount Pictures

Unlike the giddily crass Piranha 3D, Alexandre Aja’s Crawl is a quiet beast of a film. It’s built not on a foundation of over-the-top gore, but on a series of escalations. As a hurricane barrels toward Florida, ace swimmer Haley (Kaya Scodelario) becomes worried after her father, Dave (Barry Pepper), doesn’t return her phone calls. She travels to her old family home and finds him unconscious in the house’s flooded crawl space, with large alligators swimming in the water.

Early on, the camera often lingers on the deceptive stillness of the rising water for maximum suspense. Haley and her father are trapped in the house with no more than the tools they can find or already have on hand, MacGyvering their very survival out of shovels, flashlights, and flares. The best parts of the film slyly set up those tools and other objects, including a swing set and a rat trap, only to bring them back at some later, climactic moment.

If Crawl, then, is an easily digestible piece of workmanlike thrills, its only real bit of gristle is its po-faced father-daughter bonding. Haley and Dave are somewhat estranged; the family home was meant to have been sold off after Dave’s recent divorce from Haley’s mother; and flashbacks to childhood swim meets show father and daughter tempting fate with flagrantly ironic use of the term “apex predator.” In the face of certain death, they cobble their relationship back together through Hallmark-card platitudes while sentimental music plays on the film’s soundtrack. It’s the absolute thinnest of familial drama, and it will do little to redirect your emotional investment away from the survival of the family dog.

Between these family moments, of course, the flood waters run red as people get got by gators. Aja is prone to lingering in prolonged closeup on things like a protruding bone being shoved back into place, but he otherwise seems to have gotten the most inspired bits of underwater violence out of his system with Piranha 3D. Crawl is more straight-faced than his prior work, trading absurd kills for narrow escapes from gaping alligator jaws. And while these moments are suspenseful, with nail-biting scrapes involving a handgun, some loose pipes, and one particularly clever shower-door maneuver, there’s precious little of the go-for-broke invention or outrageousness that might have made the film more than a fun and economical thriller.

Cast: Kaya Scodelario, Barry Pepper, Ross Anderson, Morfydd Clark Director: Alexandre Aja Screenwriter: Michael Rasmussen, Shawn Rasmussen Distributor: Paramount Pictures Running Time: 87 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: The Farewell Thoughtfully Braids the Somber and the Absurd

The film taps into universal truths about the passage of time, the inevitability of loss, and how we prepare one another for it.

3.5

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The Farewell
Photo: A24

In the opening scene of writer-director Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, a Chinese grandmother (Zhao Shuzhen), affectionately referred to as Nai Nai by her family, and her Chinese-American granddaughter, Billi (Awkwafina), have a warm, affectionate phone conversation in which each woman incessantly lies to the other. A professionally adrift, financially bereft millennial whose writing ambitions have come to naught, Billi lets her grandmother believe her life is busy and full of social engagements; for her part, Nai Nai insists that she’s at her sister’s house, rather than in a drably decorated doctor’s office. Wang frames Nai Nai against the kitschy, oversized picture of a lagoon that hangs on the wall, as if to emphasize the flimsiness of the illusions the pair is painting for one another.

The sequence calls to mind the advantage of audio-only phone calls: for allowing us to more easily maintain the falsehoods that comprise a not insignificant portion of our relationships. Given that minor mistruths prop up our most basic social connections, Wang focuses The Farewell on the moral quandary of whether a big lie—specifically, culturally contingent situations—might actually be an expression of genuine love. The film takes up the question with a tone of melancholic drollery, a sense of irony that doesn’t lose touch with the human feelings at its core. The Farewell is “based on an actual lie,” evidently an episode from Wang’s life, and its careful mixture of the somber and the absurd rings true to life.

As it turns out, Nai Nai has terminal lung cancer, but Billi’s father’s family elects to lie to the woman about her MRI results, an action that’s evidently within the bounds of Chinese law. But as Billi’s assimilated immigrant father, Haiyan (Tzi Ma), points out to his brother, Haibin (Jiang Yongbo), during a crisis of conscience, such a thing is both frowned upon in America and prosecutable. Struggling even more with the decision, of course, is the more Americanized Billi, who can’t reconcile her Western notions of love and the sanctity of the individual with the widespread practice of lying to family members about their impending deaths.

To create a cover for a family visit to Beijing, the family forces Billi’s cousin, Hao Hao (Chen Hanwei), who lives in Japan, to marry his girlfriend, Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara), of three months. This plan provides plenty of fodder for Wang’s dry humor, as the family attempts to maintain the veneer of celebration while also bidding farewell to their ostensibly clueless matriarch, who’s confused by Hao Hao and Aiko’s lack of affection and the generally dour mood that predominates in the lead-up to the wedding. It’s potential material for a farce, but even in its funny moments, Wang’s film is contemplative rather than frenetic, preferring to hold shots as her characters gradually, often comically adjust to the reality that Nai Nai will soon be gone.

Awkwafina, hitherto notable mostly for her comic supporting roles, gives a revelatory lead performance as Billi, the thirtysomething prone to bouts of adolescent sullenness. Perhaps playing a Bushwick-based, first-generation-American creative type isn’t much of a stretch for the Queens-born rapper/actress, but she immediately brings to the role the depth of lived experience: We believe from the first frames in the long-distance love between Billi and her grandmother, and the existential crisis the young woman feels as she negotiates two cultures’ differing approaches to death and disease. In taking us to Beijing through Billi’s eyes, which are often blinking back tears as she says goodbye without articulating “goodbye,” The Farewell’s morose but not hopeless comedy taps into universal truths about the passage of time, the inevitability of loss, and how we prepare one another for it.

Cast: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Zhao Shuzhen, Lu Hong, Jiang Yongbo, Chen Hanwei Director: Lulu Wang Screenwriter: Lulu Wang Distributor: A24 Running Time: 98 min Rating: PG Year: 2018

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