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Understanding Screenwriting #88: Young Adult, A Dangerous Method, The Palm Beach Story, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #88: Young Adult, A Dangerous Method, The Palm Beach Story, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Young Adult, A Dangerous Method, Like Crazy, The Palm Beach Story, Ivanhoe, Quentin Durward, but first…

Fan Mail: “stammitti90” wondered, as others have, about the title of the column being “Understanding Screenwriting,” since he thinks the column is just film reviews with a few references to screenwriters. There are of course more than a few references. Compare how many times I mention the writers in my reviews to any other reviewer. Or how much I talk about the script in my comments on Hugo in that column as opposed to how much David Ehrenstein talks about Scorsese in his comments on the item. Too often people writing about screenwriting seem to forget that screenwriting is part of the process of filmmaking. Rather than a generic (Three Acts, Hero’s Journey, et al) column about screenwriting, I am trying to give you a nuanced look at how the screenwriting elements of a film are part of the collaborative process of filmmaking. You will see an example of that below in the discussion about the script and Charlize Theron’s performance in Young Adult.

David E. was getting on me for “dissing” the visuals in Hugo, but the one time I mentioned the visuals it was to praise them for giving us reactions of Hugo watching the people in the station. I am not sure I agree with David that I have a “terribly literal idea of what cinematic narrative consists of,” unless by that I want the film to make sense in an interesting way. It can do that with dialogue and/or visuals, as I indicated a little farther down in that column in my comments on Sullivan’s Travels. By the way, David, thanks for the story on Vidal quoting Robert Grieg’s speech from Travels. It tickles my mind to think of Vidal doing that speech.

Young Adult (2011. Written by Diablo Cody. 94 minutes.)

Petting the dog: Hollywood studio development executives always insist that characters have to be “likable” and usually ask for a scene early in the script that shows it. This is known in the trade as the “petting the dog” scene, after the old silent film convention that the hero comes into town and pets the dog, while the villain comes in and kicks the dog. You even see it in documentary films. Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 Triumph of the Will has two of the most brilliant cuts in her career: she cuts from Hitler in a car looking up to a pussycat looking down out of a window, and then cuts back to Hitler turning back from looking up. Uncle Adolph loves the pussycat and the pussycat loves Uncle Adolph. Needless to say, screenwriters resent this. When David Benioff was writing Troy (2004), he kept getting notes from Warners that Achilles had to be more likable. Benioff later told David S. Cohen, “He’s not likable. You’re not going to have a pet-the-dog scene with Achilles. It is something I had to resist.”

Mavis Gary, the main character in Young Adult, has a dog. It’s one of those little obnoxious types. She puts it out on the patio to eat its food. She stuffs it into her purse to take on her trip back to her hometown. She leaves it in the hotel room with only a plastic diaper to poop in. But she never, never, ever pets it. Thank you, Diablo Cody.

Mavis is not a likable person. She writes Young Adult novels under a pseudonym. Her apartment is a mess. She drinks too much. And she dates a boring guy whom she is not afraid to show us, if not him, how boring he is, even if he is about to go off to do good deeds overseas. And that’s just before the credits. Then she really gets going. Getting an email that her old high school flame Buddy and his wife Beth have had their first child, Mavis goes back to her hometown determined to break up Buddy and Beth and get back together with Buddy because, well, she thinks they were always meant to be together. Ouch, she is delusional as well.

This is the character we are supposed to follow through a movie? Yes. And we do. Why? Because when Mavis is on-screen, stuff happens. And that above all is what you really need in a main character in a film. Not being a fan of southern belles, I would not like Scarlett O’Hara in real life, but by God, when she’s on-screen, you can’t not watch her. Mavis is like that, only more so, and Cody makes it work. When Mavis arrives back home, the first person she runs into is Matt Freehauf. They were in high school together, but she does not recognize him until she sees his crutch. Ah, he’s the “Hate Crime Guy,” who was beat up by a bunch of jocks who thought he was gay. Oh, we are going to have a sentimental gay best friend for her. Nope, not only is he not gay, he is just as sharp-tongued as she is, and not afraid to call her on her bullshit. Hardly a best friend, but we like them together because they bounce off each other in funny ways. She meets Buddy and they have a drink, not in a dark make-out bar, but in a well-lighted sports bar. He is clueless about what she is back in town for. Her cover story is that she is handling some real estate deal, which leads us to suspect her parents are dead, since she is staying in a motel. Guess who drives up to her on the street a little later in the picture? Her mom. Mom and Dad are still both alive and well. Mavis is upset they still have a picture of her wedding (not to Buddy), given that the marriage failed, but Mom remembers it was a very nice wedding. Typical clueless parental units, and we can see why Cody does not have Mavis spend more time with them.

Buddy invites Mavis to see Beth play in a rock band called Nipple Compression, a group Beth and other mothers formed to get them out of the house. One of the other mothers says to a third, on seeing Mavis, “Psycho Prom Queen Bitch,” and we believe her. Beth, on the other hand, is a charming character who works with emotionally stunted kids. And she and Buddy are very happy. Mavis is not convinced. Buddy invites her to the baby-naming ceremony at their house. One of the great running bits is watching Mavis prepare for each meeting with Buddy: different nail polish for each event, different clothes. I bet a male writer would have not have come up with those details. So Mavis goes to the ceremony, and we are on the edge of our seats, because we know it’s going to be a train wreck, a term several critics have used to describe Mavis. She gets Buddy in a room alone and tells him that she knows he feels the way she does. He doesn’t. Farther out on the edge of our seats because we know no good will come of that. And we are right. Mavis makes a total fool of herself in the front yard, with all the people she knows standing there. We find out here that Mavis had been pregnant by Buddy (he knew) and had a miscarriage. We also find out that it was not Buddy who insisted she come to the ceremony, it was Beth. She felt sorry for Mavis, about the worst thing you can say to Mavis.

So Mavis stomps off and goes to see Matt. And they have sex. But, but, she’s gorgeous and he’s…well, fat and crippled. And he told her earlier that not only did the beating hurt his leg, but also his genitals so he can only piss or come sideways. That’s a great detail, but unfortunately Cody never figures out a way to make that pay off in the scene, as we now get it, of Matt and Mavis. So what about when they wake up in the morning and talk about it? Well, they don’t. Mavis wakes up first and is sneaking out of the house when she is caught by Matt’s sister Sandra. We met Sandra earlier and she is one of many people, like Matt, who idolized Mavis not only when she was in high school but later when she went off to the big city (Minneapolis) and became a famous author. Well, she’s not famous but still, Sandra and Matt are the sort of people who never got out of town and idolize those who do. At this point that’s enough for Mavis. There are still people who admire her, but she has learned no lessons, had no “Aww!” moment.

More than The United States of Tara (see US #43), this is the riskiest script Cody has ever done. If the balance is not perfect, she’ll lose us. She doesn’t lose us. She also has the advantage of having Charlize Theron as Mavis. Theron told David Letterman that the director, Jason Reitman, had said he wanted only her for the part because he could see Mavis in her. Theron said she was not sure that was a compliment, but the role is certainly within her range, and I think a trickier role and performance than her award winning part in Monster (2003). We cringe at what Mavis does, but she is so interesting to watch that we like her as well, at least a little bit. And the film takes advantage of Theron’s beauty, although often we see her in day-old makeup. Like Matt and Sandra, we sort of want to see her get what she wants because she is physically gorgeous. It is a peculiarity of movies, and real life as well, that we assume that good-looking people are good. We really know that is not true, but we still pretend that it is, at least in the movies.

Here is another way the script is risky. The film doesn’t have a sentimental bone in its body about small towns or high school. Of what other American film can you say that? Mavis’s hometown is no Bedford Falls. There are some nice people there (Beth, Mavis’s clueless parents) and some not so nice (Matt), but it is not the American dream. Mavis is, like way too many Americans, sentimental about high school, but the film is not. The series of Young Adult novels Mavis is writing is set in the fictional high school Waverly Place. At first this just seems like a mildly interesting detail. Midway through the film we (and I think Mavis) discover from a bookstore clerk that the series is being cancelled. So the book she is writing throughout the film is the final book in the series, and Mavis’s voiceovers from the book near the end match the “end” of her high school life with Buddy. Nice subtle writing.

A Dangerous Method (2011. Screenplay by Christopher Hampton, based on his play The Talking Cure and the book A Most Dangerous Method by John Kerr. 99 minutes.)

A Dangerous Method

Come lie down on my couch, little girl: This is almost as risky a script as Cody’s for Young Adult. It’s 1902 and Sabina Spielrein, a young Russian woman who is mad as a hatter, is brought to the young doctor Carl Jung. He decides she is a perfect case of what Sigmund Freud has called The Talking Cure, or what we now call psychoanalysis. Jung has great success treating her, but then he starts sleeping with her, even though he knows he shouldn’t. He vows to stop, and doesn’t. He and Freud meet for the first time about the case, and then come to disagree, since Freud is insistent only on dealing with the sexual elements, while Jung wants to look at wider issues. By the end of the film Sabina has become an analyst and Jung is about to have a nervous breakdown.

You want to count all the different ways Hampton could screw this one up? The Talking Cure is exactly what it says, talk, talk, talk, which is why it is often so boring on screen (and on stage as well). We are dealing with two of the towering figures of the 20th century and how do you show them as humans, not gods? How do the sexual scenes avoid gross exploitation? How do all the discussions of theoretical differences between Freud and Jung keep us from falling asleep? Hampton, whose script for Chéri (2009, see US #30) I did not care for, gets it all right this time.

My guess is that Hampton did what Milos Forman had Peter Shaffer do when Shaffer adapted his play Amadeus for the 1984 film. Forman told Shaffer not to adapt the play, but to figure out how to tell the same story on film. Hampton had a head start on thinking of this as a film. According to an article in the January 3, 2012 Los Angeles Times, Hampton first got interested in Sabina’s story in the ‘90s when he read A Secret Symmetry, a book by Aldo Corotenuto. Shortly thereafter Julia Roberts’s company sent him John Kerr’s book, and Hampton says, “I jumped at the chance of using is as the basis for a screenplay.” The screenplay was never produced, and Hampton decided to turn it into a stage play. The movie does not feel like an adapted play. Hampton opens with the film with Sabina being driven in a carriage to Jung’s clinic. It makes for a wonderfully cinematic opening: wide-open spaces, charging horses, and a mad Sabina. Some reviews have thought Keira Knightley is too over the top in these opening scenes, but the woman is mad, and Knightley makes her not just conventionally mad, but disturbingly so. We see that Jung has his work cut out for him. Hampton breaks up the therapy sequences so some are in the clinic and some are out on walks in the countryside, including a beautiful one on an old bridge. In screen time the therapy goes quickly so we don’t get bogged down in it. Jung here is very straight-laced, but we can see why he is attracted to her, first as a patient, then as an assistant, and finally as a sexual partner wildly different from his equally straight-laced wife. Hampton, Knightley, Michael Fassbender (Fassbender is having the male equivalent to Jessica Chastain’s year), and director David Cronenberg focus on these characters in these situations. I am not a big fan of Cronenberg’s gross-out movies, but I love his subtler ones, like this and 2005’s A History of Violence. Both here and in Violence there is always the possibility of violence, which makes it more shocking when it does come.

And then we come to meet Freud. Hampton has done a beautiful job of making Jung and Freud different. You would not think Freud would be a part for Viggo Mortensen, who we tend to think of as a more physical actor, but he inhabits the role in a variety of subtle ways, and we believe Jung when he describes Freud as seductive. To paraphrase the real Freud, sometimes a cigar is just a great prop. Hampton gives us just enough of the intellectual differences between the two men that their conflict works as drama. I suspect Hampton’s having done this first as a play and seen what works with an audience helped him develop a sense of how many of the details of the Jung-Freud debates as well as Sabina’s cure he needed. That also means understanding how much he did not need.

Hampton’s final two scenes are two of the best. Years after her treatment, Sabina comes to visit Jung and his wife. The first scene is with Sabina, now pregnant by her husband, and Jung’s wife Emma. Emma has been a good, conventional wife, supporting Jung financially with her own inheritance, and giving Jung several children, including finally a son. But now she knows that Jung is in a difficult mental state and Sabina is probably the only one who can help him. Hampton gives the history of Emma and Sabina (Emma knew about the affair) in a short, simple scene. Then we get Sabina talking to Jung. It is 1913 and he has had a disturbing—and very Jungian—dream of water coming down through the mountains, turning red with blood and filled with dead bodies. We know, and Jung suspects, that it is the coming World War I. Freud’s approach is not much help here. The end titles tell us that Jung had a nervous breakdown shortly thereafter before going on to do his greatest work. Both these two final scenes are gorgeously photographed by the great Peter Suschitsky, the first scene on a large lawn and the second by a beautiful lake. Again, Hampton understands what you can do with film that you cannot do on stage.

I had written the first drafts of this item thinking that I had not seen the play. I remembered hearing about it, but neither the reviews nor the film itself reminded me of anything I had seen. Then Charles McNulty, the theater critic for the Los Angeles Times, wrote an article on adaptations from the stage and mentioned it had played at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles in 2004. Huh? My wife and I have had season tickets for the Taper for years, but I had no recollection of seeing the play. I checked out our calendar and my diary, and dug out the program. I had seen it. Usually in a case like that, particularly when I can look at the program, some details of the production pop back into my mind. Nothing this time, which almost never happens to me, since I tend to have a fairly good memory for movies and plays. I wrote in my diary for that night that it was “an OK play, which we liked better than the LAT reviewer did.” Obviously Hampton has made it a lot more vivid in his screenplay than he did in his stage play.

Like Crazy (2011. Written by Drake Doremus and Ben York Jones. 90 minutes.)

Like Crazy

There is a reason why films are written, people: Felicity Jones, who plays Anna, a British girl who falls in love with the American Jacob in this film, described to the Los Angeles Times (December 1st) how the scripting process worked on this film:

“There was a “scriptment”—I think we should see if we can get this word into the dictionary. It’s a cross between a script and a treatment. It’s more like a short story. It has a very clear idea of what the characters are. It has elements of each scene and what was to happen. We have very clear objectives for every scene, but then you as an actor have to find a way of doing it that’s as naturalistic and believable as possible.”

The whole idea behind this approach is that the actors, understanding the characters, will come up with fresh and interesting material. That’s the theory, but as this film so relentless proves, the practice is often a mess. The actors are more or less making it up as they go along, and in this case, there is virtually no inspiration in anything they do or say. Maybe it’s just that I have been listening to a lot of Preston Sturges scripts lately, but the dialogue in this film is flat, and not even pointed enough to call it “on the nose.” There is one good line: Jacob’s second girlfriend brings him breakfast in bed, then starts eating the bacon on the tray. She says, “I don’t share bacon,” which immediately makes her the brightest and most watchable person in the film.

So what we get is scene after scene of Anna and Jacob looking dreamily at each other or else looking miserable at not being with each other. Felicity Jones (Anna) and Anton Yelchin (Jacob) have shown elsewhere they are good actors, but “scriptment” gives them nothing to play in terms of character. She romantically overstays her visa when she is first in Los Angeles, and this keeps her from coming back to him. Her visa problems make her seem more than a little unsympathetic. Yeah, yeah, I know it was a romantic gesture to stay, but there is not that thick a line between romantic and stupid. The few other characters in the film are not particularly well-developed either, stranding such normally good actors as Alex Kingston, Oliver Muirhead, and Finola Hughes. Jennifer Lawrence of Winter’s Bone (2010) at least gets the one good line mentioned above, but she’s been hired for her cuteness rather than her acting chops.

The inspiration for the film was a long-distance relationship Doremus had, but the film is very sloppy about the details of a relationship like that. I have been in three, two that did not work out, and one that did, which is why my wife and I went to see the film. All of us involved in those relationships did not moon about in jerky-cam closeups. We tired to make it work; sometimes it did, sometimes it didn’t. The film is simply not very specific about what they do, what their attitudes are, how those attitudes shape their actions. You let actors improvise and too often, as happens here, they will go for some generic line or emotion. The actors are usually much better at improvising if they start from a strong script. In Juno (2007) Allison Janney improvised only one line. When Juno says Bren, her stepmother, does not really know her, Janney’s Bren shoots back, “I know enough.” A great line, and a great Bren line, and it came from Janney working from the script.

You really need a writer to shape the material. Really, you do.

The Palm Beach Story (1942. Written by Preston Sturges. 88 minutes.)

The Palm Beach Story

The Sturges Project, Take Five: Sturges expected that Sullivan’s Travels (1941) might not do as well as his previous films, since it had more serious elements to it. He was right, and he had already decided to try to alternate comedies with films with at least a hint of seriousness. So with this film he set out to do a film based on a theory he had, that a woman could go far on beauty alone. He was also going to examine marriage, as indicated by his original title: Is Marriage Necessary? Needless to say, the Breen office, the official censorship organization of the film industry, shot down that title. Sturges shifted to Is That Bad? before changing it to The Palm Beach Story. (The background information is, as before, from James Curtis’s biography Between Flops.)

Brian Henderson, in Four More Screenplays by Preston Sturges (his first volume, Five Screenplays by Preston Sturges was understandably well enough received to provoke a second volume), discovered that Sturges had trouble getting the script going, unlike some of his earlier ones. Sturges thought of Gerry, the wife, as kind of a female John Sullivan and wanted her to go on the road and have adventures as Sullivan did. The question was, what motivated her? Maybe she simply wanted to see how far she could go on her beauty. But Sturges also thought she might be doing all this to help her husband, Tom, who has an invention (an airport made out of suspended wires) he is having trouble getting investors for. And if she is doing that, does Tom go along with her? In other words, is he pimping his wife out? Needless to say, the Breen office frowned on that, and they were not alone. Sturges pretty much figured out that Tom is not complicit, and the few lines that survived in the script that suggested he might be got dropped, either in the shooting or the editing.

Sturges started by making notes for early scenes between Tom and Gerry, and you will find no better look at the difference between talent and craft than in Henderson’s discussion of those scenes. Henderson includes lots of dialogue from those scenes, and the Sturges talent for dialogue is all there. But the scenes would not work as they needed to in the film. Sturges very carefully crafted the opening twenty minutes or so of the film over a period of several weeks in September-October 1941. Gerry is leaving Tom, even though she still loves him, sort of, since she does not think she’s really the wife for him. She’s the one who considers getting some rich man to help with Tom’s project. She is encouraged to flee by the Wienie King, an old man who is considering renting their apartment, since they are being kicked out. He thinks she should enjoy life while she’s still young.

Once she gets going, she decides to go to Palm Beach to get a divorce. She ends up on the train with one of Sturges’s greatest creations, the Ale and Quail Club, a group of middle-aged men drinking and shooting, sometimes on the train, on their way to Florida. Sturges whipped off the Ale and Quail Club scenes very quickly, although he was concerned that they might be a digression. Which they are. They appear 26 minutes into the film and are left on the tracks at 43 minutes, and we never see or hear from them again. You could cut them out of the picture entirely. Fortunately Sturges was smart enough not to do that. True, you don’t need them, but sometimes stuff you come up with is so good you can’t not use it.

Sturges knew he was writing Tom for Joel McCrea, and reading Tom’s lines in the script, you hear McCrea, more so than you do in the script for Sullivan’s Travels. He is upright, a little stuffy, and most helpfully a little jealous of Gerry. Gerry is Claudette Colbert, one of the great screwball leading ladies of the ‘30s. She plays beautifully the contradictions in Gerry’s character that survive from Sturges’s working over the material. Sturges also knew he was writing the role of the starchy millionaire John D. Hackensacker III for Rudy Vallée. Vallée had been a hugely popular crooner in the ‘20s and ‘30s, but never attained true star status in movies. Sturges saw him in a B musical and thought he was funny, especially when he was not trying to be. Paramount was horrified when Sturges insisted on hiring him, but the studio was so pleased with the result they signed him to a contract, and he continued acting in films for years. Including many of Sturges’s. Sturges was so taken with Vallée that his early notes for the script simply refer to the character as Vallée. Vallée is starchy in the film, but he is also enormously likable. His rich sister is played by Mary Astor, and she never quite got the vocal lightness Sturges wanted.

Gerry meets John D. on the train, and he takes her to Palm Beach, where Tom has already arrived by plane. Gerry introduces Tom as her brother, which immediately interests the Princess, John D.’s sister. Who is going to end up with whom? In the earlier drafts of the script, there is a sequence where it turns out that Tom and Gerry each have a twin sibling, whom they might have married, but ended up with each other. The sequence explaining this was condensed to a montage that Sturges puts under the main titles. Most first-time viewers are completely baffled by the title sequence, and it may take you several viewings to figure out who may be who. In the final draft of the script, Sturges cuts from the discovery that there are the twins to a double wedding: Tom and Gerry standing on the sidelines watching John D. marrying Gerry’s twin and the Princess marrying Tom’s twin.

When the picture was released Bosley Crowther, the lead critic for the New York Times for over twenty years, called it “generally slow and garrulous.” I think what he was responding to was the opening twenty minutes of the film. Sturges had spent a lot of time working out the details of what puts Gerry on the road, and it is a little more serious than most romantic comedies of the time. Sturges as a director shoots the ten minutes of scenes of Tom and Gerry discussing their marriage mostly in rather loose two-shots. Sometimes he does a lot in a single take, but the material is not quite strong enough support that. The ten minutes before those scenes include the first Wienie King scene, and he is certainly garrulous, but in an entertaining way. You should also keep in mind that Crowther had an absolute tin ear for dialogue. Twenty years after this picture, he described Robert Bolt’s dialogue for Lawrence of Arabia (1962) as “surprisingly lusterless.”

The Ale and Quail members are all from Sturges’s stock company: William Demarest (Paramount used him to introduce the trailer for the film, which makes you think it was only about the Ale and Quail Club), Robert Warwick (Le Brand in Sullivan’s Travels), Jimmy Conlin, Robert Greig, et al. Yes, the scene is a digression, but we don’t mind for reasons mentioned above. The Club is often the only thing people remember from the film, and it has influenced screenwriters ever since. Look at the community council in Ron Shelton’s screenplay for the 1986 film The Best of Times.

Vallée gives everything Sturges wanted, and Astor is not bad, but the script is Tom and Gerry’s story and McCrea and Colbert manage to be both funny and serious. Sturges was, again, writing great star parts. The film is more serious about looking at marriage than most people realize. Gerry does not leave Tom because he, or she, has been unfaithful, but for more complicated reasons, and McCrea and Colbert, especially the latter, put across those emotional moments. Sturges privileges those moments in his direction. Just as The Lady Eve (1941) becomes a more romantic film than the script because of the stars involved, The Palm Beach Story becomes more dramatic.

But Sturges also gives us a great ending with the twins, and here is one of those (rare) examples where the filmed scene is better than the script. The script just shows them all standing up at the altar, with no particular reactions to what is going on. In the film Tom and Gerry’s twins are absolutely baffled as how this situation came to be. It is much funnier that way. Sturges ends the film the same way he ended the title sequence: with a set of titles that says, first “And they lived happily ever after,” followed by “But did they?” See, I told you it was an examination of marriage.

Ivanhoe (1952. Screenplay by Noel Langley (and Marguerite Roberts, uncredited), adaptation by Æneas MacKenzie, from the novel by Sir Walter Scott. 106 minutes.)

Ivanhoe

Not the RKO film noir version: When Dore Schary was head of production at RKO in the mid-‘40s, he thought about a film version of Scott’s novel. Fortunately he did not make it then, or else it probably would have been in black-and-white, shot on the backlot, starring a neurotic Robert Ryan as Sir Wilfred of Ivanhoe. When Schary moved to MGM in the late ‘40s, he knew he had found the studio for the film. The first screenwriter he approached was Æneas MacKenzie, who had written historical films at Warners. He tried to convince Schary to change the story. Scott had been attacked by Thackery, among others, for his anti-Semitism. Sir Wilfred of Ivanhoe is trying to get King Richard-the-Lionheart out of a European prison, and to get the ransom he goes to Isaac of York, a Jewish moneylender, who raises the money. MacKenzie’s objection was not that a Jew was a moneylender, one of the few professions open to Jews in King Richard’s time, but that Ivanhoe sort of falls in love with his daughter Rachel. When push comes to shove at the end, he dumps the adoring Rachel and ends up with his shiksa girlfriend, Lady Rowena. MacKenzie wanted to change the ending to have Ivanhoe and Rachel together, but Schary said no. (The background is from Schary’s memoir Heyday.)

MacKenzie still gets a credit on the film for adaptation, but the heavy lifting got done by Noel Langley, whose best-known credit is The Wizard of Oz (1939). (I haven’t found any indication of what Roberts did on the script.) Aside from some slow spots, it is a solid script, with a great jousting sequence, an equally great siege on a castle, and a nice final duel. MGM decided to shoot it in England and Scotland to use up the MGM English grosses that were frozen by the government after World War II. Smart move, especially since the got British cinematographer F.A. Young (that’s Freddie Young to you and me) to shoot it. Robert Taylor is a stodgy but acceptable Ivanhoe, and he is surrounded by a lot of great British character actors. The picture was huge hit and lead to some follow-ups, one of which we’ll talk about below.

But MacKenzie was proved right. MGM cast the attractive and talented Joan Fontaine as the Lady Rowena. But Rachel is played by the heart-stoppingly beautiful 20-year old Elizabeth Taylor. Photographed by Freddie Young. Even anti-Semites thought Ivanhoe made the wrong choice.

Quentin Durward (1955. Screenplay by Robert Ardrey, adaptation by George Froeschel, from the novel by Sir Walter Scott. 103 minutes.)

Quentin Durward

The later, funny one: The success of Ivanhoe led MGM to do a couple of follow-up swashbucklers. This is one I had never seen, so even though it is generally thought of as not that good, I decided to give it shot when it popped up on a night of Sir Walter Scott adaptations on TCM. It turns out to be much more interesting than its reputation suggests. A lot of the same people are involved, including Robert Taylor in the title role and, alas, Richard Thorpe, directing. The cinematographer this time is Christopher Challis, who’s not bad, but he’s no Freddie Young. The difference is that the screenplay is by Robert Ardrey, who unlike Noel Langley and apparently Sir Walter, had a sense of humor.

Scott begins the novel, set in 15th-century France, with an impoverished Scottish swashbuckler going to France to join his equally impoverished uncle, who is a mercenary for one of the political divisions in France. Ardrey gives us a much better opening scene. The uncle, Lord Crawford, is alive, rich, and not as young as he used to be. He is played by Ernest Thesiger twenty years after he was Doctor Pretorius in Bride of Frankenstein. He is trying to arrange a marriage with the much younger Isabelle, Countess of Marcroy. She has sent him a small, idealized portrait of herself, and he is returning the favor by having commissioned a large, highly romanticized painting of himself thirty years younger. Quentin comments on this and it’s obvious the uncle knows exactly what he is doing. Uncle is sending Quentin to France to meet Isabelle, take her measure, and plead his case. Quentin notes that he is a chivalrous man when the times of chivalry have long passed, a theme that Ardrey brings up often. The scene sets a nice light tone for the rest of the film, which is a little quicker on its feet than Ivanhoe. We don’t think of Robert Taylor as having a light touch, and he doesn’t, but he gets the rueful quality of knowing he is a man out of time.

Well, you can see where this is going. Quentin goes to France, has a meet cute with Isabelle, and naturally falls in love. She’s not the heart-stoppingly beautiful 20-year-old Elizabeth Taylor, but the next best thing: the heart-stoppingly beautiful and wickedly funny 28-year-old Kay Kendall. Kendall would be more than up to the demands of where Ardrey is taking the script, but Richard Thorpe has no idea how to use Kendall. One review said Kendall was too modern for the part, but Ardrey’s view is something of a modern view. Thorpe just doesn’t get it and the Quentin-Isabelle scenes don’t zing as they should. There are some more British characters giving value for the money. We get a lot of plotting with the French factions, and we get a great duel between Quentin and the baddie while both of them are swinging on the bell ropes in a bell tower. Needless to say, all ends well.

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: Chasing Portraits Is Welcome Personal Testimony, but Its Scope Is Narrow

Its major contribution, as one museum curator suggests, may be to bring the works of Moshe Rynecki back into prominence.

2.5

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Chasing Portraits
Photo: First Run Features

Before World War II, Poland’s Jewish population was the largest in Europe, numbering over three million. Afterward, only 10% of that populace remained. Although the current right-wing Polish government prefers to suppress this fact, the 300,000 surviving Jews faced continued persecution at the hands of gentile Poles—themselves the victims (though to a much lesser degree) of Nazi persecution. Today, when the number of Jews in Poland is well under 10,000, one can visit the old Jewish quarters in cities like Warsaw and Krakow, where street kiosks sell small plastic caricatures of Hasidic Jews. On the streets, though, you’re unlikely to encounter any actual Hasids.

In her trip to Warsaw in search of her great-grandfather’s lost paintings, Chasing Portraits director Elizabeth Rynecki stumbles across these figurines. As she observes in voiceover, there’s nothing overtly demeaning about the miniature, jovial, cartoonish Jews, but the image they project doesn’t feel right, given local history. And one must agree that there’s an undeniable aspect of minstrelsy to them: Unlike her great-grandfather Moshe’s textured scenes of Jewish life in Warsaw, they’re almost certainly not self-representations. Given the Jewish culture that was destroyed in Poland—and whose richness is embodied by Moshe’s few surviving paintings—the grinning trinkets seem all the more like frivolous kitsch.

Rynecki’s discovery of these unsettling souvenirs is potentially one of the most interesting parts of Chasing Portraits, given that she happens across them while on the trail of lost Jewish art. As a curator at a Warsaw museum observes to the filmmaker, Moshe’s work depicts traditional moments of Jewish culture in a distinctly modern sensibility, attesting to the robustness of the Jewish culture on the eve of its destruction. In this way, his paintings are the opposite of the post-facto plastic caricatures, and Rynecki’s confrontation with the mass-produced simulacra of absent Jews is a moment when her highly personal documentary almost extends toward a wider perspective. But she doesn’t linger for too long on what the Holocaust and Judaism mean in Poland today, as she’s on her way to ask a private collector named Wertheim about how his family managed to acquire some of Moshe’s works.

Rynecki’s insular approach works well early on in the film, when she, in conversations with her father, outlines who her great-grandfather was and what his surviving paintings mean to the family. Of around 800 works that Moshe painted before he was murdered at the Majdanek death camp, just over 100 survive in the possession of the family, with an unknown number in the hands of private collections and Polish museums. That much is a miracle, but Rynecki—more so, it seems, than her father, a Holocaust survivor himself—wants to discover more. In the film, we see her consult with historians, compose emails to private collectors, and read excerpts of her grandfather George’s memoirs, in preparation for her trip to Poland.

Chasing Portraits is about Rynecki’s investigative process rather than Moshe’s paintings themselves; in voiceover, she narrates each step of her process as she takes on the role of amateur historian. And in maintaining an intense focus on her investigation—how she reads out the emails she writes to institutions, and shows us footage from each flight she takes from one corner of the world to another—the film raises probing questions that it dutifully bypasses. Her encounters with the Wertheim family are a case in point: The first Wertheim brother claims the family own paintings by Moshe because they bought it from a farmer, but the second tells the more plausible story that they have the paintings because their parents, resistance fighters hiding in the Polish woods, raided them from a bombed-out train.

In Rynecki’s narrative, these conflicting stories become a personal conundrum: If the paintings were looted rather than bought, she may be able to make a claim on them. In the end, it’s Rynecki’s growth, her decision about whether or not to become a claimant, that structures the film. But this approach means skirting over other thematic threads that might have emerged from this project, such as the ethics of museum versus private ownership of recovered art like Moshe’s, the meaning of art in desperate times, the politics of remembrance in Poland. Chasing Portraits is thus valuable as part of an expansive mosaic of personal testimonies to the legacy of the Holocaust, but it’s a documentary of sometimes disappointingly narrow scope. Its major contribution, as one museum curator suggests, may be to bring the works of Moshe Rynecki back into prominence.

Director: Elizabeth Rynecki Screenwriter: Elizabeth Rynecki Distributor: First Run Features Running Time: 78 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: If the Dancer Dances Diminishes Its Subject by Succumbing to Hagiography

The documentary is incessant about reminding us of the late Merce Cunningham’s achievements.

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If the Dancer Dances
Photo: Monument Releasing

More than once in Maia Wechsler’s If the Dancer Dances, a dance is described by one of numerous talking heads as existing only in the moment; once any movement or routine is complete, it essentially can never be replicated to an exacting degree. But the film inadvertently appears as if it’s trying to prove that poetic and insightful observation wrong, which becomes increasingly clear as we follow choreographer Stephen Petronio as he and his dance company work on a production of Merce Cunningham’s RainForest.

Wechsler’s depiction of the company seems unwilling to step out of Cunningham’s shadow, given the extent to which the members of the current production and Cunningham’s former pupils happily provide hagiographic accounts of the groundbreaking avant-garde choreographer and his work. In an about-face from the repeated description of dance’s unreplicable nature, the new RainForest’s choreographers and dancers set out to duplicate rather than interpret the work. The fawning over Cunningham, and the implication from the company that they’ll never be able to live up to his vision, only exposes an overbearing inferiority complex running throughout the documentary.

If the Dancer Dances really only comes to life when showcasing the company’s rehearsals, throughout camera movements that match the gracefulness of the dancers and compositions that incorporate multiple points of action. Wechsler’s observational methods in these sequences capture mini-dramas in themselves, such as when choreographers quietly confer, attempting to adjust the dance routine that’s playing out in front of them.

Still, rather than letting the audience simply observe the company at work and letting the process speak for itself, Wechsler incessantly reminds us of Cunningham’s monolithic presence via scores of interviews that laud his work process. The film’s constant lionizing of the man amid so much rehearsal footage has the unintended effect of sapping the dancers of agency. Throughout, it’s as if Wechsler is judging the company’s artistic decisions based on whether or not Cunningham himself would consider them right or wrong.

At one point in the film, a former colleague of Cunningham’s explains that the late choreographer, in an effort to ensure that his works felt fresh, tried to never be influenced by other productions. This anecdote rings of irony, given how the film includes numerous sequences of Petronio’s choreographers discussing how to ape Cunningham’s aesthetic in precise detail—and often in incomprehensibly abstract directions that even some of the dancers appear not to grasp. The film operates under the impression that for any present or future company to change any one aspect of Cunningham’s original vision would be blasphemous and offensive, which turns If the Dancer Dances less into the insightful backstage documentary it wants to be, and more into a gushing, sycophantic love letter.

Director: Maia Wechsler Distributor: Monument Releasing Running Time: 86 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Film

Watch the Trailer for Ava DuVernay’s Netflix Series When They See Us

Netflix will release the series on May 31.

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When They See Us
Photo: Netflix

In 1989, the rape and near-murder of Trisha Meili in Central Park rocked the nation. A little over a year later, a jury convicted five juvenile males—four African-American and one Hispanic—to prison sentences ranging from five to 15 years. In the end, the defendants spent between six and 13 years behind bars. Flashforward to 2002, after four of the five defendants had left prison, and Matias Reyes, a convicted murder and serial rapist serving a lifetime prison term, came forward and confessed to raping Meili. DNA evidence confirmed his guilt, and proved what many already knew about the so-called “Central Park jogger case”: that the police investigation of Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise, conducted at the beginning of the Giuliani era in New York City, was motivated less by a thirst for justice than it was by racial animus.

Last year, Oscar-nominated Selma filmmaker Ava DuVernay announced that she would be making a series based on the infamous case, and since then hasn’t been shy, on Twitter and elsewhere, about saying that she will be putting Donald J. Trump in her crosshairs. Trump, way back in 1989, ran an ad in the Daily News advocating the return of the death penalty, and as recently as 2016, claimed that McCray, Richardson, Salaam, Santana, and Wise are guilty of the crime for which they were eventually exonerated—behavior consistent with a presidential campaign that, like the case against the Central Park Five, was a full-time racist dog whistle.

Today, Netflix dropped the trailer for When They See Us, which stars Michael K. Williams, Vera Farmiga, John Leguizamo, Felicity Huffman, Niecy Nash, Blair Underwood, Christopher Jackson, Joshua Jackson, Omar J. Dorsey, Adepero Oduye, Famke Janssen, Aurora Perrineau, William Sadler, Jharrel Jerome, Jovan Adepo, Aunjanue Ellis, Kylie Bunbury, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Storm Reid, Dascha Polanco, Chris Chalk, Freddy Miyares, Justin Cunningham, Ethan Herisse, Caleel Harris, Marquis Rodriguez, and Asante Blackk.

According to the official description of the series:

Based on a true story that gripped the country, When They See Us will chronicle the notorious case of five teenagers of color, labeled the Central Park Five, who were convicted of a rape they did not commit. The four part limited series will focus on the five teenagers from Harlem—Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise. Beginning in the spring of 1989, when the teenagers were first questioned about the incident, the series will span 25 years, highlighting their exoneration in 2002 and the settlement reached with the city of New York in 2014.

See the trailer below:

Netflix will release When They See Us on May 31.

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Film

Review: The Curse of La Llorona Is More Laugh Riot than Fright Fest

With The Curse of La Llorona, the Conjuring universe has damned itself to an eternal cycle of rinse and repeat.

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The Curse of La Llorona
Photo: Warner Bros.

Michael Chaves’s The Curse of La Llorona opens in 17th-century Mexico with an all-too-brief rundown of the legend of La Llorona. This weeping woman (Marisol Ramirez) is quickly established as a mother who, in a fit of jealousy, drowned her two children in order punish her cheating husband. And after immediately regretting her actions, she commits suicide, forever damning herself to that liminal space between the land of the living and the dead, to snatch up wandering children to replace her own.

Flash-forward to 1973 Los Angeles, where we instantly recognize an echo of La Llorana’s parental anxieties in Anna Garcia (Linda Cardellini), a widowed mother of two who struggles to balance the demands of her job as a social worker for Child Protective Services and the pressures of adjusting to single parenthood. One might expect such parallels to be further expanded upon by The Curse of La Llorona, but it quickly becomes evident that the filmmakers are less interested in character development, narrative cohesion, or the myth behind La Llorona than in lazily transposing the film’s big bad into the Conjuring universe.

It’s no surprise, then, that La Llorona, with her beady yellow eyes, blood-drained skin, and rotted mouth and fingernails is virtually indistinguishable from the antagonist from Corin Hardy’s The Nun; just swap out the evil nun’s tunic and habit for a decaying wedding dress and you’d never know the difference. Even more predictably, The Curse of La Llorona relies heavily on a near-ceaseless barrage of jump scares, creaking doors and loud, shrieking noises as La Llorona first terrorizes and murders the detained children of one of Anna’s clients (Patricia Velasquez), before then moving on to haunting Anna and her kids (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen and Roman Christou). But this family is so thinly conceived and their behavior so careless and illogical in the face of a known force of evil that viewers may find themselves less terrified by La Llorona than overjoyed by her reign of terror.

Once Rafael (Raymond Cruz), a curandero whose healing powers promise to lift La Llorona’s curse, arrives on the scene, the film makes a few concessions to Mexican cultural rituals, as well as offers brief but welcome respites of humor. But after the man rubs down the Garcia house with eggs and protects its borders with palo santo and fire tree seeds, The Curse of La Llorona continues unabated as a rote scare-a-thon. Every extended moment of silence and stillness is dutifully disrupted by sudden, overemphatic bursts of sound and fury that are meant to frighten us but are more likely to leave you feeling bludgeoned into submission.

All the while, any notions of motherhood, faith within and outside of the Catholic Church, and Mexican folklore that surface at one point or another are rendered both moot and undistinctive in the midst of so much slavish worshipping at the altar of franchise expansion. Indeed, by the time Annabelle’s Father Perez (Tony Amendola) pays a house visit in order to dutifully spout exposition about the series’s interconnected religious elements, it becomes clear that the Conjuring universe is damned to an eternal cycle of rinse and repeat.

Cast: Linda Cardellini, Roman Christou, Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen, Raymond Cruz, Marisol Ramirez, Patricia Velasquez, Sean Patrick Thomas, Tony Amendola Director: Michael Chaves Screenwriter: Mikki Daughtry, Tobias Iaconis Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 93 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Books

Review: David Bordwell’s Reinventing Hollywood & W.K. Stratton’s The Wild Bunch

Stratton goes beyond the production of Sam Peckinpah’s film, on to its impact and reception and legacy.

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Reinventing Hollywood

The 1940s were the decade in which Hollywood attained what we now term “classical” status, when the innovations and developments of cinema’s formative years coalesced into a high level of sophistication across all areas—technological, visual, narrative. The narrative element is the focus of Reinventing Hollywood, film historian and University of Wisconsin-Madison professor David Bordwell’s latest deep dive into the aesthetics of film.

Bordwell begins with a series of questions: “What distinctive narrative strategies emerged in the 1940s? Where did they come from? How did various filmmakers use them? How did the innovations change the look and sound of films?” He then proceeds with quite thorough answers across 500-plus pages. The narrative developments were gradual and cumulative. While the earliest narrative cinema was static and stagebound, inheriting principles of storytelling from theater and the most basic novelistic tendencies, a richer narrativity developed throughout the 1930s, when the visual language of silent cinema melded with the oral/aural elements of “talkies” to create a more systemized approach to narrative filmmaking.

As Bordwell notes at one point in Reinventing Hollywood, “[p]rinciples of characterization and plot construction that grew up in the 1910s and 1920s were reaffirmed in the early sound era. Across the same period there emerged a clear-cut menu of choices pertaining to staging, shooting and cutting scenes.” In short, it was the process whereby “talkies” became just “movies.” Narrative techniques specifically morphed and solidified throughout the ‘30s, as screenwriters and filmmakers pushed their way toward the discovery of a truly classical style.

While the idea of a menu of set choices may sound limiting, in reality the options were numerous, as filmmakers worked out a process of invention through repetition and experimentation and refinement. Eventually these narrative properties and principles became conventionalized—not in a watered-down or day-to-day way, but rather codified or systematized, where a sort of stock set of narrative devices were continually reworked, revamped, and re-energized. It’s what Bordwell calls “an inherited pattern” or “schema.”

Also in the ‘40s, many Hollywood films traded in what Bordwell terms “mild modernism”—a kind of light borrowing from other forms and advances in so-called high modernism, such as surrealism or stream-of-consciousness narratives like James Joyce’s Ulysses: high-art means for popular-art ends (Salvador Dalí’s work on Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound being a notable example). These techniques included omniscient point of view, the novelistic ability to traverse time and space (ideally suited for cinema), and involved flashback or dream sequences. This “borrowing of storytelling techniques from adjacent arts […] encouraged a quick cadence of schema and revision,” an environment of “…novelty at almost any price.”

Such novelties included “aggregate” films that overlaid a plethora of storytelling techniques, such as Sam Wood’s 1940 adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, which employed multiple protagonists, complex flashback sequences, and voiceover narration drawn from the most advanced theater. Perhaps no other film embodied these “novelties” so sharply as Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, an “aggressive aggregate” that amounts to a specifically cinematic yet total work of art, weaving together not only narrative techniques such as multiple character or “prismatic” flashbacks (screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz’s term), but also drawing on elements from music, painting, and photography, as well as Welles’s first loves, theater and radio. In some ways, Citizen Kane may be seen as a kind of fulcrum film, incorporating nearly all that had come before it and anticipating most everything after.

Though Bordwell references the familiar culprits—Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, and, of course, Citizen Kane—he doesn’t just stick with the A films, as he goes deep into the B’s (and even some C’s and D’s), in an effort to show the wide-ranging appeal and effectiveness of these narrative models no matter their technical execution. He also alternates chapters with what he calls Interludes—that is, more intensive readings illustrating a preceding chapter’s discussion, homing in on specific films, genres and filmmakers, and not always the ones which one might expect. There’s an interlude on Joseph Mankiewicz, for example, a sort of intellectual master of multi-protagonist films like All About Eve and The Barefoot Contessa, and the truly original Preston Sturges, whose films pushed narrative norms to their absolute limits. There’s also an intriguing interlude on the boxing picture and the resiliency of certain narrative tropes—fighter refusing to throw the fight and thus imperiled by gangsters, for example—demonstrating how Hollywood’s “narrative ecosystem played host to variants.”

Reinventing Hollywood is a dense read. Its nearly 600 pages of text, including detailed notes and index, isn’t for the academically faint at heart. Often Bordwell offers frame-by-frame, even gesture-by-gesture analyses using accompanying stills, mining synoptic actions and tropes across multiple films of the era. The book can read strictly pedagogical at times, but overall, Bordwell’s writing is clear and uncluttered by jargon. Despite its comprehensive scholarly archeology (and such sweet academic euphemism as, say, “spreading the protagonist function”), the book is leveled at anyone interested in cinematic forms and norms.

The title is telling. Clearly, narrative cinema was already invented by the time the ‘40s rolled around, but in Hollywood throughout that decade it became so systematized that it progressed into something new, indeed something that exists through today: a narrative film style that’s evocative enough to affect any single viewer and effective enough to speak to a mass audience.

Part of the charm of what was invented in the ‘40s is the malleability of the product. Narrative standards and conventions were designed for maximum variation, as well as for revision and challenge. And perhaps no decade offered more revision and challenge than the 1960s, not only to film culture but world culture as a whole. By the mid-to-late ‘60s, the old Hollywood studio system had expired, leaving in its wake a splintered version of itself. Yet despite the dissolution of the big studios, the resilience of the classical film style engendered by those studios was still evident. Popular narrative films retained the clear presentation of action borne in earlier films, however much they shuffled and reimagined patterns and standards.

One such movie that both embraced and pushed against Hollywood standards is director Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 western The Wild Bunch. It possesses such richness in both themes and execution, in form and content, that there’s a lot to mine. With its tale of a band of out-of-time outlaws scamming and lamming away their fatal last days in Mexico during the country’s revolution, it revels in and reveres western conventions as much as it revises them.

The film carries a personal elusive impact, particularly on first viewing. In The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film, journalist and historian W.K. Stratton quotes filmmaker Ron Shelton on this phenomenon: “Something was different about this movie…it was more than [just another shoot-‘em-up] but I couldn’t figure out what…I’ve been trying to answer that question ever since.” The book examines the epic making of this epic film, and goes a good way toward explaining the reasons behind the film’s unique power. Stratton is a Texan and also a poet, and both of these credentials make him perhaps the ideal candidate for exploring this pure piece of western poetry.

Stratton maps the story of the film from germ to gem. Conceived in the early ‘60s by stuntman Roy N. Sickner as a somewhat typical “outlaw gringos on the lam” story, the property evolved over the course of the ensuing years as much as the country itself. America in 1967 and ‘68 was a vastly different place than it was in ‘63. Stratton notes how “[t]he picture…would never have been filmed had not circumstances come into precise alignment. It was the product of a nation torn by divisions unseen since the Civil War, a nation that was sacrificing thousands of its young to a war in Southeast Asia…a nation numbed by political assassination…where a youthful generation was wholesale rejecting values held by their parents.”

A film made in such turbulent times required its own turbulent setting. If America had become no country for old men, and Vietnam was no country for young men, then Mexico during the revolution was no country for either. Stratton gives brisk but detailed chapters on the Mexican Revolution, filling in the tumultuous history and social geography for what would become a necessarily violent film. But just as the film could never have been made in another time, it could also have never been made without Sam Peckinpah. As Stratton notes, Peckinpah was a Hollywood rarity, a director born in the actual American West who made actual westerns, and a maverick director who, like Welles, fought against the constraints of an industry in which he was a master. Peckinpah was a rarity in other ways as well. A heavy-drinking, light-fighting proto-tough guy who was also a devotee of Tennessee Williams (“I guess I’ve learned more from Williams than anyone”), Peckinpah was a storyteller who could break your heart as well as your nose. His second feature, the very fine Ride the High Country, was tough and tender; it was also, coincidentally, another story of old outlaws running out their time.

Stratton traces the entire trajectory of the film’s making, from the start-and-stop scripting to the early involvement of Lee Marvin, right on through to every aspect of production: its much-lauded gold-dust cinematography (by Lucien Ballard, who early in his career worked on Three Stooges comedies “…because it gave him a chance to experiment with camera trickery”); the elegant violence, or violent elegance, of its editing; and its casting and costuming.

The chapters on those last two elements are particularly rewarding. Costuming is a somewhat underlooked aspect of westerns, simply because the sartorial trappings seem so generic: hats, guns, boots, and bonnets. Yet period clothing is so essential to the texture of westerns because it can, or should, convey the true down and dirtiness of the time and place, the sweat, the swill and the stench. The Wild Bunch, like all great westerns, feels filthy. Wardrobe supervisor Gordon Dawson not only had the daunting task of providing authenticity in the costumes themselves—much of them period—but of overseeing the sheer volume of turnover. Because Peckinpah “planned to make heavy use of squibbing for the movie’s shoot-outs…[e]ach time a squib went off, it ripped a whole in a costume and left a bloody stain.” Considering the overwhelming bullet count of the film, in particular the barrage of the ending, it’s no wonder that “[a]ll the costumes would have to be reused and then reused again and again.”

But perhaps no aspect was more important to the success of Peckinpah’s film than its casting. While early on in the process Marvin was set to play the lead role of Pike Bishop, the actor, thankfully, bowed out, and after the consideration of other actors for the role, including Sterling Hayden and Charlton Heston, in stepped William Holden. As good as all the other actors could be, Holden projected more of the existential weariness of the Bishop character, a condition that Marvin’s coarseness, for example, might have effaced. Stratton agrees: “There could not have been a better matching of character and actor. Holden was a…deeply troubled man, a real-life killer himself…on a conditional suspended sentence for manslaughter [for a drunk driving accident, a case that was later dropped].”

This spot-on matching of actor to role extended all the way through to the rest of the Wild Bunch: Ernest Borgnine as Pike’s sidekick, Dutch Engstrom, emanating toward Pike an anguished love and loyalty; old-time actor Edmond O’Brien as old-timer Freddie Sykes; Robert Ryan as Deke Thornton, Pike’s stoic ex-partner and now head of the pursuing posse; Jaime Sanchez as the doomed Mexican Angel; and perhaps most especially Warren Oates and Ben Johnson as the wild, vile Gorch brothers. (While Oates was a member of what might be called Peckinpah’s stock company, Johnson was an estranged member of John Ford’s.)

Along with broad, illuminating biographies of these actors, Stratton presents informative material on many of the peripheral yet vital supporting cast. Because the film is set and was filmed in Mexico, much of it verisimilitude may be credited to Mexican talent. Throughout the ‘40s and ‘50s, the Mexican film industry was second only to Hollywood in terms of quality product and critical prestige. Peckinpah drew from this talent pool for many of his film’s key characters, none more indelible than that of General Mapache (to whom the bunch sell guns and, by extension, their souls), one of the vilest, most distasteful figures in any American western. For this role, Peckinpah chose Emilio Fernández, a.k.a. El Indio, recognized and revered at that time as Mexico’s greatest director. Apparently, Fernandez’s scandalous and lascivious on-set behavior paralleled the unpredictable immorality of his character. Like almost everyone involved with this film, Fernandez was taking his part to the extreme.

Stratton goes beyond the production of The Wild Bunch, on to its impact and reception and legacy. A sensation upon its release, the film was both lauded and loathed for its raw violence, with some critics recognizing Peckinpah’s “cathartic” western for what it was, others seeing nothing but sick exploitation (including in its bloody treatment of Mexican characters). While other films of the time created similar buzz for their depiction of violence, notably Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (a film often compared to The Wild Bunch), the violence of Peckinpah’s film was as much moral as physical. All one need do is compare it to a contemporary and similarly storied film like George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a winking high-jinks movie in which, in Marvin’s resonant phrase, “no one takes a shit.”

Everyone involved with The Wild Bunch attributes its power to Peckinpah and the environment he fostered in its making. “[S]omething remarkable was occurring at…rehearsal sessions,” writes Stratton. “Under Peckinpah’s direction, the actors went beyond acting and were becoming the wild bunch and the other characters in the movie.” Warren Oates confirms this sentiment: “…it wasn’t like a play…or a TV show […] It was our life. We were doing our fucking lives right there and lived it every day […] We were there in truth.”

Stratton considers The Wild Bunch “the last Western […] It placed a tombstone on the head of the grave of the old-fashioned John Wayne [films].” One may argue with this, as evidence shows that John Wayne—especially the Wayne of John Ford westerns—is still very much alive in the popular consciousness. Yet there is a fatal finality to The Wild Bunch, a sense of something lowdown being run down. The film is complex and extreme less in its physical violence than in its moral violence, as it transposes the increasing cynicism of 1968 to an equally nihilistic era, all while maintaining a moving elegiac aura. No image or action expresses this attitude clearer and more powerfully than the bunch’s iconic sacrificial end walk, four abreast, to rescue one of their own, to murder and be murdered into myth. If the film is a tombstone, Stratton’s book is a fit inscription.

David Bordwell’s Reinventing Hollywood is now available from University of Chicago Press, and W.K. Stratton’s The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film is now available from Bloomsbury Publishing.

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Film

Review: The Heart of Someone Great Is in the Details of Female Friendship

The film plays like a mixtape of various sensibilities, partly beholden to the self-contained form of the bildungsroman.

2.5

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Someone Great
Photo: Netflix

Jennifer Kaytin Robinson’s Someone Great presents a vision of New York that makes the bustling metropolis feel like a small town. The film’s setting is a utopian playground where everyone seems to know everyone else and bumping into friends and acquaintances on the street is a regular occurrence. Robinson exploits the narrative possibilities of this framework, as all it takes for three friends, Jenny (Gina Rodriguez), Erin (DeWanda Wise), and Blair (Brittany Snow), to dive into another misadventure is to simply turn a corner.

The film plays like a mixtape of various sensibilities, partly beholden to the self-contained form of the bildungsroman; surely it’s no coincidence that a James Joyce poster hangs in the background of one scene. Set to an eclectic, almost perpetual soundtrack of songs, the film follows Jenny, Erin, and Blair as they float on a wave of spontaneity. The friends are gung-ho about having one last night on the town, and as the they make plans to attend a music festival on the eve of Jenny moving to San Francisco, the film makes a vibrant show of every fallout, every sharp turn in mood and behavior across this journey, which also finds Jenny grappling with her recent breakup with Nate (Lakeith Stanfield), her boyfriend of nine years.

In the world of Someone Great, a flashily decorated room is an extension of a person’s personality, every object a vessel of human memories. Jenny is wounded, and the film tenaciously homes in how everything around her feels like a totem of lost love. Robinson elaborates on Jenny’s pain as much through the young woman’s exchanges with her two best friends, each dealing with their own emotional troubles, as through the neon-dappled flashbacks to Jenny and Nate’s time together. But if Jenny, Erin, and Blair’s scenes together are marked by an infectiousness fueled in no small part by Rodriguez, Wise, and Snow’s incredible rapport, the vignettes of Jenny and Nate’s past feel comparatively inert—an almost steady stream of generic and often awkward articulations of how it is to fall in and out of love.

Someone Great also gives itself over to a needlessly somber tone whenever Jenny reflects on her relationship with Nate, and the effect is so self-serious that you’d think she’s the first person to lose a lover in human history. Her breakup certainly stands in sharp contrast to Blair’s own split from her long-term boyfriend (Alex Moffat), the fallout of which is treated as an offhand (and very funny) joke. Fortunately, though, Robinson is always quick to reorient the focus of her film, sweetly underscoring throughout the value of Jenny’s friendship to Erin and Blair, and how their bond is bound to persist regardless of the hard knocks these women weather on the long and often bumpy road to romantic fulfillment.

Cast: Gina Rodriguez, Brittany Snow, DeWanda Wise, LaKeith Stanfield, Peter Vack, Alex Moffat, RuPaul Charles, Rosario Dawson Director: Jennifer Kaytin Robinson Screenwriter: Jennifer Kaytin Robinson Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 92 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Festivals

Cannes Lineup Includes New Films by Terrence Malick, Céline Sciamma, & More

Perhaps as notable as what made the cut is what didn’t make it onto the lineup.

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Pain and Glory
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

This morning, the lineup for the 72nd Cannes Film Festival was revealed, and just as notable as what made the cut is what didn’t. Most notably, Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in America and James Gray’s Ad Astra were nowhere to be found. Gray, whose had four of his previous films appear in competition at the festival, is still working on Ad Astra, which seems destined at this point to make its premiere at a fall festival. As for Tarantino, who’s still editing this ninth feature ahead of its July 26 theatrical release, Cannes artistic director Thierry Fremaux told press this morning that there’s still a chance that Once Upon a Time in America could be added to the festival lineup in the upcoming weeks.

Terrence Malick will return to Cannes for the first time since winning the Palme d’Or for The Tree of Life with the historical drama and ostensibly mainstream-friendly A Hidden Life, previously known as Radegund. Ken Loach and the Dardennes, both double winners of the Palme d’Or, will also debut their latest works, Sorry We Missed You and Young Ahmed, respectively, in the competition program. As previously announced, Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die will kick off the festival on May 14, and Dexter Fletcher’s Rocketman will screen out of competition on May 16, two weeks before the film hits U.S. theaters. (The Director’s Fortnight and Critics Week selections will be announced at a later date.)

See below for a complete list of this year’s competition, Un Certain Regard, out of competition, and special and midnight screenings.

Competition
Pain and Glory, Pedro Almodóvar
The Traitor, Marco Bellocchio
Wild Goose Lake, Yinan Diao
Parasite, Bong Joon-ho
Young Ahmed, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Oh Mercy! , Arnaud Desplechin
Atlantique, Mati Diop
Matthias and Maxime, Xavier Dolan
Little Joe, Jessica Hausner
Sorry We Missed You, Ken Loach
Les Misérables, Ladj Ly
A Hidden Life, Terrence Malick
Nighthawk, Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles
The Whistlers, Corneliu Porumboiu
Frankie, Ira Sachs
The Dead Don’t Die, Jim Jarmusch
Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Céline Sciamma
It Must Be Heaven, Elia Suleiman
Sybil, Justine Triet

Out of Competition
Rocketman, Dexter Fletcher
The Best Years of Life, Claude Lelouch
Maradona, Asif Kapadia
La Belle Epoque, Nicolas Bedos
Too Old to Die Young, Nicolas Winding Refn

Special Screenings
Share, Pippa Bianco
Family Romance LLC, Werner Herzog
Tommaso, Abel Ferrara
To Be Alive and Know It, Alain Cavalier
For Sama, Waad Al Kateab and Edward Watts

Midnight Screenings
The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil, Lee Won-Tae

Un Certain Regard
Invisible Life, Karim Aïnouz
Beanpole, Kantemir Balagov
The Swallows of Kabul, Zabou Breitman and Eléa Gobé Mévellec
A Brother’s Love, Monia Chokri
The Climb, Michael Covino
Joan of Arc, Bruno Dumont
A Sun That Never Sets, Olivier Laxe
Chambre 212, Christophe Honoré
Port Authority, Danielle Lessovitz
Papicha, Mounia Meddour
Adam, Maryam Touzani
Zhuo Ren Mi Mi, Midi Z
Liberte, Albert Serra
Bull, Annie Silverstein
Summer of Changsha, Zu Feng
EVGE, Nariman Aliev

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Features

The 2019 TCM Classic Film Festival

As evangelistic as I tend to get about making new discoveries at TCMFF, the familiar can also be revelatory.

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TCM Classic Film Festival
Photo: John Nowak

In 2014, on the occasion of the fifth annual TCM Classic Film Festival, even as I took the opportunity to raise a glass to an event that encourages audiences, especially younger ones, to acknowledge and embrace the past, I indulged in a little public worrying over the festival’s move toward including a heavier schedule of more “modern” films whose status as classics seemed arguable, at the very least. The presence of Mr. Holland’s Opus and The Goodbye Girl on the festival’s slate that year seemed geared toward guaranteeing that Richard Dreyfuss would make a couple of appearances, causing me not only to wonder just what constitutes a “classic” (a question this festival seems imminently qualified to answer), but also just how far down the road to appeasement of movie stars TCMFF would be willing to travel in order to bring in those festivalgoers willing to pony up for high-priced, top-tier passes.

If anything, subsequent iterations have indicated that, while its focus remains on putting classic films in front of appreciative audiences and encouraging the restoration and preservation of widely recognized and relatively obscure films, the festival’s shift toward popular hits and the folks attached to them seems to be in full swing. And from a commercial point of view, who could credibly argue against feting 1980s and ‘90s-era celebrities who can still bring the glitz and glamour, especially as it becomes increasingly more difficult to secure appearances from anyone directly involved in the production of 60-to-80-year-old films? One has to believe that the numbers would favor booking films which could afford “sexier” in-person attendees like Billy Crystal, Meg Ryan, and Rob Reiner, and maybe for a good portion of the TCMFF crowd that showed up to celebrate the festival’s 10th anniversary this year, that sort of thinking is perfectly in line with what they expect for their money.

Of course, the flip side of that coin is an opening-night gala devoted to the celebration of When Harry Met Sally, which isn’t the first film I would think of to announce to the world that TCMFF is celebrating a milestone. It’s been 10 years since the festival launched, and its mother channel is celebrating 25 years on the air this year—and, okay, the Rob Reiner-helmed, Nora Ephron-scripted comedy is now 30 years young. But I really wonder, beyond When Harry Met Sally’s most famous scene, which is all but stolen by the director’s mother and her delivery of the memorable zinger “I’ll have what she’s having,” if this dated rom-com really means enough to audiences to be included among a TCMFF schedule of films ostensibly more qualified to be considered as classics. Maybe it does. Because objections like that one were forced to fly in the face of the rest of the TCMFF 2019 schedule, populated as it was by other equally questionable attractions like Sleepless in Seattle, Steel Magnolias, Hello, Dolly!, and Out of Africa, all of which crowded screen space in the festival’s biggest auditoriums.

Speaking of amour, it was that most mysterious of emotions that was the biggest rationale other than filthy lucre for clogging the schedule with not one but two Meg Ryan “classics,” a weeper that’s broad by even the standards of borderline-campy weepers, a bloated musical nobody seems to like, a would-be epic best picture winner, and even the bromantic sentimental indulgences of the Honorary Greatest Movie for Men Who Don’t Love Movies. Because the theme of TCMFF 2019, “Follow Your Heart: Love at the Movies,” virtually guaranteed that room would be made for some of the festival’s least enticing and overseen selections, under subheadings like “Better with Age” (Love in the Afternoon, Marty), “Bromance” (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Shawshank Redemption), and, in a love letter to not romance but instead a movie studio, “A Celebration of 20th Century Fox” (Hello, Dolly!, Working Girl, Star Wars). Of course, each of those subheadings had their glories as well (I’ll get to those in a second, after I stop complaining), but it’s worth noting these selections because they seem clearly representative of the sort of programming choices that have become more dominant in the second half of TCMFF’s storied and much appreciated existence, choices that may signal a further shift away from discoveries, oddities, and rarities and toward even more mainstream appeasement in its near future.

For all of the problems that seem to be becoming hard-wired into TCMFF’s business model, however, there was plenty to get excited about as well, even when one of the weaker overall schedules in terms of cinephile catnip made maximizing the festival experience a little more challenging than usual. If that “Love in the Movies” header seemed at first a bit too generic, it also proved elastic enough to accommodate some pretty interesting variations on a obvious theme, from dysfunctional relationships (A Woman Under the Influence, whose star, Gena Rowlands, had to back out of a scheduled pre-screening appearance), to erotic obsession (Mad Love, Magnificent Obsession), to habitual obsession (Cold Turkey, Merrily We Go to Hell), to romance of a more straightforward nature rendered in various shades of not-at-all-straightforward cinematic splendor (Sunrise, Sleeping Beauty, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Tarzan and His Mate). Why, there was even a couple of straight shots of undiluted movie love in the form of François Truffaut’s Day for Night, adorned by an in-person visitation from the film’s star, Jacqueline Bisset, and a grand screening of my favorite film, Robert Altman’s Nashville, which Pauline Kael once famously described as “an orgy for movie lovers.”

My own obsessions this year ran, as they usually do, toward the unfamiliar. Six of the 11 films I saw were new to me, including the obscure, ultra-cheap film noir Open Secret, which pits John Ireland against a secret society of small-town Nazi sympathizers; the deliriously racy and surprisingly violent adventure of Tarzan and His Mate, entertainingly introduced by Star Wars sound wizard Ben Burtt and special effects whiz Craig Barron, whose pre-film multimedia presentation electronically deconstructed the Tarzan yell; and James Whale’s Waterloo Bridge, starring Mae Clarke and Kent Douglass. Also among them were two major surprises: Dorothy Arzner’s romantic drama Merrily We Go to Hell, a gloriously cinematic roller coaster of love, codependency, and betrayal starring Fredric March, forever testing the audience’s tolerance for the boundaries of bad behavior, and Sylvia Sidney, who displays a range that will surprise younger audiences who may only know her from her later work; and the rollicking, hilarious, fast-paced snap-crackle-punch of All Through the Night, in which a gaggle of Runyonesque Broadway gamblers headed up by Humphrey Bogart develop an uncharacteristic patriotic streak when they uncover a Nazi conspiracy brewing in the back alleys of the neighborhood.

As evangelistic as I tend to get about making new discoveries at TCMFF, the familiar can also be revelatory. My two favorite experiences at the festival this year were screenings of F.W. Murnau’s almost indescribably gorgeous and primally moving Sunrise and a beautiful DCP of Nashville, with screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury and actors Jeff Goldblum, Keith Carradine, and Ronee Blakely in attendance. (At one point, Blakely held court like Barbara Jean in rambling pre-meltdown mode and innocently gave away the ending of the film.) The joy contained in the five hours of those two films wasn’t necessarily matched by the gorgeous restoration of Anthony Mann’s powerful Winchester ’73, the exquisitely expressionist delirium of Karl Freund’s Mad Love, or the revelation of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, with its roots in the music of Tchaikovsky, as the partial fulfillment of the ambitions of Fantasia, the studio’s great folly. But then again, it didn’t have to be. It’s enough that those are all movies worthy of and inspired by true movie love, which is precisely what they were received with by TCMFF audiences.

Of course, the obsessive, orgiastic nature of movie love is itself the underlying subtext of any film festival, but at TCMFF that subtext is consistently resonant enough that it seems inextricable from any given moment during the long four-day Hollywood weekend over which it unspools. Some festivalgoers get dolled up in vintage clothes and five pounds of customized TCM-style flair to express it. Others rattle on endlessly about their irrational devotion to Star X and Director Y, or how some obscure B noir blew their goddamn minds, and they’re usually surrounded by a pack of fans with similarly hyperbolic stories to tell. And still others just tilt their heads down and barrel through the long lines, breathlessly scurrying between theaters in pursuit of something they’ve never seen or perhaps never even heard of. (I’ll let you speculate as to which category I belong, though I will say I have never worn a fedora or brandished a silver-tipped walking stick in public.) A good friend and former TCMFF regular once told me that the best way to be cured of a particular obsession is to suddenly find yourself surrounded by those whose individual enthusiasms match or exceed your own, and sometimes it seems that the first-world trials of the TCMFF experience as they have accumulated over the past five or so years, and contrasted as they have been by the multitude of peaks the festival has offered its most ardent fans, have been devoted to road-testing that theory.

However, no matter what TCMFF devotees do or say in between programming slots, the movies remain, providing a constant opportunity to either plumb the depths of cinema history or to simply go for the good times. With all intentions pitched toward continued prosperity, the greatest challenge for TCMFF as it enters its second decade might be finding a better balance between those deep dives and the allure of skimming the perhaps more lucrative shallows. And if genuinely great films and even greater chances to experience films one can only experience in a setting like TCMFF keep getting slotted out in favor of familiar dreck like When Harry Met Sally and Steel Magnolias, it isn’t unreasonable to imagine that TCMFF 2029 might, to its inevitable detriment, look and feel considerably less classic than it does now. No, it’s not time for sackcloth and ashes just yet when it comes to this beloved fest. But I’d be lying if I said, to purloin and repurpose the concluding sentiment of one of this year’s big TCMFF attractions, that the ultimate resolution of that dilemma don’t worry me just a little bit.

The TCM Classic Film Festival ran from April 11—14.

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Film

Review: Instant Dreams Intimately Ponders a Casualty of the Digital Age

Willem Baptist’s film is a free-form essay on the spiritual differences between analog and digital.

2.5

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Instant Dreams
Photo: Synergetic Distribution

Throughout Instant Dreams, director Willem Baptist returns to footage from “The Long Walk,” the 1970 short film in which Polaroid co-founder Edwin H. Land pulled from his coat a black device that bears an uncanny resemblance to an iPhone. Land envisioned a day in which instant photos could be taken by a device the size of a wallet, which we would use to document every moment of our lives. This dream came spectacularly true, of course, beyond even Land’s wildest fantasies, ironically paving the way for Polaroid’s irrelevancy. Polaroid stopped manufacturing instant film in 2008, an event which Baptist rues as a symptom of our increasing impersonality as a globalized culture that’s grown to take its information overload for granted. “The Long Walk” haunts Baptist’s documentary as a kind of death prophecy.

Seen in stock footage—and in the famous photo on a 1947 cover of the New York Times in which he holds up a snapshot of himself, nearly appearing to have two heads—Land proves to be one of Instant Dreams’s most fascinating and enigmatic figures. In a contemporary light, pictures taken by Polaroid instant cameras have an eerie and poignant power, as their imperfections, such as their blotchy yet vibrant colors, evoke expressionistic art. These photographs reflect the frailty and subjectivity of time, while digital images are ageless, changeable, easily distributed ciphers. The power of Polaroid pictures resides in the effort they require to create, as people had to carry a bulky camera around and wait several seconds before producing a fully developed snapshot. Following several Polaroid cultists, Baptist shares their lament for an intimate and communal culture that’s potentially been forgotten in the wake of our ability to have pristine images whenever we want them.

Stephen Herchen is a scientist who helped to buy the last remaining Polaroid factory in the Netherlands, and he’s working with a group of specialists to revive the technology, as instant film was born of a complex chemical recipe that Herchen has yet to crack. (Baptist looks on as Herchen’s pictures take nearly 30 minutes to develop, rather than a few seconds.) Meanwhile, New York magazine city editor Christopher Bonanos, author of the book Instant: The Story of Polaroid, documents the growth of his son with his stash of Polaroid film, and German artist Stefanie Schneider takes photographs with the expired stock that she keeps in the vintage refrigerator of a trailer that’s parked somewhere in the California desert.

Herchen, Bonanos, and Schneider speak over the documentary’s soundtrack, which Baptist assembles into a free-form essay on the spiritual differences between analog and digital. The filmmaker portrays analog as a kind of magic, born of a conjuring which he dramatizes with trippy images of photographic chemicals, while digital technology is represented by chilly metallic graphics that connote anonymous efficiency. (Instant Dreams exudes that simultaneously real and staged quality of an Errol Morris film.) It’s a sentimental vision, and one that provokes a question that Baptist doesn’t attempt to address: In a time of technological marvel, in which we carry what are essentially supercomputers around in our pockets, why are so many of us so miserable, so convinced that we’re living in a dark age?

The rage and ennui of our present culture is cultivated by the ease of modern media, in which we’re eternally plugged into stimulation that cancels itself out, leaving us feeling both stuffed and hollow, as well as interchangeable with one another as receptacles for corporate product. Our primary camera is now our phone, which can do hundreds of other tasks, while the Polaroid instant camera only takes pictures, relics which cannot be shared with the click of a button with other people. To long for the Polaroid, or for other objects of nostalgia such as VHS tapes, is to long for a sense of specialness and remoteness. The subjects of Baptist’s documentary seek disconnection from the cultural hive mind.

These meanings are often only implicit in Instant Dreams, and it’s a pity that Herchen and Bonanos aren’t more overtly in tune with their yearnings. They tend to speak in platitudes, which Baptist attempts to render mystical with hallucinatory imagery and a retro synth-y score that’s reminiscent of Vangelis’s compositions for Blade Runner. While Instant Dreams offers an appealingly nostalgic trance-out, it’s often short on detail, especially in terms of Herchen’s struggle to create the instant film technology, which Baptist reduces to exchanges of jargon in atmospheric laboratories. The film’s ruminations gradually grow repetitive and unfocused, especially when Baptist branches off into a fourth narrative, following a young woman who savors digital technology the way that the other subjects do Polaroids.

Schneider steals Instant Dreams from her co-stars, however, taking bold photos of young women out in the desert, cannily milking the limitations of the expired film stock to create mini canvases that suggest fever dreams. One scene is unexpectedly erotic: Schneider takes a bath in a tub outside with a beautiful model, their legs intermingling as the latter tells of a dream that suggests a metaphor for instant film. This image embodies the intimacy that Baptist’s subjects believe Polaroid stock to represent, merging the film’s emotional ambitions with its hypnotic aesthetic. In such moments, Instant Dreams truly comes alive.

Director: Willem Baptist Screenwriter: Willem Baptist Distributor: Synergetic Distribution Running Time: 91 min Rating: NR Year: 2017

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Film

Review: Rafiki Is a Feat of Representation, If Familiar in Execution

The audacity of the film’s assertion of a queer African identity shouldn’t be overlooked.

2.5

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Rafiki
Photo: Film Movement

Wanuri Kahiu’s Rafiki is a salvo in an ongoing cultural war in Kenya over the rights of LGBTQ people, and as such, it’s difficult, and maybe even irresponsible, to judge the film in a vacuum. Homosexuality is illegal in Kenya—punishable with up to 14 years in prison—and Kahiu’s film is officially banned in the country, though that ban was temporarily lifted for a week last fall so that it might qualify for an Oscar nomination. As a romantic drama, Rafiki turns out to be conventional in most senses except that its star-crossed lovers are two women—but then, particularly in Kenya, that makes all the difference.

Rafiki’s radicalism, hardly evident in its form or narrative structure, becomes more apparent when the film is situated in the context of state censorship and socio-culturally dominant homophobia. Adapted by Kahiu and co-writer Jenna Cato Bass from a short story by Monica Arac de Nyeko, the film takes its cue from that most over-alluded-to of romantic texts, Romeo and Juliet, complete with feuding families, illicit liaisons, and impossible love.

Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and Ziki (Sheila Munyiva) are the daughters of two small-business magnates opposing each other in an upcoming city council election. They live on the outskirts of Nairobi, in an area characters refer to as Slopes, which Kaihu presents as a relatively secluded community. The story plays out over a limited number of distinctive locations—such as the church that Kena and Ziki’s families attend and consists of a purple-clad Anglican preacher leading sermons under a purple tent and a food stand where the young denizens of Slopes eat, with its nearby van on blocks where Kena and Ziki can have some privacy.

As young romantics are wont to do, the two women fall in love despite the immense familial and social pressure to avoid anything of the kind. And in addition to the mutual animosity of their respective families, they have the stigma that homosexuality carries among their friends to worry about. Kena hangs out with a pair of hypermasculine guys who routinely hurl epithets at the taciturn man everyone in the neighborhood knows is gay; when Ziki’s clique of friends start suspecting Kena is her lover, they react with a surprising outburst of violence. With its handful of locations and its small cast, Rafiki emphasizes the inescapable social gaze this queer couple is subjected to: The supporting characters are liable to pop up in any given place, making anywhere but the abandoned van a potentially threatening space for the two women.

In a country in which homosexuality is seen by a majority of the population as imported Western decadence, the audacity of the film’s assertion of a queer African identity shouldn’t be overlooked. Rafiki announces its intent with defiant opening credits, streaked with spray-painted neon colors and blasting feminist African hip-hop. But this rebellious energy also dissipates rapidly after the credits: While Christopher Wessels’s cinematography is drawn to saturated colors that recall the punkish animation of the credits, there’s a staid quality to the film that belies the intensity of the visuals. Major scenes play out with characters summarizing their feelings in sketchy dialogue, as when Kena’s mother (Nini Wacera) exposits Kenyan women’s motivations for being more homophobic than men in the midst of an argument.

While Kahiu proved herself a visionary filmmaker with her 2009 short film Pumzi, her visual ideas here are often sentimental short cuts: slow-motion close-ups of a smiling Ziki to suggest the character’s sexual longing for Kena, and slow-motion shots of birds in flight to symbolize the couple’s desire for freedom. Ziki herself, with her flashy, colorful braids and broadly sketched character arc, is little more than a romantic fantasy—and perhaps purposefully, as Kena is clearly the main character, drawn to Ziki at least in part because of her distinctive look. But it seems odd that a romance about two women should recapitulate a structure in which only one of the pair—the one in the position of looking—gets a full character arc. Regardless, Rafiki’s slotting of two African women into this familiar romantic structure represents a radical and important upending of contemporary Kenyan sexual mores.

Cast: Samantha Mugatsia, Sheila Munyiva, Neville Misati, Jimmy Gathu, Nini Wacera, Patricia Amira, Muthoni Gathecha, Dennis Musyoka, Nice Githinji, Charlie Karumi, Patricia Kihoro Director: Wanuri Kahiu Screenwriter: Wanuri Kahiu, Jenna Cato Bass Distributor: Film Movement Running Time: 82 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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