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Understanding Screenwriting #89: Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol, The Descendants, My Week with Marilyn, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #89: Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol, The Descendants, My Week with Marilyn, & More

Coming Up in This Column: Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol, The Descendants, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, My Week with Marilyn, Love & Other Drugs, The Great Moment, Susan Slept Here, but first…

Fan Mail: In talking about the final shot of the wedding of the twins in The Palm Beach Story, David Ehrenstein dragged out his favorite Fritz Lang quote about how it’s “because in the script it’s written and on the screen it’s pictures. Motion pictures they call it.” That does not exactly apply here. Sturges set up the wedding in the script and he could well have written in the reactions of the “other twins.” He didn’t, but he added them as a director, developing what he had written. And it’s not in this case “motion pictures,” because you can see their reactions in a still. The point I am making with a lot of the Sturges Project is the relationship between script and film is a lot more complicated than we normally think. David in his quotes about Sturges’s working method from Ruth Olay demonstrates that.

I may have given David the impression that it was my opinion that Mary Astor was not good in Palm Beach, but that was Sturges’s feeling. I think she is terrific. Sturges wanted her voice higher than her normal range and was disappointed when she couldn’t do it. But who wants a soprano Mary Astor?

Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol (2011. Screenplay by Josh Appelbaum & André Nemec, based on the television series created by Bruce Geller. 133 minutes.)

Harold Lloyd in Burn Notice meets Covert Affairs: I always liked the way the M:I television series managed to squeeze two hours of story material into one hour, which really made you run to keep up. On the other hand, the theatrical films have been a very mixed bag. Mission: Impossible (1996; screenplay by David Koepp and Robert Towne, story by David Koepp and Steven Zaillian) was a mess. They had a great IMF team at the beginning, which they killed off, and the film became focused on Ethan Hunt rather than a team. There was supposed to be a romance between Hunt and Claire Phelps, but all those scenes got cut so when Jim Phelps accuses Hunt of having the affair we are totally lost. Mission: Impossible II (2000; screenplay by Robert Towne, story by Ronald D. Moore & Brannon Braga) had the amusing idea of rewriting Notorious (1946; written by Ben Hecht), with Hunt pimping out Nyah Nordoff-Hall to Sean Ambrose to get whatever the Maguffin was in that film. As much as I love Robert Towne, Hecht is the winner in that contest. Also, M:I II introduced and proceeded to beat to death the business of everybody wearing facemasks to hide their identities. Mission:Impossible III (2006; written by Alex Kurtzman & Roberto Orci & J.J. Abrams) was the best one so far. Hunt is retired and married but he gets “pulled back in” to try to protect one of his protégés while trying to hide from his wife what he really does. He also has to deal with the series’s best villain, an arms dealer played to the hilt by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Hunt is working with a team this time, and the mixture of action and character probably come from J.J. Abrams’ work in television. (See US#77 for my comments on Abrams in the item on his Super 8.)

M:I IV (for brevity’s sake) may even be better than III, although I think I prefer III. Here Hunt’s in a maximum security Russian prison and an IMF team is trying to break him out. One of the team is killed before they start; another, Jane Carter, is a woman Hunt has never met; and the only one Hunt knows is Benji Dunn, a computer geek we met in III. The team gets him out, even though he insists on bringing out another prisoner with him, which turns out to be useful so much later on we may have forgotten about him. OK, so Hunt is out and thrown right away into a new mission, getting stuff out of the Kremlin. The stuff is not only not there, but the Kremlin blows up as the team just escapes. So we know we are not in the land of low budgets. Because of the political damage, the Secretary (of what? Defense? State? Housing and Urban Development?) has to shut down the IMF. So Hunt, sort of like Michael Westen, is burned. What the television series Burn Notice does is make up for a television budget (although they do blow up a number of cars on that show) by having Michael being very inventive on how to operate on no budget. Not quite the case here, as the team, on its own, has to make do with stuff in what I suppose you could call a Safe Boxcar as opposed to a Safe House. Like the toys Q provides Bond, the contents of the boxcar, or at least all they can carry, are exactly what they need.

Like Covert Affairs, we now get into some globe hopping, which has always been part of the appeal of the Bond movies as well; the M:I TV series shot mostly on backlots and Southern California locations. So we are off to Dubai, which can only mean one thing: Ethan Hunt is going to scramble around the outside of the upper floors of the world’s tallest building. It’s Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last (1923) in IMAX. It is as spectacular a sequence as it is supposed to be; director Brad Bird’s previous life in animation serves him well, but the writers deserve some credit too. Hunt is not doing this just to show off, but to get into a room he cannot get into any other way. Like Lloyd in Safety Last, and unlike Lloyd in Feet First (1930; see US#85), Hunt has a goal. And don’t make it easy for your characters to reach that goal. In this case Hunt has gloves that can attach to the side of the building. What’s the worst that can happen (without killing off Hunt, that is)? The battery dies on one of the gloves. It is a beautifully directed scene, but it is also beautifully written. And it happens surprisingly early in the film. So how do you top it?

The next sequence has the team setting up a double scam on the person selling the launch codes and the person buying them. Carter pretends to be the seller and works the buyers over in one room while Hunt pretends to be the buyer in another room with the seller. I mentioned Notorious earlier and if you look at it in comparison to today’s action films, there is in fact very little action, but incredible suspense. The writers here have followed the great action scene with a great suspense scene, with attention to detail in both. Look at how they use the same goggles in the two scenes.

And then we are off to Mumbai to get another set of codes that will stop the bad guy (not quite up to Hoffman’s arms dealer in III) from using his codes to set off a nuclear launch. (This film has a bit of You Only Live Twice [1967] as well.) Like he did with Nyah in II, Hunt pimps out Carter to seduce a media mogul. We are surprised at her appearance. Up until now Paula Patton has played Carter as a straight-ahead kick-ass IMF agent. Now she shows up in a very slinky dress, complete with push-up bra to give her cleavage out to here, and a good half-ton of eye shadow. Needless to say, she gets what she wants, and then has what I suspect in the writing and shooting was a funnier scene than it ended up. Carter is in a car being recklessly driven (do the IMF people drive any other way?) by Hunt. She is trying to change out of her seductress outfit into her “work clothes.” Have you ever tried to get out of a slinky dress and a push-up bra in a speeding car? For the scene to work, we would have to see Hunt’s reactions to this. We don’t exactly, since Tom Cruise is playing Hunt very one-note, jaw clenched all the way through. His athletics are impressive, but emotionally he is a block of cement. That’s not true of the other members of the team: Patton as Carter, Simon Pegg as Benji, and Jeremy Renner as William Brandt. Often the best of the quiet scenes are between those three, so much so you may cringe when Hunt shows up. This is a particular problem in the final scene, after they have saved the world (and the film begins to drag in the last half hour as the chases and fights go on forever). We see Hunt’s wife from M:I III, who is supposed to be dead. She and Hunt exchange pleasant smiles. If we had been more emotionally involved with Hunt in this film, we might have found it more moving. Still, Tom Cruise swinging around the world’s tallest building is not chopped liver.

The Descendants (2011. Screenplay by Alexander Payne and Nat Faxon & Jim Rash, based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings. 115 minutes.)

The Descendants

A major disappointment: I’m a big fan of Alexander Payne’s Election (1999), About Schmidt (2002), and Sideways (2004). At his best he has a dry, off-beat freshness about his characters. So I was greatly anticipating this one, especially since it has been 7 years since he last wrote and directed a feature. He has been producing a lot, and the script by Faxon and Rash came to him as a possible project for him to produce. He eventually decided to direct it and did a pass on the script himself. I’d hate to think what it was like before he got his hands on it.

This script has one of the worst opening ten minutes I have heard in years. Over some shots of Matt King looking sad, we get a voiceover narration that goes on and on and on, explaining his situation: his wife is in a coma from a boating accident, he has no idea how to parent his two daughters, and as the head of the King family trust, he must decide within a week or so whether to sell off 25,000 acres of gorgeous Hawaiian land to developers. Guys, there are a whole lot of much more interesting ways to get that information across. Or if you are going to do this way, include at least some of the dry humor that Hemmings gives Matt in the book. On the first page he is thinking that the upcoming meeting with his wife’s doctor is like a romantic first date: what do you wear, what lines do you practice saying?

In the first half hour or more, everything that happens to Matt is bad, which makes the film very one-note. The wife is in the hospital. Scottie, his youngest daughter, has started acting out in school. Matt’s cousins are divided as whether he should sell the family land or not, and are putting pressure on him both ways. He goes to the Big Island to pick up Alexandra, his 17 year old daughter, from the school she is in. She’s generally obnoxious and we learn she’s had a drinking problem and has been going out with older guys. I would have thought that Payne, of all writers, could have picked up the novel’s dry counterpoint to all that misery. It’s a long way into the opening of the film before they bring on someone who might help. Alexandra insists on bringing her friend Sid to stay with them. She tells Matt she will be less of a bitch with him there. Sid is a typical teenage guy: insensitive, tactless, and we don’t get enough of him to help the film.

And then to make matters worse for Matt, Alexandra tells him that his wife was being unfaithful to him. In football terms this is known as piling on, and you get penalized some yardage for that. At least here, it gives Matt something to do: he wants to track down the guy she was sleeping with. No, not to beat the crap out of him, but to tell him that the wife does not have too much longer to live, and he had better see her if he wants to say goodbye to her. He’s serious about that. I think we are supposed to laugh at this the way we laugh at some of the characters in About Schmidt and Sideways, but the humor is not there in the script. Matt is still looking longsuffering, and we get a lot more closeups of George Clooney than we need, the way we did the closeups of Brad Pitt in Moneyball. Payne as writer and director is not taking advantage of Clooney’s slyness for rhythmical balance.

They discover that the wife’s lover has gone off to Kauai and they follow him there. In a nice scene in a hotel between Matt and Sid, we learn that Sid has only recently lost his father. If we had learned that sooner, the writers could have used it a lot better. The foursome discovers the house he and his wife are staying in is owned by one of the King cousins, and worse, Brian, the lover, is in league with the developers who want to buy the land. And still Matt does not just punch him out. We do get a few interesting scenes. Matt and Alexandra show up on Brian’s front porch and Alexandra distracts Julie, Brian’s wife, while Matt talks to Brian. The Matt-Brian scene comes close to what we expect from Payne.

Matt also gets a scene with Cousin Hugh, the only one of the family who is at all well defined as a character. We could have done with him earlier and in more scenes, but the one we have with him is nice. As is the scene a few days later at the hospital. Julie, not Brian, shows up with flowers for the wife. Brian had confessed the affair to her after Matt left, and she felt they owed it to the wife. Julie may also have felt she owed it to Matt. He baffled her when he left her house by kissing her full on the lips. The Matt-Julie scene in the hospital is the best scene in the film, at least partially because here is someone who understands and is sympathetic with Matt. And the writers are restrained enough so the two don’t fall into the nearest empty hospital bed.

Matt does the right thing and does not sell the land. He begins to think about ways to save it in its natural state, although why this had not occurred to him before is not clear. The film is very good at showing the way the real Hawaii looks (suburbs, narrow roads), so that when we do get to see the land, we are impressed with its natural beauty.

In the final scene Matt and his two kids sit on the couch together and watch television. I think we are supposed to feel he is a better father now, but it is more that the kids have come to appreciate him. I suppose at this point Matt will take what he can get.

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011. Written by Michele Mulroney & Kieran Mulroney, based on characters created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. 129 minutes.)

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

Unbalanced: You may remember that both my grandson and I liked the first film of what may be a new franchise, 2009’s Sherlock Holmes. The re-imagining of Holmes as an action hero did not do too much damage to the character, since as one of the writers pointed out, Conan Doyle frequently mentions but does not show Holmes’s physical skills. So naturally my grandson and I went off to see the new one, along with my granddaughter, who had also liked the first one. When we came out of this one, we all agreed that this one was not quite up to Sherlock Holmes. First, we all thought that it is not as funny. That can kill you in this kind of picture.

We also all agreed that this one is not as fresh as the first one. The idea of rethinking Holmes was a new way of telling the stories, but we know that going into this one. The writers are a new team; the only one of the several writers on the original involved here is Lionel Wigram, but only as a producer. They have not developed that view of Holmes beyond what was established the first time around. There are some good action sequences (I particularly liked the one in the munitions factory), but none of them are as inventive as the previous film’s. In the first film, they thought about having Holmes chase that film’s villain all over Europe, but decided to stick to Victorian England. Here we do go zipping around the Continent, but the writers don’t do as much with it as they could. There is a nice castle on a mountain, but they have not used it very inventively. The writers of the first film struck a nice balance between the action scenes and Holmes thinking through the clues. Here there is more emphasis on the action, so much so that the thinking scenes seem tacked on.

The writers also spend a lot of time on the bromance elements of Holmes and Watson, so much so it gets rather heavy going in places. We get it, now move on. Rachel McAdams is back briefly, very briefly, as Irene Adler, and she is better here than in the first one, possibly because she has less to do. Kelly Reilly is back as Watson’s wife, and now they are just using makeup to cover up her freckles, but she does turn out to be a crack codebreaker just when they need one. I suppose that is a fair trade. Holmes and Watson are also involved with a gypsy fortuneteller, Madame Simza. She generally just tags along, and it is a real waste of Noomi Rapace, the original Lisbeth Salander. How’s about they throw the real Salander in to deal with Holmes? I’d pay to see that.

The arch-villain here is Professor James Moriarty, the predecessor to every arch-villain who came after Conan Doyle. As good as Jared Harris is in the role, he is not given very much to do. Harris gives good attitude, but a little of that goes a long way. Maybe they should have made Moriarity an action villain like they made Holmes an action hero.

My Week with Marilyn (2011. Screenplay by Adrian Hodges, based on the diaries of Colin Clark. 99 minutes.)

My Week with Marilyn

Lord Larry’s revenge: That’s the way the credits read: based on Clark’s diaries. Elsewhere it’s been said that the script is based on his two books, My Week with Marilyn and The Prince, the Showgirl, and Me. I suspect the credits read the way they do because several people have called into question the accuracy of Clark’s books. If you are saying something is from a person’s diaries, we are more likely to take it at face value. In this case, you shouldn’t. The film, the books, and the diaries deal with a young Colin Clark working as a third assistant director on the 1957 film The Prince and the Showgirl, in which Laurence Olivier directed himself and Marilyn Monroe. As Clark tells it, he was not only Marilyn’s caretaker, but also her sort-of lover. This creates a problem I always have with movies based on first person accounts. For example, Out of Africa (1985) is based on Karen Blixen’s version of her romance with Denys Finch Hatton (although the IMDb lists two books by others as source material for the film). I for one would really love to have heard Denys’s version of this crazy Danish woman he was schtupping between flying and hunting big game.

The film is clearly set up as a showcase for the actress playing Marilyn, but the script does not go deep enough or sharply enough into her. Michelle Williams has received critical acclaim for her performance. I was not so taken with her. Technically she gets a lot right: the look, the body movement, etc. Check out the credits for the long list of technical advisers Williams had. Unfortunately, Williams does not pop off the screen as Marilyn does. Given the way the film is structured, that’s lethal. But here is the irony: Marilyn stole The Prince and the Showgirl from Olivier, and Kenneth Branagh’s performance as Olivier steals this picture. He gets all the good lines and good reactions. The other supporting actors are also wonderful, except for Eddie Redmayne, who plays Colin Clark. He just stands around looking goofy in the presence of Marilyn. I suspect this is historically accurate, and he is hardly the first man to have that reaction to Marilyn Monroe, but it makes for a dull character.

Love & Other Drugs (2010. Screenplay by Charles Randolph and Edward Zwick & Marshall Herskovitz, based on the book Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman by Jamie Reidy. 112 minutes.)

Love & Other Drugs

What is this movie about?: I missed this one when it was in theaters. It popped up recently on HBO and I gave it a shot. It’s a classic example of a movie being “developed” in all the wrong ways. The book it’s based on is a memoir by Reidy of his time as a Viagra salesman in its early days. In the book, he has a large number of quickie affairs. The rights were picked up by Charles Randolph, a writer and producer who is best known as one of the writers for the 2005 film The Interpreter, which also suffered in the development process. Randolph did a loose adaptation called Pharma and one of the big changes he made in the story was to give Jamie, the main character, a real love interest. Well, I suppose it does give a structure to the material, but it makes it more conventional. Why would we want to watch conventional love scenes when you can show us the process by which Big Pharma peddles its wares? And Jamie having a variety of sexual encounters really would have more to do with the impact of Viagra than a single affair.

(The background on the script development is from Peter Clines article in the November/December 2010 issue of Creative Screenwriting. A couple of sad notes here. Creative Screenwriting has, they hope temporarily, stopped publishing as a magazine. Given all the useful stuff I and others have found in it, we all wish the publisher Bill Donovan can get it up and running again. The second sad note is that its chief competitor Script Magazine has been sold off by Final Draft to F&W Media. F&W has also stopped publication of Script, but at least for now is continuing it as a website. You can check it out at www.scriptmag.com. I suspect the economy in general played a big part in closing down the published editions of the two magazines, and I’m sorry to see them both go. It’s not as if more general publications have taken up the slack with stories on screenwriters and screenwriting.)

The Pharma script eventually got to Zwick and Herskovitz, best known for their thirtysomething television series, but who have also done at a lot of good work since, both in films and television. They were interested in the love affair and began to develop that. They also began developing supporting characters, including a younger brother for Jamie named Josh. Josh dropped out of school, but became a multimillionaire by creating a medical software company. His girlfriend has dumped him and he moves in with Jamie, which leads, supposedly, to hilarity as he is constantly interrupting Jamie and Maggie when they are about to have sex.

So what we end up with is a script that spends way too much time on the romance, especially in the first hour of the film. We get some of the sales efforts of Jamie, but Viagra is not introduced until well into the picture. Maggie has Parkinson’s, so we get an anti-medical convention that is sort of a self-help group for sufferers of Parkinson’s. Late in the picture, we get a doctor who has been a secondary character giving a long speech on the difficulties of running his practice and dealing with Big Pharma and insurance companies. Sturges might have brought that off, but these guys don’t. In other words, the final film does not seem to know what it is about.

So it is not surprising that when it came time to sell the film to the public, the emphasis was on the fact that the two major stars, Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway, actually did some of their scenes…gasp…nude. The article on the film in the November 26th, 2010 Entertainment Weekly was only about the nude scenes. As attractive as both Gyllenhaal and Hathaway are, the love scenes get rather boring, especially when nothing else is happening. Better they kept their clothes on and see how sexy they could be that way. But that would have required that Zwick, who also directed, have a better feel for how to make sensuality work on-screen. He’s not alone. There are not a lot of male American directors who can do that.

The Great Moment (1944. Screenplay by Preston Sturges, based on the book Triumph Over Pain by René Fülöp-Miller. 83 minutes.)

The Great Moment

The Sturges Project, Take Six: The Great Moment is the black sheep of the Sturges family. You may have vaguely heard of it, but you most likely have not seen it. And for good reason. It is a mess. And that is not all Buddy DeSilva’s fault.

Fülöp-Miller’s book was published in English in 1938. It tells the full, complicated story of the development of the use of anesthesia in medicine in the 19th Century. Now that’s a barrel of laughs. The book was controversial, and one of the controversies was over Fülöp-Miller’s claim that the use of ether as an anesthetic was really the discovery of a non-descript Boston dentist named William Morton in the 1840s. Europeans had long accepted Morton’s claim, but in America it was widely disputed at the time, with all kinds of medical hustlers coming out of the woodwork and claiming it was their idea. Paramount bought the film rights to the book, seeing it as a possible project for director Henry Hathaway and Gary Cooper. The studio was undoubtedly thinking of it as a typical ‘30s Great Man biography. See US#52 for my discussion of two of the best known films of the genre, The Story of Louis Pasteur (1935) and The Life of Emile Zola (1937). Since Morton was a more down-to-earth figure, one could see Paramount thinking of Cooper. Unfortunately Hathaway and Cooper left the studio. Nobody else at the studio had any interest in the project. Until Preston Sturges picked it up. (The background here is, as before, from James Curtis’s biography Between Flops and Brian Henderson’s Four More Screenplays by Preston Sturges.)

Nobody quite knows why Sturges took a liking to the material in 1939. He certainly saw the connections to his 1933 screenplay The Power and the Glory, with right turning out wrong, and Curtis suspects he liked the idea of the ingratitude shown Morton by his peers. Never underestimate the appeal of a martyred character to a screenwriter who has not yet had his chance to direct. Sturges worked on the screenplay off and on during 1939, even as he was preparing to direct The Great McGinty. He may have been hoping it would be his second film as a director. Early on in the writing, Sturges decided on a rather odd structure. Most biographical films start with the hero’s humble beginnings, follow him through his trials with all the stupid people who resist his ideas, and then end with his moment of triumph and fame. Sturges starts just after Morton’s death when Eben Frost, Morton’s assistant, comes to visit Morton’s widow. The two take us into flashbacks, but not of the early days. The flashbacks start with Morton’s triumph suggesting that ether, which he uses as a dentist, can be used in regular surgery. Then the flashbacks tell of all the problems he had afterwards: people claiming to have discovered it first, his inability to get a patent on it, and finally his death. At this point we are half-way through the script, and the flashbacks now take up his early days as he stumbles into his discovery, ending the film when he agrees to tell the medical establishment what his secret ingredient is, since they will not use it without knowing.

What was Sturges thinking? We know he saw a thematic connection with The Power and the Glory, and that may have led him to think of a structural connection, using the same kind of multiple flashbacks. Because Sturges was interested in the story of how badly Morton was treated later, he might have wanted to get that message out first so we would feel more sympathy with Morton. Or it may have been that he knew that material was the most serious in the film, which he might have hoped would put the audience in the proper mood, helping them get through some of the comedy sequences as Morton stumbles toward his discovery. By the end of December 1939, he put away the three drafts of the script he had written and did not come back to them until early 1942. We know he had been thinking he would alternate between flat-out comedy and slightly more serious films, so he may have resurrected the script as one of the serious ones. But things had changed at Paramount.

His films had been critical successes, but with the exception of The Lady Eve (1941) they had not been huge successes at the box office. There was no one at the studio who remembered buying the book, and no one but Sturges to root for it. And Buddy DeSylva thought it was repulsive. I mentioned in writing about Sullivan’s Travels (1942) that “the new executives” at Paramount liked it when they first saw it. William LeBaron, Sturges’s protector at Paramount, left the studio in February 1941, and he was replaced as head of production by songwriter, writer and producer B.G. “Buddy” DeSylva. I put in the link to DeSylva’s IMDb page so you can see he was not a slacker. You would have thought he and Sturges would get along, and they appeared to, at least for a while. But Triumph Over Pain drove them apart. DeSylva hated the project, and Sturges did not help matters. Sturges kept insisting the written foreword (all biographical pictures have to have a written foreword; it’s the law) include a zinger against statues of generals on horseback. In 1942? In the middle of the war? Sturges also kept fighting to keep the title Triumph Over Pain, which nobody else wanted.

The production went reasonably well, but when the film was completed and shown at a sneak preview, the results were mixed, to say the least. DeSylva took the film away from Sturges and recut it. It did not help. The film was a flop.

Thanks to Brian Henderson, we have a pretty good idea what was cut from the film: most of the first half hour or more. Sturges’s script and film started out with a sequence of a young boy being taken into surgery in the present day, and we learn it will not hurt because of anesthesia. This was cut completely. We do get Eben Frost getting one of Morton’s medals out of hock and bringing it to Mrs. Morton, but their scene is condensed. A long flashback of Morton and his wife preparing for bed is cut completely. In it Morton says he decided to tell the doctors that his treatment was simply ether, but DeSylva felt that that gave away the ending of the film and was cut. A sly scene in which Morton approaches a military colonel about his invention was cut, so we don’t get the colonel looking over his drawer of other inventions, mostly deadly. The flashbacks begin in the film with Morton getting a letter to come to Washington, but a very Sturges scene of Morton meeting President Pierce has been condensed to the point of all plot and no texture. The opening twenty minutes of the film goes so fast we can hardly figure out what is going on.

Once we get into the flashbacks leading up to the discovery, the film follows the script more closely, and naturally flows better. But Sturges undercuts himself. He wrote to a friend after the film was finished that “although I put in as much fun as I could, the story of Morton is still serious, thrilling, and a little sad.” Some of the comedy scenes, such as the President Pierce scene, or an early one with Jackson, a sort of mentor/rival of Morton’s, are good character comedy, but many of the scenes are out-and-out slapstick (Eben Frost’s first visit to Morton, where he jumps out the window) and work against the seriousness of the material rather than as a counterpoint. Sturges had written some nice dialogue humor into his script for the 1938 historical film If I Were King, which works better in connection with the story than the slapstick does in The Great Moment.

Even Struges’s friends had trouble with the film. When he completed his cut, he showed it to cinematographer John Seitz, who had not photographed the film. Seitz’s reaction was, “Why did you end the picture on the second act?” I don’t think Seitz was simply objecting to the putting the serious section first, but that the ending seems rather abrupt. Morton has his “great moment,” giving his idea to all mankind, the end. The script and the film both need another scene or two, including at least one to indicate how Morton was finally, years after his death, got his proper due for his work.

If we had Sturges’s cut, would it work? Probably not, although it certainly would have played better than DeSylva’s cut. But the seriousness and comedy never jell in the version we have, especially since Sturges as director pushes the slapstick to a higher level than he should for this picture. I am not sure audiences in 1942, given that they had been used to the typical Hollywood historical biographies, would have accepted the particular mixture Struges gives us. And Sturges may have known that. After The Great Moment, he wrote The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, which was shot in 1942 but held for release because of censorship problems until 1944. Sturges then wrote Hail the Conquering Hero (1944) which DeSylva also recut. Eventually when DeSylva essentially gave Sturges a choice of recutting either Great Moment or Hero, Sturges picked, wisely, Hero. He may have accepted that Great Moment was a lost cause. In spite of what film editors tell you, a film cannot be “saved” in the editing room if there is no there there to be saved.

Susan Slept Here (1954. Screenplay by Alex Gottlieb, based on the play by Steve Fisher and Alex Gottlieb. 98 minutes.)

Susan Slept Here

Let me save you from this one: Elaine Lennon, an Irish friend of mine, suggested I take a look at this one, since it is about a screenwriter, and we don’t get a lot of those. Since it takes place at Christmas, TCM ran it in December and I watched it. I am still speaking to Elaine.

Mark Christopher is indeed a screenwriter. He even won an Oscar, and it is his Oscar that narrates the movie. A lot could be done with that, but nothing is, probably because the script is based on a stage play and everything is explained by all the characters in more detail than we need. Since Billy Wilder had Sunset Boulevard narrated by a—spoiler alert—dead man, you can imagine what he could have done with a talking Oscar. We do see Mark watching one of his bad old movies on television and he lip-syncs to the dialogue, but that’s about it. The story gets going when two police detectives bring him a juvenile delinquent for Christmas. He had told them he was thinking about doing a script about a delinquent and would like to talk to one. They thought of him when they picked up this kid, since if they don’t palm the kid off on Mark, the kid will have to go to detention over Christmas. Shades of Preston Sturges’s script for Remember the Night (1940; see US#38). And the 17-year-old delinquent is a girl. My mouth waters at what Diablo Cody could do with that. But Gottlieb was well into middle age, and had not a clue what a teenage delinquent girl was like. Keep in mind this was made the year before The Blackboard Jungle and Rebel Without a Cause. And it gets worse. The girl is played by Debbie Reynolds, the least delinquent girl in movies ever.

Unlike Christopher Hampton on A Dangerous Method (see US#88), Gottlieb did not open up the play. We spent most of the 98 minutes in Mark’s apartment; one reason Elaine likes the movie in a guilty pleasure sort of way is that she loves what she calls his “Palm Springs moderne” ‘50s apartment. The few times we go outside, it is for nothing that is not discussed in the film.

By the middle of the film everybody has pretty much forgotten that Susan is a delinquent. Mark never talks to her about her life in any sort of way that suggests he is thinking about writing about it. The film simply turns into a romance between her and the 35 year old writer, played by the 49-year-old Dick Powell. Cre-e-e-e-py.

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

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Review: The Two Popes Carefully and Dubiously Toes a Party Line

There isn’t anything in the bleeding-heart positions espoused by Jorge Bergoglio that complicates Pope Francis’s public persona.

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The Two Popes
Photo: Netflix

Fernando Meirelles’s The Two Popes is quick to acknowledge that Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) is a humble man of the people. The film opens with a scene that fades in on Bergoglio, recently anointed Pope Francis, as he attempts to order a plane ticket over the phone. Assuming she’s being pranked when the caller gives his name and address, the Italian operator hangs up on the generously bemused head of the Catholic Church. After centuries of pomp, the scene suggests, the world’s Catholics were unprepared for a genuine article like Francis, a corrective to an episcopal hierarchy that had drifted too far away from the people. So goes the thesis of The Two Popes, reiterated in a number of subsequent scenes: Unlike previous generations of pontiffs, Francis engages with the actual state of the world, watches soccer, listens to pop music, and speaks to economic inequality.

This brief prologue’s slight humor and documentary-style presentation give an accurate idea of where the film is headed, both thematically and formally. Throughout, Meirelles embellishes the screenplay’s often dry conversations with pseudo-improvised camerawork—unsteady framing, sudden tilts, and emphatic snap zooms—familiar from his prior films, most notably City of God and The Constant Gardner. But what seemed, in the early aughts, fresh and well-suited to gangster movies and spy thrillers, feels dated and out of place in a film that amounts to two powerful octogenarians having a series of conversations. By abruptly adjusting the lens’s focal length at almost arbitrary moments, Meirelles transparently attempts to add dynamism to a film in which powerful actors are stuck reciting staid, safe dialogue.

The hagiographic Two Popes shuffles through moments in Bergoglio’s life. Some scenes are set in Argentina in the 1970s, a tumultuous time for the country, but the film mainly focuses on the development of Bergoglio’s relationship with Joseph Ratzinger (Anthony Hopkins), Pope Benedict XVI, during the early 21st century. Flashing back to eight years before the prologue, the camera travels through the narrow alleys of Buenos Aires, arriving at an outdoor sermon that Bergoglio is delivering. Unattached to the air of benevolent superiority Catholic priests are expected to exude, Bergoglio tangentially speaks of his support for the San Lorenzo soccer team, at which revelation his congregation feels comfortable booing their diocese’s bishop.

Meanwhile, John Paul II has died, and as a cardinal, Bergoglio must return to Rome to help elect a new pope. There he encounters Ratzinger, at the time a conservative Bavarian cardinal who haughtily insists on speaking to Bergoglio in Latin when they meet in a Vatican bathroom, and who turns up his nose when the Argentinian begins humming ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” to himself while washing his hands. The inclusion of an ABBA song makes for a lighter tone that The Two Popes will unevenly revive at various moments across its running time; the film will transition between scenes using out-of-place lounge jazz and ‘60s pop, then abruptly drop the levity for dialogic lessons on the state of Catholic theology.

The dogmatic Ratzinger’s election as pope later that year would signal an end to years of liberalization within the Catholic Church, a back-to-basics gesture that ultimately failed. His short reign would be dominated by controversy, as members of his inner circle were indicted for financial crimes and a long-brewing scandal over church cover-ups of sexual abuse came to the fore. Meirelles handles this historical context through aural and visual montages of archival news reports, which fill the gap as the story fast-forwards to a moment in 2012 when Pope Benedict calls Bergoglio, his unofficial rival from the church’s liberal wing, back to Rome.

Benedict aims to convince the bishop not to resign, as it would look to the outside world—as Benedict professes it does to him—that the liberal Bergoglio is renouncing his cardinalship in protest. Strolling through the lush gardens of the Vatican, or speaking in low, strained voices in its resplendent halls, the two debate their opposing theological and political philosophies. A mutual respect develops between them, with Benedict gradually opening himself to the outside world from which he has stayed aloof; one scene has Bergoglio teaching him about the Beatles, and in another the Argentine convinces the stiff German to try out the tango.

That’s all very cute, surely, but it’s also evidence that, despite courting a gritty reality effect with its documentary-inspired aesthetic, The Two Popes is carefully toeing a party line rather than exposing any hidden truths. Though it includes (rather hammy) flashbacks to Bergoglio’s morally ambiguous interactions with the Argentinian military dictatorship of the ‘70s, there isn’t anything in the bleeding-heart positions espoused by Bergoglio that complicates Pope Francis’s public persona. For his part, Ratzinger comes off as the best version of the man one could imagine, given the turmoil that marked his tenure: old-fashioned but authentic, perhaps just a bit too aged and attached to the institution to weed out its excesses.

As, in scene after scene, the heads of the world’s most powerful religious institution neatly summarize their philosophies to one another, the viewer may sense a misdirect: What happened to the corruption? Where are the meetings about how to handle the child-abuse scandals? Such issues, which presumably would have been the subject of many a Vatican City discussion, turn out to be little more than background material to the individualized and sentimentalized story of two men with differing views becoming friends. Even when they do come up, our attention is directed elsewhere. The flashbacks to Bergoglio’s spotted past begin soon after the sexual abuse scandals are first mentioned, redirecting our piqued concern with institutional sins toward the drama of an individual man’s fateful misjudgment.

The second time the pair’s conversations drift toward the simmering abuse scandal, Meirelles actually drowns out the dialogue with a high-pitched whine on the soundtrack, and for no discernable story reason. It’s as if Bergoglio’s hearing has been impaired by the explosive truth. The moment feels less like the filmmakers protecting us from a truth too awful to hear, and much more like them shielding us from one too dangerous to be heard.

Cast: Jonathan Pryce, Anthony Hopkins, Juan Minujín, Sidney Cole, Thomas D. Williams, Federico Torre, Pablo Trimarchi Director: Fernando Meirelles Screenwriter: Anthony McCarten Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 125 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: Empty Metal Grapples with the Efficacy of Activist Violence

The film is greater in its confrontational force than the sum of a dozen festival breakthroughs lauded for their fearlessness.

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Empty Metal
Photo: Factory 25

The idea that violence can be an effective or even necessary form of activism is one of the last remaining taboos in a contemporary discourse that holds civil debate up as the highest virtue. Empty Metal, meanwhile, reaffirms independent, artist-made cinema as a natural arena for wading through these kinds of uncomfortable notions. Greater in its confrontational force than the sum of a dozen festival breakthroughs lauded for their fearlessness, and certainly more potent than Todd Phillips’s Joker, it takes on the ambitious and possibly risky task of exploring what activist violence means in the context of a modern world where ambient forms of hostility—militarized police aggression (specifically toward people of color), mass surveillance and ongoing, never-ending wars—subtly dictate our lives.

Collaborating for the first time on what constitutes for both of them a narrative feature debut, Adam Khalil and Bayley Sweitzer have fashioned a topical lightning rod with Empty Metal, though not in a manner that suggests willful provocation. Assembled on a meager budget with friends, family, and members of the filmmakers’ extended artistic circles, the film progresses with an untamed energy and disregard for convention that suggest the manifestation of creative impulses feeding, unchecked, off one another. Juggling multiple intersecting storylines with passages of visual lyricism and diegesis-breaking reminders of contemporary injustices, Empty Metal offers an anarchic collage that careens between narrative storytelling (Sweitzer’s background) and documentary and video-art instincts (Khalil’s backgrounds).

Central to the story of Empty Metal are Rose (indie noise musician Rose Mori, a.k.a. PVSSYHEAVEN), Pam (Sam Richardson), and Devon (Austin Sley Julian), a trio of disaffected electro-punk rockers gigging around Brooklyn under the moniker of Alien. But to call them protagonists undercuts the degree to which Khalil and Sweitzer frame them less as independently motivated agents than as ciphers ushered along a path over which they appear to exert little control. More instrumental to the film’s evolution are the clairvoyant, vaguely ethereal figures—a Rastafarian chef listed in the credits as King Alpha (Oba), an older indigenous woman (Irma LaGuerre), and several of their younger accomplices—who watch over the trio and ultimately size them up as eligible candidates for a criminal plot.

Rose, Pam, and Devon are to assassinate three infamous white cops who’ve gotten away with murder, then go off the grid. Neither the names of the targets nor their specific infractions are clarified, though the connections to real-life analogues are made more or less self-evident in the series of crude 3D renderings of police violence that are periodically inserted into the middle of scenes. On the eve of a domestic Alien tour, Rose is approached at the band van by a member of King Alpha’s clan, who leans into the would-be rebel to impart a telepathic message paraphrased, as with a number of the film’s longer monologues, from William S. Burroughs’s novel The Place of Dead Roads: “I will teach you to dissociate gun, arm, and eye.”

Intuitively reading between the lines, Rose promptly loses interest in the tour and recruits, with little resistance, her bandmates to the cause. This sequence of events, along with anything else having to do with the transition of these hitherto merely frustrated musicians to insurrectionary vigilantes, hardly stands up to dramatic scrutiny, due in equal parts to Mori, Richardson, and Julian’s stilted line deliveries and the insufficient time their characters are afforded in the editing to acquire anything like psychological plausibility.

Nonetheless, there’s something of a poetic logic to the characters’ transformations, an unnerving illustration of the idea that the gap between ambient frustration and radicalism is but a short cognitive leap. There’s also a sense of fatalism that hangs over the proceedings, of an inexorable historical duty that can’t or shouldn’t be resisted. In an ominous sequence of self-actualization, Rose recites the names of historical dissidents from Ulrike Meinhof to Osama bin Laden with a mix of clinical dispassion and reverence as archival footage and animated representations of their violent acts fill the screen.

By contrast, Khalil and Sweitzer stage a lighter scene around the mid-forest meeting of King Alpha, LaGuerre’s character, and a European monk (Pawel Wojtasik) previously seen only in excerpts of a de-contextualized courtroom taping. Here, it’s casually implied that the three characters—who suddenly claim to have last seen each other at either the “L.A. riots” or Wounded Knee—are merely the corporeal containers of activist spirits who weave through the centuries, cyclically reuniting to nudge willing souls toward more proactive forms of rebellion.

Taking its title from a description of drones given by Rose in voiceover, Empty Metal questions if perhaps these transhistorical agitators have met a new and unconquerable challenger in the surveillance state, armed as it is with high-tech weaponry and vast intel on its populace. Certainly, the right-wing militia shown in another chilling subplot offers no compelling resistance to this monolithic force, even as they stash up on firearms and embark on austere training. The figurehead of this self-determined group (Jon Nandor) happens to be the son of Wojtasik’s monk, and it’s a quiet dinner table scene between the two of them that stands out among all the jarring associative edits and flicker-frame embellishments as one of the film’s strongest effects. As the father dismantles his son’s second amendment convictions, he’s left unable to contemplate an adequate alternative, and it’s telling that even a sage, potentially immortal mystic seems perplexed by our current predicament.

Cast: Rose Mori, Austin Sley Julian, Sam Richardson, Oba, Irma LaGuerre, Pawel Wojtasik, Jon Nandor Director: Adam Khalil, Bayley Sweitzer Screenwriter: Adam Khalil, Bayley Sweitzer Distributor: Factory 25 Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Beniamino Barrese’s The Disappearance of My Mother

It’s fascinating to see Benedetta Barzini in academic action, like an ethnographer of the patriarchy herself.

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The Disappearance of My Mother
Photo: Kino Lorber

Domestic ethnography typically sees a filmmaking member of a family turning the camera inward to investigate, or rewrite, a family’s history. This means that the filmmaker in question can occupy the inconvenient position of unearthing the ancient dirt on top of which the family is founded. In The Disappearance of My Mother, director Beniamino Barrese is less interested in wrestling with the maternal function in the drama of a household than in the mother’s status as his muse. The film is a love letter to the filmmaker’s mother, Benedetta Barzini, a 76-year-old former supermodel and the first Italian woman to grace the cover of American Vogue, now a feminist fashion studies lecturer in Milan. The constellation of the family is rendered useless here, as what matters to Barrese is the love affair between mother and son, forever mediated by the camera lens.

The tragedy here isn’t to be found in the regrettable actions of yore or the repressed feelings that both constitute and undermine a home, but in the unfairness of time. The film seems to say that a mother must age, a mother must die, and some of them may even want to. And it seemingly recognizes something tragic in an external world that’s obsessed with all of the things Barzini doesn’t value, despite having been a fashion industry commodity in the 1960s: beauty, youth, luxury, and cleanliness (she hardly ever showers or changes her bedsheets).

Barzini’s feminist stance appears as her most consistent motif in old interviews, in the strangely theatrical way she used to pose with garments in fashion shoots, and in her present-day statements captured in the film, both verbal and sartorial (she shows up to receive an award in her stay-at-home clothes). She is, from the beginning of her career, vocally aware that the femininity she’s paid to display is a playful one, removed from her actual self, which is itself, Barzini argues, unphotographable. She knows the existence, and persistence, of beauty stereotypes caging women to be due to the fact that men invent women through a series of prescriptions. And that they thus invent them as Jessica Rabbits, she argues at one point, wondering out loud whether it may not be best if women’s bodies disappeared altogether.

It’s fascinating to see Barzini in academic action, like an ethnographer of the patriarchy herself, bringing back news from its most glamourous yet rotten core. She lectures young college girls about the symbolic relationship between fashion, youth, and man’s fear of death, holding magazine ads in her hands as irrefutable evidence. She asks them questions like “What does ‘old age’ mean?,” “Why do imperfections bother people?,” and “What is the point of continuing to sell our bodies without any quality or talent?” These moments of pedagogical passion occur when Barzini’s presence is allowed to take over the frame precisely because the filmmaking son fades into the background. And they’re in striking contrast to Barrese’s instances of shoving the camera into his mother’s reluctant face.

That stance, though in line with some sort of undying teenage streak, reveals a misguided desire to force his mother into his cinematic paradigm. Although Barrese purposefully allows for a great degree of transparency, showing us his failed attempts to get his mother to change outfits for continuity’s sake, for instance, these sequences feel contrived when compared to those where the mother is allowed to perform in an uncontrolled fashion. When we hear him ask her, “Is there anything you want me to put in the wash?,” or “Mom, what bothers you so much about images?,” it’s impossible not to see the air of spontaneity as calculated artifice.

Many times, Barrese acts like a vulture taking something from his mother that she doesn’t want to give. Or does she? Barzini calls him a petit bourgeois for appreciating her articulations only inasmuch as they fit his filmic narrative. And she yells, “Put the camera down! Put it down!” He obeys her for a couple seconds but leaves the camera running, then grabs it back to continue interrogating her. And she lets him. Mother and son relations are often like this—full of theatrics, ambiguity, and teeming with seduction. Neither could afford losing the other’s love. And they both know it. Which forces Barrese to keep pushing the limits. He even shoots her when she’s asleep. Or, at least, when he thinks she is. It turns out that following mom is a habit from childhood. And ever since then she’s been protesting his advances. “I want to disappear, not to appear,” she says, because “the lens is the enemy.”

In a beautiful sequence toward the end of the film, after Barzini speaks about dying and the shame of belonging to this world, so sullied by white men, Barrese asks her to spin around in her courtyard, holding her dress. She says she will get dizzy. He finally listens to her and lets her stand still, spinning with his camera around her himself. She smiles, enjoying the moment. She’s happy standing still, courted in the courtyard by her child’s contemplation. Mother eventually asks her son: “Are you done playing?” He’s not, and neither is she.

Director: Beniamino Barrese Screenwriter: Beniamino Barrese Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 94 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Interview: Eddie Redmayne on The Aeronauts and Accessing Physicality

Redmayne discusses everything from calibrating his physicality in rehearsals to cultivating his imagination on a barren set.

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Eddie Redmayne
Photo: Amazon Studios

“I can’t believe you wrote your dissertation on Les Misérables,” Eddie Redmayne says in a complete non sequitur midway through our conversation. I had a feeling it might come up at some point, so I had to lead with telling him that he featured prominently in the video essay portion of my senior thesis on how Tom Hooper’s 2012 film adaptation collapsed boundaries between stage and screen. As legend has it, Redmayne made a suggestion in post-production that led to the film’s close-up-heavy editing, a choice which sparked intense discussion around the aesthetics of the musical genre.

The episode captures something about Redmayne that sets him apart from other actors who operate in a similarly demonstrative, showy register. He’s genuinely thoughtful about the full cycle of how a performance gets created and transmitted to audiences, in everything from the rehearsal process to the editing bay. After winning an Academy Award for 2014’s The Theory of Everything and another nomination for 2015’s The Danish Girl, Redmayne took a turn toward blockbuster fare with two outings playing Newt Scamander in the Fantastic Beasts series. But now he’s back to the period dramas that made his name with The Aeronauts, an old-fashioned movie adventure that reunites him with his The Theory of Everything co-star, Felicity Jones. As scientist James Glaisher and pilot Amelia Wren, Redmayne and Jones, respectively, spends the majority of the film confined to the tight space of a gas balloon’s basket as they rise to 37,000 feet in the air in an attempt to make meteorological breakthroughs in 1860s Britain.

Redmayne’s role is a fitting lens to discuss not only The Aeronauts, but also his recent career. His craft is just as much a science as it is an art. Our conversation got into the weeds of technical details as he discussed everything from calibrating his physicality in rehearsals to cultivating his imagination on a barren set. But, first, we had to discuss Les Misérables, given the pivotal role his behind-the-scenes behavior played in my academic career.

During post-production on Les Misérables, I read that while in the editing room you encouraged Tom Hooper to hold longer on the close-up of Anne Hathaway during “I Dreamed A Dream,” setting into motion the film relying on them so heavily.

Because of the way that Les Mis was shot with live singing, you couldn’t get between different tracks because of the variation. What Tom did was make sure that you could always have the whole scene cut from one setup: a wide, a mid, [and a close-up]. There were three cameras on at the same time. He was editing the film, and the studio had put out a trailer they edited themselves that was more of the close-up. Tom and I had a discussion, and I think I mentioned that it could hold. What I find so interesting is that everyone has a specific opinion on Les Mis, whether it worked—and, of course, the close-ups are something people bring up a lot. But the live singing process dictated the way it was shot. We couldn’t shoot outside a lot because, when you shoot outside, the voice disappears. So, we had to build the barricades in a studio.

What you did with Les Misérables speaks to just how much a performance gets remade in the editing room. Are you still actively involved in that final step of the process?

What’s weird about making films is you create so much of it in a vacuum. It’s not like theater, where actors get together for months and work things out. Often you meet the person playing your mother or father two hours before [shooting]. Often you don’t know the director, meeting them a day before you start working with them. You have an idea of what the character’s arc is, and, of course, part of the joy of making films is giving over that. You put that down and hope the director observes that. But a director can often observe something different that’s more interesting! What I like to do, and I’ve been lucky enough to do, is make work and, if I’m allowed into the editing process, have a dialogue with that director. Provided you know they see what you intended, whether they use that or not is obviously their choice.

I do find that dynamic really interesting, and I’ve been lucky enough with James Marsh on The Theory of Everything, Tom Hooper, and [director] Tom Harper and [screenwriter] Jack Thorne on this. Felicity and I worked together with Jack and Tom for a couple of months beforehand working through the intricacies of the script, and Tom allowed us that bit because it’s so intimate between the two of us, almost like [working on a play] with the writer and director. He allowed us the intimacy in the process the whole way through. The reason I do it is because, as an actor, you’re never happy with what ends up in the finished product. But while you can still shift and change things, I enjoy being a part of that process.

As someone who came up through theater, where you have so much less mediation between your performance and how an audience receives it, have you found comfort in the editing process?

It was a massive adjustment because I got into acting through theater. For many years, I couldn’t get cast in TV or film because I was playing to the back of the stalls in my audition. When I did start working, it’s all been a massive learning curve.

How do you approach acting out of sequence? In both The Aeronauts and The Theory of Everything, you’re tasked with building a full and continuous character arc, but that seems tough you’re stopping and restarting.

Quite often, directors will try and keep as much in chronology as possible. A lot of the stuff we did in the basket in The Aeronauts was shot chronologically. It’s the other bits that aren’t. What you have to do is see how the director is filming it, what their process is and work out what’s best for you. For example, on The Theory of Everything, all the exteriors we were shooting in the first two days in Cambridge when all the students weren’t there. That meant that any time Stephen was outside in the entire film, we were shooting in the first two days. Which meant we had to do all different physicalities at different moments of his life in the first two days. Which meant [I] had to be able to access those different physicalities very quickly, which in itself dictated the process. I wasn’t going to spend hours getting into the zone, I have to slot into these. For me, I said, I need months to rehearse, and I need to rehearse the movement like a dance so that [I] can access it quite quickly. It’s all about the stuff you do beforehand so you’re ready when you’re working the other actor to be completely free.

You shot some of The Aeronauts outdoors in the gas balloon and then some on a soundstage against a blue screen. How did you all work to keep the authenticity consistent in your performances?

We were lucky that the first thing we shot was the real stuff. We went up in the real balloon—we had this accident, it was really terrifying—and the notion of the stakes were weirdly embedded with us from day one. Ultimately, it always feels horrendously fake when you’re in a giant basket surrounded by blue screens, but they did things like [freezing] the studio for our breath. We were shooting in the summer in the U.K., and then you had cast and crew in jackets because we were in a giant refrigerator. They also gave us freezing buckets with ice to plunge our hands into beforehand. The director really gave us everything he could to make it feel [right]. Because they had gone up in helicopters and shot the skyscapes beforehand, they had very clever technology on an iPad that lets you look at the balloon to see where the sun was and what the weather was. They spent a long time working in pre-production about how to not make it look fake, and one of the things was that it could look real, but if your eyes are totally open, the fact that there’s blinding sunlight…of course, you can look at a big, bright light without it being a stretch. It was to learn to squint a bit [to avoid] the giveaway.

Between The Aeronauts and the Fantastic Beasts series, you’ve been doing quite a bit of acting in synthetic spaces.

[laughs]

That’s not a value judgment! How do you go about using your imagination to bring the surroundings to life in your head while maintaining the same specificity as if you were there?

I try and do a load of research, so even if it’s on Fantastic Beasts, it’s talking to the animators, going and looking at drawings and set designs. Trying to do all of that early so it’s not in your imagination. The other process I tried to learn from Dan Fogler, who’s in Fantastic Beasts and very free. He’ll try lots of different things, and I watched him on the first film and thought he was brilliant. It’s a mixture of doing your research, then throwing it away and trying things.

Has it gotten easier over time? Like a muscle that has to be trained and toned?

Yeah, it definitely does. For example, with Pickett [a small plant creature his character keeps as a pet] on Fantastic Beasts, I was so concerned with talking to something that’s not there and make it feel real. I would over[act]. [Reenacts staring intently at the creature on his hand] You never normally look at people when you talk to them. You can have a conversation with Pinkett on your hand and not really look at him.

You’ve mentioned that the basket became like another character in the film because you and Felicity shared such tight quarters with it. How do you make spaces feel natural for your characters to inhabit?

That is rehearsals. That’s why we did them. What I love about this film, hopefully, is that it’s this thrilling adventure on a big scale. At the same time, it’s also an intimate little drama. That space is the size of a sofa. We had weeks working of thinking how to make things visually interesting for an audience. Each time the camera comes back to it, it needs to have transformed or changed. We rehearsed on it so we could find different ways: whether it was sitting on the floor or one of us up in the hoop, different angles, getting rid of carpets or some of the tools. They add character to this battered, bruised vessel that’s been pummeled.

Does that mean you all were really working out specific shots and angles within the rehearsal process?

When we were rehearsing the scenes over and over again, Tom would have suggestions and ideas from watching with the cinematographer. One of the things he found is that, early on, if the camera was ever outside of the balloon—even centimeters out—it doesn’t feel real. Any moments that are caught inside the balloon, apart from a few moments where drones fly and take close-ups, the cinematographer was always inside the balloon. He was moving with the movement. The camera, similarly, was like another character in the piece. Because just one centimeter outside, since we can’t suspend ourselves in mid-air, felt unreal.

Do you find it liberating to work within such tight confines like the basket? Does it force you to be more precise and conscious of your movement and blocking?

Yeah, it does. Because you’re confined, the freedom is in the minutiae. You can’t be making big, bold gestures. I think the intimacy plays to its favor in some ways.

The Aeronauts has a theme of looking up for inspiration amidst troubling times. The last few films you’ve made generally have some kind of optimistic feeling about them. Is that a conscious running thread running through your filmography?

I never relate my films to each other, but what I think is interesting is that the only way I choose work is by reacting to it. So maybe there’s a sense of that [optimism]. The reason I wanted to do The Aeronauts is because I got to that last passage where Felicity’s character is standing on top of the world, and I just thought I would love to see that. I loved the idea of working with Felicity again. I loved this old-school adventure thrill to it. I felt like you’ve seen space investigated, but I hadn’t seen the sky. Sometimes, on a cold, horrendously miserable day, there’s something ecstatic about a break through the clouds. And whether you can retrain an audience who’s so used to seeing the sky from planes to make it feel like something new, all those things were curious to me. I don’t specifically go looking for optimistic pieces, although there was a period in my career when I was playing incestuous teenagers and schizophrenic psychos, so maybe I need to go talk to a therapist about that!

I know some actors like Meryl Streep or David Oyelowo, just to name two that come to mind, say that they deliberately only put work out into the world that they think can make it a better place.

That’s really interesting. I haven’t read that, but I’m probably not that…selfless. It tends to be something I just react to. There’s a weird moment when you read a script and suddenly feel a bit sick. That’s when you transfer yourself from imagining it to imagine yourself doing it. That’s the reality of the responsibility.

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Review: Midnight Family Is an Intimate Look at Mexico’s Ambulance Crisis

It’s the mix of the humane and the calculating that gives the film its empathetic power.

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Midnight Family
Photo: 1091 Media

Director Luke Lorentzen’s Midnight Family opens with a startling statistic: In Mexico City, around 45 public ambulances serve a population of over nine million people. Picking up the pieces are private ambulances, such as the one owned and operated by the Ochoa family, whom Lorentzen follows over several nights as they pick up patients from accident sites, provide immediate medical service, and deposit them at various hospitals. Every element of this process is a negotiation, and Lorentzen captures a multitude of damning and haunting details. Following this family, Lorentzen fashions a documentary that serves as a wrenchingly intimate portrait of a country’s wide-reaching healthcare crisis.

For the Ochoas, particularly their portly paterfamilias, Fernando, and his charismatic 17-year-old son, Juan, the ambulance is firstly a business—a means of barebones survival. The Ochoa ambulance often resembles a kind of medical food truck, as it roams Mexico City looking for customers, who are, of course, individuals in pronounced danger and pain. Lorentzen vividly captures the chaos of the accident sites, including the maddening array of traffic lights and people wandering haphazardly among the twisted ruins of crushed vehicles and property. Into this chaos, Fernando, Juan, and others enter with a kind of cleansing purposefulness, though they also have to watch out for cops who are looking to shake them down for pay-offs. (The legality of private ambulances is somewhat vaguely rendered here; the Ochoas may or may not have the right paperwork, though they definitely need official license plates.)

It’s the mix of the humane and the calculating that gives Midnight Family its empathetic power. While saving lives, the Ochoas must focus on means of payment. They’re not ghouls, as we come to see that their next meal, and their ability to keep the vehicle running, depends on a night-by-night payout, which is threatened by the police as well as rival private ambulances. Since the Ochoas run a private business, patients can apparently refuse to pay them without recrimination from the government, which occurs often given the poverty of their largely uninsured clientele. Lorentzen is bracingly specific about money: One pick-up, of a teenage girl battered by her boyfriend, costs 3,800 pesos, at which her well-off mother balks.

Across Lorentzen’s documentary, viewers also learn of the equipment that the Ochoas need to pass regulations, and of the consequence that expense has on their ability to eat. In one evocative illustration of the effect of their profession on private life, we see the Ochoas at a gas station making tuna salad, which they eat on saltines. This meal occurs after an elaborate debate on whether they can afford to eat more than two tacos apiece.

Yet Lorentzen doesn’t turn the Ochoas into objects of our self-congratulatory pity. The filmmaker captures the despair as well as the adventure of such a livewire way of life, especially as the Ochoas race other ambulances. Fernando places a poignant amount of trust in young Juan, who daringly drives the ambulance, cutting off other vehicles with various improvisations of navigation. These chases are filmed by Lorentzen in a mixture of first-person and mounted-camera compositions that emphasize the limitation of a driver’s sight, establishing a sense of immediacy and danger that is far more thrilling than the standardly detached, alternating coverage of a conventional action film. In this fashion, Midnight Family sometimes brings to mind the brilliant chase sequence in James Gray’s We Own the Night.

Given the privacy of the scenes we witness in Midnight Family—moments of carnage, need, poverty, corruption, and love—the invisibility of Lorentzen’s presence comes as a mild disappointment. This project begs for an examination of how the filmmaking process informs the behavior of its subjects. This quality, or lack thereof, is especially evident when a family member of a patient is seen weeping in the front passenger seat of the Ochoa ambulance. How does she feel at being filmed at this moment of extremity? Midnight Family is a rich and textured film, but it stints on this kind of auto-critical answer.

Director: Luke Lorentzen Screenwriter: Luke Lorentzen Distributor: 1091 Media Running Time: 80 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: The Aeronauts Takes to the Skies, Without Much of a Dramatic Hook

As a suspense film, it’s so sluggishly structured that it borders on the avant-garde.

1.5

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The Aeronauts
Photo: Amazon Studios

Tom Harper’s The Aeronauts is such a sluggishly structured suspense film that it borders on the avant-garde. James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne), a 19th-century meteorologist, is attempting to prove that man can predict weather patterns, and he plans a hot-air balloon ride high into the Earth’s troposphere to conduct high-altitude measurements. With no available technology for breathing apparatuses or other modern safety equipment, James’s gambit is a bold one, but he hopes that by traveling so high he can use the most accurate measurements to prove his meteorological theses. Accompanying him is Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones), a daredevil aeronaut with experience flying balloons at extreme altitudes. They’re practically a study in contrasts. James, humorless and bookish, talks rapidly and in fussy detail, mostly holding conversations with himself and putting others in the position of needing to interject to get a word in edgewise. Amelia, meanwhile, is filled with a certain joie de vivre, literally arriving to the balloon launch doing acrobatics to liven up the assembled crowd.

This is the second time that Redmayne and Jones have starred in a film together, but familiarity has done little to deepen their stilted chemistry. James and Amelia don’t converse so much as recite their respective credentials at each other. This might have worked if The Aeronauts gave the characters specializations that the other lacked, yet each has similar strengths: James, the less experienced balloonist, nonetheless knows enough about piloting the craft to not need instruction, while Amelia understands enough about meteorology to not require James to dumb down his scientific jargon. As a result, the pair’s dynamic is devoid of inherent conflict, which might have distracted them from the monotony of their balloon’s ascent into cloud-studded skies, which Harper stages as if in real time.

Of course, sitting in a vehicle that slowly drifts upward as its two occupants engage in, at most, haughty disagreement makes for moribund drama, so Harper fills time with flashbacks to show how James and Amelia got to this point. Anyone who’s ever seen a historical fiction about a scientific pioneer will know what to expect of James’s backstory: repeated scenes of the man explaining his ideas to academic administrators with sideburns large enough to count as mating displays, all of them mirthfully wagging their turkey necks as they respond to James’s hypotheses with sayings like, “Hitting the sherry a bit early this morning, aren’t we, Glaisher?”

Meanwhile, across a series of frenzied, chaotically edited memories of trauma, Amelia relives the death of her husband, Pierre Rennes (Vincent Perez), in a ballooning accident. It’s a hysterically lopsided distribution of character motivation. We get a few shots of Amelia and Pierre tenderly embracing, but otherwise the dead man is a mere device, and all that she can say of him to James is that “his most enduring quality was a deep, true love for the beauty of the world,” which, as far as eulogies go, is about two steps above “He loved to laugh.”

George Steel’s cinematography, namely the way it captures the balloon’s ascent, is the film’s strong suit. Especially noteworthy is when James and Amelia break past the cloud layer and are left in direct sunlight that’s rendered with brilliant white light that washes out the frame even as it communicates the rapidly falling temperatures at that altitude. And that temperature drop becomes the first catalyst for actual drama when James lets slip that he didn’t pack a warm enough coat out of concerns for the balloon’s weight, setting up the last act’s belated decision to include some kind of suspense in order to give the film a dramatic hook.

Indeed, the film’s last hour, in which James and Amelia find themselves increasingly starved for oxygen as their balloon rises higher into atmosphere, is its most engaging. Here, a violently shivering James transforms into the reckless adventure, while Amelia becomes the more anxious and fearful of the two. As she urges caution in the face of falling oxygen levels, the mild-mannered scientist is suddenly overcome with delusions of grandeur and fame and does everything to keep them rising. The camera begins to blur at the edges to reflect the characters’ fading consciousness, while a series of desperate last-ditch efforts on Amelia’s part to save them both is mounted with real tension. Still, the film’s wonky, flashback-heavy structure puts so much emphasis on the by-the-numbers backstory of the characters that the actual drama of the balloon flight itself is muted, making the eventual turn toward chaos less of a narrative culmination than a last-minute recalibration of the film’s inert quality.

Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Phoebe Fox, Himesh Patel, Vincent Perez, Anne Reid, Tom Courtenay, Tim McInnerny, Rebecca Front Director: Tom Harper Screenwriter: Jack Thorne Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 100 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: Jennifer Reeder’s Knives and Skin Limply Aspires to the Lynchian

The film gets so lost in its affected idiosyncrasies that it stops probing any discernible human feelings.

1.5

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Knives and Skin
Photo: IFC Films

Something terrible has happened to Carolyn Harper (Raven Whitley). But unlike Twin Peaks and its plastic-wrapped Laura Palmer, Knives and Skin makes it immediately clear what occurred to her: She was left bleeding and without her glasses in the wilderness by a vengeful jock, Andy Kitzmiller (Ty Olwin), because she wouldn’t have sex with him. She never makes it back. This transpires near the start of the film, and what transpires after this point is a dreamy, neon-tinted vision of a town overcome less by grief than ennui.

Throughout Knives and Skin, writer-director Jennifer Reeder draws heavily from the style of David Lynch, cycling through the townsfolk and their weirdest tendencies. Carolyn’s mother, Lisa (Marika Engelhardt), insists that she can smell her daughter on Andy. Andy’s sister, Joanna (Grace Smith), sells underwear to Principal Markhum (Tony Fitzpatrick), cash only. The girl’s father, Dan (Tim Hopper), who’s cheating on his wife (Audrey Francis), is seen at one point emerging from between a waitress’s (Kate Arrington) legs while wearing clown makeup. And Grandma Kitzmiller (Marilyn Dodds Frank) pesters everyone for weed. Certain objects glow, and the girls’ choir practices a series of haunting pop song arrangements, its members whispering to each other one by one while the rest of the ensemble keeps singing.

Other than Lisa’s persistent, unfounded hopes that her daughter is still alive, Carolyn’s disappearance seems to intentionally leave little impression on anyone. Everyone is wrapped up in their own concerns and pursuits, struggling to hold down jobs or dealing with disinterested partners. They’re united only by their vaguely odd feelings and a sense of being trapped, as one boy (Robert T. Cunningham) does when he stands on the roof of the high school; he doesn’t intend to jump, he just wants to see the highway that leads somewhere else.

But in untethering itself from what happened to Carolyn Harper, Knives and Skin ends up unfocused, shambling from one moment of self-conscious weirdness to another. Its themes, like the constant and varied violations of consent going on throughout the town, get lost in favor of things like the talking tiger T-shirt and the hamburger meat lobbed at a vehicle in protest until the entire purpose of these surreal flourishes seems to melt away.

The film is intermittently striking with its heavily stylized lighting and wistful electronic score, but it creates little sense of place. The town where these people all live, which seems to be affecting them to such a profound degree, is so nondescript beyond a few anonymous landscape shots that it stops evoking a place they would want to leave because it doesn’t really seem like a place at all. Rather than explorations of individual oddness, Knives and Skin becomes a rather tedious mood piece with an ethereal atmosphere so remote, so lost in its affected idiosyncrasies that it stops probing any discernible human feelings.

Cast: Marika Engelhardt, Raven Whitley, Ty Olwin, Ireon Roach, Haley Bolithon, Aurora Real de Asua, Grace Smith, Marilyn Dodds Frank, Tim Hopper, Audrey Francis, James Vincent Meredith, Kate Arrington, Kayla Carter, Robert T. Cunningham, Alex Moss Director: Jennifer Reeder Screenwriter: Jennifer Reeder Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 111 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Interview: Jessica Hausner on Little Joe and the Ways of Being and Seeing

Hausner discusses wanting to sustain the tension of the first act of a Body Snatchers production over the course of an entire narrative.

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Jessica Haustner
Photo: Karina Ressler/Magnolia Pictures

With Little Joe, director Jessica Hausner reinvigorates an Invasion of the Body Snatchers-type premise by boldly suggesting that modern humans don’t have any identities left to lose. The true body snatcher, rather than the beautiful, manipulative red flower at the film’s center, is a corporate culture that stifles our individual thought with double-speak and other subtly constant threats to personal status.

The challenge of such a premise, then, is to reveal the private individual longings that are suppressed by cultural indoctrination without breaking the film’s restrictive formal spell—a challenge that Hausner says she solved with co-writer Géraldine Bajard during a lengthy writing session. Little Joe is so carefully structured and executed that one is encouraged to become a kind of detective, parsing chilly tracking shots and flamboyant Wes Anderson-style color schemes for signs of a character’s true emotional experience.

Ahead of the film’s theatrical release, Hausner and I discussed her obsession with boiling societies down to singular metaphorical places, a tendency that unites Little Joe with her prior features, including Amour Fou and Lourdes. We also talked about the notion of social coding and pressure, and how the filmmaker was interested in sustaining the tension of the first act of a Body Snatchers production over the course of an entire narrative. For Hausner, such tension is certainly fostered with a rigorous devotion to sound and composition, which her actors found freeing, perhaps in the ironic tradition of her own characters.

Little Joe evinces a strong understanding of that staid, subtly restrictive office culture.

I think in all my films I try to find a closed space. Sometimes it’s a company or, in Amour Fou, it’s bourgeois society. I made a film called Lourdes where it was very clear it was that place in Lourdes. I’m trying to portray the hierarchies of a society, and I think it’s easier to do that if you have one place. Then you can show who are the chefs, the people in the middle, and the ones who just have to follow. Sometimes you can even see these statures on the costumes.

The brightly colored costumes are striking in Little Joe. It seems as if they’re expressing emotions the characters aren’t allowing themselves.

Yes. Well, they don’t allow themselves, or maybe I’d put it slightly differently: No one really shows their true emotions [laughs]. We all play a role in our lives and we’re all a part of some sort of hierarchy. And no matter what kind of life we live, we’re living within a society, and we do have to obey rules most of the time. My films focus on that perspective, rather than saying, “Oh, everyone has a free choice.” My experience is that free choice is very limited even in a free world. We are very much manipulated in terms of how we should think and how we should behave. Social codes are quite strong.

One of the lovely ironies of this film is that it’s difficult to discern which enslavements are caused by the flower and which are already inherently in place via society.

Absolutely. That’s the irony about it. When we worked on the script, it wasn’t so easy to build up a storyline that suggests a change that you never really see. Over the process of scriptwriting, we decided that the validity of feelings was invisible. We also had conversations with scientists, and we considered which part of the brain was responsible for emotions.

I’m curious if any singular story element led you to this premise.

I’m a big fan of science-fiction and horror films, and I do like those Invasion of the Body Snatchers films, but only the beginnings. I like the setups, those scenes where someone says, “Oh, my uncle isn’t my uncle anymore.” I had this idea to prolong this doubt about who people really are over the whole length of a feature film. Because it’s a basic human experience: You can never really understand what another person is thinking or feeling.

I love that there’s no overt monster in Little Joe. There’s no catharsis exactly.

No, there isn’t. The catharsis takes place on a very strange level, which leads to one of the other starting elements of the film. I wanted to portray a single mother who loves her job. So, the catharsis in the end is really very much centered on Alice as she finally allows herself to focus on her work and to let her son live with the father, which is okay.

You’re right that there’s a catharsis, from the fulfillment of the final line of dialogue.

Absolutely.

This is what’s hard to reconcile: Despite the loss of self that debatably takes place over the course of the film, Alice gets exactly what she wants and the flower does exactly what it’s supposed to do.

Yes, I’m glad to hear you say that. I do get a lot of questions about the dark, dystopian perspective, but there’s no such perspective in this film. It’s a very friendly, light ending. If we all change, perhaps it’s for the better.

I’m curious about the visual design of the flower. It seems to me that it’s both male and female at once, which I think is an achievement.

What do you mean male and female? The design?

The shape seems phallic. Yet the color scheme almost has a lingerie quality.

I think the basic idea is that it’s a male plant. I wanted that basic juxtaposition between the boy and the plant. The film suggests that it’s a male plant, but yet, of course, when the plant opens and is exhaling the pollen…well, I would say it’s a very male plant. [both laugh]

The release of the pollen, especially for the first time against the glass of the lab, does feel like an ejaculation.

Yes. That was very much a part of the idea. The plant is trying to survive.

It’s like a revenge of the sex drive.

Yes.

Which parallels how the humans are repressing their sex drives. It’s a lovely reverberation. What was the collaboration with the actors like? Such a careful tone of emotional modulation is maintained throughout the film.

I enjoyed the collaboration very much. the actors understood what the film’s style was about. You do have actors sometimes who are used to the fact that the camera is working around them, but in my films it’s always the other way around. The camera is determining the image and the actor has to fit in. The actors—Emily Beecham, Ben Whishaw, Kerry Fox, and the others—were able to cope with that method very well. I remember especially Ben Whishaw even liked it, because—if you don’t feel suffocated, if you’re strong enough to fight against the style—it can be a joyful way to work. The collaboration with the actors also focused very much on the undertone of what they’re saying. A lot of scenes have a double meaning. I’m always trying to show that people normally lie. So, everything that’s said is also said because it should be said, I don’t know if you know what I mean…

Yes, social coding.

I’m trying to make the actors act in a way that makes us feel a character’s position rather than any individuality, so that we know that the characters are a part of something larger and have to say whatever they’re saying now. We try to reveal the typical codes of a society.

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Review: The Wolf Hour Is Dubiously Content to Watch Its Protagonist Squirm

The film is all surface, and its depiction of trauma becomes increasingly exploitative and hollow as it moves along.

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The Wolf Hour
Photo: Brainstorm Media

An air of decay and discomfort pervades the dingy Manhattan apartment where nearly all of The Wolf Hour unfolds. An agoraphobic recluse, June Leigh (Naomi Watts) languishes in the unit, overwhelmed with guilt from a past misdeed. The cramped, underlit apartment, full of dusty old books and overstuffed trash bags, takes on an increasingly oppressive quality as the door buzzer continues to go off with unnerving frequency. Despite June’s pleas to whomever is on the other end, all she gets in response is an ominous, crackling static. It’s an unsettling sound that’s a fitting approximation of the feminist icon and writer’s brittle mental state, which is inextricably tied to the decrepit state of a 1977 New York City plagued by sweltering summer heat and the Son of Sam killer’s reign of terror.

From the limited perspective of this tiny apartment, writer-director Alistair Banks Griffin constructs an aura of danger and alienation, filling out the broader scope of the citywide upheaval with street scuffles and snippets of news coverage that June overhears on the radio or television. It’s a provocative setting, which could have served as a compelling backdrop for June’s mental unraveling, but the acutely detailed portrait of this specific time and place never extends to that of the muddled, half-baked characterization of the woman who inhabits it.

Watts has made a career playing the most brooding and agitated of characters, and with a practically unparalleled visceral depth. Here, her subtly skittish gestures and facial expressions lend June a raw, nervous energy that suggests a woman on the verge of losing her mind. Strange, cathartic scenes, such as when June abruptly lets loose and feverishly dances to Suicide’s “Ghost Rider,” gives a strong sense of how far she’s strayed from the person she once was. But such unexpected character beats arise too infrequently throughout the film, and for all of Watts’s efforts, the roots of June’s anguish are never more than vaguely explored.

In an attempt to flesh out June’s interiority, Griffin’s script works in a handful of people who visit her apartment. But none of these characters, from her sister (Jennifer Ehle) to a grocery deliveryman (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) to a compassionate gigolo (Emory Cohen), offer much insight into the celebrated genius that June used to be. In fact, it’s only through June’s viewing of a contentious TV interview that she gave when her first book was released that we get any sense of the catalyst for her downward spiral. It’s a remarkably contrived manner of inserting much-needed backstory into The Wolf Hour, but even worse, it hints at a story far more intriguing than the miserabilism that quickly reveals itself to be the film’s default mode.

That interview reveals that June had a tumultuous fallout with her family due to her leftist screed’s thinly veiled criticism of her businessman father. It’s a turn that suggests something akin to the complicated father-daughter antagonism between Shiv and Logan on HBO’s Succession, yet Griffin does nothing with this bombshell, simply returning to June as she continues to drown in her paralyzing guilt. An abrupt and woefully misguided deus ex machina attempts to do some heavy narrative lifting, but it changes our perception of June without laying the sort of groundwork needed to make such a twist land with any gravitas.

In the end, June remains an enigma and the film’s finale only solidifies the notion that Griffin never had any interest in plumbing June’s emotional struggles. Like the sweat covering June’s face at all times or the dust that coats her apartment, The Wolf Hour is all surface, and its depiction of trauma only becomes increasingly exploitative and hollow as it moves along.

Cast: Naomi Watts, Brennan Brown, Jennifer Ehle, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Emory Cohen, Jeremy Bobb, Maritza Veer, Justin Clarke Director: Alistair Banks Griffin Screenwriter: Alistair Banks Griffin Distributor: Brainstorm Media Running Time: 99 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Interview: Céline Sciamma on Redefining the Muse with Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Our talk ranged from the personal to the political, her singular work to the cinema at large.

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Céline Sciamma
Photo: Claire Mathon

My experience talking with directors leads me to informally sort them into three categories based on what element of their work they can speak most eloquently about: theory, emotion, and technical execution. Few have straddled all aspects of the filmmaking process quite like French writer-director Céline Sciamma, the mind and muscle behind Portrait of a Lady on Fire. She’s able to deftly answer questions that address the end-to-end process of how a moment germinates in her head, how an audience will interpret it, and how theory can explain why they feel the way they do.

Sciamma’s latest directorial outing relegates her minimalism primarily to the screenplay, which revolves around the interactions between a painter, Noémie Merlant’s Marianne, and the subject, Adèle Haenel’s Héloïse, that she’s been commissioned to covertly paint. The deceptively simple contours of Portrait of a Lady on Fire belie the ambition of the film, which sets out to achieve nothing less than a complete deconstruction of the artist-muse relationship. What Sciamma proposes in its place is a love story between the two women rooted in equality and artistry rather than in domination and lust.

I spoke with Sciamma after the film’s premiere at the New York Film Festival in September. Our talk ranged from the personal to the political, her singular work to the cinema at large, our present moment’s liberation to the centuries of patriarchal influence over our shared historical narrative. In short, a full spectrum of conversation that few directors can match.

You’ve placed Portrait of a Lady on Fire in conversation with discourse around the subject of muses. Does the film suggest that we need to dispense with this ideal altogether, or that we just need to update and revise our notions of what it means?

Well, it’s a contemporary conversation, and even though the movie’s set in the past, it definitely could be something that could have been set in 2019. It’s been a long [journey] for me, because it’s been five years from my previous film, and I thought about this for years. Within these five years, a lot happened. [The time] gave me confidence and new tools and ideas—also less loneliness—to be radical and without compromise. It gives you strength and structure to be radical with all the ideas. The movie is full of them.

Women artists have always existed. They’ve had more flourishing moments, like that time in the mid-18th century when there were a lot of women painters. That’s why we set [the film] in that period, of course, but mostly women were in the workshop as models or companions. That was their part in artistry, so that’s how they’re told [in cultural narratives]. The real part they took in creation isn’t told. Something is happening in art history because there are women researchers on the other side. Dora Maar was the muse of Picasso, but actually, she was a part of the Surrealist group. There’s a lot of them we know now. It was a way to tell the story again to reactivate this nature of art history. But I’m sure it’s true; it’s not this anachronistic vision.

You hired an “art sociologist” to help develop Portrait of a Lady on Fire. What did you learn from this person, and how did that affect the film?

It was a woman who [studied] that period when there were a lot of women painters. The fact that she’s a sociologist and not a historian actually was really important for me because, as we were inventing this character, sociology was really important to make her true to all of these women. Whereas if we’d picked [one historical figure], it would be about destiny. She read the script, and [determined that] there were no anachronisms. What I learned is that it gave me confidence to trust this character all the way. It was something I could hand to Noémie on set.

Is the notion of the “muse” inherently incompatible with equality?

The fact that you could be inspiring just by being there, beautiful and silent, there’s definitely domination. The fact that it’s told as something that always has to do with [being] in a relationship, even the love in creation in the muse—you have to fall in love with your actresses or models—is a fantasy that allows abuse of power. Even the possessive, sometimes I’m asked about my actresses. They’re not asked about their directors; they’re asked about the director.

When I wrote the part for Adèle, she was the model. When I talked about the film, and not much because I’m very secretive, people told me, “So, Adèle’s going to be the painter?” And I said, “No, Adèle is going to be the model!” People were like, “Why? She should be the painter.” And I was like, “Oh, so you find that the model is too narrow for her? You find that this isn’t the dynamic of power she’s entitled to. She should be the painter.” She and I laughed and thought, “Of course, [Adèle] should be the model because I’m the actress.” So, what are they saying? That it’s too small for her? That was also very nourishing, the idea today that she shouldn’t be in that position. It would be a weak position. And it isn’t.

I was surprised to learn that you didn’t write Marianne’s character from the start as someone assigned to paint Héloïse covertly. What did that discovery in the writing process unlock in the story for you?

When I got the idea, I was like, “Now the movie’s got a chance.” The movie is very full of ideas and has some theory of cinema, but that’s why it should be strongly dramatically charged. The fact that we embodied these problematic [ideas] really is important. The journey of the gaze, the fact that it’s stolen at first, then consensual, then mutual, then…we don’t even know who’s looking at who. It makes it really physical and organic. And also, it’s true that all my films are [thematically] bound with a character having a secret. Usually it lasts until the end, but this time it’s only half an hour of being secretive. The secret becomes this reservoir of what’s going to be said and what’s going to unfold, which felt different.

Unlike Tomboy, where schoolyard bullies embody the antagonistic forces of transphobia and heteronormativity, the villain in Portrait of a Lady on Fire seems to be time and the reality of Héloïse’s marriage on the horizon. Was this always your intent to write a story with a more abstract foe?

Yeah, because I really wanted not to go through the same negotiations and conflicts. I wanted it to be a new journey for the audience. Their love dialogue relies on a new ideal that’s equality. There’s no gender domination because they’re two women. That’s practical. But there’s no intellectual domination. We didn’t play with social hierarchy, either. We know their love is impossible, but we aren’t going to play with that. We aren’t going to try and project them into the future. Some people, the old culture, wants you to do that. Show the taboo, the impossibility, the struggle, the conflict with yourself. And we didn’t want to do that.

Because it’s about what you put in the frame. We’re just looking at what’s possible, that suspension of time, and we know very well the frame. We don’t have to tell you the prospects for these women, especially because it’s set in the past. They’re shitty. Lousy. We’re not going to waste time and put you in that position where you will go through this conflict to tell the same thing, that it’s impossible. The real tragedy is that it is possible, but it’s made impossible—by the world of men, mostly. That’s also why there are no men in the film. It would mean portraying a character whose sole purpose is to be the enemy, which isn’t something that interests me at all. I don’t need to take time to portray that. It’s not generous enough.

Are we to take the shot of Héloise on fire literally? That scene seems to enter such a representational, abstract realm, and then we’re jolted back into the reality of her walks with Marianne with that match cut of her extending a hand.

That [says] a lot about the film. It wants to be very embodied in a very simple but kind of brave [way], not just purely theoretical. She’s really going to be on fire! That was one of the key scenes I had in mind as the compass of the film. If you’re really setting her on fire, you’re setting the bar for the other scenes. They have to be in dialogue with this [moment]. It shouldn’t be this unique thing out of the whole language of the film.

I was so struck by the shot toward the end of the film where Marianne sketches herself in a mirror placed over Héloïse’s nether regions. It’s a masterly composition that also feels like a real thematic lynchpin. Can you describe both how the shot developed intellectually and how you executed it on set?

It’s about where you put the focus. In the mirror, she’s blurry. It’s about trust, about being playful, about going all the way with your ideas. But also, it’s fun. It’s a fun thing to do. Even the difficulty of it makes you think about cinema and how we’re going to do this. It’s a way to always be woke about your craft and having new challenges, solving old questions with new ideas. Really trying to harvest most of the situation of people looking at each other. It’s a very simple [way to] access ideas. She’s portraying herself with this mirror, this woman is naked, and her head is where her sex is. It’s really overt, so you don’t have to think about it. But, still, it’s this idea that’s given to you through a sensation. It should always be about this, I think.

I didn’t think it would be possible to top something like the “Diamonds” scene in Girlhood, but here you have a three-minute scene that features Adèle Haenel reacting to music. How do you go about shooting these scenes in a way that allows the audience to understand the impact the music has on the characters?

For Girlhood, I really tried to think of [the scene] as if it were a scene in a musical. When they start to sing in a musical, [they’re] very strong moments within the characters’ relationships. They’re saying things to each other, and, if they’re dancing, their bodies are expressing themselves. It’s about the music not being the commentary, but really thinking about it like, “Okay, if there was a Fred Astaire film, when would this thing happen? What would it say?” It’s always about the intimacy between the characters and what their bodies can express.

But this is kind of different because it’s the final scene. It unveils the fact that it’s cinema. It’s a shot-reverse shot. At first, you’re looking at Héloïse and Marianne looking at Héloïse. But, at some point, it’s about you the audience looking at Adèle performing. It’s about cinema. It leaves room for you. It’s the same in the “Diamonds” scene in Girlhood; it doesn’t become a clip if suddenly there’s room for the viewer. When we talk about the female gaze, of course it’s about not objectifying women, it’s also about mostly how you experience the journey of the character. You experience it with your body and mind. You’re fully aware. It’s not about you being fully inside the film; it’s about the film being inside you. I think that’s what we can offer.

You’ve talked about needing to develop a new grammar to tell the story of Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Now that you have developed it, do you think it will be applicable to other films? Or will you have to reinvent the wheel again?

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is my fourth film, and it felt like a departure. But it’s also a growing of a lot of decisions and myself as a 40-year-old woman. So next time, I never know what I’m going to do next. I really feel like I’ve said all I have to say right now. I feel relieved of something also. And now that we are having this discussion around the film, it puts it in the world. It’s something we share. When you craft a film, it’s really your secret for so long. Now I feel like I’m going to have to find a new secret for myself.

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