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Understanding Screenwriting #91: The Artist, War Horse, Red Tails, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #91: The Artist, War Horse, Red Tails, & More

Coming Up in This Column: The Artist, War Horse, Red Tails, Crazy Horse, Miss Bala, Safe House, Some Print Items, The Power and the Glory, Hail the Conquering Hero, but first…

Fan Mail: “mindbodylightsound” took me to task for some errors about Tinker Tailor. He has obviously seen the miniseries more recently than I have and/or he has a better memory than I do. I have been meaning to look at it again for several years and now I have to. I also love “mindbodylightsound’s” subtle reading of LeCarré’s themes of “malleable identity,” and the idea that “the service was full of people who lie for a living because their own lives were lies.” That’s the best one-line take on that aspect of LeCarré I’ve read.

Now for some comments on David Ehrenstein’s comments. Tinker Tailor is about MI6 rather than MI5. For those of you who don’t follow British Intelligence, MI6 is sort of the equivalent of the C.I.A., and MI5 is sort of the equivalent of the F.B.I.. MI5 and MI6 collaborate a least a little bit better than the C.I.A. and F.B.I..

An Englishman Abroad, a 1983 made-for-television movie, stars actress Coral Browne as herself, meeting Guy Burgess, one of the Cambridge Five, in Moscow where Burgess was not so happily living after his defection. As David says, it is enormously entertaining.
David says, “On the Sturges front it seems obvious to me that separating the great man’s writing from his directing is well-nigh impossible.” Difficult yes, but not impossible. Yes, when the writer is directing it is particularly difficult, unless you have access to the writer-director’s mind 24/7. It is a little easier when the writer and director are two different people, as we have been demonstrating in this column for nearly four years now. One of the reasons I took on the Sturges Project was to deal with that combination of writer-director in one person. If you look over the Sturges items, you will see I am trying, perhaps unsuccessfully, to nail down his contributions in both crafts. But in any film, especially good ones like the ones we have talked about, the writing and direction flow together, as David says in his discussion of Sturges’s use of Bracken and Hutton.
As for David’s friend Ignatz Ratskiwatscki, I lost track of him after he and his longtime companion George Kaplan moved to the country of Slavatania and set up their gynecology clinic.

The Artist (2011. Scenario and dialogue by Michel Hazanavicius. 100 minutes.)

I enjoyed it, but less and less as it went along: This is one of those films, like Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010), that was on my radar for a long time before I saw it. It first got my attention when it played at Cannes last spring, and it has been collecting awards and nominations and great reviews ever since. It has even produced a backlash, as most highly acclaimed films do sooner or later. Fortunately, unlike Uncle Boonmee (see US#72 for my comments on that one), The Artist is a much better script and picture. It starts out great but, alas, eventually slows down.

Hazanavicius is attempting to make a silent film that will play to a talkies audience, not just silent film history buffs. So his first writing problem is: how do you bring a modern audience into a silent film? His solutions are ingenious. First he begins with an actual (within the context of the film) silent movie. So we know we are in a silent movie world. Then in the film-within-a-film the character played by George, our main character, is being tortured and says, in titles, that he will not talk. We see people backstage at this premiere screening, and there is a big sign on the wall that says “Silence backstage.” You would think all that would do the job, and for most audiences it did, but there are reports that some audience members in Liverpool, England, wanted their money back because there were “no words” in the movie. Who would have thought Liverpool was a hotbed of pro-screenwriter, pro-dialogue sentiment?

Hazanavicius then continues the light touch. Poppy Miller, a would-be actress, bumps into George outside the theater, and he is charming to her. We know for sure now that we are in a romantic comedy. Eventually Poppy gets a part in one of George’s films, and there is a beautifully written and directed scene in which we watch the two of them go through several takes of a shot, each time ruining it either by laughing or by realizing they are attracted to each other. Then Hazanavicius takes a big chance that goes wrong: he turns the film into a silent drama. Folks, there are reasons silent comedies play better now than silent dramas do. Comedy is unreal (unless your life is full of people who are naturally funny), which fits the unreality of silent film better. Drama is more real and seems more artificial in silence. Drama usually needs more titles to explain what’s going, which disrupt the flow of the film. If you watch as many silent films as I have, you will notice that the later ones are pushing at the restraints of silent film. By 1927-28, both audiences and filmmakers were ready for sound films, which is why the transition happened then and not years before.

So we begin to lose the charm of the first half of the film, and the drama goes on and on and on. Do we really need two suicide attempts by George as his career crashes with the introduction of sound? You could wrap up this story a lot quicker, and in much more entertaining ways.

As a film historian I loved the recreation of silent Hollywood, but I kept having quibbles. A title announces it is now 1929; I suspect we are in 1929 so they can drag in the Wall Street Crash to hurt George’s career. We see (but don’t hear) a sound test of George’s one-time co-star Constance, nicely played, especially in this scene, by Missi Pyle. But that’s awfully late for sound tests. There is no discussion of possible part silent/part sound films, which were common in the first year or two of sound. George simply refuses to make a sound film, and the silent film he produces flops. We can see, although it is not discussed in the film, that the film probably bombed because it was the same old melodrama. We don’t get the discussion because one of the limitations of silent film is that it cannot deal with complex issues and ideas. Silent drama can deal with spectacle (Intolerance [1916]), fantasy (The Thief of Bagdad [1924]), and emotional intensity (The Last Laugh [1924]), but ideas require dialogue. Try to imagine Dr. Strangelove (1964) as a silent film. The studio head tells George that the audiences want new faces, but the studio is promoting Polly, who if the montage is to be believed, is already a rising star. There was some thinking in Hollywood about getting stage actors, but very quickly the studios learned that audiences wanted to hear their old favorites talk. The legend that every, or even most, silent film stars had their careers destroyed is nonsense. Ronald Colman, W.C. Fields, Gary Cooper, Joan Crawford, Laurel & Hardy, and Garbo all made the transition very nicely, as did the silent directors and screenwriters. The particular studio head seems determined to get rid of George, although we do not really see why.

Quibbles aside, there are wonderful things in the film, starting with the lead performance by Jean Dujardin, whom I have been a fan of since his and Hazanavicius’s 2006 OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, a great spoof of the Bond films. Dujardin’s co-star in that is Bérénice Bejo, who is even better here. I also admire the way Hazanavicius as a director has had the cast act in a real silent film style. That’s not the flamboyant, hammy way people think they acted in silent films, but with great subtlety and precision. It’s a detail that Mel Brooks missed completely in his 1976 Silent Movie. For an excellent discussion of acting in silent film in relation to The Artist, read David Denby’s “Critic at Large” essay in the February 27th issue of The New Yorker.

War Horse (2011. Screenplay by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis, based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo. 146 minutes.)

War Horse

I’m not positive, but I don’t think the horses are intended to be gay: Lee Hall’s previous credits include Billy Elliot (2000) and Toast (2010, which I showed a certain fondness for in US#84). Curtis’s credits include Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) and Love Actually (2003). In other words, both writers know how to write characters. So I am at a loss to explain why the characterization in this film is so bland and standard issue. Albert, a young Englishman, falls in love with a horse, Joey, whom his father, your standard rural drunken lout, buys for him. Albert is a real block of wood as written and played by Jeremy Irvine. His Mum is a little livelier, but she is mostly nagging the dad for being a standard rural, etc. World War I comes along and the horse is bought for the Army, although the rather bland officer to whom he goes promises Albert he is only “renting” Joey for the duration.

At the front Joey, who is a beautifully brown horse, meets a beautiful black horse, and they nuzzle a lot. No particular point is made as to whether the black horse is male or female, but given the lack of characterizations among the humans, I couldn’t but begin to wonder about the horses’ relationship. Then the horses escape and they spend time with a Dutch grandfather and his granddaughter and then with the German army. We are still getting nothing more than standard issue characters. Yes, it’s supposed to be an episodic story, but the episodes are not that interesting because we are just not that emotionally involved in either the horse or the humans. Until the film finally gives us one good scene: Joey is caught in barbed wire between the trenches. Both sides see him and call a truce so they can go out to rescue him. One British soldier comes out, and one German one. And they talk like real, interesting human beings. When they realize they need wire cutters, the German calls back to his lines, and a whole herd of wire cutters are tossed at them from the German side, in the best single shot in the film. Needless to say, Joey and Albert get back together, but it is not as stirring as it is meant to be.

Ordinarily Steven Spielberg is a good director of actors, but just as in Jurassic Park (1993), where he was more involved with the dinos than the characters, here he is more involved with the horse. And the horse is as much a block of wood as many of the other actors. The casting on the film was done by Jina Jay, and with the exception of Emily Watson as the Mum, she has not filled the film with actors who can make something out of very little.

On a much more positive note, I was delighted to see that Spielberg has finally given up on that de-saturated color crap he and others have been peddling since Saving Private Ryan (1998). Good riddance. Yes, the trenches look muddy, but the English countryside looks gorgeous.

Red Tails (2012. Screenplay by John Ridley and Aaron McGruder, story by John Ridley, based on the book Red Tails, Black Wings: The Men of America’s Black Air Force by John B. Holway. 125 minutes.)

Red Tails

Hollywood liberals will hate this one: I’d been looking forward to this film about the Tuskegee Airmen with some trepidation. In the ‘80s I had a student in my screenwriting class at LACC whose father-in-law had been one of the Tuskegee Airmen, a unit of black pilots which did remarkable work in World War II. She was working on a feature screenplay on the subject, but she could never get it finished. So I have been thinking since then of all the different ways you could tell the story. The 1995 TV movie The Tuskegee Airmen was a fairly straightforward telling of the story, but with a limited budget. There have been a number of documentaries on the subject. I was not particular delighted to hear that George Lucas was going to produce this film, since serious history is not his strong suit. On the other hand, John Ridley, who developed the story and worked on the script, has a wide range of credits. He did the story for the 1999 film Three Kings and wrote and produced for television shows such as Platinum and The Wanda Sykes Show. Aaron McGruder is the creator of the comic strip Boondocks and all the controversy surrounding it. McGruder rags on everybody. What could this strange three-way collaboration come up with?

Lucas has been quoted that what he wanted to make was the kind of gung ho propaganda movie he grew up watching as a kid. But, but, this is about a Serious Issue, Race in America. The standard Hollywood approach would be to make it solemn. Ridley and McGruder are having none of that. This is a World War II action movie. They start the film in 1944, avoiding having to show us all the controversy and politicking that led up to the Tuskegee Airmen. The film begins with them already in the air over Italy. Instead of speeches, we get a truck blown up by the pilots. OK, then the speeches? Nope, then they blow up a train. All in the first ten minutes. My grandson and I were hooked. Yes, the plotting when they get on the ground is a little formulaic, which is the bane of most flying movies, but Ridley and McGruder make the characters and dialogue lively. The black characters are not stiff and noble, but as written and directed loose, funny, and lively. The pilots particularly are like military pilots everywhere and in every time: hot shot flyboys in it for the adventure. Ridley and McGruder have ignored the message approach and simply written an entertaining movie. We get the issue of race in several scenes, but that’s not the focus of the movie, simply one issue these guys have to deal with. The writers assume, and rightly so, that we do not need to be lectured.

I have slapped George Lucas about the head and shoulders in stuff I have written about him and his films, but here’s the bottom line: He put up $58 million of his own money to make this film when nobody else in Hollywood would. And I mean nobody: no Hollywood types who slit peoples’ throats during the week, contribute to charities, and collect Humanitarian of the Year awards every weekend. It’s almost enough for me to forgive the man for Jar Jar Binks. Well, almost.

Crazy Horse (2011. Directed and edited by Frederick Wiseman. 134 minutes.)

Crazy Horse

Frederick Wiseman and bare naked French ladies: what more could you want?: No, this is not a sequel to War Horse, nor is it a cowboys-and-Native Americans movie. The institution Wiseman is looking at in this documentary is the Crazy Horse cabaret in Paris. The cabaret has several acts of women topless and bottomless, and we sort of follow the development of a couple of new numbers. I say sort of, because as is typical of Wiseman, we do not move in a straight line. For example, near the beginning we see a woman recording what they call in the porno business “groan-overs.” It is only much later in the film do we hear, if we are paying attention, how they are used in an act. Wiseman is using, as he often does, a circular structure. We see the work the women and others put in and we see some of the results. It is typical of Wiseman that we see the auditions of a number of woman only near the end of the film, when we know the kind of work they will be doing.

We get a lot of footage of the acts, but the character that is most interesting is the director of the new numbers, Philippe Decouflé, who is frazzled by the lack of time and what appears to be, quite frankly, a lack of organization at the club. He wants at one point to shut down the club for two nights to improve the equipment (clean the lights, etc), but Andrée, the manager of the club, says the “stockholders” will not allow it to go dark, even for just a couple of days. Decouflé is also hampered by Ali, the “artistic director,” (Decouflé is just the regular director), whom Wiseman doesn’t introduce us to until halfway through the film. Whereas Decouflé is trying to do stuff, all Ali does is talk, talk, and talk. Late in the film Wiseman films a television interview Andrée, Ali, and Decouflé are giving. Wiseman’s cameraman, the great John Davey, frames the shot so that, unlike the TV interview, we see Decouflé’s reactions to Ali’s bullshit.

We do not get to know the women in the show as well, but Wiseman has spaced three scenes of them off-stage over the course of the film. In the first, the dancers are laughing at a video of ballet bloopers. This scene makes the dancers seem human. In the second, a group of the dancers, makeup off, talk to Decouflé about the problems backstage. The dancers are obviously professional. And in the third scene, some of the dancers are backstage watching a new number on closed circuit TV. One of the dancers is critiquing the show in ways that make her one of the sharpest people in the film.

Ali talks at great length about how the show is about eroticism, which it is. But it is a very French eroticism. The women are all thin, with small breasts and very round, perky bottoms. A lot of very round, perky bottoms. The one woman who auditions near the end who is a little shorter and rounder is described, accurately or not, as a transexual. I walked from my house up to the theater where Crazy Horse was playing, and what struck me in the 45 minute walk home was the enormous range of women’s bodies you see on the streets of LA. As a populist about many things, I found the variety, well, enjoyable. That’s Wiseman, always making you think.

Oh, one other thing. Not a single review I saw in Los Angeles happened to mention that Decouflé is the same guy who conceived and directed the Cirque de Soleil show Iris. You can see US#81 for my comments on Iris.

Miss Bala (2011. Written by Gerardo Naranjo and Mauricio Katz. 113 minutes.)

Miss Bala

Squalid, not that there’s anything wrong with that: This one is inspired by a true story of a Mexican beauty contest winner who got involved with a drug cartel. You can imagine the Hollywood version of this: flashy costumes for not only the beautiful woman, but also for the druggies. Big houses, lots of bling, lots of ammunition being fired off. Well, we do get some shootout moments, but not as many as you might expect.

We start with Laura, who goes along with a friend to the contest tryout. They then go to a club, where Laura witnesses a gang shooting. She is in shock and doesn’t know what to do. The next day she approaches a cop car. He says she needs to go to the police station, but he takes her instead to the drug boss. Not in a big house, but in a garage in a rundown neighborhood. And Lino is not young, handsome, and dashing. He is middle-aged and dressed like a day laborer you could find on any number of street corners in Los Angeles. He sees he can use Laura in all kinds of ways, such as going across the border to the U.S. to pick up a truck with a supply of ammunition. What we are seeing here is how squalid the real business of the drug trade is. And how it corrupts the rest of Mexican society. Lino can fix the pageant so Laura wins, and can get her into see a high-ranking police officer, whom Lino is, we think, trying to assassinate.

The problem with the film is Laura. We see in the early scenes that she is a rather lively woman, but once the killing starts, she is in a state of shock. Which she stays in during the rest of the film. Stephanie Sigman in the early scenes can be expressive as Laura, but she is not after those scenes. I suppose that is true to life, but it makes her a very uninteresting character for the rest of the film, which seeps the energy out.

Safe House (2012. Written by David Guggenheim. 115 minutes.)

Safe House

The Spook’s Dream: Matt Weston is a young C.I.A. agent (no relation to Michael Westen; different spelling of the last name) whose job is to keep the Company’s safe house in Cape Town, South Africa, in working order in case needed. As we see early on, it’s a boring job: checking the equipment, bringing in supplies, begging his superiors to be sent to somewhere interesting like Paris. Now if this were a low-budget, existential art house film, we would have 115 minutes of Matt sitting around questioning his life. But it’s a big budget thriller, so very quickly he gets dumped in his lap Tobin Frost. Yes, that Tobin Frost. The renegade C.I.A. agent who has been selling everybody’s secrets to everybody else for a decade. And what’s Matt’s reaction when the agents bring Frost in? Like Laura in Miss Bala, he’s gobsmacked. Now if I were in Matt’s position, I would for one see this as a great opportunity to learn from one of the evil legends in his field, but it never occurs to this Matt. By the time something like it occurs to the screenwriter, it is way late in the picture and Matt and Frost are in another safe house, and the agent there asks Matt what he has learned from Frost. And Matt is at a loss for an answer.

Again, this is not a low-budget, existential art house film, so we don’t stay in the house long. It’s invaded by a lot of guys with guns, the other agents are killed and Matt and Frost escape. Like the people of the IMF (see US#89), everybody drives recklessly. Matt loses track of Frost, finds him again, more chasing, etc. Meanwhile their tracks are followed at Langley by Matt’s bosses, played by Sam Shepard, Vera Farmiga, and Brendon Gleeson, as opposed to Peter Gallagher, Kari Matchett, and Christopher Gorman, whose writers on Covert Affairs give them more interesting scenes to play than those Guggenheim gives his higher priced actors here. One of Matt’s bosses will betray him, of course, and you will not only not get extra credit for guessing who it is, if you don’t guess early on, you will have points deducted.

Tobin Frost is a sociopath, and a great character for Denzel Washington, who is always more fun to watch in his bad guy roles than in his “a credit to his race” parts. The problem with a sociopath as a main character is that you can’t really go anywhere with him as a character. He is fun to watch outwitting nearly everybody in the first half of the film, but in a scene with a forger Guggenheim tries to humanize him, which makes him less interesting in this film. Once introduced to Frost, we want him to be more inventive as the film goes along. Matt grows up a bit in the film, but that’s not a good tradeoff for making Frost human.

You may remember from US#53 that I have some contacts with people who work with the intelligence community. One of them told me an ex-spook he knows said that the scene of Frost going down a hallway, shooting into rooms on both sides without looking, is a spook’s dream of what being an agent is all about. When asked if he himself had done that during his career, the ex-spook sniffed as if to say, sadly, no.

SOME PRINT ITEMS: Several interesting pieces about screenwriting showed up in the print media recently. The first is a real good news/bad news situation. The Anthology Film Archives in New York City is running some retrospectives on screenwriters. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the “Goings on About Town” notice in the February 17th issue of The New Yorker announced it this way: “To inaugurate a series of retrospectives devoted to screenwriters, Anthology Film Archives presents films written by [John] Sayles, including Joe Dante’s Piranha, Martin Ritt’s Norma Rae, and two by Michael Ritchie, The Candidate and Smile.” OK, here are the problems. First, if the retrospective is about the writer, why are they identifying the films by their directors? Second, and worse, Sayles did not write Norma Rae, The Candidate, or Smile. They were written by Irving Ravitch and Harriet Frank Jr., Jeremy Larner, and Jerry Belson, respectively. I have not seen the press release from the Archives, but their website has a line hidden in the small print that the retrospective will include some films Sayles admires for their screenwriting. Both The New Yorker and the Archives geeked this one. I trust both will do better on upcoming series.

In an article in the Los Angeles Times on Sunday February 12th, playwright Jason Grote repeats the cliches that “Hollywood did burn the likes of Bertolt Brecht and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the martyred writer is part of film iconography: the floating corpse of William Holden in Sunset Boulevard and John Turturro shambling through a flaming hotel in Barton Fink.” That’s not quite true. Brecht gave as good as he got in Hollywood, and Fitzgerald not only survived on the money he made, but wrote The Last Tycoon, not a bad tradeoff. On the up side, what Grote spends most of the article on is his finding that writing for television, specifically Smash, is rewarding creatively as well as financially. Something a lot of writers before him, both in television and feature films, discovered.

In an interview (which apparently is not on their website) in the Sunday, February 19th Los Angeles Times, Emily Kapnek, the creator of Suburgatory, talks about the creation of the show, which was based partially on her life in the suburbs. The networks would not allow her to write a mom who made mistakes, since the networks only wanted moms who were perfect. So Kapnek turned the mom into George, since men are allowed to get things wrong. There’s at least a Master’s thesis there waiting to be written.

The Power and the Glory (1933. Original screenplay by Preston Sturges. 76 minutes.)

The Power and the Glory

The Sturges Project: A Bonus Take: James Curtis, who wrote the biography of Sturges that I have been using throughout the Sturges Project, has a new book out. It is a biography of Spencer Tracy. In connection with it, the UCLA Film Archives is having a retrospective of Tracy films, one of which happens to be this one. So I couldn’t not see it, could I?

This is not a distinctively Preston Sturges script. He was at the beginning of his screenwriting career and trying out all kinds of ideas. In this case it is the story of a railroad tycoon and his rise and fall, but told in a non-chronological way. His inspiration was the millionaire C.W. Post (Post cereals and all that) who had killed himself. Sturges had heard tales about him from his then-wife, Post’s granddaughter. He decided that since he had heard the stories in piece-meal ways, he would tell it that way in the script. So we start with Tom Garner’s funeral, but his friend Henry quickly discovers that not only the building’s janitor but also Henry’s wife are perfectly happy Garner is dead. The competing views of the dead man is the forerunner of the News on the March sequence in Citizen Kane (1941). Sturges knew Welles and happened to mention Power once, to which Welles replied, “Don’t you know it’s in bad taste to mention that film around me?” The scene is even more a forerunner of the discussion of Lawrence on the steps of St. Paul’s at the beginning of Lawrence of Arabia (1962). We quickly get into flashbacks of different time periods, but Sturges is very sharp in providing lines that connect the scenes. Over a scene of Sally, Tom’s wife, walking the rails in midwinter, Henry mentions that when she was older her hands were still red. Cut to an older Sally.

The picture was critically acclaimed, but not a hit. It is generally assumed that was because of Sturges’s time jumps, but I think it is more from the sophistication that Sturges shows in his characterizations. They are subtle in a way that was probably beyond the general audiences of 1933. You also do not have the humor that we came to know and love and think of as distinctively Sturges. Which bring us up to…

Hail the Conquering Hero (1944. Written by Preston Sturges. 101 minutes.)

Hail the Conquering Hero

The Sturges Project: Take Eight: So Sturges had both The Great Moment and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek in the can by late spring 1943 (they were both not released until 1944). Buddy De Sylva, the head of production was unhappy with Moment, and the studio was negotiating with the War Department on Miracle. Paramount had a backlog of films waiting release, so De Sylva had no hesitation on holding up the Sturges films. What else could Sturges do but write and direct another film? Which he did.

The earliest notes Brian Henderson (in his Five Screenplays by Preston Sturges) could find were in May, but by July 12th Sturges had a complete screenplay. Shooting started on the 14th and continued through September. One reason Sturges may have been able to write the script so quickly is that Hail has the simplest plot of any of the Sturges films. Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith, the son of World War I Marine Medal of Honor winner Hinky Dinky Truesmith, joined the Marines in World War II, but was thrown out for chronic hay fever. Ashamed to go home, he works in a shipyard until he runs into six Marines who dress him up as Marine to deliver him back to his mother. What could go wrong with that? Nearly everything, as Struges piles on complication after complication, but all connected to the basic situation. The six Marines are the Ale and Quail Club of this film, but they drive the action all the way through the film.

Sturges wrote Woodrow specifically for Eddie Bracken, imagining the character as a variation of Norval Jones from Miracle. Sgt. Heppelfinger, the header of the Marines, had to be William Demarest. Most of the rest of the cast are our old friends from the previous Sturges films. Al Bridge is the Political Boss, rather different from Tamiroff’s Boss in McGinty and Miracle. Struges writes a great, almost-serious role for Jimmie Conlin as Judge Dennis, since Sturges knew from Sullivan’s Travels that Conlin could carry it.

As Sturges developed the script from the 13-page “original story” he first turned into Paramount, two more characters were expanded. Bugsy is the Marine who, on hearing Woodrow’s story, calls Woodrow’s mother and tells her he is coming home. Bugsy is an orphan with mother issues, and probably suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, although Sturges handles this in a very subtle way. Even more developed is Woodrow’s girlfriend back home, Libby. In the earlier versions of the story, she is just the girl he left behind. By the final script and film, Woodrow had written a letter dumping her when he was kicked out of the Marines. She is now engaged to Forrest Noble, the son of the current mayor. When news of Woodrow’s return gets out, she asks nearly everybody else to tell Woodrow she’s engaged. They refuse, and her attempts to tell him keep getting interrupted. It is 61 minutes into the film before she tells him. Given all the problems he sees himself in, he declares, “But that’s marvelous! That’s the first good news I’ve had all day.” That was not the reaction she was looking for. This in turns leads to one of Sturges’s great scenes. Henderson notes that it is Woodrow and Libby’s only scene together and “Everything must be packed into it—the present, the past, and the future of their relationship; and it also must fit precisely, and advance, the dramatic situation in which it occurs. The scene in fact realizes these requirements superbly.” And Henderson says that it does it without being in any way a conventional romantic scene.

Henderson also makes the point that Sturges in this film is writing fewer and fewer complete scenes, but more scenes that seem parts of continuing discussions. That is only partially true. There are several long, emotionally complicated sequences, many of them done in single takes. (The cinematographer is John Seitz again, as if you couldn’t tell from the fog outside the bar in the opening scene.) A large chunk of the scene in the bar, in which Woodrow and the Marines meet, is done in a take running five minutes and eleven seconds. The scene includes Marine comedy and Woodrow’s emotional description of his admiration for the Marine Corps. Sturges and Seitz start with a medium shot, dolly into Woodrow’s closeup and then dolly out to medium shot. Just as in Miracle there are several long traveling shots around the town (the same Paramount ranch set that was Morgan’s Creek). The Libby-Woodrow scene is one of those. Libby is played by Ella Raines, whom Sturges borrowed from Universal, and she is not a particularly expressive actor. The script and Bracken carry her. There is also a long walking scene between Libby and Forrest, played by ex-rodeo rider Bill Edwards, who is just as inexpressive as Raines. The script carries them both, and is so great you aren’t bothered that they are not that good. I have always said that if you write good scripts, you get good actors. This is sort of the reverse of that: a good script can carry bad actors.

Like the first Woodrow-Marines scene, the entire film has a striking equilibrium between comedy and drama. You don’t immediately think of the word “equilibrium” when you think of Preston Sturges, but this is the most evenly balanced of all his films. And because of that, it keeps the audience off-balance. We never know when a serious moment if going to turn comic, and vice versa. For all the action and yelling—it is a Sturges picture after all—this is a much less frenetic film than Miracle. Sturges manages a lot of satire (of hero worship, politics, and mother love, among other things), but some touching moments as well. Woodrow’s admission to the town is more than a little heartrending, and would not be out of place in a Capra film. Sturges’s view of small towns and their citizens is closer to that of Ben Hecht in Nothing Sacred (1937), but not without its emotional moments. Sturges’s direction here is, I think, better overall than in his previous films. In the sequence of the town preparing for Woodrow’s arrival, Sturges the writer has, as Henderson noted, given us ongoing conversations more than scenes, and Sturges the director has given them the flow they need to play. The same is true of his direction of his stock company. Bracken, not trying to upstage Betty Hutton this time, gives an amazingly varied performance. I had not realized he was that good an actor. Heppelfinger is not as good a part as Officer Kockenlocker, but Demarest is great as always. (Shortly after this film Sturges and Demarest had a falling out and never spoke to each other again. You can read Curtis for the details.) Raymond Walburn is at his best as Mayor Noble. And so on. In some ways this may be Sturges’s best film. And after a first sneak preview, De Sylva took it away from him and recut it. And, as often happens, the studio recut played worse than the original. In a deal I talked about in writing about The Great Moment in US#89, Sturges recut this one, and shot a new ending that condensed the final sequence by eliminating the campaign and election of Woodrow as Mayor. Henderson thinks Sturges did more cutting after the script was in production on this one, but when writing about this in the first of his two books, he had not yet looked at Miracle, where there is a lot more cutting.

Sturges was officially let go from Paramount in December 1943. Miracle opened in January 1944 and became the highest grossing film of the year. Hail opened in August 1944 and while it got critical raves, it was only a modest financial success. The Great Moment, released a month later, was a total disaster. Sturges went to work with Howard Hughes, and that did not end well. Sturges then moved on to Fox (you may remember he still owed Zanuck a picture) and that generally did not work out well. Then things got even worse. But I am now at the end of the Sturges Project, and I am not sure I could bear to write about some of his later films. Although I do have his 1949 Fox film The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend stashed on my DVR just in case.

Ah, well, two more items. When I was preparing to do this, I read over Andrew Sarris’s section on Sturges in his 1968 book The American Cinema. The book is the beginning of the reign of the auteur theory in America. But like so much auteur writing in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Sarris spends more time writing about Sturges’s screenwriting (character, dialogue, structure, etc.) than about his directing. What does that tell you?
The more mathematically inclined of you may have noticed that Brian Henderson (and a hearty, very hearty, thank-you to all the work he did) in his two books of screenplays researched and wrote on nine films and I have only written on eight. The other one Henderson deals with is his 1948 Fox film Unfaithfully Yours. It is the best of the later Sturges films. And it shows up occasionally on the Fox Movie Channel. So…

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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