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Understanding Screenwriting #92: Downton Abbey, Smash, Luck, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #92: Downton Abbey, Smash, Luck, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Downton Abbey, Smash, Luck, CSI, Some Short Takes on Late Winter-Early Spring 2010 Television, but first…

Fan Mail: David Ehrenstein pointed out that Preston Struges as a writer “organizes chaos,” but isn’t that what all screenwriters do? Unless you have seen writers’ treatments and first draft screenplays, you have no idea how chaotic a lot of movies that seem so perfect started out. With Sturges of course, he is writing about chaos as well. I agree with David that Wiseman’s Model (1980) is a much better film than Crazy Horse. Model brilliantly raises the question of why we should think of the models as “models” for us to follow. And it suggests that—gasp—the media are not nearly as influential as they think they are.

Both David and Victor Schwartzman take up the issue of race in regard to Red Tails. I certainly agree with David that Intruder in the Dust (1949) is one of the great American films on the subject. I was not quite as taken with Shadows (1960), and I am assuming David is at least partially joking about Mandingo (1975), but it does show you how race can drive everybody crazy, including Hollywood filmmakers. I happen to have a fondness for Pinky (1949). Yes, yes, I know that Pinky, the light-skinned Negro girl, is played by a white girl, but look at the scene in the store where the attitude of the shopkeeper changes as soon as he is told she is black. That’s one of the best examples I know on film of showing everyday racism.

Victor raises the issue of the portrayal of black characters in older films. Yes, there is a lot of cringe-worthy stuff in those films. I remember when I was in the Navy in the early ‘60s. One of my fellow officers and my best friend in the Navy was one of the few black officers at the time. I remember we would get old ‘40s movies to show on board ship, and the wardroom would all be embarrassed when we would see some of the stuff with Willie Best and others in Vance’s presence. Time makes you rethink things.

Downton Abbey (2012. Written by Julian Fellowes. Season 2, 7 episodes, approximately 540 minutes.)

Ahh, it came back and nearly all was right with the world: You may remember that when the first season of Downton Abbey came along, I got so hooked into it so quickly I wasn’t able to take the usual kinds of notes I do when I am watching something on television. See US#70 for details. Well, this time I took a lot of notes. Don’t worry, I am not going to give you a complete summary of this season, tempting though it might be. What I am going to do, just because I like to be perverse from time to time, is start with the last twenty minutes or so of the 7th and last episode. What happened was that my wife and I were away in Palm Springs the night it was on. Since I had no idea if the hotel we stayed at got the new PBS station in Southern California, I set up my DVR to record it. As it turns out, the hotel did get the station and we did watch it there. But I was a little sloppy on taking notes, and when we got back to Los Angeles, I wanted to look at the last twenty minutes to make sure I had got stuff right. What struck me in looking at those twenty minutes for a second time is how well Fellowes does everything in this series.

Lady Mary has been engaged to the press lord Sir Richard. He has threatened to print all the lurid details of the death of the Turkish diplomat from season one if she tries to break the engagement. But she has finally told Matthew about the death of the Turkish diplomat in her bed, and being slightly more modern than most characters on the series, he accepts it. That’s a pleasant surprise for Mary. So she tells Sir Richard that she is breaking their engagement. He is not happy about it, since he has spent a lot of time and money on her, buying a stately home near Downton Abbey and everything. Well, you can see why he is pissed. And this is part of what makes Fellowes’s writing so good. Sir Richard may be a skunk (think Rupert, or better, James Murdoch), but he is not without his feelings. She sort of really loves Mary, well, in addition to wanting to own her. And he is perfectly willing to take her on even though he knows (he’s not stupid) that she loves Matt. So, yeah, he’s pissed. And Matt makes it worse by walking into the room. And Sir Richard tells him that Lavinia knew Matt was not in love with her. OK, back up a minute. Lavinia was the woman Matt was engaged to when it did not work out with Mary in season one. She was a sweet young thing, but in over her head with these people. You just knew when the logline for Episode 6 said that “Spanish flu infects Cora [the lady of the house], Lavinia, and Mr. Carson [the head butler]” that Lavinia was not long for this world. When she was in a fevered state, she saw Mary and Matt dancing in the hallway and kissing, so it is likely she told Sir Richard (or is he just being a shit and guessing?). Lavinia was then able to die a wonderfully tragic death. Again, Fellowes giving as much detail to a relatively minor character as to the major ones.

So Matt and Sir Richard get into a fight. How plebian! And Robert, the Earl of Grantham and head of the house, orders Sir Richard to leave. Yes, Robert finally knows about the Turkish diplomat (it is way into this second season that he learns) and will take his chances with whatever gets printed. Sir Richard tries to be as polite as possible, the kind of turns of character that Fellowes is great at, and says to the Dowager, “I doubt we shall see each other again.” Class. And you will remember that the Dowager is Dame Maggie Smith. So what line does Fellowes give her? “Do you promise?” Like every other line Fellowes has given her, it is a perfect Dame Maggie line. But in Season 2 he has deepened the Dowager. She is no longer just a silly old lady, but one who sees better than some of the younger people the changes that are coming. Since she has been through a lot of changes in her life, she is better prepared to roll with the punches. So Fellowes is developing her rather than just falling easily into a bunch of great Dame Maggie lines.

Bates, Robert’s valet, has been accused of the murder of Mrs. Bates. There has been a trial and there is enough circumstantial evidence to convict him. And he is sentenced to death. Since testimony from Robert and others in the household have helped build the circumstantial case against him, Robert is determined at least at first to get his sentence commuted to life imprisonment. While he is working on that, Anna, Bates’s true love, is telling Mary that if Mary has to go to live with her maternal grandmother in the United States until the scandals blow over Anna will go along with her if she likes. Bates and Anna now have a nice scene in which he tells her that she has to live her own life, make new friends. Fellowes tends to make the lower classes just as dignified and noble as the upper crust. But Bates’s sentence is commuted, so does Anna stay at Downton Abbey as Robert tries to get him completely exonerated?

When have you ever seen a Servants’ Ball? It is a ball put on by the servants in which the upstairs folks dance with the downstairs folks. And Anna, now encouraged by Bates, notices that the maid to Lady Rosamund, the Dowager’s daughter, is sneaking upstairs with Lord Hepworth, who is trying to marry Rosamund. (There was a great, earlier scene where the Dowager, who had a fling many years ago with Hepworth’s father, nails his ambitions to the floor. See what I mean about Fellowes deepening her? Anna, the loyal maid, tells (off-screen) Mary, and Anna takes Mary and Rosamund to the room, opens the door, and lets Rosamund see what’s up. Now Anna tells the family she will be staying on. That’s an interesting touch on Fellowes’s part: showing us her decision after the Rosamund scene. It makes clear she understands where her loyalties lie. Especially if Robert can get Bates’s sentence dismissed.

The Bates-Anna love story is only one of two great love stories that Fellowes have given us. The second one is between Mary and Matt. They were obviously attracted to each other in season one, but it was a thorny attraction at best. For most of Season 2 they have been engaged to Lavinia and Sir Richard. Which means we have a lot of scenes (too many for a lot of viewers) of them almost connecting but not quite. Even I, who love Downton Abbey, wanted to slap these two idiots upside the head on more than one occasion. One of those is one of Fellowes’s best moments. In Episode 3 Matt and William, the downstairs guy, have gone off to World War I and have been reported missing. Downton Abbey has been turned into a convalescent center for recuperating soldiers. The family is dealing with this in a variety of ways. One afternoon Mary is singing “If You Were the Only Girl” to the recovering soldiers, accompanied on the piano by her sister Edith. The song is sentimental, especially to soldiers who may or may not go back to find their women waiting for them. The soldiers join in singing. This is an example of Fellowes’s ability to write multiple character scenes. We see the reactions of Mary, Edith, and the soldiers.

And then Matt and William walk in the door. That’s the most heartstopping moment I’ve seen since Hugh Grant’s Edward Ferrars says to Emma Thompson’s Elinor Dashwood in the 1995 version of Sense and Sensibility, “My heart is and always will be yours.” At which point in Sense they get married and live happily ever after. But you notice this is Episode 3 of 7 episodes of Downton Abbey, so Matt and Mary stare longingly at each other rather than running off to one of the many rooms in Downton Abbey and doing the nasty.

So finally, at the end of Episode 7 Matt and Mary are outside the house, and it is naturally, snowing. Lavinia’s dead, Sir Richard is gone, the war is over, Matt can walk again and presumably do other useful things with the lower half of his body. So he proposes, and Mary, being the finicky person she is, insists that he kneel down and do it properly. Which he does. So they are finally, FINALLY, engaged.

But they are not married yet. Will they manage to screw up that? And what happens when Sir Richard prints all the lurid details? Will Mary have to go to visit her grandmother in America? Well, we already know that Shirley MacLaine has signed on to play that grandmother in Season 3, so we will see her either in America, or even more deliciously, trading zingers with Dame Maggie at Downton Abbey. And can Robert get Bates out of the hoosegow so he and Anna can have the happy life they deserve? You’ll notice that Fellowes has made the complications in the two love stories very different. For Matt and Mary the problems are internal; for Bates and Anna they are external.

A couple of other comments on Fellowes. He is a whiz at figuring out what to leave off-camera. A lot of scenes where people explain what’s happened to other people who do not need to see, since we know what they are talking about. Cora explaining to Robert about the Turkish diplomat, or Mary telling Matt about the same subject. Fellowes understands when to come into the latter half of the scene so we can tell from the characters’ reactions and comments what has been said.

Another thing: Fellowes, a Brit, has an American sense of pacing, which was one of the reasons I had trouble doing notes on season one. In the early ‘50s, American television writer Sy Salkowitz went over to England to work on The Errol Flynn Show, an anthology series. He discovered the English writers wrote slower-paced scenes, so he condensed scenes, and added two or three scenes in each episode, which made the episodes at least seem to move quicker. Downton Abbey goes at a very American pace.

Smash (2012. Various writers. Each episode 60 minutes.)

Smash

It’s showtime, folks: This show is one of the Great Ideas that may turn out not to be all that great. We are going to follow the creation of a Broadway musical from the original idea through its development, workshop productions, all the way to its Broadway premiere. That is, if the series runs long enough. It has now been renewed for next year, but without Theresa Rebeck, its creator, as showrunner.

Julia and Tom are songwriters with a Broadway hit or two behind them. One day they are talking to Tom’s assistant Ellis, who suggests a musical about Marilyn Monroe. They don’t like the idea at first, but doodle up a song, which they have Ivy, a woman in one of their shows, do a demo of. Which Ellis sends to his mom, who puts it out on the Internet, where it goes viral. OK, stranger things have happened, but as I was watching the first episodes of the series I was also reading Stephen Sondheim’s second collection of his lyrics, complete with his observations, called Look, I Made a Hat. Sondheim includes comments on the development of his shows, and quite frankly, Sondheim’s versions are more convincing as well as more entertaining.

The video comes to the attention of Eileen, a theatrical producer who is divorcing her husband, and she is looking for a show she can produce on her own. So she gloms onto the Marilyn idea, and wants to do a workshop right away. But, but, there is only one song. Tom and Julia write a few more, but I had no idea from the first three episodes if Julia, the lyricist, is also writing a book for the show. There was no mention at all of a book for the show, unless I completely missed it. Would the creators even think about a workshop with only a couple of songs and no book? In later episodes it does become clear Julia is the one writing the book. Eileen hires a big name director, Derek, to do the workshop. And they immediately start casting. Huh? The creators have not even decided what their take is on Marilyn yet. Which leads them to keep calling back two completely different actors for Marilyn. One is Ivy, a lush blonde who would be great as the older Marilyn, and the other is Karen, a newbie, who would be great as the younger Marilyn. In fairness to Theresa Rebeck, who is also a playwright and television writer, in episode two, “The Callback,” she has Derek, Tom, Julia, and Eileen discuss these differences, but not in terms of what their view of what the show is all about.

In the third episode, “Enter Mr. DiMaggio,” Rebeck does a little backtracking and in the writing makes it clear that the creators of the musical are only preparing for a workshop. This may have been in reaction to all the excessive hype NBC gave the show, which emphasized it was about the creation of a BROADWAY MUSICAL. Which suggests another problem the show is going to have as it goes along. As the songwriters come up with the songs, we are going to get awfully tired of hearing the ones that stay in the show. Rebeck has so far been rather ingenious about making sure we don’t hear what we have too much, and she gives us scenes of both Ivy and Karen singing other songs. And in “Enter Mr. DiMaggio” we get a song written for the show that we had better not hear again. Ever. It is something like “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” in which Marilyn and Joe sing about how they want an ordinary life. Yeah, right. But Rebeck doesn’t give us everybody deciding to drop the song.

Here is an odd thing that happens occasionally in television writing, although I can’t off the top of my head think of another example. Rebeck wrote the first three episodes. Playwright David Marshall Grant wrote the fourth, “The Cost of Art,” which was better than the first three, written by Rebeck, the creator of the show. We finally get a mention of the book, which Derek says is “still somewhat in flux.” So I suppose that is why the rehearsals seem to be more about the musical numbers than the book scenes. Ivy is bothered that nobody told her Karen is going to be in the ensemble and diva’s her out of the way in rehearsals. At one point Karen is sitting in the hall of rehearsal studio and one of the ensemble, whom we have heard being catty about her, listens to her complain and decides to help her. Three of the ensemble take Karen out for an “intervention,” getting her new clothes, but more entertainingly, teach her how to come to rehearsal (in regular clothes with your hair up) and change in the bathroom (to rehearsal clothes, and putting your hair in a ponytail). Now that feels like something written from experience. As does the three teaching Karen how to blend into the ensemble.

Eileen is trying to raise money by selling her (very nice) Degas sketch, but no dealer will touch it, since her ex-husband was the one who bought it. Derek is giving a party for Lyle West, a now-famous pop star Derek says he discovers. And Tom later says he discovered. So we think Eileen is going to hit him up for an investment, but where is where Grant is sharp. She offers to “rent” him the Degas for the startup money. Now that’s a nice twist.

The fifth episode, “Let’s Be Bad,” is written by Julie Rottenberg & Elisa Zuritsky is back to being sloppy, since it is mostly about all the characters having sex. That does lead to my favorite scene in the series so far. Tom, the lyricist, has gone out in “The Cost of Art,” with John, a lawyer. Tom and John’s mothers set up the blind date. Eeew, you know what that must be like. But John’s gorgeous and he and Tom hit the sack in this next episode. The great scene is the post-coital one, which starts out with them talking about how great the sex was, but then they quickly admit it was horrible, the worst sex they’ve ever had. You don’t see that in many American films and television shows.

I do have a problem with the writing and casting of the male characters. (On the female side Katharin McPhee and Megan Hilty are great as Karen and Ivy, respectively, and Anjelica Huston is fun to watch as Eileen.) The male characters are all played by good-looking, thin, guys with dark hair, so it is a bit hard to sort them out. As befitting a show about Broadway, several of the male characters are gay, but the straight male characters are deeply flawed. Derek screws every woman in sight and Julia’s husband is not very supportive. Michael, the actor they cast as Joe DiMaggio, had a fling before with Julia and starts up again, even though they are both married. Ellis has been cast and directed to be gay, but in “Enter Mr. DiMaggio,” we find out that he’s sleeping with one of his female roommates. It’s obvious his heterosexual side is the one that causes him to be not a nice person. When Lamar Trotti wrote the screenplay based on Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge (1946), he told fellow Fox writer Philip Dunne that the story was “Basically… an anti-heterosexual picture.” There is an element of that here. As a straight male, I ought to object, but after all those years of gay psychotic and sociopathic characters (e.g., Quarles on this season’s Justified), it seems only fair that we now get the reverse. And if it gives us great scenes like the one between Tom and John, I am all for it.

There are pleasures to be had from the show, and I have not given up on it yet. The musical numbers, which shift in the cutting from rehearsals to fully staged, are entertaining, and the cutting of the final few moments of the “Pilot” episode, in which the characters all come together for the callback sequence is nicely done. The show was not dead on arrival, but like the theater always says about itself, it is ailing.

Luck (2012. “Pilot,” written by David Milch. 60 minutes.)

Luck

Horsies, some of them now deceased, and gamblers: David Milch is one of the biggest and best television writers around, with credits that include Hill Street Blues, LA Law, and Deadwood, just to name a few. His co-creator of this series is Michael Mann, who before he became a Great Director, was a pretty good television writer himself. See my book Storytellers to the Nation: A History of American Television Writing for details. So with HBO doing its usual overhyping, at least some attention had to be paid.

The pilot introduces to a lot of characters, all of them associated with horse racing and particularly the track at Santa Anita. The pilot starts out slow, but given the talent in front of and behind the camera, you know there is going to be more development. Whether you stick around for it depends entirely on how interested you are in the world of horseracing. The community seems pretty much hermetically sealed, with very little of real life intruding on it. I admire Milch for creating this world, but I don’t especially want to live in it. The world does give Mann an opportunity to have a lot of great shots of the horses, who are more expressive than those in War Horse (2011; see US#91). So this series appears to have been for guys who like gambling and 11-year-old girls who love their horsies.

I turned out not to be the only one who did not want to live an hour a week in the world of racetracks and gamblers. I was reminded of a film a studio made many years ago about bowling. The studio assumed that bowlers, of which there are millions in this country, would turn out for the movie. They didn’t. They preferred to bowl. I am sure gamblers preferred to gamble. There were no statistics on 11-year-old girls watching, but if they were, they, and everybody else, were turned off by the news that a total of three horses died during production. HBO canceled the series while still in its first season, a combination of bad ratings and dead horsies.

CSI (2012. Various episodes. 60 minutes.)

CSI

Goodbye Catherine, hello Julie: The buildup to Marg Helgenberger’s Catherine Willows leaving the show took several episodes, involving an old friend of her, Laura Gabriel, who was married to a nasty millionaire who ran a security service. All this involved Catherine with the F.B.I., especially agent McQuade. So when the case seems to be winding down in “Mrs. Willows Regrets” (teleplay by Christopher Barbour & Don McGill, story by Christopher Barbour), we are not surprised that Russell finds a letter of resignation from her in his email. Meanwhile she has been shot at and Russell rescues her. In the following episode, “Willows in the Wind” (written by Christopher Barbour & Richard Catalani, story by Carol Mendelson & Don McGill), Catherine discovers that Mark Gabriel is not the villain they thought he was, but the subject of an attempted assassination by Laura and McQuade, whom everybody thought was dead. That would push anybody to resign, but does not explain why she is taking a job with the F.B.I.. Before she goes, we do get a nice scene that finally explains in detail how she went from being a pole dancer in a club to a CSI. Her life as a stripper was alluded to in the early seasons, then pretty much dropped until now, and for good reason. It seemed like one of those ideas designed to appeal to the male executives but, at least during the run of the show, really was not particularly useful to the writers. Catherine’s farewell scene to the CSI crew really sounds more like Helgenberger’s farewell to the cast and crew of the show, and then is topped by a very anticlimactic scene with her and Morgan Brody, the youngest of the CSIs.

Two episodes later we are introduced to Julie Finlay, or “Finn,” in “Seeing Red” (written by Christopher Barbour & Tom Mularz). She is an expert in blood splatter. She also worked with Russell before, and their backstory gets laid out over the next several episodes. He fired her once, she insists he not call her “Jules,” and he insists she not call him Diebenkorn, which is what his initials D.B. stand for. She helps solve this case, then agrees to come to work for the crime lab full-time. She is a little younger and livelier than Catherine was, which may fit better with Ted Danson’s Russell.

Some Short Takes in Late Winter-Early Spring 2012 Television

Justified

I was intending to write a bunch about the new season of Justified, but Luke de Smet has been doing such a knockout job on his episode summaries and commentaries that I don’t have a lot to add. What I like is that he has been dealing with some of the writing problems and solutions the show is dealing with. In his discussion of episode one, he brings up the difficulty the writers must have had in trying to follow the spectacular life and death of Mags Bennett, an issue he deals with again in his comments on episode four. I am not at all sure they have managed it, but it may have been impossible. I also liked the way Luke dealt with the introduction of Limehouse in episode four, as well as his discussion of race in the same episode. Luke is also good on how this set of story arcs is getting us into Raylan’s feelings about his native habitat. He does not specifically lay all that on the writers, but they’re the ones who put it in the show. This show, by the way, escaped the curse of Smash: from the very beginning, all the writers are on the same page as to what show they are writing. Well, it helps if you have Elmore Leonard as your inspiration.

How I Met Your Mother still has not introduced to the mother. The creators of the show have been saying all along they had a plan for the whole series. But at a television critics meetings in Los Angeles, one of the creators of the show actually admitted they had made a huge mistake early on by not making Robin the mother. She and Ted had terrific chemistry, as did the two actors, Cobie Smulders and Josh Radnor. But in the older Ted’s narration, he kept referring to her as the kids’ “Aunt Robin.” In “The Drunk Train” (written by Craig Gerard & Matthew Zinman), Robin’s new boyfriend Kevin proposes, but when Robin tells him she not only cannot have children, but does not want any, he passes. She tells the same thing to Ted, and he says he loves her. Well, that could end the show right there, but in the following episode, “No Pressure” (written by George Sloan), Sloan has to write them out of that problem, so we spend the whole episode waiting around for Robin’s reply to Ted’s declaration of love. Eventually she says she does not love him. God, they are worse that Matt and Lady Mary, but unlike Downton Abbey, this show has already foreclosed on the possibility of them getting together. Dumb mistake.

White Collar has not has as lively a season as it’s previous one. We have spent most of the season waiting around to find out Neal’s sentence is going to be commuted. Other than that, there has been no big arc to follow. The individual episodes are all right, but not up to their usual standard.

30 Rock has been going through a bad patch. It seems to have lost its zing. Take the “Leap Day” episode, written by Luke Del Tredici. It was all about a fictional holiday, the sort of thing any second-rate sitcom would do. The same was true of the “St. Patrick’s Day” episode written by Colleen McGuiness. There were virtually none of the usual 30 Rock connections with the real world that make the show sparkle at its best. “Kidnapped by Danger” brought back some of the life. Of course it helped that it was written by Tina Fey her ownself.

Desperate Housewives, coming up to its series finale, has also lost its zing. It plays more like a melodrama than a comedy-drama. In “She Needs Me” (written by Jason Ganzel) we get several scenes that would not be out of place in a daytime soap opera. “Women and Death” (written by Annie Weisman), which dealt with the aftermath of Mike’s death, was all soap opera. And worse, both episodes are sentimental, which is not a term anybody has ever used about Desperate Housewives. Maybe showrunner Marc Cherry was too busy with the lawsuit Nicollette Sheridan filed against him to mind the store properly.

GCB would seem to be intended to replace Desperate Housewives, but I have my doubts. It is based on the book Good Christian Bitches by Kim Gitlin and developed by Robert Harling, who wrote the play and screenplay for Steel Magnolias (1989). That genealogy pretty much tells you what to expect: Southern women being bitchy to each other. In this case they all live in Dallas, so there are a lot of Texas zingers as well. The “Pilot,” as many pilots are, is a little extra stuffed setting up the situation. Amanda was the queen bitch when she was in high school. She married a guy who made millions, but not legally. He is driving away with his ill-gotten gains. His mistress, Amanda’s best friend, not ever have read The World According to Garp on the safety hazards of doing this, is going down on him while he is driving. An accident ensues and all the lovely money they had with them floats away on the highway. That was a nice shot, by the way. So Amanda, broke, goes back to Dallas and even has to move into his mother’s mansion with her two teenaged kids. The women Amanda terrorized in high school are out to get revenge. Now whom do you root for? Amanda seems chastened by all that has happened to her, but the other women have a point as well. The writing in the pilot was very cartoon-like, which may not wear well over the series. In the second episode “Hell Hath No Fury” (also written by Harling), it is clear this is going to be a one-joke series: fundamentalist Christians do not behave well. We get it, now move on. There does not yet appear to be an at least semi-serious counterpoint, as there often was on Desperate Housewives. There is also a very odd casting problem. Carlene, the new queen bitch among the women, is played by Kristin Chenowith. That would appear to be perfect casting, but it may be too perfect. With her almost cartoon-like face and voice, and with a wig and outrageous clothes added, she may just be too much. Write for performance, as I always say, but Harling and his writers need to develop more for Chenowith to do than just the obvious.

Fairly Legal is back. You may remember in US#70, I almost did not watch the new show last winter called because I kept coming across the ads that showed its star, Sarah Shahi, with her cute little finger in her cute little mouth. Fortunately the show was much better than that. It still is in the new season. But I was driving down the street in Hollywood a few weeks before it premiered and a bus pulled up alongside me. I looked over and there is Shahi on the side of a bus. Announcing the upcoming return of the show. With her finger in her mouth. I am watching in spite of the ad rather than because of it.

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: Tesla Takes Vividly Postmodern Assault on Biopic Conventions

A profound sense of restlessness and loneliness haunts Michael Almereyda’s film, which reinvigorates the biopic genre.

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Tesla
Photo: IFC Films

Biographies are often weighed down by obligation. Regardless of medium, one often has to wade through many pages or minutes of exposition—usually pertaining to genealogy and frustrations and failures—in order to get to the “why” of our interest in a person’s life. Several recent biopics have shaken up this formula, most notably Josephine Decker’s Shirley, which utilized elements of author Shirley Jackson’s life as the foundation for a furious psychological roundelay that feels intensely of the moment. With Tesla, writer-director Michael Almereyda similarly combats the numbing aura of retrospection that can plague the biopic, filtering the professional life of Nikola Tesla (Ethan Hawke) through a series of postmodern conceits that intensify the mystery of the inventor and futurist.

Retrospection is a bane of the biography, giving the impression that its subject’s narrative is set in stone, in the process shortchanging the chaos and immediacy of life. By contrast, Tesla is concerned with what specifically drew Almereyda to Tesla, namely what the filmmaker doesn’t know about his subject. These concerns conjoin into a governing idea: the media’s legacy of insidiously shaping our knowledge. Tesla is hosted by Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson), daughter of wealthy industrialist J.P. Morgan (Donnie Keshawarz), and she underlines the difference between the perceived facts and legends of Tesla’s life, as well as the flights of fancy that Almereyda indulges for dramatic effect. Most evocatively, she compares Google entries about Tesla and a few of the major players in Tesla’s life, particularly his brief employer and rival, Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan), who has twice as many searches as Tesla.

Of course, Edison is a legend taught in schools everywhere, while Tesla is a cult figure, even though the latter pioneered the channeling of alternating current, or AC, while Edison was devoted to direct current, or DC. Anne observes to the audience that only a handful of pictures of Tesla exist online, which are often Photoshopped to suggest differing shots. Such a sleight of hand implies a breadth that doesn’t exist, nurturing our already inherent tendencies to consume bits of information quickly, lazily filling in gaps of knowledge with presumption.

Similarly, traditional biopics patly reduce a life to a formulaic three-act structure, imparting an impression that we know the story and that the story is inspiring without complication. The online series Drunk History, which Almereyda claims as a source of inspiration, and Jake Kasdan’s Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story mercilessly parody this proclivity of biographers. Hollywood’s able to make lives as diverse as those of Ray Charles and Johnny Cash appear similar through highly manipulative and highly pleasurable formula.

With Anne’s self-conscious hosting, with jarring breaks in “period” detail, with stylized blow-ups and backdrops that alert us to Tesla’s identity as a simulation, mixing elements of truth with mythology, Almereyda reinvigorates the biopic. It’s freeing to see a film like this concerned with gaps in knowledge, which allows for existential role-play that’s more dramatic, chaotic, and very much in the moment, than the canned homilies that often lard more typical scenes in the genre. (Paul Schrader’s more radical and austere Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters also appears to have been an influence on Almereyda.)

In one of Tesla’s most moving sequences, Almereyda utilizes several alienating devices at once. After Tesla illuminates the World’s Fair in Chicago with AC current in 1893, working for another industrialist, George Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan), Edison invites him to lunch. Edison apologizes for not believing in Tesla before and offers him a blank check for a future project, while giving him a preview of his Kinetoscope, the peepshow precursor to cinema. This kind of scene, in which a hero’s daring is gratified, is traditional to the biopic. Then Anne tells us this encounter never happened, and Edison steps to the bar to grab a Coca-Cola, light a cigar, and check his iPhone. The puncturing of this scene’s reality is more than a clever stunt; it’s heartbreaking, expressing and denying our own yearning for closure, via narratives, as well as the need for security, to dream and innovate, which Tesla never quite continuously found.

A profound sense of restlessness and loneliness haunts Almereyda’s film. Tesla’s illumination of the World’s Fair is visualized by a beautiful, fleeting blown-up still that probably reflects the tight resources of the film’s production while suggesting the small comfort the glory might’ve provided the inventor, who was always pushing forward to the next idea. Tesla is first seen entering the doorway of a prosperous courtyard, perhaps in an echo of the final shot of John Ford’s The Searchers, and we see that he and the other partygoers are on roller skates, which he struggles with, drifting by musicians and acquaintances without much connection. Tesla is full of such metaphors, which are somehow cheekily obvious and haunting at the same time.

The framing device involving Anne gives Almereyda license to skip around in time, structuring the film primarily as a series of dialogues between Tesla and various captains of industry who could help him in his endeavors, and who often either discourage him, abandon him, or rip him off. This structure lends itself to a parable of the relationship between capitalism, innovation, and art-making, with Tesla as a creative who’s too obsessive to “play the game” as Edison does. Edison, Westinghouse, and Morgan help to forge what would become the modern idea of America, while Tesla dreams of wireless transmissions of electricity through the Earth—a notion that would be more prescient than anyone at the time could possibly fathom.

Almereyda doesn’t fuss over the capitalist theme by allowing his characters to make comfortable political points. Edison, Westinghouse, and Morgan aren’t villainous Big Daddy stereotypes, but individualized men, hounded by loss, who channel their anguish into vast seizures of power. They see in Tesla the brilliant drifter they might have themselves become if they had less control over their demons. Edison is particularly fascinating, as MacLachlan imbues him with a kind of poignant smugness; the character is never more vulnerable or funny than when lashing out passive-aggressively at Tesla, especially when he deliberately misremembers a perceived debt. Strikingly, Edison is also accorded the film’s most romantic scene, in which he offers to teach Morse code to his future second wife, Mina (Hannah Gross), tapping her hand while claiming that they can communicate without speaking. (Tesla, the dreamer, is incapable of such intimacy, and Hawke plays him without sentimentality.)

The film’s reference to modern technology gratifies Tesla’s dreams, while suggesting that the timeline here might be a multidimensional slipstream. Doesn’t wireless place us in less fantastical version of such a slipstream, as we consume information from various periods, mashing stimulation together in a frenzied torrent that leaves us feeling somewhat placeless? Almereyda suggests that these men felt that feeling ahead of their times, especially Tesla, and he dramatizes this grappling via scenes of insular, poetic, handwringing intensity, which cinematographer Sean Price Williams shrouds in soft, earthy light that often obscures the men’s faces, suggesting that we only know them via hearsay, and that they can’t fully see themselves. One moment, in which the actress Sarah Bernhardt (Rebecca Dayan) is bathed in heavenly AC light, is the closest this film comes to offering Tesla a love duet. It’s a moment in which the man’s brilliance actually, for once, brings him closer to someone.

Cast: Ethan Hawke, Kyle MacLachlan, Eve Hewson, Jim Gaffigan, Donnie Keshawarz, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Josh Hamilton, James Urbaniak, Lucy Walters, Rebecca Dayan, Hannah Gross, John Palladino, David Kallaway Director: Michael Almereyda Screenwriter: Michael Almereyda Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 102 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020

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Review: The Overstuffed Project Power Fruitlessly Mixes Realism and Fantasy

The film is an unwieldy array of muddled ideas that never gel together into a cohesive whole.

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Project Power
Photo: Netflix

Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman’s superhero film Project Power lives in its fusing of realism and fantasy. Though its social commentary isn’t nearly as tone deaf as that of David Ayer’s Bright, the film is an equally clunky and disjointed affair, haphazardly alternating between scenes depicting a young girl’s struggle to achieve her dream of becoming a rapper, a former military officer looking for his missing child, and the intrigue tied to controversial military testing and a new War on Drugs. A few dashes of superhero action, hamstrung by slapdash CGI work, render most sequences visually incoherent, while the excessive amount of references to the film being set in New Orleans mostly succeeds at making the “Boston Strong” rallying cry seem understated by comparison.

At the center of the film’s high-concept premise is a street drug called Power that gives anyone who takes it superhuman powers for five minutes. At the start of Project Power, the drug has already fallen into the hands of dealers throughout New Orleans, and the nefarious deeds committed by those who’ve ingested it are being combated by a trio of living, breathing clichés, each provided with their own trite, threadbare character arc. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Frank, a local cop who goes rogue, leveling the playing field by dosing up on Power with the help of a low-level dealer, Robin (Dominique Fishback), who’s only in the game to help pay for her mom’s exorbitant medical bills. An ex-soldier, Art (Jaime Foxx), is also in the mix, hunting down the head distributors of Power, who are holding his daughter (Kyanna Simpson) captive and using her mysteriously special DNA as the source for the experimental drug.

At one point, Project Power starts to open up interesting lines of inquiry when it conflates the expansion of the drug’s presence in inner cities with that of crack cocaine in the 1980s. But that potential is squandered almost as soon as it’s revealed that the only two people who’ve died from overdoses on Power are white. Indeed, Project Power evinces no interest in the drug’s war on black bodies, as communities of color are treated like wallpaper throughout the film: Just about the only feel we get for life in such communities are in glimpses of Saints or Pelicans sports gear and the occasional “Who Dat” group chant.

While the film judiciously places the blame for the chaos wrought by Power at the feet of the wealthy and influential, its portrait of corruption is as unimaginative as the name of its main villain, Biggie (Rodrigo Santoro). And in limiting its scope of who’s actually involved in the testing and distribution of the drug to only Biggie and Gardner (Amy Landecker), a suit who may or may not have government ties, the film refuses to implicate any particular institution, leaving its critique on the War on Drugs, at best, murky and toothless. Ultimately, Project Power is simply too weighed down by an abundance of narrative threads and abrupt tonal changes. In aiming to have a little something for seemingly every demographic, the film becomes an unwieldy array of muddled ideas that never gel together into a cohesive whole.

Cast: Jamie Foxx, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Dominique Fishback, Rodrigo Santoro, Courtney B. Vance, Amy Landecker, Colson Baker, Tait Fletcher, Allen Maldonado, Andrene Ward-Hammond, Kyanna Simpson Director: Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman Screenwriter: Mattson Tomlin Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 111 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: Get Duked! Is a Cheeky Mashup of Social Critique and Genre Thrills

Get Duked! offers enough evidence to suggest that Ninian Doff may be a new comedic voice to look out for.

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Get Duked!
Photo: Amazon Studios

Three juvenile delinquents from the big city and a home-schooled nerd are thrust into the Scottish Highlands and hunted down by a pair of upper-crust psychopaths hellbent on preserving the purity of their country’s bloodline. On paper, that’s a pretty straightforward premise, but Ninian Doff’s feature debut seamlessly weaves blunt yet forceful social critique into its story, which cheekily mashes up horror, comedy, and adventure film tropes. The result is a taut genre exercise that delivers enough surprises and cleverly timed bits of humor for its sometimes familiar, uneven narrative beats to play an original tune.

Doff wisely wastes no time on needless exposition, setting an irreverent tone right from the start as the four teens view a VHS tape from the 1980s that explains the purpose of an adventure competition to win the Duke of Edinburgh Award—getting young delinquents “out of the city and into the countryside”—with a wink and a nod to the classist and racist impulses embedded in such bourgeois programs of cultural assimilation. While few attempts beyond that are made to expand on this commentary, Get Duked! takes great pleasure in mocking the ruling class, with Eddie Izzard and Georgie Glen donning human skin masks and playing their parts as hunters of lower-class kids with an appropriately unrestrained and gleeful lunacy.

The trio of rabble-rousing friends from the city—Dean (Rian Gordon), the leader of their pack, DJ Beatroot (Viraj Juneja), a wannabe rapper, and Duncan (Lewis Gribben), a dopey pyromaniac—are joined by Ian (Samuel Bottomley), the dorky outsider who actually chose to come along for the ride. And in the film’s first half, Doff relies primarily on the verbal jousting between the foursome to keep things lively as they struggle to find out who’s hunting them across the Highlands and, after accidentally using the wrong piece of their map to roll a joint, where exactly they’re supposed to be heading. And while there are stretches here that seem to drag, suggesting that the film is trying to get its bearings, Doff is actually rather meticulously putting pieces of the plot in motion that will, in some cases, pay off later in the story.

Get Duked! really leans into the sheer absurdity of its scenario when two bumbling small-town police officers (Kate Dickie and Kevin Guthrie), wrongfully suspicious of a terrorist plot involving pedophiles, urban gangs, and zombies, arrive on the scene. In one particularly ludicrous sequence, DJ Beatroot—who has long been ribbed for both his lack of fans and for not realizing that his rap moniker is also a type of vegetable—finally gets his moment to shine. After stumbling upon a barn full of farmers who’ve been enjoying one of his many self-hyped mixtapes, DJ Beatroot is instantly celebrated. The group even turns him on to the hidden psychedelic properties found in the region’s rabbit shit, setting up an amusingly hallucinogenic rendition of the young rapper’s titular song.

Throughout DJ Beatroot’s performance of the song, as well as during scenes featuring songs by Danny Brown, Run the Jewels, and Vince Staples, Doff gets to flex the skills he honed on the set of many a music video, breathing a visual creativity and propulsive energy into the film that’s lacking in other parts. And as the police and farmers are further intertwined into the film’s plot, the purpose behind earlier events begin to click into place and jokes receive increasingly deranged callbacks, building to an inspired deus ex machina that manages to cleverly tie several loose ends together. Would that the entire film had been as visually and narratively imaginative as the final half hour, but Get Duked! offers enough evidence to suggest that Doff may be a new comedic voice to look out for.

Cast: Lewis Gribben, Rian Gordon, Viraj Juneja, Samuel Bottomley, Eddie Izzard, Georgie Glen, Kate Dickie, Jonathan Aris, James Cosmo, Kevin Guthrie, Alice Lowe Director: Ninian Doff Screenwriter: Ninian Doff Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 87 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Martin Margiela: In His Own Words Celebrates Secrecy as Fashion Power

Reiner Holzemer’s adulation of his subject feels most credible because he spends a lot of time focusing on the clothes.

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Martin Margiela: In His Own Words
Photo: Oscilloscope

A major reason behind Maison Martin Margiela’s appeal was the French luxury fashion house’s embrace of secrecy and anonymity. The company’s eponymous founder stopped doing interviews or allowing himself to be photographed as his brand grew in popularity throughout the 1990s. Seating at his runaway shows became available on a first-come-first-serve basis. The runway models’ faces were often obstructed by veils and masks. The labels on the fashion house’s clothing bore no name, only four white stitches. Even Margiela’s stores lacked signage and weren’t listed in the yellow pages.

Keeping in line with this commitment to counter the cultural injunction of hyper-presence, Reiner Holzemer’s documentary Martin Margiela: In His Own Words comes to life through Margiela’s narration, though all we see of the Belgian-born designer are his hands and the subversive artifacts that comprise his oeuvre. We don’t see what Margiela looks like, only what he makes. This self-imposed obstruction points the film toward a less conventional direction, preventing it from becoming an all-to-familiar fashion hagiography rife with talking heads. And the effacing of Margiela’s face replicates the conceptual framework of the designer’s own practice while also forcing the film to inhabit a self-reflective sphere.

That sphere, which allowed for Margiela’s ethics to emerge and blossom, was one of crisis and contemplation in the wake of self-centered ‘80s excess. And those ethics involved a critical, playful, and at times even a mocking stance vis-à-vis the fashion industry’s tendency toward ephemerality, feminine objectification, and wasteful luxury, all while profiting from them. In sartorial terms, that meant that Margiela’s models wore dry-cleaning plastic bags atop their garments; that collections were staged at such locations as a subway stations and a Salvation Army; that the models’ necks were accessorized with colorful ice jewels that, as they melted, stained the garments; and that the red paint applied to the bottom of models’ heels just before the start of a runaway show led to catwalks looking like a Tarantino bloodbath.

Margiela is obviously not the only designer to instill meta-critiques into fashion spectacle. Jum Nakao’s shows have featured elaborate gowns made out of paper that the models rip at the end, and Alexander McQueen’s ready-to-wear collection from 2001 included impossibly sexy models in hospital headbands and a Leigh Bowery-esque masked figure surrounded by moths. The latter show remains a classic example of fashion doing two presumably antithetical things at once: protesting the sale of bodies as high-priced goods by selling bodies as high-priced goods. Holzemer’s documentary makes the case for Margiela’s revolutionary ethos to be understood as akin to Andy Warhol’s and establishes his critical approach as less of a trick than a genuine life principle that’s guided him from the start, as a child fabricating kooky wigs for his Barbies, to his divesting from his own company in 2009.

Holzemer’s adulation of his subject feels most credible because he spends a lot of time focusing on the clothes. The images of collections and the occasional animation of sartorial sketches serve less as evidence of glamour than of technique—or how abstract principles such as ecology and honesty take shape in the materiality of the garment, its design, and the assembly process. A contextualization of the artist’s approach to his craft escapes boring biographical expectation (we’re introduced to Margiela’s childhood midway through the film) and allows us to see—at the level of the fabric and its mise-en-scène—how the designer borrowed from Rei Kawakubo’s deconstructive aesthetics, Pierre Cardin’s theatrics, Jean Paul Gaultier’s rock concert atmosphere, and Brigitte Bardot’s unflappable femininity.

Holzemer doesn’t shy away from exploring Margiela’s commercial failures, such as his critically panned collaboration with Hermes. The director is smart to, once again, let Margiela’s creations do the talking, which here means exposing the fashion critics at the time as simply unable to see the sophistication in the presumably simple. The juxtaposition of Margiela’s subversion with Hermes’s aristo-bourgeois classicism was supposed to produce some kind of scandalous monster. The collection was instead received as a buzz-killing disappointment for its restraint. But as its delicately trimmed coats and Gilda Hayworth gloves prove, the extravagance lay in Margiela’s refusal to provide what audiences anticipated and what critics prescribed. Once that model became unsustainable the designer chose consistency over compromise, rejecting the vulgarity of fast fashion and perpetual visibility. The kind of classy exit that separates ethics as mere rhetoric from ethics itself.

Director: Reiner Holzemer Screenwriter: Reiner Holzemer Distributor: Oscilloscope Running Time: 90 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Boys State Presents an Aptly Dire Microcosm of American Politics

The film suggests that our political system is a popularity contest that functions for no one but those jockeying for power.

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Boys State
Photo: A24

Initiatives to get young people involved in politics are often organized in service of a given party agenda, but the “non-partisan” Americanism of the American Legion’s Boys and Girls State programs differentiates them from groups like the Young Republicans, while somehow also managing to make the blind enthusiasm of youthful politics even more off-putting. Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss’s Boys State offers a skeptical take on the eponymous summer leadership and citizenship programs. A disconcerting mix of a Boy Scouts outing and Model U.N., the Boys State program, based on the evidence presented in the film, appears to be less an educational tool or a communal gathering of like-minded youth, and more an indoctrination into a cultish fetishization of American power politics.

McBaine and Moss predominantly focus on four boys participating in the Texas iteration of the annual gathering in which, as the opening-credits graphics inform us, such dubious luminaries as Dick Cheney and Rush Limbaugh also participated in their youth. While the program’s participants are overwhelmingly white, able-bodied, and conservative, the four boys who rise to fake-government power don’t quite fit that stereotyped Texan mold: René Otero is a black, liberal Chicago transplant (“I’ve never seen so many white people in one place in my life,” he confesses at one point); Steven Garza is Latino, and was inspired to get into politics by Bernie Sanders; Ben Feinstein is a Reagan-worshipping arch-conservative with two prosthetic legs (he had meningitis as a child); and Rob Macdougall, a breezily confident white boy who publicly plays the right-wing All-American, privately harbors pro-choice convictions.

After the program’s 1,100-plus participants arrive in Austin—all clad in the same white uniform shirts, like members of a religious mission—they’re randomly split into two political parties, the Federalists and the Nationalists, in reference to the constitutional debate of the 1780s, though the particulars of that nation-founding conversation play no part in how each party is meant to behave. Instead, each group organizes and forms a contemporary party platform, and, using the actual facilities of the Texas state government, runs candidates for governor against one another. This, presumably, is how it came to pass that in 2017, the year before the documentary was filmed, Texas Boys State voted to secede from the Union.

One might be tempted to conclude that the Nationalists won the mock gubernatorial election that year, but, again, the party names mean nothing. Indeed, Boys State shows the entire program as a form of social conditioning that compels its participants to talk without saying very much at all, and teaches them how best to make cynically calculated power moves. The worst culprit in this regard is Ben, who arrives fully formed as a self-styled political wheeler and dealer, and who, despite espousing some conservative convictions, mostly sees politics as a zero-sum game of self-fulfillment. Elected as the Federalists’ state chair, Ben runs his party by the mantra that “you have to find divisive issues in order to differentiate yourself at all.”

In such moments, McBaine and Moss capture the way teenagers can be adept at obliviously, even innocently articulating the subtext of the politics of corruption. After confessing he gave a stump speech misrepresenting his true views, Rob explains with a final note of uncertainty, “That’s politics…I think.” Few of these kids really have a fully formed idea of their own political identity: The purportedly left-leaning Steven, while achieving unlikely popularity among a body politic almost unanimously against background checks and immigrant rights, professes an open admiration for Napoleon Bonaparte. In his final pitch for governorship he even quotes the French emperor who displaced a democratic republic.

Boys State initially looks askance at all this naïve politicking, mixing a sympathetic view of the teens with ironic commentary, delivered by judicious cuts to interviews or metaphorical images that undermine the sentiment of the prior scene. After a visibly nervous Steven, uncertain of his political platform, rises to the occasion with a primary debate performance that’s surprisingly fluid and honest-sounding but absent of detailed policy proposals, there’s a cut to a racoon outside the debate hall diving headfirst into a trash can. Point taken.

At the same time, however, Steven’s rise through the ranks of the tumultuous Nationalist party—a concurrent plotline sees René, the group’s chair, doing battle with racist party members want to see him impeached and removed for declining to move forward with a secession platform—gets plotted as something like an inspirational tale, the American dream in miniature. It’s easy to identify with the humble Steven as he forms an inchoate political voice, but the way that voice only reflects the crowd’s own pleasurable ideal of itself back to it constitutes a development more tragic than the documentary appears to realize.

In assembling Boys State as a rise-to-the-top narrative, the filmmakers dull a potential critical edge that might have allowed them to ask more pointed questions about actual policy, history, and political science at this camp. If women have nominally been full participants in U.S. politics since 1920, then why does the American Legion train politically interested youth to address only the (often frivolous and always underthought) concerns that arise from homosocial teen groupings? But even if it sometimes emphasizes the individualized drama of a political contest over such critical matters, Boys State presents a fittingly dire microcosm of American politics, suggesting that our political system as an exclusionary and essentially contentless popularity contest functions for no one but those jockeying for power.

Director: Amanda McBaine, Jesse Moss Distributor: Apple TV+, A24

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Review: Sputnik Toils in the Long Shadow Cast by Ridley Scott’s Alien

Sputnik is an egregious missed opportunity that bites off more formulas than it can chew.

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Sputnik
Photo: IFC Midnight

Ridley Scott’s Alien has cast a long shadow. Certain images in the film conjure an unshakeable terror of violation, which is afforded a brutal catharsis when one creature, suggesting a cross between a tapeworm, a snake, and a phallus, rips its way out of a man’s ribcage in one of the most brutal “births” in cinema history. Many movie monsters since have been compared to the various creatures of Alien, just as virtually every slasher movie owes some form of allegiance to Psycho. Egor Abramenko’s Sputnik is already at least the second film to riff on Alien this year alone, after William Eubank’s Underwater, and it adds one promising gimmick to the body-horror formula: The alien here is a symbiote rather than a parasite, entering and exiting its host over and over again. The violation is ongoing.

Sputnik is set in the Soviet Union in 1983, and Abramenko subtly allows us to feel the pall of the Cold War as it’s entering its death rattle. It’s cast in lonely, shadowy hues, and the soft, warm, and grainy cinematography un-showily suggests that the film has been beamed in from the analog era, in the tradition of Andrew Patterson’s The Vast of Night, also from this year. The Soviets are concerned with heroes to keep morale up, and cosmonaut Konstantin Veshnyakov (Pyotr Fyodorov) will do nicely. He’s returned from a space mission that’s vaguely defined by the filmmakers, which is an evocative touch that suggests that when heroes are needed by a society the specifics of their aspirational accomplishments hardly matter. Something happened in space though: A shadow drifted over Konstantin’s vessel, and his fellow cosmonaut is now in a coma. Konstantin has amnesia and is being held in a bunker presided over by Semiradov (Fedor Bondarchuk), who’s pressing scientists to solve the mystery of the time he lost in space. Semiradov recruits a doctor who’s in hot water for unorthodox measures, Tatyana Klimova (Oksana Akinshina), in an effort to crack Konstantin.

Sputnik’s first act is eerie, strange, and unusually character-centric for a monster movie. The film initially suggests many episodes of The Outer Limits, in which the audience was chilled by the implications of what happened to characters who ventured into outer space. And Abramenko doesn’t tease the audience as long as one might expect: Soon, Semiradov reveals more details of the situation to Tatyana, inviting her to watch Konstantin in his holding cell in the middle of the night, when he convulses in his sleep while a creature gradually crawls out of his mouth. This sequence is unnerving, showing the creature’s emergence partially from the point of view of laboratory cameras, lending the event a patina of casualness and “reality.” The creature itself is, in design, beholden less to Alien than to the mutations of that film’s prequel, Prometheus, as it’s pale and amphibian in nature, suggesting a miniature manta ray or hammerhead shark, with little legs and a gelatinous tail that is, of course, so very phallic.

Like the various otherworldly beings of Prometheus, Sputnik’s monster is disappointing, timidly designed for the sake of a supposed, greatly overrated notion of believability. It doesn’t seem especially plausible that a tapeworm creature would evolve, seemingly overnight, into the metallic praying mantis colossus of Alien, and this irrationality, coupled with the primordial design itself, is terrifying. By contrast, Sputnik’s wan creature ushers forth a series of anticlimaxes that ripple through the film. After the alien’s symbiotic relationship with Konstantin is explained via amusing pseudo-science, Sputnik changes formulas, becoming a story of a special man who must be saved from evil military industrialists. At times, Abramenko even seems to be visually quoting Ang Lee’s Hulk.

But a story of a special man must be fixated, as Hulk was, with the psychology of said man. Konstantin’s anguish at being invaded, and the weird elation he might feel at discovering that he can control his interloper, are glossed over by Abramenko. Sputnik’s third act is a rush of formulaic action meant, perhaps, to compensate for the interminably repetitive and impersonal second act, which is mostly concerned with reinforcing a set of foregone conclusions. Incredibly, the central notion of the film—of an alien that symbolically rapes its host over and over—is relegated to an inciting incident. Sputnik is an egregious missed opportunity that bites off more formulas than it can chew.

Cast: Oksana Akinshina, Fedor Bondarchuk, Pyotr Fyodorov, Albrecht Zander, Anna Nazarova, Vasiliy Zotov Director: Egor Abramenko Screenwriter: Oleg Malovichko, Andrei Zolotarev Distributor: IFC Midnight Running Time: 113 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Interview: Alejandro Jodorowsky on Psychomagic, the Theater of Cruelty, and More

The maverick filmmaker discusses working with the tarot, the surrealist moviement, and more.

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Alejandro Jodorowsky
Photo: ABKCO Films

At the age of 91, maverick Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky has made his first ever documentary, Psychomagic, a Healing Art. In many ways, it’s a companion piece to his recent self-reflexive and semi-autobiographical films The Dance of Reality and Endless Poetry, in which Jodorowsky inserted his present-day self into the narrative of his own boyhood and youth. Where the earlier films show Jodorowsky arriving at private rituals and symbolic acts to deal with his own issues, Psychomagic expands his sphere of influence to include men and women who find themselves in a cul-de-sac of existential distress.

Essentially a daisy chain of case histories, the film allows Jodorowsky to demonstrate the unconventional psychotherapeutic techniques he’s developed over a lifetime spent studying various psychological systems and an astonishing variety of Eastern and Western spiritual practices. As you might expect from the man behind El Topo and The Holy Mountain, it can be a wild ride, full of sometimes totally bonkers, even grotesque imagery, yet also betraying Jodorowsky’s full-blooded compassion for the vicissitudes of human suffering.

Ahead of the VOD release of Psychomagic, I had the opportunity to speak with Jodorowsky via Skype. We touched upon a far-ranging assortment of topics including working with the tarot, Antonin Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty, the “last days” of the surrealist movement, and the films of Dario Argento and Luis Buñuel.

Early in your new documentary you mention your work with the tarot deck. How did that contribute to your development of psychomagic?

For me, the tarot isn’t magic that let’s you see the future. It’s only a language to open the unconscious. That is all. It’s to work with the dreams like Sigmund Freud worked with dreams. My films help me to speak about dreams, and put you on the table [in a tarot spread]. I use tarot to do that. But, in order to do that, I needed 50 years of working with the tarot, learning how to memorize the tarot deck. I memorized every line, every color, every meaning. [Jodorowsky proceeds to give a quick three-card tarot reading.]

Psychomagic techniques seem to involve a dreamlike, poetic logic. How do you arrive at the specific details of the treatments?

When you’re working with me, first I make your genealogical tree. You have the son, you have the partner, the father and mother, the grandfather. Then I know where you are, what formed you. And then, when I know that, I will not experience you in a psychoanalytic way, an intellectual way. That is for psychoanalysts, who take dreams and teach you what is real life. I am different. I take what you think with the reality and I put it into the image of the dream. I use the language of acting, not speaking, doing things you never did before. New things. I am breaking your psychological defense with an image to go do something. I will say, “Paint your beard gold and kiss a woman, or a man, who has silver hair.” I will say that’s an image. That will open to you the unconscious, something you will discover. That is the work of psychomagic.

With most of the participants in the film, all we see is their short-term response to the treatment. What made you follow up with the woman who had throat cancer after almost 10 years?

What I did in the theater was an experience. Because I had a theater. I had to pay to have that theater. Because every healing I do is free. I’m not a psychoanalyst, so nobody paid me. It’s free. Because I had a big theater, and in Chile I am very well known, I will have a conference in the theater. Five thousand people came. And then I decided to make an experience. I didn’t know if collective thinking, like quantum theory says, could change reality, if we have a group of people who do the same thing. Can we heal this woman? She thinks she will die very quickly. And then I take the woman and I make the experience. And then I didn’t speak with her. And then, when I made the picture 10 years later, I wanted to know, because I never repeated it. In order to teach healing, you need 5,000 doctors! It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I wanted to know, with thinking, do we or don’t we have the power? The cancer, they say we cannot heal that. I don’t know if they fought the cancer for years because it’s a big, big business, and they don’t want to find the solution. That I don’t know. When healing becomes a business, it cannot heal for me. Healing is an act of love. You have to take the person in your arms. The psychoanalyst doesn’t take you in his arms!

And then I get a telephone call from a friend of the woman, a student of mine. I asked him if she had died. He said no, she’s alive. I asked if I could make an interview for the film. She tells how the experience was. She said it was very good. I don’t know if it was a placebo. Placebos can be good also.

Yes, if it works, it’s good.

But it was only an experience that I did once. I can’t find 5,000 people for every person who has an illness.

Psychomagic includes short clips from many of your earlier films. Do you see this film, and the therapeutic work it illustrates, as an encapsulation of your entire career?

From the theater I came to the “happening,” improvised theater, the theater of action, then to psychomagic. I came to it. I didn’t create it. But, in all my pictures, I was searching for something. I respect very much the industrial movies. Movies from the beginning were an industry. Their goal from the beginning was to make big money. And then they discovered Hollywood and all that. But there was not one real truth, one real feeling, it was acting feelings. The show must go on! But for me movies are not a show, they’re an art.

What is art? It’s open for the person who does the work, new horizons, they will open the human soul. That’s what I did in my pictures. I started to put real things into the picture. Reality says, “Problem! I am having problems with my mother, problems with my father.” I was telling it all. Step by step, I was coming to introduce my real life into the pictures. I was having problems with my father in Endless Poetry, and I was shooting, and suddenly I jumped into the picture! Psychomagic is only real feelings, not an imitation. And that’s what I was searching for. I put examples in my pictures, saying I am speaking always of the same thing, but in an artistic way. I show a guy closed in a tower [in El Topo] and in Psychomagic I show a guy breaking pumpkins. I did that in El Topo, but in a metaphorical way, not directly. And then I show in my film that it was the same position, but in another language: artistic language, therapeutic language.

Can you tell me something about your encounters with André Breton and other surrealists in the Paris of the 1960s?

I will speak about that in my third film. It’s a trilogy: The Dance of Reality, Endless Poetry, and Essential Journey. That’s number three. I hope, if I am alive, because I am an old person, to start it in January. The script I’ve done already. I am very happy with it. I speak about that time, until I started to be a movie director. I stop there. In it, I am going to France to work with the surrealists, with the theater of Marcel Marceau, with the philosopher Gaston Bachelard. I have those three worlds.

My mind was opened with philosophy. With surrealism, I think I am the last surrealistic moviemaker who’s really surrealistic. But I am a little step farther, because surrealism doesn’t show, doesn’t explain. It’s the mystery of something you don’t understand. That is surrealism. A dream image you don’t understand, you have no need to explain that. In the art I do, you know what you’re doing. It has a finality. It has to solve your problem and come to felicity. Felicity of life. That’s what I feel with the idiotic love story. Love is not like love with a star. Love is love. We need to show what love is. Tell the things that are true, make you go to happiness. Not an idiotic happiness, not Disneyland, a real internal life. Happy to be alive. I am alive. It’s fantastic. What an incredible thing. Art has to give you with possibility to be what you are, not what the moviemaker is. Not what the actor is, you. It’s complicated, no?

Speaking of surrealistic filmmakers, what do you think about the films of Luis Buñuel?

He was a surrealist, yes, but he’s too realistic for me. He was a real person, in the real. And for me the pictures have not only a meaning, they’re a painting. You can shoot something like that [mimes different angles], traveling shots, etcetera. Everything speaks. Buñuel’s show only one point of view. He’s sitting and everything is in the size of someone sitting. But he doesn’t go out [he mimes leaving the Skype frame], he doesn’t make other things. Hollywood discovered camera movement. Camera movement is fantastic! I need to have Buñuel in Hollywood and that would be good. He could show a deep meaning but with greater freedom of form.

When you worked with Claudio Argento on Santa Sangre did you know anything about the films of his brother Dario?

Yes, I like them a lot. He was a guy who doesn’t give too much importance to the script. He can be not logical. The pleasure to shoot something that’s weird! And I liked that. No message, no meaning. Very aesthetical.

Do you have a favorite film of his?

I am very old. I don’t remember the names. I’ve seen it a lot of times, this picture. He goes into a building, he goes inside the house.

Santa Sangre

A scene from Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Santa Sangre. © Republic Pictures

Deep Red. Profondo Rosso.

Yes! Profondo Rosso. Fantastic picture. A film like that, for his time, he made explosive cinema. Because it was the film of a director. Generally, in the industrial film, the director is an employee. The studios are surveying the script. You aren’t free with the script. You need to shoot what’s right there. Because, when you’re free, you make the script to start the picture. But in the middle of the picture you can change whatever you want and put new things in. Because there are magic things that happen when you’re shooting. In Santa Sangre, when the father commits suicide, the naked father, it was in Mexico, in the street. A very old woman was singing, drunk. There were a lot of bars there. I said, “Go find me this drunk woman, because it’s the music I need for that suicide.” And then he will kill himself, but in the image there’s a real song of a person who’s really suffering. And it’s fantastic, like that. You need to be free. When you make the picture, the director is the poet. In Hollywood, the poet is the money. More money, more happiness. I say, “No.” More poetical, more artistical—that is good. Like the tarot, that isn’t a business. I know I’m crazy, but you need some crazy person in the generality, then somebody will use it in another way.

We certainly need more people in the world who are crazy in that way.

Yes, because crazy people aren’t crazy. They’re just using their mind in another way. And it’s very interesting.

How closely did you collaborate with David Lynch on your King Shot project?

He was very gentle with me. He said, “Maybe we can make a picture.” But my project was so crazy. Maybe I wanted to shoot in Spain. I wanted to do what I always do. But he had a little company at that moment. He was not able to have the money to do that. So, since I didn’t have the money, I didn’t do it. It was too expensive.

What can you tell me about your time with Arrabal and Roland Topor in the Panic Movement?

That was really a fantastic moment in my life. Because we were accepted within the surrealist group. That was the end of surrealism. A lot of surrealists were into politics. They were Trotskyists. Into the Romantic realization of the woman, not the real woman. Arrabal, Topor, and I were searching for absolute freedom. The artist needs to be inside the play, for example, inside what you’re shooting or playing. You need to be inside, in your body. You are there. Not out of the work. You need to go farther than the intellect, farther than the unconscious. Farther than the religions. You need to find the panic. Panic isn’t fear, panic is the totality. You need to find what a man is in totality. And then, if you are an artist in totality, you need to be a painter, dancer, mime, cinematographic creator, marionette. All the things I did. Because it’s the totality. Searching the totality of expression, that’s what we did. It wasn’t a movement, it was only three persons. And we called it a movement. We wanted to show that culture was fake, was an illusion. Because three persons will go into history as a movement that doesn’t exist!

Your performances sound a lot like what was called “happenings” in other countries or what the Vienna Aktionists were doing with their films. Would you say that’s accurate?

No, the happenings were going on in the milieu of painting and sculpture. It was a way to develop the plastic arts. I made ephemera. Ephemera is not that. Ephemera is a kind of theater, psychoanalysis, dreams, surrealism. The language of art, with meaning. Happening is an expression of freedom, but only freedom.

So the performances were closer to what Antonin Artaud was talking about with his Theater of Cruelty?

I was a big admirer of The Theater and Its Double. I started from there. He opened my eyes. In Fando y Lis, you have a little influence of Artaud. I had a theater play of Arrabal, with Fando y Lis, but I didn’t use the play, I used the memory I had as director of the play. With a lot of violence coming from Artaud. And then in El Topo, I had a Japanese Zen Master, Ejo Takata. Zen meditation, not like a hippie, real Zen meditation. Seven-day meditating without sleep. I was sleeping every night for 30 minutes, that’s all. Terrible, incredible! I brought this experience to El Topo. Because Artaud made the Theater of Cruelty. When you see the cruelty, you are open. But then I didn’t want any more cruelty. I decided I wanted to make the encounter with our self, make the cathedral [forms a steeple with his hands]. You are a cathedral. You aren’t a butcher. You’re creating the sacred. Some religions are fanatical. But I read the teachings of the Buddha, and I think there’s something more true than Artaud.

Is it true that René Daumal’s novel Mount Analogue was an influence on The Holy Mountain?

Yes. I love René Daumal, because I love his teacher. He had a great teacher, who was Gurdjieff. And in that novel, Daumal is speaking about his experience with Gurdjieff. More than surrealism, Daumal took it a step farther: The Great Game [a “counter-surrealist” journal founded by Daumal and friends]. He started to choke himself to see how it was to almost die. He was searching for stronger things, real metaphysical searching. I wanted to do his unfinished novel, Mount Analogue. He never finished it because he died very young from tuberculosis. But the family didn’t want to give me the rights. I said, “Well, I will make my own Holy Mountain!” What I directed depicts Daumal’s book. It’s a group that goes with a teacher to find immortality on a mountain. That I took. Then I developed my ideas.

The Holy Mountain

A scene from Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain. © ABKCO Films

So, at the end of the film, when we see the making of the film, when you turn one camera on another, was that a way of opening it up to the interpretation of the viewer?

I never thought of it the way you are saying now. Maybe, yes. I went to a real mountain in Mexico. I brought a tiger, a monk, actors, all that. And the Mexicans told me it was dangerous. Why? “Because there are tempests, and when there are tempests, you can die. Be careful.” No, I will go, because it’s beautiful, the weather is so fantastic. I shoot what I shoot, and when I finished shooting, the tempest came. And then we started to run in concert, to get off the mountain, because it was dangerous! I was running and I slipped and [mimes rolling down the mountain]. But I had a hammer and [mimes jamming it into the ground]. “No! I don’t want to die, I need to finish this damn picture!” I am making a picture. Like this, I will finish. This is the end of the picture, because it was the real end. It wasn’t as good, but I put in reality into my film. I wanted to make real things, and that, for me, was a real thing!

We’re making a picture. It’s not a comedy. There are real sentiments, because all those people I found were not actors. Every person I showed had the problem I show in the picture. Real people I used, real tiger! I’m not a Hollywood company making fake everything. I asked Hollywood that I want a stampede of tarantulas, big spiders on a body. They made fake ones. So we went out and bought spiders and had their fangs cut out. We made up the body and then we used the spiders. Real spiders came out there. And the person who did that, also myself, never liked spiders! There he was, suffering something enormous with those spiders!

Are you currently working on any new graphic novels?

Graphic novels. That is my industrial business. Because I have The Incal, Metabarons, Sons of El Topo. That I am doing all the time. That is normal for me, because I have a big imagination. If I didn’t have imagination, I would die. I am taking a step farther than Psychomagic with Psychotrance. It’s a kind of literature, but at the same time you’re reading, I’m giving you exercises. It’s mixing a lecture with exercises to inspire what you do, the impact of having a trance. With drugs, you have a trance. I say no drugs. We can do it without drugs. How to do it like this. Not only meditation. Go farther than meditation. Go immediately to what you are when you’re not intellect. What is in you? You don’t need to take LSD. You don’t need to take ayahuasca. Because those are dreams. I am saying do the same thing I do in movies. In movies, in a century of fake feelings, I am making real feelings. In a culture full of drugs, psychological drugs, I am putting in a real hallucination, guiding how you can do it.

Translation by Pascale Montandon.

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Interview: Kate Lyn Sheil on Calibrating Her Performance in She Dies Tomorrow

Sheil discusses how she situates the specifics of work within such an ambiguous and allegorical film.

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Kate Lyn Sheil
Photo: Neon

Amy Seimetz’s She Dies Tomorrow is of obvious relevance in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. The film, which had been set to premiere at this year’s SXSW, grapples with the contagious nature of despondency and angst in a contemporary milieu that so often seeks to minimize or ignore them. These amorphous feelings prove to be an inexplicably transmissible disease passed from character to character, each of which stops in their tracks and calmly declares, “I’m going to die tomorrow.”

That She Dies Tomorrow doesn’t buckle under the weight of its heady themes and supernatural premise is a testament to how the performances ground the film in reality. In the film, Kate Lyn Sheil stars as Amy, a surrogate character for the director who quietly yet urgently probes the boundaries of the anxieties that ensnare her. Sheil, who commands the most screen time, captivates as she wields her mastery of minutiae. She’s capable of precisely executing small physical gestures to convey forceful intent.

It’s merely the latest in a line of exciting and unpredictable performances from Sheil, whose prolific presence in the New York independent film scene spans from working with early mumblecore pioneers like Joe Swanberg in Silver Bullets to partnering with boundary-pushing luminaries such as Robert Greene on Kate Plays Christine. She’s equally as revelatory appearing briefly in a short film, the latest Alex Ross Perry project, an episode of House of Cards, or working through the very ethics of her trade as herself in documentary format.

I caught up with Sheil prior to the digital release of She Dies Tomorrow to discuss how she approaches conveying such potent interiority, her long-term collaboration with Seimetz, and how she situates the specifics of work within such an ambiguous and allegorical film.

What are the ripple effects of Kate Plays Christine in your work and career, given that it’s such a meta performance about the nature of performance?

I worked with a director afterward who said that he wanted to work with me after he saw Kate Plays Christine because it made him feel like I would be honest with him if I didn’t like the way that he was directing me. And I was like, “Oh, no, you’re mistaken. I probably will not say anything at all and just try and toe the party line.” Because that movie plays with what is real and what is fake, I feel like there could potentially be a misconception that I yell. Which is…not the case. Your guess is as good as mine.

That scene where you really snap was staged too, right? It was something Robert Greene invented to see what would happen when you felt boxed in by the experiment.

Yeah, it was scripted, essentially.

Is the movie at all a window into the way you work?

I think I spoke honestly about some ways that I approach acting roles in Kate Plays Christine, while lots of it is scripted, embellished or made up to create a narrative arc. I think there are moments that I speak truthfully about the way I do approach a role. I, personally, would never go to Sarasota and think that I had to interview people in order to play a part correctly. But I think I talk about my—I hate to say it—“process” in a truthful manner at a certain point, and that’s how I would [do it]. That’s probably how I approached this movie. Amy wrote this role, and then the best that I can do is just to try to find ways that I relate to the character and use substitutions to think of times when I maybe felt analogous.

Part of what makes Kate Plays Christine so fascinating is the way the camera allows you to externalize the process of thinking and deliberating. Was that at all helpful for She Dies Tomorrow?

Yeah, that’s all that’s all Amy’s writing though. That was baked into the script from the earliest stages of it. She wanted the character to be very physical in the way that she was exploring that house and touching things in a way that, at least from the outside if someone were to catch you doing it, it doesn’t seem like normal behavior. But when faced with the enormity of this thing, normalcy doesn’t really mean anything anymore.

Amy Seimetz has said that the tactile details of touching the house came from her own experience grappling with the weird mix of emotions that arose from her becoming a homeowner. How do you find your way into this compulsion that’s so visceral and unique?

It’s Amy, she wrote it for me, and then she creates an environment on set where—I don’t want to say it’s not difficult, because I certainly was afraid the entire time that I maybe wasn’t doing as good a job as I could. I didn’t want to let Amy down. She creates an environment where you can sort of slip into it. We’ve known each other for such a long time, and we’ve worked together before. I love the way that she directs me. She’s not precious with me at all. She will quite literally show me what she wants if I’m not getting it. [laughs, mimes direction] “Okay, that’s what I’m supposed to do, cool!”

The beginning of the film is largely free of dialogue. How much of what we see was scripted or pre-planned versus discovered once the camera rolled?

Not much of an element of discovery once the camera starts rolling. Amy is pretty precise in her visuals, and she has worked with Jake Keitel, who shot the movie, for like 17 years now. They share a brain in certain ways in terms of lighting the shots. Because that element is so important to her, there really wasn’t much of the “go with the flow, we’ll just find it in the moment.” There’s a level of precision to it, which I like and appreciate. But that’s not to say that she doesn’t give you as much room as you need to emotionally find the scene. But, in terms of physicality, she really has planned it out pretty precisely beforehand.

Was that at all different from Sun Don’t Shine? Since that was such a scrappy, on-the-go road movie, did really planting your feet in a location change the nature of your collaboration with Amy at all?

With Sun Don’t Shine, yeah, certain things are obviously outside your control if you’re shooting outside. But also with that, the economy of the way that she approaches making the movie, she still has a scrappy sensibility. That’s my favorite thing because I think if you know how to make a movie for no money, then you can use those skills and continue to apply that to whatever budget you happen to be working with. She had everything on Sun Don’t Shine so precisely planned out in terms of how to shoot the car because she and Jake didn’t want it to become monotonous. In a way, that required a great deal of precision too. But then, of course, for that movie, you’re shooting in Florida in the middle of summer. There are just variables. I got very sick when we were making that movie, so there are scenes where [they] had one thing in mind. And then she’s like, “Okay, you’re just gonna be sitting because you can’t do anything.”

Since you mentioned that Amy and her cinematographer share the same brain, do you feel the same kinship with her or other directors? A lot of your work comes from collaboration with people like Amy Seimetz, Alex Ross Perry, Robert Greene, among others, with whom you share a social circle. How does the process of working with them, where you might be more involved at the ground level of a project, compare with something where you’re brought in through a more traditional casting process?

I love working with all the people that you just mentioned, and I think it’s very lucky that I happen to know people that, by my estimation, are incredible. It’s so wonderful to work with them because there is a shared history and a shorthand. It just so happens, as I said before, that I like their work a lot, so it’s more bang for your buck. Not only do you get to work with friends, but you get to be in a project that you’re probably going to like or would like, even if you had nothing to do with it. But, at the same time, there’s something really something very fun about showing up to a set and just trying your best to execute the thing, do your job and then go home at the end of the day and it’s not your old, close friends. There’s something nice about both.

What’s the best way to describe your relationship to that extended Kim’s Video orbit? Muse, co-conspirator, something else entirely?

I’m so close to it that it’s hard to think of what to call it. But that place meant everything to me. It’s where I feel like I got my education in film. I think my life would be completely different if it hadn’t existed. It truly does mean so much to me. Surprisingly, though I don’t think any of us truly saw it coming at the time, a bunch of people who have worked there at a certain time actually started making their own projects. I feel very fortunate that I was around at that time. And it’s nice to make movies with people [for whom] the impetus is a love of watching them. That’s a very joyous experience.

Kate Lyn Sheil

Kate Lyn Sheil in a scene from She Dies Tomorrow. © Neon

I know you kind of scoffed at the word “process” earlier and put it in scare quotes…

Yeah, but…I used it! [laughs]

Well, we can just caveat that. I know your training as an actress primarily came from a theatrical background at NYU. She Dies Tomorrow is about the farthest thing from a theatrical performance: The film opens on a shot of your eye, and meaning gets conveyed through how your pupil moves. How did you learn to communicate in these micro moments? Did it involve “unlearning” any theatrical training?

Yes and no. I feel like it’s all the same skill set. And then, of course, when you get in front of the camera, you learn to adjust and have a relationship with the camera also. Rather than acting for an audience, you’re trying to be present with your fellow actor, more present in the moment. If there isn’t anybody else there, which is largely the case for my stuff in She Dies Tomorrow, the camera’s your audience. I haven’t acted in a play in a very long time. I miss it, personally. I left school, and I never wanted to do to theater again. I was obsessed with movies, and I still am. But at a certain point, maybe a few years ago, I was like, “You know what, it would be fun to do to do a play!” But, I mean, I still struggle with it. I feel like a lot of my close friends who are actors talk about it too. I still walk away at the end of some days being like, “I was too big, or I was too aware of the camera. So I tried to be small, and I think it was too small.” You still have these anxieties about that exact thing, calibrating your performance to the medium.

As an actress in a film like this, do you feel the need to “understand” the rest of the film like the nature of the contagion or the impressionistic transitions? Or is it a matter of performing your part and trusting that the rest of the film will fall into place around you?

I think it’s important to make it make sense for you, but I don’t think it’s important for me to understand the structure of the entire film. But it’s always very important for me to know what I’m doing to understand where, in particular, I’m coming from. I definitely trusted that Amy was doing something great with those parts of the movie. When she told me that’s how the movie was going to proceed, that it was going to expand and extrapolate in that way, I was very, very happy. I was happy that there were going to be other people for the audience to sit with for a while. And I also love those scenes. The dinner scene, I think is so funny. Everything in the movie is wonderful, but [that’s what is] coming to mind right now. I like the way that those scenes bounced around with my scenes and recontextualize my scenes to a certain degree.

I’m always fascinated with this duality that to communicate something existential and widely recognizable, it’s often rooted in such personal and intimate performance. How do you manage the balance between the general and the specific, especially in a film like She Dies Tomorrow that has a more allegorical or representational edge to it?

I think that certain things are just outside of my control. The most that I can control is to try and make the character specific for me and then I can’t get too caught up in thinking of the overarching themes. I just try and stay in my lane, stay focused and make it specific and individual. But if the person directing movie is creating something allegorical, then hopefully my performance lends itself to that goal.

What are your thoughts on the meta element of anxiety and death premonitions being contagious? Do you think the screen is porous enough that the audience could, or should, catch it? By the end of the film, I was wondering if I would end up saying “I’m going to die tomorrow” like all the characters.

We’re obviously living in such a strange time right now that Amy never could have anticipated. Hopefully what people would feel more than anything is recognition, or that some experience that they’ve had is being reflected back to them. Hopefully that would make someone feel better potentially, less alone or less crazy. Something like that. But I mean, the movie is about ideas being contagious. So, maybe.

It was so interesting to watch in the back half of the film where, for certain characters, you can tell that the ability to express and verbalize their anxiety helps them manage it. Maybe that’s the more constructive takeaway.

Yeah, there you go!

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Interview: Seth Rogen on An American Pickle and Reconnecting with His Roots

Rogen discusses collaborating with Simon Rich, how the film enriched his understanding of Judaism, the exhibition prospects of comedy in the streaming era, and more.

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Seth Rogen
Photo: HBO

It’s been over two decades since Seth Rogen made his small-screen debut in Freaks and Geeks, though one could be forgiven for assuming he’s been in the business much longer given all that he’s accomplished since then. He wrote for the acclaimed shows Da Ali G Show and Undeclared in the early aughts, before then breaking out in front of the camera in two comedy smashes released in the summer of 2007, Knocked Up and Superbad, the latter of which he co-wrote with creative partner Evan Goldberg. Rogen helped usher in the still-dominant Apatow era of big-screen comedy, a reign that not even the North Korean government could topple with the cyber-attack launched in response to his 2014 Kim Jong-un assassination satire The Interview.

While Rogen’s on-camera appearances have waned slightly over the past few years, his creative output hasn’t, as he and his partners at Point Grey continue to ramp up production across film, TV, and streaming. Their latest effort, An American Pickle, holds the distinction of being HBO Max’s first original narrative feature to premiere on the platform. But it also portends a distinctly more mature and reflective shift in Rogen’s own work as the cinematic face of exuberant millennial prolonged adolescence nears middle age.

The film stars Rogen in dual roles as Ben, a contemporary secular Brooklynite app developer, and Herschel, his devoutly Jewish great-grandfather who emigrated from eastern Europe and reemerges in the present day after being brined in a vat of pickles for a century. Neither the film or the characters in it dwell much on the absurd premise, and An American Pickle blossoms into a silly but sweet tale of misunderstanding and reconciliation between distant generations that share little other than a bloodline.

I chatted with Rogen on the eve of An American Pickle’s release. Our discussion covered how he collaborated with writer Simon Rich, how the film enriched his own understanding of Judaism, and how he envisions the exhibition prospects of comedy in the streaming era.

I saw Knocked Up as a teenager, and now it weirds me out that I’m older than you were when you made it. While working on it, were you aware that it might become such a generational touchstone for millennials? How do you feel about it now that it’s almost like a period piece?

I think when you make a movie you never truly know how it’s going to be received, honestly. Watch Hearts of Darkness, that’s a good lesson in that! There’s people on the set of the worst movie you’ve ever seen who think they’re making a masterpiece, and there’s people on the set of a masterpiece thinking that no one’s going to watch or see it ever—and even if they do, they’ll hate it. It’s not uncontrollable, but it’s hard to control and almost impossible to do with some sort of consistency. To that end, I’m glad that people still like any of our movies. The fact that any of them are viewed as remotely relevant in some way is lovely. You really don’t know what’s going to stand the test of time until time has passed, really.

I ask about that film partly because I feel there’s an interesting evolution we can chart from there to An American Pickle, which has an insight and understanding that feels like it can only be conveyed by learning and living. Is this the kind of film you could only have made at this point in your life?

Yeah, I think it’s definitely born of an older brain. Especially the themes of grief and how to process things we learned as kids, how we may have rejected those things even though they might add value to our lives, those themes are much more prevalent in my life as I get closer to 40 than when I was in my mid-20s. The idea of making a movie about grief and reconnecting with my roots was not prominent on my radar! [laughs]

There’s such poignancy to the way the film shows how past generations, be it through religion or some other factor, are better equipped to handle grief and hardship. Has any of that been valuable, pandemic or otherwise, in your life?

Yeah, I think religion specifically. My wife’s mother passed away earlier this year, and her uncle, actually. I’ve just seen with that specifically. Judaism has actionable protocols that do help. At one point in my life, I would probably write off all of it and say there was nothing helpful I was ever taught about religion. Now as I get older, I can cherry-pick and say you can take elements of this and apply them to your life as you find them helpful. Not all of this was born out of fooling people. Some of it was born out of truly trying to help people.

You’ve obviously done quite a bit of writing yourself on other projects. When it comes to something like An American Pickle, do you mostly just stay in your lane as an actor and let Simon Rich tailor the script to you? Or are you still involved in some writerly capacity?

I’m definitely still involved in some writerly capacity. I respect the writer and know their name is the one that’s on it ultimately, and they have to be able to stand behind all of it and take ownership over it. But I try to be constructive! I just try to help and support the ideas that I can. I try to acknowledge it and say this isn’t what I would do, always, but I’m not the writer! I try to respect that.

This film was originally geared toward theaters and is now going directly to streaming on HBO Max. In your mind, does the method of distribution affect the work you make? Or are you a platform agnostic and a laugh is a laugh on a big or a small screen?

We definitely make some films that are geared more toward a big-screen experience, in our minds at least, and some we are much more comfortable with that not being the experience. This being the perfect example of one of those! We understand that if we intend to keep making films for theaters, then they have to earn that right to be in a theater. Not every film automatically is granted that at this moment, and we understand that those are different types of films sometimes. It’s not always based on budget or anything like that. Good Boys, although it wasn’t expensive, is a movie we were confident would do well in theaters. There are some more expensive movies we would not be as confident that would be the best place for them. It’s an active conversation, but I do think some movies are better geared towards a cinematic experience and some towards a streaming one.

It still strikes me as crazy that so much data shows comedy is one of the genres people most want to view at home instead of in a room full of people.

I think people just like comedy! But to me, some of the greatest experiences I’ve had in a theater, I don’t think of the action movies I saw. I think about when I saw There’s Something About Mary or South Park in theaters, the Jackass movies, these wild experiences where you can barely hear what’s happening. Those are my favorite moviegoing experiences, and I think a lot of people feel that way.

Any chance you’d do a This Is the End sequel? It’s a movie I’ve thought about a lot over the last few months each time celebrities try to center themselves in the dialogue around a moment of crisis.

Not a sequel, specifically, but we do talk about building on the genre of famous people playing themselves interacting with supernatural situations. There maybe is more to be done with that.

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Film

Review: The Secret Garden Is a Pale Imitation of Its Enchanting Source

Its emphasis on the achievement of the individual is practically antithetical to the conclusion drawn by Frances Hodgson Burnett.

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The Secret Garden
Photo: STXfilms

Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, the story of a young girl who opens herself up the possibilities of human compassion after rejuvenating a garden and caring for her sickly cousin, has resonated with readers of all ages since its publication. And it’s clear from the brooding start of this latest cinematic adaptation that the filmmakers seek to amplify the book’s darker themes. A title card announces that the turbulent post-World War I India that newly orphaned Mary (Dixie Egerickx) finds herself in has been ravaged by a series of violent conflicts, and director Marc Munden initially does a fine job of mirroring the girl’s confusion and insecurity over losing her parents in the uncertainty of her surroundings.

Once Mary moves to the Yorkshire estate of her uncle, Archibald Craven (Colin Firth), the filmmakers also gesture beyond the novel’s thematic borders by having multiple characters—including Craven, who’s still grieving the death of his wife, and his infirm son, Colin (Edan Hayhurst)—face a collective trauma that leaves them unsure of how to deal with their feelings. Unfortunately, the film fails to deliver on its initial promise of branching the story out into bold new emotional terrain after the narrative begins to diminish many of the characters and aspects that made Burnett’s book such a stirring vision of morality.

The secret life and death of the woman who was Craven’s wife and Colin’s mother is only a minor part of the book, but this adaptation pushes this mystery to the narrative forefront and vastly yet uninspiringly expands on it. In a departure from the novel, this rote mystery plotline largely centers on Mary, which only makes her quest feel conspicuously insular and self-serving. This emphasis on the achievement of the individual is practically antithetical to the very conclusion drawn by Burnett in the book: that enrichment and satisfaction is a shared experience that comes through something as simple as human kindness.

The focus on Mary’s plight in the film comes at the expense of capturing the idyllic beauty of the titular hideaway, whose function ultimately feels like an afterthought; it’s but a convenient plot device that exists solely to help Mary solve a problem that very much defies her efforts until the last act. Imbued with the power to cure ailments and react to people’s feelings like a sentient being, the garden offers a dose of fantasy to the film, and, predictably, it’s been rendered with a heavy dose of CGI that makes it feel cold and soulless, never eliciting the sense of calm that the characters feel while gallivanting its grounds.

As in the book, Mary learns to overcome her selfishness by helping to heal Colin, but where Burnett’s story slowly detailed the increasingly invigorating power of Mary and Colin’s friendship and mutual affection, Munden fails to show how Mary’s sleuthing ignites her spirit of generosity. It feels like a cop-out when Colin is healed by the garden’s mysterious properties, causing him to praise Mary for showing him that real magic exists. In lieu of pluming the emotional states of the characters, the film resorts to a whimsical, otherworldly fantasy element as an easy resolution. It’s the sort of fantasy that Burnett didn’t need to make room for in the book, because it recognized something more profound: that real magic isn’t necessary in a world where human beings possess the capacity for compassion.

Cast: Dixie Egerickx, Colin Firth, Julie Walters, Edan Hayhurst, Amir Wilson, Isis Davis, Maeve Dermody, Jemma Powell Director: Marc Munden Screenwriter: Jack Thorne Distributor: STXfilms Running Time: 99 min Rating: PG Year: 2020

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