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Understanding Screenwriting #94: American Reunion, Mirror, Mirror, Damsels in Distress, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #94: American Reunion, Mirror, Mirror, Damsels in Distress, & More

Coming Up In This Column: American Reunion; Salmon Fishing in the Yemen; Mirror, Mirror; Damsels in Distress; Act of Valor; Titanic; A Bad Spring for American Television 2012, but first…

Fan Mail: A short note before we get into the mail. A day or so after I sent US#93 off to Keith, I read in the paper that Ernest Callenbach, whom I mentioned in the review of the Pauline Kael biography, had passed away. He was the long-time editor of Film Quarterly, starting in the early days when there were not a thousand film journals around. He ran my first published piece, a 1977 book review of two biographies of screenwriters. He was supportive of many young critics, including the redoubtable Stephan Farber.

David Ehrenstein has his usual entertaining comments, especially about Pauline Kael. He thought her essay on Kane made it sound as though Welles had “scarcely anything to do with it at all” with Kane. Like David, I had read her earlier reviews, especially of Chimes at Midnight (1966), and I thought in “Kane” she was not trying to tear Welles down, just promoting what Mank had done.

“IA” took me to task for thinking Kael was a coward for not writing more on screenwriters. He may be right, but given the dealings Howard Suber and I had with her, I’ll stick to my opinion. IA did point out that Kael never wrote anything, about screenwriters or otherwise, on the scale of “Raising Kane” again, which is what I tried to suggest in my comments about her not have the capabilities to do a much longer piece. As to how serious Kael was on doing a Johnson biography, I would assume that if she and her agent were trying to get my research and spreading the word that she was doing a bio of him, then she was pretty serious, at least for a time. Kellow’s book is already long, and I am sure that if he came across the Johnson business he probably felt it was not that important in the full scope of her life. As to her writing about screenwriters in her later reviews, she may well have, but not with the enthusiasm she showed earlier.

American Reunion (2012. Screenplay by Jon Hurwitz & Hayden Schlossberg, based on characters created by Adam Herz. 113 minutes.)

Not as good as #1, better than #2, and way better than #3: In my book Understanding Screenwriting: Learning From Good, Not-Quite-So-Good, and Bad Screenplays, I had a chapter on the first three American Pie movies, since I wanted to discuss writing raunchy comedies. I put the chapter in the Not-Quite-So-Good section of the book, since that would have been my average grade for the three. The first was a very good script, the second not-quite-so good, and the third one was truly awful, with only one laugh in the entire film. I have not seen the four direct-to-DVD sequels and even a gun to my head would not make me. But since I had invested so much time in thinking and writing about the first three, I thought I would give the new theatrical film a shot. It turns out to be pretty good, and corrects several of the mistakes #2 and #3 made.

The first film, American Pie (1999), was written by Adam Herz, based on his teen years in the ‘80s in East Grand Rapids, Michigan, which becomes East Great Falls in the films. What Herz managed was a nice mixture of the sentimentality of the John Hughes films of the period and the raunch of the 1982 classic Porky’s. We follow four high school seniors, Jim, Kevin, Paul, and Oz as they go on a quest to lose their virginity by the time they graduate. So we have a solid, if overused, structure. What makes it work are the characters. Jim’s an Everyguy who gets caught masturbating by his parents in the first minute-and-a-half of the film. He’s bad at sex, but hopes he has a chance with Nadia, a sexy foreign exchange student. When the chance comes, he comes too, but too quickly and too often. Then he is left going to the prom with the geeky band-camp nerd Michelle, who in perhaps the greatest payoff line in American cinema history, turns out to be a highly sexualized lover of musical instruments, especially the flute. Kevin is hooked on Vicky, a cute blonde girl who doesn’t quite know if she wants to have sex with him or not. Vicky gets sexual advice from Jessica, “a very knowing but not completely cynical friend,” as I described her in the book. Jessica is potentially a more interesting character than the other girls, but Herz never quite figured out what to do with her, and by the third film she disappears completely. Paul has been encouraging rumors about his sexual prowess, all to no avail. Oz, on the advice of a college girl he fails to score with, pretends to be sensitive to get Heather, yet another cute blonde. A hanger-on of the group is Stifler, whose continuing gross-out antics make our four nicer than they might otherwise seem. In the end Jim gets Michelle, or rather she gets him; Kevin finally has sex with Vicky, but it’s a goodbye fuck rather than “this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship” fuck, since she is going away to college; and Paul ends up with the oversexed Stifler’s Mom. I cannot remember what happens with Oz and Heather.

American Pie 2 (2001), with a story by Herz and David H. Steinberg amd screenplay by Herz, picks up one year later. We get less of Paul, Kevin, and Oz, and alas more of Stifler. He gets invited to spend the summer with the boys as they try to score at the beach. Stifler is a very one-note character, better in small doses than large ones. I am sure he is great fun to talk about in the story meetings, and probably great fun to write and act, but the more we see of him, the more obnoxious he becomes. This is even worse in the third film, American Wedding (2003).

For most of #2, Jim is trying to improve his sexual skills, since Nadia is coming back to town and he wants to do her right this time. After the premature ejaculation sequence, which was broadcast to the whole school, she was sent back to the Czech Republic, at least partially because Herz did not really want to deal with the difference in sexual sophistication between her and Jim. Doing it as a one-joke scene with Michelle was good enough for the first film, but it was not until #2 that Herz begins to deal with the issue. Jim contacts Michelle, who is at band camp, and gets her to give him lessons. But Michelle was a one-joke character in #1, and we now know what Michelle is really like. In the writing Herz goes back and forth with Michelle, sometimes the goofy nerd and sometimes the sexy girl, and it gives Alyson Hannigan whiplash trying to butt together the two. Hannigan’s performance in #1 was pitch perfect, but only for #1. On the DVD of #2, they have Hannigan’s screentest for #1, and her performance there would have been much better as a leadup to #2, but the focus on her goofiness in #1 makes #2 a mess in terms of her character. The “teaching scenes” between Michelle and Jim in #2 are great (you will never think of preheating an oven in the same way), and there are more of them in the deleted scenes. At the end of #2 Nadia returns, but realizes Jim loves Michelle. Paul ends up yet again with Stifler’s Mom, whom he appears not to have seen in the years since the first one.

American Wedding (2003), with a screenplay by Herz, is a mess. Instead of being about sex, it’s about a wedding, and Herz brings nothing fresh to the material. People behave totally out of character. We are introduced to Michelle’s parents, who have no character at all. A party with two women who may just be dancers or may be hookers (that’s sloppy writing) should have been a great scene, but is just never jells. Oz does not show up, nor does Jessica, nor Nadia, for that matter. Paul and Kevin are reduced to sidekick roles. Michelle is as divided a character as before. You can see why Universal went to straight-to-DVD for the next four.

When Universal decided to go back to the original cast for the fifth Fast and Furious sequel, Fast Five (2011), they found it grossed more than the sequels without the original stars. So they gave American Reunion a shot. This time the writers are the writers of the Harold and Kumar movies, but they pick up on what the Pie movies are all about, and improve on at least #2 and #3. First of all, Michelle is now a consistent character. She and Jim are married and having recently had a baby, they are not getting as much sex as they would like. That allows Hannigan to be both sexy and to show her us her goofy “band-camp nerd” faces. It also makes the movie again about sex, which is what most high school reunions are really about. Ralph Keyes, in his 1976 book Is There Life After High School?, wrote that he had never seen as much cleavage as he had at the various high school reunions he went to for research.

Oz, Kevin, and Paul are back, and given substantial storylines. Oz shows up with his gorgeous girl friend, but meets Heather again and sparks fly. Kevin and Vicky meet, but their relationship is still one of the weakest among the group. Paul seems at first to have become a man of the world, which is an interesting idea that the writers undercut later, although he does end up with Selena, a bartender who was very fat in high school but now, well, she’s not fat any more. We also get what amount to cameos from some of the other characters, including the flute. Jessica shows up way too briefly. I was so irritated that Herz did not give Jessica anybody to pair up in the first two that I wrote that maybe she could get together with the two girls in #2 that Stifler thought were lesbians. They weren’t and she didn’t. Well, she is now.

There is understandably a slightly more rueful tone to this entry in the series, which is also true about high school reunions. And they use that tone beautifully with Stifler. Yes, we are encouraged to laugh when he poops in an ice chest of some obnoxious kids, but the other guys are constantly calling him on his behavior, and as he realizes that finally high school may really be over, he is actually chastened. The writers then give him a great payoff scene, and Sean William Scott’s reaction when Stifler realizes what may happen is great. And we are actually rooting for him, something I never imagined I would even think, let alone write.

And now let us sing the praises of Eugene Levy. In all of the American Pie films and DVDs, he has appeared as Jim’s Dad. Well-meaning, trying to be helpful (clearing up the cable reception in #1), and often clueless. Jim’s Dad admitted in #1 he too has masturbated, but “Of course, I never did it with baked goods,” one of Herz’s many great lines. In Reunion, the writers know what they have with Levy and his character. They have written several funny scenes between Jim and his dad. Levy and Jason Biggs as Jim really get their mojo going and they are a joy to watch. We also get a bit of a rueful tone is some of these scenes, since Jim’s Mom died three years ago. So Jim and Michelle are encouraging Dad to date. Which leads to a couple of scenes with, well, whom would you pair off Jim’s Dad with? I can hardly wait to see the deleted scenes and outtakes of these two masters of the Christopher Guest School of Comedy.

Which raises the question of how much of those scenes, and the Jim and Dad scenes, may be improvised. It would not surprise me to learn that there was a fair amount of improvisation, but keep in mind they are all improvising off what they know of their own characters from the previous films, as well as whatever Hurwitz & Schlossberg have written.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (2011. Screenplay by Simon Beaufoy, based on the novel by Paul Torday. 107 minutes.)

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

A river runs through Yemen: Torday’s novel is apparently the modern equivalent of what is called an “epistolary novel,” a novel told in the form of letters, as for example Chodelos de Laclos’ Les Liasons Dangereuses. Since nobody writes letters anymore, the novel for this one has emails, post-it notes, and assorted electronic conversations. That presents a problem for an adapter: how much reading do you want your audience to have to do? Beaufoy, whose credits include The Full Monty (1997) and Slumdog Millionaire (2008), does a nice job of using the written word only when he needs it. And/or if there is a comic bit to be had, as with the character of Patricia Maxwell, the press secretary for the Prime Minister. Make sure you stick around for her last “conversation” with the PM.

Mostly Beaufoy focuses on his two romantic leads. The guy is Dr. Alfred Jones, an ichthyologist for the British government, who gets trapped into helping a Yemeni sheikh set up a breeding ground for salmon. Jones is sort of nerd, but charming in his own quiet way. He is brought into this by Harriet, a public relations specialist working for the Sheik. She is a lot more worldly than Jones is. Think Cary Grant vs. Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby (1938), but without the slapstick. Salmon Fishing is more a conventional rom-com, but Beaufoy, and presumably the novel, sets up two hurdles for the couple. He is married, and the marriage is not going well. We don’t like his wife much, but she’s not awful. Harriet has just gotten involved with Robert, an army officer who has been sent off to Afghanistan shortly after they started their romance. So we have legitimate reasons why these two don’t fall into each other’s arms. And Beaufoy writes nice “friendship” scenes for them that keep us interested until the inevitable happens. Jones is willing to break up with his wife, although in one of Beaufoy’s nice touches, she’s not sure she does want to break up. Robert goes missing in Afghanistan and is presumed dead. He’s not, but when he gets back together with Harriet, he is extraordinarily gallant about giving her up. Jones is Ewan McGregor at his most charming. Harriet is Emily Blunt working at her usual high standard. The real find here is Tom Mison, who not only catches Robert’s gallantry, but is a hunk and a half as well.

As much as I love the romantic story, Beaufoy’s script doesn’t handle the political satire as well as it might. What we do get, particularly in Kristin Scott Thomas’s scene-stealing performance as Patricia, is wonderful, but just enough that you want more. A lot more. And Scott Thomas is so great that we laugh at her instant messages because we can imagine how funny they would be coming out of her mouth. To paraphrase one of my usual comments, that’s great writing for non-performance. Beaufoy also shortchanges the serious elements in the story. A little over half way through, the Sheik is the target of an assassination attempt. We only get a vague idea of why (religious fundamentalists are opposed to the Sheik’s plan), which undercuts the fundamentalists final attempt to screw up the whole project. I can see why, in both the writing and the editing, the film sticks with Jones and Harriet, but it would have had a little more substance if we had a little more of the politics. After all, His Girl Friday (1940) managed it, so how hard could it be? Yeah, right.

Mirror, Mirror (2012. Screenplay by Jason Keller and Melissa Wallack, story by Melissa Wallack, based on the story by Jacob Grimm and Wilheilm Grimm. 106 minutes.)

Mirror, Mirror

Butcher? Grub? Halfpint? Napoleon? Wolf?: With names like that for the seven dwarfs, we are definitely not in the Disney version of Snow White. But in spite of those names, this version is not as dark as Disney’s. The attempt here was to do a light comedy, family friendly version of Snow White. But Snow White is one hell of a scary story, and the tone does not sit quite right. The structure is functional and had potential. Snow White is a grownup whom we meet early in the film, held captive in the castle by the wicked queen. Snow sneaks out of the castle and meets the Prince, although she does not know he’s a prince until she meets him again at the ball. The Queen has her eyes on the Prince as a potential husband, and so arranges for Snow to be taken to the woods and killed. Needless to say, she’s not, and she falls in with the dwarfs, a band of thieves who hide their size by wearing stilts when they rob people. The dwarves do not have the richness of character Disney’s did. Christopher Finch’s 1973 book The Art of Walt Disney: From Mickey Mouse to the Magic Kingdom includes transcripts from the story and character conferences for the 1937 Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and you can tell from them the time Disney and his people put in on character development. Keller and Wallack’s are short in character as well as height.

Snow does do some cooking for the little guys, but mostly she is there to become a warrior princess. I’m all for warrior princesses, but they are getting to be a cliché, and the training montage is uninventive. That is also true of the dialogue. When even Nathan Lane, as the Queen’s henchman, cannot get laughs, there is something seriously wrong with the script. The same thing happens with Julia Roberts’ Queen. Roberts can do evil, but she’s trying for diva here as well, and it’s not in her wheelhouse. Armie Hammer as the Prince is the only one who nails the tone, and that’s because he spends a lot of screen time pretending to be a dog. Hammer gives good dog.
Part of the problem with the film is that the director is miscast. He is Tarsem Singh. Tarsem was a student at LACC, although I don’t think I ever had him in class. I have followed his career and like some of his earlier films, especially The Cell (2000) and The Fall (2006). He has a great eye for exotic locations and sets, but the visuals here are not up to his usual standard. He also doesn’t seem to handle the workaday comedy scenes as well as he could. Hey, not everybody can be Lubitsch. And Keller and Wallack aren’t Samson Raphaelson yet either.

Damsels in Distress (2011. Written by Whit Stillman. 99 minutes.)

Damsels in Distress

Hermetically sealed: In Stillman’s first three films (Metropolitan [1990], Barcelona [1994], and The Last Days of Disco [1998]), he was dealing with subcultures, often within subcultures. But there was always an awareness within the film that they were subcultures. In Metropolitan, we are with East Coast, upper class kids during the debutante season, but Stillman introduces to this crowd Tom, who is not part of the culture. Tom serves as a critical observer of the upper class and their attitudes, which gives the film a dramatic tension. In Barcelona, Ted, an American working for an American company in Spain, and his cousin Fred, an American naval officer, are outsiders in the Spanish culture.

In Damsels we are in a fictional East Coast college, and the outsider of sorts is Lily, who is entering the college as a sophomore. She is “adopted” by Violet, the leader of a trio of girls. Violet has a lot of strange ideas, but Lily only challenges them in a half-hearted way, so we don’t get that kind of tension in this film. Violet runs a suicide prevention clinic, where she mostly prescribes tap dancing as a way to overcome your troubles. The girls get involved with various men, but the guys are so skimpily drawn that it is hard to tell them apart. There is very little forward momentum in the film, just a collection of scenes with Violet and the girls that do not really go anywhere. They all live in a hermetically sealed universe with very little connection to the real world. That may be part of Stillman’s point, but it’s not very compelling on the screen.

Act of Valor (2012. Written by Kurt Johnstad. 110 minutes.)

Act of Valor

Action yes, characterization no: A friend of mine, the son of a Navy admiral and a retired worker with the former job classification of “I can tell you what I do but I’d have to kill you,” is going through a tough patch at the moment. His wife is in the hospital and he’s not supposed to drive, so I took him out for brunch and then we saw this movie. We’d been talking about his World War II childhood in San Diego over brunch, and the opening scene has the Navy SEALS doing a parachute drop over San Diego. He was in hog heaven.
You may have read some of the backstory of this movie. The incidents are taken from true SEAL missions, put together in one film, and made with real Navy SEALS playing the SEALS. The downside is that the “personal” scenes are flatly written, and the dialogue is as simple as you can get for the same reason that dialogue in porno films is simple: the “actors” can’t handle dialogue that goes beyond declarative sentences. The emotions are also as simple as you can get; do not look for any nuance or irony here. Kurt Johnstad, a former grip, is also the screenwriter of 300 (2006), so you know the dominant tone is going to be macho squared. The good guys are very good, and the bad guys, all of whom seem to have the same scar, are very bad. And our guys never make mistakes. When they attack a small village, not a single woman or child gets hurt. And their equipment always works.

The action scene writing is terrific. We get several major set pieces, starting with the rescue of an attractive woman doctor the baddies are holding in a jungle hideout. The suspense is unnerving as our guys go through the jungle. My friend noticed that the maneuvering of the rescue boats was smart, always moving to distract the baddies. The attack on the village and the attack on a factory/fortress are also exciting, and different enough so that the action does not seem repetitive. What my friend and I loved about the film is that there is almost no CGI. We are in the jungle, on the ocean, in the village, and we get the physical sense of the place and the action, which I often don’t in CGI fests. One of the reasons I always liked David Lean’s movies is you feel the jungle, the desert, the winter of Russia. Act of Valor is not a patch on those, but if this is the sort of movie you like, you’ll like this one.

Titanic (2012. Written by Julian Fellowes. 240 minutes.)

Titanic

No, not that one: And not that one. And certainly not THAT one. This is one of those projects that sounded great in the pitch meeting. It is, in case you missed it, the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. So why not do a television miniseries on it? Special effects are getting less expensive, so we can at least match in small screen terms the King of the World. Surely, there are more stories to tell that were not covered in the many earlier films. Maybe, maybe not. But let’s get Julian Fellowes to write it. After all, he started the first series of Downton Abbey with news of the sinking, using it as a way to get into the characters and their attitudes (see US#70).

In writing about the second season of Downton Abbey (US#92) I mentioned that Fellowes writes at an American pace, with shorter, faster scenes than most English writers. That was wonderful in Downton Abbey, but it gets things off to a very bad start here. We get very, and I mean very, shorts scenes with a lot of characters. We have no idea who these people are, and there are not enough questions raised about them to make us want to come back to them. I suspect that this was shown in four one-hour episodes in England, but here ABC put the first three hours together on the first night, with the last hour the following night. In each of the four episodes, Fellowes follows one or more families and/or characters from before they get on the ship to the ship beginning to sink. Then in the next episode he follows the same path with another group. And another group in the third. I do have to admit, by the way, that I have not seen the 4th hour, since there was a power glitch in our neighborhood and it did not get recorded, but the pattern is clear in the first three hours. What that means is that just when an episode gets interesting, we stop and go back to the beginning. It is bigboatsinkus interruptus, to use the old Latin phrase for it.

Fellowes overstuffs the film with issues as well as characters. Yes, we get some discussion of the administrative glitches that led to the sinking, but we also get discussions of the British Empire, the Troubles in Ireland, possible war in Europe. Thematically the film is just as unfocused as it is in terms of character.

Ah, well, there is always Season Three of Downton Abbey on the far horizon.

Girls

A Bad Spring for American Television, 2012: In terms of new shows premiering on both cable and broadcast channels this spring, it has been a miserable season. And that seems to have affected some ongoing shows as well.

Girls is a new, heavily hyped HBO show (does HBO have any other kind?) created by Lena Dunham. I missed her indie film Tiny Furniture (2010) because it sounded a little too precious by half. I think I was right, because Girls is a little too precious by three-quarters. It’s about four twenty-something girls from good backgrounds who can’t seem to get their shit together and whine about it a lot. Over the years I have known and even been related to some women who behave like that. These reminded me of them, and I turned to my wife and mentioned one of them, as in “This show is like a roomful of ’Jennys.’” (No, I am not using real names here, for obvious reasons; and I should note that most of them have grown out of it.) One reason I loved teaching at LACC is that there I did not have to deal with a lot of people with overdrawn senses of entitlement, although we had a few. The women in this show assume that their parents should finance any harebrained scheme they come up with while they “find themselves.” Finding themselves in this case seems to involve having bad sex with men they don’t like. Well, if you don’t know how you can enjoy that, you certainly haven’t found yourself yet.

Veep is another new, heavily hyped, yes, HBO show. This one is created by Armando Iannucci, who has a great track record of political satire in England. We saw his skill in the 2009 film In the Loop (see US#31), where he widened his view to cover a bunch of American political and military people. And he got it right. Which is probably where the idea for Veep began. The new show is about the American vice-president, Selina Meyer, and there is the same kind of fumbling around we saw in In the Loop, but without the wit. The pilot episode, “Fundraiser” (story by Iannucci, teleplay by Iannucci & Simon Blackwell), has Selina making a number of verbal faux pas and trying unsuccessfully trying to fix them. The wit simply is not there, and the relentless use of the word “shit” makes it seem even less funny. There are more “shits” in an episode of this show than there are “vaginas” in 2 Broke Girls. In the Loop had its share of foul language, but it had more of a point than it does here.

Don’t Trust the B… in Apt. 23 has a familiar premise: semi-uptight June, a young woman from the Midwest, ends up sharing an apartment with Chloe, who we are informed gets new roommates then drives them out by her odd behavior, keeping their rent money. Square versus kooky. Hey, it worked for Laverne and Shirley and it’s working for 2 Broke Girls. But the “Pilot,” created and written by Nahnatchka Khan, is overstuffed trying to get the situation established and the characters introduced, not an uncommon failing of pilots. There was enough potential there for me to watch the second episode, “Daddy’s Girl,” also written by Khan. It was a lot cleaner (only in one sense) and sharper. June has decided not to date, but Chloe thinks she has the perfect guy for June. June says no, so Chloe sets them up to meet at a party. June is taken with Scott. And then learns he is Chloe’s dad. Freak out time. But he comes to the coffee shop where she has managed to find a job, they talk and end up in bed. And the next day Chloe’s mom shows up at the apartment. She and Scott only separated a week ago, and she is in a wheelchair. And she is played by Marin Hinkle (Alan’s ex in Two and a Half Men), so the scenes get lively. There are a lot of twists and turns and surprises. Alas, the last surprise is that June tells Chloe, who admits to having Daddy issues, that she (June) and Scott never had sex, but just “dry rubbed” for hours. Talk about the writers chickening out. The third episode, “The Parent Trap,” written by Sally Bradford McKenna, falls apart completely. Chloe gets an “assistant” by taking in a foster child and putting her to work answering the phone. Later we see a social worker drop in, and she has to be the most obtuse s.w. to not realize what’s going on. Chloe is flitting off to exotic places, leaving June to take care of the kid. Most of the episode is June yelling at Chloe for his lack of responsibility. The dialogue is very on-the-nose and not funny. Chloe is supposed to be a free spirit, but she is a little too far over the line for us to like her.

The L.A. Complex is a Canadian series on the CW network set in…Hollywood. Which leads to a lot of aerial shots of L.A. and one or two scenes shot on the streets in L.A. The rest is done on soundstages in Canada. It’s about a bunch of show biz wannabes who come to L.A. to Make It Big. And most of them end up in an apartment complex hanging around the swimming pool and humping each other’s brains out. Wait a minute, didn’t this used to be called Melrose Place? Indeed it did, and this is no particular improvement on the original. The actors are mostly people you have not seen much of before, but they are not incompetent, just not that compelling. And given the demographic that advertisers love, the oldest character, Raquel, is supposedly over the hill since she is pushing thirty, although I don’t know which side she is pushing from. There are no old people on this show, and there are no fat people. There were a couple of nice touches in the pilot, “Down in L.A.,” written by the show’s creator Martin Gero. Connor, a former resident, has just gotten the starring role in an upcoming series and has moved out. He is back for a party and hooks up with a newbie, Abby. The morning after she asks if he wore a condom. He says no, but then gallantly volunteers to take her to buy a morning after pill. And he’ll treat her to breakfast as well. Chivalry is not dead, just mutating. After she takes the pill, which can cause side effects, she gets word that she has scored an audition. She goes, but has not prepared a song, so she sings one of her own. Which in the world of this series impresses the hell out of the director. Until the nausea from the pill catches up with her and she vomits on the piano. Which leads to the director’s great line, “There is an old show business expression: when there is vomit on the piano, the audition is over.” I had not heard that expression before, but maybe it is just Canadian.

In US#92 I spoke too soon about the quality of the new season of Fairly Legal. For reasons known only to the showrunners and USA, they have introduced a new regular character. He is a very obnoxious lawyer named Ben Grogan. He’s only interested in taking cases to trial, winning at trial, and taking home lots of money. I suppose he is set up as a counterpoint to Kate’s more humane mediator, but mostly he is just irritating both to her and to us. And to make matters worse, in “What They Seem,” written by Tom Donaghy, there is a scene that suggests Kate may be falling for him. Then in “Ripple of Hope,” written by Robert Nathan, he kisses her. Ugh. And she kisses him back. Eewww. I know the ads make her look like a childish idiot, but up until now she has not been in the show.

30 Rock improved a bit in the spring, but then they tried another live show. In October 2010 they performed an episode live, and I pointed out the reasons it did not work in US#62. The scenes were longer than those in the filmed episodes, throwing the rhythm of the show off. The live audience response threw the actors off. The sets looked smaller and cheaper than those in the filmed version. Well, they tried it again in April with “Live From Studio 6H,” written by Jack Burditt & Tina Fey. They tried to shorten the scenes, which helped a bit, but it made it seem more like they were showing off that the actors could run around between scenes very quickly. They kept to just a few sets, and several of those were supposedly from television back in the ‘50s, so it didn’t matter than those looked cheap. The plot line was that Kabletown decided that TGS would no longer be live. Kenneth locked everybody up in a room to try to convince them to fight to keep the show live. This led to a series of parodies of shows supposedly done live in this studio. One was The Lovebirds, an obvious takeoff of The Honeymooners, with Alec Baldwin as Jackie Gleason and Tina Fey as Audrey Meadows. Another was a parody of The Dean Martin Show with Baldwin as an inebriated singer and Jane Krakowski doing a good Dusty Springfield impression. The problem was that these sketches all seemed like something from Saturday Night Live. Adding to that feeling was that from the beginning of the entire episode, everybody was reading off cue cards, with not a single actor looking at any other actor in the eye. Granted the script was not that great, but would it have killed the actors to memorize their lines? There is a great tradition in theater, film, and television of actors actually remembering what they have to say. Of course, it also helps if you stick with professional actors. Kim Kardashian did a cameo in the West Coast version, replacing Sir Paul McCartney, who did the East Coast version. Kardashian, whose performance skills do not include line reading, swallowed her last punch line and I couldn’t understand what she said.

In the same column in which I wrote about the previous live 30 Rock, I also covered the ending of that season of Mad Men. I said at that point, “I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait for the next season.” We had to wait eighteen months, but it is finally back, and I will deal with it in the next column. Or the one after that.

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: Skin Confronts White Supremacy from a Dubious Point of View

The film’s not-strictly-linear structure and handheld camerawork come to feel like attempts at masking a certain conventionality.

2.5

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Skin
Photo: A24

In 1951’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt identifies the early adherents of the Nazi movement in Germany as belonging to a “mob,” which she distinguishes from the “mass” as a motley group of the disaffected who felt themselves in various ways betrayed by the dominant institutions of society—in essence, the outcasts from the masses. Guy Nattiv’s Skin finds this mob of resentment thriving in the American Rust Belt, where neo-Nazi leader Fred “Hammer” Krager (Bill Camp) recruits young runaways to his organization, baiting them with hot meals and a simulacrum of family warmth. He and his wife, Shareen (Vera Farmiga), indoctrinate young drifters into their disciplinary, Oedipal clan, with Fred as the fearful father figure and Shareen as the mother whose affection they must earn.

A remake of Nattiv’s Oscar-winning short of the same name, Skin is based on the true story of Byron “Babs” Widner (Jamie Bell), who grew up under Fred and Shareen’s tutelage but is beginning to harbor doubts about the group’s cause. The film opens with a confrontation between a march of allied neo-Nazi groups and a counter protest headed by the activist Daryle Jenkins (Mike Colter), in which Babs and other skinheads corner and assault a black protestor, disfiguring the young man and running off. Babs has a conscience, and he slowly comes to regret this assault. Early on, the film gives us another example of his cloaked sense of right and wrong: At a rally where Fred announces his congressional candidacy, another white nationalist verbally accosts a trio of young girls singing a folkish—or rather, völkisch—tune, and Babs defends them, beating up the much larger man with a mic stand.

In Nattiv’s film, the face-tatted Babs’s practiced, neutral expression becomes an ambivalent mask hiding wounded insecurity, explosive rage, or both. His violent defense of the young girls earns him gratitude from their mother, Julie Price (Danielle Macdonald), a legacy member of the white power movement who’s decided to begin to removing herself from her family’s milieu. As Julie and Babs’s connection becomes romance—and as Jenkins pursues Babs, thinking he might be able to convince the neo-Nazi to become an informant—the couple puts more and more distance between themselves and Fred and Shareen’s perverse surrogate family, placing themselves in direct conflict with a dangerous mob.

To symbolize Babs’s gradual break-up with his violent family, the film periodically flashes forward to the grueling, years-long process of removing the racist tattoos plastered across his body. Close-ups on ink being pulled out through skin, accompanied by Babs’s fraught screams, suggest that the pain his skin causes him in these scenes is just recompense for the crimes he committed and endorsed on behalf of an ideology built around the color of that skin.

Skin offers some insight to the appeal and functioning of white supremacist groupings, but after a while, the film’s not-strictly-linear structure and handheld camerawork come to feel like self-conscious signs of “gritty” realism, attempts at masking a certain conventionality. This is, in the end, the story of a bad man being redeemed by the love of a good woman, and it’s worth questioning why Babs, rather than Jenkins, is at the center of the film. As Skin illustrates in an early, exposition-heavy scene, Jenkins has facilitated the turning of around a half-dozen Nazis. That a black man would dedicate so much time, at great personal risk, to penetrating the minds of avowed, violent racists seems the much more interesting—and relevant—story here. It’s not that anything in Skin runs egregiously contrary to the facts, or that Babs’s story isn’t moving as presented, but one may be justified in contemplating why his turn away from Nazism is presented primarily as a personal redemption arc, and not primarily one of tireless activism and resistance by the opponents of fascism like Jenkins.

Cast: Jamie Bell, Danielle Macdonald, Daniel Henshall, Bill Kamp, Vera Farmiga, Mike Colter, Louisa Krause, Zoe Margaret Colletti, Kylie Rogers, Colbi Gannett Director: Guy Nattiv Screenwriter: Guy Nattiv Distributor: A24 Running Time: 120 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Odessa IFF 2019: The Cossacks, Queen of Hearts, Monos, & Projectionist

The festival feels like a long-awaited apparition in a place where events of its magnitude might be scarce.

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Monos
Photo: Neon

At first glance, Odessa recalls the Algeria of the 1980s as described by playwright Jean-Luc Lagarce, a place where local “currency has no value and there is nothing to buy anyway.” Odessa seems coy about offering a fantasy version of itself to those who aren’t already confined to it and to whom displaying the city—in the shape of superfluous possessions or souvenirs—would amount to a perverse redundancy. It’s a city coherent to the brutal honesty of its human faces, a city virtually without store windows to hawk unessential goods to passersby—unless one traverses its center, where a McDonald’s and a Reebok shop appear as reminders of a glossier elsewhere. Perhaps the way Cameroon, as one Cameroonian once told me, is a country without sidewalks, “unless you go to Douala.” This is, of course, a respite from the capitalist assaults of places where to experience the city is to stack up on its mementos. It’s this context that made the Odessa International Film Festival (OIFF) feel like a long-awaited apparition in a place where events of its magnitude might be scarce.

By the Lermontovskiy Hotel, where the international journalists covering the OIFF stay, only food seems to be for sale. There’s a 24/7 supermarket that closes when the security guard sees fit, a “Japanese and Thai Asian Café,” and a regal restaurant named Aleksandrovskiy, which sits inside a garden full of Versailles-esque fountains and statues, and where a select few can feast on a scrumptious leg of lamb on a bed of polenta for 12 euros. Perhaps the same select few who show up for OIFF’s outdoor screening of the 1928 film The Cossacks at the Potemkin Stairs but don’t use the steps as bleachers, like the rest of us, instead taking their seats in the large cordoned-off VIP section close to the live orchestra for a few selfies and then dashing off.

A brief video pleading for the release of Crimean filmmaker Oleg Sentsov from a Russian prison preceded the film, eliciting passionate applause. Those actually using the steps as seats seemed to truly savor the event, which took the shape of what film screenings were probably more like in the early 20th century: raucous fair-like happenings with lots of talking and where the film was only one of many multi-sensorial elements. In many ways, The Cossacks is about how the production of a nation is entwined with the production of gender norms. Lukashka (John Gilbert) is seen as a softie. He’s derided as being a fraction of a man, or a half-Cossack, because he would rather spend his time reading than fighting, to the horror of his entourage. He ends up going to war in order to legitimize his status as a man for his family and his beloved Maryana (Renée Adorée). In the world of the film, becoming a man involves killing at least one Turk or two, and becoming a woman means marrying a man who has killed Turks.

The Cossacks was a fascinating selection to screen at the Potemkin Stairs because it wrapped a critique of normativity in some of the most sexist of cinematic languages, female ass shots as gags and all, making it hard to know what kind of selective reading of the film the audience might be making. The men on the screen are always either accosting, harassing, molesting, or trying to rape Maryana, which might be what triggered Rose McGowan, one of the festival’s celebrity guests, to leave just a few minutes into the screening.

As much as watching a film such as George Hill and Clarence Brown’s silent drama at the place where one of cinema’s most iconic sequences was shot feels like the crossing off of a bucket-list item we didn’t realize was on that list until we experienced it, the off-screen drama was just as enticing. There was, for instance, the blatant spectacle of Ukrainian income inequality with “the people” huddled up on the uncomfortable steps for two hours eager to engage with a silent film while Ukrainian socialites decked out in animal prints treated the event more like a vernissage. There was also the impossible quest for a public bathroom mid-screening. This involved walking into a half-closed market across from the Potemkin Stairs and interrupting a loud quarrel between a mother and her adult son, who worked at one of the market stalls.

It’s difficult to guess where queerness goes in Odessa. Maybe it only lives as disavowal, as in The Cossacks, which ends with Lukashka, after anointing his masculinity by slaughtering 10 Turks, stating to Maryana heterosexuality’s mathematical logic in its simplest form: “I am your man. You are my woman. I want you.” And the anointing is never final, the film seems to say. Indeed, as his father lies dying in his arms, Lukashka asks him: “Father, am I Cossack?” The question of where queerness might live, in this context, would be finally answered a few days later when I visit the only gay club in Odessa, Libertin, and meet a trans woman name Jalala, who confides that there’s a “place” in Odessa where straight men can go to to have sex with women like her. “Is it an app?” I ask. Jalala smiles and says that it’s a park. “But it’s dangerous,” she tells me. “It’s very exciting and very dangerous.” Because there are skinheads, she says. “Do the skinheads want to kill you or fuck you, or fuck you and then kill you?” I ask her. “I don’t know,” she responded. “That’s why it’s dangerous.”

The festival main grounds, in front of the majestic Odessa Academic Theatre of Musical Comedy, aren’t unlike London’s Southbank Centre in the early days of summer, where visitors and locals are both sold the idea that the city is this fun all year long. The atmosphere is cosmopolitan, with Nina Simone remixes or early Erykah Badu playing in the background, food trucks, a Mastercard stall, and outdoor sitting poufs. There’s also no stress in the air, no suffocating crowds, and as such no anxiety about being turned away from a screening.

When looking at the festival’s program, one may scoff at the apparent lack of diversity and, more specifically, queerness. After a few screenings, though, one may get the sense that queerness does live at the Odessa International Film Festival and, per Jalala’s account, in Odessa more generally—it just isn’t publicized. In Queen of Hearts, for instance, director May el-Toukhy takes the age-old narrative of the stranger who turns up to disrupt domestic bliss, or ennui, and gives it a daring incestuous twist. Anne (Trine Dyrholm) and Peter (Magnus Krepper) live an idyllic life in a mansion somewhere in Denmark with two young, and creepily angelic, twin daughters (Liv and Silja Esmår Dannemann). There’s something eerie about this setup even before Peter’s problematic teenage son, Gustav (Gustav Lindh), from another marriage is shipped from Sweden to live with his dad and unsettle everything.

What’s uncanny about Anne and Peter’s home is, of course, the way it gleams a kind of speckless completion of the heterosexual project, which could only ever be possible as a mirage. Theirs is the home of dreams bound to become nightmares by the introduction of even the most vaguely foreign element. Such as reality, that most irksome of registers, or a long-lost son. The house of Queen of Hearts, whose drama is so latent you’d only have to snap your fingers for chaos to erupt, evokes the house of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, the kind of immaculate luxury that could only be sitting on top of some macabre bunker full of roaches and well-fed zombies. The drama that links these homes is the notion that the epitome of the heterosexual family bliss borders its very obliteration, with the unruly resurfacing of all the gunk that had been swept underneath, as the very foundation for its habitat.

When Gustav arrives, then, and ends up having an affair with his stepmom, a trench coat-wearing lawyer for young victims of sexual abuse, we’re only surprised at how careless they seem to be about being found out. El-Toukhy is smart to avoid sensationalizing the taboo-breaking premise of the narrative with a camera that sides with Anne: her sexual hunger, her contradictions, her stretch marks. This isn’t a film about roundabout incest, but one about the impossibility of satisfaction even for the most privileged woman, one with a high-powered and socially engaged job, money to spare, and a mansion by the lake in a Scandinavian country.

Queen of Hearts focuses on Anne’s paradoxes: She’s a savior and a monster, a middle-aged mother and a horny teenager, unabashedly exposing the inconvenient pores that remain underneath even the most beautifully made-up Nordic skin. And the film is about skin, ultimately. In the way Anne and Gustav have raw sex and the marks on Anne’s stomach are filmed with purpose, sincerity, and no apology. The affair begins when Anne walks into Gustav’s bedroom and gives him a handjob without bothering to lock the door. This comes soon after he brought a girl his own age home and Anne had to sit in her living room, staring at her laptop and drinking a glass of wine, while listening to the teenagers having sex. By the time Anne goes to the lake with Gustav and one of her twin girls, and Anne decides to get in the water, we know the deal is done. “But you never swim,” says the girl. Water in Queen of Hearts bears the same prophetic sexual force that’s appeared in many films, queer or not, from F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise to Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake.

The affair isn’t about love, of course, or passion. It’s not even about the sex itself. The affair is a settling of accounts, a vampiric attempt to deny the passing of time, which, by virtue of having passed, feels like it’s been wasted. For Anne, the culprit is Peter, who becomes a cock-blocking nuisance. The film, a melodrama with a superb final shot that offers no closure, at times tries too hard to provide a cause for Anne’s passage à l’acte. When Gustav asks Anne who she lost her virginity to, she answers, “With someone it shouldn’t have been,” which makes it seem like the film is suggesting that predatorial behavior is a sort of damned inheritance. The Queen of Hearts is much more successful, and courageous, when it follows the logic of sexual yearning itself, not worrying about rational justifications.

The first few sequences of Alejandro Landes’s Monos evoke Claire Denis’s Beau Travail, except it isn’t only men training in the deserted landscape. A few young women join them, which, inevitably takes the narrative elsewhere, even if the films’ basic premises are similar. In Monos, teenage guerilla fighters are supposed to guard a foreign hostage, Doctora Sara Watson (Julianne Nicholson), and a conscripted cow named Shakira. Intrigue and sexual tension ensure that nothing goes according to plan. The only thing that never finds any respite is the flow of violence, which increasingly loses its metaphorical sheen, becoming gratuitous toward the end. What starts out like a social critique gains the aura of an unnecessarily grisly horror film, more about overtly visible chains than the allegorical slaughtering of cows by paramilitary children named Rambo, Lady, Bigfoot, and Smurf.

It turns out that queerness lives even in the faraway mountaintops of the Colombian jungle, as one of the guerilla girls makes two boys kiss at the start of the film, which brought a discrete discomfort to the screening room I was seated in. By the time Nicholson’s character shares a brief lesbian kiss with a reluctant fighter who’s supposed to watch over her, later in the film, queerness is no longer a conceptual surprise hinting at meaningful registers beyond the narrative’s surface, but a kind of desperate attempt to make the plot seem cryptic. Like The Cossacks, Landes’s film is also about the impossibility of maintaining complete control over one’s claim of masculinity, or power more generally. In moments of crisis, the line between predator and prey get very thin, and even the most well-armed warriors have a way of becoming disarmed, naked, and sentimental.

Yuriy Shylov’s Projectionist follows the frailty of all flesh, hawkish accessory in hand or not, through the portrayal of the end of a film projectionist’s 44-year tenure at one of Kiev’s oldest movie theaters. It’s an end that coincides with the crumbling of projectionist Valentin’s own coughing body, and that of his bedridden mother. It turns out that the movie theater, too, is reaching its expiration point. Soon, its doors will close and its employees will be fired, and there’s a sense throughout Shylov’s documentary that analog cinema will be dealt a major blow with the theater’s closure. What will become of the space? Perhaps a Reebok or a McDonald’s. Perhaps a derelict muse for a Nikolaus Geyrhalter portrait of decay.

“You think you’re loud, but in reality you can only hear yourself,” Valentin tells his mother at one point. Her futile yelling of her son’s name from her bed is one of the most haunting motifs in the film. An uttering for uttering’s sake, a demand without expectations of an actual response, a mantra to remind oneself that one is, for now, still alive. Valentin has installed a whistle next to the bed, which he would actually be able to hear when she called if only she’d use it. But the mother mostly refuses to blow in the pragmatic apparatus, instead finding solace in the calling that won’t be heard and, thus, will need to be repeated ad nauseam.

Projectionist can feel a bit aimless, but it’s a welcome reminder of how the materiality of film, and thus its finitude, has something in common with our own—a kinship of frailty that the flawlessness of the digital image erases. Analog is the only technology that Valentin knows, whether he’s sewing, as he’s seen doing in the film, fixing a neighbor’s straightening iron, or projecting old home videos on filthy kitchen tiles. There’s pleasure to be found, for Valentin, not just in the stories, concepts, and metaphors of cinema, but in the very stuff that supports his craft, the paraphernalia of cinema that’s bound to crack, to dry out, to turn to dust, to disappear forever: film stock, Movieolas, spools, and so forth. Cinema, we’re reminded, is necessarily a tool of exposure, not just of the human condition in the face of death, but the human condition as an always gendered affair. It’s a tool that’s never settled, never comfortable, and never forgotten. “Men are cowards, didn’t you know that?” is how Valentin puts it toward the end of Projectionist. In his world, one would know, by looking at the projector, at the very stuff of cinema, how much longer a film would last. The remainder of the film’s “life” is perfectly real, perfectly tangible, and alive because it’s in constant danger of being jammed up and torn by the very engine that ensured its running.

The Odessa International Film Festival runs from July 12—20.

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Review: In Angels Are Made of Light, a Nation Rebuilds in the Ruins of War

The film is an intimate portrait of a nation terminally anxious about who will see fit to rule it next.

2.5

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Angels Are Made of Light
Photo: Grasshopper Film

Early in Angels Are Made of Light, a voice breaks through a sea of chatter in a classroom teeming with young boys: “I only know about the time since I was born. What’s history?” The child goes on to explain that history isn’t taught at the Daqiqi Balkhi high school in Kabul, Afghanistan. The question’s poignance is self-evident, particularly because the building itself appears to have been disturbed by the city’s recent trauma. The opening shot of James Longley’s first film since Iraq in Fragments captures splotches of sunlight entering through holes in the school’s exterior. Later, one of the building’s walls collapses, and the children relocate to a location supported by American funding.

Though it inevitably gestures toward American occupation, Angels Are Made of Light is rare in its nearly undivided attention to civilian life in a region fundamentally altered by the U.S.’s so-called war on terror. Much of the film is composed of footage Longley shot at Daqiqi Balkhi from 2011 to 2014, with a particular focus on three brothers: Rostam, Sohrab, and Yaldash. The trio speak in voiceover throughout, and seem to define themselves by their relative interest in work and studying. Sohrab excels in school and doesn’t see himself as fit for manual labor, while the older Rostam works closely with their father. Yaldash, the youngest, works at a tin shop and is anguished when his job interferes with his educational aspirations.

The documentary’s classroom scenes exude a tone of controlled chaos, shot mostly at eye level with the students as they struggle to hear and be heard over the din of their classmates. (This is particularly true at their school’s first location, where numerous classes are taught outside right next to one another.) The passage of time is marked by changes in seasons and the repetition of certain ceremonies, like a teacher appreciation day featuring musical performances by students. Concurrently, there’s a Malickian quality to the near-constant voiceover of the brothers, whose concerns veer from the quotidian (earning money for the family, achieving in school) to the philosophical. Though their voices are profound, their limited perspective yields lengthy stretches of repetitive, meandering sentiments that are inflated by John Erik Kaada’s sometimes intrusive score.

If the children aren’t taught about their country’s history as a site of hostile takeover by other countries, the Taliban, and groups of mujahideen, they have clearly internalized the trauma their homeland has endured. “Death is coming. Doomsday is coming. Everything is coming,” one says. All seem to agree that learning about computers (none of which are seen in the documentary) is the only sure ticket to an escape or a successful career.

As Angels Are Made of Light proceeds, its chorus of narrative voices expands, adding a number of teachers (including the boys’ mother) and another schoolboy who sells hot food at an open market. The teachers add flashes of historical context, which Longley plays over archival footage of Kabul and its ruling governments over the previous decades. Cuts between the city’s past and its present are stark: The contemporary skyline is pockmarked with absent buildings that have been replaced by makeshift structures, and the city’s center is now cluttered with billboards advertising mobile phones and alcohol produced in NATO countries. Eventually, Longley shows current political action in the streets, as mujahideen gather to flog themselves in public, other groups march for democracy, and all focus their attention on 2014 presidential election where Hamid Karzai democratically transfers power to his successor, Ashraf Ghani, as rumors swirl about the Americans’ sway over the vote.

Longley’s decision to avoid addressing Afghani politics until the latter half of his film is sound, perhaps a signal that his young characters are becoming more attuned to the corruption that pervades daily operations in their city, but Angels Are Made of Light lacks the sort of structural framework that can properly sustain its lack of plot and rather confusing array of editorialists speaking in voiceover. The closest the film comes to a guiding focus is the recurring image of a large, ghostly white blimp that looms over Kabul, a blot of menace as children and other citizens look to the sky in hope or prayer. Presumably an observational surveillance craft, the blimp is an ironic mirror of the documentarian’s predicament—a totem that reminds everyone who sees it of the West’s influence on their lives. Longley is aware that his camera serves a similar function, and it’s admirable that he’s able to achieve an intimate portrait of a nation terminally anxious about who will see fit to rule it next.

Director: James Longley Distributor: Grasshopper Film Running Time: 117 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Mike Wallace Is Here Honors a Legend by Arguing with Him

Much like its subject, Avi Belkin’s documentary knows how to start an argument.

3

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Mike Wallace Is Here
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

Much like its subject, Mike Wallace Is Here knows how to start an argument. Avi Belkin’s archival documentary begins with the legendary broadcaster (who died in 2012) interviewing Bill O’Reilly at the peak of the latter’s influence as a Fox News blowhard. “That is not an interview, that’s a lecture,” Wallace moans before O’Reilly calls him a “dinosaur” and then really twists the knife: “You’re the driving force behind my career,” he tells Wallace. The exchange is riveting and, in some ways, inscrutable, as both of these TV personalities are so skilled at performance it can seem impossible to know if their dialogue is in earnest or some knowing fight among titans happy to march into battle.

Though it’s almost certainly fair to say that Wallace set the stage for an era of ostentatious and increasingly dangerous “personality journalism,” the breadth and quality of Wallace’s work is rich enough to lend some tension to Belkin’s exploration of the reporter as celebrity. Assembled with a propulsive momentum from dozens of televised interviews of and by Wallace, Mike Wallace Is Here portrays its subject as a self-made man, or, as his colleague Morley Safer calls him, “an invention.” Born Myron Wallace, he adopted his broadcast name while working as a performer on radio and then television, a decision made with no shortage of anxiety due to Wallace’s self-consciousness about his acne scars from childhood.

Ironically, Wallace’s breakthrough as a broadcaster (after a series of acting and promotional gigs) came with a show that revolutionized the television interview through its intense lighting and use of invasive closeups. Clips from his show Night-Beat—the first of two Wallace-led interview programs sponsored by cigarette companies and cloaked in smoke—reveal that the media personality was already aware of the showmanship innate in his brand of journalism. He introduces the show by saying “My role is that of a reporter,” and hones his skill for unsettling his guests with obnoxious editorial comments before asking questions. (“Many people hated your husband, and you,” he once said to Eleanor Roosevelt.)

Belkin weaves Wallace’s personal story into the documentary’s parade of interviews in a manner that’s unsurprisingly superficial, glossing over his many marriages, the death of his 19-year-old son, Peter, in a mountain-climbing accident in Greece in 1962 (Wallace cites the tragedy as a pivotal moment in the creation of 60 Minutes and the revival of his career), and a suicide attempt circa 1986. In interviews where Wallace is the subject—with the likes of Barbara Walters and other 60 Minutes colleagues—he’s alternately open and evasive about these flashpoints in his life, often demonstrating the very behavior he has no patience for as an interviewer. Belkin shrewdly reveals Wallace’s hypocrisy through editing, cutting to, for instance, a clip of Wallace grilling Larry King about his string of failed marriages.

Mike Wallace Is Here only suffers in its treatment of the broadcaster’s time at 60 Minutes, dispensing with cleverly edited commentary in favor of a swift survey of the major news of the second half of the 20th century. These include necessary digressions, such as General William C. Westmoreland’s libel suit against a CBS Reports special that Wallace anchored accusing the Army general of falsifying the American military’s analysis of the strength of the Vietnamese army in order to keep the war in Vietnam going, and the tumultuous process of televising Wallace’s interview with the tobacco industry whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand (the subject of Michael Mann’s The Insider). But this extensive highlight reel seems to forget that the documentary is scrutinizing Wallace as it’s celebrating him.

At its nerviest, Mike Wallace Is Here uses the words of other celebrities to psychoanalyze Wallace. The film argues (and at times Wallace acknowledges) that his success is a product of his sense of shame, first about the way that he looked and then about the way that he behaved, loved, and parented. When Wallace is coy, Belkin effectively imagines a more honest response by cutting to someone else saying what he believes is true. After showing Wallace dancing around his lack of pride for a while, he cuts to Barbara Streisand talking about how “fear is the energy toward doing your best work.” In the very same interview, she calls Wallace “a son of a bitch,” and Mike Wallace Is Here is at its best when it seems to be in direct debate with this journalistic legend. The film honors Wallace best when it seems to be arguing with him.

Director: Avi Belkin Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 94 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Japan Cuts 2019: Demolition Girl, And Your Bird Can Sing, & Being Natural

Japan Cuts has established itself as the definitive Japanese film festival in the United States, thanks to the scope of its programming.

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Demolition Girl
Photo: Japan Cuts

Japan Cuts has established itself as the definitive Japanese film festival in the United States, thanks to the scope of its programming. The 2019 edition is no exception, with over 30 events over 10 days, among them talks, screenings, and Q&A sessions with filmmakers as diverse as Macoto Tezka (The Legend of the Stardust Brothers) and Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo: The Iron Man), the latter of whom is this year’s recipient of the festival’s Cut Above award, which is given to a defining figure of Japan’s cinema, and will be awarded before the East Coast premiere of his latest film, the samurai action-drama Killing.

Lest you think Japan Cuts is only a showcase for genre exercises, the festival abounds in works that explore the struggles that erupt from the Japanese capitalist system, and are felt in different ways across generations. Demolition Girl, Genta Matsugami’s feature debut, is among the strongest of recent films to bluntly speak about class difference. It follows 17-year-old Cocoa (Aya Kitai), who, in the wake of her mother’s death, has decided to forgo a university education and get a job. But as her shifts at a local amusement park only pay so much, she starts to perform in adult fetish videos that see her stomping on cans, trash, and balloons.

At his best, the film taps into the heightened experience of the poorest of the people living on the edge. For one, whenever Cocoa’s father (Yota Kawase) has some money on hand, he yearns for instant satisfaction, spending it on expensive sushi. As for Cocoa, who’s isolation is emphasized through shots that see her alone in corridors, or studying late at night in her room, it’s almost as if she’s destined to fail. And, indeed, when her school finds out about the adult videos she’s been making, and just as she was beginning to realize her promise of going to a Tokyo university, her life falls apart. When confronted by friends about why she made the videos, all she can do is yell at them: “You wouldn’t understand, you’re rich, you wouldn’t know. Will you pay for my expenses?” In this moment, Kitai’s triumph is making her character’s wail against a cruel economic system feel as if it could be our own.

And Your Bird Can Sing, directed by Sho Miyake, is focused on two late-twentysomething slackers: the unnamed protagonist (Tasuku Emoto) and his roommate, Shizo (Himizu and Parasyte star Shōta Sometani). Both work crappy jobs, and they try to stay sane through copious amounts of drinking and pointed mockery of the economically fraught lot they’ve been handed in life. The protagonist’s attitude could be summed up by one early sequence, when he meets a co-worker and convinces her to go on a date, only to later miss the date, fall asleep, wake up, and decide to spend his night drinking with Shizo.

A love triangle between the roomies and one of the protagonist’s co-workers, Sachiko (Shizuka Ishibashi), brings some solace to the men’s lives. There’s redundancy to the way that Miyake frames these characters, showing their faces up close rather than the screens they peer at as they text each other, but his wide shots speak to how they all work to fill empty spaces. Miyake’s style is relaxed, almost as if his camera has absorbed everyone’s slacker vibes. Especially of note is a sequence that lingers at length on Sachiko paying for groceries while the two men in her life try to hold their laughter, saying to each other that she’s going to regret her purchase. Miyake’s gaze is empathetic, and there’s truth in his understanding that you have to sometimes laugh at your underprivilege in order to prevent yourself from screaming.

More tonally varied, and operating on a larger scale, director Tadashi Nagayama’s satirical Being Natural broaches the subject of gentrification as it immerses viewers in the daily routines of a middle-aged man, Taka (Yota Kawase), who lives in a small town in the countryside of Japan and works with his cousin, Mitsuaki (Shoichiro Tanigawa), and their friend, Sho (Tadahiro Tsuru), at a fishpond inherited from his deceased uncle. Everything starts to derail for the three men when a family arrives on the scene from Tokyo with the hopes of opening up an old-style café that will only sell natural and locally grown products. At the start of the film, the still-grieving Taka doesn’t fully understand what he has until someone tries to take it away from him, and by the end, a spectacular show of violence will see him finally realizing the nature of the economic system he’s trapped within.

The film’s style is initially sweet and mellow, with the softest of songs dotting the soundtrack. Taka plays bongos, and the sounds of the instrument are also heard throughout. At first, this sound creates a calm atmosphere that’s in sync with the bright cinematography. But as the film introduces a series of sinister twists, those bongos come to take on an almost murderous bent. The sounds of the instrument point to the encroachment of a capitalist economy on a place relatively untouched by it. In its final minutes, Being Natural takes a turn toward the supernatural, and it’s satisfying for giving the main characters the reprisal they want, but also poignant for the way it has us understand that it only occurs in the realm of fantasy. The film, in the end, acknowledges that it’s difficult to go against the system, and that to stay sane means finding a little pocket of happiness in the world and enjoying it while it lasts.

Japan Cuts runs from July 19—28.

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Review: David Crosby: Remember My Name Sees a Legend Carrying On

The film captures a man haunted by his past mistakes and nearly certain that he doesn’t have the time left to begin making up for them.

2.5

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David Crosby: Remember My Name
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

One gets the sense when hearing David Cosby perform that, like many naturally gifted vocalists, he was born to express himself through song, and given his tumultuous personal and professional life, the act of singing may be the only means through which Crosby can briefly maintain an equilibrium amid so much chaos. Womanizing, drug abuse, and band breakups are certainly par for the course for countless musicians, especially those who came up in the late 1960s, but Crosby is an extreme case even by those standards. It’s difficult to think of another living musician more strongly and uniformly despised by his former bandmates and collaborators and, aside from Keith Richards, another whose continued survival is more shocking in light of what he’s put his body through.

Aided by Cameron Crowe, who, as a Rolling Stone writer, interviewed Crosby various times and is on hand here to again pick the musician’s brain, A.J. Eaton’s David Crosby: Remember My Name opens with a fairly standard music-doc overview that traces Crosby’s productive early years with the Byrds and his ascent to fame with both iterations of Crosby, Stills & Nash. There’s no effort made to hide Crosby’s thorny personality or the chaos he brought to each of these early projects, but Eaton and Crowe seem initially content to butter Crosby up, joining him in waxing rhapsodic about his widespread influence and lasting importance as a musician.

The hagiographic tone slowly fades as the film moves past the perfunctory career retrospective and begins delving into the nitty-gritty details of Crosby’s bumpy road to stardom and his rapid descent into disgrace, spurred on by his decades-long battle with drug addiction. While Crosby often proves a tough nut to crack, rarely willing to linger too long on the painful moments of a life eventful enough to fill several documentaries, Crowe and Eaton eventually disarm him enough to tap into the frustrated, damaged, and regretful man hiding all those years beneath his patented walrus mustache and wispy, long hair. As Crosby discusses the petulance and rage he often unfairly directed at fellow bandmates and his mistreatment of many of his girlfriends, several of whom he got hooked on cocaine and heroin, one can sense not only the depth of his remorse and anguish, but also the resigned helplessness that little can be done in his twilight years to repair the many bridges he’s permanently scorched.

Throughout Remember My Name, archival interviews with Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, and Neil Young make it abundantly clear that Crosby has alienated each of his former bandmates to such a degree that none of them will talk to him again. Only former Byrds frontman Roger McGuinn appears in a newly recorded interview for the film, and he does so presumably only to describe how “insufferable” Crosby was as a fellow bandmate.

At nearly 80 years old, Crosby is happily married and in the midst of a creative resurgence with a string of acclaimed solo albums, but even these small joys are mitigated by his admission that he’s only touring, and thus often away from his wife, because he needs the money. During a leisurely drive with Crowe, Crosby visits his old stomping grounds in Laurel Canyon and the Sunset Strip and recounts those halcyon days when he lived with Joni Mitchell and sang his first song with Nash and Stills. But the magic of these locales has long since faded, leaving Crosby in an uncharacteristically introspective state and all too aware of how close he is to the end of his life. As he wistfully tells Crowe that he already has eight stents in his heart and will likely die in the next couple of years, the film captures a man haunted by his past mistakes and nearly certain that he doesn’t have the time left to begin making up for them.

Director: A.J. Eaton Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 95 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Cassandro, the Exotico! Shoulders the Strange Burden of Empathy

Marie Losier’s empathy, if not love, for Cassandro hinders her from examining his wounds with much depth.

2.5

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Cassandro, the Exotico!
Photo: Film Movement

Queerness isn’t just about the relationship between bodies: the ones we desire, the ones that will never desire us back, the ones we wished we possessed. It’s also very much a matter of cloth, color, and adornment. Many a pop-cultural figure has manifested this queer sartorial drama, from Liberace to David Bowie, from Leigh Bowery to early Lady Gaga, from Pepper LaBeija to Shangela Laquifa Wadley. And with her new documentary, Cassandro, the Exotico!, Marie Losier introduces us to a lesser-known, yet just as subversive, purveyor of that drama: Mexican luchador Cassandro, a Universal Wrestling Association winner and former junkie with a penchant for gaudy garments.

Ridiculous stage wear is, of course, fundamentally associated with professional wrestling, but Cassandro’s textile-informed camp isn’t compensated by violent machismo or a heterosexist mise-en-scène. Instead, this exótico is unapologetic about the seamless kinship between his queerness and that of the clothes he wears. And the continuum between queer sexuality and fashion places him simultaneously as the exceptional gay figure in a supposedly macho sport, the Mexican lucha libre, and as the element that outs wrestling writ large as an already queer affair. Cassandro, né Saúl Armendáriz, is, then, a ready-made cinematic character, bearing the contradictions of his world from the inside—a world where, much like ours, heterosexual male violence is performed through patently homoerotic means.

Although skin, bones, and fabric are all—to various degrees of visible and invisible discomfort—stitched into the gendered body, the film is precisely concerned with the moment when these connections come apart at the seams. After decades of fighting for a living, Cassandro’s body is giving out. This is a moment of desperation for someone who turned to wrestling as something between religion and therapy. We see him literally hanging his flamboyant costumes to dry on a clotheslines as he speaks about retirement, about how quitting would appease his body but demolish his ego. As the film progresses, his dislocated chin, limited hand movements, and multiple head concussions will seem like the belated embodiment, if not the psychosomatic scream, of a childhood marked by molestation and sexual abuse. A history of spectacular violence catching up to years of a much less visible brutality.

Cassandro, the Exotico! is largely observational, with occasional interventions from Losier. It wouldn’t be fair to call the film hagiographic, but the director’s empathy, if not love, for her subject hinders her from examining Cassandro’s wounds with much depth. When faced with Cassandro’s misery, Losier’s response is to console him as if wanting to change the subject. She cuts one moment of candidness short, when Cassandro is addressing his fears via Skype, by telling him, “I wish I could give you a kiss.” It would have served the documentary better had Losier granted her subject the possibility to work through his pain in front of the camera.

Visually, the documentary, which is shot on 16mm film stock, recalls canonical diaristic works that expose people’s troublesome feelings in raw and unbridled fashion (think Jonas Mekas, Sadie Benning, and Su Friedrich). Which makes the juxtaposition of Losier’s visual language and her reluctance to examine Cassandro’s frailties feel particularly displeasing. Perhaps afraid that scrutiny would shatter Cassandro, Losier fails to realize that it’s precisely through such shattering that redemption can emerge, maybe even reparation.

Director: Marie Losier Screenwriter: Marie Losier, Antoine Barraud Distributor: Film Movement Running Time: 73 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Interview: Marc Maron on Sword of Truth, WTF, and the Possibility of Change

Maron discusses modern media discourse, the communicative bridge linking his acting with his podcast, and how he likes to be directed.

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Marc Maron
Photo: IFC Films

Marc Maron is presently enjoying one of the most unlikely and inspiring success stories in Hollywood. Once known as a bitter “comic’s comic” who was eclipsed in success by contemporaries such as Louis C.K. and Jon Stewart, Maron has been reborn into a poster boy for empathy, starting with his blockbuster podcast, “WTF,” and continuing with roles in the hit television series Maron, Easy, and GLOW. With each role, Maron has rapidly evolved from a “comic who acts” into a first-rate character actor capable of subtly altering his charisma to fit a variety of oddballs who, like himself, struggle with self-doubt while attempting to walk a straight and sober path.

Now, with Sword of Truth, Maron makes his debut as a cinematic lead, playing Mel, a pawnshop owner who ends up on a road trip that stirs long-festering feelings of estrangement, which parallels the forms of isolation gripping a variety of other characters, and which the film’s director, Lynn Shelton, links to the reactionary myths and politics currently gripping this country. The role marks another career high point for Maron, who talked to me last week about the communicative bridge linking his acting with his podcast, how he likes to be directed, and the “mind-fuckery” currently gripping modern media discourse.

Given that you’ve previously worked with Lynn Shelton on Maron and GLOW, did you two have a kind of collaborative shorthand going into Sword of Trust?

Well, I’m generally filled with anxiety and resistance. I don’t know if there’s a shorthand, but Lynn knows how to get the best out of me and works with me pretty well. I like directors who’re hands on with me and guide me.

Do you like to receive a lot of explicit direction, or is your process more intuitive?

Well, I do what I do. I definitely welcome suggestions, because I’m certainly not going to think of all the possibilities of a scene. Most of my choices are not necessarily correct. I usually come in pretty intense and hot, and there’s subtleties that can be coaxed out with minor tweaks. And I like working like that. I wouldn’t have the confidence to assume that my take is the “right” one necessarily.

There’s a stillness to you in Sword of Trust that I’m not sure we’ve seen before.

Yeah.

Your weight as a performer is really felt here, especially in that scene when Mel first see Lynn’s character in his shop. I love how you enter the room from the closet, and how one can feel the emotion bubbling up in Mel.

Thanks, man. I think this is a heavy-hearted guy who’s sort of surrendered to his lot in life. He also has a certain amount invested in his own. I don’t know if it’s heartache, but he’s definitely a broken dude who’s making the best of whatever time he has left. I don’t know if the other characters are really like that. They are always in forward motion.

You also inform Mel’s appraising of objects with all these lovely emotional textures. He’s not only talking about a sword.

The guitar too. As I act more, I try to take some of the space that you’re talking about. With acting I feel that I’ve been learning on the job in a way, and over time I’ve started to explore different possibilities with owning whatever my space is, whether it’s a movie or on stage. Certainly, over decades of doing stand-up, I’ve figured out my space on a stage, but being on a set and pacing yourself and taking the time to engage with what’s around you I think makes a lot of difference in how a performance comes off. It’s about being present in an environment.

Has your ascending acting career changed how you relate to actors on your podcast?

Over the last few years, since I’ve started acting more, I’ve had more actors on. I tend to try to pull a nice acting class out of that. I think a lot of what my guests say makes sense. Once again, a lot of acting is about listening and being present. In another time in my life, I saw certain actors as mythic. Now that I’ve talked to so many of them, I’ve started to realize, not in a disappointing way, that…what’s the word I want? That these are people doing a job, all in their own way. Once you get upset with people, you realize, “Well, that’s how they’re approaching this job,” and when you get into the ring or the scene, you’re in it.

That inside knowledge gives “WTF” an edge too. For many interviewers, like myself, art-making is basically theory. But you have your feet on the ground so to speak.

I think that happens over time. I don’t think I ever set out to interview. I’ve framed what happens on my podcast as conversations, and they either go somewhere or they don’t. There’s a few points I may get hung up on, and there are places I go to fairly regularly in interviews, but I generally don’t see these conversations as question-and-answer situations. I don’t have any expectations really other than to feel a connection or to sort of be enlightened. I think those of you who have a job to interview, for an outlet, for the content and the word count and everything else, might have more restrictions. I don’t have to answer to anybody and I don’t know what I’m looking for half the time.

Yeah, and a challenge I’ve found with interviews is that one doesn’t always entirely know what is and isn’t in bounds, which can lead to an impersonal vibe. By contrast, your podcast has such an intimate layer throughout.

You have to feel that stuff out, you know I’m not necessarily intuitive about that. I’m not really in the business of sandbagging anybody.

Right.

Usually you get somebody comfortable and things come out. If people are comfortable and engaged it doesn’t really matter what they’re talking about. Audiences will say, “Oh, wow, I didn’t know that.” These conversations don’t require information, but an emotional connection. I’m so happy about that, especially considering the never-ending torrent of garbage that we have to move through every day.

I think about politics. Politics online are rarely civil, but when you get someone in person, and start slowly, and are willing to have a conversation, you can normally get farther than you might expect.

Online culture isn’t civil and there’s a momentum to everything that’s based on mind-fuckery. I know for myself—as somebody who was relatively disinterested and uninformed about the functions of government and why politics and leadership make a difference—that people are perfectly willing to volunteer their brains to these strange flashpoint reactors that trigger them emotionally. People live by these black-and-white decisions. It’s not good. We need to consider what we really know and how we know it and what we’re telling other people.

Yeah.

People are so empowered by garbage information that’s being related in a relatively shallow way, which doesn’t take into consideration the influence and context of the rest of our lives. It’s sort of a disaster. I try to stay away from that stuff in terms of the conversations that I’m having. I’m trying to deal with something more human and experiential. Most people are regurgitating talking points on both sides without thinking of how someone feels and how to affect change. I got an interview with Geena Davis [who stars in the new season of GLOW] coming up, about her work with her foundation and her work in this documentary about women in show business. It’s called This Changes Everything. I tell you man, when someone’s that personally invested in something they believe in, and it’s righteous, and they lay it out for you and it makes sense, that’s what heartens my belief in this possibility for change.

To change gears a bit, is it cathartic for you, as someone who’s long been in recovery, to play characters who’re either reformed or have drug issues?

Yeah, sure. Most obviously there’s the last season of Maron, where my character has a relapse, which frankly didn’t happen in real life. When you really understand the nature of addiction, and you’ve seen it from the inside, and know the powerlessness and the struggle to live a life that’s not in the throes of it—I mean, it’s such a common struggle. And what’s amazing to me is how many people don’t find a way out of that or don’t seek help. Or are ashamed of it or don’t know how to get the help. I never set out to do this, but I’m thrilled and humbled by the effect my work has on people who’re isolated by this sickness. It’s really one of the more satisfying results of the podcast: how much mail I get from people who’re struggling and who want advice, or who feel less alone from what I’ve said. The great thing about recovery, and about playing these parts, is that it gives you a context that’s very specific—a way to legitimately help people that can change their entire lives.

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American Demons: Martin Bell’s Streetwise and Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell

Bell proves uncannily adept at capturing moments that seem to encapsulate a subject’s entire emotional temperature.

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Streetwise
Photo: Janus Films

Decades after its original release, Martin Bell’s Streetwise remains a boldly empathetic work of vérité portraiture. Throughout the 1984 documentary, Bell, photographer Mary Ellen Mark, and journalist Cheryl McCall follow a motley group of kids on the streets of Seattle as they panhandle, dig food out of dumpsters, and prostitute themselves to much older men. These scenes are accompanied by voiceovers from the young subjects, who describe their actions with a heartbreaking casualness that communicates two almost contradictory meanings: that they’re seasoned hustlers, having bypassed childhood for an everyday form of hell, and that they’re desperate to be seen precisely as said hustlers. To show emotion is to be vulnerable, and these subjects can’t afford to be seen as weak, yet the filmmakers capture more here than the street children may have suspected. Streetwise is charged by a deep, subterranean yearning to be loved, or even merely felt.

A plot hasn’t been imposed on Streetwise, as the audience is allowed to feel the numbing monotony of life on the fringes. People swing in and out of prison, crash in and out of secret hovels, most notably an abandoned hotel, and practice their grifts, while struggling with overlapping tides of addiction and depression. We also learn, startlingly, that not all these children are homeless. Streetwise’s most famous subject, Erin Blackwell, a.k.a. “Tiny,” lives with her mother, a waitress and alcoholic who rationalizes her daughter’s prostitution as a phase and who seems to be impressed with Erin’s ability to make a few hundred dollars on a good day. It’s little wonder that Erin captured and continued to command the filmmakers’ attention for decades after filming Streetwise ended. She has a squinty yet expressive glare that suggests both a deep reservoir of pain as well as intense fierceness.

Bell, Mark, and McCall take Erin and her cohorts, most vividly a skinny boy with potential tonsillitis named DeWayne Pomeroy, at face value. Streetwise is pointedly devoid of the sermonizing that might allow audiences to comfortably distance themselves from these people, regarding them simply as elements of a civics lesson. The film forces us to confront the obviousness of these children’s circumstances, as people walk by them just as we all walk by the homeless on a daily basis. This sense of culpability informs Streetwise with an uncomfortable texture that’s familiar to documentaries concerned with poor or mentally and emotionally challenged people, so you may wonder how the filmmakers shot what we’re seeing without stepping in and helping these people. Particularly disturbing is when Erin, 13 years old at the start of filming, is seen getting into a car with an old man who’s obviously a john.

If Streetwise was just a portrait of damnation and delusion, it would be an important document. But the film is also haunting for Bell, Mark, and McCall’s attention to the transcendence than can be felt even in such extreme circumstances. After Erin has gotten into trouble, DeWayne tells her of how he will rescue her, and his attempt at gallantry is poignant as well as devastating. When DeWayne visits his father in prison, the old man lectures the boy about keeping his smoking down and laying off the hard drugs, commanding DeWayne to roll up his shirt sleeves for a track-mark inspection. As brutally sad as this confrontation is, one feels this father’s love and wonders if DeWayne, clearly a sensitive and lonely boy, can feel it too. Retrospectively, it hardly matters: DeWayne hung himself not long after this visit.

Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell, a 2016 sequel to Streetwise that’s been in the works for thirtysomething years, offers a variety of unmooring contrasts from its predecessor. Erin is no longer the slim spitfire of Streetwise, but an overweight fortysomething mother of 10 who understandably appears to always be on the verge of exhaustion, and who takes methadone in an attempt to keep her drug addictions at bay while wrangling with her children’s own skirmishes with the law. Looking at Erin now, one sees the scars and weariness left by a hard life, part of which was documented by Streetwise, and one can implicitly feel Erin’s need for atonement. Though Erin’s gotten off the streets, living in a large home with her partner, Will, and several of her children, the streets have never left her.

Formally, Tiny is much different from Streetwise. The 1984 film abounds in seamy noises and textures, with roving camerawork that seems to be uncovering a new lurid discovery every few seconds; it feels palpably dangerous, and probably inspired films such as Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho and Larry’s Clark’s Kids. Set predominantly in Erin’s home, Tiny is slower and more polished, reflecting the (comparative) stability that Erin has achieved since appearing in Streetwise. Tiny also has a fancier structure than Streetwise, with a framing device in which Erin watches footage of herself over the years, including unused outtakes from the first film, with Mary Ellen Mark. An autumnal tone seeps into the new film, which offers a kaleidoscopic portrait of the unending legacies of crime and addiction.

As in Streetwise, Bell proves uncannily adept at capturing moments that seem to encapsulate a subject’s entire emotional temperature. There are frequent shots in Tiny of Erin sleeping with a little dog close to her face, which suggest rare moments of repose for a woman who’s used to running her chaotic family like a hostage negotiator. Erin frequently calls the cops on her own children, especially the headstrong teenager Rayshon, which Bell unforgettably rhymes with footage of a younger Erin visiting two of her children in foster care. One of the foster care children, Keanna, is now a mother herself, and resents Erin for abandoning her and for continuing to struggle with drug use.

Which is to say that Tiny is as charged with turmoil as Streetwise, and Bell proves equally capable here of rendering full relationships with only a few images or seconds of running time. As in Streetwise, our sympathies are rarely overtly directed, as Tiny is somehow on every character’s contradictory wavelength at once, illustrating how difficult understanding can be to achieve, most notably in the face of disaster. Though it runs a trim 87 minutes, Tiny offers an epic and piercing portrait of a large biracial family that’s plagued by essentially every demon known to American society. Erin escaped the streets only to fashion a home that’s rife with the very issues that drove her away from her own mother. Like most people, regardless of social stature, Erin is stuck in the temporal loop of her own inherent nature.

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Review: Radu Jude’s I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians

Jude’s film is a bitterly comic essay on nationalist mythologies and historical amnesia.

3.5

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

Prime minister of Romania during most of World War II, Ion Antonescu is one of the era’s supreme villains: a virulent anti-Semite, Nazi collaborator, and authoritarian dictator whose troops murdered Jews with such velocity and enthusiasm that even Hitler was shocked by their actions. Upon ordering the forced expulsion—and, if necessary, genocide—of the Jews of Bessarabia and Bukovina, Antonescu proclaimed, “I do not care if we go down in history as Barbarians.” Radu Jude borrows that declaration, so haunting in its cruelty and disarming in its blitheness, for the title of his latest film, a bitterly comic essay on nationalist mythologies and historical amnesia that locates the seeds of Romania’s currently resurgent ethno-nationalism in the nation’s collective failure to truly confront its own past.

For while Antonescu was convicted of war crimes and sentenced to death by firing squad shortly after the war, there have been repeated attempts to rehabilitate his image in Romania since the fall of Nicolae Ceaușescu. Take Sergiu Nicolaescu’s 1994 film The Mirror, a hagiographic treatment of Antonescu’s rule that portrays the leader as a defiant protector of his people. Jude inserts a substantial clip of that film into I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians, having it play on a small TV set positioned in the exact center of the frame as we hear the off-screen voice of Jude’s protagonist, Mariana (Ioana Iacob), providing sardonic, outraged commentary on the film’s distorted presentation of Antonescu as a misunderstood hero. There’s an element of desperation in the scene: While Mariana offers an incontestable rebuttal, no one but her boyfriend (Alex Bogdan) is there to hear it. Meanwhile, The Mirror’s comforting nationalist lies are being beamed into homes all across Romania.

A headstrong theater director attempting to stage a public reenactment of the Odessa Massacre of 1941, in which Romanian troops slaughtered thousands of Ukrainian Jews, Mariana is obsessed with bringing the full weight of historical reality to her fellow countrymen. She obsessively reads histories of the period and drops quotations from philosophers and historical figures into everyday conversation. The film is consumed by lengthy, probing conversations—mostly shot by a statically mounted 16mm camera that pans back and forth to cover the actors’ movements—in which Mariana discusses art, philosophy, history, and politics with her various collaborators and friends.

Her most persistent interlocutor is Movilă (Alexandru Dabija), a local official tasked with overseeing the publicly funded production, who constantly pleads with Mariana to tone down her work’s unvarnished depiction of anti-Semitic violence. Movilă is a relativist, content in the knowledge that all memory is willfully selective, while Mariana truly believes in the power of stark historical truth. Though at times didactic and overloaded with quotations from the likes of Wittgenstein and Arendt, Jude’s dialogue nevertheless manages to feel remarkably naturalistic. That’s thanks in no small part to the powerfully unaffected performances of a cast that finds the subtle humor and neurotic character details embedded in Jude’s dense screenplay. Iacob captures Mariana’s unrelenting passion while also finding moments of vulnerability and self-doubt in the role, including moments of hesitation and anxiety borne of the fact that she’s a petite, cosmopolitan woman attempting to exert control over a large cast of rugged men, many of whom are diametrically opposed to the vision of her project.

Jude’s heavy themes are leavened by a self-effacing sense of modesty. Jude isn’t attempting to make grand pronouncements about the nature of memory and truth. Rather, I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians finds the director constantly interrogating his own perspective, questioning Mariana’s relationship to the wider public. That theme comes to a head in the film’s climactic presentation of the artist’s reenactment. Here, Jude switches from the warm dreaminess of 16mm to the harsh hyper-realism of digital video. The scene has the feel of a simple documentation of a live public event, but it isn’t clear that it’s actually any more “real” than the rest of the film. In particular, whether and to what extent the crowd of onlookers’ reactions are coached remains one of the film’s most intriguing enigmas.

Ultimately, Mariana finds herself perplexed and deflated by the public’s response to her work. One senses this reaction may be autobiographical for Jude, whose film Aferim! attempted to challenge Romanian audiences about the nation’s historical treatment of Roma people. As one of the few directors of the so-called Romanian New Wave whose work explores the country’s unsavory pre-Soviet past, Jude is swimming against the popular tide of revisionism and historical moral blindness. The anti-Semitic violence and hatred laid out in his latest is truly chilling, as is the contemporary tendency to diminish and obscure that dark past. But perhaps most disturbing of all is the idea put forth in the film’s conclusion: that one could present the truth to the public in all its brutality and horror, and it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.

Cast: Ioana Iacob, Alexandru Dabija, Alex Bogdan, Ilinca Manolache, Serban Pavlu, Ion Rizea, Claudia Ieremia Director: Radu Jude Screenwriter: Radu Jude Distributor: Big World Pictures Running Time: 140 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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