William Friedkin has had a fascinating—albeit puzzling—career, during which he has directed stunning works: stunning for their brilliance (The French Connection, The Exorcist and Sorcerer); stunning for their effrontery (Cruising and Rampage); and periodically stunning for their ineptitude (Deal of the Century). Yet Friedkin’s works are distinctly his, designated by artistic sincerity, ruthless moral curiosity, abstraction, and aesthetics that impart a sense that what Friedkin imagined has been translated to celluloid without the meddling of others.
After nearly two decades of regarding To Live and Die in L.A. (1985) with a spectrum of emotions ranging from disdain-at-first-sight to qualified enthusiasm, it occurs to me that of all his works, this is the film I have watched and pondered most frequently. No longer do I see it as a shimmering piece of costume jewelry, but a forceful, semi-serious diagnosis of a prevalent human malady: the discrepancy between what we desire, or what we are pleased by, and what we claim to value, not only in life but in cinema.
To Live and Die in L.A., with its apocalyptic oranges, resplendent greens, night-vision cobalts and original score by Wang Chung, so overdoses on color and sound that its beauty becomes queasy. Friedkin redirects the modern cop thriller through the chartreuse time machine of noir, adorned with the MTV confections of Miami Vice, but his film emerges as something far more nasty and authentic. It’s also a speedy film, scorched and arid, with few pauses. Even scenes of “downtime” are hyper-edgy episodes of self-humiliation where men coerce women into unwanted sex or drink too much and shout insults they ought to regret, but don’t. Friedkin labors to keep any iota of sincere communication out of the film, and as downtime scenes are usually reserved for frank communication and exposition, Friedkin keeps the flame so high in this film that we are perpetually distracted from the meaninglessness of the spoken word. The one instance where a character attempts profundity—informant Ruth’s speculation about the stars being “The eyes of God”—is embarrassing in spite of, and because of, its indirect attempt to state the film’s theme. Of course, federal agent Richard Chance (William Petersen) dismisses her invocation of an omniscient agency capable of rendering judgement because he can’t bear to contemplate the possibility his behavior is judged by anyone.
To Live and Die in L.A. is also quite amusing, presumably intentionally, but possibly not. The humor is a conscious or unconscious byproduct of Friedkin’s love-hate relationship with the genre he plunders, and also a reverberation of the aptly bipolar performances by William Petersen and John Pankow. Friedkin is sometimes evasive about whether his heroes are making progress or screwing up. He even includes a scene in which our buddy-partners shout at the top of their lungs in an office stairwell about what to do now that they have gotten a F.B.I. agent killed. Subtlety mutates into slapstick. And everything in the film, from a bathroom to a set of train tracks, looks appalling and gorgeous, and often appalling because it is gorgeous. The color is so separated from the image that it seems you could peel it off the screen like a scrap of Halloween cellophane. But Friedkin is not trying to get away with something here, but, rather, has chosen to make contrariness and fakery the underlying thematic traces of a film in which theme, rather than content, dictates form.
When Richard Chance is traumatized by the death of his partner, Jimmy Hart, there is something suspect about the dissociation in his voice when he invokes his grief to others in order to procure some particular result. We are so accustomed to the declaration of loyalty in the buddy thriller, prior to the quest for retribution, that a natural first response is to chuckle at the deployment of such an archaic cliché. Perhaps we are supposed to laugh, but not for the reason we think. It is funny that Chance can say with a straight face, in light of what we later learn about him, “Jimmy Hart was more than my partner, pal. He was my best friend for seven years. He was the most righteous guy I ever knew.” This proclamation is amusing for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that we are assured early on that Chance values righteousness. The greatest compliment Chance can think to pay his best Amigo is that he rigs a bungee cord safely. But Chance doesn’t have best friends; he has symbolic stand-ins, tenuously connected to him by a chimerical code of loyalty that he only pretends is reciprocal.
As Friedkin points out in his director’s commentary for the Special Edition DVD, every relationship in the film is counterfeit, perhaps even the partnership whose destruction sets events into motion. The characters in this film circle one another like vampire satellites, with such intensity and exploitation that we’re hypnotized, waiting to see how these orbits will fracture. Chance’s new partner, John Vukovich (John Pankow), not only assists the spectator in negotiating what becomes a progressively more problematic moral minefield, but by the film’s midpoint appears to represent the most familiar and stable version of the code of devotion that in theory should exonerate Chance for the laws he will break as he attempts to “bag” counterfeiter Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe). Vukovich agrees to assist Chance in bagging Masters, alleged to have murdered Jimmy Hart; yet Vukovich is aware of the line Chance must not cross and endeavors to prevent him from crossing it. By stressing the existence of this boundary, Vukovich is not just serving a purpose in Friedkin’s story, but calling attention, for the audience’s sake, to the conventions of the thriller Friedkin is eager to pulverize. But Vukovich, too, will ultimately be seduced by strange hero-worship of Chance to pursue the Cubic Zirconium of abusive power.
“Bagging” High Concept
Another interesting thing about To Live and Die in L.A. is that it appeared in Hollywood at a time when the pestilence of “High Concept” had blurred the line between art and artificiality. Unwritten scripts were commissioned for millions of dollars on the basis of a witty one-liner pitched to an executive who didn’t necessarily respect the art form. Posters had become more important than content and quality. Flashdance and Top Gun were pretty enough, but they were counterfeit movies—soundtracks and fashion shows cynically masquerading as films. With this in mind, it’s interesting to examine Friedkin’s film about human infatuation with phony but tantalizing things as a reflection of the era in which it emerged.
To Live and Die in L.A. was packaged to look like a commercial feast, complete with sizzling advertising and a best-selling soundtrack. An executive who read the screenplay in haste might have accepted at face value this story of cop buddies as a project with all the requisite ingredients. From the Director of The French Connection. Hell, it even has a car chase as its centerpiece.
But once the superficialities are shunted aside, it becomes clearer that Friedkin’s film strives to deviate from the norm. Its hero is a corrupt man emblematized by a refusal to change, and his partner willingly swaps his morality for depravity. The villain, who murders only those who have betrayed or endangered his interests directly, is never as unlikable as the hero becomes. The protagonist, whose conduct leads to the death of innocent bystanders, is dispatched in the climax without a tear being shed. The hero’s obligatory “romantic interest” is at the very least a reluctant victim of coercion, and, conceivably, might qualify as a sex slave. And the voracious slickness that taunts Miami Vice (1984-1989) has, by film’s end, become the source of as much discomfort as pleasure. So this is not your ordinary cop thriller.
To Live and Die in L.A.’s prettiness becomes less captivating as the narrative yields to its predatory instincts. The spectator is being sold something, and it’s not immediately clear how many karats are in Friedkin’s ring. One of To Live and Die in L.A.’s persistent motifs is the creation and pursuit of phony things. As spectators grow to distrust the contradiction between what the film introduces itself to be and what it in fact is, they begin as well to question their own moral gullibility and aptitude in judging what is set before them.
Friedkin situates in the center of his film a series of questions: What makes a person, a city, a motive, a movie, or a character within a movie attractive? How does one discriminate between the worthy and the fraudulent, and why do we make exceptions in art that we could not make in real life?
Let me tell you something, Amigo
Friedkin signals us early that To Live and Die in L.A. will mimic but ultimately violate the conventions of the buddy thriller. In fact, he allows Chance to warn us directly: “Let me tell you something, Amigo. I’m gonna bag Masters, and I don’t give a shit how I do it.” Friedkin doesn’t expect us to take this caution seriously because we hear it expressed so frequently in cop films that do not go quite so far into the mire.
Friedkin restrains himself for forty-five minutes before showing us an aspect of Chance’s character we rarely see in other buddy cop thrillers. Chance enters an apartment that does not belong to him, treats it as his own, and helps himself to the body of the woman, Ruth, who lives there. She appears to relinquish herself not by choice but because it is expected, and the dialogue the follows establishes that Ruth (Darlanne Fleugel) is an informant who Chance exploits and coerces for no immediate reason other than, to paraphrase Chance himself, he can do whatever he wants. He controls her by fear—that Chance will revoke her parole. Chance keeps her just dependent enough on the money he allocates that she becomes his property.
The further we go, the more we see how Chance departs from the codification of the acceptable renegade cop, and nearer to the codification of the criminal. Lest we miss Friedkin’s point, he adorns both his hero and villain with the same first name and shows us how their values converge. In some instances they even depend on the same individuals to protect and further their interests.
There is a societal agreement that we disapprove, in real life, of men like Richard Chance, although we glorify them in our art because they are exciting creations. They don’t require sleep. They subsist on cigarettes and can drink a fifth of whiskey before chasing down a lead on foot in the pouring rain. Chance and Masters are reminiscent of Harry Morgan, the anti-hero of Hemingway’s “To Have and Have Not,” in that they transform illegal occupation into a mysterious calling and vehicle for self-expression. In order to establish a parallel between renegade individuality and the invention of a self, Friedkin emphasizes the artistry of counterfeiting and labors to make the film itself resemble one of Masters’ canvases. When Chance ceases to be a convention he bifurcates into two versions of the same character: the unreasonable tyrant Ruth sees, but also the myth that gradually enraptures Vukovich’s imagination. Vukovich is a stand-in for the spectator who vacillates between repulsion and envy before ultimately capitulating to the excitement Chance represents. In the film’s coda he ascends to usurp Chance as next in line to enjoy the fruits of lawless abuse of power in pursuit of sensorial pleasure.
The “homoeroticism” that some critics and viewers detect in the film is most likely an amusing byproduct of Friedkin’s effort to establish these dual themes of infatuation and ascendancy. Friedkin exaggerates the machismo elements of the buddy genre—the swagger, the boys club milieu, the objectification of women, the loyalty of one partner to another—just enough that they begin to appear ludicrous, or like ferocious overcompensation for a deficit of sexual self-confidence. Vukovich becomes Scott Fitzgerald to Chance’s Hemingway, alternately enamored of and frightened by Chance’s exaggerated masculinity, which is moderately caricatured and expressed through the illegitimate exercise of authority and coercion. Vukovich, whose enchantment seems subdued and embellished in the same breath, is presented as a naïve boy who by the film’s end wants to emulate his role model—to possess what Chance possessed and to exercise power with the same arrogance. To the extent Vukovich represents the viewer, he accepts rather than rejects the fracturing archetype Friedkin dangles before us.
The car chase
It may seem at first that Friedkin is merely trying to outdo the chase sequence in The French Connection. But the car chase in To Live and Die in L.A. is utterly unique and superior in many respects to its predecessor.
The sequence that opens with the arrival of “Thomas Ling” at Union station and transforms gradually into the chase is the bedrock of the film. Everything that comes before leads towards it, and all that follows is the inevitable consequence. Many of the film’s ambitions are realized in this sequence—its themes are crystallized and conveyed visually, intellectually and emotionally. The geographic and narrative incoherence that may confuse or annoy viewers the first time they see it, over time, become its defining feature.
During this sequence, Friedkin imparts that human beings can be exhilarated by and fixated on things for primal rather than logical reasons, but makes this experience uncomfortable enough that we ask ourselves why this is so in this particular film. It is instructive, for example, that Chance appears to enjoy the chase more than he fears its consequences or cares to understand how it has come into being. By withholding crucial information, Friedkin permits the spectator to share in both Chance’s euphoria and Vukovich’s disorientation, regardless that a man who may have committed no crime has just been humiliated and killed because Chance is compelled to steal $50,000 in cash to implement his vengeance against Masters. This is Chance at his worst and his best. Everything we reluctantly admire and detest collaborate in one sequence where Chance loses control over events, and relishes—only as a charismatic sociopath could—every moment of indecipherability. In the continuation of the chase that follows the death of “Ling”, Chance is suspended in the time and space of pure, uninhibited action—the state he has sought all along.
Technically and artistically, every choice Friedkin makes during this sequence is exceptional. The chase is slow to develop. It’s not even clear that this is a car chase until after it’s begun. The compositions are superb; the editing sparkles and is frequently abstract. Friedkin even temporarily transfers the point of view to the pursuers without any formal introduction or establishing shots. By reusing set-ups, he induces a transitory sense that we are seeing the same action twice, or that Chance is driving in circles rather then being pursued. The rhythm of cuts and sounds as Friedkin percolates between perspectives and omniscient compositions escalates the sensual intensity, but also creates a void into which he inserts Vukovich’s peculiar transformation from manic backseat prisoner to disciple of Chance.
Narratively, this sequence is well designed and purposeful. It does not exist, as many chases do, for its own sake, contrived and introduced into the narrative for little purpose other than exhilaration of the audience. A number of ideas are cemented during the sequence:
1. Chance transgresses some vaguely established line of acceptable conduct, relative to other films that deal with the renegade cop theme.
2. Friedkin affirms that the thrill is more important to Chance than his professed objective.
3. Vukovich fuses with his hero, Chance. This is rendered with imagery and acting that suggests Vukovich fears and wants to be Chance.
4. The audience fuses with Vukovich, who is divided between his admiration for Chance and his dawning amazement at himself for doing so.
5. Friedkin makes us see Chance in a negative light moments before situating him in a euphoric context in which those doubts create an interesting distance from a character we are no longer certain we respect during the emotional high point of the film. We are, like Vukovich, the passenger in a car with a driver we no longer trust and whose volatility, once charismatic and traditional, is now spilled beyond what we are habituated to expect. Thus, the emotional apex of the film occurs when we are least certain whether our hero is indeed our hero. At this moment, there are neither heroes nor villains in the film.
Additionally, because it’s not clear who is in pursuit, or why there are so many of them, the chase has a surreal quality that easily accommodates Friedkin’s introduction of expressionistic elements. These elements solidify ideas without the anchor of literal specificity. In the midst of this frenzy, Friedkin successfully isolates Chance and Vukovich so that an abstractly-rendered psychological transference that occurs between them becomes a central focus of its discourse. What appears to occur within the car itself is that the ultimate cause for Vukovich’s inexplicable attraction to Chance becomes accessible to the viewer. Furthermore, this transference occurs at approximately the same moment the spectator may find himself admitting that he too is exhilarated by the conduct in spite of the fact it has trespassed the established boundaries of the genre itself.
The chase even has, for Chance, a sexual component. Sex is very strangely rendered in To Live and Die in L.A.; it is performance art that establishes hierarchies of control and ownership, and is never treated as believable, pleasurable or freely given. That arrogant, desirous gaze Chance foists upon Ruth forty-five minutes into the story—and which Friedkin thinks sufficiently important to reprise in the coda to suggest that the splintering of Vukovich’s conscience is complete—is the gaze of a man who is at ease abusing his authority and enjoys taking advantage of whatever is set before him: I can do whatever I want. But Chance’s euphoria during the chase is not a pose—it’s a true thing, and an orgasmic thing. Friedkin’s crosscutting between Chance, Chance’s bungee jump and Vukovich perfects an analogy between risk and the ecstatic discovery of a primal self in a sequence where Chance derives demonstrable gratification from his addictive and relentless hoarding of experience. Chance doesn’t seek vengeance but adrenaline, and is not afraid of death. This is the scene most directly related to Friedkin’s essential theme of fakery as it relates directly to the audience: Friedkin knows that we, like Vukovich, are so vulnerable to ecstasy in spite of moral qualms. Interestingly, it appears to be this aspect of Chance—the ecstasy, stubbornness and power of fearlessness—that makes Vukovich want to become him. And this is the aspect of him many viewers will appreciate as well, even though it makes them uncomfortable that they do. The moment at which Friedkin indicts the capriciousness of admiration occurs during a car chase, which is often the most artificial moment in a film.
This is one of the few cinematic car chases that positions the characters and audience for an even greater payoff. That is to say, the car chase itself has a punch line, delivered two scenes later (during the intermediary scene, Chance celebrates the commission of his crime with Ruth) when Chance and Vukovich learn they have directly facilitated the murder of a federal agent. This information is dropped, quietly but firmly, like a Samurai sword. Chance has brought about the identical consequences for which he holds Masters in contempt, even though his own superficial exaltation of behavioral codes is itself predicated on a skewed moral hierarchy of questionable sincerity. Chance is nervous about what he has done, but not remorseful; he doesn’t appear to give the moral ramifications of the death a second thought.
Chance’s indifference fulfills the promise of the chase sequence. This is the moment at which viewers are most likely to ask themselves the questions that Friedkin has wanted us to ask all along: Exactly who are the good guys and who are the criminals, and if there are both types in this movie, which is which? If Chance is no better, and possibly worse, than other characters in this film, why do I like him more?
Some might argue that it’s not necessary that we like anyone in any film. Many great works—including some by Friedkin—examine characters with few ennobling traits and disconcerting deficiencies. The French Connection is one pertinent example; however, Friedkin is honest about who “Popeye” Doyle is from the moment he is formally introduced to the audience. However, consider for a moment at what Friedkin has his hero do in the first act of To Live and Die in L.A.:
Save the President of the United States from a suicide bomber (with whom he pretends to empathize)
Comfort his traumatized partner
Overcome his fear to make a bungee jump
Celebrate with and receive praise from colleagues
Gives a present to his partner
Express deep feelings of loyalty for his partner, who is soon to retire
Suffer the death of his partner and “best friend”
Vow to avenge his partner’s death
Only in hindsight is it obvious Friedkin assembles this litany of orthodoxies with the hint of a smile. Shortly after we are sold on what a great guy Chance is, his attributes go into hibernation. “Popeye” Doyle and Jackie Scanlon (Sorcerer) are introduced without apologies by Friedkin; in fact, the first thing we are shown about Scanlon is that he will, with no reluctance whatsoever, participate in the murder of a priest for profit. Furthermore, in To Live and Die in L.A., stylized technique itself is used by Friedkin to excite us about this character. The flagrant cheerleading is evident in the pace, flattering compositions, self-congratulatory dialogue, score, and the selection of what Friedkin elects to show us about his characters before he gets down to the business of divulging what he has withheld. He labors intentionally to create a false impression. Otherwise, he would not exert such effort to ape a formula, borrowed from an array of other films, whose sole purpose is to induce the viewer to form a positive opinion about Richard Chance and a negative opinion about the criminal he is trying to foil. Friedkin would not do this unless it was important to him. And it’s important to him because, once we have agreed to stipulate that Chance is our hero, he wants, like a Judo master, to use the momentum of our own self-deception to flip us on our backs.
Friedkin directs us to accept Chance as our hero, and then discards the conventions of the genre, leaving us to flounder, like Vukovich, with the contradiction of our admiration and a conscious awareness that the film is forcing this point on purpose. Friedkin sets the bar for our tolerance at the fifty-yard line and moves it incrementally back, yard by yard: “Will you still choose to side with Chance if he does this? What about this?” At what point will our preconceptions about the genre itself conflict with the information provided us about this particular character? If we are compelled to remain stubbornly on the side of Chance to accomplish his objective, we must eventually ask ourselves Why?
There is no logical reason to admire or sympathize with Chance, other than that Friedkin designs his film so that we do so out of habit before we are provided with sufficient reason to object. Chance is not even sympathetic when he “grieves”; his grief comes off as counterfeit and manipulative, because he wants something in return for its demonstration. What attributes does Chance have? When we gather them we are essentially gathering a catalogue of adjectives gleaned from other cop scripts: He’s tough, driven, determined, he does what he says he will do and has the courage of his convictions. He’s cool under fire, fearless. But he’s dishonest, and he’s seldom nice, or fair. He’s capricious in his exercise of authority. And he’s more disrespectful and dangerous than his worst enemy, Rick Masters, who has become our enemy only because we’re rooting for Chance.
Admittedly, it sounds poorly considered to say that the character we forge the greatest kinship with in our film has many negative and few positive qualities: that he treats women like slaves, derides his partner for his virtue (after claiming to value righteousness), gets an F.B.I. agent killed and celebrates afterwards, may even be more repulsive than the villain—but that we’ll root for him nonetheless. However, this allegiance to Chance is apparently not anomalous. We learn from Friedkin’s commentary that Metro Goldwyn Mayer executives pressured him to shoot a preposterous alternate coda in which Chance survives because test audiences liked this character too much to see him perish.
The so-called Happy Ending—included in the Special Edition—is indeed of interest to scholars of this film for the intriguing reason that it is not happy. Even in his efforts to soothe nervous studio executives, Friedkin could not conceal the essential truth of his principal character. The Richard Chance he gives us in the alternate ending squats in an Anchorage outpost, clutching himself and looking either ill or disturbed—this is not Michael Douglas in Black Rain but Jack Nicholson in The Shining. If Friedkin couldn’t kill Chance, he wanted at least to impart this idea that Chance is too damaged to be envied, regardless of whether he is a fictional creation or not. The result is a Happy Ending that would seem to be more unsettling to most viewers than Chance’s obliteration.
The persistence of archetype
Although Michael Mann has explored this line between criminality and its counterforce, even his work—specifically Manhunter and Heat—stops well short of insinuating there is no separation whatsoever. Mann only argues that the criminal mind is accessible to the moral man who pursue criminals, and argues that if we are honest with ourselves about the nature of criminality we cease to find it unfathomable, and, in the case of Heat, may even find the individuals who perpetrate it more consistent and enlightened than those who seek to prevent it. Friedkin goes much further by contemplating the possibility that a sociopath may be drawn to law enforcement for the very reason that he is a criminal unconsciously disguising himself as its opposite. And I believe he integrates something else as well, having vaguely to do with society’s gullibility in being shocked that this might be the case. This is a riskier thesis than Mann’s, and Friedkin presses it explicitly without avoidance of its inevitable consequences. Our adulation of immoral cops in our art may or may not say something about us, but Friedkin probes our tendency to accept, without discrimination, such archetypes, and watches to see whether we squirm or proceed, unconsciously, to sanitize Chance in order to reinvent To Live an Die in L.A. as a film that meets the criteria for a genre it subverts. We are so unaccustomed to a lack of relativistic delineation between good and evil in our cop films that, if the test screenings are an accurate indication, we are as likely to suspend our critical faculties and stand by Chance as we are to reckon directly with what Friedkin argues.
Those of us who grudgingly like Richard Chance must eventually contend with our contradictions, and must admit as well that we are contrary creatures whose real-life ideals and principles conflict with our reverence for mischief and the brazen expression of power in art by characters we would find despicable were we to meet them in person.
When, in the pre-credit sequence, Richard Chance helps Jimmy take out the suicide bomber, he is saving the life of the President of the United States; this is not just any president but Ronald Reagan, who was adored for superficial characteristics that, for most Americans, displaced a recollection of the questionable things he did in the name of eradicating Communism from Central America (a rationale that some historians believe was itself a pretext). Just as Reagan’s charm—his archetypalness—is more often recalled than the suffering he inflicted, Richard Chance is more likely to be accepted by audiences for what he represents before, or in spite of the fact, Friedkin acquaints us with what he is. We will accept craziness in a cop hero—even tolerate illegality, or brutality—so long as it is directed at a morally more opprobrious target, and exercised with consistency, for some purpose we are convinced is worthy. Although Richard Chance has attractive, superficial traits that make him appealing, Friedkin incrementally reveals that he deviates from more conventions than he satisfies. And Friedkin seems fascinated with whether we can let go of him or not. The death of Chance will only surprise or punish a spectator who is unwilling, by the third act, to let go of a fraudulent grasp of this film as the story of good and bad people.
Perhaps the reason Chance compels admiration is because he embodies the fantasy of freedom expressed through uninhibited action, but within the parameters of a revered occupation. This is an attractive reverie because there is no separation between the primal “true” self and the oppressed, artificial self. This daydream is not so different from the one that leads Jack to invent Tyler Durden in Fincher’s Fight Club. Jack rejects Durden because he cannot accept the psychopathology that is the natural extension of the fantasy; Vukovich, however, accepts the derangement in order to retain the fantasy.
Unfortunately for the spectator’s conscience, while Chance is busy evoking the euphoria of unencumbered activity in high style, Friedkin evokes the consequences of these actions with a candor that is unusual within this genre, where it is more common for a director to romanticize, omit or disguise wrongdoing as relativistically righteous (i.e, the Lethal Weapon films). To further complicate matters, Friedkin abstains from demonizing Masters, who tries harder to exemplify his chosen code than Chance tries to exemplify his.
The pathology and consequence of wrong conduct is hardly alien terrain for Friedkin. But it’s more common for him, in his better-admired works, to tell such stories with a straight, rather than a painted, face. Also, his style must be considered: In The French Connection, Sorcerer and Cruising one senses no strenuous effort by Friedkin to compel an audience to like his characters. In those prior works, Friedkin’s method is to linger in dismay on decay rather than embroider it with cinematic body glitter and a fiery score. It is true that The French Connection bears resemblance to the film under discussion here. It raises similar questions concerning the renegade and whether the gratification of obsession is worth the mediocre results achieved. In both films the protagonist directly or indirectly murders an F.B.I agent and seems unrepentant. In neither film is the protagonist transformed by experience. However, in French Connection Friedkin is focused on telling the story. To Live and Die in L.A. introduces a second dimension that is superbly conscious of the way a story is told, the discourse between the film and the viewer, and, particularly, how devices are intentionally used to obscure filmic reality so that dramatic dynamics appear to be morally lucid when they are morally ambiguous. I believe Friedkin is intrigued that we are so quick to take sides in a movie, and so easily manipulated to accept complexity as simplicity. This is likely why he adheres to the conventions of the buddy thriller—at times pressing them beyond credulity—before escalating what becomes a point-by-point repudiation of the devices used in such films to make spectators comfortable with dynamics that should not evoke comfort. This is the technique used by Kubrick in Full Metal Jacket to alert us to the fraudulence of the war film; the use of this technique results in moments in Friedkin’s film that feel like satire. Ultimately, by projecting his story through the prism of self-consciousness he is able to make our willingness to accept a sociopath as a heroic figure in western, mob and cop films a component in the discourse.
What about the possibility we are entirely aware that we side with Chance for superficial reasons? We are not subject to any misconceptions that he is an honorable man, but we’ll forget about that for now because we like what we like more than we disdain what we disdain—this is a movie. The death of Chance is the price we pay, because the qualities that make his death inevitable are the ones we perversely admire. No other outcome is possible for a thrill-seeker who has burnt through his capacity to be thrilled. And, if after all of this, we like him still, then we are like Vukovich—not corrupted by Chance, but permitting ourselves to be seduced.
This last point is relevant to the film’s metaphors that describe the human intoxication with transitory sensory pleasures. Chance’s addiction to violating regulations and mores is another form of being entranced by shallowness because it leaps indiscriminately from one experience to the next. The nature of desire is to wander from stimulus to stimulus, growing bored and moving on. Chance embodies that same restlessness, although it is disguised as a strategy. His life is counterfeit because it structured around the search for sensation rather than meaning. Chance seeks revenge and breaks rules for this reason, but we must doubt he is sincere because Friedkin establishes through exposition that Chance has always broken rules and endangered lives, long before he forms an intent to avenge Jimmy’s death. His criminality is expressed because he craves experience more than he feels obligated to lawfulness. He loses his fear of death because his desire for sensation is so great that, having exhausted experience, death becomes one of the sensations he seeks.
For me, the brilliance of To Live and Die in L.A. is that, like Eastwood’s Unforgiven, it confronts and rejoices in the incongruities that arise when our captivation with mythic archetypes encounters our recognition that what we admire is unworthy. Friedkin tests the predictability of our attachment to convention by gradually expanding the magnitude of Chance’s debasement, while permitting him to retain the qualities we are habituated to extol, predicated on Chance’s insistence that abuse of authority is excusable because the ends justify the means. If we accept that he is being truthful, then we have accepted a false thing as a true thing so that we can, initially at least, enjoy rather than squirm through Friedkin’s movie.
Friedkin entices us to reflect on our contrariness by constructing an analogy between superficiality in human beings and the inherent desirability of objects that have no real value. He commences by stressing the metaphor of the artistic counterfeiter who applies meticulousness to the creation of something intrinsically worthless. Counterfeit money accumulates imputed “value” because it bears resemblance to something else, just as Chance’s story appears legitimate because it resembles the story of a good cop avenging the death of a beloved friend—but it is not. It is an imitation. Jimmy’s death merely provides Chance with a pretext—a plot device—to legitimize his abuse of power to the fullest extent. It’s true that Chance never pretends to be any better than he is, but he pretends to do what he does for a reason he claims to believe is honorable. By the close of the second act it becomes less credible that Chance is driven by moral imperative and more likely that he is engaging in a sequence of crimes of opportunity because they satisfy an inner need. The dramatic cliche known as “He killed my partner” is his license to do so. Friedkin extends this rationale to us to see if we are content to accept it as justification enough to approve what follows. Chance’s obsession with Masters begins to seem more like an example of one man hating a second because deep down he knows that his adversary is the shadow of himself, and the risk-taking is transformed from self-actualization into a disguised suicide wish. Chance and Masters are responsible for each other’s extinction. Vukovich, who surrenders to Chance’s version of reality, completes the act of killing Masters (because He killed my partner) and ascends the throne of corruption to perpetuate the cycle of sociopathy masquerading as righteousness.
It’s revealing that the part of Chance’s life that Friedkin reprises in order to introduce this theme of Vukovich’s ascendancy/capitulation is one of the most shameful aspects of Chance’s existence—his oppression of Ruth to indentured servitude. Vukovich looks vaguely absurd as the substitute for Rick Chance, and that absurdity is an indictment of a mind that prefers the mythic to the humane (“You’re working for me now,” he tells Ruth). By this point, most spectators would not choose to follow in Vukovich’s footsteps because we like what we like about Chance less than we dread the egomania and meaninglessness of his compulsions. Now, safely distanced from Chance, it becomes easier for the spectator to see how—but also why—Vukovich yields to temptation, because Friedkin has attempted to beguile us in precisely the same way.
Those of us who are absorbed time and again by Chance’s odyssey may wonder if we are unprincipled because we are contradictory, or simply human. Friedkin’s lesson may be that we need to question why we are attracted to and influenced by that which exhilarates the senses in spite of the fact we may be in complete moral disagreement. Is our art counterfeit if it goads us in the direction of making moral exceptions when characters are superficially appealing? Friedkin’s wonderful risk is to pose such questions in a film that itself, because of how fully it sates our desire for tactile pleasure, runs a risk of being mistaken for the disease rather than the diagnosis. Yet I side with those who believe this is a great and undervalued work that is effective and specific in its indictment, and is too blunt in its cumulative intentions to be mistaken for fool’s gold.
I suppose there’s a part of me, however, that is willing to accept inconsistency, because I continue to find Chance fascinating and his exploits entrancing. Even though I should know better. The words Friedkin chooses to leave us with in the song that accompanies the coda and end credits would suggest he does not doubt we will join him on this ride, replete with our contrariness and moral compromise. Indeed, he welcomes us, and relishes our reluctance:
I’m waiting for you, but you’re very late
I know you’ll come anyway, and I can hardly wait
Evidently, there’s a difficulty
I know you’ll come anyway, and I can hardly wait
Michael Crowley is a graduate of the Cinema/Television School at the University of Southern California. He held a miscellany of film-related internships and jobs (can you say gopher?) before working as a writer and screenwriter for about ten years. His non-fiction has appeared online and in magazines, including American Cinematographer. In 2000 he collaborated with Robert H. Smith on the non-fiction book Dead Bank Walking: One Gutsy Bank and the Merger that Changed Banking Forever. He is currently writing a novel and serving as executive producer for an independent feature—a ghost story—entitled Spectres. Mike lives in Payson, Arizona, where he is co-owner of a family-run investment management firm.
The 25 Best Films of 2019
Many of the best films this year are concerned with indulgent, unbridled madness, offering formal excess as a parallel to our modern cacophony.
This was a great, if bleak, year for cinema, full of mixed signals. As Disney consolidates a monopoly on popular culture, aided by a government that cheers corporate overreach, there are still too many scrappy, visionary films to count. Many such films were distributed by streaming sites like Amazon and Netflix, the latter of which is beginning to suggest 1990s-era Miramax, in terms of making fruitful risks that refute the mega-blockbuster mentality. But there’s a growing disconnect, between what’s available for most people to see and what critics champion, that parallels our era of growing political polarization.
More than ever, we live in an era in which people choose their own news and are hyper-focused on their own niches, which offers a paradox: While there’s freedom in such a lifestyle, it’s also deeply isolating. This context partially explains the exhilaration of Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman and Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, insular works that, in their popularity and acclaim, recall the audience-unifying glories of ‘70s-era American pop cinema, and of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, an intoxicating, perhaps reactionary fantasy that rues the fading of a diseased patriarchal life that was nevertheless responsible for the comforts of pop culture.
Quentin Tarantino’s tender and transcendent film is, most explicitly, a paean to Hollywood’s ability to control an undivided public’s attention via he-men westerns and musicals and TV arcana. Tarantino, dangerously and daringly, glorifies a less obviously political cinema, implicitly regretting the divisions that would mark the ‘70s and the present. Such division fueled movies this year, that, while troubling, were undeniably in sync with America’s bitter underbelly, such as Todd Phillips’s Joker, Clint Eastwood’s Richard Jewell, the Safdie brothers’ Uncut Gems, and S. Craig Zahler’s Dragged Across Concrete.
Many of the best films this year are concerned with indulgent, unbridled madness, offering formal excess as a parallel to our modern cacophony. One example is Harmony Korine’s extraordinary, absurdly overlooked The Beach Bum, a lurid and beautiful poem of privilege and self-absorption. Another is Bong Joon-ho’s smash hit Parasite, which suggests that every oppressed person oppresses someone lower on the food chain. This year, as political divisions deepen, cinema became more and more inventive with satirizing capitalism while simultaneously rendering its narcotic charms. There were also moments of immersive tranquility and introspection, offered by Donal Mosher and Michael Palmieri’s The Gospel of Eureka, Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, and Khalik Allah’s Black Mother, among others.
Do we suffer from too much? Are there too many films, too many hot takes, too much detritus to wade through? In an age of endless excess, the critic’s, and the audience’s, job is to discern patterns and meanings, to whittle chaos down to manageable stimuli. The best films of the year found artists grappling with this very chaos, mining the emotion of the spectacle of the political. Chuck Bowen
Click here for individual contributor ballots and a list of the films that ranked 26–50.
25. The Gospel of Eureka
In 2014, Eureka Springs became the first city in Arkansas to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Donal Mosher and Michael Palmieri’s The Gospel of Eureka doesn’t mention this fact, nor does it seek to explain why a town deeply rooted in Christian faith also has an outsized population of gay and non-binary citizens. The documentary isn’t a study of juxtaposition so much as an exploration of how the many strands of a person or location’s identity can’t easily be disentangled. Eureka Springs, both haunted by and economically beholden to the legacy of noted Christian nationalist Gerald L.K. Smith, proves a vivid backdrop through which to explore how neighbors overcome difference and embrace progress. Like October Country, Mosher and Palmieri’s latest is uniquely attuned to the fickle whims of history, politics, and biographical circumstance. Where their earlier film wondered how both the economics and personal trauma of war reverberated through a family struggling with decades of abuse, despair, and rebellion, this one communicates an atmosphere of persistent connection despite seemingly incongruous belief systems and lifestyles. The Gospel of Eureka’s overriding theme is mutability, and its one true enemy seems to be any form of dogmatism. Christopher Gray
24. Chinese Portrait
As a recording apparatus, the camera no longer disturbs or announces its presence. It’s a ghost in the room, as banal as a limb. Xiaoshuai Wang restores the exceptional status of that most revolutionary of technical devices in Chinese Portrait, a series of short-lived tableaux vivants for which the gravitational pull of the camera is re-staged. The simplicity of bodies barely moving before a camera that brings their quotidian temporality into a halt is nothing short of a radical proposition in our digital era—in the context of a culture obsessed with using cameras precisely as anti-contemplation devices, and a film industry still so invested in producing artificial drama in order to tell its stories. In Chinese Portrait, there’s no need for storylines, tragedy, or spectacle for drama to emerge. The drama is in the minutia of the mise-en-scène, in the gap between bystanders who return the camera’s gaze and those who don’t. The drama is in the camera’s de-escalating force, its ability to refuse the endless excitation it could provide in favor of one little thing: elderly people stretching in a park, black and brown horses in a field, two of them licking each other’s backs. This is the camera not as a Pandora’s box, but as a sharp laser beam with curatorial intentions. Diego Semerene
23. The Competition
Claire Simon’s The Competition follows the rigorous selection process for Paris’s iconic film and television school La Fémis, which every year accepts 60 new students, out of some 1,000 applicants. Throughout, Simon’s camera quietly observes the various phases of the selection process, aware that to best capture the anxiousness of a moment is to not embellish it. As a result, we come to take great pleasure in watching the most menial of tasks, such as a committee member counting numbers or checking boxes on a form. While those responsible for the selection process keep things mostly courteous among themselves during deliberations, it’s precisely when conflict emerges around a candidate that we realize how gracious Simon is with her subjects. It would have been easy to play up the drama or drum up miserabilist tales around the high hopes of candidates and the frustrations that follow. Simon focuses instead on how candidates trying to make a case for themselves are often self-contradicting, and as such difficult to truly assess; the film is also about the impossibility of objective criteria when it comes to such matters. The truly awful performances are never shown, only referred to in passing after they happened. This isn’t some reality show that allows us to revel in schadenfreude or root for charismatic underdogs. Semerene
22. Ad Astra
Throughout Ad Astra, James Gray uses the grand metaphors of science fiction to mourn the distance between a father and son that’s so often internalized as self-alienation. This repression, Gray underlines, has utility in a rationalized society: Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is the perfect astronaut because nothing unnerves him, as testified to by his diligently recorded pulse rate, oxygen levels, and the other defining statistics of his thoroughly technologized body. The inhuman coldness his father, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), foisted upon him is precisely what enables him to survive his epic quest from Earth to Neptune. Among Ad Astra‘s more universal themes is coping with and moving beyond the sins of previous generations, with overtones that evoke the climate catastrophe that global capitalism has prepared for us. When Roy finally finds his elusive target, floating out there somewhere around the rings of Neptune, Gray captures a heartbreak that will be familiar to many: a confrontation between a grown son and his erstwhile hero, both appearing suddenly small, frail, and all too fallibly human. Pat Brown
Gaspar Noé’s Climax reminds us how pleasurable it can be when a filmmaker essentially discards plot for the sake of unhinged formalism. The film works on two levels, as it’s a celebration of body and movement, featuring astonishing and painful-looking choreography, as well as an examination of the sexual resentment that drives a mixed-race dancing troupe. In early passages, actors more or less speak to the camera, a device that suggests a blunt clearing of the air. Later, when the dancers succumb to the effects of LSD-spiked sangria, Climax becomes a brilliant fever dream, an orgy of raw, flamboyantly colored psychosis that’s truer to the spirit of Dario Argento’s Suspiria than Luca Guadignino’s recent remake. Above all else, Climax feels pure, as Noé cuts to the root of his obsession with the intersection between sex, violence, and power. It’s a horror musical of hard, beautiful nihilism. Bowen
Slant’s Best Films of 2019: The Runners-Up and Individual Ballots
These are the films that just missed making it onto our list of the best films of 2019, and our contributors’ individual ballots.
From Chuck Bowen’s introduction to Slant Magazine’s Top 25 Films of 2019: “This was a great, if bleak, year for cinema, full of mixed signals. As Disney consolidates a monopoly on popular culture, aided by a government that cheers corporate overreach, there are still too many scrappy, visionary films to count. Many such films were distributed by streaming sites like Amazon and Netflix, the latter of which is beginning to suggest 1990s-era Miramax, in terms of making fruitful risks that refute the mega-blockbuster mentality. But there’s a growing disconnect, between what’s available for most people to see and what critics champion, that parallels our era of growing political polarization.” Click here to read the feature and see if your favorite films of the year made our list. And see below for a list of the films that just missed making it onto our list, followed by our contributors’ individual ballots.
26. The Plagiarists
27. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
28. The Lighthouse
29. What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?
30. End of the Century
31. Ray & Liz
32. The Wild Pear Tree
34. In My Room
35. Agnès by Varda
36. Her Smell
37. Dragged Across Concrete
38. The Image Book
40. Asako I & II
41. I Lost My Body
42. Gemini Man
44. In Fabric
46. The Mountain
47. Our Time
48. Little Women
49. The Dead Don’t Die
1. The Irishman
2. An Elephant Sitting Still
3. Her Smell
4. The Beach Bum
6. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
7. Marriage Story
8. Pain and Glory
10. The Competition
Honorable Mention: High Flying Bird, One Child Nation, American Factory, The Souvenir, Grass, Ray & Liz, Dragged Agaainst Concrete, Uncut Gems, The Gospel of Eureka, Ash Is Purest White
1. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
2. Uncut Gems
4. Marriage Story
6. The Gospel of Eureka
7. The Farewell
8. The Souvenir
10. Ad Astra
Honorable Mention: Last Black Man in San Francisco, The Irishman, Long Day’s Journey into Night, Ash Is Purest White, John Wick 3: Parabellum, The Beach Bum, Knives Out, Luce, Synonyms, Us
1. Ash Is Purest White
2. Uncut Gems
3. The Irishman
4. High Life
5. La Flor
6. The Souvenir
7. An Elephant Sitting Still
10. Black Mother
Honorable Mention: I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians, Ad Astra, Long Day’s Journey into Night, Pain & Glory, A Hidden Life, Asako I & II, The Wild Pear Tree, Little Women, End of the Century, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
1. Uncut Gems
3. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
4. La Flor
5. High Life
6. Ash is Purest White
7. Pain & Glory
8. In My Room
9. Gemini Man
10. The Competition
Honorable Mention: Ad Astra, Atlantics, The Beach Bum, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Black Mother, Diamantino, Marriage Story, Ray & Liz, The Silence of Others, Under the Silver Lake
2. Long Day’s Journey into Night
3. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
4. Black Mother
5. Ad Astra
7. The Competition
8. Ray & Liz
9. The Irishman
Honorable Mention: The Souvenir, An Elephant Sitting Still, Parasite, Asako I & II, End of the Century, Marriage Story, The Gospel of Eureka, The Beach Bum, Dragged Across Concrete, The Plagiarists
4. Long Day’s Journey Into Night
5. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
6. I Do Not Care if We Go Down in History as Barbarians
8. End of the Century
9. Ash is Purest White
10. Dark Waters
Honorable Mention: Ad Astra, Asako I & II, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Black Mother, An Elephant Sitting Still, La Flor, Gemini Man, The Irishman, The Souvenir, Uncut Gems
1. Uncut Gems
2. Marriage Story
3. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
4. La Flor
6. A Hidden Life
7. In My Room
8. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
9. End of the Century
10. Ash Is Purest White
Honorable Mention: Ad Astra, Diane, An Elephant Sitting Still, Her Smell, The Image Book, Parasite, Peterloo, The Plagiarists, The Souvenir, What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?
1. I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians
2. The Lighthouse
3. A Hidden Life
4. To Dust
6. In Fabric
7. Pain & Glory
10. Rolling Thunder Revue
Honorable Mention: The Mountain, Diamantino, Rezo, The Wild Pear Tree, Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love, Her Smell, Birds of Passage, Hail Satan?, Leto, The Silence of Others
Joshua Minsoo Kim
1. The Plagiarists
2. An Elephant Sitting Still
3. Chinese Portrait
4. What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?
5. Uncut Gems
6. I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians
8. Suburban Birds
9. Black Mother
10. Marriage Story
Honorable Mention: Atlantics, Grass, Honeyland, The Irishman, The Lighthouse, Non-Fiction, Our Time, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Ray & Liz, Varda by Agnes
2. The Irishman
3. The Souvenir
4. A Hidden Life
5. What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?
6. The Plagiarists
7. The Mountain
8. Ray & Liz
9. The Beach Bum
10. Dragged Across Concrete
Honorable Mention: The Hottest August, Dark Waters, Marriage Story, Atlantics, Empty Metal, Uncut Gems, Long Day’s Journey into Night, Ad Astra, High Life, Our Time
Sam C. Mac
1. Ash Is Purest White
2. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
4. Chinese Portrait
5. The Beach Bum
6. Uncut Gems
7. Asako I & II
8. The Gospel of Eureka
9. A Hidden Life
Honorable Mention: Long Day’s Journey into Night, Grass, 3 Faces, Peterloo, Our Time, Transit, The Plagiarists, Shadow, In Fabric, Suburban Birds
1. The Irishman
2. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
3. The Souvenir
4. A Hidden Life
5. Pain & Glory
9. The Dead Don’t Die
Honorable Mention: Ad Astra, Black Mother, Diane, Dragged Across Concrete, High Flying Bird, Marriage Story, Parasite, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Rolling Thunder Revue, Uncut Gems
1. Agnès by Varda
2. The Wild Pear Tree
3. I Lost My Body
4. Ash is Purest White
5. The Competition
6. Chinese Portrait
9. I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians
Honorable Mention: Long Day’s Journey into Night, 3 Faces, Atlantics, What You Gonna Do When the World Is on Fire?, Knife + Heart, Non-Fiction, Celebration, The Image Book, Black Mother, Portrait of a Lady on Fire
1. Uncut Gems
2. La Flor
4. The Souvenir
7. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
8. Long Day’s Journey Into Night
9. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
10. The Beach Bum
Honorable Mention: Ad Astra, Ash is the Purest White, Black Mother, Diamantino, A Hidden Life, High Life, Honeyland, The Hottest August, The Irishman, Marriage Story
2. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
3. La Flor
4. The Irishman
5. Pain & Glory
7. The Gospel of Eureka
8. Chained for Life
9. Under the Silver Lake
Honorable Mention: The Dead Don’t Die, The Farewell, Gemini Man, A Hidden Life, High Flying Bird, Knives Out, In Fabric, Our Time, Shadow, Transit
2. Uncut Gems
3. The Image Book
4. The Lighthouse
5. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
6. High Life
7. I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians
8. The Irishman
9. The Gospel of Eureka
Honorable Mention: Ash Is Purest White, Chinese Portrait, Climax, Cold Case Hammarskjöld, Hustlers, Long Day’s Journey into Night, The Mountain, Our Time, Los Reyes, The Souvenir
Review: Seberg Is an Ill-Defined Ode to an Icon of the French New Wave
Throughout, the filmmakers occlude the most fascinating and potentially powerful elements of Jean Seberg’s history.2
During her return to Hollywood in the late 1960s, Jean Seberg became a visible supporter of the Black Panther Party. This put her on the watch list of J. Edgar Hoover’s F.B.I., and, hounded by their surveillance and muckraking, she would die of an apparent suicide in 1979. It’s a tragic story, but on its face, it’s not material for a political thriller, even if Benedict Andrews’s Seberg tries halfheartedly to make it one.
In transforming Seberg’s life into a plot-heavy narrative of secrets, intrigue, and betrayals, the filmmakers occlude the most fascinating and potentially powerful elements of her history. And, along the way, they do something of a disservice to the actress’s memory by stopping short of depicting her tragic end—concluding the film, of all places, at the end of a redemptive arc for Jack Solomon, an F.B.I. agent played by Jack O’Connell.
Kristen Stewart plays Seberg as a basically honest but somewhat impulsive woman whose fragility is almost always apparent, given the unsteady gazes and fidgety movements that are Stewart’s trademarks as an actor. It’s a performance that lacks a certain specificity. Even if Seberg suffered from doubts, she could put on a certain small-town Midwestern solidness, as is apparent in interviews from the ‘60s. Stewart’s indifferent imitation of the real Seberg’s diction-coach-inflected Midwestern accent also sticks out for its inconsistency, constantly pulling the viewer out of 1968 and muddling our sense of who this woman is meant to be.
But if Stewart’s Seberg is vaguely drawn, she’s a Rembrandt portrait in comparison to the cardboard F.B.I. agent that Andrews and screenwriters Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse construct as the secondary main character. The film constantly intercuts between Seberg’s activism and bid for Hollywood stardom and Solomon’s surveillance of and growing sympathy for her. A decent, milquetoast G-man, Solomon essentially exists here to recuperate the image of the F.B.I., even as he’s portrayed as being in charge of the campaign against Seberg. While his hypermasculine colleagues trade racist jokes and exploit their male privilege—patently illustrated in an extraneous scene in which his partner, Carl (Vince Vaughn), essentially commits domestic abuse over dinner—Solomon is set up as the idealized model of an F.B.I. agent, a consummate professional interested only in uncovering crimes.
Admittedly, some of the more interesting parts of Seberg come from Solomon’s research: As he watches iconic moments from the actress’s career, recreated by Stewart, he begins to assemble a portrait of a woman damaged by both Hollywood’s and the federal government’s efforts to control her life. In scenes that might have had more impact if either character had more definition, Seberg imprints herself on Solomon through black-and-white footage and surveillance tapes, and, at times, Seberg gestures toward a Hollywoodized version of The Lives of Others. Eventually, Solomon begins informing on himself, making anonymous phone calls to Seberg to tell her she’s under watch. But Solomon is too conveniently good, too isolated from the reactionary “boy’s club” culture of the F.B.I., for his transformation to carry much weight. Furthermore, this fabricated character functions to glom a handy moral redemption onto a story that would not appear to have many good feels readily available to it.
In fact, there’s much here that feels too convenient. For one, the filmmakers downplay the radicalness of supporting the Black Panther Party and their allies in 1968. The story is told from a perspective in which lending such support is almost transparently the right thing to do, even if it flies in the face of Hoover’s F.B.I. This is admirable, in a sense, but it gives us little impression of the tumult and uncertainty of American society in the late ‘60s. For a film about a period of unrest and the icon at the center of Godard’s aesthetically groundbreaking Breathless, it’s also markedly conventional. Andrews plays it safe with his framing and storytelling, not capturing much of a sense of atmosphere in his depiction of a society and a Hollywood institution undergoing waves of turmoil and reorganization.
Furthermore, the filmmakers’ choices regarding narrative focus are telling: Solomon’s half of the story drives the most important pieces of the plot—since it’s the surveillance that ruins Seberg’s relationships and fractures her sanity. Meanwhile, her lover, the black radical Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie), and his wife (Zazie Beetz) are turned into functionaries of the main white characters. Surely these historical figures, too, experienced mental anguish at the hands of the F.B.I.’s surveillance apparatus, but their oppression, when discussed here, becomes mere background to Seberg’s breakdown. Once again, black liberation becomes white people’s story, as Seberg’s connection with a movement composed principally of black people is subordinated to the film’s gratuitous interest in planting a good man in the F.B.I. Unable to imagine and unwilling to explore what oppression truly feels like, it contents itself with saying the right things and centering white people as the sole agents of history.
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Jack O’Connell, Anthony Mackie, Margaret Qualley, Zazie Beetz, Yvan Attal, Vince Vaughn, Stephen Root, Colm Meaney, Gabriel Sky Director: Benedict Andrews Screenwriter: Joe Shrapnel, Anna Waterhouse Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 96 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Black Christmas Takes a Simplistic Stab at the Battle of the Sexes
Sophia Takal’s remake elides the thorny, complicated nature of the original’s sexual politics.1.5
Bob Clark’s 1974 Canadian horror classic Black Christmas depends, for effect, on the terrifying unknowability of its killer, and delights in a twisted web of psychosexual tensions. As a proto-slasher film set in a sorority house, it’s also surprisingly celebratory of female agency and empowerment, particularly through its normalized depiction of women discussing abortion a mere five years after Canada officially legalized the procedure. Sophia Takal’s remake, however, elides the thorny, complicated nature of the original’s sexual politics, transforming what was once a terrifyingly ambiguous male threat upon unsuspecting women into an explicit and hackneyed embodiment of the patriarchy itself in the form of a fraternity of hooded, Skull and Bones-esque alpha males.
Takal and co-screenwriter April Wolfe obviously aim to update Black Christmas for the Me Too era, but they settle for hollow wish fulfillment rather than meaningful social critique. When Kris (Aleyse Shannon), the most politically active of the core group of sorority girls in the film, steps up to a group of emphatically evil frat boys—“You messed with the wrong sisters!”—it’s apparent that the filmmakers are less interested in actually dissecting the precepts and effects of college rape culture and the patriarchal dominance still coursing through our institutions of higher learning than they are in clumsily upending that male authority with increasingly pedantic signposts of “don’t tread on me” girl power.
It’s a shame because Takal exhibits a deep sensitivity toward her main protagonist, Riley (Imogen Poots), which is particularly evident in the film’s depiction of the young woman’s trauma from being drugged and raped three years ago by Brian (Ryan McIntyre), the former president of DKO, Hawthorne College’s most prestigious fraternity. It’s both moving and amusing to see Riley, after years of not being believed, and several of her sorority sisters perform a clever twist on “Up on the Housetop” at DKO’s Christmas party, for the way it calls out rape culture and deliberately embarrasses Brian upon his return to campus. But following this scene, Black Christmas’s condemnation of toxic masculinity is dulled as it goes about painting both its male and female characters in broader and broader strokes.
Carey Elwes’s misogynist Professor Gelson, who’d be twirling his mustache if he had one, is a virtual clone of acclaimed psychologist Jordan Peterson, and he’s surrounded by a fleet of interchangeable, cartoonishly villainous dudebros involved in some shady dealings at DKO that shift from the harmlessly cliché to the patently absurd. The women of this remake don’t exactly fare much better, as they’re constantly lauded for their strength and loyalty—most ridiculously in a lengthy digression during which the sorority sisters are compared to ants—yet with the exception of Riley, they never rise above their paper-thin conceptions.
The filmmakers’ overly simplistic depiction of good and evil is mitigated to some degree by the presence of Landon (Caleb Eberhardt), the awkward white-knight character whose compassion and respect for Riley serves as a much-needed, though muted, contrast to the rampant machismo and fragility that defines so many of the film’s other male characters. But as the large horde of black-masked and hooded men spread across campus, slaughtering sorority girls with reckless abandon, Black Christmas builds to a strained confrontation between the sexes that doesn’t fall into any sort of gray area when it comes to its depiction of male-female conflict. Instead, the film hammers home the same simplistic, however valid, points about male sovereignty on college campuses that it’s already made at least a dozen times.
With this third act’s introduction of supernatural elements linked to a mysteriously powerful black liquid that leaks from within the college founder’s bust, Black Christmas goes completely off the rails, setting up an action set piece that makes the “Marvel Women assemble” moment from Avengers: Endgame seem slyly deployed by comparison. Takal is gleeful in her depiction of the patriarchy getting its comeuppance, but her expression of female empowerment is misguided for succumbing to revenge fantasy, suggesting that the path toward equality lies in the very same forms of violence that men have enacted upon women for centuries.
Cast: Imogen Poots, Aleyse Shannon, Lily Donoghue, Brittany O’Grady, Caleb Eberhardt, Cary Elwes, Simon Mead, Madelaine Adams, Zoë Robins, Ryan McIntyre Director: Sophia Takal Screenwriter: Sophia Takal, April Wolfe Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 92 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Review: Jumanji: The Next Level Finds a Series Stuck in Repeat Mode
The moments in which the film’s blockbuster stars play memorably against type are quickly subsumed by the ugly chaos of the action.1
Jake Kasdan’s Jumanji: The Next Level visibly strains to justify its existence beyond the desire for profit. The wild success of its predecessor guaranteed another entry in the series, but there’s so little reason for its characters to return to the video game world of Jumanji that this film struggles to orient them toward a collision course with destiny.
Now scattered to the winds of collegiate life, Spencer (Alex Wolff), Martha (Morgan Turner), Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), and Bethany (Madison Iseman) keep in touch via group text as they plan a reunion over winter break. Kasdan shoots these moments with excruciating pauses that would seem a deliberate reflection of the awkward cadences of texting were the characters’ in-person conversations not every bit as stilted and arrhythmic. It’s hardly any wonder, then, that Spencer, already so anxiety-ridden, is driven to such insecurity over the possibility that the members of his friend group went their separate ways that he reassembles the destroyed Jumanji game in order to feel some of the heroism he did during the gang’s earlier adventure.
Soon, Spencer’s friends discover what he did and go into Jumanji to get him, the twist this time being that everyone gets assigned to a different player than they were last time, complicating their grasp of the game’s mechanics. But making matters worse is that Jumanji also sucks in Spencer’s grandfather, Eddie (Danny DeVito), who gets assigned Spencer’s old hero, Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), as well as Eddie’s estranged business partner and friend, Milo (Danny Glover), who’s placed into the body of zoologist Frankling Finbar (Kevin Hart).
The sight of Johnson and Hart shaking up their stale partnership by play-acting as old men briefly enlivens The Next Level after 40 minutes of laborious setup and leaden jokes. Watching the Rock scrunch up his face as he strains to hear anyone and speaking every line in a high, nasal whine with halting confusion does get old after a while, but there’s an agreeable hint of his tetchy, anxious performance in Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales to be found here.
Hart may be even better, tempering his exhausting manic energy by running to the other extreme to parody Glover’s deliberate manner of speaking. The actor draws out every sentence into lugubrious asides and warm pleasantries even in the midst of danger. In the film’s only laugh-out-loud moment, Milo spends so much time spouting asinine facts that he fails to prevent Eddie from losing a player life, prompting a baffled and anguished Milo to lament, “Did I kill Eddie by talking too slow, just like he always said I would?”
But such moments, in which the film’s blockbuster stars play against type, are quickly subsumed by the ugly chaos of the action. There’s no sense of escalation to The Next Level, with each set piece almost instantly collapsing into a busy spectacle of eluding stampeding animals, running across rope bridges, and taking on waves of enemies. There’s no weight to any of these sequences, nor to the game’s new villain, a brutal conqueror (Rory McCann) who embodies all the laziness of the writing of antagonists for hastily assembled sequels.
Likewise, for all the emphasis on video game characters who can be swapped out on a whim, it’s the players themselves who come across as the most thinly drawn and interchangeable beneath their avatars. None of the kids have any real personality, merely a single defining quirk that makes it easy to identify them when their avatars mimic them. And when the film pauses to address some kind of character conflict, be it Spencer and Martha’s ambiguous relationship or Eddie and Milo’s attempts at reconciliation, it only further exposes the film’s meaninglessness. The original 1995 film, disposable as it may be, finds actual pathos in its menacing escalation of horrors and the existential terror of contemplating a lifetime stuck in the game as the world moved on. The Next Level, on the other hand, is a moribund, hollow exercise, dutifully recycling blockbuster and video game tropes without complicating either.
Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black, Karen Gillan, Danny DeVito, Danny Glover, Ser’Darius Blain, Morgan Turner, Nick Jonas, Alex Wolff, Awkwafina, Rhys Darby, Rory McCann Director: Jake Kasdan Screenwriter: Jake Kasdan, Jeff Pinkner, Scott Rosenberg Distributor: Columbia Pictures Running Time: 123 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack
Review: Chinese Portrait Is a Grand Reckoning with the Passage of Time
The drama here is in the gap between bystanders who return the camera’s gaze and those who don’t.3.5
As a recording apparatus, the camera no longer disturbs or announces its presence. It’s a ghost in the room, as banal as a limb. Xiaoshuai Wang restores the exceptional status of that most revolutionary of technical devices in Chinese Portrait, a series of short-lived tableaux vivants for which the gravitational pull of the camera is re-staged.
The simplicity of bodies barely moving before a camera that brings their quotidian temporality into a halt is nothing short of a radical proposition in our digital era—in the context of a culture obsessed with using cameras precisely as anti-contemplation devices, and a film industry still so invested in producing artificial drama in order to tell its stories. In Chinese Portrait, there’s no need for storylines, tragedy, or spectacle for drama to emerge. The drama is in the minutia of the mise-en-scène, in the gap between bystanders who return the camera’s gaze and those who don’t. The drama is in the camera’s de-escalating force, its ability to refuse the endless excitation it could provide in favor of one little thing: elderly people stretching in a park, black and brown horses in a field, two of them licking each other’s backs. This is the camera not as a Pandora’s box, but as a sharp laser beam with curatorial intentions.
The drama here is also in Chinese Portrait’s very concept, which is similar to that of Abbas Kiarostami’s 24 Frames, where motion is born out of prolonged stillness, and to that of Susana de Sousa Dias’s works on the effects of Portuguese dictatorship, Obscure Light and 48, where stillness is all there is, photographs namely, and yet so much moves. Wang’s film also bears a kinship with Agnès Varda’s later work, where a human being is made singular in a fast-moving world by standing still and recognizing the device that records them. Both Varda and Wang seem to see sacrilege in taking the camera for granted. A couple of tableaux in Chinese Portrait derail the notion of the individual embossed from their habitat by the camera’s insistent gaze, as in a group of men kneeling down to pray, their backs to the audience, and a later segment of a crowd standing entirely motionless in the middle of an abandoned construction site, sporting scarves and winter jackets, staring at the camera in unison.
Something remains quite alive and oddly “natural” within the documentary’s portraits as Wang’s mostly still subjects inhabit the gap between staging and posing by appearing disaffected. Or perhaps they’re stunned by modernity’s deadlock. Everyone seems perpetually in transit yet perpetually stuck. Wang’s fleeting portraits feature Chinese folk confronting the lens in their everyday environments, but not all of them react to the camera’s might in the same way. Some stand still and stare while others look away, but they’re all largely aware of the recording device singling them out as muses of the landscape.
The portraits offer evidence of differing temporalities in this numbingly fast world, too convinced of its universal globalism. Evidence of conflicting temporalities within worlds, too, as some subjects in the same frame bother to stop and others go on about their lives. In a provincial alleyway, various men sit on stoops from foreground to background. Some stare into the horizon—that is, a cemented wall, the film’s most recurring motif. Others refuse to allow the viewers to be the only ones looking. Several bathers on a sandy beach stare at the off-camera ocean, except for one man wearing a large fanny pack, certainly staring at us behind his shades. At a construction site, an excavator digs while another worker sits on a slab of concrete, gawking at us as we gawk at them. A man rests his hands on his hoe to look at the camera with a half-smile, like someone from the 1980s, who may approach the cameraperson to ask what channel this is for and when he can expect to be on television.
Through the sheer power of blocking, the methodical positioning of elements in the frame, Wang reaches back to a time when there was an interval, a space for waiting and wondering, between an image being taken and an image being seen. Another temporality, indeed, captured by cameras, not telephones. That was back when sharpie scribbles would don the tail end of film reels, which are kept in the frame here by Wang, as one portrait transitions into the next. The filmmaker’s urgent reminder seems to be that it’s not all just one continual flow. Time can actually stop, and we can choose to look or to look away.
Director: Xiaoshuai Wang Distributor: Cinema Guild Running Time: 79 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
Review: Bombshell Is a Collection of Quirks in Search of a Trenchant Criticism
The film is too irreverent in tone and narrow in scope to place Roger Ailes’s criminality in a larger, more meaningful context.1.5
With Bombshell, director Jay Roach and screenwriter Charles Randolph make heroes of the women who brought down Roger Ailes, the late chairman and CEO of Fox News who was accused by several former employees—including star anchors Megyn “Santa Just Is White” Kelly and Gretchen Carlson—of sexual harassment in 2016. The filmmakers keenly depict these women’s courage and fixate on the toxic culture at Fox that fostered so much fear and intimidation, but Bombshell is too irreverent in tone and narrow in scope to place Ailes’s criminality in a larger, more meaningful context.
The film begins in the summer of 2016 with the Republican Party presidential debate in Iowa, where Kelly (Charlize Theron), the moderator, confronts Donald Trump with highlights of his long history of misogyny. This grilling, and her increasingly—if relatively—feminist stance on the Fox News daytime program The Kelly File, is met by backlash from the ascendant Trump cult, as well as Ailes (John Lithgow), whose professional relationship with Kelly at first seems productive in spite of its combativeness. Meanwhile, Carlson (Nicole Kidman) is fired from another Fox program, The Real Story, possibly for her own newfound—if, again, relative—feminism, and counters by filing a sexual harassment suit against Ailes.
Waiting for colleagues to make similar accusations in order to bolster her case, Carlson is left twisting in the wind by a collective fearful silence—a silence that even fierce former victim Kelly obeys—while Ailes and his litigation team prepare a defense. A third storyline involves “millennial evangelical” Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie), a composite character representing the many ambitious young women who suffered Ailes’s demeaning treatment in order to get ahead at Fox and the other organizations for which he worked.
Bombshell operates in a style that has become numbingly de rigueur since Oliver Stone’s W., in which political and corporate corruption are presented in a dramatic yet amiably humorous style that takes the edge off any potentially trenchant critique. Fourth walls are broken, jokes punctuate scenes, and the ambiance remains oddly congenial despite the purportedly suffocating and repressive environment of the Fox News offices.
Thankfully, there are moments when the actors transcend the too-casual tone. Lithgow portrays Ailes not merely as a dirty old man, but as a pitiful control freak whose disgusting actions unwittingly reveal a deep insecurity. The tensely coiled Kelly is a mass of contradictions, and one argument that she has with her husband, Douglas Brunt (Mark Duplass), over an embarrassingly fawning follow-up interview with Trump is memorable for allowing Theron to reveal the strain imposed on Kelly by conflicting personal, professional, and political allegiances. Robbie—frequently playing off a versatile Kate McKinnon’s co-worker/lover—moves from bubbly naïveté to painful humiliation with convincing subtlety.
And yet, Bombshell is predicated on several dubious ideas that ultimately blunt its power. The film relishes the downfall of a public figure, as well as the growing chaos of a divided Fox News. By the end of the film, we’re expected to feel righteous satisfaction when justice comes to Ailes in the form of a disgraceful resignation. But such a response can only feel hollow when the country continues to suffer from widespread problems cultivated by Fox from the same sexist, callous, and exploitative worldview at the root of Ailes’s behavior. The film only briefly and tangentially explores this worldview, and mostly uses it to simply highlight conservative hypocrisy and the general sliminess of the Fox organization.
Bombshell also delights in referencing battles fought among high-profile public figures, emphasizing the kind of inside baseball that the media routinely focuses on instead of more complex and endemic manifestations of national issues. Rather than understand Ailes’s harassment in relation to the sexism so deeply embedded in American corporate media and culture, the filmmakers reduce that sorry tradition to the confines of the Fox News offices and elite legal channels. This approach allows viewers to understand the organizational and legal pressures that made it so hard for Carlson and others to speak out about Ailes, but once Carlson files her charges, the abuse that she and others endured becomes overshadowed by competitive backroom negotiations and maneuverings.
The film reinforces this emphasis with gratuitous appearances by actors playing famous Fox News personalities (Geraldo Rivera, Neil Cavuto, and Sean Hannity) who are tangential to the narrative, as well as cutesy direct-address segments meant to make us feel in the know about the world of Fox. This is the stuff that Roach, who’s mostly directed broad comedies, and Randolph, who co-wrote The Big Short, clearly relish, but rather than connecting with the viewer through these strategies, Bombshell mostly feels insular, remote, and superficial. It would be nice if for once an accessible mainstream film took on the institutional powers that detrimentally shape our world with anger and incisiveness rather than a bemused concern.
Cast: Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, John Lithgow, Kate McKinnon, Mark Duplass, Connie Britton, Rob Delaney, Malcolm McDowell, Allison Janney, Alice Eve Director: Jay Roach Screenwriter: Charles Randolph Distributor: Lionsgate Running Time: 108 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Richard Jewell Leans Into Courting Conservative Persecution Pity
Ironically, Clint Eastwood is as condescending of Jewell as the bureaucrats he despises.2.5
Marie Brenner’s 1997 Vanity Fair article “American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell” is a detailed cataloging of rushed judgements, lazy assumptions, and unforgiveable abuses of power. Richard Jewell was the security guard who spotted an Alice pack loaded with pipe bombs under a bench at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. The bombs exploded, directly killing one woman and injuring over a hundred others, but Jewell’s preemptive actions undeniably reduced the scope of atrocities. Jewell became a national hero, though a tip from a bitter former boss led the F.B.I. to aggressively investigate him as the prime suspect in the bombing. The news outlets ran with this information, leading to a “trial by media” that ruined Jewell’s life. In Richard Jewell, director Clint Eastwood uses this story as fodder for what he clearly sees as a fable of the evil of the F.B.I. and the media, who take down a righteous, implicitly conservative hero out of classist spite.
Richard Jewell is a political horror film that serves as a microcosm of the “deep state” conspiracies that the Republican Party trades in today. The media is represented here by essentially one person, a reporter named Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) who learns of Jewell’s investigation by sleeping with an F.B.I. agent, Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm), who serves as the film’s more or less singular representation of our domestic intelligence and security service. As such, the media and the F.B.I. are literally in bed together, and they see in the overweight, naïve, law-enforcement-worshipping Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) a readymade patsy.
Like most auteurs, Eastwood’s films are animated by his politics, in his case often featuring singular heroes who’re targeted by bureaucrats who know nothing of in-the-field work, but the productions are often complicated by the magnitude of his artistry. Sully takes simplistic swipes at regulations that save lives, glorifying the notion of the individual, but its most muscular scenes serve as startlingly beautiful celebrations of community, suggesting an ideal of a functional state that nearly refutes Eastwood’s own beliefs. By contrast, Richard Jewell finds the filmmaker more comfortably mining MAGA resentments. The film is rife with conservative Easter eggs. When we see Jewell’s attorney, Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), in his office, Eastwood highlights a sticker in a mirror that says “I Fear Government More Than I Fear Terrorism.” The film is dotted with guns, Confederate flags, and religious artifacts. And the real perpetrator of the bombing, Eric Randolph, a bigoted domestic terrorist who might interfere with Eastwood’s conservative reverie, is kept almost entirely off screen, reduced to a shadow.
Of course, Richard Jewell is set in the Bible Belt, and many of these details are pertinent. As Brenner’s article states, Bryant is a libertarian, and so that sticker accurately reflects his beliefs. But Eastwood and screenwriter Billy Ray rig the story so severely, in the service of courting conservative persecution pity, that even truthful details feel contextually false. Per Brenner, Jewell was a victim of many colliding interests, from the fading power of The Atlantic-Journal Constitution, which employed Scruggs, to internal clashes within the F.B.I.
In the film, the cops and journalists are desperate elitists just looking to finish a job, and their power is uncomplicatedly massive. The timing of Eastwood’s insinuation is unmistakable, suggesting that Jewell, the conservative Everyman, was railroaded by the government and the media in the same fashion as Trump, for possessing an uncouthness that offends “tastemaker” ideologies. The notion of political convictions as informed by image, particularly of culture and attractiveness, is a potentially brilliant one, and Eastwood’s portrait of liberal condescension isn’t entirely invalid, but he keeps scoring points at the expense of nuance.
In Brenner’s article, the F.B.I. is embarrassed to search the house of Jewell’s mother, Bobi (played here by Kathy Bates), where he lived. In the film, though, the officers storm the house in a smug and self-righteous fashion. Jewell was once actually in law enforcement and had many friendships and even a few girlfriends, while in the film he’s a pathetic wannabe eager to screw himself over for the sake of flattery. Sentiments that are attributed to Jewell in the article are transferred over to Bryant in the film, so to as to make the protagonist a more poignant fool. Ironically, Eastwood is as condescending of Jewell as the bureaucrats he despises. (The filmmaker also, weirdly, elides real-life details that would serve his demonization, such as the F.B.I. lying about there being a “hero bomber” profile.)
Even with Eastwood so explicitly grinding an ax, Richard Jewell has the visceral power of his other recent political fables. Eastwood refines a device from The 15:17 to Paris, surrounding an unknown, unpolished camera subject, in this case Hauser, with attractive famous actors so as to inherently express the profound difference between the ruling class—embodied to the public in the form of celebrities—and the eroding working class. This idea is particularly evocative when Hauser is paired with Hamm. Hauser is painfully vulnerable as Jewell, as there’s no distance between him and the character, no sense that he’s “acting.” And this impression of defenselessness, when matched against Hamm’s polish, is terrifying. Such juxtapositions fervently communicate Eastwood’s furies, however hypocritical they may be.
Eastwood continues to be a poet of American anxiety. The Atlanta bombing is boiled down to a series of chilling and uncanny details, from the public dancing to the “Macarena” before the explosion to the scattering of nails along the ground in the wake of the pipe bomb’s blast. When Scruggs pushes for the Jewell story to be published, her eyes glint with anger between the shadows of window shades—an intellectually absurd effect that emotionally sticks, embodying Eastwood’s conception of a national castigation as a noir conspiracy set in shadowy chambers populated by a mere few. Later, when Jewell is free of his ordeal, he weeps with Bryant in a café booth, a moment that Eastwood offers up as an embodiment of America stabilizing right before reaching a cultural breaking point. As stacked and calculating as Richard Jewell is, it’s a fascinating expression of the divided soul of a gifted and troubling artist. It’s a rattling expression of American bitterness.
Cast: Paul Walter Hauser, Sam Rockwell, Olivia Wilde, Jon Hamm, Kathy Bates, Nina Arianda, Ian Gomez Director: Clint Eastwood Screenwriter: Billy Ray Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 131 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Cunningham Obscures the Voice That It Wants to Celebrate
This colorful but remote-feeling documentary functions almost as though it were taking orders from the late Merce Cunningham.2.5
Alla Kovgan’s colorful but remote-feeling documentary about modern dance legend Merce Cunningham functions almost as though it were taking orders from the late choreographer himself. The film quotes him saying in various forms that he didn’t feel it appropriate or necessary to describe what his dances were about, and as such it feels appropriate that Cunningham leaves it to the dancing to deliver his story. But the problem with that approach is that it’s likely to leave many viewers, especially those who aren’t already dance aficionados, feeling somewhat at a remove from the subject matter.
Focusing on Cunningham’s works dating from 1942 to 1972, and his longtime collaborations with composer John Cage and other artists from Robert Rauschenberg to Andy Warhol, Kovgan balances loosely sketched biography with artistic recreation. The former sections are in some ways more engaging, as their often scratchy-looking archival footage provides at least some context for the sparse, ascetic, cold-water-flat milieu Cunningham was operating in. The latter sections, in which Kovgan stages a number of Cunningham’s pieces in settings ranging from a subway tunnel to a forest and are filmed in 3D with luscious colors, have a look-at-me showiness that cannot help but feel something like a betrayal of their source’s intentions.
Ascetic in approach but sometimes playful in execution, Cunningham in many ways functioned as the tip of the spear for avant-garde dance from the time he started producing work in the ‘40s. As related by the archival interviews played in the film, he didn’t appear to have much of a grand unifying theory behind his style. Rejecting the idea that he was some kind of modernist pioneer, he insists to one interviewer that he was simply “a dancer” and that he was really more interested in expanding the repertoire of movements available to performers by combining the techniques of ballet with what was already happening in modern dance in the postwar era. Quoting Cage in an old audio clip, Cunningham states with an emphatic flourish that “I have nothing to say and I am saying it.”
As you watch the dances staged in Cunningham, you may find it hard to argue with that perspective. In describing the reaction to one of his dances, Cunningham says with a barely concealed glee that “the audience was puzzled.” After a performance in Paris, food was hurled at the dancers (Cunningham joked that he looked at the tomato on the stage and wished it were an apple: “I was hungry”). Confusion about the lack of an underlying story or intent to deliver a singular emotion is understandable. Making less sense is the dismissal noted in the documentary of many of Cunningham’s pieces as “cold” and “passionless” (a charge that’s leveled at boundary-pushing art to this day). The pieces staged here by Kovgan are indeed sometimes airy and insubstantial or gangly and jagged. But just as often they’re lush and buoyant, like in “Summerspace,” in which the dancers’ fluid pivots spill over with a joy that is heightened by the bright spotted costumes and Rauschenberg backdrop.
In some of those segments, it’s hard not to feel as if Kovgan is aiming for a big splash that could introduce the rarely seen work of an oft-cited avant-garde pioneer to a wide audience, as Wim Wenders aimed to do with Pina. But unlike that 3D extravaganza, with its cunning staging and breathtaking moves, Cunningham is simply working from less accessible source material. Even when Cunningham’s work is less abstracted, such as that bouncy floating maneuver that is something of a signature, it doesn’t exactly catch one’s attention.
Time and again in the film, we hear or see Cunningham reiterate his principle that the dances aren’t intended to reference anything. Interpretation is up to the audience, he said. In this way, he isn’t far from the take-it-or-leave-it sensibility of Warhol, whose silver balloons he incorporated into one piece. But by amplifying Cunningham’s dances with sun-dappled backdrops and 3D gimmickry, Kovgan deviates from their creator’s principle in a way that almost seems to betray their original intent. By taking so much focus away from the dancers, the film’s stagings come close to obscuring the voice it’s trying to celebrate.
Director: Alla Kovgan Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 93 min Rating: PG Year: 2019
Review: The Two Popes Carefully and Dubiously Toes a Party Line
There isn’t anything in the bleeding-heart positions espoused by Jorge Bergoglio that complicates Pope Francis’s public persona.1.5
Fernando Meirelles’s The Two Popes is quick to acknowledge that Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) is a humble man of the people. The film opens with a scene that fades in on Bergoglio, recently anointed Pope Francis, as he attempts to order a plane ticket over the phone. Assuming she’s being pranked when the caller gives his name and address, the Italian operator hangs up on the generously bemused head of the Catholic Church. After centuries of pomp, the scene suggests, the world’s Catholics were unprepared for a genuine article like Francis, a corrective to an episcopal hierarchy that had drifted too far away from the people. So goes the thesis of The Two Popes, reiterated in a number of subsequent scenes: Unlike previous generations of pontiffs, Francis engages with the actual state of the world, watches soccer, listens to pop music, and speaks to economic inequality.
This brief prologue’s slight humor and documentary-style presentation give an accurate idea of where the film is headed, both thematically and formally. Throughout, Meirelles embellishes the screenplay’s often dry conversations with pseudo-improvised camerawork—unsteady framing, sudden tilts, and emphatic snap zooms—familiar from his prior films, most notably City of God and The Constant Gardner. But what seemed, in the early aughts, fresh and well-suited to gangster movies and spy thrillers, feels dated and out of place in a film that amounts to two powerful octogenarians having a series of conversations. By abruptly adjusting the lens’s focal length at almost arbitrary moments, Meirelles transparently attempts to add dynamism to a film in which powerful actors are stuck reciting staid, safe dialogue.
The hagiographic Two Popes shuffles through moments in Bergoglio’s life. Some scenes are set in Argentina in the 1970s, a tumultuous time for the country, but the film mainly focuses on the development of Bergoglio’s relationship with Joseph Ratzinger (Anthony Hopkins), Pope Benedict XVI, during the early 21st century. Flashing back to eight years before the prologue, the camera travels through the narrow alleys of Buenos Aires, arriving at an outdoor sermon that Bergoglio is delivering. Unattached to the air of benevolent superiority Catholic priests are expected to exude, Bergoglio tangentially speaks of his support for the San Lorenzo soccer team, at which revelation his congregation feels comfortable booing their diocese’s bishop.
Meanwhile, John Paul II has died, and as a cardinal, Bergoglio must return to Rome to help elect a new pope. There he encounters Ratzinger, at the time a conservative Bavarian cardinal who haughtily insists on speaking to Bergoglio in Latin when they meet in a Vatican bathroom, and who turns up his nose when the Argentinian begins humming ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” to himself while washing his hands. The inclusion of an ABBA song makes for a lighter tone that The Two Popes will unevenly revive at various moments across its running time; the film will transition between scenes using out-of-place lounge jazz and ‘60s pop, then abruptly drop the levity for dialogic lessons on the state of Catholic theology.
The dogmatic Ratzinger’s election as pope later that year would signal an end to years of liberalization within the Catholic Church, a back-to-basics gesture that ultimately failed. His short reign would be dominated by controversy, as members of his inner circle were indicted for financial crimes and a long-brewing scandal over church cover-ups of sexual abuse came to the fore. Meirelles handles this historical context through aural and visual montages of archival news reports, which fill the gap as the story fast-forwards to a moment in 2012 when Pope Benedict calls Bergoglio, his unofficial rival from the church’s liberal wing, back to Rome.
Benedict aims to convince the bishop not to resign, as it would look to the outside world—as Benedict professes it does to him—that the liberal Bergoglio is renouncing his cardinalship in protest. Strolling through the lush gardens of the Vatican, or speaking in low, strained voices in its resplendent halls, the two debate their opposing theological and political philosophies. A mutual respect develops between them, with Benedict gradually opening himself to the outside world from which he has stayed aloof; one scene has Bergoglio teaching him about the Beatles, and in another the Argentine convinces the stiff German to try out the tango.
That’s all very cute, surely, but it’s also evidence that, despite courting a gritty reality effect with its documentary-inspired aesthetic, The Two Popes is carefully toeing a party line rather than exposing any hidden truths. Though it includes (rather hammy) flashbacks to Bergoglio’s morally ambiguous interactions with the Argentinian military dictatorship of the ‘70s, there isn’t anything in the bleeding-heart positions espoused by Bergoglio that complicates Pope Francis’s public persona. For his part, Ratzinger comes off as the best version of the man one could imagine, given the turmoil that marked his tenure: old-fashioned but authentic, perhaps just a bit too aged and attached to the institution to weed out its excesses.
As, in scene after scene, the heads of the world’s most powerful religious institution neatly summarize their philosophies to one another, the viewer may sense a misdirect: What happened to the corruption? Where are the meetings about how to handle the child-abuse scandals? Such issues, which presumably would have been the subject of many a Vatican City discussion, turn out to be little more than background material to the individualized and sentimentalized story of two men with differing views becoming friends. Even when they do come up, our attention is directed elsewhere. The flashbacks to Bergoglio’s spotted past begin soon after the sexual abuse scandals are first mentioned, redirecting our piqued concern with institutional sins toward the drama of an individual man’s fateful misjudgment.
The second time the pair’s conversations drift toward the simmering abuse scandal, Meirelles actually drowns out the dialogue with a high-pitched whine on the soundtrack, and for no discernable story reason. It’s as if Bergoglio’s hearing has been impaired by the explosive truth. The moment feels less like the filmmakers protecting us from a truth too awful to hear, and much more like them shielding us from one too dangerous to be heard.
Cast: Jonathan Pryce, Anthony Hopkins, Juan Minujín, Sidney Cole, Thomas D. Williams, Federico Torre, Pablo Trimarchi Director: Fernando Meirelles Screenwriter: Anthony McCarten Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 125 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019