“We aimed to make something robust in which every question leads to another. I’m not a Buddhist and I don’t believe in reincarnation; I don’t think I could do a film about it if I did. I was more interested in the idea of eternal love. I wanted to make a mystery, the mystery of the heart.”—Jonathan Glazer
You know you’re seeing something special from the very beginning. In what you soon understand to be a prologue, but for now you take at face value, you hear the words “OK.” It’s a disembodied voice, a lecturer or an interview subject, apparently, but there’s no image, just a dark screen, so you don’t know who’s talking or why. “OK,” says the voice, “let me say this …” Potent words for the opening of a film. Maybe a little self-important, but let it go. For now anyway.
The voice goes on:
“If I lost my wife and, uh, the next day, a little bird landed on my windowsill, looked me right in the eye, and in plain English said, ‘Sean, it’s me, Anna. I’m back …’ What could I say? I guess I’d believe her. Or I’d want to. I’d be stuck with a bird. But other than that, no. I’m a man of science. I just don’t believe that mumbo-jumbo. Now, that’s gonna have to be the last question. I need to go running before I head home.”
Anything may be possible. But not likely. Class dismissed.
And now you hear music, an insistent repeating flute motif like the sound of a chirping bird echoes the bird-on-the-window metaphor of the lecturer. But these echoes of springtime are betrayed by the image that we at last see: Central Park in the snow, and a bundled, hooded man on his daily run. Bright light, cold air.
Setup 1 is a long following shot of the running man. This is a main title shot if ever there was one, since all we see is this man running in front of us. A good time to run the opening credits, but we don’t get them. Instead, all our attention is directed to the shot. Four dogs dart across the runner’s path. The runner enters a short tunnel and only then does the title appear: Birth.
But still no credit sequence. Instead we go back to setup 2, a new view: we pick up the runner in the distance, and we are now ahead of him, waiting for him. It’s a stationary shot, but only for a moment, because, as the runner approaches, the camera starts to back away, gliding through a second tunnel as the runner draws near to it. The main musical theme, which has been introduced over the flute motif, now subsides as ominous timpani accompany the runner’s approach to the tunnel. He enters the tunnel, backlighted, in silhouette. He slows, stops, reels, and collapses. The camera watches dispassionately.
Setup 3 is a close shot on the runner lying on the floor of the tunnel. His features are still undistinguishable. We know he is dead. Then we are back to setup 2 as the camera continues backing away, exiting the tunnel. Then (at the 4.00 mark on the DVD) we cut to a new image: an infant, submerged in water, facing upward. The infant is lifted out of the water, its face full of agony and protest—a silent cry of resistance against this new world. And we go to black.
Four shots, a little over four minutes. Imagery of spring overtaken by a winter scene. A film called Birth begins with a death, and that death is followed by an angry image of birth. You know you’re seeing something special.
The film-proper begins with the title “10 Years Later,” and upon subsequent viewings we can see this as the beginning of “Act One,” those first four shots having been prologue.
We are at a cemetery, and we first see the woman we will come to know as Anna standing before a grave. With an air of finality, she gets into a waiting car, looks over at the driver, and says: “OK.” Those were also the first words of the film, the first words we heard from the lecturer, the runner, her dead husband, Sean.
Only in the next scene—and possibly not until a second viewing of the film—do we realize that her “OK” was her acceptance of the much-proffered marriage proposal that Joseph describes to their party guests. Anna was evidently asking the dead Sean for his permission as she stood at the grave. Like Colonel Nathan Brittles in John Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Anna is in dialogue with her departed spouse. In both instances, it’s a dialogue of the self, not a communion with the dead. And that explains, in part, why Anna’s “OK” was based on a misunderstanding.
Meeting a boy
Just outside the elevator that takes guests to Joseph’s and Anna’s engagement party, a boy sits on a bench playing with a ball. A couple arrives for the party. The woman tells the man to go on without her; she’s forgotten the ribbon for the gift; she’ll be up in a minute. The man reluctantly goes ahead, and the woman goes back out of the building. The boy, unaccountably, follows her. She, equally unaccountably, goes not back to the car for the ribbon but into the park, where she hastily buries something as the boy watches, unseen by her. The boy is back in the apartment building on the bench by the time the woman returns with a substitute gift.
And now we are at a different party—a birthday party, as we understand when we see Anna emerging from the dark with a birthday cake. Anna and her sister Laura help their mother blow out her candles, and it is Anna alone who blows out the last one. As the lights come up, we hear: “I want to see Anna.”
In private, the boy introduces himself to Anna as her dead husband, Sean. Frogmarched to the elevator, he has only this to say: “You’ll be making a big mistake if you marry Joseph.” Anna tells Laura, and laughs it off. But she’s been touched.
In the ensuing scene we see Anna and Joseph in bed, and we know their intimacy. We know Anna’s passion and desire, and this is important. The accompanying music is a low hum, two alternating notes, repeated, like an electric heartbeat, but fast.
“He is … what?” asks Anna’s mother, and it is no accident that she doesn’t say “who?” It is unacceptable—and impossible—that the boy is Sean, back from the dead.
Jimmy the clerk is playing with the ball that the boy was playing with earlier. He reminds us of Kubrick’s hotel clerks in Eyes Wide Shut and The Shining—attendants at the gates of something that cannot be named, cannot be understood—and also of The Shining’s Jack Torrance, bouncing a ball off the walls of the Overlook Hotel as he waits for something that has already overtaken him.
Confronting the boy
Joseph addresses the boy—and if the boy is the dead Sean, this is a meeting of two rivals for the heart of Anna. “I want to talk to your father.” The father is found, Anna is summoned, and like a kid being forced to apologize for having driven a baseball through a neighbor’s window, the boy is told to “Tell her you will never see her or bother her again.” “I can’t,” he replies, and this is repeated in the exact same words several times, like a ritual. We believe the boy is truly unable to say the words. It is as if he is possessed—and as this dawns on us, and Anna (at 26.37 on the DVD), the boy collapses and we hear first note of the Prologue to Act I of Wagner’s Die Walküre. The music continues as Anna and Joseph enter the elevator, where Joseph tells her, “Well done.” But Anna remains shaken by the boy’s collapse. The music continues, only now it is diegetic music, for they are actually at the opera and as they take their seats the camera is in on Anna as she looks at … what? Not the stage, though in its direction. Twice Joseph leans in, slightly out of focus, to whisper something to her. We are fixed on her, and we detect a range of thoughts and emotions running through her … a hint of tears … real fear … and something like resignation … her eyes close as we arrive at the moment where the curtain would rise … and the shot—and scene—end (at 29.14).
In that marvelous long take of Anna’s face, we hear almost the entire Prologue to Act I of Die Walküre. If it went on much longer, we would have heard the singing begin, as the exhausted Siegmund stumbles into the forest home of Hunding. This is important for two reasons: Siegmund’s arrival at Hunding’s home ends up breaking up the marriage of Hunding and his wife Sieglinde, as the boy Sean almost does with Anna and Joseph’s engagement. Second, Siegmund not only steals Sieglinde from Hunding, but beds her, even though she is his long lost sister—thus consummating a “forbidden” love, like Anna’s love for the 10-year-old boy who might be her long-lost husband.
A child but not a child
At the home of a tutor who can’t afford to go to an opera, the boy Sean’s father tells his wife: “He says he’s somebody else and he believes that he is.” He knows this isn’t a prank.
He knows something else: “They have money.” Jonathan Glazer does not want us to forget that Birth is about rich people, in the same way that Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut and Barry Lyndon were. Steven H, on Criterion Forum, wrote: “I also wonder, since Carriere was involved, how much of the film might be a mockery of upper-middle class mores (along the lines of his Buñuel and Kaufmann work). A point is definitely made that the child is poor, and [Anna] is rich. One of the many explanations that could creep up is that the kid is so envious of a higher economic stratum, that he is literally possessed.” Certainly the possession metaphor is what keeps nagging at us at this point in the film.
The boy Sean’s mom comes to tuck him in: “The men are talking mutiny. It’s your responsibility to steer the ship.” It’s clear that they are accustomed to role-playing games; but the mother has also chosen a scenario in which it is the boy’s responsibility to get things back on an even keel. He doesn’t rise to the occasion: “I’m not your stupid son anymore.” Note the “anymore.” In his view, he was her son, but is no longer.
On her understated but deeply affecting expression of hurt and loss, she turns the lights out and we go to black. A screenwriting teacher would call this the end of Act One. Sean’s capacity for affection has shifted from his mother to Anna.
Memory or déjà vu?
The boy is late for class. We aren’t allowed to forget that he is, after all, a real boy, with a real home and school to go to. His teacher is a bit savage about his tardiness, though, and sends him to the principal’s office. Instead, he goes to the phone booth to call Anna, underscored by the alternating electronic hum. No one answers the phone, but Anna’s mother listens as the boy leaves his message.
Anna meets her mother for lunch. Anna’s mother relays the boy’s message: “He wants you to meet him in the park. He said you’d know where.”
The music is the same as we associated with the “running man” sequence at the beginning of the film; and, of course, we recognize the meeting place. The setup is the same as setup 2, and the camera tracks into the tunnel as Anna approaches. It’s the place of Sean’s death, and by now, how can Anna—or we—doubt that the boy is who he claims to be? And it’s here that the boy offers to allow his claim to be tested. Anna asks him some questions, and he doesn’t fail. He doesn’t even fall for a trick question: “Who told me there wasn’t a Santa Claus?” He replies: “I’ll know them when I see them.” He even uses the grammatically incorrect “them” to emphasize that not only does he not know the person’s name, he doesn’t—at this moment—know if it’s a man or a woman.
Joseph and Anna lie in bed, not facing each other. “It’s amazing,” says Joseph.
“It is,” she replies.
“Can’t figure it out.”
“Me neither. He knew where Sean died. I’m tired. Let’s sleep.”
“We’ll get him.”
The plan to “get him” involves having the dead Sean’s brother Bob question the boy. The first challenge is a philosophical one, the gist of which is, How can you possibly have come back? You didn’t believe in that stuff. “You believed that only matter survives.” We are taken back to the opening monologue of the film. A cat darts across the table between Bob and the boy. Omen or avatar, it reminds us of the four dogs that shot across Sean’s path as he ran towards his death.
The interrogation doesn’t work. The boy answers correctly about everything he should know if he were really Sean. He reveals things even Bob doesn’t know, but that can be verified with Anna. The fact that Sean and Anna got married 30 times in 30 days, besides seeming to validate the boy’s claim to be Sean, tells us something about the intensity of the relationship of Anna and Sean, just as the brief sex scene between Joseph and Anna tells us something about theirs; and it also suggests something about why that relationship continues to have such a hold on Anna.
But this tells us something of Sean’s and Anna’s relationship, too, something a little darker: “I wasn’t around much. I was too busy working.”
When Bob mentions moving out of his apartment because his wife Laura (Anna’s sister) is pregnant, the boy says, “I didn’t think she could have …” and Bob cuts him off: “Let’s just stick to Anna.”
Bob is unable to stump the boy. Phase Two of the test is a meeting with the entire family. His mother drops him off at the rich family’s apartment. Anna tells her, “Let him sleep here tonight. I’m going to break this spell. I’ll pick him up from school tomorrow and I’ll bring him back to you.”
The hum recurs. A friend of the family enters the room and asks the boy to identify her. He acknowledges that he doesn’t know her name, but adds, “You’re the one that told Anna there wasn’t a Santa Claus.”
Learning that there is no Santa Claus is a milestone moment in a child’s growing up—a metaphor for learning to face reality. It’s interesting that Anna should have chosen this moment from her past to test the boy—and that he should pass the test once again.
Joseph tries, too:
“How did you know where Sean died?”
“You know what déjà vu is? It was like that.”
This, too, is interesting. The boy doesn’t say he knows where Sean died because he is Sean and would naturally recall where he died; rather he says that it was like déjà vu—a feeling of having been in a place before, not the actual memory of it. We must begin to suspect that the boy is not literally the dead Sean returned from the grave, but is rather a work in progress, a receptacle of Sean’s and Anna’s memories, a vessel still only partly full, an image not yet fully shaped.
Sean and not Sean
The hum returns, an accelerated heartbeat, and tracking shots down hallways suggest a presence like that of Kubrick’s The Shining. More than ever, we must feel that we are dealing less with reincarnation and more with something like possession.
Anna visits her friends Clifford and Clara. We know Clara as the woman who buried the package in the park before Anna’s engagement party, and we have learned that Clifford was Sean’s best man at his and Anna’s wedding—and thus, by extension, must have been Sean’s closest friend.
Anna’s words are potent: “I’ve met somebody who seems to be Sean.”
She goes on: “I really hoped that he was Sean. I wanted him to be Sean. But I knew he wasn’t.”
She knew he wasn’t. Anna sees—and we see—the boy as an embodiment of her love and grief for Sean, and also, by extension, of her doubts about marrying Joseph.
“He collapsed and then it hit me.” Now we understand the full significance of what we saw in the opera shot. And we can’t help joining Anna in thinking of the boy’s collapse in the hallway as an echo of Sean’s collapse in the tunnel at his death.
“I’m falling in love with Sean again. That’s what’s happening.”
She’s not falling in love with the boy. She is falling in love with Sean again. The boy is only the vessel.
“I need you to tell him to go away. Because I can’t do it.” Clifford agrees to undertake this task—although, as we find out, Anna can and does also tell the boy to go away, even before Clifford has a chance to do so.
Shaping a new Sean from romantic clichés
But when Anna meets the boy in the coffee shop, no ultimatum is delivered. Instead, it’s more testing. She asks the boy how he’d support her—and this not only stresses the fact that he is a 10-year-old boy, not able to get a job, and with no skills to offer, but also drives home again the distance between their social classes: Anna is used to being supported, and in a very high style at that.
When she asks him how he would meet her “needs,” the boy tells her he knows what she is talking about, and seems a little miffed that she thinks he doesn’t, thinks him incapable in things sexual. She asks if he has done it before, and he gracefully replies, “You’d be the first.” This is a charming young man. Not only does he have an answer for everything, he has a good answer for everything, polite, poetic, and pointed. If he is Sean, one can understand Anna’s continued devotion to him. Or perhaps, we begin to think, perhaps this boy is becoming the Sean that Anna wanted rather than the one she had.
In any event, what ensues is as comically audacious as it is sexually daring. In a pattern reminiscent of so many classic love stories, the boy misses his school bus, and then—like the newly infatuated lover who decides to skip work—he determines to spend the day with Anna. And the key image of that day is nothing short of that great silver-screen staple, the lovers’ carriage ride through Central Park
Meanwhile, Joseph waits for the tardy Anna at a new apartment they were to have looked at. He gazes out the window, understanding and tolerant, but visibly having to try hard to hold on to his patience. This is intercut with the darkly comic climax to the lovers’ day together: Anna sits on a bench in Central Park while the boy plays on a swing. No matter what Anna—and we—make of him, he is still a little boy.
This is followed by another parody love sequence: Anna soaking in the tub as the boy enters, disrobes, and slides into the water with her. Again, intercutting shows us Joseph’s return to the apartment, his hand on doorknob. The lovers are almost “caught.”
And it is now, and here, that Anna herself says to the boy: “I want you to leave.” Does she simply mean that she wants him out of the tub? Or out of her heart? It’s yet another cliché of the romance film, the lover’s sudden second thoughts.
Now there is a concert–or a sort of mockery of one. It appears to be a chamber music recital, but what they are playing is soon revealed to be a rather silly version of the Bridal March from Wagner’s Lohengrin that we know as “Here Comes the Bride,” and we realize that this is another pre-wedding function. But notice that just as a performance of Wagner’s Die Walküre became the centerpiece of the film’s Act One, so this little mini-concert of another Wagnerian piece becomes the pivotal moment of Act Two.
Can you spank a ghost?
The boy is kicking the back of Joseph’s seat—the only truly irritating thing he does in the film. Why does he do this? Perhaps because, whatever else he may be, he is also a little boy, and is bored with this stuffy musical interlude, as any little boy might be. Or perhaps he does it deliberately to get on Joseph’s nerves. In his view, Joseph is his rival for the heart of Anna. He hates the idea of this marriage. Indeed, his original motivation in making himself known to Anna was not to be in her company again but simply to warn her not to marry Joseph. Glazer never makes it clear whether the warning is a manifestation of Sean’s jealousy from beyond the grave, some sort of oracular prophecy, or an externalization of Anna’s own inner fear about the coming marriage. But this very ambiguity of motivation echoes the ambiguity of the boy’s identity and the dual role he plays in Anna’s consciousness: an alleged reincarnation of her dead husband and a prophet like Teiresias in Sophocles’s Oedipus the King or the Soothsayer in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.
But it is wedding music during which he kicks the chair, and this underscores the fact that, in either capacity, the boy is a gadfly working against the marriage. When Joseph finally loses patience, the scene explodes in a riot of recrimination and revenge, recalling the concert scene in Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon in which Redmond Barry assaults and spanks the petulant Lord Bullingdon before a stunned gathering of wealthy society. The age difference, the class difference, and the sexual rivalry all merge in this central climax of Birth, and the sentimental wedding music gives way to the electronic hum, no longer alternating high-to-low but low-to-high, and much slower.
Joseph’s final loss of patience parallels Anna’s surrender. She and the boy kiss, passionately, erotically, on the street outside the apartment. Bob, emerging from the apartment, sees this, and, pretending he doesn’t, like Capt, Rev. Samuel Clayton in the celebrated shot from John Ford’s The Searchers, slips back into the building.
Clifford arrives at the party “a little late.” Clara has gone back for the wine she left in the car. Late arrivals and forgetting things are a pattern with Clifford and Clara. The boy immediately runs to Clifford and hugs him. But as soon as he and Anna are alone, Clifford says, “That’s not Sean.” Anna replies, “Yes it is,” and they indulge in a playground exchange of “No it’s not”/“Yes it is.” Clifford’s pointed use of the word “it” rather than “he” echoes Anna’s mother’s use of “what” rather than “who.” The boy is seen by them as a thing, not a person—an issue to be dealt with perhaps, or some kind of monster, but not a little boy.
Left alone for the moment, the boy sits on a bench in the hallway, looking left, then straight, then right, as if posing for mug shots—or as if drinking in the luxury that surrounds a poor kid caught up in the lives of rich people.
Clara arrives with dirty hands, and gives him her new address. We have no idea why she would do this. But then we didn’t know why he would follow her to the park and watch her bury something, either. Instead of asking questions, the boy says, “Don’t tell Anna.” Why would he say this? We know he is completely devoted to Anna. What reason does he have to keep a secret from her? What reason to feel guilty?
Just as in the boy we see the confusion between adult woman as mother and adult woman as object of love and desire, we now see in Anna a confusion of the instincts of mother and those of lover. She quite literally wants to keep the boy. “It’s illegal,” says Laura. But to Anna, Sean is hers, a part of her.
The hum, returning like a foghorn, now alternates among four tones instead of two. The shot of Clara going into the park with the boy following her is repeated in flashback.
The boy uses the address and goes to Clara’s, and there Clara reveals decisively that the boy is not Sean, cannot be Sean. For Sean was Clara’s lover, and if the boy were Sean, he would have known that. “If you had been Sean, like I’d hoped you had, you would’ve come to me first,” says Clara. But is that truth, or merely Clara’s wishfulness?
In either case, we have a new picture of the dead Sean. We already suspected all was not right with his relationship to Anna when the boy “remembered” that “I wasn’t around much.” In light of Clara, this takes on new significance. And if Sean had Clara, perhaps he had others. We begin to think of Sean as a womanizer, one to whom no woman really meant a lot, but who himself somehow seems to have meant the world to every woman. Both Anna and Clara are convinced that Sean was utterly devoted to them—or are they? Is the energy that drives the film’s sexual relationships ultimately one of doubt, suspicion, and jealousy rather than devotion and passion?
When the boy followed Clara into the park as she buried the package she had intended to give Anna as an engagement gift, was he already Sean? If not, why did he follow her? Boyish curiosity? Was the infant we saw in the prologue this boy being born, suggesting that Sean’s spirit had already entered him before he first saw Clara outside Anna’s engagement party? If that were true, why does he have so much to learn from Clara? This interview between Clara and the boy is the pivotal point in the film’s narrative, the one we must begin with if we are to satisfy ourselves as to who—or what—the boy really is.
A girl born, the boy reborn
The package Clara buried in the park contained Anna’s letters to Sean: “He gave them to me unopened, to prove that he loved me more.” We have learned something devastating about Sean—something that Anna doesn’t know. But is it something that perhaps she suspects? Suspected even while Sean was still alive?
Why would Clara undertake to give such a thing to Anna as an engagement gift? To gloat? Clara seems capable of that. Yet the result of such a gift, though it would estrange Anna from Clara forever, would certainly make it easier for Anna to break away from her slavish post-mortem devotion to Sean, and make it easier for her to embrace her long-delayed marriage to Joseph. So in the end, the film, and the boy, are as much about marrying or not marrying Joseph as about loving or not loving the dead Sean.
The boy runs away, and his running is accompanied by the timpani motif that preceded the running Sean’s entry into the tunnel from which he would never emerge. Meanwhile Anna is interrupted in a business meeting in a conference room (and this is the first suggestion in the film that Anna has a job). The interrupter announces: “Your sister just gave birth to a healthy baby girl” Back in the park we see the boy, in a state of regression, sitting in a tree, and we fade to black.
Not the possessor but the possessed?
The film’s third act opens on an infant girl, undoubtedly Laura’s baby. “Maybe that’s Sean,” someone says, making a joke that at this point must be in highly questionable taste.
The police appear and question the boy—to them a lost or vagrant boy in the park, nothing more. His story sounds like ravings to them: “I thought I was Sean but I found out he was in love with another woman so I can’t be him because I’m in love with Anna.”
At this point, we must hypothesize that the boy is not Sean but, as I have suggested, is possessed by Sean. But he is possessed by only a part of Sean, the “good” part, and the spirit that possessed him “knew” only the good side of Sean, the side that loved Anna.
But once we have gone that far, another hypothesis introduces itself: Is it possible that the boy knows only what Anna knows, not what Sean knew, and that’s why he knew nothing of Sean’s affair with Clara? And if the boy knows what Anna knows, feels what Anna feels, might it be because it is Anna who is the source of the possession? It may be that Anna, anxious and uncertain over her approaching marriage to Joseph, perhaps guilty over having betrayed her 10-years-dead husband by agreeing to wed Joseph, has invested the 10-year-old boy—a handy vessel who happened to be nearby and became the unwitting recipient of a powerhouse of psychic energy—with all of her love, devotion, memory, grief, anxiety, fear.
The boy is dirty in the bath, and he isn’t getting any cleaner. Anna comes in (a reversal of the earlier tub scene). She doesn’t know yet that anything has changed. She has been thinking of what she and the boy can do, and now she announces, “I have a plan.” Her plan, mad as it is, is for them to go away somewhere together, wait 11 years, and then get married and continue their life as Anna and Sean presumably where it left off when Sean died. She caps her plan to him with an absolute declaration: “I love you, Sean.” Even the kiss and the day in Central Park could be regarded as flirtation, infatuation; but this is the moment of Anna’s final, complete surrender, her abandonment of all resistance to the preposterous idea that this child and her dead husband are one and the same. And, of course it is the supreme irony and structural glory of the film that Anna reaches this moment only once the boy has lost his conviction.
He has remained silent throughout her revelation of her plan, but upon her confession of love, he replies, “I’m not Sean.” And he submerges into the waters of the tub, facing upward, like the infant in the prologue.
The stunned Anna pulls him out of the water, also like that infant. “Liar!” she says. “You’re a little liar aren’t you?”
At this moment it’s not clear which lie she is accusing him of: the claim that he is not Sean, or the original claim that he was. To tell the truth, she probably isn’t sure herself, just yet. But it’s intriguing that her first response to the boy’s pronouncement that “I’m not Sean” is not denial, not passionate pleading, not even puzzlement, but anger. It’s as if she has known it all along. And in that moment, her self-assurance, her comfortable certainty that the boy is her dead husband, is gone.
“You certainly had me fooled. I thought you were my dead husband … but you’re just a little boy in my bathtub.”
Her anger subsides, and she pats him gently on the head. In that moment, the possession has gone. Anna’s confusion of motherly love with erotic love has dissipated, and all that’s left is a little boy. There are no lingering questions, such as “Wait, if you were just a kid all along, how did you know all that stuff about me and Sean?” The questions are not asked because Anna knows the answer.
The boy, a little boy again, waits on the bench for his mother to come and pick him up. Anna’s mother can at last relate to him, and she confides: “I never liked Sean.” The fact that she can say this, that we can see and hear her saying this, and see the boy hearing her say it, is as sure a sign as any that he is not Sean. At least not anymore.
Life goes on
In an office conference room, Anna tells Joseph: “What happened to me was not my fault. There’s no way I could have behaved any differently. There’s no way I could ever have said to him ‘Go away.’” But we know she did, in the first tub scene (“I want you to leave.”) But perhaps she is no longer talking about the boy but about her dead husband Sean, about the hold he still has on her, about the hold that her own grief and memory still have on her. It was the dead Sean to whom she was never able to say “Go away”—and still isn’t.
“It was a mistake,” she allows. “I want to be with you. Yes, I do. I want to get married, have a good life, be happy. That’s all I want—peace.”
Joseph, who has listened to all this in silence, just as the boy in the tub listened in silence shortly before, finally says, “OK.” And as he speaks the same first word we heard from both Anna and her dead husband Sean, there is, despite the pain, a tone of affirmation. She kisses his hand and we go to black
If the film’s opening is a prologue, what remains is an epilogue. The taking of the wedding pictures is intercut with the taking of class photos at the boy’s school. The narrative style of the film is radically altered by the use of the boy’s voice-over, a letter he has written to Anna: “They said I was imagining things. … I’m seeing an expert. … Mom said maybe it was a spell.” Yes, people from the lower classes would chalk it up to a “spell,” wouldn’t they? Except that this is the same word Anna used to the boy’s mother when she asked if he could spend the night with her. “I’m going to break this spell.”
The boy’s voice-over letter to Anna ends with the wry comment, “See you in another life.” Is this the boy speaking, now sufficiently distanced from the emotionally wrenching experience that he can almost make a joke about it? Or is it, after all, Sean, suggesting perhaps that the cycle will continue, that perhaps bits and pieces of Anna and Sean have already existed through several lives, across the ages, occasionally colliding, occasionally intersecting, now and then encountering fragments of each other in unexpected bodies?
As we hear the boy’s letter to Anna, one classmate is replaced with another, and then another, in the photographer’s chair. At last it is the boy’s turn, and when the photographer says, “Smile,” the boy does. He breaks into a wide, warm smile, and we realize that this is the first time in the film that we have seen him actually smile. We realize that he is only a little boy again—and that he is free.
On the beach below the scene of the wedding, Anna weeps in anguish. She wades into the sea, but turns back. It’s a familiar image—a protagonist at the place where the land meets the sea—associated with some of the undisputed classics of world cinema, such as Truffaut’s 400 Blows and Fellini’s La dolce vita. The possession of the boy is exorcised; the possession of Anna is not. She is literally between the devil and the deep, blue sea, and at this moment we have to wonder, Does she know her husband was unfaithful? Was the entire episode born of that knowledge, of a distrust of men that made her uncertain about marrying Joseph, and of a relentless compulsion to recreate not the real Sean but the only Sean she loved and wanted, the one she thought she knew, the one that she imagined?
After her partial immersion, Anna weeps inconsolably at the shoulder of the ever-patient Joseph. Is it finally over? Or will it perhaps never be over? They walk up the beach, and we go to black.
The major titles now appear, accompanied by the lapping of the waves. Then the title of the film appears again–Birth–and what should now assault our unexpecting ears but a peppy 1950s pop song, “Tonight You Belong to Me”:
“I know you belong to somebody new
But tonight you belong to me”
We hear the whole song, giving us time enough to reflect on whether we are to imagine those lyrics as reflecting the thoughts of Joseph or the boy or, darkest and most likely possibility of all, the dead Sean, who will never really let go.
The song finishes. The credits roll on in silence, to the sound of the waves again, and then, faintly, the “running theme” reemerges, and finally the piece cued on the soundtrack album as “Wedding Waltz.”
Who or what was it?
Boris Day opined on the 24LiesASecond forum that “Anna’s feelings of grief and obsession were so powerful that she willed an occurrence like this to be.” As I have argued in this journey through Birth, the boy is the physical embodiment of Anna’s grief. He’s still a boy, of course—not a phantom or a phantasm, but a real boy, with a name, a home, parents, and a school. But he is possessed—like so many other children in so many other psychological horror films since The Exorcist. What makes this film different is that the thing that possesses him is not the spirit of the dead Sean but the power of Anna’s memory of Sean. And it’s an enhanced memory, a memory of a Sean that never really was. That’s why the boy knows everything about Sean and Anna, but nothing about Sean alone. If he were Sean, he would know what Sean knew; but in fact he knows only what Anna knows—or, more precisely, what Anna believes—and so it is not Sean that possesses him but Anna’s creation of Sean, her dependence on that creation, her inability to escape it.
I have written elsewhere about a quasi-supernatural occurrence that becomes the objective correlative to the most powerful emotion of all: unrelenting love. That was in an article on Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, in which the attacks of the birds on Bodega Bay occur simultaneously with the emergence of Melanie Daniels as a true rival for the affection of Mitch Brenner, upon whose continued and single affection his mother, Lydia Brenner, has relied. I argued there that, just as the Id-Monster of Forbidden Planet embodied the release of the repressed desires and fears of Dr. Morbius in the face of losing his daughter Altura to a dashing young starship commander, so did the vengeful birds arise as an embodiment of the jealous fears of Lydia Brenner over Melanie’s entry into Mitch’s life. In Birth we get another kind of monster, another kind of invasion, but one that is, nevertheless, the same in origin.
If it is Anna’s fears and desires that make the boy into an avatar of the dead Sean, we might ask, Why this boy? Well, he was handy. He was nearby. His dad was tutoring in the building and he was waiting outside, with nothing to do. Being a boy, he had an impressionable mind, so it was possible for this psychic obsession of Anna’s to come to rest in him, and then to require him to manifest itself to her. She had not yet dealt with it, not truly faced it, even after 10 years. Both it and the boy are 10 years old—another reason that he seems right to be its receptacle. With her impending marriage to Joseph, Anna and her obsession both became restless. Anna could not truly face the continuing power of her devotion to Sean until it presented itself to her as something separate from her, something embodied in another.
Once the boy figures out that he is not Sean, he is able to escape the thing that possesses him, and become just a boy again. But it still remains for Anna to confront it and exorcise it, too. Both exorcisms involve water: the boy’s in the bathtub scene and Anna’s in her walk in the sea at the end. The water cleanses, and emergence from the water is the beginning of a new life.
A Kubrick connection
Many viewers and critics have remarked on the detachment of directorial viewpoint in Birth, and have rightly connected it to Jonathan Glazer’s reverence for Stanley Kubrick, who so often similarly distanced himself from his characters and the events that altered their lives. In Birth, the director’s detachment mirrors Anna’s own denial, her inability to recognize her inner demon until it externalizes itself before her. Jonathan Glazer, in a conversation with Walter Campbell reprinted in the booklet accompanying the DVD “The Work of Director Jonathan Glazer,” says: “I was going for something only I could see at the time, and the story was about a woman doing the same thing, so the process of trying to capture that was equivalent to what she was aiming for.”
And what was it she was aiming for?
“That’s the element of faith,” Glazer says. “’I believe this, so I don’t have a choice.’ Anna believes the boy because she wants to. She plunges herself and that makes sense to her. Without faith, she doesn’t have a journey.”
Glazer’s debt to Stanley Kubrick is undenaible. But Kubrick has always been a bundle of contradictions: a radical’s exploration of stylistic innovation and unpopular ideas, but with a classicist’s dedication to form and structure … a liberal’s mocking rage against the excesses of political and military power … a libertarian’s insistence on individual freedom and accountability … a Hobbesian / Swiftian conservative’s dark vision of the absurd insignificance and fundamental cruelty of human beings … an outsider’s face-to-the-window fascination with the way other people (especially rich people) live. Did I say a bundle of contradictions? Perhaps it would be better to say a one-man mirror to the world.
In Birth Glazer has given us not only a deeply affecting and astonishingly original film in its own right, but also a virtual rhapsody on Kubrick themes, with direct references to The Shining, Eyes Wide Shut, A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, Lolita … and to one more Kubrick film I have not yet mentioned. Think of the final image of 2001: A Space Odyssey—the fetal, pre-born Star Child floating placidly in the liquidity of space and the dawn of an utterly changed, utterly new universe.
I kept asking myself, Why is this film called Birth? It’s not about a birth—though if the boy did turn out to be Sean, you could say that the premise of the film was that Anna’s husband Sean entered the body of newborn baby Sean at the moment of his death, and so the film was about (re)Birth. But the boy turns out not to be Sean; and except for the shot of the newborn baby in the prologue and the birth of Laura’s baby, nothing is said about birth of any kind. And since the working title of the film was originally Before Birth, whose “birth” are we interested in, really?
Could it be Anna’s own birth, there on the beach, rejecting suicide, and emerging from the waves to tearfully accept her own “birth” into something new?
It’s not easy being born. You’re jerked suddenly out of comfortable, dark, warm liquid into bright light and cold air that you have to get used to breathing for the rest of your life. And the first thing you do is cry.
This article was originally published on The House Next Door.
Review: Superintelligence Keeps a Lid on Melissa McCarthy’s Comic Energy
The big disappointment of the film is that McCarthy’s performance is all Jekyll and no Hyde.2
Melissa McCarthy successfully transitioned from television to film playing outcasts who chafe at conventional standards of appearances and manners. The exhilaration of the actress’s performances, especially in Paul Feig comedies like Bridesmaids, The Heat, and Spy, resides in the volcanic force she lends characters who might be reduced in to wallflowers in your run-of-the-mill production. Such visceral comic energy represents a revenge-of-the-oppressed transcendence, as these vehicles find a diminutive, overweight middle-aged woman stealing productions out from under more traditionally sophisticated stars via the profound force of her personality and talent. McCarthy is a veritable superstar-as-everyperson, which is a rare pose for an actor to convincingly master.
The big disappointment, then, of Ben Falcone’s Superintelligence is that McCarthy’s performance is all Jekyll and no Hyde. At first, Carol (McCarthy), a computer programmer who quit her job years ago out of frustration with corporate heartlessness, appears to be the sort of stunted ne’er-do-well that the actress specializes in playing. Superintelligence’s early scenes are its sharpest, parodying how Google- and Apple-type companies attempt to launder the complacency they demand from consumers and employees alike with therapeutic babble about wellness and self, which Carol isn’t able to convincingly sell. After a botched interview for a new dating site amusingly called Badankadonk, the viewer is primed to wait patiently for Carol’s rage to explode in characteristic McCarthy fashion, as a satirical rebuke against the faux-progressive hivemind of our social media age, yet this combustion never occurs.
Superintelligence is less a parody of modern consumerism than a bland gene splice of a rom-com and a 1980s-era film in which a loner befriends either an alien, a robot, or, in this case, a sentient, super-intelligent program voiced—in another amusing touch—by James Corden. Porting a narrative with such a distinctly Cold War-era makeup into the modern day also has satiric potential, for suggesting the similarity between past and present anxieties about technology run amok. And this commonality is acknowledged by the film in exactly one joke, in which the sentient program emulates the computer from John Badham’s WarGames in order to screw with characters who’re all old enough to get the reference.
Falcone and screenwriter Steve Mallory soon skimp on another wellspring for comedy, as the program gifts Carol with wealth and fashionable baubles—the sorts of privileged things that she comes to resent less once she’s capable of attaining them. Such hypocrisy, alive and well in virtually every present-day American, is acknowledged in a few fleeting jokes and soon forgotten, and even the general premise of a super-intelligent program as a kind of modern god-slash-genie is sidelined. Superintelligence is a junkyard of missed opportunities, as the unutilized ideas and gimmicks are revealed to exist as window dressing adorning a simple, frictionless kind of comedy-of-remarriage between Carol and the man who got away, George (Bobby Cannavale), who’s defined only by his sweetness and availability.
Superintelligence is probably intended by Falcone, McCarthy’s husband and regular collaborator, as a conventional star vehicle in which McCarthy plays the sort of wistful lonely heart that was once monopolized by the likes of Meg Ryan and Sandra Bullock. The film’s conventionality is meant to show that McCarthy needn’t always play the tormented weirdo with reserves of inner rage; she can also be a regular lead with regular problems with a regularly good-looking man as her “one and only.” But such generic and insidiously conformist attitudes, though born of reverence, insult and inhibit McCarthy’s talents.
McCarthy was authentically weird, profane, and confident, and therefore sexy, when playing a character who stood up to all those sexist men in Spy, which positioned her opposite of Jason Statham romantically without treating it as a big deal. By contrast, Falcone self-consciously lionizes McCarthy as an avatar of normalized romantic longing, trapping her in the process. The filmmakers here fatally forget that we love Melissa McCarthy because she isn’t a princess.
Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Bobby Cannavale, James Corden, Brian Tyree Henry, Jean Smart, Ben Falcone, Josh McKissic Director: Ben Falcone Screenwriter: Steve Mallory Distributor: HBO Max Running Time: 108 min Rating: PG Year: 2020
Review: Julien Temple’s Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan
The film is affectingly poignant in its frequently uncomfortable presentation of MacGowan’s physical ruination.3
The legend of Shane MacGowan, frontman for the Pogues and imbiber extraordinaire, looms large over Julien Temple’s alternately fantastical and down-to-earth documentary Crock of Gold. Since achieving international renown in the 1980s leading the biggest Irish band after U2—and just about the only one to fully celebrate and explore their Irishness—MacGowan carved out a position as one of rock’s most determined boozers, druggies, fighters, and all-around hellraisers. But though he had a Keith Richards-sized appetite, being on a smaller budget meant going without a protective rock-star bubble.
MacGowan’s kinetic and alcohol-fueled energy was a big part of the Pogues’s appeal, vividly captured here by the footage Temple includes of people roaring and dancing in packed concert venues. But time took its toll, as evidenced by MacGowan’s downward spiral of performances sabotaged by his copious drinking. Eventually, the slurred speech, physical decrepitude, and ever-more gnarled dentition spotted in the archival footage from the 1980s and ‘90s became like a self-fulfilling stereotype of the dedicated Irish drunk. While Temple includes a full view of MacGowan in his earlier form, the spiky-haired and Brendan Behan-worshipping punk balladeer, the story is told primarily through the lens of MacGowan’s racked and ruined present visage, prematurely aged and slurring his speech from a wheelchair. In MacGowan’s mind, he destroyed his body in pursuit of a different kind of legend entirely.
Much of the musician’s personal history is relayed via present-day interviews with interlocutors such as Johnny Deep—a friend of MacGowan’s and one of the film’s producers—former Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams. But here and there throughout Crock of Gold, MacGowan looks back over his own life, telling stories with a slow, slurring mumble punctuated by the occasional surly snap of pique or wheeze that approximates a laugh.
MacGowan acknowledges the problematic aspects of being the drunken Irishmen who hated British stereotypes of drunken Irishmen. “You want Paddy?” he asks rhetorically. “I’ll give you fucking Paddy.” But beyond the aggression that came from being a hyper-imaginative kid who hated the discrimination he felt being raised in 1960s England, he says that his creative drive was ultimately to create a different kind of legend. He wanted to do nothing less than save Irish culture. If not that, he wanted to at least resurrect the feeling that he had during the childhood summers he spent back in his extended family’s farmhouse in Tipperary (a one-time safe house for the I.R.A.), where even as a six-year-old he took part in the drinking and smoking and singing during the clan’s frequent all-night bashes.
MacGowan’s take on his culture is fiercely proud yet somewhat removed; his Irishness seems to come almost as much through literature and myth as through his family. Dreamy black-and-white recreations of a boy gamboling through Irish fields and archival footage of the Easter Rising and Ireland’s War of Independence fuel the sense that everything MacGowan strove for later in his art was in his mind a kind of fantasy crusade. “I did what I did for Ireland,” he says.
Raised mostly in England, MacGowan found the perfect outlet for that old poetry-infused rebel spirit when as a teenager he discovered his tribe in London’s punk scene. The raw chaos fit his natural state. After a several-month stay in Bedlam, his first concert was the Sex Pistols. Although this feels like a too-good story from a man who doesn’t mind gilding the lily, Temple includes grubby old footage showing MacGowan ecstatically pogo-ing just feet away from Johnny Rotten. Temple’s evocation of London street life in the period is short but vivid, in particular a segment set to “The Old Main Drag”, MacGowan’s semi-autobiographical song about a teenage hustler (“Just hand jobs,” he says with a grin in a later interview).
Wanting to “give tradition a kick in the ass” and make “Irish hip again,” MacGowan infused the lilt of traditional Irish music with a mixture of punk speed, wartime urgency, and late-night boozy romanticism. His recollections of the Pogues’s early years when their first three albums were met with increasing acclaim and popularity make clear that he knows that was the high point. The near-constant touring that followed the breakthrough success of 1988’s If I Should Fall from Grace with God seems to have pushed his addictions over the edge. Most everything after the ‘80s—the later albums of dwindling quality, varying side projects and break-ups, and late-career encomiums—are handled in mostly chronological but still somewhat blurred fashion by Temple in an approximation of how MacGowan likely remembers them. In this way, the film is of a piece with the ruinous spectacle that Temple’s Sex Pistols films covered and the fireside intimacy of Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten, affectingly poignant in its frequently uncomfortable presentation of MacGowan’s physical ruination.
Director: Julien Temple Running Time: 124 min Year: 2020
Review: Before Turning Histrionic, Uncle Frank Is a Tender Look at Outsider Kinship
Alan Ball quickly loses sight of the sense of power that fuels the film’s early moments when his characters basically just gaze at each other.2
Alan Ball’s ‘70s-set Uncle Frank commences as a rare portrait of the love between an uncle and his niece. Beth (Sophia Lillis), a provincial teenager with cosmopolitan dreams, is in awe of her uncle Frank (Paul Bettany), a gay man living in New York City, a very long way from his South Carolina roots. “Uncle Frank was different,” Beth tells us in voiceover as we watch her pine for him at a family get-together. He was different than everyone around her because he was a college professor, his fingernails were always clear, and he used aftershave. But mostly because she could listen to him all day.
That sequence is shot like a conversation between lovers, slow-motioned laughter and all. But this isn’t the budding of incestuous love. It’s the sort of veneration that children are sometimes lucky enough to feel for the one adult in their midst who’s freer than most. Which is perhaps why many a queer uncle learns very quickly how disrupting their presence can be in family affairs. Frank represents a certain elsewhere. He truly listens to Beth, which visibly feels like some kind of a first for her. At one point, he tells her what she needs to hear with kindness—namely to believe in her dreams, which is code for her to get the hell out of the South. Four years later, she’s an NYU freshman obsessed with Harper Lee, Jane Austen, and Mark Twain.
When Beth moves to New York and they start hanging out, Frank can’t hide his homosexuality for long. After all, he lives with his long-term partner, Wally (Peter Macdissi), and an iguana named Barbara Stanwyck. Beth has never interacted with gay people before but gets used to the idea very quickly. And it’s at this moment, when the distance between uncle and niece shortens, that Uncle Frank ceases to be a tender portrait of outsider kinship and transforms into a histrionic road movie with screwball intentions, more interested in plot twists than the characters themselves. It’s an unfortunate pivot, as Ball loses sight of the sense of power that fuels the film’s early moments when his characters basically just gaze at each other, basking in what the other has to give, and something queer is transmitted.
When Frank’s father (Stephen Root) passes away, he drives back to the family home with Beth in tow. Also tagging along in a separate car, and much to Frank’s chagrin, is Wally, effectively triggering a predictable series of alternately kooky and unfortunate events, all interspersed with traumatic flashbacks to the source of the animosity between Frank and his father. It’s a whirlwind of melodrama that, before arriving at the obligatory happy ending, harkens back to the film’s initial quietude when Beth, sitting across from Frank at a diner, asks him, “Did you always know you were gay?” He responds that he always knew he was different, and in this moment Ball lets the characters breathe again, framing them much as he did at the start of Uncle Frank—in the midst of bonding, as a different sort of inheritance is passed on.
Cast: Paul Bettany, Sophia Lillis, Peter Macdissi, Steve Zahn, Judy Greer, Margo Martindale, Stephen Root, Lois Smith, Jane McNeil, Caity Brewer, Hannah Black, Burgess Jenkins, Zach Sturm, Colton Ryan, Britt Rentschler, Alan Campell, Cole Doman, Michael Perez Director: Alan Ball Screenwriter: Alan Ball Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 95 min Rating: R Year: 2020
Review: The Croods: A New Age Is a Step Up that Still Leaves You Wanting More
The film is brightly colored, inventively designed, and constantly flirting with the outright psychedelic.2.5
Brightly colored, inventively designed, and constantly flirting with the outright psychedelic, The Croods: A New Age resembles what it might be like for a three-year-old to take an acid trip. Whereas its relatively subdued predecessor, directed by Chris Sanders and Kirk DeMicco, was grounded in some semblance of the real world, the sequel follows the path of another DreamWorks Animation series, Trolls, by packing as much manic energy and candy-coated visual excess into its runtime as it possibly can. The approach mostly improves on the limp family-comedy of the original, trading tired jokes about overprotective fathers for sprawling action sequences and a bevy of oddball creatures including wolf-spider hybrids, kung fu-fighting monkeys, and a King Kong-sized baboon with porcupine spikes.
Which isn’t to say that A New Age turns its back on the Crood family. In fact, it juggles a half-dozen or so emotional arcs pertaining to their daily lives, with the relationship between the feisty Eep (Emma Stone) and her conservative father, Grug (Nicolas Cage), once more at the heart of the narrative. As the film opens, the Croods, who’ve accepted Eep’s boyfriend, Guy (Ryan Reynolds), into the family fold, are desperately searching for food and safety when they happen upon an Edenic walled paradise owned by the technologically advanced Phil and Hope Betterman (Peter Dinklage and Leslie Mann), who chafe at the boorish antics of the backwards Croods. Discovering that they knew Guy when he was a boy, the Bettermans contrive to kick the coarse cavemen off their property while stealing Guy away from Eep to live with them and create a family with their cheery daughter, Dawn (Kelly Marie Tran).
Though ostensibly existing in the prehistoric world, the Bettermans, with their turquoise jewelry and rope sandals, epitomize a certain kind of well-heeled contemporary liberalism, where a rehearsed casual demeanor masks a fundamental narrow-mindedness and even intolerance of the uncouthness of their perceived inferiors. They’re the kind of people who won’t let a struggling family stay for long on their unused property but will send them off with a passive-aggressive smile and gift basket full of fancy soaps. The Bettermans are surprisingly complex, thanks in large part to Dinklage and Mann’s nuanced voice acting. In particular, Dinklage finds droll humor in a man whose conceitedness belies an essentially good heart.
This sort of gentle satire on class divisions isn’t the most natural fit with the film’s sweeping prehistoric milieu, but the screenplay manages to strike a relatively deft balance between its character moments and the comedy-adventure set pieces that are the film’s real raison d’être. A New Age doles out its emotional beats with a refreshingly light touch, never allowing sentimentalism to overpower its buoyant sense of adventure. But aside from some delightfully crusty line readings by Cloris Leachman as Gran, the film is rarely laugh-out-loud funny. Indeed, the film is so packed full of incident that it rarely gives its jokes the space to land.
Similarly, its overall sense of spectacle is stronger than any particular image or scene. We’re never wanting for things to look at in the film—there’s nearly always some wacky creature or impossible Roger Dean-style landscape or virtuosic bit of animation onscreen—but we rarely get much chance to take any of them in before the film has moved on to the next thing. There’s plenty to look at in A New Age, but not a whole lot to truly savor.
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Emma Stone, Ryan Reynolds, Catherine Keener, Clark Duke, Cloris Leachman, Peter Dinklage, Leslie Mann, Kelly Marie Tran Director: Joel Crawford Screenwriter: Kevin Hageman, Dan Hageman, Paul Fisher, Bob Logan Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 95 min Rating: PG Year: 2020
Noir City: International 2020
The first international edition of the Noir City film festival in six years showcases the diversity and malleability of noir.
Noir City 18, presented by the Film Noir Foundation in San Francisco this January, shined a spotlight on 24 noir films from around the world. It was the first international edition of the festival in six years, and it showcased the diversity and malleability of the genre—the incredible range of formal, thematic, and narrative strategies that can fall under its umbrella. Now through November 29, a virtual edition of this year’s festival, co-presented by AFI Silver and the Film Noir Foundation, featuring many of the same films is open to noir afficionados across the United States.
A handful of established classics are presented here, including Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Doulos, as well as the only two American films in the lineup, each celebrating their 75th anniversaries, Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour and John M. Stahl’s Leave Her to Heaven. But the remaining films on this year’s slate consist primarily of lesser established films like Robert Siodmak’s The Devil Strikes at Night and Helmut Kautner’s Black Gravel, as well as a few more widely known films not discussed in terms of their noir credentials, among them Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid and Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds.
This edition of Noir City: International further broadens the scope of what cinephiles traditionally think of as noir. But in stretching the boundaries of what constitutes a noir production, perhaps too far at times for some noir purists, the festival offers an exciting blend of undiscovered gems and more canonical films that, when reevaluated through the lens of noir, are ripe for both new interpretations and renewed appreciation.
One of more obscure titles this year is Zbyněk Brynych’s 1965 thriller The Fifth Horseman Is Fear, which, while set during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, makes no attempt to recreate the era. This approach allows Brynych’s Kafkaesque parable to achieve an immediacy and universality in its critique of authoritarianism that extends not only to the communist party running Czechoslovakia in the 1960s, but to virtually any brutal autocratic regime. Here, the Nazi soldiers and officers remain entirely off screen, overheard only occasionally as they speechify on the radio or in the distance outside, and the film instead summons most of the danger through the crippling, maddening aftereffects of widespread oppression that manifest in the fear and panic gripping seemingly every civilian character in the film.
Employing claustrophobic compositions, opaque plotting, jarring, sometimes disjointed editing, and a hauntingly atonal jazz score by Jirí Sternwald, Brynych crafts an environment of utter despair and confusion, where suspicions are cast in every direction and friends and neighbors turn on one another in order to survive. Chillingly, The Fifth Horseman Is Fear even blurs the psychological divide between the patients of an insane asylum and the unhinged behavior of the residents of Prague. And while that particular sequence recalls Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor from two years prior, Brynych’s nightmarishly surreal flourishes are innovative in their own right for the uneasy sense of paranoia that they rouse throughout, foreshadowing the more grim, disturbing films to come out of Czechoslovakia in the coming years, notably Juraj Herz’s The Cremator and Karel Kachyna’s The Ear.
Román Viñoly Barreto’s The Black Vampire, a 1953 Argentinian reimagining of Fritz Lang’s M, may not be as inventive as either Brynych or Lang’s films, but in approaching the material from the perspectives of women whose lives are adversely affected by the actions of the central child killer, it’s nonetheless quite fascinating and bold in its diversions from the original. Its feminist bent morphs the story into something entirely different than the Lang film, and in sympathizing primarily with mothers of the killers’ victims, along with a cabaret singer, Rita (Olga Zubarry), who witnessed one of the murders and fears for the safety of her child, Barreto’s film turns the oft-perceived misogyny of noir on its head.
Barreto villainizes not only the killer, but also the lead detective, Bernard (Roberto Escalada), whose hypocrisy—both in his domineering behavior on the job, as when he keeps a suspect he knows is innocent in detention, and his betrayal of his disabled wife (Gloria Castilla)—undermines his positioning of himself as the moral voice of reason. Cinematographer Aníbal González Paz, who also shot another gorgeous, under-the-radar Argentinian noir, 1958’s Rosaura at 10 O’Clock, uses an impressionistic visual palette, rife with chiaroscuro lighting and canted camera angles to create a heightened sense of disorientation that mirrors the volatility of a society in which injustices regularly occur on both sides of the law.
While The Fifth Horseman Is Fear and The Black Vampire fall on the more disturbing, thematically weighty end of the noir spectrum, Henri Verneuil’s Any Number Can Win is a much lighter offering, though it’s quite an assured and stylish piece of mainstream entertainment. Verneuil, first and foremost, understands the simple surface pleasures noir can provide, be it gazing at a stone-faced Jean Gabin patiently skulking in the back of a Rolls Royce as he watches his master plan beginning to unfold or Alain Delon comically hamming it up as he uses his charm and sex appeal to fool everyone in the casino resort he plans to rob.
As delightful as it is to behold all the sharply written tête-à-têtes between Gabin and Delon—the former as the aging, implacable professional, and the latter as the virile, headstrong apprentice—it’s during the quieter, more deliberately paced third act that Veurneuil’s control of tempo and mood really shines. Generating a white-knuckle tension worthy of Jules Dassin’s Rififi, and capped off with a brilliant reworking of the ending of another ‘50s classic—to say which one would spoil the surprise—Any Number Can Win is a prime example of a film, and filmmaker, that was unfairly maligned by the cinephiles and critics of the French New Wave, and which has only just recently begun to recover its reputation.
Noir City: International runs through November 29.
Review: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom Is a Moving Swan Song for Chadwick Boseman
Boseman meticulously charts the breakdown of a man discovering that pursuit and escape are inextricably intertwined.3
In the canny opening moments of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, the camera swoops over the heads of two black men sprinting through the woods at night, tripping over branches in their haste. The sequence, calculatingly staged to evoke an antebellum-era escape, invites our assumptions about who these men might be and from whom or what they might be running, but it turns out that the two men are just music fans on the move to catch a concert performance by Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, the Southern singer dubbed “Mother of the Blues.”
It’s a pain-to-pleasure illusion that runs in reverse throughout the rest of George C. Wolfe’s film, which has been thoughtfully, gently adapted by Ruben Santiago-Hudson from August Wilson’s 1984 play. Though Ma Rainey (Viola Davis), here a fictionalized version of the real-life pioneering recording artist, may command sell-out crowds and booming record sales, she also knows what she ultimately represents for the white managers and producers who profit from her talent: “They don’t care nothing about me,” she explains early in the film. “All they want is my voice.” Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom chips away at the seeming triumph of a celebrated chanteuse to reveal the bitter truths below the surface.
Ma Rainey, gilded and painted, is playing a part. With gold teeth and coarse coats of makeup highlighting a face often frozen in a withering sneer, most often directed at the white men who pay her but sometimes at the rogue trumpeter in her band, Levee (Chadwick Boseman), or at her chorus-girl lover, Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige), she’s miles away from vulnerability.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom takes place over the course of a few hours in the recording studio where Ma presides over her deferential manager, Irvin (Jeremy Shamos), disgruntled producer, Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne), and her four-man band, which, in addition to Boseman’s Levee, includes Toledo (Glynn Turman) on piano, Slow Drag (Michael Potts) on bass, and Cutler (Colman Domingo) on trombone. For Ma Rainey, as long as the microphones are on, she has total power, and she relishes in elongating that reign through the power of refusal: she won’t sing until she has her Coke; she won’t move on until her nephew, Sylvester (Dusan Brown), who stutters, perfectly delivers the introduction to the recording; and she won’t sign the release form that would liberate her white manager and producer from her say-so.
Davis, coarsely, tauntingly, slowly slurping on that Coca-Cola, communicates Ma Rainey’s premeditated defiance: As long as she controls the recording session, she rules over the white men who crave her sound, her strength and talent arising not in spite of her black body, but through it. And if that simultaneous tribute to, and desecration of, her artistry is ultimately heartbreaking to her, Ma Rainey isn’t about to let them see through her armor.
For the rest of the band, though, things are different. Levee has visions of forming his own band, of getting his original songs recorded, of winning over Ma Rainey’s beloved Dussie Mae. His jaded bandmates have seen it all by now, though, and they know Levee’s cocksure dreams will backfire. What they cannot anticipate are the frightening ways in which Levee’s grief has already hardened into powder kegs. If Ma finds small, sustaining triumph in refusal, Levee leans heavily on the blinding comforts of denial, and Boseman offers a deliriously frantic performance of contradictory extremes that eclipses the rest of the film when he’s at his most urgent and sweltering. Of the other bandmates, it’s Turman’s Toledo who most memorably emerges from Levee’s shadow: He’s the oldest of the musicians and the clearest-eyed in his surety that the rewards of individual artistic glory, the kind that Ma embraces and Levee pursues, will make scant difference in improving black lives in lasting ways.
Wolfe, best known as the razor-witted playwright of The Colored Museum and the original director of Angels in America, takes a hands-on approach in sending sparks of activity through the film’s claustrophobic spaces. In the small basement room where the band practices as they await Ma Rainey’s arrival, the camera often ricochets from man to man, as frenetic as the film’s briefer depiction of the Chicago streets above. Successful in the early scenes at animating what could otherwise feel static on screen, that perpetual motion may also somewhat undercut the boiling stillness that eventually erupts. Wilson’s trademark undercurrent of simmering rage against the divine—the same desperate resistance that distinguishes the climaxes of plays like Fences and The Piano Lesson—only sneaks in occasionally, and, when Levee’s restless hopelessness explodes into destructive action, it neither feels wrenchingly inevitable nor cathartically shocking.
That’s not through any fault of Boseman’s. Indeed, though Davis’ gritty, authoritarian presence at the mic complexingly layers the seductive highs of stardom and the exhausting veneer of Ma Rainey’s temporary, performative power, it’s Boseman who most movingly gives voice to the ghosts that haunt Wilson’s play. In his final role, Boseman meticulously charts the breakdown of a man discovering, within the mirages of 1920s blackness, that pursuit and escape, fleeing from and running toward, are inextricably intertwined.
Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Viola Davis, Glynn Turman, Jeremy Shamos, Colman Domingo, Taylour Paige, Jonny Coyne, Michael Potts, Joshua Harto, Dusan Brown Director: George C. Wolfe Screenwriter: Ruben Santiago-Hudson Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 94 min Rating: R Year: 2020
Review: Happiest Season Is Paint-by-Numbers but Earns Its Emotional Payoff
The film translates the often difficult realities of a specific kind of marginalized love into a story with broad appeal.3
Clea DuVall’s Happiest Season isn’t a radical holiday movie. Indeed, from a certain, say, militant queer-feminist perspective, it might be considered a counterrevolutionary one. Early on, it asserts its comfort with outdated notions of coupledom that are peddled by the average romantic comedy when Abby (Kristen Stewart) tells her friend John (Dan Levy) that she’s planning to propose to her girlfriend, Harper (Mackenzie Davis), on Christmas morning. Abbey reveals not only this affront to John’s anti-heteronormative inclinations, but that she’s going to first ask for the blessing of Harper’s father, Ted (Victor Garber). “Way to stick it to the patriarchy, really well done,” John archly replies.
The rest of the film, like Abby, proves eager to mimic the innumerable non-gay Christmas movies that preceded it, trotting out the quirky family, the handsome hometown ex-boyfriend, the misunderstood suitor, the betrayal that must be rectified, and the final holiday moral—namely, that family is important. The plot of Happiest Season is best summed up, in short, as “gay Meet the Parents.” But this assimilationist bent certainly doesn’t stop Duvall’s film, which is stacked with a supporting cast of solid comic performers like Levy, from sharpening humor that surely seemed mild on the page. It’s even much more affecting than most of its heteronormative predecessors, in large part because the stakes of its comedy of errors are greater than whether or not one man “lets” another man into the family.
Abby and Harper begin Happiest Season as a blissfully happy couple, still young and in love enough to risk trouble with stunts like sneaking onto a stranger’s roof to gaze at neighborhood Christmas lights, and, when they’re chased away, pausing their flight to make out in an alley—a clean alley, though, as they live in post-gentrification Pittsburgh. In the heat of the moment, Harper invites Abby, whose family died tragically some years ago, to come home with her for Christmas. It’s only when they’re on the road that Harper finally brings herself to confess that she’s lied to Abby about being out to her parents; that her family believes Abby is her (straight) roommate; and that she told them that she invited Abby along because she’s an orphan.
Harper, it turns out, is the favorite daughter of an important local family whose priorities are dominated by her mild-mannered but ambitious father, the very embodiment of soft patriarchy. Ted’s running for mayor, and Harper can’t risk causing a scandal in her small Pennsylvania town by coming out in the middle of his campaign. We’ll learn that, in addition, favorite-child Harper also has to maintain her edge in her lifelong competition with her humorless, extremely hetero older sister, Sloane (Alison Brie). With these characters’ gazes fixed on Harper’s strange new roommate, the masquerade that Abby’s forced into grows increasingly difficult—particularly as Harper’s first love, Riley (Aubrey Plaza), appears on the scene and lends Abby both a sympathetic ear and surprising insights into Harper’s past.
There’s a delicate balance between comedy and distress that the films needs to strike in relation to Harper’s multilayered betrayal, because the scenario pulls double duty: It’s amusing when her oblivious, bougie family keeps treating Abby like a refugee from a Victorian orphanage, but wrenching when Abby must watch her would-be fiancée flirt with her old boyfriend, Connor (Jake McDorman), to keep up appearances. Sometimes, DuVall doesn’t quite find this balance, and what’s meant as frivolous comedy elicits anxiety. At times it’s more intuitive to be feel distressed by Abby’s plight—like when she’s arrested by overzealous mall cops (Timothy Simons and Lauren Lapkus) because she’s mistaken as a shoplifter after Harper ditches her to hobnob with Ted’s campaign donors—than amused by it.
But then, it’s remarkable that a film that’s in so many ways a paint-by-numbers romantic comedy actually delivers to much emotional heft. If by Happiest Season’s midway point it’s easy to write off Harper as too privileged and selfish to be truly worth all this trouble, Stewart makes Abby’s decision not to immediately split believable by leaning into her wallflower persona, communicating silent heartbreak and confusion on the margins of her character’s jittery, awkward interactions with the denizens of Squaresville, PA. It might be going too far to call DuVall’s film groundbreaking, but like the best rom-coms, it smuggles a few nuggets of truth into its predictable formula, translating the often difficult realities of a specific kind of marginalized love into a story with broad appeal.
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Mackenzie Davis, Dan Levy, Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza, Mary Holland, Mary Steenburgen, Victor Garber, Jake McDorman, Ana Gasteyer, Michelle Buteau, Sarayu Blue, Burl Moseley Director: Clea DuVall Screenwriter: Clea DuVall Distributor: Hulu Running Time: 102 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020
Review: The Two Sights Hypnotically Ruminates on Corporeality and Oblivion
With his first solo feature, Joshua Bonnetta is again contemplating death and the traces it leaves behind.3
It’s become something of a cliché for experimental docufiction hybrids to be shot on 16mm, and at this point it might even be safe to say that such works have kept Kodak from discontinuing production on the film stock. While the use of small-gauge celluloid within this body of work has occasionally felt pro forma, even in some cases pointlessly fetishistic, one of its more conscientious practitioners is multidisciplinary artist Joshua Bonnetta, whose 2011 conceptual travelogue American Colour traced the lifespan of the now-extinct Kodachrome stock—on which the film was shot—from the final Kansas-based lab to process it back to its origin place in Rochester, New York. And his last feature, El Mar La Mar, co-directed with Sensory Ethnography Lab alum J.P. Sniadecki, embraced grain and other material defects as a corollary to the film’s emphasis on natural decay in the Sonoran Desert, site of an unconscionable death toll from unsuccessful border crossings.
In his newest and first solo feature, The Two Sights, Bonnetta is again contemplating death and the traces it leaves behind, this time in the remote climes of Scotland’s northern archipelago. Operating in such an exceedingly beautiful region, however, Bonnetta might as well have just chosen film for its pictorial incentives. A waterlogged expanse of misty steppes and vertiginous drops into crystal-blue waters, the Outer Hebrides islands in which the film is set—Barra, Berneray, Harris, Lewis, and North Uint—total a population of just over 20,000 people, and Bonnetta keeps them largely out of frame, preferring instead to ruminate on grandiose bisections of land and sky. Composed of a series of mostly static shots, the film is visually reminiscent of Peter Hutton’s Iceland-set Skagafjördur, though Bonnetta, at least as interested in the sonic dimensions of cinema as he is in its pictorial qualities, centers a large portion of The Two Sights’s meaning on its soundtrack. That prioritization is rather forcefully apparent when the director himself plants a boom mic in the center of the film’s opening shot.
This moment, which comes halfway through the shot, triggers a sudden shift in the soundtrack from one field recording to another, making it apparent that what we heard prior wasn’t actually tethered to the image. That’s a hint that much of the sound to come will be layered and orchestrated rather than simply recorded along with the image—a truth that perhaps sounds self-evident when stated in this way, but which Bonnetta suggests may not be top of mind to audiences of films that appear to document objective reality. And while The Two Sights certainly does appear to be just that, there’s much to imply that Bonnetta is constructing a more multilayered tapestry, an archive of the unseen.
On its surface, the film presents a smattering of voiceover testimonials from unseen Hebrides residents, who relate stories of strange happenings on the islands, most involving deaths or hauntings. The stories of these lost souls are never visualized, though Bonnetta pairs them with footage that feels roughly analogous, if not like an outright projection of a mental image. One fishermen’s recollection of getting dangerously caught in an eddy while seeking lobster is accompanied by shots around a fishing boat, with one floor-level angle of water lapping up on the vessel seeming to conjure up an approximation of his experience. Another distressing tale of a man’s confrontation with a beached whale finds Bonnetta’s camera surveying a shoreline, as if encouraging us to project our imaginations onto the scene.
As Bonnetta offers these fill-in-the-blank visual inducements, his soundtrack performs a similar act, blending—via long, imperceptible cross-fades—field sounds recorded by the director himself with archival audio sourced from the region. With the exceptions of folk-music clippings that are most obviously archived, the distinctions between past and present material become nearly impossible to discern and indeed negligible, as Bonnetta’s subject is, after all, the layering of history atop the current moment. The visual devices that he employs create impressions of liminality, of a fine line between corporeality and oblivion—namely through shots that would seem to be dead photographs were it not for the dance of grain or one single plane of movement, flipped camera perspectives that don’t immediately register as such, subtle plays with manual aperture shifts, and plenty of water reflections.
A similar impression is evoked by one resident when describing the entirety of the Hebrides region, which she calls “a thin place” where there’s “little distinction between heaven and earth.” That same mystery is, of course, tantamount to the allure of celluloid, it being a medium that preserves the past while at the same time being impermanent. The Two Sights hypnotically embodies something of a paranormal investigation, all the more haunting for being unable to extricate itself completely from the void opened up by its subjects.
Director: Joshua Bonnetta Distributor: Cinema Guild Running Time: 90 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
Review: Collective Is a Searing Chronicle of Institutional Corruption
The film fiercely reminds us that without investigative reporting there’s no democracy.3.5
On October 30, 2015, a fire breaks out during a free rock concert at the Colectiv nightclub in Bucharest, Romania. The club has no fire exits. Twenty-seven people are killed right away and 180 are injured. Dozens more die soon after, many of them not because of the severity of their burns, but from bacterial infections contracted while in intensive care—and this after the Romanian government assured the victims that they would receive the same medical care that they would receive in Germany. The government’s attempts to save face begin to crumble and mass protests spread across Romania.
In Collective, Alexander Nanau trails investigative reporters exposing the astonishing offshore fraud scheme involving hospital disinfectants which led to dozens of avoidable deaths in the wake of the fire. Hexi Pharma, the company that provided the antiseptics to hundreds of hospitals diluted them at 10 times the recommended ratio, leading doctors to operate with bacteria-laden scalpels and maggots to grow from the unwashed bodies of the survivors.
What follows is a familiar public relations spectacle that institutions unleash once their criminal incompetence has come to light: a cringe-inducing display of corporate speak, barefaced lies, evasion of responsibility, and crooked in-house investigations that find no wrongdoing. Nanau’s unobtrusive camera follows the events as they unfold, which puts the viewer in the anxiety-giving position of television audiences enthralled by the most surreal of breaking-news cycles. Collective inhabits that cinematic sweet spot where the national specificity of a film’s subject matter gives palpable rendition to a rather universal logic.
It turns out that corruption is a dormant metastasis. And uncovering it is like opening a Pandora’s box, finding another box inside, and another one after that, each filled with a stranger-than-fiction plot twist and each more rotten than the other. Collective attests to the political urgency, and the documentary-esque realism, of Romanian filmmakers working in the realm of fiction, such as Cristian Mungiu, Corneliu Porumboiu, and Calin Peter Netzer. Those filmmakers’ stories can, in fact, look tame in retrospect, as Nanau’s film unveils a national health care system where doctors bribe their managers so they can be transferred to clinics where patients are known to offer heftier bribes to the doctors who will operate on them.
In the documentary, the sleuthing aimed at restoring the integrity of a community, however belatedly, is the work of reporters undaunted by the potentially lethal consequences of speaking truth to power, through reportage, press briefings, and TV appearances. Collective pays considerable attention to the collaborative nature of journalism and its minutia—the research, the phone calls, the laying out of a webpage, the brainstorming with colleagues, the intimidation and counter-attacks. The film reminds us that without investigative reporting there’s no democracy, and that traditional expectations around impartiality and objectivity may be untenable in the face of horror. It proves that journalistic integrity is achieved not through neutrality, but by pledging fierce allegiance to the public’s interest.
Director: Alexander Nanau Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 109 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Jiu Jitsu Falls Short of Its Predator-Meets-Mortal Kombat Promise
Nicolas Cage’s amusing turn as a kooky hermit with an affinity for newspaper hats often feels awkwardly spliced into the film.1.5
Despite his prominent placement on the poster, Nicolas Cage isn’t the central element of Dimitri Logothetis’s Jiu Jitsu. Rather, Alain Moussi plays the main character, Jake, a conveniently amnesiac fighter in a group that battles a silent interstellar warrior, Brax (Ryan Tarran), who emerges from a portal in a Burmese temple every six years, demanding hand-to-hand combat or else he’ll destroy the Earth. But for as much as that premise may suggest Predator by way of Mortal Kombat, the film doesn’t display the mounting tension and proficient choreography that would otherwise make the material sing.
From a technical perspective, large chunks of this sci-fi martial arts film don’t quite hold together. Logothetis uses longer-than-usual takes for several early action scenes, but the results are deeply unflattering to the film’s stuntmen since most of the characters’ blows look weak and unconvincing, while mediocre sound design and overuse of slow-motion only highlight the issue rather than disguise it. Throughout, ugly comic book art serves as transitions and occasional establishing shots. And strangest of all, the film fails to create a sense that the actors share the same space even in basic dialogue scenes.
Cage’s amusing turn as Wylie, an idiosyncratic hermit with an affinity for newspaper hats and an insistence on calling Brax “the spaceman,” often feels awkwardly spliced into the film. Most group shots show a stand-in from the back or at a distance, with all characters except Jake appearing to give him the silent treatment. Perhaps the most shocking moment in the film is a cut to Frank Grillo’s Harrigan finally, though still vaguely, reacting to something Wylie says after long stretches where the hermit might as well be Jake’s imaginary friend.
Still, Jiu Jitsu’s shoddy production isn’t without its diverting charm. For one, the film manages to offset Moussi’s void of charisma by bouncing him between more dynamic actors like Cage, Jaa, and Grillo, while Tarran’s portrayal of Brax as a guy in a suit rather than a CGI creation gives him a tangible, Power Rangers-like sense of presence. We even get a bizarrely memorable first-person sequence that follows Moussi until he momentarily steps out from behind the camera’s point of view, engages in a fight, and then seems to absorb the camera into his body as he’s knocked into the lens. Even though Logothetis succeeds at very little of what he’s experimenting with—he even botches a recreation of the Arnold Schwarzenegger/Carl Weathers handshake from Predator—it isn’t totally boring to see him try.
Cast: Alain Moussi, Nicolas Cage, Frank Grillo, Rick Yune, Marie Avgeropoulos, Tony Jaa, JuJu Chan, Eddie Steeples, Ryan Tarran Director: Dimitri Logothetis Screenwriter: Dimitri Logothetis, James McGrath Distributor: The Avenue Running Time: 102 min Rating: R Year: 2020 Buy: Video
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