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Why Is This Film Called Birth?: Investigating Jonathan Glazer’s Mystery of the Heart

Can you spank a ghost?

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Birth
Photo: New Line Cinema
Editor’s Note: The House Next Door is proud to reissue a series of articles developed at 24LiesASecond, a now-defunct platform for provocative criticism with an underdog bite. The essay below was first published on 01/23/2006, under the editorial guidance of James M. Moran (editor-in-chief) and Peet Gelderblom (founding editor).

“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.

Meeting Anna

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.”

Seems.

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.

Dirty hands

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.

An exorcism

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.

A wedding

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.

Aftermath

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.

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

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

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Marc Maron
Photo: IFC Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right.

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

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

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

Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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Streetwise
Photo: Janus Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Interview: Lynn Shelton on Honing Her Process for Sword of Trust

The filmmaker discusses how she wants viewers to feel like they’re paratrooping into her characters’ lives.

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Lynn Shelton
Photo: IFC Films

Lynn Shelton has amassed a formidable body of work between her eight features and countless television episodes. Her latest outing, the comic adventure Sword of Trust, represents her most topical work to date. After pawn shop owner Mel (played by Marc Maron) purchases an old sword, he gets plunged into world of conspiracy culture as the relic attracts legions of online prowlers convinced that the weapon represents proof that the Confederacy won the Civil War. The logline might be Shelton’s wildest yet, but the elements that have made her work indelible for over a decade remain intact: realistic conversations, emotional authenticity, and a commitment to multi-dimensional characters.

I chatted with Shelton on Sword of Trust’s opening day, which saw the director, writer, producer, editor, and occasional actress in great spirits. Our conversation covered her pursuit of Maron for this specific project, how she developed her unique script-development process, and why she wants viewers to feel like they’re paratrooping into her characters’ lives.

Last year on Marc Maron’s podcast, you mentioned that you liked exploring relationships between people who wouldn’t normally interact. Sword of Trust continues in that tradition for you. What keeps bringing you back to these dynamics?

Have you heard of this theory of multiple intelligences, like different types of intelligences we have? I can’t remember the names that [Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner] came up with, I think there’s eight. I know I’m not the brightest bulb on all of these scales, but one way that I think I’m pretty high is in emotional intelligence. I like to think I am, anyway. I’ve always been that close observer of human behavior. I also really love humans. I feel like the thing that makes humans human are their flaws. So, on screen, I don’t like to see people who are too smoothed out, all good or all bad. I’m interested in characters who are essentially good people, but they may be total fuck-ups and well-meaning who may sabotage themselves. Individual fucking up often happens in relation to other people. We may have a pre-determined need to connect to other people, but we’re constantly sabotaging ourselves.

Sometimes, like I said on the podcast, I’m much more interested in unlikely combinations of people because it’s not a prewritten script we’re handed. It’s not like, “This is who would be appropriate for you as a friend. This is the way you should act. This is the box we’ve already determined for you.” Any kind of out-of-the-box way of living one’s life or being surprised by a connection you feel to a human being, all those little happy accidents in life are the things I like to explore. To inspire people, not to just go through life in this sort of “this is what someone else had in mind for me, and I should follow that plan”—that feels very depressing to me. It’s more interesting to open your heart and your life up to other experiences.

To explore relationships in that way makes the everyday more interesting and exciting.

Yeah, exactly. It gives you a reason to stick around.

Having been a guest of Marc’s on his podcast twice, do you see any of his interviewer “persona” having an impact on the person you film on screen? Does training himself to listen and be present have any effect on making him a better screen partner?

Absolutely! The first time I directed Marc was on his TV show Maron, and I was so fascinated by his process. He’s raw and a really natural actor. He steps in front of the camera, and he’s looking at his scene partner and really knows how to listen and engage. A lot of that comes from sitting across from people and staring into their eyes. That’s why he’s such a good interviewer and has the top interview podcast, because he has a genuine conversation with people. And that’s all acting really is too. He also has this weird ability to let the camera and crew and other extraneous details just fade away for him, and a lot of people find all that really distracting and difficult to shut out. He doesn’t know where the camera is half the time. He said to me, “The next thing I want to do as an actor is figure out when the camera is on me.” I said, “What?! That camera’s right there!” He’s like, “I don’t see it. I’m not aware of it. I’m just in this scene with the person.” I’m like, “That is a gift, my friend. That is incredible that you’re able to not see the lights and craziness, just be in the scene.” He’s really able to do it. I think that definitely comes from that same skill set he’s drawing on.

Where does the genesis of your films occur? They usually have some kind of strong conceptual selling point or hook, but they’re often like a Trojan horse to get to deep conversations between the characters about something else.

It is, and the genesis of the vast majority of my films is an actor as a muse that I want to work with. Humpday was Mark Duplass, Outside In was his brother, Jay Duplass, this movie was Marc Maron, who I’ve been really wanting to make a movie with for three and a half years. Then there’s other things, like a territory I want to explore or an element I want to return to, like improvisation, which I haven’t done since Your Sister’s Sister. I’ve done several movies in between that have been scripted, but I wanted to allow myself a new genre. I knew I wanted to laugh because the last movie was a drama, and I was ready to laugh—and let myself really laugh by going into the outlandish and ridiculous, plot-wise. Go into some comedy-caper territory, which I’ve never let myself do before. I’ve been totally real in every moment, and this time I was like, “What if I have real characters who go to a crazy place?” I wanted to make a culturally relevant movie that didn’t make you want to slit your wrists. It referred to what was going on and some of the problematic elements of what we’re dealing with in society. We’re having this peak moment in conspiracy theories. They’ve always been around, but this is definitely where they’ve achieved a peak moment that I find very disturbing. So, it’s usually a territory I want to explore and an actor I want to work with.

How do you research or prepare to authentically treat conspiracy culture?

Well, there’s this thing called a computer and a thing called the internet, and boy, is it all in there! [laughs] We went down a rabbit hole with Mike O’Brien, my co-writer. It’s so fascinating because there’s little in-fighting. They really bonded over Pizzagate and the Twin Towers being an inside job, but then when it comes to hollow earth versus the earth is on fire, they’re at odds and frenemies for life. It’s insane, the shit you find.

How do you approach shooting improvisational dialogue? There’s a very naturalistic feel to it, but there are hardly any vocal fillers like “um” or “you know.”

Well, you get the right cast, so that really helps. I’ll tell you, you can do a lot in the editing room. You’ll see it on screen, there are these runs of incredible monologues. But if I’m cutting away to another actor for a reaction shot, it’s often because I’m slicing out an “um” or an “ah” or a little bauble. The edit room is the most redemptive place in the universe. It’s incredible what you can do and how you can carve out the right story. Especially with improvisation, it really is where the actual script is written. Our first cut—it didn’t feel fat, it was funny throughout—was two and a half hours long. I was like, “How am I going to cut out five to seven minutes, much less an hour?” And for me, a comedy has to be 90 minutes, so I knew I needed an hour out of there. It was like, “This is hysterical, this is gold, but it’s not serving the story. Ultimately, what is the story? It could be this, or it could include this, but let’s just hone it down to Mel’s emotional arc and make sure we can track it through the craziness.” We want to care about these people just enough and balance it. There was so much work in the edit room.

Sword of Trust is definitely a comedy, but the scene I found most striking was Mel explaining his history to your character, Deidre, and in such a matter-of-fact, serious fashion, in the back of the truck. Did you always intend to set off this important part of the story with such a stark tonal contrast?

No, it wasn’t. When Mike O’Brien really insisted that I be in the movie, I finally relented and thought I was going to be a random customer who came in for five seconds. But then, I realized she could be a device that helps us track Mel’s arc. I was really panicking for a long time because I couldn’t figure out how to make her funny. I can be comedic, but she wasn’t comedic. She was so desperate and tragic. Then I finally realized that I wasn’t going to worry about it. I wasn’t going to try to turn her into some kind of laughing-stock. I was just going to be what she feels like she needs to be. That was an indication that this movie is going to have that real element of heaviness to it, but it happened really organically. I wanted you to care about these people, but I didn’t realize there was going to be that much depth to one of them, so much poignant heart and humanity. That was a nice surprise.

You’ve described your writing process as being “upside-down,” where the script develops alongside the characters. How did you develop this writing style?

I never went to traditional film school. I had this long, circuitous route to get to what I’m doing. I started as a theater actor, then I went to photography and started doing experimental work, but everything as a solo artist. The most important work of the film, making the process of the acting, is obstructed at every turn by the process of making it. You’re out of order. In theater, you at least get to play a story from beginning to end and feel it out. You’re at scene 35 on the first day and like, “What’s happened before this? Where am I emotionally?” And then you’ve got to do it 40 times with the camera in different positions and act like nobody else is there. The whole thing is so hard, unless you’re Meryl Streep! But if you’re not working with Meryl Streep, what do you do as a director? I need real people on screen.

My second feature, My Effortless Brilliance, was a total experiment. I came up with these characters in my head and tried to cast them from a pretty small pool of actors. They were nothing like the characters. I realized, “What if you did it the other way? What if you had a person you wanted to work with…” That was where I started with that idea, and all I cared about was to make it feel like a documentary. I wanted you to turn the TV on and be like, “What am I watching? Am I in these people’s lives?” And people have said they’ve had that experience where they’ll turn it on in the middle of Showtime and have no idea what they’re watching but that it feels like a documentary. Which is like, “Yes! That’s what I meant.”

And then I honed it with Humpday. Once I knew I could work in that way, I upped the stakes. I’ll bring in a few lights. I had said, “No lights! Me and another camera operator with tiny cameras, a boom op, that’s it.” I eliminated the crew. But that was where I came up with that initial impulse, to make it feel really real. If the character fits the actor like a glove because it’s half them or three-quarters them and they’ve developed it with me…I want real humans.

I actually had that experience of picking up one of your movies and not missing a beat. I was late to my showtime of Your Sister’s Sister in the theater, but I didn’t feel like I was lost. Then a few years later I watched it at home from the beginning, which helped it make a little more sense. But I felt I had easily intuited what I had missed.

It’s funny because I want my movies to feel like you’re paratrooping into somebody’s life. We’re taking a little journey down the river of their life for a while, and then we leave again. I don’t like to tie things up too neatly at the end because I want you to get the sense that they’re continuing to live their lives, and who knows what’s going to happen in the future. But you just sort of paratrooped in a little bit later! [laughs]

On that note, there’s a line toward the end of the film where Jillian Bell’s character, Cynthia, takes a deep breath and says, “What a strange experience.” Is that line improvised or scripted? In a lot of ways, the line feels like it sums up where characters often net out at the end of your films.

That was all improvised! It’s all ordinary people going into crazy land, but yeah, ordinary people having weird dramas in their everyday lives. I mean, it can happen. I’ve heard stories of shit happening to random people that feel like…you couldn’t write that shit!

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Review: Into the Ashes Brings Nothing New to the Country Noir Genre

Aaron Harvey is prone to pulling back from any moment that might give greater depth to his revenge tale.

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Into the Ashes
Photo: RLJE Films

Aaron Harvey’s Into the Ashes is the latest in an increasing string of so-called country noirs set in the dilapidated backwoods of rural America, places ravaged by the opioid crisis and populated by jobless people long ago abandoned by politicians. It has little to distinguish itself, narratively or thematically, from similarly dour films, and it lets generic images of its rundown Alabama locale (rusted trucks, cramped houses, landlines in a wireless world) stand in as symbols of national decline without truly seeping into the complex social rot of the place. Its plot, of a reformed criminal forced to contend with his old gang leader over some stolen loot, is similarly superficial, hitting the typical beats of its genre.

Where Into the Ashes gets a boost is in its excellent cast of grizzled character actors, all of whom vibrantly express varying degrees of weariness and rage. Luke Grimes plays the erstwhile ne’er-do-well and ex-con Nick Brenner with the nervousness of a man who’s just learning to let go of his past and give in to hope. The man’s gruff, taciturn nature is leavened by his tender relationship with his wife, Tara (Marguerite Moreau), and he projects his faith in normalcy onto her. Nick relies so heavily on Tara for his emotional wellbeing that he anxiously calls home while on an overnight hunting trip just so he can hear her voice.

Equally human beneath a hard exterior is Nick’s father-in-law, Frank (Robert Taylor), the local sheriff whose intimidating Tom Waits-esque voice and stiff demeanor belie his fumbling, masculine attempts to welcome Nick into his family. Strongest of all, though, is Frank Grillo as Sloan, Nick’s recently paroled and vengeful boss. Grillo is at home playing big-fish-in-small-pond villains, and the actor makes the most of Sloan’s thin characterization, exuding psychopathic menace when Sloan confronts Nick in the latter’s home, drawing out every oblique threat as he circles the subject of the money that Nick stole from the crew’s last job before Sloan was sent to prison. Grillo expertly inflects even the silliest moments of sub-Tarantino dialogue with a disarming venom, such as an extended riff on pie and ice cream.

But if the actors are primed to explore the contours around a basic premise, Henry constantly pulls back from any moment that might give greater depth to his revenge tale. Women exist to be supportive and to become victims, while character-driven conversations between Nick and Frank devolve into asinine ethics debates over justifiable violence. Worst of all, there’s just no sense that the film is saying or revealing much of anything. There’s one moment where Into the Ashes achieves a touch of bleak grace akin to the work of Cormac McCarthy by skipping over the events leading to a shootout and focusing only on its grisly aftermath: bodies strewn about in puddles of blood that look like reflective pools of black ice in the pale moonlight. Then, not five minutes later, we get a flashback showing the lead-up to that carnage. As with so much else in the film, a haunting moment of elision is negated by literal representation.

Cast: Luke Grimes, Frank Grillo, Marguerite Moreau, James Badge Dale, Robert Taylor, Brady Smith, Jeff Pope, Andrea Frankle Director: Aaron Harvey Screenwriter: Aaron Harvey Distributor: RLJE Films Running Time: 97 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Stéphane Brizé’s At War Is Politically Charged but Artistically Inert

The film is content to bluntly affirm that corporate attempts at compassion are always secondary to providing profit to shareholders.

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At War
Photo: Cinema Libre Studio

Seven months after the first flare-up of France’s Gilets Jaunes, the nascent populist movement shows no signs of ceasing. Combined with the country’s ongoing Telecom scandal, in which several executives have been charged with “moral harassment” after 35 workers were allegedly hounded into committing suicide, it’s evident that what’s simmering there is an extension of the same unease escalating around much of Europe, and the world at large. It’s a state of affairs that makes At War seem especially of the moment, and which leaves its eventual failure to offer any special insight so disappointing. Provided with a prime opportunity to animate the zeitgeist, Stéphane Brizé’s labor-focused drama instead uses this timeliness to prod along the most obvious of points, its nuts-and-bolts, process-oriented approach never amounting to more than a surface look at the issues it purports to confront.

The film in some ways functions as an unofficial prelude to Brizé’s prior The Measure of a Man, in which an unemployed machinist played by Vincent Lindon finds a new career as a hyper-market security guard, where he’s eventually forced to choose between serving as a traitorous management lackey and losing his job. Here, Lindon’s Laurent Amédéo is still in possession of his original occupation, though things are hanging by a thread, as a last-ditch organizing effort attempts to halt the closure of a manufacturing plant in Agen. Surrounded by a cast of convincing non-professionals, Laurent leads the picket line, refusing to waver from the straight and narrow, an intense figure of principle whose scruples are never in doubt.

At War is largely notable for its steadfast devotion to a kind of mechanistic aesthetic, which unfortunately lines up with its cheerless didacticism, the two qualities cohering in a scene-by-scene summation of a strike action that repeatedly hammers home the same general points. The scenes themselves evince heft, fluidity, and an impressive sense of improvisation, but the staging is static and the eventual outcome is always clear. The game is given away by Lindon’s stoic face and the gradual unraveling of the plot, which envisions internal disintegration—leveraged by outside pressure—as the insidious method by which solidarity is smashed. Despite some genuine drama in this dissolution, it’s always clear who’s right and who’s wrong, which material interests each is representing, and who’s lying and who’s telling the truth.

This didn’t have to be the case, as proven by David France’s procedure-focused documentary How to Survive a Plague, which balanced a similarly diagrammatic narrative with extensive character detail, expanding the stakes while affixing a deeper subtext about the ways the victory of a marginalized group eventually diminishes its radical standing. Intent on emphasizing the connections between callous corporate greed and populist unrest, Brizé’s film is bluntly focused on the bottom line. There’s a certain dramatic function to this technique, as it examines the individual human actions that allow such interests to put their will into practice, but it doesn’t justify the flat, exhortative style of address.

As another example of how well this kind of economic criticism can be carried off, there are the dazzling docu-essays of German filmmaker Harun Farocki, who routinely found surprising intricacies in the cold façade of modern capitalism, while offering empathetic alignment with workers as a matter of course. At War, on the other hand, merely summarizes what its audience already knows, affirming that corporate attempts at compassion are always secondary to providing profit to shareholders, and that genuine humanity and integrity are liabilities when confronting such an unfeeling monolith. Like Ken Loach’s recent Palme d’Or winner I, Daniel Blake, it’s a film whose political principles are hard to disagree with, yet which leans so heavily on this moral certitude as to render itself entirely inert.

Cast: Vincent Lindon, Melanie Rover, Jacques Borderie, David Rey, Olivier Lemaire Director: Stéphane Brizé Screenwriter: Stéphane Brizé, Olivier Gorce Distributor: Cinema Libre Studio Running Time: 115 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Bottom of the 9th Strikes Out with Too Much Plot Incident

Raymond De Felitta’s film offers a sampler course of formulas, which creates a strangely unfulfilling tension.

1.5

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Bottom of the 9th
Photo: Saban Films

Raymond De Felitta’s Bottom of the 9th offers a sampler course of formulas, which creates a strangely unfulfilling tension. Just when you expect the film to go in a certain direction, it goes in another, only for it to again switch routes, though there’s never a sense of expectations being deliberately challenged or tweaked. Rather, the filmmakers merely seem to be indulging a variety of passing fancies, which is a shame because the actors here are game and occasionally imbue the shopworn scenes with liveliness.

Sonny Stano (Joe Manganiello) is the perfect hero for either a noir or a redemptive sports film, a man approaching middle age who just served a 19-year sentence for manslaughter. Famous in his Bronx neighborhood for being drafted by the Yankees, only to flush his life down the toilet, Sonny is attempting to patch his life together while doing a perpetual apology tour on behalf of friends and strangers alike. He’s initially hired by an old friend, Joey (James Madio), to work in a fish market that seems to be a front for something. Joey has a cagey energy, and this narrative isn’t without intrigue, but De Felitta and screenwriter Robert Bruzio unceremoniously lose sight of it in succumbing to a number of clichés.

Of course, Sonny is revealed to have a woman who got away, Angela (Sofia Vergara), who one day runs into her old beau at a market. They clearly have chemistry, as do the actors playing them, but their dialogue is composed of nothing but redemptive platitudes. In these scenes, Manganiello and Vergara are stuck in a worst-of-all-worlds situation. Their characters are relentlessly mousey, which is appropriate to the awkward context of Sonny and Angela’s reunion, but which also robs these sexy actors of the opportunity to enjoy playing off one another. Meanwhile, said mousiness isn’t poignant either, as the characters haven’t been imagined beyond the respective stereotypes of the fallen man and jilted woman.

Bottom of the 9th then flirts with a narrative similar to that of Bull Durham and Major League, in which Sonny is hired by a local minor league ball team to rein in the fiery, egotistical talents of a rookie named Manny (Xavier Scott Evans). Evans is ferociously charismatic, suggesting a young Wesley Snipes and giving Manganiello a kinetic vibe to play off of, and so the film finally begins to come to life, with great character actors like Michael Rispoli and Burt Young riffing on the sidelines. However, this conceit is also left hanging, as the film shifts into a story of the unlikely comeback, with Sonny’s own talents taking center ring.

De Felitta might’ve gotten by with these contrivances if he were a natural showman, but the filmmaker displays little interest in the Bronx setting in which his characters live, or in rendering their experiences in a fashion that refutes screenwriterly index-card portraiture. For instance, a prison flashback in which Sonny gets into a fight during a ball game is reduced to trite and melodramatic close-ups, while much of the remainder of the film is composed of medium shots designed to accentuate only the largely uninteresting dialogue. There’s truly nothing in Bottom of the 9th but plot incident, and the leisurely, impersonal one-thing-after-another-ness of the film’s construction is stifling.

Cast: Joe Manganiello, Sofía Vergara, Denis O'Hare, Burt Young, James Madio, Yancey Arias, Michael Rispoli, Vincent Pastore, Dominik García-Lorido, Michael Maize, Kevin William Paul Director: Raymond De Felitta Screenwriter: Robert Bruzio Distributor: Saban Films Running Time: 111 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Crawl Is Fun and Economical but Lacks Go-for-Broke Inventiveness

The film is more straight-faced than Alexandre Aja’s prior work, trading absurd kills for narrow escapes from gaping alligator jaws.

2.5

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Crawl
Photo: Paramount Pictures

Unlike the giddily crass Piranha 3D, Alexandre Aja’s Crawl is a quiet beast of a film. It’s built not on a foundation of over-the-top gore, but on a series of escalations. As a hurricane barrels toward Florida, ace swimmer Haley (Kaya Scodelario) becomes worried after her father, Dave (Barry Pepper), doesn’t return her phone calls. She travels to her old family home and finds him unconscious in the house’s flooded crawl space, with large alligators swimming in the water.

Early on, the camera often lingers on the deceptive stillness of the rising water for maximum suspense. Haley and her father are trapped in the house with no more than the tools they can find or already have on hand, MacGyvering their very survival out of shovels, flashlights, and flares. The best parts of the film slyly set up those tools and other objects, including a swing set and a rat trap, only to bring them back at some later, climactic moment.

If Crawl, then, is an easily digestible piece of workmanlike thrills, its only real bit of gristle is its po-faced father-daughter bonding. Haley and Dave are somewhat estranged; the family home was meant to have been sold off after Dave’s recent divorce from Haley’s mother; and flashbacks to childhood swim meets show father and daughter tempting fate with flagrantly ironic use of the term “apex predator.” In the face of certain death, they cobble their relationship back together through Hallmark-card platitudes while sentimental music plays on the film’s soundtrack. It’s the absolute thinnest of familial drama, and it will do little to redirect your emotional investment away from the survival of the family dog.

Between these family moments, of course, the flood waters run red as people get got by gators. Aja is prone to lingering in prolonged closeup on things like a protruding bone being shoved back into place, but he otherwise seems to have gotten the most inspired bits of underwater violence out of his system with Piranha 3D. Crawl is more straight-faced than his prior work, trading absurd kills for narrow escapes from gaping alligator jaws. And while these moments are suspenseful, with nail-biting scrapes involving a handgun, some loose pipes, and one particularly clever shower-door maneuver, there’s precious little of the go-for-broke invention or outrageousness that might have made the film more than a fun and economical thriller.

Cast: Kaya Scodelario, Barry Pepper, Ross Anderson, Morfydd Clark Director: Alexandre Aja Screenwriter: Michael Rasmussen, Shawn Rasmussen Distributor: Paramount Pictures Running Time: 87 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: The Farewell Thoughtfully Braids the Somber and the Absurd

The film taps into universal truths about the passage of time, the inevitability of loss, and how we prepare one another for it.

3.5

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The Farewell
Photo: A24

In the opening scene of writer-director Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, a Chinese grandmother (Zhao Shuzhen), affectionately referred to as Nai Nai by her family, and her Chinese-American granddaughter, Billi (Awkwafina), have a warm, affectionate phone conversation in which each woman incessantly lies to the other. A professionally adrift, financially bereft millennial whose writing ambitions have come to naught, Billi lets her grandmother believe her life is busy and full of social engagements; for her part, Nai Nai insists that she’s at her sister’s house, rather than in a drably decorated doctor’s office. Wang frames Nai Nai against the kitschy, oversized picture of a lagoon that hangs on the wall, as if to emphasize the flimsiness of the illusions the pair is painting for one another.

The sequence calls to mind the advantage of audio-only phone calls: for allowing us to more easily maintain the falsehoods that comprise a not insignificant portion of our relationships. Given that minor mistruths prop up our most basic social connections, Wang focuses The Farewell on the moral quandary of whether a big lie—specifically, culturally contingent situations—might actually be an expression of genuine love. The film takes up the question with a tone of melancholic drollery, a sense of irony that doesn’t lose touch with the human feelings at its core. The Farewell is “based on an actual lie,” evidently an episode from Wang’s life, and its careful mixture of the somber and the absurd rings true to life.

As it turns out, Nai Nai has terminal lung cancer, but Billi’s father’s family elects to lie to the woman about her MRI results, an action that’s evidently within the bounds of Chinese law. But as Billi’s assimilated immigrant father, Haiyan (Tzi Ma), points out to his brother, Haibin (Jiang Yongbo), during a crisis of conscience, such a thing is both frowned upon in America and prosecutable. Struggling even more with the decision, of course, is the more Americanized Billi, who can’t reconcile her Western notions of love and the sanctity of the individual with the widespread practice of lying to family members about their impending deaths.

To create a cover for a family visit to Beijing, the family forces Billi’s cousin, Hao Hao (Chen Hanwei), who lives in Japan, to marry his girlfriend, Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara), of three months. This plan provides plenty of fodder for Wang’s dry humor, as the family attempts to maintain the veneer of celebration while also bidding farewell to their ostensibly clueless matriarch, who’s confused by Hao Hao and Aiko’s lack of affection and the generally dour mood that predominates in the lead-up to the wedding. It’s potential material for a farce, but even in its funny moments, Wang’s film is contemplative rather than frenetic, preferring to hold shots as her characters gradually, often comically adjust to the reality that Nai Nai will soon be gone.

Awkwafina, hitherto notable mostly for her comic supporting roles, gives a revelatory lead performance as Billi, the thirtysomething prone to bouts of adolescent sullenness. Perhaps playing a Bushwick-based, first-generation-American creative type isn’t much of a stretch for the Queens-born rapper/actress, but she immediately brings to the role the depth of lived experience: We believe from the first frames in the long-distance love between Billi and her grandmother, and the existential crisis the young woman feels as she negotiates two cultures’ differing approaches to death and disease. In taking us to Beijing through Billi’s eyes, which are often blinking back tears as she says goodbye without articulating “goodbye,” The Farewell’s morose but not hopeless comedy taps into universal truths about the passage of time, the inevitability of loss, and how we prepare one another for it.

Cast: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Zhao Shuzhen, Lu Hong, Jiang Yongbo, Chen Hanwei Director: Lulu Wang Screenwriter: Lulu Wang Distributor: A24 Running Time: 98 min Rating: PG Year: 2018

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Review: The Lion King Remake Finds Its Place in the Circle of Consumption

This ostentatiously expensive remake is reliant on our memory of the original to accentuate every significant moment.

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The Lion King
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

It’s somewhat paradoxical to critique Disney’s recent series of “live-action” remakes for precisely repeating the narratives, emotional cues, shot sequences, and soundscapes of their earlier animated versions. More than young children, who might well be content watching the story in vibrant 2D, it’s the parents who are the target audience of this new take on The Lion King, which aims to light up adults’ nostalgia neurons. In this sense, Jon Favreau’s film achieves its goals, running through a text beloved by an entire generation almost line for line, and shot for shot—with some scenes extended to reach the two hours seemingly required of Hollywood tentpoles. Throughout, though, one gets the impression that there’s something very cheap at the core of this overtly, ostentatiously expensive film, reliant as it is on our memory of the original to accentuate every significant moment.

The new film differs from its source in simulating a realistic African savannah and wildlife through digital animation and compositing, but it doesn’t provide anything resembling a genuinely new idea, visually or dramatically. Favreau meticulously recreates the framing and montage of 1994’s The Lion King as he runs through the unaltered storyline. The young lion prince Simba (voiced as a cub by JD McCrary and as a grown lion by Donald Glover) witnesses his father Mufasa’s (James Earl Jones) seemingly accidental death by stampede. Unknown to Simba, his uncle, Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), murdered his own brother, but the jealous would-be heir manipulates the rambunctious young lion into accepting the blame for his father’s death. In self-exile, Simba represses his guilt by adopting the carefree philosophy of meercat Timon (Billy Eichner) and warthog Pumbaa (Seth Rogen), until his long-lost betrothed, Nala (Beyoncé Knowles-Carter), happens across him and convinces him to return to reclaim his throne.

The film’s world, as conceived by Favreau’s camera and an army of CG animators, is far less expressive than the one Disney’s original artists created in 1994. Tied to the idea of recompositing a reality, the filmmakers take less license in making the elephant graveyard where malicious hyenas Shenzi (Florence Kasumba), Azizi (Eric André), and Kamari (Keegan-Michael Key) live a fantastical, nightmarish terrain, and they constrain the choreography of the animals during Simba’s performance of “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” to the bounds of actual animal physiology. Such musical sequences suffer under the regime of realism: Scar’s villainous exposition song, “Be Prepared,” appears in a truncated version spoken more than sung by Ejiofor, effectively robbing the original song of its devious exuberance.

The characters’ faces are also less pliable, less anthropomorphized—their demeanor harder to read—than in the traditional animation format of the original film. This isn’t necessarily a hindrance to crafting an affecting story (see Chris Noonan’s Babe), but the closeness with which Favreau hews to the original film means that the moments crafted for the earlier medium don’t quite land in this one. Scar isn’t nearly so menacing when he’s simply a gaunt lion with a scar, and Nala and Simba’s reunion isn’t as meaningful when their features can’t soften in humanlike fashion when they recognize each other. The Lion King invites—indeed, attempts to feed off of—reference to the original but consistently pales in comparison.

There’s another important difference one feels lurking in the margins of this film. The attitude of the first Lion King toward nature approached something like deference. The original film isn’t flawless: In its depiction of a patrilineal kingdom being saved from a usurper and his army of lazy serfs by the rightful heir, it questionably projected human politics into a nonhuman world. But it was an ambitious project by the then comparatively modest Walt Disney Studios to craft an expressive, living portrait of the animal kingdom. In contrast, there’s a hubristic quality to this CG-infused remake, as if Disney is demonstrating that its digitally fabricated imagery can fully capture the reality of a healthy, autonomous animal world—at a historical moment when that world is in danger of being totally snuffed out by the human race’s endless cycles of production and reproduction. The subject of this tiresome retread is ultimately less the “circle of life” and more the circle of consumption.

Cast: Donald Glover, James Earl Jones, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alfre Woodard, Billy Eichner, Seth Rogen, Keegan-Michael Key, Eric André, John Kani, JD McCrary, John Oliver Director: Jon Favreau Screenwriter: Jeff Nathanson, Brenda Chapman Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 118 min Rating: PG Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack

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