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You Must Change Your Life: The Films of Roberto Rossellini & Ingrid Bergman

Remarkably, Stromboli doesn’t advocate the rejection of caution for passion.

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You Must Change Your Life: The Films of Roberto Rossellini & Ingrid Bergman
Photo: RKO Radio Pictures

“My father was a genius,” says Isabella Rossellini, in her searching Guy Maddin-directed short tribute to her father Roberto, My Dad Is 100 Years Old, which marks his centenary. After this statement, she pauses briefly, then says, “I think.” Her confusion is sweet and quite understandable. Rossellini has had passionate fans, especially the directors of the French New Wave like Truffaut, Godard, Rivette and Rohmer, all of whom wrote heady tributes to his difficult, ambiguous films. One can’t imagine Breathless without Rossellini’s example, and surely Antonioni was influenced, especially by Journey to Italy. Martin Scorsese devotes long passages to Rossellini’s key early works in his documentary on Italian cinema, My Voyage to Italy, and there’s an air of special pleading in his endorsement, particularly when he talks up Europa ‘51, as if he knows that many people won’t give it a chance because of its out of synch soundtrack.

Rossellini was an artist serenely certain of his own intellectual and emotional depth, and he gave endless, detailed interviews describing what his work means or was meant to mean; sometimes the results did not quite match his intentions, for he was precise and sloppy in roughly equal measure. A full-scale retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art throughout December 2006 gave us all a chance to take stock of his uneven but seminal career. The festival is particularly valuable because it’s showing many of the hard-to-see “educational” television movies of his later years, as well as his essential post-war trilogy, Rome, Open City, Paisan, and Germany Year Zero. If I were to pick Rossellini’s best film, it would be The Flowers of St. Francis, a mysterious and gently comic look at the saint and his followers. But anyone who feels that the cinema’s chief glory lies in the collaboration of great directors with great actresses must check out the first three features Rossellini made with Ingrid Bergman. In almost every way, personally and artistically, they were unsuited to each other, yet their mismatch led to movies that laid the groundwork for the burst of modernist filmmaking in the 1960s and ‘70s.

Rossellini began life as something of a playboy and layabout whose main interests were chasing women and driving fast cars. These interests would persist, naturally, as he fell into moviemaking during the Fascist years in Italy, but he became a standard-bearer for Italian cinema after the war with Rome, Open City, which introduced the much-debated concept of neo-realism. This Italian movement for raw reality looks fairly contrived today, especially in the work of De Sica. But contrivance of any kind is never simple in Rossellini’s work: he perplexed his followers by jostling melodramatic, stylized characters and situations against on-the-fly, spontaneous elements. In his best films, these opposing elements feed and strengthen each other, so that Anna Magnani in Rome, Open City and the showcase film L’amore is like a larger-than-life apotheosis of a real woman captured documentary-style.

When she saw Rome, Open City and then Paisan, Ingrid Bergman was so impressed that she sent Rossellini a rather shameless fan letter. “If you need a Swedish actress who speaks English very well, who has not forgotten her German, who is not very understandable in French, and who in Italian knows only ’ti amo,’ I am ready to come and make a film with you,” she wrote. At that time, she was the biggest star in Hollywood, fervently beloved, especially for her sexy nun in Leo McCarey’s The Bells of St. Marys, which is actually somewhat close to Rossellini’s hybrid of deep sentiment and patient, often aggressive observation.

Bergman thought she was fed up with the artificiality of studio filmmaking and seemed to long to be shot down in the streets as Magnani was in Rome, Open City, the tops of her stockings erotically exposed in death. Rossellini didn’t know who Bergman was when he got her letter, but he had razor-sharp instincts, and he moved in on her with all the considerable charm at his disposal. With their first film, Stromboli, Rossellini keyed into Bergman’s guilt-ridden and torrential 1940’s sexuality and touched off an international scandal when he won her away from her husband and child, then got her pregnant out of wedlock. This caused an enormous uproar in America, with Senator Edwin C. Johnson denouncing them from the Senate floor, calling Rossellini a “love pirate” and “degenerate.”

Remarkably, Stromboli doesn’t advocate the rejection of caution for passion; indeed, it is partly a film about how sexuality simply isn’t enough to get by on (another influence for Antonioni’s subsequent meditations on similar themes). Bergman plays Karin, a displaced woman who marries a simple fisherman (Mario Vitale) to get out of a refugee camp; he takes her to live on Stromboli, a rough, nearly deserted island dominated by an active volcano. We don’t learn much about Karin’s life before and during the war, but we do see that she can only relate to people sexually, whether it’s her husband, a child in the street or a priest. This is not a likable woman. When Isabella Rossellini plays her mother in My Dad Is 100 Years Old, she gives Bergman a kind of spacey ruthlessness that matches up with what we see of Karin on Stromboli. Isabella’s Ingrid briefly ponders how she hurt Anna Magnani by stealing Rossellini away from her, then blithely and practically says, “Too bad.” Bergman was a woman who famously said that happiness was “good health and a bad memory.” But when she was with Rossellini, he made sure that Bergman never fell back on such winner-like evasiveness. Rossellini attacks narcissism relentlessly, which is why his films are especially necessary today, when self-involvement is a seldom-assailed cult.

In Stromboli, Bergman restlessly dramatizes boredom and unease, in much the way Monica Vitti would for Antonioni. Rossellini calls her on her opportunistic-actress sexuality, but he also celebrates her beauty, for the first and last time, lingering on her sensual mouth, her sexy long hair, and her juicy behind in tight slacks. It’s as if he’s considering this woman, his quarry, and he’s not sure he likes what he sees (it took Von Sternberg six films with Dietrich before he could be as tough with himself as Rossellini is from the very beginning). “You are not modest,” says a Stromboli crone, as Bergman’s Karin tries to brighten up her drab house. Bergman’s angry reaction to her condemnation seems extreme, as if her own frustration with this neo-realist venture is bleeding into her performance. Karin’s attempted seduction of the local priest is as brazen as Bergman’s initial letter to Rossellini, and the priest rebukes her with the director’s cardinal exhortation: “Think!” (It is this same call for reflection that leads their daughter Isabella to doubts about her father’s importance.)

Karin is a woman filled with vanity and pride—she has no faith in God, which means she has no faith in herself. “With me, God has never been merciful,” she says, and later, to the priest, she insists, “Your God won’t help!” The punishing life she is forced to lead on Stromboli is a metaphor for the unceasing hardships of existence, and also a living (puritan?) example of the need to reject complacency and creature comforts for tough-minded meditation. Karin’s hedonistic strategies to distract herself from real life are seen as spiritually depleting, whether they are sexual, artistic or simply based in the assumptions of her class. We find out she comes from an upper class family, but she probably exaggerates her station, since Karin and Bergman are both prone to actressy embellishment. It might seem mistaken to conflate Karin and Bergman herself to such a degree, but Rossellini has no patience with artificial constructs.

Working knowledge of the circumstances behind the film’s making add quite a lot to its layers of discourse, but its power lays well beyond the realm of gossip. Pregnant, Karin tries to escape the island by walking past the volcano, but harsh nature holds her back and leads her to thoughts of suicide. “I’ll finish it!” she cries. “I haven’t the courage!” She falls asleep in total despair, then wakes up in the morning transformed. “Oh God, oh God,” she says, quietly, as she bathes in the purifying sun (a radiant close-up of Bergman’s face opening up to love). “What mystery,” she says. “What beauty.” Karin reflects honestly about her life on Stromboli: “They were horrible. They don’t know what they’re doing. I’m even worse,” she concludes, calmly.

In a moment of true religious salvation, she accepts blessed responsibility for the child inside her, just as Bergman and Rossellini decided not to abort their child, which would have saved them so much trouble. The (actual) child in her stomach is a miracle, but Karin doesn’t know if she’s up to the challenge. She ends the film shouting to God for the strength and courage to carry on, as Rossellini cuts to white birds flying free in the sky. Stromboli, also called Stromboli terra di dio (Land of God), embodies the uncanny invocation of the Rilke poem “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” which ends with, “there is no place that does not see you. You must change your life.” Like so many of Rossellini’s other movies, it is a stirring call to spiritual revolution.

In their next film, Europa ‘51, Bergman has shorter hair and seems much more matronly. The sexual interest we feel in Stromboli has ebbed away, but in its place is a loving celebration of this actress’s stubborn will and her longing for a higher purpose, which is what led her to Rossellini in the first place. It’s a generous gift of a film from a director to an actress and it has a stark, altruistic purity, for it seems clear that did not mesh well with Bergman on a personal level past their initial coming-together, though they did marry and have more children under the pressure of the world’s outraged gaze. (For the full story of Rossellini’s life and work, see Tag Gallagher’s encyclopedic, monumental biography, The Adventures of Roberto Rossellini.)

Bergman plays Irene, a flippant, rushed society woman who fatally ignores her young son. We see that their relationship was once too close, and that Irene is disturbed by the boy’s lover-like clinging (she tells him to turn around as she dresses, and when he reaches for her, she swats him away like a bug). The boy throws himself off a steep staircase during a dinner party and is rushed to the hospital. When the smarmy Communist Andre (Ettore Giannini) tells Irene that he heard the boy talking in his hospital bed and that his jump was a suicide attempt, Bergman shoots him the exact scary, resentful glare she gives her monstrous daughter Eva (Liv Ullmann) in Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata. This was her last feature, her only good movie after her tenure in Italy, and Rossellini approved of it, glad that his former wife had escaped Hollywood lies one last time without him.

An authentic, self-regarding actress is almost always too selfish to be a good mother, and Rossellini confronts Bergman with this in these opening scenes of Europa ‘51, but then he gives her the time and space to develop an abstract maternal love that will encompass all of humanity. As the film goes on, Rossellini focuses increasingly on Bergman’s extraordinary face, her eyes filled with sharp, conflicting ideas (the director-husband gives her this quality through the example of his own furious intellect and through very careful lighting, for Bergman was never known as the brightest candle on the piano). Her Irene is a prim woman, unlike Karin, but she learns to love and understand everyone, moving towards people who need her: the poor, prostitutes, even criminals. Her upper-class husband (Alexander Knox) doesn’t understand this spiritual conversion, and he eventually places her in an insane asylum. Irene will continue to find herself through helping the mentally afflicted, just as Rossellini’s St. Francis is transfigured when he embraces a leper.

Europa ‘51 has severe problems. A lot of its dialogue is didactic, Giannini’s Communist is a cardboard figure, and Giulietta Masina’s free-and-easy proletarian earth mother is grotesquely miscalculated both visually and aurally (her voice is dubbed by a woman with a heavy Bronx accent). As mentioned before, the dialogue usually doesn’t synch up, and the political commentary is both dated and obvious. No matter. Through the concentration of Rossellini and Bergman, through the channel of his mind and her heart, Europa ‘51 works beautifully as an expression of longing for universal love in a ruinously self-centered modern world. “You’re not alone,” Irene tells a new inmate of the asylum. “Don’t worry. I’m with you. I’ll stay with you.” Rossellini knows that everyone should be able to say this and hear this, in turn, and that it truly doesn’t matter who you say it to in the end. The point of the film is that it should be said and heard, genuinely, as often as possible, and that the sickness of twentieth century egoism should never prevent us from loving others in the most promiscuous way.

Rossellini then made a short film with Bergman for the omnibus movie Siamo Donne, which was supposed to present scenes from the real lives of several actresses (such as Rossellini’s scorned lover Anna Magnani). Their episode, called “The Chicken,” features a somewhat tired-looking Bergman explaining a “silly” story about a bothersome fowl. It is indeed silly, and pointless, but it reveals another facet of how Rossellini viewed his wife. We see her sitting on her porch in sunglasses, reading, drinking and anxiously fuming, while her love child with Rossellini, Robertino, stands perilously close to some water. “No one pays attention to me!” Bergman shouts, as her child teeters on the brink of disaster. Bergman’s physical awkwardness, inattention to her children, vague go-getter spirit and deep sense of shame are played for comedy, not too successfully, but in a way that let’s us see Rossellini’s growing disenchantment with her.

Journey to Italy, their third movie together, is a key work in the history of film: thorny, alienated and alienating, it inaugurated the exquisite unease of the sixties art film (much to Rossellini’s later dismay). “Noise and boredom,” snipes George Sanders’ Alex, as Bergman’s Katherine drives them through the Italian countryside. They play the Joyces, an English couple on holiday, assaulted at every turn by the rude vitality of Naples. Katherine is a dreamy, over-lipsticked woman in a leopard-print coat, while Alex is a haughty man who uses sarcasm to hide his deepest feelings. During an uneasy would-be siesta in the glaring sun, Katherine recalls a young poet who loved her, telling Alex how he came to see her when he was at death’s door. “How very poetic,” he says. “Much more poetic than his verses.” This put-down of her facile romanticism clues us in to how much Alex loves his wife, and also on how exhausted he is by their differences. The estrangement the Joyces feel from each other is so deep that it takes on a cosmic significance—this is a film about pure existential panic. Rossellini got what he wanted from Bergman and Sanders by keeping them off-balance, never giving them a set script or telling them what the film was about. He knew what the film was about: Bergman and Sanders not knowing what the film was about, their performer’s anxiety standing in for the Joyces’ dread, and the mistake of Rossellini’s own marriage to a Hollywood star.

Roberto’s brother Renzo composed the scores for most of his films, and Renzo’s work adds subtle, but extreme emotion to the often pitiless intellectual rigor of his brother’s movies. His ominous music follows Katherine as she tours many a museum and is assailed again and again by the taunting sensuality of the past. Heat and leisure strip this couple of every defense mechanism they had, and their sudden uncertainty leads them to question everything, as Mrs. Moore does in Forster’s A Passage to India, wondering at the unfathomable emptiness of the universe, the dome beyond the dome beyond the dome. Bergman and Sanders are framed so that their faces are stuck uncomfortably off-center, as if they were butterflies pinned to a wall. She’s a tight-ass, he’s a smart-ass, and they step on each other’s nerves until they impulsively agree to a divorce.

One day, Rossellini set up his camera as an excavation was being done; he did not know that a dead couple would be revealed under the dust. When this happened, he knew he had the ending of his movie. Katherine cries out when she sees the bodies, and the Joyces wander away together, Renzo Rossellini’s music expressing a bottomless sense of desolation. “Life is so short,” Katharine says, the deepest thought this limited woman can come up with to meet the ultimate revelation of her own mortality. “That’s why one should make the best of it,” replies Alex, in an English public school get-on-with it tone that is pierced by an awareness of the wholly inadequate quality of such a response. This is a man who is much smarter than his wife, though he’s still an emotional coward, and Sanders, one of the most overlooked of all great film actors, plays all these levels with unerring instinctual marksmanship. When Alex hears his own tone of voice, the message he gets couldn’t be clearer: you must change your life, not by divorcing your wife but by trying to love her honestly. Rossellini uses a crane shot, unusual for him, to express the miracle of their coming back together during a parade. The ending suggests that marital compromise is a kind of salvation. The Joyces pledge to stay with each other. Rossellini and Bergman headed closer to separation.

Their next collaboration was a movie of the Paul Claudel/Arthur Honegger oratorio Joan of Arc at the Stake, which they had toured extensively throughout Europe. It’s an almost purely joyous film and stands as Rossellini’s final gift to his wife, who had earned the right to play Joan the saint with her steady commitment to her husband’s difficult vision. It begins with Joan ascending to heaven amid a blurred kaleidoscope of angels (Rossellini’s visual influence for Joan was Méliès). In the Cinecittà print shown at Moma, Bergman speaks her role in Italian, and this language really brings out her passion; her mature beauty, even in stage-white make-up, verges on the awe-inspiring. Many of her scenes are played in long shot against a backdrop of stars, as if Rossellini was finally allowing that Bergman is a star too, and a special one.

A gross Commedia dell’arte court (including sheep and a sprightly pig) condemn Joan—Rossellini preaches the value of total humility and is fiercely against all forms of power, especially kings and governing bodies. The whole film describes how Joan conquers her fears and stays true to herself, and the stirring climax comes when she flings up her arms and shouts, “I’ll burn up like a candle!” She accepts her martyrdom blissfully, though in the end, at the actual stake, some of her doubts return (just as Bergman both believed in and doubted her husband’s artistic methods). The Honegger music is drug-like in its ability to produce euphoria, the mise en scène is simple and affecting, and Bergman reaches her Rossellini-era apotheosis as she cries, “Hope is triumphant! Faith is triumphant! God is triumphant!” This fourth major Rossellini-Bergman film is barely ever screened, and it should be made more widely available (there is also a version dubbed in French that doesn’t use Bergman’s voice, but the Italian version is superior).

Their last film together, Fear, is a dark-hued failure, a plot-driven tale of blackmail and forced emotional torment that doesn’t seem to interest Rossellini all that much. He observes the rote agony of his wife with a rather contemptuous eye, especially her bizarrely sensual climactic profession of love to a husband who has spent the whole film torturing her. (“Ah Ingrid,” Hitchcock often sighed, at parties. “She’d do it with doorknobs.”) After this, they divorced and she went back to Hollywood, appearing in a succession of lousy commercial movies, while he moved away from narrative into documentary and strange, uninflected historical re-creations for television. But the first three films Rossellini made with Bergman are essential viewing and open to many new interpretations. Life is too short to plumb all their meanings, but, as Alex Joyce sadly says, we should make the best of it, watch them as often and as closely we can, and let them strip us of our vanity until we lay like Karin on the volcano, alive to the light of a new day within ourselves.

The Museum of Modern Art is located at 11 West 53rd Street, between 5th and 6th Avenues in Manhattan. Click here for more information on the Roberto Rossellini retrospective.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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Review: The Turning’s Horror Elements Add Up More to Insult Than Ambiguity

It casts its source as a delusional fantasy through which to enact the effects of possible traumas that go completely unexplored.

1.5

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The Turning
Photo: Universal Pictures

The cultivation of ambiguity has long been integral to the successful horror narrative. The oppressiveness of our fears is always somehow diminished following the explication of their source, and nowhere is this more true than in the subgenre of psychological horror, reliant as these stories are on our ability to trust the perspective of a particular protagonist. We see the world only through their eyes, and therefore we must decide what to believe is true about what has otherwise been presented to us as reality.

Henry James’s 1898 novella “The Turn of the Screw,” previously adapted in 1961 by Jack Clayton as The Innocents and revisited now by Floria Sigismondi as The Turning, is a ghost story that revels in a sense of doubt on behalf of its audience. The novella tells the story of a young and inexperienced governess called upon to care for two children named Flora and Miles, following the death of their parents, in a sprawling mansion called Bly that may or may not be haunted. This is a straightforward premise that offers sinister delights because of our bearing witness to its narrator’s slippage—either into delusion, or into a world where the dead actually walk among us as spectral presences aiming to possess the innocent.

The Turning’s camera often tracks and frames its subjects in purposeful, often striking shots that manage to convey the bigness and intricacy of Bly without sacrificing intimacy with the characters. And the production design is steeped firmly in the tradition of haunted house films, every room and mantelpiece creepily cluttered with dolls and mannequins, gothic mirrors in every corner threatening to expose unseen inhabitants of dark and dusty rooms. The walls along Bly’s claustrophobic and seemingly endless hallways close in on the governess, Kate (Mackenzie Davis), like a vice. Sigismondi brings to the screen a lush and stylish perspective to her material, an attention to detail cultivated in her photography and music video work. And as Flora and Miles, the haunted children who Kate has come to educate and oversee, Brooklynn Prince and Finn Wolfhard deliver sophisticated performances that delicately suggest the inner turmoil of children who have been faced too soon with death.

There’s a pivotal moment around the middle of The Turning where Kate receives a package containing a sheaf of menacing paintings created by her mentally ill mother (Joely Richardson), delivered from the hospital where Kate visited her before leaving for her new post at Bly. The mansion’s stern housekeeper, Mrs. Grose (Barbara Marten), already skeptical of Kate’s merits, has clearly rifled through the artwork and taken note of its sender. Before leaving Kate to examine the paintings alone, Mrs. Grose archly raises aloud the question of whether Kate might have inherited any of her mother’s supposed madness, and this kernel of suspicion regarding the veracity of Kate’s observations about the house and its inhabitants unfortunately serves as conspicuous foreshadowing to the film’s careless conclusion.

In her book of essays The Collected Schizophrenias, which lays bare the experience of mental illness and the various stigmas associated with its diagnosis in contemporary culture, Esmé Weijun Wang writes, “Schizophrenia and its ilk are not seen by society as conditions that coexist with the potential for being high-functioning, and are therefore terrifying.” And it’s no wonder that the horror genre has plumbed the narrative possibilities of instability so completely, presenting countless protagonists over the years whose relative grip on reality provides a story with necessary tension. But the best of these examples use the destabilization provided by a possibly mentally ill character to make broader connections, speaking often, for example, to the subjugation of women in a patriarchal society, such as with the “madwoman in the attic” trope explored by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in “The Yellow Wallpaper.”

Here, though, without any evidence aside from genetics to suggest the possibility of Kate’s cognitive disintegration, The Turning casts its source narrative—the psychosexual haunting of the house by a deceased former governess and valet who had once watched over the children—as a delusional fantasy through which to enact the effects of possible traumas that go completely unexplored. The film’s abrupt ending succeeds only at undercutting and cheapening everything that came before, dressing a vague yet potentially resonant paranoia about sexual violence and male predation as a simple case of undiagnosed mental illness, with no hint at all of the origins of these particular points of stress in its protagonist’s psyche. This kind of ambiguity—not about whether or not Kate has gone mad, but rather about why it actually matters—is a cop out rather than a display of control.

Cast: Mackenzie Davis, Finn Wolfhard, Brooklynn Prince, Barbara Marten Director: Floria Sigismondi Screenwriter: Chad Hayes, Carey W. Hayes Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 93 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Animated Short

Another year, another reminder to take our prediction in this category with a grain of salt.

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Memorable
Photo: Vivement Lundi

Another year, another reminder to take our prediction in this category with a grain of salt. Since 2002, when we first started predicting the Oscar winners, we’ve guessed correctly in this category only eight times, and five of those were in the aughts, when one or more Disney shorts consistently lost to considerably more outré productions. It was a long dry spell for the studio between For the Birds taking the prize in 2002 and Paperman doing so in 2012. Disney now perseveres more times than not, which is why we’re given pause by the fact that, even though this is only the third time since 2002 that the studio doesn’t have a film in the lineup, two nominees here could be described as “Disney-adjacent.”

One of those, Matthew A. Cherry and Karen Rupert Toliver’s charming and poignant Hair Love, had us busting out the hashtags (#OscarsSoWhite, #EverythingIsSoWhite, #WhiteWhiteWhiteIsTheColorOfOurCarpet), wondering if the guilt that AMPAS has about its diversity problems may be a victory-securing source of momentum. That Issa Rae, who saltily congratulated the men in the best director category when she announced this year’s Oscar nominees alongside John Cho, provides the voice for this short about a black father who learns to style his daughter’s hair in the absence of the girl’s mother feels as if it can only help.

At the same time, each day since the Oscar nominations were announced last week seems to bring one of those dreaded articles in which some anonymous academy member is asked about their picks ahead of deadline, and Michael Musto’s recent chat with one such voter has us convinced more than ever that guilt isn’t the average academy member’s chief motivator. Besides, Hair Love faces stiff competition from another Disney-ish, hit-‘em-in-the-feels candidate, Kitbull, which concerns the unlikely kinship that forms between a cat and a dog. It certainly tugged at our heartstrings, and in spite of the short’s bug-eyed cat at times alternately, and distractingly, reminding us of a mouse and an inkblot.

Perhaps inevitably, we found ourselves drawn to the more outré nominees. Siqi Song’s beautifully textured Sister doesn’t lack for memorable images, but my favorite is the one where the brother at the center of the short pulls on his giant baby sister’s outie-cum-Silly-String-umbilical-cord until the child shrinks down to size. This is an at once idiosyncratic and somber meditation on China’s one-child policy, but it left one of us wondering, in the wake of Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang’s One Child Nation being snubbed this year by the academy, if it would resonate with enough voters, and two of us certain that a sizeable portion of the academy’s more liberal members would take more than just the “I had fingerprints four weeks after conception” bit as something akin to a big pro-life billboard.

Remember this old Sesame Street bit? Eric sure did while watching Daughter, a striking rumination about the emotional distance between a father and daughter. Daria Kashcheeva’s expressionistic use of stop motion is haunting, even if the short, amid so much abstraction, doesn’t always evoke believable people. More approachable is Memorable, where the very nature of what can be believed and remembered is the governing principle. All the way until its stunning finale, Bruno Collet and Jean-François Le Corre’s confluence of styles (there are shades here of the “psychorealism” that won Chris Landreth an Oscar in 2005 for Ryan) is in profound conversation with the idea of dementia as a destructuring agent. We’re no strangers to wrongly betting on our favorite short persevering on Oscar night, but Disney consistently loses in years where it has more than one film gunning for this award, so we’re betting that the two Disney-ish shorts will split the vote and pave the way for a Memorable victory.

Will Win: Memorable

Could Win: Hair Love

Should Win: Memorable

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Review: The Last Full Measure Trades Institutional Critique for Hero Worship

The film largely evades any perspectives that might question the institutions that put our soldiers in harm’s way.

1.5

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The Last Full Measure
Photo: Roadside Attractions

Speaking about the time when Air Force pararescue medic William “Pits” Pitsenbarger descended from a helicopter to aid wounded soldiers trapped in an ambush during the Battle of Xa Cam My, a former soldier, Kepper (John Savage), says, “I thought I saw an angel. There he was right in front of me, all clean and pressed.” Pits’s courageous actions during one of the Vietnam War’s bloodiest battles, where he saved nearly 60 lives and perished after refusing to board the last chopper out of the area so he could continue helping out on the ground, are certainly deserving of the Medal of Honor that he was denied for over 30 years. But writer-director Todd Robinson’s hagiographic The Last Full Measure is frustratingly limited in its scope, stubbornly fixating on the heroism of one man and the grateful yet tortured men he saved while largely evading any perspectives that might question the institutions that needlessly put those soldiers in harm’s way in the first place.

Following Scott Huffman (Sebastian Stan), an up-and-coming Pentagon staffer assigned to investigate a Congressional Medal of Honor request for Pits three decades after his death, The Last Full Measure takes on the point of view of an indifferent outsider who doesn’t understand the value of awarding a posthumous medal. Unsurprisingly, as Scott travels the country to meet with several of the soldiers whose lives Pits saved, he slowly comes to revere the man and the lasting impact of his actions. In the roles of these wounded survivors, Ed Harris, William Hurt, Samuel L. Jackson, and Peter Fonda each offer glimpses at the feelings of guilt and mental anguish that continue to haunt the men. Yet before we can get a hold of just what eats away at the former soldiers, and what living with their pain is really like, Robinson repeatedly whisks us via flashback to a dreadfully familiar-looking scene of combat, attempting to uplift the spirits with scene after scene of Pits (Jeremy Irvine) saving various men, all with the cool-headedness and unflappable bravery one expects from an action movie hero.

Throughout numerous walk-and-talk scenes set inside the Pentagon, The Last Full Measure manages to convey some of the countless bureaucratic hoops that must be jumped through to get a Medal of Honor request approved. But the murky subplot involving Scott’s boss, Carlton Stanton (Bradley Whitford), and a supposed cover-up of Operation Abilene, the mission that led to the ambush in the village of Cam My, does nothing but pin the blame for all wrongdoing on a mid-level Pentagon director. And even in that, the film’s only qualms are with a cover-up that prevented Pits from being properly recognized, with no thought whatsoever given to the disastrous wartime decisions that were also being hidden from the public.

In the end, Robinson’s portrayal of a scheming Washington insider suppressing the actions of an infallible, almost angelic fallen soldier lends the film a naively simplistic morality. By fixating on the good that came out of a horrifying situation, and painting institutional corruption as a case of one bad apple, The Last Full Measure practically lets the state off the hook, all the while mindlessly promoting nationalistic ideals of unquestioned duty and honor.

Cast: Sebastian Stan, Christopher Plummer, Samuel L. Jackson, Bradley Whitford, Ed Harris, Diane Ladd, Jeremy Irvine, Michael Imperioli, Alison Sudal, Peter Fonda, William Hurt Director: Todd Robinson Screenwriter: Todd Robinson Distributor: Roadside Attractions Running Time: 115 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Sound Editing

It’s not difficult to rationalize picking the same film to win both sound editing and sound mixing.

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Ford v. Ferrari
Photo: 20th Century Fox

The movement to merge the two Oscar categories for sound into just one is finally picking up some steam after an academy subcommittee favored consolidation in December, but we regret to inform you that the exceptionally rational decision hasn’t yet been ratified, and thus won’t spare us one more year of double-feature kvetching. While the nominating members of the sound branch might know the exact difference between sound mixing and sound editing, and while compulsory Oscar blogging has forced us to know the exact difference as well, numerous academy members clearly don’t.

Case in point: Last year they awarded Bohemian Rhapsody its expected award in sound mixing, where musicals always have an advantage, but also an upset win in sound editing. Unless voters metabolized Singer’s violent blitzkrieg of a film and simply misremembered hearing explosions throughout, that’s not the vote of an informed electorate.

From our perspective as prognosticators, though, it’s not difficult to rationalize picking the same film to win both awards, especially in the absence of a musical. While there have been plenty of years we’ve carbon-copied our predicted winner in both categories only to see them split (even three ways, as in 2012, when Les Misérables took sound mixing, and Skyfall and Zero Dark Thirty tied for sound editing), getting one prediction right is better than getting none at all, especially in a year like this where, to judge from both slates, sound equals fury.

One thing’s fairly certain: You can probably go ahead and count out Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Not only has the new trilogy failed to add any more Oscar wins to the franchise, never once has a Star Wars film won an award for its sound effects, not even the first one (that year, a special award was given to Close Encounters of the Third Kind). Episodes seven and eight lost to, respectively, a chase movie and a war movie, and this year’s top two contenders here are arguably the exact same pairing. While 1917 is still considered by many to be a frontrunner for best picture, we’re pretty sure the onslaught of vintage motors roaring for the climactic quarter-hour of Ford v. Ferrari will get voters right in the dad spot.

Will Win: Ford v. Ferrari

Could Win: 1917

Should Win: Ford v. Ferrari

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Review: Guns of the Trees Wears Its Looseness as a Badge of Honor

The film is but one deliberately imperfect piece of a vast slipstream.

2.5

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Guns of the Trees
Photo: Anthology Film Archives

Jonas Mekas establishes the tone of 1961’s Guns of the Trees with a director’s statement, declaring that the “mad heart of the insane world” has prevented him from finishing the film. What follows, Mekas asserts, is “a sketchbook,” a “madhouse sutra,” “a cry.” And such a description aptly articulates the film’s melodramatic, self-pitying sense of yearning, which is driven by Mekas’s career-spanning need to contexualize the divide of artifice that separates artist from audience. To Mekas, sketch-like scenes represent a refutation of staid, insidious craftsmanship that can smooth out rougher and more resonant contours.

In the case of the quasi-fictional Guns of the Trees, Mekas follows a handful of young people in New York City as they hang out and grapple with the state of modern existence, decrying America’s involvement in Cuba, the development of the atom bomb, and various other atrocities that underscore the awfulness of the imperial machine. Occasionally, Allen Ginsberg reads his poetry over the soundtrack, his scalding free-associational verse conjuring an anger that the film’s characters can’t quite articulate, while providing Guns of the Trees with another element of the literary. A little of Ginsberg’s poetry goes a long way. What is the “hunger of the cannibal abstract” and why can’t man endure it for long?

Ginsberg’s bebop phrasing complements Mekas’s fragmentary images, which are alternately ludicrous and lovely. In keeping with the sketchbook concept, the film wears its unevenness and looseness as aesthetic badges of honor. A framing device in which two businessmen in white mime makeup wander a cabbage patch in near hysteria, in all likelihood embodying the ageless corruption of man, is self-consciously oblique and edgy, feeling like an earnest film student’s pastiche of 1920s-era avant-garde tropes. Other scenes, however, poignantly detail life in the early ‘60s, such as when a woman sits her husband down in a chair in their loft and cuts his hair, or when a man tries to talk his drinking buddy down from an intoxicated rant. These scenes have the humor and behavioral specificity of John Cassasvetes’s films, evoking the comforting rhythm of the little moments that come to define us.

Guns of the Trees belongs to an easily mocked beatnik era, when people discussed whether to conform or be free while listening to folk music and reading Ginsberg and smoking grass. At times, even Mekas seems to be on the verge of ribbing his subjects’ sincerity. For all their thrashing about, these people seem prosperous and more interested in speaking of revolution than in truly sparking it. Ben (Ben Carruthers) sells life insurance, prompting the film’s funniest line, when a potential client asks, “Don’t you still believe in death?” A young woman named Barbara (Frances Stillman) is gripped by authentic depression though, and her suicide haunts Ben, Gregory (Adolphus Mekas), and Ben’s wife, Argus (Argus Spear Julliard).

If the beatnik navel-gazing dates Guns of the Trees, Mekas’s docudramatic eye memorably revels in poetic details throughout. His protagonists wander through fields, which suggest the rice fields of Vietnam, and junkyards that testify both to the beauty and the waste of mainstream society. The play of light off the twisted metal of the trashed cars suggests found sculpture, while indirectly conjuring the wreckage wrought by the wars the characters protest. Such images, which include profoundly intimate close-ups of the characters’ faces, also anticipate the rapture offered by future Mekas “sketchbook” films such as Walden.

Mekas would go on to pare away the preachiness of Guns of the Trees from his subsequent work, as he increasingly honed a personal style that would make ecstasy out of the commonplace, utilizing multimedia and a restless syntax to suggest how memory intricately shapes life. Guns of the Trees is but one deliberately imperfect piece of a vast slipstream.

Cast: Adolfas Mekas, Frances Stillman, Ben Carruthers, Argus Spear Juillard, Frank Kuenstler, Louis Brigante Director: Jonas Mekas Screenwriter: Jonas Mekas Running Time: 86 min Rating: NR Year: 1961

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Awards

Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Animated Feature

Forky rules.

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Toy Story 4
Photo: Walt Disney Studios

Completist-prone Oscar prognosticators were dealt a merciful hand last week when the Oscar nominations were announced and Frozen II didn’t show up in this category. But the winning hand belongs to Toy Story 4, which likely lost the Golden Globe to Missing Link as a result of a vote split between the two Disney properties. Sentiment to reward the American-based production studio Laika is brewing, and the fitfully droll Missing Link will, like Kubo and the Two Strings before it, probably find favor at the BAFTAs, but Laika’s latest and most expensive production to date dramatically bombed at the box office. And while no one will be weighing between the film and I Lost My Body, a singularly and actively morose and creepy film that won’t appeal to the academy at large, this category’s short history tells us that the Mouse House is only vulnerable to the biggest money makers. Also, Forky rules.

Will Win: Toy Story 4

Could Win: Missing Link

Should Win: I Lost My Body

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Awards

Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Supporting Actor

Pitt winning here will seem like the stars are lining up given what went down when he was first nominated in 1995.

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Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood
Photo: Columbia Pictures

We didn’t predict Anthony Hopkins to get nominated here, thinking that the Golden Globes’s enthusiasm for The Two Popes was a fluke. We were wrong, and he ended up becoming the elder statesman in an acting lineup that contains, on average, by far the oldest nominees. The person we predicted to get in instead, Marriage Story’s Alan Alda, is a year older than Hopkins, so we certainly weren’t betting the farm on any male ingénues.

On the other hand, it sure feels like spry 56-year-old Brad Pitt, who opened his acceptance speech at last night’s SAG Awards with a joke about having a Tinder profile, had this award in the bag the moment his Marlboro Man-ish handyman hopped atop his buddy’s roof to fix the antenna in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, whipping off his shirt to reveal a tawny, fully-abbed torso that scarcely seems to have aged in the nearly 30 years since he seduced the country in Thelma & Louise. He, as Leonardo DiCaprio’s co-lead, has a lot more to do throughout than just doff tees, but the “I’m still here” virility of that moment embodies the entire film’s love letter to old-guard masculinity in Tinseltown.

Not that anyone’s reading too deeply into it, not when there’s good old-fashioned awards numerology to fall back on. Within minutes of the nominations being announced, Oscar Twitter jumped on the fact that the best supporting actor slate this year is composed of acting winners from 1990 (Joe Pesci), 1991 (Anthony Hopkins), 1992 (Al Pacino), and 1993 and 1994 (Tom Hanks). Fewer pointed out that Pitt was also a nominee in 1995 for 12 Monkeys, losing out to the now-canceled Kevin Spacey. Which makes it seem all the more poetically like the stars are lining up when Pitt wins for a film whose finale proposes a rousing bit of alternate, corrective history in which the “good” guys obliterate the “bad” ones.

Will Win: Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Could Win: Joe Pesci, The Irishman

Should Win: Tom Hanks, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

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Awards

Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Documentary Feature

Every film nominated in this category grapples with the nature of freedom in a world gripped by war and shaped by technology.

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For Sama
Photo: PBS

Few Oscar categories are bigger snub magnets than this one. And while the failure of Apollo 11 to secure a nomination this year was indeed surprising, it was not as telling as the omission of The Biggest Little Farm, a handsomely, if conspicuously, sculpted “pop” documentary that’s very much in the academy’s wheelhouse. It was almost as if the committee responsible for selecting the nominees here was sending a message by embracing, at a time of increased global instability, five documentaries that looked only outward: not at mankind’s possibilities, but at the ways in which we’ve become our own worst enemy.

When discussing the potential winner in this category, Eric and I were pulled in two different directions. “Doc will go American Factory and, by extension, the Obamas, right?” Eric asked. “Honeyland notched an Oscar record by being the first documentary to also be nominated for international feature. That has to mean something?” I asked. Which is to say that he and I, no strangers to this Oscar-predicting process, were sacrificing ourselves to rigamarole, forgetting that, at the end of the day, academy members vote with their hearts above all else.

Every film nominated in this category grapples with the nature of freedom in a world gripped by war and shaped by technology. American Factory specifically takes the closing of a Chinese-owned factory in Ohio as a jumping-off point for a study of the wiles of global capitalism, and it’s every bit as smart as you might expect from a film produced by the Obamas. A more sobering reminder of how the global order of the world has been cataclysmically disrupted in the last four years is another Netflix documentary, The Edge of Democracy, about Brazil’s own national(ist) sickness. It’s a harrowing lament, but it offers the viewer no sense of escape.

Which isn’t to say that the The Cave and especially For Sama, both filmed in Syria and in the midst of war there, are escapist. The two most viscerally powerful documentaries in the category confront us with the chaos of imperial domination. Both films center the female experience of war, but For Sama does so more shrewdly, positing itself not just as a chronicle of war, but an act of remembrance. In a film that doesn’t lack for gut-wrenching images of the dead, one particularly stands out: of a child, after being pulled from its wounded mother’s womb via C section in the wake of a bombing, being brought back to life. Combined with the scenes depicting the citizens of war-torn Aleppo finding humor in the midst of conflict, the film attests not only to the perseverance of the Syrian people, but to the possibility that the country might still be brought back from the edge of oblivion.

Will Win: For Sama

Could Win: The Cave

Should Win: For Sama

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Awards

Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Makeup and Hairstyling

There doesn’t seem to be much standing in the way of the triumph of the red, white, and blue neo-Juggalo.

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Joker
Photo: Warner Bros.

We couldn’t really say it any better than Odie Henderson, who recently scoffed: “Who wins the Costume Design Oscar for Joker? The Goodwill? Who wins the Makeup Oscar for Joker? A blind Mary Kay consultant?” While we think the Academy will stop short of awarding the motley threads of Todd Phillips’s risible throwback machine in the costume category, the fact that they were nominated at all over, say, the imaginatively garish ‘70s finery that Ruth Carter created for Dolemite Is My Name indicates a level of affection for Joker that no one who doesn’t use the word “snowflake” on a daily basis seems prepared for.

While, to us, Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker looks like nothing so much as Marge after sitting still for a makeup gun, as Homer put it best, “Women will like what I tell them to like.” From his lips to the Academy’s ears (and face). And given this category’s expansion didn’t add more multicolored prosthetic creations along the lines of Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, but instead more invisible character augmentation along the lines of Judy and Bombshell, there doesn’t seem to be much standing in the way of the triumph of the red, white, and blue neo-Juggalo.

Will Win: Joker

Could Win: Judy

Should Win: Maleficent: Mistress of Evil

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Awards

Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: International Feature Film

Parasite is a pervasive presence in the news cycle, and at just the right time.

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Parasite
Photo: Neon

Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite is a pervasive presence in the news cycle, and at just the right time. As I write this latest prediction for Slant’s rolling Oscar coverage, the top article on the front page of Rotten Tomatoes is a ranking, by Tomatometer, of the nine films nominated for best picture this year. Number one? Parasite. Immediately next to that article is a callout to readers to vote for their favorite film of 2019 that uses Song Kang-ho’s face from Parasite’s poster as the featured image. Regarding that poster, in simply placing black bars over the actors’ faces, it succinctly, eerily, perfectly underlines the film’s obsession with social strata. And you don’t need to look far beyond the aggregate site to land on some article praising the perfectly lit and designed architectural purgatory that is the film’s main setting.

Perfect. That’s a funny word. There are no objectively measurable criteria for perfection, but given how many times I’ve heard Bong’s film described as being “perfect” since it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Palme d’Or, you’d think that there were. Still, the impulse to use it to describe this particular film, so balanced and attuned to the ties that both bind and separate us, evident in everything from the dimensions of Bong’s aesthetic, to his actors’ faces, to their words, makes a certain kind of sense. Quick, can you name the other four films nominated in this category? How apt if you can’t, as this is a film profoundly obsessed with the subterfuge that can be weaponized during class warfare. Or awards campaigns.

Will Win: Parasite

Could Win: Pain and Glory

Should Win: Parasite

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