In a “manifesto” about her latest tour, Madonna insists that the guns and violence that open the show are metaphors. “When you watch a film there are usually good guys and bad guys…Sometimes I play both.” That last admission is an edifying one for an artist whose image has so often been taken at face value by both the media and the public. Dualityâgood and bad, light and dark, masculinity and femininity, freedom and confinementâhas been a running theme throughout Madonnaâs 30-year career, and for better or worse, her MDNA Tour pushes it to the extreme.
The show opens with some kind of Mephistophelean ritual, with Madonnaâdressed as a lip-synching jihadist turned Russ Meyer heroineârevealed inside a giant confessional. The violence, sheâll tell you, is cathartic, an expression of aggression aimed at the church, society, and her ex-husband. The highlight is “Gang Bang,” an ostensible stage imagining of the much-talked-about Tarantino music video that will probably never happen, but the inclusion of an abbreviated version of “Papa Donât Preach” is dubious (a statement about the recent attacks on womenâs rights?) and, as Madonnaâs reinvention of the song both here and during her comparatively underwhelming Sticky & Sweet Tour prove, “Hung Up” (also out of place in this segment) should never be performed in any way other than its original form.
But, as has been the case for about a decade now, you have to take your medicine before getting to the “good stuff” at a Madonna concert, and after the dark, macabre first segment, the audience is instructed to express themselves, give her all their luvinâ, turn up the radio, and open their hearts. A mashup of “Express Yourself” and Lady Gagaâs “Born This Way” is ambiguous enough to play as homage, but the animation projected on the giant video screens that loom over the stage takes deliberate shots at Gaga, with “little monsters” gobbling up canned goods emblazoned with images of Madgeâs iconic cone bra and pony tail as well as David Bowieâs Aladdin Sane lightning bolt. As Bill Clinton said during his speech at the Democratic National Convention on Wednesday, it takes brass to attack someone for something youâve done, but Madonna, famous for appropriating other artistsâ work, has always been the brassiest of them all.
While the apogee of 2006âs Confessions Tour was the final disco segment, this showâs creative climax comes prematurely, during the “Masculine/Feminine” segment. Rather than paying homage to Godard, though, itâs a tribute to Madonnaâs own sexual personae, from “Like a Virgin,” reinvented yet again, this time as a piano waltz, to the non-apologia “Human Nature,” which is simply but cleverly staged as a hall of mirrors, to “Candy Shop,” which finally gets a desperately needed makeover. “Like a Virgin” turns Madonnaâs infamous sexual agency on its head, a male dancer tenderly wrapping a corset around her waist as she weeps before tightening the strings until she can barely sing. Through it all, Madonna gives one of her best, most vulnerable vocal performances to date.
Over-the-top spectacle largely triumphs, though, so moments like that, as well as “Open Your Heart,” performed acoustically along with Basque trio Kalakanâs “Sagarra Jo,” and a rousing performance of “Like a Prayer,” which had nearly all of Yankee Stadium clapping and singing by songâs end, are welcome reminders that, for both Madonna and her fans, it always comes back to the music.
The 100 Best Sci-Fi Movies of All Time
These films are fearless in breaking down boundaries and thrusting us into worlds beyond our own.
âThe [sci-fi] film has never really been more than an offshoot of its literary precursor, which to date has provided all the ideas, themes and inventiveness. [Sci-fi] cinema has been notoriously prone to cycles of exploitation and neglect, unsatisfactory mergings with horror films, thrillers, environmental and disaster movies.â So wrote J.G. Ballard about George Lucasâs Star Wars in a 1977 piece for Time Out. If Ballardâs view of science-fiction cinema was highly uncharitable and, as demonstrated by the 100 boldly imaginative and mind-expanding films below, essentially off-base, he nevertheless touched on a significant point: that literary and cinematic sci-fi are two fundamentally different art forms.
Fritz Langâs Metropolis, a visionary depiction of a near-future dystopia, is almost impossible to imagine as a work of prose fiction. Strip away the Art Deco glory of its towering cityscapes and factories and the synchronized movements of those who move through those environments and whatâs even left? Itâs no accident that some of the greatest cinematic adaptations of sci-fi novels bear only a passing resemblance to their source material. Ridley Scottâs Blade Runner, for example, simply mines some of the concepts from Phillip K. Dickâs Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? about human-looking androids, using them as the raw material for a haunting urban future-noir that owes more to visual artists like Moebius and Antonio SantâElia than it does to Dick himself. Then thereâs Andrei Tarkovskyâs Stalker, which transfigures Arkady and Boris Strugatskyâs briskly paced novella Roadside Picnic into a slow, mesmerizing journey into an uncanny space.
Ballard may have been right that literary sci-fi has provided all the interesting themes and ideas for which sci-fi in general has become known, but he failed to grasp how cinema has expanded our understanding of sci-fi by pricking at our collective visual consciousness. The titles on our list of the 100 best sci-fi movies of all time have shown us utopias, dystopias, distant planets, and our own Earth destroyed. Some of these depictions are humorous, others haunting. Some rely on complicated special effects, others use none at all. But theyâre united by their fearlessness in breaking down boundaries and thrusting us into worlds beyond our own. Keith Watson
100. Altered States (Ken Russell, 1980)
Ken Russellâs psychedelic Altered States examines one manâs egregious deflection of paternal responsibility in the name of scientific innovation. Fantasy and self-indulgence are the most powerful narcotics in the filmâdrugs that allow Harvard scientist Dr. Eddie Jessup (William Hurt) to flirt with an increasingly volatile dream state where, as he puts it, âtime simply obliterates.â Consumed by religious repression and self-guilt regarding his fatherâs painful death from cancer decades ago, Eddie becomes addicted to medicating his own primal urges through lengthy self-deprivation experiments. The theme of escape dominates the film, especially during Eddieâs visit with a native tribe from Central Mexico where a peyote session causes Eddie to hallucinate, visualized by Russell as a nightmarish dreamscape of striking imagery. Itâs an incredibly subjective sequence, placing the viewer inside Eddieâs headspace during a lengthy and jarring slide show from hell. Lava flows, sexual acts, and animal disembowelment all crash together, images that take on even more symbolic meaning later in the film when Eddie begins to evolve physically into a simian form. Glenn Heath Jr.
99. Tomorrow Iâll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea (JindĆich PolĂĄk, 1977)
A film as brilliantly constructed as it is titled, JindĆich PolĂĄkâs Tomorrow Iâll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea is a swinging comedy about a secret cabal of Nazis whoâve discovered the secret of time travel and are intent on using it to go back to World War II and supply Hitler with an atomic bomb. The plot also involves a pair of twins, mistaken identities, and anti-ageing pills, and yet, despite having to keep all these narrative balls in the air, the film never feels convoluted or over-stuffed. Instead, itâs a delightfully wacky farce that treats its potentially terrifying premise with cheerfully irreverent humor, exemplified by the filmâs opening credits, which feature archival footage of Hitler manipulated to make it look like heâs boogieing to disco music. And if all thatâs still not enough, PolĂĄkâs film also offers a nifty showcase of some of the grooviest low-budget futuristic production design the â70s Soviet bloc had to offer. Watson
98. Flash Gordon (Mike Hodges, 1980)
A gleefully cheesy throwback to the sci-fi serials of yesteryear, Mike Hodgesâs Flash Gordon is as pure a camp spectacle as youâre likely to find. A glitzyâat times garishâextravaganza of brightly colored sets, skin-baring costumes, and otherworldly vistas that wouldnât seem out of place in the gatefold of a Yes album, the film is silly and cartoonish in the best sense of those terms. Featuring such outlandish characters as the fu manchu-sporting villain Ming the Merciless (Max Von Sydow), Prince Vultan (Brian Blessed, bare-legged and sporting giant metallic wings), and the blank-eyed beefcake at the center of it all, Flash (Sam J. Jones), the film is very much in on its own joke. Produced by Dino de Laurentiis to cash in on the post-Star Wars mania for space-opera flicks, Flash Gordon ultimately has more in common with tongue-in-cheek cult musicals like Phantom of the Paradise and Xanadu than it does with George Lucasâs action-packed monomyth. Thatâs thanks in large part to the rip-roaring soundtrack by Queen, whose spirited pomposity seamlessly complements the filmâs flamboyant comic-strip visual delights. Watson
97. The Invisible Man (James Whale, 1933)
James Whaleâs anarchically playful The Invisible Man is an outlier among Universalâs line of classic monster movies. More of an inventive mash-up of black comedy and sci-fi than true horror, the film is an incendiary piece of speculative fiction that counterbalances its cautionary-tale tropes by perpetually reveling in the chaos its megalomaniacal protagonist stirs up, even as his intensifying violent impulses shift from harmlessly prankish to straight-up lethal. This pervasive sense of moral ambiguity is only strengthened by Whaleâs decision to keep Claud Rainsâs Dr. Jack Griffin invisible until the filmâs closing seconds and elide his characterâs backstory altogether. Griffinâs unknowability and cryptic motivations are mirrored in his literal invisibility, allowing his corruption and unquenchable thirst for power to take on a universal quality that implicates the audience even as it as it entertains them. Derek Smith
96. The Brother from Another Planet (John Sayles, 1984)
A gentle-hearted satire on race and the immigrant experience, John Saylesâs The Brother from Another Planet follows an unnamed mute extra-terrestrial (Joe Morton) who, after crash-landing in the Hudson River, navigates life in the Big Apple. The hook, of course, is that while this âbrotherâ hails from a far-off planet, to the people of New York, he looks like just another black guy. This premise, which couldâve been mined for easy laughs or obvious platitudes about racism, is instead, in Saylesâs hands, a sensitive, socially observant fable about the difficulties of assimilation. The brother is, in all senses of the term, an alien: far from home, isolated from those around him, unsure how to navigate local social interactions, and, ultimately, unsure if he belongs in this world at all. Bolstered by Mortonâs soulful lead performanceâfew have ever made the act of listening so compelling to watchâSaylesâs film is science fiction at its most succinct and humane. Watson
95. Days of Eclipse (Aleksandr Sokurov, 1988)
Aleksandr Sokurovâs Days of Eclipse opens with a majestic birdsâ eye view tracking shot of a desolate desert landscape. As the camera speeds up, it descends from the heavens, violently crashing into the ground in a poverty-stricken Turkmenistani community. The shot invokes a metaphorical image of invasion, and after a hard cut, weâre offered a blistering glimpse of that invasionâs impact: a landscape neglected to the point of decay, crumbling amid the oppressive heat and other inexplicable natural phenomena. Alternating between drab sepia tones and more vividly colorful footage, Sokurov films a multicultural community through the disoriented, foreign eyes of Malyanov (Aleksei Ananishnov), a Russian physician sent on a vague mission to bring modern science to the village. But Malyanov remains a stranger in a strange land, unable to commune with the shell-shocked villagers, whose trauma and desperation has rendered them alien to all outsiders. Like Andrei Tarkovskyâs Stalker and Aleksei Germanâs Hard to Be a God, both also based on novels by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Days of Eclipse transforms an ordinary landscape into something mystical and otherworldly. And in this film in particular, it perfectly embodies the unbridgeable disconnect between colonizer and colonized. Smith
94. Voyage to the End of the Universe (JindĆich PolĂĄk, 1963)
While some Czech New Wave filmmakers in the 1960s explored the interconnected social and political foibles of people in their home country, Jindrich PolĂĄkâs effects-laden Voyage to the End of the Universe trades the oppressed Soviet-ruled Czech Republic for the outer reaches of the cosmos. The journey of the starship Ikarie XB-1 in searching for life on another planet isnât without the Czech New Waveâs notable playfulness when detailing how travelers cope with the monotony of space travel (hereâs looking at you, dance party sequence), though PolĂĄk expresses a darkly fatalistic worldview as well. If the haunting sequence of Ikarie XB-1 crew members finding a doomed ship that went on a similar mission is any indication, PolĂĄk suggests that sheer advancements in innovation and searching for a new life-sustaining planet is ultimately an exercise in futility, since human life, in both the individual sense and as a species, will end at some point. It seems we might as well, like the filmâs bored cosmonauts, just simply let go and dance the night away. Wes Greene
93. The Thing from Another World (Christian Nyby, 1951)
Legend has it that The Thing from Another World was helmed not by its credited director, Christian Nyby, but by producer Howard Hawks. The film certainly provides ample evidence to suggest that such a covert switch occurred, as the its controlled atmosphere of dread and abundant rapid-fire repartee between the primary players seem to have been molded according to Hawksâs trademark template. Regardless, what remains most remarkable about the film is its continued ability to function as both a taut science-fiction thriller and a telling snapshot of the Cold War paranoia beginning to sweep the country in post-WWII America. The story, about the battle between a group of stranded military personnel and an alien creature fueled by human blood, is a model of economic storytelling. The conflict between Captain Patrick Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) and Dr. Arthur Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite) is one between Force and Reason, and represents a debate over whether America should cope with its Soviet adversaries through military confrontation or intellectual and diplomatic study. Given the â50s political climate, itâs no surprise that the filmâs climax answers such a question by painting the sympathetic Carrington as a danger to mankind and the violent Hendry as a heroic warrior. Nick Schager
92. The Worldâs End (Edgar Wright, 2013)
Edgar Wright wrapped up his Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy with The Worldâs End, a rollicking alien-invasion ode to boozing up and moving on that bests even Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz in its comingling of hilarious buddy humor, aesthetically electric action, and genre shout-outsmanship. The story of a group of high school friends reunited to complete a famed pub crawl at the behest of their once-great, now-pitiful leader (Simon Pegg), only to find that their sleepy rural England hometown has been turned into a picture-perfect haven for extraterrestrial cyborg pod people, Wrightâs film is a blistering barrage of contentious one-liners and CG-ified mayhem. Staged with the directorâs usual high-wire dexterity and bolstered a cast that handles whip-crack dialogue with giddy aplomb, itâs the filmmakerâs most exciting, inventive, and purely entertaining mash-up to dateânot to mention, in its alternately sympathetic and critical portrait of a man-child navigating the literal and figurative pitfalls of growing up, also his most heartfelt. Schager
91. Liquid Sky (Slava Tsukerman, 1982)
The world of Slava Tsukermanâs cult classic suggests the neon-tinged flipside of Warholâs Factory. Anne Carlisle memorably plays dual roles: as Jimmy, a male model with a raging drug addiction, and Margaret, a bisexual girl who could easily pass for Aimee Mann during her âTil Tuesday days. Otto von Wernherr (Madonna enemy and early collaborator) plays a German scientist chasing after an alien spacecraft that visits the Earth in order to feed off the opium-producing receptors inside the brains of heroin users. During sexual orgasm, these receptors produce a sensation similar to the feeling produced by the brain during the absorption of heroin. The filmâs aliens (visually represented using negative film stock of a blood-shot eye) feed off of this pleasure principle, spontaneously combusting humans as they engage in sexual intercourse. Aliens, drugs, clubs, orgasms, and big hair! On its crazed surface, Liquid Sky is a celebration of the â80s counter-culture. But more than three decades after its release, the bad behavior and paranoia depicted here seemingly foreshadows both the ramifications of said cultureâs sexual indiscretions and a nationâs political naĂŻvetĂ©. Ed Gonzalez
Interview: Julius Onah and Kelvin Harrison Jr. Talk Luceâs Ambiguities
Onah and Harrison discuss their approach to creating the filmâs central character and how they navigated his many dualities.
âReally, itâs just about peopleâwhether they conform to what we think they are,â says Kelvin Harrison Jr.âs eponymous character in Luce. The high school student is engaged in a classroom debate with his history teacher, the self-appointed respectability politics enforcer Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer), but he also speaks to the very essence of the film itself. Luceâs plot takes a number of engrossing turns as characters attempt to reconcile the disparities between the people they know so well and the deeds others allege they committed. But it all comes back to the characters themselves, Luce chief among them.
At his core, Luce is a model student thriving in suburban Arlington after being pulled out of an Eritrean war zone. Describing him further proves difficult because he means so many things to different people, some of whomâespecially his adoptive white parents (played by Naomi Watts and Tim Roth) and school facultyâmaintain an investment in seeing that he fulfills their expectations. From there, it only requires a few misunderstandings to ignite a powder keg of anxieties and assumptions surrounding race, class, immigration, and privilege.
While this description might seem to cast Luce as merely a passive participant in the story, nothing could be farther from the truth. Heâs the filmâs central enigma, with each scene concealing as much about his nature as it reveals. Harrison, a 25-year-old rising star whoâs already turned in psychologically complex work in films such as Monsters and Men and It Comes at Night, endows the film with equal parts pathos and pathology through his performance. Shortly after Luceâs theatrical bow, I sat down with both Harrison and director Julius Onah to discuss their approach to creating the filmâs central character, how they navigated his many dualities, and where they made determinations about his sincerity.
Who is Luce, for each of you? Inasmuch as itâs possible to pin him down.
Julius Onah: Whew!
Kelvin Harrison Jr.: Heâs a 17-year-old kid whoâs insanely intelligent. Heâs gone through, seen, and overcome a lot. As he moves forward, heâs trying to make sure he feels protected and seenâthat heâs not put, like he says, in a box and that his peers arenât doing the same. He feels like the future generation is the future, so shouldnât we all be supporting each other to do that? That makes him the budding revolutionary he wants to beâand is, in a lot of ways.
JO: As Kelvin said, we viewed him as this budding revolutionary, this kid who has incredible intellectual horsepower. But itâs like heâs got a Lamborghini with no license to drive. He contains all these multitudes within him, but, at the same time, has a tremendous amount of expectation on him from everyone around him who wants him to live his life on a symbolic, representational level, in order to prove whatever point they want. This kid is trying to negotiate the balance between âWho am I really?â and âWho do I have to be to make everyone around me happy and survive in America?â
How did you handle the meta consideration of finding the person of Luce without losing his symbolism?
KH: Iâve been telling this story that I grew up in New Orleans, the South, and went to a private school for high school. New Orleans is very laidback, weâve got a lot of slang, which is what it is. But then I went to this majority white school and was one of five, six, less than 10 black people in the entire high school. The first thing they told me was, âYou canât say âyeah.â Itâs âyes.ââ They were like, âWhat do your parents do? Why do you dress like that?â I started judging myself and changing who I was or what I looked like to assimilate to the culture. I took a lot of that and brought it into Luce and his journey coming from Eritrea, and to his parents saying, âWe donât know how to pronounce your name, so weâre changing it.â [laughs] And Harriet being like, âYou need to do these things in order to be great.â Itâs like [to her], âWhatever I am isnât enough for you. Youâre judging me based on where I came from, and now youâre telling my parents I wrote a violent paper.â Itâs insane.
Watching Luce, I wondered if heâs played as if the character is the way that he is at his core and the audience just gets to discover that, or if the events of the film goad him into becoming the way that he is. Did either of you make a decision to play it one way?
JO: As a director, I have a conception of the character, but I always believe that the actor has to live it truthfully. We talked a tremendous amount about where this guy was coming from and the specific biographical details of that. But, at the same time, the beauty of it is these moments that just appear as actors are living it. One of my favorite moments in the film is when Luce is in the shed with his friend, Orlicki, who says, âDeShaun is black black.â And Luce instantly tries to defuse the situation. For a moment, he retreats into himself, but right after, he smacks his friendâs leg, and they start laughing. It tells you so much about who this guy is, constantly measuring every moment, situation and expectation from people.
So, in terms of the overall of the character, thereâs that human part of him thatâs just a 17-year-old kid trying to figure out who he is like most 17-year-old kids are. But then thereâs a part of him thatâs brilliant and well read; heâs been brought out of a real, physical war zone and thrust into this psychological, emotional and sociological war zone of culture in America. Heâs taken some of the skills from survival there and applying it here, constantly reading everything around him looking for incoming fire, ducking and covering, reshaping and reforming himself as he navigates all of this. Thatâs where some of the symbolic version of this character comes from. He knows what he has to represent to literally survive.
You mention incoming fire, and it reminds me that I read about how every time Luce shuts his locker, you added in the sound of gunfire. Where did that idea come from?
JO: A lot of people, and this started at the script level and in friends and family screenings, they would say things like, âIf we just had a flashback to when he was a child soldierâŠâ Which, to me, was like saying, âIf you just made it easier to pigeonhole this characterâŠâ The minute you start doing all that, they can say that this is some PTSD story. But when you see someone walking down the street, unless youâre Bruce Willis in Unbreakable, you canât touch them and flash back to learn what happened to them. All you have are your eyes and ears, and from there we make judgments about who people are. But, at the same time, I did want to suggest some of his history, so I said, âWhatâs a more sophisticated way to make you feel some of the pressure this kid is coming from without spelling it out?â And thatâs where I decided, âWhat if we embedded gunshots throughout the locker, but we changed the pitch of them throughout the movie?â And also, the bells in the hallway that he hears in the school get more pitched up. Slowly, over the course of the film, youâre feeling that pressure rising and donât even know it.
If people wanted a flashback, do you think they really wanted to feel pity for Luce that they didnât otherwise have an outlet for?
JO: For me, I think they want to be able to put him in a box, and we all have that tendency. We want to be able to explain away the things we donât understand, and that defies the purpose of asking the question. Once we make it easy for the audience, thereâs no point to tell the story.
I saw the film for the second time yesterday and found myself watching it like a courtroom drama, building cases for or against characters, looking for silver bullets that might explain themâŠ
JO: Thatâs great to hear.
âŠbut then I realized at some point that this way of viewing was leading me to look for some kind of coherent explanation. Luce is all this one way or Ms. Wilson is all that way, and that one silver bullet will explain who they are, which goes against exactly what the film wants us to think.
JO: Yeah, itâs not like some epiphany weâre stating here, but itâs not the way the world works. I feel like if weâre going to tell these stories, thereâs often a version of the storyâand Iâm not going to criticize any of these films. I understand why these stories are told, whether to give us hope or understanding or a sense of clarity. But, at a certain point, you have to ask when itâs disserving us. There arenât easy morals or digestible answers to hundreds, thousand-year-old questions of identity that are now really bubbling to the surface in this country. When you look at the headlines in this country, the more we continue to think thereâs an easy answer, the more weâre going to deal with these problems in a way that doesnât solve anything. I felt the only wayâand this started with J.C. [Lee]âs brilliant playâto talk about these things is to grapple with the fact that there isnât a silver bullet.
Thereâs such a push and pull between sincerity and deceit for the character of Luce. Itâs tempting, based on what we learn about him, to doubt the authenticity of any given moment. How did you all handle that dissonance that we experience?
KH: Truthfully? Because everything is to be played with the truth, itâs almost hard to keep track of the truth, even as Luce, of when heâs trying to get something that he needs or when heâs genuine. I wouldnât even know at a certain point because it was always being sincere. It all kind of blurs after a while.
JO: I think thatâs a really astute observation of it because, as a 17-year-old kid, you donât know all the time. Youâre just reacting and dealing with the fire of the world around you.
Thereâs a very ambiguous scene about midway through the film when Luce practices his speech before an empty auditorium. Are we meant to know what heâs thinking or how heâs feeling there? Did you make the determination of whether this is true self because heâs not performing before an audience, or just a rehearsal of emotion so he can play convincingly when the seats are full?
KH: I donât think we made that determination, did we?
JO: Not explicitly. We never talked about it on that level. I think whatâs so tricky and interesting with a character like this is that thereâs always going to be an internal emotional life. However, it ends up being projected in that specific moment is going to be up to the audience. Thatâs why I love hearing this interpretation of yours. But what I think is sincere is this 17-year-old boy feeling the suffocating pressure of all these expectations, and itâs almost even harder when thereâs nobody there in front of you because you realize what a performance it has to be. Whether thereâs somebody there or not, you have to be on all the time.
KH: Thereâs some truth to that. I can remember being in the moment, considering the series of events that led up to it with being the star pupil, seeing what happened to DeShaun and Stephanie, and then my black teacherâwho we talked about being in a weird way like a second momâgo behind my back and tell my white parents that maybe Iâm a threat because of who I was is a lot! And then to have my dad turn on me like that [snaps fingers] on the drop of a dime simply because he heard an accusation and be like, âThis is bullshit, youâre full of shit.â Itâs a lot. I think to go through the process of fighting for his identity and rights, in that moment heâs saying this thing about how his mother couldnât pronounce his name, so they renamed me, it hurts. Because it reminds him of the things heâs had to go through since the beginning that heâs had to suppress to move forward. Thereâs a lot of truth. Heâs disappointed, and he feels scared and abandoned. Heâs very alone in that moment, which you can see. But it could be performative because there are moments where heâs like, âIâm good at acting!â [laughs]
There are a pair of instances in the film where itâs alluded to that Luce showed cruelty to a fish. Is that at all a nod to the possibility that he might be a sociopath given that being a commonly recognized trait for them?
JO: Again, weâre just always trying to present things as truthfully as possible. Iâm sure every person in this room has done something as a kid to a living creature where youâre just testing the limits. I remember things with my dogs when I was six or seven like, âWhat if we fold the dogâs legs this way?â Youâre sort of playing, but youâre also testing your power. Down to holding the magnifying glass over ants, whatever the case might be. These are all things where we lay out the story and just tell it. Then itâs up to us as to how we want to view it. Do we want to view this as a child doing something or through the lens of race? His history coming from violence? And then how are we going to choose to feel about it afterwards.
Luce, both the film and the character, rail against the âmodel minorityâ archetype. But while he describes it as a straightjacket, is it possible that he also slyly sees it as a shield under which he can hide some of his actions?
KH: I think heâs aware of that. Thereâs a bit of not completely fully understanding the privilege he gets from his white parents. But at the same time, I do think he knows Principal Dan is like, âThis oneâs my thoroughbred. Heâs on my team, I know how to work him, I know how to get him on my side, I know if I bring my parents theyâll probably donate money to the school.â He can finesse his mother right before, and she might do exactly what he needs her to. But thereâs another part of him that doesnât know how much he can do. Heâs just testing it out. Heâs reactive, just living in the moment and seeing what heâs capable of.
JO: Whatâs interesting about him is his duality. Heâs grown up with a white family, adjacent to white privilege because he can walk into school with his mom and dad. They can offer him the kind of protection that DeShaun would never get. One of the things I would often tell Naomi and Octavia is, âImagine if that big showdown happens in the third act, but it was DeShaunâs parents who walked in.â Thereâs no way they could engage and carry themselves in the way Luceâs parents do! But at the same time, Luce is still black. When he walks out of his house, he will be treated and viewed when heâs not with his parents in the same way that a young black man would be. He alludes to that when it comes to smoking weed.
So, part of all this is how far the model-minority thing can go for Luce. How far does this privilege extend for him? How much can he get away with, or when are they going to decide that heâs not a saint anymore, but a monster? And the inability to negotiate that. Because in either case, whether youâre a saint or a monster, itâs saying that youâre not human. Though one of them comes with privileges, itâs still saying that you donât have access to a full spectrum of humanity. While on some level, everyone around Luce thinks that if they lift him up to perfection, it proves, one, how open-minded and progressive they are and, two, the system works. What they donât always fully recognize is that not only is it discarding the people who arenât doing that, itâs also creatingâon an emotional and psychological levelâan alienation within Luce. And, in this case, both people are hurt as opposed to arriving and doing the real work that makes it a possibility for everyone to have access to that full humanity.
You mention the big third-act showdown, and in both times Iâve seen Luce, the moment that gets the loudest gasp is when his adoptive white parents decide to go all in on a pretty bald-faced lie. What do you hope audiences take away about whiteness and its complicity in perpetuating the monster/saint dichotomy?
JO: An awareness of that complicity. Thereâs often the analogy used that fish donât know theyâre swimming in waterâ[the waterâs] just there. When you have a space thatâs built for your existence, you donât feel the pressure points in the same way. Youâre not always aware of the privileges you have and how those things can be weaponized. Sometimes, your good intentions can be a path that leads downâwe know how the rest of that saying goes. I think the challenge for everybody, and thatâs what I loved about telling this story, is that we are all limited and prisoners of our own perception. For some of us, that perception comes with more privilege. But specifically, for those who live on the top end of that power totem pole, there often isnât an awareness of how even in the best of circumstances, one is contributing to the systems of power and privilege that exist. I think, hopefully, if weâve done our job with the story, weâre not lecturing anybody or pointing the finger per se. Weâre just asking the question.
Watching it again, I was struck by how many instances in the film there are where if the characters were just honest, transparent, or didnât assume something about the other person, they could have avoided so many bad things. Is that a fair statement?
JO: Absolutely! I think we all knowâand this is my first time meeting you, Marshallâhow hard that is. It is so hard. Itâs such a negotiation between ego and beliefs. All you have to do is look at whoâs in power in this country right now and what he has the privilege to ignore. And then, by proxy, the people who choose to support him have the privilege to ignore. What was really interesting about Amyâs arc in the film is that you have her move from a lack of awareness to awareness, but then she has the privilege to decide how aware she wants to be or what she wants to turn off. She says, âYou know, I just want to love my son, forget it!â
KH: Timâs character is interesting because, from the get-go, heâs like, âJust tell him!â
JO: Tim and I often had these conversations about where Peterâs coming from. He came from more of a working-class background and rose to that level. But Amy grew up in the type of environment sheâs already in, with more privilege. Peter very much just wants to parent. Heâs always dealing with that, and this is where it gets so tricky with that negotiation of âwhen am I being a parent who just wants to look after my son? Or when am I being a white man whoâs letting my baggage of privilege and my perceptions and assumptions about my son cloud the way I treat him?â And thatâs where it becomes really messy and complicated.
The National and the Global Intersect at the 2019 Jerusalem Film Festival
Even the most casual exchanges at the festival ended with some variation of a sentiment that arose as a mantra: âItâs complicated.â
Gur Bentwichâs Peaches and Cream contains a running joke that resonated in the context of the 36th Jerusalem Film Festival. Bentwich follows a director named Zuri (played by Bentwich) who undergoes an odyssey after his new film, also called Peaches and Cream, has been indifferently received on its opening weekend. In various encounters, people tell Zuri that they prefer European to Israeli cinemaâclaims that feel ironic given the way that the lurid and feverish nature of Bentichâs film feels pointedly European and American in sensibility. Peaches and Creamâs wandering camera, eroticized women, and narcissistic macho anxiety suggests a Fellini production as viewed through the prism of contemporary American films like After Hours, Listen Up Philip, and Birdman, creating a friction. Zuri and Bentwichâthe two are deliberately indistinguishableâhave both made a quasi-European film only to be discounted for not being European enough for Israeli cinephiles.
I thought of Bentwichâs running joke when the international criticsâ delegation of which I was a partâand which also included writers from China, Poland, Lithuania, Portugal, Russia, and Slovakiaâwas treated to a dinner with a group of Israeli critics. Peaches and Cream came up in conversation, with one Israeli writer voicing his irritation with the filmâs references to Western cinema, the sort of fealty which he said was part of the problem of Israelâs cinematic exposure to the rest of the world. Western films reference one another, he said, creating an echo chamber that serves as an affirmation of legacy, while Israeli cinema tends to emulate not itself but the West as well. This writerâs sentiments echoed comments I heard at the Warsaw Film Festival last year, from critics and filmmakers from various countries.
Such conversations are reminders that pop culture is one of the Westâs great legacies and means of influence. (In Tel Aviv for a few days after leaving the festival, I noticed that every bar in my neighborhood played vintage American music, from Bob Dylan to the Talking Heads to Alice Cooper to the Notorious B.I.G.) Another joke in Peaches and Cream almost subliminally parodies the neuroses that such an attitude may inspire: Zuri fights to keep posters of his film up in public, trying to protect them from being obscured by other notices.
Relatedly, I saw a Peaches and Cream sticker that had been stuck on a large banner for Pedro AlmodĂłvarâs Pain and Glory, a hot-ticket item at the festival. The bannerâs commanding imageâof a tormented and gray-bearded Antonio Banderas, who won the best actor trophy at this yearâs Cannes for his performance, casting a shadow in the shape of AlmodĂłvar himself against a red backdropâhad been merged with an advertisement for Bentwichâs film, the round sticker providing Banderas with a makeshift eyepatch that cheekily embodied the very intersection between Israeli and international cinema that drives the JFF at large. The festival had one of the most eclectic lineups that Iâve seen, including vintage restorations, lurid thrillers, many Cannes entries, notable American films from last year, documentaries, shorts, and homegrown Israeli productions, which were often the most difficult to get into.
Generally, my fellow critics didnât care much for Peaches and Cream, finding it narcissistic and borderline sexistâqualities which struck me as part of the filmâs joke. Thereâs no way that an actor-director, other than maybe Kevin Costner, could give himself this many close-ups without a satirical intent. Peaches and Cream is a messy and unruly film, at least until the requisite redemption provided by the third act, and it indicates the Jerusalem Film Festivalâs taste for bold formalism. Most festivals open with a bland audience-pleaser, while the 36th edition of the festival kicked off with Bong Joon-hoâs Palme dâOr-winning Parasite, which is the very embodiment of confrontational political cinema.
Parasite initially suggests a South Korean cover of a Patricia Highsmith novel, with a family that literally lives under the surface of mainstream society conning its way into jobs with a wealthy household. In the filmâs first hour, the greatest achievement of Bongâs career to date, viewers are encouraged to enjoy the poor familyâs ruse, which the filmmaker renders with svelte long takes and pans that elucidate shifting modes of power while providing visceral visual pleasure. Bongâs kinetics are also a form of misdirection, as the filmâs tone gradually curdles, with the class resentment thatâs been percolating under the narrativeâs surface eventually exploding into a massacre that suggests a microcosm of both revolution and genocide. As always, Bong clinches his themes and symbolism too tightly, but Parasite is still a significant comeback from the exhaustingly broad Snowpiercer and Okja.
The setting of Parasiteâs premiere at the JFF intensified the filmâs power, as it was shown at the Sultanâs Pool, a striking outdoor amphitheater from which you can see the walls of the Old City, the Tower of David, and even, from certain angles, portions of Palestine. Now a legendary venue thatâs hosted the likes of Eric Clapton and Dire Straits, the Sultanâs Pool was a site for childrenâs sacrifices centuries earlier, before it was later modernized by Herod into a portion of Jerusalemâs water supply system. Before Parasiteâs premiere, there were many speeches testifying to Israelâs dedication to cinema, including an appearance by the countryâs president, Reuven Rivlin. This pageantry isnât without tension, given the conservative governmentâs hostility to films that are critical of authority, which was expressed by the audienceâs traditional booing of the Minister of Culture and Sport, Miri Regev, whoâs wanted to cut the governmentâs funding of the arts, and who appeared at the JFF this year via a pre-taped speech. Which is to say that, in a setting freighted with ghosts and nesting political tensions, in a city and country with as much cultural baggage as any in the world, a left-wing horror film like Parasite carries extra weight. It even feels a bit like a dare.
Film festivals can be a paradox. On one hand, theyâre the ideal of the world most artists and critics would like to live in, one where like-minded people share the experience of art, food, and drink as communion, though theyâre also dream realms that cast a potentially insidious illusion of rebellion, giving audiences a faux catharsis that enables the very repression that artists and critics are often railing against. Arenât festivals, regardless of the politics of the art they program, ultimately P.R. for governments that still do whatever they like? (Perhaps Regev either doesnât understand this possibility or is expertly playing her role as a liberal foil.) In such contexts, I think of Matrix Reloaded, in which the hero learns, in what must be one of the most convoluted speeches in the history of cinema, that heâs a tool for providing an appearance of hope and choice to a population thatâs still nevertheless controlled.
Yet it also feels unfair to single out the festival experience for this train of thought, as all artistic endeavors run the risk of rendering palatable the sources of their ireâa topic we also touched on at the criticsâ dinner. Art opens us up to other cultures and ideas, but it can also lull us into a kind of waking sleep, making us think weâve initiated change merely by going to a festival or watching a film or posting something critical on Facebook or Twitter. And this danger of art is especially material when one gorges on the fruits of creativity for days at a time. The act of sipping a drink and eating nice dishes before the Parasite premiere while surveying the Palestinian landscape does, for instance, carry a certain frisson. Many films playing at the festival were concerned with the legacy of Israel, particularly regarding Palestine, and the Israeli critics and press openly spoke of these ambiguities. Even casual exchanges with journalists and average filmgoers alike ended with some variation of a sentiment that arose as a recurring festival manta: âItâs complicated.â
The JFF seems intent on working within the system by using government funding as well as donations to both preserve and establish an Israeli cinematic canon, which it compares and contrasts with the cinema of the rest of the world. Many of the festivalâs screenings were held in the Jerusalem Cinematheque, which is located near the Sultanâs Pool and houses a film archive. The delegation was invited to take a tour of the archive, and in the labs we saw ravishing silent images of Jerusalem desert that have since been modernized as part of the city. We also spoke with people who are restoring films from Israel and other countries. Several restorations played at the festival, among them Amos Guttmanâs 1986 crime drama Bar 51 and Clemente Fracassiâs 1953 opera Aida, a stagey yet hypnotic Verdi adaptation featuring a gorgeous Sophia Loren and Technicolor that might make the artists of Hammer Films blush.
Color is used to florid and rapturous effect in another JFF selection, Karim AĂŻnouzâs The Invisible Life of EurĂdice GusmĂŁo. The film tells one of the oldest of melodramatic tales, following two sisters whoâre separated from one another in 1950s-era Brazil by a patriarchal system that fetishizes female obedience. EurĂdice (Carol Duarte) is an aspiring pianist, while her older sister, Guida (Julia Stockler), is a free spirit who runs off with a Greek sailor. Returning home single and pregnant, Guida is rejected by their father, Manuel (Antonio Fonseca), who calls her a slut and lies to each girl about the other in order to keep them apart. Itâs a ruse that will haunt the family for the rest of their lives.
Starting with the filmâs opening, a humid fantasy sequence in a tropical forest that serves as a metaphor for the girlsâ eventual plight, AĂŻnouz goes stylistically big, utilizing a swooping camera and a wrenching score to sweep us up in EurĂdice and Guidaâs longing for one another, which resembles romantic passion. This texture gives The Invisible Life of EurĂdice GusmĂŁo, which won the Un Certain Regard prize at this yearâs Cannes, a streak of perversity thatâs amplified by the explosion of harlequin reds and blues that signify dwarfed desire. Though this film has an unimpeachably feminist sensibility, AĂŻnouz also evinces remarkable sympathy for Manuel, a square whoâs stymied by his devotion to a hypocritical culture. A shot of the man waiting for his âgoodâ daughter and her child in a restaurant, while the âbadâ daughter spies on them unseen, is among the most haunting images Iâve seen this year.
Colors serve the story of AĂŻnouzâs film, while color is much of the story driving Diao Yinanâs The Wild Goose Lake, a Chinese gangster drama that grows increasingly hallucinatory as it somewhat moseys toward its climax. The narrative opens on a man with a past, Zhou Zenong (Hu Ge), as he meets a woman, Liu (Gwei Lun-mei), from the wrong side of the tracks. We soon learn that Zhou is waiting for a different woman, though Liu assures him of her loyalty. But the play of light and rain across these arresting faces is more commanding than this expositional business, with Diao soon splintering his plot into suggestive abstraction, as we learn how Zhou became a hunted man enmeshed in a war between crooks and law enforcers. The plot becomes so riven with betrayals and reversals that oneâs encouraged to digest the film as pure poetry, homing in on the explosive hues and stunning action scenes and foreboding shadows and, particularly, the pervading feeling of rootlessness and loss thatâs occasionally exacerbated by brutal violence. The Wild Goose Lake is a ballad of aggression and decay, relating a shaggy dog story thatâs truly a portrait of a country eating itself alive.
Color has a colder and more sinister purpose in two of the other thrillers I saw at JFF. In Vivarium, through sheer force of will and formalism, director Lorcan Finnegan makes a potentially trite premise eerie and suggestive. Gemma (Imogen Poots) and Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) are a couple looking to move in together, and on a whim they agree to look at a townhome in a yuppie neighborhood that theyâre sure theyâll despise. The neighborhood is revealed to represent corporate efficiency and impersonality to the ultimate degree, with identical, unforgettably hideous pea-green homes that suggest Monopoly pieces as arranged by the Tim Burton of Edward Scissorhands. The neighborhood is so generic, in fact, that Gemma and Tom get lost trying to leave, until itâs revealed that theyâre trapped here via supernatural means, and forced to raise a child (Senan Jennings) who suggests an ill-tempered robot, screaming at a glass-shattering pitch when he isnât fed on time.
Finnegan understands that to explain his premise too much is to dispel its power, and the vagueness of his narrative serves to place the audience in his protagonistsâ shoes. The filmmaker also doesnât over-emphasize the obvious thematic hook, which is that Gemma and Tomâs no-exit situation suggests a nightmarish version of the disappointment that can arise when people succumb to the social pressure to mate, procreate, and attain boring jobs in the name of respectability. As precisely made as Vivarium is, with irrational images that are worthy of classic horror cinema, itâs all concept. Gemma and Tom are merely sketches of the fear and ennui that arrive on the cusp of reaching middle age. The charactersâ immediate accommodation of their new hell feels truthful, but it also robs Vivarium of urgency. Once one accepts its message, which is clear early on, thereâs nowhere else for the film to go.
In certain fashions, Jessica Hausnerâs Little Joe is reminiscent of Vivarium, though itâs a richer and more unsettling work. Both films feature intensely symmetrical imagery and rich colors that suggest a mockery of the emotions that are being suppressed by the rigid settings. But thereâs more mystery and emotional variety in Little Joe; one canât quite pinpoint the meaning of Hausnerâs aesthetic flourishes, such as deliberately unmotivated dolly shots that cut characters out of certain frames in order to emphasize windows or other passageways. And why does a laboratory for breeding plants suggest a Wes Anderson set, with clothes that match the colors of certain pieces of furniture? This color scheme subliminally complements the plant that Alice (Emily Beech, who won the best actress prize at this yearâs Cannes for her performance) has bred. Her creation, which she calls âLittle Joeâ after her son, Joe (Kit Connor), is obscenely fake-looking, suggesting a combination of a rose and a penis. When the plant is stimulated by human talk, it opens up into full bloom, its bright red head serving to satiate the yearning emanating from Alice, a single mother, and her workaholic compatriots.
The plant is engineered to trigger happiness in humans, a concept that reveals how alien the notion of human interaction is to Alice, who rebuffs her poignantly worshipful colleague, Chris (Ben Whishaw). But Alice, a control freak, stymies the plant in a way that reflects her own alienation, rendering it incapable of reproducing. The plant strikes back, gifting human happiness at a price that steers Little Joe into Invasion of the Body Snatchers territory, leading to a brilliant joke: that Alice, in her self-absorption, canât see the invasion thatâs engulfing the world around her. At times, this stark, sad, weirdly exhilarating film also suggests David Cronenbergâs The Fly, similarly boiling a potentially sprawling plot down to a few settings and characters, evoking an aura of clammy claustrophobia. Cronenbergâs film ended with an operatic crescendo, however, while Hausner keeps us trapped in her hermetic world, in which a plant teaches humans to abandon the possibility of ecstasy.
At the JFF, I missed Yolande Zaubermanâs much-buzzed-about M, a documentary about the child abuse thatâs wrought in an Orthodox Jewish community, due to considerable demand. I did, though, catch a few documentaries that should earn attention outside of the festival circuit. Ai Weiweiâs The Rest continues the artistâs project of exposing the refugee crisis in Europe, in which countries like France, Turkey, and Greece fight over where to store people whoâre fleeing from endless wars in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and others. Thematically and aesthetically, the film is similar to Ai Weiweiâs Human Flow, though the filmmaker has compressed his footage here, editing The Rest down to 79 minutesâ worth of tactile physical gestures that bring home the reality of the refugeesâ lives, divorcing the topic of platitude. We see refugees burning plastic water bottles to start a fire for warmth, people cradling a cat deep into their chest, and, most wrenchingly, Ai Weiwei captures a government destroying a shanty village with a bulldozer, a sequence the filmmaker shoots with a matter-of-factness thatâs unflinching and unforgettably moving. Most importantly, Ai Weiwei reminds us of a harsh reality: Most of the refugees merely want to return to their war-torn countries, willing to risk death over the abuse and contempt that awaits them throughout the rest of the world.
Because of the auteur theory, people have an image of films as springing from a maestro directorâs head, when theyâre really works of communal endeavor. Catherine HĂ©bertâs Ziva Postec reminds us of this fact, following the primary editor of Claude Lanzmannâs Shoah as she goes antiquing and recollects the six years she spent culling hundreds of hours of footage into a nearly 10-hour opus that would help define the worldâs grasp of the Holocaust. A few startling details emerge. Shoahâs most important formal gambitâthe contrast of the aural interviews with filmed footage of Holocaust sites as they looked at the time of the filmâs productionâdidnât crystallize until years into the post-production process. Also, Postec tells us how she remixed the interviews, adding space between sentences so that dense descriptions of atrocity would attain a musical cadence that would help viewers understand the stories. HĂ©bert eventually connects Postecâs astonishing accomplishment with the editorâs own conflict over her Jewish and Israeli roots, and Ziva Postec becomes a testament of a woman facing her cultureâs demons and arising out the mess somewhat cleansed. One senses that this sort of reconciliationâof the demons of the past with the yearnings of the futureâis what ultimately drives the JFF at large. Such a bazaar of art allows us to give voice to anxieties and exaltations that are normally thought to be, well, complicated.
The Jerusalem Film Festival ran from July 25âAugust 4.
Interview: Rick Alverson on The Mountain and Challenging Narrative Convention
The filmmaker discusses his latest, and his antipathy toward the mass machine of modern pop culture.
Writer-director Rick Alverson is as intense and intelligent as films like The Comedy, Entertainment, and the forthcoming The Mountain would lead you to believe, with a pointed distrust of sentiment that indicates an urge to forge a connection that isnât muddied by platitude. Alversonâs protagonists yearn for connection, too, especially Tye Sheridanâs wounded and adrift young man in The Mountain, a pursuit that also mirrors the filmmakerâs urge to discard or challenge narrative convention in order to reach a kind of purity of observation. The Mountain is rich in self-consciously still and idyllic compositions that parody the charactersâ various pretenses, while also capturing their internal reverberations.
Since at least the rise of postmodernism, artists and critics alike have been trying to free certain art formsâparticularly the novel and later cinemaâof the constrictions of plot, presumably to access a free-associative and primordial truth. This struggle was at the heart of Susan Sontagâs essay collection Against Interpretation, and itâs a concern shared by Alverson. Yet the filmmaker, in his art and in conversation, runs into the same irony as Sontag: Their rejection of interpretation, embodied mostly in Alversonâs case by the rejection of plot, is interpretation. Most critics and artists, even if they confine themselves to discussions of formalism (and Alverson and I did not) still run headfirst into ideas of meaning, which could be more prosaically and perhaps more truthfully be described as notions of theme.
However, itâs refreshing that Alverson even bothers to grapple with such paradoxes, and he has a knack for speaking in full and winding sentences that mirror the thorny poetry of his cinema. Alverson and I also happen to live in the same cityâRichmond, Virginiaâand we met last week over coffee in a local spot and chewed over The Mountain, Alversonâs earlier work, and his antipathy toward the mass machine of modern pop culture.
Given that you travel quite a bit, is it comforting to have a central home to return to?
âComfortâ is a complex word. [laughs]
I know. I think Iâm asking if the concept of a nest appeals to you.
Yeah, but thereâs always acclimating to coming home. Thereâs this whole process of reevaluating things around you that have been with you for a quarter century. But, yeah, itâs nice being in a city thatâs oblique and a little removed from the hustle and bustle of the industry obsessions. Now, if I can clean up my Twitter feed to reflect the world as opposed to the film industry, Iâll be a better person.
My Twitter game is extremely rudimentary. A variety of passing fancies.
Where did you go to film The Mountain? California?
It was shot in upstate New York, from the Seneca in the Finger Lakes to the Bronxâ14 different towns. Then we took the production and did a leg out in the Pacific Northwest. Mount Baker and the Canadian border all the way through the rain forest. A company move across the country is substantial. [laughs]
Do you purposefully seek narratives in which characters are wandering?
Yeah, Iâm sort of turned off by certainty in films. Movies that have always meant something to me are open and unmoored. The idea of resolution is so fantastical. In so much of consumer cinema, resolution is pushed as a necessary element. Not only as a cathartic moment in the last act, but the very nature in every journey in most films feels like itâs destined to be resolved. Itâs so uninteresting to me. Itâs so removed from the way we experience life.
When watching The Mountain and Entertainment, I thought at certain points that itâs a relief to be free of exposition. That opens films up, gives them space to do and say something else. Your characters donât talk about a plot. Iâm not saying that those films donât have narratives, but your characters are allowed to say these poetic and surprising things because they are accorded both geographic and emotional space.
Yeah, in the consumer model for cinema, there isnât that air in the thing. The act of âtightening it upââfrom the script reviews to the test audiencesâkills a thing and deprives it of its incoherence, which is poetry, the stuff of life. Also, I never like as a viewer to feel that Iâm being coddled. I love the act of discovery. The act of curiosity. The reason so many films are so boring to me is because itâs all laid out; thereâs no place to maneuver in there. Youâre supposed to be a passive subject that watches the thing live and find you and actually becomes your consciousness, because these movies arenât giving your mind anything to do.
I think of the moment in The Mountain where the father tells his son, Andy, the Tye Sheridan character, that he never thought the boy would stop growing. And then he compares his son to the childâs mother, seemingly unflatteringly. Thereâs a lot of texture there in just a few lines. A conventional film might have elaborated more on the psychology, though we donât need it. And those lines haunt the entire movie.
Well, good, I appreciate that. A lot of audiences are conditioned to let those things pass them by, because movies teach them to look for expositional triggers. Like âwhat is this telling me, does it make sense?ââand if it doesnât they discard it. Theyâre conditioned in films and episodic television to do that. Itâs literally a grammar that says âthis is the particular kind of information thatâs going to be valuable to you to be able to compartmentalize this whole thing when youâre done.â I think weâre being deprived of a lot of the stuff of life in these grammars.
Even in art cinema, thereâs this narrative fixation, and The Mountain looks at this quite a lot, both as a toxic element for these men in this film, and for the audience thatâs imbibing them. Is narrative, in the space of cinema, still functional? Even in a broader space, has narrative outlived its functionality as a delivery mechanism for complexity? Weâre increasingly taught to have caches, and to reduce things down to very simple narrative ideas, and thatâs weaponized by your Trumps and by everybody. The larger concern isnât âOh we should just tell more positive and better stories.â Weâre using something that was designed in the oral tradition, and in the written tradition, for an entirely other space. Can we criticize the rules of the game?
I donât want to put The Mountain in a box myself, but Jeff Goldblumâs character, Wallace, is himself addicted to a narrative, to an idea of how lobotomies work.
Thatâs a reduction of the complexity and nuance of his life into a tidy narrative bubble, essentially. That then allows for a hell of a lot of misfortune, because heâs succumbing to ignorance, and ignorance breeds that shit.
Andy, maybe like his mother, refutes ideas of how we should behave, and you wonder if theyâre actually wrestling with madness. From what you give us lobotomizing Andy feels disproportionate to his actions, which is terrifying. We see the social bridge: Heâs on the bench entirely accepted and a moment later heâs at societyâs mercy.
Itâs about surfaces, signifiers, and clarity. I hope the film looks at problems of clarity. We often speak of clarity in celebratory terms, but what is lost in that? The whole mission statement of the arts is to interrupt that idea somehow.
A scene that struck me in The Mountain, and that testifies to the benefits of how you work, making the audience come to you to a certain extent, is when Andy grasps the face of one of Wallaceâs patients.
Yeah, I like that scene a lot.
Itâs a profound moment. Youâre thinking about the potential similarity of this woman to Andyâs mother, and what Andy thinks about that, and his desire for communion. It is poetryâa pure moment. Itâs not emotion-by-the-yard, like in a more conventional narrative, with waves of catharses. This is a moment where youâre in this room and you have to look at these people. It reminds me a little bit of Bresson. He slows your biorhythms down, and when certain moments come they hit you in the solar plexus.
Itâs funny with Bresson, you, and particularly a contemporary audience, have to be receptive to that state. And there are treasures in there, you know. I think about emotion and the capacity for cinema or whatâs left of it to viscerally engage with you emotionally. The emotions that we typically experience in cinema are nostalgic and reverential. Iâm not a fan of Tarantino because heâs very tightly recirculating something, and thereâs no air in it. I understand heâs a great craftsman, but thatâs not why I go to cinema. This idea of âoh this reminds me of this and now Iâm reminded in the vein of nostalgia for this emotionââitâs all triggering. And when the uncertain events of a natural experience, uncoupled with another experience, occurs to an audience, they just shut it out because it makes them uncomfortable. If your mission statement is to engineer that discomfort, it can be tricky.
I watched your first film, The Builder, last night for the first time. Itâs very good.
It was a petri dish. Me shooting and, at any given time, one other person holding a boom mic, that was the extent of the crew for a year. It was an investigation into the relevance of the medium to me.
The Builder is shaggier visually than your recent films, but your aesthetic seems to be pretty fully formed. You seem to have already known what kind of filmmaker you wanted to be. Is that fair or off-key?
Yeah, I donât believe we change very much as individuals in our lives. [laughs] We have a bandwidth, which is another reason why Iâve been forced to value limitations. Because the fact of the matter is that if we can better understand what that bandwidth is, we can explore it. One of my favorite writers is the novelist Thomas Bernhard, and every one of his books resemble one another. They have surrogates for the same position and value of characters in previous books, and so thereâs this tonal exploration of a very small space over the course of many novels. I think thereâs something beautiful about that.
It seems to me that most major artists have one idea that theyâre seeking to express purely. They seem to be chasing a purity of expression.
Well, expression is a vocalization, and the process of cinema is still complex. Itâs cumbersome itâs so complex, down to the distribution, and the promotion and development, and the number of people and orientations that are involved. Itâs not tidy, but in that process thereâs a potential wrestling with the medium itself, which I think is really vital. And if independent cinema has anything to offer, itâs in that contention with the shape and limitations of the medium, rather than it all being a well-oiled machine that you step into. I envy those directors who have that opportunity to create such enterprises. At the same time, itâs reflexive contention that has value.
Did the wide recognition of The Comedy place any pressure on you to try to broaden your audience, or did it enable you to further mine your own interests?
It did allow me to expand in terms of budget, and so the movies became less scrappy. Fortunately. Thereâre scenes in Entertainment that I couldnât have shot on those earlier budgets. With any sort of mild recognition in a practitionerâs life, there are doors that open and people say, âOh, step in, weâve been waiting for you.â
How do you like to talk to actors? Are you someone who talks a lot to them?
I think there are actors with very particular curiosities that want to work with me, because itâs imperative that the person wrestle a little bit with the process, and that we go into that together and that thereâs a discovery. Iâm very physical, oriented toward physical concerns of the production, blocking, compositionâthose sorts of things. And, in casting, there are conversations about the objectives, so that motivesânot the characterâs motivations but our motivations as creatorsâare somewhat in concert. Thereâs a lot I donât tell because itâs not necessary. During a filmâs release or even a year afterward, an actor might discover something in it and ask me if it was intentional. Theyâll discover something about how they were used.
Jeff Goldblum is extraordinary in The Mountain.
He should get a best supporting actor Oscar nomination for it. He honestly should.
He should. Iâve always liked him. Iâm a very big fan of The Fly.
Yeah, Iâm a Cronenberg fan. I love The Brood. I wish Jeff had played one of the diminutive personalities in that. [both laugh]
Goldblumâs energy in this film has a robustness that contrasts with the withdrawn mood of the other characters, and with the austerity of the film in general.
Heâs incredibly curious as an individual and an artist. And his charisma has a life of its own. Heâs great to work with and is a very kind person, and inevitably some of that comes across in the film.
This next question is motivated by that scene we discussed earlier, when Andy is looking at this woman and caressing her face: Are you minutely advising the physical gestures of the actors? Their movements feel very exact.
Yes. Me and my cinematographer, Lorenzo Hagerman, who I did Entertainment with, designed this movie to be formal to a fault. Itâs supposed to almost verge on the fastidious, with a kind of compulsive artificiality. Itâs supposed to feel stilted. So, yeah, itâs rigorously blocked, even on a short production schedule. We donât do a lot of rehearsals, but there are blocking rehearsals and those are, to me, also gestural. I also talk about physical components, and will give direction like âpart your lips.â Itâs nice to work with people who recognize our limitations of access to this two-dimensional space. First of all, thereâs no interior beyond the screen. It literally is a flat expanse, in which youâre generating the illusion of access, which is really just an event that is occurring in the audience. Someone like Bresson proves that itâs silly to believe that an emotional event canât be generated entirely on the surfaces, though itâs not where we typically look for it.
Do your actors ever resist this sort of direction?
Some, but not who I work with. Nobody has for a long time.
The Mountain reminded me a bit of The Master. Do you admire that movie?
I thought it had problems. I mean, I admire everybody involved in it. Paul Thomas Anderson is the last great steward of a dying part of the industry, heâs an astute craftsman with a conscience and a capacity for nuance that Tarantino doesnât have. I donât know. I can understand that they have some literal similarities: thereâs a photographer in that film, and thereâs this concept of a mentor. Iâm fascinated with these huckster characters, and so is Goldblum, and we bonded over that. Essentially our nation was forged by entrepreneurial fraudulence, even if youâre going back to the entirety of the new world. Whatâs being searched for is a fantastical unreality, and that desire is harnessed by industry whether itâs the Virginia Company or Joseph Smithâs enterprises. I find these characters incredibly fascinating, and I think Paul Thomas Anderson has a mutual fixation with that. Of course, the two films were being made during the same time period.
To return to a familiar theme of this conversation, neither you nor Anderson are cowed by the idea of offering resolution. Youâre both determined to forge your own paths, and you both follow your characters into the ether.
Heâs more generous than I am. [both laugh]
He might be more of a humanist, though I wouldnât call you ungenerous. Thereâs a lot of earnest searching in your films.
I feel deeply about people and their environments and frailties. Iâm sometimes painted as a cynic or a contrarian.
Iâve heard that too, and I think thatâs a misreading of your work.
I appreciate that. Thereâs this fella, I forget who, who said it was evident that I hate the medium, and that I hate humanity. Just because youâre trying to interrupt this greased conduit into self-absorption and validation, just because youâre trying to provide an obstacle. I believe that obstacle is constructive, and I want to become more alive and less pacified. Some critics get kind of personal about me and Iâm like âChrist Almighty you donât even know me.â What did Francis Bacon get for Godâs sake, you know? Talk about obstinate.
Yeah, in Entertainment, I think your refusal to judge or editorialize that central character is humanistic. I think a lot of directors wouldâve scored points off that character.
Well, yeah, and I got shit for The Comedy because there was no on-screen reckoning. The author didnât imprint his morality on the thing and therefore the author is immoral. Thatâs tiredly outmoded. Itâs like postmodernism never happened.
Contemporary moralism is often at war with empathy anyway. If you have this tidy moral point, you arenât dealing with the characters, youâre dealing with the authorâs preconceived intentions.
Yeah, thereâs a lot of maneuvering for comfort, which I think is part of the reason why the medium is changing and some factions of it are dying. The works of someone like Bresson or Godardâalthough Godardâs work is the most experimental itâs ever been, and God bless Kino for releasing his films in the United Statesâare now mostly relegated to the museum set. When people wrestle with the form or the medium now, I would say that itâs strange that itâs not more welcomed in the critical community, since critics romanticize iconoclasts like the French New Wave directors.
Revolution looks better in retrospect, because we know the ending.
And before we go, Iâd just like to say, for all the seriousness of your movies, thereâs certainly a dollop of absurdism.
Oh, yeah, totally. And had The Mountain been less of a difficult process to make, I wouldâve had a lot more fun. Iâve been watching the recent Bruno Dumont movies. With the Quinquin and Coincoin series, itâs fascinating to see how he weaponizes absurdist slapstick in order to have the audience become vulnerable, only to then have those characters moments later become grotesque bigots. Thatâs exactly what I was aiming for in The Comedy: to disarm some faction of the audience so they become complicit in the thing, and so that I become complicit too. A morality tale is uninteresting if itâs merely allowing you to shore up your moral voice.
Odessa IFF 2019: La Belle Epoque, Sorry We Missed You, & The Orphanage
The festival feels very much on the rise, both as an international industry shindig and a well-funded driver for cultural tourism.
The Odessa International Film Festival feels very much on the rise, both as an international industry shindig and a well-funded driver for cultural tourism. Free open-air screenings on the Potemkin Stairs ensured a broad public audience; festival branding adorned buildings all over the gently chaotic city center; a modest film market attracted buyers and sales agents from across Europe; and this yearâs guests of honor included Mike Leigh, Catherine Denueve, and Rose McGowan. And yet, in the absence of any significant world premieres, the midsummer event seems to serve largely as a chance for local cinephiles to catch up with highlights from more venerable recent European festivals.
I was particularly struck by three titles, relatively fresh from the Cannes Film Festival, each of which takes a distinctive approach to depicting a family unit under duress. The 10th edition of Odessa IFF opened with Nicolas Bedosâs La Belle Epoque, a crowd-pleasing comedy about a stale long-term relationship and the cultural impact of the digital revolution. Daniel Auteuil stars as Victor, an aging bourgeois Parisian who sees himself as a victim of technological advances: The slow death of print media has put an end to his lucrative job as a newspaper cartoonist, while his wife, Marianne (Fanny Ardant), has taken to donning a VR headset at bedtime to distract herself from the monotony of their passionless marriage.
Victor, however, is offered a shot at regaining his joie de vivre by his sonâs friend, Antoine (Guillaume Canet), a screenwriter whoâs amassed a fortune devising personalized interactive theater productions that allow wealthy clients to live out their historical fantasiesâthink Westworld staffed by temperamental actors rather than malevolent robots. For reasons that arenât immediately apparent to the audience, Antoine owes Victor a debt of gratitude, and so offers the older man his first âexperienceâ on the house. A sentimental soul at heart, Victor elects to relive the day he first met Marianne in a bohemian Lyon bar in 1974. Perhaps inevitably, he swiftly falls for Margot (Doria Tillier), the actress hired to play the young Marianne, who also happens to be Antoineâs on-and-off-again girlfriend.
La Belle Epoque sustains a compellingly off-kilter tone, bouncing viewers disorientingly between the real world and Antoineâs elaborate soundstages. One sequence, in which Victor and Margot escape the set of a weed-fueled â70s house party and find themselves in a painstaking reconstruction of Nazi Germany, feels decidedly Charlie Kaufman-esque. And yet the film never fully succumbs to whimsy, as Victorâs nostalgia trip ultimately proves deeply poignant, while the depiction of Antoine and Margotâs dysfunctional relationship introduces a darker view of romance. And while the gags and social commentary are often a little broad, Bedos admirably refuses to hold the viewerâs hand as the intricate plot unfolds, paving the way for several immensely satisfying moments as the puzzle pieces finally slot together.
Ken Loachâs bruising 2016 drama I, Daniel Blake, which won the Palme dâOr at Cannes, tapped into mounting Brexit anxiety and anti-Tory sentiment to become both the directorâs highest-grossing film in the U.K. to date and the subject of heated parliamentary debate over its damning portrayal of Britainâs broken welfare system. Sorry We Missed You sees the octogenarian filmmaker reteam with screenwriter Paul Laverty to deliver another timely, compassionate account of working-class life in North East England.
This time around, the focus is on a nuclear family suffering immensely as a consequence of the gig economy. Former builder Ricky (Kris Hitchen) has struggled to maintain a steady income since the financial crisis of 2007-2008, and thus jumps hastily at the chance to sign a zero-hour contract as a delivery driver. What seems like a valuable opportunity to quickly accumulate cash soon begins to resemble a Kafkaesque nightmare, with humorless traffic wardens, obstinate customers, opportunistic thieves and a thuggish depot manager (Ross Brewster) conspiring to make Rickyâs work life borderline unbearable.
Things arenât much better for his wife, Abbie (Debbie Honeywood), a benevolent contract nurse with neither the time nor the resources to adequately care for her elderly patients. Adding insult to injury, the coupleâs taciturn teenage son, Seb (Rhys Stone), seems intent on punishing Ricky for his failings. And to cap it all off, Sebâs sensitive younger sister, Liza Jane (Katie Proctor), has started wetting the bed in response to this domestic disharmony.
In some regards, Sorry We Missed You is an even angrier, more urgent film than I, Daniel Blake. Scenes depicting Rickyâs delivery runs are mini master classes in stomach-churning tension, which hammer home the appalling precariousness of his existence. However, Loach offsets the mounting misery with moments of warmth. A sequence in which the family resolve to make the most of a rare evening together is particularly moving, and serves to make the bitter feuds that inevitably follow all the more heart-wrenching.
By and large, Sorry We Missed You is a little rough around the edges, as some of Rickyâs interactions with customers feel stilted and contrived, while Rhys Stone struggles to convey a convincing sense of Sebâs inner life. And yet, as a tirade against modern Britainâs obscene social inequality, Loachâs latest is undeniably propulsive and persuasive.
Shahrbanoo Sadatâs warmly received 2016 debut Wolf and Sheep tells a mildly fantastical tale of childhood in 1980s rural Afghanistan, centered partly around a boy named Quodrat (Qodratollah Qadiri). The Orphanage continues Quodratâs story, catching up with him as a teenage orphan living on the streets of Kabul. After heâs caught by police selling cinema tickets on the black market, heâs sent to a Soviet-funded orphanage where bullying is widespread. The boy swiftly learns that heâll need to form strong allegiances in order to keep his head above water, and thus he sets about building his own family unit.
For a large stretch, this is an enjoyable, if generic, coming-of-age drama, heightened chiefly by the novelty of its setting; Afghanistanâs brief period as a secular Soviet ally is a fascinating, oft-overlooked footnote in the countryâs turbulent modern history. But the film really comes to life thanks to a smattering of charmingly shambolic Bollywood-style musical numbers, employed to offer insight into the withdrawn Quodratâs desires and fears. Those paying close attention to the timeline may be anxious to learn what role the mujahideen, the Islamist guerilla groups committed to ending the Democratic Republic, might have to play in the narrative. Sadatâs bold decision to answer this question with a bombastic musical-action set piece pays off handsomely, bringing The Orphanage to an achingly bittersweet conclusion.
The Odessa International Film Festival ran from July 12â20.
All of Quentin Tarantinoâs Movies Ranked
On the occasion of the release of Once Upon a TimeâŠin Hollywood, we ranked Tarantino’s feature films.
Quentin Tarantinoâs commitment to fortifying the themes of Once Upon a TimeâŠin Hollywood with layers of self-reflexivity, while still anchoring its concepts to fully realized, emotionally invested characters, makes the film one of his greatestâa dense but focused effort that validates the divisive artistâs status as one of American cinemaâs preeminent pop-cultural figures. The film navigates late-â60s Hollywood, an immersive playground of opulence and iconicity, alongside Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a fading star of TV westerns trying to break into the movies, and his best friend and longtime stuntman, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), before then jumping six months ahead to take the temperature of Hollywood on the eve of the Charles Manson murders. As the landscape and the sociocultural identity of Hollywood continue to change, Once Upon a TimeâŠin Hollywood takes on an elegiac quality, with Dalton and Booth returning to L.A. from a sojourn to Europe and a pregnant Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) preparing her home for the arrival of her baby boy.
The flash and fun of the filmâs first half gives way to a haunting decline into the valley of alcoholism, and to increasing signs that a new generation is about to push the old one out. And, then, inevitably, those tensions come to a head one August night on Cielo Drive in the Hollywood Hills. We wonât spoil the ending here, but we will tell you below where Once Upon a TimeâŠin Hollywood falls on our ranked list of Tarantinoâs features. Sam C. Mac
10. Death Proof (2007)
With his hair combed in a flashy pompadour and a white scar running down his cheek, Kurt Russell plays evil Stuntman Mike as a swaggering, folksy raconteur. Even in the universe of Tarantino, which suggests a self-contained and increasingly self-referential cinephileâs mixtape of the countless films heâs absorbed throughout his life, Russell feels like a living, breathing human being. By comparison, Mikeâs victims simply suggest regurgitating pop-culture sponges. Indeed, by the time Mike comes after them in his skull-painted hellmobile, we connect more to the graphic image of the stunningly crafted gore than we do to the loss of life. When the female characters turn into avenging angels, their motivations seem to turn on a dime. Their attitude toward life and death, whether it be their own (âIâm okay!â one of them happily beams right after sheâs almost been decimated by Mikeâs muscle car) or Mikeâs, is so casually flippant that weâre denied that sense of righteous rage. Maybe itâs a joke on those old drive-in movies, which never gave much thought to life or death either, but somehow the reverent self-referential quality of Death Proof is more offensive than those old grindhouse filmmakers who were in it simply to make a buck. Jeremiah Kipp
9. Django Unchained (2012)
With Django Unchained, Tarantino doesnât transcend the tropes of the revenge film, or the odd-couple buddy comedy for that matter. For all the filmâs ostentatiously shocking imagery and dialogue (Tarantino employs the n-word in a fashion that resembles the gimmicky scare tactics associated with director William Castle), one canât escape the suspicion that this filmâs a bloated vanity project with delusions of grandeur. Django Unchained features a blunter treatment of slavery than we routinely encounter in mainstream American cinema, but the garish fantasy violence only superficially distracts from Tarantinoâs allegiance to the same damn clichĂ©s that govern politer âissueâ films. Django Unchained is ultimately a white fantasy of purging shared cultural guilt, one that follows a benevolent white man (Christoph Waltz is the lead regardless of what his Oscar may say) as he befriends and liberates an appreciative black man who goes on to symbolically wipe the slate clean on subjugation. Chuck Bowen
8. Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003)
Even when he isnât at the top of his artistic game, Tarantino, like Jean-Luc Godard, is talented enough that he doesnât put this kind of spot-the-references playfulness front and center in his films: Tarantino always provides us with some kind of plot or emotional context in which such referencesâand in a QT film, theyâre legionâmean something to viewers other than the fact that theyâre referencing something. In other words, you donât have to know a great deal about the martial arts genre to enjoy the sheer kinetic energy of Kill Bill, Vol. 1 any more than you have to know about the various crime thrillers Godard references in order to enjoy Breathless or Band of Outsiders. It might enhance oneâs appreciation of those films more, but thereâs more to them than just showing off how encyclopedic their movie knowledge is. Although Tarantinoâs films sometimes make recognitions toward real-world hurt and pain, they almost invariably take place in a movie-induced fantasy world, one that takes no part in political discourse and prefers instead to wallow in the detritus of popular culture and movie historyâentertainment, in other words. Kenji Fujishima
7. The Hateful Eight (2015)
Rather than following a clean genealogical path back to Hollywood westerns of the Golden Age, The Hateful Eight often resembles Italian giallo horror, less for that subgenreâs tendency to luxuriate in synth scores and extravagant lighting setups than for its less-celebrated preoccupation with cruelty and pain. As in those extravagant and supernaturally tinged slashers, characters in The Hateful Eight who choose to have any agency apart from maintaining a cover story find a nebulous reward for forcing fateâs hand. When the gun smoke clears, we somehow end up with more dead bodies than we had living ones at the start, and the film proves to have quite a lot in common with John Carpenterâs The Thing, apart from having the same lead actor (Kurt Russell) and largely identical blizzard conditions: Death emerges from the floorboards, and, following a crisis, an impromptu âcourtâ is established to distinguish between friend and foe. Even the final moments echo the creature classic: Having dispensed justice at long last, two doomed men share a laugh over a great lie, and the camera retreats upward and away from their near-lifeless detente. The haberdashery, by design a sanctuary, has been transformed into a self-cleaning oven, now strewn with an assortment of particulate matter, and we arrive at an unexpected Reservoir Dogs callback: a vetting of moral arithmetic that leaves no survivors. Jaime N. Christley
6. Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004)
From a structural standpoint, Kill Billâs two volumes connect us to serial cinema past, specifically the two-part films of Fritz Lang. Itâs a mess at times, but a seemingly intentional and glorious one. Certainly, Tarantinoâs greatest skills are literary and his numerous digressions recall the stylistic flourishes of Thomas Pynchon. When Tarantino abandons the Bride (Uma Thurman) in her premature burial deathtrap to focus on an extended flashback of her martial arts training, itâs reminiscent of Pynchonâs nine-page aside in Gravityâs Rainbow, which details the biography of a light bulb named Byron. If that comparison makes Kill Bill sound like so much compulsive masturbation, rest assured that Tarantino has a point. Consider the movieâs two volumes as yin and yang: The first installment, focusing primarily on the Bride, corresponds to the Chinese principle of darkness, negativity, and femininity, while the second, with a tone heavily influenced by the charming and seductive Bill (David Carradine), corresponds to the opposing principle of light, heat, motivation, and masculinity. Tarantino revels in the filmic power of verbal and (meta)physical pas de deux, and itâs in the final section of the second part, detailing the Bride and Billâs surprising confrontation, that the entire enterprise reveals its profoundly mortal (and moral) soul. Keith Uhlich
Odessa IFF 2019: The Cossacks, Queen of Hearts, Monos, & Projectionist
The festival feels like a long-awaited apparition in a place where events of its magnitude might be scarce.
At first glance, Odessa recalls the Algeria of the 1980s as described by playwright Jean-Luc Lagarce, a place where local âcurrency has no value and there is nothing to buy anyway.â Odessa seems coy about offering a fantasy version of itself to those who arenât already confined to it and to whom displaying the cityâin the shape of superfluous possessions or souvenirsâwould amount to a perverse redundancy. Itâs a city coherent to the brutal honesty of its human faces, a city virtually without store windows to hawk unessential goods to passersbyâunless one traverses its center, where a McDonaldâs and a Reebok shop appear as reminders of a glossier elsewhere. Perhaps the way Cameroon, as one Cameroonian once told me, is a country without sidewalks, âunless you go to Douala.â This is, of course, a respite from the capitalist assaults of places where to experience the city is to stack up on its mementos. Itâs this context that made the Odessa International Film Festival (OIFF) feel like a long-awaited apparition in a place where events of its magnitude might be scarce.
By the Lermontovskiy Hotel, where the international journalists covering the OIFF stay, only food seems to be for sale. Thereâs a 24/7 supermarket that closes when the security guard sees fit, a âJapanese and Thai Asian CafĂ©,â and a regal restaurant named Aleksandrovskiy, which sits inside a garden full of Versailles-esque fountains and statues, and where a select few can feast on a scrumptious leg of lamb on a bed of polenta for 12 euros. Perhaps the same select few who show up for OIFFâs outdoor screening of the 1928 film The Cossacks at the Potemkin Stairs but donât use the steps as bleachers, like the rest of us, instead taking their seats in the large cordoned-off VIP section close to the live orchestra for a few selfies and then dashing off.
A brief video pleading for the release of Crimean filmmaker Oleg Sentsov from a Russian prison preceded the film, eliciting passionate applause. Those actually using the steps as seats seemed to truly savor the event, which took the shape of what film screenings were probably more like in the early 20th century: raucous fair-like happenings with lots of talking and where the film was only one of many multi-sensorial elements. In many ways, The Cossacks is about how the production of a nation is entwined with the production of gender norms. Lukashka (John Gilbert) is seen as a softie. Heâs derided as being a fraction of a man, or a half-Cossack, because he would rather spend his time reading than fighting, to the horror of his entourage. He ends up going to war in order to legitimize his status as a man for his family and his beloved Maryana (RenĂ©e AdorĂ©e). In the world of the film, becoming a man involves killing at least one Turk or two, and becoming a woman means marrying a man who has killed Turks.
The Cossacks was a fascinating selection to screen at the Potemkin Stairs because it wrapped a critique of normativity in some of the most sexist of cinematic languages, female ass shots as gags and all, making it hard to know what kind of selective reading of the film the audience might be making. The men on the screen are always either accosting, harassing, molesting, or trying to rape Maryana, which might be what triggered Rose McGowan, one of the festivalâs celebrity guests, to leave just a few minutes into the screening.
As much as watching a film such as George Hill and Clarence Brownâs silent drama at the place where one of cinemaâs most iconic sequences was shot feels like the crossing off of a bucket-list item we didnât realize was on that list until we experienced it, the off-screen drama was just as enticing. There was, for instance, the blatant spectacle of Ukrainian income inequality with âthe peopleâ huddled up on the uncomfortable steps for two hours eager to engage with a silent film while Ukrainian socialites decked out in animal prints treated the event more like a vernissage. There was also the impossible quest for a public bathroom mid-screening. This involved walking into a half-closed market across from the Potemkin Stairs and interrupting a loud quarrel between a mother and her adult son, who worked at one of the market stalls.
Itâs difficult to guess where queerness goes in Odessa. Maybe it only lives as disavowal, as in The Cossacks, which ends with Lukashka, after anointing his masculinity by slaughtering 10 Turks, stating to Maryana heterosexualityâs mathematical logic in its simplest form: âI am your man. You are my woman. I want you.â And the anointing is never final, the film seems to say. Indeed, as his father lies dying in his arms, Lukashka asks him: âFather, am I Cossack?â The question of where queerness might live, in this context, would be finally answered a few days later when I visit the only gay club in Odessa, Libertin, and meet a trans woman name Jalala, who confides that thereâs a âplaceâ in Odessa where straight men can go to to have sex with women like her. âIs it an app?â I ask. Jalala smiles and says that itâs a park. âBut itâs dangerous,â she tells me. âItâs very exciting and very dangerous.â Because there are skinheads, she says. âDo the skinheads want to kill you or fuck you, or fuck you and then kill you?â I ask her. âI donât know,â she responded. âThatâs why itâs dangerous.â
The festival main grounds, in front of the majestic Odessa Academic Theatre of Musical Comedy, arenât unlike Londonâs Southbank Centre in the early days of summer, where visitors and locals are both sold the idea that the city is this fun all year long. The atmosphere is cosmopolitan, with Nina Simone remixes or early Erykah Badu playing in the background, food trucks, a Mastercard stall, and outdoor sitting poufs. Thereâs also no stress in the air, no suffocating crowds, and as such no anxiety about being turned away from a screening.
When looking at the festivalâs program, one may scoff at the apparent lack of diversity and, more specifically, queerness. After a few screenings, though, one may get the sense that queerness does live at the Odessa International Film Festival and, per Jalalaâs account, in Odessa more generallyâit just isnât publicized. In Queen of Hearts, for instance, director May el-Toukhy takes the age-old narrative of the stranger who turns up to disrupt domestic bliss, or ennui, and gives it a daring incestuous twist. Anne (Trine Dyrholm) and Peter (Magnus Krepper) live an idyllic life in a mansion somewhere in Denmark with two young, and creepily angelic, twin daughters (Liv and Silja EsmĂ„r Dannemann). Thereâs something eerie about this setup even before Peterâs problematic teenage son, Gustav (Gustav Lindh), from another marriage is shipped from Sweden to live with his dad and unsettle everything.
Whatâs uncanny about Anne and Peterâs home is, of course, the way it gleams a kind of speckless completion of the heterosexual project, which could only ever be possible as a mirage. Theirs is the home of dreams bound to become nightmares by the introduction of even the most vaguely foreign element. Such as reality, that most irksome of registers, or a long-lost son. The house of Queen of Hearts, whose drama is so latent youâd only have to snap your fingers for chaos to erupt, evokes the house of Bong Joon-hoâs Parasite, the kind of immaculate luxury that could only be sitting on top of some macabre bunker full of roaches and well-fed zombies. The drama that links these homes is the notion that the epitome of the heterosexual family bliss borders its very obliteration, with the unruly resurfacing of all the gunk that had been swept underneath, as the very foundation for its habitat.
When Gustav arrives, then, and ends up having an affair with his stepmom, a trench coat-wearing lawyer for young victims of sexual abuse, weâre only surprised at how careless they seem to be about being found out. El-Toukhy is smart to avoid sensationalizing the taboo-breaking premise of the narrative with a camera that sides with Anne: her sexual hunger, her contradictions, her stretch marks. This isnât a film about roundabout incest, but one about the impossibility of satisfaction even for the most privileged woman, one with a high-powered and socially engaged job, money to spare, and a mansion by the lake in a Scandinavian country.
Queen of Hearts focuses on Anneâs paradoxes: Sheâs a savior and a monster, a middle-aged mother and a horny teenager, unabashedly exposing the inconvenient pores that remain underneath even the most beautifully made-up Nordic skin. And the film is about skin, ultimately. In the way Anne and Gustav have raw sex and the marks on Anneâs stomach are filmed with purpose, sincerity, and no apology. The affair begins when Anne walks into Gustavâs bedroom and gives him a handjob without bothering to lock the door. This comes soon after he brought a girl his own age home and Anne had to sit in her living room, staring at her laptop and drinking a glass of wine, while listening to the teenagers having sex. By the time Anne goes to the lake with Gustav and one of her twin girls, and Anne decides to get in the water, we know the deal is done. âBut you never swim,â says the girl. Water in Queen of Hearts bears the same prophetic sexual force thatâs appeared in many films, queer or not, from F.W. Murnauâs Sunrise to Alain Guiraudieâs Stranger by the Lake.
The affair isnât about love, of course, or passion. Itâs not even about the sex itself. The affair is a settling of accounts, a vampiric attempt to deny the passing of time, which, by virtue of having passed, feels like itâs been wasted. For Anne, the culprit is Peter, who becomes a cock-blocking nuisance. The film, a melodrama with a superb final shot that offers no closure, at times tries too hard to provide a cause for Anneâs passage Ă lâacte. When Gustav asks Anne who she lost her virginity to, she answers, âWith someone it shouldnât have been,â which makes it seem like the film is suggesting that predatorial behavior is a sort of damned inheritance. The Queen of Hearts is much more successful, and courageous, when it follows the logic of sexual yearning itself, not worrying about rational justifications.
The first few sequences of Alejandro Landesâs Monos evoke Claire Denisâs Beau Travail, except it isnât only men training in the deserted landscape. A few young women join them, which, inevitably takes the narrative elsewhere, even if the filmsâ basic premises are similar. In Monos, teenage guerilla fighters are supposed to guard a foreign hostage, Doctora Sara Watson (Julianne Nicholson), and a conscripted cow named Shakira. Intrigue and sexual tension ensure that nothing goes according to plan. The only thing that never finds any respite is the flow of violence, which increasingly loses its metaphorical sheen, becoming gratuitous toward the end. What starts out like a social critique gains the aura of an unnecessarily grisly horror film, more about overtly visible chains than the allegorical slaughtering of cows by paramilitary children named Rambo, Lady, Bigfoot, and Smurf.
It turns out that queerness lives even in the faraway mountaintops of the Colombian jungle, as one of the guerilla girls makes two boys kiss at the start of the film, which brought a discrete discomfort to the screening room I was seated in. By the time Nicholsonâs character shares a brief lesbian kiss with a reluctant fighter whoâs supposed to watch over her, later in the film, queerness is no longer a conceptual surprise hinting at meaningful registers beyond the narrativeâs surface, but a kind of desperate attempt to make the plot seem cryptic. Like The Cossacks, Landesâs film is also about the impossibility of maintaining complete control over oneâs claim of masculinity, or power more generally. In moments of crisis, the line between predator and prey get very thin, and even the most well-armed warriors have a way of becoming disarmed, naked, and sentimental.
Yuriy Shylovâs Projectionist follows the frailty of all flesh, hawkish accessory in hand or not, through the portrayal of the end of a film projectionistâs 44-year tenure at one of Kievâs oldest movie theaters. Itâs an end that coincides with the crumbling of projectionist Valentinâs own coughing body, and that of his bedridden mother. It turns out that the movie theater, too, is reaching its expiration point. Soon, its doors will close and its employees will be fired, and thereâs a sense throughout Shylovâs documentary that analog cinema will be dealt a major blow with the theaterâs closure. What will become of the space? Perhaps a Reebok or a McDonaldâs. Perhaps a derelict muse for a Nikolaus Geyrhalter portrait of decay.
âYou think youâre loud, but in reality you can only hear yourself,â Valentin tells his mother at one point. Her futile yelling of her sonâs name from her bed is one of the most haunting motifs in the film. An uttering for utteringâs sake, a demand without expectations of an actual response, a mantra to remind oneself that one is, for now, still alive. Valentin has installed a whistle next to the bed, which he would actually be able to hear when she called if only sheâd use it. But the mother mostly refuses to blow in the pragmatic apparatus, instead finding solace in the calling that wonât be heard and, thus, will need to be repeated ad nauseam.
Projectionist can feel a bit aimless, but itâs a welcome reminder of how the materiality of film, and thus its finitude, has something in common with our ownâa kinship of frailty that the flawlessness of the digital image erases. Analog is the only technology that Valentin knows, whether heâs sewing, as heâs seen doing in the film, fixing a neighborâs straightening iron, or projecting old home videos on filthy kitchen tiles. Thereâs pleasure to be found, for Valentin, not just in the stories, concepts, and metaphors of cinema, but in the very stuff that supports his craft, the paraphernalia of cinema thatâs bound to crack, to dry out, to turn to dust, to disappear forever: film stock, Movieolas, spools, and so forth. Cinema, weâre reminded, is necessarily a tool of exposure, not just of the human condition in the face of death, but the human condition as an always gendered affair. Itâs a tool thatâs never settled, never comfortable, and never forgotten. âMen are cowards, didnât you know that?â is how Valentin puts it toward the end of Projectionist. In his world, one would know, by looking at the projector, at the very stuff of cinema, how much longer a film would last. The remainder of the filmâs âlifeâ is perfectly real, perfectly tangible, and alive because itâs in constant danger of being jammed up and torn by the very engine that ensured its running.
The Odessa International Film Festival runs from July 12â20.
Interview: Kate Burton on Coriolanus in Central Park and Her Path to Success
The actress discusses her connection to New York, working with director Daniel Sullivan, and more.
Kate Burton is no diva. Despite her illustrious theatrical lineage, the actress is warm and down to earth. Daughter of international movie star Richard Burton, she certainly had a fabled childhood, surrounded constantly by showbiz luminaries. Growing up, if she wasnât spending summers with her famously tempestuous Welsh actor father and glamorous stepmother, Elizabeth Taylor, she was mixing with celebrities at Arthur, the popular 1960s New York disco hangout owned by her mother, Sybil Christopher.
However, avoiding the pitfalls of inherited celebrity, Burton, a three-time Tony and Emmy nominee, has carefully forged her own path, balancing her lauded acting career with a stable family life for more than three decades. Sheâs currently playing the role of Volumnia in Coriolanus in the Public Theaterâs Shakespeare in the Park production at Central Parkâs Delacorte Theater. I recently chatted with Burton about the production, her connection to New York, working with director Daniel Sullivan, and her path to success.
What is Coriolanus about to you?
Itâs the story of an extraordinary warrior, a soldier whoâs thrust into a highly political and governance-related situationâareas where he isnât comfortable being. He loves war, combat, and the military world. He doesnât love what a leader has to do in order to get the people to love him. And, of course, the juxtaposition of this with the fascinating time that we are living inâit does give you pause. Thatâs what makes Shakespeare so unbelievably enduring and so relevant, no matter which play you do and when you do it.
And whatâs Volumniaâs function within the play?
Sheâs definitely the most powerful influence on her son. Sheâs the woman behind the throne. She saves Rome. Coriolanus is such a complicated character. He doesnât respond like a normal son would in a lot of ways. It takes quite a lot of coaxing and pleading to get him to do what she wants him to do. Itâs true that Jonathan Cake, who plays Coriolanus, and I are only 10 years apart in age, so I said to him that my interpretation is that heâs about five years younger, and Iâm a little older. Volumnia was a single motherâno father is mentioned in the playâand she had him when she was young. So, sheâs a lioness, a tigress, about her child. Iâve heard that Denzel Washington has a great quote about mothers and sons, something about the son being the last great love of a motherâs life, and the mother being the first great love of his.
So, whatâs at the core of the relationship between this mother and son in the play?
Thereâs a fascinating dynamic between them. Shakespeare didnât have tons of mothers and sons in his plays. Gertrude and Hamlet come to mindâanother fascinating, very complicated relationship. With fathers and daughters itâs different because, of course, Shakespeare was so devoted to one of his own daughters. In the plays written in the Jacobean periodâlike Coriolanusâthereâs a different dynamic than in [the plays written] in the Elizabethan period. I happen to have done a lot of Shakespeare plays from this same Jacobean period: Cymbeline, The Tempest, and The Winterâs Tale. You know, the monarch on the throne in that period was James and his mother was Mary Queen of Scotsâkind of a fascinating mother! Doing this role is great for me because in my real life as a mother Iâve raised two wonderful children and I totally get it. Although Iâm very cherishing, nurturing, I always play these kind of growling women. These are the characters Iâm comfortable playing because it takes something completely different from me. For instance, my character in Greyâs Anatomy is a very hard woman, tough on her child, exacting, incredibly ambitions. Also, quite honestly, this is a perfect role for an older actress. Itâs taxing but it doesnât wipe you out. It is just six scenes.
I understand you also have some family history with Coriolanus.
My father had been a very famous Coriolanus, before I was born. And now that I know the play, I can totally see it: complicated, driving everybody nuts, yeah! Weâre so lucky to have Jonathan playing the role. Not only is he such a talented actor, he has also played the part before. And, you know, with these big Shakespeare roles, itâs great if you can get a couple under your belt, because it takes time to digest it and get it into your bones. Kevin Kline played Hamlet twice, my father played Hamlet twice. And Iâm looking to do the The Tempest again.
Speaking of which, what was it like to play Prospero, the lead male character in The Tempest? How did that come about?
It happened very organically four years ago when I did Cymbeline. Daniel Sullivan said he wanted me to play the Queen, and then he said he also wanted me to play the role of Belarius. I thought it was some spear carrierâtwo scenes, funny hat. But it was a huge role, and he wanted me to play it as a man. That was my first time playing a male role. Then I was all set to do something else last summer when I got an email with the subject line âProspero.â It was from my great friend [director] Joe Dowling. I just replied, âYes!â We talked about whether I should play it as a man, but this is one of those Shakespearean roles than can translate to a female playing the part as female. And, of course, Helen Mirren and Vanessa Redgrave have done it. When I worked on it [at the Old Globe in San Diego] I realized that this role can really work naturally as a womanâthe relationships with Miranda and Ariel and Caliban. So, now playing Prospero is something I would like to have another go at. Iâm actually talking to a few people about it right now. Volumnia, to be honest, is a very masculine womanâjust in the way she approaches things. Sheâs not some sweet little mom. The first thing that Shakespeare has her say in Corolianus is how pleased she is to send her son into war. I wanted him to seek danger because it created more spine, gave him more honor. So, Iâm glad Iâve played a couple of male Shakespearean roles because it really helps me with Volumnia.
Is it true that acting wasnât your first choice of profession?
I went to the United Nations International School here in New York City, and I was planning to be a diplomat. It wasnât until my senior year at Brown University that I took an acting class. I had a professor who just loved the arts and he saw me in the plays that I did as extracurricular activity and he said that I have this gift and that I was squashing it down. My father at that time was so incredibly well known, but it wasnât just that. Itâs that I didnât know that I wanted to pursue this mad life. It can be fantastic, but it can also be really challenging, because, you know, youâre an itinerant worker. Iâd seen everythingâmy father, my step-mother, my step-father were all in show business. My mother had been an actress when she married my father, when she was extremely young. But she just didnât love performing, although she loved rehearsing and she loved being backstage. Then she became an artistic director [founder of Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor]. So, I came into acting with my eyes wide open. Iâm also married to Michael Ritchie, whoâs the artistic director of the Ahmanson Theatre and the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, but heâs not an actor. We have a son whoâs an actor, who also loves writing, but our daughter is interested in other things.
And your mother supported your choice to become an actress?
Oh, yes, she saw me in everything. She almost never said anything negative. I think if you have a child whoâs an actor, you just have to be unconditionally supportive. Itâs going to be their journey no matter what. The only disagreement that my dad and I had about any of it was that he wanted me to train. He never trained, by the way. I just want to point that out! He wanted me to train in England because I was offered an opportunity to go to Central School of Speech and Drama in London. I chose instead to go to the Yale School of Drama because I was American. I said to him, âIâm your daughter so let me find my own path.â Iâve met a few children of luminary types who are now graduating from school and I just say to them itâs all about you finding your own voice, you donât want to be just considered the daughter of blah blah blah. So, as long as you find your own voice, thatâs the most important thing.
How do you feel about the time it took for you to establish a name for yourself?
You know, I kind of had the right trajectory. I first worked in the theater. I did tons of plays in New York and a few out of town. I started in TV when I was a bit into my 20s and moved into more TV and film in my 30s. Then everything sort of happened with Hedda Gabler and The Elephant Man, and that was in my early 40s. And then in my mid-40s, on TV, I got Greyâs Anatomy and then, five years later, Scandal. So, Hedda Gabler put me on the map in one way and Greyâs Anatomy in a completely different way. It all worked out nicely and then I moved to Los Angeles. I love L.A. and I get to do theater there as well. Iâve done two projects for my husband at the Taper and also The Tempest at the Old Globe.
So, here you are back in New York, doing theater in Central Park. What are you looking forward to this time?
I love coming back to New York, itâs my hometown. And this worked out perfectly. I like to do a play once a year and to be in New York ideally every couple of years. So, two years ago I did Present Laughter on Broadway and The Dead 1904 off-Broadway. This is my second time in the Park. I did Cymbeline there in 2015. That production was fantastic and challenging because it was multiple characters, as I was involved in all the fight scenes. And let us remember that we are outside and itâs hot and steamy. Now Iâm playing a single character and Iâm not in any of the fight scenes so Iâm very happy! What Iâm excited about is that the audience is going to discover this play that hasnât been done in the Park since 1979. Itâs so virulent and so vital. Thereâs a primal aspect to it. And, then, I mean, free Shakespeare in the Park. New York on a summer night! It doesnât get any better than that.
Coriolanus runs through August 11.
Japan Cuts 2019: Demolition Girl, And Your Bird Can Sing, & Being Natural
Japan Cuts has established itself as the definitive Japanese film festival in the United States, thanks to the scope of its programming.
Japan Cuts has established itself as the definitive Japanese film festival in the United States, thanks to the scope of its programming. The 2019 edition is no exception, with over 30 events over 10 days, among them talks, screenings, and Q&A sessions with filmmakers as diverse as Macoto Tezka (The Legend of the Stardust Brothers) and Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo: The Iron Man), the latter of whom is this yearâs recipient of the festivalâs Cut Above award, which is given to a defining figure of Japanâs cinema, and will be awarded before the East Coast premiere of his latest film, the samurai action-drama Killing.
Lest you think Japan Cuts is only a showcase for genre exercises, the festival abounds in works that explore the struggles that erupt from the Japanese capitalist system, and are felt in different ways across generations. Demolition Girl, Genta Matsugamiâs feature debut, is among the strongest of recent films to bluntly speak about class difference. It follows 17-year-old Cocoa (Aya Kitai), who, in the wake of her motherâs death, has decided to forgo a university education and get a job. But as her shifts at a local amusement park only pay so much, she starts to perform in adult fetish videos that see her stomping on cans, trash, and balloons.
At his best, the film taps into the heightened experience of the poorest of the people living on the edge. For one, whenever Cocoaâs father (Yota Kawase) has some money on hand, he yearns for instant satisfaction, spending it on expensive sushi. As for Cocoa, whoâs isolation is emphasized through shots that see her alone in corridors, or studying late at night in her room, itâs almost as if sheâs destined to fail. And, indeed, when her school finds out about the adult videos sheâs been making, and just as she was beginning to realize her promise of going to a Tokyo university, her life falls apart. When confronted by friends about why she made the videos, all she can do is yell at them: âYou wouldnât understand, youâre rich, you wouldnât know. Will you pay for my expenses?â In this moment, Kitaiâs triumph is making her characterâs wail against a cruel economic system feel as if it could be our own.
And Your Bird Can Sing, directed by Sho Miyake, is focused on two late-twentysomething slackers: the unnamed protagonist (Tasuku Emoto) and his roommate, Shizo (Himizu and Parasyte star ShĆta Sometani). Both work crappy jobs, and they try to stay sane through copious amounts of drinking and pointed mockery of the economically fraught lot theyâve been handed in life. The protagonistâs attitude could be summed up by one early sequence, when he meets a co-worker and convinces her to go on a date, only to later miss the date, fall asleep, wake up, and decide to spend his night drinking with Shizo.
A love triangle between the roomies and one of the protagonistâs co-workers, Sachiko (Shizuka Ishibashi), brings some solace to the menâs lives. Thereâs redundancy to the way that Miyake frames these characters, showing their faces up close rather than the screens they peer at as they text each other, but his wide shots speak to how they all work to fill empty spaces. Miyakeâs style is relaxed, almost as if his camera has absorbed everyoneâs slacker vibes. Especially of note is a sequence that lingers at length on Sachiko paying for groceries while the two men in her life try to hold their laughter, saying to each other that sheâs going to regret her purchase. Miyakeâs gaze is empathetic, and thereâs truth in his understanding that you have to sometimes laugh at your underprivilege in order to prevent yourself from screaming.
More tonally varied, and operating on a larger scale, director Tadashi Nagayamaâs satirical Being Natural broaches the subject of gentrification as it immerses viewers in the daily routines of a middle-aged man, Taka (Yota Kawase), who lives in a small town in the countryside of Japan and works with his cousin, Mitsuaki (Shoichiro Tanigawa), and their friend, Sho (Tadahiro Tsuru), at a fishpond inherited from his deceased uncle. Everything starts to derail for the three men when a family arrives on the scene from Tokyo with the hopes of opening up an old-style cafĂ© that will only sell natural and locally grown products. At the start of the film, the still-grieving Taka doesnât fully understand what he has until someone tries to take it away from him, and by the end, a spectacular show of violence will see him finally realizing the nature of the economic system heâs trapped within.
The filmâs style is initially sweet and mellow, with the softest of songs dotting the soundtrack. Taka plays bongos, and the sounds of the instrument are also heard throughout. At first, this sound creates a calm atmosphere thatâs in sync with the bright cinematography. But as the film introduces a series of sinister twists, those bongos come to take on an almost murderous bent. The sounds of the instrument point to the encroachment of a capitalist economy on a place relatively untouched by it. In its final minutes, Being Natural takes a turn toward the supernatural, and itâs satisfying for giving the main characters the reprisal they want, but also poignant for the way it has us understand that it only occurs in the realm of fantasy. The film, in the end, acknowledges that itâs difficult to go against the system, and that to stay sane means finding a little pocket of happiness in the world and enjoying it while it lasts.
Japan Cuts runs from July 19â28.
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.
Marc Maron is presently enjoying one of the most unlikely and inspiring success stories in Hollywood. Once known as a bitter âcomicâs comicâ 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, âWTF,â and continuing with roles in the hit television series Maron, Easy, and GLOW. With each role, Maron has rapidly evolved from a âcomic who actsâ 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 filmâs 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 âmind-fuckeryâ currently gripping modern media discourse.
Given that youâve previously worked with Lynn Shelton on Maron and GLOW, did you two have a kind of collaborative shorthand going into Sword of Trust?
Well, Iâm generally filled with anxiety and resistance. I donât know if thereâs a shorthand, but Lynn knows how to get the best out of me and works with me pretty well. I like directors whoâre 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 Iâm 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 thereâs subtleties that can be coaxed out with minor tweaks. And I like working like that. I wouldnât have the confidence to assume that my take is the ârightâ one necessarily.
Thereâs a stillness to you in Sword of Trust that Iâm not sure weâve seen before.
Your weight as a performer is really felt here, especially in that scene when Mel first see Lynnâs 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 whoâs sort of surrendered to his lot in life. He also has a certain amount invested in his own. I donât know if itâs heartache, but heâs definitely a broken dude whoâs making the best of whatever time he has left. I donât know if the other characters are really like that. They are always in forward motion.
You also inform Melâs appraising of objects with all these lovely emotional textures. Heâs not only talking about a sword.
The guitar too. As I act more, I try to take some of the space that youâre talking about. With acting I feel that Iâve been learning on the job in a way, and over time Iâve started to explore different possibilities with owning whatever my space is, whether itâs a movie or on stage. Certainly, over decades of doing stand-up, Iâve figured out my space on a stage, but being on a set and pacing yourself and taking the time to engage with whatâs around you I think makes a lot of difference in how a performance comes off. Itâs 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 Iâve started acting more, Iâve 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 Iâve talked to so many of them, Iâve started to realize, not in a disappointing way, thatâŠwhatâs the word I want? That these are people doing a job, all in their own way. Once you get on set with people, you realize, âWell, thatâs how theyâre approaching this job,â and when you get into the ring or the scene, youâre in it.
That inside knowledge gives âWTFâ 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 donât think I ever set out to interview. Iâve framed what happens on my podcast as conversations, and they either go somewhere or they donât. Thereâs a few points I may get hung up on, and there are places I go to fairly regularly in interviews, but I generally donât see these conversations as question-and-answer situations. I donât 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 donât have to answer to anybody and I donât know what Iâm looking for half the time.
Yeah, and a challenge Iâve found with interviews is that one doesnât always entirely know what is and isnât 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 Iâm not necessarily intuitive about that. Iâm not really in the business of sandbagging anybody.
Usually you get somebody comfortable and things come out. If people are comfortable and engaged it doesnât really matter what theyâre talking about. Audiences will say, âOh, wow, I didnât know that.â These conversations donât require information, but an emotional connection. Iâm 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 isnât civil and thereâs a momentum to everything thatâs based on mind-fuckery. I know for myselfâas somebody who was relatively disinterested and uninformed about the functions of government and why politics and leadership make a differenceâthat 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. Itâs not good. We need to consider what we really know and how we know it and what weâre telling other people.
People are so empowered by garbage information thatâs being related in a relatively shallow way, which doesnât take into consideration the influence and context of the rest of our lives. Itâs sort of a disaster. I try to stay away from that stuff in terms of the conversations that Iâm having. Iâm 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. Itâs called This Changes Everything. I tell you man, when someoneâs that personally invested in something they believe in, and itâs righteous, and they lay it out for you and it makes sense, thatâs what heartens my belief in this possibility for change.
To change gears a bit, is it cathartic for you, as someone whoâs long been in recovery, to play characters whoâre either reformed or have drug issues?
Yeah, sure. Most obviously thereâs the last season of Maron, where my character has a relapse, which frankly didnât happen in real life. When you really understand the nature of addiction, and youâve seen it from the inside, and know the powerlessness and the struggle to live a life thatâs not in the throes of itâI mean, itâs such a common struggle. And whatâs amazing to me is how many people donât find a way out of that or donât seek help. Or are ashamed of it or donât know how to get the help. I never set out to do this, but Iâm thrilled and humbled by the effect my work has on people whoâre isolated by this sickness. Itâs really one of the more satisfying results of the podcast: how much mail I get from people whoâre struggling and who want advice, or who feel less alone from what Iâve said. The great thing about recovery, and about playing these parts, is that it gives you a context thatâs very specificâa way to legitimately help people that can change their entire lives.
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