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.
Interview: Alejandro Jodorowsky on Psychomagic, the Theater of Cruelty, and More
The maverick filmmaker discusses working with the tarot, the surrealist moviement, and more.
At the age of 91, maverick Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky has made his first ever documentary, Psychomagic, a Healing Art. In many ways, itâs a companion piece to his recent self-reflexive and semi-autobiographical films The Dance of Reality and Endless Poetry, in which Jodorowsky inserted his present-day self into the narrative of his own boyhood and youth. Where the earlier films show Jodorowsky arriving at private rituals and symbolic acts to deal with his own issues, Psychomagic expands his sphere of influence to include men and women who find themselves in a cul-de-sac of existential distress.
Essentially a daisy chain of case histories, the film allows Jodorowsky to demonstrate the unconventional psychotherapeutic techniques heâs developed over a lifetime spent studying various psychological systems and an astonishing variety of Eastern and Western spiritual practices. As you might expect from the man behind El Topo and The Holy Mountain, it can be a wild ride, full of sometimes totally bonkers, even grotesque imagery, yet also betraying Jodorowskyâs full-blooded compassion for the vicissitudes of human suffering.
Ahead of the VOD release of Psychomagic, I had the opportunity to speak with Jodorowsky via Skype. We touched upon a far-ranging assortment of topics including working with the tarot, Antonin Artaudâs Theater of Cruelty, the âlast daysâ of the surrealist movement, and the films of Dario Argento and Luis BuĂ±uel.
Early in your new documentary you mention your work with the tarot deck. How did that contribute to your development of psychomagic?
For me, the tarot isnât magic that letâs you see the future. Itâs only a language to open the unconscious. That is all. Itâs to work with the dreams like Sigmund Freud worked with dreams. My films help me to speak about dreams, and put you on the table [in a tarot spread]. I use tarot to do that. But, in order to do that, I needed 50 years of working with the tarot, learning how to memorize the tarot deck. I memorized every line, every color, every meaning. [Jodorowsky proceeds to give a quick three-card tarot reading.]
Psychomagic techniques seem to involve a dreamlike, poetic logic. How do you arrive at the specific details of the treatments?
When youâre working with me, first I make your genealogical tree. You have the son, you have the partner, the father and mother, the grandfather. Then I know where you are, what formed you. And then, when I know that, I will not experience you in a psychoanalytic way, an intellectual way. That is for psychoanalysts, who take dreams and teach you what is real life. I am different. I take what you think with the reality and I put it into the image of the dream. I use the language of acting, not speaking, doing things you never did before. New things. I am breaking your psychological defense with an image to go do something. I will say, âPaint your beard gold and kiss a woman, or a man, who has silver hair.â I will say thatâs an image. That will open to you the unconscious, something you will discover. That is the work of psychomagic.
With most of the participants in the film, all we see is their short-term response to the treatment. What made you follow up with the woman who had throat cancer after almost 10 years?
What I did in the theater was an experience. Because I had a theater. I had to pay to have that theater. Because every healing I do is free. Iâm not a psychoanalyst, so nobody paid me. Itâs free. Because I had a big theater, and in Chile I am very well known, I will have a conference in the theater. Five thousand people came. And then I decided to make an experience. I didnât know if collective thinking, like quantum theory says, could change reality, if we have a group of people who do the same thing. Can we heal this woman? She thinks she will die very quickly. And then I take the woman and I make the experience. And then I didnât speak with her. And then, when I made the picture 10 years later, I wanted to know, because I never repeated it. In order to teach healing, you need 5,000 doctors! Itâs a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I wanted to know, with thinking, do we or donât we have the power? The cancer, they say we cannot heal that. I donât know if they fought the cancer for years because itâs a big, big business, and they donât want to find the solution. That I donât know. When healing becomes a business, it cannot heal for me. Healing is an act of love. You have to take the person in your arms. The psychoanalyst doesnât take you in his arms!
And then I get a telephone call from a friend of the woman, a student of mine. I asked him if she had died. He said no, sheâs alive. I asked if I could make an interview for the film. She tells how the experience was. She said it was very good. I donât know if it was a placebo. Placebos can be good also.
Yes, if it works, itâs good.
But it was only an experience that I did once. I canât find 5,000 people for every person who has an illness.
Psychomagic includes short clips from many of your earlier films. Do you see this film, and the therapeutic work it illustrates, as an encapsulation of your entire career?
From the theater I came to the âhappening,â improvised theater, the theater of action, then to psychomagic. I came to it. I didnât create it. But, in all my pictures, I was searching for something. I respect very much the industrial movies. Movies from the beginning were an industry. Their goal from the beginning was to make big money. And then they discovered Hollywood and all that. But there was not one real truth, one real feeling, it was acting feelings. The show must go on! But for me movies are not a show, theyâre an art.
What is art? Itâs open for the person who does the work, new horizons, they will open the human soul. Thatâs what I did in my pictures. I started to put real things into the picture. Reality says, âProblem! I am having problems with my mother, problems with my father.â I was telling it all. Step by step, I was coming to introduce my real life into the pictures. I was having problems with my father in Endless Poetry, and I was shooting, and suddenly I jumped into the picture! Psychomagic is only real feelings, not an imitation. And thatâs what I was searching for. I put examples in my pictures, saying I am speaking always of the same thing, but in an artistic way. I show a guy closed in a tower [in El Topo] and in Psychomagic I show a guy breaking pumpkins. I did that in El Topo, but in a metaphorical way, not directly. And then I show in my film that it was the same position, but in another language: artistic language, therapeutic language.
Can you tell me something about your encounters with AndrĂ© Breton and other surrealists in the Paris of the 1960s?
I will speak about that in my third film. Itâs a trilogy: The Dance of Reality, Endless Poetry, and Essential Journey. Thatâs number three. I hope, if I am alive, because I am an old person, to start it in January. The script Iâve done already. I am very happy with it. I speak about that time, until I started to be a movie director. I stop there. In it, I am going to France to work with the surrealists, with the theater of Marcel Marceau, with the philosopher Gaston Bachelard. I have those three worlds.
My mind was opened with philosophy. With surrealism, I think I am the last surrealistic moviemaker whoâs really surrealistic. But I am a little step farther, because surrealism doesnât show, doesnât explain. Itâs the mystery of something you donât understand. That is surrealism. A dream image you donât understand, you have no need to explain that. In the art I do, you know what youâre doing. It has a finality. It has to solve your problem and come to felicity. Felicity of life. Thatâs what I feel with the idiotic love story. Love is not like love with a star. Love is love. We need to show what love is. Tell the things that are true, make you go to happiness. Not an idiotic happiness, not Disneyland, a real internal life. Happy to be alive. I am alive. Itâs fantastic. What an incredible thing. Art has to give you with possibility to be what you are, not what the moviemaker is. Not what the actor is, you. Itâs complicated, no?
Speaking of surrealistic filmmakers, what do you think about the films of Luis BuĂ±uel?
He was a surrealist, yes, but heâs too realistic for me. He was a real person, in the real. And for me the pictures have not only a meaning, theyâre a painting. You can shoot something like that [mimes different angles], traveling shots, etcetera. Everything speaks. BuĂ±uelâs show only one point of view. Heâs sitting and everything is in the size of someone sitting. But he doesnât go out [he mimes leaving the Skype frame], he doesnât make other things. Hollywood discovered camera movement. Camera movement is fantastic! I need to have BuĂ±uel in Hollywood and that would be good. He could show a deep meaning but with greater freedom of form.
When you worked with Claudio Argento on Santa Sangre did you know anything about the films of his brother Dario?
Yes, I like them a lot. He was a guy who doesnât give too much importance to the script. He can be not logical. The pleasure to shoot something thatâs weird! And I liked that. No message, no meaning. Very aesthetical.
Do you have a favorite film of his?
I am very old. I donât remember the names. Iâve seen it a lot of times, this picture. He goes into a building, he goes inside the house.
Deep Red. Profondo Rosso.
Yes! Profondo Rosso. Fantastic picture. A film like that, for his time, he made explosive cinema. Because it was the film of a director. Generally, in the industrial film, the director is an employee. The studios are surveying the script. You arenât free with the script. You need to shoot whatâs right there. Because, when youâre free, you make the script to start the picture. But in the middle of the picture you can change whatever you want and put new things in. Because there are magic things that happen when youâre shooting. In Santa Sangre, when the father commits suicide, the naked father, it was in Mexico, in the street. A very old woman was singing, drunk. There were a lot of bars there. I said, âGo find me this drunk woman, because itâs the music I need for that suicide.â And then he will kill himself, but in the image thereâs a real song of a person whoâs really suffering. And itâs fantastic, like that. You need to be free. When you make the picture, the director is the poet. In Hollywood, the poet is the money. More money, more happiness. I say, âNo.â More poetical, more artisticalâthat is good. Like the tarot, that isnât a business. I know Iâm crazy, but you need some crazy person in the generality, then somebody will use it in another way.
We certainly need more people in the world who are crazy in that way.
Yes, because crazy people arenât crazy. Theyâre just using their mind in another way. And itâs very interesting.
How closely did you collaborate with David Lynch on your King Shot project?
He was very gentle with me. He said, âMaybe we can make a picture.â But my project was so crazy. Maybe I wanted to shoot in Spain. I wanted to do what I always do. But he had a little company at that moment. He was not able to have the money to do that. So, since I didnât have the money, I didnât do it. It was too expensive.
What can you tell me about your time with Arrabal and Roland Topor in the Panic Movement?
That was really a fantastic moment in my life. Because we were accepted within the surrealist group. That was the end of surrealism. A lot of surrealists were into politics. They were Trotskyists. Into the Romantic realization of the woman, not the real woman. Arrabal, Topor, and I were searching for absolute freedom. The artist needs to be inside the play, for example, inside what youâre shooting or playing. You need to be inside, in your body. You are there. Not out of the work. You need to go farther than the intellect, farther than the unconscious. Farther than the religions. You need to find the panic. Panic isnât fear, panic is the totality. You need to find what a man is in totality. And then, if you are an artist in totality, you need to be a painter, dancer, mime, cinematographic creator, marionette. All the things I did. Because itâs the totality. Searching the totality of expression, thatâs what we did. It wasnât a movement, it was only three persons. And we called it a movement. We wanted to show that culture was fake, was an illusion. Because three persons will go into history as a movement that doesnât exist!
Your performances sound a lot like what was called âhappeningsâ in other countries or what the Vienna Aktionists were doing with their films. Would you say thatâs accurate?
No, the happenings were going on in the milieu of painting and sculpture. It was a way to develop the plastic arts. I made ephemera. Ephemera is not that. Ephemera is a kind of theater, psychoanalysis, dreams, surrealism. The language of art, with meaning. Happening is an expression of freedom, but only freedom.
So the performances were closer to what Antonin Artaud was talking about with his Theater of Cruelty?
I was a big admirer of The Theater and Its Double. I started from there. He opened my eyes. In Fando y Lis, you have a little influence of Artaud. I had a theater play of Arrabal, with Fando y Lis, but I didnât use the play, I used the memory I had as director of the play. With a lot of violence coming from Artaud. And then in El Topo, I had a Japanese Zen Master, Ejo Takata. Zen meditation, not like a hippie, real Zen meditation. Seven-day meditating without sleep. I was sleeping every night for 30 minutes, thatâs all. Terrible, incredible! I brought this experience to El Topo. Because Artaud made the Theater of Cruelty. When you see the cruelty, you are open. But then I didnât want any more cruelty. I decided I wanted to make the encounter with our self, make the cathedral [forms a steeple with his hands]. You are a cathedral. You arenât a butcher. Youâre creating the sacred. Some religions are fanatical. But I read the teachings of the Buddha, and I think thereâs something more true than Artaud.
Is it true that RenĂ© Daumalâs novel Mount Analogue was an influence on The Holy Mountain?
Yes. I love RenĂ© Daumal, because I love his teacher. He had a great teacher, who was Gurdjieff. And in that novel, Daumal is speaking about his experience with Gurdjieff. More than surrealism, Daumal took it a step farther: The Great Game [a âcounter-surrealistâ journal founded by Daumal and friends]. He started to choke himself to see how it was to almost die. He was searching for stronger things, real metaphysical searching. I wanted to do his unfinished novel, Mount Analogue. He never finished it because he died very young from tuberculosis. But the family didnât want to give me the rights. I said, âWell, I will make my own Holy Mountain!â What I directed depicts Daumalâs book. Itâs a group that goes with a teacher to find immortality on a mountain. That I took. Then I developed my ideas.
So, at the end of the film, when we see the making of the film, when you turn one camera on another, was that a way of opening it up to the interpretation of the viewer?
I never thought of it the way you are saying now. Maybe, yes. I went to a real mountain in Mexico. I brought a tiger, a monk, actors, all that. And the Mexicans told me it was dangerous. Why? âBecause there are tempests, and when there are tempests, you can die. Be careful.â No, I will go, because itâs beautiful, the weather is so fantastic. I shoot what I shoot, and when I finished shooting, the tempest came. And then we started to run in concert, to get off the mountain, because it was dangerous! I was running and I slipped and [mimes rolling down the mountain]. But I had a hammer and [mimes jamming it into the ground]. âNo! I donât want to die, I need to finish this damn picture!â I am making a picture. Like this, I will finish. This is the end of the picture, because it was the real end. It wasnât as good, but I put in reality into my film. I wanted to make real things, and that, for me, was a real thing!
Weâre making a picture. Itâs not a comedy. There are real sentiments, because all those people I found were not actors. Every person I showed had the problem I show in the picture. Real people I used, real tiger! Iâm not a Hollywood company making fake everything. I asked Hollywood that I want a stampede of tarantulas, big spiders on a body. They made fake ones. So we went out and bought spiders and had their fangs cut out. We made up the body and then we used the spiders. Real spiders came out there. And the person who did that, also myself, never liked spiders! There he was, suffering something enormous with those spiders!
Are you currently working on any new graphic novels?
Graphic novels. That is my industrial business. Because I have The Incal, Metabarons, Sons of El Topo. That I am doing all the time. That is normal for me, because I have a big imagination. If I didnât have imagination, I would die. I am taking a step farther than Psychomagic with Psychotrance. Itâs a kind of literature, but at the same time youâre reading, Iâm giving you exercises. Itâs mixing a lecture with exercises to inspire what you do, the impact of having a trance. With drugs, you have a trance. I say no drugs. We can do it without drugs. How to do it like this. Not only meditation. Go farther than meditation. Go immediately to what you are when youâre not intellect. What is in you? You donât need to take LSD. You donât need to take ayahuasca. Because those are dreams. I am saying do the same thing I do in movies. In movies, in a century of fake feelings, I am making real feelings. In a culture full of drugs, psychological drugs, I am putting in a real hallucination, guiding how you can do it.
Translation by Pascale Montandon.
Interview: Kate Lyn Sheil on Calibrating Her Performance in She Dies Tomorrow
Sheil discusses how she situates the specifics of work within such an ambiguous and allegorical film.
Amy Seimetzâs She Dies Tomorrow is of obvious relevance in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. The film, which had been set to premiere at this yearâs SXSW, grapples with the contagious nature of despondency and angst in a contemporary milieu that so often seeks to minimize or ignore them. These amorphous feelings prove to be an inexplicably transmissible disease passed from character to character, each of which stops in their tracks and calmly declares, âIâm going to die tomorrow.â
That She Dies Tomorrow doesnât buckle under the weight of its heady themes and supernatural premise is a testament to how the performances ground the film in reality. In the film, Kate Lyn Sheil stars as Amy, a surrogate character for the director who quietly yet urgently probes the boundaries of the anxieties that ensnare her. Sheil, who commands the most screen time, captivates as she wields her mastery of minutiae. Sheâs capable of precisely executing small physical gestures to convey forceful intent.
Itâs merely the latest in a line of exciting and unpredictable performances from Sheil, whose prolific presence in the New York independent film scene spans from working with early mumblecore pioneers like Joe Swanberg in Silver Bullets to partnering with boundary-pushing luminaries such as Robert Greene on Kate Plays Christine. Sheâs equally as revelatory appearing briefly in a short film, the latest Alex Ross Perry project, an episode of House of Cards, or working through the very ethics of her trade as herself in documentary format.
I caught up with Sheil prior to the digital release of She Dies Tomorrow to discuss how she approaches conveying such potent interiority, her long-term collaboration with Seimetz, and how she situates the specifics of work within such an ambiguous and allegorical film.
What are the ripple effects of Kate Plays Christine in your work and career, given that itâs such a meta performance about the nature of performance?
I worked with a director afterward who said that he wanted to work with me after he saw Kate Plays Christine because it made him feel like I would be honest with him if I didnât like the way that he was directing me. And I was like, âOh, no, youâre mistaken. I probably will not say anything at all and just try and toe the party line.â Because that movie plays with what is real and what is fake, I feel like there could potentially be a misconception that I yell. Which isâŠnot the case. Your guess is as good as mine.
That scene where you really snap was staged too, right? It was something Robert Greene invented to see what would happen when you felt boxed in by the experiment.
Yeah, it was scripted, essentially.
Is the movie at all a window into the way you work?
I think I spoke honestly about some ways that I approach acting roles in Kate Plays Christine, while lots of it is scripted, embellished or made up to create a narrative arc. I think there are moments that I speak truthfully about the way I do approach a role. I, personally, would never go to Sarasota and think that I had to interview people in order to play a part correctly. But I think I talk about myâI hate to say itââprocessâ in a truthful manner at a certain point, and thatâs how I would [do it]. Thatâs probably how I approached this movie. Amy wrote this role, and then the best that I can do is just to try to find ways that I relate to the character and use substitutions to think of times when I maybe felt analogous.
Part of what makes Kate Plays Christine so fascinating is the way the camera allows you to externalize the process of thinking and deliberating. Was that at all helpful for She Dies Tomorrow?
Yeah, thatâs all thatâs all Amyâs writing though. That was baked into the script from the earliest stages of it. She wanted the character to be very physical in the way that she was exploring that house and touching things in a way that, at least from the outside if someone were to catch you doing it, it doesnât seem like normal behavior. But when faced with the enormity of this thing, normalcy doesnât really mean anything anymore.
Amy Seimetz has said that the tactile details of touching the house came from her own experience grappling with the weird mix of emotions that arose from her becoming a homeowner. How do you find your way into this compulsion thatâs so visceral and unique?
Itâs Amy, she wrote it for me, and then she creates an environment on set whereâI donât want to say itâs not difficult, because I certainly was afraid the entire time that I maybe wasnât doing as good a job as I could. I didnât want to let Amy down. She creates an environment where you can sort of slip into it. Weâve known each other for such a long time, and weâve worked together before. I love the way that she directs me. Sheâs not precious with me at all. She will quite literally show me what she wants if Iâm not getting it. [laughs, mimes direction] âOkay, thatâs what Iâm supposed to do, cool!”
The beginning of the film is largely free of dialogue. How much of what we see was scripted or pre-planned versus discovered once the camera rolled?
Not much of an element of discovery once the camera starts rolling. Amy is pretty precise in her visuals, and she has worked with Jake Keitel, who shot the movie, for like 17 years now. They share a brain in certain ways in terms of lighting the shots. Because that element is so important to her, there really wasnât much of the âgo with the flow, weâll just find it in the moment.â Thereâs a level of precision to it, which I like and appreciate. But thatâs not to say that she doesnât give you as much room as you need to emotionally find the scene. But, in terms of physicality, she really has planned it out pretty precisely beforehand.
Was that at all different from Sun Donât Shine? Since that was such a scrappy, on-the-go road movie, did really planting your feet in a location change the nature of your collaboration with Amy at all?
With Sun Donât Shine, yeah, certain things are obviously outside your control if youâre shooting outside. But also with that, the economy of the way that she approaches making the movie, she still has a scrappy sensibility. Thatâs my favorite thing because I think if you know how to make a movie for no money, then you can use those skills and continue to apply that to whatever budget you happen to be working with. She had everything on Sun Donât Shine so precisely planned out in terms of how to shoot the car because she and Jake didnât want it to become monotonous. In a way, that required a great deal of precision too. But then, of course, for that movie, youâre shooting in Florida in the middle of summer. There are just variables. I got very sick when we were making that movie, so there are scenes where [they] had one thing in mind. And then sheâs like, âOkay, youâre just gonna be sitting because you canât do anything.â
Since you mentioned that Amy and her cinematographer share the same brain, do you feel the same kinship with her or other directors? A lot of your work comes from collaboration with people like Amy Seimetz, Alex Ross Perry, Robert Greene, among others, with whom you share a social circle. How does the process of working with them, where you might be more involved at the ground level of a project, compare with something where youâre brought in through a more traditional casting process?
I love working with all the people that you just mentioned, and I think itâs very lucky that I happen to know people that, by my estimation, are incredible. Itâs so wonderful to work with them because there is a shared history and a shorthand. It just so happens, as I said before, that I like their work a lot, so itâs more bang for your buck. Not only do you get to work with friends, but you get to be in a project that youâre probably going to like or would like, even if you had nothing to do with it. But, at the same time, thereâs something really something very fun about showing up to a set and just trying your best to execute the thing, do your job and then go home at the end of the day and itâs not your old, close friends. Thereâs something nice about both.
Whatâs the best way to describe your relationship to that extended Kimâs Video orbit? Muse, co-conspirator, something else entirely?
Iâm so close to it that itâs hard to think of what to call it. But that place meant everything to me. Itâs where I feel like I got my education in film. I think my life would be completely different if it hadnât existed. It truly does mean so much to me. Surprisingly, though I donât think any of us truly saw it coming at the time, a bunch of people who have worked there at a certain time actually started making their own projects. I feel very fortunate that I was around at that time. And itâs nice to make movies with people [for whom] the impetus is a love of watching them. Thatâs a very joyous experience.
I know you kind of scoffed at the word âprocessâ earlier and put it in scare quotes…
Yeah, but…I used it! [laughs]
Well, we can just caveat that. I know your training as an actress primarily came from a theatrical background at NYU. She Dies Tomorrow is about the farthest thing from a theatrical performance: The film opens on a shot of your eye, and meaning gets conveyed through how your pupil moves. How did you learn to communicate in these micro moments? Did it involve âunlearningâ any theatrical training?
Yes and no. I feel like itâs all the same skill set. And then, of course, when you get in front of the camera, you learn to adjust and have a relationship with the camera also. Rather than acting for an audience, youâre trying to be present with your fellow actor, more present in the moment. If there isnât anybody else there, which is largely the case for my stuff in She Dies Tomorrow, the cameraâs your audience. I havenât acted in a play in a very long time. I miss it, personally. I left school, and I never wanted to do to theater again. I was obsessed with movies, and I still am. But at a certain point, maybe a few years ago, I was like, âYou know what, it would be fun to do to do a play!â But, I mean, I still struggle with it. I feel like a lot of my close friends who are actors talk about it too. I still walk away at the end of some days being like, âI was too big, or I was too aware of the camera. So I tried to be small, and I think it was too small.â You still have these anxieties about that exact thing, calibrating your performance to the medium.
As an actress in a film like this, do you feel the need to âunderstandâ the rest of the film like the nature of the contagion or the impressionistic transitions? Or is it a matter of performing your part and trusting that the rest of the film will fall into place around you?
I think itâs important to make it make sense for you, but I donât think itâs important for me to understand the structure of the entire film. But itâs always very important for me to know what Iâm doing to understand where, in particular, Iâm coming from. I definitely trusted that Amy was doing something great with those parts of the movie. When she told me thatâs how the movie was going to proceed, that it was going to expand and extrapolate in that way, I was very, very happy. I was happy that there were going to be other people for the audience to sit with for a while. And I also love those scenes. The dinner scene, I think is so funny. Everything in the movie is wonderful, but [thatâs what is] coming to mind right now. I like the way that those scenes bounced around with my scenes and recontextualize my scenes to a certain degree.
Iâm always fascinated with this duality that to communicate something existential and widely recognizable, itâs often rooted in such personal and intimate performance. How do you manage the balance between the general and the specific, especially in a film like She Dies Tomorrow that has a more allegorical or representational edge to it?
I think that certain things are just outside of my control. The most that I can control is to try and make the character specific for me and then I canât get too caught up in thinking of the overarching themes. I just try and stay in my lane, stay focused and make it specific and individual. But if the person directing movie is creating something allegorical, then hopefully my performance lends itself to that goal.
What are your thoughts on the meta element of anxiety and death premonitions being contagious? Do you think the screen is porous enough that the audience could, or should, catch it? By the end of the film, I was wondering if I would end up saying âIâm going to die tomorrowâ like all the characters.
Weâre obviously living in such a strange time right now that Amy never could have anticipated. Hopefully what people would feel more than anything is recognition, or that some experience that theyâve had is being reflected back to them. Hopefully that would make someone feel better potentially, less alone or less crazy. Something like that. But I mean, the movie is about ideas being contagious. So, maybe.
It was so interesting to watch in the back half of the film where, for certain characters, you can tell that the ability to express and verbalize their anxiety helps them manage it. Maybe thatâs the more constructive takeaway.
Yeah, there you go!
Interview: Seth Rogen on An American Pickle and Reconnecting with His Roots
Rogen discusses collaborating with Simon Rich, how the film enriched his understanding of Judaism, the exhibition prospects of comedy in the streaming era, and more.
Itâs been over two decades since Seth Rogen made his small-screen debut in Freaks and Geeks, though one could be forgiven for assuming heâs been in the business much longer given all that heâs accomplished since then. He wrote for the acclaimed shows Da Ali G Show and Undeclared in the early aughts, before then breaking out in front of the camera in two comedy smashes released in the summer of 2007, Knocked Up and Superbad, the latter of which he co-wrote with creative partner Evan Goldberg. Rogen helped usher in the still-dominant Apatow era of big-screen comedy, a reign that not even the North Korean government could topple with the cyber-attack launched in response to his 2014 Kim Jong-un assassination satire The Interview.
While Rogenâs on-camera appearances have waned slightly over the past few years, his creative output hasnât, as he and his partners at Point Grey continue to ramp up production across film, TV, and streaming. Their latest effort, An American Pickle, holds the distinction of being HBO Maxâs first original narrative feature to premiere on the platform. But it also portends a distinctly more mature and reflective shift in Rogenâs own work as the cinematic face of exuberant millennial prolonged adolescence nears middle age.
The film stars Rogen in dual roles as Ben, a contemporary secular Brooklynite app developer, and Herschel, his devoutly Jewish great-grandfather who emigrated from eastern Europe and reemerges in the present day after being brined in a vat of pickles for a century. Neither the film or the characters in it dwell much on the absurd premise, and An American Pickle blossoms into a silly but sweet tale of misunderstanding and reconciliation between distant generations that share little other than a bloodline.
I chatted with Rogen on the eve of An American Pickleâs release. Our discussion covered how he collaborated with writer Simon Rich, how the film enriched his own understanding of Judaism, and how he envisions the exhibition prospects of comedy in the streaming era.
I saw Knocked Up as a teenager, and now it weirds me out that Iâm older than you were when you made it. While working on it, were you aware that it might become such a generational touchstone for millennials? How do you feel about it now that itâs almost like a period piece?
I think when you make a movie you never truly know how itâs going to be received, honestly. Watch Hearts of Darkness, thatâs a good lesson in that! Thereâs people on the set of the worst movie youâve ever seen who think theyâre making a masterpiece, and thereâs people on the set of a masterpiece thinking that no oneâs going to watch or see it everâand even if they do, theyâll hate it. Itâs not uncontrollable, but itâs hard to control and almost impossible to do with some sort of consistency. To that end, Iâm glad that people still like any of our movies. The fact that any of them are viewed as remotely relevant in some way is lovely. You really donât know whatâs going to stand the test of time until time has passed, really.
I ask about that film partly because I feel thereâs an interesting evolution we can chart from there to An American Pickle, which has an insight and understanding that feels like it can only be conveyed by learning and living. Is this the kind of film you could only have made at this point in your life?
Yeah, I think itâs definitely born of an older brain. Especially the themes of grief and how to process things we learned as kids, how we may have rejected those things even though they might add value to our lives, those themes are much more prevalent in my life as I get closer to 40 than when I was in my mid-20s. The idea of making a movie about grief and reconnecting with my roots was not prominent on my radar! [laughs]
Thereâs such poignancy to the way the film shows how past generations, be it through religion or some other factor, are better equipped to handle grief and hardship. Has any of that been valuable, pandemic or otherwise, in your life?
Yeah, I think religion specifically. My wifeâs mother passed away earlier this year, and her uncle, actually. Iâve just seen with that specifically. Judaism has actionable protocols that do help. At one point in my life, I would probably write off all of it and say there was nothing helpful I was ever taught about religion. Now as I get older, I can cherry-pick and say you can take elements of this and apply them to your life as you find them helpful. Not all of this was born out of fooling people. Some of it was born out of truly trying to help people.
Youâve obviously done quite a bit of writing yourself on other projects. When it comes to something like An American Pickle, do you mostly just stay in your lane as an actor and let Simon Rich tailor the script to you? Or are you still involved in some writerly capacity?
Iâm definitely still involved in some writerly capacity. I respect the writer and know their name is the one thatâs on it ultimately, and they have to be able to stand behind all of it and take ownership over it. But I try to be constructive! I just try to help and support the ideas that I can. I try to acknowledge it and say this isnât what I would do, always, but Iâm not the writer! I try to respect that.
This film was originally geared toward theaters and is now going directly to streaming on HBO Max. In your mind, does the method of distribution affect the work you make? Or are you a platform agnostic and a laugh is a laugh on a big or a small screen?
We definitely make some films that are geared more toward a big-screen experience, in our minds at least, and some we are much more comfortable with that not being the experience. This being the perfect example of one of those! We understand that if we intend to keep making films for theaters, then they have to earn that right to be in a theater. Not every film automatically is granted that at this moment, and we understand that those are different types of films sometimes. Itâs not always based on budget or anything like that. Good Boys, although it wasnât expensive, is a movie we were confident would do well in theaters. There are some more expensive movies we would not be as confident that would be the best place for them. Itâs an active conversation, but I do think some movies are better geared towards a cinematic experience and some towards a streaming one.
It still strikes me as crazy that so much data shows comedy is one of the genres people most want to view at home instead of in a room full of people.
I think people just like comedy! But to me, some of the greatest experiences Iâve had in a theater, I donât think of the action movies I saw. I think about when I saw Thereâs Something About Mary or South Park in theaters, the Jackass movies, these wild experiences where you can barely hear whatâs happening. Those are my favorite moviegoing experiences, and I think a lot of people feel that way.
Any chance youâd do a This Is the End sequel? Itâs a movie Iâve thought about a lot over the last few months each time celebrities try to center themselves in the dialogue around a moment of crisis.
Not a sequel, specifically, but we do talk about building on the genre of famous people playing themselves interacting with supernatural situations. There maybe is more to be done with that.
Interview: Dave Franco on The Rental, His Genre Influences, and Future Projects
The actor discusses collaborating with Joe Swanberg and a wildly talented cast on his directorial debut.
After a series of bit roles in television and film throughout the aughts, Dave Franco won himself a breakout role in Phil Lord and Chris Millerâs 21 Jump Street that seemed to prime the actor for a future as the star of many a stoner comedy. And while he has memorably flexed his ad-libbing skills in comedies such as Neighbors over the years, the actorâs recent workâmost memorably in 6 Balloons, alongside Abbi Jacobson, and Joe Swanbergâs HBO series Easyâpoints to his desire to stay ever-changing and not limit himself.
Now, with The Rental, the 35-year-old actor adds director to his list of credits. Co-written with Swanberg, the film finds Franco drawing inspiration not only from many a horror classic, most memorably John Carpenterâs Halloween and Stanley Kubrickâs The Shining, but also from the directors he says heâs been lucky to have worked with over the years, including Barry Jenkins, Noah Baumbach, and his older brother, James Franco. The Rental is a slow-burn horror thriller about a weekend vacation that goes awry when two brothers and their significant others rent a seemingly perfect Airbnb property somewhere along the Pacific Coast.
Shortly after The Rental premiered to more than 1,300 guests at the Vineland Drive-In in Los Angeles, I had a chance to speak with Franco about shooting of his film, collaborating with Swanberg and his wildly talented cast, his future directorial ambitions, and more.
Is there a specific inspiration for The Rental?
The idea was inspired by my own paranoia about the concept of home sharing. The country is as divided as itâs ever been, and no one trusts each other, yet we trust staying in the home of a stranger simply because of a few five-star reviews online. And in reality, while we were shooting the film, there were new articles coming out every week about homeowners with hidden cameras in their place. And I still use all of the home-sharing apps. In fact, I stayed in an Airbnb while shooting the film. I was trying to explore this disconnect where, even though weâre all aware of the risks of staying in a strangerâs home, we still do it. Why do we subject ourselves to that knowing weâre potentially putting ourselves in danger?
How did you end up working with Joe Swanberg on the film?
I wanted to write the film with Joe because his main strengths lie in characters and relationships. Our goal from the beginning was to create a tense relationship drama where the interpersonal issues between the characters were just as thrilling as the fact that thereâs a psycho killer lurking in the shadows. At its core, the film really is about these characters and their relationships, and then we sprinkled a horror element on top to help accentuate the problems that theyâre going through. But when there are issues in your own romantic relationships, that can be as scary as anything else, even physical danger from a psycho killer.
What directors stand out who may have helped you the most in terms of taking the leap from actor to feature film director?
Iâve been lucky enough to work with a handful of really, really great directorsâpeople like Barry Jenkins, Noah Baumbach, Seth Rogen, my brother, Phil Lord and Chris Millerâand the biggest thing I took from that whole group of them is, in general, they all create very safe, comfortable environments on set where they really encourage everyone to voice their opinions if they think that it will help the film in any way. And so, essentially, there are no egos on set and the main rule is the best idea wins, no matter who itâs coming from. I definitely tried to adopt that mindset for my film as well.
You immediately establish tension between the two brothers with an allusion to a possible infidelity, and this tension methodically builds to a breaking point. I know youâre a fan of clever genre films, so Iâm curious whether there are any ones in particular that inspired you to capture that tension on screen.
Ari Aster, Jordan Peele, Sean Durkin, Amy Seimetz, David Robert Mitchell, and Jeremy Saulnier are all making projects that are so nuanced and atmospheric. Their films take their time to creep up on you, as opposed to a lot of horror films that rely too heavily on cheap jump scares and, ultimately, feel disposable. I was lucky enough to convince Sean Durkin to produce my film, and he ended up being somewhat of a mentor to me, giving me the confidence to make a horror film that didnât have many jump scares. He would remind me that we had a compelling story and there was enough inherent tension between these characters that we didn’t need to push the horror, that it was all simmering under the surface and that we could just let it build and naturally come out over the course of the film.
Your wife, Alison Brie, appeared in Scream 4, so it was great to see her working again in a similar genre because, though itâs a slow burner, The Rental is a slasher film. Iâm curious about your process when it came to curating this particular cast of actors.
Alison has a blast jumping back into it and letting go. Iâve obviously always known that sheâs an incredible actress, but when I was in a position where I was watching her intently for five straight weeks, I realized that sheâs one of the best. Sheâs so unique in her ability to balance heavy drama with moments of levity, sometimes within a single scene. And, so, it was a pleasure for me just to see her in that light and just kind of spend time with her in that way. It just continued to develop an even greater appreciation for each other.
Regarding Dan Stevens, Iâve always loved him as a performer, especially when heâs working in the genre arena, as in Adam Wingardâs The Guest and FXâs Legion. But in those projects, heâs playing characters who are slightly heightened, so I was excited to see him in a role that felt a little more grounded and human. And one of his best skills is that heâs really incredible at playing slightly villainous characters, where there are certain actors who play villains and audiences immediately turn on them when they start to make unethical choices. But Dan has so much fun with these types of rolesâhe really relishes in themâand as an audience, you canât help but root for him, even when heâs making horrible decisions.
Sheilaâs mainly known for her work in Ana Lily Amirpourâs A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, where she plays a vampire. And sheâs incredible in that film, but sheâs not able to emote very much because that’s not what vampires do. I then saw her in Jeremiah Zagarâs film We the Animals. Sheâs only in a supporting role in that film, but sheâs able to bring so much soul and compassion to her character in a finite amount of screen time. And after seeing that, I knew that she was perfect for Mina. She has this inherent strength to her, but she can also show such a vulnerability when the scene calls for it, and that was the perfect duality for Mina, whoâs very strong-willed but who can crumble at any moment.
And then, finally, Jeremy Allen White is mainly known for his work on Shameless, and Iâve admired him from afar for a long time. He has this raw energy that feels unpredictable yet extremely down to earth. And the character of Josh is difficult to pull off because he has this rage inside of him, but at the same time heâs very delicate and in touch with his emotional side, and I think Jeremy is one of a handful of actors who could pull that off.
The film was timely when you wrote it, but even more so now with the pandemic, civil unrest, and unprecedented political corruption. It may resonate even more with audiences now. Who couldâve anticipated that?
Exactly. Sometimes a filmâs success really revolves around the timing of when it comes out.
Are you already thinking about your next feature?
Yeah. I have a pretty strong idea for a sequel to this film, if I am lucky enough to have the opportunity to carry on with the story. And in addition to that, my wife and I have written a romantic comedy during the quarantine that I would direct and she would act in. Itâs a slightly elevated version of the genre, and itâs inspired by such classics as Rob Reinerâs When Harry Met Sally and Nora Ephronâs Sleepless in Seattle.
Interview: Bill and Turner Ross on the Constructions of Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
The Rosses discuss how performance, accessibility, empathy, and nostalgia figure into their work.
The work of filmmaker brothers Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross has always lived on the more experimental margins of the documentary form, and their latest effort radically pushes definitional notions of nonfiction to a near-breaking point. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets raised eyebrows when Sundance programmers slotted it into the festivalâs Documentary Competition section, given that the film, about a Las Vegas dive barâs last night of operation, was actually shot using a cast of hired actors-cum-barflys in New Orleans. What the filmmakers capture over the course of a whirlwind 18 hoursâa day after Donald Trump won the presidencyâmight lack actuality, but they compensate with unvarnished authenticity.
The Ross brothers, who are based in New Orleans, have long been experts at capturing how people perform their identity within a given space and what that reflects about their humanity. Sometimes the performance is literal, as in their âdance filmâ Contemporary Color, a celebration of color guard staged by David Byrne at an event at Brooklynâs Barclays Center. But more often, their canvas is bigger, such as New Orleansâs French Quarter in Tchoupitoulas, their Sidney, Ohio hometown in 45365, or the Texas-Mexico border in Western; these documentaries are also populated with people going about their lives in less staged circumstances. With Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, the filmmakers narrow their focus to an admittedly synthetic setting to achieve an identical effect. Once the cameras start rolling and the booze starts flowing, the emotional honesty of the moments they capture outmuscles any concerns over genre labels or definitions.
On a Zoom call prior to the filmâs Virtual Cinema release this Friday, I spoke with the Ross brothers about the intellectual and emotional journey leading up to ideating and executing an unconventional project like Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets. The conversation also covered how the brothers think about performance, choreography, accessibility, empathy, and nostalgia when making their films.
Your body of work is largely about what we can learn about people from the spaces they occupy and explore. Did your ability to explore these thematics get easier or harder with such a confined location in Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets?
Turner Ross: Weâre interested in people in the space they inhabit, people in the spaces they create, how the spaces that they occupy both relate to them and are manifested by them. So, I think every film has a bit to do with that. With this one, I wouldnât say [it was] easier or harder. I would say we always set up a challenge for ourselves. And this was as challenging a dynamic as we could conceive given the films that have preceded it. You know, weâre always trying to learn from what comes before. And the last film that we did was a âfour wallsâ movie, but it was the Barclays Center in New York, tens of thousands of people, several hundred participants and a crew of dozens. We wanted to take that idea of constraints and a limited palette and say, âCan we reduce that down to actually four walls, just the two of us, to a group of people assembled? Can we give a sense of being there to a place that weâve manifested? Can we elicit an authentic experience from an intention to a scenario?â But those are imposed limitations and obstacles, and thatâs what makes it interesting for us.
Bill Ross IV: In some ways, it was nicer to be confined to that space because that limitation was what it was. In other ways, it was incredibly difficult.
You mentioned Contemporary Color as another âfour wallsâ movie. Did that experience of learning how to capture motion within a confined space help in making this one?
TR: Very much so. Contemporary Color is actually a dance film, so it involves choreography. Humans and their choreography through space is always interesting, and so we tried to create a space in which all of the corners of the room had potential. We filled it with people who would have an interesting dance with each other. The difference was we didnât know the choreography ahead of time. We just kind of had to create the scenario, create opportunities and then follow where they led. And so that made it much more of an interesting dance partner than just observing the thing itself.
You started conceptualizing this film with your Vegas visits in 2009 but didnât shoot the film until 2016. How did your understanding of the people, the bars, the city, the country change over time? How would the film be different if youâd shot it right away?
BR: I mean, each film is an extension of where we are as humans when we shoot it, so it would certainly have been more immature.
TR: Itâs an extension of us as people, as individuals, as humans in the world. Itâs an extension of ourselves as artists, the times that weâre in, what weâre thinking about, what weâre responding to. So, certainly, 10 years ago, the world we were responding to is very different than the one that we find ourselves in now. In that sense, the world being available to us as the resource that we mine, certainly that would have been different. But, at the same time, what we were looking for at that time was much more of a gritty, veritĂ©, follow-where-it-goes street film in which we were just really wanting to see what was happening in that world. Not so much as a paradigm in which the movie takes place, a metaphor for experience, a framing deviceâwhich is what it ends up being in this filmâbut the actuality of what it was in 2009 during the Great Recession when people were living on the outskirts of Vegas, not seeking pleasure but a place to get by in the world. That spoke to us really as an image, as an experience and as a rich resource for painting a portrait of the contemporary American experience, which, again, extrapolated into these times would be very different. And, for us, it became the backdrop for this film so that we could create a microcosmic story that hopefully spoke to something bigger in that context.
TR: Iâd love to see that film!
BR: Oh, that movie would be sweet. But weâll get to that one. It just wasnât the right time then. Itâs good that we got to think about it for this long. A lot of things were reported in that bucket over the last decade, or I guess it would have been seven years.
Youâve described bars as almost liminal spaces where people go to be someone other than themselves. Is that realization part of what led you to view the people in this film as actors performing characters?
TR: Weâre always performing as people, and that comes into the genre-framing conversation. Our awareness of a camera has become a real factor in the world, but thatâs not what weâre after. What we were curious about is what are these spaces that we choose to inhabit, that we seek in which to commiserate, that we seek in which to make stories, to tell stories, to put on airs, to be ourselves, to let go of things. Through all of time, people have found these types of spaces. And at the time that we made the film, we felt it was the most conducive space in which to observe and be curious about the conversations people are having with each other when they arenât talking about something in particular. And, so, if we can all share a drink and have a conversation, what does it sound like? Thatâs in parallel to our interest in these spaces in general, and as a visual and cultural space, but also as a useful space. Who are we? Why donât we talk to each other like this? What stories do we tell what stories we tell ourselves? And what are we saying to each other in this moment in time?
Do you see your other films as having performances in their own way?
BR: Always, yeah. In a lot of ways, I donât see this film being much different than the others. Theyâre all constructions. Thereâs a camera in the room and weâre all performing. Weâre all presenting what we wish to be seen as. I think thatâs been cranked up here, but by how much I donât really know.
TR: Our films are an amalgam of an experience. How can we distill it down to its essence, to make it sensical when itâs shared? I think thatâs part of being a person in the world, what are you going to share with others in order to give them an idea of who you wish them to see? And thatâs performance. So, in that sense, our films are also performative. In this sense, weâre just more acutely looking at that.
How were you all navigating the need to be specific to get the precise sense of place but also generalizable enough that anyone could see their own truth or experience reflected in the film?
BR: A lot of it is casting. Weâre casting a wide variety of folks for a lot of different reasons, but one of them being that folks will see themselves in someone there. Or pieces of themselves throughout. And that seems to have been the case so far, which has been great. But the beginning of the question was Vegas…
TR: We wanted to tell a specific story that was also universal. Thatâs what Bill was talking about with casting. We wanted to make sure that there was representation in there so that there were different voices heard, which were authentic [and] would not [convey] an inauthentic experience, some sort of staged experiment, but something that spoke to an authenticity that we had perceived and experienced on our own. So, yes, we did a lot when it come to the framing of that world. We spent a lot of time in Vegas, certainly scouting and considering that and wanting to be authentic to that locale. But we also wanted to create a boundary in between so that when people watch the film, it isnât so acute that they feel removed. We want people to have this experiential opportunity. We spoke today with a woman in Moscow, different people all over the world, different age groups, different backgrounds, and [even though it] may not be [their] space, they know something like it. Those may not be your people, but you might know folks like âem. And we wanted that to be the overriding idea, and not so much that this is a singular, specific story. We hoped that we would get to something that was more universal, even though it is a singular milieu.
We sometimes see the camera in the bar mirrors. Was it just too logistically complex trying to hide its presence? Did you just embrace your visibility?
BR: This is our fifth feature, and at this point, I think Iâm just done trying to cut around us. We are there. If we werenât there, there wouldnât be a film. More and more, we have embraced the fact that weâre just in the room. Itâs very intentional, but weâre not focusing on ourselves. Because itâs a mirrored room, we are popping up. We are leaving ourselves in there to say that this was a collective experience. This is all something that we experienced together. And weâre shooting not at these folks, but with [them]. We are together.
A moment that really struck me in the film is the really heartfelt conversation at the end of the bar between Bruce and Pam, both older and of different racial backgrounds. We see them at first in close-up, then you zoom out to see from other peopleâs vantage point from the other end of the bar in long shot. Throughout much of the film, weâre in a moment so thoroughly, and then it evaporates. Why linger here a bit and change perspectives?
BR: Thereâs two parts to that. One is, editorially, we needed to condense the scene timewise. But, also, because of that perspective, the scene becomes richer because the folks that you bounce around to are having trivial conversations when they are having a big life moment down here. And thatâs the way a bar works. Now, youâre totally oblivious that somebody is having a life-changing, cathartic moment down here, and you and your buddies are talking about Olive Garden three seats down. I thought it was very telling what those spaces can be.
TR: And we wanted that inclusivity of the myriad experience and how the same situation, even within a small tight-knit framework, is experienced differently. And, as a viewer, that was Bill speaking to the cinematic intention. We realized that it was much more accessible as a film if we used the language of cinema to move around the space and to allow the viewers to say, âI have my own stream of consciousness in this space and can move around to the different conversations at will. Iâm privy to all of the things in a way that even the people within the bar [arenât].â The omniscience is in favor of the viewer.
BR: There was one cut of this where we would just stick with Pam and Bruce for, like, eight minutes uninterrupted and not bounce around the room. We love that cut, but nobody else did! So we had austere intentions, and then realized we need to revert to the language of the movies.
Beyond just the difficulties of getting someone to watch or program something thatâs four-and-a-half-hours long, which is the length of your original favored cut, why whittle the film down to an hour-and-a-half? Whatâs lost and whatâs gained?
BR: An audience is gained! [laughs]
TR: We always say that we make movies for ourselves first. We make movies for each other, and we try to solve that thing. Well, that four-and-a-half-hour movie was the movie that we made for ourselves and for each other. It turns out that what we loved about it was not translated to people outside of our own peculiar bubble. What we needed to do was distill that down to something that allowed people in and wasnât so cold and obstructive as to pull people out. Itâs not about observation, itâs about inclusion for the people within it and the viewers, and we had to eventually really lean towards the viewer. Because if weâre not successful in the end, if we canât share this, thereâs not an act of empathy. We canât create an artifact and then share it with an audience to have them have their experience. And so that is why itâs 90 minutes.
Was it an intentional decision to shoot the day after the 2016 election or just a happy accident?
BR: I donât know if it was âhappy,â but it just sort of turned out that way.
TR: Generally, weâre reflecting the state of the world at the time, what we were feeling and thinking. We were feeling sort of divided as a country and in terms of perspectives, and we were feeling pretty lost and like we should be able to do better than our vote on Election Day allowed. As artists, it was time for us to go to work. We set out to get the film in motion before we knew the results of the election. It wasnât about us making a film about our politics, but it was about the body politic. What is the state of people and what are they saying to each other? Letâs not make an election film, but letâs make a film about who we are during this time.
Trump is this kind of looming, mostly unspoken presence undergirding a lot of whatâs happening on screen, just as he has been in pretty much any bar for the last five years. How did you go about navigating the elephant in the room?
BR: It was just like a bar, with folks just getting into it, and that didnât feel quite right. So weâd move elsewhere. But that balance was struck in the edit. We didnât shy away from shooting all of it. It was present.
TR: But it also was a motivating factor in terms of why we chose to execute the film the way that we did: to create a container, a safe space to bring in a broad swath of people to choreograph the inclusion of those types. In scouting actual bars, there were some bars that, because of the way that Bill and I look, we would walk in, weâd turn the cameras on and theyâd start chanting: âTrump, Trump, Trump!â Just assuming a certain point of view, and thatâs not the film that we wanted to make.
BR: To be clear, he is not talking about the Roaring 20s! [laughs]
TR: We scouted 100 bars, and we interviewed hundreds of people to be involved in this film. And there were certain spaces that certainly did have a limited viewpoint, and people found their own corner to back into. Thatâs just not what we wanted to explore. We didnât want to have a space that spoke to a singular experience. We wanted myriad viewpoints and the opportunity to feel like you belonged in a space. Thatâs both why we chose to shoot at that time and why we created our space the way that we did.
Iâm sure youâre getting this a lot, but obviously the film has evolved to take on additional meaning when being released in a pandemic where almost no one can congregate in a bar, or at least enjoy one like the Roaring 20s patrons are. Do you think it might change the meaning or reception of the film given that the audience is likely in a state of heightened nostalgia for the environment of a bar?
BR: Thatâs funny because nobodyâs asked us that yet! I thought people would. You have to think itâs going to. I mean, itâs got to!
TR: Weâre as curious as you are. On the one hand, the themes in the film are still relevant and resonant. And, on the other hand, they change their articulation because of where weâve ended up at this moment.
BR: Not just about your feelings on bars, but so much of whatâs brought up in the film has been heightened because everything is heightened right now.
TR: And not only what theyâre talking about, what the people are actually saying to each other. The context of the film, this idea of the end of things and uncertain futures, wrestling with identity and where weâre all headed, these sort of existential themes that are intertwined in the conceit of the film and in the way that people are having discourse with each other. Iâm super curious. What a bizarre fucking time to put out a film at all! Especially this one, where weâre on edge about everything, we canât share space in this way. Who are we? I think thatâll be reflected in the kind of feedback we get.
It strikes me that you didnât make this as an explicitly ânostalgicâ film. Would you be okay if people received it that way?
BR: My biggest fear would be if they were just like, âOkay.â Any sort of reaction, if they want to argue with it, great! People are free to do what they want to do, I just hope itâs not just like, âOkay, honey. Well, we watched that.â As if itâs just one more piece of content.
TR: In the moment that we made it, our concern was not to date the film, to say, âLetâs let it be of the world that it is, but letâs also not fix it in that for all of time, hopefully.â At the same time, itâs already in the rearview, so you canât help but have some sort of nostalgia for it. Or, I donât know, maybe thereâs a hope for moving on. I think, inevitably, we make these things together to go through a catharsis together and with the people that we make them with. Then, itâs left up to the audience, and Iâm fascinated by what an audience does with it once itâs theirs. Iâll be super curious to have those conversations.
The Best Albums of 2020 (So Far)
These 20 albums reflect a reckoning with ourselves, the patriarchy, systemic racism, and our connection to the planet.
Itâs been a very long yearâand weâre only at the halfway mark. So it seemed like a good time to take stock of the human experiment circa 2020 with our first-ever mid-year albums list. Just as the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed who we are at our cores, both good and bad, the best albums of the year so farâalmost all of them created prior to the crisisâreflect the simmering tensions that have been roiling beneath the surface of American life for years, if not decades. These 20 albums reflect a reckoning with ourselves (Arcaâs kinetic Kick I), the patriarchy (Fiona Appleâs prismatic Fetch the Bolt Cutters), systemic racism (Run the Jewelsâs electrifying RTJ4), and our (dis)connection to the planet itself (Grimesâs boundless Miss Anthropocene). As we grapple with what it means to shut down and rise up, music can give us an outlet, a voice, orâin the case of Dua Lipaâs Future Nostalgia and Jessie Wareâs Whatâs Your Pleasure?âan escape. Sal Cinquemani
Fiona Apple, Fetch the Bolt Cutters
Like fellow singer-songwriter Scott Walker, Fiona Apple achieved fame at a young age by making music that was more sophisticated and adventurous than that of her peers. Now, with Fetch the Bolt Cutters, sheâs made an album not unlike Walkerâs The Driftâthat is, unmistakably in the pop idiom but aggressively unconventional. But if Walkerâs late-career music was alienating and difficult, Fetch the Bolt Cutters is compulsively listenable, full of catchy melodic hooks and turns of phrase that linger with you long after the album is over. Released in the midst of a global economic and health crisis that could have been largely prevented if not for the disastrous mismanagement of a ruling class for whom mediocrity is an unattainable level of functionality, the album is prismatic for all that it reflects. On a purely musical level, itâs a bold experiment in pop craft, a collection of songs on which Apple stretches her talents in adventurous new directions. It can be read biographically, as a self-conscious act of narrative-building that continues to define Appleâs legacy as an artist. Most importantly, Fetch the Bolt Cutters is a vituperative catalog of the failures and pointless cruelties of a society propped up by fragile, nihilistic, patriarchal ideology. Seth Wilson
Arca, Kick I
Where Arcaâs past efforts sought to express states of dissociation, rendering a consciousness flitting in and out of reality, the songs on Kick I are noticeably present and tuned-in. Arcaâs gender identity is infused in the playfulness of her lyrics and compositions. Despite the addition of actual pop hooks throughout the album, Arcaâs beats continue to emphasize destabilization and change. Her songs are all bridgeâstretches of evolution from one idea or mindset to the next. Just when youâve grown accustomed to a sound or riff, the floor drops out, shifting to another mode and vibe altogether. The production oscillates wildly between harsh and smooth, as in the way the kinetic, abrasive âRiquiquĂâ segues into the graceful ballad âCalorâ; strings and clanking percussion mix, squaring off in striking juxtaposition. By far the bounciest, most ecstatic song cycle of Arcaâs career, Kick I is a celebration of actualization, whether thatâs spurned by finding harmony internally or in communion with another. Charles Lyons-Burt
Bad Bunny, YHLQMDLG
With his inclination for pairing heartbroken lyrics with fiery dembow beats, Bad Bunny has finetuned the art of crying in the club. On his second solo album, YHLQMDLG, the Puerto Rican reggaeton star offers dance floor-ready sentimentality that feels familiar, but he breaks out of his reliable formula with the most blistering production of his career to date, courtesy of Tainy and Subelo NEO. The viral âSafaeraâ is the best example of this audacious streak: Over an episodic five minutes, the track pivots between eight exhilarating beat changes, simulating the head-spinning pyrotechnics of a DJ club mix. With collaborations from todayâs hottest Latin-trap heavyweights and legendary reggaetoneros like Daddy Yankee, the album solidifies Bad Bunnyâs rightful place in the Urbano canon. Sophia Ordaz
Phoebe Bridgers, Punisher
Throughout her sophomore effort, Punisher, Phoebe Bridgers is often transfixed by a feeling of stasis. Songs like âChinese Satelliteâ and âI See Youâ evoke the sensation of being frozen, exacerbated by the perpetual anticipation of doom. âIâve been running in circles trying to be myself,â she sings on the former. Again and again over the course of the album, the singer-songwriter laments her inability to find solid ground, her voice low but certain. These songs simmer beautifully and quietly, eventually boiling over in intermittent moments of sonic boisterousness, and the results are often stunning. Punisherâs closing track, âI Know the End,â is a travelogue at the end of the world, explicitly illustrating the cloud of uneasiness that hangs over the album. It ends with blood-curdling screams, until all the sound fades out and Bridgersâs voice is hoarse. The end of the world is a central detail on Punisher, an influence over the uncertainty that falls over these dark but gorgeous songs. Jordan Walsh
Doglegâs Melee is a bristling, relentlessly cathartic collection of pop-punk. From the moment that the opening track, âKawasaki Backflip,â bursts into its full-band glory, the album never slows down or backs off from the Detroit groupâs loud, crunchy, anthemic style. Lead singer Alex Stoitsiadis shouts every word with dire conviction, his voice shredding and straining to deliver some of the best shout-along hooks of the year so far. âAny moment now, I will disintegrate,â he frantically yells at the explosive climax of âFox.â Melee is the sound of a band pushing off self-destruction through sheer force of will. This isnât to say that these songs arenât complex, or that their loudness is a cover for a lack of imagination. The guitars on âCannonballâ splash loudly, creating violent ripples over the rest of the track, while âEnderâ closes the album in a six-minute punk odyssey wherein Dogleg ups the stakes at every turn. Melee is exhausting in the best possible way, a cleansing release of tension in a howling, desperate rage. Walsh
Bob Dylan, Rough and Rowdy Ways
Sharp and precise in its references, descriptions, and personal confessions, Bob Dylanâs Rough and Rowdy Ways is thematically universal and powerfully prescient, in many ways acting as the culminating expression of the apocalyptic spirituality thatâs preoccupied Dylan since his earliest recordings. Itâs also a masterpiece of mood as much as lyrical poetry, and as stunningly and surprisingly atmospheric as many of the major musical achievements in a career more associated with monumental songwriting than sonic mastery. This is an album that showcases a similar comprehensive spectrum of ideas, attitudes, citations, perspectives, stories, and jokes as Dylanâs greatest recordings. True, many of these are grave, but the few hopeful spotsâlike âIâve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to Youâ and âKey West (Pirate Philosopher)ââare well-earned and, quite simply, beautiful. Latter-day Dylan is the man behind âTo Make You Feel My Loveâ as well as âNot Dark Yet,â and along with dispensing fire and brimstone, Rough and Rowdy Ways keeps romantic and spiritual faith alive, through both the fervor of unshaken convictions concerning the high stakes of the soul as well a basic yearning for love, companionship, and peace. As with his best work, the album encompasses the infinite potential for grace and disaster that can be clearly discerned but rarely summarized in the most turbulent of ages. Michael Joshua Rowin
Grimes, Miss Anthropocene
Claire Boucher has said that the process of writing Miss Anthropocene was an isolating experience, and that much of the material came from a dark, personal place. Even the albumâs most apparently apocalyptic lyrics, like the reverb-drenched âThis is the sound of the end of the worldâ on âBefore the Fever,â seem to do more to elucidate the kind of headspace Boucher was in at the time of writing than any grand message about the worldâs climate woes. But while this overarching concept might seem flimsy, Boucherâs broad-strokes approach to lyricism and confident, cinematic production allows her to explore concerns that feel at once both deeply personal and fundamentally communal. The latter in particular is bolstered by the way she dissolves the limits of genre, splicing together ethereal electronics with nĂŒ-metal guitars on âSo Heavy I Fell Through the Earth.â On âDarkseid,â deep bass and doom-laden beats grind beneath a brittle performance by Taiwanese rapper æœPAN, and a Bollywood sample butts up against drum nâ bass on â4ĂM.â On an album as sonically diverse as Miss Anthropocene, the most significant thread that holds it all together is Boucherâs wild imagination and commitment to experimenting with her sound. And the result is a challenging exploration of the conflicting boundaries and boundlessness of personhood, technology, and society. Anna Richmond
HAIM, Women in Music Pt. III
While thereâs plenty of genre-hopping on Women in Music Pt. IIIâhip-hop, reggae, folk, heartland rock, and danceâHAIM has created an album thatâs defined not just by exploration, but by their strong sense of individuality. Unlike the sparkling, thoroughly modern production of 2017âs Something to Tell You, this albumâs scratchy drums, murky vocals, and subtle blending of acoustic and electronic elements sound ripped straight from an old vinyl. Itâs darker, heavier fare for HAIM, for sureâa summer party record for a troubled summer. HAIMâs instincts to veer a little more left of the dial result in an album that strikes a deft balance between the experimental and the commercial, the moody and the uplifting. Youâre unlikely to hear these songs on Krogerâs in-store playlistâon which 2017âs âLittle of Your Loveâ seems to have become a permanent staple alongside the likes of âEye of the Tigerâ and âI Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)ââbut these songs are riskier, and ultimately that much more rewarding. Jeremy Winograd
Lilly Hiatt, Walking Proof
Lilly Hiattâs songs are disarmingly personal and immensely endearing, even when sheâs singing about fucking upâwhich is pretty often. Thereâs an almost parasocial element to Hiattâs songwriting: Her voice is like that of an old friend whoâs perpetually in various stages of getting her shit together. Hiattâs fourth album, Walking Proof, forms something of a thematic trilogy with her last two albums: 2015âs Royal Blue, a portrait of a relationship in its death throes, and 2017âs harder, darker Trinity Lane, which depicted its immediate aftermath. Hiatt spent both albums seeking solace and guidance for her troubles everywhere she could, from family to her favorite records. On Walking Proof, sheâs emerged wiser and more confident, ready even to dispense advice of her own. She also finds herself in full command of her broad stylistic palette, melding influences as disparate as backwoods country and garage punk into a cohesive signature sound. There are a couple of lingering references to Hiattâs past relationship problems. But when, in the hauntingly stark closer âScream,â she claims, âI swear to God Iâm done with him,â itâs convincing this time. Winograd
Carly Rae Jepsen, Dedicated Side B
A defining feature of last yearâs Dedicated was Carly Rae Jepsenâs embrace of her sexualityâa topic the singer had, for the most part, previously sidestepped in favor of more chaste subject matter. The dozen songs that comprise Dedicated Side B, all leftovers from the original recording sessions, double down on pillow talk, lending the album a uniformity that its predecessor lacked. That songs as strong as the sublime âHeartbeatâ and the anthemic âSoloâ were left off Dedicated speaks to not just the wealth of treasures she had to choose from, but her ability to craft a cohesive narrative. âIâm at a war with myself/We go back to my place/Take my makeup off/Show you my best disguise,â Jepsen offers wistfully on the meditative âComeback,â demonstrating the tangled multi-dimensionality of both her own psyche and the act of sex itself. Alexa Camp
The Best Games of 2020 (So Far)
Making the old new again could be the mantra of this yearâs gaming.
There are various reasons why the games on this list are our favorites of the year so far, but the key one is how many of them are so strikingly illustrative of how the old ways of gaming are increasingly evolving into something resolutely new. Doom Eternal and Streets of Rage 4 showed that small tweaks to well-established gameplay modes could breathe new life into beloved franchises. Countless technological advancements made in the 13 years since the release of Half Life 2: Episode 2 have allowed for the world of this iconic series to be realized anew, and in virtual reality, with Half-Life: Alyx.
Elsewhere, Final Fantasy VII Remake not only shows how far games have come graphically in 23 years, but also how storytelling sensibilities have shifted. Yes, the gameâs battles are more active and strategic than ever, its characters more well-rounded, its environments more breathtakingly expansive, but itâs most impressive for the way its narrative engages with our memories and interrogates our expectations of what a remake should be.
Indeed, making the old new again could be the mantra of this yearâs gaming. But sometimes whatâs new today is simply what was unseen, or unheard, yesterday. An eraser is the dominant mechanic of If FoundâŠ, and how a trans woman from the west coast of Ireland is pushed toward erasure is its dominant theme. And The Last of Us Part II not only centers the experience of the queer surrogate daughter of the first gameâs prototypical white male protagonist, it evinces a hyperawareness about the nature of violence in games and the world at large.
For those of us whoâve been playing video games since a young age, thereâs something comforting about sitting with a great game and realizing that the medium has grown with us. Like a best friend, such a game sometimes even gives you a gentle ribbing, as in the way Lair of the Clockwork God addresses our evolving tastes and the mediumâs growth head-on, constantly breaking the fourth wall to point out how itâs updating platformer and adventure conventions. And in 2020, when the world is continuing to predictably and catastrophically disappoint us, that this industry is still surprising and delighting us feels like a salve. Aaron Riccio
Alderâs Blood (Shockwork Games)
Alderâs Bloodâs intimidating and intense sense of atmosphere, the need for precise decision-making, and even the term âHunterâ register as a strong nod to Bloodborne. But whereas Bloodborne was just another incarnation of the hack-and-slash, lock-on-and-dodge formula that was popularized by Dark Souls, this game shakes up the foundation of a long-standing genre, stretching the familiar into a realm of nightmarish wonder. Not even leveling up from consecutive victories dampens the bleakness of Alderâs Blood. Each Hunter creeps toward insanity, which forces the player to commit bloody human sacrifices in order to transfer experience points to new heroes. Here, success is more ephemeral than it ever has been in a turn-based tactics game, implying that a godless world should not be coveted. Jed Pressgrove
Desperados III (Mimimi Games)
This first installment in the Desperados series since the 2007 spinoff Helldorado is a prequel, and it opens with a flashback to protagonist John Cooperâs last adventure with his bounty hunter father, during which he learns to âthink slow, act fast.â Thatâs basically the modus operandi of German-based Mimimi Gamesâs latest, because deliberate, stealthy gameplay is the playerâs key to victory. For one, itâs more than satisfying to watch your minutes-long action planning, of furtive repositioning and queuing of unique skills, result in the swift and simultaneous sacking of guards at the hands of your five colorful posse members. While the plot and characters in Desperados III may be familiar, and the gameplay recalls that of other modern real-time tactics titles like Mimimi Gamesâs previous Shadow Tactics: Blade of the Shogun, each scenario feels distinct. Youâll need different skills to burn down a riverboat than you do to blow up a bridge or defend a ranch. Even slight shifts in terrain and available party members (or their inventories) serve to shake up your tactics. Riccio
Doom Eternal (id Software)
Doom Eternal is another frantic dance through meaty pink grottos and wide-open metallic arenas littered with colorful pickups, environmental hazards, and enemies. Where so many shooters opt for verisimilitude, thereâs something primal and thrilling to id Softwareâs further embrace of video-gamey conventions, complementing the floating power-ups with extra lives and optional challenges. This is a game blissfully liberated from the shackles of plausibility and realism, demanding constant motion and engagement to manage health, ammo, and armor that you pull from demon carcasses via fist, fire, and chainsaw. Throughout, the variables crash together in endless, enthralling permutations as the weapons, their modifications, and the upgrades to those modifications create combos against the encroaching hordes. Everything has its response, its counter, and its priority, each of them shifting constantly as new demons appear and your ammunition dwindles. Steven Scaife
Final Fantasy VII Remake (Square Enix)
Final Fantasy VII Remake is directly in dialogue with the player about what a remake can and probably should be, about how much of a waste it might be to proceed past the endpoint of this particular storyâessentially the moment in the original where youâre allowed to freely explore the world outside Midgarâand realize that the journey and the outcome has remained the same. Youâre given the chance to choose a different path, to face a literal hideous embodiment of the hands of fate in the gameâs climax. Itâs a forceful, kinetic statementâthat this remake should not be bound by what we already know. And as monstrous as it can be, the symbolism of that gesture is incredibly daring. The game flips the script on the very idea of nostalgia being the only guiding creative force behind a remake, making it another enemy to be slain. The final hours of this game constitute an extraordinary act of subversion, actively challenging us through gameplay to expect more. Justin Clark
Half-Life: Alyx (Valve Corporation)
Creating a sequel-slash-prequel to an iconic video-game series 13 years in cryosleep is just as an unenviable a task as launching a big-budget title using new technology that might evolve the entire medium, yet Valve delivers with Half-Life: Alyx. Returning fans to the sci-fi nightmare of City 17, a young Alyx Vance fights the omnipresent alien invasion alongside other members of Earthâs resistance, pulled into a plot to rescue a mysterious individual who disappeared some 20 years earlier. While Half-Life: Alyxâs core gameplay doesnât deviate too far from that of other VR titles, Valve has refined the exploration, shooting, and physics puzzles that this series is known for into something that isn’t played as much as it is experienced. In Half-Life: Alyx, fighting the Combine is just as compelling as exploring the derelict buildings of City 17, and being able to lift and inspect and throw any object contributes greatly to the gameâs feeling of immersion. Guns are reloaded by physically putting a new mag in and pulling the slide, marker pens draw on whiteboards, and liquid even sloshes around inside bottles. Boasting visuals that border on the photorealistic and intuitive 1:1 controls that feel entirely natural, Half-Life: Alyx pushes virtual-reality gaming to new heights. Ryan Aston
If Found… (DREAMFEEL)
DREAMFEELâs interactive novel If FoundâŠ is mostly told through the early-1990s diary entries of a young Irish trans woman, Kasio, who returns home to Achill Island in Irelandâs west coast from college in Dublin. Scrawled with her memories and feelings, the diaryâs pages tend to be unassuming and use color sparingly, with just a few shades dominating the sketches of people and environments. At times those images will be scribbled out or written over, which is when the player breaks out the eraser. The framing device for purging Kasioâs diary isnât totally clear until the very end of the game, leaving you to ruminate on the action itself rather than the context. If FoundâŠ never relies on a last-act twist, instead finding its power through the empathy and truth with which it traces the divergent trajectories of so many relationships. And if the sci-fi elements donât totally land, the strength of its characters and the specificity of its Irish setting most certainly do. Scaife
Kentucky Route Zero: TV Edition (Cardboard Computer)
Kentucky Route Zero is a game often content to remain as mysterious as its namesake, an underground highway seemingly unbound by physical laws. Any fights, between unions and predatory companies, have already happened or doubtless will happen again. Instead, it explores the aftermath of cultural devastation, of how people survive in the ruins of the American experiment and how they build atop (or beneath) that wreckage, with the strange reality meant to represent what capitalism has done to the world. The magic is there, only contained and warped by the society that has grown around it. The charactersâ paths narrow as the game continues, as the fist of an unfeeling system closes and people are overwhelmed by weaknesses; you drift from the role of driver to the person being driven to a simple observer of whatâs to come. The people you encounter are refugees of greed and exploitation and obsolescence, and thereâs a sliver of hope as they defiantly continue, finding pleasure in creation and companionship. They write, they compose, they perform, and they record, inspired by past struggles and a world content to forget its own history beyond facile preservation attempts in arbitrary little museums. After seven years, this visionary masterpiece concludes, an impressionist portrait of people doing what they can in a world that will never recover. Scaife
Lair of the Clockwork God (Size Five Games)
âWhy play only one genre of game when you could be playing two slightly different ones at the same time?â Thatâs a somewhat misleading tagline for Lair of the Clockwork God, as you never simultaneously control the gameâs self-aware protagonists, Dan and Ben. Rather, you swap between them, as well as control schemes. Dan is a platformer enthusiast who refuses to interact with objects, while Ben is a stubborn LucasArts point-and-click adventure junkie who doesnât care to jump. Figuring out how to use the skills we associate with their favorite genres of game to navigate through a Peruvian jungle, apocalyptic London, and an alien spaceship results in a game thatâs fresher and more innovative than yet another standalone platformer or adventure game would be. Lair of the Clockwork God is an exciting way for creators Dan Marshall and Ben Ward to not only set it apart from their prior Dan and Ben titles (Ben There, Dan That and Time Gentlemen, Please), but to successfully extend their lovingly parodic style to a much broader range of genres. Riccio
The Last of Us Part II (Naughty Dog)
The consequences of Joelâs stunning decision at the conclusion of The Last of Us come home in the gameâs sequel, which opens with a brutal execution as seen through Ellieâs eyes. Abandoning her relatively carefree life in a Jackson, Wyoming colony, Joelâs surrogate daughter and her romantic partner, Dina, travel to Seattle on a quest for revenge. A shift in perspective reveals the hollowness of Ellieâs vendetta, as sheâs barely a blip on the radar of her supposed antagonists, who are consumed in a larger conflict brewing between two sets of âadultsâ playing war at the cost of countless lives. (If any of the character choices here seem foolish, glance outside at the real world and take in how well weâre doing as humans in our present-day.) While much has been made of this gameâs grueling violence, its smaller moments of intimacy and empathy are what resonate most, with much of the lengthy campaign centered around your aiding of innocents caught in the aforementioned warâs crossfire. In the end, The Last of Us Part II is about moving on from complicated legacies, ones for whom forgiveness might never be possible. Aston
Moving Out (SMG Studio, Devm Games)
Wacky mechanics and obstacles abound throughout the gameâs 50 levels, from Dread Manorâs haunted floating chairs to the Flamethrower Factoryâs titular deathtraps. Each level adds another zany complication to your job. While at first your biggest challenge may be manipulating large or oddly shaped furniture through tortuous hallways, the increasingly outlandish assignments soon become full-on obstacle courses that not only require players to optimize their routes, but to nimbly move in unison across collapsing walkways. All of these various challenges make Moving Out overwhelming in the best possible sense. Even better, accessibility options allow players to modify things like the number of hazards in or the maximum time for each level, which is nice if you want to play with friends of differing skill levelsâand stay cordial with them after a failed level. While the game takes pains to differentiate itself from real-world moving, thereâs one area in which it remains the same, and thatâs in the way it nails that feeling of accomplishment where, at the end of a move, something that once seemed impossible has nevertheless fallen perfectly into place. Riccio
Sheffield Doc/Fest 2020: Mon Amour, Film About a Father Who, & The Kiosk
Thereâs colossal might to a cinematic image achieved through the scrappiest of means.
In the opening narration to his documentary Mon Amour, David Teboul recalls a message that his former lover, FrĂ©dĂ©ric, sent him in the middle of the night before taking his life: âItâs crazy how many things we must invent to keep us from just eating, shitting, and sleeping.â The great organizer of these âmany thingsâ we invent to convince ourselves to be something more than mere organisms is the belief in love. That, anyway, is the idea that organizes Mon Amour as Teboul travels from his native France to Siberia in order to interview locals about their experiences with love, as a way to mourn the end of his own love story.
What Teboul finds in Siberia is quite disheartening: that love, when it materializes in the figure of the lover, burns fast, and what seemed like a panacea to make our miserable world a livable place turns into the poison we call domesticity. Lovers become enemies we canât get rid of. But the little bit of love thatâs saved in the ashes of the deflated mirage that once promised to save us is once in a while rekindled through Teboulâs prodding as he interviews elderly couples who seem to articulate their feelings for the first time in ages.
The very dispositions of these individuals mimic the abyss between what was once a prospect of a pleasurable life and the crude reality of vodka and violence that replaced it. In the rare moments when someone sings the praises of togetherness, they do so by looking down or away, as if addressing their own partners when speaking about love would mean losing the little bit of honor they have left after putting up with so much betrayal.
Although Teboul interviews young people, too, the strongest portraits are those of the elderly, who, on some level, take advantage of their cinematic moment to air their grievances and, once in a while, admit gratitude. A very old-looking woman in her mid-60s who lost her sight from reading too much Pushkin late at night tells us that any other man would surely have left her long ago, but not her husband, who senses when sheâs awake in the middle of the night, makes her tea, and tells her that if she dies he will follow her to the grave. Teboulâs questions can be refreshingly unexpected. As when he asks the woman what her husbandâs favorite body part is. When she whispers the answer into his cute little mushroom ears, you sense that itâs the closest thing to an âI love youâ that he will ever hear. We donât know if his eyes water as she praises his ears, for he looks down and away, before then heart-breakingly saying, âThe main thing is not to suffer, and not to make others suffer.â
Teboul juxtaposes these portraits with digressions about his simultaneously wonderful and dismal times with FrĂ©dĂ©ric. These reflections borrow from Hiroshima Mon Amour, which Teboul watched as a child and has haunted him ever since. FrĂ©dĂ©ric, like Emmanuelle Rivaâs character in that film, was also from Nevers. In these poetic detours, we see barely lit naked bodies meant to represent Teboul and his ghostly lover, recalling the opening of Alain Resnaisâs film. It often feels like these autobiographical avowals, plagued by unnecessary classical music, belong to a different film. But theyâre symbolically important, if not indispensable, as if Teboul was offering a self-implicating gift in exchange for awakening the long dormant intimacies of strangers.
The absence of love, and our insistence on spending our entire lives looking for it anyway, is also at the core of Lynne Sachsâs Film About a Father Who. Sheffield Doc/Fest is screening several of Sachsâs documentaries on its streaming platform. For Film About a Father Who, Sachs spent over three decades amassing footage (from Super 8 to digital) of her father, an eccentric salesman from Utah who lived a Hugh Hefner kind of life, neglecting his children and hosting a different girlfriend almost every night at his official family home. Lots and lots of them got pregnant, which resulted in Sachs having what feels like hundreds of siblings, whose testimonials she collects here. Some didnât know who their father was until they were adults. Others, in order to protect themselves from so much hurt, still think of him as a kind of godfather.
The title of the film is an obvious play on Film About a Woman Who…, Yvonne Rainerâs experimental masterpiece about heteronormativity and monogamy. Rainerâs approach is acerbic, perhaps even folkloric, in the sense that her film portrays one specific woman wallowing in the sinking boat of heterosexual coupledom at the same time that it tells the archetypal tale of heterosexual domesticity writ large. Sachsâs approach feels a lot less multi-layered. Film About a Father Who is so fast-paced and Sachsâs narration so detached, or literal, that it can seem more like an underdeveloped absurdist comedy as random siblings keep turning up out of nowhere to give a brief account of their contradicting feelings toward their father. One of Sachsâs many sisters recounts how their father was arrested for possession of weed when they were kids and how she didnât know whether to weep or jump with joy at the time. But the family constellation in Sachsâs film is so vast we never spend enough time with any one single relative to see them as something other than an element.
Thereâs a sort of North American pragmatic froideur in the film, also present in self-ethnographic films like Sarah Polleyâs Stories We Tell, that Rainer queers through stylistic experimentation, and that Teboul completely avoids by surrendering to melancholia with gusto. There isnât much of a point in self-ethnographies where filmmakers protect their vulnerability through intellectualization, or prod their family wounds with a 10-foot pole. At one point in her narration, Sachs tells her audience that Film About a Father Who isnât a portrait but, rather, her attempt to understand âthe asymmetry of my conundrum.â The film is also shot in such a matter-of-fact manner that you may forget that the father is actually the filmmakerâs. It doesnât help that the father himself pleads the fifth on every question and Sachs often directs her camera elsewhere, toward her siblings, instead of letting it linger on the silent and sad remnants of an aging womanizer.
Alexandra Pianelli also captures aging bodies in The Kiosk, but in a very different fashion. Her film was entirely shot on her phone, which was mostly stuck to her head, and without her ever leaving the tiny area behind the cash register of her familyâs press kiosk in a posh area of Paris. We never see the world outside of Pianelliâs field of vision from her counter, and yet it feels like she shows us the entire mechanics of the contemporary world.
The filmâs subjects are mostly the elderly regulars who seem to show up at the kiosk everyday, for magazines and for Pianelliâs company. Pianelli crafts a tale of hopeful pessimism about humansâ relationship to otherness by explaining the ecosystem of her tradeânamely, the slow decline of the printing industry in France and how the physical circulation of ideas can be the only connection to the world for an aging population that doesnât master digital technology and for whom kiosks play the role of cafĂ©s, pubs, or even the analystâs couch.
When filmmaker Pedro Costa said, at this yearâs International Film Festival Rotterdam, that all one needs to make a great film is âthree flowers and a glass of water,â not âmoney, cars, and chicks,â this is what he means: the colossal might of the cinematic image achieved through the scrappiest of means. The Kiosk is a master class in filmmaking resourcefulness. Pianelli paints a portrait of our times through simple drawings that she makes of her clients, makeshift props and miniature sets made out of cardboard, and the anachronic gadgets around her workstation: a cassette tape player, an early-19th-century clock, coin holders that bear her great-grandparentsâ fingerprints, and the very publications that she sells. Pianelliâs no-nonsense voiceover glues these elements together with the stunning honesty of the unflappable young Parisian for whom difference is an existential aphrodisiac. Thereâs no affectedness here. Itâs as if a refined cinematic object accidently emerged on the road to her making an artisanal project for the sheer pleasure of making something out of dead time.
Pianelli humanizes the figure of the press kiosk clerk who, in turn, humanizes the strangers she comes across, from seniors who spend more time with her than with their own children to the Bangladeshi asylum seeker who goes to her for legal help. In one sequence, Pianelli witnesses a homeless man insistently offering his metro-ticket money to a bourgeois lady upset that the machine wonât take her credit card. We also learn that the demographics of the clientele per day of the week is contingent on what kinds of publications come out on which day, as well as which niche newspapers are the most anti-Semitic, anti-Arab, or pro-monarchy.
Pianelli lets the serious emerge but doesnât dwell on it. Seriousness often comes wrapped up in quirkiness and play, as when she plays a guessing game with the audience, telling us what a random customer will buy before they open their months, solely based on what they wear, and always she gets it right. Men in suits and ties go for either the newspaper Le Figaro or Les Echos, while the well-coiffed ladies who don fur coats gravitate toward Voici, unless Kate Mossâs ass is on the cover of a nearby fashion magazine.
At one point, Pianelli says that she considers herself a seller of dreams. By this she means that each magazine at the kiosk stokes a different fantasy, from a supermodel body to a nation without Arabs. But The Kiosk makes Pianelli a saleswoman of a very different sort. Instead of working as the intermediary between vulnerable denizens and the idealized images that tease and haunt them, she cobbles a much more original fantasy through the bodies they actually have. The kiosk becomes the prototype for the most utopian vision of the public library, or any old space inhabited by a curious mindâan ebullient infinity of poetry and care.
Sheffield Doc/Festâs online platform will be available to all public audiences from June 10âJuly 10.
The Best Films of 2020 (So Far)
Itâs hard to tell whether weâre in the midst of a film apocalypse, a film revolution, or both.
Itâs hard to tell whether weâre in the midst of a film apocalypse, a film revolution, orâmost likelyâboth. The long-predicted collapse of the movie theater as an institution may be underway, though drive-ins seem to be having a moment. Brett and Drew T. Pierceâs low-rent spooker The Wretched led the domestic box office for seven weeks starting in early May, Trolls World Tour became the first studio success story of the year, and Juneâs biggest release wasnât a mega-budget superhero movie, but a Spike Lee joint on Netflix.
Nobody could have seen 2020 coming, but reflecting on the best movies of the first half of the year, itâs clear that unrest was already in the air. Ken Loachâs Sorry We Missed You tracks the devastating, cascading effects of a gig economy on its workersâwhose fates became immediately uncertain when a health crisis locked down the economy. In The Cordillera of Dreams, behind the mountain range that ensconces Chile, documentarian Patricio GuzmĂĄn finds the suppressed record of popular uprisings against Augusto Pinochetâs dictatorshipâimages of militarized police forces attacking unarmed protestors that look unnervingly familiar. Dramas about womenâs experience in Trumpâs America, like Eliza Hittmanâs Never Rarely Sometimes Always and Kitty Greenâs The Assistant, may end up being cinematic landmarks of fourth-wave feminism.
Of course, given our acute sense of living in an historical moment, perhaps weâve been particularly drawn to films that reflect history and history-making, and apt to filter our interpretations through our consciousness of the tumult outside our windows. Even Andrew Pattersonâs enigmatic 1950s-set The Vast of Night, whose Twilight Zone-esque storyâwhich is advanced largely through conversations on various telecommunications networksâabout an unseen menace threatening a small town, feels tied to 2020 in ways that the filmmakers likely did not intend. In the final analysis, cinema canât help but reflect our world, becauseâeven in the absence of theatersâit remains an inextricable part of it. Pat Brown
The Assistant (Kitty Green)
With The Assistant, Kitty Green offers a top-to-bottom portrait of incremental dehumanization, and, on its terms, the film is aesthetically, tonally immaculate. The narrative is set in a film mogulâs Tribeca offices, but it could take place in a branch of any major corporation throughout the world without losing its resonance. This is a pseudo-thriller composed entirely of purposefully demoralizing minutiae, and it’s designed so that we feel as starved for rudimentary human emotion as the young woman, Jane (Julia Garner), at its center. No names are uttered throughout (the name Jane, which brings to mind the anonymity of a Jane Doe, is only stated in the credits), while the mogul is only evoked via male pronouns. Increasingly unsettling details seep into this deadening atmosphere, and after a while it becomes evident that weâre watchingâfrom the perspective of a powerless yet ultimately complicit personâa parable about rich, insulated predators like Harvey Weinstein, and Greenâs grasp of Janeâs indoctrination into this perverse world is impeccably believable. Chuck Bowen
Bacurau (Kleber MendonĂ§a Filho and Juliano Dornelles)
Kleber MendoĂ§a Filho and Juliano Donnellesâs Bacurau assembles a vibrant and eclectic collage of reference points. Itâs a wild neo-western that pulls into its orbit UFO-shaped drones, elaborate folklore, limb-flaying and head-exploding gore, and Udo Kier as a villain who shouts in a mockingly high-pitched voice, âHell no!â The Bacurau of the filmâs title is a fictional town in Brazilâs northeastern interior, depicted here at some point in the not-too-distant future. The citizens live in a relatively undisturbed harmonyâuntil Bacuaru is literally wiped off the map (GPS no longer can locate the backwater), local cell service is jammed, and the people find themselves hunted, A Dangerous Game-style, by gringo infiltrators. MendoĂ§a Filho is one of contemporary Brazilian cinemaâs most sharply political filmmakers, and Bacurau solidifies his commitment to rebuking Brazilâs current administration and its willful erasure of the countryâs culture and heritage. Sam C. Mac
Beanpole (Kantemir Balagov)
Kantemir Balagov has set Beanpole largely in tones of dark amber, bright green and red, and filthy yellow redolent of old incandescent lightingâand itâs the red of upholstery, Soviet imagery, and blood that cuts most forcefully through the brightest of those greens. Cinematographer Kseniya Seredaâs color palette recalls that of Krzysztof KieĆlowskiâs The Double Life of Veronique for the way it gives settings an artificiality that nonetheless brings Beanpoleâs grounded sociopolitical commentary into greater focus. Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko), a nurse working at a Leningrad hospital after the end of World War II, feels trapped in trauma, suffering from recurring fits of full-body catatonia. Her psychological state is magnified by the more visible scars of the soldiers recuperating all around her, adding to the sense that Balagovâs hermetically sealed vision of Leningrad only compounds and reflects Iyaâs PTSD back onto her. The filmmaker may depict the pain of his characters in blunt terms, but he traces the aftershocks of collapse with delicate subtlety. Jake Cole
The Cordillera of Dreams (Patricio GuzmĂĄn)
Patricio GuzmĂĄn understands the totemic power of the long strip of Andean mountains that runs between Chile and Argentina, effectively severing the former from the rest of the world. But the ruefulness in his voice also gets at something else: that this wall of rock and earth is also a mausoleum. Throughout interviews with writers and sculptors, among others, GuzmĂĄn accords to the Cordillera a level of importance thatâs nothing short of reverential. And just at the point where it feels you can take no more of his metaphorical heavy lifting, the documentary gives way to an extended survey of the ravages and legacies of Augusto Pinochetâs regime, including the doctrine of neoliberalism thatâs brought Chile to its knees in the present day. If The Cordillera of Dreams leaves us on a razorâs edge between hope and futility, thatâs by design. GuzmĂĄn knows that the day when those looking for the disappeared are themselves lost to time is an inevitability, and it will be as tragic as the day when there are no more images left to depict the story of that search. But the documentary advances the belief that, until then, we will be stronger for exhorting ourselves to reflection and atonement. Ed Gonzalez
Da 5 Bloods (Spike Lee)
Da 5 Bloods is a mix of genre film and political essay, and it exudes, especially early on, a lurid, confrontational electricity thatâs often been so exhilarating in prior Spike Lee joints. Regarding a Ho Chi Minh City that, with its active nightlife and proliferation of fast food establishments, might be mistaken for a contemporary American city, Eddie (Norm Lewis) says that âthey didnât need us, they shouldâve just sent Mickey Dâs, Pizza Hut, and the Colonel and we wouldâve defeated the VC in one week.â The sly implication is that, one way or another, America got its hands on Vietnam. Minutes later, the Rambo and Missing in Action movies are familiarly criticized for offering a white-man savior fantasy of âwinningâ the war, while Otis (Clarke Peters) reminds us of a true hero, African-American soldier Milton Olive III, who jumped on a grenade for his platoon, a picture of whom Lee briefly and movingly cuts to. These pop-cultural references make us privy to how war is committed and then sold back to us as an often-exclusionary fantasyâa double dip of atrocity. Bowen
First Cow (Kelly Reichardt)
If itâs true, as Balzac had it, that behind every great fortune lies a great crime, then perhaps behind every minor prosperity lies a misdemeanor. In Kelly Reichardtâs First Cow, that petty offense is the theft of some cowâs milk, which gentle-hearted chef Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro) and his friendly yet opportunistic companion, King Lu (Orion Lee), use to build a successful enterprise selling delicious fried honey biscuits in a small, not-quite-established town in 1820s Oregon. Like most of Reichardtâs work, the film is a deceptively diminutive affair, an intimate, almost fabulistic story told with the warmth and delicacy of a childrenâs picture book. Cinematographer Christopher Blauveltâs images honor the verdant lushness of the Pacific Northwest, making us feel as if weâre seeing its Edenic beauty through the soulful brown eyes of Eve, the titular bovine whoâs been brought to this new land by her owner (Toby Jones) as an ostentatious display of his own wealth. But the filmâs boxy 4:3 aspect ratio serves as a constant reminder that Cookie and Kingâs lives (not to mention Eveâs) are ultimately constrained by forces greater than themselves. Even here, at the far distant edges of civilization, the film pensively suggests, the machinery of industrial capitalism is tragically inescapable. Keith Watson
Fourteen (Dan Sallitt)
The dominant theme of Dan Sallittâs Fourteen is the relentless march of time and its indifference to personal hardship. Balancing a fine-grained attention to character with placid detachment, the film traces a decade in the friendship of Mara (Tallie Medel) and Jo (Norma Kuhling), former grade-school friends whoâve sustained their bond into young adulthood, where theyâve both managed tenuous livelihoods in the Big Apple. Through his unannounced and often startling leaps in chronology, Sallitt cultivates a feeling of implicit tension, a growing fissure in Mara and Joâs chemistry that bears itself out in pauses in conversation and in their interactions with a rotating gallery of supporting characters. One of the last times we see Jo, sheâs walking away from camera into a busy Brooklyn intersectionâperhaps a call back to the earlier long take of the train station, a reminder of a larger network of people whose trajectories we ultimately have no control over. In Fourteen, Mara must come to accept the limits of her ability to influence these peripheral lives, and in doing so prompts an evolution of spirit thatâs at once painful and transformative. Carson Lund
The Grand Bizarre (Jodie Mack)
A film thatâs constantly on the move, Jodie Mackâs The Grand Bizarre is a brilliant bonanza of color, texture, and globe-trotting good vibrations. With extensive use of time-lapse photography, stop-motion animation, and quick-cut montages, Mack creates a sense of boundless energy and constant movement, of people and things (but mostly things) in an endless flow around the globe. Mack takes fabricâvibrant, beautifully crafted swatches and scarves from a range of different culturesâas her central image, seeing them on trains and planes, popping out of suitcases, on the beach, in rear-view mirrors, and in dozens of other configurations that present them not as objets dâart to be admired in some folk art museum, but as products moving in the international stream of capitalism. The Grand Bizarre is a rumination on human creativity, and itâs so idiosyncratic and highly personal that it ends with the directorâs sneeze. Itâs also one of the most purely enjoyable works of avant-garde cinema made this century. Watson
Heimat Is a Space in Time (Thomas Heise)
Documentary cinemaâs most popular formal device is the so-called Ken Burns effect, that famous slow-motion slide across an archival photo until the camera settles on the main subject of the image. Heimat Is a Space in Time abundantly indulges this device but never quite in the way you might expect. Instead, filmmaker Thomas Heiseâs photographic material creeps across the screen as if it were a tectonic plate, indifferent to the camera documenting it, which often only catches human faces for a brief moment before dwelling in negative space. All this time spent contemplating blown-up grain and blur might seem counterproductive in a film that, at least on paper, is a survey of 20th-century German history through the lens of Heiseâs own genealogy. But the emphasis on the micro over the macro extends to every facet of this sprawling four-hour work, which seeks to excavate real human thought and feeling beneath the haze of larger political structures. Lund
LibertĂ© (Albert Serra)
As they move inexorably forward in time, Albert Serraâs films donât crescendo so much as peter out. In Story of My Death, the harbinger on the horizon is the return of irrational, Romantic thinking in the late 18th century, which would effectively smother the enlightened libertinism that the story otherwise wallows in. And in The Death of Louis XIV, itâs the fate promised by the title, to which the film marched with solemn certitude. Serraâs new film, the audaciously perverse and amorphous LibertĂ©, doesnât give up its game so readily. Nearly without narrative conflict, it homes in on a long night of sexual experimentation among a group of libertines hiding out from the French courts on the Prussian border in the late 17th century, and for much of LibertĂ©âs duration, the only things generating forward momentum are the subtly escalating intensity of the acts themselves and the faint expectation, however ruthlessly exploited, that the sun will eventually rise again. Lund
The 100 Best LGBTQ Movies of All Time
Cinema isnât the sole mechanism for making our presence known, but it can be among the most powerful.
Four years ago this month, in the aftermath of the attack on Orlandoâs Pulse nightclub, one call to action rose above the din: âSay their names.â New Yorkers chanted it steps from the Stonewall Inn. The mother of a child gunned down at Sandy Hook penned it in an open letter. The Orlando Sentinel printed the names. Anderson Cooper recited them. A gunman murdered 49 people and wounded 53 others in the wee hours of that awful Sunday, massacring LGBTQ people of color and their allies in the middle of Pride Month, and the commemoration of the dead demanded knowing who they were. âThese,â as MSNBCâs Lawrence OâDonnell urged his viewers, âare the names to remember.â
The titles on our list of the best LGBTQ movies of all time are a globe-spanning, multigenerational testament to our existence in a world where our erasure is no abstraction. From Carl Theodor Dreyerâs Michael to Todd Haynesâs Carol, naming and seeing emerge, intertwined, as radical actsâacts of becoming (Sally Potterâs Orlando) and acts of being (Shirley Clarkeâs Portrait of Jason), acts of speech (Marlon Riggsâs Tongues Untied) and acts of show (Jennie Livingstonâs Paris Is Burning) that together reaffirm the revolutionary potential of the seventh art. âMy name is Harvey Milk,â the San Francisco supervisor, memorialized in Rob Epsteinâs The Times of Harvey Milk, proclaimed in 1978, less than one year before his assassination. âAnd Iâm here to recruit you!â
The cinema isnât the sole mechanism for making our presence known, but it can, if the films listed below are any indication, be among the most powerful, projecting the complexities of the LGBTQ experience onto the cultureâs largest, brightest mirror. Thereâs rage here, and also love; isolation, and communal spirit; fear, and the forthright resistance to it. These films are essential because we are essential: The work of ensuring that we arenât erased or forgotten continues apace, and the struggle stretches into a horizon that no screen, no matter its size, can quite capture. But this is surely a place to start. Matt Brennan
Editor’s Note: The prior version of this list, published on June 7, 2019, can be found exclusively on our Patreon page.
Michael (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1924)
Many critics have chosen to downplay the filmâs gay subtext, but to do so would deny the power of Carl Theodor Dreyerâs fastidious attention to the polarity of loveâs vicissitudes. If stripped of the notion that the artist Zoretâs (Benjamin Christensen) attraction toward his titular muse (Walter Slezak), whose alleged bisexuality is clearly of a solely opportunistic strain, is physical as well as social, Michael essentially becomes an embittered (and fairly rote, despite the astonishingly suffocating mise-en-scĂšne) tale of two cuckolds. Eric Henderson
MĂ€dchen in Uniform (Leontine Sagan, 1931)
An early landmark of queer cinema, Leontine Saganâs MĂ€dchen in Uniform sees youthful desire as fluid, disorienting, and rebellious. Sagan sensitively regards the female camaraderie within the confines of a strict German all-girls school, as well as the burgeoning lustfulness of the teenage Manuela (Hertha Thiele). The young girlâs affection for her sympathetic teacher, Fraulein von Bernberg (Dorothea Wieck), is expressed and reciprocated through furtive glances and brief sensual gestures that hint at an underlying and forbidden passion that can never come to fruition. Released just prior to the rise of the Third Reich, Saganâs tender portrait of unrequited love in the midst of oppression both excoriates the regressive ideals of the schoolâs, and by proxy, the nationâs, power structures and advocates instead for compassion, tolerance, and the normalization of all forms of desire. Derek Smith
The Blood of a Poet (Jean Cocteau, 1932)
Enrique Riveroâs shirtless torso remains the most enduring emblem of Jean Cocteauâs The Blood of a Poet, whether the actor is clutching his bare chest after witnessing his palm sprout a pair of lips or peering through keyholes while drifting through a gravity-free hallway. But this surrealist masterpiece isnât merely about flesh; rather, the body becomes an entry point to memory and art, where hands and mouths breed images to defy the mind. Decades of close readings, whether along psychological or self-reflexive lines, have been unable to diminish or demystify the filmâs effervescent sensuality. Clayton Dillard
Beauty and the Beast (Jean Cocteau, 1946)
Much of Beauty and the Beastâs deep magic comes from Jean Cocteauâs sense of himself as a vulnerable beast in love: In his mid-50s when he made the film, Cocteau was openly gay in an often viciously homophobic post-Vichy France, an opium addict, plagued by skin-disfiguring eczema, and yet still enamored of his much younger star, the Adonis-like Jean Marais, his sometime-lover and great friend and collaborator. In Maraisâs triple roleâas the monstrous yet tender-hearted Beast; Avenant, the hunky but caddish suitor of Josette Dayâs La Belle; and the ensorcelled Prince Ardent, whom the Beast is ultimately revealed, with some ambivalence, to beâthe actor lends virtuosic as well as symbolic appeal to Cocteauâs cinematic inquiry into the complex interplay of identification and desire. Max Cavitch
Fireworks (Kenneth Anger, 1947)
Fireworks inaugurates not merely Kenneth Angerâs own private mythology, but also the subversive expression of gay sensuality in American film, a torch carried into the early days of the New Queer Cinema. A veritable dictionary of homoerotic iconography, it is also, literally, a home movie shot while Angerâs parents were away for the weekend, and a transfixing view of the violence and seditious rapture of being âdifferentâ in the 1940s. Fernando F. Croce
Un Chant dâAmour (Jean Genet, 1950)
Jean Genetâs overpowering 1950 short, Un Chant dâAmour, is a milestone not just of gay rebellion, but also of pure sensual expression in film, a polemical vision of desire forged with the provocateurâs randy ardor and the artistâs spiritual directness. Having never made a film before or after, Genet nevertheless had an in-the-bone awareness of the medium as a procession of rapturesâvisual, cosmic, sensualâthat could match and expand the passion of words on a page. Croce
Strangers on a Train (Alfred Hitchcock, 1951)
Alfred Hitchcock knew what he was doing casting the plush-lipped Farley Granger as the straight man in his adaptation of Patricia Highsmithâs cruise-baiting thriller Strangers on a Train. Robert Walkerâs flamboyant Bruno Anthony gets all the ink, but itâs Grangerâs poker-faced, blank-slate attractiveness as Guy that captures the illicit thrill of the chase. And the consequence. Once Bruno has availed Guy of his inconvenient woman and Guy refuses to return the favor, Bruno sets out to integrate himself into Guyâs social circle and carry with him the threat of exposure and public shame. Their erotic one-upmanship reaches its breaking point in one of Hitchcockâs gaudiest set pieces, a runaway-carousel climax depicting their rough trade of blows amid contorted petrified horses whose pinions look like theyâre pornographically violating their sockets. Henderson
Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray, 1955)
The most complicated aspect of Rebel Without a Cause, and the thing that makes it seem daring even today, is its depiction of sexuality. Nicholas Ray brings Natalie Woodâs beauty into full flowering and gets a simple, touching performance from her. And with Sal Mineo, he craftily put together a portrait of a tormented gay teenager. Stewart Sternâs script tells us that Plato is searching for a father figure in Jim (and Platoâs famed locker photo of Alan Ladd shows that he wants a Shane-type father, not a lover), but the way Mineo looks at James Dean leaves no modern audience in doubt as to what his real feelings are. Dan Callahan
Victim (Basil Dearden, 1961)
Thereâs a striking sense of fatalism that infuses Basil Deardenâs masterful Victim, a scathing examination of Englandâs rampant homophobia and problematic social codes. Dick Bogarde plays Melville Farr, a closeted lawyer victimized by an elaborate blackmail scheme targeting high-profile gay men. Constructed like a detective film, Victim follows Farrâs investigation into the various catacombs of the London elite, where far-reaching compromise and repression construct a pressure cooker of emotional fear. Since homosexuality is illegal in England at the time, Farrâs stake in the vexing search for the truth is both personal and professional. Mostly, Victim is fascinating for its consistent attention to the complex emotions of its gay characters, men who often show an unwavering honesty in respect to their sexuality. âI canât help the way I am, but the law says nature played me a dirty trick,â one particularly conflicted character says, and this type of substantive dialogue reveals Dearden as a surveyor of progressive ideologies way ahead of the norm. Heath
Flaming Creatures (Jack Smith, 1963)
Flaming Creatures was Jack Smithâs first finished film. Well, in truth, itâs his only finished film, since it ricocheted out of his hands when a trend of underground film raids made his opus a trophy for either side of a decency debate. Seized at the same time as Jean Genetâs Un Chant DâAmour and Kenneth Angerâs Scorpio Rising, it made it all the way to the Supreme Court, who could detect little value in its over-exposed rumpus of genitalia, transvestitism, baroque orgies, and dance dervishry. Meanwhile, Susan Sontag and Jonas Mekas heralded the film as high art, hijacking (so Jack saw it) his vehicle to bolster their tastemaker status. Bradford Nordeen
The Servant (Joseph Losey, 1963)
If gayness remains figured as a malignant force in The Servant (a half-acknowledged deviance here mobilized in the pursuit of manipulation and personal gain), thereâs also something undeniably thrilling about watching it wind its destructive path, vivified by Joseph Loseyâs taut pacing, stylish formal play, and distressing-as-ever atmospherics. A film such as this probably couldnât be made now without cries of protest over its representational politics, which is probably a good thing. Matthew Connolly
Scorpio Rising (Kenneth Anger, 1964)
Scorpio Rising merges Kenneth Angerâs fascination with rough trade with his burgeoning interest in the Dark Arts, at least as it applies to the standard âsex, drugs, rock nâ rollâ scene. What begins with references to James Dean and the soaring beefcake photography of Bob Mizer ultimately ends in a whirl of skulls, swastikas, the spiritual sacrilege of pissing on the Catholic altar, and the societal blasphemy of rubbing mustard into the crotch of a stripped leather geek. This is the Gospel according to Anger. Henderson
My Hustler (Andy Warhol, 1965)
The commodification of desire (and the desire in commodification) have rarely been examined with the cool wit of Andy Warholâs landmark film. Whose hustler is Paul America, the blond stud whom we first see lolling about on a Fire Island beach? Men and women of various sexual orientations spend the filmâs 67-minute running time lusting after, bitching about, probing into, and yearning for this midnight cowboy. Throughout, America remains a lanky libidinal enigma, or maybe just a chiseled blank slate. He embodies a distinctly Warholian vision of queer erotics thatâs tantalizingly ambiguous, achingly aloof, and always connected to that essential bulge in your pants: your wallet. Connolly
Portrait of Jason (Shirley Clarke, 1967)
In Portrait of Jason, Jason Hollidayâs waning lucidity becomes a clever rhetorical weapon against Shirley Clarkeâs occasional attempts to turn him into an icon of the gay black experience. But she wins out overall, and quite devilishly. As Jason sinks into disorientation, the clarity of the skull perched on the bookshelf behind him increases. When he breaks down after being harangued by off-screen voices, his tears feel nearly funereal. Jason exposes his self-destructiveness to Clarke because he intuits that the resulting object will outlive himâand that it will allow him to outlive himself, and his self-destructiveness. Heâs correct. But the film is a conversation between two disadvantaged artists with indelible personalities, both of whom are unabashedly manipulating their way into at least the esoteric side of the everlasting. Clarkeâs portrait immortalizes Jason in the same sense that a death maskâone covered in its sculptorâs quick, pithy fingerprintsâmight preserve its subjectâs uncanny likeness. Lanthier
Funeral Parade of Roses (Toshio Matsumoto, 1969)
Toshio Matsumotoâs Funeral Parade of Roses takes the thematic and stylistic template of Hiroshima Mon Amourâtraumatic memory, documentary interests, elliptical editingâand further layers it with reflexive elements related to the nature of identity as it pertains to a group of queens in Tokyoâs Shinjuku district. Matsumotoâs Oedipal tale has influenced directors from Stanley Kubrick to Tsai Ming-liang, but the film remains a singular work on the ways gender performance, whether in sexual practice or art, ubiquitously informs human behavior and interaction, right down to a trick who asks Eddie (PĂźtĂą) if she likes his muscles before lifting a chair to narcissistically show them off. Dillard
The Boys in the Band (William Friedkin, 1970)
Mart Crowleyâs 1968 play The Boys in the Band, whose melodramatic act-two truth-telling owes a significant debt to the bitter gaming of Whoâs Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, isn’t a great one. Shot in the year of Stonewall, William Friedkin’s film adaptation is indeed a time capsule of its eraâs mores, but if Crowleyâs limited palette of self-loathing and camp-drenched cattiness made the play an instant âperiod pieceâ per Vito Russo, the notion that it blames these men for their fears and lies (which sat well with moralists viewing it as a cautionary tale) seems a clear misreading. The dishy wit and behavioral truths of its late-â60s demimonde of sophisticated New York homos doesnât dilute the unnerving shame and emotional warfare that explode in its scabrous second act. The partygoers are caught in the tragedy of the pre-liberation closet, a more crippling and unforgiving one than the closets that remain. Michaelâs (Kenneth Nelson) final wishââIf we could just learn not to hate ourselves quite so very muchââhas been largely fulfilled. Not quite so very much. Weber
Trash (Paul Morrissey, 1970)
With her googly eyes, a nest of burgeoning dreads atop her head, and a pronounced overbite that turns her lips into a pair of string beans, the transgender Holly Woodlawnâs untraditional sort of glamour lends a surprising poignancy to the wrenching scene when she unleashes a volcanic tantrum of violated trust, festering jealousy, and, ultimately, wounded pride at the realization that perhaps itâs her and not heroin that keeps Joe Dallesandroâs cock flaccid in bed. The frazzled, cracked-glass-Cassavetes close-ups that Paul Morrissey bequeathed to her talent caught the eye of none other than George Cukor, who started an ultimately unsuccessful petition campaign in support of an Oscar nomination. Oscars, schmoscars. To call Hollyâs performance in Trash one of the very greatest in all of cinema would be an understatement. Henderson
Death in Venice (Luchino Visconti, 1971)
An aging composer, Gustav von Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde), takes refuge in a resort to recharge his intellectual energies, only to be completely unsettled by the beauty of a blond adolescent boy whoâs also staying at the resort. Luchino Viscontiâs masterful Death in Venice tackles complicated notions of idealization, adult-child affection, and the virtual impossibility of reciprocity with a philosophical depth that never feels immaterial. It also features a grand finale set to Gustav Mahlerâs magnificent âSymphony Number 5â where beauty, and the desire it begets, is proven to not stand a chance before manâs propensity for annihilation. Diego Semerene
Pink Narcissus (James Bidgood, 1971)
At this point in American underground cinema, gay directors were celebrating those sweet sticky things in contexts cerebral and performative (Flaming Creatures) and matter-of-factly declarative (Wakefield Pooleâs bawdy of work). Photographer James Bidgoodâs Pink Narcissus transcends any niche descriptor that appliesâqueer, camp, avant-garde, softcore, documentary expressionismâand plunges into the deep end of consciousness-annihilating erotic desire. If Cate Blanchettâs Carol marveled, to her romantic conquest, âI never looked like thisâ (a pretty hot line in its own right), Pink Narcissus flips the equation to explore the electric sexual charge of finding in others the things that are also available at oneâs own fingertips. Henderson
Sunday Bloody Sunday (John Schlesinger, 1971)
Though it depicts an eventful week in the lives of two semi-swinging LondonersâDaniel, a gay doctor (Peter Finch), and Alex, a divorced civil servantâs scion (Glenda Jackson)âwho begrudgingly share the affections of an aimless bohemian named Bob (Murray Head), Sunday Bloody Sunday is almost naĂŻvely nonpolemical. No one needs to fight for the right to screw who they want, when they want, and with whatever paucity of adjoining obligations. It simply happens, with very little effort. Even the sex act itself is continually viewed as a compromise between two passive bodies; here director John Schlesinger foregoes the carnal thrusting that forced an X rating upon his previous film, Midnight Cowboy, instead showing blemished layers of flesh curled delicately and forgivingly up to one another. This calmness is never titillating, and thus never exploitative. But we soon learn that the characters are treating themselves and each other with such quiet unfairness that to exploit them visually would be crude and redundant. Lanthier
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