The third season premiere episode of Big Love, “Block Party,” scripted by series creators Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer and directed by Daniel Attias, is, in many ways, a microcosm for the series itself. It dabbles in the show’s most pertinent themes (the clash of modern society and religious fundamentalism, the role of women within fundamentalist traditions and the hard work of building a functional marriage). It offers up a story that tries to cram in one plotline too many (the series is usually better when it focuses on two or three storylines per episode, and it almost always tries to focus on four or five). And it’s only fitfully interesting when it focuses on the hardcore polygamists at the Juniper Creek compound (a setting that grew marginally more interesting in season two but still feels like the only thing in HBO history to be in a series thanks to network notes) or the business world of Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton, aging surprisingly quickly in HD), but it comes to life any time it focuses on Bill’s three wives or his teenage children. The series also proves again how much of a haven it is for a bounty of actresses Hollywood has just never been able to utilize all that well, and it even fits in a few sly polygamy-as-gay-marriage commentaries around the edges. It isn’t a perfect episode (it’s not a perfect show), but it is a good one and a very entertaining one (which, again, would describe the show itself).
If Big Love’s first season was simply about getting all of its pieces on the sprawling chessboard that is its very premise and the second season was all about examining internal threats to the Henrickson family, season three seems as if it will be about the Henricksons banding together to survive outside threats, from neighborhood gossip to the lure of the outside world to the attempts to bring down Roman Grant (Harry Dean Stanton), the head of the Juniper Creek gang and a man Bill has never had much love for but with whom he has to keep making alliances to hold off other, greater threats. Fitting, then, that if season two was a showcase for Jeanne Tripplehorn’s Barb as she questioned her decision to allow her husband to take multiple wives (that Tripplehorn wasn’t even nominated for an Emmy was probably that perpetually out-of-touch award show’s biggest blunder last year), season three would appear to be a showcase for Chloë Sevigny’s Nicki Grant, Bill’s second wife. Nicki was perhaps the show’s most problematic and least fully realized character in its first season, when she often simply seemed to be slotted into a villainous role, but Sevigny and the writers found a more interesting center to the character in season two, making her a woman who is as out-of-place in the suburb she lives in as she possibly could be.
It’s appropriate that a third season dedicated to observing outside threats to the Henrickson lifestyle would take Nicki as its focus. Not only is she Roman’s daughter and the subject of most of the aforementioned neighborhood gossip (mostly stemming from who her father is, since he’s the subject of a massive investigation into his sexual proclivities and his taking of child brides), but she’s also literally the person who clings the most to the creed her family lives by within her family, more so, it often seems, than even Bill. If there’s always the sense that Barb feels a bit frustrated by the turn her life has taken and that Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin) is simply a little too immature to fully grasp the life she has landed in, there’s absolutely no doubt that Nicki is committed to the cause. She really believes every word of the spin on LDS that Bill preaches, and she’s deeply committed to not only this religion but also to her family. It seems the conflict this season will stem largely from Nicki’s attempts to balance her new life as a Henrickson with her old life as Roman’s daughter, and in the premiere, she spent much time using Margie’s identity to obtain a job at the county building and out the identities of the anonymous witnesses in Roman’s trial so Juniper Creek could threaten them. When Big Love sidles into this Sopranos-y territory, it often feels a little too forced, but there was something so niftily incongruous about Nicki being the one involved in the intrigue that it’s the sort of thing you can let slide for a few episodes, so long as it doesn’t dominate the show.
The neighborhood gossip about Nicki came to a head in the beautifully filmed titular block party at episode’s end. As Nicki took to her roof to repair it (something she’d been complaining about throughout the episode), a series of misunderstandings between Bill, Barb and the neighbors led to Bill nearly disclosing the family’s polygamist nature in front of everyone as things got heated between him and a neighbor. The sequence risked being hackneyed, blending as it did a series of somewhat improbable misunderstandings and a “Will Bill be stopped in time?!” ticking clock sequence, but the whole thing concluded with Nicki addressing the whole neighborhood from atop her house, which is the sort of appropriately grand gesture this show does so well and which Sevigny played perfectly. It helped that the whole block party was a testament to how well Big Love uses color to create the Henricksons’ Eden. It never pushes things too far, a la Pushing Daisies, but the Henricksons very obviously live in a stylized world of mostly solid, primary colors (look at the way the costume designers use those colors to help the Henricksons on the ground stand out against the green, green lawns and yet keep Sevigny almost camouflaged against her roof until she stands straight up and stands out against the blue sky). Even when it’s not working on all levels, Big Love is usually a joy to just look at.
Bill, for his part, hatched a scheme to partner with an Indian tribe to build a casino in Idaho that would be pitched to Mormons. (I’m not the world’s foremost Mormon expert, but would this sort of thing REALLY be all that feasible? Mormons have a pretty hard-won reputation for clean living. Would gambling fit in with that credo at all?) His whole plot seemed to encompass the themes that make Big Love the unique, occasionally superb show that it is—the clash of fundamentalist religion with modern society. The moment when the Indian tribal representative’s wife (Noa Tishby) voiced her concerns with the Book of Mormon’s condemnation of Native Americans was just perfectly pitched and played, Bill trying to say that it didn’t REALLY say that, then being called on his misstatement with a direct quote, then being saved by Margie haltingly speaking in Shoshone. Any fundamentalist in modern American society will be forced to confront some things their religious texts say that don’t jibe with the plurality of ideas and peoples we live in (the entire debate over Prop. 8 here in California essentially boils down to supporters of gay marriage finally getting angry enough to have a conversation much like the one in this scene on a national level), and attempts to try to skate around this are often deflected. But these arguments tend to be won on the personal level, and Bill certainly is no racist, even if his religious book says some racist things. For one thing, Bill will work with anyone who will make him money, and for another thing, Bill’s religion has almost entirely been about what most benefits Bill, not some deep path to enlightenment.
It’s Bill’s OTHER plotline—where he continues to court the waitress Anna (Branka Katic)—that REALLY intrigues, since it calls upon more of the nuts and bolts of the polygamist setup, which are always fascinating to learn, and also confronts these questions of personal desire versus religious creed that make the series as a whole interesting. Bill and Anna succumb to their passion and have sex, even as Bill becomes pretty sure that Anna’s not the best fourth wife choice (the lonely Margie seems ever more certain that she is, and Barb, dealing with a health crisis, is ready for just about anything). The strange moral conundrum of the scene (did Bill just cheat on his wives? Is such a thing possible?) and the way Paxton plays the discombobulation of the moments after he removes himself from Anna are perfect. It’s nice to see this plotline be a holdover from season two, where it was one of the best things going.
If there’s a major problem with Big Love at this point, it’s that the Juniper Creek stuff just never rises above the level of occasional interest and occasionally gets downright irritating. There’s an attempt to shoehorn a half-brother of Bill’s into the premiere, but it comes off as a slightly less interesting version of what the show did with Rhonda (Daveigh Chase) last season. The Juniper Creek plotlines are just played too broadly and always have been. Stanton is a compellingly oily presence, but too many of the other characters are still stereotypes and ciphers. This is also true of the scenes set in the world of Bill’s business, but at least Joel McKinnon Miller has made Don Embry another sign of how polygamy can go very, very wrong but in a friendlier guise.
Never mind all of that, though. Big Love is still one of the few shows on television that’s willing to tackle issues of religious devotion (and one of the few that’s taking a hard look at the price the credit crunch is demanding of citizens who coasted along on a long line of easy loans). It’s also about the only show on TV that would do things like have Barb tearfully try to pray her cancer away again and then later sit, wordlessly, rocking Margie’s baby and have Margie peacefully look on. Big Love is good at giving us these tiny moments of paradise and then unleashing the snakes.
Some other thoughts:
• About midway through the episode, there was an absolutely gorgeous establishing shot of what I imagine is the Salt Lake City skyline, a tiny dark cloud drifting across fluffy, white ones. Those tiny, dark clouds are always gumming up the works on this show.
• I didn’t get to say anything about Amanda Seyfried in this episode, but if you mostly know her from Mamma Mia!, check her out here. She’s another talented actress with a very unique look that feature films will probably never really figure out how to utilize, but she’s absolutely terrific as the Henrickson most likely to bolt (and I hope she doesn’t after this season to pursue her film career; I doubt she’ll have it this good again).
• Ginnifer Goodwin is the world’s most perfect woman, and I will not cotton to naysayers. I’m sincerely hopeful that if the show gets a fourth season, it follows the established pattern and focuses on Margene, as the occasional hints dropped about the character’s past are more than fascinating.
• I’m hopeful that the show examines repressed homosexuality more in the weeks to come. Olsen and Scheffer are a couple, and they’ve often used the show to both tweak the slippery slope arguments against gay marriage and also subtly argue for legalized gay marriage. But their portrayals of deeply religious people trying to repress their homosexuality have been haphazard at best, mostly in the form of the too-broad Alby (Matt Ross). I’m intrigued, though, by tonight’s hints that Alby is finally giving in to his desires and by the way the show is playing Heather (Tina Majorino) as someone who is clearly in love with her best friend but has yet to develop an emotional vocabulary to even comprehend that. If the series continues going down this road, expect much more on it in the future.
• Favorite line: “But Bill’s the hot dog man!”
• Teeny’s the latest Henrickson child to be enticed by the sexual mores of the larger society (both Sarah and Ben have been or are involved in sexual relationships), as she’s using porn mags to entice neighbor boys to give her money to look at them. One of the show’s better continuing comments is on how fundamentalists can never fully sexually isolate their kids from the world at large (even Bill’s half-brother was having a sexual awakening on the compound), so it’s nice to see this won’t be dropped any time soon.
• Few shows provoke the kind of mixed critical reaction Big Love does. There are a few folks who like it well enough but don’t get all the fuss, but most people either really, really dislike it or really, really like it. I suspect the premise is just too divisive.
• So how’ve you all been? We haven’t talked since, what, summer of 2007? I have another cat since then! I’ve left my job and found my freelancing dry up since then! I hope you’re all doing better, but lemme know what’s up in comments. Oh, and talk about the episode too, of course.
For more recaps of Big Love, click here.
Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Actress
Sometimes it’s important to just step back and pay your respects to a remarkable actress.
Sometimes it’s important to just step back and pay your respects to a remarkable actress for having given a performance that, while not your, um, favourite nominated one, is still deserving of an Oscar victory lap. Now, if only others felt the same. Very early on in the awards season, there was already a sense that this award could become a career-achievement coronation for the six-time losing Glenn Close—and that people were going to have a problem squaring that with the fact that her Oscar would be tied to a film perceived to be a piffle. That’s not an inaccurate perception, but it’s difficult to remember a time when critics have used that as an excuse to not do their homework.
In short, have you seen The Wife? Indeed, until the awards-media system’s attention shifted full time into covering AMPAS’s A Series of Unfortunate Oscar Decisions, it seemed as if every day brought us a new article by some pundit about the Oscar race in which it strangely sounded as if the The Wife was still a blind spot for the writer. Which is shame, because Close gives good face throughout the film. Certainly, few Oscar-nominated films this year are as absurd as The Wife, but I’ll do battle with anyone who thinks Close is getting by on her legend alone. Close’s triumph is recognizing The Wife’s inherent ludicrousness and elevating it, and without condescension, with a kabuki-like verve that seeks to speak to the experiences of all women who’ve been oppressed by their men. It’s a turn worthy of Norma Desmond.
Today, the most reliable Oscar narrative is the overdue performer. And if you take stock in that narrative, then you’ll understand why I texted Eric, my fellow Oscar guru, the following on the morning of November 29: “I think Close is going to Still Alice at the Oscars.” After that morning, when the New York Film Critics Circle officially kick-started the Oscar season (and gave their award for best actress to Regina Hall in Support the Girls), no actress ran the table with the critics and guilds, but most of the cards that matter did fall into place for Close, and much as they did for Julianne Moore ahead of her winning the Oscar for Still Alice.
This was a done deal when Close won the Golden Globe, received a standing ovation, and gave the night’s most impassioned speech, immediately after which Eric conceded that my instincts had been right. Of course, that was no doubt easy for him to admit given that, by that point, the oxygen had already seeped out of A Star Is Born’s awards campaign, leaving only Olivia Colman in Close’s way. Colman has worked the campaign trail in spectacular ways, giving speeches that have been every bit as droll as this, but in the end, she doesn’t have the SAG, and as bold and subversive as her performance certainly is, it isn’t sufficiently big enough to convince enough AMPAS members that Close should continue waiting for Oscar.
Will Win: Glenn Close, The Wife
Could Win: Olivia Colman, The Favourite
Should Win: Olivia Colman, The Favourite
Berlinale 2019: A Dog Called Money, Lemebel, & Searching Eva
Alongside fiction films depicting emerging voices, nine of the Panorma sidebar’s 45 features are documentaries about creative talents.
The ostensible goal of the Berlinale’s Panorama sidebar is to offer a 360-degree snapshot of the current state of world cinema, but this year its curators seem inordinately concerned with the pursuit of artistry. Alongside fiction films depicting emerging voices—Honor Swinton Byrne as a fledgling filmmaker in Joanna Hogg’s sublime The Souvenir, and Mei Kayama as a cartoonist with cerebral palsy in Hikari’s sweet-natured 37 Seconds—nine of the section’s 45 features are documentaries about creative talents.
Among these, A Dog Called Money is perhaps the most fascinating, albeit for all the wrong reasons. Directed by photographer Seamus Murphy, it charts the making of PJ Harvey’s 2016 album The Hope Six Demolition Project, which was directly inspired by trips the pair took to Afghanistan, Kosovo, and deprived neighborhoods of Washington, D.C. The famously publicity-shy Harvey then took the unlikely step of turning the recording process into an art installation, setting up a pop-up studio in London’s opulent Somerset House, and inviting members of the public to observe her at work through a one-way mirror.
Though the project appears to have been a noble attempt on Harvey’s part to broaden her political and cultural horizons, A Dog Called Money demystifies her creative process in a manner that proves extremely unflattering. Murphy presents the overseas excursions solely as material-gathering missions: We see Harvey exposed to human suffering in various guises, and hear her recite song lyrics that matter-of-factly recount her observations, but are offered no insight into her overarching aims for The Hope Six Demolition Project, and no sense of how these experiences may have affected her worldview.
There’s something strangely distasteful about the way Murphy juxtaposes haunting footage of Middle Eastern warzones and American ghettos with scenes of Harvey, safely cocooned in her sleek studio, joking around with her overwhelmingly white band as they endeavor to distill the world’s misery into a whimsical art project. And frustratingly, the film fails to address the controversy surrounding album opener “Community of Hope,” which describes Washington D.C.’s predominantly black Ward 7 as a “drug town” full of “zombies,” and which led to a local official ridiculously saying that Harvey is “to music what Piers Morgan is to cable news.”
Joanna Reposi Garibaldi’s Lemebel, which just won the Teddy Award for best queer-themed documentary, does a far better job of representing the aspirations and achievements of a politically motivated artist. The film explores the career of late Chilean writer and activist Pedro Lemebel, who spearheaded a public LGBT rights movement amid the hostile environment of Pinochet’s dictatorship. Weaving together evocative archive footage, intimate talking-head interviews, and grainy home movies, Garibaldi charts the formation of Lemebel’s provocative queer collective dubbed the Mares of the Apocalypse, his flair for attention-grabbing performance art, and his masterly manipulation of Chile’s mainstream media.
An erudite raconteur, Lemebel is fascinating when discussing the intersection of LGBT and working-class communities, and appears remarkably ahead of his time when explaining his rejection of the word “gay” and his reclamation of derogatory terms like “maricón.” Occasionally it seems that Garibaldi, who befriended Lemebel years before attempting to make the film, is a little too close to her subject to offer an objective portrait. She fails, for example, to interrogate Lemebel’s conspiratorial views about the origins of AIDS. But given the fearless, trailblazing nature of his work, a somewhat hagiographic approach can be forgiven.
Many would surely balk at the description of Eva Collè, an obscure twentysomething blogger and Instagrammer, as an “artist.” But her scattershot, disarmingly frank musings on Tumblr have inspired a formally ambitious documentary feature, Pia Hellenthal’s Searching Eva. The film delivers an impressionistic account of this nomadic young woman’s compellingly chaotic existence, encompassing her move from conservative small-town Italy to hedonistic Berlin, her professional experiences as a sex worker and fashion model, her embrace of sexual fluidity, and her struggles with drug use and mental illness.
To underscore the fact that Collè elects to live out her daily dramas before an enthralled online audience, the film is narrated by anonymous comments lifted directly from her blogs. But while said comments tend to be either blindly sycophantic or scathingly judgmental, Hellenthal delivers a refreshingly even-handed assessment of the benefits and drawbacks of online culture. Eva seems to derive much of her self-worth from the knowledge that she inspires others to be their authentic selves. And there’s a sense that the barrage of criticism she faces only strengthens her resolve to carve her own path through life.
Hellenthal’s perspective becomes much harder to fathom when she’s exploring Collè’s life philosophy, which seems to boil down to a flat rejection of any label you might try and attach to her. At one point, Eva states her intention never to work a conventional job, on the grounds that the working class must refuse to be defined primarily as a workforce in order to make its mark. But it’s unclear whether Hellenthal regards this as a bold political statement or the pseudointellectual ramblings of a self-involved millennial attempting to justify her decadent existence. Those who suspect the latter will likely have a hard time fully embracing Searching Eva, but its assured approach to nonlinear storytelling makes the journey worthwhile.
Berlinale runs from February 7—17.
Berlinale 2019: I Was at Home, But, So Long, My Son, and Ghost Town Anthology
These films depict in distinctive ways the process of coping with and even accepting the dead’s presence in our lives.
The dead haunt Berlin. The Martin-Gropius-Bau, the museum building in which the Berlinale’s European Film Market is hosted, is still pockmarked with bullet holes from the Battle of Berlin—as are many other buildings in the center of the city. A 10-minute walk north of Potsdamer Platz, the center of the film festival, is the powerful Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, and a 10-minute walk in the opposite direction down Stresemannstraße and you’ll see the bombed-out façade of Anhalter Bahnhof, once one of Europe’s most resplendent train stations. And all over Berlin, you trip over Stolpersteine (or “stumble-stones”), small, square, brass plaques laid into the sidewalk bearing the names of former residents of that street, dispossessed and killed by the Nazis.
Like any city, Berlin is many things, and it’s certainly most known today for much more than its tragic past. But the history of the 20th century is in particular written across its face, and while it can be easy to turn your gaze away from the dead, they remain a part of life in Germany’s capital. Several of the best films up for the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlinale contemplate the persistence of the dead in the lives of the living, depicting in distinctive ways the process of coping with and even accepting this presence in our lives.
Set in Berlin, Angela Schanelec’s I Was at Home, But opens with an anomalous prologue that foreshadows the film’s equal-parts mix of despair and world weariness, of tragedy and banality. A dog excitedly chases a rabbit; the camera catches the rabbit initially running, and then seeming to give up, panting on a rock. In the next shot, the dog is greedily pulling apart the rabbit carcass in its den, a dilapidated building it appears to share with a donkey. It’s a potentially fruitful odd-couple scenario: You can almost read subdued exasperation in the donkey’s face as it ignores its roommate’s greedy consumption of a fellow herbivore.
What does this prologue have to do with the remainder of the film, which concerns a woman, Astrid (Maren Eggert), and her children’s flailing attempts to process the grief of losing their husband and father? This quietly masterful film never even comes close to connecting these threads for its audience, requiring us to make connections on our own. We’ll see a foot being bandaged, but not the event that caused the injury, and characters dancing to entertain someone in a hospital bed, but not the person in the bed. Elsewhere, a needlessly obstinate Astrid demands money back for a perfectly reparable bicycle she bought on the cheap, and middle-school kids perform Hamlet in the most neutral of ways.
These still, vignette-like scenes elliptically narrate Phillip’s (Jakob Lassalle) week-long disappearance and return. Infused with the profound pain of grief and with the consciousness that such pain is both inescapable and futile, a universal tragedy that has played out innumerable times, each scene in I Was at Home, But could stand on its own. Assembled together, they comprise a story told between the lines. When Astrid theatrically collapses in front of a headstone, lying silent and immobile like a stage corpse, we don’t need the camera to show us the name on the grave to let us know which tragedy she’s currently performing.
Wang Xiaoshuai’s So Long, My Son is a pointed critique of China’s one-child policy, which was relaxed in 2013. Cutting between at least four different periods in the life of a couple, Liyun and Yaojun (Mei Yong and Wang Jingchun), whose family is shattered over and over again—first with a forced abortion, then with the drowning death of their biological son, and finally when their adopted son absconds from their home—the film is a stark condemnation of an inhuman measure undertaken for the sake of the ultimately abandoned dream of a workers’ utopia. Surprising for a film produced in a country with heavy censorship, the story is explicit in its political and ethical concerns, demonstrating how China’s strict rules in the 1980s imposed unjust sacrifices on the country’s people only so, as one shot set in today’s Beijing suggests, shopping malls could be erected behind statues of Mao Zedong.
Mixing around the story’s timeline, Wang opens with the death of Liyun and Yaojun’s son, and flashes forward to their adopted son, also named Xingxing, fleeing home, so that Liyun’s coerced abortion feels like a third loss, even though it actually comes first. This captures something of the temporality of regret: The abortion, which Liyun was pressured into having by Haiyan (Haiyan Li), a close friend and local communist party functionary, is the decisive tragedy of their lives. Having been denied the choice of having a second child, Yaojun and Liyun’s repressed grief and self-imposed exile away from the pain of their old relations has excluded them from sharing in the winnings wrought by China’s rise.
The unhappy accidents, betrayals, and suppressed resentment that make up the story could easily lend themselves to overwrought, melodramatic treatment, but Wang’s dedication to the details of Chinese working-class life grounds the film in a reality unmarked by melodrama’s hazy-eyed stylizations. Fine leading performances by Wang and Yong capture the simmering sadness of a life whose fulfillment was precluded by an overbearing ideology. So Long, My Son runs a bit long, piling a few too many poetic parallelisms into a protracted conclusion, but it’s a precisely constructed, deeply felt, and humane drama.
The wackiest of the competition’s films that contemplate loss is Denis Côté’s Ghost Town Anthology, which sees the Quebecois director returning to his favored rural Canadian terrain with an ensemble cast. Shot on grainy 16mm, and somewhat resembling a ‘70s-era drive-in cheapie, the film remixes the iconography of ghost stories and post-apocalyptic thrillers to narrate its characters’ collective confrontation with death.
A town of 215 residents somewhere in Francophone Canada is rocked by what their imperious mayor calls “our first death in a long time,” the presumed suicide-by-car-crash of the 21-year-old Simon Dubé. That Simon’s death is the first in a long time raises a couple of questions about the dreary and desolate village: Where are the old people and, for that matter, where are the children? Côté shows us some children, but they’re strange, impish creatures who wear clay masks and heavy ponchos, and they appear to live in the surrounding woods. When Simon’s car crashes, they play amid the wreckage; later, they chase the frightful, innocent Adele (Larissa Corriveau) into an abandoned garage, backed this time by a group of adults who stand silently behind them in the snow, simply staring forward.
It turns out that the dead are returning but not exactly back to life; this isn’t George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, and the ghostly figures who begin sprouting from the snowy landscape don’t do much of anything but stand and blankly stare. The villagers, accustomed to a life close to outsiders—Côté makes his point clear when a hijab-draped official sent by the government to consult with the mayor elicits cool, suspicious stares from the denizens—are forced by the dead’s mere presence to confront what lies beyond their provincial life. “They’re like us, in a way,” one character muses toward the end of Ghost Town Anthology, a belated realization that the radical difference of death is also a commonality.
Berlinale runs from February 7—17.