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Interview: David Simon Talks Treme, The Wire, Tragedy, and More

Simon spoke with Slant about the challenges and rewards of telling stories from the inside out.

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Interview: David Simon Talks Treme, The Wire, Tragedy, and More
Photo: David Simon, Paul Schiraldi, and HBO

Given the richness his career as a journalist brought to his previous works of narrative TV fiction (Homicide: Life on the Street, The Corner, The Wire, and Generation Kill), critical expectations for David Simon’s new series, HBO’s New Orleans drama Treme, were understandably high. And while Treme is an entirely different kind of television drama than what audiences may have come to expect from Simon, it nevertheless represents a logical progression of his vision, branching out from political and economic analysis of urban America to address questions of culture, community, and creativity. Simon spoke with Slant about the challenges and rewards of telling stories from the inside out, as well as the advantages and disadvantages of writing for the small screen in general.

You began transitioning out of Baltimore-based shows with Generation Kill a couple summers ago. What was it like shooting in Africa, and now working on Treme in New Orleans?

It’s the same as filming in Baltimore. The truth is, filming in poor or working-class neighborhoods anywhere in the world is benign. As long as you’re honest with people, as long as you don’t take advantage, as long as your crew is careful not to disrespect people and not leave a mess behind, people are really very accommodating. It’s when you get into affluent areas that it’s a pain in the ass. It was true in Baltimore and it’s true in New Orleans. It doesn’t matter if you have a permit, it doesn’t matter if you’re paying money to the city, it doesn’t matter if you’re making a donation to a local community center. Whatever you’re doing, it’s not enough. You try not to stay so long [in working-class areas] that you become an irritant. You move around the city, you don’t come back to a location for a couple weeks. And if they see you’re trying to get something a little bit right, they become even more tolerant. So it’s been very easy.

One of the things that excited me most about The Wire and also Generation Kill was the realism that you brought to your dialogue, the way you respected Black American English and corner slang and Marine speech patterns. With Treme, it seems like this respect for maintaining the integrity of dialogue is directed more at the way New Orleans musicians talk about music.

We try to get interior dialogue wherever we can. Mostly we’re working off people we know. [Series co-creator] Eric [Overmyer]’s lived down there for a couple decades and I’ve been visiting since the late ‘80s. We obviously have spent a lot of time talking to people who are in many ways—I guess “muse” is probably too strong of a word, but templates for some of the characters—and how they talk, and trying to avoid vernacular that is Baltimore-y, or from somewhere else in the country. On the other hand, everyone makes a big deal about how New Orleanians talk, but the truth is, there are some distinct accents. There’s a Yat accent that sounds like deep Brooklyn. Louis Primo had that accent. He was from the Irish channel of New Orleans. But a lot people in New Orleans are from somewhere else. There’s a lot of people who are transplants, and there’s a lot of people who have no accent. You walk around the city and you hear a variety of different accents.

But as to how the musicians speak about their gigs and stuff, any time you hear something, you’re writing stuff on a cocktail napkin, going, “Oh, man, I gotta use that.” I think novelists do that, [as do] journalists if they’re working on a feature story. If there’s anything immersive about what they’re doing, they do that. It’s about getting what you can from life.

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It seems like when a lot of the musicians start to talk about music, it’s insular in some ways, or it indicates belonging to a certain kind of group, being able to speak about music in certain ways, being able to describe time signatures or refer to certain performers. Did you consciously choose to maintain a fidelity to that?

You want people to speak as they would speak. You want them to be in their world. That doesn’t mean the writers are musicians who can access it at the drop of a hat or always get it right. Beginning from [our 2000 miniseries] The Corner, the TV that we’ve tried to do is from an interior point of view. It allows for a certain kind of tourism on the part of viewers, but only if viewers are willing to extend themselves. What we perceive of people from the outside can only take you so far. When you walk into a bar and you start meeting people on their own terms, and talking to them in their own vernacular, and trying to understand them, you don’t understand everything right away. And you’re a little confused, or a lot confused. And the next day you understand a little bit more and you go back to the same bar three days later and all of a sudden you’re sort of immersed in a place in a way that tourism doesn’t often allow. And that’s the kind of storytelling that interests me, and it’s from that logic that we’ve preceded.

It’s a mistake on the part of some critics at times to think that if you’re writing from the point of view of a recon Marine, everything the recon Marine says ergo is what the writer wishes to say. That’s insane, and yet you see that, you see people—they believe that because you’re allowing the characters to voice in an interior fashion that you’re embracing that, so the benefit of writing that way is that people really feel as if they’re experiencing some other world, other than their own. That’s a wonderful journey.

I’m currently working on an ethnography on urban culture in Mexico City, so I can relate to what you’re saying.

I have a very funny story about this. When The Corner came out, I [was getting] good reviews, but the book was sort of quietly slipping below the waves, except for anthropologists and sociologists. They wanted to discuss ethnography. Sociology Today wanted to write something on the book.

I also teach an introductory class on ethnography, and we watch the first two episodes of Generation Kill because I feel like the Evan Wright character makes it very explicitly clear what the job of an ethnographer is.

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That’s right. And Evan was brilliant at it. Which is to say, your job is to get out of the way as much as you can and sometimes the way to do that is to let everybody get it out of their system that there’s a funny guy standing in the middle of them with a notepad. He was great at that. “I’ll make myself the butt of the joke and then you’ll move on to other business and I get to watch you.” He was great. Even the Marines I met afterwards were like, “He fuckin’ really wrote that book, we thought he was goofin’.”

So, I want to come back to the question of music a little bit. More than just being a source of livelihood for these characters, and more even than being a kind of national heritage, which you’ve alluded to previously, it almost seems like music—and then, to a lesser extent, cuisine—act as sources of a kind of transcendence in the series, at least for those who are initiated in these cultures or subcultures. So, for instance, when Kermit Ruffins laughs at Davis MacAlary’s suggestion that his talent be reason enough for him to tour with Elvis Costello, is the idea that music should be its own reward? Or that these musicians have a kind of social responsibility to the community that gave birth to them?

That moment actually happened, although it didn’t happen with Elvis Costello. It happened with, I think, Charlie Watts and Ron Wood of the Rolling Stones, who came into Vaughn’s. And Kermit didn’t know who the Rolling Stones were, or had not experienced them on the level the rest of America might have. For him, they were a couple of musicians who came in, “That’s nice, you’re in a band, that’s great,” and somebody was urging him to go make a friend and he just sort of shrugged. So, in some ways, we were referencing a legendary moment of Kermitism. He is his own unique character.

But you’re on to something, which is that down there, the act of culture becomes, by default, political. That’s not to say that people are aware they’re committing a political act when they play a song or go out and listen to a song or dance. They’re just living. They’re being as New Orleanians. And yet, the truth is, it was culture that brought that city back from a near-death experience. It wasn’t political leadership, because there was none. It wasn’t significant urban planning, because there was no plan. What brought New Orleans back, to the extent that it’s come back in five years is, people couldn’t figure out how to live any other way than the way they’ve been living there for years and years and generations and generations. And there’s something beautiful in that. Because American culture is not exactly a heralded thing. And as most of the country becomes more and more homogenized, and as more of a chain-store ethos pervades our culture, this one strange little island has given the world something that the world didn’t have before America, which is to say African-American music. And it was in danger of dying out. And it didn’t die out because of hundreds of thousands of individual acts of ordinary life.

In a way, it would be enough if we were writing the show just to be a celebration of American roots music, which is reason enough to pause and enjoy a drama, perhaps. But actually, to me, in the wake of Katrina, it’s a political story. And it’s about what Americans are capable of, in the best possible way, when left to our own devices.

I think I know what you’re referring to when you say culture, but it seems like you’re specifically referring to maybe three different things. Cuisine and music seem to be linked up as being part of this culture that you’re talking about, but then there’s also a sort of sense of community. So if The Wire was organized by an impersonal concept of political economy—

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It was “Follow the money.” Follow the money, follow the power. Yeah.

But Treme seems to be organized by something more like a concept of solidarity, of community. Is this a function of actual qualitative differences between Baltimore and New Orleans or does it indicate a different vision of your own as to how to approach urban life in America?

Listen, community as an experience, communal living and how Americans learn to live in cities together—that’s the question for the 21st century. We are never again going to be a rural people. Forgive me, Republican National Convention, but small-town values do not matter in the grand scheme of things. What matters is quite the opposite: how we learn to live together as an urban people, because we forever more are going to be an urban people, with all those attendant problems and opportunities.

Now, when we were doing The Wire, we were speaking directly to the country’s political priorities, to its hypocrisies and frauds vis-à-vis the drug war, and to its economic priorities. You watch The Wire by following the money, following the power and the votes, and by acknowledging the dissonance between policy and reality on the street, and how power and money moved around that dissonance. It was a political story, overtly. The one thing it didn’t deal with—there was no room for it, and there was also no opportunity—was the idea of community and culture. The Wire was never trying to say that human beings are completely without agency. It was saying that our political agency is marginalized, our economic agency is marginalized in this country, but not our humanity, and not our ability to act as individuals and to assert our own dignity. I was not interested in burdening that piece, which was already as complicated as complicated could be, with an overt discussion with what was at stake. What was at stake in The Wire was implied: the life of a city, our ability to live decent lives together, compacted as we are in places like Baltimore or St. Louis or Cleveland.

The one piece that was missing was culture and community. Culture in the sense of what a community’s creative output might be. What I was really interested in was, in New Orleans, unlike anywhere else in America, including Baltimore, the creative impulse of community is overt, it’s in the street. In Baltimore it might be in an art museum. It might be in how people go down to the Christmas parade once a year or go to an Orioles game. In New Orleans, culture is the raison d’être for the city being at this point. There’s no manufacturing base, the port could move up to Baton Rouge in a heartbeat. The reason the city exists is because it reaches our imaginations, generations of imaginations. Musically, aesthetically, in terms of its architecture, in terms of its dance. There’s something about what happened in New Orleans in terms of their retaining these very dramatic, very visual elements of culture that gives us the opportunity to tell the story there and to have the power of culture understood in a way that they wouldn’t understand it if I did it in Minneapolis or Baltimore or St. Louis. New Orleans was the best possible opportunity to speak to American culture and what it’s capable of.

When you were talking about The Corner, you mentioned these moments of tourism. I’m curious about the role of these uninitiated, tasteless, uncultured people who show up in the series, these naïve, ignorant tourists who go on the Katrina tour, or who want to experience the “authentic” New Orleans. To what extent are your non-New Orleanian viewers meant to identify with these characters? Are we all that different from them, by consuming these visual and narrative riches of the city from the safety and comfort of our homes?

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I think most of what America understands about New Orleans is very surface-level and very crude. It’s Bourbon Street, it’s some mansions in the Garden District, it’s some fattening food cooked with a lot of butter and sauce, and it’s somebody playing in a Dixieland band. If seeing that New Orleanians from the inside have a different perception of tourists than the tourists would like them to have, if that’s so off-putting that I’m going to lose viewers, I’m going to lose viewers. I don’t want [the tourists] to be caricatures. I wouldn’t want the kids from Wisconsin to go to Bullet’s Bar and see some black guy with a chicken foot around his head and a gold tooth and get all scared and go running back to their hotel. I wanted them to be human about it and to enjoy it and to have a good night in New Orleans. There were Katrina tours and they did stop and hostile moments like that did happen in the lower Ninth Ward, [so] I wanted the bus driver to perceive that he had crossed some boundary, not thinking about it, and I wanted his last moment to be of great humanity, when he says “You’re right, I’m sorry.”

So, I guess my feeling is, if I was going lose anybody because they feel alienated because they’re not an instant expert on New Orleans and they’re being told that, fuck ’em. I was never going hold on to them anyway. And I’m not sure I can write for somebody who’s that self-absorbed. And typically the reviewers who have the hardest time with it— which I took some private delight in—were from New York. You know [that great New Yorker cover from 1976]—it’s a map of New York and then there’s the Hudson River and then there’s Jersey, then Kansas and then China? Nothing was ever truer than that poster.

That raises another of the questions that I had about the nature of your audience, and whether you feel like you’re accomplishing more as a television writer than you did as a journalist, or whether you feel like you’re affecting your audience on a different level than you did as a journalist, and whether or not the entertainment value of the stories that you’re telling ever comes into conflict with the kinds of cultural critiques that you’re elaborating.

Well, television is shorthand, even with 10 or 12 hours of storytelling, which is extraordinary in terms of the length of film narrative. The Godfather series, including the last film, was nine hours. So just think about the storytelling that got done in The Godfather. If somebody gives me 10, 12 hours to make a television show, I’m not suggesting it’s insubstantial. It is substantial, and I get to say a lot. But I know one thing: I can’t tell the story of New Orleans after the storm. There’s too much. Next season I’ll get to when the schools open up. We’re going to bite off what we can chew.

Television references things and moves on, hits a few points hard, but it’s not comprehensive in the way that journalism or history can be, if it’s properly told. I’m aware of the limitations of the form. I’m also aware that I’m making stuff up. I have too much respect for journalism and for research to claim that I’m doing any more of it than I need to tell a story that we, the writers of the show, want to tell. So, I think it’s a story that ought to be told, I think it’s rooted in the real, I think we’ve parsed what is interesting in the five years since Katrina in terms of why New Orleans came back and what it felt like. But it’s just an opinion, and I’m very aware of that. I’m cautious of what I claim for this reality-rooted fiction that I’m pursuing.

But in answer to your question, by economy of scale, by the time they get done with the On Demand numbers, four or five million people will watch Treme. By the time they get done with the DVDs, 10 million people will watch over the next five, six years, whatever. For me to get a hundred thousand people to buy a copy of [my book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets or The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood] would have made it a New York Times bestseller. It’s epic. So, by the economies of scale, I’m certainly having more impact than if I’d pursued journalism, even in comprehensive form like the nonfiction narrative. That’s just the storytelling nature of our age. People watch movies, they don’t read books anymore. They don’t read newspapers. They read a smattering of stuff online. We’re a nation of watchers, not readers. Clearly, there’s been so much more discussion about urban issues or the drug war or any of that stuff because of The Wire than I managed to achieve with The Corner as a book. And I’m aware of that. On the other hand, I’m very proud of The Corner. It was a story of real people’s lives and it was carefully done and I wouldn’t trade those years for anything.

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The other problem with doing this, as you noted, is that it’s an entertainment. And so a lot of people watch this and some of them may have discussions about the drug war, about New Orleans or culture or the nature of our misadventure in Iraq. They may just say, “That was cool as shit, I thought it was funny when the guy said this.” That may be all they get out of it and I can’t prevent that, can I?

I think that the nature of the kind of stories that television tells affects us when we identify with characters, when we laugh with characters. I think that the kinds of resolutions that those characters experience, we tend to internalize them without necessarily even being conscious of it.

I hope you’re right. That’s about as much as you can hope for, honestly. Listen, I’m a didactic person. But you can’t be too didactic with the story you’re telling or you’re insulting your characters and your audience. You can only say what the characters would say at a given moment. And that’s part of the problem. Again, it’s not an op-ed. The Wire has to succeed or Treme has to succeed as entertainment. On top of that, you get to graft a message or two. If it’s subtler than that, if it permeates the way you’re saying, that’s okay. I guess I’ll take that.

Treme’s the riskiest thing yet because nobody has a gun. They’re not wheeling bodies to an emergency room, nobody’s the mayor or the president deciding what to do. It’s guys deciding what key they’re going to play a song in, and what song they choose to play and why, and what they do after the song. It’s drama in very small moments, on a human scale.

You’ve often described The Wire as being a Greek tragedy and you also used the category of tragedy to describe the Iraq War as it was portrayed in Generation Kill. And you seem to have abandoned the mode of tragedy here, as you’re saying. You seem to be pursuing a kind of everyday drama.

There’s certainly elements of tragedy in what New Orleans went through and is still going through. Everything dystopic about the urban environment with The Wire is still dystopic in Treme. The school system’s still fucked, the police department is even worse than in Baltimore, civic leadership is at a minimum. There’s a racial dynamic that is at points good but at points appalling. It’s got all the attendant problems of urban America that were depicted in The Wire and yet the people have this capacity to assert their own meaning and dignity through individual acts of community and culture. And that’s what this story’s about. We’ve taken the camera and we’ve put it on the street level to look at culture.

That’s a really hard story to tell. [laughs]

It is a hard story to tell, but that doesn’t suggest that “Oh, because people can manufacture a second line and because she’s cooking her ass off and because the music sounds sweet,” because of all that, all of our problems are solved. That’s not what Treme is saying.

You were renewed for a second season almost right away.

Yeah. That happened pretty quick. It almost took the fun out of it. [laughs]

For being something so different from what we have come to expect from you in terms of the sort of microdrama that you’re pursuing here, it seemed kind of ballsy for HBO to say, after one episode, “We’re into it.”

It did. I was surprised by it, but they’ve seen through the Mardi Gras episode. We sent them the producer’s cut of episode eight and they renewed us. It was a genuinely pure response. In some ways—dare I say it?—it was from the heart. You vote for the show with your heart, because it doesn’t explain itself through the head. Again, it’s not an easy show to discuss, the nature of creativity in human beings in the city. It doesn’t lend itself to the obvious tropes of serialized drama. You could do a movie on that. That’s fine. There are lots of movies about time and place and spirit that don’t involve violence or politics or the fantastical. But as a sustained drama it is pretty tricky.

People ask me what the show’s about, and sometimes I’m tempted to say, “If I could explain that to your satisfaction, I wouldn’t have to do it.” It’s so delicate that it can’t be explained, it has to be experienced. I have to make people feel like they’re on those streets, like they wake up in New Orleans every day, that they’re part of a city that they’re not actually a part of. And that because they’re a part of that city they’re going to feel differently, perhaps, about who we are, about what Americans are capable of. I’m not ashamed that it has a warm place in its heart for people.

I’ve read that you have another miniseries project planned, about Abraham Lincoln?

Yeah, there’s a couple things on the boards actually, but that’s one of them.

Is the renewal of the second season of Treme going to push that back or affect that in any way?

No, I’m doing that with Tom Fontana and he has the capacity to make stuff himself, in the event that it got picked up. We turned in two scripts and they ordered all of them. I’ll get back to it in probably about two weeks now after I finish up post on Treme. We’ll turn in the rest of the scripts and then it’s about them finding the money for it. HBO has to decide when to give it a green light and if they have the money to make nine hours of a 19th-century period piece. I find it interesting because there are a lot of parallels between April 1865 and the post-9/11 moment in terms of terrorism in the country.

Will you be telling the story thinking in explicitly allegorical terms then?

At points, yeah, I will be. In my head. Whether or not it plays well, I don’t know. [laughs] But yeah, I’m a little down on doing just history for history’s sake. I feel like HBO’s a unique venue and they should concentrate on doing things that no other channel can do. They should do the things that are politically and socially provocative, because I think we need a little more provocation than we have in our mass-media culture. I thought it was a relevant piece, so I signed up for it. That doesn’t mean it gets made. We’ll see.

I was very sorry to read that Treme co-writer David Mills passed away last month. Could you tell me a little about his contributions to the various collaborations you guys have worked on, what it was like working with him?

I wouldn’t be in TV if it wasn’t for David Mills. When Tom Fontana offered me a script on Homicide, I didn’t take it as seriously as I should have. At the time, I really didn’t watch a lot of televised drama, but David Mills did. And I’d worked on my college paper with him and I knew how much he loved shows like Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere, and so I called him and we wrote the script together. His sensibility was such that he could probably write anybody, write any situation and be able to find commonalities. One of my happiest memories of working with David is, he did an episode the last season of Homicide that starred Charles Durning as a white, retired, racist detective in Baltimore and David gave Durning’s character a lot of the attributes of David’s own father, David being African-American. David wrote a love letter to his father and buried it in the context of this white, retired, racist, sexist detective. It was a beautiful character. It taught me something about writing that I’ll never forget. He made something transcendent out of his best memories and out of a character that could have become a stereotype villain. And that’s who he was. He was a guy who had no interest in cant, or ideology. He was just interested in story, and telling stories about interesting people. He was great at it.

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Interview: Jia Zhang-ke on Ash Is Purest White and the Evolution of China

Jia discusses what he likes about digital video and how Zhao Tao helped bring her role to life.

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Jia Zhang-ke
Photo: Cohen Media Group

Unshowy yet unshakably self-assured, sincere but with glimpses of a sly sense of humor, and unhesitatingly frank even about touchy topics like the Chinese government’s censorship of his work, Jia Zhang-ke comes off in person just as a fan of his films might expect. Ever since his 1997 feature debut, The Pickpocket, and 2000’s Platform, in which young people struggle to adapt to China’s increasing Westernization, Jia has been creating a kind of unofficial history of his homeland, quietly defying his government’s determination to erase its tracks as it barrels along by doing things like rewiring the economy, rewriting the social contract, and depopulating whole cities and erecting new ones in a matter of months.

Jia’s films operate in metaphorical deep focus, surfacing the ways that these sweeping societal changes affect individual lives and relationships by zeroing in on sensitively detailed portrayals of two lovers, or of a group or pair of friends, while just as clearly portraying the socioeconomic backdrops to their stories. And often at the center of his films is Zhao Tao, his wife and longtime muse. In Jia’s latest, Ash Is Purest White, Zhao reprises the role she played in 2002’s Unknown Pleasures: Qiao Qiao, a strong-willed woman from Jia’s hometown of Fenyang, this time over a span of 17 years that starts when she’s the young lover of a gangster and ends with her in charge of the gambling den he once ran.

In a conversation before Ash Is Purest White’s debut at the New York Film Festival, Jia explained what he likes about digital video, how Zhao Tao helped bring her role to life, and how he deals with his government’s suppression of his work.

The music in your films is always an important part of the story. Can you talk about how you picked the songs for this one, starting with “Y.M.C.A.”?

Since I wanted to set the story starting in 2001, I wanted to find a piece of music that can trigger that particular era very authentically. And back in the day, in 2001, the younger generation, they didn’t have a lot of sources of entertainment. They might have had a disco club and karaoke, and that was about it. Two songs very popular at that time were “Y.M.C.A.” and “Go West” [the Pet Shop Boys song that was a motif in Jia’s Mountains May Depart].

The reason that we liked “Y.M.C.A.” was not because we understood the lyrics or understood who sang them or who was involved in the production. We had no idea what they were singing about. But we did enjoy the rhythm, the melody, and the beat, which is matching the heartbeat of the young people. It really got you going and brought up the energy of the room.

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Another song that is particularly important in the film—you hear it again and again—is “Drunk for Life” by Sally Yeh, a Cantonese pop singer. This is a song I listened to when I was in junior high. At the time, young people tended to hang out in the video arcade, and this was one of the songs heard there. It was also a theme song for John Woo’s The Killer. That film, in the triad genre, is very similar to the John Woo motif that I want to evoke in this film.

The third song in this film is “How Much Love Can Be Repeated?” This sequence was actually shot 12 years ago in Three Gorges, when I made Still Life. I think the reason why I wanted to use it was that it could create this interesting contrast between what was happening on stage and Zhao’s character off stage, when you see her reaction watching this performance. Mind you, the on-stage part was shot 12 years ago, but Zhao’s part was shot last year. Hopefully, you cannot tell that these two footages were from two different times and spaces.

Was any of the other Three Gorges footage shot for Still Life, or shot when you were making that film? I know you shot a lot of documentary footage there at the time.

Only that particular clip was shot 12 years ago. The rest, we went back to the same location and tried to capture what we did in Still Life. But, unlike in other parts of the film, where we tend to use digital video, for the Three Gorges part we use film stock. That’s why it gives you a sense of nostalgia, evoking what happened in the past.

You’ve worked in digital video for a long time, partly because it allowed you to bypass processing labs, which would not have developed your films because they weren’t government-approved. Digital video also made it much easier for your films to be copied and disseminated in China when they weren’t being played in theaters. Are there also things that you prefer artistically about using digital video, especially now that it can do so much more than it could early on?

Starting in 2001, using DV to shoot Unknown Pleasures, I didn’t think of it just for practical purposes. DV as a medium has its own aesthetics that I can really explore and develop. Using DV you can create a close proximity between the camera and the actors and actresses, a kind of intimacy that cannot be done through the traditional camera.

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The other thing is, things that happen unexpectedly can be easily captured with DV cameras. With cameras that use film stock, things are usually highly scripted in a contained, particular environment. With DV you tend to have a lot of spontaneity and a lot of impromptu happenstances that can be easily captured.

It’s so important for people to share their stories and learn from history. To me, one of the most important forms of disruption in China since Mao is the way people have been barred from telling their stories, or made to alter what they say to fit some official narrative. So you’re performing an important service by writing history with your films, recording the story of the present and the recent past for the people of tomorrow.

I think that’s also why I rely a lot on DV. I joke that only the pace of the evolution of DV equipment can keep up with the pace of the development of China. For me, this film is very much about how, in this time span of 17 years, human connections and human emotions—the interpersonal relationships between people—evolves and changes as a result of all that. On the surface, you can see very clearly the changes pre-internet era and post-internet era, [things like how] in the past you had slow trains and now you have high-speed trains. But that is on the surface level. What I’m interested in exploring is what happened in terms of the inner world of those people in this particular historical context, how their relationships evolved or dissolved and the reasons for the dissolutions and the evolutions of their relationships.

You’ve said you like working with your wife partly because she becomes a kind of second author of your screenplays, adding detail to what you have written. Can you give an example of what she brought to this movie?

When she was in the cabin of the boat and the lady in black [a cabinmate] came in, she just, almost as a kneejerk reaction, stood up, suddenly and immediately. She was trying to capture what it would be like for someone who has been in prison for five years, how she would have reacted to a security guard entering the jail cell and how she would react the same way when this lady in black entered her cabin.

I see her training as a dancer a lot in the physicality of her acting.

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Yes. Another example would be the water bottle in this film. It was used to evoke this same character in Still Life, and she carried that water bottle there too. It makes sense because of the weather; it was very hot so she would need to drink. But the water bottle also came in handy to enhance the mood I was trying to create. Zhao Tao took this on and really went for it. She used it as a weapon, she used it as a way to stop the door from closing,

And to avoid holding hands with the man she met on the train.

Exactly. She was using this bottle as a kind of third character in the film, thinking about how this can be expanded and explored.

Your work has faced such strong resistance from the Chinese government. What is the government’s response to your films these days, and how does that affect how you work or how your films are seen?

I make films based on my own ecology, my own tempo and rhythm. I don’t really think too much about whether or not the film can be shown in China. Of course, I would love if my film could be shown in China, but that’s not the only reason why I make films. The most important thing for me is to understand that that’s not the end goal, so I don’t need to somehow sacrifice and change the way I make films in order to be shown in China.

I will make the film I want to make, and if it can be shown in China, great. If not, so be it. That’s the way I interact with this particular censorship system. But I have to say that the situation has improved in terms of the communication channels. Those have opened up a lot more, so after I finish the film, I will do my best as a director to communicate to the censor bureau why this film should be shown in China. That I am willing to do. But I will not compromise the quality or any subject matter.

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Translation by Vincent Cheng

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Every Cannes Palme d’Or Winner of the 2000s Ranked

There’s a certain formula that often defines the recipients of Cannes’s most prestigious prize.

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Every Cannes Palme d’Or Winner of the 2000s Ranked
Photo: Wild Bunch

There’s a certain formula that often defines the recipients of the Cannes Film Festival’s prestigious top prize, the Palme d’Or. These films, in recent years especially, tend to have a sense of importance about them (Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11), frequently due to their sociopolitical awareness of the world (Laurent Cantet’s The Class), or of specific societal ills (Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days). Very occasionally, the Palme d’Or goes to a bold, experimental, and divisive vision from a well-liked auteur (Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives), but more often it’s awarded to a film in the lineup that the most people on the Cannes jury can probably agree is good (Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake). And in less than three months, we’ll see if Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s jury will follow any sort of predictable formula when it announces its winners.

You’ll find us on the Croisette this May, covering most of the titles in Cannes’s competition slate. Until then, enjoy our ranking of the Palme d’Or winner from the 2000s. Sam C. Mac

Editor’s Note: This entry was originally published on May 1, 2018.


The Son’s Room

19. The Son’s Room (2001)

Halfway through The Son’s Room, director Nanni Moretti shifts the rhetoric of his narrative away from an exaggerated view of happy domesticity and into a realm of weepy melodrama. Psychiatrist Giovanni (Moretti) is a perfect father and husband: he helps his daughter with her Latin homework (perducto means “without hardship you will be guided”—wink, wink); allows her boyfriend to exalt grass (when high, the boy says he’s “looking at the universe”); and initiates group lip-synching during the family’s car trips. Nicola Piovani’s score grotesquely heightens the joy behind every smile, meaning disaster is inevitable. As Moretti delves deeper into Giovanni’s work, focus is shifted away from the family arena. Though the film blooms when Paola (Laura Morante) and the family seek deliverance from their pain by connecting with a girl their deceased son, Andrea (Giuseppe Sanfelice), met at summer camp, Paola remains a cipher throughout. Cue Brian Eno’s “By This River,” which blares from a car radio as the family stands near the sea that killed their Andrea: “Here we are stuck by this river/You and I underneath a sky/That’s ever falling down, down, down.” In this one stoic moment, not only does the family seemingly escape their grief but also the Rob Reiner soap opera Moretti trapped them in. Ed Gonzalez


Fahrenheit 911

18. Fahrenheit 911 (2004)

A mediocre director but a master PR man, Michael Moore is the father of the Happy Meal documentary: big fonts, quick-fire montages, celebrity cameos, causing elaborate scenes. Fahrenheit 9/11 is no less an attention-grabbing stunt than his Bowling for Columbine, but what a scene it is. At the time of its release, Moore’s compilation of the Bush I administration’s bamboozling of the American public in the wake of 9/11. More than 10 years after its release, though, what lingers most about the film is Moore’s self-aggrandizement and forced sanctimoniousness (he rah-rahs from the sidelines when an interviewee says something he agrees with, and you sometimes get a sense that he wouldn’t call a dying man an ambulance if it meant getting the money shot of the guy croaking). At least it’s some kind of mercy that he spends very little time on screen. Gonzalez


Amour

17. Amour (2012)

There’s a deceptiveness lurking deep within Amour, an insincerity that colors the drama, recasting it as a ploy. Whereas across earlier films Michael Haneke’s predilection for deceit served a high-minded, if still somewhat suspect, intellectual purpose (an interrogation of privilege and meaning in Caché, the deconstruction of genre in both versions of Funny Games, and so on), here his disingenuous approach is not only unwarranted, but is actually at odds with the tone and tenor of the drama. This suggests two possibilities: Either Haneke has attempted to shear his sensibility of trickery and failed to do so convincingly, or he has made an experiment in manipulation and feigned empathy so exacting and oblique that nobody has understood its real purpose (I wouldn’t put the latter past him). Either way, Amour intends to dupe us, to feed on our own pain and suffering. Moved to tears or scared to death, we’d all lose our dignity in the end. Calum Marsh

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I, Daniel Blake

16. I, Daniel Blake (2016)

English stand-up comedian Dave Johns brings the sort of spontaneous energy to his eponymous character that’s consistently made Loach’s films worth keeping up with. But Blake’s storyline veers from its emotionally grounded setup and into grandstanding displays like the Michael Moore-worthy stunt from which I, Daniel Blake takes its title. Both principal actors have a strong enough sense of their characters, even as they’re pulled into increasingly harrowing places, to make the film a more successful one than Loach’s last few, but it’s still schematic and predictable, and it aggressively stacks the deck against Blake and Kattie (Hayley Squires) in a way that makes it more effective as social activism, and less so as drama. The Loach of two or three decades ago, who made intimate, naturalistic films about the working class, like 1969’s Kes and 1994’s Ladybird Ladybird, is distinctly different from the Loach of today—and the soapbox-prone I, Daniel Blake reaffirms how unlikely it is for that to change. Mac


The Class

15. The Class (2008)

When a plot finally emerges, it’s all about the quandaries of privileging principle (and principal) or empiricism, duty or personal preference, questions that have been implicit all along, even in kids’ protests that they’re always being picked on or favored. As a clever late twist suggests, the interactions themselves are almost all riffs on Socratic debates—usually, the teacher seems to be asking students to verify their claims so he can give himself time to rebut—and as director Laurent Cantet said at The Class’s New York Film Festival press conference, the school’s a place “where democracy is at stake.” Instead of the usual righteous monologues, this is a film of dialogue and dialogues, in which the bickering teachers’ conferences begin to echo the kids’ troublemaking and skepticism but for the adults’ pretense of understanding and decorum (everyone, in any case, has their reason and handily states it in close-up). It would make a perfect, though not particularly good, double feature with Frederick Wiseman’s documentary State Legislature or Advise and Consent. David Phelps

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Every Marvel Cinematic Universe Movie Ranked

On the eve of Captain Marvel’s release, we ranked the 21 films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

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Every Marvel Cinematic Universe Movie Ranked
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Most of Marvel Studios’s films are the cinematic equivalent of breadcrumbs, which have been dropped into theaters strategically so as to keep one looking for the next sequel or crossover, when the endless televisual exposition will eventually, theoretically yield an event of actual consequence. Occasionally, however, a Marvel film transcends this impersonality and justifies one’s patience. Weird, stylish, and surprisingly lyrical, Ant-Man, Iron Man 3, and Doctor Strange attest to the benefits of the old Hollywood-style studio system that Marvel has resurrected: Under the umbrella of structure and quota is security, which can bequeath qualified freedom. Chuck Bowen

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on April 25, 2018.


The Incredible Hulk

21. The Incredible Hulk (2008)

The aesthetic dexterity and psychological depth of Ang Lee’s Hulk is corrupted by Marvel’s “reboot” of the superhero franchise, Louis Leterrier’s intermittently kinetic but depressingly shallow The Incredible Hulk. In response to complaints that Lee’s unjustly excoriated 2003 effort was too talky and slow, Leterrier swings the pendulum to the opposite side of the spectrum, delivering a slam-bang spectacle so lacking in weight that, until the impressive finale, the film seems downright terrified of character and relationship development, as if too much conversation or—gasp!—subtextual heft will immediately alienate coveted young male fanboys. Nick Schager


Iron Man 2

20. Iron Man 2 (2010)

Upgraded with the latest CGI hardware but also more shoddy screenwriting software than its system can withstand, Iron Man 2 is an example of subtraction by addition. For a sequel designed to deliver what its predecessor did not, Jon Favreau’s follow-up to his 2008 blockbuster piles on incidents and characters it doesn’t need while still managing to skimp on the combat that should be this franchise’s bread and butter but which remains an element only trotted out at sporadic intervals and in modest portions. Schager


Captain Marvel

19. Captain Marvel (2018)

As another of the character-introducing MCU stories existing mostly to feed new superheroes into the Avengers series, Captain Marvel looks like something of a trial run. You know the drill: If the film lands with audiences, then you can count on Captain Marvel (Brie Larson)—like Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and even Ant-Man before her—getting her own series. But if not, then, hey, she’s at least assured of being asked to pop by the game room at Stark Industries for a kibitz in somebody else’s franchise down the road. Based on what’s on display here, Captain Marvel could well get her own star turn again at some point, but hopefully it will be with a different crew behind the camera. Chris Barsanti


Avengers: Infinity War

18. Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

What is this, a crossover episode? After 18 films, the overlords at Marvel Studios have gathered almost all of their indentured servants, er, star-studded stable together into the ever-crashing, ever-booming, and ever-banging extravaganza Avengers: Infinity War. Whether you look at this whirling dervish and see a gleefully grandiose entertainment or a depressing exemplar of the culturally degraded present moment will depend on your investment—in all senses of that term—in Marvel’s carefully cultivated mythos. The film is all manic monotony. It’s passably numbing in the moment. And despite the hard-luck finish—something an obligatory post-credits sequence goes a long way toward neutering—it’s instantly forgettable. Strange thing to say about a film featuring Peter Dinklage as the tallest dwarf in the universe. Keith Uhlich

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Thor

17. Thor (2011)

With some notable exceptions, Marvel Studios-produced films usually plateau at a glossy but totally indistinct level of mediocrity, and Thor continues the trend of weakly jumpstarting a franchise based on a Marvel comic with an adequate but instantly forgettable origin story. Kenneth Branagh’s film is reasonably well put-together, but unlike even his worst films, it has no internal life, instead feeling like an impersonal, assembly-line product. The film’s most notable feature is that it serves as a continuation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe set up by the Iron Man movies. Characters from those films pop up during Thor’s main narrative and after the end credits, living up to Marvel’s commitment to populating their films with the same bland versions of perfectly acceptable characters. While Thor is certainly competent, that’s just not enough. Simon Abrams


Captain America: The First Avenger

16. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

A spectacle of star-spangled superheroics, Captain America: The First Avenger gives sturdy big-screen treatment to Marvel’s square-jawed—and square—jingoistic military man. With Joe Johnston delivering pyrotechnical action-adventure in a period guise, à la The Rocketeer (which was similarly fixated on its female lead’s buxom chest), this costumed-crusader saga is a capable, if somewhat unremarkable, affair beset by the same origin-story shortcomings that plagued another U.S.-virtue-via-army-weaponry fable, Iron Man—namely, a bifurcated structure in which the introductory first half exceeds, in compelling drama and kick-ass thrills, the latter fight-the-baddies combat. Schager


Avengers: Age of Ultron

15. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

While writer-director Joss Whedon takes considerable strides to make Avengers: Age of Ultron’s narrative feel more nuanced and personal, his few sublime scenes of expressive melodrama are drowned out by the massive amounts of exposition and backstory that make up most of the dialogue and subsequently make the film feel overworked. When the talk isn’t about the intricate plot and the characters’ mythology, it’s a whole lot of dick-centric jabs. In cases like the competition over who can pick up Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) hammer, there’s a vague sense that Whedon is in on the joke, but then there’s a plethora of other exchanges that don’t seem so tongue in cheek. The bro-isms that underscore these interpersonal relations might explain why Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff strikes up a romance with Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), a.k.a. the Hulk, the only male Avenger who isn’t consistently preoccupied with the size of his…ego. The growing relationship between Romanoff and Banner is the tender heart of Age of Ultron, and Whedon clearly thrills in the cheesy but heartfelt melodrama that builds between them. Unfortunately, as the film has approximately another half-dozen or so plotlines to tend to, this section of the story barely makes up a sixth of the narrative. Chris Cabin

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