Now in its third season, Breaking Bad tells the story of Walter White, a mild-mannered chemistry teacher-turned-crystal meth manufacturer, played by Bryan Cranston, whose detour outside the law estranges him further and further from both his family and the man he once was. Shrugging aside the boundaries of conventional television storytelling, the series currently stands unparalleled in its willingness to pursue these conflicts to their logical conclusions, however messy those may be. Creator Vince Gilligan talked with Slant about his undying love for television, violence on the U.S.-Mexico border, and the unintentional politics of his admittedly showy brand of realism.
You’ve worked in both television and feature films. Do you have a preference for either one?
I would have to say television, because once you are on a writing staff, or once you create a television show, for as long as that show exists you know that you’re writing, you know that your work will get produced. The same can’t be said for writing for features, unfortunately. Write a movie script, you can put your heart and soul into it for months, for years, and peddle it around Hollywood and ultimately it may well go nowhere. I’ve experienced more heartbreak in the movie business than in the TV business.
Is there anything about the format of serial television itself that influences the way you write, that you have a preference for? Is it easier to write a one-off film than it is to sustain a season at a time?
They’re both hard, but I suppose that the saving grace about writing a television show is that you don’t have to wrap up everything plot-wise at the end of every episode, and you can leave certain questions unanswered. You can leave certain emotional issues not quite completely tied up. In a movie, on the other hand, you have to tie up every loose end that you have set for yourself, and you have to wrap things up emotionally in a very satisfactory manner, and you have to complete the plot in that two-hour segment of time that you’re allotted. Endings are just very tough for a writer, at least speaking personally. Coming up with an ending for a movie is always tough, and probably yet another reason that I like television better, because you have a hundred hours, in a perfect world, to tell your television story and only two to tell your movie story.
So, does that also influence the kinds of stories that you’re able to tell? Does it give you a chance to tell more complicated stories that you couldn’t resolve if you were working within two hours?
This is absolutely true. You have two different kinds of stories, and very often, especially when you try to keep a foot in both worlds, as a writer you’ll come up with a story, you’ll come up with a character or a set of plot elements and you’ll very quickly ask yourself the question, “Is this a feature or is this a TV series?” And they really are two different animals, in a sense. It all comes down to: How much story is there? Does the story self-generate? Have you created for yourself an ongoing story or is it a more hermetic story?
The US-Mexico border in is pretty central to the story that you’re telling in Breaking Bad. Were there any reasons to choose Albuquerque over, say, somewhere in California or Texas?
When I originally conceived of Breaking Bad, I intended to set it in Riverside, California. And of course southern California is not too far from the Mexican border either, but when I originally conceived of the show I wasn’t thinking as much in terms of the Mexican drug cartel component. I was thinking more in terms of a homegrown meth business that Walter White was going to establish. But early on, Sony, the studio that produces our show—this was after the script was written, and they knew I was thinking of southern California—they came to me and said, “What do you think about us placing the series in New Mexico instead?” And I said, “Well, why are you thinking that?” And they said New Mexico has a tax rebate for film and television production, and it’s a pretty substantial one. It’s a tax rebate of 25% of the money that we spend within the state returned to us by New Mexico. And really, it’s a hard [carrot] to turn down. It was established to bring production from all quarters of the U.S. into New Mexico, and it is something that unfortunately California does not have and so New Mexico very quickly became the place we decided to shoot our show for strictly financial reasons. We wanted our limited production budget to go that much farther.
But having said that, now that we shoot in New Mexico and now that I know it as a place to do business, now that I’ve learned to love Albuquerque so much, I realize that it’s just a wonderful place to set the show and I feel like I got very lucky that we wound up there, although it was not originally my decision. And the meth component of it, story-wise, really could have been any state in the Union, unfortunately, because there are meth labs probably in every state in the United States, and it is kind of a nationwide problem. However, once we got the ball rolling on our series, in the last four or five years the news of drug violence in a lot of the cities and towns along the Southwest border became more front and center in the national news, so we wound up incorporating more and more into our storyline. It certainly helped at that point that our story happened to be set in Albuquerque, which is only about 220 miles from the border. So we kind of “lucked” into that element of storytelling.
You’ve been incorporating elements of northern Mexican narcoculture into the series for awhile now. The narcocorrido from last season was particularly exciting, and I was surprised to see Mexican cult figure La Santa Muerte in the premiere. So by framing your subject matter within a particular, historical set of social and economic forces, do you see the development of the series as an opportunity for cultural critique?
We don’t intend to make the show feel like a “ripped-from-the-headlines” show a la Law & Order. This really is a story of a small set of particular characters, Walter White first and foremost among them. And Breaking Bad is truly an investigation of one character’s change, his transformation from a “good guy,” from a law-abiding citizen to a criminal. And that is the wellspring that everything else in our series flows from, that idea of transformation, and furthermore how [Walt’s] transformation changes those people around him, those loved ones, those family members that he ostensibly cares for and yet whose lives he is hurting through his actions.
That said, the writers and I really do try to incorporate what’s going on in reality into the series. As we are set in Albuquerque and as Albuquerque is about 200 miles from Juarez, and currently in the news there’s so much unpleasant and unfortunate drug violence along the border, a lot of which is due to the meth trade, we do find ourselves incorporating those elements into the story. We want to portray reality as well as we can portray it, and the reality of any ongoing meth concern in Albuquerque would involve some dealing with the border trade and the competition from drugs coming from Mexico. Anyone who is trying to make a go of a drug business would have to see that as competition and would have to deal with the cartel members who were dealing in central New Mexico.
Our narcocorrido that we created for our show really was created by Pepe Garza, a music producer here in Los Angeles. We gave him the highlights of what the subject matter of the song should contain and the names and the places. But if it’s an authentic narcocorrido, we have Pepe Garza to thank, as well as the wonderful band that he found for us, Los Cuates De Sinaloa. That authenticity that we strive for is only achieved by the help of some really talented people. We don’t do it all ourselves. We hire the best folks we can find and we let them do their thing, so we’re very proud of that one.
Do we have another music video along those lines to look forward to this season?
We have another one coming up this season, but it is wildly different than that one. And that’s all I can really say about it. It’s pretty dark, but I think people will enjoy it. [laughs]
To go back to this notion of transformation a bit, it seems to me that one of the things the show does really well is to look at the systemic causes for this transformation. It’s not just any bad situation that this character is put in, and he’s not just any kind of typical guy. He’s an educated, upper-middle-class guy who’s put in a particular situation at a particular time and I feel like as a result, this transformation that he’s experiencing, or that we are vicariously experiencing through him, comes to offer a kind of—I think you used the phrase “cosmic indictment” of him at the end of the last season, and I have to ask whether it’s not also an indictment of the social and economic circumstances that led to the position in which he found himself.
One thing I like about our series, one thing we strive for is to create “water cooler moments.” That’s certainly not an expression we created, but the way we define a water cooler moment is: Is it a plot development or is it a scene in which people can gather around the water cooler at the office and discuss what the scene meant? Not simply get them talking about it, but have them discuss it and argue over what the scene meant, what it forebodes, perhaps, for the future. And all of this to say that I personally have no particular political or social axe to grind, because I think that stories that set out to do that become kind of didactic or polemic. Stories about characters are always more interesting to me, personally. There is no deeper social indictment at work here, at least not consciously. However, when I speak of water cooler moments, I like for the audience to have the ability to perhaps argue that there are [social or political prerogatives]. I like for people watching our show to have different viewpoints on what exactly the show means. And Walt’s behavior—I like folks being able to argue over his behavior. Is he completely wrong, or is there some rightness to his cause?
I don’t want to insist too much, but I think that even that dedication to portraying the sorts of circumstances that this character would realistically confront were he to make these kinds of decisions [in real life] is already a political stance. You take a show like Weeds, for instance, and it’s not about realism. It’s about crossing a line, being a transgressive. Which has its value, but it’s not about asking us as viewers to question why these are the choices that are available to us.
The interesting thing is, it very often takes other people to tell a writer what it is that he or she is writing about. It’s that old expression: Sometimes you can’t see the forest for the trees. And while I don’t actively have a political or social agenda to soapbox about, at least in my mind, perhaps I can’t see the forest for the trees. Maybe the show is about something that is entirely other than what I think it’s about. But regardless, I’m always delighted when our show is talked about and discussed and hashed over in any way, shape, or form. And I’m delighted when different viewers have different takes on what the show is really about, and I truly think there is no wrong take. My dream for this show is that it is complex enough and rich enough in its storytelling to support many different views on what it is truly about. If we can create a complex and shaded and interesting enough world here in Breaking Bad, people can define it in many different ways. I am all for that.
You mention these water cooler moments, and I noticed in seasons one and two you preceded each episode with a flash-forward that was meant to misdirect us a bit, to get us to imagine what could possibly lead to this series of images that we’re seeing. But then for the premiere of series three, you don’t seem to be using this device any more. Is that going to indicate a shift in the content of the season?
For season two, we came up with a bookend device in our storytelling. We wanted to end season two with the very images that began it, so we had a circular sort of feel to the season. I can tell you, it took an awful lot of beating our heads against the wall in the writers’ room to come up with that bookend sort of storytelling. It took an awful lot of work, and it was painful and it was scary because we knew how we had to end the season, but we didn’t quite know how to get there story-wise, plot-wise. And there were a couple of moments of sheer panic, at least on my part. We already had all this other stuff shot that begins the season; I didn’t know how we were going to pay it off completely. So, I feel like we did it once, and I’m very proud of the way it worked out, but I’m not someone who likes to repeat himself in my work. Since we accomplished what we set out to accomplish last season, we should change up the formula yet again and start off a different way in season three. And if we get a season four, God willing, we’ll hopefully change things up yet again. Because I think that’s something that this job requires, the ability to change things up and keep the storytelling interesting.
Having gone through this transformation from being an upstanding citizen to someone who imagines himself to be outside the law, Walter White is now faced with the consequences of his decisions. So the question I have now is about redemption in general, the question of redemption as a narrative structure. I see Breaking Bad kind of like a Shakespearean tragedy in a lot of ways. This character who has free will, who has the opportunity to make better choices, continues toward his own doom. And so I wonder if redemption isn’t actually what’s at stake anymore in this story. Is there something bigger than redemption that could be at stake?
I hope so. [laughs] I should probably start by saying that this show in and of itself is kind of an experiment. To begin with, television as a medium is all about protecting the franchise. When it works well, television invites itself into your home week in and week out, in the guise of a favorite character or favorite series. And you as a viewer visit with a favorite character week in and week out and you know what to expect from that character. And television gives you what you expect, more or less, week in and week out. It’s what television does, and I think it actually does it very well. In other words, for 20 years you could visit with Marshal Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke, and in season 20 he was the same good-natured, fast-drawing, honest marshal as he was way back in season one. Agents Mulder and Scully in The X-Files were basically the same characters throughout the entire series. The folks on The Andy Griffith Show, Archie Bunker on All in the Family—these were all fundamentally the same people throughout, and that’s what television does. Historically, that is. It keeps its characters in sort of a stasis that at times can seem sort of artificial because, as we all know in real life, we age and we progress and we very often change in our viewpoints, in our outlook on life. And as much as I love all these great examples in the history of television, I wanted to try to do something different. I wanted to experiment with the medium a little.
And all of that is to say is that what we are about on Breaking Bad is transformation. We are taking our main character, starting him at point A, back in our pilot, and we are taking this decent, good, law-abiding citizen and we are transforming him in little fits and starts into somebody else entirely. And part of the reality of doing that is that, in practice, where that leaves my writers and myself is that even we don’t know exactly where he’s going to wind up. And that’s the exhilaration and the terror of it for us. We don’t really know how far we can take Walt, how far we can stretch this conceit before it breaks. And we may indeed break it. We may indeed have Walt turn some corner at some point in his character that makes him so unredeemable in the audience’s eyes that people no longer want to watch him. Or we may not. As we proceed along with this experiment of taking Walt from who he was to who he will become, we really are in kind of uncharted territory. And I can’t think of any other show to look back at that would help us out in this endeavor. I’m unaware if this is ultimately going to be a story of redemption, or a cautionary tale. Hopefully it’ll be a little bit of many things.
I personally want to see you break Breaking Bad. I want a show that’s not afraid to take that risk. The scene in season two where Walt watches Jane die, for instance, is a real transgression. That is a brutal scene. Sitting through that girl’s death really does push the boundaries of what your audience will endure.
It would sound egotistical to say that we’re trying to reinvent the medium, but we are trying to push forward the typical boundaries or rules of the medium. And the old expression, a man’s reach should extend beyond his grasp. I don’t know if we’ll succeed, but that is the experiment we’re trying, to push forward those rules of television a little bit further, trying to change up the medium a bit. Not because I don’t personally love the medium; I’m doing it out of affection for the medium. I’m trying to take things a little further than I know them to be.
And we never try to be shocking on our show, believe it or not. That will probably ring false to some people, but it really is true. We believe in showmanship. We try to keep things interesting and to keep stirring the pot, and keep folks watching in all these old-fashioned and time-honored ways of showmanship, but we actually never really intend to be shocking, certainly not for the sake of shocking. We try to be honest in our storytelling and keep our characters honest and keep the plot moving in ways that have to do with the characters’ motivations. We never insert a scene into the show that shocks people just for the sake of it.
Then I have to ask about the infamous tortoise bomb scene.
[laughs] That’s showmanship.
That would seem to be the example that’s most open to the criticism that you have a certain taste for spectacularity that sometimes might exceed the bounds of realism.
I will definitely cop to the sin of going big for the sake of showmanship. But the other old expression is: Truth is stranger than fiction. And truth is oftentimes scarier than fiction. We base certain elements of our show on reality and we do often take them a step or two beyond reality. And of course, as we know, there’s unfortunately a spate of beheadings that go along with some of the drug violence along the border. And so we started with the idea of a beheading and we took it a few steps further to mounting a severed human head on a tortoise. But you know, as shocking and over the top and awful as that scene is, lo and behold, we read in the news a few months later that in real life, one rival drug gang skinned and mounted a competitor’s face on a soccer ball. As over the top as putting a human head on a desert tortoise is, stitching a man’s face to a soccer ball is beyond anything even we would have come up with.
You mentioned going big, plot-wise, and it seems to me that there’s this progression starting from episode one, this sort of outward radiation where initially the conflicts that Walt encounters are restricted to the immediate surroundings of his hometown: “Where in the desert can I go to cook meth and not get busted?” And then as he starts to incorporate himself into the existing economy for crystal meth, he has to deal with the local dealers. And then he moves up to wholesaling. And then he moves up to regional distribution. This progression reminds me of The Wire, the other great TV drug saga. With each season, The Wire kept broadening its purview, asking what city hall, what the public education system, what the media has to do with the drug trade. Is there a similar logic to how you see a potential fourth season developing?
That’s an interesting comparison. The Wire is a wonderful, wonderful show that really does in many ways feel as much like social criticism as it does wonderful storytelling about individual characters. I think about The Wire and I think about how that show is so advanced and all-encompassing in its storytelling about that one city, Baltimore. I wouldn’t know where to begin to do that. As a show-runner, I really have to keep it simpler than that. Because evoking an entire world is a very daunting prospect, especially when you set out to do that from the get-go. But I get the similarity you just mentioned, of our show broadening its scope and Walt or his partner Jesse Pinkman going from making a few corner deals here and there to expanding the business and then being local and regional and then statewide and international players in the business, as you can imagine we will continue to do as our series progresses. I think it’s just part and parcel of the idea of growth in general. Any drama should contain within it growth, and should not feel like stasis.
From the get-go I pitched to AMC that this was going to be a show where we were going to take Mr. Chips—mild-mannered schoolteacher Mr. White—and we’re going to transform him into Scarface. And I kind of meant that. I kind of like the idea of this guy turning not just bad, not just turning criminal, but through fits and starts learning to be very good at what he’s doing now. And he’s not quite good at it yet, and I don’t know how far he’ll get along these lines of growth and change, partly because I don’t know how many seasons we’ll get to do the show. But if we get long enough to do it, he may get there yet, he may become some homegrown version of Scarface before it’s all said and done.
I’ve read that you had initially conceived of Breaking Bad as running for four seasons. Are you rethinking that now?
Well, not really rethinking it so much as I don’t know where we stand right now. We’re off to a good start for season three, we have good viewership, we have good Nielsen numbers, and hopefully that trend will continue. And if it does, it’s much more likely we’ll get a season four, but as you and I speak here today, we don’t have a pickup yet. I just don’t know if we will be offered a fourth season. And conversely, if we start to do really, really well in season three I don’t know if the golden handcuffs will snap on my wrists, and I’ll be cajoled into trying to do five or six or seven seasons at this point. But it is a question I think about every day. I ask myself, “How long can Walt’s story go on? How long can we keep this going? And should we?” There’s no satisfactory answer right now, at least in my own mind.
When season three ends, it will end with a big, dramatic moment, just like season two ended. And it will end with a reason to continue watching beyond season three. Knock on wood—we will go beyond season three. But it really is like most television shows in that sense that you build toward a cliffhanger and you hope that if the worst case scenario comes to pass and that is your last season, you hope that it will be an interesting enough ending for a television series. We’ve got some crazy stuff coming this season. I think if you’ve liked us in the past, you will continue to. I think we take it some pretty dark and interesting places this season.
Speaking of dark and interesting, will we be seeing more of Bob Odenkirk as Saul Goodman this season? Was it your decision to cast him?
He’s much more front and center in season three, so you’re going to see a lot more Saul Goodman this season. He’s a wonderful guy. I think it was my idea to hire him, but it might have been one of my writers. The funny thing that happens in a writers’ room is that when you spend enough time together, you really do form a group mind. And that’s a good thing, because you kind of forget whose idea was whose at a certain point. They’re just community property and they all belong to the show. I can tell you that I’ve always loved Bob Odenkirk’s work, dating back to Mr. Show that he and David Cross did back in the early ‘90s. When I invited Bob Odenkirk to play Saul Goodman I was very excited, and when he said yes he would do it, I was over the moon because he is one of the funniest guys around, and a very talented actor to boot. As season three progresses, you’ll see a few other dimensions to Saul Goodman; he’s not just a goofy character, there’s going to be more to him this season.
I’ve read that Will Farrell is interested in doing your screenplay 2-Face. Is it going to redeem him of his many sins against popular culture?
[laughs] You know, 2-Face is a script I wrote in 1991. When I think of how long ago that was, it just blows my mind. And Mark Johnson, who is my executive producer on Breaking Bad and who has been my mentor in the business ever since I first met him in 1989, has been trying to get 2-Face produced now for 20 years, and yeah, the most current actor interested in it is indeed Will Farrell. I don’t know, honestly, where it stands. We had some meetings about a year and a half ago with Will Farrell and his manager. I think he’d be quite good in it, but I honestly don’t know where it stands. I’ve had my heart broken with 2-Face for 20 years now. I’ve had so many directors and so many actors sort of pass by and show a big flurry of interest and then the heat dies down and they go away, and then somebody else comes along. [laughs] It’s been a wild ride. I don’t see it [happening] in the near future, but maybe in the next few years we can get it going.
Do you have any projects that are a little closer to being realized, then?
No, not really. I wish I were a J.J. Abrams-type of producer who had a lot of different things going at once, but I give my heart and soul to Breaking Bad and it is all that I do, and all that I’ve been doing now for two, three [years]. It’s the only way I know how to work. I have to be there front and center and weighing in on every decision, whether it’s wardrobe or giving an opinion on the timing in the finished episode. Anything and everything I want to have a hand in because I guess I’m kind of a control freak, and because I love this job so much. I love this world we’ve created so much that I want to be not just a part of it, but front and center in the creation of it. Breaking Bad is going to leave a big hole for me, personally. [laughs] So I’m hoping it goes for at least for a while longer.
Well, I’m glad that you’re not J.J. Abrams.
Interview: Rob Zombie on 3 from Hell, Manson, and the Charisma of Evil
Zombie discusses how he corrals his films’ furious sense of energy and how sex appeal can trump common moral sense.
Musician Rob Zombie is also one of the most original and distinctive of modern horror directors, having fused the theatricality of his concerts and videos with the tropes of Southern-fried slasher films to arrive at an aesthetic that captures the narcotic pull of violence. His films, which include House of 1000 Corpses, The Devil’s Rejects, The Lords of Salem, and the dramatically underrated Halloween II, often feature characters who are gutter poets and expert tenders to their own mythology in the tradition of Charles Manson.
Zombie’s villains also often suggest musicians themselves, as they’re elaborately outfitted and self-conscious of their murder sprees as a kind of performance art, which Zombie films up close with piercing intimacy, fetishizing power while also dramatizing the pain and humiliation of death in extremis. At their best, Zombie’s films are so unnerving because he plunges you unapologetically into their aggression and squalor, which he laces with shards of dark and even unexpectedly loony comedy. (In The Devil’s Rejects, a band of killers has an elaborate argument over whether or not to stop for ice cream.)
Zombie’s latest, 3 from Hell, continues the story of the filmmaker’s most famous characters, the Firefly clan of House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects, played by Sid Haig, Bill Mosley, and Zombie’s wife, Sheri Moon Zombie. Last seen going out in a blaze of glory, the Firefly Clan, newly revived and captured by the law, of course embarks on another bender of ultraviolence. Richard Brake, the MVP of Zombie’s 31, plays a new killer who joins the clan, which eventually winds up in a Mexican town that bears a resemblance to the climactic setting of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. Speaking on the phone with Zombie last week, we discussed how he corrals his films’ furious sense of energy, his love of screwing with typecasting, and how sex appeal can trump common moral sense.
Your films have a volatile and intimate style, and I’m curious about how you achieve that tone. Is there a rehearsal process? Do your actors need to work themselves up?
Well, we do try to rehearse whenever possible. Rehearsal time seems to be harder and harder these days for films. Have you seen 3 from Hell?
Okay, one scene in particular was difficult: the one where everybody’s held captive in the house, and the warden comes back with Baby. That scene was very difficult because in one room we have, I don’t know, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight actors. First of all, it’s a nightmare to block, because you got people going every which way and in every which direction. And it was just falling flat. The actors kept rehearsing and rehearsing and we could just not energize it. It just kept feeling stagey, and we were all confused because everybody was doing it right. And it was like, “What is the element that’s missing? Why is this not igniting the way it should?” It was driving us all crazy.
Was there any decisive “wrong” thing or was it a matter of fine-tuning everything?
It just wasn’t kicking off on the right foot. And we changed it so that Baby comes through the door, she’s excited at what’s going on and it was just something about that moment. We made one little tweak to how someone was going to do a line of dialogue, and it’s amazing how it created this domino effect and sent this energy through the room, and the whole scene just became crazy. But it’s really frustrating sometimes when you’re trying to figure things out because we’re all working on such a time constraint. It’s not like, “Ah, we got together and rehearsed for 12 weeks.” That was the first time those eight people had ever been in a room together you know, and we’re trying to make this explosive, very complicated scene happen. You keep searching until you figure it out.
I remember watching that long making-of extra on The Devil’s Rejects DVD, and it seemed then like that tight schedule was a source of inspiration. Is that fair to say?
The tight schedule is a blessing and a curse. But I think the curse part would’ve happened no matter what. I’ve made movies with much longer schedules and there’s never enough time. I’m sure when they were shooting Jaws on day 500 they were like, “We need more time!” I don’t think it matters how much time you have, you still don’t have enough time because you always think you can make it better. On most movies, actors shoot something and then go back to their trailer, they play video games, they take a nap, they read a book, they chit chat, have a cigarette. Nobody leaves the set when I’m shooting, because we never have enough down time for them to go anywhere. And that way, they’re always there and in the moment. And that’s what you need: You need to yell “action” and they’re still there. Because it’s really hard when you start a scene, whether it’s a high-energy scene or a low-energy scene, and then people break it down for a half hour while they change the lights. Actors just lose the vibe, and then they come back in and are like, “Ah, man, where was I? What was happening?” And whenever you break for lunch, it’s like, “Ah, crap.” There’s that after lunch lull where everybody comes back full and you gotta ramp everybody’s energy up. So the short schedule works, because we never stop, we never stop, we never stop. And I think the actors like it better because they don’t want to sit by themselves all day in a trailer. They wanna act. It’s like a play.
In 3 from Hell, I like the energy of Baby’s prison scenes, and I love Dee Wallace. Her role is a great bit of anti-typecasting.
Well, I like anti-typecasting. We’ve worked with Dee several times, and Sheri had worked with Dee quite a bit on Lords of Salem. So, I like when I know that actors have a good working energy together, because sometimes they don’t and that can be problematic. When I first offered Dee the role, she didn’t say yes right away. She was like, “Oh God, this is so different, I gotta think about it.” And then the next day she said yes. Because, you know, she usually plays the nice mom or the nice whatever, I guess she’s been typecast since E.T. But, you know, now you can be the mean, shitty lesbian prison guard. You’re an actor, you got it. [laughs]
What makes Dee really pop in this role is that the niceness isn’t entirely gone. The character is chilling because she has a strange vulnerability.
There’s a weird dynamic we wanted to create, where she’s not just this prison guard from something like The Big Bird Cage. Dee’s character is in awe of Baby and in love with her but hates her guts at the same time. I always like creating these weird relationships between the characters. Baby’s in Dee’s head and she knows it. To diverge for a second, I remember seeing this footage of Charles Manson. He was coming in to sit down to be interviewed by Tom Snyder or whoever. In the outtakes before the interview started, Manson was standing there bullshitting with the film crew. It’s so weird. He’s like, “Hey, man, where you from? Oh shit, man, I’ve been there before.” The crew doesn’t think of Manson as a murderer, he’s like a rock star to them. There’s this weird fascination because he’s so fucking famous. It’s a sick thing.
Your films have an edge because they’re willing to tap that fascination. You’re willing to leave moralism behind and groove on the charisma of these evil people. You’re honest about the cultural attraction to killers. Do you think of it that way?
Yeah, I totally do. The reason I can get away with the Fireflies doing what they do in these movies, and people liking them, is because they’re cool and charismatic and sexy. That’s who people are drawn to. If they were like hideous to look at and disgusting, audiences would say they’re horrible. But this guy looks like he’s, you know, Gregg Allman, and this girl looks like she’s like Farrah Fawcett, these guys are awesome! People are into them.
You have a good point. People don’t quite worship David Berkowitz the way they do Charles Manson. One has the sex factor.
Yeah, there’s a cool factor. Manson does look like Dennis Wilson or John Lennon. Though when you research, when Manson and the family shaved their heads and put the swastikas on their foreheads, they lost the youth culture. Before, people were outside the courthouse in L.A., and they were interviewing people, and some of them were wearing “free Manson” shirts. The Family was on the cover of Rolling Stone and all the hippie rags. But the swastikas made people think, “Okay, he’s not the cool hippie dude we thought he was.” Would Jimi Hendrix have been who he was if he was a big fat bald guy? No, it’s because he was fucking cool. Would the Beatles have been the Beatles if they were all ugly, stupid-looking dudes? No, it’s because everyone thought they were good-looking. That goes so far in the world. More now than ever.
The Best Stephen King Movies, Ranked
We’ve compiled the best feature-length adaptations of King’s work, excluding the mostly mediocre TV adaptations.
Stephen King is one of the most influential of all contemporary writers, an artist who followed Richard Matheson’s example in wedding irrational horror with the surreal minutiae of everyday American life. The most distinctive elements of King’s remarkably vast bibliography—his exacting and uncanny empathy for working-class people and his loose, pop-culture-strewn prose—are rarely accounted for in the dozens of films that have been made from his novels and stories, which often predictably emphasize his propulsive plotting. Consequently, these adaptations often resemble routine genre films with a smattering of King’s dialogue, which sounds better on the page than when performed by often self-conscious actors who look as if they’d rather be anywhere than trapesing around a simulation of King’s beloved Maine. But a number of excellent films have been made from the author’s writing, either by doubling down on the neurotic naïveté of the author’s Americana or by striking new ground, recognizing that a good film needs to be a movie, rather than a literal-minded act of CliffsNotes-style embalming. To commemorate the recent release of Cell, we’ve compiled the 10 best feature-length adaptations of King’s work, excluding the countless, mostly mediocre TV adaptations.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on July 8, 2015.
10. Stand by Me (1986)
Those who accuse Stand by Me of indulging shameless boomer nostalgia are missing the point, as that’s precisely what the film is about. Director Rob Reiner dials down the violent hopelessness of King’s source material (the novella The Body), but still emphasizes the cruelty and loneliness that mark four boys’ coming-of-age odyssey to see the corpse of a young man nearly their age. The film is framed as one of the grown boy’s remembrances, as he attempts to spin his unreconciled feelings into the more tangible stuff of…coming-of-age fiction. At times it’s hokey, and, yes, the soundtrack does some major emotional heavy lifting, but the feast of excellent acting compensates greatly, particularly by Wil Wheaton, Kiefer Sutherland, and River Phoenix. Stand by Me remains one of the best adaptations of King’s more sentimental non-horror writing, and it’s far superior to preachy, insidiously insulting staples like The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile.
9. Creepshow (1982)
Still one of the great comic-book movies in that it approximates the actual tactile act of reading and flipping through a magazine, ideally on a rainy Saturday afternoon with a can of soda by your side. George Romero directed from King’s original script, which pays homage to EC comics like Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror, and the filmmaker displays a visual confidence and tonal flexibility that’s reminiscent of his Dawn of the Dead. The bright, deep, and garish cinematography is both beautiful and disturbing, enriching King’s gleefully vicious writing while providing a framework for the lively performances of a game, celebrity-rich cast. The film straddles an ideal line between straight-faced seriousness and parody, particularly in the unnerving climax of a story in which we can hear the pained gurgling of aquatic zombies.
8. Silver Bullet (1985)
A creepy drive-in horror movie that throws a werewolf into a boy’s sentimental coming-of-age tale. Based on King’s slim Cycle of the Werewolf, which was released with gorgeous illustrations by artist Bernie Wrightson, Silver Bullet weds evocative imagery with spare plotting that allows each scene to breathe, giving the film an nightmarish free-associative energy. There are several boffo sequences, particularly when the werewolf seizes a man’s baseball bat, his paw shown to be beating the man to death from below thick fog, or when the wolf is outsmarted by the protagonist, one of his eyes blown to pieces by a bottle rocket. Speaking of the monster, the movie has one of the great wolf designs, which suggests a huge, bitter, upstanding bear with a terrifying snout. The human identity of the creature is a great, characteristically blasphemous King twist.
7. Dolores Claiborne (1995)
Five years after her career-making performance in Misery, Kathy Bates returned to Stephen King territory with Dolores Claiborne, which, like the book, disappointed nearly everyone for not being a typical horror story, instead combining the traditions of martyred-woman melodrama with gothic mystery. Critics, who only seem capable of praising melodrama when it’s directed by one of their pre-approved canon placeholders (like Nicholas Ray or Douglas Sirk), also turned their noses up at Dolores Claiborne, and it’s a real shame. Both the novel and the film get at the heart of King’s preoccupations with sexism and classicism, spinning a fractured narrative of a mother, her daughter, the man who nearly ruined their lives, and the all-encompassing pitilessness of aging. Yes, the film is behaviorally broad, but this broadness is utilized by the reliably underrated director, Taylor Hackford, as a form of catharsis. And Bates’s performance as the titular character is positively poetic. Her delivery of a monologue about Dolores’s work routine particularly locate the weird, qualified dignity of thanklessness, reveling in the pride and transcendence that can be wrestled from menial-ness. Perhaps more than any other film on this list, Dolores Claiborne has the feel of King’s voice.
6. Misery (1990)
No one performs King’s dialogue like Kathy Bates. She embraces and owns the moving cuckoo logic of his best orations, understanding that they’re almost always rooted in class anxiety. The most disturbing quality of Misery, both the novel and the film, is the fact that we relate to Annie Wilkes, psychotic “number one fan” of author Paul Sheldon (superbly played in the film by James Caan), more than we do her victims. Bates is so intimately in tune with Annie that we feel for her when she fails to impress Paul, somehow temporarily forgetting that she’s holding him hostage and torturing him. Annie is yet another of King’s unleashed nerds, a repressed soul seeking actualization, but she isn’t sentimentalized, instead embodying the ferocious self-absorption that fuels obsession, leading to estrangement. Director Rob Reiner and screenwriter William Goldman regrettably trim King’s most ambitiously subjective material, but they compensate by focusing pronouncedly on the cracked love story at the narrative’s center.
Locarno Film Festival 2019: Technoboss, Echo, & A Voluntary Year
A striking number of the titles that appeared in the festival’s competition slate this year operate in a playful, breezy register.
Locarno often leans into its reputation as Europe’s most unapologetically highbrow summer festival, but a striking number of the titles that appeared in the festival’s competition slate this year operate in a playful, breezy register. Such as João Nicolau’s Technoboss, an unwaveringly deadpan musical comedy about an aging divorcé, Luís (Miguel Lobo Antunes), nearing the end of what seems to have been a tedious career selling and maintaining integrated security systems. His existence is far from enviable, as he’s past his prime as a salesman and baffled by modern technology, while his primary companion is his cat. To compound the overriding sense of ennui, Nicolau presents a decidedly drab vision of Portugal, all cramped offices, cluttered shop floors, and soulless hotels.
Luís, though, remains optimistic, as evinced by his tendency to burst into song as he drives between assignments, and by the quietly determined way in which he attempts to regain the affection of an old flame, Lucinda (Luisa Cruz), despite her apparent disdain for him. Antunes, in his first professional acting role, is compelling, with a perpetual twinkle in his eye that hints at a rich inner life. And while his vocal range is limited, to say the least, he brings an earnestness to the musical numbers that elevates them above mere quirky window dressing.
Ultimately, the film is too narratively slight and tonally monotonous to justify its two-hour running time. One running joke in particular, involving a smarmy executive who’s frequently heard off screen but never seen, runs out of steam in the final act. And yet, when viewed in close proximity to the likes of Park Jung-bum’s dreary crime drama Height of the Wave, which bafflingly won this year’s special jury prize, Technoboss is a breath of fresh air.
Runar Runarsson’s Echo isn’t exactly a laugh a minute: An early scene depicts the preparation for a child’s funeral, while subsequent sequences revolve around police brutality, domestic violence, and the lasting impact of childhood bullying. But it’s delightful to behold Runarsson’s sly execution of a formally bold premise. Clocking in at 79 minutes, the film is composed of 56 standalone vignettes connected by a Christmas setting. The constant narrative shifts are initially jarring, but recurring themes begin to emerge: rising social inequality in the aftermath of the financial crisis; the impact of modern technology on traditional ways of life; the drabness of winter and its impact on the country’s collective mental health.
Yet while the film’s underlying tone is melancholic, there are frequent bursts of pure comedy, from the absurd spectacle of abattoir workers bopping along to a jaunty rendition of “Jingle Bells” amid animal carcasses, to a farmer and her partner earnestly squabbling about the state of their relationship as they document the mating habits of their goats. Humor also arises through the juxtaposition of scenes. The haunting image of a boy in a coffin is followed by a clinical shot of a similarly motionless adult body, and it takes a moment to register that we’re looking at not another corpse, but rather a man lying under a tanning lamp. Later, a heartwarming kids’ nativity scene cuts abruptly to a shot of bikini-clad bodybuilders performing in a harshly lit, half-empty auditorium.
However, it’s Echo’s sincerity that really impresses. One sequence, in which an emergency services operator calmly reassures a child reporting a violent altercation between his parents, is remarkable in the way it hooks the viewer emotionally in mere seconds. The film ultimately coheres into a vivid portrait of contemporary Iceland that’s equal parts bleak and beguiling.
A Voluntary Year, co-directed by Berlin School alumni Ulrich Köhler and Henner Winckler, is a similarly bittersweet affair, walking a fine line between raw domestic drama and precision-engineered comedy of errors. Sebastian Rudolph stars as Urs, an off-puttingly pushy small-town doctor intent on packing his teenage daughter Jette (Maj-Britt Klenke) off to Costa Rica to volunteer in a hospital. Jette, though, would rather spend her gap year at home with her boyfriend, Mario (Thomas Schubert), who seems harmless enough but has been written off as a poisonous influence by Urs. A sequence of mishaps in the thrillingly unpredictable opening act gives the young couple a brief chance to take charge of their own futures, but the decision Jette hastily makes pushes her strained relationship with her father towards breaking point.
Köhler and Winckler do a fine job of eliciting sympathy for their deeply flawed characters. Jette is maddeningly indecisive and prone to overly dramatic outbursts, but her brash exterior masks deep-seated vulnerability. Meanwhile, it’s easy to share Urs’s disbelief that Jette should be even remotely infatuated with the woefully uncharismatic Mario, but the boy’s earnestness ultimately proves strangely endearing. Urs is much harder to warm to, as he’s the quintessential big fish in a small pond, clearly used to throwing his weight around and getting his own way. To add insult to injury, his handling of sensitive situations is often jaw-droppingly misjudged. And yet, the viewer is given a strong enough sense of his good intentions to at least partially root for him as he attempts to patch things up with Jette.
While it may not do this modest film any favors to make the comparison, there are shades of Maren Ade’s masterly Toni Erdmann in The Voluntary Year’s nuanced depiction of a fraught father-daughter relationship, and also in the way the filmmakers play the long game when it comes to delivering comic payoffs. An enigmatic narrative thread involving a migrant boy has a laugh-out-loud resolution that also neatly paves the way for a moving final scene.
The Locarno Film Festival ran from August 7—17.
Interview: J. Hoberman Talks Make My Day, Reagan, and ‘80s Movie Culture
Hoberman discusses how the art of filmmaking, and the business of moviegoing, influenced, mirrored, and altered Reagan’s presidency.
The poster boy of American conservatism, the bar to which all Republicans would unashamedly evaluate future candidates, and yet now seemingly lower on a weekly basis, Ronald Reagan was an ideal movie star with an idealized view of the past. His perfect America would be equivalent to the opening shots of red roses, green lawns, and white picket fences that kick off Blue Velvet, while America’s reality would be what transpires once Bobby Vinton’s song concludes and the swarming ants are revealed beneath the surface.
A time of Hollywood blockbusters and silver screen patriots, macho men and teens headed back to the future, the 1980s, while not considered a golden movie age, saw a symbiotic relationship between American film and the nation’s chosen leader. How else to account for Reagan proposing his “Star Wars” strategic defense initiative in March of 1983, a mere two months before the release of the year’s top grossing film, Star Wars: Return of the Jedi?
With his methodically researched new book, Make My Day: Movie Culture in the Age of Reagan, former Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman takes a sociological approach to discovering how the art of filmmaking, and the business of moviegoing, influenced, mirrored, and altered the goings-on of our 40th president’s administration. And on the occasion of the book’s release and accompanying Film at Lincoln Center series, which samples feature films from the ‘80s, I spoke with Hoberman about the first Reagan screen performance he ever saw, being a working film critic during the “Age of Reagan,” and the unexpected rise of real estate mogul and Celebrity Apprentice host Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States.
One of your most revered books is Vulgar Modernism, a collection of reviews and essays written during the ‘80s without the benefit, or trappings, of historical hindsight. Now 30-some-odd years later, you’ve taken a step back to take a look at the bigger picture of the decade. What was that experience like?
I should say that this book was the culmination of two earlier books, The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties and An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War. Make My Day is the end of a trilogy. When I began writing the trilogy, I didn’t realize how central Reagan would be to it, but by the time I started Make My Day, he had become, in effect, the protagonist of the entire trilogy. Make My Day was different from the other two books. It’s not just that I lived through this period, but that I was then a working critic. How was I going to deal with that? In the earlier books, I went out of my way to quote critics and others who wrote about movies because I was very interested in how these films were initially received. In the case of Make My Day, however, it seemed absurd to quote other critics when I was there myself. It took me a while to come to that conclusion because my impulse wasn’t to put myself in the book and yet I realized that I would ultimately have to.
I found that my opinion of the various movies discussed hadn’t changed all that much. My opinion of Reagan was modified somewhat, in that I saw him as a more complicated figure than I did during the 1980s, but I also believe my response to him in the ‘80s was true to the moment. That’s why I included a number of longer pieces in the book, while also annotating them, so that one could see that I wasn’t just reusing the material without thinking about it.
You note that each volume can be read in chronological order, the order in which they were published, or as standalone installments. I took it up after finishing your and Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Midnight Movies, and it felt like I was emerging from the pre-’80s underground to a Reaganized American society that had become depressingly anything but countercultural. What was it like being on the underground and Hollywood beat as a critic throughout those years?
I didn’t really start reviewing the blockbuster films until around 1984. I was the Village Voice’s second-string critic when Andrew Sarris, the first-string critic, fell ill, and I took his spot for a while. As a result, I was reviewing movies that I might otherwise not have. To make things interesting for myself, I began reviewing these movies from a political and ideological perspective. Even when Andy came back, that stayed with me. So, for example, there were a lot of action films during that period that Andy was very glad not to review, like Top Gun, but I did those while also reviewing foreign films, avant-garde films, documentaries, and so on. I always said that I could never be a first-string critic for a newspaper. I would have lost my mind having a steady diet of big Hollywood movies! I would have had to mix things up.
While midnight movies aren’t the primary focus of Make My Day, the underground did find a way into your reviews of ‘80s blockbusters. I recall a review in the Voice titled “White Boys: Lucas, Spielberg, and the Temple of Dumb” in which you tear down the nostalgic Indiana Jones prequel while praising Jack Smith’s nostalgic Normal Love. Was it maddening for you to review the latest Spielberg while underground artists concurrently made the same points to much smaller audiences?
That was really something that came from the heart. I was outraged by Temple of Doom, by its attitude, and I was really sick of these guys, Spielberg and Lucas. I wanted to bring out that there were other forms of filmmaking and other ways of dealing with this material. I was making a point, yes, but it was something that was fueled by emotion rather than reason.
Were there any Spielberg films, or Spielberg-adjacent films like Gremlins or Poltergeist, that you found less than risible throughout the Reagan years?
There were some that I preferred. I liked Gremlins quite a bit, and I enjoyed Back to the Future, which is Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis. At the time, I didn’t much care for Poltergeist, but when I looked at it again for the book, I thought it was interesting in terms of its pathology. I should also say that I liked Jaws and E.T., to a degree, although it was no Blade Runner.
Though primarily concerned with Regan’s political reign, you also dig deep into his filmography, noting how his sole villainous role, in The Killers, has always prompted a vocal reaction from every audience you’ve watched it with. Why do you think that is?
Well, I’m not sure that’s still true. A friend recently saw The Killers at Film Forum and told me he was sort of shocked that people didn’t respond to the scene where Reagan slaps Angie Dickinson. The first time I saw The Killers, which was, I think, in June of 1969, I didn’t expect to see Reagan in it. I don’t think I had seen him in a movie before. I was well aware of who he was, of course, and I hated him because I had been at Berkeley the previous summer, when students were public enemy number one and there were disturbances every night—the whole thing was extremely compelling for me as a 19-year-old. The point I wanted to make was that my whole view of Reagan was predicated on The Killers. To me, he seemed to be playing himself. I had a very naïve response. I couldn’t understand why he would do the role. I mean, what crazy hubris prompted him to show what he dreamed of becoming on screen? I recognize my response as primitive, but it also demonstrates the power of movie images. I didn’t see him as acting, even though he clearly is. I saw it as him projecting his evil, bastardly essence.
Speaking of essence, it’s odd re-watching Donald Trump’s numerous cameos in American film and television. Unlike Reagan’s silver-screen presence, Trump literally always played himself: an obscenely rich braggadocio. Whereas Reagan’s “lovable” persona no doubt helped his later career in politics, Trump’s media appearances helped to fortify his reputation as an arrogant huckster.
This is the point I tried to make at the end of the book. I was surely thinking about Trump a lot while writing the book, but he only became president when I was close to finishing it. Trump may have a star on Hollywood Boulevard, but it doesn’t come as a result of the movies. He’s a celebrity and a celebrity is someone who’s able to project a cartoon version of themselves, or a larger-than-life version of themselves, into the media world: TV, the tabloid press, and so on. Trump is being true to this persona. I didn’t really see Trump’s presidency coming. For me, he was a New York City character, a local celebrity who was regularly exposed in the Village Voice’s narrative of New York City corruption. I had no sense of how he existed to the rest of America, in Celebrity Apprentice. Clearly that’s what put him over, or at least helped to put him over. That and his appearances on Fox News as a kind of pundit and even his involvement with professional wrestling.
As you mention in your book, the uncomfortably awkward 1979 CBS Ted Kennedy sit-down interview with Roger Mudd ultimately derailed Kennedy’s attempt at a presidential run. It’s hard to imagine, given the feckless attempts by our current political leaders to appear like an everyman, that current presidential candidates’ chances could be derailed by the televised struggle to answer a basic question. If anything, we might view the guffaw as endearing and humanizing. Trump says dumb stuff on a daily basis, and we all just accept it. Have we become desensitized to politicians being put on the spot and not being able to come up with succinct answers?
I think it’s different for different candidates. Being the younger brother of J.F.K., who was the first real political star, created a lot of expectations. People credit Kennedy’s success in the 1960 election with his appearance in the first debate, for looking so much better than Nixon. That may be simplistic, but it’s not simplistic for people to think that TV had something to do with Kennedy becoming president. I think this is a case of “live by the sword, die by the sword,” that his brother just stumbled so badly in that interview, in what was essentially his television debut. He did go on all the way to the 1980 Democratic National Convention, but the myth of the Kennedy charm and invincibility was destroyed by that interview.
Looking at subsequent presidents, Reagan certainly had an elastic sense of reality. But in his distortions and lies and misstatements, he was by and large upbeat and, when he wasn’t, he was at least coherent. Trump lies so continuously that you feel that that must be part of his appeal for his base, that he’s just going to make this stuff up. They think it’s funny or entertaining or maybe that it represents a “greater degree of authenticity.”
There had been a very interesting point made by Theodor W. Adorno about Hitler’s appeal. I’m not saying that Trump is Hitler, but he’s a demagogue and Hitler was too. Adorno, who lived through Hitler’s lies, made the point that intellectuals and serious people didn’t get Hitler’s appeal. Before he came to power, he just seemed like a clown. There was something ridiculous about Hitler’s assertions and his tantrums. What they didn’t realize was that’s precisely what his fans liked about him. I think that’s also the case with Trump and his supporters.
If Nashville, as you point out in the book, foresaw the real-life presidential assassination attempts that were soon to come, could you see the same cinematic influences happening today? Are there films today that you think are foreshadowing things that could come into fruition within our own political future?
Nashville was a movie made at a time when movies were much more central to American culture than they are now. It was made by a filmmaker, Robert Altman, who was directly addressing, as an artist, what was going on. I bracketed Nashville with Jaws because in some respects, Jaws is a similar movie, although I’m not sure if Spielberg was consciously making an allegory. Some things in the film are political, for example the behavior of the Mayor of Amity, but beyond that the movie itself was utterly central to American culture. There was nothing more important during the summer of 1975 than Jaws. There’s no movie that has that kind of centrality anymore, nor do movies as a whole.
A number of television shows seemed to be predicting Hillary Clinton before the 2016 election. There were shows like Madam Secretary and Veep and Homeland, strong, female, political heroes, or, in the case of Veep, comic. But what were they compared to Celebrity Apprentice? Those aforementioned shows were very feeble in terms of reaching an audience and I think it was more a projection of the people who made it. When I look at movies now, and I have to say that I don’t see as many movies as I used to, I see some that seem to manifest things that are in the air. Jordan Peele’s Get Out would be the best example of this. That movie was made and conceived while Obama was president, but it certainly projected the post-Trump mood. Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is interesting because, on the one hand, it’s a movie about 1969, and yet it’s also a movie about 2019. It can’t help but manifest some of our current fantasies and tensions. But even if it had a bigger audience than Nashville, people just aren’t taking it the same way.
And Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood presents a cinematic take that has a romanticized, almost fetishistic view of a 1969 that never truly existed, at least not the way Tarantino wishes it did…
Well, that’s certainly one way to look at it. I would put it somewhat differently, but we can let people discover for themselves if they haven’t seen it!
The book also talks a great deal about the revisionism and idealization of specific time periods that were said to represent wholesome Americana. The ‘50s is a big one, but as you point out, the movies’ view of the ‘50s were drastically different from the one the world actually experienced. I remember growing up in the ‘90s convinced Happy Days was a TV show not just about the ‘50s, but from the ‘50s itself.
That makes perfect sense, and I think other people share that same experience. The genius of that show is that it portrayed the ‘50s “as it should have been.” Jean Baudrillard has a memorable description of walking in to see Peter Bogdanovich’s 1971 black-and-white film The Last Picture Show and, for a moment, thinking it was actually a movie from the period it depicted: the early ‘50s. It was a hyper-real version of it. That’s what Happy Days was. I think Reagan’s genius was to be able to do that on a larger scale, to conjure up an idealized ‘60s almost out of whole cloth, vague memories, old television, and old movies in his own conviction, even if that was ultimately a fantasy. It was an idealization of the period.
On the occasion of your book’s release, you’ve programmed a selection of double features for an upcoming series at Film at Lincoln Center. Outside of a closeness in release dates, like The Last Temptation of Christ and They Live, what went into the pairing up of certain titles?
I appreciate that question. I really love the concept of double bills. Whenever it’s possible, I like to teach using double bills, because then the movies can talk to each other—and I don’t have to talk as much. Ideally the movies should comment on each other. The reason for including The Last Temptation of Christ was a bit tricky. I thought that the response that it got certainly looked forward to the culture wars of the ‘90s. There was such hostility directed toward that movie and, by extension, the movie industry as a whole. As Trump would say, it was as “an enemy of the people.” And to me, They Live seems to be the bluntest, most direct critique of Reaganism ever delivered, and it was delivered at the very, very end of his presidency. In a sense, it was already over, as the film came out just before the 1988 presidential election. I see both They Live and The Last Temptation as political movies, one overtly political and one that was taken in a political manner.
The 100 Best Sci-Fi Movies of All Time
These films are fearless in breaking down boundaries and thrusting us into worlds beyond our own.
“The [sci-fi] film has never really been more than an offshoot of its literary precursor, which to date has provided all the ideas, themes and inventiveness. [Sci-fi] cinema has been notoriously prone to cycles of exploitation and neglect, unsatisfactory mergings with horror films, thrillers, environmental and disaster movies.” So wrote J.G. Ballard about George Lucas’s Star Wars in a 1977 piece for Time Out. If Ballard’s view of science-fiction cinema was highly uncharitable and, as demonstrated by the 100 boldly imaginative and mind-expanding films below, essentially off-base, he nevertheless touched on a significant point: that literary and cinematic sci-fi are two fundamentally different art forms.
Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, a visionary depiction of a near-future dystopia, is almost impossible to imagine as a work of prose fiction. Strip away the Art Deco glory of its towering cityscapes and factories and the synchronized movements of those who move through those environments and what’s even left? It’s no accident that some of the greatest cinematic adaptations of sci-fi novels bear only a passing resemblance to their source material. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, for example, simply mines some of the concepts from Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? about human-looking androids, using them as the raw material for a haunting urban future-noir that owes more to visual artists like Moebius and Antonio Sant’Elia than it does to Dick himself. Then there’s Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, which transfigures Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s briskly paced novella Roadside Picnic into a slow, mesmerizing journey into an uncanny space.
Ballard may have been right that literary sci-fi has provided all the interesting themes and ideas for which sci-fi in general has become known, but he failed to grasp how cinema has expanded our understanding of sci-fi by pricking at our collective visual consciousness. The titles on our list of the 100 best sci-fi movies of all time have shown us utopias, dystopias, distant planets, and our own Earth destroyed. Some of these depictions are humorous, others haunting. Some rely on complicated special effects, others use none at all. But they’re united by their fearlessness in breaking down boundaries and thrusting us into worlds beyond our own. Keith Watson
100. Altered States (Ken Russell, 1980)
Ken Russell’s psychedelic Altered States examines one man’s egregious deflection of paternal responsibility in the name of scientific innovation. Fantasy and self-indulgence are the most powerful narcotics in the film—drugs that allow Harvard scientist Dr. Eddie Jessup (William Hurt) to flirt with an increasingly volatile dream state where, as he puts it, “time simply obliterates.” Consumed by religious repression and self-guilt regarding his father’s painful death from cancer decades ago, Eddie becomes addicted to medicating his own primal urges through lengthy self-deprivation experiments. The theme of escape dominates the film, especially during Eddie’s visit with a native tribe from Central Mexico where a peyote session causes Eddie to hallucinate, visualized by Russell as a nightmarish dreamscape of striking imagery. It’s an incredibly subjective sequence, placing the viewer inside Eddie’s headspace during a lengthy and jarring slide show from hell. Lava flows, sexual acts, and animal disembowelment all crash together, images that take on even more symbolic meaning later in the film when Eddie begins to evolve physically into a simian form. Glenn Heath Jr.
99. Tomorrow I’ll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea (Jindřich Polák, 1977)
A film as brilliantly constructed as it is titled, Jindřich Polák’s Tomorrow I’ll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea is a swinging comedy about a secret cabal of Nazis who’ve discovered the secret of time travel and are intent on using it to go back to World War II and supply Hitler with an atomic bomb. The plot also involves a pair of twins, mistaken identities, and anti-ageing pills, and yet, despite having to keep all these narrative balls in the air, the film never feels convoluted or over-stuffed. Instead, it’s a delightfully wacky farce that treats its potentially terrifying premise with cheerfully irreverent humor, exemplified by the film’s opening credits, which feature archival footage of Hitler manipulated to make it look like he’s boogieing to disco music. And if all that’s still not enough, Polák’s film also offers a nifty showcase of some of the grooviest low-budget futuristic production design the ‘70s Soviet bloc had to offer. Watson
98. Flash Gordon (Mike Hodges, 1980)
A gleefully cheesy throwback to the sci-fi serials of yesteryear, Mike Hodges’s Flash Gordon is as pure a camp spectacle as you’re likely to find. A glitzy—at times garish—extravaganza of brightly colored sets, skin-baring costumes, and otherworldly vistas that wouldn’t seem out of place in the gatefold of a Yes album, the film is silly and cartoonish in the best sense of those terms. Featuring such outlandish characters as the fu manchu-sporting villain Ming the Merciless (Max Von Sydow), Prince Vultan (Brian Blessed, bare-legged and sporting giant metallic wings), and the blank-eyed beefcake at the center of it all, Flash (Sam J. Jones), the film is very much in on its own joke. Produced by Dino de Laurentiis to cash in on the post-Star Wars mania for space-opera flicks, Flash Gordon ultimately has more in common with tongue-in-cheek cult musicals like Phantom of the Paradise and Xanadu than it does with George Lucas’s action-packed monomyth. That’s thanks in large part to the rip-roaring soundtrack by Queen, whose spirited pomposity seamlessly complements the film’s flamboyant comic-strip visual delights. Watson
97. The Invisible Man (James Whale, 1933)
James Whale’s anarchically playful The Invisible Man is an outlier among Universal’s line of classic monster movies. More of an inventive mash-up of black comedy and sci-fi than true horror, the film is an incendiary piece of speculative fiction that counterbalances its cautionary-tale tropes by perpetually reveling in the chaos its megalomaniacal protagonist stirs up, even as his intensifying violent impulses shift from harmlessly prankish to straight-up lethal. This pervasive sense of moral ambiguity is only strengthened by Whale’s decision to keep Claud Rains’s Dr. Jack Griffin invisible until the film’s closing seconds and elide his character’s backstory altogether. Griffin’s unknowability and cryptic motivations are mirrored in his literal invisibility, allowing his corruption and unquenchable thirst for power to take on a universal quality that implicates the audience even as it as it entertains them. Derek Smith
96. The Brother from Another Planet (John Sayles, 1984)
A gentle-hearted satire on race and the immigrant experience, John Sayles’s The Brother from Another Planet follows an unnamed mute extra-terrestrial (Joe Morton) who, after crash-landing in the Hudson River, navigates life in the Big Apple. The hook, of course, is that while this “brother” hails from a far-off planet, to the people of New York, he looks like just another black guy. This premise, which could’ve been mined for easy laughs or obvious platitudes about racism, is instead, in Sayles’s hands, a sensitive, socially observant fable about the difficulties of assimilation. The brother is, in all senses of the term, an alien: far from home, isolated from those around him, unsure how to navigate local social interactions, and, ultimately, unsure if he belongs in this world at all. Bolstered by Morton’s soulful lead performance—few have ever made the act of listening so compelling to watch—Sayles’s film is science fiction at its most succinct and humane. Watson
95. Days of Eclipse (Aleksandr Sokurov, 1988)
Aleksandr Sokurov’s Days of Eclipse opens with a majestic birds’ eye view tracking shot of a desolate desert landscape. As the camera speeds up, it descends from the heavens, violently crashing into the ground in a poverty-stricken Turkmenistani community. The shot invokes a metaphorical image of invasion, and after a hard cut, we’re offered a blistering glimpse of that invasion’s impact: a landscape neglected to the point of decay, crumbling amid the oppressive heat and other inexplicable natural phenomena. Alternating between drab sepia tones and more vividly colorful footage, Sokurov films a multicultural community through the disoriented, foreign eyes of Malyanov (Aleksei Ananishnov), a Russian physician sent on a vague mission to bring modern science to the village. But Malyanov remains a stranger in a strange land, unable to commune with the shell-shocked villagers, whose trauma and desperation has rendered them alien to all outsiders. Like Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker and Aleksei German’s Hard to Be a God, both also based on novels by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Days of Eclipse transforms an ordinary landscape into something mystical and otherworldly. And in this film in particular, it perfectly embodies the unbridgeable disconnect between colonizer and colonized. Smith
94. Voyage to the End of the Universe (Jindřich Polák, 1963)
While some Czech New Wave filmmakers in the 1960s explored the interconnected social and political foibles of people in their home country, Jindrich Polák’s effects-laden Voyage to the End of the Universe trades the oppressed Soviet-ruled Czech Republic for the outer reaches of the cosmos. The journey of the starship Ikarie XB-1 in searching for life on another planet isn’t without the Czech New Wave’s notable playfulness when detailing how travelers cope with the monotony of space travel (here’s looking at you, dance party sequence), though Polák expresses a darkly fatalistic worldview as well. If the haunting sequence of Ikarie XB-1 crew members finding a doomed ship that went on a similar mission is any indication, Polák suggests that sheer advancements in innovation and searching for a new life-sustaining planet is ultimately an exercise in futility, since human life, in both the individual sense and as a species, will end at some point. It seems we might as well, like the film’s bored cosmonauts, just simply let go and dance the night away. Wes Greene
93. The Thing from Another World (Christian Nyby, 1951)
Legend has it that The Thing from Another World was helmed not by its credited director, Christian Nyby, but by producer Howard Hawks. The film certainly provides ample evidence to suggest that such a covert switch occurred, as the its controlled atmosphere of dread and abundant rapid-fire repartee between the primary players seem to have been molded according to Hawks’s trademark template. Regardless, what remains most remarkable about the film is its continued ability to function as both a taut science-fiction thriller and a telling snapshot of the Cold War paranoia beginning to sweep the country in post-WWII America. The story, about the battle between a group of stranded military personnel and an alien creature fueled by human blood, is a model of economic storytelling. The conflict between Captain Patrick Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) and Dr. Arthur Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite) is one between Force and Reason, and represents a debate over whether America should cope with its Soviet adversaries through military confrontation or intellectual and diplomatic study. Given the ‘50s political climate, it’s no surprise that the film’s climax answers such a question by painting the sympathetic Carrington as a danger to mankind and the violent Hendry as a heroic warrior. Nick Schager
92. The World’s End (Edgar Wright, 2013)
Edgar Wright wrapped up his Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy with The World’s End, a rollicking alien-invasion ode to boozing up and moving on that bests even Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz in its comingling of hilarious buddy humor, aesthetically electric action, and genre shout-outsmanship. The story of a group of high school friends reunited to complete a famed pub crawl at the behest of their once-great, now-pitiful leader (Simon Pegg), only to find that their sleepy rural England hometown has been turned into a picture-perfect haven for extraterrestrial cyborg pod people, Wright’s film is a blistering barrage of contentious one-liners and CG-ified mayhem. Staged with the director’s usual high-wire dexterity and bolstered a cast that handles whip-crack dialogue with giddy aplomb, it’s the filmmaker’s most exciting, inventive, and purely entertaining mash-up to date—not to mention, in its alternately sympathetic and critical portrait of a man-child navigating the literal and figurative pitfalls of growing up, also his most heartfelt. Schager
91. Liquid Sky (Slava Tsukerman, 1982)
The world of Slava Tsukerman’s cult classic suggests the neon-tinged flipside of Warhol’s Factory. Anne Carlisle memorably plays dual roles: as Jimmy, a male model with a raging drug addiction, and Margaret, a bisexual girl who could easily pass for Aimee Mann during her ‘Til Tuesday days. Otto von Wernherr (Madonna enemy and early collaborator) plays a German scientist chasing after an alien spacecraft that visits the Earth in order to feed off the opium-producing receptors inside the brains of heroin users. During sexual orgasm, these receptors produce a sensation similar to the feeling produced by the brain during the absorption of heroin. The film’s aliens (visually represented using negative film stock of a blood-shot eye) feed off of this pleasure principle, spontaneously combusting humans as they engage in sexual intercourse. Aliens, drugs, clubs, orgasms, and big hair! On its crazed surface, Liquid Sky is a celebration of the ‘80s counter-culture. But more than three decades after its release, the bad behavior and paranoia depicted here seemingly foreshadows both the ramifications of said culture’s sexual indiscretions and a nation’s political naïveté. Ed Gonzalez
Interview: Julius Onah and Kelvin Harrison Jr. Talk Luce’s Ambiguities
Onah and Harrison discuss their approach to creating the film’s central character and how they navigated his many dualities.
“Really, it’s just about people—whether they conform to what we think they are,” says Kelvin Harrison Jr.’s eponymous character in Luce. The high school student is engaged in a classroom debate with his history teacher, the self-appointed respectability politics enforcer Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer), but he also speaks to the very essence of the film itself. Luce’s plot takes a number of engrossing turns as characters attempt to reconcile the disparities between the people they know so well and the deeds others allege they committed. But it all comes back to the characters themselves, Luce chief among them.
At his core, Luce is a model student thriving in suburban Arlington after being pulled out of an Eritrean war zone. Describing him further proves difficult because he means so many things to different people, some of whom—especially his adoptive white parents (played by Naomi Watts and Tim Roth) and school faculty—maintain an investment in seeing that he fulfills their expectations. From there, it only requires a few misunderstandings to ignite a powder keg of anxieties and assumptions surrounding race, class, immigration, and privilege.
While this description might seem to cast Luce as merely a passive participant in the story, nothing could be farther from the truth. He’s the film’s central enigma, with each scene concealing as much about his nature as it reveals. Harrison, a 25-year-old rising star who’s already turned in psychologically complex work in films such as Monsters and Men and It Comes at Night, endows the film with equal parts pathos and pathology through his performance. Shortly after Luce’s theatrical bow, I sat down with both Harrison and director Julius Onah to discuss their approach to creating the film’s central character, how they navigated his many dualities, and where they made determinations about his sincerity.
Who is Luce, for each of you? Inasmuch as it’s possible to pin him down.
Julius Onah: Whew!
Kelvin Harrison Jr.: He’s a 17-year-old kid who’s insanely intelligent. He’s gone through, seen, and overcome a lot. As he moves forward, he’s trying to make sure he feels protected and seen—that he’s not put, like he says, in a box and that his peers aren’t doing the same. He feels like the future generation is the future, so shouldn’t we all be supporting each other to do that? That makes him the budding revolutionary he wants to be—and is, in a lot of ways.
JO: As Kelvin said, we viewed him as this budding revolutionary, this kid who has incredible intellectual horsepower. But it’s like he’s got a Lamborghini with no license to drive. He contains all these multitudes within him, but, at the same time, has a tremendous amount of expectation on him from everyone around him who wants him to live his life on a symbolic, representational level, in order to prove whatever point they want. This kid is trying to negotiate the balance between “Who am I really?” and “Who do I have to be to make everyone around me happy and survive in America?”
How did you handle the meta consideration of finding the person of Luce without losing his symbolism?
KH: I’ve been telling this story that I grew up in New Orleans, the South, and went to a private school for high school. New Orleans is very laidback, we’ve got a lot of slang, which is what it is. But then I went to this majority white school and was one of five, six, less than 10 black people in the entire high school. The first thing they told me was, “You can’t say ‘yeah.’ It’s ‘yes.’” They were like, “What do your parents do? Why do you dress like that?” I started judging myself and changing who I was or what I looked like to assimilate to the culture. I took a lot of that and brought it into Luce and his journey coming from Eritrea, and to his parents saying, “We don’t know how to pronounce your name, so we’re changing it.” [laughs] And Harriet being like, “You need to do these things in order to be great.” It’s like [to her], “Whatever I am isn’t enough for you. You’re judging me based on where I came from, and now you’re telling my parents I wrote a violent paper.” It’s insane.
Watching Luce, I wondered if he’s played as if the character is the way that he is at his core and the audience just gets to discover that, or if the events of the film goad him into becoming the way that he is. Did either of you make a decision to play it one way?
JO: As a director, I have a conception of the character, but I always believe that the actor has to live it truthfully. We talked a tremendous amount about where this guy was coming from and the specific biographical details of that. But, at the same time, the beauty of it is these moments that just appear as actors are living it. One of my favorite moments in the film is when Luce is in the shed with his friend, Orlicki, who says, “DeShaun is black black.” And Luce instantly tries to defuse the situation. For a moment, he retreats into himself, but right after, he smacks his friend’s leg, and they start laughing. It tells you so much about who this guy is, constantly measuring every moment, situation and expectation from people.
So, in terms of the overall of the character, there’s that human part of him that’s just a 17-year-old kid trying to figure out who he is like most 17-year-old kids are. But then there’s a part of him that’s brilliant and well read; he’s been brought out of a real, physical war zone and thrust into this psychological, emotional and sociological war zone of culture in America. He’s taken some of the skills from survival there and applying it here, constantly reading everything around him looking for incoming fire, ducking and covering, reshaping and reforming himself as he navigates all of this. That’s where some of the symbolic version of this character comes from. He knows what he has to represent to literally survive.
You mention incoming fire, and it reminds me that I read about how every time Luce shuts his locker, you added in the sound of gunfire. Where did that idea come from?
JO: A lot of people, and this started at the script level and in friends and family screenings, they would say things like, “If we just had a flashback to when he was a child soldier…” Which, to me, was like saying, “If you just made it easier to pigeonhole this character…” The minute you start doing all that, they can say that this is some PTSD story. But when you see someone walking down the street, unless you’re Bruce Willis in Unbreakable, you can’t touch them and flash back to learn what happened to them. All you have are your eyes and ears, and from there we make judgments about who people are. But, at the same time, I did want to suggest some of his history, so I said, “What’s a more sophisticated way to make you feel some of the pressure this kid is coming from without spelling it out?” And that’s where I decided, “What if we embedded gunshots throughout the locker, but we changed the pitch of them throughout the movie?” And also, the bells in the hallway that he hears in the school get more pitched up. Slowly, over the course of the film, you’re feeling that pressure rising and don’t even know it.
If people wanted a flashback, do you think they really wanted to feel pity for Luce that they didn’t otherwise have an outlet for?
JO: For me, I think they want to be able to put him in a box, and we all have that tendency. We want to be able to explain away the things we don’t understand, and that defies the purpose of asking the question. Once we make it easy for the audience, there’s no point to tell the story.
I saw the film for the second time yesterday and found myself watching it like a courtroom drama, building cases for or against characters, looking for silver bullets that might explain them…
JO: That’s great to hear.
…but then I realized at some point that this way of viewing was leading me to look for some kind of coherent explanation. Luce is all this one way or Ms. Wilson is all that way, and that one silver bullet will explain who they are, which goes against exactly what the film wants us to think.
JO: Yeah, it’s not like some epiphany we’re stating here, but it’s not the way the world works. I feel like if we’re going to tell these stories, there’s often a version of the story—and I’m not going to criticize any of these films. I understand why these stories are told, whether to give us hope or understanding or a sense of clarity. But, at a certain point, you have to ask when it’s disserving us. There aren’t easy morals or digestible answers to hundreds, thousand-year-old questions of identity that are now really bubbling to the surface in this country. When you look at the headlines in this country, the more we continue to think there’s an easy answer, the more we’re going to deal with these problems in a way that doesn’t solve anything. I felt the only way—and this started with J.C. [Lee]’s brilliant play—to talk about these things is to grapple with the fact that there isn’t a silver bullet.
There’s such a push and pull between sincerity and deceit for the character of Luce. It’s tempting, based on what we learn about him, to doubt the authenticity of any given moment. How did you all handle that dissonance that we experience?
KH: Truthfully? Because everything is to be played with the truth, it’s almost hard to keep track of the truth, even as Luce, of when he’s trying to get something that he needs or when he’s genuine. I wouldn’t even know at a certain point because it was always being sincere. It all kind of blurs after a while.
JO: I think that’s a really astute observation of it because, as a 17-year-old kid, you don’t know all the time. You’re just reacting and dealing with the fire of the world around you.
There’s a very ambiguous scene about midway through the film when Luce practices his speech before an empty auditorium. Are we meant to know what he’s thinking or how he’s feeling there? Did you make the determination of whether this is true self because he’s not performing before an audience, or just a rehearsal of emotion so he can play convincingly when the seats are full?
KH: I don’t think we made that determination, did we?
JO: Not explicitly. We never talked about it on that level. I think what’s so tricky and interesting with a character like this is that there’s always going to be an internal emotional life. However, it ends up being projected in that specific moment is going to be up to the audience. That’s why I love hearing this interpretation of yours. But what I think is sincere is this 17-year-old boy feeling the suffocating pressure of all these expectations, and it’s almost even harder when there’s nobody there in front of you because you realize what a performance it has to be. Whether there’s somebody there or not, you have to be on all the time.
KH: There’s some truth to that. I can remember being in the moment, considering the series of events that led up to it with being the star pupil, seeing what happened to DeShaun and Stephanie, and then my black teacher—who we talked about being in a weird way like a second mom—go behind my back and tell my white parents that maybe I’m a threat because of who I was is a lot! And then to have my dad turn on me like that [snaps fingers] on the drop of a dime simply because he heard an accusation and be like, “This is bullshit, you’re full of shit.” It’s a lot. I think to go through the process of fighting for his identity and rights, in that moment he’s saying this thing about how his mother couldn’t pronounce his name, so they renamed me, it hurts. Because it reminds him of the things he’s had to go through since the beginning that he’s had to suppress to move forward. There’s a lot of truth. He’s disappointed, and he feels scared and abandoned. He’s very alone in that moment, which you can see. But it could be performative because there are moments where he’s like, “I’m good at acting!” [laughs]
There are a pair of instances in the film where it’s alluded to that Luce showed cruelty to a fish. Is that at all a nod to the possibility that he might be a sociopath given that being a commonly recognized trait for them?
JO: Again, we’re just always trying to present things as truthfully as possible. I’m sure every person in this room has done something as a kid to a living creature where you’re just testing the limits. I remember things with my dogs when I was six or seven like, “What if we fold the dog’s legs this way?” You’re sort of playing, but you’re also testing your power. Down to holding the magnifying glass over ants, whatever the case might be. These are all things where we lay out the story and just tell it. Then it’s up to us as to how we want to view it. Do we want to view this as a child doing something or through the lens of race? His history coming from violence? And then how are we going to choose to feel about it afterwards.
Luce, both the film and the character, rail against the “model minority” archetype. But while he describes it as a straightjacket, is it possible that he also slyly sees it as a shield under which he can hide some of his actions?
KH: I think he’s aware of that. There’s a bit of not completely fully understanding the privilege he gets from his white parents. But at the same time, I do think he knows Principal Dan is like, “This one’s my thoroughbred. He’s on my team, I know how to work him, I know how to get him on my side, I know if I bring my parents they’ll probably donate money to the school.” He can finesse his mother right before, and she might do exactly what he needs her to. But there’s another part of him that doesn’t know how much he can do. He’s just testing it out. He’s reactive, just living in the moment and seeing what he’s capable of.
JO: What’s interesting about him is his duality. He’s grown up with a white family, adjacent to white privilege because he can walk into school with his mom and dad. They can offer him the kind of protection that DeShaun would never get. One of the things I would often tell Naomi and Octavia is, “Imagine if that big showdown happens in the third act, but it was DeShaun’s parents who walked in.” There’s no way they could engage and carry themselves in the way Luce’s parents do! But at the same time, Luce is still black. When he walks out of his house, he will be treated and viewed when he’s not with his parents in the same way that a young black man would be. He alludes to that when it comes to smoking weed.
So, part of all this is how far the model-minority thing can go for Luce. How far does this privilege extend for him? How much can he get away with, or when are they going to decide that he’s not a saint anymore, but a monster? And the inability to negotiate that. Because in either case, whether you’re a saint or a monster, it’s saying that you’re not human. Though one of them comes with privileges, it’s still saying that you don’t have access to a full spectrum of humanity. While on some level, everyone around Luce thinks that if they lift him up to perfection, it proves, one, how open-minded and progressive they are and, two, the system works. What they don’t always fully recognize is that not only is it discarding the people who aren’t doing that, it’s also creating—on an emotional and psychological level—an alienation within Luce. And, in this case, both people are hurt as opposed to arriving and doing the real work that makes it a possibility for everyone to have access to that full humanity.
You mention the big third-act showdown, and in both times I’ve seen Luce, the moment that gets the loudest gasp is when his adoptive white parents decide to go all in on a pretty bald-faced lie. What do you hope audiences take away about whiteness and its complicity in perpetuating the monster/saint dichotomy?
JO: An awareness of that complicity. There’s often the analogy used that fish don’t know they’re swimming in water—[the water’s] just there. When you have a space that’s built for your existence, you don’t feel the pressure points in the same way. You’re not always aware of the privileges you have and how those things can be weaponized. Sometimes, your good intentions can be a path that leads down—we know how the rest of that saying goes. I think the challenge for everybody, and that’s what I loved about telling this story, is that we are all limited and prisoners of our own perception. For some of us, that perception comes with more privilege. But specifically, for those who live on the top end of that power totem pole, there often isn’t an awareness of how even in the best of circumstances, one is contributing to the systems of power and privilege that exist. I think, hopefully, if we’ve done our job with the story, we’re not lecturing anybody or pointing the finger per se. We’re just asking the question.
Watching it again, I was struck by how many instances in the film there are where if the characters were just honest, transparent, or didn’t assume something about the other person, they could have avoided so many bad things. Is that a fair statement?
JO: Absolutely! I think we all know—and this is my first time meeting you, Marshall—how hard that is. It is so hard. It’s such a negotiation between ego and beliefs. All you have to do is look at who’s in power in this country right now and what he has the privilege to ignore. And then, by proxy, the people who choose to support him have the privilege to ignore. What was really interesting about Amy’s arc in the film is that you have her move from a lack of awareness to awareness, but then she has the privilege to decide how aware she wants to be or what she wants to turn off. She says, “You know, I just want to love my son, forget it!”
KH: Tim’s character is interesting because, from the get-go, he’s like, “Just tell him!”
JO: Tim and I often had these conversations about where Peter’s coming from. He came from more of a working-class background and rose to that level. But Amy grew up in the type of environment she’s already in, with more privilege. Peter very much just wants to parent. He’s always dealing with that, and this is where it gets so tricky with that negotiation of “when am I being a parent who just wants to look after my son? Or when am I being a white man who’s letting my baggage of privilege and my perceptions and assumptions about my son cloud the way I treat him?” And that’s where it becomes really messy and complicated.
The National and the Global Intersect at the 2019 Jerusalem Film Festival
Even the most casual exchanges at the festival ended with some variation of a sentiment that arose as a mantra: “It’s complicated.”
Gur Bentwich’s Peaches and Cream contains a running joke that resonated in the context of the 36th Jerusalem Film Festival. Bentwich follows a director named Zuri (played by Bentwich) who undergoes an odyssey after his new film, also called Peaches and Cream, has been indifferently received on its opening weekend. In various encounters, people tell Zuri that they prefer European to Israeli cinema—claims that feel ironic given the way that the lurid and feverish nature of Bentich’s film feels pointedly European and American in sensibility. Peaches and Cream’s wandering camera, eroticized women, and narcissistic macho anxiety suggests a Fellini production as viewed through the prism of contemporary American films like After Hours, Listen Up Philip, and Birdman, creating a friction. Zuri and Bentwich—the two are deliberately indistinguishable—have both made a quasi-European film only to be discounted for not being European enough for Israeli cinephiles.
I thought of Bentwich’s running joke when the international critics’ delegation of which I was a part—and which also included writers from China, Poland, Lithuania, Portugal, Russia, and Slovakia—was treated to a dinner with a group of Israeli critics. Peaches and Cream came up in conversation, with one Israeli writer voicing his irritation with the film’s references to Western cinema, the sort of fealty which he said was part of the problem of Israel’s cinematic exposure to the rest of the world. Western films reference one another, he said, creating an echo chamber that serves as an affirmation of legacy, while Israeli cinema tends to emulate not itself but the West as well. This writer’s sentiments echoed comments I heard at the Warsaw Film Festival last year, from critics and filmmakers from various countries.
Such conversations are reminders that pop culture is one of the West’s great legacies and means of influence. (In Tel Aviv for a few days after leaving the festival, I noticed that every bar in my neighborhood played vintage American music, from Bob Dylan to the Talking Heads to Alice Cooper to the Notorious B.I.G.) Another joke in Peaches and Cream almost subliminally parodies the neuroses that such an attitude may inspire: Zuri fights to keep posters of his film up in public, trying to protect them from being obscured by other notices.
Relatedly, I saw a Peaches and Cream sticker that had been stuck on a large banner for Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory, a hot-ticket item at the festival. The banner’s commanding image—of a tormented and gray-bearded Antonio Banderas, who won the best actor trophy at this year’s Cannes for his performance, casting a shadow in the shape of Almodóvar himself against a red backdrop—had been merged with an advertisement for Bentwich’s film, the round sticker providing Banderas with a makeshift eyepatch that cheekily embodied the very intersection between Israeli and international cinema that drives the JFF at large. The festival had one of the most eclectic lineups that I’ve seen, including vintage restorations, lurid thrillers, many Cannes entries, notable American films from last year, documentaries, shorts, and homegrown Israeli productions, which were often the most difficult to get into.
Generally, my fellow critics didn’t care much for Peaches and Cream, finding it narcissistic and borderline sexist—qualities which struck me as part of the film’s joke. There’s no way that an actor-director, other than maybe Kevin Costner, could give himself this many close-ups without a satirical intent. Peaches and Cream is a messy and unruly film, at least until the requisite redemption provided by the third act, and it indicates the Jerusalem Film Festival’s taste for bold formalism. Most festivals open with a bland audience-pleaser, while the 36th edition of the festival kicked off with Bong Joon-ho’s Palme d’Or-winning Parasite, which is the very embodiment of confrontational political cinema.
Parasite initially suggests a South Korean cover of a Patricia Highsmith novel, with a family that literally lives under the surface of mainstream society conning its way into jobs with a wealthy household. In the film’s first hour, the greatest achievement of Bong’s career to date, viewers are encouraged to enjoy the poor family’s ruse, which the filmmaker renders with svelte long takes and pans that elucidate shifting modes of power while providing visceral visual pleasure. Bong’s kinetics are also a form of misdirection, as the film’s tone gradually curdles, with the class resentment that’s been percolating under the narrative’s surface eventually exploding into a massacre that suggests a microcosm of both revolution and genocide. As always, Bong clinches his themes and symbolism too tightly, but Parasite is still a significant comeback from the exhaustingly broad Snowpiercer and Okja.
The setting of Parasite’s premiere at the JFF intensified the film’s power, as it was shown at the Sultan’s Pool, a striking outdoor amphitheater from which you can see the walls of the Old City, the Tower of David, and even, from certain angles, portions of Palestine. Now a legendary venue that’s hosted the likes of Eric Clapton and Dire Straits, the Sultan’s Pool was a site for children’s sacrifices centuries earlier, before it was later modernized by Herod into a portion of Jerusalem’s water supply system. Before Parasite’s premiere, there were many speeches testifying to Israel’s dedication to cinema, including an appearance by the country’s president, Reuven Rivlin. This pageantry isn’t without tension, given the conservative government’s hostility to films that are critical of authority, which was expressed by the audience’s traditional booing of the Minister of Culture and Sport, Miri Regev, who’s wanted to cut the government’s funding of the arts, and who appeared at the JFF this year via a pre-taped speech. Which is to say that, in a setting freighted with ghosts and nesting political tensions, in a city and country with as much cultural baggage as any in the world, a left-wing horror film like Parasite carries extra weight. It even feels a bit like a dare.
Film festivals can be a paradox. On one hand, they’re the ideal of the world most artists and critics would like to live in, one where like-minded people share the experience of art, food, and drink as communion, though they’re also dream realms that cast a potentially insidious illusion of rebellion, giving audiences a faux catharsis that enables the very repression that artists and critics are often railing against. Aren’t festivals, regardless of the politics of the art they program, ultimately P.R. for governments that still do whatever they like? (Perhaps Regev either doesn’t understand this possibility or is expertly playing her role as a liberal foil.) In such contexts, I think of Matrix Reloaded, in which the hero learns, in what must be one of the most convoluted speeches in the history of cinema, that he’s a tool for providing an appearance of hope and choice to a population that’s still nevertheless controlled.
Yet it also feels unfair to single out the festival experience for this train of thought, as all artistic endeavors run the risk of rendering palatable the sources of their ire—a topic we also touched on at the critics’ dinner. Art opens us up to other cultures and ideas, but it can also lull us into a kind of waking sleep, making us think we’ve initiated change merely by going to a festival or watching a film or posting something critical on Facebook or Twitter. And this danger of art is especially material when one gorges on the fruits of creativity for days at a time. The act of sipping a drink and eating nice dishes before the Parasite premiere while surveying the Palestinian landscape does, for instance, carry a certain frisson. Many films playing at the festival were concerned with the legacy of Israel, particularly regarding Palestine, and the Israeli critics and press openly spoke of these ambiguities. Even casual exchanges with journalists and average filmgoers alike ended with some variation of a sentiment that arose as a recurring festival manta: “It’s complicated.”
The JFF seems intent on working within the system by using government funding as well as donations to both preserve and establish an Israeli cinematic canon, which it compares and contrasts with the cinema of the rest of the world. Many of the festival’s screenings were held in the Jerusalem Cinematheque, which is located near the Sultan’s Pool and houses a film archive. The delegation was invited to take a tour of the archive, and in the labs we saw ravishing silent images of Jerusalem desert that have since been modernized as part of the city. We also spoke with people who are restoring films from Israel and other countries. Several restorations played at the festival, among them Amos Guttman’s 1986 crime drama Bar 51 and Clemente Fracassi’s 1953 opera Aida, a stagey yet hypnotic Verdi adaptation featuring a gorgeous Sophia Loren and Technicolor that might make the artists of Hammer Films blush.
Color is used to florid and rapturous effect in another JFF selection, Karim Aïnouz’s The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão. The film tells one of the oldest of melodramatic tales, following two sisters who’re separated from one another in 1950s-era Brazil by a patriarchal system that fetishizes female obedience. Eurídice (Carol Duarte) is an aspiring pianist, while her older sister, Guida (Julia Stockler), is a free spirit who runs off with a Greek sailor. Returning home single and pregnant, Guida is rejected by their father, Manuel (Antonio Fonseca), who calls her a slut and lies to each girl about the other in order to keep them apart. It’s a ruse that will haunt the family for the rest of their lives.
Starting with the film’s opening, a humid fantasy sequence in a tropical forest that serves as a metaphor for the girls’ eventual plight, Aïnouz goes stylistically big, utilizing a swooping camera and a wrenching score to sweep us up in Eurídice and Guida’s longing for one another, which resembles romantic passion. This texture gives The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão, which won the Un Certain Regard prize at this year’s Cannes, a streak of perversity that’s amplified by the explosion of harlequin reds and blues that signify dwarfed desire. Though this film has an unimpeachably feminist sensibility, Aïnouz also evinces remarkable sympathy for Manuel, a square who’s stymied by his devotion to a hypocritical culture. A shot of the man waiting for his “good” daughter and her child in a restaurant, while the “bad” daughter spies on them unseen, is among the most haunting images I’ve seen this year.
Colors serve the story of Aïnouz’s film, while color is much of the story driving Diao Yinan’s The Wild Goose Lake, a Chinese gangster drama that grows increasingly hallucinatory as it somewhat moseys toward its climax. The narrative opens on a man with a past, Zhou Zenong (Hu Ge), as he meets a woman, Liu (Gwei Lun-mei), from the wrong side of the tracks. We soon learn that Zhou is waiting for a different woman, though Liu assures him of her loyalty. But the play of light and rain across these arresting faces is more commanding than this expositional business, with Diao soon splintering his plot into suggestive abstraction, as we learn how Zhou became a hunted man enmeshed in a war between crooks and law enforcers. The plot becomes so riven with betrayals and reversals that one’s encouraged to digest the film as pure poetry, homing in on the explosive hues and stunning action scenes and foreboding shadows and, particularly, the pervading feeling of rootlessness and loss that’s occasionally exacerbated by brutal violence. The Wild Goose Lake is a ballad of aggression and decay, relating a shaggy dog story that’s truly a portrait of a country eating itself alive.
Color has a colder and more sinister purpose in two of the other thrillers I saw at JFF. In Vivarium, through sheer force of will and formalism, director Lorcan Finnegan makes a potentially trite premise eerie and suggestive. Gemma (Imogen Poots) and Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) are a couple looking to move in together, and on a whim they agree to look at a townhome in a yuppie neighborhood that they’re sure they’ll despise. The neighborhood is revealed to represent corporate efficiency and impersonality to the ultimate degree, with identical, unforgettably hideous pea-green homes that suggest Monopoly pieces as arranged by the Tim Burton of Edward Scissorhands. The neighborhood is so generic, in fact, that Gemma and Tom get lost trying to leave, until it’s revealed that they’re trapped here via supernatural means, and forced to raise a child (Senan Jennings) who suggests an ill-tempered robot, screaming at a glass-shattering pitch when he isn’t fed on time.
Finnegan understands that to explain his premise too much is to dispel its power, and the vagueness of his narrative serves to place the audience in his protagonists’ shoes. The filmmaker also doesn’t over-emphasize the obvious thematic hook, which is that Gemma and Tom’s no-exit situation suggests a nightmarish version of the disappointment that can arise when people succumb to the social pressure to mate, procreate, and attain boring jobs in the name of respectability. As precisely made as Vivarium is, with irrational images that are worthy of classic horror cinema, it’s all concept. Gemma and Tom are merely sketches of the fear and ennui that arrive on the cusp of reaching middle age. The characters’ immediate accommodation of their new hell feels truthful, but it also robs Vivarium of urgency. Once one accepts its message, which is clear early on, there’s nowhere else for the film to go.
In certain fashions, Jessica Hausner’s Little Joe is reminiscent of Vivarium, though it’s a richer and more unsettling work. Both films feature intensely symmetrical imagery and rich colors that suggest a mockery of the emotions that are being suppressed by the rigid settings. But there’s more mystery and emotional variety in Little Joe; one can’t quite pinpoint the meaning of Hausner’s aesthetic flourishes, such as deliberately unmotivated dolly shots that cut characters out of certain frames in order to emphasize windows or other passageways. And why does a laboratory for breeding plants suggest a Wes Anderson set, with clothes that match the colors of certain pieces of furniture? This color scheme subliminally complements the plant that Alice (Emily Beech, who won the best actress prize at this year’s Cannes for her performance) has bred. Her creation, which she calls “Little Joe” after her son, Joe (Kit Connor), is obscenely fake-looking, suggesting a combination of a rose and a penis. When the plant is stimulated by human talk, it opens up into full bloom, its bright red head serving to satiate the yearning emanating from Alice, a single mother, and her workaholic compatriots.
The plant is engineered to trigger happiness in humans, a concept that reveals how alien the notion of human interaction is to Alice, who rebuffs her poignantly worshipful colleague, Chris (Ben Whishaw). But Alice, a control freak, stymies the plant in a way that reflects her own alienation, rendering it incapable of reproducing. The plant strikes back, gifting human happiness at a price that steers Little Joe into Invasion of the Body Snatchers territory, leading to a brilliant joke: that Alice, in her self-absorption, can’t see the invasion that’s engulfing the world around her. At times, this stark, sad, weirdly exhilarating film also suggests David Cronenberg’s The Fly, similarly boiling a potentially sprawling plot down to a few settings and characters, evoking an aura of clammy claustrophobia. Cronenberg’s film ended with an operatic crescendo, however, while Hausner keeps us trapped in her hermetic world, in which a plant teaches humans to abandon the possibility of ecstasy.
At the JFF, I missed Yolande Zauberman’s much-buzzed-about M, a documentary about the child abuse that’s wrought in an Orthodox Jewish community, due to considerable demand. I did, though, catch a few documentaries that should earn attention outside of the festival circuit. Ai Weiwei’s The Rest continues the artist’s project of exposing the refugee crisis in Europe, in which countries like France, Turkey, and Greece fight over where to store people who’re fleeing from endless wars in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and others. Thematically and aesthetically, the film is similar to Ai Weiwei’s Human Flow, though the filmmaker has compressed his footage here, editing The Rest down to 79 minutes’ worth of tactile physical gestures that bring home the reality of the refugees’ lives, divorcing the topic of platitude. We see refugees burning plastic water bottles to start a fire for warmth, people cradling a cat deep into their chest, and, most wrenchingly, Ai Weiwei captures a government destroying a shanty village with a bulldozer, a sequence the filmmaker shoots with a matter-of-factness that’s unflinching and unforgettably moving. Most importantly, Ai Weiwei reminds us of a harsh reality: Most of the refugees merely want to return to their war-torn countries, willing to risk death over the abuse and contempt that awaits them throughout the rest of the world.
Because of the auteur theory, people have an image of films as springing from a maestro director’s head, when they’re really works of communal endeavor. Catherine Hébert’s Ziva Postec reminds us of this fact, following the primary editor of Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah as she goes antiquing and recollects the six years she spent culling hundreds of hours of footage into a nearly 10-hour opus that would help define the world’s grasp of the Holocaust. A few startling details emerge. Shoah’s most important formal gambit—the contrast of the aural interviews with filmed footage of Holocaust sites as they looked at the time of the film’s production—didn’t crystallize until years into the post-production process. Also, Postec tells us how she remixed the interviews, adding space between sentences so that dense descriptions of atrocity would attain a musical cadence that would help viewers understand the stories. Hébert eventually connects Postec’s astonishing accomplishment with the editor’s own conflict over her Jewish and Israeli roots, and Ziva Postec becomes a testament of a woman facing her culture’s demons and arising out the mess somewhat cleansed. One senses that this sort of reconciliation—of the demons of the past with the yearnings of the future—is what ultimately drives the JFF at large. Such a bazaar of art allows us to give voice to anxieties and exaltations that are normally thought to be, well, complicated.
The Jerusalem Film Festival ran from July 25—August 4.
Interview: Rick Alverson on The Mountain and Challenging Narrative Convention
The filmmaker discusses his latest, and his antipathy toward the mass machine of modern pop culture.
Writer-director Rick Alverson is as intense and intelligent as films like The Comedy, Entertainment, and the forthcoming The Mountain would lead you to believe, with a pointed distrust of sentiment that indicates an urge to forge a connection that isn’t muddied by platitude. Alverson’s protagonists yearn for connection, too, especially Tye Sheridan’s wounded and adrift young man in The Mountain, a pursuit that also mirrors the filmmaker’s urge to discard or challenge narrative convention in order to reach a kind of purity of observation. The Mountain is rich in self-consciously still and idyllic compositions that parody the characters’ various pretenses, while also capturing their internal reverberations.
Since at least the rise of postmodernism, artists and critics alike have been trying to free certain art forms—particularly the novel and later cinema—of the constrictions of plot, presumably to access a free-associative and primordial truth. This struggle was at the heart of Susan Sontag’s essay collection Against Interpretation, and it’s a concern shared by Alverson. Yet the filmmaker, in his art and in conversation, runs into the same irony as Sontag: Their rejection of interpretation, embodied mostly in Alverson’s case by the rejection of plot, is interpretation. Most critics and artists, even if they confine themselves to discussions of formalism (and Alverson and I did not) still run headfirst into ideas of meaning, which could be more prosaically and perhaps more truthfully be described as notions of theme.
However, it’s refreshing that Alverson even bothers to grapple with such paradoxes, and he has a knack for speaking in full and winding sentences that mirror the thorny poetry of his cinema. Alverson and I also happen to live in the same city—Richmond, Virginia—and we met last week over coffee in a local spot and chewed over The Mountain, Alverson’s earlier work, and his antipathy toward the mass machine of modern pop culture.
Given that you travel quite a bit, is it comforting to have a central home to return to?
“Comfort” is a complex word. [laughs]
I know. I think I’m asking if the concept of a nest appeals to you.
Yeah, but there’s always acclimating to coming home. There’s this whole process of reevaluating things around you that have been with you for a quarter century. But, yeah, it’s nice being in a city that’s oblique and a little removed from the hustle and bustle of the industry obsessions. Now, if I can clean up my Twitter feed to reflect the world as opposed to the film industry, I’ll be a better person.
My Twitter game is extremely rudimentary. A variety of passing fancies.
Where did you go to film The Mountain? California?
It was shot in upstate New York, from the Seneca in the Finger Lakes to the Bronx—14 different towns. Then we took the production and did a leg out in the Pacific Northwest. Mount Baker and the Canadian border all the way through the rain forest. A company move across the country is substantial. [laughs]
Do you purposefully seek narratives in which characters are wandering?
Yeah, I’m sort of turned off by certainty in films. Movies that have always meant something to me are open and unmoored. The idea of resolution is so fantastical. In so much of consumer cinema, resolution is pushed as a necessary element. Not only as a cathartic moment in the last act, but the very nature in every journey in most films feels like it’s destined to be resolved. It’s so uninteresting to me. It’s so removed from the way we experience life.
When watching The Mountain and Entertainment, I thought at certain points that it’s a relief to be free of exposition. That opens films up, gives them space to do and say something else. Your characters don’t talk about a plot. I’m not saying that those films don’t have narratives, but your characters are allowed to say these poetic and surprising things because they are accorded both geographic and emotional space.
Yeah, in the consumer model for cinema, there isn’t that air in the thing. The act of “tightening it up”—from the script reviews to the test audiences—kills a thing and deprives it of its incoherence, which is poetry, the stuff of life. Also, I never like as a viewer to feel that I’m being coddled. I love the act of discovery. The act of curiosity. The reason so many films are so boring to me is because it’s all laid out; there’s no place to maneuver in there. You’re supposed to be a passive subject that watches the thing live and find you and actually becomes your consciousness, because these movies aren’t giving your mind anything to do.
I think of the moment in The Mountain where the father tells his son, Andy, the Tye Sheridan character, that he never thought the boy would stop growing. And then he compares his son to the child’s mother, seemingly unflatteringly. There’s a lot of texture there in just a few lines. A conventional film might have elaborated more on the psychology, though we don’t need it. And those lines haunt the entire movie.
Well, good, I appreciate that. A lot of audiences are conditioned to let those things pass them by, because movies teach them to look for expositional triggers. Like “what is this telling me, does it make sense?”—and if it doesn’t they discard it. They’re conditioned in films and episodic television to do that. It’s literally a grammar that says “this is the particular kind of information that’s going to be valuable to you to be able to compartmentalize this whole thing when you’re done.” I think we’re being deprived of a lot of the stuff of life in these grammars.
Even in art cinema, there’s this narrative fixation, and The Mountain looks at this quite a lot, both as a toxic element for these men in this film, and for the audience that’s imbibing them. Is narrative, in the space of cinema, still functional? Even in a broader space, has narrative outlived its functionality as a delivery mechanism for complexity? We’re increasingly taught to have caches, and to reduce things down to very simple narrative ideas, and that’s weaponized by your Trumps and by everybody. The larger concern isn’t “Oh we should just tell more positive and better stories.” We’re using something that was designed in the oral tradition, and in the written tradition, for an entirely other space. Can we criticize the rules of the game?
I don’t want to put The Mountain in a box myself, but Jeff Goldblum’s character, Wallace, is himself addicted to a narrative, to an idea of how lobotomies work.
That’s a reduction of the complexity and nuance of his life into a tidy narrative bubble, essentially. That then allows for a hell of a lot of misfortune, because he’s succumbing to ignorance, and ignorance breeds that shit.
Andy, maybe like his mother, refutes ideas of how we should behave, and you wonder if they’re actually wrestling with madness. From what you give us lobotomizing Andy feels disproportionate to his actions, which is terrifying. We see the social bridge: He’s on the bench entirely accepted and a moment later he’s at society’s mercy.
It’s about surfaces, signifiers, and clarity. I hope the film looks at problems of clarity. We often speak of clarity in celebratory terms, but what is lost in that? The whole mission statement of the arts is to interrupt that idea somehow.
A scene that struck me in The Mountain, and that testifies to the benefits of how you work, making the audience come to you to a certain extent, is when Andy grasps the face of one of Wallace’s patients.
Yeah, I like that scene a lot.
It’s a profound moment. You’re thinking about the potential similarity of this woman to Andy’s mother, and what Andy thinks about that, and his desire for communion. It is poetry—a pure moment. It’s not emotion-by-the-yard, like in a more conventional narrative, with waves of catharses. This is a moment where you’re in this room and you have to look at these people. It reminds me a little bit of Bresson. He slows your biorhythms down, and when certain moments come they hit you in the solar plexus.
It’s funny with Bresson, you, and particularly a contemporary audience, have to be receptive to that state. And there are treasures in there, you know. I think about emotion and the capacity for cinema or what’s left of it to viscerally engage with you emotionally. The emotions that we typically experience in cinema are nostalgic and reverential. I’m not a fan of Tarantino because he’s very tightly recirculating something, and there’s no air in it. I understand he’s a great craftsman, but that’s not why I go to cinema. This idea of “oh this reminds me of this and now I’m reminded in the vein of nostalgia for this emotion”—it’s all triggering. And when the uncertain events of a natural experience, uncoupled with another experience, occurs to an audience, they just shut it out because it makes them uncomfortable. If your mission statement is to engineer that discomfort, it can be tricky.
I watched your first film, The Builder, last night for the first time. It’s very good.
It was a petri dish. Me shooting and, at any given time, one other person holding a boom mic, that was the extent of the crew for a year. It was an investigation into the relevance of the medium to me.
The Builder is shaggier visually than your recent films, but your aesthetic seems to be pretty fully formed. You seem to have already known what kind of filmmaker you wanted to be. Is that fair or off-key?
Yeah, I don’t believe we change very much as individuals in our lives. [laughs] We have a bandwidth, which is another reason why I’ve been forced to value limitations. Because the fact of the matter is that if we can better understand what that bandwidth is, we can explore it. One of my favorite writers is the novelist Thomas Bernhard, and every one of his books resemble one another. They have surrogates for the same position and value of characters in previous books, and so there’s this tonal exploration of a very small space over the course of many novels. I think there’s something beautiful about that.
It seems to me that most major artists have one idea that they’re seeking to express purely. They seem to be chasing a purity of expression.
Well, expression is a vocalization, and the process of cinema is still complex. It’s cumbersome it’s so complex, down to the distribution, and the promotion and development, and the number of people and orientations that are involved. It’s not tidy, but in that process there’s a potential wrestling with the medium itself, which I think is really vital. And if independent cinema has anything to offer, it’s in that contention with the shape and limitations of the medium, rather than it all being a well-oiled machine that you step into. I envy those directors who have that opportunity to create such enterprises. At the same time, it’s reflexive contention that has value.
Did the wide recognition of The Comedy place any pressure on you to try to broaden your audience, or did it enable you to further mine your own interests?
It did allow me to expand in terms of budget, and so the movies became less scrappy. Fortunately. There’re scenes in Entertainment that I couldn’t have shot on those earlier budgets. With any sort of mild recognition in a practitioner’s life, there are doors that open and people say, “Oh, step in, we’ve been waiting for you.”
How do you like to talk to actors? Are you someone who talks a lot to them?
I think there are actors with very particular curiosities that want to work with me, because it’s imperative that the person wrestle a little bit with the process, and that we go into that together and that there’s a discovery. I’m very physical, oriented toward physical concerns of the production, blocking, composition—those sorts of things. And, in casting, there are conversations about the objectives, so that motives—not the character’s motivations but our motivations as creators—are somewhat in concert. There’s a lot I don’t tell because it’s not necessary. During a film’s release or even a year afterward, an actor might discover something in it and ask me if it was intentional. They’ll discover something about how they were used.
Jeff Goldblum is extraordinary in The Mountain.
He should get a best supporting actor Oscar nomination for it. He honestly should.
He should. I’ve always liked him. I’m a very big fan of The Fly.
Yeah, I’m a Cronenberg fan. I love The Brood. I wish Jeff had played one of the diminutive personalities in that. [both laugh]
Goldblum’s energy in this film has a robustness that contrasts with the withdrawn mood of the other characters, and with the austerity of the film in general.
He’s incredibly curious as an individual and an artist. And his charisma has a life of its own. He’s great to work with and is a very kind person, and inevitably some of that comes across in the film.
This next question is motivated by that scene we discussed earlier, when Andy is looking at this woman and caressing her face: Are you minutely advising the physical gestures of the actors? Their movements feel very exact.
Yes. Me and my cinematographer, Lorenzo Hagerman, who I did Entertainment with, designed this movie to be formal to a fault. It’s supposed to almost verge on the fastidious, with a kind of compulsive artificiality. It’s supposed to feel stilted. So, yeah, it’s rigorously blocked, even on a short production schedule. We don’t do a lot of rehearsals, but there are blocking rehearsals and those are, to me, also gestural. I also talk about physical components, and will give direction like “part your lips.” It’s nice to work with people who recognize our limitations of access to this two-dimensional space. First of all, there’s no interior beyond the screen. It literally is a flat expanse, in which you’re generating the illusion of access, which is really just an event that is occurring in the audience. Someone like Bresson proves that it’s silly to believe that an emotional event can’t be generated entirely on the surfaces, though it’s not where we typically look for it.
Do your actors ever resist this sort of direction?
Some, but not who I work with. Nobody has for a long time.
The Mountain reminded me a bit of The Master. Do you admire that movie?
I thought it had problems. I mean, I admire everybody involved in it. Paul Thomas Anderson is the last great steward of a dying part of the industry, he’s an astute craftsman with a conscience and a capacity for nuance that Tarantino doesn’t have. I don’t know. I can understand that they have some literal similarities: there’s a photographer in that film, and there’s this concept of a mentor. I’m fascinated with these huckster characters, and so is Goldblum, and we bonded over that. Essentially our nation was forged by entrepreneurial fraudulence, even if you’re going back to the entirety of the new world. What’s being searched for is a fantastical unreality, and that desire is harnessed by industry whether it’s the Virginia Company or Joseph Smith’s enterprises. I find these characters incredibly fascinating, and I think Paul Thomas Anderson has a mutual fixation with that. Of course, the two films were being made during the same time period.
To return to a familiar theme of this conversation, neither you nor Anderson are cowed by the idea of offering resolution. You’re both determined to forge your own paths, and you both follow your characters into the ether.
He’s more generous than I am. [both laugh]
He might be more of a humanist, though I wouldn’t call you ungenerous. There’s a lot of earnest searching in your films.
I feel deeply about people and their environments and frailties. I’m sometimes painted as a cynic or a contrarian.
I’ve heard that too, and I think that’s a misreading of your work.
I appreciate that. There’s this fella, I forget who, who said it was evident that I hate the medium, and that I hate humanity. Just because you’re trying to interrupt this greased conduit into self-absorption and validation, just because you’re trying to provide an obstacle. I believe that obstacle is constructive, and I want to become more alive and less pacified. Some critics get kind of personal about me and I’m like “Christ Almighty you don’t even know me.” What did Francis Bacon get for God’s sake, you know? Talk about obstinate.
Yeah, in Entertainment, I think your refusal to judge or editorialize that central character is humanistic. I think a lot of directors would’ve scored points off that character.
Well, yeah, and I got shit for The Comedy because there was no on-screen reckoning. The author didn’t imprint his morality on the thing and therefore the author is immoral. That’s tiredly outmoded. It’s like postmodernism never happened.
Contemporary moralism is often at war with empathy anyway. If you have this tidy moral point, you aren’t dealing with the characters, you’re dealing with the author’s preconceived intentions.
Yeah, there’s a lot of maneuvering for comfort, which I think is part of the reason why the medium is changing and some factions of it are dying. The works of someone like Bresson or Godard—although Godard’s work is the most experimental it’s ever been, and God bless Kino for releasing his films in the United States—are now mostly relegated to the museum set. When people wrestle with the form or the medium now, I would say that it’s strange that it’s not more welcomed in the critical community, since critics romanticize iconoclasts like the French New Wave directors.
Revolution looks better in retrospect, because we know the ending.
And before we go, I’d just like to say, for all the seriousness of your movies, there’s certainly a dollop of absurdism.
Oh, yeah, totally. And had The Mountain been less of a difficult process to make, I would’ve had a lot more fun. I’ve been watching the recent Bruno Dumont movies. With the Quinquin and Coincoin series, it’s fascinating to see how he weaponizes absurdist slapstick in order to have the audience become vulnerable, only to then have those characters moments later become grotesque bigots. That’s exactly what I was aiming for in The Comedy: to disarm some faction of the audience so they become complicit in the thing, and so that I become complicit too. A morality tale is uninteresting if it’s merely allowing you to shore up your moral voice.
Odessa IFF 2019: La Belle Epoque, Sorry We Missed You, & The Orphanage
The festival feels very much on the rise, both as an international industry shindig and a well-funded driver for cultural tourism.
The Odessa International Film Festival feels very much on the rise, both as an international industry shindig and a well-funded driver for cultural tourism. Free open-air screenings on the Potemkin Stairs ensured a broad public audience; festival branding adorned buildings all over the gently chaotic city center; a modest film market attracted buyers and sales agents from across Europe; and this year’s guests of honor included Mike Leigh, Catherine Denueve, and Rose McGowan. And yet, in the absence of any significant world premieres, the midsummer event seems to serve largely as a chance for local cinephiles to catch up with highlights from more venerable recent European festivals.
I was particularly struck by three titles, relatively fresh from the Cannes Film Festival, each of which takes a distinctive approach to depicting a family unit under duress. The 10th edition of Odessa IFF opened with Nicolas Bedos’s La Belle Epoque, a crowd-pleasing comedy about a stale long-term relationship and the cultural impact of the digital revolution. Daniel Auteuil stars as Victor, an aging bourgeois Parisian who sees himself as a victim of technological advances: The slow death of print media has put an end to his lucrative job as a newspaper cartoonist, while his wife, Marianne (Fanny Ardant), has taken to donning a VR headset at bedtime to distract herself from the monotony of their passionless marriage.
Victor, however, is offered a shot at regaining his joie de vivre by his son’s friend, Antoine (Guillaume Canet), a screenwriter who’s amassed a fortune devising personalized interactive theater productions that allow wealthy clients to live out their historical fantasies—think Westworld staffed by temperamental actors rather than malevolent robots. For reasons that aren’t immediately apparent to the audience, Antoine owes Victor a debt of gratitude, and so offers the older man his first “experience” on the house. A sentimental soul at heart, Victor elects to relive the day he first met Marianne in a bohemian Lyon bar in 1974. Perhaps inevitably, he swiftly falls for Margot (Doria Tillier), the actress hired to play the young Marianne, who also happens to be Antoine’s on-and-off-again girlfriend.
La Belle Epoque sustains a compellingly off-kilter tone, bouncing viewers disorientingly between the real world and Antoine’s elaborate soundstages. One sequence, in which Victor and Margot escape the set of a weed-fueled ‘70s house party and find themselves in a painstaking reconstruction of Nazi Germany, feels decidedly Charlie Kaufman-esque. And yet the film never fully succumbs to whimsy, as Victor’s nostalgia trip ultimately proves deeply poignant, while the depiction of Antoine and Margot’s dysfunctional relationship introduces a darker view of romance. And while the gags and social commentary are often a little broad, Bedos admirably refuses to hold the viewer’s hand as the intricate plot unfolds, paving the way for several immensely satisfying moments as the puzzle pieces finally slot together.
Ken Loach’s bruising 2016 drama I, Daniel Blake, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, tapped into mounting Brexit anxiety and anti-Tory sentiment to become both the director’s highest-grossing film in the U.K. to date and the subject of heated parliamentary debate over its damning portrayal of Britain’s broken welfare system. Sorry We Missed You sees the octogenarian filmmaker reteam with screenwriter Paul Laverty to deliver another timely, compassionate account of working-class life in North East England.
This time around, the focus is on a nuclear family suffering immensely as a consequence of the gig economy. Former builder Ricky (Kris Hitchen) has struggled to maintain a steady income since the financial crisis of 2007-2008, and thus jumps hastily at the chance to sign a zero-hour contract as a delivery driver. What seems like a valuable opportunity to quickly accumulate cash soon begins to resemble a Kafkaesque nightmare, with humorless traffic wardens, obstinate customers, opportunistic thieves and a thuggish depot manager (Ross Brewster) conspiring to make Ricky’s work life borderline unbearable.
Things aren’t much better for his wife, Abbie (Debbie Honeywood), a benevolent contract nurse with neither the time nor the resources to adequately care for her elderly patients. Adding insult to injury, the couple’s taciturn teenage son, Seb (Rhys Stone), seems intent on punishing Ricky for his failings. And to cap it all off, Seb’s sensitive younger sister, Liza Jane (Katie Proctor), has started wetting the bed in response to this domestic disharmony.
In some regards, Sorry We Missed You is an even angrier, more urgent film than I, Daniel Blake. Scenes depicting Ricky’s delivery runs are mini master classes in stomach-churning tension, which hammer home the appalling precariousness of his existence. However, Loach offsets the mounting misery with moments of warmth. A sequence in which the family resolve to make the most of a rare evening together is particularly moving, and serves to make the bitter feuds that inevitably follow all the more heart-wrenching.
By and large, Sorry We Missed You is a little rough around the edges, as some of Ricky’s interactions with customers feel stilted and contrived, while Rhys Stone struggles to convey a convincing sense of Seb’s inner life. And yet, as a tirade against modern Britain’s obscene social inequality, Loach’s latest is undeniably propulsive and persuasive.
Shahrbanoo Sadat’s warmly received 2016 debut Wolf and Sheep tells a mildly fantastical tale of childhood in 1980s rural Afghanistan, centered partly around a boy named Quodrat (Qodratollah Qadiri). The Orphanage continues Quodrat’s story, catching up with him as a teenage orphan living on the streets of Kabul. After he’s caught by police selling cinema tickets on the black market, he’s sent to a Soviet-funded orphanage where bullying is widespread. The boy swiftly learns that he’ll need to form strong allegiances in order to keep his head above water, and thus he sets about building his own family unit.
For a large stretch, this is an enjoyable, if generic, coming-of-age drama, heightened chiefly by the novelty of its setting; Afghanistan’s brief period as a secular Soviet ally is a fascinating, oft-overlooked footnote in the country’s turbulent modern history. But the film really comes to life thanks to a smattering of charmingly shambolic Bollywood-style musical numbers, employed to offer insight into the withdrawn Quodrat’s desires and fears. Those paying close attention to the timeline may be anxious to learn what role the mujahideen, the Islamist guerilla groups committed to ending the Democratic Republic, might have to play in the narrative. Sadat’s bold decision to answer this question with a bombastic musical-action set piece pays off handsomely, bringing The Orphanage to an achingly bittersweet conclusion.
The Odessa International Film Festival ran from July 12—20.
All of Quentin Tarantino’s Movies Ranked
On the occasion of the release of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, we ranked Tarantino’s feature films.
Quentin Tarantino’s commitment to fortifying the themes of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood with layers of self-reflexivity, while still anchoring its concepts to fully realized, emotionally invested characters, makes the film one of his greatest—a dense but focused effort that validates the divisive artist’s status as one of American cinema’s preeminent pop-cultural figures. The film navigates late-‘60s Hollywood, an immersive playground of opulence and iconicity, alongside Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a fading star of TV westerns trying to break into the movies, and his best friend and longtime stuntman, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), before then jumping six months ahead to take the temperature of Hollywood on the eve of the Charles Manson murders. As the landscape and the sociocultural identity of Hollywood continue to change, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood takes on an elegiac quality, with Dalton and Booth returning to L.A. from a sojourn to Europe and a pregnant Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) preparing her home for the arrival of her baby boy.
The flash and fun of the film’s first half gives way to a haunting decline into the valley of alcoholism, and to increasing signs that a new generation is about to push the old one out. And, then, inevitably, those tensions come to a head one August night on Cielo Drive in the Hollywood Hills. We won’t spoil the ending here, but we will tell you below where Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood falls on our ranked list of Tarantino’s features. Sam C. Mac
10. Death Proof (2007)
With his hair combed in a flashy pompadour and a white scar running down his cheek, Kurt Russell plays evil Stuntman Mike as a swaggering, folksy raconteur. Even in the universe of Tarantino, which suggests a self-contained and increasingly self-referential cinephile’s mixtape of the countless films he’s absorbed throughout his life, Russell feels like a living, breathing human being. By comparison, Mike’s victims simply suggest regurgitating pop-culture sponges. Indeed, by the time Mike comes after them in his skull-painted hellmobile, we connect more to the graphic image of the stunningly crafted gore than we do to the loss of life. When the female characters turn into avenging angels, their motivations seem to turn on a dime. Their attitude toward life and death, whether it be their own (“I’m okay!” one of them happily beams right after she’s almost been decimated by Mike’s muscle car) or Mike’s, is so casually flippant that we’re denied that sense of righteous rage. Maybe it’s a joke on those old drive-in movies, which never gave much thought to life or death either, but somehow the reverent self-referential quality of Death Proof is more offensive than those old grindhouse filmmakers who were in it simply to make a buck. Jeremiah Kipp
9. Django Unchained (2012)
With Django Unchained, Tarantino doesn’t transcend the tropes of the revenge film, or the odd-couple buddy comedy for that matter. For all the film’s ostentatiously shocking imagery and dialogue (Tarantino employs the n-word in a fashion that resembles the gimmicky scare tactics associated with director William Castle), one can’t escape the suspicion that this film’s a bloated vanity project with delusions of grandeur. Django Unchained features a blunter treatment of slavery than we routinely encounter in mainstream American cinema, but the garish fantasy violence only superficially distracts from Tarantino’s allegiance to the same damn clichés that govern politer “issue” films. Django Unchained is ultimately a white fantasy of purging shared cultural guilt, one that follows a benevolent white man (Christoph Waltz is the lead regardless of what his Oscar may say) as he befriends and liberates an appreciative black man who goes on to symbolically wipe the slate clean on subjugation. Chuck Bowen
8. Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003)
Even when he isn’t at the top of his artistic game, Tarantino, like Jean-Luc Godard, is talented enough that he doesn’t put this kind of spot-the-references playfulness front and center in his films: Tarantino always provides us with some kind of plot or emotional context in which such references—and in a QT film, they’re legion—mean something to viewers other than the fact that they’re referencing something. In other words, you don’t have to know a great deal about the martial arts genre to enjoy the sheer kinetic energy of Kill Bill, Vol. 1 any more than you have to know about the various crime thrillers Godard references in order to enjoy Breathless or Band of Outsiders. It might enhance one’s appreciation of those films more, but there’s more to them than just showing off how encyclopedic their movie knowledge is. Although Tarantino’s films sometimes make recognitions toward real-world hurt and pain, they almost invariably take place in a movie-induced fantasy world, one that takes no part in political discourse and prefers instead to wallow in the detritus of popular culture and movie history—entertainment, in other words. Kenji Fujishima
7. The Hateful Eight (2015)
Rather than following a clean genealogical path back to Hollywood westerns of the Golden Age, The Hateful Eight often resembles Italian giallo horror, less for that subgenre’s tendency to luxuriate in synth scores and extravagant lighting setups than for its less-celebrated preoccupation with cruelty and pain. As in those extravagant and supernaturally tinged slashers, characters in The Hateful Eight who choose to have any agency apart from maintaining a cover story find a nebulous reward for forcing fate’s hand. When the gun smoke clears, we somehow end up with more dead bodies than we had living ones at the start, and the film proves to have quite a lot in common with John Carpenter’s The Thing, apart from having the same lead actor (Kurt Russell) and largely identical blizzard conditions: Death emerges from the floorboards, and, following a crisis, an impromptu “court” is established to distinguish between friend and foe. Even the final moments echo the creature classic: Having dispensed justice at long last, two doomed men share a laugh over a great lie, and the camera retreats upward and away from their near-lifeless detente. The haberdashery, by design a sanctuary, has been transformed into a self-cleaning oven, now strewn with an assortment of particulate matter, and we arrive at an unexpected Reservoir Dogs callback: a vetting of moral arithmetic that leaves no survivors. Jaime N. Christley
6. Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004)
From a structural standpoint, Kill Bill’s two volumes connect us to serial cinema past, specifically the two-part films of Fritz Lang. It’s a mess at times, but a seemingly intentional and glorious one. Certainly, Tarantino’s greatest skills are literary and his numerous digressions recall the stylistic flourishes of Thomas Pynchon. When Tarantino abandons the Bride (Uma Thurman) in her premature burial deathtrap to focus on an extended flashback of her martial arts training, it’s reminiscent of Pynchon’s nine-page aside in Gravity’s Rainbow, which details the biography of a light bulb named Byron. If that comparison makes Kill Bill sound like so much compulsive masturbation, rest assured that Tarantino has a point. Consider the movie’s two volumes as yin and yang: The first installment, focusing primarily on the Bride, corresponds to the Chinese principle of darkness, negativity, and femininity, while the second, with a tone heavily influenced by the charming and seductive Bill (David Carradine), corresponds to the opposing principle of light, heat, motivation, and masculinity. Tarantino revels in the filmic power of verbal and (meta)physical pas de deux, and it’s in the final section of the second part, detailing the Bride and Bill’s surprising confrontation, that the entire enterprise reveals its profoundly mortal (and moral) soul. Keith Uhlich
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