LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON | 2014 | dir. Hirokazu Koreeda
I may live in rural New Hampshire, but there’s a two-screen theater ten minutes away from my house that, in addition to rep screenings every Saturday (on DVD, but still), a monthly silent film with live accompaniment, and a yearly showing of IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE to which everybody brings handbells that they ring enthusiastically during the final scene, reliably plays first-run films like this. Which is one of the more unexpected reasons that I am pretty darn happy I live in rural New Hampshire. LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON might be my favorite film so far this year.
The film’s premise in and of itself is riveting. When their son Keita is six years old, Ryota and Midori Nonomiya learn that he isn’t their son, at least not biologically—somehow, he and another boy born the same day at the same hospital were switched at birth. The Nonomiyas and their biological son Ryusei’s unwittingly adoptive parents, Yukari and Yudai Saiki, now must decide whether or not to “exchange” children.
Koreeda uses this premise to delve into issues of wealth, class, parenting technique, and, of course, father-son relationships. Ryota is a hardworking architect who spends very little time with his wife and son. More than a little unemotionally available, guided by the belief that it’s better for Keita to work hard now than struggle later in life, he sets high standards for his son. However, though he doesn’t express it with physical affection or even praise, he clearly loves his family. Once Koreeda has established this parenting model, he introduces another in the form of the lower-class Saikis. Yudai, who runs an appliance shop, has messy hair and a laid-back manner and wears rumpled, loudly patterned clothes, but distinguishes himself from Ryota primarily by his looser, more playful parenting style. When the families meet at a mall and the kids run off to play, Ryota sits primly on the sidelines while Yudai clambers into the food court bouncy castle with them, shouting and laughing.
As the sons start spending weekends at their biological parents’ houses to prepare for the eventual exchange, Koreeda’s eloquent deployment of details tells us more about them. He’s a master observer, and we learn by looking with him—at the Saiki’s small bathtub, in which father and children bathe together; at their messy but welcoming home. By holding a shot of Yudai’s chewed soda straw for just the right amount of time, Koreeda tells us everything Ryota is thinking. He has nothing but contempt for these people. The film, though, seems for a time to side with them. Make no mistake: though the film is shot and the story told in a naturalistic way, these are almost stock characters, the arrogant, emotionally sterile upper class family going up against the warm, loving lower class one. For a while, it seems like they’re losing, but Koreeda is too smart for such an oversimplified dichotomy.
Several times, I thought LIKE FATHER was ending when it wasn’t. This is probably partly due to Koreeda’s frequent fades to black, but also because if the film were, say, debuting at Sundance, it might very well have ended at those times without anyone finding anything amiss—such as the scene no more than 2/3 of the way through in which the two families, after deciding for once and for all that they’re going to exchange children, go on a fishing trip together to commemorate the occasion. The photograph they take, which Koreeda freeze-frames, perfectly encapsulates the two families’ characters: Keita’s stands stiffly, as if posing for a daguerreotype, while Ryusei’s father bends down, his unruly children reaching up to grab his face. Order and disorder are kept apart by the physical space between the two families; mere inches separating what might as well be different planets.
But, instead of ending the film there, Koreeda keeps on pushing. The children are exchanged; ups and downs ensue. Never are we given the opportunity to deem the families’ decision wrong or right. They’ve agreed not to contact their biological children, but this is easier said than done—Midori takes calls from Keita on the sly, and the film climaxes with Ryusei running away, back to his biological parents.
LIKE FATHER ends ambiguously. My grandmother, who saw it with me, was convinced that the families were going to exchange children yet again; I think the opposite is true. But that isn’t the point. The final shot is of them all entering the Saiki’s house for a meal—the point is that they’re now united in the facing of the still–wrenchingly difficult situation. Koreeda, to his great credit, doesn’t tack on an unearned feel-good ending to the film, but does find hope in Ryota’s personal growth and the way that it brings the families together.
TAXI ZUM KLO | 1980 | dir. Frank Ripploh
The opening scene of TAXI is a perfect example of how to get an audience on your protagonist’s side. It does so by simply taking us through Frank Ripploh’s morning—a morning in which everything seems to go just a little bit wrong. As a jaunty song plays, we watch a stark naked Ripploh sneak onto the landing outside his apartment; as he steals his neighbor’s newspaper from her mail slot, his own door slams shut behind him, locking him out. Using the paper as a fig leaf—to said neighbor’s outrage—he knocks on her door and asks to use her balcony. As he climbs onto his own, the bathrobe she gave him falls from his shoulders, taking a perfectly timed plunge to the ground below. Back in his apartment, Ripploh runs out of toilet paper; after washing himself in the bathtub, he dries off with a hand towel—then hangs it on the hook labeled “GUESTS.” (Show me a character/comedy beat more perfect. I dare you.) Already late for work, he stops at a gas station, where the attendant catches his eye. “If I need an oil change, can I call you?” he asks, in the first of the film’s many intricately encoded propositions, and writes the man’s number down on the first piece of paper he can find. Then, upon arriving at work, Ripploh the schoolteacher proceeds to perform an utterly charming reenactment of the locked-door fiasco for his young students—as if the sequence so far hadn’t endeared me to him enough.
What have we learned about Ripploh in this scene? We’ve learned that he’s a human being, in all the glorious fallibility denoted by those words. We’ve also learned that he’s gay. And we’ve learned the simple but still, unfortunately, nearly thirty-five years later, revelatory-feeling truth that his homosexuality is part and parcel of his humanity, included as it is in the course of the most ordinary of mornings, inseperable from the mundane familiarity of his daily routine. The sad truth, however, is that the world in which Ripploh lives—a world not much different from the one we live in now; certainly by no means different enough—demands that he erect a rigid barrier around his romantic and sexual life. Of course, such a delineation is impossible—as comically demonstrated in the scene in which Ripploh, seated on a public toilet, corrects his students’ homework while waiting for a hookup to enter the next stall. But nowhere is this enforced compartmentalization more painfully clear than the scene in which one of Ripploh’s students raises her hand and asks about the number her father found written in her composition book. “My father thought it meant to call you,” she says, “but when he did some man answered.” We know that this man was the gas station attendent. Without even looking up from the anatomical model he’s showing the class, Frank tells the student he’ll call her father and clear up the misunderstanding. It’s a frightening brush with exposure, superbly underplayed by both Ripploh the director, Ripploh the actor, and the character/past self he portrays. TAXI’s genius lies in the way it underplays all such moments, even when things come to a head in the film’s penultimate scene. By not railing against the injustice of their own existence, such scenes offer up the most irrefutable argument against that injustice that I can imagine.
The sex in TAXI some of the most explicit I’ve ever seen in a film—and in both its graphic nature and the matter-of-fact way in which it’s presented, expands upon the ideas established in TAXI’s opening scene. The Film Crit HULK piece that brought TAXI to my attention calls the sex “hardcore,” which I suppose it is: the film includes what I think are unsimulated handjobs, blowjobs, anal sex—and watersports to boot! (A careful pan assures us that the latter, at least, is the real deal.) I’ve honestly never been grossed out by gay sex (in fact, as an, um, avid reader of slash fanfiction in my teenage years, you could say that the opposite is true), so I didn’t have that particular hurdle to clear when it came to TAXI—but the word “hardcore” made me expect scenes intended to shock. What surprised me, then, was how natural they feel—even when Ripploh uses flash cuts, for example, to present them in an attention-getting way. Even though these scenes are bold, perhaps unprecedented, there’s no self-consciousness in them. On an episode of the Cinephiliacs podcast, Keith Uhlich takes Tom Ford’s A SINGLE MAN to task for turning the novel upon which it was based—which is similarly and importantly matter-of-fact about its protagonist’s homosexuality—into yet another story of gay shame and self-hatred. I imagine that, by the same token, he’s a fan of TAXI. The film as a whole expands upon the argument of its opening sequence—that sex, gay or straight, is as much part of the human experience as eating a piece of toast with jam, and should be treated with equal matter-of-factness. Of course, it’s also tender/erotic/all kinds of other things that eating a piece of toast isn’t. But you know what I mean.
If the aim of true art is to help us understand each other and what it means to be a human being just a little bit better than we did before we experienced it, TAXI is art of the very greatest kind. It’s saying something that probably the vast majority of the world still needs to hear; thirty-five years after it was made, it is even more vital than ever.
THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER | 1955 | dir. Charles Laughton
THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER is absolutely extraordinary; truly like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Which may, of course, be because I haven’t seen that many movies, but it doesn’t take an encyclopedic knowledge of cinema to know that this is a singular film.
NIGHT is shot in gorgeous, dramatic, often high-contrast black and white. This seems appropriate in a film about, essentially, good and evil—evil in the form of “Reverend” Henry Powell, who travels the country marrying and then murdering wealthy widows under what he believes is a special dispensation from the Lord himself, and good personified by its two child protagonists, John and Pearl, who are practically beatified by Mrs. Cooper’s closing speech. This speech, though, is less about their saintliness than their endurance—the ability of children to survive against all odds.
Practically every single one of Laughton’s compositions is perfect. Even the way he arranges figures in the most basic of shots is graceful and assured without calling attention to itself. But then there are the standouts shots, the ones that demand to be noticed—Powell standing frozen by his wife’s window, bathed in moonlight, hand upraised in an at once inscrutable and transfixing gesture, as if railing against or communing with his God, and, of course, the horribly extended shot of his wife’s corpse tied to the seat of their submerged Model T, hair floating around her face in a ghastly parody of the river weeds around her. If Laughton culled his images from our nightmares, this one seems taken directly from mine.
There are scenes, though, less terrifying than simply dreamlike, most notably the sequence in which the sleeping children are floating down the river in their skiff in the dead of night. Laughton frequently places objects in the foreground of his shots—as the converted Willa Powell is preaches to her husband’s congregation, Laughton keeps a flaming torch in the foreground at all times, metaphorically reinforcing her fervor and demonstrating his masterful ability to express the depth of three dimensions using just two. This technique, though, is put to especially haunting use in the river sequence, in which a spider, a frog, and two quivering rabbits watch the children float by. Laughton presumably used a double exposure to create these shots; both boat and animals are in crisp focus. The sequence is a peaceful interlude in a film that up until that point has been relentlessly tense and propulsive; you feel like you’ve entered a lullaby, a child’s dream, or perhaps the world children SHOULD live in, but cannot, in Depression-era America or any other country, at any time.
Not only is Laughton a masterful visual stylist; he also uses music to beautiful and sinister effect. The film is shot through with songs: a joyful harvest song, an casually cruel hangman’s ditty sung by the local children, and of course the hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” John and Pearl, sleeping in a hay loft, are awoken by Powell’s rich tenor, and see him riding by, silhouetted black against moon-white sky—as David Ehrenstein puts it in his Criterion essay, “like some ghastly pop-up storybook image… come to life”—prompting John to exclaim “Don’t he ever sleep?” (The film, in addition to being one of the scariest things I’ve ever seen, is also very funny.) “Leaning” is heard again in the climax of the film, when Mrs. Cooper, the older woman who has taken John and Pearl into her foster flock, is sitting in her rocking chair with a shotgun on her knee, guarding them against Powell, who sits on a tree stump in her yard, singing. All at once, Mrs. Cooper joins in, adding her voice to his. Powell has claimed religion for his own twisted purposes—with this simple, powerful gesture, Mrs. Cooper claims it back.
SEXY BEAST | 2000 | dir. Jonathan Glazer
"Do you wanna do the job?" "No." "Shut up, cunt, you’re going to do the job." "No I’m not." "Yes you are." "No I’m not." "Yes you are." "No I’m not." "Yes you—"
I could go on. These back-and-forth bickering sessions between Ray Winstone’s Gal and Ben Kingsley’s Don Logan are some of the most irritating I’ve ever seen. Gal is a former criminal who’s retired to Spain with his wife, DeeDee; in the opening scene, he’s roasting poolside in blinding white sun. His voiceover tells us both that he doesn’t miss England and that this is clearly not true. What he really doesn’t miss, though, is the life of crime he left behind. There are two interlocked pink and red hearts in the tiles at the bottom of the pool, symbolizing Gal and DeeDee’s love. As Gal stands by the pool in a heat-induced stupor, a massive boulder comes careening down the hill behind him, missing him by inches and crashing into the pool. The disruption this foreshadows comes in the form of Gal’s former boss, Don Logan, played by Ben Kingsley in a petulant tantrum of a performance.
Once Ben Kingsley shows up, things take a turn for the worse. I think it’s the writing, rather than Kingsley’s performance—but, no matter who’s to blame, Don Logan, who needs to be kind of terrifying, comes across as irritating, childish, and completely ineffective. It’s partly these “Yes you will”/”No I won’t” exchanges. Not only do they make him seem like a harried parent wrangling with a two-year-old who won’t eat his vegetables—they’re just straight-up bad drama. Instead of doing anything at all to move the story forward, they create these horrible pockets of stasis. I thought there would be no more such scenes after Don Logan’s death, but then one pops up quite late in the film: “Don Logan didn’t call you from Heathrow.” “Yes he did.” “No he didn’t.” “I’m not lying.” “Yes you are.” From what I understand (from Michael Scott’s acting night class), one of the rules of improvisational theater is that you have to say “yes” to everything. These scenes are the perfect illustration of why that’s so.
Despite these brief bouts of constipation, however, at times SEXY BEAST really picks up speed. The underwater heist scene, intercut with flashbacks to Don Logan’s gruesome, protracted death, is exciting, as is the “nested doll” expository sequence in which Don Logan explains the heist to Gal, during which Glazer’s cutting makes characters from all three temporal “layers” appear to be addressing each other. It’s complex while remaining comprehensible. During the heist, bills float through the murky water; a man unscrews an urn, and the ashes inside billow out in a black cloud.
Visually, Glazer does some interesting things with light. The sun in the opening scene, for example, is so blinding as to make me squirm, washing out everything but Gal’s burnished red skin. It might be the most effective depiction of heat I’ve ever seen. In all the scenes in Gal’s “hacienda,” however, Glazer uses sunlight to frustrating effect, placing Kingsley in front of huge windows, backlit by the full force of the sun, then not lighting him adequately from the front. I’ll do Glazer/his DP/his lighting designer/whoever the courtesy of believing that this is intentional—I’ll also say that it’s a terrible one. It might be some kind of commentary on the “darkness” of Kingsley’s character, but what it means in practical terms is that we just can’t see his face ever. And the way Glazer cuts between Kingsley and the other characters, who are lit just fine, makes it all the more jarring.
I’m not sure I have that much to say about the more surreal elements, though it seems negligent to ignore them. There’s this rabbit-headed, gun-toting creature that appears to Gal in his dreams like an omen of impending death. Although Gal’s superiors, suspecting him in Don Logan’s disappearence, refuse to pay him after the heist, Gal sneaks a gigantic pair of diamond and ruby earrings from the vault for DeeDee; she’s wearing them in the last scene. It’s a small victory, but a positive note on which to end—if the film in fact ended there. Gal has buried Don Logan beneath the pool; the last shot is of the rabbit creature smashing open Kingsley’s grave to find him alive and lighting up a cigarette, an impish smile on his face. Perhaps this final scene suggests that Gal—or his conscience?—isn’t rid of Don Logan after all.
THE RAID 2 | 2014 | dir. Gareth Evans
What I saw everyone saying on Twitter about this was that it wasn’t as tight as the original RAID but that Gareth Evans was to be commended for his ambition and for trying something new rather than rehashing a past success. And I suppose they’re right on both counts. There’s part of me that wants to say I would have preferred another RAID, but there’s kind of no point in talking about the movie you wanted rather than the movie you got.
Apparently the script of THE RAID 2 was originally completely unrelated to the original RAID, and was kind reverse-engineered to be a sequel after THE RAID did well, I guess? (I don’t actually know how well it did.) To me, though, it felt like a fairly organic—rather than forced—expansion of the world THE RAID established. Directly following the events of that film, Rama is recruited by a division of the police department dedicated to eradicating not only crime, but corruption within the police force. This means he must go undercover in order to get close to the incarcerated scion of a crime family that shares control of the city with what I guess is a branch of the Japanese mob. Rama saves the life (I think? or at least comes to the defense) of said scion, Uco, and is taken on as hired muscle by his father upon being released from prison. He works for Uco, who is basically a debt collector, but doesn’t want to be. He’d like his father to give him more responsibility, as befits him as the heir to his father’s organization, but his father is concerned that Uco’s fire burns too hot and that he’s not suited to take over. As THE RAID 2 proves, he’s right.
Uco’s dynamic with his father was the most interesting in the film for me—due in part to its humor. Though it’s never trying to make you laugh, here’s something comedic in Uco’s repeated attempts to start a gang war between his father and the Japanese Mr. Goto, with whom he has been in a truce for decades. Uco, in league with the smaller-fry Bejo, wants to pit Goto and his father against each other, paving the way for Uco and Bejo to take over once the dust has settled—but his father and Mr. Goto want to keep the peace too badly to let this happen.
The story, though far grander in scope than that of THE RAID, wasn’t all that complicated. The thing is, although I knew this film was more story-driven than the first, I wasn’t there for the story. I found that, although I could follow along okay, and although every action scene had a clear in-story reason for existing, I was strangely uninvested in them, even though they were the main reason I was seeing the movie. It was almost as if the rooting interest was unclear, although technically it wasn’t. Though character motivations were more, say, utilitarian, in THE RAID, I found their simplicity extremely effective. It’s not like they were necessarily any more complex here, but maybe it’s that you’ve got essentially one-dimensional characters in a plot that’s trying—and not necessarily succeeding—to have more dimensions than that. Baseball Boy and Hammer Girl are basically video game bosses, complete with little touches (her deafness, his repeated “Give me the ball”) that amount to little more than, say, a particular hat does in Team Fortress 2. Which is fine, right? That’s what Mad Dog in THE RAID was, after all…
I don’t know. The fights are extraordinary, of course. I’m kind of astounded that Iko Uwais and co. didn’t accidentally kill each other and/or the camera operator on set—which testifies, I suppose, to how good all of them (including Gareth Evans, of course) are at what they do. I was far more aware of the camera work in 2, especially in the Hammer/Baseball showdown—the camera is right up close, fully participating in these fight scenes; its operators movements must be as carefully choreographed and agile as Uwais etc.’s in order to avoid them. The kitchen scene is such a feat. And yet I felt barely any of the tension and adrenaline that I did during THE RAID while watching them. There was a strange deadness to the film. But mostly I just feel like it was… fine. And I really want to go write about something else.
ANTICHRIST | 2009 | dir. Lars Von Trier
Some of the title cards in NYMPHO looked straight out of a bad PowerPoint presentation; the ones in ANTICHRIST are all chalk on a blackboard; the handwriting looks like a child’s. Pink, red, olive green.
Also as in NYMPHO, we have selective use of black and white, this time in the prologue and epilogue. The prologue is shot in the slowest of motion: Gainsbourg and Dafoe (their characters remain nameless) make love while their toddler son, Nick, climbs out of his crib and up onto a desk and falls two stories from an open window to his death. Just as in NYMPHO, in which Jo’s son nearly meets the same fate, a mother putting sexual desire before her son’s safety leads to his death. Jo is more unambiguously culpable—when her babysitter blows her off, she leaves her son at home alone rather than skip her appointment with the sadistic K—but Gainsbourg’s character, though perhaps not as responsible as Jo would have been had her son died, feels far guiltier. At first, this seems unwarranted, but as it becomes clear how profoundly disturbed she is, we wonder. Dafoe, doing double duty as her therapist, reassures Gainsbourg that their son’s death wasn’t her fault—but, by cutting from Nick standing in the doorway of their bedroom watching them to a closeup of Gainsbourg’s eyes opening, seemingly staring right at him, Von Trier suggests that she saw him and did nothing. (I think that cut doesn’t appear in the prologue, only in a later flashback—giving it the character of a revelation.)
The first Von Trier I saw was MELANCHOLIA; I was transfixed by his use of extreme slow motion and otherworldly lighting to create shots that look like living paintings—they were like nothing I’d ever seen. Several shots in ANTICHRIST employ this technique, but taken perhaps to an even more painterly level; in one, as Dafoe limps through a blasted landscape, a network of artfully composed, ghostly white bodies fades into view on the ground all around him. In another, while Gainsbourg and Dafoe make love at the base of a tree, pale hands appear, reaching up between the roots as if from the depths of hell itself.
While the stylistic trademarks described above all appear in at least one other of Von Trier’s most recent films, ANTICHRIST uses a few I hadn’t seen before: perhaps my favorite is the way (most often in shots of nature—”Satan’s church,” as Gainsbourg calls it) Von Trier selectively distorts the right- and left-hand thirds of the image, so that you see it bend nauseatingly from out of the corner of your eye. The speaking fox transfixed me. I would have followed Von Trier into hell without a second thought after that—one could say, of course, that I did. I spent the climax of the film with my knuckles jammed into my mouth, physically sickened and on the edge of my seat. As for the final scene, I can’t claim to understand it, at least not intellectually: as Dafoe makes his way laboriously out of Eden, he sees a crowd of people climbing toward him. They pass him by; the final shot is of them continuing, almost in a swarm, up the hill. I couldn’t tell you what it means, but on an emotional level, it makes perfect, transcendent sense.
On the basis of that shot alone, which almost singlehandedly elevates the film out of darkness, I would say that Lars Von Trier is many things, but a cynic isn’t one of them. ANTICHRIST is a film about the worst of which humanity is capable, and both revels in its many provocations and seems to willfully invite misunderstanding. I’m not even tempted to take the bait. The New Yorker review of NYMPHO is titled “Lars Von Trier’s joyless sexual tantrum.” “Joyless” that film is not (the first volume, especially, is clever, playful and incredibly funny), but “tantrum” strikes me as an apt way of describing Von Trier’s provocations. Underneath all the acting out, though, there’s a filmmaker that more than deserves to be taken seriously. Part of that, of course, means realizing when he’s joking.
As for what’s actually going on in this film? This Criterion essay by Ian Christie is helpful (although he clearly doesn’t really know either). I don’t think it’s the kind of film where you know, not really. ANTICHRIST puts me in the intellectually frustrating but emotionally satisfying position of not being able to say exactly what it means, but knowing that it is without a doubt meaningful.
GIRL WALK // ALL DAY | 2011 | dir. Jacob Krupnick
Keith Uhlich put GIRL WALK // ALL DAY on his 2012 best of the year list; I heard him discuss it on the Cinephiliacs. So glad I did. I had a big goofy grin on my face for the entire 70-some minutes. The final scene made me cry. GIRL WALK engaged me emotionally pretty much from the early switch from black and white to color onward—there was barely a moment that didn’t make me feel anxious, uplifted, elated, profoundly uncomfortable, or some combination of the above.
GIRL WALK is, basically, a feature-length dance film (calling it a music video doesn’t feel quite accurate) set to the entirety of Girl Talk’s 2010 album All Day. In a way, it is a music video, in that the film’s narrative is dictated, to an extent, by the album’s tone—when it goes angry, the film does too. But the film has narrative and themes of its own, exploring ideas of connection and isolation and the way that public spaces and the way we behave in them can foster both.
Anne Marsen as the Girl was the driving force behind all of this exploration, and honestly, she was the film for me. Dai Omiya and John Doyle, as the Gentleman and the Creep respectively, may have perhaps had more dance training, but their styles were more rigid, and their performances more insular and therefore less risky. They interacted with their environment less than Marsen, and not as courageously—the Gentleman, for example, dances on top of a telephone booth in one scene, drawing attention to himself from a safe distance. The Creep, dancing in front of the Staten Island Ferry, carves out a space around him; people stop on the edge of it to watch and take pictures, but as far as he’s concerned he might as well be alone. Marsen, though, bravely engages with everyone. She’s playing a character, of course, but I was constantly aware that this was Marsen herself approaching real strangers. Most of them either ignore her or are made visibly uncomfortable by her; their body language is stiff as they take evasive action, shaking their heads, waving her away, or staring determinedly down at their phones. I sympathized both with the Girl’s desire to connect and, just as strongly, with those who wanted nothing to do with her. Were I approached on the street like that, I’d respond in exactly the same way. It feels extreme to call Marsen’s behavior “invasive”—she’s so harmless—but were either of the male leads getting up in people’s faces like that, I wouldn’t hesitate to use the word. The combination of Marsen’s goofy, endearingly eager face and slightly unhinged, even aggressive behavior is potent—I was simultaneously uncomfortable and charmed.
When director (and cinematographer) Jacob Krupnick begins using plants (in more than one sense of the word, in the flower people graveyard scene) in the final third or so of the film—tellingly, it’s because he kind of has to. The connection the Girl so desperately desires cannot be generated spontaneously—it must be planned in advance. Like dominoes falling, dance spreads through physical contact. At her loneliest, on the brink of giving up, Marsen is enveloped by a crowd that lifts her into the air. The final scene is something approaching sublime. The group processes through Central Park at dusk, sparklers in their hands, as John Lennon’s “Imagine” begins to play. Not only has the scene realized Lennon’s vision—in mashing up “Imagine” with multiple other songs, Gillis has done so in his own inimitable way.
NYMPHOMANIAC | 2014 | dir. Lars von Trier
Saw this (them) back-to-back in the theater—so glad I did.
I can’t decide if Lars von Trier is a badass, a genius, or an asshole. “Badass,” I thought, at that “sublime Rammstein needle drop” (as Keith Uhlich so rightly puts it), and, as soon as it Seligman started interrupting Jo’s story with digressions about fly-fishing technique, I thought, “Genius.” And then, after nearly four hours, after that final slap-in-the-face-with-a-black-leather-glove-full-of-coins scene, I thought “…Asshole?” To quote my own Letterboxd, I’m still trying to think through what that final scene means for the nearly four hours that preceded it. There has to be a way for it to reverberate back through them without like invalidating them, right? Badass, genius, or asshole—he is, of course, all three. NYMPHO itself is a masterpiece.
I jumped to pronounce the sex in BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR both pruriently and clinically shot—and decidedly un-sexy. Not so NYMPHO. The sex was versatile: it what it needed to be at any given moment. Jo’s experiences run the gamut, and every sex act has its own qualities and is filmed in its own unique way: detached (on the train car), shitty-painful (3 + 5), transcendently sublime–painful (the 40th lash). I absolutely loved the “Little Organ School” chapter—it captures perfectly the idea that, for Jo, each lover fulfills a specific need, and in a way (as she says at one point) add up to a single, multi-faceted experience.
Could Jo be improvising her story based on the objects she sees in Seligman’s room? I don’t think so, but there’s something, of course, about how von Trier interweaves Jo’s narrative with Seligman’s interjections. Each feeds off the other. Seligman applies his essentially sterile body of knowledge to Jo’s narrative, turning facts about fly fishing, the Roman Catholic vs. the Orthodox church, Fibonacci numbers, and the Golden Mean into analogies and giving them human relevance. Seligman’s interjections enhance NYMPHO enormously, and humorously—in general, I was delighted by how playful and funny the film is, especially its first hour or so. The way Jo tells her story is extremely inward-focused. At least in the beginning, she’s telling it to prove to Seligman what a sinful, evil person she is and that she deserved her fate. Seligman’s interjections expand the scope of her story—make it about more than just her. Or do they? Maybe you just want more out of life than everybody else, he says early on. Is that such a bad thing? Later, he speculates that her behavior would be far easier to accept, for her and for society, were she a man rather than a woman. They’re neat arguments—too neat. Too easy.
This neatness is part of the joke. Seligman protests at some of Jo’s narrative’s more far-fetched coincidences, but this is because he hasn’t clued in to what kind of movie he’s in—the kind where every revelation (his own asexuality, for example), feels a little too fitting, more part of an overtly fictional, perhaps even parable-like, world than anything resembling reality. That’s why, when the final scene hauls off and slaps us across the face (hard enough to make us black out), as K’s slap was to Jo, so that scene should be to us: anything but unexpected. Which doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt like hell. There was a purity to Jo and Seligman’s relationship—by the end of the conversation he has become, as she puts it, her first and only friend, but from the very beginning they seemed to meet on a level that’s almost beyond intimacy—they strive, determinedly, side by side toward understanding. (His “But you’ve had sex with thousands of men!” brought to mind Dr. Arden’s attempted rape of Chloe Sevigny—who, of course, has been institutionalized for nymphomania!—in AMERICAN HORROR STORY: ASYLUM. Here’s another man assuming that a high libido means automatic, unconditional consent—and a woman’s violent, unconditional rebuttal.)
Von Trier’s filmmaking itself is playful, an at times irreverent mishmash. There are chapter title cards that recall this year’s GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL—and selective use of black and white, which does too! Von Trier throws up documentary-illustrations onto the screen, some of which seem pulled straight from Wikipedia, especially during Seligman’s teacherly digressions—one of them is a closeup of hands flipping through an illustrated book. He’s not afraid to go cheap and ugly—the picture of the Whore of Babylon, for example, is glaringly low resolution, and a shot of an airplane against the sky looks like it was shot on a home video camera. I kind of love that he isn’t interested in a flawless, immaculate look—seeing images on a big screen that look like they weren’t ever intended to be projected that way is incredibly satisfying for someone, like me, who gets annoyed by the ~film purists~ who smugly insist on only watching films “the way the filmmaker intended”—on 35mm at the Museum of the Moving Image or where the hell ever—and would spontaneously combust with shame faster than a pile of fucking nitrate film when a lit cigarette is thrown on it if they were ever caught watching a movie on their laptop, heaven forfend. NYMPHO is cerebral and sexy, funny, spirited, harrowing, sublime—chopped up in two and rented on iTunes or not.
CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER | 2014 | dir. Joe & Anthony Russo
Quick thoughts. TONS OF SPOILERS.
I know it’s dumb to start looking forward to the next movie as soon as the one you just watched ends, BUT. I am SO excited for what they’ve set up for CAP 3. All the character work they did with Steve and Bucky in the beginning of CAP 1 pay off so brilliantly here, and, especially after this, should carry over just as well into CAP 3. Seriously—laying the groundwork the way they did was such a smart move. If the MCU is going to work it requires propulsiveness not just within each installment, but from movie to movie, and I’m honestly so impressed not only with how CAP 2 builds off of CAP 1 in really smart and sometimes unexpected ways but with how, given where they’ve positioned themselves at the end of CAP 2, it looks like CAP 3’s going to do the same thing.
The same thing, of course, including Sebastian Stan, who Jesus Christ. It seemed like this movie only scratched the surface of who the Winter Soldier is—hopefully that file Steve was holding in the graveyard scene means we’re going to get to hear more of his backstory in CAP 3. Full disclosure: I don’t know if the Winter Soldier was in the comics, and if so what he looked like, but whoever was responsible for the character in we see in CAP 2? That person and I have the same definition of cool as all hell. The metal arm? The shaggy hair falling into his eyes? The like soot eyeliner he’s wearing in the shield-catching scene (see above)? I mean come on. His fight scenes with Cap were so good—creatively choreographed and exciting, with their own distinct style. All the other single combat stuff pales in comparison—even the vaunted elevator scene—but I couldn’t ask for more from the Winter Soldier fights. I may see it again just for them. Also, he got the best cue in the film—that frightening, sparingly used scream… On the whole I’d say he himself was sparingly—judiciously—used. I’d rather want more of a good thing than feel like I was given too much of it.
CAP 2 was much funnier than, say, THOR 2, which stuffed in as many jokes as possible, only like two of which made me laugh. I think the CAP 2 script was more Whedon-level clever, honestly—rather than feeling hollow, like THOR 2, much of the humor was rooted in character (Steve and Natasha’s respective strategies for evading their S.H.I.E.L.D. pursuers in the shopping mall, for example), and (this is perhaps less Whedon-like) a lot of it was in the direction as well as the script (or the dialogue, I should say), which was nice to see. (Steve’s morning run in the opening scene [“On your left!”], Nick Fury escaping by cutting a hole through a highway—but I remember laughing a lot at stuff I saw rather than just stuff that was said.)
The character stuff in CAP 2—humorous or not—was generally quite strong and just nice. In a situation like MCU where I feel like I know all the characters well by now, I’d love it if every movie heavily featured two of them just spending together the way Steve and Natasha do in this film. She may not have her own movie yet, but I loved how much this movie was hers—she had her own well-developed and multi-layered emotional arc, culminating in, among other things, a scene in which she finally accepts the past she’s been trying so hard to atone for since AVENGERS.
Lest this seem too gushy, I will say that the plot was overly complicated to a degree that it seems would be very easy to avoid. And, if I didn’t know this was part of a long-range plan of Marvel’s, I think I’d be a lot harsher on the Hydra reveal. So Howard Stark, Peggy Carter, and Dr. Arnim Zola, among others, founded S.H.I.E.L.D. (god that is annoying to type) in the 1940s. Zola, still loyal to Hydra, used the organization to further his own agenda. Hydra found that taking people’s freedom away was harder than they’d thought: he used SHIELD to create a world so chaotic that people would be willing to give it up willingly in exchange for stability. When SHIELD turns on Cap, he, Widow, and the Falcon go rogue, determined to take down not just Hydra but the hopelessly compromised (and perhaps too powerful) SHIELD as well. I’m not sorry to see it go. It gives Nick Fury a lot more room for the character development he so badly needed, and it gets rid of a part of the MCU that never needed to be as integral as AVENGERS (and the original THOR, I suppose) made it seem. Honestly, I don’t like the way CAP 2 rewrites 70 years of SHIELD history (not that we were given much of that history in the movies alone); it feels like asking a lot. Another for the con list: the film’s color palette, which was flat and uninspired. Moreover, a lot of scenes were just murky and dark, with hard-to-distinguish detail: Nick Fury in Cap’s apartment, for instance. And Cap and Natasha’s trip to Camp Lehigh! It would have been so cool to see those abandoned buildings; there was no good reason to shoot at that time of day, light it the way they did, or whatever else. It honestly felt like they ran out of time, lost the light, and just went “Oh well, we’ll shoot it anyway.”
I might have enjoyed CAP 3 less than I did IRON MAN 3 overall, even though I kind of hate to say it—but the things about CAP 3 I liked more, I liked way more, so it kinda evens out. Had the story been simpler and tighter, and had some information-heavy scenes in the beginning not dragged quite so much… but all in all there’s a lot to love. And a lot to look forward to. Including more Sebastian Stan. Jesus Christ.
TOOTSIE | 1982 | dir. Sydney Pollack
So this is a gay love story, right? I mean, if you ignore Dorothy and Julia’s almost-kiss and everything that comes after, but I’m more than willing to do that. There’s something irrepressible about Dorothy and Julia’s attraction to each other—especially Jessica Lange’s performance. It’s almost as if Lange herself didn’t know what she was doing. Whether she meant to play it this way or not, Julia is smart, opportunistic, world-weary, a little wistful—and in love with her new best friend.
Exhibit A: the scene where she throws her drink in Michael Dorsey’s face. He’s just fed her the exact line she told him (as Dorothea) that she’d like to hear from a man, and she shuts him down with a kind of tired disgust. It’s comedic, I suppose, but I read it as the actions of someone who is sick of shutting down men, and sick of not being able to be open about why she does it. Even the way she slings her arm around Michael’s shoulders in that final shot, which freeze-frames under the closing credits, is more the gesture of a pal than a potential lover. And that romantic weekend at the family farm? The sentimental montage of her riding around on a horse, looking more relaxed and happy than we’ve yet seen her? Sure, we’re always supposed to have at the forefront of our minds that this is a straight man she’s on this getaway with—not a gay/trans/both woman—but she doesn’t know that, and TOOTSIE never even tries to suggest that she was attracted to Dorothy because she knew deep down she was really a man or something. In fact, Michael talks about Dorothy as if she’s her own person—a person he has genuine respect and affection for. Julia, in that final scene, says sadly, “I miss Dorothy.” Michael himself even seems subdued; both know there’s no going back. Maybe what looks like the beginning of a romance (if it’s even intended that way; the more I think about it, the less I’m sure) is just Julia clinging to what remains of Dorothea, even if she knows she’ll never see her again.
Also of interest is Julie’s father Les, played by Charles Durning. Julie calls his rigid ideas about gender roles “a little old-fashioned”—I think he’s supposed to be charming, but I found him creepy from the get-go. The scene in which he attempts to rape Dorothy, of course, was all the confirmation I needed. It’s tonally strange. Much like the scene in Woody Allen’s BLUE JASMINE, in which Jasmine’s employer assaults her and she tries to fight him off, it’s staged comedically—but, as Michael tells his friend Jeff (Bill Murray), who enters the room just in time, he narrowly avoided getting raped. (Dorothy did, I guess; he didn’t. As he acknowledges, Les would have stopped when he realized it was a man he was raping, but that isn’t the point.) Les falls in love with Dorothy and proposes to her—and, when Michael reveals he’s a man during a live taping of Southwest General, it’s Les he saves his most sincere apology for. It’s as if what he did to Les is a worse offense than what he did to Julie. Granted, I get that he owes Les an apology—but it’s taken so seriously! It’s like he’s apologizing for the gay sex Les tried to have with him.
It’s a small dose of seeming gay panic in what is otherwise a nuanced, heartfelt and even dignified film whose gender politics hold up surprisingly well. I feel like analysis-wise it deserves more than I can give it, but I’d almost have to rewatch it for that to happen. I don’t feel after one viewing I’ve totally taken it in. And that’s high praise in and of itself…
ZODIAC | 2007 | dir. David Fincher
Mostly I was so transfixed by the story that I wasn’t paying any attention to the filmmaking, which I admit is a feeling I love. I’m not sure that’s even something to “admit”… BUT there was one shot I did notice precisely because it was so effective. It’s when Gyllenhaal’s Robert Graysmith goes to the house of a theater owner, Bob Vaughn, as part of his ongoing attempt to track down Rick Marshall, who worked at Vaughn’s theater as a projectionist and who at this point is Graysmith’s prime suspect (I love how they refer to “favorite” suspects and how so and so “likes” so and so for the Zodiac, like they’re discussing horse racing—a lovely detail in a film full of them—and, as the FILM CRIT HULK points out in his piece on Fincher, about them). According to an anonymous tip, Marshall left a canister of film at Vaughn’s house—film he shot of his murders. Graysmith shows the owner a poster written by Marshall, telling him the handwriting is the closest thing to a match (to the Zodiac letters) they have. “Mr. Graysmith,” he says, “I do the posters myself. It’s my handwriting.” It’s a chilling moment—the whole scene is perfectly chilling. It almost feels like it belongs in a different film—but that’s kind of the point. It does.
After admitting (in Graysmith’s mind, anyway) that he is the killer, Vaughn offers to go downstairs and check when they screened THE DANGEROUS GAME, a film that is supposed to have inspired the Zodiac. We see Graysmith in the right foreground, in focus, and Vaughn, out of focus, standing in the doorway of his basement in the background. Then: shot of Graysmith from behind, turning around to face Vaughn. Then we cut to Vaughn, standing in the doorway, but now the camera is placed below him, looking up so he looms over us. Before, he was out of focus—now he fills the frame, the left side of his face in shadow. It’s terrifying. Of course, on the surface level, it’s a way of confirming for us visually what Graysmith suspects, which makes the scene scary as hell. Someone in the comments of FILM CRIT HULK’s article on Fincher said something about Fincher being a “scene-by-scene” director, with Vaughn being creepy simply because the scene required it—implying, I guess, that it’s just a cheap way of scaring us that doesn’t make narrative sense. I don’t think that’s true. Like I said, it’s a scene that feels like it belongs in a different film—maybe a film where they actually catch the killer, where Graysmith’s amateur, obsessive, family-destroying sleuthing pays off. But there’s a reason it feels that way. It’s like we’ve been dropped into Graysmith’s fantasy. The scene has the tone it does because we’re seeing it from Graysmith’s point of view. I think what it speaks to most is his paranoia. He has become so obsessed with the case at this point that it kind of makes sense for a fantasy of his to involve mortal danger—so long as said mortal danger involved being face to face with the man he’s pursued fruitlessly all these long years. As Vaughn closes the door behind Graysmith, we catch a glimpse of his face. He’s laughing. I imagine the scene as shot from his point of view would look quite different.
I can’t get enough of murder mysteries, true crime nonfiction (which I guess this basically is)… But the beauty of ZODIAC is that it isn’t just that. I can imagine people being frustrated with the uncertainty of the end of the film—and I’d guess that’s why Fincher (or the studio…?) included the final scene, in which Mike Mageau identifies Arthur Leigh Allen as the man who shot him more than twenty years before. It played to me as quite conclusive, almost triumphant—even though I don’t believe the film itself is at all. It’s about having to live with the fact that you’ll never know for sure. Graysmith tracks Lee down at the hardware store where he works because he wants to be sure. As he tells his wife, his endgame is looking the Zodiac in the eye and knowing it’s him. Not bringing a killer to justice or anything high-minded like that. Graysmith’s is a very personal obsession. But there’s nothing conclusive about the scene in which he and Leigh finally come face to face—for the case, or for Graysmith personally.
NOAH | 2014 | dir. Darren Aronofsky
"When it rains, it bores" indeed. The poster gives no hint of what I was hoping would be NOAH’s interesting strangeness—it is strange, I’ll give it that, but it isn’t all that interesting. Apparently Paramount has kept a tight lid on Aronofsky’s Watchers—they don’t appear in the trailers, and a Google Image search turns up nothing—probably less to avoid spoiling people than to avoid scaring them off. The New Yorker piece on Aronofsky and the making of the film ends with an absolutely stirring description of Nick Nolte’s voice performance as Samyaza that got me super excited to see the film—and it’s true, the Watchers are the weirdest thing ever. Once beings of pure light, their punishment for trying to help Adam and Eve after their exile is to be encased in rock—one of the most thrilling visuals is a Watcher plowing into the earth, struggling to extricate itself from the molten black rock already hardening around it. The Watchers ally themselves with Noah when they learn he’s acting on the Creator’s orders. They have what, six arms? Three of which come out of their backs? They limp, as if after many generations they still aren’t accustomed to this new form. For all they’re made of rock, they don’t feel heavy. Again, they’re certainly strange—but more head-scratchingly so than anything else, oddly easy to shrug off for something that, on paper, seems like it should make an impression.
I knew going in that there wasn’t much to offend, but I was surprised at the extent to which that turned out to be true. It’s pretty much a fantasy movie. (There was something thrilling about those gorgeous, wasted landscapes in the beginning, occupying some space between “other planet” and Earth—it truly felt like going somewhere I’d never even imagined before. In that sense I have to hand it to Aronofsky; the landscape he creates in those early scenes truly feels unique, even if the film itself doesn’t necessarily—and even if it was filmed in Iceland!) There’s something that might feel dextrous about the way it dodges religion (if the movie itself moved with anything close to dexterity). Maybe it’s the characters’ proximity to their Creator—he’s real to them, speaking to them in visions and performing miracles right before their eyes. If I lived in a world like that, I’d probably believe in God, too—insofar as there’s nothing to believe in. We all know the story—man has really effed things up and God wants to start all over. The “effing up” consists of industrialization (I wish we’d gotten to see more of those cities) and of… hunting, interestingly? Killing more generally. Quite a few women get dragged off and presumably raped. I guess there’s a contemporary tie-in there—we could be said to be doing exactly what Aronofsky’s sons of Cain did—made explicit in one of several time-lapse sequences showing Cain killing Abel, both men (silhouetted against the blood-red sky in the style of which Aronofsky is so fond) taking on the forms of soldiers over the centuries, complete with what I’m pretty sure was at least a twentieth-century gun. The message is pretty clear, I guess. We pollute, we kill. But the analogy kind of falls apart there. Or does it? Maybe Aronofsky’s suggesting that global warming is our flood…
I don’t know if it’s the characterization, the performances, or both, but the characters are so bland it’s hard to even muster up the energy to criticize them. Jennifer Connelly and Emma Watson are called upon to do quite a bit of emotional work—wailing, crying, yelling—and each time it feels like they’re straining for something that remains just out of their grasp. Russell Crowe is stony-faced, for his part. We’re told again and again that he was chosen by the Creator for certain innate qualities, but we don’t see any evidence of them before he’s chosen. He’s not particularly hard-hearted, for instance, until he has to shut untold numbers of people out of the ark.
Aronofsky’s visual choices just don’t do it for me. Much of the film is earth tones—the blackened landscape, the Watchers themselves, everyone’s clothes, which are very Free People, if Free People only made stuff in brown and gray. But then there are these pops of dissonant color—the lime-green snake we see several times; the similarly vivid greens of Methuselah’s mountain; the rainbows at the end—that are just, I don’t know. Ugly. Aronofsky films people several times in silhouette against a vividly colored sky. Conversations are shot in intimate closeups. There’s not a lot of bravura camera work—one dramatic pull-back (as Matt Zoller Seitz points out in his RogerEbert.com review) from Samyaza’s perspective as he flies to heaven, showing the dozen or so weather systems ravaging the earth. The camera (on a helicopter?) soars in a great circle around the family in the penultimate shot; they’re tiny against the lush green of their new world.
Some of the most effective scenes for me revolved around Noah’s increasingly hardened heart. Much is made, in a kind of embarrassingly earnest way, of his middle son, Ham’s, desire for a wife. You have mom, he says. Shem has Ila. What about me? When he finally goes looking for one, he basically picks the first terrified-looking, vulnerable girl he sees (it’s kind of disgusting), wins her trust by offering her food, and sets off for the ark with her. It’s raining by this time. I guess he’s technically saving her life, but there are all kinds of consent issues in this situation, right? Like who wouldn’t agree to fuck him if it meant a ticket onto that ark? I fully expected him to bring her aboard, which is what made the trap that snapped shut on her ankle so surprising. More surprising, though, was not the appearance of Russell Crowe, but the fact that, instead of saving her, he drags Ham away. She’s trampled by the mob. It’s brutal. Brutal, too, are the screams of the dying, clinging to an outcropping of black rock, covering it like barnacles. Noah sits in the ark, face set, as his family pleads with him to save some of them. A wave washes over the rock; when it subsides, it takes all but a few with it. It’s nightmarish. God chose him for his task because—or so Noah believes—he’s the kind of guy who could knife his two newborn granddaughters and in so doing doom mankind to extinction. He really chose him because he’s the kind of guy who just can’t bring himself to do that kind of thing. His arc is kind of compelling on paper, actually—as made crystal clear by Ila at the end of the movie; this film is way too verbose for its own good—but the execution is unsatisfying.
On the whole, I didn’t like NOAH at all. When I Googled it to check a fact, I saw an article calling it “deranged.” That’s too strong a word. It’s weird for sure. One detail I did appreciate was that, during the time-lapse creation story, Aronofsky refuses to come down on either the side of the Bible or evolution. He’s quoting the Old Testament, but the visuals speeding by show a sea creature erupting out of the water and evolving into a series of ever more mammal-like animals. It really works. It renders the whole distinction kind of moot, actually. That’s just not where Aronofsky was interested in going; it’s too bad I didn’t like where he was interested in going more.
THE THIN RED LINE | 1998 | dir. Terrence Malick
Just listening to this renders everything I might say about THIN RED LINE completely and utterly superfluous. Seriously. Like what is the point of human speech
It would be easy to call this Malick’s most “conventional” film; I’d like to understand why that’s so. One of the most concrete examples of this is Nick Nolte’s Lt. Col. Gordon Tall. The first time we see him, we’re also hearing him, in voiceover (this is the only Malick I had yet to see, and was curious if he’d be 6/6 for voiceover—sure enough…) basically laying out out who he is and what his motivations are in a way that felt almost nakedly unambiguous contrasted with, say, the characters in TO THE WONDER, who talk a lot but seem to say all that much. I wish I had the script in front of me… but from what I remember, Tall is sucking up to John Travolta, playing his superior officer, while telling us how sick of sucking up he is and of being passed over for promotion despite it time and again… As he later explains to Elias Koteas’ Captain James Staros, this is his war, he’s waited 15 years for it, and he’ll be damned if he blows his big chance out of regard for mere human life. We view all his actions through this prism. We may not agree with what he does, but we understand why he does it.
It’s a simple thing, but after DAYS OF HEAVEN, THE NEW WORLD, and TO THE WONDER over the past few days, the effect is profound. I think THE NEW WORLD might be my favorite Malick, but even in that film, which I think occupies a space somewhere between TREE OF LIFE and THIN RED LINE in terms of “accessibility,” whatever that means, we don’t get anything as clear as this from its three leads (and I’m not necessarily saying such clarity is always a good thing; given Malick’s demonstrated lack of interest in it over his five other films, I suspect it might be more of a concession in THIN RED LINE than anything else). Along with Tall’s motivations, we also get characters openly musing about the effects of war: “War don’t ennoble men,” Witt says. “It turns them into dogs. It poisons the soul.” (Thanks IMDb!) Then there’s that shot of the baby bird, covered in blood, dragging itself across the dirt at the base of a tree. Appearing as it does in the midst of a battle scene, it’s a very Malick shot via a very Malick cut—but its meaning is all too plain. That bird is what war does to the human soul. There’s also quite a bit of voiceover on the theme of, if I remember correctly, the source of evil, where does it come from—all that is very Malick, but it makes a unique (for him) kind of sense in a war film. We can perhaps more easily accept characters monologuing at length about the meaning of it all when they’re staring death in the face.
THIN RED LINE also has possibly my favorite Malick voiceover/(verbal) image ever, the followup to “Maybe all men got one big soul everybody’s a part of, all faces are the same man”: “Everyone lookin’ for salvation by himself. Each like a coal thrown from the fire.” If that’s so, the question is: how did we end up killing each other like this? And how can we return to the fire? It’s as clear a statement as I’ve ever gotten out of a Malick film. And fascinating that the most vivid “image” from this film for me is entirely verbal. Especially for such a visual director. Which is a silly thing to say, but you know what I mean.
Adrien Brody said in a 2001 interview that he was still upset by how much of his work (his character was evidently written as a far more prominent role) was cut from the final film. It’s true that he’s barely in it, but he made an impression—that thin, dramatically sculpted face and huge, terrified eyes. (Apparently Martin Sheen, Gary Oldman, Mickey Rourke, and Viggo Mortensen’s performances, among others, were cut completely from the final film.)
Witt’s scenes with the Melanesians are so very like John Smith’s with the Powhatan Indians in THE NEW WORLD; Malick’s tendency toward characters who express themselves through gesture rather than words flourishes in these situations, where characters don’t speak each other’s languages. John Smith and Pocahontas; Neil and Marina in WONDER, Witt and the Melanesians. Although Witt voiceovers at length, part of him remains remote. He’s looking for something—and in that final scene, where he raises his gun in what I suppose is a suicidal gesture, one could say that he found it, although I wouldn’t hazard a guess at what “it” is. The “immortality” he failed to find in his grandmother’s passing? Which, perhaps, is freedom from the fear of death?
So much of this film is about fear. Nobody behaves “heroically” in the sense of not feeling it. Even that near-suicidal charge at the Japanese bunker by one soldier is filmed as the sudden onset of madness, with kind of delirious closeups in which the camera kind of swims around his face, complete with sound that seems to be arising from somewhere within him, drowning out the gunfire all around. Tall is the only one who really seems to want to be there. In an early scene, one soldier complains that he never would have enlisted if he’d known there was going to be a war. Fife lies in his bunk, practically catatonic with terror. Witt, in the beginning, is AWOL—again. Staros refuses a direct order. Woody Harrelson’s character inadvertently blows his butt off when he grabs a grenade by the pin—I can’t imagine a more absurd death. THIN RED LINE isn’t idealizing war or the people who fight it. Not that it isn’t exciting when they finally take that stupid ridge; it can’t help but be, whether Malick meant it that way or not.
When Tall (I think) is describing their strategy, the camera ghosts toward the ridge over the grass, as if it’s the men’s imaginations, moving inexorably forward toward the site of their impending death.
THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL | 2014 | dir. Wes Anderson
I want to get some thoughts down before I see it again tonight. This film affected me quite strongly and I’ve been thinking about it all week.
As David Ehrlich rightly points out (I love this review), this movie, on the story level, is about how Ralph Fiennes’ gay (right? I can’t believe it took that review to make me see that, even with Adrien Brody calling him a fucking fruit!) M. Gustave gave it to Tilda Swinton’s octogenarian Madame D so good that she left him all her worldly possessions when she died. It’s also the story of a friendship. It’s also the story of a hotel. But I think first and foremost it’s a love story—and one of great loss. By the time Jude Law’s character meets Zero, he has given up the considerable wealth and property he inherited from M. Gustave in order to maintain ownership of the Grand Budapest, a “magnificent ruin” that is falling apart all around him. Law asks him why he sacrificed so much to hold onto the hotel, assuming it’s because of M. Gustave. No, Zero answers simply, it’s because of Agatha.
If this answer is unexpected, it may be because Zero and Agatha’s story plays out almost on the fringes of the inheritance narrative, and only toward the very end of the film do we find out why. It’s because, even a lifetime later, it’s too painful for Zero to talk about her. The mere thought of her is enough to bring tears to his eyes. He only mentions Agatha when absolutely necessary for the plot of the story he’s ostensibly telling, but, as he makes quite clear, SHE is the story.
The film follows a “nested doll” structure; we descend backwards or downwards into time, and then up to the present again, as if climbing down a ladder. Each time period is shot in its own aspect ratio: 1.33, 1.85, and 2.35:1. It’s divided into five (I think) chapters, with an elaborate, almost extravagantly Andersonian “title page” for each that recalls the curtains that open and close on different months of the year in RUSHMORE—curtains that were clearly there on the set itself, and curtains that Anderson’s agent advised him not to use because of their blatant (and, the agent contended, distracting) artificiality. I may not have been the biggest fan of Anderson before BUDAPEST, but even if I didn’t like stuff like the curtains, I was always glad he refused to take them out. Even if I didn’t know someone suggested he take them out. You know what I mean. Rewatching a few of his films this week I realized that most of the stuff that felt new to me in BUDAPEST had been there all along—I was surprised by the climactic shootout, for example, but I think there’s one like it in THE LIFE AQUATIC. BUDAPEST felt gorier than his other films, and I think it was—we’ve certainly never seen a decapitated head from him before, and my audience gasped at the splattered cat—but who could forget Richie Tenenbaum bleeding out into a sink covered with hanks of his own hair after he slit his wrists? And Jason Schwartzman licking his fingers before placing his hand between Rita’s legs is to my mind dirtier even than the lesbian erotica M. Gustave puts up in place of “Boy with Apple.” Despite all this, though, there’s something… edgier, maybe, about BUDAPEST, and I can’t find the word for it. “Raunchy” is wrong, and it certainly isn’t vulgar, but M. Gustave has a dirtier mouth than the typical Anderson leading man, even if he has much in common with Max Fischer, and Francis Whitman, and Mr. Fox, and on and on. There’s so much packed into his character, and even if I’m still trying to detangle the many threads, he feels irresistibly real—in his arrogance, his competence, his perfectionism, his decency and towering dignity…
BUDAPEST is sadder, to my mind, than any of his previous films. Look at them more closely, and beneath the comedy, there’s always a darkness hovering at the edges—perhaps the characters have pushed it away, barely able to keep it at bay… The Whitman brothers’ father’s death in DARJEELING is still so raw to them that the flashback we get isn’t of the funeral proper, but of the trip to it; it’s like they can’t yet bear to remember the funeral itself. RUSHMORE’S Max Fischer is similarly haunted by the death of his mother—Matt Zoller Seitz makes a convincing case for his multitude of extracurriculars being a way of distracting himself from that pain. But BUDAPEST is the first one that has made me sad—kind of piercingly so. It’s all executed in a very Andersonian way, but it hits home all the more for that; it’s what should be the final argument for the utility and effectiveness, not just the surface aesthetics, of his style. The shift to black and white for what is essentially M. Gustave’s death scene might sound gimmicky on paper, but it’s devastating, as is the revelation of not just when but how Agatha died—in as mundane a way as possible, a way that one feels shouldn’t be possible in a world where a fall to the death ends in a delivery truck full of boxes upon boxes of sweets. To quote David Ehrlich’s review again (it’s so good!), BUDAPEST is
[a] four-tiered confection that moves with the wild energy of FANTASTIC MR. FOX but lingers with a more brutal, weaponized version of the wistfulness that haunted MOONRISE KINGDOM.
And it’s true. This movie was a knife in my heart.
TO THE WONDER | 2013 | dir. Terrence Malick
It was as if Ben Affleck wasn’t in this movie. Although he did have a few lines of voiceover, we rarely ever heard his voice or saw his face. I’m not sure Malick ever allowed the camera to rest on his face (which, when we saw it, was usually angry)—in the same way as he did, say, Linda several times in DAYS OF HEAVEN—compositions that, in that film, were striking in their rarity, and entirely absent from WONDER. Both Neil and Marina are often shot at waist-level, and often in motion. Marina moves with what might look like joy, but more often than not—especially after the move to America—doesn’t feel joyful.
Malick’s characters tendency to express themselves through gesture reaches its apotheosis in WONDER. Most of what we know about these people is based on the way they move—by which I don’t necessarily mean to say that we know very much. Entire interactions are wordless, including Marina’s sexual encounter with an unnamed local man near the end of the film—one of its high points for me. When she lifts her shirt over her head, he lays his hand on her stomach with exquisite lightness, as close to not touching as a touch can be. Both characters seem deep in their own dream.
Malick often blocks his men and women in the same way—the woman walking, the man following a few feet behind: think of John Smith, and later John Rolfe, and Pocahontas/Rebecca in THE NEW WORLD. They are almost like living statues; the reoccurrence of this particular composition is like a word in a language Malick is writing with bodies, repeated from film to film. These characters’ movements, especially Marina’s, are loose, reverent, restless; the way Malick cuts spreads them across time and space even as it stitches them together, his swooping camera and fractured editing giving especially his early scenes an almost delirious fluidity.
What we know about the characters’ inner lives in words comes almost entirely from voiceover. In WONDER, as in THE NEW WORLD, we have two characters who don’t speak each other’s language, at least not fluently. An entire conversation in WONDER is conducted between an Italian woman who doesn’t speak much French, and a French woman who doesn’t speak much Italian. The Italian woman expresses the frustration that Marina is feeling, but in a language Marina doesn’t speak; they occupy the same space, but are unable to connect. Similarly, Marina and Neil address each other in voiceover, saying things we never see them actually say to each other. In that sense, the viewer knows more than they do. At the same time, Malick often mutes their conversations—Marina’s admission that she slept with another man, for example, and an explosive fight between Marina and Neil. We can only watch as they smash furniture, again expressing themselves to us by gesture alone.
Maybe it’s this emphasis on gesture that made me feel so distanced from these characters. Emotions are expressed—anger, despair, wonder, joy, love—but they feel muted, inaccessible. Roger Ebert, in the last film review he ever filed, calls it “a film that would rather evoke than supply,” and what it evokes mostly strongly is despair. Ebert also points out that Malick surely knows this (not the despair part in particular, but the “evoke” part)—and I’m sure that’s true. WONDER feels like a film of great personal significance to Malick, significance that he isn’t particularly interested in explaining. I can’t fault him for it. But I think it does mean that one’s experience of WONDER will be highly subjective, and I personally didn’t connect with it at all. It made me feel hopeless. There were none of the redemptive qualities of, say, THE NEW WORLD or THE TREE OF LIFE. It’s closer in what it leaves you with to BADLANDS or DAYS OF HEAVEN (kindred spirits in their endings), but even more oblique, and bleaker.