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.
DAYS OF HEAVEN | 1978 | dir. Terrence Malick
In the beginning of the film, Malick keeps the Farmer’s house in frame as often as possible, looming on the horizon, foreshadowing the Farmer’s impending presence in the family’s lives.
I noticed that Malick often shot the Farmer from below, especially when he’s standing in his fields. I thought placing the camera there might be a way of communicating his power. But Malick shoots both Bill and Abby that way too (although never, to my knowledge, Linda, who is often shot straight on in, to my mind, some of the most beautiful and haunting moments of the film). Shooting all three of his adult leads this way lends them an almost mythic quality; although, to my knowledge, this film (unlike BADLANDS) isn’t based on historical events, it’s as if we’re watching characters who long before the film was shot had already passed into legend. Perhaps it’s also a way of equalizing the characters; though the nameless Farmer has the socioeconomic power, Abby seems to literally hold his life in her hands (his illness stops progressing after their marriage), and it’s Bill who eventually kills him—and who, perhaps more importantly, has what the Farmer cannot: Abby’s loyalty.
The one wide shot we get of a great cloud of locusts taking to the air was stirring, but I suspect Malick didn’t have the budget and/or resources to shoot the swarm that way consistently, which explains the many many closeups of the insects. If that’s true, it’s one of the first times that I’ve noticed a stylistic choice that seems dictated by such limitations—it’s fun to play detective like that, although unless the director confirms it, you can’t know for sure why he or she made any given choice.
Ennio Morricone’s score is absolutely perfect. Its aching sadness foreshadows events to come even before their true tragedy has begun to suggest itself to us. The score’s constant presence, even in the film’s earliest scenes, makes us feel, when tragedy finally does strike, that it was inevitable, perhaps fated.
Similarly, other shots seem imbued with impending doom: those of the windmill atop the Farmer’s house, for instance (often accompanied by the noise it’s making, but turned up just loud enough to be ominous). The Farmer is, of course, standing at the windmill looking down when he sees Bill and Abby kiss, a sight that finally pushes him over the edge into murderous anger. By “seeding” shots like this throughout the film, and then incorporating similar imagery into pivotal scenes, Malick again creates a sense of inevitability—this was coming from a long way off, and he primes us to feel that perhaps even before we can express why. Another example is the gazebo, with its ethereal, shroud-like white curtains, often seen blown by the wind. One night, while celebrating with the Italian traveling circus, a trick of the light projects Bill and Abby’s shadows onto these finally-still curtains as they talk, faces too close together for mere sisterly or brotherly intimacy. (Speaking of projection, I loved the brief scene in which the family watches a Chaplin film—the fact that he has a print of the film and the equipment to screen it tells us a lot about how wealthy he is.)
Another eloquent shot: when Bill and Abby sneak out of the house with a bottle of wine, he drops his glass in the river. The scene ends with an underwater shot of the glass resting against a rock. It’s set in the “honeymoon” phase of Abby and the Farmer’s relationship, before he’s begun to suspect her and Bill, but the shot—immediately striking for its uniqueness; it’s one of the only places Malick’s camera goes in this film that the human eye couldn’t, and color-wise it’s a chilly blue, in sharp contrast with the muted brown and gold palette of the rest of the film—tells us that this new life won’t last for long.
Loneliness. Isolation. The majority of the film takes place in the Farmer’s fields; even though he has a barn, his house is often the only building we see, and often from far away, emphasizing the vastness of the landscape surrounding it. I’m particularly interested in themes of family and isolation, and DAYS is a potent combination of the two; they are the only people they see for what appears to be months on end. When the migrant workers show up for the second time, we see that while they badly need the Farmer’s money, he needs their company too.
Perhaps it’s because of my interest in my themes that I felt it so keenly when Bill and Abby left the farm. The last 20 minutes pretty much becomes BADLANDS—two lovers on the run, sleeping in the woods, complete with a shootout between Bill and the police—and I like BADLANDS the least of Malick’s films. I suppose in opening it up the way he does—killing one character, and scattering the other two to who-knows-where (they certainly don’t)—he’s saying that this is a story about more than just the psychological/emotional love triangle between the Farmer, Abby, and Bill. Malick is trying to say something bigger—something, perhaps, about how we can’t change who we truly are. As I’ve (sort of) argued above, Abby’s (and by extension, Bill’s) attempt at a complete lifestyle change not only ends but I would argue is fated to end in tragedy.
THE DARJEELING LIMITED | 2007 | dir. Wes Anderson
I’m happy to report that I enjoyed THE DARJEELING LIMITED immensely upon seeing it for the second time (the first in about five years). I’ve always wanted so badly to connect with Anderson’s films, and my love for THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL seems to have provided me with the in I needed. Both the humor and the emotionality of DARJEELING came through this time in a way they didn’t before—both in terms of all three brothers’ arcs throughout the film, and as encapsulated in moments both perfectly crafted (the tears in Peter’s [Adrien Brody’s] eyes as he reads Jack’s [Jason Schwartzman’s] short story in the privacy of the train’s bathroom) and and perhaps even accidental (during a scene at their mother’s convent, when Peter’s pilfered sunglasses fall from their perch on his head down onto his face).
Objects like these sunglasses are invested with great personal meaning in DARJEELING. The belt that Francis gives Peter, then takes back, then gives again, depending on the state of their relationship. The Hotel Chevalier bathrobe Jack wears; the bottle of “Voltaire 6: Le Petit Mort” perfume his lover gives him—its name suggesting both the sexual potency and toxicity of their relationship—and which he smashes. It’s no accident that, when Peter finally accepts the fact that he’s going to become a father, he expresses it by buying a tiny embroidered vest for his unborn son. Perhaps the inanimate object(s) invested with the most meaning in DARJEELING is their father’s exquisite, cumbersome luggage. After the brothers collectively decide to go find their mother after all, Anderson shows us all three astride one motorcycle, beginning with a medium shot of their happy, relaxed faces before pulling back and allowing them to exit the frame on the right. Then, after several perfectly timed seconds, a tiny truck enters it from the left, piled high with their luggage and three porters to carry it. It’s not until the final scene—shot in gloriously Andersonian slow motion, and set to the Kinks’ exuberant “Powerman”—that they are able to leave said baggage (both literal and emotional) behind. “Dad’s bags aren’t gonna make it!” Francis yells—and, perhaps for the first time, all three of them smile.
Like Max Fischer in RUSHMORE and Margot Tenenbaum in THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, Francis is desperate for control. He has brought his long-suffering assistant, a printer, and a laminating machine along with him so to create detailed itineraries, planning out every minute of their trip. He wants a spiritual experience, but seems unable to conceive of the idea that such an experience might involve a certain amount of surrender. It’s when things start deviating from the plan that the real change can even begin to happen. As Matt Zoller Seitz points out in The Wes Anderson Collection, DARJEELING is kind of the middle of a larger story, and we get to see the brothers just beginning to heal. But the luggage-abandoning is a triumphant hint of things to come, as is the end of Jack’s new story, in which he decides to sever ties with his lover once and for all. “He would not be going to Italy.” By giving us the end of this story, Anderson allows us to imagine a future for the brothers that is far more hopeful than the one we might have predicted for them at the beginning, which they squabbled their way through, swigging painkillers and stabbing each other in the back at every turn. Francis extends an olive branch to his underappreciated assistant and friend; Jack extricates himself from an unhealthy relationship; Peter puts aside his fears and is facing up to impending fatherhood.
Watching RUSHMORE and rewatching DARJEELING have made me realize that all the things I loved about BUDAPEST aren’t unique to it; they’ve been there in Anderson’s films all along. It just took BUDAPEST, and maybe getting a little older, to help me see it. BUDAPEST is gorier than his previous films, it’s true, but DARJEELING does feature a shocked Adrien Brody climbing out of a river cradling a boy’s body, soaked in shockingly bright blood. And Jack pulling away from Rita (Amara Karan) in the bathroom to lick his fingers is a gasp-inducingly dirty-sexy moment, all the more so for its fleeting quality. It’s tempting to apply adjectives like “cute” or “confection” to his work—and what is BUDAPEST but a confection—but to do so at the expense of their emotional weight is to do them a disservice—to be bedazzled by the surface into not looking as deeply as the films themselves certainly go. Anderson himself, in TWAC, states that he doesn’t shy away from making choices (like the curtains that mark the passage of time in RUSHMORE) that announce their own artificiality, and risk “taking you out of the movie”—because I don’t think he sees that as a risk. But what’s wonderful about DARJEELING to me is how bound up the Andersonian textures and details (the luggage, the belt, the perfume) are with the emotional core of the film. We are aware of what every object means to every character, and thus their losses and abandonments have meaning, too.
And, inspired by Matt Zoller Seitz’s "Please, critics, write about the filmmaking" on rogerebert.com yesterday, some things about the filmmaking:
- The scene I described earlier, where he’s tracking alongside the brothers on their motorcycle, close enough to their faces so we can see how happy they are, then pulls away, then they exit frame right, then a few seconds pass, and then the tiny three-wheeled truck enters frame left, piled high with luggage and three porters… it’s saying, entirely without words, that even though the brothers have taken steps in the right direction, they aren’t entirely free of the burden—the baggage, if you will—of their father’s death. It will follow them until they decide to cast it away…
- …in that triumphant luggage-casting-away-scene. Super–slow motion, perhaps lending the moment greater significance (as in the final shot of RUSHMORE); tracking alongside the brothers as they jump onto the train. Set to the Kinks’ exuberant “Powerman”; its upbeat energy perhaps reflecting their newfound sense of freedom. First time we see them smile. Of course, this scene mirrors the one from the beginning where Peter just catches the DARJEELING. In being stylistically identical, the one important difference stands out, showing us how far they’ve come.
- Other stylistic trademarks: those “god’s-eye views,” almost like a photograph from above—of Rita’s sweet lime tray, for example, and the baby in the cradle. I’m tempted to dismiss this as simply aesthetic, except that I don’t want to dismiss anything… I was going to say that it’s an angle no person would be able to see from, but that isn’t true; in both those examples, the shots are from the POV of Rita and Peter, respectively.
- Whip pans… the camera is part of the humor oftentimes, in the way that he’ll shoot a conversation between the three brothers in their cramped carriage not by cutting between them, but by rapidly whipping the camera from one to the other in what might be an acrobatic way except that you feel it is as constrained by the situation as they are; rather than being positioned some comfortable distance away, it must discommode itself every time one of the brothers speaks, and it does so with an almost impatient rapidity.
- Placing a character directly in the center of the frame. I’d be interested to hear why he does this; it didn’t register as all that “off” to me in this film, given how often he arranges the 3 brothers with one in the middle, maybe, but I know it’s an unusual choice and may contribute almost unknowingly to a sense of discomfort? Their relationship is very awkward in the beginning—maybe framing, say, Francis that way expresses his sense of himself as in control of everything. He sits on one side and orders for everyone else.
RUSHMORE | 1998 | dir. Wes Anderson
In his review for Badass Digest, David Ehrlich calls THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL “the only one of [Wes Anderson’s] films to make all of them better,” which captures exactly how I feel about that movie, which I saw on Saturday and which inspired me to finally see RUSHMORE and to probably go back and revisit at least some of his other films soon. Even were I not giddy with love of TGBH, I think I would have still connected with this film far more than I have with any of the others to date. Having now seen all 8, I can say that this is my second favorite—I love TGBH with the fervor of a convert, but RUSHMORE certainly comes a close second.
I’m always up for stories about lonely geniuses—SHERLOCK is my favorite show for a lot of reasons, but (a no doubt misguided) overidentification with Cumberbatch’s Holmes is definitely high on the list—and what I love about RUSHMORE is, for that very reason, that its opening scene is like a joke being played solely on me. The film opens in Max’s dream, a dream in which he effortlessly solves an impossibly difficult extra credit problem his teacher put up on the board as a joke. It’s extremely significant that it isn’t just Max who profits from his own genius—by solving the problem, he exempts not only himself but his entire class as well from having to open a math book ever again for the rest of their lives. Ecstatic, they hoist him up on their shoulders, chanting his name. If this were reality, this would be a film about a genius—but a beloved one. But this is Max’s dream—the dream of someone whose day is packed so impossibly full of extracurriculars that he’s failing nearly every class. The headmaster puts him in “sudden death academic probation”—fail another one, and he’ll be expelled from Rushmore. Max’s solution to this, of course, is not to buckle down and study or anything, but to try to talk the man into creating a “post-graduate year” just for him. As the film unfolds and you realize just how much Rushmore means to Max, one wonders whether or not he was failing his classes deliberately, so that he’d be held back and never have to leave the school. I love movies about lone geniuses—Max is no genius, and he’s not a loner, either, but for all his clubs and societies and theater troupes, he’s not exactly what you’d call well-integrated, either, at least not in the beginning. His arc—one of the more clear and perhaps traditional of any Anderson character, or at least the one I connected to the most—ends in personal growth, but growth not untempered by wistfulness, as the perfect final shot makes plain.
Not long after being threatened with expulsion, Max finds a quote in blue ink in a very Andersonian script in a very Andersonian book—one by Jacques Cousteau. A little investigating leads him to the writer: Miss Cross, a new teacher at the school. The timing is no accident; as he yells at Bill Murray’s Herman Blume later in the film, she became his Rushmore—at precisely the moment when he stood to lose Rushmore forever. He becomes fixated on her, oppressively so—when, correcting papers, she finishes her glass of lemonade, Max appears out of nowhere to refill it from the pitcher by her side, and sharpens her pencil to boot. She doesn’t exactly encourage him—but she doesn’t stonewall him either. Max makes miles out of inches she didn’t even give him—simply because one of their conversations takes place while she’s feeding her classroom’s fish (filmed in one masterly shot that tracks along the tanks, so that we’re seeing Max and Miss Cross through them), he decides to build an $8 million aquarium on the school grounds—but despite her lack of sexual interest in him, she almost can’t help but respond to him in something like the way he demands. Max, not just in age but in maturity level, is far too young for her—but you can feel that she regrets it.
In “The Wes Anderson Collection,” Matt Zoller Seitz remarks on the boldness of actually moving Max to another school, introducing the viewer to a whole new setting and group of characters fairly late in the film. I was immensely grateful to RUSHMORE for doing this—for setting Max down in what at first seems like an indifferent, if not outright hostile, environment and for allowing him, through a combination of sheer force of will and a softening attributable to personal growth, to create a place for himself in it. Max is expelled. He wears his Rushmore uniform—a partially self-created one, the less elaborate predecessor of Sam’s in MOONRISE KINGDOM—at first, but, by the end of the film, he’s cast it off, in a gesture that perfectly encapsulates his arc. Instead of returning to Rushmore—which, much as he loved it, may not have been the right place for him after all, or at least is not the only right place—he has transplanted the best of himself (his creativity, his drive, his seeming ability to make himself the master of any situation simply by being unable to conceive of this not being the case) to his new school, while leaving some of the worse parts behind. He’s found friends at his new school, and a girlfriend his age—one who not only pursues him at first, but who eventually proves herself able to stand up to him, a quality I would imagine is indispensable for any girlfriend of his. He’s studying, maybe for the first time ever. He’s extended an olive branch to the Rushmore school bully—who, it transpires, has always wanted to be in one of Max’s plays. He’s reconciled with Herman Blume, didn’t do anything wrong in the first place—and staged a Vietnam war play that moved him to tears. In what for him is a supremely selfless gesture (though not without a certain arrogance, as befits Max Fischer), he’s reunited Blume and Miss Cross. And, most importantly, he’s let Miss Cross go.
None of this is to say that he’s done a 180 or anything. I don’t think 180s are a very Wes Anderson thing. There’s a wistful perfection to the final shot, with its super–slow motion, that tells you, perhaps, where Max’s heart will always lie: if not with Rushmore, or with Miss Cross, then with whatever will replace them. In other words, he’s still Max—but a Max I can feel hopeful for.