The Masque Of The Red, White & Blue Death

June 20, 2020

At Prince Prospero’s masque, Jane Asher (c.) and Vincent Price.

Trump loves to brag about how he boldly fought the novel coronavirus by restricting entrance into the US from China. But now we know that, true to form, neither he nor anyone around him had thought through the possible consequences. His hip-shot action made American citizens, particularly in already-infested Europe, so instantly nervous about repatriation that they stormed back to the US at once. 

Many of them landed at airports where the customs officers were unprepared and overwhelmed. Eyewitnesses tell us that the returning travelers waited in long lines in close quarters which were already, as Stephen King wrote about THE STAND’s superflu, “crawling with death.” They weren’t tested or traced. Thus did COVID-19 make its way into the most heavily populated parts of the United States, the ones with international airports. Not even a king can command a virus. And Trump was only a spectator, squandering weeks that could have been devoted to preparation which would have saved thousands of American lives.

We shut-ins make strange connections these days, and all this made me think of THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH. Not only the Edgar Allan Poe story that so unnerved me as a child, but also the 1964 Roger Corman movie that remains the best of his Poe “adaptations.” I just re-read the story and “Hop-Frog,” a lesser-known Poe tale which is also folded into Charles Beaumont and R. Wright Campbell’s screenplay, and watched the film again, both after many years. Once you discover similarities to our present situation, you can’t shake them off. It’s no longer just an imaginative dark fantasy. In many disturbing ways, our daily life is Poe made real.

“The Masque” (the short story) and THE MASQUE (the picture) got to me as a youngster because of the plague’s creepy inexorability. It’s the same frisson that made the Mummy, to me, the most terrifying of the classic Universal monsters. Sure, you could outrun the Mummy, or flee by air or ocean. Sure, he just shambles everywhere he goes. But once you have incurred the Mummy’s wrath, he will never ever stop coming until he finds you and kills you. It may take years, decades, but you will never be rid of him. He’s getting closer every second, even while you’re asleep.


Price and Patrick Magee are two very bad boys who get a kick out of inequality.

How naive, how arrogant of Trump to think that restricting traffic from one country — or at least attempting it in his typically hamhanded way — was enough to stanch the spread of a novel virus about which we knew next to nothing. Poe’s Prince Prospero — could there be a more apt fictional name for our current president? — was less naive about the Red Death (“No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous”), but every bit as arrogant. He invited the knights and dames of his court, a full thousand of them, to “the deep seclusion of one of his castellated abbeys.” It was not called Mar-A-Lago, but you can be forgiven the mistake. “A strong and lofty wall girded it in” with “gates of iron” whose bolts were welded shut. The abbey was “amply provisioned.” “With such precautions the courtiers might bid defiance to contagion. The external world could take care of itself. In the meantime it was folly to grieve, or to think.”

Are you getting chills yet? 

“The prince had provided all the appliances of pleasure. There were buffoons, there were improvisatori, there were ballet-dancers, there were musicians, there was Beauty, there was wine. All these and security were within. Without was the ‘Red Death.’” Even as a grade-schooler, I thought to myself, they think a locked door is going to keep out a disease? 

After five or six months of merry, bibulous quarantine, Prospero decides to throw a masked ball for the ages. This very moment as I write this, Trump fans are gathering in Tulsa, Oklahoma for the first public appearance in months by their prince. Trump campaign rallies are, for all practical purposes, giant parties, celebrations of the minions of MAGA. Some foolish people have even declared today “National No Mask Day,” for the notion of protecting one another from the spread of coronavirus has, incredibly, become politicized. I don’t expect to see many masks inside that Tulsa arena tonight, even though a hot, crowded indoor environment where people are screaming and chanting is absolutely perfect for this disease to flourish and spread.  


The masque is the centerpiece of Poe’s story and of Corman’s beautiful film, thanks in great degree to superb art direction by Daniel Haller and cinematography by Nicolas Roeg(!). Leading the revelers to thumb their noses at the contagion outside is Vincent Price as Prospero, who has never been smarmier — and the screenplay adds a Satanic subplot for him and Hammer scream queen Hazel Court that is not in the Poe story. You even get a good look at Jane Asher, who at the time was Paul McCartney’s girlfriend and muse. It’s great fun and looks far more expensive than it is — “the money’s on the screen,” as they say.


Jane Asher takes a bath, to everyone’s delight.

I hope I’m not spoiling anything when I reveal that the Red Death finds its way into Prospero’s bash, just as I expect COVID-19 to crash Trump’s Tulsa rally and the Republican National Convention’s nomination acceptance night in another arena Petri dish. It was moved to Jacksonville because the governor of North Carolina would not agree to suspend distancing guidelines for the sake of political optics. Ignoring the whole of epidemiological science isn’t just ill-advised; it represents true madness. Please don’t let this end like Poe’s tale, the final line of which Corman puts up as a title card at the end:

“And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.”


The Duty Dozen

April 20, 2020


If you’re chafing at having to work from home, just consider yourself lucky that you are not essential to the functioning of daily life. One, you still have a job, and it’s soft enough that you can do it at a social distance. Two, that job doesn’t require you to be out in harm’s way, like people in healthcare or law enforcement or municipal services or the armed forces or food distribution. And three, so far you’ve managed to avoid contracting a debilitating, ravenous virus.

Still, cabin fever comes with a dull psychological ache that may give way to gloom. I propose fighting it by spending time with some people who have it even worse off than you do. For instance, a contentious sequestered jury in a murder trial, crammed into a claustrophobic little room on the hottest day of the year. This might be a good time to count your blessings and watch Sidney Lumet’s 12 ANGRY MEN.

This searing drama is one of the towering works of the Golden Age of television, securing for Reginald Rose his deserved place alongside pioneers of original teleplays like Stirling Silliphant, Paddy Chayefsky and Rod Serling. I’ve seen the original 1954 performance on CBS’s STUDIO ONE, directed by Franklin J. Schaffner. (It’s available on YouTube, as well as on the superb 2011 Criterion DVD.) I was there for the Roundabout’s 2004 Broadway staging. I saw the 1997 tv adaptation directed by William Friedkin, updated to include black actors and to delete smoking. I’ve even screened a Russian adaptation. These talented artists were all inspired by the same crackling dialogue from Rose. But none of them have come close to matching the power and artistry of Lumet’s film in the 63 years since it was released.

12 ANGRY MEN was a sensation when it was performed live on September 20, 1954. It was perfect for the fledgling medium: the confines of the cathode ray tube helped instill a feeling of uncomfortable closeness (on today’s widescreen monitors, black vertical bars preserve the original clinging aspect ratio). The story is told in real dramatic time: after each commercial break, the actors return to their precise marks and continue as if not an instant has passed. There had been legal thrillers before, but this was the first time the courtroom itself was only a bit player; we go instead to a little conference table around which twelve jurors deliberate and we do not leave until they’re done.

In the mid-Fifties, television was a country cousin to the movies, yet a perceived existential threat which the studios contested with the spectacle of widescreen panoramas. But there was a plausible path to cinema for smaller chamber pieces from tv, paved in 1955 with the feature adaptation of Chayefsky’s MARTY, which won Oscars for the author, director, star, and picture. Rose and Henry Fonda decided to follow suit as producing partners with 12 ANGRY MEN.

Even at its small physical scale, 12 ANGRY MEN could not have been made into a feature without the two producers deferring their salaries. Fonda was the film’s only bankable star. The rest of the jury were played by up-and-coming New York-based actors known, if at all, for their work on stage and tv, not movies. Several went on to fine careers and are familiar faces to us today, but in 1957 they were unknown to the national audience.

To direct, Fonda and Rose chose Sidney Lumet, an experienced veteran of the live television scene. Though this would be Lumet’s first feature, the project was right in his wheelhouse; he specialized in the small, gritty “kitchen-sink dramas” that Golden Age live tv was making so popular. Here, of course, he’d be able to shoot out of sequence for efficiency and broaden the story (Rose’s screenplay is nearly twice as long as his 1954 teleplay, but somehow it still seems to move faster). The combination of incendiary acting, surefooted direction, rich black-and-white cinematography by Boris Kaufman, and above all that sizzling real-time script, is breathtaking.

The first time through, one’s attention is riveted on the plot, which demonstrates the inexactitude of our justice system. Try as we might, sometimes it’s impossible to be certain; that’s where the notion of “reasonable doubt” comes in. And sometimes it’s impossible to be dispassionate: prejudices and fears can enter a jury room too. Anyone who’s ever served on a jury will recognize another aspect that the film gets right: this dozen forms a hive mind. Some people remember snippets of information that others don’t. A jury’s honest decision is a group effort.

You may want to watch the film again to observe the technical mastery that achieves its almost unbearably intense emotional effects; it’s just as impressive the second time around. The table-bound setting is no match for Lumet’s inventiveness: the actors are constantly in motion, fussing with windows or a wall fan, prowling for emphasis, sweating through both heat and effort and pacing for any possible relief from the oppressive atmosphere. In Lumet’s wonderful book MAKING MOVIES, he describes settling on a “lens plot” to make the room seem smaller and smaller as the story proceeds, gradually using longer and longer lenses to reduce the apparent space between the subjects. In addition, Lumet and Kaufman shot the first third of the movie above eye level, the middle third at eye level, and the last third from below eye level so that the set’s ceiling began to appear. “Not only were the walls closing in,” Lumet writes, “the ceiling was as well.” Watching 12 ANGRY MEN with this in mind shows us how cinema can affect our mood without even announcing itself.

12 ANGRY MEN marked the beginning of Sidney Lumet’s legendary movie career, and was a breakout showcase for Lee J. Cobb, Ed Begley, E. G. Marshall (who would later go back into the courtroom as the star of Rose’s highly respected tv series THE DEFENDERS), Jack Warden, John Fiedler, Robert Webber, Jack Klugman, Martin Balsam and Edward Binns. The other two actors were reprising their roles from the live CBS production: George Voskovec (Juror 11, the naturalized European watchmaker) and Joseph Sweeney (Juror 9, the oldest man).

I served on a jury in a murder trial a few years ago, even walked the steps of that same building at 60 Centre Street which commands Lumet’s opening and closing shots. More than once during the three weeks of testimony and especially the five solid days of deliberation (sometimes heated, even tearful, but never feral), I thought of 12 ANGRY MEN. I thought of how imperfect we humans are, especially when we presume to judge the actions of others, and I thought of the near-impossibility of knowing the truth about an event which one did not personally witness. But by the time it was all over, I experienced the same relief that Lumet blessedly grants film viewers in the final two minutes, when we at last emerge into fresh air and heavenly sky. Twelve people had each tried their best to do the right thing. In both the movie and in real life, I learned how noble and difficult that effort can be.

My Sundance 2020

February 27, 2020


I’m about to have my hip replaced, completing the set that I began six years ago. While I can walk ok, if slowly, standing for a long time is a problem. I had been dreading the necessity of having to do just that at Sundance. But our hostess, who is a festival volunteer, saved my bacon. She suggested I trot out the folding cane I carry everywhere (but had never used before) and ask if I could sit in the, you know, limited-mobility section to wait. Whew! So for the first — and almost certainly the last — time, I saw all my films at the same venue. The reason it’s significant is that Sundance’s largest auditorium tips toward movies in the dramatic competition, or premieres. That’s why the fifteen below are spare on world cinema and documentaries. Next year, bro.

We had planned to spend the festival-closing Sunday night in Park City and get up early Monday for an Uber, but a blizzard was scheduled to dump about an inch an hour by then, so we hitched a ride into Salt Lake and stayed over Sunday at an airport hotel. Good thing, too, because said snow fell indeed. The weather doesn’t care about my hip!


THE NEST*** Jude Law convinces his American wife (a fine Carrie Coon) and kids to move from Yank suburbs back to his native England, where he will rejoin his old firm and lease a humongous country manor. It’s the Eighties, so much of business is fast talking and artifice. The go-getter lives beyond his means, and the pace gradually becomes more and more frantic until Daddy gets a little creepy. Then a lot. Thoughts of THE SHINING will drift your way; the spooky, sprawling house they can’t really afford looks a lot like the Overlook Hotel. Sean Durbin’s MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE thrilled this fest almost ten years ago; his second feature demonstrates the same talent for depicting human nature, even at its most venal.


WANDER DARKLY**** To say this isn’t for everybody would be the understatement of the festival, but I was at rapt attention throughout. I can save you some reading time by asking: do you admire the work of David Lynch? If your answer is NO, then by all means, next flick please. After a traumatic incident, new parent Sienna Miller becomes as “unstuck in time” as poor old Billy Pilgrim, interacting with people who shouldn’t be there, careering among locations, emotions and even existential points of view. She’s, um, shadowed by her partner Diego Luna. Anyone who wants a traditional three-act story is in the wrong theater. But the askew view (beg pardon, Kevin Smith) is profoundly revealing, and plot strands actually do begin to re-tie before it’s over. It’s a distant cousin to the wonderful A GHOST STORY, but even that rhetorical relationship is misleading. You will either love this or hate it. No middle ground. 


MISS JUNETEENTH*** “Juneteenth” is the annual celebration of the abolition of slavery in Texas on June 19, 1865; one character explains that Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, but “Texas didn’t mind him.” Part of the celebration in one small town is a beauty pageant/talent show, and single mom Turquoise Jones (a terrific Nicole Beharie) was the winner when she was a teenager. She’s grooming her daughter for the same victory, hoping for the college scholarship that goes along with the crown, but young Kai has other aspirations. This is a charming, colorful look at all the fish in Turquoise’s small Texas pond, anchored by the loving tension between what mother wants and what daughter needs.


PALM SPRINGS*** At a family wedding studded with stereotypes, the reluctant, rebellious maid of honor (Cristin Milioti, in what should be a career-maker) meets goofy, nihilistic Andy Samberg when he brashly saves her from having to plow through a boring wedding toast. He is brash because he has a secret, a secret you will instantly recognize from a certain Bill Murray movie that was recently made into a Broadway musical. That’s the main problem: the key premise feels too familiar — though the hit-and-miss story has some funny moments as writer Andy Siara follows the couple’s new situation to its logical extremes and then keeps going. The always dependable J. K. Simmons is featured in a scenery-chewing role that’s perfectly in tune with the flick’s farcical nature. This one sold for a sum that broke the all-time Sundance acquisition record — by exactly sixty-nine cents (funny!).


PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN**** Cassie (Carey Mulligan) was once a promising young woman, but then she dropped out of medical school and now lives an ostensibly boring life, working as a barista and living with her parents. But at night she becomes a femme fatale, imparting justice to men who think they’re about to take advantage of her (the remarkable opening sequence shows her in full flower). Something has traumatized Cassie and turned her brutally vengeful, and before we’re done we will find out what that was. Comic and filmmaker Bo Burnham plays it straight as a former classmate who kindles a relationship that will take him to unexpected places. Written and smartly directed by KILLING EVE’s Emerald Fennell, it’s way dark, but it’ll definitely provoke conversation.


THE 40-YEAR-OLD VERSION*** A fictionalized “version” of the life of writer-director Radha Blank, a playwright and, later in life than usual, a rapper. She’s trying to get her plays produced while eking out a living teaching hilariously sullen high-schoolers. But then she finds the perfect jolt of creative satisfaction by returning to her first love and belting out rhymes. Meanwhile, she’s getting some bites from the theatre community and there’s a good chance one play might land on Broadway. So the two artistic urges pull her in different directions while we watch her prance through her beloved New York in glorious black and white. This film depends entirely on whether you fall in love with the title character, but she’s a force of nature and it’s hard to imagine anyone resisting.


DINNER IN AMERICA**** This was one of my favorite films of the fest, but I was in the distinct minority among our group, so as the kids say, YMMV. About ten minutes in, you think you have it nailed. Then the movie takes a severe right turn, maybe even a yooie, and the screenplay remains one step ahead of you until the credits roll. I don’t want to say too much, but it’s a misfit-couple-road-movie starring a punk-rock pyromaniac and the cutest nerd you’ve ever seen. It’s both brutal and funny, and I so admired the ability and the determination required to surprise us again and again. The depiction of the punk era and punk-era fandom is just off the scale. It’s one of those movies that asks you to let go and float down the river with it. But if you’re game for unexpected shenanigans, you will HOWL.


FALLING*** (Festival Closing Night) In Viggo Mortensen’s writing-directing debut, he plays the son of a raging, bigoted, solitary, mentally declining dad (Lance Henriksen) who tries to help his father by moving him from the rural family farm back East into his California household. Problem #1 is the father’s relentlessly increasing dementia: the opening scene on an airplane will be painful to anyone who’s ever been close to early-stage Alzheimer’s patients, who tend to be resistant to change of any kind. Problem #2 is that the Mortensen character lives with his male partner and they are together doing their best to raise a daughter; can you guess the old man’s level of approval? This is a sensitive, sumptuously photographed family story that is quite sophisticated for a first feature. Henriksen’s is a juicily showy and intense role, but I thought he not only took the character to its histrionic limit but went past that point a few times into emotional bluster. Then again, maybe he was just following the boss’s instructions.


UNCLE FRANK*** CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF meets 1973 South Carolina. Beth (Sophia Lillis, the ingenue from the IT movies) adores her Uncle Frank (a stalwart Paul Bettany), but when she moves to New York for college, she learns a deep family secret: Uncle Frank is gay. Furthermore, circumstances conspire to bring both Frank and his husband (Peter Macdissi) down South for a family funeral. The three characters already named form the crux of the tale, but Stephen Root also has a ball as the patriarch, “Daddy Mac.” It’s a bit Douglas-Sirky, and the melodramatic moss hangs heavily from the trees, but it’s the kind of tale we can really use these days.


KAJILLIONAIRE*** Now this one is definitely for those who can handle visual and verbal absurdity a la Lynch or Quentin Dupieux without throwing up their hands in frustration. If you know writer-director Miranda July’s earlier work, you may understand where I’m headed. Imagine if I described TWIN PEAKS as a police procedural set in a logging town: that’s technically correct, but I am omitting everything that makes the show worth watching. Well, this is the story of a con-artist family, a couple (Richard Jenkins and Debra frickin Winger) and their daughter (an almost unrecognizable Evan Rachel Wood) who are plying their shoddy retail-level trade until a talented grifter (Gina Rodriguez) hooks up and raises their sights. The family lives next door to a laundromat, and several times a day they have to fight the huge soap-bubble effluent that leaches into their place a la Chaplin in MODERN TIMES. Get it? I’ll be candid: this is just as likely to perplex as it is to delight, but if you hang in there you’ll be treated to images (like the one I just described) that will stick to your cinematic ribs.


WENDY*** Benh Zeitlin follows up BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD with a bayou-flavored take on the Peter Pan story. The “real world” is a down-home diner owned by the family of Wendy and her brothers. One sleepy night they are drawn to an elfin character riding atop a train car, and before long they are whisked to a magical place where they will never grow old — unless they stop believing. (That place is played by gorgeous Montserrat.) There’s an earthbound sibling and generational strand here that first seems to be only occasionally interrupted by beats from the famous J. M. Barrie tale, and that’s a legit point of view on Zeitlin’s part. This one ebbs and flows, but the child actors are wonderful. However, I recommend that you forget about the Peter Pan stuff until, say, the last reel, when it gets tough to follow the film’s arc without it — a dichotomy which I do consider a narrative flaw. You can judge for yourself when it opens tomorrow.


FOUR GOOD DAYS*** Harrowing mother-daughter confrontation as Glenn Close takes one last chance on Mila Kunis, a hopeless junkie who has thrown her life away and shows up at Mom’s door trembling from withdrawal. She can get an injection that will break the cycle, but not unless she can stay clean for the titular time frame. The busy Stephen Root acts against type as Close’s long-suffering husband who really wants to end his wife’s suffering. Both women are able to blast it in their own ways, and the moral heart of the movie has you cheering for each of them — but not without serious trepidation bordering on dread. The climax I will leave for you to discover, but it ends on the best final shot I saw this year.


YALDA, A NIGHT FOR FORGIVENESS*** (World Cinema Grand Jury Prize) Maryam has killed her husband Hassan and faces the death sentence. But the otherwise patriarchal Iranian law provides for the murdered man’s daughter, Mona, to forgive Maryam, if she so chooses, on a nationally televised reality spectacle; it will resemble a Jerry Lewis telethon to Western eyes of a certain age. We remain in the control room and tv studio for nearly the entire picture, with only one short break for fresh air before we return. Within this very creative tick-tock setting we learn much of the backstory, including why the crime was committed. This tradition, held on Yalda, the winter solstice celebration, may strike some as crass and commercial. First, how can you deride something as crass and commercial if you live in America? And second, it’s Maryam’s only hope. Breaths are dutifully held.


BOYS STATE***** (U.S. Grand Jury Prize — Documentary) A verite (meaning there is no narration or underscored music) look at a peculiarly American institution. Each year, the American Legion sponsors statewide convocations of bright high-school students who spend one week together forming a government (this one is in Texas). They decide on platforms, run for office, and, as we discover, use many questionable techniques they have osmosed from their elders. Any documentary is biased because you see only what the filmmaker permits you to see, but as the boys divide into “Nationalists” and “Federalists,” the “mock” element seems to recede, until the all-important election for Governor — the highest Boys State office — becomes both more political and more personal. As you watch, you may casually think of the many analogues to our real-life political system, but your attention is repeatedly thrust back to the boys. It’s riveting. 


MINARI**** (U.S. Grand Jury Prize — Dramatic) A Korean family moves from California to Arkansas, where the father, an expert chicken-sexer (yes, that’s actually a thing), wants to “plant a garden.” That is, start a farm. The family has been reluctant, but he can’t be dissuaded from his vision, especially since he becomes a clock-punching superstar, while his wife’s slower speed is still “good enough for Arkansas.” Eventually they invite Grandma to join them, and she powers the rest of the plot. I noted as I walked out that there had been no racial prejudice depicted: this film is about a family that happens to be Korean, and their ethnicity does figure into the story, but no more than yours or mine would. They are assisted by a cross-bearing, God-fearing farmhand delightfully brought to life by Will Patton. 


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Acting Residential

April 29, 2019


I think I know the secret identities of the (probably only) four original Residents. In fact, I’m so confident that I’ll name them now: Jay Clem, Homer Flynn, Hardy Fox, and John Kennedy. Four monikers you and I have never heard of. So who cares? Well, that’s kind of the whole point.

That reveal is germane because when these (probably all) boys set out from Shreveport, Louisiana (one Resident may be from Texas) for the West Coast, to live the bohemian life among like minds that didn’t much exist in the Bayou State, they settled almost immediately on the Theory Of Obscurity. Only the art matters. Only the work. The cult of celebrity demeans and dilutes the end product by its very nature. Therefore we will forever remain anonymous, and go to great lengths to preserve that state. It’s as if Clark Kent were in reality a black hole: there they are, up there live on stage, but they steadfastly decline to acknowledge identity, and that’s why they always wear disguises in public. Sia is working the same street nowadays, but The Residents paved it a very long time ago. Their road work began about 1970.


Devotees believe the soon-to-be Residents came from the visual arts, oriented toward images intended for the optic nerve. (More on eyeballs later.) Arriving in a Bay Area that had already upchucked the excesses of the Summer of Love, they noticed that popular music was reorienting itself from the anything-goes era of Hendrix and Zappa toward a Laurel Canyon-lite soft sound. Icky! They found some instruments and a place to record them and produced avant-garde (actually more like en garde!) tracks that deconstructed the barriers between the givers and receivers of music, as the Fugs had done in New York years earlier. Legend has it that a major label declining their anonymously submitted demo tape sent it back addressed to “Residents.” Aha. A band name!


The original Residents — I say that because there’s no telling just how many different people of either gender have performed or created with or as The Residents over the years — were conceptual artists; they have never professed to be accomplished musicians. Heavily influenced by such mavericks as Captain Beefheart and the Sun Ra Arkestra, they produced freewheeling audio tracks that were energetic, dissonant, thought-provoking, offputting, funny, freaky, fascinating, difficult, and utterly unique in American culture. But although they have released dozens of albums and performed these compositions in live shows, it’s not quite accurate to think of The Residents as a “band.” Again, they are primarily visual artists, and their media are multi.


They were true pioneers of music video (some of their work is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, where The Residents have been represented in five exhibitions) and digital media (they did two acclaimed discs for Voyager back when CD-ROM was the Hot New Thing). Yet if you leaf through The Residents’ audio catalog, you will nevertheless find among the outre screeching some interesting slices of Americana: covers of songs by Elvis, Hank Williams (they perform “Kaw-Liga” under a sample of the opening beats from Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”), even John Philip Sousa. And rising from the gleeful cacophony, their remarkable 2002 album DEMONS DANCE ALONE is one of the most sensitive reactions to 9/11 that I’ve ever heard. So their sonic creations are not without meaning. In fact, an indicator I once employed to quickly evaluate the savvy of any newly visited record store, back when there was such a thing, was to head straight to the Rs. (The Virgin Megastore that opened in the Times Square building which also housed my employer, Bantam Books, was outstanding in this regard.)


But The Residents are, above all, provocateurs. Their most famous stage costume features formal top hat and tails, white tie, elegant cane — and a giant veined eyeball mask covering each Resident’s head. They want you to stare back at them just as hard.

The most amazing thing about The Residents is that, without the slightest care for fashion, they have been making a living producing art on their terms for almost fifty years now. How long can one swim upstream? Yet here they still are.


But we may have arrived at an inflection point. Sadly, last November, Hardy Fox, longtime president of The Residents’ business entity, the Cryptic Corporation, passed away at 73. The other three gentlemen named above have also been Cryptic officers. You can see them all interviewed in the wonderful Residents documentary THEORY OF OBSCURITY. They “work for” The Residents, to whom they always refer in the third person. Who knows who’s up on stage these days? (It’s probably not septuagenarians.) And who knows how the collective’s creative output has been derived? Maybe Hardy’s death will finally break up the group, or maybe Obscurity Theory will allow it to continue as long as it wants. I so admire how these stalwarts have carved themselves a place in the culture despite all odds, despite all evens, despite everything. I’d tip my hat, but the eyeballs below it are far too small.


P.S. To hear a curated sample of The Residents’ music, check out the 2017 compilation 80 ACHING ORPHANS, with extensive liner notes by Homer Flynn. To see their amazing and sometimes disturbing music videos, get ahold of the compilation DVD, ICKY FLIX.  


My Sundance 2019

February 11, 2019


We played tag with the polar vortex this year: we barely got out of Dodge and spent an hour on the tarmac as horizontal snow poured, plows worked the runway, and we were de-iced. The next day there were subzero wind chills in New York, but we were already out West, where we missed a huge snowfall and came back just before Park City slipped into the teens. By that time it was damn near balmy back home. I like weather that cooperates.


THE TOMORROW MAN*** (World Premiere) The first feature by Noble Jones, a veteran of music videos and second-unit crews (including THE SOCIAL NETWORK). It’s a romance, fairly b-flat in structure, but with one interesting twist: the couple are seniors. John Lithgow is an end-of-the-world “prepper” who spends his money on survivalist goods rather than the medications he needs, and Blythe Danner is still suffering from the long-ago trauma of losing her daughter. These sad sacks clearly need some help, and they find it in each other. There are complications, of course — boy has to lose girl in the classic plot — but they’re back together for a startling ending you’ll remember more than the body of the picture. 


LIGHT FROM LIGHT** An investigator of paranormal events, a single mom who has had dreams that predict the future, is introduced to a new widower who suspects that his wife is haunting their farmhouse. This is a quiet movie which is all about mood, with tightly controlled performances by Marin Ireland and Jim Gaffigan that fairly blend into the east Tennessee setting. Their characters are full of regret but cling to the possibility of discovering something outside their understanding. This film is less chilling than it is calming, and that can wear on the viewer. 


SHARE*** (Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award, Special Jury Award for Achievement in Acting: Rhianne Barreto) Lately there have been interesting attempts by artists to address the effect of social media on youth culture. It’s a phenomenon that’s still developing, but films like SEARCHING, EIGHTH GRADE and INGRID GOES WEST at least manage to propose the topic. Here, a high-school sophomore has too much to drink at a party, and cell-phone videos of her half-dressed and incoherent go viral but she can’t remember a thing. Who took them? Did anything worse happen? Should she bring the law into this situation? Will she ever be able to live it down? Writer-director Pippa Bianco and a delicate performance by Rhianne Barreto peg the girl’s confusion and disorientation as the situation metastasizes at electronic speed. Compellingly, she is surrounded by people with good intentions, including her parents, but it’s as if you first have to identify a problem before you can begin to solve it offline.


THE MUSTANG*** (World Premiere) A hulking convict who shuns human contact enters a rehabilitation program in which prisoners train wild mustangs in the Nevada desert. As he becomes a horseman, he discovers that he can see himself in the eyes of a particularly unruly animal. I guess the astonishing THE RIDER spoiled me, because despite the best efforts of all concerned, I had a little trouble buying the training process: to me, it felt like five minutes or so was missing. One moment he manages to touch his horse, then the cut is to him riding with a saddle — we didn’t get to see any gradual progress. Still, Matthias Schoenaerts does a fine job in the lead, even a lot of convincing riding. Though this is a work of fiction, there are actual programs like this in several states in the Southwest. The mustang as metaphor is a bit on-the-nose, but it contributes to a touching conclusion.


THE FAREWELL***** My favorite movie this year. As a title card explains, it’s “based on a true lie.” The beloved grandmother of an assimilated Chinese-American woman is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, but per Chinese custom her relatives decide not to tell her so that her final days will be happy ones. Instead, they schedule a wedding back in China which will also serve as a reunion — and, secretly, a chance to say goodbye to “Nai Nai.” This situation actually happened to writer-director Lulu Wang (thus the “true lie”), and the notion of grandma giddy with delight at being surrounded by far-off family while everyone else is choking back tears lends itself to both guffaws and sniffles in Wang’s deft hands. Awkwafina is terrific as the director’s surrogate. Much of the picture takes place in China and is in Mandarin with subtitles (the American family is fluent in English but nobody much else is). But despite the exotic location and the language barrier (and of course the central custom which does not translate to the West), you’re constantly made aware of the universality of human experience. You discover much more in common with this Eastern clan than differences: this could be your family. 


TO THE STARS**** In a small Oklahoma town in the mid-Sixties, a mousy schoolgirl strikes up a friendship with the new girl, a charismatic charmer who coaxes her inner self forward. That’s the bare-bones description, but this beautiful film is far more subtle. At the edge of the coming-of-age story is the role of women in what might as well be the Fifties but is soon about to change. The actress Kara Hayward, who plays the nerd, is actually gorgeous, and is debeautified until she can blossom on camera, but we have come to accept that in the fantasy world of the movies. The sublime black-and-white cinematography makes it look as if the picture had been shot during the period. It’s an actor’s piece, with fine work by everyone, but particularly affecting is Tony Hale, playing way against type.


BRITTANY RUNS A MARATHON**** (Audience Award: U.S. Dramatic) A fictionalized version of writer-director Paul Downs Colaizzo’s real-life best friend is a “hot mess” who finally gets tired of fat-shaming and begins training to run the New York City Marathon along with two pals. It doesn’t go smoothly. She is played to perfection by Jillian Bell, who kicks everything off with a brilliant bit of wise-assy rat-a-tat improv as she tears tickets at an off-off-Broadway theater. From there humor and pathos swirl around each other (Colaizzo is an award-winning playwright and it shows) as we cross our fingers in honor of the young woman’s grit and determination. There are some prosthetics used in the earliest scenes, but Bell actually took weight off during the shoot. This is a real crowd pleaser and will be a tonic for anyone who doesn’t yet accept that, yes, you can take charge of your own life.


TROOP ZERO** (World Premiere) This movie is so derivative that you can actually pitch it as a High Concept: “REVENGE OF THE NERDS, but with Brownies.” We’re in rural Georgia in 1977, and a nine-year-old moppet who’s obsessed with space discovers that the winner of the upcoming “Birdie Jamboree” talent show will get to record a message to any ETs for NASA’s Voyager project. At first she tries to join the existing troop, but she’s far too unhip for the snobbish Birdies, so she uses a loophole in their rules to form her own ragtag troop of lovable misfits, etc etc. The flick’s greatest asset is a glowing Mckenna Grace as the young instigator. The likes of Viola Davis, Jim Gaffigan and Allison Janney (as the snooty school principal) cannot rise above the material, which nevertheless may very well be enjoyable and even empowering for girls of the troop’s age.


THE BOY WHO HARNESSED THE WIND**** (World Premiere) (Alfred P. Sloan Prize) A terrific true story of ingenuity and determination, written and directed by Chiwetel Ejiofor, who makes you mad that somebody who looks that good can also be that talented. A young boy in Malawi, raised by hardscrabble farmers (the director plays his father), shows tremendous aptitude in school, particularly in the area of electronics. When forest-clearing and poor weather conspire to cause a famine, he researches a possible solution in the school library, even surreptitiously after he is expelled because his parents can no longer afford tuition. Ejiofor draws a heartbreaking picture of a good man who understands the value of education for his children, but has no time for theoretics when he’s trying to stave off starvation. Dick Pope’s location cinematography is gorgeous, and Maxwell Simba in the title role is a real find. 


EXTREMELY WICKED, SHOCKINGLY EVIL AND VILE*** (World Premiere) The documentarian Joe Berlinger dramatizes the multi-state rampage of pretty-boy serial killer Ted Bundy, with pretty-boy Zach Efron doing the acting honors. But for the most part the camera averts its eye from murder and mayhem in favor of Ted’s longtime relationship with single mom Liz Kloepfer (Lily Collins), who only gradually begins to realize that the wonderful, daughter-loving law student she’s been seeing might actually be a vicious sociopath. Efron’s Bundy seems over the top until some of the actual footage (his murder trial in Florida was the first one covered by a camera) during the end-credit roll reveals that, as far as the public appearances, Berlinger is more replicating than inventing. The title comes from the mouth of Bundy’s judge, played here by John Malkovich. This movie is well made but only intermittently interesting, unless you really care to know what it was like to be Ted Bundy’s girlfriend. Bundy’s dual personality (he’s a lady-killer in more ways than one, but only the public face is presented here: you have to infer the monster) gives Efron a lot to chew on, and he masticates his ass off.


THE REPORT**** (World Premiere) Behind the scenes as Senate staffers investigate the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program instigated after 9/11. Adam Driver plays Daniel Jones, a driven aide to Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening, very fine), who becomes ever more scandalized by the use of “EIT,” or “enhanced interrogation techniques,” the CIA’s infamous euphemism for torture. Writer-director Scott Z. Burns shows just enough horrifying EIT in flashback to give us the idea without descending into torture porn, but this is mainly a bureaucratic battle, one yobbo against a powerful army of stonewalling spooks. The great Ted Levine is the film’s smarmy bad guy — the CIA director! As we now know, EIT are brutal, immoral and ineffective, even though there are still some die-hard fans today (Donald Trump seems to be one). I knew very little about the machinations behind how we came to understand the atrocities which were once perpetrated in our names, and though this is not a documentary, it gave me a better idea of the enormity of the struggle.


LATE NIGHT**** (World Premiere) A charming confection that should be very popular, thanks to star power and a familiar subject: tv talk shows. In this movie fantasy world, there is a female late-night host, played by Emma Thompson with hilarious crotchety imperiousness (she assigns numbers to her writers so she won’t have to remember their names). She has had a long, successful run but is showing signs of creative decay, so is goaded into a writers-room “diversity hire,” a funny young woman of color played by the movie’s screenwriter, Mindy Kaling. You can tell where the story’s going to go within the first five minutes, but it’s still fun to see it happen, and Thompson is obviously having a wonderful time as the Cruella de Vil of television. The script is very sharp and full of insider authenticity. It’s the closest thing to a commercial slam-dunk that I saw this year.


THE SOUVENIR* (Grand Jury Prize: World Dramatic) One of those jury mysteries that reminded Sundance old-timers of the notorious PRIMER, which inexplicably won two awards fifteen years ago. This turgid, improvisatory goulash is about a naive filmmaker who has the misfortune to share her first love affair with a horrible person who soaks her dry financially and emotionally. The actress is Tilda Swinton’s daughter, and mom also appears. Watching this movie is a debilitating chore; it feels twice as long as it is. And for one final shock, get this: according to IMDb, there’s a sequel in pre-production!


ONE CHILD NATION**** (Grand Jury Prize: U.S. Documentary) A fascinating and frightening documentary on the effects of China’s One Child Policy, which forcibly restricted family size for more than thirty years for fear of overpopulation, but was then rescinded when it had the opposite effect. Directors Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang emphasize the tragedy visited on individual human beings. The concept of being prohibited from raising more than one child is almost incomprehensible to Americans, but the loss of that freedom is only the first of the consequences, many of them horrific. Forced sterilization is rampant. Unauthorized infants, nearly all girls, are abandoned in public markets so frequently that a cottage adoption industry forms. One woman who was responsible for thousands of state-sponsored abortions, even murders, bears such a burden that she became a midwife and now strives to bring forth lives that she once ended. The relentless propaganda machine that supported this policy is on view, with freshly-scrubbed performers spouting the party line in song. Wang, a new mother herself, has her child in tow as she learns secrets from her own family’s past, making her investigation intensely personal. An eye-opening revelation about a holocaust that happened under Westerners’ radar.

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CLEMENCY**** (Grand Jury Prize: U.S. Dramatic) A searing drama about capital punishment. It begins with a botched execution, shown in detail so we get familiar with the procedure, which will be vital at the climax. Alfre Woodard is the female (a nice touch, courtesy of director-screenwriter Chinonye Chukwu) warden of a maximum-security prison, and she has presided over so much sanctioned carnage that it’s eating away at her soul. It’s becoming harder to snap out of it and relate to her husband (a terrific Wendell Pierce). Meanwhile, the next final date is looming for an inmate with whom the warden is forming a personal bond — always counterindicated on death row. Prison dramas are full of meaty parts, but I was really struck by Aldis Hodge as the inmate; he’s been working for some time now but I’d never seen him before. He’s sensational in this flick. Chukwu maintains a foreboding intensity that never lets up, even when we mercifully escape the prison for domestic scenes at the warden’s home. A fine job.


KNOCK DOWN THE HOUSE*** (Audience Award: U.S. Documentary) A fly-on-the-wall look at the long-shot candidacies of four women in the 2018 midterm elections. We watch them campaigning, speaking, working the phones, juggling home life with the all-consuming challenges they have accepted. The bad news is that three of the women — Amy Vilela in Nevada, Cori Bush in Missouri and Paula Jean Swearengin in West Virginia — lost their elections. The good news is that the fourth is New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. I assume there’s lots of unused footage of the first three candidates, but Ocasio-Cortez’s stunning victory over ten-term incumbent Congressman Joe Crowley was the biggest upset of the year and, with the full benefit of hindsight, she dominates the movie. One thing all four women had in common were patronizing, well-connected opponents; another was the fierce conviction that the system was broken and that the solution was ordinary citizens presenting themselves for office. They were right: even the valiant campaigns of the losers make you feel better about your country.


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My NYFF 2018

October 15, 2018


The New York Film Festival is a major fest in historical importance if not ballyhoo. NYFF was crucial in introducing American audiences to revolutions in world filmmaking that were themselves often inspired by Hollywood history. NYFF has never bestowed any awards. For 56 years it has chosen no more than thirty films for its annual “Main Slate,” with other goodies scattered about. It doesn’t really compete with Cannes, Venice, Telluride or Toronto for world premieres, though each year there are a few. Nearly all screenings are held on the close-knit Lincoln Center campus; at most other festivals you have to factor travel into your daily plan. But here, if you have the time, you can theoretically see everything on the Main Slate. “North American Premiere” means the film probably played at Cannes or Venice. “U.S. Premiere” means it probably played in Toronto. Here are the ones I saw this year:


THE FAVOURITE**** (Festival Opening Night) I expected something a little more bizarre from Yorgos Lanthimos, who brought us DOGTOOTH, THE LOBSTER, and even THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER. But as the film spooled, I realized the transgressive director was allowing 18th-century England to be its own dramatic geek. Courtly dances turn lewd and anachronistic. The foppish male fashion that BARRY LYNDON tut-tuts becomes leering, even menacing. And the three females who control the piece are each iconoclastic and riveting. There’s Rachel Weisz as the scheming Duchess of Marlborough and Emma Stone as a former lady turned servant, each competing for the favor of the triumphant Olivia Colman as Queen Anne. Things are just a little “off” throughout, aided by the repeated use of an extreme wide-angle (“fisheye”) lens to make squared turns appear curved. This picture won the Grand Jury Prize at Venice this year, and Colman won a well-deserved Best Actress award. The relative restraint might be Lanthimos’s ticket to serious award consideration; he’s long been one of the most exciting directors on the planet, but here he plays nicer than usual.


HER SMELL*** (U.S. Premiere) Elisabeth Moss abases herself a la Charlize Theron as the demon-battling 90s-era front for a female alt-rock band: Amy Winehouse? Courtney Love? She’s past her creative prime and so zonked out that she’s near insane. (That’s GLOW’s “She-Wolf,” Gayle Rankin, as her drummer.) We meet her band at a club date, and I actually thought I’d never make it through two whole hours: the segment is all short hand-held shots, as if Michael Bay had done a whole gram of cocaine before taking a camera into CBGB. But that’s only the first of Alex Ross Perry’s five acts, each shot in its own distinct cinematic style. Moss is the main reason to watch, and although it may be hard to believe while enduring the first gonzo hour, there is a narrative arc. Bad: I thought it was a tad too long — the lead character isn’t the only one guilty of self-indulgence. Good: the actors are actually performing the musical numbers; no fakery here. 


MONROVIA, INDIANA**** (U.S. Premiere) Frederick Wiseman is one of the most influential film documentarians in history. He invented — ok, maybe just refined — the fly-on-the-wall style of cinema verite: no narration, nothing to guide you through the “truth” he stitches together in what he concedes is a subjective process, which is only realized in post-production. For this one, the TITICUT FOLLIES and EX LIBRIS maestro spent ten weeks in a small Indiana town. Tribal viewers might be expecting scorn or defense, but no. The most profound takeaway is that aside from references to local high schools and universities, this could have taken place most anywhere. We go to the barber shop, Lions Club, hog farm, combine auction, tattoo parlor, grain elevator, gun store, etc etc etc. The only politics we see are at the Monrovia Festival, sort of a mini-state fair where the county Republicans have a booth, but Wiseman himself strives to remain above it all. The 88-year-old director introduced the film and stayed for a q&a afterward. It was thrilling to be in the same room with him.


WILDLIFE*** The directorial debut of actor Paul Dano, who adapted the Richard Ford novel with his partner, actor-playwright Zoe Kazan. In Montana in the late Fifties, a peripatetic young family finds its life upended when the father loses his job and, after a desperate search, leaves home to join an ad-hoc group of men hired to fight fierce mountain wildfires for a dollar an hour. The mother grows restless before the son’s distraut eyes. Carey Mulligan (whose film this basically is) and Jake Gyllenhaal are superb as the parents, as is Bill Camp as a car dealer who gets into the mix, but the real find is a sensational 14-year-old Aussie named Ed Oxenbould, meaning two of the three family members are faking their Yank accents. Dano (and/or Kazan; it’s often hard to tell whether a movie’s directorial moment was already there on the page) make assured and interesting cinematic choices throughout. I’ll be in line for their next one.


NON-FICTION**** Olivier Assayas’s new film is a dialogue-driven, actor-centered story in and about the world of book publishing, a realm of which I have some personally acquired knowledge. Turns out book people in Paris are talking about the same things we are here: the encroachment of the digital revolution on the printed word, e-books vs. physical books, the rise of the audiobook, and the very future of reading for pleasure. There’s an old-fashioned noble publisher, a tiresome author whose “auto-fiction” is a thinly veiled recital of his own life, a cyber-savvy publicist, a political operative, a cop-show actress — the movie is chiefly about how people deal with fundamental change, but since it’s also a French sex comedy, everybody’s sleeping with everybody else. A really fine cast is led by the radiant Juliette Binoche (who is name-checked in the fictional story for the movie’s biggest howling laugh). Tons of serious and vital conversation pass rat-a-tat, but the tone remains light and breezy enough to entertain without in-group pedantry.


DIVIDE AND CONQUER: THE STORY OF ROGER AILES*** In my book, Newt Gingrich and Roger Ailes are modern America’s two biggest scoundrels: they are more responsible than anyone else for the sorry state of political discourse we suffer through today. (Before his “service” is done, Mitch McConnell will likely join this sleazy pantheon.) Alexis Bloom’s documentary has one advantage journalist Gabriel Sherman didn’t when he published his bio THE LOUDEST VOICE IN THE ROOM in 2014: Roger Ailes’s world came tumbling down soon afterward, and his final ignominies are all here on screen. “I’m glad it happened while he was still alive,” muses one wronged woman. Using clips from Ailes’s storied history and strategic talking heads (including actor-director Austin Pendleton, an old friend from grade school in Ohio), Bloom pieces together the career of one of the most darkly influential media figures of our age. Not only did Ailes enable Nixon, Reagan, both Bushes and Donald Trump, he will forever be remembered as the creator and show runner of the Fox News Channel, an enterprise which utterly transformed America. He was first an entertainment tv producer, then a political media consultant, then he founded a cable channel — but it wasn’t Fox News. “America’s Talking” was his first love, a 24-hour all-talk network featuring many future Fox stars. Ailes even hosted a show himself; we see him awkwardly dancing with Cyndi Lauper. But when Bill Gates bought the channel and turned it into MSNBC, Ailes flew into a permanent rage and vowed revenge. Then he joined forces with Rupert Murdoch, and the rest is sordid history. This story has been told before, but it’s interesting to see it on a screen, Ailes’s lifelong medium. We also get the best look at his bullying takeover of a sleepy little community in Putnam County, New York; the locals’ relief when Fox News’s Playboy-Club atmosphere finally brought Ailes down is palpable, though they’re too nice to gloat on camera. Roger Ailes turned “firing up the crazies,” as one former Fox News employee puts it, into the billions in profit which insulated him from justice for nearly two decades. He’s gone now, but his creation is still serving red meat to red states, causing permanent high blood pressure in the body politic.


HIGH LIFE*** (U.S. Premiere) Claire Denis’s first English-language feature (while Olivier Assayas goes back to French-speaking) is not a science fiction film, she told us after the screening, even though it’s set in deep space. (Why English? “Nobody speaks French in space.”) The cold dark reaches surround a metallic-blue environment (it looks, sounds and feels reminiscent of Tarkovsky’s SOLARIS) in which a group of criminals have been enlisted to head toward a black hole to harness its energy for use back on Earth. That’s it with the science fiction. We start with a man (Robert Pattinson) alone in the void with a baby. Through shock-cut flashbacks, placed out of sequence so as to be impenetrable at first, we piece together the history of this voyage and peek at the planet-bound lifetime that once was. Denis cuts through the ennui with startling bursts of passion and violence, while the spacefaring vessel attains its metaphorical purpose as sole bulwark against the vast uncaring void. As with SOLARIS, this will be far too slow and imprecise for some viewers to embrace, but there’s so much to think about, plus you have a great layered Pattinson performance — he’s really quite the actor — and some more Juliette Binoche, as a, um, spirited scientist.


ROMA***** (Festival Centerpiece) This year’s Golden Lion winner at Cannes is sensational. It’s a semi-autobiographical remembrance from Alfonso Cuarón, a year in the life of a Mexico City middle-class family circa 1970. A key figure helping to bind the family together is the beloved live-in nanny and housekeeper, played incandescently by Yalitza Aparicio. The story is confident, cadenced and unforced, calling forth a host of heart-tugging moments. You tend to forget that the director was a witness and participant (you cannot in RAY & LIZ, below), but with all the normal difficulties, this is still the kind of solidly nurtured childhood which produced a talented and observant artist. Interestingly, the main focus is not really on the children until the last act, when they become protagonists. It’s more of an eventful year for the adults, often beyond the youngsters’ knowledge. Cuarón’s black-and-white cinemascape is superb, as is an innovative sound design that focuses our hearing on what we can see: off-screen audio registers off-ear. Though there are many surprises, nothing feels artificial or out of place, despite the fact that the camerawork is executed with Kubrickian precision; as it should, the art overpowers the craft. Before the screening, the director brought out key crew and cast, then introduced the real-life person who inspired Aparicio’s character. From the balcony of Alice Tully Hall, we could still tell that this tiny woman onstage was a bundle of grit, spunk and heart, and the picture hadn’t even rolled yet. 


ASAKO I AND II**** (U.S. Premiere) If I only had 15 seconds to oversimplify Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s new one, I’d tell you it’s a love story that issues forth from a bent Japanese take on VERTIGO, only this time the identicals are the males. Cute earnest Asako falls for hip foxy DJ Baku in Osaka, but he vanishes abruptly, breaking her heart. Two years later, in Tokyo, she meets Ryohei, a dead ringer for Baku, a buttoned-down executive for a sake brewer who is Baku’s emotional opposite in warmth and devotion. At first she’s interested because of the resemblance (she understandably mistakes him for a cleaned-up Baku at first meeting), but gradually Ryohei wins her over. Still, how can she forget her bad-boy lover (who has gone on to become a famous supermodel) when she’s reminded of him at home every day? And then Baku returns. There are delicious unexpected emotional beats as this story works its way forward and the ensemble is delightful, but I must note the superb work of male lead Masahiro Higashide as both Baku and Ryohei. Talk about inhabiting your role(s): his work distinguishing the two men is so subtle that he actually makes you suspect the casting office found identical twins. Even when they “both” appear in the same scene, the effect is gorgeous.


RAY & LIZ** (U.S. Premiere) A grueling 1:47 spent with some loathsome lower-class British yobbos whom I never want to meet again. However, I did meet one just after the screening, for this is photographer and first-time film director Richard Billingham’s dramatic memory of his own family, hyper-dysfunctional but not in an amusing way. I give the man huge props just for surviving. But that doesn’t make this film any easier to digest, opening as it does with a sadistic act of cruelty visited on a defenseless victim and giving us no room to breathe thereafter. The most heartbreaking line comes from the actor who represents Mr. Billingham himself: as his younger brother is mercifully taken away from their rank existence into the state’s care, he asks the case worker, “Can I go to a foster home too?” Anyone who doesn’t understand the searingly personal nature of this film — that is, most everyone — will find it an almost prohibitively tough watch.


COLD WAR**** In 1949, a musician goes around to spots in rural Poland to find authentic ethnic songs and performers, Alan Lomax-style. He’s putting together a troupe that will bring Polish music and dance to popular audiences. It’s all smiles during the audition and training process, but then he falls for a talented blonde beauty ten years his junior, and life gets even more complicated when the Stalinist authorities badger him into featuring party-friendly content. We follow the maturation of this troupe, the girl, and the troubled but genuine love affair through the Fifties as they play the capitals of Europe and battle the political forces behind the Iron Curtain. The music is fantastic and actually becomes part of the story. Authentic Polish folk tunes, introduced at the top, reappear under different guises; one of the first ones we hear is skillfully morphed later into a sultry Julie London-type jazz piece. Writer-director Paweł Pawlikowski’s sure hand propels the narrative with a series of blackouts, so the passage of time is instantaneous, and he gets knockout work from stars Joanna Kulig and Tomasz Kot. The gorgeous black-and-white cinematography (it seems b&w is the new color this year: besides, as the director noted, “Cold War Poland was not a colorful place”) is breathtaking. This is an Amazon Studios release; put it on your watch list.


THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS**** (North American Premiere) If you liked the Coen brothers’ last one, HAIL, CAESAR!, then this is a similar romp, but it’ll help if you also liked FARGO, because in all its warped hilarity this movie is likewise suffused with sudden violent death. It’s an anthology of six short films, each set in the old West but each inhabiting its own milieu. The curtain-raiser is the wildest, with a perfect Tim Blake Nelson as the title character, a fourth-wall-breaking, white-hatted singing cowboy who also happens to be one of the most vicious gunmen you’ve ever seen. We also watch James Franco hilariously botch a bank robbery, and there’s Liam Neeson as the impresario of a traveling-show oratorical wonder, Tom Waits as a preternaturally determined prospector, Zoe Kravitz as part of a wagon train to Oregon, and a stagecoach full of character actors headed to a spooky destination. The humor is barbed and the picture is stuffed with surprises. A couple of the endings are even heartbreaking, but you’ll never be able to see them coming. What this film is actually about is not the West itself, but Western movies. It deliberately plays with the Hollywood conventions that we’ve all become accustomed to. This movie is wildly entertaining, the writing and acting are superb, and it looks beautiful. It’s uneven by definition — remember, it’s six disparate 20-odd-minute films and I had distinct preferences — but the two hours fly by. It’s still weird to see the Netflix logo on something as A-listy as this, but filmmakers are getting adequate budgets and a wider day-and-date release than they could ever have otherwise. 

WISH I’D SEEN: AMERICAN DHARMA, ASH IS PUREST WHITE, IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK, CARMINE STREET GUITARS, MY DINNER WITH ANDRE (on a big screen; I only know it from home video), THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND (I trust I’ll get the chance somehow), WATERGATE (too long to fit in)

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Yankee Go

September 20, 2018


Go is somewhat like cricket in that it’s played enthusiastically elsewhere in the world but it hasn’t really caught on in America. Some devotees are trying to change that, and they are the main subjects of Will Lockhart and Cole D. Pruitt’s wonderful documentary THE SURROUNDING GAME, now streaming on Netflix.

Go is deceptively simple in principle, maddeningly complex in practice. It uses a 19-by-19 grid, and the rules can be meaningfully described in just one sentence: “You may place your stone (playing piece) on any point (intersection) on the board, but if I surround that stone, I may remove it.” When it becomes mathematically impossible to alter the outcome, the player controlling the most stones is the winner. 

The game originated in China and has been played for at least 2500 years. In fact, it was considered one of the four essential arts of the Chinese scholar-gentleman: music, calligraphy, painting, and Go. There are millions of Go players, but almost all of them live in the far East, particularly in Japan, which formalized the version we use today. The highest skill level belongs to professionals, who learn to play as young children and devote their lives to the game. The main story arc of the movie is the attempt by top players to win a national tournament and become the first American Go professional. 

These guys — and nearly all of them are guys — are obsessed with and humbled by the game. Take a look at a board midway through and you’ll sense that Go is many, many times more complex than chess (on its wimpy 8-by-8 surface). The possibilities with every move are orders of magnitude greater. Go is a series of little neighborhood skirmishes, but they’re happening all over the board, everywhere you look. If you’re not thinking ten, twenty moves ahead, a competent player will clobber you, and it’ll come as a surprise as you watch him pocket your stones. 

Watching the Go players in the movie, I was struck by certain similarities to backgammon, an even older game. I’ve played enough backgammon now that I don’t think of numbers on the board any more, but shapes. That’s one level of sophistication, and the big Go players are using this same kind of cognition; a move just “looks right.” But people who play backgammon for money have to think another step ahead because the game relies on chance, the rolling of dice. (Bobby Fischer hated backgammon for this reason: he couldn’t control the outcome simply with sound play.) So they have internalized the mathematical likelihood of each possible die roll. They are playing the odds. The worst backgammon player in the world can beat the best one in a single game with lucky rolls, but over time, any actual money will migrate to the wallet of the pro.

Top Go players seem to be regarding visual patterns as well, but of course there’s no luck involved, and they’re thinking far ahead, as a chess player does. Toward the end of the film, a group visits the elderly master Go Seigen in Japan. The fragile expert visibly brightens when the board is set before him. He sees an early move and calls it “strong” — and there’s nothing anywhere near the stone. He points out other “strong” spots on a virtually empty board. Fueled by hard-won experience, his mind is already many moves down the line.

The American players are a rich mix of obsessives — one of them even moved to Korea to study the game full-time (“it’s the one thing I don’t suck at”). But I received a slightly different vibe from them than from their Japanese counterparts. To most of the Americans, Go is more like a sport: it’s about winning, rankings, battle. To the great Japanese players — who are also proud of public acknowledgment of their skill levels — part of their lifelong mission is to communicate the beauty of Go to the rest of us. It’s bigger than they are, and that heartfelt humility in turn elevates them even further.


It’s Lynchtime

August 28, 2018


I’ve been living inside the mind of David Lynch. Strange place to be. Sometimes the offbeat can induce euphoria; other times, only puzzlement. But for Lynch, that’s the whole idea.

I saw ERASERHEAD, Lynch’s first feature film, not all that long after it came out in 1977. It was definitely projected onto a screen but I was long gone from film school by then, and Jackson, Mississippi didn’t have any art houses. So who knows how or where. ERASERHEAD is a black-and-white dreamscape of outre and disturbing images — it was billed, doubtless in exasperation, as a “horror film” — but I distinctly remember the creepiest thing about it was the grim and foreboding sound design, an aspect of filmmaking which Lynch would continue to emphasize throughout his career.


Jack Nance in ERASERHEAD.

I remember regarding ERASERHEAD as the stereotypical Very Good Student Film: avant garde and crammed with bold visual provocations. Many students begin this way (they are hilariously satirized in They Might Be Giants’ song “Experimental Film”), and Lynch was indeed ensconced at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles during the five years he scrambled through production in fits and starts. He was just one of many at the time, and ERASERHEAD was no less baffling to me than the out-there pioneers like Brakhage, Emshwiller and Mekas. What I didn’t realize was that discerning people in the film industry were really responding to it, even more than the hipsters who showed up at midnight screenings. 

One of them was Mel Brooks, who hired Lynch to direct THE ELEPHANT MAN (also in b&w), a big movie that looked great but at first glance had little to do with ERASERHEAD. Now suddenly an A-lister, Lynch nearly lost that status on his next film, an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sprawling science fiction epic DUNE, for which he still regrets bring seduced by a comfortable budget. In Lynch’s view, by surrendering final cut and thus his own vision, he failed twice: once by not finding an audience and again by not believing in the finished product anyway. But despite the flop, he maintained a good relationship with impresario Dino De Laurentiis on DUNE, and that led to the film that put him back on track. 

I had not been paying close attention all this time. I recognized Lynch’s name but I hadn’t grasped a throughline in his work, as I could easily see in, say, Stanley Kubrick. I didn’t care for DUNE, although despite what I saw as frequent ludicrousness there’s still lots to like, and it does grow on you (as with nearly everything Lynch has ever touched). But then came a screening I’ll never, ever forget.

I was a Jackson-area “secret shopper” for a movie theater chain. Twice a month or so, I’d go in, buy some concessions, watch a movie, then go out and back in again for a late show. (They’d reimburse me and pay me to boot. Sweet!) I’d be filling out a checklist later — Did the ticket-taker smile? Did they tear the ticket? etc. — and one of my duties was to go to the front and physically count the house just as the studio logo appeared at the beginning of the feature. If I didn’t feel like sticking around for the second feature, tallying the late-show house was my last chore. But one night something made me stay. I counted fifteen people in the auditorium, most of them middle-aged, and they’d been summoned by a dark display ad with a skin-filled clinch and the words “Blue Velvet” in innocent romantic script. I plunked down as audience member #16. Like the others, I had no idea what to expect.


Dennis Hopper as one of the all-time greatest movie villains, with Isabella Rossellini in BLUE VELVET.

In case you haven’t seen BLUE VELVET, I’m going to try to avoid spoilers, but it takes place in a romanticized Anytown U.S.A. that looks like it belongs in a Fifties sitcom: perhaps ironically, perhaps not. Yet there is a deep noir undercurrent of sexuality and violence that reveals itself first gradually and then explosively with the arrival of Dennis Hopper, who plays a dervish of pure malevolence. His first scene, maybe twenty minutes in, is so jaw-droppingly off the scale that it cleared the house that night. There was only one person remaining by the time Hopper exited: me. And as the credits rolled past your shaken servant an hour and a half later, I had one basic question: what kind of mind could possibly dream up something like this? David Lynch was now officially on my radar. And next up was his single most famous creation. Of all things, this crazy guy got a television series.


“Lynch’s work resides in the complicated zone where the beautiful and the damned collide,” writes Kristine McKenna in a wonderful new “biography,” ROOM TO DREAM. It’s also an “autobiography” because McKenna and Lynch trade chapters: she’ll objectively discuss one phase of his career and then he’ll go over the same timeframe in first person, sometimes even disagreeing with his co-author’s sources. He is “sensitive to the entropy that instantly begins eating away at every new thing.” Like Tim Burton, perhaps a creative cousin, Lynch is first and foremost an artist, in the drawing sense. But where Burton typically wraps an eccentric and enjoyable sensibility around an established pattern or genre, Lynch’s dream-logic becomes its own art form, in any medium which can contain it. Once you sync in, you must succumb, but the lushness and brassiness of Lynch’s images make it easy.

Judging from this book, Lynch had a happy, stable childhood, though he says he was “longing for something out of the ordinary to happen.” He was born in Montana and spent significant years in Boise, Idaho (as did another artistic anomaly, Matthew Barney). He was a popular, charming kid and had many good friends of both genders. David was fourteen when his father, a research scientist, was transferred from their beloved Boise to Alexandria, Virginia, and the culture shock was challenging. But here he met his lifelong best friend, Jack Fisk, and his first mentor in “the art life,” Bushnell Keeler. Since then, Lynch has been creating visual art in nearly every waking moment. His journey into film began in an art studio, when he imagined ”a little wind” in his own painting of lush green foliage. 


Lynch often presents bucolic images against phantasmic, almost hallucinatory counterpoints. TWIN PEAKS is set in a little Pacific Northwest logging town, postcard-perfect like BLUE VELVET’s, which is immediately rent by the discovery of a homecoming queen’s corpse in the series’s first moments. It’s a slightly askew attitude that surprised and fascinated the audience: in the TWIN PEAKS universe, the banal is remarkable (at one point a man silently sweeps the floor of a barroom for two and a half long minutes, but there’s method to the madness) and the remarkable is banal (a woman carries a small log around everywhere she goes and claims it communicates to her, yet nobody thinks anything of it). 


Catherine E. Coulson as the Log Lady.

TWIN PEAKS wraps the soap opera form around a murder mystery, but its out-there viewpoint made it a water-cooler sensation when the first nine episodes aired in 1990. It pervaded the culture. If you saw something a little strange, you might toot out the show’s Duane-Eddyish twangy-guitar theme; it became synonymous with that dee-dee-dee-dee TWILIGHT ZONE figure. I was way hooked and I wasn’t alone. But entropy started devouring the show almost immediately. As a flabbergasted ABC found a hit on its hands and ordered a second 22-episode season, Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost were becoming overwhelmed by the petty demands of series tv, such as handing off writing and directing duties. Lynch himself was losing interest in the project as control slipped away, and worst of all, midway through the season they identified the murderer, a plot denouement from which the show never really recovered. It began hemorrhaging its audience. The TWIN PEAKS pop-cultural moment was over. Only diehards remained.

Thing is, though, I missed the comedown. Just before the second season I became a book editor (one who also had lots of catching up to do) and my tv watching time evaporated. I did not see a moment of the second season or a “prequel” feature which Lynch shot immediately after, TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME. Fade out, at least for me, on TWIN PEAKS.


The Red Room, the most bizarre place on television.

Fade in, 25 years later. Showtime (meaning CBS) announces that Lynch and Frost are going to revive the series without the strictures of sponsored tv — no censors, no interruption, no commercials. Lynch and Frost personally wrote and Lynch personally directed all eighteen hours (in which a fictional 25 years have also passed for all the characters) and I had plenty of time to watch them last year. The frisson was back. I was blown away, even though some of it was lost on me. I know this because I deliberately worked on my ignorance by embarking on a TWIN PEAKS odyssey.


A typically Lynchian image. Whaaaa?

Once the new series came to its time-twisting conclusion, I decided to go back and fill in the blanks in strict narrative order. So I watched the prequel movie (set during the week just before the series begins), then the first tv season from 1990, then the second season I’d missed in 1991, and finally I re-screened Showtime’s 2017 third season. It took me a couple weeks shy of a year to make my way through it all. (I didn’t rush myself, sensing that binging on TWIN PEAKS might be injurious.) 

My first takeaway, once I caught my breath, was the hyper-normality that infuses life in Twin Peaks. That’s descended from soap operas, to be sure, but here it’s frequently hard to tell whether “real life” is being celebrated or lampooned. Lynch, who earnestly uses phrases like “peachy keen” in conversation, is no help. Neither is the series’s lead character, “FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper,” played to square perfection by Kyle MacLachlan, also the star of Lynch’s DUNE and BLUE VELVET. Agent Cooper has been sent to town to investigate the murder, and everything delights him: he’s forever rhapsodizing about the coffee, the pie, the smell of douglas firs.


Kyle MacLachlan as Special Agent Dale Cooper.

However, look more closely at this Ward & June Cleaver world and you’ll notice strange things lurking in the shadows, even sinister things. The surreal lives next door to the ordinary. Sometimes the weirdness is funny and sometimes it’s terrifying. The atmosphere remains truly unique to Lynch, even when the intensity noticeably drops during Season Two. That’s when the murderer is revealed and the program flails in search of a compelling storyline. Those quirky eccentricities among the main characters begin to be the show rather than feed the show. But judging from the final few episodes, the creators had no intention of tying things up in a neat package. In fact, the very last shot of Season Two gave us a terrific plot twist…

…which remained unexplored until 25 years had gone by, both on the show and for real. (True fans must have been livid to have been left with such a cliffhanger, but that’s how the cookie crumbled.) 


On my first viewing of Season Three last year, I could tell I was missing little bits of significance because I’d left the story midway through. But it was amazing how well “TWIN PEAKS: THE RETURN” worked for me even out of context. First, there were the amazing hi-def images. I saw INLAND EMPIRE, Lynch’s most recent feature, at the 2006 New York Film Festival, where he told us he didn’t think he’d ever shoot on film again. The freedom and spontaneity of digital photography really paid off on what must have been a massive and grueling shoot: Season Three looks spectacular. And because I was more accustomed to Lynch’s sensibility, I was able to ignore any blind spots and just float down the river with him. About halfway through, I knew I just had to get a deeper perspective by screening the entire epic.

Season Three felt so comfortable because, as much as possible, Lynch and Frost basically got the band back together: key actors and crew members, the eerie atmospherics and hypnotic “dream-pop” of composer Angelo Badalamenti, and a fabulous narrative that plays off the startling premise that fans had been denied for a quarter century. I was of course unschooled, so my second screening of Season Three turned out to be even more fun: in almost every episode there are callbacks to the original series, but lots of them were over my head the first time through. Lynch and Frost did a beautiful job of connecting loose strands from Season Two, the one in which they were largely absent caretakers, and giving them real retroactive significance.


The beginning of an extended passage in S3E8 that gobsmacked everybody.

The eighth episode broadcast by Showtime is a particular amazement. The producers chose it to submit for Emmys (TP earned nine nominations, including for writing, directing and sound design). I’ve never seen anything like it on television. Most of this hour passes without dialogue. After some plot cleanup and a song from Nine Inch Nails at the Twin Peaks “roadhouse,” the rest of the episode depicts the arrival of pure malignant evil on Earth with the “Trinity event,” the first atomic bomb detonation in 1945. When it was over, I started telling people it was like watching outtakes from ERASERHEAD (most of this image-rich section is shown in black and white, for a retro as well as gonzo feel). So, immediately after seeing it, I went back and screened ERASERHEAD again after an even longer span of time had passed. I discovered there was a direct line to TWIN PEAKS — meaning Lynch does indeed have a Kubrickian artistic signature. 

Lynch’s sets are populated by people who have worked with him forever and it’s a tight-knit clan. The star of ERASERHEAD is Jack Nance (he’s appeared in every Lynch film except for the atypical pair THE ELEPHANT MAN and THE STRAIGHT STORY). Nance’s then-wife was Catherine E. Coulson, who was the assistant director and Lynch’s right hand on the film; she went on to play the Log Lady in TWIN PEAKS, which uses other crew members who’ve also been with Lynch since ERASERHEAD. There’s the famous Red Room zigzag carpet design (a bit of TWIN PEAKS iconography) in Lynch’s very first feature. It’s the same mind.


The zigzag carpet, long before TWIN PEAKS.

That’s why TWIN PEAKS, in particular that gorgeous third season, is so exciting. Season Three is nothing less than an eighteen-hour David Lynch film, divined so freely that Showtime execs had no idea how many episodes there would be when they agreed to the project. Something like this will probably never happen again, because it’s already been established that when Frost and Lynch take their hands off the wheel, the work suffers. Lynch has earned the right to relax a little (he won’t) and suck on some of his beloved Lynch-Bages. (I’d probably love Dupree-Bages if such a thing existed.) But judging from ROOM TO DREAM, he hasn’t stopped moving yet.

David Lynch just makes me feel better. Following his career, I’m gratified that a man can assume “the art life” and continue on that personal path no matter what. No matter the public reception, the strictures of his chosen industry, the lack of resources, or any of the other gremlins which get in the way of most people and stand between them and their vision. This guy makes works of art that are all his own — and they’re nothing if not peachy keen.


Lynch in his hilarious TP role as Agent Cooper’s boss, the near-deaf Deputy Director Gordon Cole.

Fifty Years Ago, The Future

May 31, 2018


If you like movies, you’ll periodically be delighted, surprised, tickled, thrilled, even amazed at the talent of the people who put them together. But only twice in my life have I walked out of a screening absolutely gobsmacked — emotionally flattened, finding it difficult to fully process what I’d just seen. The first happened just about this time of year exactly half a century ago, when some friends and I first saw 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY.

A carload of college chums drove from Jackson, Mississippi to New Orleans — a three-hourish trip — to the Martin Cinerama, for 2001’s original 70mm “road show” engagement. We saw the movie and then we drove three more hours back (we collegians hadn’t enough dough for anything else). But that return trip was almost completely devoted to awed conversation which is most accurately rendered as: “Holy shit!” In other words: minds blown, it was frickin worth it.

2001 was now the best movie I’d ever seen by leaps and bounds, a position challenged only once, about four years later, by a 16mm print of CITIZEN KANE in a grad-school film history class. Nothing else since has even come close. I’ve probably seen the flick twenty times by now and I feel like I know it pretty well. I’ve read every snippet I could find about it. So imagine my surprise when a new book for 2001’s fiftieth anniversary managed to take me to school dozens of times with endlessly fascinating arcane details. Michael Benson’s SPACE ODYSSEY is the only book on the subject you’ll ever need. 

Stanley Kubrick was on my radar for making the hilarious and transgressive DR. STRANGELOVE, but that’s all I knew about him. Only that this big-time director had teamed with science fiction titan Arthur C. Clarke to come up with a serious outer-space movie. My card-carrying, propeller-beanie-wearing sf fan’s heart fluttered. Plus, the normally secretive Kubrick had really clamped the lid shut on this production (Mr. Benson explains why). So we knew nothing, and we were dying. Of course we’d drive 200 miles, watch a movie, and drive right back!

The “road show” was how big extravaganzas were introduced back then: BEN-HUR, DR. ZHIVAGO, CLEOPATRA, THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, HOW THE WEST WAS WON, etc. The initial engagement was restricted to larger cities. Reserved seats. An intermission. Printed programs. But this one had the added attraction of Cinerama, large-format film projected onto a giant curved screen to suggest peripheral vision, with audio speakers everywhere for the first surround sound I’d ever heard. We bought our tickets by mail, positioning ourselves in the Cinerama sweet spot, a third back in the dead middle. As we were filing in, this strange spacey “music” (which I now know to be Gyorgy Ligeti’s “Atmospheres”) softly caressed the auditorium because the film was already rolling. It was perfect. You can hear the Ligeti “overture,” just as we did, on the 2007 Warner Bros. Blu-Ray edition, which attempts to replicate the 1968 roadshow experience. Christopher Nolan — an excellent choice — is working on a 4K release for October of this anniversary year, but if you don’t have the gear, then the 2007 Blu-Ray is still your must-own version. We may not have Cinerama to play with any more, but after years of watching 2001 on tiny cathode-ray tubes, we’re finally arriving at large-screen hi-def home-theater tech that better deserves this film.

What we saw and heard was another kind of science fiction, another kind of art itself. 2001 is largely a nonverbal experience. Dialogue is heard for barely a fourth of its 142 minutes; the first spoken words (“Here you are, sir”) occur a full 22 minutes in. The pace is languid (more impatient viewers consider that a bug, but I think it’s a feature) and deliberate. The story begins four million years ago and ends — well, that was the biggest topic on the way back home. And before your eyes is the most authentic-looking (eventually Oscar-winning) simulation of outer space ever put on film. I’ve never seen more convincing space effects in the ensuing half century, not with computerized motion control, not with CGI.


Dan Richter as “Moonwatcher.”

By now 2001 feels so — inevitable, that it’s remarkable to learn from Mr. Benson how many decisions were actually made on the fly. Stanley Kubrick was an intensely driven, naturally curious polymath on whom the term “genius” was not squandered, as we frequently tend to do. His personal aim went beyond excellence and approached perfection, and he demanded the same fierce focus from his colleagues. The book is full of examples of artists and craftsmen striving to please Stanley, when what he really wanted was for them to surpass their presumed capabilities: he was a tyrant who still engendered devotion and even love. Many of 2001’s physical requirements were “impossible” given the technology of the day, so the production had to inquire, improvise and even invent. The many innovations developed for the film could fill a book, and now they have.

Mr. Benson is the ideal guide. Not only has he done voluminous research, but he is also a visual artist and filmmaker as well as a writer — and though he treats 2001 with a true fan’s respect, he’s not above having a little fun with his subject. As Kubrick and Clarke struggled for an ending, in one screenplay draft an “unbelievably graceful and beautiful humanoid” was supposed to approach the lead character and lead him into “infinite darkness.” As Mr. Benson writes, “how to achieve such grace and beauty had been left indeterminate. In any case, it wasn’t just inadequate, it flirted with risibility. Kubrick didn’t do risible.” He compares the creation of the trippy 17-minute “Star Gate” sequence to jazz improvisation among 2001’s “image instrumentalists”: “Like John Coltrane leaning into the mike after Miles Davis was done, [visual effects supervisor Douglas] Trumbull figured he’d take his turn.”

SPACE ODYSSEY is also a bagful of surprises. For example, I already knew that Canadian actor Douglas Rain provided the voice for 2001’s HAL 9000 supercomputer in two days without seeing a foot of film or any lines besides his own. But I didn’t know that Rain was the second actor to play HAL. The first was Martin Balsam, but later the director decided that Balsam had added too much personality and instead chose to go deadpan. Another thing I didn’t realize was that the “breathing” sounds heard when main characters are in their spacesuits were “acted” by the director personally, who recorded about a half-hour’s worth of “respiratory soundscape” wearing one of 2001’s prop helmets. Thus, as Mr. Benson notes in a lovely bit of writing, “as an example of his own handiwork, Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY bears evidence of his own life within it, a small segment of his human soundtrack.” 

The book is stuffed with little mini-dramas. There is mime Dan Richter’s laborious research and choreography for the “Dawn of Man” sequence (he plays “Moonwatcher,” the lead ape). The physical struggle to get daredevil flyover footage for inverted, solarized Star Gate shots, or Namibian landscapes for front-projection plates. The tug of war over Clarke’s companion novel, which Kubrick kept delaying along with the general production. Kubrick’s campaign to keep MGM at bay as the production slid egregiously over budget and behind schedule. The fate of a narration to help “explain,” which Clarke slaved over for years. The agony of would-be composers facing Kubrick’s determination to use the Strauss and Ligeti “temp tracks” he’d already dropped in (in hindsight they’re as right as can be, but the first time Kubrick saw the space-station footage against “The Blue Danube,” he asked, “Do you think it would be an act of genius or the height of folly to have that?”). 


Kubrick (l.) and Clarke on set.

A bit of unexpected lagniappe came my way whenever the book located the production’s New York phases. (2001 was Kubrick’s last project not fully restricted to England.) The first film exposed for 2001 was high-speed footage of drops of colored paint in a tank of black ink and thinner, used in the finale. Kubrick himself operated the camera in an abandoned brassiere factory on upper Broadway, just a few blocks from where I lived when I first moved here 23 years later. Kubrick’s Lexington Avenue penthouse apartment, where lots of 2001 was hatched, was just three streets down from where I’m sitting right now. And years later, following a disastrous first screening, Kubrick trimmed the finished film in the basement of the MGM building on Sixth Avenue: I worked there when I was with the Hearst Book Group. 

Kubrick is the boss, but he’s not always the hero. It took VFX master Doug Trumbull — who learned his craft on this show — decades to forgive the director for including an end-credits card reading “Special Photographic Effects Designed and Directed by Stanley Kubrick.” There was actually a plausible reason for this: Academy rules prohibited more than three people from being considered for a VFX Oscar (same deal with Best Picture producers today), but 2001 had four credited special effects supervisors. So the solo credit probably kept 2001 under consideration, but Kubrick might have petitioned the Academy to bend the rules for such a quantum-leap production. Kubrick personally realized the oil-and-paint “galaxy” effects back on Upper Broadway, and he knew more about teasing results from photographic equipment than most DPs. But the space effects were definitely a collaborative effort, as this book richly illustrates, and he didn’t nail the “Purple Hearts” solarization technique discovered by Bryan Loftus, or Trumbull’s own “slit-scan” machine, both of which provided indelible images for the Star Gate sequence. What Kubrick did get was the only Academy Award he ever won. My impression is that what really stuck in Trumbull’s craw was the word “Designed.”


Doug Trumbull’s “slit-scan” effect.

The most important thing Mr. Benson does for me personally is to finally scratch an itch that has persisted for fifty years. As all true fans know, 2001 was reviled upon its premiere but gradually caught on later. Well, no. That’s not what happened at all. The version which premiered in Washington, D.C. on April 2, 1968 and in New York the next day — crucially, the one that was shown to the nation’s film critics — was 161 minutes long. The dismal reaction (although he wisely kept his mouth shut, even Clarke hated it) traumatized Kubrick and forced him to call for intensive surgery in MGM’s basement OR at good old 1350 Avenue of the Americas, where he delicately excised nineteen minutes. For half a century, I have been dying to see that nineteen minutes. If 2001 is this good, wouldn’t that make it nineteen minutes better?

Mr. Benson has disabused me of that desire. 

We know and love the sequence in which Gary Lockwood jogs and shadowboxes in a 360-degree antigravitational loop — a mind-blowing illusion performed on what was then the largest kinetic set ever constructed. Some people think the scene goes on too long. Well, how about another 360-degree sequence featuring co-star Keir Dullea? The premiere audience saw it. Also, Dullea meticulously prepares for an EVA at the computer’s suggestion. Again, even today some viewers (not me) find the sequence fat. How about doing it yet again with the other astronaut? The filmcrits saw that too. 2001 is so hypnotic that a rapt audience member could even acquiesce to all this. But most others, nuh-uh. Kubrick didn’t know this because he’d never tested the super-secret film with real warm bodies: nobody had seen the virgin reactions of completely objective viewers. Whether MGM forced the cuts or not is unclear, but even Kubrick had to concede they were necessary.

At a trimmer 142 minutes, not only did 2001 immediately roar for MGM at the box office — it was 1968’s highest-grossing film, the only time Kubrick ever achieved #1 — but critics also began changing their minds upon subsequent viewings. Jeez, this is nowhere near as turgid as I remember! The funniest opinion morph, reprinted in Jerome Agel’s 1970 pop-arty THE MAKING OF KUBRICK’S 2001, was Time magazine’s weekly 25-word capsule movie review section from preem to dominance: it was as if different people had written each of eight or ten entries. Ash heap to masterpiece. 

Let’s leave it at masterpiece, for that’s where 2001 sits in my home. Therefore I’m not capable of judging this book objectively. Would it be as compelling to someone who has never seen 2001? Dunno. But only a couple of sentences on physical engineering were beyond me (kudos to the author, who keeps the rest of it earthbound), and I would imagine the fraught journey toward a lasting work of art could interest a seeker from any medium. If you haven’t yet had the pleasure, my strong advice would be to see the movie before you dig any deeper. Get as close to our college-boy innocence as you can. Slow down. Lights off. Breathe. Exhale. Quiet. Still. Now hit play and dig some Ligeti.

10/28/18: Now I’ve seen the 4K transfer. Magnificent. It makes some of the tiny traveling mattes (like the little teeny views of red-lit cockpits) look worse, but almost all the space shots (like the one below) look amazing. Every once in a while you have to pinch yourself and say, this mutha is fifty years old!

11/13/18: Douglas Rain, the voice of HAL, has passed away.


The best damn space effects in film history.

My Sundance 2018

February 10, 2018


Nice weather this year for Sundance filmgoers, not so much for skiiers: a light dusting to make things pretty, but ice-free roads and sidewalks. Everything at the fest — including all 17 films below — is a premiere except for its “Spotlight” series, which screens a few notables previously shown elsewhere on the festival circuit (I saw one of them in New York last fall). But not everything is “in competition” and thus eligible for an award. You just have to get used to it.


A FUTILE AND STUPID GESTURE**** Doug Kenney, co-founder of National Lampoon and co-writer of ANIMAL HOUSE, is a humor-writing idol of mine, much as Brando or James Dean might be to an actor — Doug’s natural blazing talent was off the scale. So don’t expect any objectivity here: the fact that this movie even exists is worth a great deal to me. Director David Wain & co. obviously intended to create the type of biopic Doug himself might have written: arch, irreverent, self-aware. (Doug himself would have probably turned in something about teenage Venusians invading Chagrin Falls, Ohio, but never mind.) One feature he might have admired is the narrator, “Modern Doug,” played by the seventyish Martin Mull. The character itself is a metafiction since the real Doug didn’t last half that long, but he makes possible a current-day take on what is essentially a period piece, that period being the cultural adolescence of the Me Generation. We pick up our hero at Harvard and watch him co-claw the National Lampoon to prominence, then “graduate” to Hollywood excess. All the people around him, some of whom you’ll recognize from real life, are played by actors and comics and improv people who must have agitated to be in this picture. (There are some human Easter eggs too: for example, one of the magazine publishers pitched by the Lampoon is played by Mark Metcalf, better known to ANIMAL HOUSE fans as “Neidermeyer.”) Modern Doug pauses at one point to note that all these actors may not resemble the people they’re playing, but face it, does Will Forte (as movie Doug) really look like he’s in his twenties? He says this as a long list of factual inaccuracies crawls by on the screen too quickly to read. That’s the tone. Everybody, including Forte, is wearing era-appropriate wigs, so it’s a little like attending some perverse NatLamp-themed Halloween party: the only guy who physically falls into his role is Thomas Lennon as the acerbic Michael O’Donoghue. But even so bewigged, Domhnail Gleeson is superb as Henry Beard, Doug’s writing partner on both Lampoons, Harvard and National: he’s the best thing in the movie, nailing his American accent and providing desperately needed human emotion. If you don’t remember these days with fondness, you might not prevail over an hour and half of unrelenting sound and fury. But you can test a small dose right now, because it’s streaming on Netflix.


NANCY** (Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award: Christina Choe) Now that we’ve survived a bout of misogny and infantilism, let’s move on to the main event: chick flicks!!! (Sorry, I promise to shake off all the remaining Doug Kenney dust. There.) A serious subtext this year was, many more films about and/or by women. One day we shall attain that pinnacle at which even Oscar voters renounce their historic snubbing of…fantasy films. (Go, Guillermo!) But until then, this is a notable and welcome wave. I didn’t like this one as much as I liked that it was here, which is only a baby step. Death mercifully frees a mousy, repressed, miserable 35-year-old temp (Andrea Riseborough, whom we will see later at a slightly more flattering angle) from her shrewish adopted mother. Meanwhile, a grieving couple (played with skill and taste by Steve Buscemi and J. Smith-Cameron) hasn’t given up on their 5-year-old daughter, gone missing 30 years ago. A digital construct that shows what the daughter might look like now matches our Nancy perfectly, so she presents herself to the couple. Does she really believe herself the kidnapped lost soul? Might she actually be? Ambiguity abounds, any tension is psychological only, and that vacant look on Nancy’s face is pasted on for the entire running time. After many Sundance screenings over the years, I’m well prepared for grey skies and plot bleakness, but this one failed to move either me or the antiheroine.


THE KINDERGARTEN TEACHER*** (U.S. Dramatic Award for Directing: Sara Colangelo) Again with the antiheroine. Maggie Gyllenhaal is a mousy, repressed, miserable teacher and wannabe writer who discovers a poetic prodigy in her lower Manhattan classroom, a kid who periodically goes into a trance and spits out genius. Her interest inexorably ratchets down into obsession, which consumes her more and more powerfully and leads her to morally ambiguous (non-kid-threatening) acts that would basically make you punch out Teach if it were your family. It’s based on an Israeli film which I haven’t seen. The upside is that this is the type of character dissection that comes completely out of left field; Gyllenhaal owns the screen and really sweeps you up into her own madness as you flail for reasons to empathize with her. But by the time you finally throw up your hands and admit she’s just nuckin futs, the picture is basically over. A minor but hanging beef is that the kid’s poetry, which is supposed to be amazing enough to stun both a writing class and a public audience, was for me just meh, exceptional only because it came from a five-year-old. For this non-poet, it doesn’t work as well on its own, and that’s a critical plot point. A startling bit of MOS dialog is the last thing we hear; nice.


TULLY**** What working actress is braver than Charlize Theron? She shaves her head to race in the desert. She de-glams and gains weight (and gets an Oscar for it). I guess knowing you’re gorgeous must give your ego some room to tear the image down. But I’ve never seen her look more normally human on purpose than here as Marlo, a bloated ninth-month expectant mother. She already has young children, including an emotionally and physically exasperating ADD son, and as the picture opens she’s on the verge of clinical exhaustion and hasn’t even delivered yet. The idea of a “night nanny” to give Marlo some overnight sleep — the nanny will wake her whenever it’s time for feeding — sounds unusual at first, but soon after the baby’s born, young Tully (Mackenzie Davis) shows up at the door. I have to stop here, because screenwriter Diablo Cody is way ahead of us both, but let’s just say the engaging story kept us discussing it that night and into the next day, and will probably have the same effect on you. Both leads show us real chemistry; they are utterly believable and thoroughly charming. This one grows on you — you may well want to see it a second time.


PUZZLE**** A mousy, repressed Connecticut housewife and mother (Kelly Macdonald) discovers that she is a savant at jigsaw puzzling, which quickly becomes her secret passion. This character is particularly interesting because her life is only humdrum, not miserable: it’s grounded in reality and keenly recognizable by the audience. She has a kindhearted if old-fashioned husband (David Denman of THE OFFICE) who owns a garage, and some fine sons, one of whom has his own secret passion. It has never occurred to her that there can be more to life. But when she begins practicing for a doubles competition with a Manhattan tech-fortune maven (a pitch-perfect Irrfan Khan), another dimension opens: her black-and-white world is now in full color. It would be impossible to explain to her family, so she sneaks train trips into the city — and, of course, something’s gotta give. Macdonald’s subtle, delicate performance reminded me of Isabelle Huppert: the movie’s on her shoulders and she carries it beautifully.


BLAZE*** (Special Jury Award for Achievement in Acting: Benjamin Dickey) Ethan Hawke’s adoring biopic of Blaze Foley, the “outlaw country” legend who was better known to fellow musicians than to the general public. Hawke weaves through three separate timelines: the young Foley’s love affair with (co-screenwriter) Sybil Rosen; a drunken but searing live set at Austin’s Outhouse bar; and a nostalgic radio interview with two close friends. The idea of this mashup is better than the result, and if every bit of Blaze’s story is new to you, it might feel somewhat like much ado. What saves the film is onscreen authenticity. Hawke went to the trouble of hiring genuine musicians who really play on camera. Folk singer Ben Dickey goes a great job in the harrowing title role, but for my money the real discovery is Charlie Sexton as Blaze’s friend Townes Van Zandt. (That’s him above.) Sexton is a longtime guitarist in Bob Dylan’s touring band, but you’d swear this natural raconteur was a veteran character actor. He has a great future in movies if anything ever happens to his pickin’ fingers.


EIGHTH GRADE**** A surprise from Bo Burnham, the snarky standup who shined as part of the comic Greek chorus in THE BIG SICK. The surprise is that Burnham displays unabashed, unironic heart and emotion as he follows an eighth-grader through a time of maximum awkwardness. She’s more than a schoolgirl but not quite yet a woman, and thanks to social media she’s part of the first generation that constantly self-documents, probably living far too much of its life in public. Newcomer Elsie Fisher is tremendous in the lead: she makes you laugh and breaks your heart. How can a man write this stuff? Very carefully — but Fisher’s “Kayla Day” is clearly a projection of the director’s own adolescent social ineptitude. At the q&a Burnham noted that it was no problem directing newly teenaged actors: to them it was s.o.p., just another selfie lens. I can’t wait for his next film: he’s good.


HEARTS BEAT LOUD*** (Festival Closing Night) This is a fairly standard story about a taut single father-daughter relationship, but with a big switcheroo. Stereotypically, with her prodigious musical talent she would want to cut the apron strings and blast off into show business. Here her dad is a onetime pro musician who now runs a failing Brooklyn record store, and she just wants to get into pre-med at UCLA. But that voice! As a way of staying connected, he keeps goading her into setting the books down for a regular “jam sesh,” and one day they noodle together the title song, which turns into a minor Spotify hit. The best thing about this picture is the musical numbers: Nick Offerman and Kiersey Clemons are really playing live, and their joy is infectious. An impromptu “concert” in the cramped record store is about as good as it gets on film. Aside from the music this is only a trifle, but it really leaves you in a good place.


BURDEN**** (U.S. Dramatic Audience Award) A tough, gritty dramatization of a true story of racism and redemption that happened in South Carolina in the Nineties. Garrett Hedlund is calmly sensational as Mike Burden, a stepped-on white-trash orphan who discovers a wider world: Hedlund has developed this shrugging, schlumpy gait that makes him look like a whipped dog. When Dixie shit disturber and Mike’s mentor Tom Wilkinson (very scary) opens a “Redneck Museum” celebrating Klan history in a downtown storefront, he’s basically daring the cowed black community to do something suicidal. But nuance is entering Mike’s life in the form of girlfriend and single mom Andrea Riseborough (from NANCY; she was in four movies showing at the fest) and, crucially, a black pastor (Forest Whitaker) who has more Christian values in his little finger than does an entire tv “ministry.” It’s tough to watch at times but it feels right; you get to see prejudice and, uh, clannishness on both sides of the racial divide.


DARK MONEY*** (Sundance Institute/Amazon Studios Producers Award: Katy Chevingy & Marilyn Ness) “Dark money” describes unlimited, anonymous contributions to political parties and even individual campaigns, as long as there’s a pro forma arm’s length. The last shackles were taken off by the Supreme Court’s infamous “Citizens United” decision of 2010 in which unidentified donations were declared a form of free speech. Dark money influences elections everywhere — notably in furious negative postcards that flood mailboxes in the last few days before voting, opposing even conservatives if they don’t toe the corporate line — but it makes nobody madder than Montanans. They outlawed corporate contributions in 1912 after copper barons tried to take over the state using pure cash, and for a century they’ve had some of the strictest laws in the country. Now they are fighting back agains the likes of the Koch brothers as best they can. This documentary wisely concentrates on that one state to give this complex problem a human dimension, even against a constantly shifting opposition of blandly named shell companies which leave as few fingerprints as the law allows (i.e., nearly none). Too many election results are bought and paid for. Recognizing the problem is the first step in resistance.


THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS**** (Special Jury Award for Storytelling) In 1980, three 19-year-old men discovered that they were identical triplets, separated at birth and adopted by three different families. They’d never met each other before but, remarkably, shared numerous personality traits. They became best friends, moved in together, did all the talk shows, ruled glittering Eighties New York nightlife, and opened a successful restaurant. The first half of this documentary takes you inside their joyful reunion, elaborated by talking heads including two of the boys themselves. But then author Lawrence Wright, researching a New Yorker piece on identical twins, makes a discovery that changes everything, and the movie takes an unexpected turn. Don’t read anything else about this before you see it, because the secret I’m dancing around is jaw-dropping. It unfolds like a piece of fiction, but it’s all true. Wonderful.


BEIRUT** This is a fairly standard spy thriller. There’s nothing particularly wrong with it, but there’s nothing special about it either. Jon Hamm is a U.S. diplomat in Lebanon in the Seventies. Something really bad happens, and he returns to the States and a whiskey bottle. Ten years pass, and the CIA desperately needs him to go back to Beirut, by now basically a combat zone, but he’s kind of a wreck, and is there anybody he can trust? It looks like a Bourne movie, all gray and kinetic. Everything about it is perfectly professional; Hamm can play anything straight or arch, and he does look like a standard-issue movie spy. But it never reached out to grab me, and the only thing that stuck in my mind was a character turn that we could see coming a mile away.


THE SENTENCE**** (U.S. Documentary Audience Award) Anybody who thinks mandatory minimum sentencing is a good idea — especially Jeff Sessions — should see this one. Filmmaker Rudy Valdez’s sister Cindy gets a mandatory 15 years for conspiracy, meaning she committed no crime personally but did not report the misdeeds of her ex-boyfriend (rueful lawyers call this “the girlfriend problem”). As Cindy is separated from her husband and young daughters over a span of years, Valdez films the family so she can watch them grow up. Then they begin a desperate campaign to seek clemency from the outgoing President Obama. It’s easy to sound tough on crime if you tell yourself that justice is being done, but this is not justice. While Cindy was indeed guilty of conspiracy charges, no judge would have ordered so draconian a sentence, and this heart-rending film shows why. It’s an achingly effective piece of proof that judges need to be free to be fair.


BUTTERFLIES*** (World Dramatic Grand Jury Prize) A dramedy about three Turkish siblings, not particularly close, who are called by their father (not very close either) back to the small village where they grew up, a podunk place they’ve been trying their whole lives to forget. Part road movie, part bonding drama, part farce (exploding chickens, a ludicrous astronaut suit, don’t ask), this is a showcase for the three stars, each of whom gets plenty of room to draw a plausibly complex character, all irascible but sweet too. Delightful.


KAILASH*** (U.S. Documentary Grand Jury Prize) A portrait of a very brave man: Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi, who has made it his life’s work to rescue children trafficked as slave labor for clandestine factories around the world. Hidden cameras show us the squalor, and Kailash and his team pose as buyers to reveal the monstrous, cynical trade in the most vulnerable of human beings. It’s equal parts horrifying and hopeful, anchored by the search for a young boy missing in Delhi for eight months. Kailash’s rescue raids are daring and dangerous; the bad guys here are extremely bad. But his courage is contagious, and he’s not content just to shine a light on this horrifying practice: he’s determined to do something about it.


SEARCH**** (NEXT Audience Award, Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize, Sundance Institute/Amazon Studios Producers Award: Sev Ohanian) A terribly clever thriller that takes place entirely on a computer screen: messages, FaceTime chats, tv news links, and other ephemera that will be instantly recognizable to both Windows and IOS users. John Cho plays a single dad whose high-school daughter goes missing, and the plot of the film is his increasingly frenzied search for her, using all the capabilities of the Internet. It’s amazing how major characters enter the computer-bound story organically, like Debra Messing as a detective who takes the disappearance personally. More than once I had the odd sensation that the big movie screen was actually before me on my desktop: I was concentrating so hard that my sense of scale was way off. The movie is marred toward the end by a dreaded “info dump,” in which mystery elements are explained away without having given us a fair chance to hypothesize. But here form trumps content. This gag has been tried before, notably in the horror film UNFRIENDED, but frankly there it felt like a gimmick. Here the effect is seductively plausible, essential to the story, and lots of fun.


I THINK WE’RE ALONE NOW**** (Special Jury Award for Excellence in Filmmaking: Reed Morano) Something apocalyptic happened, we’re not sure what. In a quiet little village somewhere in the Northeast, buildings are still standing but they’re atrophied. A lone grim survivor scavenges for gear and sustenance, compulsively cleans the houses, and lugs decomposed bodies into a field where he uses a backhoe to dig their graves. He lives in the public library, where he hangs onto a semblance of order by preserving and cataloging the books he finds on his rounds. He seems to be the last man on earth. Then one day he isn’t. The mesmerizing Peter Dinklage carries Act I all by himself with his trademark burning intensity, but suddenly Elle Fanning is there to disturb his reclusive, neurotic routine. This film settles into a quiet, somber rhythm and then upends itself. It’s supremely confident, taking its time to unfold, yet it stays one step ahead of the viewer, who will have no idea what is to come. I remember being impressed by Dinklage in THE STATION AGENT at my first Sundance in 2003; now GAME OF THRONES has made him a genuine movie star, but he’s retained his indie cred. You just can’t take your eyes off him.



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