Perhaps in response to the accolades received by a few white directors who have been making independent films about the black cultural experience, like Craig Brewer’s HUSTLE & FLOW (2005) and BLACK SNAKE MOAN (2007), Lance Hammer’s BALLAST (2008), even perennial indie filmmaker John Sayles taking a stab with HONEYDRIPPER (2007), all set in black neighborhoods using primarily black casts—perhaps the accumulated praise finally got into this director’s craw so she decided she was going to do something about it by writing her own script and directing her own movie. Whatever inspired her, much of it feeling confessional, she’s written a sprawling complex work about black dysfunctional families which turns out to be the story of her life, a native of Tupelo, Mississippi, an eye-opening look into a world of poverty and depravity that most of us have never seen, certainly not the kind of relentless onslaught that is depicted here. For its unflinching look at her own wrenching family horrors, as well as assembling a terrific cast, the feeling of authenticity deserves high praise, but it’s shot on video and blown up on Super 35 mm, so there’s plenty of intimacy through close ups and mobile camera movement, but the colors tend to be washed out or saturated, just the antithesis of realistic, and much of it remains in a grainy image. But the fact that it’s on ‘Scope gives it a much more impressive canvas to work with, such as expanding the number of people in the picture, or isolating someone in the corner of the frame. But in this film, people have no place to hide.
just 22 days in
Based on the large number of characters, but most significantly the heavy reliance on dialogue, where dialect and regional authenticity are key, the spoken word becomes the essential component that drives this film, making this feel more like a theatrical play than a movie, especially the way it purposely uses such intensely uncomfortable subject matter, which feels much more at home in the theater than in cinema houses. Even the need to portray miserablism with such authenticity feels like a theatrical device, as it will be difficult to find an audience for this film, especially without a known star, as it was for Toni Morrison’s slavery themed BELOVED (1998) which had both money and stars. There is plenty of willful manipulation on display here even as the director wisely withholds judgment about any character’s actions, much of it through the use of children whose innocent faces see all, yet when they get older, must bear the brunt of so much of this communal pain. What I found particularly distasteful was the way only one character was portrayed as if she had a halo on her head, continually perceived as thoughtful, kind, intelligent, remaining innocent and likable throughout, despite the horrors inflicted upon her. And this character turns out to be the director herself. On the other hand, this depiction does at least acknowledge that within the black community, there are layers of accountability, things one does to prove their blackness, their worth to family and community, while there are also powerful forces that do not wish intelligent kids to succeed, as if that’s selling out to the white world, as if they’re somehow better than the rest. Unfortunately the majority of the male characters seen in this film would fall into the latter category.
Much of this film was shot in claustrophobic interiors that become all too familiar after awhile, where the confinement of life behind the same four walls indicates prison, yet the degree to which homes are being snatched away due to foreclosure adds a constant element of anxiety and insecurity even within that restricted confinement. And of course, when one character loses their home, they become a larger burden to someone else who must take them in. Everything just adds more pressure, where life is seen as a hell on earth, and money the root of all evil, because few have it, everyone needs it, and many are forced to do horrible things to get it. Initially we’re introduced to the matriarchal society of three proud sisters, Anna (Simbi Kali Williams), Delores (Michael Hyatt), and Charlie (Jossie Harris Thacker), who fight daily battles with violent, abusive, mostly absent or unemployed men to provide what passes for family stability. Money is the key ingredient that no one has, so the wear and tear of these daily battles over money fester and boil over into scenes of violence, witnessed by three kids, Sammy (Malcolm David Kelly) the young basketball prodigy, his little cousin Kari (Kylee Russell) who plays the role of the director, and her older sister Leigh (Chastity Hammite) who has a full blown crush for girls. Sammy is forced to perform sexual favors for money, Leigh is constantly chastised by her parents for her sexual interests, while Kari routinely runs next door for a meal.
The constant shifting of tone from elation to defeat, from joy to pain, runs throughout this film where people are continually playing one another, trying to take advantage any way they can, as the lives of young hopefuls are crushed under the devastation that engulfs them, at times succumbing to the worst instincts that were heaped upon them and their elders at such a tender age, leading to unforgivable crimes inflicted upon their own family members. If there is a damned creature in this film it is the alcoholic, yet bluntly outspoken Charlie, molested by her own father as a child, her mother turning a blind eye, eventually taking matters into her own hands and stabbing the girl of a good for nothing boyfriend who was cheating on her, serving time in prison, yet beholden to the bottle even after her release, becoming a ghostly presence where a fiercely independent woman once lived. But her son Sammy carries the same burden of sexual molestation as a child into adulthood, a raging cancer as deadly as any economic force that could potentially wipe out a family. Tessa Thompson as an adult Kari literally carries the hopes of her family and the entire community on her back, a musical talent with hopes of getting into NYU, she ends up postponing her college dreams to become the nurturing force of womanhood in the film, a young woman who has withstood the most intimate of crimes yet has maintained her integrity and idealism intact. Hard to imagine, hard to dispute, but this is her life as she perceives it, and who are we to doubt any of it?
Special Note – best lead actress Tessa Thompson, best supporting actress Jossie Harris Thacker, direction and screenplay Tina Mabry, ensemble acting
Spanning across 1986 to 1998, this dramatically epic tale
based on true events follows the heart-wrenching tale of three poor, Black kids
Bitterly honest and profoundly subtle, Mississippi Damned successfully captures growing up in a world where possibilities and opportunities seem to die in the face of the suffocating reality of physical and sexual abuse, obsession, and a myriad of destructive compulsions.
This movie had me truly riveted, simultaneously wanting to avert my eyes from all the pain but not daring to stop watching for a second in case I missed something. An emotional journey for both the characters and the viewer, Mississippi Damned is a notable filmic undertaking, with intense moments punctuated by responsive cinematography and detailed production design. The fact that all of the trials, the heart ache and the poignant happenings are so grossly captivating is a testament to the talent that went into crafting this film and the truth that comes across in the telling.
Mississippi Damned | Frameline33 | Tina Mabry | USA Angelique Smith
Based on true events and spanning between 1986 and 1998, Mississippi
Damned follows three young African Americans in the rural south as they
suffer through the devastating cycles of poverty, addiction and abuse. Leigh is
a bull dyke with an unhealthy, and long-lasting, obsession with her girlfriend.
Sammy gives up his youth, innocence and body for a shot at his basketball
dreams. Kari, the most promising of the three, has aspirations to attend New
York University to further develop her musical talents, but fights to keep her
head above water as her relatives and circumstances drag her down.
This captivating drama takes the viewer through his or her own internal conflict: you want the characters to catch a damn break already, but you almost don’t want to give them a chance to mess up another opportunity. Each well-written individual is raw and genuine, with hidden complexities and agendas, which is rare for an ensemble cast. Jossie Thacker’s Charlie is especially tragic and haunting, as a woman whose own dark past demands forgiveness for her inability to be a better mother.
Under writer-director Tina Mabry’s delicate touch, no plot twists feel forced, even when coming out of left field. Yet, the most predictable of actions leaves you blindsided. With the intimacy of handheld camera work, Mississippi Damned is a film that is both compelling and heartbreaking.
Mississippi Damned, written and directed by Tina Mabry, carves out an
expansive visual presence with its bold and layered portrayal of a black family
Mabry plays on the themes of silence and denial and their ability to attenuate the potential for a family to transcend their circumstances. In the film, we see Charlie, the mother of Sammy, struggle immensely with alcoholism and past sexual abuse. As she buries her pain in liquor and house parties, her own son suffers the same trauma. The silence between the two and other family members concerning this issue only exacerbates the toll it takes on everyone’s lives. Without a healthy mother-son relationship, they become one in the same.
Characters in Mississippi Damned are imbued with depth, making it difficult to describe them with the divisive categories of “bad men” or “good women.” This often separates many independent films from mainstream features: an ability to conceive of characters that do not fit into rigid roles. The heroes are also the villains in this film. Young Sammy, a wide-eyed teenager just trying to buy food for his family and get a basketball scholarship to college, ends up succumbing to the vices that he sought to escape and then recycles that same behavior with another family member in acts of sexual dominance. Further, Leigh, a lesbian young woman fighting to experience love despite the familial stigmas attached to her sexuality, becomes romantically obsessed and reckless. And as much as we would love to hate Tyrone, the abusive, trite husband to Anna, we see them share a tearful embrace in the hospital room following the miscarriage of their child, a recurring tragedy for them. Tyrone’s character and his actions are portrayed as consequences of the poverty and joblessness he endures throughout the film. So while there is no excuse for his disrespect of Anna, there is a foundation for his behavior.
Bradford Young’s cinematography serves as a rich, visceral supplement to the
fearlessness of Mabry’s script and direction. It is ethereal and soft in places
where sisters sit around trading jokes while a younger Kari plays the piano. It
is bold and sassy in the opening scene where we are pulled into a lively party
and card game accented with oranges and reds. At times, the complex character
interactions mingle with evocative cinematography to elate and unsettle. In one
scene, Charlie enters her mother’s room to ask for twenty dollars. Alice, who
occupies a mostly comedic role throughout the film, attempts to thwart her
daughter’s requests until Charlie speaks of being sexually abused by her
deceased father and the silent consent that Alice gave. At once, the camera
forms a tight close-up of
Mabry also demonstrates a knack with dialogue and foreshadowing with
characters’ terse exchange hovering between humor and pathos. For example,
concerning Anna’s pregnancy,
Yet for all of its bitter honesty and realism, one has to wonder how much emotional intensity an audience can endure. Screenwriters are often warned against writing scripts where dramatic or suspenseful scenes seem to run one after another, without a clear respite for the audience to breath before the next one. Mississippi Damned sequences scenes of violence followed by scenes of anger followed by scenes of sexual abuse. While the stakes are raised, one could notice audience members oftentimes squirming in their seats—uncomfortable, but also intrigued. This is the gravity, the pull of this film. It evokes discomfort as an inevitable result of pain and denial in this family. There aren’t many respites to ongoing cycles of pain and abuse. The respite results in the confrontation and acknowledgement of that pain, and that is the goal, albeit unachievable for some characters, of this film.
The closing sequence in the film magnifies parallels between the suffering that both generations face throughout. In one visual juxtaposition, we see Sammy and his mother Charlie, once again reunited by the alcoholism and sexual abuse that they never confronted, in a way that haunts and leaves one aching for them. In that same sequence, Kari takes a major step toward the recognition of her family’s flaws, and embarks on a personal journey that one is to believe will inevitably enrich her future and her family’s as well. Ultimately, Mabry’s genius lies in her ability to expose one family’s vulnerabilities, demons and love that remains amidst it all—a portrait of familial distress, angst and hope. In many families, just as with the one in this film, silence has its place. Mississippi Damned speaks into that silence and denial, the resulting echo being a daring cinematic journey.
Review of "Mississippi Damned" | AfterEllen.com Danielle Riendeau
Interview With "Mississippi Damned" Filmmakers Tina Mabry and ... Karman Kregloe interview from After Ellen, August 10, 2009
HollywoodReporter.com Duane Byrge
Mississippi Damned | Variety Ronnie Scheib
Women of Color Women of Word -- African American Female ... biographical information
Ntozake Shange biographical profile
Nina Simone 'Mississippi goddam' - Live in the ... live performance on YouTube ()
Part biographical documentary and part a series of musings on life and art, this extremely watchable film about actress Charlotte Rampling is a fascinating series of discussions between her and a series of photographers, writer and filmmakers. It will intrigue those who are fans of her work and should appeal to festivals and nice arts broadcasters.
For those, however, out for a look at her life and career The Look might be rather unsatisfying given that it features a series of head-to-head chats (or musings) separated into chapters - such as ‘Desire’ and ‘Demons’ - rather than featuring a plethora of film clips and lots of gushing praise.
The famous Rampling ‘look’ - the way that her increasingly hooded eye-lids help create of powerful stare that is much loved by her directors - is amusingly discussed by Rampling and photographer Peter Lindbergh, where she debates how a little surgery would actually rid her of the ‘look’ itself. Engagingly she takes the camera and turns it on Lindbergh, shooting some pretty impressive images.
Subsequent meetings with a series of friends - including author Paul Auster, German photographer Juergen Teller and artist Anthony Palliser, all annoyingly without titles to indicate who they are - are intriguing and at times fascinating, and while Rampling is a charming, witty and erudite personality she rarely gives anything away about herself.
The film does feature a few extracts from Rampling’s film work, with - unsurprisingly her role in Liliani Cavani’s controversial 1974 film The Night Porter receiving the most attention, as she discusses the film with Juergen Teller. Also featured are extracts from Ozon’s Swimming Pool and Sous le sable; Lumet’s The Verdict (and the scene where her character is hit by Paul Newman); Oshima’s Max mon amour and Visconti’s The Damned.
There are brief moments when the film dips into other more
personal aspects of her life - such as when he briefly mention’s her younger
sister’s suicide at the age of 23 - and while she can appear formidable and
vaguely unapproachable she also has a ready smile and sharp wit. Towards the
end of the film she is shot wandering around
Engaging documentary, directed by Angelina Maccarone, offers a revealing glimpse into Charlotte Rampling.
Providing less of a standard biographical study than a free-wheeling tête-à-tête separated into heavily thematic chapters with names like “Demons,” “Desire” and “Death,” director Angelina Maccarone (Vivere) accompanies Rampling on visits to various artists-cum-friends, with whom she chats about her unique approach to working in front of the camera.
The fascinating opening segment, “Exposure,” has Rampling being photographed by Peter Lindbergh, until she turns the lens on him for a bit of role reversal. After a few glasses of wine (used often throughout the film), their conversation concludes with Rampling saying something that could sum up her career as a whole: “If you want to give anything worthwhile of yourself, you have to feel completely exposed.”
For those looking for ample proof of this, the “Taboo” segment with German photographer Juergen Teller will surprise some viewers who never saw the extremely raw photo series (Louis XV) the two did together in 2005. Their conversation drifts from that to Rampling’s early nude work with Helmut Newton, and then to her controversial portrayal of an S&M practicing concentration camp survivor in Liliani Cavani’s 1974 shocker, The Night Porter.
Other clips presented include scenes from Luchino Visconti’s The Damned, Sidney Lumet’s The Verdict, Nagisa Oshima’s Max mon amour and François Ozon’s Swimming Pool and Sous le sable. To describe her work in the latter, Rampling claims that “the best remedy for any form of pain is to let it happen to you,” and earlier on she makes brief reference to her sister’s suicide at the age of 23.
But beyond a few such personal details, The Look is much more of a cerebral rumination on the métier than any sort of trivia quiz, and it’s carried almost entirely by Rampling’s wit, intelligence and incredible screen presence. When she and Lindbergh joke about what a little plastic surgery would do to her face, we’re thankful that the 65-year-old star has chosen instead to age so gracefully.
Although technically apt, the documentary lacks titles to introduce each character, which is unfortunate for those viewers who won’t recognize artists like Teller or Anthony Palliser merely by their looks.
Largely unseen, as it’s a documentary without an examination of a political world crisis, and somewhat reminiscent of SUNSET STORY (2003), it’s a shame there aren’t busses of senior citizens lining up to see a film like this, as it features aging in such a phenomenally positive light. What was Gene Kelly singing, “Gotta Dance?” Well these women were doing it decades earlier, featuring five women from the original dance lines at the Apollo and Cotton Clubs, among others, which highlighted soloists with a line of 16 girls in a supporting role, who were among the most glamorous girls in Harlem in the 30’s, working with the likes of Fats Waller, Bill “Bo Jangles” Robinson, Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, or Lionel Hampton, who actually wrote a number specifically for these women (Marion Coles, Elaine Ellis, Cleo Hayes, Fay Ray, and Bertie Lou Wood). Now in their mid 80’s, they still rehearse regularly at the Cotton Club, and continue to perform in shows, known as the “Silver Belles.” Their founder and guiding light (Bertie Lou Wood) is 96 and was dancing regularly with the group until she was 95, but now she sits in a wheelchair, has a cocktail, and provides a little sass and energy to the rehearsals, which are unending conversations, trading quips back and forth that reveal not only their agility, but their wit and extraordinary vitality.
Current dancers speak about them in reverence, as they have a style all their own, and at performances, they usually get the loudest applause. Dancers today use number counts to keep time, not these ladies, who simply have a special relationship to the music and to the audience. They move according to their own instincts, which, as one of the younger dancers states, adds plenty of spice to their steps. The film clips of their earlier days performing at clubs in Harlem, or in movies from the 30’s or 40’s with Bill Robinson (who danced without taps, as do the Silver Belles), including STORMY WEATHER (1943), are simply amazing, as they were among the best dancers in the world, and at their age now, what they represent is a one-of-a-kind ethic of professional showmanship. Each of them has had serious bouts of illness, overcoming cancer, hip injuries, or other falls, yet they retain a sense of optimism that is simply a state of grace. They indicate when their kids call, they don’t want to hear them down in the mouth, so they always shine, even for their own families. It’s as if they’re always “on,” that there isn’t a moment in their life that isn’t expressed without an enormous pride and dignity.
One actually fell down the steps to the subway, resulting
in a cast on one arm and one leg, where it wasn’t clear if she would ever walk
again. But we witness her extraordinary
mentality, and when the cast comes off, she’s there at the rehearsals,
initially wiggling her toes to the beat, then she gets up from her walker and
gets in line with the girls, doing her steps with her cane. During the war years, some worked in
factories, one became a welder of battleships, before returning to the stage
after the war. They performed in some of
the original USO shows entertaining the troops, which were still racially
divided at that time, and where the country would pay to see them perform, but
then wouldn’t serve them a meal, or allow them to use a “white toilet.” One
even worked in the oil industry in
BFI | Sight & Sound | One Day in September (1999) Peter Matthews from Sight and Sound, June 2000
This documentary blends archive footage and interviews with witnesses to relate the tragic events at the 1972 summer Olympics in Munich. On 5 September, eight Palestinian terrorists broke into the Olympic village apartments and took 12 Israeli athletes hostage. A wrestling coach was killed while tackling a terrorist who belonged to Black September, a group connected with the PLO. They demanded the release of 236 political prisoners or the hostages would be executed at noon. Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir refused to negotiate.
With just minutes to spare, terrorist leader Issa extended the deadline and demanded a jet. Two helicopters were organised to take the Arabs and Israelis to a nearby military airport where undercover policeman and snipers lay in wait. When the Palestinians disembarked from the helicopters, the snipers opened fire and a 90-minute gun battle erupted. By the end, most of the terrorists were dead or wounded. Two surviving terrorists killed the Israelis with a hand grenade and a round of bullets. The three remaining terrorists never stood trial. Two were assassinated in the late 70s by Israeli hitmen. The third, Jamal Al Gashey, appears as a witness in the film.
One Day in September, Kevin Macdonald's sensational new documentary about the hostage crisis at the 1972 Munich Olympics, tightens the screws almost from the start. The first few minutes lull you with kitschy infomercial tourist shots of the time-tykes frolicking in lederhosen as a voiceover announces this earthly paradise as the site of the Olympic summer games. But just when you're sniggering at the travelogue clichés, there's an abrupt cut to black. Ominous music rises on the soundtrack, while a babble of panicky news bulletins is heard, culminating in the sickening rattle of machine-gun fire. The mood swing is like a steel trap snapping shut and is preliminary evidence that One Day won't have the pontificating respectability of most feature-length documentaries. There's nothing remarkable about its hybrid format of talking heads, found footage and recreations, but what makes the movie startlingly original is how this historical material has been shaped to squeeze your emotions the way fiction does.
The two certifiable classics in the genre of films about the Olympics - Leni
Refusing to take sides, the movie whips along with the cold-blooded
excitement of a police procedural. Only here the investigation uncovers a level
of official bungling that would be farcical in another context. From the evidence,
BFI | Sight & Sound | Film of the Month: Touching the Void (2003) Richard Falcon from Sight and Sound, January 2004
Oddly enough, this film was written by Peter Morgan, the same person who wrote THE QUEEN with Helen Mirren, both featuring potential Oscar winning performances, yet they are like polar opposites, one a refined and finely observed portrait of the British royal family which comes to life from the brilliance of the performances as well as the deft direction from Stephen Frears, while this film which follows a decade of terror in Uganda falls off the tracks early and never recovers. The problem, once again, exactly as in HOTEL RWANDA, and even more so in THE CONSTANT GARDENER, is that it places the focus of the film outside the real target, so it’s only accidentally that a character we follow closely wanders into some of the more brutal massacres in the last few decades. These films appeal to the liberal guilt of whites and are pretty much worthless when it comes to telling the real story, especially when they center on the romantic misadventures of whites wandering through exotic locations in Africa, where the continent is used merely as a decorative backdrop. To focus on the whites or the numerous secondary characters is to miss the real story, yet the appeal is made nonetheless through the pain and torture afflicted onto the white characters, as if they symbolically represent the brutality inflicted upon Africans. But this racistly undermines the real truth, and suggests the filmmakers have an innate distrust that viewers will care about atrocities inflicted upon blacks, so they alter reality to fit a pre-conceived racial target audience. All this really does is reduce the impact of the film to little more than inconsequential, as it’s a misguided white fantasy. Haitian born director Raoul Peck had no such problem in his superb 2000 film LUMUMBA, which followed an earlier documentary he made on the same subject and is easily the most powerful of the lot.
Forest Whitaker as Idi
Amin, however, is brilliantly manic, physically imposing and wildly
charismatic, always charmingly engaging, catching you off guard with his
unbridled energy, quick wit and friendly humor as he surprisingly makes you the
center of attention, asking questions about yourself that make you feel like
you’re his best friend in the entire world before he turns on a dime and
intently broods about you as one of his enemies, thinking the entire world is
picking on him, obsessing about the horrid things they say about him,
rationalizing to himself and to his nation that they’re simply jealous that a
black African country can survive without white intervention. He is simply superb as the mood-shifting
paranoiac maniac who sends death squads to brutally assassinate anyone who
disagrees with him, accumulating numbers like 300,000 dead by the time he left
Shot by Anthony Dod
Mantle, who shot von Trier’s BREAKING THE WAVES and DOGVILLE, also the
apocalyptic British zombie flick 28 DAYS LATER, using brightly saturated colors
that make the images of Africa explode off the screen, where the vitality and
joy of the nation is expressed in 1971 through music and dancing in the streets
as they celebrate the overthrow of a deposed dictator (Milton Obote, who may
have murdered more than Amin!) and greet the new ruler, General Idi Amin, who
is welcomed as an internationally educated African nationalist who promises to
bring prosperity to the homeland. The
musical selections are upbeat and energetic, the streets are filled with
wide-eyed children, and there’s a feeling that African culture might actually
be prominently featured in this film.
But our hopes dissipate quickly once we realize the story is actually
about a white doctor from
Poor James McAvoy,
fresh out of portraying a fawn, Mr. Tumnnus in THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA, is
dwarfed in every scene as Dr. Garrigan, Amin’s personal physician, by the
explosive performance of Whitaker who simply overwhelms him in every sense of
the word. Garrigan’s stupidity in the
presence of a mass murderer is mindboggling and unfortunately belittles the
otherwise serious subject matter of the film, most of which was shot on
location in the capital city of Kampala, sucking the very life out of what
might have been an authentic historical journey into the heart of madness. THE LAST KING really deteriorates badly, and
continues this thread of racist-tinged movies filmed in
The Onion A.V. Club review Noel Murray
Because Ugandan dictator Idi Amin was such a murderous creep, it takes a lot to convince people that he might've also been a fun guy to party with. But in The Last King Of Scotland, director Kevin Macdonald has two strong persuaders: a kinetic style, and Forest Whitaker. As Amin, Whitaker gives a scarily charismatic performance, whipping quickly but naturally between joyous charm and steely rage. In the past, Whitaker has tended to lean too much on his low-key, mumbly side, playing off the irony that such a big man could be so gentle. But with his guest stint earlier this year on The Shield, and now with The Last King Of Scotland, Whitaker has started to use his oversized frame and off-center gaze to exude real menace. He's perversely attractive.
In Macdonald's hands, The Last King Of Scotland's breakneck rush through a heady half-decade of African nationalism plays like Boogie Nights: The Sub-Saharan Years. James McAvoy stars as a glib young Scottish doctor who wants to change the world and have a ball. When he meets Amin, McAvoy is initiated into the high life of state dinners, sports cars, nubile prostitutes, and high-level cabinet meetings. Macdonald—who previously directed the energetic documentaries One Day In September and Touching The Void—cuts together the first hour of The Last King Of Scotland to the rhythm of early '70s Afrobeat, driving viewers to identify with McAvoy's loyal defense of the madman who pays his bar bills. "I'm his doctor," McAvoy says to those who challenge Amin's ethics. "It's not my job to judge."
Of course, there must come a reckoning, and in The Last King Of Scotland, the loss of innocence consumes the whole final hour, during which time Whitaker appears less often, his screen time stolen by an increasingly weepy McAvoy. The climax of the movie juxtaposes McAvoy's attempts to flee the country with Amin's role in the Entebbe hijacking incident, which pushes audience identification past its limit. As one of the most famous hostage situations in modern world history takes place, audiences are asked to concern themselves primarily with the fate of one decadent doctor. The Last King Of Scotland makes a stronger case when it's demonstrating how opulent power-lunches corrupt absolutely.
In The Last King of Scotland, young Scottish doctor Nicholas (James McAvoy) decides where to head for excitement by closing his eyes and plunking his finger on a spinning globe -- Uganda is the chosen spot, no surprise since Africa, after Hotel Rwanda and The Constant Gardener, is still earmarked as contemporary cinema's main pit stop for white liberal guilt and neocolonial pillaging. The smug lil' bugger sets up camp at a local mission, but he's less interested in caring for the poor and sick than trying to bang the married medic (Gillian Anderson) tutoring him; since the year is 1971, the nation is under the control of President Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker), who over the course of his eight-year regime would be responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, but emerges as a pretty fun fella when Nicholas goes to fix his sprained hand. Amin has pool parties and rock-star revelries, Nicholas has the Scottish blood that in the dictator's mind links them as buds against British imperialism, and in no time the scrawny youngster has been catapulted into Amin's orbit, enjoying new cars and women as his "closest adviser." But the ruler's chamber is filled with stuffed predators with bared fangs, so you know it's not long for psychotic cracks to appear in Amin's gaseous, prank-pulling ebullience -- people in whom he sees betrayal have a tendency to end up in pieces on underground slabs, which worries Nicholas, especially since he's been sleeping with one of the dictator's many wives (Kerry Washington).
Like Hotel Rwanda, The Last King of Scotland operates on continuous
anxiety, though it lacks even that picture's basic decency to view a country's
upheavals through African eyes -- as in Cry Freedom, A Dry White Season
and The Constant Gardener, the filmmakers are too scared or racist to
think that viewers could identify with the black people directly experiencing
the horrors, so a pasty stand-in, no matter how unlikable, has to be
offensively parachuted in. With a sinister monarch swaying the crowds and
galvanizing everybody around him, the film also brings to mind the recent,
stilted All the King's Men remake, where another actor sweated through a
dozen shirts for Oscar recognition. Where Sean Penn suggested an apoplectic
parade float, Whitaker turns into a swollen tiger, dropping in hints of the
humanizing gentleness of Ghost Dog and The Shield before
embodying the blowfish-boogeyman of Nicholas's "aberration of nature"
diagnosis -- his Amin is a deranged buffoon writ large, and at one point, as he
fills the screen inspecting a miniature building, the connection to Godzilla
(or, considering the film's racism, King Kong) is inescapable. In fact,
director Kevin Macdonald is very fond of looming closeups of faces and mosquitoes
and buzzards, all of them dripping with sweat and cut together with
high-pressure editing; shifting the colors from orange-toned light to
fragmented darks means to mirror the main character's growing awareness, though
it all comes out splotchy anyway. African doctors turn sacrificial lambs to get
the truth about
Strange to think that the flamboyantly lethal nut job Idi
Amin died in Saudi Arabia just three years ago. About 80 at the time, he had
The queasily enjoyable new fiction film “The Last King of Scotland,” based on the novel by Giles Foden and directed by Kevin Macdonald, creates a portrait of this famous Ugandan dictator from inside the palace walls. Furiously paced, with excellent performances by Forest Whitaker as Amin and James McAvoy as the foolish Scotsman who becomes the leader’s personal physician, the film has texture, if not depth and enough intelligence to almost persuade you that it actually has something of note to say. It would make a terrific double bill with Barbet Schroeder’s mesmerizing 1974 documentary, “General Idi Amin Dada: A Self Portrait,” of which Mr. Macdonald has obviously made a close and fruitful study.
As it also happens, “The Last King of Scotland” would make an
even better double bill with Stephen Frears’s
forthcoming film “The Queen,” a sly peek at the
current British monarch in the wake of the death of Princess Diana. (Amin once
wrote milady: “Dear Liz, if you want to know a real man, come to
“The Last King of Scotland” makes the case that Amin was rational enough to understand his country’s tangled relationship with British imperialism and to inject that sociopolitical understanding into words. If this lecture feels a little too neat and contrived, well, that’s entertainment.
And how! Cannily designed to please and repulse, “The Last
King of Scotland” uses a self-anointed outsider, Nicholas Garrigan (Mr.
McAvoy), as its initially empathic point of entry. Arriving in
Crucial to that savvy is the director’s vision of Amin as Dr.
Frankenstein and monster both. A period fiction with a high-gloss historical finish,
“The Last King of Scotland” is also a very contemporary, pointedly resonant
film about blowback. That said, and despite some background filler, Mr.
Macdonald isn’t interested in furnishing history lessons, and the details of
In 1971 Amin ousted Milton Obote, who had become president
after tossing out the country’s king five years earlier. (Mr. Obote himself may
have been responsible for half a million deaths.) “The Last King of Scotland”
opens shortly after Amin has seized power, and his madness had yet to take at
least visible bloom. After a brief spell working at a clinic run by a white
British doctor (Adam Kotz) and his wife (a very fine, almost unrecognizable Gillian Anderson),
Garrigan signs on with Amin. The Scot eagerly makes the transition from rural
slum to Amin’s
Despite his vaguely Falstaffian proportions, Mr. Whitaker doesn’t look like the man he’s playing, a point that becomes less crucial as the performance takes root. As much a seducer as a destroyer, his Amin changes moods on a dime depending on the gas percolating in his bowels or the threats on his person, real and imagined. It’s a role rich in gristle and blood, and Mr. Whitaker makes the most of it, even if the performance and the film’s essential conception of Amin never push deep or hard enough. This actor can play devious, as his brilliant turn in “The Color of Money” showed early in his career. But what you need in a film about a man who fed the corpses of his victims to the crocodiles is something more, something hateful and vile.
“The Last King of Scotland” delivers shocks worthy of the horror film it becomes. Garrigan is the kind of man who exploits his own boyishness, successfully with women, perilously with Amin, and Mr. McAvoy expertly makes the character’s naïveté seem at first appealing, then foolish and finally odious in the extreme. As a stand-in for all the white men who have unwisely and cravenly journeyed into the proverbial heart of darkness, the character effectively serves his purposes, and you shake your head, tsk-tsk, right on schedule.
Clearly, the film means this journey to be as inwardly directed as outwardly bound, though the larger message here, one that might make you blanch after you nod, is that the misery of other people makes unsettling entertainment, no matter how pretty the pictures and valuable the players.
Slant Magazine review Jeremiah Kipp
DVD Times Gary Couzens
The Last King Of Scotland Kevin O’Reilly from DVD Times
Slate (Kim Masters) essay ["What
exactly is "true" about ___?"]
Political Film Review Michael Haas
Slate (Dana Stevens) review also reviewing THE QUEEN
Oscar Winners Mark Harris from Patrick Murtha’s Diary
Put a candle in the window, ’cause I feel I’ve got to move.
Though I’m going, going, I’ll be coming home soon,
long as I can see the light.
Pack my bag and let’s get movin’, ’cause I’m bound to drift a while.
When I’m gone, gone, you don’t have to worry long,
long as I can see the light.
Guess I’ve got that old trav’lin bone, ’cause this feelin’ won’t leave me alone.
But I won’t, won’t be losin’ my way, no, no
long as I can see the light.
Yeah! yeah! yeah! oh, yeah!
Put a candle in the window, ’cause I feel I’ve got to move.
Though I’m going, going, I’ll be coming home soon,
Long as I can see the light.
Long as I can see the light.
Long as I can see the light.
Long as I can see the light.
Long as I can see the light.
—“Long As I Can See the Light” by John Fogerty, Creedence Clearwater (1970)
Interesting to see the trailer
for Michael Mann’s new thriller PUBLIC ENEMY (to be released later in 2009)
just prior to seeing this film, as without credits indicating otherwise, I
would swear this was a Michael Mann film, thoroughly entertaining, heavy on
tense atmosphere, complete with Russell Crowe as a world weary Washington
reporter, as they worked so well together in THE INSIDER (1999 – nominated for
7 Academy Awards), while Rodrigo Prieto’s striking ‘Scope cinematography makes
excellent use of the urban architecture in the region, right down to the
meticulous detail of newspapers rolling off the presses onto the delivery
trucks in the wee hours of the night over the end credits while John Fogerty’s
raspy voice from Creedence Clearwater eloquently sings “Long As I Can See the
Light.” An homage to the significance of
the newspaper business, much like a low level CIA operative going to The New York Times in THREE DAYS OF THE
CONDOR (1975) or Woodward and Bernstein’s Watergate reporting for the Washington Post in
Rising from the ashes
of insignificance, being subject to corporate takeovers, being downsized,
feeling the effects of significant numbers of laid-off employees, the film has
a The Last Hurrah feel to it, as if
against all odds, one last major push for Pulitzer prize winning journalism was
at stake at the Washington Globe investigating
the Washington scandal of the moment, connecting a few recent dead bodies to a
powerful military outsourcing corporation which is under investigation by a
congressional hearing, especially after one of the lead investigators turns up
dead. Rumpled looking reporter Cal McAffrey (Crowe) is on
it, tracking down leads, taking a more personal interest when he soon discovers
that the Congressman leading the investigation is his former college room-mate,
Rep. Stephen Collins, the always wooden looking Ben Affleck, who sheds a few
tears on camera at the loss, which certainly catches his wife’s attention, Anne
Collins (Robin Wright Penn), where rumors fly that the congressman was having
an affair. When the newspaper blogger,
the squeaky clean looking Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), comes searching for a
few choice story tidbits, Cal coldly stiffs her, only to be called on the
carpet by the resplendent Helen Mirren as the editor, who barks at him: “She’s hungry, she’s cheap, and she turns out copy every
hour!” The two end up joined at the hip
at the end under the guise of solid newspaper reporting, brought together by a
circuitous route that resembles some of the best thrillers of the 70’s, using 3
top-notch screenwriters to do it, Tony Gilroy (MICHAEL CLAYTON and the BOURNE
SUPREMACY series), Matthew Michael Carnahan (THE KINGDOM), and Billy Ray
(SHATTERED GLASS and BREACH). Not
exactly action packed with car explosions and CGI effects, but interest is
hyper-kinetically sustained from the opening moments, where there is never a
loss of interconnected clues, and
What the film doesn’t
have is extensive character development, where the audience feels a connection
to anyone, like Mann’s THE INSIDER, where a man wrestles with his
conscience. Instead it’s the newspaper
business itself that is under siege, and all the inter-connecting parts that
make up the daily operation, as they are so under pressure to simply sell a
marketable product, dumbing down the news all the time for fewer and shorter
feature exposé’s, bigger photos, and a more entertaining spin on celebrities in
the news. One of the interesting,
behind-the-scenes aspects is the blending together of policework and investigative
journalism, as what the police see as a case to crack is also fertile territory
for a groundbreaking story, so the line between them is occasionally
blurred. The pace of the film heats up
Sources are as crucial to filmmakers as they are to investigative journalists. In the glossy, ambitious thriller "State of Play," Russell Crowe is a powerful presence as Cal McAffrey, a veteran reporter for a newspaper that resembles the Washington Post. When the death of a congressman's female assistant suggests an elaborate cover-up, Cal goes into action with a vengeance: "This," he says of the story, "is as big and connected as they get." But the reporter has his problems with sources -- he and the congressman, played by Ben Affleck, are longtime friends -- and so does the movie, which was based on an uncommonly intricate and intelligent six-part, 350-minute BBC miniseries from 2003. There's simply too much stuff for a two-hour feature, and three writers, including Tony Gilroy, haven't figured out how to boil it down into a readily comprehensible narrative, or how to solve the problem of an ending that goes blah rather than bang.
Instead, they and the director, Kevin Macdonald, punch up a succession of mostly specious resemblances to Watergate -- "State of Play" even has its own Deep Throat -- and turn the Woodward and Bernstein of "All the President's Men" into a Woodstein comprised of Cal, the classic ink-stained scribe, and Rachel McAdams's Della, an ostensibly naive cub who exemplifies the new breed of online bloggers. This dichotomy lends topicality -- in many newsrooms, after all, economic pressures are putting traditional enterprise reporters on the endangered-species list. Yet it's a shallow substitute for the scintillating interplay in the BBC production, which drew much of its drama from the combined intelligence of a reporting team. And Helen Mirren's Cameron Lynne, the newspaper's fire-breathing editor, seems closer in spirit to the fashion dominatrix in "The Devil Wears Prada" than to the inscrutable eccentric played so wonderfully by Bill Nighy in the TV series. Measured against its original source, "State of Play" is both bigger and smaller.
Inked-stained wretches unite! That’s the battle cry of Kevin Macdonald’s
latest film, State of
With its heavy theatrics, intrigue, crazed killers, and a healthy dose of
left-wing paranoia, State of
John Simm plays Cal McCaffrey, an investigative journalist and an ex-campaign manager for the MP whose relationship with the dead researcher has come under scrutiny. Did Sonia Baker fall onto the tracks? Was it suicide? Murder? And why, on the morning of both their deaths, did she receive a brief phone call from Kelvin Stagg, the boy killed in what is presumed to have been a drug related shooting?
This is more than just another sordid domestic scandal, and McCaffrey and several of his colleagues at The Herald, (including the youthful, driven reporter Della Smith, played by Kelly MacDonald), set out in pursuit of the answers. It's a world of high-profile politics and journalism where the normal rules of personal interaction do not apply. Tape recorders are concealed in every pocket and absolutely nobody can be trusted to either tell the truth or respect a confidence.
If there's a drawback to State of
Like any well-made political thriller, State of
A former British prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, once
said, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and
statistics.” While statistics have little to do with Kevin Macdonald’s
“State of Play” aside from the fact that three murders clock in by the story’s
three writers (Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy and Billy Ray), untruths
make their way across the screen faster than you can say “politician” or
“corporation.” “State of
Like many films about corruption in high places, “State of Play” leans decidedly to the left, taking aim at Bush-era privatization of war—the role of large companies like Halliburton in Iraq, sponsoring foot soldiers of a mercenary bent to supplement the regular armed services GI’s. In the writers’ view,
The BBC miniseries dealt with a large oil company determined to put down protests of environmental abuses. “State of
The movie begins with an intensity of physical action involving the chase and gunning down of an African-American and a pizza delivery man who seem anything but people related to political shenanigans. From there Macdonald tones down the plot, creating an intellectual exercise that will lead the journalists to a story that can put new life into a newspaper that has been bought out by a strictly profit-seeking managerial group that wants blood.
The acting is fine across the board, albeit bereft of anything resembling Oscar performances. Russell Crowe makes sure that we know him to be a slob not only by his appearance but by his casual tossing away of food wrappers on the floor of his cubicle and the impossible stacks of paper that frame his ample body. Rachel McAdams is the perky Lois Lane, a cub reporter who may be out of her league but determined to prove herself, while Ben Affleck turns in a credible show of a man who seems incorruptible when questioning a corporate bigwig about a company’s war profiteering but is anything but invulnerable when seemingly frightened by the sudden death of his girlfriend. Production values are ace.
Film Threat, Hollywood's Indie Voice review [4/5] Scott Mendelson
Slant Magazine review Bill Weber
CBC.ca Arts review Lee Ferguson
International review Fionnuala
Film Freak Central review Ian Pugh
Little White Lies magazine Alan Mack
UK review Jonny
Combustible Celluloid (Jeffrey M. Anderson) review also longer review seen here: Cinematical.com
Entertainment Weekly review [A-] Owen Gleiberman
The Hollywood Reporter review Kirk Honeycutt
The Independent review [2/5] Anthony Quinn
The Daily Telegraph review [3/5] Sukhdev Sandhu
Russell Crowe's remarkable rehabilitation Peter Bradshaw from The Guardian, May 4, 2009
Boston Globe review [2.5/4] Wesley Morris
Full text of "A Critical Cinema - Interviews With Independent Filmmakers" A Critical Cinema 5, five volumes of interviews with experimental filmmakers (including Ernie Gehr) by Scott MacDonald
Scott MacDonald's Critical Cinema - NCAD 2016/2017 James ... Author Scott MacDonald, interviewed here by Michael Sicinski from Cinema Scope (DOC format)
BFI | Sight & Sound | Lower City () from Sight and Sound, December 2005
Sergio Machado's Lower City - Culture Court Lawrence Russell
Based on an 1889 Tolstoy chamber drama, this is a film that very much resembles OTHELLO, only the role of Iago is the nagging jealous nature of man. Opening in an ordinary train ride, where the passengers are freely discussing love and marriage, an elder gentleman known as Pozdnyshev breaks in with a scandalous confession of his own, initially questioning “What is love?” before revealing that he murdered his own wife in a jealous rage. Rather than recoil in disgust, the passengers lean closer to hear all the pertinent details, which are revealed in flashback. Married life is presented as a festering sore which only grows more painful in time, where the initial passion is replaced by boredom and abject passivity. The joy of children is depicted without an ounce of gratitude, instead revealing adults who find them constantly in their way, as the children bicker and fight and are perceived as a nagging nuisance. Rarely do they spend any actual time together, instead, marriage is realized through maintaining one’s distance.
When a music teacher enters the scene, playing violin to his wife’s piano, where they practice Beethoven’s 9th Violin and Piano Sonata, known as the Kreutzer Sonata, Pozdnyshev’s boredom disappears, replaced with a venomous rage of jealousy, where it’s unclear throughout whether he witnesses sexual transgressions or if he just imagines them. Either way, he becomes obsessed with the idea of another man fondling his wife. During a calm before the storm, where their vows of love appear to be rekindled, he goes on a business trip, frantically returning home early, suspecting he will catch them in the act, where time all but slows down to a crawl once he enters the house. As he creeps from room to room, taking on the persona of Dracula in our midst, where normally the suspense would be building, here the drama is amped up to the max when we already know the outcome, and the dramatic attention paid to this sequence through Expressionist imagery is simply overly stylized with anticipated hysteria. When it comes, he bursts at the lover with a knife, flailing away as he runs out the door, leaving the poor girl behind to suffer the consequences. Of course the man was eventually acquitted, suggesting society as well as the individual are completely blameless for these actions, early evidence of the temporary insanity defense.
CZECH MODERNISM IN FILM: The 1920'S to the 1940's Charles Coleman, Facets Film Programmer
After several years in
Village Voice J. Hoberman (excerpt)
The Czech New Wave was one of the glories of '60s cinema; "Czech Modernism" demonstrates that it was the continuation of a pre-existing tradition. The series opens sophisticated with Gustav Machatý's 1926 adaptation of The Kreutzer Sonata (November 30). Machatý, who spent the early '20s in Hollywood working with Eric von Stroheim among others, brought a measure of Stroheim's "European" cynical realism back home; updating Leo Tolstoy's once scandalous account of sexual jealousy with deco sets and expressionist lighting, he similarly uses crime and confession to critique the institution of middle-class marriage.
The Kreutzer Sonata is a novella by Leo Tolstoy, published in 1889 and promptly censored by the Russian authorities. The work is an argument for the ideal of sexual abstinence and an in-depth first-person description of jealous rage. The main character Pozdnyshev relates the events leading up to his killing his wife; in his analysis, the root cause for the deed were the "animal excesses" and "swinish connection" governing the relation between the sexes.
During the international celebration of Tolstoy's 80th birthday in 1908, G. K. Chesterton would criticize this aspect of Tolstoy's thought in an article in the September 19th issue of Illustrated London News, writing: "Tolstoy is not content with pitying humanity for its pains: such as poverty and prisons. He also pities humanity for its pleasures, such as music and patriotism. He weeps at the thought of hatred; but in “The Kreutzer Sonata” he weeps almost as much at the thought of love. He and all the humanitarians pity the joys of men." He went on to address Tolstoy directly: "What you dislike is being a man. You are at least next door to hating humanity, for you pity humanity because it is human."
While an obviously old German pictorial translation of Tolstoy's novel, "The Kreutzer Sonata," now at the Fifth Avenue Playhouse, is not distinguished for its direction or its photography, there is an appealing simplicity in the outlining of the story until the climax is approached. But in that final chapter the producer in his eagerness for suspense overdoes matters to the extent of heaping ridicule upon the characters. The offended husband, after reckless driving and an impatient ride in an express train, appears to take hours to go from his front door to the drawing room where his faithless wife, as he suspected, is in the arms of a violinist.
The director evidently worked from a script which was mapped out in sympathy with the narrative. This is a relief, after the manner in which novels and plays are distorted by scenario writers. There are in this film some compelling scenes, especially those actually pictured in a German railway station. Occasionally the director shows touches of originality, but his knowledge of cinematography is, on the whole, limited. When the husband, Posdischew, enters a room, the camera is turned on his face at the moment one expects to see the surprised countenances of the wife and the violinist, Truchatschewsky.
At the outset five persons are beheld in a compartment of a railroad train. The trend of the conversation causes a man in the corner to surprise his traveling companions by admitting that he is none other than Posdischew, who stabbed his wife to death. His story then comes to the screen and now and again the director flashes back to Posdischew in his corner seat in the coach.
The acting for the most part is commendable. Eva Byron probably lets her eyes bear the brunt of the work, but in some scenes she plays creditably. Jans Petrovich officiates as Posdischew. He is capital in revealing the effect of jealousy on the character's countenance. An unlisted player handles the rôle of the violinist rather well.
The Reeler Peter Hames
Czech filmmaker Gustav Machaty's erotic 1929 silent feature is
less impressive than his subsequent and most famous film, Ecstasy
(1933), but it remains a striking mannerist work with affecting poetic touches.
Machaty's silent second feature takes a simple, linear, fable-like story - a young woman's passage from girlhood to knowledge, from countryside to city, and from sentimental gullibility to a more level-headed, prudent sensibility - and invests it with a tumult of emotions: lust, longing, shame, jealousy, despair, courage and confusion. The plot might be knottier melodrama than Machaty's Extase, but its potentially sensational aspects remain subservient to the director's themes of emotional conflict and compromise. The daughter of a railway station guard, having run away after being seduced and left her pregnant, finds shelter with a gallant (if not so captivating) rescuer who has saved her from rape. But what really distinguishes the film is its wealth of poetic detail (merging raindrops, charging trains), and its bold, frank eroticism, most notably in the opening sequence of the girl's sexual initiation, with its luminous whites and ecstatic throes set almost in abstraction from her world hitherto. The film was censored, of course. This is the near-complete restoration made in 1993, and comes accompanied by Jan Klusák's score, performed by five members of the Czech Film Symphony Orchestra.
75 years after the release of EROTIKON, I had a chance to see it in a modern
EROTIKON, like many silent movies, does not offer much action. The content of the movie is, from today's perspective, quite naive. It is a story of complicated love affairs of George (Olaf Fjord) and his number of women. But, astonishingly, love is not showed as sweetly as in other movies of that time. Some love scenes are, indeed, very open and without taboo (Machaty's way of showing sex was mostly revealed in EXTASE (1933).
There are three most memorable moments in this movie:
- a love scene between George and Andrea (Ita Rina). It is in no way vulgar but it is directed towards her face in ecstasy for most of the time. That is probably the thing that shocked the audiences.
- a scene of playing chess. The thrilling atmosphere is really extraordinary. In very few thrillers nowadays will you find an equally well made scene! WONDERFUL!
- a considerable number of funny slogans throughout the movie. Some are dated but still funny in a way.
For anyone who likes European cinema and for whom film is art in itself, no matter of when it was made, Erotikon is a must to see. It was a great work of the Czech cinema. Partly thanks to this movie, I do believe that silent films may still be highly entertaining. Of course in an entirely different way. They require INTERPRETATION rather than AUTOMATIC WATCHING! Lilian Gish (1893-1993), a famous silent movie star, said once when asked about film art that "silent movies were well on their way to developing into an entirely new art; it was not just pantomime but something wonderfully expressive." After seeing EROTIKON, one may infer the same
Movie Review - - FOREIGN FILMS ABOUND IN PARIS; Poudovkine's ... Morris Gilbert from The New York Times
A film that plays out much like a silent film, and is in fact the director’s first work with sound, edited by Machatý himself, opening with a bizarre camera angles and constant camera movement from Václav Vích, offering the feel of a work environment that resembles Welles’ depiction of Kafka’s THE TRIAL, honing in on two cute co-workers who work at a drab job as audio typists all day long, where the more sexually aggressive Nany, (Jirina Sejbalová), gets a call asking her out and decides to bring along her shy work partner Mána (Magda Maderova), a girl who never goes out. In a swank Prague night club that could just as easily be the evocative decadence of Berlin, where a dance orchestra plays continuously, including a jazz theme scored by Jaroslav Ježek that plays throughout the film, Mr. Ervin, a monocled older sugar daddy, reminiscent of Emil Jannings from THE BLUE ANGEL, buys plenty of champagne, leaving Mána feeling too tipsy to dance, so while Nany dances, Mr. Ervin crudely offers Mána money for the evening, which causes her to run away in disgust, but he places the money in her purse anyway. By the time she gathers her things and runs outside, she runs several blocks before realizing she’s in the middle of a downpour and is soaking wet, taking shelter under an awning where she meets a man, Karel (Ladislav H. Struna), who offers the protection of his apartment nearby, as her clothes are thoroughly soaked. Innocently enough, his actions appear chivalrous, but the sight of a beautiful woman dozing off in his apartment is too much, so he tenderly makes advances which play out offscreen.
In the morning, Karel runs to Nany’s apartment to bring back a change of clothing, but also a note from her that Mr. Ervin wants his money back. In what was a budding love affair, this takes the guy completely by surprise, and when Mána pleads with him that it’s not what he thinks, when she empties her purse to prove it, this money falls out. Devastated, she leaves without her purse or the money, and pulls a ROSETTA scene alone in her apartment. Karel has a change of heart and decides to run after her, but in a wild scene running through an army band marching through the streets of Prague, he’s arrested for stealing the purse in his hand. When he’s finally able to explain, he runs, accompanied by the police, to save his ROSETTA, where in a crazy moment, the music of John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever” plays as they bash in the windows to let in air. This is an interesting American reference, saved by the Americans, which may make little sense today.
Magda Maderova is not your typical lead actress, as she seems molded by the silent era and appears shy and uncomfortable with words, which actually compliments her character, who is believable, totally unpretentious, and completely approachable. At one point, she even breaks into song to express her newly discovered happiness, which is expressed with reserve, but also a delicate touch of tenderness and sweetness. Needless to say, this is a wild film with terrific performances from the two girls, a veritable Céline and Julie from the early years, as they’re incredibly appealing, especially in long wordless sequences showing real depth of emotion, with occasional notes of humor –– a real discovery from the early archives that is simply saturated in recurring romantic musical themes.
CZECH MODERNISM IN FILM: The 1920'S to the 1940's Charles Coleman, Facets Film Programmer
Machatý, a master at conveying sexuality in Pre-Code cinema, makes his first sound film a simple tale of a young woman attracted by the glamour of the champagne set, only to find herself repulsed when she is offered money for sex. Fleeing the scene she runs into a good-hearted workingman, whose simple decency wins her over. Like Lang's M, this is a fantastic example of a silent director embracing sound and using it creatively, as Machatý does with an innovative score by jazz great Jaroslav Jezek. With L. H. Struna, Magda Maderová. Directed by Gustav Machatý, Czechoslavakia, 1931, 35mm, 72 mins.
Czech Modernism in Film: The 1920s to the 1940s Andrea Gronvall from the Reader
Gustav Machaty started in silent films as an actor, then
learned to direct in
Slighter than either Erotikon or Extase, Machaty's first sound film remains typical in its technical and stylistic elan, its transcendence of a potentially banal narrative, and its thematic focus on female innocence and experience in love. Two working women go out on a Saturday night double date with a pair of prospective sugar daddies. Unlike her more knowing friend, shy Mary (Maderová) proves out of her depth, and eventually takes flight into a humbler watering hole, where she meets a man after her own heart. It's a sweet yarn, bolstered by some gentle discursive comedy (the girl surreptitiously returning the skin of her coffee to her host's mug; a delightfully odd cut-away to the corpulent physique behind the voice of a morning radio exercise programme), and an unforced attention to differences of class, character, moral habit and expectation.
Village Voice J. Hoberman (excerpt)
Sex was Machatý's major theme. The lone Czech director of the period with an international reputation (mainly for Hedy Lamarr's bare-all debut in 1933's Ecstasy), Machatý is also represented in the BAM series by his 1931 partial talkie From Saturday to Sunday (December 3). Mildly racy and pleasantly experimental, the movie follows a pair of plump dumplings for a night on the town. Scored by avant-pop composer Jaroslav Ježek, their jaunty trajectory through cabarets and pubs anticipates Martin Scorsese's After Hours complete with romantic switch: Taken out by a rich man, the heroine winds up going home with a poor one.
The Reeler Peter Hames
Jezek bio Jaroslav Ježek, musical director
Gustav Machaty's erotic classic (1932) from Czechoslovakia, which introduced Hedy Lamarr to the world, is considered a curiosity and a period piece by some, but if my own memories are anything to go by, it still has its charms, both cinematic and sensual. Lamarr plays a sexually frustrated young wife who leaves her older husband and subsequently finds bliss with a younger man. 82 min. In Czech with subtitles.
Extase from Time Out
Opening with an exquisite image of a groom carrying his bride over the threshold of their conjugal abode, Machaty's film immediately unravels this romantic ideal, with the seemingly urbane husband proving an impotent dilettante unable to give his wife any attention. Sympathy lies strongly with the woman's plight, but not to the exclusion of other characters' feelings; and when the now abandoned husband comes across the farm labourer his wife has fallen in love with, his tragedy again intercepts her happiness. The simplicity of the story couches some stunning visual coups: a wry, idyllic pastoralism when the woman retreats from the town to her father's horse farm; and the famous sequence of Hedy Kiesler (later Lamarr) bathing nude, with its suggestion of a return to prelapsarian innocence (Vatican censure helped bring the film to a wider audience); the detailed attention to the play of light and shadow, animal and plant life and imagery (from flowers to fly paper); and a magical coda, turning a montage of static machinery into a reflective ode to love and labour.
Cinepassion.org Fernando F. Croce
Neither experimental masterpiece nor pioneering stag movie, Gustav Machaty's controversial, even scandalous search for the female orgasm is to lascivious movie buffs like myself the earliest example of celebrity skin -- namely pre-MGM, 19-year-old Hedy Lamarr (née Hedy Kiesler), running through fields with nary a stitch on and mimicking rapture (in writhing close-up) as a brawny lover goes down on her. She plays a young bride laying heatedly on her honeymoon bedspread while her older, finicky hubby (Zvonimir Rogoz) spends the night organizing his toothbrushes. Her desires neglected, Lamarr files for divorce and runs back to her father's house, until one day she bumps (naked, natch) into virile handyman Aribert Mog, whose proletarian vigor finally delivers the head-tossing fuck denied by the circumscribed bourgeois Rogoz. Despite the association of life forces with working-class studs and the culminating montage of peons happily toiling the earth, the movie's politics are resolutely sexual, and its sense of nearly flabbergasted wonder at the sublime heights of female sexuality keeps interest from waning through an ocean of pedestrian symbolism. (Mostly clearance night at Freud's, opening with a key penetrating its hole and proceeding to toss in horses, trains, dew-dripping pods, phallically extended shoes.) Shot as a monosyllabic semi-talkie, the film is crammed with tilted angles, laboriously idiosyncratic camera placement, abstracting editing, and the poetry of flesh -- the kind of avant-garde sensuality panted over by horny Henry Miller during his European sojourn. (In fact, Miller did praise the work as worthy of D.H. Lawrence, though even as early as 1933 Eros had already been more expressively served by the likes of Dreyer, Von Sternberg, Buñuel, Vigo and Pabst.) In black and white.
Ecstasy - TCM.com Felicia Feaster
The Czechoslovakian film Ecstasy (1933) begins on a joyful note
as the beautiful, young newlywed Eva (Hedy Lamarr) is carried over the marital
threshold by her far older husband Emile (Zvonimir Rogoz). But Eva's nervous
anticipation is immediately dashed by her husband's prim, unromantic manner.
Pulling a frumpy sleeping cap on to protect his hair, Emile fails to respond to
Eva's seductive overtures. Emile's sexual neglect of his young bride eventually
drives her back to her father.
But Eva's romantic dreams are reawakened when she meets a handsome young engineer Adam (Aribert Mog) while skinny-dipping. He helps her recover the horse who has trotted off with her clothes and subsequently helps Eva achieve sexual fulfillment. Disaster ensues when Emile discovers the couple's affair.
A beautifully photographed and, for 1933, unabashedly erotic drama, Ecstasy, also known as Symphony of Love is just that -- a dreamy, nearly wordless sexual reverie. Even today, Ecstasy is most notorious for 15-year-old Lamarr's scenes of nude bathing and lovemaking which the actress claimed were not in the original script, but which director Gustav Machaty sprung on the actress during shooting outside Prague. After much cajoling and tears, Lamarr finally agreed to do the scene if a camera was placed at some distance on a hilltop, though the actress was unaware that the camera was equipped with a telephoto lens. For the indoor lovemaking scenes, Lamarr's desired ecstasy was achieved via Machaty's pricking of Lamarr's buttocks with a safety pin and the enthusiastic ministrations ("his vibrations of actual sex" Lamarr called them) from costar Mog. In her autobiography, Ecstasy and Me, the actress wrote, "If you have ever seen Ecstasy, I can only say that in the close-up section, you may have seen me agonizing over pinpricks! And I have seen that section once myself in which the emotion on my face was pure exhaustion. Because there were takes when I just had nothing left, and could hardly focus my eyes."
Expected problems with censors led to more conservative regional authorities, like the Germans, demanding an alternative version in which Lamarr's nude form was hidden behind bushes.
Ecstasy had even more trouble from American censors. When the film was first imported to America in 1935 a federal marshal burned the film, the first time customs laws had been invoked to keep a film out of America. It was only after significant features of the film were altered that customs allowed the film to pass. The film's initial eyeful of Lamarr's naked body was replaced with the German version featuring Lamarr's hidden nudity. Scenes of copulating horses were removed. Any implication of an adulterous affair between Adam and Eva was removed by tacking on a "happy" conclusion in which a baby made Eva and Adam's married union clear.
However, though the film now passed customs, the Production Code Office was less forgiving and refused to grant Ecstasy its Seal of Approval. Production Code head Joseph Breen reported the film "highly--even outrageously-indecent." And many states refused to show the film. The New York State Board of Regents rejected Ecstasy calling it "indecent, immoral, and tends to corrupt youth." The censors were not so much disturbed by the nude bathing, Lamarr stated in her autobiography, but by a close-up of the "love-starved bride in the act of sexual intercourse." Distributors booked the film in Washington, Newark, Los Angeles and Boston in art theaters to get around Code disapproval.
Ecstasy caused almost as much turmoil in Lamarr's private life. The film so infuriated her new husband, business tycoon and munitions manufacturer Fritz Mandl, he ordered his staff to buy up every print of the film in existence, spending some $280,000 in the process.
Ecstasy was such a key component in Lamarr's professional identity, she entitled her autobiography Ecstasy and Me and said of the notorious film "I had no idea of the humiliation it would cause me...or that it would catapult me out of my Middle-European circle into world fame."
After fleeing her hometown of Vienna and her controlling husband Mandl -- who Lamarr said kept her under lock and key -- the actress had a fateful meeting in London with MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer. The MGM mogul was captivated by her beauty, but disturbed by her nudity in Ecstasy warning her, Lamarr recalled, "no more dirty movies. We make clean pictures at MGM."
Lamarr was eventually signed to MGM after shrewdly negotiating a contract that upped Mayer's initial offer of $125 a week to $500, though Mayer did add a "morality" clause in her contract, to keep the European sophisticate in her place. Lamarr waited anxiously to be cast in a film at MGM, but eventually got her lucky break outside of MGM when she met actor Charles Boyer at a party. Boyer thought she would make a perfect co-star in producer Walter Wanger's American adaptation of Pepe Le Moko (1937), to be titled Algiers (1938), Lamarr's first Hollywood film. It proved to be a smash hit and confirmed Lamarr's superstar potential at MGM.
Movie House Commentary Johnny Web
A delightful little film set in the
The films is about a south pacific
tale of a young deaf boy with no friends until he meets a (rare) white sea
turtle and they become friends. Filmed at the scenic location in Aitutaki
I recommend this film for anyone 6 years and older.
SF, Horror and Fantasy Film Review review [2/5] Richard Scheib
A child is washed up in a basket in the
This New Zealand-made production, shot on the
The depiction of Jonasi’s deafness is nevertheless well done – the way director Yvonne Mackay suddenly cuts to silence in the middle of dances and jeering crowds aptly portrays the confusion a deaf person must find at things we take for granted. It all works reasonably well, although the acting is rather too simplistic to carry it more than adequately, and the hint of reincarnation at the ending is just banal. It is very nicely photographed, both above and below water. For some though the sea turtle’s voice is dubbed as the sonar cry of whales.
The film has many similarities to the later New Zealand-made Whale Rider (2002).
A film noir from the Ealing funny man? But Mackendrick's involvement with cosy British humour was always less innocent than it looked: remember the anti-social wit of The Man in the White Suit, or the cruel cynicism of The Ladykillers? Sweet Smell of Success was the director's American debut, a rat trap of a film in which a vicious NY gossip hustler (Curtis) grovels for his 'Mr Big' (Lancaster), a monster newspaper columnist who is incestuously obsessed with destroying his kid sister's romance... and a figure as evil and memorable as Orson Welles in The Third Man or Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter. The dark streets gleam with the sweat of fear; Elmer Bernstein's limpid jazz score (courtesy of Chico Hamilton) whispers corruption in the Big City. The screen was rarely so dark or cruel.
Sweet Smell of Success Mike D’Angelo from Time Out New York
Pitiless and corrosive, Sweet
Smell of Success may not be the most cynical Hollywood movie ever made—that
honor goes to another picture about journalism at its most heartless, Billy
Wilder's Ace in the Hole—but it's undoubtedly the most quotable. So
distinctively pungent is the film's dialogue, in fact, that Diner, Barry
Levinson's wry portrait of sexual neurosis among a group of young
Walter Winchell, the inspiration for Machiavellian gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Lancaster, oozing rancid bonhomie), has largely been forgotten, and today's tabloid mudslingers are a pale shadow of their forebears in terms of power and influence; if hungry press agent Sidney Falco (Curtis) were still around, he'd be pitching his clients to the producers of Inside Edition. The symbiotic relationship between overlord and sycophant, however, never changes, making this caustic masterpiece feel surprisingly modern. In a move that would still raise the eyebrows of studio suits 45 years later, Sweet Smell explicitly equates publicists with pimps, as a desperate Falco palms one of his floozies off on a Hunsecker rival in exchange for the latter's agreement to run a scurrilous item designed to torpedo the relationship between Hunsecker's beloved sister (Susan Harrison) and a clean-cut jazz musician (Milner). "Watch me run a 50-yard dash with my legs cut off," Falco tells his secretary early on; the sordid pas de deux that follows resembles a couple of porcupines doing the tango without moving their feet.
Sweet Smell of Success - TCM.com Jeff Stafford
Alexander Mackendrick was best known as a director of British comedies (The
Man in the White Suit (1951), The Ladykillers, 1955) when he was
chosen to replace Ernest Lehman as director on Sweet Smell of Success
(1957). The result was a visually stunning and hard-edged film noir melodrama
which was actually a little too strong for mass audience acceptance in its
time. It told the story of J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), a powerful and
dangerous national columnist, and his obsequious assistant, Sidney Falco (Tony
Curtis). Hunsecker, who has the power to make and break reputations in his
daily newspaper column, was said to be modeled on Walter Winchell who had made
his share of enemies during his peak years.
The screenplay was inspired by an original story from Ernest Lehman who worked for celebrity press agent Irving Hoffman in
Due to heath reasons, Lehman, who was serving as director and screenwriter, had to abandon the film production of Sweet Smell of Success in the early stages and MacKendrick took over direction. Clifford Odets was brought in to give the dialogue more punch with street slang and New Yorker vernacular.
What's most surprising is the fact that Sweet Smell of Success was totally ignored during the 1957 Oscar race. Not only was Tony Curtis's breakthrough performance as the self-loathing Sidney Falco ignored but even Elmer Bernstein's dynamic, jazz-influenced score failed to garner an Academy Award nomination. The latter featured notable contributions from Chico Hamilton's Quintet and such fine musicians as Frank Rosolino, Curtis Counce, Paul Horn, and Buddy Clark.
Images Movie Journal Kevin Jack Hagopian
VideoVista review Lucinda Ireson
100 films Lucas McNelly
Noir and the City:
Dark, Dangerous, Corrupt and Sexy
Terrence Rafferty from The New
'McDogme' is the word for this loosely plotted first feature. It's comparatively low rent and pleasantly retro, and feels like it belongs on the small screen - and not just because Monarch of the Glen heart-throb Mackenzie plays Charlie, vengefully driving through remote Scotland to incinerate the house of the pop star who stole his wife. He picks up hitch-hiker Vince (Phillips), a motormouth fleeing unidentified heavies, and when the car runs out of gas they seek refuge at Moore Lodge - a retreat run by the gruff but seemingly benign Rory (Hayman). It's here matters pick up. As we're introduced to the oddball residents, the film stakes out the atmospheric, queasily comic terrain of the 'weirdo-filled mansion' sub-genre. As with most semi-improvised projects, the screenplay is wildly uneven - but director and cast mostly keep the balance tilting the right way, resulting in a promising digital debut full of unpredictable, thistly charm.
Alastair Mackenzie is driving to
There are too many people making independent films on home equipment these days, who seem to think that when they've got enough footage for feature length, they've got a movie. They should take a look at "The Last Great Wilderness", which is a terrific example of how to make real cinema on a low budget. The guys behind this thing are going places, while so many other wannabes are just pissing in the wind and kidding themselves about it.
Actors aren’t often any great shakes in the scriptwriting department, which is why projects billed as improvised or even semi-improvised seldom turn out very well – especially if it’s the director’s first feature. According to this theory The Last Great Wilderness has all the makings of a real dog’s breakfast – a semi-improv, dogme-influenced blend of black comedy and horror that barely bothers to conceal its debts to its many celebrated cinematic forerunners. But somehow it just about manages to work and assert an endearingly rough-edged identity of its own – suggesting director and co-writer Mackenzie is a name to watch when he settles down to more orthodox projects like the forthcoming Alexander Trocchi adaptation Young Adam.
Here he’s working with his brother Alastair, whose character
Charlie isn’t a million miles away from his ‘English-accented posh-bloke in
Getting us to Moor Lodge is a rather laborious process, and the basic set-up (moody, vengeful loner driving through countryside, picks up ‘zany’ hitch-hiker) is a standard-issue scriptwriter’s contrivance. Luckily, things pick up once we’re introduced to the characters who populate the retreat, and the film starts staking out the agreeably atmospheric terrain previously covered in ‘weirdo-filled mansion’ movies like The Old Dark House (1932, remade in 1962), The Horror of It All (1964) and What A Carve Up! (1961) – with inevitable ominous hints of the ‘Tartan terrors’ in The Wicker Man (1973). The final act, meanwhile, when push comes to shove in an unexpectedly gory climax, belongs firmly alongside paranoid rural nightmares like Deliverance (1972) and Straw Dogs (1971).
The Last Great Wilderness, while no masterpiece, is nevertheless a little more than the sum of its many parts. The mood of the film is pleasantly retro – as well as the many movie references, there’s much ‘mad people are the sane ones’ talk ripped straight from the 1960s tomes of R D Laing, plus a decidedly 80s-ish soundtrack from Scots folk-popsters The Pastels, who even make a brief appearance in a party scene in which everyone, the band included, appears in drag (star Mackenzie looks unexpectedly like Juliette Binoche).
Director Mackenzie creates and sustains an intriguing tone, helped by the fact that he has a good eye for composition and landscape, aided by cinematographer Simon Dennis capturing some suitably intense widescreen DV images of the wintry Scots landscapes. Apart from the soundtrack, and a couple of minor (and ill-advised) special effects touches in which a ghostly presence flits in and out of sight, this could probably be described as a ‘McDogme’ project, and the intimacy of the video cameras (not to mention their capacity for infinite retakes) suits the thrown-together, defiantly unpolished, rough-Scots vibe that gives the film its unpredictable, thistly charm.
eFilmCritic Reviews Beth Gilligan
Movie House Commentary Johnny Web
If ever anyone says to you, “You can put that where the sun don’t shine,” think of this film, as I don’t believe the sun ever shines in this film, a deeply probing, but excessively gloomy adaptation of Scottish Beat author Alexander Trocchi’s novel. This is a tense, sexually explicit lower class version of Polanski’s KNIFE ON THE WATER with a brilliant cast, the menage a trois, Les and Ella, played by Peter Mullan and Tilda Swinton, an unhappy couple who transport post-WWII fuel rations on a barge up and down the narrow canals from Glasgow to Edinburgh, who take on hired help in the form of Ewan McGregor, who plays Joe, a chain-smoking, handsome lothario, a self-absorbed character largely based on the author himself, who was a heroin addict who died young. Filled with an attention to detail, few words, and an endlessly gray mood, the film opens on the docks as they sweep a nearly nude body of a woman out of the harbor. Shortly afterwards, Joe is staring at Tilda Swinton’s every move, sharing close quarters underneath the decks of the barge, concealing little from her husband. In this film, no words are needed, and after a brief sexual escapade outdoors on the grassy slopes, when Joe tries to say something, Ella cuts him off quickly, “You’ve said enough for one evening.” In a series of well-placed flashbacks, Joe is seen meeting and romancing the drowned woman found in the water, so the film seems to be moving in slow motion backwards and forwards, all at the same time. The style is absorbing, moody, incredibly detached, but extraordinarily focused on each single moment at hand, which when gone, seems to have never meant very much to anyone at all, as if all is lost in an existential void. The story moves to the murder trial of the drowned girl, as the police seem to be accusing the wrong man, which sparks the interest of Joe, who slowly, but surely, falls farther and farther from grace. The title, I assume, refers to original sin. To quote Michael Wilmington, “ This is an unvarnished, pitiless look at real life by a man who knows his character is deeply flawed and does nothing to disguise or excuse it.”
Time Out review Geoff Andrew
Set in and around Glasgow and Edinburgh in the 1950s, writer/director Mackenzie's impressive film from a novel by the Scottish Beat writer Alexander Trocchi centres on Joe (McGregor), a drifter helping out on the coal barge owned by Les (Mullan) and his wife Ella (Swinton). Soon after the two men find the corpse of a young woman floating down by the docks, Joe embarks on an affair with Ella that will have dramatic consequences for all three. It's a dark, brooding film, most notable perhaps for the surprisingly forthright eroticism of Joe's scenes with both Ella and Cathie (Mortimer), the lover seen in the film's many flashbacks. Now and then the dialogue grows a little too florid (which may almost be explained away by Joe's past), but Giles Nuttgens' noir camerawork and the excellent performances of all four principals carry the day.
Young Adam Michael Sicinski from the Academic Hack
This is a tricky film to critique, since its intent is clear and, I think, worthy. But this can't excuse its ultimate failure to deliver on its promise. Ewan McGregor is Joe, not so much a human being as a primal male force. Following his huge schlong (played by Ewan McGregor's penis) into an endless string of Penthouse Forum encounters, Joe seems to embody a certain strain of virility fantasy, recoded as absolute psychopathology. He's "innocent" in a Nietzschean sense, a guilt-free Superman acting without plan and shrugging off consequences. This Adam works aboard the Glaswegian barge the Atlantic Eve, screwing everything in sight, both literally (Tilda Swinton's Ella) and metaphorically (Peter Mullan's cuckolded Les, whose name is pronounced with a distinct, feminizing Z-sound at the end). The rapidity with which women shed their frocks clearly marks this film as some sort of allegory, as does its gorgeously deliberate use of the river, but first-timer Mackenzie loses control of his material. The flashback-subplot involving Joe's girlfriend Cathy (Emily Mortimer) works in tandem with the overall critique-of-the-unchained-male-libido structure for most of the first half -- Joe and Cathy's sex is even more rutting and animalistic than his encounters with Ella -- but these passages veer into the risibly outsized (the bizarre, jaw-dropping custard sequence, successful in itself but belonging in a more psychologically oriented film), culminating in an interminable third-act trial. Beautifully lensed, mostly well-acted (within the limited emotional framework), but shoddily structured and -- worst offense overall -- gratingly scored by David Byrne, obviously trying for "minimalist New Age crime drama," and hitting that dubious mark.
Emotion stains the walls of this period film like gutter
waste. It is as if Dostoevsky walked in the shadow of the
The way that writer/director David Mackenzie has adapted Alexander Trocchi's novel makes it difficult to describe without puncturing the plot. It's like being dealt a hand of cards, before arranging them into suits. The cards are moments in time and there is no order yet.
The use of flashback has always been a delicate business. There is the one-blink effect of instant memory, or the blurry fade into nostalgic soup, or the whooshy light show that precedes recollection. Mackenzie allows the past and present to flow together. The story emerges by chance, scene by scene. It is a technique that could easily lead to confusion, especially without the safety harness of a voice-over commentary, and yet it works beautifully, enhanced by exceptional performances and a taut, literate script.
Joe (Ewan McGregor) works on a coal barge, with Les (Peter Mullan), his wife Ella (Tilda Swinton) and their young son. Once he was a writer, but now he's a hired hand. There is a sense of loss about him.
The body of a girl is fished out of the water. The incident becomes news, followed by a murder enquiry. Les is proud to have been part of something that was reported in the papers. For Joe, it is different. The girl's name is Cathy (Emily Mortimer). Once, they were lovers. As the river runs through it, their story floats to the surface.
This is a film about the responsibility of action, how desire cuts at the roots of loyalty, how the weakness of a moment destroys the lives of the innocent, how retribution seldom finds what it's looking for. The evocation of the Fifties, when everyone had a fag in their mouth and women drank neat gin and sex was barely understood, except by men like Joe who took it where they could, violently. The atmosphere of repressed passion is as strong as the taste of blood on the lips of the wounded.
The colour is drained to the shade of a drowned baby's lips.
David Byrne's music swamps the senses. Mackenzie shows courage and demonstrates
a confidence that British films have been crying out for too long. This is
genuine auteur cinema from
McGregor gives the strongest, most sensitive performance of his career. Swinton, as ever, is fearless and Mullan shows dignity in a role that is painful to watch at times, while Mortimer allows herself to be humiliated with a dedication that is brave beyond reach.
BFI | Sight & Sound | Young Adam (2002) Philip Kemp from Sight and Sound, October 2003
Scotland, the 50s. Joe Taylor (Ewan McGregor), a young drifter, works with Les (Peter Mullan) and Ella Gault (Tilda Swinton) on their coal barge plying the canals between Glasgow and Edinburgh. One day Joe and Les find a young woman's near-naked body floating in the sea and notify the police. Joe and Ella are physically attracted, and one night while Les is at the pub they have sex.
In flashback, Joe meets a girl called Cathie Dimley (Emily Mortimer) and moves in with her. After breaking up, they meet by chance on the dockside. They have sex under a truck, but when she suggests they get married, Joe pushes her away and she falls into the harbour. Joe panics and runs off, later disposing of her clothes.
The Gaults' young son Jim (Jack McElhone)falls overboard; Joe rescues him. He becomes increasingly involved with Ella. Les discovers the affair and, as Ella owns the barge, sullenly leaves. It's reported that Cathie (whose body Joe and Les retrieved) had been seeing a married man, Daniel Gordon, now arrested for her murder.
Ella suggests she and Joe should settle down together. Her sister Gwen (Therese Bradley), recently widowed, comes to visit. Joe and Gwen have sex on a street corner. When Ella senses this, Joe leaves and finds lodgings, where he starts an affair with his landlord's wife. He attends the trial and sees Daniel condemned to death before trudging away along the quayside.
Portraying an emotionally amputated protagonist without either soliciting sympathy or alienating your audience is no mean trick. It defeated Visconti in his over-literal adaptation of Camus' L'tranger (Lo straniero, 1967), a novel with which Alexander Trocchi's Young Adam has often been compared. Other directors have been more successful with less head-on tactics; in Leo the Last (1969) John Boorman undermined his exiled, passive-aggressive aristo with subversive humour, and the Coen Brothers brought a cool monochrome elegance and glittering irony to bear on The Man Who Wasn't There. David Mackenzie, in his second feature as writer-director, takes his own route but still hits the target.
Trocchi's 1954 cult novel is written in the first person, but Mackenzie rejects the obvious solution of giving his anti-hero, Joe Taylor, a doomy noirish voiceover. Instead Joe's affectless state of mind is expressed through the gritty visual texture and cold, grey-blue palette, flat, detached dialogue and above all Ewan McGregor's performance. Paring away the streetwise perkiness of his earlier roles, he evinces a hungry, raw dissatisfaction, his mouth skewed in a grimace of anticipated distaste.
Mackenzie's debut feature, The Last Great Wilderness, had atmosphere to spare but lacked focus, veering wildly; if divertingly from road movie to black comedy to Polanskian Grand Guignol, all leavened with a hint of The Wicker Man. Young Adam, with the spine of Trocchi's terse novel to keep it on course, establishes its tone with far more assurance, and sticks to it. The script deviates very little from the original, least of all in its key narrative obliquity: Joe's connection with the girl whose corpse he drags from the water when working on a barge is withheld from us until halfway through. By the time we find out, it's evident that any recourse to Dostoevskian redemption-through-guilt is beyond Joe's moral compass.
The script includes only one significant deviation from the novel, in which Joe rescues his employers' young son from drowning. It's hard to see why this was inserted, unless to soften Joe's character which would be odd, since there are no other attempts to ingratiate him. Otherwise Mackenzie handles his material with a light touch and intimate attention to physical detail: the sense of grimy, sweaty flesh, especially in the sex scenes on the barge, is startlingly vivid. In a moment of supreme post-coital disaffection, Joe watches expressionless as a fat black fly takes a leisurely stroll around Ella's nipple.
Mackenzie draws edgy, exact performances from Tilda Swinton and Peter Mullan, while Emily Mortimer makes the most of an underwritten role as Joe's put-upon girlfriend. There's a relishably slatternly cameo from Therese Bradley as Ella's sister Gwen, complete with black-rooted hennaed hair, blood-gash lipstick and chillingly reductive attitude to sex ("Drink up. We've got business to attend to").
Mackenzie resists jazzing up his story with any spurious sense of urgency or passion. Barring one brief, bizarre scene of erotic violence involving custard and spanking with a wooden slat Young Adam moves with the torpid, inexorable pace of the coal barge itself, abetted by David Byrne's moody score. Such assured film-making augurs well for Mackenzie's next project, an adaptation of Patrick McGrath's gothic tour de force, Asylum.
BFI | Sight & Sound | Written On The Body Ryan Gilbey from Sight and Sound, September 2003
Reverse Shot review Bob Carroll
Kamera.co.uk review Jon Ashton
Slant Magazine Ed Gonzalez
culturevulture.net, Choices for the Cognoscenti review Arthur Lazere
Reel.com review [3/4] Pam Grady
Plume Noire review Moland Fengkov
Kamera.co.uk dvd review Charlie Phillips
Reel.com dvd review [2.5/4] Bonnie Fazio
hybridmagazine.com review Leah Churner
Movie House Commentary Johnny Web and Tuna
Strictly Film School review Acquarello
Interview with Tilda Swinton
Interview by Suzie Mackenzie,
The Globe and Mail review [2/4] Rick Groen
Seattle Post-Intelligencer review Sean Axmaker
Boston Globe review [2.5/4] Ty Burr
Like ‘Asylum’s’ Dr Peter Cleave (Ian McKellen), the movie industry specialises in sexual pathology and its associated catastrophes. Making a useful contribution to the subject is therefore pretty tough, but David Mackenzie managed it in his last film (‘Young Adam’, also adapted from a British novel set in the 1950s), telling an affecting story about disaffected characters across whose torpid sexuality death flickered like a fly around a nipple. Unfortunately, ‘Asylum’ proves a disappointingly uninvolving follow-up.When Max Raphael (Hugh Bonneville) is given a top position at a secure psychiatric hospital, his bored wife Stella (Natasha Richardson) finds her 60-a-day habit and plunging necklines out of step with other asylum wives. Instead she forges a blunt, Chatterleyesque liaison with inmate Edgar Stark (Marton Csokas), who is mad, bad and decidedly dangerous to know. Meanwhile McKellen hovers with predatory charm, as if belatedly auditioning for Hannibal Lecter, and Bonneville is left spitting unpleasantries (although the sharpest lines go to Judy Parfitt as his mother: ‘Don’t let your shame degenerate into self-pity,’ she sniffs at Stella). Each character is unlikeable and deluded, their problems self-inflicted; worse, Mackenzie’s hands-off stance leaves them cold to the touch. Similarly, the setting of drab garretts and blasted plains is not just austere but miserabilist: a long shot of a minibus puffing its way up a desolate Welsh hillside verges on camp. There are some nice touches – the long tracking shot that follows Edgar’s initial bee-line towards Stella at a hospital dance – but others tend towards glibness: a broken glass frame separates them before the tension boils over. The narrative feels broken-backed too, reaching an apparent climax an hour in, and then episodically prolonging Stella’s decline towards a denouement apparently modelled on ‘Vertigo’. But where Hitchcock made tragedy of willing delusion, ‘Asylum’ offers only self-absorption.
Slant Magazine review Jeremiah Kipp
David Mackenzie relishes dark tales of sexual obsession like
a gleeful masturbator, following up last year's with this adaptation of Patrick
McGrath's modern gothic novel. Once again, he takes a compelling literary work
and renders it trite, and, since he appears indifferent to visual storytelling,
he lets his well-cast actors dictate the rhythm of scenes. But the greater problem
seems to be his use of highbrow literary works as an excuse for tawdry sex
scenes, which seem calculated, not earthy. In , the scene where Ewan McGregor
sprays condiments all over his nubile girlfriend tries so willfully to be edgy
that it becomes laughable.
Asylum is likewise doomed by its own self-importance. Buttoned-down psychiatrist's wife Stella Raphael (Natasha Richardson) takes up residence at a high-security mental institution for the criminally insane. Her uptight husband (Hugh Bonneville) has become deputy superintendent, and has little time for her. Enter handsome, brooding gardener Edgar Stark (Marton Csokas), a former sculptor who brutally destroyed his wife in a jealous rage. Late 1950s housewife repression gives way to naked desire, and Cinemax-style sex in the greenhouse. But the enigmatic Dr. Cleve (Ian McKellen) keeps a close watch over his patient, and develops an unhealthy fascination for Stella. Screenwriter Patrick Marber preserves the radical plot twists intact from McGrath's novel, but his translation loses the author's tone of dry macabre.
This failed opportunity is nearly saved by Richardson, who hasn't had so meaty a role in years—a curse that befalls many a talented fortysomething actress. She digs into it with the fearlessness of her mother Vanessa (who she strikingly resembles). It's a woman's dream part: the Queen Bee surrounded by amorous would-be suitors.
Seattle Post-Intelligencer review Paula Nechak
Patrick McGrath's 1997 gothic novel is on my list of favorite books, so with anticipation, and wariness, I asked to review the film.
I was wary because David Mackenzie was onboard as director. He made an aberration of a movie called "Young Adam" two years ago and its crassness was so distasteful I wondered if he could get sophisticated nuance in a story dealing with psychological obsession and the societal and literal confinement that punishes its rebellious lovers.
Also a little worrying was playwright Patrick Marber, who with Chrysanthy Balis, wrote the script. I feared the cold disconnect of character in Marber's play "Closer" would pervade McGrath's balanced insight and make it difficult to connect with people whose helpless, monstrous actions may have been impossible to fathom in the 1950s, but not in our age of reality TV and road rage.
I'm delighted to say I've been proved wrong. "Asylum" is a reverently faithful and compact adaptation and, though it skims over the book's initial tone in favor of a NASCAR race of sexual sensationalism, it captures the tragicomic hypocrisy of McGrath's narrative and manages to mine the emotional ballast in a consumptive love that destroys all in its path.
"We wish you many contented years here among the confined and the confused," toasts Jack Straffen (Joss Ackland), superintendent at a decaying, depressed English asylum for the criminally insane. He's hoisting a glass to forensic psychiatrist Max Raphael (Hugh Bonneville). It's 1959 and Max, his wife, Stella (Natasha Richardson), and their young son, Charlie, have come to this end-of-the-earth place to wait for a better one. There's tension between Max and Stella, perhaps a hint of some previous transgression by a wife toward her husband's inability to understand her -- and so tries instead to contain her.
The family meet Peter Cleave (Ian McKellen), a bloodless doctor who is as diabolical and controlling as a spider in a web waiting for the fly to make its fatal mistake. In the early, languid days of settling in, Max decides to renovate an old conservatory at the far end of a garden.
A handful of inmates are assigned the task of glazing the broken glass with new panes. And it is here that Stella meets Edgar Stark (Marton Csokas), a sexy artist-turned-murderer afflicted by "severe personality disorder with features of morbid jealousy." The two become acquaintances and more -- swallowed up by a lust that upends rationale.
"Asylum" is a film that takes you by surprise, refusing to relinquish its grim, fascinating hold. Better yet, it has crept up on us without much advance promotional fanfare. The less known about its twists, the better.
Author McGrath stated in a 1998 interview that "to sacrifice all for love would soon find (one) in a very difficult situation ... love at a certain point, has to relinquish its exclusiveness, lovers have to become rehabilitated into the wider society." It's the exquisite performances that draw on this tenet and bring suspense and comprehension to a startling turn of events.
Richardson, who also executive produced, is a heartbreaking, strong Stella, failed by being born in the wrong era -- and by the wrong men.
the moral compass of the story. New Zealander Csokas, who has been relegated to
playing villain roles in "xXx" and "
DVD Times Anthony Nield
Movie House Commentary Johnny Web
Boston Globe review [2.5/4] Ty Burr
aka: Mister Foe
A dirty little story
about dirty family secrets, and my how the ultra rich have secrets. There are strange goings on at this Scottish
estate, which is a massive home on plenty of forested grounds where one young
boy, Hallam (Jamie Bell), retreats from his father and stepmother as much as
possible, preferring instead to live in a giant treehouse which servers as a
veritable shrine to his deceased mother, including candles and a giant,
wall-sized photo, a place where he picks up the habit of using binoculars to
spy on people, also wearing a badger pelt half naked and swinging from the tree
unannounced, but let’s not concern ourselves with details. Believing his step-mother (Claire Forlani in
her best Cruella De Vil) is the re-incarnation of Hamlet’s step-father, namely
that she secretly killed his own mother to be with his father, Hallam has
difficulty remaining civil around her, where conversation runs ice cold, to say
the least. When Hallam’s sister goes off
to college, the step-mother confronts Hallam in the manner of the rich and
famous, by sleeping with him, after which she insidiously suggests he fly the
coop on the first train out of town.
Finding himself alone in
Because of the
wish-fulfillment aspect of his fantasy world, one would think it possible to
see Hallam actually meet Kate onscreen, while it might never have really
happened. But not only does he walk into
her office asking about a job, she actually gives him one working in a hotel
kitchen as a dishwasher—perfect for our muddle-minded spyboy who gets to stay
in short range of his obsession. Instead
of rejoicing at his prospects, he is not satisfied and wants more, sneaking
into her home and peering into her windows while perched on the roof at night,
like some kind of creepy Phantom of the Opera, fascinated and repulsed by what
he sees, watching her have sex with his overly pompous hotel manager (Jamie
Sives) where they work, a married man who leaves as quickly as he comes. Most incredulously, upon reaching his 18th
birthday, Kate notifies him of an automatic pay raise he’ll receive, even
suggesting she’ll join the boys after work for a celebratory pint at a local
pub. After a marathon night of binge
drinking, when she whispers dirty thoughts into his ear and actually brings him
home, it defies belief. When we see a
shot of him staring through her roof window looking down at him in bed with
her, it could only be happening inside his head, a thought prolonged until the
mandatory day after talk when of course she tells him it was all a
mistake. From this point on, despite
Once Kate takes him in, her role in the film accelerates and she’s nothing less than remarkable, especially in the indignant manner that she holds him accountable after she discovers the dead mother connection and that he’s been stalking her the whole time, a somewhat bizarre scene where I thoroughly expected Etta James to be singing “Tell Mama.” The film is nicely paced and gorgeously filmed by Giles Nuttgens but truly falls into the eccentric category, perhaps a distant cousin to LARS AND THE REAL GIRL (2007), both films released the same year featuring tender young men who have extreme difficulties accepting reality, each walking a fine line between sanity and mental retardation. Hallam is surprisingly resilient and lucky with the ladies, all the more impressive since he’s one nut from being in either the lunatic asylum or prison. Their scenes together are mysteriously compelling and both sizzle with a strange erotic attraction. Still and all, the peculiarities of accepting this scenario as plausible undermines the dramatic power of the film, where identifying with either lead character Hallam or Kate becomes near impossible, lessening the overall impact, which is certainly enjoyable, but only from a distance.
Most of the interesting Scottish films of recent years have
had a certain oddball feeling, seeing the world from the point of view of an
alienated, sometimes voyeuristic outsider. One thinks of Lynne Ramsay's Morvern
Callar, Andrea Arnold's
Jamie Bell, now a seasoned performer in his early twenties,
plays a wealthy architect's son, unhinged by his mother's recent death, which
he blames on his father's former secretary, now his stepmother (Claire
Forlani). He runs away to
A happening indie soundtrack, a nice lead performance - it's all here, and yet it can't somehow cancel out my feeling that the story's tosh-level is considerably in excess of the EU maximum. Jamie Bell plays young Hallam Foe, a tortured teen who lives in a very grand house somewhere in the Scottish borders. He has lost the plot since his mother died: murdered, he suspects, by his foxy stepmother, played by Claire Forlani, who has ensnared the heart of his good-natured but ineffectual dad, played by Ciarán Hinds. So now Hallam spends his time hanging out in his treehouse - a sign of ineffable creepiness in any other film, but here the token of wounded, eccentric sensitivity - and spying on local folk with his binoculars.
When he runs away to Edinburgh, Hallam finds himself scampering roguishly along the rooftops and working a menial job in a hotel, with whose personnel manager (Sophia Myles) he conceives an obsession, because she is the dead spit of his dead mum. Jamie Bell has grown into a performer with warmth and style, and David Mackenzie's direction is exuberant, but the story itself is self-regarding, and the ending, with its muddled vengefulness, strains both sympathy and credibility.
A persistently off-kilter blend of Gothic, thriller and
comedy, Scottish director David Mackenzie's "Mister Foe" may not be entirely original or
entirely successful, but it's definitely fun to watch. A director bursting with
verve and technical prowess who's somewhere between the mainstream and the
margins of British film, Mackenzie seems almost overdue for an American
breakthrough. But his Hitchcock-via-Patrick McGrath erotic thriller "Asylum"
wasn't quite that movie (although I really liked it), and "Mister
Foe" -- "Hallam Foe" in its
Eponymous Hallam Foe (Jamie Bell, in a memorable performance)
is a lonely and demented Scottish teenager with occasional transvestite
tendencies, a habit of spying on people while they're having sex, and a
half-baked idea that his vixenish stepmother (Claire Forlani) actually poisoned
and drowned his late mother. Mind you, he's thoroughly charming and without
question the hero of the film. There's an entire
Most of the film concerns Hallam's increasingly insane relationship with a blond hotel manager (Sophia Myles) who, at least in his mind, strongly resembles his mother. Boy peeps at girl, girl finds boy a job, girl has rough sex with married man, girl falls for boy (without yet knowing that he's already seen her naked). But the enjoyment in "Mister Foe" flows more from its foulmouthed wit and from the often dazzling cinematography of Gilles Nuttgens than from its ludicrous plot. As in "Asylum," Mackenzie's passion for brooding, rotting, half-ruined Victorian architecture sometimes throws the characters into the shade.
Electric Sheep Magazine Sarah Cronin
Both thriller and comedy, Hallam Foe is an enticing coming-of-age film about love, grief and redemption. Directed by David Mackenzie (Young Adam), and based on the novel by Peter Jinks, it’s dominated by Jamie Bell’s exciting performance as the title character – a screwed-up teenager addicted to voyeurism.
Grieving over the mysterious death of his mother, Hallam is an
almost feral creature, hunting his prey on the family estate in
A humorous current runs through the film, from the opening credits (animated by the much loved off-kilter illustrator David Shrigley) through to the very end. But at its heart, Hallam Foe is something of a thriller. Echoes of Hitchcock permeate the film’s style and narrative. In Edinburgh, Hallam’s pursuit of Kate, and her blonde hair, pulled back tightly, recall Kim Novak in Vertigo; so too do the vertiginous views of the city as Hallam clambers over the slate rooftops to spy on her. There is also something Rear Window-like in his insatiable voyeurism; not physically bound in a wheelchair as Jimmy Stewart is, he’s handicapped instead by his grief. Spying on other people is Hallam’s way of escape, of submerging his pain over the loss of his mother. But it’s also an addiction that spirals out of control; seeing only fragments of the big picture, Hallam, like Stewart, comes to suspect that a murder’s been committed. The suspicion that his stepmother might be involved in his mother’s death becomes an obsession, tormenting him until he has no choice but to act. The film unravels, like Hitchock’s movies, as part mystery, part thriller, and part romance.
The claustrophobic camerawork forces us to see through Hallam’s
eyes. On the family estate, sweeping views of the
Though the film celebrates
Reel.com review [2.5/4] Bonnie Fazio
Movie House Commentary Johnny Web
Seattle Post-Intelligencer review Bill White
Great Britain (106 mi) 2013 ‘Scope Official site
A highly acclaimed British prison drama shot by an independent minded Scottish film director, the maker of YOUNG ADAM (2002) and HALLAM FOE (2007), one that uses a grim, ultra realistic style featuring ferocious acting, but at the same time stretches credulity, seemingly in contrast with one another, where many viewers will be scratching their heads wondering why violent criminals are contained in such a seemingly lax prison environment, as so much of the depiction of endless violence inside the prison is simply never contained, where there never seems to be appropriate consequences for obvious violations. As the film is actually shot in the unused correctional center of HM Prison Maze in Belfast, Northern Ireland, closed since September 29, 2000, the irony is not lost on the viewers, as this was the site of the notorious 1981 Irish hunger strike when ten Irish political prisoners starved themselves to death, including Bobby Sands, who was a Member of Parliament at the time The reason for his imprisonment was the possession of a handgun, for which he was sentenced to fourteen years in maximum security prison, some of which was spent naked while in solitary confinement, whose life was depicted with stunning clarity by British director Steve McQueen in HUNGER (2008). This film initially has the feel of authenticity, adapted from a screenplay by Jonathan Asser who worked as a voluntary prison therapist at HM Prison Wandsworth in London, home of some of the country’s most violent criminals. The title of the film represents the prison terminology used when they transfer a youth offender to an adult prison unit, in this case teenage Eric Love (Jack O’Connell), a troubled kid from working class London with a violently abusive past. However, nothing is known about him in the opening except he is a new prisoner, where the attention to detail is meticulously accurate, where he is forced to strip, his body inspected for contraband, and given a prison uniform to wear. This begins a long, extended walk in real time that couldn’t be more precisely choreographed, wordlessly unlocking one set of doors while closing and locking the door behind, perhaps asking him to step forward, repeating the process again and again as a guard leads him through an elaborate maze of endless locked doors and empty walkways before finally arriving to his solitary cell. The degree of locked down order and professionalism maintained in this sequence quickly erodes, where the conditions inside eventually descend into chaos and madness. While it never reaches the heights of Jacques Audiard’s unflinching, near documentary realism in 2010 Top Ten Films of the Year: #10 A Prophet (Un Prophète), and is near unintelligible (no subtitles) due to the non-stop use of profanity and heavily accented slang, MacKenzie nonetheless creates a bleak portrait of conflicting prison interests.
This kid doesn’t waste any time and immediately gets to work melting the handle of his toothbrush where he’s smuggled a razor blade, molding the blade into the handle as a makeshift knife, immediately hiding it in the florescent lighting fixture on the ceiling. This sequence has a Bressonian feel to it that’s told in a worldless rhythm defined by this particular environmental space, where he calmly measures each move even as internally he is emotionally rocked by this major change in his life. By morning, he’s already verbally sparring with another large black inmate, where a bit of name calling will likely lead to predictable results, where it appears he intentionally picked this fight, publically, and in front of all the other inmates. Taking his food to his cell, he lies in wait afterwards, pretending he is sleeping. When another black prisoner from across the hall walks into his open cell, Eric springs from the bed and viciously attacks him, knocking him out with a single blow, dragging the man to the end of the hallway where the guards can provide medical treatment. It’s little more than profanity being spewed back and forth between the prisoner and the guards, where no one simply talks, instead they shout and intimidate, where every act is a threat, using unintelligible slang that seems to define an unbalanced prison state of belligerence, where being a little mental can be used to one’s advantage. By the time the guards enter his cell with riot gear, he fends them off with the broken legs of a wooden desk, using them as clubs, waving them in the air like a maniac. Even after he’s apparently subdued, he chomps down on a guard’s testicles like a pitbull, eventually leading to a standoff, but only after a prison counselor Oliver (Rupert Friend) insists that he attend group therapy, “I can reach him,” he pleads, seemingly locking heads over the issue with Deputy Warden Hayes (Sam Spruell) who gives his permission. Unlike Destin Cretton’s equally gut-wrenching Short Term 12 (2013), where there is a clear line between administrators and supervisory staff, not always in agreement but the film adequately explains the differing perspectives, this film makes no attempt whatsoever to provide any rational view of the administrators in charge of the prison, and instead turns them into bigger monsters than the prisoners themselves, modeled apparently after Cruella De Vil, as their criminally heinous acts throughout are nothing less than villainous. It is surprising, however, to see female guards in an all-male prison facility that is this violent, where the head administrator is a big-bosomed, cruel-intentioned blond woman (Sian Breckin), using Hayes to run interference in the trenches for her.
It’s a half-hour into the film before we discover a major revelation, curiously revealed by Eric’s improbable exploration into another inmate’s cell on the same wing where he finds a drawing he made as a child crudely showing a young child standing alongside his mother and father, all holding hands, with the inscription, “I Love you daddy.” Meet Eric’s father, Neville Love, Ben Mendelsohn, an Australian actor from David Michôd’s Animal Kingdom (2010), separated from Eric at the age of 5, who adds something of a psychotic presence to an already hysterical prison environment, as his hair-trigger temper and propensity for violence makes him one of the lifers, his sentence extended as he apparently killed another prisoner, where he represents the hardened view of an inmate that will never see the light of day. Eric, on the other hand, has only five years to serve and he’s free, his Dad reminds him, so he needs to cooperate and keep his hands clean, urging him to listen and follow instructions in therapy, which is little more than anger management sessions, though Eric does eventually acknowledge he was abused by a pedophile at the age of 10, where prisoners may become unhinged and subject to making vicious assaults when verbally provoked, where standing up for yourself isn’t so much a choice but a mandatory prerequisite to staying alive. Eric, however, has little regard for the rules and remains out of control throughout, trashing his own cell as well as others, assaulting multiple guards, cutting up another inmate’s face, yet has free reign to wander the place at will with little, if any, consequences for his actions. This defies belief, where the film is not without its flaws and has a clear ideological agenda, pitting the idealistic motives of the “volunteer” unpaid prison therapist, whose unconventional motives suggest his own dark past, against the more corrupt aims of the embattled administration that holds no hope whatsoever in the idea of prisoner rehabilitation, and instead routinely covers up their own treacherous crimes of targeting certain incorrigibles with murder faked to look like suicides. When Hayes decides to implement such a plan against Eric, his father Neville goes ballistic, forced to fight through a battle royale of prison guards standing in his way to finally get to his son, which despite the authentic tone throughout adamantly strains belief, turning this into a kind of superhero prison drama, where the prisoners continually exert their moral and physical superiority over the continually outmanned and overwhelmed prison system that is crushed by the weight of its own ineptitude. While the performances throughout are stellar, this grim and tightly edited drama literally makes the audience choke on the suffocating conditions, graphically raw and intense, never allowing the transcendent release of Bresson’s A Man Escaped (Un Condamné à Mort s'est échappé) (1956), continually tightening the screws, allowing no space to breathe in this taut prison thriller.
Review: Starred Up | Film Comment Graham Fuller
In the British prison system, an inmate under 21 who proves too dangerous to be held in a youth offender institution will be moved—or “starred up”—to an adult facility. So it is with Eric Love (Jack O’Connell), a 19-year-old working-class Londoner in Scottish director David Mackenzie’s punishing realist drama, written by Jonathan Asser, who drew upon his own experiences working as a counselor in HM Prison Wandsworth.
Initially held in solitary, Eric is unfazed by having to keep company with all the Choppers and Bronsons when he’s assigned a cell in a communal wing. He batters the faces of two prisoners, trounces a handful of guards in riot gear who try to subdue him, and clamps his teeth around another guard’s testicles, then slashes the face of another prisoner with a weapon he’s made from a razor and a toothbrush.
Eric is so violent that the ineffectual Deputy Governor Hayes (Sam Spruell) feels he has no option but to have him hanged, and the killing passed off as a suicide. By the time Hayes reaches this decision, however, disclosures about the kid’s history and his attempts to manage his anger via the group therapy sessions run by Oliver Baumer (Rupert Friend), an unpaid upper-class voluntary worker, have made him a character with whom it is possible to empathize, if not identify.
One sign of this is the drawing Eric made, as a child of 5, showing himself, his mother, and his father holding hands, above the words, “I Love you daddy.” It turns out to be stuck to the wall of his father’s cell—which happen to be in the same wing as Eric’s: Neville Love (Ben Mendelsohn) is an intimidating long-term con whose sentence has been increased because he killed another prisoner. With his father in prison and his mother dead, Eric was taken into care as a boy and abused by a pedophile on whose face he poured boiling water and sugar when he was 10. He’s serving his current sentence for “offing” a man who killed or hurt (it’s not clear) a woman dismissed by his father as a “junkie Slut.” Because of Starred Up’s murky sound and criminal argot, U.S. viewers may miss some of these details, though Mackenzie’s tense, fluent storytelling—more indebted to Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped than Alan Clarke’s Scum, the obvious antecedent—is emphatically visual.
Neville encourages his son to attend Oliver’s meetings—from which the savvy Eric quickly benefits—but twice disrupts them. He is jealous that another man is usurping his long-forsaken paternal role. Intrigued by therapy’s potential to help him curb his own ferocious rages, he is too proud or too conflicted to sit in. He also resents Eric’s “fraternizing” with other men who value the sessions, not least because they are black. As it portrays the battle of wills between two men for one savable youth’s soul, Starred Up unostentatiously depicts other integral aspects of prison life—administrative corruption and homosexuality, as well as racism.
Whereas Scum, adapted by Roy Minton from his stage play, excoriated the inability of the British borstal system to rehabilitate young offenders, Starred Up is more optimistic, given Eric’s growing control of his temper. The reconciliation between Eric and Neville after the film’s histrionic final battle redeems the latter, yet the last words he speaks to his son—“I’m proud to be your dad”—are bitterly ironic. His removal from the scene doesn’t come a moment too soon.
Starred Up opens in a dark anteroom where 16-year-old Eric Love (Jack O'Connell) is being processed into a prison for adults, a status he earned (the Brits call it being "starred up") due to the violence and the frequency of his crimes. O'Connell plays Eric as a near-feral survivor of abuse and neglect; his movements economical and confident, he carries himself like a cat, quick to react to a threat and prone to bursts of ferocity. Soon after arriving, Eric nearly kills a fellow prisoner who's done him no harm and then battles the guards who try to subdue him, creating a standoff by taking one man's penis in his mouth through his pants and threatening to bite it off. Though this preemptive strike is presumably intended to keep the other prisoners at bay, it has the opposite effect, earning Eric the enmity of powerful alpha dogs like one of the guards who runs the prison and the suave prisoner who unofficially runs Eric's unit and doesn't want some crazy kid causing trouble on his turf.
Eric's volatility also earns the attention of two men who want him to calm down for his own sake: his estranged father, Neville (Ben Mendelsohn), a longtime prisoner high in the pecking order, and Oliver (Rupert Friend), a volunteer who leads an encounter group whose members learn to break the cycle of violence they've been trapped in. But what first appears to be a good dad/bad dad battle for Eric's soul, with Oliver demonstrating the power of respect and affirmation while Neville fails miserably with his hectoring and beatings, turns into something more interesting as both men exhibit more—and more complicated—aspects of their characters. Oliver's crusade to give Eric a place to be "just a kid" learning how to be a man turns into a battle with the prison brass, who are half-convinced from the start that Eric is beyond redemption. When Oliver loses that fight, Friend lets us see what's behind the hints people have been dropping about how unstable Oliver may be, despite his calm façade. Meanwhile, without ever lowering the wattage on Neville's fury or the power he wields over other inmates, Mendelsohn runs through an arpeggio of emotional changes as Neville struggles with jealousy over Eric's relationships with men who can mentor him better than he can, acknowledges his cluelessness about parenting, and fumbles his way through to a breakthrough of sorts.
The film's staunch realism probably owes something to director David Mackenzie's decision to film the scenes in chronological order and keep his actors on location in a former maximum-security prison in Northern Ireland, and to the care he took to make sure that even actors with just a few lines could match the intensity and complexity Mendelsohn and O'Connell bring to their roles. Mackenzie was also wise to work with a writer who was intimately familiar with his subject; screenwriter Jonathan Asser was, like Oliver, a volunteer therapist who led group sessions in a British maximum security prison, which may help explain why the dynamics of Oliver's group feel so believable. A peaceful conversation can turn into a confrontation on a dime, and when it does the men spring from their seats, using their chests to confront, block, or shield one another while the talk roils on, Oliver and the other noncombatants working hard to defuse the situation before it explodes.
But Starred Up isn't just about life in prison. It's also about the brutality and neglect in the outside world that made Eric near-psychotically violent and unable to trust others. Oliver's group saves the boy's life, teaching him how to gain control of his emotions and alter the behavior that's endangering him, yet when Oliver first reaches out, Eric shuts him down with contemptuous rage, pegging him for another predatory pedophile. In essence, this film is asking whether prisons like this can make space not just for containment and further brutalization, but for rehabilitation and forgiveness. The cautious optimism with which it answers that question is credible because the characters and setting feel so thoroughly authentic.
A brooding romantic in the tradition of Nicholas Ray and Francois Truffaut, Scottish director David Mackenzie (Young Adam, Mister Foe) would seem ill suited for a realistic prison drama. His films are rooted in a sense of liberty: his characters behave unpredictably, often changing the course of their lives on a whim, and the choreographic camera movements and highly physical performances of his actors evoke a world brimming with possibility. One can easily imagine a prison film by Mackenzie being overwrought or unconvincing, yet Starred Up, while entirely characteristic, says a good deal about what it means to live behind bars. One of Mackenzie's ongoing themes is that the way people live determines how they use their bodies. In Starred Up, he applies this perspective to lifelong prisoners, depicting them as modern mutants—part animal, part machine.
Mackenzie's perspective never feels overbearing, however, because Jonathan Asser's screenplay grounds the film in an authoritative portrayal of prison life. Asser worked as a therapist in a maximum-security London prison for several years; according to the film's press notes, he was on set throughout the shoot to vet every detail for accuracy. Viewed as a docudrama about the challenge of socializing violent convicts, Starred Up succeeds brilliantly, delineating the issue without resorting to platitudes or sentimentality. Indeed the protagonist resists our sympathy for nearly the entire first half. Nineteen-year-old Eric (Jack O'Connell) has been "starred up" from a juvenile detention center to an adult facility because of his compulsively violent behavior. When he attacks a group of guards in the new facility, the warden declares that one more violent episode will land him in solitary confinement indefinitely. The prison therapist, Oliver (Rupert Friend), intervenes, inviting Eric to join his therapy group in hope of curbing the boy's destructive impulses. But since the group consists only of violent offenders, fights often break out before any real discussion can take place. Moreover, Eric has already spent most of his life as a convict and doesn't believe that anyone can rehabilitate him.
One can understand his cynicism; in a sense, Eric was fated to be a prisoner from birth. His father, Nev (Ben Mendelsohn, even scarier here than in the Australian crime drama Animal Kingdom), is a violent convict himself, and he's been serving a life sentence in the same prison since Eric was four years old. The irony of Starred Up is that Nev and Eric can begin to mend their broken relationship only when they're incarcerated together. The older man regards Eric's arrival as a belated opportunity to do right by his son, though he's been so thoroughly dehumanized that he doesn't know how to express his concern healthily. In one of their first encounters, Nev persuades Eric to agree to group therapy by scaring him. If he doesn't get in line, Nev warns, the guards will kill him and make it look like a suicide. "It happens all the time," he says brusquely. "So play their game and they'll leave you alone."
Asser doesn't reveal that Nev and Eric are father and son until 30 minutes in, and not until the 20-minute mark does he divulge anything about Eric's background. Until then, he simply immerses the viewer in the experience of living in a maximum-security prison, where the immediate threat of violence or degradation overwhelms any sense of past or future. Only seconds into the movie, Eric is admitted, stripped naked by guards, and subjected to a cavity search, in a scene that evokes farmers inspecting livestock. Mackenzie shows this process in real time, underlining the dehumanization that Eric submits to on a regular basis. Revelations about his parentage and his years in foster care (when he was repeatedly raped by one of his guardians) may not alter our fundamental understanding of him, but they're still surprising; the opening scenes make it hard to believe that Eric has experienced anything that might be described as childhood.
As soon as the guards deposit Eric in his cell, he goes to work making a shiv, using a lighter to melt the handle of his toothbrush and sinking a razor blade into it; he then creates a makeshift screwdriver to open up a lighting fixture and hides his weapon under the bulb. It's a remarkable sequence, using a few specific actions to convey the young man's hardened, survivalist mentality. After a few brief shots delineating the layout of the cell block and prison courtyard, Mackenzie returns to the cell, where Eric is napping. An inmate from a neighboring cell knocks on the door to introduce himself (delivering one of the first audible lines of dialogue); Eric snaps awakes and instinctively attacks the stranger, accidentally knocking him unconscious. Eric drags the man to the end of the wing, so that the guards might take him to the prison hospital; then, anticipating violent retaliation, he readies himself for battle, running back to his cell and breaking the legs off his desk to use as clubs. The riot squad disarms him, but the fight ends in a stalemate when Eric clenches one guard's testicles between his teeth.
This is strong medicine, yet it's also exhilarating. As usual, Mackenzie creates a sense of careening momentum, cutting briskly from one shocking detail to another or executing fast, nimble camera moves to follow characters from room to room. Even his use of color adds to the film's visceral impact: though prison movies are usually cast in blues and grays, Mackenzie had most of the cells painted yellow or orange, and some crucial scenes play out in deep red lighting. (The room where Oliver conducts the therapy group is painted in faded shades of green, which has a subtly calming effect.) As a result, the prisoners' intense emotional states seem almost tangible.
In Starred Up, violence is part of everyday communication, practically no different from speech. The inmates have lived amid violence for so long that they're always primed to fight; in fact Eric is so indoctrinated that he hasn't yet learned when not to. Mackenzie communicates this primarily through the body language of his performers, staging the action so fluidly and in such meticulous detail that the movie often suggests a monstrous ballet. Consider the early scene in which Nev meets with the leader of a prison gang to request that Eric be left alone. When the gang leader equivocates, Nev smacks him across the mouth, only to resume speaking calmly the next moment. Mackenzie presents the conversation in an unbroken shot, and in this context the gesture feels like punctuation, rather than a threat. A similar moment occurs when Nev roughly twists the ear of his lover before kissing him; he can't express any feeling of vulnerability without a qualifying act of violence.
Eric agrees to join Oliver's group only when the therapist admits to his own violent impulses. "I don't care about you," Oliver says when Eric tries to fend him off. "In fact, I want to hurt you." ("Now we're getting somewhere," Eric replies.) When Nev agrees to join his son in the group, setting off a series of events that precipitate the tragic conclusion, he can't believe that his son would want to settle their issues by talking. At the very suggestion of honest conversation, Nev rips off his shirt and challenges Eric to a fistfight; when Eric declines, Nev goes mad and starts striking out in every direction. "Get me off this fuckin' wing!" he shouts repeatedly, his voice so loud it echoes throughout the entire prison. Here is a man so convinced he's irredeemable that he'd rather behave like a rabid animal than confront his buried humanity. It's a terrifying sequence; Nev seems to be devolving before our eyes.
[Spoiler alert: The story's conclusion is noted below.]
In the end the most astonishing moments of Starred Up may be those of physical tenderness, which stand out like flashes of color in a black-and-white movie. Short, surprising sequences show Eric alone in his cell, jumping up to touch the ceiling or making funny faces for his own amusement. These moments hint at the emotional breakthrough of the film's penultimate shot, in which Eric and Nev—finally reconciled, but only as they're about to be separated once more—gently rub heads in lieu of an embrace (both men's hands are cuffed behind their backs). The image, ironically evoking a mother animal nuzzling her cub, shows that Eric and Nev have at last reclaimed their human need to love and be loved. (Unsubtly, the men's surname is Love.) Whereas Asser's script gives dramatic form to the pervasive violence of prison life, Mackenzie's images alert us to the life-affirming spontaneity of which all people are capable, and which enables people to change their lives, no matter where.
Sight & Sound [Michael Pattison] March 20, 2014
Brutal Prison Drama Starred Up Stirs Rare Empathy | Village ... Stephanie Zacharek from The Village Voice
Starred Up / The Dissolve Tasha Robinson
Review: Jack O'Connell Gives A Breakthrough Performance ... Jessica Kiang from The Playlist
Review: Starred Up is a brutal, but profoundly humane, look ... Ignatiy Vishnevetsky from The Onion A.V. Club
Starred Up - HitFix Guy Lodge
Starred Up - Newcity Film Ray Pride
Starred Up | Reviews | Screen - Screen International Allan Hunter
Further thoughts on the climax of Starred Up: Old realism versus new realism Ben Sachs from The Chicago Reader
'Starred Up' movie review - Washington Post Ann Hornaday
Review: 'Starred Up' - Los Angeles Times Kenneth Turan
Starred Up - Roger Ebert Brian Tallerico
'Starred Up,' a Father-and-Son Prison Drama - The New ... A.O. Scott from The New York Times, also seen here: New York Times
HELL OR HIGH WATER B+ 92
USA (112 mi) 2016 ‘Scope Official site
Three tours in Iraq but no bailout for people like us.
—graffiti written on a wall near the bank in the opening scene
Mysteriously premiering at Cannes in the Un Certain Regard section, this film flew under the radar in the bright lights and glamor of the Cannes Film Festival. Finally receiving its American release during the height of the summer doldrums, it comes as a pleasant surprise from a Scottish director borrowing heavily from the Coen brothers and Cormac McCarthy, Inside Job (2010), pointing out the ivory tower sanctuary of those privileged and protected few whose actions led to the crisis and then remained insulated from any of the consequences, Andrew Dominick’s Killing Them Softly (2012), a gritty working man’s portrait describing how the American Dream for ordinary citizens came to an abrupt halt when the economic meltdown forced the government to bail out the banks, Wall Street brokerage houses, and the auto industry, leaving them flailing on their own, satirically contrasting that approach with the way the mob handles its own debt relief crisis, to Martin Scorsese’s exaggerated and wildly outlandish fever dream The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), few have captured the human cost and economic devastation quite so skillfully as this film. Coming on the heels of the mortgage crisis, adding a uniquely American historical perspective that goes back to the land grab from Indians during the Manifest Destiny era of the mid-19th century, the film exposes the predatory lending policies of local banks across the country that seemingly have the best interests of customers in mind, while behind the scenes making legal maneuvers offering loans to financially starved and desperate people who have no conceivable way of paying it back, allowing banks to foreclose while taking their property and land, where one person’s misfortune is another person’s economic opportunity. It’s a sickening display of how the system works, designed to allow powerful interests to prey on the most vulnerable among us, revealing how the banks stockpile their financial reserves at their own customer’s expense. While this is a nasty business practice, it happens with an almost invisible presence, where the only signs are foreclosure notices left on the locked doors and shuttered windows of abandoned businesses and homes, along with giant “for sale” signs or a series of highway billboards offering quick “debt relief” that dot the landscape, while longstanding family-owned businesses quietly disappear.
With elegiac music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, along with the downbeat road music of Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, and Townes Van Zandt, not to mention Blakwall - Knockin' On Heaven's Door (Hell or High Water ... - YouTube (4:03), the film is set in the blisteringly raw and aching loneliness of smalltown Texas, a world depicted so brilliantly in Martin Ritt’s Hud (1963) and Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show (1971), both based upon the literary works of Larry McMurtry, with the latter starring Jeff Bridges 45 years ago, where the common denominator is the vast emptiness of long, dusty roads that stretch across a desolate West Texas landscape that is flat as far as the eye can see, showing a land the economic recovery has never reached, revealing instead an economically collapsed world crumbling in decay, a desert wasteland with no signs of life from grazing animals or even human habitation. That is the blank canvas from which this film emerges, poetically shot by cinematographer Giles Nuttgens with a regional focus, with particular attention paid to authenticity and detail, becoming one of the surprise films of the year. A character study told through subtlety and dramatic understatement, where the range of the actors is captivating throughout, the driving force behind the film is the extraordinary screenplay written by Taylor Sheridan, a television actor who also wrote Sicario (2015), whose colorful dialogue allows plenty of regional personality to develop between characters, becoming intimately familiar to the audience over time. Wasting little time, following a car creeping through the back alleys, the film opens with a bank robbery in a small Texas Midland branch location, but because they got there so early the money’s not even out of the safe yet, where only the bank manager has the key, and they have to wait for him to arrive. This adds a kind of folksy touch to an otherwise awkward situation, where it’s actually more humorous than suspenseful. Getting away free and clear, the two brothers are ecstatic afterwards driving out into the endless expanse of the countryside to their isolated ranch in the middle of nowhere. Meet Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster), seen sipping beers on their front porch after burying their getaway vehicle, a couple of small timers not looking to make a name for themselves, content to take small bills so as not to draw attention to themselves. In this way, they avoid detection by the FBI who are only called in on the big scores. This leaves them in the hands of local law enforcement, with Jeff Bridges as U.S. Marshall Marcus Hamilton, so relaxed and comfortable in this role, getting into the very soul of the character just days before his retirement, leaving him one last crime to unravel, along with his faithful partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham) as two Texas Rangers, where this has the feel of an extended The Andy Griffith Show (1960 – 68) episode, especially the back and forth banter between the sheriff and his deputy, as Marcus incessantly needles his partner about his Mexican-Comanche heritage, where racist jokes are more of a clue to the closeness of their friendship, with Alberto teasing him right back about his eminent demise after retirement. Even as Alberto detests every snide remark, his willingness to take it speaks volumes, as he’s a man with extraordinary pride, but always keeps it to himself, reminiscent of the classic battle of wits between white sheriff Rod Steiger and black police detective Sidney Poitier in Norman Jewison’s IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT (1967).
Behind the scenes there’s more than meets the eye, as the brothers recently lost their mother, who was forced to sell all their livestock, as the family ranch is one the verge of foreclosure by the end of the week, where they suspect some back-handed legal maneuvering by the bank took advantage of her position, a situation they mean to rectify, and what better way than to do it than with the bank’s own money? As a result, they make a series of bank runs, where the impulsive, always out-of-control Tanner can’t help himself, even robbing one branch by himself during lunchtime while his brother is sipping coffee in a diner next door. As they haul ass out of there, it’s clear the division of labor needs some work, where Toby asks his brother, a career criminal known for his outlandish recklessness just how the hell he’s managed to stay out of prison for the past year, to which he replies, “It’s been difficult.” Like Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967), robbing the rich to feed the poor during the height of the Depression, part of the intrigue is the likeability of these two characters, who keep a low profile, though one’s high strung and the other’s low key, coming across as just ordinary folks, never hiding from the fact they have problems like everybody else. Like mirror images of the two brothers, the older, more mature lawmen trying to hunt them down have their own quiet appeal, where the more loquacious Marcus has some great dialogue while his Lone Ranger sidekick, Alberto as Tonto, always remains stoic, the picture of dignity. Once inside the bank, Marcus looks for the bank manager for questioning, whose apt response once tracking him down, “Now that looks like a man who would foreclose on a house!” As the string of bank robberies continues, this duo tries to anticipate the robbers’ next move, staking out a bank in a dying town where literally nothing happens, where they just sit and wait, veering into Sergio Leone territory. In this lingering pause, Alberto reminds Marcus that land was stolen by force from the Indians, while nowadays hard times and poverty have only increased the unrestrained greed of the banks, allowing them an excuse to go after everyone, including whites, “This was my ancestor’s land, the lease folks took it, and now it’s been taken from them, except it ain’t no army did it, just those sons of bitches right there.” One of the best scenes of the film happens when the lawmen enter a small town diner called the T-Bone. When considering their options, the bossy, world-weary waitress, Margaret Bowman, described as a “rattlesnake of a waitress,” who played a motel clerk in the Coen brothers’ NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007), who has seemingly lived in this rotgut town all her life and seen it all, instructs them that they’ll be getting T-bone steaks, as that’s what everybody who walks in the door gets, where all she needs to know is what NOT to get for a side dish. Succinctly put in their place, their authority stripped from the outset like schoolkids getting a scolding, both men readily accept her conditions. As the lawmen wait for a robbery, the outlaws make a run across the border to Oklahoma to visit an Indian casino to launder their money, making sure there are no traces left behind. Toby has two kids from an ex-wife, and though he barely sees them, he makes sure they will be taken care of, depending on what happens in the final reckoning, leaving the deed to the property in their names, claiming “I been poor my whole life. My parents and their parents before them. It’s like a disease. Infects everyone you know. But not my boys.” Of course it’s always the final score that goes haywire, with unexpected circumstances including bank customers carrying guns, where it literally becomes every man for himself, with vigilante justice chasing the men out of town with a caravan of heavily armed pick-up trucks on their tail. As they head out into the open expanse of the wilderness, this one leads to a typical western showdown with tragic consequences, where taming the lawlessness of the Wild West is viewed as a work in progress, where the success, or lack thereof, completely depends on your point of view.
A slot in the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival seems like a strange fit for this new film by David Mackenzie (Starred Up), with its starry cast and seemingly commercial intentions. Though it’s a valid observation, a story that simultaneously revels in crowd-pleasing gestures while subverting generic rules absolutely requires strong leads to carry out the deed.
Chris Pine and Ben Foster are up to the challenge, playing brothers Toby and Tanner who set out to rob a string of small banks in their native West Texas. Although Toby is the brains of the operation and Tanner the muscle, Mackenzie by-and-large rejects heist movie conventions, specifically the notion of the heroic and witty anti-hero who controls and terrifies his hapless victims. He instead presents a modern, realistic Texas in which poverty permeates every corner and touches all of its inhabitants. Rather than fear and awe, the brothers’ victims have only contempt and pity for these desperate men hoping for more. The brothers cannot be authentic cowboys precisely because there is no money to steal. The modest wooden town houses seen in classic westerns, and the optimism they implied, have here been replaced by the precariousness of rundown lower-class homes, decaying and neglected.
Mackenzie relieves this demoralising message with a sarcastic sense of humour from both the civilians dealing with the robbers and the laconic authorities on their trail. Jeff Bridges as Ranger Hamilton comments with typical wit on the bleak economic situation and the obsolescence of every tradition that has given Texas its identity, including himself. His favourite jokes are those aimed at his mixed race partner Alberto, who is half Native American, half Mexican, and a ranger on top of that. Alberto is a constant reminder of the harm done by old convictions and their inevitable disappearance.
Not stopping there, Mackenzie relies on a multitude of side characters, often members of the older generation, but also struggling young people trying to make ends meet. He evokes a pervading sense of a nostalgia that is laced with resignation. Capitalism and its vices make the old fights between cowboy and outlaw seem like a walk in the park. The film is at its most gracious and touching when Hamilton is pensive, sitting alone, silently contemplating his approaching retirement and flooding the screen with memories of a time that was no fairer, but that he understood better.
While Tanner provides the action with his brutal enjoyment of bank robbery for the sake of it, Toby’s motives are more obscure and his plan more intricate. The progressive revelation of this fundamentally good man’s intentions makes for slow-burn, gripping suspense, and a twist as subtle as it is maddening. In his selflessness and his love for his family, Toby remains a real cowboy, yet one fighting against new demons and doing so by playing their game. Hamilton and Toby – indeed all the characters – are united against the common enemy of capitalism, but their own former identities have faded away in the face of new dividing lines. The bank has power over everyone, but the richest citizens are the ones with freedom. The cowboy must hide behind money rather than out in the dusty plains.
Taylor Sheridan's screenplay for Hell or High Water follows much the same formula as his script for Denis Villeneuve's Sicario. It begins steeped in clichés of its mid-Texas setting. Oil rigs dot flat landscapes, their butter-churn-like grind the only consistent movement in the static, hot air. Everyone is conservative, rough-edged, and simple, from the background figures to the main characters, brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster). Down on their luck, the two rob banks, and from the start one can see how their ignorance interferes with their plans: They arrive at one bank so early that the manager with the keys isn't even there yet, and they constantly squabble over Toby's meek carefulness and Tanner's fidgety trigger finger.
As with Sicario, the broad strokes of the film's Southwestern stereotypes gradually sharpen into focus as the story pivots to a look at the systemic forces that shape the characters. Far from simply looking for a quick payday, Toby and Tanner target branches of the bank that foreclosed on their late mother's ranch. Once the reason for the bank's aggressive attempt to take over the plot of land is revealed, the film becomes a neo-western, with the brothers as the logical descendants of noble outlaws fighting against the corrupting influence of “civilization” in all its oppressive forms. This change in perspective accompanies a shift in the way that the brothers' robberies are portrayed, less bumbling amateur affairs than shrewdly devised smash-and-grab jobs where Toby and Tanner only take loose bills in the banks' registers instead of risking dye packs and traceable serial numbers by raiding vaults. Toby even has a flawless money-laundering plan, exploiting the lack of oversight on casinos to mask their takes as winnings.
The stark atmosphere and the intimate focus on character drama keeps the action on a muted emotional keel.
As the film's politics take shape, so do its characters. Pine is best known for sardonic variations on the somber, reflective hero, but here he gets the chance to play this familiar type straight, and the actor brings a weariness to Toby that he's never exhibited before. Divorced, prospectless, and soon to be homeless, Toby has every reason to panic, but his surprisingly well-planned heists speak to his ability to maintain a semblance of self-control in the face of desperation. At the opposite end of the spectrum is Tanner, who's so unpredictable in his rage that you'd be forgiven for thinking that he were the one personally wronged by the banks. Foster has been playing irascible brutes for nearly his entire career, but he's only just aged into the character type. Redolent of the actor's recent stage performance as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, Tanner is terrifying in his uncontrollable vitriol, which is only made more unsettling by his occasional flashes of corroded innocence. His caustic sense of humor, short fuse, and intensely emotional displays of frustration and love toward his brother suggest a child who was once lovable, but who grew to become warped and stunted.
The social anger at the heart of the narrative is grounded in the interactions between the brothers, as well as in the glimpses of complexity in other characters. U.S. Marshall Marcus (Jeff Bridges) speaks to his partner, Alberto (Gil Birmingham), almost exclusively in casually racist jokes about his heritage, but the gregariousness in Marcus's voice reveals these jabs as his clumsy attempt to show genuine affection, and Alberto's stone-faced, mildly sardonic responses tacitly accept this strange, obsolete demonstration of camaraderie. Both men have a grudging respect for Toby and Tanner, admiring their principled, low-yield approach for its risk-reduction. The thieves also find loose support in many locals, like a waitress (Katy Mixon) who receives a large, guilt-ridden tip from Toby and refuses to surrender it to the authorities as evidence, noting that she, too, is struggling to get by thanks to her usurious mortgage. The venom in her voice when Marcus demands her tip reveals the simmering tensions that inevitably produce people like Toby and Tanner.
But for every cash-strapped citizen who sees the robbers as folk heroes, there are plenty more fully armed Texans chomping at the bit to be the heroes of their own life stories by opening fire on the thieves whenever possible. The heat-packing status of every townie is first a topic of broad comedy, then pitch-black, mirthless humor as one heist goes horribly wrong and Toby and Tanner's ramshackle professionalism collapses. The stark atmosphere of the arid setting and the intimate focus on character drama keeps most of Hell or High Water's action scenes on a muted emotional keel, but the messy, bloody conclusion represents a rupture, not only of the brothers' carefully laid plans, but of a delicate social ecosystem, one whose inherent rage and pressure has no clear outlet and is thus misdirected to chaotic results.
In many ways, there’s no mistaking the West Texas of Hell or High Water for the West Texas of any other era. It’s a place of small, half-deserted towns that appear not to have had much going on since the days of The Last Picture Show. Billboards advertising debt relief — and little else — line its roads. At one point a cowboy, driving his herd away from a raging fire, wonders aloud how he can possibly still be doing this in the 21st century. A casino by the highway now defines the boundaries of Comanche territory. Yet against all the unmistakable markers of the present, the film plays out an old story about bandits, lawmen, and bank robberies — albeit one that sometimes makes it hard to know who to root for.
“You all are new at this, I’m guessing, ” a clerk tells the two masked men — brothers, we’ll soon learn — attempting to rob her before her branch opens in the film’s first scene as they fumble to get the job done. In truth, she’s only half right. Tanner (Ben Foster), is an old hand at robbing banks, having only recently been released from prison for a previous score. But Toby (Chris Pine), is new both to bank robbery and crime in general. He’s only seen the inside of a court, a later bit of dialogue reveals, during his divorce proceedings. And though the job could have gone more smoothly, Tanner and Toby have a definite plan: Uninterested in making a big score, they want only the small bills from the cashier’s drawer, an approach they bring to subsequent robberies. Their goal is to obtain a set amount of money before a date in the near future, though the movie keeps us in the dark about why.
Instead, director David Mackenzie (Starred Up, Spread), working from a script by Sicario screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, lets us discover their plan alongside the soon-to-retire Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his long-suffering Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham). Hamilton’s clever and bored, and while brothers’ robberies are almost too small-time to be worth his time he sees a mystery that needs cracking and takes the excuse to trade his desk in Lubbock for the dusty road. With Parker in tow, he starts to trail them and the film becomes a tense, deliberately paced game of cat and mouse.
Thanks to Bridges’ graying hair, mustache, and cowboy hat, it’s sometimes hard to shake the impression that he’s aging into Sam Elliott’s Stranger character from The Big Lebowski. He’s played characters whose advancing years have figured into the story (Crazy Heart and True Grit, for instance) but this is the first time the now-66-year-old actor has let himself play a senior citizen staring down retirement. He wears the part well, playing Hamilton as a man who’s learned to take his time and has seen enough weirdness and ugliness in the line of duty that nothing really surprises him anymore. It’s a pleasure just to hear the way Bridges wraps a drawl around a line like “They bopped you in the shnozzola, huh?”
There are depths beneath his laconic persona, though, and not all of them pleasant. It’s quickly evident that Hamilton keeps going in part because he has nowhere else to go. A widower, he knows he’s unsuited for just sitting around on the porch. Whether he solves the case or not, there’s no happy ending awaiting him at the other end. And whatever affection Hamilton and Parker have for each other isn’t always evident in Parker’s responses to Hamilton’s jokes about his half-Comanche, half-Mexican heritage. Having spent years with Hamilton, he’s heard it all before. But that doesn’t mean he likes it.
Their contrasting personalities sometimes mirrors the relationship between Tanner and Toby, two men united by blood and a common goal but little else. Where Toby calculates his next move, Tanner rushes into danger. Together they help balance each other. It’s unlikely Toby would have the boldness to embark on a crime spree without his brother’s inspiration or that Tanner would have the inspiration to bury their getaway cars, making their stick-and-grab jobs nearly impossible to trace.
The actors play into the complexity. Pine hides his Captain Kirk charm and swagger beneath layers of dirt, facial hair, and shyness. Just talking seems to pain him. Talking about his life and how he came to live alone in his late mother’s house away from an ex-wife and two sons who want nothing to do with him seems like it would be torture. He’s matched nicely by Foster playing a man who’s never looked away from danger, no matter how smart a move that might have been. In one scene he meets, pisses off, and stares down a stranger and the moment reveals virtually everything we need to know about where the character comes from, and where he’s headed.
Mackenzie often lets the environment set the mood, never rushing as the characters move through arid plains or empty streets. The unhurried approach both ratchets up the tension and allows more time to get to know the players, who often talk around what they want to say in barbed, witty, Elmore Leonard-inspired dialogue as they work their way toward a showdown that feels as inevitable as the sundown. When the film reveals the brothers’ scheme and the reasons behind it, it’s as contemporary as today’s headlines. Yet, twist and all, their story — and Hamilton’s story, and the stories of the town’s time left behind — is an old one. But it’s one Hell or High Water‘s modern dress Western makes feel as vibrant, tense, and resonant as ever.
'Hell or High Water' Is the Bullet-Riddled Antidote to this Godawful ... Nick Schager from The Daily Beast
‘Hell or High Water’ Is the Bullet-Riddled Antidote to this Godawful Movie Summer
It hasn’t been a very good summer at the movies, but this new bank robbery flick set in West Texas is superb—and stars Jeff Bridges at the very top of his game.
Channeling the open-plains lyricism of Terrence Malick’s 1973 masterpiece Badlands and its modern spiritual offspring, Andrew Dominik’s 2007 The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (not to mention David Lowery’s even more recent Ain’t Them Bodies Saints), David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water concerns two brothers on a bank-robbing spree through West Texas, and the just-shy-of-retirement ranger intent on catching them. It’s a well-worn premise made fresh by the fact that these poor crooks aren’t driven by greed, but by a desperate desire to save their family ranch, and a bone-deep anger at the predatory bank looking to foreclose on it. That motivation lends this crime saga an of-the-moment timeliness to it—though it’s the film’s ominous atmospheric stillness and contemplative fatalism that truly makes it such a well-timed antidote to the cacophonous CGI-infested letdowns of this summer movie season.
Written by Sicario scribe Taylor Sheridan (whose script topped 2012’s “Black List,” the collection of Hollywood’s best unproduced screenplays), Hell or High Water requires only minutes of action and dialogue to fully establish its protagonists and their unfortunate circumstances.
Commencing with a circular pan around a parking lot outside a bank—where a graffitied message laments, “Three tours in Iraq but no bailout for folks like us”—Mackenzie’s camera soon settles on two masked, hooded gunmen forcing a teller to empty out the establishment’s petty cash drawers before opening for business. It’s an efficient heist, albeit one that concludes with hotheaded Tanner (Ben Foster) giving the just-arrived bank manager a pistol-butt-to-the-face farewell. Cooler Toby (Chris Pine) isn’t pleased with this bit of excessive violence, but as their car careens through back alleyways while cop sirens begin to howl, he too gives in to the euphoric rush of an illicit job well done.
Two more stick-ups quickly follow, including one performed solo by Tanner as Toby finishes a meal at a diner and—grateful for the waitress’s kind offer of a job—leaves a gigantic tip. Along with a visit back to the homestead, where Tanner remarks upon the abode’s deterioration and the cattle’s emaciation, as well as gazes at the bed where his mother spent her final days while he was in prison, these early scenes are marked by conversational exchanges that reveal backstory and personality details in unassuming drips and drabs. Hell or High Water defines its characters in quick, sharp brushstrokes, just as it suggests its milieu’s financial hardship, and the forces behind its decay, via a series of early images of the duo’s car driving past signs that read “In Debt?” and “Debt Relief.”
As it turns out, there’s a method to Toby and Tanner’s mayhem: namely, to rob various Texas Midlands bank branches, launder the stolen money through a nearby casino, and then use those funds to pay Texas Midlands what’s owed on their ranch’s outstanding mortgage. In essence, they’re robbing Peter to pay Peter, all so Toby can leave the property to his estranged sons. And they’re doing so in small enough individual hauls to avoid attracting the attention of the feds. Nonetheless, their gun-toting romp is fraught with bad omens, not least of which is wild-man Tanner’s fondness for drinking too much (“Who the hell gets drunk off of beer?” he questions while having another brew) and, later, his decision to bring a couple of assault rifle-shaped bags with them on their jobs.
A more immediate problem is law enforcement, which here comes in the form of Texas Ranger Marcus (Jeff Bridges) and his partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham), whom the former incessantly bombards with barbs about his “half-breed” Native American-Mexican heritage. Theirs is a combative rapport, and like Toby and Tanner’s, it’s developed over numerous, natural back-and-forths that are infused with a sense of shared history. As the two embark on their pursuit, Hell or High Water proves content to merely sidle up alongside its primary pairs as they deliberately set about their (inevitably converging) paths. There’s a leisurely pace to the material, which isn’t the same as sluggish; instead, the proceedings’ unhurried momentum amplifies the feeling that inescapable doom looms just over the vast, imposing horizon that Mackenzie (a stylistic chameleon who’s following up 2014’s gritty prison drama Starred Up) often captures in gorgeous magic hour panoramas.
Most hauntingly evoked in the image of Toby and Tanner palling around in silhouette at dusk, Hell or High Water’s characters are all on the verge of becoming ghosts, left to wither away and disappear in a gone-to-seed environment about to do likewise. Mackenzie’s assured direction so ably conveys this notion in visual terms that it’s a shame when Sheridan’s script forces its subjects—most notably Alberto, in a speech equating the stolen-land plight of Native Americans to that of Texas’s bank-exploited whites—to spout on-the-nose exposition about the story’s themes. Courtesy of Pine and Foster’s superbly lived-in performances, Toby and Tanner’s fury at their unjust economic mistreatment is visible in their determined, sorrowful eyes, and doesn’t require the film to belabor its The Grapes of Wrath-ish point through overt statements of purpose.
Such gestures, however, do little to undercut Hell or High Water’s electric power, nor its ultimate, mature recognition—during an unbelievably well-orchestrated finale and coda—that two opposing facts about a situation can be true at the same time. Rather than reconciling his scenario in tidy moralizing fashion, Mackenzie simply lets both perspectives on his story exist in uneasy conflict. Just as shrewd, it allows Jeff Bridges to deliver what may be one of the most colorful, and yet nuanced, performances of his career.
With roughneck charm, the actor speaks in a deep, borderline-slurry southern drawl that makes it sound like his mouth is half-coated in peanut butter—hearing him say “They bopped you in the schnozola, huh?” is one of the movie year’s finest highlights. And he dons and removes his Stetson (and places it, while seated, on the tip of his boot) with preternatural old-world grace. Embodying Marcus as a cowboy futilely clinging both to a past that continues to recede, and a present constantly shifting under his feet, it’s a turn that imbues a potential caricature with profound depths of knotty feelings, and is epitomized by a post-climactic outburst of simultaneous satisfaction, joy, and hopeless grief that also, in the end, sums up the mood struck by this remarkable genre gem.
Hell or High Water review: one more chance to reexamine the myth of the American outlaw Tasha Robinson from The Verge
Review: 'Hell or High Water' Offers an Iconic Vision of the Modern ... Christopher Orr from The Atlantic
Review: The Haunting Western Hell or High Water -- Vulture David Edelstein
Cannes Review: 'Hell Or High Water' Starring Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine ... Nikola Grozdanovic from The Playlist
Hell or High Water takes place in the present, but it feels like the Great Depression JR Jones from The Chicago Reader
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Review: 'Hell or High Water' Delivers A Western With Grit And Gusto Kristy Puchko from Pajiba
The Exemplary Badness of “War Dogs” and “Hell or High Water” Richard Brody from The New Yorker
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Cannes Review: Chris Pine and Ben Foster Are Unstoppable Bank ... Eric Kohn from indieWIRE
Hell Or High Water · Film Review From the writer of Sicario comes the ... A.A. Dowd from The Onion A.V. Club
'Hell or High Water': Cannes Review | Reviews | Screen Charles Gant from Screendaily
'Hell Or High Water' Is A Smart, Substantive Heist Film Chris Klimek from NPR
Film Review: Hell or High Water | Film Journal International Maitland McDonagh
“It's Quite a Scary Responsibility, Making a Film”: David Mackenzie on Hell or High Water Vadim Rizov interview from Filmmaker magazine, August 9, 2016
Chris Pine Says ‘Hell or High Water’ Is About Men’s ‘Failure to Be Intimate’ Maria Cavasutto interview from Variety, August 11, 2016
Chris Pine and Jeff Bridges celebrate the 'cowboy poetry' of modern western 'Hell or High Water' Mark Olsen interviews the two lead actors from The LA Times, August 15, 2016
Cannes Film Review: 'Hell or High Water' - Variety Owen Gleiberman
Hell or High Water review – elegaic Texan western that packs a ... Peter Bradshaw from The Guardian
Hell or High Water is a chase movie with a conscience - review Tim Robey from The Telegraph
Hell or High Water film review: Terrific with a masterpiece performance ... Ann Hornaday from The Independent
Chris Pine and Ben Foster star in the superb crime thriller 'Hell or High ... Ann Hornaday from The Washington Post
'Hell or High Water' upends the Western to capture the end of an American idea Alyssa Rosenberg from The Washington Post
'Hell or High Water' may be the first great film about the failed economic recovery Sonny Bunch from The Washington Post
Movie review: 'Hell or High Water' is among year's best films Michael Smith from The Tulsa World
'Hell or High Water': When the banks steal from you, is it OK to rob ... Glenn Whipp from The LA Times
Hell or High Water Movie Review (2016) | Roger Ebert Peter Sobczynski
'Hell or High Water' review: Chris Pine, Jeff Bridges face off in modern ... Michael Phillips from The Chicago Tribune
'Hell or High Water': Modern western the year's best film so far ... Richard Roeper from The Chicago Sun-Times
Review: A Waltz Across Texas in 'Hell or High Water' Jeannette Catsoulis from The New York Times
A remarkable record of a city that has vanished. —Thom Anderson, Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003)
Watching this early 1960’s film about American Indians adapting to their city environment in the now demolished Bunker Hill district of Los Angeles where in the space of 12 hours they go on an all night drinking binge, is literally like opening a time capsule to a different era, but despite the vintage cars and the dated vernacular of the times, this film is as relevant today as it was when it was made. The film’s strength is its wrenchingly honest documentary style, where the reality of a marginalized people whose past has been stolen from them is stunning, as they feel as detached from the present as from their past, where they have literally become exiles in their own country. The film opens with sage words: “The old people remember the past,” along with Edward Curtis portraits of strong Indian faces in the late 19th century, a time when Indians were forcibly evicted from a life of freedom on the open plains and ordered to live on restricted reservation lands, a military and political act that effectively cut native people’s ties to their heritage. More than a century later, they’re still searching for it. The camera focuses on a neglected pregnant wife, Yvonne Williams, whose husband Homer Nish (the spitting image of César Rojas from the Los Lobos band, known for his wide girth, trademark black sunglasses and slicked-back, black hair) all but ignores her and lays about jobless all day long as he would rather hang around every night in the company of friends than be at home. In the opening moments of the film, we hear her in voiceover describe how she’s glad to be off the reservation and hopes for a brighter future for her unborn child. But life is no picnic in the city either, especially when her husband avoids any connection to family and abandons her every night while he and his friends mooch drinks and cigarettes, hustle up whatever change they can scrounge together, and pretty much joyride and barhop every night listening to Anthony Hilder and the Revels' primitive rock ‘n’ roll on the jukebox, The Revels - Comanche 1960 YouTube (2:01), getting as drunk as possible on rotgut Thunderbird and Lucky Lager beer.
Unseen for decades until Thomas Anderson featured the film in his amazing documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003), it was recently restored by preservationist Ross Lipman and the UCLA Film & Television Archive, comprised of two distinctively different parts, almost as if they’ve been stitched together, as they aren’t always on the same track. The luscious black and white photography by cinematographers John Morrill, Erik Daarstad, and Robert Kaufman is extraordinary throughout utilizing a very modern free-form camera technique of weaving in and out of crowds, capturing bar scenes, fights, sidewalk action, joyriding, and people gathering together high atop Hill X after the bars have closed for more drinking, drumming, and chanting Indian songs while also occasionally engaging in fisticuffs. While the camera captures the free-spirited look of the times, the audio track reflects the lack of any script whatsoever where much is dubbed from recorded interviews, so it lacks the searing intensity of the images and despite its best efforts to remain relevant, falls short in many respects. This may be what the “original” version of Shadows (1959) was like when it was completely improvised, filled with greetings, hip expressions, and an otherwise detached way of communicating with one another before Cassavetes sat down and wrote a more personal script. However this lack of personal connection in THE EXILES matches the theme of the title. The characters are so busy getting high and avoiding life and its responsibilities that their evasiveness even from one another leaves them completely detached from their own lives. In one telling scene, Homer and his gang are sitting in a car smoking a cigarette watching the cops routinely roust some customers in a bar before he gets out, without a word, and enters the bar alone. The guy doesn’t even feel like acknowledging his friends, he simply does whatever the hell he feels like doing. No questions asked. While in his mind this feels like freedom, it’s actually another failed connection, as he exists in a separate reality from the world around him. This stands in stark contrast to those Indian portraits from the 19th century of men who lived in complete harmony with their environment.
One could argue about
whether this is even a documentary film, whether it might have been more
powerful without fictionalized re-enactments, but as is, we have never gotten
such an unflinchingly realistic glimpse of Indians carousing, particularly
inside Indian bars. As a social portrait
on being poor and being Indian, this film is remarkable. Speaking from personal experience, Indians
don’t usually mix with whites in Indian bars.
In the early 70’s, Indians were a strong presence in the Uptown
Written, produced, and directed by Kent Mackenzie, this low-budget independent feature (1961) deserves to be ranked with John Cassavetes's Shadows, but it languished unseen for nearly four decades until Thom Andersen celebrated it in his 2003 video essay Los Angeles Plays Itself. Pitched somewhere between fiction and documentary, with nonprofessional actors improvising postsynced dialogue and internal monologues, it follows a few uprooted Native Americans from Friday night to Saturday morning in the Bunker Hill district of Los Angeles. Its moving portraiture is refreshingly free of cliches and moralizing platitudes, and the high-contrast black-and-white photography and dense, highly creative sound track are equally impressive (even the occasional imprecise lip sync seems justified). Mackenzie lived only long enough to make one other feature--Saturday Morning (1971), which I haven't seen--but this film's lowercase urban poetry suggests a major talent. 72 min.
Erendira to Eyewitness Pauline Kael
American Indians were granted citizenship in 1924, given civil
rights in 1934. Since then many have left the reservations; dispersed, they are
strangers-exiles-within the big American cities. It seems to be the same in
each city: many of the Indians live "communally"-sponging off each other,
drinking, brawling, working for a few days, perhaps committing petty thefts.
And in each city there is a gathering place-a hill, a park, a beach, where,
late at night, they gather to sing tribal songs, beat the drums, and dance.
This documentary follows a group in
CINE-FILE: Cine-List Ben Sachs
A major point of reference in Thom Andersen's essay film LOS
ANGELES PLAYS ITSELF, this independent production from 1961 provides vivid
THE NEW YORKER Richard Brody
Kent Mackenzie’s miraculous independent film, made between 1958 and 1961 with scrounged film, borrowed equipment, donated services, and free labor, has, scandalously, not been released commercially until now. Mackenzie, while a U.S.C. film student, befriended Native Americans who had left their reservations and towns for Los Angeles, and he persuaded them to reënact scenes from their own lives for the camera. The resulting drama, a Pilgrim’s Progress of three characters through a night of urban loneliness and dissipation, has an epic grandeur and a monumental intimacy that belies its mere seventy-two minutes. Yvonne, who is pregnant and dreams of a better life for her child, drains away the hours watching B-Westerns in an all-night grind house while her layabout boyfriend, Homer, goes out to drink and gamble. Tommy, a smooth operator, hangs out in bars and tries to pick up women but likens his life to “doing time on the outside.” Mackenzie films the minutely incremental action (or, more often, inaction) in strikingly textured and composed images (the night photography alone would make the film immortal), balancing them with the character’s revealing, poignant voice-over monologues. Few directors in the history of cinema have so skillfully and deeply joined a sense of place with the subtle flux of inner life.
Largely forgotten since its release in 1961, Kent Mackenzie’s transfixing 72-minute drama The Exiles arrives like a message in a bottle—restored (by Ross Lipman at UCLA), in lucid black-and-white, a warning we ought to have heeded but didn’t want to hear (or, in the case of younger moviegoers, never had the chance to hear). The director regarded it as a documentary, and this is a rare case in which something shaped and partly scripted might qualify. The film centers on young Indians who’ve moved from the reservation to downtown Los Angeles, where the men drink and pick up women and drink and play cards and drink and sing tribal songs and drink and dance and drink and fight and drink. Nothing in the narrative is especially surprising, in part because so many filmmakers have absorbed The Exiles, either literally or by osmosis. But there isn’t a banal shot: not the faces of each man hunkering over a beer bottle or giving himself to a tribal song on a dark hill overlooking the metropolis, not the traffic tunnel with its unearthly glow under the neighborhood where these nomads can never seem to put down roots. The Exiles opens with photographs of tribal warriors before their tribes were decimated and ghettoized, but what follows can’t be reduced to a victimization plaint. The protagonists, Homer (Homer Nish) and his wife, the pregnant Yvonne (Yvonne Williams), speak in voice-over about their dreams for a better life, but she is deposited at a downtown movie theater and he embarks on an all-night odyssey in search of a wholeness that will never come. You can only brood on the near half-century since The Exiles was shot—and be grateful that someone went to that place and captured it all.
Kent Mackenzie, USC Filmmaker,
follows one 24 hr day of a native american couple and their friends in downtown
The Exiles by Kent Mackenzie,
A unique and powerful film, blending storytelling with documentation. Mackenzie constructed a narrative about one day in the life of three main characters - a pregnant young woman (Yvonne), the father (Homer), and a man about town (Tommy). Both men are profound alcoholics, and the woman seems stunned by the circumstances of her life though hopeful for the future of her child.
The film opens with portraits from Edward Sheriff Curtis's monumental North American Indian, which I recommend as a starting place. Mackenzie has a sharp eye for cultural details - check out the Grand Hotel mattress in Yvonne and Homer's apartment, as well as the magazines, comics, advertisements, toys, and street scenes.
The story develops via voiceovers by Yvonne, Homer, and Tommy - and an amazing middle sequence from the rez, with generous doses of native language and music.
This is a must-see movie for anyone interested in social work, indigenous peoples, or the dark side of American culture. Never boring for any viewer.
"The Exiles" was made on
a shoe-string budget by a number of idealistic young film-makers
"led" by Kent Mackenzie as "writer/director/editor.
Mackenzie and his crew were dismayed (putting it lightly) by what they saw as a lack of use of film as an artistic medium. At the same time the standard "
Erik Daarstad, John Morrill and Bob Kaufman shot an incredibly striking 35mmm B&W film. It is truly stunning. And a testament to all involved.
"The Exiles" is phenomenal in that, Mackenzie agreed not to put anything in the film that "the actors" objected to in any way. Appropriately, but very unusual, the "voice" in the film is that of the subjects.
"The Exiles" is of a specific time: a
Mackenzie credits the viewer with the intelligence to relate to the human condition as seen on screen. And explore for one's self how we fit into a world in which these conditions exist. We aren't forced to listen to the traditional "voice of god" voice over that dehumanizes all involved in the experience.
Sadly, Kent Mackenzie died young in May of 1980. He made relatively few films. Yet, "The Exiles" and his USC student film: "
If one has the opportunity to see this film as it should be, in a theater on a 35mm print. It is well worth the time. And an experience which will stay with you from that day forward.
CINEFILE.info Kyle A. Westphal
THE EXILES is a prime exemplar of its vibrant moment, and deserves recognition alongside the other American independent features (ON THE BOWERY, SHADOWS, THE COOL WORLD) that tested the commercial viability of the nascent festival circuit. In some respects, THE EXILES was just an ambitious student film, made by a group of friends from the USC Cinema Program holding down workaday jobs on the margins of the film industry. It was shot piecemeal over the course of more than three years, with unused 300-foot scraps purportedly salvaged from Desilu Studios and, on another occasion, a plane crash. The director, Kent Mackenzie, liquidated his savings to finance the film and secured donations from his brother-in-law, his barber, and countless others. But how many student films receive a world premiere at the Venice Film Festival, go on to festival engagements in Mannheim, San Francisco, London, Chicago, and Edinburgh, and land on the cover of Film Quarterly? How much THE EXILES can actually teach us about its ostensible subjects—American Indians, life off the reservation, working class struggles at midcentury, or a Bunker Hill soon made unrecognizable by urban renewal—is up for debate. (Mackenzie, who was white, maintained that the Indians did not regard him as an outsider or an opportunist: “It was more important that we’d promised them a party.") The political reaction on the festival circuit was mixed: an award in Venice and skepticism elsewhere, with reports that audiences found the Indians “unpleasant” and “distasteful,” the portrayal of their plight “unsympathetic.” This tension becomes the film's frisson, the animating force that gives shape and feeling to Mackenzie's affectations. THE EXILES oscillates between social inquiry and professional calling card: it’s a film that critiques the inadequacies of the documentary idiom while striving to emulate it. The final product resembles a master’s thesis: it demonstrates the depth of the candidate’s research and vouches for his formal sensitivity. Mackenzie continued to work on THE EXILES for some years; in a bid for distribution he chopped the film from 77 to 72 minutes and added a (heavy-handed) prologue about the Indian in America illustrated with some Edward S. Curtis photographs For his troubles, THE EXILES received a slot in the inaugural New York Film Festival line-up, but the distributors remained largely indifferent; Pathe Contemporary made 16mm prints available to the classroom market but did not entertain a theatrical run. The film received an extended consideration in Thom Andersen's LOS ANGELES PLAYS ITSELF, which prompted an archival search. The original 35mm elements were found at USC and brought to UCLA Film & Television Archive, which unveiled a restored version in 2008. In the excitement that greeted its belated theatrical release, THE EXILES was promoted as a "lost film," though 16mm and 35mm prints had been sitting unwatched in several university film collections for decades. While the print in the UIC collection could never match the quality of the restoration, it's still an object with a history all its own—and more representative of the way audiences originally encountered THE EXILES.
'The old people remember the past," a narrator says
early in The Exiles over a prologue of Edward S. Curtis
photographs—faces of aged Native Americans who may have had their lands taken
away, but not their history or memories. For the length of Kent Mackenzie's
1961 feature, the past is not distant: It's vital, concrete, immediate—a record
of vanished sites and vanquished dreams suspended in an eternally looped
present. Thanks to a superlative UCLA restoration and the efforts of Milestone
Film (who partnered last year to release Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep),
this 50-year-old film about a
By the standards of The Incredible Hulk or Wanted—buzzing CG pixel storms in which lives, locations, and bodies exist in perpetual zero gravity—The Exiles may not seem that exciting. An account of 14 dusk-to-dawn hours in a community of scuffling Native Americans—the once-prosperous Bunker Hill—it unfolds without artificial urgency or hyped-up climaxes; it's acted with unpolished conviction by neighborhood residents that the British-born director met in the mid-'50s while researching a documentary. But Mackenzie (who died in 1980 at age 50 after making just one other feature) had an ear for the poetry of ritualized interaction, and an eye for the glint of hard light on city streets. The movie walks a nightworld so crackling with unfocused energy—so alive with threat, promise, and raw honking rock 'n' roll, yet so limited in any sense of a future—that to enter it is to feel your blood surge. Even so, after its premiere at the 1961 Venice Film Festival, it never received an official release.
Like mostly forgotten features such as Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz's Messiah of Evil (1973) or Jacques Deray's The Outside Man (1972), The Exiles was plucked from obscurity by a shout-out in Thom Andersen's 2003 essay film Los Angeles Plays Itself. In that expansive meditation on cinematic geography and the coded history lessons of film, Andersen held up The Exiles as a particularly evocative example of location shooting, the spiritual forebear of Killer of Sheep and Billy Woodberry's Bless Their Little Hearts—films about the "outside" told from the inside. "The cinema of walking," Andersen called it—when one of its main characters, Yvonne, a lonely, pregnant Apache woman played by Yvonne Williams, trudges home after a night of dissatisfied window shopping, the camera takes in her real-life surroundings at the same pace, situating fiction within docurealism.
Started in 1958 and completed in 1961—a period encompassing the nouvelle vague's initial shock waves a world away, and roughly coinciding with the similar efforts of John Cassavetes, Lionel Rogosin, and Morris Engel at home—The Exiles offers possibilities for semi-doc narrative feature-making that extend beyond miserabilism or Andersen's derided "low-tourist" rubbernecking. Mackenzie conceived it as a film about the relocation of late-generation Native Americans from the reservation to the city. Starting with a bluntly sociological prologue—the one dated element—the movie charts a diaspora in microcosm. Yvonne shares two rooms with her Hualapai husband, Homer (Homer Nish), a beefy rounder with slicked-back Elvis hair and a sudden look of quizzical hurt; his wolfish mixed-Mexican buddy Tommy (Tommy Reynolds); and four other men who crash there and filch cigarettes. The guys ditch Yvonne at a double feature, then disperse like seeds into the night—Homer to a poker game for easy dough that doesn't pan out, Tommy to a joyride with a Choctaw bud and two thrill-seeking floozies.
Even in the city, there are reservations. The bar of choice, the Ritz, is a shrunken Native American nation where the displaced tribesmen meet before retiring to smaller groups and private spaces. (Their women serve as child-keepers and ATMs: Mackenzie watches without judgment as the guys habitually raid their wives' purses and split.) In Mackenzie's vision, no one here is beneath notice—not the grizzled regular reading a pamphlet at the bar, who's held for just a beat after the heroes leave; not the clerk who gives Yvonne a sullen look as she leaves Bunker Hill's Grand Central Food Market in the first scene without buying anything. We're left to wonder where their stories lead.
Deepening our involvement with the characters are the
voiceovers they deliver on the soundtrack: documentary interjections that float
above the street noise, music, and dialogue below. Independent of the action
onscreen, they give the movie's semi-doc authenticity another layer of reality.
"I haven't started drinking or hanging around
The most immediately striking thing about The Exiles, shot through with humor and nerve and keyed to the throb of Anthony Hilder and the Revels' thrillingly seedy garage rock, is its look. The black-and-white camerawork (by Erik Daarstad, Robert Kaufman, and John Morrill) is so starkly high-contrast that the outdoor shots have the muscular definition of a graphic novel. The black has surprising depth, catching hard edges within shadows; the white burns a halo around every liquor-store sign or streetlight.
"You could call [The Exiles] independent," Andersen wisecracked, slinging an elbow at the deep-pocketed Miramax "indie," "but you couldn't call it 'pulp fiction.' " And yet the area that Yvonne, Tommy, Homer, and their many friends wander is a literal film noir neighborhood: Its crooked angles and night-splitting neon also served as the backdrop for the atom-age apocalypse of 1955's Kiss Me Deadly. It's also film noir in that the city is inevitable, inescapable. As in Mean Streets and American Graffiti, two films about the confinement of community that seem influenced by The Exiles' incidental sprawl, every night out or stroll away circles back to the neighborhood. Even when Tommy gets behind the wheel of a car—in a sequence that's pure foot-to-pedal exhilaration, all whipping hair, cranking tunes, and gear-jamming low angles—he's back by daybreak. And the cycle of mooching, scuffling, and hanging starts all over again, on to the next dawn.
Shot around 1958 using ends of studio reels, premiered at the Venice film festival in 1961, and never released during the director’s lifetime, Kent Mackenzie’s The Exiles resurfaced for screenings a few years ago on the festival circuit thanks to the clips Thom Andersen included in Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003). Just those strikingly impressive fragments stand as enough proof that The Exiles must be one of the most meaningful documents about the city circa 1960, but watching the entire film confirms it.
Mackenzie was born in London in 1930, moved to the US, studied a little film, made a few shorts and two features and died when he was 50. The Exiles, his major contribution to filmmaking, proves that he was a talented and personal artist. But there is much more in The Exiles, starting with its subject, one that four decades later remains fresh and original enough to place the film amongst the leading ethnographic exhibits about urban life in the 20th century.
At first glance we are witness to a piece of classical neo-realism. The film takes place over 12 hours —from mid-afternoon to dawn—with a group of Native Americans in a popular neighborhood called Bunker Hill (now, as Andersen details, essentially vanished). It begins with rather conventionally classical stills of Native Americans, photographed by Edward Curtis, with a voiceover that reminds the viewer how those folks have been abused by the whites and confined to reservations. With such an introduction, combined with the fact that actors play themselves to—say nothing of the title—we are prepared to watch a film about misery, exploitation, and pangs of homesickness. But a few minutes later, there’s a scene where a woman is shopping, and we hear her thoughts: she’s pregnant, eager to have her baby, and she’s glad to be in town, not stuck on the reservation.
This kind of ambiguity is never resolved in The Exiles. Of course, this is not a film about people who fulfilled the American dream in spite of a racially imposed glass ceiling. Yvonne and Homer, the film’s poor main couple, don’t live in a rose garden. Homer is an alcoholic who leaves Yvonne every night to go out drinking with his male friends, while she goes to the movies alone. This kind of solitude—one with unstable family life, and poor interpersonal communication—made some critics consider despair to be at the film’s core. Manohla Dargis’ New York Times review ran under the tile: “Despair and Poetry at Margins of Society.” Just as often, Mackenzie’s work is seen in the company of John Cassavetes’ Shadows (1959). But I don’t see those comparisons at all. First of all, because Mackenzie depicts the individual failure to adapt to more bourgeois values, but, just as importantly, the suffering of the protagonists appears to be the background for his depiction of city life, not the other way around.
What really is striking in watching The Exiles is the non-stop pace of the action, the terrific black-and-white cinematography and, above all, the absolutely dense soundtrack, full of music from that period blaring from the omnipresent radios and jukeboxes (mainly rock, but also jazz, boogie, blues), and the Indian percussion that the characters play in their gatherings on top of Hill X. The first scene of the film takes place in a market, full of people and goods, fish and fruit. The formal device employed in The Exiles is plenitude, and, as a whole, contrasts with the bleak scarceness of the portraits shot against the background of desert landscapes. This plenitude is especially remarkable in a film whose characters probably earn the lowest wages in the whole city. It’s really surprising that these Native Americans, who live in a poor area, are able to enjoy the advantages of a nightlife that, by today’s standards, seems splendid. Leaving no margin at all for doubt, The Exiles shows that the distance between the rich and the poor in the US was immensely smaller than it is now.
The streets of Bunker Hill by night may come across as a provincial, maybe marginal, version of Broadway, but they are still full of lights, of bars, dancing places, movie theaters—all kinds of joints. Such places don’t exist today for lower-class people. The places are packed and they explode with sound and energy. Everybody seems to want a piece of the action: smoking, drinking, dancing, laughing, flirting, gambling, driving around, even picking fights. Those bars seem open to everyone; there’s even a glimpse of the gay scene in town. And money never seems to be a problem. Everything looks pretty cheap, and everybody seems able to get a friend of a friend to pay for a drink. That explosion of energy is what makes The Exiles so unique, so against the grain of the average political or ethnographic film.
This kind of night fever goes on well past closing time, peaking with a marvelous party at the top of Los Angeles, where people dance and sing and fistfight and dance again and, finally, make love, eventually returning home as people are headed to work, taking the marvelous cable car that the film immortalizes. Of course, all this excitement doesn’t prevent the characters from the sadness, the loneliness, and the violence inside—the sense of not belonging and of being discriminated. There is one key scene where two Indian couples go drinking and driving , ending up at a gas station where a young blond man has to fill up the tank. The camera captures the racial tension, but also a strange sense of freedom, of a dangerous and intoxicating sense of freedom and rebelliousness. One of the characters says that he doesn’t mind spending some time in prison, and, at that moment, the sense of freedom is paradoxically at its peak.
The Exiles is, of course, about being Indian, and about being poor and being displaced. But there is a direct approach to those issues, one not veiled by hypocrisy nor political correctness—starting from the fact that in those days the protagonists weren’t referred to as Native American. It’s no wonder then than Charles Burnett, a filmmaker who’s always been concerned with removing the clichéd stigmas surrounding racial issues, is involved in the current theatrical launching of the film.
It can be argued that if we watch The Exiles from the perspective of today, we tend to regard certain things as unusual when, in fact, back then they were perfectly normal. But that would be a mistake. For one thing, we haven’t been witness to those days, and in many cases we were not able to imagine them—until The Exiles. Cinema didn’t think of those places, nor those people: they were invisible. But there is more than that. There are not many films that deal with the obvious, but so important, theme of the film: the proletarian class having fun. There are a couple of masterpieces in that genre through film history: Murnau’s Sunrise (1927), Renoir’s Partie de campagne (1936). The Exiles fits perfectly well in that company.
The Restoration of <em>The Exiles</em>: The Untimeliness of ... Catherine Russell from Screening the Past, August 2012
Distribute This! Kent Mackenzie's The Exiles (1961) - Bright Lights Film ... Marilyn Ferdinand from Bright Lights Film Journal, February 2005
TIME MAGAZINE Richard Corliss
THE NATION Stuart Klawans
FILM JOURNEY Doug Cummings
FILM QUARTERLY Benjamin Jackson
INDIEWIRE Eric Kohn, including an interview with
producers Charles Burnett and
Native American neighborhood lost - JSOnline Steve Ramos
EXILES Marty Rubin from the
Seattle Post-Intelligencer William Arnold
ANGELES TIMES Saul Austerlitz,
and Poetry at Margins of Society
Manohla Dargis from The New York
and Adrift in Los Angeles Dennis
Lim from The New York Times,
BFI | Sight & Sound | Hideous Kinky (1998) Philip Kemp from Sight and Sound, February 1999
1972. Julia, a young Englishwoman, is living in Marrakesh with her daughters Bea (age 8) and Lucy (age 6). Julia hopes to study Sufism but, with money from the girls' father arriving only rarely, she scrapes a living making dolls for sale. The girls meet Bilal, an acrobat, and he and Julia become lovers. Bea persuades Julia to let her attend school.
When Bilal loses his regular quarrying job, all four set off for Bilal's home village. They are welcomed, but Bilal, uneasy at the presence of his neglected wife, insists they leave again, and goes to Agadir to find work. Back in Marrakesh Julia and the girls meet a Frenchman, Jean-Louis Santoni, and his English friend Charlotte, who invite them to stay in their grand villa. A cheque arrives from London; Julia proposes to hitch to the Sufi college in Algiers but Bea chooses to stay with Charlotte and go to school.
In Algiers the Sufi's leader makes Julia realise she isn't ready to leave her old life. She and Lucy return to Marrakesch to find Jean-Louis and Charlotte have departed, and Bea has run away. Julia tracks her to an orphanage run by a priggish nun and reclaims her daughter. Bilal returns, wearing a resplendent uniform for a tourist spectacular. Bea falls ill, and Julia realises she must return to London. Bilal sells his uniform to buy tickets for her and the girls, then flees to escape his employer's wrath. As Julia and the girls sit in the speeding train, they see Bilal racing alongside in a truck waving goodbye.
Gillies MacKinnon is one of those stimulating film-makers who hates to repeat himself. Each film is different from his previous ones, and especially from the last. As if in reaction against the shell-shocked stasis of Regeneration, all chilly blues and greys in a desolate winter landscape, Hideous Kinky finds him plunging with infectious relish into the vibrant sun-baked colours, sounds and turmoil of Morocco. What's more, both films include nightmares, but in Regeneration the camera seemed to hover over the hellish trenches in mesmerised horror, trapped and helpless. The nightmare that opens Hideous Kinky, reprised later, is a tumult of noise, panic and headlong flight, as a small girl rushes terrified down narrow alleys, harried by clutching hands and grinning faces.
Despite appearances, though, this nightmare isn't being dreamt by either Bea or Lucy, the young English girls plunged into this fascinating, bewildering country, but - as if on their behalf - by their mother Julia. Though she insists, both to the girls themselves and to her compatriot Charlotte, that Morocco is a wonderful place for her daughters, far preferable to a dreary cold flat in South London, her dreams betray her. Subconsciously she's haunted by the potential dangers to them. It's not surprising either that Julia seems to live her nightmare through her daughters' eyes, since in some ways she's more of a child than they are: more naïve, less ready to confront reality. Much of the film's comedy derives from the contrast between her flower-child fantasies and the children's laconic, down-to-earth appraisals. To Julia, the longed-for visit to the Sufi will bestow "annihilation of the ego", magically solving everything. The girls, having pretty healthy egos of their own, are less than convinced. "What the hell is a Sufi anyway?" mutters Lucy in voice-over, eventually concluding that: "They live in a mosque, they pray all day and they never go out."
The set-up, if not the surroundings, recalls Bill Forsyth's underrated melancholic comedy Housekeeping. There too a would-be free-spirited mother-figure tries to bring up two young girls according to her own wayward lights, only to collide head on with the innate conservatism of childhood, and there too the elder girl insists on embracing what she sees as "normality". Bea, at that stage in a child's development when she wants to stand out as little as possible from the crowd, yearns for the conventional. And, as if in one of those fairy stories where you get exactly what you wished for, she finds it in the form of the pious orphanage matron Patricia.
Indeed, in many ways Hideous Kinky can be read as a fairy tale, not least for its loose, episodic structure and its mood of enchanted unreality. From this angle, Patricia serves as the wicked stepmother - or maybe as the Wicked Witch of the West, with Charlotte as the well-meaning but disorganised Witch of the South, and the charmingly unreliable Bilal, with his acrobatic tricks and dicey juggling (an engaging performance from Saïd Taghmaoui, who featured in La Haine) as a younger, handsomer Wizard of Oz. There's even a magic slipper to wish on, and the title comes from the secret, half-understood phrase that the two children repeat like a mantra in moments of stress. But the film's superb final image evokes a far older story-telling tradition: Bilal, standing in the speeding truck, waving madly as he recedes into the distance, his scarlet turban unravelling like a banner across the sky, is pure Arabian Nights.
“I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.”
A formulaic film that works, because of the degree of edgy
realism that keeps flowing through every frame, led by a lead child actor,
Harry Eden, an extraordinary performance by a ten-year old child, Paul, who is
onscreen for nearly every shot, whose performance is so compelling it defies
belief, who seems to represent a higher state of consciousness witnessing all
the events, which is the basis for the title, as horrible things continue to be
seen through his eyes. Alison Hume's
script, based on a detailed research of drug-addicted mothers in
Melody tries to kick her habit cold turkey, and Paul locks
her in her room, refusing to answer to all manipulations, including one
harrowing scene where she tells him she wishes he was dead, that he was never
born, that he’s worthless, but he knows it’s the heroin talking. But Lenny eventually intervenes through brute
force. Even after Melody is arrested in
front of Paul, there’s a mesmerizing confrontational scene of mixed interests
in the morning after she’s released when both Paul and Lenny come to meet her,
and Lenny punches her in the stomach, forcing her into his car, while Paul
helplessly runs away. Much of the film
is repeated scenes of Paul running away, hopping onto his bike going here,
arriving in the dead of night somewhere else, usually enhanced by loud,
pulsating music that represents heightened tensions, usually followed by
extremely calm, melodic music written for the film by Nitin Sawhney, adding
sounds of the Middle East or India to color the mood. Paul’s grandparents intervene and want to
take the kids away from Melody, believing it’s the right thing to do. In a wonderful scene, Paul wheels his
granddad to a meeting with the social workers, made more beautiful as the
audience doesn’t initially understand the implications, but by his vote, they
are persuaded to leave the kids with Melody, a heartbreaking scene where Paul
is waiting outside in the rain, his hands on the window pane looking in,
watching the proceedings in silence.
Eventually Paul helps Detective Inspector French, played by Gary Lewis,
a man who speaks with an accent so pronounced that you can barely understand a
word he says, which only adds authenticity to his role, and he and Paul hook up
to catch the bad guy, leaving only “good things” from now on, as Melody goes
into a treatment program, after uttering something like "I know I am a
shit mother. I never say it, but I always think that. I love you." There are dreamy sequences where Paul sees
his mother all cleaned up, and another where Louise actually allows him to
smoke heroin, leaving him in a dreamy state of wonderfully expressed cinematic
disorientation that finally convinces his mother to go straight. Interestingly, the past and the future somehow
merge together, leaving us to get through the present, which in this film, seen
through a child’s eyes, seems to last forever, as if we’re stuck there
indefinitely. The cinematography by John
de Borman is highly effective mixing the dreary, lower class row-houses of
BFI | Sight & Sound | Jesus' Son (1999) Danny Leigh from Sight and Sound, August 2000
Iowa City, the early 70s. Fuckhead, or FH, a drug addict in his early twenties, is involved in a car crash while hitchhiking. He returns to his apartment and is visited by his ex-girlfriend Michelle. He then reminisces about his life so far, starting with his first meeting with Michelle at a party. Ignoring the attentions of her boyfriend McInnes, Michelle seduces Fuckhead. Months after the party, the two move in together and nurture their heroin habits. McInnes is shot by one of his house mates; he's driven to hospital by Fuckhead, but dies on the way.
Fuckhead and Michelle move into a cheap hotel. Fuckhead agrees to help Wayne, an alcoholic, strip a derelict house for salvage. Having made $40, the two men buy heroin. That evening, both overdose: Wayne dies, but Fuckhead is revived by Michelle. Fuckhead gets a job at a hospital, where he and his colleague Georgie steal various medication; later, Georgie saves a patient's life. Tripping, Fuckhead and Georgie drive into the country. When Fuckhead returns home, Michelle tells him she is pregnant. The baby is aborted. Michelle leaves Fuckhead for another man.
Following his car crash, Fuckhead gets back together with Michelle. After arguing with Fuckhead, Michelle dies from an overdose. Grief-stricken, Fuckhead overdoses himself, and is sent to a rehab clinic. Five months later, he is working at a hospice in Arizona; there, he finds peace among his terminally ill charges.
For a director as seemingly talented as Alison Maclean, the seven years
since her last feature - the taut, unsettling Crush (1992) - must have
been hard to endure. She spent some of the time working in
Yet fitfully faithful as Maclean and screenwriters Elizabeth Cuthrell, David Urrutia and Oren Moverman are to Johnson's smacked-out lyricism, it emerges here as something of a mixed blessing. On paper Johnson's fleeting insights are immaculate, peppering a bottomless, opiate, first-person fugue. And the temptation to have Billy Crudup's drug addict Fuckhead simply recite chunks of interior monologue has not been resisted. But while Crudup's recitations sound great, they often leave the film looking uncomfortably like an illustrated narration. The sense of displacement is almost too palpable. Maclean can't seem to make up her mind between honouring the skewed nature of Johnson's vignettes - by punctuating each segment with title cards - and trying to mould them into a coherent, viewer-friendly narrative. Take, for instance, the key character of Michelle. Despite Samantha Morton's fine, funky performance she seems an arbitrary and strangely hollow figure. It quickly becomes clear that her role is a composite of Johnson's numerous anonymous female characters, one designed to bind several threads into a conventional storyline.
Yet this hesitancy hardly negates the otherwise astute and idiosyncratic
charms of Jesus' Son. Maclean's camera perfectly captures a mood
of euphoric listlessness which is at once a homage to Johnson and a tribute to
her and her team's sensitivities. If the scriptwriting mechanics of unifying
Johnson's yarns prove troublesome, the potentially jarring disparities in tone
are handled with greater ease. The film segues seamlessly from absurdist comedy
(Crudup blankly watching a naked middle-aged woman paragliding), to documentary
detail (Denis Leary's broken alcoholic
Her handling of heroin, though indulgent in terms of screen time, is otherwise strictly matter-of-fact. Rather than the ostentatious fetishism of drugs chic in, say, Trainspotting or Drugstore Cowboy, smack here is as regular and uneventful an activity as eating. People get high; sometimes they die. This uncondescending fatalism means that, when a doped-up Fuckhead wanders through a drive-in showing the 1962 horror film Carnival of Souls convinced he's actually in a vast, sprawling cemetery, the effect is captivating.
All of which is enhanced by the accomplishment of the performances. Billy Crudup is a dazed, ruined presence whose poise gives the project its anguished heart. The supporting turns - particularly Morton, Leary and the inspired Jack Black - are equally impressive. The sublime interplay between Black and Crudup in the darkly comic segment 'Emergency', set in a blood-soaked casualty ward ("What am I gonna do about these fuckin' shoes, man? Listen to how they squish..."), is just one memorable scene in a film of many. Moments such as these leave you hoping Maclean doesn't have to wait another seven years for her next big-screen outing.
"Surf Buggy" - Dick Dale & His Del-Tones; "Sweet Pea" - Tommy Roe; "Mute", "Big Pill" - Camphor; "Yes, I'm Ready" - Barbara Mason; "The Iowa Waltz" - Greg Brown; "Indian Reservation (The Lament of the Cherokee Reservation Indian)" - Paul Revere and The Raiders; "Last Date" - Floyd Cramer; "Lover's Holiday" - Peggy Scott, Jo Jo Benson; "(Is Anybody Going to) San Antone?" - Doug Sahm; "She's a Jar" - Wilco; "The Ballad of the Green Beret" - Barry Sadler; "Ooby Dooby", "Airline to Heaven" - Wilco; "Main Title Theme (Billy)" - Bob Dylan; "Hang On Sloopy" - The McCoys; "The Love You Save" - Joseph Accrington; "Cowgirl in the Sand" - Neil Young; "Soul Dressing" - Booker T. and the M.G.s; "The Family That Prays", "Satan Is Real" - The Louvin Brothers; "Unchain My Heart" - Joe Henry; "Farther Along" - Christine Mourad; "Misty Blue" - Dorothy Moore; "The Circular Hallway" - Gerald Beal, Hanna Tennen, Eliot Bailen; "Sweet Desire" - The Kendalls
Great Britain New Zealand (84 mi) 2015 Official site
While there’s a standoffish distrust between the two men, Cavendish, one must acknowledge, is still a boy filled with childish notions of love and adventure, perhaps a bit too stubborn and headstrong, but is a man on a mission, thoroughly convinced he will find Rose, though we learn through a series of flashbacks that Rose may not be terribly excited to see him again. Seen as one who deeply cares about all things, continually philosophizing on the trail, while Silas couldn’t care less, speaking bluntly, “You haven’t bedded her yet have you?” In this manner, the more weak and submissive Jay tends to be the butt of all jokes, a condition Silas and his more acerbic wit and humor continuously takes advantage of, leaving the poor kid flummoxed for a good part of the journey. But none more so than when they come upon a trading post in the middle of nowhere. Checking out the merchandise, they are interrupted by settlers in desperate straits who demand the merchant’s money, whose reasoning falls on deaf ears when he utters, “You know, if you take my money, this is the only place you could spend it.” Nonetheless, it ends badly, with the situation growing even more absurdly troubling than first imagined, but Silas pulls the kid out of there, a bit shell-shocked by the violent outcome. Veering between a western and black comedy, there are surprisingly humorous moments interspersed throughout, like the time Jay leaves his campsite to relieve himself, taking a wrong turn back where he stumbles into an entirely different campsite. Rather than show any signs of malice or suspicion, he’s warmly welcomed and treated to one of the more amusing stories of the film, only to apologize politely afterwards and correct his errant ways.
But nothing is as boldly impressive as the gorgeous landscape mixing a combination of barren plains and spectacular mountains, including panoramic vistas of multicolored wildflowers and wide-open spaces. In perhaps the most absurd scene of the film, the two bickering partners separate, leaving Jay to fend for himself, which he does impressively by receiving the kindness of a lone anthropologist who shares some stories along with food and coffee and a safe place to sleep before secretly gathering together Jay’s horse and all his belongings while taking off in the middle of the night. When Jay awakes in the morning feeling refreshed, he finds himself alone and on foot, with no sign of his generous host for as far as the eye can see in any direction.
While it may be beautiful to behold, with a memorable score by Jed Kurzel, this might be called an idiosyncratic western, as it’s told in a quirky manner, where Jay just happens upon a group of Congolese singers (speaking to them in perfect French), or hears recurring references to the plight of Indians, while repeated flashback sequences fill in the missing pieces. Making matters more interesting, Ben Mendelsohn plays the psychopathic leader of a rival group of bounty hunters that Silas once rode with, who have latched on to Jay’s secret quest, an ill wind gathering momentum for a coming storm, where by the end of the picture all signs point to the exact same place, where it becomes harder for Silas to protect the boy from the dangers of a world he isn’t prepared for, describing him as “A jack rabbit in a den of wolves.” At 84-minutes it’s surprisingly concise, all leading to an inevitable showdown when they finally meet Rose, who defies expectations and could easily be the poster child for the National Rifle Association. While the film attempts revisionist history when it comes to racial depictions, where African immigrants and Indians are shown with more sympathetic treatment, but the mythological problems with most westerns remains the same, where there’s a diabolical attraction to guns and killings, where the director uses violence to resolve various plot points, where his ease with the use of multiple killings is all too simplistic, where the final standoff becomes a reverie of death, which hardly amounts to anything we haven’t seen before. Unlike Kelly Reichardt’s Meek's Cutoff (2010), which this film resembles in its aimless wandering through vast stretches of the American West, or even Lisando Alonso’s more abstract Jauja (2014), rather than delve into psychological implications, where whatever plot intentions are sucked into well-crafted characterizations, this film resorts to the same standard pattern used by directors of westerns for the past 100 years, where the character development is far too stereotypical, and there’s only one way out of every problem ― someone gets killed. Just like westerns of old that continue to accentuate bullets and blood, this sends the exact wrong message, as it romanticizes the excess violence, which is little more than the typical Hollywood treatment, instead of discovering a new and different path.
A neo-western that operates in purely mythic terms, Slow West evokes an 1870 America steeped in isolation, heartbreak, suffering, and misery. Expertly written and directed by John Maclean, this spartan story recounts the efforts of well-to-do young Scotsman Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who travels to America — and westward, ho! — to find the girl he loves (but does not love him back), Rose Ross (Caren Pistorius). Along his journey, he is saved by, and then forced to pay for, the bodyguard services of Silas (a stoic Michael Fassbender), a quiet-spoken roughneck with a cigar perpetually stuck in the corner of his mouth and a curious interest in Jay’s quest that, it’s soon revealed, stems from his own desire to find Rose — who, unbeknownst to Jay, has a $2,000 bounty on her head.
Maclean establishes his tale with minimal dialogue and oblique flashbacks, so that each subsequent development seems to arise out of some strange, half-awake, half-dreaming state. Employing largely static imagery, his cinematography is marked by semi-smeary, hyper-saturated colors that steep the action in sumptuous, surrealistic splendor. Evoking a more bare-bones variation of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford’s style, Slow West moves through picturesque desert plains and forests with an ominous patience that often tips the material into absurdist comedy. Highly attuned to the terrifying grandeur of its milieu, it discovers, at every turn, a wondrously frightening new sight to behold, none greater than that of Ben Mendelsohn’s bandit leader Payne emerging from, and disappearing into, the wild landscape while wearing a big bearskin coat. An embodiment of the country’s animalistic spirit, Mendelsohn’s primal villain is the polar opposite of Smit-McPhee’s civilized traveler, with Fassbender’s reformed outlaw caught in the middle of Slow West’s tragic push-pull between the past and the future.
While early reviews have been positive for this auspicious debut by Scottish musician-turned-filmmaker John MacLean (who set the film in 19th-century America but shot it in New Zealand), most have also erroneously described it as an "absurdist" or "psychedelic" western, with some even likening it to Jim Jarmusch's DEAD MAN. Despite a few revisionist elements, SLOW WEST is more or less a classic western by a writer/director who clearly has a thorough knowledge of--and love for--the genre's history and conventions; the plot follows a 16-year-old Scottish kid named Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) as he traverses the American west in search of his heart's desire, a beautiful lass named Rose (Caren Pistorious) who was forced to flee her home country along with her father (John McCann) after a tragic event for which Jay feels responsible. Along the way, Jay teams up with Silas (Michael Fassbender, doing a credible Clint Eastwood impersonation complete with half-smoked cheroot permanently wedged in the corner of his mouth), a gunslinger who agrees to accompany Jay through hostile territory in exchange for money. What Silas knows and Jay doesn't, however, is that there are also bounties on the heads of Rose and her father, and Jay is leading Silas directly to them. SLOW WEST is dark, violent, claustrophobic, and pessimistic but these qualities are also thankfully leavened by MacLean's singular gift for humorous sight gags--such as the moment Jay and Silas stumble across the corpse of a man who died chopping down a tree, Jay's innovative method of drying soaking-wet clothes or, best of all, a flashback sequence involving an outlaw criticizing his partner for being jealous of his "wanted" poster. MacLean's preference for visual articulation even extends to a lovely grace note in the film's final scene where a character nails a horseshoe to a living-room wall--a symbolic image that captures the notion of the "settling of the west" as succinctly and cleverly as George O'Brien's use of a wagon wheel as ornamentation on the gate of his new home at the end of John Ford's silent masterpiece THREE BAD MEN.
Even though the tragicomic neo-Western Slow West follows a simple, straight-line A-to-B quest, it still feels scattered. That’s partially because first-time writer-director John Maclean takes a classic “more interested in the journey than the destination” approach to the story. Callow but well-heeled 16-year-old Jay Cavendish (The Road’s Kodi Smit-McPhee) is crossing America to reunite with his lost love Rose (Caren Pistorius), who fled their native Scotland with her father John (Rory McCann) after a Jay-related incident made them wanted criminals. But Maclean never gives viewers any reason to believe Jay will find a warm welcome if he does find Rose again. Their love connection, the urgency of his travel, and the rightness of his end point may all be entirely in his mind. Jay himself is deeply invested in their reunion, but the film itself is only invested in what he encounters en route.
His most significant encounter teams him up with tough mercenary Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender), who takes one look at Jay’s dude-gear, unlined face, vampire-pale skin, and shaky hands, and marks him as a victim in the making. He demands a high fee for serving as Jay’s guide and bodyguard, even though the biggest threat to Jay is actually Silas’ old criminal compatriots, led by the dissolute but serious-minded Payne (Starred Up’s Ben Mendelsohn). But while Fassbender plays his character as a classic Western hero—tough, calm, a crack shot, knowledgable about the terrain, and stern in a way that betrays little weakness—he’s more equipped for hardship and violence than for the twee quirk that awaits him.
Slow West often feels like the Coen brothers’ rendition of True Grit, if they’d brought Wes Anderson in as a collaborator. It’s a shaggy-dog story full of colorful characters and aimless but diverting narrative byways, all delivered with Andersonian solemnity, against a backdrop of deeply saturated colors and meticulously dressed sets. Lines like “In a short time, this will be a long time ago” suggest that Maclean isn’t taking the story as gravely as his tone implies. So do nudge-nudge comic moments like the one where a bleeding man sees something personally devastating at the same moment he literally gets salt in his wounds. There’s significant tragedy in Slow West, but it comes with a bitter belly laugh, and a sense that humanity is so ridiculous, in 1800s Colorado or anywhere else, that a certain wryly philosophical outlook is as necessary for survival as any skill with guns and horses.
Wes Anderson, the Coens, and John Ford Westerns aren’t the only touchstones in Slow West. There’s a fair bit of Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man in the film’s DNA, with Jay as the Jarmuschian outsider bearing witness to a parade of horrors, from a Union officer murdering Native Americans for sport to a desperate Swedish couple attempting robberies at gunpoint. There’s even a surreal Jarmuschian musical interlude involving a group of Congolese singers, and an intense dead-of-night conversation with a traveling anthropologist named Werner, clearly modeled a bit after a certain filmmaker who shares his first name. Sidebars into a Jungian nightmare and a tall tale told by one of Payne’s gang members, about a young criminal desperate for his own wanted poster, heighten the sense of narrative detachment and lack of urgency. Like Dead Man, this all feels like a sleepy bedtime fable, a ghost story being told long after all the protagonists are dead.
But Slow West also mirrors Liev Schreiber’s sole directorial project, the 2005 Jonathan Safran Foer adaptation Everything Is Illuminated, in which a pale, too-serious young man enlists an eccentric local guide for a beautifully shot but unsettlingly artificial journey into an unfamiliar country. Like that film, Slow West winds up in a beautiful house in a beautiful field, with both the setting and the events there feeling like something out of a particularly arch and stagey play. Fassbender and Mendelsohn’s note-perfect performances, pitched for an earlier era and a less postmodern script, are the only really grounded aspects of the film. Mostly, it comes across as a sandbox adventure, with an artificial finish line placed on a story that’s mostly about playing with all the strange and interesting narrative toys littering this familiar landscape.
indiewire Rodrigo Perez from The Playlist
Slow West | Reviews | Screen - Screen International David D’Arcy
Review: Michael Fassbender is a bounty hunter on a ... Mike D’Angelo from The Onion A.V. Club
Twitch Film Jason Gorber
The Hollywood Reporter John DeFore
The Guardian Jordan Hoffman
'Slow West,' with Michael Fassbender - Los Angeles Times Gary Goldstein
Slow West - Roger Ebert Godfrey Cheshire
A beautiful portrait of Queen Victoria in the 1850’s, superbly played by Judi Dench, who remains isolated at Windsor castle in mourning for years after her husband’s death, just not up to facing “the people” until the arrival of a Scottish servant, Billy Connolly, who becomes her best friend and protector, so much so that he becomes the film’s title, causing whispers and rumors that continued to surround their life-long friendship and most likely unconsummated love affair. The best parts of this film are the short glances, gestures, and looks of impossibility between the two. Against this love story is the backdrop of the British Parliament discussing whether to abolish the Royal Family altogether, as they were spending so much time “away” from the people, causing the Queen to return to her rightful place playing a royal spectacle, the role she was always meant to play.
A deliriously happy film, a sweeping, powerful work filled with non-stop creative energy from all levels, it simply bursts with the joy of creation, as seen through the fictionalized re-creation of young William Shakespeare, played by Joseph Fiennes, whose life’s everyday turmoil is captured with his love of life, theater, language, and the love of stage-struck Lady Viola, an elusive beauty wonderfully played by Gwyneth Paltrow, a fleeting spirit who inspires him to write again after he’s stuck with the tentatively titled work “Romeo and Ethel, the Pirates Daughter – a Crowd Tickler,” aided by what must be the most intelligent and outrageously clever script of the year written by playwright Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman. While it is a costumed period piece, it worships the power of the imagination and one is literally taken aback by how completely this film lives up to the storyline’s dream of what love and inspiration can be, an ideal date movie.
Set in London in 1593, the film pits the rivalry of two theaters in Elizabethan times, the Court and the Rose, both engaged in ruthless competition, and one with a cash flow problem, the Rose. Meanwhile young Shakespeare has writer’s block, “It’s as if my quill is broken,” and seeks help from a psychic soothsayer who tells him “words will flow like rivers.” Judi Dench is perfectly cast as the frightfully pallid and serious Queen, wearing outrageous costumes, decorated to the nines with spikes coming out of her hair, chairs from one entire side of the theater must be removed so she may sit with a completely unobstructed view. Geoffrey Rush plays Henslowe, a twitchy theater producer who is always in debt to the local mob, rogues in robes that are always urging Shakespeare to write a comedy. It is only after a beautiful, young woman, a cross-dressing heiress with dreams of a forbidden career in the theater, reawakens his gift that Shakespeare begins to discover his muse, a clever romp that makes clever use of theatrical conventions and Shakespeare’s own works.
Viola De Lesseps, a rich merchant's daughter betrothed to Lord
Tilney, tipped off that a woman has joined Henslowe's troupe, exposes Viola
and closes the theatre on grounds of immorality, but Burbage magnanimously
offers the Curtain to his rival. Will takes over as Romeo, while Viola
resignedly goes through with the marriage to
Shakespeare in Love is a hodgepodge – or, as the Elizabethans might
more pungently put it, a gallimaufry and an olla podrida (rotten pot). The main
plotline – well-born young woman named Viola dresses up as a boy, joins
Shakespeare's troupe and has an affair with the playwright – is pinched
straight from Simon and Brahms' classic comic novel No Bed for Bacon, as
are some of the gags, such as Will practising multiple variants of his
signature at moments of stress. ("Shakspaw, he scribbled
viciously.") The stagestruck heavy is a blatant lift from Woody Allen's Bullets
over Broadway, and the scene-setting pays homage to the Monty Python school
of scatological reconstruction: Henslowe, striding through the
Which is perfectly fine since the heterogeneous mixture, a rich but satisfying plum-pudding, works splendidly, absorbing its borrowings and negotiating its switches of mood with little sense of strain. (There's only one serious lapse, a jarring descent into Carry-On inanity when Will puts on a squeaky voice and pretends to be Viola's female cousin.) Besides, style and subject are ideally matched, since we're dealing with the greatest magpie genius of all time. Shakespeare was notoriously disinclined to devise his own plots, preferring to snaffle them from Plutarch, Holinshed or whatever dog-eared chapbook came to hand; he cared nothing for unity of mood, tossing dirty jokes into high tragedy in a way that gave the Augustans the vapours; and several of his plays (Richard II, for example) contain great chunks written by someone else. Shakespeare in Love may fall short of his exalted standard, but it's a film after his own heart.
Tom Stoppard, co-scripting, can likely be credited with some literary gags that may bypass the groundlings (a bloodthirsty small boy, given to tormenting mice, gives his name as John Webster, who later wrote the bloody play The White Devil) and some of the cod-fustian dialogue: "If you be man to ride her, there are rubies in the saddlebag." But the chief delight of Shakespeare in Love, along with its gamy exuberance, is the acting. The chemistry between Gwyneth Paltrow (after Sliding Doors, delivering yet another faultless Brit accent) and Joseph Fiennes inspires relief that the original casting (Julia Roberts and Daniel Day-Lewis) fell through. Around them cavort star turns from Imelda Staunton (born to play the nurse), Colin Firth sending up his arrogant Darcyesque image, Ben Affleck (a nostril-flaring Ned Alleyn), Judi Dench having a ball as Queen Bess, the increasingly superb Geoffrey Rush as the harassed Henslowe, and others too numerous to list. And the final triumphant premiere of Shakespeare's first true masterpiece, while edging dangerously near luvvie-ish self-regard, conveys something of what Nabokov called shamanstvo – the 'enchanter-quality' of great theatre. As Rush's Henslowe remarks, smiling beatifically as the whole shambles comes magically together, "It's a mystery."
The truth is whatever we say it is. —Stephan (Marton Csokas)
This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend. —Reporter from John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
This is another one of those paranoid
Cold War espionage thrillers that were the rage of the 1970’s with Alan Pakula’s
KLUTE (1971) and PARALLAX VIEW (1974), or the recently deceased Sydney
Pollack’s THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR (1975), each one a tense, well acted, and
highly suspenseful drama with dark political undertones marked by the cool
exteriors of sterile architecture, featuring plenty of empty space, and a near
mathematical structure on which the story rests. This film is also well served by such an
extraordinary cast and a director who knows what he’s doing behind the camera,
shifting all the pieces around like a chess board, re-enacting history through
a kind of morality chamber drama, much like Roman Polanski’s DEATH AND THE
MAIDEN (1994). This is actually a remake
of a previously released Israeli feature by Assaf Bernstein, known by its
Hebrew title HA HOV (The Debt) (2007), where in the 1960’s a group of three
young Mossad agents are sent behind enemy lines into East Germany to kidnap a
Nazi war criminal known as the Butcher of Birkenau and bring him back to Israel
to stand trial. This fictionalized tale
is based on the horrific medical procedures of Josef Mengele, a German SS
officer who performed grisly medical experiments on the concentration camp
inmates, particularly young women, such as sterilization, shock treatments,
limb amputations or injecting chemicals into children’s eyes, leaving them
blind, where many died afterwards from untreated infections. In real life Mengele was hunted by the Mossad
in the 60’s, but he evaded capture and died a free man in exile at the age of
At her daughter’s grand book opening celebrating her life by revealing the harrowing details of the historic mission, Helen Mirren as Rachel Singer is being lauded for her heroic work as an Israeli agent 35 years ago, but that concerned look on her face suggests she’s uncomfortable with all the attention. Quickly flashing back to when she is played by young actress Jessica Chastain, we see the mission has gone terribly wrong, where the captured prisoner manages to escape by surprising his kidnapper and beating Rachel into a bloody pulp on the floor before making his way down a winding staircase, but somehow she summons the strength to crawl to the top of the stairs and shoot him before he could get away. The book is a huge success, but the lives of the three remain in turmoil, remaining secretive and distant, where a disfiguring scar on Rachel’s cheek from a succession of kicks to her jaw is a daily reminder of this incident. The Hollywood aspect to this story when told in flashback is adding a romanticized love triangle to the mission, which despite the taut suspense of the precision of their operation adds an element of pure soap opera melodrama. It’s hard to believe that secret agents actually have time for hanky panky, as one would suspect they need to eliminate distractions and focus on the business at hand. As it turns out, that’s exactly the view of one of the agents, David (Sam Worthington), but not shared by the commanding officer Stephan (Marton Csokas). This not only turns into a distraction but becomes a fatal flaw due to the intricate nature of what they need to do, which is kidnap a still practicing (under an alias) Doctor Vogel (Jesper Christiansen) after a series of routine fertility exams from Rachel as a pretend patient confirm he’s their suspect.
Madden displays a deft hand in the action sequences, where each phase slowly unfolds with surgical precision, where the underlying tension, especially well drawn out during the visits when Rachel allows herself to be examined by a man she knows is a vile monster, couldn’t be more discomforting and creepy. It’s all drenched in an eerie, completely detached calmness, shown with the cool veneer of excessive restraint, creating at times a dark, atmospheric mood of stillness that borders on horror. Christiansen is chilling in his role as a Nazi-spewing Jew hater, which he uses against his captors every chance he gets. Despite their meticulous planning, things go awry, and Bernhardt quickly realizes just how exposed and vulnerable his kidnappers have become, continually bickering among themselves about what to do. The bumbling aspect of this Mossad crew is a bit unsettling, as instead of maintaining their hard corps discipline, as this is the elite of the elite, they lapse into moments of psychological weakness which their captive easily exploits. Even with the elements of the narrative that one might find implausible, the choreography of the sequences moving back and forth in time is excellent, where the harrowing aspects of the kidnapping itself is a sheer delight and outweigh the misguided personal intimacies that evolve. But a morality play is perhaps best expressed in the breaking down of trust and loyalty, where the bonds that hold relationships and even societies together may be shaken by the very root of their own unstable foundations, undermined by human miscalculations. Rachel Singer is a complex figure, beautifully portrayed by both Chastain and Mirren, drawn by the opposing strengths offered by both David and Stephan, leaving her conflicted and perhaps even exiled from her own conscience, instead making an unholy alliance with history, where myth is always more captivating than the facts.
Based on the 2007 Israeli film of the same name, The Debt
is a complex spy thriller about three Mossad agents in 1966 sent into
A remake of the far more brisk 2007 Israeli film with a bullpen
of aging stars, this rather old-fashioned espionage drama seems deftly
engineered to please the middlebrow minions allergic to superheroes and
vampires. It's hardly a challenging film, though not for lack of strain,
bouncing between 1997, when scar-faced Mossad
agent Helen Mirren endures some autumnal glory in Tel
Aviv, and 1965, when, embodied by a wispy Jessica Chastain, she joins a team (Sam Worthington and Marton Csokas) intent on kidnapping a famous Nazi
butcher (Jesper Christensen) passing as an East Berlin
gynecologist. The rhythms of The Debt are emphatic and obvious, but at
least the Israeli cult of heroism gets a side-swipe fuck-you, and the loaded
thought of vaginal exams administered by a Birkenau mutilator is exploited for everything
it's worth, especially when one exam explodes into a leg-lock fight to the
near-death. The leading cast, strangely Jew-free, is all uncomplicated angst
and brow-furrows, except for
The latest effort from Shakespeare in Love filmmaker John Madden, The Debt follows a trio of Israeli agents (Sam Worthington's David, Martin Csokas' Stefan, and Jessica Chastain's Rachel) as they attempt to abduct (and bring to justice) a notorious Nazi criminal - with the film unfolding both in the past and in the late '90s, when the three comrades (Ciarán Hinds' David, Tom Wilkinson's Stefan, and Helen Mirren's Rachel) are forced to reunite following the publication of a book detailing their efforts. Madden generally does a nice job of establishing an impressively tense atmosphere, with the stretch set within a dingy apartment - where the agents are holding the aforementioned criminal - undoubtedly standing as a highlight within the proceedings. All three of the younger actors are quite good in their respective roles, with the real surprise here Worthington (ie after his wooden turn at the festival's Last Night, it's rather unexpected to discover that he's actually quite compelling here). The inclusion of a few electrifying interludes - ie the Nazi attempts to goad David into beating him up - staves off the stagy atmosphere one might've anticipated, yet it's ultimately difficult to muster up much interest in the love triangle that crops up about midway through. It's also worth noting that the film does run out of steam as it progresses, with the anticlimactic (and increasingly preposterous) third act effectively diminishing the impact of the frequently enthralling opening hour. Still, The Debt is a solid little thriller that undoubtedly stands as a marked improvement over Madden's last foray into the genre (2008's miserable Killshot).
What starts out as a gripping Cold-War-era espionage thriller
devolves into utter fantasy in director John Madden’s remake of a 2007 Israeli
film by the same title. Told mainly in flashback sequences, the story follows
the 1966 efforts of three young Mossad agents assigned to capture and transport
Nazi war criminal Dr. Vogel (Jesper Christensen), a.k.a. “the surgeon of Birkenau.”
A fundamental flaw stems from the film’s fictionalization of the infamous Nazi
war criminal Dr. Josef Mengele--a.k.a. “the Angel of Death.” Although hunted by
the real Mossad during the '60s, Mengele evaded capture. He died a free man at
the age of 67 in
Given the “Inglourious Basterds”-themed nature of its revenge fantasy narrative “The Debt” plays it too straight when it should push at the boundaries of revisionist history. When the filmmakers finally get around to pushing the action over the top in the third act, the result is disingenuous.
In any event, a 1997 book release party for the biographer/daughter of retired Mossad agent Rachel Singer (Helen Mirren) promises to reunite the three Mossad operatives for the first time in 30 years. With a prominent scar on her right cheek, Rachel reads aloud from the biography her daughter wrote about her intrepid experiences a lifetime ago. Rachel’s jagged facial scar evinces deeper emotional wounds. Mirren’s keen performance lets us see the broken internal pieces her character desperately wants to keep hidden. She reads a brutal paragraph in which she describes killing her hostage as he attempts to escape. The episode will pop up later in the movie, albeit under crucially different circumstances than those related in the book’s version.
Cut to 1966 when a younger Rachel (played by Jessica Chastain)
Jessica Chastain (“The Tree of Life”) communicates continuity with her older incarnation (Helen Mirren). Although the same level of recognition doesn’t exist between Sam Worthington and his older version (Ciaran Hinds), or between Marton Csokas and his later personification (Tom Wilkinson), the connection between Chastain and Mirren presents sufficient glue to keep us hooked.
The filmmakers attempt to shoehorn a lingering love story between Rachel and David that has simmered over the years. The relationship vies too heavily with a third-act spree of vengeance that hardly seems worth the effort for the pretentiousness it inflicts. A subplot regarding a long-held secret links the couple’s affair with the far-fetched action that serves as the climax. There’s an old saying that “revenge is a dish best served cold.” In real life, the Mossad gave up on tracking down Dr. Mengele and bringing him to justice even though they were at one time close to completing the mission. If the filmmakers wanted to recast history, they needed to have a better sense of war genre and espionage films to make it work. “The Debt” is entertaining enough. It just doesn’t function as a cohesive film.
What happens when you take an Israeli spy thriller and pump it up with
high-budget steroids for a
The original motion picture, “Ha-Hov” (“The Debt”) (2007), directed by Assaf Bernstein, was nominated for four Ophir Awards, the Israeli equivalent of the Oscars, but didn’t garner much of an audience internationally. Focus Features and Miramax have reimagined the film to include Helen Mirren and Tom Wilkinson, along with better costumes and dramatic music for chase scenes.
The story deals with retired Mossad agents Rachel (Mirren), Stefan
(Wilkinson) and David (Ciaran Hinds), and a 1965 mission that won them renown.
You see, the punch line — spoiler alert — is that the threesome didn’t
actually kill Vogel, as they told
The film meets its first hurdle of casting challenges well. Because it flips between two eras, two people play each character: one older and one younger version of the same person. Sam Worthington as the young David meshes believably with Hinds as the older version of himself, and the fiery performance of Marton Csokas as the young Stefan (looking like a younger and even angrier Russell Crowe) outshines even Academy Award nominee Wilkinson.
In the original film, Gila Almagor played the lead female Mossad agent, and the inimitable Mirren is a worthy successor to Almagor’s prowess. Mirren has the actor’s gift of appropriating dialogue as though it were truly her own. Unfortunately, the contrast between her skills and those of her younger version, Jessica Chastain, reflects poorly on the latter. Chastain is certainly lovely to look at in the period clothes of the “Mad Men” era, but her character appears to vacillate between two states — distressed and disconcerted — and never seems to have a core competence, or even a sense of control, that would be a necessity for even a young Mossad agent.
While the psychological depth of the older characters is deftly portrayed,
Chastain as the young Rachel is too much of an incomprehensible cipher to carry
a story of this weight. Sure, the film’s most suspenseful moments are still
there — the moments when Rachel, pretending to be trying to conceive, visits
the surgeon of Birkenau, now in hiding as a gynecologist practicing in
But such scenes were true to the original film and, because they were less
heavy-handed, were done better the first time around, because of less
Now, I’m not a purist — I don’t always believe that original versions of
films are better (although actually, when I think about it, I can’t think of a
single remade version of a film that surpasses the first). My problem with this
adaptation, however, goes far deeper than quibbles with the
“You spent 30 years taking credit for it. Aren’t you tired of lying?” One character tells another, speaking of Vogel’s alleged death.
While I may be overly sensitive on this point, the film seems to be focused on the lie the Israeli characters allowed to exist rather than on the unutterable evils perpetrated by the person they are hunting. And by shifting the focus, from the quest for justice in the face of unspeakable evil to Israelis feeling bad about their own wrongdoing, “The Debt” stands the underlying story on its head in a far more dramatic and insidious way than casting choices alone ever could.
THE DEBT - Reelviews Movie Reviews James Berardinelli
Star Not Quite Overnight Margy
Rochlin interview with Jessica Chastain from The New York Times,
Helen Mirren: The Reluctant Libertine
Andrew Goldman interview with Mirren from The New York Times,
'The Debt' review: Evil's stain leaves a mark Mick LaSalle from The San Francisco Chronicle
The Canadian magazine Cinema Scope analyzes the Winnipeg Film Group, and has this to say about Maddin: "Unquestionably the most successful filmmaker to emerge from the Film Group, Maddin has produced seven features and numerous shorts since 1985, all marked by his strange quest to create 'authentic' early sound cinema. His obsession with early film styles is admirable in a way for, well, its sheer obsessiveness. But ultimately, his films sometimes seem to end up in the dead end of irony, their cleverness preventing engagement and exhausting the viewer by dint of their relentless artificiality."
Postmodernism POSTMODERNISM AND FILM Mattias Frey from Film Reference
Guy Maddin's films contain uncanny worlds that, at once strange and familiar, are archives of film and culture references from high to low. Born and raised on the Canadian prairies, Maddin is the best-known exponent of "prairie modernism," which developed around the Winnipeg Film Group.
Aesthetically, Maddin betrays a fondness for black-and-white
cinematography and a silent-film look lit from a single source. But color footage
often intrudes at unlikely places, accompanied by intentionally discordant
music and ambient sounds. Errors in continuity or film equipment in the shot
are par for the course in Maddin movies, which have been filmed in abandoned
warehouses, a grain elevator, a foundry turned garbage depot, or in his
mother's beauty salon. Capturing the essence of a Maddin film is difficult.
In interviews, as in his films, Maddin refers to influences as diverse as Pablo Picasso, the film director Douglas Sirk, the punk group the Ramones, Mexican wrestling movies, hockey star Mario Lemieux, the 1933 musical Footlight Parade, Euripides, and Mary Pickford. His short The Heart of the World (2000), commissioned for the 2000 Toronto International Film Festival as part of its Preludes series by ten Canadian directors, is perhaps his masterpiece. In a mere six minutes he perfectly captures the style and tropes of Soviet montage cinema of the 1920s.
Irish Film Institute»Delirious Dreams: The Cinema of Guy Maddin ... Mark Peranson introduction to Guy Maddin
Perhaps the time is right for Guy Maddin’s type of filmmaking. Nostalgia and romancing the past are currently as de rigueur as the glorification of kitsch, and Maddin provides all these in spades. The end of 2003 saw no fewer than three very major yet different films from Guy in wide circulation: the stupendous movie-ballet Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary, the peephole gallery installation Cowards Bend the Knee, and the ‘proper’ feature film Saddest Music in the World. This is an astonishing cinematic output and all the more impressive if you’re aware of Guy’s laziness.
Guy Maddin claims to have been born on
Maddin’s cinephilia reveals itself in a film like Careful, the Leni Riefenstahl-meets-Caligari mountain movie in which there are allusions to directors as diverse as Josef von Sternberg, Alfred Hitchcock, James Whale, Buster Keaton, Max Ophuls, Georges Méliès, Ernest Lubitsch and René Clair, all presented as if slapped together purposefully by Victor Frankenstein. But while Maddin wholeheartedly embraces primitivism in his delirious cross-breeds, he despises continuity and complicates nostalgia. One of his ongoing projects is remaking lost movies that even he has never seen. His celebrated short film The Heart of the World re-imagines Abel Gance’s 1931 science fiction movie La Fin du monde: other possible films in the project include Tod Browning’s London After Midnight and F.W. Murnau’s 4 Devils. These films, as well as those which inspire his other work, have in a way been murdered by history, and Maddin takes revenge. Yet he staunchly avoids literal remakes through his use of fast editing, absurdly complicated plots, hyper stylised sets and dialogue, and by injecting autobiographical elements as pure melodrama.
Before he became a filmmaker, Guy wanted to be a writer. Literature is as influential on his work as the cineastes mentioned earlier, including such writers as Knut Hamsun, John Ruskin, Herman Melville, Bruno Schulz and, in Cowards Bend the Knee, Marcel Proust and Euripides. The more one reads his own writing, the more intensely personal his films appear. His published diaries, strewn with passages of self-doubt amid the director’s amorous exploits, make it painfully clear that, for Guy Maddin, filmmaking is a way of coping.
City Pages - Northern Exposure Winnipeg's avant-garde auteur Guy Maddin comes in from the cold, by Mark Peranson from City Pages, February 4, 2004
Few artists are as underappreciated in their home countries as Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin, and few underappreciated artists are at greater risk than he is of being overexposed. The start of 2004 finds three very different Maddin films in circulation: the stupendous silent-movie ballet Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary; the wild mix of autobiography, hockey, and Euripides' Electra known as Cowards Bend the Knee; and a musical with Isabella Rossellini called The Saddest Music in the World. All of these--in addition to Maddin himself--will appear at Walker Art Center this month as part of the museum's final blowout before its expansion imposes a yearlong hiatus.
Among the world's most prolific filmmakers, Maddin puts even Japan's DV provocateur Takeshi Miike to shame. Indeed, the director's astonishing output could only be compared to the Gretzky-led Edmonton Oilers dynasty of the late 1980s. And yet Maddin, born in the '50s, seems to remain stuck in the '20s. Since 1985, the most idiosyncratic of Canadian filmmakers has released seven highly personal features and roughly 20 shorts--a body of work that, despite its surrealist trappings and strong resemblance to silent cinema, is impossible to pigeonhole. You might say that Maddin directs in a genre all his own, remaking melodramatic movies that never existed. His riotous, emotionally masochistic curiosities--never far from mythos or a movie reference, from his own childhood dreams and anxieties--are designed to entertain and confuse, to delight and dislocate. Perhaps the time is right for this director's work: After all, nostalgia is as de rigueur these days as the glorification of kitsch, and the self-flagellating Maddin offers both in abundance.
Maddin's stern Icelandic childhood on the Canadian prairies--he was raised above his Aunt Lil's beauty salon, near the Winnipeg hockey arena--was one of slothdom, the kid craning his ears to catch the ambient crackling of late-night radio signals. Along with the glory of having scrubbed the backs of Soviet hockey players, there's tragedy in Maddin's past: When he was young, his hockey-manager father died, and his older brother committed suicide. The filmmaker's stylistic primitivism seems to stem from the raw emotion and limited means of those early days: Using handheld cameras, black-and-white film, and "special effects" such as fog and Vaseline on the lens, he proves that the most valuable tool is a pliable imagination.
Maddin home-schooled in rabid cinephilia, watching film noir, melodrama, and silent movies borrowed from the 16mm collections of local libraries; remnants of these 1,001 nights speckle his own movies. Galloping, for example, through the Riefenstahl-meets-Caligari universe of Careful (screening along with four other features as part of "Dusk to Dawn Maddin," which begins at 9:30 p.m. on Valentine's Day and runs until five in the morning), one finds allusions to von Sternberg, Hitchcock, Keaton, Ophuls, Mèliés, and Clair. But the way Maddin juggles his sources is based on forgetfulness--both the viewer's and his own. After bringing up one reference, he quickly moves along--never allowing another filmmaker to cohabit his space for too long, never allowing the audience to dwell on the twisted narrative. Haunted by lovelorn amnesiacs, the films bubble over with the illogical grippes of passion. "The only real themes that matter to me are how humans love each other or hate each other or are envious of each other," Maddin has said. Accordingly, each of his films finds a pair of lovers isolated in a honeymoon suite, enjoying an idyllic moment that's soon soured by Point Three of the triangle. Sexuality breeds psychosis in these most noirish of worlds, and is often followed by disappointment and death--though not necessarily in that order.
Maddin's protagonists (often played by Kyle McCullough, now a South Park writer) are generally trapped in hilarious, hallucinating states of self-pitying cowardice on studio-bound sets, their highly mannered expressions resembling those of silent-era stars. Yet despite the films' blatant anachronisms and deliberate continuity errors, Maddin's work never descends into full-blown camp. Nor does it give way to wistful nostalgia: Indeed, how could anyone want to return to the absurdly corked-up Tolzbad of Careful, which provides a painfully precise depiction of childhood repression? Maddin complicates nostalgia by placing a grain of sand in each oyster: Something's foul in these culturally toxic films.
Maddin's debut feature, the cult classic Tales from the Gimli Hospital (included in "Dusk to Dawn Maddin"), came out of nowhere in 1988. Promoted by New York midnight-movie impresario Ben Barenholtz, it packed Greenwich Village houses for a year. Even more alienating (and involving), the timeless Archangel went on to win a Best Experimental Film award from the National Society of Film Critics. But despite these successes, Maddin's "art films," criticized for their incoherence and elitism, had been bombing at home: Returning to Winnipeg after Careful's sold-out screening at the New York Film Festival, Maddin was informed of the film's dire first-week grosses in Toronto. Though Maddin became the youngest director to receive the Telluride Lifetime Achievement Award in 1995, he was submerged in a career funk. Telefilm Canada had decided to withhold funds from The Dikemaster's Daughter, deeming it a "lateral move." This failure would haunt the troubled production of the hermetic Twilight of the Ice Nymphs in 1997: Interviewed on set, Maddin vowed that he would never make another film; later, he would say that the final product "came out of the birth canal stillborn."
Maddin's awareness of the lassitude possible when pursuing arch stylization to its limits led in turn to his realization that things ought to be sped up. The filmmaker's fertile second coming sees him tossing off playful, aesthetically overloaded works that laugh heartily at traditional storytelling. This stage began in 2000 with the Soviet-constructivist-cum-sci-fi head rush "The Heart of the World." Shot out of an Uzi of inspiration, Maddin's masterpiece--one of the greatest short films ever made--is an entire melodrama in six minutes, frenetically edited to elide any need for plot development. Ironically, this primitive filmmaker found his groove through the use of contemporary technology; indeed, Maddin's recent work is unimaginable without digital editing.
Not merely a dance film made by a director with zero interest in dance, Maddin's Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary is an authentic work of silent Expressionism shot in oft-tinted monochrome. With its images of ballet reflected in mirrors, shrouded by plumes of fog, or sped up to the point of abstraction, Dracula (screening Wednesday, February 11 at 7:00 p.m., on a double bill with Maddin's Cowards Bend the Knee) feels like Dreyer's Vampyr crossed with Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video. Cowards, the director's "autobiographical" follow-up, might be a Feuillade serial run through a blender. Designed as an installation for Toronto's Power Plant gallery, where it could be seen only if the spectator crouched down and gazed through peepholes, Cowards is jam-packed with kinetically photographed action. The mythomaniacal director casts "Guy Maddin" (Darcy Fehr) as a hockey sniper made lily-livered by mother and daughter femme fatales, and resurrects his dead father as both the team's broadcaster and his own romantic rival. The plot verily drips with Grecian formula, as sordid family secrets spawn unintentional murders. Maddin fixates on his characters' uncontrollable desires, providing room for alternately poignant and explosive slo-mo replays. Frenzied moments of impulsive violence and sexuality lend the movie the sublime naughtiness of a hand-cranked skin flick. After all, the whole thing takes place within a single drop of sperm.
Compared to this, Maddin's "proper feature," The Saddest Music in the World (Wednesday at 8:00 p.m.), almost disappoints. Almost. Set in 1933 Winnipeg, a town that has accumulated a "glistening wealth of unhappiness," the audience-friendly Saddest Music has the ham-fisted Maddin touch. A Canadian-born Broadway "producer of musical spectaculars" (Mark McKinney) returns to Winnipeg penniless, and comes to represent the U.S. in a saddest-music contest--a scheme hatched by Lady Port-Huntley (Rossellini) to promote the brewery's peaty wares south of the border in the final days of Prohibition. The film finds brothers battling once again, this time over a nymphomaniac amnesiac (Maria de Medeiros's Narcissa). There's a father and son as romantic rivals (for Isabella's legless Port-Huntly), and two forms of cowardice: McKinney's crass extrovert Chester Kent (named after the Jimmy Cagney character in Footlight Parade) and his veiled, timid, and self-hating brother Roderick (Ross McMillan), reborn as Serbian cellist Gavrilo the Great.
Saddest Music is politics fused with autobiography. Although the film alludes to Busby Berkeley's Broadway Melodies and the paraplegic revenge melodramas of Lon Chaney, the standard that holds it together on an emotional level is Jerome Kern's "The Song Is You." The grist for the mill is Maddin's own career, with its inherent conflict between art and commerce. In fact, Saddest Music can be seen as the most pointed statement to date on American cultural imperialism, made in the country that has suffered from it the most. Seeking to put on a show that's "vulgar and obvious, full of gimmicks [and] sadness, but with sass and pizzazz," Chester sounds like he could be the Pentagon's media consultant. As the contest climaxes, Chester buys off the other nationals, directing fish-spearing Eskimos, Swiss pan flautists, and Indian sitar players in a mongrelized version of a song sure to cockle the heart of many an aspiring Hollywoodian: "California, Here I Come." Furiously independent as always, Maddin is daring us to admit that the saddest music in the world might be the sound that change makes when it jingles in the pocket of someone who has just sold out.
Thoroughly modern Maddin. - Free Online Library - The Free Library David Pike from CineAction, January 1, 2005
I do feel a bit like Dracula in Winnipeg. I'm safe, but can travel
abroad and suck up all sorts of ideas from other filmmakers--both dead
and undead. Then I can come back here and hoard these tropes and
cinematic devices.... And I sit here in almost eternal darkness all
winter long and try to make these dead things live.
—Guy Maddin in a 2004 interview
Wrapping up the fraught production of his fourth feature, Twilight of the Ice Nymphs (1997), Guy Maddin confessed that, "I'm sick of the twenties. I've hung around in the twenties longer than the twenties hung around in the twenties." (1) Indeed, Maddin's habitation of the seminal decade of modernism could be said to date as far back as his formative undergraduate friendship with fellow Winnipegger John Boles Harvie, who not only shared with Maddin his encyclopedic knowledge and cinephiliac obsession with the silent cinema, but immersed himself in the role: speaking, dressing, and acting like a twenties dandy. (2) While Maddin's persona is resolutely contemporary, his cinematic twenties are the navel point of an idiosyncratic but highly original and increasingly influential engagement with the phenomenon of modernism in its myriad facets, a phenomenon that can be said to have stretched from the Romantics through to the end of the Second World War. Consequently, when he accepted the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's offer that his next feature after Twilight be a film of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet's adaptation of Bram Stoker's 1897 novel, Dracula, he was not in fact escaping from his twenties aesthetic, but stretching its centripetal force into an earlier thread of modernism. In this article, I will discuss the many strands of Maddin's modernism, from the historical aspects of a Manitoban chronology extending from the 1870s to the middle of the twentieth century; to the primitivist credo of one's life as a performance, one's art as a melodramatic refraction of one's life, and one's life and art as wholly at odds with the establishment conventions of professionalism; to the birth of the cinema itself in 1895 and the fecund decades of its childhood search for its most effective identity; to the modernist obsession with memory, nostalgia, the past, and buried truth. Moreover, I will argue that it is through Maddin's peculiar engagement with the era of modernism that we can best distinguish his work from the labels of postmodernism, camp, or pastiche to which it has so often been reduced.
The Garage Modernist
It's sort of like the Ramones. I just refuse to learn how to play my
instrument. The Ramones will never go away, as far as I'm concerned. I
work more slowly than they did, but I hope that by the time I go away
I'll have a nice body of work.
—Guy Maddin in a 2004 interview
Central to Maddin's persona as a filmmaker is an insistence on his status as an amateur, autodidact dilettante, an insistence customarily framed in terms of laziness and neurosis. In interview after interview, he has honed the slacker image of the aimless twenty-something who got into films because he couldn't be bothered to do anything else. Still, unlike what we could perhaps call the mainstream American slackers, the video-store, computer game and internet addicts that followed Tarantino's inspirational lead, Maddin's version taps the modernist lode of self-mortification rather than the late twentieth-century keg of self-promotion. Commenting on his decision to publish the film diaries from the production of The Saddest Music in the World in the Village Voice, Maddin sounds genuinely tormented by the embarrassment their exposure will cause him. (3) Deadpan episodes like the opening inability to plant a tree from a sapling in his backyard to commemorate the start of the production read like the absurdist failures of Dostoyevsky or Kafka: frozen ground, skyrocketing overtime rates, and irreparable damage to the garden of his beloved and deceased Aunt Lil echo classic motifs of loser modernism. (4) The details of Maddin's crush on his female stars Isabella Rossellini and Maria Medeiros, however, mine a contemporary vein of pure lust that would not be out of place in a Farrelly Brothers comedy: confessing that he feels he has known Medeiros for years because of the nude shots he has downloaded off the internet, or penning a delirious paean to the intimate joys of ADR (Automatic Dialogue Replacement) which concludes, "At bedtime I let spit-lubricated Isabella slide out of my cramped and throbbing embrace, and dismount tremblingly from her lips." (5)
Such moments form a leitmotif of the journals published last year in From the Atelier Tovar. (6) From the way Maddin also brings them up in the more public forum of the interview, they would seem to be motivated by an idiosyncratic twist on the persona of the director as fan that has dominated non-studio filmmaking since the days of the French New Wave. It is less frequently observed that the nouvelle vague itself borrowed the idea of the artist as fan and the slumming populism implied by it from a strand of modernism that originated in Romantic poets such as Baudelaire and his fellow flaneurs in the Paris of Louis-Philippe. It reached its apogee in the Surrealists, the first true cinephiles, who championed the random violence, visual realism, and narrative preposterousness of the downmarket early serial thrillers and urged the unashamed pursuit of sexual obsession even as their own writing, art and filmmaking remained avant-garde in the extreme. In a review of a program at New York's most punishingly old-school house of experimental film, the Anthology Film Archives, a program that paired Z-movie schlock (East of Borneo, Road to Salina, The Entity) with the found-footage films inspired by three artists' obsession with actresses who appeared in them, Maddin alternates his self-consciously adjective-laden and over-excited prose with just enough crit-speak to maintain his bona fides and a fine instinct for "the boner quotient" that for him appears to lie at the core of all cinephilia. He concludes by inserting himself into the genealogy of underground obsessives from Joseph Cornell to Peter Tscherkassky by fantasizing about his own future homage to the reigning queen of "Cinema Rejecta," Denise Richards, with a found-footage remix of Undercover Brother (2002). (7)
It is precisely the "boner quotient," the translation of the classic feminist critique of cinema's voyeuristic foundation into the sophomoric lexicon of the contemporary teen movie, that distinguishes Maddin's persona from camp. (8) Maddin's camp side certainly exists; it is perhaps most in evidence in Sissy-Boy Slap-Party (1995), which appears to have been strongly influenced by his friend, fellow-filmmaker, and actor in the film, Noam Gonick, whose flamboyantly gay persona punctuates Maddin's recent oeuvre as an untroubled beacon from a sexually liberated present to a neurotically heterosexual fellow-traveler still working through the repressions of an earlier epoch. While Gonick happily imagines his marginalized films bypassing conventional distribution routes to reach a subculture of "clandestine basement circle jerks around DVD players," Maddin's equally sex-saturated films have always been perversely erotic rather than gleefully pornographic. (9) Until Cowards Bend the Knee, Maddin's "rules for nudity," as he put it, "ha[d] always been the same as the Hays Office limply enforced in pre-code pictures ... a little bit of nudity as long as it's a long shot, smudged out or over-exposed." (10) Paradoxically, the tone of the films' repressed and tortured context (think of Johann staring at his mother bathing through a mirror attached to a stick while hanging by his knees in a stone-lined air shaft in Careful) seems closer to the closeted fifties; there is none of the sophisticated and seductive naughtiness characteristic of the pre-code thirties: until Meta in Cowards and the two starlets of Saddest Song, Maddin's actors were generally filmed in as unflattering a light as possible, erotic only, perhaps, in the same fetishistic way that led many men who were adolescents in the fifties to prefer Doris Day to Marilyn Monroe--indeed, in Twilight, he even managed to dampen the appeal of the Quebecoise icon and art-house favorite, Pascale Bussieres.
In Cowards, it is as if the challenge of an alien forum--the cool and haughty confines of the high art world represented by the Power Plant Gallery in Toronto's Harbourfront Centre, which commissioned the piece--pushed (or perhaps empowered) Maddin to take control of his images in a different way than he had previously done, bringing his sexualized melodrama out of the closet, so to speak, and embracing the mantle of hipness being thrust upon him. Published in The Village Voice and Film Comment, feted with retrospectives in Rotterdam, New York and elsewhere, granted the big budget, bona fide stars, and commercial distribution of Saddest Song, Maddin is being pushed beyond the brink of cultdom to the status of a legitimate international auteur. Still, it takes only a quick glance over at his Toronto-based compatriot Atom Egoyan's analogous ticket to global renown, Exotica (1994), to register that Maddin may never stray too far from his provincial slacker roots. Both Exotica and Cowards revolve around the dynamics of the sex show; both weave their melodramatic narratives out of their sexual theme; and both were received by critics primarily as commentaries on the complicity of the spectator's act of viewing them, a reception that permitted the ambivalently exploitative quality of that theme to be left unexamined within its safe theoretical container while audiences left no doubt what had brought many of them to the gallery, theater, or, later, rental venue. Exotica used its slick, soft-core derived visuals and detached characters to uncover an emotional core of humanity out of the audience's thwarted expectations of perversion. Cowards counters Egoyan's nurturing and spatially anonymous strip club with the equally male, equally eroticized and powerfully localized setting of the Winnipeg Arena. And while Egoyan's film strongly demarcates its heterosexual main plot from the gay subplot in which Don McKellar's pet-shop owner picks up men at the opera, in Maddin's film, the homoerotic milieu of the hockey rink and dressing rooms insinuates itself outward through the entire action, however straight its primary actors may play their roles.
Rather than an ironic nod at a supremely subtext-aware contemporary audience, however, the steaming bodies of the Maroons' shower scenes appear to have been reproduced directly from Maddin's childhood memories. In articles, interviews and in his unfilmed autobiographical treatment, The Child without Qualities, Maddin returns to the memory of himself as a child lathering up the naked players' backs and a primal scene combining a brush with celebrity with an eye-level gape at future Hall-of-Famer Gump Worsely's "makeshift fig-leaf contrived out of suds." (11) Because it is rooted so firmly in Maddin's own childhood, this image seems in his oeuvre less a repressed observation of latent homosexuality than a simple fact of his, and perhaps of any life, the child's free-floating, sense-based sexuality; in "The Womb Is Barren," he pairs the memory with that of the adjacent room of the players' wives: "I loved the olfactory shock of passing from this chamber redolent of wet diapers and breasts swollen with milk into a room of damp men, the dubious smell of athletic supporters, unlaced skates and drenched jerseys." (12) The bowels of the stadium are a Proustian lieu de memoire, evoking an irreducibly, viscerally personal blast from the past whose intimate meaning the artist tries his best to translate into a common language, "In the Winnipeg Arena, my inner and outer landscapes were one and the same thing." (13)
It is a past, moreover, that can no longer directly be accessed: the Arena was, as Maddin put it, "remodelled, modernized, stupid" in 1979, with the same process occurring to those who had grown up with it (it had opened in 1955, a year before Maddin was born). (14) At the same time, and in good modernist fashion, the artist's representation of his self is meant to provide an emblem, a rebus for all who follow him. Maddin has insisted over and over, that Cowards is wholly autobiographical and true, and we should take him at his word, because the truth he is insisting upon is not the (equally performative) truth of reality television and afternoon talk shows but the truth of modernists such as Kafka or Proust or Beckett or Bruno Schulz, autobiography as a mode for revealing the hidden layers of the self and the society from which that self emerged, not the superficies treated by the conventions of realism.
Proust was a lethargic and asthmatic social butterfly who nevertheless managed to complete a three-thousand page novel on top of a lifetime of occasional writing. Maddin certainly does not aspire to such length, but his resume is more than respectable for someone working as far from the mainstream of movie financing as he has done. Granted, he has succeeded reasonably well in regularly winning state funding, and has made a virtue of working on a shoestring budget, but laziness must still be set down as a facet of rather than a hindrance to his creative personality. But then, isn't such laziness itself also a contemporary take on the hoary old modernist Sprachkriese, the ability to write thousands of words on the impossibility of writing any words at all? Nevertheless, while his themes more closely resemble the literary, so-called high modernists of Proust and others, Maddin's modus operandi as a self-declared primitivist is closer to the avant-gardes whose styles permeate his filmmaking. Speaking about how he stumbled into the role of filmmaker, Maddin explains that, "to be a great author you need to be a genius and need to have been well read for your entire life, but to be a great pop star you just need to pick up a guitar, and maybe to be a filmmaker of some impact it's more like being a pop star. You just pick up a camera, seize a garage band aesthetic, and go out there." (15) It was during the first decades of the twentieth century that the ethos of the garage band became viable, that artistic creation was ideologically severed from classical technique by movements such as the Surrealist practice of the exquisite corpse or the Dada celebration of the fact that anyone at all could be an artist. In the end, it is always an untenable stance, not only in the fine arts, but in popular music as well: however hard we may try to commemorate the truly garage-band bands, the pure punks that couldn't play their instruments, couldn't write songs, couldn't sing, and were lousy performers, what we return to and what we enjoy are not the failed extremes but the brilliant compromises of trash with art. Indeed, the very act of commemoration transforms incompetence into genius in the process: you simply can't listen to the Ramones today as a tabula rasa.
The motion pictures were invoked by the avant-garde back in the twenties, but the primitivist aesthetic did not hit the cinematic mainstream until the breakup of the studios, the rise of exploitation cinema, and the emergence of the French and other new waves in the fifties and sixties. Money remained a hurdle, however, and it has only been with the digital video revolution that cinema has reached the turning point popular music achieved in the sixties. There is a tacit but seldom enunciated class distinction here, for it is from the lower middle-class suburban and provincial kids that most garage bands and most indie-filmmakers, have emerged, while authors (not to mention most mainstream filmmakers) generally need, to paraphrase Maddin, a nurturing milieu and a lot more connections. Maddin's stubborn faithfulness to Winnipeg, where he still lives and works, to the memories of the hockey arena and his aunt Lil's hair salon, to the cabin on the lake at Gimli, and to the slacker ambitions of the Drones is imbued with the demographics of the garage band. Now, you can of course parlay garage band status into superstardom--witness Tarantino or Nirvana--but then you're a sellout.
Indeed, this appears to be what R. George Godwin is complaining about in his recent history of the Winnipeg Film Group: that it shouldn't be considered a virtue to do something (twenties films) that used to be really easy and has since become incredibly difficult. (16) This misses the point, however, which is first of all that Maddin insists that he started making films this way because he was ill-trained and incompetent, that he could not in fact make movies in any other way, and that he continues to commit howlers in each film he makes. (17) To view his twenties aesthetics as merely a formal gesture of nostalgia or a collector's preciosity is to ignore the crucial ways in which the period of the twenties was responsible for shaping our current understanding of his project and the aesthetic concepts underlying it.
It is the range and depth of their immersion in the twenties that has enabled Maddin to export his own marginality out of garage band cultism and into urban hip. Paradoxically, the hipper he has become, the more he has revealed the complex underpinnings of what had been easy to regard as a simple pose. The more his movies delve into twenties culture and aesthetics, the more they prove to be immersed in the simultaneously sordid and tragic detritus of the director's own life. What at first looked like spot-on absurdist inventions--the father in Careful losing his eye to his mother's brooch; the epidemic of suicides; the saga of Gimli--turn out to be perfectly factual episodes in Maddin's life, and common knowledge to just plenty of Winnipeggers with an ear for oral history. Moviemakers worked this way back in the sixties, but they don't anymore--they either make movies that have nothing to do with their lives, or they transmute their obsessions into fiction (think Egoyan and Cronenberg, or Lynne Stopkewich and Gary Burns), or they documentarize them pure and simple (the recent Tarnation [Jonathan Caouette] and Super Size Me [Morgan Spurlock] or anything by Michael Moore). The vertiginous interplay between family history and Maddin's aesthetic works its way out through two categories dear to the practitioners of modernism: the child and the city.
Canada's Centennial splashed a brief Kodachrome illumination into the
musty basements, closets and garages of our nascence. But the
illumination was for us children alone, the hyper-sensitive brown
studies and centennial projects within our cubbyholes remained
guardedly private.... We inscribed the choreographies of our
revolutionary pleasures behind our bedroom headboards, interrupted
regularly from without by terrors so sudden and vehement as to flatten
—Guy Maddin, The Child without Qualities
It is a commonplace of the history of modernism that it was a phenomenon of cities: London, Paris, Berlin, St. Petersburg, Moscow, Barcelona, Rome, New York. In Maddin's recreation of the period, Winnipeg takes its proud place among the urban centers of modernism. The city emerged in the late nineteenth century, and its heyday lasted from the twenties through to 1950. (18) While, as he put it, "I had to build a Winnipeg because you still don't want to see the real Winnipeg," Maddin has nevertheless remained faithful to its industrial past in a poetic fashion, creating his fantastic sets in disused industrial buildings around the city (Twilight of the Ice Nymphs in the former Vulcan Iron Works, Heart of the World in the former Dominion Bridge Works, Saddest Song in an abandoned steel mill), or, in the case of Tales from the Gimli Hospital, in the hair salon of his recently retired Aunt Lil. (19) Modernism was concentrated in urban centers due both to industrialization and to the unprecedented scale of migrations across Europe and over to North America. Maddin's films touch on the key immigrant populations of Winnipeg. Gimli Hospital darkly mocks the tragic history of a smallpox epidemic in New Iceland (on Lake Winnipeg north of the town) that killed some of Maddin's own ancestors; Archangel recalls the city's Ukrainian population, not to mention the local soldiers that fought in the Great War, more of whom were killed than from any other part of the country; even the Germanic Bergfilm heritage of Careful has an ethnic resonance for the flattest region of Canada. (20) Melnyk complains with some justification that this heritage has generally been ignored in the reception of Maddin's work in terms of a contextless avant-garde. (21) Such oversight has long also been a part of scholarship on modernism, which has tended to regard the avant-garde as functioning in a purely formal register, allowing personal history and specificity of place and time to give way to the demands of a universal and universalizing aesthetics.
To recover the specificities of different modernisms is complicated because one of the primary goals of the epoch was to subvert traditional patterns of meaning based on the realist notions of self and society that had dominated the nineteenth century. Most if not all modernist artists and writers would have resisted the reduction of their production to the data of their own life and times; nevertheless, most if not all of them addressed subversions generated from those data at targets likewise derived from them. A key component of these data was the movies, which only began to become respectable in the twenties. That cusp between the vulgar energy of their slumming past and the regularized and regulated craft of sound and the studio decades is a crucial factor in Maddin's fascination with the period. Like the characters in most of his films, the motion picture as an art and as a business was in its late adolescence, wildly and uneasily wielding a potent cocktail of naive motivations and adult desires. It was those nascent desires that had caused the traumas and created the joys of childhood, but it was ensuing adulthood that caused them to be repressed, distorted, and forgotten amid the swirl of sanctioned forms and conventions. This was the modernist narrative of childhood and memory as the path to its hidden truths. It was formulated most famously by Freud and Proust, but as a trope it was everywhere in the early decades of the century, and the cinema, the youngest of the arts, was the ideal place to project the anthropomorphic potential of childhood development (or the lack thereof) as a theory of history. The early cinema was regarded as appealing to the "childish" portions of the population, but there were many who turned that perjorative appellation on its head, celebrating the childlike wonders of Keaton, Chaplin, early Disney, Max Fleischer, and Lotte Reiniger as gateways into an aesthetic place unapproachable through the stodgy rigidities of the more venerable arts.
In the treatment for perhaps his most self-consciously modernist short, The Eye, Like a Strange Balloon, Mounts towards Infinity (1995), Maddin's wish list of influences conjures an unlikely but symptomatic merging of a Symbolist modernism with early cartoons, a dead seriousness of formal and thematic intent joined to an iconoclastic, popular playfulness: "I would like to make a minimelodrama, very music driven--like a Fleischer Brothers cartoon ... Music will be inexorably linked to the visuals: it should drive the visuals like a Silly Symphony, but with a more Poe-like dead weight." (22) One of the opening shots introduces the synaesthesia that seems to bind these opposing influences formally: a clam shell opens and closes, shooting out steam and blowing like a train whistle, heralding the train wreck and tragic love triangle that are to come. Melodrama is, of course, a time-honored component of the genre of children's literature that was invented by the Victorians, but it has seldom received its due in the movies, and has nearly always been played for laughs, as in Disney's 101 Dalmations (1961, 1996). Nor does Maddin deflate the high seriousness of a Poe, a Redon, or an Abel Gance, whose La Roue (1923) supplies the narrative and visual backbone of The Eye, at least not in the manner of a camp revision. Rather, he brings to them the child's point of view, the "mini-melodrama": the child that was cinema in the twenties and the later child that knows how to view that cinema for what was most important about it. The same attitude is evident in an anecdote he relates in an interview, "I once watched a Buster Keaton movie shown at eighteen frames per second [silent speed], and the gags took forever to unfold, like Ordet. Maybe if we watched them at nine frames per second, they'd be funny again." (23) The ideal Maddin film would be the film able to maintain comedy and melodrama in perfect, mutually illuminating counterpoise.
The first movies that had a lasting impact on Maddin were his family's forgotten treasure trove of silent 16mm films that he discovered one day hidden away in the house (and which perhaps included the Keaton reel mentioned above). (24) The twenties are not just the historical period of modernism for those artists now in or approaching their middle age (Maddin was born in 1956); they are the decade when our parents were children. Our own childhood is full of available and buried memories both comforting and horrible; our parents' early years are something far more mysterious, glimpsed only at second- or third-hand, through stories, photographs, mementoes, rumors and fantasies. Growing up with three teenage siblings, the displacement of Maddin's memories of the past would have been even more intense. In The Child without Qualities, Maddin writes that not just the toys and dolls "knew a better quality of play" because of the many hands they had passed through and been subjected to before he came along, but "a residue of better quality seemed to sit on everything in the deserted house. The house held a dormancy, a potential to divulge what it held for his family before." (25) The child's play, he suggests, was aimed at enacting this potential: "Sometimes he intentionally separated himself from his favorite toys, and played with memories of them. And then played with the memories of the memories." (26) It would not be a stretch to regard Maddin's films as memories of memories of something from which one has willfully separated oneself; this would account not only for the many strategies of distancing them from the viewer with the celluloid equivalent of the teeth-marks, spit-stains, and near-dismemberments that bestowed the "residue of better quality" onto the family toys, but also for the undeniable desire for the emotional connection intimated by them, a connection that lies, as the introductory title to Careful would have it, "lost behind the Ranges Lost and waiting for you: Go!"
Deprivation, even for the most privileged of children, is the essence of childhood, and it is important to recognize the inseparability of the pleasure derived out of that deprivation from the pain caused by it. Like many modernists, Maddin has cultivated this childhood insight (or insight about childhood) into his mature aesthetics, privileging the insights of the local, the marginal, the forgotten, the fragmentary, over the easy allure of the clean, new and polished. Maddin once sent a film critic a tape of one of his movies caught straight from television, complete with commercials. Rather than apologetic, he was pleased with the idea, comparing it to his encounter with Vertigo, "the very first movie I memorized off TV ... A friend of mine caught it on TV, but this was pre-video, so he just made an audio tape of it. And I listened to it, maybe about a hundred times before ever seeing it including the commercials. They placed one unfortunate commercial right in the middle of the revelation that Judy is Madeleine ... and it was tremendous. So that gave me a thrill. And so I was hoping for some similarly unfortunate mutilations to my movie. And I got some." (27) It is easy to shrug the story off as post-modern archness and self-protection. And, sure, Maddin doesn't mind coming off as weird, he even likes it at times--that is, after all, part of the epater la bourgeoisie mentality of modernism that survives today only in isolated enclaves such as Winnipeg. But on its own, intentional weirdness can not account for the undeniable power of Maddin's films, the sheer pleasure and dread of watching them. No one who grew up with black-and-white television, portable cassette recorders, and scratchy LPs can fail to recall a moment such as the one elevated by Maddin into an artistic credo. (28)
There was no irony in the contemporary sense of the word in modernism, only the biting, tragic variety that dates back to the ancient Greeks, the kind that makes you want to forget what you had tried so hard for so long to remember. Like old tragedies, Maddin's films are replete with ghosts--the Hamlet's father variety in The Dead Father, Careful and Cowards; the lost loved one in Gimli Hospital, Archangel, and Cowards--not to mention spectral presences such as the attic-bound brother Franz in Careful, or the vampire, Dracula. Not frightening in the strict sense of the word, their presence is a driving force in the narrative action; like childhood memories, they are both impotent and overwhelmingly powerful. Similarly, the films are replete with images of bodies resurrected, or at least brought out into the open from their resting places, whether figuratively, as in Einar's story of the violation of Snjofridur's body in Gimli Hospital or the wax figures in the Hall of the All-Time Maroons in Cowards, or literally, as in the buried bodies unearthed to the horror of the townfolk in Careful or the apocalyptic emergence of the dead from their graves in The Heart of the World. (29) We may take pleasure in watching them, and Maddin may take pleasure in manipulating them, but the characters are not graced with the same distance. Immersed in the melodrama, they would all be better off remembering nothing. Unfortunately, like the amnesiac soldiers fighting a war that has already ended in Archangel, they remember just enough to suffer from and be haunted by it, but not enough to find their way out before it is too late. "Amnesia," according to Maddin, "is a timeless storytelling device. Forgetfulness is a kind of anesthetic for the painful life we all live. We're forced constantly to think about the shameful things we've done, the painful things that have happened to us. We owe most of the feelings we have, as sensate beings, to shoddy memories. The sheer erratic nature of memory keeps life a Luna Park." (30) Childhood is a lifetime of boredom, suffering and shame; it is also the source of a large part of our happiness, and the surest link we have to the world that came before us. Only children are so constituted as truly to enjoy the Luna Park of life, screaming the whole way out of terror and exhilaration inextricably combined. Grownups on the roller coaster are usually either bored out of their skull or too busy having a heart attack to have fun.
It could be argued that Maddin's oeuvre constitutes one long refutation of the post-modern argument that we have no feeling left, and a demonstration of the fact that there is still a difference between false memories and shoddy ones. This is one reason he has engaged with Hollywood more and in a more intricate manner than perhaps any other Canadian filmmaker. Hollywood--and, as always by metonymy the United States--is the Luna Park of Maddin's adult mind. While his childhood experience of bursts of America through radio static and television test patterns was an inevitable consequence of life in the hinterlands, the mature form he has given to that experience is anything but. The references with which he dots his interviews demonstrate an ecumenical range still all too rare in the anti-Hollywood discourse of Canadian cinema--everything from the Cremaster trilogy to Alyssa Milano. Witness the "Dreyer and Joan [Crawford]" course he has taught at the local university, or the list of "Guilty Pleasures" he submitted to Film Comment, which roams from a "naval musical," obscure Howard Hawks and Howard Hughes war movies and a Charlton Heston jungle melodrama to cult experimentalist George Kuchar and Oskar Feininger's three-minute modernist city-poem, From Munich to Berlin. (31) In his brief comments, Maddin appears to eschew the "guilty" part in favor of the "pleasures," implicitly refusing the high/low distinction of the category itself. If you put enough memories between yourself and Hollywood, he suggests, the themed Disney World rides on which they intend to take you start to break down into something more nebulous and passe--after all, what could be more outdated, more urban and modernist than a Luna Park, a word coined in the twenties from the eponymous Coney Island amusement park to describe the midways of Europe? These days, we only see them in old movies.
Hollywood was young once, too, and it lived its youth during that same magic period that produced everything meant to eliminate what Hollywood would soon come to stand for the world over. A legacy of the First World War, the hegemony was brand new back in the twenties, even in Canada, and the shopworn products of the time no longer carry the patina of market domination that still radiates from today's blockbusters, the only lure the audience seems to need. And, as much as Maddin's films are overtly indebted to the great European classics, we shouldn't forget (and he certainly hasn't) how many of the Europeans were also making movies in Hollywood, and how twisted the back lot stuff of the twenties and thirties could sometimes get. After all, this was the period when Douglas Fairbanks and David Selznick brought Eisenstein to Hollywood on the success of Potemkin. Maddin's approach can be distinguished either from the respectful recreation of European cinema (as, for example, in Shadow of the Vampire , E. Elias Merhige's wonderful take on Murnau's Nosferatu), or the American independent revision of Hollywood, which seldom delves further back into cinema history than film noir. Both strategies tend to take the older film syntax at face value, recreating it with the obsessive fidelity of the connoisseur (the production design and cinematography of Todd Haynes's Far from Heaven  or Curtis Hanson's L. A. Confidential ), often tweaking the themes to bring out their resemblance to current mores, or updating them to create an ironic counterpoint to the original (classic examples are Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye ) and Philip Kaufman's Invasion of the Body Snatchers ; more recently one could cite Jonathan Demme's The Manchurian Candidate ). And then there is the current vogue for the remake as hollow exercise in spectacle and marketing, which is not without interest for the cultural historian, especially when one sees what gets done to Hollywood blockbusters when transmuted in the powerhouse crucibles of the Bollywood and Hong Kong movie industries.
In his fascination with the tropes of vanished genres of commercial filmmaking at least as much as with great films of the past, Maddin's production is closer in spirit to the latter sort of borrowing. (32) Not only in his ongoing fixation on melodrama, but in the technologies he resurrects and the genres he adapts (war movies in Archangel; mountain films in Careful; fairy tales in Twilight of the Ice Nymphs; the musical in the unfilmed Dykemaster's Daughter and Saddest Song; noir and hockey films in Cowards), Maddin remains intensely engaged in an unholy matrimony between the avant-garde and the popular. It is not as if Maddin wishes he could actually have made movies in the twenties. "I never claimed that living in the past would be better than living now." (33) The vertical integration of the studios' heyday militated against any leeway in the sphere of production, distribution, and exhibition at least as much as the multinational media conglomerates do today. Life is arguably better today for a marginal filmmaker working on microscopic budgets as Maddin; in the twenties he would have had to rely on rich patrons. Where there was play in the cinema then and still is today is overwhelmingly in the reception, which cannot ever be wholly controlled, and where viewers are free to find in a film whatever they want--certainly Maddin could not have predicted the year-long run of Gimli in New York, nor was whatever cult vibe the audience was picking up on likely to have been among the ones he had planned for. Freed of preconceptions of quality and integrity, Maddin's voracious and omnivorous consumption of the cinematic past has the potential to liberate his viewers from timeworn categories of cinematic quality without releasing them into a void of ironic slumming.
As he puts it in what unintentionally reads like a manifesto for a new conception of cinematic history,
Because film is both a business and an art form, it always struck me
that business needs to be fed by technology, and it's so fast that it
moves along to the next technological advance before all the artistic
potential has even begun to be wrung out of any particular era. So I
always see myself as going back along the road of film history and
picking up all these great and completely abandoned technologies and
film vocabularies, which I pick up and try on and learn to speak. For
instance, the most salient one would be when sound came in. It's not
just a technological thing; it was an economic thing. The technology
to make sound movies was there from about 1895, actually. It was just
a matter of economically converting all the theaters didn't seem
worthwhile to distributors until around 1928, but the silent film era
wasn't even close to peaking in its artistic potential then, so mime
was quickly abandoned. It was cut down in its prime, cut down in its
youth even, so mime and mime comedy and mime melodrama were all
euthanized and replaced with a new breed of film that had its own
charms, and then the evolution really started fast and musicals came
in as a new form and they were quickly deemed cloying and abandoned,
even though they hadn't achieved their potential. And the most extreme
and manque forms are 3-D and Odorama and Surround-o-vision. When a
painter makes a painting, he or she can use any color or any kind of
pigment, doesn't even have to use paint. When a poet makes a poem,
they can use any word from any language or even make one up, so it
seems to me a filmmaker should have the same freedom to use whatever
is out there to make movies: old, new vocabularies, humble
technologies, sophisticated ones. (34)
Outmoded technologies, "abandoned" film vocabularies,
and failed gimmicks are not simply novelties to be resurrected as historical
curiosities or for a quick laugh; they are untapped potentialities for new
modes of filmmaking, available to anyone able to break free of the sealed-off
meaning given them by the march of history. To defuse the ideology of progress
is a quintessentially modernist idea, and although Maddin gives no sign of
having read its chief proponent, Walter Benjamin, there is no doubt that he has
assimilated its lessons. After all, what child ever truly wants to grow up?
In many ways, Maddin's acclaimed short, The Heart of the World (2001), is an object lesson in the aesthetic practice defended in the quotation above: an occult core of Metropolis and Nosferatu drenched in Eisenstein, Pudovkin and Vertov and topped with a bona fide Hollywood ending. Still, less than their cinematic innovations, Maddin takes from the Soviet filmmakers the dated iconography of utopia, the constructivist faith in machines and in technological progress. As the flimsy sets are shaken by the earthquake caused by the earth's fatal heart attack, one cannot but recall Maddin's oft-told story of melting and setting fire to action figures of the astronaut Ed White, timed, according to The Child without Qualities, to coincide with the patriotic fervor of Canada's Centennial. (35) Children are enthralled to an equal degree by the clean, smooth surfaces of the new and by the potential for disrupting those same surfaces. So, The Heart of the World invokes both the astounding promise of the Soviet twenties and the ominous undercurrents of the Weimar Republic. And while the final transformation of Anna's telescope into a movie projector from the earth's core recalls Leni Riefenstahl in its martial and athletic display of flags and bodies, and Vertov's kino-eye in its repetition of "Kino" as the new mantra of the reprieved world, the stirring image is the director's own, a world made new by Maddin's modernist magic.
Herein lies his riposte at Hollywood, for as Quandt observes, the Sviridov composition that propels the film forwards also makes it feel like a music video. (36) The driving energy and extraordinary synchronization of image and sound primarily account for the film's seductive power. The movie is simultaneously nostalgic for modernism--the boundless potential of a new medium and a revolution, an apparatus capable of changing the world, an aesthetics with heady claims to relevance in the making of history, an atmosphere of genuine emotion and sincerity--and eager to appropriate the most marginalized artifacts and credos for its own minor art. (37) Maddin's retro-modernist art would not simply create a counter-cinema to Hollywood, but, in the manner of the old avant-gardes, would melt down Hollywood and counter-Hollywood together in a crucible of melodrama to mould them into something entirely new. Given that the globalization of the film industry has for all practical purposes accomplished the same recasting on its own terms, Maddin's quixotic but strangely plausible quest to explain why Winnipeg may lie at the heart of the world is a timely reminder of the many different ways in which it is possible to march forward while keeping one's eyes fixed on the riveting detritus piling up in the past, the raw material of some unforeseen future kino.
1. Guy Maddin speaking in Waiting for Twilight (directed by Noam Gonick, 1997); qtd. in Caelum Vatsndal, Kino Delirium: The Films of Guy Maddin [Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring Publications, 2000], 123.
2. On Harvie, see in particular Waiting for Twilight and Maddin's nomination of this "perfervid anachronist, fixated on all things 1920s" as "a great genius we've never heard of" in an interview with Scott Shrake in Used Wigs (accessed September 2004): http://www.usedwigs.com/interview_maddin.html.
3. Maddin in Marie Losier and Richard Porton, "The Pleasures of Melancholy: An Interview with Guy Maddin," Cineaste (Summer 2004): 18-25, at 23.
4. Maddin, "Sad Songs Say So Much," The Village Voice (May 7-13, 2003; accessed September, 2004): http://www.villagevoice.com/issues/0319/maddin.php.
5. Maddin, "Twilight of the Ice Nymphs," The Village Voice (March 3-9, 2004; accessed September, 2004): http://www.villagevoice.com/issues/0409/maddin.php; "Wait until Dark," The Village Voice (April 5, 2004; accessed September, 2004): http://www.villagevoice.com/issues/0414/maddin.php. See also the account of the ADR work for Twilight with Alice Krige and Pascale Bussieres (Vatsndal, 119).
6. Maddin, From the Atelier Tovar: Selected Writings (Toronto: Coach House Books, 2003), 15-64, 115-61, 209-28. The journals span fifteen years, but are concentrated in 1996, 1998-2000, and 2002.
7. Maddin, "You Give Me Fever," The Village Voice (June 12-18, 2002); rpt. Atelier Tovar, 84-6, at 86. See also "Pleasures of Melancholy," 24.
8. For a summary of the argument for Maddin as camp, Steven Shaviro, "Fire and Ice: The Films of Guy Maddin," in North of Everything: English-Canadian Cinema Since 1980, ed. William Beard and Jerry White (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2002), 216-21, at 217.
9. For Gonick's comment, see his interview with Maddin, "Happy Ever After," The Village Voice (January 23-29, 2002); rpt. in Atelier Tovar, 80-83, at 83.
10. Maddin in interview with Robert Enright, "Chicken Soup for the Stone Baby: Interrogations for an Autobiography," in Maddin, Cowards Bend the Knee (Toronto: The Power Plant, 2003), 129-51, at 145.
11. Maddin, "The Womb Is Barren," Montage (Winter 2001); rpt. Atelier Tovar, 87-90, at 90.
13. Ibid. 87.
14. Maddin, The Child without Qualities, in Atelier Tovar, 176-208, at 177.
15. Vatnsdal, Kino Delirium, 30.
16. R. George Godwin, "Far from the Maddin Crowd: Thirty Years of the Winnipeg Film Group," cinemascope 20 (Fall 2004): 14-18, at 17.
17. "Pleasures of Melancholy," 21.
18. George Melnyk, One Hundred Years of Canadian Cinema (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004), 199.
19. For the quotation, see "Pleasures of Melancholy," 22. For the production locations, see Vatnsdal, Kino Delirium, 7, 50; Maddin, "Twilight."
20. See Melnyk's discussion of Archangel (Hundred Years, 195).
22. Maddin, The Eye, Like a Strange Balloon, Mounts towards Infinity, in Atelier Tovar, 164-68, at 164.
23. James Quandt, "Purple Majesty: Guy Maddin talks with James Quandt," Artforum (June 2003): web version, accessed September 2004, http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0268/is_10_41/ai_103989792/pg_2.
25. Maddin, Child without Qualities, 187.
26. Ibid., 188.
27. Maddin, qtd. in John Anderson, Film Comment 34:2 (March/April 1998): 63-67, at 67.
28. It wasn't until I was in college, for example, that I discovered that The Wizard of Oz switched to color when Dorothy left Kansas--my myriad viewings had only ever been its annual network television screening on our family's old black-and-white television.
29. See also Quandt and Maddin's discussion of the theme of resurrection in "Purple Majesty."
31. Maddin, "Guilty Pleasures," Film Comment (January/February 2003); rpt. Atelier Tovar, 96-8.
32. Indeed, even Maddin's sense of Canadian cinema combines the local with the Hollywood. "I earned a painful but desperately needed $750," his journal reads, "for a one-hour lecture on Canada's cinema century--showing clips from the two great Canadians: Lipsett and Lauzon. Then, clips from Leave Her to Heaven, Written on the Wind, Strange Illusion and Dishonoured. Canadian cinema has been a history of absence. This is what we missed!" ("Journal Two, 1998-1999," in Atelier Tovar, 115-61, at 158).
33. "Pleasures of Melancholy," 21.
34. Maddin, in Andrea Meyer, "Melodrama As a Way of Life: Guy Maddin and Isabella Rossellini Talk about Saddest Song," indieWIRE (3 May 2004, accessed September 2004): http://www.indiewire.com/people/people_040503maddin.html.
35. Maddin, Child without Qualities, 194; see also Vatsndal, 28.
36. "Purple Majesty."
37. On Maddin's interest in minor movements and their relation to his own Winnipeg aesthetic in Careful, see Darrell Varga, "Desire in Bondage: Maddin's Careful," Canadian Journal of Film Studies / Revue Canadienne d'Etudes Cinematographiques 8:2 (Fall 1999): 56-70, at 66-8; and Will Straw, "Reinhabiting Lost Languages: Guy Maddin's Careful," in Gene Walz, ed. Canada's Best Features: Critical Essays on 15 Canadian Films (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2002), 304-317. Although I disagree with Varga's and Straw's underestimation of the role of Hollywood in Maddin's filmmaking, I agree with their distinction of Maddin's use of cinematic history from the strategies of camp.
David L. Pike is Associate Professor of Literature at American University. He has published widely on 19th- and 20th-century urban literature, culture, and film. He is currently working on a history of Canadian cinema since 1980, to be published by Wallflower Press.
From big snow to big sadness: the repatriation of Canadian cultural ... From big snow to big sadness: the repatriation of Canadian cultural identity in the films of Guy Maddin, by John Semley from CineAction, June 22, 2007
Much has been made of the dwarfing of Canadian cultural heritage
and identity by the neighbouring behemoth that is the United States. This
anxiety proves especially true when one considers the canon of Canadian cinema,
where early Yankee-produced Yukon adventure films and Bombardier-endorsed
corporate propaganda were answered in the wake of the Second World War with the
reactionary and largely compensatory slew of government-subsidized
documentaries which constitute what Jim Leach refers to as Canada's
"national-realist project." (1) With the ostensible exception of
Quebecois cinema, which has benefited greatly from both the unique cinematic
sensibilities of francophone filmmakers such as Jean Pierre Lefebvre or Denys
Arcand, and the eager responsiveness of Quebec's embedded francophone audience,
it appears as if Canadian cinema has largely failed to produce a filmmaker who
can singularly articulate the national experience in a way that approaches the
mammoth cultural resonance of American counterparts of the John Ford or Robert
Altman variety. And while the talents of Arcand, Cronenberg and Egoyan have
certainly drawn the eye of world cinema upon Canada (however fleetingly), these
filmmakers have failed to speak to issues of Canadian identity with the same
level of intellect and necessary absurdity as Winnipeg auteur Guy Maddin.
Here, I will examine how issues of national and local identity are portrayed in the work Canadian writer/director/cinematographer/editor Guy Maddin. First, I will analyze the historical misconstruction of Canadian identity on film at the hands of Hollywood, drawing largely from Pierre Berton's Hollywood's Canada: The Americanization of Our National Image. Next, through a discussion of the relation between the filmmaker and the cinematic city which serves as his base of operations, I will situate Maddin within the Canadian national filmic project as specifically a Winnipeg filmmaker and articulate exactly what differentiates the sensibility of a Winnipeg filmmaker from the rest of Canada's larger cinematic body. Finally, I will speak to Maddin's position as the preeminent contemporary Canadian auteur and chief mythmaker. In doing so, I will make the claim that Maddin, through his highly allusive style and idiosyncratic approach to Canadiana, is a filmmaker who has not only reimagined Canada's national history but that of cinema itself in the interest of repatriating Canada's dominion over not just its own national cinematic narratives, but its national and cultural identity more generally.
America's Northern Frontier: Yankee Images of Canada
In Hollywood's Canada, an analysis of half a century of American (2) films about Canada, historian Pierre Berton provides an exhaustive account of the phenomenon which he calls the "Americanization" of Canada's national image. "So powerful," writes Berton, "was the Hollywood image of Canada that in many cases it was accepted as the real thing--even by Canadians." (3) His unease is rooted not exclusively in the concern that the image of Canada, both nationally and abroad, has been cinematically commandeered and consequentially compromised by the United States. For while Berton is apt in noting the importance of "the earnest and often brilliant documentaries of the National Film Board" (4) to the Canadian cinematic project, he stresses the value of a more representative portrait of Canada in commercial movies: being those which popular audiences are regularly responsive to. How this consistent cinematic misrepresentation of Canada has transpired historically is often, not surprisingly, in accordance with the classical tenets of American mythologizing.
The traditional image of Canada, propagated as frequently on our own souvenir t-shirts as in the films Berton dissects, is one of unsullied wilderness, big snow, sex-crazed courier des bois and implausibly moralizing Mounties. Many of the films detailed in Hollywood's Canada depict Canada as being the same sort of unspoiled frontier (depicted most commonly in the sweeping vistas of the American Western) that had collapsed in the United States following the proliferation of the modern metropolis and the resulting shift to urbanity. In the face of such harrowing developments, Canada assumed prevalence in the American cultural consciousness as being, as described by a title card in Frank R. Strayer's The Lure of the Wild (1925), a faraway land that is "safe from the evils of civilization." (5) In the early days of Canadian cinema, the still budding Hollywood system worked diligently to transpose typically American fictions of the Old West onto Canada's geographical landscape. As Berton notes,
Hard-riding posses, men in cowboy outfits, necktie parties, covered
wagons, painted Injuns, boot hills, vigilantes, and even tin stars
were moved across the border with scarcely a change in the plot except
for the presence of movie Mounties who, all too often, acted like
American town marshals. (6)
So, with the Canadian landscape being employed as little more
than a stupefying substitute for the untarnished American frontier, the
Canadian moviegoer had no popular cinema to call his own and, perhaps more
fatally, no corroborating national mythology. (And though the merit of such a
mythology is certainly open to scrutiny, such value judgments cannot be applied
a canon devoid of content.) The picture of Canada which was promulgated by
Hollywood, then, was more a projection of American values and mythologies onto
Canadian soil than an accurate representation of life north of the 49th
parallel. Indeed, this silly, predigested national image was one which amounted
to "no real image of Canada at all, except that of a geographical
absurdity--a vast, empty, snowswept land of mountains and pine trees." (7)
It is against this backdrop of "geographical absurdity" that Canada's
most acute, eccentric and important mythmaking auteur would emerge, albeit far
from the mammoth topographical peculiarities of the Rockies, the saltwater
beaches of the Maritimes or the vast picturesque valleys of Acadia.
Winnipeg as Geographic Wasteland/Creative Wellspring
Marked by brutally cold winters, a near uncanny topographical uniformity and a permeating sense of isolation from the rest of the nation, Manitoba and its capital, Winnipeg, stand as perhaps Canada's most aberrant geographical and cultural oddities. "Without an ocean, a line of mountains, or an official second language to mark its specificity," University of Manitoba professor Brenda Austin-Smith writes, "the province does not really register in the cultural imaginary of the country." (8) Others, like Winnipeg filmmaker and former member of the Winnipeg Film Group Shereen Jerrett, are less merciful. "Winnipeg's a real hole," Jerrett bemoans "and most Winnipeggers have an incredible insecurity complex about being from Winnipeg." (9) While I am certainly unqualified (albeit not uninterested) in identifying exactly how this endemic psychosis of inadequacy has fueled Winnipeg's immensely creative and prolific filmmaking movement, I am comfortable vouching for the invaluable role that the unique position of Winnipeg has played in the development of Maddin's comparably unique cinematic output.
It is precisely the status of Winnipeg as Canada's "isolated anonymous city complete with its own sense of remote confinement" (10) that allows it to exist unregulated as a sort of cinematic carte blanche. Free from the fetters of the delicate politics of Quebecois cinema or the dynamic multicultural narratives of typically Torontonian films, Maddin's often twisted version of Winnipeg is permitted to exist without formal predecessor and thus free from the burden of expectation. Perhaps the result of the inbred insecurity Jerrett mentions is a desire to act out against the antecedent history of Canadian cinema--or at the very least to forget, like so many of the amnesiacs in Maddin's films, that it has transpired at all. Certainly, Maddin himself seems not at all interested in the traditions of Canadian cinema. Apart from a short dealing with the profusion of outdated hairstyles in Winnipeg (1989's BBB) and his latest attempt at mind's-eye factual revisionism, My Winnipeg, he has shown no interest in our national documentary tradition. Further, Maddin's work draws formal influence more from Soviet montage and German expressionism than cinema-verite, and thus largely eschews the traditional Canadian allegiances to realism or direct cinema.
This rejection of practices which have continually, though by no means officially or exclusively, typified Canadian filmmaking uniquely situates Maddin within the strata of Canadian cinema as a filmmaker whose vision remains consistently distinctive and fresh (which is especially impressive considering his constant allusions to primitive film forms). While Maddin's films may be described rather accurately as "bizarre reworkings of old genres" (11) or, more disparagingly, as being marked by "artifice and affectation" (12) it remains undeniable that they possess both a style and sensibility that stands as the representative quintessence of the Winnipeg Film Group's varied radical eccentricities.
It is a sensibility that, according to Geoff Pevere, "speak[s] more closely to an experience shared by Canadians, which is the experience of living in Canada but spending your whole life watching cultural products from other countries ... the strangeness of the films is a strangeness that we all share." (13) In the face of such invasive cultural imperialism (the United States being the most flagrant offender), Maddin makes no attempt to reaffirm his personal and national identity by making weepy Maritime period pieces (see: pretty much every original show ever broadcast on the CBC) or astute socio-historical commentary (see: Don Shebib's Goin' Down the Road). Rather, he ignores--or perhaps more accurately, especially considering the strong psychosexual subtext of much of his work--he represses the feelings of inadequacy fostered both by the shadow cast on us by our neighbour to the South and by the established psychological regionalism associated with Winnipeg.
A topic which frequently emerges in discussions of Maddin's uniquely defined cinematic sensibility is the sheer frigidity of the Manitoban climate. In the Canadian pop culture encyclopedia Mondo Canuck, Geoff Pevere and Greig Dymond cite "the wickedness of Winnipeg winters as likely reason why the city has proven so fertile for postmodern pastiche: since it was so cold so often, people learned themselves inside." (14) Claims of such a coldness often surface in regards to Canadian cinema. Catherine Russell, for example, notes that the effectual "coldness" of Egoyan's Exotica "is not unrelated to the Canadian, climate, which forces people into enclosed spaces for many months of the year." (15) Indeed, it was amidst this characteristically Canadian seasonal flight to the interior that the first Winnipeg film co-op was conceived. As Maddin's early rival John Paizs points out in Noam Gonicks' 1997 documentary Waiting For Twilight, the two would often spend entire weekends cooped up indoors at friend and film professor Steve Snyder's house, voraciously consuming endless hours of videotape and 16mm projections and often arguing through the night about style and film history. (16) But while Maddin's films may largely present grimly inhospitable climates--from the wintry Russia of Archangel to the avalanche-prone Alps of Careful through to the snow-buried Winnipeg of The Saddest Music in the World--the films themselves exude a narrative and stylistic vivacity which transcends such climatologic frigidity.
Reimagining Canada: Maddin as Mythmaker
It is from Winnipeg's distinctive, isolated mentality that Guy Maddin has surfaced as not only the figurative head of the Winnipeg Film Group (having surely deposed John Paisz) but as a contemporary icon of Canada's larger cinematic mentality. Maddin's importance to the larger Canadian cinematic project is rooted not merely in his proficiency or idiosyncrasy, but in his ability to retroactively mythologize Canada. Beginning with his first feature, Tales From the Gimli Hospital (1988), Maddin's films have expressively reimagined Canadian history and culture through the creation of absurd mythologies. Rooted in the tendency of Icelandic Manitobans to be, as Maddin puts it, "humourlessly obsessed with their own history," (17) Tales is the preposterous fable of Einar and Gunnar, two rivaling Nordic-Canadians both vying for the affection of the lovely (and quite literally lifeless) Snjofridur against the backdrop of a "Gimli we never knew." (18) As silly as it is disturbing, the folklore of Einar and Gunnar is related in the film to two young children (and consequentially, the viewer) by the grandmotherly Amma as a sort of local "tall tale" of the Paul Bunyan or Johnny Appleseed variety. Unlike the fairly benign (and boring) American folklore it evokes, however, Maddin's yarn is rife with murder, necrophilia and bizarre rituals--which range from the usage of fish intestines for hair styling to buttock-grabbing duels, all of which constitute what Will Straw calls the "bogus ethnography" (19) of this diminutive Manitoban town.
The fantastic local mythology Maddin stages in Tales occurs not merely at the narrative level (the story itself is fairly baffling upon first viewing), but more prominently in terms of style. Drawing liberally from German expressionist cinema of the early-20th century (the use of shadows is heavily reminiscent of films such as Nosferatu or The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari), silent-era film and Felliniesque flights of fancy, Maddin flouts his "obsessively precise (if fragmented and eccentric)" (20) knowledge of film history in order to revisit various occulted cinematic traditions and claim them in the name of Canada. Maddin as cinematic nationalist rewrites the history of cinema: a history which, as Berton notes, Canada remained largely excluded from. Through his shameless appropriation of mostly negligible and eclectic preexisting film forms--as Straw notes, "[t]he Icelandic saga, the Soviet montage film, and the Bavarian mountain melodrama are all almost as minor as Canadian film itself" (21)--Maddin imagines a place for Canada within the history of cinema; a place which exists esthetically somewhere near the intersection of Vertov, Fritz Lang and Eraserhead-era David Lynch. (22)
Maddin's brand of cinematic revisionism extends further than Gimli, however, well into the snow-swept Alpine village of Tolzbad in Careful (1992). The ever-precarious topography in Careful (residents of Tolzbad communicate in hushed whispers and animals have their vocal cords removed so as to prevent avalanches) seems to reinvent the notoriously flat landscape of Winnipeg. In fact, the highest peak in Winnipeg is a man-made hill created by "layering sod over a garbage dump" (23) and Maddin's description of this geographical anomaly as "a magical, enchanted place, where a tobogganing child might be cleft in two by a car bumper or washing machine that has somehow uprooted itself halfway down the slope" (24) seems to directly inform his curiously-Canadian retelling of the German mountain film. Further, in 2003's The Saddest Music in the World--a film which emerged from Maddin's self-avowed obsession "with the idea of mythologizing Winnipeg" (25)--a depression-era Winnipeg is depicted as being quite literally drowned in snow (so much so the streetcars are entered submarine-style, through a chute in the roof) and thus suggests the waist-high gypsum snow which, according to Pierre Berton's reckoning, marks Canada's early Americanized cinematic (mis)representations. (26) In effect, the absurd geographical and climatologic anachronisms of Careful or Saddest Music seem to reverse-engineer America's dominant sway over Canadian culture by whimsically reveling in the sheer unfounded incorrectness of Hollywood's cinematic assumptions.
In terms of directly addressing the bastardization of the Canadian image by American interests, The Saddest Music in the World is Maddin's (and perhaps Canada's) most valuable cinematic text. The narrative details a contest hosted by paraplegic beer baroness Lady Port-Huntly (Isabella Rossellini) in which participants from around the globe converge on Winnipeg (which is proudly extolled as "the saddest city in the world") to perform the most morose music from their respective nations. The ulterior motive to Lady Port-Huntly's contest involves her extortion of the nation's abundance of alcohol to propagate an image of Canada as "that happy suds body to the North"; an image which she can consequentially exploit by flooding the United States with her own Muskrat Beer following the then-foreseeable fall of prohibition. In doing so, Lady Port-Huntly is effectively marketing the beer-guzzling caricatured image of Canada (an image visible contemporarily par excellence in, for example, Molson's famously denigrating "I.Am.Canadian." commercials) and thus cheapening Canada's internationally exportable image for her own profit. Though her motives may be disingenuous, Lady Port-Huntly nonetheless inverts the usual American imperialist paradigm, giving Canada the final word on issues of North American economic and cultural imperialism.
The Saddest Music in the World also speaks more overtly to the Americanization of Canada's national identity. The Canadian-born representative of America in Lady Port-Huntly's musical contest, Chester Kent (Mark McKinney) embodies the very artifice and vapid "razzle dazzle" which marks much of American entertainment. Chester himself brazenly concedes that American culture is "vulgar and obvious, full of gimmicks" and his stage productions are designed to calculatingly evoke feelings of sorrow from the audience. Unlike his father and representative of Canada in the competition, who humiliatingly but sincerely howls "Red Maple Leafs" while wearing his sullied Canadian Lieutenant's uniform from the Great War, Chester's performances engineer sentiment in lieu of expressing it genuinely. (Of course, the audience is wowed by these lavishly-produced but emotionally hollow musical numbers.) Chester is so wholly inculcated in the vacuous American amalgamation of art and commerce that he relinquishes his Canadian identity without demur and, as if he has stepped out of Pierre Berton's worst nightmare, stands as the logical outcome of the whole historical drama of American cultural imperialism in Canada. So, as Mark Peranson notes, "Saddest Music can be seen as the most pointed statement to date on American cultural imperialism, made in the country that has suffered from it the most." (27) And though the relative star-power of the film and its fairly widespread critical acclaim may make it Maddin's most broad, accessible movie to date (excluding, perhaps, 1997's Twilight of the Ice Nymphs), its explicit condemnation of America's systemically imperialistic culture apparatus and its more understated and urgent plea for a self-sufficiently constituted Canadian cultural identity also make it his most significant.
From the bark fish cutting of Tales From the Gimli Hospital to the swimming pools of beer in The Saddest Music in the World, it is clear that Guy Maddin possesses a unique, if at times twisted, view of Canadian culture. While generally unconcerned with Mounties, towering pine trees, directcinema and other such standardized tropes of the nation's larger cinematic project, Maddin's films nevertheless reveal themselves as having "permeating if indirect things to say about Canada, allegorically or otherwise." (28) Like Berton, it seems as if Maddin patently recognizes the function of cinema in constructing a sense of nationhood. In the conclusion to Hollywood's Canada, Berton writes that it is "simply not true that there is no such thing as a distinctive Canadian identity ... we do differ in some very major ways and in many significant minor ways from our neighbours. I don't want to pretend that our way is necessarily better, just that it is different." (29)
With a visual and narrative style that unabashedly rejects the conventions of the classical Hollywood storytelling and a cinematic sensibility that is inimitably evokes his hometown of Winnipeg, Maddin stands as the most distinct embodiment of this cultural difference. His preoccupation with deconstructing the Americanized image of Canada has resulted in his creation of a re-imagined national cinematic folklore which, however absurd or fantastic, is nonetheless inarguably distinguishing. While Canada may indeed lack "the kind of home-grown mythology that only a Hollywood or a Tin Pan Alley can really provide," (30) Guy Maddin opens up the possibility for a new kind of Canadian identity: one fashioned cinematically which, unlike the work of more "export only" Canuck auteurs like Arcand or Egoyan, speaks more effectively to the distinctive and often strange experience of being Canadian.
John Semley is a student and journalist living and working in Montreal. He is currently completing his B.A. (Honours) degree in Cultural Studies at McGill University. His fields of interest include Canadian and American cinema, popular music studies, Frank Zappa, zombie movies and the writings of T.W. Adorno.
1 Jim Leach, Film in Canada (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2006), 12.
2 For the sake brevity, as well as consistency with Berton's text, I am using "American" here to refer to the United States of America. This of course raises many issues of American cultural imperialism, most of which rest beyond the desired scope of my inquiry in this paper.
3 Pierre Berton, Hollywood's Canada: The Americanization of Our National Image (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Limited, 1975), 153.
4 Ibid., 12.
5 Ibid., 55
6 Ibid., 205.
7 Ibid., 230.
8 Brenda Austin-Smith, "Strange Frontiers: Twenty Years of Manitoba Feature Film", in Self Portraits: The Cinemas of Canada since Telefilm, eds. Andre Loiselle and Tom McSorley (Ottawa: The Canadian Film Institute, 2006), 237.
9 Prairie Post-Modern: Tales From the Winnipeg Film Group, prod. and dir. Paul McGrath, CBC: The Journal, July 4th, 1991.
10 Gilles Herbert quoted in Austin-Smith, 240.
11 Leach, 84.
12 Adam Hart, "The Private Guy Maddin", Senses of Cinema (2004), unpag. (online edition).
13 Prairie Post-Modern: Tales From the Winnipeg Film Group, prod. and dir. Paul McGrath, CBC: The journal, July 4th, 1991.
14 Geoff Pevere and Greig Dymond, Mondo Canuck: A Canadian Pop Culture Odyssey (Scarborough: Prentice-Hall Canada Inc., 1996), 133.
15 Catherine Russell, "Role Playing and the White Male Imaginary in Atom Egoyan's Exotica", in Canada's Best Features: Critical Essays on 15 Canadian Films, ed. Gene Walz (New York: Rodopi, 2002), 322.
16 Waiting For Twilight, prod. and dir. Noam Gonick, 60 min., Kino Video, 2004, DVD.
17 Caelum Vatnsdal, Kino Delirium: The Films of Guy Maddin (Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring, 2000), 45.
18 Will Straw, "Reinhabiting Lost Languages: Guy Maddin's Careful", in Canada's Best Features: Critical Essays on 15 Canadian Films, ed. Gene Walz (New York: Rodopi, 2002), 306.
20 Vatnsdal, 10.
21 Straw, 312.
22 Comparisons between Maddin and Lynch are frequent: see Jim Hoberman, "The Children of David Lynch," Premiere (February 1991); Vatnsdal, 43; Pevere and Dymond, 41.
23 Vatnsdal, 73.
25 Teardrops in the Snow: The Making of the Saddest Music in the World, dirs. Matt Holm & Caelum Vatnsdal, 22 min., MGM, 2003, DVD.
26 Berton, 56.
27 Mark Peranson, "Northern Exposure: Winnipeg's avant-garde auteur Guy Maddin comes in from the cold," City Pages Vol. 25 Issue 1209 (2004): unpag. (online edition)
28 Jonathan Rosenbaum, Essential Cinema: On the Necessity of Film Canons (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2004) 191.
29 Berton, 230.
Sundance Interview: Guy Maddin - Film Comment Emma Myers interview, February 4, 2015
Guy Maddin’s phantasmagoric opus, The Forbidden Room, comes packaged with a warning: “Stay safe, and have fun!” reads the filmmaker’s statement in the press notes. Working with co-director Evan Johnson, the enfant terrible of Canadian cinema has fashioned something like a series of cavernous, roiling story chambers in which viewers can safely enjoy an onslaught of deranged narrative excess without enduring any actual bodily harm. But it’s impossible to stay safe amidst the explosive color, hypnotic superimpositions, and lurid intertitles, and while Maddin neophytes may find the experience of The Forbidden Room akin to a brain aneurysm (in a good way), movie lovers with any sense of humor will gleefully lap up the overflowing bounty of cinephilic pleasures and polymorphous perversities.
The Forbidden Room grew out of Maddin’s interactive Seances project, which resurrected lost films from the silent era by re-writing and shooting them live in Montreal’s Phi Center and The Pompidou Center in Paris, sometimes with nothing more to go on than a title. The new feature spits out serial-style adventures in spasmodic fragments: a stranded submarine crew must rely on air bubbles in their breakfast flapjacks for oxygen; a lumberjack goes on a quest to rescue a maiden from a pack of wild wolf men; a woman holds her own inner child at gunpoint; a man has a lobotomy in order to cure himself of a paralyzing obsession with bottoms; and a mustache induces melancholic memories. The directors’ imaginations prove bottomless: there’s also a skeleton orgy, a bone-breaking orgasm, and an absurd educational video on how to take a bath (narrated by a smarmy Louis Pregin clad in an all-too-revealing silk robe). As is the case with most of Maddin’s work, lust, shame, and fetishism abound as the film navigates the nether regions of the human body and psyche with playfully archaic euphemism.
The 58-year-old filmmaker has assembled his best cast in years to bring these ludicrous narrative nuggets to life. Fans will be equally pleased to find familiar stock players like Pregin and new-to-Maddin heavyweights like Mathieu Amalric, Charlotte Rampling, and Elina Löwensohn utterly at home in his singular world.
FILM COMMENT met with the self-deprecating director at Sundance, where The Forbidden Room premiered in the New Frontier section, to talk about everything from fetishism to color timing.
The director’s statement in the press notes for this film is phrased as a warning of sorts against the explosion of narrative and potentially of the viewers’ subconscious. Can you talk about your conception for the film in relation to your Seances project and how you managed to condense such a huge expanse of material into a feature film?
The Seances project started first—that’s how Evan [Johnston] came on board [first] as a researcher. As we talked more about the interactive element, which was really pioneering stuff, he just had so many great ideas that he became co-creator of that project. We realized we wanted to make a feature because as we were re-writing our own adaptations of these lost films, along with Robert Kotyk, our third screenwriting colleague, a lot of our own personal concerns just kept reappearing in our melodramatic reductions.
The stories came to us as reviews or one-sentence plot synopses. There were some that just had such intriguing titles and that would inspire us to write something. It was almost like being a police dog, trying to track something big down based on a sniff of one small item and it became clear that we had a chance to make a very different kind of narrative…well, there are movies with [multiple] narratives in them and ironically, those are usually the narratives I don’t like. They bore me—they feel longer than they are. I’m slowly working towards making a lean, fast-paced movie that everyone can understand but that somehow has a Bressonian simplicity, too. But in the meantime, I’m just a hack so, that’s kind of hard to do.
That director’s statement is literal. We just had too much narrative and had to pare it down and make it all fit. I was inspired by the writings of Raymond Roussel, who wrote New Impressions of Africa  and Locus Solus . The way he nests stories within stories within stories just delighted me.
In addition to Evan Johnson, you also collaborated with the poet John Ashbery on the film. What was his role?
I asked John to pick any title from this big list of lost movies we had to write and he chose How to Take a Bath , which is a lost Dwain Esper movie. He was an exploitation producer and director in the Thirties, Forties, and Fifties—I think he was the distributor of Freaks , and he directed How to Undress in Front of Your Husband . After John wrote the monologue for it, we realized that it was the best framing device for the movie. From there, it was just a matter of going inside the bathtub to make the submarine movie and then finding an excuse, or a more far-fetched connector, from one story to another. Ashbery was channeling The Amazing Criswell. The closest thing I had to Criswell is Louis Pregin.
He’s great in this movie.
Yeah. It’s really hard to find Canadian actors that both look and sound great. He’s from Montreal so I was able to use him in the Montreal shoot. Due to how that portion of the film was financed, I wasn’t allowed to use anyone from outside of the province, so I used an all Quebecois cast, which I was thrilled to do because they’ve got a great star system of their own and I was completely new to it. I cast Clara Furey, who is Carole Laure’s daughter, as the female lead. She’s a dancer and she’s really wonderful.
Did you have an audition process? You’ve cast quite a few of your regulars here but also have some new faces.
No, I don’t like auditions. I don’t like the pressure, the fear you smell in the room. I had what looked like an audition—I would shoot people while they were telling me their earliest childhood memory. It was a way of getting used to their faces with the camera. By the time 10 minutes had passed, I’d filmed their faces from every angle and we’d gotten to know each other a little bit. That was in Montreal. In Paris I made friends with a casting director who knew all the adventurous actors that were willing to throw themselves into odd independent projects. I just met people for coffee or lunch and explained the project . . . and I guess assured them that I was sane.
I kept fearing Charlotte Rampling and trying to wrap quickly in case she got mad at me and slashed my skin open with a bullwhip. I’d make sure all her scenes were done first—out of fear and respect—but then she’d end up lying around for hours because she liked being on set so much. She was real sweet.
On a technical level, this is one of your most complex—and colorful—films. Can you explain that part of the process in terms a Luddite might understand?
I’m kind of a Luddite too—the effects are all Evan. While the boys are taking care of the soundtrack, and tuning color palettes, and things, I just sit in a rocking chair and write the intertitles. I never wanted to make color movies before because I felt the palettes meant too much, that I wasn’t smart enough yet to say enough with the color.
Careful (92) is beautifully done in color—it looks like old hand-tinted photographs.
Yeah. I knew what I was doing there—I insisted on just using two colors at a time and I was being cautious. But I didn’t have reason for color again until now. There are just so many variables that you can have in a movie and I wanted to make color one of them here. Evan and his brother Galan—who is the production designer and the graphic designer on the film—really worked on palettes and color timing. They’re basically self-taught; over the course of the project they just taught themselves. We color-timed all the rushes—the movie wasn’t edited and then color-timed, they actually color-timed 4,000 hours of images. It’s very time-consuming, but very important to get into the mood and the flavor. It’s just too hard to edit with this really hideous, raw video. Especially for a movie like this, where the look matters so much.
What about for something like the superimpositions and double exposures? Do you have an idea of the effects you want to use while writing and shooting each individual piece, or does that only come into play in the editing room?
I synch really well with my editor, John Gurdebeke, and editing really is filmmaking. I’ve often said that if he wants to be called a co-director that he’s welcome to the credit. He says: “No thanks, I’d rather be paid.” [Laughs] Filmmaking is just ridiculously collaborative. Sure, every now and again one of us will suggest slightly fewer double exposures, or maybe a few more.
You have this recurring edit of cutting to and from the same image rapidly, messing with its temporal unfolding. In a previous interview you likened this to foreplay, explaining that your movies are all about the tease rather than the completion.
[Laughs] Yeah, it’s a technique Rebecca Sandulak [DP of Cowards Bend the Knee, 03] and I worked out when we were making Cowards. We wanted to create the effect of a daydream about, say, your favorite romantic moment. The way you might think to yourself about a memory: “Wait, I didn’t go slowly enough, I didn’t enjoy that enough.” So you go back in your head and work back up to that moment again—and then stop there for a while, and then maybe just rock back and forth before zooming off to the next thing you want to daydream about. There’s a little bit of that left in our editing style. It really fit with Cowards perfectly, because it was a remembered story; I wanted the way of remembering this story of mine to be neurological and skittish like that. It’s really just scrolling in Final Cut Pro, and it’s just part of our vocabulary now. We’re trying to get off it—it’s a bit like poppers, very easy to get hooked on.
Fetishism is always prominent in your films. There’s fetishism in a literal way—Isabella Rossellini’s glass legs in The Saddest Music in the World , or in this film, the mustache, the bone breaking—and then there’s the fetishism of silent movies as a form.
I’m an obsessive, I know. But it’s like I don’t believe in ghosts unless I’m holding a camera, or engaged in a project. Then ghosts are handy things and I believe in them as story elements. It’s the same thing with fetishes, I guess. I find myself only believing in them when I’m holding camera. They’re very useful because they focus all the attention on one thing for a while. You’ve got to tell a real human story—you’ve got to condense it down to a few minutes. In this movie especially—some of these stories are whole life times concentrated into a few minutes.
I remember trying out The Dream of a Mustache on my granddaughter as a bedtime story when she was 4, and saying to her, “There’s a dead man lying on the floor.” She really loved hearing about this dead man on the floor with a mustache. And then I said, “Well, the mustache had a dream,” and she said, “This is getting too scary,” and made me stop. And I thought well, this is good—she’s buying it, and being frightened by it at the same time.
I realized later that the bone breaking is just Vertigo . I’m going to be busted. But I like the idea of just remaking a woman. And if you’re a bone-knitting specialist, I guess that you would do it by breaking, re-breaking, and then setting.
It was so eroticized.
Yeah, we just downloaded a bunch of hard-core porn moans.
With regard to silent films, I just don’t believe the film industry ever should have let go of that language—it evolved hastily, but I don’t think it should have jettisoned that vocabulary when we still have room for it. So I just keep everything, using some discretion while doing so. But I didn’t actually particularly like silent film until I started making movies. I was accused of making silent films years before I actually made one—I just made films that reminded people of them. I guess I’ve always approached novel reading and movie watching as if approaching a fairy tale. And when it came time to finally write about stuff, I just thought everything is happening within the precincts of the fairy tale somehow. And silent movies are just one step closer to fairy tales: they have to have types in them. There’s something mannered about the writing style. It’s very liberating.
You’ve said in the past that melodrama for you is human nature not being repressed, rather than human nature exaggerated. Does that theory still hold true for you?
Yeah. I think good melodrama un-inhibits the truth. It might redefine screaming “I want my cha-cha heels” in Female Trouble, but if there’s some truth in it, it will feel right. What I find really strange is when a movie doesn’t have the courage to be melodramatic because it’s considered to be a disgraced art form, so the plot will be melodramatic but the performances will be pitched to contemporary naturalism. It just seems ball-less—that’s not right, that’s gendered: it just seems chicken. You should have the courage to meet the preposterous, psychologically true premise with the performances and color scheme. So someone like Almodóvar, or John Waters, Kuchar, Lynch, Buñuel—they do it well.
You’re often placed in the same camp as those directors, but it seems the comedy in your work is the most overlooked element—everyone wants to discuss your films in a very serious way. This movie is hysterically funny.
Yeah, I had a good friend tell me—this was back before I started getting bad reviews—“You get really good reviews, but the feeling I get from those reviews is that I’m going to be tested after I read them, or I’m going to have to write an essay.” Which is sort of like saying stay away! It’s just too serious. But me? Serious? I’m a goofus.
Do you have any favorite silent films that you find on par with or even more deranged or absurd than your own work?
There’s some, I almost feel like not telling… but I will. I love the Alexander Dovzhenko that seems to be outside his canon—The Tip of My Mother’s Purse [aka The Diplomatic Pouch]. Almost anything by Dovzhenko other than his canonical films, Arsenal  and Earth —they’re great, I love them but they just seem too reverential in their views. His other stuff is eccentric beyond comprehension. [Aleksandr] Sokurov is just amazing, though he’s not silent—I don’t know where he gets his ideas from. I like those guys [Leonid] Trauberg and [Grigori] Kozintsev from the Soviet Union—the eccentrics—they had long careers well into the Fifties and Sixties but I like their silent films. One of their first films was The Overcoat —the un-subtitled version is on YouTube, and it’s so strange. There’s so much still that hasn’t been released. It’s nice to know there’s still material to be discovered. Being a guest director at Telluride this past fall was wonderful because the festival director, Tom Luddy, would send me all kinds of things to look at. I saw a Lupu Pick movie called Sylvester , and that one is really wonderful and strange. I don’t know if that will ever come out. There’s one copy at the George Eastman House.
This is one of your least autobiographical works—and also the least “Canadian.” You’ve said that My Winnipeg  was an attempt to exorcise the city from yourself. Is this project proof that was successful?
It really is. You cure yourself of your subject when you take on a film, and you become so sick of it. You’re already sick of it before you’re finished making the film—and then you have to sit through a sound mix and screenings and talk about it a lot.
I thought the flapjacks were perhaps a reference to some obscure Canadian silent film in which flapjacks solve all problems.
[Laughs] Yeah, it seems like it would be. My leg is broken! Quick, a flapjack! Evan cooked that one up. The flapjacks just keep reappearing. We only have so much imagination. “I know, we need a flapjack here!”
Criterion just released a DVD of My Winnipeg, so I suppose you relived it to do the special features.
I did, yeah. Evan did the special features—the four cine-essays. One on Elms, one on puberty . . . I think I’m incorrectly credited as co-creator of those but Evan created them himself as part of an ongoing project of documenting the city. I love them—it’s great to have my co-director working on My Winnipeg retroactively. I’m very proud of the movie and very proud of the Criterion release. It saved that movie—its earlier release got tangled up in some bankruptcy proceedings. I was indulging myself in a lot of self-pity being the only director of a movie without a DVD, and now it’s got the best.
Biography - Guy Maddin biography
Zeitgeist Films | Guy Maddin biography
Guy Maddin • Great Director profile • Senses of Cinema Jason Woloski from Senses of Cinema, July 25, 2003
Guy Maddin - Alchetron, The Free Social Encyclopedia extensive profile
Guy Maddin - The Canadian Encyclopedia biography
The Film Reference Library bio information by Jason McBride
The Film Reference Library bio information from Guy Maddin Archive
GUY MADDIN, ARTIST - Artopia profile from John Perreault’s art diary
The Canada Council for the Arts - Guy Maddin: Imagining ‘entirely ... profile by Christopher Guly
GUY MADDIN brief profile from 4p8
CBC Digital Archives - Prairie Visionaries: Guy Maddin and the Winnipeg Film Group including brief YouTube film clips
Series Details Curated By…Guy Maddin, introductory comments and 7 films selected from the UCLA film archives
Guy Maddin’s Top 10 - Explore - The Criterion Collection My Top Ten Criterions, by Guy Maddin
Film Foundation member of the Film Foundation
Very Lush and Full of Ostriches | Village Voice Guy Maddin looks at his own films, originally from The Village Voice, July 31, 2001
City Pages - Northern Exposure Winnipeg's avant-garde auteur Guy Maddin comes in from the cold, by Mark Peranson from City Pages, February 4, 2004
Guy Maddin at FilmJournal.com Wizard of Winnipeg, Kevin Lally from the Film Journal International, May 1, 2004
Particles of Illusion: Guy Maddin and His Precursors Darragh O'Donoghue from Senses of Cinema, June 2004
Particles of Illusion: Guy Maddin and His Precursors • Senses of Cinema Darragh O’Donoghue, July 2004
The Private Guy Maddin • Senses of Cinema Adam Hart from Senses of Cinema, July 26, 2004
The Saddest Music in the World – Offscreen Daniel Garrett, September 2004
Disease, pathology and decay in Guy Maddin's cinema - Offscreen Roberto Curti, September 2004
Guy Maddin: Tales From a Maverick's Diary – Offscreen Donato Totaro on a Maddin retrospective from Offscreen, September, 2004
Thoroughly modern Maddin. - Free Online Library - The Free Library David Pike from CineAction, January 1, 2005
guymaddin Notes from a Maddin restrospective at American Cinematheque, January 21, 2005
Brief Notes on Canadian Identity in Guy Maddin's The Saddest Music ... David Church from Offscreen, January 2006
Guy Maddin takes a
dream-like tour of Winnipeg - Arts - Toronto ... Home
Truths, by Alison Gillmor from CBC
"Ode to a Nectarite Harvest": On Brand Upon the Brain! - Bright Lights ... David Church from Bright Lights Film Journal, November 1, 2007
Guy Maddin Goes
Home - June 6, 2008 - The New York Sun
Nicholas Rapold from The
Brand upon the Brain!: Out of the Past - From the Current - The ... Dennis Lim on the Criterion blog, August 11, 2008
Playing with Memories: Essays on Guy Maddin | David Church ... Bark Fish Appreciation: An Introduction, 25-page essay by David Church, one chapter from his book, 2009 (pdf)
Very Lush and Full of Ostriches | ACMI Blog Pt 2, updated to include newer releases, Guy Maddin looks at his own films, July 5, 2012
You Have to See… My Winnipeg (dir. Guy Maddin ... - Four Three Film Conor Batemen from 4:3 Film, July 28, 2014
Five signs you might be watching a Guy Maddin film | CBC Arts - CBC.ca Leah Collins, July 22, 2015
Guy Maddin on His Obsession with Lost Films and Why We Need to ... Paula Bernstein from indieWIRE, November 13, 2015
The Sharp Amnesias of Guy Maddin - Harvard Film Archive November 14, 2015
Guy Maddin on his surreal seances and sexploitation remakes | Film ... Jonathan Romney from The Guardian, November 26, 2015
TSPDT - Guy Maddin They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They
Interview with Isabella Rossellini - Bella figura - Hour Community Dimitri Katadotis interview, October 2, 2003
Guy Maddin and George Toles interviewed about writing The Saddest ... Jonathan Ball interview published October 19, 2012, but initially posted in 2004
Canadian Cult Hero Guy Maddin: “I Have Plenty of Sadness In Reserve” Jeremy O’Kasick interview from indieWIRE, February 17, 2004
A Quick Chat With Guy Maddin Antonio Pasolini interview from Kamera.co.uk, June 4, 2004
Guy Maddin · Interview · The A.V. Club Noel Murray interview, May 19, 2004
The Kids In The Hall, part 2 · Interview · The A.V. Club Tasha Robinson interview with comedians Dave Foley and Kevin McDonald, who collaborated on Saddest Music, July 7, 2004
DVD RE-RUN INTERVIEW: Melodrama as a Way of Life; Guy Maddin ... Andrea Meyer interview from indieWIRE, November 15, 2004
An Interview with Guy Maddin – Offscreen Dissecting the Branded Brain, interview by David Church, January 31, 2006
Interview: Isabella Rossellini | Film | The Guardian Dan Halpern interview, May 1, 2006
Guy Maddin Talks The Brand Upon The Brain - ScreenAnarchy Interview by Todd Brown, October 14, 2006
Q&A EXCERPT: Director GUY MADDIN :: Stop Smiling Magazine José Teodoro interview, February 12, 2007
indieWIRE INTERVIEW | “Brand Upon the Brain!” Director Guy Maddin Interview by Brian Brooks, May 9, 2007
Gothamist - Brand Upon The Brain! Interview [Karen Wilson] (May 2007) Interview May 9, 2007
Guy Maddin · Interview · The A.V. Club Interview by Andy Battaglia,
Guy Maddin talks My Winnipeg, self-mythologizing, psychological ... Interview by Kurt Halfyard from Screen Anarchy, October 2, 2007
Maddin on His Winnipeg - ComingSoon.net
Exclusive: Guy Maddin on His
Guy Maddin interview by Steve Erickson from Film & Video, June 12, 2008
Guy Maddin on Directing a 'Docu-fantasia' About His Hometown ... Interview by Bilge Ebiri from Vulture, June 13, 2008
Phil on Film - Interview Philip Concannon interview, July 5, 2008
INTERVIEW WITH GUY MADDIN | Electric Sheep Alex Fitch interview, July 7, 2008
with guy maddin, director of my winnipeg - Big Red & Shiny Interview
by James Nadeau,
2008 SFSFF13—Guy Maddin In Defense of Melodrama Interview with Maddin by Michael Guillen, July 14, 2008
Maddin's 'My Winnipeg' takes him home
Interview by Walter Addiego from SF
A Fairy Tale Childhood: An Interview with Guy Maddin | PopMatters Robert Loerzel interview, August 13, 2008
Time Out Interview (2008) Wally Hammond interviews Maddin from Time Out London
BOMB Magazine — Guy Maddin & Isabella Rossellini Erik Morse interview from Bomb magazine, Summer 2009
Guy Maddin - Hobo Magazine Sean Starke interview, June 2009
The Believer - Interview with Guy Maddin Ryan Boudinot interview, January 2011
The Ecstasy of Fetishization: An Interview with Guy Maddin ... Abraham Riesman interview from Motherboard, April 3, 2012
Guy Maddin talks about Keyhole and “the haunted ... - The AV Club Sam Adams interview, April 6, 2012
Guy Maddin on Keyhole – Film interview | The Skinny Jamie Dunn interview, September 4, 2012
Isabella Rossellini - Page - Interview Magazine Mario Batali interview, November 4, 2014
Guy Maddin on The Forbidden Room and Writing Melodrama ... Jonathan Ball interview, December 5, 2014
Interview: Guy Maddin On His Criterion-Selected 'My ... - IndieWire Christopher Nell interview, January 28, 2015
Lost Film Spirits: A Conversation with Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson ... Daniel Kasman interview from Mubi, February 24, 2015
Why ‘The Forbidden Room’ Directors Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson Are More Excited for the Future of Film Than Ever Shelley Farmer interview from indieWIRE, October 1, 2015
Interview: Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson on The ... - Slant Magazine Steve Erickson, October 4, 2015
Kitchen Conversations: Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson - From the ... Hillary Weston interview from Criterion blog, October 9, 2015
A Conversation with Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson Lost in the Funhouse: A Conversation with Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson on The Forbidden Room and Other Stories, by Mark Peranson from Cinema Scope, Fall 2015
Forbidden Rooms: Director Guy Maddin Interviewed - The Quietus Cormac O’Brien interview, December 18, 2015
Guy Maddin on The Saddest Music in The World and His Interactive ... Paula Bernstein interview from Filmmaker magazine, March 29, 2016
The Heart Of The World - Guy Maddin WallyDanger Channel Video with the correct aspect ratio (6:08)
THE DEAD FATHER
Canada (26 mi) 1986
A surreal meditation on death, this short film contains some
ideas and images worthy of the original Surrealists, with touches of humor.
Though in some ways the movie feels like the first-time attempt that it is, the
story is both more coherent and more profound than some of Maddin's
feature-length efforts. The black-and-white cinematography and old-style
dubbing set a strong mood, and the director makes good use of locations, props,
and costumes to create a dreamlike but palpable suburban world from a few
decades ago. A small note: 1930's movie buffs may be annoyingly distracted by
the clips of familiar soundtracks in the background. You can find this short on
the DVD of "Tales from the
In a collection of memories, our narrator recalls the death
of his father but not his actual departure. With the man's eldest son still
feeling resentment, loss and guilt over the man's death bring the spirit of his
father back in a semi-living state; ghostly if you will. These visits continue
as the son finds himself driven to despair by his father's continued presence
and he comes ever closer to a series of desperate acts.
Having been taken in by Guy Maddin's later work it was only a matter of time before I had a stab at his earliest film, specifically this short film that was one of his first forays into directing. Having gotten used to not understanding the narrative of any of his later films it was a surprise to find that not only did this appear to have more of a structure to it but that it also had a rather toned down visual style that I wasn't expecting even if this was his first film. Narrative wise it is still a bit thin but it produced enough to keep me interested and make me think more about the characters and the story I was being told, even if I could have done with a bit more in the way of explanation and background development. Ironically enough this is actually more accessible than some of his later work and could work as a way in for the uninitiated as well as some of his better films made more recently. Stylistically the film is very sparse and bare and may put some of his modern fans off who have come to expect great flair and style from him but for me both worked and this had enough going for it to be visually interesting without going over (or near) the top.
The cast are OK and do their part (posing well in the clever opening credits) but really Maddin is the star here as both writer and director. Overall this is an interesting short that is up to standard for the majority of Maddin's work. It may not win over those that find no value in any of his films (what would?) but it is a good short film that can be enjoyed on its own or as an example of the style and approach that he would continue to develop over later years.
There's a thin line between weird and strange, and Maddin's debut falls just the wrong side. For all that, it's hugely enjoyable, a shaggy-dog story set in Manitoba in a bygone age of bucolic gambolling, innocent erotic idylls, and dark, dark shadows. Lonely Einar succumbs to an epidemic that leaves cracks across its victims' faces, and ends up in the local hospital, where he whiles away the hours carving bark fishes and envying the narrative skills of his voluminous neighbour. The two spin tales of love, loss and necrophilia, and mortal combat ensues, to the sound of ghostly bagpipes. A nearly wordless '20s pastiche, the film obeys no logic except the impulse to fling in as many campy, incongruous images as possible. There are moments of jaw-dropping inspiration, and many that are just impenetrably odd. But this is immensely winning for the rawness alone.
"Please watch carefully," Winnipeg-born filmmaker Guy Maddin admonished potential viewers in the program note for The Heart of the World, the five-minute tribute to Russian silent film that for many attendees was the best single work at the recently-completed Toronto International Film Festival. Much the same can be said for Maddin’s first feature, the sinister and surreal 1988 Tales From the Gimli Hospital. While not a horror film per se, Tales so completely envelops the viewer in the turn-of-the-century title town, reeling from the effects of a smallpox epidemic ("a Gimli we no longer know," someone says), that the melodramatic competition between two patients becomes a life-and-death struggle comparable to the meditative and visually striking works of David Lynch, Luis Bunuel and F.W. Murnau. A blend of the new and old, complete with Icelandic traditions both accurate and invented, Tales From the Gimli Hospital is also available in a DVD edition that includes Maddin’s 1986 short The Dead Father and 1988 work Hospital Fragment. For those hooked on Maddin’s unique worldview, Kino Video’s day-and-date DVD release of his subsequent Careful (to be reviewed in the October video column) includes an hour-long documentary on the director and his career.
Guy Maddin's debut feature establishes the otherworldly, unfamiliar quality that he obsessively cultivates in later movies, albeit in different forms. Dreamlike or nightmarish depending on your taste, this black-and-white reverie creates a world seemingly unencumbered by Maddin's self-consciousness. The dreary, timeless Canadian backwoods that the film is set in appears to have sprung intact right out of Maddin's id, which in turn seems to have been deeply influenced by folklore, myth, and, most importantly, cinema. Surreal and distanced, Tales From the Gimli Hospital is more concerned with eliciting laughter through its clever use of the medium's formal and technical elements, rather than expressing or exploring distinct ideas. With its hissing soundtrack and hallucinatory black-and-white, one can almost imagine the film as a recently excavated sample from a forgotten genre. Even at its 72-minute clip, Tales From the Gimli Hospital might strike some viewers as overlong and laborious. For all its perversity, the movie doesn't quite sustain its oddball singularity. Before it's over, the novelty of the film's look and sound and Maddin's peculiar sense of humor fades, and monotony sets in. Wildly uneven, if undeniably inventive, the movie stands as a fitting introduction to one of the more unusual voices in world cinema.
Much like David Lynch's Eraserhead
or Lars Von Trier's The Element of Crime, Guy Maddin's first feature, Tales
from the Gimli Hospital, is almost unclassifiably strange. I have plenty of
reservations about it, but there's no danger of déja vu: it's safe to
say that even its detractors aren't going to be saying "Oh no, not another
semi-silent melodrama based on Icelandic folk tales featuring weird diseases
and traditional buttock wrestling!".
They will, however, be saying plenty of other things about it, mostly along the lines that it intersperses moments of jaw-dropping originality with almost wilful incoherence. There's a plot of sorts - the inhabitants of the town of
The opening intertitle sets the florid tone: "O Mount Askja! Your Eruptions have put us in Boats and sent us to scar [sic] new Lands. But from across the celibate Ocean you cast your nets and haul us back to your smouldering bosom." In other words, although set in Canada, the various Icelandic characters that populate the film keep harking back to their roots, both in terms of their profession (fishing and wrestling, for the most part) and their various rituals.
One such fisherman, Einar the Lonely, catches the disease and ends up in the Gimli Hospital, waited on by suspiciously young-looking nurses (Maddin confirms on the commentary that their average age was thirteen) and sandwiched between such characters as the garrulous Gunnar and what must be one of the few blackface minstrels to have appeared in any film in several decades. It’s a decidedly unorthodox hospital, where patients have to watch puppet shows through binoculars in lieu of anaesthetics, and there are hints that the nurses have rather more to offer their patients than just medical treatment – though this is tragically denied poor Einar, who eventually finds himself compelled to challenge Gunnar to a traditional Icelandic buttock-wrestling duel...
And that’s pretty much all the plot summary you’ll get, because that’s about as much as the film gives us – and no mere summary can hope to convey the film’s uniquely off-kilter atmosphere: it’s like a cross between Eraserhead and an early sound film from the late 1920s, and it’s constantly breaking into eccentric musical interludes and moments that I imagine are supposed to be dream sequences, though it’s hard to tell what’s meant to be “real”.
To be honest, I’m not sure Maddin really knows either – he later admitted that the film wasn’t especially strong in the plot structure department, and confessed that the script should have gone through a couple of extra drafts before shooting started. As a result, it’s a film that demands a fair bit of tolerance and understanding from its audience – there are quite a few moments that look like an inept school pantomime, and others that are breathtakingly inspired. I doubt very much that it adds up to anything particularly significant (though the Icelandic roots aren’t just an affectation – Maddin is himself of Icelandic ancestry), and Maddin has gone on to make significantly better films (
Guy Maddin: Tales From a Maverick's Diary – Offscreen Donato Totaro on a Maddin retrospective from Offscreen, September, 2004
Disease, pathology and decay in Guy Maddin's cinema - Offscreen Roberto Curti, September 2004
City Pages - Northern Exposure Winnipeg's avant-garde auteur Guy Maddin comes in from the cold, by Mark Peranson from City Pages, February 4, 2004
Plume Noire review Fred Thom
MediaScreen.com dvd review Paul Brenner
Images (Derek Hill) review also reviewing CAREFUL
The Onion A.V. Club [Noel Murray] also reviewing CAREFUL
CBC.ca Arts (Patricia Bailey)
review Wicked and Weird, The kooky charms of the Gimli Film Festival, By
Patricia Bailey from CBC,
DVDBeaver dvd review Mark Balson
WWI. Deep in Russian snows, peg-leg Canadian soldier Boles, pining for his lost Iris, is billeted in Archangel with the family of the lovely Danchuk; but the addled Boles ignores Danchuk's feelings for him in favour of mysterious Veronkha, whom he mistakes for Iris, although she is really the spurned wife of a faithless Belgian aviator... Confused? No matter; so are the characters in this absurdist melodrama. Maddin's second feature is pitched straighter than Tales from the Gimli Hospital, but is every bit as inspired and patchy. Pastiche remains to the fore, with Maddin's acute sense of camp more historically motivated than before. Complete with hieratic '20s-style acting, the film is an extravagant mélange of All Quiet on the Western Front, Eisenstein and DeMille, all the more impressive for its cut-price mise en scène. The war scenes are extraordinary, although thrown in far too liberally; even better are the daft tableaux vivants which seem to comprise Archangel's only entertainment.
The Heart of the World Guy Maddin from GreenCine
In Archangel (1990), all of Maddin's backward-gazing characters grope about in the murk of their memories in a sad attempt to regain loves and comforts lost. Archangel is a full-blown amnesia melodrama set deep in the confused winter immediately following the Great War -- the last war designed exclusively for the pleasure of children. (The uniforms worn in battle made all the combatants look like scaled-up toy soldiers, and Maddin himself described the movie as a "Goya painting etched upon a child's windowpane in frost.") Another part-talkie, this is Maddin's most delirious feature; there is a narrative, but it lies buried somewhere beneath a fluffy snowfall of forgetfulness. All the characters, being amnesiacs, have forgotten the war is over, and between naps continue to fight. They fight painful facts, they fight the love gods, they fight through thick mists of Vaseline. (The ARCHANGEL camera crew went through a whole keg of this unguent.) Soldier and viewer alike fight confusion, unsuccessfully. This is said to be the director's favorite among his movies.
During the First World War, a Canadian soldier, devastated by
the recent death of his fiancee, arrives at the frozen Russian city of
Filming entirely indoors with homemade props and costumes, director Guy Maddin has created a very strange and intense movie. Cribbing heavily from the look and atmosphere of German expressionist cinema, Maddin goes much further in exploring some very human issues: loss, love, memory and redemption. He also examines patriotism and by stylistically depicting the horrors of trench warfare he delivers a pacifist message that reminds me of movies like Grande Illusion and All Quiet on the Western Front. The ultimate power of this movie, however, lies in the sense of alienation we see among the characters. They are not only unable to love each other, they are barely able to communicate. In fact, under the cloud of forgetfulness that is a major theme in this movie, the characters are often not even capable of recognizing one another at all!
Synopsis: A one-legged Canadian soldier is sent to the
Russian Arctic town of
This is the latest film from
The film centers on Lt. John Boles, a Canadian Army officer
who has one wooden leg, who is sent to the Russian Arctic town of
The film showcases Maddin's weird sense of humor. When a boy
faints, he is revived by brushing his stomach with horsehair brushes (a scene
reminiscent of the one in
The film has a unique appearance and style. It has some nicely warped humor. However, I found the film lacking on a number of points. First, there wasn't enough humor in it to make it really appealing. Second, the plot is iterative (as you will discover if you see the film). Certain scenes are reused many times. Because of the cycling of the plot, you might eventually lose interest in the film. At times I looked at my watch to see how much longer the film had to run.
I should mention that the film has received very mixed
reviews. Two local papers gave it very good reviews. However, word-of-mouth
advance reviews from various sources indicated that it was pretty bad. (Some of
the negative reviews came from fans of
As for a recommendation on the film, I would begin by noting
that it is much too strange for a general audience. If you are a fan of silent
films, you might find the film of interest for its technical aspects, namely
the imitation of silent film techniques. If you are a fan of
Guy Maddin: Tales From a Maverick's Diary – Offscreen Donato Totaro on a Maddin retrospective from Offscreen, September, 2004
Disease, pathology and decay in Guy Maddin's cinema - Offscreen Roberto Curti, September 2004
Particles of Illusion: Guy Maddin and His Precursors • Senses of Cinema Darragh O’Donoghue, July 2004
DVD Talk (Matt Langdon) dvd review [3/5] also reviewing TWILIGHT OF THE ICE NYMPHS and THE HEART OF THE WORLD
The Vagrant Café - Christian Cinema [Seth Studer] also reviewing LA JETÉE
It's time Guy Maddin, the brilliant Winnipeg fabulist who gave us Tales from the Gimli Hospital and Archangel, was rescued from cult obscurity. Hopefully, this darkly idiosyncratic gem will do the trick. In the 19th century Alpine town of Tolzbad, the puritanical townspeople tread and speak softly, for fear of bringing down an avalanche. But beneath this soft blanket of repression lurk incestuous desires, unspoken fears, and the ever-present threat of violent death. A post-modern silent melodrama, its wry inter-titles and colour-tinted images hark back to, and yet cruelly dissect, a lost 'innocence'. Uniquely weird, subtly macabre, and utterly compelling.
“Careful,” the hilariously bizarre new film from Canadian director Guy Maddin, is like some lost masterpiece from a time-warped alternative dimension -- a strange artifact that time forgot.
Everything about this curious enterprise seems perversely
anomalous. Its setting is a mountain village in the fictitious
Of course, beneath all this surface politeness and courtesy lies a swamp of depravity. The main characters are two brothers, Johann and Grigorss (Brent Neale and Kyle McCulloch), well-mannered boys, basically, who attend butler school and have the misfortune of being in love with their mother, Zenaida (Gosia Dobrowolska). A third brother, Franz (Vince Rimmer), sits lonely by the window in the attic, where he is kept.
The story follows a mad logic all its own. In one scene Johann has a lurid dream about his mother and then as punishment presses burning coals against his lips. In another, Grigorss spills wax on the face of a corpse, then wipes it off in a panic, rubbing the skin raw. The fun of all this lies in the uncanny extravagance of Maddin's exaggerations.
Visually, the picture is an exceptional feat. Using wildly angled shots and footage that is tinted or intentionally distressed to mimic the texture of aged film stock, Maddin presents us with ghostly images that seem just beyond explanation. And the dialogue is equally baroque. (My favorite line is "Don't boast, Grigorss, it will make you callous. And stop eating those gooseberries.")
At times you feel as if you're watching some Jeanette MacDonald operetta gone insane; at others it has the haphazard quality of an Ed Wood cheapie. Perhaps the strangest aspect of all is that somehow Maddin manages to make all this outrageous inventiveness hang together. It's of a piece, though a piece of what I'm still not quite sure.
For the residents of the Alpine Valley hamlet of Tolzbad in the late 19th century, their greatest fear is of making the slightest noise and triggering an avalanche that would destroy the village. Their entire lives are muffled. People speak only in modulated tones. Musical instruments are “played” silently, or in acoustically soundproofed chambers. When a widow takes the notion to crank up the gramophone and dance with her two sons, the three of them cover the windows with protective drapes made from sheepskins so that the music can't seep out. Even the vocal chords of all the region’s animals have been surgically severed in order to avert any unintentional disaster. When a dog barks frantically, all one hears is the unnerving clacking of its teeth. The villagers' daily comings-and-goings are punctuated by their admonitions to each other. "Careful," one will say, "Don't spill it." “Never gamble with life,” counsels another. "Peril," all are assured, "awaits the incautious traveler," and restraint in all behavior is the dictated expectation.
Welcome to the deliriously inventive, wildly melodramatic,
and blackly comic world of Guy Maddin – this time set in the Bavarian foothills
of a mythical land called Tolzbad, a stand-in for Maddin's