This Quiet Place Today

Formerly assigned parts as villainous Romans and Nazis, British actors now populate American films as the worst America has to offer, and sometimes as exemplars of the white working class.

Still from The Nice Guys.

Love & Friendship

Whit Stillman’s movies are like porn films with the sex scenes cut out. In Love & Friendship, adapted from an early Jane Austen novel not published in her lifetime, he brings his habitual fawning over the upper classes to Georgian England, where he finds the same talky couplings and uncouplings he located among privileged East Coasters in his earlier films. As in a silent movie, text in the form of letters, poems, and introductions to the dramatis personae clutters the screen in a roller-coaster ride of exposition. The film glides by in under an hour and a half not counting the credits, an ideal length for movies.

The film is meticulous and quiet, giving each actor a moment to play against the shining perfection of Kate Beckinsale’s scheming Lady Susan, the title character of Austen’s novel. Beckinsale’s performance is as great as any lead’s in any period piece ever made, worthy of Bette Davis in a 1930s Warner Bros. costume drama, but sexier and more subtle. The final arrangement she maneuvers, meant to show her savvy and independence, feels as unsatisfying as the social constraints of the era, and mirrors the unique contemporary restraint Stillman brings to what he shows and doesn’t show in his films. The overall effect is a tease, ultra-tasteful, promising something we never get to see because it’s resolved offscreen. Bargains like Lady Susan’s aren’t unheard of today, and Stillman’s facility in coming to terms with them is rare in the movies, if nowhere else.


Everybody Wants Some!!

A Devo album in a crate full of records in the backseat of a car announces that we are in the past in Richard Linklater’s follow-up to Boyhood (2014). Everybody Wants Some!! starts exactly where Boyhood ended, with a young man (Blake Jenner) on his way to college in Texas. The difference is that now it’s 1980 instead of the present, and the young man is an athlete instead of sensitive. He’s plunged into a house inhabited by his college baseball team, and we meet the boisterous occupants one by one before they head out to a roller disco. The film briefly calls to mind Roll Bounce (2005), which was set around the same time, like it’s going to be a multiracial coming-of-age story about meeting girls. Then it settles into all-male camaraderie, 99 percent white, in which Jake and his teammates indulge in bouts of drinking, competitive and painful but meaningless games, and mild locker-room hazing — a list from an MPAA ratings warning.

Everybody Wants Some!! explores a buffet of lifestyle options — country music, punk, pot-haze philosophizing — until Jake meets Beverly (Zoey Deutch), a cute theater student who further expands his world. Like Stillman, an auteur who emerged around the same time he did, Linklater is deft with actors and keeps things light. Their two films could exchange titles, and both are about people to whom nothing bad happens or ever will happen. Set on green fields in rules-based milieus, these are idylls of the past in which coupledom is the goal. Both have a slight feel that the world is fragile and about to change: the American Revolution and Ronald Reagan loom, but ever so lightly, somewhere out of sight.


Green Room

Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room is set in a present that could just as well be 1980. It’s hard to tell whether the film is nostalgic for the original hardcore punk moment or just eager to get rid of cell phones so the nonsupernatural horror-thriller can get under way. Here, another bunch of white kids pursue life in a band instead of college, fatally taking a gig at a venue in the Oregon woods that turns out to be a haven for Nazi punks and white supremacists. Alia Shawkat, bassist in the Ain’t Rights, wears a Dead Kennedys T-shirt throughout, and her band plays the Dead Kennedys’ “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” (without a black drummer like the Dead Kennedys) to rile up the hostile white-laced crowd. This genre exercise in locked-room horror is masterful and swift, proving Saulnier could direct an episode of The Walking Dead with no problem. His script flirts with coupledom and then rejects it, as a nihilist punk horror movie should.

Imogen Poots is excellent as a racist local with a Chelsea haircut who finds herself on the wrong side of the town’s white-supremacist criminal gang. Patrick Stewart (Professor Xavier and Jean-Luc Picard himself) plays the leader of the gang in a career-stretching role. He’s fine, but dozens of other threatening middle-aged white men could have played it just as well.

British actors like Poots and Stewart have perfected their ability to play not just Americans but American racists. Formerly assigned parts as villainous Romans and Nazis, British actors now populate American films as the worst America has to offer, and sometimes as exemplars of the white working class. What American demons are being exorcised by this kind of casting, and what does it say about how Hollywood views the white underclass that it thinks RADA-trained actors are best at playing them? At the same time, British actors also portray our greatest heroes, from Abraham Lincoln to Superman. All these types and historical figures inhabit a Shakespearean Disneyland in which America is an idea for export, best brought to cinematic life by trained specialists in a brand of good-versus-evil drama set in fictionalized hinterlands or the glorious past. This kind of Anglophiliac casting, glorifying the superiority of the British actor, could instruct actual American xenophobes on how foreigners are taking our jobs. What it does instead is elevate the xenophobes to the level of Captain Picard and Professor X. How flattering, to be played by an Englishman!


The Lobster

Dirty Pretty Things, Never Let Me GoUnder the Skin, and now The Lobster — British art-house cinema is obsessed with organ harvesting. Forcing people into strange rooms to rob them of their organs or, in the case of The Lobster, to recalibrate their organs and thereby change them into animals . . . I don’t think this is something preying on the minds of Americans. Our worries are more immediate. We’re more likely to be mowed down by an assault rifle in public than we are to have our organs harvested for use by the upper class or space aliens.

Yorgos Lanthimos’s new film is vague and complicated, putting its international all-star cast in situations that portend great metaphoric meaning but end up comparing nosebleeds (false love) with blindness (real love if you’re willing to go there). Rachel Weisz plays the blinded woman and narrates the film in caustic tones that convey more emotion than the tamped-down, clipped performances of the other actors. I would gladly listen to Weisz read the audio book of a Muriel Spark novel, and maybe this film would have worked better as George Saunders–style literary fiction. Instead, The Lobster is a Jim Carrey movie stripped of comedy, with Colin Farrell in the Carrey role, an awkward everyman thrust into a sci-fi world resembling our own.

Léa Seydoux plays the heartless leader of the partisans, loners who refuse to be in romantic couples in a society that enforces marriage by law. Her character is the most interesting because her severity and cruel punishments are unexplained. She has loving parents who play Greek music for her when she takes time out from rebellion to visit them, but she insists that her followers listen only to electronic music, which, according to her sketchy ideology, is music for loners. At one point, she brings Farrell’s character deeper into the woods to show him an empty grave. “Can you imagine why I brought you to this quiet place today?” she asks. I wondered, too. Maybe to show us the grave of European art cinema?


Chevalier

Athina Rachel Tsangari, who reenergized contemporary Greek cinema with Lanthimos, succeeds in Chevalier by concentrating on a group of six men. The title refers to a signet ring over which they compete in an odd contest to determine which of them is “the best in general.” Yachting in the Aegean, they find their daily activities don’t satisfy them. Spearfishing for sea bream, hunting for octopus, windsurfing, buzzing in circles on a Jet Ski — Chevalier presents these as time killers for well-off men with nothing to do. With no adversaries besides fish and mollusks and no women around, they turn to pointless competition and misguided hero worship. Over a tense dinner one night they begin their tournament, which measures everything from their sleep posture to how soon their wives announce they love them during private phone calls, which they play for one another on speakerphone.

The most forlorn of the six (Makis Papa-dimitriou), a chubby Rubik’s Cube expert who is there because he’s someone’s brother, is the film’s Zach Galifianakis. Like The Lobster, Chevalier sometimes feels like an American comedy minus the comedy. This is what the Hangover crew would do on a yacht if they were wealthier and European. At the end, when they slink home, each of the men is humiliated but essentially unchanged, same as in a Hangover movie. The trouble begins when the chef and steward, now alone on the yacht, begin to play the game themselves. Tsangari adds politics where Lanthimos subtracts it.


Wrong Move

The second film in Wim Wenders’s road-movie trilogy, released in West Germany in 1975, never played in first run in the US until it opened in theaters in advance of the Criterion Collection’s DVD release this year. Peter Handke wrote the screenplay, a 1970s update of Goethe’s second novel, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, which was published the same decade Jane Austen wrote Lady Susan. The film’s protagonist (Rüdiger Vogler, who’s in all three road films) narrates the film in Handke-speak: I want to be a writer, but is that possible when you don’t like people? . . . I wanted to sleep with her, but maybe it was just an urge to get a grip on things.

Vogler’s Wilhelm starts the film by punching through window glass and then embarks on a journey across the Federal Republic, picking up stray travelers along the way: an old man (Hans Christian Blech) and a girl (Nastassja Kinski), an actress (Hanna Schygulla), and a poet (Peter Kern). The cast and Robby Müller’s color cinematography give the film a strange feeling that sets it apart from Wenders’s other road movies, which are in black-and-white and feature actors more closely associated with Wenders, not Fassbinder.

The Germany of Wrong Move looks like the present more than today’s films set in the 1970s feel like the ’70s. It’s not just the fashions but the attitudes — the sense of aimlessness and the search for meaning in a fallen world — that resemble our time. Wenders and Handke repudiate Goethe’s Romanticism, yet the film feels brighter and clearer than films today, like the air in the mountains where Wilhelm ends up.

Cinematic tropes of the 1970s date from films like this. Children then were casually exposed to things they were supposed to be too young to be around, offered drinks, sexualized, bereft of the special teen culture that would provide the fodder for blockbuster entertainment for the next forty years. Kinski, here a pre–Wings of Desire acrobat and 13 at the time, appears nude, dangling herself before Wilhelm as an alternative to a relationship with the adult Schygulla. In overalls and a rainbow sweater, she takes forever to eat an apple, like in a Warhol film. Later the group, exhausted and without a plan, lounges in front of a TV set watching a black-and-white movie, Straub and Huillet’s The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (1968) — a tableau of the kind of anomie ignored by jumpy re-creations of this period.


The Thoughts That Once We Had

Thom Andersen, the main proponent of the film-critical essay film as it stands today, meets Gilles Deleuze in The Thoughts That Once We Had, which takes its name from a line in the Christina Rossetti poem “Remember,” which appeared in Robert Aldrich’s late noir, Kiss Me Deadly (1955), still the best use of a poem in American cinema.

Andersen’s film is a collection of cinephilia’s greatest hits, from Miriam Cooper’s face in Intolerance (1916) up to and including Debra Paget’s snake dance from Fritz Lang’s The Indian Tomb (1959) and scenes from the high points of Timothy Carey’s unhinged career as a weirdo heavy. Andersen’s interest in the hard-boiled and his terse use of quotations and images-as-quotations allies his film with late David Markson novels. In The Thoughts That Once We Had, Andersen uses intertitles instead of narration, mixing his cinephilia semi-mondo style with historical atrocity footage from the 20th century. The film becomes an essay on forgetting as much as a film about Deleuze’s breakdown of the cinema into types of images. For Andersen and Deleuze, the cinema is “the space where thought can occur.” “To those who have nothing must be restored the cinema,” the film concludes.

These hopeful descriptions reminded me of the time the ticket seller at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center told me the theater had “two projection-based spaces,” and that the film I was seeing was showing in the one to the right. I wasn’t sure if he was joking or what, but I don’t believe that is the kind of space Andersen had in mind. This phrase haunted me during the film I watched there, damaging it. I want the cinema to remain “the space where thought can occur,” but I’m not sure it can in “projection-based spaces” at Lincoln Center, where thought is assailed by jargon on the way in.


Cemetery of Splendor

Apichatpong Weerasethakul, aware that his films are accused of putting audiences to sleep, inscribes the condition of hypersomnia into Cemetery of Splendor. A group of soldiers in a makeshift village hospital, permanently asleep, are treated using colored fluorescent light tubes, as if they live in a Dan Flavin installation. By day, nurses and a kind nurse’s aide (Jenjira Pongpas, a Weerasethakul regular who plays a version of herself) tend to them, watching them twitch and dream. Following Jen on her rounds and in her daily life induces a kind of parasomnia in the viewer of this Thai political allegory, in which the past seeps through into daily life even as it is suppressed by authority. Weerasethakul erases the line between dream and reality using only the barest of means. This essential film followed me around for weeks after I saw it. On the subject of another kind of dream, late in the movie Jen speaks with a friend about how she wishes she could have married a European instead of an American. “Americans are too poor,” she says. “Europeans are living the American Dream.” It takes a filmmaker in Thailand to admit this simple fact, which should be an obvious truth.


Money Monster

Too beholden to the generic conventions of the contemporary action thriller and too in love with television to compete as a film with its nearest corollary, Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1983), Jodie Foster’s Money Monster raises economic issues and the failure of the American Dream in various incisive and entertaining ways, only to abandon them by the end. Maybe the ending is supposed to be ironic: George Clooney’s cable-TV news host and his director, Julia Roberts, hug over takeout Chinese while the film’s stand-in for the working class, the gunman who had taken them hostage (Jack O’Connell), lies dead in a lobby on Wall Street. Superficiality and blasé acceptance triumph here — they just needed a trial by fire and a dose of magical internet research (“real journalism”) to feel better about themselves.

Dominic West and his uncanny hair play the villain, a greedy hedge fund manager who gets his comeuppance via a GIF over which Clooney and Roberts chuckle tastefully. O’Connell and West, both Englishmen, once again show how sophisticated villainy and working-class confusion are imagined as conditions best portrayed by Brits. The exalted plain Americanness of Clooney and Roberts, stars we used to be able to identify with, playing characters with high-salary jobs we’d like to have, is presented as thoroughly relatable in this film about economic disaster made by a director and two stars who collectively have been rich and famous for close to a hundred years.


Maggie’s Plan

Not being part of a couple is no more an option in Maggie’s Plan than in The Lobster. This is a screwball comedy of remarriage, and therefore of stasis, but here stasis extends to class issues, not just romance. Greta Gerwig, still unassailable as Our Carole Lombard, stars as Maggie, a young woman who works at the New School in an administrative job. She falls for Ethan Hawke, a writer and theorist teaching there as an adjunct. He’s unhappily married to Julianne Moore, a Danish intellectual with tenure at Columbia who enchantingly can’t pronounce her Rs.

The film is beautifully written and directed by Rebecca Miller, beautifully acted by its all-star cast, and beautifully scored. It is full of little surprises that add to its sense of perfection. Kathleen Hanna, for instance, pops up as a Québécoise folkie doing Springsteen. Yet for all its delightfulness, watching it I began to wonder how Miller really feels about the Brooklyn lives she has created for this movie. The stark difference in Gerwig’s and Hawke’s quality of life after he leaves Moore is telling. They live in some storefront next to the BQE while Moore continues her life of luxury in a huge discount Columbia apartment.

Thus the film’s ending seems prescribed, and it strikes me that for Miller this ending is fated because of sic vivitur more than true love. The formerly lower-middle-class dude Hawke returns to his wealthy first wife; Gerwig happily accepts the artisanal pickle maker she knew in college who reenters in the last scene at the last minute, and whom she should have been with all along. He’s played by Travis Fimmel, an Australian actor doing an American accent who’s as close to being British as a Williamsburg pickle maker is to working class.

The dirty secret in Maggie’s Plan is that in fixing her predicament (her pickle), Gerwig has managed to get stand-ins for her parents back together after fucking her father. An earlier scene in which she and Hawke discuss their childhoods makes this pretty clear, but it never occurs to any of the film’s characters. The implicit quality of this aspect of the plot mirrors the uncommented-on class distinctions in the characters’ lives. Both are better left unmentioned.


High-Rise

In pounding home its theme of class conflict in a dystopian condo building, this garbage-strewn, rotten film betrays J. G. Ballard’s 1975 novel to the max. While its theme couldn’t be more timely, High-Rise’s incompetent mise-en-scène reduces everything to trash. In its ugly excess, it succumbs, by accident, to Hal Foster’s anti-aesthetic: it can’t be enjoyed. Artistically, the film is the waste product of income inequality, masquerading as commentary. Its desire to make the 1970s look like vomit is relentless.

High-Rise ends with an audio clip of a Margaret Thatcher speech and The Fall song “Industrial Estate” — an obvious choice because of the title, but the song is about a workplace, not a residence (not sure why the Swell Maps’ “Vertical Slum” wasn’t picked instead). High-Rise also features ABBA’s 1975 hit song “S.O.S.” twice, once played by classical musicians at a party where the guests are dressed as French aristocrats, then later in an overwrought new version by Portishead in a music-video-style montage that should have been cut from the film. “S.O.S.” came out the same year as Ballard’s novel, but ABBA’s later hit “On and On and On” would have been better for this film, since the title describes this movie perfectly and the song starts like this:

I was at a party and this fella said to me,
“Something bad is happening, I’m sure you do agree.
People care for nothing, no respect for human rights.
Evil times are coming, we are in for darker nights.”
I said, “Who are you to talk about impending doom?”
He got kinda wary as he looked around the room.


The Nice Guys

This buddy comedy takes place in the same Hollywood-movie 1970s we’ve seen a hundred times since Boogie Nights, now with added smog. Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe play low-life detectives as if they might end up like the soldiers in Cemetery of Splendor. Gosling even falls asleep at the wheel at one point, starting an is it a dream? sequence. In another strange coincidence, the film begins like Wenders’s Wrong Move, with Gosling cutting himself when he punches through a window. And like a Stillman film, the whole thing is, as Gosling announces halfway through, “a porno where the point is the plot.” The Nice Guys is worthless, not that funny, far more enjoyable than High-Rise, and does nothing at all to justify its existence — a traditional saving grace of the movies. The writer and director of High-Rise forgot to make something good, even pretty good, in favor of making something important. Their failure is admirable in this one sense: they didn’t let mastery of conventional cinematic form get in the way of shouty commentary about contemporary class relations.

As in High-Rise, children in The Nice Guys are exposed to swearing, smoking, drinking, drunk driving, drugs, pornography, orgies, violence, crime, and ugly sofas. Only here we see how the exploited runaway teen girl of the ’70s has evolved. Angourie Rice, as Gosling’s wised-up tween daughter (a demographic category that did not exist then), is the film’s voice of reason, exposed to as much vice as any adolescent in a real ’70s movie, and now driving the car for her drunk dad instead of the other way around, demonstrating who’s really in charge in the audience today.

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