Corruptions and Duplicates of Form
He looks near-homeless at times, a street creature in a movie where pizza rat meets Pizzagate.
A Quiet Place
This portrait of the American family under attack from alien invaders comes in the form of a horror movie for MAGA-ites. Here, it is the aliens who snatch children, not ICE. Defeating these aliens requires dry-erase conspiracy charts, a trip-wired perimeter, homeschooling. It’s a paranoid fantasy for dads who want to move upstate. The family is Pinteresty and wholesome in a Kinfolk magazine way: sustainable-farm craftspeople who the director-stars John Krasinski and Emily Blunt have observed from their Brooklyn town house on the way to Court Street Grocers. So averse to talking about their postapocalyptic nightmare situation is this last family in a world without liberals that, for them, complaining equals death.
Krasinski now exists at the midpoint between Ben Affleck and Mel Gibson. A Quiet Place has a Shyamalanian quality but is less personal and clunky, more generic and crowd-pleasing. He gives Blunt a farmhouse scene in which she delivers her own baby in a dirty bathtub without making a sound — a fascinating preview of a post–Roe v. Wade world. Krasinski was once comfortable in the worlds of Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace (Away We Go, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men) but has apparently switched his focus to militarized action (13 Hours, Detroit). A Quiet Place may be reactionary, but it only wants to be entertainment, the same way Affleck and Gibson movies do. The goal in this one is effective horror. Just keep telling yourself, “It’s only a movie, there’s no such thing as society, it’s only a movie, there’s no such thing as society . . . ”
Monsters with long, sharp teeth have been the ultimate representation of our worst fears in American cinema since Alien in 1979. As in A Quiet Place, so in Annihilation. Here, a fairy-tale monster in the form of a sightless, mutated bear threatens women scientists with what big teeth it has.
Natalie Portman and her team at least escape the mommy-ism of Gravity and Arrival, in which sci-fi heroines had to fret over their children. What they don’t escape is the rampant backstory-mongering of genre movies starring women. Where men are allowed to be existential and blank in genre cinema, preunderstood as representative, women must announce their past trauma to justify their actions, resulting in the kind of bad screenwriting that puts what should be actors’ preparation on the screen.
Jennifer Jason Leigh sidelines bad dialogue with her usual twitchy brilliance. Her presence as the head scientist also telegraphs doom. No mission could end well where Leigh is in charge. Mutations in the Zone-like Shimmer are “corruptions of form, duplicates of form” in this B movie of overexplanation that copies 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stalker, and Solaris, all filtered through the yarn-bombed landscape of Fraggle Rock. Director-screenwriter Alex Garland’s next-step-in-evolution thematics are the same as in his Ex Machina, making the film another warning to Elon Musk and Peter Thiel instead of to humanity at large. To appeal to such a subset, Annihilation’s scenes with Portman alone in the Shimmer, where she is transformed into something beyond run-of-the-mill humanity, resemble prog-rock album covers from the 1970s. CGI has finally made it to the level of Yes and Rush.
Once routinely compared to Howard Hawks, Steven Soderbergh was seen in the late 1990s and early 2000s as a director who could do anything. By the early 2010s, he seemed more like a director who would do anything. Constant activity, the avoidance of big movies after his Ocean’s films, and an ability to employ any actor he wants have rooted Soderbergh in a space all his own. From there, he concentrates on marginal Americana: strippers, kickboxers, doctors who kill, heisters, and NASCAR fans. His latest, Unsane, which he shot on an iPhone 7 Plus, fits right in. Its quickness and cheapness, and its posture as a basic genre film, elevate it. By acknowledging Unsane as an experiment and as cinematic filler, by keeping it fleet and under a hundred minutes, Soderbergh found a way to enhance how low-key and professional he is. Even the end credits go by fast.
The film is a modern giallo with an everywoman (Claire Foy) gaslit into a sketchy mental-health treatment center. This facility, an insurance scam, employs her stalker (Joshua Leonard), who has followed her across the country after she moved to escape him. The film’s most outré and exploitative elements kick in when the stalker has her at his mercy in a rubber room. Foy’s uncertain American accent, which moves across the country with her, from Boston to Chicago, works in this context of personality breakdown, as does her character’s bizarre name, Sawyer Valentini, which sounds like an alias. And Matt Damon’s surprise appearance as a home-security professional would increase anyone’s paranoia and cause them to change their address. It’s one of the surprises that propels Unsane forward, right up to its final, unresolved scene, which takes place in the kind of nothing restaurant that is everywhere in the US but that is never shown in movies.
The thoroughbreds in question are two overprivileged prep school girls in whitest, wealthiest Connecticut, whose affluenza takes the form of disaffected homicide. Equally lifeless and murderous, the teens swan through the foyer and breakfast nook of a lonely mansion on their way to the TV room, where they conspire against a world that has given them too much. They scheme and meet their sad end while watching classic movies that happen to be in the public domain, and were therefore cheap to include in this movie about the rich. Finally someone said no to them, and it was Turner Classic Movies.
Screenwriter-director Cory Finley has created a Heathers or a Jawbreaker for the contemporary wealth gap, but in doing so he has replaced the busy, unpredictable action and wit of those films with an arty minimalism that is Bressonian or at least Hal Hartleyan. One of the girls says to the other that her inability to feel empathy “just means I have to work a little harder than everybody else to be good.” The same thing is true of the film. It just lies there, but crisply, neatly, like an Instagram photo or gallery art. It refuses to work the way more middle-class movies starring homegrown proponents of American madness like Winona Ryder and Rose McGowan did, so it becomes the story of two English girls playing American (Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy), a record of their faces and voices, their super-professional acting in a void. Thoroughbreds criticizes a society these idle teens manipulate out of boredom and alienation, while their youth, talent, and beauty make the system that benefits them seem natural.
Ready Player One
This post-Wonka kids’ movie about future video-game competition in dystopian cyberspace contains every pop 1980s reference imaginable, including “Blue Monday,” and stuffs them by the handful into a recycling bag like cans worth five cents each. The movie is cynical and manipulative because the ’80s it exploits means nothing to Spielberg. He uses items from that decade because he noticed that’s what kids are into, even though the movie takes place three decades from now. To Spielberg, the digitized fodder of Ready Player One is not truly classic, and can therefore be further trivialized for any reason. If money can be squeezed out of it from an undiscerning audience of nerds, so it should be and must be. Here, Spielberg has truly become Disney.
Listing the sources of the fodder in Ready Player One is a mug’s game. The movie could be called Google That. Only Spielberg’s use of The Shining is really noteworthy, because it includes lots of actual footage from the film, over which Spielberg has pasted his Scooby-Doo action. Spielberg loves Kubrick so much he has done him the favor of defacing his work in public, something the director of Lolita, being dead, could not agree to or prevent.
His ultimate special effect is Mark Rylance. Rylance’s weird West Coast accent goofs on the all-American awkward man-child who never grew up, who ruined society, and who works out his psychological problems and moral failures from beyond the grave as he continues to extract time and money from those who must live in the dystopia he created and monetized. The port-wine stain on Olivia Cooke’s face supposedly reveals why she has an avatar in the cyberworld of Rylance’s game. But both her avatar and her birthmark hide who she really is: Princess Leia. At the end, Ready Player One recapitulates Star Wars, an ultimate irony as Spielberg absorbs Lucas by turning Ready Player One’s lead teens into crypto-versions of Luke and Leia, sidekick Lena Waithe into a combination Han-Chewbacca, and two Asian boys into human C-3PO and R2-D2. Part of our dystopian future, Spielberg suggests, is that the hierarchy created in a truly classic movie from the 1970s will pertain forever.
The present-day need for new myths is laid bare in Black Panther. Not the myth of the individual superhero, like Superman, in which one exceptional figure survives the death of his planet, but a collective African American myth about a people and their kingdom here on earth. The battle for Wakanda’s soul presents ideology as pure entertainment. Director Ryan Coogler steers it between James Bond–style raids in other lands and inner-city tragedies in Oakland, an epic battle on a Homeric plain and a journey on snowy cliffs. In the end, opening the riches of Wakanda to the outside world proves to be the right thing to do, because if they closed the borders, there wouldn’t be a sequel and Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) couldn’t continue to hang out with the Avengers and elevate their box office with his presence.
Cartoonish-archetypal performances swirl around Boseman and Lupita Nyong’o, each one more interesting than the two leads are allowed to be. Boseman and Nyong’o are king and queen, everybody else a knave or knight. Similarly, the brutal-seeming civil war that divides Wakanda is interrupted by a cute rhinoceros that licks your face. Michael B. Jordan, the tragic villain who emerges as a true threat to Wakanda, hits his conflict hard, hams it up but not Loki-style, and emerges as the first bad guy in movies who is handsome hunk and matinee idol at the same time. On the border of Wakanda there appeared to be some kind of subsidized farming going on, with peasants pretending to till and plow so no one would know Wakanda was really a technology hub and a gated community, just like in California.
The hyperreferentiality in Deadpool 2 is more pointed, brazen, and violent than in Ready Player One because this film wants to demonstrate above all else that it has nothing to be ashamed of. Teaching its intended audience that it’s smart and fun to be a jerk, a clown, and a nuisance is its goal. More blatantly than in other superhero movies, its consumer-friendly method of pop-culture mania underscores how obsessed we are with our own brainwashing.
The conundrum of Deadpool is that Ryan Reynolds in the title role is better than any other male lead in superhero movies. In this context nihilism is liberating. Reynolds also voices a second character here, Juggernaut, a super-strong behemoth and lout who only wants to rip people in half. His amoral violence and daffy voice expose the heart and soul of the whole pulpy enterprise. In the end, Deadpool doesn’t resemble other superheroes that much. He’s more like the Noid from the old Domino’s TV commercials. They even dress the same. The pitchman for a genre, Deadpool’s smart-ass frenzy exists to make the other superheroes look legitimate in their boringness, just as the Noid made crap pizza look like a logical alternative to leaving your house to get food or making it yourself. I took a lesson from that. Only able to stand being hectored for so long, I left the theater when the fat kid set fire to the orphanage, because I realized I had something better to do.
The Death of Stalin
It is to Armando Iannucci’s credit that he lets his cast speak in their own accents, like in a Lubitsch film, whether they are from England, Brooklyn, California, or Ukraine. Allowed to act instead of doing voices, the cast brings the startling viciousness of Iannucci and Co.’s dialogue to life in this comedy of Soviet bad manners. Iannucci’s touch, however, is not exactly cinematic or subtle. The Death of Stalin is a mean-spirited movie about corrupt grotesques jockeying for power after a tyrant dies. The film looks ugly, all brown and red, and what makes it unlike Veep, Iannucci’s TV show, is that it looks worse and more decrepit than anything that would be allowed on HBO. The subquality aspects of the way it portrays totalitarianism save it from being TV instead of a movie.
Given the current situation in the US, the film’s endless stream of vulgar one-liners and its brutal ending serve the dual purpose of satirical exposé and wish fulfillment. This queasy-funny mixture of alarm and panic with bleakness and horror underscores our desire for something nasty to happen in the halls of power. It lessens us to watch it, even if, as is usual with Iannucci, funny is its own excuse. Turning the most terrible events following the Doctor’s Plot and Stalin’s death in 1953 into Ealing-esque farce is a strange idea in the first place, as is ending the film with the execution of Beria, the homicidal letch and secret policeman who is played with calm fury by the heavyset Simon Russell Beale, a brilliant actor I have never seen in a movie before. Beale’s late-middle-aged advent on the screen in The Death of Stalin is comparable to but more intimidating than Sydney Greenstreet’s in The Maltese Falcon.
Aleksei German’s black-and-white Khrustalyov, My Car!, a terrifying Russian film from 1999, is not a comedy. It covers the events in The Death of Stalin in a very different, much more shocking way. German’s film remains a definitive statement on the horrors of the 20th century, even without Jeffrey Tambor in it.
Sorry to Bother You
Oakland plays itself in Sorry to Bother You, unlike in Black Panther, but its message extends to the whole country. A damning portrait of things as they are in the US, this movie’s accurate and wild version of the present moment is Brechtian — alienated, sardonic, and disreputable. Boots Riley’s vision, which combines Repo Man and Idiocracy yet remains wholly his own, encompasses shit jobs, union organizing, and horrible tech billionaires who turn people into lifelong slaves and captive half humans desperate for rebellion.
Riley breaks the frame in the first scene, an intimate one between Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) and Detroit, his performance-artist girlfriend (Tessa Thompson). A garage door and Detroit’s text-based earrings give way to scenes in which Cash, working as a telemarketer, collapses from his basement cubicle into the kitchens and bedrooms of the unsuspecting people his calls interrupt in their domestic nonbliss. Cash’s ability to sound white on the phone elevates him to an upstairs job and then into the lair of the company’s CEO (Armie Hammer). This ascension has a kinetic energy that bursts into viral embarrassment and reality-TV debasement before it returns Cash to the Oakland streets.
Riley’s cinematic examination of racism is unique in its focus on voices. Detroit’s British accent during her self-abusive performance piece is another fourth-wall-breaking device, a comment on contemporary movie acting. Riley even fits in a corporate promotional video made in the style of Michel Gondry (whom it mocks). The video’s cute-rotten Claymation happily presents a new breed of exploited labor, but leaves out the combination lavatory-abattoir where the workforce is imprisoned. The film is brilliant, although an unexpected strain of millennial niceness dilutes it a little, a mixture that I guess makes sense from the man who put out the album Genocide & Juice in 1994.
You Were Never Really Here
Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) dwells in a cinematic twilight zone where it is both overdetermined and not quite classic in the Criterion Collection sense. It retains its aura of wrongness and it is still very popular with oddballs and weirdos, some of whom are probably dangerous. The memory that it inspired John Hinckley Jr. to shoot President Reagan has not faded. The film’s sick combo of underage prostitution and graphic violence captured New York City in a downward spiral and looked fascistic and reactionary to serious critics when it came out. So it makes sense that now Paul Schrader, Taxi Driver’s screenwriter, has returned to it as a source of inspiration in writing and directing First Reformed, and that Lynne Ramsay, a filmmaker interested in the most violent aspects of the human condition, has recast it in a contemporary New York of sour exploitation and political disgust.
In You Were Never Really Here, Ramsay has melded politics with pimping and made killing the day job of her protagonist (Joaquin Phoenix). In the age of Uber, Joe does not have to drive a hack. With ball-peen hammer in hand, he roams a wider range than just the Manhattan of Scorsese’s film. Phoenix plays him as a dangerous bum mumbling into his beard. He looks near-homeless at times, a street creature in a movie where pizza rat meets Pizzagate.
The city and its discontents have outgrown Times Square and Midtown since the 1990s. During the same period, the rescue narrative of saving young women from evildoers has become the main story for Gen-X men, in the movies anyway, where Bickles have grown like fungi. Some have shown up in real life, like the Pizzagate shooter, who drove to Washington DC from North Carolina. He didn’t look all that different from Phoenix in this film, just younger. We should beware of images of such dudes rescuing “little blond girls,” as Jeff Sharlet pointed out in a recent breakdown of the Blue Lives Matter movement. The “ominous sentimentalism” of their narratives flatters and repels.
Ramsay locates political corruption alongside pedophilia in brownstone Brooklyn. The violence in You Were Never Really Here is abstracted from ’90s indie films so that it is the aftereffects of sudden bursts of mayhem that concern her, along with PTSD and loss, the other great Gen-X themes. Judith Roberts, the sexy neighbor from Eraserhead, plays Joe’s dying mother in an inspired ’90s-style casting move, and such moves extend to Ramsay’s use of music. The film includes a détourned interlude with Charlene’s “I’ve Never Been to Me,” an early ’80s Motown number considered one of the worst hits of all time. I’ve always liked it, and haven’t heard it since The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert in 1994. The song’s mix of saccharine obviousness and despair is a form of truth telling. The film’s last scene, with Phoenix and a little blond girl (Ekaterina Samsonov), takes place in a restaurant similar to the one at the end of Unsane. This one, however, is a more Lynchian kind of establishment, where Ramsay ups the shock factor, lest we forget for a second the omnipresent anguish that lurks in banality.
Ramsay shot You Were Never Really Here in anamorphic widescreen but keeps the camera close on Phoenix. She sought to reconnect emotional pain with physical suffering in this area of genre filmmaking that is now mostly a repository of crass postmodern lying. Schrader’s First Reformed, shot in the classic square aspect ratio, doesn’t get as physically close to its characters but aims higher than You Were Never Really Here, seeking to reestablish and dramatize the deep connections between environmental collapse, capitalism, and despair. As a self-avowed proponent of “transcendental style in film” (the name of a book he wrote in 1972), Schrader goes about his mission in stark fashion, barely moving the camera and focusing on one minister’s story in a small community in upstate New York. It is a hardboiled, wintry film that explodes into desperation.
Schrader contrasts the film’s simple meetinghouse, built in plain style, with the megachurch that owns it. The big church funds the smaller one, keeping it intact for historical purposes that appeal to tourists more than parishioners. Ethan Hawke’s tortured minister runs it for an expansive, welcoming pastor played with warmth and understanding by Cedric (the Entertainer) Kyles. Do they serve the same God? Hawke, it might be said, represents serious cinema — art. Kyles is Hollywood — box office. The secular religion of the movies reflects what has happened to American religion. Both blockbuster Hollywood and megachurch fundamentalism reflect the corporatization of everything into inhuman systems of exploitation posing as spectacular entertainment. Many films on religion are murky about what they believe. First Reformed is clear: it is too late to fix things. People can only be comforted and soothed into ignoring how the planet is doomed.
After Reverend Toller (Hawke) meets a radical environmentalist (Philip Ettinger) and his more levelheaded blond wife (Amanda Seyfried), the film moves into Travis Bickle territory, with Toller recording his spiritual failings in a journal by night as he drinks whiskey and forgets to eat. As in Taxi Driver, Schrader combines the spiritual alienation of Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest with psychopathology, only here more literally and directly. First Reformed is a de facto remake of the Bresson film, an update with a suicide bomb attached. The film is a risky proposition in which Schrader sets the bar for artistic and ethical success very high. He succeeds beyond what any of us could have hoped from him at this stage in his career: First Reformed is his best film. Perhaps he had the last paragraph of his book in mind, where he writes that to expect or settle for any less than art and mystery from movies underestimates and demeans them.
To that end, First Reformed is daring and unrelenting — it searches for and pinpoints real harm. Ten people walked out of the theater where I saw it, most of them Schrader’s age. I think they left because the film’s intensity was too much in a world where they had the option of seeing Book Club at a theater down the street.
Most people at the screening were younger, and they stayed put for an ending that includes a glass of Drano and a barbed-wire vest. As I’ve tried to convey, the film is bleak. But contrary to what we’re told, I don’t think audiences want upbeat films in bad times. Hollywood takes advantage of bad times by telling people that’s what they want, because that’s what they were going to make anyway.
In his portrayal of a man of God in a constant self-imposed Gethsemane, Hawke, with his tight haircut, planed head, lined face, and cowboy eyes, resembles the actor Randolph Scott, star of the 1950s Budd Boetticher westerns that Schrader also claims as examples of transcendental style, and which made Peter Wollen ask, “How then can there be any meaningful individual action during life?” It is time to admit that Ethan Hawke is the great survivor of his generation of male leads, and a great actor. In a world of generational embarrassments like Johnny Depp and Robert Downey Jr., Hawke has survived with his strength of character and his convictions as an artist intact, and he has improved with age.
He has avoided the pitfalls of blockbuster franchises and kiddie movies, instead choosing to work with worthwhile directors, including Richard Linklater, the auteur he is most identified with. Once seen as a proto–James Franco because of his novel-writing sideline and the post–Dead Poet’s Society arty-pretty roles that culminated in Reality Bites, Hawke has proved himself capable of decency and honesty on-screen, and he didn’t even have to go to six grad schools to do it. He may play too nice sometimes, a trait that Schrader uses against his persona, but he never showboats. First Reformed would not have worked without him.
Let the Sunshine In
In her new film, Claire Denis puts Juliette Binoche through a series of frustrating encounters with men, each one illustrating the perils of middle-aged dating. Binoche, as an artist who looks like she has not updated her wardrobe since Live Through This came out, wears a series of deep V-neck T-shirts, a little leather jacket, and stiletto-heeled boots as she navigates the maze of an underpopulated Paris at night. It leads her to a provincial city and a working-class man (Paul Blain). They dance together to Etta James’s “At Last,” which French people don’t know is the Obama song.
No relationship works out for Binoche in this film. The brilliant last scene, which deftly and strangely includes the end credits, surprises us with Gérard Depardieu, still half man, half wildebeest. He plays a thoughtful astrologer Binoche goes to for advice. Like all the men she meets, he has intentions on her he can’t quite articulate.
There is a slight upward trajectory in Let the Sunshine In, from the obnoxious banker (Xavier Beauvois) Binoche is dating at the beginning to a manic drunken actor (Nicolas Duvauchelle) to the quieter men at the end, including Depardieu and Alex Descas as a gallery owner. The film imperceptibly slides toward maturity and becomes more profound but less eventful, as Binoche settles into calmness without giving up her quest for love. In the early scenes of the film, Denis seemed to parody the work of macho French directors or French cinema in general, with the rude banker demanding “gluten-free olives” at a bar and giving the bartender and Binoche detailed instructions about everything else. The banker also mentions “the dictatorship of the proletariat” and alienation, a parody of French socialists who sold out to finance and got so rich they had time to worry about the invisible enemy, gluten, in foodstuffs that are free of it.
In 1790, the year Zama begins, George Washington was in the first year of his presidency and the United States Supreme Court had just been established in Manhattan. The city of Asunción, however, was already 250 years old and the center of the Provincia Gigante de Indias, a colony of Spain, whose colonial glory days were behind it. Buenos Aires was where the action was, 640 miles to the south and the capital of Spain’s Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata. That’s where Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho) longs to go — there or to Spain.
An official of the Spanish crown in Asunción, he lives apart from his wife as an underpaid administrator in a declining city in the middle of nowhere. He is European but was born in South America, so despite his title and achievements he is not accepted as a true Spaniard. He can never rise to the top of the provincial government. Zama is a colonizer without a homeland or a future. “Here I was, in the midst of a vast continent that was invisible to me though I felt it all around, a desolate paradise,” Zama explains in Antonio Di Benedetto’s excellent, existential 1956 novel, the basis of Lucrecia Martel’s new film. “America existed for no one if not for me, but it existed only in my needs, my desires, and my fears.”
Zama is the third in an inadvertent series of major but underappreciated art films made in the 2010s about colonizers lost in the wilderness of empire. All three are based on novels, including Chantal Akerman’s Almayer’s Folly (2012), from Joseph Conrad’s first novel, and Hard to Be a God (2013), by Alexei German, based on a sci-fi novel by the Strugatsky brothers. Zama is elliptical, violent, and lush, like the other two, with the same mournful, deadpan approach to dismantling the pretensions and fantasies of its European protagonists. Like Zama, each of these men is mired in failure and prone to lashing out.
Zama is a ghostlike presence in his own story, a man cut off from all that is dear to him and equally detached from the landscape and the natives around him, some of whom he spies on when they bathe. Others he sells into slavery when he thinks he has to. Years pass and Zama’s position doesn’t change. He longs to do something to prove himself, so he makes the mistake of undertaking a mission to chase a notorious outlaw, Vicuña Porto (Matheus Nachtergaele), into the jungle and arrest him. The film becomes like Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God or like Annihilation, as Zama and his men enter a landscape where they are disoriented and unwanted. Martel films it in jewellike greens, in long shots that retain an essential mystery and alien beauty. By that point in the film, it is too late for Zama to turn back. Even if he did, he’d have nowhere left to go.
I love the new Quad Cinema in Manhattan. The rep programming there is great. As I write this, they are doing an Elizabeth Taylor retrospective — The Sandpiper and Boom! are in it; people shouldn’t miss those. They just finished a major retrospective of British horror films made by Hammer Films in the 1950s and ’60s with thirty-two films, two dozen of which were shown on 35mm film, including Frankenstein Created Woman. But whenever I go to see something there that I plan to write about, something weird happens.
This time it was my own fault. I went to see Jean Cocteau’s 1948 film Les parents terribles, which has not been officially released in the US until now, but I forgot my MoviePass card. I wasn’t going to not use MoviePass to see it, so I didn’t go in. The next night, there was a preview screening going on for a new movie called Hotel Artemis, a Hollywood “dystopian neo-noir crime” movie starring Jodie Foster, directed by the guy who cowrote Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation. The lobby of the Quad was filling up with paparazzi and the theater staff had been thrown into confusion by their arrival. I ran into a writer I know who was going to see Les parents terribles, too, and we got in the line we were instructed to get into so we would not disrupt the Hotel Artemis crowd. “This is the line for Les parents blahblahblegh,” the staff member yelled, speaking French like Pee-wee Herman in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.
The paparazzi elbowed people out of the way and called to each other through us and over our heads, like shoppers hailing each other in Walmart or Ikea. Publicists ran around nervously and came in three types. Types One and Two were well-dressed middle-aged men who looked like either Tim Gunn or Roger Stone. Type Three was impossibly skinny chicks in their early twenties dressed in very tight midlength skirts who worked for the Gunn-Stone men.
A fourth group was there to keep the peace, rent-a-cops in dark gray blazers with logo patches on the front pockets. They were from PSI, which “provides world-class security for special events and all aspects of the entertainment industry including major motion picture studios, iconic landmarks, and celebrities.” Is that in order of importance? After the manager announced that the Cocteau film would be starting half an hour late because of this excitement, some people on line groaned. One of the security guys from PSI came over to reassure us. “Don’t worry folks, we’re gonna load you in soon,” he said, making an open-palmed pushing gesture with his hands at waist level.
When we were finally seated to watch the movie we had come to see, the Quad staff passed out free popcorn, which was nice. I will never see Hotel Artemis, but thanks for that.
Les parents terribles
“Cinema is an event seen through a keyhole,” wrote Jean Cocteau, which André Bazin points out in an essay from 1951 called “Theater and Cinema.” The Hotel Artemis Quad lobby situation was an event that gave my friend and me a keyhole view into the world of Hollywood film publicity in New York, but that was not what Cocteau had in mind. Les parents terribles was an important film to Bazin because for him it proved that filming a play did not have to be uncinematic. This was a theoretical argument in postwar France, where directors like Bresson asserted that the theater and the cinema were distinct media that should have nothing to do with each other. By directing his own play for the screen just as he had staged it, and with the same actors, Cocteau, Bazin claimed, had shown that filmed drama did not have to be stagey, even if the action was restricted to a couple of sets.
I already agreed with Bazin, so I wish I could say that I found more in Les parents terribles than an illustration of Bazin’s article. Among the films Cocteau directed, this seems to me the least interesting, despite the freedom of its mise-en-scène within the confines of the drama. Jean Marais, Cocteau’s boyfriend, plays the part of a young man, Michel, who lives at home and wants to marry a slightly older woman, Madeleine (Josette Day), whom his parents have not met. Marais and Day had starred in Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast in 1946. By 1948, Marais was too old for his part in Les parents terribles, which he plays as a giddy mama’s boy. His performance makes the film seem like it’s about a man who wants to move in with another man, then shocks his parents by telling them so, causing his mother to faint. Yvonne de Bray plays his mother as a theatrical grotesque, disproving Bazin. Complicating everything is that Michel’s father (Marcel André) had been Madeleine’s lover or sugar daddy at some point. The family is wacky like in a Capra movie, which blunts the criticism of the family implicit in the play. While the material is in some ways not dissimilar to something Fassbinder might have done in the 1970s, it struck me as piffling. Going to see it was a strange night out.
The best movie in New York is playing on five screens in one room. Chantal Akerman’s NOW, an installation that is the director of Jeanne Dielman’s last completed work, is the sole occupant of a black-walled gallery on a high floor at the Jewish Museum. For an artist known for making use of one screen on which oftentimes very little happens, this horizontal series of forty-two-minute loops on five screens, each positioned at the same level in a receding V formation, goes by pretty fast. Speeds vary, but each loop was shot from a car moving between about twenty and fifty miles an hour.
The loops Akerman includes in NOW show deserts in border regions, but where exactly each was shot is not stated. We seem to be on the borders of Israel, Palestine, Syria, the US, and Mexico. People do not appear, but they are heard on the sound track, which increases in volume and density without ever getting really loud. It’s made up of gunshots, chanting, microphone crackling, other cars whooshing by, sirens, snatches of pop music on the radio, bells ringing, a muezzin, birds that sound like loons, whistling, bombing or a bulldozer, applause, someone reading a list of Spanish names.
These are middle-distance vistas, not epic like in a biblical movie. Beige and brown dominate under a light blue sky, with white clouds overhead that give way to a grayer, overcast sky and loop back. We don’t seem to be in the car; this is not a VR environment, it’s a movie theater setup. But the longer I sat there watching and listening to NOW by myself, the more overwhelming it became, until it got immersive and then threatening. The installation is anxiety provoking, repetitive, and sad. Who wants to be in these places? Driving through them seems enough, not stopping except to view the footage after the fact in this installation. Yet it was not boring. I could have watched it more.
NOW is a striking repudiation and condemnation of today’s world conflicts and politics made before the fact by someone who has left the scene. “The images are bad for us,” Donald Trump said the other day about pictures of children crying for their parents in his self-created border crisis. Akerman’s loops refuse to contribute to the glut of televisual images sickening people all over the planet. They take the opposite approach of TV news, showing no one.
Akerman has visited such areas before, filming them in similar ways. From the Other Side (2002), a documentary about Mexican migrants crossing into Arizona, came out fifteen years ago but was largely ignored. I remember people booing at the end when I saw it at Anthology Film Archives. It was obviously ahead of its time, given the situation now. The technique Akerman uses in this installation is a ramped-up version of the long tracking shots in From the East (1993), one of her great films, in which she filmed long lines of people waiting in Eastern Europe right after the end of the Soviet era. Those shots moved more slowly than the ones in NOW and had people in them. Only traces of people remain in the sounds she recorded for NOW. In this last work, the people are gone.