The Shallow Now

Oscars 2019

Still from A Star Is Born, dir. Bradley Cooper, 2018.

Author’s Note: I wrote about Black Panther and First Reformed here, and BlacKkKlansman here. —A.S.H.

Vice

Dick Cheney is one of the most maleficent figures in American history. He is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in the war in Iraq, a war fought for spurious reasons that Cheney cooked up and supervised using the post–September 11 war on terror for cover. He condoned and promoted torture, commissioning bizarre legal justifications for it, and he ushered in the USA PATRIOT Act, which allows for the digital surveillance of everybody. Cheney’s response to terror back then was hysterical, but not in the comedy sense.

Christian Bale and Sam Rockwell do excellent impressions of Cheney and George W. Bush inVice. Bale has mastered Cheney’s growly version of calm seriousness, Rockwell its whiny opposite. But a movie by Adam McKay, who made The Big Short and various beloved Will Ferrell comedies, should be better than an Oliver Stone biopic, and Vice is not. It should be a slam dunk, not a highlight reel. McKay has done the unthinkable: botched a takedown of Dick Cheney, a man who shot his friend in the face and then made him apologize.

In a postcredits sequence, McKay tells us what he really thinks, cutting to a focus group that shows Americans divided into stupid, angry camps. This follows a long, demonic speech from Cheney-Bale that blames Americans for wanting to be safe and protected after September 11. This audience-blaming precedes the audience-shaming in the focus group. Maybe this is a necessary form of Hollywood self-delusion. It’s the way McKay avoids admitting that the nation that reelected Bush and Cheney also voted at the box office by making Talladega Nights and The Other Guys massive hits.


Green Book

Once the honchos at DreamWorks and Participant Media heard a screenplay existed that was Driving Miss Daisy in reverse, Green Book was a fait accompli. There is no way Hollywood could have resisted a true story about a white lout who gets a job as the chauffeur for an erudite black man. That this is an old white person’s idea of progressivism is the point, because Green Book is a film for old white people. The soundtrack is music from the 1950s and early 1960s, and the star is a turquoise Cadillac de Ville, a spotless machine that has never aged. It’s a road trip movie, like 2017’s The Leisure Seeker, with a certain amount of Alzheimer’s built in. By the end it turns into a Hallmark Christmas movie with color-blind, non-homophobic hugs all around.

Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen both really dig in as Don Shirley, the piano virtuoso on a tour of the South, and Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga, a Mob-adjacent bouncer in need of a job. As movie characters, they exist as vehicles for life lessons about discrimination, their shared ride a tour of the beautiful-ugly South of the past. The film provides a service in the same way The Help did: it makes a certain audience feel better about historical injustice while annoying pretty much everyone else. The fried chicken scene is a case in point. If Don had just said to Tony after being forced to try the chicken that it was only OK and really not his kind of thing, we all would have been better off as people.


Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Marielle Heller’s film from Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty’s screenplay is an excellent evocation of the nonrich New York writer’s life: low-key, desperate, and drained of what once might have been comedy. When Melissa McCarthy, as Lee Israel, the biographer and forger of letters from famous writers, steals a winter coat from a party in a huge Manhattan apartment by lying at the coat-check closet, we briefly glimpse the milieu of wealthy book agents and preening best-selling authors before Lee returns to the cold streets and to her cat-stink one-bedroom apartment. Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a movie for adults with a grown-up understanding of economic realities and the ways inner turmoil affects behavior.

Lee, who is an alcoholic, spends a lot of time in a gay bar in the West Village, where she and Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) are reacquainted. The film takes place in the early 1990s. Years before, Jack and Lee had met at a different literary party, back when they were more carefree and maybe a little glamorous. Grant is as brazen a sophisticate as ever, even when playing someone down on his luck, an essentially sincere character who is not the smartest person in the movie for a change. Lee and Jack’s wary alliance brings to mind a Withnail and I robbed of its last illusions.

Lee ultimately writes a book in which she confesses to her forgeries with a certain nonchalance, and the film exonerates her for participating in a crime based on other people’s greed and desire. Yet Can You Ever Forgive Me? does not have what you would call a redemptive ending. After a final comfortless meeting, an infirm Jack, soon to be claimed by the AIDS epidemic, leaves Lee in the bar, where her new transgression is lying to her probation officer about going to AA. The evocation of a forgotten time and place—an early ’90s New York without Sonic Youth or Jerry Seinfeldlends Heller’s film a nostalgic glow. The way Lee and Jack live feels close to home, but I can’t quite tell if their unenviable circumstances are more or less dire for taking place in a New York before gentrification and the internet.


The Favourite

The elaborate chapter titles in The Favourite are a little hard to get used to, but not as hard as the extreme wide-angle lenses through which Yorgos Lanthimos shoots many of its scenes. Although the lenses no doubt have an analogue in 15th-century painting, their convex views give parts of the film a virtual-reality look, as if we have to feel around the heavy furniture on-screen. Similarly modern and as bro-ish as VR, a scene in which male aristocrats pelt a nude fellow toff with rotting oranges recalls paintball or Jackass. And Emma Stone gets pushed off a hillock by the fanciest bro in the film (Nicholas Hoult).

The film’s anti-fairy-tale aspects and three female leads upstage the mise-en-scène and the men, however, as the mud-stained wretchedness of the poor country cousin (Stone) and the cruelty of a courtier manage-ment class represented by Rachel Weisz compete for the attention of the addled, grotesque monarch (Olivia Colman) they serve.

Colman’s performance as Queen Anne is worthy of Charles Laughton in its lack of vanity and its ever building pathos. Anne keeps rabbits in her chambers (one for each dead child she gave birth to) and enjoys sex with both Stone and Weisz, until Weisz disappears to become a Lady Scarface bent on revenge. Stone, meanwhile, succeeds with the queen as Anne’s dropsy worsens. Their final scene, with Stone permanently in the clutches of this needy royal, struck me as the ending to a Paul Thomas Anderson film more than a Lanthimos one. The Favourite is perverse and sadomasochistic, a gratifying evocation of doddering power and the jockeying that swarms it in decline.


The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The film is a series of larks that look like they were expensive and grueling to make. Maybe that fits these gothic western tales about life and death in the Old West, where mankind’s cruelty and nature’s majesty compete for screen time. Eventually, the mordant screenwriting and acting take back seats to inventive shots of people getting arrows in the neck. Along those lines, the Coens, more soft-boiled than hard-boiled, hang James Franco and let Zoe Kazan shoot herself in the forehead, but are too sentimental to kill off a cute dog or Tom Waits.

The section of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs titled “Meal Ticket” is the best in the film. The darkest, bleakest, and the most macabre, this vignette evokes the hellish carnival world of Tod Browning’s The Unknown and Freaks. Liam Neeson plays a man who travels the West in a wagon exhibiting an actor without arms or legs, who is played by Harry Melling, the loathed cousin from the Harry Potter movies.

This torso with a head and a voice recites poems and patriotic speeches in front of grungy miners, trappers, and cowhands. As winter progresses with Neeson’s westward trek, the crowds grow smaller. We can tell Neeson is beginning to question his role in show business when he comes across a chicken act that requires less maintenance than the helpless sideshow attraction he has to feed by hand, the way Dr. Caligari feeds Cesare. Neeson and Melling are pretty much the only characters in this cruel little burlesque; they don’t speak to each other, and, as bodies on-screen, they are reduced by the Coens to a big lump in a fur coat and a rock in a bag, a unique diminution of humanity that rivals the stories of Ambrose Bierce.


Bohemian Rhapsody

I’m just a poor boy, nobody loves me
He’s just a poor boy from a poor family
Spare him his life from this monstrosity

—Freddie Mercury

I really want to work with you. I have a
nice Ferrari.

—Bryan Singer


If Beale Street Could Talk

Everyone is an expert on James Baldwin these days, so of course they had issues with Barry Jenkins’s adaptation of Baldwin’s 1974 novel, If Beale Street Could Talk. And there was undue pressure on Jenkins to repeat the near impossible feat of Moonlight, which combined the groundbreaking with the crowd-pleasing and produced a hit drama that also won awards. When so much love pours out from an audience to a movie, and the movie is successful, it becomes a revered object. It’s hard to top reverence. Jenkins wrote his adaptation of If Beale Street Could Talk before the Baldwin revival took hold, and now he’s being punished (or worse, ignored) because he didn’t film it until after. That is a pitfall of working in an art form and an industry that used to be ahead of its time but now moves too slowly.

Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton reinvented the way Florida and Georgia were filmed in Moonlight, and they do the same thing with Harlem in this movie. Immediately distinctive, their way of shooting actors in real places is without equal in current American feature films. Jenkins’s work should be defining the mainstreamthere is nothing more mainstream than winning the Oscar for Best Picturebut since Jenkins makes movies about black people, his work is not being received that way at all.

An illustration of Jenkins’s style and approach is the scene in which Fonny (Stephan James) and a friend of his (Brian Tyree Henry), who just got out of prison, sit at a table in Fonny’s basement apartment, which is also his art studio and workshop, drinking beers and talking (per the film’s title, kind of). The scene, in Fonny’s dark but light-pierced kitchen, foreshadows so much else that happens in the film. Its ominous tone is a misdirection leading the audience to believe something about Henry’s character and motivations that is not true. Jenkins films this with circular camera movements that stop when Tish (KiKi Layne) arrives, defusing the intensity and the grief of Henry’s subtle, underplayed speech.


Capernaum

Like If Beale Street Could Talk, Capernaum and Shoplifters, from Lebanon and Japan, are about families separated by injustice and prison. Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace covered similar ground, and like Jenkins’s film, it hasn’t gotten enough attention. All four films exist outside the world of blockbusters, unlike Roma, which deals with a broken home, too, but from the perspective of a child of wealth who grows up to become a Hollywood movie director. If Beale Street Could Talk takes place in the past, like Roma, but despite the stylization of its vibrant yellow and blue, orange and brown 1970s color palette, its past seems more present than the black-and-white of Roma.

Nadine Labaki shot Capernaum in the slums of Beirut in the color palette of rubble. Her film refers to blockbusters—there is a character in it who calls himself Cockroach-Man (Joseph Jimbazian), a senior citizen who wears a baggy, modified Spider-Man costume and black-frame eyeglasses under his mask. He smokes on the bus he takes to his job luring customers into an amusement park. Among the other characters that the film’s 12-year-old protagonist, Zain (Zain Al Rafeea), encounters, the seedy Cockroach-Man is relatively benign.

Those include Zain’s family. His mother and father live in squalor with Zain and his siblings, an uncountable pack of toddlers. They sell his 13-year-old sister to Zain’s employer, a corner-store owner, to pay a month’s rent. A thick slab of neorealism that verges on melodrama and, at one point, seems about to break out in song like a Hindi musical, Labaki’s film makes an implicitly pro-choice argument about family. After being arrested, Zain decides to sue his parents because he was born and because they won’t stop having children.

The only smart or moral person in his family, Zain arrives at his decision after running away from home and falling in with a janitor at the amusement park, Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), an Ethiopian woman with a baby son and no immigration papers. When Rahil is arrested and disappears, Zain tries to take care of her baby before he’s arrested himself. Labaki’s ability with these nonprofessional actors, including the baby, is remarkable. Zain, a mini Alain Delon with a pushed-in Brando face, carries the film in a state of anger and frustration. Zain and his siblings sell some kind of juice they make in the street while inadvertently coughing into it. That gives Zain the training he needs to sell cheap drinks he makes with the opiate Tramadol to the many curbside idlers he encounters later in the film, including the ones who beat him up.


Shoplifters

If Shoplifters were an Oshima or Imamura film from the 1960s, it would present its ad hoc family as a group of terrible scammers whose blatant activities expose a broken system of exploitation. In the 2010s, Hirokazu Kore-eda instead presents this same kind of family as a tight-knit group more loving than the real families in the film. They may be criminals hiding in plain sight in Tokyo, but since no one pays them any mind, their arrangement and their activities don’t matter. They exist the way more and more people in the first world will probably learn to live in the coming decadesunited and unnoticed.

A collection of strays posing as a nuclear family, the six main characters in Shoplifters live together in a small house with a matriarch figure (Kirin Kiki) who acts as a grandmother. They live off her pension and off the money she gets from her late husband’s other family. The father figure, Osamu (Lily Franky), contributes through day labor on construction sites, by collecting workman’s comp, and by shoplifting food and sporting goods, which he sells. The two youngest, Shota (Kairi Jyo, the film’s equivalent of Capernaum’s Zain) and Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), are abandoned children learning to shoplift instead of going to school.

Osamu and Shota wear baggy track pants and walk in curious, shambling gaits to generic, quiet parks and fishing piers. Lily Franky’s performance is a grab bag of little quirks and maladies. Kairi Jyo has an average-cute quality that would convince anyone he’s a good kid. The film is the opposite of Capernaum because it is so low-key and everyone gets along so well. When the authorities bust up this family after a desperate act by Shota, jailing Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), Shota’s mother figure and Osamu’s significant other, the family becomes an exploited media sensation, reversing the use of media as savior in Labaki’s film. By the end of Shoplifters, each character is alone in an individual cell, absorbed into the system. A sad little melting snowman is meant to encapsulate their solitary disappearances, a banal and sentimental image not up to the film’s story and actors.


Roma

Seeing Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma on a huge screen in 70mm and black-and-white was great, but since the film was shot in digital video in color, the whole thing kind of seemed like an art project. Roma is the name of the neighborhood in Mexico City where Cuarón grew up, and this autobiographical film takes place in 1970 and 1971. Roma is also the name of a semiautobiographical Fellini film from 1972 that’s in colormy favorite of his. Cuarón’s Roma has a number of Felliniesque moments, but they’re like the black-and-white Fellini movies of the 1950s and early 1960s, not his later color ones. This meta aspect of Roma II also confused me.

Characters in Cuarón’s movie go to see other movies, ones playing in Mexico City at the time the film is set: La grande vadrouille, which I thought was a British Carry On comedy, and Marooned, a big Hollywood film about astronauts. Seeing Marooned led Cuarón to make Gravity. It made me wish Cuarón had watched better movies as a child. Maybe he has his main character, the housemaid Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), go see La grande vadrouille because it’s an army comedy and her date, Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), a threatening creep who abandons her, goes off to become a paramilitary.

Clearly I was concentrating on the wrong things, so I tried to snap out of it. I paid more attention to Cleo’s life and Aparicio’s stoic performance, how she has to clean the dog shit off the tile floors she mops in the family’s carport, where they park their too-big car. The Felliniesque party section of the film, which starts with the taxidermied dog heads on the wall of a country house, reminded me of a Lucrecia Martel film, but a mild one, in which the bourgeoisie aren’t so bad. That part of Roma takes place over Christmas; there’s some kind of Krampus figure wandering through it all, scaring kids, and there’s that party staple, a conga line. Cleo gets a cup of pulque broken on her at a nearby cantina, and then a fire breaks out in the woods, all quite beautifully. When the cup shatters it’s startling, more of a wake-up than anything else in the film.

Much of Romaits camera movements, long takes, black-and-white photography, its crowd scenes and protestsalso reminded me of Mikhail Kalatozov’s mind-blowing I Am Cuba from 1964, now playing in rerelease. I Am Cuba is an explicitly communist film, which Roma is not. The story in Roma was a lot like The Royal Tenenbaums, with a big house, multiple siblings, a terrible father, and an ethnic servant, a stock character from earlier Wes Anderson films people seem to have forgotten about. To Roma’s credit, Cleo is not a sidekick or played for laughs. She’s in the foreground.

Her baby dies in the background, in a scene that disturbed me more for its virtuosity, which seemed out of touch with what was happening in it. I thought the same thing about the violent long-take battle scene in Cuarón’s Children of Men. Only Cleo’s rescue of the children in the waves really got to me. The film ends with shantih shantih shantih written on the screen, the final line from T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, “the Peace which passeth understanding.” Why end with that? The point in Roma was there was no “Death by Water,” the opposite of the poem. In Roma, Cleo saved the children’s lives, then had to go back to work and get them Twinkies. That is not past understanding.


Hale County This Morning, This Evening

A baby dies in RaMell Ross’s documentary Hale County This Morning, This Evening, one of a set of infant twins we’ve briefly come to know. This happens offscreen, not in a show of bravura filmmaking, and yet Ross’s nonwidescreen, not in 70mm, not in black-and-white documentary is, in every sense, a more brilliant piece of filmmaking than Cuarón’s Roma. I have not seen a comparable documentary since Iraq in Fragments in 2006, by the long-lost James Longley.

Hale County, Alabama is an economically disadvantaged area where the principal employer is a factory catfish farm. Sixty percent of its residents are black, and the county’s median income is somewhere around $30,000. Ross doesn’t go into statistics, however, instead presenting a luminous series of nonlinear, interlocking sections that place Hale County’s younger black residents in specific landscapes, different types of weather and times of day and night. Without shantih-fying it, Ross introduces each section with a poetic phrase or question. Some of these relate directly to filmmaking: “How do we not frame someone?” Others are more obviously historical: “What happens when all the cotton is picked?”

How Ross films his subjects is maybe a little like Malick–Lubezki, but not in the derivative, self-conscious way of a movie like At Eternity’s Gate. Ross has his own peculiar, attentive approach. He makes room for a lot of things: an eclipse, girls singing in silhouette under lamps at night, sweat dripping on the floor of a high school gym, Star Wars toys, blaring TVs and video games. The film’s signature images are indelibly American: a town’s empty Main Street awaiting a parade as we look into the distance at the point where the road disappears, then young mennot cowboysriding horses through the town.


Cold War

The worst advice anyone ever got in a movie is in Casablanca. An underage, newly married Bulgarian girl (Joy Page) wants to leave Casablanca and go to America with her husband, but without having to sleep with the local corrupt cop (Claude Rains) to get them both visas. She asks café proprietor Humphrey Bogart what she should do. “You want my advice?” he says. “Go back to Bulgaria.” Cold War is the story of that girl if she had gone back to Bulgaria.

Bulgaria here is Poland, and the girl is Zuzanna, also known as Zula (Joanna Kulig). The black-and-white in Paweł Pawlikowski’s film is inkier than Roma’s, which brings out Kulig’s silver-screen, movie-star qualities, which the film accentuates by introducing her in peasant clothes, like in a 1930s movie.

There have been a lot of films about singers this year. This one, a Red Star Is Born, counters them by rejecting notions of success from our side of the Iron Curtain. But life in Poland is not so great either. Zula is reduced to appearing in a black wig in a fake Mexican musical act after marrying a man she doesn’t love and having his children. The beauty of the folk, classical, and jazz music Zula used to sing is corrupted by both party politics and commercialism.

Like Cuarón’s film, Pawlikowski’s is a biography of his parents. By the end things get lugubrious, as they often do in relationships at that point. Zuzanna and her long-suffering true love (Tomasz Kot) decide the whole thing wasn’t worth it and end up facing suicide together. They forgot the rest of the advice Bogart gave Joy Page: “Everybody in Casablanca has problems. Yours may work out.”


A Star Is Born

The new, Bradley Cooper–made version reconfigures A Star Is Born as a fairy tale of pop success in which dreams come true. Ally (Lady Gaga) checks off the items on a fantasy list by marrying an older rock star, performing in choreographed sold-out stadium shows, writing and recording songs that top the charts, winning a Grammy, and . . . going on Saturday Night Live with Alec Baldwin?

It was there that I realized this movie was not going to be the critical look at show business its ironic title used to imply (stars are made, not born). Instead, it is a film that from start to finish presents Gaga’s Ally as perfection itself. Her only failing, before she meets Jack (Cooper), is thinking that she isn’t pretty enough to make it big. For his part, Jack does his duty once he’s fallen in love with her. Despite his alcoholism and pill popping, he writes her a song as his last will and testament that she turns into a megahit.

The humiliation of Jack’s drunken appearance onstage as Ally collects her prize in the awards-show sequence does not allude to a world of showbiz manipulation and bitterness, but only to Jack’s alcoholism. Being an illness, it’s no one’s fault. When Ally stands by her man despite the protests of her nonslimy realist of a British manager (Rafi Gavron), she achieves maturity, peace, and sainthood all at oncethe things that success and money can’t buy. This works because of Gaga, who is the history of American pop music personified in a well-adjusted, nondysfunctional form. She is Liza Minnelli, Barbra Streisand, Carole King, and Elton John all at once. Her brilliance conquers all.

But who is Cooper? The film is set in the present, and yet what fortysomething rock star, or outlaw-country star, exists today at the equivalent level of Jack’s achievement and success? After three previous versions of A Star Is Born, this one is a hall of mirrors set at a flattering angle toward contemporary media, which is itself a circle of mirrors. Stating that this is “far from the shallow” does not make it true. A Star Is Born is a movie about what happens at an awards show, designed to collect awards at other awards shows.


The Wife

Glenn Close is an anti-Gaga in The Wife, a film that also prominently features an awards ceremony. Here it’s the Nobel Prize honors in Sweden, to which Close travels with her novelist husband (Jonathan Pryce) so he can pick up the Nobel Prize in Literature for his life’s work as a writer based on Philip Roth. Not merely a writer, the husband is also an annoyance who signs walnuts, which he gives to women he wants to sleep with. One of his books is called The Walnut.

If A Star Is Born is a youthful fantasy of success, The Wife is an aging fantasy of revenge. Close’s character is the real talent in the family, a fact she has concealed since she was a student and he was her professor and she broke up his first marriage. She has hidden herself beneath his unearned glory ever since because a sharp-tongued novelist (played by Elizabeth McGovern, who at first I thought was Paula Poundstone) told her at a faculty get-together in 1958 that people do not read books by women. Even though she’s an English major, Close doesn’t bring up Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, or Mary McCarthy. The unspoken implication is that they were nobodies in 1958. Instead, she sets herself to the task of writing her husband’s manuscripts for him.

Christian Slater, sly as ever, plays a biographer who has an inkling of the real story. He follows Pryce and Close to Sweden to needle them. Slater was the best thing in the movie. I wanted him to pick up one of Pryce’s novels the way he picks up Moby-Dick in Heathers, underline the word Eskimo, then murder Pryce and make it look like a suicide. Then Close could have been vindicated by having to write and deliver Pryce’s Nobel speech in his absence: “His body was in Stockholm, but his soul was in the Arctic Circle, freezing with the knowledge that fellow writers can be cruel.”


At Eternity’s Gate

Out of the eight Van Gogh movies I know of, I have now seen six, which is more than I needed. The most recent one before At Eternity’s Gate was Loving Vincent, which came out in 2017 and animated Van Gogh’s brushstrokes. The first, Alain Resnais’s black-and-white documentary short, which merely showed the paintings, came out in 1948. It took eight years for the next to appear, Vincente Minnelli’s Lust for Life, a big Hollywood biopic with Kirk Douglas as Van Gogh and Anthony Quinn as Paul Gauguin. In 1990 and 1991, three came out, including Maurice Pialat’s, with Jacques Dutronc as Vincent, which is the best of them and covers the same period in Van Gogh’s life as this new one by Julian Schnabel.

Like the auction prices of his paintings, Van Gogh biopics inflate over time. Now Schnabel has released the most prestigious one yet, a boutique production starring Willem Dafoe. “This film is dedicated to Azzedine Alaïa” is the last thing seen on-screen in At Eternity’s Gate, and why a film about a tortured artist who died penniless, insane, and alone would be dedicated to a world-famous designer who made dresses for Madonna, Rihanna, Lady Gaga, and Michelle Obama is not explained. Apparently Alaïa was the subject of some of Schnabel’s own paintings. Schnabel should have ended with a shot of one of those, for the ultimate in hubris. Or maybe not. Schnabel’s films are better than his paintings, yet the paintings are also the precondition that allows the films to exist.

As in Lust for Life, Van Gogh and Gauguin (Oscar Isaac) in At Eternity’s Gate act like they’re a comedy team. Van Gogh is ascetic, a visionary. Gauguin is worldly and robust. Both actors do an excellent, somewhat hammy job with what Schnabel has given them. They speak casually, in their own voices. “The impressionists? They’re out of it!” “Wanna go to Martinique?” Dialogue is repeated over different scenes. Gauguin mentions “the painting surface” and “how the paint will sit on it” so much that I wanted Van Gogh to shut him up. Sit on it yourself, Paul.

The film’s beauty, its feel for painting, its emotional intensity, Dafoe’s soul-searching performancenone of these are new to the Van Gogh genre. But like Joan of Arc movies, new Van Gogh films must come out. That’s because it becomes stranger, the farther we get from the lives of the postimpressionists, to see once again the crimped way people hated Van Gogh’s paintings in their time. What’s so odd about today is the way people love bad art with such boundless enthusiasm.


Never Look Away

This 188-minute movie is about the life of another painter, Gerhard Richter, in communist East Germany. But the main character in Never Look Away is not named Gerhard Richter, because Richter repudiated the film the same way the writer Christoph Hein repudiated The Lives of Others, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s earlier film, also set in Communist East Germany. Co-incidentally, the new Nuri Bilge Ceylan film, The Wild Pear Tree, from Turkey, is also 188 minutes long. It’s about a man who wants to be a writer, and I recommend it instead.

Henckel von Donnersmarck is the son of a count from what was once one of the wealthiest families in Germany. Now he lives in Los Angeles and is the Hollywood Teuton who followed The Lives of Others with The Tourist, starring Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp, proving that failing up in Hollywood beats following up in Germany. Henckel von Donnersmarck went back to his homeland for this new movie, which prettifies Nazism and everything else in it, and has far less feel for art than At Eternity’s Gate.

Its original title was Werk ohne Autor (Work Without Author). Changing the title to the authoritarian, entertainment-world command Never Look Away allows me to end with a song: Look away, look away, look away, Deutschland!

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