Cinema does not currently exist, or if it does exist, it’s in the form of videos from the Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality, shot on smartphones and put on Twitter, which viewers can watch from anywhere. These videos, hundreds of them from all over the United States, record rioting police officers dressed in warzone military gear lashing out at peaceful protesters, beating them with batons, shooting them with rubber bullets, firing tear gas canisters in their faces, and plowing into them with police cars and trucks.
One video, a horrifying document that exposed a killer cop, precipitated this reactionary violence from the police, which has now, in turn, been documented by hundreds of citizens. That video captured the murder of George Floyd, who was black, by a white cop in Minneapolis. The cop, Derek Chauvin, knelt on Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes as two other cops held him down. During the last three minutes of this state-sanctioned homicide in public, George Floyd was most likely already dead.
Floyd had been accused of spending a fake twenty-dollar bill, although no one has seen this phony bank note. “Public officials have been mum on the location of the alleged counterfeit,” USA Today reported nine days after Floyd’s murder. Witnesses filmed his extrajudicial execution as they shouted at the cops, imploring them to stop.
Had Floyd’s murder not been disseminated on video, it would not have led to mass protests, calls for justice that spread to every state in the country, and then to cities abroad. While cinemas were shuttered, and film and television production halted, this one horrific motion picture has changed the course of history. The world witnessed a police station in Minneapolis torched by rioters and abandoned by cops, an unprecedented scene in America, and then the looting of ostentatious upscale shopping districts, including Soho in Manhattan, while cops stood by. Unlike the reality TV show Cops, which glorified the police and insulted the public continuously for thirty years, these videos are not department-approved. In June, the studio that makes Cops cancelled the series and pulled it from streaming. At the same time, the Police Department in Austin, Texas, revealed that a similar reality TV show, Live PD, had filmed the arrest of Javier Ambler. Ambler, another black man, in this case stopped for a traffic violation, was killed by cops as they held him on his stomach while he pleaded for his life.
The corrupt administration of President Donald Trump immediately exposed itself as fascist in reaction to the Black Lives Matter protests. The commander in chief cheered police violence against citizens, especially black citizens, and demanded “domination” as “the president of law and order.” He also suggested, in his typical half-assed way, that the U.S. military might intervene by attacking Americans on American soil. Trump’s staff, in response to the protests, made a short video of their boss propelling himself across the street from the White House to pose for a photograph as he held a Bible upside-down in front of an Episcopal Church that did not want him there. It took teargassing protesters for Trump’s thugs to get him to the boarded-up building for what has been universally derided as a photo-op, an empty pseudo-event designed to produce a simple image for Trump’s supporters.
The black square of Trump’s Bible coincidentally predicted the black square with which many social media users flooded Instagram as a show of solidarity with black Americans, as a call for justice for George Floyd, and as a plea for an end to unfettered brutality and killing by militarized police forces in the United States. This digital blackout was criticized by some for being lame, a gesture from people who otherwise never contemplate injustice nor act against it, and by others for being disinformation, a way to remove images of injustice and protest from social media. But there it was: a series of black frames, like black leader before or after a movie. A blank film strip had taken over the timelines.
As I write this, it has been one hundred days since I have been inside a movie theater. Since then, the AMC cineplex chain “warned,” as Reuters had it, that they might never reopen. A week later AMC did a complete one-eighty, claiming they would be open worldwide by July 17. Earlier in the Covid lockdown, AMC consulted with bankruptcy lawyers, then tried to sue the studio that made the movie Trolls World Tour for releasing the cartoon sequel straight to video-on-demand, even though AMC theaters were closed, and they couldn’t show it anyway. This is an industry in free fall, caught totally unprepared for the consequences of a worldwide pandemic, resorting to legal tricks, obsessed with a now nonexistent “window”—the length of time that used to exist between theatrical release and streaming.
While independent theaters came up with ways to share arthouse movies among themselves so filmgoers could stream them via virtual theater portals, the Hollywood exhibition industry all but disappeared, leaving empty their hulking fortresses with their big glass doors, some now covered in plywood. The studios have pushed back their release schedules to Christmas and beyond, though they still believe that Christopher Nolan’s Tenet will be the one movie that comes out in July and saves the summer box office.
Shot over many months in 2019, in many countries, for about $225 million, Tenet is expected to cost about $350 million to finish and market. Whatever it makes, whenever it emerges, Nolan reportedly gets 20 percent of the first-dollar gross. The film is about a time-traveling secret agent stopping World War III, not the former CIA director George Tenet, who lied about torturing Iraqi prisoners of war. The name appealed to Nolan because it is a palindrome. It may also be the last blockbuster, the last huge waste of money at the end of an era defined by a wealth gap depicted on charts like a big backwards letter L.
In truth, the yoga instructors, hairstylists, and personal chefs of Hollywood, who immediately turned to YouTube to disseminate how-to videos for audiences in quarantine, were more prepared for the Covid pandemic than the studio executives who make a lot more money than they do. In 1995, Wolfgang Petersen’s action movie Outbreak, about a pandemic that starts in a California movie theater, made close to $200 million on movie screens. In 2011, Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion cleaned up, too, even though it was not an action movie and was better than Outbreak. Contagion displaced The Help at the box office and took home $136 million in its first few weeks.
Despite these two stories of deadly illness spreading through the population and killing loved ones willy-nilly, both of which suggested fairly realistic plans for how to act in a pandemic, Hollywood was as blind as the Trump administration. In the twenty-first century, no industry has institutional memory. Outbreak and Contagion meant no more in the socio-cultural history of Hollywood filmmaking than a Harry Potter movie. Those two didn’t even have sequels. Now we face a series of crises, one after another, a franchise in which each entry gets longer, more expensive, and suckier, Hollywood-style.
In New York, movie theaters like the Metrograph have opened as way stations for protesters. That’s an idea hatched by the group of film programmers who created the Cinema Workers Solidarity Fund to raise money for theater workers unemployed because of the Covid lockdown. The lockdown officially began in New York City on March 16, weeks later than it should have. The last movie I saw in a theater was The Conversation, at a 10 a.m. press screening on March 4. Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 conspiracy thriller was set to be rereleased at Film Forum on March 20 in a new 35mm print. Soon after I saw it, I began to live like Gene Hackman’s Harry Caul at the end of Coppola’s movie: alone, tearing at the interior of my apartment to make sure Covid wasn’t there. I had recently hooked up a Roku box, and since then I have seen 115 movies by myself, streaming them every night.
Cinema became archival. It was clear homebound viewers were using movies in a new way, something Abel Ferrara, living in Roman exile, pointed out to The Film Stage. “It’s obvious now movies are keeping people sane in a way. . . . Everybody’s really hunkering down with the films.” Meanwhile, in Hollywood, the aging nabobs of the industry were eager to hunker down in their mansions and leave theatrical exhibition behind for good. Peter Bart, the eighty-seven-year-old Deadline columnist and former Variety editor, spoke to seventy-seven-year-old John Bailey, the cinematographer and former president of the Academy, who shot American Gigolo, Groundhog Day, and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (the trajectory of the business in three movies).
Bailey, Bart wrote, wanted “to become less dependent on the vicissitudes of exhibitors,” so now he would “shift from his 60-inch home screen to a 4K 106-inch screen that will run classic films via The Criterion Channel.” Deadline called the current situation a “doomsday scenario”—Hollywood’s favorite kind. The previous month, Bart was worrying about “How To Build A Film Critic For The Post-Pandemic Age.”
It’s always interesting when Peter Bart starts to worry about film critics. It means the industry is in trouble. In 2007, as some critics refused to stop deriding blockbusters, he implied that movies should be reviewed only by people the same age as their intended audience, so if a film were aimed at nine-year-olds, that’s who should write about it. Now he is looking for the next Roger Ebert, confessing he was late in “understanding [Ebert’s] craftsmanship and his zeal for doing his homework.”
Edgar Wright, the director of Hot Fuzz and The World’s End, was bunkered down and digging in, too. In early May he wrote an open letter to the Criterion Collection, joking that because he had longed for a time when all he had to do in life was just watch movies at home, maybe somehow he had started the pandemic so he could do that. He was traveling the world, he wrote, without leaving his couch. “In Sweden, I’ve been on the existential odysseys of Ingmar Bergman (Shame, Summer with Monika, Scenes from a Marriage, Cries and Whispers, Autumn Sonata), then I went to France with the hard lessons of Robert Bresson (Au hazard Balthazar, L’argent).” As his Grand Tour continued to Japan and Italy, I wondered when he’d get to the hard lessons of Germany, but he took a detour into Tarkovsky’s Zone (Stalker) before he decided to see how his “fellow countrymen dealt with previous crises with David Lean (This Happy Breed) and Powell & Pressburger’s wartime films (The Small Back Room, 49th Parallel).” Close to twenty thousand people had died of the coronavirus in New York, according to official statistics, by the time Wright published his letter. Maybe watching The Seventh Seal, the Bergman film that takes place during a medieval plague that Wright left off his list, would have dampened his trip.
Whatever films are being made now, whether they are in the mode of the films Jafar Panahi has made since the Iranian authorities put him under house arrest in 2010, or like the Twitch event the New York avant-garde maestro Ken Jacobs (who is the same age as Peter Bart and hasn’t given up) did with Anthology Film Archives and Screen Slate, somewhere films are still being made, even if I haven’t seen them yet.
Jacobs’s is called Movie That Invites Pausing and is now available on Vimeo, but I haven’t seen it because I was too stupid to figure out Twitch when it happened in late May. A filmmaker in Oslo named Jakob Rørvik did send me a short he made called Apocalypse Norway, about a group of teens trapped at a beach house during a deadly pandemic. Rørvik was ahead of his time. He shot the film in 2018, and it was supposed to play in festivals this year.
A few days before George Floyd was murdered, I read an article on Medium that stated the post-pandemic movie houses of the future would resemble Apple stores, but with Whole Foods-branded concession stands run by Amazon. As streaming brands begin to vertically integrate and run their own theater chains, Paramount Consent Decrees of 1948 be damned, the writer of this piece, Eric Ravenscraft, believes that is inevitable. He welcomes it.
Against the backdrop of this dystopic corporate vision, watching the movies at home that I had missed right before quarantine did not seem so bad, though it still didn’t strike me as the whimsical voyage Edgar Wright was enjoying wherever he lives. I just couldn’t picture Wright wiping down a box of Cheez-Its with a paper towel soaked in rubbing alcohol. Unlike in The Seventh Seal, today we are not all playing at the same chessboard. Reading Wright’s letter, I remembered something I learned from Bergman’s movie. Terrible things are going on, yes. We may all be standing at the edge of life and facing darkness. But in this last minute I could still feel the immense triumph of rolling my eyes.
Secrecy pervades this Brazilian acid western set in the sertão, “west of Pernambuco,” in a tiny, self-sufficient town imperiled by unseen forces. In June it was announced that the government of Brazil would no longer release Covid death statistics to its people, so the way that local pol Tony Junior (Thardelly Lima) neglects to tell the residents of Bacurau that he has rented them as targets for foreigners to hunt isn’t all that odd. The government has also cut off the town’s water supply, so the film begins with the arrival of a water truck, carrying with it a young native of Bacurau (Bárbara Colen) returning with medical supplies.
Co-writer/directors Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles mix styles here, which they casually signal with music. The score, by Mateus Alves and Tomaz Alves Souza, replicates the sound of Carpenter and Howarth but alternates it with plaintive Tropicália and bossa nova songs. The town hides criminals, who become heroes as the plot unfolds. One, Pacote (Thomas Aquino), a hit man, is internet-famous because of surveillance videos of his assassinations. The other, Lunga (Silvero Pereira), is a warlord whose gang hides out near the dam, like the Dancing Kid’s gang in Johnny Guitar. Pereira plays Lunga as a dangerous queer icon. He wears black nail polish and lots of silver jewelry, plucks his eyebrows, has the most extreme mullet ever in movies, and dresses in jams without a shirt. Lunga has a back story in the town that we never learn. “You were a good writer, Lunga,” someone tells him before he goes to sharpen knives and dig graves for the American hunters.
Bacurau’s loping pace disguises how much is packed into it. The film’s two directors masterfully move the story from Tony Junior’s video-screen truck, so out of place in the arid landscape, to UFO drones, piles of caskets along the roadside, wild horses, naked gardeners with shotguns, and severed heads. The dialogue in this socialist western is worthy of Cinema Novo and spaghetti westerns: “A man is judged by the bad he does, not the good”; “Whores vote too”; “We have taken a powerful psychotropic drug and you are going to die.”
As pulp trash it has its moments, but it’s too Hollywood, so its gleeful gore comes off slick and unearned. The Hunt’s release was delayed from early last fall because its subject matter coincided with two mass shootings in the United States, and then it displeased Donald Trump when he heard it existed. Like Bacurau, it’s about wealthy people who hunt human beings for sport. In this case the victims are self-avowed Red State deplorables. As in the Brazilian film, this update of The Most Dangerous Game raises class issues, but class here is primarily a matter of taste, always a funny subject to Hollywood. The deplorables are not presented as poor, just stupid, and the odious wealthy liberals are also stupid, but smarmy instead of loudmouthed. Into this fathead conflict Betty Gilpin mistakenly strides, playing a blonde superwoman, an Afghan-war vet who now works a car rental desk in Mississippi. Gilpin brings it like crazy, accent and all, committing to this sophomoric material because she has finally gotten the star turn she deserves.
The Hunt, trying to be clever, ends up forgetting not to hide the main emotion of Hollywood: the embarrassment of trying to be all things to all people. Providing several messages for the price of one, none of which quite make sense, the film lathers the soundtrack with girl power in the form of The Raincoats, Dusty Springfield, and Bobbie Gentry. The real mass shooting at the Walmart in El Paso last summer was carried out by a lunatic white nationalist; the murder of Ahmaud Arbery in February was an actual racist hunt. Yet here elitists, not racists, are the armed madmen. Which is not to say such people are not trying to kill the poor. Notably, however, since they are liberals, in this movie they are not trying to kill black people, who—fortunately for everyone—are not represented at all in The Hunt. The final girlfight between Gilpin and her nemesis, brunette executive Hilary Swank, ribs the lean-in crowd, leaning in hard on how it is necessary for women to kill each other to get ahead. While Gilpin ends the film on a non-serious note of sisterhood, sharing caviar with a flight attendant (Hannah Alline) on a private jet, just two working-class white gals and a bottle of champagne, it is hard not to see (hear?) her victory as some kind of dog whistle.
Capital in the Twenty-First Century
Watching new movies at home means getting press links from publicists. Sometimes they come with conditions: you can only watch the movie twice, the link is only good for a few days, there is a giant company logo over the top of the frame throughout the entire film. They call that a watermark, but it is not transparent, and it blocks the top fifth of the screen all the way across. If a documentary is anti-capitalist, this practice is particularly egregious. If it starts with the logos of seven different production companies, which are then repeated as text in the opening credits, it gets really annoying. Then, at the very end of the end credits, they reappear. How is all this branding anti-capitalist? That is how capitalist ideology works. It asks you to pretend you don’t notice this crap.
It is possible to agree with everything in a film and still understand that the film is bad. So it is with Capital in the Twenty-First Century, a documentary based on Thomas Piketty’s 2013 book, by a filmmaker from New Zealand named Justin Pemberton. Piketty appears throughout the film in interviews, along with a large number of other economists and political theorists, including Francis Fukuyama. If the film had limited itself to presenting them expressing their ideas, it would have been something.
Instead, it is a montage-orgy of historical clips cobbled together to do the good work of exposing the wealth gap and explaining the society-destroying effects of inherited riches. So when we get to the 1990s, we see fast sequences of the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” cheerleaders and Britney Spears. At least I think it was them; it all went by so fast, like in one of those CNN documentaries about a specific decade.
Often it is clips from recent British movies, which are identified by name and director but not year (Pride and Prejudice Dir. Joe Wright; Les Misérables Dir. Tom Hooper). I should not have to see those again in a documentary about the ill effects of unrestrained capitalism, unless their existence is supposed to illustrate that more than their content.
Meanwhile, the clip cascade neglects to identify Gold Diggers of 1933, a song from which is used in conjunction with colorized footage of flappers in the 1920s doing the Charleston. The Grapes of Wrath is only identified as a film after Pemberton implies one scene from it is documentary footage. Silent movies are not identified at all. They are just “history.” Eventually, films are replaced by clips from The Simpsons and Family Guy, the lowest-grade way of explaining anything to anyone, which probably cost some real money to include.
France Against the Robots
Jean-Marie Straub’s new short is the exact opposite of Pemberton’s film, but it is about the same thing. France Against the Robots repeats the same one-shot-long scene twice, the first time at twilight, the second time during the day, I think early in the morning. In the scene, a man (Christophe Clavert), seen in a three-quarters view from behind, walks along a lake shore reciting a text from Georges Bernanos, the author of Under the Sun of Satan. The text is about capitalism, fascism, and technology, subtitled in English by Ted Fendt. It is “against the entire current system,” which is unreformable. It describes “a fatal evolution toward the dictatorship of money, race, class, or the nation,” concluding that “a world gained for technology is lost for liberty.”
Everything the documentary of Capital in the Twenty-First Century tries to do at feature length, this film does in under ten minutes. The difference is that it is not a crowd pleaser. It doesn’t talk down to its viewers in any way or even accommodate them, which is especially interesting in this case because the film premiered on the Kino Slang blog and then on YouTube, subtitled in various languages. This film, by an eighty-seven-year-old director, took advantage of the current crisis to completely bypass everything: festivals, arthouses, museums, VOD. France Against the Robots is anti-technology and therefore a paradox: Straub almost beamed it into our eyes.
Heimat Is a Space in Time
Thomas Heise’s new documentary, by further contrast, is three hours and forty minutes long, told in five sections, and nearly as off-putting as France Against the Robots. Fortunately, it is equally original and accomplished. It begins in a forest, in color, by showing metal cutouts that crudely depict the story of Little Red Riding Hood. A sign reads, “According to legend here stood grandmother’s house.” Heimat Is a Place in Time then switches with no warning into the mode it will hold to throughout. Heise himself reads letters and other documents written by members of his family and their acquaintances (one is the novelist Christa Wolf) dating back to 1912, before World War I, when his grandfather was a schoolboy. The first text we hear condemns murder and war, but places them in the context of German patriotism and symbolism—mountains and mist. We see photos from the same period, then black-and-white footage of a train creaking through the night.
This mix of these three elements make up the entire film. Heise’s family history during wartime Germany, then the divided Germany of the communist GDR where he grew up, then the Stasi and their constant spying, then reunification and post-reunification—they come by in huge blocks, indicting more than a century of state authoritarianism in various guises. We see photos, hear the text, and view elegant, forbidding tracking shots through the landscapes where the events of his family’s life took place: railway and subway stations, half-dismantled forced labor camps, forests, large empty fields. Trains speeding by carrying new automobiles to the West contrast with long lists of Jews relocated and killed by the Nazis in the Holocaust. There is no score, but watching the film reminded me of listening to ambient techno by Wolfgang Voigt’s Gas while simultaneously reading Uwe Johnson’s Anniversaries: From a Year in the Life of Gesine Cresspahl. In other words, it was very German and nearly impossible to do at all, much less get through.
That was not Heise’s fault. Watching Heimat Is a Place in Time at home took me two nights and eight hours. The first was the night Trump made his Rose Garden speech in response to the Black Lives Matter protests, which I paused the film to watch on Twitter. The speech was sniffy and angry, purely authoritarian and weird. Trump had trouble saying the word “assaults,” which came out of his mouth as “uh-sauls.” It fit in with Heise’s documentary too well. “Being German is the last illusion of identity,” Heise reads at one point.
At almost the same time, the 7 p.m. neighborhood cheering for essential workers began outside my window, competing with the omnipresent ambulance sirens I still had not gotten used to and which went on and on both nights I watched Heimat Is a Space in Time. Life was merging with Heise’s movie, but instead of family letters I read texts and DMs from friends. I looked from my phone to the TV to see a black-and white shot of a huge pile of cord wood or to read subtitles that said, “Should we meet again, look for a room with soundproof walls,” or that described “an hour of silence in the crocodile house.” By myself, in my own apartment, I was devolving, the sole audience member in a blurred space where I’d become a movie-theater texter while the world erupted outside, without me.
Jenny Perlin Bunker Films
The previous month I had seen three of the New York avant-garde animator and documentarian Jenny Perlin’s bunker films online, part of an ongoing series she is making. The performance space The Kitchen was hosting them in the Video Viewing Room on their website. These short films are portraits of men who have decided to live in bunkers either underground or at abandoned military facilities, a fitting subject now that Trump is going down in history for retreating to the White House bunker and turning out the front lights. I’ve thought all along that Trump’s only response to the coronavirus was to try to get us to all to live like he already does: sleep odd hours, watch TV all day and night, go to meetings he doesn’t want to go to, talk on the phone to old cronies, address the world through social media.
Perlin’s films deglamorize the prepper lifestyle, presenting it as threadbare and emotionally bereft. The first, Doublewide, introduces the series and details the construction of a commercial bunker in the middle of nowhere that an unknown buyer could move into when the government collapses, the world is ending, or maybe never. The bunker was large and austere, with a low ceiling, like a submerged ranch house. It did not look inviting. Its prime feature was its secret location. Contractors put it together, made sure the generators and air filters were functional, and talked about more normal things while they worked.
In Milton of Vivos, a fairly young man who’d led a life of hardship and abuse detailed his upbringing on the streets with a single mother. His bunker was one of a series of many others in South Dakota that look like mini-airplane hangars in a field. Milton’s belongings were scattered about in big piles, giving the windowless undivided space the feel of a hoarder house yet to be filled, as if Milton had moved from his car into a warehouse and now had plenty of room for storage. A bed was in there, somewhere. Milton had decided to get away from everyone else. Now he lived like a homeless person, but in a military shelter where he’d scraped up enough money for a 99-year sublease. Offering subleases does not speak of a firm belief in the apocalypse on the part of his landlord, the Vivos Group. Milton’s bunker could house two dozen other people. He did not seem like a prepper so much as a lost soul.
The third of the bunker films Perlin has made so far presented Ed of Subterra, an old hippie in a nuclear missile silo in Kansas, whose wife had left him after living there for a couple of decades. Ed had transformed the silo, built to withstand nuclear blasts, into a castle, but it was really a hippie house with lots of junk in it. The contrast between the monolithic industrial look of the bare interiors and the crunchy-crusty knickknacks Ed had filled it with was like something from a 1970s science-fiction novel brought to sad, quotidian life. Ed, a Gandalf in decline, wasn’t doing too well. He’d had a stroke and walked with difficulty. Inside, he’d stocked lots of vitamins and medicine, including his medical marijuana, an exercise bike, a copy of the book Sex at Dawn. A novelty clock on the wall had jumbled numbers made to look like they were falling. Spelled out above them, in pewter letters: WHO CARES.
The Trip to Greece
If becoming a hermit in a bunker is limiting, the antidote, now closed off to most of us, is foreign travel. Unless perhaps you are Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, who have done this three times before, each time under the direction of Michael Winterbottom. The Trip to Greece cannibalizes not just the three previous Trips but also Winterbottom’s Greed, which came out in March. Here Coogan meets one of the actors (Kareem Alkabbani) who played a Syrian refugee in that film, which was also shot in Greece. Alkabbani is a real refugee, so Coogan and Brydon visit the camp where he lives. Coogan can’t get his name right. This type of cringe humor is now reflexive and no longer quite reads as comedy. Coogan is too good at it and can refer to it now without fully embodying it, so that its function in the dire circumstances of the lives of displaced people is just a gentle reminder about a contrasting existence, in this case a wealthy celebrity’s.
Coogan and Brydon’s al fresco meals, their discussions of Aristotle, their appointments at Delphi or at the amphitheater where drama was born, are scored for melancholy with Nyman and Glass music. The air of wistfulness that pervades their journey indicates closing time for this cynical Quixote and his Sancho Panza. Death intrudes, and once again we see Steve as a lonely, aging rake and Rob as a well-adjusted family man. Along the way, Coogan reveals his uncanny ability to imitate the dialogue of actors in dubbed movies, and the two men do the Bee Gees in funny voices. The film reminded me of Astra Taylor’s recent documentary What Is Democracy?, which starts in Greece, but here with sophisticated, world-weary MST3K types guiding us through it. They talk over the scenery instead of Taylor and Silvia Federici, who, while they couldn’t perform dueling Arnold Schwarzenegger and Werner Herzog impressions, had more to offer.
Abel Ferrara, as prolific as Winterbottom but able to vary heavy and light with greater fluidity even though he is not a comedy director, presents Tommaso as a meta-movie on the road to his next film, Siberia, which is about to come out any minute, the way The Trip to Greece followed Greed.
Willem Dafoe plays a version of Ferrara the way Coogan and Brydon play versions of themselves. Dafoe/Tommaso/Ferrara, an American film director living in Rome with his young wife (Cristina Chiriac, Ferrara’s real wife) and little daughter (Anna Ferrara, his actual kid), works on his screenplay, takes Italian lessons, teaches attractive drama students, and spends a lot of time at NA meetings with English-speaking addicts in recovery. They look and sound like Robert Quine and Mary Gaitskill, as if Ferrara had imported the Lower East Side of the 1980s and 1990s to Rome.
The film is a trip through Ferrara’s tortured soul as much as a voyage in Italy. It begins as a story of domestic bliss with just a few cracks letting the darkness in, then moves through Fellini-isms and self-conscious borrowings from Scorsese to get to a violent, paranoid ending that is both sick fantasy and meta-commentary on Italian-American relations. This denouement has room for homicide, a crucifixion, and a clip of Sophia Loren singing “Tu vuo fa l’americano.” Like the screen personas of Ferrara and Dafoe themselves, Tommaso draws you in with a kind of cool friendliness that verges on the distrustful or psychotic. Every moment in it is charged with possible failure. The night photography by Peter Zeitlinger is strikingly glowy, yet clear. It places the film in a unique time and place but still made me think of the New York streets I temporarily wasn’t visiting any more than I was the alleys of Rome.
More than any other actress, especially the most glamorous ones, the plain Irm Hermann exemplified Fassbinder’s cinema. She died May 26 in Berlin, age seventy-seven, after a “short respiratory illness.” In addition to appearing in significant roles—but never starring—in twenty movies Fassbinder made, Hermann was his confidante, secretary, sidekick, and, at some point, lover. She acted in about half the total output of his sixteen-year career. She said auf Wiedersehen to him in the mid-1970s, and one can only imagine all the things she had to put up with while they were associates. Obviously, she did not shy away from trouble. But she came back into the fold in 1980 to appear in Berlin Alexanderplatz.
No one else in the movies looked like Irm Hermann. No matter who she was playing, she was instantly recognizable and welcome. Part of Fassbinder’s brilliance was to meet her, realize no one looked like that, and to insist she be in movies, almost as if he had started making films for that reason. When Irm Hermann showed up in a Fassbinder film, it indicated that this was going to be one of the good ones. Of course, they are all good in varying degrees, but the presence of Irm added something, even if she played a mute, like in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant.
Her small, baleful eyes looked at the world with disappointment, hatred, and sometimes ignorance because even though the people around Fassbinder were probably each pretty interesting and great in their way, he had no compunction about making them look petty, cruel, or wrong—always wrong, people who had never been right about anything. Hermann played a great unsympathetic idiot, whether long-suffering wife or heinous busybody sister-in-law.
In the Fassbinder ensemble, there had to be a point to roles, which is the opposite of how most directors’ stock companies work now. It’s the opposite of, say, Judd Apatow, who casts comics he likes, knowing they are messed-up or unhappy, then has them play people who are just really nice in the end. Irm Hermann was never just nice in a Fassbinder movie. He knew that was too much to ask.
Because I am stuck at home and movie theaters are closed, I am still trying to get my head around the cheesiness of Netflix films. Uncorked is a tepid drama of black family life in Memphis centered on a barbecue joint run by a couple played by Courtney Vance and Niecy Nash. Their son, Elijah (Mamoudou Athie), wants to be a sommelier instead of working at Papa’s Kitchen, a very on-the-nose restaurant name. In thinking about it now, Prentice Penny’s film mainly brings to mind David McAtee, a black man in Louisville who ran a barbecue takeout place called YaYa’s and was shot and killed by the cops or the National Guard during the protests in Louisville, after they pepper-sprayed him and his family. Uncorked portrays the possibilities of black middle-class life that are constantly subverted by deadly incidents like that one, kept off-screen in this mild film.
The Platform is a dystopic horror film from Spain that I watched dubbed but also with the English subtitles on because of the sirens outside. It is a disgusting, cruel film that seems written by a smart eighth-grader. A pallet of Michelin-star restaurant food descends through hundreds of floors of a prison, one floor at a time, in this reactionary microcosm of class relations. Prisoners fight over scraps with no concern for those below them. Director Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia is so nihilistic he will undoubtedly make the leap to Hollywood, especially since his cynical banquet leaves room for religiosity as the last course. Spoiler alert: the dog dies.
The Wrong Missy is a throwaway comedy with an emasculated David Spade in a bad haircut and dye job, less than one-one-hundredth as funny as he was doing monologues on Instagram after his talk show couldn’t be televised with a studio audience anymore. Spade is forced to confront the nimble-faced Lauren Lapkus as a former date-from-hell during a Hawaiian work getaway in this Bringing Up Baby for sports-bar TV screens. One shot of Lapkus summarizes pre-Covid American life and should be preserved by the Library of Congress. Puking over a shark cage on an excursion boat, Lapkus looks up and spies a shark fin slicing through the water, getting closer. With vomit running down her chin, she tilts her head toward the horizon and yells, “Let’s fucking party!”
Blow the Man Down
In an attempt to be fair to giant entertainment conglomerates who are ruining the world, I also watched an Amazon movie. Like Bacurau, Blow the Man Down was written and directed by two people, in this case Danielle Krudy and Bridget Savage Cole. It takes place in a small remote town, this one in Maine, which is the opposite of Brazil. Music is used in a unique way in this violent murder mystery, with the action interrupted by beefy Gorton’s Fisherman types who perform acappella sea shanties while working on the docks. The ominous shanties were adapted by David Coffin but the eerie score is by Brian McOmber and Jordan Dykstra. As with Bacurau, just hearing the music makes the film worth seeing.
Also like Bacurau, the film begins with the funeral of a powerful woman in the town who was a good presence and whose absence reveals secrets. This is a feminist genre film, about two sisters (Morgan Saylor, Sophie Lowe) and some senior citizens (Annette O’Toole, June Squibb, Marceline Hugot) who free their town from the grip of an evil madam (Margo Martindale) so local women won’t have to work for her as prostitutes. It takes place in winter and in the snow; there’s a lot of knife and harpoon work in it; it is not about comical accents in a cold state. Blow the Man Down is swift but not choppy, with Martindale silencing people merely by appearing in doorways. The local nice-guy cop (Will Brittain), who has a crush on Lowe’s character, thinks he’s figured things out, but Lowe rejects him in the end, and no one tells him anything.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always
The first thing we see in Eliza Hittman’s feature is a desultory high-school variety show with a 1950s theme—strangely, kind of a corollary to the opening of Mulholland Drive. One act in the show is a young woman, Autumn (Sidney Flanigan), playing a guitar and singing, who gets heckled by a boy (Brian Altemus) in the audience trying to humiliate her. At a pizza place with her parents after the show, she argues with her stepfather (Ryan Eggold), then leaves the table, stopping on her way out of the restaurant to throw a glass of water in the heckler’s face.
Later, in a Planned Parenthood office in New York City, far from her home in Northumberland County, Pennsylvania, a social worker (Kelly Chapman) asks Autumn a long series of questions about her sex life before she is allowed to go through with her abortion. Hittman films this interview in one shot, holding on Autumn, and we watch as she tries not to break down. Hittman, with great subtlety, draws our attention to Flanigan as a performer without violating the naturalism of her documentary-like film. The focus is on Autumn and the realization that she has been abused. By whom we never learn—the heckler? her stepfather?—another aspect of Hittman’s unwillingness to provide pat answers. Earlier in the film, another long take concentrated on Flanigan piercing her nose in a bathroom mirror.
Autumn and her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) steal from the supermarket where they work and leave on a bus for New York City. They dress in dark hoodies and work clothes with a camo layer, and wear black nail polish—the national uniform of not wanting to be seen. Autumn’s abortion turns into a two-day process, for which the girls don’t have enough cash. To get more, they end up going bowling near the Port Authority bus station with a slightly older boy who has money (Théodore Pellerin) while he tries to woo Skylar and while Autumn is in pain from her dilation. Then they have to listen to him sing karaoke to a Flock of Seagulls song.
Even in these scenes, Hittman maintains the film’s tone of harsh reality. Never Rarely Sometimes Always is a serious film about the difficulties young women face in getting an abortion in America, but its asperity is such that it also becomes a documentary on the indignities faced by anyone who has ever had to travel through Penn Station.
Sorry We Missed You
Hittman is a Ken Loach-style director of social realism, and it is a testament to the days we are in that her work seems more hard-edged than even Loach’s unflinching examinations of working-class problems. Which is not to say he is diminished. Loach has been at it since the mid-1960s, and nothing has kept him away. If he has ever had a real break in his output, I’m not aware of it. The three years between Sorry We Missed You, his new film, and I, Daniel Blake, the one before, was the longest gap he’s had between releasing films since the era when the Tim Burton Batman was new.
Loach’s latest film, not to be confused with Sorry to Bother You, takes place in Newcastle upon Tyne, in Northern England. It follows a family through their work and school days after the father, Ricky (Kris Hitchen), gets a job as a delivery driver working on a zero hour contract, which means he only gets paid per delivery. His wife, Abbie (Debbie Honeywood), gets paid the same way in her work as a visiting health aid for the elderly and infirm, and she has an equally grueling schedule of home visits, which she gets to by city bus. They have no time for anything but work, which their two children, Seb and Liza Jane (Rhys Stone, Katie Proctor) can see. Their lives are too difficult and too unrewarding; their kids know it and don’t understand why people who work so hard don’t get to have decent lives.
Seb, a graffiti writer who tags local billboards with his crew, begins to lose respect for his father and acts out, spray painting black X’s over the family photos on the walls in their house. Ricky wants to spend more time with the younger Liza Jane, but the delivery company does not allow her in the van even though Ricky owns it himself. Every person Ricky delivers to is an asshole. Have things in England really made people so horrible? And everyone Abbie visits is incoherent and needy, except one ex-union organizer who can’t walk and pisses herself in her chair.
Pissing is a theme in Sorry We Missed You. Ricky has to urinate in a bottle in his van because he doesn’t have time for bathroom breaks. When he is mugged at work one day, the muggers grab the piss bottle and dump it on him. No matter what happens, he goes back to his deliveries. “I have got no choice,” he tells his family. As essential workers, Ricky and Abbie would no doubt be working through Covid and trying to figure out how to home-school Seb and Liza Jane. This is what going back to work means for most people, except for one person in this film, a teenage friend of Seb’s named Roz (Natalia Stonebanks) who finds Newcastle too mean, splits for Blackpool, and gives a remarkably self-effacing, Linda Manz-ish performance in her few brief scenes. Is she a professional actor or someone who was just hanging around? Everyone does a seamless job here, especially the family and the belligerent delivery boss, a frightening guard dog of a human (Ross Brewster). But this odd girl who left town stuck in my mind.