Sound of Metal: Readjusting to Life

The name of the game for the past year or so has been Adapt. As a society we’ve struggled with and still to this day we continue to learn the correct way of functioning amidst a global pandemic. Our habits have undergone drastic changes due to measures implemented to stop the spread of the virus. School is attended online, gyms are closed, restaurants are open only for take-out delivery, and so on. Today, we consider ourselves lucky if we’ve managed to go out for a walk without stumbling into anyone. We actually look forward to walking our dog, or leaving the house for a doctor’s appointment. In a way, we have collectively responded and readjusted to a new reality, where social distancing, masks and hand sanitizers have become our best friends. Why do I mention this?
Because today I want to talk about one of my favorite movies from last year; a movie that is, in fact, about responding to an emergency and the difficulty in readjusting yourself to a new way of life. That movie is Sound of Metal by Darius Marder.

Ruben’s life takes a dramatic turn when he loses his hearing.

The tragic story of a heavy-metal drummer (Riz Ahmed) losing his hearing is one of extreme subtlety and unflinching character considering how high the stakes are for our protagonist. Ruben, played by Ahmed in a virtuoso performance, is in many ways similar to a lot of us. He’s proud, determined and sometimes plain dumb. When the sound in his ears pops for the first time, replaced by a consistent dull buzz, he prefers to lie to himself than face the consequences. The idea that this buzz will eventually fade away is one that he holds onto in the movie’s opening minutes. After all, life’s been good to him: despite his heroin addiction that he’s managed to overcome along with his girlfriend, Lou, he’s got it made: he gets to have his own band, play the drums and tour the country on his own terms, in his own RV. He gets to wake up early every morning, prepare a healthy breakfast, listen to 50s music, and dance with the love of his life. Nobody and nothing, it seems, can take this away from him.
Marder, the film’s director, skillfully captures the details of this perfect life by highlighting the omni-present sounds in Ruben’s everyday routine: the rhythmic grinding of the smoothie mixer, the crackling of eggs in a frying pan, the soothing and soft background noise produced by Ruben’s record player. By emphasizing the richness of such tiny details, Marder offers us a glimpse into our protagonist’s post-rehab world. These tiny details, whether we like it or not, are what make Ruben’s life so special, so damn precious.

At the dinner table, Ruben is confronted with a new reality of people communicating in ASL.

And yet, at the same time, these details are also the most tragic aspect of the overwhelming loss that Ruben experiences once he full realizes the gravity of the situation. Denial is no longer an option. The world around him has become one continuous, indistinct buzz.
Sound of Metal, however, refuses to capitalize on and settle for misery. Instead of letting Ruben free-fall back into drug addiction and deep depression, something that most movies about human tragedy love to do, it pushes him down a path that is meant to lead him back to life. With the introduction of Joe, the head of a Deaf community in Missouri, the film once again establishes the running theme of life instead of misery. Joe (played by a heartbreaking Paul Raci), a recovering Deaf Vietnam vet and eventually Ruben’s counselor, stands for life. His fragile, worn out features and tired eyes emanate a sense of calm in the face of tragedy. Pointing to his forehead he says, ”We’re looking for a solution to this…”, and with both fingers signaling his ears, he adds, ”…not this.”
The community to which Ruben is invited to is a community of people affected by the same pain who, through collective effort, have learned to re-create a new reality for themselves.

Joe – Ruben’s counselor in the Deaf community.

Ruben, like a lot of us, is determined to change everything around him and persevere. The loss of hearing, he quickly concludes, cannot stop him, his dreams, his passions, his life with Lou. Those things must go on. The show won’t stop. The thought of implants crosses his mind.
Again, like a lot of us, he wants the quick fix. Like an addict, he impatiently awaits for the moment of relief. This obstacle that prevents him from getting back to his old reality is, at first glance, a simple technicality that can be bypassed with the help of something as routinely as surgery.
Joe notices Ruben’s restlessness, and with the stern yet worried look of a loving father, he gives him a task to complete each morning: he is to get up early, walk upstairs to the house’s loft, and simply… sit. Sit still and absorb the silence that persistently envelops him and his mind. And whatever prevents him from sitting still, he is to write down in a notepad.
At first, this may seem to Ruben, and us – the viewers – a little preposterous. But soon, this seemingly preposterous activity reveals what Sound of Metal is all about: finding that moment of utter stillness, accepting silence, is the hardest thing one can do. It is also the most honest one, because accepting silence, like Joe did years and years ago, having returned from the war and replaced loved ones with alcohol, is sometimes the only cure to the lies we tell ourselves in order to survive.

In the presence of children, everything is possible.

What Sound of Metal captures brilliantly is our tendency to twist and turn, shove and push when things go sour; our innate tendency in not realizing that the answer is sometimes right in front of us for the taking. Marder, the director, places us alongside Ruben deep into the heart of a tight-knit community bound by what we might consider a handicap, but what they consider a second chance at life. The world this community operates in features concerts, school trips, dinner parties and work opportunities, just like the world outside of it. And I think it’s safe to say that most of the time we are just like Ruben: we think that change takes place around us, when in fact, what he soon learns from Joe, the most beautiful thing in the world is to sit still in silence, because then you’ll know: you’ve done everything you could. You’ve learned your lesson. You’re alive.

Life doesn’t sound the same anymore.

I will not go into more details, as I do not wish to spoil such a magnificently crafted drama. I do, however, want to emphasize the level of maturity the film displays when dealing with such vast themes as regret, addiction and moving on. A lot of things go unsaid, but Marder knows when to linger with the camera a bit longer than usual in order to capture the dramatic beats of the story. Riz Ahmed’s eyes, so big and bright, communicate Ruben’s sense of being lost at sea, while Paul Raci’s emanate a fragile sense of calm and understanding.
And then there is Lou (the wonderful Olivia Cooke), Ruben’s band leader, girlfriend and life-safer. As Ruben puts it, she is his ”fucking heart.” Lou is a character so universal yet so intimate and well-crafted that there is no way this movie exists without her. She represents everything that was good and felt right in Ruben’s life – she is the one who stood by him in moments of crisis and the one who spurs him to commit to Joe’s community. She is the beginning and end to Ruben’s story. She is also, ultimately, a tragic reminder that you cannot, no matter how hard you try, step into the same water twice.

You’re my fucking heart, Lou.

The Godfather: An Essential Christmas Movie

With Christmas coming up, we all tend to go back to the movies that we love and find comfort in. Whether it is Home Alone, It’s a Wonderful Life, Love Actually or When Harry Met Sally, one thing is certain: the holiday season is a time when we especially want to feel comfortable with the world around us. Each one of us has their own safety blanket. Each one of us has, some way or another, their own favorite teddy bear.
Before sitting down to write this entry, I kept thinking to myself, what is the one movie that I consider an essential Christmas movie? What is the one movie that makes me feel warm inside? And although, sure, it sounds like a pretty odd choice, all things considered, my answer is: Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather.

The greatness of Coppola’s groundbreaking epic released in 1972, that went on to become one of the biggest and most successful sagas in cinema history, has been known for quite some time now. It’s regarded as one of of the main cornerstones of modern cinema, with critics still raving about it and directors still trying to imitate it almost 50 years after its release. Its head-on depiction of violence, its fierce attitude and the rule-breaking process behind it is what, among many other things, has turned Puzo’s book into a generational cinematic feast.
Thus, in order to mix things up and keep the holiday spirit alive and well, today I want to look at how most of the qualities we associate with Christmas movies manifest themselves in The Godfather.

The magical opening to The Godfather – the wedding ceremony.

It all comes down to family. At the end of the day, Christmas movies are more often than not about avoiding loneliness, and finding meaning and solace in being around other people. There is often pressure involved, as characters struggle to reunite with their friends and relatives, sometimes even refusing to sit at the same table, or in the case of Home Alone, initially wanting nothing but a good time away from a bunch of stressed out, screaming, preoccupied adults and teenagers.
In The Godfather, like in any other Coppola movie, the dominating theme is that of family. Family that can assume both the form of a vicious octopus whose tentacles find their away around your throat and ultimately choke you to death, and that of a protective, loving unit that shields its members from the dangers of the outside world. Unlike its far more cynical sequels, The Godfather treats family like a fleeting dream rather than a twisted nightmare.
Similarly to It’s a Wonderful Life, where the protagonist fully realizes the importance of his own existence and his family’s only when confronted by the prospect of death, Coppola’s first gangster film works toward the realization that the only thing that can alleviate our passing is family. When Tom Hagen, out busy Christmas-shopping in the city, is shoved into a car and held at gun-point by Sollozzo and his men, it is the comforting thought of Hagen’s family eventually protecting him from his kidnappers, that makes him appreciate the idea of not ending up alone on a snowy, Christmas night somewhere on the outskirts of Brooklyn with a bullet in his head.

Don Corleone picking up some fruit and vegetables.

In particular, it is the scene involving the assassination attempt on Don Corleone that makes me think most about the power that the concept of family holds over the film’s characters. Coppola directs the scene very quietly, almost with an intimate cruelty as the impending doom of what eventually will follow this incident (Michael becoming a murderer and running away to Sicily, the war of the Five Families, the Corleones momentarily reaffirming their strength only to see it all crumble…) hangs over us like the sword of Damocles.
With its simple set-up; Don Corleone, old and fragile, picking up some oranges from the local shop, accompanied by his son, Fredo; the scene builds up a remarkable contrast between the intimate action of a very powerful man doing something as basic and routinely as buying fruit and the loud, increasingly faster sound of the assassins’ approaching footsteps. And once the roar of the guns being fired right into Don Corleone’s back, echoing across the street ends, we are left with something even more intimate: the moment when the son realizes he wasn’t able to save his father, reaching out in shame, head in his hands crying, ”Papa, Papa!”
It is the culmination of violence resulting in a moment of emotional fragility that reminds me of James Stewart’s protagonist in It’s a Wonderful Life helplessly watching on as the town grieves his disappearance, wishing he could have done something to prevent all this unnecessary pain.

The shame of a son who failed to protect his own father.

And like in any proper Christmas movie, love and romance are also prominent themes in The Godfather. Whereas in Love Actually and The Holiday, the conclusion that love is something you just can’t run away from is pretty straightforward in its presentation, The Godfather uses a similar conclusion but to different effect. ”Cherish it while you have it” or ”Don’t hesitate. Just go for it!” is often the underlining message in most Christmas movies.
In The Godfather this same message is put forth along with the painful consequences. There is an impending OR… that gives the movie that tension that we feel once Kay and Michael are having dinner, half-knowing that their lives are about to change forever. ”Cherish it while you have it OR you’ll end up becoming strangers to each other for the rest of your lives.” The two of them sit across from each other, barely touching their food, exchanging glances, running way from each other without knowing it. The energy the scene possesses lies in our feeling of unease that stems from our protagonists’ uncertain fate. Far from the mindless, teenager-like naivety and happiness that Kay and Michael displayed in the opening wedding sequence, here they closely resemble a much older couple, doomed from the get-go, slowly growing used to the unspoken truths that separate them.
Once Michael returns from two years of exile in Sicily, the thought of the doomed relationship turns into reality. And despite their efforts to disguise pain as duty, regret as responsibility and lies as truth, Michael and Kay’s bond was gone the night they decided not look each other in the eyes from across the table. It is, in other words, the tragic outcome of the What if question that so many Christmas movies like to pose, but are too afraid to answer.

”When will I see you again?” ”I don’t know.”

Coppola’s Godfather explores themes of family and love in a way that, ultimately, it feels more violent to let somebody down or close a door in someone’s face, than to merely strangle somebody or drive them out of town and shoot them in the back of the head.
The explicitly violent sequences that shocked audiences at the time, including Luca Brasi being put to sleep with the fishes or Sonny getting riddled with machine-gun fire, pale in comparison to the emotionally violent outbursts of Don Corleone breaking down in tears, muttering over Sonny’s corpse, ”Look how they massacred my boy,or Michael harshly telling Fredo, ”Don’t ever take sides against the family.” What makes these out-spoken confessions so powerful is the sense of community and family history that these carefully constructed sentences emanate so brilliantly. When Tessio is being sent for and accepts his long-sealed fate without blinking an eye, it hurts because we saw him be part of the family. We saw him eat Clemenza’s meatballs, exchange jokes with Sonny and Tom, and it is the betrayal on both sides that ultimately undercuts the theme of family that had been so convincingly sold to us – the audience.
And while The Godfather has been called out numerously for excessively romanticizing the Cosa Nostra, it is the emotionally violent way it separates itself from its underlining themes that makes it such an honest, heartbreaking portrayal of our society. With its fable-like quality, powerful imagery and masterful storytelling The Godfather sooths our senses, luring us into a world of ancient traditions and well-established values that resonate across all living rooms and TV sets. Like all great Christmas movies, it places a mirror in front of us, and asks – What would you do? What matters to you?

As much as they wish to hide it, nothing will ever be the same again for father and son.

The Man Who Dared to Be King: Remembering Sean Connery

It’s always unfortunate when an actor’s career, in the wake of their death, gets narrowed down to their singular, most popular role. With the passing of Sir Sean Connery, it was inevitable that the world would be busy bidding farewell to the one and only 007, aka James Bond. After all, he was the first star to embody the world’s greatest spy, the first major star to utter the words, ”The name’s Bond. James Bond.” And yet, today I want to explore the Connery that I know from anything but the James Bond franchise. I want to go beyond the years of fame celebrated as the deadliest secret agent, and explore the numerous years he spent trying to escape the Hollywood trap of typecasting. I want to look at Sean Connery as the artist who wouldn’t go down without a fight.

After the enormous success of Dr No, the first ever Bond entry, it’s fascinating to see where Connery decided to go. At a time when more lead actors began taking on more complex and transgressive roles, including the likes of Paul Newman with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Richard Burton in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and Anthony Perkins in Psycho, Connery was smart enough to decide not to stick to the script, and try his hand at something a little less conventional than smoking cigarettes, sleeping with very attractive women and killing bad guys. By starring in Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie, he showed that his good looks can skillfully mask whatever bubbles inside of him. In this psychological thriller, Connery plays Mark, an elegant, respectful gentleman who eventually turns out to be a violent rapist, taking advantage of Tippi Hedren’s Marnie both physically as well as psychologically. The initial charm fades away and is replaced by an ominous air of threat. To viewers of the time, who were used to the likes of Rock Hudson, Gregory Peck or Cary Grant, familiar faces known for playing predictable, well intentioned characters, such a sudden, terrifying revelation came as a shock. The film resulted in mixed reviews. The violent sexual relationship between Mark and Marnie seemed to be too much for both audiences and critics, but the message Connery’s performance had conveyed was loud and clear: I will not be just another victim of the studio system. I will be my own master.

Marnie introduced a new dimension to Connery’s on-screen persona.

And so it was. After completing his spell as James Bond, and passing on the torch over to George Lazenby and Roger Moore, Connery was desperate to bite into meatier roles and wipe the slate clean. His work with Sidney Lumet is perhaps the most interesting chapter of Connery’s sprawling career and proof of what a great talent he was. Having collaborated with the likes of Marlon Brando, Rod Steiger and eventually, Al Pacino, Lumet had a reputation of being the best actor’s director. His focus on rehearsals and precise, almost ritualistic on-set direction was the key to granting Connery the freedom he needed to truly express his range as an actor. And perhaps that is what comes off as most evident and remarkable in Connery as an on-screen presence: his range. Utilizing his good looks to seduce the audience is one thing, but turning the tables around through humor that often resulted in outbursts of rage, indignation and shame is what, to me, put Sir Sean on the pedestal among the very best actors of his generation. Look no further than Lumet’s The Hill (1965) and The Offence (1973).

Connery’s excellent turn in Sindey Lumet’s convinct movie, The Hill.

Both films deal with the strength, and simultaneously, the fragility of the human spirit. The Hill, set in some godforsaken desert hole during WWII, tells the story of military prisoners struggling to stay alive due to the grueling and brutal drills carried out by a blood thirsty Sergeant. Connery plays one of the more rebellious prisoners, former sergeant major Roberts, who continues to stand up to the cruelty inflicted upon his fellow detainees. Yet our favorite Scotsman never tries to play the role with a holier-than-thou attitude. He plays him like a convict: a man scarred by his past, uncertain about his future, incapable of taming his violent instincts, yet unwilling to back down even in the face of the worst kinds of pain. Far from Steve McQueen’s idealistic version of a prisoner in The Great Escape, Connery once again knew what needed to be done to push aside the audience’s expectations and throw any preconceived labels or judgements out the window.

In The Offence, Connery gives arguably his best performance.

Two of his greatest anti-hero roles came in the troubled, nihilistic cinema of the 70s. His most remarkable collaboration with Lumet, The Offence is a deep dive into the twisted nature of violence, as Connery plays a police detective set on getting the truth out a suspect by any means necessary. The policeman, blinded by shock and trauma experienced after years and years of collecting dead bodies off the street, channels Connery’s own much talked about inner violent, brutish character. Although he presumably stands for what is morally good and right, his methods of interrogation are far from such ideals. After beating the suspect to a pulp, the detective realizes he’s become the very individual he spent his whole life chasing: his life thus is meaningless, torn apart by the appeal of violence, a statement that rings particularly true in the time and setting this movie was produced, and that without a doubt reveals some dark truths about what we, as viewers, consider to be entertainment and glamour.

The seductive nature of power in The Man Who Would Be King.

In The Man That Would Be King (1975), directed by John Huston and based on a Rudyard Kipling novella, we get a glimpse of the corruptible force of power as Connery plays a British Army officer set on becoming the king of an unexplored Oriental land. His initial fascination with adventure and his friendship with a fellow officer (played by Connery’s dear friend in real life, Sir Michael Caine) disappear once Connery’s protagonist discovers what power, in the form of a kingdom of devoted followers that see him as a divine figure meant to bring them salvation, truly tastes like. Connery once again plays this role with a mix of boyish humor and intimidating physicality that makes him hard to dislike, but equally hard to root for as he blindly heads for the inevitable fall from grace. Similarly to his character in the story, Connery walks a fine line between charm and terror, fun and cruelty, cunning instinct and blind ignorance. The eventual downfall is a tragic one, but Connery’s character walks toward it with the reassured step of a man who’s seen enough in life and knows that his time has come.

As Malone in The Untouchables.

Looking back on the career of a man who appeared in over one hundred films, we see what life is really made of: change. Connery’s skill in adapting to the times he lived in is a sight to behold. He knew how to respond to the sexual revolution of the 60s by acting on his sex appeal and his masculine features, the same way he knew how to meet the demands of the audiences of the 70s by playing characters that questioned the morality and ideals of the society these audiences belonged to. In the 80s and 90s, the age of blockbusters and action films, Connery continued his successful run by capitalizing on his larger-than-life persona and appearing in films like The Untouchables, Indiana Jones: The Last Crusade, The Hunt for Red October, The Rock and Entrapment. He went from learning the craft from the likes of Hitchcock and Lumet to mentoring up-and-coming stars in Kevin Costner, Alec Baldwin and Catherine Zeta-Jones. And despite often falling victim to his own celebrity status, it is undeniable that Sir Sean Connery was one of the last members of a dying breed, one the likes of which we will sadly never see again.

The Devil All the Time: Confronting Evil the Wrong Way

With all the unspeakable tragedies and acts of evil currently stirring our world, it seems a movie like The Devil All the Time was inevitable. Movies, and particularly Netflix-produced ones that can reach a broader audience, are often good reminders of our present day affairs. Fictional worlds tend to cut deeper when they allude to events and characters reminiscent of their real life counterparts. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that we learn from these worlds, but I would argue they help us further realize certain truths about the society we belong to, and the issues that come with it. At the same time, the conclusions drawn from these movies can feel quite underwhelming.
Considering the effort and talent put into Antonio Campos’ The Devil All the Time, released on Netflix this past month, I couldn’t help but feel like the film did a poor job of transmitting whatever message or idea it was trying to convey about evil. Thus, today I wanted to compare Campos’ latest feature with the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men, as both movies treat evil in a similar fashion, however one does it considerably better than the other.

The Devil All The Time is a generational tale of violence.

The story of The Devil All the Time is a complex web of families torn apart by the brutal nature of mankind in the American Midwest. A war veteran returns home only to find himself haunted by the ghosts of the past that ultimately spur him onto a path of religiously-driven violence. This violence then is passed onto his son and the people around him. The world of The Devil All the Time is populated by men and women, housewives, preachers, cops and crooks, whose understanding of God and faith in general revolves completely around the notion of sacrifice by blood. By hurting others, these troubled characters are lead to believe in their own salvation. One of the recurring lines of this film, ”There’s a lot of no-good sons of bitches out there. You just got to pick the right time (to hurt them),” echoes ad nauseam, to the point that the movie itself becomes a tiresome cycle of endless violence committed by people whose traumatic past is the only reason they keep moving forward.

Soon, Tom Holland’s character in The Devil All the Time gives in to acts of evil too.

This is my major issue with the movie. It works only on a single level. It views the world from a single perspective, and never even dares to contradict this worldview by injecting it with a more sophisticated reflection other than that we are the products of our environment and there is no escaping it. And this, I find inexcusable. Because commenting on important matters such as evil, violence, treachery, manipulation, in the way that Campos tries to, is often the perfect way for sweeping such matters under the rug and labeling these movies as pure entertainment. Which is a shame, because if we look at No Country for Old Men, we see that cinema can make a difference with regard to how complex fictional worlds can be.

Bardem’s Chigurh as the unstoppable force of evil in No Country for Old Men.

Similarly to The Devil All the Time, the Coen Brothers’ Best Picture winner of 2007 is a tale about evil inevitably finding its way into society, and how the nature of this evil, seemingly so simple and primitive, makes it an unstoppable force, a force that perhaps we will never fully understand.
Both movies have evil men in them, men whose only drive is to hurt, kill and humiliate whatever and whoever stands in their way. The main difference, however, lies in the good characters that populate these movies. In Campos’ film, there isn’t any hope for anybody. Any signs of kindness are limited to the bare minimum, because the film wants to be consistent with its nihilistic outlook on life. Kindness equals weakness. Nothing is of value. Everything and everybody dies, ”You just got to pick the right time.”
On the other hand, No Country for Old Men, though it presents us with one of the most terrifying villains in movie history, Anton Chigurh, and a grim death-filled desert landscape where laws don’t apply to everyone the same way, it also gives us characters worth believing in. Llewelyn Moss, our unlucky protagonist who finds himself in the middle of a drug deal gone wrong and with someone else’s bagful of money in his lap, is still at the very core a good man, with dreams and aspirations of building a better, more secure life for himself and his wife, Carla Jean.
Tommy Lee Jones also plays a good character, Sheriff Bell, a character that for the majority of the movie tries to grasp the extent to which evil men like Anton are willing to go for the sake of what? Money? Drugs? Fame? He can’t put a pin on it, and that is what scares him – a good, lawful man – the most.

Llewelyn and Carla Jean have each other.

And that is I think where the main difference lies between these two equally competently made films. Whereas The Devil All the Time states loud and clear that there is simply no escaping evil that surrounds you, evil that you’re born into, as Tom Holland’s protagonist, the son of a suicidal war veteran and the step brother of a girl that died at the hands of a crooked preacher, is eventually driven to inflicting the same kind of merciless violence on others, No Country for Old Men refuses to fall into a similar trap. The film takes a moral stand through its literary opening written by Cormac McCarthy (the author of the novel), when Sheriff Bell narrates about the time he put a man on the electric chair and the man, a cold blooded murderer, till the very end continued to say he would happily kill again if he were given the chance to. And in the face of this unflinching evil that has no head nor tail to make of, Bell openly admits, ” I don’t want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don’t understand. You can say it’s my job to fight it but I don’t know what it is anymore. More than that, I don’t want to know. A man would have to put his soul at hazard. He would have to say, okay, I’ll be part of this world.

Tommy Lee Jones as the local sheriff trying to make sense of all this madness.

No Country for Old Men works as a moral tale because not only does it present the crumbling reality of a dying breed of men not accustomed to this kind of senseless violence and inexplicable evil – it also shows that there is a way of avoiding it, that sometimes, by not succumbing to the way of the gun, we may be able to go out on our own terms, with pride and dignity. Is this argument a little too far-fetched? A little too romanticized? Perhaps, but good movies are meant to give us options, not force us into a single, badly constructed worldview. The nihilism and dread of The Devil All the Time serve little to no purpose other than to tell a grim story of hopelessness and despair motivated by religious misconceptions. Whatever Campos and Pollock (author of the novel) tried to do in adapting the book to the screen doesn’t work. Because yes, evil exists. And yes, bad people do bad things. And sometimes good people are forcefully driven to similar acts, but if we look carefully, there should always be, no matter how slim or faint, a ray of light at the end of the tunnel.

In No Country for Old Men everything comes at a price. Especially Mariachi bands.

Outcasts and Rejects: The Cinema of Kelly Reichardt

One of the most impressive and unique voices of contemporary cinema belongs to Kelly Reichardt, a filmmaker who strongly believes in the complexity of mundane life as we know it. The simple acts of waking up, getting to work, and having a warm meal before heading back to bed, to Reichardt, constitute an endless combination of interesting, sometimes even life-changing episodes. Her work is spotted with instances of dark humor stemming from the inevitable daily malfunctions to which we have become used to in real life but not so much in cinema. After all, movies have always been labelled as entertainment meant to do just that: entertain us from our everyday existence. Reichardt, however, in the similar vein of the forefather of documentary naturalism, Robert Bresson, who was famously obsessed with singular actions carried out by his protagonists such as a man tying his shoelaces, a woman sticking a pin into her hair, or a pickpocket’s hands reaching into someone’s else coat, wants her audience to grasp the surreal consequences that derive from our everyday behavior. In other words, everything that we do carries its own little impact. A domino effect of some kind.

The barren rail yards of Northern Oregon.

Her film, Wendy and Lucy, is the prime example of Reichardt’s trademark fascination with the mundane as it centers around Wendy, a twenty-something-year-old woman on her way to Alaska with Lucy, her dog, as the only companion. Wendy ends up stranded in a small town in Northern Oregon, homeless, when she loses Lucy due to a set of unfortunate circumstances. Again, notice how I say circumstances. Wendy and Lucy is filled with them. Not only is our protagonist unable to pay for dog food which leads her to shoplift a can at the local grocery store which ultimately gets her arrested, she also loses the car on which her entire journey depended on due to an inevitable mechanical fault and is unable to provide the dog pound with a contact number in case they find Lucy because she doesn’t have a cell phone. Everywhere she looks, there are walls. Wendy is helpless. But she fights.

Wendy and Lucy looking for a way out.

Unlike many of her contemporaries, Reichardt does not succumb to the needs of modern day audiences in the form of caped villains or grand action set-pieces à la Mission Impossible. Her characters don’t have superpowers, guns, or large sums of money. They don’t have to, as they’re already busy fighting the challenges posed by everyday life. Challenges that involve having enough money to dial a number from a payphone, waiting in the freezing cold for the auto shop to open, finding shelter in the restroom of a gas station, and so on. These are problems that Reichardt’s protagonists, like Wendy, experience on an individual level, but that end up translating on a much more universal scale. The film’s small-town world of Nothern Oregon stricken by the 2007-08 financial crisis, with its barren rail yards and desolate mill towns is the same world that most of us know of due to similar, unfortunate circumstances. It is a world where, as the kind-hearted security guard that Wendy is lucky enough to befriend, points out ”You can’t get an address without an address, a job without a job, a telephone without a telephone number. It’s all fixed.

Through her focus on details, Reichardt builds expansive worlds we can relate to.

Gathered around a bonfire, Wendy and a group of similar-minded outcasts discuss their shared feelings of living in a society that is moving on without them, leaving them to their fate, and their desire to escape somewhere far away, somewhere where the rules of the regular world don’t apply. They sit in the dark, illuminated by the flames of the fire. Reichardt films this scene using natural lighting, thus we find ourselves engulfed in the same darkness as Wendy and the others. As an audience we are forced to sit with this community of rejects and absorb their simple yet vital problems. Wendy’s only comfort, after all, is a stained pillow and an old, raggedy blanket. After losing Lucy, preoccupied and afraid, she calls her brother in Indiana. His only reply is, what do you want from me?
But what might sound like a misery tale of a homeless girl suffering on end, is in fact a more universal portrait of a nation, a cultural mindset and a generation affected by the inevitable consequences of our progress as a society and the realization that we’re all in this together. It’s one big melting pot.

Wendy never gives up.

What I admire the most about Kelly Reichardt’s filmography is her unwavering commitment to telling personal stories mostly centered around individuals who don’t necessarily fit our pre-conceived idea of a movie character. More often than not, her films focus on the cruel twists of fate, on the helpless nature of humans in the grand scheme of things. Yet simultaneously, these stories are more than that. They’re about the strength of the human spirit. Because how in the world could a young, single, homeless woman like Wendy make it this far in her journey had it not been for her incredible strength of character? Who wouldn’t give up when faced with the loss of their only companion, lack of a roof over their head and enough money for Snickers bar?
There is real ugliness in Wendy and Lucy. There is all kinds of poverty, alcoholism, loneliness. But Reichardt, through her fixation with little details, finds also signs of subtle beauty: the sense of community among those who struggle to make a living out of returning steel cans to the recycling center, the unexpected friendship between an elderly security guard and our protagonist, fleeting moments of peace like when Wendy is in a cafe’ writing something down and Reichardt fixes her camera on a young man reading a paperback of Sometimes a Great Notion, Ken Kesey’s magnum opus set in Oregon. It’s again, a simple matter of details.

We are all part of the same melting pot.

Casino Royale: Reinventing a Franchise

Hollywood loves a good franchise, but for the most part the chances of a franchise being consistently good are very slim. The Bond franchise is a prime example of this. From its humble beginnings in the 1960s, a period that saw a Scotsman in Sean Connery rise in the ranks and become one of the most recognizable faces around AND one of the highest grossing movie stars of all time, to a series of misfires and miscast names throughout the 70s and 80s, and finally to Pierce Brosnan stealing the show in GoldenEye just for his later entries in the Bond catalog to fail both critically and commercially; similarly to Batman, the James Bond franchise was on its last legs as it entered the new millennium. To everyone’s surprise Casino Royale turned out to be a major sensation. A new star was born in Daniel Craig and James Bond was alive and well, and perhaps truer to the Ian Fleming’s original character than ever before.

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The first time we see Craig as 007.

How Casino Royale, directed by Martin Campbell, changed the way we perceive and sympathize with Bond as a fleshed out character instead of a cardboard cut-out is still to this day an incredible achievement in storytelling and action filmmaking.
The most obvious aspect of Casino Royale is, of course, how blatantly indifferent it is to all the previous franchise entries. The film opens in black and white, suggesting a flashback sequence from 007’s first mission for the agency, with Bond literally smashing a guy’s face into a sink and violently shoving his face into said sink full of water until the nameless bad guy stops breathing. The scene is brutal, grim and openly demonstrative about the movie’s further intentions in establishing Bond as a atypical character.
Unlike Casino Royale’s predecessors, where the movie usually opened with an intense set-up that ultimately ended in either a sarcastic comment made by the agent himself or a funny set of circumstances that would serve to fuel the movie’s plot, Campbell’s film never attempts to emphasize humor the same way. After all, this is 2006 we’re talking about; the era of clunky one-liners and testosterone-filled actioners à la True LiesSpeed or The Rock is over, and even the most generic actions films take themselves seriously both in style and execution. Humor in Casino Royale comes at an expense and this is where things start to get interesting.

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The gruesome, black-and-white opener sets the tone for the franchise’s re-birth.

I fail to recall the last time I had seen Bond truly suffer as a human. And I don’t only mean physical pain because we all remember the fair share of painful adversities that Bond has had to face throughout the years (spiders, lasers, waterboarding, gunshot wounds, etc), I mean real, psychological pain, pain that exposes the character’s (up until then) few weaknesses. In Die Another Day, Brosnan’s last catastrophic outing as 007, Bond was indeed held prisoner by North Koreans and tortured numerous times, but the pain the character underwent was never given enough weight and was soon dismissed with Bond ultimately walking away a free man in a prisoner exchange.
In Casino Royale, however, our protagonist feels, just like anyone of us. Craig’s Bond is made of flesh and bone and is aware of his own physical limitations. M labels him a blunt instrument, a cold, calculated weapon executing the agency’s orders. But we soon learn that our protagonist, despite his best efforts to fight them, is a prisoner of his own feelings. And that is, I think, Casino Royale’s main strength: the movie is driven by our and everyone else’s preconceived idea that Bond is an emotionless machine working against the movie’s own initiative to mix things up and shape Bond into a more human version of the world famous agent with a license to kill.

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Mads Mikkelsen perfectly encapsulates a Bond villain.

Casino Royale knows what it is up against, namely a whole catalog of movies and fans of these movies that value Bond for his cartoonish appearance. And when the movie’s main plot kicks in, Royale does everything in its power to build a fun, engaging storyline that serves to de-construct and re-shape James Bond as we know him.
Rewatching the film with a friend who had not seen the movie, I noticed how she kept waiting for the eventual one night-stand or (as we like to call them) Bond girl, to come in, have sex with our protagonist and leave him in matter of nano seconds, only to be swept away by the franchise’s most real and heartbreaking romance. Because even though there is a scene where Bond, tied up and naked, gets his testicles crushed with the swing of a heavy rope (and the pain is both visible and audible) by the movie’s main antagonist, Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen, the definition of a Bond villain), the hurt that our protagonist turns out to suffer most is the feeling of pure grief, and the hopeless realization that he is forever bound to the memory of Vesper, a woman he tragically lost and who sacrificed her own life for him. Yes, him. The worthless machine serving the agency’s interests. A stone-cold killer with no sense of remorse. The blunt instrument meant to be used to bash someone’s head in.

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007 naked and exposed.

Reinventing the Bond franchise was a necessary step for mainstream, crowd-pleasing cinema and resulted in Hollywood re-establishing the importance of high quality action movies familiar with the definition of ”character development.” The Bond franchise finally moved away from conservative studio shoots and CGI effects and decided to make fight scenes practical, aggressive and turn our protagonist into an underdog with real weaknesses to be exploited by stronger enemies. Too often had we seen Bond go through enemies like papier-mâché, sometimes not even bothered to look their way before killing them. Casino Royale changed the way Bond inflicts violence upon others and the way others inflict violence upon him. All of a sudden we are watching a character whose prime interest is not getting laid, but embracing the love of a woman and considering the possibility of early retirement.
Of course, nothing is perfect and the underwhelming follow-up to Casino Royale, 2008’s Quantum of Solace proved once again how hard it is to be consistently good as a franchise. But at least we now know that Bond breathes, sweats and bleeds like any other man. He is touchable.

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Casino Royale gives Bond a reason to exist.

Musica, Maestro: Remembering Ennio Morricone

We find ourselves today, a few hours after Morricone’s passing, stripped of the presence of a man who was capable of amplifying emotions like no other.
Having composed film music for over 60 years, Morricone leaves us with a catalog not of films, but emotions. Rarely have I felt so connected to someone who, like most film composers, has his work hidden behind the images on screen, often subject to editing and directing choices that can influence the final outcome. His music not only belonged to the film it was composed for, but it elevated the entire experience to the point where you found yourself coming back to the music rather than the film itself.
In his monumental collaborations with childhood friend Sergio Leone, Morricone found the winning formula that would later on be used for the majority of his career. He, along with Leone, understood that film music can not only serve as a tool meant to convey emotions/mood of a scene; it can also tell the story of the scene.
In a way, Morricone was like an assistant director. Leone would ask him to compose the music beforehand, then he’d take the recordings and play them as loud as possible on each film set, whether it was A Fistful of Dollars, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly or Once Upon a Time in America, Leone knew that in order to obtain the best possible results in setting up a scene it was up to him to accommodate Morricone’s music, and not the other way around. It was up to him to understand the composer’s intentions and direct accordingly, in order to achieve a truly ecstatic feeling of harmony between the images on screen and the sound behind them. In The Good, the Bad and the Ugly we witness a four-minute-long scene of Eli Wallach running around a graveyard, stricken with feverish greed, in search of gold. The music accompanying this scene, the famous Ecstasy of Gold, is the only element used to make this four-minute-long sequence of a man running around in circles work. And boy, does it work.

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Morricone and Leone: two childhood friends who changed cinema together.

Morricone made music meant to last forever. He was a firm believer in the power of cinema and considered film music to be crucial. A time vehicle that would allow future generations to look back and associate music with images, and vice versa. Time and time again, I found myself wanting to participate in the actions depicted on-screen because of Morricone’s score behind each of these actions; I wanted to attack Al Capone’s men whilst riding on horseback in The Untouchables, just as I wanted to duel with Henry Fonda’s baddie in Once Upon a Time in the West, or find redemption the same way De Niro’s character did in The Mission.
Whether it was his use of a plethora of instruments including harmonicas, electric guitars, horns and clarinets, or his inclusion of sounds like his infamous use of whistles, whips and water, Morricone was an artist with a complete understanding of what makes us human. His belief in conveying a full range of emotions through sound and images is an incomparable contribution to our existence. We may not realize it, but the way we respond to movies and the way we incorporate music into our daily lives is in large part thanks to artists like Morricone. By not separating himself from his own work, but by bringing his own dreams, memories and beliefs into his music, Morricone amplified the importance of sound in film and helped us further realize that at the end of the day we’re not all that different from each other. Our lives and lives of our beloved characters are bound to meet at some point. It’s okay to seek redemption. It’s okay to accept the past. It’s okay to want to overcome pain. It’s okay to want to love and be loved. Yes, it’s okay.

Farewell, maestro.

 

Raise the Red Lantern: Generational Misogyny

There are few films that have had enough courage to address misogyny in all its complexity the way Zhang Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern did back in 1991. I use the word complexity because Hollywood has had a long history of avoiding the multi-faceted nature of misogyny in favor of a more narrow minded depiction of this cultural phenomenon.
Very often movies (starting in the 1940s with Mildred Pierce) failed to contribute to a larger, more political discussion for fear of audiences’ and studios’ backlash. American cinema, especially in the times of studio control with the likes of MGM, United Artists, Universal, RKO literally taking apart each film that contained a grain of avant-garde politics in them for the sake of keeping the audiences dumb and happy. Many great films suffered this way, most notably Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, which initially was conceived as a dark examination of racism and corruption in small-town America, but ended up being put together as a more conventional film noir meant to be sold to the masses. To be outspoken in Hollywood can often mean getting crucified by a politically-safe industry.
Fortunately, on the other side of the world, directors like Zhang Yimou, a member of the Fifth Generation cinema that emerged from Maoist China following the Cultural Revolution, did not share the same scruples and did not back down even in the face of a totalitarian regime. His film, Raise the Red Lantern, is to this day a remarkable achievement of subtle storytelling and powerful imagery concerning China’s abusive traditional and misogynistic social structure that, turns out, is not so different from our own.

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A young girl must accept the fate forced upon her.

Misogyny is an oppressive system. An entrapment. The same way Yimou’s film opens with a 19-year-old girl, Songlian, who after her father’s death is forced to quit university and dedicate the rest of her life to being a master’s concubine. The year is 1920 and the custom states that the girl, in order to support herself and her family, must abandon home and become another man’s wife (he already has three).
With tears streaming down her face she accepts her fate and enters the wealthy Chen residence, surrounded by tall, stone walls, just like a prison. Here, she is treated like a lady and served by a maid whose ambition is to become a mistress in her own right. The other concubines know fully well that the new concubine will be the master’s favorite for quite some time. Every day they anxiously await the master’s decision regarding which concubine he will choose to spend the night with (the lucky one is signaled by having red lanterns lit in front of her house). The custom states that the lucky one will be treated better than the others. The exclusive treatment involves the opportunity to deviate from the day’s menu of foods, asking for an endless series of foot massages and obviously, not spending the night alone, which within these grey walls can feel like the worst of punishments.

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The master is never clearly seen, but his power is always felt.

Yimou smartly approaches the theme of misogyny by focusing on the alienated bodies of the four concubines. The master is rarely seen on screen, and in the few instances that he appears in the frame, he is shot from a distance or obscured by a dim light or is out of focus. His power and influence over the lives of these four women is felt rather than seen.
The concubines, on the other hand, are very physical and vulnerable in their presentation. The first one is old and wrinkled, the second one fragile and preoccupied, the third one beautiful and seductive, and Songlian, the fourth one, naive and innocent. Their oppression at the hands of the centuries-old traditions under which the Chen residence operates (and the entire Chinese society, for that matter) lies in this presentation: reduced solely to their physical appearance and their obedience to the master’s commands and needs. They are expected to express themselves only in bed, when the master allows for conversation. Otherwise, the concubines are forced to live their lives in utter silence, awaiting the day’s verdict on whether concubine number one, two, three or four will get to delight the master with her body, and who knows, perhaps even with a successful pregnancy (of a boy, obviously).

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Songlian’s actions lead to dangerous consequences.

As the film progresses, we start to notice a pattern. Misogyny and the patriarchal oppression that have been carried out in the Chen residence for centuries on end is implemented by the concubines themselves. Through the acceptance of their fate and the act of seeking fulfillment to the master’s sexual needs, the concubines become complicit in their oppression. Because their sole purpose in life lies in offering their body to master Chen, they are driven to acts of pure hatred and hostility toward one another. Lies are spread around the residence, rumors are raised to favor one concubine over the other, and there are even stories of two concubines from past generations hanging themselves out of sheer desperation in a small tool shed.
As mere objects in a male-dominated society, these women find themselves actively hurting each other, accepting their positions and further deepening their own oppression. Sex is never shown on screen. It is simply implied, but not as an act of love and intimacy, but as an act of transaction: the master’s satisfaction and assertion of his control and the woman’s acknowledgment of her own worth.

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The Chen residence is full of broken dreams and deadly secrets.

The ambitions of these concubines never rise over and above the day ahead of them. Their survival is never guaranteed, as it is never a sure bet that the master will select the same woman for a number of consecutive nights. The eldest of the four, a shy yet firm woman of around fifty has become used to this oppressive state of existence, while the other three are tormented by the simple thought of being overlooked by their master. The lack of a foot massage and lack of say in the creation of the day’s menu signify lack of self-worth and utter humiliation in the face of society. Songlian’s initial look of innocence is replaced with the cunning instinct of someone is who fighting for survival, no matter the cost or consequences of her actions. Faking a potential pregnancy or spreading falsehoods about the other concubines is the only way out of this trap. It at least guarantees you a few days of comfort, perhaps even a month of delicious meals and healing massages. But the only liberation beyond these walls takes place in the master’s bedroom. The only acknowledgment of their existence are the red lanterns hanging outside their house.

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As the film progresses, the initial warm look is replaced with an equally cold one.

The dreams of the maid whose ambition was to become a mistress are ultimately crushed. The hierarchy among women in the Chen residence closely resembles the hierarchy of a totalitarian regime, perhaps the one under which this movie was made and consequently banned for a number of years. Whether it is a cry for help or a manifesto against the powers that be, Raise the Red Lantern shows how simple it is to effectively oppress other human beings through the implementation of customs and traditions. Their morality is never questioned, but rather taken for granted and set aside in favor of their legality. As a result of this, the protagonists of this film are simultaneously presented as victims and perpetrators of each other’s fate. They suffer and inflict suffering on others in the name of a misogynistic society that values their bodies and their silence above all. Their existence never leaves the bedroom, and if it does, it will not go unpunished.

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Crushed dreams in the form of burning lanterns.

Bamboozled: Social Commentary Done Right

There is very few filmmakers today who are able to express genuine outrage in their movies without making it political and needlessly alienating part of their audience. Social commentary is hard to accomplish, mostly due to the constantly shifting media landscape and society. People’s sensitivities and priorities change over time. Audiences have grown to become more ambitious and selective due to the vast variety of content that is out there for them to grab and consume. Some stories are not considered relevant anymore and it’s often a simple matter of turning the other way and losing interest over a particular topic.
Hollywood has a history of wrestling with this kind of social commentary and more often then not, the film industry has failed to address important matters in a compelling, timely fashion. What was once considered social commentary done right, today is a pile of toothless remakes and reboots in the vein of Adam McKay’s horrendously bad and vapid Vice, the prime example of a recent movie aiming for the stars with its commentary on corrupt, capitalist governments and ending up in the garbage because of how genuinely distant it felt from its audience. Hollywood’s status of privilege and wealth often gets in the way of capturing the reality most people live in and thus doing justice to the struggle many experience on a daily basis. Most filmmakers today are not angry enough, and if they are, they are incapable of expressing that anger in a way that makes audiences relate with it. But it didn’t use to be like that. Once a upon a time, there was Spike Lee, carrying the torch of outrage, and his underappreciated entry into the new millennium, Bamboozled from 2000, is an example of accomplished social commentary.

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Spike Lee’s decision to film most of Bamboozled using cheap camcorders strips the movie of any glamour.

Spike Lee is known for a lot of things. He’s a renowned basketball fan, an outspoken civil rights activist, a former film student of Martin Scorsese, and above all, he’s got a history of being mad at America and addressing this simmering anger and frustration through his movies. Ending the 80s with his most popular work, Do the Right Thing where he tackled street violence, and going into the 90s by dishing out the likes of Jungle Fever, Malcolm X, Clockers and Summer of Sam, that saw him at the receiving end of an endless stream of threats on his life and his loved ones’, Spike finally came full circle and got his long-deserved Oscar for writing BlacKkKlansman, a movie that re-captured the Spike we all knew and loved – mad Spike, a Spike that does not take no for answer and will let everyone know about it.
As I revisited  Spike Lee’s filmography, I happened to stumble upon Bamboozled, a satire about American television and mediatized racism that seems to have gone under the radar of most audiences since its initial release in 2000. Thanks to the restoration by Criterion, Bamboozled is now available to everyone and is definitely an important piece to the director’s body of work and a vital commentary that is just as relevant today as it was twenty years ago, if not more. The film’s premise is very basic: an African-American TV network writer, Pierre Delacroix, is given the task to make an outrageous show in order to raise viewership in the light of the emergence of Internet, video-games and TV packages responsible for killing traditional television audiences. The show is a blackface minstrel show, an insane concept for daytime TV, but also, in Delacroix’s mind, a strong protest against the powers that be. The show is bound to fail, and yet, to everyone’s surprise, it becomes a huge hit.

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Mantan literally tap-dancing for the white TV executive is one of the film’s most thought-provoking scenes.

Riffing off of Sidney Lumet’s landmark film, Network, Spike Lee’s outrage at America’s cultural core involving a long and prominent history of racist mediatization of African Americans shows the risks that audiences run whenever they press play. Whereas in Network, the truths and ramblings of a failed TV anchor become a national sensation, in Bamboozled the televised manifesto meant to address the evil of American media is twisted into a family show for mostly white audiences. Whereas Sidney Lumet’s film was a reaction to current-day developments (in 1976, obviously) within American TV audiences and their relation to mediatized violence, Bamboozled is much larger and dense in scope: it is an uncompromising attack on the past, present and future of American culture.
Conceived out of spite for his boss who frequently rejected any of his scripts portraying African Americans in a positive light, Delacroix’s blackface minstrel show is filled with racist jokes, insults and the worst kind of stereotypes, all meant to cause a national uproar. The show’s ambition does not go beyond making fun of the two protagonists, ”two Negroes on a watermelon patch” called Mantan, the show’s tap-dancing star and  his friend, Sleep ‘n Eat. The sole mission for this show is to fail. Big time. Get the numbers of viewers up, ”feed the idiot box” and get off the air. This way, Delacroix hopes, he will have been able to finally express himself artistically and make his outrage against American TV a topic of discussion for the general public. However, as I previously mentioned, the show becomes a big hit, and Delacroix’s ideas get taken away from him and manipulated by a roomful of white writers whose job it is to please the audience and turn the show into a product.

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Mantan and Sleep ‘n Eat become America’s new darlings.

If you thought Spike Lee was pissed in Do the Right Thing, you got another thing coming. In Bamboozled, Spike’s outrage is palpable and contagious. He is mad at a number of things but most of all he is mad at our tendency of imprisoning ourselves within the confines and limits set by what we are fed from a cultural standpoint. Delacroix’s blackface show has no right to exist. It has no right to live and breathe within most American households. Its primitive, evil depiction of African Americans should rightly be punished. And yet, in a country built on slavery and the Three-Fifth Compromise (three-fifths of a person) this is not the case. Even the most hateful form of expression against a whole race becomes a product for daytime TV that audiences can enjoy over a cup of warm cocoa and a bowl of cereal before heading out to work. Soon enough, billboards on Times Square start showing the highly controversial blackface. The two protagonists, Mantan and Sleep ‘n Eat become cultural phenomenons. Audience members start showing up to tapings of the program wearing blackface and proudly screaming ”I’m a nigger!” on live TV. Through this grotesque, on-the-nose vision of fading morals and a broken down system that thrives on and rewards bigotry and racism, Spike Lee finds himself attacking the core of America’s cultural structure.

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Jada Pinkett-Smith delivers a brilliant performance as a black woman trying to maintain dignity in a world that values everything but dignity.

And here is why Spike’s social commentary is far superior than anyone else’s today: he refuses to make excuses for all involved. Everyone is complicit. From the TV executive that tries to convince Delacroix that he has as much of a right to say nigger as him because his wife is black and his kids are biracial, to the audiences tuning in at home and buying the show’s merchandise, to the black community that is too comfortable and too complacent to act, and those who act, act without thinking rationally, to Delacroix himself who becomes his own worst enemy and starts losing sight of what the show’s initial message was. Because this is what social commentary should be. It should be a reminder that takes no prisoners, a barrage of smart critique that makes you think well after the film is over. Bamboozled did just that. It left me feeling dirty and tired. Complicit. Complicit because I took for granted the misrepresentation of African American culture in Gone with the Wind. Complicit because too many times I’ve said ”It’s just a cartoon,” or ”In those days it was different.” Complicit because I did not do enough research or was too lazy to inform myself. Therefore, one of the people Spike was talking to through Bamboozled, believe it or not, was me. And you.

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Are these really only cartoons? What is their purpose?

Going into more detail about this film would certainly spoil the fun and strip the film of its dense texture (there is really too much to talk about. Spike goes after everybody: Hollywood, celebrities, politicians, misogynists, advertisers, and on and on…).
At the end of the day, social commentary is about provoking the audience rather than teasing. And more often than not, Hollywood settled on teasing. Just think about it. The wildly acclaimed Best Picture winner of 2018 (the same year Lee’s BlacKkKlansman was in the awards race), Green Book, the true story of an African American artist was ultimately manipulated and turned by a team of white writers, producers and director into a family friendly story about the friendship between a black man and a white man. This is what Spike Lee is talking about. This is what we are up against. And in the case of Green Book, Maurice Shirley’s own family spoke out against the misrepresentation of Shirley’s life for the sake of ‘teasing’ (and pleasing) the audience. This is the way it goes. By simply purchasing a ticket to go see a film like Green Book or renting it on a streaming platform, we are complicit in this misrepresentation.
Bamboozled reminds us that these movies, these pieces of culture matter. They have an impact on our perception of reality. By watching movies, reading books, catching up on our favorite shows, we learn about history, day-to-day affairs and our worldview is shaped according to this content.
Bamboozled tells us to ”wake the fuck up.” We can still turn things around.

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”Everyone wants to be a…!”

Two Popes: The Epidemic of Bad Screenwriting

Two old guys sitting in dresses talking about God. This is, word for word, how Anthony McCarten, screenwriter of last year’s Oscar-nominated Two Popes, described his film that retells in a fictionalized way the relationship between Pope Benedict and future Pope Francis. And perhaps the problem starts here. At this very shallow and nauseatingly vague and hip (because, let’s face it, how can you otherwise sell this movie to younger audiences?) premise. Amidst the on-going Coronavirus, there is another epidemic that is currently working its way into Hollywood. Its symptoms can be found in Two Popes. Bad screenwriting is nothing new. Like in any other art form there are those who are better at it and those who still have some catching up to do. However, we live in a time where bad screenwriting is being actively rewarded, both critically and financially. And Fernando Meirelles’ Two Popes, written by Anthony McCarten, is the prime example of a product that is being sold to masses, neatly wrapped in gift wrap by the likes of Netflix and Amazon, despite some serious flaws that should not go unnoticed.

On the surface, Two Popes is just that: a fictionalized retelling of conversations held between Pope Benedict, here labelled as the conservative, and future Pope Francis, here labelled as the progressive of the two. The film follows the two men of God as they clash with their beliefs. One argues that God never changes. The other one says the opposite. One fails to see the point in watching a football game. The other one is a fanatic of the sport. And so on, and so on. Rinse and repeat. There is nothing wrong with what I just described and the movie does a fairly good job of establishing the two clashing personalities in the opening half hour.
Pope Francis, here still called by his last name, Bergoglio, is the man of the people. A humble preacher who dresses like the villagers he blesses on a casual Sunday morning in some God-forsaken little Argentinian town. Pope Benedict, on the other hand, values comfort and fashion, and spends most of his time in his holiday mansion by the lake. This rather obvious distinction between the two is what screenwriter Anthony McCarten wants us to recognize before we dive into their relationship once they meet to discuss their differences and the eventual resignation on the part of Pope Benedict. And here is where the problems start.

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The two popes sharing a pizza.

McCarten has a history of screenwriting ”indifference” with a resume that includes The Theory of EverythingThe Darkest Hour and Bohemian Rhapsody. All of his films are based on real people, all of his films have granted each leading man an Oscar (Eddie Redmayne for playing Stephen Hawking, Gary Oldman for Winston Churchill and Rami Malek for Freddie Mercury) and all of his films assume the same attitude in the face of clashing personalities, beliefs and agendas – indifference.
Here is the man who turned Hawking’s life of struggle and adversity into a romantic dramedy without any real understanding of his relationship with his wife, Jane Hawking. Here is the man who failed to add any clarity or complexity to Churchill’s decision-making in the so-called darkest hour. Here is the man who instead of capturing the vitality and creativity of one of history’s greatest rockstars went for the most obvious, formulaic rise-and-fall scenario. Having said this, Two Popes had a real chance of being made into something fresh and unique. The supposed meetings between the two clergymen never really took place. Pope Benedict and Francis met only briefly on three occasions and their conversations had not been recorded or transcribed in any form.
This uncharted territory presented many interesting opportunities for a capable screenwriter. After all, the Catholic Church has been at the heart of most modern discussion panels; its existence, its benefits and threats. And under Pope Benedict, the Catholic Church suffered greatly in terms of image: sex scandals, investigations, tabloid headlines, you name it. This had potential. If handled well enough, a movie like Two Popes could have sparked these debates even further and put more question marks to an already muddled landscape of current affairs.
Instead, Two Popes comes off as an innocent, feel-good comedy with flashes of drama (mostly revolving around Bergoglio’s past during Argentina’s dark years of dictatorship), something you’d watch with your parents in-between binge-watching sessions of Sex Education and Narcos.

Saved by two miraculous performances in Hopkins and Pryce as Benedict and Francis, respectively, Two Popes drives toward an inevitably predictable conclusion in cruise control. As previously mentioned, the opening conversations revolving around the differences in appearance between the two men (one loves to dance tango and sing Abba songs, the other prefers to play piano and watch German cop shows, and so on, and so on, ad nauseam…) are fine and pose an interesting premise. Where will it lead to? How will these differences impact their beliefs? And more importantly, when will it all culminate? When will they talk about real important matters?
McCarten’s screenplay seems to navigate from present day to flashbacks of Argentina in the 70s in order to escape these pressing questions. When there is a difficult dilemma at hand, McCarten chooses to by-pass it with a smart remark or a joke. Keep the tone light. Make it cheerful. The flashbacks relating to questionable decisions made by a young Bergoglio who, when pressured by the authorities and accused of siding with Communists during Argentina’s Dirty War, became subject of allegations regarding the kidnapping and torture of two Jesuit priests, fail to explore the moral ambiguity and religious identity of Francis. Thus, the flashbacks start and end without a sense of purpose or urgency. Their implications and consequences are not meant to be studied and explored, but used as mere exposition.
And that’s my main issue with bad screenwriting in general. Exposition is too often used to mask a lack of imagination. The more you tell directly to your audience, the more you hope they will feel engaged by the material presented to them. In Hollywood, this is happening more and more often, especially when dealing with real life characters. Think of The Post, Hidden Figures, or even the glorified snooze-fest, also known as Lincoln. Screenwriters seem to be afraid to play around with history, and McCarten in particular seems to be terrified of provoking the audience through his own beliefs as a writer. The result is a work that is deprived of any belief at all. What we get is a trite confrontation between conservative and progressive and we, as an audience, are stuck in the middle. We are the so-called centrists, afraid to join one side over the other, indifferent to the decisions being made right in front of us.

There is an alarming lack of symbolism in Two Popes, which is quite surprising considering most films dealing with the theme of religion are often entirely grounded in symbolism, and yet this is another screenwriting path that McCarten is afraid to take. Perhaps because symbolism, again, relates to assuming a specific attitude toward a subject matter. As a writer you use symbols, metaphors and the like to voice unspoken truths on paper. To avoid addressing directly the issue at hand. Symbolism is like making a puzzle: the end result can be enormously satisfying but the process demands great attention and focus, something that McCarten has not been willing to utilize in his movies.
Similarly to The Darkest Hour, where Churchill walks through his most pressing moment as a world leader as if it was a walk in the park, calling upon the same old tired motifs of patriotism, masculinity and sacrifice in the face of adversity, Two Popes deal with the subject of religion and the Church as if they were discussing their favorite movies or books. There is hardly any room for controversy and real, hard debate.

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The Darkest Hour, also written by McCarten, limits itself to a safe and cartoonish depiction of Churchill.

In writing this post, I do not wish to discredit McCarten as a screenwriter. My intent is to direct some criticism toward a system that actively rewards indifference when it comes to issues of fairly great importance. Movies like Two Popes should not be something you walk out of smiling and saying to yourself ”Those two are some funny popes,” just like like The Darkest Hour should not be something you digest the same way you digest an episode of Friends. History is to be honored, yes. But that does not mean it cannot be turned into something thought provoking and engaging. Through this epidemic of indifferent screenwriting, we have seen countless films that move the same way. Talk the same way. And preach about the same things. The Theory of Everything is not all that different from Bohemian Rhapsody. The same way Imitation Game is not all that different from The Danish Girl. Or The Post and Lincoln. Trumbo and Hidden Figures. And thus, these stories become mere products that end up on your Netflix watchlist, never to be seen again. Is that what cinema is about? More importantly, is that what history is really about? Turning the page and moving on? If it all starts from pen and paper, then screenwriters like McCarten should be held to a higher standard.

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Should we really cheer for them?