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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
2020 is almost here as we are nearing the end of a fantastic decade for cinema. The 2010s have featured a steady rise in the variety of material produced by the world of filmmakers and have offered to audiences some of the greatest cinematic moments we could ever experience. The growth of this medium is undeniable: from world class film directors such as Scorsese and the Coen Brothers getting their work green lit by Netflix (The Irishman, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs) and having their films made accessible to younger, more diverse audiences through the worldwide streaming platform to indie films such as Moonlight and The Shape of Water claiming Oscar gold, to female auteurs making themselves be heard with Lady Bird, American Honey and We Need to Talk About Kevin, just to name a few, getting the recognition they deserve. Foreign cinema reinforced itself with audiences with the likes of A Separation, Ida, Roma and this year’s record-breaking Parasite. Technology is on the rise and its application in movies has revealed to us new horizons (War of the Planet of the Apes, The Irishman, Life of Pi). Blockbusters and superhero movies are now family events (Avengers: Endgame), just as biopics have become a consistent source of knowledge for most audiences (The King’s Speech, 12 Years a Slave). Cinema has no intention of slowing down. No, sir.
Here are 5 movies from this decade that prove it.
5. KILLING THEM SOFTLY (2012)
On paper, Andrew Dominik’s third feature film looks like your typical crime TV movie – a grim story about a couple of junkies robbing the wrong people and getting punished by a stone cold killer (Brad Pitt). On screen, Killing Them Softly is a brutal, blunt confrontation with America and the corrupt system behind it following the financial crisis. The words to Obama’s victory speech after his election in 2008 are blasted across the screen as we see the nastiest corners of drug infested, poverty-stricken modern day America and the people that populate it. We hear words of promise, hope, but see none of it actually taking place. The Cannes jury hated it, the studios cut it to pieces and the few people that saw it upon its release did not know what to make of it, but looking back, Killing Them Softly is as fresh and engrossing as it was back when we all thought everything was fine and dandy.
No other film has left me as shaken and puzzled as last year’s Korean masterpiece. Loosely based on a short story by Haruki Murakami, Lee Chang-dong’s film is a punch to the senses. With its simple premise about two childhood friends catching up after many years and eventually being joined by an unexpected guest (Walking Dead’s Steven Yeun) who proceeds to tell them about his favorite hobby, Burning keeps us in the dark and makes us question every step it takes without fully realizing what we are getting into. Impossible to categorize, not being a thriller nor a full-blown horror, this Korean gem is the most tense experience I’ve had in a film theater and is an essential viewing for those who enjoy guessing more than finding answers.
3. SICARIO (2015)
Recently named filmmaker of the decade by the Hollywood Critics Association, Denis Villeneuve is a force to be reckoned with. After getting his big breakthrough in Hollywood with his 2013 hit, Prisoners, Villeneuve solidified his position as one of the leading figures of today’s cinematic landscape by giving us a once-in-a-lifetime dive into the blood-soaked narco world of the US-Mexico border. Blurring the lines between good and evil, Sicario is the work of a poet with the eye of a hardened journalist reporting from the front lines. It’s a film that I keep coming back to and rediscovering all over again. With its cold, calculated attitude it is one of the greatest commentaries on the ambiguity and controversial nature of the war on drugs and a heartbreaking tribute to the victims of this bloody conflict.
2. THE MASTER (2012)
Paul Thomas Anderson’s poignant character study of a WWII veteran (Joaquin Phoenix) suffering from PTSD and seeking solace in the teachings of a cult leader (Philip Seymour Hoffman) might sound like the beginning of a bad joke. Fortunately, it is one of the greatest works to come out of this century. It is also a masterclass in acting, with Phoenix and the late Hoffman giving two of the very best performances you will ever see, the former playing the puppet and the latter playing the puppeteer. The Master is a big question mark that refuses to be stripped of its quirks, off-beat moments and complex features. It is a work that is not meant to be categorized or labelled. It simply is.
1. THE GREAT BEAUTY (2013)
The first thing you will notice about Paolo Sorrentino’s Oscar winner is the energy. The energy of the colors and music, for a film about an aging writer wandering around the streets of Rome, is like none other. Following the footsteps of Fellini, Sorrentino paints a portrait that is both beautiful and ugly of a society that goes through ups and downs, that lies to itself, that suffers and whose downfall stems from its own limitless pride. Like the greatest Italian films, The Great Beauty moves to its own tune and is impossible to tame. Who knew that a man’s quest for meaning (whatever that meaning may be; love, death, anything) in the jungle that is Rome could be so thrilling to watch.
Let’s talk about women. Women on screen. Most of the time when we think of women in movies we have a clear image, a predefined vision of what a cinematic woman should be like, look like and act like. And when the tables are turned, and we finally get a performance that does not reflect a woman that way, think of Meryl Streep in Kramer vs Kramer as the quiet, docile yet ruthless wife that asks for child custody, or Charlize Theron in Monster as a prostitute that goes on a killing spree after having been molested one too many times, the general public’s response is to reward them. Usually with an Oscar. But that is a rough sketch of the overall picture. But what if I told you that once upon a time there was a director whose entire filmography revolved around unconventional, in a way uncinematic women? What if I told you that he was a director who revolutionized the image of a woman on screen? I am talking about a filmmaker who understood women in all their complexity and embraced everything about them when making a movie. Often times he’d paint the female protagonist as the hero and simultaneously as the antagonist, too. I am talking about John Cassavetes and I want to dedicate this post to the character of Mabel Longhetti in his 1974 effort, A Woman Under the Influence.
Initially conceived as a play, A Woman Under the Influence quickly became a screenplay for a movie with the same title, as Gena Rowlands, John Cassavetes’ wife and lifetime collaborator (appearing in 11 of his movies), felt that playing the character of Mabel would become too excruciating in the long run, as most plays are on five to eight times a week. Because yes, Mabel Longhetti is a mentally disturbed woman, but the mental illness is never made too explicit in the film. In fact, Cassavetes never, in all of his interviews, guest appearances and lectures, never referred to Mabel as a mentally unstable woman. To Cassavetes, Mabel was a woman who suffered many things, just like most people, and to him, that was what made her a character worthy of a movie of her own; Mabel to Cassavetes was a person that lived life with everything she had. To Mabel, every emotion is amplified, and that is also perhaps why A Woman Under the Influence is one of the most disturbing portrayals of family life ever put on screen, and perhaps why Richard Dreyfuss, in an interview following his hit movie Jaws in 1975, when asked what movie had scared him the most in the past decade or so, pointed to Cassavetes’ film, admitting that the emotional intensity of the film, the relentless focus on Mabel and her psychological journey as a mother and wife, was enough to make him vomit in exhaustion upon his return home from the movies.
So what is it that makes A Woman Under the Influence one of, if not, the greatest portrayal of a woman in the history of cinema? For starters there is Gena Rowlands, giving a career-defining performance (more about Gena in a post from 2016) as Mabel Longhetti, devoted mother of three, loyal wife of a construction worker (played by an equally powerful Peter Falk), and above all, a woman tormented by her inability to express her overwhelming love. It is in fact Cassavetes primary goal as a filmmaker to talk about love, as he often stated in some of the interviews prior to his premature death in 1989;
I have a one-track mind. That’s all I’m interested in – love. And the lack of it. When it stops. And the pain that’s caused by loss of things that are taken away from us that we really need.
And it’s true. I remember watching A Woman Under the Influence for the very first time and being highly disturbed by the display of mental illness in the movie. I couldn’t take it, and similarly to Richard Dreyfuss, I felt sick and had to pause the movie a few times just to distance myself from what was taking place in Mabel’s world. However, upon revisiting it a couple of days ago, I watched it with Cassavetes’ idea that it is a film that revolves around the weight of love and what happens when someone is sensitive, vulnerable and in love to the point that even the smallest of things will make that person go crazy and lose balance in life. Because Mabel Longhetti is exactly like that. The first scene we see her appear in, is the scene where she is getting her kids ready to go off with grandma for the weekend. Mabel runs around the driveway making sure her three children have all they need for a weekend away; she tucks in their shirts, she runs back into the house to find an extra pair of shoes, and she keeps repeating to her little joys as they get into grandma’s car ”Get your fingers in! Watch your fingers!” And when finally grandma drives off with the kids, Mabel shuts herself inside the house and starts pacing up and down the hallway, biting on her fingernails, murmuring to herself that she shouldn’t have let them go. The instances when her illness takes over are the instances where her overwhelming love does not know where to go. After a short while, Mabel asks herself in panic ”Where are the kids? Kids? Where are you?”
Mabel is most vulnerable on her own. It is then that her condition turns her into a threat, a threat mostly to herself, as she goes off into the night in search of an adventure and ends up inviting a stranger into her home (it is never made if it is a one-time thing or a repeating occurrence). Meanwhile, her husband Nick is her only life saver, her only certainty in a world that otherwise could be considered her greatest danger, as the immense metropolis that is Los Angeles is bound to push her off-balance into free-fall. When Nick is not home, and that is quite often as his work demands a full 24-hour availability, Mabel is on her own, squaring off with her demons. She indulges in weird moments of self-harm, punching herself in the head, making faces in front of the mirror, drinking hard liquor, smoking packs of cigarettes, running up and down the house in search of something she could her pour love into, but as Cassavetes himself said about how he tackles the theme of love in his movies; ”To have a philosophy is to know how to love, and to know where to put it. […] What everybody needs is a way to say where and how can I love? Can I be in love so I can live with some degree of peace?” Most of the time Cassavetes movies do not deliver an answer to this question. Yet, in A Woman Under the Influence, this very quest to achieve a degree of peace through love is the main focal point of Mabel’s condition.
When Nick comes home from work with a group of hungry co-workers, we see Mabel spring to her feet in excitement: it is time for to express her love for her husband by preparing a wonderful meal for the numerous guests that Nick considers friends. As Mabel sits in silence, looking at the hungry and tired men devouring home-cooked spaghetti with sauce, we can see glimmers of utter happiness. These are the moments that Mabel lives for, these are the instances when she is at her best, and yet… and yet the condition kicks in. The love that Mabel has for people, for her husband, her family, the family’s friends and relatives, is too strong and is bound to go off any minute. In this scene, for example, Mabel becomes friendly with some of Nick’s co-workers, too friendly, to the point that she embarrasses her husband and makes the guests uncomfortable. When they leave, everything dies down, including Mabel.
If Mabel could have one wish from a genie, that wish would be to be able to put her arms around all the people she loves and keep them there, as close to herself as possible. But that is not how the world works in a Cassavetes film as Mabel is soon deemed to be dangerous for her loved ones (she is eventually put in a mental institution for six months); the danger she poses lies in the affectionate way she plays with her children and her children’s friends, in the way she wants to satisfy everybody that enters her home, the way she maniacally runs up and down Hollywood Boulevard asking strangers for the time as she waits for the school bus to arrive and return her kids safely. It’s as if the most ordinary things make her seem crazy in the eyes of others. But to Cassavetes, the film’s writer and director, this is the essence of a woman; forget the beauty and sex-appeal, the essence of a female protagonist lies in her quirks, her flaws, her habits, her dreams, ambitions and regrets. Mabel is full of them. Cassavetes criticism of women’s depiction in movies is key in analyzing A Woman Under the Influence;
I’m very worried about the depiction of women on the screen. It’s gotten worse than ever and it’s related to their being either high- or low-class concubines, and the only question is when or where they will go to bed, with whom, and how many. There’s nothing to do with the dreams of women, or of woman as the dream, nothing to do with the quirky part of her, the wonder of her.
In Cassavetes’ brilliant psychological domestic drama we experience a woman. An ordinary woman who is not successful, who doesn’t have a job, who doesn’t go out shopping, who doesn’t do things for pleasure or out of interest. Her world, and her experience comes from inside, because Mabel is crazy in the eyes of others, but when she looks in the mirror, she doesn’t see a crazy person; she sees an emotionally rich person, who through a vast range of emotions that can quickly turn happiness into fear, fear into anger, anger into pure joy, confusion into bliss, is desperately trying to find a way to fit into the environment she is forced to be part of. Her body is tied to the physical world, but her mind isn’t. Mabel wants to live for others, through others; in numerous scenes she simulates the behavior of her children because it is her understanding that a mother raising children should feel the same things as her children. And so she dances, she whistles, she races down the street, she makes faces and puts on costumes because her children deserve to be at the center of her attention. And when her husband brings around his friends she finds fitting to emulate his attitude, that of a tough, working man, a macho figure, a bread winner and the head of the household. What comes off as ridicule to Nick is Mabel’s way of telling him, Look how much I love you. Look how much I care about you. Look how much I admire you.
To end this piece, Bo Harwood, the film’s music composer said that to him the score to A Woman Under the Influence is ”basically about love […] about loving somebody, loving your family, loving them no matter what,” which is a fitting conclusion, considering that Mabel is full of imperfections but so are the people around her, above all Nick, her husband, who at times reveals himself to be just as crazy as his wife. Then you might say, well if this is about love and loving somebody, what does the concept of a cinematic woman have to do with this post? To which I’ll reply, everything. To me, and famed critics like Roger Ebert, Mabel represents Cassavetes himself, and his experience with dealing with love, family, betrayal and hardship, and that is why, the portrayal of this particular woman is the most accurate, complete and telling I have ever seen; Mabel represents everything that we might want her to represent. Her condition is the accumulation of values, emotions, stories, incidents and thoughts that we all have, that we all share. That’s what makes her so multidimensional, so unconventional, so beautifully unique, and that is also why cinema would never be the same after the film’s release. Cassavetes and Rowlands, in other words, together revolutionized what a woman can do in a film, what she can stand for and what she can bring to the art form that is cinema.
Relationships. Ugh. Just the sound of this word in a cinematic context makes some people roll their eyes. What else can be said about relationships in movies? After all, we’ve seen all of them, all of them under the same light. Mostly negative. Think Revolutionary Road,American Beauty, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Blue Valentine. Think in the line of thoughtful tearjerkers such as Carol and Far From Heaven. Even comedies. Mostly comedies, crappy ones. As a moviegoer, you’ll think to yourself: enough! We have seen all of them. We know what a relationship is. We know the different forms they assume in movies. There is the sex-driven one (Love & Other Drugs), the forbidden one (Brokeback Mountain), the subtle one (Out of Africa), and finally the goofy one (The Big Sick). Yet somehow, after all these years of world cinema, there is a very limited number of movies that mention one particular form of relationship: the long distance relationship. Sure, movies like Sleepless in Seattle and The Notebook tackled the specific form but I highly doubt any of us have taken those movies seriously, right? Now, let’s be honest, auteur cinema has never shown passion nor interest for this subject matter. Directors like Bergman, Fellini, Antonioni, Scorsese and Kubrick, and many others, as good and as artistic as they all are, interested in the human condition, human nature and whatnot, have never delved head-on into the depths of a long distance relationship. For most highbrow filmmakers, relationships are often considered an item that is to be used as background information for a particular character, eg. (Henry Hill’s relationship with his wife, Karen, in Goodfellas), so why should they be attracted to long distance relationships at all? Well, today I’m here to tell you about an Italian director who accepted the challenge at a very young age and successfully directed a beautiful film about this very subject. Today, I aim to pen down a few thoughts about the long distance relationship depicted in Ermanno Olmi’s I Fidanzati (1963).
The late great Ermanno Olmi passed away earlier this month and I believe he did so as one of the most overlooked directors of all time, a true visionary and simply put, a brilliant artist who undeservedly suffered from a lack of popularity outside of Italy even after he won the prestigious Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1978 for his magnum opus, The Tree of Wooden Clogs, an exhilarating take on life in the Italian countryside in the late 19th century and the struggle of that particular community of outcasts and social rejects. In short, that’s who Olmi was for those of you who haven’t had the chance to study his work; a man of the people, a man interested in people and the mechanisms within each individual. He was a director who gave a heartbeat to every single living thing and cared for his characters like no other artist of the neo-realist wave that took over Italy’s film industry post World-War II all the way until the early 60s. As to the film, I Fidanzati is one of his lesser known works, often overshadowed by the aforementioned Tree of Wooden Clogs and the newly restored Il Posto, Olmi’s second feature about a young man desperately looking for a job in Milan. Still concerned with Italy’s Northern industrialism and focused on the local working class, Olmi’s I Fidanzati (literally, The Fiances) tells the story of how a relationship needs to be worked at with care and tenderness in order for it to survive during hard times of separation and doubt, in order for it to grow even during long stretches of darkness and despair.
Well then, how does Olmi do it? Where does the magic lie? First of all, the setting. The opening sequence tells us everything we need to know about the relationship we’re about to follow: an empty dance hall slowly but surely begins to fill up with locals. Women and men of all ages start dancing to live music, and while the dance continues and the music becomes livelier by the minute, we meet the two protagonists, Liliana and Giovanni, looking lost and quite uncomfortable being around each other. The reason for this discomfort is revealed in a scene that incercuts with the dance sequence; Giovanni is notified of an available job promotion all the way down in Sicily, in a new factory department, and as a result he must leave immediately. So what is the secret to this opening? Olmi does not pull any punches, instead he aims straight for the jugular and decides to pose the first and most important obstacle that the two protagonists will try to overcome as the movie progresses: distance, an overwhelming physical distance that might threaten their engagement, and eventually, their wedding plans. Giovanni, in frustration, dances with a stranger, and so does Liliana. Their fear and preoccupation are expressed through the joyful practice of dancing, an element that will set the tone for the rest of the movie, an element that should be strictly considered for poetic purposes. Eventually, right before Giovanni’s plane leaves, the two of them dance for one last time. What follows afterwards is Giovanni’s trip to Sicily, and this is where Olmi’s magical trick takes place.
Giovanni is, in my opinion, one of the least predictable male characters I have ever witnessed on screen, and through this unpredictability bursts out a profound sense of humanity that you rarely see in films nowadays. Giovanni’s new life in Sicily consists of habitual-driven actions and routine. He awakens, has a cup of coffee at the local bar, goes to work, comes home, goes to bed, repeat. The separation is expressed through the prominent use of wide-screen shot empty locations; bars, streets, factories. Giovanni’s loneliness is a result of Liliana’s absence as only she could fill the empty spaces he finds himself in. His taciturnity is his shield: Giovanni is a polite, quiet and respectful worker who, as demonstrated through a use of flashbacks and jump-cuts, can also turn into a sensitive lover, a dear companion and a faithful fiancée. But all of these listed qualities exist and can be transmitted to the viewer only because of the physical separation the two young lovers are subject to. Olmi builds a desolate, lonely and silent world around Giovanni, a world, or better yet, an island like Sicily that torments its own inhabitants with an unbearable climate, little to no nature and the same sort of industrial way of life as Giovanni encountered in the familiar North.
Giovanni in his free time embarks on short trips across the region to find meaning, a feeling of accomplishment, joy, anything. He visits churches, goes to mass, celebrates a saint’s day with the rest of the inhabitants of the same town he lives in, seeks out fellow Northern workers, writes letters and eventually– constantly thinks about Liliana. The director allows the two lovers to converse throughout the movie through flashbacks, so that their relationship, instead of suffering and feeling threatened, is actually built upon. All of a sudden this separation becomes the driving engine of the relationship as it enables both characters to experience loneliness and regret, two essential elements of a real, matrimonial relationship. Their love grows through the physical distance and through the isolated life that Giovanni is forced to lead on this remote island. During moments of fatigue and helplessness, Liliana’s voice-over echoes across the screen, thus demonstrating the multitude of ways Olmi goes about solidifying their bond, instead of weakening it. Unlike so many other films, most of them following the Hollywood relationship recipe, that try to weaken their characters by presenting them with new challenges (eg, how to resist another woman), new enemies, etc, Olmi poses the unnatural emptiness as the only obstacle worth overcoming. In other words, I Fidanzati is as much a film about endurance, and the strength of the human spirit as it is a film about a specific relationship.
There is a beautiful moment worth noting near the end of this 70-minute-long film; Liliana reads aloud a letter she’s written to Giovanni, where she tells him about the time she got his letter. She says: ”I felt excited and happy running up the stairs. But then suddenly that happiness frightened me.” It is as if this sudden change in her daily routine made her aware of the kind of burden this long distance relationship has put on her shoulders. Suddenly, happiness has become an exclusive feeling in Liliana’s daily life, away from Giovanni and his peaceful, reassuring presence. All of a sudden, this distance has become a thrill to her. A reason not to lose hope.
Why are independent movies so important to the film industry nowadays? Look closer and you’ll see that before and after 9/11 independent movies began to emerge onto the big stage. In the last few years there’s been three independent Best Picture winners; Moonlight, Spotlight and Birdman. Among other Oscar winning movies in recent years you have Room, Whiplash, Boyhood, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Ex Machina, Little Miss Sunshine, Lost in Translation and many, many more. It is evident that something must have happened within the industry and the way people, celebrities and critics react to low budget movies for independent cinema to become so popular and well liked. Perhaps it’s the fact that the Academy has changed its available slots for Best Picture (used to be five, now it is ten) and has allowed more room for the nominees, more flexibility. It can also be the outcome of better distribution and marketing, or maybe the importance of independently-oriented film festivals such as Sundance or Telluride has grown significantly in recent years.
Everything comes down to where it all started. What movie initiated this? I think I have an idea of what it was. When it came out it wasn’t popular at all, it made little to no money, it was shot on reversal 16mm, a very underused lens even in today’s age of experimental arthouse cinema, and it didn’t have any big name actors aside from a couple of fading stars. In other words, it was the epitome of what an independent film should be. The movie I’ve decided to write about is Buffalo ’66, a little gem from 1998, a true game-changer that made people realize how unique an independent movie (aside from low budget documentaries) can really be in order to stand out in a money-ruled industry.
Buffalo ’66 is getting more and more recognition as the years go by. It launched a short but lively career for actress Christina Ricci and introduced the mysterious, unstable figure of Vincent Gallo to the world of media. It established a certain artsy quality, the one you could find in French New Wave cinema, to independent filmmaking and represented a ‘return to the roots’ similar to the first low budget films of Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs) and Robert Rodriguez (El Mariachi).
Billy, played by Gallo himself, is your average Joe who spent the last few years in prison for a crime he did not commit but for some strange reason took upon himself, ruining his own life, drifting further away from his family and what he knew as the real world. Once he comes out, everything seems to have changed. It’s colder, the streets are covered with snow, the city is deserted, nothing is quite the way it used to be. He decides to avenge his past suffering by killing the man who was responsible for making him lose the bet that changed his whole life for the worse – a football player for the Buffalo Bills that failed to make the game-winning field goal in the Superbowl and is now the owner of a prominent strip club in Woodlawn, New York. But first, he has to do the one thing that really pains him and that is – visit his parents. In order to do this he kidnaps Layla (played by the once beautiful Christina Ricci) and forces her to act as his beloved wife, making him look good in front of his judgmental father (Ben Gazzara) and his absent, football-loving mother (Anjelica Huston).
What at first glance seems to be your traditional crime drama soon turns your expectations upside down and you can be sure of it, steals your heart. Because Buffalo ’66 is not about guns, fights and tough character. It is precisely about the opposite; about feelings, innocence and the lost masculinity of the average American man. It is pretty ironic how Vincent Gallo mistreated Christina Ricci, verbally abusing her on set, criticized the film’s cinematographer, taking all the credit for his work and all around behaved like a bully. But sometimes artists are the opposite of perfect. Buffalo ’66 accurately depicts the message Gallo wanted to transmit. The character of Billy acts tough, curses and plays the part of the ex-con but at the heart of it, he is one of the most vulnerable and insecure characters ever portrayed on screen. Think of it, even the name ‘Billy’ is not the name you’d expect from someone who uses the word ‘fuck’ in every sentence and kidnaps a girl for odd reasons. As he emerges from the prison building, Billy appears to be a very slim man, his long arms and long legs make him look like a cartoon character more than a cinematic one. His body language is that of a man who hasn’t fully grown yet, haunted by bad memories, a troubled childhood and an unknown future. He wanders outside the state penitentiary with his arms crossed, shaking because of the cold, and in need of a quick visit to the bathroom. In other words, Billy doesn’t come off as glamorous and confident, instead he is the character we usually tend to expect to be playing a supporting role. Well, now here he is, says Gallo, this loser is your protagonist, deal with it.
Layla, on the other hand, is not your traditional leading female character. She is just a teenager, with the features, as pointed out by Billy’s father, of a grown woman (lovely face, large, firm breasts) but the spirit of a young, untamed schoolgirl. Layla’s existence is a statement from Gallo against conventional cinema, the expectations it builds up and usually fails to deliver. What starts off as a sloppy kidnapping, slowly but effectively turns into a story about two souls who really do not fit this earth, no matter what they do. Their actions are unreasonable, they are unable to communicate, and it feels like they live in a transparent bubble, locked away from the ‘normal’ American citizens. In some way or another, Billy and Layla represent independent filmmaking. They do not fit the system, they do not have friends, lovers nor reliable relatives. They are on their own, fighting against the odds with minimal expectations for a positive outcome.
Billy’s actions have no real goal. His visit to his family home in Buffalo turns out to be a total disaster. He stops at on the front porch, kneels down and starts to feel dizzy. Memories rush to his head. Layla is unable to help him. She tries to comfort him but he swats her hand away, telling her he’s absolutely fine. And yet there he is, sitting next to his kidnapped victim, twisting in pain and looking more miserable than ever. Once he decides to step in and ring the door bell everything goes from bad to worse. His father is a nervous wreck, bored with his life, lacking anything to show for it; his mother is a football fanatic that operates like a robot and doesn’t leave the TV set for a split second. Both parents have absolutely wiped out any sort of memory from Billy’s troubled childhood. In fact, they only one photograph of him from when he was a little boy.
The whole scene at the family dinner table is shot like a scene from a movie by Japanese master, Yasujiro Ozu, with the static camera placed on the same level as the characters, making it all look even less cinematic. It is against Hollywood conventions, it throws the awkwardness of the scene, the difficulty of communication between parents and son and the ridiculousness of the characters right at you. At times it can turn out to be hilarious and yet it also feels painful to watch. It’s drama wrapped in comedy and heartache. Like independent filmmaking, the visit to the family place represents a risk. It is a challenge that an average Joe like Billy has to face in order to make things right or as he says to Layla, ‘Make it look good, make me look good.’ For Billy even the slightest incident or remark from Layla’s or his parents’ part is a genuine difficulty and represents a threat to his own story, his own existence. Billy is not William. He is still the innocent child who has trouble keeping up with the adults. It’s the small time director having trouble keeping up with the blockbusters at the box office. It’s art having trouble keeping up with the wake of modern technology such as portable camcorders, mobile phones and computers.
Buffalo ’66 is the struggle of the crook, the criminal, the blue collar worker. And that is why it is so gripping, painful and unique. It deals with palpable subject matters, it is about the real world and real characters. It is about vulnerability, and who the hell in the 90s, a time of Tarantino movies and Schwarzenegger action blockbusters, had any interest mentioning that ‘girly’ stuff? Well, independent cinema thought otherwise. And perhaps that is the reason why today’s independent movies like Little Miss Sunshine with its family of misfits, Moonlight with its insecure, black gay protagonist, and Birdman, with its washed up actor, make it big by telling unconventional stories. They all aspire, without even knowing, to the simplicity of Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo ’66.
I want to talk about what it means for a character to be ‘contemporary’ because we hear that word being thrown around a lot lately. ‘Contemporary’ best describes something that is happening right now, right this second. It is an observation of the present time and something that applies to a large group of people. Some performances are so contemporary that they end being trapped in their small present universe and have trouble being recognized in the later decades. Think any performance by James Stewart, Sidney Poitier or even Lauren Bacall. At the time of their ‘creation’ they were considered to be the top form of acting and yet, as we look back upon them now we get the feeling that something is not right. Something doesn’t fit the picture anymore and it gets under our skin forcing us to ask ourselves how come the distance between the viewer and the character is so palpable. Well, sometimes you stumble into a performance that is so contemporary to the point it becomes timeless, and not for its myth, but for its raw, larger than life depiction and delivery. Think Robert De Niro in Raging Bull, a performance that was meant to embody the anger and frustration of Martin Scorsese’s generation and still manages to surprise us up to this day. Think Sean Penn in Mystic River, where we get the brutal portrayal of an everyday man desperate to avenge his daughter’s murder. Think Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood, the story of an oilman at the beginning of the 19th century who gives up his entire life in order to become rich. And finally, think Casey Affleck in this year’s Manchester by the Sea. Yes, Casey Affleck’s character is more relevant than ever and will be for a long time to come. Why? Go on, have a read.
Lee Chandler is the name of the character. He is a middle-aged janitor and handyman working in a few apartment buildings in Boston, who seems to have trouble dealing with everyday life and the people surrounding him. He is enveloped in his own little world and is hesitant to come out of it. For some odd reason we are not surprised. On the other hand, every now and then we witness these flashbacks that show us the young Lee Chandler, a boyish fisherman from a little town up north, by the sea, who spends his days fishing, sailing and playing around with his brother (Kyle Chandler in a very Marc Ruffalo-esque role) and his nephew, little Patrick. The past almost merges with the present and sometimes it is not easy to distinguish which one is which. In fact, this difficulty in pointing out the past and the present helps the film’s character development in a major way. We get the side of free, almost teenager Lee who enjoys drinking, playing table tennis, partying with his friends but also enjoys taking care of his family, his wife, his two daughters and his youngest son. Then something happens. A real tragedy. A point of no return. And the past inevitably triggers the present. Lee is transformed by a series of dramatic events. The present is just as painful as the past, says writer-director Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count on Me; Margaret), and there is no way of denying it when Lee, busy shoveling piles of snow and clearing someone’s toilet, receives a phone call from the hospital up in Manchester telling him his beloved older brother just died of a fatal heart attack. Tragedy follows Lee as he quits the job and drives out to his hometown in order to take care of the funeral arrangements. There is one problem though, Patrick, Lee’s nephew, is now to be taken care of by Lee himself, nominated in his brother’s will as the boy’s guardian. And that is when we get Casey Affleck’s full range as an actor.
What makes this powerhouse of a performance so contemporary is the way the actor manges to bottle up any kind of emotion and at the same time produce the triple amount of feeling for the character to be human and realistic. Lee Chandler is a walking zombie, empty and at the same time filled to the brim, close to self destruction, without any real purpose to his life. He breathes because his body tells him to do so. He walks because his legs and muscles are still intact, but there is nothing more than a bunch of memories stuck inside of his heart. Affleck’s job is tougher than it looks. He has to play a character without any ambition, without any goal or presence, and still make him look human. His body language is very simple, trapped in a cage, unable to do more than one thing at a time, unable to communicate with the rest of the world. Let’s face it, whatever Lee had to offer to the world, he doesn’t have it anymore. He’s like a dried-up well, a machine that is oiled enough to perform the same task over and over again. So why do we empathize with such an uninteresting character? How come we’re drawn to a person lacking any real identity? After all, we’ve seen so many similar characters fail because of the actors’ inability to transmit any feeling or story, more like shadows than bodies. Instead, Affleck is different. There is a rare intensity to his acting, the kind you usually find in Sean Penn and Daniel Day-Lewis’ acting, or even the acting of the glory days of young Pacino. The intensity comes from the physical as well as ‘spiritual’ silence of the character. The little bursts of violence and frustration we get out of Lee happen only when he’s drunk enough to get into a meaningless brawl in a bar. That’s when the viewer has the rare possibility of getting a glimpse at the tamed beast resting within Lee, similarly to Sean Penn’s character in Mystic River, who seems quiet and controlled throughout most of the movie with the exception of the scene where he discovers his daughter’s dead body and explodes into a maniacal rage. In this case, the fireworks aren’t that potent, but it still is a beautiful example of how a subtle performance can turn a quiet character into a powerful, dominating on-screen presence. Lee is a human wreck we should all be capable of understanding. The struggle in his eyes, his gestures, is a very realistic one. It is not a fantasy story and that is also why Manchester by the Sea, a small indie film produced by Amazon studios is racking up all the awards right now: because it deals with reality in a very non-Hollywood, gritty way. Lee’s actions are human, difficult to justify, sometimes illogical but that is precisely why he is so believable and present when we see him on the silver screen. Affleck has always been in my opinion an extremely underrated actor, able bring humanity even to the most despicable characters such as Robert Ford in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. He subtracts the masculinity everyone seeks nowadays and adds a shattered, broken quality that makes everything seem more natural and at the same time, more difficult to understand. Most viewers don’t like to be played around with but that’s what great actors do, they play around and toy with your emotions. Lee Chandler is like that, he confronts himself, his ex-wife and you, the viewer. He makes you grit your teeth. And it hurts.
Today’s topic: this year’s Oscar nominations. Many people tend to ignore the Oscars, simply considering it a celebrity event, and even more people don’t care about Oscar status as a whole. Rightly so. However, it is important to remember that being nominated for or even winning the prestigious golden boy often leads to more possibilities for the ones involved, salary raise, better connections and more responsibilities. It’s a chance for small, indie films that normally would end up going under the radar, to shine and prove the world wrong. It’s a chance for disadvantaged contenders, such as minorities, to become an example for the rest of the industry. Well guess what. The Oscars like to forget about that. Every once in a while they remind themselves like that time when they took a chance at wonder boy screenwriter Quentin Tarantino back in 1995. Or that time they awarded in both acting categories two black actors: Denzel Washington and Halle Berry in 2002. Or even that time they finally recognized Martin Scorsese for his lifelong career handing him the way overdue Oscar in 2007 for The Departed. And sometimes, Oscars manage to reach the unreachable level of stupidity, like last year… and this year.
The concept of women winning or even being nominated in a male dominated category is quite rare to say the least in the film industry. After Kathryn Bigelow won best picture and best director for the Hurt Locker in 2010, the Oscar voters decided to take a step back and let the big change fall flat again. Last year, they ignored the talent of Ava DuVernay who directed the mediocre but in directing terms roaring Selma, the story of Martin Luther King and the impact his politics had on the streets in the US. That day they also decided to ignore Oyelowo’s performance as MLK, a convincing and powerful portrayal of a man who found himself cornered by his own decisions and policies. Why? Because in 2014, 12 Years a Slave won best picture. It had to. It sure wasn’t the best picture of that year but Oscar voters couldn’t turn away and ignore it because its message was too powerful. And that was it. No more diversity for the next two years and counting.
Have you people heard of Beasts of No Nation? Probably not, since it only came out via Netflix and in a few theaters in the US back in October, but let me tell you: the story of a child soldier, Agu, in an African country who kills in the name of his beloved commander is one of the best films of this year. Under the direction of Cary Fukunaga, the man behind the acclaimed first season of True Detective, this film is one of the most brutally honest portrayals of war I’ve ever seen and yet the Academy decides not to give it a chance because of its online distribution. Shouldn’t movies be about change? About modernization? About heading forward? About exploration? Well, for the voters the answer is NO. Idris Elba, star of the British TV drama Luther, gives a terrifying performance as the black leader who numbs the African youth and manipulates them into thinking he is, in fact, a true god, someone who’ll lead them to glory and make them forget about the past. His mannerisms, his voice, the thick African accent he applies to his own speech, these are all signs of a great actor giving a great performance. Yet it’s not enough for the Academy to recognize him as a possible candidate for Best Supporting Actor. Shame.
You’d think then, if the Academy goes white, it does it in proper style. Not even close. This year’s choices have been cruel. Let Jennifer Lawrence, star of the empty Joy, get her fourth nomination while you ignore Charlize Theron for her incredible performance as Furiosa in Mad Max Fury Road. Why is Lawrence there? Not only was Joy one of this year’s worst films, following every worn-out form of narrative we’ve all seen countless times under David O. Russel’s underwhelming direction, it was also a big office flop. It’s unusual because the Academy tends to go for the big hits. This time it’s the name that counts. Jennifer Lawrence. Enough of her already. After the tough performance she gave in the truly deserving Winter’s Bone, the Academy handed her one for Silver Linings Playbook and nominated her in another head scratching movie, David O. Russel’s American Hustle, making out of a simple twenty year old actress a true Hollywood diva, the highest paid actor in all of the industry with a salary of $26 mln (ironically she speaks out about pay inequality towards women). This celebrity status makes it easier for the Academy because this way they nominate the same famous name all the time and they don’t have to worry about other performances going under the radar. Simple as that, right? Yes, Theron was better. Theron gave in my opinion the best female performance of the year, playing a beautiful character (George Miller’s invention) in a not so beautiful post apocalyptic world. Her shaved head, her robotic arm, her fiery eyes turned what could have been another action blockbuster into an intimate portrayal of human strength and more precisely, women’s strength. However, Oscars like to miss the small stuff, and like to focus on the big stuff: in this case, explosions, real life stunts and roaring action sequences. Well, damn. Shame.
Okay, now if you like to ignore small stuff why don’t you go for Benicio Del Toro’s career best role as Alejandro in Sicario? Not only did they choose to ignore the movie as a possible best picture/ best director/ best original screenplay contender; the voters also decided to ignore what is to me and to many reviewers, one of the best revenge driven characters in recent film history. Del Toro went all in, a silent, deadly man who’s suffered too much to tell. A man who’s seen hell and back and doesn’t want to show it. A man who’s set himself an objective. And he’s fighting for it. That too, to the Academy means – nada. No nomination for you, Benicio. It wasn’t fancy enough. Your name hasn’t been so relevant since you played Che Guevara in 2008′ Che, the four hour long biopic of the most revolutionary leader of the twentieth century. These are the brakes, says the Academy. Luckily let’s hope this performance leads Del Toro to take on many more of these complex, tough as hell roles, because he nailed it. That’s that. Shame.
Of course, after so many fans and critics felt irritated after The Dark Knight was snubbed for best picture back in 2009, the Academy decided to make ten slots for best picture nominees instead of five. That way independent movies and even blockbusters like The Dark Knight itself could have the chance to be nominated in that hard fought category with the best of the best. Yeah, not really. Although I have to hand it to the Oscars for giving Mad Max Fury Road and Room a chance to prove the world wrong, the Academy decided to leave two slots empty, nominating only eight movies instead of ten. Was it so hard to decide? Carol, a work of art by acclaimed director Todd Haynes with great performances given by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, a story of a forbidden love in a forbidden age, one of the movies that was considered sure Oscar material has been totally forgotten. Haynes’ direction as well, sadly. Okay, well you’d think they’d go with someone they know and trust. Like Tarantino and his three hour long epic – The Hateful Eight. Guess what, too much violence. Too much blood. Too much profanity. And it all takes place in a stage-like environment. Not too attractive for the voters. They decided to ignore Quentin’s passion for the Western genre, they ignored the artistry in his Sergio Leone inspired close-ups and oddly enough, they decided to ignore his screenplay – a tribute to a whole world that only Quentin knows so much about, and that is the world of movies. The Hateful Eight is a mix of the macho characters of the forties and fifties played by tough guys like Lee Marvin and Steve McQueen. It’s a mix of Western TV series like Bonanza and Rawhide. It’s his final say to his endless love for The Dollars Trilogy and Once Upon a Time in the West. The Academy doesn’t see it. Well, shame.
Honestly, this year was bad, but there were also tiny bright spots – youngster Brie Larson nominated in the best actress category and old timer Charlotte Rampling nominated in the same one as well. Rachel McAdams, usually considered a sex symbol with movies like The Notebook, Mean Girls and About Time under her belt, was given a chance to prove she can act her heart out with her performance in this year’s Spotlight. The incredible determination in Tom Hardy’s amazing performance as John Fitzgerald in The Revenant was finally recognized by an award show other than the usually reliable BAFTA. That’s good.
Let’s keep in mind. These award shows, like DiCaprio said, are not the reason movies are made. An award is an award, it’s film that stays forever.
Today’s topic: the man who keeps independent filmmaking alive. In an era where Hollywood blockbusters have taken over every big cinema theater in every country, independent cinema is starting to take a new turn and progress with time. Think about it, back in the day some of the biggest names were making movies for themselves instead of making them for big time producers. Quentin Tarantino himself started off by directing Reservoir Dogs with initially a budget of a mere $30.000 and then raised it with the help of actor Harvey Keitel to a more impressive but still low $1.5mln, this way creating what is hailed today as “the greatest independent film of all time”. The Coen Brothers made their first few movies – Blood Simple, Raising Arizona and Miller’s Crossing – with a just few bucks using either at the time unknown actors (Nicolas Cage, John Turturro) or washed up stars like Gabriel Byrne. Sure, other directors like veteran Michael Haneke, newcomer JC Chandor, Lisa Chodolenko, David Gordon Green, Lynne Ramsay are all skillful players of the same trade, but it seems like there is one voice that has done nothing but serve cinematic gems in a day where movies are usually overstuffed or overcooked with clichés and banalities. His tiny filmography gives us a glimpse of a man whose name someday will resonate across all audiences and whose signature will be visible in every book that belongs to film literature. His name is Jeff Nichols.
The boy from Little Rock, Arkansas, grew up to become a true master at his craft, a young mind who sees what other choose to ignore. His filmography of just three films (other two coming out in 2016) has had a huge impact on movie buffs and the way we think about independent filmmaking. Nichols chooses topics that are easy to relate to and makes them much more profound than what we’d expect. His debut, the 2007 Shotgun Stories, about family members fighting each other, gave critics such as the late mighty Roger Ebert a reason to take an eye off Hollywood for a moment and focus on something smaller, more delicate but just as dynamic. Nichols’ choice of settings is very particular and probably very personal to the director: the American countryside. Again, what other directors choose not to look at, Nichols prefers to study under a microscope. Cornfields, abandoned farms, ruined backyards, outdated cars, conservative communities, it’s all there. The environment his movies are wrapped in is unpredictable, hostile, presenting a tough life for any age and gender. It’s the poverty and the thirst for a better life in a better place that is unreachable, which make the viewer swallow every bite of his tasty food with great difficulty. It’s the raw images that Nichols throws in the audience’s face. However, it’s not a grim vision. There is also a lot of good in his movies; fatherly love, friendship, parents’ devotion, sacrifice. There is always something worth fighting for.
Nichols’ camerawork is steady. The movements are controlled, there is no rush in them, no shaking, the images he captures are almost a photo album filled with beautifully composed photographs. In his, in my opinion, best movie – 2011 Take Shelter – Nichols tells the story of a blue collar worker, a loving family man (played by Nichols’ friend and regular collaborator, the great Michael Shannon) who starts to have nightmares about an apocalypse, which to him becomes a reality. His goal? To save his family; his sweet wife (Jessica Chastain in top form) and his hearing-impaired daughter. Nichols manages to turn family love into a vehicle of danger and conflict. The man begins to build a storm shelter in the backyard, hurried by the dark visions that slowly start to take over his mind, making him a victim of his own fears and fantasies. It’s a small idea that takes over the screen, and turns into a giant, menacing vision of a society, which can’t tell the difference between fantasy and reality. The scenes where the husband, Curtis, sits down at the dinner table with his beautiful wife, Samantha and his daughter, Hannah, are the centerpiece of the action. Nichols chooses not to let the outside world creep into the plot, but rather mask a possible danger with the help of a loving unit – the family. What Curtis sees, hears and says at the dinner table, is what motivates him to drive further into the direction of insanity. Yes, it’s what it is. A brilliant example of minimalistic cinema bashing our heads in.
Nichols as a writer. Not only can he direct a tense scene with great ease and impressive simplicity but he can write too. Every character he creates is someone that feels so close to us, and yet so distant. A scary familiarity. That’s the case for his third and up until now, last movie – 2012 Mud. This time the writer/director explores the ruined villages located on the edge of the Mississippi. A merciless land where you either you make your living out of the river, you drown in it along with your debts. The titular Mud, is played by Matthew McConaughey (before the “McConaughey age” started, in some way Nichols introduced him to Oscar success), a square jawed, dirty man whose past is as mysterious as the fact that he lives on a boat trapped on top of a tree located on a river island. Mud is friendly and smokes a lot, and the only people he trusts to form a friendship with are teenage boys Ellis and Neckbone. Mud’s slurred speech and short sentences make of him a ghost, someone who may be there or may not, someone who isn’t entirely real. But Mud is, trust me. Nichols writes a friendship for the ages, three different individuals working on the same objective: take the boat off the tree and then… go on an adventure. It’s almost a romantic ballad, because Mud is looking for his old love that’s gone missing. As Nichols unwraps Mud’s past in front of our eyes we can’t help but ask for more. And in the end, it’s all worth asking.
Nichols may be someone who prefers to stay low-key, work on small productions and shoot on a limited budget, but his stories are bigger than life and filled to the brim with raw truth. He’s an artist whose work is unique and very personal, both qualities that are very rare and precious in a world of mindless Marvel movies and cheap television. One day, his name will be cited in film classics. Maybe not. Nichols doesn’t make movies for that. He makes them to put a smile on his own face. That’s admirable.