Show Me a Leader

Cinema has always represented an escape from reality, a place where science did not apply, where superheros were in fact regular citizens and where love beat them all. After all, we still hear some people say: ”Life’s not like the movies!” as if to say that life is too difficult and too serious to be encapsulated into an art form such as film. However, people seem to forget that movies can indeed encapsulate the gravity, the struggle and the difficulty of what we are faced with everyday.
Enter satires. From the very beginning, satire was meant to turn life upside down by presenting audiences with a grotesque yet faithful representation of the actual state of affairs. Think of Chaplin’s bold masterpiece about fascism, The Great Dictator, and how it was used to send across a message of hope, when hope was nowhere to be seen on the streets of war-torn Europe. Think of Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove as it tried to make sense of the chaos and absurdity of two superpowers pushing each other toward the very edge of destruction, for what? Think of Sidney Lumet’s Network, and how the protagonist Howard Beale desperately tried to warn regular citizens of the danger that modern-day media represent. In short, satire has been with us for an extremely long time, yet for a while, most notably post 9/11, cinema preferred to remain silent and let facts do the talking (e.g. Michael Moore’s documentaries and 60 minutes) after such a great, unspeakable tragedy took place in the land of the free and home of the brave. It looked like Hollywood and the rest of the world were dried out, nothing was going for them as audiences went back to blockbusters and scary movies. Everyone was afraid to laugh. What followed next is up to interpretation. I like to think that Martin Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street shook things up, introduced a fresh initiative and led to the emergence of a multitude of satires based on real life events, such as The Big Short and War Dogs. Thus finally, people rediscovered the fun and the tragicomic truth that lies at the core of such kind of satire, where everything is exaggerated for storytelling purposes, anything goes and yet everything makes sense, because life is just like the movies, isn’t it?

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Martin Scorsese’s movie that rediscovered satire was funny, accurate and thought-provoking.

Obviously, once Hollywood discovers a certain formula, they like to stick to it, and satire, unlike so many other genres, such as action, thriller, horror, cannot be subjected to a formula, because the fun and the wit of satire is the juice of its execution, the unpredictability of it, the swagger and the bravado a filmmaker possesses in the face of the cruel reality from which a certain story is drawn. And here’s why I intend to pick two recent satires, one of them being very good, the other one being a poor, mishandled, misjudged collection of vignettes, because satire is a genre that is too smart to become formulaic, too important to become just another box office attraction. Enter the excellent The Death of Stalin from 2017, and the not-so-excellent Vice from last year.

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The all-powerful Dick Cheney staring right at you.

When Donald Trump was elected US President, Hollywood decided that now is the big chance to rediscover itself, and that everything that would come out of its vaults, be it 2016’s Get Out, 2017’s The Shape of Water and, in fact, last year’s Vice, is to be considered meaningful and looked upon as a critique on a broader scale. Get Out‘s horror tropes were meant to represent the beneath-the-surface racism that plagues America; The Shape of Water toyed with the idea of modern-day xenophobia and chauvinism; and finally Vice was to be analyzed as a big statement about how America’s past is a thing of the present. While Vice made millions, Armando Ianucci’s The Death of Stalin struggled box-office-wise, its appeal lost due to the simple fact that it told a story of many, many, many decades ago in the far, unreachable territory of what was once referred to as the Soviet Union. And yet, while Vice struggled to depict a coherent, complete and humorous retelling of America’s most infamous vice-president aka Dick Cheney, The Death of Stalin succeeded in telling the story of the days following Stalin’s death, encapsulating absolute truths about politics, power and populism. Here’s how and why.

First of all, time frames matter in satire. Most satires do not cross a time frame of a day or two, a week or two, sometimes reaching a maximum of a month or so (Wolf of Wall Street being one of the few exceptions). To go beyond that means risking everything for the benefit of reality. But satire is not about reality, right? Satire is about a twisted version of reality.
Well, this is where Vice fails.  McKay’s previous effort from 2015, the innovative The Big Short, a fun roller-coaster ride that made the most of the financial crisis of 2008, presented us with two time frames; days leading up to the crisis, and the days following the crisis. It worked because instead of focusing on a general story, it focused on certain key, real life characters and their involvement in the world of finance at the time when the world froze and exploded into a million pieces. Vice, unfortunately and most importantly, approaches the subject matter of Dick Cheney in the wrong fashion. See, McKay instead of, for example, focusing solely on Cheney’s actions post 9/11, decided to make a biopic on the man, which means he decided to compress a man’s personal as well as political life spanning over 50 years into a two-hour satire. This results in a humongous amount of unnecessary information that is neither truthful, funny or provocative. Who cares if Dick Cheney drank as a student? Who cares if he was arrested multiple times drunk-driving at the of 21? Who cares if he was not popular in college? What audiences care about is seeing the juice of the action, in other words, why the hell was this man given so much power at an advanced stage in his career? Why was he so special following one of the darkest days in the war on terror?

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Young Cheney’s road to political glory could not have been duller.

Meanwhile, The Death of Stalin knows exactly how utilize its time frame of the day leading up to Stalin’s sudden death and the days following the great leader’s passing and the chaotic re-distribution of power amongst Soviet Union’s Central Committee.
Ianucci, an expert in modern-day satire with the likes of In the Loop and Veep under his belt, uses such a limited time frame to its full effect, making every single day that passes weigh double. We, the audience, begin to feel the pressure that our protagonists feel as the mourning nation awaits a new leader and a functioning state of things. In this case, time-related pressure leads our political protagonists such as Beria, Khrushchev and Malenkov to the most hilarious and extreme situations in order to gain advantage over one another. And while he’s at it, Ianucci does not deviate from historical accuracy; Beria’s reign of terror following Stalin’s death as he sided with the new interim Premier, Malenkov, and the coup that resulted in Beria’s trial are all in here, but instead of stretching the time frame to realistic proportions, Ianucci compresses it to increase the unpredictability of our characters’ actions.

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Beria whispering sweet nothings into the dead leader’s ear.

Second point: well-crafted characters go a long way in satire. Even if the cast of characters is big, their depth matters, a lot. Think of Dr. Strangelove and the characters that inhabit the Cold-War inspired cartoonish universe of Kubrick’s imagination. Although there’s plenty of clichés within each one of them, Kubrick’s characters are lively and recognizable, be it the bomber crew lead by the Southern major King Kong, or the war room’s team composed of the vulgar and patriotic General Buck Turgidson, the vulnerable and confused President Muffley and the neurotic and sociopathic Dr. Strangelove. The key element of these characters is that they are unique and memorable. Obviously, when you are dealing with real life characters, things get tougher for a writer and filmmaker. But satire is meant to take life by its horns, and tame it, twisting it around as anything goes and rules can be broken. The Death of Stalin does exactly this. With little to no evidence of the personality of the likes of Beria, Khrushchev, Malenkov, Molotov or Stalin’s children, Vasily and Svetlana, Ianucci has a free range of possibilities, a writer’s dream-induced playground. Beria becomes a savage, power-hungry monster, Malenkov is a blabbering idiotic yes-man, Khrushchev a rational, ambitious leader, Molotov a naive, indoctrinated child, the little Stalins spoiled, terrified brats that will do anything to keep their family name alive. The cast of characters is much larger, but the point stays; the audience is aware of each character’s traits, and therefore, has a vague idea of what to expect, especially in a race of who’s going to be the next Soviet leader.

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The hilarious Central Committee of power-hungry idiots.

What does Vice do instead? Nothing. McKay limits himself to paper-thin, Wikipedia information about real life characters, including Cheney himself, his wife, Bush Jr., Donald Rumsfeld, and more of the American crème de la crème.
And here’s also where time frames and character depth collide. By extending the time frame, stretching it over 40-50 years, McKay is forced to introduce an endless number of minor characters along the way, preventing our most relevant ones to make any sort of progress in the viewer’s eye, limiting them to their physical presence. And that’s the main problem. Christian Bale’s depiction of Cheney never goes beyond its physical characteristics put forth by some excellent make-up. His beer belly, the balding scalp, the imposing, towering figure are the only memorable elements of an otherwise undercooked protagonist. Look, we get it: Cheney was a mysterious, heavily scrutinized political actor who for the most part of his life tried to stay away from the cameras, sticking to the more ‘undercover’ side of American politics. But so were Beria, Malenkov, Khruschev. Instead of going all out and actually having some fun with his protagonists, McKay seems intimidated by the stained legacy of the Cheneys and Bushes. However, satire, dear McKay, is supposed to tear these legacies apart.
Did Chaplin hesitate when he made fun of Mussolini and Hitler as the bloodiest conflict of the century was reaching its second year? 

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Bale’s Cheney and Rockwell’s Bush Jr. reduced to cartoonish proportions.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, satire is all about critique and provoking the audience. Just as the Truman Show did with its final scene that included a clear breaking of the fourth-wall as Jim Carrey stared into the camera and said; ”In case I don’t see you, good afternoon, good evening and good night,” laughing in the face of the all-powerful eye, satire, at the end of the day, is about making a statement that speaks to us, so that we, the audience members, can go home, think about it, and come to the conclusion, that yes, indeed, we have learned something, something valuable and relevant for our time. In the case of The Death of Stalin we are left with a shot of Khrushchev sitting in a theater audience as the main leader of the Soviet Union, with Brezhnev sitting a couple of rows behind looking on and smiling, as if to say that this vicious cycle of power struggle is going to continue, that the war between egos is endless and the victims of it are always the poorest members in the audience, the civilians that shed blood, the ones that have to sacrifice their livelihoods for these ego wars to continue. Meanwhile, after two-hours of chaotic editing, intertwining story-lines, odd freeze frames and misplaced voice-overs, Vice comes to a point where the only solution to end this mess is to have Bale’s Cheney address the audience face-to-face, have him staring into the camera, justifying his own actions in the name of America’s safety and common good. To what effect? Here’s a movie that tells the story of this monstrous villain, responsible for the US involvement in Iraq, for bombing millions of innocent people, for torturing and keeping these torture practices secret in Guantanamo, for signing deals that benefited the elite instead of regular citizens, and somehow manages to end in such a way that allows this man to justify himself, thus going against its own initiative.

While The Death of Stalin shows the repercussions of evil, Vice shows the glamor of it. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is not only bad satire. That is bad filmmaking.

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Laugh in the face of evil.

 

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David Lynch once said;

“I don’t know why people expect art to make sense. They accept the fact that life doesn’t make sense.”

These words ring incredibly true since since most audiences want their films to be straightforward, accessible, easy enough to understand, simple enough to accompany their hot nachos with cheese sauce dripping all over the floor. Is that really what movies are for? To make things simple? Some, of course, yes. Some movies are meant to be enjoyed with the family, the girlfriend, boyfriend; movies with loud explosions, witty dialogue, packed with action and a smart plot, something along the lines of the Lethal Weapon series, The Nice Guys, RockyThe Wolf of Wall Street, etc. The second category is the one that demands a viewer’s full immersion; a complete dedication to the viewing experience. The director of the film needs you to get sucked into the world of the film he or she are presenting to you. Otherwise it’s pointless. David Lynch is one of them. Stanley Kubrick is one of them. But above all, Terrence Malick is one of them. And his latest film, Song to Song, starring Ryan Gosling, Rooney Mara, Michael Fassbender, Natalie Portman and Cate Blanchett, is the ultimate piece of evidence to this statement.

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Are you ready for the adventure?

Malick, a wealthy biologist and oilman, as well as one of the most introvert film directors that have ever walked the earth, presented the movie himself at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas. Yes, a man who has been avoiding cameras, award shows and interviews for the past 40 years finally emerged on the surface of an indie film festival to present his latest movie about love. What this could mean is that Song to Song holds something special, not only for the audience, but for the director himself. What could be the reason for this? As I watched the film a few nights ago, I realized how Malick’s incredibly intricate take on life really is. We know and love him for Badlands, Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line, his most accessible works that proved he had enough skill to go from making indie road movies to making large-scale war epics in a span of 20 years. But then something happened and Malick went from seeing directing movies as a hobby more than anything else to dishing out a film every 2-3 years, (3 in the last year and a half!) and doing this by using a very alienated style of filmmaking that has been perceived by most audiences as a ‘pretentious, slow, plotless bore.’

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You have to be ready, because Malick doesn’t let up.

Song to Song may not be his most accessible film. It isn’t. But it has the same emotional kick that The Tree of Life had, the last film that saw Malick be up for an Academy Award in 2011, and that To the Wonder and Knight of Cups lacked.  What makes it stand out from the rest of his improvised, slow, meandering epics, is that it manages to portray life, and people dealing with it, in an extremely honest and heartbreaking manner. While The Tree of Life focused on the concept of family, and successfully so, and while To the Wonder  and Knight of Cups dealt with very little, in fact remaining an unfocused artsy mess, Song to Song talks about the concept of love using all the tools Malick’s collected over the years of experience. Love is not easy to capture on camera. Most love stories don’t succeed in delivering the right message. Aside from La La Land, there’s not a love story that I can think of worth considering in the last couple of years. Then along comes Malick and his bold vision of love makes you realize how great the cinematic medium can be at times.

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Malick and Lubezki at their finest.

Here, Malick delivers the oldest, most well known story in the book: a love triangle, two good friends, a musician (Ryan Gosling) and a music producer (Michael Fassbender) falling in love with the same girl (Rooney Mara). What at first seems like the usual snooze-fest of falsified emotions for the screen, soon turns into a compelling character study that uses time, as per Malick’s tradition, to tell the story the right way – the only way. Malick, similarly to what Lynch said, does not want the viewer to understand what happens on the silver screen. He wants the viewer to imagine what happens, and he does this by telling what could have been the most linear story out there in a way most filmmakers would not dare to. Song to Song works like a music playlist turned on ‘shuffle mode’.  It jumps from song to song, from album to album, changing melodies, moods and tones. It plays with different emotions at different times, and all of this is never meant to reach an end, just like a playlist set on ‘repeat’. At first, we meet the characters, who introduce themselves by looking devastated, shell shocked, victims of something that has happened not so long ago. Again, we are not meant to understand, we are meant imagine what song has just finished playing and what song is about to come on next. We cannot predict it. We can only imagine. And that is how this film develops from that point on.

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Who are we, really?

Soon, the two friends get into an argument and two different women appear alongside Rooney Mara’s character. One is broken and self-destructive (Natalie Portman’s character), the other one is mature and experienced enough to know when it’s time to go away (Cate Blanchett’s character). Malick shapes these relationships like Polaroid snapshots; quick, unfocused snapshots that serve as a temporary time capsule. As viewers, we witness specific moments in each relationship; the first kiss, the first argument, the first disconnection and the first realization of how things really are. All of these moments mean nothing on their own, just like snapshots. But once Malick puts them together, creates a photo album out of them, that’s when it all comes around like a strong tide rushing in to blow over the sand. It is only then that we start seeing the bigger picture, and that is, Malick’s incredibly unique take on life.

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A simple love story.

With the help of one of the greatest living cinematographers, Emmanuel Lubezki, Malick uses his camera like a spy. We get the chance to go through empty hallways, enter concert stages and observe our protagonists from a safe distance. Every now and then, the camera pushes in close, almost in a threatening manner, in order for us to get a better look at what our characters really think and feel, which leads me to my next point about Malick’s take on life. Most people act as if his characters (especially Ben Affleck’s from To the Wonder and Christian Bale’s from Knight of Cups) are nothing but empty, shallow cartoon characters with paper-thin background and paper-thin everything. In some cases it may seem so. But in Song to Song we get the complete opposite. Only a fool could not read the facial expressions of our protagonists. The voice-over, a vital element of every single Malick film, does not mean a thing in this case – it is useless. Song to Song plays out like a silent movie accompanied by two elements – music (ranging from hard rock to classical, hip-hop to religious chants) and character’s close-ups. In the rare instances we get to be close to each character, we get a slice of honest, clear emotions. Malick does, in fact, bring the best out of his cast. Mara plays her usual innocent-looking self but this time, cuts deeper than usual. Same goes for the rest of the players. They are like songs. They hit different notes at different times their interpretation varies based on time and their presentation. Take Fassbender’s character, for example. He’s the greedy producer, the wealthy jackass who got rich thanks to other people’s talent. At times we interpret his greed as mean-spirited, evil and crooked, as he snorts lines of coke, goes from party to party and mistreats people around him. And yet, at times his character’s greed is presented as a method of self-defense against loneliness, alienation and disappointment. His only weapon. His only way of being. Like life, Fassbender’s character is a messy, off-beat song that never quite reaches a stable melody. It never sounds the same way.

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A hand – threatening and gentle at the same time.

Going from location to location, moving across time and space, across desert landscapes, city streets and beautiful sunsets, Song to Song injects life into a simple love story that could have been the biggest misfire in Malick’s career. We get to observe characters that are intricate and real. Some are too broken to be repaired, like Natalie Portman’s character, who cannot cope with the weight of life and a newly-found love. Others wish they could turn back the clock, like Rooney Mara’s character, who acts like a little girl, afraid of what can possibly await her on the next turn. The two friends never clash with their emotions. Like in life, there is a certain understanding right below the surface that never allows them to express themselves explicitly face-to-face. They are trapped. And that’s partly the beauty of how this story is told. Don’t let IMDb’s 5.8 rating fool you. This is a movie that has the ability to speak by being silent. Whereas other directors would have inserted unnecessary dialogue, Malick remains silent, letting the camerawork, the music and the actors do the work. It is not a masterpiece but it is an experience. It treats life head-on and does not let up for a second. Most importantly, it never tries to understand itself. It simply is. Like life. Like the next song on a playlist.

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Let it sweep you off your feet.

 

What we Talk About When we Talk About Lynch

David Lynch: the mysterious mind-fucker behind such films as EraserheadLost HighwayBlue Velvet and Mulholland Drive has been the subject of countless debates, Q&A panels and interviews, which all aimed at one thing: try to access his mind and the process the director goes through to create the unique films he’s created over the last 40 years.
Lynch to most movie buffs is the Mt. Rushmore of arthouse filmmaking. A man who’s never answered the question WHY? Why is a dead man with a clear wound to the head standing in the middle of a living room in Blue Velvet? Why is Lost Highway’s creepy Mystery Man living in an empty shed in the desert? WHY? Well, for once someone decided to make a documentary on Lynch without asking him that question. Without asking him any questions really. The film I want to talk about today is probably one of my recent favorites due to its impeccable and stylish slow-burning discovery of a man who willingly hides in the shadows.  The film is David Lynch: The Art Life.

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Lynch’s silent playground.

What makes The Art Life so special is precisely the absence of any sort of questions. The documentary in fact works pretty much like a hidden camera in Lynch’s barricaded Beverly Hills mansion, amidst all the cigarette smoke and Lynch’s short bursts of ‘fuck’ and ‘shit’. The truth of the matter is, that the objective of this film is to present the unknown side of Lynch to his beloved viewers – the artistic side. Do not expect a biography. Lynch, left sitting alone in front of a hanging microphone, briefly mentions his childhood, a couple of girlfriends and then speeds all the way to the time he began painting. And that’s when the magic begins. That’s when we get to meet the man himself.

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It is pointless to try and understand.

It is a fact that Lynch’s main source of inspiration for his movies as well as his hit TV series Twin Peaks are the nightmares he’s had since he was a child. But unlike most people, Lynch talks about his nightmares almost as if they were the most delicate dreams one could ever hope to have. His nightmares are what drive him, what motivate him to get up from his bed and pick up a paint brush. They are his bread and butter and the reason for as to why he decided to become an artist. His life was casual, at times boring and uneventful, and that’s why since he was a child he allowed nightmares to take over reality. That’s how a sixth sense was born inside his mind.

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Lynch and his daughter, to whom this film was dedicated.

As viewers of his work, we are certainly unable to pinpoint what Lynch is all about. Damn it, if we ever had an answer for that, half of the beauty of his movies would be gone. Who else could make us question not only the movie we’re watching but ourselves if not Lynch? The Art Life is special because it finds the right balance between personal and professional. It invites the viewer to ask more questions and to be more attentive without revealing too much. It also urges the viewer to fight through the discomfort of everyday life. Through Lynch, one can come to the conclusion that in order to become an artist, one not only needs to push through all the boundaries and invisible walls life sets up for each individual, but also learn to embrace them, to embrace the difficulties, the filth, the sadness. In Lynch’s mind they become valuable elements of his work. And as the man with the glorious white hair sits down to reminisce over the time of the making of Eraserhead, he sighs and says: ”The art life. It was beautiful. Everything about it.”

And perhaps that really is the key to Lynch’s lock: the endless wonder and thirst for more life. More of THE life.

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At the end of it, you’ll be amazed.