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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
How do we place ourselves in someone else’s shoes without intruding? Films are meant to actively participate, invading someone’s privacy, getting closer to the action, to the reality of someone’s life, their struggles, beliefs, and so on. It is undoubtedly a challenge that cinema has faced since birth. How to present a lifestyle in its full complexity without being offensive? How can we learn from merely observing? Even the best filmmakers have had difficulties answering these questions. Werner Herzog is known for intrusive, often manipulative style of documentary filmmaking. In numerous documentaries he openly staged various scenarios to fit his narrative (most notably in Bells from the Deep and Little Dieter Needs to Fly) and he often appears on screen as an intrusive stranger, almost like a detective sniffing around a crime scene (in Into the Abyss he literally questions witnesses to a murder and in The Grizzly Man he compulsively inspects Timothy Treadwell’s posthumous belongings).
However, I found interesting how different and yet just as revolutionary his approach was in one of his earliest documentaries, Land of Silence and Darkness from 1971, a film that I believe shifted the focus of documentaries from the filmmaker – the explorer, the conqueror, the protagonist who, like an anthropologist, immerses himself in another world, another culture, another lifestyle – to the subject(s).
One of Herzog’s earliest adventures behind the camera is the study of Fini Straubinger, a deaf and blind woman and her work on behalf other deaf-blind people. Fini is an old woman – she suffered what would become a life-long impediment when she was a teenager and as a result was bed ridden for 30 long years, isolated from the outside world. Her mission is to relate with others who are in a similar situation, break the barrier of sound and vision and help them understand that there is a whole community of people just like them. That they’re not alone. The documentary follows Fini and her translator as they travel around Germany meeting and relating with those who have been institutionalized or abandoned by their families or who simply don’t have anyone to share their pain with. The camera witnesses as Fini embarks on her first airplane flight, visits a zoo, explores a botanic garden, organizes a poetry reading with fellow deaf-blind people and attends a learning session for deaf-blind children.
The secret in this film lies in its simplicity. This simplicity stems from the full belief in the power of observation. Herzog observes. He does not act. Does not try to intervene or modify the narrative. He stands behind the camera and follows along as Fini and other deaf-blind people make sense of this terrifying world. It is terrifying indeed. We may not realize it, but Fini and others do. Speeding cars that cannot be seen, thunderstorms that cannot be heard… the world these people live in is truly the land of silence and darkness, filled with angst, uncertainty and terror.
But instead of going in this direction, Herzog perseveres, showing us how these victims of cruel fate go through life by embracing the unknown and painting their own canvas their own way. In the botanic garden, the group of deaf-blind visitors touch and feel rows of cactus plants. Their palms caress the spikes and as they do so, we see them react in awe. Tall, lean plants with spikes? How marvelous. How unsettling and marvelous at the same time. In the zoo, the playfulness of a baby chimpanzee overwhelms them. So does the curious and kind touch of the elephant’s trunk.
But perhaps, the most moving scene of all is the scene where Fini meets with a deaf-blind boy, Vladimir, aged 22, abandoned by his guardians and left in an institution. The boy has never been looked after properly. He can hardly chew food. His movements are uncoordinated. His body deformed by abuse suffered in the past. Fini places his hand in her hand and begins to communicate with him by stroking his head. The boy initially is wary of this strange and unusual soft and warm thing touching the top of his head. But as the scene goes on, he grows fond of it and insists on keeping Fini’s hand in his. Then, a radio is brought into the room. A radio? I asked myself, but he cannot hear. How is he going to enjoy it?
The camera keeps still as the boy’s hands begin to recreate the shape of the object. They move across and feel the antenna, and finally land on top of the speakers, from which a pop tune is playing. All of a sudden, he takes the radio and clutches it in his arms like his life depended on it. Then, as if in a state of pure bliss, Vladimir produces a faint but generous smile. A smile that can only inspire us to imagine what it must feel like to be Vladimir at that very moment.
It is in this particular scene that I thought myself in amazement, This is the power of observation. Had Herzog tried to cut away from the scene or shift his attention to something else, Vladimir’s smile would have been lost forever. Instead, whatever he was feeling at that particular moment in time, as he held on to that magnificent invention we call radio, was expressed through that smile and recorded in this movie for us, people like me, to see and experience, each one of us their own, personal way. Vladimir may not be alive anymore, as the fate of the people presented in this movie has not been clarified since, but his smile, through Herzog’s camera, is alive and well.
Film, like any other art form and generally man’s quest for meaning (just grab the first history book off your shelf), has always been mostly about intervention, transgression and manipulation. And Herzog, the man responsible for dragging a steamboat over a mountain in Fitzcarraldo, releasing thousands of live rats in the streets of Delft to film a scene in Nosferatu, and manipulating his entire cast and crew into almost killing each other like the characters in Aguirre, The Wrath of God, is the prime example of this notion.
However, what he did in Land of Silence and Darkness, a delicately told story about a community of disadvantaged individuals, is show us that choosing the other path, remaining invisible and steering clear of crossing boundaries that should not be crossed, can sometimes be much more insightful and rewarding. By purely observing the struggle Fini and her friends have to face each time they wake up we see beyond it. We see a struggle that if approached with the right mindset, like Fini does, can turn into the most beautiful of adventures. The adventure of discovering the world, bit by bit. Whether by touching the spikes of a cactus plant, or feeling every branch of a cherry tree, or caressing the hairy back of a baby chimpanzee, the life these people live and the way they experience it opens for us a new way of looking at things. The details that we take for granted, through Herzog’s observing eye, become the subjects of so many feelings these people experience. Their lives, despite the silence and darkness, are rich. Richer than most.
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.
McCarten has a history of screenwriting ”indifference” with a resume that includes The Theory of Everything, The 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.
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.
In today’s day and age, speed is what matters most. You don’t want to bore the viewer. You want to deliver him the most vital information in the shortest amount of time. You want him to experience feelings within a short time span. You want him to get the juice of the story before he decides to switch channels or fast-forward, which, let’s admit it, we all do. One could say that the main challenge for a filmmaker is to give the viewer what he wants when he wants it. Not an easy thing to do considering how simple it is then to mess up the crucial part of the story or worse yet, mess up the whole movie. Fortunately, Pedro Almodovar, the legendary Spanish film director of the modern melodrama, embraces this challenge in his latest Oscar-nominated film, Pain and Glory.
Antonio Banderas plays Salvador Mallo, a chronically ill film director who is at a point in his life where pain is overshadowing his creativity, to the point that an old friend of his turns him onto heroin. The film jumps back and forth between Salvador’s past as a young boy in rural Spain, travelling with his mom to a new house in the countryside (which turns out to be a cave) and attending high school at a seminary for priests, to his pain-filled present, with him lying around his house, struggling to get up from bed and refusing to get back to work on a new project. However, halfway through the film, Salvador’s old friend and actor Alberto Crespo, with whom Salvador had a falling out on his most acclaimed movie thirty years prior, digs up a monologue that Salvador had stored away in his computer. The monologue turns out to be, in Alberto’s opinion, the director’s greatest, most personal piece of work, and the actor insists on putting it up at a local theater. What follows, is the movie’s best five minutes of runtime.
The premise to Salvador’s love story is in the scenes where Alberto recites the monologue to an audience. The monologue recounts the film director’s early days in Madrid in the 80s, where he had to put his career on hold in order to take care of his boyfriend, who at the time was struggling with a heroin addiction. This premise is painful. As painful as Salvador’s present day illness. What Alberto does not know, however, is that Salvador’s real-life former lover is in the audience watching his performance. Tears streaming down his face. A broken smile. A slight twitch to his eyes. Turns out he’s in Madrid for work and decides to pay Salvador a visit after the show.
With this in mind, we enter the best five minutes of the entire film. Five minutes which will serve to tell the love story of a lifetime. The two lovers meet in Salvador’s apartment. They’ve both aged. They’re both worn down. They’ve both moved on. And yet, the moment they see each other, it’s like time stopped in their days of youth. Almodovar’s simple and effective staging of this scene allows us to savor every moment of this long-awaited reunion because we already know the backstory thanks to the preceding monologue, where through Alberto’s performance we learned of our protagonist’s most painful secrets and memories.
The tears have already been shed. We know what both Salvador and his former lover, Federico, have gone through together. Thus, in the five-minute-long reunion there is no need to go back down memory lane. Salvador and Federico can remain in the present moment. As an audience we are aware of how incredibly important the moment they are about to share is and thus Almodovar can play this scene without directly addressing us. We are already in it.
Their conversation is bare. Simple. Federico tells Salvador about his current life in distant Buenos Aires. His restaurant. His kids. His parents. But from time to time, there is a spark between the two in the form of brief moments that allude to a shared past, when Salvador says, ”I needed Madrid. I also needed you. But not in that state.” And Federico replies, ”Love is not enough to save the person you love. You say it in your monologue.”
Almodovar proceeds to unravel the love story through the acknowledgment of the audience’s intelligence. Like any good filmmaker, he believes the viewer is up to the challenge of putting the pieces from the monologue together without having the characters explicitly have to re-tell their backstory. The weight of how much this scene means is entirely up to you to figure out for yourself. When Salvador says, ”You didn’t interrupt anything, Federico. On the contrary, you filled my life like nothing and nobody has filled it until now,” it hits particularly strong, because by now we’ve witnessed how empty and trivial Salvador’s current life seems on the surface. Like a sudden plot twist, we are unexpectedly met with this rich, absorbing love story that has already taken place. We are only allowed to witness the remains of it. Almodovar achieves this without the use of flashbacks perhaps because the past Salvador and Federico have shared is better to be re-lived in the present as it is. Live the moment, not the memory (which, ironically enough is something that Salvador does throughout the entire film, except for this scene.)
The two smile looking at each other, maintaining a distance while sitting in Salvador’s living room and sipping on a glass of Tequila. But their eyes are watery. And their smiles are just like Federico’s broken smile when he was listening to the staged monologue. There is a long, rocky story behind them. And only they have access to the full version. And that is how you tell a love story in five minutes. You give the viewer an idea, a suggestion, but you trust him enough to expand on it by himself. You don’t give him cues. You don’t push him toward a clear answer. You keep him in the dark. You give him a flashlight and tell him, ”Go ahead.” And you’ll see for yourself, the pay-off to such a scene is devastatingly moving.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
Many people have asked my opinion on what I consider a bad movie, or what makes a director bad. The answer to these two questions could have been simple: Michael Bay and his entire filmography, Zack Snyder and his superhero fascination, M. Night Shyamalan and a big chunk of his last few movies, but in this case my answer is different. My answer is based on the simple concept of ‘bad’. What makes a director ‘bad’? Take M. Night, for instance; he has made some very good movies (Unbreakable, The Sixth Sense) as well as some very, very, very bad ones (The Happening, After Earth). Fine. That is fine. Why? Because the man has his own vision, and as distorted and trashy as it can be at times, it is still his vision. His movies have a trademark Shyamalan tag attached to them, meaning no one else could have made them that way. Even in his biggest flops he showed character and style, like in The Village, where the story misses, but the character and gothic genre filmmaking do not. Then who do I consider a bad film director if not the ones I already mentioned, who are infamous for releasing well below mediocre films every two-three years? It is someone who is never mentioned in the conversation, and yet someone who is so mediocre and whose movies are so average in their attempt to be great that I cannot ignore the dismissal of this name: Scott Cooper.
Who is Scott Cooper? Well, for starters he emerged in 2009 and got Jeff Bridges his first, well deserved Oscar, with the movie Crazy Heart, about the life of a failed country musician. Four years later he returned with Out of the Furnace, supported by a stellar cast (Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson, Willem Dafoe, Forest Whitaker and the late Sam Shepard), in order to tell the story of a steelworker in small town America who seeks to avenge his brother’s violent death. Then, 2015’s acclaimed and presumed ‘return to form’ by Johnny Depp, with the tale of Bostonian crime lord ‘Whitey’ Bulger in Black Mass, and finally, last year’s neo-western, Hostiles. Now, if someone unfamiliar with this man’s movies, looks at what I’ve just written, looks at the acting credits, the titles, the fact that I described some of these movies as ‘acclaimed’ and Oscar nominated, will think I’m out of my element calling Scott Cooper one of, if not the worst director working in Hollywood today. However, I stand by my opinion and here is why…
All those movies I just mentioned are average. Yes, they are average. From an objective point of view they are average and nothing can change that. Cooper has directed some of the best actors working today and helped one of the most iconic ones (Bridges) get his first Oscar, sweeping all major awards ceremonies. But… is he the one to congratulate? First of all, Crazy Heart is your typical Hollywood redemption story. A middle-aged failed country musician, struggling with alcohol, women and money, all at the same time, tries to make ends meet and taste what could turn out to be his last bittersweet drop of happiness and love. This story has Jeff Bridges written all over it, country legend, known for his heavy Southern accents and the walk of a man of the West, he is perfect for this part. And here is where the movie ends. Cooper limits himself to dressing up Bridges in country boots, putting him on a stage and letting him sing country tunes in a sleazy bar. When it comes to emotion and showing Bad Blake’s true colors (Bridges’ character), Cooper is helpless, lacking any sort of creativity, drive and understanding. It is all Bridges. Him and his deep, bear-like voice take over the character of a miserable drunk and elevate him to a protagonist for the ages, a man afraid to let go of his guitar and keep on with the rolling times.
Out of the Furnace, Cooper’s following feature film, could not even be saved by the multi-dimensional cast he was offered to work with. What could have been a thrilling experience, perhaps similar to No Country for Old Men, quickly turns into a vague, lifeless, predictable attempt at genre filmmaking. Cooper desperately tries to tell this simple revenge story as if he was handling a much more complicated project. The potential of this movie lies in its simplicity. Many indie movies have been capable of telling simple revenge stories (Blue Ruin for example, a brilliant indie effort from 2013) by sticking to the basics and focusing on what can be improved, instead of what can be changed. Cooper doesn’t get it, and it’s not even a proof of his ambition (there isn’t any to speak of), when he tries to combine multiple storylines and merge them into one (the steelworker brother, the soldier brother, the drug lord and the investigating police officer). Instead of creating an eerie, atmospheric thriller, Cooper gets away with a very shallow modern-day drama that fails under every aspect: action, emotion, suspense, timing and delivery of any sort of message. The film is not about brotherhood, it is not about corruption in America nor about the basic human instinct such as the art of survival. The only spark Out of the Furnace has to offer is a few sequences of bang-bang bloody action which don’t result in plot development. Once I was done watching this movie I suddenly realized what Scott Cooper is getting away with in broad daylight: a career in filmmaking; a career in shallow, B-type, empty and mediocre filmmaking, that specializes in pleasing the easily entertained crowds of viewers and leaving the critics with an average yet satisfied score.
Unfortunately, Out of the Furnace wasn’t Cooper’s defining hit. No. His supposed masterpiece of mediocrity was released in 2015, carried by Johnny Depp’s deadpan, make-up covered, pale face and blue eyes – Black Mass is the title (which I also wrote about here). After failing in delivering a story of violence and crime set in present-day America, Cooper dives into the grimy, filthy underbelly of 1970s Boston, a city ruled not by the authorities, but by the omnipresent hand of a man named ‘Whitey’ Bulger, a ruthless killer who got caught in 2011 aged 81, after almost 20 years of being listed as one of the top most wanted men by the FBI. Now, one would think, here is a chance for Scott Cooper to prove his worth and redeem himself by turning to the gangster genre. Unfortunately, that’s not the case as Cooper has no sense of balance between the documentary side of the movie, where we follow fictionalized testimonies and confessions from associates, friends and Bulger’s family members, and the blue-collar, cold, thriller side of the movie, where Whitey is simply presented as a dumb, irrational monster who relies on violence as a means of expression in his daily life. Cooper loses any sort of control over the outcome of his film, twisting and turning and desperately trying to make this gangster story look interesting. ‘Look’ is the right word, since the movie is the opposite of interesting in storytelling terms, therefore, only the ‘look’, the design, cinematography and production come off as decent. Unfortunately, Black Mass is not an arthouse film, which means it cannot solely rely on the saying ‘style over substance’ as it sets out from the get-go to tell the story of who Bulger really was. And it is here that Cooper fails miserably, perhaps intimidated by his predecessors in the gangster genre such as Scorsese’s Goodfellas and De Palma’s Carlito’s Way, he directs his movie with the attitude of a timid, shy twelve-year-old in awe of his biggest idols, and rightly so, but this causes the movie to lack character and identity. Critics raved about this movie, with Peter Travers leading the way, naming it a top 10 movie of 2015, but clearly failed to see that Cooper’s mob drama is nothing but a plotless Superbowl commercial, meaning this 2-hour long movie could have been limited to its teaser trailer, which in contrast had a certain energy to it, a tempo and character. Black Mass on its own is a mediocre showing disguised as a good rendition of a long-gone time period in American history, and another piece of evidence that indicates that Scott Cooper is not a good film director, although continuously hailed as one.
Last but not least, last year’s Hostiles could have been special. It should have been special and yet again, Cooper created a work of such mediocrity that even his biggest fans had to point out the major flaws of this preachy neo-western. In the hands of a more skilled director, the story of an Army officer escorting a dying Cheyenne war chief back to his tribal land could have turned out to be a major cinematic sensation, drawing inspiration from John Ford’s The Searchers, and considering westerns are quickly fading into oblivion in today’s world of Hollywood cinema. However, in Cooper’s hands this film becomes yet another phony attempt at selling a product instead of making a movie for people to watch and learn from. The director does, in fact, try to convey a message of some sort, related to the inherited violence and the insanity of war and destruction as well as man’s constant need of fighting for his own little piece of land, but the finished product is nothing but a mess of well shot images that amount to nothing other than a conclusion about the evil that lies in the heart of every single white man involved in the history of the making of the Wild West. Cooper’s eternal fascination with blood, gore and meaningless violence is what brings this movie down and prevents it from being a good directorial effort; it is not all about technique – it is about the ideas that spark the technique. Clearly, Cooper does not see anything beyond the simple act of violence. It is not fun (like in Tarantino’s films, or even Shane Black’s), it is not cold blooded (like in Scorsese’s pictures), it just is, for the sake of being.
So what is my major takeaway from this post? A bad director is someone who directs films without a purpose, without an idea of some kind, without belief. A bad director is someone who tries to pass his own movie as good, who makes it look pretty but does not look deeper and refuses to adjust its evident flaws (Nicolas Winding Refn is another one, although with a couple of good movies under his belt) not because of too much pride, but because of a critical lack of self-awareness regarding his/her own work. When I watch a film directed by Scott Cooper, I don’t feel anger nor satisfaction. I don’t feel suspense nor excitement. I don’t feel frustration. I feel nothing. And that is the worst feeling one can have when experiencing a film.