The Passenger: Jack Nicholson and Michelangelo Antonioni have an identity crisis

Throughout the 70s and 80s, several Hollywood stars collaborated on projects with some of cinema’s biggest auteurs. Most notably, the likes of Robert De Niro – who, fresh off an Oscar win for Raging Bull, decided to fly out to Rome and work with Sergio Leone (who at that point hadn’t directed a movie in 13 years!) on what would be his last picture, Once Upon a Time in America – Donald Sutherland with his unpredictable turn in Fellini’s Casanova, and Oscar-nominated Elliot Gould taking center-stage in Ingmar Bergman’s The Touch showed that Hollywood was just not enough for those that dared to be personal and creative in their work. Hollywood could only go as far in terms of artistic vision.
One of the most accomplished pairings proved to be The Passenger, where the paths of iconoclast Michelangelo Antonioni and Hollywood superstar Jack Nicholson met, creating a perfect tandem of beliefs and ideas about the central question in Antonioni’s body of work: what does it mean to have an identity?

Michelangelo Antonioni and Jack Nicholson on set of The Passenger.

As part of a three-movie deal with MGM Studios that saw Antonioni direct Blowup (1966) – a critical and commercial success – Zabriskie Point (1970) – a critical and commercial failure – The Passenger was the nail in the coffin for Antonioni’s career in America. The movie was shelved following its initial release and only re-released decades later when Jack Nicholson got his hands on the movie’s rights. The Hollywood actor considered The Passenger the highlight of his career; an intimate piece of work that had been taken away from audiences and kept in the dark like a precious painting in times of war.
If there is a parable for how Hollywood operates it can be found in The Passenger, as the studio was desperate to turn things around and use Jack Nicholson’s name and star power to save this picture from sinking. What the studio failed to predict was that Antonioni would always, no matter what, go out of his way and avoid the clichés and tropes of typical studio movies. Moreover, the studio failed to predict that Jack Nicholson, the man who had just finished making Chinatown and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (and a longtime studio-system actor) would buy into Antonioni’s cinematic ideology and embrace the Italian’s way of making pictures. For Nicholson, The Passenger was the opportunity to get away from the glamour, noise and billboards of Sunset Boulevard. It was his shot at making something pure, something that did not taste of salted popcorn and soft drinks.

The moment Nicholson’s reporter gives up. He wants out.

In The Passenger, the story revolves around a war correspondent who, for some reason, cannot seem to find the war he’s looking for in Northern Africa. He has a sudden change of heart, and upon discovering the dead body of a man he had just met in a remote hotel, he decides to assume the dead man’s identity. Like a passenger, he hops on a ride, not knowing where this ride will take him.
This seemingly simple premise could have turned the movie into a run-off-the-mill thriller as Nicholson’s new identity corresponds to that of an arms dealer pursued by several enemy factions. Instead, Antonioni opts for something much deeper and closer in style to his ”alienation trilogy” of the 60s (L’Avventura, La Notte, L’Eclisse).
For Antonioni, the crux of the story is Nicholson’s crisis of identity and the decision to leave behind an entire life and replace it with a new one. How can a man simply wipe the slate clean, forget the people he’s met, the work he’s done? How can he pretend to walk in another man’s shoes without realizing the complexities that went into that man’s life?
The process of assuming the dead man’s identity is very basic in practical terms: Nicholson simply takes the photo of his passport and attaches it onto the dead man’s document. It is as simple as that, thinks our protagonist. But the truth is that one cannot possibly wish for another man’s life without taking on the other man’s burdens. Antonioni sets out to explore this dilemma.

Nicholson assumes the identity of an arms dealer.

What we find out is that Nicholson’s character is a man who has probably seen too much, but it’s also possible that he’s never fully understood the things he’s seen. As a war correspondent he’s ventured to far-away places and put his life at risk in order to interview war chiefs, presidents, generals, rebels and soldiers. The interviews he’s carried out were all meant to bring to light a community’s struggle and fight for ideals. But we soon find out that the reporter had by this point learned to distance himself too convincingly from the events he witnessed. He was a passenger there, too. He just didn’t know it. This is most evident in a scene where a man who Nicholson is interviewing, turns the camera around to face him and asks to repeat the same questions but with the camera rolling in Nicholson’s direction. Only by not hiding behind the camera will he be able to fully absorb the realities of the world he’s so busy documenting.
In a way, this scene effectively predicts today’s obsession of documenting everything around us without ever taking the time to live through these moments; these moments that we’re so determined to capture, record and store.
The movie continues to highlight Nicholson’s constant illusion of being someone else. At the start it’s an adventure as he meets the people the dead man was supposed to meet, goes to places the dead man was supposed to go to, and is free of whatever kept driving him into the ground in his previous life.
Soon he realizes that life at its core holds something we cannot get rid of: things like habits, codes of conduct, responsibility are omnipresent and will eventually find a way into anybody’s life.
At one point he says, “I’ve run out of everything; my wife — the house — an adopted child — a successful job — everything except a few bad habits I could not get rid of.”

Maria Schneider’s character becomes his companion for the journey.

The inevitable realization that we’re all somehow connected by the same problems, the same desires and obsessions in Antonioni’s world is a terrifying realization of doom. After all, Nicholson’s character wanted to escape. And yet, there is no escape for him. He cannot live a life without being part of the world.
The woman he meets in Barcelona, played by a wonderfully soulful Maria Schneider, tries to comfort him and play along like a partner in crime. Their conversations, however, constantly revolve around the inevitability of life. She is also, in a way, trying to escape, but her escape seems to be of temporary nature. She is young, bright and has the whole future ahead of her.
The two travel together across deserted parts of Spanish Almeria. At a certain point in their journey, she asks him a simple question: ”What are you running away from?” to which he replies, “Turn the other way so that your back faces the front seat.” As she does so in his open convertible, we are presented with her view of an endless row of trees and the road they’re leaving behind. It is at this point that we realize, there is no salvation for Nicholson’s character. Just the illusion of an escape.

She is also running away from something. Anything.

After making the film, Nicholson recalled that Antonioni saw his actors as nothing more than ”moving space.” This is most evident in Nicholson’s haunting performance. In The Passenger he’s at his most vulnerable as he plays a man who wants to blend in at all costs; a man who wants to be accepted and left alone. In other words, we watch one of the most bombastic, A-list dramatic actors turn in a performance that is both restrained and powerfully evocative.
Paired with Antonioni’s eye for architecture and landscapes, Jack’s performance fills the frame not with his usual, larger-than-life personality, but with a ghost-like desire. A desire to start from scratch. To be part of something.
The end result is essentially a quiet meditation on what it means to live a life. And despite featuring in large part themes of alienation and loneliness, I see The Passenger as a comforting film, where Nicholson’s character and Maria Schneider’s try to make sense of the world by supporting each other. It may be a lost fight, but the journey is ultimately fulfilling.
What the reporter forgets, is that a passenger must eventually know when to get off.

He wants to be accepted and left alone.


You Were Never Really Here: The Cinema of Lynne Ramsay

If there is one director who knows how to tell difficult and heartbreaking stories by simply hinting at the dramatic beats through the use of moving images, it’s Lynne Ramsay. The Scottish filmmaker spent a good portion of the 21st century telling stories of human struggle and existential angst while simultaneously filling the current cinematic landscape with beautifully memorable moments. Most known for her 2011 festival hit, We Need to Talk About Kevin, which dealt with the life of a mother whose son committed a high school massacre, Ramsay is one of the rare examples of an artist whose mantra follows closely the show, don’t tell technique. In an age where most movies are too afraid of letting the viewers figure things out by themselves, where each action or backstory is hammered home until we know each thread of the story by heart, it is refreshing to see a filmmaker who is able to work for major production companies like Amazon Studios while still maintaining a personal, uncompromising artistic vision.

Joaquin Phoenix as the brooding Joe in ‘You Were Never Really Here.’

Ramsay’s 2017 film, You Were Never Really Here perfectly encapsulates the filmmaker’s eye for detail and the tendency to subvert a viewer’s expectations, often changing the way we respond to movies that deal with the kind of themes that You Were Never Really Here deals with. On the surface, it is a straightforward story of a war veteran who, upon his return home, decides to work as a contract killer who saves underage girls from the hands of rich pedophiles. The protagonist, Joe, suffers from PTSD related to not only his experience in the military but also his childhood in an abusive household.
What Ramsay does in first order with this kind of premise is simple: she sees through it and sees how ridiculous and predictable it can turn out to be if handled the wrong way. The wrong way being a conventional action thriller that uses the protagonist’s past suffering as a valid excuse for his brutal means of expression (his preferred weapon of choice is a ball-peen hammer).
In Ramsay’s hands, You Were Never Really Here becomes a quiet meditation on trauma, survivor’s guilt and alienation in a misogynistic society.

Joe is consumed by demons from the past.

Joe, played by a never-better Joaquin Phoenix, is a character of many shades. On paper, he’s the classic anti-hero for whom we root for because he’s strong, skilled and in the end, kills with a clear purpose in mind. On screen, Joe is a shell of his former self. He’s what’s left of a once innocent teenager who may have fled home to escape its violence and found himself in even greater danger in some foreign land. That’s where his spirit was ultimately defeated. And although he has a brutal way of carrying himself in broad daylight, he still manifests the traits of a much younger, much different person. Such detailed character aspects are always present in Ramsay’s films as she spends a considerable amount of time before shooting anything, closely working with the actors to develop their backstories, their tics, their kinks and weaknesses in order for them to merge their own personalities with the character they’re playing.
For Joaquin Phoenix this was the perfect opportunity to merge his own demons from the past to Joe’s. Joe, unlike Keanu Reeve’s John Wick, doesn’t fit the bill as the handsome yet scarred hunk with a passion and skill for killing other human beings. He’s a man whose world has been turned upside down from the very beginning and now he’s tired of trying to make sense of it. He’s found his place in society and found a role that fits his abilities. Yet, deep down he’s preserved some of that innocence he once had within him. For one, he still remembers his mother’s lullabies from when he was a child and whenever he’s distressed, consumed by his worst fears and memories, he sings the alphabet song.

Details make a whole lot of difference in Lynne Ramsay’s movies.

As mentioned before, an essential aspect of Ramsay’s cinema is her eye for detail. Details surround her characters constantly (think of the blood-red cans of tomatoes behind Tilda Swinton’s character in We Need to Talk About Kevin when it dawns on her what her own son has done) and are often used to convey the heightened emotional reality these characters are living in.
In You Were Never Really Here, details provide depth to Joe’s traumatizing past without every confronting it head-on. Ramsay uses the camera to pick upon Joe’s inner outbursts of violence by focusing on a candy he slowly squashes with his fingers or the scars covering his body hinting at physical suffering from the past or blood smears on a tissue which he used to clean the hammer he used to fracture someone’s skull. These details are then expanded within Ramsay’s world. For example, as Joe waits for the subway train to arrive, the camera captures a woman standing next to him, her cheek visibly bruised beneath her left eye. It is a moment that is there only to hint at something crucial to the story, without directly addressing it. Joe doesn’t walk up to her, asking if she’s alright. There is no need for us to explore that woman’s story. Ramsay simply encourages us to consider Joe’s surroundings and enrich our viewing experience.

It is up to us to fill in the blanks.

Moreover, violence in Ramsay’s films is rarely directly addressed. Being drawn to other things and wanting to escape the oldest cinematic tropes in the book, Ramsay captures violence mostly by looking at the aftermath of it. Not only the physical aftermath, including gun-shot wounds, broken necks and fractured bones, but also the emotional one; characters left breathing heavily as the adrenaline begins to leave their body, characters breaking down into tears or on the contrary, characters not fully realizing the gravity of the things they’ve just witnessed.
In You Were Never Really Here, the (un)emotional counter-part to Joe is the young girl he sets out to rescue, Nina. Nina sees violence but doesn’t respond to it until the very end. While Joe is consumed with hurt and anguish to the point where he must let it out and either inflict the same kind of pain on others or further inflict on himself, Nina simply watches on as events unravel before her eyes. This doesn’t make her another tired cliché of the little girl who ends up being the sidekick to the movie’s protagonist. Ramsay gives Nina enough emotional depth by hinting at the things this girl may have survived whether it is episodes of sexual abuse or her family’s emotional absence when growing up.

Nina.

In the rare instances when Ramsay doesn’t have a choice and must direct a violent sequence, she re-invents the way we respond to violence on screen. In You Were Never Really Here, when Joe enters a luxurious brothel to find and rescue Nina, Ramsay uses surveillance camera footage to capture the bloody violence. This way we can’t really get the sense of action. We see fuzzy, blurry white and gray images of men struggling in empty hallways, with Joe making his way up to the third floor of the establishment. Ramsay said while presenting the film, “I don’t like the violence. It’s really about the violence in his [Joe’s] head, a psychological violence. Which is most apparent when our expectations of what violence on screen typically looks like are under-cut by Ramsay’s suffocated, distant depictions of people inflicting physical pain on each other. By making such a bold, visual decision, Ramsay aims to put us in a different frame of mind while interpreting the images we’re seeing.

The surveillance camera footage never allows us to get a proper sense of violence.

Rarely do we see such commitment and perseverance in communicating one’s vision to the world as we see with each movie directed by Lynne Ramsay. The Glasgow native often tells stories that most directors would steer clear from. The settings and the characters she chooses to work with are always shaped according to her worldview but with enough pieces missing for us to fill in the blanks ourselves. There are no wrong answers in Ramsay’s cinema. There are only stories and endless possibilities for new ones. Her keen eye for detail is infectious as we grow more and more compelled in deciphering the meaning of a certain moment or object because we’re convinced (by Ramsay herself) that there may be some unique truth even in the most mundane or banal object within the frame. When I’m watching a film by Lynne Ramsay, I feel like I’m rediscovering all over again how to watch movies. Because at the end of the day, movies are about finding personal truths that resonate for each one of us differently. In Ramsay’s cinema, those truths are everywhere.

A Most Wanted Man: Capturing the Hopelessness of Espionage

When we lost Philip Seymour Hoffman, we lost a man who knew how to be human in front of a camera. A man who knew exactly how to give a complete and detailed account of the human condition. His characters never dared to fall into the trap of clichés, never felt diminished by a bad script or a mediocre finished product. Hoffman always rose to the occasion and treated each film as if it was his last shot at redemption. This is perhaps most evident in his penultimate screen appearance in Anton Corbijn’s A Most Wanted Man, a film adaptation of John le Carré’s novel about espionage in the 21st century. The film is one of the most pessimistic works to come out in recent years and captures brilliantly what I would call the hopelessness of espionage, a running theme in le Carré’s body of work. The character played by Seymour Hoffman, Günther Bachmann, a spy for the German government, is a tragic reminder of what men become when they’re at sea for too long.

Günther Bachmann and his team of German spies.

The story is simple and like with most le Carré stories it serves the plot only to emphasize the wrong-doings of the system this story is set in. For le Carré there is no such thing as countries. There’s only systems, and more often than not, they’re broken down, corrupt. And the people living in these systems aren’t as much as living as they’re functioning within the boundaries set by these systems. For le Carré, our gravest tendency is we like to get complacent. Complacency, in turn, allows these systems to thrive and grow in power. A Most Wanted Man works under that assumption. It examines the psyche of a man who is convinced he is doing something good, something right. However, he is doing these things for the benefit of a system.
The story begins with a political refugee from Chechenia named Issa Karpov illegally entering the city of Hamburg, Germany, Europe’s biggest harbor and the epicenter of terrorist cells following 9/11. Günther Bachmann’s job following the attacks is to identify and recruit as informants individuals with potential ties to Islamic terrorist organizations. Thus, the game of cat and mouse begins, as Bachmann is set on using Karpov to connect him to Chechen terrorists in order to prevent another 9/11 (the plans for those attacks were conceived in Hamburg without any sort of discovery or interference on the part of intelligence services). As a result, the whole film is fueled by this sense of paranoia, this endless need to uncover a conspiracy, to unmask the boogey-man and come out triumphantly holding the enemy’s severed head.

Bachmann is a master manipulator.

The cold, steely look given by the director, Corbijn (who started out as a photographer), and cinematographer Delhomme helps capture not only Hamburg’s modern architecture but also the tone of Bachmann’s calculated profession. It is a job that entails a cold and indifferent attitude, requiring of you to consider people as nothing but leverage, pawns to be moved around a chess board. Bachmann’s whole shtick is to use people as bait for more dangerous fish. The people he uses often do not realize the situation they’re truly in as Bachmann consoles them, hugs them, even kisses them. He gives them a reason to believe in what they do, he convinces them of things that simply do not exist. Promises them such foolish things as freedom, love, independence. Because the job demands it, because the job is everything. Is it not?
Bachmann is a master manipulator, however this ‘skill’ comes at a price, namely he walks through life without savoring it. The metallic look of the film suggests just that: here we have a man who in principle works for our safety, but this means he cannot look at something and not consider it a possible danger to society. To Bachmann, bars are places where people conspire, a man hugging a woman certainly hints at an exchange of precious information, a man walking his dog down the street is nothing but an actor playing his part, every phone call is dialed with the intent of blowing up a bomb somewhere. This one-dimensional, grim outlook on life makes of Seymour Hoffman’s character a fascinating protagonist as we ultimately don’t know what he truly believes in. In a scene where Bachmann presents his mission to his superiors and members of German security and American diplomats, the American (played by Robin Wright) asks him: “What’s the objective?”, to which Bachmann answers “To make the world a safer place.” He follows this up by giving it a shrug, shaking his head as if to say, Yeah, I know. How crazy is that?

As we learn, espionage for the most part takes place in conference rooms.

Indeed, the film works as an adaptation because at the end of the day it captures the soul and attitude of le Carré’s writing. The writing of a man disillusioned with the world he’s living in, with the job he once carried out as a young man with ambitions to do something great, something truly right. After all, le Carré’s best adaptations were in fact films that knew how to capture the author’s sense of weariness: The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965) starring Richard Burton as boozy secret agent Alec Leamas who can’t make any sense of what’s right and wrong in the early stages of the Cold War; The Constant Gardener (2005) with the story of a small-time British diplomat (Ralph Fiennes) coming to terms with his country’s role in Africa’s devastation; Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) with its universe of endless back-stabbings between people who should be working for the same cause. What makes these film adaptations work is precisely the deep understanding of le Carré’s tired, disillusioned voice.
A Most Wanted Man wrestles back and forth between Bachmann’s professional devotion, his sense of duty, and his complete misunderstanding of basic human emotions. His spy craft turns everything into an image or a soundbite to be studied, played around, manipulated. Everything can be recorded, cut, released. As the movie progresses and one of the central characters, a refugee lawyer (Rachel McAdams) tries to help out Issa Karpov providing him with food and shelter, Bachmann sees this not as an act of humanity but as a way-in for him to intervene and use the lawyer to his advantage. The chase that compels him, that makes him get up in the middle of the night and roam the streets of Hamburg looking for informants is the only thing that prevents him from becoming insane. Bachmann is, in other words, a man destined to live out the rest of his days in a hamster wheel. This constant motion is the only thing keeping him alive.

Those who want to do good, get punished.

Over the years, I’ve grown to appreciate A Most Wanted Man. It is by no means an easy watch as it asks the viewer to leave any pre-conceived notions out by the door. Just like the characters in it, the movie operates under guidelines established by the system in charge. No explanations are given. Characters, even those like Bachmann who think they have a say in the matter, must know when to walk away when the situation demands it. For Bachmann, walking away equals defeat. Walking away is the betrayal of his own being. But it is also the name of the game. All of le Carré’s characters must know when to walk away if they want to survive. The question is, survive and do what? Survive for what? For a system? For a world where giving a man food and shelter is seen as an act of conspiracy?
Philip Seymour Hoffman may have walked away from this world, but his ability to be deeply human whenever the director said Action! will, unlike Bachmann’s profession, echo in eternity.

Hoffman’s penultimate screen appearance is one for the ages.

Midnight Run: The Art of Buddy Comedy

What happens when you get an award-winning method actor in De Niro, a timid comedian in Charles Grodin, a young up-and-coming director in Martin Brest and tell them, Go out there and make a really good comedy about a bounty hunter going through a mid-life crisis while chasing a white collar criminal? Well, what happens is you get one of the most entertaining, bombastic and heartfelt buddy comedies to come out of the 1980s, an era known for fueling the concept of buddy comedy with movies like 48 Hrs., Planes, Trains and Automobiles and Twins leading the way. Midnight Run has grown to become a cult classic of the genre and looking back on it, the film has stood the test of time beautifully.
If there ever was a recipe for the perfect buddy comedy – Midnight Run would be it. So today, I want to talk about what makes Brest’s collaboration with De Niro and Grodin stand out in a decade packed with similar efforts and what this film teaches us about buddy comedy in general, a genre that has more or less faded away in recent years with movies like The Nice Guys failing at box office, and thus further discouraging Hollywood from committing to such screwball ideas.

Meet Jack Walsh (Robert De Niro) and his dirtbag bail bondsman (Joe Pantoliano).

The first thing that we notice about a lot of buddy comedies is that they can come off as vanity or vacation projects, with big time actors cashing in easy paychecks and in exchange, giving their minimum effort. After all, if the movie isn’t serious and the subject isn’t too heavy then why should you bust your balls from 9 to 5 if you’re an Academy Award Winner? Midnight Run never takes itself seriously, but it also never dismisses the importance of emotional beats and the overarching themes of its story.
On the surface, this surely could have been another easy cash grab for De Niro, especially coming off a run of incredible yet creatively exhausting movies that included Once Upon a Time in America and The Mission. The latter especially saw De Niro put himself through enormous physical and psychological strain. It would have been only reasonable of him to accept making Midnight Run just to see him sleepwalk through the entire runtime. And yet… no sir. One of the first things that you immediately notice about Midnight Run is the commitment of everyone involved. This seemingly simple screwball comedy sees major actors like De Niro, Farina and Kotto work their asses to deliver something truly fresh and passionate, while never losing sight of the ultimate objective – fun. The movie is pure, unfiltered fun.

De Niro’s bounty hunter must track down and deliver Grodin’s white collar criminal to LA before others get to him.

Buddy comedy always works best when it’s about two polar opposites having to get along. Whether it’s the broad-shouldered, street-smart cop played by Nick Nolte having to collaborate with small-time crook played by Eddie Murphy in 48 Hrs., or the physically towering yet innocent and good-hearted Arnold Schwarzenegger trying to reconcile with his long-lost twin brother Danny DeVito in Twins, buddy comedy is at its best when the main protagonists have conflicting personalities and interests. Midnight Run, however, does not make this distinction too apparent. Indeed, De Niro is the more impatient, more violent of the two, and wears his emotions on his sleeve, while Grodin’s poker-faced accountant for the mafia goes about life as if it was one big walk in the park. Yet, underneath these glaring differences there is something much more subtle: a burning pain of some kind, whether it is lodged in the past or present, both men have hurt themselves and others around them. Both share the desire to start from scratch, and try to recapture the same thirst for life they felt when they were young.
De Niro’s former Chicago policeman turned bounty hunter dreams of owning a coffeeshop. Perhaps it’s only a dream, but his character shows all the signs of a man who’s come to realize that all this running around, chasing criminals, with or without a badge, has got in the way of real, palpable happiness. Same goes for Grodin’s white collar criminal, whose act of stealing and giving mafia money away to charities is in itself a cry for help, a last shot at redemption for a man who’s walked through life by helping the rich grow richer. One could argue that this movie is about men going through a mid-life crisis, and there is truth to that. De Niro and Grodin are only now starting to realize that there is more to life than just fun, money and a career. But only through this sentimental, dramatic lens does Midnight Run‘s humor become all the more effective. Without these backstories, the punchlines wouldn’t land the same.

The two eventually learn about each other through thick and thin.

And it’s here that the importance of a strong, committed supporting cast becomes most apparent. Movies nowadays seem to have forgotten what it means to have recognizable non-movie star faces to help the story move along. Character actors, upon of the sight of whom you go, That guy! I know him! I’ve seen him before! Well, Midnight Run is full of them and knows the extent to which it can rely on their personas.
You have a pre-Sopranos Joe Pantoliano who plays the double-crossing bail bondsman trying to screw De Niro out of a well-earned pay-day. You have Dennis Farina playing the explosive mafia boss with the ever-stoic veteran actor Philip Baker Hall as his loyal consigliere. Add to that list the late Yaphet Kotto as the ominous yet always-too-late-on-the-scene FBI agent Alonzo Mosley, and John Ashton as De Niro’s hilarious bounty-hunting rival and you got yourself a cast of perfectly lived-in characters that, when called upon, offer their very best.
The world of buddy comedies like Midnight Run navigate in always risks of becoming a caricature, a cartoon filled with cliché’s something that The Naked Gun would go on to spoof that same year and later on in 90s with its over-the-top sequels. However, Martin Brest’s film never goes to that extent. The motivations of the supporting characters are just as real as the motivations of the two protagonists, whether it’s the FBI agent’s undying pride and call of duty, or the mafia boss’ palpable fear of having his dirty secrets exposed to the world, Midnight Run never loses sight of the qualities of these characters while pumping the story with thrilling action sequences.

The great late Yaphet Kotto as the intimidating FBI agent Mosley.

Let’s face it: this wouldn’t be an 80s movie if De Niro’s character didn’t get into a shoot-out with a helicopter in a canyon, or if the mafia’s botched hit on Grodin’s character didn’t turn into a full-on, guns-blazing shoot-out between cops and gangsters in the middle of broad daylight. 80s action was always over the top, but it was up to filmmakers to capture the ridiculousness of typical Hollywood action and make it an element of the story, like James Cameron did with True Lies.
Midnight Run is never action-oriented as it focuses more on character study, but that’s why the action sequences that occur in the movie never feel out of place. The repetitive outbursts of violence become part of the story, with De Niro repeatedly telling Ashton to look the other way, ”Marvin, look out!” and knocking him out with a punch to the face, until the one time that he really means it in the climatic finale and Marvin doesn’t buy it anymore. Or when Grodin baits De Niro into believing he’s afraid of flying, to later on maneuver a plane on his own with De Niro hanging onto the wing, screaming his heart out. It’s all so wonderfully over the top, yet it never feels borrowed from another movie. It all falls into the same melting pot, and the outcome is a delicious character study mixed with ridiculous bits of action.

The exact moment when De Niro finds out Grodin is indeed not afraid of flying.

Finally, I want to point out the one scene that best explains why Midnight Run is the perfect buddy comedy.
Halfway through the film, after having been identified by the FBI and ratted out by his own bail bondsman, De Niro’s character takes Grodin’s to where he used to live back when he was a policeman in Chicago, as he intends to borrow some money from his ex-wife. Grodin and De Niro are just starting to get to know each other, and De Niro’s character hasn’t yet revealed the full truth regarding his past, neither to us nor Grodin. In-between light sequences filled with jokes and witty dialogue, Martin Brest stages this very emotional scene, with De Niro confronting the woman he loved, but lost to another man. With his hot-temper, De Niro doesn’t take too much time to get into it with wife, and as a result, the two start bickering, with Grodin, hand-cuffed, standing on the side trying to mediate this heated exchange.
All of a sudden, a little girl emerges. It turns out it’s De Niro’s daughter. As soon as she enters the frame, the bickering stops and De Niro freezes. He hasn’t seen this child in nine years, and now she’s all grown up. He can barely say, ”What grade are you in now?” and when she replies that she is in eighth grade, all he can blurt out is, ”Eighth grade, huh…” Grodin smiles at the sight of this, and the two actors beautifully capture the fragility of this scene. In the midst of a storm, there is a sudden glimmer of light and calm. This little girl, De Niro’s daughter, stands with her eyes doing all the talking for her. You used to be part of my life, she thinks. How come you’re not anymore?
What’s disarming and so brutally honest about the way this scene unfolds is that De Niro can’t bring himself to say anything more. He timidly hugs her, tries to savor her smell, and imagine all the things they could have experienced together as a father and daughter over the course of the last nine years. In a world of bounty hunters, gangsters and cops this little ray of sunlight in the form of a blond-haired child is a tragic reminder of what we can miss out on in life. Yet, despite these two people being practically strangers to each other, the daughter never expresses any resentment. She just hopes to see him again.

What could have been.
But never was.

The Godfather: An Essential Christmas Movie

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

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

The magical opening to The Godfather – the wedding ceremony.

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

Don Corleone picking up some fruit and vegetables.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Devil All the Time: Confronting Evil the Wrong Way

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Llewelyn and Carla Jean have each other.

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

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

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

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

Musica, Maestro: Remembering Ennio Morricone

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

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

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

Farewell, maestro.

 

Raise the Red Lantern: Generational Misogyny

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

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A young girl must accept the fate forced upon her.

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

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

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

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Songlian’s actions lead to dangerous consequences.

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

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

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

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

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

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Crushed dreams in the form of burning lanterns.

Bamboozled: Social Commentary Done Right

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Are these really only cartoons? What is their purpose?

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

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”Everyone wants to be a…!”

Werner Herzog: The Power of Observation

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).

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Fini, our protagonist, with her translator, before flying for the first time.

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.

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Fini shows others that they’re not alone in this silence and darkness.

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.

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The soft, kind breathing of an animal.

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.

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Fini and Vladimir meet for the first time.

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.

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To truly make sense of this world, you have to feel it first.