Ko-Fi Request: ‘Possession’

I didn’t expect to come out of Possession, an infamously divisive cult classic, with such a middling feeling. Credit where it’s due, the film does its damnedest to make you feel some type of way about it. It seems designed for you to find it either grating or enthralling, and just as happy to engender the former as the latter. In that way, it’s a film made for everyone and no one, a work absent an intended recipient, a pure auteurist vision.

And it’s, you know, it’s okay.

I’ll talk first about what I unambiguously loved about it, and that’s the cinematography. Director Andrzej Żuławski and DP Bruno Nuytten construct the sort of overwhelming, fractured spaces familiar to viewers of John Carpenter or Paul W.S. Anderson. There is no symmetry in Possession, no clean lines or comforting shapes. The corners of rooms jut out towards the camera, as though the space itself is resisting the act of filming it. The actors are assaulted, too, on all sides by a world that seems to want them dead. The camera swings around these rooms and hallways, each frame prompting a new angle of attack.

It gives the impression of a film that doesn’t want to be made. This contributes nicely to the horror of it all in a creepypasta sort of way. It’s the sort of film you expect to find abandoned in some dead person’s attic, or thrown from a car window on the side of the highway. You watch it and get the unsettled feeling that it’s somehow watching you back. You feel as though you shouldn’t be here, that this film shouldn’t exist, and yet you’re compelled to keep watching.

The problem is that it too often tips its hand and goes for more straightforward chills. I have nothing against the sort of bloody violence we see in the film’s latter half, and the creature is really well-done, properly creepy. But I wish it could live more in its ambiguous frights than its big brash shocks.

At the very least, I wish it would choose one or the other and run with it. I was exhausted trying to get a handle on the film’s ambitions. It wasn’t until the end that I realized it never had any. There’s no real perspective to speak of in Possession. You can read it simultaneously as MRA propaganda and an ode to feminist creativity. This isn’t a result of the film trying to have it both ways or find some middle ground, but rather the complete absence of any point of view at all. Its primary aim, if it has any, is to terrify and disturb. Is there anything wrong with that? Not really. It’s just not for me.

The only real problem I had with Possession was its performances. I can see why someone would be bewitched by the work of the three leads. Their physicality is so gonzo, their dialogue so heightened. It’s unlike much else in the realm of acting. I found myself frustrated, personally, by how directed they felt. Obviously every film performance is the sum of collaboration between an actor and their director. In this case, though, I felt the hand of the latter much more than the former. Their bizarre hand movements and flailing limbs felt less motivated and more choreographed. In other words, I never felt they were possessed by anyone but the director. I could be completely off-base here (I wasn’t on set, of course). That’s just what I came away with.

Part of me wishes I either liked or hated this film more. It would certainly make writing about it less of a challenge. The other part of me is comfortable riding the middle, though. I’m happy for the many people I know who are awed or bored by Possession, and I can see why they would be. My feelings on it just aren’t that strong.

Performance and Selfhood in ‘Alita: Battle Angel’

“Whose body is this?”

Amnesiac cyborg warrior Alita asks it of her adopted father Ido. Her unfamiliarity and discomfort with it has become to much to bear. Salvaged from a scrapyard as a disembodied head and given a new shell, Alita knows instinctively that this body doesn’t belong to her. It doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t fit. She can’t be her fullest self while using it. She learns that this body was designed for Ido’s late daughter. Alita’s body is not her own.

When Alita wakes up in Ido’s clinic, she has no memory of her former life. Aside from the ability to speak, she has no memory of anything at all. She is as much a blank slate as a person can be, taking in every tiny experience for the first time. She has no real understanding of herself or the world around her.

And yet she knows that her body is wrong. This is perhaps the only thing she knows. She knows it because she doesn’t have to know it. She feels it somewhere deep within herself, some part she can’t access but only feel its reverberations thrumming arrhythmically through her mind. Something is wrong with my body. My body is not my body.

“Whose body is that?”

It’s a question the audience must ask when we look at Alita. Her eyes are not actress Rosa Salazar’s eyes, her arms and legs and torso are not Rosa Salazar’s. But her body clearly isn’t entirely a digital creation. The Alita we see on screen is as much a blend of Salazar’s physicality and computer-generated artistry as the character herself is a combination of a human brain and cybernetic body. Alita the fictional character is no one thing. Alita the constructed image isn’t either.

“Does it bother you,” Alita asks her love interest, “that I’m not completely human?” She’s asking the viewer as well. A supposed “over-reliance” on CG effects tends to be considered a negative, and some academics will tell you that such digital enhancement compromises the integrity of a performance. After all, how much can we attribute to the actor when every detail we see on screen may be the result of interfering animation? Alita: Battle Angel made me wonder: Does it matter?

Salazar’s performance (and I’ll call it hers for the sake of brevity) is one of the best I’ve ever seen in a film, period. She is fearlessly emotive, every muscle in her face engaged in a way so many actors are trained to avoid. She’s not restrained by outmoded notions of acting “realism,” and thus she lacks the overcooked stiffness of so many so-called “great” performances. Every movement feels entirely natural and yet (in her first body, and we’ll get to that in a bit) faintly labored, betraying that feeling of unfamiliarity with this form that doesn’t belong to her. Salazar’s Alita is a fully human creation, even in its supposed inhumanity. It doesn’t matter if the physical nuances I’ve noted come from Salazar’s intentions or an effects artist’s. Alita is the product of collaboration, of human mind and digital engineering. She belongs to no one person.

Some time after learning the truth about the body she inhabits, Alita finds a new one. She can’t explain why she’s drawn to it. It’s a subconscious thread suddenly pulled taut. This body she’s found can belong to her. She can live inside it. She can make sense inside it. It can be hers.

She asks Ido to put her inside this new body. He refuses. He doesn’t trust this found form, recognizing it as the shell of an old enemy. Why, he asks Alita, can’t she be happy the way he made her? Why can’t she accept the body he gave her? It doesn’t matter to him that this new body is the right body for her. He won’t let her make that decision for herself.

It’s only after a reckless (one might call it suicidal) decision destroys the body Ido gave her that he agrees to put her in the new one. And when he does, the new one begins to change. It reshapes and reforms itself to, as he puts it, “match her subconscious image of herself.” She doesn’t look like his daughter anymore. For the first time, she looks like herself.

Alita shows off her new body to her friends, celebrating that she finally feels comfortable in her own metal skin. “It’s much more me,” she says. Finally, she achieves symbiosis between her self and her physical form. She is not two separate things, a mind and a body. She is a whole person.

Once Alita gets her new body, Salazar’s performance shifts ever so slightly. Her movement is more graceful, losing the slightly jerky quality she had in her first form. In addition to the righteousness she always radiates, there is now confidence. In addition to her strength, there is control. But it’s not just one big change. There’s an astonishing subtlety to how Salazar’s performance evolves over the course of the film. This is probably as much a testament to the editing as it is to Salazar and the CG team’s skill in creating the character, but that’s another conversation. This performance is constantly in flux, always moving and wavering in ways you may not consciously pick up on until you notice how different she seems from a half-hour prior.

It’s also notable how, as Alita becomes more comfortable with herself, she becomes a performer in her own right. It turns out that Alita’s truest self performs toughness, bravery, and heroism based on the buried memories of her military training. They come back to her in flashes, devoid of context, and she integrates them into her physicality and dialogue on the fly. The film calls into question the notion of a “true self” in this way. When Alita is being “herself,” she is performing, whereas when she doesn’t know herself she is much less guarded and more easygoing. Selfhood, says Alita: Battle Angel, is itself performance. To always act “naturally” is to not have a self at all.

Our selves are what we show to other people. They are how we choose to express, the decisions (or lack of decisions) we make about the physical forms we reside within. Alita becomes Alita over the course of the film. It takes the acquisition of a more fitting body for her to fully realize who she is, and who she wants to be. For Alita to be Alita, she must present herself the way she feels she must. She can’t be herself in the wrong body. Alita: Battle Angel is as moving an exploration of body dysphoria as I’ve ever seen. Salazar’s performance so profoundly understands the awkwardness and pain that come from being disassociated from your physical form, and the euphoria that comes when your body begins to match how you feel about yourself for the first time.

It’s not a wholly natural performance, but this isn’t a film about being comfortable in a natural, unadjusted form. It’s about the joy and necessity of changing yourself, whether with cybernetic tools or computer-generated effects. Alita: Battle Angel is an ode to artificiality for people who must become themselves through active construction. It’s a film for anyone who has ever looked in the mirror and asked themselves Alita’s question: “Whose body is this?”

Ko-Fi Request: ‘The Florida Project’

This article was based on a request from one of my patrons on ko-fi. For $3, you can recommend a film for me to watch and write an article about! Visit this link if interested!

I want to take this opportunity to discuss what we talk about when we talk about “poverty porn.” It’s a label we see applied to films like The Pursuit of Happyness, Precious, and Beasts of the Southern Wild, films whose ostensible commitment to a gritty realism, to showing people “what it’s really like,” tips over into a desperately maudlin presentation of poor people as mere objects to provoke emotional response. “Poverty porn” films are pity parties. They are designed to make people feel bad, and then feel good about how bad they felt. The characters in these films don’t matter. They have no interiority, no personality, and certainly no unlikable traits. They are cynically drawn caricatures, created with the sole purpose of “moving” an audience. Moving them to what? Who knows? Certainly not to take action against the structures of power and violent systems that create poverty. “Poverty porn” isn’t about those things. It’s about individuals who are so likable and relatable that they don’t deserve to be poor.

Sean Baker’s The Florida Project is not about that, contrary to what so many reviews and reactions would have you believe. I saw this film get slapped with the “poverty porn” label so many times that it shocked me to see not a single trace of it. I won’t speculate on where people got this impression, as I don’t want to imply that anyone’s reaction was disingenuous. I can only speak for myself, and I found the film starkly opposed to the entire genre.

Outside of this line of criticism, I remember a lot of negative discussion about the character Halley around the film’s release. People found her obnoxious, despicable, irredeemable, and most of all unsympathetic. It’s that last point that I think is key to The Florida Project’s opposition to “poverty porn.” Halley doesn’t fit the “Hollywood poor” mold. She’s not a good person in bad circumstances. She doesn’t set a good example for her kid. She’s rude, apathetic, even upsettingly violent (though never to her daughter). She’s not a likable person in the slightest.

But why, the film asks, should that matter?

The core truth of the “poverty porn” film is that poor people may also be good people, and that’s unfair. These characters generally have some secret skill that eventually allows them to advance, something their film assumes the audience wouldn’t expect a poor person to have. This is the “poverty porn” version of challenging the audience. It plays on their expected disgust towards people in poverty, melodramatically revealing the character’s hidden talent as a narrative twist. “See?” these films say, “Poor people aren’t always poor because they deserve to be!”

The obvious implication in that sentence being: Sometimes they are.

What The Florida Project presents with the Halley character is an actual challenge to those same audiences. It forces them to ask themselves if they can sympathize with such a reprehensible character. Do they think she deserves better? Are they capable of wanting better for her? The discourse around the film shows how many people failed this test. The film reveals how many people’s supposed principles teeter on the edge of personal satisfaction. It shouldn’t matter whether or not Halley is a likable person. She doesn’t have to be nice, or even good, to deserve a better life for her and her daughter.

The Florida Project also has more to say about the structures that enforce inequality than any “poverty porn” film. The characters literally live in the shadow of Disney World, struggling to make ends meet right next door to the ultimate symbol of American capitalism. Baker shoots gift shops and ice cream stands and strip malls like the giant decaying ruins of Shadow of the Colossus. They tower over the characters, threatening to tip over and crush them at a moment’s notice. The characters are dwarfed by capital everywhere they turn. Even their televisions only seem to play commercials. Their world is consumed by a commercial spirit which denies them entry even as it squeezes them out. They are not the victims of circumstance. They’re the victims of a system for which their struggles are proof that it’s working as intended.

In the final scene, Moonee and Jancey fantasize about running from their homes (and the DCF agents who have come to take Moonee from her mother) and going to Disney World. Some people were taken aback by the sudden break from the film’s realistic style, but I didn’t mind it. These girls can only imagine themselves going to Disney World. At such a young age, they’re keenly aware of the fact that upward mobility is a fantasy for them. Their lives will never get any better. If I have a qualm with this ending, it’s that it is perhaps too depressing. It’s the closest the film comes to the sort of saccharine tearjerking of “poverty porn,” but it elides it by sticking to the truth of these characters’ interior lives. You’ll cry at the end of The Florida Project. But you won’t feel good about it.

‘Escape Room,’ ‘Halloween,’ and the Immortality of Trauma

Hollywood franchising doesn’t leave room for healing.

Being an individual possessed of an AMC A-List subscription, last weekend I saw the film Escape Room. It’s the sort of film that Moviepass and its ilk are made for. I’d never make time for this kind of cheapo January horror schlock if I didn’t have 3 tickets a week burning a hole in my digital pocket. And maybe that’s my mistake, because Escape Room is quite close to being a good movie! It’s in the Cube or Exam mold, a low-budget thriller about a small group of people with distinct personalities who must solve deadly puzzles to escape from a mysterious game. It has one or two fun sequences, some predictably goofy twists, a few laughs, a few jump scares…all in all, there are worse ways to waste a midwinter evening.

What struck me about Escape Room about halfway through was this realization: “Oh, they want this to be about something!” After several contextless flashbacks which indicate that the escape room’s creators know more about the participants’ pasts than they should, it’s revealed that each player is the sole survivor of some kind of traumatic accident. The testy veteran lost her whole squad in an explosion. The surly burnout killed all his friends while drunk driving. The nervy college student was the only one to walk away from a plane crash. And so on and so forth. All of them carry the pain and guilt of being the ones who lived.

This isn’t uncharted territory for horror films. The genre has concerned characters with unresolved trauma for as long as it’s been around. Just a couple months before Escape Room we got David Gordon Green’s sequel/reboot of Halloween. That film followed its own lone survivor, Jaime Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode, the final girl of the original film. Decades later she’s locked herself away in a trap-laden compound, waiting for the inevitable day when Michael Myers will return to hunt her down. This one event has consumed her personality. Her trauma motivates her every step. The film was widely praised for this characterization. Finally, people said, a horror film takes seriously the emotional consequences of wanton violence on its victims.

Except it doesn’t. Not really. And neither does Escape Room. (And here’s your warning that I’m going to spoil both of these films.)

I was cautiously excited when Escape Room started peeling back its narrative. I thought they were really going to go for it, really dig into how trauma and guilt affect these characters and lead them towards some form of catharsis. Maybe the escape room was one big therapeutic exercise, designed to help them resolve their issues and alleviate their anguish. That’s how I would have written it, anyway.

Unfortunately, that’s not the case. The escape room is actually a private reality show for the rich and famous, who get their kicks watching the proles kill each other and themselves in impossible puzzle boxes. Why are all the participants sole survivors? Turns out the gag of the event was to see who would be the ultimate sole survivor, the luckiest of the lucky. This is, obviously, a rather callous twist, but not an irredeemable one. There’s still room at this point for the remaining protagonists to defy the system and gain some closure on their personal issues.

The problem is that this is a Hollywood production in 2019. So there has to be a sequel.

After the two living heroes get out of the room, there’s a coda that shows the nervy college student approaching the surly burnout with evidence of the conspiracy. The two resolve to hunt down those responsible and make them pay for putting them through the ordeal. The film ends with a shadowy, faceless figure on a monitor tracking their movements and evilly hissing, “Let’s play again.”

No ending. No catharsis. No healing. Not even the vaguest of gestures towards that possibility. These characters are imprisoned in the film industry machine. Their trauma will be exploited until it is no longer profitable. They are not allowed to get better. They are not allowed to move on.

We see the same structure in last year’s Halloween. At that film’s end, Laurie, her daughter, and her granddaughter trap Michael in her basement and set it on fire. The three of them escape, their interpersonal drama washed away by this cleansing act of vengeance. But uh oh! We cut back inside the burning basement, and Michael is gone! He slithers away to stab another day. Laurie can never heal. Laurie can only survive. There will be a sequel, and they’ll both return and clash again, and again, and again, until the studio decides Laurie doesn’t play as well for audiences anymore and they kill her off for good. Michael, meanwhile, can never die. The enactor of trauma gets to live on forever. He never stops being marketable.

As frustrating as this can be for a viewer, there’s some truth in that. Trauma isn’t something that gets neatly tied up in a three-act structure. Healing is possible, but that violence doesn’t ever fully leave you. “Moving on” implies that you leave it behind. What it really means is making the choice to not let it hold you back. It’s still a passenger in your mind. It just doesn’t have to steer the ship.

But whatever expression of that truism there is in Escape Room and Halloween is merely the accidental result of a cynical exploitation of pain and suffering. These films have nothing to say about trauma except that it exists, and it sucks, and it can be sold to some audiences by its relatability. They have no conception of how it affects people beyond instilling a desire for revenge. They have no empathy for their characters, nor for the real people meant to find solace in their depiction. Hollywood turned victims into a demographic, selling them back their own pain and anguish. And if they want to keep selling, there can never even be the possibility of things getting better.

Ko-Fi Request: ‘Valhalla Rising’

This article was based on a request from one of my patrons on ko-fi. For $3, you can recommend a film for me to watch and write an article about! Visit this link if interested!

Nicolas Winding Refn has always struck me as the sort of artist whose ego writes checks his talent can’t cash. His unambitious filmography is full of entries just idiosyncratic enough to garner praise but not alienating enough to be truly worthwhile. Complimentary comparisons to Lynch, Argento, and Tarkovsky abound — Refn’s vision is far from unique. He is always less than the sum of his influences, a filmmaker so awash in the impulses of his predecessors that he can’t help but drown. His films are suffused with meaningless “meaning” and ugly, insufferable stylism. He’s a terrible director. Valhalla Rising is a terrible film.

The only thing I remember hearing about this film at the time of its release is that it had very little dialogue, and wasn’t that incredible? A film with no talking? Imagine! I’m baffled by those reactions now, chiefly because the film has maybe 10% less talking than average for the time. I think what people were actually picking up on was the sparse sound design, which trades most background foley effects for the noise of a persistent rushing wind, what Twin Peaks: The Return’s subtitles called an “ominous whoosh.” But unlike that project, there’s a distinct lack of atmosphere in Valhalla Rising. For all the shots of rolling misty hills, there’s no clear setting, never a sense of place. Refn doesn’t draw on the geography to construct the metaphorical hell (or Hel) to which his characters travel. He might as well have shot this thing in an empty windowless room.

But as concerns the “lack” of dialogue, making a movie like that requires a command of visual storytelling that Refn just doesn’t have. His images, even in the oh-so-surreal dream sequences, convey nothing but plot information. His visuals have no power to suggest, to imply, to mean. They can only be punishingly literal. It’s brutalist filmmaking disguised by superficial abstraction. It makes 90 minutes feel like an eternity.

What’s more distressing is how he uses these images to stitch together a script whose only saving grace is how lightweight it is. This was Refn’s seventh feature film, and his writing is still sub-film school. Characters show up to state their intentions and beliefs and then disappear for more moodless shots of fog or trees or rivers. It feels less like a first draft and more like a rough sketch, a one-page outline put to screen. I don’t think that a good film needs a screenplay at all, necessarily, but Valhalla Rising has just enough of one to make its deficiencies disastrous. The way Refn attempts to paper over those deficiencies with his boring visuals is insulting. Does he really think so little of the artists who have influenced him? Does he really think that their styles exist in a vacuum?

That last point is the key to his entire filmography, I think. Refn is enamored with the language of film, but he doesn’t know how to speak it. He loves how something looks, but can’t read it for meaning. He is perpetually halfway to being an artist.

Also he should stop casting interesting actors in roles where they don’t speak or emote or do anything. If you want to watch Mads Mikkelsen in an arty, hyper-stylized gorefest, check out Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal. He actually talks on that show.

Ko-Fi Request: ‘The First Purge’

This article was based on a request from one of my patrons on ko-fi. For $3, you can recommend a film for me to watch and write an article about! Visit this link if interested!

It’s rare to see a film so painfully at war with itself as The First Purge. I hadn’t seen an entry in the franchise since the original, which seemed utterly unconcerned with the obvious political implications of its premise. Since then, it seems the series has steadily stumbled into deeper engagement with those undertones. Each entry has gotten a little more interested in politics. The last one was subtitled “Election Year.” This one announced itself with a poster featuring a red baseball cap. It’s hard to blame them for the bluntness of this approach. The time for subtext in American political art is over. The only question was whether or not the franchise’s creators had the capability to tell these stories in a nuanced and intelligent way.

The answer, it turns out: Not really! But you have to admire its intentions. The First Purge is a film that so badly wants to provide insightful social commentary. The way it rewrites the original film’s premise is quite clever. The Purge, an annual event where all crime is legal for twelve hours, was apparently conceived of as a way of getting residents of low-income neighborhoods to kill each other off, a free pass for the government (here run by a political party called the New Founding Fathers) to continue ignoring their desperation. The film depicts a test run of the Purge, confined to Staten Island, where residents are being paid thousands of dollars to stay on the island for the night and even more to “participate.” The people who live there are largely poor and non-white, and most of them accept simply because they need the money. It’s the only real government assistance they have, and it comes at the price of their lives.

Later in the film, when it seems that only non-violent crime is being committed and people aren’t engaging, the government sends in private militia groups and armed KKK members to murder residents. Their hope is that this will provoke more people to violence, thus providing statistical proof of engagement with the Purge. It’s a really interesting spin on a premise which was originally used as nothing more than an excuse to depict widespread violence and terror. The scientist who conceived of the Purge says in one scene, “This socioeconomic group is not reacting the way I predicted.” That is to say, they aren’t instantly devolving into violence and mayhem. The filmmakers make it very clear that the Purge as a concept is infected at the root with racism.

It’s obvious that they here seriously reckoned with the implications of the concept, and that they came to the right conclusions. The psychological excuse for the Purge was always nonsense. Here, that fact is made part of the fabric of the story. The Purge is depicted as nothing more than a government tool to annihilate poor people and people of color. It’s a genuinely provocative idea. At one point, the man in charge of observing the Purge insists that this is the best option to combat America’s overpopulation and increasing national debt. “We exhausted every possibility,” he says. No one asks if he considered stretching out his hand to help, rather than hurt. But no one needs to.

The problem is that The First Purge is beholden to the structure of its predecessors. It has to be a bad Blumhouse horror movie. The protagonists have to be chased around by people wearing masks and wielding knives. There’s a crazy scary guy named (no joke) Skeletor who stalks one of the main characters for a while. It’s not just that it denigrates the sincere social commentary to include such absurd, idiotic, lame horror movie tropes. It’s that the horror elements are so halfheartedly included as to feel obligatory. And this should be a horror movie! It’s a horrifying premise! Horror is capable of telling this story the way it needs to be told. But rather than enriching the film’s text, those elements repeatedly make it a drag to sit through. The First Purge is such a disappointing film. It comes so close to realizing a truly compelling vision. But it doesn’t come close enough.

Ko-Fi Request: ‘Prince of the City’

This article was based on a request from one of my patrons on ko-fi. For $3, you can recommend a film for me to watch and write an article about! Visit this link if interested!

Roger Ebert once said that “no good movie is too long, and no bad movie is too short.” He was wrong. I have a hard set of rules about film runtimes. 80–100 minutes is the sweet spot, the ideal scenario. Few movies wouldn’t be improved by shaving down to this runtime region. Two hours is usually fine, occasionally sluggish. 130 minutes feels like cheating. Anything over three hours probably has a good reason to run that long, so they get a pass from me. But the absolute worst runtime? The lowest of the low? That’s 150–160 minutes. A chill goes up my spine when I see this runtime. My mouth goes dry. I start to feel lightheaded. 160-minute movies are too cowardly to run over three hours, and too self-absorbed to cut down under two. This is where most big blockbusters run these days, your Avengers and Transformers, and it’s no surprise that most of them are terrible. Something about this specific range of time makes it difficult for a film to maintain a watchable pace.

Sidney Lumet’s Prince of the City is 167 minutes long. It’s a testament to Lumet and his editor Jack Fitzstephens that I only kinda felt it.

Prince of the City came 8 years after Serpico, Lumet’s first (and far more iconic) film about police corruption. In between, he made two of his most successful films (Dog Day Afternoon and Network) and then his most disastrous failure (The Wiz). It’s hard to say why Lumet chose to make another film so superficially similar to Serpico, but perhaps there was some comfort in familiarity.

Supposedly, Lumet had since come to regard Serpico with some regret for the simplistic way he had portrayed police corruption. With this project, he wanted to depict the subject with more moral complexity. He succeeds there, but only by degrees. The main way he goes about this is by painting the Internal Affairs officers and prosecutors who go after corrupt cops as morally bankrupt in their own way. He also asks for some sympathy for the crooked police officers who get caught over the course of the film; two of them commit suicide.

It’s a weird way to introduce nuance, because it has the effect of making the cops almost look like the victims of an overzealous and vindictive prosecutorial force. Lumet wants us to take it for granted that these cops are bad people. He spends the entire opening chapter (an extremely well-edited montage section) showing how cool and slick their rapacious crime spree is. I’m not going to whine that Lumet doesn’t do enough to emphasize that the bad guys are bad, as I find that mode of criticism hollow and obnoxious. But I do think that he fails in his attempt to deepen the ethical complexity of the narrative. Even in movies purportedly about corrupt cops, it’s hard to stomach a story about a noble and righteous one.

Still, it’s a Lumet film, and that means an unpretentious but skillful filmmaking ethos. Lumet was just plain good at this, even in projects that didn’t deserve his ability. This is one of his odder efforts. Prince of the City is rife with strangely-lensed establishing shots and weirdly angular close-ups. It’s far from distracting and certainly not a bad thing. It undeniably helps pass the time. It’s going to sound like a backhanded compliment, but Lumet made films best described as eminently watchable. Even when he operated in the worst runtime zone.

Ko-Fi Request: ‘Make Way for Tomorrow’

This article was based on a request from one of my patrons on ko-fi. For $3, you can recommend a film for me to watch and write an article about! Visit this link if interested!

I knew all along it was going to end badly. Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow harbors no illusions about where it’s going to conclude. From the opening scene, where two elderly parents inform their adult children that the bank is about to seize their home, it’s clear that there is no escape for these people.

A couple things nevertheless surprised me about Make Way for Tomorrow. The first is the naturalistic performances. The narrative may lend itself to high melodrama and heightened emotions, but McCarey has his actors tend to underplay and suppress. They stumble and step on each other’s lines in a genuine, realistic way.

The key performances, obviously, are Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi as the elderly parents. They are so tender and fragile, their voices cracking and breaking with every line, as though they’re about to collapse into dust at any moment. It’s heartbreaking just to watch them go about their days. Death is slow in Make Way for Tomorrow. It doesn’t come all at once, but piecemeal over a long time. When the two say farewell in that devastating final scene, they know it’s goodbye for good. They know that they don’t have life enough left to make it to another meeting. No one dies in Make Way for Tomorrow, but that’s only because they’re all dead from the start. Death’s inevitability ruins what life one might have left, and the film spends no time making peace with it.

It’s that last point that sits most uncomfortably with me, and why the film is so powerfully tragic. When Pa Cooper boards that train at the end, he does so still uneasy and upset by the finality of his farewell. When Ma Cooper watches him go, she suffers the same lack of closure. When the film leaves them, they still have months left to live, months of separation, months knowing that the end will come for one of them before they get to see each other again. And the film comes up with no comfort for them. There is no quelling of despair. There isn’t even a discussion of the afterlife, or indeed any religious mitigation of their anguish. Make Way for Tomorrow feels almost sacrilegious in its total dismissal of comfort in faith. It feels especially unusual for a film of the time.

Just as unusual is the film’s tone. For as bleak as its ending is, it’s quite funny in places. Most of the middle of the film is a sort of comedy of errors, with Ma Cooper blundering through the lives of her daughter-in-law and granddaughter in a humorously clueless way. The scene where she brings down the mood at a bridge class her daughter-in-law is hosting by loudly discussing her misery on the phone with her husband is hilarious. Make Way for Tomorrow isn’t unwilling to find ironic humor in the terrible circumstances of its characters. Still, it never stoops to mockery. The comedy always comes from the humanity of these characters, and never from ridiculing their pitiable situation.

It’s a thin wire to walk on, and McCarey does admirable work. How easy it would have been to slip into outright farce or dour drama. And Make Way for Tomorrow loses none of its wit or its grace by walking down the middle. It’s all the more powerful for having a foot in both forms. Though its ending ensures that I’m not likely to rewatch it for some time, Make Way for Tomorrow is a gently yet profoundly moving film, and I’m glad I got to see it.

SHOT MISSING: ‘The Other Side of the Wind’ and the New History of Found Footage

Orson Welles invented a genre, and died before anyone found out.

Had it been released, as intended, in the 1970s, Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind would have completely redefined the found footage genre. Well, “redefined” isn’t the right word. After all, found footage cinema didn’t exist during the film’s production. Welles was inventing it. So had it been released back then, it’s more accurate to say that The Other Side of the Wind would have defined the found footage genre in a way entirely different to our current understanding of it.

The concept of fiction which takes the form of a “real life” collection of documents is much older than film itself. Epistolary novels told their stories as a collection of letters between characters. Welles himself translated this idea to radio with his infamous War of the Worlds broadcast, which was written and acted as though it were a real news broadcast. Found footage has been with us for a very long time, but Welles would have been the first to bring the concept to the cinema.

As history stands, though, the most widely cited originator of found footage is the 1980 horror film Cannibal Holocaust. It set down the genre’s rules and structure, a format that would popularly codified with 1999’s The Blair Witch Project. Though there were examples in between (Man Bites Dog being perhaps the best-known entry in the genre during this time) it’s safe to call these two film the mothers of found footage film. The guidelines they created were rarely deviated from by their imitators. For one thing, most found footage films that followed in their wake were also horror films. Blair Witch proved the possibility for terror which a locked perspective could inspire, and the success of Paranormal Activity nearly a decade later proved to studios the utility of the genre’s cheap-and-easy production model. Found footage became irrevocably associated with horror, such that painfully few filmmakers ever experimented with the form outside of that genre.

Another important aspect of found footage is that, obviously, the footage must be found. The use of the form implies a terrible fate for the people at the film’s center, usually spelled out in a Shakespearean prologue before we even see them. The finder of the footage is rarely relevant. They are typically unseen and unheard from, acting as invisible editors. Sometimes, as in Blair Witch Project, the implication is that the credited crew themselves are behind the assemblage of the footage. Most of the time, however, it’s simply a question left unanswered. We aren’t supposed to care about the person who found the footage and presented it to us. The motives behind their choice to present the film the way they have is, we’re told, irrelevant.

But what if the genre’s forefather had not been Cannibal Holocaust, but The Other Side of the Wind instead? It’s not a horror film, for one thing. Had it been released in the 70s, the entire concept of found footage would have been borne out of a drama with comedic elements. Would this have convinced filmmakers that the form was more elastic than it is commonly considered today? I think it would have. I also think found footage would be respected as the bold cinema experiment it is, rather than the cheap throwaway production style it’s so often perceived as today. Coming from Welles, it would have been appreciated as a brash step forward for the medium, if not in its time, then at least down the road.

But this isn’t the history we’re living. The Other Side of the Wind was released in 2018, following decades of other found footage releases. So let’s look at it in that context, in how it breaks some rules and follows others, and how it still manages to redefine the form.

The film opens, like so many found footage films do, with the reveal that the main character dies at the end. Voiceover from Peter Bogdanovich, in his character as a much older Brooks Otterlake, explains that the film is assembled from footage shot by many different people at the 70th birthday party of director JJ Hannaford, who drove off a bridge to his death at the end of the night. “The choice of this material,” he says, “is an attempt to sketch a film likeness of the man himself as he looked through all those different viewfinders.”

The genre significance here isn’t clear until the film is over. Here we have a found footage film whose perspective is driven not by the footage’s shooter, but by its editor. There is no one point of view through which we see Hannaford, but dozens of them, and they are only made somewhat coherent by Otterlake decades later. The film’s perspective is created in editing, and it’s still disparate and schizophrenic due to the sheer number of people filming. Everyone at the party sees Hannaford differently, and it takes Otterlake decades in the film’s narrative to put aside his own feelings about how he comes off in the footage and put together a representation of Hannaford. It’s impossible not to see the film as both tribute and repudiation of Hannaford by Otterlake, whose conflicted feelings toward his mentor are clear even at the time the footage was shot.

It’s easy to see the allure of this concept for Welles. He was a filmmaker who was more fascinated by the power of editing than of the camera itself. Early in the film, a film student interviewer asks Hannaford, “Is the camera a reflection of reality, or is reality a reflection of the camera eye? Or is the camera merely a phallus?” Hannaford answers: “I need a drink.” It’s clear that Welles found this approach to cinema, at best, a silly waste of time, and at worst a grating misunderstanding of the medium he so loved. His final real feature, F for Fake, is consumed with the mysterious power of film editing, and he would have iterated on that in The Other Side of the Wind. Welles seemed to want to experiment with this massive jumble of perspectives, to see if he could find something singular through their combination, or else to disorient and befuddle by the same token. For him, found footage was less about a collection of images which imitated reality and more about what could be found through the coherence or incoherence of those images. What if he could find a throughline in them, and what would it mean if he couldn’t?

An odd aspect of the film is how cameras are both universal and absent, visible and invisible. Oftentimes Welles employs a shot-reverse setup which does not show the camera that ostensibly is shooting one or both angles. At other times, though, cameras are everywhere, crowding the image, intrusive and domineering. Welles doesn’t insist upon the found footage angle in the former moments. Rather, he suggests that even if we can’t literally see every camera, these people are constantly being surveilled in ways even they cannot see. The camera is ever-present in The Other Side of the Wind, even when we don’t see it.

In the latter moments, though, cameras are unavoidable. If the camera really is a phallus, you could call Hannaford’s birthday a sausage party. His house is filled with an amorphous panopticon, oozing through every hall like The Blob, intent on absorbing Hannaford. It’s interesting that, in the end, it doesn’t. The planned ending of the film would have had Hannaford kill himself by crashing his car through the screen of the drive-in where his film was playing. It’s a playfully provocative image, and it would have implied a final surrender to the onslaught of cameras, a last desperate act captured for eternity. The finished film doesn’t contain this shot, however. It was never filmed by Welles before his death. Presumably Bogdanovich and his collaborators either were reluctant to shoot new footage or found it too difficult to create the shot without the also-late John Huston.

Whatever the case may be, the absence of footage of Hannaford’s death in the final film could be seen as the man escaping from the oppressive pressure of all those viewfinders, rather than succumbing to their power in a public display. This is so antithetical to how we think of found footage that it’s kind of astonishing. An important aspect of the “bad ending” so many found footage films have is that we have to see it on camera. At the very least, as in The Blair Witch Project, we have to see the moment just before it happens. We get no such satisfaction in The Other Side of the Wind.

This positions The Other Side of the Wind as an anti-found footage film of sorts, but also as the most honest expression of what the form really means. Found footage purports to capture the truth of its subjects, with realism and a constantly open eye. But so often in these films we see people performing for the camera, putting on a persona that exists only because they know they are being filmed. The camera, which is supposed to capture truth, creates lies by its very nature. Welles saw in the medium what few other found footage films have ever comprehended. He understood how the presence of the camera generates falsehood in its subjects, and that if such a thing exists as actual truth, it cannot exist on film. The panopticon tried its best to capture Hannaford, but it could only see him as he performed, not as he was. The only truth we know about him is that he chose to die, and no camera sees that moment of choice. Even in Welles’ planned ending, we would only have seen the aftermath of that decision.

It’s hard to imagine where found footage would be if The Other Side of the Wind had come out on schedule. It’s possible that it wouldn’t have altered the genre’s history at all, or that it wouldn’t have been considered part of the same lineage as Cannibal Holocaust or The Blair Witch Project. Maybe found footage wouldn’t be considered a genre at all, as its genesis would be untethered from horror. Maybe the found footage landscape would be completely different. But it does little good to speculate. The Other Side of the Wind is a 2018 film. It is here, it is now. It exists in the context of decades of found footage work, despite having been shot before all of them. It makes me wonder what Welles would think of all those films. Would he see the value in their use of the medium he surreptitiously invented? I can say only this with confidence: I bet he’d be glad that people know he got there first.

Ko-Fi Request: ‘Intolerance’

This article was based on a request from one of my patrons on ko-fi. For $3, you can recommend a film for me to watch and write an article about! Visit this link if interested!

Intolerance is a hard film to talk about, not merely because its complexities make it a difficult work to grapple with. In praising its innovation and influence, one can’t let go of the impetus of its creation. This was a passion project for director D.W. Griffith, though that descriptor doesn’t quite do justice to the fervor with which he pursued its completion. He nearly spent himself into bankruptcy funding the film, and its failure cast him into financial ruin. It was a story he needed to tell. It’s the reason he needed to tell it that distresses me.

Griffith’s best-known and most successful film is, of course, The Birth of a Nation, an monstrously racist work which the KKK credits with its own rebirth. Criticism of the film’s racism isn’t the result of historical analysis, though. In its own time, The Birth of a Nation was lambasted along the same lines. Griffith’s Intolerance is often misread as an apology for The Birth of a Nation, in its exploration of bigotry and persecution throughout human history. In reality, Griffith felt that his critics had completely misconstrued his work. He felt no need to apologize at all. Instead, Intolerance was intended as a response to people whom Griffith felt had been intolerant to him in calling The Birth of a Nation racist.

This is all beyond the text of the film, which means some people will happily discard it from their reading of Intolerance. I don’t begrudge anyone their personal perspectives, but I have some difficulty separating the history of the film with its content. This is especially considering the film’s insistence on centrist waffling despite what should be a distinct point-of-view. Griffith has little sense of how power dynamics color the conflicts he depicts. His intolerance is a mutual affair, with no oppressor or oppressed, only two feuding actors on equal footing.

We see this most clearly in the modern segment, which concerns the battle between capitalist bosses and their workers. In Griffith’s view, each side is as guilty of amorality and violence as the other. The protagonist of this segment, named only “The Boy,” is on no one’s side but his and his wife’s. He ceases to be a worker after a strike, moving to another city and turning to crime. Griffith shows him and his family being caught up in the conflict between bosses and workers. Neither side is fully right or fully wrong.

Griffith betrays his lack of understanding of the ideologies motivating the conflict. He sees it only through the individuals involved and their individual desires. And yet at the same time, everyone in this story is meant to represent a universal type. The Boy is just The Boy, no name of his own. His wife is The Dear One. Her father is The Dear One’s Father. Meanwhile, the villainous boss is given a name, suggesting his autonomy and unique position in the narrative. The Boy is every man, his boss is just Arthur Jenkins. Griffith fails to frame the boss as a part of larger structural violence and intolerance. He is an individual bad actor, nothing more.

The shame of the film’s ideological failings is that its cinematic innovations are so spectacular. The intercutting of various storylines set throughout history, all strung together by a common image (Lillian Gish as The Eternal Motherhood) is undeniably brilliant. Griffith was one of the first filmmakers to use editing to tell his story. With the simple juxtaposition of two disparate narratives, he draws connections and paints a much broader picture. Nothing like it had ever been seen before, and few filmmakers since can be said to have experimented so daringly on such a massive scale. Intolerance became the basis for Soviet editing theory. I find this ironic considering the roots of that theoretical framework in Marxist dialectics and the film’s own lack of coherent ideology, but I digress. Whatever his moral failings, Griffith was a filmmaker of titanic importance and Intolerance completely altered the course of cinematic history. It’s too bad, then, that its reputation is tainted by both its director’s unapologetic racism and its own milquetoast perspective. It’s a perfect example of the ways in which film history is forever stained by wretched bigotry and, yes, intolerance.