Category: American Independents

The Lighthouse (Canada-US 2019)

Robert Pattison and Willem Dafoe when they first arrive on the island

The Lighthouse has received rave reviews and a smaller number of groans and dismissals. I can understand that, but I find myself somewhere in the middle. The film’s strength is its about technical virtuosity and I certainly applaud the cinematography, the set design, the sound design, the effects work and the central performances. It’s worth going to see the film for these achievements alone. Unfortunately, I don’t think the script works quite as well. It’s not so much the ‘content’ of the script but more the choice of structure and the pacing and the handling of genre elements. It’s a clever and learned script, but I did find it tedious at times.

The film is written and directed by Robert Eggers. His brother Max had the original idea for a film inspired by ‘The Light-House’, a two page ‘fragment’ and the last thing written by Edgar Allen Poe in 1849. The Eggers’ script moves away from Poe and in its use of language and the history of myths and legends told by sailors and coastal peoples it evokes Herman Melville. The narrative is set in the 1890s on the New England coast (though it was shot on the South-West tip of Nova Scotia near Yarmouth). Two lighthouse keepers arrive on an island to replace a pair who leave on the same tender. The new men are the experienced Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) and the younger new ‘wickie’ Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson). The younger man is given all the menial (and dirty, heavy) jobs. Wake concentrates on the lamp at the top of the tower.

The two men speak little and Winslow tries to avoid drinking alcohol as the rulebook decrees. Wake drinks every evening and eventually Winslow gives in and the two men relax a little. But the work and the weather and the isolation prey on Winslow who begins to have nightmares and strange experiences around the island. On the night before the pair are due to be relieved, a violent storm blows in and the men get very drunk. No boat arrives and the terrifying waves and winds lash the island. There are even darker times ahead.

The narrow frame emphasises the confines of the lighthouse and its staff quarters

All of this is delivered on screen in images composed for the 1.19:1 aspect ratio sometimes termed ‘Movietone’ but also used in German and British cinema at the end of the 1920s and early 1930s during the transition to sound on film. To complement the format, Eggers and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke chose to shoot on film using filmstock and lenses which recreated the look of the 1920s/30s. However, they also chose to manipulate the images using stronger artificial lights than would have been available  at that time. All of this seemingly made the actual shooting process quite difficult for the actors. According to Robert Pattinson in the Sight&Sound special on the film (February 2020), he and Willem Defoe were often very close together to fit in the narrow frame. Certainly at the beginning of the film the qualities of the image are very noticeable as the lighthouse and the ship bringing the new ‘wickies’ gradually appear in the fog. Some of the early compositions making striking use of the vertical axis, peering up at the lighthouse and then placing the characters at the top of the screen. Gradually, however, I found myself getting used to the shape and texture of the images. The only noticeable difference from watching an Academy Ratio print was that the masking curtains in the Cubby Broccoli cinema at the National Media Museum didn’t close to the edge of the frame – presumably there is only a selectable position for Academy from the projection box?

The visual qualities of the image and the sound design (the wind, rain, the foghorn, the steam engine) are terrific. The problems come, partly I think because there are too many allusions to other films, paintings and literary narratives. This in turn suggests a wide range of genres, defined by iconography and generic characters as well as visual/aural style. IMDB suggests ‘Drama’ and ‘Fantasy’. Graham Fuller in Sight&Sound suggests a “gothic maritime horror film depicting a psychosexual power struggle”. He also, tellingly, suggests the film is “less a text than a trove [of visual and literary influences].”

Dafoe lit as the gnarled Wake

If we take Fuller’s analysis as a starting point, we might argue that there is a core genre repertoire here which comprises a specific location (the North Atlantic or more specifically the North East seaboard of the US/Canada), a specific period (in this case the late 19th century) and specific characters (sailors, whalers, lighthouse keepers and others whose lives depend on the sea) and environmental factors (sea, wind, rain, fog). By extending one or more of these elemental categories we can soon find a whole range of films and other narratives. We can then merge this repertoire with the ‘psychosexual power struggle’ – the drama of two men locked into a destructive relationship. Eggers’ narrative does provide us with a kind of ‘key’ to the narrative when ‘Winslow’ reveals that he has changed his name because he fled another job in Canada, feeling ‘guilty’ for something he did. On this basis, the horror elements in the film could be manifestations of his breakdown exacerbated by the behaviour of Wake. The iconography of his nightmares could conceivably be drawn from his own experiences, if he had heard the tales or read the stories. But as the audience we have seen and read much more. For example, Winslow seems to be terrorised by a gull. It’s impossible not to think of Hitchcock and the birds of Bodega Bay as well as the birds of Greek mythology. The other images that may be nightmares offer similar kinds of references. I’m making this reading in retrospect. During the screening I reached a point where I began to lose interest and I’m not sure why. I can only think that I became overwhelmed by the ‘trove’ of references and lost my way through the narrative.

Fuller’s account of references includes Michael Powell’s 1935 ‘quota quickie’ The Phantom Light, a comedy thriller about murder and sabotage at a remote Welsh lighthouse which I watched a couple of years ago. It’s not a great film but it’s entertaining and I might go back and watch it again. Powell is a good example of a filmmaker who was ultimately a successful ‘artist’ because he made films for himself and for audiences – large audiences who respected wit and intelligence. Eggers is an artist who seems to make films for himself and a much smaller audience. If you are part of that audience you may enjoy the film’s narrative as much as the technical virtuosity and the performances.

The Irishman (US 2019)

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The way they were

As I’ve been complaining that Netflix don’t give enough exposure in cinemas to their films I felt obliged to go and see The Irishman. ‘Obliged’ doesn’t suggest enthusiasm, the lack of which is partly explained by the 209 minute commitment but I was also wary of the film being compared to Goodfellas (US, 1990), which I didn’t like. My fears were well founded, though I do find myself way outside the critical consensus on this one. The first half an hour was so bad I considered leaving but it improved in the middle when political interference by the mafia became the film’s subject. I forced myself to finish the film when the social context disappeared toward the end.

I’m exaggerating, it’s not a terrible film: how could it be with a great cast at the top of their form? It’s particularly good to see Al Pacino, whose appearances have been infrequent recently, playing union boss Jimmy Hoffa. He dials down his sometimes over-the-top schtick to give nuance to a larger-than-life character. When Heat (US, 1995) was released it was hyped as the first time Pacino and De Niro shared a scene. They do so again, De Niro plays Frank Sheeran (the Irishman) who became Hoffa’s minder; this time they are in pyjamas. It’s a knowing touch that scriptwriter Steve Zaillian and director Scorsese (they also collaborated on the vastly superior Gangs of New York, US-Italy, 2003) bring to the film which gives it a valedictory feel. I wonder whether some of the lauding of the film is because it harks back to the (so-called) glory days of Hollywood where brilliantly produced and thought-provoking movies were made. It’s unlikely that the major studios would produce anything like this these days: $150m for a non-franchise film?! The opening shot reminded me of the dolly at the start of Mean Streets (US, 1973) with a pop song high in the mix; this was the director’s breakthrough film. It’s bravura filmmaking but also, because of its association with a movie from 50 years ago, old-fashioned. Scorsese’s association with the gangster film (Casino, US-France, 1995, was also better than this), as well as the lead actors, Pesci came out of retirement to appear, all give it an end of the road feel.

I didn’t like Goodfellas because I felt the film actually thought the psychopaths it portrayed were good fellas. That tendency is not so pronounced in The Irishman but it is still an issue when we are clearly meant to feel sorry for Sheeran at the film’s end. If I cannot care about a character then I have difficulty engaging in a film; by care, I don’t necessarily mean ‘like’. Why are we supposed to sympathise with a heartless relic?

The $150m has been well spent. In an interview in the current issue of Sight & Sound, costume designer Sandy Powell states that De Niro had 102 costumes, there are 160 speaking parts and 7000 extras. The film does look great. It’s a tribute to Scorsese and his crew that these vast forces, in a narrative that crosses five decades, cohere across the three and a half hours duration. However, it is Scorsese’s direction that disappointed me most. It was too workaday (shot-reverse/shot prevailed) and one high angle shot used to establish location (on the way to Hoffa’s final meeting) is used three times within a few minutes that, for me, simply emphasised how long everything was taking. There was none of the ‘operatic’ grandeur of Gangs of New York; though Bradshaw uses the term in his review.

The marginalisation of women is also an issue for me, but I’m not blaming the film for that as it is a result of the world being portrayed. That the marvellous Anna Paquin gets only six words of dialogue is worth remarking upon, especially as she is used as the film’s moral compass. However, that is the point, because women did not get a say in this world, violence ensued. It would be good if Scorsese, in his twilight years, revisited Alice Doesn’t Live Here Any More (US. 1974).

The Report (US 2019)

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Bening and Driver as Feinstein and Jones

Writer-director Scott Z Burns succeeds in The Report where he failed as scriptwriter of The Laundromat (US, 2019), directed by Steven Soderbergh, in presenting complex material in an engaging and dramatic fashion. The Laundromatfloundered, despite Soderbergh throwing tricksy set-ups at the viewer and a stellar cast, because the attempt to tell the story of the Panama Papers through an ordinary person didn’t work. The Report tells of the investigation into the CIA’s use of torture in the ‘war on terror’ through the chief investigator, the dogged Dan Jones (the suitably taciturn Adam Driver), and this gives the film a central pillar at the heart of the narrative. It also benefits from a great performance from Annette Bening as Dianne Feinstein, the chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, who has to negotiate between Jones’ determination to get the report published and Washington political machinations.

Both films are vital contributions to democracy as they attempt to inform the general public about corruption which is something corporate media, in general, fails to do. In the UK, where the BBC used to have a reputation for robust reporting, public service broadcasting fails to convey the complexity of these issues and the malfeasance of our ruling classes (the BBC recently edited out the laughter greeting Boris Johnson’s statement that truth in politics is important thus saving the man from ridicule). Complexity does not sit well in the 24-hour news cycle (actually the cycle is much shorter these days) and much of the press in the UK is like Fox News in America: propaganda outlets for the powerful. Complexity is not easy for mainstream films either and I doubt The Report will pull up trees at the box office even though it deserves to. It’s not dissimilar to All the President’s Men (US 1976) which dramatised the investigation into Watergate; the establishing shot of the brutalist concrete of the building Jones works in references the earlier film. It’s a damning sign of the times that Pakula’s ’70s film won Oscars and, despite the fact The Report is better, the new film’s shelf life in cinemas is likely to be short.

The inevitable wordiness is leavened, if that’s the right word, by re-enactments of the torture led by two contractors who convinced the CIA, post-9/11, that they had the ‘sauce’ which would get to the truth in interrogation. I was gobsmacked to learn they received $80m for their troubles. As soon as, in panic and desperation, they were given carte blanche to torture, the institutional momentum ensured they could not be stopped as no one in positions of authority wanted to admit they were wrong to go down that route in the first place. There is some wicked humour in scenes where one of the contractors states that they now know the victim of waterboarding is lying; Feinstein remarks that if one man was waterboarded 183 times, why didn’t they realise the technique doesn’t work?

The film is very good on the realpolitick that meant Obama, who’d portrayed himself as non-partisan when campaigning for the presidency, wanted to suppress the report; the references to drone strikes is also a useful corrective to that president’s saintly image (surely a result of his charm and the contrast with his successor). Zero Dark Thirty is given a justifiable poke as Bigelow’s film shamelessly lied about torture being instrumental in Bin Laden’s assassination.

Driver carries the film brilliantly. As the obstructions increasingly make it difficult for him to finish the report he slowly reaches (almost) boiling point in outrage that the truth is something that should be hidden from the people. It’s a vital film for the 21st century.

The Florida Project (US 2017)

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Bobby (Dafoe) meets his match

Sean Baker (he co-wrote and directed) manages to get sensational performances from the ‘little rascals’ who live in motels adjacent to Disney World; the title of the film was Disney’s original name for his theme park. The adults are excellent too even though they are mostly inexperienced; Baker apparently found Bria Vinaite on Instagram. Willem Dafoe, as the exasperated and paternalistic caretaker, integrates his performance with the rest of the cast perfectly. While the film isn’t only about performance, this ‘slice of life’ of a Florida underclass has a somewhat fragmentary narrative; not that that is necessarily a bad thing but some of slices are a bit thin. Key to its success, is the (apparent) authenticity of life on the margins. The motels are garish in appearance, they are trying to compete with the sickly sweetness of Disney World, and rundown on the inside.

Brooklynn Prince plays 6-year-old Moonee who is a ‘wild child’, like her mum (Vinaite), who wreaks havoc in the area. At one point, when giving a guided tour to a new arrival, she says, “We’re not allowed in here so let’s go in.” She then proceeds to cut the power. On one level she is appalling but, then again, she’s only six so cannot be held responsible for her upbringing. That’s Halley’s responsibility but their relationship is more like mischievous teenage girls. Halley hustles a living and relies upon Dafoe’s Bobby to help her out; not that she ever shows any gratitude. In some ways she is a monster, her treatment of an estranged friend for example, but Baker never demonises her; these are people on the edge who graft for what they can get. Vinaite captures the stubborn self-absorption of a child-woman perfectly; I remember trying to teach similar characters, it bordered on the impossible.

What’s lacking in the film, and that’s not its fault as it wasn’t its purpose, is social context. Bobby’s boss gives an inkling about the way the poor are treated when, on his occasional visits, he rules to roost with contempt. The caretaker’s deference shows he’s standing on eggshells so as not to offend the man with power. In addition, the virtuoso shot at the end makes it clear that Baker is making a social comment. However, as is the nature of ‘slices of life’, the power structures that lead to lives being restricted in poverty, are mostly ignored.

On the other hand, it is better that such lives are dramatised (as in Leave No Trace) than not at all and Baker is clearly a talent to watch. His mise en scène perfectly captures the candy floss environs of lives that could be bitter but are generally shown to be full of fun.

Literary critics and the cinema

A US poster – the film opens a fortnight later in the UK

It’s a while since I had a rant about film criticism. One of my bugbears is about literary critics and the way they approach cinema. In today’s Guardian Saturday Review there is a short piece by John Mullan focusing on the upcoming release of the film The Goldfinch, an adaptation of the 2013 third novel by Donna Tartt. I should state from the outset that I haven’t seen the film yet or read the book and that I have no beef with John Mullan when he writes about novels. What concerns me here is the aim behind the editorial decision to publish this piece three weeks before the film opens.

Literary adaptation is perhaps the main focus of the cultural clash between literary critics and cinephiles/film scholars. I quite understand that for many people who are readers as well as moviegoers they will often make their own judgements about whether they prefer the novel of the film, if they want to experience both and if they would prefer to experience one before the other. The problem is that in British culture the novel is seen by the arts establishment as of superior cultural value to the film. Films are often judged on their ‘fidelity’ to the source material. What this means isn’t always clear. It is generally accepted that a film can’t include all the narrative information in a long novel, even in a very long film. Fidelity then may be about retaining the ‘spirit’ of the novel, however that might be defined, or retaining the central ideas and incidents of the novel’s narrative. What is generally lacking in criticism of the film adaptation is any extensive understanding about how filmic rather than literary narratives work and how ‘film language’ (for want of a better term) is utilised to tell stories. Films and novels are different narrative forms. The novel is not necessarily superior just because it is ‘original’. Even if the adaptation draws on the literary narrative, it is also likely to draw on several other sources of meaning (for example, stars, genres, visual styles, music etc.).

Mullan begins his essay by noting that it is surprising that this is the first of Tartt’s novels to make it to the big screen. He helpfully tells us that Warner Bros. did option Tartt’s first novel The Secret History in 1992 but that for various reasons the planned production didn’t happen. Mullan also expresses surprise that The Goldfinch is the Tartt novel that did make it onto the screen and in doing so he begins to explore some of those familiar assumptions about literary adaptations. His piece is given a subhead which asks “Can the film of Donna Tartt’s Pullitzer prize-winner bring to life a novel that divided the critics?”. The novel is very long and there aren’t as many characters as in a Dickens novel so how will the filmmaker cope with creating a sustained narrative drive? IMDb gives a very long list of characters so I’m not sure what this means. Mullan describes aspects of the plot and the literary narrative (i.e. he gives us some of the events and how they are narrated). I would call these insights ‘spoilers’ – I will now have to try and forget what I’ve learned in order to come to the film without too many expectations.

My major problem though is that John Mullan tells us about Donna Tartt’s literary style and how ‘cinematic’ it is – the writing is full of visual detail and some scenes are played out as in slow-motion. He then tells us that any [film] director should relish re-creating certain key scenes and that they will have to make an audience understand the magnetism of the work of art which is the obsession of the central character (the novel is able to make us share the passion that the character has for this work of art).

Mullan does tell us that the director who finally made this film version of The Goldfinch is John Crowley, “who was responsible for the adaptation of Colm Tóbín’s dauntingly inward novel Brooklyn“. I’ve seen Brooklyn and liked it, but not having read the novel, I wasn’t concerned by its ‘dauntingly inward’ qualities. I’m not sure I even know what that phrase means. Looking back at my post on Brooklyn, I see that I suggested “this is a film about casting, costumes and locations”. In other words I honed in on the filmic qualities of the film rather than the narrative structure. I also noted that the script was actually an adaptation by Nick Hornby, a well-known novelist turned successful screenwriter. Since I hadn’t read the original novel I didn’t offer a comparison of the narratives, but if I had wanted to do that, Hornby’s role would have been important.

What is strange about John Mullan’s essay is that he doesn’t mention who wrote the screenplay for this adaptation of The Goldfinch. In his final sentence he asks “will they [the filmmakers] be able to resist the sentimentality that Tartt resolutely avoids? I would bet not”. This seems like a jibe at film compared to literature. IMDb lists the screenwriter on the film as Peter Straughan, an experienced writer for film and TV who has previously adapted two best-selling novels, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) and The Snowman (2017), both for the same director, Thomas Alfredson. My take on these was that the first was a very successful film and the second was something of a disaster. However, this distinction is suspect since I was a big fan of Jo Nesbø’s 2007 novel The Snowman but I haven’t read the le Carré novel (and I don’t necessarily always enjoy his work for various reasons). My point here is that I don’t think Mullan has any right to say that Crowley ‘must’ do this or ‘should’ do that with the adaptation and that the film’s success or failure will in any case be just as much about Straughan’s script as Crowley’s direction (and the cast and cinematography by the great Roger Deakins, the music, editing, art direction, costumes etc.).

So what was the purpose of putting Mullan’s essay into the Review at this point? If it was just a piece of promotion, an image and a caption would have sufficed. It seems to me to set up readers of the Review with a given ‘position’ from which to see the film which is based on certain assumptions about literary adaptations. It may turn out to be a film which works well or works badly but surely audiences want to be able to approach it with an open mind – or if they have read the book, their own ideas about what they are looking for in an adaptation. I have no problem with John Mullan discussing the film from his perspective after he has seen it and when it has been seen by paying audiences. He may well have some interesting points to make. In the past, before the Guardian changed the format of its Saturday Review, this did sometimes happen. Such pieces didn’t always work but at least they reflected on the film. I realise that the Review is about books rather than film and that this has become more evident since the change of format, but please Guardian editors, don’t treat literary adaptations in this way.

Support the Girls (US 2018)

The ‘girls’ at Double Whammies. Lisa (Regina Hall) is in the centre, not wearing the outfit. Next to her are Danyelle (left) and Maci (Haley Lu Richardson, right)

This screening was frustrating and disappointing, partly because the promotion material was misleading. I’d persuaded friends to watch it on the basis that it was a comedy. I sought out the film with some difficulty (it played a handful of venues locally for a couple of showings). My interest was in its lead player Regina Hall whose earlier roles in Girls Trip (US 2017) and The Hate U Give (US 2018) had impressed me. But Support the Girls isn’t a straight comedy. Some reviewers call it a comedy-drama. I think that for me it may be a form of satire. I did know that it was an ‘American independent film’ rather than a mainstream African-American film like the two titles listed above and I did recognise the name of writer-director Andrew Bujalski, but I hadn’t seen any of his previous films. I was perhaps too reliant on the bold claim in the promo trailer that this was a ‘big-hearted comedy’.

On reflection I can see that the film has merits and it’s actually quite a serious observation of a particular slice of American popular culture and importantly, the people who work to make it possible, the ‘girls’ of the title. Regina Hall’s character, Lisa, is the manager of a sports bar, a privately-owned version of bars like the national Hooters chain with the wince-inducing title of ‘Double Whammies’. The bizarre concept for the film is a bar featuring big-breasted and scantily-clad serving women that is also meant to be ‘family friendly’! It’s situated in a strip mall on the outskirts of Austin, Texas. The ‘plot’ is barely visible but it begins with Lisa opening up the bar in the morning when she is already upset by something. But she is a trouper and just gets on with things. Throughout the next 24 hours she will deal with a whole range of problems, most work-related but others involving her life outside work. She deals with every challenge in the best way she can. Despite everything, Lisa loves her job and she loves her girls, most of whom return the affection but don’t necessarily understand her position. As one reviewer put it, Lisa is the archetypal ‘den mother’ and who wouldn’t want to work for a manager who backs her staff if customers misbehave and who, if she has to fire someone, will do it as humanely as possible, always trying to be ‘fair’? She inspires loyalty and regular customers like her too. Regina Hall carries off the role to perfection. But are today’s events just too much, even for Lisa?

Lisa argues her case with the owner ‘Cubby’ (James le Gros)

The concept behind the bar is difficult to understand from a UK perspective. (There is one Hooters bar, in Nottingham, I believe. It’s been open since 2010 but the chain hasn’t expanded.) UK sports bars don’t have provocatively dressed ‘waitresses’ as far as I’m aware and the focus is on the sport. I tend to avoid such bars myself but I’m sure they have female as well as male customers. The concept is odd, even in the US. Andrew Bujalski himself explains how he sees it:

You don’t see many stories set in this slice of Americana, and with good reason. It does not lend itself to grand dramatic arcs, or, really, to gut-busting comedy. But it certainly is full of contradictions, and incredibly fertile with opportunities for subtle spiritual conflicts. I couldn’t pretend to untangle these from an insider’s perspective, so I dreamed up a kind of outsider character, Lisa the general manager, to walk in there with a spirit of openness and love – and plenty of her own pathologies – to see what she might discover in there. While it is a very specific story in many ways, I hope that anyone who’s ever worked for a living will relate. Most of us have to buy/sell one crazy ‘concept’ or another to pay our bills, and some days, you’re not sure if your humor and dignity will survive to the end of the shift . . . (Press Notes Director’s Statement)

This statement suggests that Bujalski knew what he was up to and for many critics in the US he succeeded. Many see the film as celebrating the sisterhood of female workers at a time of #MeToo. The film also scored highly with the Spirituality & Practice website. As well as the simple daily grind of Lisa’s job and the endless stream of decisions in the face of new problems she has to contend with, the narrative offers two distinct critiques. One is the way in which the owner carefully subverts ideas of diversity in employment practices when he requires Lisa to ensure that there are never too many Black or Latino girls working together on the same shift. The other is a sequence in which we eavesdrop on a hiring scenario for another, similar, establishment in the same strip. The ‘Man Cave’ is a national chain (fictitious, I assume) and the woman spouting corporate guff has risen through the ranks. She speaks as if she actually believes what she says. This might have been part of a ‘mockumentary’.

I think that if the film had been promoted as a drama about working in this kind of place, I would have engaged with it differently. But there are still problems with the production, whatever the perspective. One is the poor quality of the sound recordings/presentation. I often do have difficulty following American dialogue, not so much the language or the accent, but when the sound is muddy or actors mumble or talk over each other it becomes difficult to follow the details of the plot. We all agreed this wasn’t a ‘Hollywood’ film, but all the same we did expect some kind of coherent plotline. It’s not often that a film ends when you are still trying to work out what is going on. In retrospect it all makes sense but this isn’t the kind of film which should require that kind of retrospection. As well as Regina Hall, I should also pick out Haley Lu Richardson as Maci and rapper Shayna McHayle as Danyelle, the two main employees supporting Lisa. US TV watchers will also no doubt pick out Lea DeLaria of Orange Is the Only Black as one of the regular customers, Bobo. There isn’t too much to say about the look of the film, though I did enjoy the brief montage of food preparation in the kitchen. In the end, I think this screening simply proves that I’ve lost touch with some aspects of American popular culture and filmmaking.