Little Women (Greta Gerwig, 2019)

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There was absolutely no need for another movie version of Little Women. Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 version (with Winona Ryder, Claire Danes, Trini Alvarado, Kirsten Dunst and Samantha Mathis) was already pretty much perfect, and George Cukor’s 1933 version (with Katharine Hepburn, Joan Bennett, Francis Dee and Jean Parker) was pretty good too. I haven’t seen the 1949 Mervyn LeRoy version, but its cast (Elizabeth Taylor, Janet Leigh June Allyson and Margaret O’Brien) sounds amazing. Greta Gerwig assembled an equally great cast for her adaptation (Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen), but rather than simply play the familiar story straight, she’s jumbled up the narrative and shifted emphasis away from its family melodrama elements to something more in line with her interests as evidenced by her previous work, both as a director (Lady Bird) and in her collaborations with Noah Baumbach (Frances Ha and Mistress America)–that is, the story of how a young woman becomes an artist. It’s now a story as much about its own creation (both the film and Louisa May Alcott’s novel) as it is about the emotional highs and lows of its ostensible subjects. As such, it bears as much relation to Whisper of the Heart or Paterson as it does to previous Alcott adaptations.

It begins with Jo March, aspiring writer, living in New York and selling short genre fiction pieces for quick cash. A handsome critic tells her she’s wasting her time writing trash, which annoys her and not just because it’s true. But she gets a message from home: her youngest sister Beth is sick, possibly dying, and so she returns to Concord, Massachusetts. Flashbacks fill in the episodes that come first in the book and previous movies: a Christmas visit to poor neighbors, Jo and her older sister Meg’s trip to a dance, third sister Amy falling in ice, Jo and the girls’ friendship with neighbor boy Laurie (Timothée Chalamet), etc. These are interspersed with present day events: Amy in Europe with her aunt and Laurie (after Jo has rejected his marriage proposal), Meg and her husband barely eking out a living, Jo depressed about her work. The back and forth between past and present builds a seductive rhythm, as events mirror and comment on each other with ever greater frequency, culminating in Beth’s two serious illnesses, which Gerwig freely cuts between, doubling the usual melodramatic effect.

The film reaches its height though not with death, or with love and marriage, but with work, as Jo finally realizes what she should write about and Gerwig shows the process in detail: spreading papers on the floor to organize ideas, switching from one hand to another as the apparently ambidextrous author cannot stop to rest her cramping, ink-stained fingers, finally the physical process of printing and binding the book itself. There’s even a neat meta-fictional twist as Jo and her editor debate the Jo character’s ending, opening up the possibility that all the flashbacks we’ve seen are scenes from the book Jo is writing, that the real Jo and her family are not exactly the same as the Marches we’ve always known. Just as, of course, the Marches are not the Alcotts, and Lady Bird and Frances are not Greta. Tracey Fishko turned her friends and family into literature in Mistress America, and they all hated her for it. Jo’s story ends much more happily. At least, that’s the way she wrote it.

VIFF 2019: Atlantics, The Laundromat, Jeanne, I Was at Home, But…, Beanpole, Pain and Glory

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Atlantics (Mati Diop)

The presence (or absence) of Netflix continues to be a major point of contention at various film festivals—particularly at Cannes, where the stakes are highest, and which the streaming giant skipped for the second year in a row. There’s some irony, then, to the fact that high-profile Cannes titles frequently get picked up by Netflix, as was the case with Grand Prix-winner Atlantics, the debut feature of French actor-director Mati Diop. Although still best known for her role in Claire Denis’s 35 Rhums (2008), Diop has directed a number of short- and medium-length films, so this feature is a culmination, as well as an expansion of her 2009 short Atlantiques. Set in the port city of Dakar in Senegal, where Ada (Mama Sané) is to marry a wealthy businessman named Omar (Babacar Sylla), the film is supernatural sea shanty cinema—though before such associations arise, we are first introduced to the hardy existence of Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré), one of many disgruntled construction workers toiling away in the port city. He is in love with Ada, and the affection is mutual. But when the pair plan to meet up for a moonlit tryst, Ada learns that Souleiman has set sail for Europe. Not long after, she learns that the ship he was on sank.

Much of this is intriguing from the jump, and Diop manages to create both an enveloping soundscape (with an electronic score from electronic musician Fatima Al Qadiri) and a potent mood of languor and loss. The story’s supernatural bent suggests a kind of lovers-on-the-run scenario—an image of a burning bed following a wedding celebration briefly brought Badlands (1973) to mind—where the presence of one of the lovers is uncertain, though it eventually transforms into something more I Walked With a Zombie–adjacent. A triumph of Tourneur-esque texture, then, though there’s also a nebulous aspect to the structure that eventually delimits its power: Diop trusts that a viewer will take its arbitrary script details and narrative developments on faith, relying on the admittedly heady mix of moods to do the heavy lifting. But despite some occasional first film issues—the noncommittal closing, ill-considered voiceover—Atlantics nonetheless confirms Diop as a talent to watch. That the film’s most commendable elements will undoubtedly play less well when viewed at home on Netflix is, however, somewhat unfortunate.

The other notable Netflix title at VIFF this year, apart from Noah Baumbach’s commendable East coast–West coast divorce tale Marriage Story, is The Laundromat, director Steven Soderbergh’s second production this year, following High Flying Bird. It is also his worst film since at least Full Frontal (2002), perhaps ever. The film concerns the 2015 Panama Papers leak, which exposed the widespread manipulation of off-shore shell companies, a subject that’s very much in keeping with Soderbergh’s multifaceted, career-long fascination with the ground-level implications of economic policy. Unfortunately, the container he’s chosen this time around is misguided in the extreme. The stylistic comparison that’s come up most frequently is to Adam McKay circa The Big Short (2015), though even that seems rather generous given the script’s shrill condescension and a visual style that merely plays up the artificiality of the entire production, right down to the concluding call-to-arms that sees Meryl Streep removing her brownface getup in front of a studio warehouse, reciting a statement from the Panama Papers whistleblower, and finally using a hairbrush to strike a closing-shot pose as the Statue of Liberty. 

The idea, it seems, is that given the urgency of its topic, only a baldly didactic approach will do. (Along similar lines, Soderbergh’s admission that he himself owns a number of offshore shell accounts, seems meant to disarm by virtue of his candor.) That’s all well and good, in theory, but the intelligence that usually fuels even Soderbergh’s most inelegantly scripted projects seems all but missing here. Only a brief jaunt to China, which uses a foreign businessman (a very suave, tightly suited Matthias Schoenaerts) to relay the events of the Bo Xilai scandal, really looks and moves like a proper Soderbergh movie.

Jeanne, on the other hand, Bruno Dumont’s sequel to 2017’s Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc, is a Bruno Dumont movie through and through. That feature, which confined its “action” to a series of head-banging performances in sandy, windswept exteriors of the French countryside, was a repetitive, grating affair that nonetheless elicited a kind of grudging respect from me for its boundless energy and sheer audacity. Apart from a lyrical honor guard ceremony with sundry drone shots of appealingly choreographed dressage formations, however, Jeanne offers far less to appreciate, distending its director’s interest in cinematic bodies with little variation or discernible purpose. Lise Leplat Prudhomme again stars as Joan of Arc, though here she plays a role far older than her years and as such, has a guilelessness that meshes well with Dumont’s predilection for casting non-actors. But an early shot that observes Prudhomme in full costume, holding a pose for minutes on end—thus capturing every twitch of her face, every gust of wind that throws her off balance—conveys all that there is to the feature, at which point there’s little else to do but count down the remaining 120 or so minutes.

For his direction of actors and interest in certain manifestations of spirituality, Dumont has often been compared to Bresson—a comparison that likewise follows German director Angela Schanelec, not without reason. Although she has often been corralled under the Berlin School designation with fellow Germans Maren Ade, Ulrich Köhler, and Christian Petzold, she has resisted both easy classification and wider recognition—after three decades of work, her tenth feature The Dreamed Path (2016) had the backhanded distinction of being selected for New Directors/New Films. That is, until this year, when her latest feature I Was at Home, But… won the Silver Bear for Best Director at Berlin and was subsequently put into the New York Film Festival’s Main Slate. 

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I Was at Home, But… (Angela Schanelec)

Schanelec’s relative obscurity is no mystery. She assembles her films in a way that tend to make audiences rather angry, if the copious walkouts at the VIFF screening of Home, not to mention reports from various festival Q&As, are any indication. Although her films initially seem to operate along clear narrative lines, they resist the payoff and satisfaction that viewers conditioned by both Hollywood and art cinema conventions might come to expect. Films like Marseille (2004) and The Dreamed Path have ellipses that open their ostensible stories up in truly discombobulating ways; the lingering emotional vapors of any given passage or section are eventually sucked into yawning voids. In that regard, I Was at Home, But… is something of a lateral shift—it’s recognizably Schanelec’s work, but whereas previous films were frustratingly/thrillingly irresolvable and somewhat cold/clinical, this is more easily assembled into a coherent narrative and also more emotionally direct. Her découpage here is less Bressonian than in previous films, though her images have an astonishingly limpid, expressive quality that serves the story’s emotional clarity. Two scenes in particular demonstrate contrasting aspects of her method: The first is a lilting sequence set to an M. Ward cover of Bowie’s “Let’s Dance,” which moves from a cemetery at twilight to the blinding white of a hospital room; the second is a lengthy one-take scene of the lead character monologuing to (and then eventually berating) a film director, which plays both as a structural and stylistic break from the rest of the film (not to mention an amusing variation of what we usually see in Hong), and as a gesture of goodwill to the audience, offering explicit discussion on ideas that Schanelec herself has engages with.

No self-reflexive touches can be found in Kantemir Balagov’s Beanpole, an unfortunate blend of preposterous narrative contrivance, stringently opaque characterizations, and aggressively portentous staging. A multiple prize-winner in the Cannes Un Certain Regard sidebar, the film is Balagov’s sophomore feature, and while it represents an undoubted leap in visual control, the meticulously art-directed polish—color-coded costuming, burnished cinematography, and exactingly decrepit recreation of 1945 Leningrad—it also clarifies the unfortunate sensationalist aspects of his debut feature Closeness (2017). It is yet too soon to write off the 28-year-old director, who may yet deliver a film to match his ample technical facility. The breathless encomiums that essentially conflate “virtuosic direction” with “well-photographed images, held long,” however, are long past their sell-by date.

Also rather tired: the polished art-cinema genre outing, here exemplified by Austrian director Jessica Hausner’s Cannes competition entrant Little Joe. The elevator-pitch concept is Little Shop of Horrors by way of Body Snatchers—which is a pretty compelling premise. But Hausner’s handling obviates the potential ambiguities that arise. The unusual, atonal score and mannered camera movements hold interest initially, but once the canine subplot emerges, it’s clear exactly where this film is going, both narratively and thematically: the subplot with the son, plus a number of therapist scenes, are used to draw out the mother-child anxieties; the absent father becomes a synecdoche for the natural world (he lives outside the city in a kind of symbiotic take-only-what-you-need manner with his surroundings), whereas the mother works with genetically modified plants, and only orders take-out because she can’t cook. Even the interactions with all the co-workers are bizarrely conventional, bordering on outright inept. Hausner’s mannered direction in Amour Fou (2014) had a coherence and integrity about it; here the actors seem rather left to their own devices. It’s the kind of film that’s so meticulously put together that everything—formal strategy, performance style, thematic coherence—clicks into place immediately, after which it just becomes a matter of waiting for it to crumble to pieces. A shame, given that the pleasures of its sci-fi antecedents lie at least in part in their malleability.

Finally, there’s Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory, which centers on an aging, ailing director named Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas), who’s in an extended state of creative paralysis. In some sense, the film requires that a viewer already be somewhat invested in the Spanish director’s career, and know at least something of his extended artistic collaboration with Banderas, which dates to the 1980s, when he starred in such films as Labyrinth of Passion (1982) and the superb Law of Desire (1987). But even without that knowledge, three scenes stand out: an early, near-abstract montage of bodily illustrations and medical diagrams; a nighttime visit from an old lover, which deploys its sense of longing like a depth charge; and the erotic memory-cum-restaging of the artist’s first stirrings of carnal desire. It’s certainly Almodóvar’s prerogative to make a film about his creative paralysis instead of the inspiration that finally emerged out of it, but the interspersed material from the latter is just far more appealing than any of the present-day material, which is comprised of three not-quite-Christmas Carol-esque visitations from past figures from his life. (An episode with a bathing bricklayer suggests that Almodóvar could do well with a full-blown memory piece à la Terence Davies’s The Long Day Closes.) There’s more than a touch of complacency here, with Almodóvar trusting that personality and/or familiarity will supply the much-needed gestalt to a fairly lackadaisical film. Still, intermittent pleasure is better than no pleasure at all.

VIFF 2019: Parasite (Bong Joonho, 2019)

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Bong Joonho’s 2019 film, Parasite, which took the Palme d’Or at Cannes, opens on a row of tired-looking socks, dangling in a circle from a ceiling on a hanging mobile. From inside this basement apartment, we look through the socks, through a smudged window, onto a street outside, a ground-space that is right at eye-level. The apartment floor, then, is below the street, and the dwelling is a space where the damp moulds the bread and where the toilet must be up on a raised platform, so the plumbing can run downwards. The family–father, mother, young adult son, and young adult daughter–lives so low that even the toilet lives above them. It’s the sump of the city, where drunk men come to piss and where pest control sends billowing clouds of poisonous fumes, covering people and pests alike. The family shrugs and just breathes it in. What else is there to do?

And high above this family lives another family, in a tightly secured space that seems to be at the very shining top of the city. It’s a modern, walled-in garden, shutting out pests and drunks, and maintaining glossy glass surfaces and pristine green grass and foliage. It’s a world away from the refuse and grime, which, for this rich family, does not even exist. The lights that flicker on and off sometimes that might indicate to those inside the garden that another world is signaling, asking for recognition and help, go ignored; the flickerings are received only as further sign that lights turn on and off in a kind of obeisance to their owners’ presence. Even the young son of the family, who might read the code of the lights, sees a game for his own amusement. 

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Bottom of the world poverty, top of the world wealth: the Parasite spaces. That’s the set-up.

“This is so metaphorical,” says Kim Kiwoo (Choi Woosik), the adult son, and of course, it is. As with Snowpiercer and Okja, Bong has returned, here, to his interest in the haves and have nots, to the boundaries constructed between them, and the incursions and smells that cross those boundaries, the violence inherent in those boundaries and the violence that results from their existence, and his work reminds us that the world is never as tidy as above and below, up and down, front and back.  Continue reading “VIFF 2019: Parasite (Bong Joonho, 2019)”

VIFF 2019: Young Ahmed (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne, 2019)

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Young Ahmed, the latest feature from the Belgian writer-director brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, which took the Cannes prize for Best Director, is very much a Dardenne film. It features the style and approach of all of their films: handheld, intimate camerawork; an intense focus on a limited number of characters and the daily texture of their lives; an elliptical development of narrative that builds as much through a character’s body language and routine as their dialogue; an interest in how a particular individual is often at the mercy of a larger system; a payoff that resides more in the character’s psychology or emotions than in a plot resolution. 

It’s a style that aligns both in content and in form with what we might call social realism. At their best, the Dardennes present us with characters who do not seem to be living in a story at all but with real people who have somehow fallen into one, and the camera has just happened to catch them in it.  At their best, too, their films achieve an emotional and psychological richness and complexity, a sense of the depth of human heart and mind, and human pain and joy, without the grand gestures of an obvious plot structure. 

It becomes easier to see the bones and careful construction of a Dardenne plot, perhaps, the more of their films one watches, for, of course, there is one, and each character beat always does lead to a particular kind of emotional climax, a climax that often typically strips the pretenses and armor away from the central character.  

Seeing the plot and its rather typical Dardenne payoff isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the brothers’ particular approach, so dependent on the minutiae of the daily life of a character, may feel wanting in some cases if an attempted hyper-realism of character falls flat. 

In the case of Young Ahmed, we are dropped into the life of a Belgian Muslim teen boy, after, under the influence of an imam, he has already become radicalized by the time we meet him. We then watch as, early on in the film, he carries out a plan — or attempts to carry out a plan — to kill his schoolteacher, a woman who the imam has told Ahmed is a dangerous corrupting influence, an affront to the Koran, because of her decision to teach modern Arabic to her students through pop songs. Ahmed’s clumsy attempt to stab his teacher fails, and he is sent to a sort of juvenile detention, where he lives with other boys, and, closely shadowed by a caregiver, eventually goes to a farm to work, helping the family with their daily tasks, a part of the system’s effort to reform him. He meets regularly with a psychologist, too, whose job it is to assess the level of his repentance and reform.  Continue reading “VIFF 2019: Young Ahmed (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne, 2019)”

Minding the Gaps: An Interview with Dan Sallitt

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There’s no figure in American cinephilia quite like Dan Sallitt. He occupies a number of familiar roles (critic; filmmaker; and critic-filmmaker, though there are fewer of those running around), but as a working theorist of cinema, he’s without peer in the United States. Yes, the academy offers shelter to more than a few self-styled theoreticians, but Sallitt makes a practice of, you know, actually watching movies. He consumes them voraciously, in fact, most often in community with others—he’s a fixture at New York’s rep houses—and, perhaps more importantly, he does so with an obvious, infectious pleasure. His ideas (about the still-expanding horizons of Bazinian realism, about the limitations—and the corresponding possibilities—of cinematic psychology, and about the productive lacunae that the camera creates when it records the world) begin with his peculiar tastes, and the evident delight that he takes in interrogating them. The Sallitt model merges a mastery of certain historical-theoretical concepts (old André and his “Ontology” loom large) with a clear-eyed assessment of one’s personal preferences. It’s the second half of this equation that most distinguishes Sallitt: it’s easy enough cobble together some top-down ideas about cinema and apply them, stencil-like, to any movie that comes across the transom; it’s a far more difficult thing to plumb the depths of your own idiosyncrasies and resurface not only with an articulable set of principles, but with your aesthetic enthusiasms sturdy and intact. Would that we all so thoroughly enjoyed our predilections.

At least we can savor Sallitt’s. For a particular kind of cinephile, encountering sallittfavorites.wordpress.com is a crucial point of departure: Sallitt’s color-coded lists, which order movies along two axes (numbers rank films for a given year; colors communicate enthusiasm relative to the wider cinematic corpus), offer novel cartographies for the young movie obsessive, who is often enthralled by the enumerative power of lists, but who typically begins charting his cinematic course with musty consensus canons that venerate—and falsely proclaim—objectivity. As you scroll through these rainbow catalogs, which award high honors to both Rosa la rose, fille publique (Paul Vecchiali’s criminally underseen masterwork) and Michael Clayton (the George Clooney Oscar vehicle), it becomes apparent that this preference-set belongs specifically to Sallitt, and to Sallitt alone. That might suggest that his taste, if not his model, is resistant to replication. But what’s most exceptional about Sallitt is the fact that he’s amassed so many disciples; the ranks of the Sallittists have, over time, swollen to a veritable cinephile brigade. Now, I ought to admit that on some level I remain skeptical that anyone could, ex nihilo, develop cinematic proclivities perfectly contiguous with Sallitt’s, and his most devoted followers do, on occasion, champion films in a manner that seems more prescribed than personal. But devotion inevitably—and perhaps rightly—attaches to mentor figures who encourage new ways of seeing, particularly if they do so with unusual magnanimity, as does Sallitt. And although I’m increasingly less young, you should count me among those cinephiles for whom the discovery of Sallittism was an invitation to cross-examine my own interests, an exercise which proved (and continues to prove) clarifying. So even if, for me, Sallittism is not—as it is for others—an absolute lodestar, it has become an important, perhaps indispensable, quadrant of my taste.

That made it an especial pleasure to sit down with the man himself at VIFF, where his fifth feature, Fourteen, had its North American premiere. As we discuss, Sallitt’s movies are coterminous with his passions as a viewer and as a thinker—though he is quick to point out that he’s not alone in that regard, at least not anymore: a growing number of “film intellectuals” moonlight as filmmakers, and vice versa. In the context of an American cinema that elsewhere looks moribund, dimwitted, and ever more impersonal, that might augur better times ahead. And I suspect that if those times do come to pass, Dan Sallitt—in his self-professedly quiet way—will be partly responsible for bringing them about.

Fourteen

Evan Morgan: The first thing that struck me while watching Fourteen was the unusual cadence of your actors’ line deliveries. As in The Unspeakable Act, Tallie Medel speaks with a rhythm that sounds slightly askew from the conventions of American realism, noticeably mannered. Do you hear your scripts in a clear way while you’re writing them, and then instruct your performers to follow specific rhythms?

Dan Sallitt: No I don’t, actually. This question is interesting because you’re not the first person to feel this way. In fact, many people have. But it’s not something that I think about when I’m writing the script. I just try to make them sound like people, and when I’m directing, I also try to make them sound like people. I think it’s possible that because the classical American cinema was my first love, I have a certain sense that the writing need not be concealed.

Actually, with Fourteen, more often than with any of my other films, I’ve had people tell me that it seemed naturalistic. Norma [Kuhling] especially has a way of turning strange dialogue into something that sounds natural. Very often, on set, I would say to her, “This line sounds a little arch to me, should we change it?” and she would say no. She had figured out how she was going to say it, how to make it real.

For this film, for the first time, I felt a little bit less of the “abstraction” that people commonly feel in my movies. I’m definitely not trying for anything that sounds as consciously written as, say, a Hal Hartley film, or something like that.

EM: Do you give the actors free rein, then, in terms of the line readings?

DS: I care a lot about the line readings, so I don’t give people free rein. My goal is the emotional tenor. When I write the script, I have in mind the way that the emotions play through the dialogue, and if the actors do something else, I’m there to correct it. Though sometimes I’m too wedded to a concept: things will go in a different direction, I end up forcing them to do it my way, but when I get to the editing room, I realize that what I wanted was not in fact the best way. On the set, I’m not as loose as I would like to be. But when you’re in the editing room, your state of mind is completely different. Nobody’s around, you have all the time in the world to relax, to put your antennae out, and then sometimes things change course.

There’s a scene in the film where two couples go on a double date and have a conversation about lingerie. That was a scene that I wrote with more of a clear concept, that the shyer couple would be discomfited, less comfortable in the situation. But neither of the actors felt good about it, and they kept adding things to the scene. I went home unsure of whether or not what they did worked. But that was a case where it played fine. Their changes didn’t violate anything about the script. And yet I was unable to see, in the moment, that what they were doing would serve my purposes just as well as what I originally had in mind.

EM: Both Fourteen and The Unspeakable Act are centered on young people, and I believe much of the crew that worked on Fourteen was comprised of younger cinephiles interested in your work as a critic and a filmmaker. How do you understand your relationship to youth culture, specifically young cinephile culture?

DS: I feel strongly connected to young cinephile culture. The thing about filmmaking—and cinephilia—is that you can’t keep hanging out with your own age group as you get older. They drop off, move somewhere. You can’t put together a crew of sixty-somethings. It’s the same for cinephilia: my original set of cinephile friends are watching DVDs at home or delving into 1958 episodes of Gunsmoke, something like that. The people who are out there tend to be young, and I happen to be doing the same thing still, so it’s natural that I move in their circles.

In terms of the filmmaking, there was a gear shift: my first movies focused on people around my age, and I followed them for three films. Until The Unspeakable Act, I was using the same actors, not because of an affinity for people at a specific age, but because of my affinity for the actors. I like to work with actors a second time, especially if I don’t feel confident casting a new film. But The Unspeakable Act was a different script, and I had to cast all new people. Even for the older roles, I couldn’t get the people I’d worked with before. But when it was over, the same thing happened: I wanted to work with Tallie again in the worst way, and I started the process all over again.

I think Rohmer did something similar around the time of Perceval and Catherine de Heilbronn. He developed new groups of people that he liked to work with. These gear shifts are natural. Even if you want to follow certain actors to the end of their life (which I kind of do) the variety of ideas that you generate makes it necessary to change. And once you’ve made the change, you’ve got all these new people around.

EM: That sentiment dovetails nicely with the text of Fourteen: people float in and out of one’s life. The natural course of things takes us away from one another. And in filmmaking, just as in life, I imagine that you find different groups of people as you discover new interests.

DS: Yes, it’s like that. And it goes both ways: my first movie featured Strawn Bovee, and she has a small role in Fourteen. My second film had Edith Meeks and Dylan McCormick. Dylan is also in Fourteen. My third film was written specifically for Strawn and Edith; I was tracking their lives. Tallie probably wasn’t even born then, and yet now it’s Tallie who I can’t get out of my life. She became extremely important to me as a filmmaker.

EM: Do you think focusing on younger characters, played by younger performers, with younger people around on set, has changed your approach?

DS: I don’t think so. In my relatively quiet way, I’m stubbornly holding on to something. When I’m around people on set, they might not see it, but there’s a stubborn continuity. I might even reverse the gear shifts: Strawn and I are talking about working together again. We’re now at the age where it would be a movie about older people, for sure.

But I enjoyed the idea of writing for younger people. It was a voice that was fun for me, especially the character in The Unspeakable Act. She just came out of me and right onto the paper. But when I’m in the middle of it all, I keep a little of myself to myself, and I’m always vaguely aware that my aims might differ from the aims of everyone else on the set. I want everyone to benefit from the movie, but my agenda was set somewhere around the time that Truffaut started writing [laughs].

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EM: Can we talk a little bit about the way that time works in Fourteen? The movie has significant gaps in the chronology, and I’m curious how you conceived of the space between the scenes that we see. Did you start with a fleshed out story, and then pare away? Or did each scene emerge for you as a discrete unit?

DS: The gaps are part of the film. And that’s really important to me. What the audience sees is what I see. We’re outside of the people on screen when we watch a movie, and I try to preserve that “outsideness.” If I make up a backstory about one of the characters, it’s only to help the actors, not because the backstory is important. If I didn’t put it on screen, it’s because I didn’t want it to be there. The things that fall into those gaps, I don’t even know what they are.

When I write a phone call, and you only hear one side of it, I don’t know what’s being said on the other said. Later on, you inevitably have to write the other side for the actors. It’s like a test: Can I make this fit together for the actor? But I only want to think about what we see on screen.

That principle extends to Jo’s mental disorder. I didn’t want a mental diagnosis for her. The way we experience her is the way that we experience people in life: she’s a collection of external signs. The gaps have nothing in them.

EM: The film certainly plays that way. Which, for me, brings to mind Paul Vecchiali, who is a personal favorite of mine, and a filmmaker that I know you like as well. One thing I really admire about the Vecchialian approach is this prioritization of emotion over psychology. Or put another way, Vecchiali believes that psychology is downstream from emotion. In his films, we understand the emotions of his people before we recognize the psychological forces that propel them, if we recognize them at all. I sense something similar in your approach to character.

DS:  I wouldn’t have put it in terms of Vecchiali, but I do want the effect to rule the movie. What’s behind it, which includes psychology (and a million other things, actually) is fungible.

EM: There’s a shot in the film I wanted to ask you about. About 40 mins into the movie Mara goes to visit Jo at her paternal home in the suburbs, where she’s recovering from a suicide attempt. The sequence begins with a long shot (both in terms of duration and camera position) of a train station, where people are coming and going. The image registered to me as a formal break in the film. Elsewhere, we’re mostly confined to interiors, with people paired into couples and quartets. But this shot suggests countless arrivals and partings, as if the wider world has suddenly intruded on the film. Did you find the image on location? Or did you conceive of it early on?

DS: I very much conceived of it in advance. In fact, I was bragging to everybody on set that I was going to stop the film dead for four minutes. I loved the way that the camera picked out Tallie among the crowd. It brought a little tear to my eye. But in the editing room, I became aware that though I loved it, it would be a problem for some people. Some of the audience would be irrevocably lost at this point. I thought about removing it, but I realized that I could never live with myself if I did. I’d rather take the chance of alienating the audience than live the rest of my life knowing that I’d cut that shot.

Personally, I find it a compelling image. I like trains. There’s always something happening: you see how the commuter town works, people’s spouses picking them up. But what’s really going on there, as you said, is that Jo has almost died. And I knew she was going to die, so I felt a need for gravity, that the film needed to be stopped dead, because the whole film is an attempt not to take Jo’s loss lightly. I’ve never killed a character before, and I did not want to do so with a light hand. I wanted the whole film to be dedicated to this life that was lost.

EM: I think that’s there in the shot. As I was watching it, I felt a mounting sense of, if not dread, a kind of gravity, as you say. There’s a monumentality to the image. It was the moment where I felt most on edge, unsure of what was going to happen. The formal break suddenly forces a different emotion into the film.

DS: That’s exactly the kind of feeling I wanted at that moment. Of course I know that Jo is in trouble. The audience might start to sense it there.

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EM: You’re one of the few American film critics that has a fairly complete—and articulable—aesthetic framework for watching and writing about movies. I think this model, of the critic who possesses an established set of interests as a viewer, and who then re-purposes those interests as a filmmaker, is more well known in Europe, but maybe less well known in America. How much does your practice as a critic inform your approach as a filmmaker? And if it does, do you feel that that sets you apart from your peers in the States?

DS: Let me take the second part first. Right now, there’s more fluidity in the American independent community. A lot of people who write, or are film intellectuals, are making films, and the films reflect something about them. Everyone seems to be making movies that they want to make. It’s not the era of the “calling card” film that I recall from 20 years ago. Mumblecore may have changed that. Now, the more personal, the better. I don’t think what you’re describing is an unprecedented thing in the United States anymore.

In a certain sense, I see my love of cinema as being one with the feelings that I want to create in my own movies. I locate them in film history, even. The idea of my movies standing next to the great films matters to me. And I don’t feel like I’m switching hats when I move between thinking about movies and making them.

The biggest difference comes in generating the idea. It’s a weird process. Coming up with the ideas that you need to make a movie is a kind of pre-artistic process, in my opinion. There’s fantasy, there’s infantilism. Whatever gives you energy on some deep childish level is what’s needed to drive you through the process. You’re gratifying yourself in all kinds of weird ways. Once some things have emerged from wherever they’ve been hiding, the critic gets involved. And the internal critic, who shapes your own effluvia, is very similar to the person who writes a review of someone else’s movie. So there is a lot of common ground. But this one thing, criticism does not prepare you for it. That’s the gap. If someone can’t bridge that gap, it’s probably because they haven’t got a handle on how to generate the stuff.

EM: Is that something that’s gotten easier for you with each new film, or is it truly a spontaneous process?

DS: I think it just comes to you. It doesn’t get easier, but I also don’t find it particularly hard. If you think of yourself as an artist, you have to have this weird process going on. I’ve had it running in my own head for a long time, though it’s changed over the years.

Various circumstances gave rise to Fourteen: one of them was that I had a day job that I didn’t want to quit, but I also couldn’t get enough contiguous vacation time to shoot something all at once. But I had ideas that I could shoot over time, in pieces, so I could satisfy the requirements of my living situation and make the movie work. That was instrumental in finding the ideas that became Fourteen.

EM: Did the film ultimately come together over a significant period of time?

DS: It was pretty fast. I finished The Unspeakable Act in early 2012. Fourteen was on paper by mid-2012. I wanted to work again with Tallie, and I wanted to work with Kate Lyn Sheil, who had a small role in The Unspeakable Act. I wanted to see what would happen with the two of them. The script was called “Tallie/Kate” for a long time.

I had a vague role for each of them and a vague agenda: I told Kate once that I thought one of her directors should remake The Mother and the Whore with her in the Françoise Lebrun role. And after a while I thought, maybe I should try that. So there was something in my mind about that scene that became Jo’s breakdown.

But it didn’t solidify until I had this almost fantasy idea of the little girl and the bedtime story of Jo’s life, the funeral, and the little girl’s reaction triggering the mother’s reaction. I didn’t have the rest of the movie at that point, I just had a vague structure. But that scene made me feel like the movie could be done.

EM: I wanted to ask you about the ending of the film, because the sequence you describe, where Mara narrates Jo’s story to her daughter, initially seemed like a logical endpoint for the film. But you keep pushing it further to the funeral scene, where Mara is granted a real moment of grief. I’m curious to hear you articulate why the film had to end where it does, with a level of emotionality that’s unlike what’s expressed throughout the rest of the movie.

DS: For me, I couldn’t have ended it without that. The film is trying to strike a balance between the romanticized feeling of this great love that Mara has for Jo, which will never go away, and the reality of life carrying you away—life with a child carrying you away. Fourteen is about all the stuff that happens while the nice, clean narrative line progresses. And the other stuff has to have weight. The ending is supposed to crystallize the idea that all this other stuff is in balance with a powerful emotion. The ending fights it back, and then loses the battle against the eruption of the emotion.

[Film critic] Mike D’Angelo told me that he really wanted the movie to end after the story. I see it, but I couldn’t end it there. I owed Jo more than that, somehow. All my films have, beneath the surface, a kind of capital-R romanticism, which I then try to disguise with a million manifestations of the mundane.

EM: That reminds me of something you said in your piece on À Nos Amours, where you describe Pialat’s formal choices as “fiction dodging stratagems.” I’ve seen other commentators compare Fourteen’s approach to time to Pialat, but I also think what you’re describing, this romanticism that the film resists, but which it ultimately cannot hold back, is very Pialatian. He’s someone who possesses an almost repressed, or even self-loathing, romanticism, but he can’t clamp it down.

DS:  He tries so damn hard to keep it down. I was thinking about Pialat a lot during this movie. I’d arrived at a time in my life where I felt like I really understood Pialat, and I was thinking a lot about what I felt were the lessons of Pialat, which I didn’t really get when I first tried to use those rhythms. One thing that’s important about Pialat, which I tried to do, even though I couldn’t go as far as him, is how he throws things together that don’t fit, things that aren’t meant to fit together, that come from different places. He might throw together a piece from his life, a piece from Arlette Langmann’s life, or something the actors did when they didn’t realize they were being filmed, or something he provoked them into doing by breaking character. He’ll take all these things, put them together, and it makes you feel like the person is real in a way that you don’t feel when the character is conceived of in thematic terms.

I think that the discontinuity of people is far greater than fiction suggests. Fiction doesn’t give us easy tools to deal with how discontinuous we are. And Pialat realizes that. He recognizes that there’s a great danger in simplifying things away from reality. He’s scared to death of it, actually.

EM: What you’re saying brings to mind my favorite film of his, La Maison de bois

DS: That was Pialat’s favorite too…

EM: Oh was it? I didn’t know that. I’ve always sensed that it’s a movie that Pialat had to purge from himself, because it’s the most flowing and Renoirian, the least discontinuous. There, more than anywhere else, you see him unable to resist his own romantic impulses.

DS: Pialat said that the only two good films made since the liberation were Jacques Demy’s short film about the shoemakers of the Loire and La Maison de bois, his own movie [laughs]. But Pialat is usually brutal towards his own movies. In interviews, he does himself no favors. He doesn’t think his films work, and he says so.

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EM: I’m also curious about the financing of your films. You mentioned that you made Fourteen while working your day job, which financed the movie. Do you anticipate self-financing your films going forward? Is doing so important to you?

DS: I self-finance completely, and I anticipate that I will continue to do so. But whether or not it’s important to me, I don’t know. I’ve never done anything else. I can imagine some fantasy situation where a patron comes along, offers money, and says, “Do whatever you want.” What I have trouble imagining is fitting myself into a system that requires compromise. Perhaps I could, on some level, but I think I’d sabotage the project before it even got off the ground. But I’ll try if someone wants to!

And there are certain good things about my style for a producer. I storyboard everything. I do cutting continuity. I don’t change my scripts very much. So if the financier is adept enough at reading the tea leaves, they can see exactly the movie that I’m going to make. It’s an opportunity for someone who doesn’t want any surprises.

EM: I find it surprising that you storyboard your films in advance, especially after just talking about this Pialatian discontinuity. Fourteen doesn’t read to me as a film that was storyboarded in advance. It has an off-handed quality that works in the film’s favor. How do you capture that while also storyboarding?

DS: A lot of that has to do with the actors. But the reason to storyboard is not so much a creative one as it is an emotional one. It’s a way of controlling anxiety, to tell you the truth, very much the way that I think Hitchcock needed to feel that he was done with a movie before it was filmed, that all he had to do was execute his plans. Really, the movie isn’t done, but I understand why it’s useful to think that way. I understand the anxiety that forces you to pretend that the film is entirely finished before you start. At every stage of the way, I’m trying to pretend that I’ve already done the work, and that all I have to do is flesh it out a bit.

Perhaps because of that, I’ve developed a kind of minimalist style. I was a math major, and mathematicians like the idea of an elegant proof. Minimalism implies not thinking about yourself in a way, which you can do when you follow a rigorous plan. So, it fits with my personality in some way.

EM: And minimalism suits the milieu. Fourteen understands the environments that young women like Mara and Jo would occupy. Their lives lack accoutrements. They’re simple. They move through life with baggage of the emotional variety, but very little of the tangible kind.

DS: You know, I saw Young Ahmed recently, which I liked a lot, and I saw the Dardennes doing the same thing in responding to the film’s situation that they were doing as far back as La Promesse. They don’t think twice about doing the same thing. They don’t obsess over doing things differently or striking out into new territory. Their style is pure response to something, to a situation. Not to a script, not to a theme. And I think I try to be like that myself. I never go in thinking, what can I do to make this interesting? I try to obey, to do justice to something when I choose shots and when I construct decoupage.

VIFF 2019: And Then We Danced (Dir. Levan Akin, 2019)

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Levan Akin’s gorgeous coming-of-age tale And Then We Danced fairly glows with beauty, pain, hope, and joy. It is a thoroughly transporting film, one that makes you wish that you were part of its hero’s world instead of being a mere observer.

And Then We Danced is set in the nation of Georgia and features the hauntingly beautiful dance and music of traditional Georgian culture. The film follows Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani), a college-aged member-in-training of the National Georgian Ensemble, a troupe specializing in traditional dance. Merab has been chastely dating his dance partner, Mary (Ana Javakishvili), with whom he was first paired when they were just children, and the two have an easy, playful rapport that comes from many years of knowing each other and dancing together. If Mary suspects that her partner is gay, she keeps that suspicion under wraps until the truth becomes too obvious to ignore—which it does when a new dancer, Irakli (Bachi Valishvili), suddenly arrives from out of town and begins to claim more and more of Merab’s attention. Irakli is dashing and mysterious, and Merab is soon utterly fascinated by him. A relationship that should proceed apace, however, is complicated by the fact that both young men live in a sternly judgmental culture where being gay is a criminal offense. Further complexities arise when auditions are announced for a single, prestigious position in an ensemble piece, a position for which Merab and Irakli find themselves competitors.

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Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché (dir. Pamela Green, 2018)

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Too few people know about the extraordinary woman who arguably created cinema as we know it. With La Fée aux Choux (1896), Alice Guy-Blaché became the first director in history to use film to do something that we now take for granted as the obvious job of the movies: to tell a story. (Some critics and scholars make a case for the Lumière brothers as the inventors of fiction film with the staged prank depicted in their 1895 L’Arroseur Arrosé, but this argument depends entirely on what one believes counts as a “story,” as opposed to an incident or attraction.) To note only that Guy-Blaché was “the world’s first woman director,” then, is to do her somewhat of a disservice, given her other even more remarkable achievements. (She also, for example, was the first director in history to use synchronized sound in film, decades before The Jazz Singer.) Pamela Green’s long-overdue documentary Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché is therefore a little safe and cautious in calling Guy-Blaché only “one of” the earliest fiction filmmakers. Even so, Green’s compelling account performs an essential service in at last giving a remarkable and nearly forgotten figure from cinema history the feature-length documentary that she deserves. Be Natural (entitled after the advice Guy-Blaché always gave her actors) is wholly engrossing, and by turns surprising, illuminating, and moving.

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Rafiki (Dir. Wanuri Kahiu, 2018)

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Kenyan director Wanuri Kahiu’s marvelous, joyful Rafiki tells the story of two girls in love. It’s a story that has been told before, replete with obstacles en route to what we hope will be a happy ending, but two things set this film apart from the rest of the star-crossed crowd. One, the girls live in Kenya, where a colonial-era law marks out homosexuality as a criminal offense. Two, despite the seriousness of the dangers and challenges before our heroines, their story is wildly, vibrantly fun.

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Suburbia (Penelope Spheeris, 1983)

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I first saw this film in the mid-1980s, when I was a mildly alienated, slightly chicken-hearted New Waver who was curious about what more dangerous versions of myself were up to. I remember thinking at the time that Suburbia was really cool. Its depiction of rebellious street punks who make a home together in a squat spoke to my need to feel affiliated with something wild and counter-cultural without actually taking any real risks myself. And as someone who was disillusioned with suburbia, I appreciated the movie’s frank commentary on the hypocrisies of middle-class life. Revisiting the film today, I realize that I overlooked a great deal the first time around—not just its major themes about the blindness of youth but also the directness of its depictions of the casual racism, misogyny, and homophobia of some of its characters (and their society as a whole). Watching it now, it looks like much more than a stylish time capsule of a not-so-great period in American history (the Reagan years). It looks like an honest attempt to tell the truth about the way that young people experience a harsh world.

This is not to say that the film is always good. The performances of its mostly non-professional actors (actual street punks) are often wooden, the dialogue is stilted, and the attempts at humor mostly fail. Even so, the film is bold and completely unflinching in its attention to human ugliness, to the simultaneous vulnerability and cruelty of the young, and to the way that disaster so often strikes with little warning and for no good reason.

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Captain Marvel (Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, 2019)

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What is the source of Carol Danvers’ power? This is the question that Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s excellent Captain Marvel asks, and the answers are various. The answer to the most literal form of the question is the typical sort of quasi-semi-demi-scientific explanation we’ve come to know and mostly love from the rest of the entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe—something about an accident involving an advanced energy source, etc. etc. Where the movie becomes deeply interesting, however, is in its many answers to the metaphorical versions of the question, many of which will resonate deeply with most of the women in the audience, and many men. The movie details a specifically female set of experiences, and not only in the ways one might expect from a movie about a woman who rises through the intermittently sexist ranks in the U.S. Air Force, eventually to fight alien bad guys. To say much more on this subject requires spoilers, which are plentiful after the page break here. So before you read on, go see this enormously entertaining and wonderfully hopeful movie.

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