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Film Review: The Witch

September 24, 2016 Leave a comment

The Witch (2016; Directed by Robert Eggers)

“What went we out into this wilderness to find?” asks William (Ralph Ineson), family patriarch and religious nonconformist in colonial New England, in the opening moments of Robert Eggers’ arresting “New England folktale” The Witch. He stands in judgment with his clan before the governor and church elders, who banish him from their God-fearing colonial plantation for dissenting from the Puritan orthodoxy in his expressed beliefs. There is no small irony in this splitting, seeing as how the Pilgrim colonists of 17th Century New England were themselves painfully severed from the Church of England for their dissenting faith to come to the American continent in the first place to begin anew. Such principled breaks from the community on religious terms were hardly uncommon in New England, either; this was how Rhode Island was founded, for one, and other communities trace their origins back to strict Puritan believers who could not play well in the religious sandbox with others and struck out on their own to build a new Jerusalem in the continent’s unfathomably vast wilderness.

Eggers lingers on foreboding wide shots of the woods that tower on the fringes of the humble homestead that William and his family erect. “We will conquer this wilderness,” William vows. “It will not consume us.” But, of course, we know it will. Although the forest in The Witch is a place of mystery and peril as per both the folktale and the horror film tradition, visually it is not so much magical or nefarious but merely tangible, not looming or threatening so much as existing. Menace leeches from it into William’s family’s lives and they find nothing but misery and evil in their interactions with it. But the pregnant query at the core of The Witch asks whether evil persists in the wider natural world or if all ill emanates predominantly – or even exclusively – from the corruption of man. Furthermore, it considers quite openly whether personal liberty and fulfillment lie down the path of righteousness or with indulgence of the flesh.

As its ending titles claim somewhat righteously, the scenario of The Witch is based on copious primary documentary sources from colonial New England’s 17th Century witch hysteria (not to mention horror genre convention), as is much of the dialogue spoken by its characters. This assertion of fidelity feels faintly ambiguous considering the way the film treats the demonological phantasms of witchcraft as being all too real, but then to Protestants of that era – oppressed by an intense, practically physical fear of sin and damnation – it was all too real. The evil powers of the witch and her demonic master, while potent, exploit and indeed meld with the internal rifts within the family. It becomes difficult to tell where their desires, grief, flaws, resentments and recriminations end and where the witchcraft begins.

The matriarch Katherine (Kate Dickie) is harsh and shrewish, towards her husband but especially towards her eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), under whose care her youngest son Samuel suspiciously disappears. Thomasin resents her mother’s attacks on her, forms a fonder compact with eldest son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) and needles her hellion twin siblings Jonas and Mercy (Lucas Dawson and Ellie Grainger) with dark suggestions of practicing witchcraft, jests which will come back to haunt her. Caleb, for his part, gazes with adolescent lasciviousness upon his older sister’s body while absorbing but quibbling with his father’s sermons about the stern certainty of sin, but precipitates a family crisis when he becomes lost in the woods and ensnared by a dark force. Meanwhile, the twins spend much of their time playing with the family’s he-goat Black Phillip, and claim that he sometimes speaks to them in dark voices. All family members old enough to recognize William’s weakness and ineptitude as a provider, survivor, and nurturing patriarch (namely Catherine and Thomasin but Caleb as well in an unspoken way) resent him for it, too.

All of these cracks and fissures are exploited by dark forces, but the darkest force of all is basic human doubt and frailty. The Witch is sort of a dark mirror Book of Job (Katherine compares herself to Job’s wife at one point), only the calamities with which William and his family are beset consist not in the stress tests of an ultimately benevolent deity but of the Great Enemy. And this 17th-century Job fails the test quite comprehensively. The film weaves the family’s own all-consuming Puritan paranoia about Satan and witches lurking in every copse, about the immutability of sin and judgement, and about the temptations of the flesh and of the material world with the stock imagery of witchlore: twisted, cackling old hags, huts in the woods, eerie flight by moonlight, and fireside witches’ Sabbaths in communion with Lucifer. It’s both a practically flawless chamber horror film and a deep and true approximation of the scripture-fed superstitions and unstable social conditions that made the English colonies on the Eastern Seaboard such a hotbed for witch hysteria.

If The Witch was only those things, it would be a genre film triumph. But Eggers’ film cuts deeper than that, functioning as both an excavation into the anthropological mists of the American nation and a compelling exploration of the conflict between the hedonistic pull of personal liberty and the fetters of dogmatic, accusatory religion. No story set in Pilgrim times can claim not to be about modern America as well; such is the legacy of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Arthur Miller, and The Witch joins that august metaphorical/allegorical tradition. Is Eggers’ film about the contemporary American siege mentality, the heady and dangerous mix of security anxiety, xenophobia, and wounded self-assurance that archconservative demagogues like Donald Trump shamelessly exploit and threatens to unwind the bonds of the republic? Is it about the destructive, church-fed tendencies towards magical thinking and irrational superstition that have hamstrung one of the world’s most robust societies on consistent occasions? We may not be able to say with confidence that it is saying any of these things, but the film operates with enough ambiguity to give those possible meanings plenty of oxygen.

As hinted at (and as can only be properly discussed by indulging in spoilers, so fair warning), there’s a strong feeling that the core meaning of The Witch, at least for Thomasin, considers the costs of freedom versus those of self-restriction. Blamed for all of the family’s troubles by her imperious mother, left undefended by her milquetoast bible-thumping father, and betrayed and accused of witchery by the twins, Thomasin finds herself standing alone amidst the shattered remnants of her family, face-to-face with the Great Satan himself.

“Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?” the male human incarnation of “Black Phillip” whispers seductively, and she has endured through too much trauma to resist him, lost all the safe ground that she might cling to in defiance. Though why would she bother to resist? Her father’s precious piety has only served to smash his familial unit and leave him dead in a pile of his uselessly-chopped firewood, crying out in his final guilt-ridden throes, “Corruption, thou art my father!” Her life is only preserved from her mother’s wrath by the sharp edge of a blade. For Thomasin, a literal deal with the Devil is her only path to freedom from the godly misery of her society and culture. Her species of liberation through the embrace of witchcraft, through communion with evil forces but also with the corrupted, amoral natural world, is not a matter of choice but of last resort, of resigned but bleakly delighted inevitability. “I will guide thy hand,” Black Phillip promises Thomasin when she tells him that she cannot write her name in his book to seal their pact. Her agency has been relentlessly reduced until it has been taken from her, all while she is plied with the promise of pleasures that come with final, total surrender.

Thus, Thomasin’s “choice” is no choice at all, her veering in the direction of delicious indulgence a purposeful channeling by forces stronger than her burgeoning womanhood. Buried deep in its symbolic implications, The Witch suggests that her unfree choice of freedom is the one America took and the one Americans are likewise offered. What did early American colonists go into the wilderness to find, after all? A new Kingdom of God, and nationalist myth and historical impetus has long maintained that they carved this kingdom, the “city upon a hill” of Massachusetts Bay Colony governor John Winthrop’s long-echoing 1630 sermon, out of the unforgiving wilderness by dint of their tireless work ethic and pious, god-fearing determination.

The Witch, as befits a cinematic text from an American era of deep ambivalence, doubt, and perhaps even dread recognition of decline and decadence of that exceptional settlement on New World shores, provocatively suggests that this myth should be understood in reverse. Americans did not conquer the wilderness, the wilderness consumed them even as they consumed it. Its primal, instinctual drives became internalized and transmuted into human desires, into that venerable “pursuit of happiness” that has translated into a liberty of acquisition, of consumption, of indulgence. This “folktale” offers this alternative myth of America’s founding, lurking beneath the trappings of an excellent indie-arthouse period horror movie. It lives deliciously.

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Categories: Film, History, Politics, Religion

Documentary Quickshots #3

September 22, 2016 Leave a comment

Elstree 1976 (2015; Directed by Jon Spira)

Elstree 1976 is a modest movie about modest actors and extras whose modest film careers included bit parts in an immodestly successful and influential movie called Star Wars. Crossing paths one unseasonally warm English summer at London’s Elstree studio, they donned goofy costumes to make an odd science fiction movie (okay, I know, space opera, thanks) that some thought was a low-budget TV film but others more versed in the genre recognized as something potentially special. They moved on from there, some to the surprise megahit’s two sequels, others to prolific background careers, still others back to the respectable theatre roles that they took a break from to play exotic aliens or foot soldiers in a galatic conflict. But as the cultural profile of Star Wars grew to saturating proportions, many were sucked up in the maelstrom of its dedicated fandom, and began making lucrative appearances on the convention circuit.

I’m not at all certain what Elstree 1976 ultimately adds up to. Its subjects are too diverse, their experiences with both the film and its decades-long comet trail of fan enthusiasm both too variant and too samey to land any sort of impactful statement. There are internecine controversies in the geek-movie bit-player convention-circuit world, we are told. Cast members listed in the credits resent the uncredited extras who claim an equivalent mantle of fleeting notoreity and occupy autograph-signing booths next to them at fan events. One extra’s claim to be the infamous clumsy stormtrooper who bumps his head on a rising door on the Deathstar (certainly no laurel-draped honour) has even faced multiple counter-claims from other background players.

The most prominent cast member interviewed is clearly the towering English strongman David Prowse, who played megavillain Darth Vader in all facets except his voice. Prowse, whose mild West Country accent earned him the snickering behind-the-scenes nickname “Darth Farmer”, had his line readings later iconically overdubbed by the inimitable James Earl Jones, which he is paradoxically flattered and irritated by, seemingly at once. Prowse is also glad to have been involved in Star Wars and to continue to derive an income from it in his advanced age, but reserves some bitterness towards Lucasfilm and defied its corporate controls just enough to get himself banished from officially-sanctioned franchise events. One doubts that he’ll be invited back into the Vader suit for this year’s Star Wars film, Rogue One, which includes at least a cameo appearance by Darth.

Prowse himself may have been a rich enough subject for a documentary, but the group of veteran thespians, former models/bartenders, and flaky entertainment world hangers-on interviewed by director Jon Spira provide curious colour as well. All seem more than a little bemused at their continued relevance to Star Wars superfans, whether they were cool alien bounty hunters like Greedo or Boba Fett, the stormtrooper who gets an assist from the Force in realizing that these aren’t the droids he was looking for, or briefly-glimpsed Rebel Alliance honour guards. Fan obsession has given them a chance to cash in on their momentary brush with history, and they’ll take the opportunity with a smile.

Raiders! The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made (2015; Directed by Tim Skousen & Jeremy Coon)

A no less obsessive but far more creatively active facet of movie fandom is witnessed in Raiders! The enthusiasm that the throngs who line up for the autograph of the unglimpsed actor playing a stormtrooper or bounty hunter in a galaxy far, far away was likewise felt by a trio of teenaged boys in 1980s Mississippi for the daring adventures of rough-and-tumble archaeologist. So inspired were Chris Strompolos, Eric Zala, and Jayson Lamb by Steven raidersSpielberg’s 1981 action-adventure classic Raiders of the Lost Ark that they decided to make a film of their own. Or rather, they decided to remake that same film, shot for shot, starring themselves and their friends, over nearly a decade, with a scraped-together budget approaching a final figure of $5000 and loads of brazen inventiveness.

The dedication, ingenuity, and sheer juvenile recklessness involved in this long-term project is more than a little astounding and more than worth the documentary feature treatment. Raiders of the Lost Ark is pure blockbuster fare: impressive sets, cutting-edge special effects (for its time, anyway), thousands of extras, and, most of all, thrilling stuntwork that would be extremely dangerous for even trained professionals to attempt. These plucky teenagers tackle it all: they’re chased by rolling boulders, beset by a tomb full of snakes, and dragged behind a truck (albeit one without an engine). They even set themselves (and the basement of one of their parents’ home) on fire. The resulting giddily amateur fan film, entitled Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation, has been touring the U.S. to cheering film geek audiences for a decade since cult filmmaker Eli Roth sprung an old VHS copy of it upon the attendees of Ain’t It Cool News‘ annual marathon film festival, creating major internet buzz and earning the film its own packed screening at Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse Theatre (whose production arm oversaw this documentary). Spielberg himself even came across the fan film, and set a meeting with its three creators as adults to praise them for their efforts and tell them how they inspired him further as a filmmaker.

The best moments of Raiders! involve the reminiscences of the principal trio and the legion of family members and friends who participated in the venture, but there’s more to the film than stardust memories of misspent youth. But there’s more to the film than that, even though the incredible stories of the years-long production could fill an hour or more on their own. Intercut with the backstory of the Raiders adaptation is the documentation of Zala and Strompolos’ current-day attempt to raise necessary funds and surmount the necessary challenges to film the one sequence from Spielberg’s classic that stymied their teenaged resources: the explosion-filled white-knuckle fight scene between hero Indiana Jones and a towering Nazi muscleman beneath a life-sized prototype airplane.

Both the high production values and standard behind-the-scenes challenges that Zala and Strompolos face to complete this sequence are far out of step with the DIY aesthetic that made their childhood re-creation so charming. But the struggles that they face as adults – Zala with a family to provide for and a demanding boss insisting that he return to his paid work, Strompolos to find direction and stability after struggles with poverty and drug addiction, even Lamb to reconcile with the duo of friends whom he felt minimized his contribution to The Adaptation – put the more whimsical obstacles of their youthful moviemaking into context. The documentary’s juxtaposition of these challenges is a fine exemplification of the nature of maturation and conforming forces of American society. But the film’s postscript – Zala leaves his constricting job to start a film production company with his childhood compatriot Strompolos – suggests that in the creative class that springs from and feeds on the energy of fandom, the conventional narrative arc of “growing up” can have unexpected detours.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: American Hustle

September 17, 2016 Leave a comment

American Hustle (2013; Directed by David O. Russell)

David O. Russell’s breezily fictionalized spin on the FBI’s Abscam sting operation of the late 1970s and early 1980s opens (after a droll disclaimer: “Some of this actually happened”) with a scene of its protagonist con man Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) meticulously arranging his elaborate combover in a luxury hotel suite mirror. Russell’s camera lingers on the detail of Bale’s exertions on his coiffure as the actor subtly revels in the flourishes of Rosenfeld’s preparations. His care and attention to detail in presenting a false follicular front to the world have little to do with male vanity, however. They are about perfecting the correct appearance to achieve the desired effect, and the desired effect is always for his mark to believe in him not because he wants them to, but because they want to.

This is the essence of the con man’s hustle, expressed as clearly and as resonantly as it perhaps ever has been onscreen in American Hustle. But Russell, a famously exacting filmmaker whose films always feel looser and more casually-constructed than they really are, is not content to simply doodle entertainingly on the level of the confidence caper potboiler, a slick Ocean’s Eleven transposed to the plush glare of the ’70s. American Hustle is Russell’s Goodfellas, stylistically and thematically. And it suggests a close kinship between its double-crossing, role-playing scammers and the vaunted American Dream in much the same way that Goodfellas melded the brash alterity of Mob life with American middle-class aspiration. The con is not a bug in America’s construction, it’s a feature.

Russell and co-scripter Eric Warren Singer change the names and many of the personas of the Abscam principals, and spice up the scenario with criss-crossing liaisons and shifting loyalties, but the broad strokes are similar. Rosenfeld is the owner of a New York-area dry-cleaning chain, the son of a glazier, and a seasoned scam artist who dabbles in fake-loan schemes and forged art dealing. His partner and paramour, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), impersonates a British aristocrat and weaves her particular seduction of victims with his own. Although they have a productive shadow-business and a passionate love life, Rosenfeld also has a family on Long Island to go back to: his mercurial, disastrous wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) and son Danny (Danny and Sonny Corbo), towards whom he is a devoted father.

Rosenfeld’s split allegiances become further bifurcated when he and Sydney are busted in their loan scam by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) and he presses them into an ever-broadening sting operation aimed at the dedicated but corrupt mayor of Camden, New Jersey, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner, sporting a spectacular coif). Polito is employing his tentacular influence in New Jersey politics to raise funds to rebuild the legalized gambling business of Atlantic City, a venture now legendary for its embezzlement, corrupt application of public funds, and Mafia involvement in skimming construction costs and casino profits. DiMaso, steamrolling over the reasonable Midwestern caution of his embattled superior Stoddard Thorsen (Louis CK), looks to snag Polito for taking bribes from an invented Middle Eastern sheikh (impersonated by a Mexican-American agent played by the indispensible Michael Peña, in what now plays like an inadvertent shot at Donald Trump’s nativist anti-immigration fulminations). He wants the cooperation and expertise of the entrapped Rosenfeld and Sydney in pulling off this sting, and needs it more and more as the web of corruption in the Atlantic City deal catches U.S. congressmen, a Senator, and a menacing Mob enforcer-turned-captain (Robert DeNiro).

I must admit to my shame that I’ve missed out on Russell’s later-period transformation from the brazen iconoclast of Three Kings to the super-skilled director of sprawling, audience-friendly awards-bait genre prestige pictures like The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, and American Hustle. His cast for Hustle draws liberally from his recent efforts. Bale achieves the opposite physical transformation from his Oscar-nominated role in The Fighter, where he was gaunt and hollow-cheeked in contrast to Rosenfeld’s pot-belly; the sultry, unwaveringly sharp Adams was also in that film. Cooper, whose overgrown-bro-trending career was put on a more respectable path by Silver Linings Playbook, ricochets from overconfidence to self-doubt, from aggression to desperation, from triumph to deflation. Lawrence, Russell’s megawatt muse since Silver Linings Playbook, is great as usual, saddled though she is with the stock hysterical wife role (Lorraine Bracco left so little of such a role for anyone after Goodfellas) and is only sometimes given free reign to subvert it, as when she celebrates a vengeful attempt to break Rosenfeld’s cover with her putative Mafia boyfriend (Jack Huston) via a pugnacious singalong to Paul McCartney’s “Live and Let Die” while cleaning the house.

Technically, American Hustle is superbly crafted, flashily and subtly in equal measure. Even in what many directors would stage as static dialogue scenes, Russell moves his camera with even-handed drama, pushes in and pulls away for precisely calculated effect that feels spontaneous and effortless. When DiMaso and Sydney (the former is deeply attracted to the latter, who purports to be honeytrapping the federali but might have more feelings than she lets on) go out dancing, Russell revels in the sexiness of a Manhattan club night, all UV floods and chopped-up strobe lights.

All the fine performances and technical acumen would be wasted, however, if American Hustle‘s themes did not land so firmly on an uncomfortable and infrequently-acknowledged truth about the pursuit of wealth and happiness in America: the ends are forever justifying the means, and driving those means past the threshold of legality and morality (which are not always the same thing). In a year in which a shamelessly transparent con man stands a disturbingly good chance of becoming President of the United States, Russell’s film from a few years ago shows how the nigh-unchecked processes of American capitalism turn everyone – striving con artists, ambitious cops, politicians, mobsters, even unstable housewives – into scammers.

“Let’s be real,” says DiMaso to Sydney at several points, ironically unaware that she is not only pretending to love him but faking an entire identity and maybe conning him on deeper levels as well. DiMaso cannot play as fast and loose with reality as Sydney and Rosenfeld can, despite all of his swagger and attitude, and this problem makes him a juicy mark. The problem with America, in the 1970s as now, is the slippery nature of the “real” in the face of constant personal reinvention and relentless sales pitch bombardment of daily life. Donald Trump is not a good businessman, strong leader, brilliant thinker, or even a particularly functional human being, but he plays those roles on TV with enough blustering conviction to persuade a significant minority of American voters that he might be. American Hustle‘s characters are putting up similar false fronts for similar selfish gain; for them as for Trump, the idea of reality, the concept of truth, is just another facet of the long con they are running on the world. Early in their tense partnership, Rosenfeld and DiMaso stand in front of a Rembrandt portrait in an art museum and Rosenfeld tells DiMaso that the painting is a skilled fake that no one has recognized. But what does that matter? What is the palpable difference between the real and the fake if it is too difficult to distinguish one from the other to be worth the dubious effort, and, furthermore, if the effort of making and observing that distinction offers no tangible reward? America itself is a hustle, indeed chronically rewards the hustle, and David O. Russell’s resonant caper epic understands and demonstrates this with enjoyable and skilled bravado.

Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews