Film Review: The Lighthouse

November 3, 2019 Leave a comment

The Lighthouse (2019; Directed by Robert Eggers)

The Lighthouse, the second film from Robert Eggers, is a mesmerizing, ambiguous descent into madness, as spare and bare as it is fulsomely baroque. As in his debut feature The Witch, an intense, deliciously-living tale of witchcraft, sin, and judgment set in Colonial New England and likewise distributed by acclaimed independent film house A24, Eggers pits weak and flawed humans against the inscrutable enormity of the natural world and the superstitious myths that render it apprehendable (though no less terrible) to the mind and the soul. That wilderness and the tall tales woven in order to give it intelligible form operate as a metaphorical mirror for the weakness and self-doubt of the puny people who toil fruitlessly against it, for the fickle, unknowable whims of an almost certainly absent God who has left the fates of his creations to the ravenous pagan deities and bestiary that his coming was imagined to have banished, and maybe even for the ugly, consumptive decline of American empire itself.

The Witch drew nearly all of its dialogue directly from 17th-century sources, including transcripts of New England witch trials. Eggers adds a similar title card to the credits of The Lighthouse, citing inspiration for the florid period language used by its characters (Eggers co-wrote the script with his brother Max) from Herman Melville’s work, lighthouse keepers’ journals and logs, and especially the writings of late-19th-century Maine poet and novelist Sarah Orne Jewett. It’s shot on 35mm film and in black-and-white by Jarin Blaschke, also Eggers’ cinematographer on The Witch, and presented in an odd, outdated 1.19:1 aspect ratio (ie. the fim’s frame is basically a square, rather than the customary widescreen letterbox format) rarely used in feature films since the early 1930s (Fritz Lang used it on his seminal films Sunrise and M, the latter’s claustrophobic darkness an arguable influence on this film). Mark Korven is credited with the film’s score, but the sonic environment is dominated by the station’s ominous, unearthly foghorn which ever blares away its deep groan of doom.

All of this visual and aural anachronism (so suggestive of the work of Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin in key ways that Eggers should almost cut the Winnipegger into his film’s grosses) makes The Lighthouse‘s tale of two late-1800s American lighthouse-men (known as “wickies”) stranded on an isolated rock as a storm and insanity both descend on them (a story adapted from a real incident involving two stranded Welsh wickies in 1801) all the more hypnotic and unsettling. They are salty maritime veteran Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) and rookie Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson). Wake was a sailor for decades but pivoted to lighthousing due to a gammy leg, while Winslow is on his first assignment with the United States Lighthouse Establishment after leaving off lumberjack work in Canada with suspicious suddenness.

Left alone by a tender on the deserted rock isle for what is supposed to be a four-week turn, Wake and Winslow settle into a power-dynamic pattern of command and control, tension and release. The elder sea-dog Wake is the superior, and he consigns nearly all of the back-breaking manual labour to the younger Winslow, accompanying it with capricious whims of power and threats of garnished wages to assert his authority in the face of Winslow’s occasional insubordinate pushback. Meanwhile, Wake is secretive with the keeper’s logbook and the tending of the saturating light itself, forbidding Winslow from so much as setting foot on the top level next to the lighthouse’s rapturous, glow-emitting fresnel lens. Wake speaks in thick, sea-lore-specked nautical slang (Dafoe is a delightful marvel, and perfectly cast), sprinkling Winslow with dire warnings of bad omens and hoary curses of ocean mythology like bursts of sea spray. But this bad-cop act is balanced by attempts at good-cop comradery with his companion over meals and, after bad weather prevents a boat with relief crew from reaching them, over excessive amounts of alcoholic drink.

Winslow, for his part, is eroded by frustration and toil, physical, mental, and otherwise. He endures the thousand pinprick humiliations of Wake’s fluctuating tyranny but they wear him down, fray his edges, compel rebellion. He is tormented by a particular belligerent seagull (in their first meeting, Eggers’ centers Winslow and the bird in the two-shot edit, coyly framing them as equal antagonists), until he finally snaps and shockingly fails to heed Wake’s maritime-wisdom prognostication that it is bad luck to kill a seabird, as they contain the souls of men lost at sea. Perhaps like that of the previous junior wickie, who Wake claims went mad and killed himself.

But psychosexual dissatisfaction and sublimated homoerotic desire (one drunken-dance embrace between the men nearly becomes a tantalizing kiss) rage through these more mundane agonies. Eggers remarks in the film’s press kit that “Nothing good can happen when two men are left alone in a giant phallus”. To paraphrase Freud, sometimes a lighthouse is just a lighthouse. But definitely not in this movie. A nude Wake is shown deriving euphoric sexual ecstasy from the heavenly light of the fresnel lens at the lighthouse’s pinnacle that only he may access. Meanwhile, Winslow, locked out of this ecstatic holy/sexual heaven, self-pleasures pathetically in a grimy supply hut to the figure of a scrimshaw mermaid and half-hallucinatory visions of flesh-and-blood sirens that he may or may not have actually encountered on and around the island, a turning shot of the lighthouse ending in vertical orientation pruriently associated directly with his erect male member.

Winslow’s denial of access to the beacon becomes metaphorical in myriad ways, a potent symbol of Wake’s power over him in numerous facets that keep him at a distance from satisfaction, belonging, meaning. Wake is also visually identified with the lighthouse itself, looming nude and terrible over Winslow in an indelible vision, a beam of light from the old man’s eyes shining on the younger man’s face. Wake is further personified as Neptune/Poseidon, the classical god of the sea, on a couple of occasions, tentacles writhing and strangling Winslow after one of their boozy tussles. But Winslow’s bedevilment eventuates not merely from external forces like his mean boss or the terrifying enormity of the sea or existential lonesomeness or even the dark truth of his past, but from the internal as well. When it is revealed that Winslow’s real Christian name is, like Wake, also Thomas (he stole the identity of a dead colleague in the northern woods), an element of crisis of identity and self is introduced into The Lighthouse, suggesting that the conflict and struggle between the two Thomases (the concurrence of the names is also a detail drawn from the tragedy of the Welsh keepers of 1801) is a conflict and struggle within Winslow himself (one almost anticipates a Fight Club-style reveal of Thomas Wake being a schizophrenic delusion and Winslow truly being alone, but that’s not it, bud).

If any lingering thread of doubt dangles loose in your mind concerning the actorly skills of the one-time sparkly-vampire heartthrob Pattinson, bear witness to The Lighthouse and banish said doubt forthwith. His transformation here is revelatory, thrusting beyond the quiet, self-contained man of few words that arrives at the lighthouse (a role he has played before, and pretty well) into a figure more primally desperate and id-driven. His interplay with Dafoe (besides Valeriia Karaman as the literally wordless mermaid, they are the only credited actors in the film) is extremely complex and often ambiguous; their conflict runs hot and cold, with widening fissures and almost tender rapprochements. Hallucinatory horrors of sea-lore aside, The Lighthouse is surprisingly realistic and insightful about the psychological and behavioural rhythms of men forced to live in isolated proximity.

For all of the stylistic, technical, and thematic similarities with The Witch noted at the outset, The Lighthouse is a distinct work in important ways as well. It’s much more of a claustrophobic chamber piece, with its two caged beasts of men tearing themselves and their small, limited world apart. Eggers employs intermittent shots of swirling, crashing ocean waves and begins and ends The Lighthouse with fades out of and into smothering fog. And yet the sea, by far the greater and more dangerous force, does not quite summon the dread anticipation and oppressive psychological and spiritual encroachment of the woods that press upon the Pilgrim family in The Witch. Although supernatural elements here like the shrieking mermaids and the pagan god of the sea and the impish seagulls function much as the titular witch and the billy-goat Black Phillip and the Great Satan himself in The Witch, their metaphorical profile is more pronounced, their place in the lived reality of the historical context less assured. There is never a modicum of doubt in the minds of the Pilgrim family in The Witch that the Devil and his malevolent servants are terribly tangible and frightening immediate threats to their physical safety as well as to their mortal souls, while Winslow consistently questions and dismisses Wake’s oceanic mythology and superstitious superstructure, dubbing them tall tales and even (self-reflexively) calling him out as an Ahab-ian self-parody of a crusty old seaman.

In a related way, The Lighthouse resonates less with deep political subtext than Eggers’ debut. The convincing historical context that it builds up is more of a side-story, a footnote in the American story with less pregnant meaning than that of Colonial-era America. Its focal-point themes of male power dynamics, psychosexual dominance, and even harmful alcoholism are stronger than any hint of political applicability. This is not to say that The Lighthouse is a lesser film than its director’s prior effort. In many ways, it is stronger, more focused and more boldly, gleefully provocative in its writing, performances, and especially in its imagery. Perhaps nothing good can happen when two men are left alone in a giant phallus, but if a film as memorably strange, evocative, and troubling as The Lighthouse is the result, then it can’t be all bad.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: The Laundromat

October 30, 2019 Leave a comment

The Laundromat (2019; Directed by Steven Soderbergh)

The Laundromat is the kind of movie that leaves you straining to recall from the mistiest corner of your memory why you thought its creator was a great filmmaker. Because Steven Soderbergh was (is?) a great filmmaker, right? Traffic swept the Oscars. Out of Sight made George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez superstars, or at least contributed mightily to that process. The Ocean’s trilogy is pretty much as good as smart but superficial mainstream entertainment filmmaking gets. Heck, a lot of film critics will even go to ground for that male stripper froth Magic Mike (although its sequel seems to be the preferred option and Soderbergh didn’t direct it). Even in the collaborative film medium and the top-down realm of corporate Hollywood, Soderbergh retains the patina of the auteur, even recently serving as his own cinematographer and editor (under pseudonyms).

Given his resume, there’s little to no reason that Steven Soderbergh’s The Laundromat should be as mediocre as it is. The material and the anticipated approach to it plays to his strengths: The Laundromat is about a Panama-based law firm that served as a legal clearinghouse for almost countless illegal practices by the global super-rich elite: shell companies, offshore holdings, tax evasion, bribery, insurance fraud, real estate speculation, government corruption and graft, even drug trafficking. The scriptual conceit is that a grieving widow and grandmother (Meryl Steep) who was doubly screwed over in a personally painful manner by entities tied to the firm, Mossack Fonseca, begins investigating their practices and eventually helps to take them down after the illegality was scandalously revealed to the public in the so-called Panama Papers.

Sounds good, right? And right up Soderbergh’s alley, too, fine fodder for a breezy Ocean’s-style heist-comedy anchored by the paramount political issues of our neo-Gilded Age: widening socioeconomic inequality and shrinking accountability for the powerful who benefit from it. Unfortunately, that’s not the kind of movie The Laundromat is. Scott Z. Burns’ perspective-shifting screenplay sidelines the emotional core plot thread of Streep’s questing Ellen Martin and greatly indulges the simultaneously candid and self-justifying Greek chorus (Panamanian chorus?) of the crooked lawyers Mossack (Gary Oldman) and Fonseca (Antonio Banderas), who detail the functioning of tax avoidance and other elements of the global financial shell game in meta, fourth-wall-breaking addresses directly to the camera (they even mention that Soderbergh himself has 10 shell companies in his name) while walking through exclusive clubs and across tropical beaches.

Streep herself closes the film with a meta, didactic counter-monologue about the necessity of resisting and changing the system that allows the rich to continuously use and abuse the less-rich for their own gain (the biblical phrase “the meek shall inherit the earth” is called out for its contemporary irony on numerous occasions). She strips off the layers of her actorly disguise on the sets that Mossack and Fonseca moved through earlier, revealing the dishonest artifice of their rhetoric and practices (and those of the film as well, if you think about it). It’s a tad on the nose, but the point is forceful and not undeniable.

Sadly, The Laundromat expends (wastes, really) considerable running time in its middle and late sections on illustrative vignettes with only very tangential connections to Ellen’s story or Mossack Fonseca’s work. Nested mini-narratives about bribery covering up the internal sexual dramas of a wealthy African-descended family in Los Angeles and corruption and murder linked to the Chinese government at its highest levels intend to diversify the critique of financial wrongdoing, but they only serve to dull the sharpness of the film’s blade of critique. It feels for all the world like a movie patched together from the busy schedules of its all-star cast, which besides Streep, Oldman, and Banderas also includes Jeffrey Wright as a Caribbean insurance huckster with a double life, David Schwimmer and Robert Patrick as tour-boat operators caught up in tragedy and fraud, and Sharon Stone as a Vegas real estate agent.

The Laundromat is skillfully constructed by Soderbergh, who has always been a deft hand who seeks out technical challenges in filmmaking and innovative solutions to them. It’s not totally bad, but mostly so, especially as its attempts at a lighter comedic tone clash with its heavier beats of personal anguish and its direct digressions into political and economic instruction. Soderbergh does not have the morbidly cynical edge of an Adam McKay as displayed in his film The Big Short or in the prestige television entry Succession, which he exec-produced, both far better detailings and sharper-slicing satirical critiques of the moral degradation at the soul of American (and global) capitalism.

Certainly, a good Hollywood liberal like Soberbergh thinks that what Mossack Fonseca and other companies like them did was wrong, and he and Burns have their actors clearly lay out why it is. But message films must not merely provide the message, they must persuade their audience of its truth, must convince them of the righteousness of the cause on levels beyond the abstractly moral and intellectual. The Laundromat is scattered and unfocused and frankly not very entertaining, and thus functions as polemic without persuasion. Whatever else Steven Soderbergh has done, he misses the mark here. Too bad.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Taxi Driver & Joker

October 20, 2019 Leave a comment

Taxi Driver (1976; Directed by Martin Scorsese)

Joker (2019; Directed by Todd Phillips)

The antihero is curious and fraught element of any narrative text that includes it. The antihero is not, properly speaking, the “hero” of his or her (but it’s mostly his, if we’re being honest) story, because the antihero’s moral arc bends too far from justice for any claim to the classic white-hat heroism that traditionally, virtuously opposed black-hat villainy. But they aren’t the villain either, as their protagonist status subjectively preconditions identification with and contextualized understanding of their choices and actions, the prerequisites to empathy and, it often follows, to symbolic heroism in the eyes of the audience. Indeed, the elements of an antihero character that sunder them from traditional heroic ideals are often constructed as being in some way necessary, as if they are compelled to bend moral codes and engage in questionable actions in order to best the real bad guys.

Even with antihero figures understood in context as purposeful critiques of (very predominantly masculine) tropes of heroism, we can find the “anti” prefix eroding away, sometimes gradually, sometimes almost instantaneously. “Antihero”, after all, contains the word “hero”, and the term itself makes it highly difficult to miss it, to emphasize the prefix as it should be. My younger self, marinating in the half-fetid juices of literary academia, might have inserted a dash or slash into the term, a hybrid literary theory invention like “anti/hero” intending to make the contradictions inherent in the trope clear and compelling, or, as is ever in vogue in lit theory, less clear and therefore more compelling.

The antihero cannot exist without social and political context, as Emily Todd VanDerWerff considered a year ago in her superb essay for Vox on the trope in television (where it was ascendant only a decade ago, and remains common today) in the age of #MeToo, with its promise of accountability and/or punishment for real-life male “antiheroes” whose immoral behaviour belies the abiding assumed rectitude of their positions of prominence. Context can place antiheroes in their appropriate compartment and thus preserve the intentions and thematic thrust of their creation, and it can free and engorge them as well, transforming them from textually-limited characters embodying certain themes, psychological implications, and political ideas into great and terrible symbols vibrating with larger import and dangerous meaning.

In the way that he somehow embodies both of these oft-contradicting conceptions, Robert DeNiro’s Travis Bickle, the angry, awkward, vengefully violent loner protagonist of Martin Scorsese’s 1976 classic Taxi Driver, is surely one of the towering antihero figures in the Hollywood pantheon. The character and the film are impossible to separate from their historical and sociopolitical context: 1970s America, where accelerating social decay, energy crises, rising urban crime, post-Vietnam doubt in national greatness, and the rootless uncertainty of the economy, employment, and even interpersonal relations (across racial lines, of course, but also across gender lines, in the wake of second-wave feminism) leading to a profound sense of malaise that Jimmy Carter, elected President as a fresh, folksily frank outside voice in contrast to the post-Watergate den of festering corruption the same year Taxi Driver came out, dared to point out to his lasting detriment. Taxi Driver is the official movie of the mid-to-late-’70s crisis of confidence.

Travis Bickle feels a sort of formless dissatisfaction and inability to relate to the world he finds himself living in, or even to express it, as DeNiro demonstrates with eloquent non-eloquence when he struggles to explain to cabbie mentor Wizard (Peter Boyle) what exactly it is that is troubling him. Although he only briefly mentions having been a Marine in his first dialogue scene taking the taxi driver job, he is understood as a Vietnam veteran, and elements of the character’s appearance (the military-fatigue-style jacket he always wears, the mohawk hairdo he dons for the film’s climax) are derived from soldiers in that war. He never speaks of wartime trauma, but his disconnection can be read as a PTSD symptom. At the same time as he seems psychologically and emotionally caged, he moves freely through the dilapidated urban geography of New York and observes it with penetrating voyeuristic intensity, often from the driver’s seat of his taxi cab, a conveyence conferring both liberty and diminishing anonymity, a vehicle through which he seeks out social contact while also detaching himself from it to an extent.

Travis is not specifically political in his disenfranchisement, and his circling of presidential candidate Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris), whose vague uplifting populism is redolent of politically non-specific neoliberal hopes from Carter to Bill Clinton to Barack Obama, does not reflect an ideological affinity (not that Palantine, not identified in partisan terms but surely a Democrat in the mode of fuzzily positive imagined politicians across decades of Hollywood product, has much of an ideology to speak of). His only firmly-held and expressed sociopolitical belief is an overwhelming, proto-fascist aversion to “scum”, criminal or immoral elements of New York City’s vast urban underworld that act as convenient targets for his confused, directionless resentment by virtue of their placement permanently beneath even him, an isolated white working man, in the hierarchy of social and economic value. When his resentments and isolation grow to a fever pitch, it’s hardly surprising that this “scum” is the target for his “righteous” outpouring of violence (Alan Moore drew from this element of Bickle for the truly psychopathic Rorschach in Watchmen, a work also highly influenced by the atmosphere of urban decay in the film).

Travis Bickle is a bundle of implications and resonant qualities, many of them personal and specific to the creative forces behind his genesis. Screenwriter Paul Schrader drew Bickle from Jean-Paul Sartre novels and John Ford’s The Searchers and the diaries of George Wallace’s putative assassin Arthur Bremer, but also liberally from his own experiences as a solitary, disconnected, underemployed insomniac in New York City who haunted porno theatres and became unhealthily obsessed with guns. Martin Scorsese, for his part, infused this character study with his observant perspective, his aesthetic fascination with the dark, macho realm of his proletarian corner of his home city but forever apart from it, the good, sickly boy who loved movies enough to choose them over the priesthood but drew deep inspiration from the earthy (and sometimes illegal) swirl of Italian-American life that he grew up observing.

The precipitous gun obsession that afflicted his main character and screenwriter also touched the director, if Hollywood urban legend is to be believed: facing pressure from the MPAA ratings board to re-edit Bickle’s climactic brothel massacre in order to avoid a X rating for his movie, Scorsese is reputed to have stayed up all night prior to the editing deadline brandishing a firearm, to shoot himself or the studio executive mandating the changes if things didn’t work out (it is not clear which, and probably was never going to be either). In comparison to Scorsese and Schrader, DeNiro’s immersion in Travis Bickle’s mindset was less psychologically scarring; production anecdotes emphasized the focused professionalism of his prep work, driving a NYC taxi around the city and studying the Midwest accents of American soldiers while filming a Bernardo Bertolucci film in Italy.

Travis Bickle’s general status as an awkward and peevish loner who wants what he cannot have and seeks to assert some measure of control over a world that ignores or rejects him is only sharpened to a fine and deadly point via the whetstone his fraught interactions with women. Bickle displays stalking behaviour with Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a pretty Palantine campaign worker, watching her from his cab both before and after he insistently bullies her (and partly intrigues her with his sense of mystery) into a date. On this date, he clumsily buys her a Kris Kristofferson record that she already owns because she talked about it, then even more clumsily takes her out to a Swedish pornographic movie. Mortified, she walks out, ends the date, and rebuffs him later on a phone call that Scorsese’s subjective camera finds too painful to linger on, panning to an empty corridor instead. Bickle bursts into the Palantine campaign headquarters later, confronting her in anger and insulting her. He is, in a word, a creep, a personification of toxic masculinity.

In a turn that makes Taxi Driver and Travis Bickle a more fraught and problematic text in regards to these themes, this pattern is repeated in the movie’s final act when Travis comes across a pre-teen prostitute named Iris (a 12-year-old Jodie Foster, who starred in Disney’s Freaky Friday remake in the same year, which is quite the line on the old resume). Although there is no romantic or sexual angle to his interest (he in fact pays a fee to her handlers in order to speak with her, turning aside her insistence on providing her services to talk her out of continuing to whore herself out), their interactions follow the Betsy model: she turns aside his attempts to save her in a follow-up breakfast “date”, and he talks down her pimp Sport (Harvey Keitel) as a perceived male rival much as how he ran down Betsy’s fellow campaign worker Tom (Albert Brooks). Bickle’s response to Iris being unreceptive to his advances (protective and non-sexual though they are) runs towards a psychotic ultraviolent massacre this time around (ironically, Scorsese came to feel that the MPAA-mandated edits to the film’s colour grading made the shootout sequence more shocking).

Although Travis Bickle’s toxic behaviour in regards to women eventually turns to murder, to targetted extermination of some of the “scum” he complained about in his narrated journal entries and to Palantine, Taxi Driver controversially rewards him for his actions and considers worthy of admiration and praise in a denouement that concludes with even Betsy treating him civilly and even appreciatively during a cab ride. This 11th-hour rehabilitation of the violent loner antihero Bickle into a genuine hero (grateful letter from Iris’ parents and all) has to be considered problematic and even dangerous even without the intervention of history, which saw the Travis Bickle character in general and his actions towards Jodie Foster’s character in particular provide inspiration for the delusional fantasies that led to John Hinckley Jr.’s assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan in 1981.

With much of Bickle’s character originally drawn from the ravings of a would-be political assassin, this was a case of life imitating art imitating life. The pattern followed by men like Bremer and Bickle and Hinckley – two of them real, one of them more than real – would be followed by numerous future murderous examples of what Amy Nicholson, in a Rolling Stone interview with Schrader upon the release of his film First Reformed last year, refers to as “destructive young men” who “aren’t sure where to put their energies”. Martin Scorsese is not responsible for the choices and actions of destructive young men who saw in a cinematic moment like Travis Bickle’s firearm-toting “you talkin’ to me?” delusional role-playing not a warning about mental and social disequilibrium but instead an enticing power fantasy, but it’s hard to deny that Taxi Driver‘s legacy includes a roadmap to lasting infamy that represents an attractive alternative to heroism for too many troubled individuals.

Taxi Driver‘s fraught legacy brings us directly to Joker, a film that intends to revisit and recontextualize Scorsese’s ur-text of modern American dangerous loner cinema for a time whose seething resentments and socioeconomic inequality it understands as reflecting those of the 1970s. But Joker regurgitates more than recontextualizes Taxi Driver (as well as Scorsese’s 1983 dark satire The King of Comedy), intending to cast the DC Comics evil clown supervillain and nemesis of Batman as a Travis Bickle for our own troubled and superhero-obsessed times but instead recombining the ingredients of its influences and cultural contexts into an inedible stew.

Joker is the almost unremittingly sad and disturbing tale of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a skinny and socially-awkward clown-for-hire in a crumbling, tense Gotham City who lives with his mother (Frances Conroy) and struggles with poverty, isolation, dark thoughts, and an embarrassing psychosomatic nervous tic causing him to laugh uncontrollably at inappropriate times (dissolving into pained laughter, he hands strangers a card explaining this condition). An aspiring stand-up comedian who doesn’t grasp what is actually funny (even his mother recognizes this), Arthur idolizes late-night talk show host Murray Franklin (DeNiro channeling Jay Leno), but loses his position with the clown agency after dropping a gun during a performance at a children’s hospital. Riding despondently home on the graffiti-plastered subway, Arthur gets a taste of his true, antisocial calling when he kills three arrogant Wall Street bros who mock him by singing “Send in the Clowns” (like, literally half of it) and beat him up, unintentionally becoming the avatar of a clown-masked popular uprising against the city’s rich, represented by plutocrat Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), who publically derides the city’s poor and may or may not secretly be Arthur’s father.

As Jeet Heer pointed out regarding the film in one of his trademarked Twitter essay threads, Joker is variously Oedipally focused, yearning to pay tribute to father figures (Scorsese, DeNiro, Thomas Wayne, and, more subtextually, prior Joker actors like Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger) while also seeking to kill and replace them. Joker casts a period-unspecific (but most likely early 1980s) Gotham City as a mirror image of Taxi Driver‘s decrepit, bankruptcy-approaching New York. It casts Arthur Fleck as a more unstable Travis Bickle in clown paint, roleplaying scenarios with his gun in his apartment and following a female neighbour with whom he has a brief elevator interaction to her downtown job (and proceeding to imagine an entire subsequent relationship with her that, in a fairly predictable late-film twist, is revealed never to have happened). This woman, Sophie (Zazie Beetz), even repeats DeNiro-as-Bickle’s iconic finger-gun miming of a gunshot to the head to Arthur in reference to the crappiness of their apartment building.

But Joker is a bit like the many destructive young men who see their own frustrated struggles in those of movie loners like Travis Bickle but are not spurred on to productive self-reflection and improvement on the basis of those big-screen cautionary examples. Joker, which Scorsese was set to produce at one point before backing away from the project, pays relentless tribute to the formalist elements of his work (this may be why he backed away): Phoenix’s performance owes plenty to DeNiro and other actors of that generation, and Lawrence Sher’s cinematography injects lurid bursts of colour into the social realist drabness of Gotham’s urban environments as Michael Chapman’s camera lens did in Taxi Driver. There’s even a memorable shot of half-cleverness that Scorsese may have appreciated: a furious, darkened, just-fired Arthur repeatedly kicking a dumpster in a refuse-choked alley with a ferris wheel looming in the deep-focus background like a symbolic anticipation of his circus-derived awakening into trangressive mean-clown ultraviolence.

That Joker constructs Arthur’s final transformation into the comic-book supervillain as a glorified awakening, a subversive species of empowerment after a life of diminishment and disempowerment, is its most brazen and oddly its most boring misinterpretation of Taxi Driver. There was much chatter throughout the discourse in advance of Joker‘s release that it was likely to be irresponsible or even reactionary incel propaganda that would wind up getting people killed; after all, the last movie featuring the Joker was rumoured (inaccurately) to have sparked a mass shooting, and it was overall nuanced and ambiguous in its treatment of this agent of chaos, which did not prevent the character from becoming a symbol of alt-right defiance to whatever established order is imagined to be worth resisting (usually one involving people who aren’t conservative white males, but I digress). Joker isn’t anything like that, making Arthur both more precipitously violent than Travis Bickle and denying him anything like the redemptive conclusion of Taxi Driver (like Taxi Driver, however, Joker‘s final scene has been interpreted as leaving the door open to some if not all of the film’s events having been paranoid delusions existing entirely in the disturbed, unreliable protagonist’s head; like Taxi Driver, that is probably not the filmmakers’ intent, although it is more uncertain in Joker‘s case due to the film’s relative artistic clumsiness).

In advance of the release of Joker, director and co-writer Todd Phillips stated in one interview after another that due to the limiting sensitivities of easily-offended, politically-correct “woke culture”, he has found it impossible to continue making comedies like his big hits The Hangover movies without being “cancelled” (ie. criticized sometimes on the internet). Because of this, he has found it necessary to make a serious movie like Joker instead. Phillips’ contextualizing of Joker in this way has only lead to more progressive criticism of him and his movie in the cultural discourse (even from his own cast members, namely Marc Maron, who is in a single scene as Murray Franklin’s producer), even before people started to see the movie and discovered that Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver place this complaint in the mouth of his lead character in the movie’s climactic thesis-statement speech during the scene of Arthur’s appearance in full Joker costume on Murray Franklin’s show after his atrocious open-mic stand-up set was shown on the program.

If this argument wasn’t bullshit enough entirely on its own, Joker itself renders it even more so. It’s entirely disingenuous for Phillips to claim that contemporary culture around comedy has forced him to make a serious movie instead, because Joker is not a serious movie (whatever the Venice International Film Festival may think). It’s not serious about the state of politics and society, it’s not serious about income inequality, it’s not serious about mental illness, it’s not serious about child abuse, it’s not serious about morality. It’s not serious about the titular focus of its character study, who, despite plenty of award-grasping Difficult and Serious Acting from its star Phoenix, it treats with clumsy, confusing, irresponsible inconsistency (Jenny Nicholson sharply breaks down why the film’s treatment of Arthur Fleck’s descent into the madness of Joker never makes internal sense in a recent vlog on the movie; she also points out superficial intertextual references to Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, during a gala screening of which Arthur confronts Thomas Wayne in the film). It’s not even serious about the often very unserious comic-book superhero form/genre which it purportedly subverts and/or deconstructs.

As he slides into the Joker persona near the film’s end, Arthur Fleck says that while he once thought that his life was a tragedy, he has now realized it is a comedy (this line is visually anticipated in his first appearance in the film, painfully using his fingers to force his mouth into the respective rictus-mask frown and smile symbolizing theatrical drama and comedy). Todd Phillips ought to have heeded his own screenplay; his film is a comedy (though not a particularly funny one) that thinks itself a tragedy. Arthur Fleck is twice the antihero Travis Bickle was, but the movie focusing on him (indeed, told from his perspective, like Taxi Driver is told from Bickle’s) and intending to provide a compelling and even problematically empathetic portrait of his anguish and descent into violent madness is less than half the film Taxi Driver was, despite sharing so many (purposeful) similarities.

Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews

Film Review – Kingsman: The Golden Circle

October 9, 2019 Leave a comment

Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017; Directed by Matthew Vaughn)

There comes a particular moment in Matthew Vaughn’s deliriously left-field spy-action comic-book spectacular Kingsman: The Golden Circle in which Colin Firth (as dapper super-spy Harry Hart, codenamed Galahad) teams up with rock legend Sir Elton John (playing himself, because who else could?) in a retro-1950s bowling alley built by a drug cartel queenpin deep in Cambodian jungle. The two men – Firth in an impeccably tailored suit, Sir Elton in a typically flamboyant multichromatic feathered get-up – destroy a killer robot attack dog (Jet, who along with robo-sibling Bennie tips a hat to an Elton John hit song) by crushing its head between two bowling balls. To even begin to provide explanation and context for this beat scrambles one’s brain. How does it come to this? In what sort of movie does something like that happen?

The Golden Circle, the sequel to Vaughn’s non-trangressively transgressive 2015 action blockbuster Kingsman: The Secret Service, is the sort of movie where something like that happens. A ridiculous movie, that is to say. There is more wild and goofy shit in this movie than in a whole summer’s release slate of blockbusters. If big-budget Hollywood filmmaking is firmly set on its yellow brick road to total comic-book and geek culture immersion and the attendant total unmooring from the expression of lived experience that almost inevitably comes with that path, then it could certainly do worse than to lean into the aesthetic of cool-ass ludicrous frippery with even a fraction of the wacky, shiny, imaginative pop-surrealism that Vaughn sincerely chases in this movie.

The Golden Circle launches into this magnificent exhilarating nonsense literally in its opening moments. Walking out of the well-appointed Savile Row tailor’s shop that serves as a front for the exclusive and well-funded secret British private intelligence service that employs him as one of its best agents, Eggsy (Taron Egerton) comes face to face with Charlie Hesketh (Edward Holcroft), a failed former Kingsman recruit who resents Eggsy’s success with the service as well as his working-class roots. Armed with a gun and a bionic robot arm, Hesketh battles the athletic and well-trained superspy Eggsy in the latter’s luxe custom London taxicab, pursued by a fleet of machine-gun-equipped vehicles. Vaughn’s camera pushes in, twists, rotates, follows the action choreography moves with keen clarity and twitchy interest, like a high-tech bird following a tantalizing morsel of food. Like showcase action sequences such as Firth’s establishing pub fight and wild shootout in a church in The Secret Service and this film’s closing single-shot fight in a diner, this scene strongly marks Vaughn as an action filmmaker of distinction, wit, and intelligence amidst a glut of samey action setpieces in the blockbuster milieu.

Defeating Hesketh for the moment and exploding his cronies, Eggsy pivots to balancing his home life with his girlfriend Tilde (Hanna Alström), the Crown Princess of Sweden whom he saved from Samuel L. Jackson’s tech bro and criminal mastermind in the previous franchise installment, as well as socializing with his modest, normal council estate buddies (Tobias Bakare, Theo Barklem-Biggs, Thomas Turgoose, and Calvin Demba). But Hesketh, working for the aforementioned boss of the titular Golden Circle cartel, Poppy Adams (Julianne Moore), conspires to deal Eggsy a grievous blow both personal and professional.

With the Kingsman organization reduced to only Eggsy and his technical expert Merlin (Mark Strong), the two men follow a bottle of Kentucky bourbon Stateside to a whiskey distillery run by Statesman, their richer and more cowboyesque American counterpart private intelligence firm. They meet a set of spirit-and-soda-codenamed agents: shotgun-wielding Tequila (Channing Tatum, prominent in the marketing but in little more than a cameo role here; Elton is in more scenes and serves a greater narrative purpose), bossman Champagne or “Champ” (Jeff Bridges, also only in a scene or three), electrified-whip-and-lasso-brandishing rustler Whiskey (Pedro Pascal, who has a larger and more vital role), and their version of deskbound techie Merlin, Ginger Ale (Halle Berry). Statesman also have in their care an amnesiac Harry Hart (Firth), believed dead by Eggsy after being headshot in the last movie. Harry is alive but not well, having forgotten his Kingsman training and experiences and reverted to the obsessive study of butterflies.

So Eggsy must bring Harry back to himself, navigate relations with Kingsman’s brash (and possibly secretly treacherous) Yankee mirror organization, avenge the lost, and balance the demands of his spy life with those of his Swedish royal girlfriend. The Golden Circle stretches some of its elements a bit too far, and all of them together certainly beyond wise limits; this movie is certainly too long. But the loopy ambition of its strangest and most extreme setpieces carries it through, and it’s hard to deny that Vaughn shows us things in The Golden Circle that we certainly haven’t seen before.

Lepidopterist Harry’s padded cell features half-sketched butterfly diagrams, and after his amnesia is cleared, butterflies still occasionally flutter through the vision of his Kingsman monitoring glasses. Eggsy has a crisis of romantic conscience (and indeed precipitates a second-act conflict with Tilde) when he must engineer an intimate encounter with Hesketh’s girlfriend Clara (Poppy Delevingne) in a VIP tent at the Glastonbury Festival; a tracking device must be inserted on a mucus membrane to enter her bloodstream, and Vaughn very unsubtly follows Eggsy’s hand as it locates such a membrane in a very private nether region. Strong leans with vocal aplomb into an orchestral-score accompanied version of John Denver’s “Country Roads” while standing on a landmine to distract Poppy’s thugs. Vaughn includes a hardy-har dissolve cut from a bag of leafy marijuana buds in Eggsy’s mates’ flat to the jungle canopy of Poppy’s Cambodian hideaway, a set of 1950s Americana revival structures that gleam with formica and neon. A later battle down its main boulevard set to “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” includes a sight-gag of two antagonists being impaled by an oversized pair of scissors from the signfront of the salon. Compared to this wildly inventive visual mayhem, the movie’s showpiece action spectacle sequence – Eggsy and Whiskey trapped in a cable-car lift glass orb that is plunging down the snowy slopes of the Alps – seems almost quaint in its relatively standard-issue blockbuster profile.

The weirdest thing about Kingsman: The Golden Circle, however, has to be that among this wacky and entertaining nonsense, it features a forceful (indeed, downright heavy-handed) sociopolitical message (and plot spoilers are necessary in order to explore it). Poppy (Moore is a delight, her murderous tyranny barely lurking beneath her wide-smiling exterior) is unsatisfied with her status as a wealthy and powerful but also highly secretive drug lord. She yearns for fame and recognition as well (although usually if you’re a cartel boss whose name is widely known, you’re on your way to jail at the very least).

Poppy concocts a plan to publicly force the President of the United States (Bruce Greenwood, who has played Presidents before but never one this cartoonishly reactionary) to end the war on drugs and grant her blanket immunity from prosecution by spiking her distributed drug product (it is not made explicit what it is, but it seems to be marijuana or other “soft” recreational drugs) with toxins that will painfully kill anyone who consumes them. If her demands are met, she will distribute the antidote by drone. If they are not, millions will die. Unfortunately the President has internalized decades of anti-drug propaganda and is prepared to wipe away “the drug problem” by letting millions of users and abusers die in agony. The disturbing fascist implications of his approach are made explicit in a manner that Vaughn likely considered ludicrously exaggerated in 2017: the state imprisons millions of infected citizens in cages stacked inside the massive AT&T Stadium in Texas, an over-the-top image that became less fanciful not too long after the movie’s release when the real-world President had migrants caged up in concentration camps not too far from that stadium, along the border with Mexico.

Kingsman: The Secret Service wanted you to think it was being transgressive by blowing up the heads of some plutocrat One-Percenters. But The Golden Circle places leftist-sounding anti-drug and anti-mass-incarceration rhetoric into the mouth of its ruthless supervillain while casting an American President as party to a hard-right law-and-order-driven genocide of drug users. If it isn’t transgressive, it’s certainly provocative. The screenplay by Vaughn and Jane Goldman walks on eggshells with the implications of Poppy’s masterplan, with Eggsy and his allies attempting to foil it, and with how it judges or doesn’t judge the characters it marks as drug users (the toxin turns their veins bright blue, so it’s hard to miss it).

Poppy’s motives are selfish, of course; she doesn’t believe the drug war is any more morally objectionable than the drug trade, she just wants her cake and to eat it to. Eggsy has any number of motivations for stopping her, from saving living friends and loved ones to avenging dead ones, to say nothing of stopping the deaths of millions and taking out the Golden Circle; this movie is very careful to set the stakes in comic-book terms, and not to imply that an unintelligence agent is murdering his way to perpetuating the international drug trade. Even if the movie telegraphs how wrong the President is (his Chief of Staff is played by Emily Watson of all people, but her dramatic acting skills effectively convey the moral horror of his choice and the personal consequences of it as well), he also wants to stop the Golden Circle and thinks, with the logic of a fascist genocidaire, that eliminating its entire customer base in one fell swoop ought to do the trick. Particular caution is given to the victims, who are characterized above all as normal and essentially innocent; some mild opprobrium and comic scolding is reserved for users of drugs, but no one but the inflated hard-on-drugs President actually wants to see them die or even experience pain.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle is a wildly strange movie more than it’s a good one, despite the high competence of its action scenes, the winking commitment of its cast, and its mix of gleefully violent cynicism and vaulting visual and ideological ambition. This is blockbuster froth, ultimately, and doesn’t really have anything sustainedly serious to say about the drug war. But it’s hard to miss the big-tent fair-mindedness with which it treats drug users of nearly all stripes, not nearly lost amidst the overwhelming maelstrom of comic-book chaos. There are more Kingsman movies coming: a WWI-era prequel drops in February, and Vaughn and Egerton have promised a trilogy-capper for Eggsy, etc. as well. As a 20th Century Fox release, however, one has to wonder how much of the series’ frayed edges will be allowed to persist under the risk-flattening Disney aegis. Hopefully enough to surprise us just a little, which Kingsman: The Golden Circle manages to do, hardly a feat to be sniffed at in the world of the contemporary Hollywood blockbuster.

Categories: Comics, Film, Reviews

Film Review: Cold War (Zimna wojna)

October 5, 2019 Leave a comment

Cold War (Zimna wojna) (2018; Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski)

Lovingly shot in sumptuous monochrome, Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski’s Oscar-nominated international breakthrough Cold War is an often haunting portrait of a troubled and ultimately tragic romance set against the tumultuous backdrop of the first couple of decades of the Iron Curtain. A model of beautiful and affecting filmmaking in general, Cold War is a particular showcase for Polish actress Joanna Kulig, whose performance as confident singer Zula opposite her conflicted, internalized musical director/lover Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) is the film’s open, wounded soul.

Zula and Wiktor meet in the ruinated aftermath of World War II, when the new post-war Communist regime of Poland seeks to establish its cultural legitimacy and shore up the battered national character with a state-funded stage extravaganza adapting traditional Polish folk music. Wiktor and his collaborators, including eager-to-rise bureaucrat Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc), audition wide-eyed locals at a tumbled-down rural aristocratic mansion for spots in the show’s cast, and Zula wins not only a role but Wiktor’s heart.

Wiktor becomes disillusioned with the show when Kaczmarek, at the urging of state ideologues whom he is anxious to please, incorporates pro-Stalin propaganda into the performances. In East Berlin for a performance, Wiktor and Zula pledge to cross to the West together, but only Wiktor goes through with it. On his own as a fashionable but deracinated émigré performer and film composer in Paris, Wiktor riskily travels to the Communist-controlled Balkans to see Zula in the touring show. She eventually gets married to obtain a visa and then joins him in Paris, but their romance fails to sustain itself outside of their native land.

Years later, their passionate odyssey ends near where it began, amidst the ghostly bombed-out ruins of a country church. Pawlikowski, who co-wrote the screenplay with Janusz Glowacki and Piotr Borkowski, interweves personal appeals and conflicts with the obstacles of social restrictions and geopolitical realities in Zula and Wiktor’s relationship. The titular “cold” conflict in this film is not between political ideologies and hegemonic powers but between personal perspectives and emotional spheres of influence. There is complexity, ambiguity, and raw open wounds in how their love affair draws them together and tears them apart.

Kot is rogueish and uncommunicative, a neo-European New Wave leading man, but Kulig brazenly snatches the spotlight. Zula is bedevilled in her desires by not merely political restrictions and the vagaries of the patriarchy, but by the unpredictability of her own heart, the force of her passionate living. Kulig typifies her character’s frustrating, compelling allure in a memorable scene in a Paris club: pouting half-drunkenly against the bar after clashing with Wiktor over his past lovers and freely-embellished attempts to promote her solo singing career, Zula careens suddenly to delightful dancing abandon to the strains of Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock”.

Music in Cold War is also a compelling and unpredictable force. It expresses the deep longings and wants of the heart and soul, be it for poverty-stricken country peasants or ambitious, volatile singers. It is a tool of state-directed image-making, propagandistic acoustic nationalism that normalizes authoritarian regimes and cults of personality. It is a conduit for joy and hope and for loneliness and despair, bursting unbidden from deep and mysterious places. It is the scarlet thread that runs through the entwined fates of Wiktor and Zula, and through this measured and devastastingly lovely film exploring their minor-chord romance across a continent torn in two.

Categories: Film, History, Reviews

Film Review: You Were Never Really Here

September 3, 2019 Leave a comment

You Were Never Really Here (2018; Directed by Lynne Ramsay)

A distant, dead-eyed, and solitary man who lives with his aged, fragile mother, played by Joaquin Phoenix, becomes embroiled in a cycle of extreme violence that both stems from the psychological scars of a history of trauma and abuse and constitutes a twisted and more than a little unsettling quasi-heroic transcendence of the position of marginal male anonimity that he has every right to expect awaits him. From early trailers, reviews, and plot summaries of Todd Phillips’ forthcoming Joker movie, this is the general narrative and thematic arc of the Phoenix-fronted, Scorsese-aping “provocative” origin-story take on the notorious DC Comics villain. But it basically describes Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here, while also not remotely pinpointing what is likely to set a film like Ramsay’s apart from something like Joker.

Phoenix is Joe, a haunted Iraq War vet who now takes high-risk jobs to find and rescue missing (and often sex-trafficked) young girls, with brutal, grisly punishment of their generally older male captors thrown in for good measure. He makes some money doing this through a plausible-deniability network of contacts that includes a convenience store owner (Frank Pando) and a businessman (John Doman), and he supports his mother (Judith Roberts) and has a sweet, slightly sad relationship with her in their New York City home. But he’s troubled and disconnected and not a little depressed, yearning for some sort of connection. It’s a by-the-numbers Joaquin Phoenix role on the surface, the sort of character that received its fullest study in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master and that Phoenix could spend the rest of his career approximating without stretching himself too much or without much complaint from the critics who praise him whenever he takes on such a role. Only, you know, good.

Joe’s problems becomes less psychological and existential and much more viscerally personal when he frees Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), the daughter of New York State Senator Albert Votto (Alex Manette), from an exclusive brothel with a powerful and influential clientele. Soon Joe and everyone he is connected to is under threat from merciless forces, and it will take all of his violent ingenuity to escape with his life while also freeing Nina, who becomes a talisman of bruised innocence worth protecting, a symbol of the shred of moral decency inside himself that he fighting to keep alive.

Even this fuller plot description could be from a dumb, hypermasculine, patronizing 1980s action movie. Certainly, You Were Never Really Here vibrates with push-button #MeToo-era themes and suggestions of secretive pedophile networks trafficking young women for rich and powerful men, and Nina is given a live-wire of violent agency all her own. But it isn’t hard to imagine, say, an ’80s-vintage Sylvester Stallone (or more likely a late-2000s-vintage Mel Gibson) featuring in such a movie, albeit with a very different tone and focus. Hell, one need not even reach back into the past or into the imagination for such an example: Liam Neeson’s Taken trilogy is built around a grimly violent man killing bad people who are out to exploit young girls.

But You Were Never Really Here is pure auteur stuff from Lynne Ramsay, a compelling and memorable arthouse take on this potboiler subgenre that rises to the level of minor masterpiece on the back of her vision and control almost entirely. Ramsay stylizes her ultraviolence and thus increases its vividness. But she doesn’t turn it into balletic grace like John Woo or ugly punctuation to verbal provocation like Quentin Tarantino. Ramsay’s gore is pure, still aftermath tableaux: a body slumped in a hallway, a slowly-spreading pool of blood, a straight razor on a table, eyeglasses stained red with a shattered hole through one lens. It’s a vision of violence focused on its terrible, silent consequences rather than on the adrenalized moments of its excited release.

When Joe invades the brothel holding Nina armed with a ball-peen hammer, Ramsay, cinematographer Thomas Townend, and editor Joe Bini erect a chilled distance by crafting the sequence through the grainy voyeurism of black-and-white security cameras. Joe’s blows are never seen fully landing, and we gaze like a peeping security man at the destruction in his wake. Ramsay approaches violence in other ways elsewhere in the film, but in each case she effectively drains it of its vicarious exhilaration. Nor does Phoenix ever allow Joe to creep into knight-in-shining-armour territory, even if Ramsay’s screenplay singles him out as an ultimately righteous crusader figure. He is only good compared to the rampant awfulness around him, but neither Joe nor the movie featuring him harbours any illusions about the awful things he does redeeming or overcoming that rampant awfulness pervading everything. You Were Never Really Here crafts a metaphor for a crumbling society out of the pain and strain of one broken man, and unlike the defining films of its aesthetic touchstone (and Joker‘s as well, for that matter) Martin Scorsese, finds a slim reason to hope for better in the fate of that man.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

August 28, 2019 Leave a comment

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019; Directed by Quentin Tarantino)

As its title suggests, Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a fairy tale, a fable, a fantasy. Jeet Heer even suggests at The Nation that it’s science fiction, presenting an alternate reality version of a historical event in a manner that critiques the conventional Hollywood happy ending, which our own flawed and dissatisfying world is almost never accorded. This roughly marks the film as the third in an interrupted trilogy of historical revenge fantasies from Tarantino, following Inglourious Basterds (the leaders of Nazi Germany are slaughtered in a movie theatre) and Django Unchained (antebellum Southern slave owners receive brutal comeuppance). Tarantino brings back a pair of the big-name stars of those films for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: Brad Pitt from the former, Leonardo DiCaprio from the latter, respectively as laconic man-of-action stunt double Cliff Booth and fading, self-doubting genre movie and television star Rick Dalton.

The lion’s share of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood coasts seductively on the ample charisma of DiCaprio and Pitt as they move through an obsessively-detailed re-creation of 1969 Hollywood, while also peppering in appearances by flashy, jet-setting rising actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). Married to then-hot Rosemary’s Baby director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), Tate lives with Polanski and Tate’s ex-fiancée and perpetual houseguest Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch) next door to Dalton on Cielo Drive in the Hollywood Hills, although they’ve never met and, judging from the hip Playboy Mansion parties that occupy their nights and the solitary pool-floating alcohol consumption that occupies his, their orbits may never truly cross. Of course, everyone knows what happened to Sharon Tate on Cielo Drive in 1969. Although that does not happen in this movie, Tarantino counts on our dread anticipation of that terrible moment in the film’s “last act”, when Cliff and Rick cross paths with a menacing hippie commune living on Spahn Movie Ranch, calling themselves a “Family” and following a long-haired mentor named Charlie.

The air quotes around “last act” reflect the looseness with which Tarantino, who of course writes as well as directs, approaches the traditional three-act movie structure in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Indeed, Tarantino approaches plot pretty loosely in this film as well; we are introduced to Dalton and Booth and Tate, and we mostly watch them live their lives for a couple of hours until some dirty hippies show up one night, spoiling for murderous violence. Dalton takes a meeting with producer Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino), struggles but ultimately triumphs minorly shooting a villainous role in a pilot for a television western, then takes Schwarz’s advice and flies to Rome to make spaghetti westerns for Italian directors (Tarantino tiptoes right up to directly referencing Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West at this point, which is clearly hat-tipped in the movie’s title and is among the strongest of his extremely numerous career influences). Booth cruises through the California sunshine in his car and in Dalton’s, as cool as anything (Tarantino makes everybody look inescapably cool, as he is wont to do), but ends up making a tense visit to Spahn Ranch with Family member Pussycat (Margaret Qualley). Robbie’s Tate, for her part, seems to spend half of the film’s runtime sitting in a movie theatre appreciating her own screwball comedic performance (or the real Tate’s performance, to be precise) in the Dean Martin vehicle The Wrecking Crew.

Tarantino spends an inordinate and amusingly compulsive amount of time in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood re-creating contemporary period details, and this being Tarantino, those details are obnoxiously obsessive and impressively obscurantist. His period Los Angeles streetscapes are choked with neon signs for now-closed restaurants and cinemas and stores and clubs which he either remembers himself or painstakingly researched; there’s a sequence of such signs of establishments clicking on with a foreboding whirring sound, as dusk falls on the night of the Family attack. He painstakingly re-creates scenes from real television shows and movies (and period-type fictional movies and shows, including another Nazi-massacring flick which was a career highlight for the younger Dalton) airing in 1969 and digitally inserts DiCaprio’s Dalton in them, including an iconic scene from The Great Escape with Dalton in the Steve McQueen role, which he is telling a co-star on the pilot that he was close to getting (that whole pilot episode production is based on a real, short-lived Western series called Lancer). The carpet-bombing soundtrack delves into less-trafficked corners of countercultural late-’60s pop and rock, alternating with silence on the music track during Tarantino’s trademarked involved dialogue scenes.

Also, there are a lot of feet. Women’s naked feet, mostly (but sometimes in shoes or boots as well). Often dirty, frequently thrust up insistently into the foreground of the frame. This Quentin character pretty clearly likes feet. A lot. It might be a fetish. Probably best not to call attention to it. Not really sure if it means anything.

Does Once Upon a Time in Hollywood mean anything, beyond Quentin Tarantino’s aggressive nostalgic completistness and conspicuous podophilia? There’s been a robust late-summer debate about that, with critics and commentators across the discourse plumbing depths or bumping into a shallow false bottom, depending on the perspective and trajectory of their particular reading. Is Once Upon a Time in Hollywood a superficial, breezy trifle that trivializes the Tate murders, or is it a sly and transgressive minor masterpiece that subtly deconstructs Hollywood mythmaking on multiple levels? As it happens, I think that there is something going on here, beyond the wish fulfilment fantasy of erasing one of the most horrifying things to ever happen in Hollywood. But what’s going on isn’t beyond that fantasy, it’s another facet of that fantasy, intricately linked with it, immersed in its shimmering waters as if in a nutrient-rich birth pond.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a fairy tale fantasy of the fading, trailing edge of Hollywood’s golden age, a golden age that, like the swinging free-love Sixties counterculture itself, was brutally ended with the Manson Family atrocities even as it pivoted into a new phase behind the rise of a new creative generation of filmmakers. The rise of television and the expansion of American popular culture was fracturing the rigid regime of the Studio Era, as new creative voices (still almost entirely white and male, mind you) influenced by the formalistic freedom and rebellion of European art films (especially French New Wave and the glut of quick, cheap, aesthetically brazen movies out of Italy, the spaghetti westerns included) injected fresh lifeblood into mainstream American film.

Much of this is deep in the background here; of course Roman Polanski was an inventive young auteur direct from the Old World shaking up Hollywood at the time, and Dennis Hopper gets a shoutout, though not a positive one (Dalton insults the “dirty hippie” Family members idling in his cul-de-sac by comparing the male one to the Easy Rider director/star). What’s more in the forefront is what is identified by The Atlantic‘s Caitlin Flanagan as a sense of romanticist, heroic embrace of old-fashioned, cool-headed action-star masculinity, the kind which sidelines women and minorities and is underscored and maintained with the stiffest and most devastating violence. Patriarchy, in a word. Flanagan argues that Tarantino trangressively throws these “values that have repeatedly been proved—proved!—to be dangerous, outdated, the thing that people don’t want anymore” at the audience in this movie, and they eat it up (best opening weekend of Tarantino’s career, after all). This is not so much reactionary (although Flanagan seems to wish it was) as a fulfillment of the promise of the title. Was the inherent benevolence of the stiff-lipped masculine heroism that Dalton and (especially) Booth represent – of which Steve McQueen is the exemplar of this period, referenced not only in The Great Escape casting moment but also played in cameo by Damian Lewis – in this film ever real? Or was it, as Flanagan puts it, “always just a fairy tale, a world ‘that never really existed, but feels like a memory'”?

You might have guessed that Flanagan’s reading influences mine, cigarette-flicking edgelord right-wing-curious though it may be. Cliff Booth is certainly cool, sexy, capable, and highly able with violence. Rick Dalton is splashed across movie posters and marquees and screens as a tough-guy hero, but it’s his stunt double, who tags in anonymously for the most dangerous stuff, who is the genuine article, and not always in a good way. While fixing Dalton’s television antenna on a hot day, Cliff flashes back to a fight with the legendary Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) on a movie set; Lee is arrogant and insufferable in talking up his warrior prowess, and Cliff calls him out and then throws the martial arts legend so hard into a car that it dents the side door (Lee’s family has objected to the moment, but it’s clearly contextualized as Booth’s rose-tinted memory of how he got thrown off a movie set, the unseen true events no doubt less flattering to him).

It’s an anticipation of Cliff’s mastery of violence in the rousing, comedically gruesome climactic face-off with the Family would-be-murderers, but then so, in a darker way, is the nasty rumour that he killed his wife (a flashback shows the lead-up to the moment on their boat, and leaves very little doubt as to how it played it out or what it was about). Cliff will turn his violence against women if need be, as the final battle demonstrates (two of the Tate murderers were women, after all). He is a man with a code, and although that code precludes sex acts with a teenager like Pussycat, it doesn’t preclude gory violent acts on her fellow female Family members, threatening to kill him though they may be.

Although Cliff’s (and Rick’s, and Rick’s Italian starlet wife’s, and Cliff’s dog’s) violence at the film’s conclusion spares Sharon Tate and her houseguests their horrific real-life fate, critics of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood have found Tarantino’s superficial, objectified portrayal of the surviving Tate through Margot Robbie to be a cold comfort tribute. Robbie remains a compelling screen presence, and her relationship with the male gaze of the camera (always already very present in a Quentin Tarantino movie) is one of the most fascinating in contemporary cinema (I would write a full essay on that subject but the effort would no doubt necessitate a re-watch of Suicide Squad, which is not an acceptable price to be paid). But her Sharon Tate is simply not accorded the agency or the psychological depth of Rick Dalton or Cliff Booth here. She is a cipher for appealing, guileless feminine sex appeal, the unthinking, uncaring beneficiary of the patriarchal forcefulness brought to bear by Dalton and especially Booth. This is kind of the point (her murder kept the celebrity-watching public from getting to know her and watch her career grow), but what’s even more the point is that Tarantino could not conceive of a role for Robbie’s Tate beyond this. Like his general whitewashing of the Manson Family saga (no mentions of an apocalyptic race war or Manson’s driving racism to be found, though to be fair the Charles character is only in a single scene) and late ’60s Hollywood in general, one can’t help but feel that Tarantino could have done better with Sharon Tate.

With all of this in mind, it’s difficult not to also read Once Upon a Time in Hollywood as Quentin Tarantino’s complex subtextual negotiation with the scales-falling-from-the-eyes aftershocks of the curtain-lifting Hollywood scandals of the #MeToo wave. Tarantino owes his acclaimed directorial career in no small part to Miramax and its now-disgraced serial sexual predator head Harvey Weinstein, and although he pushed back upon learning of Weinstein’s abuses on at least a couple of occasions, there remains a stain of complicity that Tarantino has acknowledged he cannot quite wash away. Given this disturbing darkness at the heart of Hollywood unveiled by the Weinstein revelations (as well as those about Kevin Spacey, Bryan Singer, Louis CK, Brett Ratner, John Lasseter, and many more), Tarantino’s choice to carefully immerse himself and his audience in a sunkissed fantasy of a vanished Hollywood starring strong, upright screen cowboys might seem like an embrace of nostalgic escapism as a coping mechanism. But of course, this sunny view through the bauble is bent considerably by the contrast with the Manson Family murders, even if those murders are rousingly headed off before the end.

Certain points of light amidst Tarantino’s kaleidoscope of references stand out as flashlight beams into hidden dark corners of these supposed halcyon days. As Rick and Cliff pull onto Cielo Drive for the first time, the car radio chatters about the town’s celebrities and Bill Cosby, whose fall from celebrated entertainment god to convicted rapist might be the grandest of our era, is conspicuously mentioned (in the same breath as Frank Sinatra, too, rumoured in the popular discourse to be the real father of Ronan Farrow, who was raised in the orbit of accused underage predator Woody Allen and who was the key journalist behind the breaking of the Harvey Weinstein sex abuse story). Roman Polanski is a character in the film, of course, and although he drops out of it halfway through and the unforgivable crime that has led to his ostracism from Hollywood remains still in the speculative future, the film-culture-knowledgeable (and Tarantino always pitches his films to them) will keep it forefront in their minds as they absorb this film.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood does, on a surface level, preserve its vision of Hollywood’s waning halcyon days and fading patriarchal masculinity’s allegedly heroic glow by snuffing out the Manson Family threat and its bloody exposure of delusional murderous fantasism (a mindset integral to Hollywood action flicks) as a destructive force at the core of American culture. Unsuccessful as multiple murderers in the film’s historical revenge fantasy, what the Manson Family becomes instead is a metaphor for those dark forces within the culture of Hollywood and America that Tarantino slyly undercuts and critiques, all while simultaneously and a little subversively/problematically reifying their aesthetic manifestations. Squatting like stray hippie dogs on a former movie set where Hollywood shot westerns, those pre-eminent Studio Era cinematic projections of conservative individualist American values, the Family are like vermin in the temple, an infection in the larger corpus of Hollywood myth that stands in amorphously for all of those bad parts of that myth that Tarantino can’t quite pinpoint (or perhaps can, and decides not to, because it’s easier to punch a few nasty hippies than wrestle with the wasting disease of the American soul).

Before their fateful assault on Dalton’s home, the Family members discuss and seek to preliminarily justify their attack by claiming to have been taught violence by Hollywood, so how fitting to unleash righteous violence in revenge on one such purveyor of those images, after all (as a side note, I had a knot in my gut through this scene, as Maya Hawke plays one of the Family members plotting murder; what a distracting and troubling moment it would have been for Tarantino to have launched Uma Thurman’s daughter into an orgy of ultraviolence after notoriously endangering Thurman’s well-being in their last film together, but fortunately, Hawke plays Linda “Flower Child” Kasabian, who tapped out of the murders at the last moment and testified against the others in exchange for immunity). Although Tarantino gives his audience the climactic orgy of violence they have come to expect from him, he is simultaneously prefacing that violence with an aggressive in-text critique of it and, by emphasizing the dimwitted hippie colloquialisms in the speech of lead critiquer Susan “Sadie” Atkins (Mikey Madison), making that critique seem ridiculous and risible (and also making the Manson Family seem like liberal media critics and not nihilistic right-wing racist radicals they were, as Boots Riley pointed out on Twitter).

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a hopelessly tangled dialectic of messy positions and counter-positions, of nostalgic invocations and their cynical, worldly negations. If Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained reduced grand historical forces like fascistic, anti-Semitic genocide and racially-based chattel slave socioeconomics to exquisitely hateable movie villains to be violently dispensed with (and that assessment of those films is itself unfairly reductive), Once Upon a Time in Hollywood productively fails to boil down the social and cultural faultlines revealed in all of their intractable ugliness by the Manson Family madness to an antagonist that can be effectively killed away. The ideas percolating beneath the sunsoaked cool and brutal climactic slapstick of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood cannot be so easily channeled into revenge tropes, and Quentin Tarantino seems to at least partly realize this as he goes on, and even leans into it before he’s done. The result might not be his best film (there are broadly speaking two Tarantinos, in a way, their oeuvres and obsessions divided by the Kill Bill duology as a pivot point, and his best work is likely on the further side of that dividing line), but it might be his most rich, problematic, and infinitely discussable. Like all good fairy tales, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood troubles the waters as much as it stills them, and quite possibly unsettles far more than it serves to comfort.

Categories: Film