Thursday, September 12, 2019

Larry Fessenden's Depraved (on Account He Ain't Had a Normal Home)

I dig the old school-style poster
(Larry Fessenden, USA, 2019, 114 minutes) 

Larry Fessenden's Depraved isn't so much an adaptation of Mary Shelley's 201-year-old novel as his own unique take on the premise. He's changed names and biographical details and set the action in modern-day Brooklyn, but the doctor-creature relationship remains the same.

In the prologue, Alex (Owen Campbell, The Miseducation of Cameron Post), a young man who is a little wary about moving in with his girlfriend, Lucy (Chloë Levine, The OA), gets attacked on his way home from her apartment. The couple had just been talking about having kids--prematurely, in his view--and the next thing he knows, a stranger is plunging a knife into his abdomen. Repeatedly.

Fessenden then shifts to Henry (David Call, Gossip Girl*), a former field surgeon, who gives the gift of life to a collection of body parts he dubs Adam (Alex Breaux, a Harvard wide receiver-turned-actor). In Shelley's novel, the creature tells Dr. Frankenstein, "I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel," except Henry gives him the name for another reason, which will be revealed later in the film. It's clear that Adam has inherited Alex's brain. The two may not look alike, but they're brothers under the skin.

Initially, Adam has no idea what's going on, and so everything is vague and blurry. It's all rather psychedelic. Gradually things snap into focus. He's in some sort of loft-turned-laboratory. Henry dedicates his every waking hour to teaching him how to think, speak, and move. Meanwhile, Adam's memories are starting to come back, so there's a lot going on in his head.

Fessenden and Call chillin' in Brooklyn
Adam's world expands when Henry introduces him to John (Humpday's Joshua Leonard having a little too much fun), a pharmaceutical rep who takes him to a strip club and to the Met, where Adam spots Lucy in the gift shop. He recognizes her, but she doesn't recognize him. Although Adam has scars on his face, he doesn't look like the bolt-necked fellow of James Whale's--or Mel Brooks's--famous film. He just looks like a guy who's been in a few scraps. Because Breaux plays him as a blank slate, he may take some hits for his performance, but it works. Until it doesn't. Up until that point, Adam isn't a child and he isn't a simpleton--he's just an unformed human--and it takes him awhile to express himself.

When he finally figures out where he came from—the morgue—and why he exists—so that Henry and John can make money off an experimental drug called Rap X, he realizes he's just a means to an end. Like parents, Henry and John argue over their surgically-created son. Henry wants to restrict him to a calm environment, while John wants to expose him to the chaos of the wider world. I was reminded of Jake Weber's advice to his son in Fessenden's Wendigo that it's okay to be "fair and even-headed"--like his mom--but "you don't want to be a softy either." They're both right, of course, except the Frankenstein story is all about making the worst choices.

Left to his own devices, Adam meets a goth-lite woman in a bar who her finds herself entranced by--or at least curious about--his scars. Shelley (Addison Timlin) thinks he looks like Iggy Pop (he doesn't). Their one-sided conversation is cute at first, because she's talkative enough for the two of them, but when things go wrong, as they must, they go very, very wrong.

Adam and Shelley
I wouldn't say the movie goes off the rails once Adam becomes an instrument of vengeance. It doesn't, but what had worked about Breaux's performance earlier in the film becomes a liability once Adam turns on his creator-controllers. The problem is simply that he isn't very sympathetic. Intentionally or otherwise, Henry, who is suffering from PTSD, becomes the more sympathetic character, and that's not how this sort of thing is supposed to work.

Still, I like the way Fessenden found an ever so slightly more optimistic way to bring the film to a close. Things aren't supposed to work like that either--the creature is meant to take the life his creator gave him--but Adam deserves a chance at a better life. Maybe, just maybe, he might get one.

It's worth noting that Fessenden's son, Jack, worked on the film as both actor and crew member (and Larry dedicated 2001's Wendigo to him). The writer-director-producer's interest in father-son relationships isn't, I don't think, merely theoretical. If Depraved is a lesser work in his canon, it adds to a larger conversation around his abiding interest in this area.

*Call's first credit: Guy #1 at Party in Mary Harron's The Notorious Bettie Page.

Depraved opens in select theaters on Fri, Sept 13 (local info TBA). Black and white Fessenden and Call portrait from this Anthem Magazine interview.

Friday, August 30, 2019

Taking on the Patriarchy with Rage and a Rifle in Jennifer Kent's The Nightingale

Woman, rage, rifle
(Jennifer Kent, Australia, 2018, 136 mins) 

"Women's rage is immense, and there's an ocean of it. It's not hard, being a woman, to find reasons to have rage."--Jennifer Kent to The New York Times

Five years and countless colorful memes later, Jennifer Kent, the Australian director behind The Babadook, turns to a different kind of horror in The Nightingale, her second full-length feature. Instead of the horrors of the domestic realm, she takes on the horrors of colonialism--and all of the racism and sexism that that implies. It's a tall task, but she's up to it. 

Clare (Aisling Franciosi, serial killer-smitten babysitter Katie Benedetto on RTÉ procedural The Fall), an Irish convict in 1825, is serving time for theft in a Tasmanian outpost where she receives preferential treatment from Lieutenant Hawkins (an absolutely terrifying Sam Claflin turning his Hunger Games character inside out). It's a form of slavery as she cooks, serves, and sings for his regiment. They're a rude, crude bunch, and she bears their leers and gropes as best she can, knowing that she has a loving husband and a baby waiting for her in the prison encampment.

Hawkins in full regalia
To Hawkins, Clare is "property," and he treats her accordingly (if the rape scenes aren't graphic, they're painfully raw). Her husband, Aidan (Michael Sheasby), suspects what's going on, but she refuses to confirm his suspicions for fear that he'll do something stupid. She would prefer to keep her head down until her three-years-overdue release. If she makes a single misstep, she could lose everything.

Unfortunately, Aidan's inability to keep his suspicions to himself puts him on a collision course with a man who will stop at nothing to assert his dominance. When Clare's worst fears are realized, and she loses everything, she sets out to take her revenge. She just has to figure out how to get to Hawkins and his men (including Damon Herriman, most recently seen as Manson in Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood and Mindhunter) before he reaches his destination, several miles away, towards a promotion that he believes he deserves.

Out of desperation, she joins forces with Billy (Baykali Ganambarr, an untrained actor who is cool where she is hot), an Aboriginal tracker who knows the area. Neither one trusts the other, but she offers to pay him what little money she has. If the British soldiers treat the Irish convicts like the lowest of the low, Clare treats Billy as if he was lower, though his people have suffered even worse losses. The pecking order is clear; and the only thing lower than an Aboriginal man…is an Aboriginal woman.

The Nightingale is concerned with revenge in a way the The Babadook never was, but it's also concerned with motherhood and mourning. Kent just comes at these things in a more searingly direct way in this film. Essie Davis's widow in The Babadook has so much trouble dealing with her grief that it threatens to incinerate everything around her, while Clare doesn't have the time to grieve before she springs into action with rage and a rifle, but it catches up with her as vivid dreams that morph into nightmares.

Her only friend
As she and Billy travel through the woods, her privilege frequently gets the best of her. She wants to control the situation, but she's out of her depth and loath to rely on him any more than necessary. In interviews, Kent has acknowledged surface similarities with Nicolas Roeg's 1971 Walkabout, in which a British schoolgirl relies on a young Aboriginal man for her survival, but this is not that film. If anything, the relationship between Clare and Billy more closely resembles the one between Johnny Depp's accountant and Gary Farmer's guide in Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man. The indigenous character is more resourceful than his white companion, but he isn't some kind of mystical being. He's still a man (Kent has cited Fred Schepisi's 1978 The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith as a prime inspiration).

At times, Billy is downright goofy, like an overgrown child. He and Clare see and experience things that would try the hardiest of souls, but not everything is terrible. Though they never get the chance to notice the beauty of their surroundings, Kent (with the aid of Babadook cinematographer Radek Ladczuk) makes sure that we do. And if most of the British people are horrible--Hawkins above all--they meet a few kind souls along the way. In that sense, Clare recalls runaway slave Cora in Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad. As tough and resilient as these young women may be, they couldn't survive without a little help.

The Nightingale, winner of the Special Jury Prize at last year's Venice Film Festival, was the only female-directed film in 2018's lineup. Towards the end of the screening, an Italian journalist, who subsequently lost his accreditation, yelled "Shame on you, whore, you’re disgusting!" He has since apologized, but to say that Kent's film--which is no more brutal than Quentin Tarantino's latest--has unsettled a few viewers would be an understatement at best. As Glenn Kenny noted in his review, "With one angrily shouted word, one awful person proved that the central thesis of the movie, that the world is run by men who hate women, remains absolutely correct."

Set 194 years in what should be a remote and distant past, The Nightingale feels timely in ways that should make all of us uncomfortable. 

The Nightingale opens at SIFF Cinema Uptown on Friday, August 30. Click here for more information. All images from Transmission Films / IFC.

Friday, August 16, 2019

The Loneliness of the Late-Night Call Girl in Alan J. Pakula's Deceptively Chilly Klute

Jane Fonda with Donald Sutherland's Don't Look Now pal
(Alan J. Pakula, USA, 1971, 114 minutes)

"When you're used to being lonely and someone comes in and moves that around, it's kind of scary."
--Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda)

The first time I watched Alan J. Pakula's second feature, Klute, probably on television in generously-edited form, I found it a little too chilly for my taste. I didn't dislike it, necessarily, but I expected a more dynamic performance from Jane Fonda, who had last appeared, quite movingly, in Sydney Pollack's Depression-era downer They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

As struggling actress and more-successful call girl Bree Daniels, she seems considerably older, wiser, and more cynical, and it led to the first of her two Oscars (it seems retrograde, in 2019, to use the term "call girl," but sex worker doesn't seem quite right either; clients really do have to call to book appointments with Bree, a free agent who operates without a pimp).

I don't know if my taste has changed, or if I was paying more attention this time around, but in revisiting the new Criterion Collection edition, I noticed more clearly how form follows function; if anything, a less nuanced performance would've broken Pakula's finely-crafted spell, which benefits immeasurably from Gordon Willis's shadowy cinematography and Michael Small's delicately menacing score (music supervisor Maggie Phillips drew from it for Sam Esmail's Pakula-style Amazon Prime series Homecoming).

There's also a difference between chilly and cool. Klute is a cool film about a cool customer, but it's all a façade. The first in the director's paranoia trilogy with Parallax View and All the President’s Men, it's more of a character study in thriller garb, and Bree’s cool affect is mostly a well-honed act.

Michael Sarrazin and Fonda in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969)
It's also a film about loneliness, something more closely associated with male-dominated pictures. Bree, who lives in a Manhattan walk-up, mentions "friends" to John Klute (Donald Sutherland), the Pennsylvania policeman who questions her about a client who's gone missing, but it's clear they're all in the past. Her current life revolves around her work and her cat (in the interview with Illeana Douglas in the supplemental features, Fonda takes credit for giving Bree a cat).

Except for a frenzied party scene, which doesn't look like much fun, Pakula rarely depicts her socializing, though she doesn't exactly look unhappy as she unwinds at the end of a long day by drinking wine and smoking a joint while reading Linda Goodman's Sun Signs (a very 1971 thing to do).

So, she isn't completely miserable, but she isn't exactly living either. She’s getting by. When she discovers that Klute has been tapping her phone, she's hardly thrilled, but a believable rapport develops between the two. They're like the loners played by Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard in Blake Edwards' Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but with all of the stardust stripped away.

Klute is lonely, too, though the script provides few details about his past, so it's fortunate that Sutherland is sufficiently skilled to breathe life into this sketch of a character, which Pakula whittled down from Andy and David Lewis's screenplay. We're not expected to wonder why he's lonely, and I never did, though I appreciate the fact that he doesn't say he's single; it's just assumed. By joining forces with this small-town cop to figure out what happened to his colleague, Bree finds a friend, a coworker, and a lover. In the process, she lets down her guard, opening her up to all of the messy feelings she's learned to keep at bay. They make it harder for her to do her job and to stay in control, but they--more than Klute--help her to make necessary changes in her life once the central mystery has been solved.

Fonda and Sutherland in Klute's basement flat
Throughout, Pakula takes care not to judge her for her occupation, though there’s a bit of Buñuelian, Belle de Jour-esque fantasy to her claim that tricking is as much of a compulsion as a means to an end. If things were going better for her as an actress or model, wouldn't she leave the life behind? It seems likely, though she doesn't see much demarcation between the two, telling her therapist (an effectively blank Vivian Nathan), "For an hour, I'm the best actress in the world--and the best fuck in the world."

After she and Klute have sex for the first time, Bree assures him she wasn't faking it (even if she didn't come), but one of the pleasures of Klute is that much of the dialogue is open to interpretation, and Fonda's improvised sessions with Nathan inform our impressions of Bree, who claims, "It's easy to manipulate men." Of course, she would tell Klute he made her feel something for once; that doesn't mean it's true, though we're meant to believe it is. Or that she cares enough about his feelings to tell him a lie that isn't attached to a price point. Though he didn't write the script, it's notable that Pakula told Sight & Sound in 1972, "I also thought of being a psychoanalyst." We're fortunate he chose filmmaking, but that doesn't mean he left all psychoanalytic impulses aside, particularly in regards to Klute.

It's a fool's game to judge the films of the past by the standards of today, simply because they emerged from different circumstances, and while I can understand the desire to declare Klute feminist, I don't think that was Pakula's intent. On the night she won the Oscar, even Fonda acknowledged, "I'm not very happy about what the picture is saying to women, which is if you get a good shrink and a good guy everything will turn out alright, and I don't think that's true." I don't either. But nor is it completely untrue, and Klute operates in that ambiguous space. For a genre film made in 1971, it holds up better than I would've expected, and it's certainly not misogynist, but Pakula never forgot that he was making a movie and not a treatise.

As Bree tells her therapist, "I'm beginning to feel. And I'm just so scared." Klute can try to protect her from the guy who's been stalking her, but she's on her own when it comes to her feelings. The context may be feminist, since she isn't a stereotypical damsel in distress, but it's the universality of that confession that gives this low-key thriller more resonance than most.

Klute is out now in a Special Edition Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection. Of all the supplemental features, my favorite is the featurette on fashion with Amy Fine Collins, who makes a case for the outfits in the film as something significantly more than just a snapshot of the things women wore in the 1970s--rib-knit turtlenecks, maxi skirts, and chunky necklaces--but as clues to Bree's character that are every bit as revealing as her therapy sessions.

Images: Library of America and The Boston Globe.

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Words of Love, So Soft and Tender: On Nick Broomfield's Marianne & Leonard

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Roadside Attractions
(Nick Broomfield, USA, 2019, 
97 minutes)

"He was the poet for the quasi-depressed women of the era."
--Guitarist Ron Cornelius (Songs of Love and Hate, Songs from a Room)

Sounding very much like the hipper brother of extreme-wealth proponent Robin Leach, Nick Broomfield (Kurt & Courtney) narrates this affectionate, but not uncritical portrait of summer lovers Leonard Cohen and Marianne Ihlen, not just because it's the kind of thing he would do, but because he knew the subject of Cohen's "So Long, Marianne" personally. Leonard and Marianne contribute to the voice-over, too, from audio recordings they left behind (she died in the summer of 2016 and he died three months later).

Broomfield was 20 when he met Norwegian-born Marianne on the Greek island of Hydra in 1968 (her name was pronounced "Mah-ree-ah-nuh"). He credits the 32-year-old for encouraging his filmmaking--and for briefly taking him as a lover. In the film, Broomfield makes use of sun-blasted, soft-edged footage shot by his mentor D.A. Pennebaker in 1967.

Cohen arrived on the then-affordable island from Montreal in 1960. He was looking for a refuge to do some writing. When he and Marianne first met each other's eyes, that was it: a connection was made. He was happy to write a few pages a day, and she was happy to serve as his muse. "There was writing and lovemaking," she remembers. "It was absolutely fabulous."

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Roadside Attractions
Marianne had already married Axel
Jensen, a Norwegian author, and
had a son, also named Axel, be-
fore she met Leonard, who would
divide his time between Hydra and
Montreal. She supported him while
he worked on his second novel,
Beautiful Losers. The poor recep-
tion it received--Toronto's Globe & 
Mail described it as "verbal mas-
turbation" and The Toronto Star proclaimed it "the most revolting book ever written in Canada"--contributed to his breakdown.

If a breakdown can be considered a good thing, it turned out that way for Cohen when he switched his focus to songwriting. His friend, Judy Collins, who appears in the film, suggested that he put his own spin on "Suzanne" (it appears on 1966's In My Life), and they made their first public performance together the next year. A music star was born.

After his career took off, Cohen invited Marianne and Axel to join him in Montreal. It was a bit like the tragic ending of Frank Capra's The Lost Horizon in which the woman who is young and lovely in the land above the clouds shrivels and dies when she leaves it for the real world. Editor Aviva Layton, the ex-wife of poet Irving Layton, describes the arrangement as a disaster. Marianne and Leonard later shared a home in New York, by which time she had enrolled her troubled, tow-headed son in private school.

After eight years, Marianne was still in Leonard's life, but just barely. As he tells the audience at the Henderson State Hospital, he went from spending six months of the year with her to four to two and finally only two weeks (Cohen liked to play mental hospitals in recognition of his mother’s hospitalization). Marianne grew accustomed to sharing him with other women, like Janis Joplin. "It hurt me so much. It destroyed me," she laments. She wanted to have children with him, but he wasn't interested.

Before Leonard and Marianne drifted apart for good, he took up with Suzanne Elrod, no relation to the woman who inspired "Suzanne" (that was Suzanne Verdal), and they settled in Montreal. If Marianne felt helpless to bind Leonard to her, Aviva describes Suzanne as ruthless in her efforts to hang on to a man prone to extended disappearances--as long as seven years at one point. Even so, Marianne and Leonard would stay in touch, even after she returned to Oslo, just as Nick and Marianne would do.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Roadside Attractions
Broomfield proceeds through the ups and downs of Cohen's career, including the recording of "Hallelujah," one of the most frequently covered songs. According to John Lissauer, who produced nine of Cohen's records, when CBS CEO Walter Yetnikoff first heard it, he sniffed, "I don't like this at all." Yetnikoff's disappointment resulted in Lissauer's ouster. Consequently, he's never received any royalties from "Hallelujah." (Lissauer also produced the unreleased album Songs for Rebecca.) Cohen suffered plenty of money troubles of his own, due primarily to a financial manager who embezzled millions of dollars, most of which he wouldn't be able to recover, though he would refill his coffers through relentless touring...and
I'll always regret that I didn't get to attend that last round of shows.

In the end, Marianne and Leonard would return, not to each other, but to the memories of their youth. While she was dying, he sent her one of the most beautiful goodbye letters I've ever read, its poignancy enhanced by
the fact that the 82-year-old Cohen knew death was coming for him, too:

Dearest Marianne, I'm just a little behind you, close enough to take your hand. This old body has given up, just as yours has too, and the eviction notice is on its way any day now. I've never forgotten your love and your beauty. But you know that. I don't have to say any more. Safe travels old friend. See you down the road. Love and gratitude, Leonard

One of several songs inspired by Marianne, including "Bird on a Wire."

If Broomfield focuses more on Leonard than his lesser-known partner, that shouldn't be surprising (and those looking for more information about her, can always read Kari Hesthamar's 2017 book So Long, Marianne: A Love Story). Marianne was content to be his muse, rather than--or in addition to--an artist herself. When she returned to Oslo, she became a secretary, and worked in an administrative capacity throughout her career. The director honors the life she led. If anything, you sense that he prefers her to Leonard, not just because he knew her personally, but because she was the kinder, gentler half of the two. Cohen, on the other hand, was acutely aware of the fact that he could be moody and difficult, and he had his regrets, but Marianne helped him to become all of the things he was meant to be.

Marianne & Leonard is a lovely, touching film that never dares to suggest that a relationship that didn't follow the conventional romantic template doesn't deserve as much respect as those that do. We should all be so lucky to find something so beautiful and so true--even if it isn't meant to last.

Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love is playing at AMC Pacific Place II.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Filmmaker and Force of Nature Barbara Rubin: Angel of the New American Cinema

Barbara Rubin in her Warhol Screen Test
(Chuck Smith, USA, 2018, 78 minutes) 

"She looks like somebody decided to paint an angel."
--Village Voice critic and friend Amy Taubin on Barbara Rubin

If the New American Cinema of the 1960s was overwhelmingly male, one of its brightest lights was an 18-year-old woman. If you haven't heard of Barbara Rubin, it's probably because that light didn't burn for very long, and not because it didn't burn with an incandescent glow. In Chuck Smith's bittersweet profile, critics, filmmakers, friends, and family members pay tribute to Rubin's talent, energy, and startling lack of inhibition.

In high school, she did things her own way to the extent that her parents sent her away to a sanitarium, not so much because they thought she was mentally ill, but because they thought she was too wild. It didn't take and, upon her release, she continued to expand her consciousness through drugs.

Once she started to make short films, filmmaker Jonas Mekas, who had a column in The Village Voice, championed her work. In turn, she championed the work of Jack Smith, the director of 1963's Flaming Creatures. In 1965, she completed Christmas on Earth, an experimental, sexually graphic film featuring a woman painted black and another painted white. It was intended to be screened with two projectors, such that one film would play on top of the other. Critic J. Hoberman (The Dream Life: Movies, Media, And The Mythology Of The Sixties) describes it as "an acid freak-out."

Rubin, photographed by John "Hoppy" Hopkins, 1965
In his review of Rubin's sole film, Mekas proclaims that "angels have no shame," concluding that "Barbara Rubin is an angel."

Smith suggests that Mekas was infatuated with her, although it's unclear if they were ever romantically involved. Instead, she reserved her considerable affections for poet and provocateur Allen Ginsburg. The fact that he was in a relationship with fellow poet Peter Orlovsky doesn't appear to have put her off in any way. She even made a film about him, Allen for Allen, but the elements went missing somewhere along the way.

Rubin was also close to Andy Warhol who appreciated her film work as much as she appreciated his. Along with hundreds of other Factory denizens, he filmed her for his series of Screen Tests, though she didn't make the cut for 13 Most Beautiful... Songs for Andy Warhol Screen Tests, the same assemblage for which Luna's Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips composed the Velvet Underground-inspired score that they toured with in 2009 (I caught their very fine performance that year at the Seattle Art Museum).

Rubin's interest in music encompassed Bob Dylan and the Velvet Underground, both of whom she introduced to Warhol. By the mid-1960s, the former was already a star, but without Rubin, things might not have happened as quickly for the Velvets. Unfortunately, she got pushed to the margins at The Factory as Paul Morrissey, director of Flesh and other Warhol-produced features, asserted himself as its primary filmmaker--next to Warhol, of course. Rubin took a hint and split their scene.

Rubin ruffles Dylan's hair on Bringing It All Back Home
She then attempted to get a sequel going to Christmas on Earth. It would star the top musicians of the day, and she hoped to get Disney to bankroll it. At this point, it's hard to tell if she was delusional or desperate, because her proposed film seems even more unlikely than Jodorowsky's Dune, which was too ambitious to come to fruition and now lives on as a fascinating documentary about what might have been.

Instead of giving up in frustration, Rubin turned to Jewish mysticism. She also pursued a futile quest to wrest Ginsberg, with whom she hoped to have children, away from Orlovsky, who she dismissed as schizophrenic. Just when it seemed as if she couldn't have been more lost, she found Orthodox Judaism, and that was that. No more drugs, no more counterculture.

Surprisingly, or maybe not so surprisingly, Rubin maintained her friendship with Dylan, at least while she was still living in New York, to discuss Kabbalah. He even attended her first wedding to a Hasidic gentleman.

McCarter Theater, Princeton, NJ, 1964 © Daniel Kramer
Notably, four Dylan songs appear on the soundtrack, all from The Bootleg Series, Vol. 12: The Cutting Edge 1965-1966. I can't imagine that it's cheap to include one Dylan song on a soundtrack, let alone four, so I would like to think that he did what he could to make them accessible to the filmmaker. The rest of the material, overseen by composer and music advisor Lee Ranaldo, is equally impressive, and includes tracks from the Velvets, Françoise Hardy, and Ranaldo with the Master Musicians of Jajouka.

Rubin would eventually divorce, marry again, and settle down in rural France, where she had five children. Not to give too much away, but just as her new life was beginning, it came to a sudden, unhappy end. She began life as in the US as Barbara Rubin and ended it in Europe as Bracha Basha.

Since the entire film serves as a testament to her influence, there's no epilogue, and I suppose it wasn't necessary. Smith also eschews comments from her husband and children, so it's unclear how much they knew about the life she led in the 1960s. Now that this film exists, I hope they'll be able to embrace the non-secular person that she was before she left it all behind.

Barbara Rubin and the Exploding New York Underground opens at the Northwest Film Forum on Friday, July 26. Screen Test image from MUBI.

Friday, June 28, 2019

To Be Scandalized Is a Pleasure in Pasolini

Willem Dafoe as Pier Paolo Pasolini / Kino Lorber
Italy, 84 

I think to scandalize is a right, to be scandalized is a pleasure, and 
those who refuse to be scandalized are moralists.--Pier Paolo Pasolini

Okay, Pasolini isn't all that scandalous, but I still love that quote.

From its velvety opening frames, in which his subject speaks slowly and thoughtfully to a radio interviewer, Abel Ferrara's 20th feature film feels like something the Italian-American iconoclast was born to make.

It isn't just because it's so visually appealing, with an emphasis on deep browns and soft golds, but because Ferrara's affection for his subject never curdles into uncritical fawning. That may have something to do with his own experience as the controversy-generating auteur of boundary-pushing films like Ms. 45 (a nun with a gun), Bad Lieutenant (Harvey Keitel as the man Frank Serpico warned you about), and The Driller Killer, a so-called video nasty banned in the United Kingdom for 15 years.

Keitel and Frankie Thorne in Bad Lieutenant / Lionsgate
With his dark hair and glasses, Pier Paolo Pasolini (frequent Ferrara player Willem Dafoe, shifting nimbly from English to Italian and back) comes across as serious, focused, dedicated. He's a poet, novelist, and filmmaker who lives, quite happily, with his mother, Susanna (The Best of Youth's Adriana Asti).

After introducing the Pasolini of 1975, Ferrara launches into the first of several cuts to scenes from his unfinished books and films, in addition to clips from his Marquis de Sade adaptation, Saló, or the 120 Days of Sodom, first released only three weeks after his death--and still the go-to reference when seeking the most Bosch-like cinematic experience to date.

If Ferrara had made this portrait earlier in his career, he might have taken a more jacked-up or scandalous approach, but like Gus Van Sant's Last Days (2005), a ruminative re-imagining of the solo-driven hours leading up to Kurt Cobain's suicide, he mostly focuses on Pasolini's last days on Earth: talking to a journalist, dining with friends, and picking up a hustler.

It all might be fairly quotidian, engaging but not especially earthshaking, except the outing with the 17-year-old hustler goes horribly awry. Ferrara doesn't romanticize what happened that night on the beach. Pasolini was here, and then he wasn't. The film briefly blooms into a tear-stained opera before fading to black (the soundtrack mixes Tony Joe White and the Staple Singers with Bach and Rossini's "Una Voce Poco Fa" as performed by Maria Callas).

Since Dafoe turned 63 this year, I worried that he might be too old for the role, but he looks young enough to pass for a 53-year-old. Then again, though the film is just opening theatrically in the United States, it was completed five years ago…but I didn't realize that while watching. In 2014, contributors to Indiewire's Best Undistributed Films list voted it in at #8.

Furthermore, according to Variety, Dafoe "lives in Rome, is married to Italian filmmaker Giada Colagrande, and speaks fluent Italian." Midwest provenance aside, he was born to star in Pasolini as much as Ferrara, who scripted with Matteo Garrone associate Maurizio Braucci (Gomorrah), was born to make it. I just wish there was more to it. At 85 minutes, it feels as if it's just getting started and then, the next thing you know: it's over.

Sometimes art really does imitate life--however, unintentionally.

Pasolini plays Grand Illusion Cinema from June 28 through July 3.

Friday, June 7, 2019

SIFF 2019: Dark Meets Darker in the Under-Lit Louisiana of Phillip Youmans' Burning Cane

(Phillip Youmans, USA, 78 minutes) 

Louisiana native Wendell Pierce (The Wire, Treme) plays the pastor at the heart of Burning Cane, 19-year-old NYU film student Phillip Youmans' feature-film debut, a downbeat affair with a strong sense of place (much as with Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep, it began life as a school project). Reverend Tillman is one of three characters in a rural African-American community who intersect in significant ways.

The film opens with a woman's steady voice. Helen (Karen Kaia Livers) talks about trying every trick in the book to cure her dog of mange. Though we see her moving about her shotgun shack, we don't see her speak, a technique long associated with Texas director Terrence Malick. Helen, who favors floral-print dresses and leather boots, proceeds to chop up a chicken, filling the screen with blood, flesh, and feathers.

While she goes about her business, the widowed pastor works up a sweat at the pulpit. The gist of his sermon: loved ones are superior to material things. He takes particular offense at the saying, "He who dies with the most toys wins." Afterwards, he swerves down the road while driving home, drinking and smoking all the way. The next time Helen, a church worker, spots him getting into his car while drunk, she offers to take the wheel, but he won't have it. "God is looking after me," he explains.

If God really is looking after the pastor, the Supreme Being is doing a crap job, because Reverend Tillman ends up crashing his car. Earlier that day, he had been complaining to Helen and another woman that he doesn't feel like he's reaching the younger parishioners. He follows with a crude comment about transgender individuals, indicating that his intolerance may have something to do with his lack of reach.

In the third story strand, Helen's unemployed son, Daniel (Dominique McClellan), looks after his son, Jeremiah (Braelyn Kelly). They sit in silence for the most part, though a moment of levity arrives when they shake off their lethargy long enough to dance along to Robert Johnson's "Hot Tamales and the Red Hots." Like the pastor, Daniel can't resist the demon drink. He just keeps going until he throws up. And then he drinks some more. It doesn't take long to put two and two together: Daniel is like the dog with mange.

If the film ends in a way some may find shocking, it's all set up in that opening sequence. Even if it's inevitable, it doesn't feel completely earned.

Charles Mudede, staff writer at The Stranger (and my former editor), believes that the comparisons between Youmans and Malick are overstated, writing, "Too many critics have associated this startling work by a 19-year-old NYU film student, Phillip Youmans, with the films of Terrence Malick. But we can do better than that. If we really think about these brutally beautiful images of rural black life in the South, we find a much closer association with the films of the Mexican director Carlos Reygadas."

It's a flattering comparison that Youmans doesn't completely deserve. A few exterior shots recall Silent Light, the Reygadas film Mudede goes on to cite, but if the Malick comparison fits, and it does, there’s a third-hand feel to the film--as if Youmans were more influenced by the filmmakers who have followed in Malick's wake, like David Gordon Green (George Washington), Lance Hammer (Ballast), and producer Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild). That isn't a terrible thing, but it isn't all that great either. And that's okay. Youmans has years to develop a more original style.

What's great is this: Wendell Pierce. Since the other, less experienced actors tend to be unsteadier on their feet, he gives the film the gravitas it needs. Pierce commands the screen when he's on it, and the film dies a little when he isn't. It doesn't hurt that the church scenes--Youmans served as both cinematographer and co-editor--are sufficiently bright that you can see exactly what's going on, whereas the other scenes are bathed in inky darkness, so when I say that Pierce lights up the screen: I mean it literally. Here's hoping Youmans achieves that level of mastery someday.

Burning Cane plays for a final time at the Uptown on Fri at 3:30pm. Director scheduled to attend. For more information, please click here.