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.  

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

SIFF 2019: Cool and Hip and Angry and Sophisticated and Ultra Clean: Birth of the Cool Reveals Miles Davis in All His Complexity

Credit: Guy Le Querrec / Variety
 (Stanley Nelson, USA, 2018, 115 minutes)

"Being rebellious and black, a nonconformist, being cool and hip and angry and sophisticated and ultra clean, whatever else you want to call it--I was all those things and more."
--Miles Davis in Miles: The Autobiography

Just as Don Cheadle rasped away as Miles Davis in his underappreciated 2016 biopic, Miles Ahead, Carl Lumbly rasps away as the jazz great in Stanley Nelson's profile by reading passages from Davis's 1990 memoir.

It wouldn't work if Lumbly didn't capture Davis's grumble, so it's fortunate that he does (if anything, he sounds even more like Danny Glover, circa Sorry to Bother You). Carol Bash did something similar in her 2015 profile of Mary Lou Williams, The Lady Who Swings the Band, in which Alfre Woodard gives sympathetic voice to the pioneering pianist and composer.

Nelson (Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Historically Black Colleges and Universities) begins at the beginning with Davis's birth in Alton, Illinois in 1926. To Davis's words, he adds interviews from a wide swath of speakers, including neighbors, relatives, scholars, jazz innovators like Quincy Jones and Archie Shepp, and poet and professor Quincy Troupe, coauthor of Miles: The Autobiography (though Flea and the Roots are mentioned in the official synopsis, they appear to have ended up on the cutting room floor).

Photograph by AGIP / RDA / Everett / The New Yorker
Unlike many of his African-American peers, Davis was born to wealth and privilege, and gravitated to the trumpet as a teenager, but money and talent couldn't insulate him from the racism that permeated East St. Louis in the 1940s, and he longed to make his escape.

It wouldn't take much time. Just after graduating from high school, he was already playing with jazz luminaries Billy Eckstein, Charlie Parker, and Dizzy Gillespie. "The greatest feeling I ever had in my life--with my clothes on--is when I first met Diz and Bird," he remembers. "I was 18 years old."

The experience led him to move to New York in 1944, where he attended Juilliard by day and played 52nd Street clubs by night. By then, he’d already impregnated his high school sweetheart twice (unmentioned in the film, he would impregnate her a third time during a visit home in 1950).

Nelson speeds over this development quickly, possibly to avoid making his subject look worse than necessary, but stating that music always came first doesn't excuse the fact that Davis abandoned his growing family.

If we're meant to find his relationship with French singer Juliette Gréco romantic, it's hard to forget about Irene Birth, the hometown honey he discarded in favor of a more glamorous life. Through Greco, who appears in the film, Davis met the Left Bank's leading artists and intellectuals, like Jean Cocteau and Jean-Paul Sartre, who treated him like an equal.

Andre SAS/Gamma-Rapho Getty Images
Nelson goes on to recount Davis's relationships with key collaborators like arranger Gil Evans, with whom he recorded the 1957 album Birth of the Cool, from which his documentary takes its name--and his descent into heroin addiction. After kicking the habit, he made up for lost time by signing to Prestige, putting together a quintet including John Coltrane, and then making the leap to Columbia.

Along the way, he met Frances Taylor, the dancer who adorns the cover of Someday My Prince Will Come (Emayatzy Corinealdi plays her in Miles Ahead), underwent the surgery that altered his voice, composed the score for Louis Malle's Ascenseur pour L'échafaud, and released Kind of Blue, the bestselling jazz album of all time (certified quadruple platinum in 2008).

Just as Nelson celebrated the sartorial style of the Black Panthers in Vanguard of the Revolution, he does the same for Davis in Birth of the Cool. He was always a sharp dresser, but when the serious money started to roll in, his looks grew sharper yet. Miles in the 1950s set the standard for cool with his crisp white shirts, narrow ties, and close-cut suits.

He wasn't indestructible, though, and money and talent couldn't insulate him from the racism that permeated the US in the Eisenhower Era, even in New York, "the slickest, hippest city in the world." An incident involving three NYPD detectives made headlines accompanied by images of the bandaged, blood-spattered musician. Personally and professionally, he was on top of the world, but he couldn't escape the times in which he lived.

Davis's seventh studio album for Columbia
He couldn't escape his own worst impulses either as he attempted to mold Frances, on the cusp of stardom, into the perfect housewife, marinated in booze and coke, and abused his wife just as his father had abused his mother. He would later regret that he hadn't treated her better, but by then it was too late. The marriage was over.

Intentionally or otherwise, it marked the end of one chapter and the beginning of another, since he proceeded to split with his previous group and put together a new one that included Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, and 17-year-old Tony Williams (all except for Williams, who passed away in 1997, appear in the film). He also met Betty Mabry who helped him to segue from the jazz world of the 1950s and ‘60s to the rock and funk world of the 1970s. Out went the dark suits and in came the low-cut tunics, the over-sized sunglasses, and the patchwork bell bottoms.

It was the era of Bitches Brew and On the Corner. Critic Greg Tate describes the blend of tabla, sitar, and distortion as "cosmic jungle music" made by the "hoodoo voodoo priest of music." It was a magical time that refilled Davis's coffers, but like every stylistic shift, it wasn't built to last. After a series of personal setbacks, he disappeared from public life. Drugs and paranoia consumed his days. Friends were afraid they'd lost him.

Just as Nelson neglected to say what became of Irene, who followed Davis to NYC, he neglects to say what became of Betty. After their year-long marriage, she launched a solo career that would find a new audience in 2007 when local label Light in the Attic began to reissue her 1970s output.

© Baron Wolman, Date Unknown
Davis's propensity to align himself with women of considerable achievement would culminate in his marriage to Cicely Tyson. With her help, he cleaned himself up and stepped into the light again, but Nelson also neglects to note when their union came to an end (they were married from 1981-1989). It's a weird pattern, especially since he treats Frances with so much respect, but that may be because she appears in the film, while Davis and Tyson, who are both very much alive, do not.

The filmmaker moves swiftly through the last several years of Davis's life, which weren't without incident, but seem a little sad, since he looked so frail. Instead of going quietly into that good night, he played every date he could handle and appeared on every talk show that would have him.

I saw him at London's Hammersmith Odeon in 1986 on the Tutu tour. True to form, he spent the bulk of the set with his sparkly back to the audience. Since it was exactly what I expected, I can't say that I was disappointed.

Photo: Getty Images / Vogue
By 1991, Miles Davis was gone. Though you'd expect his passing to mark the saddest moment in the film, the Phoenix-like Davis beat the odds by making it to the not-inconsiderable age of 65, since he was beset by numerous ailments, including sickle cell anemia.  

I don't expect a documentary, particularly one that clocks in at just under two hours, to include every fact and figure, but more details would've been ideal, though Birth of the Cool succeeds in most other respects, not least the way the editorial team (Lewis Erskine, Yusuf Kapadia, and Natasha Mottola) cut it to the rhythm of the music, particularly the montage-style year markers, which comes entirely from Davis's discography.

About her ex-husband, the late Frances Taylor Davis (1929-2018) concludes, "I don't regret, I don't forget, but I still love," which seems as fine a summation of Miles Davis's difficult and brilliant career as any.

Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool plays Wednesday, May 29, at the Egyptian and Friday, May 31, at the Uptown. For more information, click here.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

SIFF 2019: Mark Cousins' Storm in My Heart Interrogates Hollywood's Double Standards

(Mark Cousins, USA, 2018, 117 minutes)

Belfast-born cinema historian Mark Cousins (The Story of Film: An Odyssey), who was just in town with a documentary about Orson Welles, is back with an essay film about two very different 20th Century Fox musicals from Hollywood's Golden Age.

Storm in My Heart is the logical title for his latest effort, a diptych of 1952's Technicolor With a Song in My Heart and 1943's black and white Stormy Weather. One film features Susan Hayward and the other features Lena Horne. Though born on the same day, June 30, 1917, and in the same city, Brooklyn, New York, one woman was white and the other was black. Further, Horne was from a prominent family and Hayward wasn't.

If not for race, Cousins argues, their careers might have looked similar, and they definitely didn't. And in these films, their scenes were even shot differently. If Hayward's performance was indivisible from the film in which it appeared, Horne's was placed such that it could be removed when it played in the South. I was hoping Cousins would return to that distinction at some point, except he never does, so I don't know if this happened with other films in which Horne appeared, but I can only assume that it did.

Cousins starts by presenting the credits for Walter Lang's With a Song in My Heart in full frame before shrinking it to one-quarter size. As he turns the volume down on the Hayward picture, he adds a quarter-size version of Andrew Stone's film to the screen. Russia-born Leon Shamroy shot both films, and the same personnel provided art direction, set decoration, visual effects, wardrobe and costumes, and sound. As Storm in My Heart continues, Cousins moves the frames around the screen and continues to alternate soundtracks. He also uses the blank space for inter-titles.

The frames talk to each other, though it's easy to miss details on the left side of the screen while watching the right. Or vice versa. It's an experiment, and an imperfect one, but it's amazing how often it works, i.e. Horne sings in one frame while Hayward, portraying real-life singer Jane Froman, does the same in the other, except we hear Horne's voice. Consequently, it looks as if Hayward is miming or responding to Horne, but then the audiences, one white and the other black, clap at the same time.

If the focus is on Hayward and Horne, Cousins provides notable facts about Stormy Weather players Bill Robinson, Ada Brown, Fats Waller, and the Nicholas Brothers. They aren't the kind that will brighten your day. Waller, for instance, died five months after the film's release. He was 39. And Robinson, the highest paid black entertainer during the first half of the 20th century, died penniless.

As for Horne, she broke most every racial barrier on the road to stardom, but had to suffer most every kind of indignity in the process. In that sense, Cousins' film is about her more than Hayward, and though it may not have been his intention to make Stormy Weather look like the better--or at least more enjoyable--film, that's exactly what he's done. Granted, only one of the two is a melodrama, so fun was never on director Lang's agenda, and he's downright shameless when it comes to milking the audience's tears.

The oddest part about Cousins' project is that he doesn't give equal time to both films. When the 78-minute Stormy Weather ends, it just...ends. The inter-titles continue to refer to both women, but With a Song in My Heart plays for another 34 minutes, which doesn't seem fair, except Cousins has a final trick up his sleeve. I won't spoil it, other than to say that he doesn't just take on Hollywood's racism and sexism, but militarism, too, since both films hold a sentimental view of American wartime activity.

As essay films go, A Storm in My Heart is one of the better ones I've seen, and I've seen a lot, including those of Chris Marker, Agnès Varda, and Raoul Peck. If anything, the juxtaposition at the end, which makes use of the patriotic song above, recalls Peck's I Am Not Your Negro, the Oscar-nominated documentary he built around a James Baldwin manuscript--and ends with the late Doris Day as a symbol of white suburban complacency.

If there's one thing that sums up Horne and Hayward, as Cousins presents them in his essay, it's that they kept their own counsel. Though Horne had the deck stacked against her in many respects, she never stopped finding ways to make her mark--mostly outside of Hollywood--whereas Hayward had access to more movie-making opportunities, but didn't always make the most of them. I'm not sure that these particular films tell us as much about post-war America as Cousins intends, but they certainly tell us a lot.

Storm in My Heart plays SIFF Cinema Uptown on Sunday, May 19, at 1pm, and Tuesday, May 28, at 9pm. For more information, please click here.

Friday, May 17, 2019

SIFF 2019: Basketball in the Yard in Michael Tolajian's Prison Documentary Q Ball

Harry "ATL" Smith: man of God and man of the Court
(Michael Tolajian, 2019, USA, 97 minutes) 

San Quentin isn't a medium-security facility, like the one my mom worked at in Eagle River, a town just outside of Anchorage (she served as an institutional counselor before transferring to the city to work as a pre-sentence reporter). Most of the men in Michael Tolajian's Kevin Durant-produced documentary are violent offenders. The director, who doubles as senior vice president for Fox Sports Films, documents a season in the life of the San Quentin Warriors.

The goal of the squad isn't just to give the men something to do with their time and energy, but to contribute to their rehabilitation through teamwork and character-building. Star player Harry Smith, 31, is the son of a policeman and a microbiologist. With only a few months left in his seven-year sentence, he hopes to play for the NBA, but if he violates his parole, he'll end up back in prison. For most of the season, the inmates play against civilian teams made up of Bay Area b-ball enthusiasts, but for the final game, they play the Santa Cruz Warriors, Golden State's G League team. Win or lose, every player except for Smith will remain locked up afterward.

Allan "Black" McIntosh
Though it makes sense to focus on the player with the greatest skills, my heart went out to Allan McIntosh, a non-violent offender serving 25 years to life under California's 25-year-old three strikes law (he's served 21 so far). Though not as young or as GQ handsome as Smith, he came across as the deeper character.

Known as Black, he's the kind of guy who's trying to broaden his horizons by studying Spanish and poring over Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist, which he found relatable in terms of the protagonist's challenges. The civilian world would be a better place with a man like McIntosh in it (Smith, a self-described womanizer, was convicted for an incident of domestic violence).

Tolajian has made a worthy film about a worthy subject, but it wasn't quite as involving as I hoped, particularly in light of other more emotionally raw documentaries about rehabilitative programs, like Brad Beesley's Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo, Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous's The Work (which played at SIFF '17 and aired on PBS's POV), and Signe Taylor's It’s Criminal, which focuses on a collaborative theater program between Dartmouth College and a women's facility in new Hampshire.

I wish the best for all the men in Tolajian's film, which premieres on Fox Sports on May 28, but I wonder if he didn't concentrate on the wrong one.

Q Ball plays SIFF Cinema Uptown on Saturday, May 18, at 12pm and on Tuesday, May 21, at 3:30pm. For more information, please click here.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Charlie Is Not My Darling: Mary Harron Puts a Feminist Spin on the Manson Family Saga

Behind bars, but still under Manson's sway
(Mary Harron, 2019, USA, 104 minutes)

After making a film about Valerie Solanas (I Shot Andy Warhol) and Patrick Bateman (American Psycho), it follows that Mary Harron would get around to Charlie Manson, a real-life figure like Solanas and an evil mastermind like Bateman (I don't recall any murderers in The Notorious Bettie Page, but Harron has consistently gravitated towards protagonists with an inability to fit into straight society).

Her first feature in eight years arrives three years after the end of NBC's detective drama Aquarius, with David Duchovny as the head of an LAPD unit investigating the goings-on at the Spahn Ranch, and two years after the release of Emma Cline's novel The Girls, a fictional take on a Manson-type follower. And it beats Quentin Tarantino's Summer of '69 epic Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood to theaters by two months (QT's sprawling film includes many of the same figures, including Damon Herriman's Manson). 

More specifically, Charlie Says draws from Ed Sanders' 1972 book The Family and the late Karlene Faith's 2001 biography, The Long Prison Journey of Leslie van Houten: Life Beyond the Cult. I could also make a case for Olivia Klaus's Life After Manson, a 2014 documentary about model prisoner Patricia Krenwinkel that Harron is likely to have seen (not least because she thanks Klaus in the credits). All of this is to say that Manson and his bedfellows are as much a part of the cultural conversation as ever--two years after his death and 50 years after the events that put him on the map.

Martha Plimpton and Lili Taylor in I Shot Andy Warhol
The good news is that Harron's film isn't really about Manson (played by The Queen's Matt Smith), but about three of the women, Patricia (Sosie Bacon), Susan Atkins (Marianne Rendón), and especially Leslie (Hannah Murray), with whom he was most closely associated (Kayli Carter plays Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, who would, as a solo operative, attempt to assassinate a famous man, a dubious distinction she shares with Solanas).

Charlie Says begins with Leslie's arrival at the Ranch where she meets Charlie and the gang, including Beach Boy Dennis Wilson (James Trevena-Brown) and right-hand man Tex Watson (Gossips Girl's Chace Crawford in grunged-up mode). Charlie dubs Leslie "Lulu," and that becomes her name, because what Charlie says goes. From there, Harron, who co-wrote the script with American Psycho and Bettie Page partner Guinevere Turner, moves back and forth in time from the Ranch, three years in the past, to the California Institution for Women where Patricia and Leslie remain today.

In the pen, the women are locked up next to each other in separate cells, isolated from the rest of the population. With the warden's encouragement, they meet with rehabilitation counselor Karlene (Merritt Wever) who attempts to extricate them from Manson's psychic hold. The backward glances at the Ranch show how they fell under his sway (coincidentally enough, Sway is also the title of Zachary Lazar's 2008 novel about Manson associate Bobby Beausoleil and his ties to Kenneth Anger and Brian Jones).

Sosie Bacon, Hannah Murray, and Merrit Wever
Unfortunately, Harron isn't able to make Charlie any more charismatic than previous filmmakers. When he isn’t singing and strumming in a decidedly mediocre manner, he's doing the hippy-dippy messianic bit we've seen so often before (and without the humor Linus Roache brought to a similar figure in Panos Cosmatos's lysergic noir Mandy). If Smith is more convincing than Aquarius's Gethin Anthony, it's hard to get the balance right with a character who has to prove irresistible to his flock and off-putting to the audience.

More than anything, Charlie is a misogynist creep. To women without any direction, he’s father, lover, and religious leader all rolled into one. In his presence, they no longer have to think; just do as he says. As Patricia tells Leslie, the goal is to kill their egos and become one consciousness--all the better for him to manipulate them into sex, theft, and eventually, murder.

Throughout, we see most everything through Leslie's eyes. Though Murray has appeared in high-profile programs like Skins and Game of Thrones, she comes across as the least experienced actress of the three; more naïve and uncomfortable than her credits would indicate. Intentional or otherwise, it works for the part. She's softer and slower than the other Manson women, aka "girls," but she's also more watchful and cautious. In my high school days, we would've called such a childlike, dreamy creature a space cadet.
If the goal was to make her likable, Harron and Murray have succeeded.

Matt Smith in the 2013 stage version of American Psycho
That said, there's a difference between likable and relatable. The point of the film isn't to show how any young woman could've followed the same twisted path. There have been plenty of other cults, but there has never been one exactly like the Manson Family.

Crucial incidents include Charlie's jubilation when he finds out the Beach Boys have recorded one of his songs, "Cease to Exist" (re-titled "Never Learn Not to Love")--and his rage when producer Terry Melcher, the subject of Jeffrey Melnick's recent Pop Con paper, declines to offer him a contract. It's well-worn territory, but sets the scene for the bloodshed to come. 

As American Psycho proved, Harron knows from violence. The Tate-LaBianca murders take up little of the film's running time, but they make the necessary impact; they're brutal, bloody, and empathy-free. When Sharon Tate (Grace Van Dien), who was leasing Melcher's home with Roman Polanski, begs for the life of her unborn child, Tex is thoroughly unmoved.

Harron avoids most everything that happened afterward, and that seems wise. In prison, even after all they've been through, the women still venerate the man who destroyed their lives. Just as they can't fully grasp what they've done, nor can they fully grasp what they've become.

At 104 minutes, Charlie Says doesn't overstay its welcome, but it takes Harron until the very end to get to that moment of realization. I'm not sure it's possible to make a completely successful film about the Manson Family, and the director dances around the edge of disaster at most every turn, but that moment--and Hannah Murray's ability to sell it--is worth the wait.

Charlie Says opens Friday, May 10, at the Varsity Theatre (4329 University Way NE). Images from IFC Films and The Stage (American Psycho photo by Tristram Kenton).  

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Her Smell: Alex Ross Perry’s Take on the Damaged-Woman-of-Rock Archetype

Elisabeth Moss as "Becky! Becky! Becky!"
(Alex Ross Perry, 2019, USA, 134 minutes)

I remember being both attracted to and repulsed by the opening credits for Alex Ross Perry's psychological thriller Queen of Earth. The key image is a shadowy close-up on Elisabeth Moss's face. As the title bisects it in elegant pink script, inky mascara pools under her eyes. It's beautiful, ugly, arresting. If you can imagine an entire film that plays like that image, then you can imagine Her Smell, Perry's third collaboration with the actress.

With the '90s alt-rock revival in full bloom, this would appear to be the ideal time for his tale of an all-female Hole-like trio (never mind that Hole was a mixed-gender quartet). Appearances, however, can be deceiving, at least to those viewers hoping for a nice, warm bath of nostalgia.

Granted, Perry, 34, was seven years old when Hole released their debut, Pretty on the Inside, and Moss, 36, who plays Becky, was nine. That isn't to say that they didn't do their research into riot grrrl-adjacent/grunge-era acts like Babes in Toyland, but they were too young to have experienced the phenomenon in real time, no matter how cool their schools or permissive their parents (Alicia Bognanno of Bully wrote the era-non-specific songs, and they're pretty good, if not especially memorable).

Moss as Catherine in Perry's 2015 two-hander
Eric Stoltz, 57, who plays Becky’s manager, Howard, probably remembers the era better than anyone else involved with Her Smell, not least because he's starred in a few music biz films, like John Hughes' Some Kind of Wonderful, in which he fell for Mary Stuart Masterson's drummer "Watts" (of course), and Allison Anders' Grace of My Heart, in which he played a Gerry Goffin figure opposite Illeana Douglas's Carole-King-in-all-but-name Denise Waverly.

With her bleached hair and smeared makeup, Becky looks for all the world like Courtney Love, even if Perry had other artists, like Kat Bjelland, in mind. Her alternately nuzzled and neglected daughter only reinforces the impression, though Dan Stevens, as her ex-husband, "Dirtbag" Danny--who isn't really a dirtbag at all--shares few traits with Kurt Cobain.

As chapter dividers, Perry inter-cuts home-movie excerpts of the Some-
thing She--the impressively bland name of Becky's band--in happier times, including celebratory moments with gold records, Spin covers, and Becky's proud mama, Ania (Virginia Madsen, making the most of an underwritten role). There's mention of a father, but Perry never depicts him.

Similarly, Stevens and Stoltz are fine, but Perry prioritizes the women in this woman's life, from her mother to her daughter, which sets it apart from surface-level predecessors, like Mark Rydell's  The Rose, which drew from Janis Joplin's biography, and the musical iterations of A Star Is Born

Bette Midler in smeared-mascara melodrama The Rose
Perry's film starts on stage, with an appealingly shambolic cover of the Only Ones' "Another Girl, Another Planet," before moving backstage where Becky invites a shaman to curse Danny's girlfriend, Tiffany (Hannah Gross), and rejects the offer of Zelda E. Zekiel (a brunette Amber Heard in Cleopatra eyeliner) to open for her upcoming tour. With no money-making ventures on the horizon, it's obviously a terrible decision, just like every decision Becky will proceed to make. She's rude, she's paranoid, and her ego is too big and too wounded for her to do what's right for her band and her child.

Only 20 minutes into the film, and I had had just about enough. It isn't that Moss, who also appeared in Perry's superior Listen Up Philip, doesn't give a full-blooded performance--Becky is such a drama queen that she evokes over-the-top performers from Ethel Merman to Gloria Swanson in Sunset Blvd--but it's always a risk to build a film around such a grating character.

Olivier Assayas's Clean and Brady Corbet's Vox Lux took similar risks with their traumatized, if resilient singers, except Maggie Cheung and Natalie Portman, respectively, brought vulnerability and sass to their roles. For most of Her Smell's over-long running time, Becky is just irritating.

Maggie Chueng as a Courtney-meets-Yoko widow in Clean
She's so irritating that drummer Ali (GLOW's Sheila the She-Wolf, Gayle Rankin, giving the most naturalistic performance) quits during a recording session, while bassist Mari (Sunset Song's Agyness Deyn, a former model known to date the occasional musician), dulls the pain by way of the coke she stores in her bra. Just when it seems as if there's no one left who can take more of her shit, manager/label impresario Howard's newest signing, the Akergirls, enter the scene.

A photogenic trio featuring Roxie Rotten (Ashley Benson), Dottie O.Z. (Dylan Gelula), and Crassie Cassie (model-actress Cara Delevingne, who is also known to date the occasional musician), they're so happy to meet their hero that they don't realize she's out of her head. They figure it out soon enough, especially when she menaces Ali with a broken bottle before a show while a camera crew documents the whole catastrophic ordeal.

By the time Becky hits rock bottom, I was more relieved than alarmed. Something had to give, and after that, things finally started to get interesting. I just wish that Perry had gotten there sooner. Until then, it felt as if Becky's slow-motion free-fall was never gonna end. Of more interest to me than seeing how low a recording artist can go--pretty low, apparently--is watching what they do after they've lost everything.

The Akergirls featuring model Cara Delevingne 
Her Smell is hardly the first music-oriented film to explore that territory, since Georgia, in which Jennifer Jason Leigh played a troubled Seattle singer, and Things Behind the Sun, which reunited Allison Anders with Stoltz (this time as a really bad dude), also revolved around women musicians dealing with trauma, substance abuse, and redemption.

If Becky's breakdown was a given, Perry shifts into low-key thriller mode afterward, because when you've got nothing left to lose, death seems inevitable; more so considering all the casualties of the era in which Becky plied her trade, from 7 Year Bitch's Stefanie Sargent in 1992 to Kurt Cobain and Hole's Kristen Pfaff in 1994. Perry ups the ante by having Becky predict, earlier in the film, that she'll "probably die on stage."

Though Her Smell begins with a cover, the one that appears towards the end makes the bigger impression. After the storm has passed and Becky's friends and associates have moved on to other partners and projects, she sits down at the piano to play an acoustic version of Bryan Adams' 1984 ballad "Heaven," which topped the Billboard chart the following year.

As a singer, Moss is adequate, but I heard the song in a whole new way--a good way. It's such a touching moment that it compensates for most everything that preceded it, though I'm almost tempted to credit Adams and co-writer Jim Vallance for its success more than Perry and Moss.

Kim Dickens with Elizabeth Peña in Things Behind the Sun
Not until the final chapter does the director finally show his hand. Despite the external trappings, this isn't a movie about the '90s. Not really. It could have been set at most any time. Instead, Perry seems more interested in what we give to other people and what we keep for ourselves, a universal challenge that's only heightened by celebrity. The more Becky gives, the sicker she gets, the sicker she gets, the more she self-medicates, the more she self-medicates, the sicker she gets until she has nothing left to give. As Courtney Love once put it, "Yeah, they really want you, they really want you...and I do, too."

In the end, Becky finds a way to...stop. Perry doesn't explain exactly how she got there; he just shows her acting it out, and that's enough. As a whole, Her Smell is the least successful Perry-Moss collaboration to date, but it's also the most, well, most. There's something about watching a filmmaker go for broke that's simultaneously fascinating and frustrating, even if this one leans more heavily on the negative side of that equation.

Her Smell plays SIFF Cinema Uptown (511 Queen Anne Ave N) May 5 - 7 and May 10, 11, and 12. Click here for more information.