Watch: The Fantastic Animated Trailer for a Book on Wes Anderson’s ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’

Watch: The Fantastic Animated Trailer for a Book on Wes Anderson’s ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’

Roughly at the midpoint of this animated book trailer for The Wes Anderson Collection: The Grand Budapest Hotel, its author, Matt Zoller Seitz, gets punched in the face. Later, he gets his fingers chopped off. But this doesn’t deter him from guiding us through his new book on Anderson’s most recent film, due out from Abrams on February 10th, which includes interviews, essays, and intricate, quasi-acrobatic book design, along with a wonderful introduction by Anne Washburn. It’s like a circus in print, folks, and Seitz is its intrepid ringleader! This trailer is beautifully and cleverly animated by Kristian Fraga of Sirk Productions, using lovingly drawn figures by Max Dalton. The volume is an annex to Seitz’s masterful book, The Wes Anderson Collection, also available from Abrams, an equally stunning accomplishment. But, before you delve into either book, watch this trailer! It’s a masterpiece, in and of itself.

VIDEO ESSAY: Wong Kar-Wai’s Lust for Life

VIDEO ESSAY: Wong Kar-Wai: Superimposed Symphony

Wong Kar-Wai, whose long-awaited The Grandmaster opens in August, is not about plot. Wong Kar-wai is about motion and emotion. As my friend Nelson Carvajal’s new video suggests, he’s about the moment within the moment, the eternal in the now. Beautiful neighbors pass in a stairwell and exchange lingering looks, or talk more softly than they need to so that they can be face-to-face. The camera (usually Chris Doyle’s) doesn’t merely record or represent: it scopes out, insinuates, measures and caresses. All is texture. Physical texture. Emotional texture. What it feels like. What it really is. What you dream it is. What you dream it was.

A woman’s swaying hips are sexy, but they’d be sexy anyway, in Wong Kar-Wai’s films or anyone’s. Ditto food:  My Blueberry Nights boasts a closeup of melted ice cream on pie so lovingly composed and lit that it amounts to dessert-as-orgasm — and you know that when you’re hungry that’s just what a luscious dessert can feel like, in spirit anyway. But the sexiness, the sheer visceral tingliness, of this artist’s work transcends particular situations. Somehow he makes everything sexy: sweaty huts, cobblestone streets, peeling paint; fear, regret, misery, death. How? 

By communicating exuberance at existence. His films may chart specific lusts — for sex, for love, for freedom, for murder — but all those lusts are gathered beneath a poetic umbrella: lust for life.

He’s what I called, in a 2009 Salon series about “The Directors of the Decade,” a “sensualist” filmmaker:  “Sensualist directors have a respect for privacy and mystery. They are attuned to tiny fluctuations in mood (the character’s and the scene’s). But they’d rather drink lye than tell you what a character is thinking or feeling – or, God forbid, have a character tell you what he’s thinking or feeling. The point is to inspire associations, realizations, epiphanies — not in the character, although that sometimes happens, but in the moviegoer. You can tell by watching the sensualists’ films, with their startling cuts, lyrical transitions, off-kilter compositions and judicious use of slow motion as emotional italics, that they believe we experience life not as dramatic arcs or plot points or in-the-moment revelations, but as moments that cohere and define themselves in hindsight — as markers that don’t seem like markers when they happen.”–Matt Zoller Seitz

O Coen Brothers, Where Art God? A Conversation Between Matt Zoller Seitz and Jeffrey Overstreet

O Coen Brothers, Where Art God? A Conversation Between Matt Zoller Seitz and Jeffrey Overstreet


Editor’s note: So, I was watching Raising Arizona for the 400th time the other night, and laughing at the sheer Freudian-Jungian comic bookish-ness of having the lone biker of the apocalypse appear in conjunction with the hero, H.I. McDonough, having a dream. It’s almost as if he was summoned by the hero’s dream—as if he’s a metaphor made flesh. You can see the biker as a physicalization of the hero’s internal struggle to put down the outlaw within, and become domesticated. The biker is an id creature erupting from inside of H.I.—the return of the repressed, I guess Freud might say—only he’s riding a giant Harley and he’s got shotguns and grenades.
And then I started to fixate on something else: the sense that there’s an equally strong religious or spiritual dimension to that scene. It’s as if the biker is a demon being summoned like a supernatural creature from a horror movie or an ancient folktale. Ed doesn’t call him a “warthog from Hell” for nothing.

And this in turn got me thinking about all the other instances in Joel and Ethan Coen’s filmography where it seems as though supernatural forces, or at least nonrational or uncanny forces, are at play—where what you’re seeing doesn’t quite seem to be metaphorical, if you know what I mean. There’s an angel and a guardian angel in The Hudsucker Proxy, and the actual stoppage of time. The villain in No Country for Old Men seems like Satan himself, or a demon from hell, not unlike that biker from Raising Arizona. The bad guy in The Ladykillers is basically Satan, doing battle with an old widow, and their dynamic recalls Robert Mitchum and Lillian Gish in The Night of the Hunter, which was a Manichean story that quoted the Bible and from folktales and fairytales rather liberally. A Serious Man draws on Jewish theology and folktales quite pointedly, and it ends with what looks rather like a miracle, or maybe a curse, or the apocalypse; and in any event, the film seems to connect with No Country for Old Men, which also has a fire-and-brimstone, or Revelation, kind of vibe.

And at a certain point I just thought, “I need to get Jeffrey Overstreet to talk to me about this, and see what he thinks.” Jeffrey is a novelist and one of my favorite film critics. He writes with great lucidity and compassion about all sorts of movies, from all sorts of angles, but what I value most about his work is the theological-moral perspective he takes on things. He’s not a dogmatic scold, sifting through popular art looking for work that fits a rigid world view; he’s more interested in Looking Closer, as his blog title suggests, to discover what, if anything, the work is saying. That’s what I think he does in this conversation.—Matt Zoller Seitz 

nullMatt Zoller Seitz: Do the Coens believe in God? Can we even say that for sure? Do they believe in the non-rational, the supernatural? Or are they just pranksters pulling our chains and hoping to spark conversation pieces like this one, while they sit there snickering? What do you think?

Jeffrey Overstreet: As Emily Dickinson says, “Success in Circuit
lies….” So, forgive me, but I’ll get to that question about God in a circuitous

I think it’s great that the scene
that started your engine for this conversation is “The Emergence of the Lone
Biker.” I think it’s one of the most intriguing in the Coen brothers’ whole repertoire.
(I can’t say “repertoire” in this conversation without giving it an exaggerated
Southern pronunciation, just as a Coen brothers character would say it.) Anyway,
that scene is not only resonant with apocalyptic, supernatural implications —
it’s intriguing in that it serves as one of several portals into their other
films. It’s one of those recurring motifs, those strands of thread that stitch
the Coens’ whole body of work together.

Raising Arizona’s H.I. has the
Lone Biker, who greatly resembles Sheriff Bell’s nemesis in No Country for Old Men —Anton Chigurh.
Both are lone figures of chaos, wrath, death, and judgment, prone to blasting
“the little things” (bunnies, birds) and the innocents. In fact, there are
shots of H.I.’s troubled sleep, in which he dreams of apocalyptic things, that
mirror Llewelyn’s troubled sleep after he brings the money home in No Country. There are strong connections
between H.I. and Llewlyn, fools-in-arms right down to the way that their stolen
goods drag them down into much darker and more frightful trouble. The allure of
“what other people have” — money, a family, power, fame — is the pathway to
hell for so many Coen characters.

But there are a variety of crooks in
the Coens’ world. There are boneheads like H.I. and Llewelyn, who take what
doesn’t belong to them and regret it. There are power-mad figureheads and CEOs
and “Men Behind Desks” like Waring Hudsucker in The Hudsucker Proxy and the Big Lebowski in the film that bears his
name, and the Hollywood studio execs in Barton
, and Leo in Miller’s Crossing
crooks who are insulated and egomaniacal, corrupt and rotten to the core. There
are flimsy fools of apathy and inaction, like Larry Gopnik in A Serious Man and Ed Crane in The Man Who Wasn’t There. Those who
insist on forcing the world into order through the power of law  —Sheriff Bell in No Country, Tom Reagan in Miller’s
, Rooster Cogburn in True
— end up despairing, unless they act in allegiance to some kind of
higher law, embracing mercy and mystery.

In fact, the only characters I can
think of who aren’t seriously messed up are Marge Gunderson in Fargo and Mattie Ross in True Grit.

So, back to your question
about God: I think the Coens suggest him via
. They show the incompleteness and insufficiency of a vision that
leaves God out. There are clearly human evils at work —evils of foolishness,
carelessness, folly, and evils of greed and deliberate violence. But there are
also evils of apocalyptic, seemingly supernatural proportions. As No Country demonstrates, good deeds and
the power of law are not enough to save the world. Ultimately, the best we can
do is seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly in the presence of something
greater than ourselves. 

The whole “white hats versus black hats” view of the world
MZS: It’s very elusive, very tricky, very coy, I guess you could say — the way they deal with these issues, or don’t deal with them.

From Blood Simple onward, the Coens have offered up plot after plot after plot wherein good and evil square off, but both good and evil are as comical as they are formidable. Good is noble but rather dull, or conventional and predictable. Evil—or corruption—is more exciting, I suppose, or at least superficially sexier than good, but kind of pathetic in the long run. Anton Chigurh is distinguished by his isolation and his grotesqueness. The crooks in Fargo bang prostitutes in hotel rooms after a Jose Feliciano concert, and seem to last all of ten minutes before Johnny Carson comes on; meanwhile, Marge Gunderson and her husband seem truly satisfied in their “boring” suburban home, in their shared bed.

In the Coens’ work, the settled, slightly boring but essentially satisfied “good” collides with the evil, the chaotic. And the fate of the world, or at least these characters’ own little world, is at stake.

nullBut here’s the really interesting part for me: in a Coen brothers film, you can never be entirely sure if good really defeated evil or if evil destroyed itself, through overconfidence or inattention or just plain bad luck.

Luck is such a huge factor in the Coens’ work. Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, Fargo, Barton Fink, Burn After Reading and so many other Coen brothers films have plots that seem driven by mysterious clockwork forces that could either be weighted in favor of “good” or not . . . . But then again, you kind of can’t tell. And while I think I know what the Coens think of their bad guys, I can’t be entirely sure if what I’m seeing onscreen is a condemnation, however comic, or merely a presentation.

Are they moralists, or are they anthropologists?

JO: I think they’re out to subvert the
whole “white hats versus black hats” view of the world. I think they
do believe in good and evil, but they seem to see all of humanity as having one
foot planted in both camps. Their character cannot be “the Good,” but the more
they “lean in” toward love, the more peace and hope and goodness they

Think of H.I.’s final dream, the one
about growing old with a family and feasting. Think of Marge and Norm
celebrating the 3-cent stamp and the upcoming baby. Think of how the most moving
and inspiring moment in True Grit
comes not when Cogburn blasts the bad guys, but when he carries Mattie across
miles and miles trying to save her. The more these characters try and crush
evil, or to diagnose it with the intellect, or try to make themselves better
through the sheer force of will, the more hopeless and sick at heart they


Think of poor Barton Fink, who rants
and rants about intellectuals who want “to insulate themselves from the
common man, from where they live…” And what is Barton doing? He’s
recoiling from his neighbor, trying to insulate himself from a “common man.”
But the wallpaper keeps peeling away, and he will eventually have to deal with
the ugliness, the corruption, that is common to everyone. His only hope for
relief, it seems, comes when he learns to carry his “box of
corruption” with him, rest, and look around at what beauty he can find in
the midst of the world’s seeming-absurdity. (And what is that diving pelican in
the final moment but an affirmation that there is something absurd in the
sublime, and something sublime in absurdity?)

In the same way, Sheriff Bell in No Country, for all of his efforts, must
sit at the table with his wife, confess to a sense of hopelessness and
futility, and “lean in” to a dream, to a sense that maybe there is a
glimmer of hope, but it exists beyond our control.

nullThat is why I think there is
profundity in Delmar’s baptism in O
Brother, Where Art Thou
? It’s grace. A fool like Delmar, and maybe even a
fool like Ulysses, can “be saved” when he accepts grace. When these
characters have a sort of Damascus-road encounter with something greater than
themselves, and allow the gravity of that to draw them away from their wicked
ways. “Well,” he tells his friends, “as soon as we get ourselves
cleaned up and we get a little smellum in our hair, why, we’re gonna feel 100%
better about ourselves and about life in general.” That doesn’t work. But
he will begin to feel better about
himself when grace inspires him back toward the straight and narrow, when love
“cleans him up.”

Even Mattie Ross, for all of her
righteous anger, pays a heavy price for trying to fix the world by force. After
she is “disarmed,” she seems to realize that the greatest reward of
her adventure was not justice achieved by violence, but the mysterious bond that
formed between her and Cogburn, who strove so mightily to help her.

The Coens’ paint a picture of a world
botched beyond belief, and beyond humanity’s capacity to repair. But there is
something transcendent about what those characters who know love enjoy. They
touch something that operates in, through, and beyond the human sphere.

Hey, even Private Detective Visser in
Blood Simple has a sense of it. He’s
preoccupied with Russia, where “everyone pulls for everyone else.”
But in Texas… “you’re on your own.”  


Just drifting through, like the tumbling tumbleweeds

MZS: I want to dig into this a bit more, this sense that bedrock Judeo-Christian concepts inform the Coen brothers’ filmography. I think it’s self-evidently true to say this, like saying that David Cronenberg is fascinated by the fragility of flesh and its overlap with technology, or that Steven Spielberg has daddy issues. But at the same time, it’s an observation that conflicts with the popular perception of the Coens as being cold or disinterested moral relativists—or at the very least, film school pranksters, guys who are all about homage, and who don’t believe in anything, really.

They certainly do hold their cards pretty close to their vests in that regard. But maybe not as close as detractors might say?

They’re essentially comic storytellers, even when they’re making supposed dramas, but after watching their work for nearly thirty years, I’ve concluded that deep down, they’re among the most moral, even moralistic, filmmakers working in the Hollywood mainstream. Good and evil aren’t metaphorical to them, even though they take on overtly symbolic guises at times. There is a right way and a wrong way to live. They do judge the corrupt, the weak, the impulsive and the greedy in very unflattering terms. When the bad guys in The Ladykillers get foiled, they seem to be struck down—smitten as if by God himself, then dumped onto a garbage barge like, well, human garbage, I guess. And then there’s that line in the police car near the end of Fargo: “There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’t you know that? And here ya are, and it’s a beautiful day. Well, I just don’t understand it.” 

What you say about surrendering to a higher power, or to the possibility of enlightenment or even “rapture,” as a Christian might put it, runs throughout Joel and Ethan Coen’s filmography—that sense that you have to let go, to surrender to cosmic forces rather than fight them, and let the universe sort itself out. That’s not to say that the outcome will necessarily favor Good, or even favor you personally—just that, as the films tell their stories, the universe has a way, and we don’t necessarily know what That Way is, and ultimately we’re all just drifting through, like the tumbling tumbleweeds in The Big Lebowski.

Do the Coens want to try to make sense of any of this? I don’t know . . . There are times when they seem as baffled as the rest of us. They certainly have a fondness for narrator characters who try to put everything in perspective and fail miserably and very amusingly. The narrator Moses—what a name!—in The Hudsucker Proxy, or Sam Elliott’s cowboy in Lebowski, kind of lose their places as they’re trying to put a frame around things. The Coens seem to get a kick out of tantalizing us with answers while laughing at the very idea that there could be answers. 

JO: Well . . . they sure don’t seem to think we’ll know answers on this side of Sheriff Bell’s dream. But there is something out there. There is somebody running the clock.

I’m uncomfortable with the term “moralists” when it comes to the Coens. Mere moralism isn’t enough. Moralism is just arithmetic: A fool plus his money are bound for hell. That’s not an accurate summation of their sensibility, because look at how the loving and the righteous and the innocent die miserably in their films. Exhibit A: Lana, from No Country. “Karma” is far too narrow a concept for the Coens.

Furthermore, there is too much
respect for mystery in these films
for the storytellers to be mere moralists.


Now, I don’t think the answer is to
start trying to pin a religion on them. A
Serious Man
makes it painfully clear that religion can become like Arthur Gopnick’s
book “The Mentaculus” … a labyrinth of laws and reasoning that ends
up making as much sense as the absurd, self-contradicting legal defense of Ed
Crane in The Man Who Wasn’t There.
Religion, while it binds communities and brings meaning through ritual, is
ultimately not enough. I’m not willing to brand the Coens as “covert
Christians.” And even if I did, the word “Christian” is about as
meaningful anymore as the word “conservative” or “Democrat”,
or the term “the American way.” It means a million things to a
million people. 
But they are definitely drawn to a
vision of the cosmos that resonates with my understanding of Christ’s
teachings. That is to say that “righteousness,” the ways of religion, and the
law-focused method of an “Old Testament” worldview, are ultimately insufficient.
We cannot earn our way to heaven by being good. We cannot save ourselves.

The Coens know that “all have
sinned,” and they know that “the wages of sin is death.” Everybody is likely to
die miserably in their movies, whether as a result of their own evil or someone

But there is something out there,
some kind of offer of grace, and when we glimpse that, goodness happens
in us. We begin to love not for selfish reasons, but as a response, as a
reflection, as if we are instruments being tuned up by something greater than

No, I think that the clearest
summation of their worldview comes from Mattie in their True Grit remake: “You must pay for everything in this world,
one way and another. There is nothing free except the grace of God.”


The small and humble people of the world

JO: On a side note, while I don’t see
anything as simplistic as a “Christ figure” in the Coens’ films, I do
love the way some have speculated that “The Dude” himself is a
“holy fool” who acts as a sort of signpost toward Jesus. We see him
doing carpentry (badly). We see him “taking it easy for all us
sinners.” He walks around in a robe, and hangs out with all manner of
fools and crooks without an inclination toward judgment. He even bowls
alongside a “false Christ” (“The Jesus”). And what does he
drink at the grocery? Okay, I know, it’s a crazy stretch, probably a
coincidence, but I love the suggestion of “dual nature of Christ” in
the carton of half-and-half. (Cathleen Falsani has a whole book on this, by the
way: The Dude Abides: The Gospel According
to the Coen Brothers

The Coens love the fact that God uses
the small and humble people of the world to shame the greater. 

MZS: Well, I didn’t want to come at this head-on, because it seems very un-Coen-like, but you went there first: I take it you believe that the Coens believe in God?

JO: Accept the mystery.

Okay, more directly: I think they believe
in grace. I think that they’re likely to give the great mystery enough respect
that they won’t name him. They’d rather show than tell. Or, if you will — they
don’t believe in God, they believe in G-d. That’s my inclination.

But then again, many great artists
who profess to profound doubts, cynicism, agnosticism, have given us inspiring theological art. Listen to Woody Allen say he doesn’t believe in
right and wrong, or good and evil, or God. But then he tells stories about men
who, when they commit all manner of sins, are haunted, conflicted,

Perhaps the Coens’ films are another
case of the art knowing more than the artists. And that is what should matter
anyway. I don’t much care what the artist believes. I care to discern what the
art reveals.

Annie Dillard once wrote, “There
is no such thing as an artist: there is only the world, lit or unlit as the
light allows. When the candle is burning, who looks at the wick? When the
candle is out, who needs it? But the world without light is wasteland and
chaos, and a life without sacrifice is abomination.” I love that. Give me
the work and its mystery. Don’t ask me what the artist believes.

nullMZS: Then what do you think the work reveals, about God, about faith, about the possibility of a moral code that can help us make sense of things? I feel like the Coens are very culturally conservative beneath it all, and not anything close to the snickering secular humanists you might think they are, considering their reputation as pranksters. I felt like the Nihilists in The Big Lebowski were the Coens’ playful mockery of critics who’ve called them Nihilists—”Ja, we are nihilists, we believe in nothing!” they repeat, chasing the hero through his dreams with huge castrating scissors. The Coens aren’t nihilists. They believe in something. And yet they don’t spell that something out. It emerges organically while you’re watching their films, maybe because they’re not entirely sure what “it” is, either. They can see the contours but not the details, maybe? It’s tricky and very subjective, what they’re doing, and what we’re doing as we watch they’re doing. It’s like looking for shapes in clouds. You see what you want to see, and maybe you’re right to see it, or maybe if you were a couple of miles in the other direction you’d see something else entirely. 

There’s an aspect to their work that reminds me of going to Sunday school as a kid, and I don’t mean that as a knock, not at all. It also reminds me of hearing my grandfather tell stories about his childhood by way of moral instruction. They’re illuminating the universe, or at least exploring it. But they’re not going about it in a didactic way. There’s something fundamentally humble about them, as visually and structurally and generically flamboyant as they sometimes are. I feel like they’re figuring things out, too—figuring themselves out, figuring the world out, and laughing at themselves, and the rest of us, for thinking there’s An Answer to anything.

JO: I get why it reminds you of Sunday School,
but I never get the sense that they’re lecturing. I get the sense that they’re
holding up a mirror to all of humanity, themselves included, and showing us
what a hilarious and pathetic mess we all — Coens included — make of things. I
think Barton Fink has self-critique
built into it — they’re making intellectual movies, but they know that even
ambitious art like that can only go so far. Their constant nods to Sullivan’s Travels, especially in Hudsucker and O Brother, tell us that they know that there is redemption in a
certain kind of self-effacing laughter. I suspect they see themselves as Larry Gopniks…
exasperated by the insanity in the people around them, but then capable of
perpetuating that same destruction with their own judgmentalism and compromise.

What many people perceive as
condescension, as “sneering at their characters” … I disagree with
that characterization. I tend to see that as a sign of their humility, maybe
even compassion, and above all… affection. We are deeply moved when Tom Reagan
shows mercy to Bernie in Miller’s
. We feel that something has died when he becomes the figure of
wrath later. Visceral responses like that are what we need in order to remember
what is really at stake in this world. And I love their films for triggering
those responses, and making me look for signs of beauty and grace in this
world. As Dylan sings – and I can’t wait to see them visit Dylan’s scene in
their next film! — “It’s not dark yet, but it’s gettin’ there.”

nullChuck Jones clearly loved his Looney Toons characters. He loved their language, their exaggerated features, their cleverness, their vanity, their folly. But he loved those characters. And his depictions of human folly in the circus of those cartoons was a form of insightful humility, about all of us ridiculous human beings. So I think the Coens’ work disturbs audiences because it reminds us that, contrary to so many Hollywood messages, “being good” isn’t the answer. Being good is good, but—as Bill Murray says in Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom—it isn’t enough to fix things. Their movies “ring true” when they remind us that there is a “wrath that’s about to set down,” as Rooster Cogburn says. If that wasn’t true, it wouldn’t strike such a resonant chord in audiences. The Lone Biker of the Apocalypse in Raising Arizona is coming, and there’s something elemental and true about him. We ourselves have unleashed him, as H.I. declares. In No Country, we’re warned that we “can’t stop what’s comin’.” There is a moral code, yes, and we violate it in countless ways. We’re screwed.

But their work doesn’t stop there. It engages and encourages us by leaving us with moments that transcend all of that doom, all of that destruction. Their suggestion of the possibility of grace is not so much a sermon proclamation as a desperate hope.

And it wouldn’t move us so deeply if the anticipation of grace weren’t built into us somehow. It moves us because, on some level, we know it’s true.

Jeffrey Overstreet is the author of a “memoir of dangerous moviegoing” called Through a Screen Darkly, and a four-volume series of fantasy novels called The Auralia Thread, which includes Auralia’s Colors, Cyndere’s Midnight, Raven’s Ladder, and The Ale Boy’s Feast. Jeffrey is a contributing editor for Seattle Pacific University’s Response magazine, and he writes about art, faith, and culture for Image, Filmwell, and his own website,

Matt Zoller Seitz is the co-founder of Press Play. His book-length interview with Wes Anderson, The Wes Anderson Collection, will be published in October, 2013, by Abrams Books. 

Chaos and Repair: Reclaiming THE LADYKILLERS

Chaos and Repair: Reclaiming THE LADYKILLERS


[Editor’s Note: This review originally appeared in the April 13, 2004 edition of New York Press.]

After 20 years of making movies, the Coens still don’t get the acclaim they deserve. Even in rave reviews, one senses a mistrust that originates in their perceived esthetic violations: their supposed hipness and detachment, their unwillingness to create “realistic” characters, their fondness for homage and pastiche and most of all, their relentless pursuit of visual and rhythmic perfection. They have been cited as smarty-pants pranksters who believe in nothing and are content to make movies about movies.

The latter sentiments were summarized in Anthony Lane’s April 5 New Yorker review, which called their remake of the Ealing comedy The Ladykillers “dead in the water” and posed the rhetorical question, “Are these super-controlled filmmakers content with a career as pasticheurs?” Lane’s dismissal was prefigured in a more thorough and respectful 2000 Film Comment piece on O Brother, Where Art Thou?, in which writer-editor Kent Jones said many positive and even rapturous things about the Coens, yet still seemed unwilling to embrace their work in its totality. “In the end,” Jones writes, “no matter how much you’ve been entertained, you’re left with the nagging questions: who are the Coen Brothers and where are they coming from? Even Kubrick, the one cinematic idol whose shadow falls over Joel and Ethan’s playground, never hid himself so completely within his work.”

But even if we assume every charge leveled against the Coens is true, a fan is still entitled to reply, “So what?” If the above qualities are indeed cinematic crimes, then Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Carol Reed, Akira Kurosawa, Orson Welles and Kubrick should be deemed arch-criminals, and the Coens should trumpet their own guilt from the highest rooftop and urge fellow filmmakers to embark on like-minded lawbreaking sprees. If there’s an obvious downside to their approach, it’s that it’s so outwardly “perfect” that it encourages critics to deface each movie’s smooth surface rather than probe its roiling depths. That’s a shame, because the unity and complexity of the Coens’ work has few equals in modern cinema.

Furthermore, contrary to charges that they believe in nothing, I think the Coens are among the most moral (even moralistic) directors alive. Most (but not all) of their pictures are morality plays that deflate the selfishness and pomposity of individuals while finding good even in the most flawed social orders. Their films also insist, unfashionably, that there really is good and evil, and that while good is usually more naive than evil, it is (lucky for us) more stubborn and orderly.

nullConsider, for example, the fact that most Coen films revolve around showdowns between ego figures and id figures. (Think of the super-domestic mom in Raising Arizona, fighting to keep her reformed outlaw husband from being “seduced” by a pair of prison escapees and a demonic biker figure who first appears in a dream. Think also of Fargo, which contrasted pregnant cop Marge’s super-orderly, even dull home life against the random, whoremongering viciousness of the film’s nomadic criminals.) Think also of the Coens’ subtextual suggestion, in film after film, that even when evil is often stronger, cleverer, more charismatic and more ruthless than good, evil often destroys itself anyway because it’s more chaotic, more id-driven, than good, and thus more unstable. Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, The Hudsucker Proxy and Fargo all revolve around criminal schemes that ultimately collapse beneath the weight of their participants’ accumulated selfishness, dishonesty and bravado (with help from a clever hero, or a deus ex machina). The buried narrative of most (though not all) Coen movies finds an orderly universe being plunged into chaos, then meticulously repaired. The repair work is often performed by disreputable outsider heroes (Jeff Lebowski, Marge in Fargo, Tom in Miller’s Crossing) who do good under the radar, so deftly (or instinctively) that society has no clue how much it owes them.

The Ladykillers is a Coen film par excellence. Yes, it’s a goofy, even frothy black comedy, a five-finger exercise from filmmakers who specialize in baroque contraptionist concertos. But it’s still a masterfully assembled picture on serious themes. More significantly, it contrasts good guys who believe in social order, a higher power and an eternal reward against fringe-dwelling bad guys who care for little besides money.

nullTom Hanks’ criminal “mastermind,” Professor Goldthwait Higginson Dorr, a pretentious dandy who dresses like Colonel Sanders and talks like a cross between James Lipton and Wile E. Coyote, supergenius, is obviously a devil figure, like the biker in Raising Arizona, or Robert Mitchum’s preacher in The Night of the Hunter. He first appears while decent church-going old lady Marva Munson (Irma P. Hall) is talking to a portrait of her late husband, whose supernatural presence is certified by a point-of-view shot that looks down on Marva’s orderly living room from above. Dorr’s arrival is heralded by a sudden gust of wind that makes a candle flame flicker, and a shot of Dorr’s spooky silhouette against the window glass of Marva’s front door. Under the guise of renting a room and securing rehearsal space for his Renaissance and Rococo ensemble, the bad guy assembles a team of lowlife experts to tunnel through the wall of Marva’s basement and steal money from the nearby vault of a casino. The casino’s employees include Dorr’s inside man, the idiot casino janitor Gawain MacSam (Marlon Wayans), a foulmouthed cretin who wears a dollar-sign necklace.

Without spoiling any plot twists or visual surprises, suffice it to say that while the Coens deflate the pretensions of each major character, no matter what part of the moral spectrum they inhabit, the film ultimately expresses approval of Marva and disdain for Dorr and his band of scurvy dolts. The Coens’ opposition of good and evil, chaos and order is so basic it’s nearly Manichean. Marva’s pastor warns his parishioners that society is decaying from a lack of morality and its citizens are worshiping false idols and indulging “declining, backsliding, never-minding sinners!” The movie’s soundtrack, supervised by regular collaborator T. Bone Burnett, contrasts the materialistic, mostly secular culture of hip-hop (represented on the soundtrack by “Another Day, Another Dollar”) against the steadfast spirituality of gospel (represented by such on-the-nose titles as “Trouble of this World”).

Like Lillian Gish’s holy maternal figure in The Night of the Hunter, Marva is sweetly incorruptible, the rock of decency Dorr’s gang of sleazy nitwits must dash itself against. Building on the original Ealing comedy by raising the spiritual stakes, the Coens depict criminals as literal lowlifes who do their dirty work in basements and tunnels, turn on each other like rats, and in the end, deserve to be disposed of like garbage. The systematic extermination of Dorr and company seems to be carried out not by any one character, but by unseen supernatural forces– Marva’s dearly departed but still watchful husband, perhaps, or even God himself. The Ladykillers may be silly, but it takes morality seriously. One wishes more critics would accord the same privilege to the Coens’ films.

Matt Zoller Seitz is the co-founder of Press Play.

VIDEO ESSAY: Pacino: Full Roar

VIDEO ESSAY: Pacino: Full Roar

I could not stop laughing as I watched Nelson Carvajal’s “Al
Pacino: Full Roar”—not just because it’s the most entertaining
collection of over-the-top moments since Harry Hanrahan’s “Nicolas Cage
Losing His Shit,” but because Pacino is and always has been a theatrical
actor, delightfully so—a performer who manages to be big even when
he’s trying to be small. There’s an overabundance of every emotion in
every moment Pacino inhabits and in every move he makes. He sings the
body electric; sometimes he screams it. He’s a stripped electrical wire
zapping lightning bolts into the air like those transformers in the old
Universal horror films. Even when his characters are hiding or
repressing things, they seem on the verge of imploding or exploding,
transforming or mutating. When, in The Devil’s Advocate, Pacino’s Satan
launches into his “absentee landlord” monologue and his face is
momentarily lit up by pulses of volcanic red, it takes a moment to
register it as a lighting effect, so naturally does it seem to express
the lethal petulance streaming from the character’s eyes, mouth, and
jabbing fingers. 

We live for these sorts of moments. Pacino can be
wonderful when working small—see the first two Godfather films, the
quiet parts of Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon, his under-seen and perhaps
forgotten Bobby Deerfield, and the more Willy Loman-like interludes in
Donnie Brasco, in which Pacino is more likely to flinch from pain than
dish it out. But introversion and reflection didn’t make him a star;
explosiveness did, and whether he arrives at it via “slow burn” buildup,
as in the Godfather films, or launches into it full-throttle from frame
one and never takes his foot off the gas (Heat, baby), it’s invariably
as thrilling as the sight of Jack Nicholson tearing somebody a new one,
or Sean Penn contorting his face into a wet-eyed ball of anguish, or Nic
Cage being Nic Cage. You listen to the whisper while waiting for THE
Matt Zoller Seitz

VIDEO ESSAY: Peter Andrews: The Soderbergh Vision

VIDEO ESSAY: Peter Andrews: The Soderbergh Vision

“My policy is to have my name on a movie only once,” says Steven Soderbergh, so quoted by video essayist Nelson Carvajal. “Having your name once increases the impact of that credit because I think every time you put your name up there, you’re actually diluting it.”

That’s why Soderbergh, who isn’t quite a one-man-band auteur but comes close, doesn’t put “Edited by Steven Soderbergh” and “Director of Photography: Steven Soderbergh” on his movies, even though most of the time it’s true. The filmmaker employs pseudonyms: respectively, “Mary Ann Bernard” for his editing credit (his mom’s maiden name) and “Peter Andrews” for his cinematography credit (his dad’s first and middle names).

Nelson’s video essay focuses on Peter Andrews, aka Soderbergh the Cinematographer. Soderbergh caused a minor stir back in 1999 when he announced that he was going to serve as director of photography on his drug drama Traffic, an ensemble story with multiple, parallel subplots. Soderbergh was DP on his mockumentary Schizopolis, and he’d had previously served as his own camera operator on other films, even ones that had separate, credited cinematographers, because he likes the intimacy that results when a director personally covers actors’ performances, adjusting framing as he goes and cutting out the middleman, so to speak. Much of the film was shot handheld, with relatively lightweight, 35mm Panavision XL cameras, often from a slight distance, but zoomed in, to give the actors a bit of space and to contribute to a documentary-like aesthetic, intimate yet respectfully distanced. Soderbergh had been moving in this creative direction for years, and arguably perfected the approach in his two previous movies, The Limey and Erin Brockovich (with cinematographer Ed Lachman). Soderbergh shot the film’s three main storylines in three strikingly different visual styles (discussed in some detail here) to help audiences instantly differentiate them. Although he seemed to bite off more than he could realistically chew—half of the first day’s footage proved unusable—he got a handle on things, and the film’s look was widely analyzed at the time and is still imitated. Breaking Bad even cribbed the brown “tobacco filter” used in Traffic’s Mexican sequences for its own south-of-the-border scenes.

“Peter Andrews” became more comfortable and offhandedly ambitious over the years, working both in film and video throughout the aughts; 2001’s Ocean’s Eleven and 2002’s Solaris were shot on 35mm film, lushly so, while the improvised 2002 Hollywood satire Full Frontal, the 2004 HBO series K Street, and the star-free 2005 neorealist crime drama Bubble were shot with rather modest video equipment. Soderbergh has increasingly gravitated toward video as image quality improved and the equipment became increasingly portable. As he explains in this video, he likes to shoot and edit quickly, the better to see the finished product and then move on to the next thing, whatever that turns out to be.

As you can see in Nelson’s compilation, Soderbergh isn’t interested in forcing his media to be something they aren’t naturally inclined to be. When he worked in celluloid, he tended to work with the properties of particular film stocks rather than pushing against them; he didn’t seem to mind graininess or slight under- or over-exposure as long as the story got told, and for the most part he made the capture of performance and the rhythms of cutting more of a priority than visual gloss or compositional perfection. When he started working extensively in video in the early aughts—by which point he was serving as his own pseudonymous director of photography—he didn’t seem to lose a wink of sleep over whether laypersons could tell that something was shot electronically rather than chemically. He wasn’t afraid of blown-out windows (one of the most recognizable tells of shot-on-video movies) and when he shot handheld, he didn’t try to disguise the fact that he was working with very light, at times seemingly weightless cameras. This isn’t to say that he was an aesthetically sloppy cinematographer (the locked-down, meticulously framed images in 2005’s Bubble prove otherwise)—just that, to use a fine arts metaphor, he didn’t pretend that watercolor was oil paint, or that paper was canvas.

Video is more conducive to Soderbergh’s nimble formalist mindset than film, a medium whose images cannot be accurately judged until the movie is completely edited, color timed, and printed. True, it’s possible to check focus and framing of filmed images on set by way of a video “tap,” which shows an approximation of the image on a monitor; but video (especially high-def video from the last decade or so) removes a lot of the guesswork, because when you’re shooting electronically, what you see in the monitor on set is very close to what the movie will look like when it’s done, give or take some exposure tinkering, color correction, CGI, paint-outs and the like. Video is also much more amenable to available light, and Soderbergh has always hated having to light actors and sets; he believes it saps the momentum of performances and kills immediacy, and anyone who’s ever acted for the camera will tell you that he has a point. Prizing available light and emotional momentum over the minute details of light, shade and texture won’t win a filmmaker too many accolades as a stylist. (“He saves time by not going into all that other unnecessary ‘lighting’ stuff DP’s sometimes talk about,” one film buff said in an online forum. “He never seems to let composition, camera movement and, from what I’ve heard, proper exposure dictate story either,” another countered.) But his post-2000 output is striking, albeit in a rough, Ken Loach-like way. And there’s a hell of a lot to nitpick. If “Peter Andrews” had fussed over every frame of a Steven Soderbergh production, Soderbergh would not have directed or co-directed 16 feature films, one cable movie, one cable series, two documentaries and two shorts since 2000.

The last feature film that “Peter Andrews” shot on 35mm film was 2007’s Oceans 13. Every movie after that was shot electronically. After using the high-definition Red video camera  to shoot  2008’s Che—a two-part, four hour biopic of Che Guevara, starring Soderbergh’s Oscar-winning Traffic collaborator Benecio del Toro—the director abandoned film and never looked back. “This is the camera I’ve been waiting for my whole career,” he said at the time. “Jaw-dropping imagery, recorded on board a camera light enough to hold with one hand… Red is going to change everything.” And it did. Soderbergh shot most of his subsequent projects with versions of the Red camera, including The Girlfriend Experience and The Informant! The brand has become one of the workhorse photographic systems for cinema and television; Louis C.K. shoots his series Louie on the Red, and Peter Jackson shot all three parts of The Hobbit with the Red, after having shot the original, Oscar-winning trilogy on Super 35mm film.

“Since I act as my own cinematographer, one thing I’ve had to learn is how to make things look not so good, to be able to go into a space and recognize this is the way this looks, and it’s not always my job to make everything look pretty,” Soderbergh told The Chicago Tribune in an interview about his 2012 hit Magic Mike. “It’s supposed to look real sometimes. I’m weirdly proud of scenes where I’ve let things look the way they look. To me it’s a sign of maturity.”–Matt Zoller Seitz

Nelson Carvajal is an independent digital filmmaker, writer and content
creator based out of Chicago, Illinois. His digital short films usually
contain appropriated content and have screened at such venues as the London Underground Film Festival. Carvajal runs a blog called FREE CINEMA NOW which boasts the tagline: “Liberating Independent Film And Video From A Prehistoric Value System.” You can follow Nelson on Twitter here.

Matt Zoller Seitz is the co-founder of Press Play.

Steven Spielberg, Hollywood Historian: A Debate Between Matt Zoller Seitz and Tom Carson

Steven Spielberg, Hollywood Historian: A Debate Between Matt Zoller Seitz and Tom Carson


[Publisher’s Note: I’ve been arguing with film and TV critic Tom Carson for over a decade, over all sorts of issues. One is the relative merit, or lack thereof, of the films of Steven Spielberg, about whom I’m quite enthusiastic; Tom, not so much. Tom’s recent, highly skeptical take on Schindler’s List in The American Prospect sparked a chain of emails between us. We talked about Spielberg, history, Hollywood, the relationship between showmanship and truth, and other thorny issues. Read on, and feel free to argue with either (or both) of us in the comments.—Matt Zoller Seitz]

Matt Zoller Seitz: It’s fascinating to me that, after all these decades, and after so many Oscars and Oscar nominations and such a gigantic box-office take, Steven Spielberg is still considered an “issue.”

Tom Carson: Then we must read very different stuff online, because one reason I get so contrary about him is the amount of uncritical reverence he attracts.

MZS: I don’t get the “uncritical reverence” thing at all. The industry has canonized him for financial as well as “respectability” reasons—to Hollywood, he’s like Walt Disney, Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kramer, and maybe Cecil B. DeMille rolled into one, and they’ve certainly given him every award in existence at some point or another. But I wouldn’t describe the critical or even popular reception as purely adulatory. The numerous takedowns of Lincoln this past year seem to me like proof of that.

TC:  But even when people find fault with a particular movie of his, he’s on a sort of hallowed plane I mistrust. Interestingly, in my experience, that’s especially true among younger movie buffs — who might be expected to think of Spielberg as an oldie and, you know, chafe a bit. Instead, he seems to be a hallowed figure to them, the guy who defines what movies can be.

MZS: Not a week goes by that I don’t see somebody on social media linking to a think piece or an interview with some other filmmaker decrying Spielberg as a rank sentimentalist, a hack, a fascist with a smiley face, or some combination. You’ve had serious problems with him for quite some time, Tom, and since I’ve been arguing with you about him for years now, I thought it might be fun to argue about him here.

The spark for this is your recent piece for The American Prospect, keyed into the 20th anniversary of Schindler’s List. It took the film to task for some of the same reasons that Stanley Kubrick disliked it—for, in essence, finding a triumphant story within a narrative of genocide.

This isn’t the first time you’ve been very skeptical about one of his historical films. I still remember your Esquire piece from 1999, after Saving Private Ryan came out and became a cultural phenomenon. It included a line so provocative that it made me write a whole rebuttal in New York Press: “Honestly, I can’t see much that Hitler would have wanted changed in Saving Private Ryan, except the color of the uniforms.” And this: “It’s a weird reversal of the usual proportions of the selfless-gallantry genre, in which one man dies to save many. As a parable of this nation’s World War II sacrifices, the story would be truer to what the GIs deserve being honored for if Ryan were a European. Then again, Saving Monsieur Renault might not have gripped the modern Stateside audience: Who cares about some damn snail eater? Instead, in a way that’s both solipsistic and tautological, saving the world gets redefined as saving ourselves–which must mean we are the world.”

Is it possible to sum up what it is about Spielberg that irks you so? Is it his filmmaking, his choice of subjects, his world view, or some combination?

TC:  Every problem I have with Spielberg starts with conceding his brilliance as a filmmaker. That’s particularly true when he’s giving us one of his 20th-century history lessons. With both SPR and Schindler’s List, there’s a way that his depiction of the event gets conflated with, or even outright supercedes, the event itself. If you find fault with those movies, you’re indifferent to the GIs’ sacrifices or the Holocaust’s evil. And since I care a lot about history, I care a lot about those movies’ inadequacies in substituting for the real thing in people’s minds.

If the comparison isn’t too incongruous, it’s a bit like the way the Disney versions of classic children’s stories have become the quasi-official ones. I don’t want Spielberg’s idea of the Normandy invasion to be the authoritative one any more than I want the Disney version of The Jungle Book to replace Kipling. But my animus may have something to do with the fact that The Jungle Book and Cornelius Ryan’s The Longest Day are two books I knew practically by heart at age 10.  
MZS: Well, I think what Spielberg is doing in these historical films is a more sophisticated than he’s being given credit for. He’s working in that Stanley Kramer vein—which is to say, on the most basic level, at the level of glossy Hollywood entertainment—but I don’t necessarily think the takeaway of his historical films is as simplistic as detractors say.

For instance, Schindler’s List, to me, doesn’t feel like a triumph-of-the-human-spirit movie at all, because it constantly makes us aware that this is an anomalous story; a lot of innocent people die onscreen in the film, and it’s portrayed with an almost Kubrickian level of cold absurdity, such as that scene where the young Jewish woman architect tells the Nazi officers that their architecture plans are subpar, and they take her advice to heart, then shoot her anyway.

I can’t think of another mainstream American film that explores the sick intricacies and self-justifying anti-logic of fascism and antisemitism as thoroughly as Schindler’s List does. I think the question, “How could a thing like this happen?” is asked and answered in the movie in a no-fuss, very pragmatic way: It happened, and the explanation is less important than the fact of all that moral inaction/complicity/corruption happening in every corner of the film.

The moment where Schindler observes the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto from afar, and suddenly sees this one little girl with a red coat, is a brilliant moment, one that challenges the audience in a clever, almost subliminal way. Schindler doesn’t personally know any of the people he’s watching suffer, but that splash of red indicates that he individualized this one abstraction, this one child, for whatever inscrutable personal reason. Suddenly the abstraction isn’t abstract anymore, and that launches him into this secret, very risky mission to save as many people as he can, at great risk to himself. That’s all it takes. And the implication is, that’s all it should take for anyone. I don’t think Schindler’s List devalues the magnitude of the Holocaust at all. I think it refuses to stop at the horror, refuses to put it in the past and declare it a mysterious, unanswerable horror, something sacred that you can never even depict for fear of trivializing it. I think it’s taking a much more common sense approach, a present tense, “What does this mean now?” approach, and saying something like, “It is possible to just make up your mind to give a damn about people you think have no connection to you—to just decide to care, and then to take action.”

We’re all Schindler, standing on that hillside watching horrors happen far away; we all could decide to add a splash of color to one person’s distant grey coat, and suddenly we’re invested, and it’s not as inscrutably difficult as we might make the process out to be. Maybe we intellectualize the basic issues too much.

That’s what I get out of Schindler’s List, and I think it’s hugely valuable. Is it naïve or corny to respond to a message like that? Or is refusing to respond to a message like than an indication of the sort of moral paralysis that enables atrocities to happen in the first place? There’s an anger, a furious present-tense anger, in Spielberg’s depiction of Nazi violence against Jews that caught me by surprise back in 1993, that still feels fresh, and that I believe is of great value and purpose.

Most Holocaust movies, whether dramas or documentaries, are a lament for something that happened a long time ago, and that has been sort of entombed by history, or by history books. When we say that a movie makes history “come alive,” it’s always a veiled admission that for most of us, anything that happened before we were born is a dead thing, dead to us, in the past, irrelevant except in terms of academic study or maybe political comparison. The history in Spielberg’s movies is not that way. Once you get past the bracketing devices, which I mostly don’t care for, and you’re in the thick of it, it’s happening now. You’re right in the middle of things. Suddenly what’s past has become present tense.

Schindler’s List might be Spielberg’s best example of this sort of approach to history. It’s got a dramatic-personal arc for the main character, and humor, and pathos/sentiment. But mostly it’s angry. It’s angry that these events happened in the first place. I mean, truly angry. Incredulously angry. Some of the more blackly humorous, Strangelove-ian depictions of German illogic are scathing. You can feel the filmmaker going, “You’ve got to be kidding me . . . How insane is this? How ridiculous is this? And what kind of spineless, ass-covering cowards would stand around letting something like this happen, for fear of losing their property or their social station?” It’s a primal response that is at times closer to what you’d expect from somebody like Oliver Stone than from Steven Spielberg, who is not know for his anger.

I love that sense of revulsion, the sense that the whole movie is shuddering in recoil. This movie holds the audience to a higher moral standard than most movies about the Holocaust, by not keeping the horror safely in the past, by making the violence present tense and battering you with it. And it’s really important to point out, again, that this movie is aimed at a general audience, at the widest possible viewership, and that most of the people seeing this have perhaps not imagined themselves into the situation as extensively as a history buff might have already done, or as a documentary buff might have already done. Job number one for a film of this type is to immerse the viewer and make the situations feel immediate, to spark an emotional understanding. And on that score, large parts of this film—and parts of Spielberg’s other historical dramas—are very successful. I don’t see how one could look at the movie and not think, “What would I do in this situation? If I were part of the ruling class, or one of the so-called ‘good Germans,’ would I risk everything the way Schindler did?”

For all the awards the film has won, I don’t think it has ever really been given proper credit for that.

The Girl’s Red Coat and Dorothy’s Ruby Slippers

TC: If you compare my two pieces, it should be obvious that I think more highly of Schindler’s List than I do of SPR. My problems with the former have to do with how the third act does, in my view, shunt aside the horror of mass death in favor of sentimentality about the handful of people Schindler saved. To my mind, there’s an equation between that red coat and Dorothy’s red ruby slippers—she’s The One—and what about the thousands of children sent to the gas chambers who got stuck wearing gray that day? I’m as grateful as anyone that Anne Frank is famous because we have her testimony.  But at some level, to single out an individual victim of the Holocaust is to deny the horror of its anonymity. Like, if the kid hadn’t been so noticeable—and sorry, but she’s as cute and tough as Shirley Temple, guiding our responses somewhat—Schindler’s conscience wouldn’t have been stirred?

By and large—because I do admire how Goeth is characterized, and we’ll get to that—I also don’t agree with you that the movie is really all that informative about the nature of anti-Semitism or how the Holocaust came to be, since a viewer without prior awareness wouldn’t find much that explains either. Its power comes from re-creating the Holocaust’s atrocities so intensely that you feel you’re watching—or, if you’re susceptible, almost experiencing—the real thing. That bothers me. We have a lot of newsreel documentation of the actual camps, and the paradox is that Spielberg’s very scrupulous and horrific facsimile ends up having more authority for the audience because it’s superior as filmmaking. There’s something disturbing about the fake version replacing the documentary one at that level.

MZS: I don’t agree. Where Spielberg excels is where narrative cinema itself excels: at helping you understand the physical, visceral experience of going through something, whether it’s a mundane contemporary moment or some grand historical turning point. Where Spielberg flounders, I think, is when his films are trying to hard to put things in perspective, to put a frame around it. The strongest section of Amistad for me is that flashback to the Middle Passage, which conveys the full physical as well as moral (immoral) reality of the slave trade better than any mainstream American film or TV production ever had. The lived experience of being under fire and seeing people blown up around you is the most valuable and memorable part of Saving Private Ryan, although that film’s “men on a mission” template tends to turn a story with Apocalypse Now/Dr. Strangelove absurdist aspects into something that feels, or plays, much more conventionally. The guys argue about the logic or necessity of saving this one guy, but the movie makes it clear from the very beginning that they’re risking soldiers’ lives for a symbolic or PR gesture. And even at the end, the film has a deceptively complex/simple way of asking if it was all worth it: it’s concluding, I think, “Yes, it was worth it, in that they saved this one guy’s life, and that’s what you can take out of it—and maybe it’s the only unambiguously positive thing to come out of it all.”

But you’re still aware that almost everyone else in the platoon died, and they all had lives, too, lives that were just as valuable as Ryan’s.

The film is bracketed with those cemetery scenes, which are admittedly very sentimental and perhaps unnecessary from a plot standpoint, but even those aren’t as straightforward as they initially read. We start and end with an image of the American flag, but it’s not a robust, pristine, poster-ready image of a flag. The flag is tattered, and the sun is behind it. You see the flag, but you also see through the flag, a multi-valent image that might be—as odd as this sounds!—too subtle for the intended audience. Visually Spielberg is incredibly subtle, even when he’s being loud and spectacular, but those kinds of subtleties tend to get lost in the din.

The lived experience of those Schindler’s List atrocities are the most valuable aspect of the film—that and the practical response on the part of Schindler, which is to say “I need to do something about this.” That we never know why he did it is one of the reasons I respect the film as popular art, that “One more life” scene notwithstanding, which I really wish the film had done without.

But that’s the biggest problem for Spielberg, as far as this fan is concerned; that tendency—as a New York Times Magazine piece put it, back in 1999—to put ketchup on a perfectly good steak. Which might or might not be a whole other issue?

TC: Well, let’s start with your line “The lived experience of being under fire and seeing people blown up around you is the most valuable and memorable part of Saving Private Ryan. . .”, which is the heart of the problem for me. It isn’t a lived experience; it’s an illusion, brought off with great directorial flair and technological skill. To me, there’s a danger in people watching SPR and thinking they now know what It Was Really Like—much less How It Really Felt. They don’t and I don’t either. It used to be that movies simply couldn’t approximate — and, indeed, heighten and hyperbolize—reality in this way, and I question whether that’s a desirable goal.

Since I do know my D-Day history, I could also bore you with all the things SPR gets wrong or deliberately falsifies for excitement’s sake, which would obviously be less troublesome if people weren’t convinced that they were seeing D-Day exactly as it was. Beyond that, what I most dislike about SPR is its distasteful, bizarrely Wagnerian mysticism about sacrifice without reasoning why, which goes against the grain of everything I admire the GIs for and is the reason I never tire of saying that this is the kind of WWII movie the Germans would have made if they’d won it.

It doesn’t seem to me that Spielberg treats the mission as absurdist or reminds us—satirically or otherwise—that in some ways it’s PR. It treats saving Ryan as noble, with Hanks’s valedictory “Earn it” compensating for any illogic in all these guys dying to save just one.

And yes, the ketchup-on-steak problem is an abiding one. I really dislike both Schindler’s “And here are the real Schindler Jews!” epilogue and SPR‘s present-day frame story, though for somewhat different reasons. In one case, Spielberg is using the actual survivors to validate his movie, and in the other, the implication that Ryan—and by extension, America—has indeed “earned it” is both nonsensical and offensive to me. 

nullMZS: Again, I don’t think SPR ever comes out and says, “Yes, we ‘earned it'”, whatever that phrase means. Not in a political or historical sense. It’s just one guy talking to another guy as he’s dying, saying, “Don’t let this personal sacrifice become meaningless.” Whatever that means to Ryan is whatever that means to Ryan, and there’s no indication that he became a senator or CEO or the head of a movie studio. He’s just some old guy visiting the cemetery with his wife and family. I don’t really see a “by extension, America” in that bracketing device, though John Williams’ score confuses the issue, as it so often does.

TC: I’ve complained many times that Spielberg’s reliance on Williams is an artistic flaw. Even when a scene is emotionally complex and ambiguous, he often (not always) lets Williams undermine that by spelling out the obvious, non-ironic reaction, which is a form of either artistic cowardice or pop-culture casuistry. I can’t stand how little Spielberg trusts the audience most of the time.

As for the “We earned it” thing, I was unaware that the United States participated in WWII as a self-improvement project.  What moves me most about the real GIs—incidentally, a very disgruntled, reluctant draftee army, not nearly as thrilled by or expert at warfare as the Germans were under Hitler—is that they ended up dying to liberate all these strangers in foreign lands that they had no connection to and whose languages they didn’t even speak. SPR makes it all about us, and I think the coda scene when the elderly Ryan asks, “Have I been a good man? Have I led a good life?” and wifey reassures him he’s done great is a pretty unmistakable benediction on that whole generation.null

Spielberg the Showman vs. Spielberg the Artist

MZS: Spielberg the showman and Spielberg the artist are inextricably intertwined, and sometimes they get tangled up, if you know what I mean. But I think he’s doing consistently subtle work in an unsubtle mode. Compare Saving Private Ryan to, say, Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor—that’s a film that I think is truly guilty of the sins you ascribe to Ryan, and has none of the residual ambivalence that makes Ryan fascinating even when it’s irritating or problematic. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt gets up out of a wheelchair in that one to chew out the joint chiefs of staff for being pussies!

TC:  Well, bringing Pearl Harbor in as a point of comparison could turn me into a shrieking Spielberg fan in one second flat. I may have my problems with Saving Private Ryan, but it’s a serious movie that’s worth arguing about and not a travesty. I almost stood up and started shouting obscenities in the theater when Bay did that cutesy bit with the two American fighter planes flipping vertical to avoid crashing. It’s the “day of infamy” and he wants to make audiences laugh with a cool stunt.

MZS: The point is, I think there’s value in a kind of national reckoning blockbuster of this sort, and that it’s easy to lose sight of its utility when you’re a critic. Hotel Terminus is a far more sophisticated film about moral inaction in the fact of Nazi corruption and cruelty than Schindler’s List. But it’s a documentary, and done in a mode that is for a variety of reasons is simply incapable of reaching as large a number of people as a Spielberg blockbuster.

That’s the rub, ultimately. When you work on the scale that Spielberg works on, you’re basically making a story that consists of woodcuts. Every block has to be simple, pared down, graspable. You’re sort of working simultaneously with the reality and the myth that’s sprung up in its wake and that threatens to displace it. I think you can make popular art in that way and still be able to call it art – I think John Ford proved this quite a few times, though some may disagree – but the downside is, when you work this way, the movie’s complexities are more elusive, and more apt to be drowned out by the elements that are there to make it accessible. You may make something that, in terms of picture and sound, in terms of expression, is powerful, perhaps revelatory, but if it’s not scrupulously faithful to what happened, a lot of people are going to dismiss it anyway as being just a bunch of Hollywood bull.  A bunch of pretty pictures. They’ll say, “Who cares about the form, when there are so many problematic aspects with the content?”

There’s always going to be that nagging question, “Can this even be done? Is it worth making this movie, in this mode, or are we kidding ourselves by even trying?”

TC: I wouldn’t say either Schindler’s List or SPR shouldn’t have been made, no.

But in both cases, I’m bothered by the perception that they’re the definitive, ultimate depiction of the events in question—an idea, as I’ve said elsewhere, Spielberg doesn’t exactly discourage—and that to watch either is the closest thing we’ll ever have to an approximation of the reality (clearly one of Spielberg’s artistic goals).

Even if it is, shouldn’t we accept that some realities aren’t available to us via cinematic mediation and we’re better off not confusing the two? You’re arguing that it’s a good thing for people to have this sort of vicarious experience, and I think it’s a slippery slope in terms of our historical understanding.

You should also feel free to call the next observation a double standard on my part. But I do think this kind of historical re-creation is a different story when the events are well outside anybody’s living memory and we don’t have newsreel records of them to complicate the aesthetic and ethical issues involved in our reaction to seeing them get the Spielberg treatment. I actually think more highly of Amistad than many people do, since we don’t have documentary films of the Middle Passage—or, as a result, any real way of visualizing its horrors *except* via a filmmaker’s version. I also like the underrated way in which the movie’s interest in thorny talkiness—not just compelling action—prefigures Lincoln.

Even so, here’s a counter-example: Spielberg has never tackled 9/11 head-on, and I hope he never will. But he has made two movies that were clearly responses to it—War of the Worlds, which is mostly terrific until the dumb plot starts taking over, and Munich, which is the single movie of his I admire most. Coming at the subject obliquely let him say so much without the quandary of challenging himself to make the World Trade Center’s fall even more vivid to audiences—and, therefore, more exciting, the inevitable downside of Spielbergization—than the TV footage we all watched over and over. So I prefer him in that indirect but eloquent mode to the “This is what it was really like” task he sets himself in SPR and Schindler’s List, which has a built-in fallacy, to my eyes.

For instance, as I hinted earlier, I do admire the treatment of Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List. The way he’s at once turned on by the chance to unleash his own sadism and a fairly pathetic (even creepily wistful, disgustingly self-pitying) mediocrity does tell us something about Nazism. There are interesting ways that the cutting keeps equating him with Schindler, not for a simple-minded censorious effect, but as if to imply that each man could have gone down the other man’s path if only Goeth hadn’t yielded to the worst in himself while Schindler was discovering the best.

But then the potential psychological complexity of that gives way to the large-scale depictions of the Final Solution’s atrocities, which are ever so slightly marred by showmanship—showmanship in a grim and noble cause, but showmanship nonetheless—and ultimately teach us less than a close-in movie just about Schindler and Goeth (maybe one not even set during the literal Holocaust, who knows?) might have. Does that make sense?

MZS: Yes, it does. It seems sort of a strange corollary of Francois Truffaut’s belief that there is no such thing as a truly anti-war film, since war is such an amazingly cinematic enterprise, always beautiful as spectacle, that to depict it is in some sense to glorify it. I don’t agree with that formulation one hundred percent. I think there are great anti-war films. But he was onto something. And perhaps you are as well, in a different context.null
Are there some places movies shouldn’t go?

MZS: The year 1998 was an important one for big-budget films about World War II. Besides SPR, which was an outwardly very straightforward re-imagining of combat in Europe—one that I’d argue complicated and subverted some of the same cliches that it restaged with such incredible vigor—you had The Thin Red Line, which treated combat in the Pacific theater as a sort of midnight movie theological psychodrama about the effect of war and human civilization on nature. And there were two other films that dealt with the Holocaust in genre terms: Life Is Beautiful, which I think is almost universally reviled now, and Apt Pupil, based on Stephen King’s novella about an American suburban boy falling under the spell of an old ex-Nazi who’s moved into his neighborhood. Both of those movies were accused of being insensitive to history, and with perhaps distorting or falsifying history in a cheap way.

At various points during that year I read pieces about some or all of those films worrying that films shouldn’t even go there, that there’s something morally dicey about it. Jonathan Rosenbaum and J. Hoberman both made similar arguments about Schindler’s List, specifically the shower scene—that even depicting such a thing trivialized it. The argument seemed to be (in part at least) that maybe the best way to honor the horrors of history is not to depict certain aspects of it.

I think this is a counterproductive attitude—that one of the best ways to keep history alive is to let it breathe through popular culture, and take each representation of history as it comes, and judge it in terms of the piece itself, and not just in terms of how faithful it is to the actual record. Historical films aren’t just about what happened, or about preserving some facsimile of what happened, or communicating the factual essence of what happened. They are also snapshots of how we the audience—the culture—feeling and think about what happened. I think what we’re really seeing when we attend a film like SPR or Schindler’s List or Lincoln, or for that matter, Django Unchained or Apt Pupil, is a different kind of history, a record of how we felt about an earlier era at this particular point in time, somewhat removed.

TC: The “there are some places movies just shouldn’t go” argument is one I’m not happy to find myself making, even if it means I’m allied for the nonce with Rosenbaum and Hoberman—two critics I consider Mozart compared to my feeble versions of “Chopsticks.”  But Spielberg is the ultimate test case, I guess—and who knows if I’d be taking the opposite side if we were talking about Gillo Pontecorvo.  So I hope it’s not weaseling to say that the issue isn’t where movies should go so much as how they get there.

For instance, let’s take that famous Schindler shower scene. It excruciatingly recreates every stage of death in the gas chambers except the outcome (including the fact that the women are—accurately—nude, a *very* paradoxical declaration of high moral seriousness). In a way, the historical cheat here is the reverse of Spielberg putting paratroopers behind Omaha Beach (there were none) so he can give us Bloody Omaha up top. Not to be a D-Day pedant, but any troop of Rangers sent to rescue Ryan would have started from the much less bloody and spectacular Utah Beach landing instead. So I kind of knew SPR was fibbing for effect from the start.

But Schindler’s shower scene, to me, is far more morally questionable. The reason it’s there is that, fuck it, Unka Steven was determined to show us Auschwitz—even if the fates of the women we care about turn out to be different than what happened to 99 per cent of the people who got shipped there. For me, Schindler becomes grotesque at the moment the women greet real water coming out of the showerheads with ululations of relief.

That’s only partly because they likely wouldn’t have known “the showers” were usually a lie.  The celebratory note here disgusts me, making Schindler’s Jews “exceptional” in a way I think is vile.  I’d find that whole sequence infinitely more admirable if its ending had been the routine one at Auschwitz—a pile of obscenely dead bodies who had to be shoveled up, checked for gold teeth and carted off to the crematorium, as usual.

Overall, whenever a filmmaker tackles an obvious Harrowing Subject, my magniloquence detector goes on red alert. It’s interesting to compare Spielberg’s WW2 movies to Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s The War, because in the latter, the filmmakers aggrandize themselves via the opposite route, the Ken Burns route—by being mournful and stately, not exciting. They’re still putting their version of icing on the cake, but The War does benefit from using the real footage and images, even if it’s got Yo-Yo Ma sawing away on the soundtrack. 

Which is more valuable in instructing us about What It Was Really Like, which is more morally dubious? 

Tom Carson is the movie critic for GQ and the author of the novels Gilligan’s Wake (2003) and Daisy Buchanan’s Daughter (2011).

Matt Zoller Seitz is the co-founder of Press Play.

VIDEO ESSAY: Breaking the Fourth Wall

VIDEO ESSAY: Breaking the Fourth Wall

Oh, hello there, reader.

I know why you’ve come. You’re here at Press Play to watch Leigh Singer’s awesome supercut of fourth-wall-breaking moments in cinema, aren’t you?

Yes, of course you are! Fess up. Don’t be shy. So saucy! Just look at you, with your bashful, “Oh, dearie me, I just popped over to see if anybody had a new piece up, and oh, look, eye candy, I guess I’ll stick around and watch a minute or two.” Very convincing! Are you a professional actor? A model, perhaps?


Come clean, now. Tell me what clips you expect to see. That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? Listmaking. Seeing if the filmmaker chose the moments you would have picked, and perhaps a few you didn’t know existed. You expect to see Anthony Perkins staring into the camera at the end of Psycho, his face a near-catatonic mask, yet oddly joyous. Or that moment in Annie Hall, maybe—Woody Allen producing Marshall McLuhan to silence a pretentious nimrod in line at the movies. Or the moment in Amelie when the heroine stops being enthralled by a movie just long enough to tell us, “I like turning round and looking at people’s faces the dark.” Or Ferris Bueller or Alfie smarting off. Or Groucho telling us that the obligatory musical number would be a great time to hit the concession stand.

What, too obvious? Too on-the-nose? Well, what about Malcolm McDowell doing his Alex the Droog death-stare in A Clockwork Orange, intercut with an homage to that same moment in the McDowell-starred crime thriller Gangster #1? Or Tyler Durden talking straight into the camera in Fight Club, cut together with Ingmar Bergman’s personality-merging psychodrama Persona? A bit more impressed, then, eh? I was, too. A clever one, this Singer. Very clever. You’ll like his work, I promise.

Don’t skip around, though. Watch the whole thing. There’s rhyme and reason to it, and poetry, and mad inspiration, and internal logic, dream logic… I’m rambling here, distracted, thinking about the music cue he lays down around the 6:00 mark, and smiling.

Oh, and be sure to stick around and watch the credits. They’re quite lengthy but filled with suggestions for further viewing. And there’s a little joke at the end.

Well, that’s it. What are you still reading this for? Press play and start watching!

–Matt Zoller Seitz 

VIDEO ESSAY: From the Panel to the Frame: Style and Scott Pilgrim

VIDEO ESSAY: From the Panel to the Frame: Style and Scott Pilgrim

Why do the same concepts get recycled and reinterpreted in so many different media, and what does that do to storytelling? Filmmaker Drew Morton poses that question in his video essay “From the Panel to the Frame: Style and Scott Pilgrim.” The piece, which was originally produced as a part of a doctoral dissertation, uses the 2010 Edgar Wright film Scott Pilgrim vs. the World as a springboard to talk about how videogames, movies and comic books influence each other—and how you can often see the aesthetic roots of one medium represented in another, in a way that feels increasingly relaxed and organic. (Press Play contributor Matthias Stork has also dealt with this issue in this piece.)

Morton isn’t talking about adaptation here—turning a book into a movie, for instance, or a movie into a TV series. This is something else. As he puts it in his video essay, it’s more about reproducing or reimagining one medium’s aesthetic within the context of another medium: not just adapting Bryan Lee O’Malley’s original Scott Pilgrim comics, but making the film look and move and somehow feel like those books, to the point of quoting specific panels.

There’s a specific academic term for this phenomenon: “transmediation.” Morton explores that, too. He uses examples from Scott Pilgrim, the Matrix universe, Sin City, and other stories, or “properties,” that unfold across different media to prove that the boundaries that supposedly separate those media are more porous than we may have thought. The “bullet time” scene in the original Matrix movie, for instance, was a great cinematic moment, but it wouldn’t have existed without the aesthetic of mid-‘90s videogames that tried, in their ostentatious yet primitive way, to look three-dimensional. And when Time-Warner, the company that released The Matrix, decided it had another Star Wars on its hands, it commissioned videogames that fans found disappointing because they wanted something that felt like the movies, only game-like, and the games didn’t deliver.

These are slippery subjects to analyze, but Morton never loses his grip here, and the final section—a detailed analysis of the style of Wright’s film—is dazzling. He talks about how Wright folds representations of comics, videogames and music into a movie based on a comic book that was itself strongly inspired by videogames, and in so doing, creates a “re-remediation.” If you tried to represent that on a page, it might look like a bunch of parentheses inside one big parenthetical, or maybe a line drawing of a Russian nesting doll, animated, with each layer’s shell cracking to reveal the layer beneath, each pop commemorated by a point value materializing in space and hanging there. Fifty points! A hundred! Next level!

Click and watch.

Matt Zoller Seitz

Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at UCLA. He has written about film and television for such publications as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, UWM Post, and Flow. He is currently researching the aesthetic convergence between comics and film.

Matt Zoller Seitz is the co-founder of Press Play.

Pablo Larraín’s NO: A Movie That Says Yes To Itself

Pablo Larraín’s NO: A Movie That Says Yes To Itself


The Chilean film No, written and directed by Pablo Larraín, is up for a foreign film Oscar this year. I hope it wins, if only to bring attention to an extraordinary film by an increasingly sophisticated director. We’ve seen a lot of films about the interplay of politics and advertising (starting with 1972’s The Candidate) and maybe more films that interweave drama and documentary elements, so that it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. No is both of these kinds of films rolled into one, but with a very specific political focus, a unique energy, and an inscrutable core that makes it linger in the mind.  

An adaptation of the play El Plebiscito, written by Antonio Skármeta, No is set in 1988. The country is less than a month away from national plebiscite (referendum) to determine whether military dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet will continue to rule Chile, as he has since displacing Allende in a 1973 coup, or if the country will transition to democracy. The vote is a simple “Yes” or “No.” The opposing sides are each given 15 minutes of national TV time each night to make their cases, spread out over 27 days. Ad man René Saavedra (Gael Garcia Bernal) is the head of a team creating content to sell the “No” option. He has the bright idea to ignore or downplay the country’s recent history of murder, torture, disappearances, and other political skullduggery, instead fashioning a campaign that sells an abstract notion of democracy synonymous with happiness or faith in the future; his version of this campaign is indistinguishable from an ad we see him creating at the start of the film for a brand of cola. The guy knows how to sell, and this time he’s selling democracy. Democracy as promise. Democracy as product. 

Because Saavedra is the son of a reviled Pinochet foe and has spent many years outside of Chile, he doesn’t have the direct experience of trauma that many of his colleagues have; he’s also a bit of a man-boy dreamer character, quiet and opaque and emotionally arrested. This turns out to be a huge benefit, though, because it enables him to talk down others who insist that the “No” contingent’s airtime should be filled with direct engagement—with political and history lessons, for instance, or a segment in which the mothers of the “disappeared” talk about their experiences, or an interview with an official who’s an expert on the regime’s thug tactics, and so forth. Anything smacking of reality, or reminding people too keenly of the pain the country has suffered, might have backfired. This aspect of the movie reminds me, oddly, of Spielberg’s Lincoln, which is partly about the necessity of downplaying or even compromising one’s own moral fervor in order to make progress for one’s cause—to win a battle rather than lose a war. This movie shows the effect of advertising on the viewer very pragmatically, touching emotions and creating needs that weren’t there before, and appealing to dreams and fantasies. Mad Men fans will appreciate the aesthetic strategy sessions (Don Draper’s line about how romance was invented so guys like him could sell nylons popped into my head more than once), and the very direct, often painful scenes in which people recounted personal experience with political terror reminded me of scenes from certain Ken Loach films, where the film puts the brakes on the plot and lets characters work through philosophical and moral positions in all their messiness. 

I really love this movie. I recommend it to students of advertising, social revolution and film form. Larraín—who has directed two other films about 70s-80s Chilean political history, and was just 12 when the plebiscite took place—has Oliver Stone’s facility for mixing documentary footage with docudrama re-creations (the entire movie was shot with 1980s TV news equipment) and Steven Spielberg’s somewhat mysterious, at times unnerving sunniness. It’s a warm film with a rather cool question mark of a man at its center. Saavedra doesn’t seem terribly happy, or even particularly satisfied, unless he’s working or playing with his 12-year old son, one of two people who seem to really matter to him. The other such person is his estranged wife Verónica (Antonia Zegers), a political activist first seen getting the crap kicked out of her by riot cops. There’s a hint that Saavedra is dedicated to the “No” campaign partly because he wants to win back his wife’s love—at times his affection for her resembles that of a little boy toward his mother, a notion furthered in a wonderful moment where she goes to embrace her son, who’s sleeping on his father’s shoulder, and the shot is framed so that her terms of endearment seem to be directed toward Saavedra. But the movie never boldfaces any of this; it’s just a tantalizing hint of a character explanation, like the repeated shots of the hero blissfully riding a skateboard through the city, and the shots of him working on commercial campaigns (including a James Bond-like ad for a soap opera) that seem to be of nearly equal importance to him. Maybe he just loves a challenge? Maybe he’s just obsessed with whatever’s next? We don’t know, and it’s better that we don’t know.

Certain moments and shots seemed very Spielbergian to me, particularly the backlit, often blown-out shots of the hero wreathed in a nimbus of sunlight (like some sort of holy fool) and the repeated images of the hero playing with his son’s electric train set (Close Encounters). One of the latter scenes leads to a wonderful, knowing joke: Saavedra lies down on the floor of the playroom with the back of his head held just above a length of track, and the approaching toy train seems to go into one of his ears and out the other! It’s as if the movie is saying, “Only such an arrested adult could have come up with exactly the solution that was needed during this incredibly difficult historical moment.” Or to quote an “old Vulcan proverb” from one of the Star Trek films, “Only Nixon could go to China.” 

Is the movie saying that had the “No” campaign had been any more mature, Pinochet might have ruled for much longer? I think so. The movie doesn’t adopt a morally superior position toward this, however, or endorse it; it just raises as more of a hint of a theory than a critique and then lets it hang there, nagging at you and prompting reflection. The notion that advertising is an essentially sub-rational, in some ways sinister industry isn’t new, nor is the idea that certain political outcomes can be achieved by appealing to fantasies that might or might not have anything to do with the pressing matters at hand. But somehow No puts them together, along with some very subtle and sophisticated integrations of documentary reality and drama, in a way that both entertains and provokes. This is the movie I kept hoping Argo would turn into, honestly. Not that Argo isn’t a good movie — it is! — but it lacks the nerve or intelligence to really delve into the fantasy/reality matrix that its story quite naturally creates. No says yes to doing that, and is the richer for it.

Matt Zoller Seitz is the co-founder of Press Play.