FAST CLIP: Video for Waxahatchee’s “Misery over Dispute” by Joshua Mikel

FAST CLIP: Video for Waxahatchee’s “Misery over Dispute” by Joshua Mikel

At their best, music videos can function as small films unto
themselves, underscoring the talents of their subjects by placing them
within scenarios that enhance lyrics, music and ambience all at once. In
so doing, these filmlets may recall, either
consciously or subliminally, other films. It is difficult, when watching
Joshua Mikel’s
recent video for southern rocker Waxahatchee’s (Katie Crutchfield)
“Misery Over
Dispute,” not to think of a few different films. The two that ring the
loudest
bells, though, are “Singin’ in the Rain” and “Raging Bull.” An
appropriate mix,
perhaps, for the story the song tells. In 12 lines, the song describes a
collapsed relationship, with the singer’s departure the only option, a
choice
of “misery over dispute.” The video is just under two minutes long,
pounded out
in the musician’s signature fashion, guitars heavy, voice somewhat
raspy, in
some senses more a chant than a song, melodic arc absent, almost
irrelevant in
a song this brief. The singer spends most of her time dancing, under a
spotlight, kicking dust up around her, and catching what look like
cinders as
they fall. Tom Waits fans may find some corollary here to some of the
stunts
Waits has pulled in his live shows, with scattered sparkles and a
semi-shuffle
that kicks up a glowing cloud around him. But what a contradiction of
impulses
this is. The freedom of the dance Crutchfield does here recalls the way
Gene
Kelly danced in a puddle in “Singin’ in the Rain,” with a seamless
optimism
that would be both foreign to contemporary viewers and something of a
standard
to reach toward—reflective, here, of the singer’s ability to leave,
leave and
not look back, choosing loneliness over argument. But, on the other
hand, when
Jake LaMotta dances alone, under dim lights, in a boxing ring, in “Raging
Bull,” we
see a figure who relishes battle, who relishes conflict, and whose
movements
around the ring have acquired, with time, an epic quality, however raw
and crude
his activities while actually boxing might be. As Waxahatchee sings of
feeling
“spineless and sick in your eyes,” we can’t help but feel the pull of
the
battle, of argument, of rage, a feeling conveyed in very few words. The
director has chosen a dark, shadowy room and soft, black-and-white hues
for the
video, usually code for realism, but in this case a code for the
dreamlike
state we find ourselves in when within that most beguiling of situations, the
human
relationship.

Max Winter is the Editor of Press Play.

The Tenuous State of Writing in the Information Age

The Tenuous State of Writing in the Information Age

nullI don’t really do manifestos, typically, or grandstand, or
pitch tents, where writing is concerned. I also don’t ultimately think that setting
rules is a good way to foster creative thought. I do, though, like the idea of
aspiration in writing—of aiming, with all the devotion one can muster, at a
spot just above eye level, at a certain sense of quality, at a sense that
you’ve listened to the voices of influence long enough that you’re putting into
practice what they may have taught you. This publication, the one you’re
looking at, is one of a type. There are others of its type: the other parts of
this network, Salon, Slate, Huffington Post, Think Progress, Dame, Jezebel, and
numerous comrades, too many to name. 
Often, the cultural articles that appear here, and in similarly aimed
publications, e.g. blogs, are distinguished by a crucial link: between what is happening on
a screen, or in an artistic work, and what is happening in the world.  That phrase, “what is happening in the world,”
could mean a number of things: news events, cultural trends, or, most
poignantly, remnants from one’s own past. These pieces, then, often shear very
close to subject matter which could be considered emotionally “hot” for their
writers—content which could either inspire elation or deep rage. Because of
this, the task of the writer is doubled: the root subject must be addressed,
and then what lies behind the root subject, the context, must be addressed. And
in both cases, the task is to address the subject eloquently, and with respect
for the activity in which the writer is engaged: that is, writing. We live in a
time when individuals have more ways to express themselves and to communicate
with others than they ever had before. And communicate they do: in blog posts,
in tweets, in editorials, on personal web sites, and elsewhere. There is no
shortage of passion and sincerity in these writings, particularly the blog
posts. But the problem is that sometimes, in the course of expressing things
which are closest and deepest for the writer, articulation is sacrificed, and
some very, very basic, indispensable rules of good writing and editing are left by the wayside.

When a film or television show touches on themes that are
controversial, and perhaps does it in a way that could be seen as flawed, it’s
inevitable, in the age of instant response, that there will be, almost
immediately, a lot of writing online about the topic. Some of the writing will
be cogent, and might, through its insight, present an outlook on a subject or
theme that you might not have thought of before. It seems to this reader,
though, that often the perspectives I read on these subjects, in the process of
linking the personal to the artistic to the political, have the same general
timbre. The experience goes something like this. As is expected of me, I click
on a headline that draws my attention, usually containing the words “Here’s
Why” or “Gets Right” or “Gets Wrong,” or possibly a strongly positioned “I”
statement which reveals something about the writer’s life or attitudes which is
undeniably alluring. The article opens, I begin to read, and then this is where
I may separate from many readers, or may not. I see lives and attitudes opened
up, presented in their fullness, but I also see problems. Sometimes the
problems are small ones: a missing comma here, a missing word there, a
subject-verb agreement problem there, a misspelled proper name there. These are
easy enough to move past, since they needn’t derail the impact of a piece.  Sometimes, though, the problems are a little deeper.
As you read along, you begin to notice clichés at different points in the
sentences; sometimes a whole sentence might be a cliché. And this is where the
mean-spirited, unsympathetic thoughts begin, that human compassion tells us we
must squelch: I feel like I’ve read this
before. Couldn’t another phrase have been used? I’d like to sympathize, but
this seems a little too after-school-ish for me.
It’s not nice to think
these things, particularly when more personal material is being discussed;
after all, a person’s “telling of their story” is the most exalted act they
could perform, in one sense—the baring of personal history, the laying out of
each person’s true tale. How could that be faulted? In any event, sometimes the
problems lie even more deep within a piece, and this is when readers like
myself, and possibly like others, have really, really mean-spirited thoughts.
Upon reading the writer’s opinions, the reaction is one of a set of rhetorical
questions: How trite could one piece be?
What does this mean? Who does this person think he or she is?
The reason
for this reaction is normally that the issue at hand has not been explored
deeply enough, the contradictory conditions not examined or countered, the
depths probed, and so what you receive, before you, is a one-dimensional
spewing, whose only argument is its thesis, and whose body is really just a
restatement of the thesis. You might well agree with that argument, and praise
it for its bravery, or its honesty, or the stridence of its tone. On the other
hand, though, you might not buy it: the sad life story, the experience of
alienation, the tale of abuse might not draw you in. Why? Because it wasn’t
written well enough, or edited well enough—or both, equally. And so rejection is
a wholly fair response.

Within the tenets of good writing there are many chestnuts.
Avoid clichés. Support your arguments with evidence. Show, don’t tell. Omit
needless words. These tenets have lasted because they distinguish, to put it
simplistically, good writing from bad, profundity from shallowness, writing
that stays fresh for a day from writing that stays fresh for decades. At the
current time, the culture we live in is a mouthy one: for every event there is
a prompt response, and then another, and then another. Blogging itself is an
industry: miraculously, individuals are paid to tell their stories. But, as
with all industries, there are pressures. Pressures for ad revenues. Pressures
for clicks. Pressures for timeliness. And the result of these pressures, it
seems to me, is that a slippage is starting to occur, in which what were once
basic rules of good writing have become somewhat less important by comparison
with these pressures, by comparison with the need to keep the wolf away from
one’s door. We read post after post, each one a window into a personal
experience, each one a microscopic look at one life among billions. And the
urgency of it all is enough that at times it seems as if the publication is
more important than what’s being published. And perhaps it is, in one sense;
maybe the act of unleashing a story one might have held close is healthy for
the writer, and healthy for the reader, cathartic. But there are a couple of
problems. One is that the act of writing, if not taken seriously, results in
bad prose, sometimes even unintelligible prose—which could, if you thought it
over long enough, negate the purpose for having written in the first place. The
other problem is that the basic tenets for what we call “good” writing don’t go
away if you ignore them. The responsibility here lies with the writer and the
editor equally. All too often, our temptation is to blame the author of an
inflammatory, or poorly considered, or baffling essay: How dare she say that! The reality, though, is that most pieces
published in forums in which there is an editor have to pass the eyes of that
editor, and so to a certain extent, the editor has to be considered to have
approved the piece wholesale: its approach, its virtues, and its flaws. Or at
the very least, the editor has to have felt good enough about the piece to
allow it to be attached to his or her name. And so, since the activity being
engaged in is writing, the writer and editor must work together: if the editor
sees problems with a piece, those problems need to be addressed, both large and
small.  If these large or small problems
persist, then a simple question arises: what happened? I have to be careful how
I say the following, because I don’t want to imply that the job of an editor or
the job of a writer is by any means an easy one, or one in which emotions are
not in constant conflict with better judgment. However, I wonder if a change is
taking place in the way we, as a culture, view verbal expression. There is a
part of every writer’s mind, and every editor’s mind, that acts as a sort of
Greek chorus as the work is taking place. Why
are you doing that
, it asks. Are you
sure you want to say it this way
, it asks. Maybe here is a good place to start over, it suggests.  That’s
not how you spell that word,
it groans. You’re
repeating yourself,
it nudges. And, most painfully, Sure, this meant a lot to you, but that doesn’t mean it will move
anyone else.
What I wonder is, then, if that part of the writer’s or editor’s
mind is shrinking, and if the voices crying out inside it are getting fainter, as the pressures of commerce grow greater.
And if, beyond that, as readers, we’re starting to think those voices don’t matter,
after all.

Max Winter is the Editor of Press Play.

The Silence at the Heart of a Family: The Most Offensive Thing about WETLANDS

The Silence at the Heart of a Family: The Most Offensive Thing about WETLANDS

nullWhat do you consider offensive? The dictionary definition of
the word suggests that to be offended is to be hurt, or angered, by something
one has seen, or experienced. Wetlands,
a new film from director David Wnendt, contains many scenes which might easily be
called, by this criterion, offensive. One probably wouldn’t normally want to watch them, and
certainly not in close-up, if one had a choice. You might wince. You might look away. You
might walk out. Or, perhaps, you might watch, out of curiosity. Wnendt takes us, with this
work, on a very bumpy tour of a young woman’s maturation, sparing nothing to
show us his narrator’s body, as well as her body’s functions, its wounds, and
its moments of ecstasy, all equally vivid, all equally exciting. It also shows
us the tormented relationships she has with her parents, with her family, with
men—and the sort of violence perpetrated in those spheres. The question the
film asks, quite profoundly and with such confidence that it’s hard to stay shocked
at its earthiness for too long, is: why are we so offended by bodily functions,
and perhaps less by the ills humans visit on each other?

About those bodily functions: As has been noted widely in
the film’s critical reception, it begins ear-catchingly, with Helen’s (Carla Juri)
announcement, a la Proust by way of Scorsese, that as long as she can remember,
she’s had hemorrhoids. In an instant, ointment is applied to her thumb, and her
thumb is inserted up her rectum, where the ointment is applied to a painful,
chronic, sore. Having completed this gesture, she rubs her vagina around the
toilet seat, just to test her vaginal health, and then she pauses for a reverie
inspired by a pubic hair stuck to the particularly filthy rim of the bowl;
we immediately shoot into a Delicatessen-style
journey deep into the roots of the hair (again a bit like Scorsese’s tour of
the Copa Cabana in Goodfellas); microscopic
creatures chomp and gnash; spores float like so many balloons; we see what may
be the encroachment of a virus but looks a little more like germ-on-cell rape.
It’s an appropriate beginning to the story; the film zips along with an almost
jazz-like energy, even as the soundtrack is generally gravelly
punk-inspired guitar mash. What we get here is partly a sexual history, partly a family history, and
partly the story of an anal injury incurred while shaving. Shaving has a
special meaning for Helen; in one of numerous jarringly sensual flashbacks, we
see her being shaved, naked, by a similarly naked coworker. The scene stands
out as one of the more gentle scenes in a film about different kinds of
violence, and their effects. After nicking herself in the anus, she bleeds, and
bleeds, and bleeds, and finally ends up in the hospital, under the care of
Robin (Christoph Letkowski), a male nurse with slightly shaky judgment. One would think the gore and
filth would stop here, but in fact it doesn’t. Though the hospital stay
provides the framework for the film, it serves here as a means to an end—the
end being Helen’s wrestling with her family history. We learn other things
about Helen here; for instance, she has an innocent friend, Corinna (Marlen Kruse) whom she corrupts,
takes drugs with, gets in trouble with—and, as friends do, Corinna departs. We also
learn small pieces of Helen’s daily life, get a sense of her musical taste, watch
her grow from a cleanliness-obsessed toddler into a much rougher young adult. And yet Helen’s family history looms larger and turns out to be far more offensive than any
of her displays in the film: more than her licking her vaginal fluids off her
fingers before a date, more than her leaving semen on her hands after giving a
friend a hand job, more than the sight of her own poop, all around her, when
she wakes up in the hospital the morning after surgery.

What do we know about the family? Plenty, and little. But we
find out enough to make the average viewer, as the dictionary requires, angry.
They appear, in this telling, to be willfully negligent, carrying their own
disturbance into their relationship with their child a certain degree of
immunity, at least in this telling. Karen’s parents are divorced. Her
biological father is a rough, arrogant sort who, when Helen is small,
accidentally slams the door of a car trunk on Helen’s hand. We don’t see him
apologize, or rush to her side, and we get the sense that no such reaction is
forthcoming; as an indicator of the general timbre of their relationship, the
moment is chilling. In another scene, when Helen is older, we see her father
dancing wildly by the family pool, his erection waving around so obviously in
his swim trunks that Helen makes a voiceover comment about it, and we focus on
it. And still later, when Helen is in the hospital, his recovery gift to her is
not so affectionate: a hemorrhoid cushion, which he doesn’t bother to
inflate for her. Helen’s mother doesn’t receive much better exposure here; when
Helen is very young, she does a trust exercise, asking Helen to jump into her
arms—only to back away as Helen jumps, warning her, as she lies on the ground,
not to trust anyone, even parents. Her mother’s rage manifests itself in
different ways: her adoption of religions ranging from Judaism to Buddhism to
Catholicism; her lifting her skirt and showing her crotch at a dinner party
when her drunk husband begins relating the surgical procedure necessary to
complete Helen’s delivery; and finally, a violent act which Helen stumbles on,
which has scarred the family, scarred Helen’s brother, and scarred Helen in
ways she doesn’t entirely understand.

Admittedly, because the film is a self-portrait, and because
its spirited approach animates it so much that you can almost forget the poop,
the semen and the lubricant, it would be tempting to think the portraits of
Helen’s parents presented here are biased, shaped, or even imagined—but the
real-time encounters we see, the matter-of-fact conversations in the hospital,
at home, are dry, and the outward manner each parent displays does not indicate
the capacity for remorse at dereliction, only weary tolerance of Helen’s antics;
the conversations intimate a long history of missed apologies. And so, the
final question is, is it more offensive, or shocking, to see two girls rubbing
menstrual blood on each others’ faces, or to see misguided parental behavior,
which silently presages the more outrageous aspects of the film? When the end
comes, and it is a happy one, as much as it could be during recovery from anal
fissures, one is relieved to see that it involves pushing away from her past, most specifically her family. When watching a film like this, which has banked on the shock value of its content, one wants, in a sense, to be impressed: Wow, that was really… gross. It is to the film’s credit that characters who exist primarily on the margins of the narrative provide its points of greatest offense, casting the humanity and curiosity of the film’s central figure into a curiously positive light.

Max Winter is the Editor of Press Play.

VIDEO ESSAY: In Memory of Richard Attenborough (1923-2014)

VIDEO ESSAY: In Memory of Richard Attenborough (1923-2014)

The scary doll, or puppet, or dummy, is, by now, a cliché of horror: films from
the Chucky movies to Poltergeist have
availed themselves of it, to the increasingly begrudging fright of their
viewers. For many (though not as many as there should be), the scary puppet
motif began (and possibly ended) with the 1978 film Magic, directed by Richard Attenborough, who passed away in late
August. The actor and director whom most would know either for his turn in Jurassic Park or for directing vast
films like Gandhi or Chaplin had other exploits up his sleeve
as well: an early film role was Pinkie in Brighton Rock, a movie about violence and terror on the English seaside birthed from
the fog-swept, crime-obsessed mind of Graham Greene. What’s most evident, in
watching Attenborough’s films and considering his career, is a sense of embodiment, of
polymathy. On the most basic level, this could mean he was able to act and direct
with equal ability. To play Pinkie as a young man and then play Santa Claus (in Miracle on 34th Street)
or a deranged scientist late in life suggests, at the very least, range, but it
also indicates that he possessed the kind of intelligence invaluable to successful
actors: the ability to imagine someone you have never met, and then
someone else, and then someone else, and never let anyone see the workings of your imagination. Carvajal’s fluid, deft piece shows us both sides of
this man, the acting side and the directing side–and reminds us of the great consciousness Attenborough obviously had of his audience. It is strange to remind one’s
self, when witnessing the expansiveness of a film like A Chorus Line, in which the only way to tell the story is to go
large, as large as possible, that the maker of these films also made a movie as
creepy and all-out frightening as Magic,
which captured the flitting, nervous intensity of Anthony Hopkins in his younger
days and, as with many movies of this period, put very little between the viewer
and the events unfolding on screen: there was little subterfuge, little music,
even, just the pure fright of what was unfolding. The phenomenon of the
actor-director is an old one, going back to Charlie Chaplin himself, or farther. It’s rare, though,
that an individual pulls off great success in both in one lifetime. The
projects an actor directs might take on the sheen of a “private project,” like
the films of Tim Roth or Ethan Hawke, or they might assume a stature separate
from their director’s reputation, like those of Sean Penn, in recent times, or,
in a different sense, Woody Allen. Although these shape-shifters do something
slightly different things with what might call their powers, the source is
clear: immersion in a discipline, which is, in this case, film. RIP Richard
Attenborough.—Max Winter

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.

Max Winter is the Editor of Press Play.

Why Whit Stillman’s Work Endures After All These Similar Movies: On THE COSMOPOLITANS

Why Whit Stillman’s Work Endures After All These Similar Movies: On THE COSMOPOLITANS

null
There are plenty of reasons not to watch The Cosmopolitans. The director of this Amazon pilot, Whit Stillman, has been issuing films about the upper-upper-class
since the early 1990s, and at a time at which the country in which the films are
released continues to go through severe economic duress, and at which the
divisions between the wealthy and the non-wealthy continue to grow sharper,
viewers might well choose to watch other pilots; after all, several have been released very recently. Additionally,
one might say his characters tend to hew to the same characteristics, time
after time: disaffected, confused, fortunate, unreliable, unpredictable, and
yet also quite predictable. And the list of dissuading elements goes on.
However, when I watch his films, as I continue to do, I think of a couple of
comments I received, oddly enough, from writing teachers. One pertained to what
the teacher called “the courage to be quiet.” In context, the comment
referenced being able to resist the impulse to write loud, flashy,
attention-grabbing, surreal work, as I was doing, and challenging myself to
write in a softer register. In terms of Stillman’s films the phrase could refer
to filming stories in which no one really does
anything, if “doing something” means saving the world or fighting
10-storey-tall robots or jetting between dimensions or inhabiting John
Malkovich’s brain or seeing a double of one’s self on a weekend retreat—or
working with, and competing with, that double. In a climate in which concepts
are important in films and TV shows, and original concepts sell (and why shouldn’t they?), making a
film in which problems are local, dialogue is clever, and no one moves terribly
quickly does indeed take courage.

The pilot of The Cosmopolitans is plenty quiet. Its story,
such as it is, involves a threesome of wealthy young men who live in Paris.
It’s not clear that they have jobs; it’s not clear that they do much during the
day, besides taking language courses and pursuing women. The men are fairly
prototypical Stillman characters. Jimmy, played with considerable energy and
nail-biting nervousness by Adam Brody, is looking for love, finding it each
minute, and then losing it. His tall, thin, fair-complexioned friend Hal (Jordan Rountree), who resembles a
cross between a Russian wolfhound and a human, is similarly unlucky; his
girlfriend Clemence has left him, and he hangs on her every text message in the
hopes she might be contacting him. Their Italian acquaintance Sandro (Adriano Giannini) seems marginally
more worldly but similarly unfocused, similarly single, and comfortable in the
high-end world they live in. As you can see, there isn’t much drama here.
There’s no hook. There’s no rush to create a fraught story within the first ten
minutes. There are no twists. There’s intrigue, but all of the boring, human
sort. And yet at the same time, the pilot is very watchable, because it is, as
famous American expatriate Hemingway might have said (and indeed one of his
descendants stars here), true. Sharp as the witticisms these
characters exchange might be, and they are sharp, they are memorable primarily because
they emanate from a firm knowledge of the class Stillman is making films about.
Similarities and differences with Woody Allen have been noted, but the chief
difference is this, and it turns out to be the key to why Allen’s films have
declined in quality in recent years: Allen does not know the class he is
filming, the European artists, the young, independently wealthy protagonists,
and his is not the kind of imagination which can recreate experiences he has
not had, or had a portion of. Stillman is, to honor an ancient and shady chestnut, writing about what he knows.

Even-keeled as the dramatic topography may be in this pilot,
Stillman manages to insert some literary characters, figures with some breadth
and potential. Chloe Sevigny, in what might be her best performance since Kids,
plays a fashion journalist who radiates a mood of anger, bitterness and possible sexual
frustration from her first appearance; she says everything through clenched teeth
and what would seem to be too much caffeine, speaking truth but without caring
about its damage when spoken, criticizing the three single fellows for not
having “figured things out” yet. Freddy Asblom plays Fritz, a shifty,
bottomlessly wealthy young snot whose life revolves around cocktail parties,
philandering, romantic entanglements; he quite memorably loses his poise as he throws Sandro out of a party at his home for bringing drug dealers there, all of his previous oily delivery reduced to some barked
monosyllables. And Carrie MacLemore brings us Aubrey, a young woman on her own from Alabama, living
with a passive-aggressive boyfriend, or perhaps not living with him, or maybe
both; she’s played openly and with memorable plainness here by MacLemore, though she is a type who has appeared in
Stillman’s films before, moneyed, intelligent, not quite sure of herself, and
yet challenging enough to hold her own against Stillman’s young,
hyper-articulate bucks.

The second comment Stillman’s work makes me think of was one
I received much earlier, and which is perhaps more relevant to the work at
hand. During a discussion of class in fiction, the teacher suggested that one shouldn’t
be biased towards a writer’s work because the writer might be wealthy and might
depict people who are young, happy, and wealthy; neither the writer nor the
characters can help being that way. A sage observation: one can learn a lot by appreciating a work’s virtues before deriding it for characteristics which may set you off in some private, personal way. Stillman’s films are aggressively, steadily clever and perceptive, and this pilot is no different. They move forward less than they burrow in, one comment leading to another comment, until a final insight is reached that may be surprisingly dark but still somewhat profound. After all is through, the class of these characters, their sameness, their lack of what many people would consider to be real problems, bcomes beside the point. The wit of Stillman’s scripts, as well as the sense of introspection that wit creates, becomes sufficiently moving on its own, and the rest is just gravy, or in this case, jus.

Max Winter is the Editor of Press Play.

How GROUNDHOG DAY and THE ONE I LOVE Describe the Indescribable

How GROUNDHOG DAY and THE ONE I LOVE Describe the Indescribable

null

Note: This piece contains spoilers, in a sense.

The One I Love is a film very much in the tradition of
Groundhog Day, another film that employed bizarre structural
techniques in the service of a love story—but it seems, by and large, that this film
picks up where that one left off, so that each work shows stages in the
development of the human animal in the midst of a relationship. Both films are
light enough on their feet that you wouldn’t immediately think they had
anything all that serious to impart, but, in fact, they do.

It’s easy, when watching films like these, to pick up on the
wrong things. In the case of the older film, we marvel at how strange it is
that Murray’s fop lives the same day over and over, assuming that the chief
metaphor here is that life itself is repetitive, and that it’s hard to learn
from one’s mistakes, and that even the grumpiest malcontent can find true love
if given enough chances. The reality is, of course, that the film tells the
story of the difficulty of love, and the inevitability of stumbles and false
starts on the way towards it. With The One I Love, we marvel at the fact that the couple at
the center of the film, having gone to a weekend retreat recommended by their
couples counselor, have found themselves sharing a huge mansion with a couple
who looks exactly like them, with only slight differences.

Charlie McDowell’s film addresses not the difficulty of love,
but the strangeness of the idea of it. Think, for a second: two animals meet
each other, become more familiar with each other, and then, if both partners continue to
appreciate the other partner, spend the rest of their lives together, or a large part of it. As the animals
spend time with each other, they get to know each other better and better. They
come to know characteristics they appreciate, and characteristics they do not
appreciate. They watch out for each other. They fight. They have moments of
great love and affection. They have sex. They have children. This is a
fascinating process if you’re studying baby ducks, and it’s also fascinating if
you’re watching humans. One thing this film does, as Groundhog Day did, is that it forces us to look at humans in a
relationship as animals, and watch how they behave as they grow to know, and un-know, themselves and their partners.

Another important similarity between this film and its
predecessor is the seeming blankness of its performances. The actors chosen
here do not bear, in their performances here or elsewhere, a distracting heat.
Elizabeth Moss has played, throughout her career, characters of great subtlety, but she
has rarely played characters with great eccentricity (except perhaps for her
early turn in Girl, Interrupted, but that was more of an acting stunt). She is
best at a sort of plain, calm openness, which, ironically enough, could allow
for a number of different possible results; here, her Sophie wavers between drawing our sympathies and driving us away, her lip quivering at tense moments just enough to make us understand her anger at her spouse.  Mark Duplass’s performance is
fairly blank, as well—his Ethan wobbles between likability and unlikability
throughout the movie, having teetered into adultery, but nevertheless
presenting the affect of a nerdy everyman. In the earlier film, the actors seem
all similarly cherry picked for their blankness: Bill Murray’s deadpan, Andie
MacDowell’s mild-mannered attractiveness, Chris Elliott’s likable goofiness. Even Stephen Tobolowsky, in that film, seems like a well-chosen part of a set piece.
What these performances do, by not calling attention to themselves, is draw
attention to a central storyline, which in each case is a fairly basic but elegant one.

But in one film we learn what is wrong with us before we fall in
love; in the other, we learn what remains wrong with us afterwards. In Groundhog Day, Phil’s faults before he falls in love
are many: his egotism, his sarcasm, his misanthropy, his narcissism, his
cynicism. We can see him begin to expand, or open up, from the first minute he
sees Rita in the newsroom—regardless of whether or not this expansion manifests
itself outwardly from the start. Once the mornings begin to repeat themselves, Phil’s lying and bumbling begins a comic metamorphosis, as Rita remains
relatively the same. Indeed, the largest change we see in Rita is that she grows to
accept Phil’s quirks, or at least becomes more vocal about the traits in him she
dislikes. And so, by the end of the film, Phil has repaired himself, in a
sense, becoming a person who might, conceivably, be lovable. The film does not
suggest he has undergone an Ebenezer-Scrooge-level transformation, but it comes
close. He has gotten to this point by making the sorts of mistakes that are all too common in relationships, and learning from them–the moments of forgetfulness, or insensitivity, or clumsiness, that are part of the process by which the complicated animals called humans learn to share a burrow, either real or theoretical. The One I Love could be said to begin 10 years later, after marriage,
after the tenderness and rage that come with it. While neither Ethan nor Sophie are comparable with the characters in the earlier film, they
don’t need to be. The message remains the same: the phenomenon we are
witnessing is one of the strangest things we could see on a screen, even if it is happening all around us, all the time. The
characters here talk to each other, and then they talk to duplicates of each
other; they have experiences with each other, and then they realize those
experiences were with other versions of each other, which they did not realize
at the time. Even summarizing it is confusing, as is the experience depicted.
As the film continues, we see the two couples finally meeting and having dinner
with each other—and agreeing to spend the rest of the weekend hanging out with
each other, a happy foursome. Which is almost conceivable, as a social arrangement: one version of Ethan is uptight, the
other slightly more relaxed; one version of Sophie seems accepting, the
other slightly less content and more brittle. Which is all a roundabout way of
saying that we, as we’ve been told before, contain multitudes; while Whitman
might have meant that he identified with all people when he said those words, isn’t it also the case
that, when we have decided to share our lives, this is the greatest sort of
expansion, that two people could be, in a sense, a multitude? Additionally, isn’t it also true that one’s sense of a partner is perpetually revised in small ways, for good or ill, during the course of a relationship, so that the version of the Other one sees is shifting almost constantly?

As the saying goes, form is content. Some subjects
deserve a certain treatment, and the process by which they come to receive that
treatment can be rather mysterious. In the case of both Ramis’ film and the
current film, the filmmaker is describing something which, at its bottom,
cannot be mimetically represented—only some version of our idea of it would
make it there. So, what do the filmmakers do? They go out on a structural limb,
experimenting in wild ways with time, or with character development, or with
structure as a whole. And, in so doing, both directors manage to describe the frustrating and
somewhat bottomless nature of human relationships with what could be considered deeply enjoyable realism.

Max Winter is the Editor of Press Play.

VIDEO ESSAY: R.I.P. Lauren Bacall

VIDEO ESSAY: R.I.P. Lauren Bacall

What defines sex appeal on the big screen? This is a question that has been pondered in countless essays, sometimes with extensive scholarship attached, sometimes not, but the answer remains elusive, as it should. When watching Lauren Bacall in her early films, it is impossible not to think of "sexy" as one of the adjectives to describe her, and yet where is that sexiness coming from? In part, it comes from a sort of conversational fear, a sense that she, or rather one of the characters she plays, might say something barbed, or worse, at any turn, and that if she doesn’t, she’s choosing not to. There’s a "nothing ventured, nothing gained" quality in the act of watching her; unless there’s some risk involved in any experience–in this case, the risk of shock–there’s no point in having the experience, or so the platitude goes. There’s her voice, of course, the deep-toned, husky, "bedroom" voice, which is, in its own way, permissive; it sends a mood of acceptance, as well as engagement. I first saw Bacall in The Big Sleep when I was quite young, almost too young to understand her, or the importance of the film, or Bogart’s presence in it–but I did understand that she represented a comfort with, and an embodiment of, specifically adult sexuality, for grown-ups, a quality I still consider somewhat removed or Parnassian, even at my current, seemingly mature age. She seemed then, and she seems in retrospect, like a pinnacle, evidence of a time when on-screen sex appeal might emanate from other sources than it does currently.

For now, what we consider sexy has a not-so-subtle price tag attached to it. Many viewers only consider the star or starlet a sex symbol if their image has appeared a certain number of times, on a certain number of billboards, in a certain number of high-profile films. The quality of that appearance is a factor, as well. Viewers know how much money is invested in the films in which the Symbol appears. They know how much money the Symbol is paid for each film. They know who the highest paid stars are. They know what the most expensive films are. Or they can easily find out. They know that technology can easily modify a star’s appearance to make it look however a filmmaker might want it to look. We know that this equipment is highly costly. They know that the said Symbol eats expensive food, gets exercise through an expensive trainer, and wears more expensive clothes than are imaginable to us–or if they’re imaginable, they aren’t within financial reach. All of this ultimately enters, oddly enough, into popular conceptions of sex appeal–and because of the integration of star culture into the larger body of cultural or even news reporting, one might begin to take a matter-of-fact attitude towards this appeal itself. Is the set of reactions, subtle and not-so-subtle, physical and otherwise, to sexiness, lessened with this development? Somewhat. It’s not so much that the stars of yesterday were better, or sexier, it’s that they may have been playing by a slightly different set of rules.

Which brings me to Bacall’s face. When she was introduced to me as a classic sex symbol as a child, my very first thought was Her? Really? She looks so . . . normal. And then I caught on. There is an approachability in her features that doesn’t bear much similarity with the Pitts, the Jolies, the Greens, the Stones, or even the Geres, the Fondas, or the Dickinsons. As theatrical as her movements, her carriage, and her phrasings might be, there’s a sense of the human being beneath it, there, as well; as she herself said, "the look" began because she was lowering her head to keep from shaking too much. In the right light, watching Lauren Bacall could be a powerful reminder of the difference between being an actor and being a human being, and how the best actors show viewers both experiences. Sex appeal at present is more likely to be measured in near-mathematical terms: are the proportions correct? How perfect are the features? If we compare the Symbol to other Symbols, how does this Symbol match up? The simplest way of saying it is that viewers have gotten colder, and the simplest question about a star—sexy? or not sexy?—is filtered through a set of criteria that have little to do with lust and more with what makes a good screensaver. It would be difficult to trace the series of cultural seismic shifts that have led to this attitude, but one thing remains certain. To say Bacall represents another era in moviemaking is unquestionable, and to say that era is bygone is an understatement.–Max Winter  

Serena Bramble is a film editor whose
montage skills are an end result of accumulated years of movie-watching
and loving. Serena is a graduate from the Teledramatic Arts and
Technology department at Cal State Monterey Bay. In addition to editing,
she also writes on her blog Brief Encounters of the Cinematic Kind.

Max Winter is the Editor of Press Play.

Humor Is Life: RIP Robin Williams, 1951–2014

Humor Is Life: RIP Robin Williams, 1951–2014

null
Anyone who has more than a passing acquaintance with me
knows this: I consider humor very important. It can be a great social balm, a
means of communicating with others—but beyond that, it is one of the most
complex ways I can think of, besides poetry, to make sense out of the
peculiarity of waking up, functioning, and being in the world. For me, those who
through whatever gift are able to make humor their livelihood, and sustain that
livelihood over a lifetime, become like prophets, speaking the highest sort of
truth—but truth, ironically enough, that could either make your eyes water and
your nose run or make you wet your pants. So the mixture of feelings I had when
I read of Robin Williams’s suicide was dramatic. Grief, of course. Shock. Anger.
Confusion. These were all at the front of my mind, blaring, inescapable. But
above and beyond all of these, was, oddly enough, fear, whose source I could
not immediately identify. Then it came to me.

I remember being amazed, as a twelve-year-old, that
Williams could act seriously. When I learned that he had been cast in The World According to Garp, I was
baffled. But he’s Mork, I thought. Mork from Ork. What’s he doing in a film of
this stature? After all, the film was based on a novel by John Irving. A close
friend of the time, Steve Ingham, was nuts about Irving, and he had me nuts
about him, too. And so the idea that such a movie might be coming out assumed
gigantic importance for me. The fact that Robin Williams would star in it was
both wonderful and terrible: wonderful because I, like most people my age,
worshipped Williams, but terrible because I simply couldn’t imagine him being
serious. As it was, he gave a memorable performance as young human tabula rasa
T.S. Garp, up against formidable talents such as Glenn Close and John
Lithgow—though the film would not necessarily loom large amongst others, due to
its personal, small scope, I would always remember that as one of his best
performances. And, when thinking about the range of films he made over the
course of his career, it’s the serious roles that stand out most. He learned,
gradually, how to take control of the serious parts he was given, and to do so
in a way that seemed natural to him. Movies such as Dead Poets Society, or Awakenings, while certainly moving, offered lesser performances than Good Will
Hunting
, or The Fisher King, or Insomnia—where you were actually able to
forget, for a moment, that you were watching someone who, in another context,
could be continuously funny, for fifteen solid minutes, who might reduce you to
the point of pathetic laughter—and then would keep on, as if he didn’t care if
you were in pain, lying in your bed or on your sofa, in the dark, late at
night, clutching your stomach. It’s that feeling I’ll remember most about him,
in fact, the feeling you would get when watching him on stage, without props:
that of watching someone supremely in control of himself, of his voice, of his
posture, of his physical movements, but also, in a sense, anarchic within
himself, unable to sit still when appearing on a talk show, sometimes seeming
as if he were moving around a room when he was still seated, so animated, so
wise. And the irreverence: the fact that he could use a voice whose baseline
was a slightly worshipful tone to be wildly, brashly, politically incorrect, to
make fun of, frankly, anything he felt like making fun of. What inspiring,
beautiful freedom.

There’s really no explaining this death. Nothing works. He was depressed. His comic gifts masked a
deep darkness. We never knew the real man. Substance abuse took its toll.

These are all statements he probably would have made fun of. All we really know
is that yesterday, he felt bad enough, or desperate enough, or frustrated
enough, to put an end to his own life. All any one individual can speak of with
any accuracy is the effect of an event like this on that individual’s life.
This event will probably haunt me for a long time. I’ve been thinking a lot,
recently, about my own life, about its scope and span, and it occurred to me
that Williams’ public visibility began in the late 70s, just when I would have
first been able to laugh at his jokes, to recognize what it meant to witness
someone who was truly, indelibly funny. And he’s stayed present in my life
through almost four decades, as long as I’ve been on this planet. A presence like this
becomes a cultural cornerstone, a foundation, someone upon whom you rely for a
service, or a specific function. I knew that if I saw him appear in his natural
element, which was to say tossing his hilarious sagacity into space and seeing
where it landed, he could be relied upon to make me laugh, regardless of whatever had happened before I watched him, regardless of whatever feelings I had at the time. And so the fear I felt when I learned that
he died was fear of what his absence meant. And what is that? The best way
of saying it is this. It’s like cosmic slapstick: I lean against a wall, but someone’s
taken it away when I wasn’t looking, because it turned out to be a false wall, and so I’m stumbling, semi-comically, semi-tragically, slowly stumbling into darkness.

Max Winter is the Editor of Press Play.

What Does It Mean That Joe Swanberg Has Made a Feel-Good Movie?

What Does It Mean That Joe Swanberg Has Made a Feel-Good Movie?

null
The newest film from Joe Swanberg, whatever its faults and
virtues might be, makes one thing abundantly clear: that certain styles require
a form to pour themselves into if their best qualities are to be revealed. Swanberg’s
earlier films, works like Nights and Weekends, and Hannah Takes the Stairs,
were hybrids of fiction and documentary. With little of what you might call a
classic “story” to them, they depicted ordinary people going about
their lives: working, traveling, eating, sleeping, having sex, having
arguments. The script was generally improvised, the affect generally minimal—so
minimal, in fact, that the term mumblecore grew around his films, to describe
the only half-present delivery given to a lot of the dialogue. The idea was to
create as natural a film as possible, to include both uninteresting and
interesting activity on screen and hope that one type was equal to the other.
Any attempts to describe the reality of watching one of these films, though,
leads one in a Rumsfeldian direction: suffice it to say that that there are
uninteresting scenes that are interesting for being uninteresting, and there
are uninteresting scenes that are simply uninteresting. It was as if what we
might (broadly) call imagination had been bled out of the films, to get us to
look at the contours of ordinary, unaffected reaction.

In recent years, Swanberg has moved away from that: Drinking Buddies had more electricity
and sweetness to it than the films preceding it, possibly helped along by the
vivaciousness and skill of its actors; 24
Exposures
was a suspense film, which failed because it wasn’t that
suspenseful, given that relaxed improvisation doesn’t help a suspenseful mood;
the current film is a step forward from both of its predecessors: a real story,
with a real conflict, real characters, and real moments of poignancy, which are
allowed to breathe, as fictional, created moments. But, given that, the
question this movie raises is a complex one. I’ve written before about the way
in which cap-C culture eventually absorbs what it does not at first understand;
at the time, I used Andrew Garfield as an example of someone who had first
gained acclaim in smaller-exposure venues and was suddenly playing Spider-Man. In
Swanberg’s case, though, what seems to be happening is the reverse: a director
who was fairly staunch in his rawness (a rawness executed, it should be said,
with deliberation) has now made a nice, even heartwarming movie. So what does
that mean, for him, and for our notions of the way artists develop?

The form into which Swanberg’s sensibility has been poured
is as follows: Jeff lives with his wife Kelly and their child in a modest home in
Chicago. Jeff’s sister Jenny comes home for the holidays, having just broken up with
her boyfriend. Her very first night, she goes out with her rowdy friend Carson and
gets so drunk she has to be carried home; she’ll spend most of the film in a
grown-up-child daze. Kelly seems uptight at first, annoyed at Jenny’s antics, but then
reveals herself to be merely frustrated in her writerly ambitions. Jenny meets a
boy, loses him, gets upset, gets drunk, nearly burns the house down, doesn’t, and
is redeemed, sort of. End of story. It’s a heartwarming tale about the
importance of family, about finding your ambition, about following it, about
survival, and many other themes that might float around these. The performances
are understated and consistently strong: Anna Kendrick, as Jenny, proves herself to be a
supple, malleable intelligent actress with self-awareness to spare; Melanie Lynskey is complex as Kelly, offering us a mother who is annoying and
endearing by turns, all good things in such a close-up film; Dunham, too, has a
played-down presence here as Carson, a genuine wit, a genuine bad influence. As is the
case in all his films, Swanberg’s sense of place is solid, as he shows us the
pale tans and reds of Chicago neighborhoods in winter, sending an impression of
unmistakable coldness in the air.  The
film is tightly structured, as well—even at its most casual and Swanbergian,
there aren’t too many loose ends here. The elements work nicely together; the
film purrs smoothly, never going above a certain speed limit. It’s a pleasing
experience. And this is where the tricky questions begin. And they’re really
just questions.

What does it mean, for instance, that Swanberg has filmed a
story which could, one supposes, have been made by another filmmaker? With a bit more polish, a more poppy soundtrack, more big-name stars, more of a
big payoff, but basically the same story structure, the same tale could have been told by any director from Barry Levinson to Lisa Cholodenko. What does it mean that
Swanberg, who has prided himself on working within a carefully defined fiscal
and intellectual budget, has gravitated, starting with Drinking Buddies, towards using more well-known actors,
whom he will share with plenty of other directors and other films? And telling cozier, more comfortable stories? Is it as
simple as funding, simply having the ability to pay more for talent? Or is there a more subtle development taking place?
Could it be that Swanberg is reaching a point of compromise with the films
around him—or rather the films around him of this type, about local,
down-to-earth subjects, without too many special effects? And if so, what’s the nature of that compromise? What led to it? Were the raw, archly relaxed earlier films merely preparation for this point? A point which seems to be something of a middle ground?

Max Winter is the Editor of Press Play.

VIDEO ESSAY: Slow Motion Movie Supercut

VIDEO ESSAY: Slow Motion Movie Supercut


LOOK. PAY ATTENTION. NOTICE THE MOVEMENT.

If you grew up during the 1970s, and first came into
sentient moviegoer-ship during the 1980s, then one slow-motion scene
which probably dented your consciousness was the running scene at the beginning
of Chariots of Fire, showing the film’s
two heroes running down a beach to the tch-tch-tch-tch-tch-tch of a
much-imitated Vangelis soundtrack. The purpose of the slo-mo here turns out to
be one of the key purposes of this technique—to give dignity to an action whose
speed we might otherwise take for granted. The slow motion impresses upon us
the gravity of the movement, its meaning above and beyond mere movement. In the
same way, a director might present someone walking in slow motion to show,
somehow, that the character in question has hit his or her stride; the crooks
of Reservoir Dogs might be leaving brunch to go to work, in one sense, but the
work they are doing is sinister, however darkly and semi-comically confused it
might become after that brunch. Sometimes that slo-mo walk might simply show a
character who is at ease inside her own identity, as in the case of Gwyneth
Paltrow’s Margot, gliding towards her brother to Nico’s frail voice in The Royal Tenenbaums; unhappy as she may
be, she has full possession of her unhappiness. Motion may be slowed down to
draw out the tension of a scene like pulling, pulling, pulling on a rubber band, with the understanding that if
the scene were played in real time, the action might be too explosive for us to
bear—but also raising the question as to whether the motion is so much more
bearable in slowness. Think of the falling carriage in The Untouchables: step,
after step, after step, bullets flying, but achingly, achingly slowly… And yet what about the
cases in which slow motion seems to be presented for its own sake, to show us
the terrible beauty of things blown apart: glass windowpanes, buildings, cars,
even human heads? Or to show us what a bullet looks like as it flies to its
destination, or, as in the case of Wanted, is deflected by Angelina Jolie’s wrist?
Leigh Singer’s video shows us 113 different films featuring slow motion, dating
from 1936 to the present, demonstrating that, above all, the use of the
technique forces us to do what any film worth its salt should do: LOOK. Singer
wisely places a crucial, classic slo-mo scene near the piece’s very end: a shot
of the apes, the earliest human ancestors, pounding bone with bone in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick used
slow motion in this case for one reason, and one reason only, to make sure we
would not forget our history. And at this speed, who could, indeed, forget it?–Max Winter

Leigh Singer is a freelance film journalist, filmmaker and screenwriter.
Leigh studied Film and Literature at Warwick University, where he
directed and adapted the world stage premiere of Steven Soderbergh’s
‘sex, lies and videotape’. He has written or made video essays on fllm for The Guardian, The Independent, BBCi,
Dazed & Confused, Total Film, RogerEbert.com
and others, has appeared on TV and radio as a film critic and is a
programmer with the London Film Festival. You can reach him on Twitter
@Leigh_Singer.

Max Winter is the Editor of Press Play.