The current state of popular cinema makes telling the stories of first-generation immigrants a bit of a tightrope walk. Just last year, Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite won best picture at the Academy Awards in a historical win for Korean-Americans and more generally, Asian people (not that we should be considered singular by any means). This marked a shift, along with 2016’s Moonlight, towards the current identity politics mission statement and tokenization of ethnicity; the notoriously well-awarded Green Book ultimately was an exercise in white guilt, yet still won best picture. And only a year prior to this, John M. Chu’s Crazy Rich Asians marked the first Hollywood production in 25 years that could boast an all-Asian cast. With the startling statistic tied to this film it would be remiss of anyone to not see the unfortunate torch that this picture was forced to bear. The unfair positioning around the very specific Crazy Rich Asians being the model for “the” Asian-American immigrant story is braindead and only furthers the cycle of dehumanization that immigrants experience on an all-too-frequent basis. Asian-American representation in popular media has made little progress past the orientalist framework that white executives have propagated to tell us “this is where you stand”. Looking past identity politics, immigrant stories can be extremely hard to tell; often layered with struggles of insecurity in leaving what you’ve known your entire life, the suffocating isolation felt when there are no communities of people that look like you, and generational trauma placed on parents and children. How does one put these feelings into words and images? Yet despite the discourse that surrounds Asian-American immigrant stories every year, I still find myself excited at the prospect of seeing my family’s history told on screen, and with Michelle Zauner’s early stamp of approval (Michelle is a God in my eyes), Minari was no exception. Michelle was absolutely correct, Minaritriumphs above any discourse centered around identity politics by not giving these discussions any wiggle room to focus on and rather centers itself around the intimacy of family and individual acceptance of self.
Minari is the story of Korean-American immigrants Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica (Han Ye-ri) as they look to escape their Arkansas-based chicken sexing jobs, uprooting their life in California with their two children David (Alan Kim) and Anne (Noel Cho) so that they can make something of their own. David has a heart condition that does not allow him to enjoy the wonderment of childhood that other children his age are able to. With Jacob’s excitement to start this new life with a farm that will grow Korean crops, the audience (and Jacob) quickly grasp at the idea that this is what building a life for your family in America should look like. Monica, however, is not sold on this idea. She worries that Jacob’s agrarian ambitions will place more strain on the Yi family than is worth. Not to mention she is shown throughout Minari feeling isolated and in need of community (this issue absolutely exacerbated by their new rural home). Monica’s doubts are confirmed by seeing Jacob spiral as the family loses county water because of Jacob’s redirection of the water line to the farm and produce buyers constantly screwing him over. Monica also worries that Arkansas storms put their family at risk showcased in a yelling match early on in Minari. The decision is made that Monica’s mother, Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-Jung) will relocate from Korea to Arkansas and live with the Yi’s.
Soon-ja is the beating heart of Minari. Her crass behavior and constant fight to win David’s love and approval provide for some of the most tender moments of the film. David is apprehensive to accept Soon-ja because she doesn’t fit the American model of what grandmothers should be. According to David, Soon-ja “smells Korean” (Anne’s retort that David hasn’t even been to Korea is one of my favorite lines that will surely go overlooked), doesn’t bake cookies, curses, gambles, and sits on her butt drinking Mountain Dew watching wrestling all day. With David looking to grasp onto any sense of identity he can, it is obvious why he is apprehensive to accept Soon-ja (David reminds me a lot of my father and myself). Yet Soon-ja’s presence is invaluable; bringing familiarity to struggles with isolation, combating dour economic situations with levity, and maybe most importantly Soon-ja plants the film’s namesake crop just on the edge of the Yi property.
The choice to make minari the savior of the narrative is obvious: minari is a swiss army knife crop that grows like wildfire and is used in a variety of ways across different Asian cultures. Minari can be used in salad, stew, pancakes, kimchi, and medicinally. The water dropwort’s obvious allegory for rooting life in foreign land is clear, yet I can’t help but read that minari also represents a reckoning with generational misunderstandings and the resiliency of family. Jacob and Soon-ja fundamentally approach agriculture in opposite ways. Jacob attempts to grow a variety of crops with the intention of the water coming to him. He rejects a well-finder at the beginning of the film, vaunting his Korean pride in regard to his ability to find a well himself. Soon-ja grows one crop and goes to the water herself, and ultimately Soon-ja’s approach bails the Yi’s out of a devastating crop fire and Jacob becomes a minari supplier. Jacob appears happier by the end of the film now that his marriage has been saved – in contrast to his initial hesitance to let Soon-ja live with his family. David also begins to ease up on Soon-ja as the two get closer during late-night shenanigans, and David’s ease turns to full blown love and appreciation for Soon-ja’s presence.
Minari finds success by telling a gentle immigrant story with visually warm and slightly overexposed imagery in moments of intense humanity, seen best when David serves Soon-ja urine instead of Mountain Dew, while allowing its characters to experience joy, forgiveness, and acceptance (which can be very rare in immigrant stories). Through all the terms and expectations that will be thrown at Minari, the story remains distinctly Korean-American. I see my grandfather in Jacob’s character. My grandfather was a similar age to Jacob when he moved to this country with my grandmother. The couple and their son (my father) settled down in Washington, DC with no money, no car, a rudimentary knowledge of the English language, and no friends except for one man that served with my grandfather in Vietnam. And despite the lack of resources at my family’s disposal, 3 days after arriving in DC, Papa found a job as a cashier at a 7/11 for $2.10 an hour. For two years, my grandparents worked 2-3 part-time jobs at a time to save money for their own business, and in 1975, rented out a vacant gas station in Northern Virginia. But the Northern Virginia winters are very cold, and the couple could only handle greasy, cracked, and bloodied hands for so long before lusting to work indoors. After a year of pumping gas, Papa purchased a grocery store from two holocaust survivors looking to retire, and knowingly or unknowingly, planted the seeds that would support his family for generations. From the moment Papa was hired as a 7/11 cashier, he has not stopped working full-time until now at the age of 80, where he is only working part-time. Talking with him the other day, we laughed as he told me he finally feels as if he’s allowed to have some down time and is pursuing a second master’s degree in theology this fall. Papa told me that living in a country that was constantly unable to support itself lit a fire in his heart to provide for his family every breathing moment of his life.
As mentioned earlier, I see my father and myself in David. The youthful impulse to blend into your surroundings, behave like kids that don’t look similar to you, rejecting older relatives’ gestures of love because you would rather have Coke over herbal tea. These were choices I unknowingly made that damaged my sense of self for an unseen time to come. Only recently have I come to love my Korean-American identity yet am still picking up the pieces. If it were not for these unbelievably strong individuals, like Lee Isaac Chung and Michelle Zauner, willing to tell parts of their stories, I would still harbor hate for this side of myself but because of them I do not have to. Healing is an ongoing process, though, and lots of work still needs to be done. However, stories like Minari helpease that process by providing me with strength through shared experience.
At this point, the insight that limitations are often the makings of great art has crossed the gap into becoming truism. Single locations, shoestring budgets, or amateur actors have yielded great results within the realm of filmmaking. But rarely do these restrictions ever materialize as mechanical. The Dogme 95 movement springs to mind, emphasizing handheld camerawork and natural light as requirements, but these prescriptions lessen the burden on the operator to encourage experimentation before mandating restraint. In terms of a perfect example of obstruction breathing life into film, one exhibit towers above all others — David Lynch’s Premonitions Following an Evil Deed. A 55 second short part of the Lumiere and Company anthology film, the film was shot on the anachronistic cinematograph camera, given three takes to get any given shot, using only natural light, barred from shooting synchronous sound, and an arbitrary mandate that once the camera starts, the take must be finished out. Through this chaste framework, Lynch was able to translate his ideological project into silent tableau vivants, creating a work both succinct and purposeful, an true outlier in the Lynchian corpus.
The assault of images within Premonition are so convoluted it almost evades explanation — police approach the body of a dead woman, a worried housewife in a kitchen, a woman distressed arising from a bed, men in a hellish factory setting engaging in steampunk sadomasochism, brought full circle by the police emerging into the kitchen of the worried housewife. Lynch distilled down to his most pure essence, this image assault can be unpacked with the director’s auteurist mission statement of “I love factories and nude women,” assembling a greatest hits of imagery throughout his career. The opening of police happening upon a brutalized body among bucolic window dressing, immediately reminiscent of Laura Palmer, found wrapped in plastic in the Twin Peaks pilot. The suburban interiors evoke the interstitial scenes of Lost Highway or Blue Velvet’s daytime sections, and its final horrors unmistakably Lynchian (it seems of no coincidence to me the tormentors in the short are in jumpsuits buttoned to the collarbone, their distended skulls resembling a wild pompadour, for once Lynch willing to indict himself rather than hind behind folksy aphorisms).
While almost incomprehensible in summary form, it coheres to form the same statement it took Twin Peaks 30 hours of network television, a feature film, and 18 hours of premium cable indulgence to form, and still not stick the landing. Much the same as the show, it eventually reveals that underneath suburban purity lies a powerful evil, that perversion exists in equal and opposite abundance in the sunniest of settings. Much like Fire Walk With Me, Premonitions presents a full sampling of the Lynch auteur fixations in a compacted form, a Tik-Tok length condemnation of Americana, and quite possibly his most fully realized work.
I want to disclaim this piece by saying that there is probably no one in this hemisphere who loves Robert Pattinson more than I do. I am a recent convert to the cult of RP, but what I lack in seniority, I more than make up for in my zeal. Now, with that said let us begin.
The Devil All the Time is Netflix’s most recent attempt to hop on the A24 slow, psychotic horror/thriller/suspense movie bandwagon by adapting Donald Ray Pollock’s novel of the same name. Our setting du jour: “Southern” gothic horror, or at least what directors think is Southern (read: poor). Netflix’s biggest selling point? The cast. Antonio Campos has brought out a constellation of big-name stars to give our fun little horror hoedown a little more oomf. Biggest names include Tom Holland (imprisoned in hot, befuddled teen boy typecast), Eliza Scanlen, Bill Skarsgard, Sebastian Stan, Jason Clarke, Riley Keough Mia Waskikowska, and of course… Robert Pattinson.
We open with Bill Skarsgard’s Willard Russell’s not so subtle encounter with Christianity in World War II, when he finds a crucified soldier left by the Japanese whom he then mercy kills. Willard’s return to Knockemstiff, Ohio is marred by disillusionment with Christianity and being haunted by images of the cross. He then lives his version of the American Dream, marrying the diner waitress Haley Bennett, and then he has a sudden religious rebirth, setting up a backyard cross that he takes his new son Arvin to. Cue the American Dream is a lie motif when Bennett dies of cancer and God is stoically absent. No spoilers here, but needless to say, PETA is certainly not going to be raving about the movie on Twitter.
We now meet our intrepid protagonist, 16-year-old Arvin Russell, played by America’s favorite 24-year-old, Tom Holland. Arvin now lives with his adopted sister Lenora, a Jesus girl who makes Joan of Arc look like Mae West. Arvin struggles to do the right thing in a world that treats both him and his sister badly. Enter the Reverend Preston Teagardin, played by one Robert Pattinson, a new, slick-talking, sly-eyed preacher who turns their lives upside down. Add dirty cops, Dixie mafia, itinerant serial killers, the Vietnam War, and some good ole-fashioned Polaroids, all wrapped up in the ever-nostalgic aesthetic of the 60s, and you’ve got yourself a movie
The name of the game for this film is trauma. How we experience it, how we live through it, and (most importantly) how it gets repeated. Everyone receives some form of trauma in this Gothic gorefest. We begin in the first 10 minutes with a crucifixion. From there, it’s off to the races; you name it, the movie’s got it. Animal sacrifice, corruption, drugs, religious hypocrisy, murder, serial killers, and spiders. Not a film for the faint of heart. But once we scrub out the sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll, what are we really left with? Gothic? Absolutely. If by Gothic you mean middle school goth girl, eyebrow + lip piercing, all black clothes, dyed hair streaks aesthetic: just busy, busy, busy.
What do you get when you combine 6+ characters all with different, integral backstories played by big name stars with pushy agents into 138 minutes of film? Answer: one great big Hollywood traffic jam. Campos gives each star their requisite screen time (cheerfully killing off a few in the process), but what the movie has in starpower, it lacks in narrative quality. The movie simply doesn’t have enough time to give each person the characterizations necessary for us to feel fully invested in them or to understand their motivations. The best exemplification for this is Donald Ray Pollock himself giving us almost insulting narrations of what the characters are doing and feeling in a vain attempt to smooth over the canyon-sized gaps the movie leaves.
Not that Pollock exactly has his work cut out for him. Most of the characters, despite having plotlines integral to the story, are perfectly content to be perfectly static. Robert Pattinson’s Reverend Teagardin in particular was touted in Netflix’s promos as a great evil, the primary antagonist of the movie, the “devil” of the movie’s title. To be fair, we immediately get bad vibes the minute Pattinson struts into the ramshackle church wearing his powder blue suit and frilly shirt, straight out of an 80s prom scene (a costume he never changes). Pattinson is quickly unmasked as a religious hypocrite after he manipulates Eliza Scanlen’s Lenora into having sex with him and then spurns her when she becomes pregnant. And… that’s it. That’s all we get from Teagardin.
Pattinson’s character (despite a powerful performance as a hissable religious charlatan by RP himself) never moves beyond this. The same holds true for the other characters who, despite their narrative importance, seem placed in the film simply to die. Scanlen’s Lenora is never more for us than “Jesus girl,” despite the trauma inflicted on her by Teagardin. Sebastian Stan’s Sheriff Bodecker is never more for us than a dirty cop. In a movie about trauma in everyone’s lives colored by violence, death, and evil, we’re left wanting more from a movie that simply does not deliver. This isn’t to say there aren’t bright moments. The actors in particular live up to their starpower and make a valiant attempt to breathe life into the moribund script, but there’s only so much eyelash batting Robert Pattinson can do before we start to ask ourselves “Why are we even watching this?”
Overall, one leaves the movie with neither bloodlust sated, nor their sense of justice gratified, things horror movies need at least one of satisfied to be considered worth spending 2 hours watching. The film’s script falls flat (we’re physically explained the title of the movie by the narrator in the first 20 minutes), and we never get anything from the characters beyond our first impressions. The narrations by Pollock feel like a final insult, as if Campos doesn’t think the audience were smart enough to understand the character choices for themselves. But that’s what you get when you try to make a movie with 7 main characters, just a great big busy mess. I give the movie a C+. Oh hell, we’ll give it a B-, but only because of Robert Pattinson.
Charlie Kaufman, if nothing else, is someone who consistently attacks universal themes in his films. We all want much of the same stuff; we are all driven by the same base fears. We want to be remembered, admired, romantically loved; we want to win. Likewise, we fear dying, we fear getting older, and we fear being forgotten. Kaufman knows this well. His most popular work, the script of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, was fixated on the memory of love and the search for emotional stability, and his first work as a director (Synecdoche, New York) strove to answer big questions about human frailty and the way we perform our daily lives.
Kaufman’s newest film, the Netflix-backed adaptation of Iain Reid’s novel I’m Thinking of Ending Things, again looks at massive issues of our interior lives- failed relationships, broken families, aging and death, the quest for knowledge. Unfortunately, he still doesn’t know how to deliver on these ideas in an interesting way. Kaufman is surely an architect, and I’m Thinking of Ending Things is yet another arthouse Tower of Babel, boring into the sky and boring me out of my mind.
From the beginning, there is something amiss in this world. Jessie Buckley’s unnamed character wants to break up with her boyfriend Jake, and the grueling car ride to his parents’ house makes a pretty compelling case that their loveless relationship needs to end. Her thoughts serve as the narration, which Jake (portrayed by Jesse Plemons trying his best) constantly interrupts with asinine questions. We finally arrive at the country home, and Jake’s reticence and discomfort around his parents and his childhood home is obvious. Plemons conveys this unspoken unease well, and here’s where Kaufman makes his first mistake- a well of character dynamic, rich with backstory and intrigue, and yet he keeps it elusive and out of reach.
Suffice to say, the dinner does not go well, and things spin out of control; Jake’s parents, portrayed by Toni Collette and David Thewlis, are shifting in and out of some liminal space between awkward doting parents and non-sequitur approximations of real people. Collette especially is going for something unhinged, shifting into Hereditary mode for about five minutes in order to sell the dream logic of this semi-haunted house and her own ghostliness. When the young woman eventually wanders around the house, she begins to slip in and out of moments in time, seeing Jake’s parents at both earlier and later moments of their lives. We see them as both lively young parents and dementia-riddled seniors as the young woman travels through their lives. Here Kaufman makes another wrong turn, creating an interesting dreamy comment on the way we imagine and inject ourselves into the timelines of other people, and yet he depicts it in a way that is simultaneously overlong and laughably half-baked.
After this is where the real pain begins, and I’ll be brief- there is another 30 minutes spent trapped in the car with the unhappy couple, they stop to get some repulsive looking ice cream, and when they stop at Jake’s old high school to find a trash can, they enter in to find yet another mysterious physical manifestation of his past. I won’t give away the ending, but it illuminates basically nothing, a trait many people see as a good thing or a brilliant trick.
Unsatisfying endings, elusive themes, and vague truths are not a bad thing; they often find their way into good films in one way or another. But having these things is not a marker of quality, and the extent to which I’m Thinking of Ending Things uses its ambiguity as a driving force attempts to cloak the fact that it has nothing to say. There is no insight to offer, and there is very little to be wrung from this that isn’t completely obvious. Getting old is scary; breaking up is hard. We know this- why doesn’t Kaufman trust us enough to go any deeper than that?
Kaufman goes out of his way to call out, by name, two different directors from two very different fields of cinema. We see the mysterious janitor figure watching some schlocky feelgood picture on TV that we find out was directed by Robert Zemeckis. In the second car ride, the young woman puts on a transatlantic accent to recite Pauline Kael’s infamous pan of John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence, inspired by her own frustration with Jake and her finding his book of Kael’s reviews in his childhood bedroom.
In both scenarios, Kaufman wants us to think he’s funny, but he only seems jealous. Taking a shot at a Hollywood blockbuster builder like Zemeckis seems like punching down for an esteemed and arty man like Kaufman, but he only reveals his shallowness. He decries overly sincere and maudlin mainstream films in favor of flaunting this film’s lack of either sentiment or plot like some sort of achievement. He steps further out of his element when he quotes Kael. If he’s using these old reviews to mock Cassavetes, then he’s a coward who should use his own words; if he’s bringing them up to create a layer of intellectual distance between the characters and the audience, then he’s an overbearing tryhard, showing up to a party with a head full of memorized facts but unable to hold a conversation.
Kaufman strains against these two polar opposites because he can’t achieve what either has done. He’s convinced himself he’s too smart to engage in the broad pop culture joy of well-made popcorn movies, and he’s too focused on some sense of magical realism and distancing to scratch the surface of emotion and realism that Cassavetes offers, leaving him in the self-involved paint-huffing purgatory of this convoluted and disastrous film. Perhaps he’ll eventually make his way out of his Sisyphean quest to conquer his own mind, but for now we’re left with the collateral of this big dumb boulder, more of a cautionary tale than anything resembling a good movie.
Popular media has spent the last four years searching for the answer to quite a basic question concerning the Trump era: “How did we arrive here?” To the urbane liberal consumer, the last eight years seemed relatively harmless, a mark of competent technocrats able to stem the tide of unease among the materially comfortable. Boys State, the hipster prestige effort from an Apple/A24 partnership that would seem self-parodic if algorithmically generated, throws its hat in the ring to answer the very same question. A nationwide program dating back a century (founded as a reactionary counterpart to the socialist youth movement of Young Pioneer camps, a fact woefully omitted in its opening exposition) where young men simulate the American civic system, with exceptional participants graduating to the honor of Boy’s Nation, with a track record of taking in great men in their adolescence, with alumni ranging from Bill Clinton to Dick Cheney. Directors Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss zone in on the Texas state competition, hoping to extract the greater truth of our times straight from the mouth of babes. Unfortunately, Boys State, striving to ascribe universal truth as solutions to socially-constructed problems, treating an open system as a vacuum, and a wholly uncritical presentation in the miscalculated pursuit of vérité objectivity.
McBaine and Moss’s premise is that these children are all innate politicians, driven by some libidinal urge for power present since birth. Principal players are introduced watching Reagan speeches in dark rooms, spouting epigrams of personal responsibility seemingly sourced from the primordial ooze of the pubescent brain rather than an imitation of the shadowy parental figures. Opting for an approach of direct cinema, Boys State fails where its greater apostles (the likes of Frederick Wiseman, Robert Drew, D.A. Pennebaker) succeeded. Drew or Wiseman used the power of editing to stitch together a thesis, contrasting a fascist teacher’s enforcement of dress code along with the male gaze as atelier for school-issued gym clothes (Wiseman’s High School), while McBaine and Moss use this set of aesthetics to elide the tough questions, cutting away material that doesn’t fit with their thesis, refusing to evolve along with the reality.
Once actually within the thick of it, this intellectual laziness begins to make itself even more apparent. The documentary’s central dialectic is basic new-left v. new-right, trying to probe how a lifetime of being terminally online has poisoned the youth, broadband connections the new fluoride in the water supply. There are invocations of Ben Shapiro and online conservatism, and even the hushed uttering of “memes,” but it goes no further. The complete democratization of political theory, a new home to polemic media, the death of the classic public intellectual, all phenomena uniquely suffered by zoomers — and left completely unexamined by the lazy, entitled, assumptions of Gen Xers. While it is much easier to build a taxonomy of the New Right within the film, obsessed with libidnal drives and socialized responses of homophobia and misogyny, its left-wing contingent is exponentially thornier. Its central figure, Steven Garza, has all the bona fides: son of immigrants, energized by Bernie Sanders, the soul of a poster, the left insurgence personified. However, he reveals himself to be far closer to the center than the film works so hard to convince its audience. His true political heroes are Beto O’Rourke and Napoleon Bonaparte, revealing a soft spot for spineless centrism and a pathological draw toward central power, the non-aristocrat making up for falling short in station of birth (as well as height) by a rise to autocracy. The fact in the wake of the film’s release drooling droves of spineless liberals proclaiming a countdown to his presidential eligibility speaks both to the type of audience this drivel is made for as well as McBaine and Moss’s worldview.
The film also commits an even greater sin than dishonest presentation — naive conclusions. While its axis of good may come up short institutionally (much like real life? Get it? Isn’t this so fucking smart?), its final moments are meant to inspire hope. Garza takes the stage at the Texas Democratic Convention, extolling the utopian vision of a post-partisan America, that there is greatness within this country, a great revelation met with rapturous applause. This moment calls to mind none other than William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops (another fraud perpetrated by dishonest framing). In 2004, a PoC, son of immigrants, a self-labelled “progressive”, a new face on the political scene, took the stage and told us a red America and blue America were relics of the past, a post-partisan nation had arrived. And what was given to us from this great promise? Eight years of corporate bailouts, endless war, kids in cages, the machinery of state-sponsored violence running even smoother than before with technocratic lubricant. Like Basinksi’s loops, the repeated sound degrades, its resonance now even more agony-inducing knowing its emptiness, that in its unraveling the battle is now over. The day may pass, but the song remains the same. And it is repugnant works like Boys State that will ride into town and promise this snake oil is a new flavor, and as we turn away it will be poured upon the taxpayer-funded Harrow, giving it the juice to carve a commandment of “BE JUST,” Kafka’s penal colony now indistinguishable from our democracy.
There’s not a day that goes by where I don’t think about Portrait of a Lady on Fire. I mean, how could you possibly resist an art-driven French rendition of Desert Hearts? The enormous swelling silences, the unbearably yearning glances–I just melt at the thought of such sapphic excellence. It’s a film that hurts in all the right places and thankfully received the critical acclaim and recognition the lesbian film canon desperately deserves. Most of the discussion of this movie is in regards to its phenomenal script and unpatronizing depiction of LGBTQIA+ romance. And while I cannot expound enough about the line “In solitude, I felt the liberty you spoke of” being the most chilling line I have ever heard uttered, what strikes me the most about this film is its visual form that pays homage to the historic period it’s set in.
Situated sometime in the mid to late 17th century, the intense passion and style of POALOF invoke the waning of the Baroque artistic movement that swept across Europe and touched every influential aspect of creative endeavors, and, in some ways, revolutionized visual style and form. As a brief overview, Baroque style is typically characterized in contrast to the previous austerity of artistic movements like Renaissance and Mannerism. So, where Renaissance art was steeped in the quiet dignity of realism that moved to unite Christianity and science, Baroque presents dynamism through precision and embellishment. Through the usage of motion, contrast, exquisite attention to detail, rich coloration, and a sense of awe and adoration to its subject material, Baroque art is omnipresent not only in the story world of POALOF but also in the overall visual effect of the film itself, portraying it as an extension of the period’s paintings in a reinterpretation of film as an artistic medium.
Away from the more muted tones of naturalism, Portrait of a Lady on Fire relies on deliberation in its presentation of selective vibrancy in color. Evident mostly in the strategic color-coding of its queer characters into archetypal figures, Marianne and Héloïse’s costuming provides beautiful illumination to contrast the darkness of the background. Here, the vivid red-orange of Marianne’s dress sets her apart from her landscape filled with the beautiful blues of heavy shadows and ocean waves crashing against the French coastline. Warm tones like hers are commonly used throughout Baroque art to provide intensity and drama to the foreground to pronounce the depth of field in an exaggerated sense of perception. It’s vibrant; it’s power; it’s unsatiated passion in longing for eroticism all composed onto the body in space. Héloïse’s color composition acts in opposition to Marianne’s by using the Convent deep blue tones in the typical Christian fashion of the time to connote angels and chastity. Her tethering to the religious world and the way that it guides her desire shapes the visual juxtaposition of the two women as opposing ideals converging in a perfectly balanced frame. Even as the colors oscillate between the two women, the intentionality of them of the primary figures on the screen in brilliant richness remains constant.
It’s absolutely impossible to discuss Baroque art without at least mentioning the specific implementation of lighting composition which distinguishes it from other previous movements. Chiaroscuro pushed the two-dimensional world of painting into the third by focusing light coming in from a specific direction and gradually shading away from the light source. Portrait channels this directed illumination in its interiors magnificently, relying on the exaggerated shading from candlelight to impartially obscure the subjects into darkness. Every shot of the film focuses the composition on this natural light source draws the viewer into the intimacy of a confined space as the delicate details of the subject flush with a glow to mark tacit glances and hidden gestures of yearning. Even in the exaggerated form of chiaroscuro–tenebrism–the softness and sincerity highlight expression over form as a series of dramatic sparks on par with Caravaggio. In the scene where Marianne, Héloïse, and Sophie go to the village initially, the communal fire pit blazes at the feet of the women singing in acapella, casting Héloïse’s face in a fiery warm glow as the darkness of night inks around her outline; she is not just a piece of the story captured in the frame but exists as its entirety while the dynamism of the fire eating away at her highlights her allusion to Orpheus. Kineticism compounds as visual art and film compress into something new entirely that’s just utterly breathtaking.
Héloïse’s looks in those shots are everything as her body slowly sweeps the ground moving away from the fire as she focuses on Marianne over her shoulder like an homage to Girl with a Pearl Earring. Figure play is strangely embracing in a confrontational engagement in and out of the film. More than an audience, the open frame style holds the audience captive through the portal into the diegetic world of bodies in motion. The eye line composure of Marianne and Héloïse throughout the film is obsessively balanced and always in interaction with each other. Living and momentum pull inward and the space between them in a charged vacuum where nothing and everything meets. Typically Baroque composition builds the subjects along diagonal lines that triangulate. But in POALOF, the third point of the triangle is the viewer smothered within the lingering tensioning between the two. You can bathe in the heat of the moment and suck up the sultry energy radiating in the dead space between forbidden sapphic desire.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire reinvents the functionality and limitation of mediums as a visual medium of expression conceptually transforming a film into a living painting perpetually in movement. Its expression and style fights against the chaste austerity and convention of the past to ignite something so beautiful and potent like the fire that lights to warm them. But like all great works of art, at some point, just have to stop.
A conversation between Joseph Shin & Nathan Alligood Transcribed by Nathan Alligood
A few weeks ago, one of our intrepid editors undertook the incredible task of watching Berlin Alexanderplatz over the course of 3 days, to bask in the glory of such a feat of film watching. Not to be outdone (and partially out of spite), another of our editors undertook the same challenge, watching it in 2 days. They then decided that instead of keeping this sacred knowledge to themselves, that they should at least write an article for their collective 30 hours of watching. The transcribed conversation below is the fruits of their endeavors, spanning 14 parts and an epilogue as their homage to the series. It has been edited for clarity, with very little changed to preserve the semi-coherent ramblings and rants of two people who saw Berlin Alexanderplatz.
The Punishment Begins
N – The Punishment Begins J – The Punishment Begins! As they say N- Episode 1 – Berlin Alexanderplatz. Some might even call it the pilot. J – I like that there’s no context. We’re just jumping in, here at Scrawls on Cinema. It’s Episode 1. What show are we talking about? You’ll find out soon enough. N – They read the article title. You don’t just start reading the article without reading the title. J – Don’t put it above these readers.
N – That’s a great way to start this. Just insult the reader. This is gonna be a great article. J – Are you being a reader right now? “This is gonna be a great article” And just gets insulted. N – I was just commenting upon the start of this. It’s kind of like a Pretenders concert. Chrissie Hynde just cussing you out for being there.
J – Is that a thing that happens at Pretenders concerts? N – I’ve heard stories J – You pay for the privilege of her telling you to fuck off? N – I mean I’m sure they sing and play as well.
J – Nah, that’s the whole bit. Just two hours of sustained insults. You know her and Morrissey are very close friends? She did guest vocals on My Love Life if I remember correctly. N – Well now that we haven’t talked about—
J – That’s Berlin Alexanderplatz
How is One to Live if One Doesn’t Want to Die?
N – So now should we give some context as to what Alexanderplatz is? J – Yeah, it’s by the great Rainer Werner Fassbinder. N – A 15 hour film, or television series depending on how you see it. J – You can debate it. If you’re gonna call Twin Peaks: The Return a fucking film, then you better be calling Berlin Alexanderplatz a film.
N – I think it could go either way. It’s really your preference in how you want to see it, because it’s been aired both ways. J – It’s even more cinematic, because the beginning and end of each episode is the same. It just keeps on going, straight-through. N – I mean yeah, there’s no— J – It’s not like Twin Peaks where there’s breaks. N – There’s no real recaps. It’s very straight-forward in what it’s doing. J – The content is something else. N – It’s essentially just the life of one man who is trying to go straight in Weimar-era Germany. J – And spoiler alert folks, he doesn’t succeed in 15 episodes.
A Hammer Blow to the Head can Injure the Soul
N – I guess we can talk about the injured soul of Franz Biberkopf, the main character. J – Yeah, it’s weird that that’s the conceit of the thing, because you’d think he’d be such an innocent character. That’s what I thought at the beginning of the thing, that he’d be some innocent, but he’s got quite the rap sheet. N – He’s by no means an evil person—
J – Okay, doesn’t he rape someone in episode 1? N – Well, that’s true, but you have to think along the lines of he’s not knowingly evil. I just think he’s very misguided and childish in an id-like way. J – Again, he raped someone in episode 1. N – I’m not trying to excuse that, or even say he’s a good character. I’m just saying there’s this weird innocence to the character despite the evil and reprehensible things he does. Almost a child-like quality to him. J – Yeah. I wouldn’t rule out mental disability or neurodiversity. He could very well be on the spectrum. There’s just a failure to communicate. N – There are those vibes to him. J – But sometimes he’s very eloquent. He shifts, like Durant’s syndrome. N – It reminded me Dmitri from the Brothers Karamazov J – Yeah, Nathan just wanted to let y’all know that he’s read that. “I know Dostoevsky” N – Well that was an actual thought I had watching it. I’m so sorry. He’s trying to be good at heart, but it doesn’t work out for him that way. Just gets bogged down in the world man. J – I could see a remake of Berlin Alexanderplatz starring Nathan. N – Thanks. Thank you. I mean we know what happens in Episode 1, so I’m glad you think that highly of me. J – No, but I think I would be… (In Unison) N – You’d be Reinhold? J – Reinhold. I think I would be Reinhold. N – I’m glad we were both on that page. Dear Reader, Reinhold is probably the worst character in this entire affair. Just to let you know that we both thought that of Joseph. J – You could describe him as a Hitler stand-in in some regard. N – Yeah, I can see that. J – He resembles him kind of, in look.
Nathan and Joseph in the Depths of Silence
(2 full minutes of silence on the call)
N: It’s been well over a minute of silence now, so I would call that a depth. J: It’s Band of Outsiders. N: Band of Outsiders was like 40 seconds. J: Did you time it?
N: I took out my stopwatch. I was curious. J: So you rewound it? N: Maybe I did. Maybe I didn’t.
A Reaper with the Power of our Lord
N: Death certainly plays a role in Berlin Alexanderplatz. It’s a powerful subject in regard to Franz, who’s kind of running from death. J: Yeah, it’s a recurring theme. Probably the most flashbacks of the same scene I’ve seen. N: They really want you to know that this whole thing started out with a death at Franz’s hands.
J: Average is probably at least once per episode that they show that flashback. N: I think at the most it’s three an episode. And it’s a strange way to die for sure. J: Yeah, he clubs her right? And then strangles her? N: With a whisk. They call it a cream whip, but it’s a whisk.
J: Yeah, yeah, I thought, “that’s not a whip” N: It’s a very strong whisk. J: It’s a strong man. N: Yeah, I think that kind of plays into the whole child-like qualities of Franz. J: He doesn’t know his own strength. He’s like a giant baby.
N: There’s definitely some physical comparisons to a giant baby to be had. J: Yeah Nathan? Go into detail. N: I’m just saying he appears to be a baby a lot. The balding head. The round pudgy look. J: Babies famously with balding heads. N: A lot of babies don’t have hair straight out of the womb. J: What baby has hair straight out of the womb? N: That’s my point. Franz has come right out of the womb of prison and he’s a baby. J: You’re in a psychoanalytical reading now? N: We have ten more parts of this. We’re gonna have to go places, Joseph. J: Wanna bust out that you’ve read On the Interpretation of Dreams too? N: I’m just saying you’re not throwing much out here, so I’m filling in what I can. J: Are you implying I don’t read, Nathan? N: Why am I Reinhold suddenly?
Love has Its Price
J: That’s the message. What happens in this episode? N: Someone did not read beforehand. J: Like I said, I don’t read. N: This one is…I mean Love has its price is a recurring theme of the series. All of Franz’s encounters with love take quite a toll. However they come about.
J: Yeah, it’s usually commodified. Many interactions with prostitutes. N: There’s a lot of sex workers and it’s very strange how he comes about a lot of his partners. Like he meets Lina in a bar and they instantly move in together. It honestly makes me think of an unreliable narrator as well. All of these partners just throwing themselves at him. J: There’s a lot of narration in this movie, and sometimes you don’t know who it is. You just think, “Who’s talking?” N: It’s Rainer. J: Yeah I know who physically it is. In the story it’s the voice of God. N: And a lot of his partners do pay a price at the end of their relationships with Franz. Whether it be sadness or something greater. J: That’s a spoiler-laden territory. N: I didn’t say— J: What spoilers are we giving out? N: I don’t know. We never laid out.
J: Well no one who’s reading this has seen it. N: Are we going to make the case that they should see it? J: If you have a week. N: If you’re just sitting around the house for 48 hours. You can get through it. J: I don’t think you should binge-watch it. It’s too much. N: It does have a very strange enthralling ability to it. It keeps you invested. J: It’s the power of TV, of episodic installments. “What happens next?” N: This one is a very straight, “Find out what happens immediately after this, next week” So, yeah. Love has its price, man. J: That’s deep. N: 15 hours is the price.
Remember an Oath can be Amputated
J: So clever, such a clever title. N: I mean, we can’t really get into it, but its brilliant. I was looking back through the episode titles and this one stuck out as being so clever. Boy, these titles are gonna get rough to talk about if we can get into anything. J: I’m trying to think about what to do with future ones. N: To just kind of tiptoe around the spoiler, the series throws as much as it can at Franz after he gets out of prison. I think we probably mentioned it, but he makes an actual oath, “I’m gonna walk the straight and narrow. I’m not gonna get into crime anymore,” because you know he was a criminal and that’s never good. Unless your Robin Hood I guess. J: Yeah, come on Nathan. What about Jean Valjean? Your favorite musical. N: If you’re Robin Hood or Jean Valjean then you can be a criminal. J: He robbed that bread. N: Jean Valjean was just stealing bread to feed his starving sister and her child. J: Yeah, and you just said all crime is bad. N: It’s never good to resort to crime, but there’s a moral grayness to it at some points. J: Moral relativism. You gotta go on a case-by-case basis. N: Anyway, the oath is really tested in this episode. Can Franz live right? J: I don’t know, but amputation’s gonna be involved. N: Alright, we’re getting spoiler-ish. J: Why are people reading this if they haven’t seen it? What are they getting out of it? N: They’re trying to figure out if they should watch it. J: This is a streaming rec now? N: I don’t know what this is. This doesn’t fall under any of the content buckets. J: I guess it technically is a streaming rec. N: We watched it and now we’re gonna tell them: This is what we liked about it. This is what we didn’t. This is what it’s about. J: I don’t think anyone’s gonna watch Berlin Alexanderplatz, because we recommended it.
N: Never underestimate the spite watch, now that we’ve told them they’ll never watch it. J: Now they have to. “Fuck Nathan and Joseph. Who do they think they are?” This is the mount Everest of film-watching. N: This is the big boy of narrative film. J: Definitely easier than Out 1.
The Sun Warms the Skin, but Burns it Sometimes too.
J: That’s a good sunblock ad. N: Yeah, I think it would be sunscreen though. J: Aren’t sunblock and sunscreen the same thing. N: No, sunblock completely blocks it, like you won’t get a tan, but sunscreen allows some rays in. J: I don’t think humans have advanced technologically enough to 100% block the sun. N: That’s how it was explained to me. I have not researched it extensively. J: You’ve had time. Ever hear of Google? N: There’s a reason that there’s sunscreen and there’s sunblock. They’re not interchangeable things. J: I don’t know Nathan. There’s lots of words. It’s like a homonym.
(One Google Search later)
N: Alright, Sunscreen or sunblock? Which one should I use? courtesy of Healthline.com Sunscreen is a chemical defense— Or wait is this plagiarism if I just read this? J: Nah N: Okay, I’ll paraphrase. Sunscreen absorbs the UV rays before they reach and damage your skin, but sunblock is a physical way to defend against UV rays. It sits on top of the skin and it just blocks it. This is the Berlin Alexanderplatz content everyone has been asking for. J: I mean, this is probably more useful than anything we’ve said about Berlin Alexanderplatz. They could take away some practical life knowledge. I think this does a lot more for the reader than us questioning whether Franz Biberkopf is on the autism spectrum. N: I don’t know. Let’s see what happens in this one. Oh! This one has Mieze. She finally shows up.
J: Oh. My favorite character. N: Did you not like Mieze? J: No, she’s genuinely my favorite character. That’s when the music gets good, when she comes in. N: She’s probably the brightest ray of hope in this series. J: And she’s the most name brand actress in all of this. Barbara Sukowa, who’s in many German films. She’s the lead in Lola a nd been in a lot of Margarethe von Trotta films. N: She’s quite good as Mieze too.
J: There’s not a performance I would say is bad in this. It’s a great ensemble who all do pretty well. I just believe a lot of them, because I don’t know them outside their character. N: When you’ve never seen them as anything else, that helps. There’s also that language barrier. J: Yeah, they could all be shit at delivering lines, and we wouldn’t know.
About the Eternities Between the Many and the Few
N: So, yeah, this one…doesn’t he go to like a communist rally or something. J: Wow, so inspired to just read that off the Wikipedia blurb. N: I saw the highlighted word and— Well, I don’t know where to go with this. We’ve been sitting here for like a minute in silence. J: Yeah, eternity is kind of like a silence. N: I guess, but there are strong questions about society in this series. J: Berlin Alexanderplatz is a political series. N: Whenever you have Nazis in a German series, you know you’re gonna be getting into something. J: I thought it was leading up to Hitler’s reign. I was confused when the book was written, so I was like, “Was this written during the Hitler times? Were they aware of that?” But it doesn’t. N: It’s set in the 1920’s. J: Yeah, like the Nazis in the series are still a fringe group. N: They’re in the air, but not— J: Kind of like the alt-right folks today, if they walked around with a Pepe the Frog armband. N: Yeah, Berlin falls into them at some points. J: Berlin falls into it? N: I meant Franz. J: Oh my God. Nathan’s gone into his galaxy brain. Franz is Berlin, that’s what the show is saying. N: Yeah, that’s what I meant. I’m sorry I’m on such a different level of understanding of this series. J: Come down to where us peons are, so the readers can understand this. N: I’m just saying, maybe it’s all an allegory.
J: Oh is it? Oh damn. This modernist novel might be an allegory. Shit. N: Just maybe.
Loneliness Tears Cracks of Madness even in Walls.
J: That sounds kinda like a Morrissey song title. N: Is this the third Morrissey mention? J: Are you counting? N: I’m just saying not everybody’s a Morrissey fan. J: Yeah some people are just wrong and don’t deserve the gift of life. N: Strong words again. Alienating some readers. Well, anyway, Franz is really lonely sometimes.
J: Yeah when he gets lonely, you know what happens. Cracks of madness. Even in walls. N: I would say the series itself, even in this episode arc, if we go back to the two titles before this, it’s very happy and then we kind of peak and then we go right back down into loneliness and then madness in regards to Franz’s well being. This one is definitely another start to the awfulness that is Franz’s going bad again.
J: Breaking bad one might say. N: Yep, that’s it. J: Which episode is The Fly of Berlin Alexanderplatz? N: There’s really not a whole lot that happens in this one. Most of the episodes have some sort of grand action or event or argument. But this one is more peaceful and happy. The cracks are just starting to show. It ends on a really sour note for sure. J: Criterion should get us to do these intros for the channel. N: Actually we should just do the commentary tracks. J: Sunblock! N: Criterion if you are out there, we will come in and we will commentate on all 15 hours if we can have 5 minutes in that closet. J: You know Peter Beckers, he’s reading Scrawls everyday. N: Hey, we don’t know. Some of those articles have feet. J: Only 15 minutes? You wouldn’t even be able to talk about the movies you pick. You would just have to shove them in the bag. N: They don’t want to film us doing it. They don’t care what we’d have to say. J: I’d just grab boxsets. The most bang for my buck. N: I wonder if they have the out-of-print ones though. J: No. I’d probably get the Tati and the Varda, and the Bergman, and I’d be happy. N: Would the Varda be out by then? I guess by the time we get there. J: Oh and the Demy. and Cassavettes. I don’t want to pay money for that. N: Bold. If they did film it, you’d need to say that.”I wouldn’t pay for this, but since you’re giving it to me.”
J: That’s something that they don’t address enough. The picks that they’re willing to take, but not buy. They need to be more honest about it. Like, “I wouldn’t pay money for Persona, but I’ll take it.” N: “Fanny and Alexander, now this is a film I would check out from a library, but I sure wouldn’t buy it.” J: Quite a based library to have Fanny and Alexander i n their catalog. N: I don’t think my library has Persona. They do have the Seventh Seal. I ‘ll give them that. J: The worst Bergman film. N: It’s fine. J: It’s just a farce. N: What’s wrong with farces? J: They just treat it like it’s this great…like it’s about life and death and everything. But it’s just a comedy. N: This article is a farce. It’s about life and death and everything, but it’s really about two guys talking about sunblock and sunscreen. J: Hey, if you’re reading this, this is on you.
Knowledge is Power and the Early Bird Catches the Worm
J: If you sleep at 7:30 and wake up at 2:30 like Mark Wahlberg, you’re gonna be the earliest bird around. You’re gonna catch a lot more. So if one could say that knowledge is power, you could say that Mark Wahlberg is the smartest person to ever exist. You follow me, Nathan?
N: Maybe he’s as smart as Fassbinder for making this great episode, where Franz just has no power at all, because he doesn’t really know a lot about what’s going on. And y’know, crime never pays. J: That’s the most vague shit I’ve ever heard in my life.
N: I can’t talk about anything that happens in the episode. It’s a good episode too. It has a great ending too, with Mieze, and probably some of the most— J: Within this episode there are characters, you’ve heard it here first folks. N: It’s gotta be one of the most disturbing scenes outside of the finale in the series, cause it’s similar to those flashbacks we get, but we’ve grown to really like this character. To just see all these things happen, it’s a rough time.
J: A very good scream. N: It’s a powerful scream that goes on for quite some time. It’s the only clip I revisited. J: I made my brother watch it. He didn’t take it very well. N: That’s how you win people over on it. J: Yeah, “I gotta watch all 15 hours now, I gotta find out the context” N: See knowledge is power. Fassbinder knew that people would only show that clip, and so to really unlock the power of it, you had to learn everything that happened before. See the early bird who had already seen everything, they’re gonna catch that worm first.
J: So many layers. N: A true master of the craft.
The Serpent in the Soul of the Serpent
J: How does that even work? What does that even mean? N: It’s all about Reinhold. There’s this evil guy or girl or whatever, and within them there is this evil soul. Throughout this whole series, Franz is very adamant that Reinhold is his friend, and that they’re buddies, when it’s actually not the case. I always thought of this as, in the acclaimed television series Spongebob Squarepants, t he way that Spongebob sees Squidward is that they’re the best of friends, but in reality Squidward just tolerates him. J: So Squidward is Reinhold and Spongebob is Franz Biberkopf? N: Yeah, that’s the conclusion I came to, in a lot of this. If you have any thoughts? J: I think you pretty much got it. That analogy is just so perfect. I’m glad that when you were watching this art film you thought about children’s cartoons. N: What was your take? What did you think of this episode? J: I don’t like talking about Twin Peaks, but it made me think of Laura Palmer. Except that happens before the events of the show, and there’s only one more real episode after this. It’s a nice formative turn in the plot. Probably the single most important plot event happens in this episode. N: I could see this as the Laura Palmer moment of the series. J: This is the Fire Walk with Me o f it all. N: It’s strange how Franz plays so little of a role in it. At the end of the day, Franz has so little to do with his own destiny. J: He’s just a cog in the machine of Berlin.
The Outside and the Inside and the Secret of Fear of the Secret
J: There’s a lot of nouns in there. N: I think at this point, we’re getting very much closer into the inevitable finale and mind-bender. This is the last really straightforward narrative as Joseph stated in the last section. There’s some stuff that happens, but it’s very much kind of an epilogue to the main narrative event of the whole thing. Franz is left picking up the pieces of what’s going on. J: It’s a pretty quick resolution to it. Quite a bit happens in this one. There are ellipses at some point. N: It’s cutting out a lot of the descent. It just gives you the lead-up and then we’re there. Not much in the way of Franz, but I would say all the other characters. We kinda get to see them one last time as Franz sees them. J: One last ride. N: I would say a lot of the characters do kinda become…yeah. J: They just become?
N: Yeah, I didn’t know where I was going with that. J: So you just ended it? N: Yeah, you might as well stop before you just plow off the cliff. J: Now you’re riding a plow off a cliff? N: I wasn’t going to Thelma and Louise my sentence. J: Okay. N: I feel like we haven’t even touched on Eva at all. J: I don’t know. I wasn’t sure if she was a ghost. There were many points I was confused. She’s a very strange character. N: She was one of those characters that makes me wonder, “Is this all in Franz’s head?” J: Yeah, cause she just shows up at points. How are you here? Why are you here? N: She shows up. She has a very…I assume they were involved at some point. J: Yeah, she was his prostitute at some point. N: Yeah, Franz is a pimp throughout much of this series. It’s a strange word for 1920’s Germany, but I suppose it’s true. J: In this show, every woman is a prostitute. N: A strong allegory, Joseph. J: It is. It’s true. N: Well, we dropped the last few readers we had. There’s not a whole lot to explain with Eva. I think she’s very nuanced, but as far as her role in the series, it’s very nebulous in how she’s handled. I think the final scene of this episode is a big sticking point in my head, as far as the entire series, because it ends so suddenly. J: But then you get that movie-length ending.
My Dream of the Dream of Franz Biberkopf by Alfred Döblin, An Epilogue
J: Yeah, so this is like Fassbinder saying, “This is my conception!” Cause as I understand it, this whole dream sequence. Not in the book. N: I don’t know how you would put it down on paper to be honest. It’s quite expressionistic and difficult to describe.
J: Well it’s a dream sequence. N: It is very much a dream sequence throughout Franz’s subconscious, as he processes that last sequence from the penultimate episode. He receives some shocking news, that we won’t go into here, but it’s enough to make anyone go into this whole dream coma thing with angels and demons and slaughterhouses and such. Your thoughts on the dream? Being more familiar with the Fassbinder oeuvre? J: It’s phantasmagorical, I think. The word of the day for this episode. It could almost stand on its own as another Fassbinder film. You wouldn’t have as much context for a lot of the twists on the things that happen in the narrative. A lot of familiar faces pop back in. People from episode 1 pop back in unexpectedly. N: The Rabbi, The Field Medic, so many characters that really get lost in the shuffle. J: A lot of cameo appearances come back. By far and away, the most visually appealing of the entire series. Not to say that the show is ugly— N: It drops the golden hues of late 70s television for a more filmic look. J: It’s quite colorful in spots. Particularly, the bit with…I don’t know if I should say it. It’s a particular part involving crucifixion, that is quite… N: I mean that’s the grand set piece of the whole thing. A lot of filmmakers borrow from it. Todd Haynes with Velvet Goldmine I believe? J: Yeah, another good blurb from the Wikipedia article. N: I don’t even have that part of the article I open. I just remembered that. J: Okay, Mr. IMDB trivia. N: I’m sorry that I researched this beforehand, instead of hopping on and having the Wikipedia article open in front of me. Yeah, not all of it is a dream sequence surprisingly. J: Yeah, the last couple of minutes, it does go back to reality. N: Franz wakes up from his nightmare only to be greeted by another nightmare in the real world. J: A nightmare of the real world. N: Reinhold gets a little sequence before going too far in too. J: It’s kind of confusing, because we don’t know if it’s real or not. N: I honestly wondered if that was before or after the events of the series. At what point is that happening? Obviously Reinhold winds up in that place we can’t talk about, but I guess it’s trying to humanize Reinhold. J: Yeah, cause he’s just been a little asshat the entire time with everyone who comes into contact with him. N: That is an understatement, but yeah Reinhold is humanized. Franz just loses his mind, and from what I remember it concludes in a very strange manner as well in the real world, hearkening forward from the 20s.
J: Well yeah, everyone knows what happened in Germany in the 1930s. N: It is very understated. It hints at it more than just showing. J: Not as ham-fisted as other things.
Our Dream of the Dream of Berlin Alexanderplatz by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, An Epilogue
N: I think we’ve milked as much of this as we can for an article, so I guess the only question left is do we recommend this for people? J: Well, if you like Fassbinder, you’ll like this. It just depends how much time you’ve got on your hands. I would not be watching this during the school year. I would be finding time in the summer.
N: I’ll agree. I think that if you have a lot of time, and you don’t know a lot about Fassbinder, like I had only seen three of his other films before watching this. It was still very enthralling and it’s definitely a solid watch, but I would say you could watch an episode a night. I mean, it originally aired as a TV series, so maybe it’ll go down a little easier. The plot might be a little harder to follow, even if you can’t get 15 hours to carve out of 2-3 days. It’s still a fun watch and most TV shows are about that long. It’s not light viewing though.
J: Yeah, you can’t be on your phone or be on Twitter. N: I wouldn’t be jogging while watching this, like running on a treadmill. J: Don’t get on the elliptical, unless you wanna fall down. N: Looking back, I enjoyed my time with it. I don’t think I’m going to go back to it anytime soon. J: I’ll watch it once every 10 years. N: I would say even 15 would be good. It’s a solid piece of media. I can see why it holds such acclaim in the world of film and television, and why it is this mountain. J: It has no parallel. N: Nobody else has really done anything like it, but yeah. So that’s Berlin Alexanderplatz. It’s the story of Franz Biberkopf. J: That’s all we needed to say. We could have just said that and left it at that. N: Yeah, but that’s not how we roll here at Scrawls. We give you everything. We tell it to you all. J: That’s all folks! I wish I could do a Porky Pig. N: That was strange. Somewhat alien. Man, I wish we had a good sign-off. J: We are all Franz Biberkopf. That’s my sign-off. N: Franz lives on in us all. It’s kind of riffing on yours though. J: Get original Nathan. N: Long live Franz Biberkopf J: That’s still pretty close. N: Well, I am so sorry there aren’t that many memorable catchphrases…And that’s all folks.
Spoilers for Scoob! (2020) (and The Phantom ( 1996) to an extent) to follow
In light of our current times and all the problems facing us, both individually and nationally, the question can be asked of where do we find solace from our worries? I start this streaming recommendation with such a potent question in the hopes that it will serve to separate the film I’m recommending from the collective vitriol (which has since died down as new fare fills the collective conscience) accumulated against it, as well as to start a greater conversation on the films of its kind: animated films rebooting an older IP for a new generation to find joy in, with Scoob! as the ultimate culmination of this trend.
Before arriving there, let’s first go back to the morning of September 13, 1969, as Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! premieres on CBS with the episode “What a Night for a Knight.” An innocuous cultural moment whereby a Saturday morning cartoon would lodge its way into the American consciousness and remain there into the modern day. The real question lies in how it managed to captivate its audience. Upon revisit, there’s certainly little in the way of technical achievement to be lauded. As with most Hanna-Barbera animations, the first episode is rudimentary if not downright shoddy in places, with recycled animations, bizarre characterizations (Shaggy is both a world-class gymnast and ventriloquist), and a jarring laugh track that was a shocking omission from my memory of the series. In a vacuum, the show is a prime example of its genre, a cheaply made Saturday morning cartoon, made to entertain children with an inoffensive escape into sleuthing.
Technical merits aside, the series’ true cultural power comes forth from the time period in which it was released, a time of great cultural upheaval and social change spurred on by the younger generations fighting for everything from civil rights for marginalized groups to ending the Vietnam War. With this in mind, Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! could be taken as an allegory for that moment in history. A moment when all it takes to expose the wrongs of greed and malice of those in positions of power are a group of young teenagers and their animal mascot. Simply look at the “flower power” design of the fabled Mystery Machine to see how youthful resistance is invading the decayed and anemic backgrounds of America and freeing it of its monsters that turn out to be nothing more than spiteful people trying to control those around them.
Of course, the 60’s had to end and as time changed, so did Scooby-Doo, going through several incarnations of animated television series, direct-to-video and theatrical film releases, and enough merchandise to warrant a Kenneth Anger short film if he were so inclined. While I do not claim to have seen the impressive pantheon of Scooby-Doo interpretations, generally all follow the same formula from the 1969 series, or aim to lampoon the bare-bones formula and characterizations of the series, such as Raja Gosnell’s live-action films of the early 2000s. Thus, when the time came for Warner Bros. to look at their array of IP and determine what could be their next lucrative venture, the Scooby-Doo property was ripe for another iteration in Scoob!, an adaptation that attempts to yet again bring the Great Dane back into the contemporary zeitgeist. Now, I’m not going to argue that everything must stay exactly as it was in the good ol’ days. No, ideas and narratives have to evolve and usually lead to fantastic, original media. The problem with Scoob! lies in its preference to recede into a postmodern void rather than tread new ground with its pre-existing elements.
I use the word postmodern cautiously (knowing the disdain it can generate due to its nebulous meaning) to mean a depthlessness in the film itself. Shocking as it may be to hear an animated film for children is surface-level, I feel as though the depthlessness goes deeper than just that. Essentially Scoob! acts as a sort of copy of a copy of the original Scooby-Doo series, a piece of media so disconnected from its original source material that it’s become a simulacrum. However, the problem lies in that despite whatever meaning can be grafted onto the original narrative formula of the series, there is no real culture or meaning behind the original series. With all due respect, there’s not much to be found as each week Scooby-Doo and the gang unmask yet another monster in a similar way. This leads to the question, with no real meaning to glean from its source, what does Scoob! put in place of it? Would they fall back onto the formula and rework it to deal with modern issues? To put it simply, kind of.
The true feat of Scoob! is its ability to completely rework the original Scooby-Doo framework while adding an incredible variety of both modern and outdated pop culture references. Covering the greatest pop hits of the past 60 years, current trends in technology, and even outdated Hanna-Barbera nostalgia, Scoob! throws so many easter eggs and references at the viewer that it’s hard to keep up under the cavalcade of cultural cache. Taking from a wide array of pop culture and general knowledge, the film mixes high and low culture indiscriminately, with one character asking which Harry Potter house that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is in within the first 10 minutes. All of these mixed signifiers serve to distract the audience from the inherent hollowness of a film that feels the need to undermine any moment that builds emotion or any underlying themes with such an over explanation of it that makes the viewer feel like a simpleton for expecting it at all.
Of course, this is no new ground for animated films as of late, with pop culture references and meta humor becoming increasingly prevalent in the genre, but Scoob! goes even farther by removing the very groundwork for all Scooby-Doo IP with its rejection of the formula in its main narrative. The film starts with a fairly standard origin story of the gang meeting each other for the first time, and follows the formula in its first mystery. This leads into a montage of the original series opening, showing the passage of time and the maturation of our protagonists (along with an odd addition characterizing Fred’s vehicular passion), before leading us into the main narrative of the film, trading mystery for a standard superhero adventure while featuring the greatest hits of the Hanna-Barbera collection. Any semblance of a mystery is tossed out the window by the 20-minute mark with the reveal of the villain being Dick Dastardly, the only memorable character from Wacky Races, followed by the entrance of Blue Falcon and Dyno-mutt as the foil hero characters. The film continues with the classic race-against-time trope while hitting the same generic beats in generic scenarios along the way, including: an abandoned amusement park fight (with a ferris wheel), being captured but turning a lackey to your side to free you, a sympathetic villain origin story, the secret land before time where the final treasure is hid (as well as another Hanna-Barbera IP masquerading as a prehistoric superhero), teaming up after not working together to finally defeat the villain, and last but not least the power of friendship conquering everything.
Nearly every aspect of the Scooby-Doo formula is thrown out in favor of a newer narrative, where things are explained rather than solved, where the ghosts and ghouls are real, where the villains are exactly who they appear to be. Perhaps this is the intrinsic joy of films like Scoob!. As times change, so must our beloved cultural icons, becoming hollow imitations of their former selves to access a newer audience and values, no matter how vacant. To see this, look to the end credits montage, as it shows us nearly every notable Hanna-Barbera character from Atom Ant to Manilla Gorilla existing in a similarly heroic way in the modern day, isolated from their Saturday morning origins. Of course, this sentiment is best illustrated when considering the character of Blue Falcon, or Brian as Dynomutt refers to him. Brian’s plight is illustrated with the constant criticism he faces from Dynomutt and Dee-Dee Skyes, due to his inability to live up to the original Blue Falcon who he has replaced à la The Phantom. Unlike Billy Zane though, Brian would rather recede into modern day pleasures and social media than face his father’s legacy before being begrudgingly accepted to mirror the themes of friendship appearing everywhere else in the film. In my mind, this is the way to approach Scoob! a deeply flawed if not endearing piece of work that loves the idea of being its predecessors while having no active interest in emulating what made them what they were. Instead, the film would rather dance in its own corner, perfectly content and happy with who it is. And how can you fault it for that?
Politics in 2020 have been… unpredictable. Aside from the global pandemic and the inexplicable public debate surrounding personal safety, the political status quo has been rocked by protests against police brutality led by community leaders in cities throughout America. Added to the mix is the President, whose personal brand of leadership has strained explanation. This leaves political satirists– those artists whose role it is to create content about the sharp edge of political discourse, holding up a mirror to humanity’s universal idiocies– in danger of being marooned on the wayside while public events whiz past them. The late 2010s have stretched American political satire to the point where much of the content has been hewn down to imitation (coughcough SNL coughcough).
Armando Iannucci, widely known for the wickedly incisive Veep, defies the mold with the 2017 black comedy The Death of Stalin. To be honest, the only thing I should have to say to anyone to convince them to watch this movie is “Steve Buscemi plays a Soviet dictator,” but since that might not be enough for some people, I will elaborate further. The movie is set in Moscow, 1953 when the eponymous dictator inconveniences the nation with a fatal stroke. Mayhem ensues as the conniving Politburo members plot to fill the titanic political vacuum left by Stalin’s death. The closest thing the movie has to a protagonist is Buscemi’s Nikita Khrushchev, a reformer who managed to survive the Purges by telling bathroom jokes at Stalin’s dinner parties. Opposed to him is Simon Russell Beale’s Machiavellian Lavrenti Beria, the head of the NKVD (the precursor to the KGB). Added to the farce is Andrea Riseborough as Stalin’s histrionic daughter Svetlana, Rupert Friend as his perennially vodka-soaked son Vasily, and Jason Isaacs as an AK-47 wielding Marshal Georgy Zhukov. The cast also consists of a superb ensemble of Politburo members all determined to outdo one another in their slavish devotion to the fallen tyrant.
There are numerous highlights, not least of which is the Politburo members’ haphazard attempt to transport Stalin’s urine-soaked body to his deathbed with lines including “So you think Stalin is too heavy?/ No! It’s a compliment. Gold is heavy.” These scenes revel in that same aspect which made Veep and Iannucci’s other works like In the Loop and The Thick of It so surgically comical: the sycophantic devotion people in the service of the powerful display in order to secure their own advancement. Only in the arena of Soviet blood politics, the stakes are much, much higher than losing out on a promotion. All of the Politburo members strain to ostentatiously display their devotion to Stalin’s legacy, with absurd results: Michael Palin’s Vyacheslav Molotov nearly trips over himself to praise Stalin’s supposed imprisonment and murder of his wife.
It would seem on its face that the movie has little to no relation to the absurdity of the American political scene today. Instead, it outflanks the current pace of political events by targeting an extreme of the political spectrum: Soviet totalitarianism. A close comparison of the two shows that they are not quite so diametrically opposed as we might think. Indeed, a close comparison between the eulogies each Politburo member gives on top of Lenin’s Mausoleum at Stalin’s funeral and the current President’s State of the Union speeches might yield more similarities than one might feel comfortable with. Both are gilded with sweeping praise to abstract concepts, but underneath both are actually nonsense. My personal favorite is Molotov’s call to action that since Stalin’s love for the nation was “unwavering” the Soviet people must take their “unwavering” pain and love and with it build an “unwavering” future. What exactly an “unwavering future” is, is not specified.
Perhaps the best evidence that The Death of Stalin gives in its own defense (and evidence that its themes still hold true today) is the fact that its release was banned in Russia. Members of Russia’s nationalist Great Fatherland Party said that the movie was an “unfriendly act by the British intellectual class” and part of an “anti-Russian information war” in a statement almost completely congruent with something out of a Soviet-era Pravda article. And while we might be able to find absurdity in Russia’s banning a movie denigrating Soviet politics, it isn’t a big stretch of the imagination to imagine what the reactions to movies denigrating America’s involvement in foreign wars or its treatment of marginalized populations might get in ultra-conservative (or liberal) outlets. It’s also worth mentioning that the film has been illegally downloaded over 1.5 million times.
This isn’t to say that The Death of Stalin is a cautionary tale. Instead, it has the same twofold effect that all satire has on us. It zeroes in on and ridicules the follies inherent in all humans and their foolish systems.
Josephine Decker’s newest film, Shirley, contains an impressive rap sheet- Decker won a director’s prize at Sundance for it, it gained a stamp of approval from Martin Scorsese and Neon, and it’s anchored by the second compelling Elizabeth Moss lead performance of the year. Moss portrays the titular Shirley Jackson, a real horror author in the 1950s, and the film marks her descent into personal madness and creative desperation, bringing her husband (Michael Stuhlbarg) and a young couple (Odessa Young and Logan Lerman) down along with her. She’s experiencing writer’s block while adapting a novel from a story of a local girl who went missing, and she begins to mine both her own personal paranoia and the fear and uncertainty she senses in her new tenants. The film creates a web of creativity and personal trauma, but it doesn’t explore or answer anything as much as it conjures a thick mood.
The film’s strength is in its performances. Moss and Young are the film’s central pairing, and the film pulls off a neat trick by allowing Young to be the main perspective we see through. This means Shirley always seems mysterious and out of reach, and the demystification she undergoes throughout the film is something we discover together. Stuhlbarg makes a great heel to the two women, his acidic outbursts adding a lot to the general mood of emotional confusion. The only casting misstep is Logan Lerman as a scummy young husband. It’s jarring to see a short-lived cypher for troubled teens turn into an immature and boozy 30 year old, especially given his retained babyface. A small consolation: as far as young grad students living with a professor played by Michael Stuhlbarg go, at least it’s not Armie Hammer.
Lerman’s sweaty drunkenness adds to the film’s incredibly boozy atmosphere. The film, more than most films that feature constant drinking as both atmosphere and a plot device, is keyed into the bleariness and impotence that comes with late night drinking and unpleasant mornings after. The film lurches along, and its subjective and shallow focused imagery puts you in the haze the characters experience.
Decker has an interesting comment on the complications of being a creative and misunderstood woman, and the fraught nature of consuming real people in order to be inspired by them, but this only comes out in fits and spurts. There’s a moment in here where Stuhlbarg’s character tells Shirley that her writing and obsession with someone she didn’t know prevents her from doing good work as well as worsening her disconnection from reality. Her husband wants her to believe she’s crazy for trying to get inside the mind of a character, and it’s an interesting comment I imagine that Decker wants us to sit with, as I’m sure it’s a pressure she felt embarking on a convoluted thriller about a real person who she did not know.
There’s also an inspired sequence where Shirley begins to visualize Paula as both herself and Rosie, but lots of this movie struggles to live up to its hypnagogic highs. The build to the ending is frustrating, as it reverses the two women’s life roles pretty much on a dime, and the anti-climax squanders much of the tension that was suggested throughout- although I’m not sure this needed any of the slasher horror moments that sometimes felt within reach. The film does end on a smart move, and the final shot suggests that any neat happiness Shirley may have won for herself is only momentary, and the characters aren’t ever really liberated from anything. Shirley mostly fails to live up to its impressive credentials, but it works well when it commits to the ethereal character study it hints at.