Disturbing Sincerity: Street Musicians, Serial Killers, and the American Spirit

| Jeremy Meckler |

Stroszek screens at the Trylon from Friday, November 26 to Sunday, November 28. Scroll to the bottom of this page for tickets and more information.


Werner Herzog is one of those directors whose persona is sometimes more extravagant than his films. There’s the time he ate his shoe or jumped into a cactus patch; the time he pulled Joaquin Phoenix from a car wreck, or when he was shot by a sniper mid-interview and continued it anyway. Indeed, some of his films seem to get swept up in the Herzog myth, becoming more interesting as artifacts of a mad filmmaker than as films in their own right. Stroszek, Herzog’s meandering 1976 German-American road movie, has its fair share of legendary Herzog lore, but it also stands as an exceptional example of his unique cinematic vision. Balanced on the border between documentary and fiction Stroszek is perhaps the purest demonstration of Herzog’s experimental production approach, his devotion to stylized documentary as a way to access a deeper level of truth, and his consistent focus on characters at the margins of modern society. For my money, it’s also the most coherent articulation of the midwestern American spirit ever put on celluloid.

Stroszek is the result of a few creative and intellectual collaborations. The first is with Bruno S., the film’s star and direct inspiration. Bruno was a self-taught musician who played eighteenth-century ballads on accordion in Berlin streets and alleys. Herzog’s first encounter with Bruno was as the subject of a 1970 documentary and he was so immediately smitten that he sought out Bruno and cast him as the lead in his 1972 historical drama The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser. Bruno plays Kaspar Hauser, a (perhaps apocryphal) wild child teenager who wandered into Nuremberg in May 1828, repeating the phrase “I would like to be a rider, the way my father was” and bursting into tears when asked any question.[1] Through a series of interviews with the mayor, Hauser told a bizarre story: he had never seen another human being before and had spent his first sixteen years in isolation in a 3’ by 6’ cell in Bavaria where he would wake up to bread and water every morning. Hauser was the subject of inquiry and rumors, including that he was actually a prince, although his often contradictory stories also led many to believe he was a compulsive fabricator. He died at 21 from a stabbing in a park, either self-inflicted or by a stranger, and has remained an intriguing and mysterious figure ever since. Bruno, who had never acted before, was 42 when he played the teenaged Hauser, but he brought an innocence and sincerity to the role that somehow bridged their age gap, partially because his personal life bore uncanny resemblances to Hauser’s. Bruno spent age three through twenty-six in mental asylums and prisons after he was beaten so severely as a child that he lost the ability to speak. Per Herzog, “Bruno was very aware that the film was just as much about how society had destroyed him as it was about how society had killed Kaspar Hauser.”[2] Herzog even considered calling the film The Story of Bruno Hauser to highlight their resonances. The German title for the film, Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle, literally Every Man for Himself and God Against All, sidesteps the dilemma by focusing on the guiding languor at the heart of both Bruno and Hauser.

After Kaspar Hauser, Herzog planned to work with Bruno again on Woyzeck, an adaptation of Georg Büchner’s unfinished stage play about the suffering of a working-class soldier in a nineteenth-century German town. But, as production took shape, Herzog changed his mind, finding his long-time muse/foil/fiend Klaus Kinski a better fit for the role. Bruno, whose life had been transformed by his stint as a movie star, was heartbroken. As a consolation, Herzog offered Bruno a role in a new movie that he made up on the spot. Herzog chose a title that sounded similar to Woyzeck, Stroszek, and dashed out the screenplay over the next four days, basing the concept even more directly on Bruno’s life than their previous collaboration.

Bruno Stroszek (Bruno S.), the film’s central figure, is a Berlin street musician released from prison who, contrary the advice of the prison Warden, wanders directly into a seedy Berlin bar and gets in trouble with some German drug dealers. Along with his elderly neighbor Herr Scheitz (Clemens Scheitz) and his friend Eva (Eva Mattes), a sex worker looking to escape the same gang, Stroszek flees to rural Wisconsin where the three are taken in by Scheitz’s nephew, an auto mechanic who gives Stroszek a job in his repair shop. They move into a double-wide mobile home and are swept up into an American midwestern culture that is just as callous as the Berlin underworld. Stroszek is a meek and accommodating weirdo with a depressive streak caught in a cruel, though often darkly funny, world. Like Bruno S., Bruno Stroszek seems somehow completely artless, able through his naïveté to reveal uncomfortable truths about the world around him. As Roger Ebert put it in his review of Stroszek, “he looks as if he has long been expecting the worst to happen…. [H]e projects a kind of sincerity that is almost disturbing, and you realize that there is no corner anywhere within Bruno for a lie to take hold.”[3] Stroszek represents the culmination of Herzog and Bruno S.’s partnership, and even more than Kaspar Hauser, it relies on Bruno’s disturbing sincerity to give the film its raw emotional impact.

But Stroszek is also the result of an earlier collaboration, evident only in the opening credits, where Herzog thanks Errol Morris. Errol Morris is an Oscar-winning documentary maker and the inventor of the confrontational camera setup he calls the Interrotron. In 1976, however, he was a disaffected graduate student in UC Berkeley’s philosophy program, yet to embark on his first film. When he met Herzog, Morris was already on the outs from academia which he called “a world of pedants” and was knee-deep into independent research on the phenomenon of American serial killers. One of Herzog’s and Morris’s first collaborations was to collectively interview notorious serial murderer Ed Kemper in the state prison in Vacaville, California. This shared fascination also led them to Plainfield, Wisconsin, the birthplace (and scene of the crime) for Ed Gein. Gein was the real-world basis for Psycho’s Norman Bates and The Silence of the Lamb’s Buffalo Bill. Herzog and Morris’s interest in Gein focused on a morbid psychoanalytic question, directly prompted by Hitchcock’s film: Ed Gein was a grave robber with a severe Oedipus complex, but no one could tell them whether he had ever dug up his own mother’s grave as Bates does in Psycho. Herzog and Morris decided to find the answer the old-fashioned way, by digging up her grave themselves. They picked a date and planned to meet in Plainfield with shovels in hand, but Morris chickened out and stayed in California. Herzog made it, but his car broke down and was towed to a small auto shop in Plainfield where he hit it off with an unassuming local mechanic.

A couple of years later, searching for a film topic after promising Bruno S. the script for Stroszek, Herzog remembered this rural Wisconsin town and decided that Bruno Stroszek’s wanderings would bring him to Plainfield, renamed “Railroad Flats” in the film. Stroszek works in the same auto shop where Herzog’s car was towed, and that real-world mechanic, Clayton Szalpinski, plays Herr Scheitz’s mechanic nephew. Herzog would later say that Plainfield had a particular kind of menace:

There was something very gloomy and evil about Plainfield, and even during filming two bodies were found only ten miles from where we were filming. I certainly felt it was one of those places that are focal points where every thread converges and is tied in a knot. You have these points in the United States — for example, Las Vegas, or the Stock Exchange on Wall Street, or San Quentin prison — where the dreams and nightmares all come together. And I count Plainfield, Wisconsin to be among them.[4]

So, from a morbid obsession with the most American psychosis, serial killing, and a collaboration with another filmmaker with an obsessive revelatory drive, Herzog stumbled into a film about an abused, disturbingly sincere German ex-con searching for a new life in a spooky site of power in the upper Midwest.

It is perhaps no surprise that Herzog and Morris would hit it off—both have shown long fascinations with the irrational margins of modern life, and both have a demonstrated knack for revealing uncomfortable and contradictory truths in a darkly comic mode. Morris’s films are often marked by long direct-to-camera monologues—interviews in which his subjects reveal something deep and earthshaking, often without knowing that they are doing it. As Morris put it in a 1989 New Yorker profile, “I like the irrelevant, the tangential, the sidebar excursion to nowhere that suddenly becomes revelatory.”[5] Herzog, in both his off-kilter, often poetic documentaries and his distanciating fiction films, is driven by a similar tendency toward finding a deeper truth beyond the limits of factual rationality. As he put it incisively in his 1999 Minnesota Declaration—delivered at the Walker Art Center—“There are deeper strata of truth in cinema, and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization.”[6] Stroszek is itself the focal point of a variety of Herzog’s career-long interests—madness, absurdity, the incapacity of rationality, and a dark humor that sees something sublime and universal in ignorance and suffering. But the film’s specificity, its earnest connection to its setting and characters (most of whom are non-actors playing themselves) gives it a gentle, personal, and profound ability to distill the American Midwest down to its essence. This isn’t some snide, heartless sendup of flyover country, nor is it a romantic glorification of a lost American past. Instead Stroszek is a nuanced and loving portrayal of a spooky little town on the edge of the prairie. It’s one of Herzog’s strangest and most uncompromising films. (Ebert again: “Stroszek is not a comedy, but I don’t know how to describe it. Perhaps as a peculiarity.”[7]) But somehow, in its fusion of fiction and documentary, of improvised comedy and experimental amalgam, it finds its way to the soul of America, located somewhere between a professional auctioneer’s drawl and a dancing chicken.


NOTES

[1] Jeffrey Moussaieff Mason, Lost Prince: The Unsolved Mystery of Kaspar Hauser. (London: Simon & Schuster, 1997), 5.

[2] Werner Herzog and Paul Cronin, Herzog on Herzog. (New York: Faber and Faber, 2002), 119.

[3] Roger Ebert, “Stroszek Movie Review & Film Summary (1977): Roger Ebert,” movie review & film summary (1977) | Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun Times, July 7, 2002), https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-stroszek-1977.

[4] Herzog and Cronin, Herzog on Herzog, 147.

[5] Mark Singer, “PREDILECTIONS,” The New Yorker, January 29, 1989, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1989/02/06/predilections

[6] Werner Herzog, “Werner Herzog Reads His Minnesota Declaration: Truth and Fact in Documentary Cinema,” Werner Herzog Reads His Minnesota Declaration: Truth and Fact in Documentary Cinema (Walker Art Center, April 30, 1999), https://walkerart.org/magazine/minnesota-declaration-truth-documentary-cinema-1999.

[7] Ebert, “Stroszek Movie Review & Film Summary (1977): Roger Ebert.”

Edited by Olga Tchepikova-Treon and Michelle Baroody


Making Films, Taking Lives: How the Present Looms Large in Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo

| Chris Polley |

Fitzcarraldo screens at the Trylon from Friday, November 19 to Sunday, November 21. Scroll to the bottom of this page for tickets and more information.


In Werner Herzog’s stirring 2005 documentary Grizzly Man, the director inserts himself carefully into the narrative as he contemplates the tragic and preventable death of grizzly-bear enthusiast and environmentalist Timothy Treadwell. Treadwell was mauled to death by the animals he was attempting to protect and film in 2003, all while letting his camcorder record (with the lens cap on) the audio of his demise. “I believe the common denominator of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility, and murder,” Herzog narrates as he concludes his journey toward understanding Treadwell’s life and its end.

These words, forever imprinted in my mind, feel particularly apropos in the world of film news recently, with the tragic on-set death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins last month. While the camera wasn’t yet rolling when Hutchins was shot and killed by a prop gun handled by actor Alec Baldwin, the incident has already been replayed, picked apart, and documented by press outlets and amateur online commentators worldwide.

This parallel causes me to wonder if, while making Grizzly Man, and especially while writing and recording those chilling voiceovers, Herzog was thinking at all about the unfortunate events that occurred while filming Fitzcarraldo, his 1982 dramatization of the life and exploits of Carlos Fitzcarrald, a European rubber baron that brings a deranged vision to the jungle of Peru. The historical epic centers on this monster with a slight name-change—Bryan Sweeney Fitzgerald––played with manic precision by Klaus Kinski. Fitzgerald is an imperialist businessman looking to bring art to a people that never asked for it, and the film follows his trek into Peru and down the Amazon in an attempt to excavate and sell enough rubber to raise funds for constructing and opening an opera house in the South American jungle. The locals redub him “Fitzcarraldo” for easier pronunciation, not unlike how foreign names become Americanized for immigrants in this country, thus making the film’s title a nod to the idea of how someone’s identity can so easily become subsumed by their immediate surroundings.

Like Fitzgerald, Herzog seemed to lose control of his own attempt to bring Western art to an alien environment. The on-location production of Fitzcarraldo in Peru was beset with tragedy and injury, although it wasn’t considered newsworthy at the time (whether because of the remote filming location, lack of an American movie star at the center of it, a less whirlwind film production news cycle, or some combination of the three). Film editor Catherine Shoard looks back in her primer about on-set accidents for The Guardian, specifying that the 1981 shoot “resulted in numerous injuries and the deaths of several indigenous extras. One Peruvian logger was forced to amputate his own foot after being bitten by a venomous snake.”[1]

While this is hardly surprising considering all the clues both textual and subtextual in the finished product, it’s not something I explicitly knew about until researching the film in advance of writing this piece. In my previous watches and fumbling around on the internet as the credits rolled, I learned plenty of other things: how Jason Robards was originally the lead, that it took some coaxing for Herzog to secure longtime mercurial collaborator Kinski to be his replacement (who famously walked off mid-shoot during the filming of another of the duo’s iconic works, Aguirre, the Wrath of God), and even that the tension between Herzog, Kinski, and the locals led to a particularly pervasive story fed by the auteur’s mythical status that a local tribal chief offered to have Kinski murdered as a favor to the filmmaker. To learn this new information just days after the internet’s onslaught of reporting and editorializing on Hutchins’s accidental death was unsettling, to say the least.

What has become of this beloved work of art to me now? I started factoring in the imperialism of Fitzcarraldo’s narrative compared to what happened last month. My stomach turned. I knew Hutchins’s name, but nobody seemed to even care to write down the names of the people maimed and killed on Herzog’s set—probably because they were local indigenous people to Peru, essentially nameless to the Western world.

And for all the newfound clarity regarding on-set safety brought to the forefront in the wake of Hutchins’s death, criticism of Herzog’s epic upon its release in 1982 was not hard to find now that I was looking for it. In fact, Washington Post critic Gary Arnold seemed to particularly see through the grandeur that many (myself included for over a decade) could not, writing, “To remain intrigued with this movie you are obliged to go along with the pretense that Herzog’s continuing elaboration of a cherished personal myth––the impossible dreamer, the director attracted to primitive locales and dangerous circumstances in his quest for elusive, visionary images ––is a theme of surpassing interest.”[2]

Now, I admittedly do still value dissecting this theme so many years later, especially considering today’s landscape of an enduring ego-obsessed patriarchal hegemony. Ironically, the sheer audacity and singularity of Herzog’s understanding and conveyance of the human spirit as a filmmaker, artist, and thinker remains unparalleled. This story is still, nearly 40 years later, one that resonates, especially in a world that repeatedly wrestles with the concept of a white devil disguised as a white savior (even down to the white linen suit and shock of strangely styled hair). Yet, I still ask myself: is it worth it in the face of such catastrophe, such literal loss of life?

In an interview for the Directors Guild of America, Herzog himself said of the scope of the infamous central event of the film (a 340-ton ship pulled across a mountain using an elaborate system of pulleys and winches sans special effects/movie magic of any kind), “I had staged a huge mechanical event, which is out of proportion for a film, and then I just covered it the best I could.”[3] This is not just an admittance of how art, when in the hands of someone with an unrelenting vision, can become just as unwieldy as Fitzgerald’s plans for getting rubber out of an inaccessible part of the Peruvian jungle—it’s perhaps a confession that playing with cameras, actors, and king-size props is, yes, akin to the old theological warning about playing God.


NOTES

  1. Catherine Shoard, “‘No one should be killed on set’: tragic history of fatalities during filming,” The Guardian, October 22, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2021/oct/22/on-set-fatalities-halyna-hutchins-alec-baldwin

2. Gary Arnold, “Visions of Vanity,” The Washington Post, November 9, 1982, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/1982/11/09/visions-of-vanity/821978fa-3843-4fc1-9c2b-2da7de9cc0db

3. Jeffrey Resner, “Werner Herzog: Mountain Climbing,” DGA Quarterly, Fall 2007, https://www.dga.org/Craft/DGAQ/All-Articles/0703-Fall-2007/Shot-To-Remember-Fitzcarraldo.aspx

Edited by Brad Stiffler and Michelle Baroody

Accounts from the Journal of Count Dracula, Voivode of Transylvania, b. 1428

| Matt Levine |

Nosferatu The Vampyre screens at the Trylon from Sunday, October 31 to Tuesday, November 2. Scroll to the bottom of this page for tickets and more information.


These written testimonies were discovered in the personal journal of Count Dracula in the city of Wismar, Germany, circa 1897.

June 12 –

I am the descendant of an old family.

When young, I was told that family lineage could transform one’s life into heaven or hell. Luckily, my family’s wealth and power was such that my immediate existence was heavenly. From our castle in the shadow of the Carpathians, I could roam the plateaus and forests. The sun would warm me, the rain drench me, the snow caress me; they were all my playthings.

My father called our castle a fortress, and he was proud of its dense stone armor. This is the mighty building in which I still live, habiting its frigid hallways at night. When I was a boy, years and years ago (centuries ago, it pains me to say), armies attacked with dreams of conquest. They slit throats and sliced through necks, all for the distant glimmer of power. At five, I watched the woman who raised me—not my mother, who was rarely present—run through with a large, curved blade as she shielded me from marauders who had stormed our walls. I felt love and grief, I know, but what I remember, eons later, is the sight of bright red blood flowing, warm tributaries creating a new topography on my bedroom’s granite floor. Not all was heavenly, I suppose, but even the barbaric moments are tinged with happiness in my recollection.

I am the only one left of my family. The others have died through murder, starvation, guillotine, suicide, plague, and—in a few lucky instances—the calm of old age. There were powerful dynasties formed from marriage between two clans, then more dynasties and more clans, domestic empires. But my whole family was lost, at some point, to the violence of time. We fell into disrepute; we raped, looted, and pillaged; we were overtaken by the peasants we terrorized, who, it turns out, could wield an axe themselves. We could find no more families to marry into, so we stayed within our own, cousins wedding one another, brothers and sisters having children, mother father aunt uncle. This I saw over centuries, till the last one died—a great-great-great-great… (who remembers the generation?) granddaughter taking her last breath. And in her final moment, as she looked past the ceiling and her eyes clouded over, I know now her last sigh was one of peace, not horror.

I am the last descendant of an old family. I was not the only one who was turned; there were both dead and undead on our rotting family tree. But now there is only the dead and me. How I long to join my kin, who once took solace in our family name, though now it can only elicit a momentary shudder, for it is the sound of doom.

June 17 –

Time is an abyss, profound as a thousand nights.

Centuries come and go. To be unable to grow old is terrible. After all this time, I know that there is nothing left to see, nothing left to think. There is a finite number of behaviors, actions, events in human existence. These things roil together, echoes of the past, variations on a theme—a theme which after so many years can only seem like plagiarism.

Once upon a time there were things that surprised me, delighted me. Even once I became the undead, the endlessness of time gave me a giddy thrill. Whatever is new and anticipated becomes a supreme love, once attained. But after its attainment, where else is there to go? The new is a laughable concept: nothing on Earth is new anymore. The anticipated is dashed from the beginning, with foreknowledge of its meaninglessness.

The meaning of endlessness is right there in the word, but stupidly we avoid its meaning. Endless love, endless time, endless joy—these things without end are nothing to savor. Only by knowing the end will come may we enjoy such transient pleasures.

Can you imagine enduring centuries, experiencing the same futility each day? The living cynic will say they can imagine it, not understanding what futility means. Nothing is futile about a human life, precisely because something must be done during the living interval of several decades.

To sink sharp teeth into pliant flesh, to feel a warm gush of blood on my tongue, to feel a body writhe as I take its life into mine—futile, futile. Repeated endlessly. Each soul I meet I know is an imminent victim, but there’s nothing bold in the conquest, no triumph in victory. I close my eyes as I drink their blood and wish I was anywhere, anyone else.

June 30 –

Listen. Listen. The children of the night make their music.

I was wrong, perhaps. I do take joy in some things—the animals. The wolves, the bats, the worms, the rats. Nocturnal creatures that howl, squirm, shriek, or flap their wings, because that’s all they know how to do. I am like them, living without deeper reason, surviving only because I have to do; the difference is, I am aware of my incompleteness.

There are many—the meek villagers, the untold thousands who will be claimed by my plague—who cannot place themselves in the soul of a hunter. They see me, they tremble, they know I must die, but they do not have the courage to plant the tip of a stake over my once-beating heart and drive it through my body. Even the ones who know what I am, they comfort themselves with superstition but don’t take the gruesome steps they know they must take. In this way, we are both incomplete: me in my perpetual shroud, them in their cowardice. Someday, a true soul will finally kill me, the first real human that’s existed in the centuries of my undead life.

July 2 –

I don’t attach importance to the sunshine anymore.

Or to glittering fountains, which youth is so fond of. I love the darkness and the shadows, where I can be alone with my thoughts. Sunshine, light, beauty, they’re all unfaithful to the true nature of the world I know.

This castle I call my own, the shadows which move of their own volition, the rays of the moon cutting through blackness—this is a truer illustration of the world, of living things, of nature’s mad workings.

But to be alone with my thoughts—as I am now, writing words which no one will ever read—is its own kind of torture. Here, too, there is nothing new. Every thought has already been conjured, by me or by someone else. I’ve remembered the infinite moments of my life, its four-hundred-some years, over and over again; my greatest fears and pleasures have been driven down into stale cliché. As if I’m reading an intimate biography of myself, written by a bland and detached author.

I attach importance to the sunshine only because it may kill me. What sweet salvation awaits. And yet, I cannot simply stand in an open window and wait for the dawn to relieve me of my torment. The beast in me insists on self-preservation; this ancient, brittle body won’t let me die.

Once, painters depicted God, the heavens, the apostles, all that is holy; then, the Romanticists turned their brushes to mountains and oceans and deserts, a different sublime. I know that all of this is absurd, that divinity is a comforting myth. And yet (maybe a new thought after all) there might be a God—wicked, cunning, tricking us to disobey our greatest desires. Why else would I want nothing more than the end, though my thirst keeps me going till I may suck down my next meal?

July 11 –

The absence of love is the most abject pain.

Did I ever love when I was living? Perhaps in the way that humans do. But that is nothing, a candle dancing in a typhoon.

When love becomes impossible, the need for it becomes dire. This is no news to anyone who’s loved painfully, desperately, something or someone who detests them, or even worse, doesn’t know they exist.

Sometimes my heart hurts so much, I beat it with my fists. I try to run. But you cannot run from this. It waits for you, like an object of desire that lures you to your downfall. I long for this desire, which will consume me until I feel the rising sunlight upon my face as it flakes into fire and ash.

Can someone love a corpse? No, of course not—whether living or undead, no heart beats within. There is an absence of love within me for this reason. I convince myself that I crave human touch, that I’m driven by ardor, but deep down I know it’s untrue; if a loving soul stood next to me and whispered kindness in my ear, I would bend down and drive my fangs into her carotid sheath.

The absence of love from me, from the world, from everyone—it sounds absurd, but it’s the only logical conclusion. In place of love, there is death—an army of rats, a parade of black coffins, the birth of a new era in which the monstrous is mistaken for the sublime.

Edited by Michelle Baroody


Marking Time: The Human Body in the films of Tsai Ming-Liang

| Nick Kouhi |

Still from Days (Tsai Ming-Liang, 2020)

Days screens as part of the Slow Cinema series at the Trylon. This series, programmed by the Moving Image, Media, and Sound Studies Graduate Group at the University of Minnesota, is presented in collaboration with the Trylon Cinema. Tickets are free and available on a first-come, first-served basis. Scroll to the bottom of this page for more information about this series and ticket availability.


The body is no longer exactly what moves; neither subject of movement or the instrument of action, it becomes rather the developer of time…

Gilles Deleuze[1]

[A]s soon as an image or a face is captured on film, it will no longer age. I am looking for a face that is chosen by the film to live in its reality….

Tsai Ming-Liang[2]

In the 2015 documentary Afternoon (Na ri xia wu), filmmaker Tsai Ming-Liang begins his conversation with actor and longtime muse Lee Kang-Sheng by remarking on the latter’s toes. They’ve turned a yellowish color, Lee explains, from the sulfur he uses to “stop [them] from rotting.” Decay permeates the urban environments which house Tsai’s lonely figures; their human fragility typically conveyed through long takes with a static camera. While Tsai’s inimitable brand of Slow Cinema can make for discomfiting, even grim, viewing, it asks us to regard the multivalent value of the human body through poignantly recognizable visions of labor, sex, and aging.

In his essay Wastrels of Time: Slow Cinema’s Laboring Body, the Political Spectator, and the Queer, Karl Schoonover writes extensively on what he calls the “slow art film” and the labor often practiced by both the subjects onscreen and the viewers in the audience. He argues that Slow Cinema “speaks to a larger system of tethering value to time, labor to bodies, and productivity to particular modes and forms of cultural reproduction.”[3] The desire of the spectator, he reasons, is primarily “to clarify the value of wasted time and uneconomical temporalities” when watching films designed for “broadening what counts as productive human labor.”[4] Watching as work is a cultural practice long associated with the intelligentsia of the art world, which raises the question: if labor is practiced by an affluent audience when watching slow films largely about the working class, does that labor culminate in empathetic identification with the subjects on screen? Or does it result in self-satisfaction at engaging with “high art”? It’s impossible to ascribe a definitive answer to something as polymorphous as audiences, but it is worth considering how a filmmaker’s aesthetic decisions affect the viewer’s relationship to a cinematic avatar.

This preamble is meant to consider the ways Tsai Ming-Liang portrays the human body as a symbolic vessel for both social critique and audience identification. When it comes to physical labor, his characters are frequently seen cooking, washing, and cleaning in both the private and public sphere with the same degree of unceremonious habitude. While the function of routine within our lives aims to provide order, it can also constrict us within increasingly isolated social roles. The most despairing realization of that anxiety in Tsai’s filmography is arguably found in 1997’s The River (He liu), whose central family barely shares any screen time together. When they do, they’re united by pain, specifically the kind afflicting Hsiao-Kang (Lee) in his neck following a dip in the Tamsui River as an extra for a film shoot. The extended shot of Hsiao-Kang floating in water while the dummy he’s replaced lies in the bottom of the frame subtly foregrounds the ethical question of a filmmaker’s responsibility toward their subjects and collaborators.

Still from The River (Tsai Ming-Liang, 1997)

Tsai’s films rarely answer this question in a didactic manner, instead letting the audience sit with the disquieting ambivalence symptomatic of late-stage capitalism. While I wouldn’t reduce Tsai’s convictions to mere Marxist dogma, his transition toward more esoteric media installations has been attributed, in part, to a dissatisfaction with traditional sources of film funding. His 24-minute short Walker (2014) tracks Lee dressed as a modern incarnation of the 7th century scholar and monk Xuanzang slowly walking barefoot across Hong Kong. The dialogue-free film acts, in Tsai’s words, as “a conscious act of rebellion against the way cinema is perceived in today’s society.”[5] It does so by beckoning our attention to Lee’s protracted gait through real crowds, reacting either with indifference or bemused puzzlement.

Yet Tsai’s recusant impulses find their most transgressive output in The Wayward Cloud (Tian bian yi duo yun, 2005). Tsai reunites the characters from 2001’s What Time Is It There? (Ni na bian ji dian) for an oddball musical romantic comedy where a woman (Chen Shiang-Chyi) discovers that Hsiao-Kang (Lee’s moniker in most of Tsai’s features) has professionally transitioned from watch salesman to porn actor. Tsai’s aesthetic strategy in the film adopts an atypically florid visual grammar, particularly during the musical numbers that further the fantastic surrealism of similar song sequences from 1998’s The Hole (Dong). But shot duration is characteristically protracted during a grotesque moment of (literal) climax. Shiang-chyi discovers Hsiao-Kang’s profession shortly before witnessing him rape his unconscious co-star at the behest of the film crew. While a visceral variation on the aforementioned shot from The River, the results couldn’t be more different; when Shiang-Chyi moans in simulated pleasure, Hsiao-Kang leaps up from the bed to ejaculate in her mouth, holding his member there for an uncomfortably long time.

Sex in Tsai’s films usually operates as a perfunctory act for his characters. At worst, as in The Wayward Cloud and The River, it starkly allegorizes the dehumanizing conditions of Taiwan’s rapid industrialization following decades of martial law under Chiang Kai Shek’s Kuomintang (KMT) Party.[6] Yet subtlety is not exclusive from sensationalism, as is the case in the climactic shot of The River where Hsiao-Kang performs oral sex on a stranger in a sauna, a stranger we gradually realize is his father (Miao Tien). This moment unspools in a single, unbroken take where faint flickers of light slowly bring clarity to what we’re watching, and nearly identical placement of both actors within the frame reifies a moribund element to the disturbing encounter.

Tsai’s own status as a gay man doesn’t neatly couch his work under the label of Queer Cinema, though it does reinforce his sympathy, if not empathy, for these intimate same-sex male encounters. In I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (Hei Yan Quan, 2006), Lee plays a vagrant who is attacked in Tsai’s native Malaysia by a gang of hoodlums. He’s nursed back to health by a Bangladeshi migrant worker (Norman Atun), who helps him urinate in a striking shot devoid of sentimentality. In Tsai’s latest feature Days (Rizi, 2020), a climactic sex scene between Hsiao- Kang and a Thai masseuse (Anong Houngheuangsy) in Bangkok provides a cathartic release for the former, who seeks to alleviate his resurgent chronic neck pain. These shots could be deemed excessive, either in terms of their content or duration. Yet as Schoonover argues, “dickering over the use-value of the excessive image” makes us as viewers run the risk of “taking a referendum on queerness, questioning the validity of queer lives.”[7] By refusing to conform to a singular expression of queerness, Tsai’s camera privileges us with unadorned images of frank vulnerability.

Still from Days (Tsai Ming-Liang, 2020)

That vulnerability is contingent upon the temporal transformation of Lee’s body throughout Tsai’s own corpus. “I am using the body of Lee to have a conversation with the world,” Tsai told Cineaste in 2019. In August of this year, Tsai told Film Comment

I suddenly realized that because of the aging process, the body is ever-evolving. I can see that inevitable evolution in Lee’s exterior, and that also prompted me to see myself as part of this aging process. He almost served as a mirror.[8]

The use of an actor for a filmmaker to remark on their own mortality is most explicitly linked to Tsai’s cinema through the collaboration between François Truffaut and Jean-Pierre Léaud.[9] More pertinent to slow cinema is David Lynch’s depiction of his alter ego in Kyle Maclachlan in Twin Peaks: The Return (2017). Watching the aged Dale Cooper in a stupor for most of the show’s eighteen episodes, the spectator begins to ponder their own relationship to nostalgia for Machlachlan’s dashing hero and subsequently contends with larger questions of mortality in an alien, amoral America.

Still from Twin Peaks: The Return (David Lynch, 2017)

The darkness of Tsai Ming-Liang’s slow cinema is equally exacting. Yet his most moving tribute to the human body occurs near the end of Goodbye, Dragon Inn (Bu san, 2003) as the nameless ticket-seller (Chiang, once again) limps up and down the steps of the theater she’s sweeping for the last time. As she slowly hobbles on a lame foot with broom in hand, Tsai’s unbroken wide shot compels us to watch from a respectful distance with total attention. Her work as a character mirrors ours as spectators, aiding us in recognizing the labor we put into the thing which give our lives meaning. Tsai Ming-Liang’s generous cinema transcends a capitalist metric of valuing time and labor to transform the political into the deeply personal.

Still from Goodbye, Dragon Inn (Tsai Ming-Liang, 2003)

Edited by Michelle Baroody


NOTES

1 Deleuze, “Preface” in Cinema 2: The Time-Image (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), p. xi. 2 Tsai Ming-Liang. Interview with Erik Morse. “Time & Again.” Frieze no. 137. March 1, 2011. https://www.frieze.com/article/time-again.
3 Schoonover, Karl. “Wastrels of Time: Slow Cinema’s Laboring Body, the Political Spectator, and the Queer.” Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media 53, no. 1 (2012): 68. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41552300.

4 Schoonover, 65.
5 Tsai. Interview with Maria Giovanna Vagenas. “Filmmaker Tsai Ming-liang says his work should be appreciated slowly.” South China Morning Post. August 27, 2013. https://www.scmp.com/lifestyle/arts- culture/article/1299497/filmmaker-tsai-ming-liang-says-his-work-should-be-appreciated.
6 Indeed, a statue of Chiang is seen several times in The Wayward Cloud, drawing an explicitly historical reference point for Tsai’s otherwise relatively subtle sociopolitical critiques.
7 Schoonover, 73.
8 Tsai. Interview with Devika Girish. “Interview: Tsai Ming-liang.” Film Comment. August 16, 2021. https://www.filmcomment.com/blog/interview-tsai-ming-liang-days/
9 Tsai has frequently cited Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (Le Quatre Cents Coups) as a major influence, referencing it explicitly in What Time Is It There? and even featuring Léaud in his 2009 film Visage.


She’s Not Monstrous, She’s My Sister: Sisterhood in Ginger Snaps and Jennifer’s Body

| Celia Mattison |

Still from Ginger Snaps

Watch Ginger Snaps and Jennifer’s Body at the Trylon from Friday, October 15 to Sunday, October 17. For tickets and more information, scroll to the bottom of this page.


Name some famous brothers. Romulus and Remus, Cain and Abel, the Grimms, the Wrights, the Marxs. In modern filmmaking you can take your pick of Coens, Safdies, Russos. Sister pairs are rarer in the Western canon—especially as creators—and if women are underrepresented in Hollywood than sisterhood is also underseen. Draw a line from the seventeenth-century murder ballad “The Two Sisters” to any set of fairytale stepsisters to the last line of White Christmas’s “Sisters” duet (“And lord help the sister who comes between me and my man”) and see what men think sisterhood looks like: a tangle of violent jealousy, vanity, and sexual competition. But films written or directed by women portray a sisterhood that is more intimate and nuanced, although just as potentially sinister.

From the outset of Ginger Snaps (2000), death is in the air. Ginger and Brigitte Fitzgerald are two sisters as obsessed with suicide as they are disgusted by their vapid Canadian suburb. Had these girls been born a bit later they would’ve been the absolute queens of MySpace, posting Christina Rossetti poetry underneath staged photoshoots of gory homemade crime scenes. The two have little use for the world outside their friendship and resist adulthood at every turn; it seems like it’s by sheer force of will alone that both Ginger and Brigitte have yet to start their periods even though they’re in their mid-teens.

Ginger as the older sister is quite protective of Brigitte, but when Ginger is bitten by a wolf and her sudden puberty takes a dark turn, Brigitte takes on the guardian role. There’s a matter-of-factness to Brigitte’s new position. Her sister’s survival and happiness is a given; she will do anything she can to protect her. Although it’s foreshadowed, Ginger’s death is devastating because we know what it means for Brigitte. These are two sisters so intermeshed that they have sworn not just to die for each other but to die with each other. How does one exist without the other? It’s a question at the center of many movies but almost always reserved for romantic, not sisterly, relationships.

Jennifer’s Body depicts a similar relationship, although Needy and Jennifer are emphatically not biological sisters, just intimate childhood friends. The phrase “female friendship” has become a kind of placeholder expression to slap on the cover of any work that interrogates two women interacting meaningfully but Jennifer’s Body deals with the true thorniness of girlhood relationships.

Still from Jennifer’s Body

Like the sisters in Ginger Snaps, Needy and Jennifer live in a world they’ve created to resist the dullness of their small town, but it’s clear even before Jennifer’s transformation that this relationship has an expiration date. Jennifer has zero interest in anyone outside of Needy—she has relationships with men, but they’re transactional and superficial—while Needy has a boyfriend and is friendly to other students. Jennifer might talk shit about Devil’s Kettle but this “State Fair Butter Princess,” as demon worshipper/aspiring rock star Nikolai Wolf (played by Adam Brody) puts it, doesn’t seem to have a whole lot of interest or ambition that would take her elsewhere. It seems certain that next year Needy will go off to college while Jennifer sticks around Devil’s Kettle, half-assing some job, borrowing her mother’s car, and fucking police cadet Chris Pratt. Jennifer is about to lose her grip on her soulmate.

What else but jealousy motivates Jennifer’s choice of victim? It’s reiterated multiple times that Jennifer can have whoever she wants, for sex or for feeding, and yet she picks three men who Needy cares about. Jennifer’s first attack is the exchange student Needy says hello to at the bar. You see Jennifer’s face change when Needy says that she thinks goth guy Colin is cool. Suddenly Jennifer is threatened by Colin, a boy she just moments ago was calling a no-dick loser. And of course Jennifer’s final act, seducing and killing Chip, is her last ditch attempt to possess Needy. There’s a sapphic angle—perhaps Jennifer seduces men close to Needy because she can’t express her attraction to her best friend. But her kiss with Needy is not romantic, it’s manipulative. It’s the tactic she’s used to procure things from men but it doesn’t work on Needy because Needy knows her. They have their own oh-so-Diablo-Cody language, “Jennifer-Speak.” At times they seem almost telepathic—Needy can sense when Jennifer is attacking Chip, almost as if she knows Jennifer is being “unfaithful” to her. Jennifer’s tricks are powerless against her.

The irony is, of course, that Jennifer doesn’t have to fight to keep Needy. Needy adores her. She recognizes the wit in Jennifer’s cruelty, she admires Jennifer’s confidence. There’s a world where Jennifer grows up: learns to express vulnerability, dials back her meanness, and stays friends with Needy. But as we’re reminded when Jennifer is starstruck over some Minneapolis C-grade hipsters, Jennifer is still a child and not particularly emotionally mature. And we see no other female pairs, we rarely see anyone’s parents or family. There are no models for their friendship or even for well-adjusted adult women in their world.

In a role reversal from traditional horror films where female sexuality is intended for male consumption, these films grant women a visceral power over their sexuality. Ginger and Jennifer have learned to reverse the predatory male behavior inflicted on them in order to satiate their own desires. Tying magical, and often horrible, powers to female puberty is well-trod ground. The idea that along with a period and pubic hair one could also receive a power that protects you from male desire is a deeply alluring female fantasy. But sex is also a threat to sisterhood. A male lover is an interruption to an established sisterly dynamic. Their power comes with devastating costs.

The unique brutality of sisters is on display in these films in equal parts viscera and play. The pairs of Ginger Snaps and Jennifer’s Body are harsh to each other because they know each other. They are the only ones who know each other. They oscillate between tenderness and cruelty, their slights cutting deeper while also healing faster. They’ve spent their lives preparing for the psychic warfare that only occurs between people who know each other intimately.

It’s hard to grow alongside another person. It’s not surprising that these pairs don’t make it out together on the other side. People change, childhoods end, sisters part. Someone who knew you when you were a girl might not know you when you become a woman. Perhaps there is a world where even the most monstrous girls can survive together, but this one isn’t it.

More from the sisterhood canon:

The Lure (2015)

Raw (2017)

Little Woods (2018)

Blow the Man Down (2019)

Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020)


Edited by Brad Stiffler

Where Art Thou, Mr. Beardsley?

| Alisha Robberstad |

Artwork by Alisha Robberstad

Squirm screens at the Trylon from Sunday, October 3 to Tuesday, October 5. For tickets and more information, scroll to the bottom of this page.


I watched a lot of network television as a kid, including Fear Factor, where contestants were made to eat a variety of bugs and ballsacks. Besides being forced to ingest slimy invertebrates, players were made to lie in coffin baths of nightcrawlers, snakes, or cockroaches. Even with this viewing history, I was not totally desensitized to the worms in Squirm. My first time watching it was in an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. I rewatched that episode for this review trying to ignore the commentary from the Gizmonics employee and his bots of spare parts, when I noticed the movie’s charming flaws. That particular episode also includes a pretty funny riff track of an informational video titled “A Case of Spring Fever” in which a man temporarily lives in a Twilight Zone world without springs with a cartoon mascot named Coily. As a fan of MST3K, I highly recommend this episode and pretty much all the others. 

Deeper meanings to films tend to go far over my head in most cases, so it isn’t exactly clear if there is an environmental lesson here or if it’s just a creature feature,something akin to Night of the Leapus but without all the miniatures. Do the worms revolt from years of abuse by humans—years of being skewered on tackle and used as bait? Or are they just kinda gross, so it makes for an entertaining premise? I’ve been baiting my own hooks since I was a young kid and worms never bothered me as badly as leeches. Those blood sucking bastards can rot on a hot tin roof. Apparently so many worms were required for the filming of this movie that New England’s supply of bloodworms was nearly wiped out. 

The movie opens with scrolling text setting the time and place of Fly Creek, Georgia, 1975. An extreme thunderstorm downs some power lines which electrically charge the soil and the worms that live down below. In the days after the wild storm, southern belle Geri eagerly awaits the arrival of her New York City slickin’ boyfriend Mick. Geri’s widowed mother and younger sister Alma are hesitant about Mick’s arrival, her mother had been hoping that she would’ve settled with Roger instead. Roger is the Lawnmower Man-like simple country boy who has unrequited feelings for Geri and who begrudgingly works for his father’s worm farm next door. This love triangle between Geri, Roger, and Mick is very weak and doesn’t do much to help establish any character motivations other than Roger’s. In fact, the characters in this movie are lacking personality in general, with the exception of Alma and her giant glam rock platform shoes and patched pants. The worms are the true stars. 

Mick arrives in Fly Creek by bus with his luggage, tennis racket, and fishing pole, reunited in the middle of the woods with Geri. They ride into town together in Roger’s borrowed Willie’s Worm Farm truck to buy some ice for the fridge since the electricity is still out. Mick orders an egg cream at a cafe and… Egad! A fat screaming worm falls from the spoiled spilled soda. The sheriff is there and refuses to believe Mick when he defends himself by saying he wasn’t playing a prank. In typical small town fashion, the cop lets it be known that outsiders aren’t so welcomed ‘round there and accuses him of straight up tomfoolery. 

Finishing their errands, the couple move on to check in on Mr. Beardsley, a beautiful old man who lives nearby. Calling for him outloud proves to be futile until they find skeletal remains in some dirt in the backyard. The remainder of the film is dedicated to discovering who the skeleton is, Rogers’ increasingly strange behavior, and battling the skepticism of the asshole sheriff. Downed power lines drag back and forth in the dirt, presumably growing the army of sentient flesh-hungry worms into numbers large enough to release an onslaught of mucusy aggression onto the people of Fly Creek. 

So put a pot of boiling water on the stove and ready your spaghetti noodles because you’ll be craving them by the finish. While it could have had more gory-worm action instead of dentistry records searching, the climax will still impress with an avalanche of love worms. This movie entertains a little more with the help of Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo, but is still enjoyable nonetheless.

Edited by Brad Stiffler

Mikey and Nicky: The Life of a Film

| Daniel Eckman-Thomas |

Artwork by Daniel Eckman-Thomas

Mickey and Nickey screens at the Trylon from Sunday, September 26 to Tuesday, September 28. For tickets and more informationscroll to the bottom of this page.

On the third floor of the Minneapolis Central Library, in the American Literature block (more precisely, PS3573.I455.2011, for those in the know) there was, until very recently, a play entitled Mikey and Nicky: The Life of a Film, a theatrical retelling of  Elaine May’s heroic battle against Paramount Pictures to retain creative control of her third feature film. Due to collection maintenance guidelines, my colleagues and I were forced to withdraw the title from the system because it had failed to find a reader in ten years. The posture of the book’s spine was tall and stiff, so solidly at attention, and yet also sun-worn – the usual signs of having been forgotten. But before casting it into the recycling bin for its final handling, I decided to crack the spine, and thumb my way through a piece of theater that was soon to be lost forever. 

I will admit that the experience of reading this play was mostly awful, and I felt pretty good about the book’s bright future of being recycled into something else. The playwright, whose name I’ll compassionately keep from the page, had most likely never attended a play and believed the magic of theater to be a free and unlimited resource. In fact, it is often hauled in on the backs of cranky and underpaid theater technicians, and you’d need an entire fleet to make this play possible. The dialogue is clunky, the stage directions are far too specific, and the structure is strange, but overall the play means well. Hollywood has swept a lot of secrets under the rug they made out of Leo the Lion (a former employee of MGM) and this play aims to expose a very specific clod of truth beneath that hide. If it had ever been performed, it would surely have proven to be a hellish bit of theater, but maybe, if summarized in the broadest of strokes, it could be more entertaining than reading factoids on the subject found easily online, and can, in a sense, live another day. So if you’re brave and willing, I’ll ask you now to take your seat. The lights are just dimming now.

Behold! The curtain lifts and the stage lights rise above a garage in Connecticut. Elaine May sits center stage in a folding chair with her head in her hands. On either side of her is a 35mm projector, aimed upstage toward the closed white garage door. She sits in silence. Suddenly, one of the projectors activates itself, as if possessed, and begins to spin a foot of film through its mechanism, projecting John Cassavetes’ Nicky onto the garage door saying, “I’m going to die!” before promptly shutting back down. Elaine May lifts herself from her hands, and with her eyes still closed, yells, “You’re Fine! We’re Fine!” And so begins her tale. She addresses the audience: she has stolen two reels of film and hidden them here in her husband’s friend’s garage in order to gain leverage against Paramount in her fight for creative control. But the reels of film have gone paranoid on her, and believe it’s only a matter of time before she sells them out and ships them back to Paramount’s butcher block. The scene runs like a one-woman show with technical difficulties. Each projector takes turns interrupting May by illuminating the garage door with Nicky’s desperate exclamations. A superfluous bit of stage direction reads: “giving the effect of a servant pleading to its master for life with the words that she has gifted it.” Anyway, after far too many pages and a couple of shortcuts taken by the playwright in the emotional development of our protagonist, it becomes clear that the two reels of film aren’t unnecessarily paranoid. May, tired and out of options, intends to give them up to the studio, and does exactly that at the scene’s climax. She takes the garage door opener in her hand, and with the dramatic weight of launching a nuclear weapon, pushes the button. The garage door groans and begins to heave its way upward. But before it can fully rise, a projector comes to life one last time. It lights the garage door with a frame of Ned Beaty’s character firing his gun – played in slow motion. The image stays there on the door until it’s lost to the darkness of the outside world. The projector shuts down. End of Scene.

Scene Two. Editing Room. Before we begin, theater technicians are advised to do a quick buddy check and keep to their toes; this one’s a doozy. Elaine May famously shot 1.4 million feet of film for Mikey and Nicky, and in this scene we are to see every foot of that descend from the theater’s ceiling to the stage below, which has been swept of its previous set and been given little else: an ancient stump for a chopping block planted front and center. The sole character of the scene is a new one: ostensibly an editor, but more likely a symbol of the Hollywood system as a whole. This man is described in the character list as a “W.C. Fields type. Where he isn’t pockmarked and pale, he is red—candy apple—at his heaviest gleams of sweat.” He enters wielding an axe and takes up his post at the chopping block. After rolling his starched white sleeves to the elbows, he yells upwards to the catwalk, “Send it down!” Seconds later, a black ribbon of celluloid appears in the air above the stage. It descends gently from the ceiling to The Editor’s outstretched hand where it flashes a bit. He examines several feet of it with the help of the stage lights, places his target on the stump, and chops it in two. This action is repeated over and over again for the first several thousand feet of film, until, in a kind of blood lust, he screams upward for “More! More!” The command is understood as a doubling of speed—indefinitely and exponentially. The film crashes all around The Editor, coiling in large heaps. Surrounded, he throws himself at the film, biting it, tearing it, wrestling it—and still the speed doubles. The film falls in waves on its rapid descent, until finally the ceiling looses the last several thousand feet of film, and The Editor is lost. A silence comes over the stage. Nothing moves (though I could imagine a hell of a draft blowing around the place, due to the audience breathing a sigh of relief in unison at the thought of the scene being over). But before the scene can end we must first watch the giant mass of film collapse inward and drain through the stage’s trap door, taking with it The Editor and his stump. And so we do, and for our patience we are granted passage to the next and final scene. 

Scene Three. Graveyard. Before the audience knows they have been transported to a funeral setting, or that the stage’s trap door has been piled with earth and spiked with a headstone, they are introduced to the first half of a chorus of critics: The Downers of 1977, featuring William Bernard of Films in Review, Time Magazine’s Jay Cocks, and Judith Crist from Saturday Review. They appear one at a time in a sequence of spotlights across the stage with nothing nice to say about the production company’s cut of the film. Judith Crist ends her review and this segment by saying, “Her long night’s tale is as dull, dreary, and unlikable as her stars.” And after a moment of darkness on stage, a soft light shines on the grave. Elaine May is there. She is working: attaching a crank to an empty film reel, which she then hooks to a hip-height tripod. Then she gets to the ground and works at the dirt of the grave. She pushes what is loose to all sides and digs down to her elbows. Then, a shift in her face, a sudden freeze of all struggle. The newly airborne sands of dirt twist in the spotlight as she begins excavating something upward. The audience can recognize the black ribbon of film as she pulls it up to the surface with a gentle pincer grip. It is as if all 1.4 million feet of film were perfectly coiled beneath the ground, repaired by death and willing to rise in one long piece. She pulls enough of it up to thread it into the empty film reel of her mechanism, and begins to turn the crank. Rewinding her film from the grave, she says, 

“Y’know, the beautiful thing about film is that it lives many lives. I mean, some don’t even begin to live until long after they’ve rolled their last credits in a discount theater in Omaha. Movies are constantly being re-discovered, re-evaluated, and recycled into a new and current mainstream. And at each showtime, a film is capable of being rewarded an afterlife in the head of some schlub who got it and can’t shake the magic of it. It lives on in that person’s head for as long as it means something to them. They’ll take it to work, to dinner, to bed. And that is the ultimate reward for both the filmmaker and the film. We all know what Hollywood is: an industry that hunts the creative spirit for sport… and yet we write a script, we choreograph 90 pairs of legs in a sound studio, we wrangle poisonous snakes for B-roll footage—and we do it so someone will take us to bed!” 

A strange landing at the end there, but about as good as a monologue gets in this play. As she continues to twist the crank, a second chorus of critics begins to light up around the stage—those of new and different times, Peter Bradshaw, Marjorie Baumgarten, Gene Siskel, and more—so many, it seems they must be standing shoulder to shoulder and heels to toes in the darkness around the grave, each waiting for their golden moment to deliver fresh and glowing praise. The word “masterpiece” is used, Peter Bradshaw considers the film “a neglected 1976 gem, from a neglected Hollywood genius.” They are all passionately piling praise upon praise and interrupting each other at such speed that the spotlight has to strobe itself all over the stage, with many agreeing in their own best words that it’s one of the greatest American movies of the 1970s. Now the lights begin to show the first signs of dimming as the voices of the critics fall away. Elaine continues her work, only marginally moved by the words of this chorus. The critics are in agreement, that is obvious, but not the point. Will you, dear viewer, give it a life inside your head?

Curtain. 

Edited by Brad Stiffler

Sherlock Jr: My Favorite Film to Watch with Others

| Ryan Sanderson |

Sherlock Jr. screens with Rumble in the Bronx at the Trylon from Friday, September 24 to Sunday, September 26. For tickets and more informationscroll to the bottom of this page.


Perhaps you know someone who is resistant to films outside their comfort zone: someone who says they don’t watch black and white films, don’t watch films with subtitles, don’t watch things made before 1977 (maybe 2007)? And I mean, there’s nothing technically wrong with that person. Our viewing habits are just that—habits—and each of us has to negotiate our own balance between challenge and comfort to get us through our lives. But suppose that person offers you one shot to prove them wrong. They’ll sit down for one movie, any movie you choose, to challenge their belief in this, that, or the other. What do you go with?

Here, I’ll offer my shortlist. Consider your own as I go. 

1. Sherlock Jr. 

2. End of list. 

Now there are a lot of reasons for this choice—we will get to them—but I want to get the primary one out of the way first: I’ve done it many times and it always worked. In college my best friend and I owned at least ten DVD copies between us (the Kino double feature with Our Hospitality), which we loaned out like evangelists distributing tracts. Sure, it was pushy, annoying behavior from a couple nineteen-year-olds, but we were enthusiastic new cinephiles looking to communicate that joy however we could. I’ll also note that nobody who watched the film ever complained. In fact over the last fifteen years I’ve watched Sherlock Jr. with hundreds of people, from large public screenings to my grandparents’ basement, and never once did it fail to absolutely kill. 

With that out of the way, there are a few reasons why I think the film works so well on new audiences. You need to start with the biases against silent films in general: they’re slow, they’re boring, they’re melodramatic, they don’t shake the camera enough to keep my lizard brain happy, they’re paced for people who read multiple newspapers a day for fun. Whatever someone’s apprehensions about Citizen Kane or L’Aventura, the gaps between those films and modern audiences are nothing like the gaps between us and The Phantom Carriage, exponentially so given how radically the medium and audience expectations evolved during the first third of the twentieth century. If you want to open someone up to cinema on the whole, from Altman to Żuławski, what better way than to show them something that challenges every stereotype in the most stereotyped of mediums? 

And I can’t think of a film from any era that stands in such stark defiance against all that scares people about silent film as Keaton’s indefinable forty-five minute wonder. It’s not just the action or Keaton’s inimitable physical prowess which allows him to pull off gags nobody else would even conceive of. There’s also the spirit of the thing—wry, subversive, paced and structured as though the audience is capable of picking up on a joke in every corner of the frame.

Sherlock Jr. isn’t the most audacious or emotionally devastating film you could show, but that’s not really the assignment. In this hypothetical situation (which I have crafted expressly for the purpose of making a point) you’re only trying to tear down barriers. We all have them, invisible habits that creep into the patterns of our thoughts, inform our perceptions of reality, tint one experience in a flattering light, another as something to be feared. Overcoming those little gremlins is hard for anyone. The whole industry of Hollywood is structured around shaping them. So why not take a film that is so inarguably the opposite of what an audience would expect that, instead of challenging a few individual biases, it devastates the notion that we can predict these experiences at all.

And as a bonus, the movie explores that very concept. Content and concept are inextricably linked. There’s a fascinating relationship between the way Sherlock Jr. appeals to audiences and the way it explores how movies do that on the whole. It ties in with a long-running debate about this film between enthusiasts, like myself––who call it a knowing, self-reflexive examination of storytelling and the human psyche akin to something by Charlie Kaufman––and cynics, who argue it’s a silly, ninety-seven-year-old, comedy short––and obviously that can’t be true, you pretentious goober. 

In my defense, I’d like to point to two popular anecdotes about Buster Keaton’s development as an artist. In the first, he’s a small child in his family’s vaudeville act. There was a bit where Keaton’s father violently tossed him across the stage, and he discovered the audience laughed harder at the bit when he didn’t cry or react much at all. Thus, his signature stone face was born. A couple decades later, when he first considered becoming a filmmaker, Keaton insisted on first taking apart a camera and putting it back together piece by piece so he could be certain he understood exactly how it worked. 

Both of these stories describe an unnaturally analytical mind, considering every variable, constantly experimenting, and immediately working the results into his art. So yes, I agree Keaton’s primary objective wasn’t to make some grand statement about art. He wanted to make rowdy audiences from Sacramento to Brooklyn howl with laughter. However, his process always involved pulling things apart and piecing them back together. The man who once took apart a camera uses Sherlock Jr. to take apart the whole medium, probe its psychological foundation, and meticulously puzzle it back together with some of the most surreal comedy set pieces in movie history. And I think this process accounts for why the movie feels so surprisingly, disarmingly modern.

The best example I’ve seen of Sherlock’s effect on an audience was at the Ordway on January 19, 2016. I had watched the film on computers, TVs, and personal projectors with audiences of up to 30 people before then, but that was the first time I had ever seen it on the big screen with a full audience. A couple hundred people were present for a double feature of Sherlock Jr. and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, each accompanied by a live original score (written by Steven Prutsman and performed by Accordo).

Caligari wraps, there’s a brief intermission, and the host emerges to introduce the next entry. I roll my eyes a bit. They are clearly bracing this “modern” audience for what they believe might be a challenging encounter with the antiquated sensibilities of silent cinema. They tell the crowd that in the 1920’s, booing the villain and cheering for the hero were commonplace (which was certainly true in some settings), and they encourage the audience to do likewise––sort of like assigning kindergarteners hand motions when you want them to pay attention for a song. 

Based on what I’ve said above, I don’t think this kind of thing is necessary. I think it only encourages the sense of strangeness and otherness that makes audiences unwilling to engage with this art in the first place. 

The first part of the film takes place in the “real world.” All the gags are built around the banality of real life. Keaton plays The Projectionist who wants to be a detective, but he can’t even successfully take out the garbage. The film’s first major joke involves him needing three dollars to buy a box of chocolates but only having two. (If this were a piece of literary analysis I would harp on the emphasis of the disparity between desire and reality at play in every bit, but we’ll keep moving for now.) His boss despises him. His flirtation with a local girl goes horribly wrong when she believes he stole her father’s watch. 

This is the trickiest part of the film, given how willfully slow it is. The audience dutifully booed the villain (a local businessman who framed The Projectionist for the theft) and cheered on Keaton. They laughed a bit at a few gags but altogether they’d been convinced by the intro that they were viewing an antique, not something to truly enjoy on its own terms. 

The Projectionist returns to work and immediately falls asleep on the job. In a dream, his dream spirit stands from his post, walks into the movie theater, and jumps into the screen. The audience grows silent. They haven’t been told how to handle this, or the truly surreal sequence (which Keaton achieved through complicated mapping tools) wherein the projectionist tries to navigate inside the film but the screen keeps cutting to different locations. By the time this sequence (more arthouse than pure comedy) fades, the room has fallen completely silent. I smile every movie fan’s favorite smile, knowing what comes next, waiting for the people sitting next to me to find out. 

 And then the mystery kicks in. Suddenly, The Projectionist is no longer himself. He is the unshakable, utterly perfect in every way Sherlock Jr. His crotchety boss has been transformed into his loyal sidekick and best friend. His paramour’s father––who just banished him from their household––now considers him the world’s greatest detective. He approaches a pool table where the eight ball is booby trapped with a deadly explosive. With hilarious specificity, he proceeds to hit every ball except the eight ball, over and over and over again.

Gag by gag, as the film outsmarts an audience a century more sophisticated, as it appears to parody genres that wouldn’t be invented for decades, the audience, once obviously bored with the film, began to gasp and chuckle. For the last thirty minutes not one boo or cheer could be heard from the crowd; only violent fits of laughter crescendoing toward an eventual standing ovation. I had seen the film do this exact thing so often before, but it was really special to see it on such a large scale. 

There’s another hilarious bit (I know I just used that word again––I guess assume all the bits are hilarious unless I say otherwise) during the dream sequence where Sherlock Jr. is on a motorcycle in pursuit of the villains who have kidnapped his love. He approaches a bridge with a large gap in the middle. The audience waits for him to fall into the gap and plummet to his death, but at the last second two trucks drive past, intersecting with the gap in the bridge at the perfect moment so Sherlock’s motorcycle skims over the top of them and continues across the other side. 

Cinema is kind of like that. A gap exists between our irrational, unconscious desires and the painfully rational world we live in; a gap that movies try to bridge. Not pure dream, not reality either, but an uncanny middle ground trying to make us believe that our inner fantasies are, if not achievable, at least reasonable. 

Which leads to the final scene. The Projectionist wakes up and his sweetheart is waiting for him. She did the baseline detective work he never bothered to, going to the pawn shop and confirming that the true thief of her father’s watch was not The Projectionist, but his romantic rival, The Local Sheik. She tilts her head to the side and waits to be romanced by the boy who, whatever his shortcomings, at least didn’t rob her father for spare change, leaving him to decide what to do next. 

He can’t think of anything. 

He teeters awkwardly for a moment, and then, in pure desperation, he stares at the movie screen. It’s one of the most famous shots in film history, and for good reason. The film’s larger point––and the reason its gags hit so hard––arrives with total clarity. The Projectionist knows what he wants. He also knows he’s anxious and inexperienced, and he lives in a world where getting three dollars to buy chocolate is a challenge, much less finding love. So he looks to the screen for guidance. 

And the screen betrays him! Of course it does! Sure, it tells him how to hold her hand and when to kiss her, and that all goes okay, but then just as it’s getting to the good part, the film fades and suddenly the beautiful young couple on screen are sitting with three babies in their lap. It’s up to The Projectionist to figure out what happens in between.

I know I said before that I don’t think Keaton had any priority besides making audiences laugh, but I don’t know if there’s a better depiction in movie history of the conflict between audiences wanting our entertainment to appeal directly to us and the plain fact that in order for this business of movie watching to be meaningful in any way, we need to put in some of the work. Movies are just one of the two trucks needed to fill the gap between our dreams and reality.

Our dreams may not be achievable or even reasonable, but as Sherlock Jr. has reminded me again and again and again, we still have them together. We, the audience, the individual wrestling with the strange and new, the person next to you whose laughter encourages and bolsters your own, are the second truck necessary to make it all work. 

Edited by Michelle Baroody

Jackie Chan: No poor man’s hero

| Maria Gomez |

Rumble in the Bronx, 1995

Rumble in the Bronx screens with Sherlock Jr. at the Trylon from Friday, September 24 to Sunday, September 26. For tickets and more information, scroll to the bottom of this page.


At a certain age, most of us have had the experience where you sit back, take a look around, and wonder, What have I done with my life? Jackie Chan has undoubtedly had no such thought. Having begun acting as a small child in Hong Kong, Kong-sang Chan (aka Jackie Chan), has made more than 130 martial arts films in addition to choreographing stunts in more than 75 of those films. He has fought against the mad skills of famous fighter, Bruce Lee but more infamously, Chan is known for being his own stunt man (This is one reason why many of his films were not filmed in the US -the insurance would be astronomical!). Most of us could not imagine literally risking our lives every day. When asked why he does it, Chan simply stated, “It’s what audiences expect from me.” [1] To further appease the masses, Chan often includes outtakes at the end of many of his films that show his fallible side, highlighting stunts gone bad and cast bloopers. This is just one example of Chan’s humility and ability to laugh at himself, while still being a professional entertainer.

Enter the Dragon, 1973

By the time Chan released the 1995 film Rumble in the Bronx, he had been making movies and taking his life in his own hands for more than 25 years, which gave him all the time he needed to hone his skills. It also gave him the freedom to once again, show his goofy side to audiences through a character who is just another guy in the wrong place at the wrong time. Here, in Rumble, he is dutiful nephew Keung, who wanted to come to America, see his uncle get married, and maybe help out with the family business for a spell. But then, as the title suggests, things get a little out of control.
            For me, one thing noticeable right away is the campiness of the acting which always makes me giggle a little. Watching the police interact with Chan and other characters suggests the influence of golden era cop shows like Adam-12 and Dragnet. You cannot beat Rumble‘s flat dialogue, lack of facial expression, and cheesy lines, which could be attributed to the English dubbing in the film, but only adds to the film’s comedy. As the plot progresses, I find myself eagerly waiting for Chan to start chopping and kicking-and when he does, it is hard to keep up! Right away, you can appreciate how complicated choreographing the fight scenes can be, especially when Chan is pitted against an entire gang. One of the elements I really appreciate about Chan’s heroes goes back to the earlier point of their fallibility; they get beat up, they don’t land every kick, and they definitely don’t win every fight; he makes them human.
            Chan’s later fight scenes show his real talent in turning common appliances into tools of destruction. You’ll never look at a refrigerator or shopping cart the same way again, not to mention his use of a windbreaker. His ability to choreograph his stunts and fight scenes so beautifully speaks to his dedication as a filmmaker, with a subtle hint of perfectionism. In the finale, Chan, who reportedly does not know how to swim, finds himself being dragged by a hovercraft on the water, utilizing his tennis shoes as his water skis. According to the outtakes, as a testament to his dedication, Chan accomplishes this stunt with a rubber shoe covering a cast, as an earlier stunt mishap had resulted in a broken foot.
            Truly, Chan is one of the most talented stunt coordinators in the history of film. It’s no wonder that he has been compared to the comedic likes of Keaton, Lloyd, and Chaplin. Not just his timing, but also Chan’s ability to be charming, empathetic, and vulnerable give his heroes a human quality that audiences have connected with for 5 decades. Chan has proved himself to be all this, as well as an innovative martial arts master, which makes him both endearing and not to be trifled with.


Notes

[1] Celebretainment, “Jackie Chan thinks his audience ‘expect’ him to do his own stunts,” Associated Press, August 17, 2017, https://apnews.com/article/1f4b876da24b4a04885eb58822034cfc.

Edited by Greg Hunter

Toxic Husbands

| Matt Levine |

Husbands screens on 35mm at the Trylon from Sunday, September 19 to Tuesday, September 21. For tickets and more information, scroll to the bottom of this page.


Husbands zeroes in on the real state of love and sex in our time… Cassavetes, Gazzara, et al., I salute you as fellow liberationists.

–Betty Friedan, 1971 [1]

                                   

The brutality with which women are often treated in Husbands––which the film’s bullying macho ambience often seems to endorse (or at least tolerate) more than criticize––turned me against Cassavetes for a number of years, and I still haven’t resolved whether this description of the film qualifies as a misreading.

–Jonathan Rosenbaum, 1991 [2]

 

For those who view art primarily as a way to monitor political correctness, Husbands is something of an impossible film to deal with. Is it misogynist or feminist? A celebration of belligerent, abusive men or a vicious condemnation of them? Should one align their perspective with Betty Friedan, who organized the Women’s Strike for Equality only two months before Husbands premiered in 1970 and applauded its attack on toxic masculinity? Or with Jonathan Rosenbaum, one of the most influential critics of the latter twentieth century, who was rightfully put off by the film’s insistence on detailing the ways its central characters berate, humiliate, use, and ignore the women in their lives? The answer, of course, says more about each individual viewer than it does about those two cultural commentators, or even about the film in question.

John Cassavetes didn’t make movies to get on a soapbox or wring his hands over moral dilemmas. From his directorial debut, Shadows (1958), to at least Love Streams (1984)—if you discount his last directorial effort, Big Trouble (1986), as he did himself—he made films about the messiness of human existence. They were rough and abrasive for that very reason, but also vital and sometimes overwhelmingly powerful. As the godfather of American independent cinema, he made it clear that his characters were not heroes or villains but an exasperating in-between, and political questions of racism, misogyny, or class were not debates to be won but lived experiences to be portrayed with an unflinching eye.

Husbands is, in many ways, Cassavetes’ most extreme film, revealing to us repugnant people with an almost stubborn, unwavering commitment. Even more extreme than the characters’ awfulness, though, is the sense of empathy the film still manages to evoke on their behalf. Yes, they’re detestable—lonely, desperate, loud, abusive, obnoxious, insecure drunks—but we see something painfully human in their mutually-destructive friendships, and we relate to their existential terror at the realization that life, at a certain point, holds no more surprises.

The film starts with a series of still photographs, family snapshots of husbands and wives and children lazing around a pool. The “husbands” in these images are four close friends—Gus (Cassavetes), Archie (Peter Falk), Harry (Ben Gazzara), and Stuart (David Rowlands)—and we get a sense of their boorish personalities even from these photographs: they flex their pathetic muscles, play-wrestle at the side of the pool, beer cans perpetually in hand, their wives lingering in the background. We see Gena Rowlands, Cassavetes’ real-life wife, in this early montage, her only appearance in the movie; already, Cassavetes indicates how personal the story is meant to be, a ruthless autobiography that one hopes is wildly exaggerated.

The next scene is a funeral—Stuart has died. Even though he was only middle-aged, Stuart’s heart gave out, perhaps because of all the copious drinking. All the black shiny cars and pomp and circumstance “seem pretty dopey for a guy like that,” says Archie. Harry, ushering Stuart’s elderly mom toward the gravesite further ahead, looks back at them jealously—the characters’ personalities, alike on the surface but disastrously unique deep down, are suggested within the first four minutes. “Lies and tensions, that’ll kill you,” Archie tells a perplexed Gus—not smoking or alcohol, he insists, but the lies and tensions of modern life.

Archie’s apologia is not convincing, and his critique of the overlong eulogy at the funeral feels equally insincere (“Say he died too young and that’s all, that’s it”). The artificiality of this early dialogue seems intentional (though the performances were decried as stilted when the movie first came out); these men are terrified at this reminder of their own impending mortality and they focus on anything else to distract themselves. As we’ll come to see, they feel suffocated by their nine-to-five jobs and nuclear families—the very things they were told to aspire to in American life—and claw frantically to break out of them.  

Now seems like an appropriate time to emphasize what the film will tell us over and over again: these are not admirable characters. Husbands may provide contexts for their repulsive behavior, but it doesn’t make excuses for them or blame society. If these men are paralyzed by the responsibilities of family and capitalism, that’s largely a result of their own cowardice and insecurity. Any compassion the opening scenes of Husbands engender is immediately offset by a shot of Gus, Harry, and Archie drunkenly singing at the top of their lungs on a city sidewalk—a scene of privileged vulgarity with which we’ll soon become familiar. “We can do anything we want to do,” Archie says on the subway moments later. “So what do you want to do?”

The answer: wrestle each other on busy sidewalks (nearly running over passersby) and play basketball (poorly) at the gym. Afterwards, the men embark on a marathon of binge drinking and casual cruelty. At a dimly lit bar, in a scene that goes on for twelve minutes, they insult each other, force a poor woman to sing and then ridicule her performance, take off their clothes, and chug beer with increasing abandon. The next scene, which lasts nine minutes, shows them vomiting in a narrow bathroom and fighting with each other over absolutely nothing. These back-to-back scenes perfectly encapsulate the movie’s grim audacity: it is a naked portrayal of toxic masculinity at its most destructive.

Shouldn’t a movie about toxic masculinity be hard to watch? Husbands was and is attacked for its long wallow in disgusting male behavior, but it’s very clearly about the ways in which misogyny spreads unabated. Expecting a movie about the violence of patriarchy to be timid and pleasant is absurd at its core. The anger and sadness of a movie like Husbands seems appropriate since it deals with the forces of sexism that have given rise to the Harvey Weinsteins, Andrew Cuomos, Brock Turners, Brett Kavanaughs, Jeffrey Epsteins, et al. of the world.

And yet—Husbands is a film with sudden sparks of humor and bizarreness. Gus, a dentist, treats a patient who’s high on nitrous oxide and steals the scene in which she appears. Harry, an ad man, sits forlornly in his office (a photo of his kids prominent in a striking diopter shot) before one of his colleagues points, giggles, and greets him in a maniacal falsetto. Once the men flippantly decide to jet off to London—having the money and privilege to escape their lives at the drop of a hat—Archie is hit on by a dolled-up socialite with the weirdest line readings one can possibly imagine (delivered by a marvelous Delores Delmar). Even a tragic farewell between Gus and Archie at the end is made absurd when they flippantly exchange toys to give to their kids, negotiating who will be the deliverer of which stuffed animal.    

Cassavetes’ label as a gritty realist has never been totally accurate; he’s in love with the process of acting, the spontaneity of the scene, the strangeness of life. His surrealistic tendency is most explicitly presented in Love Streams’ ending, which I won’t ruin here though it involves a stoic dog and a naked old man. Cassavetes’ weakest film, Opening Night, is enlivened by a late scene in which Gena Rowlands hijacks a live theatre performance by forcing Cassavetes into increasingly strange improvisations. (Indeed, Opening Night is a case study in the somewhat irrelevant question of whether or not Cassavetes is a feminist—the film simultaneously presents Rowland’s character, Myrtle, as a victim of showbiz patriarchy and as a hysterical fantasist who can’t control her own life.) The caustic honesty of Husbands is made bearable by the film’s (bleak) sense of humor and its unexpected oddities.

That said, Husbands remains unflinching throughout. After the men’s opening bender, Harry returns home to discover his wife intends to leave him with her mother (who lives in the same house) in tow. Harry forcibly kisses his wife, pushes her down on her knees, and chokes and slaps both her and her mother. Afterwards, Gus and Archie console him in the front yard, bemused but hardly repulsed by his behavior. (This scene has a lot in common with similar moments in Elaine May’s Mikey & Nicky [1976], which also stars Cassavetes and Falk as emotionally fragile men who mask their vulnerability with a show of macho violence.) Later, in London, the men try to cheat on their wives with women they pick up at a casino, mostly unsuccessfully; they pretend to be lotharios but are afflicted by their own psychological hang-ups. “My wife used to do that for me,” Harry says as his new lover, Pearl (Jenny Lee Wright), gives him a massage in a hotel room.

Gus, Harry, and Archie pretend for a while that they can live forever in England, completely abandoning their lives and families, but there is no escape. They return to Long Island despondent, a fate like Stuart’s inevitably awaiting them, with little chance for excitement (aside from the narcotic sort) in their future. It all culminates in Gus and Archie’s return to their modest middle-class homes. The final scene is heartbreaking, the clearest indication in the film of how patriarchy spreads from adults to younger generations; the fact that Gus’s kids are played by Cassavetes’ real-life children, Nick and Xan—the latter of whom breaks down in inexplicable tears upon her father’s return—reiterates how painfully personal the film is. Gus’s kids know full well—as children always do in fractured homes—how cruel and inattentive their father is.

I cringe as I write this, but it’s still true: Husbands is devastating because it’s relatable. I hope and I think that my friends and I are nothing like Gus, Harry, and Archie. But I’ve seen this behavior, and I’ve often recoiled from it but said nothing. I’ve seen friends and loved ones drink in a desperate bid to escape the doubts and miseries of their own lives. I’ve seen men who believe that getting drunk is an excuse to use women for their own fleeting satisfaction. I’ve seen people get drunk and insult, demean, and fight others, including the ones closest to them, their innermost aggressions coming out with the aid of endless alcohol. I’ve felt shame the day after I’ve witnessed or enabled behaviors close to what the men in this movie do. I’d be willing to bet most of us have. It’s one of Husbands’ greatest and most disturbing feats that it makes us relive that shame all over again.

Husbands’ raw emotional brutality remains difficult to watch, but it also feels more urgent and necessary than ever. The forces of patriarchy that permeate American life have hardly abated over the last fifty years. Men like Gus, Harry, and Archie continue to hold positions of privilege no matter how cruel and destructive they are. And while large-scale crimes of misogyny—like those committed by Weinstein or Woody Allen or Bill Cosby—have been rightfully condemned, countless smaller instances of patriarchal violence continue to fester, unreported and largely unpunished.

Given the high stakes of Husbands’ subject matter, the film’s vicious and unrestrained tone is something like a caustic balm. The modern state of American independent movies is timid and lackluster for many reasons, but one of them is a hyperaware political correctness—the fear of being labeled sexist or racist or offensive in any way. That’s why ostentatious message movies like Promising Young Woman and Green Book feel the need to utter obvious moral judgments that don’t have much to do with real life; in the process, they demonstrate little sympathy for the lived experiences that victims of sexism or racism actually undergo. Just like Hollywood movies after the rise of the Hays Code in the 1930s felt the need to explicitly punish characters who transgressed their ethical rules, modern American movies are pressured to portray people as noble heroes or rotten villains, dismissing the fact that every human being is a vexing middle ground between the two. In a culture that’s quick to condemn, the ambiguity of human nature is an uncomfortable fact that most movies and other works of art would prefer to sidestep.   

Husbands exists squarely in that ambiguous middle ground, which is why it’s so sad and infuriating. The characters here aren’t heroes or villains, victims or perpetrators, but everything at once. Recently, Donald Glover made headlines for claiming (via Twitter), “We’re getting boring stuff and not even experimental mistakes (?) because people are afraid of getting cancelled.” It’s hard to disagree. While cancel culture enables powerful ways for exploited communities to expose the actions of their oppressors, it can also lead to an atmosphere of creative timidity in which depiction of repugnant behavior is mistaken for endorsement.

Cassavetes can be criticized for many things, but timidity is not one of them. Just as feminism in the 1970s was, perhaps, more radical and empowering than it is now, so too was American cinema unafraid to be militant and provocative. Husbands is a perfect (if unlikely) representation of both. So here’s to more movies that are as unpleasant, difficult, raw, and uncompromising as this one. What we see onscreen is disgusting and infuriating. Why don’t some of us feel a similar kind of outrage when we witness such things in real life?


NOTES

[1] Betty Friedan, “Unmasking the Rage in the American Dream House,” New York Times, January 31, 1971. https://www.nytimes.com/1971/01/31/archives/unmasking-the-rage-in-the-american-dream-house-the-american-dream.html

[2] Jonathan Rosenbaum, Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991) 160.


Edited by Brad Stiffler and Michelle Baroody