Friday, October 25, 2013


After Hunger & Shame, Steve McQueen became one of my new favorite filmmakers. And I'd be lying if I said a very small part of that had nothing to do with him being black. I don't care, I admit that. But that's something very minor. Steve McQueen could be of any ethnicity and I'd still love his films as long as they continue to come out the way they do (I actually thought he was an Irish guy before I saw a picture of him given his last name and the subject matter of his first film; Hunger - the story of an IRA hunger strike). And I feel I'm allowed that small bit of racial fanboyishness given how much I dismiss the large majority of modern black films & filmmakers these days. But 12 Years A Slave is hardly a "black film". It's an American film. Slavery is a piece of American history (I don't care if the director, along with half the cast, is based out of the UK).
My reaction to most recent films concerning black people is somewhere between a yawn and cynicism that borders on mean spiritedness. Thankfully I've come across so many other people who feel the same way as me so I don't feel so bad. You'd think I'd want nothing to do with a film about slavery because it's such a typical subject. But when you stop and think for a second - there really hasn't been a recent film, good or bad, on the subject of slavery to come out until late last year (please don’t say Manderlay or Confederate States Of America to counter that). I know at first glance a movie about slavery doesn’t exactly sound “new” or progressive but what sets 12 Years A Slave apart from something like Glory or Manderlay is that it’s a personal story. 12 Years A Slave certainly sheds light on slavery as a whole but for the most part it doesn’t try to take on the whole subject in 133 minutes. That’s impossible. This is only about one man which makes McQueen’s take on the subject of slavery slightly different. True, Roots, probably the most iconic representation of Slavery on the small screen, had a central character (“Kunta Kinte”) but the series featured tons of characters that branched off of him and got their own story. McQueen only focuses on Solomon Northup. As long as it's done right, I hope there's more films about slavery made as it can't all be dealt with (and still hasn't been) in one or two movies. It's the recent high profile stories of servitude (The Help & The Butler), the first black person to do something among a sea of evil white people (42 & Red Tails) or the microcosm of the ghetto (Precious) that I feel we've had enough of.
But lemme not get sidetracked. We're supposed to be talking about 12 Years A Slave, right?

In the film, based on the book of the same, Chewital Ejiofor plays "Solomon Northup" - A free black man living in upstate New York whose drugged and eventually kidnapped in to slavery leaving behind his wife & family. 
There seems to be a sudden interest in slavery in cinema all of a sudden. The Rza had a nice little connection/subplot about slavery in The Man With The Iron Fists, I've been told the beginning of The Butler takes place on a plantation, Steven Spielberg recently gave us Lincoln and Quentin Tarantino made Django Unchained which 12 Years A Slave keeps getting compared too. While Django Unchained is a well made movie (minus the two endings and the unnecessary wordiness at times) it's still entertainment. It's cool, fun & action-packed (nothing I associate slavery with, but that's just me). 12 Years A Slave is obviously a movie but it's so far from "entertainment" it's not even funny. Like Abdellatif Kechiche's Black Venus (another recent film with a loose connection to slavery), 12 Years A Slave is great but it's filled with scenes that you just want to end and/or go away because they're so long and tough to sit through. Early on in 12 Years A Slave when Solomon Northup (Chewital Ejiofor) is captured and sold in to slavery, he’s beaten repeatedly with a paddle until it breaks. ...But the scene isn't over (the camera doesn't even cut). The man beating Northrup gets a whip and continues to beat him until you find yourself going; "ENOUGH! OK!" Later on in the film one of the slave owners (played amazingly by Michael Fassbender) has his way with one of the female slaves (once again the scene also has no cuts) and it just becomes beyond uncomfortable and I found myself squirming in my seat. Yes, the reason behind those scenes are to make us feel uncomfortable and horrified (and it certainly succeeded in doing that) but still - that doesn't sound like entertainment, does it?

I remember my anticipation for 12 Years A Slave being indescribable. "This will be Steve McQueen's masterwork" I thought. Then I saw the trailer earlier in the year and I thought "...oh. this isn't exactly what I had in mind." It looked "Hollywood" (sorry to sound like the cliche movie snob). Nowhere in the trailer did I see signs of McQueen's modern style that I love so much. But I quickly remembered that this isn't a modern story so a modern style of filmmaking wasn’t needed. To my surprise, the film is still filled with tons of unconventional shots and strange moments that you wouldn't find in an average historical film/period piece. 12 Years A Slave opens bluntly & abruptly without any grand introduction. And throughout the film theres a few eerie wordless moments of our protagonist (portrayed masterfully by Ejiofor) looking off in to space or intensely zoning out without saying anything. There's also tons of darkly lit shots with minimal movement from the actors in frame which seemed cool & unconventional too (McQueen definitely drew from his photography background for this). So although I didn't get everything I personally wanted in terms of style, McQueen still threw in little things here & there to satisfy. My "favorite" part of the film is the 10-15 minute period from the moment when Solomon Northrup is first loaded on to the slave ship until he reaches his first plantation. It's easily the most (purposely) disorienting experience you'll find in any movie this year outside of Leviathan & Gravity which is a testament to McQueen's directing and the film's editing. Steve McQueen's direction in 12 Years A Slave made me we think of what other modern directors would do with source material set in the 18th or 19th century. Now that Michael Mann has found his groove with new technology & digital filmmaking I'd like him to revisit the time period of The Last Of The Mohicans (not necessarily the same story) to see what that world would look like now. What would a Lodge Kerrigan period drama look like or a Gaspar Noe film set in the 1800's be?

As most of you know, 12 Years A Slave features an all-star cast but in reality a lot of the big names in the film really only have "extended cameos" which I found to be a little distracting at times (especially in the case of Brad Pitt & Michael K Williams). We get this introduction of a particular character played by a familiar face and then minutes later we never see them again. That was just odd to me. But at the same time, this is a sad, dark & horrific film. It may not feature the cinema verite style of a John Cassavetes film but its still real enough (it was real enough that I found myself hating Paul Dano & Michael Fassbender outside of the evil characters they played in the film). Maybe we needed the occasional extended cameo from Paul Giamatti or Brad Pitt to make us all feel safe and to remind us that 12 Years A Slave is just a movie. 
I’m apprehensive to give ANY criticism of 12 Years A Slave. Much like Gravity, people are treating it like it’s beyond criticism but there are a few things that could have been done a little better. I don’t mean to harp on the bad stuff so much because at the end of the day 12 Years A Slave is pretty exceptional. But I really found Brad Pitt’s presence to be strange. It’s like he was just playing himself. *SPOILER* And Brad Pitt’s character really can’t be distracting or take you out of the story at all because he’s a crucial element in Solomon’s freedom *SPOILER END* I also found the score to be a little unnecessary in some parts. Its good overall but a lot of the scenes spoke for themselves without the music and I already knew what to feel without the added presence of heavy stringed instruments. Some scenes would have been absolutely incredible had there been no music because everything would have felt even colder & darker.

Outside of Chewital Ejiofor & Michael Fassbender, the supporting cast of Paul Dano, Benedict Cumberbatch and newcomer; Lupita Nyong’o are also great (Lupita Nyong’o being the standout, delivering a heartbreaking performance that’s bound to make you tear up). What's kinda cool is that 12 Years A Slave is somewhat of an amalgam of modern black film in that it features actors & actresses like Michael K. Williams & Alfree Woodward (both very briefly) as well as Quvenzhane Wallis & Dwight Henry (Beats Of The Southern Wild) and Adepero Oduye (Pariah).
This is an American film about slavery & racism so naturally there’s plenty of typical evil white characters (Michael Fassbender takes it to another level) but unlike the prototypical characters found in something like 42 (a movie I wish I never watched, but I saw it on a plane so it’s almost like it never happened) McQueen crafts more complicated characters, specifically the slave owner William Ford - played by Benedict Cumberbatch. Ford is a Baptist preacher, he’s “kind” to Solomon and there’s even one scene where he tries to buy an entire family as to not separate them from each other. Early on when his character was introduced I thought to myself; “oh no, one of these characters?” (the racist white person who eventually changes his evil ways and we’re supposed to feel good about it or the white character whose racist but only under the circumstances. It's not really his fault). But by the time his character is out of the story, it’s made clear that no matter how “nice” he may be to the slaves, he’s still businessman and a slave owner first.
And speaking of 42 (if I can just divert for a moment) cinema really has yet to the scratch the surface of the psychological pressure & depression that comes along with being the first black person to do something. Specifically the post-stress. There are plenty of films like 42, but the really sad story behind Jackie Robinson’s life is the fact that he died at the age of 53. No professional athlete should die that young. There have been four movies made about Jackie Robinson’s years in major league baseball and they're all pretty much the same. Haven’t we had enough? Will someone make a film about his life after baseball? That’d be the real unique story...

It's not saying much, but 12 Years A Slave is definitely one of the best films of the year (this year has been fairly weak) even with my little criticisms. But if it means anything I'd probably be saying the same thing had it been released in 2010, 2011 or 2012. This has been stuck in my head since I've seen it and hardly any movie has been able to do that this year which makes it a success in my book.

Monday, October 21, 2013


When you have a moment, head on over to The Pink Smoke to read my review on Jim Jarmusch's latest; Only Lovers Left Alive, which is part of the seasonal themed series; Auteur Horror - When Renowned Filmmakers Turn To Horror.

Happy Halloween...

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

THE STRAIGHT STORY: NEBRASKA (Alexander Payne's Nebraska @ NYFF)

I don't think I’ve ever anticipated an Alexander Payne movie in my life. His stuff just really isn't my thing. He makes these slightly edgy, yet quirky, R-rated dramedies for a generation of people I don't really relate too. He's got that Coen brothers pass where he can kinda make any movie he wants and film society critics, young baby boomers & old gen x-ers will blindly praise it. Maybe when I'm in my mid-40's I'll get it, but for now - meh. The ultimate reason that I decided to see Nebraska is because I didn’t want to only see two movies at this years' New York Film Festival (Bastards & Only Lovers Left Alive) having missed a bunch of movies due to not being able to make Toronto this year.

Election and Laura Dern's performance in Citizen Ruth are the only things that Payne is associated with that I’ve ever really liked. I thought Sideways was overrated long before it was cool to think that, The Descendents was "ok" and I haven't seen About Schmidt since it first came out over a decade ago. But I’ve always had respect for Alexander Payne as a person thanks to his participation in the Z Channel documentary. It was in that film that I came to learn he was a true cinephile. It’s becoming rare these days to find cinephile filmmakers who aren't annoying & obnoxious like Quentin Tarantino or even Nicolas Winding Refn (someone I actually have love for). Its beyond frustrating to be at a Q&A with a director who clearly knows very little about the artform that they participate in. I understand how busy things must get once you become a filmmaker, leaving you with little personal time to catch up on movies, but didn't you at least watch a lot of movies BEFORE you started started making them? There's still a rare breed of filmmaker out there that knows more about film than Quentin Tarantino & Nicolas Winding Refn combined but you'd never know that (unless you read about them, actually listen to a director's commentary on a DVD or watch a film like Z Channel) because people like Richard Linklater, Steven Soderbergh, Alexander Payne, Jim Jarmusch and a few others don’t spend all their time making movie collages (as opposed to actual movies) to show off how much cinema knowledge they posses.

What sparked my interest in Nebraska was hearing about Bruce Dern's award winning performance at this years' Cannes film festival. Cannes always shows love to underrated performances, usually given by American actors, that don’t ever get recognition from the more popular award shows like the Oscars or Golden Globes. There's been a fairly eclectic mix of American award winners at Cannes over the years - Forest Whitaker (Bird), James Spader (Sex, Lies & Videotape), Samuel L. Jackson (Jungle Fever), Sean Penn (She's So Lovely), Benecio Del Toro (Che), Tommy Lee Jones (The Three Burials Of Melqiadas Estrada), etc. Now that I've actually seen Nebraska I can safely say that Dern deserves all the praise he gets along with co-star; June Squibb (she honestly steals the show in my opinion).
After doing a little more research I came to find out that not only is Payne's latest film shot beautifully in black & white but it also co-stars the always underrated Stacey Keach, Bob Odenkirk AND Will Forte, who is probably the funniest human being on the planet right now and he just so happened to have given one of the most slept-on comedic performances of 2012 in Tim & Eric's Billion Dollar Movie (just a heads up - Forte's character in Nebraska is a fairly straight forward/straight-laced guy which is pretty out of character for him). Actually, I was subconsciously reminded of Tim & Eric through the coarse of the film as both Odenkirk & Forte are regulars on that show.
I'm also a sucker for a good road movie. And a black & white road movie at that?! Forget about it. Has there ever actually been a "bad" modern black & white road movie? Nebraska falls in line with other great, eerie, modern road trip films like; Stranger Than Paradise, Kings Of The Road, Juha, Paper Moon, Alice In The Cities, etc.

Clockwise from Top Left: Alice In The Cities (Wim Wenders), Paper Moon (Peter Bogdonavich), Kings Of The Road (Wenders), Stranger Than Paradise (Jim Jarmusch)

Nebraska has a lot of good stuff going for it - road movie, good cast, a subconscious connection to one of my all-time favorite tv shows, beautiful cinematography, etc. The end result is a solid film that lies somewhere in the upper tier of Payne's filmography - In my opinion it's better than Sideways & The Descendents but not as good as Election or Citizen Ruth (remember, I think Payne's recent work is a bit overrated so take my ranking of Nebraska with a grain of salt). The performances are great and the vibe is comically eerie. Some scenes in the film felt like what America would look like from Bela Tarr's perspective, shot with the same camera that was used to make Werkmeister Harmonies.

It's evident that Payne set out to make a smaller, more personal film this time around by casting Bruce Dern in a film set in Nebraska (Payne's home state) which couldn't be any more opposite than his previous film which was set in Hawaii, starring George Clooney. So no matter where this may "rank", Nebraska is probably his most personal & mature work to date...

In Nebraska, Bruce Dern stars as "Woody Grant" - a grumpy retired old man, probably in the very early stages of dementia or alzheimer's, who suddenly receives a letter in the mail telling him he's won a million dollars (clearly this is a scam but Woody is too old to understand). In order to claim this so-called prize money he has to travel to the headquarters in Lincoln, Nebraska from his home in Montana. After multiple attempts to get there on his own (like Richard Farnsworth in The Straight Story, Woody can't drive), his son; "David" (Will Forte) offers to drive him. Part of me questioned David's motivation at first - If your aging father, whose clearly not all there, suddenly told you he won a million dollars in the mail would you seriously go along with it to the extent that David did by actually driving him from Montana to Nebraska just to entertain him? Perhaps David wanted to spend time with his father. Pretty early on in the film we know there's no damn prize money but we're just so happy to see our lonely old anti-hero, who might remind us all of a dad, grandfather or uncle, motivated to not just get up off the couch but to take a trip somewhere before its too late.

Or maybe like Michael Haneke did with the videotapes in Cache, perhaps its Alexander Payne himself who sent Woody the letter telling him he won a million dollars.

Once word gets out that Woody is a "millionaire", old friends & family members suddenly come out of the woodworks to reclaim money that they supposedly loaned him years ago.

Clockwise from top left: Paris Texas (Wenders), The Straight Story (David Lynch), Broken Flowers (Jarmusch), About Schmidt (Payne)

Nebraska has tons of humor but there's also quite a few moments of deep reflection and plenty of touching moments. This almost felt like Payne was taking another stab at making About Schmidt with a few variations. Both movies deal with retirement, loneliness, reflecting back on life in old age, etc. And like Nebraska, About Schmidt is also a road movie about a slightly unpleasant, although likable, anti-hero. 
What I liked most about Nebraska is that this was the first time Alexander Payne REALLY let his inner-movie nerd out by referencing and paying homage to so many movies (on purpose and by accident) while still making a film that's all his own. Bruce Dern's performance in Nebraska carried the spirit of quite a few past performances given by aging, iconic American actors on a road trip through Anywhere USA: Jack Nicholson (About Schmidt), Harry Dean Stanton (Paris Texas), Bill Murray (Broken Flowers) and of course Richard Farnsworth (The Straight Story). And likewise, June Squibb's performance in the film is reminiscent of Jim Jarmusch's aunt in Stranger Than Paradise or the grandmother in Raising Victor Vargas.

A movie snob like myself always seems to be drawn to films outside of America but Nebraska fills me with a little bit of pride (mixed with a little bit of embarrassment & cynicism) about my homeland. Nebraska has it's share of cliches & predictable moments but it was still an enjoyable film...

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

THE BASTARDS SLEEP WELL (Claire Denis' Bastards @ NYFF)

Its no mystery that PINNLAND EMPIRE is the kindest place on the web for all things Claire Denis-related. Part of me wishes that her latest film was bad so you all wouldn't think I was just blindly praising her work but Bastards was really good in my opinion. Denis' latest film is like one of those creepy dreams that stays with you for the entire day leaving you feeling slightly disoriented. It's not exactly a nightmare but nothing you wake up smiling about. And like any dream, there is no traditional beginning or end. We're just thrown right in to the story and we're not exactly sure how we got there.
Bastards is a neo-noir revenge story/family drama about a naval captain; "Marco" (Vincent Lindon) who returns home to help his sister; "Sandra" (Julie Bataille) whose fallen on some incredibly hard times. Sandra's husband (who was once Marco's friend) has just committed suicide and her daughter, Marco's niece, was brutally raped and the same man; "Edouard Laporte" (Michel Subor), is possibly responsible for both tragic events.
Although Claire Denis denied that Bastards has any underlying messages about capitalism or corporate greed, Edouard Laporte is a powerful businessman who triggers the suicide of a smaller/struggling businessman (Sandra's husband). One can't help but still think that on some level this film applies to issues like "The 99% vs. The 1%" or the unfair distribution and/or misuse of power in different parts of the world. These aren't the typical issues that Denis focuses on so that could just be me reaching.

This is another "family affair" with Denis regulars; Gregoire Colin, Michel Subor, Alex Descas, Florence Loire Caille, Agnes Goddard, Jean-Pol Fargeau & The Tindersticks all appearing in front of or behind the camera in some fashion. This also marks the second collaboration between Vincent Lindon & Denis since Friday Night (2002). 
There's even "extended family" in Bastards with the presence of Lola Creton whose relationship with Olivier Assayas, Denis' friend, probably had something to do with her being cast in this (Creton co-starred in Assayas' last film; Something In The Air and she also starred in Goodbye My First Love which was directed by Assayas' girlfriend Mia Hansen-Love). And I don't mean to downplay Creton's natural acting ability or screen presence by saying she was only cast due to some kind of "cinematic nepotism". It's the same thing with other actors. Bastards co-star; Alex Descas, who is Claire Denis' most frequent collaborator, is one of my favorite actors but I'm sure his relationship with Olivier Assayas is an extension of his relationship with Denis (Descas has co-starred in three of Assayas' films). Creton's performance is both haunting & heartbreaking at the same time...

The French love William Faulkner. And its no mystery that Claire Denis, who is obviously French, is heavily influenced by books & literature. Some of her best work is adapted from or inspired by books - Beau Travail (1999) is a loose adaptation of Billy Buddy and both; Friday Night (2002) & The Intruder (2004) are adapted from books/essays, so it doesn't come as too much of a surprise that elements of Bastards draws heavily from Faulkner's writing (specifically Sanctuary). In Bastards, one of the characters is violated sexually with a piece of corn and eventually tries to go back to the very same person who abused her. For those that aren't familiar with Faulkner's Sanctuary, one of the most alarming scenarios in the story involves one of the characters (Temple) getting raped & violated with a piece of corn which opens up her dark side and pulls her in to a world of sexual abuse & prostitution. Even the basic plot of Bastards; the lone male character going home to be with his sister who eventually gets caught up in a series of tragic events, is a play on Sanctuary. 

Based on this review so far one might think Claire Denis has gone back to that dark side we saw in films like I Can't Sleep (1994) and Trouble Everyday (2001). To a certain degree that's true. Bastards, which couldn't have a more appropriate title as almost every male character in the film is very much a bastard, has some of the same frightening sexual aggression found in Trouble Everyday along with the same dark/moody atmosphere (thanks in part to The Tindersticks' score). But Bastards also feels like a loose sequel to The Intruder with its somewhat dreamy/non-linear structure (it should be noted that both; Bastards & The Intruder were written by Jon-Pol Fargeau). 
As I've said on here before, its difficult to talk/write about one Denis film without mentioning two or three of her previous films in the process. Her filmography has this invisible continuous thread that ties all her work together. In Bastards, Michel Subor plays an evil businessman but he could very well be the same self centered, mildly unpleasant character that he played almost a decade ago in Denis' The Intruder (the same picture of Michel Subor as a young man that we see in Beau Travail is used again in Bastards). Vincent Lindon's quietly edgy character in Bastards could easily be the same mysterious guy he played years ago in Denis' Friday Night. Much like The Intruder, Bastards has a plot but its more about the feelings you get from the images & isolated scenes placed in front of you. I honestly feel like the plot isn't the most important element here. Denis kinda makes this clear in the way she structures the film - the story does intentionally jump out of order at times (although not in a chaotic way but rather in a more organic & seamless way), some of the dialogue between the characters is extremely familiar (at times it feels like we're thrown in to the middle of a conversation that we should already have the inside dirt on), the moody music is just as important to the film's atmosphere as the acting or cinematography (a completely separate write-up could be done on The Tindersticks' score as they've adopted a slightly new electronic/computerized sound this time around) and, in true Claire Denis fashion, a lot of important information in the film is conveyed through hints & implications rather than traditional straightforward dialogue (although quite a bit of important information is laid out for the audience pretty clearly in the film's 8mm-esque ending).

Faulkner's books & Denis' own previous works aren't the only influences found in Bastards. If you refer to the interview she gave here on PINNLAND EMPIRE earlier this year, Denis mentions Akira Kurosawa & Toshiro Mifune as an influence. Vincent Lindon's motivation for revenge is somewhat similar to Mifune's in Kurosawa's The Bad Sleep Well (seeking revenge on a corrupt businessman for the death of a family member). And apparently part of Bastards is based on a true story that Denis read about in the news involving a woman who was beaten, raped & left for dead on the side of the road by sex traffickers. In one scene Lola Creton is seen walking naked in the middle of the street at night with blood dripping between her legs which is very reminiscent of a scene in Elim Klimov's Come & See. Bastards is obviously not an autobiographical film but at the same time it feels like we're watching all the random thoughts and feelings that go on inside Claire Denis' head - newspaper articles, books, cinema, music, and unfinished ideas that still deserve to be shared with others. 
In my opinion, Bastards isn't as dark as some people were making it out to be but there are a few moments that may cause you to go; "oh shit." (honestly, if the implication of sodomy with a corn cob doesn't make you squirm in the least bit then something may be wrong with you).

If I had to quickly sum up the character of Marco I guess I'd call him an anti-hero. But if you wanted to go a little deeper I'd use the term, coined by Claire Denis collaborator Alice Houri; "Good Bastard". Yes, Marco is the protagonist of the story but he isn't the traditional good guy we unconditionally root for. His actions are sometimes questionable and his thoughts are dark. But if my brother-in law's suicide was triggered by the same person behind my niece's rape, I might go on a quest for revenge knowing the information that Marco knows. Marco is yet another imperfect character in a long line of Claire Denis characters that we either like or feel sorry for at first then eventually come to dislike or want no part of (like Richard Courcet in I Can't Sleep or Vincent Gallo in Trouble Everyday) or one of those characters we dislike at first but come to feel sorry for later on (like Alex Descas in No Fear No Die or Denis Lavant in Beau Travail). At the Q&A for Bastards Claire Denis compared Vincent Lindon's performance to James Caan in Thief but in my opinion I found Caan to be somewhat childish at times, bordering on being dumb & hot-headed in certain scenarios (when it came to criminal activity however, Caan was intelligent & badass). Marco/Lindon is a lot more methodical and cool-headed to be compared to Caan in Thief.
Michel Subor also gave a noteworthy performance as "the villain". His loyalty to Claire Denis is profound. He seems to only ever act in her movies these days. Subor has the same swagger as that of Takeshi Kitano in that he can play a good bad guy, a bad good guy or a bad bad guy (like in Bastards) with such ease. His ability to casually play such a quietly evil person in Bastards makes me want to see him collaborate with other European filmmakers like Michael Haneke, Catherine Breillat or even Gaspar Noe.

If you're a fan of Denis' darker side, the new french extremity, 8mm, or films that fall under that "Sketchbook Cinema" genre I've been writing about recently (Uncle Boonmee..., Post Tenebras Lux, etc) then this film is absolutely something you'll dig. If you're not a fan of moody non-linear cinema then maybe its best to stay away from Bastards and avoid yourself the frustration. This is some advice that critics failed to mention in their early reviews of the film after it played at Cannes in May. There's nothing more frustrating for me than reading a review of a Claire Denis film written by someone who clearly doesn't understand her work or is still expecting her to make another Beau Travail. Bastards got some early negative press because it was essentially reviewed against & compared to films it played alongside in this years' festival circuit like; Blue Is The Warmest Color & Twelve Years A Slave which couldn't be any more different from each other. If you're gonna put Bastards up against something at least compare it to the appropriate films (The Intruder, Trouble Everyday, Uncle Boonmee, etc).

Wednesday, October 2, 2013


The Elephant Man is tough to place among the other movies in David Lynch's filmography because even though it’s really good, it doesn’t really feature his trademark quirky surreal/neo-noir style as prominently as his other work. Over the years there's been some odd choices in directors to make films outside of their comfort zone (most notably David Cronenberg's offer to direct Ferris Bueller's Day Off). This isn't the strangest example but at the time it was a bit strange for David Lynch to be making this. Before The Elephant Man went in to production, the higher-ups at Paramount must have been asking themselves what the hell they were doing putting out a biopic on John Merrick Directed by an experimental, up & coming director (Lynch) produced by (comedian) Mel Brooks. Say what you want about movie studios but this was actually a case of "mainstream cinema" taking a gamble on a young progressive director. You have to remember that in 1980 David Lynch wasn’t the Twin Peaks creating, pop culture oddity that we know now. At that point he was a new director responsible for a handful of experimental shorts and one feature-length film that was embraced more by the cultish midnight movie crowd. And Mel Brooks' career speaks for itself. Dramatic biopics weren't exactly his thing which is why he downplayed his involvement in the film until after it was complete.
I guess If you absolutely had to categorize David Lynch at that point in his career he'd be considered a horror director...? Obviously we aren’t talking about the traditional horror directors of the time like Carpenter or Hopper but Eraserhead (one of my favorite films) and The Grandmother (one of my favorite Lynch shorts) haunt my dreams more than Michael Meyers or Leatherface. I get the idea of hiring a “horror director” to do a movie like The Elephant Man as it involves startling scenes and extensive make-up that would transform someone in to an “oddity” but that’s a touchy subject because it poses the question: Is John Merrick a "oddity"? Of course he's not. To quote John Hurt in The Elephant Man: "He's a human being!” But when you associate him with the baby from Eraserhead and use the term; "horror" in the advertisements, you're not only asking for trouble but you're obviously giving off the wrong impression of what the movie is going to be. Every once in a while I come across reviews that make comparisons between Elephant Man & Todd Browning's Freaks and although there are a few legitimate comparisons between both films it still bothers me to associate the term "freak" with John Merrick...

David Lynch, 1980
At first glance one would think the only thing The Elephant Man has in common with Lynch's other work is the black & white cinematography and its use of make-up & prosthetics. But the more you watch the more you may come to realize that from the film's surreal opening sequence (which also has some seriously disturbing sexual undertones), to all the surreal "interlude" shots of factories, pipes & industrial noises (all key elements in the world of David Lynch), The Elephant Man is just as much a David Lynch film as Blue Velvet or Lost Highway. Actually, the dream sequences from The Elephant Man went on to influence parts of Blue Velvet (specifically Jeffery Beaumont's first dream after witnessing Frank Booth for the first time).

overlapping imagery & experimentation in The Elephant Man...
In The Elephant Man we follow the final days of John Merrick (John Hurt) through the eyes of Dr. Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) form an abused circus sideshow freak to a medical anomaly. After seeing Merrick ("The Elephant Man") at a circus, Treves takes it upon himself to try and help Merrick by looking after and studying him. The film's most interesting angle is Dr. Treves' early treatment of John Merrick. Although his intentions are good, he's no different than Merrick's previous owner who paraded him around as a sideshow attraction. Only Instead of the circus, Treves parades him around and shows him off to the medical/scientific community almost as a found object instead of a person. After a reality check from one of his nurses, Treves’ treatment of Merrick changes.
The Elephant Man isn’t exactly a horror movie but it certainly has its share of startling and/or shocking moments. For the first quarter of the film Lynch intentionally keeps Hurt/Merrick under wraps or in the shadows. We only get quick glimpses of his deformities or see the terrified facial expressions of those who look at him for the first time...

The Elephant Man went on to compete against Raging Bull at the academy awards which is probably the only time two filmmakers like David Lynch & Martin Scorsese would draw so many parallels between one another. Obviously The Elephant Man & Raging Bull don't have the same spiritual connection as stuff like Blue Velvet & Something Wild or Lost Highway & Crash (1996) but both films are artistic, black & white biopics (both featuring crucial scenes shot similarly in slow motion) that represent high points in both filmmakers' careers released in the same year.
Lynch's history as an academy award nominated director is quite similar to Scorsese's. Prior to The Departed & Hugo, much fuss was made about the number of times Scorsese had been nominated yet never won but Lynch was only one winless nomination behind Scorsese for quite some time.

Raging Bull

I know this may seem like an odd choice for my first official Lynch review but this is one of those films that grew on me the older I got (it's also technically the first David Lynch movie I saw). The Elephant Man is proof that David Lynch can straight up direct a film without relying on his surreal quirkiness. And that’s not too say I don’t love Lynch's quirky style. Eraserhead & Blue Velvet are two of my all time favorite films, I think Mulholland Drive is one of the five best films of the last decade, and his last film inspired the name of this very site. But the surreal randomness in his work can sometimes work against him and distract viewers who may not necessarily like that kind stuff. No matter how great a film Mulholland Drive is, people get way too caught up in how weird and strangely humorous it can be at times to realize that not only is it a tragic story on multiple levels (broken dreams & a failed relationship) but its inspired by real events. Same goes for Twin Peaks - sure it’s odd and has humor (although the movie prequel is damn near completely the opposite of that) but it’s also a story about incest & sexual abuse. 
The Elephant Man isn’t a fluke/one-time occurrence either. The Straight Story, a film that even some Lynch fans forget exists, is another example of his ability to tell a straightforward story without imposing his style all over the film when it isn’t needed. The Straight Story wasn’t even stylized like The Elephant Man. With the exception of Harry Dean Stanton's presence and a re-occurring shot we commonly see in all of Lynch's work (a first person perspective shot of a road at night) you'd have no idea it was directed by Lynch. 
As a David Lynch fan who sees beyond all the dark quirkiness hes known for, I find myself openly praising his work less & less due to the large majority of so-called David Lynch fans who cant hold a conversation about his work beyond how "TOTALLY WEIRD" it is. I just don't wanna be grouped in with people like that. I'm not so pigheaded that I don't see his main appeal is how odd his films are, but he brings a little more to the table than dancing midgets and log ladies. I am more a fan of the Lost Highway/Mulholland Drive David Lynch but the over-analysis of those films by bloggers & critics has gotten to the point where I role my eyes at most new reviews & write-ups of those films.
The Elephant Man wouldn't be my #1 suggestion as an introduction to the world of David Lynch but it should be seen at some point on life.

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