January 12, 2017

a bigger splash

Everybody’s favorite Passion of the Weiss film column has returned for another year. While the 2016 edition of The Drive-In Theater was inconsistent and focused entirely on new(ish) films, the column will take on a different style in 2017. Instead of focusing on new movies, I’ll be writing a few words of all the films I see over the course of a week. This will hopefully give the column a more personal feel, and give you an idea of what I’m into at any given moment—how old movies remind me of new ones, and vice versa. To begin, this week’s Drive-In will tackle films I’ve watched from Sunday, January 1st through Saturday, January 7th. The frame will never shift, covering consecutive seven day periods, but the publishing date may. —Will Schube

I. Certain Women (2016) – Directed by Kelly Reichardt 

Kelly Reichardt’s latest film is a loosely related triptych of moments in time, documenting three distinct women. The film is literally about certain women. While it would have been a bit more interesting to leave these three lives unrelated to each other in the film’s narrative, a movie with such a bold identity wouldn’t get made in 2016. Still, it would have been fascinating to see Certain Women as three distinct stories, only related by their chronology in one film. Instead, Reichardt relies on the tiniest of threads to knit these stories together, relying on the strength of these individuals stories and the film’s breathtaking 16mm cinematography—as opposed to narrative cohesion and intertwining stories of fate.

The film begins with the story of Laura (Laura Dern) a lawyer in Montana who we first encounter in a nondescript room, getting intimate with a man we encounter again (who will stay nameless for the sake of spoilers). Later, she navigates a hostage situation one of her clients throws her into, handling the situation with ease and assuredness. These are strong characters.

The middle section revolves around Gina, played by Michelle Williams. Her world is a struggle between authenticity and truth, the acknowledgement that any approach towards authenticity is a complicit act against it. Kristen Stewart’s final third is perhaps the least compelling of the three, because it’s most worthy of a full-length film to explore.

Certain Women is a beautiful film from an assured and mature director. Reichardt’s work is sturdy and her storytelling ability relies less on flash than it does on establishing a methodical pace and sticking to it. It’s a film that will never overwhelm, but quietly lurk as you go about your day.

II. The Master (2012) – Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson 

The Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas is showing some films in 70mm prints, and The Master is the first movie in the series. As if that movie needed to have its beauty amplified, the 70mm print only re-affirms what we already know: The Master is a perfectly captured film. As soon as I saw this release was playing, my mind jumped to the swirling blues of the ocean, the deadened greens of the Northern California cabbage farms Freddie Quell so desperately sprints away from. The way Anderson arranges his frames is enhanced to an overwhelming degree in this film. Every composition is a unique work of art, and PTA treats his work as such.

The film is as explosive and radiant as when it was first released, if not a bit sterile in hindsight after the freewheeling brilliance of Inherent Vice. It’s the latter half of PTA’s blatant Oscar grab, following up Capital-E Epic There Will Be Blood with another American drama trying to tease the Academy. This more precise, nuanced version of PTA is less fascinating than the emotional, frogs-from-the-sky auteur behind Magnolia and IV, but even ‘Oscar hopeful’ Paul Thomas Anderson is better than anybody else.

III. We Jam Econo: The Story of the Minutemen (2005) – Directed by Tim Erwin 

We Jam Econo takes an in-depth look at San Pedro punk pioneers The Minutemen, culling old live footages and an early documentary from the band, along with talking head testimonials from Flea, Henry Rollins, and founding member Mike Watt. The film’s entirety is swallowed by the death of larger-than-life frontman D. Boon, and Watt—along with drummer George Hurley—uses this platform as a way to cement their legacy as one of the great punk bands of all-time.

The Minutemen maybe best known for creating the theme for Jackass (the MTV show took the band’s “Corona” from their seminal LP, Double Nickels on the Dime), but their name was legendary in early punk circles thanks to the band’s pummeling live show and breakneck-paced albums. The documentary doesn’t touch on any groundbreaking terrain, but it’s worth watching if you’re a Minutement fan, just for the early footage peppered throughout of the band awkwardly creating an origin story film. The shots are grainy and too bright, with D. Boon squinting and Watt looking down instead of at the camera. It’s not the Minutemen at their most polished, but who wants that?

IV. All That Jazz (1979) – Directed by Bob Fosse 

This Bob Fosse helmed Roy Scheider vehicle is a thinly-veiled autobiography, an egomaniacal look at what makes artists tic, and the push to keep going and going and going. The film takes its memoir mixed with fantasy roots from from 8 & ½, and is a musical that is more punishing than comforting.

The buzz around La La Land is unceasing and cloying, especially when faced with a film like this. All That Jazz uses its musical structure to shape its film, whereas La La uses songs because director Damien Chazelle decided to make a musical (more on this film next week). The musical numbers don’t come with huge flashing lights, declaring “THIS IS A MUSICAL.” Rather, the story calls for these moments and it’s stronger because of it. Roy Scheider is very quietly an all-time actor, and All That Jazz may be his best, most desperate performance. The entire film conveys an unceasing desperation as artists push their problems onto their work and both the person and the product suffer for it. This one definitely has me itching to revisit the Fellini classic, an aesthetic forebearer of All That Jazz.

V. Elle (2016) – Directed by Paul Verhoeven 

The director of Robocop (and Total Recall and Basic Instinct) teams with tour de force Isabelle Huppert for a whodunnit rape thriller. It sounds like a horribly inappropriate SNL gag, yet the results are intoxicating. The plot twists and turns, leading the viewer down several different roads in the film’s first 45 minutes. Verhoeven’s greatest trick is replaying the music that cues the initial attack over and over again, keeping both the audience and Huppert approaching every corner with the utmost uncertainty and fear.

Huppert’s character Michele, is alarmingly nonchalant about her attack. At a dinner with her ex-husband, her best friend, and her best friend’s husband, Michele spells it clearly: “I was raped.” There’s nothing to do about it now, she continues. The film suggests that the ways in which people deal with trauma vary from person to person, and shouldn’t be judged on a fixed scale (or at all). I’m understanding of all criticisms levied at this film, especially coming from a male director, but Elle is a thriller of the highest order, a subtle, manipulative, terrifying look into one woman’s psyche.

VI. Cameraperson (2016) – Directed by Kirsten Johnson 

The first twenty or so minutes of Cameraperson—documentary cinematographer Kirsten Johnson’s directorial debut—are unnervingly disorienting. Even films with jumbled chronologies adhere to some semblance of narrative coherence. But with Cameraperson, Johnson uses the form itself to indict the documentary process and shape the ways in which we experience the fragmented clips she presents.

Essentially, Cameraperson consists of clips from many of the documentaries Johnson has worked on, and her director’s cut takes footage left from these various films and pastes them into a remarkably cohesive whole. The wonderful thing about Cameraperson (based on the reviews I’ve read and my own experience watching it) is that each person experiences the connection between these various clips at different times. There’s a particular moment in which the interacting of cuts and the juxtaposition of scenes locks into coherence and makes complete sense.

There are scenes from rural Bosnia, African hospitals, Texas courtrooms, and Johnson’s childhood home. We get interviews with various people who are literal definitions of the human spirit triumphing over adversity: a boy with partial blindness from a rocket; a baby fighting for its life; Johnson’s own mother facing her mortality. The way Johnson juxtaposes these clips to highlight and underscore the daily mundanities and vicious extremes of desperate lives is triumphant and heartbreaking. It’s a difficult film to watch, but essential to the discourse of documentary (and fiction, for that matter) film.

VII. A Bigger Splash (2015) – Directed by Luca Guadagnino 

A Bigger Splash is never what it seems. The film’s surface seems like an extended chamber piece set on a Sicilian island and a romantic entanglement between Tilda Swinton, her lover, her former lover, and that former lover’s maybe child maybe lover. None of this really matters when Ralph Fiennes (the former lover) shows up. Fiennes plays Harry Hawkes and steals the show again and again. Swinton, who plays rockstar Marianne Lane is currently dating documentary filmmaker/adrift artist Paul (played by Matthias Schoenaerts, who you may recognize from the excellent Rust and Bone). Lane has recently undergone vocal chord surgery and her and Paul are on the island to relax, when they’re rudely interrupted by Hawkes and his daughter/not lover Penelope (Dakota Johnson). Fiennes brings debauchery, Johnson brings flirtation. They’re a helluva duo, making a mockery of the traditional relaxing vacation, instead turning the world of Marianne Lane and Paul upside down.

The film goes from one to ten in a matter of moments, and in between moments of Fiennes bush-flash, we get romance, murder, island parties, and struts to the Rolling Stones. It’s a rollicking movie and makes you wish your life was a vacation, until you remember someone dies.