Below are a few pieces I published recently. Some are quite newsy, some are fun and the others are somewhere in between.
One of the greatest threats to the movie theatre experience is the predominance of Netflix and more people opting to watch movies at home. Ironically, the best recent defense for the cinema-going experience is the Oscar nominated Netflix film Roma, an autobiographical film from director Alfonso Cuarón, that is based on his childhood in Mexico City. The story behind how Netflix became the distributor of Roma and how the filmmakers teamed up with the streamer highlights the state of the media business today.
Netflix doesn’t normally release their original films theatrically but in the past year they’ve changed that strategy with a few exceptions. Netflix appears to be doing this in a bid to be taken seriously on the movie front by racking up Oscars and to attract more top talent, who might be hesitant to work for a company that is mostly associated with TV. Netflix tested this out with a limited theatrical release for The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the latest film from the Coen brothers, but the results were mixed. In the case of Roma, the theatrical release was quite limited, with a number of theaters refusing to screen the film, but the estimated grosses have been quite positive. Netflix hasn’t released the exact figures but estimates have the film grossing $2.2M in the US at the end of December, making it the highest grossing subtitled film of 2018. As a point of comparison, Cuarón’s Spanish-language film Y Tu Mama Tambien made over $33M globally, but that was in 2002 when the only way you could see the film in its initial run was theatrically. Despite Roma’s encouraging theatrical figures, the majority of people who do watch Roma will do so at home or on their devices because the film is available on Netflix.
Netflix now commands such a strong dominance over the global marketplace that other companies are struggling to compete. Participant Media, the company that produced Roma talked to six different distributors and all except Netflix were worried about the commercial potential for a black and white foreign-film without any stars, according to an interview with the head of Participant Media, David Linde in Indiewire. In the same interview Linde spoke about their decision to have Netflix distribute the film, “We had to really think it through and figure out the best way for the film to be seen in theaters, but also to reach the largest audience possible. As we thought a lot about how the film would be presented around the world, Netflix’s presentation was very convincing.” Once a film is released on Netflix it instantly gets exposed to 139 million subscribers. Even though Netflix doesn’t release their viewing numbers, they made an exception to brag that their film Bird Box had been seen by 80 million accounts in the first four weeks of its release. Comedian Stephen Colbert joked that “given how many people share their passwords, that’s like 7 billion people”. The measurement company Nielsen tracks Netflix usage in the US and said that almost 26 million people watched the film over the initial seven days of its release and continued to perform well after that first week. Bird Box (which also had a small theatrical release a week before it was released online) was a viral hit and likely benefited from people being home over the holidays to watch it and not miss out on what everyone was talking about. Since Roma is an “art-house” film it won’t match Bird Box’s numbers but just that level of exposure can be very appealing to filmmakers.
Netflix is enticing other top-name filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, who’s next film The Irishman has a reported budget around $200M and Steven Soderbergh (The Laundromat). Despite Netflix’s market dominance and exposure, there are still some pitfalls to working with them. Roma was rejected by the Cannes film festival because it didn’t have a traditional theatrical release. There was also a controversy when Netflix had first released the film with “European Spanish” subtitles as an option even though it is mostly in Mexican Spanish and should be understandable to any fluent Spanish speaker, regardless of where they’re from. Cuarón and others were offended and Netflix had to reverse course and drop the “European Spanish” subtitle option. Similarly Netflix has gotten into hot water over its decision to censor an episode of Patriot Act With Hasan Minhaj in Saudi Arabia, due to pressure from their government. In an op-ed in the New York Times the writer Ursula Lindsey wrote “one has to choose artistic freedom over complying with a repressive and arbitrary law. Netflix would have done better to let Saudi Arabia censor Mr. Minhaj’s work than to censor it itself on the kingdom’s behalf.”
Outside of the film space, some artists who have worked with Netflix in the past are starting to look at other options. The comedian Jim Gaffigan whose last two specials were released by Netflix, found an alternative distribution strategy for his latest special, Noble Ape. In an interview with Forbes he said that Netflix releases so many comedy specials that it’s a “foregone conclusion” that any major comedian’s latest special would be exclusive to that platform. He opted to go for a different release strategy that would allow the special to be released on multiple platforms at the same time and potentially exposing it to more people, and not just Netflix subscribers. Gaffigan can make that decision because he is a sought after comedian, but increasingly for artists like Cuarón who want to expose their work to as many people as possible, Netflix is still the best game in town.
The writer Susan Orlean has a distinct knack for taking topics that don’t sound that interesting on their own but she manages to make them gripping and engaging and her latest The Library Book is no exception. Orlean originally set out to write a book about “a year in the life of a library” until she discovered the story of the fire in the Central Library in Los Angeles. The fire took place in April 1986 and Orlean, who lived in NY at the time – didn’t even know about it happening then, even though she admits that as a bibliophile she should’ve remembered a story like that. Orlean discovers the story of the fire while talking to one of the librarians from LA’s Central Library. As he opens a book he inhales deeply and says that he could still smell the smoke. Only then does she learn of the fire and the bizarre story of the man suspected of arson, named Harry Peak. Peak is a uniquely LA character, a wannabe actor who is so untrustworthy that he brags about committing the fire to his friends, then changes his story and alibi multiple times to the police, often incriminating himself in the process. Peak is an elusive and not particularly sympathetic character but Orlean is drawn to him.
Orlean uses the story of the fire and Peak as a jumping off point to tell a bigger story and one that is quite personal to her. She recounts the visits to the library in her childhood home of Shaker Heights and how her mother would often say that if she could’ve chosen her profession she would’ve become a librarian “and the car would grow silent for a moment as we both considered what an amazing thing that would have been”. The story of Orlean’s mother frames the narrative and she talks about how libraries are places that preserve memories and stories, but at the time she was writing the book her mother was suffering from dementia and was losing track of her own memories. Orlean writes “The reason why I finally embraced this book project, wanted and then needed to write it was my realisation that I was losing her. I found myself wondering whether a shared memory can exist if one of the people sharing it no longer remembers it”. Orlean reflects on the dread of not only losing her mother but the inherent chaos and meaningless of existence. She finds comfort in remembering the importance and power of art and the places that preserve it, like libraries:
“If something you learn or observe or imagine can be set down and saved and if you can see your life reflected in previous lives and can imagine it reflected in subsequent ones you can begin to discover order and harmony. You know you are part of a larger story that has shape and purpose.”
She talks about her personal struggles with writing but that the sheer act of doing it is fighting against her fears saying “Writing a book, just like building a library, is a sheer act of defiance. It is a declaration that you believe in the persistence of memory.”
Orlean weaves in interesting stories relating to the fire, the history of the library, the people that ran it and were shaped by it. She writes a beautiful story about how the author Ray Bradbury couldn’t write at home because he would end up playing with his children so he went to the LA Central Library to write what would become Fahrenheit 451. Orlean wonders what it must feel like to burn an actual book so she nervously sets fire to a copy of Fahrenheit 451 (the title of which is the temperature at which paper burns) and recounts how destructive the act feels and how books can have a human-like quality to them. She describes how libraries serve as means to connect people in their community – how they are a collection of solitary people connecting with each other silently and how libraries have managed to adapt themselves to modern times serving as community centers. She writes how the LA library still has a very popular service called InfoNow where people can call and ask a librarian the answer to any question they want. Even in the age of Google this service seems to be thriving and Orlean calls it “an analog experience in a digital world”.
As a kid in the suburbs of New York I grew up in the library. My mother would take us to our local library as children while she would go to church or grocery shopping and would let us roam around by ourselves and she would find us when she was done. As I got older I would often go directly to the film section (791.4 in the Dewey Decimal System) and would slowly make my way through most of the books. I would then wander through the fiction section and read the names of the authors on the spines and wonder if I would ever get to read them all. As a teenager I would take out a few movies a week and slowly gave myself an education in cinema history: discovering one filmmaker and then another and watching every movie of theirs I could get my hands on, with the friendly librarians recommending me other titles that weren’t on my radar.
As a kid in my local library I would stare at the shelves over my head and think about all the people that took out each book. Orlean ends by again talking about the defiant act of writing a book, regardless of how esoteric the topic is. The writer confident “that someone would find his or her book important to read. I was struck by how precious and foolish and brave that belief is and how necessary and how full of hope it is to collect these books and manuscripts and preserve them. It declares that all these stories matter and so does every effort to create something that connects us to one another and to our past and to what is still to come.”
In a rare moment of candor in an otherwise typically long and rambling interview then presidential candidate Donald Trump did with Bob Woodward and Robert Costa for The Washington Post in April 2016 he made the following admission:
Donald Trump: I bring rage out…I always have…I don’t know if that’s an asset or a liability, but whatever it is, I do. I also bring great unity out, ultimately. I’ve had many occasions like this, where people have hated me more than any human being they’ve ever met. And after it’s all over, they end up being my friends.
Woodward has been reminding people of this line recently to sound the alarm that we are “being had” – that Trump is creating fresh provocations for the media to be outraged by almost every day so that we are all just caught up in a rage and can’t separate the truly important transgressions from ones that are a distraction. Woodward goes on to say “he’s doing things to distract us from all the big policy decisions he’s gambling on.” It seems like two years into the Trump presidency people are finally starting to figure out his strategy but it was all laid bare in the interview quoted above from the campaign trail. Trump seems to thrive on bringing rage out in people and furthermore thinks that eventually those very same people will come around and become his friends. The great comedian and media critic Jon Stewart recently echoed what Woodward said in an interview with Christiane Amanpour saying that Trump baits journalists and “appeals to their own narcissism and ego” and is able to distract attention away from his policies and “just focus on the fight”. Stewart thinks we should focus less “on his insults and more on the people being hurt”. On a recent episode of his podcast the journalist Ezra Klein recently addressed Trump’s “ability to jam outrage into the system constantly…so that people don’t have time to digest whatevers just happened or whatever just came out”. He goes on to say that Trump is a “genius at changing the subject by recognising that he can just change the subject to other things people are upset about” and that previous presidents would manage a scandal by changing the topic to something “boring” but “the thing that Donald Trump understands is that the only way to distract from scandal is with scandal and he’s okay with there being negative attention on him, he just wants to control what the negative attention is about.” Klein breaks it down to a scientific level saying “I think that he’s understood that it’s like if something is a -5 charge you can only replace it with something that’s between -4 and -6, you can’t replace it with a +1 and that’s a good insight into how the media works.” Klein recently talked to Whitney Phillips who studied online trolling and talked about how online trolls crave attention, but that journalists can’t help but report on it because it’s so outrageous. She compared trolling strategy to Trump’s war with the media as a “feedback loop predicated on sensationalism.”
This strategy of distraction means that the media rightfully gets whipped into a flurry of outrage over Trump’s latest scandal and therefore bigger policy issues or fundamental problems with his presidency are not making waves in the same way. A case in point is that The New York Times published a blockbuster 13,000 word story of Trump’s history of dodging taxes on Wednesday, October 3rd and went so far as to say that Trump had engaged in “outright fraud”. The story was overshadowed by the Brett Kavanaugh hearings at the moment so the Times even re-published the story in its entirety on Sunday, October 7th. Though the story is damning and hopefully more will come of it, the actual impact has been rather muted. Trump himself dismissed the piece as “very old, boring and often told hit piece”. After the initial publication of the story Trump tweeted that the two women that cornered Jeff Flake in an elevator in the midst of the Kavanaugh hearings were actors paid for by George Soros – possibly as a means to distract from the tax story. ProPublica and WNYC have been doing some fine reporting on Trump as well and published a story implicating Trump and his family in deceptive practices involving their real estate business. The impact of that story was similarly muted. Now that Democrats control the House there is a possibility that these issues will be properly investigated and Robert Mueller’s team could be investigating these items already. Donald Trump is certainly no typical president and he is doing incredible damage to the country and the institution but it would be wise to not fall prey to the Trump-created distractions.
Sebastián Lelio’s Disobedience moves with the force and determination of a slow-moving train gradually picking up speed. The film starts out in a London synagogue with an Orthodox Jewish rabbi named Rav Krushka (Anton Lesser) talking about the beauty of what makes us different from all other beings on the planet is our ability to choose. We can follow the norms of our society or we can choose to be disobedient. We are introduced to his daughter Ronit (Rachel Weisz) who is living a world away in New York when she gets a call that her father has died of pneumonia. The contrast between the two scenes couldn’t be starker. In the first the room is dominated by old, bearded men with almost their entire body covered in cloth and then we’re in an open studio where a woman is photographing a shirtless old man covered in tattoos. Both opening scenes are simple and beautiful. Though the film is about a repressed society, the characters are presented honestly and fairly, despite some of them being quite rigid in their views, and throughout the film Lelio is careful not to pass judgement on his characters.
Ronit travels back to London and the relationships between the characters are slowly revealed to the audience. She reconnects with Dovid (Alessandro Nivola) who was Rav’s disciple and heir. When Ronit and Dovid see each other after so many years, at first they appear to be siblings because of their familial bond, but over time we discover they were best friends as kids, with another girl named Esti (Rachel McAdams). Esti and Dovid are now married and she appears hostile at Ronit’s return but this initial reaction is not exactly as it seems. Lelio unravels the intimate bonds that exist between the characters and their complicated history. To give a more detailed plot summary of the film would be an injustice to the nuanced way that Lelio, his screenwriting collaborator Rebecca Lenkiewicz and editor Nathan Nugent lay out the story and its intricacies.
Lelio’s films showcase women who are defiantly pushing against the arbitrary and fluid societal boundaries that exist in their community. Lelio’s last film, A Fantastic Woman (Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film) was about a trans woman who suffers the abuse and humiliations of her deceased partner’s family after his sudden death. There is a scene where she is literally walking against the powerful wind that almost knocks her over and her body is nearly at a 45 degree angle struggling to stay up. The imagery in Disobedience isn’t as overdone and the elders in their community are more passively-aggressive but the push against that culture’s norms are just as powerful.
The film takes the event of the death of a patriarch to examine the relationships of the three individuals at its core. Though the film is set in a very narrow environment, the themes it explores are universal – that of the burdens of those who stay and those who leave. To that end, the three leads are terrific with Rachel McAdams standing out. Her performance is measured and powerful, continuing the fine work she’s done in other recent films like Spotlight. Weisz manages to show the pain of someone who had the courage to leave her home and the strictures of her society but now lives permanently on the outside from her friends and family. Nivola resists the urge to make his character oppressive despite trying to maintain the patriarchal restrictions of his community. The film slowly builds tension throughout and the ending is one that is surprising, touching and resonant.
The theatre director Katie Mitchell and her frequent collaborator, playwright Alice Birch have been called “radically experimental” and “unapologetically controversial”. Their latest collaboration The Death of Malady, a re-imagining of Marguerite Duras’ novella, which recently had a limited run at the Barbican is a bold production, but unfortunately the risks don’t pay off as well as some of their other works. A narrator (Irène Jacob) sits onstage in a sound booth while a sex worker (Laetitia Dosch) waits for a man who has hired her to spend multiple nights with him in a hotel room and consent to whatever he wants. The man (Nick Fletcher) provokes her to this challenge so that he could find out what it means to love. On stage there is a small crew filming the action which is projected on an overhead screen. The passage of time is presented in a clever way and because your attention is shifted between the action taking place on stage and what is on the screen you don’t notice the subtle ways they shift to the following day or to another location. As the play progresses these shifts are more intentionally clear.
The play is listed as a work of “live cinema” and the results of this are mixed. The cinema staging serves to move the action along from one place to another and to jump back and forth in time. As the events taking place are erotic and sexually manipulative, it also serves as a commentary on pornography (a subject Birch explored in her play We Want You To Watch). The man has hired this woman to watch her and perform whatever sexual acts he desires and the audience is also serving as a voyeur watching these actors perform for them.
In the original novella Marguerite Duras includes a note at the end of ideas on how best to stage it for the theatre and it has inspired many productions including this one. The biggest difference between the novella and the play is that the action shifts from the perspective of the man to the woman. In the novella you know almost nothing of the woman’s background while in the play there are flashbacks of her as a little girl coming home to find her father has committed suicide and how that relates to what she’s currently going through. In the novella the mysterious nature of both characters feels surreal. Though the woman is paid money in the novella, we find out she’s not a prostitute but only accepted his proposal because she knows he’s suffering from “the malady of death”. This serves to give the story a more romantic quality than the play, which is much more violent and aggressive. In the play it’s clear that the woman is a prostitute and she even sets boundaries for what can and can’t be done, when at one point he goes too far and starts choking her. There is a romance in the novella that is purposefully stripped from the theatrical version because Birch and Mitchell force you to consider the reality of a woman being placed in this scenario. The only thing that would compel someone to participate in this is if they were in dire need of the money. In the novella the woman is such an elusive figure that you never know if she (or he for that matter) really exists. In the play the woman is much more grounded and we see glimpses of her life outside of the hotel room. There is a poetry in the novella that when translated to the stage comes off as pretentious, which is not helped by the black and white images that look like a bad French New Wave film.
Mitchell and Birch’s last collaboration Anatomy of a Suicide at the Royal Court Theatre was an audacious work with perfect staging and direction. It was centered around the stories of three generations of women and intersected them with all of the actors on stage with the dialogue and action jumping from one time period to another. The play is about the trauma that is passed down in a family and through its clever staging was able to express how one generation affects the other in a seamless way. Unfortunately the bold risks taken in that play didn’t translate as successfully in their adaptation of The Malady of Death.
There is a particular formula which takes place when a popular actor tries his or her hand at directing or when a popular singer switches gears to act. Critics either judge them harshly and are eager to tear them down, or over-praise them if they show a modicum of competence in their new roles.
The new film A Star Is Born marks the directorial debut of actor Bradley Cooper and also presents a big jump into acting for the singer Lady Gaga but unfortunately their movie falls into the over-praised category. The new version is the fourth, with the original dating back to 1937 so the story is clearly one that seems to connect with audiences enough to revisit it every few decades. Bradley Cooper, who also co-wrote the film, plays Jack, a famous singer who is miserably drinking himself to death. Once he meets Ally (Lady Gaga), a waitress and aspiring singer at a drag show he becomes smitten after seeing her sultry rendition of an Edith Piaf classic, drawn to the purity in her singing and wide-eyed aspirations. Jack has a complicated relationship with his manager and brother Bobby, played by Sam Elliott who gives a standout performance. Cooper proves himself to be a more than competent director and he does some of the best acting of his career in the process. He puts the camera right up close to himself and his fellow actors and this works well in the concert scenes, particularly the one that opens the film. The camera follows Jack as he enters an arena filled with thousands of adoring fans and shows how he can disconnect enough to perform as if he’s alone.
The movie has some fine moments throughout, particularly a sequence that features Dave Chappelle, playing one of Jack’s childhood friends, George “Noodles”. There’s a sweet scene where Jack creates a ring out of the string of a guitar to propose to Ally but it’s surprisingly upstaged by one of George’s daughters who is having a full blown conversation with herself in the background that has nothing to do with the proposal. It’s an honest moment of spontaneity that Cooper wisely leaves in the film adding nice texture.
The biggest problem with the movie which seriously holds back its potential is the casting of Lady Gaga, who is being hailed as a “revelation”. Gaga doesn’t offer up much emotion in her face and this is particularly noticeable with Cooper’s use of close-ups throughout the film. Gaga is obviously a gifted singer and in the musical scenes she lights up in a way that is unfortunately not present throughout the rest of the movie where her performance feels flat. Gaga’s performance calls to mind the film 8 Mile starring Eminem. Both movies have a star performer channeling their personal life in ways that resemble their own stories but while Eminem’s performance was hailed as being raw and powerful at the time it doesn’t hold up today. Whether this will be true for Gaga’s performance here and if the film as a whole will live up to its hype remains to be seen.