Queen of Earth – Alex Ross Perry (2015)

Last year was director Alex Ross Perry’s breakout. His third film, Listen Up Philip, a dramedy centering around two narcissistic authors, one young and rising, the other an aging literary lion, brought the director something close to mainstream recognition (while a cover story in Film Comment might not be a barometer of mainstream, certainly Disney tapping him to direct the upcoming live-action adaptation of Winnie the Pooh is). Listen Up Philip is a very good film, exploring the personality traits required (or are they?) to be a great writer, and investigating with some finesse how maleness and the egoism necessary to turn life into “art” are mutually reinforcing in our culture. While that film, as far as most of the press it received was concerned, hinged on two Philip Roth-like characters and their back and forth, the middle chunk was given over to Philip’s girlfriend Ashley (Elizabeth Moss) and provided the alternative reality against which Philip and his mentor’s self-aggrandizement could be measured. In that section, Perry showed himself to be a keen observer of women, and perhaps more sympathetic to Ashley’s worldview than to those of his protagonists, all too easily read as stand-ins for himself. Now, only a year later, Perry has returned with Queen of Earth, again featuring Elizabeth Moss. A portrait of two female friends, meticulously investigating the ebb and flow of their relationship, and the difficulties inherent in being close enough to someone that you feel responsible for their well-being, despite being two separate, unrelated “adults,” Queen of Earth has received little of the attention that Listen Up Philip did. I will not play Kreskin much in this regard, but it does not take a soothsayer to imagine that the gender of the protagonists has something to do with it. Yes, it could simply be the fact that the film followed too closely on the heels of last year’s publicity, but looking at the critical response, and to a degree the marketing of the film, we can discern that nobody is quite sure what to make of it. The poster advertises it as an “acidly funny comedy,” which it assuredly is not (and which Listen Up Philip definitely was). Rogerebert.com calls it “as unsettling as any horror film,” and other sources pigeonhole it as a psychological thriller; while I understand this sentiment to a degree, as the main character is in crisis throughout much of the film, and we as viewers become worried that the shoe will drop, the implicit violence mustering behind Moss’s visage becoming explicit, there are ultimately no “thrills” to be had, and no horrors to behold. Anthony Lane, writing in The New Yorker, comes closest to the truth when he compares the film to Bergman – one cannot help but think (and Perry is indeed prompting us to) of Persona, with two female protagonists going tête-a-tête in a dialectical discovery of identity while on a “vacation” that doubles as a period of convalescence. Persona, however, is more psychoanalytic, with the women losing a sense of who they were, and discovering new identities through their isolation – it views their feminine aspects as two sides of the same coin. Queen of Earth is more down to earth (surprise, surprise), more “realistic,” interested ultimately in the problems of friendship and the limits of knowing, and helping, another person. The protagonists are women, perhaps, not so much because the film is interested in the nature of women, but because women tend to care about, and interrogate more deeply, the nature of friendship, and the responsibilities and rewards contained within that relationship.

Elizabeth Moss plays Catherine, an artist who has long lived in the shadow of her much more famous artist father, whose affairs she manages. Katherine Waterston plays Virginia, a longtime friend who is seemingly content to do little with her life (in a conventional sense); she seems to rely on her parents, and their wealth, for her existence, although the details of the arrangement are never made crystal clear. As the film begins, Catherine is breaking up with her longstanding boyfriend James (Kentucker Audley), and breaking down emotionally. Virginia offers Catherine safe haven at her house upstate (actually her parents’ summer home), with the implicit promise of time alone to recuperate and work on her art in solitude. We sense tension between the friends from the moment of Catherine’s arrival, and soon it has made its way to the surface, with the pair snipping at each other as much or more than they sympathize. At first we don’t understand this dynamic, and assume that Virginia is being a bit remote and cold; after all, she invited Catherine up, knowing she was in crisis. Further, Virginia inserts a man into the situation, neighbor Rich (Patrick Fugit), a nice-enough seeming fellow who ultimately reveals himself to be an unsettling presence, a smarmy enigma who, as Catherine later critiques, stands emotionally apart from people and pokes at them with verbal sticks. As the film progresses, however, the past begins to emerge into the present, and via flashbacks (which tend to arrive unannounced) we soon learn that a year ago the situation was reversed – it was Virginia who was in crisis, and it was Catherine who arrived, supposedly to give succor to her friend, with her then-new boyfriend James in tow. The movie then moves back and forth between these two periods (although giving more weight, and play, to the present). Catherine in the present moves further and further down the spiral, into a place that on the surface looks like “madness,” but which, in terms of her thinking revealed via monologue, seems quite in touch with the raw existential truths of reality; a year earlier, we see her smiling, preening a bit, contented and self-satisfied, happy, but only by way of forcing a comparison against Virginia, who we sense she has always resented for the ease with which she approaches life. So while we are happy to see that Catherine was not always so miserable, we also sense that her miserable state is more honest; and while Virginia at first seemed unsympathetic, we begin to see that her role in the friendship has been the harder one, perhaps, with her stoicism being mistaken for aloofness, her own crises, and problems, always given short shrift. The men in the story complicate the relationships, but they are also strictly secondary in importance – they exist to be used by the women against each other, and to flesh out aspects of the relationship that would remain unseen otherwise. The film moves to a kind of climax, with Catherine making a scene at a party Virginia hosts, and then telling off Rich even as she tries to understand him. Eventually she leaves, after having sunk further and further into isolation – she becomes not mad exactly, but beyond caring about trying to hide her inner turmoil, and her departure signals not recovery, but her desire to spare Virginia further stress (driven perhaps by guilt at recognizing her own failings as a support a year earlier). In the end, the friendship persists – we understand this through a closing gesture – but each character must bear the heaviness of their faults, and of life’s unfolding, alone.

What is remarkable about the film is how astute it is in tracing the complexities of a relationship that is chosen and not forced upon either party; it truly investigates what it means to be friends with someone, and all the pain that such a relationship brings. In Virginia and Catherine’s flip-flopping positions, with one in crisis in the past, the other in the present, we begin to see how each brings something to the relationship that attracts the other: Catherine her emotional openness, and her ability to verbally unpack the realities surrounding her (regardless of if they are “true”); Virginia her acceptance and unrelenting graciousness, a kind of maternalism, even when it is barbed and grudging. Catherine likes the ease with which Virginia takes life as it comes, not understanding that it really is not so easy for her, while Virginia admires Catherine’s talent and drive, even if it is halting or expressed in a passive aggressive way. While all of this is well and good, and displays a very admirable, and assured, grip on interpersonal psychology by Perry, what carries the film upward is the way all of this is blended into a portrayal of life as an unfolding that we have little control over; the friendship is a barometer that measures the revelation of a mystery. In the movement of Catherine from a place of happiness and assuredness to one of despair and doubt, we feel how life reveals itself as a continual series of revelations that are, for individuals and those who care about them, self-revelations as well. This is part of the motivating force behind Catherine’s monologues – she is trying to understand the nature of existence by parsing herself, and those around her, in real-time. Thus we also come to understand that Virginia is not pleased in any way by Catherine’s downfall, for it reveals to her the contingency of things, and also prompts her to consider that perhaps the seeds of the downfall were always present, and that this friend she thought she knew well is different, and always has been; further, such knowledge leaves Virginia fully alone, as she realizes she is the “strong one,” and thus will always be isolated. Indeed, the whole film is a reflection on the open question of how far we can go toward knowing others, and given that we are all, in a way, isolated inside our experience of time passing, it asks what responsibilities are inherent to friendship, and questions what we hope to get out of knowing others. Why do we do it? Why do we seek to become close to people we are not obliged to know, when it entails so much unhappiness, pain, and failure? The movie only raises these questions, it does not attempt to answer them, except insofar as to suggest, by way of Catherine’s art, that seeking truth, about our own natures as well as that of the universe, is the ultimate reason. I am happy to say that I have barely scratched the surface of the insights and pleasures that Queen of Earth provides. As usual, the cinematography is outstanding, and signifies “period” in ways that Listen Up Philip‘s also did, but much more subtly, making us feel less like we are in the realm of pastiche. This is by far Alex Ross Perry’s finest film, and one of the finest recent films about women, the nature of friendship, and what growing older feels like from the inside. The cliche says growing older is growing wiser, and there’s truth there – but such wisdom takes the form of a greater knowledge of our own failings, and humility in facing our inability to break away from our pretensions. Catherine’s laughter, which ends the film, is not the bleak laughter of the void; rather, it is laughter of the reflections in a funhouse mirror, a recognition that the way we prefer to see ourselves is distorted and (except perhaps in periods of distress) almost always backwards.

Four out of five stars

Killing Them Softly – Andrew Dominik (2012)

I happened across this one on Netflix, and decided to take a chance – mostly because I’m a Jim Thompson obsessive, and have not yet had the time to dip into the work of George V. Higgins, who is often mentioned in the same breath. Perhaps this would be a shortcut to figuring out if his stuff was worth reading. Well, the film started out very promisingly, with a great title sequence and strong audio/visual interplay. The two main characters (for the first half hour or so) are also appealing – scruffy, real, very scummy, but somehow charismatic. The plot is nothing special, the usual crime film boilerplate. Our two seeming protagonists, Frankie and Russell, are contracted by Johnny Amato (who might as well be Johnny Sack in the witness protection program) to knock over an illegitimate poker game run by Markie (Ray Liotta). Markie has already robbed his own game once, and barely got away with it, so Johnny figures if it happens again, suspicion will fall on Markie. That’s pretty much it. The robbery goes down, and then some unknown conglomerate of semi-legit higher-ups, fronted by Richard Jenkins, brings in hit men to take out our low-life friends. Well, it would be hit-men, but one of them, Dylan, played in a super-fleeting appearance by Sam Shepard, is too sick to handle the work, so it falls to Brad Pitt. He’s the real protagonist of the film, if we can say there is one, as after the initial robbery, our friendly scumbags fall by the wayside and the movie becomes a roundelay of criminals speaking bland dialogue, punctuated by over the top digital bloodshed.

There’s a lot wrong with this film. It’s like a retirement home for fake gangsters. There’s Ray Liotta, James Gandolfini, the aforementioned Johnny Sack (Vincent Curatola), and I swear I saw a fat, nonspeaking Anthony LaPaglia in the robbery sequence (IMDB did not bear this out, however). It’s also a home for gangster movie cliches that should have been retired long ago. There’s the requisite slow motion violence. There’s the linking of action and violence to pop music. There’s the worn out theme of the gangster as the more honest reflection of American values, especially in comparison to legitimate businessmen. It feels like sub-par Goodfellas, especially in the slow motion sequences of violence, executed herein with the help of much digital augmentation, which sadly works to drop the impact to near zero. (Poor Ray Liotta’s death has him put through the grinder to the point that a crash test dummy would blush – or laugh, as I did). The musical pairings are all over the place temporally, from the 1920s to the 1970s, and the choices are so obvious they cause one to wince. Furthermore, the director decided to highlight the overarching theme of “gangsterism reflecting the realities of life in America” by setting the film during the 2008 election, and using long sections of political rhetoric as ambiance for the soundtrack. Yes, every hood in this universe listens to NPR and frequents bars with Hank Paulson on CNN. The last sequence even has Mr. Pitt spouting direct commentary on an Obama speech. Puhleeze. We got the point by the end of the title sequence, in which it was done best (formally speaking). The acting in the smaller roles is good, and Brad Pitt is pretty good too, but the rest of the cast is tired. Richard Jenkins, representing a weak sauce crime conglomerate, is annoying (although I suppose his character is supposed to be), as is James Gandolfini, who is retreading Tony Soprano and made me wish, as I did with Tony, that somebody would just shoot him already. Yes, it’s a rogues gallery of the weaselly, the whiny, and the lame. Perhaps worth viewing for the gritty setting, and for a little dark humor, but after the first half hour it gets dull fast.

One and a half stars out of five

A Life in Dirty Movies – Wiktor Ericsson (2013)

We live in the age of the throw-away documentary. Perhaps this seems unnecessarily disparaging, and I only mean it partly so, as I love documentaries and am happy that there are many more being made lately; all the same, as anyone with a Netflix account knows, we are awash in films that focus on some semi-niche of reality for 80-100 minutes. My guess is that there are so many being made simply because the barrier to entry is lowest in this corner of cinema city, as unlike much narrative film making, a documentary can often follow a tried (or tired) and true structure as long as it plugs into some topic that has not been addressed in exactly that same way before. Talking heads are cheaper than actors, and “reality” needs much less glamour to mount successfully than fictionalized reality, which often requires a bit of seduction. I have seen a lot of these docs (thanks again to Netflix), and while some are very good, like the recent Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films, many, even when they aren’t bad (like the much overrated Marwencol), tend to feel exploitative and samey. Find some person to latch onto, usually an against-the-system outsider, or an outsider in general, rough out the narrative in a way that at least makes a play toward suspense or a reversal of some kind in the fourth reel, throw in a few talking heads for “context,” and poof, you’ve made a movie.

A Life in Dirty Movies is, in many ways, a cookie from such a cutter. It reflects on the life of Joe Sarno and his wife, Peggy, who made sexploitation films back in the heyday (and really, the only day) of the genre, the 60s and 70s. Now, I am familiar with Mr. Sarno and his films, but I must confess I have not seen any of them, simply because sexploitation bores me silly (aside from the films of Russ Meyer and Doris Wishman). Sarno, called the “Ingmar Bergman of 42nd Street,” made many acknowledged classics of the genre – the reference to Bergman is due to his interest in the interiority of his characters, their relationships, and his emphasis on women and their pleasure. All to the good, and the doc did succeed in making me want to sample his filmography, especially his work made in the late 70s, after sexploitation was no longer a viable genre. Anyone looking for a thorough overview of Mr. Sarno’s biography, his career, or the contextualization of his work within film history as a whole might be disappointed by this film, however. There is some of that, of course, but it is very glancing; the film is really a contemporary portrait of Sarno and his wife, in their final years together. The film takes up Sarno in his late eighties, when he is trying to put together one final project. The star of the film, though, is Peggy, eighteen years his junior and, to a large degree, his mouthpiece and memory. While the film might fail as an educational vehicle, I found the divergences from the norm refreshing, and ultimately enlightening. As a portrait of an artist, it is a rich one, in that it concentrates on what few films about working artists do: how they end up, what they feel their legacy is, and how they manage to live day-to-day, having been on the margins of the mainstream, and success, all their lives. We see the Sarnos at their “summer home,” a quite anonymous apartment in an equally anonymous Swedish apartment block; Peggy talks at length about the personal sacrifices they both made, but she in particular, to take him on as a partner and live the life they did (needless to say, Mom and Dad were not too thrilled about having the young actress marry a sex film director two decades her senior). There is little “dirt” here, as Peggy has few regrets, and believes in the integrity of her husband’s work (although she does not hold back on criticism either). What makes the film compelling is indeed the day-to-day, ambient nature of its unfolding. We get a true sense of how life for an artist gets defined, and defines itself, by way of trying to make a living. One would hardly call a business person or professional before himself to explain, for instance, why he switched out of insurance and became a car salesman, or why he never got to V.P. instead of settling for regional manager. An artist, on the other hand, is always caught partly between reality and ideality, between the contingencies of living and the desire for something other. Sarno, in this regard, has to “answer” (partly to the audience, or society, but in the narrative of the film, to the parents) for why sexploitation is art, and why he made sexploitation at all. In the beginning, of course, it was because he was offered the work, and had experience using a camera. He enjoyed making films, and these were the films he could easily make. Once hardcore pornography became the norm, he was forced to choose; he wasn’t interested in making hardcore, but he also didn’t want to stop making films, and sexploitation had become instantly passe. So, he made some pornography (not very successfully) and also managed to finance, mostly through his father-in-law, further sexploitation features (also not very successful). All artists deal with negotiating the reality of their ideals – indeed, that place between desire/concept/vision and the reality of material execution, often defined by external forces, is the space of art – but this film provides a more poignant than average portrait of what these struggles really look and feel like. Life is a series of exclusions, forced choices, and unexpected detours for all but the “lucky” few; artists simply live this reality in a more self-conscious, heightened, and often frustrated way. The film does a great job of giving us the feel of such a history, but it also builds to a satisfying climax – with Sarno’s death comes, perhaps not paradoxically, the ultimate redemption of his legacy.

Three stars out of five

Norte, the End of History – Lav Diaz (2014)

Lav Diaz is considered a practitioner of “slow cinema” – along with directors such as Lisandro Alonso, Bela Tarr, and Theo Angelopoulos. Somehow the “movement” has been defined as being minimalist, lacking much in the way of traditional dramatic structure or narrative, and, in some quarters, is considered antagonistic to the audience. Personally, I think the category is faddy and a bit pretentious, riding on the “I’m more authentic/sensitive/astute than you are” pieties of the slow food movement (among others). Then again, dear observant reader, you might have noticed that I’m a bit of an atavistic grouch, so take such food for thought with a grain of sun-dried sea salt. The observational mode, wherein the viewer does different work (I will not say more, because I think classical Hollywood film making requires an equal investment in viewer attention) – building a narrative in concert with a portrait of time experienced more phenomenologically – has been around as long as cinema has. What is now lumped into this category in the past were simply called “art films,” and included at least much of the work of the European new-waves and, to some extent, Neorealism. These films tend to be more concerned with the experience of time passing, and with lived reality, rather than dramatic structure.

Norte does not feel terribly slow, nor terribly different from other art films that tackle the lives of fairly ordinary people. The story (yes, there is one) has superficial similarities to Crime and Punishment: an intellectual adrift in his existential crisis kills a pawn lady and her daughter as a challenge to himself and a rebuke to his social position, and the good husband of a struggling family suffers for it in his stead. The first hour or so of the film follows the intellectual, a law school dropout, within his milieu, and then switches for the bulk of the film’s remainder to the family, fragmented by the crime. We see the husband in jail, slowly becoming beatified and transformed (he was already good, but becomes more so), while his wife, their children, and her sister struggle to get by and deal with the separation. The film does not lack drama; alterity reemerges in the final half-hour or so and offsets the “slowness,” or rather the habitual daily rhythms, established earlier, in ways that reconfigure our sense of the protagonists and their futures. (The last shot can be read as either slightly hopeful or despairing in a fashion that would make a Neorealist proud). Diaz does a great job of capturing the sense of time passing in a palpable way, the characters shifting as existence weathers and, to some extent, redeems them. Highest marks go to the audio; like much slow cinema, Diaz eschews music and favors seemingly ambient sound. It is mixed and layered so well that in some sequences it builds invisibly, but with more purpose and complexity than the visuals, with a high level of detail. He is also a master of shooting at night, capturing the nocturnal exhale of the earth, or the electric hum under the solitary smoker’s contemplation, as well as anyone. The climaxes of the film’s various lines were my only reservation. Diaz is not jerking viewers around, there are good reasons for resolving things as he does, but it also feels a little like he is jumping from one trope to another: art film as observer of lived reality to art film as deus ex machina, meter of the absurdity and impersonality of the universe. There’s no reason not to see it, friends, it’s on Netflix.

Four stars out of five