Trying to get “Under the Skin”


Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin,” released on Blu-ray yesterday (July 15) might be the best film in a year with many candidates. In it Scarlett Johansson (who’s proven to be adept at portrayng non-human characters such as in “Her” and “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”) plays a tarty looking woman cruising Glasgow in search of horny, heedless men.

Under-the-Skin1 cruising

She lures them into an endless, black, mirrored room where…

black room

At any rate she’s an alien predator and is good at her job. With uncanny music by Mica Levi, cinematography by Daniel Landin that is both otherworldy and brutally mundane, this loose adaptation of the Michel Faber novel insinuates the viewer into the point of view of a ruthless Other, and by the end blurs the distinction between the human and inhuman, achieving a cold kind of transcendence.

In a 13-year movie career, Glazer, an award-winning director of commercials and music videos, has made only two other features – “Sexy Beast” (2000) and “Birth” (2004). His pace is Kubrickian, but you might not want to make that comparison, as I did when I interviewed him for the Boston Globe when he was promoting the movie earlier this year. Here’s the transcription of that interview, minus the bits used in the Globe feature which you can find here:

Q. This film requires at least two screenings. For example, the first time I saw it I didn’t pick up the word “film” in the hallucinogenic opening sequence.

JG: I hope it would stand repeated viewings. I have never seen the film for the first time. So I would assume I’m in an impossible situation to answer that. So I’m probably the worst person in the world to ask that. What I see I know, and worse still, I know what comes next. So I’m anticipating every single cut while I’m watching it, and until I forget  every cut I won’t be able to see what it is.

Q.  Since it was largely, shot often in a cinema-verité style, and includes real people, is it a kind of documentary?

JG: There is a – don’t know what the term is. But it involves the interaction with the real world. And using that to tell the story. People have obviously been shooting films in the real world for decades. There’s nothing new there at all. What’s new here is the use of character. The methodology is very correlated to the story.

Q. Those are real-life people who enter the black room?

JG. Yes. I’d get them to sign the release form on the way down. Some of them are – everybody we cast because I knew we needed certain people for certain sequences. Clearly need to be aware of what they’re doing. So some of those characters are cast before the filming. But they needed to match the reality of the people who weren’t cast. It couldn’t suddenly be an acted film. It couldn’t go from that to being an acted film. I needed that kind of texture and tone, the sense of her being the only fabrication of the film. But it’s interesting that you asked the question because that’s a good indicator that it worked. That you’re not sure who’s who. Who was cast and wasn’t cast.

It’s funny talking about this stuff now because this never used to be the case that there was such an appetite to know about how a film was made before it even came out like now. I’m sure this is the digital monster we feed. But I think it’s important not to demystify things that we might spoil the way people view the film. Spoilers, yeah. And I don’t know if that spoils the way people see the film. Or whether people would have that in their head – is he real or isn’t he?

Q Is the deformed man a real person or an actor? [Towards the end of the film Johansson’s character picks up a disfigured man].


JG: He’s not an actor but he was cast before we filmed.

Q: Is he really deformed?

Yeah. He wants more of it. He’s into being into other films and other projects. He’s really very brave. He’s a unique character, Adam [Pearson]. He’s a very funny man. And very…amazing confidence. He’s not anything like the character in the film. I think he has the same condition as the Elephant Man, neurofibromatosis. Where the nerve endings keep growing.

Q.Would you say that this scene is a turning point in the audience’s empathy with Johansson’s character?

JG. It is where you begin to care for her. But empathy comes from a truthful performance. If you’re filming a saint or sinner empathy will follow the truth of their behavior. And … Which it does. We put that on her. Our understanding of things, our intention was to think of her like, a force. And when you make a scene like [one involving parents and a baby at the beach in which the alien demonstrates shockingly cold-blooded behavior ] you know what you’re doing… when you’re sitting in a room with your feet up on the table looking into the distance for month after month … when you’re writing. What you’re thinking about at that stage of the story how do you show her, that she has nothing that we have, that she feels nothing that we feel but also shows simultaneously what we are. In a scene like that I think her looking at us… we see a tragedy. But she’s not looking at what we’re looking at. It’s like she’s looking at that cactus or that napkin. We think about at what point we will lose all empathy for that character –if we kill a dog, or abandon a child…

Q. But somehow the film switches gears.

JG: It begins when she has stopped at an intersection and looks around wondering where that sound [of a baby crying] is coming from. And we saw that sound happening over there ten miles away [in the beach scene]. She’s remembering that. Then she sees the child sitting alongside her in the car and … probably because he dropped his bottle or something… and she looks at the child. That’s the first time we see her look away from her hunt, her focus. She has that residue of memory. Maybe there is curiosity. It’s the first note. Whether people will read it like that, that’s what it will feel like. That is the intention of that.

I discard all the stuff people expect in a narrative. There’s little dialogue. It’s told from her point of view. Another logic in the film is that if you understand how she feels you understand where we are in the story. There is a plot there. In the same way – this an example of what we got rid of and what we kept and how we worked things out for ourselves. We show the meat train [the final destination of part of the men who have been seduced]. But we don’t know what that’s for. The stuff could be woven into thread for fishing line to catch space monsters. A wallet. Anything. None of those answers are interesting. As far as we’re concerned the story we were telling and how we wanted to tell it that’s good indicator of why we stopped and why.

Q: In “Birth” Alexandre Desplat composed the score. He’s been nominated six times for an Oscar. Here you are collaborating with Mica Levi. It’s her first movie. Why this choice?

JG: This needed a new voice. Mica is that. It feels from somewhere else. It’s the blood of the film.

For instance, in the beginning there is music with the cycle of her predecessor, and at the end the music starts again. It’s a slightly different rendition but it’s essentially the same thing. The music you hear at the beginning with that alien kind of appetite. So it’s back to business again. So the music is doing the business of pictures. Or words. It’s less obvious and less easy to pick up but it is there. This is the language we wanted to make the film in. not for me it’s not too subtle. And you’ve got to do what you think is best.

I think if you can sustain… “Vertigo” is an important film for me in that sense. I remember seeing “Vertigo” and just being absolutely struck that 20 minutes had passed and absolutely not a word was spoken. And I was utterly gripped. The absence of words – just what your shown and what you hear is utterly gripping. To not feel like you need to have things explained to you. Or have words defuse something as they can. They can charge something when they have to be used and should be used. But just the blah blah blah of most scripts.

Q: After nine years of working on this movie and now having finished it, how do you feel?

JG: I’m bereft

Q: You’re being ironic.

JG: It’s somewhat true.

I’m looking for my next thing. It’s not like, get me another script! The next thing that insists itself on me. “Birth”


was one that spun out from me. Then I took it to Jean Claude [Carrière] and – I had a paragraph at the time and I told him the idea and he really liked it. Then we did a long period of work.

I do have this thing ­– it’s connected with a book… But I don’t know what I’m doing next. Something will come up and say, “what do you think?”

Q: Nine years between movies? That’s a Kubrickian pace.

JG: I’m an infant compared to Stanley Kubrick. There is… I admire the mastery of the man the way that everyone does. Completely.  I admire his fearlessness. That’s the key. That’s the key to art.

Q: Would you say that there’s a fairy tale quality to the ending of “Under the Skin,” a kind of Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf thing?


JG: I suppose there are elements of that. I think it’s a happy ending, actually.

Q. I’d hate to see what you think is an unhappy ending. How is it a happy ending?

JG: Well. For me she’s becoming part of the world in a way she couldn’t be otherwise. She’s aching towards that, isn’t she? She achieves it in a horrible way.

Q: Isn’t it odd that in Scarlett Johansson’s last two movies she plays a non-human? She has a knack for it.

JG: [looks skeptical]

PK: It’s a compliment.

JG: I’ll pass it on. She’s great.

“Never trust the first fox you meet.”

gogo top lars-von-trier-ybb-914789466  A 2009 interview with Lars von Trier on Antichrist

Writing a preview of a Lars von Trier retrospective (there is one scheduled for Feb. 1 at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, in preparation no doubt for the upcoming Nymphomaniac onslaught) and taking another look at his movies  can get you down and – I don’t recommend watching, for example, the entire “Europa” trilogy in a single sitting ­– but in my research I came up with this lighthearted conversation I had (via Skype) with the director in 2009 about Antichrist. And in a sense that film sounds like it could be a precursor or prototype of the new project, with both starring a long-suffering Charlotte Gainsbourg.

Though some might find the discussion Of Willem Dafoe’s penis of greater interest, for me the best part is when my then editor of the late Boston Phoenix stepped into the conference room  where the interview was taking place and, glancing into the laptop screen, cheerily asked me what video I was watching. I could see in von Trier’s spontaneous look of panic and terror that the man’s mental distress and instability, at least at this moment, was unfeigned.

PK: Hi! Thanks for fitting us into your schedule. How are you doing today?

LV: I’m actually okay. Today is an okay day.

PK: That’s good. It’s hit or miss, huh?

LV: (laughs) Yeah, sometimes.

PK: Would you recommend making a movie like this as a treatment for depression?

LV: Uh, yeah, well my treatment was more the work than the subject, if you understand what I mean. Just to get out of bed and do something. So, yeah I think I would recommend it.  I don’t know how many people have the opportunity, you know, to do a film to get cured. There would be a lot of films made.

PK: I bet, yeah. It’s better than Prozac, though, I imagine.

LV: Yeah, Prozac is also good. But the problem about Prozac is it doesn’t continue being good, you know? It holds for a couple of years.

PK: Yeah. Well, um, it seems like the subject of the film also is like conducive to treating depression. Like the “He” character, the film sort of confronts things that are terrifying and tries to make them less terrifying. Is that correct?

LV: Yeah, the idea is normally when you panic, then your thoughts never get to your brain.  You know, you panic before you think. And the idea is to think as soon as possible and then say to yourself, “Last time this happened, I was okay after a while so maybe I will be okay again after a while.”

PK: So that’s the therapy that the William Dafoe character is trying to apply to his wife and his mother.

LV: Yes, yes.

PK: And are you trying to like, confront the things that terrify you by making this movie?

LV: Yes, I am trying to. It’s easier said than done, you know. The end goal is of course confront the full anxiety, and you know, get all the way over. Because anxiety will, cannot heal itself within half an hour or how much, but it’s a painful half an hour. I don’t know if you know, if you have anxieties yourself.

PK: Absolutely none. Would you say that you’re more depressed with the aftermath and the response to the film? Has that made you depressed also?

LV: No, no, no, no. I’m fine with…you know, as I see it, some people like the film, some people don’t. That is fine; I’m not trying to make a very broad film as you might know if you’ve seen other stuff I’ve done. No, no, it’s fine. And it helped to get out, you know, I’m out of bed at the moment. So no, I’m quite content. So now the only problem is I’m supposed, or people would like to see me make another film, or some people would. So that’s what I’m working on.

PK: It seems like your new film is Planet Melancholia, is that correct?

LV: Yeah, it’s, we call the film Melancholia  even though there’s a lot of other films with the same title. And it’s with planets.

PK: The film is dedicated to Tarkovsky; is the upcoming film kind of like Tarkovsky’s Solaris?

LV: Um, well, I’m very very fond of Tarkovsky, especially The Mirror, I don’t know if you’ve seen that?  But certain films I like very much.  I think he became a little bit weaker when he came to Western Europe. But Solaris is also a favorite of mine; I just re-saw a little of it again, yeah. If there’s a film I would have liked to have made, it would have been Solaris, yes.

PK: Is the planet Melancholia a happier place than Eden [the cabin where the couple in Antichrist goes for the depression cure]?

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LV: (laughs) I’m afraid there are no really happy places in my films. You know, Planet Melancholia is a black planet, which it had to be for it to be very close to Earth without being detected. It’s a long story. It’s not a happier place. I wouldn’t recommend you go to Planet Melancholia.gogo vt melancholia

PK: Antichrist  reminded me of other films that you’ve done, like Medea. This seems to be an alternative version of that earlier film.

LV: Yeah, I’m not very fond of Medea, the way I did it.  But that’s interesting.  Maybe you can compare it because what you were seeing—nature, photography, in both of them, and we used nature quite a lot.  But the Medea I did was from a script by Carl Dreyer. No, it’s not my favorite.

PK: Sorry to bring it up.  But the theme of the woman who is wronged by a very sort of calculating man, and then responds in a very violent way, seems similar to the one in this film.

LV: I can see that.  I have thought about it.

PK: Are you tired of people asking about misogyny?

LV: No.  My one problem is that it’s so difficult to pronounce that I try to get around the word, you know?

I might have said this before, but it’s like kind of deciding to hate elephants. That’s kind of ridiculous, you know. You can hate one elephant that’s after you, but hating elephants in general is kind of a dumb. No, I made many films with women and about women so, no. Yeah, people tend to ask me.

PK: I thought your best response to that question was that you identify with the woman characters in your films.

LV: I think that is right. I think that the female characters in my film are more believable than the male characters.The male characters just tend to be idiots, all of them doing something completely wrong. And whereas the women just tend to follow their nature somehow.

PK: William Dafoe, and I think you’ve mentioned this in another interview, is probably the worst therapist in the history of movies. How would you advise him to treat the Charlotte Gainsbourg character, and what does he do wrong?

gogo vt therapy

LV: Yeah, first of all, I have been undergoing this cognitive therapy for three years, and it’s I think it’s quite typical for me to be sarcastic about the subject.  You can say that one of the main ideas behind any treatment like this  is that a fear is a thought, and, you know, it doesn’t change reality. But you can say that in the film that it has changed reality.

But  I wouldn’t let him treat her in any other way than with his dick, he has an enormous dick. He’s extremely well-equipped.  And we had to kind of take the scenes out of the film, we had a stand-in for him, we had to take the scenes out with his own dick.

gogo dafoe Antichrist-2009-by-Lars-von-Trier

PK: Hold on: you had a stand-in dick?  You had to have a stand-in dick for Dafoe?

LV: Yes, yes, we had to have, because Will’s own was too big.

PK: Too big to fit on the screen?

LV: (laughs) No, too big because everybody got very confused when they saw it.

PK: When he ejaculates blood, that was uh—

LV: Oh yeah, yeah. That was the double.

PK: It’s quite a trick.

LV: Uh, yes.

PK: Did you have a stand-in for Charlotte and her editing scene, her snipping scene.

LV: Yes, we also had a stand-in for that. Otherwise we could only do it once.

PK: You used some sort of prosthetic, I imagine, for that scene.

LV: Yeah, let’s say that, yes.

PK: One thing that strikes me about the film, what I find more disturbing maybe than the genital mutilation, is the attitude that existence itself is evil. Do you think that’s true?

LV: Yes, I believe I do. The idea for the film came after I had seen a film about the original forests of Europe and I found out, maybe you read this somewhere before, you know this image we all have of this fantastic, romantic place in a forest. But it is actually the image of the place that represents ultimate pain and struggle. If you go to a park, there’s not so much struggle. In this original forest there’s kind of the maximum of life and death. I thought that was quite interesting that I would also, if I had to think of a very good place where I had no fears, and so on, I would go to a place like this. But then, on the other hand, knowing that this was in fact a place full of all this suffering.

PK: In fairy tales, though, generally the characters are warned not to go into the forest, for good reason apparently.

LV: But that is because again, I think the forest kind of represents nature, and nature is always, sexuality is also, I believe, nature has always in fairy tales been seen, I think, as dangerous.

PK: But the word “nature” comes from the Latin word to be born. Is this film kind of a statement against reproduction?

LV: (laughs) No. Actually it’s not so much, it’s not a statement at all, I would say. I don’t make statements…

PK: It’s kind of an allegory. It seems like a number of your films lately have been allegorical, which is sometimes used as a derogatory term, but I think that it’s more of an allegory in the manner of  Dante’s Divine Comedy or something like that.  Do you see yourself as an allegorist?  A religious allegorist?

gogo antichrist-symbolism

LV: (laughs) No, no. I don’t see myself as anything. No, I do not see myself or the film, I try not to analyze, you know, what I’m doing, or the film. I try to make films instinctively, if there’s such a word, or intuitively. The films that I really like are, yeah, of course you can see anything as symbolism, but, yeah, intuitive and chaotic. The more a film seems to come in a natural way, or I would say, the less mathematics you can see in a film, and the less, also, symbols, because I think symbols are fine when you see a film, but symbols are not so interesting to use when you write it. So symbols I think are a waste of time.

PK: The fox I heard came to you in a shamanistic journey? Is that true?

LV: (laughs) that’s right. Yes, I did from time to time these shamanistic things. It’s a very long story, but it had to do with a lady from my family who was in the hospital, and was dying, and then I read somewhere that through these shamans in the tribes, they could kind of travel for another person.  And that is what I did for my family member, and she was very fond of foxes. So I went to talk to some foxes.  And then there was this interesting thing that was not in the film, and that is that the first fox, yeah, the first fox I met behaved like this one.

PK: So this is when you’re in the trance.

LV: That’s right. There’s a strong sound that you kind of go into a trance from.  And then this fox was like in the film, but afterwards, I met some other foxes, and they said, one thing that was quite interesting was that they said “never trust the first fox you meet.”

PK: Which was the one that says, “chaos reigns,” right?  So which fox do you trust?

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LV: (laughs) I trust the one with the chaos.

PK: Do you know that that phrase is becoming a kind of catch-phrase, popular among people online, and so forth?

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LV: Yes. I saw something on YouTube that looked very funny, yes. Great.

PK: Somebody online also suggested that you could market the three beggars as toys.  Has anything like that ever occurred to you?  Like having merchandised figures out of those creatures, of the three beggars, the fox and the deer, and the—is it a raven or a crow?

LV: Yeah it is supposed to be a crow but we could only get a raven. (laughs)

PK: Yeah. Edgar Allan Poe reference there, right?  Because it is despair, right?

LV: Yeah.

PK: Is it true that there’s a video game of this movie?

gogo anitichrist video game

LV: It doesn’t exist yet but I know that they’re working on something.

PK: Who’s working on it?

LV: Um, not me.  You know when I make a film it’s quite important that people know the original, and then what they do with it afterwards I can’t control.  So I’m, no, I wouldn’t work on the game.

PK: It seems like a kind of difficult game, I would imagine. A lot of that stuff you don’t want to do at home.

LV: Yes.

PK: There are a number of films that have been coming out lately—and this probably is remote to your film-making, but there’s a film coming out that’s called 2012, there’s another one called Legion; there seems to be a number of films recently about the end of the world and the apocalypse.  Do you think this film draws on that kind of zeitgeist?

LV: “Zeitgeist,” yeah. Probably. But I remember a lot of films about the end of the world early on, also.  And I can only say that this film that I am going to do is going to be the real end. Nobody is going to survive.  Normally there’s a couple of people that will survive in a cave somewhere. Not in my film. No no no.

PK:  You did a film similar to that, Epidemic, a while ago. 

gogo vt epidemic

LV: Oh yeah that’s right.  It must be zeitgeist.  But that’s zeitgeist from some time ago.

PK: Yeah. So it’s not going to be your last film?  If you wipe out the entire human race, you’re can go on from there.  A fresh start.

LV: Yeah, you can say that.  But you have to start with these little—it’s something called  stromatolite, these little bacteria form that live for three billion years.  If you had been there filming with a camera, it would have taken you three billion years to get just a little action.

PK: And then you’d probably regret it, too. I think that three or four of your last films have been set in America, and you’ve never traveled to this country. What is the reason for that?

LV: First of all, because I’m afraid of travelling and the travels I’ve done have not been very successful.  To me, you know, 80% of the films that I like and that I’ve seen have been American.  So, to me, America, since I have not been there, is some kind of a “film-land,” you know.  So I can do almost whatever  I want to because I don’t know the place. I think the next one will not be in America, but of course for a film to be marketable it must be in English or American, I’m just not comfortable with setting it in a country with a different language.

PK: And it’s usually in the Northwest, too. The Pacific Northwest.

LV: Yes. That’s because somebody told me that it looks like Scandinavia.

PK: Twin Peaks was in the Northwest, was it?  Wasn’t that one of your favorite movies or TV shows.

LV: Oh yeah, I believe it was. Or maybe it wasn’t.

PK:  One of the prizes that the film received at Cannes was kind of ironic. It was the “anti-prize” from the Ecumenical  jury.  Do they give you some sort of trophy for that?

LV: No, I didn’t even know about that. But I’m proud.

PK:  I thought it was a bit hypocritical because the head of the jury was somebody who worked with Marco Ferreri, who had done The Last Woman, which involved Gerard Depardieu in a scene similar to one in your movie. Why do you think people get so worked up about your film, but that one I don’t recall having so much controversy attached to it.

LV: No, but that was in another time, you know. Yeah, I don’t know.There was a lot of nudity and violence and ecstasy also in the seventies, wasn’t it?

PK: Yeah I think it was ’76 or something like that. Would you have preferred to make movies back then?  There seemed to be a more open, creative, atmosphere for filmmakers all over the world, including the United States.

LV: No, I would say that the only trick I have up my sleeve is to take something from back then and show it today.  So no no, if I had done it then, I would have disappeared, you know.

PK:  The film that’s coming out here around Halloween, which I don’t think you have—do you have a similar holiday in Denmark?

LV: We are getting more and more Halloween.

PK:  And people have asked me what the film is like, and I’ve described it, and I’m probably not the only one, as kind of like Saw 6 as directed by Carl Dreyer.

LV: Yeah, very precise.

I would always be proud if any film of mine was compared to Carl Dreyer.  I believe these films, are they something called torture-porn?  They are torture-porn.  Well it’s nothing I see, you know, the torture-porn, but I like to mix different ingredients from different genres into a film.  Because I think it’s a little, I think that the genres could be—well, hello!

[my editor enters the room where I am having this conversation and looks at the screen]

PK:  That’s my editor!  I can’t kick him out. He thought you were a DVD, you’re not a DVD, are you?  No, no, you’re real.  Sorry about that!  You were talking about torture-porn and how you like to mix genres.

LV: Yeah, I don’t have a kind of moral thing about torture-porn or porn altogether. I think, I believe that anything you can imagine you could show. But of course I have children also. But in principle I think you can show anything.

Woman’s voice: Sir, we have to end here…

PK: Okay.  I was surprised when I was reading material about previous interviews that you converted to Catholicism in 1995?  Is that, do you still practice that?

LV: No, I didn’t convert because I was a-religious before and after some years you tend to be more and more like your mother and father, and they were atheists by belief, so I am a poor Catholic.

PK: But do you believe in redemption?

LV: Ah, that’s a long question. Yes, let’s say.

PK: Oh, what a relief! Alright, well thank you very much. Happy Halloween! Bye-bye.

Why I want 12 Years a Slave to win the Best Picture Oscar

gogo 12 win

Yesterday I did a two minute sound bite on a local cable news station following the Oscar nominations. During this discussion, in addition to forgetting Robert Redford’s name, I said that I thought Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave had a good shot at winning the Best Picture Award, making it the first film by a black director to do so. And who knows, maybe McQueen would win Best Director too, another first.

Not exactly stepping out on a limb there. But then I added that I hoped 12 Years did win. Before I could explain my reasons for this, we were on the topic of snubbed performances and that’s when I blanked on Redford’s name (now that I think of it I also forgot to mention the cat, or cats, in Inside Llewyn Davis, who I thought should have gotten some recognition. Damn!)

After the broadcast, my colleague Laura Frank Clifford, who was kind enough to watch, mentioned via Facebook (and I thank her for overlooking my Redford senior moment) that my endorsement of 12 Years a Slave seemed to contradict an earlier posting on Artsfuse where I had in fact listed the film among as number one among the worst films of 2013.

Another senior moment? Perhaps not. As I noted to Laura, that “worst” film  list referred not necessarily to really awful films, but to films that either failed miserably to live up to expectations or were vastly overrated (okay, an amended list also included Grown Ups 2 and A Madea Christmas, which were indeed very awful films). And my reservations about the film remain – I am definitely with Gerald Peary and Jonathan Rosenbaum and even the printable version of Armond White’s opinion on this one.

At any rate, if quality was the issue I would not think 12 Years is deserving of the Best Picture Oscar. It’s not the worst of the nominees (I’d award that prize to Gravity, which barely missed inclusion in my ten worst list) nor the best (I’d go with Her, but probably would have opted for Llewyn Davis if it made the cut).

But as all but the most ingenuous or disingenuous would acknowledge, quality has little to do with who gets an Oscar. It is about image and p.r. and politics and making money.

Image-wise, an Oscar for 12 Years could serve to counter the Academy’s well-deserved reputation as a segregated bastion of white, male, middle-aged privilege that has denied access and recognition to minorities and women. It would be a historic first, a sign of better times to come!  Just like giving Kathryn Bigelow Best Picture and Best Director Oscars for The Hurt Locker in 2009. And we all know how that threw open the doors for women directors in Hollywood.

It would be great for Hollywood’s image, then, but substantively meaningless when it comes to opportunities for black or other minority filmmakers. It’s an award that would honor the Academy more than the recipient. As was the case with Bigelow, McQueen doesn’t need this bogus imprimatur to prove that he is a brilliant filmmaker. Though not a fan of 12 Years, I believe his  previous two films, Hunger (2009)  and Shame (2011) are evidence of a major auteur. Whether he gets an Oscar or not, he’ll be making many great films and has at least a few masterpieces in him.

So I don’t think 12 Years should win the Best Picture Oscar either because it is the best film among those nominated or because it can serve as a token gesture that will make no difference in the fundamental racial imbalance of Hollywood. I think it should win because it might get more people to watch it.

I’m not talking about the already converted, those who know that slavery was an abomination and should not be forgotten or forgiven and who realize that the malignant racism that engendered that monstrous institution still lies not so far below the surface in our society.

Nor am I talking about those unembarrassed by their recidivist racial attitudes, like the fans and defenders of Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty who agree with his belief that African-Americans had it pretty good before the Civil Rights movement made them all uppity and angry. People like Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Ted Cruz, etc… For if even by some miracle those people are prodded into watching the film, they will no doubt dismiss it as a fabrication by the left wing traitors of Hollywood and the liberal-biased lame stream media.

Instead, those who would most benefit from watching the film are those who feel satisfied that the battle for racial justice is a done deal. And maybe overdone. These are people who don’t think much about these issues but who if pressed might be on the fence about whether we’re making too much of a fuss out of voting rights, equal opportunity, social programs for the poor. You know, the kinds of things that Martin Luther King Jr. and others spent decades fighting, and sometimes dying for.

It’s not an easy movie to watch. And in some ways it’s not even a very good movie. But it is a brutally efficient history lesson. It tells the truth about a terrible thing that most people would just like to forget about. If giving an Oscar to 12 Years a Slave in any way helps preserve the progress we’ve made in the 149 years since slavery was abolished, I’ll be rooting for it.


The NSFC votes: Llewyn Davis, a loser no more

The National Society of Film Critics (of which I am a member) might be the last group to vote, but it is usually the most interesting. Composed of some 60 critics nationwide, suspected of arcane rituals and snobby taste (all true!), they invariably buck the trend of every group that precedes them , but usually too late to make a difference.

This year was no exception. Wrapping up about three hours ago with unfinished, irresolvible discussions about where should the line between cinematography and animation (ie: Gravity) and whether the group should amend the categories of “Best Actor” and “Best Actress” to some gender free nomenclature, the society nonetheless managed to breeze through the voting with relative speed. No category went beyond two ballots, and a couple even were settled with one. Sounds like a lockstep conspiracy of film snobs to me.

And the big winner? The Coen Brothers’s Inside Llewyn Davis, which won for best picture, director, actor, and cinematography. Had they considered best animal actor, and I’m kicking myself now for not suggesting the idea, no doubt it would have gotten that, too, for the haunting performance of the big ginger cat who played Ulysses. And wouldn’t you know it, our group is the only one that picked that film for a winner.

This pleased me considerably, since I had placed Llewyn at number two on my top ten list (after Her, but it was a toss up). And as the voting continued, I had the eerie feeling that the group was unconsciously following my will, with many results identical to my own choices. In the non-fiction category, for example, my three choices (you are allowed to vote for three, with the first choice getting three points, the second two, and the third one) the final tally mirrored my own, though in the opposite order: The Act of Killing, At Berkeley, and Leviathan. Other results that heeded my secret bidding: James Franco for Best Supporting Actor for Spring Breakers, Cate Blanchett for Best Actress for Blue Jasmine. And Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle? Maybe not my first choice, but I can live with it.

But then my solipsistic pipe dream was punctured when Before Midnight beat out Llewyn for best screenplay. And Blue is the Warmest Color for Best Foreign Film? I will say no more about it. Here is the final rundown cut and pasted from the NSFC website:

Here is a list of the winners and runners-up, with vote counts from the final round


*1. Inside Llewyn Davis – 23

2. American Hustle – 17

3. 12 Years a Slave – 16


*1. Joel and Ethan Coen (Inside Llewyn Davis) – 25

2. Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity) – 18

3. Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave) – 15


*1. Blue Is the Warmest Color – 27

2. A Touch of Sin – 21

3. The Great Beauty – 15


*1. The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer) – 20

*1. At Berkeley (Frederick Wiseman) – 20 [tie]

3. Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel) – 18


*1. Before Midnight (Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke) – 29

2. Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen) – 26

3. American Hustle (Eric Singer and David O. Russell) – 18


*1. Inside Llewyn Davis (Bruno Delbonnel) -28

2.Gravity (Emmanuel Lubezki) – 26

3. Nebraska (Phedon Papamichael) – 19


*1. Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis) – 28

2. Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) – 19

3. Robert Redford (All Is Lost) – 12


*1. Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine) – 57

2. Adèle Exarchopoulos (Blue Is the Warmest Color) – 36

3. Julie Delpy (Before Midnight) – 26


1. James Franco (Spring Breakers) – 24

2. Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club) – 20

3. Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips) – 14


*1. Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle) – 54

2. Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave) – 38

3. Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine) – 18

3. Léa Seydoux (Blue Is the Warmest Color) [tie]–

18 EXPERIMENTAL FILM Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel),

HS’s 2013 Top 10. And a few we could have done without.

As you can see, there is some overlap with Mr. Keough’s list, best and worst. That is a good thing.

1. Nebraska — From the very first shot of an old man shuffling along the side of an urban highway – against the direction of the traffic – you know you’re seeing director Alexander Payne at the very height of his considerable cinematic mastery. The movie makes you want to say something about America, but I won’t.

2. A Touch of Sin ­— Zhangke Jia’s films till now have, broadly speaking, looked at the results of upheaval. Here he gets down to the upheaval itself, violent crime throughout China. Ultimately, it’s motive more than action that matters, but, boy, that action.

3. Welcome to Pine Hill — 2013’s other great movie about America. Keith Miller’s debut feature about a man brought up short just when he’s straightening out his life comes alive through Miller’s attentive technique, manifest in, among other things, editing dictated by emotion.

4. Her – Spike Jonez, traditionalist filmmaker? Certainly not in subject matter, but he has certainly absorbed the great historic lessons of American cinema. Combined with his very contemporary story, he’s come up with not just a fascinating movie, but a nearly unique one.

5. Beyond the Hills – Romanian filmmaker Cristian Mongiu continues to impress as one of the world’s leading filmmakers. Typically, this movie tackles big subjects (how do old and new types of knowledge co-exist in the contemporary world?; what is madness?) but does perfect justice to its story about the reunion of two grown orphan girls. Brilliant.

6. The Act of Killing – Joshua Oppenheimer undresses a monster’s psyche simply by offering to direct the creature in a movie about his crimes (during the Indonesian massacres of 1965). It’s as simple and as complex as that.

7. Leviathan — Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel carried some video cameras aboard a North Atlantic trawler, held them or bolted them down, and allowed the images to form themselves before the lens. But then, they also distorted the film’s clarity and color, making us work to really see what’s what. A paradoxical way of freeing an image from excessive authorial control, but it works.

8. Upstream Color — I think I got what Shane Carruth was trying to say here, but I just might have been affected by the same delusions as the movie’s characters. Original, engrossing, ingenious. What else do you need?

9. Byzantium — Neil Jordan’s best Gothic outing in quite some time asks us what are we looking at when we look at female vampires? And it answers.

10. Ernest and Celestine – A warm and charming, but never mawkish and just suspenseful enough tale of a country bear and a town mouse. Directors Benjamin Renner, Vincent Patar, and Stéphane Aubier adopt a water-color style complete with imprecise lines, a “mistake” that works wonderfully. This listing is for the French original. The English dubbed edition opens in the U.S. later this year.


I’ve never done a 10 Worst List and, as Ebenezer Scrooge once said, I’m too old to change. But there are movies which drive me crazy for different reasons.

No apparent adult supervision: 47 Ronin

Saying you are smart over and over again does not mean you are smart: Before Midnight

No, this is not a step forward: The Conjuring

No good outcome possible: R.I.P.D.

If you don’t know this by now, you will never, never, never know it: 12 Years a Slave

–Henry Sheehan

PK’s 2013 top 10. And bottom 10

[An earlier version appeared on]

Ten Best

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1.Her – Any film that includes the disembodied mind of Alan Watts deserves top billing. Spike Jonze engages in a visually stunning, superbly acted, disturbing and profound exploration of the frightening future of love and identity in a digital universe.

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2. Inside Llewyn Davis – A naysayer asked me why I liked this film so much and, at a loss, I blurted out, “I am Llewyn Davis.” A long, embarrassing silence followed and I added, “And I liked the cat.”

gogo 10 wadj

3. Wadjda – Not only is this the first film made by a woman in Saudi Arabia (or by anyone in that country apparently), but it also rivals the early masterpieces of Abbas Kiarostami in its charming, tragic, achingly authentic depiction of what it means to be a smart kid growing up among dumb adults. Subtly, beautifully shot, with a terrific performance by Waad Mohammed in the title role.

gogo 10 upstream

4. Upstream Color – Still have no idea what Shane Carruth’s ecstatic narrative and visual assault means. Still am staying up nights trying to figure it out. Puts the trance back in transcendental. 

gogo 10 void

5. Fill the Void – First-time director Rama Burshtein’s radiant recreation of a subculture – the orthodox Haredi Jewish community of Tel Aviv – and the exquisite performances elevate this tale of loss, loyalty, and independence into a universal tragedy. 

gogo 10 in the house

6. In the House – I like self-reflexive movies that are about movies, and about narrative in general. And I like puzzles and clever dialogue delivered with sparkling grace by attractive actors. François Ozon accomplishes all this and more with wicked wit and panache.

gogo 10 CaesarMustDie-magnum

7. Caesar Must Die – A deceptively simple and deeply moving recreation of a performance of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar put on by inmates of a maximum security prison in Rome. The Taviani Brothers interweave the drama of the production, the interactions of the performers with their troubled histories, and the play itself into a deeply moving, illuminating fugue.

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8. Our Children – Ignored by everyone, Émilie Dequenne put in one of the best performances of the year as a mother pressured slowly, insidiously, and inexorably into a shocking act of rebellion.

gogo 10 ComputerChess086

9. Computer Chess – Along with Her and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (which didn’t make the cut), Andrew Bujalski’s sui generis absurdist comedy presents the humble origins of our current digital gotterdammerung. It also stars my choice for the year’s Best Supporting Actor, my former Boston Phoenix colleague and friend, Gerald Peary. 

gogo 10 all is lost

10. All Is Lost – Just got to love a film where the sole line of dialogue is “fuck!” An allegory about individual and environmental decline that is as upbeat as the title suggests. I’m still scratching my head wondering why no one is noticing that this is Robert Redford’s best performance ever.

Whoops, inexplicably overlooked: Leviathan, The Act of Killing, Berberian Sound Studio. And others that will undoubtedly occur to me long after this year is gone and forgotten.

Ten worst.
There were far, far worse movies released this year – Grown Ups 2, A Madea Christmas, etc. But I’m thinking of movies that had pretensions of artistry, or a potential for greatness, or phony films that have inexplicably been revered by just about everybody but me. What’s wrong with me? Help me.

So with all due respect:

1. 12 Years a Slave
2. Blue is the Warmest Color
3. The Great Beauty
4. Before Midnight
5. Frances Ha
6. The Conjuring
7. The Butler
8. Short Term
And, what the heck, they were so bad they deserve to make the list:
9. A Madea Christmas
10. Grown Ups 2

Some Christmas Coal.

“Christmas comes but once a year” is beginning to sound more like a promise from the major Hollywood studios than an expression of seasonal joy. There were some good films worth discussing; some bad films worth excoriating. But mostly we were served helpings a plain, squishy vanilla, movies so devoid of, well, almost anything, that they evoke as much a discussion as “Didja like it?” “Eh.”

So here, in no particular order, are some of our Yuletide visitations.


Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues.  No doubt lots of people were quick to call this latest Will Ferrell comedy dumb (even if as in “dumb but funny”), but I wonder if any in the audience realized that the movie called them stupid. Set in the very early 1980s, the movie takes the start of 24-hours cable news as its backdrop and says outright that CNN (called GNN in the movie) and its imitators were/are so successful because the pander to the emptiest part of the American brain. And that’s all of the American brain; no one in the movie differentiates between a smart American audience and a stupider one. We’re all idiots together as far as the movie is concerned. Well, good point.

Ron Burgundy (Ferrell) and his misfit news team (Paul Rudd, Steve Carell, and David Koechner) are disappointed to find themselves relegated to the graveyard shift at the upstart news operation, so much so that Burgundy takes it into his head to dedicate their hours to “America,” meaning cute animal and mawkish human interest stories. They area hit of course.

So much for the clever stuff. Otherwise, the movie is a rehash of the jokes in the first go-round, endlessly recycled. Carell’s character, the weatherman, is still a schizophrenic who spouts non-sequiturs; once more, Koechner is the clueless sports anchor who has a gay crush on Ron (is that gay “joke” still funny? was it ever?); and Rudd’s investigative reporter is still, well, kind of a womanizer, but in a nice way because he’s Paul Rudd. Typically for a Ferrell movie, if he and his director Adam McKay think they’ve got ahold of a funny joke they milk it until the cow runs dry. Whether you think the movie depends on your patience, your appetite for repetition, and your gratitude for a movie that has even a teeny tiny taste of satire.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.  Peter Jackson continues his vain effort to craft a trilogy out of J.R.R. Tolkein’s slight, unexpected bestseller, the one which prompted the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Even squeezing borrowed and invented characters to fill out the relatively scant dramatic landscape, Jackson has harvested acres of nothing. As he did in part one, Jackson employs the simplest of structures: some characters travel for a while, fight, travel again, fight, travel, fight, and so forth and so on. Such bare bones would be fine if Jackson sutured some flesh onto them, but there’s nothing with blood in its veins on the screen. In place of the painfully unfunny “comic” scenes of the last movie, Jackson has relied on two action scenes: one with giant spiders (shades of Bert I. Gordon!) and a way, way too long climax starring a dragon. Partly as a result, the enterprise doesn’t resemble The Lord of the Rings movies anywhere near so much as Jackson’s gaseous, ponderous King Kong.

August: Osage County.  A Pulitzer Prize? Well, OK. This hackneyed tale of family woe in the boondocks was adapted by Tracy Letts from his own play and directed by John Wells with that misplaced reverence due Broadway tales of the common folk (think Bus Stop). Tell me if you’ve heard this before: A family patriarch dies and so relatives, their spouses and children come from near and far to join the stay-at-homes in an outpouring of vitriol and decades-old resentments, not to mention the revelation of scandals.

These machinations have chugged across movie screens so long that their operators have had to raise the scandal stakes and the scandals in such a recent rehash as this reach such ludicrous heights (or depths) that it’s hard not to giggle from the very first.

Out on the Oklahoma plain – which we see every once in a while on typically over-composed, postcard-perfect images –old man Weston has drunk himself to death, leaving behind his widow, pill-popping Violet Weston. Because she is the most mentally deranged member of her clan, Violet assumes the status of lacerating truth-teller, the one who slashes through pieties, battling one army of clichés with legions of her own.

Violet is played by Meryl Streep, a cold performer who acts like she’s a telegraph operator tapping out her meanings in broadly worded transmissions. There isn’t much scenery in the old dark house Violet inhabits, but there’s even less by the time Streep is done chewing and swallowing it. She is surrounded by a name cast whose names you will recognize but whose performances are unmemorable.

47 Ronin. Given its budget and what I assume were its ambitions, this is truly the worst movie of the year. Keanu Reeves stars as a half-Japanese, half-European young (?) servant in Japan during the Tokugawa shogunate. In an opening voice-over, a narrator refers to the shogunate era as “ancient Japan.” The shogunate existed from 1600 to 1868 so you’re tipped off literally from the movie’s opening that the movie has no respect for Japan, its history or culture.

Actually, you’re tipped off by the movie’s title. The tale of the 47 ronin is an old one which has been made into at least six movies. The most famous is Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1941 The 47 Ronin which he made under the orders of the Japanese wartime government. The emperor’s regime wanted a pro-war, militaristic propaganda film, but Mizoguchi returned with a magnificent anti-war drama that, even without its background, is a classic. But there have been other good versions, too: Hiroshi Inagaki’s 1962 Chushingura and Kon Ichikawa’s 1994 47 Ronin.

This movie, directed by Carl Rinsch, is essentially a showcase for barely adequate special/digital effects, so-so action scenes, and dramatic scenes that would be more at home in a second-rate manga. It drrraaaggsss, in other words. The whole point of the story is lost in what, I suppose, you could call an update, the story rearranged to appeal to a modern audience. If this movie had another title, it would be terrible, miserable, awful. With the title it does have, it’s also a travesty.

–Henry Sheehan

Joyce on propaganda and porn — part two: Blue Is the Warmest Color

gogo blue top

[A version of this previously appeared in the Artsfuse web site. Also, beware of spoilers.]

While 12 Years a Slave, according to Stephen Dedalus’s Thomistic formulation referred to in the previous post, induces “loathing”  which “urges us to abandon, to go from something,” and therefore is “didactic” (and I would add, propagandistic),  Blue Is the Warmest Color  arouses “desire,” which “urges us to possess, to go to something.” It, too, is kinetic, not static, in its effect, and pornographic  rather than didactuc. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s still art, though “improper” art.

That’s not how most critics see it, however. The film has gotten nothing but high fives since it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. It scores an 89% favorable rating at Rotten Tomatoes, an 88 at Metacritic, and is currently on a victory lap of awards from critics groups nationwide, heading for a sure lock on the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.

Nonetheless, almost lost in the near universal praise for the film, Manohla Dargis’s dissenting article “The Trouble With ‘Blue Is the Warmest Color’” in the October 25  New York Times   points out something  that would seem obvious: The director, Abdellatif  Kechiche, really likes asses.

Is that really a problem? Well, it is a distraction. Involvement in the characters’ ongoing drama takes a detour once Kechiche’s camera takes a leering up-close look as they engage in lengthy male fantasies of girl-on-girl action. The scene seem designed to arouse not contemplation, but desire. (Or loathing, if one is of an intolerantly moralistic bent).

Speaking of moralism, maybe this aspect of the film wouldn’t bug me so much had Kechiche not indulged in it with such self-righteousness. The film flaunts its sex scenes in a humorless and disingenuously sanctimonious way that discourages any discussion about it being a turn-on, if not for the viewer, then for Kechiche himself. It is a variation on the Emperor’s New Clothes, with the actors’ nudity exposing the director’s pretensions and predilections.

Be forewarned, then:  if you want to enjoy the film as the intense and moving love story it claims to be (and despite everything, sometimes is), don’t pay attention to the man behind the camera indulging his voyeurism, fetishism, and his power over women. And if you find yourself stimulated during the relentless scenes of two naked, beautiful women engaged in energetic, artfully lit, exquisitely shot, explicit fucking, don’t worry, it just means  you’re emotionally involved in a bravely realistic love story.

I think Joyce would regard this explanation with a skeptical smile and say, who are you kidding?  I mean, where’s the stasis?

Instead of the sex scenes serving to intensify the love story, the love story exists to justify the sex scenes.  Without those steamy interludes tarting up what is otherwise a routine narrative, would this film have garnered so many rave reviews and prizes?

Well, maybe “routine” is a bit harsh. I admit that at times the film stirred my tear ducts a bit and made me reflect on the eternal verities of life and love, my mind raised beyond desire and loathing to a condition of stasis, particularly in the scenes near the end…

But let’s take it from the beginning. Fifteen-year-old Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos, who looks at first like she’s barely pubescent),


doesn’t know what she wants to be when she grows up. She is also uncertain about her sexual inclinations. After an unsatisfying clinch with the class hunk, and a confused kiss with a female classmate, she catches the wry eye of Emma (Léa Seydoux), who is older and – as can be seen by her short-cropped blue-dyed hair, insinuating half-smile, and the way she smokes a cigarette – worldly wise and artistic.

gogo blue girl

She looks like she knows what she wants and what to do with it when she gets it. And, by the way, why is the twenty-something Emma hanging around a schoolyard?

Be that as it may, the two fall in love, or so you assume because they spend so much time in the sack. They do have occasional discussions about philosophy – after all, this is a French movie. Emma quotes Sartre while pontificating about the meaning of life and freedom, and the irrepressibly unsophisticated Adèle brings it all down to earth by observing that existentialism is pretty much summed up in the Bob Marley song “Get Up, Stand-up.”

Deep. Meanwhile, not everyone is keen on their relationship. Some of Adèle’s classmates get nasty. Of course, since Adèle is by far the prettiest girl in school, the ugly girls are the meanest to her. They corner Adèle, taunt her, and accuse her of ogling their asses. Dream on, ugly girls! Not even Kechiche is interested in looking at your posteriors.

But such petty obstacles can’t deter true existential love. Instead, the usual culprits break it up: the passage of time, the inevitability of change, and the vagaries of human nature. (Did I mention Being and Nothingness?) Blue’s big insight: relationships don’t last – deal with it.

Adèle and Emma’s seemingly non-traditional relationship devolves into sadly traditional roles, with Adele becoming the docile drudge who waits alone at home and Emma the self-absorbed artist who increasingly neglects her as she pursues her career. In one dinner scene, Emma barks over the phone at an art dealer who wants to exploit the lesbian sexual imagery of her work – imagine! – while Adèle feebly offers her a cup of coffee and a slice of buttered bread to get her attention.

Such is the fate of those with low self-esteem involved in an unequal relationship. At parties Emma’s arty friends are bemused at Adèle’s ignorance of Klimt and Schiele, and then compliment her on her prettiness. Adèle tries to keep up with all the fancy talk, but all she really wants to do is cook and clean and pose for Emma’s erotic paintings. That, and tell stories to her classes of preschoolers. (Emma suggests that Adèle try writing children’s books, but the matter is wisely dropped). Adèle tries hard to make it work, but her efforts only result in more loneliness and neglect, and finally, infidelity, jealousy, and rage.

To his credit, Kechiche – as in his brilliant The Secret of the Grain – is masterly when depicting the passage of time, a subtlety that is the antithesis of his approach to the sex scenes. The years pass unnoticed until you realize that Adèle is no longer in high school, but has a job, and that the pregnant woman whom she met at a party now has a three-year-old child. Had Kechiche practiced such artful restraint throughout the film, he might have attained the elusive “esthetic emotion” that Joyce describes.

Instead, Kechiche the pseudo-realist decides that truth requires gawking at some bodily function. In the film’s final break-up scene, for example, the focus of attention shifts from the feelings of devastation experienced by the characters to a close-up of the growing stream of snot dripping from Adèle’s nose. Give the girl a tissue, for crying out loud!

Maybe Kechiche here is leaning towards the loathing side of the desire/loathing dichotomy that Joyce was talking about. In any case, just as the spectacle of slamming vulvas and enthusiastic cunnilingus distract from the love in the love scenes, so, too, does this prolonged, gratuitous booger deflate any sense of tragedy when they break up.

Maybe now I’m just getting petty. Like my annoyance at the eating scenes. Always spaghetti, with a greenish chunky sauce that sticks to lips and faces and moustaches and is clearly visible as a half-masticated pulp when people yammer on about Klimt and Schiele with their mouths open. Why is there never a tissue or napkin available when people need them in this movie?

They had far better table manners in The Secret of the Grain. Maybe that’s why I prefer it: it is a film about food in the same way this is a film about love, and it does not need to show the biological processes of chewing, digestion, and excretion to make its point.

Another thing – Emma’s artwork bugs me. Here is one of those situations in which everyone in the film wildly acclaims the creative work of a character who is an artist or writer. And then some of the writing is read out loud, or the paintings hang in a gallery, and you say to yourself, wow, that is really, really bad.

Theoretically, perhaps, Emma’s paintings serve the purpose of setting up a self-reflexive conceit in which the male gaze (Kechiche’s) is directed at the female gaze (Emma’s) which is being directed at an objectified woman (Adèle). But when you come right down to it, the paintings are vulgar, soft-core pornography hypocritically disguised as art. And so, at its worst, is this overpraised movie.

Joyce on propaganda and porn — part one: 12 Years a Slave


“ – The feelings excited by improper art are kinetic, desire or loathing. Desire urges us to possess, to go to something; loathing urges us to abandon, to go from something. These are kinetic emotions. The arts which excite them, pornographical or didactic, are therefore improper arts. The esthetic emotion (I use the general term) is therefore static. The mind is arrested and raised above desire and loathing.”

James Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Not that Joyce had a problem with pornography or didacticism.  They might be “improper,” but they are still “art.”

When it came to porn, he was no prude. Not only did he write filthy love letters to his wife Nora, but in 1933 his masterpiece Ulysses was arraigned in a New York Southern District Federal Court (United States v. One Book Called Ulysses) before Judge John Munro Woolsey on charges of obscenity (in a landmark decision, Woolsey, an enlightened jurist and not a bad literary critic, explained why the book wasn’t pornographic.)

And as for didacticism, you can’t get much more didactic than does Stephen Dedalus in the multi-page discourse on Thomistic aesthetics quoted in part above.

Therefore it  is a qualification and not a condemnation to say that, by the above definition, 12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen’s adaptation of a 1852 memoir by Solomon Northup, a free man kidnapped and sold to slave owners, and Blue Is the Warmest Color, a chronicle of a lesbian love affair directed by Abdellatif Kechiche, fall into the category of  “improper art.”

But for many people, they pass for masterpieces. Both films have swept awards from just about every critics society and are en route to likely triumphs at the Academy Awards. What can Joyce offer to counter such an overwhelming movement to canonize these pictures as masterpieces?

Let’s take the case of 12 Years a Slave. In it, the mind is not “arrested and raised above desire and loathing.” Quite the opposite. Nor is it that its intention. It is a didactic screed, a potent piece of propaganda, powerfully belaboring the message that the institution of slavery was an abomination, a debasement not only of the enslaved but also of those who enslaved them. And as such it succeeds with brutal, manipulative effectiveness.

For myself, by the end of the first hour, with over eight years as a slave still to go, after repeated whippings and cruelties and humiliations, I was fully convinced that slavery was a terrible thing, as I had been before I saw the movie. Ante-bellum slave traders, morally degenerate Southern plantation owners, pitiful liberal milksops who regarded the system with distaste while profiting from it, seeming sympathizers who prove to be  inevitably treacherous, and sadistic white trash overseers like the guy played by Paul Dano

12-years-a-slave-movie-wallpaper-dano use

(who, though a talented actor, has unfortunately been typecast as loathsome characters of one sort or another), were all, without question , horrible human beings

Truth be told, I wanted to kill them. Exterminate the brutes!” Trouble is, those people have been dead for over a century. So it’s pointless, and inconsequential, to hate them, because they no longer exist.

On the other hand, their legacy obviously endures. But here again I don’t think the film will make much of an impact when it comes to the racism and injustice that prevails to the present day.

Those who already feel guilt and shame and anger about these things will feel the same way.  But those who might actually learn something from the movie — say, Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson, noted among other things for declaring that black folks were better off singing in the cotton fields before thy got all uppity with that Civil Rights stuff; or Robertson’s politically opportunistic enablers such as Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Ted Cruz — well,  you won’t find them lining up at the Cineplex to buy tickets to  see 12 Years a Slave.

But for those who do see the movie,although it won’t change their opinions, it might make them feel better about themselves. It offers scapegoats to take the blame for all the bad stuff we feel guilty about. Michael Fassbender’s psychopathic plantation owner is a perfect example:

gogo demon

now there’s someone you love to loathe. Forget that those who owned slaves back then included such enlightened American heroes as Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. That just makes things too complicated. It’s much more clarifying to pretend that they were all wicked and beyond the pale. This tactic is the essence of that sinister offshoot of didacticism, propaganda: create a demonic “other” who will take on our sins and serve as a despised projection of our guilt and rage,

In his “Contrarian View” of 12 Years a Slave posted on the Artsfuse website, Gerald Peary suggests that Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012) might, in fact, offer a more effective and legitimate approach to resolving such conflicted feelings. At first glance, this notion seems absurd, if not blasphemous: how can Tarantino’s absurdly violent, wish fulfillment fantasy be considered in the same context as McQueen’s earnest depiction of an actual historical nightmare?

Well, for a couple of reasons. For one, the hero of Django is not a passive victim rescued by the kindness of a white stranger

gogo 12 years jesus saving

(a carpenter, no less – and note the cruciform framework in the background in this still from the film). That may well have been what really happened, but Northup’s actual revenge, the writing of the book on which the film is based, and his subsequent activism on behalf of the abolitionist cause, is mentioned only as an afterward.

In contrast, Django is no victim: he’s a juggernaut of vengeance who kills white people.

gogo django

Lots of them.

gogo django-unchained-still02 dead

“Am I alone (perhaps),” Peary asks, “in preferring, as a screen hero, Jamie Foxx’s rowdy, impolitic Django to [Chiwetol] Ejiofor’s impeccably behaved Northup?”

And if not the fictional character Django, why not another historical figure? Why not, as Peary suggests, someone like Nat Turner? Why has no movie been made about this leader of a bloody, failed slave uprising in Virginia in 1831?

Like Northop, Turner also wrote a book about his ordeal – as told to his lawyer Thomas Ruffin Gray

gogo nat turner

– and it was fictionalized by William Styron in his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1967 novel The Confessions of Nat Turner. Perhaps that story is too complex, too hard to compartmentalize into facile categories of good and evil. Too tragic.

And while we’re on the subject, is it wrong to prefer a complex, comprehensible, even seductive villain as opposed to the cartoon monsters in 12 Years?  Someone like the malevolent plantation owner played by Leonardo DiCaprio in Django, a diabolical villain with a certain joie de vivre, a nihilistic charm, someone who arouses not just loathing, but also terror, awe, even pity?

gogo django-unchained-trailer-internationaldicaprio

But to do so is to invite the condemnation of those who think that such reprobates should not be depicted as in any way remotely human like ourselves, but only as alien and demonic. They see any attempt to comprehend these fiends as an endorsement of the evil they have perpetrated.

That’s what Kathryn Bigelow learned to her regret when she depicted the CIA agents who inflicted grotesque, almost unwatchable torture on naked, chained and masked victims in her film Zero Dark Thirty (2012) .  Other than that, however, they seemed kind of normal. They worried about their jobs, told jokes, were nice to their friends, and believed in the validity of what they were doing. Bigelow defended her non-didactic approach to this complex and ambiguous evil by insisting that depiction was not endorsement. To no avail.

More recently, Martin Scorsese has faced similar heat for his The Wolf of Wall Street. Some condemn it for glorifying the excesses of a generation of narcissistic sociopaths who lived an exotic (if tasteless) Satyricon-like life while destroying the economy and millions of lives. But Scorsese is attempting something more insidious than flat out condemnation; instead, he seduces the viewer into the attractions of a forbidden, alluring life style, itself a hallucinogenic version of the American Dream, in order to show that evil comes not from the pathology of a few, but from the sickness of a culture.

For these admirable intentions, as was the case with Bigelow, Scorsese can kiss his Oscar chances goodbye.

It may be some consolation to him and Bigelow and Tarantino that they are fulfilling James Joyce’s definition of “proper art.” They seek to elevate the soul to a level of aesthetic contemplation that induces a profound perception of good and evil and of human fate.

It is the essence of tragedy, as Stephen Dedalus points out in another of his aesthetic musings in Portrait of the Artist. Referring to the familiar Aristotlean formula that tragedy arouses pity and terror in order to produce in the audience a catharsis of those emotions, he adds:

“Aristotle has not defined pity and terror. I have…

“Pity is the feeling which arrests the mind in the presence of whatever is grave and constant in human suffering and unites it with the human sufferer. Terror is the feeling which arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human sufferings and unites it with the secret cause.”

Pity and terror might not be as easy to take as an invigorating dose of desire or loathing. But in the long run they are more rewarding, and enduring.

NEXT: part two: pornography and Blue Is the Warmest Color

Boston Society of Film Critics 2013

We are now in the Carver Ballroom in the Revere Hotel. There is a Christmas tree in the corner, and a conference table with some twenty odd film critics gathered around it eating muffins and drinking coffee.
The atmosphere is electric! This is so exciting!
Our first crisis: will we need more chairs?
To be continued…
A bunch of business stuff. When will we meet next year. I say, let’s enjoy this year while we can and let next year take care of itself. As they say in “Dead Poets’ Society,” “Carpe Diem!”
I keep this to myself.
This a very long conference table. I can’t hear what people on the other end are saying.
Damn. I forgot to bring my dues.
Recording someone’s proxy votes, I put down “12 Years Asleep.” Got to pull it together!
This business stuff can take a while…
From the President: “We’re not at the vote yet.”
Now we are, kind of.
commendation for Midnight Film Series at the Coolidge Corner passes unanimously! Congratulations, guys!
Five minute break and the real voting begins!
Countless repetition of the names of the movies voted for: this is what we live for.
I am starting to realize that I am the only person who saw “I Used to Be Darker.”
Inside Llewyn Davis
Wolf of Wall Street

BEST EDITING (In Honor of Karen Schmeer)
Round one: no winner
Round two: A WINNER!
Wolf of Wall Street

round one: no winner
round two: a winner!
Emmanuel Lubezki for GRAVITY
runner-up: The Grandmaster

NEXT: NEW FILMMAKER (In Honor of David Brudnoy)
round one: no winner
round two: A WINNER:
Ryan Kugler, “Fruitvale Station
runner up Joshua Oppenheimer, Act of Killing

As reward for a rapid progress: PIZZA! Made specially for BSFC by the chef at the REvere Hotel
Thanks Revere Hotel!

BACK to work.
Next is Best Animation.
Inkoo Kang of the Village Voice is reading a statement questioning the morality of Hayao Miyazaki’s “The Wind Rises” because it glorifies the inventor of a weapon used to commit atrocities, and whitewashes history and vindicates war criminals. (My apologies to Inkoo for this rough paraphrasing of an eloquent statement.)

I am tempted to defer voting. But the argument reminds me of the criticism of “Zero Dark Thirty.” I mumbled something to this effect, saying that depiction is not advocacy (as Bigelow said) and that Miyazaki is putting the burden of moral determination on the viewer.
Four members are abstaining.
I am not.

no winner
The Wind Rises

NEXT: Documentary
This might take a while since there are a million great docs this year.
Though Ty Burr suggests we vote for “Salinger” for worst documentary.

Round One
no winner
Round Two:
no winner
Round Three:[no proxies]
Act of Killing

NEXT: Screenplay
Round One:
no winner
Round Two:
no winner
Round Three: [no proxies]
No winner
Round Four
No Winner
Round Five
We have a dilemma because “Wolf of Wall Street” is one of the high vote-getters, in a virtual tie with “Enough Said,” but neither are winners, and because of a late press screening date for Wolf not everyone has seen it and some of those who haven’t seen it are abstaining.
A show of hands voting between those two films results in A WINNER
Nicole Holofcener for “Enough Said.”
Runner Up: “Wolf of Wall Street”

First Round:
no winner
Second Round:
no winner

[Some testy exchanges among those who disagree about Meryl Streep’s performance in “Osage.” Some say Best Actress, some want to give her our annual Anne Bancroft Award for Overacting.]

Third Round:
A winner!
Runner Up:
12 Years a Slave


First Round:
no winner
Second Round:
June Squibb, “Nebraska”
Lupita Nyong’o, “12 Years a Slave”

round one
round two
[Question raised: Is James Gandolfini in “Enough Said” a supporting role? No answer.]
no winner
[Apparently Gandolfini is being considered by most for supporting actor]
round three
no winner
round four will be a run-off between the top three
And so he is: James Gandolfini wins
Barkhad Abdi for Captain Philips
Jared Leto Dallas Buyers

and, in the blink of an eye, on the first ballot, it goes to Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine

round one
no decision
round two
Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12Years a Slave
Leonardo DiCaprio, Wolf of Wall Street

round one
no winner
round two
no winner
round three
no winner
round four
a run-off between Scorsese, McQueen, and Coens
WINNER: Steve McQueen “12 Years a Slave”
runner-up Scorsese
[More grumbling about the late screening of “Wolf of Wall Street..”]

round one
round two
“12 Years a Slave”
“Wolf of Wall Street”
[more grumbling re: late “Wolf” screening]

[some wag commented that “Wolf of Wall Street” will probably finish second in this category, too]
round one
no winner
round two
no winner
round three
Blue is the Warmest Color

That’s all!
And just over five hours!
Until next time….