Monthly Archives: April 2015

I don’t care what they say anymore this is…My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn


For a director specializing in pop and modish violence, Nicolas Refn sure overvalues his capacity to feel. I don’t doubt that like most people he’s a complex guy but in the documentary created by wife Liv Corfixen he comes off as a man given to bathos, pontificating with numbing banality on his loneliness, the reception of his movies, and whether he pays enough attention to his kids. A director attracted to glittering surfaces shouldn’t dare come off as a boring surface himself lest he force some in his audience to give his movies the second look they don’t deserve. My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn lacks the imagination and daring of similar documentaries about filmmakers like Burden of Dreams and Hearts of Darkness: movies about madmen and their bat shit concepts. I learned nothing about scriptwriting habits, acting, influences (with an exception), or the means by which this fumbling Dane in horn rims scored his art house successes. Hans Morgenstern’s interview is more informative (and funnier — oh is it).

The arranger of scenes who made Drive and Only God Forgives would of course be attracted to Alejandro Jodorowsky, who makes bookend cameos with a pack of tarot cards. Corfixen’s camera reduces him to a dispenser of fortune cookie wisdom — a shock-haired exotic — and thus at home in one of her husband’s movies. My Life follows Refn in Thailand as he frets about Only God Forgives, the barbaric story of mommy love starring Ryan Gosling that played to baffled reviews. I loathed it, but so what? Who assembled a movie that fucked up? A man in a Bangkok hotel suite padding around in bare feet who nods when the toady at the other end of a Skype conversation mewls about “man’s spiritual quest,” that’s who. How “bloggers” will receive his latest masterpiece forces him to undo another shirt button. Resigned to deluxe self-exile like Bill Murray in Lost in Translation, Refn is as impersonal to his support structure and indifferent to native subtlety in life as in film. “Just the extras,” he mumbles as his car whizzes past a local mob on set (Me in 2013: “The frozen actors, fascination with colors and food and dress, and ritualized violence…adduce Refn’s treatment of Thais as half-savage Asiatics, of Thailand itself as a Fisher Price play set”).

But My Life‘s Us Magazine fodder concerns Corfixen most. About half of the film’s fifty-nine minutes depends on therapeutic drivel. I got the impression Corfixen doesn’t much like her husband’s movies, itself a marvelous idea for a documentary; maybe hurling questions Refn is her vengeance. On that level My Life would have worked, especially if it had toyed with the title pun: this damn fool shaped my life. The nadir is an exchange between Refn and Corfixen, the camera on him because his wife doesn’t deserve the closeup, he might say. “Because sometimes I need love too,” he chirps. “You don’t show me any love either,” she retorts, and at once we’re no longer in Thailand or the pink-splashed streets of Drive‘s Interzone but in “General Hospital.” There isn’t a single unexpected montage or cut; the scenes play like a student reporter filming an interview with the vice president of student affairs. The movie dribbles away. Refn talks desultorily to his young daughter in the car. As a parting glance he offers a blanket to Gosling, joking that he’s going to direct the second unit. The movie opens. In bed he reads a scathing review on his smart phone. He won’t read the positive ones — there’s too many of them.

‘Have I got a deal for you’


Emails published by The Intercept and the New York Times reveal the degree to which the American Psychological Association “secretly coordinated” with the Bush administration to give it the legal imprimatur needed for its torture program:

In 2003, the APA and CIA even cohosted a conference on “The Science of Deception,” which was attended by Hubbard, Mitchell, Jessen and other Bush administration staffers, according to a report on the conference. The topics covered included “research challenges,” such as the reliability of lie-detecting technology, what pharmacological agents were “known to affect apparent truth-telling behavior,” and “how might we overload the system or overwhelm the senses and see how it affects deceptive behaviors?”

In an email, Hubbard groused about his budget for the conference to the APA’s director of science policy, Geoffrey Mumford. “I can’t stay in the hotel with you guys without violating a half dozen regulations,” he writes. “I can spend several million dollars with no questions asked, but if I stay at hotel for $300 bucks I would rank right in there with pedophiles.”

Mumford replies, “have I got a deal for you … as a special promotion for APA members, who also work in CIA Ops AND are willing to share their last names, I will pull that pawltry (poultry?) room fee out of my policy budget and put you up for the night. This is the very least APA can do given the remarkable generosity your agency has shown in supporting the workshop.”

The NYT:

For years, questions about the role of American psychologists and behavioral scientists in the development and use of the Bush-era interrogation program have been raised by human rights advocates as well as by critics within the psychological profession.

The critics frequently criticized the 2005 findings of an association committee, the Presidential Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security, or PENS, which concluded that it was appropriate for psychologists to remain involved with interrogations, to make sure they remained safe, legal, ethical and effective. The PENS report eventually drew so much criticism from within the psychological profession that the association was forced to retract its permissive guidelines.

The drug war and ‘social control’: David Simon

Using his experience as a cops reporter, David Simon, creator of “The Wire,” analyzes what has happened in Baltimore, addressing the comment I’ve read about What To Do about a city whose police force boasts a black chief and most of whose officers are black. I’ll paste the lengthy response:

What did Tom Wolfe write about cops? They all become Irish? That’s a line in “Bonfire of the Vanities.” When Ed and I reported “The Corner,” it became clear that the most brutal cops in our sector of the Western District were black. The guys who would really kick your ass without thinking twice were black officers. If I had to guess and put a name on it, I’d say that at some point, the drug war was as much a function of class and social control as it was of racism. I think the two agendas are inextricably linked, and where one picks up and the other ends is hard to say. But when you have African-American officers beating the dog-piss out of people they’re supposed to be policing, and there isn’t a white guy in the equation on a street level, it’s pretty remarkable. But in some ways they were empowered. Back then, even before the advent of cell phones and digital cameras — which have been transforming in terms of documenting police violence — back then, you were much more vulnerable if you were white and you wanted to wail on somebody. You take out your nightstick and you’re white and you start hitting somebody, it has a completely different dynamic than if you were a black officer. It was simply safer to be brutal if you were black, and I didn’t know quite what to do with that fact other than report it. It was as disturbing a dynamic as I could imagine. Something had been removed from the equation that gave white officers — however brutal they wanted to be, or however brutal they thought the moment required — it gave them pause before pulling out a nightstick and going at it. Some African American officers seemed to feel no such pause.

What the drug war did, though, was make this all a function of social control. This was simply about keeping the poor down, and that war footing has been an excuse for everybody to operate outside the realm of procedure and law. And the city willingly and legally gave itself over to that, beginning with the drug-free zones and with the misuse of what are known on the street in the previous generation as ‘humbles.’ A humble is a cheap, inconsequential arrest that nonetheless gives the guy a night or two in jail before he sees a court commissioner. You can arrest people on “failure to obey,” it’s a humble. Loitering is a humble. These things were used by police officers going back to the ‘60s in Baltimore. It’s the ultimate recourse for a cop who doesn’t like somebody who’s looking at him the wrong way. And yet, back in the day, there was, I think, more of a code to it. If you were on a corner, you knew certain things would catch you a humble. The code was really ornate, and I’m not suggesting in any way that the code was always justifiable in any sense, but there was a code.

The trouble with unspoken codes is that no piece of paper will prove their existence, corroborate Simon’s account.

But I’m less interested in the politics of code than fealty to a policy that grinds everyone from chiefs and district commanders to the kid busted on a possession charge into dust you can’t even sell on the street. Simon’s Howard Colvin put it best in “The Wire”‘s Season Three: “But policing? I mean, you call something a war and pretty soon everybody gonna be running around acting like warriors. They gonna be running around on a damn crusade, storming corners, slapping on cuffs, racking up body counts. And when you at war, you need a fucking enemy.”

Mother love: Mommy


Some movies want to belt you out of the theater; Mommy wants to tie you to the chair, jam a stick of dynamite in your mouth, and light it. The young Canadian writer-director Xavier Dolan has made fascinating movies that thrive on awkwardness and humiliation. Like Gena Rowlands and Peter Falk in their Cassavetes films, Dolan’s characters spray their emotions like bullets. Mommy plays at times like a second try at I Killed My Mother, the 2009 debut in which Dolan himself played the awful gay son who can’t get along with his awful mother. He doesn’t anticipate ambivalent responses. Here’s one: when it works Mommy is affecting; when it doesn’t, hoo boy.

Shot for most of its length in the unforgiving rectangle of smartphone video, presumably for that vérité quebecoise, Mommy fills its frames to bursting. Its opening title card sequence explaining the Canadian law obligating parents to institutionalize children whom they can’t care for is one of its few concessions to realist drama. Diane “Die” Després isn’t. From the moment the camera studies her sequined jeans and the way she dots her signed i’s with bubbles with a keychain, Dolan has Barbara Stanwyck’s Stella Dallas in mind: the cinema’s grandest example of a hellion on heels, a mother so Teflon-coated against irony that her bad taste and monstrous egotism adduce her goodness of heart even if no one can stand to be around her. Anne Dorval, who plays Die, isn’t sympathetic; she doesn’t soften Die’s egoism. But she makes clear she regards her son as the promise of a youth unfulfilled — hers.

When Die springs Steve from the institute, it’s not clear who’s taking care of whom, hard to know who’s more juvenile, which is Dolan’s point. Family relations can infantilize, he suggests. Then a neighbor, a woman with a steady gaze and stutter named Kyla (Suzanne Clément), joins the mix. And it’s a mix. Given to tantrums and abrupt violence, Steve is incapable of holding a conversation without making interlocutors feel guilty. He’s even wore than Die; when his hormones direct him to Kyla I was afraid for her not Steve. But Dolan loves him anyway. He ravishes Steve with the Dolan hallmarks: characters (and actors) playing with self-presentation, set to jump cuts, like a scene with Steve slapping aftershave on his cheeks after a bath and yelling like Macauley Culkin in Home Alone; slow-mo sequences in which Steve can’t contain agony or ecstasy; threshold shots meant to establish a distance that Dolan will erase in the next scene; frontal shots. Another moment indulges Dolan’s fetish for kids reveling in the Spirit of Youth, this time set to Counting Crows and requires Steve throwing shit into a shopping cart outside, a kind of motif. Dolan loves music so much that I suspect he has the song in mind before the scene and writes a scene commensurate with the song’s emotional center (Heartbeats, my favorite of his movies and in my head a dorm room classic, imagines a milieu set to a rotation of The Knife’s music). The most fulsome scene Dolan soundtracks to Celine Dion’s “On Ne Change Pas,” his trio uneasily swaying to the rhythm of feelings over which they have little control.

With details arranged like this Mommy sounds like a great movie, but it isn’t. Dolan uses actors as crutches, and when they fail him he lets them shout at each other like in the third act of a Paddy Chayefsky script. To watch the movie sink to those hysterics makes me wonder if he’s learned a thing from I Killed My Mother. He has though. And he will.

The so-called thrill of live performance

I’ve been to few concerts alone, all for the purposes of reviewing, so the real question is whether I like them. The peripatetic nature of bands touring Florida had an influence. In my younger and more vulnerable years I didn’t relish getting home at 3 a.m. after a Consolidated-Meat Beat Manifesto show. Even in my twenties I wasn’t a show-a-week guy. Put simply, I don’t care that much about live performances. I don’t collect bootlegs. Standing around during a show bores me after a few minutes no matter how much I adore the headliner (Can we talk? Can I get another drink? Can I leave yet?). With the advent of YouTube, I can watch a couple clips of a show I missed last week or of a George Clinton concert in the early nineties. The primacy of the live experience, though, is such a cultural archetype that smart phones haven’t made a significant dent on an act’s touring revenue; posting video is part of the live experience for anyone under thirty. Seeing a band also forms part of a whole, according to purists; it completes the circle or something. I even know a couple of people for whom live is realer than studio.

This reflection on the potency of hangovers and sore knees made me grin a couple times, although the line “There has to be some sort of credibility that comes with decades of music obsession” didn’t. I don’t think Liz Ohanesian was being ironic. Credibility from whom? The reward is the work and the thrill of the occasional magnificent gig and getting paid for it. Also, I suppose, the validation of one’s prejudices. Does a Speedy Ortiz or after hours Prince show strike a blow against the Limp Bizkit, Marilyn Manson and 311 fans who induce tears and vomiting? I’m certain those people check out acts mining similar veins (the kids at the radio station I advise were equally excited in 2012 to see M83 and Public Image Ltd). Condemning the phony Beatlemania of worshipping the crap of her childhood, she writes from the point of view of a reviewer who still must crawl to this new band playing at that shitty club only to read more nostalgia on Facebook, god bless her. Someone has to do it for me.

Gay workers…?


It’s hard to imagine a country in which it’s legal for gay people to marry but it’s also legal to discriminate against gay workers, but it’s possible. In the past, as miscegenation laws were struck down, in some states it was still legal to discriminate on the basis of race against one member of a bi-racial couple. In the same way, all you have to do it look at the “religious liberty” exemptions cropping up to see how the fight for gay rights will not be settled by a positive ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, the case being heard tomorrow. There is still work to be done. Fortunately, the gay rights movement is one of the most effective civil rights movements in history, so there’s good reason to be optimistic.

Because money is on its side. Because the money on its side is white. “Do you deal in black money?” Boy George asked in 1983. The question still applies, especially after Baltimore.

Transience, Swiss style: Clouds of Sils Maria


In Olivier Assayas’ breakthrough film Irma Vep, Maggie Cheung plays an actress whose role infects her real life. Clouds of Sils Maria also studies the correspondences between script and life. But Assayas’s tread is as careful and expert as Cheung in her cat burglar costume. Although he films moments in which Maria Enders and personal assistant Valentine exchange play dialogue that glosses their own relationship, he stops the nonsense before it smothers his actresses and the audience. If the results are not top tier Assayas, Clouds of Sils Maria remains a piquant movie about transience. We matter — until we don’t.

Art direction and interiors matter in this movie like they haven’t since 2000’s Sentimental Destinies. If Valentine can’t get a porcelain teapot, suite, mini bar, or private entrance for Maria, then she’s worthless to her. In their first scene on a train ride to Zurich, where Maria will accept an award on behalf of playwright Wilhelm Melchior, Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart establish the contours of their arrangement: Valentine handles press, legal matters, and bookings. When she’s working she’s attached to her smart phone. Her reward, besides what is presumably good money, is sharing Maria’s luxuries and acting as confessor and companion. It’s clear Maria respects Valentine; she keeps her around in part because Valentine disagrees with her, often. One of the pleasures of Clouds of Sils Maria is watching two actresses in character make each other laugh over scotch and cigarettes.

An ill-fated train ride though. As Maria finalizes a divorce she learns of Melchior’s death. The introduction she had written for the awards ceremony? It has to be a eulogy. Twenty years ago, Maria had starred in his adaptation of Maloja Snake as Sigrid, the retainer to the actress Helena. They had briefly been lovers. The hot director Klaus Diesterweg (Lars Eidenger ) corners her at a post-award reception—will she star as Helena? He has waved the script at Jo-Ann Ellis, a young theater actress best known for starring in a comic book adaptation and for launching herself at a car in a drunken rage; she will start an affair with a married novelist (Johnny Flynn) who defines “Aryan.” Maria is unsure. She wants substantial parts but the play calls up unpleasant memories. There is also the uncomfortable fact that age requires her to play the older role.

She and Valentine retreat to a cottage in the Alps, where the bulk of Clouds of Sils Maria takes place. On hikes and in the garden they rehearse Maloja Snake. Where the play ends and their shared moments begin creates an uncomfortable frisson. Maria chuckles often at its ponderosities and forced epiphanies—the kind of response by an actress in her late forties who can rebuke the Important Scripts that established her. It’s also an escape valve for the director. Fluent in English and one of the best critics of his own work, Assayas’ dialogue wobbles like Jell-O in a bowl; it’s the kind of smart talk that Woody Allen used to write for his pompous intellects, unaware that the egg was on his own face. “Her conventional style of acting highlighted the modernity of her performance,” Klaus explains to Maria about Jo-Ann (maybe he’s supposed to sound like a Frenchman’s idea of a German director). When it isn’t leaden it’s expository. “He left nothing to chance. He knew he was sick for a long time,” Maria says about Melchior, as if this were important. But Assayas can also nail an attitude, such as how technology shapes casual judgments: “He’s precise, violent, likes to hit women. Look it up on the internet,” Valentine says early in the movie about a character.

Structured as a two-act structure with epilogue, Clouds of Sils Maria wants to be meta and allusive. It’s the sort of script a young man writes to show his intelligence (meta games fascinate young writers). As I noted already, texts that comment on themselves also contain apologies for bad ideas; defenders can respond to accusations with “The dialogue is supposed to be stilted!” But Assayas, whose late run of astonishing movies demonstrates a comprehension of the connections between people and decor, between people and environment, still has the lightness of a dragonfly skimming the surface of a pond. Much of Clouds of Sils Maria‘s pre-release publicity centered on its indebtedness to The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, the 1972 film about actress and employee in a death grip; but Rainer Werner Fassbinder reveled in the stagebound conventions. Claustrophobic and heady, …Petra Von Kant want to smother the audience; it’s one of Fassbinder’s best but you must be in the mood for it. How fitting that most of Clouds of Sils Maria is set in Switzerland. The country of a thousand years of peace, to quote James Merrill, looks designed for VIP tastes, from its perfectly piled snowbanks and natural wonder of cloud and mist and air to the superb wine lists in every restaurant. Assayas doesn’t gawk at the plushness: this is Maria’s world, he says. Binoche’s performance signals awareness that age and leisure can without stimulation turn into anesthetics. Stewart’s signals impatience with being paid to be a bad cop. Her concentration should surprise no one who watched her in Still Alice, Adventureland, and the first Twilight movie. With her round weary face, Stewart was made for this role.

Carlos and Something in the Air showed Assayas’ ear for the jargon of revolution; Clouds of Sils Maria shows his ear and eye for the rhetoric of flattery. The best of the later scenes requires Jo-Ann Ellis to meet Maria at last. At the hotel bar Jo-Ann compensates for the self-consciousness of being the recovering alcoholic who has to stick to chamomile tea by pinning Maria to her chair with praise. Eschewing close-ups of Valentine, as if he’s weighed her worth to the assembled players, Assayas watches Jo-Ann. You were so elegant in that movie with Harrison Ford? What was it called? Even a woman as smart as Maria isn’t impermeable to praise. No one is. As Jo-Ann talks, it’s obvious her calculation outpaces her intelligence—precisely what makes her fascinating to Valentine, thus confirming Valentine’s first impressions. Hollywood too. Her future is assured—until she turns forty.

Dampened somewhat by its musty subject (even if Assayas has shown he knows the history of French ceramics and the Cold War) in the shadow of Irma Vep, Clouds of Sils Maria is still a better aren’t-actors-a-crazy-bunch-of-guys picture than, say, Birdman. There’s life in every frame, extra-diagetically too, like a scene on the mountain set to Primal Scream’s “Kowalski” that’s as much Pitchfork bait as Maggie Cheung burgling to Sonic Youth’s “Tunic” in Irma Vep. The last third includes a Antonioni-esque reminder of Valentine’s unimportance. She’s an employee. She can be replaced at any time. She knows her place, and it’s this knowledge that gives her exchanges with Maria their peculiar liberty. As Maria herself recedes into a supporting role in the last fifteen minutes, Cloud of Sils Maria become a study of detachment. Her talent for keeping her head while all others lose theirs is as formidable as her acting. Binoche’s too.