Horace and Pete Ep. 1 (Louis C.K., 2016)

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(originally published at Brooklyn College Excelsior)

Horace and Pete, the new 67-minute drama from comedian-auteur Louis CK, demands explanation. It was dropped on fans via email without warning or context.

“A brand new thing from Louis C.K.,” read the email’s subject line, and the body contained little more than a link and a price—the usual $5. Why didn’t he put this out through his normal network, FX? Why did he keep it a secret? Some of this confusion was settled with a follow up email last Thursday, in which he explained that he wanted to offer viewers an “experience of discovery” without the usual “promotion, banner ads, billboards and clips that tell you what the show feels and looks like before you get the chance to see if for yourself.”

I appreciate the intention—the opportunity to see something fresh is rare and exciting—but this doesn’t make Horace and Pete any less mystifying. It’s almost like an anti-Louie, containing hardly any laughs, filmed in an uncharacteristically flat, non-cinematic style. It won’t get C.K. any new fans, and it will probably piss off his current ones.

Horace and Pete is about a 100-year-old bar whose legacy is threatened by family drama and changing times. C.K. and Steve Buscemi play the eponymous bar owners, who are introduced as bickering brothers going through the motions of an exhausting, unhappy life. As they argue over dirty dish towels, the bar fills up with regulars, played by such esteemed talent as Jessica Lange, Steven Wright, and Nick DiPaulo. This otherwise drab opening is made thrilling by the revolving door of familiar faces. After the regulars take their spots at the bar, Horace and Pete’s uncle (Alan Alda) comes in to crash the party. He’s a cranky, intolerant jerk whose first move is to unplug the jukebox, which doesn’t seem to surprise anyone. The rest of the episode is filled with mundane discussions among regulars, political arguments, and some heavy, Albee-esque family dysfunction. It’s all so loosely connected that I got the sense C.K. threw a bunch of first drafts together to give his A-list actors something to say.

Aesthetically, the show has the bizarre feel of live television. It’s filmed with multiple cameras like a sitcom, and includes many instances of actors flubbing lines. It often feels like it was drafted just yesterday, with a script including references to Donald Trump and the Iowa Caucus. C.K.’s follow-up email corroborates this by saying, “Enjoy episode 2, we’re shooting it now. You’ll get it Saturday morning.”

Producing a show this way is ambitious, to be sure, but so far it doesn’t seem to be much more than an amusing experiment. His regular show, “Louie,” reinvented the look and feel of a comedian-driven television show, creating a cinematic style adopted by other comedians like Marc Maron with Maron and Aziz Ansari with Master of None. It seems that his love of reinvention again informed Horace and Pete, but I don’t think it will start any similar trends.

In trying to figure out what we’re supposed to make of Horace and Pete, a big hint lies in its structure. The show is split into two acts complete with an intermission, making any suspicions about its origin crystal clear: Louis C.K. wrote a play, and rather than going to the trouble of staging it, he used his pre-existing channels to bring it to life. Now, if it was an actual Broadway play, its cast would make the ticket price too high for someone like me to see it. So, I guess for this reason, I’m glad he made it accessible for $5. But this begs the question of whether it works as a piece of television, rather than the medium it’s clearly meant for.

My answer is no, and I would also venture a guess that it wouldn’t work on Broadway either. It’s a passion project, the product of a creatively diverse artist with the means to construct whatever the hell he wants. You could argue that this is an exciting prospect no matter what (all hail the democratization of media!) but that’s another discussion. I’m glad Louis C.K. continues to experiment, but based on episode one of his latest venture, I won’t be too eager to tune in for episode two.

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Interview: Kent Jones

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photo by Barbara Anastacio

Kent Jones is an esteemed writer, filmmaker, and programmer. He has been the director of the New York Film Festival since 2012, and served on the selection committee for many years before that. His new film, Hitchcock/Truffaut, is both adaptation and homage to Francois Truffaut’s essential book-length interview with Alfred Hitchcock, first published in 1966. The film includes interviews with Martin Scorsese, David Fincher, Olivier Assayas, and more, compiled with clips from the films and excerpts from the original interview tapes, adding up to a fascinating and inspiring study of Hitchcock’s work. It’s a must-see for both cinephiles and filmmakers.

I met Jones at the Film Society of Lincoln Center offices above the Walter Reade Theater, where he arrived wearing Velcro biking gloves and a backpack. We ducked into a vacant office overlooking the Lincoln Center campus to discuss Hitchcock, film criticism, and upper-middle-class savagery.

 

When did you first come into contact with the book?

I think I was about 12 years old. There was this TV series that Richard Schickel did called The Men Who Made the Movies that was on PBS. I was [already] interested in movies but that was the first time I became aware that there was a director. So that introduced me to Wellman, Hawks, Capra, Minelli, and Hitchcock. Not John Ford, he hated John Ford. Anyway, that really captivated my imagination, but, trying to remember the exact sequence of events from when you were young is tough. Marty [Scorsese] is good at that. All I know is I saw that, I was already into movies—the gateway being faces, Bogart—that was the gateway for me. After Mary Poppins or whatever. Then I saw Dial M for Murder in a basement in my headmaster’s house with other kids that I was on a cleaning crew with. Then, not that much later, I saw Psycho and The 39 Steps together on beat-up 16mm prints. That was an eye-opening experience for me. The book was in the midst of that, and my experience of the book was the same as Fincher’s in my movie.

Were there other film books in your house already?

Somebody gave me a copy of “The American Cinema” and that was a big deal for me. Between that and Schickel…looking out for for the movies as they came on TV and puzzling out exactly what it was. It was little by little, I realized, ‘Oh, that’s what editing is…that’s what kinetic movement is.’

Do you think the book excited you [initially] about the idea of making films or thinking critically about films?

[long pause] You know, I don’t know, it excited me about what a film was. My own ambivalence about answering the question has to do with my own make-up, which is always to arrive at the door and then tremble before opening it and stepping in. I guess that’s a personal thing. In the end, both, and then at the same time, around that time I found a copy of Manny’s [Farber’s] book, and I found a copy of Godard’s book of criticism. Godard’s book of criticism is an illuminating experience in the sense that it’s criticism that is specifically written by someone who is already making films in his head. I don’t really agree with the idea that he was still a critic when he was making films, that doesn’t really make sense to me. I think it was the reverse. He was making films…as criticism, as he was writing.

That’s one of the things Truffaut is dealing with in this book. On the one hand there was the American thing he was contesting and trying to counteract. On the other hand, there was the French thing, which would be, from his perspective, a tendency to drive films that are being praised into a kind of description that abstracts them from their actual conditions. I think that’s true, and I think he’s specifically talking about Godard and Rohmer there. I don’t think it’s unjust, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t value in that criticism. It’s more of an artistic manifesto, the collected Cahier criticism of that period, than it is an example of practice. Manny [on the other hand], that’s more of an example of practice.

This project was brought to you, correct?

Yes, Charles Cohen called me and asked me if I was interested in making a film based on the tapes. There was a project that preceded me, that was going to be made by a filmmaker named Gail Levin who actually passed away. She was planning on making a very different kind of movie.

What was your process of finding your angle?

Nuts and bolts, just going back to the book, reading it through. Finding what it was that excited me, but that seemed that it could also be a movie. Then going through the tapes. All 27 hours of them. And, you know, just listening to them, and finding what it was that was an emotional exchange.

Can you talk about how Truffaut’s motives for writing the book relate to your own motives for writing criticism? I’m thinking of a piece you wrote for Film Comment about Michael Bay (“Bay Watch” July/August ’01), in which you look seriously at a filmmaker many people don’t take seriously at all.  Not to compare Michael Bay to Hitchcock, but it seems to me that your approach to that piece is in line with Truffaut’s approach to the book, which came out at a time when Hitchcock wasn’t taken seriously.

I have complicated feelings about that because, first of all, the thing about Michael Bay—and I do feel this way still—people talk about speed but in fact it’s the reverse. I don’t experience those films as fast, I experience them as a gestalt. It’s almost like the drive to create an automatic mechanism for speed winds up producing the reverse. Mad Max [Fury Road] is also like that. Part of it has to do with this thing that Brian De Palma talks about in Noah and Jake’s movie (the forthcoming De Palma, directed by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow). He says, ‘If you’re doing an action sequence, you have to know where everybody is.’ And, in Mad Max, I had the same feeling I have while watching other modern action movies, I guess I would call them spectacle movies, for lack of a better term. I never knew who had been killed, and who was still alive, who had been injured, who had been maimed. People would keep coming back and I’d be like, I thought that that guy died. He sprayed himself in the face with silver, what happened? And that’s something that started to happen in the late 80’s.

But, you know, that’s something different. Michael Bay is not…he’s a very sophisticated purveyor of something. Maybe less sophisticated now than he once was, and he’s efficient at it. I think, though, that there’s a problem in criticism, which is taking the model of thinking from one era and transposing it onto another. And I have to say that I think there’s a reverse problem now—and I don’t mean this generally—among the community of film culture and cinephilia that you and I share. I think that there’s this—I hesitate to use the word ‘addiction’—but there’s a feeling of resorting again and again to moralizing. You can do that in any number of ways. One is [to say], anything that costs over a certain amount of money is immediately suspect; anything that has a certain amount of violence, or deals with the police in any way that is not critical is immediately suspect; anything that has a certain patina of the Officially Blessed and Sanctioned is suspect.

The other thing that I think is over valorized – just because of the nature of what it is in relation to everything else – is spareness, slowness. As if spareness and slowness always equal patience, and as if spareness and slowness were a guarantee of purity. I find it, for instance, in the rhetoric around Abel Ferrara. You can find it in the rhetoric around the films of Pedro Costa. I was trying to deal with that when I was writing about Pedro, about Horse Money (“The Turning of the Earth” in July/August 2015 issue of Film Comment). On the other hand, you can feel it in the rejection or marginalization of films that are more generally recognized by the greater culture. So, I’ve had the experience a few times of going back and looking at things and saying, “I was just wrong.” And I was wrong for that reason. There are things I wrote about the Coen Brothers in that piece that’s in my book that are okay, but then there are things I wrote that I go back and read them and am like, “No, I was just plain wrong.” And I was wrong because I was thinking about it from this perspective…

This kind of automatic allegiance to something slow or…?

…An automatic allegiance to what’s oppositional and pure. An example is I still think Philip Garrel is just as great as when I first saw his movies, but I also think that David Fincher and Paul Thomas Anderson and the Coen Brothers are great too, you know? Same thing with Magnolia. I watched it again with my kids and it was like a light bulb going on. It was just like, “Okay, I missed it.” I’m not ashamed to say that I missed it, you know, no big deal. Same thing with the Coen brothers. I go back and look at Fargo and I’m like, that’s a pretty formidable film, and the reasons that I remember people coming up with for not liking it seem to me extremely suspect or cooked up. It’s interesting. I think we’re at a moment when things that are sort of made for fun but that can be taken more seriously…there’s not a lot of that. The one thing that I would point to would be the romantic comedies from England that Richard Curtis wrote (Love Actually, Bridget Jones’s Diary). I get into arguments all the time with people who are like, “You like that?” and I’m like, “Yeah, I really do” without apology. But I think that that’s the exception to the rule. I don’t think that there’s a lot of that.

I see people going out of their way to make something of somebody like Paul W.S. Anderson (Resident Evil) or John McTiernan (Die Hard). Whatever you’re into, but I think that’s kind of like taking the parameters and learned practice of an earlier time and applying it to the conditions of a period in which is no longer applies. The conditions of now.

I want to shift to the [New York Film] festival. You took over as director from Richard Peña in 2012. Do you have a sense of how your different backgrounds influence your programming? He’s an academic, you aren’t…

I think that when Richard came aboard in the late 80’s…I mean, [Richard] Roud had already programmed films by Hou Hsiao-Hsien…I can’t remember if he had shown a Kiarostami film. But, Richard recognized that film culture was opening up in the United States, and the sense of what film culture was or could be. His programming signified that, I guess I would say. Obviously he wanted to distinguish himself as everybody does. He was younger, considerably younger than I was when I did this. Richard was the one who brought me here in ’98.

And you were at the Film Society for how long?

11 years. And I was on the committee for seven of those years.

I mean, the conditions changed so much that it’s hard to talk about…some things are very personal. The festival got bigger because the film center got built, and that happened in Richard’s last year. And then Rose Kua (former Executive Director) wanted to have world premieres in all three big slots, so that was the case for Richard’s last two years. I did it my first year, and then I said I really don’t want to have all three. I want to have an escape valve for either the Centerpiece or the Closing Night. I got the value of doing a world premiere in those slots. It makes for something kind of fun and exciting in a different way. The movies have to be good. Aside from that, I’m all for it. It makes things a little tough. But it’s worth doing, it’s a certain kind of excitement that you can’t get any other way, being the first people to see a movie.

Other than that, I guess I would say Richard…there were things we disagreed on, there were many things we agreed on. We run the committees differently, it’s a different approach. I think maybe I’m more into comedy. I think also maybe Richard did have, he didn’t want to repeat, he didn’t want to just say, “Oh, there’s a new film from Hou Hsiao-Hsien…” I personally don’t care, whatever somebody thinks…you know, recently somebody said that it’s been said the New York Film Festival is an “Auteurist” film festival. Would I agree? I don’t know, if it’s films made by human beings, then yes, I agree. But that’s basically what they’re saying. And yes, every year that I’ve been back we’ve shown a Hong Sang-Soo movie, and guess what, if they’re all that good, there will be another one next year. I just sort of feel like there are very few great filmmakers…it’s a relatively small festival. It’s not Toronto, it’s a different kind of experience. So, that’s not a problem for me.

I also think that he thought a lot about global representation. Again, you’re talking about different conditions at different times. Romanian cinema for a few years was very robust. At the moment? I don’t know, I can’t really say. Same with Argentinian cinema, Mexican cinema to a certain extent…it’s very sad that the conditions have changed to a certain degree but they have.

Do you see the role of a film festival, this one in particular, changing or shifting with the VOD movement, etc?

I don’t know. That’s really hard to quantify. I mean I do think that…a certain kind of filmmaking, some people would call it “auteur” filmmaking, I would just call it cinema, is becoming harder and harder to make. It’s hard for Martin Scorsese to make movies, it’s hard for Paul Thomas Anderson to make movies, it’s hard for Alexander Payne to make movies—it’s taken him a year just to get financing for Downsized. I think that means, when those films are made, they’re seen by marketing departments as occupying a specialty position within the marketplace, and they’re marketed as such. That’s to our benefit at this festival. I would point to Bridge of Spies as a case in point. Inherent Vice…Fincher kind of straddles both sides of the fence…but I think that that’s absolutely the case.

People obviously spend a lot of time pointing to different moments in cinema and thinking of them as golden ages…you know, the 70’s produced a lot of great movies, but I also remember a lot of garbage. It’s just that the garbage was better than it is now. Maybe not even better, it was closer to the ground, there was less anxiety about just representing the ordinary polis. People get all worked up about that stuff and it was different. They didn’t have to be spectacular, or have a grabber of an idea, or be pegged to something conceptual. And in general they were made with a certain amount of care. I’m kind of shocked when I look at some films and see how they’re put together. On Christmas day, my kids and I and my girlfriend and my friend, Pete, sat down and we decided we’d watch The Interview. And it was like 10 minutes was way too much, I mean really. To say that that film is really not directed is to put it charitably.

I would agree.

So we wound up turning it off and watching American Sniper, which was all for the best. Great movie.

Anyway, the point being, the level of stuff has gotten to the point that it’s pure spectacle or it’s servicing what’s known to be successful. That leaves a very small window. I shudder to think what would happen if something terrible happened to Scott Rudin and Megan Ellison. I thank God that Jim Gianopulos is there at Fox, he’s the guy who actually loves movies, it’s unheard of but it’s true. And Steve Gilula, the guy who runs Fox Searchlight, is another one who loves movies. But, you know, most of the specialty divisions have been decimated, Searchlight is the ringing exception. I don’t think VOD really has put a dent in things. It might in the future.

At this point it affects everything in terms of what’s being made, which in turn affects what comes here…

Yeah, that’s right, you know, Junun went on VOD (on Mubi.com) the day after we showed it here. On the other hand, watching it on Mubi and listening to it on Mubi is a diminished experienced to watching it here. But not every movie’s Junun.

I want to go into your background a little bit more. So, you dropped out of NYU. Can you paint a picture of what your life was like back then? Did you drop out with the plan to be a filmmaker? A critic? Were you already a critic?

No…well, I don’t know. I did my freshman year at McGill, then I took a year off, then I went to NYU, and then I kind of like…part of it had to do with the fact that my parents were both laid off at the same time. They kept saying, “Don’t be worried, don’t be worried,” but I was. That was one thing. It was a bigger part of it than I remembered. I think I also, more to the point. Robert Creeley was giving an interview and they were asking him about Black Mountain [College]. He was there in the last days of Black Mountain when Charles Olson was the director. Creeley was talking about the experience of the place, and you he said that Olson’s idea of the place was that you wanted people to just engage with one another as opposed to stand up in front of a blackboard, and repeat with some kind of an engaging tone, what it is that they learned, as opposed to engaging with them while they were actually practicing what they did.

The teachers all had a stake in the school, there were [only] a handful of students, maybe 35, maybe not even. Creeley said, “I think that the problem is a college shouldn’t be a place, you can’t place a college, a college is a spontaneous occasion that happens between people when there’s a discussion of the determination of value and the place of one’s practice in terms of what one wants to do in life.” I guess my answer would be that I found the whole experience kind of…at the time, I thought, “Ooo scary,” but really I found the whole experience kind of alienating. There were teachers that I had who I liked. Most important of all to me was Noel Carroll. We became friends and still are. I was also pretty taken with P. Adams Sitney, I took a course with him. I took a course with Peter Wollen…it was okay. But P. Adams Sitney was a very interesting teacher. And that was a different kind of experience, and Noel was a different kind of experience. Then Noel split because they wouldn’t give him tenure. I really felt like, they’re not going to give a guy like that tenure? What am I doing here?

What was it about Noel?

Well, the first class that I ever took with him he said, “What’s the major fallacy about film critics?” (laughs) That was the first thing he asked when we walked into the class. He said, “The major fallacy about film critics is that they’re like overvalued meteorologists who can determine, you know, what the weather’s going to be and whether you’re going to like something or not. It’s a fallacy. And I was like, well that’s interesting. He was 100% on the nose, I’m all for that. It didn’t matter what kind of approach his students had, he would speak to them with respect. He wasn’t alone in that sense, there were other teachers who did too. But then Noel was also very unsentimental…he wouldn’t teach a class unless he felt like there was something he could learn himself, which is always the best attitude you can take as a teacher. He was very very thoughtful when he was grading papers. The first movie he showed us was The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, that seems unsurprising now, but believe me, in 1980 it was shocking.

He also taught a class at Millennium on narrative, and I can’t even tell you how unheard of that was. The word “narrative” was a dirty word. He also wrote a piece called “Towards an Institutional Theory of Film,” and what he’s saying in the piece is, “stop lunging at essentialism, don’t think that there’s an essential cinematic property that’s going to make one film more cinematic that another. If a film contains music, scenarios…any element a film contains, you have to deal with it, don’t treat it as extraneous.” That I thought was very important too. He had a protracted engagement with Stephen Yeath, who was involved with the whole semiotic Marx meets Freud meets Lacan. Noel took it apart so deftly that it almost took your breath away.

He still thinks of those days, he says, “People still think that stuff was necessary,” and I’m just like why? It set back the cause of cinema studies possibly for good. It relegated it to a secondary consideration. It taught people a way of not recognizing their own sense of agency. I thought that was genuinely disgusting, and it was institutionally recognized as the way of approaching cinema. Of course, it wasn’t just cinema…So, I just didn’t want to have any part of that. And I had been in film production and that seemed even less…I didn’t have the wherewithal myself to make out of it what I could. People kept talking about all these rules of filmmaking, and I just thought, why? I don’t know what they’re talking about. I was also very timid, and didn’t finish a lot of what I started. So…I didn’t have a plan.

So what did you do in those years after NYU?

I worked with handicap people of varying levels of cognitive functioning. I had done that in high school too. I did that as a way of earning a living up through the early nineties and then I started working for Martin Scorsese. But I started writing around that time…publishing, I was always writing, but I started publishing around that time.

So you’ve been in New York since…

1980.

Can you describe how audiences have changed?

Well, at the beginning of my time in New York I was actually working at The Village Voice as Tom Allen’s intern and Andrew Sarris’s intern, but I had more contact with Tom. Tom was Andrew’s second in command and he was a rotund bald man who, in addition to being a film critic, was a Jesuit monk. He got another job with George Romero, he was the story editor for Tales from the Dark Side and Tales from the Crypt, and Monsters. And I would go with Tom and some of the other interns to his shoots and some of his rough cuts, and Tom edited the “Revivals in Focus” section. He basically wrote it a lot of the time. He was supposedly culling the reviews from Andrew’s old pieces, but in essence he was writing them. Once Tom went on Jesuit retreat and he had me take over the column.

I would go to all the revival houses, and there were tons of them. There was the 8th Street Playhouse, there was the Hollywood Twin Cinema, there were all these places…my favorite place to go was the Regency, I loved that. Film Forum was later, that was the mid 80’s. The Regency was a cool place to go, it was really fun. Then, one by one, as VHS started, all those places shut down. So the whole idea of repertory cinema, where you had the same 15 or 16 movies showing over and over again was over.

I do remember in the 80’s coming to the New York Film Festival and just being absolutely horrified by the behavior of the audience. I thought that they were just savages, and that was my first experience of upper-middle-class people and the savagery that they’re capable of, which is unique. That is not the case any longer. I remember going to screenings Class Relations, L’Argent, You the Better, I have never seen audiences behave like that in my life. The Cannes audiences of critics for certain screenings of The Brown Bunny, and Southland Tales…but that’s critics, that’s different. This was…they were ready to stand up and throw fruit at the screen. It was just terrifying.

Then, I remember that settling down, but the questions would still be like, “I was wondering what you thought you were accomplishing with this film and why it should be important to me.” People don’t really ask that kind of question anymore, they tend to be more deferential to the film. As far as the revival audiences go, at Film Forum, as most people know, in the 90’s, audiences would laugh uproariously at everything. Anything made before 1960 was funny. That had to do with a kind of anxiety about where we’re at now, and our sophistication versus what came before. It’s an interesting topic.

And that still happens a little bit…

A little bit, but trust me not the way that it used to. Bruce was saying—we were reminiscing about this recently—I remember once we showed a Von Stroheim movie and people laughed at the fucking MGM Lion. I mean, really. They went there to laugh. But, Bruce said something interesting, which was, “maybe they’re laughing, but they’re responding. They’re not walking out, and they keep coming back, so…”

Well, to bring it back to Hitchcock, when they did the big retrospective last year…for The Birds, there was a lot of laughing and snickering. I have some ambivalence about it because, it’s okay to laugh at some of it. But there was a lot that felt inappropriate. I know this is a larger conversation…

Yes, it is. It’s a big topic. It means opening yourself up…you and I are in the habit of opening ourselves up to forms of address, cinematic rhetoric. Looking past stiltedness in staging. Other people—let’s call them regular movie-goers—are not in that habit. They’re in the habit of thinking of things in terms of, “Well it’s dated.” And that’s okay. I’m sure there were parts of the movie they weren’t laughing at. When you get a bunch of cinephiles in a room and they treat the experience like church, sure, but a lot of the cinema that we all love was not intended to be experienced that way. It doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be. It’s just, it’s not invalid.

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Queen of Earth (Alex Ross Perry, 2015)

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“I don’t want you to see me like this,” says Catherine (Elisabeth Moss) framed in a tight, invasive close-up. In this opening scene to Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth, Catherine has just found out that her boyfriend is seeing someone else. There is talk of an incident that claimed the life of her father. How long after this traumatic event did he begin his affair, she wonders? “Before,” he says.

In his follow-up to last year’s bristlingly funny Listen Up Philip, in which a cranky Jason Schwartzman played a writer seeking artistic success at the expense of everyone around him, writer-director Alex Ross Perry further demonstrates his tremendous talent and not-for-everyone sensibility. But the new film ditches the comic New York Story vibe of Philip for an unsettling, Dark Night of the Soul one. The two share a lead actress in Elizabeth Moss, and, again, her performance is the best part. For all its memorable scenes, the best moment in Philip came after its eponymous writer paid Moss’ Ashley an unwelcome visit. When she finally got him to leave, Perry held on Moss’ face for a solid forty seconds as it registered anger, sadness, and grief in quick succession. Ashley, like Catherine, doesn’t want to be seen like this, and Queen of Earth pokes and prods at this desire to control one’s emotional and physical space.

Queen takes place at an idyllic lakeside cabin, which has been made available to Catherine by her best friend Virginia (Katherine Waterston). It’s Virginia’s rich family’s house, and she says she can come up anytime she wants. “Oh really? So, Memorial Day? Fourth of July?” Catherine says sarcastically, not buying the generosity Virginia is selling. Pretty soon neighbor boy Rich (Patrick Fugit) starts showing up. Virginia is hooking up with him—he seems cool enough as he sweetly offers Catherine coffee in the morning—but he hangs around a little more than Catherine would like, and it’s beginning to get on her nerves. The tension escalates, and it seems to set off a kind of domino effect in Catherine’s mind. She doesn’t want some dude hanging around, she needs her best friend to be there for her. But Virginia doesn’t seem to give a shit, and their constant bickering begs the question whether they’re actually friends at all.

That’s about all I can say about the plot of Queen of Earth; it’s a story that is at once bizarre and incredibly simple. Alex Ross Perry has sighted Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) and John D. Hancock’s Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971) as inspirations, and these influences are certainly apparent. A climactic party scene openly recalls the former as Catherine’s paranoia is depicted with a subjective camera and a barrage of arms pushing her to the floor as she screams, “Leave me alone!” Since the film is narratively opaque, and about two women in a psychological tailspin at a remote cabin, it also inevitably recalls Ingmar Bergman’s Persona. At the Q&A after the screening I attended, Perry refuted this observation claiming, “Ingmar Bergman has nothing to do with this movie.” It’s true that upon close examination, Queen has none of the metaphysical artiness of Persona, its ambitions are decidedly more down to earth. But, for me, the association made me expect something deeper, perhaps supernatural, under the surface. Nope, Queen of Earth seems to simply be about two women being pretty shitty to each other. Bummer.

Even though the conclusion may ultimately be unsatisfying, the film remains a testament to Alex Ross Perry’s tremendous talents as a director, and his knack for assembling one hell of a team. He’s like the Tom Waits of directors—even if his voice isn’t your cup of tea, the all-star band will give you something to listen to. The greens and browns of upstate New York are beautifully rendered with the help of cinematographer Sean Price Williams, who shot in the director’s favored 16mm format. The haunting score by Keegan Dewitt (who also provided the lovely Kind of Blue-esque jazz score of Listen Up Philip), and the jaggedly unpredictable editing by Robert Greene (director of the fantastic Actress [2014]) add up to a near masterpiece of creepy ambience. It’s meticulously calculated to evoke a feeling of unease and anxiety as we are seduced into the psyche of the tortured protagonist. It becomes impossible to predict what will happen next, and it becomes exhilarating to find out. That Perry balances this portentousness with a sense of humor further demonstrates his impeccable control of tone. One night, Catherine wanders into the woods and finds a stranger passed out drunk. She invites him in and makes him a cup of hot water. As she stares with a crazy look in her eyes, she says, “I could murder you right now and no one would know.”

Queen of Earth is anchored by two brilliant performances from Elizabeth Moss and Katherine Waterston. Following her out-of-nowhere turn as the nebulous hippie-turned-straight-girl of Inherent Vice, Waterston is quickly becoming a go-to for characters who hold multitudes inside. Her presence is mysterious and entrancing, and it works perfectly opposite Moss’ anxiety-ridden Catherine. Moss can barely contain her emotions—even when she’s calm, it looks like she could burst at any moment. Together, their chemistry comes across like sisters more than friends, and they elevate the film from shallow genre exercise to fascinating character study. For those already privy to Alex Ross Perry’s idiosyncratic, movie-nerd sensibility, you’ll find a whole lot to like in Queen of Earth; even if it doesn’t add up to more than the sum of its parts, its parts are pretty mesmerizing.

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Spy (Paul Feig, 2015)

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In Spy, Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy) is given many identities—Carol Jenkins, Midwestern tourist; Penny Morgan, cat lady—but underneath her many costumes lies a bona-fide CIA agent. Spy was written and directed by Paul Feig, whose big break came with the seminal Apatow-produced Freaks and Geeks, a high-school comedy about a group of kids struggling to find their identities in a world that tries to assign them one. His new film is a pitch-perfect vehicle for the brilliant Melissa McCarthy, who is given ample opportunity to show off her talents for both physical comedy and quick one-liners. It’s also an effective spy thriller, with exciting chase scenes and shocking violence. But Spy is more than just a Bond parody because of McCarthy’s Susan Cooper, whose struggle to assert her true identity feels personal for both the film’s star and its writer-director.

As Spy begins, Susan Cooper is a CIA analyst working as the right hand woman to Bradley Fine (Jude Law), a prototypical movie spy—strong, smart, and handsome. Susan speaks to Bradley through an earpiece from the safety of a basement, where she watches his every move via high tech cameras and computers. Her introduction interrupts an otherwise standard thriller setup as Fine pursues a terrorist at a lavish party. As Fine moves through an environment of fancy people and champagne, Susan sits in a drab office with a bat infestation. Susan is in love with Fine, and their flirty banter is funny because of Fine’s obliviousness to its meaning for Susan and Susan’s obliviousness to its lack of meaning for Fine. When Fine is killed by the diabolical Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne), and it’s revealed that Rayna knows the identities of the CIA’s other active spies, Susan emphatically volunteers to take her turn out in the field; “This is for Fine,” she repeats. The idea so enrages agent Rick Ford (played by Jason Statham in a surprising comedic role) that he quits the organization, but subsequently follows Susan to Europe to make sure she doesn’t screw up the job.

The joke of Spy is that Susan doesn’t belong in this world because she’s overweight, genuine, and kind, but whenever she ignores these superficial assumptions, she kicks ass. An early scene gives a glimpse at her training video, in which she’s revealed to be an incredibly gifted shooter and fighter. Her supervisor (Alison Janney) is shocked by the video because she’s as used to the typical spy types—suave, confident, and sexy—as we are, and she would never guess that the office baker (there are several references to her love of baking cakes) could possibly be a better agent than someone like Bradley Fine or Rick Ford (who claims that he’s ingested every type of poison known to man). She’s often joined by the lanky, deadpan Nancy (played by British comedian Miranda Hart) who dresses in pant suits and looks like a younger Janet Reno. Her wide-eyed delivery gives the feeling that she can’t believe what she’s saying half the time. I wasn’t familiar with Hart before this film, but she’s apparently somewhat of a star in England, and her approachable charm and distinctly British timing makes it clear why. She’s given almost as many jokes as McCarthy, and this demonstrates one of the greatest qualities of Spy: the whole cast is written to their strengths so that everyone gets a chance to be funny; they’re not all there just to tee up the star’s laughs.

After last year’s nearly unwatchable Tammy, I was beginning to fear that Hollywood would mishandle Melissa McCarthy, but Paul Feig’s film really puts that to bed. She is charming and naive, but also strong and empowered. Yes, there are plenty of jokes at the expense of her weight and looks, but they only serve to show the ignorance of the naysayer, as she subsequently demonstrates her skills. Spy is air-tight, with an energy that remains exciting and fast-paced for its entire two hour running time. When looked at in comparison to Bridesmaids, which Feig also directed but didn’t write, it feels like an infinitely superior example of comedic structure. It’s one of the few modern comedies without Judd Apatow’s name anywhere on it, and therefore we’re saved from the loose, riff-heavy style that his film’s are built around. Spy is non-stop jokes, but every joke, and every pratfall serves its very real, very personal story of a woman breaking through the superficial barriers around her.

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Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy, 2014)

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“I will never ask you to do anything I wouldn’t do myself,” says Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) whose manic energy makes this statement less than comforting. Louis is the ambitious sociopath at the center of Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler, a truly nasty film that uses the context of local T.V. news to mount an American Psycho-esque satire of The American Dream. Louis is meant to represent today’s “self-made” man, completely self-educated via the Internet, and therefore devoid of people skills. From the opening sequence – in which he murders a security guard and steals his watch – his detachment from humanity is clear: he’s like Patrick Bateman without the job. But where American Psycho blurs the lines between reality and fantasy (it could all be a dream), Nightcrawler instead places its anti-hero firmly in the real world, and as Louis resorts to increasingly reprehensible behavior, the film’s representation of the “real world” goes from biting cynicism to suffocating misanthropy.

After he fails at obtaining a job at a scrapyard, Louis stumbles onto a highway accident. Like the calloused creep that he is, he pulls over and walks right up to the flaming car, at which point a van pulls up and two guys with video cameras jump out. These are stringers – people who troll accident or crime scenes gathering footage to sell to the morning news. “If it bleeds, it leads,” the crew’s leader (Bill Paxton, perfectly cast) says to the curious Louis, who immediately resolves to get in on the action. Jake Gyllenhaal – apparently exclusively playing weirdoes now – interprets the petty thief turned amateur videographer with a bug-eyed energy that truly leaves an impression. Losing 20 pounds for the role, he embodies the slim, emaciated figure of someone who surely doesn’t indulge himself. In fact, Louis is never shown eating, sleeping, or making love; when he’s not working, he sits alone on his computer. In effect, he is portrayed as someone other than human, like a superhero. Lou is never weak, vulnerable, or merciful; he is the ideal of self-sufficiency and self-improvement, doing whatever it takes to get ahead.

Dan Gilroy makes his directorial debut with Nightcrawler, and the craftsmanship on display is undeniably impressive. Enlisting the help of cinematographer Robert Elswit (who also shot Inherent Vice, which is the year’s best looking film by far), Gilroy shoots his characters from low-angle close-ups that exaggerate their menacing presence. The climactic car chase is an exhilarating sequence that places the audience firmly in the position of Lou’s in-over-his-head assistant. Together with Rene Russo’s convincing portrayal of a despicably desperate news anchor, all the pieces of Nightcrawler point to it being a masterpiece. The problem is that Dan Gilroy seems to not only hate his characters, but also hate his audience. Since we’re not meant to question Lou’s likability, we’re encouraged instead to watch with sadistic amusement. When looked at in this way, the film becomes like a test: How sick are we? Are we like Lou, completely detached from the misfortune of others? Or are we like the faceless L.A.ers who keep him in business by sadistically watching the trashy news reports? Unless we stop watching the movie, we’re implicated as one or the other.

While on his way to another crime scene, Louis hears a call over his police radio citing an armed home invasion. Immediately changing course, he and his nervous assistant Rick (Riz Ahmed) arrive at the scene before the cops. After secretly getting footage of the assailants leaving the scene, Louis boldly enters the scene of the triple murder with his camera rolling. As he coldly films the victims – effectively assisting the murder of one who is still breathing – the movie makes the leap from provocation to heavy-handed manipulation. The sequence builds to a moment in which Louis enters the home’s nursery, and we’re made to hold our breath as he fearlessly aims the lens into the crib. But the reveal is saved for later, as the footage is being shown on T.V. with the phony news anchors narrating. When it gets to the nursery, Russo’s Nina Romina shouts commands into an earpiece, “Build it! Build it!” As the broadcast shamelessly sensationalizes the brutal scene, it also describes our sadistic experience of watching it the first time; not only does the film play us like an instrument, it mocks us for being so easy to play.

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Listen Up Philip (Alex Ross Perry, 2014)

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Listen Up Philip’s pre-title sequence shows arrogant novelist Philip Lewis Friedman (Jason Schwartzman) huffily reject three people (counting the faceless slow-walker in the opening shot) who, to him, are deadweight on his journey to success. Philip bases his whole identity around this success, leaving little room for much else; as one frustrated love interest deduces “you only want to be thought of as a talented writer, not as a real person.” Alex Ross Perry, the director of Listen Up Philip who’s similarly experiencing his first tastes of success, likely relates to the ease with which artistic ambition can negatively affect the people around him, and the film gives careful consideration to those people.

Although Listen Up Philip contains some of the biggest laughs of any movie I’ve seen this year, the film could hardly be called pleasant. Schwartzman’s Philip tests the limits of the actor’s innate charm to the point where we are defied to like the guy. This is quickly becoming the director’s thing following 2011’s The Color Wheel about a brother and sister so abrasive David Edelstein called it “the most entertaining unpleasant film I’ve seen all year.” This begs the question of whether we really need to like him, and one’s opinion of Listen Up Philip might, in fact, depend on the answer to this question.

Thankfully, Philip is about more than the eponymous character at its center. Elizabeth Moss plays Philip’s photographer girlfriend whose tolerance of his selfishness reaches its breaking point when he ditches her for a solo writing retreat; “I hope this will be good for us, but especially for me,” he says with mic-drop confidence that settles any remaining questions of his likability. Philip accepts an invitation to stay at his idol’s writing cabin in the countryside. Ike Zimmerman (an obvious nod to Philip Roth’s Nathan Zuckerman) is a gray-haired intellectual who’s on the other side of Philip’s ambition; he’s had great success, but he’s no less bitter. With his angsty daughter, played by the amazing Kristen Ritter, the pattern of strained relationships becomes clear.

Apparently inspired by William Gaddis’ The Recognitions, Alex Ross Perry allows the film’s perspective to leave Philip for a good chunk of it. These scenes follow Moss’ Ashley as she struggles to reassemble her life after Philip walks out of it. The always great Elizabeth Moss is perhaps the true star of Philip, and this is a testament to her abilities as well as the director’s clear affection for her. Perry’s camera loves Moss’ face, sometimes holding on it for unprecedented lengths of time. A key scene involves Philip’s unwelcome return to their apartment. Ashley remains cold until she’s able to kick him out, at which point her face registers a wide range of emotions – anger, sadness, relief – in an unbroken close-up lasting about forty seconds. This moment is a synecdoche for the film’s main idea, in which the director means to focus on the people shut out by Philip’s narcissism.

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Alex Ross Perry’s aesthetic is one that – like Woody Allen, Wes Anderson, and Noah Baumbach – is rich with cinephilic reference. Listen Up Philip recalls John Cassavettes – shot on grainy 16mm film and composed of shaky handheld close-ups – but, like the aforementioned directors, he uses the reference only as a starting point to ultimately create his own world. Likewise shared with the Allen-Anderson-Baumbach camp is a literary approach that doesn’t water down its pseudo-high-brow approach to make it more palatable for a broader audience. In this case, Perry’s apparent Philip Roth obsession produces what feels like an unofficial adaptation of that author’s acidic and cynical tone.

Perry’s immense talents as a writer mostly come out in clever and deadpan dialogue (“Hang on while I put my head in this sweater;” “Here’s a piece of paper with some staples in it”), but it occasionally becomes overly self-conscious. After Philip accepts a job profiling a fellow novelist for a magazine, the cool-guy subject gets into a limo saying, “I’m a nice guy, read an article about me, I’m [air quotes] “self-deprecating.” Surreal moments like this disrupt the tone of Philip and, at the screening I attended, were met with that particular I don’t get it but I’ll laugh so people think I do chuckle. These har-har flourishes make it difficult to get too emotionally involved in the film; the effect is a keeping of the audience at arms length. Keeping us at arms length is surely the intention (at least partially): we, like everyone else in Philip’s life, aren’t allowed to get too close to him, and after seeing the deep hole of loneliness that he keeps digging for himself, we’re left pitying him, which is very close to sympathizing, which is very close to liking the guy. But this technique is most effective when it feels like an extension of the character’s cynicism, not the director’s cleverness.

The most obvious cause of the film’s distancing effect is the third-person narrator. Voiced by Eric Bogosian, the narrator impersonally comments on the events with a plainness that serves to undermine the characters’ self-importance. In the final scene, Philip aimlessly walks the streets of Brooklyn and the narrator sums up his life in just a few sentences. This moment is like a punch to the gut as it drives home the implications of Philip’s self-centered ambition. In effect, Philip got what he wished for – with no one close to him, he’s only known “as a talented writer, not as a real person” – and the result is tragic. Philip now shares the detached perspective of the narrator, no longer experiencing his own life in the first-person.

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Cutie and the Boxer (Zachary Heinzerling, 2013)

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The life of a “pure artist” is an endlessly fascinating subject. For most, the prospect of a life committed to authentic expression, a life separate from the practical needs of the ordinary working adult, is a dream that was crushed by the first student loan payment. In the 1970’s, New York City’s lower east side was a hotbed for bohemian artist bums; they lived in abandoned lofts, wore leather jackets, and said, “Fuck the man, I just wanna make art, man.” This moment in history, of which Ushio Shinohara (the Boxer) was a part of, remains the ideal that brings many young creative types to New York. But times have changed. New York, for one thing, is very expensive now. As one character says in Frances Ha, “the only people who can afford to be artists in New York are rich.” Furthermore, the lofts that once made perfect live/work spaces for industrious artists are now occupied by silk shirt-wearing stockbrokers. Cutie and the Boxer is a charming and poignant portrait of two holdouts from a different time.

Since the 1970’s, Ushio Shinohara and his wife Noriko (Cutie) have lived as starving artists. Their loft is overflowing with paintings, sculptures, art supplies and books, but they are poor. Early in the film an archival documentary tells us that historically Ushio’s works are widely admired but rarely bought; collectors often say, “That’s a wonderful image, but not my taste.” Ushio’s art is grotesque and bizarre, ranging from giant sculptures made from discarded cardboard to intense “action” paintings made using paint-soaked boxing gloves. He’s most famous for the latter, and it’s easy to see why, as the frenetic energy with which they’re made is a thrill to watch.

Ushio’s wife, Noriko (Cutie) is a brilliant artist herself, but she has been persistently stuck in Ushio’s shadow. To make matters worse, her husband’s reckless and adolescent lifestyle has made disaster management her primary responsibility. Noriko has been Ushio’s “assistant” for too long and her effort to emerge from his shadow makes up the film’s major arc. In an early scene, Ushio has an opening at a swanky SoHo gallery. While Ushio hams it up with the event’s attendees, Noriko watches pensively from a distance. This adequately sums up their relationship: Noriko fully supports and encourages Ushio, but years of financial and emotional struggle have made her less enthusiastic. This scene also demonstrates the film’s go-for-the-gut aesthetic, which consistently portrays Noriko as a tragic hero. The title may signal both of them, but the film’s perspective is clearly hers.

Cutie and the Boxer works so well because of director Zachary Heinzerling’s clear affection for his subjects. Heinzerling shot it himself, and through the absence of a proper crew the film attains the feeling of a home movie without looking like one. Noriko and Ushio are a documentarian’s dream – they’re eccentric, and theatrical – but Heinzerling looks past Ushio’s showmanship to Noriko’s quiet melancholy. The film, then, becomes about the harsh reality behind the bohemian ideal. While Ushio entertained artist friends with drunken aphorisms about the “artist’s burden,” Noriko was in the other room, feeding the baby or washing the dishes.

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There’s a powerful scene towards the end of Cutie and the Boxer in which Ushio is preparing for an upcoming show. The forthcoming opening will also feature Noriko, which prods the tension that runs underneath their marriage (When Ushio sees Noriko’s area in the exhibition he’s forced to admit how impressive it is, and he’s not skilled at hiding his jealousy). For Ushio, this threat sparks a frantic effort to create new work in time for the opening. He goes to work on a giant abstract painting in which layers and layers of colors overlap each other. Heinzerling brilliantly captures the intense energy Ushio puts into this work; at one point he appears to be on the brink of tears. Noriko comes home to find her husband analyzing what he’s done. “Hard to say what this is,” he says, “if it’s good or bad or finished or unfinished.” After a beat, Noriko bluntly concludes, “I don’t think it’s good.” Ushio is visibly disappointed, but he immediately goes back to work. Their relationship is competitive but constructive; Ushio wants nothing more than to please his wife.

Visually, Cutie and the Boxer’s vibrant color pallet deftly translates Ushio’s striking action paintings (which perfectly fit inside the film’s widescreen frame) as well as the muted melancholy of Noriko’s work. The real revelation is Heinzerling’s narrative use of Noriko’s drawings, which are bluntly autobiographical and thus offer the film a profoundly personal visualization of the couple’s rocky past. These drawings (which the film illuminates through animation) portray a bitter perspective on Ushio’s alcoholism, perpetual financial stresses, and poor parenting. Her bitterness often feels like hatred, which Ushio addresses by timidly asking, “Cutie hate Bully?” To this, Noriko laughs and assures him, “Cutie loves Bully so much.” It’s a sweet moment, and somehow we believe her.

Their life has not been easy, and Ushio has not always been the best husband or father. But such is the life of the pure artist, for whom art comes first. Noriko knew this going in, and their subsequent struggles haven’t affected her love and dedication to her husband. I’m no marriage counselor, but I would venture to say that resentment is fairly common in marriages lasting several decades. The difference is that Noriko – unafraid to speak her mind – expresses her resentment directly through her art. For this openness, Ushio and Noriko represent a somewhat ideal marriage. Noriko’s art is essentially a public indictment of Ushio’s reckless behavior, to which Ushio’s only response is, “Cutie hate Bully?” “Cutie loves Bully so much.”

8 out of 10

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