brazil in a black mirror: how “bacurau” turns the western on its head

First published in BFI on October 4, 2019. 

Kleber Mendonça Filho’s genre-bending third feature Bacurau, co-directed with his longtime production designer Juliano Dornelles, draws from a wide range of inspirations: the history of the Brazilian Sertão, the Vietnam war, 70s Hollywood movies.

But the film’s Black Mirror-esque premise of western tourists hunting Brazilian villagers for sport – and of the villagers fighting back in grand, gory style – emerged from an unlikely setting: a film festival.

In 2009, Filho and Dornelles presented their sci-fi mockumentary short, Cold Tropics, at a festival, where they ended up watching several ethno-documentaries.

“Some of them were all right, some were well-meaning. But we just couldn’t take the way they looked at ‘simple’ people – the other – from far away places,” Filho told me during a conversation at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. “That’s how Bacurau began. We thought we would write a film about great people from far away places.”

This emphasis on the act of looking – on how movies shape the perception and social position of the marginalised – sets Bacurau apart from the two features Filho has made in the intervening years. Both grapple with the lopsided socio-economic relations of contemporary Brazil: 2012’s Neighboring Sounds is a gradually twisting drama about the wealthy residents of a seaside apartment complex and their servants; in 2015’s Aquarius, a middle-aged woman (played by Brazilian legend Sonia Braga, who appears in a wonderfully eccentric cameo in Bacurau) stands up against corporate developers who want to tear down her historic home. Departing from the social realism of these films, the self-reflexive, pastiche-heavy Bacurau takes on the tropes of classic Hollywood westerns and thrillers – and turns them upside down.

“I think it’s basically the same film over and over again,” Filho said of his three features. “They are all under siege. But this one of course, is very clearly a siege film – it’s almost like cowboys and Indians, except the cowboys are the Indians, and the Indians are the cowboys.”

These subversions are rooted in actual history. The fictional village of Bacurau, set in the hinterlands of Brazil’s arid north-east, is based on a quilombo: a settlement (and site of resistance) formed by escaped African slaves in the 1600s. But the film updates the traditional quilombo to a more eclectic community of outcasts. Bacurau is made up of white, indigenous, and black people; gay and trans folks; doctors, prostitutes, teachers, pansexual gangsters, and even a bard.

“We’re dealing with archetypes, because we’re doing a genre film about a village that resists,” said Dornelles. “We talked about Asterix, the comic book series a lot – that’s where the bard comes from. But of course, we needed to be very honest with the representation of that kind of place, so we also used a lot of people from nearby villages. They understood the story that we were wanting to tell. It was like they knew that type of situation.”

“We found amazing people who had never been to a movie theatre,” added Filho. “One of the guys who ended up in the film makes a living digging wells and finding water. He uses a stick shaped like a Y, and he also has an iPhone. That weird mix was fascinating for us.”

Part of the pleasure of Bacurau is to see the villagers use that mix of tradition and tactical sophistication to outwit the westerners. In the first half of the film, which unfolds like a sci-fi thriller, the tourists send a UFO-shaped drone to recon the village, shoot up Bacurau’s water-tank with machine guns, and wipe out the power in the area with a snazzy device. But their military-grade gadgetry is no match for the grit and resourcefulness of the Bacurauans, who draw from their long history of rebellion and resilience for their bloody response – literally using the weapons hung on the walls of the village museum.

“That comes from, for example, what happened to the Soviets in Afghanistan in 1980, or the United States in Vietnam,” said Filho. “There are many moments in the script when we felt the film was a war film, not a western. It really has the psychology of a war film.”

A line in the film makes this connection explicit. When two of the western tourists come across a row of bloodied clothes hung out to dry at the outskirts of Bacurau, they exclaim, “Fucking savages!” – a direct reference to Apocalypse Now (1979).

“That’s from Robert Duvall’s Captain Kilgore, when he decides he wants to surf,” Filho said. “But there’s a problem, there’s a village on this wonderful beach. So what does he do? He takes 20 helicopters and bombs the shit out of the village. Then there’s a reaction, a ground-to-air missile from the Viet Cong, and it hits a helicopter. And Kilgore says, ‘Fucking savages.’ And he’s the one attacking the village!”

Bacurau invokes several other Hollywood movies, in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways. The village school is named after ‘João Carpinteira’, aka John Carpenter, whose original composition, ‘Night’, is used in a key scene, while the film’s pulp aesthetic – CinemaScope photography, split diopter shots, vintage dissolves and wipes – recalls thrillers and exploitation films from the 70s and 80s.

“We are cinephiles, and we love American films” said Dornelles. But Bacurau’s references to American cinema go beyond mere homage – they’re deployed towards a sharp, parodic critique of American culture and policy. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the casting of Udo Kier as the proto-Nazi leader of the western mercenaries, who proudly proclaims his immigrant roots in America.

According to Filho and Dornelles, Kier’s character was inspired by Die Hard (1988). “Look at Alan Rickman’s character. ‘Hans Gruber.’ Come on! Hans Gruber?!,” Filho laughed. “He’s a very interesting character, you can’t take your eyes off him. But Hans Gruber? He doesn’t even speak German, and he’s [supposed to be] German. So [I thought], yeah, we can do the same in this film.”

Another character in Bacurau, almost caricaturish, is a gun-crazy American who talks about wanting to shoot up a mall after being divorced by his wife. “We thought that it would be fair to have these American characters,” said Filho. “Especially when you look at the history of American cinema, the way it has represented other cultures is very problematic.”

But Dornelles added that he doesn’t see the film as anti-American. “I think it’s anti-gun culture, more than anything else. They are not only Americans – there are Russians, a British guy. The main issue is that they’re white men from the northern hemisphere.”

The film’s underlying narrative of corrupt officials selling their people out to western capitalists hits even harder in Brazil, where the mere existence of the film feels like a political statement. The country’s right-wing government, led by president Jair Bolsonaro, dissolved its Ministry of Culture in January and recently froze all funding for ANCINE, the national film-TV agency. The state has also personally targeted the politically outspoken Filho, demanding that he return the state funds used in the production of Neighboring Sounds seven years ago.

Nevertheless, Bacurau has enjoyed great success at the box office – especially in Brazil’s north-east, where the film is set. “I think the whole atmosphere is really feeding into the dystopian nature of the film, and people are recognising it. The film establishes a very strong dialogue with reality,” Filho said.

One of the key moments in the film has proved eerily prescient. During a geography lesson, the local schoolteacher realises that Bacurau has suddenly disappeared from the online map. “We have a digital life and we have our physical life. Bacurau, of course, continues to exist physically, and when [the teacher] pulls down the paper map [in the classroom], they’re still there. But to the outside world, they have become extinct. I find it a very scary and cynical idea, which happens all the time in the world today.”

Strangely enough, months after Filho and Dornelles had shot that scene, it became a reality in Brazil.

“In March, we were going to France for post-production, and a friend sends us a link to a newspaper, where [it says] the government decided to erase this grid within a protected Brazilian indigenous area. That was the beginning of the crisis that we are seeing now with the burning of the Amazon.”

“It happens almost every week that some moments in the film, some scene, becomes a mirror image of what is happening in current affairs. We have the museum in the film, and we have our National Museum that, one year ago, burned down. We have many such examples.”

But Filho cautioned against reading Bacurau “like a news piece” on Brazil. “It’s not,” he said. “It’s cinema.”

toronto dispatch: marriage story

First published on Firstpost on September 13, 2019. 

Most of Noah Baumbach’s films can be described, in one way or another, as “marriage stories”: his scripts are often set in the margins of marital or romantic strife, burrowing into the cracks that develop before, after, and around a souring relationship.

In his masterful The Squid and the Whale, two young boys come to terms with the acrimonious separation of their parents; in While We’re Young, the nostalgic allure of youth tests a midlife-crisis-ridden marriage; both Margot at the Wedding and The Meyerowitz Stories feature a divorcee (or an about-to-be divorcee) caught in a complex, anguished nexus of familial dysfunction.

This makes Baumbach’s latest film, Marriage Story, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, both familiar and new. It’s the story of two New York artists (autobiographical archetypes that Baumbach frequently satirises in his work) undergoing a divorce. But this time, Baumbach steps away from the sidelines and enters the fray.

Marriage Story unfolds right in the middle of a marriage as it falls apart, zeroing in on the two people caught up in it and the havoc the process wreaks on their perceptions of themselves. The result is a film that’s more focused and raw than any of the writer-director’s previous work, but also much less complex and layered. The meandering asides, hyper-specific neuroses, and unsaid resentments through which Baumbach’s characters typically reveal themselves are substituted in Marriage Story for the simpler, broader strokes of shouting matches and heartfelt letters.

Charlie (Adam Driver) is the director of an avant-garde theater company in New York; Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) is an actor in his troupe. Their careers have grown together over the years, although who benefited from whom is a bone of contention. Now, Charlie’s Male Genius reputation overshadows Nicole, who comes to realize that she’s put her own dreams on hold to help realise her husband’s. When she receives a lucrative offer to do a TV show in Los Angeles, where she’s originally from and has always wanted to live, Charlie responds by ridiculing her (“I don’t watch TV,” he says at one point while watching TV) and refusing to leave New York. It serves as the push Nicole needs to realise that it’s time to leave and start her life anew — to “have a piece of Earth that’s finally mine,” as she puts it in a bravado monologue. 

By the time Marriage Story begins, all this is already in the past and the separation has been initiated. The subject of the film isn’t why they’re parting, but how, exactly. How do they protect their sweet, but demanding 7-year-old son, Henry, from the drastic changes that are bound to ensue? How do they divide their lives across two far-apart coasts? And most significantly, how do they reconcile the fact that they still genuinely care for each other with the realization that they make for a deeply unhappy couple? Charlie insists upon the fantasy of an amicable breakup, navigated with therapists instead of lawyers, but Nicole realises that extricating her life from Charlie’s requires a more clear-eyed and unsentimental approach. She fires the first shot, hiring celebrity lawyer Nora (Laura Dern) to fight her case.

Marriage Story hunkers down on what Baumbach has described in interviews as the “divorce-industrial complex”—a dehumanising bureaucratic process which reduces something as intimate as a separation into a series of arbitrary rules and exorbitant courtroom battles. Late to the game, Charlie is forced to confront the confounding nitty-gritty of divorce law. Since Nicole files for divorce while in Los Angeles, Charlie can only contest her in the same city. If Charlie doesn’t visit Los Angeles often, he looks like a neglectful parent, and if he does visit, he weakens the case to move his son back to New York. If he doesn’t respond in 30 days, he concedes by default; he also has to pay 30% of Nicole’s lawyer fees. Most insidiously, he can’t use any lawyer Nicole has already consulted — and on Nora’s orders, she meets with eleven of the best to ensure that she has the upper-hand. 

Not only do these legal back-and-forths form the most insightful parts of the film, but they also yield some of its best performances and lines — especially from Charlie and Nicole’s lawyers. Alan Alda plays Bert Spitz, an elderly lawyer who impresses Charlie with his ability to bring genuine empathy to the divorce process. Alda is gentle and firm in the role, gracefully delivering some of the film’s most profound aphorisms (“divorce is like death without a body”).

However, as the fancy Hollywood lawyer Nora, Dern is the true scene-stealer of Marriage Story — she is both tender and sharklike, evoking the best of her performance in Big Little Lies. In an unforgettable scene, she lets loose a diatribe about the unfair judging of mothers in divorce cases, castigating God as the ultimate absent father; “He didn’t even do the fucking,” she says.

Charlie and Nicole claim that their marriage has always been bad — then why do they insist on being so good to each other? Where do their affections stem from? We never truly grasp their story beyond the broad contours of a domineering male artist and a muse-cum-wife struggling for independence. When they go at each other’s throats, it’s the cliched complaints: you never loved me, you rushed me into this, you used me, etc. It feels like a template of a disintegrating marriage, designed to be broadly relatable, rather than the nuanced, eccentric, even rancorous portraits of relationships (romantic or otherwise) that we’ve come to expect from Baumbach. 

More troublingly, the script seems to give Nicole the short end of the stick. We dwell in Charlie’s world, seeing him in all his faults and virtues: he is woefully oblivious, so adamant to have his way that he can’t even acknowledge that his son is actually happier in LA. And yet, he’s a wonderfully caring father, a great boss and director to his theater troupe, and a self-made man whose abusive childhood has made him stubborn in his desire for a certain kind of family life. With Nicole, however, there’s much left unexplored.

It’s never fully explained why she so wants to move to LA, what her ambitions are, or what influence her TV actress mother — who dotes on Charlie, much to Nicole’s chagrin — have had on her. The film makes the same folly as Charlie: it refuses to consider Nicole beyond her grievances with him, effectively reducing her to an extension of her husband.

Marriage Story is nevertheless an intensely watchable film, whether due to Driver and Johansson’s earnest performances and onscreen charm, or Baumbach’s ability to capture urban spaces (New York and Los Angeles, in this case) with evocative detail. But it’s also a slight and sometimes bland film, whose protagonists never truly get under your skin. Ultimately, the film is more compelling as an account not of love, but of its absorption into the language of law — i.e, as a “divorce story” rather than a “marriage story.”

review: monos

First published in the September-October 2019 issue of Film Comment

Alejandro Landes’s Monos opens on the edge of a nondescript, cloud-shrouded cliff. A group of blindfolded teenagers walk around tentatively, arms outstretched, calling out comical-sounding names: Rambo! Boom Boom! Smurf! It looks like some kind of dystopian, Battle Royale-esque torture ritual, when suddenly one of the teens kicks a ball through the air and the group breaks into rambunctious cheers. They’re playing a game, it turns out–a game of daredevil football in the middle of an altitudinous nowhere.

The scene sets the template for Landes’s third feature. Any answer to how these adolescents got here is constantly deferred or denied, and the action teeters uneasily between menace and mirth: moments of violence turn out to be displays of joy and affection, the distinctions blurred by war’s ravages on unformed, pubescent minds. The eight teens at the center of the film constitute the Monos (“monkeys”), a remotely stationed squadron of a paramilitary force known simply as The Organization. They’re tasked with watching over an unnamed American hostage, the “Doctora” (a perfectly brittle Julianne Nicholson), and a milk cow, bestowed upon them in the opening scenes by their drill instructor, The Messenger (Wilson Salazar). He orders them to guard the cow with their lives (no prizes for guessing what happens next), and then leaves them to their high-energy antics: dancing, drinking, mating.

Monos unfolds in its first half like a mud- and sweat-soaked cross between Bertrand Bonello’s Nocturama (2016) and Claire Denis’s Beau travail (1999): it shares the former’s hyper-stylized, coolly abstract inquiry into teenage rage against the machine, and the latter’s obsession with the sensuality of bodies in militaristic, rhythmic motion. Landes–whose previous credits include Cocalero (2007), a documentary about Bolivia’s President Evo Morales, and Porfirio (2011), a docu-thriller about a Colombian man crippled by a stray police bullet–renders the rarefied setting and the giddiness of its young, violent inhabitants with an inspired sense of style. The film’s zooms and smash-cuts and crisp, incandescent widescreen compositions, shot by Dutch DP Jasper Wolf, are intensely watchable, although Monos‘s most compelling appeal is to the ears: as in her triumphant contribution to Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, electronic composer Mica Levi holds the film (and its viewers) in thrall with a score that brims with suggestive, unsaid meaning.

Although Landes’s script keeps context to an evocative minimum, the shadow of Colombia’s recently (and tentatively) concluded civil conflict is unmistakable in Monos–in fact Salazar, hired initially to train the actors in the ways of guerilla soldiers, is a former commander of the FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). But as things start to go wrong, sending the Monos fleeing into the jungle and forcing them to go rogue, Landes dispenses with these sociopolitical ambitions for a more simplistic urtext: Lord of the Flies, whose influence is made unnecessarily obvious by the brandishing of a pig’s head on a stick, and which reduces the real-life conflict to mere local color in a rather apolitical fable of survival. The internecine power-grabs and betrayals that start to fray the Monos are at best predictable and at worst reactionary; they paint war as something primordial and unknowable, rather than historical and structural, which is all the stranger given the history of the setting.

Monos feels more radical when its subjects make love (literally), not war. The teenagers, raised with strict rules but without heteronormative conventions, engage in an unironic and unselfconscious queerness: early in the film, three Monos kiss all together as part of an affectionate experiment; there are glimpses of characters in cross-dress; and sex is desired and wielded across gender lines for both power and pleasure. The slow-emerging protagonist of the film, a sensitive, wide-eyed Mono named Rambo, presents masculine (and is addressed with both male and female pronouns in the film) but is played by actress Sofia Buenaventura. Rambo’s growing tenderness and inability to be ruthless mark a turning point in the film, which pits the freewheeling play of the juveniles’hermetic life in the mountains against the growing, patriarchal rigidity of their rogue power structure. It is in these moments, when Monos inspires questions instead of simply withholding answers, that the film feels genuinely provocative.

open city docs 2019: caballerango

This essay was originally posted on the website of the Open City Documentary Festival  on August 8, 2019 as part of a series of new criticism on the films featured in the festival’s 2019 programme. 

“I do not wish to speak about, only to speak nearby,” Trinh T. Minh-ha famously said in her 1982 documentary Reassemblage, in which she attempts an anti-ethnographic portrait of Senegal. It might seem like an odd point of reference for Juan Pablo González’s Caballerango, which in many ways is the diametric opposite of Reassemblage. While Minh-ha wrestled with filming (without capturing or totalizing) an Other place and people, González’s films explore a setting and subjects he knows inside out: his hometown in Mexico’s Jalisco Highlands and its agrarian residents. While Minh-ha strives towards obfuscation and fragmentation, González opts for lush, wide tableaux, composed with a classical eye. And yet, something of Minh-ha’s desire to approach her subjects sideways—to gently, tentatively find an oblique entry point outside of the binaries of subject and object, speaker and listener—comes to mind when watching González’s films.

This elliptical approach is distilled beautifully in González’s 2017 documentary short Las Nubes (2017), in which an elderly man in the filmmaker’s hometown describes the night his daughter fled to the States to escape the harassment of local narcos. It’s an experience burned into his otherwise failing memory, and as he tells it to González over the course of a car ride, the director trains his camera unmovingly (and for 20 uninterrupted minutes) on the rearview mirror, capturing just a sliver of the man’s face against the glassy blur of the horizon. It’s an image of extraordinary economy that draws on—but doesn’t cannibalize—the intimacy between the filmmaker and his subject, making poetry out of the mournful raconteuring of the man’s eyes, the rhythms of car travel, and the harrowing stakes of the story being told.

Caballerango, González’s first feature, expands on his earlier (and debut) documentary short, The Solitude of Memory (2014). Both The Solitude and Caballerango open with the same shot; stationed, as in Las Nubes, inside a moving car, González asks the driver, a farmer named José, about the last time he saw his son. Then he holds his camera on José’s face as the farmer describes the night his son Nando—a childhood friend of the filmmaker, it turns out—committed suicide after an argument. In The Solitude, González explores the contours of José’s memory through repetitions and recountings, examining the way grief permeates his relationship with the land, labor, and time he once shared with his son. González elongates that conceit into the feature-length Caballerango with genuine exploratory intent; instead of simply elaborating José and Nando’s story or adding more detail, he expands the film in lateral scope. As he interviews Nando’s relatives and friends, other recent suicides and deaths, especially amongst the town’s youth, emerge like a chain of Chinese whispers, revealing a community in quiet, puzzled mourning.

What’s most striking in Caballerango is González’s ability to “speak nearby”—to draw out candid admissions of guilt, sorrow, and doubt from his subjects while making his own presence remarkably unimposing. His interviewees, often framed in isolation as they tend to everyday labor, seem to be delivering soliloquies, until the occasional, tender-voiced question from behind the camera—or a knowing look towards it—reminds us that they are in fact conversing with an old friend. González’s compositions, too, belie his familiarity with the place and its people, intuiting just the right angle, just the right frame for a particular moment or subject. A race between two young men is filmed head-on, the crowd’s banter about bets building up to a dizzying finish straight into the camera, while the slaughter of a cow is rendered in three, pithy acts: first, we see the cow being dragged down from a truck; next, a shot of the cow from the waist-up as it kneels on the ground; and finally, blood pooling into a puddle.

Amidst these distinctive vignettes appear certain refrains of motion: the cycles of a circular horse walker, or the linear march of a harvester moving across the screen. These neverending rituals of rural labor grind against the ruptures of deaths and disappearances — until the two start to intertwine in references to border-crossings and the deteriorating, exploitative agrarian market. Caballerango achieves the much-coveted imbrication of the personal and political, but it doesn’t mine the former or force the latter. Rather, González crafts a work of intuition, feeling his way through home, friendship, loss, strife, and socioeconomic change with the gentle rhythms of a heartfelt conversation.

write what you know

First published in Film Comment Magazine’s May-June 2019 issue.

Late Night invites us into a wondrous alternate reality—a world in which a woman is the host of a premier late-night talk show, and has been for so long that she’s now jaded and considered out of touch. When we first meet Emma Thompson’s witheringly sardonic and immaculately dressed Katherine Newbury, she’s accepting yet another Emmy for her 28-year stint as the face of a show called Tonight. But the awards don’t amount to much, we soon discover; her ratings have been in decline for a couple of years, in part because her writers’ room comprises entirely milquetoast men whom she has never even taken an interest in meeting. When an argument with one of these (uniformly white) men culminates in Katherine being accused of hating women, she issues her ever-patient producer Brad (Denis O’Hare) a simple dictum: Hire. A. Woman.

The speculative thrill of a woman reigning for decades over the daily, uniquely American ritual of late-night television primes us for the even more fantastical movie-logic that introduces Mindy Kaling’s Molly Patel to Late Night. Molly is an efficiency technician at a chemical plant and has no experience in comedy beyond cracking puns over the PA system at her factory. When she shows up to interview for the writing job, Brad is puzzled as to how she ended up there. Molly’s explanation is ridiculously, hilariously contrived, involving an essay contest and a skillfully wrangled meeting with an executive at the company that owns both her chemical plant and the network that airs Katherine’s show. Brad is about to dismiss her when he receives an impatient phone call from Katherine: “Have you hired a woman yet?” He sighs, and Molly gets the job.

It’s all a bit ludicrous, but that seems to be the very point. Late Night is a warm, winsome Hollywood comedy that proceeds along familiar lines and culminates with easily won happy endings: in the course of its 102 minutes, the ice-cold Katherine is softened and improved by the earnest oddball Molly, who proves herself, despite the digs and doubts of her colleagues, to be an indispensable talent. But watching the film this year at Sundance, which I attended with the help of the festival’s new Press Inclusion Initiative for underrepresented critics, and where, at parties, I fielded pointed questions about how I had acquired my priority badge, I sensed something sharper in the film’s opening gags—something closer to satire than to wish-fulfilling fantasy. Molly is the embodiment of the trope of the diversity hire; of the idea that, as one of Katherine’s writers resentfully says in the film, you can get “any job you want with zero qualifications” if you’re a woman of color. In literalizing that idea, Late Night exposes it as an absurd, Tootsie-esque fiction, the sort of thing only possible in schmaltzy showbiz movies, not in real life.

The stereotype of the diversity hire is something with which Kaling—the writer, co-producer, and star of Late Night—is intimately familiar. When I spoke with her in early April about the movie, she told me that she had landed her first TV staff-writing gig—on NBC’s hit show The Office—through a diversity program. “For years, I thought I was supposed to be embarrassed about that,” she said, “even though no one else is embarrassed about being a legacy or having all those other kinds of access.” Late Night is inspired, in part, by her coming to terms with that feeling of embarrassment, which gives the film a singular and timely sense of perspective. As Molly struggles to find her seat at the table in Katherine’s writers’ room (literally: she has to make do with an inverted trash can), she grapples with that peculiar predicament that women and minorities increasingly find themselves in these days—of being placed as tokens in workplaces that aren’t yet equipped to support them.

Late Night features a host of solid talents: it is directed by TV veteran Nisha Ganatra (whose résumé includes Kaling’s The Mindy Project); fueled by the radiant, charismatic presence of Thompson; and outfitted with gifted comic performers like O’Hare, John Early, and Ike Barinholtz. But this is a “Mindy project” through and through, not least because of its writerly, joke-a- minute humor. Late Night continues the tradition of the workplace comedies that have made Kaling a household name, from The Office, which she both wrote and acted in, to The Mindy Project, her smart, kooky, self-starring sitcom set in an OB-GYN clinic. “Since Americans work such long hours, our personal lives also play out in the workplace,” Kaling said when I asked her about her affinity for these stories. “If you do well at work, it’s a direct measure of you as a person. It’s ultimately the most relatable setting.”

Like these shows, Late Night derives much of its humor (and heart) from its characters’ attempts to navigate the blurring boundaries between their personal and professional lives. But the premise of a late-night talk show allows Kaling to explore these concerns on a much larger scale, with sociocultural, rather than just interpersonal, stakes. Part of it is the very setup of a late-night talk show: designed as a cross between a living room, an office, and a sitcom stage, and fronted by a jokey, avuncular newscaster, it’s the perfect example of a work space where the categories of public and private collide in uneasy ways. But Kaling also embeds her film within a fast-corporatizing TV and entertainment landscape, where these boundaries are being altered ever more radically. (And where cultural production looks a lot more like commodity production—hence Molly’s pivot from chemical plant to comedy, which slyly calls back to David Letterman’s recurring jabs in the 1980s at NBC’s merger with General Electric.)

Thompson’s Katherine finds herself up against all of these cultural shifts. Her wry, intellectual comedy, delivered with a touch of posh British superiority, harkens back to the days when it was perhaps more important to exude authority on TV than authenticity. Now, she’s being edged out by the more relatable and shareable (and interchangeable) Jimmys of the late-night world, and the smug new network president, played by Amy Ryan, threatens to replace her with a viral young comedian (Barinholtz) specializing in crass, sexist, and racially insensitive jokes. Desperate to save her show, Katherine finally deigns to meet her writers and tasks them with coming up with fresher, more relevant material. Molly rises to the challenge with a joke about reproductive health and menopause; “Make jokes only you can make,” she urges her boss. Katherine warily agrees, but reneges when Brad warns her quietly before the show, “Be careful about showing them who you are. Once you turn that switch on, you can never turn it off.”

These questions of identity and authenticity are central to Late Night, and the generational (and temperamental) differences in how Katherine and Molly contend with them make for a thoughtful exploration of two women in different, exceptional positions in the media. This isn’t a new formula, by any means. Late Night owes a significant debt to The Devil Wears Prada(2006), which centers on the relationship between a demanding fashion-magazine editor—Meryl Streep’s indelible Miranda Priestly—and her new, fish-out-of-water personal assistant; it also shares some DNA with the more recent (and much less funny) Trainwreck (2015), starring Amy Schumer as a young journalist dealing with a mean boss and commitment issues.

But what makes Late Night different from these films is, to put it rather simplistically, its intersectionality. Kaling’s script is closely attuned to the ways in which the crisscrossing axes of age, race, and gender inform the quirks and workplace experiences of its characters. Katherine’s reluctance to mine her femininity for jokes (“Never start a sentence with ‘as a female’—it’s tacky,” she says early in the film) isn’t reduced simply to her rigidity or hauteur. It comes, the film suggests, from having been the Only Woman in her field for long enough to be wary of the ways in which the media cannibalizes and pigeonholes narratives of identity. Katherine believes that comedy is a meritocracy, and she clings to that myth like it’s protective armor. “You think I’ve never been accused of sleeping my way to the top?” she says to Molly. “If you want people to see you as something other than a diversity hire, you have to make them.” This illusion of merit was something Kaling herself said she grew out of as she acquired more success and became an employer in the industry. “When you’re young and you’re one of the few people of color you see in these kinds of jobs, you think, oh, it is a meritocracy; I just happen to be best,” she said. “And that’s completely incorrect; it just means you’re lucky and you were in the right place at the right time. This movie is really about me coming to terms with the kinds of access you need to see these jobs in Hollywood.”

For Molly, who she is—a woman of color, with a background in industrial efficiency—is all she’s got going in this world that she’s slipped into on a fluke. One of the most revealing scenes in the film takes place at a party that Katherine is pressured into throwing to appear more approachable to the public. When journalists start piling on her for the lack of diversity on her staff, Molly jumps in to save the day, proclaiming herself Katherine’s protégé and posing cheerfully for photo ops with her grudging but grateful boss. Kaling imbues the character with a sense of grit and resourcefulness that never comes off as plain opportunism; Molly is humble enough to know where she stands and bright enough to be able to put it to use.

That thin line between making use of what makes you different and becoming typecast is something Kaling has navigated deftly in her own career. In 2002, a few years before The Office, Kaling found critical success with Matt & Ben, an off-Broadway play based on the kind of cleverly absurd, pop culture–savvy idea that has since become her trademark: what if the script for Good Will Hunting had fallen magically into Ben Affleck’s lap while he and Matt Damon were young, struggling actors? Kaling and her co-writer Brenda Withers played the parts of Affleck and Damon, and in the clips available on YouTube, one can see Kaling—dressed in sweats and a reversed baseball hat—effortlessly milk the comedy of a short, Indian-American woman channeling Affleck’s bro-y Boston swagger. Her characters in The Office (2005-13) and The Mindy Project (2012-17) followed the same broad template, but with an added layer of self-deprecating authenticity. They exaggerated aspects of Kaling’s own personality—her love of romantic comedies, obsession with celebrity and fashion, and self-professed tendency to be dramatic—to create ditzy rom-com heroines who were silly, endearing, and wholly idiosyncratic. “When there is little representation and you’re starving to see an Indian on TV, there’s a feeling that characters shouldn’t be idiosyncratic, they shouldn’t make mistakes, because you owe it to the Indians watching,” Kaling said. “But I come from comedy, and being good and perfect isn’t really funny.”

Kaling’s characters felt especially refreshing in how they subverted that burden of representation that’s often placed on minorities on screen. The Mindy Project was the first American television show to be created by or star a South Asian woman. Although its humor made use of Kaling’s racial identity, often playing against our expectations of Indians in TV and film, it wasn’t about race and immigration in the vein of Aziz Ansari’s original series Master of None (2015-) or Hasan Minhaj’s popular stand-up special Homecoming King (2017). That very quality also earned The Mindy Project its most vehement critics, however, who called it out for failing to meaningfully address her ethnicity and featuring mostly white love interests. But Kaling acknowledged these criticisms thoughtfully in the fourth season of the show with the same approach that had made her auto-fictional Dr. Mindy Lahiri so appealing in the first place: she leaned into her contradictions, opening herself up for critique without compromising the idiosyncrasies of her character. In one episode, she finally goes out with an Indian man, who calls her a “coconut”: brown on the outside and white on the inside. This precipitates an introspective storyline in which Kaling’s character considers her life and upbringing in suburban Boston (where Kaling herself grew up) and her parents’ attitudes toward assimilation. It also yields one of the greatest lines in the show: when Mindy asks a co-worker if he thinks of her as an Indian woman, he says, “Honestly, I think of you as a white man—largely because of your entitlement.”

The Mindy Project perfectly embodies Molly’s “make jokes only you can make” credo: it inflects the broader, inescapable narratives of identity that circumscribe Kaling’s humor with a measure of personal truth, so that they never flatten into the clichés that Katherine so fears. And this philosophy, Kaling suggests, can help an older white comedienne as much as a diversity hire. Katherine’s turning point comes when (in another of Late Night’s cheesy, only-in-a-movie moments) she follows Molly to a cancer benefit and surprises the crowd with some impromptu stand-up. When she realizes that her jokes about being “too old to play The Mummy” land better than the ones about the tautological semantics of Twitter faving, she finally gives in to Molly’s ideas. Molly soon has her trending online with a sketch series that finds Katherine playing a parody of a “white savior,” helping black men hail cabs and Asian women shop at fancy stores. It’s not laugh-out-loud funny (and here, the film’s late-night setting provides a useful excuse, setting a realistically low bar for provocative humor), but it feels rather affirming in a day and age when comics routinely complain that PC culture has led to the death of comedy.

In fact, one of the pleasures of Late Night is how, even in its slower bits, it feels like a salve for the crises in mainstream comedy: a how-to for comedians stymied by the cultural and industrial changes of late. A couple of years ago (Film Comment March-April 2017), critic Violet Lucca bemoaned the state of the post-2010 American comedy film, arguing that Hollywood’s reboot frenzy, the intensified focus on global markets, and the rise of the Internet and TV as the preferred platforms for comedians had drained the genre of its most essential qualities: “If Hollywood tried the more difficult option—getting screenwriters who privilege sharp wordplay over referential meta-commentary and filmmakers who can stage physical comedy that’s more complex than an actress splashing spaghetti on her face while driving a minivan—we would have something built to last in an otherwise dispensable, instantly forgettable media environment.”

Kaling straddles both extremes in the bighearted Late Night, combining easy laughs and movie clichés with a distinctively political sense of lived experience. Molly does indeed get hit in the face by a trash bag in her first scene, but the funniest gag in the film comes when she introduces herself as Molly to Brad—and he immediately relays her name as “muh-LEE” to the other writers. Drawing on a precise sociological observation, the joke captures in two (masterfully delivered) syllables the liberal tendency to overcompensate for cultural ignorance to the point of reinforcing it. Like the best satire, it exposes the absurdity in ordinary gestures, but also reminds us that what’s ordinary is not universal. Instead, it subtly cues us into a specific and novel point of view—one that’s markedly different from the Hollywood default of white and male.

And Kaling’s one-step means of achieving this kind of comedy? Hire. More. Women. And people of color. “The number one way that I have seen my shows become better is by having a diverse writing staff,” she said to me. “It’s such a simple thing that people sort of think is true but I’ve never seen in a movie before.” That’s the vision the film ends on: Katherine’s writers’ room transformed, bustling with men and women of various ages and races. But the film posits this solution not just as a way to expand the range of jokes one can tell; there’s a deeper emotional (and perhaps autobiographical) rationale that Kaling relays through Katherine. In the last half hour of the film, the character contends with a scandal as a past affair becomes public, jeopardizing her marriage with her older husband (John Lithgow, gentle as ever). She initially scoffs at Molly’s suggestion that she make an official statement—the millennial obsession with catharsis is “narcissistic,” she declares—but she comes around eventually with a moving, soul-baring speech on her show. Thompson brings a real, aching sadness to the moment (and a bit of herself, too—an earlier scene features one of her stand-up bits about depression from the ’90s). As Katherine feels her identity and her difference anew, she confronts the emotional damage her constant, unforgiving demand for excellence has wreaked on her. It’s not easy, she comes to realize, to be the first or the only one of anything.

personal effects: ek din pratidin

To celebrate the Film at Lincoln Center’s 50th anniversary, Film Comment asked contributors from different parts of the industry to write about a film that played at one of the institution’s festivals or series over the years that reflects its daring and forward-thinking approach to cinema. The following was my contribution to the collection, which appeared in Film Comment’s May-June 2019 issue

EK DIN PRATIDIN / ONE DAY LIKE ANOTHER MRINAL SEN, 1980 NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL

Mrinal Sen, the most radical of India’s parallel cinema pioneers, once said that his goal as a filmmaker was to “make things look unpretty, to keep the rough edges.” At first glance, his Ek Din Pratidin seems to belie that motto. Set over the course of a single night, the film captures the anguish of a lower-middle-class family when their sole breadwinner, a young woman named Chinu, doesn’t return home from work. From the chiaroscuro opening shot of a narrow Calcutta alleyway to the camera’s sinuous movements through the family’s crumbling tenant house, Sen directs the film with elegant, atmospheric precision, bereft of the formal and tonal affectations of his other features. And yet, his rough-edged social critique bristles under every frame. The fears of urban life are illustrated harrowingly when Chinu’s brother visits the morgue, checking corpse after corpse for his sister; meanwhile, judgmental whispers trickle through the thin walls of the tenant house, compounding the family’s anxious speculations about Chinu. Sen’s quiet chamber drama becomes an absurdist play of gendered ironies, where the only acceptable explanation for a woman’s truancy is death. Chinu finally returns late at night, but we never learn why she was gone. Sen indicts us with our own curiosity.

report on “reason”

First published in Film Comment on April 19, 2019.

Preeminent Indian documentarian Anand Patwardhan introduced a recent screening of his latest film with a request that seemed rather unusual, especially in a world where news travels fast.

“Please don’t post anything on social media,” he said to the dozens of people gathered on a Tuesday evening at the Pavilion in Fort Kochi, an intimate venue that hosts daily live events during the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in Kerala, India. “I’m taking the film to other parts of the country soon, and I don’t want it to be shut down.”

The film in question was Reason, Patwardhan’s exhaustive, eight-part essay on the rise of Hindutva in India, which premiered last year to great acclaim at film festivals in Toronto and Amsterdam. In Kochi, however, it was screened a bit differently. For one, it was split into halves and screened over two evenings to make its four-hour runtime more palatable. Moreover, it was presented here as a “Work-in-Progress”—a ploy to evade India’s censorious Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), which approves every film before its public exhibition in the country.

The wariness surrounding the screening brought to mind the circumstances surrounding Patwardhan’s debut feature, Waves of Revolution. A fiery account of the 1974 anti-corruption movement in Bihar, the film was screened in clandestine venues in 1975, during the repressive days of then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s Emergency rule.

If you think the comparison between the India of then and now is unjustified, Reason might convince you otherwise. The documentary minces no words (or images) in castigating Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for its assault on secular democracy. But the film is persuasive in part because it understands—and vividly demonstrates—that the incursion of Hindutva, or Hindu nationalism, into the Indian public sphere began well before the BJP’s victory in the 2014 elections. “The film is about the last four years,” said Patwardhan in his introduction, “but the project of turning our country from a secular to a Hindu Rashtra (nation) started almost a hundred years ago.”

Reason begins even farther back, with archival footage illustrating the divide-and-rule policies of the British that sowed the seeds of an enduring hostility between Hindus and Muslims in the Indian subcontinent. But the film takes as its origin point—and its framing argument—the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi in 1948 at the hands of Hindu nationalist Nathuram Godse. Godse was involved with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a militant, right-wing Hindutva organization that was banned several times in the years after Gandhi’s death for various instances of communal violence. With the rise of the BJP—which began as the political offshoot of the RSS—this history seems to have been either forgotten or normalized, bemoans Patwardhan. Several times in the film, he questions BJP and RSS supporters about Godse’s political affiliation, only to be answered with silence or vehement denials.

Anand Patwardhan discussing Reason (2019) following a screening in Kochi, India. Photo by Richard Tamayo.

Gandhi’s assassination is the prelude to a series of murders, deaths, and arrests that form the throughline of Reason. The first four chapters of the film, which screened on Tuesday, detail the lives, the activism, and the mysterious deaths-by-shooting of leftist rationalists Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, and M.M. Kalburgi in 2013 and 2015. The latter sections present moving accounts of the 2015 suicide of Dalit (“untouchable”) PhD student Rohith Vemula and the 2016 arrest of student-activist Kanhaiya Kumar on charges of sedition.

Alongside these stories, Patwardhan captures on camera the various incarnations of Hindu nationalism taking over the country: attempts to rewrite and “Hinduise” Indian history; atrocities committed against Muslims and Dalits, especially in purported defense of cows; and the Modi government’s implicit endorsements of various radical Hindu-right organizations. One section is devoted to one such organization, the dubious “Sanatan Sanstha.” Headed by a mysterious, weapons-fetishizing hypnotherapist who claims India will become a Hindu nation by 2023, the Sanstha has been linked to the murders of various rationalists and activists, with little action taken against the accused. In laying bare these connections and documenting the growing violence, Patwardhan carefully articulates the distinction between Hinduism (“a dynamic composite of indigenous cultural practices,” per his directorial note) and Hindutva (“a project of supremacy.”)

“I wish I could rewatch the film and etch it into my mind so I can go home and explain it to my mother,” an audience member said during the Q&A on Wednesday, the second night of the screening. In many ways, that statement encapsulates the purpose of Patwardhan’s film: to catalog and to elucidate to a regular citizen the complex, often nebulous workings of Hindu nationalism. Barring a few sections, Reason is not exactly an investigative documentary; all the killings and arrests and protests it presents on screen have been reported widely in the news. But by bringing these disparate elements together with assiduous, even tedious, detail, Patwardhan makes undeniably clear the threat that Hindutva, if unchecked, presents to Indian society. His film is partly an archive and partly an argument—both of which are essential in a country where history and free speech are under increasing attack.

Patwardhan often places himself inside the action, capturing rallies and protests in thrilling vérité style, sometimes at great personal risk. (At one point in the film, speakers at a Sanatan Sanstha press conference openly call for Patwardhan’s bones to be broken—while the director is present in the room). Patwardhan said during the Q&A that he prefers to film at rallies because it’s the easiest way to get access to people who don’t like him. But it also highlights the participatory tendency in his filmmaking. The screening at the Biennale, and the country-wide tour that it’s part of, are an extension of that tendency. Patwardhan said he wants to show the film all over India before he takes it to the CBFC, in the hopes that it contributes to the public discourse surrounding the general elections currently ongoing in the country.

Patwardhan has had a long and contentious history with the CBFC, known colloquially in India as the “Censor Board.” Nearly every one of the 11 documentaries he has directed in his 48-year career have faced some or other form of resistance from the statutory body. A Time to Rise (1978), an account of Indian farmworkers’ activism in Canada, was asked to be trimmed in order to maintain “friendly relations with foreign states.” Citing “law and order” concerns, the CBFC ordered several cuts to In the Name of God (1992), which provided a disturbing glimpse into the Hindu right-wing campaign to dismantle a historic mosque in Gujarat. War and Peace (2002), a condemnatory account of the Indian state’s turn towards nuclear militarism, was banned in its entirety. In each of these cases, Patwardhan was forced to petition a higher court, which invariably struck down the CBFC mandate.

The 68-year-old filmmaker pointed out in the Q&A that his experiences of censorship had spanned the regimes of both the BJP and its main rival, the center-left Indian National Congress. India’s track record with freedom of speech has always been poor. But the stakes seem to have risen in the last four years. Last September, international writers’ body PEN International released a report condemning the state of free speech in Modi’s India, outlining “how dissenting voices, be they journalists, writers, academics or students, face intimidation, harassment, prosecution, online abuse and physical violence.” The Hoot’s 2017 India Freedom Report counted 54 reported attacks on journalists, at least three cases of television news channels being banned, 45 internet shutdowns and 45 sedition cases against individuals and groups between January 2016 and April 2017.

Reason itself ends with an ode to a murdered journalist: Gauri Lankesh, a critic of Hindu right-wing extremism, who was shot outside her home in September 2017. “The struggle is no longer about censorship, but about survival,” Patwardhan said after the Wednesday screening. “But we can’t be scared. If we shut up, we’re already dead.”

Reason screens on Saturday, April 20 as part of the Art of the Real series at Film Society of Lincoln Center.

feeling seen: we need to talk about “us”

First published in Film Comment on April 10, 2019 as part of their new column, Feeling Seen. Here’s their introductory blurb:

Feeling Seen is a new weekly column focusing on personal reflections on films and featuring a different author every week. For this edition, critics K. Austin Collins and Devika Girish talk through Jordan Peele’s Us and issues of horror, race, class, and more, in a wide-ranging dialogue that starts off with a reflection on criticism itself. (Note: the conversation has been edited and condensed.)”

Devika Girish: So one of your strongest reactions to Us was not to overthink it—a plea to enjoy the film, take it at its face value and try not to read too much into its symbols and allegories. I disagreed with that response a little bit, only because I really enjoy overthinking films, and I enjoy speculating about world-building and Easter eggs. I’ve been going down all those Twitter threads delineating the various motifs in the film. But you brought a larger question to my mind about the desire to read a lot into films, both those with a protagonist of color and those made by a filmmaker of color. I’m wondering if there is a heightened desire to read more into such films and whether that’s an unfair burden for a filmmaker like Jordan Peele.

KAC: Well, it’s interesting that you ask about this in terms of filmmakers of color because part of the premise of not overthinking it is my reaction to the conversation around Donald Glover’s “This Is America” video, which is not a music video that I love, but it’s not even about how I feel about it. On the one hand I thought it was cool to see people take the images he was invoking in that music video and unpack them and give the Norton Critical Edition of that music video. But to me, it didn’t matter how many references there were, the basic point of the video was still overly simple. The complicated thing about the video was the labyrinth of references, the curation—it wasn’t the intellectual idea behind it. You could give me any number of cross-eyed, skewed, rare, obtuse references to blackface, but ultimately you’re making an old argument about our taking pleasure in that kind of violence, etc., etc. You’re not enlivening the argument by displaying your ability to come up with a new system of references.

DG: Right.

KAC: I feel a little differently about Us in that Jordan Peele is going for a more unique idea. The movie is at its smartest when it plays with our expectation of how race does or doesn’t factor in that discourse of have or have-nots. The reason that my instinct was “don’t overthink it” was that as soon as I walked out of the theater, I was surrounded, because Us is the kind of movie that has a press screening at a multiplex in New York with a mix of critics and moviegoers. It’s a really good way to see that movie, because you’re seeing it with a crowd. But as soon as it ends, the first thing everyone is doing is asking “How does this relate to that?” and “What are the references at the beginning of the movie with that VHS tape?” But for me, when I sat down and thought about it, raising more questions was more unsatisfying. I was reading the movie in a wrong way by trying to treat it as a puzzle. Even though it does give that impression, I don’t think that that’s the most satisfying, most successful way that the movie works. I think it works much better, fundamentally, as just a horror movie. It’s a good horror experience. And it’s good that it has ideas, and it should have ideas, but the use of symbols and obscurities to bolster those ideas—that’s when I lose interest. Because I think you can communicate those ideas effectively in other ways. So that’s what I mean by “don’t overthink it.” I don’t know, I don’t like it when my feed becomes like Reddit. [Laughs]

DG: Yeah.

KAC: I don’t like it when the conversation becomes “let’s unpack everything.” Because if you’re raising these questions about class and have-nots, why is so much of the conversation about unpacking those symbols and not about the political idea there? The conversation that we were having wasn’t about class. [Laughs] We were picking up on details like the Howard University sweatshirt. But there’s a whole conversation to be had there about the black middle class. Even if the movie is encouraging you to, don’t reduce it to a puzzle,  because if all it is, is a puzzle, then I don’t think it’s very good or interesting art. That’s how I feel about Westworld: okay, I see where you’re going with this already, I could already tell he was a robot or whatever. Us gives you other things, it’s a smarter, better piece of art. I don’t want to deter people from going down that rabbit hole. I do think that Jordan maybe overdoes the amount of puzzliness, to the point that it distracts from the conversation we’ve been having about what’s at stake in the movie.

DG: It’s interesting that you mention the Childish Gambino “This is America” video. The difference to me is that that video seems very obviously to be aiming to produce that sort of narrative about race and America. With Us, I think you’re right that there are references that have to do with class, the black middle-class, and upward mobility within the context of race. But I also wonder if people are reading some things into it just because the family at the center of this film is black. Maybe in another context, something like a Howard T-shirt would just be a marker giving these characters a full identity, that don’t mean more than “Hey, this character actually has a life,” shorthand for this character’s life and arc. There’s this pressure put on this film, on this filmmaker, on these characters, to be far more than what they are, which is just well-rounded people.

KAC: There are a couple of things here. First of all, Get Out is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of phenomenon, for a movie, and particularly a movie right now that’s not a superhero film to take hold of the public imagination, of language, and the way that we talk about race. “The sunken place” is like a category of racial analysis now. [Laughs] As soon as Kanye fucked up, it’s, “Oh—sunken place.” It’s in the category of things like Uncle Tom, it means something now in terms of your relationship to your race. And it has been a while since a movie gave something like that and contributed to the culture in that way. And obviously it was his first movie and it was a hit, with a crazy amount of success that no movie is going to live up to. So necessarily when we’re talking about Us, we’re also talking about a movie made in the shadow of a movie that changed the culture.

DG: Us is tethered to Get Out, you’re right.

KAC: Yeah, precisely. There’s also the possibility that he is trying to make something that participates in the conversation in the way that Get Out did, and we are all overreading because we’re looking for the same way it can be in the conversation as Get Out was. I agree with you about something like the Howard shirt for example—there’s a difference, too, between a symbol that’s useful, and just a detail that resonates. The Howard sweatshirt is specifically resonant in the context of the father, of Winston’s character, having class envy for his wife’s friends. But the thing that’s so interesting to me about Us is that that archetype—the middle-class family for whom the grass is always greener with their slightly rich friends—is not racially specific. What’s interesting is that we don’t usually have stories about the black middle-class right now going wild in this way. The black middle-class is a Cosby-era sitcom thing, and a couple of Spike Lee movies, but it’s not the basis for movies that become mega-hits in the United States. Even though on TV, in shows like Blackish, you see the black middle-class family. But in this movie, what makes it interesting is: is their class envy also racial envy? I don’t think so. I really do think that they just happen to be a black family, they just happen to have white friends. And what’s important about them having any sort of money at all is that it creates a more dramatic contrast with the Tethered.

But the other thing that we’re overlooking is that everyone dies! The Tethered aren’t just going after middle-class people, they’re not just going after rich people, they’re going after everybody. Everybody above ground is better off than the people who are below ground. So does it matter that they are a middle-class family? Is it necessarily that kind of critique, when the movie also suggests that if they had less money, they would still be getting killed? It’s interesting because Jordan Peele is really playing with our expectation of how we navigate black or middle-class or the combination of the identities in the movie. He sets us up to expect that the movie is going to be about certain things that then, in this case, the movie both is and isn’t about. This isn’t really a movie about black middle-class specifically, or solely. The black family and the white family aren’t really different from everyone else who’s getting killed in that regard. But Peele sets you up to think that it’s going to be that kind of conversation. He’s leaning a bit into, “Yeah, I know I’m the guy that made Get Out, the movie about race, and I know I just made a movie about a black family and it’s a horror movie, and it has these elements of race and class.” The Howard sweatshirt is significant, and they’re a middle-class family with those class anxieties, but it’s not a movie about the situation, the condition, of the black-middle class. I think that his ability to play with that is interesting. Yes, we are prone to want a movie to be about certain things, or want it to have a certain argument about race and class because of who made it. We didn’t ask the same kind of questions about class in Hereditary. And she was an artist.

DG: And you don’t need these things as a marker of anything bigger in that setting. The mise-en-scène in Hereditary is just the mise-en-scène—that’s just where these people live.

KAC: Right, it’s a haunted house, so of course it’s big. Big and spooky.

DG: Yeah, and I think that what people are grappling with in interpreting Us is accepting this family as vehicle of a story that has universal implications. Race immediately feels specific, and to reconcile that with universality in this film is difficult for viewers. But it is also significant that the family are the survivors. I don’t know how many people are still alive at the end of the movie, how far this plague has spread, but as far as we can see, this is the family that’s made it. Maybe there is a simpler narrative explanation for that—I mean, Adelaide clearly knows better than others how to fight these people because, as we find out towards the end, she was one of them. But I guess it is also significant in the context of the horror movie trope of killing off black characters first. Is there something more to be read in their surviving this attack by an underclass that emerges to replace the… “above class”? I don’t know what the word would be here.

KAC: Yeah, I struggled to find the word. I just call them “above-ground.” I wish they had some sort of name—you know, in the Harry Potter universe, there’s the Muggles. Just give me a word for everything. [Laughs] It’s a really intriguing aspect because the survival of the family wasn’t on my mind at all before I saw the movie. It’s funny, I was sitting in the theater and as soon as the movie started, before even the scary part of that whole opening at the beach, I thought, “I feel like Lupita and Winston and the children are not going to die in this movie.” I just had a feeling that this wasn’t going to be how it played out.

DG: I wasn’t so sure about Winston, I’ll tell you that.

Austin Collins: If it’s anyone, it was going to be him.

DG: Yeah.

KAC: It’s complicated, right? Our idea of Lupita—I just knew that Peele wasn’t going to kill off the black matriarch. And I didn’t see him killing off either of the black kids. Even though I didn’t see him saying anything anywhere like “I don’t want to film that kind of violence towards black people.” But it just instinctively felt like something that he would not do. Black death on screen changes everything, particularly in the sense of a horror movie. I think it would be harder for him to walk the ideological mystery of this movie, in terms of the extent to which it’s about race. You couldn’t have a question there if he killed them off. That’s what’s smart about having the doubles. It doesn’t feel like a movie where we’re supposed to be talking about images of black death. It just is not that movie. And it’s so interesting that he’s able to do that in a horror movie—while showing black people dying. He’s showing the daughter in the tree, you know she’s going to die, he shows Lupita killing herself, and there’s a real sense of danger. But I think that the genius of this doubling is that he begins to play with the image of black death on screen while still preserving the nucleus of the black family. That to me is more interesting than any symbol per se—it shows that he’s found a way through the problem of representation there: how can you show black death on screen without the movie becoming about black death? I really don’t think that there are many movies that have found a solution to that problem.

DG: Yeah. Also, he’s taking a classic horror premise—the return of the repressed, the schizophrenic mind, that kind of thing—where we don’t usually see black people being the protagonist or the subject.

KAC: Right.

DG: And the doubling and splitting give these characters depth that makes them much more than just objects or elements of the plot. So there is something to be said about not overvaluing the presence of these characters. But at the same time, in the history of horror cinema and in the history of race on screen, I think there are some significant layers introduced by the fact that this narrative set-up is built around a black family.

KAC: Yes, for sure.

DG: In your review you talked about transcending genre, which you attributed to both Get Out and this film. I don’t think it’s new for horror films—or genre films, in general—to have strong social messages, it’s been part of the genre’s DNA for a long time. But what’s very interesting to me about both of Jordan Peele’s films is how they literalize certain things. It’s what you were saying earlier about Get Out and the sunken place. It took on something very current in our vocabulary of social justice, and in our general discourse, which is the idea of cultural appropriation, and I was struck by how it literalized that. Horror and fantasy allows you to do that. Us does the same thing. To me, for instance, one of the film’s most affecting themes was the idea of impostor’s guilt, especially in relation to class. And I’m wondering what work is done when we are responding to the ideas presented on screen in very visceral, bodily ways, whether laughing or screaming. I watched most of the film through my fingers. There’s something about the absolute terror this film wreaked on my body. I was clenched the whole time, and when I came home my neck muscles were hurting because of all the times I quickly turned my head away. My heart rate was up. That kind of embodied feeling combined with this very literal schema of social relations was very powerful for me. Ultimately what I kept returning to is the twist at the end, which I saw coming, but it still left an emotional impact on me. I kept thinking and shuddering at the idea of someone so young being able to comprehend that this person who is just like them has a better life. And then having the drive, the ruthless initiative, to switch places and condemn that person to the reality they came from, and then living with that their whole life. So at the end, I just relived every scene of the movie that had Lupita in it, thinking of her character now as someone who has carried this the whole time and is clearly not a monster. She is someone we grow to really sympathize with. And that was very unsettling for me.

Maybe it’s something personal I brought to it, too. Especially because I’m not American and I came here a few years ago as a student, it resonated with the diasporic aspect of my identity, and this guilt that I think often accompanies the idea of making it here and leaving people behind. And also the knowledge that I haven’t earned my place here—the knowledge of all the things beyond my merit or control that resulted into whatever social place I occupy today. What do you think is the effect or power of imbibing these ideas through body genres? I’ll say “body genres” because I think that there are comedic aspects to the film as well. Was there a particular theme that touched you very strongly?

KAC: First of all, I think that what you’re describing about the end of the film is precisely what I mean by “don’t overthink it”—your reaction was my reaction. You do that work in the moment when you find out that they switch places, and you rethink the entire movie, etc. But I remember talking to someone right after, and he was like, “Now I gotta re-watch it and check all the scenes and see if that holds up.” And I was like, “Yeah… I don’t know if I care if the math checks out.” [Laughs] To me it is about precisely the reaction that you have: that we should be thinking about our sympathy for the choice Adelaide made, about how these desires for the good life manifest themselves in this little girl who sees her double and just instinctively knows there’s a better life out there. And then, as you described, she is living with it, and this is the return of the repressed. The nightmare that she is describing to her husband, which we initially think is the PTSD of a little girl who walks into the funhouse and sees something scary, we have to rethink that as the fear of a person who you took something from and who keeps coming back for it. Knowing where they came from and why they want to take it back is a much more interesting thing to think about than making sure everything else adds up.

And I’m with you on this visceral reaction, and having that be more important than many other things. I think that one of the things that’s becoming part of Jordan Peele’s signature as a filmmaker is that he is really smart about black faces and the range of emotions and things that can verge on caricature that he has played with in both of his films. Whether it’s the way that Lupita performs, the things that she does with her face, or the ways that our experience of the sunken place is so rooted in that expression—Daniel Kaluuya hypnotized and the tears coming down his eyes, or the face that Betty Gabriel makes. For me, the most resonant thing about the film was the panic that Lupita communicates to us that we only retrospectively realize is panic that the other girl is coming back. It isn’t as simple as “I’m just worried that that girl is coming back to switch places,” it is much more loaded. You gain a sense of what’s below ground and of a real lower class, of a complete lack of privilege and complete lack of education, and this invisible connection that you have with this person above ground with a greater life. There’s the fear of being returned there, and the fear of the anger that she must have incited in someone by switching places with her.

Thinking about that has really been one of the biggest takeaways—not how attached you are to your privilege, but how we are all just running away from having nothing. The status of the people below ground is the universal nightmare, no one wants to live there. Nobody wants the life they have. And that is the fear that motivates the switch, and that is the fear that she is worrying about, because she knows that she kind of deserves it. That way of thinking about privilege—knowing that you kind of had that coming to you, and the people from below will come for you—is really interesting and resonates right now, in terms of our conversations about class and socialism. I’m not calling it a socialist movie. It’s the sort of thing that’s in the air, a fear of being upturned by a revolutionary force. And this is why class and race and things like that are so important to the horror genre. We play on our instinctive fears, and nobody wants to be Tethered. Nobody wants that! [Laughs] I think that’s the thing that, viscerally, I just really understand. My favorite detail in the entire movie is actually Elisabeth Moss’s tether, when she is looking in the mirror and she’s cutting her face, and it’s not Elisabeth Moss getting work done. This idea is really genius. This idea that the tether is just acting out these gestures of…

DG: Aspiration.

KAC: And it only makes sense in a world which requires some kind of capital—you’re eating, you’re buying things, you’re winning things, you’re going on rollercoasters, you’re getting plastic surgery done, you’re doing all these things. This would only make sense in a world of capital. For her to be absently imitating that gesture, without really having the referent in that moment, that just summed up so much for me.

DG: There’s something so chilling about those gestures, those markers of class and aspiration, when they are stripped of everything else.

KAC: Yes, there really is.

DG: And the futility: those things make no sense in and of themselves, and so those empty, futile gestures are what is aspired for. I was watching this Indian TV show on Amazon that just came out recently, called Made in Heaven, and it’s about a girl from a working-class family who marries into a very rich family, and about all the things she has had to do in order to make it there. One of the episodes shows flashbacks of her going to a grooming academy, where they teach you how to speak, how to walk, how to eat with a fork and a knife, and basically behave like a person who grew up with wealth.

KAC: Right.

DG: How to order, what not to say, how to taste wine. And I kept thinking of Us as well, how Adelaide learns speech, for instance, and how she acquires all these ways of being above-ground, and the kind of extreme loss that necessitates. The ability to self-annihilate that it requires. And of course, as the Elisabeth Moss double demonstrates, these characters have such a rudimentary understanding of these codes that instead of properly imbibing them, they can only mimic them.

KAC: Totally. To your point, Red, in her whole speech at the end, says that when she’s below ground and becomes Tethered, it’s  during the dance performance that they all realize that there’s something different about her. They realize that only because she’s been above ground and actually taken dance classes. She’s not good at it below ground because of the psychic Tethered relationship, she’s good at it because she had access. The self-annihilation you’re talking about is so interesting because she has to do that with her language, but she clearly doesn’t do that with her body or with her mind. And that’s why she becomes the leader of this underground thing, which is so much more interesting to think about.

I think that the movie runs into problems because it reveals information sometimes by dumping it in a way that makes you have other questions that just aren’t answerable by the movie. I had a debate with someone about how the below-ground people all get their scissors and red suits. I think if the movie had done more to not explain things, I think we would have been more likely to just accept, “They all get scissors,” because, who cares? Once Adelaide lays out her whole plan and tells us everything, then I start asking those questions: “Where did she get her sandals from?” [Laughs] “What are these prison uniforms, what is with this world?” I think that you have to feel the movie—the visceral reaction you were talking about—and I think that is so much more important than intellectually understanding the movie. It’s a horror movie and the way it communicates so much of what it is about, is through the visceral, through fear.

DG: And through desire too. I think what’s more important than understanding how she orchestrated everything is just understanding her desire to do this.

KAC: Right. It’s about the desire, and it’s about accepting the premise of there being these two worlds, and I felt that the movie ran into trouble because it had calibrated how to get us to ask enough questions, but not to not ask the questions that weren’t important. The more that it’s driven home to me that “You guys are below the ground and you have nothing,” the more I’m like, “So what’s with the bunnies? Who’s cleaning up the bunny shit?” That’s a question one of my friends asked, and I have not been able to stop thinking about it since. Why isn’t Lupita worried about stepping into bunny shit? I don’t know, good question!

DG: Oh my god.

KAC: Yeah, don’t think about it.

DG: And who’s ironing the red jumpsuits? I don’t know why that really got my attention: how they were perfectly ironed and folded by these people who have stunted movements and live a very crude life.

KAC: There is a moment in the montage at the end, when Red is explaining how all of these things happened, when you see them suiting up and getting their scissors. And I was talking to someone who was like, “So did she go around and get everyone’s sizes first?” It’s true—don’t go down these avenues of practicality, even though I think the movie doesn’t know how to not encourage that. You can’t figure it out. It’s about desire, it’s about understanding these class instincts, and just wanting a life. For the Tethered to want to be above ground is such a basic desire that we should all be able to understand it.

DG: You mentioned earlier how timely the movie and its images and themes feel right now. I’ve been thinking a lot about the Hands Across America campaign. Red saw it when she was really young, and so that is her arrested idea of what politics or political action is, because that’s what was most legible to her as a child: what was on TV. And there’s an irony to that being the Tethered people’s plan, because they’re literally killing everyone in the world—and then they’re staging this movement that is entirely based on visibility.

KAC: Right.

DG: Right? That was a kind of boondoggle because Hands Across America was meant purely as a statement. But what does a statement even mean when the people you’re sticking it to, you’ve already killed them? Something about that does feel very resonant today, not just to today’s politics but to social media and how activism plays out in these terrains of media and visibility.

KAC: I really agree with you. I don’t know if I would call the movie satirical, but I do think that it is a satirical thing for that to be the image of political action that she has, because as you point out, it was ineffectual, right? It didn’t do anything. And what’s particularly hilarious is that it’s also very ’80s—this huge political symbol that we’re all going to be involved in, and it’s probably going to involve celebrities. All of us holding hands across the country, I don’t think we would do that today. This has to be the Live Aid, We Are the World kind of era of political action. But for it to be ineffectual is so interesting, because by killing everyone, the Tethered have already done more than that image of holding hands. I really wondered about that, because I think that Hands Across America is not just part of ’80s nostalgia. I think he could be saying something about the current moment, that it’s already a different kind of conversation than one in which we are talking about ineffectual political activism. Ineffectual political activism was the real Hands Across America, the thing that she saw the photo of. In terms of political action, you can’t get more drastic than killing off the upper class.

DG: Right! Literally replacing the upper class.

KAC: It’s the most radical thing you can do.

DG: And media campaigns are thought of as a means to achieve that, in whatever tenuous way, and here, that’s reversed. This replacement killing campaign becomes a step towards the culmination of the campaign, which is a statement. I’m not quite sure what that exactly signifies for me.

KAC: I mean, it is crowdsourcing of a form: let’s all get together to do this thing, as a united, collective act. I think it’s the kind of instinct that we are currently repeating, so what’s so ’80s about it is that it manifests in that specific way. It was just a bad era for taste. [Laughs]

DG: It’s just corny.

KAC: Yeah. I will say that there is something about that last shot where we saw all of them in a row in orange, going off into the hills. By that time we have such a clear association with those orange jumpsuits and who’s wearing them and what they are, and that is a more powerful image than Hands Across America. They’re united after killing everyone, and this uniform does feel more violent, more powerful, more totalizing, somehow, the way that they accomplish it here. The mission was to kill everyone off and line up that way, a streak of orange going off into the hill and signifying a number of people that they killed, signifying the havoc that they’ve wreaked. It’s a more pointed symbol than Hands Across America, which is really not about anything.

DG: I also wonder if, going back to what we were saying about the Tethered aspiring to a world of capital, this sort of activism is an activism of capital, this liberal upper-class activism of image-making. I was thinking that in some ways the Tethered don’t understand the significance of what they’ve already done. Because, lead by Red, they believe that that’s how people above ground protest, that this is the sort of elevated, upper-class way of taking political action. And they don’t entirely recognize that it’s futile, in the same way that digging a knife through a cheekbone is not plastic surgery. I might be overthinking it here…

KAC: It’s funny to me that it can go either way. It could be acting out this political gesture, but it could also be a firm counterpoint to something like Hands Across America saying, “When you guys were doing this in the name of the underclass, it didn’t do anything. When the underclass does it on their own terms, for themselves, it’s different.” I almost wish that instead of just that info coming at the end, that throughout, somehow, Red’s character was more nakedly socialist, and not just nakedly political, so that we could ascribe the intention to the end by saying that in order for Hands Across America to be significant, this is what has to happen. There has to be an overturning of class. It would have been a different kind of movie, an angry movie, and it would have made people angrier if it really was pro-Red. [Laughs] Her name is Red, right, and she has these radical socialist gestures that I don’t think the movie quite endorses. It would be interesting to think about what would it be like if it did.

DG: There’s not that much pathos to what Red says in the end, despite the chilling implications of being from the above-world and then being locked into the underground and so having an awareness of difference. The movie does make her a bit of a monster, and we sympathize much more with Adelaide. Maybe that depends on what we bring to it as viewers. But I thought there was a lack of pathos in what she was saying, partly because of how much exposition she had to deliver towards the end. I got a bit distracted from the psychological weight of the horror that she carried.

KAC: Me too. I think that the way that she is written has a very clear parallel to Killmonger and T’Challa in Black Panther, in that it becomes about haves and have-nots. About the sort of life that you were able to have but I couldn’t have, and now I’m taking all the power that I’ve gained and all the things that I’ve learned, to defeat you, to take it back. But in Black Panther, when Killmonger dies, although he is a monster, it is much more poignant. There is a real sadness in it, and when we think that Red has died, it’s an inversion really, we are not sympathetic. But when we realize that Red is Adelaide, we are? Which is really weird, right?

DG: I think that we’re also scared. For me, I was so scared throughout the movie that the relief when Red died overrode any possible idea of sympathizing with her, because I was just terrified by her all throughout. There is a way in which Jordan Peele is flexing his mastery of these horror tropes and ideas, and sometimes that overwhelms these other themes that are a little less developed in the film.

KAC: Yeah, I think that the ambition of it is really interesting. I don’t think that he’s perfected it in this movie. Get Out perfectly manifests itself in its form, details the world very well, and has a concept that really works. The action of the movie speaks to its context, and it’s really both fun and moving in an active way. And I don’t think that the action of Us and the things that happen, the symbols that accrue throughout the course of the movie, work as neatly. But I really admire that he’s gone a bit harder—it’s a much more difficult concept, and there’s so much more going on in this movie.

DG: And the scale is much bigger in every way.

KAC: It’s a lot to deal with, to communicate with the audience while being entertaining and having Get Out as your first movie hanging over people’s heads. It’s really a lot.

DG: Yeah, and we wouldn’t necessarily be speaking of these films in the same breath if they were not both made by him. They’re such different films. This film, despite all of its references, feels so very original to me. I am excited to see what he makes next, and I’m definitely tuning into The Twilight Zone.

KAC: I’m curious about what he does, no matter what it is.

the perks and perils of self-reflexivity

First published on Ampersand on April 2, 2019.

There’s a moment in Peter Parlow’s The Plagiarists that captures the crux of the movie’s sly, self-reflexive satire. When young, white couple Anna (Lucy Kaminsky) and Tyler (Eamon Monaghan) suffer a car breakdown on their way back from a weekend in the woods, a middle-aged Black stranger, Clip (Michael “Clip” Payne), offers them shelter for the night. They accept cautiously, and as they make small talk in Clip’s home, Tyler suddenly seems to recognize him as a friend of a friend on Facebook. “That’s where I fucking know you, man!” he says. “You made that comment about abortion?”

Tyler turns out to be mistaken, but his phrasing encapsulates one of the film’s central preoccupations: the fact that we now claim to “know” people not from personal intimacy, but from thumbnail-sized representations and digital networks of familiarity.

Anna and Tyler seem to navigate the world entirely through the lens of such mediated tropes, which become hazy substitutes for the notion of authenticity. Their initial (and racially-tinged) suspicion towards Clip’s hospitality soon turns into an almost fetishistic trust, as he reveals himself to be mysterious and wise, conforming to their image of a Magical Black Man.

Months later, when Anna discovers that one of Clip’s whimsical anecdotes was plagiarized from Karl Ove Knausgaard’s “My Struggle,” she seems infuriated not just because he misrepresented his experiences, but also because he defied her stereotypical expectations of him. “It was completely uncharacteristic of him—the language, the vocabulary,” she says. What might have been perceived simply as eccentricity were Clip a white person, becomes, in Anna’s eyes, an act of illegitimate passing. 

Parlow’s film begins in this tricky terrain of race and then slowly unspools its questions of skin-deep authenticity onto various other contexts—questioning, ultimately, its own form.  Tyler finds an 80s news camera at Clip’s house and becomes enlivened by the prospect of making something “raw, like Dogme 95” (although, comically, he struggles to remember what exactly Dogme 95 is).  As it turns out, Parlow himself shot The Plagiarists on the same camera, giving the film the lo-fi, retro Sundance vibe that a character later scoffs at. 

Anna, on the other hand, worries about the obsolescence of the written medium and the difficulty of communicating in the poststructuralist age—a concern doubly driven home in the film’s coda. Anna’s friend reads aloud a letter emphasizing the enduring value of books that is revealed in the credits to be lifted from an article in “The Guardian.”

These are interesting meta-narrative gestures, making the film an intellectual mise-en-abyme that embodies everything it critiques with witty, one-on-one precision. But that constant mirroring also voids The Plagiarists of any provocative or argumentative heft. The film plays out like a one-sided conversation. It sets up intriguing premises—what happens when authenticity becomes a commodity? how are our ideas of the “real” racialized?—only to confirm them immediately with its own form. And any grievances one may have with its form are rendered moot by that infallible alibi: the claim to self-referentiality. There’s no room for viewer engagement here; how exactly does one critique or even interpret a film which insists on critiquing and interpreting itself incessantly? As a send-up of postmodern discourse about art, The Plagiarists is hilariously on-point. But as a work of art in itself, it feels uninviting and closed off, insulated by its own convictions. 

“The Plagiarists” played at the New Directors/New Film Festival in New York on Friday, March 29, after premiering in February at the 2019 Berlinale.