1. Animal Kingdom (Michod)
2. Finding Vivian Maier (Maloof/Siskel)
3. Foxcatcher (Miller)
4. Mr. X, a Vision of Leos Carax (Louise-Salome)
5. Before Sunset (Linklater)
6. Badlands (Malick)
7. Locke (Knight)
8. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Wiene)
9. American Sniper (Eastwood)
10. Breathless (Godard)
The best non-fiction film I’ve seen in 2014 is J.P. Sniadecki’s The Iron Ministry, an immersive, ethnographic documentary culled from footage shot aboard Chinese commuter trains over a span of three years. Sniadecki’s deceptively simple premise posits a single “cinematic train” as a metaphor for the various tensions — political, economic, social, and religious — that exist just beneath the surface of contemporary Chinese society. I sat down with J.P. at the Chicago International Film Festival to discuss his training at Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, the evolution of his personal aesthetic, and his exhilarating new film. Much like The Iron Ministry itself, this transcription represents mere fragments of a much longer conversation.
MGS: You studied at the Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL). So they’re a production company you’re affiliated with but they didn’t produce The Iron Ministry?
JPS: As far as I am aware, SEL is not a production company. It didn’t produce The Iron Ministry, but the film has connections to the SEL in that I am one of the mostly filmmaker-anthropologists who are affiliated with the Lab and sometimes work together, provide feedback for one another’s work, and share a technological infrastructure. Lucien Castaing-Taylor first set up the lab and a related year-long SEL course in 2006, which coincided with my start at Harvard as an MA student in East Asian Studies. His idea was to create an interdisciplinary practice-based laboratory to bring together the social sciences, art practice, and nonfiction cinema. From the start, Stephanie Spray, Diana Allan, Toby Lee, and myself were graduate students most closely connected to the Lab. Jeff Silva was an important teaching assistant and Ernst Karel was (and still is) the Lab manager and resident sound artist/expert. Together we formed a sort of working group of collaboration and critique that sought new and often radical approaches to making nonfiction film and media anthropology. Two or three years later, Verena Paravel got involved as a student of the course (though she already had her PhD in anthropology at the time). She was new to filmmaking and, while working on her first short film for the class, she encountered the industrial enclave of Willets Point in Queens. She had seen my 2008 film Chaiqian (Demolition), which takes place almost entirely on a demolition site in Chengdu, Sichuan province, and wanted to work together as co-directors on the Willets Point project. We went to Queens together and from the first day of shooting had a totally exciting and invigorating experience collaborating in the junkyards and autoshops of Willets Point. We never looked back: we shot for two years there together, and released Foreign Parts in 2010. Then, I moved back to China to do my dissertation fieldwork, and also began the years of shooting the footage that became The Iron Ministry, while also making several other films: People’s Park (2012), Yumen (2013), and a short, The Yellow Bank (2010). Verena and Lucien began work on what became Leviathan and, shortly thereafter, Stephanie and Pacho (Velez) started shooting Manakamana. As I said, I made a couple of other films with other people while conducting fieldwork, such as the 78 minute single-shot documentary People’s Park (2012) (co-directed with Libbie Cohn), and Yumen (2013), a 16mm psycho-collage/wounded musical film among the ruins of China’s first oil town in Gansu province, made with artists Xu Ruotao and Huang Xiang… All this to say, SEL is a small community of people without a dogma or manifesto, but with working collaborations and personal relationships that have produced work beyond the norms of both mainstream documentary and visual anthropology. It’s a collective spirit and a shared desire to explore new approaches rather than the formulaic.
MGS: Thank God for that. What differentiates The Iron Ministry from SEL films like Leviathan and Manakamana is that you actually interact with some of your subjects, which I thought was interesting. You don’t do formal interviews but I heard you talking off-camera; at least I assume that was you . . .
JPS: Yeah. I’m behind the camera and asking questions . . .
MGS: Was that your strategy when you started the film or did it happen organically while you were making it?
JPS: Most everything that happens in my films happens organically. I wanted this film, like most of my other films, to be born of the countless and ramifying encounters that emerged from carrying a camera with me on all those 55 rides on the train: encounters between me and the train, and between me and the people on the train, and between themselves, and between all of us and the train system itself. And I wanted to give space for all the different kinds of cinema that a train can produce. So, rather than seize one form of cinema the train can engender, I was receptive to all that I could perceive. There’s a value in sticking to the beastly bowels of the train and the mechanics of the train, and not let anyone speak to the camera and just present the passengers as exhausted and suffering bodies. But I wanted to be open to the overflowing amount of language that fills the train. As I got to know fellow passengers, people wanted to talk to me about what’s on their mind, whether it’s politics or it’s a child back home or the excitement and fear of a new lease on life. I didn’t aim for particular sound bites or hunt out certain topics. These are just discussions and moments that came up after spending hours and hours and hours on trains. I shot this for three years. That’s a lot of hours I spent on trains. And, in some ways, though probably not immediately apparent, the film’s style also refers to a more personal form of filmmaking that reveals as much about me behind the lens as it does about the people and the technology in front of the lens. It is a diary film of all those hours I spent on the train.
MGS: How much footage did you shoot?
JPS: Probably 200 (hours). And I have footage of trains moving through the landscape: exterior shots of beautiful snow-capped mountains and trains cutting through, trains snaking through different tunnels, crowds of people moving through train stations, people in front of the train stations sleeping on newspapers waiting for their train to depart, families saying goodbye on platforms. I made the decision to just keep it all on one train, to build a kind of cinematic train by stitching together all these different journeys.
MGS: Trains and movies are kind of a match made in heaven — going all the way back to the earliest days of cinema.
JPS: The Lumieres.
MGS: Yeah! Another thing I thought when watching your film is that it seems like you’re presenting a kind of diverse cross-section of contemporary Chinese society in terms of class, gender, age, etc. Was that one of your goals — to paint a kind of broad portrait of modern China?
JPS: It wasn’t one of my goals. I did want to capture, perhaps in an indirect way, the deep anxiety over the present and the future that pervades the lives of many Chinese today. The interpretation of the film as a cross-section of China is something that emerges with the viewer, and with the editing scheme of moving in a way chronologically from the older “greenskin” trains to the high-speed bullet trains, presenting a visual history of China’s railway network. And the inclusion of perspectives from not just Han Chinese, the majority of China’s population, but also from Hui Muslims, Uighurs, and Tibetans. But China is much too diverse, much to complex, and much to expansive for any one film to offer a cross-section.
MGS: Oh, really?
JPS: Yeah. I mean, I wanted to ride trains all over China and I was mostly motivated first by I was motivated by the history of the train compartments and the trains themselves. So I knew I wanted to record the “greenskin trains,” as you see like when the liver is hanging and the people are chopping meat . . .
MGS: Which was really eye-opening.
JPS: Yes. I could’ve made the whole film that train, which used to run between Zizhong and Chengdu, in Sichuan province. That train doesn’t exist anymore. So these trains are being taken off the network, but they’re also wrapped up with a whole affective realm of nostalgia . . . you know, journalists are writing articles about these trains because they’ve been such a part of the fabric of everyday life in China. People had to ride them for hours, sitting on wooden benches, opening the window to keep cool in sweltering days or just to light up a smoke. But because they’re disappearing there’s something of a salvage-ethnography project involved here. But I also wanted to get the trains that are the mainstay of the network — the ones that have those sealed windows, from the 80s or 90s and have air-conditioners. And I wanted to film on the bullet trains that evoke a high-tech China and speak to a heightened mobility and a new set of risks and uncertainties for China as a nation. And so, following that kind of visual history and that sort of infrastructural history led me to encounter people from all over.
MGS: Because everybody rides the train.
JPS: Because everybody rides the train, yeah. It’s pretty amazing too, the fact that we in the United States can barely catch a train where we live, to get anywhere. And now, in China, train rides from one end of the country to the other are six hours, when it used to be like 60 hours. It’s unbelievable. Obama’s never going to get that high-speed train through Congress, I don’t think.
MGS: No, I don’t think so. But it’s interesting: I hear so many people talk about how they want to ride trains in the U.S. but then they never do.
MGS: I think a lot of us have a romanticized idea of what it would be like to take a train across the country and stay in a sleeping car but we never do it.
JPS: It’s really expensive.
MGS: That’s true.
JPS: But your question about the cross-section, to go back to that: it came out of the editing. This might be a platitude, but there’s a great deal of unease right now amongst most of the people I encounter in China, amongst most of my friends and colleagues too. And so, I don’t know if the film communicates this but people are facing a great deal of uncertainty. On one level, what’s both fortunate and unfortunate is that, some audiences here in the States or Europe after seeing the film say things like: “You show Chinese people who are aware of their lives and ask sophisticated questions and know what’s going on in the world and have political consciousness and criticize the government, and we didn’t know that. It’s so surprising because we don’t think of Chinese people that way.” And while I am glad audience members can have this kind of realization, it is also shocking to learn of the ignorance or the misperceptions concerning Chinese people. I often respond: “Well, the Party blocks several sites on the internet and removes lots of content, and the media cannot report freely (despite the efforts of some journalists) but there’s still ways to spread information, and the Chinese are still human beings with critical minds and sophisticated notions of the world. They’re not just all marching to the step of the Party.” But what I wanted to get at was this sense of anxiety and unease — ethically, technologically, economically and spiritually. So the religion comes in, right? Muslims in Tibet?
MGS: That was fascinating.
JPS: Yeah, and I wanted it to be hanging in the air of the train that there’s this great deal of tension, as you can see, because if you read the news — you read the New York Times or anything — at least they report that there’s Uighurs, Muslims, who are attacking people at train stations, killing them with knives, there’s Tibetans who are burning themselves in protest by the hundreds, and not just in Tibet but in Sichuan, in Qinghai, in the greater Tibetan areas. And there’s economic uncertainty about how people can cover the rising cost of living. And there’s political uncertainty about what is the shape of the future of the state’s relationship to the people, as we see in Hong Kong. There’s also contradiction and uncertainty operating both within and behind what some of the people in the film are saying. Maybe it’s hard to see that if you don’t speak Chinese. If you’re reading the subtitles you can’t maybe pick up on certain facial expressions and ways of speaking.
MGS: You’re fluent in Mandarin?
JPS: Yeah. Did you get any sense of uncertainty or did it feel like, “Oh, this is a nice ride?”
MGS: Oh, the uncertainty was definitely there. And I loved the discussion of Islam among the Muslim train passengers because I feel like the more media exposure that moderate Muslims have the better. Because in this country — and I’m a teacher, I see this with my students all the time — people associate Islam with terrorism.
JPS: Right. As they do in China.
MGS: Right. So I’m always grateful to see other representations of Muslims in the media. I reviewed your film on my blog — I’ll send you a link to it — but one of the things I wrote was, “You’ll learn more about China by watching this film than you will by watching 1000 hours of CNN.”
JPS: Thank you.
MGS: And I really felt that way because you show how people think. It’s not just the headlines.
JPS: Or a sound byte. You have to listen to people for five minutes straight sometimes. (chuckles)
MGS: Yeah, but it takes you beyond the headlines: there’s a great scene where there’s some young guys lamenting the influence of the mothers-in-law?
JPS: Yeah, people love that line. (chuckles)
MGS: It was hilarious. That kind of dialogue reveals something about the fabric of society that you’re never going to read in a news article. And also learning about the importance of home ownership in Chinese marriage was fascinating.
JPS: Good. I’m glad it was a worthwhile trip for you.
MGS: I think the most amazing sequence was the one where the little kid is giving the mock-spiel of the train conductor. Where did you find him and how did you film that? Did he just do that spontaneously?
JPS: I was stuck in Guangzhou during Spring Festival, the busiest month on China’s railways as everyone is rushing to get home for the most important holiday in Chinese culture. And Guangzhou is China’s busiest station that time too. So I was standing in line at the train station for days and days, asking for a ticket anywhere out of Guangzhou, but everything was sold out. After the fourth day, somehow, miraculously, when I got to the window, there was one train ticket to Shanghai that someone must have just returned, and so I bought it immediately. In that soft-sleeper carriage I started talking with a woman whose co-workers were in the hard-seat section and she wanted me to join her to meet them all in the dining car. So as we were walking through the crowded cars of the train, I was filming behind her, tracking along and I suddenly I heard that boy making everyone laugh. So I spun the camera around and I filmed him right there at that moment. It was totally unplanned and spontaneous. And then, because I was still dedicated to continuing the shot with her, I never stopped filming to ask him his name or how old he was, or where he came up with that surreal monologue. I never asked him anything. I just caught the moment. You can see that he sees me. He’s at once both playing up to the camera, and also hiding from it a bit. He enjoys the performance but seems to feel shy at moments. When he finished, I spun back around and continued following the woman to the dining car.
MGS: That is unbelievable.
JPS: It’s just a little gift he gave to the film and then to everyone who sees the film.
MGS: You couldn’t write dialogue that good.
JPS: No, there’s no way. People ask me, “Are the subtitles correct? Did you put that in there?”
MGS: It seems like a hilarious, politically subversive parody. You couldn’t write that. And especially because it’s a train conductor’s spiel, right, the kind of thing you would normally hear over the loudspeaker?
JPS: Yeah, he’s basically riffing off of that. Well, he’s probably been on the train for hours and hours and heard the same announcement so he’s spinning the joke from that.
MGS: But he’s substituting different phrases . . .
JPS: That I imagine he’s pulling in from the sort of cynical outlooks of adults around him. He’s possibly heard his parents or others talking about issues such as the one-child policy. So he’s just pulling all that stuff into his new announcement.
MGS: But the fact that your whole film takes place on a train and for him to say that just adds another meta-layer to the whole thing. It’s really kind of a miracle of cinema that you got that.
JPS: That’s what happens if you’re open to the world, receptive to what unfolds: you will eventually get gifts like that.
You can view a clip from The Iron Ministry view YouTube below:
1. The Day I Became a Woman (Meshkini)
2. Black Christmas (Clark)
3. Silent Movie (Brooks)
4. Film Socialisme (Godard)
5. Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman (Guest)
6. Slacker (Linklater)
7. Goodbye to Language (Godard)
8. Taxi Driver (Scorsese)
9. Vertigo (Hitchcock)
10. Double Play: James Benning and Richard Linklater (Klinger)
“I think what (Godard’s) talking about — and this is one of the reasons the dog Roxy is very prominent in the film — is that he’s trying to get people to look at the world in a kind of an unspoiled way. There are hints throughout the film that animal consciousness is kind of closer to the world than we are, that language sets up a barrier or filter or screen between us and what’s really there. And although the film is full of language, talk, printed text and so on, nevertheless I think there’s a sense he wants the viewer to scrape away a lot of the ordinary conceptions we have about how we communicate and look at the world afresh.”
– David Bordwell, interviewed on NPR
When I started my annual tradition, in December of 2010, of writing a blog post that anointed a certain director as White City Cinema’s “Filmmaker of the Year,” I thought I was doing so with an impish sense of humor: I wanted to give these “awards” to the directors whose films I had spent the most time watching and thinking about over the course of the calendar year, knowing full well that the directors in question, whose work would be extremely relevant to me personally, would also most likely be dead or have their best-known work decades behind them. (Hence, Fritz Lang, on the strength of the “Complete Metropolis” restoration, was my inaugural winner, followed by Orson Welles in 2011, Alfred Hitchcock in 2012 and John Ford in 2013.) I’m happy to announce that this year my Filmmaker of the Year award goes to the soon-to-be 84-year-old Jean-Luc Godard but not on the basis of past glories — although I certainly could have done that if only to celebrate the occasion of Rialto Pictures’ digital restoration and theatrical re-release of Alphaville, which arguably looks more prescient today than in 1965, and Cohen Media Group’s essential, extras-stacked Blu-rays of two of Godard’s best latter-day films: Hail Mary (1984) and For Ever Mozart (1996). No, JLG is, for me, the filmmaker of 2014 solely because of his revolutionary new 3D film, Goodbye to Language, which had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May and which I was extremely fortunate to see in its sole Wisconsin screening on the evening of November 13th (a benefit fundraiser for the University of Wisconsin’s Cinematheque). I concur completely with film scholar David Bordwell, who introduced the screening I attended, when he said that it is both the best new film he has seen all year as well as the best 3D film he has ever seen.
While Godard has been a restless innovator for over half a century, his first foray into 3D feature filmmaking has been uncommonly fruitful, resulting in one of his most visually exciting movies. In an interview with the Canon camera company earlier this year, Godard spoke about his attraction to the 3D format by saying, “It is still a place where there are no rules.” In Goodbye to Language, Godard puts his money where his mouth is by intentionally breaking what little 3D rules there are (i.e., one should not allow too much separation between background and foreground objects, one should not allow more than six centimeters between the two cameras being used, etc.). As a result, Godard’s film is as far away as possible from the kind of banal and limited-in-conception 3D effects that one sees in contemporary Hollywood movies with 100 million dollar-plus budgets (where the actors frequently appear superimposed over flat-looking CGI backdrops). Instead, Godard and his cinematographer Fabrice Aragno use stereoscopic cinematography the way one imagines Orson Welles might have — to enhance the natural depth of field of an already deep-focus image; in some of the breathtaking seascape shots, for instance, the horizon appears to stretch out to infinity. But Goodbye to Language‘s most revelatory moment is one that so profoundly merges form and content that it has inspired spontaneous applause and laughter at many of the film’s screenings to date (including the Cannes premiere and the Madison show I attended): a 3D image of three characters splits apart to create two separate 2D images when one of the cameras pans to follow two of the characters as they walk towards a lake while the other stationary camera remains trained on the man who stays behind. The two separate images then resolve themselves back into a single 3D image when the three characters are reunited. To witness this retina-bursting shot on a theater screen is to witness the language of cinema expanding before one’s very eyes. It also renders utterly meaningless the possibility of watching a 2D version of the film, which takes the act of seeing and the concept of borders — whether linguistic, geographical or artistic — as its primary subjects.
Like most of Godard’s long-form work from the 1980s onwards, Goodbye to Language had an unusually long gestation period and grew out of other projects. Several ideas seem to stem from Film Socialisme, including the earlier film’s throwaway line “And when it comes time to talk about equality, I’ll tell you about crap,” which is greatly elaborated on here as a visual joke invoking Rodin’s “Thinker.” More substantially, Goodbye to Language has its origins in a 2006 museum exhibit entitled Voyage(s) en utopie, Godard, 1946-2006, for which the director wrote a “statement of purpose” that read, in part, “In the ‘I think, therefore I am,’ is the ‘I’ of ‘I am’ no longer the same as the ‘I’ of ‘I think’ and why?” Goodbye to Language recycles this Cartesian inquiry and also seeks to answer it with a resounding “no” by offering a philosophical meditation on the fractured nature of identity in our era of mass communication. Godard pointedly shows, through an impossibly rich tapestry of stereoscopic images and sounds, how language and technology have conspired to create barriers that separate humans not only from each other but also from themselves. I say “humans” because, although the film uses a bifurcated structure to tell the stories of two crumbling romantic relationships (represented by actors Héloïse Godet and Kamel Abdelli in the first half and Richard Chevallier and Zoé Bruneau in the second), the real “star” of Goodbye to Language is Godard’s mixed-breed dog Roxy, who is frequently depicted frolicking in nature, commanding both the most screen time and serving as the subject of some of the film’s most dazzling 3D effects. The shots of Roxy’s handsome snout in the maw of Godard’s homemade 3D-camera rig, which convey an overwhelming feeling of love for the animal on the part of his owner/director, are so rapturously beautiful that they made me want to cry. The film ends by juxtaposing the sounds of a dog barking with that of a baby wailing on the soundtrack, thus linking Roxy not only to nature but, implicitly, to a state of unspoiled innocence that humans possess only prior to learning to speak.
The main idea that I took away from this dense and allusive film — at least on first viewing — is that Godard believes the cinema itself has become a language that imprisons viewers through its technological inflexibility and over-reliance on traditional narrative structure. At one point, Josette (Godet’s character) says, “In Russian, Kamera means prison,” a line that is complimented by a recurring shot of the same character standing behind a grate of metal bars with a lake in the background behind her. Josette grips the bars with her hand, which, thanks to Godard’s 3D camera, seems almost impossibly far in front of her. A man’s hand soon appears in the frame, gripping the bars from the other side of the grate. This image of imprisonment plays out like the negative version of the “empty hands” shots that recur throughout Nouvelle Vague (1990). But Goodbye to Language is thankfully much more than a movie about watching movies; it is also, as David Bordwell suggests, about how to see the world. In another incredibly striking shot, a little boy and a little girl run through a green grassy field beneath a hyper-saturated blue sky. Josette tells us in voice-over that when she was a girl she “saw dogs all over” while her lover saw “the clouds and the sky.” The implication is that children look at nature with a sense of wonderment that adults lack (an idea the film shares with Pascale Ferran’s delightful Bird People). By contrast, the lead adult characters, all of whom are introduced in a prologue in an open-air book market, are depicted reading aloud texts from various books and an iPhone — locked into self-imposed isolation and not listening to each other. Later, one of the couples contemplates salvaging their relationship, and presumably regaining a sense of wonder, through the act of having a child or adopting a dog. If Goodbye to Language feels more optimistic than Godard’s other recent work, in spite of some disturbing asides about political and domestic violence, this is undoubtedly because the possibilities of 3D have allowed him to see the world afresh.
Apart from its artistic quality, Goodbye to Language has also established itself as something of a zeitgeist movie (at least for those of us who care passionately about cinema) through the mere fact of its existence. It is yet one more example, and perhaps the most profound such instance since 1987’s King Lear, of Godard throwing a wrench into the cinematic apparatus by making a movie that demands to be seen while simultaneously resisting easy commodification. It is Godard’s highest-profile film in quite some time — it won the Jury Prize at Cannes and has earned rave reviews from many mainstream American critics, including Manohla Dargis in the New York Times and Michael Phillips in the Chicago Tribune). During its first weekend alone, playing on only two screens in New York City, it won the “specialty box office” and made more money than Godard’s previous feature, Film Socialisme, did in its entire 20-week run. Yet in spite of the fact that Goodbye to Language has a U.S. distributor, the always-enterprising Kino/Lorber, and despite there being many U.S. theaters that would like to show it, the film is proving hard to see; so few American “arthouses” are equipped with 3D projectors that Kino/Lorber’s patchwork theatrical release schedule, which as of this writing still omits major markets like Chicago, has been the source of several hand-wringing editorials (see here, here and here). In an era when independent American and foreign-language movies are receiving ever-quicker assignments to the “Video On Demand” graveyard, Goodbye to Language feels like a form of protest (whether conscious on the director’s part or not). By creating an “art film” that can only be properly experienced in palaces devoted to mainstream “entertainment,” Godard has exposed the increasingly large gulf between such silly concepts and made a movie whose true viewership would seem to be some imaginary but more enlightened audience of the future.
Goodbye to Language rating: 10
My personal top 10 favorite Jean-Luc Godard films (in chronological order):
1. Vivre sa vie [My Life to Live] (1962)
2. Le Mepris [Contempt] (1963)
3. Alphaville (1965)
4. Pierrot le fou (1965)
5. Weekend (1967)
6. Prenom Carmen [First Name: Carmen] (1983)
7. Hail Mary (1984)
8. Nouvelle Vague [New Wave] (1990)
9. Histoire(s) du Cinema (1988-1998)
10. Adieu au langage [Goodbye to Language] (2014)
You can watch Kino/Lorber’s Goodbye to Language trailer via YouTube below:
At last month’s Chicago International Film Festival I had the great pleasure of interviewing legendary actress and filmmaker Liv Ullmann after the U.S. premiere of her new film adaptation of August Strindberg’s Miss Julie. During an hour-long round-table discussion (in which three other writers participated), she came across as warm, funny, compassionate and wise in speaking about everything from her charity work to her collaborations with Ingmar Bergman. I am, however, only including the portions of the interview that involved my direct interactions with her, which mainly concerned Miss Julie, the method acting of her lead actress Jessica Chastain, and her old friend and former director Jan Troell.
MGS: I think this film is a very powerful exploration of sexual politics as well as class politics. The play was written by a man, obviously, and I believe all of the previous film versions were directed by men. I was wondering what you think you brought to the film and to the character of Miss Julie in particular that maybe a male director might not have or that Strindberg himself might not have.
LU: Well, Strindberg, he wrote a long essay about how he hated women, more or less. So I wanted (Julie’s) voice and the inner voice to come through. I used music very much: Schumann and Schubert and Arensky. Arensky’s more John’s music, but Schubert is hers. I (also) gave her some lines that he didn’t write. She says, “Do you ever feel that you are no one?” Things like that that I feel is not against what he wrote when he gave her the lines but maybe what she thought or maybe what Strindberg didn’t even know she thought. But I know he should have known what she thought because he was very aggressive towards women. And I think maybe I saw that better than the male directors. I took away all the servants that come in the middle of the play and they do a lot of sexual games and so on. I didn’t want that. I wanted the isolation and the tunnel vision to be part of who they were. The ones living on the top, claustrophobic, cannot have contact with anyone else, at least not anyone down there. The ones in the kitchen, claustrophobic, because they have no contact with the ones up there. And even to be hidden from the ones up there; they have to go through a tunnel, which is the truth. Because the ones up there will not see them when they are coming into the castle. They don’t want them to walk in the gardens. They go through a tunnel under the earth. And when they look out of the window, I had in my first draft, that they were looking at the sun, the midnight sun — a lot of wonderful things will happen there. (laughs) But when we found this castle, it had everything that even Strindberg didn’t have because they lived under the earth. And when they looked out of the window they saw a white stone wall. I gave that; I don’t know if the men gave that. And I also had the idea that maybe she knew she wanted to go, subconsciously. And when she comes for the first time this midsummer night, she was looking for someone who could help her in the absolute non-commitment to whoever she was. And I just said that once to (the actors). I said, “This is just what I feel but don’t play it. Don’t think about it.” And I almost felt ashamed of saying it. But Jessica (Chastain) said in Toronto (at the world premiere), she said, “That to me was incredible. I wrote it in my book.”
MGS: Two years ago I interviewed Jan Troell at this festival. He was here with his last film The Last Sentence . . .
MGS: I quoted him something you said in an interview about the making of The Emigrants and The New Land. You said you were never sure what he was filming because he was holding the camera in his hands and moving around, and he said that on The Last Sentence the lead actress said the same thing: Pernilla August said, “We always know what we’re going to do but we never know what he’s going to do.”
MGS: It seems like your style as a director is the opposite of that because in Miss Julie everything feels very formal and very elegant. But I was wondering if there was anything you learned from him that influenced your own approach to directing.
LU: You see, he is both a cinematographer and a director so it was almost impossible to even take something from him except incredible trust, you know? “You act, I observe.” And he’s like all good directors, he allows the actors to create. But my actors, they know, “Okay, I have my close-up and now comes the bigger one.” (laugh) So they know, they really know but with him we didn’t know. You know, the camera was never on my face, it was on my shoes. (laughs) But that also gives a lot of freedom. And for the actors sometimes my way can be more difficult because they don’t know. They don’t know, “Can I keep it and do what I just did in the wide shot now for the close up?” And I have to give them some alternatives then: “You know, although we have it in a wide shot, we do not really know when we are close what is happening in your eyes. So you are allowed — because I am taking (only) one of the two — so don’t be afraid.” And that I knew: “I will never, never fail you. I’m not lying to you. I will never fail you.” So they were safe. Although (Colin Farrell), in a wide shot could have been angrier, he knew I would not take anger, put to milder, back to anger. That I would not do this, they knew that about me. They trusted me.
MGS: You’ve said Jessica Chastain was in character the whole time you were shooting. It must be exhausting as an actress to be in character all the time like that.
LU: Exactly! I think she turned on something within herself. We didn’t party at night, so she went to her room. We did it in 29 days so, you know, there was no party time. I didn’t know Jessica well. From (the moment) she came on the set she was Miss Julie but I didn’t know she was Miss Julie. I thought, “Oh this is Jessica. She may not be so easy.” (laughs) And she was easy to work with because, as she actually said in Toronto, “Liv and I, we played this together.” I don’t know why she felt that because it wasn’t like that; she had enormous freedom to do what she did. But I found her maybe somewhat difficult, the way she was with other people, and I thought, “Okay, this is Jessica.” And sometimes when we were editing, I’d talk to her. I said, “This is marvelous, Jessica, but I wish we could have had more warm contact or something.” (laughs) Then I meet her in Toronto and she is the sweetest young girl — nothing to do with that person I met during the whole production. And I talked to Colin about it and he said, “You didn’t know?” “No, I didn’t know.” He said, “It was tough, it was tough.” So, it’s the first time I have experienced that: “Nora becomes Nora” not only in front of the camera . . . but that part is so difficult and she chose to do it and that’s what I wanted but she chose even more so to be this person. She stands in the doorway and we just see her to be this torn woman, torn on the inside, a woman of non-consistencies. And I think to keep that, she had to have it privately. So, it’s the first time I’ve ever seen it. And Colin did it in a different way. He was very reserved, kept to himself in between takes, but if you came to him, he was this nice, pleasant, you know . . . Only when the camera went, he was the servant. And he would never be shattered out of the servant’s role. So I love Jessica for what she did and I admire (her) and I think Colin is also a genius. And Samantha Morton, she’s an actress the way I was an actress: she lives it when the camera is there, then it’s “Nora,” but when the camera’s off, she’s Samantha Morton. That’s the kind of actress I was. I think the two of them (Jessica and Colin), you know, they’re showing it in December (for an Oscar-qualifying run); I truly wish that they would have the money to somehow promote them because I think it’s Oscar-worthy. I, as a director, did not know that “Nora was Nora” outside of when the camera went. I think she is fantastic and I told her that in Toronto. This little, young girl, you should hear how she talks!
MGS: So you didn’t know her before you made the movie. What was it about her that made you want to cast her? Had you seen her in other films?
LU: In all the films I saw she was different, and I thought, “What an incredible actress.” In one film I saw I didn’t even know it was her although she played one of the leads. The Debt. I couldn’t believe it. And so when I met her and we talked and she was very literate — she knew a lot — I was very impressed. And she looks like Miss Julie. I didn’t know so much of her inner story. I know now more about her life story, which I didn’t know (then). And had I known that, I may have known what happened to her during the shooting. I adore her.
MGS: She looks a little like you as well.
LU: Yes. I wasn’t aware of that but she said other directors used to say, “Oh you look like a young Liv Ullmann.” I was not aware of it.
MGS: You should act with her. She could play your daughter!
LU: Right, we could do that! Well, she said we did it together but that’s not the truth. This is her creation. I’m just happy I gave her the opportunity.
MGS: Thank you very much for talking with me. I loved the movie.
LU: Thank you very much. You make me very happy.
Miss Julie will receive a limited theatrical release in the U.S. beginning on December 14.
1. Breathless (Godard)
2. Jules and Jim (Truffaut)
3. Rome, Open City (Rossellini)
4. X-Men: Days of Future Past (Singer)
5. Italian for Beginners (Scherfig)
6. My Darling Clementine (Ford)
7. Blood Creek (Schumacher)
8. Halloween (Carpenter)
9. An American Werewolf in London (Landis)
10. Singin’ in the Rain (Donen/Kelly)
As I first reported here back in July, the book that Adam Selzer and I have written about the rise and fall of the silent film industry in Chicago, Flickering Empire, will be released next spring by Wallflower Press, the Film Studies imprint of Columbia University Press. Pre-order info for the book was made available today. We are pleased to announce it will be released on March 17 and can be ordered direct from the CUP website here.
It’s only 25 dollars (or 17-and-a-half pounds for all of you limeys out there) for the paperback edition, or $75/£52.00 for the hardcover. Both are illustrated with 24 handsome black-and-white photographs, a couple of which were taken by yours truly. Or you can order it from amazon and save a few bucks: it’s only $22.85 for the paperback edition. For a 240-page book, that’s a steal at less than a dollar per page, folks!
Last but not least, I’d like to point out that March 17 is St. Patrick’s Day. What better way to celebrate than by opening a package in the mail, pouring yourself a pint of the black stuff and then settling in to read all about the evils of one Thomas Alva Edison, hmmmm?
Here is the second part of my 50th Chicago International Film Festival Report Card:
The Word (Kazejak, Poland) – Rating: 7.4.
This intriguing Polish drama tells the lightly fictionalized true story of a teenaged girl, Lila (Eliza Rycembel), who convinces her boyfriend to murder one of their classmates in order to atone for the boyfriend’s infidelity. While The Word has been referred to as a “procedural” and “Macbeth set in a high school,” it’s thankfully less genre-oriented than such labels imply. What director/co-writer Anna Kazejak has achieved instead is a rather dark character study focusing on Lila’s interrelationships with her friends and parents, the dramatization of which offers disturbing insights into youth culture in the social-media age while simultaneously avoiding drawing pat conclusions. This has some of the same delicacy of feeling of Eliza Hittman’s It Felt Like Love, an otherwise very different portrait of a teenage girl by a young female director, and I’m glad I saw it.
Ne Me Quitte Pas – Rating: 7.3. Review here.
Creep (Brice, USA) – Rating: 6.9
A low-rent videographer (co-writer and director Patrick Brice) gets a one-day job documenting the life of a man who claims to be dying of cancer (co-writer Mark Duplass) so that his unborn son can one day get to know him a la the Michael Keaton weepie My Life. It isn’t long, however, before the client reveals more sinister motives . . . Although the “found footage” horror subgenre would seem to be exhausted, the filmmakers here do manage to find new and clever uses for it — as all of the footage comprising the narrative comes from video cameras being wielded by the two protagonists (who are also practically the only characters in the film). Sure, the premise of this horror/comedy is slender but I had fun; it’s like a short, funny joke whose punchline not only works but blindsides you because it arrives quicker than you thought it would. Plus, the sight of Duplass in a wolf mask is genuinely terrifying.
St. Vincent (Melfi, USA) – Rating: 6.6
It’s “Gran Torino directed by Wes Anderson” — though not as good as that sounds — when Bill Murray’s title character, a curmudgeonly retiree, agrees to babysit the son of the single mother next door (an understated Melissa McCarthy), and teaches the kid all manner of bad habits and invaluable life lessons in the process. While the characters here are appealing and the premise charming, this low-key comedy/drama ultimately disappoints because of the way it takes what should have been an affecting slice-of-life character study and weakens it with too many plot developments; I could have personally done without the subplots about Vincent’s stroke and recuperation, the death of his beloved wife, and, especially, his owing gambling debts to an underworld type played by Terrence Howard. (I admit, however, to being inordinately grateful for Naomi Watts’s crack comic timing as a pregnant Russian hooker.) The closing credits scene that shows Vincent watering his backyard while listening to a Bob Dylan song is more drolly funny than anything in the movie proper. It hints at what St. Vincent could have been had first-time writer/director Ted Melfi opted for a less-is-more approach.
The Midnight After (Chan, Hong Kong) – Rating 5.3
Of the two misfires I caught at this year’s CIFF (Fort Tilden being the other), this one was particularly painful because of my investment in its director and cast: the once-worthy Fruit Chan (Made in Hong Kong) adapts a sci-fi/comedy novel by someone named “PIZZA” about a bus full of characters played by several generations of HK movie stars (Kara Hui, Simon Yam, Lam Suet, Sam Lee, etc.) crossing into an alternate-reality universe that resembles our own but which is eerily devoid of other human beings. How could this go wrong? The Midnight After feels like less of a movie than a random grab-bag of different stylistic and thematic ideas — blood raining from the sky, invocations of the Fukushima disaster, a music video-style sequence built around a David Bowie song — that Chan has thrown at the wall in the hopes that something will stick. Unfortunately, very little does.
Fort Tilden (Violet-Bliss/Rogers, USA) – Rating: 5.2
This microbudget feature debut comedy by co-writers/directors Charles Rogers and Sarah Violet-Bliss plotlessly examines the lives of two vapid, twenty-something rich girls in Williamsburg (Bridey Elliott and Clare McNulty) as they spend a needlessly difficult day trying to meet up with two boys at a beach near their home. Fort Tilden inspires some lascivious chuckles but, even if you disagree with the notion that satirizing hipsters is past its sell-by date, there’s no denying it’s also visually sloppy and tonally uneven: the filmmakers ask viewers to laugh at a cartoonish moment where the characters stupidly pay a hundred dollars for a two-mile cab ride, then expect us to turn around and empathize with them during a quasi-realistic fight scene moments later. This is the kind of thing that probably would have played better as episodes in a web series. It’s flaws would certainly be less noticeable on your phone.
1. F for Fake (Welles)
2. A Man Escaped (Bresson)
3. Devil in a Blue Dress (Franklin)
4. Vagabond (Varda)
5. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Fassbinder)
6. Listen Up Philip (Perry)
7. Tucker and Dale vs. Evil (Craig)
8. Alien (Scott)
9. The Unspeakable Act (Sallitt)
10. I Walked with a Zombie (Tourneur)