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New York Film Festival Correspondences #5: Escape to the Drive-In

A look at Tilda Swinton and Pedro Almodóvar's quarantine film, Sofia Coppola's "On the Rocks," and Steve McQueen's "Mangrove."
Daniel Kasman
The Notebook is covering the NYFF with an on-going correspondence between critic Doug Dibbern and editor Daniel Kasman.
Above: The Human Voice.
Dear Doug,
As someone whose film passion and physical (not to mention mental) endurance quickly withers in the face of repeated 8:30am screenings at Cannes, I find your proposed home festival start time of 4:00am a radical suggestion! Perhaps too radical for me—though the premise of adjusting one’s body clock entirely to optimize life for ideal movie viewing admirably takes cinephilia to new heights. I’ll dodge your proposal for now, because the two feature films films I most recently saw at the festival were again at the drive-in—though a much more sedate and less exultant experience than that of the opening night. Still, it was an event: It required leaving the house, driving a distance, being somewhere different, seeing something new. Pre-pandemic, there was so much discussion in the media of how to "eventize" things in order to make consumer commitment to experience seem worthwhile. Now, even something as previously banal as going for a drive to watch a movie on something other than my home screen carries with it the charge of the week's milestone. (Looking back in a few months from now, it may well be the only thing I remember happening last week!)
This brief escape is something that Tilda Swinton longs for in The Human Voice, her delightful new short film directed this July under quarantine by Pedro Almodóvar. She, like so many of us, is stuck inside her home (after a teasingly sinister prologue in which she purchases a massive axe), only—lucky her—that home is a quintessentially Almodóvarian abode of garish colors, great books, movies (and movie references, including to many of the director’s own), and pieces of art big and small. Such sets are one of the great pleasures of cinema, but, as Swinton paces back and forth, unable or unwilling to leave, one starts to wonder if looking at those candy-shop colors all day wouldn’t drive you mad. Also like so many of us, her relationship to the outside world is almost entirely through ear-pieces and with people unseen. She has lost track of past and present. She waits for a lover to come, and to go. Adapted from a Jean Cocteau monologue touched on several times in Almodóvar’s career, we watch a quintessentially virtuosic Swinton go through most emotions in the book (or, that is, in the movies), by turns funny, brittle, acidic, and heartbreaking. Few will recognize themselves in the grandiosity of her style, but few will fail to not recall similar scattered franticness over the last six months. When put on by this actress-director combination, such hysteria is good fun. With sly irony Almodóvar doubles down on his—and our—isolation, cocooning Swinton’s apartment inside a studio set, less a nod to flagrant artifice than a recognition that our homes are also our stages for performance and the writhing torment of our own minds. She aches to leave her home and her agony behind within it. Whether that’s a genuine escape, for her or for us, I do not know, but certainly the small act of getting in my car and high-tailing it to the Queens Drive-In offered a welcome breath of fresh air.
Above: On the Rocks.
One of the festival’s biggest premieres, On the Rocks casts Bill Murray as the father of Rashida Jones, and it makes sense: Both throughout their careers carry a sense of solitude in their characters, tinged by sorrow. It only seems natural that someone like Murray, whose solitude has calcified into a wonderfully aloof and sardonic persona, would raise someone like Jones, who in Sofia Coppola’s new film carries her charming, beautiful sad-clown aura, as if she’s the butt of a joke she’s too weary to contest. While the patrician millionaire Murray plays long ago learned how to protect himself from the world, Jones’s character is still a neophyte, despite being a married author with two children, a SoHo loft, and a book deal. She goes through her affluent New York sphere down in the dumps, thinking that perhaps because her husband, played by Marlon Wayans, has made a few odd slips in behavior, enjoys his success at his new job suspiciously much, travels so often, and has such a beautiful coworker, that he may well be cheating on her. Murray, as her flirtatious divorced father who has had his share of philandering—in a bit of silver-screen continuity from Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers—and loves to cynically wax on about the different needs of men and women, encourages his daughter to assume the worst. They join forces to find out what’s really going on, Jones under duress and yearning denial, and Murray with an avid flourish at the chance for an escapade with his “shorty,” “kiddo,” and “kiddie”: A daughter he has a very undeveloped relationship with.
Despite the algorithmically perfect alignment of hip elements—the conjunction has that immaculate sheen of a Tesla: Coppola directing, renewing her collaboration with Murray in a film produced by A24 and set to be released on Apple TV+—On the Rocks feels desultory, as if a film fulfilled on contract. One can sense the directions the film could have gone. The prickly new consciousness that doubt brings to relationship could redefine reality—marriage, kids, New York, writing—for this woman caught between youth and middle age, casting a life presumed and taken for granted in a new light, from a new angle. A world turned upside down, to which Murray serves as a guide and host. Or, like the imminently more ambitious Toni Erdmann, the repeated encounters with a father she has an unresolved relationship with could destabilize a young woman’s life, her sense of self, and of the world, resulting in a movie comic in form and grave underneath. On the Rocks, lacking a fundamental vitality, bypasses the moral gravity of the former and the spontaneity and incisive international business milieu of the latter. Jones is given a character admirably normal beyond her wealth, and is worried inside the film that she may have become boring to her husband; the greater danger is that she is boring as a character, as the qualities given to her life feel like boxes checked rather than aspects lived. A repeated joke at her children’s school is that she’s frequently subject to the motor-mouth relationship complaints of a single mother (the great Jenny Slate), the idea being that Jones is well beyond this stage in her life and has too much going on to treat the romantic roller-coaster ride of youth as seriously as the young woman does. Only, the film fails to recognize that this young woman’s neurotic energy fizzes while that of our heroine wilts. She leans wearily against the school hallway, counting the seconds before she can escape the chatter and head home; meanwhile, I counted the seconds before Slate would appear again. 
It’s clear that to some degree this is intended: Jones’s straight-laced life is supposed to be juxtaposed to the instability of her relationship-free, even-wealthier bon vivant of a father. (In the comparison between Jones and Wayans’ posh lifestyle to that of the chauffeured Murray, the film does very much nail that Eyes Wide Shut sense that even to the rich in New York, there is always someone richer.) But the adventure of detective work the two embark upon fails to carry the high-wire unpredictability of the screwball lineage, which would comically push the uptight beyond propriety in order to come out the other side enlivened. (There is one great gag: of father and daughter exiting a lavish party by walking backwards, so no one notices them leaving.) Murray is given (or creates) sub-Woody Allen, dinosaur-aged adages about the other sex in order to bring some verbal comedy to a story that fails to get things physically antic. As Jones’s character lingers, lugubrious, in several conversations with her father, Murray quips repeatedly, and it’s unclear if Murray the actor is interceding in an unfunny movie to get us laughing, or if Murray’s character is doing the same thing in the life of a daughter he may find sympathetic, but fundamentally mundane. Probably both at once. After seeing already two movies at the festival that so effectively, and differently, explore the solitude and questioning of women of nearly the same age—The Calming, evoked through silence and introspection, and Beginning, evoked through distress and trauma—it was hard to take the dilemma at the core of Coppola’s film very seriously. Subtext seems completely absent; the situation is sad, certainly, and therefore the movie is too, but in a perfunctory way. When it’s all over, the gauntlet of doubt run, neither we nor our heroine seems likely to ask what it was all for. It is obvious, unfortunately.
Mangrove
Above: Mangrove.
A similar complaint could be levied against Mangrove, the second of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology films at the festival. The perspective given by the larger canvas of the five-film series en total is still to be determined, but compared to the very contained 1980 house party of Lovers Rock, McQueen has opened the aperture on his portrait of London’s West Indian community to now encompass an entire neighborhood (Notting Hill), a protest (against repeated police harassment and raids of the West Indian Mangrove restaurant), and an emblematic trial, the 1970 case against the Mangrove Nine, a group that was accused of inciting a riot during the protest. This trial, according to the film, brought the subject of systematic prejudice and racial bias directly into the British courtroom, ranging from efforts to select an all-Black jury and two of the defendants representing themselves, to accusations of police racism. To reach this point, the film devotes its first half to the restaurant and its owner, Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes), and his remarkable resilience in the face of targeted police harassment and multiple raids, and the second half to the trial which takes the example of the Mangrove and the subsequent protest as a metonym of deeper and wider societal injustice.
The snapshot of state violence given by Mangrove is one of a community living within a microcosm of a police state that exploits, with relish, the imbalance of power between the local Blacks and the whites supposedly maintaining law and order. (The emblematic police constable villain is portrayed in a simplified version as a man completely intoxicated with racism and hate, the kind of caricature usually given to Nazis in bad World War 2 films.) Despite being set in 1970, it should go without saying that this theme is equally relevant today, in different but no less resonant circumstances. Nevertheless, the dramatization—or lack thereof—leaves too much wanting. Likely strapped with a television (or, in today’s parlance, streaming) budget, McQueen’s production fails to evoke the Britain that surrounds the block on which the Mangrove exists. A Hollywood studio-era film could shoot on a small backlot and still make a strip supposedly of the Lower East Side seem a part of a teeming New York; McQueen’s Notting Hill feels underpopulated and isolated, a failure that grows as the dialog increasingly underscores the importance of the Mangrove restaurant as a community hub for the local West Indian populace, and later how we’re told that the trial itself represents something greater. But who’s to say, when the dozen or so characters feel like the only ones in the world? A block party is the perfect example: A wide shot shows a crowd of twenty or thirty, dancing on a street containing nearly no one else. It feels staged, rather than lived. The feeling Lovers Rock had, of an self-contained community that mostly kept the evils of the world outside its confines, comes back here not in that poetical sense, but in a practical one: For all the emphasis on community and systemic issues, we see a few isolated examples that are unconvincingly supposed to represent something pervasive.
This abstraction from a historical tapestry could serve an iconic or emblematic purpose, if the film took greater steps to make its drama more artificial, so that its bareness stood out all the more strongly, characters becoming symbols, myths—grand figures. The festival has more than its share of diverse examples of this approach, including Almodóvar’s The Human Voice and the collectively-made Ouvertures. But Mangrove’s dramatic earnestness, well-intentioned but frequently histrionic, makes it impossible to take it as anything but a tepidly evoked period film. A number of the cast do their best to make an impact, and many succeed, particularly Malachi Kirby as a self-representing Trinidadian whose sing-songing cross-examinations and closing statement in court take the film to thrilling heights in their moments of prejudicial exposure and fiercely composed rage against the system. Bright, too, is Letitia Wright, as a British Black Panther whose small stature is more than made up for in avid, righteous anger, prodding anyone and everyone around her to be more forceful and united. But her character is also saddled with a final act speech explaining directly what’s at stake in the trial that exemplifies the worst impulses of Mangrove. In the absence of any particular filmmaking angle to dramatizing the restaurant, this oppression, this protest, and this trial, the film slips as if by default to speechifying for fighting back, for solidarity—all the things a movement for social and political justice should be advocating for as essential. But good values and motivation don’t automatically make for a compelling picture, and in terms of information and context, what one gets less from Mangrove than one would get from a straight-laced documentary on the subject. As a human drama, it is disjointed, gap riddled, and blandly staged. As an innovative story of community, education, and protest within a Black community that is connected to the 1970s, the festival is also showcasing the much more explorative and unconventional The Inheritance. Made with a fraction of the budget, cast, and distribution, Ephraim Asili’s may not always be successful, but it carries with it the flushed charge of a film taking risks to communicate the risks of a people who are incensed and yearn for change.
Best,
Danny

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NYFFNYFF 2020Festival CoverageCorrespondencesSofia CoppolaSteve McQueenPedro Almodóvar
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