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New York Film Festival Correspondence #6: Melodrama and Closure

At the festival, Azazel Jacobs's "French Exit" provides a tonal challenge & Steve McQueen's "Red, White and Blue" impresses at the drive-in.
Doug Dibbern
The Notebook is covering the NYFF with an on-going correspondence between critic Doug Dibbern and editor Daniel Kasman.
Above: The Red, White and Blue
Hey, Danny—
The ending of every festival—like the ending of any decent movie—often leaves me wanting more, but the sense of inconclusive closure was intensified this year because the Closing Night selection was so stridently odd. French Exit—directed by Azazel Jacobs from a script by Patrick DeWitt—tells the story of an unhealthily tight relationship between a son (Lucas Hedges) and his wealthy socialite mother (Michelle Pfeiffer) who’s on the brink of financial and thus emotional ruin. Throwing a few stacks of hundred-Euro bills—her last savings—into a bag, the mother and son duo decamp to Paris for what we presume will be her final days.
The movie’s main interest for me was its unusual tonal balance: it plays with genre conventions, but never quite settles into any expected form. In the early stages, it feels like a typical indie about a messy relationship: I was anticipating a series of actorly blow-ups between the nut-job mother and the resentfully uncommunicative son. But by the time they arrive in Paris, the film mutates in unforeseen ways, playing out more like a madcap comedy. Valerie Mahaffey plays a batty new friend in an exaggeratedly comedic style as if she’s a puppet in a Punch and Judy show. The black cat they smuggled into the country in Pfeiffer’s handbag, apparently, is inhabited by the soul of their late husband/father, who speaks to them in a voice dripping with droll exasperation. By the end, seven or eight kooky characters are all unexpectedly living under one roof like a Kaufman and Hart play from the 1930s. And yet for all this lunacy, I couldn’t quite call the film a comedy because I never felt the desire to laugh. The tone, rather, is one of reserved, comic eccentricity. At the same time, though, the film aims for serious drama, interspersing these sequences of outré group dynamics with intimate scenes where the two leads delve into the fissures of their relationship. 
Jacobs’ visual style accentuates this incongruous tone: throughout, he highlights the sensitive drama rather than the comedic idiosyncrasy. When his characters have earnest discussions, he inches his camera forward in a traditional manner to intensify their emotions; he underlines the gravity of certain moments as most dramas do with a score that highlights thoughtful piano and strings. It is partly these orthodox stylistic choices that made the comic aspects feel so odd. Some people will feel an affinity for this film precisely because of this puzzling tonal mixture. But as much as I enjoyed the two hours I got to spend with Jacobs and DeWitt’s offbeat vision, I sometimes wondered if they were entirely aware of what they were doing—or why.
As we’ve been talking about throughout the festival, our unusual viewing conditions may have shaped our feelings toward these films. Because of my schedule this week—my taxing job and, as you well know, my unrelentingly rich and vibrant social obligations—I had to watch this movie over two sittings: the first half after a night out and a few beers, and the second half the following morning around 7am bringing myself back to consciousness with the aid of a very large carafe of coffee. Maybe it was because of this disjointed experience that I found the film’s uncategorizableness more incoherent than liberating; maybe this imperfect viewing situation made me want a more comfortable genre picture instead.
And maybe that’s why I keep thinking about the three movies in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series. I’ve admired McQueen’s movies in the past, but I haven’t let myself become a fan: his central thematic obsession with the degradations of the male body never struck a chord with me. But working within the conventions of the political melodrama has tamed his impulses, while at the same time highlighting his moviemaking skills and intelligence. I think I like him better in this new incarnation as an old-school journeyman director than I do as the auteur of masculine pain and humiliation.
Red, White and Blue was my favorite of the Small Axe films, despite the fact that McQueen and his producers chose—barbarically!—not to include an Oxford comma in the title. I think I liked it because of his complex handling of traditional storytelling structures, but it might have also been because of—as we keep talking about—the specific circumstances of how I saw the movie. That is, unlike the other films in the series, I managed to see this one on the big screen!
I cajoled some friends with a car to invite me to one of the festival’s drive-in screening at the Brooklyn Army Terminal out in Sunset Park. And the Brooklyn Army Terminal, it turns out, is a pretty remarkable setting to see a film. It’s an unusual place, for sure: maybe even a bit of a secret. I suspect that even the most ardent Brooklyn chauvinists among my friends have never been there. Those few who are familiar with it probably know it as the stop on the NYC Ferry system between Brooklyn Heights and Bay Ridge. And it is this relationship with the water that made it such a great place to see a movie: because the screening didn’t take place at the terminal, exactly, but out on the pier.
With our windows down, catching the ocean breezes, it almost felt as if we were out on a boat ourselves, floating in the middle of the bay. We could see Staten Island like a dark smudge in the distance, the Statue of Liberty beaming bright green, and downtown Manhattan, where One World Trade Center towered over the skyline like a beacon. The weather was cool, the air was crisp, we were munching on popcorn, and sipping now and then, admittedly, from a flask that one of us had snuck in. This relaxing atmosphere created an interesting juxtaposition with the film itself, given that it’s such an ugly subject.
Red, White and Blue is a movie, like Mangrove, that works within the conventions of the political melodrama, giving us a noble hero fighting injustice, enabling us to see and thus to experience virtue, but it does so with a little more nuance than that earlier entry in the series. As usual, I tried to read nothing about the film before I saw it; the only thing I knew about it was the film still I’d seen on the festival website. But even with that meager knowledge, I could already outline its entire narrative structure in a way that felt oddly comforting, despite the brutal subject matter: this was going to be story of one of London’s first Black police officers (Leroy Logan, played by John Boyega, who’s quite good), and it would follow a downward spiral into an uneasy conclusion. I could already picture the most dramatic scenes: the misunderstandings with white people on the street, the tension with Black people who saw him as a traitor, the dramatic confrontation with racist cops, and a climactic chase scene most likely culminating in—I certainly hoped—a bout of extreme violence. And sure enough, the movie delivered: comforting in the way that all tragedy is comforting.
Yet I liked this movie more than Mangrove because it took what was—as you pointed out—a fairly simple model and complicated the generic conventions, making for a much more troubled and thoughtful film. McQueen and his co-writer Courttia Newland played with the typical structure by creating a parallel story about the protagonist’s father. Early on, before Logan decides to join the force, we see his dad beaten up by a pair of white cops. His father decides to sue the police force, and these drawn-out legal proceedings leave him resentful and embittered. Logan’s decision to join the force, then, is on some level an attempt to avenge his father by changing the police force from within, to prevent attacks like these in the future. But his decision, understandably, sparks an intense family dynamic that permeates the entire film. His father can barely forgive him. With their different decisions and different narrative paths, Logan and his father become mirror images of each other—different generations, different sides of the law, different attitudes about the possibility of assimilation or acceptance. We know that McQueen’s story will actually be two stories, which we assume, all along while watching, will inevitably come together at the very end.
Logan’s career path makes his story one of increasing isolation. McQueen thus organizes the film around cinematic methods to highlight these conjoined themes of separateness and reconciliation. Given that the other two films in the Small Axe series made such fantastically fun use of music, McQueen’s sonic choices here were illuminating. He didn’t use much music, filling the soundtrack with silences instead to emphasize the austerity of Logan’s emotional life. So when McQueen does deploy a song, it takes on an elevated texture. One of the most effective moments for me was the scene where Logan’s father drops him off at the police station for his first day on the job: McQueen shoots the two men awkwardly figuring out how to say goodbye with the camera in the back seat of the car looking out through the windshield, watching the two figures in the distance finally coming to embrace while Al Green murmurs his version of the Bee Gee’s “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart,” whose lyrics echo the movie’s central concerns: “How can you mend this broken man? / How can a loser ever win? / Please help me mend my broken heart and let me live again.” The song speaks of both men, of both generations, of two different possibilities of trying to find one’s place in the dominant culture. But the great thing about generic expectations is that we know from this very moment that neither man, neither generation, and neither approach will be able to mend either of these two broken men. It is their affection for each other—so distantly observed—that may offer the only respite.
McQueen designs his images to tell the story of Logan’s increasing isolation. Early on, he populates the frame with people: he surrounds him with friends, family, colleagues at work. But once he joins the police, McQueen increasingly stages scenes to intensify his disconnection from others. When Logan’s in the locker room, he’s either alone, on the edge of the frame, or surrounded by white officers who hover on the periphery of a circle of which he becomes the uneasy center. In one of the climactic sequences, McQueen follows Logan in one, deliriously long Steadicam shot as he follows a suspect through a factory. But the building’s vastness emphasizes his lack of connection with anyone in his environment, a notion that McQueen punctuates by shooting him from above, making him look like a minuscule character in a drama much too large for him to find his place in.
Because McQueen constructed his movie around the parallel stories of these two men, his ending is pre-determined. But even with all my expectations in place, the final scene still came upon me like a sudden blow. I knew that father and son would come together again. But the irreconcilability of their positions—both as individuals and as symbols of their community—made for a much more nuanced take on the political situation of British West Indians than either of the two previous entries in the series.
The ending of the festival, too, came upon me suddenly, even though I knew exactly when and how it, too, would finish. The conclusion of a festival—like the conclusion of any good movie—should leave you with a sense of resolution but also a nagging sense of uncertainty: a curiosity about what else might have been or about what might come next. Overall, I thought this was a pretty strong festival lineup. In the past, people have often criticized the New York Film Festival because it screens the same menagerie of favorite auteurs year after year and because the movies are often a bit too formally challenging for an audience that isn’t quite as hardcore as the programmers. This year’s festival, though, created a nice balance between old timers like Tsai Ming-liang and new stars like Garrett Bradley. The movies in the Main Slate were, on average, a bit more accessible than most years, but that left me yearning for a more extravagant series of films next year.
It’s been fun talking to you about the festival this year, Danny. I hope next year we can experience the festival all over again—but in person, hanging out in the Walter Reade lobby, jabbering animatedly with our nerdy cinephile friends.
Doug

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NYFF 2020CorrespondencesNYFFFestival CoverageSteve McQueenAzazel Jacobs
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