We are living at a tenuous moment. Politics are at a flashpoint. Nation-states seem put to the test every new month. Meanwhile the chasm between rich and poor never stops growing wider. As the 2015 New York Film Festival proved, it is in the cinema’s nature to reflect – and reflect on – these changes. But it can also do something more. It can help carve out an alternative to the dialogue de sourds of so much media chatter. It is in this spirit that we have decided to discuss eight of the key films screening at this year’s NYFF. Some of the issues highlighted at the festival are clearly of-the-moment. Others work on different time scales. But for every film we wanted to think the questions through on a number of levels: aesthetic, political, personal. We hope not only to flesh out differences, but also to find common ground and in doing so, perhaps, to modestly come to a deeper understanding of the place of cinema in our contemporary and fast-changing world.
JS: On the surface Steve Jobs is about three product launches: three moments in a mythic career. We follow Jobs (Michael Fassbender) walking-and-talking as a young maverick in ‘84, an industry outsider in ‘88, and, in the late ‘90s, as an absolved prophet on the eve of his iApotheosis. In counterpoint Jobs is drawn as a father: at first cruel, then softened and finally humbled. This is archetypal enough. The backstage mania and compressed narrative time (like last year’s Birdman) derive from the theatre. Steve Jobs really should be a play. Soon everything cinematic recedes from view and we are left with the actors speaking their lines. There is an intimacy in this – and the acting is superb – but also a high dose of artifice. It is the conceit of life-as-theatre: the exquisite duals of wit and metaphor, the oedipal dramas reworked at every turn, the passing questions left hanging in the air only to be answered out of the blue, with histrionic finality, some three or four beats later.
Steve Jobs should really be named Aaron Sorkin. It would make for fairer advertising of the product. Anyone hoping to gain fresh insight about Jobs himself will leave the film frustrated. We already know the CEO was a manic bully and outsmarter. The problem is not that this is untrue but that it is not a full enough explanation of his genius. Internal to the film we have the zingers, the effortless quips and one-liners. Outside the film we have the fact that Apple has become the biggest corporation in human history. It is in that disconnect that the limitations of Sorkin’s method are exposed.
DF: Perhaps the most exasperating part of watching any Sorkin-scripted film (or TV show) is the preponderance with which the characters speak in this “Sorkinese” you describe. Not that a writer having a unique voice is a problem in and of itself – one could say the same about the plays of Corneille or Schiller. But what I think you’re pointing to is this achingly overt desire to use the intelligence of the dialogue, with the characters spraying perfectly crafted aperçus at every opportunity, as a proof for the intelligence of the screenwriter – and, by extension, a validation of the intelligence of the spectator, who enjoys sitting back and consuming these twirling arabesques of quick-witted repartee.
JS: Right. And part of me does love sitting back and consuming them! It’s like middlebrow Shakespeare. There are verbal set pieces that are pure scintillating fun. But on the other hand it can also get a bit formulaic. Sorkin seems to have purified his method to such a degree that the film is probably best seen as an exaggerated master class in his technique. In one crystallising riposte, Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogan), tells his rival, “You can be decent and gifted at the same time. It’s not binary.” Maybe a parallel maxim applies to the screenwriter. You can be both clever and profound. But it’s a difficult line to walk.
DF: The prevailing theme in the film is the dichotomy between being a genius and being an arsehole. I couldn’t help but think of Hegel’s “cunning of reason” in his Lectures on the Philosophy of World History. In order to accomplish their destinies, all the great men of history (the Alexanders, Julius Caesars and Napoleons) also had to commit unspeakable crimes. Does the same logic apply to Steve Jobs? Is his shabby treatment of his family and colleagues thereby justifiable? But this begs the question. What we should actually be querying is Jobs’ status as a genius in the first place.
JS: What makes Jobs so of our time is that he sees no contradiction in being both an artist and a capitalist, rebel and executive, prophet and bully. He crystallises all of the romantic nerdy ego-dreams of Silicon Valley. The myth of the start-up is that you don’t have to sell out to become a billionaire. You are rewarded for your chutzpah and prescience. It is a total contradiction of course. The bottom line is always money – not beauty or virtue. But I also think Jobs represents a more universal dilemma. In the haunting cliché of Auden’s: “Perfection of the life or of the work.” The choice animates so many Hollywood biopics it seems to have taken on the status of cultural truth. Hence the important line given to Woz about being decent/gifted. The idea that being a jerk is a status symbol is something many ambitious young men will have to grow out of on their own, without the help of the culture industry.
DF: In another crucial line, Wozniak asks, given that engineers and programmers actually design and make the products: “How come ten times in a day I hear ‘Steve Jobs is a genius.’ What do you do?” Sorkin’s Jobs is ready with an answer. Like a conductor, he “plays” the orchestra rather than any particular instrument. He obsesses over the most minute details of his public presentations more than the functionality of any of Apple’s products. He exults about the smoothness of the contours on his (failed) Next. The real Jobs reportedly hoped that customers would want to lick the iPod. But in essence, he did nothing, created nothing. He was merely an extremely effective marketer, and in the end, the product he most skillfully peddled to the credulous public was his own persona. This, in a perverse way, was his genius. And while Boyle’s film attracted opprobrium from those who willingly partake in the cult of Apple’s spiritual leader (and who, as the New York Times has reported, are quite happy about the film tanking at the box office), it does precious little to undercut the widespread idea of Jobs as a modern-day Hegelian Weltgeist.
DF: Steve Jobs was one of an uncannily large number of biopics in NYFF’s main slate, which included Robert Zemeckis’ The Walk and Don Cheadle’s Miles Ahead. But the festival’s most oddball example of a very un-oddball genre was Michael Almereyda’s Experimenter. Almereyda’s œuvre, stretching back three decades now, has a refreshingly sui generis quality to it, encompassing everything on the cinematic spectrum from vampire films, through modern-day Shakespeare adaptations, to more unambiguously experimental fare such as Paradise (2009).
JS: I recently watched Almereyda’s 2005 documentary, William Eggleston in the Real World. There is a moment in his whispered voiceover where he says his footage of the photographer in Kentucky resembles a nature film about Lemurs in Madagascar. I think this tendency to defamiliarise – to see modern American life as a curious Martian might – applies very much to Experimenter. It informs the film’s subject, its style, its relationship to genre.
DF: Experimenter certainly takes the biopic template and twists it in subtle yet effective ways. Peter Sarsgaard plays Stanley Milgram, the eponymous experimenter with whom first-year psychology students the world over will be familiar. While a young associate professor at Yale in the early 1960s, Milgram devised a psychological experiment which, in his eyes at least, would help us to understand the nature of crimes committed under totalitarian regimes. A volunteer would administer electric shocks to a person in an adjacent room. If he objected he was strictly commanded to continue despite the cries of pain emanating from the other room, cries that were, of course, staged for the experiment. The vast majority of participants complied with the orders given to them and continued the experiment until its grisly conclusion, thereby debunking prevailing academic attitudes, and suggesting that there is a psychological basis for Nazism that goes deeper than any particular historical context.
JS: The experiment, we should add, became a notorious point of reference not only for post-war social psychology but for the whole discourse around research ethics. It is the kind of experiment that could never get past an Internal Review Board today. It was also undertaken, quite bizarrely, in the basement of Linsly-Chittenden Hall at Yale, now home to the university’s English department. That is a building both of us know quite well.
DF: The scenes of the experiment take up much of the first half of Almereyda’s film. They are presented in a crisp, icy fashion that maintains a prolonged state of tension in the viewer. But it is when the film prowls outside of the experiment rooms that a deeper message comes through, one that shares affinities with Todd Haynes’ Carol, which also played at NYFF. During a time of Cold War paranoia, when the country had just gone through the Red Scares of McCarthyism, the United States itself was a place of stifling conformity on every level: its inhabitants were stiff and lifeless, and when independent thought did surface, it was crushed both by social consensus and more traditionally authoritarian means. In this sense, the moments in the film when Milgram faces hostile academic committees are every bit as chilling as the scenes where a hapless local resident timorously subjects a fellow human being to physical torture.
JS: I found the second half of the film, in particular, to be delightfully peculiar. The movie starts out being about the experiment but ends up being about the experimenter. As played by Sarsgaard, with a studied stoop and impassivity, Milgram acquires a certain deadpan tenderness. He seems to have genuine intentions. Likewise Wynona Ryder does a wonderful job playing his bemused and supportive wife. It is as if she sees her husband for what he is: an impish and unusual performance artist, chafing against the rules of the academic game, conducting his own avant-garde and questionable experiments in his own medium.
DF: It was at this stage in his life that Milgram had to live with both the notoriety he had gained from his first study, completed in his late 20s, and the struggle to avoid going down in history as a one-trick-pony. (His later research, which included experiments where groups of random people looked up at the sky to coax onlookers to mimic them, was decidedly less explosive). And in a way this is more interesting than the original experiments he carried out. In this section, too, Almereyda’s eccentric sensibility gains more prominence, but throughout Experimenter the more conventional scenes are sprinkled with moments of discord. Sarsgaard will make Brechtian asides to the camera; there is an overt use of back projection; and, in the film’s loopiest moment, a live elephant plods down a campus corridor, charting a silent path a few steps behind the film’s oblivious protagonist. In other hands, these formal fissures could have come off as clunky or embarrassing, but Almereyda has just the right amount of whimsical insouciance, even when dealing with such weighty material, to pull them off.
JS: The unique tonal mixture of the film stems from its premise. An experiment is not the same thing as what it studies. It both is and is not reality. There’s a Brechtian flavour inbuilt to Milgram’s very method and the “shocks” he delivers to his subjects: the arch acting, the eventual “laying bare of the device”, the newborn capacity for critical self-reflection. The Ivy League, like a theatre stage, distances as much as it immerses. Even when Milgram gains an appointment at CUNY he only inverts the metaphor, by seeing the whole city around him as one big social science “experiment”, a kind of petri dish to be methodically probed and measured. Humans in New York, like lemurs in Madagascar, are there to be studied as much as lived with. Hence the irony and distance of the film as a whole: an idea can be at once a disturbing human truth and an intellectual hobbyhorse.
JS: Bridge of Spies was another enjoyable hodgepodge of a film. In lesser hands it would have been a mess; as imagined by Spielberg it becomes a moving period film and testament to American values. A lot of this, to be fair, is also due to Tom Hanks. The everyman actor, eminently likable in that sportive American way, is perfectly cast as James Donovan, a Brooklyn insurance lawyer assigned to represent the captured Soviet spy, Rudolf Abel. What begins as a token gesture to due process soon acquires a more elevated purpose when Donovan develops, against Cold War proscriptions, a respect for his client, played with magnificent composure by the English actor Mark Rylance. The civility Spielberg brings out between the two men, one American, the other Soviet, struck a chord in me. I was reminded of the bond between Rauffenstein and Boeldieu in Grande Illusion. As with Renoir’s film, made under the shadow of fascism, Spielberg is speaking to his contemporaries, reminding us that there are codes of conduct that should rise above our tribalisms.
DF: To give credit to Spielberg, there is a subtly subversive element to his film, which is to make the character of Rudolf Abel – who is an unrepentant spy for the Russians – a paragon of moral virtue, and a figure whose glum stoicism both Hanks and the spectator considerably warm to. This is by no means a partisan Cold War film, something that is emphasised by the coldly instrumentalist logic of diplomatic brinkmanship often displayed by the US government as much as its Eastern bloc counterparts: Hanks is only hired as a lawyer for the defence as a sham token to due legal process (even the judge on the case tells him he is supposed to lose), while American authorities are also happy to let the pesky Yale graduate student sojourning in East Berlin rot in a Stasi prison cell, and he is only saved by Hanks’ dogged persistence and willingness to circumvent the normal channels of international diplomacy. But yes, we come back to a common theme to much of Spielberg’s “serious” work: a certain faith in the possibility for individual acts of humanism to triumph in the face of a paranoid state apparatus. Moreover, any possible subversive impact to the film is largely smothered by its utterly consensual formal structure. Bridge of Spies is reasonably satisfying to sit through, and its geographical and generic shifts – from Brooklyn to Berlin, and from spy film to courtroom drama to noirish Cold War film, with a dash of war pilot escapade thrown in for good measure – keep it moving along when it could otherwise have become bogged down. But it is not a film that stays with us, that has the potential to haunt or unsettle us.
JS: I would be less dismissive. Sure the film is a generic medley. Sure it ends with a conventional resolution. But I was both entertained and made to think. The last shot of Hanks on the subway going to work – the sense of pride in work and citizenship, it had all been earned, or at least evoked, with sincerity. Bridge of Spies is far from Spielberg’s best work, but I found the core liberalist principles more moving than usual. Maybe it has to do with our own contemporary political climate. Spielberg and Hanks represent what seems to be a disappearing tradition of American evenhandedness. There is a sense of trust I felt with this film so unlike the shrill, mendacious, hateful and cheap world of cable news. It was like listening to a wise, benevolent, and at times mischievous uncle.
DF: There is certainly something avuncular about the Spielberg-Hanks duo: they form a figure who you saw a lot of as a child, but now only tend to catch up with every now and again, as you gradually realise how little you have in common with them. Our generation in particular, who grew up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, has a very specific relationship with both Spielberg as a director and with Hanks as an actor. Although we may not, now, be overly enamoured of the work of either, they can bring us back unconsciously to the tranquil comforts of our middle-class childhoods, much as Hanks returns from a desolate, war-ravaged Europe to his doting wife and adorable children in the staid suburban Brooklyn of the 1950s.
JS: I agree with you, more or less. And I also think that conflicted legacy of the ‘50s – as a time of decency or oppression – is at the core of this. The film seems to understand the paradox, as when Hanks is upbraided by an ignorant cop for being unpatriotic. I admire the impulse to not throw out the baby with the bathwater at a time when that middle road is tapering in the thin air of our own era’s polarisation and knowingness.
DF: The Assassin was making its US premiere at NYFF after bowing at Cannes, and as with many critics my initial viewing on the Croisette incited a desire to take in a second screening. Doing so in New York only confirmed the splendour of the film. It is difficult to exhaust the superlatives about it. Inevitably these revolve around its formal beauty; the narrative, even on a second viewing, is opaque and tangential to The Assassin’s virtues. Instead, there is something primordial about Hou’s film. Watching it unravel before my eyes, with its cadenced movements, luscious cinematography and immersively polyphonic soundtrack, I felt like I was witnessing the birth of an art form – as if I were an unwitting passer-by who stumbled into the Grand Café for the inaugural screening of Lumière shorts, or an Athenian who was on hand to see a tragic drama performed for the first time. An illogical thought, of course, given that the cinema has existed for 120 years, but I am sure I am not the only one in whom the film has instilled this sentiment.
JS: I watched The Assassin one row behind Ang Lee, so I kept thinking of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). It would make an interesting double bill, Hou’s film beside Ang’s. What an amazing journey it has been for Taiwanese cinema since the 1980s. I remember when I first saw Hou’s City of Sadness (1989). I was aware of an exceptional depth to the image, the texture of lived experience behind the frame. This was true even as I didn’t quite “get” all of the many layers: the shifts in dialect, the allusions to Taiwanese history, the sprawling family trees. With The Assassin, however, I confess I was more aware of the limitations. I felt what might be called the illusion of depth. One could even imagine a slow-cinema “how-to manual” with key techniques such as frequent and random narrative ellipses, extreme long takes of inscrutable faces, ambient natural silence, and so on. Of course there were many shots in Hou’s film that were sublime: the rising mist on the mountain most of all, but also the evanescent blue of the dusk, the operatic and imperial tones of the candle-lit fabrics. All of this, to use a reviewer cliché, is sumptuous. But I was still disappointed. I did not sense the epic historical tones of a film like City of Sadness. A high standard I know. Yet with The Assassin I felt a strange thinness to the narrative. But maybe the rather inchoate way I’m trying to articulate my response is testament to the film’s uniqueness.
DF: There is definitely something ethereal about the film, as if it slips through your fingers whenever you try to get too tight of a grip on it. And it doesn’t offer the same kind of historical realism that we find in City of Sadness. The framework here is mythology rather than history, and the aesthetic material is visual dynamics rather than human drama. By the same token, I really don’t see it as a how-to guide for “slow film”. I’m the first person to find a lot of the contemporary wave of contemplative cinema mundane and formulaic, particularly in more recent years, after the excitement of its initial upsurge in the early 2000s had subsided. But Hou is doing something very different in The Assassin: what I find interesting, and invigorating, about the film is the way it oscillates between periods of near total repose (still shots of forests, mountain slopes or slowly setting suns, for instance) and the rapid-fire bursts of physically frenetic action in the sword fights that punctuate the film. It is almost as if Hou is deliberately manipulating our pulses, in a manner not too dissimilar – although the comparison seems preposterous at first glance – to Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera.
JS: Jia’s entry from this year was the latest installment in a body of work shaping up to be one of the richest in contemporary cinema. He continues to probe the underbelly of Chinese development with severity, compassion and even a growing comic irreverence. Mountains May Depart, his latest film, works on a construction that reminded me of Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines. Both films are triptychs and trace with novelistic care the consequences of one generation’s choices on the next. In Jia’s film we begin in Fenyang on the eve of the millennium, and with an unstable love triangle between a shopkeeper’s daughter, Tao (played by Jia’s muse Zhao Tao) and two men, one a miner and the other an ambitious businessman. The film’s second section, set in our present, reveals the fallout. Tao has a son, whom her money-drunk husband christens Dollar, but the boy lives in Beijing, a member of the cossetted capitalist class, while his mother has stayed behind in the provinces in a regal but hollow existence. The last third of the film takes a surreal turn to the future – and Australia – where Dollar is now in the full flush of teenage ennui (the natural rebellion of affluence) despite his father’s violent attempts to mold a scion.
As a drama I found the film to get worse as it went along. The Balzacian themes went haywire and were limned with an offhandedness I found more idiosyncratic than creative. I wanted to stay in 1999, in the time and place Jia has made his signature, and understand the characters with a more textured realism. Of course the triptych – of past, present and future – allows for panorama and allegory. Tao, like Mother China personified, has chosen Capital over Labor. Her son is named Dollar but she doesn’t recognise him. Meanwhile Capital is flying first class while Labor is dying of a miner’s cough. Everyone is glued to their devices. Bullet trains whizz past carrying the fat cats while the rest of us take the poky local. But – and this is the aesthetic compensation Jia offers – it is only from the slow train that one can see the world as it is. His cinema by no means depicts integrity rewarded. In that it is an anti-fairy-tale. But what it can do is reach for something deeper, something rooted in visual patience and the experience of the local. My favourite shots of the film were of course the Jia trademarks: the river, the montage of industrial and religious relics, the mud streets and provincial mountain roads, the coal mines. This is what the world is coming to resemble: a corrupt worksite. Jia’s characters are always desperately navigating the upheavals of the market, and the overheated engine of progress, amid the perennial needs of the human heart: for love and home and music.
DF: I find your ardent desire to stay in 1999 quite interesting – both for what it says about us, and about Jia himself. Are we prone to a kind of kneejerk nostalgia about this time, when we were in the flower of innocent youth, and when the world itself seemed more becalmed than it has in its post-millennial turbulence? For a Chinese filmmaker, given the massive transformations the new superpower has seen in the intervening years, the temptation must be all the stronger. In Jia’s case it was a time when he could make logistically modest but formally ambitious films while falling outside of the radar of the Chinese authorities. Now he has been at least partially absorbed into the system (both in terms of the Chinese film industry and the global festival circuit), which brings with it great benefits in terms of visibility and financial backing, but also the concomitant danger of seeing his creative freedom inhibited. In general, however, I think he has very skillfully negotiated a viable path for him to continue his broader aesthetic and political project within these confines, and in this aspect he reminds me less of Balzac (although he does remind me of Balzac), and more of the great Hollywood directors of the classical era, the likes of Nicholas Ray, Otto Preminger and Fritz Lang, who crafted radical denunciations of American society even under the strict supervision of studio bosses.
I might be relatively isolated among critics (certainly this was the case at Cannes), but I genuinely liked the third part of the film, possibly even more than the earlier segments. Partly, of course, there is the fascination for me of seeing a Chinese filmmaker’s vision of my country in the year 2025, but also because it marked the devastating culmination of a despairing account of China’s breakneck modernisation: all these social upheavals, all this phenomenal wealth created, Jia asks us, and for what exactly? For his compatriots to crawl down the same path of crippling anomie that has been the decisive characteristic of the West for the last several decades? Venturing into the futuristic might be a departure from the “critical realism” (to use Lukacs’ term) of Jia’s work up-till-now, but I think it was no less effective in offering a searing diagnosis of the contemporary era.
JS: This may sound totally superficial but I also found the Esperanto-like dialogue in the last part at once difficult to decipher and cheesy. I felt like I’d gone from an art movie to a B movie.
DF: A lot of people thought that, and maybe there were some linguistic issues for Jia (this is the first time a film of his has featured a large amount of English dialogue, as far as I know). But I actually appreciated the surreal quality of the “globish” that the characters spoke, which was part of his broader point, I believe, about the debilitating deracination of contemporary culture: we no longer even have a profound attachment to the languages we speak.
DF: NYFF is something of a stronghold for Hong Sang-soo: Right Now, Wrong Then marks the third year in a row that the Korean auteur has been represented at the festival. Hong’s new work is unusual within his œuvre in one aspect, at least: at just over two hours, it is considerably longer than most of his recent efforts. The reason being that Right Now, Wrong Then is actually two films, or, more accurately, the same film two times, unfolding in parallel universes with slight differences from each other. With its low-key plotline and meandering, dialogue-heavy scenes, there is the temptation to describe the film with the same remark a critic gave to Waiting for Godot: “Nothing happens, twice.” But the interest of the film comes precisely in the subtle, often beguiling ways in which the repeated scenes depart from one another. In line with chaos theory, initial minor variations in behaviour accumulate in importance as the episodes progress.
The best way, then, to conceive of Hong Sang-soo is as a serial filmmaker, both in terms of the internal structure of his films, and in the ways each new work relates to the rest of his œuvre. It is now almost totally redundant to note that his new film centres on a long, awkward game of flirtation between a middle-aged, movie-making misanthrope (here not so subtly named Ham Chumsu) and a young student (Yoon Heejun) attracted primarily to his status as an artist of renown, or that much of the film takes place in cafes and soju bars, with the two characters engaged in frequent bouts of drinking. These elements are not only, by now, expected of Hong by the viewer familiar with his work, their repetition is a deliberate ploy by the filmmaker. Keeping the raw material virtually unchanged from one film to the next means that the importance of the individual work comes primarily from its structure: this is where each film derives its singularity, and this is where Hong’s fertile creativity shines through most clearly, as he restlessly innovates with new and daring narrative frameworks. The Korean is reportedly a great fan of Cézanne, and what he has been doing over the last decade or more reminds me of nothing else than the French artist’s obsession with painting the Mont Saint-Victoire – as every tableau depicted the same subject, it was the discrepancies in representational technique that assumed centre stage.
JS: I adored this film. People talk about the sublime and the ridiculous. Hong’s work moves from the pathetic to the poetic and back again. The switch can happen in a few seconds. It’s like a flicker, a tonal candle. I almost don’t want to blow it out by adding yet more words. But what I love about his films is the way strangers can escape from the madding crowd together, over the course of a day. There is surely, like Cezanne, an attentiveness to the petite sensation. A minute is going by in the life of the world, in this provincial town, on this autumn afternoon, let’s paint it as it is. It’s cinema at its humblest and most personal.
JS: In many ways Brooklyn is another “small” story. A young post-war Irish emigrant comes to New York. She gets sick, she finds a job, she makes friends, she misses home, she meets a boy. Unlike the other biopics of NYFF, Brooklyn is certainly not the story of a famous CEO, an epic daredevil or a musical genius. The drama of Eilis Lacey, played with warm precocity by Saoirse Ronan, is one of quiet desperation and longing. But in the ordinariness of her emotions, the strong primary colours of feeling, they are also shareable. I felt a strong force at work in in this movie. It did not ask for the audience to submit before feelings that were larger-than-life but just the opposite. It asked for the audience to open themselves so that their own life stories can be given grace.
In the Q&A the word “sentimental” was raised to the mild chagrin of the director, John Crowley, and screenwriter, Nick Hornby. Brooklyn is certainly sentimental. The violins push toward the melodramatic. The music is really my only regret with the film. I was reminded of Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (2005), another adaptation of literary prose, where the silence of the original work is given a kind of superadded tearjerker special sauce. Don’t get me wrong. I still admire Brooklyn for its simplicity and its full immersion in feeling. But there is a silent austerity in the original prose that got thrown under a Hollywood bus.
DF: The music was a real problem, and was trying to make the film something it wasn’t. Like you, what I warmed to in Brooklyn, alongside the nostalgic depictions of the borough, was the fact that it didn’t take any of the melodramatic paths that the initial setting provided for it. There was no logic of inexorable suffering and cruelty, and no Manichaean division between good and evil characters, victims and villains. Everyone in the film – or virtually everyone – was essentially good-natured, albeit flawed. If there was evil, however, it came more in the form of the parochial, small-town mentality that still prevailed in the Ireland of the time, and that was represented by the close-minded shopkeeper in Eilis’ hometown. It’s interesting that, when faced with the choice between two men, on two different continents, this is the decisive factor for Eilis in picking her destiny, rather than any of the actual merits of the men she is deciding between, both of whom seem to be reasonably nice dudes. In this sense, the film reminds me, in a way, of Ibsen.
JS: Almost all melodramas contain a focus on victimisation with a tacit critique of the society that keeps the lovers apart. The lack of any meaningful antagonism in the film helps to sharpen the pang of homesickness at the film’s core: homesickness as a spiritual sorrow between oneself and one’s fate that mends in time. But what the absence of any social critique does for Brooklyn (save the mildly anti-European slant you mention) is also to offset all narrative responsibility for Eilis’s hardship quite simply to fate. But of course in the world of fiction, fate is another word for the writer. I think it is crucial that we are supposed to see the Brooklyn plumber as a legitimate romantic compromise, a kind of marrying down. Think of how the movie would be different if they had cast Ryan Gosling as her American love interest. And so Brooklyn leaves us with an uneasy paradox. Everyone in its world is decent to an almost nostalgic degree and yet the very makers of that world, those who brought it into being and subjected its heroine to trial, sorrow and, ultimately, a sweet-and-sour settlement, work with an Old Testament alloy of compassion and cruelty. If anything Eilis is a victim of the creative team that made her.
DF: Finally, we come to Michael Moore’s Where to Invade Next. There has perhaps been no more divisive cultural figure in the United States in the last 15 years. Moore has been reviled by the right and celebrated by the left – but also, just as often, criticised by those who share his politics. His star may have faded a little since the partisan storms of Fahrenheit 9/11, but this also has a lot to do with the fact that, as his recent memoir revealed, Moore essentially had to go into hiding for a few years due to the stream of death threats he was receiving. I have always remained sympathetic to his work. At the same time, I was far more impressed with his TV shows of the 1990s, The Awful Truth and TV Nation, than his more recent films. Moore’s aesthetic and comic sensibilities seem a much better fit for the small screen rather than the big. In some ways, Where to Invade Next is a return to his TV work: its ambitions are humbler both as a film and as a political intervention. There are none of the momentous scenes that punctuated his more prominent films; and he is not hoping to change the course of a presidential election. The very premise seems to be drawn from an old TV Nation sketch in which Moore polled viewers to decide which country should be next on America’s invasion hit-list: Belize, France, or for the money to be spent on schools. (France won, incidentally.)
The “invasion” of this film is not what we might expect. Instead Moore himself travels to eight European countries in order to “steal their ideas” and bring back progressive social policies that are sorely lacking in the United States, including shorter working weeks, nutritious school meals, free college tuition and drug legalisation. After the firebrand denunciations of right-wing politics and free market neo-liberalism, Moore here consciously strives to espouse a politics of optimism. In his words, he wants to focus on “the flowers, not the weeds” in the European social-democratic model that is favourably counter-posed to American casino capitalism. But this also makes the film an easy target for his opponents. There is not one word about the economic crisis that has engulfed the European Union, and even supporters of Moore may cringe at the idyllic tableau he paints, where Italian factory owners care deeply about the welfare of their workers and Norwegian prisons are models of social harmony.
In my view these criticisms are overshadowed by the merits of the film, and of Moore’s work more generally. He has a knack for pinpointing the key issues his country faces, the basic injustices of American life that even other steadfastly capitalist nations have been able to ameliorate, and for promulgating an unambiguously progressive message that can reach a large swathe of the public far beyond the normal left-wing ghettoes. In this sense, Where to Invade Next? arrives at an interesting juncture: Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign has also been able to articulate a principled political platform calling for the same kind of Scandinavian-style “socialism” Moore showcases. And Sanders has achieved an electoral presence that nobody this far to the left has achieved since the days of Eugene Debs. Moore might not have wanted to make a pointed, Fahrenheit 9/11-style incursion into the electoral arena – and despite his strident criticism of Clinton he has not made a public endorsement of Sanders – but given that his film will be released a few weeks before the Democratic primaries kick off, it may well end up having a subtle yet pronounced effect on the nation’s political process.
JS: Every American should see this movie. Not because it will reveal a specific policy agenda to enact (although it suggests several) but because it is filled with a spirit that we have gone too long without. It is certainly one of Moore’s most heartfelt and disarming films. Although flawed and inconsistent it is revolutionary in its optimism. You said his ambitions are humbler. In a sense this is true. But they are also more human. Most political documentaries are issue-based. They are designed to put pressure on a specific policy or sector. Often they mean to provoke outrage. Where to Invade Next does take digressions of this nature but its purpose is at once simpler and more comprehensive. It is concerned less with elections than with our own national culture. It appeals to our ingrained habits of thought – our entrenched national cynicism – and asks us, not unlike John Lennon, to imagine if things were different. Can we conceive of a society where collective well-being is valued above competition, aggression and power trips? Can we even conceive of a national discourse where any such suggestion isn’t immediately shot down as naïve?
No wonder Michael Moore decided to travel, to get some fresh air. Watching this film I was reminded of my own decision, after the 2004 presidential election, to hit the road. I spent several years living in some of the places Moore visits. As a new arrival I was just as astounded as he appears to be at the same “good ideas”: a shorter work week, more vacation, better schools, healthier food, humane prisons, a sensible drug policy, cheaper health care, fairer pay, more women in leadership. Who wouldn’t want that? It is a common bleat in Europe that the American centre is already shifted so far to the right that our Democrats look like their centrists or technocrats. Of course all of this may be changing. As you say the film is also an easy target. It is hard not to watch Moore’s stereotyped depiction of French epicureanism, for example, without also thinking of François Hollande’s recent declaration, “Nous sommes dans la guerre.”
But as I watched Where to Invade Next I realised that this is not the point. The point is not whether Europe can live up to the rosy picture Moore draws of it. (And Brooklyn makes a perfect negative-image in just this way, by painting old world community as stifling and repressive, and American anonymity as fundamentally liberating.) Any intelligent viewer will be aware of all the weeds Moore passes over to pick the orchid or tulip, and plant his American flag comically on the spot. But again, the point is not the intellectual rigour of his argument but the much-needed validity of his ideals and his vision. That little devil sitting on all of our shoulders, and now reified into the guiding maxim of American politics, saying “it’s more complicated” or “it’ll never work” or “it looks good on paper” is precisely what Moore means to dethrone. In this sense the ironic title hangs like a brightening shadow over the film and with it we are meant to register our surprise – and quite frankly, our delight – that we are watching the film we are, and not another denunciation. What we all need right now, and maybe the left especially, is a healthy dose of hospitality, civility, humour and tenacious hope. Where to Invade Next reminds us that it can be just as important to plant flowers (as a nation, as an artist) as to drop bombs.
New York Film Festival
25 September – 11 October 2015
Festival website: https://www.filmlinc.org/nyff2015/