RICHARD KELLY’S now-legendary debut _ (2001) forged a bittersweet, nutty-poignant idiom from the pop culture overload of the writer-director’s late-’80s suburban Virginia youth. (It feels like he was possessed by Donnie instead of merely being his creator.) Most impudently, it juxtaposes the grinning title teen (Jake Gyllenhaal, exhibiting a quirky Travis Bickle–as–Boy Scout air) below a movie marquee featuring the dream Halloween team of The Evil Dead and The Last Temptation of Christ.
That combination sums up Donnie Darko as well as anything: a comic book Passion Play haunted by malevolent supernatural forces. (And that jet engine dropping out of the sky.) He receives otherworldly instructions from Frank, a holy ghost in a gnarly rabbit costume (picture the Easter Bunny given a Heavy Metal makeover), through a rent in space-time continuum. When Donnie meets his troubled soulmate Gretchen (Jena Malone), she teases that his goofy name makes him sound like a superhero. “What makes you think I’m not?”
Kelly’s film is a conundrum wrapped in an enigma inside a valentine. Out of long lost weekend Blockbuster Video rentals (E.T., Blue Velvet, Poltergeist, Heathers, Time Bandits, Watership Down), Stephen King novels, shimmery post–New Wave records (Tears for Fears, Echo and the Bunnymen, INXS), Escher prints, motivational infomercials, The Smurfs, and Steven Hawking came a lyric, mid-Halloween-night’s world all its own. It’s the cult film as supercollider physics experiment: What would happen if, for example, particles of the Buffyverse would be “smushed” up with the gravitational tangents of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia? Darko’s “Mad World” montage is a partial answer.
On its most immediate level, the film’s a shrewdly absurd exploration of waking dream states—or teenage schizophrenia. Donnie isn’t the only character who appears to follow strange, preordained paths: The people he encounters all seem to double as messengers, prompting him, provoking him. They’re all semi-sentient pieces on a cosmic chess board, and the sense of dual, or dueling, realities being communicated is entertaining and suggestive. But it’s grounded in something more acute about adolescence: those moments of discovery when something deeper, more dangerous, and more insightful breaks through the routines and clichés of cloistered life.
When his troublemaking young English teacher Ms. Pomeroy (Drew Barrymore) assigns the Graham Greene story “The Destructors,” it’s a roadmap. The clock is ticking down to the end of the world, according to Frank: Donnie will have to perform a series of disruptive acts and decipher ambiguous clues to save it. First by flooding his high school and somehow embedding an axe in the bronze head of its giant mascot statue, “The Mongrel.” (Which itself has the wonderfully bulbous look of a comic book character: It could be the Incredible Hulk’s pet.)
Richard Kelly, Donnie Darko, 2001, 35 mm, color, sound, 134 minutes.
Later, Donnie will be directed to burn down the mansion of the self-help guru Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze), who has gotten too deeply involved with the school curriculum. That this already creepy, gung-ho motivational speaker (pitching a program halfway between Tony Robbins and Scientology) turns out to be a secret pedophile doubles the implications of his campus recruitment efforts. Most telling in the film’s narrative terms is that when Donnie and Gretchen walk past the as-yet-unidentified Cunningham house, a couple schoolgirls run by and, in the background, go into it. Another Alice-in-Jeopardy motif is the school’s serenely exploitive Sparkle Motion dance troupe, which includes Donnie’s sister: They’re all prepubescent, so even if it were a joint Middle/High School, they’re awfully young to be thrown in with horny older boys (including Seth Rogen!) for whom harassment and hazing is sport.
Donnie Darko is all about the blending of head-on blatancy with a raft of undertones, sense-making non sequiturs, and lysergic apercus. Raw sincerity meets ironic self-awareness, with these different levels of sophistication coexisting and ricocheting off one another. If art doesn’t encroach on life and alter it, Kelly implies with Darko, why bother? The movie’s an elaboration of how personal and artistic associations can bleed together and cross-fertilize inside your consciousness. The casting of iconic actors Barrymore, Swayze, and Katherine Ross (as Dr. Thurman, Donnie’s therapist) also blurs the lines: Their recognition factor feeds into the film’s convoluted sense of the familiar wrenched out of shape.
Both Ms. Pomeroy and Dr. Thurman have extremely curious relationships with Donnie—not overtly inappropriate, but Pomeroy verges on taunting him when she says in class, “Maybe your friend Frank can help you.” And Dr. Thurman, who hypnotizes Donnie, seems to helicopter between sternly professional, openly maternal, and embarrassingly overexposed. Gyllenhaal’s acting is a fascinating medley of registers and approaches—under hypnosis, doing a broad, childlike shtick, dialing it back in various boyish degrees, shifting from Method angst to repeating Minimalist notes—none more effective than his Darko smile, one of those gnostic flashes that capture a movie’s essence in a single shot.
“They made me do it” announces the graffiti he leaves after vandalizing the school. But while Donnie’s the center of contention, “they”—in this case, the tremendous ensemble of not only actors but the production’s crew and craftspeople—are what allow the center to hold. For all the distinctiveness of Kelly’s vision, exploring the making of the film through the prism of the newly and beautifully remastered limited-edition box set (with its multiple commentaries and a highly instructive making-of documentary), you realize it was openness to collaboration that made Donnie Darko what it is.
The box set includes the theatrical cut of the movie (which initially bombed), the director’s cut released in 2004 (after the film caught on in Great Britain), and the new ninety minute documentary, The Philosophy of Donnie Darko. This, along with the commentary tracks, walks you step-by-step through the film’s making. There’s also a ninety-page book that includes a very detailed (albeit old) interview with Kelly, some solid features on the movie, and a particularly helpful piece by Anton Bitel on Kelly’s star-crossed post-Darko career. For the truly fanatical, the set includes the hilarious “Cunning Vision” infomercial, and a commentary on that as well—I can’t pin down the hinky male voice on that track, but I am pretty sure the punctilious female’s belongs to Kristin Wiig.
Getting back to the film itself: It looks wonderful in both versions. Especially gratifying is the preservation of gradations and alterations in Steven Poster’s cinematography, which doesn’t aim for a cookie-cutter look but lights and frames each scene as a specific, individual milieu. The theatrical cut remains more abrupt and more jarringly weird—its elisions invite a more cultish response, with less ordinary, humane life intruding on the uncanny and bizarre. The director’s cut restores twenty minutes and original song cues, plus adding some intertitles and special effects to lend the time-travel ploy a patina of plausibility.
Crucially, it has a more intricate family dynamic, more range and counterintuitive texture and sheer empathy. The Darkos make for an extraordinary tight, prickly screen family: Holmes Osborne as the “wiseacre” dad (like father, like son), big sister Elizabeth (Maggie Gyllenhaal), little Samantha (Daveigh Chase), and the mother of all moms, Rose (Mary McDonnell). Even though the roles are small and mostly underwritten, the actors flesh them out so well you can vividly see them living out their own parallel movies. Rose most of all—McDonnell’s performance is a wonder of conflicted emotions bubbling just below a slightly soused surface, eyes like scalpels and her own smiles laced with an ever-changing assortment of anger, amusement, contempt, sadness, resignation, and love.
Everyone on the set seems to have caught that commitment bug—they bought into the premise even if they didn’t understand it and collectively hopped on Kelly’s wavelength. (Unlike his follow-up Southland Tales, where nobody seems to be on the same page or frequency or drugs.) His approach here wasn’t to autocratically impose himself on the frame, but to draw everybody in as coconspirators who felt they were all meant to contribute something—everyone was there for a purpose.
Which sounds like Donnie stuttering, but something about the production surely was charmed, lucky, fated, or whatever you want to call it. Like Barrymore stepping in as guardian angel to coproduce and act in the film for scale, instantly doubling the budget, and bringing a lot of other people on board. Poster’s contribution, not only as an ace cinematographer but as the facilitator who got Panavision to let them use Anamorphic lenses and procuring a fabulous new high-speed film stock. Michael Andrews serendipitous score; getting the rights to use Evil Dead, a stroke of luck rather than design, making the portal scene in the theater perhaps the trippiest movie-within-a-movie coup in film history. Like that jet engine, in the end everything just fell into place.
A new four-disc set of Donnie Darko is now available from Arrow Video.
Ernie Gehr, Autumn, 2017, HD video, color, sound, 32 minutes.
HOWEVER GRUDGINGLY film-lovers have accepted the hegemony of digital, there is no denying that avant-garde artists have spun gold from newer media. The indomitable, self-taught Ernie Gehr, whose film career began in the late 1960s and whose thirty-odd ventures in 16-mm include such gems as Still (1969–71), Serene Velocity (1970), Eureka! (1974), and Side/Walk Shuttle (1991), has more than doubled that output with digital works, the latest of which will be shown Monday at Redcat in Los Angeles.
A master interrogator of space and gravity-defying cinema, Gehr has plumbed the possibilities of digital since Cotton Candy (2001), discovering—at times stumbling upon—unexpectedly creative ways to stimulate the eye and challenge cognition beyond what film can do. Sensations of Light #7 (2016), one of a series of purely digitally-generated works nonetheless resonates within film history, taking the flicker films of Tony Conrad and Peter Kubelka to new extremes while recalling such earlier graphic-minded film ventures as Viking Eggeling’s Symphonie Diagonale (1924) and Hans Richter’s Rhythmus 21 (1923).
But while a shot seized from one of those works might give a sense of the whole, the power of Sensations of Light #7 can only be experienced when projected. Freezing one frame discloses one or two colors or geometric shapes, none of which hints at the conflation and optical illusions induced by the faster alternation of frames allowed by digital: Red, green, yellow, violet, blue, black, and white rectangles flicker before us within the larger, differently colored rectangles of the full frame, their displacements and illusory superimpositions, as well as the impression of advancing and receding movements, entirely a result of projection’s unwritten bond with the habits and limitations of vision. While a similar illusion of movement occurs in Serene Velocity, there it is produced by editing in rapid succession different exposures of the camera at different distances. SOL, an abbreviation of Sensations of Light, is the Latin word for sun—not an inapt allusion since the effects of this series are kin to the intense, vertigo-inducing feeling one has looking into that body’s flares, when we also “see” many colors surrounded by a halo of others. It’s no surprise that Gehr has decided that only one work in this series should be seen at any one screening.
While Sensations of Light #7 could not be less like Gehr’s dazzling new Autumn (2017), the optical aftereffects induced by the former, along with those of the quivering lines of Brooklyn Series (2013) (the second work to be screened), linger over and heighten our perceptions of color and light in Autumn. Brooklyn Series could even pass as a paradigm for what digital images can do: Horizontal bars fill the screen top-to-bottom, shimmering ceaselessly, most likely as indices of a hidden reality compressed into strips of color and light. If we’re tempted to read the blurred streams as rapidly passing vehicles shot at close range, this is largely thanks to the moving traffic heard on the soundtrack, but also because cars and trucks have a privileged place in Gehr’s work, often—and this is also true of Autumn—because they introduce a rainbow of colors brightening and enlivening each frame even as they articulate the space as they pass through.
How Gehr configured the squeezed horizontal bars in Brooklyn Series remains a mystery, even to him—or perhaps it’s one of his professional secrets. Nevertheless, as a potential technical feature of the system, it follows that everything digital can be reduced to that condition—which is to say that the human figures, construction sites, busy streets, moving vehicles, storefronts, and objects of Autumn are simply expanses of shimmering color and light, slowed down to a natural speed to resume their original corporeal form.
Ernie Gehr, Transport, 2015, HD video, color, sound, 22 minutes.
Autumn reminds us of that other Gehr—the phenomenologist as sociologist. Ten years hence, we might think of it as an elegy for a neighborhood—a few blocks around Delancey Street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side—whose identity is undergoing vast structural and demographic changes, a reality Gehr registers without sentimentality or judgment. Nor could overheard dialogue leaning toward those sentiments match Autumn’s final image—a long shot of a boarded-up building at the corner of Broome and Ludlow streets awaiting demolition. Seen today, however, it is the “nowness” that resonates—whether in the looming presence of steel and glass high-rises and the bright red cranes that reach into the sky, or in the two- and three-story tenements, storefronts, and teeming humanity below. A sleek new structure flanked by two weathered apartment buildings grounds the moment while foreshadowing the future.
In the work’s most complex and telltale shots, bodies, human and otherwise, technically on-screen and off-, bleed into and fuse with one another, willingly or not, as the initial frame, doubled or tripled by windows and reflecting surfaces, yields multiple planes of action, layered images, and spatial disorientations. Every reflection is also a projection: A young man retrieving his bicycle parked outside a fast food restaurant, hence technically off-screen, is dangerously close to colliding with the woman eating a hefty sandwich inside, thus falling into an on-screen space as dense as it is porous. In another shot, no sooner do we think we’ve seen all there is than a white truck passing from left to right serves as fleeting backdrop against which two figures, mere shadows seconds earlier, suddenly come into focus. In that same frame, it comes as a shock when a pair of men sitting in a café, eclipsed throughout by the street life beyond, suddenly loom in the center of the frame where they’ve been all along. No change of focus, exposure, angle, or depth of field creates these successive apperceptions, any more than our gradual, accumulative recognitions of details as we study a large painting result from material changes in the work or its viewing conditions.
The analogy is not insignificant. The social and historical resonances of Gehr’s work are palpable in the density of his living compositions, the sense that people, however decentered or marginalized, define space, not the other way around. This is clear in shots of individual figures and actions, the equivalents of the singular details of those who populate the larger canvases. Here they merge with the greater world, there they stand apart from it, now grounded, now floating as ghostlike doubles shadowing their neighbors—each shift a beat comprising the very pulse that defines life in a great city. Autumn strikes me as Gehr’s best work in years, as startling to the eye as it is stimulating to the brain and inexplicably soothing to the heart.
If it leaves us with the conviction that soon the very basis of its iconography will be a thing of the past, such awareness of the eventual erasure of history and a people is all too evident in Transport (2015). Shot in Berlin, Gehr pits indoor images of old train compartments, luggage, and a cattle car marked by its days of carrying Jews to the camps—all taken inside the Museum of Technology—against the ruins of earlier bridges and structures and the sleek look of the city’s present commuter stations. It’s a sobering document, suffused with a mournful air at odds with Autumn’s life-giving exuberance.
WHEN LAURIE SIMMONS’S new film My Art was screened at the Whitney Museum last fall, the artist-and-now-movie-director accompanied it with a talk in which she remarked on how few films had gotten the business of being an artist right. Indeed, so many films that have gotten it wrong come to mind—we probably all have our own cheesy favorites—that the prospect of a movie on artmaking by a feminist artist of Simmons’s standing, and one that she not only directed but wrote and stars in, seems likely to draw murmurs of “At last.” Certainly when the film finds a distributor—it plays at the Tribeca Film Festival April 22 and subsequently—New York art audiences will find much to reward them in it, I think, but they will also I think be surprised: This is not the revealing look behind the scenes one might have imagined, but a kind of romance.
The film is about one Ellie, an artist of a certain age—her sixties, she tells us at one point—whom we first see roaming the Whitney’s new downtown building, looking at the large and canonized artworks on the walls, including a painting by Simmons’s real-life husband, Carroll Dunham. She soon bumps into a former student, played by Simmons’s real-life daughter, Lena Dunham, who gives one of her usual bravely unsympathetic performances as a young artist whose career has surpassed her old teacher’s and whose every word masks condescension under false camaraderie. These opening scenes, which continue with Ellie’s end-of-semester pizza party for her students and with a visit to a more-successful friend, Mickey (Blair Brown), are subtly dystopian, infused by gentle but cold observation of the life of a woman artist at a plateau of age and career. The mood changes dramatically, though, when Ellie leaves town for the summer, heading upstate to housesit for another more-successful friend. The mansion in which she ends up (in fact, I’m told, Simmons’s and Carroll Dunham’s own home in Connecticut) comes equipped with a studio where she will produce her next body of work. Equally to the point, it has a beautiful garden.
Laurie Simmons, My Art, 2016, HD video, color, sound, 86 minutes.
There is a literary genre, the pastoral comedy, that is exemplified by Shakespeare plays such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It and that follows a general pattern: a beginning full of tension and stress in the city; an escape to the country (“Well, this is the forest of Arden,” as Rosalind helpfully tells us in As You Like It); a period of delirious confusion, with much theatrical play, much gender switching, much posing and pretending and trying on and taking off of the social roles on offer; and finally a return to the city, whose order, however, having been upended and put back together again, is now more beneficial and accommodating to its human inhabitants. Rather to my surprise, as I watched the rural scenes in My Art, I kept thinking of those plays, and perhaps a little more to my surprise, when I asked Simmons about this, she confirmed that she’d been thinking of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as well as of modern cinematic pastorals such as Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) and the musical and then film Steven Sondheim based on it, A Little Night Music (1973/1977). The pastoral link arises through the nature of Ellie’s work, which she describes as “stuff about memory and longing, nostalgia” and which turns out to involve dress-up and the re-creation and filming of iconic scenes from well-known movies. Ellie begins alone in her borrowed studio, mimicking the tuxedo-wearing Marlene Dietrich of Morocco (1930), but before long she enlists people she meets locally, including Frank (Robert Clohessy), the gardener on her friend’s estate; John (John Rothman), the father of one of her students back in New York; and Tom and Angie (Josh Safdie and Parker Posey), characters recalling Puck’s “rude mechanicals” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Under Ellie’s direction, in various combinations, this crew starts to reenact scenes from Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959), John Huston’s The Misfits (1961), François Truffaut’s Jules et Jim (1962), Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973), and other films. They have a wonderful time—Ellie records it all—and what do you know, a dealer offers her a show.
Yet Ellie’s return to New York—despite the success of her project, and despite her clear solidarity with other women artists—feels somehow sad and depleted. The scenes upstate, on the other hand, are magical, full of music and a liberating fluidity of identity, though not without a little danger and risk to give the proceedings weight. (A wonderful touch involves Ellie’s aging dog Bing, who one night vanishes down the dark lawn toward the sound of what Ellie calls a “coyote party”; we are enormously relieved when he comes teetering back.) In this way, My Art frames itself as an examination of an artist’s social condition, its tensions and contradictions and dissatisfactions—all of which are redeemed, though, in a statement of an artist’s love affair with making art.
My Art plays April 22, 23, 27, 29, and 30 at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York.
Katell Quillévéré, Heal the Living, 2016, HD video, color, sound, 103 minutes.
IN KATELL QUILLÉVÉRÉ’S FILMS, characters’ lives are shaped by chance meetings and random events. Her third feature, Heal the Living, is narratively her simplest and subtlest.
A young man is killed in a car accident. His heart is donated to a woman who would have died in early middle age without it. Their connection, without doubt, is profound, but it is also perplexing, despite the detailed depiction of the medical procedures involved in this scientific “miracle.” Our sense that something otherworldly has taken place before our eyes reflects on the conundrum that pulses beneath Quillévéré’s three films, beginning with Love Like Poison (2010), her fictionalized memoir of a Catholic girlhood. What is the relationship between spirit and flesh?
Heal the Living opens with Simon (Gabin Verdet), in bed with his girlfriend Juliette (Galatéa Bellugi). They are probably no more than seventeen-years-old, and they are lovely because they are teenagers with perfect skin who are in love. Simon wakes up, pulls on his clothes, snaps a photo of Juliette, sits on the window sill, and disappears. For a moment your heart stops. So young, so beautiful, so suicidal. But no, Simon is wondrously alive, running across the lawn, jumping on his bike and speeding in the predawn light along the roads of this seaside town in the north of France. He exchanges the bike for a skateboard, doing flips on the roofs of buildings, finally ending up with two other boys on the beach. Zipping up wetsuits and hoisting their surfboards, they plunge into the sea. If the previous land-based movement sequence has been rapturous, it is nothing compared to the long surfing scene, the boys fragile for all their athleticism, riding the waves, submerging and surfacing over and over. The radiant exterior cinematography is by Tom Harari, who shot Quillévéré’s two previous features, and his eye for composition and detail is just as strong in the antiseptic confines of hospital rooms and operating theaters.
The cinematic bliss (the camera loves bodies in motion) of this nearly wordless prelude ends abruptly with the sound of a car crash. On the way home from the beach, Simon fell asleep in the backseat, his head on his friend’s shoulder. The next time we see him is in the ICU on life support, the damage to his brain too devastating for surgery. “This is a special hospital,” a doctor says to his grieving parents (Emmanuelle Seigneur and Kool Shen), who are told about the organ-donation program. At first resistant to violating their son’s body, the parents eventually agree, at which point the story shifts to Paris where Claire (Anne Dorval) is in the late stages of heart failure. Her adult sons encourage her to have a transplant, but she is reluctant. It is the discovery that a former lover (Alice Taglioni) still believes they can have a life together that makes her agree to accept the donor match that has just been found.
The film is based on a novel of the same name by Maylis de Kerangal, and while much of the plot and some of the details are similar, it is the way the quietly generous ensemble cast inhabits their characters that makes the film both immediate and memorable. No actor carries Heal the Living the way that teenage Clara Augarde did in Love Like Poison or Sara Forestier and Adele Haenel did as the sisters in Suzanne (2013). But Tahar Rahim as Thomas, the dedicated chief of the organ-donation division—he finds peace watching a video of a rare songbird, the African goldfinch—is remarkable. When Simon is about to be disconnected from life support, Thomas stops the procedure so that he can fulfill the wishes of the boy’s parents—that he play for Simon a tape of the sound of waves that his girlfriend made for him, and that he tell him that this parents love him and are with him. And then Thomas gets down to the work of opening Simon’s chest and extracting his heart. The scene could easily have been ridiculously sentimental, but in Rahim’s portrayal, respect for the mystery of life, and for the rituals that celebrate it are inseparable from the procedures of modern medical science.
The two surgeries performed in Heal the Living take place in actual operating rooms. I could be wrong, but I don’t think CGI is involved. We see an actual heart extracted from an actual body and an actual heart placed inside another body. Thanks to the seamless editing of fact and fiction by Thomas Marchand, who also has a deft hand with flashbacks, we suspend our disbelief. Heal the Living makes the melodramatics of shows like Grey’s Anatomy even more laughable than they already are. But it is not realism that makes the film compelling, moving, and just plain out of the ordinary. When the heart that belonged to Simon is flown by helicopter across France, carefully tended by two young interns, the metaphors that give the physical organ meaning fly with it. The sequence is as visually stunning as the opening—the dark sky above, the lights of cities below—but its effect is meditative rather than kinetic. It’s poetry—straight from the heart.
IF, LIKE SOME OF US, you have grown comatose through repeat exposure to the cluster of festival fodder clichés often grouped under the unsexy sobriquet “slow cinema,” there’s reason to feel antsy at the opening of By the Time It Gets Dark, the second feature by director Anocha Suwichakornpong.
Stick with it. After rolling out a few fragmentary, ambiguously related scenes, the movie settles into something like a straightforward narrative: Two women arrive at a rental home in the Thai countryside to rusticate. They are age-appropriate to be mother and daughter, but in due time it’s revealed that the younger, Ann (filmmaker Visra Vichit-Vadakan), is a writer-director interviewing the elder, Taew (Rassami Paoluengton), a former student activist who lived through the turbulent 1970s, to make a film about her life.
Alrighty then. Looks like all the makings are in place for a lugubrious study in soured revolutionary dreams and mutual intergenerational incomprehension against a gently whispering pastoral backdrop, fit to be greeted by faint praise with hastily Wiki’d references to the 1976 Thammasat University massacre. (I had to look it up.) But then something funny happens. There’s a flashback that might also be a flash-forward to a completed version of the planned movie, showing us a young Taew (Penpak Sirikul) just as her political consciousness is developing, papering campus grounds with flyers by night, a scene which concludes a defiant gesture of solidarity—and then a hard cut to the elder Taew, walking the aisles of an overbright, well-stocked grocery store.
In this moment it’s clear that Suwichakornpong knows how to cut provocatively, with real intention. Here, the juxtaposition is relatively cut-and-dried—the contrast between plucky, before-the-revolution youth and late middle age amid the sterile bounty of global capitalism—but as the film proceeds, she moves toward harder lateral leaps and stranger, more complicated collisions of imagery. The decisive rupture comes shortly after Ann appears to have a breakdown, a crisis of creative conscience and competence capped by an encounter with local mushrooms which may or may not have some hallucinogenic properties. Ann and Taew are abruptly left behind, and the film abandons its arthouse-realist mode to become, seemingly, a straight documentary about tobacco farming in rural Thailand. From watching laborers bundle tobacco leaves and pack them into curing chambers, we break away to follow one laborer in particular who, his day’s work finished, hops on a plane and goes back to a posh apartment offering a breathtaking view of Bangkok. This honest laborer, it transpires, is in fact a famous actor, Peter (Arak Amornsupasiri), and once back from his never-explained holiday among the proletariat he cracks open a script newly arrived in the mail and hits the studio to record a saccharine pop song with the crooned chorus “Please don’t lie to me”—an honest-to-God musical number in a movie which, for its first hour, seemed no more likely to contain a CGI monster.
Many more zigs and zags remain ahead, but by this point Suwichakornpong’s methodology has become clear. By the Time It Gets Dark, a repeatedly self-immolating work, is a browbeating interrogation of the constant and necessary deceits of the filmmaking apparatus, particularly when applied to the challenge of filming history—it elicits the viewer’s confidence and credulity time and again, even seeming to dupe itself, but in the end it just has to lie to you. That the initial straight narrative is unsatisfactory is very much part of the point; the viewer’s frustration is echoed by that of Suwichakornpong and her on-screen alter ego, Ann, and from here the film strikes out repeatedly in different directions only to reach the same dead end. It has the feeling of successive drafts, of sketches balled up and thrown away, an engine struggling to turn over. This shape-shifting, skin-shedding form dramatizes the struggle of an artist to find a means to understand a historical trauma to which she has no direct connection. And, of course, that sense of witnessing a struggle in real time is a lie too, for a film is always the result of deliberation and can never be the direct record of an act of artistic hesitation in the way that, say, a late Cézanne may be.
Suwichakornpong confesses to this imposture, as she confesses to her deceits compulsively throughout the film: We’ll return to Ann and Taew, seen arriving again in the same house, though now played by Inthira Charoenpura and Penpak Sirikul, hitting the same marks and going through much the same lines, though this time the actresses are a little more made up, the lighting a little brighter, the shooting providing more angles on the action—it’s the pop movie version, not the one for festival export, the sort of thing regularly financed by the Hubert Bals Fund. (Which, in fact, By the Time It Gets Dark was.) Each layer of artifice that is peeled back reveals another underneath. From Peter’s penthouse we move to the cockpit of a Boeing 737NG, which is actually a flight simulator, and the proximity of these scenes calls into question the very reality of the view from his window. Later, while watching a candid moment between Peter and his lover, we suddenly find ourselves in a postproduction suite where that same scene is going through the digital color-grading process wherein its palette is tampered with, usually to make the colors truer to life, which is nearly complete when a phone call comes in to inform the filmmaker (Soraya Nakasuwan, identified in the press notes as yet another Ann) that Peter has been killed in a car accident.
After the news sinks in, the work continues, and Peter is again alive on the screen. The moving image is capable of resurrecting the dead, turning pop crooners into day laborers, or making an amateur into a starlet. The outlier in a cast with varying degrees of experience in the film industry is Achtara Suwan, who recurs on the fringes of the different narrative strands, playing a variety of young women working banal odd jobs: a coffee-shop barista; an employee at the rooftop gym where Peter swims laps; and a waitress on a cruise ship that glides through Bangkok along the Chao Phraya River, seen gazing off at the passing spires of the Wat Pho temple while taking a break topside. (Cinematographer Ming-Kai Leung, asked to work in several distinct registers, distinguishes himself in each.)
Encapsulated in this moment is something that draws together the disparate characters (in their disparate incarnations): a sense of longing to connect to an authentic experience outside the limitations imposed by their individual identities, whether in Peter’s descent among the laborers or Ann’s attempt to find a point of access to Taew’s lived memory of tragedy. While issues of representation—gender, race, sexual preference, nationality, class—command an increasingly large portion of the discourse, in the story of Ann and Taew, Suwichakornpong rifles around one aspect of representation that tends to get short shrift: the hurdle of presentism, and the difficulty (or impossibility) of stepping out of one’s own timeline.
Ann and Taew are, like Suwichakornpong, both educated Thai women, but this doesn’t make the transfer of an experienced past from one to the other any easier. Facts, and the illusion of mastery that comes with them, have never been so readily accessible—how easy would it be for me to masquerade as a historian of the Thammasat University massacre?—and with this comes an illusory sense that history can be held in one’s hand, condescended to, as so many films do. Suwichakornpong achingly recognizes the gulf between pseudo-knowledge and lived wisdom, and it is in this liminal zone that she has chosen to work.
By the Time It Gets Dark is, sporadically, a brilliant work, and also an unrepeatable performance, a dead-end of sorts, something that the film’s finale seems aware of. The movie doesn’t end so much as self-destruct in a hail of digital noise that bridges a final, bravura leap from a packed dance floor to a bucolic landscape whose purple sky gradually shades from pink to blue, a last reminder of the contrivance of the cinematic apparatus, for even the self-evident truth that the sky is blue is only true if the technicians conspire for it to be so. Where does a young filmmaker go after trying on and discarding every prevalent mode of narrative filmmaking? I have no idea, but a thorough teardown is always a good place to start.
AND NOW FOR SOMETHING MORE POPULAR.
Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name (2016) is the highest-grossing anime film, ever. Bulldozing through Hayao Miyazaki’s previous box-office record for Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi (Spirited Away, 2001), it’s a perfect introduction for the anime newbie, cannily weaving together so many of the genre’s tropes—an apocalyptic event with a high school innocently built into the middle of its path, teenagers who are the only ones willing to accept that everything can be swept away in an instant, a love that defies the rules of time and space, and, of course, a few shots up skirts.
Shinkai’s first effort was a five-minute short in 1999, She and Her Cat, which looked at how a feline might see its life with its human owner. But he really made his name with Hoshi no Koe (Voices of a Distant Star, 2002), which follows a young girl—don’t they always?—fighting a war in outer space as she desperately tries to maintain a texting-based relationship with her earthbound boyfriend. Hoshi no Koe was remarkable not only for its ability to take you from zero to tears in twenty-five minutes, but also for the fact that Shinkai made it entirely by himself: He even voiced the main male character in the film’s first version; his girlfriend at the time played the lovelorn military contractor. For all its subcultural appeal overseas, anime is not, for the most part, a niche or DIY affair, and Shinkai emerged as a curious auteur.
But people—as in the masses—love what Makoto Shinkai does, so no lightless infamy for him. His films display an endearing desire to dazzle. No child is left behind. His tales begin personal and insular but strive to cast the widest emotional net.
So here we have Mitsuha and Taki. One lives in a rural Japanese town called Itomori, the other in Tokyo, but both dream of a comet—and each other. You don’t need to know someone to dream about them, and they each see “nothing less than a beautiful view.”
They both wake up and are confused by their bodies. Their friends and family say that they were acting strangely the other day, while in the background TVs provide a cheerfully narrated commentary on the comet, dubbed Tiamat, due to soon make impact. Mitsuha and Taki don’t understand the queries about their inconsistent behavior, and both start displaying curiously cross-gender affectations. On the first day after we see Taki wake up, he appears horrified by his junk and sits properly, feet folded under him, with his friends. Instead of saying ore for “I”—the more masculine form—he says watashi, or worse, watakushi. He may as well have applied glitter to his cheekbones and pulled out a feather quill. Meanwhile, Mitsuha scandalizes her little sister by fondling her own chest in amazement and intimidates her classmates by thrusting her leg onto a desk. This send-up of gender roles is charming, to be sure, but what’s beautiful is how un-unique the film’s attitude is—anime often plays fast and loose with transgender imagery and sexual identities, so much so that that any American “coming-out” episode seems laughably lagging.
The reason for our heroine and hero’s schizophrenic, slapstick personality crises is soon revealed: They are switching bodies every other day, a discovery they address efficiently by leaving accounts of what each did with the other’s life on a diary app on the other’s phone. Mitsuha sets Taki up with his longtime work crush—which he would never have had the guts to go for himself—and Taki helps Mitsuha carry her grandmother, the only surviving proprietor of their family’s Shinto shrine, up steep roads into a clearing that locals believe is a portal to the underworld. There they deliver a jug of sake, made by Mitsuha chewing rice and then spitting it out and letting it ferment, as a tribute. On the way, the old woman describes the Shinto concept of musubi—the power of creation, or the ability to become—and its knotting as time itself. These are spoken of as myths, but by the film’s end they become the very warp and weft of reality.
Mitsuha’s story is fated to end on the night of an autumn festival at her family’s shrine, as the comet splits in two, with a piece landing right on her world. But this is no action movie—there are no mushroom clouds or people tearfully searching for each other in the wreckage. We see the light fall in her eye, then an unnerving clang, and she stops appearing in, and as, Taki’s life. He tries to show his friends her diary entries on his phone, emojis and all, to prove she exists, but they delete themselves before his eyes.
He draws detailed sketches of her town from memory, from when he inhabited her body, and, using them as a guide, he sets off to find her. Recognizing the places in his pictures, a man tells him that Mitsuha’s town was destroyed by the comet three years ago, with few survivors. Taki finds the cave, and there drinks her homemade sake—when two become one. Over and over Mitsuha and Taki find, document, and try to hold on to each other, but they don’t always know it. They can’t remember their names, they keep asking each other, “Who are you?” Their world comes alive when they know but falls apart as the memory slips away into something impossible.
Taki stands on a precipice and remembers her name, and then forgets it. Each is helplessly moved about by fate, time, death, or musubi. They quickly try to write each other’s names on their hands before they forget again, but Mitsuha disappears before she can get through more than a single line on his palm, and the music cuts.
Taki wanders around Tokyo eight years after the comet fell, doubting: “I’m not sure if I’m searching for a person or a place.” All he knows is something is missing. The title of the film in Japanese, Kimi no Na wa, is more a question than a declarative statement. It’s a phrase that trails off, a request: It can’t finish itself on its own. It wonders where, and what, might be its answer.
Your Name is now playing in select theaters nationwide.