Film

Isolation Tank

Elizabeth LeCompte/The Wooster Group, To You, the Birdie!. Performance view, Riverside Studios, 2002. Sheena See as Oenone and Willem Defoe as Theseus. Photo: Geraint Lewis / Alamy.

IN CONFINEMENT, the captive mind cycles like a broken karaoke machine. Little Caesar’s last words bleed out over vintage Doors: “Mother of mercy, is this the end?” Is this perilous moment the inevitable fulfillment of our dystopian fantasies, nihilist reveries, catastrophist theories, jaundiced forecasts, and intellectual doomsday-prepping? Oh, mama, has the Groundhog Day of reckoning come round at last—only with charnel nursing homes and fatal equipment shortages in place of SFX hordes and burning cities?

But let’s not get ahead of our civilizational demise. Instead of doubling down on rote first responses, here’s an opportunity to rethink old habits of spectatorship, reconsider the bourgie-woozy cultural hierarchies underwriting them, and put a little distance between our social illusions and ourselves. Forget the madding crowds and ideological noise and get back to the one-on-one, face-to-screen film/tape/digital experiences. Just the bloodshot individual and the work of art, entertainment, perversity, or folly, setting up a veritable Quarantina Tarantino cage match for the mind’s eye.

Arthur Penn, Mickey One, 1965, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 93 minutes. Mickey One and Jenny Drayton (Warren Beatty and Alexandra Stewart).

Plunging into all of the above with desolate zest, the black-and-white Mickey One (1965; available to stream on Amazon or purchase in a newly restored Blu-ray edition) is a binge-purge workout from director Arthur Penn and star Warren Beatty: They manage to get every pontifical idea and mannered gesture out of their system in one big dry heave before buckling down to do Bonnie and Clyde (1967). And this hyper-agitated yet ennui-saturated allegory of a hack comedian on the lam from the Mob—the titular cipher suggests Lenny Bruce’s worst nightmare of a showbiz patsy gussied up with every angst-laden, middlebrow subversive reference point, from Fellini to The Manchurian Candidate to Orson Welles doing Kafka—doesn’t stint on the canned iconoclasm. It flies its Fuck Hollywood flag with real self-destructive bravado: Penn and Beatty were a couple of gifted malcontents on the brink of becoming also-rans, and it’s their own uncertain position that gives Mickey One a jumpy, loathing, last-gasp energy. Instead of a masterpiece wrenched from the dying maw of the studio system, it’s a suggestive, eerie brush with career mortality—a preview of the cultish “whatever happened to?” footnote the pair could have ended up as.

Another way of looking at Mickey One: What dazzling fodder it would make for a Wooster Group reconstruction. The best viewing available on the internet right now is the selection of their filmed productions (available on thewoostergroup.org through May 15; also available on Kanopy). Their reimaging/restaging of Richard Burton’s Hamlet, shot on Broadway in Electrovision in 1964, is not cinema as such, yet it has a mad precision and spasmodic grace that is every bit as visually arresting as anything by David Lynch or Welles. The stationary camera takes in a whole multilayered universe of intricately choreographed actors, wheeled video monitors, stuttering projected images from the Burton production: phantoms hovering over performers deftly simulating altered video replays, a chain-reaction short-circuit with one wire in the world of the living and the other in the underworld.

Elizabeth LeCompte/The Wooster Group, Hamlet. Performance view, Reilly Theater, Dublin, 2012. Scott Shepherd as Hamlet.

The Wooster Group paradox is that while everything about them falls under the category of high art, their stuff is so much more engaged and exhilarating than the heavy-handed overkill that pompous auteurs use to signal “Serious Meaning Ahead.” There is a lightness and lucid agility to director Elizabeth LeCompte’s electric refashionings of the classics: the pinballing blips and cunning hiccups of Hamlet and Brace/Up! (1991/2003) mischievously turning Chekov’s Three Sisters into Emily Dickinson’s restive, emotionally delinquent cousins. To You, the Birdie! (2002) transubstantiates Racine’s Phaedre with ritual badminton matches and still-life fragility, its multimedia absurdity (complete with ominous cartoon effects) coalescing into a fateful, neurasthenic gravitas. Calling LeCompte a genius is almost a backhanded compliment: She is a sorcerer of mythic vernacular and slapstick dread, the perfect pop artist of a hundred years from now. Or three thousand years ago, depending on which end of the microscope we’re looking through.

Joel and Ethan Coen, A Serious Man, 2009, DCP, color, sound, 106 minutes. Lawrence “Larry” Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg).

Jumping from the Woosters to the Coen Brothers makes sense, but their most craftsmanlike, unhyperbolic film is also the one that goes the deepest into similarly immersive alienation. A Serious Man (2009; available on Netflix and other services) has no bells and whistles, just the steady tunneling action of a machine digging up skeletons of Jewish suburbia in the ’60s. A reasonable, pedantic, halfway decent man is abruptly subjected to a mock-biblical series of personal disasters and gross indignities—it’s as though God plucked him out of cozy respectability in order to make him a Job-Lite stooge, a Joseph Heller punchline. The movie is a meticulous setup burrowing toward what seems to be a typically neat Coen-world resolution, but the irrational insistence of Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” on the soundtrack swallows complacency like the tornado on the horizon. Run, you want to yell at the screen. But—run where?

That could apply to Kevin MacDonald’s How I Live Now (2013; available on Amazon and YouTube). Its use of Fairport Convention’s devastating “Tam Lin” to set the preapocalyptic tone in the idyllic English countryside is dizzying: another reality about to smash into a few charmed, ordinary teenage lives. What’s so unusual about this movie, incongruously based on a YA novel and yet even bleaker than Children of Men (2006), is that it never slips into action-movie heroics or bursts of “excitement” when a savage war breaks out. How mulish adolescent Saoirse Ronan (impressively uningratiating) learns to survive is a matter of grubby necessity. (Her breakthrough discovery: the self-lacerating OCD voices in her head can be channeled into crude resourcefulness.) When the movie came out seven years ago, it was a parable of what happens when youthful romanticism collides with an incomprehensibly hostile reality. Now it feels like a training manual—practical tips for if things really go south for us in the coming months. (Ten Teen Life Hacks to Make It Through Martial Law and/or the Coming Civil War.)

Kevin Macdonald, How I Live Now, 2013, color, sound, 101 minutes. Daisy (Saoirse Ronan).

It’s also a testament to the innate beauty in committing absolutely to the work at hand and hitting your marks with Olympian accuracy. Professionalism can have its own transcendental rewards: Steven Soderberg’s The Limey (1999; available on Vudu and other platforms) presents itself as a melancholy thriller about a bad father investigating his estranged daughter’s suspicious death. Except it uses those basic elements as a reflective background to silhouette a sublime group of actors, reanimating hip icons Terence Stamp and Peter Fonda, letting Lesley Ann Warren own the screen while cutting through macho bullshit with a tone or a glance, and casting Barry Newman (Vanishing Point) as the apotheosis of the Hollywood lawyer-fixer. The peerless Bill Duke steals five minutes of the movie as a calculating drug agent, but even middle-aged, pudgy Joe Dallesandro as a goon is more than a shadow of his former Warhol glories—he’s a gimpy bar fighter who still has one sucker punch left in him.

Drifting back into that movie past, basking in its time-shifting editing and time-stopping performances, it’s funny to realize The Limey’s sort-of relevance: not only hitting many of the key notes of Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood (2019) in less than half the running time and with twice the modesty, but serving as a template for Karyn Kusama’s rattling neo-noir Destroyer (2018; available on Hulu). Nicole Kidman’s kamikaze performance (shades of Harvey Keitel and Nicolas Cage) coupled with Kusama’s curt nods to The Bad Lieutenant (1992) led me to miss all the ways Destroyer used Soderberg’s movie as a point of departure: the even more efficacious flashback structure, a deeper dive into the agonies of failed parenthood, and a more brutal case for how just one wrong gamble can wreck a bunch of unsettled lives. The genre trappings serve as a password to get into the underbelly of a blasted, guilty conscience; Kusama and Kidman then twist the knife like a tag team of assassins working from the inside out. Talk about relatable: Who isn’t feeling those stomach pangs of some rough tapeworm working its way up to the brain? The hills are alive with the sound of breaking glass. The Big Picture keeps breaking up, but the shards are coming through nice and clear. 

 

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