PRINT September 2020


Michael Almereyda, Tesla, 2020, 2K video, color, sound, 102 minutes.

WHEN MICHAEL ALMEREYDA was about sixteen, he often visited the much older comic-book artist Alex Toth, who lived in Hollywood, chain-smoked, and talked endlessly about Nikola Tesla, visionary inventor of the mechanism that, 135 years later, still harnesses and distributes alternating current. Our illuminated world is the world that Tesla brought into being just before the dawn of the twentieth century. You might presume that the credit should go to Thomas Alva Edison, but you would be wrong. In 1980, Almereyda dropped out of Harvard to finish a screenplay about Tesla that was then optioned as a project for the Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski. The film was never made, but when Uri Singer, one of the producers of two of Almereyda’s most critically successful movies, Experimenter (2015) and Marjorie Prime (2017), asked the maverick, sometimes science-oriented American independent director what he might like to do next, Almereyda overhauled the old Tesla script and cast Ethan Hawke, the star of his Lower Manhattan hipster Hamlet (2000), as the electro-physics genius, still a cult figure more than seventy-five years after his death. Risk-taking workaholics, Hawke and the director have learned a lot in the years since their initial collaboration. Hamlet, the first of Almereyda’s sixteen feature-length films to find an audience in the US beyond what was then referred to as “downtown,” is still as puerile and one-note as it was at the turn of the millennium. The intimate and expansive Tesla, however, takes inspiration from its subject, who aspired to wirelessly connect every living being in the universe but was thwarted by, well, capitalism.

Michael Almereyda, Tesla, 2020, 2K video, color, sound, 102 minutes. Nikola Tesla (Ethan Hawke).

Tesla opens with everyone on roller skates. A thin, awkward man who keeps losing his balance is being supported by a graceful woman in a black Edwardian dress and hat whose voice we soon hear on the soundtrack. He is Nikola Tesla. She is Anne Tracy Morgan (Eve Hewson), daughter of J. P. Morgan (Donnie Keshawarz) and, in 1893, one of the most important people in Tesla’s life, although less important than she wants to be. Anne is a go-between twice over. As a character in the movie, she connects Tesla and her father, who briefly finances the immigrant scientist’s wireless project but cuts him off when Tesla’s seemingly crazy ambition to employ the earth’s electromagnetism for the purpose of free global interconnectivity threatens one of the wealthiest men in America’s need to control what he pays for. And as the film’s omniscient narrator, she relays necessary information about Tesla’s wildly improbable life and electromagnetic revolution to us, sitting in a movie theater in 2020—or, sadly, and more likely, in front of our home screens, even the best of which cannot fully capture the extraordinary and very particular beauty of this film. Thus, as Tesla, still on skates, stumbles into the imposing house just off the roller-rink patio to find himself, nine years earlier, in the office of the Edison Machine Works, Anne opens her MacBook to show us how a Google search for Tesla turns up 138 million hits with the same four photos. In voice-over, she imparts Tesla’s inner thoughts, and her matter-of-fact delivery, tinged with a barely perceptible belief in the authority her father’s money has bestowed on her, renders the poetry of Tesla’s own words more poignant. By way of introducing us to the clumsy man on skates, she explains that when Tesla was a child, he had a black cat named Macak.

One day, when he stroked the cat’s back, he saw a miracle. A sheet of light crackling under his hand. ‘Lightning in the sky,’ his father explained, ‘is the same as a spark shooting from Macak’s back.’ Then Tesla asked himself, ‘Is nature a gigantic cat, and if so, who strokes its back?’

Fragmented though Almereyda’s narrative is, the story of Tesla’s first two decades in America is not hard to follow. Born in the region of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that is now Croatia, he arrives in the United States in 1884 with a recommendation to Edison (Kyle MacLachlan) attesting to his brilliance as a physicist. But within a year, he has lost favor with his boss. Edison is committed to direct current; Tesla’s arguments for alternating current fall on deaf ears. After a brief stint as a ditchdigger, he sells more than a dozen of his patents to George Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan), one of Edison’s rivals. Westinghouse and Tesla win the current war when AC is chosen to power the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. But Westinghouse is on the verge of bankruptcy, and to satisfy his backers, he asks Tesla to tear up the contracts that guarantee him royalties from his patents. Tesla, a dunce about money, agrees, leaving himself destitute once again (that’s the way he will die in 1943), but he is rescued by Anne, who encourages her father to bankroll his Tesla Coil project for the same amount he paid for Thomas Gainsborough’s Portrait of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, 1785–87. Tesla is reputed to have been a magnet for women, perhaps because he had no interest in involvement with any human being regardless of gender. In addition to Anne, Almereyda brings in Sarah Bernhardt (Rebecca Dayan), “the divine Sarah,” who here is more skilled as a cocktease and maker of grand entrances than as a stage performer. 

Michael Almereyda, Tesla, 2020, 2K video, color, sound, 102 minutes. Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson).

In an interview shortly after Tesla’s Sundance premiere, Almereyda cited the influence of Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio (1986), the farcical cable series Drunk History (2013–), and, in particular, Henry James, for “his theme of thwarted, confused, suppressed [sexual] desire.” But more than any film, TV series, or novel, Tesla resembles the plays Richard Foreman staged in his Ontological-Hysteric Theater, particularly between 1968 and 1973 (and intermittently thereafter), with their focus on a male protagonist locked in his own head, his mind on fire, and terrified to the point of paralysis by powerful, desirous women who want something from him that he cannot acknowledge. The personal quest of these characters is for illumination—spiritual, intellectual, aesthetic—and the staging of the plays afforded the possibility of sharing that search with the audience in part by externalizing and literalizing the metaphoric with a profusion of light sources: lamps and bulbs fixed on the decor or carried about the stage. Sometimes lights were directed, blindingly, at the audience. (Look at your own risk.) Light can be either an invitation or a barrier; spectators became aware of their desire to look thanks to their gazes’ being blocked by too much or too little wattage. Foreman’s theater offered no suspension of disbelief. Rather than opening access to another world, it turned your desire for metaphysical, emotional, or kinetic experience back on itself. In this basic reflexivity, it recalled twentieth-century modernism and, more narrowly, the aggressive strategies of extended time, jolting sound, and disorienting visuals common to avant-garde performance, theater, music, and film in the 1960s.

Ontological-Hysteric Theater rehearsing Richard Foreman’s 1973 Classical Therapy: or, A Week Under the Influence for the Festival d’Automne, Théâtre Récamier, Paris, 1973. Photo: Babette Mangolte. © Babette Mangolte.

Tesla is not assaultive to the degree that the Ontological-Hysteric Theater was, although it has a couple of brief near-blinding moments. But in refusing to let us suspend our disbelief, it encourages us to focus on Tesla as a master of light and time, the elements from which movies are made. The first time we see Tesla and Edison together, their faces come out of the darkness, lit only by candles and the matches Tesla strikes one after another, as if to fend off Edison’s contempt. The juxtaposition of the evanescent images and the cruelty of Edison’s humor—“Ah, Tesla, I didn’t see you there before. Is it true you’re from Transylvania. . . . Have you ever eaten human flesh?”—is a microcosm of the entire film. Photographed by Sean Price Williams, almost every image is a precisely framed composition of light and shadow, in which lamps, sconces, chandeliers, and, of course, lightning are as alive to the eye as characters and their actions. The images might have been overly precious were their seams not so obvious. Forgoing any suggestion of realism, Tesla looks as if it had been shot on richly appointed stage sets, ingeniously photographed from a variety of angles, often with rear projections functioning like theatrical backdrops. In the first half of the film, the projected images are mostly analog black-and-white photographs or newsreels from the turn of the century that show a hardscrabble world beyond the mahogany drawing rooms and restaurants where Tesla’s investors hang out. (The analog materials were converted to digital files; Williams shot the film almost entirely digitally with a Sony Venice camera.) Later, when Tesla moves to Colorado to work on experiments involving wireless energy, the change from the cramped spaces of the urban East Coast is marked by a rear projection of a generic color photo of a mountainscape. And the film’s final image is of a room suffused with (and perhaps created by) pure digital color. There is an empty chair in that room, which is no room at all but a conceptual space waiting to be filled. 

In refusing to let us suspend our disbelief, the film encourages us to focus on Tesla as a master of light and time, the elements from which movies are made.

Tesla, as Anne Morgan tells us, “was always looking ahead, projecting himself into the future. Maybe he promised more than he could deliver; maybe he overreached. Or maybe the world we are living in is a dream that Tesla dreamed first.” Like a dream, Tesla merges future and past to construct a collaged, anachronistic, expanded present. “I tend to think of the movie—and others I’ve made recently—being akin to Rauschenberg combines or Cornell boxes,” Almereyda wrote in an email. “Some serious research goes into choosing images for the projections, but a thrift store aesthetic applies.” It’s not only the visuals that are collaged but the performance styles, ranging from slapstick (Tesla and Edison duke it out with ice-cream cones) to melodrama. The eclecticism of the score rivals that of Tony Conrad’s for Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures (1963). Tesla is introduced with the dark, orchestral music Wojciech Kilar wrote for Jane Campion’s 1996 adaptation of James’s The Portrait of a Lady (early-twentieth-century Middle European dissonances touched with the eroticism of fado); Bernhardt enters Tesla’s life to the sound of Trlogy’s 2018 “Electric Flame,” with flashbulbs and disco lights making her impossible to ignore; and Tesla, having finally understood that he will never have the financial support he deserves, performs a karaoke version of Tears for Fears’ “Every-body Wants to Rule the World” (1985) while images of bloodred sunsets dissolve into one another behind him.

Michael Almereyda, Tesla, 2020, 2K video, color, sound, 102 minutes. Nikola Tesla (Ethan Hawke).

What’s most amazing about Tesla’s ensemble cast is that they can define their characters with a few bold strokes, negotiate abruptly shifting styles, and still remain compatible with one another within the same idiosyncratic movie world. Nevertheless, this is Hawke’s film, and one need only think of the many actors who have attempted to play “geniuses” but failed to convince us of their characters’ intellect and creativity to appreciate how he gives equal measure to the visionary brilliance of Tesla’s mind and the agony that his emotional isolation causes him. In the climactic scene, Tesla, desperate for money to continue his work, finds Anne, her father, and two other women playing tennis. Ranting at them from outside a wire fence, he speaks of marvels: “A new method to photograph thought” and “a series of inventions that will make warfare unthinkable.” The tennis players ignore him and continue their game. In the ensuing decades, others will realize Tesla’s vision of machines that X-ray and scan the brain, and others will build the atomic bomb, which did not have the pacifying effect he had hoped for. In an epilogue, Anne tries to explain that while her father would have paid for a device to wirelessly send stock quotes from New York to London, he had no interest in extending the privilege to poor people in Africa. Tesla, she tells us, would outlive her father, Edison, and Westinghouse and die alone in a New York hotel at age eighty-seven. She would find a lover “as strong and willful” as her father, Bessie Marbury, and move into her house outside Versailles during World War I. (The real Anne Morgan became a major philanthropist who supported women workers but was opposed to labor unions and eventually lived in an openly lesbian relationship with another daughter of wealth, Anne Harriman Vanderbilt. Morgan deserves a film of her own, in which Tesla would barely have a role.)

Michael Almereyda, Tesla, 2020, 2K video, color, sound, 102 minutes.

Tesla, by the way, was germophobic. Perhaps that’s why he survived the 1918 influenza pandemic. Something to think about as we watch this ravishing movie in isolation, wirelessly connected to almost the entire world.

Amy Taubin is a contributing editor of Artforum.