A note: This is the third in the Cinépathétic series, a interview-style back and forth between me and the interesting people in my life, jabbering about movies and why we love them so damned much. This week, I interview Tiny Mix Tapes‘ film critic Paul Bower, man of impeccable taste and long-time friend to me (funfact: the cartoon above is a drawing I did of Paul way back in 2004). As usual, be wary for spoilers throughout, and please, enjoy.
Paul: Anything for you, Woo.
DR: Which film would you like to start with tonight?
Paul: Let’s go with Rules of The Game.
DR: Jean Renoir’s 1939 farce about the upper-crust. What brings us here?
Paul: I think context is a huge part of it. Because, really, when you watch it today it definitely shows its age. It’s always been near the top of Sight & Sound’s best of lists of cinema, and that piqued my interest as a teen. You have this upstairs/downstairs dynamic that on the surface seems like a cool technique for the time, but ultimately Renoir was presenting a severe critique of the society of his age, but he was doing it without being super obvious about it, which I immediately dug. Like all the hunting scenes and that peasant who stole the rabbit. Like, whatever, but I was really drawn to the subtlety of the whole movie, and how Renoir chose to convey the meaning of his film. Non-verbally.
DR: As a teen? I think I was 21 when I first saw this one. How old were you when you first saw this, and how did you come by it?
Paul: I watched it for the first time at probably around 16, and I’m sure I missed most of what made it such a great film.
DR: Most critics at the time didn’t think Renoir was being as subtle. The French government had the film banned, didn’t they?
Paul: Yeah, that’s totally true, but in the late 90’s it seemed tame in comparison. Also, later on in his life he did this baller interview—I think it’s bundled with the Criterion edition of La Bete Humaine where he talks about how the government banned it for precisely the wrong reason. It was scathing toward the upper-classes, to be sure, but the deeper meaning was about human nature and pettiness, which I’ve always thought was pretty rad. He doesn’t give the lower classes a free pass on being terrible people, either. But by highlighting the frailty of the upper classes, the French aristocracy was pretty pissed at the time.
DR: Do you think they had a right to be? Insofar as farces go, they’re depicted as a fairly vapid group of people. I’m not defending the aristocracy, mind.
Paul: I feel like people are going to get offended by whatever they want to, especially if they have a lot of free time and think highly enough of themselves. It’s weird, on the one hand I suppose everyone has autonomy – and who am I to chide them for being sensitive – but on the other, Renoir was dealing with a pretty specific group of folks at some remote palatial estate in the country. The only thing you do by getting hurt about that is draw attention to the privilege you enjoy. And when the aristocrats had enough power to ban movies I suppose that wasn’t as big of a thing. But now we have a bit more scrutiny when it comes to media. Imagine if Donald Trump tried to have SNL banned?
DR: It’s a beautifully-shot film. The editing is first-rate. That hunting scene dazzles me to this very day.
Paul: Yeah, coming himself from a well-off family of renowned painters, Jean had a great sense of how to use the medium at his hands. I also really liked the naturalistic dialogue of the characters in Rules of the Game. Most films I’ve seen from the same period are a bit more theatrical. Which is also what I really liked about that scene where they put on the play in front of people. Renoir is giving a nod to the theatrical tradition. (He played the bear himself.) While at the same time giving a concrete delineating line between that tradition and this relatively new medium of film.
DR: I had no idea he was the bear.
Paul: Yeah! He was totally the bear!
DR: That’s incredible.
Paul: He’s the drunken buffoon in the movie, which is a nice touch. He’s lampooning people, for sure, but at the same time he’s indicating that he’s even worse than everyone else he’s critiquing. He’s also the reason why the wrong dude ends up getting shot (spoiler alert). Suffice to say what I really love the most about the movie is how humanely it treats its characters, and how it serves as a bridge between two grand traditions of art, Theater and Film.
DR: The assortment of characters, and their subsequent lampooning – as you put it – always recalled for me the early star-studded extravaganzas like MGM’s 1932 Grand Hotel. Just as silly as silly could be, but with some rather severe subtext.
Paul: Yeah! Grand Hotel is totally in there.
DR: Do you think Renoir was influenced by this?
Paul: I’m sure of it. Dude consumed all of the available media of his day. Rules of the Game also always struck me as this perfect example of the blending of awesome dialogue writing with awesome visual communication. Usually I’m satisfied if a film has amazing visual storytelling but maybe its dialogue is a bit stunted. Or, conversely, it’s written so well that I can ignore the fact that the movie itself is a shambles of visual imagery. Renoir was firing on all cylinders.
Paul: Hmmm… Let’s go with Blade Runner, which has been a constant for me since about 19-yrs-old when I first saw it.
DR: (sighs) Ridley Scott. I can’t seem to avoid the man these days.
Paul: Yeah, I know. He’s everywhere. And I’m really worried that he’s going to end up making a seq-pre-quel to Blade Runner. There’s no way that’s going to be good at all.
DR: People love Blade Runner. I’m under no delusions there. Why is this film on your list?
Paul: It’s a combination of the images it captures, with the score (love’s me some Vangelis) and the performances. I just loved the whole future noire thing they had going. And the set design from Mœbius and the various great designers Scott was shrewd enough to hire are all really what sold me on this particular movie. There are plenty of futuristic movies that are great, but I really got sucked in by the mood that this film conveyed so well.
DR: I won’t argue that the film has its own unique feel to it, one that has been co-opted mercilessly ever since. And with good reason: the film looks incredible. But for me, that’s all it ever did, and that’s all Scott ever did: impress with visuals. That Mœbius contributed to it definitely endears it somewhat to me on an aesthetic level, as does Rutger Hauer’s performance, but I always felt the film needed to be at least 45 minutes longer. Thoughts?
Paul: I feel like the restraint Scott showed with that movie was actually refreshing, compared to most of his other output, which is pretty cut and dried, aside from Prometheus. He left just enough unanswered questions for it to remain interesting for me. But with the internet and the countless websites who lay out just how obvious it is that Harrison Ford is a replicant it kind of takes the wind out of the film’s sails. However, I’ve heard a lot of critique of the film for just being vague when it couldn’t figure out how to get out of a plot hole. At the end of the day I just really like it, flaws and all.
DR: There are seven – SEVEN – different versions of the film, all culminating in Scott’s own “definitive” Director’s Cut in 2007. I’ve only seen the original theatrical cut. How many have you seen?
Paul: I’ve seen the original, and the first Director’s Cut, and then the 2007, which wasn’t all that different from the first Director’s Cut. I like the first Director’s Cut the best, as it does away with the voiceover narration, which was done super last minute, and Harrison Ford almost broke his contract because of it—he didn’t want any hackneyed fucking private-eye voiceover shit in the movie he already saw as a huge compromise on his part.
DR: Who could blame him.
Paul: There’s this awesome documentary, called Dangerous Days, where the screenwriter talks about how the studio forced him to write voiceover narration at the very last minute. He was writing Harrison Ford’s monologue hours before Ford recorded it. It was a hot mess for sure.
DR: So I suppose I’ve seen the first Director’s Cut as well, since I don’t recall any voice-over, which I’m positive I’d remember. Huh.
Paul: Yeah, it was atrocious, the ending is way more unequivocally happy in the theatrical release, too. However, coming out the same weekend as E.T., Blade Runner was doomed.
DR: Oh, for sure. Going back, do you think Ridley Scott will actually go through with another Blade Runner? The man already shit on whatever legacy he had with Alien by making Prometheus. I wouldn’t put it past him.
Paul: He’ll probably do it. And I’ll probably go watch it and pretend for a while that it was okay, but I won’t be happy about it.
DR: Deckard: replicant or human?
Paul: Seems pretty clear that he’s a replicant, but I like to think it’s still unsettled. It makes the movie more interesting to me. But he’s totally a replicant.
DR: One of the saving graces of the film – for me – was that ambiguity. Though that “unicorn dream” was totally leftovers from Legend. (A note: Legend was made after Blade Runner. I choke on my own bile sometimes. Apologies -DR)
Paul: (laughs) Right on. Only thing that unicorn scene was missing was Tom Cruise’s jacked teeth.
DR: And Tim Curry’s charisma. What’s next?
DR: Whit Stillman’s 1990 not-so-screwball comedy of the haut-bourgeoisie. I sense a theme permeating here.
Paul: Totally. For me, Metropolitan is more of a bookend for Rules of the Game than Gosford Park was, which was basically a rehashing of Renoir’s masterpiece. You’ve got this awesome story of urban well-to-do kids who have no idea what they’re doing, and no justifiable reason to be able to survive in Manhattan. Stillman never defines which era this story takes place in, so it’s kind of universally nostalgic, although I think the taxi cab near the end is from the late 80s…
DR: Sounds about right. Stillman spent most of the 80s writing the screenplay to this film, and got nominated for an Oscar for his trouble. What is it about the young and the affluent that appeals to you? I remember having drunken conversations about this film with you late at night in Ypsilanti years ago about this one. You were always pretty passionate about this movie.
Paul: I don’t even know. Growing up pretty much lower-middle class myself, I was always tempted to overly criticize those with more than me. I did so, for the most part, in my own life. However, maybe it’s the way that Renoir and Stillman humanize those with privilege that’s stuck with me all these years. Especially this year, as just about every conversation I have is prefaced by the level of privilege attained by the subjects covered, it’s nice to see a film that treats people as people. Not denying or underplaying the privilege of the characters, but really trying to dig beneath that to detail their foibles. Also, the language is exquisite. Seriously, all of his films are so well written. I could’ve picked Barcelona, or Last Days of Disco, or Damsels in Distress. They’re all such great movies… But Metropolitan has always been there for me.
DR: Was Tom Townsend something of an avatar for you? His outsider-looking-in character makes the insufferable seem more than relatable. Insomuch as he could be, being a Princeton chap. Stillman’s dialogue could be put on stage, and it would still resonate brilliantly.
Paul: Yeah, I totally identified with Tom Townsend growing up. He was so guarded about revealing anything about himself in that movie, which was something I related to, esp in my teen years.
DR: He seems, at times, uncomfortable with the excess that surrounds him.
Paul: One of my favorite scenes in that movie is where Tom’s hemming and hawing and Nick – played consummately well by Chris Eigeman – comes up to him and he confronts him. He says something along the lines of, “you think it’s wrong that we’re here, out at a party enjoying ourselves, when we could be home, worrying about the less fortunate… Has it ever occurred to you that you *are* the less fortunate?”
DR: Nick is Tom’s window into this world, and yet he’s so dry with him.
Paul: To me that revealed more about the intractable nature of class than anything I ever read in college. There’s also a joy in Stillman’s film, and an unsentimental longing that endures. It’s really hard to do something like that without becoming COMPLETELY sentimental. Which I hate.
DR: Stillman’s Oscar nod was up against Woody Allen that year. Pretty impressive for his first time out. I mean, he was up against Alice, but still.
Paul: Alice was great! That confessional scene was brilliant.
DR: That’s where Mia Farrow goes to her childhood home and there’s a priest and a confessional just sitting there, right?
Paul: Yeah, so surreal.
Paul: Let’s go with The Elephant Man. I’m ready to get sad.
DR: (laughs) Oof. David Lynch taking a studio period piece and making it his frightening, nuanced own. This one makes me sob like a child.
Paul: The first experience I had with this film was in college. I was bored on a weekend so I decided to chill in the common room. The one with the decent TV. I’d seen Blue Velvet in my late teens, and at the time just thought it was weird. Turner Classic Movies decided to play The Elephant Man and I had no idea what I was in for. Didn’t even know it was Lynch until later. But everything about that movie was weird and unsettling and so deeply felt it killed me. I still get prickly hairs on the back of my neck whenever Barber’s Adagio for Strings plays on the radio/internet/whatever.
DR: That’s the music Lynch played during the death scene, right?
Paul: Yeah. It also figured heavily into Stone’s Platoon, but it’ll always be linked with The Elephant Man for me. John Hurt’s performance is bonkers. You’d never even know it was him, but he didn’t give a fuck. Played that role like he was born for it. There’s always been this thing with a lot of decent actors that they want the audience to at least once see their face. It makes sense, I guess, if you’re trying to build your brand. Like the new Robocop movie, whatever his name is in that movie (Joel Kinnaman. -DR) wants plenty of full face shots -which, puke, come on – but still. John Hurt thoroughly crushed it in that movie.
DR: Hurt’s performance was so understated and sweet. As realistic as Lynch made John Merrick’s makeup – taking original casts of (real case study) Joseph Merrick’s body, which… HOW – he never got lost inside of it. You know the Academy had to create a Best Makeup category after this came out.
Paul: I didn’t know that at all, but it makes a lot of sense that they did. I’ve always had this theory that when Lynch is put into strictly defined boxes he really shines. Elephant Man and Twin Peaks are my examples. He couldn’t go balls out crazy with Elephant Man, because this was his way into Hollywood, what with Mel Brooks producing. And Twin Peaks was limited by the codes of conduct for network television. These structures force him to get as creative as possible. Every shot in Elephant Man is like a painting. It’s fantastic.
DR: Those boxes being “period piece” and “television” obviously. But then there’s Mulholland Drive – one of my personal favorites, ever – a film that was born from a refused television pilot, and then it becomes this towering behemoth of ponderous beauty. Even when he was confined by Brooks and Columbia Pictures, he still had his Eraserhead-esque florishes. The opening salvo of elephants bathed in black and white film grit springs to mind.
Paul: Definitely. I don’t think these formats cause him to compromise at all, I just think they sort of push him a little more. That being said my favorite Lynch film is still Lost Highway, which is balls-out insane from start to finish. I just think Elephant Man has been more influential to me in my life over the years.
DR: I guess Brooks producing is why the film has Anne Bancroft.
Paul: YEAH. He was all like, “get in this movie!”
DR: Could you blame him? Even in that one scene, Bancroft killed it. I saw this when I was eleven, I think, and I remember just being a basketcase after that scene.
Paul: Damn, her face is like a universe. Also, this film seems to me where Lynch let his actors interpret their roles the most.
DR: That could be true. Anthony Hopkins never spoke highly of his role in this film. I forget what exactly it was he objected to, but I seem to recall reading Hopkins being unhappy with the role of “the good doctor”.
Paul: Anthony Hopkins nailed it. He’s just being all cock-of-the-walk with it. Anyone else playing that role in the same way would stake their careers on it.
DR: Quick: sub-list: top five David Lynch films, in non-sequential order.
Paul: Ugh… Wild at Heart, Blue Velvet, The Elephant Man, Lost Highway, Fire Walk With Me. That’s the cruelest list.
Paul: Crimes And Misdemeanors! I remember having a fairly long and intoxicated argument with you about this movie and Match Point.
DR: I remember that too. Thematically, they’re the same film. I’ll never regret saying that.
Paul: There are all sorts of great reasons why this movie is a must-watch, but to me it’s always been devastating because it’s grappling with the question of how social mores are going to stand up once religion is gone.
DR: That hollow space at the center of everything. This was made during one of Woody’s many existential crises.
Paul: Yeah, man, he was going through a lot of stuff. I love Eric Lax’s biography of Woody because he spends, like, 3 chapters trying to figure out how Woody compartmentalizes his life. You’ve got Sam Waterston in the best role of his career playing this blind Rabbi – Tiresias, duh – who acts as this Greek Chorus for the whole movie.
DR: That’s great you bring that up, because as a character-as-deus ex machina, Allen took that conceit and metamorphosed it into the literal in Mighty Aphrodite.
Paul: The one total gaffe of the movie is also my favorite scene. When he goes back to his childhood home and recounts a seder with his family. It’s so over the top and obvious that it probably shouldn’t have been included, but it’s the whole reason for the whole fucking movie.
DR: It is completely unnecessary and absurd but still humorous and relevant. He was channeling Annie Hall in that scene for sure.
Paul: It’s the flatly written, no guile-whatsoever, definitive hashing out of why it’s bad to murder someone else. And at the end we’re confronted with a wincing old man and nothing concrete.
DR: The cast of this movie…
Paul: Oh. My. God. Everyone in this movie is so spot on it makes me want to punch someone in the face.
DR: Angelica Huston’s character. Yikes. I’m pretty sure I’ve dated that woman in my lifetime.
Paul: Can you blame her, though? That’s Allen’s genius. He knows people, and he understands morality. And he figures out a way – because he’s him – to make a masterpiece movie without delving into the realm of moralism, which is literally at the edge of every scene in that movie. I’ve had great nights talking about that movie with atheists and cannon lawyers – not in the same night, although that would be fun – and I get the same response. Allen knows human beings.
DR: There’s an unofficial trilogy that exists in my mind: Hannah And Her Sisters, Crimes And Misdemeanors, Husbands And Wives. The consequences are heightened as each film carries on. The characters become more fragile, more fickle, more disastrous. Allen, through these films, seems to be deconstructing the presumed sophisticates and making them as inherently base as the rest of us. For the record, I hate Husbands and Wives.
Paul: Totally. It’s such a messy film and hard to sit through. But I like that trilogy. I think at the base of every good story is an interface with eternity. Most great stories don’t really deal with this directly, but there’s an inherent morality at play. The worst are ones that just come out and say the lion is supposed to be Jesus and you should go to church. But it’s exceedingly hard to present an explicitly moral tale without moralizing, which is why I love Crimes And Misdemeanors so much. I’ve gone over it in my head, and if I ever tried to make a story like this, there’s no way I’d be able to pull off the same restraint and adherence to human characteristics that Allen did with that movie. It’s a joy, and I’m a better person because it was made.
DR: Professor Levy’s character was always the clincher in the Allen/Farrow/Alda sequences, a sub-plot that tonally contradicted the Landau/Huston affair. How did you feel about the tonal shifts in this film?
Paul: The humor is so nihilistic in this movie it’s actually the most discomfiting part of the film. If Levy wasn’t in the movie it would be easy to write off as some quizzical and deftly wrought but ultimately shallow meditation on people and the world. However, Levy’s gallows humor/insight is exactly what makes this movie so deadly serious. It fucks you up and at the same time makes you wonder if it’s even worth paying attention to the “morality” at play in the movie. I find it hard to watch this movie with other people, because the shushing is totally rude on my part.
DR: Shushing is mandatory, Paul.
Paul: I get way too caught up in the brilliance of the film and can’t abide by drunk people in my house not paying attention to it.
DR: You’d have to have a sense of humor to face down that ending. Landau literally gets away with murder, then moves on with his life.
Paul: Yeah. It’s the best ending. Because it’s the most completely ambiguous ending ever. He gets away with murder, for sure. But Allen’s spent the last 90 minutes convincing us that jail is nowhere near the level of actual punishment in this world. He’s walking free, but is freedom even a thing by the time he’s hanging out in the back of that party by the piano?
DR: That’s what the conversation between Allen and Landau is all about in that scene. They’re talking over each other about the consequences of living, not realizing that even though their lives are different, their situations are different, their burdens are inherently the same.
Paul: Plus, the music choices are all superb.
DR: Allen always murders on the soundtrack, come on now.
Paul: For real. It’s a well that I’ll always be able to draw from. I’ll never get tired of that movie. I’m sure of it.
DR: Do you have time for one more?
Paul: Oh man, I love this movie so much, but everything I’m going to say about it has been said before, but I’d love to go over it, just the same.
Paul: I love Vertigo first off because of the use of brilliant color and it’s impossibly beautiful score, duh, but also, and most importantly, because James Stewart is such a douchebag in that movie.
DR: (laughs) You don’t demoralize Jimmy Stewart easily. But Hitch made it happen.
Paul: Hitchcock sets us up with this hard-scrapple detective hero, and then this hero turns out to be so repellent that his last-minute redemption isn’t enough to cut it.
DR: Not by half!
Paul: That movie is probably the most enjoyable trip in a film I’ve ever taken. It’s like Stewart is our tour guide, feeding us a breadcrumb trail over the course of its runtime.
DR: It unravels so methodically, it’s almost hypnotizing.
Paul: I see a big correlative between Kyle Maclachlan in Blue Velvet and Stewart in Vertigo, too, which is always fun.
Hitchcock is still the best at exploiting the voyeuristic nature of FILM ITSELF to me.
DR: (nods) You nailed it. That has always been a parallel I’ve entertained. Jeffrey and Scottie. Same fellow.
But Scottie takes things way too far.
Paul: Thinking about Vertigo brings up a couple of Brian Di Palma films that probably could’ve made this list, but those movies always come back to this one. We’re just as messed up as Jimmy, and he’s the scapegoat for our weirdness.
DR: Going back for a second, what do you mean by “film itself”?
Paul: I mean that we’re going to see movies because we’re looking through that camera at someone, and they have no idea we’re there. There’s something about film as a media that lends itself the voyeurism. It’s weird and it’s great, and there’s no other form of expression before it that could’ve EVER captured that secret part of humanity. You can’t get voyeuristic at a theater. You’re there.
DR: A stage theater, you mean?
Paul: Yeah. Unless, I dunno, you’re poking a hole through the curtain, but that’s just over the top. Don’t do that. That’s not cool.
DR: (laughs) It’s so bleak in Vertigo, and yet the mystery itself is enough to keep going. Though Stewart’s character is a coward and Novak’s character is a liar, you endear yourself to them just the same. It’s to the strengths of Hitchcock as director that this film succeeded as much as it did. But critics hated it when it came out.
Paul: Yeah, critics are the worst. I’m sure there’s a couple that I’ve panned that will prove me wrong eventually.
DR: Like what?
Paul: If I knew that already I’d know the future, and sure as shit I’d be using that on horseraces/the World Series before I decided that Pain & Gain was the next The Shining.
Paul: Seriously, though. I was with a friend of mine going on about how the British Film Institute changed their year-end list for 2012 and how that was a huge deal, and it occurred to me that maybe definitive criticism has the potential to limit people’s access to really interesting movies.
DR: Their lists are always a little dubious to me.
Paul: Fair enough, but Vertigo was their top for that list.
DR: For me, feeling out a film is kind of like a kneejerk: it’s an intrinsic feeling, one that can’t be ignored. If you hate Pain & Gain, there’s a valid reason for it. On that note, as a critic, what’s been kicking your ass this year?
Paul: Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself, but I feel like film is branching off into so many different forms of expression now that it’s actually economically viable for people like the folks who made Black Box to make movies. We’re in a very exciting time, and I for one feel stoked about what’s going to happen with motion pictures as I get older.
DR: I’m with you there.
Paul: Getting to your question. Black Box, which is this awesome low-budget movie shot in CHICAGO, of all places, is one of my faves for the year. Also, Spring Breakers is phenomenal. I really think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever seen. Sun Don’t Shine is so good, too. It was directed by Amy Seimetz, who co-starred in Upstream Color, which wasn’t as good as Sun Don’t Shine.
DR: Get the fuck out of here.
Paul: My hand to God.
DR: At the risk of reveling in tangents, for why???
Paul: You mean Spring Breakers?
Paul: 2013 is the Year of Problematic Content™, and (director Harmony) Korine got out in front of the pack on that front. But aside from the more immediate reasons of why it’s good, it’s like he took everything that’s great about Terry Malick and sped it up by a factor of 10 with a – purposefully? – janky soundtrack. It’s a mess. It’s this freakshit epic and I love it.
DR: That’s a bold statement.
Paul: It’s like Chytilová’s Daisies but with more drops/boobs. I dunno, though. Check back with me in a couple years and see what I think. Currently, though, it’s my hands-down favorite film of 2013.
DR: I would be very interested in doing an in-tandem “Best Of List” at the end of December.
Paul: Let’s do it!
DR: Awesome. Until then.
Paul: Always a pleasure, sir!
Paul Bower is a film critic for Tiny Mix Tapes living in Ypsilanti, Michigan. TMT allows him access to some interesting films, most of which sadly never see wide release. When he’s not writing reviews, he also slings cheese and gelato for Zingerman’s Creamery in Ann Arbor, Michigan. As a member of Ypsi’s darling seminal post-rock collective, Red Light Chamber Choir, Paul spent plenty of nights staying up late and jammering on about he movies he liked. We also used to live together in a house that literally fell apart while we lived in it.