Tag Archives: John Steppling

One Foot Out the Door

Grandpa John Steppling comes home, for a while

(This article originally appeared in the LA Weekly on September 9, 2010 and was written by Steve Leigh Morris)

In the comparatively heady days of the late 1980s — heady for local theater, at least — director Robert Egan over at the Mark Taper Forum took an almost proprietary interest in a young playwright whom critic Richard Stayton had dubbed L.A.’s only playwright. The fringe set of that era described John Steppling as the voice of the city, for creating inarticulate American-Pinter characters in such plays as his self-directed The Shaper, populated with surfboard builders and beach dwellers who glared at each other across emotional voids, and against riffs of electric guitar. His characters were from, and remain in, the margins of society, not unlike Steppling himself. (Steppling’s other plays include Teenage Wedding, The Dream Coast and Neck.) The Taper’s attempt to elevate Steppling to L.A.’s entry in the national playwright sweepstakes didn’t quite work out, the way it did, say, for Steppling’s peer, Jon Robin Baitz. Yet the Taper did produce Steppling’s The Thrill in one of its new-works festivals.

Steppling dabbled in film, having adapted Elmore Leonard‘s 52 Pickup for director John Frankenheimer. The 59-year-old also has been a director and an artistic director of playwright companies such as Heliogabalus and, currently, Gunfighter Nation. Today, after several years abroad, Steppling is back in L.A., making his home in the high desert’s Yucca Valley.

In a 1990 interview, Steppling recalled: “I remember driving through Ely, Nevada, early one morning. Newspapers were blowing on these empty streets and a couple of very spectral figures huddled in the doorway, and I thought, ‘Who are these people? These half-drunk cowboys at 10 a.m., playing penny slots in this incredibly bored fashion in a broken-down casino.’ … You learn more about society and the truth of the society you live in from those people. Having one foot out of society allows that person to be in a doorway, seeing the truth from the outside.”

It’s from the margins that Steppling remains an eloquent commentator on our own city, and the larger culture it represents. His most recent absence from Los Angeles was marked by an 11-year stint in Poland (where he taught screenwriting at the Polish National Film School in ód) and Norway — because his wife, Gunnhild Skrodal, is Norwegian.


Steppling and his Norwegian wife, Gunnhild Skrodal

Steppling and his Norwegian wife, Gunnhild Skrodal


He says, only somewhat facetiously, that he just can’t recount how many wives he’s had. He can, however, keep track of his children — one son, Alexis, whose mother is Natasha Mitchnick. Alexis is himself now a father, awaiting his second child, and Steppling is here to spend time with his grandchildren. But only for a year, maybe longer, he says. He’s made some commitments here, and he’ll see how things work out.

Among those commitments is his current leadership role in Gunfighter Nation, where Alexis is associate artistic director. Half the group consists of the elder Steppling’s peers from the 1980s — playwrights such as Rita Valencia, Wesley Walker, Guy Zimmerman and Harvey Perr. The other half consists of a younger generation brought in by Alexis, largely with a background in community organizing.

On September 17, the group opens its second in a series of short plays, this version at Hollywood’s Lost Studio and based on Los Angeles history, from 1830s governor Pio Pico to 1960s mayor Sam Yorty. And in late October, it opens Steppling’s new play, Phantom Luck.

The company’s youth, he explains, is bringing in a new audience that doesn’t go to the usual theaters.

“I said, I want you young people to read Peter Brook‘s The Empty Space [about the possibilities of where theater can occur] because that’s the best template for our times. We’re pitching site-specific works in Palm Springs, and [director-composer] O’Lan [Jones] talks about this at her company, Overtone Industries: Find an empty Circuit City, and get some backing and put up [a performance] there.”

The father-son bond has created a kind of community-based theater, not unlike L.A.’s heralded Cornerstone Theatre Company. “I want to do what Cornerstone is doing, without feeling that we’re social-engineering anything,” Steppling explains. “I think it should be about the art first. I think the art should contain this stuff of the social fabric, somehow. And I admire what Cornerstone has done in many ways. My son brings in the Latino communists, and suddenly we’re all talking about [19th-century California Governor] Pio Pico. One of our actors is right out of prison, never been onstage — he’s bringing a whole other experience.”

Steppling says he learns from them about life in other communities, “but we give them the art. I tell them to read Peter Brook, read Grotowski.”

Upon returning to California, Steppling was struck by the new economic realities. “It’s a strange time in the U.S. It’s like the Great Depression, it’s dire. You don’t get that feeling, just how acute the financial problem is, when you’re away. Out in the Yucca Valley, every weekend there are 50 garage sales —’must sell for food.’ It’s really startling. This extraordinary depression has also served to reveal what were the lurking pathologies of America, and it’s disturbing. It’s stuff that we always knew was there, these resentments. Now people are so put-upon, so desperate. If they have a job, they look to target the most powerless illegal immigrants, and drum up these absurd nonissues — gay marriage, illegal immigration — just an excuse to vent a lot of anger and resentment. The other thing that really strikes me, is how ubiquitous and partisan the media have become.”

Tethered to the economic decline is what Steppling views as the leaching out of theater and art from the culture. “Maybe it’s the way education has been eroded since Reagan. People that I formerly thought of as dedicated theater artists are either defeated and not working, or they’re just clamoring for the crumbs from Hollywood in an increasingly desperate way. … [Sociologist Theodor] Adorno said this thing I quote all the time: ‘The rise of fascism in Germany can be directly related to the end of education after World War I.’ So as you have an increasingly ignorant population, of course you have the ascent of Sarah Palin.

“But I see signs of optimism in a few places. It’s tough because it’s this postliterate culture — I had film students who only wanted to read technical manuals on lenses. After six months of watching Fassbinder, I saw them downloading obscure films by Bresson. You can’t just throw that at them. You have to provide historical context. That’s what’s not provided after the decimation of arts education. All we get is dueling reviewers. The template becomes the Academy Awards.”

Steppling sees reasons for hope, now that fine indie films such as Winter’s Bone and The Prophet are getting made and distributed. “I wish theater would catch up a bit. All these spaces are limping by, and the Taper does another production of The Glass Menagerie, and Burn This. And in the smaller theaters, do we really need another production of All My Sons right now? Or dinosaur renditions of Shakespeare showcasing actors for 47 people a night?”

(Steppling describes his own sliced-back adaptation of King Lear — with Goneril and Regan spoken in Norwegian and the other roles in either Polish or English as “fairly traditional.”)

“These tired old reactionary guys that run these theaters live in some fun-house fishbowl and they don’t see the world around them. The thing that strikes me, either they do not reflect on the madness that’s out there, or they do fake outreach, like the Taper, the identity-politics theater enough already, enough.”

Living in the desert, Steppling is talking to the city of Indio about the Date Festival grounds, “which is a kitsch wonder. What architectural hideousness has replaced what used to be this oasis of date trees,” he reflects. He’s pitching a site-specific work for the grounds, but doesn’t yet know if it’s going to be a film or a theater piece.

Don’t mistake Steppling’s harsh critique of our theater for despondency.

“I’m now almost 60,” he reflects. “I think if you just survive, you stop worrying about things. I just want to do something I enjoy doing, with people I enjoy doing it with. And the possibilities are there. I’m optimistic.”


LGrandpa John Steppling comes home, for a while


THE GRIND WHEEL: Animal Kingdom and The American

Animal Kingdom is a low budget Australian film from David Michod.  The American is the second feature from Anton Corbijin.  Both films skirt genre issues, but in the end Animal Kingdom simply transcends its crime setting, and becomes something much more than either a story of low rent criminals in Melbourne, or anything remotely like melodrama. The American, in the end, is defeated by George Clooney. But more on that in a minute.

Ben Mendalsohn in Animal Kingdom

Animal Kingdom may be the darkest film of the last twenty years, and that’s saying rather a lot. Halfway through I realized all sense of entertainment (whatever i think that may be) had been leeched out of the film, and I was just sitting contemplating the sheer emptiness and futility of the family before me. Nothing good, or even tolerable was going to come out of this — no amount of intervention or guidance counseling was going to help in the least. The Cody family was hurtling at excess speed toward the great abyss — and then they arrive there.

The basic story (and I wont use any spoilers) is that 17-year-old J. Cody’s  mother ODs, and he has to move in with his aunt….”Grandma Smurf” (the remarkable Jackie Weaver) and her ‘sons” — lifetime criminals all. The head of the “family” is Pope Cody — (a startling and deeply disturbing performance from Ben Mendelsohn) — a psychopath (Grandma at one point, gently urges him to “take his medication again”). The Pope is as frightening a figure as one can find in modern film. Guy Pierce is the vaguely honest cop, but still clueless in a way that is a credit to screenwriter Michod. Young J’s learning curve includes an understanding of the depravity of his own family as well as the utter corruption and expediency of the authority structure. The courtroom sequence….all one minute of it, is a masterpiece of what can be left out of narrative.

This is not a particularly artful film, in terms of mise en scene — and the cinematography is fine, but mostly it’s all about following the taut line of moral reasoning in the narrative. One almost doesn’t notice how good the screenplay actually is. Much like A Prophet, One Eyed Jacks, and The Searchers, one wonders at young J’s next move. Even his next day, as the credits roll.  In one sense it’s a bit like A Prophet, as it clears away superfluous surface bromides about right and wrong. And in each case there is a solid class basis for this paring away of the rationalizations of liberal society. There is no redemption and no hope. There is also nothing like anyone attractive in this film. It’s the least glamorous crime scene one could imagine.

In that final sense, Animal Kingdom is a deeper film than Winter’s Bone, where survival is tinged, however slightly, with the redemptive.  Not in Animal Kingdom. It’s a brutal lesson.

The American is worth a note because of Corbijin’s first film, Control, a sort of bio pic of Joy Division’s self destructive lead singer Ian Curtis. I saw it at Camerimage, the festival in Lodz and remember it as the only good film of that year.  All the more disappointing then, to come to The American. Now, one imagines Corbijin needing Clooney to get this made. So I imagine anyway, because Corbijin was smart enough to make Control — and therefore not stupid enough to use Clooney in a part in which he is on screen EVERY SECOND of the film essentially… unless it was the only way to finance it. The story is a sub category of the gangster’s one final score story. It’s worth comparing it to the much superior The Last Run, with George C. Scott, and directed by Richard Fleischer.  Or Stephen Frears The Hit, or even Antonioni’s The Passenger. They all play with the existential aura of sinner, alone, and seeking a last score (or usually good act) — (and here it occurs to me High Sierra is another related narrative) but finding such score will require sacrifice, and either succumbing to its inevitability or rising above it in some metaphysical way…. or both.

In any event, Clooney is not a stupid actor, and he knows the kind of performance he should give and he makes the correct “acting” choices — but his basic narcissism is simply too large a burden. That coupled to a sense of his basic trivial character. Consequently the film seems disciplined, and amazingly shot (Martin Ruhe) but still never quite becomes the Antonioni (or Bresson) take on the gangster genre. I find it fascinating, however, to ponder the appeal of characters like this. Because I find them amazingly appealing. Maybe it’s just the cut off itself, the ex-pat freedom of an aging single male — undomesticated (and when they choose domestication they usually die) and moving as figures in an existential landscape (note: food is a big part of The American…that small wheel of Pecorino made me hungry for several days).  The Last Run is the most successful of these films largely because of Scott, an actor who spent his career carving out a sense of existential ennui. Scott also was not a narcissist. Hence Fleisher could move along a simple narrative and still provide the deeper shadings the format asks. Corbijin could not. As a final note, one also found it irritating that the casting of the local young hooker went to a veritable fashion model…because correct me if I’m wrong, the prostitutes of villages in the Abruzzi, rarely look like Victoria’s Secret applicants… and look, if one wants to, and I don’t particularly, one could keep going (local auto mechanic just happens to have the right junk around to build a silencer…. it becomes art house McGyver).  Ah well, Corbijin is Dutch — and I wonder about the Dutch anyway. There is always lurking an odd hidden sort of sentimentality. But maybe that’s just me.

–John Steppling

CURTIS WHITE: One Eyed Jacks

One of the best critical writers on film (or most anything) is Curtis White. Added to that, he is talking about one of my favorite films: One Eyed Jacks, Marlon Brando’s only directorial effort.

[Read the full article in John Stepplings comment at the end of this post]

“Complexity. Rio is no simple avenging angel. He’s a one-eyed Jack himself. It’s not that he has a “dark side.” This is not a movie about good and evil. He is complicit. He is one of the tubs-of-guts and he knows it. His violence against others is also an expression of self-disgust. In the very first scene of the movie, Rio eats a banana as his compadres finish robbing a bank. Casually, he tosses banana peels onto first one side of a scale, then the other. Justice: two banana peels balancing each other. This is the attitude of the character who will exact personal justice from the movie’s great wrong-doers? His dealings with women are equally cynical. He lies to them, plies them with jewelry (all given to him, he swears, by his dead mother) in order to fuck and thus humiliate them. He is the shiny prince of white male malice. His own awareness of complicity with the tubs-of-guts becomes clear in the scene I described above, in which Howard “gets his.” For that is the same morning after Rio has shamed Louisa. He has taken her to the beach, lied to her about himself and his feelings for her, and impregnated her as part of his revenge against her stepfather. Clearly, his disgust with Howard’s brutality is in part a reflection of his disgust with himself.”
Curtis White

White touches on something here that can be seen throughout American film and literature. One doesn’t see it often enough, mind, but it is manifest in the best work from American writers and artists. It is the realization that we are complicit in the violence and venality all around us. This complicity, however, is also a station on the journey toward, if not redemption, then awakening, and awareness.


Kent State Massacre. photo by John Paul Filo


The closing monologue in No Country for Old Men (more in the book but also in the film) is a pure meditation on this lesson. One can see it characters such as Ahab (Moby Dick) and in Denzell Washington’s character in Training Day, or John Wayne’s in The Searchers. One could argue the flaw or greatest weakness in Training Day ( a film I admire hugely) is that Alonzo (Washington) never takes the final step toward an awareness (as Wayne does in The Searchers) and thus an embrace, however painful, of one’s own flawed soul. The final shot of The Searchers, shot from inside the farmhouse, shows Wayne walking ever so slowly toward us and pausing, and finally turning away. He cannot ever live in that domesticated world he has fought to create. He must turn away and step back into the ‘wild’. All three actors I’ve mentioned, Brando, Washington, and Wayne, possess enormous physical grace — and magnetic presence. These are larger than life physical specimens….each with his own ineffable form of physical grace. John Ford and Brando sensed this very clearly, though I suspect Fuqua much less so. Training Day is an excellent film, but falls short of the profundity of the Ford or Brando film. Interestingly Kubrick was set to direct One Eyed Jacks, but had conflicts with Brando — and one might well imagine the reasons. Brando was not a Kubrick actor (as Montgomery Clift was not a Hitchcock actor in I Confess…though Hitchcock deals with this in a more inventive way).

Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men is, in a sense, an updated examination of the same questions raised in One Eyed Jacks. For really, while revenge is engine for the plot in ‘Jacks, its not at all what the film is really looking at, or expressing. I am reminded of Audiard’s A Prophet again, as a meditation on the holy. The journey toward that which is sacrosanct, that which is set apart–by virtue of a solemnly undertaken journey–gives us the preconditions of the spiritual architecture of holiness. In the case of the individual, it is the release of those mechanisms of clinging to illusion — usually the illusion of a well-defined and concrete self. In No Country the demonic Chigurh is a post-modern white whale. The sheriff (Tommie Lee Jones in the film) has spent his adult and professional life enforcing a set of beliefs about law and about morality. That Chigurh cannot be stopped is clear, but in what way the Sheriff himself has aided this madness is the subject of the final extended monologue (much longer in the book). Writers from Raymond Chandler to Melville and Joseph Conrad, from Jim Thompson to Dostoyevsky, have all approached these questions: guilt, morality, fate, and violence. It becomes the search for a way to justify one’s own powerlessness as it is set forth in systems of social law. What is the final court of appeal? That there is none is a realization difficult for lesser artists, I think.

Where does Wayne go after that final shot?  Where does Malik go, and what does he do? Or Kid Rio?  That Alonzo dies is the exact problem with Training Day.

Those characters who know a truth, and yet are forces of destruction, are particularly and peculiarly American I think. I can think of places in poets such as Whitman and James Wright, as well as William Carlos Williams and Alan Ginsberg, where this is touched upon, and one can certainly go back to Shakespeare to see the purist positing of these dynamics, at the front edge of modernity. There are countless mediating factors, class and money to start with. Directors like Pasolini and Bergman dealt with it in most of their work, but fewer American directors have. Perhaps Hawks did, and Ford to some degree, and maybe Boetticher in his best work. I would suggest that our present climate and the contradictions of advanced capital and globalization have provided a gaping hole in the collective consciousness of 21st century America, but it is a hole, so far, too dangerous to be wrestled with except in a few noted examples. Our addiction to militarism, and its attendant system of values, and the voyeuristic compulsive repetition of cinematic violence, are clear evidence of this specific American pathology — the insistence upon the self, and the rationalizing away of any objection to these beliefs — regardless the cost of this denial. This is not an argument for pacifism per se.  A Mao or a Fidel, if Quaker, might not have liberated their people from abject poverty and near slavery. It is rather to attempt an analysis of what violence actually is, and how we are to live alongside it.

–John Steppling

Perhaps the film that most closely resembles One Eyed Jacks thematically, is Anthony Mann’s Man of The West. It is indeed the same story, crossed with a Freudian take on “King Lear”. I think its Mann’s best film, and its possibly the darkest western ever made.

Aritist and Critic

Well, there is some energy in this exchange.

There can be no final, absolute canon of great art, but that doesn’t mean the value of a work of art is relative. There always is a canon, to be more precise, but that canon is always shifting and changing. A new work of art, if it’s any good, forces a re-evaluation of all the art that has gone before. Actually, this is the sign of a great work of art – that it forces this kind of re-evaluation. Many great works of art survive this kind of re-evaluation, but that can always change.

And what is true about the history of art is also true of history in general—history is alive and what happens today changes the meaning of the past. Which is hopeful or not, depending on your point of view.

It feels to me as if you would like to arrive at an absolute canon and this is making you overly harsh in your take on certain vulnerable outliers. I may be wrong about your intention, but a film like Fat City has some real virtues to it… and I may be remembering incorrectly but I do recall you singing its praises in the past. Ditto Peckinpah. Obviously you are free to change your opinion and it’s inevitable, actually…but that’s also kind of my point.

To say that all critics are motivated by hostility would be a stupid statement and it’s not what I am saying. I exempt artists who write criticism and I’m prepared, on a case by case basis, to accept other critics to be benign in their attitude to art in general. But it’s a strong tendency and one that must always be considered. And I also would say we need to distinguish between art history and criticism and also aesthetic theory (Adorno) and criticism and I would never view Norman O. Brown as a critic.

In any event, the real juice seems to be in the issues I bring up in the first paragraph.

CURE, directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Despite being diverted into a single focus on Kubrick it seems to me something crucial is being considered here about the relationship between critic and artist. When an artist is writing criticism – be it Pound or Francis Bacon – it goes without saying an agenda is being served…but it’s an artistic agenda. Of course all communication is about agendas, so you could say this is a banal point. But I think it needs to be underscored even while I also accept that non-artists can write from a place of good will toward the artistic enterprise. Mostly, though, what motivates a writer to become a critic is a covert aggression toward art, a hidden envy that masquerades as erudition and equanimity. Call it love-hate, if you want, but these people are useful to the culture because the culture wants always to shield itself from the transformative effects of art. Change comes hard. Continue reading

Film Criticism

I’ve had some disparate thoughts bouncing around my head as regards film and especially film criticism. Maybe this started as I began to re read chunks of The American Cinema, by Andrew Sarris.

Now this is a book from, I believe, 1968. The latter Sarris came a bit unglued—and seemed to have lost all the rigor and uncompromising aesthetic he once displayed. The most fascinating aspect here is to see whom he champions and whom he dismisses. With the Sarris of this era, however, there is always a reason for his choices, and it pays to delve deeper into his aesthetic arguments before rejecting them.

CABIRIA, directed by Giovanni Pastrone, 1914, Italy.

His categories, the famed “pantheon”, followed by “the far side of paradise”, and then “expressive esoterica”, through to “less than meets the eye”, are full of surprises and unexpected insights. That he would stick Kubrick into “strained seriousness” is at first glance, rather absurd—and yet—lets remember this is the early Kubrick (the last film Sarris examines is 2001) and a perspective from this era is most illuminating.

“…it is more likley that he has chosen to exploit the giddiness of middle brow audiences on the satiric level of Mad Magazine.”

Something suggests to me that this more right than I might have thought. Kubrick “is” middle brow, often, and he does probably announce more than he ever has delivered. Later films such as The Shining tend to deliver less and less on each viewing, while supplying iconic pop images and catch phrases (Here’s Johnny,. etc). Sarris is, in the same section, quite hard on Sidney Lumet,too, and as I re-read it I must say I found myself simply disagreeing.  Thirty some years on, films such as The Hill and The Fugitive Kind look far better than they did in ’68. Lumet’s humorlessness (per Sarris) now seems a decided virtue. His leathery lack of emotional release—(humorless again)—serves his films in the 21st century in a way I doubt any critic could have prophesied.

The “pantheon” is filled with directors almost nobody would argue with: Welles, Ford, Hitchcock, and Lubitsch. But he also adds Max Ophuls, a choice I would agree with, and Renoir, a choice I would not. But two I simply think dont belong, are Flaherty and Griffith. That is perhaps a topic for later—but lets give a quick think on Howard Hawks and Fritz Lang. From the view of 2010, how do these directors hold up? I’ve never entirely ‘got’ Hawks, I have to say. Reading the Sarris again, I found myself aware that I had been, maybe (!) myopic in how I looked at Hawks. There is no single film that one can point to, and call a masterpiece. One might suggest Red River, or even Rio Bravo, or Only Angels Have Wings, or His Girl Friday…but none of them quite stands by itself. Hawks comedies, in fact, require an entire chapter all for themselves. From Bringing up Baby to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the very vocabulary of film comedy was formed under Hawks — and reacted to by everyone from Capra to Lubitsch to Tashlin, and maybe most significantly Leo McCarey. Of course, no doubt Hawks reacted to them as well…or at least to Lubitsch. The point being that Hawks for all his great variety, made only one film, and made it over and over and over.  Red River the same as His Girl Friday? Well, yeah, in a way. For Hawks was always thinking “film”, and his clean headed angular way with actors and with shots never varied. Ive always loved his penultimate film, Red Line 7000, an odd race car melodrama with James Caan. Maybe I love the sheer emptiness of the script, but find something reassuring in that emptiness being served to me through a Hawksian mise en scene. The eye level camera that both brings intimacy, but a kind of odd propriety as well—after decades of use, becomes as classic (and oddly subversive) as Ozu and his seat on the tatami. So, does Hawks belong in rarified air of the all time film masters? Ahead of Sirk and Ray, lets say?  I don’t know. I do think Hawks was among the most consistent creators of a film logic as has ever existed. In that sense he is a lot like Hitchcock. Do I think Ray made a couple films that were maybe better than any of Hawks? Yeah, probably. And Sirk, how to talk about Sirk?  Forty years on, to reflect on Sirk is a all by itself a major undertaking. The issue of Cahier that included the famous article “The Blind Man and The Mirror, or The Impossible Cinema of Douglas Sirk” can be looked at now, still, as the quintessential take on Sirk.

KISS ME DEADLY, directed by Robert Aldrich.

So, Fritz Lang, then. Has the Langian ouevre held up?  I would say yes, and then in a hushed tone, as I turn away, I might say, well, and maybe not. But Lang was making films before they had a word for ‘director’. He ‘is’ film, and his direction is so deeply embedded in our unconscious that its a bit like trying to talk about the Tyndale translation of the Bible…was it really any good or not?  Lang is simply beyond this level of critique.

So why go on this way about rating directors? Continue reading

Winter’s Bone and the Tragic

“Knowledge reveals, names, and consequently classifies. Speech addresses itself to a face.”

For Levinas the face offers an absolute resistance to possession.

Debra Granik’s new film, Winter’s Bone, as was touched upon in an earlier thread, is a film that’s currency is that of the opacity of the face. Shot for two million in digital (with a RED camera) the film delves into language as it existed before it became descriptive. In a realm of pre-rational tribal/Biblical retributions. In a sense, it made me think again of Audiard’s Un Prophet. If Malik crosses into the holy through a prison and violent sacrifices, young Ree Dolly, and especially her crack addict Uncle Teardrop, also cross into realms of existential choice and near religious insight. These choices are carried out in the landscape of rural Appalachia (the far western end in Missouri) whose poverty is so systemic as to be taken for granted. When a neighbor girl answers Ree’s remark about some men cooking up meth, the girl says, ‘they all do, dont really need to even mention it’. The plague of meth is just an extension of poverty. Its the virus sent out from the total hegemony of capitalist exploitation. The Biblical sense of familial responsibility and the insular defended back woods culture, now all but destroyed, are presented without a trace of sentimentality or voyeuristic fetishizing.

Scottsdale meth lab

This is also a film made by a woman. While Teardrop is the actual moral center of the film, the bulk of the narrative is carried by the hard bitten women of this closed world, and by the young 17 year old daughter of a missing (meth dealing) father. Teardrop is the character with the awakening, however fatalistic his final decisions and awareness. We leave Teardrop (in an astonishing performance by John Hawkes) much as we left Malik at the end of Un Prophet. The barely audible utterance of Teardrop at the end, “I know. I know who.” is stunning and chilling and transcends all that came before in a sense. It is coupled to the comment Ree makes, (which Harvey quoted, “I couldn’t live without the weight of the both of you on my back”) shortly after this. This is filmic poetry and it achieves the level of tragedy because of its awareness of the fatalistic nature of life, of its fragility and of how ephemeral are our ties to conventions of family and parenthood and especially to responsibility. It is not, however, the bourgeois notion of responsibility, as trotted out almost compulsively (and daily, if not hourly) in mainstream storytelling and news and advertising. It is much more Old Testament, more Jobian in a sense, and certainly more unforgiving and hard edged. Forgiveness is almost unaffordable, a luxury, and outside this bare landscape. There are verdicts and there is always punishment, and there is often duty (even if forced), but there are no hurt feelings or narcissism here. As winter decends on the countryside, the choices are even more tempered with a controlled desperation—from hunger and the potential, as Ree says, that she and her younger siblings just go to the field and die like dogs. The scene on the lake is chilling, certainly, but is more about the pragmatism of all involved. It is, very much like the final scene of Gary Oldman’s great Nil By Mouth. One must get on with one’s life, with eating and breathing.

What I found most remarkable about this film was the absence of any intellectual slumming. Granik respects these people and even the most crack addled and physically emaciated character is presented as not just human, but divine. We are all god’s children, and all lost in the wilderness.

—John Steppling

Interesting you bring up Levinas here, John. “The face is always naked,” is another quote that comes to mind. And I was thinking about Levinas when I wrote Great Things and Jimmy asks Chimi to look into his face and she tells him it says “do not hurt me.” Not to compare that short play to what Granik has pulled off. Levinas’ devoted himself to redeeming Heidegger and bridging the gap between ontology and ethics, which sounds much more high falutin’ than it is. Stephen Batchelor is always citing Levinas as the Western thinker who comes closest to a Buddhist view of how Self and Other relate to each other. But maybe that’s a different conversation.

Coal Camp, near Grundy, Buchanon Cty., VA 1970.

One of my favorite scenes in Winter’s Bone is when she goes and talks to the Marine Corps recruiter. There’s no condescension anywhere in the performances or in the film making and it truly is a staggering look at how different that Red State mindset can be. Mostly Scots-Irish, the Appalachian people arrived last in the four great waves of immigration from Britain. Studies show their values remain remarkably consistent with those that dominated the war ground that separates England and Scotland. They went to Ireland first and picked up the “Irish” in Scots-Irish. They are the product of centuries of war back and forth from North to South as Britain formed, and their values are in-bred, suspicious of outsiders, clan-like and given to violence. They settled down across the Appalachians and into Kansas and Texas…and then many of them moved to So-Cal and some of them ran for Mayor of Los Angeles and got elected, etc.

The specter of intra-clan violence, the blood-feud, hovers above the story in Winter’s Bone. The compassion the women around Thump show Ree breaches the silence that kept Teardrop at bay. The sense we have at the close is that now the fur will fly and it won’t be pretty. Teardrop will now have to avenge Jessup and the tit-for-tat will start up. Ree’s younger brother might well need those shooting skills down the road. It’s a Biblical world, in a way, yes. These people have managed to hold on to a kind of vitality the world around them has been civilized out of. Consequence surrounds them, comes with the terrain. But while I’m rhapsodizing I can’t stop wishing these people made it a little harder for the minions of the very wealthy to manipulate and control them. Rupert Murdoch, Dick Cheny and Rush Limbaugh have them dancing on a string…though maybe that won’t last.

Ree kept reminding me Addie Bundren in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. I went looking for this quote where she’s described as having a ferocious strength that stays close always to the ground. Pretty remarkable performance and, yeah, a great film.

I want to add that one of the many great things about Hawkes’ performance is how much Teardrop knows. He knows his brother fucked up—he did right year after year and then one day he fucked up. He knows it’s much better he never learn who killed Jessup too, because he knows he’ll be forced to act by big forces in the world that he respects. Hawkes conveys all that and all he has to say is that his brother played banjo so well and we know the primal blood connection has been sealed. This is the thing about violence, blood. The self arises in response to the other and in social connection that artificial boundary begins to go away…compassion becomes possible, a communal presence… But blood seals the reification, making self and other fixed entities in perpetual conflict. This is the nightmare threat that’s never far enough away…

—Guy Zimmerman

Winter’s Bone/Goddess of Being

“I couldn’t live without the weight of the both of you on my back.”

That line, the purest and most poetic I can remember in either film or theater in ages comes from Winter’s Bone and all of you should make sure you see it before it disappears. It is truly great, a work of art, all that shit, beautifully acted and so real and true it’s hard to believe they are actors at all, but it’s the pain of it, the hardship, the honest ways in which human decency comes into play. And, like Wendy and Lucy and Frozen River, it’s a woman director who dared to go into such real places. It is unlike any other American film you’ve ever seen. I read the other day that Fritz Lang once said that when people talk about film, they never talk about dialogue, they only talk about images and Lang suggested that film hadn’t yet found its Shakespeare. Of course images are the poetry of film, and you won’t forget any of the images in this film, but I purposely started this note with a line from the film, because, maybe, in Winter’s Bone, film has found its Shakespeare. The director/co-writer is Debra Granik. Dark, sometimes ugly, its the backwoods, the heartland, it’s where the world has failed its people but its also about the way people survive. And it has in it all the best elements of noir, except its not walking down dark urban streets. It’s in the yards strewn with all the things we’ve thrown away, in the swamps where dead men lie, men who are never found, it’s the country.

—Harvey Perr

I would stop short of calling Winter’s Bone something equivalent to Shakespeare.  Aside from the line you quoted, none of the rest of the dialogue in the film jumps out as poetic.

But it is an excellent portrait of modern rural life in the age where the image of innocent country living has firmly been replaced by a world of meth labs and the walking ghosts that crank turns men into.  It also, somewhat indirectly, illustrates why middle America is so obsessed with the Second Amendment.  Although I don’t recall a shot actually being fired, the presence of guns as a way of life, for protection and survival, is definitely felt, like we’re living in some kind of gunfighter nation.

It’s extremely well made and definitely worth seeing.

On a completely different track, and with a huge dollop of reservation, the Tilda Swinton film I Am Love (Io Sono L’amore) is, if nothing else, unique.  It’s arguably all style and no substance, but definitely worth discussing.

—John Topping

I obviously liked Winter’s Bone more than you did although time will tell how it holds up; it was just such a breath of fresh (or should I say rancid?) air and so strong and centered, I fell under its spell. And everything you said is absolutely right on.

I also agree with what you said about I Am Love.  Special. Unique. Worth seeing. Worth talking about. It’s just that films about the way the rich live—if there is a minimum of ironic detachment or critical objectivity—drive me up the wall. It ain’t The Leopard. It ain’t even Cluny Brown. And certainly not The Rules of the Game.

—Harvey Perr

Films about how the rich live that lack any ironic distance invite the worst kind of projection. Buying into the complete delusion that the wealthy experience any more happiness than the poor. This is one of the things that makes Killer of Sheep so remarkable—the dignity it gives to the economically oppressed. This is why Berlusconi is mostly so insufferable. And it’s one of the things Rosselini gets so right in Voyage to Italy—the wild, inner desperation of those well-heeled characters.

Anyhow, just to concur with Mr. Perr….

—Guy Zimmerman

William Shakespeare, The Sanders Portrait.

K a couple quick thoughts.
The trailers for winter’s bone look very promising. I will see it. Let me clarify a couple things…Shakespearean is not a synonim for poetic. There might be a silent film i would call Shakespearean. It’s about a tragic sense of life, and about a sensibility that carries moral weight.

The loss of a tragic vision has been much discussed…all the way back to the German Romantics. It’s a complex discussion and perhaps i will open a thread on it vis a vis Un Prophet and a couple other potentially neo-tragic films of recent date.

Much as i dislike Harold Bloom, bloated old reactionary, he wrote a pretty decent book on WS…called Invention of the Human. Its worth a look, as are Empson’s essays on Shakes, and Berryman and of course Ted Hughes’ opus—which is a sort of almost Jungian critique of Shakespearean themes and tropes. But one of the basic notions of the Bloom book has to do with man reflecting upon himself out loud and in public (in a theatre, on stage). Dante was antiquity…Shakespeare the cusp of modernity. Note the change of how character is presented.

The potential for Shakespeare in Winters Bone I suspect is high. Only from a pov wedded to poverty and degredation, and a de-romaticized notion of labor, can that moral weight be carried.

One of the virtues of Brokeback Mountain was its examination of working class life in the American West. That was actually what upset Americans…not gay kissing, but honest assesment of alienated labor.

Alienation is worth a discussion as well…since it might be a worthy venture to look at the precursors of the modern alienation as it appears in Shakes.

Ok, thats all….oh, and lets keep in mind the difference between a fan and a critic. Between a film enthusiast and a critic……or a reviewer and critic. Fans simply envoke agreement…and reviewers tend to want to keep contained that which, in real art, is not containable. Critics traffic in that which exceeds itself.

Reviewing will want to push things outside….off the canvas and to keep them in a domesticated sort of definition. A critic wants to seek out what has escaped. Calasso is a great one for that.

Ok, well, more soon.

—John Steppling