Tag Archives: Winter’s Bone

More Notes on Genre and the Virus of Sentimentality




It is an ongoing topic, the virus of sentimentality and how it intersects with narrative in today’s cultural output.

Ben Affleck’s directorial debut of a couple years back was Gone Baby Gone, and it came as something of a shock in the sense that it was so good.  Based on the overrated Dennis Lehane  novel of the same name, Gone Baby Gone was a hard- edged piece of Boston noir and featured terrific performances from Ed Harris and Amy Ryan.  It was pure genre, in the sense that the architecture of plot was never upended and the conventions of such pulp storytelling were closely adhered to. Still, by casting Casey Affleck, an off-kilter sort of actor, and asking him to play against type (a topic to which I will return below) the film had a resonance and the sentimental tropes were forgiven because one felt they were oddly kept (purposely) in the background.  It also featured a very taught and smart script.

Affleck’s new film The Town, is also based on a pulp novel and also set in Boston. Why is it so inferior? First, instead of Casey, we have Ben.  Affleck as an actor has always seemed a tad slow-witted (which is why he was so funny in Shakespeare in Love) and a bit stilted.  But his performance is hardly a problem. The real problem is in the rest of the casting, which reads like a who’s who of industry heat at the moment (Jon Hamm, Blake Lively, Rebecca Hall and Jeremy Renner). These are all “good” actors (well, not Lively) but to somehow stuff them all into what is designed as a modest noir crime film somehow tosses the whole thing out of balance. Lively may be terrible, but she is actually the least culpable of destroying this film.  She (or “Gossip Girl”) is simply doing what any agent would suggest to her….stretch and find something a bit more challenging.  So, voila, she plays an oxycontin /coke whore hoody chick…and shows cleavage and too much make-up and a decent enough Boston accent. She is bad, but not awful.  Still, one wonders if she can really transfer to the big screen. There is something too flat in her eyes, too blank – and she may end up the female Don Johnson of this era. In any event, Hamm is fine….though he isn’t asked to do much. In “Mad Men” his withholding of emotion and that sense of smarts buried beneath the surface is quite compelling and he has a certain grace and a huge dose of masculine gravitas. Here he plays the FBI guy chasing Affleck. Whatever. He is okay.

Renner (who was the ONLY thing I at all liked about Hurt Locker) is rather astonishingly good. He has a wired pent-up edge and a certain vertigo in all his movements that make us want to watch him more each time he appears.  He also is one of those actors blessed with preternatural timing. He is a bit like Cagney crossed with Joe Pesci.  But then we come to the deal breaker in terms of casting; Rebecca Hall. The RADA brit (now gal pal to Sam Mendes) simply has that snarky look buried behind those big moist eyes.  Whenever she and Affleck had a scene I felt like warning too dumb Ben, man, don’t trust this bitch. I don’t know if she can shed that quality, but her prettiness is mixed with an over-ripe squishy quality, and combined with this very mannered acting, the result is unsettling.  The performance is “good”; in the sense Meryl Streep is always good. But its not even for a nano second surprising.  Her face is always a made face. Her performance is never spontaneous and her sense of “common” is condescending.

The best few moments in the entire film belong to Chris Cooper as Affleck’s bank robber dad, now doing time in Walpole. It’s simply spellbinding.

Throughout the film, I kept thinking of any number of other films that questioned how genre works.  No Country for Old Men, Animal Kindgom, or even some of those post Vietnam noirs like Cutter’s Way or Who’ll Stop the Rain. And these reflections on genre led me to think on the way sentimentality creeps into almost all Hollywood studio films.

A film like Animal Kingdom (or A Prophet) could be categorized as genre, but really, they aren’t at all, by virtue of simply up-ending all the conventions.  No Country fails because, finally, Cormac McCarthy probably cant be translated to the screen, and what the Coen Bros. end up with is art house genre. Meaning, I think, just a dash too much pretentiousness.


Lee Marvin, Angie Dickenson and Caroll O'Conner in John Boorman's Point Blank


Films such as Bellman and True, the much neglected British bank robbery film, remain pure genre….but of a highly elevated kind. Same could be said for Point Blank, the Boorman classic from the 70s with Lee Marvin. These are both films, that in different ways, work consciously with the conventions of “crime” stories and emerge as almost fable-like achievements.  It is worth pondering exactly how this happens. In Point Blank, the surface fetishism of the culture are so finely rendered that one begins to feel that marinated-in  quality that often is felt in daily life if stuck in dense traffic on Beverly Blvd or the 605 freeway.  Also, Lee Marvin by that point in his career was iconic and allowed himself to move through the proceedings less as an actor than as pure presence.  There is a political backdrop to Point Blank (and certainly more overtly in a film like Cutter’s Way) that has to do with the atomized alienation of the populace. In The Town there is, instead, a liberal sort of slumming that creeps into both the script, the performances (some of them) and in the mise en scene. Affleck simply isn’t an intuitive director. He is workmanlike, and it begs the question who the actual auteur of Gone Baby Gone really was.
A Fritz Lang, or a Billy Wilder, are always aware, acutely, of the authority structure. They distrust it and they fear it. Affleck one would suspect never even thinks about such things. In Animal Kingdom, there is never any doubt about the various ways the society exploits and chews up people – on both sides of the criminal fence. The Coen brothers are a bit like Affleck, in the sense that they distance themselves from these realities, and if asked (even by themselves) to render such realities, they do it without resorting to real sweat and blood and tears.  It’s that faux classicism that masks a deeply bourgeois mind set.
In Gone Baby Gone, the performance of Casey Affleck offsets such shortcomings. He establishes himself from the start as against not just the other characters, but against the director as well. He is the lightning rod that helps us position ourselves in terms of  tweezing apart what matters in this confused moral landscape. This moral complexity, however, is mostly of Casey Affleck’s making, rather than director Ben.  In The Town, the moral landscape is absent. It’s not another apologia for the police state, it’s simply that those questions are kept out of the film. And again, part of this is casting. The film turns sentimental not through plot so much as through rendering a reductive universe in which the real history of Boston’s working class neighborhoods is seen as if on display in  a Disney Theme park. IF the world that is given us is one dimensional – in social terms at least – sentimentalizing will occur because ANY emotion will be disproportionate.
The universe of Bellman and True or Point Blank is one of pure irrationality, and everyone is a victim of it.  There is no room for the sentimental. Same in Winter’s Bone, the narrative is tied so closely to the social reality of the specific region, that even the characters resonate with the shared pain of their collective history.
It is as if in The Town, the ensemble cast is caught up in a rip tide created by the marketing arm of the studio – of maybe of all studios – and only Cooper (and to smaller degree Renner) manage to step away from the undertow and look at the proceedings as we, the audience, do.  The role of actor in today’s film is being re-drawn somehow.  It may relate to a surveillance society in which everyone is always caught in the gaze of the camera, or perhaps its simply a reality TV conditioned psychology at work, where the effects I describe are as much my fault as the actors.  It’s likely that both these forces, and others, are at work in this.  This brings us to the notion of “character” in film and theater today. This is a huge topic that would of necessity lead us back to Dante and Shakespeare, if not Sophocles and Homer.  Film has always trafficked in various short hands and codes. In films such as The Town, we find ourselves running smack up against the outer walls that contain what is left of the notion of traditional definitions of character. Its not the simplistic short hand of cartoons like The Blind Side (or any other of fifty films in the last three years) but of something more elusive.  Jon Hamm’s FBI agent walks through the film as if on loan from his TV show….and so he is. It’s not a cliché role, so much as a non-role. It’s barely a mannequin that we see up there on the screen. It’s only the most fragile of signifiers at work, in context, that gives us any idea about what this “character” is supposed to be doing. These signifiers have been learned through decades, now, of TV (and film).  We know when this happens, then this will follow. This is what this “character” must do – for he IS this sort of character.
One wonders if such reactions on the part of an audience translate further into our social selves. I suspect they do.  An era of reductive texting passing as communication and of constant recording of “reality” by various kinds of cameras, means just the sheer rapidity of these images and sounds have given us, even if we don’t want them, an endless semi-conscious loop that plays 24 hours a day.  We dream in signifiers now, I’m guessing.
In any event, The Town fails horribly to capture any sense of the fatalistic – in the way a Cutter’s Way or Who’ll Stop The Rain (or even a Nightmoves does, or certainly an Out of the Past) manage. That fatalistic dimension, what directors like Lang and Siodmak and Wilder and even Ford used as daily currency for the narrative they spun is now all but impossible to put on the screen. With films like Animal Kingdom we come close, and also in Winter’s Bone, but it’s a diluted version. Those films compensate in other ways; but the pure existential dread of directors like Boetticher or Tourneur or Lang or even  Aldrich seems gone.
Watch Point Blank again, and watch Marvin walk purposefully down the empty corridor, and hear those wingtips echo off the floor….. and think if such a scene is any longer possible.

John Steppling
Yucca Valley


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