Film writers Fariha Roísín and Sara Black McCulloch are covering the New York Film Festival this year as a series of conversations about the festival and its programming. The second dispatch includes Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice, starring Joaquin Phoenix in adaptation of Thomas Pynchon's book of the same title.
Sara: Hello again from NYFF! Today, we have three films slated for discussion. First, we have Gabe Polsky's Red Army, a story about Soviet hockey players so good they beat Canadian hockey teams. But the Soviet team, filled with national heroes, is forced to train and live in a hockey camp eleven months out of the year. The training, although grueling, provides a sense of structure for the men. The more and more these men play hockey, the less it becomes about the sport; hockey becomes a battle between Western and Soviet ideologies. Essentially, Polsky examines how hockey became a vehicle for fighting the Cold War.
And then, we have Inherent Vice—Paul Thomas Anderson's trippy adaptation of the Pynchon novel starring Joaquin Phoenix as Doc, Katherine Waterston as Doc's ex-girlfriend Shasta, and Josh Brolin as police detective Bigfoot Bjornsen.
Finally, we end with Alice Rohrwacher's The Wonders. A beautiful coming-of-age story set in rural Italy about a beekeeping family struggling to keep their business thriving. Alice's sister, Alba Rohrwacher, plays the mother of four daughters, including the appointed head of the house, Gelsomina, played by Maria Alexandra Lungu. We'll be focusing on the unexpected events that drive a wedge between the family members which also ultimately brings them closer together.
Again, as always, there will be spoilers. Let's start this off, Fariha. What did you think about Red Army?
Fariha: NYFF has been quite impressive so far—there are some films that we watched this week that we won't be talking about (Mr. Turner, which I enjoyed for Timothy Spall's grunting and Mike Leigh's beautiful direction, and then Hong Sang-soo's wondrous Hill of Freedom, which was such a pithy delight, and probably one of my favorite films of the year). Okay, let's start off with Red Army because I liked this film a lot. One of the coolest moments of my career was when I walked past Slava Fetisov and I was just in awe—I wanted to hug him, I wanted to high-five him—I was astounded that I was standing next to this political and cultural relic. What's so interesting about the USSR, which I guess rubbed off on me whilst watching the film, is that their athletes were godlike. I'm assuming the lack of theocratic ordinance allowed for their public figures to become these mighty post-humans (see: Stalin and Lenin's legacy) and as I watched this film there was such declarative emotion inside of me because of this phenomena. Even though those giant loopy Olympic scenes and parades are wrought with fear, they are also filled with excitement, too. There's such a totality of existence in these large Communist empires, and as I watched the film I felt overtaken by the energy of the time that was so superbly pastiched together, and contrasted with humor, by Gabe Polsky.
However, of course, the reality is that Slava, along with his teammates, Alexei Kasatonov or Igor Larionov, and the other members of the Red Army, suffered the consequences of a dictatorship, even if they were unwilling to agree to that throughout the film. Though, I hated to see how these Cold War sentiments were acknowledged even in sport, like, if the US won a game—it was indicative of how "their way of life" was better. All of those parts in the movie were so hilarious because of how ludicrous and one-sided they were. When there's that shot of Jimmy Carter saying: "Massive Soviet military forces have invaded the small, nonaligned, sovereign nation of Afghanistan...attempting to conquer the fiercely independent Muslim people of that country." I actually LOL'd quite loudly. I could not believe the sheer audacity—given the political situation of United States with respect to"independent Muslim people" around the world, it really is audacious to see it succinctly juxtaposed with reality, and the relative transparency we have now, on screen. The bigotry is a lot more obvious because it's so stark. This is not to paint the governance of the USSR or Russia as better; I think Viktor Tikhonov (the ruthless Red Army coach) was really emblematic of an all-encompassing brutality as a way of life.
Sara: Hockey became a form of propaganda, essentially. And the bodies of these men were trained and treated like they were machines. One of the players even confessed that "some men were pissing blood." The hardest thing about a film like this is really capturing how the beauty of this game, and I'm not just saying that as a Canadian. These men really influenced how it was played and how much more strategic and calculating they were. And, although Slava was reluctantly the captain, the five men that comprised the Russian Five—Slava, Vladimir Krutov, Sergei Makarov, Igor Larionov, and Alexei Kasatonov—were such a unit they could each read and predict the other's next move. I mean, the way they played—the puck never went to one person, everyone touched it before a goal. They all assisted each other on the ice as this unit. The first time they play in North America, you hear the sports commentators marvelling (or, at times, criticizing) their game plan, and those comments, in turn, become a criticism of individualism versus communism.
As much as hockey became the setting for Cold War battles, if you will. Polsky also makes this larger argument towards the end of the film about how a lot of the Russian players currently drafted into US teams are still selling something today. They're celebrities, too, but not the same way. They're still being drafted because of this longstanding history of excellence. But there's this scene with a new up-and-coming Russian hockey player on a tv show. The hosts want to see how many Russian dolls filled with "Russian dressing" this hockey player could hit. It becomes a farce even though he successfully hits every target with the puck. His skills become some sort of joke. So with Slava and his team members, they were national heroes, but they were—and still are today—these historical artifacts. They are cards that are traded. They are men who are revered. They are adorned with medals. But first they were boys raised in hockey camps and shaped by all the ideology. I mean even the archival footage of their training and practices are propaganda videos. They're constantly told that they're going to become great hockey players and great men.
But yes, it's really tough watching Slava condemn his coaches but then say that hockey and his country are both losing direction and have no values. You watch him watching a game—that USA vs. Russia match in 1980 that you mentioned—and something lights up in him and when they start to lose, that light goes out and he bends his head back in shame. He laughs it off, facepalming, but you can see this rush of something—memories...the repercussions—that are just coming back to him.
Fariha: I felt that constant tension in Slava because inevitably there was a clash of values. He's critical of his experience, to an extent, and thus striving for a better Russia. He wants to make an impact, and he believes he can achieve that through teamwork, which is also anti-Americanism in a sense—it's not a personalized American Dream-type scenario—but more a large-scale societal fantasy, which is communism at its ethos. When Slava gets scouted by the NHL you see his distaste for American sport culture, and so the diligence of his training, which was so horrifying towards the end of his career at the Red Army, is conflicted. Tikhonov was a demanding monster of a coach, yet he created these incredible sportsmen who were undeniably the best for a very long time. Watching their grace was an art; their precision and craftsmanship was magical. So there's this underlying questioning of well—how far can you push someone? All in all, it was such a great film. It was so funny, exciting, thrilling, and emotional—and despite Slava's intolerant masculinity at times—he was so insanely charismatic, even in the flesh. I mean, I feel like a Slava fangirl right now.
Okay, and now for the main programming of tonight—Inherent Vice. I'm not a huge Pynchon fan, I like his work, though this book, and others, weren't as revelatory for me as they have been for others. Having said that, Pynchon is funny, and I loved how PTA really scoured and presented the best in that novel, capturing all the fluidity, and producing it into this resolute cinematic gem. I kind of loved everything about this film. Truly, from the second Doc follows Shasta outside, and "Vitamin C" by Can comes on and the neon green embellishment of Inherent Vice frames the screen, I knew this movie would be a ride, and it was.
Firstly, Joaquin. The dude is legit a brilliant actor. It's so sad that the rhetoric surrounding his films are often about how entropic he is IRL. But I can't imagine how boring press junkets get when you've been in showbiz your whole life. The reality stands: He's one of the best actors out there. What a juxtaposition Phoenix's Doc is to Freddie Quell in The Master. Superbly enigmatic, everything about him—from his face, to his twitches, and screams (the shot when he looks at the picture of the baby is hilarious) were so Doc, all the time. That's commitment—to the character, but also to comedy. Doc's characterization is this slapstick gangly being against the bleak darkness and grime of underground LA, but also against the farce of the LAPD.
Not-so-surprisingly, a lot of people have also been comparing this to The Master and There Will Be Blood, but cinematically, and thematically, Inherent Vice is on a completely different trajectory. I think it's unfair to hold all PTA's films to the same standard. Everything in a filmmaker's oeuvre will not be the same, nor should it be. Michael Haneke's Code Unknown is a 180-degree turn compared to Caché, and yet they are both equally captivating as two different films. There should always be an insistence to judge the work for what it is, and the work here is phenomenal. He really is an astounding filmmaker and I think this film was harking back to Magnolia, with the mixture of comedy and sadness, but all-in-all it is an incomprehensibly different animal. I appreciate good storytelling, and this is why I think we look to someone like PTA, with only seven films under his belt, as a force. He's able to eliminate the straggling parts of a story and turn it into this exciting and mercurial experience. What'd you think of it, Sara?
Sara: Joaquin just fully embodies every role, and you always forget you're watching Joaquin. This film has been getting so many comparisons to The Big Lebowski, and while there are some similar themes/elements—the nostalgia, the stoner whodunnit, the dark comedy, the dream/flashback sequences—the films are so different. This one starts off with a typical private eye trope: a beautiful woman walks into the P.I.'s office, asking for help. But this opening scene, if anything, is so indicative of how faithful PTA is to Pynchon's words: We have a narrator setting the scene, setting up the characters and their history. The thing is, this P.I. is a stoner. The woman is his ex-girlfriend, and he's still in love with her. And instead of the P.I. narrating the story, we have a woman, Joanna Newsom, as Sortilège—the narrator.
I wanted to get into this more, because I found it so interesting that PTA chose to frame this story—a story about men—"dirty hippies" vs. the LAPD and squares—with the voice of a woman, too. We also have Petunia Leeway (played by Maya Rudolph), who works in Doc's office and gives him advice. So we have these female leads who play important roles in framing the story for us. What did you think about this, Fariha?
Fariha: I don't think that was necessarily a political choice for him, more a decision that Pynchon enabled. However, of course, I responded to it because the grittiness of the story itself is undercut with this softness of Newsom's narration, which I think is also another reason why it was so enjoyable. Whenever there's a fusion of light and dark, the story always, inevitably, has more impact—it's also more symbolic of real life, which is remarkably bittersweet. Newson also has this ostensible naivety that she brings, so it added to the general incongruence of the film's lead and humor against this dark LA underbelly.
I loved this film so much. I can't wait to see it again.
Sara: I'm just so happy he didn't cut her out. This film just felt like an experience. Let's move on to The Wonders, shall we? This is supposed to be more of a coming-of-age film, but there was a lot more going on, in terms of sister-sister and father-daughter relationships. What did you think about Gelsomina as head of the household, Fariha?
Fariha: Gelsomina is a queen. This is what a coming-of-age story should be about. We have two now—Girlhood and The Wonders—that succinctly display the complexities of sexuality and responsibility of a young woman in that specific time in her life when she's figuring it all out, and really has no answers. There's this sensitivity to Gelsomina; she is so adolescently erratic. And as the eldest you see her maturity, but also her desire for irreverence, that I could really relate to. Lungu characterizes her so well because in the space of two and half hours, we see the entirety of her being, and the devastation that comes with being a woman of your own design. I think Rohrwacher really portrayed that so beautifully, everything was so subtle and fragile, the shots were candid and delicate, and cinematically the film was just so beautiful.
I also loved how so much of Gelsomina's maturity hinged on her father's expectations of her. My father is my hero, and I felt that really resonated with me watching Gelsomina frantically always wanting his approval, yet, failing him ultimately, because there's this sadistic element of him wanting/treating her like a boy, you know? That's why he seems so happy when Martin (Luis Huilca Logrono), a German delinquent comes to live with them, Wolfgang (the father, Sam Louwyck) plays him against her, as if to insinuate that she's not enough. This is a powerplay that I find parents often have with their kids—the comparative angle—as if to demand more love, and ultimately more devotion. I really liked that end shot with them in the bed, out in the front yard, where she's come back from an adventure and there's this extended longshot of the whole family on the bed. If you look closely at Gelsomina she has locked eyes with her father, whilst the rest of the family talks to eachother in the backdrop. You know that there's this understanding, that Wolfgang is beginning to comprehend Gelsomina as her own entity, or at least trying, and there is something so gratifying about that.
Sara: Her identity hinges on how her father evaluates her performance—and a lot of times, this involves how many times he includes her in more dangerous and important things, like collecting bees in the wild to bring back to the farm. As much as she devotes herself to her role within the family unit and farm, she's also trying to separate herself from it. I think the larger metaphor—and Rohrwacher did this subtly—is the idea that within a beehive, every single bee has a predetermined job and is a part of this larger, functioning unit—they can't really stray. Gelsomina is part of a unit too, and any fuck-up, like honey overflowing from a bucket, is a disaster that threatens the stability of the business, the family's survival, and her performance. There is no time to waste and the product that is so difficult to extract cannot be wasted. This leaves little time for her to reflect on herself and her own sexuality.
I also noticed how, when family members take a break—when they leave room to improvise—some beautiful, dream-like scenes take place. I'm thinking about the first time the children are playing in the sea and they encounter this crew filming an ad for a contest. Monica Bellucci is dressed all in white and she looks so ethereal—the only thing that makes this real is that she gives Gelsomina this little silver hair clip and Gelsomina cherishes it. Gelsomina wants to move forward and yet her father upholds all these old traditions. He keeps promising to buy her a camel and she keeps reminding him that she isn't a kid anymore and she no longer likes camels. It's this struggle between the past, present and future and every time Gelsomina wants to move forward, her father interprets this as a betrayal.
There was also this scene I was so obsessed with, and still am. When Gelsomina and Wolfgang discover that the bees they collected died from poisoning, there was still something so vibrant going on there: the bright blue crates holding the bees contrast to starkly with the mass of dark, lifeless bees (you can barely see the yellow in them). And yet, it's somehow invigorating—less claustrophobic, even. Bees are threatening and dangerous because you can't control them. You can collect them and store them in the hives, but the minute they aren't contained, they're much more threatening. There's also that scene where Gelsomina has to scoop up that overflowed honey—it's so dark on the floor and the minute it touches her hands, it takes on a more golden hue.
Fariha: Rohrwacher is a deeply thoughtful filmmaker. The parallels between the bees and the family, that ultimately humans can't control each other, was definitely the underlying message. Wolfgang ultimately needs to surrender to Gelsomina's desire to be her own person, it's a powerful message done in a very cinematic, yet profoundly intimate, way. Rohrwacher concludes that the mysteriousness of life exists in small mistakes, that despite the spontaneous combustion of life's foibles that evokes chaos, there is a deep satiated serenity in that existence that is close to magic. I am not at all surprised that this film won the Grand Prix at Cannes.
All three of these films are worth your views. Watch them. Until our next dispatch!
[Image via Getty]