Frank Episale is an editor, writer, educator, and theatre artist living and working in Brooklyn. He holds a BFA from New York University, an MA from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, and an MPhil from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. This is his (infrequently updated) blog. He's pretty google-able, if you'd like to know more.

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Wednesday
May212014

In the Family (52 films in 52 weeks, #12)

When actor-writer-director-producer Patrick Wang's In the Family started making quiet waves in late 2011, many of those who wrote about the film compared its long, still takes to work by Edward Yang, Hou Hsiao-hsien, and Tsai Ming-liang. There may have been a little of something akin to racism at play here (Wang's parents were born in Taiwan, so naturally Wang must have been influenced by the Taiwanese New Wave, despite having been born and raised in Texas). Mostly, though, the comparison is just the inevitable result of the film festival–born notion of a "slow cinema" aesthetic that has become the only way anyone knows how to talk about long shots and stationary cameras.

In interviews, though, Wang revealed that he wasn't all that familiar with the work of those to whom he was being compared. Instead, he said, his cinematic heroes were all "people of the theatre [. . . ] Tony Richardson, John Cassavetes, Orson Welles, Ingmar Bergman.” Indeed, bearing in mind Wang's theatre background is the key to understanding his aesthetic. Many associate words like "stagy" and "theatrical" with playing to the balcony, with broad acting and stilted dialogue. There is none of that kind of thing in this film, which is grounded in an understated, observational realism that has drawn both praise and criticism. Instead,  In the Family is theatrical in that locations are often treated as static frames. The movement of actors through space shifts the composition of each shot over time, new pictures being created as the relationships and power dynamics between characters evolve. This is a movie by someone suspicious of close-ups and fast cuts, someone who believes actors do their best work when they have room to move and time to breathe. 

This kind of approach has its limitations, of course, and it may be that Wang's roots in theatre occasionally lead him astray. Paul Brunick, in an otherwise rave review in the New York Times notes that the director "betrays his theatrical background with a slightly plodding tendency to begin and end scenes with arrivals or departures." I'll also admit that I am not as enamored of Wang's accent work as others seem to be. In general, though, it is the adapted conventions of theatrical realism that make In the Family so remarkably assured and affecting for a first feature. Exposition is doled out sparingly, over time, with some crucial information being witheld until an extraordinary set-piece of a monologue late in the film. Characters are neither judged nor explained, but are instead allowed to reveal themselves over the course of the film. As one audience member described it after a screening, “Some movies make you think, this one lets you think.”

Some, no doubt, will find this all quite boring. They will want more fireworks, more melodrama, a clearer moral to the story, and a faster pace. Certainly the film has its detractors. Even as he jokes about some of the negative responses from audiences and critics, though, Wang seems to feel validated by the warm reception he's received from others. "Audiences can be patient, you just gotta give them the reason to be and give them the opportunity to be."

[This was written as a contribution to a Facebook page called 52 Movies in 52 Weeks, the goal of which is to see and, time allowing, write about 52 films you haven't seen before. I have cross-posted this entry on that page.] 

Thursday
May082014

"Oy": Excerpts from student papers (1)

I was looking through old e-mails and files and stumbled across the following opening paragraph from a former student's essay. I didn't post it publicly at the time, but sent it to a few friends in an e-mail titled "Oy."

This was years ago, and I don't even remember who wrote it now (I could probably track that information down, but I won't), so I feel comfortable posting it here.

__

"The Tempest" is a great play that was written by Shakespeare, it is one of those very confusing and unclear plays that you will now get unless you commit some time reading the play. As confusing the play itself actors that were cast in it made it even more unclear and confusing. I don't know what Mary B. Robinson was thinking when main hero was played by white women named Prospero and his/her daughter black.

 

Friday
May022014

Ender's Game (52 Films in 52 Weeks, #11)

Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game (1985) is a problematic novel of flawed ideas that manages to remain compelling for a couple of reasons. First, the ideas are embedded in a story that can be interpreted in a number of ways, allowing a great many readers who would likely disagree with each other's politics to find validation in the novel. Second the young characters, while somewhat flatly written, are given enough time to grow on us, to develop, to face challenges and change in response to them, to learn things about themselves and each other. The combination of coming-of-age with hard-ish science fiction can be a compelling one when it works, or almost works.

Gavin Hood's 2013 film adaptation, in streamlining the narrative and trying to make a high-concept actionfest of the material, exposes some of the book's flaws while eliminating much of what has made it a favorite of science fiction fans for the past thirty years. Plot points are revealed too quickly, too little time is spent on world building, and the timeline of events and encounters is compressed to the point that character developments and decisions seem almost arbitrary. Ender's triumphs are not earned, because we don't see the struggles and dilemmas that lead to his realizations. We don't buy into his transformation into a leader, because we aren't allowed to witness him transforming at all.

Making things worse, Hood tries to keep the pace tight by relying on extremely short takes of the actors during their already too-brief scenes of dialogue. The mostly young cast, mostly with limited experience, don't have tme to find their way into their roles, and clearly weren't given the kind of directorial support they would have needed to deliver convincing performances. This is a little surprising, given that Hood began his career as an actor and should presumably know a little about what an actor needs to shine.

In an age of movies that are far too long, Ender's Game is too short to make sense of its own plot and themes. And in an age dominated by complex characters and virtuosic performances, Ender's Game fails to allow its actors the room to breathe. The result has some cool moments, but mostly feels shallow and forced.

 

[This was written as a contribution to a Facebook page called 52 Movies in 52 Weeks, the goal of which is to see and, time allowing, write about 52 films you haven't seen before. I have cross-posted this entry on that page.]  

 

Thursday
Apr242014

Ice Poison (52 Films in 52 Weeks, #10)

I think what I admire most about Ice Poisona deeply sad film about labor, poverty, death, and desperation—is that it was not made for my edification. I can follow the basic story, of course, and identify many of the social issues at play, but director/writer Midi Z. has no interest in explaining the cultural, political, historical, and geographical nuances that make his characters and his story feel so tangible, so subtle, and so real. His trademark long takes from static cameras make it clear that the audience is being asked to witness, not necessarily to understand, and that he is more interested in documenting his characters than in educating his film festival–going audience. A film that tried to explicate all the factors that make up life, love, and business for characters who live in the liminal spaces of the working poor in Burma, China, Taiwan, and Malaysia would be doomed to failure whatever its intentions. Midi Z. refuses to judge his characters, even when they make what seem to be the worst possible decisions, and he refuses to allow his audience to believe that we can see the bigger picture, that we know something the characters don't. A call to action would be reductive and insulting. Midi Z. doesn't want "us" to fix, or even to understand, the situation he's placing before us; he does, though, think we should have to, or at least have the opportunity to, confront it, take it in, and deal with it on whatever terms we can or will. 

[This was written as a contribution to a Facebook page called 52 Movies in 52 Weeks, the goal of which is to see and, time allowing, write about 52 films you haven't seen before. I have cross-posted this entry on that page.]  

Tuesday
Apr222014

CARNAGE (52 films in 52 weeks, #9)

After finding Roman Polanski's Carnage (2011) to be surprisingly bad, I took to social media to find out what had gone wrong. Was the source material, Yasmina Reza's 2006 play God of Carnagethe English-language version of which was warmly received in London (2008) and then on Broadway (2009)really that overrated? Or was the adaptation to blame? My online coterie of theatre-snob friends and colleagues generally agreed that the answer is "both": it's an overrated play, adapted badly for the screen.

In any event, this was pretty disappointing for me. I'd enjoyed the trailer well enough when I saw it, and I expected the pedigree cast (Kate Winslet, Jodie Foster, Christoph Waltz, John C. Reilly), pedigree director, and pedigree playwright to at least be able to pull off a satisfying middlebrow entertainment. True, I've never been a huge fan of Reza (I don't understand all the fuss about Art, and I didn't care for Spain when I saw it at Classic Stage Company a few years back), but I've never thought her actually incompetent. And this play won the Olivier for Best New Comedy, so there must be something to it, right? Besides, the film, like the Broadway production, is set in my neighborhood in Brooklyn. I know these characters, and should be able to take some knowing pleasure in their onscreen skewering, yeah?

As it turns out, though, the setting is part of the problem. God of Carnage is a "glocal" play in that little details of the text are altered each time it receives a major production. Change the name of a park here and a flower shop there and you have a super specific local play, or at least one that feels local. With those details in place, the rest will play just fine (or so the theory goes). After all, this is a play that mocks the self-absorption and vanity of the upper middle class, pulling back the veneer of civilization and compassion and sophistication and revealing the frightened, petty, mean-spirited children lurking just below the surface. The shallowness and hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie, this strategy suggests, is universal enough to feel "specific" as long as some lip service is paid to local details. 

Just as 7/11 selling different snacks in different cities doesn't make it feel like a mom & pop store, though, Carnage's Brooklyn-specific glocal touches don't really make it feel more grounded in a specific setting. The movie's inciting incident takes place in a park I frequent. The dialogue mentions a flower shop I walk by on a regular basis. Still, it somehow feels like the action is occurring nowhere in particular.

Is this because of Christoph Waltz's somewhat baffling non-accent? Is it because the film itself was shot in Paris (Polanski being unable to enter the United States)? These and other issues probably contributed, but it's the script (and the play it's adapted from) that seem to be the real culprit. Reza sets out to "unmask" and "reveal" her characters and, to be fair, some critics bought it. Philip French writes that:

Carnage belongs in a dramatic tradition of exposure, misogyny and painful-truth telling that descends from Strindberg through O'Neill to Osborne and Albee. It also fits neatly into Polanski's oeuvre as he approaches his 79th year. 

I agree with French that Carnage wants to be understood in this context and wants to be a part of this lineage, but here the intended "painful-truth telling" feels more like sneering hypocrisy. Reza and Polanski seem to feel separate from, and superior to, these characters, and this distance contributes to the sense of ungrounded generality that infuses the entire venture. Carnage never turns its ire on itself. We are invited to judge our neighbors, but not forced to confront that we share the same fears and failings. If you're going to attack the bourgeoise from within, you have to first acknowledge that you are part of them, as Reza and Polanski surely are. That kind of self-awareness might have enabled the specificity and bite that are missing here, and mitigated the smugness and emptiness that, in the end, make this film feel more like a parody of itself than incisive social commentary.

[This was written as a contribution to a Facebook page called 52 Movies in 52 Weeks, the goal of which is to see and, time allowing, write about 52 films you haven't seen before. I have cross-posted this entry on that page.]