Credit: NYFF
by InRO Staff Featured Festival Coverage Film

NYFF 2020 — Dispatch 5: Time, I Carry You With Me, Slow Machine

October 6, 2020


From the western to the road movie, the legacy of the climactic homecoming looms large in American cinema, which is everywhere peopled by vagrants and drifters grappling with the belief that, as The Searchers’ elderly Mrs. Jorgensen puts it, “some day this country’s going to be a fine good place to be.” Though it doesn’t conform to either genre template, Garrett Bradley’s Time nonetheless offers a few key glimpses of itinerant iconography — a pre-robbery drive, a backwoods road, a recurring rush of pavement — and also culminates in a stirring familial reunion two decades in the making. Perhaps even more crucially, though, it’s a reminder that, especially for Black American families, that long-awaited “some day” has yet to arrive.

In Bradley’s film, for which she won the directing award in this year’s Sundance U.S. Documentary Competition, it is the Richardson family that holds the screen, seen in both contemporary footage and a trove of personal, mini-DV home videos. The latter were largely shot by Sibil Fox Richardson (also known as Fox Rich) over the course of nearly two decades, while she raised her six sons in the absence of their father Robert, who was serving a 60-year-sentence in the Louisiana State Penitentiary for armed bank robbery. For her own role in the crime, Fox served three-and-a-half years away from her family. Following her release, she spent the next 20 or so fighting to make it whole again.

In recent years, the injustices of the U.S. prison-industrial complex have been put to screen in such high-profile titles as Ava Duvernay’s documentary The 13th (2016) and Barry Jenkins’ James Baldwin adaptation If Beale Street Could Talk (2018). In its approach to the subject, Bradley’s film can roughly be situated between the two: it doesn’t fully operate as either institutional exposé or intimate family portrait, but instead fluidly, freely mixes elements from each. Eschewing the procedural emphasis on legal bureaucracy one might expect, the film focuses mainly on Fox, who quickly proves to be a natural, charismatic camera subject. In her dealings with court clerks and auto-sales clients, we see her tight-lipped smile and practiced politesse, not to mention the myriad other ways that she controls how she presents herself — for in a country that has taken so much from her, she understands the necessity of such vigilance. Of course, understanding is not at all the same as unthinking acceptance, and when she gets off a phone call after being stonewalled by a judge’s secretary for the umpteenth time, her rapid shift from controlled courteousness to frightening fury is something to behold.

In scenes such as this, Bradley capitalizes on the rhetorical skills and public presence Fox has cultivated over decades, which are most clearly displayed during speaking engagements tied to her book The One That Got Away, where she discusses her personal life and the broader injustices of the carceral system. (A scene that shows her son holding his own in a university debate likewise points up to the importance Fox no doubt places on oratorical skill.) But the director is also canny about her use of Fox’s home video footage, where she and her children often address the absent Robert explicitly, and which is frequently startling in its intimacy and directness. This, in contrast to the footage being shot by Bradley and her collaborators — for instance, a routine phone call to the State penitentiary — where one gets a sense of Fox’s guard going up, and her full awareness of the camera’s presence.

In the handling of such personal family material, this attention to questions of documentary observation and performance — the director’s constant awareness of her subject as camera-subject — is no small thing. But Bradley’s treatment of anything beyond Fox’s immediate presence — e.g. the details of her husband’s case, her broader activism, and how both of these fit into her current family situation — leaves something more to be desired. In both structure (non-chronological) and imagery (fleeting flashes of sky, cloud, and forest), the documentary favors strategies that might be termed “impressionistic” — fair enough for a film about the slipperiness of time and the difficulties of inhabiting the present when one is constantly looking to a long-awaited day. But Bradley’s overall approach comes with an unfortunate tendency to “universalize” the Richardson family’s struggles, pushing personal experience into vague generality, and blurring, rather than sharpening the contours of their situation. Faced with Time’s climactic homecoming, it is nigh-impossible to remain dry-eyed, but given the subject at hand, is not emotional force the least one should expect? For all of the film’s close-quarters scenes with the Richardson family, one leaves it with a sense that intimacy is no substitute for specificity, and the conviction that being truly present requires more than just being there. Lawrence Garcia

I Carry You With Me

I Carry You With Me, the debut narrative feature from renowned documentary filmmaker Heidi Ewing (The Boys of Baraka, Jesus Camp) is a well-intentioned misfire, the type of film that could only come from a place of love and respect. In attempting to tell the decades-spanning, true-life love story between two of her closest friends, Ewing seems to opt for cliché over authenticity, which is odd considering both the filmmaker’s background and her decision to integrate real-life footage of the couple into the narrative itself. One would have to be a heartless monster not to feel some sort of empathy for the central couple, Iván and Gerardo, and the trials and tribulations they endure as a result of their sexuality and desire for a better life. The problem is that Ewing presents their story in the most banal way possible, rushing through each major life event to the point that the viewer simply finds it impossible to emotionally invest in the proceedings. The grand love story that is supposed to be the film’s beating heart amounts to only a handful of scenes that feel like discards from Andrew Haigh’s far superior Weekend. It doesn’t help that Armando Espitia and Christian Vázquez, the two actors playing Iván and Gerardo as their younger selves, exhibit nothing in the way of chemistry, or that their troubled pasts, as presented here, are boiled down to Daddy Issues. Such simplifying does a great disservice to the real-life men for whom this film purports to be a love letter, as does presenting their attempts at illegally crossing the border into America as action movie chase scenes — all helicopter spotlights, secret tunnels, and narrow escapes. That Ewing admits to manipulating certain facts for dramatic purposes is troubling, to say the least, in that she opts for cliché in every single instance. 

Once the story finally catches up to the near-present, Ewing decides to go full documentary, which is problematic for a number of reasons, the biggest being that the sudden introduction of authenticity clashes with the Hollywood bullshit we’ve been spoon-fed for the past 80 minutes. One could argue that, by cutting to the actual participants, Ewing is putting a real-life face to the countless stories of discrimination and hate that have flooded news channels over the past few decades, the types of tales that filmmakers are keen to make into Oscar-bait bullshit that trivialize its actual participants — you know, like the first two-thirds of this film. Ewing wants to have her cake and eat it, too, but all she succeeds in doing is, ironically, completely disconnecting the viewer from the story at hand. Since so little time is spent with the two real-life men in their later years — 20 minutes, max — it feels as though we are encountering strangers. If she’d opted for actors instead, the effect would be the same, so what we have here is a gimmick, which feels especially manipulative when you’re looking at the actual participants, men who have had to endure so much hate over the course of their lives simply for being true to themselves. It also trivializes the despicable immigration laws that Ewing is attempting to criticize, those that desperately try to destroy love and familial bonds in the name of American justice. Individuals like Iván and Gerardo deserve to have their stories told — and friends who won’t reduce them to stereotypes, no matter how well-intentioned. Steven Warner

Slow Machine

Jacques Rivette proved some decades ago that it’s possible to conjure a Langian cinema without Langian means, to describe the vast, malevolent architecture of modernity with little more than an empty stage, a shabby apartment, and a map of Paris annotated by a particularly paranoid scribbler. An ideal model for young artists conspiring to achieve sinister scope on a shoestring, though it’s one that has, historically, found little purchase among American independent filmmakers, who for the most part gravitate towards talky, homegrown realism. But perhaps as a consequence of lately revived interest in Rivette — following the 2015 restoration and re-release of Out 1 — or perhaps as a response to a contemporary world that seems increasingly explicable only through the logic of conspiracies — likely both — a cohort of young filmmakers based in New York City has recently decided to import the Night Watchman’s stratagems and try them out in their own backyard. Ricky D’Ambrose’s Notes on an Appearance, Bingham Bryant’s Foreign Powers, and now Paul Felten and Joe DeNardo’s Slow Machine all cast the gentrified milieu of the outer boroughs as a locus of intrigue, as if the lives of bohemian artists and trust fund layabouts are enmeshed with the secret order of the city. Well, these days they probably are: Brooklyn belongs to us. Then again, we might remember that Rivette also tells us that the city belongs to no one. And so, Slow Machine, which follows an out of work actress forced to couch hop after suffering a murky act of roommate “retribution”, and who subsequently finds herself adrift in a universe of escalating dread, suggests that there is no single player pulling the strings from behind the curtain. Instead, there are many: the U.S. government, in the form of a garrulous undercover agent whose sole mission is to surveil those Bushwick art parties most critically important to national security; a cabalistic performance art troupe that, in the film’s best scene, convinces Chloë Sevigny to audition for them as they watch on ominously, silent and shrouded by mysterious black hoods; and, of course, the filmmakers themselves, who — like Langian spymasters of old — ask “who is behind all this?” so that they can loudly announce: “Us”. There’s nothing wrong with repurposing the Rivette model to help draft an impressive calling-card — the Cahiers crowd were nothing if not cunning self-promoters, and understood well the value of an ambitious debut — or with treating the conspiracy thriller as a generic game defined by an open ruleset, one which is flexible enough to accommodate experiments with American idiomatic speech, halting comedic rhythms, and sudden ruptures in space and time, all of which Felton and DeNardo toy with to varying degrees of success. And play — as a production method and a narrative mode — is indeed a legitimate place to start. Still, so much messing around does suggest that these young cineastes, while possessed of a robust toolkit, are not yet sure what kind of machine they’re trying to build. A slow one, I suppose we can say that much: it’s clear that Felton and DeNardo need a few more turns before they will achieve dungeon master status themselves. But because they so plainly wish to bend the rules, there’s no sure strategy to recommend them for their next game; as a bandleader says to her mates early in the film, as they fiddle with their instruments to see if something sticks: “I don’t have any advice for you guys, just play it better.” Evan Morgan

The Lobby

“There is no here here” — so encapsulates the thematic and ontological dimensions of Heinz Emigholz’s wryly self-deprecating latest. A consistently infuriating and possibly even glib attempt at psychoanalysis, The Lobby entraps its viewers within an impossible game of dialectics, pitting bombastic pronouncements and logorrheic musings against ringing silence. Its sole character, an old white male literally credited as such, is the issuer of said pronouncements: he haunts the purgatorial vacuums of various lobbies and holding areas, speaking to an invisible and unresponsive audience despite knowing the futility of doing so.

Old White Male (John Erdman, a recent collaborator with Emigholz in Streetscapes [Dialogue] and The Last City) is ostensibly dying or already dead, but his thoughts on the subject are very much alive. Their scope knows no limits, and from the evils of metaphysics to the metaphysics of evil comes an alphabet soup of disembodied reflections, adages, inquiries: on Nazism, sexual encounters, consumerism, physical decay, performance, white-coated doctors, and so on. Everything points, one way or another, to death, the “eternal presence”; for Old White Male, the popular fixation on merely dying neglects the unsentimental majesty of Death. His Heideggerian half-truths belie a poisonous cynicism that resists interrogation — anticipating our criticisms and replies, he admonishes us through the camera: “You have no say because you are not dying.”

The Lobby bears a curious resemblance to Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things, though the latter’s emotional investments must not be overstated relative to the clinically detached abstractions Emigholz painstakingly constructs through his cantankerous foul mouth. Both films are brilliant exercises in existential solipsism, thrust into meandering circularity and self-doubt; where Kaufman traverses the interpersonal realm, Old White Male contends with the larger failings of the century and his dysfunctional stature within, one presumably soon-to-be obsolete. Consistent with Emigholz’s architectural oeuvre is the film’s spatial awareness: while shot in various locations around Buenos Aires, Old White Male’s verbiage spews uninterrupted, his sentences stretching across cuts between different rooms, corners, angles, and directions with glossy naturalism. The lobby adopts a twofold ontology, both as a liminal space between life and death — purgatory — and a mental headspace wherein we, the imagined interlocutor, are viewed as an affront to its incendiary honesty.

Emigholz neither worships nor dismisses Old White Male, or The Lobby would never have been made, not least in its present monologue form. Its true focus lies less in the contents delivered and more in their delivery. The didactic privilege embodied by his decidedly unwelcoming character is both punishing and comical, and could serve multiple purposes: as a diagnosis of depression, an antidote to it, or a recognition of the director’s essentially limited perspective on world-reaching issues. Whether this attracts or repulses the viewer is hard to say. One thing for sure: Bruno Ganz would make a friendlier Virgil. Morris Yang

All In: The Fight for American Democracy

All In: The Fight for American Democracy is the kind of political documentary that provides a slick, bland overview of its particular issue without leaving much of an impression on the viewer. This isn’t to say that the film, directed by Liz Garbus and Lisa Cortés, and co-produced by Stacey Abrams, about the mostly conservative efforts to limit voting rights in America isn’t presenting important information, but it often feels less like a film than a public service announcement.

Tracing the history of American democracy from the days when only white male landowners could vote, to the widespread disenfranchisement of Black voters in the Jim Crow south, to the recent gutting of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1964 at the hands of the Supreme Court, All In lays out a compelling case against such contemporary tactics of voter suppression as voter ID and gerrymandering. And while it isn’t likely to change any hearts or minds because it’s basically preaching to the choir, its succinct explanations of why these things are harmful offer strong rebuttals for whatever Republican propaganda your racist uncle is probably spouting on Facebook. But beyond that, All In feels more like the liberal answer to PragerU — a well-reasoned social media presentation that traffics in easily digestible soundbites that seems more suited to a high school civics class than the cinema. Don’t take this as a condemnation of the content, which is certainly important for the preservation of our Democracy in ways that feel more urgent than ever. But while All In succeeds as a piece of inoffensive agitprop, it ultimately comes up short as a film — it makes no waves and leaves no strong impressions on the viewer. For a film that seeks to warn us about the dire consequences of losing our democracy, All In lacks a certain fire, blandly shot and edited in its attempt to appeal to the average American voter. The choice is understandable, but for those who already know what’s at stake in this election, All In is nothing but an extended political ad. Mattie Lucas