The Eyes of Tammy Faye
The rise of evangelism has had no small impact on the cultural and political dynamics of America today, having — partly a visceral reaction against the proliferation of civil rights movements in the sixties, partly a rallying cry around the nexus of a national identity defined as an opposition to the twin spectres of communism and atheism — participated in, and profoundly effected, the polarization of classes and communities. Ronald Reagan’s electoral win in 1980, for example, consecrated the country’s faith in his resolute promise to quell Soviet ambition, quash liberal agenda, and quench the thirst of a rising post-war generation promised, and then denied, their national, God-given right to hope. With the advent and ubiquity of television, churches and their preachers were well-disposed to spreading the gospel through a medium that would not only retain, but also retool the spectacular nature of religion, sublimating its appeals to divine providence into artful, marketable spectacle. Thus reigned televangelism, first through the radio’s ears, and then in the mesmerized eyes of audiences and consumers anxious to supplant their middle-class appetites with the sweet taste of religious vindication.
Now, it appears that the spectacle of this unprecedented phenomenon has itself been reified and repackaged as biopic camp, destined by virtue of its chintzy neutering for the de rigueur recognition bestowed upon it by the awards showbiz. In dramatizing the rise and fall of televangelism’s oddest empire, Michael Showalter banks excessively on the names and performances of his star talents to moderately effective ends at the expense of thematic acuity. In fact, The Eyes of Tammy Faye, starring Jessica Chastain as the titular personality (a televangelist and singer) and Andrew Garfield as her husband Jim Bakker, is itself an adaptation of an eponymous documentary some two decades prior which interviewed the real Tammy Faye in the years following her drug abuse and subsequent divorce from Jim. Directed by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, the 2000 film ran a scant 78 minutes as opposed to Showalter’s 126, condensing the couple’s controversial history into a no-nonsense, not ineffective, and indeed frequently incredulous timeline of events: from Tammy’s lonely childhood and her subsequent meeting with Jim at Bible college to their marriage and journey as travelling preachers quick to capitalize on mass media, establishing a talk show program named The PTL Club (“Praise the Lord”) and Heritage USA, a Christian theme park rivalling the size and splendor of Disneyland, all before coming undone by allegations of corruption and financial mismanagement.
Showalter’s dramatization of this timeline, however, relies mostly on pre-existing narrative without critically expounding on either tone or structure; padding over its conventional storytelling beats with Garfield’s distinctive presence as an equally shrewd and soft-spoken persona alongside a virtually unrecognizable Chastain caked in Tammy’s permanently layered makeup, The Eyes of Tammy Faye encounters, through precisely this uncritical reliance, the much weightier charge of historical revisionism. Less so in the truly idiosyncratic fashions of such directors as Matthew Rankin and Oskar Roehler; if anything, Showalter’s sensibilities are decidedly uncontroversial, indulging in the caricature of camp without the danger of alienating its detractors. While rebuked and revered in her life as both a cunning fraudster and a radical voice in the televangelist movement (having been one of the first to openly welcome gay people, especially AIDS patients, when ideological antipathy was at an all-time high), Tammy is now cast by-and-large as a frequently hysterical but harmlessly delusional woman manipulated by her scheming, cheating husband and, on a broader level, the religious patriarchy. Her status as a victim of political undercurrents both within and beyond PTL is perfunctorily addressed in the narrative, whose stylistic embellishments fixate more on Chastain’s emulation of the singer than on the latter’s mercurial engagement with and opposition to PTL’s many enemies.
It’s this lack of saliency that flattens our perspective of the Bakkers, though Showalter nevertheless attempts, valiantly, to inject humour and levity into the generally faithful reenactments of Bailey and Barbato’s sequences, peddling Oscar-bound performances over rewarding insight. For the most part, it works as a serviceable, inoffensively garish pastiche of a cultural movement looked on at best as a historical object of ridicule and at worst as the forebears of today’s alt-right (Jim Bakker continues to court controversy, most recently involving a fraudulent claim to cure COVID-19). But there’s also another catch that grows more alarming through the film, especially after the Bakkers’ rise to prominence and the birth of their two children: they possessed a hugely symbiotic relationship with televised media themselves, subjecting their private lives (and kids) to carefully manufactured but no less intense public scrutiny. The Eyes of Tammy Faye mostly glosses over this significant facet, re-staging scenes from the documentary (that were themselves staged with a television crew) without much self-awareness on this note. And when it comes to the film’s titular subject, much is missing: Chastain’s eyes merely affix themselves to their symbolic eyelashes, divested of Tammy’s maniacal pathos. Her mother cautions her, prior to her marrying Jim: “You follow blindly. In the end all you are is blind.” Could one say the same about the film’s jarring dialectical absence between the eyes that see and the eyes that cry? “Yet happy they whom grief doth bless, / That weep the more, and see the less.” — like Andrew Marvell some three centuries prior, and indeed the televangelists themselves, The Eyes of Tammy Faye indulges in the very spectacle it supposedly interrogates. In receiving the spectacle of religiously enervating catharsis, it gives up the retrospective clarity of sight.
Writer: Morris Yang
Zhang Yimou’s One Second was originally scheduled to premiere at the 2019 Berlin Film Festival, but was pulled at the last, ahem, second for what were claimed to be “technical reasons” widely assumed to be political censorship, due to the film’s Cultural Revolution setting. In November 2020, after a year and a half, it opened in China, and now almost a year after that, makes its bow at TIFF. It’s unclear what, if anything, was modified from the original version Zhang had planned for Berlin — the nature of the Chinese bureaucratic system is such that no one outside can really know whether the film was ordered to be cut or if Zhang had simply failed to fill out the proper permits before sending the film to Europe. Like most, if not all, of Zhang’s films, the politics of One Second are murky and contradictory, but it looks terrific. Zhang is the quintessential apolitical filmmaker, which is one of the primary reasons he’s been able to thrive for over three decades in one of the more challenging, and ever-changing, film industries in the world. As a crafter of beautiful images, he’s unparalleled, but more often than not his politics boil down to a kind of bland humanism. As such, he might be the closest thing Mainland Chinese cinema has to Steven Spielberg.
One Second is about an unnamed escaped convict (played by Zhang Yi, who played Zhao Tao’s husband in Mountains May Depart) who wanders into a ramshackle desert town in search of a film, a traveling newsreel which he wants desperately to watch. He spies a young girl stealing a can of film from the guy who is supposed to be transporting it to the next town and chases after her. The first third of the movie is a kind of cat-and-mouse chase with the guy and the girl passing the reel back and forth and eventually arriving in the next town. Here “Mr. Movie”, the town’s projectionist, quickly puts things in order and the two, along with the rest of the village, join forces to fix another reel of film that was severely damaged in another, unrelated accident. The next half of the film follows the duo’s painstaking attempts to clean the damaged reel while fleshing out their sad stories. It all ends bittersweetly, as all such kinds of melodrama do.
There are interesting rhymes between the stories of the two leads (one misses his daughter, the other her father) and the nature of this phase of the Cultural Revolution, with its countless stories of generation gaps turned violent, and also with the film everyone gathers to watch, the 1964 propaganda movie Heroic Sons and Daughters, apparently about an old soldier who finds the daughter he gave up for adoption during the war and isn’t sure whether he should tell her the truth about him. The film critiques the Revolution in ways both obvious (the dusty poverty of everyone in the film except Mr. Movie, because in this worker’s paradise the Projectionist is the most respected man in town) and subtle (Mr. Movie is desperate to maintain his esteemed position, always insisting that he is the only one who can do his job), but the creakiness of the dramatics makes it obvious that Zhang’s interest really lies in the romance of film itself: its maintenance and projection, as well as its ability to enhance reality, to create beauty out of deserts and dust and shadows and light. As with many (most?) of Zhang’s films, there are stunning images in One Second that, individually, are more powerful than the film that contains them. He’s a filmmaker of moments and seconds.
Writer: Sean Gilman
Sort of the self-styled bad boy of international festival cinema (catch him on the red carpet in a leather motorcycle jacket), Mexican filmmaker Michel Franco has enjoyed the favor of programmers world over, his work almost always ensured a home at either Cannes or Venice. Compared to Michael Haneke since the early days of his career, Franco specializes in mean-spirited morality tales that wrestle with the human capacity for violence and cruelty in generally blunt fashion. His second feature After Lucia earned him the top prize in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard back in 2012, serving as the last moment when his work was warmly received by the critical community; the films that have come after are routinely ripped to shreds by the film writers who venture out to them (2015’s Chronic perhaps most infamous in this regard). This seems to be the sort of attention Franco courts, his films pairing bleak subject with mischievous, narrative subversion intended to fluster and disappoint, each one seemingly conceived as an act of aggression against the audience in the same spirit as both of Haneke’s Funny Games.
With no signs of slowing down, nor any interest in turning over a new leaf, Franco returned to the Venice Film Festival with his latest feature Sundown precisely one year after premiering New Order there. A rather crass Buñuelian riff critiquing Mexican bourgeois passivity/complicity in the face of a savage, rogue military, New Order received the negative attention one assumes his work will be met with, but also proved one of his stronger successes in the U.S., finding an audience thanks to savvy distribution by Neon in the early stages of New York City’s cinema reopenings. That film also was legitimately one of his strongest in a while, succinct and direct in its provocation; frustrating, but pointed — something that really can’t be said for this latest film.
Reteaming the director with Chronic star Tim Roth (who just so happened to be jury president of Un Certain Regard the year Franco won), Sundown casts him (also the star of 2007’s Funny Games) as Neil, a sullen wealthy European bachelor on vacation in Mexico with his sister (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her two children. Roth and Gainsbourg’s vacation is interrupted by the news that their mother has passed, leaving them to inherit a massive fortune and business empire, a revelation that inspires Neil to abandon his family and stay behind in Mexico to get drunk and hook up with locals. Something of a cipher, Sundown’s main intrigue is parsing out Neil’s motivations which appear benign but remain vague, the film’s conflict eventually emerging when Gainsbourg returns to Mexico to confront him. From this point Franco gets up to his usual tricks, undercutting audience expectations by introducing un-foreshadowed plot twists that resist any sort of poeticism. It is a curious screenwriting exercise in many ways, most generously an attempt to approximate life’s seemingly chaotic cruelties even, but while Franco’s disregard for convention provides some admitted thrills, Sundown doesn’t manage any more than that.
Writer: M.G. Mailloux
Ali & Ava
Clio Barnard’s 2010 debut film The Arbor, a documentary/fiction hybrid based on the play by acclaimed writer Andrea Dunbar, features a fascinating formal gambit in which actors lip-synced to actual archival recordings of Dunbar and her daughter, Lorraine. Barnard’s subsequent films, 2013’s The Selfish Giant and now Ali & Ava, don’t have the same bold, meta-textual hook, but are nonetheless informed by Barnard’s insistence on infusing her work with the hard realities of real people. The Arbor, both play and film, is set in Bradford, an industrial city in Northern England; Ali & Ava takes place in the same city, and both main characters are based on actual people whom Barnard met while working on other projects and whom she subsequently invited to collaborate on a screenplay with her. The resulting film never pretends to be a documentary, but is shot with a sense of hardscrabble authenticity. Despite the ample hardships on display, Ali & Ava never succumbs to kitchen-sink blandness or poverty porn, creating instead a multifaceted portrait of both a specific place and the two damaged people still hoping and grasping for a connection.
Beyond Barnard’s deft touch with issues of class and race appear her underlying sensitivities at portraying the halting, tentative steps towards romance between two people of a certain age. There aren’t many movies about middle-aged romance, and even fewer that aren’t Hollywood wish-fulfillment fantasies à la Nancy Meyers. Here, Claire Rushbrook plays Ava as a whirlwind of maternal energy and limitless patience; she helps out with young children at the local elementary school, and has her hands full at home as well, with her own children of various ages and a grandchild. Ali (the wonderful Adeel Akhtar) is childless, separated from his wife even though they still live together in the same home. He’s an aged DJ always ready with a song to break the ice, as well as a landlord who tools around the neighborhood greeting the largely working class immigrants who make up the area. The two meet after school one day, as Ali is driving some kids home and offers Ava a lift as well. Barnard fills out this straightforward scenario with all manner of environmental detail, always emphasizing that these people are part of a larger community and at the mercy of its prejudices and vicissitudes. Ava’s grown son Callum (Shaun Thomas, from The Selfish Giant), who still lives at home with his baby, has a racist streak and a violent temper to match, both courtesy of his birth father. Ali’s estranged wife Runa (Ellora Torchia) is another impediment, although it’s never made clear exactly what has driven the couple apart. These conflicts make up the bulk of what could be called the film’s plot, but much of the film is content to simply observe this community at large. Barnard and cinematographer Ole Bratt Birkeland fill the frame with ample kinetic movement, almost always blocking scenes such that there are multiple bodies in sight at once (there’s virtually no traditional shot-counter-shot or singles here). Ali & Ava also has what might be the year’s best soundtrack, a sonic tapestry of Irish folk music, classical compositions, hip-hop, and choice cuts from The Buzzcocks and The Specials; truly, Barnard understands how people bond over and communicate through music. Inevitably, outside forces begin to drive our intrepid couple apart. But Barnard ends her film with a profoundly hopeful grace note, not so much a happy ending but a subtle acknowledgement that happiness is worth fighting for. This is a beautiful film.
Writer: Daniel Gorman
You Are Not My Mother
Irish teen Char (Hazel Doupe) lives in a North Dublin housing estate with her Grandmother Rita (Ingrid Craigie), her uncle Aaron (Paul Reid) and, most importantly, her clearly troubled mother Angela (Carolyn Bracken), who appears to be in the throes of some sort of depressive episode. “I can’t do this anymore,” she says brusquely, and Char seems accustomed to that, so Mom probably has a history of not quite keeping it together. When Char finds Angela’s car abandoned while walking home from school, she immediately suspects trouble, of course. Uncle and Grandma are acting a bit strange too, but before anything can really be done about it, Mom returns home, seemingly changed. Something’s off. Worse, Char’s world is an intensely dreary one, full of drab, rainy concrete and back alleys, and she’s also beset by bullies. New Angela isn’t the miserable stay-in-bed one of the past, but her energetic replacement is almost more unsettling.
Writer-director Kate Dolan’s film comes with a sturdy genre pedigree, steeped as it is in both traditional folklore and urban dread. It’s a strain of so-called folk horror experiencing a bit of a resurgence in films like A Hole in the Ground, Relic, and The Feast. It’s fertile ground to be sure; there’s plenty of iconography and myth to choose from, but these films also tend to make their subtext — of filial fractures and emotional trauma — the sole text at hand, and You Are Not My Mother (the title really says it all) is no exception.
The performances are uniformly solid, with Doupe suitably timid and anxious, particularly in her scenes where a cautious friendship develops between Char and one of her tormentors. Bracken especially stands out; she’s frequently required to pull off some real whiplash moodiness. Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot to these characters beneath the blunt articulation of their sadness. Dolan shores things up with some deliberately simple compositions peppered with the occasional flourish like a droning zoom or a frame bifurcated by a mirror, with intentionally muted colors and deliberately monotonous production design that simultaneously indicates Char’s general misery but also feels a bit visually suffocating to look at. Even at a brisk 90 minutes, though, the story seems padded, and a lot of time is devoted to some serious shoe-leather (especially regarding Char’s torment at the hands of the local mean girls). You would be forgiven for thinking this story was more suited to a short film than a feature.
Writer: Matt Lynch