It’s been far too long since we’ve been graced with a legitimate performance from Simon Rex a.k.a Dirt Nasty, the most esteemed white boy rapper turned comedy superstar. Thriving in the 2000s as both pop musician and the star of the post-Wayans Scary Movies, Rex lost his hold on audiences as sensibilities drifted away from the crass and bawdy and toward dopey, Mike Schur-style comedy. But of course, it’s this archetypal Hollywood journey that’s of particular interest to filmmaker Sean Baker, who has savvily cast Rex in his latest feature Red Rocket as washed-up porn star Mikey Saber, sent scurrying back to his hometown after the collapse of his fringe celebrity.
For Mikey, home is Texas City, Texas, a factory town left behind by the globalized economy, though fiery smokestacks still dot the horizon. Set during the lead-up to the 2016 U.S. election (something Baker refuses to let us forget), Red Rocket catches up with Mikey over a decade after he left for L.A. to pursue a career in porn; now bruised, destitute, and desperate to squirm back into the good graces of his ex-wife and mother-in-law. Initially a tale of a man humbled, Red Rocket quickly pivots to being a character study by way of political allegory, revealing Mikey as a narcissist incapable of humility, positioning him as a parallel Donald Trump figure. The film’s first hour traces out his efforts to reestablish himself in this isolated Texas town (getting back in with his ex, setting himself up as the go-to weed-slinger for the oil workers), while the second finds him attempting to undo it all after a chance encounter with Strawberry (Suzanna Son), a Lolita-esque figure (age 17) Mikey envisions as a star performer in the adult film industry, and also his means of getting back to California.
Pushing his usual queasy blend of biting comedy and bleak social realism to an extreme yet unreached, Baker takes a gamble with Red Rocket, centering this movie on a character who he’s kept as antagonist previously — Mikey brings to mind James Ransone’s pimp in Tangerine) and forcing his audience to inhabit his POV for a 130-minute runtime. A purposefully unpleasant experience, Red Rocket can’t really afford its runtime, nor the simplicity of its message (Trump won the presidency because America is rife with parasitic creeps like him), but Rex’s electric, skillfully balanced performance (recalling Elaine May’s pathetically cruel protagonists) and Drew Daniels’ zippy 16mm cinematography keep the film afloat. Dealing in bad vibes exclusively, Red Rocket isn’t without some appealingly bitter insights into contemporary American culture, but ultimately, Rex is the only one bringing fresh energy to the project, these observations on Trump’s America coming a few years too late. At the very least, Red Rocket will hopefully lead to more work for the great Dirt Nasty.
Writer: M.G. Mailloux
The Velvet Underground
Todd Haynes, a noted semiotician, tends to reconstruct rather than document, reincorporating tokens of his beloved ’60s and beyond into parallel narratives, as in his fractured Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There (in which the musician’s name is never actually spoken), and the David Bowie-adjacent glam fantasy Velvet Goldmine. Whereas a side-trip into documentary would be a pedestrian decision for innumerable other directors, it’s a surprising one for Haynes, given his fearless worldbuilding in films past. I’m Not There and Velvet Goldmine both retained enough familiarity subsumed within the unique designs of their creator that the cultural significance of the respective, seismic musical moments was never far beyond the edges.
Haynes’ new film, The Velvet Underground, which covers the rise of the wildly influential rock band, sacrifices the director’s appetite for free flowing histories, instead housing idiosyncrasies within the conventions of a standard documentary structure. The sheer wealth of visual and aural information plays as something of a course-correction for a group whose iconography is as shallowly oversaturated as Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures. Haynes’ montage splits the onscreen difference — often literally — between contemporaneous interviews and archival footage, hinting at the backlog of formalities that must be dispensed with: the crosscontinetal roots of the band (which features a brief foray into Welsh mining, courtesy of John Cale, and Long Island nuclear family life, as per Lou Reed’s sister), the state of avant-garde music at the time, and most intriguingly, the artistic hodgepodge of early ’60s New York City. The roots of The Velvet Underground are impossible without such venerated and varied figures as Jonas Mekas, Andy Warhol, La Monte Young, and more. It’s at this interval where Haynes’ flurry of imagery and sound is most suited to its subject, the excitement of the period palpably conveyed via the quickfire editing.
Still, The Velvet Underground is a documentary, one being released by Apple, at that. Haynes’ experimentation can only go so far, and the film occasionally settles into rote talking-head territory. It’s touching to hear Jonathan Richman’s reminiscences of hearing the band at an impressionable age, and Amy Taubin rightfully lays out the misogyny that drove much of The Factory. But soon points are reiterated and rephrased, and all the secondhand “there’d been nothing like it before!” exclamations grow grating. At its best, The Velvet Underground is a resting place for the detritus of its subject’s time. Somehow, the more the band itself is centered, the more disappointing the film is.
Writer: Patrick Preziosi
If Nadav Lapid is a provocateur, who or what is he provoking? In one reading of his films, Lapid continually oscillates between thesis and antithesis, pausing only to prove in forceful litanies and aesthetic extremes the dead-end insularity of the Israeli state and its crimes — the implications of which Lapid does not spare himself from. Given this, it was only a matter of time before he ended up with a scenario like the one in Ahed’s Knee: a filmmaker (Avshalom Pollak) and a government representative (Nur Fibak) go for a walk in the desert. By the time they return, both have been unmasked.
Political context and allegory are certainly not alien to Ahed’s Knee, but using this lens fails to admit that these events are not what really “happens” in Lapid’s films. Further, the words of his characters, however neatly they might fit into an idea of what Lapid believes, are never presented in such a way that we might mistake them for a simple truth. Take for instance what some have called the autofictional aspects of the filmmaker character in Ahed’s Knee. As the credits refer to him only with the initial Y, we can recognize this as continuing Lapid’s established conventions. (Y also refers to the filmmaker in From the Diary of a Wedding Photographer, while characters rooted in Lapid’s youth and early adulthood in The Kindergarten Teacher and Synonyms have been named Yoav.)
Y’s last film premiered at Berlin. He wants to make a film about the Ahed Tamimi, a Palestinian woman who became known to the public after she slapped an Israeli soldier in the face. And he finds Israeli complacency to be not merely galling but the ultimate source of its violence. Perhaps these things are all true of Lapid. And perhaps the rest of the film could then be collapsed into the field of autofictional commentary, with Y as Lapid’s stand-in and the episodes he encounters — an oasis in the desert, a dialogue with and then a beration of the representative for the Ministry of Culture, a screening of his film — as segments of a one-man show. But in addition to the use of rote details, autofiction is the total immersion into a closed field of subjectivity. Lapid’s approach is to leave us with little recourse but to recoil from Y’s animus and misogyny; the character’s solipsism is intensely developed and then left behind.
The filmmaker’s confrontation of the government representative is, then, fantastically heightened but also mitigated. Lapid surely knows better than anyone what to make of how his films can continue to receive funding from Israeli government sources. His film’s effectiveness then, might be instructively compared to that of his first feature, the well-received but poorly conceived Policeman. In that film, a militarized enforcement unit and a small group of Israeli leftists are placed on an equal plane, and converge in the latter’s plot to take the billionaire members of a wedding party hostage. The film earned Lapid the description of a “dialectical” filmmaker, but since his follow-up, The Kindergarten Teacher, there has been an ongoing attempt to move beyond this play of mere ideas: not just the limits of considering one side and then another, but also the self-satisfied move of resorting to some all-revealing metaphor. In Ahed’s Knee, a rotting bell pepper, or in Synonyms, a bolted door.
In Lapid’s films then, principles are not found in the recording of what people say. They might not even be found in the full context of the statement. Above all, it is a matter of the camera’s position. In Ahed’s Knee, the camera thrashes around Y as if it is trying to shake off a deep slumber. It often swivels between one detail, and then another, and then another, in a wonderfully fallible, yet exacting, tracing of sensory collection. And in a move that is perhaps the dominant shot of Lapid’s last three features, the camera will move as if a record of a subjective encounter, only to then separate, refusing to realign with what we might have thought we were seeing.
If in Policeman Lapid’s narrative split ended up in an a dead end of skeptical despair, his work since has seemed to give up any claims to unity. Ahed’s Knee may be grounded in autobiographical detail: as in all of his films, the knot of complicity tied in Israel’s mandatory military service looms larger than its character’s culture-censor diatribes. Despite its breaks from safe transcriptions of style, arthouse or otherwise, it includes a conspicuous dance sequence or two. And yet Lapid’s tendency, even and especially in those more legible moments, is to travel not to the argument or the universal claim, but to the flux of experience. Despite the charged context, the film’s subjective ruptures and discontinuities are not meant to convey a sense of political deadlock or contradiction, but are, ultimately, an intuitive attempt to give complete satisfaction to human reason.
Writer: Michael Scoular
Danish filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen is not a known quantity in the U.S., though latest film Flee will likely turn that around for him. Having been working in the very trendy hybrid nonfiction mode for some years now without seeing U.S. distribution, Rasmussen suddenly has the backing of Neon and celebrity producers Riz Ahmed and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau for this latest documentary. While his previous works indulged more overt formal trickery (2015’s What He Did bringing in a theatre troupe to produce recreations of a real-life assasination, 2012’s Searching for Bill uniting its subjects through a fictional narrative and shared antagonist), Flee is a mostly straightforward doc built around an interview between the filmmaker and childhood friend Amin (a pseudonym chose to conceal his identity), an Afghani refugee who has been living in Denmark illegally since adolescence. Unable to resist some kind of loud, aesthetic flourish, Rasmussen has his conversations with Amin rendered in 2D animation, offering up cartoon approximations of his interviewee’s remembrances, yet what this choice contributes to the project is mostly negligible beyond marketing potential (essentially attempting to re-employ Waltz with Bashir’s central metaphor, but to lesser effect).
The film’s primary narrative introduces us to Amin in the present, professionally successful and with marriage looming, but wracked with guilt and wary of settling down. Acting as something in between therapist and confidant, Rasmussen is able to gradually coax Amin into revealing all, detailing his journey from a mostly content early childhood in the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, up through a young adulthood, spent as a refugee in Russia and then Denmark in the wake of the devastating Soviet-Afghan War. Coming of age as a gay man at a moment when Afghani culture was skewing towards religious conservatism and violent homophobia, Amin feels an additional remove from family and country beyond his literal, physical one, his sense of self unmoored and uncertain after years of enduring the burdens and anxieties of repression and displacement. One can probably already figure the line between Amin’s past and present, his involuntary rootlessness and his current domestic dissatisfactions, but Flee meanders to this conclusion, working unconvincing drama out of Amin’s shaky home life along the way. Ultimately inoffensive and kind of uncritiqueable, Rasmussen’s film is sweet enough but a totally blunt object, its jerky, flat animation failing to soften the blows of his aggressive scripting and messaging.
Writer: M.G. Mailloux
In Ste. Anne, Rhayne Vermette strives to imbue narrative filmmaking with as much tangible texture as possible, even if that means freely disrupting said narrative while still maintaining a semblance of a linear progression. Even in its most ostensibly, diegetically realist passages, the chronicle of a family of Francophones of the Indigienous Métis Nation is brought forth with intriguing languidness, more intent on acclimating the viewer to the rhythm of the life onscreen than its actual formal specifics. Amidst the prickly family dynamics — Renée (Rhéanne Vermette) has returned to the rural family home after a long spell; her brother, Modeste (Jack Theis), still lives there with his wife, and the two are raising Renée’s daughter — Vermette inserts durational landscape shots and documentary-like, fireside conversations, which help to ease into some of the more unabashed experimentation. Ste. Anne assumes a handspun quality when it defers to explicit visual acknowledgements of its filmic being: handheld camera, scratches and frayed edges, blooming colors.
Vermette’s storytelling vernacular is perhaps a degree too noncommittal, but that doesn’t impede upon how astonishingly visual Ste. Anne is: its 16mm photography is the perfect conduit for all the natural beauty of the Manitoba backdrop. There’s a light surrealism at play, which invades not just the aforementioned digressions, but even the most earthbound of sequences. Low lit and sumptuous, many scenes unspool as if on an illusory soundstage, certain frames articulated as if Guy Maddin were suddenly behind the camera. All these aesthetic branches and tangents could act as distancing effects, but Vermette instead prioritizes closeness, striving for a new cinematic vernacular to depict intimacy beyond just the interaction of the actors.
Writer: Patrick Preziosi