Did You See This?

Why Is It Going That Way?

Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix in Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho (1991)

Just last month, Jessica Kiang (Sight and Sound) and Jordan Hoffman (Foreign Policy) were singing the praises of a classic that has held up for half a century, and Scott Tobias joined them, writing in the Guardian that “there has been no greater original screenplay in the last fifty years than the one Robert Towne wrote for Chinatown. None more elegantly plotted and politically charged, none more literate and historically evocative, none more pungent in its hard-bitten dialogue and sophisticated in its play on noir archetypes. It’s never easy for a writer to get credit over a director—especially a director as skilled as Roman Polanski at peak form—but Towne’s voice reverberates strongly through a film that perfectly intersects Old Hollywood glamour with New Hollywood revisionism.”

On Monday, Towne passed away at the age of eighty-nine. Like so many writers, directors, and actors of the era, Towne started out working for the late Roger Corman, and within a few years, he was a sought-after script doctor, working on films such as Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and The Godfather (1972). He won his only Oscar for Chinatown (1974) but was also nominated for two screenplays he wrote for Hal Ashby, The Last Detail (1973) and Shampoo (1975). “As Chinatown weds the noir genre to a fictionalized recounting of real-life corruption among Los Angeles’ elites in the early decades of the twentieth century,” wrote Frank Rich in 2018, “so Shampoo blends farce with a portrait of corruption LA-style in the 1960s.”

Fiona Duncan wrote a beautiful appreciation of Towne’s directorial debut, Personal Best (1982), for Gagosian Quarterly last fall, and the recent passing of Donald Sutherland has prompted many to take a second (or first) look at Without Limits (1998). In his excellent remembrance for the Los Angeles Times, Dennis McLellan sketches the life and career and then naturally circles back to Chinatown, noting that in 2004, Towne said that the film was “an attempt to take an existing genre and imbue it with things from life. Not to do an exotic movie about Maltese falcons and jewel-encrusted birds, but to take a crime that was right in front of your face, that was as basic as water and power.”

For a short week in July, there’s been quite a flurry of festival news. Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice Beetlejuice will see its world premiere as the opening-night selection in Venice (August 28 through September 7). The sequel to the 1988 hit comedy will star Michael Keaton, who returns as the “bio-exorcist” along with Winona Ryder as an all-grown-up-now Lydia and Catherine O’Hara as her mom, and the rest of the cast includes Justin Theroux, Monica Bellucci, Jenna Ortega, and Willem Dafoe.

Steve McQueen’s Second World War drama Blitz will premiere as the opening-night film in London (October 9 through 20). Saoirse Ronan stars as a mother who sends her nine-year-old son (Elliott Heffernan) to the English countryside during the German bombing campaign. But the boy is determined to get back into the city—and goes missing. Paul Weller, the former front man for the Jam and a cofounding member of the Style Council, will make his acting debut as the boy’s grandfather.

Toronto (September 5 through 15) will present its TIFF Share Her Journey Groundbreaker Award to Cate Blanchett, who will then head to San Sebastián (September 20 through 28), where she’ll receive a Donostia Award. Audrey Diwan’s Emmanuelle, starring Noémie Merlant and slated to open San Sebastián, now has a trailer.

FIDMarseille wrapped over the weekend with the presentation of its top award to Milena Czernovsky and Lilith Kraxner’s bluish, which tracks the daily lives of two women in Vienna. “In the same vein as their 2021 debut feature Beatrix,” writes Amber Wilkinson for Screen,bluish feels like a Generation Z cousin of millennial mumblecore, the script stripped away so that we divine these young people’s moods as much by gesture and look as talk.”

Tricia Tuttle, who became the Berlinale’s new director in April, has already begun to reshape the festival. The Encounters program launched in 2020 by former artistic director Carlo Chatrian will be replaced by Perspectives, a new competition launching up to fourteen fictional feature debuts.

This week’s highlights:

  • The eight titles in our Pop Shakespeare program on the Criterion Channel “share an iconoclastic streak motivating big-swing risks in their critiques of and homages to the playwright’s genius,” writes Charles Bramesco in the Guardian. “Personal, expressive, subversive, and insightful about its source, My Own Private Idaho supplies the most teachable exemplar of creative adaptation in condensing the Henriad to the saga of two street hustlers on parting trajectories. In shifting Keanu Reeves’s Prince Hal stand-in to a supporting role as sidekick to his own sidekick, Gus Van Sant coaxes out unseen nuance from the text, imbuing it with newfound passion, world-weariness, and vulnerability . . . Ultimately, this is also how writing stands the test of time—through endless regeneration and reincarnation, torn down and made immortal in the process.”

  • In an outstanding piece on Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest for Verso Books, Jake Romm points to “what prior films about the Shoah have misunderstood: they center the victims, whose plight is incomprehensible, even if it is visualizable.” Glazer casts a disinterested—and therefore, devastatingly effective—gaze on Rudolf Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz, and his family. “The visual language of Holocaust Film looms large,” writes Romm, “because of its subversion, because of its absence. Just as Glazer refuses to film the interior of the camp while preserving its omnipresent soundscape, he also refuses, in a way, to make a Holocaust film at all. It is this gap between the expectations of genre and the film itself that generate such power, and such discomfort.”

  • Along with a generous round of book reviews, the new double issue of Alphaville features two robust dossiers, one of them dedicated to the late music scholar Danijela Kulezic-Wilson, whose “work on sound design and film music has been pathbreaking,” writes editor-in-chief Laura Rascaroli. 100 Years of Disney is the title of the other dossier, and editors Amy M. Davis and Helen Haswell hope that “we have hit the highlights: Disney’s cinema, music, television, theme parks, how it deals with and (re)presents its history, and a snapshot of its interactions with the wider world. The papers we have included here will both deepen your knowledge of the Disney Company and contribute to the ongoing discussion of what Disney means.”

  • This month’s Brooklyn Rail offers reviews of Annie Baker’s Janet Planet and Catherine Breillat’s Last Summer; a report on the Architecture and Design Film Festival, which takes place in several North American cities as well as online; Hannah Bonner on the work of Lynne Sachs; and Zoë Hopkins’s conversation with Isaac Julien, whose ten-channel installation Lessons of the Hour (2019) is on view at MoMA through September 28 while 2022’s Iolaus/In the Life (Once Again. . . Statues Never Die) is a highlight of this year’s Whitney Biennial. “I see the camera as an apparatus which created a certain autonomy, the conditions to possess the means to control representation and its reproduction,” says Julien. “I have also always seen photography as a non-neutral technology. Therefore, the intervention that I am making in my works, in my films and images, has always been to uncover this raison d’être of picture-making.”

  • Karlovy Vary runs through Saturday, and Steven Soderbergh was recently in town to introduce two of his films, take part in a Q&A with critic Neil Young, and give a typically entertaining and thought-provoking interview to a roundtable of journalists. Georg Szalai was there for the Hollywood Reporter as Soderbergh discussed Kafka (1991) and its 2021 reedit Mr. Kneff, why he prefers books over movies, which of his films he wouldn’t recut (1998’s Out of Sight is one), why he doesn’t fear AI, his upcoming spy thriller Black Bag, and what lies beyond. “I’m thinking about a project in which I analyze large-scale cooperative endeavors,” he says. “Why can’t we figure out Syria, or any other conflict that seems impossible to unwind? It’s clear, we know how to cooperate. So why are we still killing each other at this rate? There are more displaced people on a percentage basis as an aggregate right now in the world than there’s ever been. We have all this technology we have. Why is it going that way?”

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