Tailor Swift


Paul Thomas Anderson, Phantom Thread, 2017, color, sound, 130 minutes.

HOW TO DESCRIBE Paul Thomas Anderson’s magnificently daft Phantom Thread, a movie as precise as it is delirious. To borrow from Stanley Cavell, it’s a comedy of courtship, marriage, and remarriage. Comedy, however, may be too clear-cut a designation for this story about the intimate life of a couple from first attraction to a precarious arrangement of power, for which no one would write a lifetime warranty. Beyond the dazzling performances of Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, and Lesley Manville; the swooping and/or oddly angled luminous 35-mm cinematography by Anderson himself; and the almost omnipresent orchestral score by Jonny Greenwood, which suggests Nelson Riddle on ecstasy, the movie’s uniqueness is its fluidly shifting tone, as if the ghosts of genres as diverse as gothic mysteries (Hitchcock’s Rebecca), screwball comedies (Hawks’s Bringing Up Baby), perverse, obsessional romances (Kubrick’s Lolita), and Angela Carter’s feminist inversions of classic fairy tales were dancing at the edge of the collective consciousness of everyone involved, including the viewer. Anderson’s script is pretty great too.

The setting is London in the early 1950s, enjoying a return to affluence—at least among the privileged classes—after the hardships of World War II. Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis) is a very haute couturier for the rich and the royal. His long-dead mother is his inspiration, the source of his enraptured attention to the construction of muslins, the drape of luxurious fabrics, precise stitching and embroidery, and even the maddening compromise of fitting his creations to less than perfect, that is, human, bodies. Woodcock is an impeccable craftsman (Norman Hartnell might be a reference) but not an originator like Charles James or the Dior of the “New Look.” Nevertheless, reverence for his process is the primary demand placed on everyone in his orbit. His sister Cyril (Manville) sees to it that nothing interferes with his concentration and routine. She also manages the business of the House of Woodcock. “If breakfast isn’t right, it’s very hard for him to recover for the rest of the day,” she tells his latest discovery, Alma (Krieps), an unspoiled beauty with a slight foreign accent who captures his attention when she nearly trips while waiting tables at a restaurant near his country home. On their first date, he dresses her, rather than the reverse, creating a gown from scratch, while Cyril notes her measurements on a new page in a thick models-and-cliental book. (She also sniffs her face, like a cat might—odd even for an English eccentric, which, notably, she and her brother are.) Soon Alma is ensconced in Woodcock’s atelier and living quarters, although not often in his bed.

You might want to hold on to the naked rush of emotion that threatens Reynolds’s practiced reserve when he looks up from the table to ask his waitress, “Will you have dinner with me?” Day-Lewis has not played a character as seductive or as taken off guard by infatuation since his Newland Archer in Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence (1993). His slightly strangulated vocal delivery is the same here as in that film, as if both characters feared what unknown realms words might open if they were not employed as a check against a pulse that quickens with desire, or, for that matter, fear or anger. Reynolds may be a serial seducer, but when he looks at Alma, he sees a future that, at the moment, he believes is different from anything he has experienced before. Not surprisingly, Alma is easily won, and then flummoxed when their mutual fantasy falls apart. But she is not willing to give up on the promise of their first meeting. Nor, thanks to Day-Lewis’s and Krieps’s performances, are we.

The struggle between the safety of the familial and the danger of exogamy is one of several narrative threads that make the movie more than the abundant pleasures it offers the eye and ear. The narrative opens with the model who precedes Alma being frozen out by the symbiotically attached siblings. Alma immediately faces the same entrenched bond. Not easily cowed, despite the casual contempt with which Reynolds and Cyril treat her every expression of personal taste or desire, she gradually learns that when Reynolds is exhausted or ill, he becomes vulnerable and tender. At these times he needs her more than Cyril. His sister wants him to act like a grown-up: “Barbara Rose pays for this house,” she reminds him, when he balks at attending the wedding of a particularly obnoxious client. (If there are parallels between independent filmmaking and haute couture, then Cyril is the equivalent of the producer.) And when the client keels over in a drunken stupor, Reynolds and Alma strip her of the dress he designed and, brandishing it, run through the streets like rebel children playing Capture the Flag.

But these moments of mutual pleasure are short-lived. Faced again with losing Reynolds, Alma resorts to a hilariously macabre twist on the old maxim “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.” I’ll give away no more except to venture that Alma’s scheme is chancy, and Anderson’s decision to have her employ it not once but twice, and on top of that, to have Reynolds realize what’s she’s done and approve her risking his life for their love, is outlandish—proof that these two fools for love are perfectly matched. Reynolds’s “Kiss me, my girl, before I’m sick,” could have been one of the great last lines in movie romance history, but Anderson resists that triumphant a resolution and, in the film’s only flaw, muddles the narrative with hasty double ending. To quote an incomparable curtain line, this one by Billy Wilder and I. A. L. Diamond, “Nobody’s perfect.”

Phantom Thread opened in select theaters on Monday, December 25th. “Paul Thomas Anderson x 5” also runs at Metrograph in New York from January 1 to January 12, 2018.

Amy Taubin

Adirley Queirós, Era Uma Vez Brasília (Once There Was Brazilia), 2017, color, sound, 98 minutes.

IN 2001, MARTHA ROSLER coined the term “post-documentary” to describe the unusual status of “social documentary photography in the postmodern world”—a moment in which the form’s claims to transparency, objectivity, and authenticity were everywhere under scrutiny. It’s a scenario that’s familiar enough sixteen years later: Suspicion of media in general and images in particular is widespread to the point of numbing banality, and yet no less dizzying. With endless hand-wringing over “fake news” and the politics of distraction, the little cinematic category we call “documentary” and its “fundamental claim to a unique capacity to offer a direct insight into the real” now seem quaint, almost meaningless—less a stable aesthetic tradition or set of cinematic strategies than a metadata tag for VOD recommendations.

And yet, what better site for an investigation of our current epistemic malaise than the documentary? The form has always wrestled with distinctions between the immediate and the constructed, forcing the question of what an image can convey of lived experience, much less the history or social relations that might lie embedded within it, or just behind. In this light, the more circumspect designation of “post-documentary” might better position us to explore its relation with the real on a number of fronts. A burgeoning number of international festivals have emphasized works that skirt the borders of nonfiction cinema, and the result is not so much a muddying of categorical distinctions but a tactical reappraisal of the tropes by which documentary has laid claim to things like authenticity and objectivity.

The gorgeous hillside city of Porto might seem an unlikely venue to consider such issues, but the festival Porto/Post/Doc has consistently foregrounded these questions. With this sense of post-ness installed quite literally at the center of its project, the festival, now in its fourth year, has been central to an effort to bring cinema-going back to the downtown centers of Portugal’s second largest city—a project that has included the restoration of several of Porto’s majestic Art Deco and Streamline Moderne cinemas. (These include the Rivoli Theatre, one of the festival’s venues, where competition films play in a grand auditorium named for local boy Manoel de Oliveira, the legendary director who died in 2015 at the age of 106.) But it is the festival’s exploratory programming that distinguishes it, allowing it to follow nonfiction’s many experimental encounters with contemporary art, expanded cinema, and even sci-fi.

One particularly vivid example of this capacious definition of the form was to be found in Adirley Queirós’s third feature, Era Uma Vez Brasília (Once There Was Brasília), which follows his 2014 hybrid work White Out, Black In with a still more extreme confusion of genre. Set in the exurban wastelands and cinderblock shantytowns of Ceilândia—a region created by the Brazilian government in the 1970s to keep squatters from setting up homes in the modernist metropolis of Brasília—Queirós’s film creates a vivid afro(Brazilian)futurist dystopia: Mad Max by way of Pedro Costa and Brother from Another Planet. While the incarcerated are transported through the city via prison-metros, nomadic diesel-punk vigilantes roam Ceilândia in a junk-shop, jury-rigged hot hatch and resistance-training rallies in their very own back-alley Thunderdome. Amid nocturnal longueurs and amusingly low-impact car chases, we hear archival audio from “the past,” or rather, right now: recordings from 2016 of the vote proceedings that ousted President Dilma Rousseff, impeached for corruption through decidedly underhanded maneuvers by an elite that is itself corrupt. Of course, such a thin tether to recent history may seem an insufficient link to the traditions of “documentary,” thus straining the categorical designation to the point of meaninglessness. And yet, why not? Low-budget sci-fi is as much a creative treatment of actuality as any, and there is indeed a sense in which the crises of the present lend themselves to such treatment. If science fiction, as a rule, more accurately reflects the now than any putative time to come, then surely its direst prognostications can serve as documents of the present.

Filipa César, Spell Reel, 2017, color, sound, 96 minutes.

A slightly more orthodox, if no less ingenious, set of temporal disjunctions formed the basis of the festival’s thematic program, “Archive and Post-Memory.” Comprising a set of short and feature works, as well as a series of panel discussions, the program explored the lingering aftereffects of twentieth-century colonialism and state oppression. Many of the works—including recent features by Paz Encina, Albertina Carri, and Filipa César—are examples of filmmakers contending with the histories of political struggle via a radical set of archival strategies from some historical distance. Directed by Carri—daughter of the Argentine sociologist, essayist, and left-wing militant Roberto Carri, who was murdered shortly after the anti-Perónist coup of 1976—Cuatreros (Rustlers) details the filmmaker’s father’s involvement with and defense of the legendary, doomed outlaw figure Isidro Velázquez. For Carri’s father, Velázquez served as a (perhaps not unproblematic) exemplar of “prerevolutionary forms of violence” (the title of Carri père’s book on Velázquez), and the film explores these possibilities with an admirable mix of nostalgia and perspicacity. While often logomaniacal in its voice-over—a challenge for the non-native Hispanophone or slow readers of subtitles—Cuatreros offers an approach to found images (of historical events, but also unrelated pop material) that is dynamic and maximalist, drawing on a delirious array of footage: from commercial cinema to advertisements to newsreels, interviews, and abstract, corroded film reels. Crowding the frame with an alluring multichannel split-screen approach reminiscent of 1960s expanded cinema, the film can be overwhelming, but not unpleasantly so. If anything, it attests to the mediatized blur of a century obsessively documented, censored, and suppressed—which, for subsequent generations, becomes the precondition for a kind of obsession bordering on exhaustion with the loose threads of a revolution without end.

The strongest of the works in this sidebar, César’s Spell Reel enlists a similar strategy with the preserved images of four revolutionary filmmakers from Guinea-Bissau—Sana na N’Hada, Flora Gomes, José Bolama Cobumba, and Josefina Crato—sent by Amílcar Cabral during the country’s war of independence to study cinema in Cuba under the great Santiago Álvarez. Gorgeously refractive and elegantly mercurial in its construction, Spell Reel is a confrontation of history and the present, a rich investigation of cinema’s part in historical liberation struggles and its capacity to reignite these sentiments in the present. César’s approach to split-screen is uncommonly elegant here, fragmenting the space of the frame in a manner less like a desktop interface and more like a portal to another dimension. Archival footage, scarred and corroded by time and neglect, shares the frame with sharp observational digital footage of the very preservation processes used to save these images; matter-of-fact interviews pair with poetic on-screen text to form a metahistorical essay film which makes the screen itself a portal into multiple temporalities. Screens and projectors enact a return and re-exhibition of these images back in the small villages of Guinea-Bissau in the twenty-first century, activating a kind of cross-temporal connection that, as the on-screen text hopefully suggests, “[allow] ciné-kinships / to relate beyond the system / of national and racial patterns.”

Gürcan Keltek, Meteors, 2017, black-and-white, sound, 84 minutes.

A different set of conditions of visibility marks the festival’s grand-jury prizewinner, Gürcan Keltek’s Meteors. Set in the fractured landscape of Turkish Kurdistan, where the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (or PKK) has been in armed conflict with the Turkish government for decades, the film takes on the recent eruption of conflict with Erdogan’s regime in ways that are allegorical and immediate. Shot in a variety of digital video formats that have been unified into a grungy, crepuscular black-and-white, Meteors takes on its subject via multiple sidelong glances: mini-portraits that blur the terrestrial, cosmic, and political antagonisms bubbling over in the region. The film is scanty on sociopolitical detail and weighted with impressionistic visions under a doomy postrock sound track: eclipses foretell an indistinct and ongoing cataclysm, hunters stalk prey across a quasi-lunar landscape, and street demonstrations flare in urban centers hollowed out by state violence—“cities . . . where there’s nothing left to control.” The title indexes a 2015 meteor shower that the film captures in psychedelic high-contrast streaks of flaming embers—and it’s part of Keltek’s strategy that these images graphically match those of hostile bombs and celebratory fireworks elsewhere in the film. This slippage between orders of knowledge—from the anecdotal to the mythic—are characteristic to a set of conditions that, in Turkey, are becoming increasingly difficult to address. As of this writing, the more than twenty-five hundred signatories of a petition organized by Academics for Peace to protest the Turkish state’s war with the Kurdistan Workers’ party have been illegally targeted by the government, fired from their jobs, and now await trial for spreading “terrorist propaganda.”

Among Porto/Post/Doc’s biggest discoveries was a pair of films by the Czech documentary filmmaker Miroslav Janek. Director of a couple of dozen films, many for television, Janek presented here a small but rich sampling. His 1997 film The Unseen was the big revelation. A fifty-three-minute portrait of about a dozen visually impaired students, the film is at once graceful and restless—matching the students’ vigorous mental and physical lives with a similar energy in its cinematography and visual and sonic editing. It’s a dense film that always feels light as air, carried along by the children’s hilarious, anarchic ebullience as they play, sing, chatter, relate tripped-out dreams, play-act neo-Dadaist talk shows, ride bikes, jog, canoe, and, most avidly of all, take photographs. Interpolated throughout the film, these images are of course off-kilter, canted, blurry, and hilarious—but they point to something about the image that, in some ways, clarifies a contemporary approach to documentary’s many forms. The photograph has captured something: for the sighted, it is an image; for the visually impaired, it is something else—an object, a trace. The “unseen” of the film’s title attests to the social invisibility of the film’s subject, but it also may point us to a reconfiguration of visuality that lies at the heart of a post-documentary project—to see, to re-see, and to un-see.

The fourth edition of Porto/Post/Doc ran November 27 to December 3, 2017.

Leo Goldsmith

Alexander Payne, Downsizing, 2017, color, sound, 135 minutes.

DOWNSIZING, ALEXANDER PAYNE’S SEVENTH FEATURE FILM, is an enormous movie—enormous in its ambition, and enormous in its ingenuity. As such, it is distinctly out of step with the times. Monumentality is acceptable in the action blockbuster, but when it comes to anything else, the small and the subtle and the half-toned are the markers of refined taste. Payne and his collaborator and frequent cowriter Jim Taylor produced one of the great American comedies about taste as a social marker, Sideways (2004), and so they must have known they were going way out on a limb here. What they’ve created is a nigh-unheard-of amalgam, welding together a high-concept special-effects comedy, à la Lily Tomlin vehicle The Incredible Shrinking Woman (1981) or Albert Brooks’s Defending Your Life (1991), with a subjectively oriented existential drama obliquely recalling Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru (1952), the story of a Tokyo bureaucrat searching for meaning in a barren existence.

Payne and Taylor’s soul-sick seeker is Paul Safranek (Matt Damon), a physical therapist specializing in repetitive stress employed by the Omaha Steaks meatpacking plant. (This section of the movie is set in Payne’s native Nebraska, but the film shot, for the most part, in Ontario.) When introduced, Paul is among a rapt crowd watching the announcement of a scientific breakthrough on the television news: the invention of a safe, irreversible process that shrinks folks down to Lilliputian size, affording both a solution to the high cost of living and the unsustainable environmental impact of the planet’s seven and a half billion occupants. Paul returns to his modest home to discuss the news with his ailing mother, but she can’t see past her own immediate suffering to find cause to celebrate the latest advancement. “Lots of people are in pain, mom,” he responds by way of nullifying her complaints, with an abstract compassion that sounds almost callous, “in all sorts of ways.” The very ideas of perspective and scale—of trying to place things in their “proper” size—will be the organizing visual and thematic principles of Payne’s film.

After an ellipsis of ten years, the human “downsizing” process has radically changed the wider world, but not much has happened in Paul’s life—mom, with her fibromyalgia flare-ups, has been replaced by a wife with migraines, Audrey (Kristen Wiig), and the job and the routine and the house are all the same, with no hope of a big break in sight. Maintaining the status quo promises only a paycheck-to-paycheck life of repetitive stress, but by submitting to miniaturization, Paul and Audrey can trade genteel penury for a palatial mini-McMansion at Leisureland, a biodomed community in New Mexico. As Paul and Audrey go about making their decision to downsize, Payne and Taylor anchor their far-fetched setup by imagining all the practical, political, social, and economic exigencies that such a scientific upheaval might bring about, from plummeting normal-world property values to unchecked immigration to unbalanced tax burdens for large and small to the ability of dictatorships to shrink noisy dissidents out of sight. The premise of Downsizing, like that of any good science-fiction work, takes off from an observable real-world phenomenon. In this case it’s the current cult of minimalism in all its forms: the “tiny house movement”; the gradual device-driven elimination of the clutter of physical media from living spaces; the fetishization of ornament-free Scandinavian design—not for nothing are the scientists who perfect the process of miniaturization Norwegian. The film takes us through every stage of downsizing, a sequence that shows Payne’s understated visual intelligence at work. (Shot in widescreen by his frequent DP Phedon Papamichael, the movie finds correct frames always, and beautiful ones when it wants to—the silent setting of the sun on placid black water, for example.) The process begins with Paul and Audrey parting company to facilities separated by gender, and as they do he descends a long, white corridor, seeming to shrink as he moves—a scene that will be repeated later, at another key point.

Alexander Payne, Downsizing, 2017, color, sound, 135 minutes.

What follows from here is a clinical ceremony that ends with tiny humans being gently scooped up with spatulas, only the beginning of Paul’s diminishment and degradation: The capper involves the arrival of a keepsake box containing giant wedding rings celebrating a sundered union. After Audrey backs out of the downsizing pact, divorce dashes Paul’s dreams of living big while small, and, adrift in a new world, he is sucked into the orbit of his neighbor, Dusan Mirkovic (Christoph Waltz), a Serbian sybarite who’s had himself shrunk so that he can supply the burgeoning population of little folk with illegal comestibles, holding a nonstop erotic cabaret in the penthouse upstairs with his partner in crime, the pint-sized piratical sea captain Joris Konrad, played by Udo Kier. The two make up an irresistible Eurotrash double-act.

Even in Leisureland, however, somebody has to clean up after the party’s over. This is how Paul meets Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a woman making her cleaning service rounds on a painful, junky prosthetic leg. Paul recognizes Ngoc Lan from the television news—she is one of those miniaturized dissidents, injured as the lone stowaway survivor of a trip from Vietnam to a Eugene, Oregon, Target in an imported television’s cardboard packaging, a traumatic experience she refers to as “the TV box.” Well-meaning Paul guiltily offers her his assistance, and this curt, practical woman sees in this soft, accommodating boob a resource to be exploited, dragging him by the nose into to a world that he’s only known through the TV box, the squalid, stifling slums outside the walls of Leisureland where the service workers live, the sick and invalid among them tended to in no-nonsense fashion by Ngoc Lan, who is also a zealous Christian with an uncomplaining, almost second-nature sense of duty.

Chau has had a number of television credits and drew praise for her work on stage in Annie Baker’s John, but she is perhaps best known to filmgoers as Jade in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice (2014). The US-raised daughter of Vietnamese boat people, Chau here affects the accent of her parents—with unerring accuracy. In any just world, this tough, tensile, multifaceted performance would be the part that catapults Chau to stardom, but already there have been rumblings of disquietude about her broken English, that very contemporary squeamishness that labels anything creating the slightest discomfiture as “problematic.” (Chau has, in interviews, addressed this insipidity with more grace and authority than I could summon.) It’s a crying shame, because she has given one of the most human and wholly invested performances in recent American movies, by turns comic and somber, hard-edged and meltingly vulnerable, as when seen in tearful confession or in the first heavy breath of the most tender and true romantic interlude I expect to see at the multiplex this decade.

Downsizing is largely a movie of immigrants—Ngoc Lan, Dusan, and Joris—and this is unusual for Payne, though the immigrant and migrant experience color his view of Americana as much as they did that of, say, Elia Kazan. Payne is not so very far removed from it. In fact, the child of Greek-descended restaurateurs—the family name was anglicized from Papadopoulos—and the family business might explain why he is responsible for some of the finest crap-restaurant establishing shots in cinema. (There’s a doozy in Downsizing, of a certain La Casa Pizzeria.) Even all-American white bread Paul, with the surname Safranek, is marked as the descendent of the Czech Bohemian immigrants who flooded the Nebraska prairie in the nineteenth century, a mass movement most famously reflected in fiction by the title character in Willa Cather’s 1918 novel My Ántonia. As with the plain, often awkward speech of Cather’s Ántonia, Ngoc Lan’s imperfect mastery of her adopted language enriches rather than impoverishes the tongue: Ántonia’s exclamation, “Ain’t it wonderful, Jim, how much people can mean to each other?” is touching and eloquent in its clunkiness, and there is something of the same spirit in Ngoc Lan’s point-blank proposition to Paul, “What kind of fuck you give me?”

The development of the Ngoc Lan character by Payne, Taylor, and Chau might be seen as an extension of Payne’s 14e Arronsidement, the shining highlight of the otherwise unremarkable 2006 omnibus film Paris, je t’aime, which follows Margo Martindale—seen in a cameo in Downsizing—as a plus-size American tourist in Paris, narrating her holiday in an interior monologue of slow, graceless Midwestern-accented French. It’s a film that distills Payne’s risky compulsion to make films that force an audience to confront their prejudices and preconceptions—in both instances, accent-based—as he does his own, a prickly process of moving past the general to the specific that leaves him exposed to charges of condescension along the way. At a moment that celebrates unimpeachably “nice” filmmakers, Payne continues to be less concerned with trumpeting his virtues than with pressing viewers to question their own.

In most films, Paul would have to pick a side between the poles defined by Dusan and Joris on one hand and Ngoc Lan on the other, between pleasure and principle—but Payne is not most filmmakers, thank God. Instead he brings the entire quartet together to move from Leisureland to the fjords of Norway and the original downsizing commune, where preparations are now underway to move underground in anticipation of an extinction-level event, a final retreat that Paul is invited to join in the name of greater good. This turn might, along with the movie as a whole, be taken as a satire of eco-panic and our fretting over carbon footprints, but there’s less than nothing here to mark Payne and Taylor as climate-change deniers. Downsizing is, rather, addressing itself to a culture of buying dispensation through lifestyle, through conscientious consumer choices, while keeping suffering abstract, at the comfortable distance of that TV box. Pleasure and principle, rather than playing foils, are as one. They are two forms of affirmation, holding ground rather than running away and going down under the ground ’cause death’s coming ’round. The film’s climax finds Paul again at a crossroads—or, rather, facing another long corridor. I won’t reveal what happens from here, but will only say that Payne and his collaborators have not shrunk from any challenge.

Nick Pinkerton

Downsizing opens in select theaters on Friday, December 22nd.