(Editor’s Note: Three years ago, Carmen Petaccio and Taylor Sardoni exchanged 15,000 words of email correspondence about the ten most notable films of 2013. No one was ever able to determine why. Now they’re at it again.)
Sardoni Selects 2: An Exhaustive Email Exchange: Part Onex
CARMEN: We’ll begin our discussion of movies by discussing a television show, which shouldn’t be taken as an indictment because I hold both industries in equal contempt. Westworld: It’s literally all we have, but is it any good?
SARDONI: First of all, thanks for inviting me for another edition of the ‘End of the Year’ movie (and TV) talk. Is Westworld any good? Short answer: I guess? As far as craft goes, I’m a big fan of the CG work. The show carries on the tradition of well-made genre TV that we’ve had the pleasure of receiving these last few years. I also find it interesting that a show attempting to humanize robots is as hollow and disconnected from emotion as the robots themselves. Maybe that is the real twist: Westworld, like its host characters, will slowly evolve into something that makes the audience think and feel. …But probably not. I agree with the creator’s brother, British accents trick us into thinking they’re smarter then they actually are. High quality, big budget entertainment? Yes. Well-constructed storytelling that does not rely on twists and actually cares about its characters? Not so much. That’s not the short answer. I’ll give you one better: Give me LOST back.
CP: Taylor, we’re glad to have you. As you’ve said, Westworld‘s lack of emotional depth could be a conscious choice on the part of the creators, a reflection of the robots’ long march to sentience over the course of the series. Out of context, I’d be prone to agree. But my problems with the Nolan brothers’ movies are mirrored almost perfectly by Westworld, so it’s hard for me not to view the shallowness as a pattern. Conceits override character throughout their work, but I think Westworld‘s premise subverts emotional connection to an even greater degree. LOST went south when it started to privilege explanation of its central mystery over the exploration of its characters, and Westworld, at least what we’ve seen so far, seems to continue in that frustrating tradition. During one of too many exposition dumps, a character explains that consciousness isn’t a pyramid, it’s a maze, but Westworld definitively presents its viewer with a pyramid/mountain to scale–a straight shot upward from unknowing to knowing. A sherpa would be superfluous. The characters play no part in my engagement with the show, which makes for a much more tenuous bond.
In this way, Westworld most reminds me of The Hunger Games, a series whose artistic value was deeply rooted in the strength of its allegories. Westworld never offers a true protagonist like Katniss (and probably suffers for it), but the existential plights of its characters–the blinding draw of nostalgia, the search for true stakes in a fictional universe, the underlying barbarity of modern society–feel consequential. The same logic applies to one of our selected movies, The Lobster. You weren’t as keen on it as I was. Show your work.
TS: To be clear, I wasn’t actually suggesting that the lack of emotionality in Westworld was a conscious choice on the creators’ part. (Editor’s Note: Liar.) I was attempting to portray the type of obsessive, preposterous theories that the Reddit-loving crazies would come up with. So we agree on our assessment of Westworld: it’s all about keeping you guessing rather than trying to make you feel. But we don’t necessarily agree on The Lobster. I’ll be the first to say that The Lobster demands to be seen more than once, and I really appreciate what it sets out to do — and I think for a large portion of the film is a success. But something in the final act feels like a letdown to me. I admire The Lobster more than I ‘like’ it. It demands multiple viewings, but do we really want to watch it again? You and I are big fans of Colin Farrell, so we’re not going to blame him. To me, the film’s weakness is in its directing. Sometimes objective, sometimes subjective, I never feel like I am in steady hands. Which is strange considering the director’s previous film, Dogtooth, was made with such confidence. In the end, The Lobster is an interesting portrait of these miserable characters striving to find some type of peace, yet never it rises above a very awesome concept. It’s a good film that falls just short of greatness.
For me, a film that succeeds in making its objectivity a subjective experience is Manchester by the Sea. The directing, so simple and clear, is well done, but it’s the writing and performances that really elevate the material to create something that feels organic. I have much more to say, but I’d like to hear your take…
CP: Here’s my take: The lack of emotionality in Westworld could totally be a conscious choice on the creators’ part. No joke. I’ve written multiple (thankfully unpublished) blog posts about the subtextual economics of Gremlins. The only thing that stands between me and verifiable madness is the energy it takes to create a Reddit account.
Moving on, I’m pleased that you’ve segued from The Lobster to Manchester by the Sea, two films that differ much less than their synopses would suggest. The Lobster takes place in a world where humans are regularly transformed into animals, but I’m not sure that Manchester‘s premise, given the intensity of its central tragedy, is any less fantastic. Both of these films employ the language of realism as a means to interrogate an abstract, ineluctable grief, and I think that’s apparent in the respective lead performances of Colin Farrell and Casey Affleck, each of which rely heavily on stammered speech and stifled expression. Past loss precludes present connection in Manchester and The Lobster, but, strangely, I found The Lobster‘s treatment of the problem to be more nuanced, memorable, and, most important, honest. Too much of Manchester felt like contrivance to me, a rich New Yorker’s projection of working class Boston. You smartly spoke of objectivity and subjectivity, and my problems with Manchester likely stem from an over-reliance on objectively depressing events that don’t allow for a subjective experience of sadness. If you commissioned a focus group to invent the saddest possible plot point, that focus group would likely produce what comes to pass in Manchester. It’s cheap. Add that to the convenience of some of the later scenes, and Manchester feels like a much more closed, limited investigation of sadness than The Lobster. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the contrast between the two films’ endings. Feel free to disagree, but what recent movie ends better than The Lobster?
The ending of The Lobster
was fantastic in theory, but at that point I wasn’t emotionally involved at all. This is what makes our different perspective on Manchester
so interesting. Whether it accomplishes the goals for each viewer or not, Manchester
is always attempting to capture and engage its audience, while The Lobster
feels like it’s distancing itself in almost theoretical, Brechtian way. As emotionally manipulating as it may be (and it could have been far worse), Manchester
does a good job of actively drawing you into its world–whether you’re a rich New Yorker, a working class Bostonian, or two jerks from New Jersey
For me, what you thought was contrivance speaks to the strengths of the film. During Manchester, I felt like I was watching something so true and honest that each viewer would have a different reaction, like small town neighbors processing a piece of gossip. You don’t have to suffer that type of tragic loss depicted to appreciate the film; the story sets out to tell an emotional story about unemotional characters. I bought it. Aside from some ‘stagey’ moments, I think the main problem with the film is the hype that surrounds it. Manchester by the Sea is meant to be seen and appreciated (or lambasted) in private, by yourself. I don’t think it wants to be as universal or profound as some are making it out to be. It only wants to create a portrait of tragedy, lyrical in story and style.
Let’s talk about another polarizing filmmaker, the one who crafted this year’s “other wiener movie.” Wiener-Dog was one of the top films on your list, isn’t that right?
CP: This wretched year doesn’t deserve the likes of Wiener-Dog. Like Moonlight, which we’ll talk about later, Wiener-Dog‘s structure is more short story collection than novel, a series of interrelated vignettes whose connective tissues alternately swell with strength and stretch to breaking. Divided into four mostly discrete stories, all featuring the unfortunate dachshund of the title, Wiener-Dog soars where, for me, films like Manchester idly hover low to the ground. It bores into everyday tragedy without fetishizing it, and finds beauty in American ugliness not by refuting that ugliness, but by engaging with it honestly, without pity. An early scene simply shows the dachshund lying in her cage, alone, having soiled herself because her new foster family fed her human food. Here you have another strain of inarticulable sadness–the suffering of animals–but there are valences to this quiet tragedy that the loud one of Manchester forgoes. You have the humans’ active role in the animal’s suffering, then their blind indifference to it, and whether or not the dog understands or feels the injustice (she does) is beside the point: her helplessness is a recognizably human one. As with the most vulnerable among us, circumstance has foisted great suffering upon this wiener-dog while denying it a voice to express that suffering. Todd Solondz, the director, tunes us right into the frequency of that silent pain. In an era when people have proudly resumed treating other people like animals, the ethical treatment of animals becomes a paramount philosophical concern.
Now, as a militant vegetarian with a gender nonconforming rescue dog, I am very much the target demo for this shit, but that’s just one brilliant shot among hundreds. The diversity of the stories that elevate Wiener-Dog
also limit discussion of the film, as each sequence demands an intense critical attention that their numbers deny. I will point interested parties to Richard Brody’s rapturously unhinged review
, which still manages to capture a mere fraction of the whole. Thoughts?