World-Historical Worries

World-Historical Worries

David Lowery’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium, Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess


David Lowery sets his much-praised drama of crime and romantic love, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, in a small-town Southern past that’s been run, for softening purposes, through the mythography machine. “This was in Texas,” reads the opening title; but when it was exactly, I’d be hard-pressed to say.

Neither the vehicles nor the firearms do much to specify the period, the former being chrome-detailed six-seaters when new (and rattling, rusted-out trucks when not), the latter conforming to a traditionalist’s preference for revolvers and shotguns, with not an automatic in sight. At the local roadhouse, a crowd that’s modern enough to be interracial drinks to old-fashioned music of indeterminate vintage. Most touching of all these details of bygone folkways is the method that the story’s beautiful, tragic lovers use to correspond. They do it with paper and pencil, beginning each letter with the formal greeting that schoolchildren used to practice: Dear Ruth, comma. Dear Bob.

If you were to insist that I venture a date for the action, I might guess 1967, for reasons that are purely film-historical. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints may draw on motifs of guilt and redemption that run deep in America, but judging from the attitude that Lowery adopts toward Ruth and Bob, I suspect his imagination takes off from a point no further back than the premiere of Bonnie and Clyde.

“They’re young—they’re in love—and they kill people.” So boasted the Bonnie and Clyde ad campaign, summarizing an outlaw glamour that scandalized some viewers in 1967 and thrilled many others. For Saints, Lowery has not cast any stars as Vogue-ready as Faye Dunaway, nor has he played up the sense of high spirits that pervaded much of Bonnie and Clyde, but he does begin his movie with a lushly pretty evocation of a bond that will be sealed in violence. Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck are made to seem very young as Ruth and Bob, with Mara acting fierce but looking more birdlike than ever with her hair pulled back in two balled-up ponytails, and Affleck setting his level-eyed, square-cut face like a plaque that certifies guilelessness. They’re so in love that they fight over which one is glued more eternally to the other. And although they aren’t quick to kill people, they do shoot and wound within the first five minutes or so of the movie, bungling an elliptically edited robbery that ends with their partner dead, a sheriff gushing blood, Bob frog-marched toward jail and Ruth left behind with a baby on the way.

With that prologue concluded, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints settles down to its main business: to evoke the longing between these criminal lovers by arranging a very protracted homecoming for Bob. Having escaped from prison after four years, he slowly makes his way toward Ruth, who has been waiting for him with the faithfulness of her biblical namesake. On Bob’s side, the conduct of the journey is sometimes barefoot and desperate but always singleminded. On Ruth’s side, though, the waiting is perhaps tinged with ambivalence. Suggestions arise that she might feel bound to Bob not only by love but also, less happily, by a guilty sense of obligation. It’s also possible that she is not unaffected by the gentle, protective attention of the sheriff (Ben Foster) who was wounded in the aftermath of the robbery, and who has now become more than forgiving toward her. Lowery’s subtle storytelling, and Mara’s cagey performance, keep these hints in play just under the movie’s surface. Still, when Ruth repeatedly denies knowing of an impending visit from Bob, her defiance comes across like a proud announcement: he’ll be here any day.

Bonnie, too, longed for Clyde, even though he was always with her. For them, it was a matter of sexual dysfunction—but their lives went on. The world didn’t hold its breath in suspense. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is all about the suspense. It’s conceived and directed as if Bonnie and Clyde had been made by Terrence Malick—not the Malick of Badlands, who had witnessed evil incarnate and did not blink, but the prayerful author of To the Wonder, who thinks God’s grace needs a boost from the cinematographer. Lowery aestheticizes and (as the title says) spiritualizes his story from the moment of the first Malick-like handheld shot, which makes the viewer seem to jolt along in pursuit of Ruth as she walks away through the fields. Every action, even if violent, is accompanied on the soundtrack by a sweetly droning, chittering, meditative string ensemble. Most of the images, no matter the time of day, are bathed in deep, moody tones, as if the camera had been set behind a bottle of the best Vermont maple syrup.

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints isn’t a bad movie, assuming you don’t mind getting sticky. But as it rolls through the theaters, picking up accolades and viewers, it makes me question the willingness of present-day art-house patrons to accept sentimentality and nostalgia in the guise of sanctified sin. Is it because the tougher-minded ticket-buyers are at home, watching Breaking Bad? Forty-odd years ago, a mass audience was ready to be amused at the sight of Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, two unmistakable movie stars, playing outlaw yokels who imagined themselves in the movies. That same audience was also willing to see the fun end, in carnage so horrible that it took the breath away. Today, to serve the taste of a niche audience, Mara and Affleck don’t look as artificial as movie stars—but whatever signifiers of “grit” and “authenticity” and “old, weird America” that Lowery ladles onto his lovers are washed away, in the end, in a tasteful lamb’s blood substitute that’s soy-based and GMO-free. Hallelujah.

* * *

The movie contractually known as Lee Daniels’ The Butler begins with winning vitality—how could it not, when Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey are on the screen?—but all too soon settles into a homiletic rut. Two ruts, actually. In one familiar track, the movie lumbers chronologically through an abbreviated version of the struggle for racial justice, from the administrations of Eisenhower through Reagan (with an abrupt, final lurch into the Obama years). On the parallel track, a father and his son grow apart, quarrel bitterly but ultimately come to appreciate one another.

The father, Cecil Gaines (Whitaker), serves for decades as a butler in the White House, proudly working a job that both rewards and reinforces the caution, reticence and self-control that were beaten into him from his earliest days in the Georgia cotton fields. The son, Louis (David Oyelowo), is the first in the family to attend college, and makes use of this advantage to reject all caution, progressing in a few years from lunch-counter protester to Black Panther.

The gradualist learns the virtues of activism (after the activist has abandoned them in the 1980s for electoral politics), and the activist learns to respect the survival skills of the gradualist. You’ve seen it before. What you haven’t seen is a movie that makes these two stock figures into dueling Zeligs, each threatening to outdo the other in his genius for popping up at great moments.

When the Klan ambushes and firebombs the Freedom Riders outside of Anniston, when Bull Connor turns on the fire hoses in Birmingham, when Dr. King takes a moment to rest in the Lorraine Motel, Louis is right there, often in a position to get his face on television. And when Eisenhower debates whether to send federal troops to Little Rock, when Johnson (sitting on the toilet) mulls over the chances of the Voting Rights Act, when Nixon dreams up his black enterprise scheme to counter Black Power, Cecil is right there, wearing his white gloves and deadpan expression. Neither father nor son ever takes a day off from history—which is improbable and undramatic, but not as improbable and undramatic as casting the likes of Robin Williams and Alan Rickman as American presidents and then making them play their parts straight.

It’s all well-intentioned, and vivid in its portrayal of the murderous brutality that white people have used against black; but the movie is also so dutiful that it made me long for the lurid excess of Daniels’s previous effort, The Paperboy. The screenplay, which is not Daniels’s fault, is by Danny Strong. People who ache to see a movie about the civil rights era, or a well-acted black family melodrama, will no doubt forgive the script’s clunkiness. A more demanding audience is waiting for Strong’s next project—parts two and three of The Hunger Games—and might not be so kind.

You’ve read about it in The Time Machine; you’ve seen it in Metropolis. Now, in Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium, the most old-fashioned of futuristic fantasies is back—the one in which the classes are physically separated into upper and lower tiers, the people in the former enjoying riches, health and a high geographic position (in the present case, orbiting above Earth), while those in the latter toil and perish in the ugliness below.

As pop-movie social criticism goes, this conceit can’t compare with the yarn Blomkamp dreamed up for his excellent debut feature, District 9, about extraterrestrials trapped in an apartheid shantytown where they have been made into a drug-addled underclass. Almost anything Blomkamp wrote and directed after that would have been a disappointment, so I’m happy to say that this second feature, despite the inevitable falling off, gives some satisfaction.

Mostly, though, I want to pause over Elysium because of its opening shot.

The camera flies over an endless, wasted cityscape of teeming, crumbling buildings, from which the smoke plumes of uncontrollable fires rise here and there. This, as it turns out, was the prevailing visual trope of the past summer movie season. Used again and again in the early scenes of big-budget releases—in Elysium, World War Z, even This Is the End—the shot translates the standard sci-fi threat of planetary disaster into a mode of hindsight rather than prophecy, of contemplation rather than urgency. Global catastrophe having already occurred, we gaze on the outcome from above, surveying a devastated Earth with indifferent curiosity even while being asked to identify with this or that hero battling away in the ruins.

Did the increasing prevalence of this trope signify some new development in our culture, or was it merely the product of coincidence? I haven’t the foggiest. All I know is that writer-director Andrew Bujalski also looked back meditatively on the end of the human world in Computer Chess, the summer’s biggest little-movie surprise. All that was missing from his survey was a hero.

Made with far more droll wit than money, Computer Chess returns you to around 1980 for a competition among programmers, who have gathered to test their machines in a round-robin chess tournament. Although world-historical worries surface now and then—speculations about the impact on humans of artificial intelligence, and rumors of the usefulness of computer chess research to the Department of Defense—the characters generally focus on more immediate concerns: team rivalries, software glitches, the use of recreational substances and the presence this year of a woman (welcome!). The programmers, many of whom are played by nonprofessionals, are made to seem as endearingly ungainly as the era’s big-box computers with their cursors blinking on phosphorescent screens, or as the black-and-white videotape cameras that seem to have recorded the movie.

One of the pleasures of Computer Chess, as Kent Jones remarked in Film Comment, is its relaxed and faithful depiction of the manners of a brainy little society. Another pleasure, maybe, is its rewiring of film history. Much of Computer Chess seems to be a reversal of 2001: A Space Odyssey, complete with machine-human rivalry, the manifestation of a mystical fetus, and an iris shot (from the computer’s point of view) of two men wondering how to make the program behave. The period is the past rather than Kubrick’s future, the image quality is crummy rather than spectacular, the technology is laughable rather than awe-inspiring, and this time (spoiler alert) the machines win. For good measure, Bujalski also puts some spin on another film by Kubrick (a onetime chess hustler), The Shining, setting Computer Chess not in a grand old Colorado hotel but in a cheap new motel in Austin, Texas, where the spooky presences are cats who multiply in the rooms, and the innocent who wanders the halls is a fresh-faced programmer from MIT.

By ignoring a great many details that do not fit into these connections, I might be falling prey to a confirmation bias. (Another reason to like Computer Chess: it’s the kind of movie in which characters warn one another against such fallacies.) But if Bujalski did not want me to think about film history, why did he cast a movie critic, Gerald Peary, as the grandmaster who presides over the tournament? If we must endlessly gaze on global catastrophe in the movies, greeting it not with a whimper but a satisfied yawn, I’d rather do it in the company that Bujalski has devilishly assembled.

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