Ewen Bremmer, Chloe Sevigny, Werner Herzog
US theatrical: 15 Oct 1999 (Limited release)
It’s safe to say that no other film released in 1999 approaches Julien Donkey-Boy in audacity, ambition, bewilderment, discomfort, and, ultimately, success. Drawing from Faulkner, Cassavetes, Danish formalists like Lars Von Trier, and of course German master Werner Herzog, writer/director Harmony Korine assembled a startlingly original piece of work that is that rarest of things: an almost wholly successful experimental film.
The film centers around what Roger Ebert somewhat dryly called “a very dysfunctional family.” German auteur Werner Herzog plays the abusive, ranting father, who drinks cough syrup out of a shoe, talks at considerable length about recordings of bird-talking championships and the movie Dirty Harry, and never stops berating his children. Trainspotting‘s Ewen Bremner is the titular Julien, a basically lovable schizophrenic prone roughly equally to fits of sorrow, rage, tenderness, and insensibility. Trying to protect Julien from their abusive father and from his own destructive impulses is his sister, portrayed by Chole Sevigny; the only source of acceptance or love in Julien’s life, he comes to think of her as more than just a sister (hint: she’s pregnant for most of the film). Finally, there’s the younger brother trying to be everything his family is not: strong, successful, and above all, normal. These relationships are, in essence, the film’s plot. There is no action, per se, aside from charting the developments (or lack thereof) between the characters. In that sense, you could call Julien Donkey-Boy a kind of love story.
The film borrows heavily from several sources. Structurally, there are traces of Faulkner, with the film recreating the disjointed and temporally dislodged perspective of a schizophrenic, as in The Sound and the Fury. Dramatically, the scenes of the awkward dinners of a family on the edge of complete madness recalls Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence.
Julien Donkey Boy was also the first American film made in accordance with the rules of Dogme 95, a now-defunct set of formal filmmaking constraints pioneered in Denmark and popularized by the likes of Lars Von Treir (Breaking the Waves) and Thomas Vinterberg (The Celebration). A minimalist movement focused on capturing real life as accurately as possible, Dogme Films must abide by a strict and somewhat arcane set of rules (one of them involves the film’s aspect ratio). The most important ones, however, are the basic ideas that the film must use available light, the filmmakers must not import any props, and that all camera work must be handheld. These restraints give the film the gripping immediacy of real life (as well as much of its muddled confusion).
Despite these debts, much of the film is pure Korine. The man behind films like KIDS and Gummo, Korine cemented his personal style with this film. First of all, it’s devastatingly funny. Even in the most intense scenes, there is an intentionally laughable absurdity that leavens things, usually comes in the form of a heavily-accented and possibly rhyming put-down form Herzog, as when he shouts “A winner doesn’t shiver!” while hosing down Julien in the freezing pre-dawn. It’s a complicated idea that you can be moved and scared and laughing all at once; it’s something that happens often in real life, but is nearly impossible to convey on screen.
Julien also continues Korine’s obsession with life on the fringe, with several real-life disabled people on screen. Are we supposed to laugh at the amputee drumming with his legs? What about the rapping black albino? Well, yes and no. These people are obviously a bit insane, but they’re also dedicated to overcoming their obstacles and having an amazingly good time doing it. If you have a chuckle about the ridiculousness of it all, well, that can’t be helped.
Julien Donkey-Boy is a complex, confusing, and gripping film, and, despite its characters’ eccentricities, one of the most true-to-life films I’ve ever seen. Chris Chafin
The Straight Story
Richard Farnsworth, Sissy Spacek, Jane Galloway Heitz, Joseph Carpenter, Donald Wiegert, Ed Grennan, Jack Walsh
(Walt Disney Pictures)
US theatrical: 15 Oct 1999
Though I’m embarrassed to admit it now, at the time I sided with those who believed that David Lynch should resign from the Director’s Guild after the 135 minutes of incomprehensibility that was Lost Highway (1997). I was too young to see Blue Velvet (1986) in the theaters, so my introduction to Lynch came by way of Dennis Hopper as Frank Booth hosting “What’s That Smell?” on Saturday Night Live. Though I knew the sketch was a cartoon version of the real thing, I found it weird and wonderful enough that I continued to watch as Special Agent Dale Cooper tracked down Laura Palmer’s killer in Twin Peaks (1990) and as Sailor serenaded Lula in Wild at Heart (1990). Obviously, I wasn’t completely oblivious going in to Lost Highway, yet nothing that Lynch had done previously—not even the student-film surrealism of Eraserhead (1977)—prepared me for the cinematic leap that he was asking me to make. Little did I know that two years later he would ask me to leap again, with the decidedly un-Lynchian The Straight Story (1999).
Films often speak to one another, but The Straight Story is a rare example of a movie that speaks to its predecessor’s detractors. The consensus was that after he posed the narrative challenges of Lost Highway, Lynch then went out of his way to prove that he knew how to make a conventional film. Even the title suggested normalcy: sure, it refers to the real-life Alvin Straight, who, at 73, rode his tractor 240 miles from Laurens, Iowa, to Mount Zion, Wisconsin, to visit his ailing brother, but so too (and no less obviously) does the title refer to the movie’s squeaky-clean “G” rating and a story that unfolds in an almost laughingly linear manner. The only thing more shocking than a naked Isabella Rosellini arriving unannounced at the Beaumonts’ suburban home in Blue Velvet is the word “Disney” preceding “a film by David Lynch” before the opening credits of The Straight Story.
The word “laughingly” above is both unfortunate and accurate. Were it not for Lynch’s track record and Richard Farnsworth’s Oscar-nominated performance as Alvin, the movie’s earnestness would warrant great and deserved derision. A line like “The worst part about being old is remembering when you were young” would never work in a movie by, say, Chris Columbus or Ron Howard, but somehow here Lynch/Farnsworth imbue it with gravitas. There’s no getting around that John Roach and Mary Sweeney’s screenplay is laden with Hallmark-card moments, but Lynch, the proud Eagle Scout, has earned the benefit of a doubt, and, in any case, scoffing at a man who tries to make his final amends ultimately reveals more about me than it does about the filmmakers.
But a discussion of The Straight Story that emphasizes the degree to which it deviates from Lynch’s standard fare ultimately proves to be a lazy interpretation. The more illuminating approach identifies how it seamlessly fits with his other work, for there is no doubt that, atypical though it may be, The Straight Story has Lynch’s scent all over it.
First, the soundtrack: It’s lighter here—it gallops more than it portends—but that is the unmistakable sound of Angelo Badalamenti, a Lynch staple since 1986. In fact, thanks in large part to Badalamenti’s trademark style, the movie’s opening scene—a shot of the night sky and a music cue that feels like a lost track from the Twin Peaks sessions—leaves little doubt as to who was at the helm.
Second, the pace: a character in Mulholland Drive takes a full five minutes of screen time to sip a cappuccino and then spit it out (or that’s what it felt like anyway). Lynch’s pace has been known to be deliberate to the point of boring, and The Straight Story is no exception. Watch as the camera inches—literally—over the lawn as the sunbathing woman first leaves her post and then returns, before it then turns to the house and respectfully keeps its distance as Alvin falls. This is a film that is, at times, S-L-O-W slow. I’d even go so far as to say that it’s as slow as riding a lawnmower across the country.
Finally, the character of Alvin Straight himself. Alvin joins a long list of Lynch’s characters who are driven to the point of being monomaniacal. The difference here is that Alvin isn’t investigating some kind of mystery that will eventually shatter all that he believes about himself and the world. He wants to see his brother. He wants to see his brother real bad. So who cares if this is a quest that Red State America can embrace? Alvin’s monomania is no less intense than any of Lynch’s other heroes.
Nowadays, Lynch seems content to make movies that are increasingly inaccessible for all but the most devoted cinephiles. This is not a criticism. Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire have helped me appreciate Lost Highway, though I still find it a hard movie to love. There are things that, no matter how hard I try, I will never understand. This is what I take from Lynch’s recent work.
But for a time there, at the end of the last century, David Lynch offered something very different. The Straight Story is, appropriately for a director who is so obsessed himself with identity of late, two things in one: on the one hand, it is everything that makes a Lynch film a Lynch film, only in a form that is far easier to digest; on the other, despite the aforementioned argument suggesting otherwise, it is the one movie in his oeuvre that will forever stand out in contrast to the others. Who knew that a simple story, well told would end up being his most radical achievement of them all? Kirby Fields
Beyond the Mat
(as themselves) Mick Foley, Terry Funk, Jake Roberts, Vince McMahon
In 1999, professional wrestling had achieved a status of cultural relevance it hadn’t seen since the ‘80s with Hulk Hogan and hasn’t seen since. During an epoch of professional wrestling dubbed “The Attitude Era”, thanks to a high level of quality of the (admittedly) scripted television storylines, wrestlers and their catchphrases became embedded in the public lexicon. What was once lambasted as lowest-common denominator entertainment had suddenly piqued the public’s curiosity.
During these early days of the internet, rabid fans clamored for insider knowledge. Wrestling’s newfound attempts at scripted realism mined wrestlers’ real-life stories for screen fodder further fueled this fascination. With this in mind, writer/director and long-time wrestling fan Barry W. Blaustein capitalized on professional wrestling’s foothold in popular culture with his documentary, Beyond the Mat.
Blaustein parlayed the public’s fascination with wrestling into a brutally honest, well-rounded documentary that garnered a major theatrical release and distribution through Universal. No mean feat at the time, documentaries were rarely shown in wide theatrical release in a pre-Michael Moore-boom society.
The documentary’s influence on Darren Aronofsky’s recent film and Mickey Rourke comeback vehicle, The Wrestler is apparent. Aronofsky even gave a copy of Beyond the Mat to screenwriter Robert D. Siegel to serve as his muse while writing the script for The Wrestler.
Gritty, alternately heart-warming and heart-wrenching, beneath the sweaty soap opera glamour of wrestling, Beyond the Mat‘s narrative delves deep into the even more dramatic stories of the actor/athletes enshrouded by a super-human persona.
Young, hungry aspiring wrestlers are interviewed as they attempt to break into the ranks of WWE and then-active competitor, WCW. The dreams of these hopefuls are contrasted alongside the business end of wrestling with interviews and footage of WWE head honcho and CEO, Vince McMahon.
The film also separately chronicles the personal stories of wrestlers like the then-53-year old Terry Funk and his protégé, Mick Foley. In spite of the damage done to his body from years of in-ring abuse, Funk’s refuses give up touring and performing. Although he has a loving family at home and is preparing for both his daughter’s wedding and his own retirement, Funk debates whether he can really walk away from wrestling – even at the cost of his physical well-being. It’s not so much the stardom that is addictive, but rather the roar of the crowd and the brotherhood of life on the road.
While the subject of adjusting to a more mundane existence outside the brotherhood of professional wrestling a recurring theme in The Wrestler, the story of wrestler Jake “The Snake” Roberts bears even more of an eerie resemblance to Mickey Rourke’s characterization of Randy “The Ram” Robinson a decade prior.
Beyond the Mat‘s most poignant footage comes during Blaustein’s interviews with a very real and painfully honest Jake “The Snake” Roberts . Once a main eventer with a compelling presence, Roberts’ own personal demons stemming from his troubled childhood translated to a tragic and troubled adulthood complete with drug addiction and a turbulent relationship with an unforgiving daughter. (Sound familiar?)
Almost as hard to digest as Roberts’ tragic presence baring his soul to the lens, is Blaustein’s profiling of Mick Foley. Foley, now a best-selling author who wrestled under as the insane Mankind and sadistic Cactus Jack during WWE’s “Attitude Era” is presented as a normal, grounded, 30-something family man at the top of his game as WWE World Champion. It’s a cringe-worthy moment, watching Foley’s wife and two young children seated ringside as their patriarch is pummeled in the ring, hit repeatedly in the head with a steel folding chair. The outcome and the stunt were pre-planned by Foley and his opponent, The Rock; the tears, fear, and screams of his family – as well as the stitches Foley received post-match – were real.
To hear Foley speak (rather eloquently, actually), the in-ring abuse is part and parcel of what makes wrestlers stars. The more convincing the beatings, the more personal satisfaction these wrestlers feel with their performance. At its crux, Beyond the Mat paints wrestling with a human face, attempting to make sense of an insider’s industry to the outside world that looks on in strange fascination. Lana Cooper
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