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Sundance Dispatch 2: Manchester by the Sea, Lo and Behold and All These Sleepless Nights

Manchester by the Sea

The hype machine has gone well into overdrive on Manchester by the Sea, to the point that many not here but monitoring Twitter are already properly irritable/skeptical. I’ll keep it brief: now past the tribulations of Margaret‘s legal travails, attenuated release and masterpiece status (it’s true!), Kenneth Lonergan has made a very, very strong film. Margaret spun out the complications of a moment’s carelessness and tragedy in multiple directions — legally, personally, professionally — from a single starting point. Manchester processes twin strands of tragedy, both immediate and long-term. Immediate: surly drunk Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is yanked out of his Boston handyman routine by his brother’s sudden death, which requires him to assume at least temporary custody of nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Long-term: a trauma in Lee’s past turned him into the guy who sits in a bar, waiting for the barest non-provocation to punch someone in the face, and it’s not clear whether he’ll ever get past it.

The precise nature of that scarring event doesn’t need to be detailed here, but it’s clear from the get-go that eventually there will be a big reveal. The wait for that is so long that it made me worry, as I’m not wild about psychological explanations in which one specific event patly explains a person’s subsequent life in total. But both the narrative structure and thesis are anti-“closure”: there are some events you don’t get past, no matter how much you’re told that everyone is able to. And Lonergan’s way of revealing the Big Scar is ingenious, with flashbacks coming to Lee in increasingly lengthy shards as he sits in a lawyer’s office. A short meeting is dilated into a much longer sequence, externalizing the way a moment of one person’s time is an eternity of remembrance in someone else’s, and it’s genuinely startling to be yanked out of the flashback back to the lawyer’s office.

As in Margaret, whose soundtrack overflowed with stray bits of overheard-in-New-York dialogue, Manchester is interested in tangents and a polyphony of not always “relevant” voices. It’s also frequently very funny, trading in Margaret‘s coiled angst for something less compactedly urgent. To summarize the film’s virtues might very well be to type out dialogue bits that wouldn’t play on the page, and that seems pointless. Lonergan is the rare trained writer who can write intricately/”correctly” structured films — with plants, reveals, climaxes, et al. — and still seem like he’s discovered something organic and surprising; any putative messiness is intricately designed.

As a director, Lonergan has some weird ideas: an early scene in a hospital between Affleck, a family friend, a doctor and a nurse not only repeatedly violates the 180 degree rule but throws in a further third angle as well, wreaking spatial havoc for no apparent reason. He’s big on lots of establishing shots between scenes (“pillow shots,” if you feel generous) and favors wide/medium-coverage to get through most scenes. But I’m not inclined to cavil. Manchester overflows with ripe dialogue, developed characters, and a toughmindedness that resists the all-American bromide that with a little emotional elbow grease, anyone can transcend their past and get on with it. Lonergan is, indeed, a writer/playwright, but he understands how film can compact trajectories: there’s at least one scene that’s just two lines exchanged between uncle and nephew. That’s a whole shot that needs to be both there and exactly as short as it is, and it’s not a minor moment: it’s the kind of thing you can only do with moving images. This is a great film, but assuredly one to write about more later — this’ll stand for now.

Without my particularly noticing, it’s been five years since I’d last seen a new Werner Herzog film (2011’s Into the Abyss), and longer still since he made a notable one (2009’s My Son My Son What Have Ye Done). Settling into his late-career status as a slightly cartoonish public figure beloved by people who’ve never seen his films, Herzog is now perhaps more #brand than director (a late-period tenure he’s doubtless earned). Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World is a ten-chapter skim of current issues relating to the Internet, regarding which Herzog claims no particular expertise besides omnivorous intellectual curiosity. The title comes from enthusiastic internet pioneer Leonard Kleinrock, who recounts the very first ARPANET message: it was supposed to be “LOG,” but the third character crashed the transmission. “Lo,” he says, is an appropriately Biblical way of introducing a network that (as we experience daily and are told even more frequently) has changed How We Live Now.

Herzog provides a few cranky voiceover broadsides as expected (“the corridors here look repulsive”). The overall trajectory is predictable: pro (internet crowdsourcing to solve medical problems), then con (gamers playing themselves to death), and finally Criswell-predicts musings on the future of cyberwarfare and AI. Actual arguments and details are nebulous: I couldn’t determine from his brief appearance on-screen why Herzog congratulates internet pioneer Ted Nelson as “the only one around here who is clinically sane.” Nelson is, by his own admission, an often-derided outlier, and it’s no surprise that Herzog would want to align himself with a visionary outsider rather than tech proselytizers; he can’t help his nature, but I still learned almost nothing about Nelson’s actual ideas.

A chapter labeled “The Dark Side” sparks curiosity: will we be treated to invective against spam, the  Dark Net, Anonymous? Instead, we’re greeted with a very puzzling tableau of the Catsouras family, whose daughter Nikki died in a 2012 car crash. Corpse photos were spread all over the internet, obviously upsetting the family. They’re presented — in a move familiar to Herzog’s work but different from the talking heads/point-and-shoot majority of the film — as a grotesque tableau: forward-facing the camera around a table, with trays of muffins and pastries for their visitors in the foreground. The ambience is bizarre even before the mother insists “I have always believed that the Internet is a manifestation of the Antichrist.” I suppose the chapter title could be interpreted as “A bad thing about the Internet is that its negative collateral damage could drive someone insane,” but I suspect Herzog is really saying that the pain of Catsouras and other victims of internet malice should give us pause about the technology as a whole. That’s a purely bathetic argument, with Herzog’s off-screen questions coming off as those of a very clumsy leading prosecutor (“Do you still feel the pain?”). I don’t mean to sound insensitive, but I’d suggest that e.g. Jussi Parrika’s work on the environmental fallout of the Internet can raise far more unnerving macro concerns.

That last citation isn’t meant to suggest that I have any particular expertise re the net; I work here, of course, but that’s one of the few pieces I’ve found time to read that helped me think through the Internet in any kind of rigorous way. Herzog doesn’t theorize, but he also doesn’t amuse while playing fast and loose with his theme: when we arrive at robots and AI, the link is still present but tenuous. It’s here that Herzog pulls out his most annoying presumable trump card, a cliche of sci-fiction: can the robots feel love? (A scientist replies, quite rightly, that it’s not productive for robots to love, and he’d be very annoyed if a dishwasher told him it couldn’t wash dishes anymore because it was too in love with the fridge.) We conclude with a reductively Romantic pitting of man against machine, as if we have to choose (as if we could even choose at this point). To hammer home the binary, the final two scenes are a) a scientist wondering if. generations hence, humans will find AI company a sufficient substitute for other carbon-based lifeforms b) an off-the-grid-ish small town in West Virginia with regular group music time. To which I say (with no offense intended to the good folks of W. Va): if my choices for the future are artificial life or daily communal bluegrass sessions, give me the dope robot every time.

This is apparently the entry where I write the least about the movies I like the most. I very much enjoyed Michal Marczak’s underseen first feature At the Heart of Russia, a wry babe-in-den-of-lions variant in which a young Russian conscript undergoes endless drinking bouts and other rites of macho non-passage administered by grizzled veteran soldiers in coldest Siberia. I missed his follow-up Fuck for Forest, but I’m pretty confident that All These Sleepless Nights doesn’t need much directorial context to understand. Very simply, it’s 107 minutes of rich Polish kids partying. The press materials inform us the film is about Warsaw on the cusp of a generation and youthful self-definition, but none of that translates, at least to a non-native audience, and I suspect it’s mostly guff.

The press kit also informs me the main characters are “students,” which I definitely wouldn’t have known from the film. At least we knew Love‘s Murphy was a film student, if only because he said so and ranted about 2001: A Space Odyssey. Far as I can tell, these are just kids with lots of time, money and drugs on their hands, and I can’t say I wasn’t jealous, with a little class chip on my shoulder. The conversations are mostly unedifying, the events unexceptional; I suspect at least half the running time is just people dancing, drinking and drugging. I’m guessing such undiluted Bacchanalianism will tick off quite a few people, but I liked it. Marczak has a good feel for parties, which is where the documentary/fiction hybrid thing comes in: the lead characters (it’s a love triangle, it doesn’t matter), however fictionalized/real their conflicts are, inhabit very real spaces. His own DP, Marczak prowls parties in immaculately framed widescreen, frequently transforming the film into Steadicam: the Movie. There is little sense that he’s trying to tell us something larger or more significant or, lord forbid, connect partying and pathology; he knows exactly who these people are, and he likes them. (The smartest person on screen is the girl in the love triangle. “I’m too into this whole juvenile vibe,” she says. “I need to chill out.” Then she throws a beer bottle at the street — oh well.) The music is excellent throughout, the vibe cheerily debauched without trying too hard to emphasize Magic Moments, and the effect thoroughly enjoyable. I suspect being (or having been) a party person is vital.

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