Tag Archives: Todd Haynes

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 216 – Dark Waters

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A legal drama about the biggest corruption scandal you’ve never heard of, Dark Waters tells the story of lawyer Robert Bilott’s twenty year long fight to expose chemical manufacturer DuPont’s decades of knowing and unapologetic poisoning of a town, a country, and the entire world. Visited by a West Virginian farmer named Wilbur Tennant, whose livestock and falling prey to unusual medical conditions and dying, Bilott – a corporate lawyer who works to help chemical companies pollute within the law – files a lawsuit, and slowly begins to uncover the company’s secrets.

For José, it’s a film that fits neatly amongst director Todd Haynes’ previous work, which often focuses on power relations and the struggles of the oppressed, sidelined or disenfranchised. For Mike, it might be a new Spotlight, another film about the exposure of vast, historical, institutional wrongdoing. But don’t believe the trailer that makes it look all blood and thunder – Dark Waters, though compelling and dramatic, is a slow burner, methodical and careful, and with a scope that looks beyond the details of the law. The town of Parkersburg, WV is shown in portrait, with shots evocative of Depression-era photography, and Bilott is an interesting character, a man who appears uncomfortable within his own body, whose determination to uncover the truth grows alongside his paranoia that something bad will happen to him, and whose relationship with his wife is a constant that is reframed intriguingly in the film’s final movement.

Dark Waters is a fascinating, intelligent, complex thriller that gives its themes room to express themselves and is full of details and moments that speak to entire inner lives and ways of thinking. Make sure you see it.

(Mike would also like to apologise to Bucky Bailey, one of DuPont’s most unfortunate victims and perhaps the film’s central emotional tentpole, for referring to him as Bucky Barnes, who is the guy from the Avengers films who sports a prosthetic arm and does nothing interesting.)

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

A Moment of Poetry in Far From Heaven

Seeing Todd Haynes´Far From Heaven (2002) recently, I was struck once again by the beauty and power of the work. Like with the greatest of films, new and different aspects of it catch one´s eye, in this latest instance the shot you can see above. Cathy (Julianne Moore) thinks her husband Frank (Dennis Quaid) is working late so she goes to his office to bring him his dinner only to discover him embracing another man. The shock of the revelation, visualised for us through a brilliant white light, makes her flee back into the darkness of the corridor, a canted angle showing her state of mind as her husband´s lover races past her.

The clip above begins in a medium close-up when she enters the elevator, shocked, out of breath, her face as if about to cry but not quite doing so. The shot then dissolves into  the exterior of the Whittaker house, her house, lights on at night, with the camera low on the ground moving up past the doorway of the house, further into the darkness, then cranes up through some bushes like in a horror film and zooms in towards the light of a window, where Cathy is framed as if in prison, looking away from the camera to await the horror to come.

It´s a beautiful shot. Why the dissolve rather than a cut? Because this revelation is the cause of her house becoming a prison instead of a home. The knowledge of one thing actualises, shapes the conditions of Cathy´s subsequent existence. The shot of her shaken with the revelation in the lift becomes her entombed and imprisoned in her home, only partly visible through a window that looks like it has bars in it. We don´t get too close to her either and remain outside. A car´s headlights, ominous, and threatening, announces the arrival of Frank.

It´s a shot in which each beat is thought through, expressive, telling us not only the story as is but through metaphor, allusion, rhymings, through a particular usage of film form, also both distilling and expanding the meaning of a moment that seems true and beautiful, finding what seems the perfect form for its expression. Seeing it again, I thought this is what poetry in film looks and feels like.

It´s a shot, that like much of the film, also brought to mind Douglas Sirk´s All That Heaven Allows (1955), particularly the moment, just before Cary´s (Jane Wyman) children arrive but after she´s given up Ron (Rock Hudson) where the camera moves from children singing Christmas Carols to Cary´s icy tears, her house also now a prison.

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José Arroyo

Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt, USA, 2017)

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I want to write on this great film in the greater length it deserves. But for now, in the absence of time and to encourage as many people as possible to see it: Kelly Reichardt is the great poet of contemporary American cinema. The West, the poor, marginalised or oppressed; a loneliness and ache lived against wonders of nature are some of her themes. Here, three interlinked stories of four women in Montana, framed through windows, or from outside the windshields of their cars, always near but always separated by something, at a distance, some trying to help, some trying to cheat, some oblivious to the passions they incite; all doing their best in difficult and often lonely circumstances. From the beginning, when you see Laura Dern framed in a circular mirror on the edge of the frame whilst the back of her adulterous lover occupies a larger portion of the rest, their looking at each other fractured for us through peeks at mirrors, the compositions are superbly expressive.  Certain Women is so beautiful, visually and narratively, and the actors so superb: it will be a long time before I forget the image of Lily Gladstone’s beautiful face, stars in her eyes as she gazes longingly at Kristen Stewart. What a great film.

 

José Arroyo