Survivor’s Guilt and a Phoenix Soaring to Rarefied Cinematic Heights

Phoenix - In the Ashes

War can change a person to where they become unrecognizable to their loved ones and to themselves.  It can ravage people and places.  It can disfigure a person’s body and soul.

Writer-director Christian Petzold takes this idea literally in his masterful new neo-noir, Phoenix, where his long-time muse, Nina Hoss, delivers a performance for the ages as Nelly, a concentration camp survivor who undergoes facial reconstruction surgery and then finds herself in the psychologically complex predicament of having to go under disguise as another woman pretending to be herself so as to find out the truth about her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), who may or may not have been the one who betrayed her to the Nazis during the war.

Phoenix - Club

Despite the warnings of her friend and confidant, Lene (a bleak and soulful Nina Kuzendorf) who hopes for Nelly to rest and recover while she works out the legality of claiming Nelly’s family inheritance so that they can join the flux of survivors to Palestine, Nelly wanders the ravaged Berlin landscape mourning bombed out homes, hiding under a widow’s mask and traipsing through the shadows like a Frankenstein monster until she comes across the down-and-out Phoenix nightclub where American soldiers mix with the German underbelly looking to ply them with sex and show tunes.  Nelly, a former torch signer, and Johnny, a former pianist, find themselves in this hellish version of their former lives, both on the outskirts looking in, not able to perform.  He sees her as someone who looks vaguely like his dead wife, who he now wishes to resurrect so he can collect the inheritance (which he promises to split with her if she plays along).  She sees him as a shell of the man she once fell in love with and who she desperately wishes she could fall in love with again. Thus a grand charade begins, and they are soon caught up in perverse duplicity where emotions and guilt run high.

Petzold films scenes in perfect frames and shadows, evoking a chamber-piece version of The Third Man, without it ever seeming overly stylish.  Meanwhile Hoss’ physical stiffness is in stark contrast to her otherwise subtle performance where she speaks volumes with her eyes and facial expressions – expertly showing the audience the dichotomy of her predicament where she must hide herself from everyone while inside her inner turmoil runneth over (leaving Nelly to literally lurch).  It’s such a controlled performance (inside such a controlled, economic film where not a single shot or line of dialogue is wasted) that when Nelly’s full transformation occurs at the film’s end, it a pure moment of cinematic awe where the audience is left gasping.

SPOILER ALERTS – DO NOT READ AHEAD IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THE FILM – It is highly recommended you see the film on as clean a slate as possible, then come back and read the following paragraphs to join the conversation.

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Sending a Scout to the Dark Tower in Go Set a Watchman

Go Set a Watchman Book Cover

Ever wonder what happened to Jean Louise Finch aka Scout when she grew up?  Well wonder no more.  It’s rare to witness a literary phenomenon, but Harper Lee’s long wondered about sequel to her iconic classic, To Kill a Mockingbird, is one such “once in a life-time” event.  In Go Set a Watchman, Scout is a young woman living in New York who comes home to the fictional Maycomb County, Alabama and witnesses nothing short of the shattering of her idol and father, Atticus Finch, when she catches him, along with her wanna-be fiancé, Henry, at an unseemly town hall meeting full of racist rhetoric.

“Oh dear me, yes. The novel must tell a story.” – page 188

By now the story behind the story has almost over-taken the novel.  Originally written before To Kill a Mockingbird, but returned to Lee by the publisher requesting she flesh out the childhood flashbacks of her protagonist and make something of that instead, Go Set a Watchman is both a prequel and a sequel (or a prequel sequel if you will).  When you read those flashback scenes, it’s easy to see why the publisher was more tickled by those, and perhaps the tone of the rest of the novel was too volatile at the time.  Lee has quite the gift for gab, and in her dialogue, which is both colorful and occasionally pedantic (Scout’s voice is clearly a vehicle for some impassioned politic views) she has crafted a book that is almost all talk.  Her dialogue perfectly captures place, time and feelings…it’s as if she has transported us back to the Deep South in the 1950’s at the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement that would define a generation (a nifty almost post-modern trick as when she wrote this – this was now). Continue reading

Yes, Virginia, Season Two of True Detective was Better than Season One

…but there is no Santa Claus.  If I’m gonna be controversial, might as well go whole hog.

Umm…obviously there are spoilers here, so if you didn’t watch all of Season Two yet, go watch it, and then come back and read and share your thoughts with The Spin.

True Detective Season 2 Highways

With the finale of True Detective’s Season Two now in the books, everyone is playing Monday morning quarterback.  Some, like Vox Culture’s marginally clueless Todd VanDerWerff, have gone as far as saying the whole season (finale included) was an utter disaster.  I have to ask what the hell he was watching?  While he does make a few fair points (that he then overstates), his point #3 that, “The plot was way, way too complicated” is utter hogwash.  Complaining that a noir detective series has a plot that is too complicated is like ordering a burger topped with a fried egg and complaining that the yolk got all over the meat.  The general consensus, however, is that it paled in comparison to Season One and for the most part (despite some intriguing individual sequences, like the shoot-out cluster-f*** or the much ballyhooed orgy party) was a mess.  Well, if it was a mess (and by some measures it was, especially in the early going), then it was one helluva entertaining mess: a sprawling, dark, lurid, occasionally brilliant, always fascinating, mess that was more twisted than the LA area highways crosscutting the seedy badlands (and fictional Vinci) where our characters lived and died.  Many complained throughout the season that the most intriguing character on the show was the LA highway system.  It was one of the characters, and like, hello, it was also symbolic. And, sure, the symbolism on the show hit ya with a sledgehammer sometimes.  But at least it had the brains to be symbolic.

Though it lacked the singular cohesion that director Cary Fukunaga brought the eight episodes of Season One, this new season still brought much of the same in tone and style (from the freaky opening credits done this time to the creepy Leonard Cohen dirge “Nervermind,” to the great music both in terms of score and Lera Lynn’s haunting bar tunes, to the stunning cinematography).  Sadly, “much of the same” is seemingly all most fans wanted, and even though creator, writer and producer Nic Pizzolatto made it very clear this was an anthology series where the seasons would all be stand alone self-contained stories with a fresh cast playing all new characters each time, people lamented the absence of Rust (Matthew McConaughey) and Marty (Woody Harrelson), whose chemistry, banter, philosophizing and ultimate bromance turned them into mythic pop culture characters.

Yes, here in Season Two we had more characters with more complications and a convoluted plot involving crooked cops, secret identities, repression, sex, politics, drug lords and cover-ups that made viewers work for the payoff.  And while the season started off confusing and meandering, all those twisted highways and plot points converged in a finale that brought everything to a rousing close.  Continue reading