Read More
A shot of a nervous-looking Talia Ryder in Sean Price Williams's "The Sweet East" (2023).

Whirling Girl: Review of Sean Price Williams’s “The Sweet East” (2023)

Here is an interesting, if haphazard, debut from Sean Price Williams, script courtesy of noted film writer Nick Pinkerton. Is The Sweet East a bildungsroman? Is it a picaresque? Many (including the filmmakers themselves) have attached these labels to the film, but if they are true, then to its credit the film resists conventional approaches. The Sweet East is unafraid to play with form, and this is clear from the get-go: a tender post-sex scene between two young lovers (one of them Talia Ryder’s Lillian, our protagonist) with an almost Cassavetes feel transitions to jump-cuts between the iPhones of several dirty-mouthed, bird-flipping students on a school trip to D.C. Then, in the middle of this raucous grungy indie opening, Lillian seems to notice the camera cramped alongside her in a squalid karaoke bar bathroom and suddenly, forlornly, sings right to it. Are we watching a musical now?

What follows is a journey along the wilds (urban, rural, cultural, emotional, etc.) of the American eastern seaboard as Lillian attempts to improvise a personality that’s commensurate with whatever her adolescent longings seem to signal.

Is she a flat character? I wouldn’t wholesale deny such a description, but I’d say instead that she is a fundamentally simple sort of person: a beautiful girl from Nowheresville, South Carolina who knows she’s beautiful and knows even better how to utilize her looks—as well as others’ assumption of her naivete/guilelessness—to her advantage. What’s most striking, though, is how blasé she is with the rather extraordinary sequence of events she finds herself in: from the ramshackle home of a rich-kid-turned-revolutionary-punk-wannabe with a pierced penis to being kidnapped by a young man who camps out with homosexual Muslim isolationists, she takes it all in stride and always manages to slip away whenever a good opportunity arises. She is continually insulated from real danger, as protected by her beauty and youth as she is by her pluckiness. […]

Read More
A stylized shot of Christian Friedel as Rudolf Höss in Jonathan Glazer's "The Zone of Interest".

Another Side: On Jonathan Glazer’s “The Zone of Interest” (2023)

Have you ever encountered someone who valued his or her veneer above all else? Who was able to forgo any empathy for those suffering in order to maintain such a veneer? Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest is not so much about the Holocaust as it is about our reactions to it, enforcing the notion that even the most extreme suffering, that is, these crimes against humanity, can become—for some—as ordinary and perfunctory as planting a bed of flowers.

The film opens with three and a half minutes of black screen and accompanying sound, to which we are expected to listen (evoking the beginning of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey). Yes, listen, because the sound within this film is every bit a character as the people themselves. Set in beautiful, bucolic Poland, we are presented with scenery that would otherwise seem idyllic, were it not for the Auschwitz death camp within walking distance. […]

Read More
A stylized shot of a man's naked back in a dimly lit room in Emerald Fennell's "Saltburn".

Petty Bourgeois: Why “Saltburn” Stings

Another film gains notoriety on social media—albeit among people who don’t watch films. There are some notorious scenes (better not watch that with your mum in the room!). The word of mouth creates imaginative hyperbole. Next thing you know, it’s the film of the season. Variety and BuzzFeed start up the click factory. YouTube essays. Think-pieces. Heavy-breathing equivocation.

Emerald Fennell’s Saltburn is the latest in a long line of chic millennial horror films—the word ‘horror’ here meaning: ‘something to titillate middle class consumers’. Over a decade of darlings from A24 have laid the ground for New Hollywood. And what’s more, these are filmmakers with a social conscience: a social critique, even. Narratives of classism, bourgeois excess and social injustice have become the default subtext of the genre, its cause celebre. Triangle of Sadness and The Menu number among the recent additions to social media’s ‘Eat the Rich’ hashtag.

My problem with Saltburn is that it feels tired. Its message lacks force. Its means lack originality. In short, it’s a film that lacks even as it throws everything and the kitchen sink towards a resolution. […]

Read More
A photo of a young, red-haired Bruce Ario in a hat, eating seafood.

The Revered Rebel: Bruce Ario’s “The Lovely Tree Branches”

It’s not uncommon for the artist to live in search of validation. After all, life’s navigation can be painful, especially when forced to interact with those unable to appreciate or recognize the value in one’s work. Just reading about Vincent Van Gogh and how his many peers thought him a nobody, or how Paul Cézanne’s father would rather his son have become a lawyer or banker—the frustration is evident. Sure, a parent wants his kid to make money, but at what expense? What if Cézanne had instead become Banker Paul rather than Painter Paul? What a loss the world would have suffered.

The life of an artist is one of sacrifice. To pursue it, one must be willing to adapt to the slog of overlooked, lower-rank jobs, and forgo the material. This is not to say that one must inevitably accept a life of poverty, but to expect a high-rank career is highly unrealistic, given such an occupation would likely leave one with little creative time. Yes, Wallace Stevens was president of Hartford Insurance, but he chose that job over an academic career because the work yielded little drain on his brain. While providing him with a comfortable living, selling insurance is far from glamorous. Moreover, Hart Crane was lucky enough to land a job as a copywriter, and Vivian Maier worked as a nanny, affording her the freedom to walk with her employers’ kids and photograph.

And as for me—even while spending several years working in a technical field, I recognized the lack of glamour in such a pursuit, but it paid the bills. This did not, however, stop me from encountering the small-minded and envious individuals who felt the need to reduce my writing talent to a moment of air quotes, dismissively referring to me as a “writer” who “took herself too seriously.” (Must I have the imprimatur of fame?) […]

Read More
A short-haired Nicole Kidman gives a skeptical glance in Jonathan Glazer's "Birth".

Man-Child: Reviewing Jonathan Glazer’s “Birth” (2004)

Jonathan Glazer’s Birth is certainly one of the oddest love stories ever told, powered throughout by a most compelling performance by Nicole Kidman, and an effectively impassive one by the child actor Cameron Bright.

Kidman is Anna, a beautiful and very well-off Manhattanite who, recently widowed, gets engaged to Joseph (Danny Huston). A lavish party is thrown in celebration of the event, and there a few key characters are introduced: Clifford and Clara (Peter Stormare and Anne Heche, respectively) and, most significantly, a grim-faced ten-year-old boy named Sean (Bright).

There is an air of mystery, undergirded by something like menace, as Clifford and Anne seem perturbed, distant from one another, and the boy simply stares. Clara rushes to the woods, under the pretense of a forgotten ribbon, in order to bury the gift she has brought for Anna and Joseph in a mound of dirt and leaves. […]

Read More
A stylized shot of French toast on a cast iron skillet.

Breakfast Stories: Toast, French

I’ll admit I wasn’t then a particularly sensitive human being. I should say “yet” instead of “then,” so you won’t think that my growing up in Queens excuses or explains my being like that. There are plenty of good people living there, but this happens to be a story about a pimp. When was it? That would be 1983. I finished high school that year, so I must have been eighteen. I was eighteen, I’ll swear to it.

I had stayed over with my Puerto Rican call girl girlfriend. She was no streetwalker. A call girl’s got a lot more class. A streetwalker’s got it rough, standing out in the weather (she only walks when a cop happens by), and, often as not, working fast in some alley or in the seat of a trick’s car. A trick, I hope you know, is not just what a guy wearin’ a cape does with his hands. You might still say that whorin’ is whorin’, but with a streetwalker that’s nearly all it can be. She’s got no time for conversation. You’ve seen her. She’s the one waiting at the bus stop, only, when the bus stops she doesn’t get on. Another difference for a streetwalker is that her working numbers increases her chances of trouble, of disease, of mixing up with some bad-ass dude, or with cops, who’re mostly son’a-bitches. The literal-minded will like it that call girls, as the name implies, might work up their business on the phone. Even call girl language has more class: client instead of trick. And when it comes to sex, that’s going to happen inside somewhere probably on a bed, not in some family sedan. […]

Read More
The album cover for Burial's "Boy Sent From Above", featuring a black X with a white album label.

Angelmaker: Reviewing Burial’s “Boy Sent From Above” (2024)

I’m not sure to what extent the readers of Automachination are familiar with the work of Burial. All things considered, there’s probably a dearth of people on this website with an interest in the UK garage music scene, much less its most esoteric (and aggrandized) figurehead.

Burial is, like Banksy, a kind of pseudo-anonymous mystery artist. When he was nominated for a Mercury prize during the 2000s, popular tabloid The Sun began a national campaign to reveal his name and identity. Unsurprisingly, the artist was unmasked, not as a celebrity pseudonym, but a fairly normal, and recalcitrant young man from Croydon, South London.

Burial’s music is a hybrid of late twentieth century club styles that share a markedly British provenance: specifically jungle, dubstep, acid, drum & bass and UK garage (UKG). He came of age during London’s heyday of urban pirate radio and this perhaps explains the unmistakable overlay of DIY nostalgia in his production style – a kind of bittersweet sentimentality that permeates every part of his work. Listening to a Burial track often makes one wistful, or forlorn. […]

Read More
A stylized portrait of an intense-looking, squinting Don Logan (Ben Kingsley) from Jonathan Glazer's "Sexy Beast".

Viva Don Logan: On Jonathan Glazer’s “Sexy Beast” (2000)

In a remote Spanish villa, near a house on a hill, lives a retired gangster named Dove (Ray Winstone) who lounges beside his pool in the sun. Muttering to himself—are these his speaking words or his thoughts? He has nothing to do. It is afternoon, quite hot, and his skin has pinked. Does he jump in the water? Luckily no. On the other side of the pool stands a local Spanish boy who does work around his house. ‘Sweep harder,’ Dove orders.

Getting up from his lounge chair, the aged gangster wanders near the pool’s edge to where only inches away a large boulder falls from the cliff, barely missing him. It lands in the pool. Dove’s life is spared, and the worst is that the pool’s flooring, which consists of two hearts overlapping, is now chipped. When his wife Deedee (Amanda Redman) returns from shopping (she is a retired porn star), they both can’t believe his luck. ‘I could have died,’ Dove says. Given his life of crime, one is inclined to believe that this has not been the first time death escaped him. Unfortunately for him, however, the boulder seems less dangerous than his sociopath nemesis, Don Logan, played by Ben Kingsley. Have you ever thought that the man who played Gandhi could curse, spit, and scream? Oh, you just wait.

Sexy Beast does a great job of building the tension before Logan’s arrival. When the news is shared that he will be flying to Spain, Jackie, who is the wife of Dove’s friend Aitch, looks visibly upset. She and Logan had a fling in the past and all seem to know how aggressive he can be. In his review, Ebert sums him up well: ‘Logan is dangerous not because he is tough, but because he is fearless and mad. You cannot intimidate a man who has no ordinary feelings. Logan is like a pit bull, hard-wired and untrainable.’ […]