Those were precisely the challenges and questions we had. It affects all the people involved: your family, your friends, your community. People begin to turn against you; they alienate you and besmirch your reputation. Truth-telling in movies is a slippery prospect because movies have a hard time telling the truth.
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You think that, well, righteous truth is on your side, what do you have to fear? Well, everything. I was just thinking of your past films, especially Safe and the suffocating environment of that film. How did you collaborate with Edward Lachman in achieving a similar atmosphere in Dark Waters? I felt that a kind of restrained, observant camera and a kind of emotional coolness—both literally and figuratively—to the subject matter was apropos, especially in regard to Rob Bilott.
Because this felt more like Rob, it felt more cautious and pulled back. And it also allowed more movement from his world to the people he has to connect with, so you can move from one place to the next in the movie with more dexterity and not be competing with an intense subjective experience. He learns how to see and then how to speak about what he sees in ways that he had never known before.
I wanted that point of view to be something we watch ourselves. And Ed and I just liked the corporate spaces where much of the action takes place, these hollow spaces. I loved what the real Taft offices looked like. We used all the design elements from Taft: those striped frosted glass walls, the floating walls over the windows and under the ceiling, the degree corridors that he sculpts through, the fact that there was no uniform size or shape to the windows across the entire parameter of the floors, and that they looked out onto these beautiful landscapes of skylines of downtown Cincinnati with flanks of interrupted space in architecture in the foreground and little surprising peaks all the way through the Ohio River if you just cocked your head a couple of inches one way or another.
You also have these surprising pockets of incredibly dark shadows and then sudden appearances of light from the windows.
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That was so visually informative and specific and I found it so beautiful. Some of my favorite shots of the film are these big, wide window shots with the snow falling, and a wide shot of Tom Terp [a senior partner at Taft] and Rob Bilott talking to each other from a distance. The weather contributed heavily to the look and feel of the movie; it was a bitter cold winter that we shot through. Yeah, a manifestation of their experience. What decisions did you make in the cinematography of the film when you shot there?
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Ed and I tend to favor this sort of dirty palette in almost any of my movies if you look back at them. But it shifts in tonality based on what the story is and what the time period of the story is and what the temperament of the movie is.
For Dark Waters , we favored way more of a cool spectrum in the color timing, which gave the warmer interiors always this cool shadow. You just never feel a relief of tensions and of a little bite of rigidity that invades these spaces. Yeah, and it gives you the sense that even truth is corruptible. Truth almost becomes a kind of toxin because it undermines the status quo and business as usual.
How did you work with some of the real-life players in the story, especially in gauging the accuracy of the film in relation to the real events? We relied on them as much as we could. They were really eager partners in contributing to the film, and they all had to agree to that. Nobody on the DuPont side, of course, agreed to have their real names in the movie. Everyone else did and were advisors on the movie.
And it was really lovely to have them come and join us on set and be pictured within scenes. Was that also your concern in Dark Waters , even though the politics and social significance of the story are very much up front and center in the film and not imparted through metaphor? And so, in a way it makes us linked by these pernicious systems. We participate in them, we enable them, but what do you do? Do you wish they could all disappear with one legal action? You get as knowledgeable as you can, you try to identify what they are, and you push back in certain ways.
You develop a critical relationship to life and to social power, and how the individual is always the product or target of it. The material or outgrowth of it. But what do you do instead? Do you put your head back in the sand? Do you go back and cook on Teflon [for which C-8 was manufactured]? My real passion project is a piece on Freud. We did 20 interviews. My decision was to only interview people who were there, band members, anybody of the surviving people who were around at the time, who really saw it up close, directly.
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So that meant getting Jonas Mekas on film right before he passed away, and getting John Cale, of course, and Maureen Tucker. I want to immerse in it as much as possible. They deserve a major movie. At the center of the documentary is the struggle to reconcile the personal and political elements of art-making.
Battaglia braved mafia funerals, taking pictures of connected associates who would have no issue with killing her. She also took photos of murder scenes, which are chilling tableaux of casual carnage. This juxtaposition offers a thrilling illustration of the difference between art and documentation, and of the value of each.
This is a kernel for a brilliant nonfiction film, but Longinotto clutters her project with less original gimmickry. Longinotto is very much determined for her audience to see Battaglia as a feminist role model, as a beautiful young housewife who went rogue against the Italian patriarchy to actualize herself. This idea, in this context, underscores the danger of modern woke culture, which is so eager to define people with representational encouragement that it condescends to them in a different fashion.
And this emphasis threatens to put Battaglia in a box, reductively psychoanalyzing her. A beautiful and confident woman who was pushing 40 before finding her calling, Battaglia has been making up for lost time ever since, and Longinotto celebrates her awakening as an artist and lover while cheapening it with the cheesy placement of clips from Italian films, which often liken Battaglia to a gorgeous damsel in distress.
The contemporary footage of Battaglia chain-smoking and holding court with her various exes is far more commanding and startlingly intimate, but Longinotto cuts these passages down to tidbits. Her husband is a non-entity. Longinotto skillfully sketches in a cast of pompous and frightening mafiosos, who suggest the ultimate manifestation of patriarchal madness.
Especially memorable is Luciano Leggio, whom Battaglia once photographed as he was looking straight into her camera, shooting her a death stare. Two years later, after securing funding from the renowned film production company Sandrews, Sontag made Duet for Cannibals , her own attempt at capturing a slipstream-like roundelay of events, and in Swedish no less. Taking on the position from a mixture of politically sympathetic curiosity and financial desperation, Tomas and his relationship with his live-in girlfriend, Ingrid Agneta Ekmanner , is put under heavy strain.
This worsens as Bauer demands more and more of his time, forcing him to take up residence in his apartment, to better serve at his beck and call.
Embarking on its own Bergmanesque fantasia, the film slips freely, often confusingly, between realist and surrealist crosscurrents. In one memorable moment, Tomas and Ingrid go on a boating date that ends abruptly when he spots his employer on shore; he leaps out of the boat to join him, leaving Ingrid behind on the water. The occurrence of such disjunctions itself becomes a form of comedy, as scene after scene quavers between straight-faced severity and utter absurdism.
Qualities of the older couple become imprinted upon the younger, in an unnerving mode that mixes the scholarly and the familial, with a marked sexual undertone that seems requisite to this kind of boundary-pushing experimentation. The most plausible, and rewarding, explanation may then be that her directorial debut represents a cross-medium introduction of this theory of sensual liberation into the cinematic bloodstream, antagonizing viewers as a further nudge to lay off the heavy textual lifting.
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