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Co-Authorship – Notes from the Venice Film Festival

Nocturnal Animals (Tom Ford, 2016)


While it would be tempting to label the characters of Nocturnal Animals (Tom Ford’s sophomore film and winner of the Grand Jury Price at the Venice Film Festival) as navel-gazing crybabies (the film handles their soapy intrigue with strained self-seriousness), there is some irony to be found under the thick layer of gravitas, as both protagonists’ artistic endeavors are put into perspective. Amy Adams plays Susan Morrow, an L.A. art gallery owner who holds an exhibit where morbidly obese women prance around naked, wearing nothing but American flags. This hyperbolic use of Americana seems an obvious reaction to symbols of vulgar excess she associates with her Texan oligarch roots (think: pearly necklaces and Republican hair helmets). But while she views her mother as an absolute bigot who disowned a homosexual son and whose constant critiques of Morrow’s husband (Edward Sheffield, a soft-spoken writer played by Jake Gyllenhaal) for his supposed lack of ambition led to their break-up, there is also the implied fear of gradually becoming the product of your environment (at one point, Sheffield even accuses Morrow of acting just like her mother). This ambiguity translates itself into the art show where the shameless display of jiggling skin feels both grotesque and compassionate, as if Morrow is embracing a culture that repulses her at the same time. “You know damn well us Texas debutantes are all sluts,” she utters on her first date with Sheffield.

Sheffield (hailing from the Lone Star state himself and often labeled a wimp) is equally auto-critical in his work: he writes a crime novel where a family camping trip turns into a nightmare (mere seconds after Sheffield’s alter-ego ‘Tony’ mumbles “That’s what I love about West-Texas, no phone signals and no people” with Clint Eastwood grit, his SUV gets pushed off the road by crazed rednecks who then kidnap his wife and daughter) and the hero’s frontier spirit is called into question. “What kind of man can’t defend his family?” “They didn’t even have guns!” “Why didn’t you have a gun?” During the investigation, ‘Tony’ (or Sheffield) is aided by an Arpaio-esque sheriff [Joe Arpaio is a controversial Arizonian sheriff, who styles himself as “America’s Thoughest” – ed.] who sides with him morally and tracks down the baddies through unorthodox methods. Sheffield’s alter-ego feels awkwardly out of place in this testosterone-driven biotope where respect is earned through mastering the subtle ritual of exchanging low-pitched grunts. The novel oozes Sheffield’s frustrations of spinelessness (his conflict avoidance makes him a pawn for authority figures on either side of the law) and – as with Morrow’s art show – shows a conflict between cosmopolitan idealism and the old-fashioned values of his birthplace.

This ambivalence, however, is nowhere to be found in the emotional arch of the film as both characters wallow in self-importance and the creative process is put on a pedestal: authorship is portrayed as a delicate matter that can lead to great insecurity. Morrow remains unimpressed with her exhibition in spite of rave reviews – is she a victim of imposter syndrome or a plain narcissist? Sheffield, on the other hand, throws a tantrum when Morrow critiques his work “being too much about himself,” bringing the relationship to its tipping point in an atmosphere of self-pity rife with tired claims that artistic labor lacks financial compensation and social recognition. Sheffield’s novel (a Cormac McCarthy rip-off) is even seen as a highly intimate work that triggers the resurgence of unresolved conflicts, when Morrow receives the first manuscript in the mail fifteen years after their divorce. Morrow becomes completely absorbed by the writing; Sheffield’s still “writing about himself,” but luckily this time she’s involved as well. We bare witness to pounding heartbeats and heavy breathing, indulging the sentimental idea that engaging fiction is that which elicits strong sensory reactions. The book is projected through Morrow’s imagination and these sensationalistic snippets are interrupted by her daily routine (she conveniently stops reading at cliffhanger moments, seemingly overwhelmed by the narrative’s hold). As a suspense device to keep viewers on edge, it’s as subtle as a rock through a window, but Netflix audiences might interpret this stylistic choice as a metaphor for their own binge-watching: cheap thrills followed by longs baths and glasses of wine. The conclusion is that even a dime store work of fiction can be a life-altering experience, which would be a fitting tagline for Nocturnal Animals.

The Brat (John Ford, 1931)
The Brat (John Ford, 1931)

This worshipful attitude towards authorship is nowhere to be found in John Ford’s 1931 The Brat – MOMA’s restoration was presented at the festival –, where a hack writer is unmasked as a fraud: Alan Dinehart plays MacMillan ‘Mac’ Forester, member of a prominent family who finds an outlet for his Dickensian fetish in a 17-year-old delinquent girl he meets at night court and decides to take home for creative purposes (but mainly to shock his prying mother and his debutante brides-to-be). Even though Mac regards the girl as his muse, he refers to her solely as ‘The Brat,’ a dehumanizing use of a one-word (imagined) trait to reduce a person to a pulp literature cliché (apparently his modus operandi if one considers his earlier work, e.g. The Restless Virgin), suggesting that he works as a parasite, quickly gathering the smut he needs and then throwing his subject out on the streets – which is exactly what he plans to do with The Brat after he finishes his next masterpiece.

The artistic process here is portrayed as void of any self-reflection: Mac simply projects personal prejudices on an ‘exotic’ subculture and fails to see the discrepancies between his romanticized ideals and his own life, yet Mac’s very presence as a character suggests strongly Ford’s own self-reflection upon his role as a director. Mac is delighted by The Brat’s lack of social etiquette and NYC melting pot vernacular (“scram, coirly!” she yells when addressing the family’s balding butler, Timothy Timson), but feels embarrassed when his baby brother displays ‘low-brow’ behavior by coming home loaded. Despite Mac’s beliefs of ‘nobility among paupers,’ he lacks any form of altruism and longs to sell the family’s ranch in order to buy a yacht. In The Brat, authorship is not viewed as an urgency of personal expression, but as a privileged pastime for self-absorbed voyeurs.