Moving Pictures
Nov 30, 2023, 06:29AM

We've Only Just Begun

Nick Pinkerton on The Sweet East, swindlers, diminished expectations, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and the state of American cinema in the 2020s.

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NICKY OTIS SMITH: The Sweet East is urgent and utterly of the moment, despite the fact that it was written in 2017. It's been almost 7 years since you wrote the first draft—what were the constants in your life and the world that held the script together?

NICK PINKERTON: The constants in my life: a healthy sense of the absurd. The constants in the world: its astonishing capacity to produce fresh and unexpected absurdities.

SMITH: The Sweet East didn't remind me of any other film, but of the noise shows I remember going to at the H&H and Copycat Buildings. It's a passionate and ecstatic expression of the present—how did you manage that as a screenwriter and as an on-set collaborator?

PINKERTON: If it feels particularly “present” or immediate a lot of that should be chalked up to Sean and our cast and crew. Sean spent crucial, formative years learning at the feet of the Maysles brothers, and today, even when he’s not shooting documentary, he’s incredibly alert to “the moment”—and to the odd, funky bits of happenstance that “a moment” is made up of—in the way a sharp-eyed shooter of nonfiction should be. As a director, he gave the actors a fair amount of breathing room: not that he wouldn’t step in if things were going the wrong way, but he generally gave the performers space to make their own decisions and, for good or ill, to surprise themselves and surprise us… which they did. Constantly.

I tried to write a script that wasn’t just reflective of the contemporary world, but that looked a bit further down the road and anticipated a future contemporaneity that was coming around the bend. A script, though, is just some words on a page. But if the movie feels twitchingly, obnoxiously, assertively alive, which I hope it does, I can only take so much credit for that.

I’m glad you saw fit to compare the movie to noise shows you attended, because I think of The Sweet East as a noise film. One thing that was hard to explain during our very few and massively unsuccessful “pitch meetings” was that the dialogue wasn’t meant to be the thing that drove the movie, but to be one element in a larger musique concrète symphony. This didn’t really turn investors on. I can’t imagine why.

SMITH: You once said that Herman Melville's The Confidence-Man is a key American novel, one that reveals something essential about the American character. I haven't read The Confidence-Man but I kept thinking about what you said as I watched your film, Lillian moving from swindler to swindler, some more ignorant than others.

PINKERTON: I’m not at all convinced it’s an exclusively American trait. American literature, in the case of The Confidence-Man, might have described the art of the swindle very beautifully and originally, but the United States certainly didn’t originate the swindle. European literature, for example, has more than its fair share of hustlers, chiselers, and bullshit artists: look at Dickens, Thackeray, a whole host of real-life adventurers from Casanova on down the line. And then look at, for example, any given image of Charles III. That such a droopy, soggy, repellant, massively inbred Bavarian is somehow accepted as “King of the United Kingdom”—a nation full of women and men who are the superior of this beast in every regard—is a hornswoggle to end them all. To quote John Lydon: “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” Off with their heads.

SMITH: There's a piece of yours for Reverse Shot that I think about often on Hong Sang-soo's "cinema of diminished expectations." You write that, "If Hong is indeed the best that we’ve got, there’s something troubling about this fact," and as much as I like his films, I agree. Our movies may not be government subsidized, but in an age of affordable equipment, why haven't there been more American filmmakers working at the pace and scale of Hong, or Fassbinder?

PINKERTON: Fassbinder was able to have the career he had not only because he had a relentless work ethic, but because he had a particular genius for good ol’-fashioned self-publicity. Hong is a smart, resourceful, conscientious, and honest filmmaker, and my “disappointment” with him almost certainly says much more about the unrealistic expectations I have for cinema than it does about his work.

SMITH: What are your unrealistic expectations of cinema?

PINKERTON: Nothing beyond what I expect of any art form: that it can insert a bit of beauty into an ever less beautiful world, and give us something to think about—and maybe the tools to think about it, for those who are so inclined. It means a lot to me. I wouldn’t blame anyone for feeling otherwise.

SMITH: Can there ever be an American Fassbinder? Is it possible here to make 3 or 4 films a year with skeleton crews of friends and true believers that are more varied than Hong’s? Fassbinder had government subsidies, but it's more than money—none of the mumblecore filmmakers had anything close to his spirit, despite plenty to rage about at the time—why hasn't there been an American narrative filmmaker that also treated films like bulletins and newspapers?

PINKERTON: It’s remarkable that there was ever a German Fassbinder. The Gordian Knot that continues to constrain much of contemporary cinema he resolved as though casually opening a Velcro shoe: “I let the audience think and feel.” Blowing right past the false dichotomy that had been created between the cerebral, high Modern mid-century European tradition and the naked emotional appeal of the popular Hollywood tradition, and then uniting them in a single Gesamtkunstwerk? Lesser minds (of which I am one) are still struggling to get to a place that he arrived at with seeming ease.

Talking about an “American Fassbinder” feels a bit like talking about a “French Shakespeare” or an “Italian Elvis.” You’re lucky to even get one of these freaks per century per planet, much less one for every nation. In the same way you never see anyone who looks like Elvis, you never see anyone who looks like Fassbinder. Who knows where these creatures came from? I’m grateful they visited us.

The Sweet East plays at The Senator Theatre in Baltimore on December 7, 8, and 9. Tickets are available here.


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