This article is part of the Double Features series, which pairs great films that go great together. Check out previous installments here.
One of my pet peeves is complaints that a film isn’t basically a totally different film. Why doesn’t The Deer Hunter deal with American war crimes instead of being an extremely beautiful, sad film about three working-class Russian-Americans’ experience of Vietnam? Why doesn’t Michael Moore make documentaries that drily recite the facts instead of comedic leftist polemics? Why won’t Aaron Sorkin stop writing in the style of Aaron Sorkin?
Films don’t need to be about all things to all people, and probably shouldn’t be. I like when films are about something specific and small, and I love a lot of my favourite films because of their attention to granular detail, not for speed-running through everything they can fit in.
But there is something nice about feeling like you’re getting a panoramic view. Like you’re seeing a bunch of sides to something all at once. These double features are each made up of two opposite halves that make up something approximating a whole. Whether that’s taking on similar material from opposite directions or using the same approach to deal with apparent opposites, you won’t come out of any of these pairings asking why they didn’t address blah blah blah.
Paths of Glory (1957) / Breaker Morant (1980)
Breaker Morant has an obvious debt to Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, but approaches from the opposite direction. In Paths of Glory, a group of French soldiers are court-martialed for “cowardice” during the First World War. They were given a suicide mission and refused to fight. Three men – boys, really – are brought in front of the court martial, to be made an example of out of the hundred men who refused alongside them. Kirk Douglas plays Colonel Dax, who acts as their defense, and he’s incredible: I have a weakness for classic Hollywood performances built around big righteous speeches, and Douglas gives one of the best of them. But it’s a bullshit show trial, so his speeches make no difference. Paths of Glory’s devastating critique of war and the military generally was so incendiary that the film wasn’t show in France until 1975, nearly twenty years later.
Breaker Morant takes a step back in time to the Boer War to present a situation that tests the audience’s moral sense more. In this film, a number of Australian soldiers are court-martialed for war crimes. They killed prisoners of war and even a passing cleric. They’re guilty, but, Breaker Morant argues, the entire British army – the entire British empire – is guilty: these men are on trial for killing POWs, but no-one is on trial for running concentration camps in this war. The men who gave the orders for these men to kill the POWs aren’t on trial. (They deny that such orders were given, of course.) The film’s court scenes are especially fantastic, somehow thrilling when we know from the outset that their fate is sealed.
Taken together, Paths of Glory and Breaker Morant paint a fuller picture of the indescribable evil of war. You don’t do as you’re told, you get killed. You do as you’re told, you get killed. The kids who fight and die are just interchangeable cogs.
Good Bye, Lenin! (2003) / The Lives of Others (2006)
Good Bye, Lenin! and The Lives of Others offer two very different looks back at East Germany. One is a harrowing drama; the other is a wacky farce. Both are brilliant, brilliant films, bursting with humanistic detail in a setting that so much of the western world seems to treat as a punchline or a cheap gotcha.
In Good Bye, Lenin!, our protagonist’s devoutly Communist mother falls into a coma and misses the fall of the Berlin Wall entirely. In her delicate state, a shock could kill her, and so her son pretends that the wall never fell. He removes all signs of capitalist influence from their apartment, comes up with elaborate cover stories for why there’s Coca-Cola signs or West German cars around, and makes his sister’s West German boyfriend pretend he’s East German. Eventually he ends up making fake news broadcasts for her. It’s hysterically funny, but more than that, it’s a really moving film. It’s nostalgic for East Germany without ever romanticising it: there’s something bittersweet about a whole way of life disappearing, even if it’s life under a totalitarian state. There’s something about the foods they used to eat, the songs they used to sing – a world he recreates, in some ways, as much for himself as for his mother. The film’s treatment of the East German cosmonaut character is especially touching.
The Lives of Others is about a Stasi officer assigned to spy on a playwright. The minister who ordered the surveillance wants to steal away the playwright’s girlfriend. The playwright’s apartment is bugged, and the Stasi officer spends hours listening to his activities. If Good Bye, Lenin! is a sweeter, warmer film than you’d expect about East Germany, The Lives of Others is a quiet, devastating film, shot in a palette of greys and muted greens. It’s a film that mines exhilarating tension from near-silent moral choices. At every moment, we’re on tenterhooks wondering what the Stasi officer will do: what information will he give to his superiors, will he intervene, will he let himself get caught. If Good Bye, Lenin! views the reunification of Germany as bittersweet, in The Lives of Others it’s the first moment it feels safe to breathe.
Swallow (2019) / Butt Boy (2019)
What a year 2019 was for films about inserting objects into orifices! Swallow is about a young pregnant woman who starts to consume inedible objects. It starts with marbles and thumbtacks, then escalates to the point she’s eating batteries, or fistfuls of soil. She gets her stomach pumped and goes right back to eating objects.
But the film’s really about her being emotionally and creatively stifled in a marriage to a man who is basically the boyfriend from the ‘Voices Carry’ music video. She’s working-class, and he’s obscenely wealthy, and it is abundantly clear that he and his parents look down on her. He doesn’t listen to her, he’s inconsiderate and cruel, and treats her swallowing compulsion as a slight against him and his baby. It’s never overplayed: he’s not a cartoon of an abuser – indeed, he’s so scary because he seems so real. Swallowing things is just about the only outlet she has. Her only form of control. It’s amazing how easily Swallow gets you on her side, rooting for her to swallow whatever she likes, in no small part because of Haley Bennett’s astonishing lead performance.
Butt Boy is a movie about a guy who shoves people, animals and objects up his butt. That sounds like a one-joke premise, and it is: what makes the film great is that it treats it monomaniacally seriously, which makes that one joke about one thousand times funnier. From the perspective of Chip – the titular butt boy – it’s a fairly harrowing addiction drama, as his years of sobriety from shoving stuff up his butt end with a binge that spirals out of all control. From the perspective of the police officer on his tail – who meets Chip at an AA meeting – it’s a noir-ish detective movie about a grizzled alcoholic cop trying to solve the case of these missing persons. Together, Swallow and Butt Boy take on some pretty serious emotional territory at either end of the digestive system.
The Plumber (1979) / Gone Girl (2014)
The Plumber and Gone Girl are each other’s mirrors: one is about men as feared by women, and the other about women as feared by men.
Peter Weir initially made The Plumber as a TV movie – it’s got a cast of mostly soap actors – but it ended up being released theatrically outside of Australia. It’s an extremely effective horror film in no small part because it feels so plausible. A plumber comes to the apartment. He’s doing routine checks, he says. And he never leaves. He claims that their pipes need all this work, but it seems like the only problems with the pipes are those he’s creating. He’s terrorising the woman who lives here, in a way that’s almost inarticulable: her husband dismisses her concerns when they talk on the phone. The Plumber taps into our worst fears about letting someone into our home. In particular, it focuses on the gender dynamics at play when a woman lets a (almost always male) tradesman into her home. It’s the film adaptation of a woman’s worst fears.
Gone Girl, on the other hand, is about a more improbable creature: the version of women that men fear, determined to manipulate and control you using her presumed status as victim. Gone Girl is, as I have told everyone I have ever met, a comedy: a hysterically funny film filled with classic gag writing, black humour, and satire so sharp you’ll cut yourself on it. It’s a particularly fantastic satire of gender roles, almost a blackly comic cousin to screwball or battle-of-the-sexes comedies. There was a lot of talk at the time about it being misogynistic, which misses the point entirely. Amy isn’t representative of women, she’s representative of women as misogynistic men imagine them: in the first half, a wife, barely a person in her own right; in the second half, a crazy fucking bitch.
First Man (2018) / Ad Astra (2019)
First Man and Ad Astra are two of the most overlooked and tragically forgotten films of recent years. They also both explore similar thematic territory in similar physical territory: it’s masculinity in space!
First Man is a Neil Armstrong biopic that it feels like catastrophic underselling to call a Neil Armstrong biopic. Director Damien Chazelle once mentioned Donald Sutherland’s performance in Ordinary People as an influence in how he wanted Ryan Gosling to play Armstrong, and Gosling brings that same quiet, bone-deep grief that Sutherland brought to his performance: losing a child clings to them always, even if they never articulate the loss. The very particular grief of being a father who has lost a child, in a time when a father’s role as a parent was hardly valued or acknowledged. First Man also does an incredible job of making you really feel just how dangerous the moon landing was, the very real risk that they would never come back. “You’re just a bunch of boys,” Claire Foy says as Neil’s wife. She’s right.
Ad Astra takes us to the late twenty-first century, with Brad Pitt as an astronaut on a mission to find his father, who has been missing and presumed dead for over a decade. Like Gosling’s Armstrong, Pitt’s Roy McBride is emotionally inexpressive, even as he deals with the emotional fallout of an incalculable loss. Understated, withdrawn, yet so deeply felt. But where Armstrong finds some kind of closure up in space, McBride initially finds more and more loss: that his father is a murderer, a maniac, a monster. That he never loved his family. But this, too, can be closure. Both films have an ultimate optimism – about masculinity, and about space.