Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Thu Aug 20, 2020 8:28 am 
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ETHAN HAWKE IN TESLA

Oddball history of an oddball

Nikola Tesla was an inventor and rival of Thomas Edison, said to be a forerunner of Elon Musk, and now a figure of growing repute (after all he has a heavy metal band and a stylish, expensive electric car named after him). His reputation is dubiously burnished in this strange new movie from Michael Almereyda. It's a poetic mood piece, not surprising if one thinks of the director's off-center approach to Shakespeare's Hamlet which also starred Ethan Hawke, who plays the Austrian electronics whiz. His rival Edison is played by Kyle MacLachlan, who played Claudius to his Hamlet twenty years ago. This is more of a transformation for Hawke, who has given up his youth and cuteness for childlike Mitteleuropean goofiness, above all altered by his speaking in an abnormally soft voice, at times little more than a whisper. Hawke was sexy and earnest as the contemporary New York rich boy in Almereyda's Hamlet. He's certainly transformed here, but to what purpose is hard to say.

The whole presentation is high concept, and and it moves at a deliberate pace. It may help to know that at the movie premiere Almereyda announced his models were "Derek Jarman, Henry James, and certain episodes of 'Drunk History.'" "Drunk History" I guess because certain moments, such as the ice cream fight between Edison and Tesla near the outset, explicitly didn't happen. Henry James for the crabwise, discursive approach and focus on personalities. Derek Jarman for loose cinematic handling of historical detail, such as the clothes, and also constant Brechtian (if I may introduce another reference) interruption of the action that jolts us back to the present. (I'm only guessing at how these influences play out.)

Those interruptions come from a voiceover narration by, as we learn, J.P. Morgan's philanthropist daughter Anne, a Tesla sponsor (played with a light touch by Eve Hewson), who's anachronistically seated in front of a Mac laptop Googling images and facts about the protagonists. At the end of a conciliatory meeting between Tesla and Edison that Anne tells us in voiceover never happened, Edison consults his iPhone. (Sometimes the music the 1890's people are listening to is rock. But in the background nineteenth century classical comes up too, notably Brahms' Second Piano Concerto. ) Anne is depicted here as enamored of Tesla, but also aware of his flaws, which include naïveté and lack of business acumen in releasing his key inventions, which leads to his eventual financial ruin. She talks to him about love and asks if idealism and capitalism are incompatible. That never happened either; but it suits the filmmaker to bring it up in this context.

Did Sarah Bernhardt (Rebecca Dayan) really come to see Tesla at his Colorado laboratory? Later, we see the Divine Sarah die on stage, in Colorado, and take a final bow - a sublime vignette. In Colorado he carries out experiments no one has ever understood, so we're told; and he harnesses lightening in a great tower, burning out the local generator. He promises to replace it at his own expense. J.P. Morgan writes voluptuous-looking big checks to Tesla for a hundred thousand dollars. Tesla sings Tears for Fears' 1980's song "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" while images of Sarah Bernhardt and the Sphinx appear. It's all
a grand visual show.

We get a glimpse of many fascinating facts or fancies here. But this is no biopic, and omits details. We learn at the outset that Tesla had worked for the Edison Machine Works and then struck out on his own; that Edison was a big time entrepreneur and a cheapskate, but Tesla had some ideas he lacked - Tesla goes to work for Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan), who is interested in those ideas. In Chicago, Anne reports, Tesla demonstrates to World's Fair audiences that his alternating current is delivery system for electricity that is safe for humans. He wants to make it free for everybody, everywhere, but that of course never happens: selling electricity was too profitable. This was a time when people were just beginning to have electric lighting at home: it was radical. Anne gives us a tour, illustrated with old engraved illustrations, of the high point of Tesla's career, when huge turbines were built in his name at Niagara Falls. Tesla listens to a turbaned young Indian guru. Instead of location shoots, Ethan Hawke is shot in front of large landscape photographs in rear-screen projections. The playful and inventive use of modern history reminded me of E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime.

If you understand the film's mumbo-jumbo about AC vs. DC current you're better than I am. It's probably not meant to be totally clear: Almereyda works in theatrical vignettes, little flashes of fact or fancy. A visually striking moment shows Tesla demonstrating to the public the safety to humans of his alternating current system by holding up two fluorescent lamps and have them light without getting a shock (see photo). But of course explaining such things, though they be only the stuff of high school science, can be a heavy task for a feature film. This film isn't heavy and rather has a light touch, even if its movement is sluggish.

Throughout the film, archaic-looking electrical power boxes are shown, words are bandied back and forth; interesting possibilities or tidbits come up; what it's all about sometimes fails to emerge very clearly. And that, in a film about scientists, engineers, and inventors, won't quite wash. There is a lot of talk about electrocution as capital punishment, and killing dogs as a way to illustrate this. I didn't see its relevance to Tesla. The action is so lugubrious it's hard to focus. Tesla's work habits, his grand and rigid style, and his declining fortunes late in life as depicted in the Wikipedia article, sound more interesting than what we see in this movie. There are some lovely moments here, but it doesn't quite all add up.

"Nikola Tesla outlives Edison, Westinghouse, Sarah Bernhardt," says Anne Morgan,"and my father, and dies alone at the Hotel New Yorker on January 7th, 1943. He was eighty-seven years old." He was destitute, we learn, but over two thousand people attended his funeral at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine. This voice-off narration provides a dry, contemporary moment that ends the biopic side of this non-biopic - and one last illustration of how much the images of Tesla outshine the rest of its content.

I have previously watched four of Almereyda's other films, Hamlet (2000, much enjoyed on video, not reviewed), the documentary William Eggleston in the Real World (2005, which opened wider a whole world for me), Experimenter (NYFF 2015; a misfire, I thought), and Marjorie Prime (2017, a grim sci-fi vignette that I found both "dreary," and "elegant"). My conclusion is that Almereyda gets mixed results, but is to be admired and sought out for his willingness to work outside the box. Tesla has to be considered another one of his offbeat, interesting misfires.

Tesla, 102 mins., debuted at Sundance Jan. 2020 where it won the Alfred P. Sloan Prize for use of science in cinema; it played at Spain's Atlàntida Film Fest Aug. 1, and opens in the US online from IFC Films Aug. 21, 2020. Metascore: 68%.

A short biography of Tesla can be found in Smithsonian Magazine.

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ETHAN HAWKE AND EVE HEWSON IN TESLA

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