In this new weekly column, Connected, one writer will send another a new piece of writing about a film they have been watching and pondering over, in the hopes that this will prompt a connection—emotional, thematic, historical, or analytical—to a different film the other has been watching or is inspired to rewatch. This ongoing column will be in the spirit of many past Reverse Shot symposiums, in which writers found connections between seemingly disparate cinematic works, and it will also help us maintain personal connection among our writers and our readers at this uncertain moment.

Locke

Brooklyn Academy of Music, where I work as Director of Film Programming, temporarily closed its doors on March 14th, days before the start of Programmers’ Notebook: On Solitude, the latest edition of a recurring series I’d organized with my department colleagues. The premise of this infrequently recurring series is simple: for every incarnation of these Notebooks, each of us selects a handful of titles in response to a chosen theme. Given our present circumstances, the theme of solitude—a condition into which we’ve all been rudely thrust, to varying degrees—now seems both weirdly prescient and tragicomically apt. I had been particularly looking forward to sharing with an audience a film that was due to screen March 25: Steven Knight’s Locke, which has long fascinated, amused, absorbed, and moved me.

I first saw Locke at the Venice Film Festival (remember film festivals?) in September 2013, where it world premiered out of competition. I knew little going in, guided only by assumptions. I’d seen its charismatic star Tom Hardy incarnating various burly roughnecks in films like The Dark Knight Rises, Bronson, and Lawless, while the one-word character title put me strongly in mind of Monkfish, a sketch from ‘90s BBC comedy The Fast Show, which proffered a spot-on parody of the proliferation of laughably brusque, hard-nosed cops in dramas on British television in that period. I relaxed into my seat, anticipating a blast of tough, uncompromising macho business. What I got was… well, what the hell did I get?

Hardy is Ivan Locke, a well-respected builder who, at the film’s open, abandons the biggest job of his career—the largest non-nuclear facility, non-military concrete pour in European history, no less!—to drive from Birmingham to London in order to be present at the birth of his child, whose mother happens to be a one-night-stand that he barely knows. The remaining 84 minutes of this 85-minute film take place inside Locke’s car, at night, as he navigates escalating familial and professional crises with the use of only his car phone and his imagination, all while battling an insistent sniffling cold. Locke, you see, is married with kids and, despite being lashed to the highway in his BMW, has no intention of giving up on coordinating the concrete pour. Like many of us now, Locke is working remotely, under duress.

Beyond Locke’s rare status as a British road movie—as I type, only Chris Petit’s beautifully bleak Radio On (1979) comes to mind as a true contender—it is genuinely weird stuff, floating in some liminal space between mundane (a philandering, car-bound concrete merchant with a cold?) and radically experimental, not least in its resourceful formal execution. The film was shot using three digital cameras simultaneously, which were kept constantly rolling while a phone line attached to the car allowed off-screen actors—a heavyweight cast of voices including future Oscar-winner Olivia Colman, future Spider-Man Tom Holland, and future Fleabag “Hot Priest” Andrew Scott—to dial in from a conference room. The scenes were filmed in real time, with no pauses for reshoots, and Knight and team effectively shot the whole film twice nightly, for eight nights, breaking only to switch the cameras’ memory cards every 27 minutes. This immediacy is fully apparent in the imaginatively shot and edited finished product, which hurtles by in breathless, relentless style.

But really, this is the Hardy show, and he’s never been better, commanding the screen with a bracing force that hasn’t subsided for me over multiple rewatches. He’s armed with a sonorous Welsh accent that sounds like Tom Jones with a sprinkle of New Delhi (though it transpired that the man Hardy based his accent upon turned out not to be Welsh at all.) Between sniffles, Hardy rolls his ‘r’s and crunches his consonants, delivering, with thunderous glee, absurd lines that make him sound like some sort of urban planning neo-colonist:

“Do it for the piece of sky we are stealing with our building. You do it for the air that will be displaced, and most of all, you do it for the fucking concrete. Because it is delicate as blood!”

That line in particular always makes me laugh like a drain, and Locke’s blustering insistence on the crucial importance of his concrete mission at times pushes the film into borderline camp territory. (I think here of Notes on Camp/Anti-Camp, an essay by radical queer filmmaker Bruce LaBruce that envisions entire new categories of camp, including “Reactionary Camp” [Tyler Perry, heavy metal] to “Bad Gay Camp” [Neil Patrick Harris, Liberace], and “Bad Straight Camp” [Benny Hill, Damien Hirst]. Let’s call Locke “Cismale Concrete Camp.”)

Yet Locke is neither a parody, endorsement, or trenchant critique of so-called toxic masculinity. Rather, it’s an especially piquant portrait of a peculiarly maudlin, self-serving strain of British manhood, one that is obsessed with fixing things, proving oneself, and always being the focal point of any emotional matrix. (Locke says “I” a hell of a lot, but, crucially, devastatingly, never once says the words “I’m sorry” to his betrayed family.) Painfully acute, too, is its depiction of the relationship between Locke and his soccer-fanatic sons, where emotion and meaning are sublimated into the coded language of sports.

Fortunately, I have a better relationship with my own father than Ivan Locke has with his (he appears to address his ghost in the rearview mirror in several vituperative, Shakespearean monologues), or seems destined to have with his own kids. Yet my dad and I, too, for so long—too long—skirted around our emotions, the real stuff, and stuck to surface level conversations, like men are wont to do. But I’ve used this lock[e]down period to finally get around to interviewing my dad, who turned 60 last year. We recorded our first hour-long conversation last week. I want to know what he was like at my age; I want to know what drove him then, what he regrets. I want to know what he doesn’t know, and wants to know, before it’s too late. Locke, in its blunt, headlong way, reminds me that intergenerational relationships need to be actively worked at, and that masculinity, or at least the performance of a certain type of masculinity, can be a destructive, deadening force.

During this shelter-in-place period, I’ve watched Locke twice already, both in the Netflix Party format, and it’s been pleasant to share my affection for the film with others even outside a cinema. It seems there’s a fair few out there who are similarly smitten with its unusual blend of melodrama, humor, bleakness, and technical élan. Over time, Locke has become my comfort film, my warm blanket, a trip I relish taking. Most of all, I do it for the fucking concrete, which, as we all know by now, is delicate as blood. —Ashley Clark

Imitation of Life

Ash, I’m struck by your ongoing project with your dad—the intimacy of such a process, and the particular blend of love, curiosity, and deference that motivates you. With the variety of my usual workday—the screenings, the office, the coffee shops—now flattened to long hours hunched over my bedroom desk or sprawled out on the couch, I talk to my mom on the phone more than usual. Our conversations are often banal, but warm and consistently funny. She provides cooking tips and I offer movie recommendations. Can you believe she enjoyed The House That Jack Built? Then again this is the same woman who once took her prepubescent daughter to Saw. Thinking back to my adolescence, I realize the image of my mother assumes contradictory forms; she was controlling, implacable, easily angered; she was also doting, tireless, generous to a fault.

Perhaps the selection rationale behind several of the movies I’ve recently chosen to watch—Hollywood classics that either evoke or directly concern mothers—is informed by my revitalized bond with mom, and by the resulting memories of past squabbles and screeching that float to the surface. One of the first films I turned to once D.C. entered lockdown was Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?—which is not about mothers per se, but stars in-real-life bad moms Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. In the same essay you mentioned, Bruce LaBruce refers to the duo as the “twin peaks of classic camp,” in part because they failed to become nurturing mothers. Both Crawford and Davis were eviscerated in their daughters’ memoirs, which gave sensationalist (and partly discredited) accounts of the actresses as evil, abusive mothers. I imagine the monstrous, sadistic old spinster Davis plays in Baby Jane didn’t seem too far from how her daughter perceived her mother in the first place.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are the Hollywood melodramas about mothers who love too hard for their own good. These films burst with sincerity and plumb the pathos that comes with unreasonable self-sacrifice, which makes them particularly suited to unleashing the cleansing powers of a good cry. This might explain my recent fixation—we could all benefit from the catharsis of tears. To ensure her daughter’s social advancement, Barbara Stanwyck surrenders her little girl to her ex-husband and his well-to-do new family in Stella Dallas (1937); in Mildred Pierce (1945), Joan Crawford marries a sniveling, self-proclaimed “loafer” to secure a luxurious new house that might entice her estranged daughter to come home, and later she tries taking the fall for her daughter’s crime of passion; Jane Wyman’s children in All That Heaven Allows (1955) effectively shame their mother into breaking her engagement with Rock Hudson’s outdoorsman, only to reveal they plan on moving out anyway.

The narrative of the martyr mother reaches its apotheosis in another Douglas Sirk classic, Imitation of Life (1959), a film that I had the pleasure of being moved—and at times, shocked—by for the very first time.

Predictably, Lana Turner and her suitors loom large in the American posters and DVD artwork for the film, yet the drama of that storyline, about Lora, an aspiring actress who prioritizes her craft and career over her daughter and her romantic prospects, pales in comparison to the devastation and emotional turmoil that meets Annie, Lora’s dedicated Black nanny and confidante. Annie, played by a remarkable Juanita Moore, has a daughter herself, and it is her daughter’s well-being that leads the single mother to volunteer her services free of charge to Lora in exchange for room and board. She is maternal devotion taken to impossible heights, an early instance of, per Hilton Als in The Women, certain Black women as “symbol[s] of America’s by-now forgotten strain of puritanical selflessness.” Annie mothers everyone around her, meaning everyone comes before her: Lora, Lora’s daughter, and of course her beloved Sarah Jane.

Yet the teenage Sarah Jane, rendered with fire and fury by Susan Kohner, wants nothing to do with Annie for reasons completely out of her mother’s control. Light-skinned (Kohner is in fact not a Black woman), Sarah Jane easily passes for white, an identity she views at an early age as an ideal. As a teenager, it becomes clear to Sarah-Jane that the only thing standing in her way from assuming this platonic form is her mother, whom she eventually rejects and disowns to pursue life as a white chorus girl. In a heartbreaking adieu, Annie wordlessly acquiesces when Sarah-Jane explains to her baffled roommate that Annie is merely her childhood nanny. In effect, she consents to her own erasure. Annie dies from heartbreak, but her death has the same effect as a final act of devotion, a fulfillment of her daughter’s greatest desire.

Sarah Jane’s change of heart comes too late, and at the film’s close she’s seen running hysterically into the procession crowd and thrusting her body onto her mother’s coffin. (In Twin Peaks, Leland Palmer also throws his body on Laura’s coffin as its lowered underground—he was also guilty.) The huge scandal of Sarah Jane’s mortal betrayal, the fallout of spectacular proportions—there’s something so visceral and freeing about such an unhinged display of despair and emotion flailing and spattering about. We’re all feeling it; it feels good to see someone doing it. —Beatrice Loayza