The demolition of the monoculture and the decline of publishing as an industry have all but retired the concept of the “Great American Novel,” an ambitious work that endeavors to capture the national Zeitgeist within a fictional story. But Brady Corbet, the hardest-trying man on the indie cinema circuit, won’t let the Great American Film go down without a fight.
Having already worked with the likes of Michael Haneke, Lars von Trier, and Olivier Assayas by his 25th birthday, the actor decided that it was high time to stop studying under world-renowned auteurs and try becoming one himself. He made an auspicious debut in 2014 with The Childhood of a Leader, a drama cataloguing the formative experiences of a dictator-to-be, which earned him a pair of prizes from the Venice Film Festival and a reputation as a talent to watch. His latest feature, the newly released Vox Lux, follows through with a formal and narrative audacity that takes as its subject no less than America in the 21st century. Within the bifurcated biography of a singer named Celeste — portrayed by Raffey Cassidy as a teen rising from the ashes of tragedy to fame, then by Natalie Portman as an adult thoroughly corroded by her stardom — Corbet mounts a massively scaled commentary on pop culture, terrorism, and mass hysteria with a distinctly literary flair.
Critics have been split on the film since the opening shots (no spoilers, but that’s a dark pun), and when he sits down with Vulture at a well-appointed Manhattan office, Corbet’s not opposed to discussing what he considers misinterpretations of his methods. But he’d rather float new ideas than wrestle them into definite conclusions. In an eclectic back-and-forth, we start by discussing America’s possibly impending collapse before moving on to the virtues of prefab housing, why he finds watching most movies arduous, how Vox Lux stacks up against A Star Is Born, and plenty else.
In the film, we get these monologues about America entering its decadent “last days of Rome” phase. Is that a belief you share?
Great empires have fallen. I think that it’s something that, as an American, you don’t get a sense of because you’re told from the very beginning that you live in the greatest country on earth. It’s interesting, that Americans’ concept of ourselves and the country are shifting. We’re realizing how fragile it all is. It’s also disturbing that maybe there was a status quo everyone wanted to maintain, and it’s become impossible to return to that status quo. The future is very uncertain, though not necessarily any bleaker than any other time’s future. I just think that it’s an unsettling time to be alive.
The movie’s inspired by Apple news updates, and the way that you have four or five top stories; basically, at any given time, there’s usually some coverage of a mass murder and maybe something about Ariana Grande having cut off her ponytail. In 20 or 30 years, when we’re at the mid-century mark and we have a little perspective, what are the events that we will identify as having defined this time? I do think that there’s been a major shift in the culture since Columbine and 9/11, and now we’ve had an even greater tectonic shift with this new administration. When people look back, they remember Britney Spears along with 9/11. Popular music is just a way of talking about the popular culture.
This isn’t to suggest a link between them, one being a reflection of the other?
There’s no link between pop music and terrorism. The idea is that in part one, the culture shapes this young woman, and then in part two, she’s begun to reshape the culture. The script uses a certain event to see how far-reaching her iconography and her influence is. I’ve spoken about this a bit: When I was preparing my last film, we talked a lot about the events leading up to the Treaty of Versailles and how that affected the next century of foreign policy.
When you talk about the accidental path forged for fascism, you’re talking about Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem. That was something quite anonymous, the concept of this faceless yes-man evil. In the 21st century, everyone owns their violence, they own their iconography. I think of the Aurora shooter, James Holmes, who showed up dressed as the Joker, how he’s got fans online. Think of how many concerts are targeted for shootings — Ariana Grande’s show, the Bataclan theater. A person attacks an event like that, or the Twin Towers, because it’s a symbol. The line between fame and infamy is getting blurrier all the time.
There’s one joke in the film, where a journalist asks Celeste what the link is between her and terrorists, and she says, “Who cares?” Which is funny in the way it shuts down misinterpretation of the film’s themes. When you make a film and leave a lot open to interpretation, you also leave it open for a lot of misinterpretation. That’s just par for the course.
What’s been the nature of that misinterpretation?
I got a lot of that on my first film. I wanted to gather all these events that evoke the possibility of causality — despondent lover, brutal minister — and by the end of the film, the viewer should realize that none of these signifiers could fully explain what makes the character into the role he’s almost predestined for. It’s quite heightened, and Vox Lux is narrated so it couldn’t be interpreted as a work of realism. To take these moral tales, these fables, and then inject them with contemporary perspective to dismantle the reading that they’re cautionary — that seems to be where the movie’s headed, until it all falls apart in the last 20 minutes.
At the end of the day, as much as I’d love to go to every cinema across the globe and set the volume and make sure everyone’s got proper context, that’s impossible. You do what you do, you do what you’ve done, and then have one very nerve-racking evening. Mine was at Venice, before we screened the film. Regardless of whether the reception’s good or bad, an enormous amount of pressure is relieved right then.
I saw the film up at TIFF, where the general read seemed to be that it looks at pop music as a representation of vapidity. There’s that line about the terrorist characters possibly choosing to wear masks from Celeste’s music video as a comment on obscene Western culture. You’re saying it’s not that simple?
I don’t think anything is that simple. Of course, the movie uses pop music for the purposes of its story as a harbinger of doom. There’s something unsettling about this thing on the airwaves, and the business that manufactures it. Pop music is not vapid! But it is corporate. Now, some of our generation’s greatest artists have learned how to work within that system. There are virtues to that. It’s a bit like prefab housing. If you’re reading about Walter Gropius, it’s exhilarating architecture, but you could blame him and Le Corbusier for how hideous our suburbs are. Because in mass-produced housing, nobody’s using materials as fine as Gropius would have used, and they don’t have his skill. His work gets bastardized, and we get little-box housing. But even so, all things that are popular have their value.
To take the analogy one step further, the benefit of prefab housing was that it’s utilitarian, cheap, and affordable. In the movie, Celeste says that she wants to make pop music to make people feel good. At the time, I took it as tongue-in-cheek, like a comment about compromised integrity in art, but now it seems more sincere than that?
I love that Raffey delivers that line in the film with such sincerity and earnestness. I chose Sia as a partner on the film because I knew that the film wouldn’t be complex or convincing if the songs were bad. What’s unsettling about the picture is that it does hold the corporate world’s feet to the fire a bit, but it also acknowledges the medium’s virtues. I wouldn’t spend 15 minutes of screen time on a pop concert if I didn’t find it enjoyable and pleasurable. It’s also 15 minutes because I know everyone’s been waiting an hour and 40 minutes to see Natalie perform, so once she does, I thought I should give the people what they want. Hopefully, that’s also a chance to reflect on the series of events that have led up to that sequence. What’s unusual about that final part is that it’s dramaless. It was always conceived that way, just a pure performance that’s no more or less than what it is.
But the lyrics to the songs all feel kind of loaded. She talks about being a “private girl in a public world,” wanting to get “some sweat and tears” out of her listeners. These aren’t intended as comments on the content of the film?
They are and they aren’t, the lyrics are so general. They can be about anything. A song can be about a lover, or a family member — there’s universality there.
You didn’t coordinate with her, that she’d be writing these songs about the film?
They were chosen for a combination of reasons: for lyrics, but also for tone and pace. I’d choose the sequence of the tracks based on their tempo and how that builds, rather than their sentiment. For a while, you start to feel like the show could go on forever. Then, just at the tail end, we’re brought back into the fold of the story as the narrator makes his closing remarks. Most films, even films I consider to be very well crafted, I find a bit expected. I usually know not only from the very beginning of a movie roughly how that movie will conclude, but also from the beginning of a scene how each scene will conclude. A scene begins, I understand what it’s for immediately, and yet I still have to go through the motions of watching it all play out, which I find a bit arduous. By bending, breaking, pulling, stretching this narrative in every which direction — some scenes being much longer than they normally would be, some much shorter — this can create a disorienting sensation for the viewer.
Vox Lux starts in 1999, and the opening voice-over mentions Reaganism. You’ve mentioned in other interviews that the obscene qualities on display in the film aren’t a recent development in America. It didn’t begin in 2016, with the election, or even in 1999. The book From Hell makes the suggestion that culture died at the dawn of the 20th century. Does every generation believe they’re at the nadir of their society like this?
We don’t know yet because we don’t have the perspective.
But this film, while situated in its time and place, does comment on its moment.
Having the through line of Raffey in both roles, even though Celeste’s story ends tragically, shows a cyclical motion. Even though Celeste falls to the wolves, her essence lives on in her child, whose future is uncertain but hopefully brighter than her mother’s. It’s often true of kids with troubled parents that they go in one of two directions, either replicating those bad habits, or going the other way and becoming little adults very quickly.
I can’t say that I particularly like topical movies, so I guess it’s funny that I made one. I always tried to approach it like a historical movie, a period piece about now. One of the reasons the film goes from 1999 to 2017 is that if it went to 2018, it’d be right now right now. I wanted it to be a closed-off story about the very recent past, the time about which we’re just starting to form perspective.
Vox Lux is very much about America, but thinking about the big picture of your career — your first film was a European production, you’ve worked with lots of esteemed European directors as an actor, your wife is Norwegian — I wonder if you feel detached from that part of yourself. Do you ever feel a temptation to shed your Americanness?
I’ve lived in both places for extended periods of time. I’ve spent a lot of my life in the U.K. and France, and now I spend a lot of time in Norway. My opinions about socialism versus capitalism are more defined now than they would have been otherwise.
There’s some part of me that’s a very proud American. I get in arguments with taxi drivers when I’m traveling. That’s just a part of who I am. When I make something, I try to make something I like, and I like films from all over the world. Every time you approach a scene, you’re always trying to figure out the best approach for that particular scene. What I don’t want to do is get dogmatic about a film’s style — American, European, whichever. I want a patchwork feeling.
I saw Vox Lux around the same time as A Star Is Born, and it seems like one is a bit of a cracked-mirror version of the other. What do you see as the relationship between the two films?
Vox Lux was designed to subvert those clichés. I wanted to take those extremes of emotion to a more extreme plane. The bit about her going blind in one eye from drinking household cleaning products, it’s almost over-the-top, almost baroque. All of these tropes — the scuzzy manager, the seduction of fame — the film protests these things by being these things. Much of the film is like that, protesting what it at the same time is. It’s impossible for me to make cinema that doesn’t reflect cinema, or just reflect itself. It leans all the way into being what you’d expect. Of course she’s an addict, but the way that it’s handled is both extreme and extremely old-fashioned — think of the pratfall where adult Celeste falls on her face. I wanted to push everything to maximalist heights.
I was reminded of Judy Garland, how there was a whole team of people whose job was to keep her upright and awake.
At one point, we wanted to use a Judy Garland track for the film that we couldn’t get the rights to. So [composer] Scott [Walker] wrote an original piece instead. The film treats contemporary issues in that old-fashioned way.
That’s why the final scene alternates between the same hi-def cameras they use to shoot the Super Bowl and 35 millimeter film, to show the rub between the two. The future is inevitable and disturbing! The film’s primarily about contemporary anxiety, which exists at the point where our debt to the past meets our fear of the future. A good film operates on more than one level. Hopefully, this one functions as poetry and pulp, high art and trash coexisting. In dialogue with one another, they seem equally absurd, a gargantuan string section against a MIDI synth. They seem to be mocking one another. I like that tension.