June 2020

Arts & Letters

Her too: ‘The Assistant’

By Shane Danielsen

Melbourne-born, New York–based filmmaker Kitty Green’s powerfully underplayed portrait of Hollywood’s abusive culture

Of the many anecdotes I’ve heard about being a Hollywood assistant, my favourite is the friend who was woken in Los Angeles at 2.30 in the morning by her boss, who was attending a conference in Beijing. He wanted her to ring the front desk of his hotel – the front desk of the hotel he was in – and ask them to bring a power adapter up to his room.

He was on the ninth floor. She was 10,000 kilometres away.

Obviously there are worse stories, but I like this one because it encapsulates so many salient aspects of the relationship. The infantile helplessness. The unthinking disregard for anyone but oneself. (Why would you possibly be asleep when I’m awake?) And the sheer, arse-backward way of making even the simplest task several orders of magnitude more difficult than it needs to be.

It’s rich territory for satire, as films from Swimming With Sharks to Tropic Thunder have demonstrated. But The Assistant (streaming on Foxtel), the first fiction feature from Melbourne-born, New York-based filmmaker Kitty Green, takes a very different approach. Best known for her excellent 2017 meta-documentary Casting JonBenet, about a group of Colorado locals auditioning to be in a film about the unsolved murder of JonBenét Ramsey, Green is an astute and unconventional storyteller, and her feature debut is as remarkable for what it leaves out – its omissions and elisions – as for what it depicts.

Since premiering at Sundance in January, The Assistant has become known as “the Weinstein movie” – which is only fair, given that it’s about the bullying, womanising head of an independent film company, early ’00s Miramax in all but name. Yet those hoping for a shot of #MeToo-fuelled catharsis will be disappointed. Despite its title, The Assistant is less an account of one woman’s unhappy experience (though it certainly is that) than a prosecutorial indictment of an entire system – a mechanism that facilitates abuse both sexual and psychological, even as its various enablers take care to maintain an airtight seal of Plausible Deniability. There’s no triumph here, and no reckoning – just a forensic examination of prevailing conditions. By Green’s own admission, it is a deeply pessimistic film.

It chronicles a typical day in the life of a typical entry-level assistant – unnamed in the film but credited as “Jane”, and played with careful intelligence by Julia Garner. We see her rise before dawn to take an Uber into lower Manhattan, where she opens the office, makes the first of many coffees, and visibly steels herself for the day ahead.

Over the course of the following 87 minutes, we watch her schedule flights, book hotel rooms, return a lost earring to a woman who had a closed-door meeting with her boss a few days earlier, field angry phone calls from said boss’s wife, look on as another woman is told to sign a non-disclosure agreement, be screamed at down the phone, compose emails of abject contrition, file away mail-order packets of alprostadil (a treatment for erectile dysfunction, I’m relieved not to have known), and finally – and most gallingly – begin to train a new arrival, a beautiful young woman the boss met somewhere, who may or may not be about to replace her.

Films about real-life sex scandals are themselves often lurid or sensational – think of Abel Ferrara’s Welcome to New York (2014), made in the immediate aftermath of l’affaire Dominique Strauss-Kahn, with Gérard Depardieu playing the former IMF chief like a walking pulmonary embolism, amid many naked and comely female extras. Green takes, shall we say, a rather more nuanced approach. She sets out her case in a string of short scenes, prickly little shards of unease, and her shooting style is remarkably assured – her compositions precise and measured, her tone dispassionate in a manner that recalls the chillier works of Michael Haneke. As with that director, the camera is fixed throughout – no shaky handheld “realism” here – and cinematographer Michael Latham seems to have leached blue from the film’s colour scheme; the result is a gastric palette of greens and ochres, and queasily underlit interior spaces that look, at times, like a haunted house.

But the film is also finely tuned and deeply researched. Every incidental detail is absolutely, indisputably right – so precise and correct, it could be used as a field guide for future historians seeking to understand this particular strand of American corporate culture. The angry wife who’s dead inside. The visiting kids causing havoc with the PAs. The raw brick interiors. The Chinese partners. And, most of all, the dead air in the office, a silence thick with misery, paranoia and dread.

Most crucially of all, we never see “the boss” – just hear his voice on the end of a phone line hissing obscenities, or glimpse the fearful faces of his minions as he strides by. (At these moments, I found myself reminded of the glass of water vibrating in Jurassic Park.) While he “entertains” willing aspirants – the string of pretty, vaguely hopeful women who drift like confetti through the office – we remain outside his closed door with the staff. Watching as they try, with varying degrees of determination, to ignore a single, incontrovertible fact.

Green’s rationale is simple: “You know what’s happening on the other side of that door.” But this isn’t just a matter of circumspection. In refusing to depict the abuse taking place, the filmmaker declines to be complicit in it – a strategy Ferrara and his ilk would have done well to heed.

Yet, for all the virtues of its maker’s technique, the film owes its success in no small part to the performance of its star. I love Garner in Ozark, as the white-trash scam artist Ruth Langmore, the show’s most original and compelling character. (Of Ruth’s many quotable quotes, my favourite remains: “I don’t know shit about fuck.”) But her résumé is studded with quality projects, from Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene – her screen debut, and my favourite film of 2011 – to her recurring guest role in The Americans, one of the great TV series of the past decade. At just 26 years of age, she enjoys a distinction rare among working actors: of having been consistently excellent in many excellent things.

As Ruth, she plays both broad and subtle, her foul-mouthed bravado never quite concealing the wary intelligence and insecurity within. In The Assistant she’s often silent and reactive, yet her acting is a veritable masterclass in understatement and precision, of achieving a great deal while apparently doing as little as possible. (  Jane’s almost subliminal smile when her possible replacement boasts of her contacts within the film industry – “My uncle’s in Craft Services” – deserves a review in itself.) She’s also very petite, and consistently smaller than everyone else in the frame; as a result, she appears consistently threatened by those larger and more powerful than herself. Which is to say, pretty much everybody.

Certainly her co-workers are no help. She’s one of three junior assistants working the producer’s desk – and the only woman – but her immediate colleagues are bro-nerds, a genus regrettably common in the film industry, and hostile in a passive-aggressive way that’s uniquely American. One of the key strategies of capitalism is to erode workers’ relationships with one another, so as to diminish their effectiveness against management, and the film industry in particular is constructed as a zero-sum game: more for you means less for me – so fuck you. Consequently, there’s no fellow-feeling among these fellow victims. Instead, they gaze at each other impassively, like gazelles on the veldt. Each waiting for some passing lion to take the others down.

What’s unclear in all this is exactly what Jane wants or expects. Green’s script gives us little of her life beyond the office – there’s a rushed phone call to her parents, apologising for missing her dad’s birthday – and withholds any hint of backstory. Nor do we ever get a sense of what motivates her, beyond a terror of immediate consequences. Some would consider this a fault; I don’t. Jane lives moment to moment because she’s trying not to drown, and anyone who’s endured such circumstances knows it’s impossible to think beyond the immediate present. Her desperation is a function of her environment, a system she’s powerless to change and obliged to perpetuate. And for what? A pay cheque, certainly, but also something more enticing: a nebulous, ephemeral connection to the business of dreams.

The film is honest about what Harvey Weinstein was, but are we? For many years, he was out and about: haranguing critics, hosting parties, holding court at the Carlton (in Cannes) and the Four Seasons (in Toronto). He was easy to find, if you knew where to look. But this relative ubiquity had the effect of making others complicit, to some degree, in his violations. The precise details weren’t known, though all of us (except Meryl Streep, apparently) had heard the rumours. And yet we chose to overlook them – at first because he was making good movies, and then later, when his Midas touch had waned, because he was Harvey, and that was just the way things were.

I even brought him onstage at the Edinburgh Film Festival once, to introduce a film he’d produced. The audience that day had no idea he was attending (neither, until a day before he showed up, did I), and when I said his name the air in the theatre turned electric. No producer since David O. Selznick had that kind of rockstar renown – not even Robert Evans at his peak.

The next morning, over breakfast, he offered me a job, which to his surprise and irritation I declined, noting that we weren’t complementary personalities. He frowned for a moment – had he heard right? – then turned on the charm. But I had such excellent taste! Didn’t I want to help him shape The Weinstein Company? When it became apparent that I couldn’t be swayed, he grew first jocularly aggressive (“What,” he growled, “you think you’re too good for me?”) and, finally, cool and distant.

What I remember most clearly now, though – more than his voice (rich, surprisingly refined), more even than the alternating weathers of his moods – was his assistant at the time, a skinny guy in his mid twenties who scurried about like a cockroach, and who actually, visibly trembled whenever Big Harv addressed him. I’d studied him the night before, had spoken with him a couple of times, and had come to feel for him a kind of generalised contempt. This wasn’t any kind of life, I thought, and this was no kind of man.

The Assistant neither valorises nor absolves that poor creature, but it does at least set his suffering in context. Something for whomever he’s bullying now – and he surely is, that’s how it works – to bear in mind.

Shane Danielsen

Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

Julia Garner in The Assistant. © Foxtel

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