You’re Not that Much Like Me: Brotherly Love and Brotherly Guilt in Mistaken for Strangers

Do our siblings understand us better than anyone else? “You’re not that much like me/You should know me better than that” Matt Berninger sings on I Should Live in Salt from The National’s sixth album, Trouble Will Find Me. An apology to his younger brother, Tom, its refrain is “I should live in salt for leaving you behind.” We see Matt working on the song in the studio towards the end of the 2014 documentary Mistaken for Strangers, which follows the band on a world tour just as their success skyrockets.

The disillusioned white-collar indie rockers return with their eighth album, I Am Easy to Find, on 17th May. The album is accompanied by a short film by Mike Mills, director of 20th Century Women and Beginners, starring Alicia Vikander. It’s an elegiac coming-of-age story that’s all dappled sunlight and gliding camera moves in soft monochrome. Mistaken for Strangers, directed by Tom Berninger, is endearingly shambolic by comparison. Like many great documentaries, it isn’t really about its obvious subject, and it hardly resembles a conventional music doc. Instead, it’s a surprisingly funny, surprisingly moving story of the unique, messy bond between siblings and the struggle to overcome self-doubt and create something, for others and for yourself.

Mistaken for Strangers introduces Matt and Tom as polar opposites. Matt is a thoughtful rock star grappling with newfound fame, while Tom, nine years younger, is an underachieving metalhead with a chip on his shoulder who still lives with their parents. “You’re too set in your ancient patterns of behaviour as brothers,” guitarist Aaron Dessner observes in an interview with Tom, “you’re the underdog and he’s the dominating alpha male.” Matt invites Tom on tour as a roadie and Tom elects to make a documentary about the band. But his vague attempts to portray the band are hampered by unresolved tension with his famous older brother. “I’m a little perplexed just because you guys said you wanted to get me into the movie to talk about me,” one of the Dessner twin brothers says with resignation, after Tom quizzes him about Matt.

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Above, L-R: Tom Berninger and Matt Berninger.

The good-natured band members and their long-suffering tour manager initially tolerate Tom’s chaotic presence but the film becomes painfully farcical as he proves to be a truly awful roadie. He forgets the water bottles and towels for the band’s dressing rooms, gets flat-out drunk, loses the celebrity guest list at the LA show and gets left behind by the tour bus. He remains oblivious throughout, which means he unashamedly captures some very uncomfortable moments. “I feel like the only reason I’m here is because I’m your brother,” he complains to Matt, who replies incredulously that “The only reason you are here is because you’re my brother.” We share Matt’s frustration with Tom’s mistakes, and yet seeing the tour through Tom’s eyes means we feel for him as an outsider to someone he should feel close to. We see him filming Matt in his tour bus bunk while he’s asleep, shining a torch on his unknowing face like he wants him to sense that he’s there. Matt’s frustration understandably eventually boils over and Tom is fired.

Tom’s return to the Berninger family home to lick his wounds reveals, perhaps inevitably, that the brothers aren’t that different after all. The walls boast artwork from both brothers’ teenage years side by side. Their father says they used to worry about Matt’s adolescent temper, while their mother bemoans Tom’s reluctance to try anything new as a child: “You always wanted to quit things.”

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Six months later Tom has installed a makeshift editing suite in Matt’s daughter’s playroom at his house in Brooklyn to piece the documentary together, but nothing seems to have changed. Technical problems at a preview screening sends him into a spiral of self-loathing and he seems paralysed by humiliation while Matt berates him for not being prepared. Their roles of underdog and alpha continue to be played. “Having Matt as my older brother kind of sucks because he is a rock star and I am not, and it has always been that way” Tom confesses, wiping his eyes. But a cut to a conversation with Matt back on the tour shatters this illusion. Matt talks about the soul-crushing experience of the band’s early shows, and of going home after playing to a completely empty venue and breaking down in tears. “We started putting that tension and anxiety and fear and humiliation into the music, just putting it out there made us closer to each other and for the people that did come to the shows that was the connection,” Matt says.

Mistaken for Strangers illustrates how creating anything at all can be a battle against yourself, and how we continue to play out those ancient patterns of behaviour with our siblings. But the film’s closing minutes suggest that Matt and Tom don’t want to imprison themselves and each other in the roles they performed growing up. Tom is finally able to admit how he let Matt down while, with a kind of loving desperation, Matt tells Tom to “Lean towards the things that make you like yourself, forget everything else.” Creative fulfilment doesn’t have to be dictated or limited by who you think you are, and perhaps the person you feel most alienated from might actually understand you the best. The documentary speaks to to the hope that seems to stubbornly ignite itself even in some of The National’s most downbeat songs. I Should Live in Salt, that expression of brotherly love and brotherly guilt, aches with regret and yet it soars like an unspoken emotion finally set free. Mike Mills’ collaboration with The National looks elegantly beautiful, but the fragile, funny, unglamorous joy of Mistaken for Strangers marks it as one of the greatest films about familial love, music and creativity ever made.

Be Pretty and Shut Up!

Sois belle et tais-toi! Be pretty and shut up!

It’s a message that is both explicitly and implicitly broadcast to women constantly, whether it’s via film posters that decapitate us in favour of our shapely hairless legs or the misogynistic replies to a tweet where a woman was brazen enough to express an opinion.

It’s also the title of a little-seen documentary directed by Delphine Seyrig, an actress-activist who starred in New Wave classics like Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (1961) and François Truffaut’s Baisers volés (1988). Seyrig also played the title role in Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels (1975), Chantal Akerman’s arthouse feminist film cited by Greta Gerwig as an influence on Lady Bird (2017).

In the 1970s Seyrig joined the feminist movement in France and met cinematographer and filmmaker Carole Roussopoulos. The two would collaborate for many years on feminist film projects such as the short S.C.U.M. Manifesto (1976), S.C.U.M. being an abbreviation of the ‘Society for Cutting Up Men’, and alongside fellow activist Iona Wieder founded the Simone de Beauvoir Audiovisual Centre in 1982, the first audiovisual centre promoting and preserving women’s history.

Recently screened at the Barbican Centre in London as part of their Nevertheless, She Persisted season of films exploring the continuing struggle for equal rights around the world, Sois belle et tais-toi (1981) is a strikingly intimate and personal insight into the treatment of women in the film industry. Seyrig and Roussopoulos interviewed twenty four French and American actresses, including Jane Fonda, Shirley MacLaine, Juliet Berto and Marie Dubois, about their experiences of misogyny. Shot entirely in simple medium close-ups, it’s extraordinary to hear and see these women open up about the one-dimensional characters they’ve played and their poor treatment behind the camera. Topics range from alternative careers had the women interviewed been born male, to Hollywood’s obsession with the romanticised male friendship, to the prospect of more women working as writers and directors.

While the film is unrestored and its sometimes smudgy and overexposed visuals coupled with its poor sound quality can make it challenging viewing, the discrimination the actresses reveal remains strikingly familiar. Depictions of the bond of female friendship remain few and far between, roles for women over forty remain scarce and women who speak up on film sets are still dismissed as bossy or demanding. In the clip below Rita Renoir describes how male directors told her she castrates them merely by looking at them, and how “What they always wanted from me is the game where I say, ‘Yes, I’m so stupid, I have so much to learn from you'”. Seyrig only interviewed one woman of colour, African American actress Maidie Norman, who described the frustration of maids or slaves being the only roles offered to African American actresses.


Above: An extract from Sois belle et tais-toi

It’s particularly devastating to hear from Maria Schneider, who was raped on screen by Marlon Brando in Last Tango in Paris (1972) and Mallory Millett, who Roman Polanski attempted to rape on two occasions. Millett left acting as a result of sexual abuse, telling The SunI ended up fleeing the whole industry because all I did was turn down producers trying to get me under their desks and give them blow jobs”.

In the wake of #MeToo, seemingly a time of reckoning for Hollywood, what does being pretty and shutting up mean in 2018?

Women in the film industry are raising their voices now more than ever before. As we all know, a large number of well known actresses have shared their experiences of assault and harassment at the hands of Harvey Weinstein, including Gwyneth Paltrow, Angeline Jolie and Lupita Nyong’o. Time’s Up, an anti-harassment initiative that includes a legal defence fund to help less privileged survivors, was founded in January in response to the exposure of abuse and counts Jessica Chastain, Laura Dern, America Ferrera and Reese Witherspoon among its many members. Any star not wearing black or a Times Up pin on the red carpet throughout award season in solidarity was an exception.

We’re also seeing more championing of films directed by women. The ongoing #MeToo movement coinciding with the centenary of the first women in Britain getting the vote has prompted many feminist screenings and events in the UK this year. The Barbican’s Nevertheless She Persisted and the BFI’s Girlfriends season have been and gone but in June the BFI will be celebrating the work of Ava DuVernay, Agnes Varda, Ida Lupino and Lotte Reiniger. Birds Eye View have recently launched their Reclaim the Frame initiative which aims to promote films by women and Sundance London will be screening a varied selection of brilliant work both by and about women, from Jennifer Fox’s The Tale (2018), in which Laura Dern’s Jennifer confronts the sexual abuse she experienced as a child, to Amy Adrion’s Half the Picture (2018), a documentary examining the gender disparity behind the camera.

Perhaps we don’t need an update of Sois belle et tais-toi now that discussing the abuse of power by men in Hollywood is no longer confined to whisper networks and filmmakers like Patty Jenkins, Ava DuVernay and Greta Gerwig are succeeding at the box office. But the film is a clear demonstration of how overall very little has changed in Hollywood over the past forty years. Abusers like Woody Allen, Weinstein and Polanski walk free, female auteurs like Lynne Ramsay are branded “difficult” and Mark Wahlberg is worth $1.5 million for reshoots while Michelle Williams is worth $1,000, not to mention the continuing lack of opportunities for actresses of colour. Even multi award winning actresses like Octavia Spencer seem pigeonholed in either Sassy Black Friend or Magical Negro roles, two very racist tropes.

Sois belle et tais-toi ends with an impassioned speech by Ellen Burstyn, best known for her stunning performances in Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974) and Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream (2001), about the importance of women coming together to help form a better world. I was genuinely moved this week to learn that at the age of eighty five, Burstyn is making her directorial debut. As an actress deciding to transition into directing I imagine that Burstyn must have been partially inspired by the work of Delphine Seyrig. Seyrig died in 1990 and Carole Roussopoulos in 2009 and while it’s a shame that their ever-relevant film is rarely screened it’s inspiring to think that perhaps it has had a lasting impact on one of its contributors. It’s certainly had a powerful impact on me as an audience member.