Thinking Back, Thinking Ahead

by B. Ruby Rich

from Film Quarterly Spring 2014, Volume 67, Number 3

Part One: This Issue

In this issue of Film Quarterly, we pay attention, as always, to film festivals—this time, with a range of voices reporting on the Rotterdam, Berlin, True/False, and Middle East Now festivals. These essays consider the new films on the circuit, but also think through the significance of very different festivals and cinematic histories. Festival coverage will continue to be an FQ cornerstone, alerting readers to important work coming to the public and to the politics of the festival circuit, but also heeding the larger questions of film festival instrumentality. (See the book review section for a consideration of two recent volumes assessing film festival histories.)

While movie theaters struggle for audiences in an era of Internet delivery, film festivals continue to combat download/streaming habits with their successful formula of live events and be-there-now premieres. As this issue of Film Quarterly went to press, the US film community was riveted by news that the Tribeca Film Festival and its for-profit parent agency, Tribeca Enterprises, had sold a 50% stake to the megacorporation MSG, the Madison Square Garden Company. MSG’s executive chairman James L. Dolan sits on the board of AMC Networks, serves as chief executive of New York’s Cablevision Systems, and has real estate holdings that include Madison Square Garden.1

Add to that the AMC ownership of Sundance TV, the IFC channel, and IFC Films, and MSG’s additional properties, including the Beacon Theater in New York City (where Tribeca will now hold opening night), and it’s a vast portfolio.2

According to both Variety and the New York Times, Tribeca was valued at $45 million. The sale marked a moment: festival magic can now be bottled and sold as the “brand we built” (Tribeca co-founder Jane Rosenthal’s phrase). It’s come as a bit of a shock to a field that had never seen itself in quite those terms.

At other film festivals, though, change came in the form of personnel, not ownership. Both New York and San Francisco were retrenching in more classic cinephile modes. The Film Society of Lincoln Center—with the New York Film Festival, year-round exhibition in its Lincoln Center theaters, and the New Directors/New Films festival (in partnership with the Museum of Modern Art)—moved to reaffirm its legacy in the wake of considerable churn in the executive director’s seat. The FSLC named celebrated insider Lesli Klainberg to the executive director post. Noting her past as a documentary producer and previous head of Outfest, the FSLC pointedly praised Klainberg for her “deep appreciation of our mission.” When she named the beloved Eugene Hernandez (co-founder of Indiewire and the FSLC’s digital guru) to the deputy director post, the chorus of relieved exhalations was audible throughout New York City.

Across the country, the San Francisco Film Society closed a period of uncertainty and changed its luck by naming Noah Cowan, scion of the Toronto International Film Festival, to its own top spot. Cowan’s long stint at TIFF and as co-founder of the Cowboy Releasing distribution company, where he also forged the Global Cinema series with the Museum of Modern Art, make him uniquely suited to the challenges of guiding the San Francisco International Film Festival—one of the oldest film festivals in the United States and once upon a time one of the most influential—into its millennial role. Cowan’s time at TIFF saw him rotate among programming midnight movies, a stint as head of programming, and a recent commission as head of Bell Lightbox, curating gallery exhibitions and overseeing year-round programming. His level of institutional, nonprofit experience and his deep command of the cinema experience triggered an excitement in town that was palpable.

Cities have nurtured generations of filmmakers, art houses, cinephiles, and film students, yet the metropolis of yesteryear is fast disappearing into the maw of gentrified homogeneity. Some wonder if gentrification may be coming after the neighborhood of film culture as well. Jonathan Nossiter’s provocation in this issue may lead us to wonder what terroir means to film culture, what the artisanal movement he champions can offer in the way of clues. He writes from the filmmaker’s perspective, but exhibition is undergoing changes in Italy, where he now lives, as well as in the US and other parts near and far. In New York City, an explosion of micro cinemas—the Union Docs UnDo Center, Maysles Cinema, Light Industry, Spectacle Theater—suggests a flowering of artisanal exhibition. FQ will continue to pay attention to this sector and its evolution, whether physical, digital, or whatever else is due to follow.

Chris Berry, long an authority on Chinese cinema, turns his attention from traditional film exhibition to the space of the gallery and makes an argument for the “gestural cinema” that Yang Fudong has developed to shape his views of contemporary artistic life in China as well as to enable his work to travel transnationally. As the first to write on gallery installations for FQ, Berry teases readers with an aside to those who might want to call these installation works “short films.” His essay, of course, does no such thing. The exhibition “Yang Fudong: Estranged Paradise, Works 1993–2013” at the Pacific Film Archive and Berkeley Art Museum in 2013 provided an in-depth introduction to Yang Fudong and the perfect occasion for expanding FQ‘s brief to include his work. Berry’s initiative brings the gallery installation, an extratheatrical space that has firmly established its parameters of presence in the art world, forcefully into the discourse of cinema.

George Stoney, the pied piper of community-based video and progressive documentary, taught at New York University from 1970 nearly to the moment of his death at 96 in 2012. An indefatigable figure in popularizing video as a political force, Stoney had a particular combination of optimism and pragmatism that is in short supply these days. Fortunately, he left behind an enormous archive to provide inspiration. Brian Winston, Stoney’s kindred spirit and confidant, was granted access to those pages and generously shares his initial discoveries, providing a sense of Stoney’s early formation and his unwavering belief that ordinary folks have the ability to shape their own image. Winston includes samples of Stoney’s own hand-typed letters and memos, preserved on carbon copies (the original “cc”), for a true time-travel experience.

Time travel takes another form in Agnieszka Holland’s extraordinary historical epic, Burning Bush, a miniseries (shown already in film festivals in extended screenings) that explores the fraught legal drama surrounding the self-immolation of Czech university student Jan Palach in January 1969. Megan Ratner’s incisive interview with Holland deeply informs our understanding of this epic work, which is the director’s finest in many years. Ratner also pays much-needed attention to Holland’s own formation as a young student in Prague, soaking up its late-Sixties counterculture and inventing herself as a filmmaker; her collaborations with her daughter, who accompanied her to the Burning Bush premiere at Telluride; and her thoughts on such subjects as Hollywood’s enduring difficulty with women directors.

It is particularly apt to have Burning Bush bring Prague back to mind, given the sad passing of the great Czech director Věra Chytilová on March 12 of this year. Her remarkable film Daisies (1966) has never been equaled for its feminist bite, surrealist aesthetic, and political satire, which continue to entrance generation after generation of students from punks to Riot Grrrls to postmodernists. Chytilová was an original talent who paid a huge price for staying in her country after most of her filmmaking compatriots from the Prague Spring years had decamped. Daisies deserves to be in wider circulation, for it is a genuine masterpiece.



Vera Chytilová. Photo René Volfík, CTK

Megan Ratner takes up another diasporic view of Eastern Europe with Paweł Pawlikowski’s historical drama Ida, his first film to be set and shot in Poland after years of filmmaking in the UK and France. Ratner examines the ways in which Pawlikowski deploys his characters in space, as their positions within the frame augur the fates that will claim both his characters: the novice nun Ida and the world-weary Jew, Wanda, her newfound aunt. Ida calls to mind the classic European art film, but Ratner points out how Ida differs from its historical antecedents: we know what will happen next.

Part Two: Remembering Stuart Hall

The winter of 2014 brought news of the passing of the great Stuart Hall at the age of 82. The outpourings of obituaries unfailingly credited him as the father of cultural studies or the godfather of multiculturalism, citing his academic history and New Left Review provenance, his Jamaican-British perspective, his time at the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Cultural Studies, and later at the Open University. A towering figure in postwar British political thinking, Hall was an equally powerful figure in postwar academic life and theoretical conjuring, a public intellectual who never forsook his responsibility to consider the political repercussions of his own time and place. The magnificent tributes that followed his death and have already been published or circulated online cover many areas of his influence and significance.3

His early years are recorded in the recent documentary Regarding Stuart Hall, which culled the archives as well as the Miles Davis discology.4

Isaac Julien’s eloquent memorial essay recognized Stuart Hall’s immense importance to cinema, media, film studies, and to considerations of representation in general.5

Hall was often in front of the camera, appearing on British television throughout his career both as interviewee and interlocutor, guiding viewers through topics of urgent cultural and political importance. However, he was also involved personally and institutionally at the very founding of modern black British filmmaking. He served on the Council of Management for Sankofa, one of the first of the filmmaking workshops initially financed by the start-up Channel Four in the 1980s. He narrated Isaac Julien’s Looking for Langston (1989) and was a primary sounding-board for him for most of his films.6

He was also an early supporter of John Akomfrah, Lina Gopaul, and the Black Audio Film Collective, particularly at the time of their Handsworth Songs (1986) controversy. He was deeply involved with photography, both writing about it and curating the field. And he became a prime force behind the founding and flourishing of the Institute of International Visual Arts (Iniva) and the Autograph ABP (Association of Black Photographers). Hall shaped generations of artists as thoroughly as any art school or gallery or arts journal, perhaps more so.


In 1992, I met with Stuart Hall in a London café for an interview that, in the end, was never published. Mourning his death, I dug out the old files to share some of what we talked about that day regarding the history of cultural studies and his place in it. Hall recalled his generation’s struggle “to make sense of postwar British culture…and the shake-up of British society that it represented, very much in the aftermath of the post-war Americanization of culture via movies and rock music, and the disruption that the war represented to older class cultures, to aristocratic and middle-class culture as well as traditional working-class culture. It took a little while for people to realize that we weren’t going to survive into the Fifties like that. So the question became: what are the contours of British culture in this new era and what’s driving it and in what direction?”7

At the same time, Hall linked the rise of a cultural-studies practice to a crisis of the Left, as it became “aware that the things that had kept it in existence were not just ideology or programs but a whole culture that was dissolving. And if this culture was being eroded and cut away by the coming of consumerism and mass culture, then what culture was the Left going to ground its politics in?”

Hall was clear that he himself came from the “first New Left,” the 1956 version, with Raymond Williams and Richard Hoggart as touchstones. He and they were engaging cultural forces such as the coming of television, popular cinema, and rock music, but this was no mere subject of study. Hall felt that his work “came alive culturally in relation to those forms.” Engaging with then-current debates about popular culture and elite culture, from the very beginning, Stuart Hall thought about culture in its broadest terms and worked to connect it up to the ideological landscape of the time: “If you looked at literary studies or psychology studies, they weren’t interested in those sorts of questions. They didn’t take questions of culture seriously… It was the project of cultural studies to make this contemporary issue study-able, an object of serious cultural reflection among intellectuals.”

Hall often retold the story of the founding of the Centre for Cultural Studies at Birmingham, but on this occasion he revealed a key financial detail of its invention.8

“Richard Hoggart went to Birmingham as a professor of literature…[saying] I want to teach graduate students, but I want them to work in the area of this funny book that I just did [The Uses of Literacy]. The university said, that’s fine, but we don’t have any money. Well, Hoggart had just testified in the Lady Chatterley trial and defended Penguin Books for publishing Lady Chatterley’s Lover.”9

Evidently Hoggart’s own book also made Penguin a lot of money: it was republished over and over and sold very well. The form of Penguin’s gratitude to their author and defender was, remarkably, financial: “Allen Lane, head of Penguin Books, gave him an educational bequest and said, do what you want with this, this is important work, I believe in it, take the money. And with that money, Hoggart hired me. And took on graduate students. So the Centre didn’t come out of academia: they just gave us house room.”

Thus Hall himself and cultural studies as a field were literally shaped outside the academic sanctum, from the beginning, as a result of precisely the process of engagement that would later become his, and its, signature. This origin story can explain how there came to be such vigor for those early ideas: Hall and his students and compatriots knew that they mattered, because ideas had quite literally brought—and bought—their program into existence in the first place.

As cultural studies developed as a discipline, Hall became concerned about “its relentlessly academic form and tone. It has such difficulty in coming to grips, really, with questions of cultural power and cultural politics.” When it came to examples, Hall turned characteristically to film, and described the power structures of Channel Four. He felt that filmmakers were constantly engaged in a dialogue with authority. “You don’t have to ask yourself, where is power? You’re in conversation with it, and negotiating it all the time.” In the US, he worried that “academic formulations” had taken over, “as though class struggle really is in what x is going to say to y in the next seminar. That’s a very funny way of thinking about cultural politics!”

There was nothing funny, in that sense, about Hall’s thinking, though his sense of humor was as keen as it was mischievous. Above all, Hall’s intelligence was dialogic. Interactive avant la lettre, he loved sparring with others and riffing off the energy; no wonder he loved jazz, for its cauldron of improvisation and exchange was precisely his mode, unusual as that was for someone of his stature. He was generous to a fault, from co-authoring articles with his very first students at Birmingham, whom he genuinely termed his colleagues, to granting remarkable stature to those who interviewed him.

And he always pushed forward intellectually. “I mainly write about questions of race, identity, sexuality. Those weren’t where I came into the field. But as the new questions have come up, I’ve tried to follow them. Of course, you can see continuities. Fortunately. And very unfortunately!…I guess you only ask yourself two or three interesting questions in life, and you just find new ways of asking them.”

Stuart Hall invented cultural studies as a field, created the first versions of multiculturalism, coined the term Thatcherism, inspired generations, and left a powerful legacy of ongoing work that remains to be done—including the yet-unfinished task of integrating cinema studies and cultural studies to provide an ever-deeper context for practices of representation. That is a job that even he could not accomplish, but one that demands to be taken up anew in his absence. For FQ, Hall’s openness and generosity (to this writer, among many), his endless wonder about the ways of the world, and his keen appetite for cinema offer a model of engagement that remains a challenge and a guide to the paths ahead.

Image detail: Stuart Hall photographed by Dawoud Bey. Photo ©Dawoud Bey.


1. Maane Khatchatourian, “MSG Buys 50 Percent Stake in Tribeca Enterprises,” Variety, March 22, 2014, http://variety.com/2014/biz/news/tribeca-enterprises-to-sell-50-stake-to-msg-company-1201143068/.

2. Brooks Barnes, “Garden Buys Stake in Indie Film Bastion,” New York Times, March 22, 2014, www.nytimes.com/2014/03/24/business/media/tribeca-enterprises-agrees-to-sell-50-percent-stake-to-msg-company.html?_r=0.

3. See, especially: Suzanne Moore, “Stuart Hall Was a Voice for Misfits Everywhere. That’s His Real Legacy,” The Guardian, February 12, 2014, www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/feb/12/stuart-hall-voice-for-misfits-legacy; Angela McRobbie, “Times with Stuart,” Open Democracy, February 14, 2014, www.opendemocracy.net/angela-mcrobbie/times-with-stuart; Stuart Jeffries, “Stuart Hall’s Cultural Legacy: Britain under the Microscope,’ The Guardian, February 10, 2014, www.theguardian.com/education/2014/feb/10/stuart-hall-cultural-legacy-britain-godfather-multiculturalism; Lawrence Grossberg, “Rage Against the Dying of a Light: Stuart Hall (1932–2014),” Truthout, February 15, 2014, www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/21895-rage-against-the-dying-of-a-light-stuart-hall-1932-2014; and E. Ann Kaplan, “Tribute to Stuart Hall,” February 17, 2014, www.cmstudies.org/news/161205/Tribute-to-Stuart-Hall.htm.

4. John Akomfrah, The Stuart Hall Project (2013), British Film Institute.

5. Isaac Julien, “In Memoriam: Stuart Hall,” February 12, 2014, www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/news-bfi/features/memoriam-stuart-hall.

6. See, for example, Isaac Julien and Mark Nash, “Dialogues with Stuart Hall,” in Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies, ed. Kuan-Hsing Chen and David Morley (London: Routledge, 1996).

7. This and all other quotations are taken verbatim from the transcript of the September 1992 interview, as transcribed by me at that time.

8. His final observations on the subject were commissioned and written shortly before his death and published posthumously. Stuart Hall, “Stuart Hall on 50 Years of Pop Culture, Politics and Power,” The Guardian, April 20, 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/apr/20/stuart-hall-50-years-pop-culture.

9. Taking place in 1960, this was a watershed moment. “No other jury verdict has had such a profound social impact as the acquittal of Penguin Books in the Lady Chatterley trial.” Geoffrey Robertson, “The Trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” The Guardian, October 22, 2010, www.theguardian.com/books/2010/oct/22/dh-lawrence-lady-chatterley-trial.

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