Film, Digitality, and Cultural Divides

by B. Ruby Rich

from Film Quarterly Fall 2014, Volume 68, Number 1

Part I: Violence, Censorship, Cinematic Powers

Summertime is usually an interregnum for Film Quarterly and many of its readers: a time between university terms and, with the singular exceptions of Locarno and Karlovy Vary, between film festivals as well: after Cannes, before Toronto/Telluride/Venice/New York. As this issue went to press, however, production was repeatedly interrupted by a need to attend to the news. In days of yore, that would have meant a teletype machine in some far-off newsroom or the afternoon edition of the daily newspaper. Today, the online 24-hour news cycle makes everyone hyper-alert (though often to no good end). Thus it was that sleep was interrupted by an earthquake in northern California, where FQ is edited and printed, for one night. But well-being was interrupted indefinitely by events in Ferguson, Missouri, where Michael Brown was gunned down by a policeman after allegedly jaywalking, and then, by all reports, his body was left lying in the street for hours. In San Francisco, in my own neighborhood, a young Alex Nieto was killed in a hail of bullets by police, while eating a burrito or, alternately, behaving “erratically.” Globally, meanwhile, the killings in Palestine and in Ukraine commanded airtime and webspace, reported in the interstices and once in a while a headline, even in the absence of any coherent US policy. And American journalist James Foley was beheaded by his kidnappers.

These deaths would seem to have no bearing on a film journal, yet the question of what is shown in films and what is not seems more important than ever. Cinema itself is in a state of immense transition, yet it’s hard not to notice that attention is lavished disproportionately on technology and auteurist style, with the question of theme, focus, and subject matter repeatedly sidelined. What, though, is “filmable” today? And what is “theorizable” in response? So often, at times of historic crises, film has risen to the occasion and made a difference. Just as John Ford and others were formed by World War II, the French New Wave by the Algerian war of independence, the 1970s generation of US filmmakers by Vietnam, and the New Queer Cinema out of the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 1990s, surely it is time for a new generation of visionaries to arise out of this era of violence and persecution. Outrage should not be limited to YouTube.

Art imitates life: Rewind. Fastforward. Play. Repeat. An all too common media image from Fruitvale Station (Ryan Coogler, 2013).

Perhaps it is also time to ponder where cinematic energies today are directed. The favorite film of 2013 was clearly Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, a preference which reminds me of the old saw about Busby Berkeley musicals of the 1930s attracting audiences who flocked to them to escape the Depression. What are audiences escaping into deepest 3D space to avoid today? Hint: Fruitvale Station (Ryan Coogler, 2013) had a modest success, but did not get the response it deserved when it was released just before before the fifth anniversary of Oscar Grant’s murder by the subway police in Oakland.

Is it possible that a committed digital cinema could arise from the ashes of celluloid and resume the medium’s traditional relevance to popular events, historic movements, and questions of injustice? And would audiences pay attention? The cinema of stylists and grand masters continues, of course, and its deepest pleasures continue to delight as much as ever before. But it must be said: the horrors of the age demand expression in what I still believe to be its foremost medium, right there alongside its greatest dreams and fantasies, but they don’t seem to be present in anything like a proper proportion. Filmmakers will only benefit from looking further and harder at the rigors of contemporary societies, the toll exacted on individuals, and the systems of repression and domination that resist examination. This work cannot be left solely to documentary. Fiction films must begin the work of plumbing the subjectivities of subjugation, the tragedies of quotidian diminishments, the grand drama of cultures in collapse and revival.

Lest anyone doubt that film still has great power, the shutdown of the Beijing Independent Documentary Film Festival on August 23 was a sudden reminder. In this action against film itself, Chinese authorities seemingly approved a ransacking of the offices of the festival’s sponsoring organization, the Li Xianting Film Fund. The Guardian reported that “police detained three of its organizers—Li Xianting, Wang Hongwei and Fan Rong—for about five hours, forcing them to sign documents promising they would not hold the festival.”1 They roughed up the organizers, confiscated computers and DVDs, and caused the cancellation of the event, which was headquartered in an artists’ district in Songzhuangan, outside Beijing. Reportedly, its archive was also confiscated.

More complete reports will doubtless emerge after this issue goes to press.2 But FQ contributor Brian Winston quickly posted details of his own experience in social media: “Those of us honored enough to have been invited to the center over the years have, I am sure, been as overwhelmed as I have by the grace with which Li Xianting, the elderly art curator who funds the operation, Hongwei and their colleagues deal with the police. Forced out of large spaces—the art galleries which proliferate in the ‘village’—they resorted to private screening rooms in neighborhood houses. Forced to abandon that ploy, they simply gave out DVDs to attendees. But now authority’s patience is at an end, it would seem.” Quoted in a related Associated Press story, FQ editorial board member Chris Berry confirmed the details, but also emphasized the many other outlets available in China now, from galleries to the internet: “Let’s not be totally pessimistic,” he’s quoted as saying.3

I wonder what Harun Farocki would say, but the world will never know: his death at the age of 70 in July 2014 was a shock. A lifetime of careful framing of the issues of his era had made Farocki a central figure for the field and all those who cared about visuality and its effects. Moving from film to video to multi-screen gallery installations, he continuously developed works of critique, essay films, and reflexive meditations that inspired a generation. Born to an Indian father and a German mother, Farocki lived in Berlin but was a citizen of the world, showing his work widely and teaching in many places, including, briefly, the University of California, Berkeley.

Part II: In This Issue

Decades have passed since I first saw Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (Melvin Van Peebles, 1971), a film that even then seemed to me to sum up the spirit of the Seventies better than the many films conscripted since that time to encapsulate the era in retrospective after retrospective. In 2003, Mario Van Peebles dedicated himself to staking a stronger claim for his dad by spending the considerable celebrity capital he had built up as a bona fide movie star to make a film about his dad’s struggles way back then, BAADASSSSS! He starred in it, too, playing his dad, following up on Van Peebles senior’s controversial decision back then to cast his son in the too-sexy-for-a-boy original. In the same year, fortuitously, Isaac Julien created the installation Baltimore, in which Melvin Van Peebles himself visited Baltimore’s The Great Blacks in Wax Museum and, signature cigar in hand, circled a wax replica of himself, as the camera hovered. Seeing those two works in 2003 and revisiting the 1971 original, I became convinced that Melvin Van Peebles was robbed of the credit he is due as the instigator of the American Independent Feature movement. For years, John Cassavetes has been identified as indie cinema’s original model, when the crown rightfully belongs to Van Peebles. He is the one who shot guerilla-style under the very nose of Hollywood, recruited non-union crews from the porn industry, convinced a new band calling themselves Earth Wind and Fire to do the score, hit up drug dealers for financing, and penned a story about fighting back against The Man. What could be more indie than that? The man deserves an honorary Spirit Award, at the very least.

In “Subverting Hollywood from the Inside Out: Melvin Van Peebles’s Watermelon Man,” Racquel Gates makes a different point. Gates persuasively argues that it is actually the earlier Van Peebles film, Watermelon Man, the one which Columbia Pictures recruited him to make during the heyday of Afro-nationalism, that may well be the more deeply radical work. Her archival research into the circumstances of its production and her conversations with Van Peebles unearth a production history troubled by endemic racism and attempted corporate interference. In its story of a white man who wakes up one day to discover he has turned into an African American, Gates traces the limits of adapting the sitcom to film—and the genius of Van Peebles. His insistence on casting Godfrey Cambridge in the lead role rather than the white actor the studio wanted him to use was, yes, revolutionary. While Gates has clearly worked for a long time with the film text, its archival traces, and the filmmaker himself, her work could not have come to fruition at a more urgent moment, when US “race relations,” as they were called back then, have taken yet another turn for the worse. FQ is honored to present her work.

If Van Peebles had to wait half a century for Gates to resurrect history and restore a context to his career, Leshu Torchin reveals that Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh has created a filmmaking style that allows him to do that for himself. In his latest work, The Missing Picture, which remarkably was nominated for an Academy Award this year, Panh revisits the horrifying trauma of his childhood, when his family perished in the Pol Pot death camps and only he survived. Mobilizing trauma studies and parsing Panh’s earlier works, Torchin discovers sedimented layers of reference, memory, and allusion permeating the new film. The Missing Picture emerges through her analysis as a sort of palimpsest in which the clay figurines, frozen in space as in time, enact the unenactable. With the humblest of methods, they restore their referents to vision.

Meanwhile, FQ columnist Amelie Hastie peers into Jim Jarmusch’s latest masterwork, Only Lovers Left Alive, through the lenses of particle entanglement and quantum mechanics. Adopting Einstein’s phrase “spooky action at a distance” from a 1935 essay, she wastes no time in discerning the pull of science within the seemingly unscientific world of the vampire that Jarmusch spins. As besotted by physics as Jarmusch’s vampires (Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston) are by Detroit and Marrakesh, Hastie wonders whether the “theory of entanglement” might also offer “a potential theory of film.” In her hands, indeed it does.

Another paradigmatic American filmmaker, Richard Linklater, has made the rounds this year with his much-praised Boyhood. His Texas is far from Jarmusch’s locales—and even more from his home base, New York City—but the scope of his twelve-year project may well be equivalent to vampire-years in the movie-production world. More than a stunt, its making has become a birthright. In this issue, I take the chance to weigh in on the film and its reception, consider Linklater’s French New Wave influences, and wonder at how gender has been so muted, rendered illegible if not irrelevant, in the film’s reception. Stay tuned for a future issue of FQ that looks at Linklater’s career, with articles on a number of his most important films.

Switching gears entirely and reorienting to very different screens, the in-depth studies by Jeff Scheible and Daniel Reynolds in this issue fulfill a promise that FQ would expand beyond traditional platforms and media of cinema and further into digital terrains. Analyzing the implications of new forms of cross-platform work as well as games, they consider the extra-cinematic and its current screen status.

Taking Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail (1998) as a starting point, Scheible reclaims its dated elements as prescience, the beginning of a cinematic universe imbued with computer screens, online plot points, and mild digital interaction. His essay then moves further into the intersectionality of digital narratives in recent works that splice codes to picture something entirely new about interactivity, screen shots, and character composition. Identifying last year as a tipping point for cinematic integration, Scheible considers Spike Jonze’s Her and Patrick Cederberg/Walter Woodman’s Noah (both 2013) alongside an earlier Dutch work, I Love Alaska, by Lernert Engelberts/Sander Plug (2009). Scheible considers how their new approaches work to interrogate the nature of narrativity as they shift the erstwhile cinema viewer into a new position of implicit integration.

Daniel Reynolds dispenses with the cinema platform entirely and examines three video games that, as his title suggests, offer a new “epistolary architecture” that has the capacity to transform gaming structures. Drawing from the same 2012–13 moment, he identifies all three—Gone Home, Dear Esther, and Bientôt L’été—as games that refreshingly break with mainstream gaming’s obsession with the old masculine prototype and heroic detective mastery, privileging instead a more nuanced structure, uncertain outcomes, and female protagonists. Building on the writings of Henry Jenkins, Joe Bray, and others, Reynolds explores the ways in which these games link narrative structures to space, language, and the mechanics of gameplay.

In this issue’s festival reports, Italy and Colombia take center stage. FQ columnist Paul Julian Smith assesses the goings-on in Bogotá’s theaters and television screens, where Colombians grapple with their country’s recent past, including its legacy of traumatic political events; Smith notes the inadvertent reflexivity occasioned by the timing of his visit, when the mayor of Bogotá (a former guerrilla) had been removed from his position by conservative politicians and the President, damned for negotiating with guerrillas, had to fight for a second term. Evan Calder Williams found himself in a similar situation in Bologna, reporting on Cinema Ritrovato, which always includes hundred-year-old films among its historical offerings; this year, the festival was revisiting the archival films of 1914 (many restored for the occasion) at the same moment that Italy and the rest of Europe were commemorating the centenary of World War I. (And, of course, just as new war clouds were building over the Ukraine.) Far from Bologna, Megan Ratner takes the pulse of contemporary Italy through the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s latest edition of “Open Roads: New Italian Cinema.” As she reports, Italian cinema’s newest object is itself, a nation reeling and in search of anchorage as it enters the possibly-post-Berlusconi era. Tracking the jaundiced views introduced by this fraught season of Italian films, Ratner shares one key cinematic disclosure: that Fellini died in 1993 and Berlusconi came into power in 1994. It’s a neat encapsulation of Italy’s postwar fortunes and a fitting frame for “Open Roads.”

The Preface, as it is called, to Göran Olsson’s Concerning Violence: Nine Scenes from the Anti-Imperialistic Self-Defense is making a remarkable contribution to cross-platform integration. No, not online, nor digital, not really: rather, it is the integration of the words of the scholar into documentary practice. All my life, I’ve wished that documentaries could include footnotes. I was never satisfied with the NEH model of “academic advisors” whose names are there to reassure the funders that proper research has taken place. Why not, I used to ask, put your sources right up there on the screen?

I long ago grew tired of my own rhetorical question, but clearly I was asking the wrong filmmakers. Swedish documentary wunderkind Olsson, renowned for his brilliant Black Power Mix-tape three years ago, created Concerning Violence as an homage to Franz Fanon and the history of African liberation struggles. While it was no surprise to find Fanon’s words there, I was amazed in the theater to be handed a broadside sheet with an essay by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak; the filmed version of this same text will be included when the film opens theatrically in the United States in late 2014. Such a breakthrough in documentary practice should not go unheeded. With the approval of Spivak, Olsson, and co-producer Joslyn Barnes, then, FQ includes herein the full text of The Preface.4

Finally, there are two elements new to this issue. First, a changing of the guard: Dana Polan makes his debut as Chief Book Critic here and, omnivorous reader that he is, happily ensures that FQ will continue to be at the forefront of assessing the literature of cinema studies for (and by) its readers. Polan opens with an appreciation of James Naremore’s new essay collection and he doesn’t disappoint, ranging across Naremore’s career to assess its contents. Second, also related to publications, Associate Editor Regina Longo herein debuts an interview feature to accompany the FQ “Page Views” feature that each quarter brings excerpts from new and forthcoming books to the FQ website to supplement the issue. Longo begins by interviewing Kristen Whissel about her new book, Spectacular Digital Effects: CGI and Contemporary Cinema in what promises to be a great addition to FQ and the field of cinema in general.

Read, enjoy, forward us your suggestions and, as always, any feedback. See you at the movies.



Jonathan Kaiman, “Beijing Independent Film Festival Shut Down by Chinese Authorities,” The Guardian, August 24, 2014, at http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/aug/24/beijing-independent-film-festival-shut-down-china-freedom. Thanks also to Angela Zito, who first got out the word.


At press time, academics around the world had begun to formulate an idea to stage a Li Xianting Film Fund festival “in exile” in support of the festival and its organizers.


See Didi Tang, “China Shuts Down Beijing Independent Film Festival,” Associated Press story published on sfgate.com, August 24, 2014, at http://www.sfgate.com/entertainment/article/China-shuts-down-Beijing-independent-film-festival-5707389.php.


Thanks, also, to Richard Lorber of Kino Lorber, the US distributor, for his assistance.