Chance Meetings and Metrics, with More to Come

by B. Ruby Rich

from Film Quarterly Winter 2014, Volume 68, Number 2

In This Issue

Claudia Gorbman has been writing on the subject of sound in film throughout her career as a scholar, but here she analyzes the voice in particular. In “The Master’s Voice,” she contrasts the changeable voices of contemporary actors to the fixed signature voices of the classic era of acting. Gorbman takes up questions of nuance in the voice of the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of his defining roles, as none other than “the Master,” Lancaster Dodd, aka L. Ron Hubbard. Arguing that the voice gives away the true identity of his character, she examines how Hoffman adapts his voice to carry the meaning of his role, raising and lowering it, shouting, singing, trying to control the world through his inflections. In a first for Film Quarterly, readers can find the relevant excerpts from Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (2012) on the filmquarterly.org website to follow along with Gorbman’s argument.

Ben Parker takes up a different master/pupil relationship in Arnaud Desplechin’s Jimmy P.: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian (2013), in which Georges Devereux (Mathieu Amalric) seeks to save Jimmy P. (Benicio del Toro) from himself. Just as the character of Devereux turns to psychoanalysis out on the plains, so does Parker explore the symbiotic relationship between psychoanalysis and the Western itself, tracking its history across a range of films to argue for the psychoanalytic underpinnings of the genre.

In his profile of Quebecois director Xavier Dolan, Peter Knegt builds on his interview with Dolan in Toronto in September and argues for the maturation of his distinctive style. Dolan’s newest film, Mommy, which shared the jury prize at Cannes with Jean-Luc Godard’s 3D opus, continues to attract attention to this auteur, who seems (or perhaps hopes) finally to be free of the enfant terrible status that has accompanied his career thus far.

Pansy Duncan, in “The Cinematic Life of the Implosion,” takes up the critically overlooked genre of action blockbuster and makes a case for a new version of modernity that may well render the explosion obsolete as the essential ingredient of the tentpole movie. Contrasting the explosion and the implosion, Duncan points to the divergences in both deployment and reception as she places their development in a critical context and argues persuasively for a reassessment of the genre’s central devices.

FQ columnists Paul Julian Smith and Amelie Hastie bring news from other fronts. Smith weighs in on Madrid and current trends in Spanish cinema, focusing on three films that reveal the difficulties of sustaining relationships when the country is in the throes of economic hardship and renewed regionalism. Hastie delivers a verdict on Gone Girl while querying the role of the spectator caught up in a thriller that toys with its viewers. (Note that the question of revealing a film’s plot is not normally a concern for FQ, but Gone Girl raises the Spoiler Alert issue to a new level. Time magazine has even added a feature to allow readers to see reviews with all spoilers blurred, but with the option to click for legible text. FQ, however, remains resolutely free of “blurry vision” in its analyses.)

This issue also carries reports from three different kinds of events: an archivists’ symposium in Bucksport Maine, an academics’ conference in Frankfurt, and the annual Toronto International Film Festival. Rebecca Hall reports on the Northeast Historic Film’s annual public Summer Film Symposium, where archivists, scholars, and an enthusiastic public debate the issues raised by amateur film and emergent collections. FQ editorial board member Amy Villarejo reports on an historic conference dedicated to the Frankfurt School, featuring Vinzenz Hediger, Heide Schlüpmann, Gertrud Koch, Reinhold Görling, and Thomas Elsaesser, among others. Finally, this writer reports on the Toronto International Film Festival, starting with this year’s feud with Telluride over the right to premieres.

Under Noah Isenberg’s leadership, the books section continues to cover emergent scholarship, in this issue considering affect theory, video history, the art cinema, and the work of Fred Zinnemann in context. Chief book critic Dana Polan takes up On The Wire by the ever-prolific Linda Williams, whose feature on cinema’s “sex acts” appeared in FQ 67:4. In Page Views, associate editor Regina Longo talks with Eric Smoodin and Jon Lewis about their new anthology, The American Film History Reader. FQ readers can find a chapter from the book posted in the Page Views section of the filmquarterly.org website.

Dinner with Zhang Yimou

Zhang Yimou’s Coming Home emphasizes “the human quality” rather than political history

Full confession. I can’t remember what film I skipped to attend the Sony Pictures Classics dinner at the Crème Brasserie in Toronto. But I do remember clearly where I ended up: at a small table with Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou, his producer Zhang Zhao of LeVision Pictures, and his translator.

One of the founding figures of China’s renowned Fifth Generation of filmmakers, Zhang has been making films for over twenty-five years, ever since his gorgeous Red Sorghum (1987) first brought him world attention. He has changed gears numerous times, shifting between small art-house fare and big-budget spectacles, culminating perhaps in his extravagantly staged opening and closing ceremonies for the Beijing Summer Olympic Games in 2008.

Zhang was in Toronto with his latest art-film opus, Coming Home, which sees him again working with Gong Li, who was once his constant star and romantic partner. The film takes up the long-taboo subject of the treatment of intellectuals during the Cultural Revolution. Gong Li plays the wife of a professor deported to a labor camp; traumatized, she has lost her mind and cannot recognize him by the time he finally returns home. Zhang explained how he can make a film on such a fraught subject: by emphasizing “the human quality” rather than political history, simply the tale of a long-separated couple trying to connect across the impossibility of amnesia.

It turned out that Coming Home was less a return to roots for Zhang than an interlude. He and Zhang Zhao soon shifted to a discussion of their next project, Great Wall. It’s a big-budget, 3D historical drama set in the fifteenth century, with sci-fi elements, visual effects, and a script to be shot entirely in English. They are partnering with US production company Legendary Entertainment on it. Zhang Yimou sees it as his “Hollywood” movie and describes how doing The Flowers of War in 2011 (with Christian Bale, among others), half in English, gave him the confidence to take this on.

“Everyone in China wants to make a 3D film,” he insisted, pointing out that the reason isn’t necessarily aesthetic. The 3D movies make more money at the box office, since ticket prices are higher, and therefore more money for the production companies and perhaps even the directors. That fact led to a discussion of the current status of cinema globally, with China showing many of the same tendencies as the United States in this regard. “Everyone can be a filmmaker,” he complained ruefully, trading stories about iPhone auteurs. In the future, he predicts, movie theater prices will be much higher to distinguish the expertise and production values of their offerings from the selfies and YouTube movies produced at home.

It seems paradoxical that Zhang Yimou would follow Coming Home, a small, humanistic film of the type he used to make, with Great Wall, its exact opposite, a tentpole Hollywood movie full of spectacle and bombast. But he does not see it that way. Instead, he references Chinese philosophy, where “everything has two extremes. If someone is able to master these two extremes, then he is a success in life.” That’s what he is trying to do now with these two films. Or so he says.

Getting Real

In October, the International Documentary Association staged a convening of documentary filmmakers in conjunction with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which hosted the event at one of its Hollywood buildings, complete with a parking lot full of food trucks for lunchtime. Accustomed to meeting only at film festivals or events especially for pitching projects, the documentarians reveled in the exchange of ideas and the level playing field, even with funders. Cara Mertes of the Ford Foundation, Sally Jo Fifer of the Independent Television Service, and Tabitha Jackson, new director of the Sundance Documentary Fund, all addressed conferees in well attended sessions.

Morgan Spurlock presented the opening address. Joe Berlinger held forth on Crude (2009), Rob Epstein discussed The Times of Harvey Milk (1984), Jen Chaiken provided a case study on Inequality for All (2013), and Lucy Walker gave the closing keynote. In session after session, the nuts and bolts of how to be a successful documentarian were disclosed as filmmakers, producers, critics, and distributors shared the secrets of the tribe.

This year’s buzzword? Metrics. Everyone wants measurements. Funders increasingly demand to know exactly how a documentary is going to have an effect on the issues it addresses. In the real world. Off-screen. How strange to think that something that can’t genuinely be determined for five or ten or twenty years is now supposed to be entered as a line on a grant application. Not remotely scientific, the rising demand for metrics instead strikes me as an unfortunate corporatization, bottom-line philanthropy where the opposite ought to obtain. I hope it runs its course quickly and that documentary can turn soon to more serious questions, such as finding ways to bring information and argument to a population too often manipulated into myopia.

One person was missing from the conference, presumably because she was too busy finishing her documentary in time for the New York Film Festival. Is Laura Poitras providing metrics? I wonder. This filmmaker has had an effect on society already beyond any pitch anyone has ever made. See the next issue of FQ to learn more about Citizenfour, one of, if not the, most important documentary films of the new millennium.


  1. marti wilson says

    This is absolutely terrific. So new,informative and inspiring! Go FQ!

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