On Screen, Off Screen

by B. Ruby Rich

from Film Quarterly Spring 2015, Volume 68, Number 3

If timing is everything, then the cycle of a quarterly is a frustrating one, especially for a film journal. A quarter of a year: it’s close enough to film premieres and television rollouts for the writing to be inspired, yet once into production, it’s still months away from delivery to the world. The quarterly has its cruelest constraints in—this—the spring issue. Its articles were conceived in the autumn, just as the film/television season was getting underway; edited in early winter, when awards season was in full force and nomination tallies were already being reported; and finally, it’s published and delivered to you, dear reader, in the aftermath of the winter ceremonies, when Globes and Oscars and Spirits have already been awarded. Luckily, Film Quarterly is not dependent on its reporting of such doings, just the aftermath when the dust settles and its writers sort the wheat from the chaff. No, FQ is concerned instead with reflection, assessment, analysis, and vision, sorting out what matters in an ever-faster rush of media, digging deep into imagery and narratives, style and substance, meaning—and, yes, surveillance.


These opening notes seem lately to have been hijacked by a series of eulogies and mementos mori. Was it always thus, or are more people of importance to the field of cinema suddenly dying? The greats are leaving. An entire generation, a founding legion, a mythical honor guard of cinema, is departing. They are passing on, leaving the camera and projector, the mobile screen and the archive, to a new generation to pick up and point and research and present.

Jerry Blumenthal was one of the longest-serving, key figures in Kartemquin Films. He joined up not long after Gordon Quinn and his compatriots merged their names and founded the legendary production group; together, they filmed documentaries in solidarity with unions, communities under siege, outsiders of various stripes, and even artists fighting the good fight, like them, for social justice. Golub (1988), on the paintings of justice warrior Leon Golub, and the early Chicago Maternity Center (1976), about threats to women’s health, were two of the best-known Kartemquin films—until Steve James showed up and joined the shop, so Kartemquin could also boast of Hoop Dreams (1994), The Interrupters (2011), and Life Itself (2014).

Shortly before I left Chicago to move to New York, Jerry had pulled me aside to show me something. It was his first film, Shulie, a 16mm portrait of the young Shulamith Firestone made in 1967 when she was an art student trounced by her professors at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Blumenthal had gold, but he wouldn’t turn it into dollars: he’d promised Firestone he’d never distribute it, and he never did. Years later, it would be remade, shot for shot, by Elizabeth Subrin, so audiences finally got to see that young girl he’d spotted and filmed. Blumenthal would go on to codirect many films with Quinn, honest portraits of struggles and individuals, honoring the uniquely Chicago tradition of authentic engagement.1

Mary Lea Bandy was the chief curator of the Museum of Modern Art’s Department of Film and Video, and for a time, also deputy director of the museum overseeing its massive expansion. She was one of the first people I met when I started as director of the New York State Council on the Arts Film Program in 1981. She was truly a force of nature, someone who could make anything happen, who could charm the donor and the docent equally, converse with Clint Eastwood as easily as with the doorman. She transformed the department, dedicated herself to film preservation and built a war chest to fund a state of the art vault, built the elegant Roy and Niuta Titus Theater 2 to double exhibition program capacity, and embraced video (before digital) at a time when few film departments would even consider such a thing.

Bandy understood power and knew how to use it well. When I included her on my funding panel, she soon put herself at the service of groups like Third World Newsreel that had long felt shut out by the major institutions. She was always game for giving advice and lending a hand. But some of her great deeds were unsung: keeping the late Stephen Harvey on the payroll when he was dying of AIDS; teaming up with the late Héctor García Mesa, director of the Cuban cinematheque, to ensure that the international film preservation conference would meet in Havana; initiating with Jytte Jensen (and myself) a retrospective of the films of the great Delphine Seyrig, with enough funding that I could bring Tilda Swinton to speak about Seyrig on my panel. She had nerve and courage and bonhomie to spare, and could administer just about any situation. MOMA held a memorial in December to celebrate her life and contributions. RIP.2

The Season of Lists, Demonstrations, Reports, and Complaints

If ever people have wanted to scrutinize the relationship of the movies to the body politic, the winter of 2014–15 offered a case in point. Out in the streets, tens of thousands of people marched in solidarity with the young men murdered by police and in protest against an epidemic of unchecked, unpunished, and systemic police violence. In newspapers, online, and on pundit shows across platforms, a Senate report on torture instigated widespread horror, disgust, a fear that democracy had been betrayed—and a dance of denial by the targeted bogeyman, Dick Cheney. In Hong Kong, massive protests were ended and arrests made. In France, protests mobilized people under the banner of opposing something called Gender Theory. In Germany, Angela Merkel urged her countrymen not to follow the siren call of the right wing.

And in film circles? It was time for the end of year lists. Every critic was curled up with piles of DVDs, culling favorites, choosing something pop and something obscure, one with Julianne Moore and maybe one with James Franco, making a bid for their powers of discernment or prophetic selections. I decided to sit this one out. I just did not have the stomach to draw up my list of Ten Best when few wide releases, nearly none, dealt with anything going on outside a studio lot or hipster loft.

Where are the films? Where are the films? Where are the films? Ava DuVernay’s Selma would open on Christmas Day and, deservedly, became the poster child for a desperately needed kind of movie grappling with this country’s racial divide—especially after DuVernay and her cast members emerged from their New York debut with hands up in the air and newly iconic T-shirts reading “I Can’t Breathe” in protest against the killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. While Selma is a civil rights film set in the past, not a contemporary story, it was clearly an inspiration to audiences (just as Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station was last year) and star David Oyelowo was even willing to connect the dots: “In Selma, it was voting rights, and now it’s police reform.”3

And yet … how to say this? There need to be so many more. The film industry could cease to replicate a blind and blindered view of life in the United States tomorrow, could change immediately, and I daresay, the films might even get a lot better. They might get as good as the “foreign” films or documentaries I see at festivals and report in these pages. If the soothsayers are correct and this round of sustained protests is a sign of a new social movement, a new force of collective will, then perhaps a renaissance on screens large and small is underway, too, underground, about to burst into sight. Stay tuned.

Memogate (ATTN: Sony)

Just at press time for FQ, a political scandal erupted that finally got the studios’ attention: Sony’s Memogate. Thanks to the mysterious hackers of the Guardians of Peace (hmmm, the GOP initials are suggestive), a horror show of insider emails filled with racist and sexist and just plain vanilla arrogant exchanges between studio execs were leaked for all to see, along with a few upcoming releases offered for streaming ahead of holiday openings.

Retaliation for a new movie about North Korea? A grudge from a mystery employee? By the time you read this, the truth will probably have been revealed. This is no Edward Snowden: these hackers do not appear, given the limited information at this writing, to be working on behalf of any clear public good. Of course, had Sony heeded the lessons of Citizenfour, the wondrous documentary about Snowden by Laura Poitras (detailed in this issue), they would not have been hacked and compromised in this way. Instead, mayhem of a particularly filmic sort has emerged. With Sony canceling the release, at press time, it will be interesting to see what surfaces in its wake.

Dystopia on Rails

Mayhem. It’s a word that brings to mind an extraordinary film that has been growing in size in my mind ever since my first viewing, Bong Joon-ho’s South Korean sci-fi thriller, Snowpiercer (2013). I didn’t think I cared for it: too violent, too cartoonish, not my genre. True enough. Yet this dystopian story about a band of humans who escape the frozen death of the planet by boarding a train, the Snowpiercer—a perpetual-motion machine invented by a maniac where riders are divided by class and successive generations are born into its caste-on-wheels system—has set up camp in my brain. Tilda Swinton, by the way, plays a key henchman.

Kang-ho Song (as Namgoong Minsoo) in Bong-Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer

The film is a seemingly radical saga nestled inside a cynical mousetrap. With its combination of themes—climate change, environmental disaster, class repression, explosive revolution—it may come closer than any film of 2014 to capturing a zeitgeist of anxiety, anger, nihilism. I saw it at a private screening room in New York City in the fall of 2013, invited by Tilda Swinton as part of her (ultimately successful) campaign to stop Harvey “Scissorhands” Weinstein from cutting its first twenty minutes. I’ve been haunted by it ever since. If Octavia Butler were still alive, she’d recognize her themes in it. In fact, isn’t it time someone brought her sci-fi visions to the screen? Perhaps somewhere a US filmmaker can consider an option on her Parable of the Sower.

Rail lines? They dominated my holiday season, as I journeyed to Karlsruhe by train. The city is crisscrossed by train tracks throughout, with trams continually coming and going. My friend Ross Nakasone educated me later: Karlsruhe is famous for its invention of a train system that lets the same trams operate as streetcars in the city and light rail heading out of town, all on the same gauge tracks; the system was once revolutionary, and may well prove to be again. I was there for the opening of “Civic Radar,” a retrospective dedicated to the filmmaker and artist Lynn Hershman-Leeson at the renowned ZKM Museum of Contemporary Art. Housed in a former munitions factory, the ZKM has made its reputation at the cutting edge of art and new media and clearly recognizes in Hershman-Leeson a kindred pioneer.

Curated by Andreas Beiten and Peter Weibel, multiple galleries outfitted for her intermedial installations turned the ZKM into a treasure trove of fascinations with gender, media, performance, surveillance (even back to her work in the 1960s), and science. The “Infinity Engine,” a functional genetics laboratory with coding and facial-recognition software, was constructed in the middle of the space. Visitors stood for a photograph to have their racial profiles detected and DNA diagnosed, with software developed by wunderkind Josiah Zayner. Another gallery contained a miniature cinematheque, complete with rows of theatre seats where a film retrospective was playing. Other galleries merged objects and films, such as one where Teknolust (2002) was projected on a wall adjacent to an inviting red bed, made up for sleep, next to another wall hung with the color-coded costumes once worn by Tilda Swinton to play a trio of replicants birthed by rogue scientist Rosetta Stone (yes, Swinton yet again).

Vitrines contained objects from Hershman-Leeson’s early performances, her own rogue critic’s columns (published under a pseudonym, but actually penned by her) in praise of her early shows, even her kindergarten photograph. It was striking to see the Great Man treatment bestowed upon a woman, one well deserving but never previously accorded that kind of respect. She was the first woman artist to receive a retrospective at ZKM. The same week, filmmaker Agnès Varda was awarded the European Film Academy Lifetime Achievement Award at a ceremony in Riga, and took the opportunity to speak out about the devaluing of women’s contributions to cinema.4 So, two women with vast careers, both honored in Europe as singular, both feminists who continue to speak out in the hope of someday being surrounded by a huge cohort of women filmmakers and artists, all recognized with awards and exhibitions and funding. A girl can dream.


In This Issue

FQ editorial board member Lisa Parks brings her own research on global surveillance technologies to bear on Citizenfour, the Laura Poitras documentary on Edward Snowden. Parks dissects the film’s hotel meet-up in Hong Kong, analyzing not only the information it delivers to the world but also the subtle documentary approach that Poitras chooses to employ in place of the razzle-dazzle style of so many data-focused films. (Incidentally, Poitras is also a contributor to the ZKM catalogue: she and Hershman-Leeson have known each other for years.)

Kathleen McHugh, meanwhile, considers two television serial dramas that are key to today’s Golden Age of television and online streaming, Orange Is the New Black and Top of the Lake. McHugh stages an inventive analysis by parsing their opening credit sequences as a gateway to the levels of meaning (and postfeminism) with which both are so deeply stamped.

The face and costumes of Swinton’s characters in Hershman-Leeson’s Teknolust

Megan Ratner, with her characteristically reliable radar for international cinema’s greats, holds a conversation with Argentine filmmaker Lisandro Alonso. They discuss his landscape-based cinematic style and she probes the challenge Jauja posed, due to his incorporating a bona fide star—Viggo Mortensen—into his usually understated cast of characters.

Columnist Paul Julian Smith, peripatetic as ever, visits the Morelia Film Festival in time to see Julián Hernández’s Yo soy la felicidad de este mundo, which had its US “opening” last summer via Amazon Instant Video streaming, receive its Mexican premiere there. And to talk to him: Hernández discusses everything from his love of musicals to social-media use, from being queer in Mexico to his next film noir project.

Columnist Amelie Hastie, also on the move, visits the World Picture Conference in Berlin and finds it to be just the community for which she’s longed. Between her thoughts on Bachelard, Doty, and Arendt, she recalls Jane Campion’s Bright Star (2008) and Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours (2012), absorbing what they have to say about love, friendship, and cinema, and passing on the wisdom.

In the Book Review section, Dana Polan reviews Tami Williams’s long-awaited Germaine Dulac: A Cinema of Sensations and finds it full of “major revelations” about the life as well as the films, making it a “micro-history” of French culture in her lifetime. In this issue’s Page Views, Regina Longo talks with Cara Caddoo about her groundbreaking study, Envisioning Freedom: Cinema and the Building of Modern Black Life and the “thriving world of black cinema” it unearths.

The comprehensive dossier on the cinema of Richard Linklater was, like the rest of this issue, conceived before Boyhood had been released into the world. But it was surely on its way: after delirious bows at the Sundance, Berlin, South by Southwest, and San Francisco film festivals, Boyhood finally would open in theaters and pursue a steady rise in exhibition and esteem, propelled by the grandeur of Linklater’s vision (see FQ 68:1 for this writer’s assessment). Key to its grand synthesizing vision, though, is that it rests almost entirely on the body of work that Linklater had already completed; it is, as Rob Stone argues, an “accumulative” work. Could Boyhood have ever been made, for instance, without the eighteen-year trilogy of Before films that got started before it ever did and created the template? Doubtful.

It is precisely because Richard Linklater’s cinema marshals such a range of genres and mediums to pursue an astonishingly coherent set of questions and concerns, about the universe, daily life, and film itself, that it invites and rewards the sustained attention of a dossier. A Texas homeboy who brings the world home to his screen, Linklater has grown up in his state and his profession, coming of age over and over again, in tandem with US independent cinema, since he arrived on the scene with Slacker a full twenty-five years ago. Peter Lurie, in his introduction to the dossier, identifies Linklater as a “singularly inventive filmmaker” who “never takes up new tools just for the sake of virtuosity.” His aesthetic strategies always respond to the cultural moment and fit comfortably the characters on-screen.

Maria San Filippo writes about the Before trilogy in terms of its production technologies as well as industry shifts that have governed the release patterns and exhibition modes of each of the three, limning the changing fortunes of US independent film distribution even as, self-referentially, she traces her own engagement with the films across time and machines.

For David T. Johnson, the late scholar and critic Robin Wood is the clue to Linklater’s richness, and he explores Wood’s ideas across numerous theoretical texts as well as through Linklater’s preoccupation with both adolescence and romance. Citing the director’s frequent “glorification of the amateur’s sensibility and the need for the professional’s guide,” he sees him as the rare indie auteur who prizes both the slacker and the professor, freshness as much as wisdom, knowledge no less than innocence.

For Katrina Boyd, it is Linklater’s least typical film that is most riveting. Bernie (2011) delved into a true-crime story that fascinated the director so much he cast Jack Black as its protagonist and—à la Errol Morris—helped to spring the real-life Bernie Tiede from prison. Tracing Linklater’s East Texas childhood, Boyd cites the film’s “regional specificity” as the source of its oral-history approach to its Carthage, Texas narrative.

Ellen Grabiner takes up the challenge of Waking Life (2001) as an exploration of the “interstitial space” that envelops the huge cast of protagonists in a quest for “the Holy Moment” of pure being. Invoking Max Fleischer and Georges Méliès, she notes that Linklater finds in animation a strategy that “unshackles [him] from any linear logic” and allows the release of a particularly pure form of his ideas. The film’s rotoscoping “upends this indexicality” in a striking and wonderfully productive fashion.

Rob Stone looks at Linklater’s series of films through the lens of memory, tapping into a wellspring of “dreaminess” that suffuses the works and tracing their links to the flaneur and the duree, not the first references that come to mind for a Texas auteur, but apt indeed. For Boyhood, Stone advises the deployment of “remembrance without nostalgia.”

For Peter Lurie, the Before trilogy is a superb encapsulation of so many theoretical approaches to cinema as to be, perhaps, overdetermined. Parsing theorists from Vivian Sobchack to Thomas Elsaesser, Lurie tracks the sensory lushness and multisensory impact of Linklater’s work here, and reveals a deep and abiding affection for “its stubborn, perhaps anachronistic embrace of a certain kind of cinematic pleasure.”

Collected together in this dossier, these essays constitute a deserved response to the remarkable wealth of Richard Linklater’s filmmaking. Perhaps they can repay in part the debt owed by film lovers everywhere to the pleasures he has delivered, so consistently, to the world from his toehold in Austin. The US independent cinema movement was originally founded on the promise of regionalism, the idea that stories lurked in the small towns and “flyover” states ignored by the movie industry, and that filmmakers from those places were the ones best equipped to bring them to the world. Years after the movement’s near-total absorption into the maw of Indiewood, Linklater has delivered on its promise. With this issue, then, Film Quarterly does its part to salute his example of great cinema springing from regional roots: in the right hands, with a touch of magic and a hint of brilliance.

1. Ben Sachs, “RIP Jerry Blumenthal, Founding Partner of Kartemquin Films,” Chicago Reader, November 17, 2014, www.chicagoreader.com/Bleader/archives/2014/11/17/rip-jerry-blumenthal-founding-partner-of-kartemquin-films.
2. Daniel E. Slotnik, “Mary Lea Bandy, Film Preservationist for MoMA, Dies at 71,” New York Times, October 3, 2014, www.nytimes.com/2014/10/04/arts/artsspecial/mary-lea-bandy-film-preservationist-for-moma-dies-at-71.html?_r=0.
3. Eliana Dockterman, “Selma Cast and Crew Wear ‘I Can’t Breathe’ Shirts to New York Premiere,” Time, December 15, 2014, http://time.com/3633484/selma-movie-i-cant-breathe-shirts.
4. Hannah Ellis-Petersen, “Agnes Varda Hits Out at European Cinema’s Failure to Recognise Women,” The Guardian, December 14, 2014, www.theguardian.com/film/2014/dec/14/agnes-varda-european-film-awards.

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