A Vocation in Film

from Film Quarterly Summer 2016, Volume 69, Number 4

Introductory film history classes used to teach students that Busby Berkeley films were popular during the Depression years because audiences yearned for an escape from the realities of their lives. And they laughed in those screenings, considered the films dated and silly, and the audiences that flocked to them dumb, irresponsible, superficial. Today, in a similarly critical economic period, audiences plunge headlong into modern fantasies about superheroes or other worlds, such as Star Wars: Episode VII—The Force Awakens (J.J. Abrams, 2015), and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay— Part 2 (Francis Lawrence, 2015); or animations, like Inside/Out (Pete Docter, Ronnie del Carmen, 2015), that can both explain why people are so depressed and cheer them up; or the immersive, made-up worlding of a VR universe, forsaking the big screen entirely to constitute an audience, or user, of one. Audiences seem to want to be anywhere but here. It is an epidemic of avoidance and denial.

Has it always been thus, with films providing escape from the realities of life? Well, anyone dropping into any film festival these days will find a raft of films addressing current issues, probing lives damaged by family or geography, delivering exposés of corporate and political malfeasance—and offering enough engaging stories to fuel a thousand multiplexes if only US studios and producers were willing to produce them and theaters to show them. In my ongoing accidental research into airplane viewing, I continue to be amazed at what I can see there at my seat that I can’t hope to see, or can catch only fleetingly, in my home theaters. With the continuing rollout of new revival houses, perhaps that situation is beginning to change. In the meantime, FQ‘s festival section will continue to monitor the largesse on offer elsewhere, link to those curatorial spaces that are so essential to expanding taste and availability, and whet readers’ appetites for what is out there.

Most industry news that lands on my desk is boilerplate—press releases about box office returns, deals signed, casting completed. Every once in a while, though, there’s something more. On the academic side, Martha Lauzen’s “Celluloid Ceiling” reports issued by her Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University are endlessly revealing, and depressing. For 2015, she reported that women directors totaled only nine percent on the top-performing 500 films.1 Her reports on women in the industry as well as in independent film and television were the original gold standard. The Sundance Institute continues to conduct its own studies in tandem with Women in Film Los Angeles and, for the research, the University of Southern California’s Stacy L. Smith and her team. These are massive investigative reports across the field in its broadest contours, and they are damning.2 More than a year ago, the American Civil Liberties Union wrote to the Justice Department with evidence of employment discrimination in Hollywood and requested an investigation.3

So the studies have been conducted, they teem with evidence, data has been crunched, articles have been written, media coverage secured—and still the practices are all in place, relatively unchanged, insanely exempt. It has taken more than thirty years for the Bechdel Test to take hold as a measurement, even though Alison Bechdel first invented it in her Dykes to Watch Out For comic, “The Rule,” in 1985.

Part of the resistance over the years has been the insistence that moviegoing patterns support these hiring practices, since young guys are the main audience, a tautology as flawed as it is dearly held. So I was intrigued to see news of an industry White Paper commissioned for Variety from Movio: “Breaking the Blockbuster Code: Audience Evolution Patterns Revealed.” Movio’s CEO presented it to Variety‘s co-editor at a special event at the Four Seasons, Beverly Hills, making clear the status accorded this industry data. Ready? Here are the results, in Movio’s own words.4

The top behavioral patterns revealed in this research are:

1. Avid young male moviegoers over-index on opening night.
2. Avid moviegoers over-index on opening weekend.
3. Young moviegoers over-index on Tuesday, when most cinema exhibitors offer discounted price tickets.
4. The share of female audience grows over the course of the theatrical run.
5. Saturday and Sunday are proportionally dominated by 30- to 50-year-old moviegoers.
6. The 50+-year-old audience declines at the slowest rate.

If I’ve interpreted their conclusions correctly, women and older folks, both over 30 and over 50, are the audiences who sustain films in movie theaters over the course of a run; they are the ones, in other words, who build word of mouth and can turn a film into a hit. This is new data that should be mounted in neon on every marquee of every movie theater. Perhaps it will even help ensure the diversity of those who make the films.

Did I say diversity? Months after the Academy’s production of what became known as the #OscarsSoWhite edition of its awards ceremony, the Academy has begun to take steps to shift the balance of power away from those who’ve always wielded it. Chris Rock’s Orientalist jibes in his Oscar routine were a further blow, answered immediately by a group letter from Arthur Dong, Marcus Hu, George Takei, and others.5 Hu, co-president of Strand Releasing, then followed up with an individual letter registering his objections.6 A member of the Academy for a decade, Hu has called for no less than an overhaul of every aspect of doing business in film and television, declaring:

Appointing people of color to the Board of Governors and other committees is a start. However, we must do more to inculcate diversity as a core value—not just in the Academy’s governance and membership, but also across the industry as a whole and within each of our companies and businesses. Whether in distribution, publicity, acting, directing, casting, cinematography, costume design or producing, we need to individually reach out and create opportunities for those who never felt like a vocation in film was a possibility.

With Cheryl Boone Isaacs the first African American (and third woman) to serve as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and with Dawn Hudson as its female CEO, perhaps 2016 will be the year that some modicum of change arrives.

Richard Dyer in the House of Cinema

At the annual Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS) conference in Atlanta last spring, attended by thousands of film academics, the opening night was dedicated to a tribute to FQ Editorial Board member, Richard Dyer. Staged in the grand ballroom under glittering chandeliers were ten FODs—Friends of Dyer—tapped for the occasion by tribute organizer Lisa Henderson in order to speak of his importance, both to the field and to them personally. I was on that panel, happy to have the chance to salute the man who started out studying under Stuart Hall at the Birmingham Center for Cultural Studies and then carried on with trademark generosity and remarkable productivity in the nearly half century since.

Dyer’s first published monograph, Gays and Film (1977), came into the world in a vacuum. There was simply no such field. Today, it is difficult to comprehend the force of imagination and courage required to launch such a career at such a time. Forty years ago, a grand ballroom would not have filled with people and applause for a gay scholar; today, it was unremarkable that one did.

Astonishingly, twenty years after his branding as a gay scholar, Dyer published White: Essays on Race and Culture (1997) and once again moved a broad and overdue conversation forward. Before and since, there have been other books and other passions, for the man doesn’t stop. He has never chosen the easy path, preferring the urgent one. Crucially, he never succumbed to the rigidity or bitterness that is the professional vulnerability of the activist and the ideologue, somehow maintaining his optimism and openness. To Richard, then, FQ pays tribute and hopes that he remains on board—and on the FQ board— well after his retirement from King’s College, London, this year.


Two recent issues of Film Quarterly have delved into subjects and persons that here require an updating for readers and, in both cases, register the importance of the FQ attention at the time of publication.

In FQ 69:1, Fall 2015, contributors Darae Kim, Dina Iordanova, and Chris Berry participated in a dossier on “The Busan International Film Festival in Crisis or, What Should a Film Festival Be?” prompted by unprecedented threats to a beloved institution then on the eve of its twentieth anniversary, all on account of a critical documentary that the festival had refused to remove from its last edition after pressure from local government authorities. The FQ dossier has turned out to be prescient, as pressure on the festival has increased, its funding has been slashed, and its director fired. But it is not going down without a fight—at press time, calls for a boycott of the upcoming festival are sweeping through the entire Korean film industry.7 In response to the unprecedented interference with the festival, the “Emergency Committee for Defending BIFF’s Independence,” an activist group of Korean directors, producers, and screenwriters, demanded that Mayor Suh Byung-soo resign his position with the festival and withdraw his injunction against the 68 newly appointed advisors to the festival, who had all stepped in to ensure its survival.8

SCMS Richard Dyer tribute panel, left to right: Tom Waugh, Amy Villarejo, Jackie Stacey, B. Ruby Rich, Victor Fan, Richard Dyer, Lisa Henderson, Ryan Powell, Miriam Petty, Anu Koivunen, and Louis Bayman.

In FQ 69:3, for its dossier on Brazilian documentarian Eduardo Coutinho, the editors relied heavily on the generosity of the director’s longtime friend and champion, critic José Carlos Avellar. When co-editor Natalia Brizuela traveled to Rio to meet with him to secure the photographs for the issue, Avellar generously shared his entire digital stash of production stills, along with his hospitality. Not only did these stills visually improve the dossier but they added to its historical significance, as did his permission for FQ to translate and publish his landmark interview with Coutinho.

Sadly, the influential film critic and journalist died on March 16, 2016, at the age of 79. José Carlos Avellar was a leading theorist of Latin American and Brazilian cinema who has been widely recognized, with awards from France, Mexico, and of course, his native Brazil. As his career and influence could hardly be summed up in the contributor’s note for that issue, it should be mentioned that he worked for over twenty years as a film critic for the Jornal do Brasil newspaper, published six books of essays on cinema, and served as vice president of the FIPRESCI film critics’ association for a decade. But Avellar was not “just” a critic. Remarkably he also served at different points as the director and the deputy director of the cinematheque at Rio’s Museum of Modern Art, was cultural director of Embrafilme, served as director of Rio de Janeiro’s municipal film agency, Riofilme, was president of the board of the Petrobras Cinema program, and served as the Moreira Salles Institute’s in-house film curator.9 There was an homage to Avellar on April 5 at the Institute, where he was based for the last stage of his career.

In This Issue

Even people who don’t have Amazon Prime have by now heard about Transparent (2014–), the remarkable series directed by Jill Soloway and produced by Andrea Sperling. Its debut has electrified viewers and helped to move any discussion about transitioning into a much higher register than even celebrity transitions have managed to do (yes, even the Wachowski sisters or Caitlyn Jenner, who will be a special guest on the show next season). Editorial Board member Amy Villarejo weighs in on Transparent in this issue, considering its trans credentials as well as its feminism, its queerness, and above all, its Jewishness. Situating the series in its Los Angeles context, she unpacks the musical references that cue any viewer old, or young, enough to recognize them.

Brian Jacobson, musing over Ex Machina (2015), considers how writer-director Alex Garland links AI closely to art in the film, tracking its artistic impetus back to Leo Marx and Walter Benjamin, while also analyzing the architecture of the spaces in which it chooses to site its characters. Taking up the charges of misogyny that have been so persuasively leveled against the film, Jacobson offers alternate readings that tilt its inquiry in complex directions and do much to redeem its pleasures from the scrap heap of scorn.

Rohit K. Dasgupta and Tanmayee Banerjee turn back to a film made by Bengali filmmaker Rituparno Ghosh earlier in his career. His death three years ago at the age of 49 shocked not only the Indian film industry where he had labored for nearly twenty years, but also his legions of fans, for whom he’d been a shining light of tolerance and artistic brilliance. Dasgupta and Banerjee seek to revive Bariwali (2000) for its central queer character and its sophisticated unpacking of questions of class, caste, and modernity.

In the Interviews section, the first two interviews permit FQ to eavesdrop on ongoing discussions. Contributing Editor Terri Francis distills more than a decade of conversations with experimental filmmaker Christopher Harris into one sublime conversation. Eliciting his influences—from Christian Metz to the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s Roscoe Mitchell—Francis joins Harris in riffing and dissecting whole worlds, brilliantly parsing black literary references alongside the painstaking work of optically printing film. Genevieve Yue, meanwhile, tracks down Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Annie Baker to discuss the influence of cinema on her approach to the theater. Though Baker lives nearby in Brooklyn, Yue conducts the interview via Google Hangout, giving their intimacy a formal structure and placing a time-based frame around their wonderfully wandering conversation. Maria Shpolberg interviews Polish documentary filmmaker Hanna Polak, intent on uncovering the commitment and production processes that have given Polak access to some of Russia’s most vulnerable communities over a number of years: homeless street children and garbage-dump residents. Surprisingly, it turns out that, sometimes, a film’s subject may not want to watch the finished film.

Regular columnist Amelie Hastie writes about Ryan Coogler’s Creed from a very particular perspective and location: the Boston hospital where she was having radiation treatments. She makes a compelling case for why a tale of triumph against the odds, which stars Michael B. Jordan as Apollo Creed and Stallone himself as his coach, might appeal to a white woman professor who is out to save her brain. Regular columnist Paul Julian Smith, on the other hand, heads back to Mexico to investigate queer cinema, only to find that it has taken a surprising turn into audience-friendly romantic comedies and thrillers, naturalistic, apolitical, and commercially produced. Finding three that stand out, whether in theaters, festivals, or on Mexican Netflix, he sees cause for optimism in this extension of the brand to the mainstream public.

Festival coverage in this issue has particular range and depth. Bill Nichols and Patricia Aufderheide were both at IDFA, the world-renowned documentary film festival held every November in Amsterdam. Nichols is a longtime IDFA regular, and he takes the opportunity of this report to fashion his own quirky awards to go along with his observations of the festival. Aufderheide, on the other hand, looks purposefully at the Chinese documentaries that debuted there, many of which filter out to other festivals and, especially, to public television entities, over the course of the year. Exploring a series of fascinating films, she considers their styles and where they fit into the Chinese documentary landscape.

I was there for the first time. I prowled the public screenings, held in a gorgeous movie palace—where, for instance, I witnessed Barbara Kopple’s joyous introduction to her Miss Sharon Jones! (2015) and its rapturous reception. I wandered through DocLab, the festival’s dedicated exhibition space for cross-platform and VR installations, which Nichols explores. I was sadly shut out of the Forum, IDFA’s secret pitching venue where producers and filmmakers compete for funding. But I did get to sit in on the Ford Foundation’s JustFilms first-ever, all-day Impact Academy, where the question of how and where films meet their audiences was vetted and debated. There, Firelight Media’s own Sonya Childress made a passionate presentation for baking community involvement into the baseline DNA of documentaries—and this was before she had the experience of the wild, runaway success of Stanley Nelson’s The Black Panthers (2015) to seal the deal.

With both Nichols and Aufderheide praising IDFA, it falls to me to note that, four months after the festival ended, IDFA announced that Ally Derks, its founder and visionary leader, is stepping down after thirty years. She will take a sabbatical in Berlin at the prestigious Robert Bosch Foundation and then return for the thirtieth anniversary, but only to say goodbye. Derks herself commented that it “seems like a good moment to say farewell and pass on the baton to the next generation.”

Ahead of Obama, ahead of the Rolling Stones, Gerd Gemünden and Silvia Spitta traveled to Cuba to report on Havana’s Festival of New Latin American Film. They found a festival that still maintains its popular touch, playing to Cuban audiences; and they discovered to their surprise that these audiences crave Cuban and Latin American melodramas, but don’t much care for the international art-house fare so prized by audiences at the high-priced festivals around the world.

At Sundance this year, where founder Robert Redford and festival director John Cooper and their team are still very much in place, the offerings were typically overwhelming. My report in this issue takes up a range of films, while pointing to one—Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation—that will be talked about, at much greater length, when it opens in the fall. (And may I suggest that its opening should inspire a re-launch of Reckless Eyeballing [2004], Christopher Harris’s experimental “exorcism” of the D.W. Griffith original and its place in film history.)

Reporting from Rotterdam, Clarence Tsui found a festival caught up in the grip of the political changes sweeping Europe and focused especially on the documentaries as a result. His description of Catalan auteur Pere Portabella’s General Report II: The New Abduction of Europe (2016) serves as an apt distillation of filmmakers’ struggles to capture in their work the unprecedented moment in which they are living out their lives.

In the books section, Associate Editor Regina Longo continues her Page Views feature this issue with Laura Horak, and her interview is accompanied by a chapter of Horak’s book on cross-dressing women in silent cinema now available for free on the FQ website. Dana Polan reviews David Bordwell’s history of four American film critics in the 1940s, The Rhapsodes. New books from P. Adams Sitney, Jun Okada, Marcia Landy, Jennifer Wild, Eric Rentschler, Kyle Stevens, and Brian Neve are reviewed by the ever-astute band of reviewers gathered by FQ‘s book review editor Noah Isenberg. And FQ sadly bids adieu to Dana Polan, who is reclaiming family time after two years on the book beat.

1. See the Center’s website for all its reports: womenintvfilm.sdsu.edu.
2. For these reports, see, among others: www.sundance.org/pdf/press-releases/Exploring-The-Barriers.pdf; annenberg.usc.edu/news/new-usc-annenberg-research-reveals-%E2%80%9Cfiscal-cliff%E2%80%9D-women-directors-face-commercial-filmmaking; and annenberg.usc.edu/news/new-usc-annenberg-research-reveals-%E2%80%9Cfiscal-cliff%E2%80%9D-women-directors-face-commercial-filmmaking.
3. For instance, Maane Khatchatourian, “Hollywood’s ‘Biased’ Hiring Practices against Women Subject of ACLU Inquiry,” Variety, May 12, 2015, at http://variety.com/2015/biz/news/hollywoods-biased-hiring-practices-against-women-subject-of-a-c-l-u-inquiry-1201493101/.
4. See movio.co/resources/downloads/massive/Breaking_the_Blockbuster_Code_Movio_Whitepaper.pdf.
5. It was printed in its entirety in the New York Times. See www.nytimes.com/2016/03/16/movies/full-text-the-asian-academy-members-letter-andthe-academys-response.html.
6. Dana Harris, “Academy Member Marcus Hu Pens Open Letter Calling on Industry to Make Diversity Real,” Indiewire, March 16, 2016, at www.indiewire.com/article/marcus-hu-open-letter-oscars-academy-diversity-20160316.
7. See Sonia Kil, “Korean Filmmakers Threaten to Boycott Busan Film Festival,” Variety, March 21, 2016, at http://variety.com/2016/film/asia/korean-film-makers-busan-boycott-threat-1201735000.
8. Ibid.
9. See a photograph and obituary on the Film Tropical website: www.cinematropical.com/Cinema-Tropical/2016-03-18-14-55-46.html.