When History Makes the Cut

B. Ruby Rich

from Film Quarterly Spring 2017, Volume 70, Number 3

However much cinematic style and meaning may be ascribed to such markers as genre or auteurism, they pale beside the blatant revision carried out by the mere passage of time. History edits and re-edits the cinema, rearranging its particles as surely as any Thelma Schoonmaker or Walter Murch can accomplish with an Avid, the blunt force of history besting their talent every time. The effect of the passage of time has always been obvious to anyone watching classic movies and reveling in the gestures or timings of another era, or watching tragedy become camp or comedy fall flat. But in 2016 a different experiment is underway at warp speed: there is not a film nor television program nor webisode that means today what it meant prior to the U.S. election of November 8, 2016, and the day-after shock of “11/9.” The election results and aftermaths have radically re-edited everything that was made before, diminishing some, enhancing others, changing everything in their path.

This issue of Film Quarterly, too, has inevitably accrued new meanings. Nearly the entire issue was commissioned or written before the election, and edited or typeset in the surreal period between election and inauguration, a liminal zone of anxiety and uncertainty, landing in the pages of a radically different epoch. Happily, serendipity had shaped a collection that now embodies a collection of meditations on community, masculinity, strategies of survival, and the rhetorical powers of cinema; unexpected connections now skip across the pages, creating new ties between continents and filmmakers and lines of inquiry.

In This Issue
Emma Wilson and Patricia White could not have known that the young women they trace so lovingly across two key films—Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood (2015) and Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits (2015)—would suddenly become endangered targets for the repressive policies of new regimes threatening both the United States and, via the unexpectedly strong showings by Marine Le Pen and other right-wing presidential candidates, France as well. Wilson’s essay looks at Girlhood through the frame of Sciamma’s earlier filmic imaginings of the limits and rituals of gender formation, here bringing both race and urban Parisian culture into her frame to dazzling, dizzying effect. White’s essay takes up Holmer’s debut feature in the context of a black drill team (the Cincinnati team cast in the film) that is the locus for a tale of agency and empowerment in a coming-of-age narrative sited in embodiment. Both films are examinations of the individual in, and moving through, community. And community of some sort, real or imagined, born or constructed, is more essential than ever to the survival of all such individuals.

For Sophie Mayer, the lark of thinking about Arrival (Denis Villeneuve, 2016) and Into the Forest (Patricia Rozema, 2015) occasioned a deadly serious consideration of how films represent the enemy, real or imagined, inside and out, and how gender plays into the operative formulae. Where Mayer muses on the “slow dystopia” of Rozema’s survivors, she equally notes the dangerous permeability of the Amy Adams character, and the fact of both being mothers at some point in the films. These films have undergone their own election metamorphosis, pointing to the effects of toxicity both in species and environments, with only women left in any position to save the world or escape intact.

Talking with Barry Jenkins about Moonlight, the runaway favorite of 2016, Michael Gillespie found him thinking about community and connection, onscreen and in Florida, grounded in place and race. Yet exploring his aesthetics led to shout-outs for Claire Denis, Wong Kar-Wai, and Hou Hsiao-Hsien. In an earlier interview, Jenkins had made another reference—to Céline Sciamma’s palette, as designed with cinematographer Crystel Fournier, recalling: “I’d seen Girlhood by Céline Sciamma, which is amazing, and I was pissed because she uses blue a lot. I was like, ‘Damn it. She already beat us to it.’”1 Of course, he picked himself right up and went on to fashion his own aesthetic, to spectacular effect.

When Megan Ratner interviewed Maren Ade during the New York Film Festival last fall, she couldn’t know that Ade’s tragicomedy of globalization would soon be called upon to offer an explanation for nationalism run amok. Yet it did, and it does. Ade’s Toni Erdmann went on to sweep the European Film awards in nearly every major category, including best director for Ade. As presiding chair of the European Film Academy that dispenses the awards, filmmaker Agnieszka Holland [profiled by Ratner in FQ 67:3] used the occasion to declare: “The dark wind that blew across America and placed you-know-who in this office, it’s blowing across our countries as well. … Our job just became far more important. Our work, our craft, our art can make a difference.”2 Thus did the U.S. election anoint Toni Erdmann as the ironic standard-bearer for a globalization it seemed meant to critique.

In her report from Portugal’s documentary festival, DocLisboa, Patricia Aufderheide concentrates her attention on its retrospective of the first decade of Cuban documentary, as seen through the able curatorial hands of Michael Channan and Lola Calviño (widow of Cuba’s pioneering filmmaker/theorist Julio García Espinosa). Attending the festival prior to Fidel Castro’s death, Aufderheide nonetheless sees in these early works the promising spirit and idealism of the Cuban revolution before its ossification under multiple decades of leadership by the Castro Brothers. Here, too, lie clues to filmic strategies in times of rapid political change—even prior to online media.

Resonances for this moment continue in this issue’s columns. Paul Julian Smith has been sitting shiva with the dead, profiling the afterlife of the revered Juan Gabriel as an object lesson in how the nation-state can accommodate sexuality when there’s a legendary icon to be claimed. Smith opens the closet door to reveal how “Juanga” was able to use his celebrity to banish inconvenient truths and maintain his fan base. Amelie Hastie returns to her “Vulnerable Spectator” column for an examination of Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women (2016), invoking Virginia Woolf as she measures what the film communicates to its audience and what it holds back. Balancing expectation and loss, Hastie traces the truncated lines of communication that connect as well as sever Reichardt’s characters from one another. Only belatedly does the landscape emerge as the defining characteristic, an ominous player in their game of fate.

Finally, FQ‘s newest columnist Bilal Qureshi (former National Public Radio producer and current FQ podcaster) considers U.S. television from half a globe away. Watching from India, he considers the power of Ava DuVernay’s series Queen Sugar (OWN, 2016–) against the models of media, both national and imported, that are dominant on local screens there. Contrasting DuVernay’s achievement with the kind of multimillion-dollar product that Hollywood routinely dumps on screens worldwide, Qureshi sees hope in this very different model of America.


The FilmStruck party offered guests a chance to enter into a tableau vivant from several films distributed on the new platform. Photo by B. Ruby Rich.

Even the “Page Views” selections from FQ associate editor Regina Longo offer riveting lessons with two new books on Casablanca and High Noon by Noah Isenberg (FQ‘s book reviews editor) and Glenn Frankel that trace a lineage back through fraught political times to the classics of yesteryear. Carrie Rickey, in turn, reviews Molly Haskell’s book on Steven Spielberg and finds Haskell tracing the filmmaker’s maturation through his own experiences of both divorce and fatherhood that led to darker cinematic visions. Reviews of books by Vinodh Venkatesh, Timothy Shary and Nancy McVittie, Akira Mizuta Lippit, Scott Bukatman, Erin Hill, and Simon Willmetts round out the issue and offer perspectives sure to be put to use in the coming months and years.

On Screens: New Platform Alert
As platforms continue to evolve independent of the political currents swirling around them (with some exceptions such as calls to ban fake news on Facebook or to bring internet trolling within the domain of hate speech or harassment laws), there are more and more options for anyone wanting to view moving-image media online, from YouTube to Fandor, Netflix to Kanopi, and MUBI, and others yet to appear. In New York City last fall, I was invited to the party thrown by the Criterion Collection and Turner Classic Movies (TCM) in New York City to mark the launch of their new online collaboration, FilmStruck. With a range of price points to entice subscribers and the siren-call promise of new original content, the partnership may well offer an irresistible new portal to cinema that extends the kind of high-quality package that the Criterion deluxe editions had already been delivering on Blu-ray and DVD. Time will tell. At the very least, the party showed the team’s intent through location: taking place in a new event space within the Atlantic Yards, New York City’s newest, and still under-construction, neighborhood where cranes announce future aspirations. Criterion has never aimed to be Netflix, with its whatever-the-consumer-wants capaciousness, but this entry into the online universe signals Criterion’s intention to expand its digital parameters to find its audiences wherever they may choose to hang out and to expand its offerings as its new platforms allow. In fact, Strand Releasing has already signed on, so don’t be surprised if you find Apichatpong Weerasethakul discussing his aesthetics someday soon on your bright MacBook screen.

And no, cinema studies will never be the same. It already isn’t.

On Stage: Film in Extraordinary Times
Film Quarterly is not only a journal but a spirit, a point of view, and force in the world, or so this editor would like to think. In fact, it was in such a state of mind, after the election, that said editor rolled up her shirt-sleeves and got to work, ably abetted by the irrepressible Regina Longo and a team of willing collaborators at the Film Society of Lincoln Center (FSLC). On December 13, 2016, a convening was held in the FSLC Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center Amphitheater, a rather magical space surrounded by beautiful wood paneling and packed to the rafters, on that night, with a community of film lovers and anguished citizens. The event that I moderated, “Film & Media in a Time of Repression: Practices & Aesthetics of Resistance,” brought together eight remarkable panelists for a discussion of the medium and the message in a moment of stress in an attempt to provide inspiration.

The invited panelists had an unusually wide range of knowledges to impart. Walter Bernstein, age 97, is a screenwriter, Writers Guild board member, and survivor of the original Hollywood blacklist years. He told the crowd to get ready and recalled how “the blacklisters” survived by banding together and having parties; that they “laughed a lot, and lent each other money,” and importantly, “celebrated the little victories” as they waited for the big one that would bring them in from the cold.

Ruth Ben-Ghiat and Angela Zito are both New York University professors with markedly different fields of cinematic study: Italian fascist cinema and history for Ben-Ghiat and Chinese digital documentary, anthropology, and religious studies for Zito.

Ruth Ben-Ghiat traced a certain dominant filming style all the way back to that favored by Benito Mussolini, the dictator who used the term “draining the swamp” as a political slogan long before its latest spokesperson.3 Analyzing the Trumpian appearance at the Republican National Convention, when he emerged from a haze of fog to assume his claim to greatness, she ably tracked the model back to Silvio Berlusconi, too. The notorious third debate appearance, in which Trump towered and lurked behind Hillary Rodham Clinton, led Ruth Ben-Ghiat to posit an “aesthetics of menace” being utilized for his media image.

Anthropologist and film scholar (and filmmaker) Angela Zito reprised her work on the Chinese independent documentary movement, tracing its origins back to the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 and the profound disillusionment that followed the impact of “the limits of protest.” Limning the digital documentaries produced in the intervening years, she spoke of a long tradition of trauma, a forgetting of history by successive generations that was combated by the new “DV” documentary method pioneered by filmmakers too depressed to continue as journalists and turning, instead, to strategies of engagement and liveness.

Filmmaker and theorist Susana DeSousa Dias came to the FSLC from Lisbon to speak about her years of work on the Salazar archives, tracing the audiovisual record of the Portuguese dictatorship, the longest ever in Europe (1926–74), through her films of reclamation and her conjuring imagination. She, too, spoke of a lack of memory and a dangerous whitewashing of the past, a process through which socialism has been criminalized and fascism erased in the popular imagination; she warned that such a process can lead to the return of torture (as touted by Trump, for example) as the past arises anew in the present. “Every era has its fascism,” she reminded, quoting at once the words of Primo Levi and the English title of a recent film, Pays Barbare (Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi, 2013), that examined archives of Italian colonial atrocities in Ethiopia.

UC Berkeley film, photography, and literature scholar Natalia Brizuela is studying a number of new projects in Latin America, not the well-known historical ones that opposed the continent’s dictatorships but rather new projects that address entirely different political crises. A new Brazilian media collective, Midia Ninja, has begun to post online what it describes as “live” cinema. These are live streamings of demonstrations, actions, and events that it films and shares, positing that only liveness can avoid censorship. Brizuela called for a “cinema of urgency” to respond to new conditions.


The panelists listen as an audience member poses a question to them. (Left to right: Walter Bernstein, Ruth Ben-Ghiat, Michael Gillespie, Angela Zito, B. Ruby Rich, Imani Perry, Beau Willimon, Natalia Brizuela, and Susana de Sousa Dias). Photo by Jean-Philippe Voiron

CUNY professor Michael Gillespie, still in the grip of Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, offered a primer on urgent new black cinema and found hope in a pre-election moment of unprecedented access to a fully realized black aesthetic onscreen. Moving beyond the political, he called for an attention to black love and a love of attention, calling out an alphabet of exemplary works and filmmakers from Arthur Jafa to Raoul Peck to Kara Walker. At the same time, he observed that the subways’ “see something say something” signs clearly weren’t addressing him and reflected on black cinema’s speculative stagings.

Princeton professor (and lawyer) Imani Perry addressed a range of representational quandaries across a lifetime, starting with her Birmingham, Alabama, childhood during which time she saw Euzhan Palcy’s Rue Cases-Nègres (Sugar Cane Alley, 1983) and was struck by the uncanniness of a girl with a worldview just like hers who spoke a language she didn’t understand. Skipping ahead to the Rodney King trial and the multiple recent cases of videotaped police murders of unarmed citizens, she reiterated “how making things visible did not lead to justice.” Perry cautioned that “the risk is not distributed equally” as she called for vigilance, and quoted Ida B. Wells: “The people must know before they can act.”

Beau Willimon, screenwriter, playwright, producer, and creator of Netflix’s House of Cards (2013–), closed out the panel with a barnstorming call to action, pointing his finger at the audience and challenging attendees to get involved. He’s launched a still-evolving political formation, the Action Group Network, that aims to launch “group[s] of 10–50 people organized by location, issue, or profession who commit to working together toward concrete actions.” Evangelical in his fervor, Willimon relished the occasion to be the outlier, outside the university or screening room, calling for action.

The evening ended with palpable excitement from audience members about the histories and futures sketched out by the panelists and with a determination by all participants to carry this moment forward into new thinking and connections. Bernstein had counseled “Action, not words!” which sounded funny coming from a lifelong screenwriter. Still a resister at heart, he galvanized the crowd every time he spoke. Nor were his instructions in vain. Writing after the event, DeSousa Dias revealed that she was embarking on a new project which she intended as a contribution to the “cinema of urgency” raised by Brizuela. Surely hers is only the first of many connections made that night in New York City.

In closing, it is important to rethink film/television and their assumptions, public expectations, what is included and what is left out, who is represented or misrepresented or unrepresented entirely. If there was little awareness, among some, that forces abroad in the land could lead to the U.S. presidential election outcome, then where should clues have been noticed? Where was this rising tide of dissatisfaction made visible? Hollywood? Independent films? Festivals? Television? Webisodes? All failed in 2016 to make visible what is all too visible now. Failure to inform abounds.

As a new era unfolds, the field that Film Quarterly calls its own will face a reckoning. Stephen Bannon! Does the name ring a bell? He was credited as the mastermind of Donald Trump’s campaign. But scratch the surface and you’ll find an independent filmmaker, producer, and even distributor—going back ten years ago to his involvement with Wellspring Media.4 Now I find myself wondering exactly where he found his models for the Trump campaign’s style, whether by example or counterexample, and I worry: what’s next?

1. Quoted in Brandon Harris, “Inside Looking Out: Barry Jenkins on Moonlight,” Filmmaker Magazine, October 20, 2016, https://filmmakermagazine.com/100314-inside-looking-out/
2. Quoted in Nancy Tartaglione, “‘Toni Erdmann’ Sweeps European Film Awards; Makes History at Message-Heavy Ceremony,” http://deadline.com/2016/12/european-film-awards-winners-2016-full-list-1201868099/
3. For more on Ruth Ben-Ghiat, see the profile on her work in Jonathan Blitzer, “A Scholar of Fascism Sees a Lot That’s Familiar with Trump,” New Yorker, November 4, 2016.
4. See, for instance, Eric Kohn, “Stephen K. Bannon’s Indie Film Career Contradicts His Alt-Right Vision,” Indiewire, November 21, 2016, http://www.indiewire.com/2016/11/stephen-k-bannon-indie-film-distribution-wellspring-breitbart-1201748020/