Bad Behavior

B. Ruby Rich

From Film Quarterly Winter 2017, Volume 71, Number 2

This issue of Film Quarterly coincides with a world on fire: unprecedented extreme heat, fires in California, Montana, and Oregon, terrible floods in Houston, Nepal, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria; hurricanes pummeling Mexico, the Caribbean, Puerto Rico, and Florida; earthquakes in Mexico; fighting ongoing in Yemen, Iraq, and Syria; assaults on DACA, refugees, and healthcare; the ugliness of Charlottesville and the rise of fascism. Undoubtedly new disasters and outrages have emerged to add to the list since this issue went to press.

“Our ideals have been hijacked at the highest levels,” wrote the Ford Foundation’s Darren Walker in his annual fall letter titled “A Call for Moral Courage in America.” Courage, rather than despair, indeed, is called for. And vision. And laughter. In a clip I saw recently of the late Molly Ivins, she observed that it’s crucial to have fun while fighting for justice “because you don’t always win, so sometimes that’s the only fun you get.” I want to take that to heart. Hope needs fun, inspiration needs courage, and opposition needs all the friends it can get.

The fields of film and television, though, are lagging behind those offscreen realities known as world events or, in online parlance, IRW (In Real World). And yes, this is a film journal, so let that be my point. Where are the films? The television programs? Many are worthy, some are brilliant, but too many are beside the point. This is not a time for business as usual but rather a time of urgency that demands retooled rhetorics and rethought story lines, that demands films and documentaries and episodic television to help viewers make the imaginative leap into a different future, one that can be fought for precisely because it can be imagined.

Everyone’s in shock, I suspect. But soon they’ll wake up and get down to it. In the meantime, criticism must fill the gap. Historians must turn forensic and unearth the models of filmmaking from past eras of crisis for templates of success that can be retooled and updated. Critics and scholars must help filmmakers see a way forward, and help audiences to find the work to guide them. As I turn to the students who still come to the increasingly fraught halls of learning with their hopes and dreams, eager to make their mark and scared they won’t have the chance, I know it is crucial to empower them, to give them the tools with which they can fight for a better future, and force a change on a society too willing to throw everything on the junk pile. Rescue missions? Add that to the agenda, then, for the near future.

Dateline: Buenos Aires, August 2017

It was in such a mood that I journeyed to Argentina for the historic Visible Evidence conference that raised my spirits. It had been thirty years since I last visited Buenos Aires, back when Sundance sent me to curate a tribute to Argentine cinema after the end of the dictatorship. In 1987, I found a country full of hope, emerging from the military years with fervor. Then in the 2000s came the wonders of the New Argentine Cinema, which I tracked and celebrated as a curator and critic. Now, today, it was a privilege to return to a flourishing film scene, albeit one facing a society in worrisome flux. The richness of its traditions was on full display along with a welcome pan-Latin-American scope of filmmaking and scholarship. Making the fine conference even more useful was the provision of simultaneous translation (thanks to Ford Foundation funding). Provided at a very high level of quality, thanks to the unsung interpreters, this is a service that is never offered at U.S. conferences and which makes cultural exchange truly possible at an equitable level of mutuality.

With many FQ editorial board members, contributing editors, and contributors there, Film Quarterly held a gathering at the Gorlami Bar Cultural in the hip San Telmo neighborhood to introduce porteños (the term used by the people of Buenos Aires to refer to themselves) and Latin American cinephiles to the journal and to provide a location for mingling and future collaboration. I chaired a short panel together with FQ editorial board member and Buenos Aires native Natalia Brizuela, alongside Paraguayan filmmaker Paz Encina (subject of a series of essays in FQ 70:4) and Argentine critic, editor, and professor David Oubiña, whose work on Lucrecia Martel is especially well known in English and with whom Encina herself had studied. Speaking off-handedly in Spanish and English, panelists reflected on this moment in Latin American cinema and the significance of the gathering. Also present as a special guest was the legendary Lita Stantic, who produced the early films of Paz Encina as well as those of Martel and many other outstanding Argentine directors.


FQ gathering at Gorlami Bar Cultural. Left to right: Natalia Brizuela, Paz Encina, B. Ruby Rich, and David Oubiña.

With plenty of empanadas and pizza, and typical Argentine beer and the local wine served in distinctive pinguinos (traditional white ceramic decanters in the shape of penguins), the crowd loosened up and hopefully new connections were made. For FQ, it was a chance to confirm a long-standing commitment to Latin American cinema and to encourage more contributions from Latin American scholars.

Two events outside the conference meeting rooms marked my stay in equally decisive ways. One was a trip outside the city with several colleagues for an asado (barbeque) with a group of feminist activists joining culture and politics to fight against injustice, under the banner of the #NiUnaMenos campaign and other such groups. As if they’d been studying Molly Ivins (or she, once upon a time, them) there was ample fun and laughter, a taste of a vibrant Argentina that felt ready for whatever would come. Alas, come it did: huge demonstrations over the arrest and disappearance of Santiago Maldonado, a local activist fighting Amazonian rainforest deforestation, ongoing during Visible Evidence, led to violent reprisals and arrests less than a month later. Femicide, the issue of this group that I had just met, suddenly seemed one part of a broader landscape of violence and intimidation.1

The other outing was an official conference activity: a visit to ESMA, the former military barracks right in the city, once a clandestine center where the desaparecidos (the “disappeared”) were jailed, tortured, and killed during the years of the dictatorship, 1976–83. The School of Naval Mechanics was in 2004 made into the Space for Memory and Human Rights (Espacio Memoria y Derechos Humanos). Trained guides led conference attendees through the rooms after a moving film and slideshow explaining their history and memorializing those who had passed through them to their deaths. It was a moving experience not easily forgotten. Yet the next day I learned that the conservative government of Mauricio Macri was cutting its funding, a clear attempt to extinguish the memory of the past, the memory that was supposed to ensure this would never happen again.

At the time of Visible Evidence, Argentina was in the grip of one of its perpetual cycles of economic crisis: great for conferees enjoying the currency exchange rates but disastrous for Argentinians. In a restaurant window one day, I spied an ad for the “Anti-Crisis Menu” offering cut-rate meals. On another day, traffic ground to a halt when angry farmers came to town to dump their bananas, handing them out free to the crowds that quickly formed, in protest against the collapse of tariffs that flooded the market with cheap imports. On yet another day, my cab driver detoured to an alternate route, explaining that he had to avoid the area because the piqueteros (street demonstrators), already visible en masse along the road, would soon launch piquetes (street blockings) by linking themselves to each other with sticks and ropes to block traffic and wreak havoc in the capital. Cab drivers, vendors, and civilians shared tips with each other about which way to go to avoid the roadblocks as traffic began to snarl.

Argentine cinema has been a powerful motor of change and a wonderful reflection of a revived society. I have every confidence that it will continue to play that role in keeping imagination and vision alive. At least, that’s what I thought then. In the autumn, though, dire news emerged from Argentina. Alejandro Cacetta, the trusted head of INCAA, its national film institute, was pushed out and government insider Ralph Haiek took over and began to implement an unprecedentedly commercial direction. His new Resolution 942 introduces financial demands that threaten INCAA’s independence and the future of Argentine filmmaking.2 For all who cherish the past thirty-five years of Argentine cinema and its continuation, it is a time to offer support and hope that the forces of independent creativity can prevail.

In This Issue

In the midst of the last SCMS (Society for Cinema and Media Studies) conference in Chicago, FQ met with Racquel Gates and Michael Boyce Gillespie to hatch a plan: to bring together some of the best new voices for a dossier on U.S. black cinema including and beyond Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, 2016). Not only did they passionately take on the mission, but they have produced in a remarkably short time an impressive assembly of current thinking on black cinema and television infused with African American cultural theory. In their introduction, they trace the large number of titles still to be explored and modestly frame their contribution as a beginning; be assured, however, that this dossier stands as a signal intervention into the understanding of this moment in black representation across platforms. This issue’s cover image—taken from Leslie Harris’s trailer for “I Love Cinema” featuring Jennifer Williams as Leila Laneaux, a college film professor—gives a glimpse of the reach and complexity of this dossier.

Rizvana Bradley, writing on black maternity in Mother of George (Andrew Dosunmu, 2013), Pariah (Dee Rees, 2011), and Moonlight, examines the relations between filiality and intimacy as sketched through these very different works. Racquel Gates, in her own essay, considers questions of status in the racialized aesthetics of genre, looking at Get Out (Jordan Peele, 2017), Love & Hip-Hop (VH1, 2011–), and Moonlight to consider how issues of taste and class intersect with both stereotypes and zones of possibility.

Paula J. Massood looks at African American cinematic histories (at a moment when the HBO Confederate show was being announced) through examinations of a range of recent works: Nate Parker’s Birth of a Nation (2016), Sam Pollard’s Slavery by Another Name (2012), Ava DuVernay’s Selma (2014) and 13th (2016), and Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro (2017). Brandy Monk-Payton looks at questions of blackness by elaborating a theory of televisual reparation, with examples from The Boondocks (Adult Swim, 2005–14) to Underground (WGN, 2016–) to Black-ish (ABC, 2014–).

Samantha Sheppard looks at the “unmade” via Leslie Harris’s failed attempt, after her successful Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. (1992), to use a Kickstarter campaign to make a new film, “I Love Cinema,” and references a range of recent scholarship to argue for the value of a speculative archive. Michael Boyce Gillespie assesses three recent short works of “cinema in the wake”—Leila Weefur’s Dead Nigga BLVD. (2015), Frances Bodomo’s Everybody Dies! (2016), and A. Sayeeda Clarke’s White (2011)—that constitute a bold aesthetic capable of going beyond identitarian absolutes. And Kristen J. Warner ranges across television, film, and event landscapes to elaborate a theory of “plastic representation” that, among other feats, repackages stereotypes into synthetic pop-culture images consumable even by those they distort.

This is a dossier that I expect to see injected into the very marrow of academia with velocity, updating curricula and raising the level of discourse. With tremendous gratitude to Racquel Gates and Michael Boyce Gillespie, FQ is proud to have these essays in its pages.

Also in this issue are three striking contributions from FQ‘s columnists. Caetlin Benson-Allot examines the television shows I Love Dick (Amazon, 2017–), GLOW (Netflix, 2017–), and Insecure (HBO, 2016–) to assess how each figures its central characters through a lens of abjection, querying the notion of “the female gaze” as an operative construct in these cases. Paul Julian Smith, reporting from Mexico, interprets the newly released statistics on Mexican media consumption and analyzes the new soap opera Club de Cuervos produced by Netflix in light of its conclusions. (See also his report online in Quorum of the earthquake devastation and its effect on one archive.) Bilal Qureshi, after visiting documenta 14, writes about the standout work: a three-screen installation of artist Naeem Mohaiemen’s Two Meetings and a Funeral (2017), his opus reflecting on the history of the Non-Aligned Movement.

Meanwhile, a number of contributors have weighed in on the festivals of summer and fall: Genevieve Yue on the very real pleasures of Bologna’s Cinema Ritrovato; Clarence Tsui on the renewed importance of Locarno; and yours truly on this year’s edition of Toronto’s TIFF.

In this issue, too, Associate Editor Regina Longo files her final Page Views column. Engaging with the arguments in Tessa Dwyer’s Speaking in Subtitles: Revaluing Screen Translation, Longo speaks with Dwyer about the issues revolving around translation and subtitling today, utilizing her own past experience as an archivist to query the role of language and words in cinema. As always, this Page Views is online with a sample chapter for free download; and never fear, the feature will continue under new direction in future issues.

Carrie Rickey examines two new books by David Bordwell and Charles Taylor to excavate ideas about 1940s and 1970s American cinemas, as read through their differing views of genre and history, and through her own. Other books reviewed in these pages are by Roger Ebert, Karen Fang, Jonathan Haynes, Jon Lewis, Jade Miller, Lida Oukaderova, and Paul Ugor, and the FQ reviewers find much there to commend.

Men Behaving Badly

At press time, the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke, expanded, and reached a point of such a massive number of revelations of abuse by named actresses that he was fired from his own company and kicked out of the Academy, his membership revoked. Wow. Let me go on the record: this is a terrific victory. Men have run the film industry as a personal bastion for too long, amassing power that gets exercised to women’s detriment. Long ago, when I interviewed Jodie Foster just before Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (1991) opened, she shared that “there are men who become film directors for the opportunities it affords them to abuse women.“ I didn’t ask for names and she didn’t provide them, but it’s easy enough to look up her early filmography. This is nothing new, people. What is remarkable is the extent of Weinstein’s predation, the courage of his victims, and the sudden willingness of institutions to stand against him. But wait… do you for a minute think this would be happening if Harvey Weinstein had not already lost his position of dominance? If he were not already old and weaker and no longer the potent tyrant of yore? What I am waiting for, and I am not holding my breath, is the follow-up. This cannot be only about Harvey. Where are the names of the 30-something, 40-something, and 50-something moguls, producers, directors, and studio heads who’ve been doing the exact same thing, and still are (well, maybe not this month)? In the wake of the testimonies, Amazon’s Roy Price was just swept out by the same new broom, fired from his corner office. Okay, that’s two. Sharpen your pencils and start keeping count. There ought to be hundreds more to come–and perhaps by the time you read this, that will have come to pass. Somehow I doubt that sea change will occur. Prove me wrong, people.

1. Soon, activists were calling Maldonado “Macri’s first desaparecido.” For background on this and the femicide protests, see: Uki Goñi, “Argentinian activists pin blame on machismo as attacks on women rise,” Guardian, October 27, 2016, www.theguardian.com/world/2016/oct/27/argentinian-activists-machismo-attacks-women-niunamenos as well as Daniel Politi and Ernesto Londoño, “Police and Protesters Clash Over Disappearance of Argentine Activist,” New York Times, September 2, 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/09/02/world/americas/argentina-protests-santiago-maldonado.html?mcubz=0&_r=0.
2. See Richard Shpuntoff, “Argentine Producers Protest Changes in Access to State Film Funding,“ Cinema Tropical, September 30, 2017, www.cinematropical.com/cinema-tropical/argentinedirectors-protest-changes-in-access-to-state-filmfunding.

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Header Image: Inside the Espacio Memoria y Derechos Humanos. Photo by B. Ruby Rich