Inspiration, Lost and Found

B. Ruby Rich

From Film Quarterly, Summer 2019, Volume 72, Number 4

Film Quarterly can hopefully, with your help, contribute to the imperative to provoke, build, and revitalize the field of film and media studies beyond the acceptable and parochial, to push it to aim higher and think more creatively. Surely this is a time that demands not retreat, but the imagination to push forward and unsettle old assumptions. Where are the films and television and web series that can do that? FQ will keep looking, stay on the prowl, keep alert, and continue to bring reports and salutations, analyses and revelations, back to its readers.

Inspiration can arrive unexpectedly. I found myself at the Ford Foundation in late winter, where folks were gathered at a day entitled “Storytelling&” to think through the ways in which narration enables experience and brings different voices to the fore. There was an inside look at a work in progress, Crip Camp, by lauded sound designer James LeBrecht and Nicole Newnham. Their documentary revisits Camp Jened, the “alternative” camp that LeBrecht attended down the road from Woodstock in the late sixties, which let its disabled teenage campers do, well, anything they wanted—and sparked the disability-rights movement. Stanley Nelson and Marcia Smith discussed their collaboration in Firelight Media, their production and community-engagement company, revealing how they first met and displaying in person the dynamics of their working and life partnership. Kamilah Forbes, artistic director of the Apollo Theater, revealed her personal thunderbolt upon reading Ta-Nehesi Coates’s Between the World and Me that led her to adapt it for Apollo presentation. In short, it was a day of inspiration convened by Margaret Morton, director of Creativity and Free Expression at Ford, in her own sort of thunderbolt.


A scene from Crip Camp, the documentary-in-progress by James LeBrecht and Nicole Newnham.

In early spring the Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS) marked its sixtieth anniversary at its own convening: the annual conference that attracts thousands of academics, this year in Seattle. This year’s treat, for me, was the standing-room-only event where Tara McPherson (“Platforming White Supremacy”) presided over a roundtable discussion with Wendy Chun (“Community’s Dark Side: Segregation + Algorithms”), Kara Keeling (“Privacy, Propriety and Black Women’s Embodiment”), and Lisa Nakamura (“Automating Racial Empathy: VR and the Undercommons”). Under the rubric of “Digital Processes and Racial Formations, Redux,” panelists took up, among other subjects, the mortal threats embedded in online posting. Hilariously, when they treated the conference-goers like students and mandated that they break into small discussion groups, half the room fled—only to be shamed in absentia as those “who don’t like to collaborate.”

Curating is beginning to get wider attention in the film world, though nothing like its centrality to the art world. Still, Ashley Clark, senior programmer at the BAMcinématek, is giving U.S. film curators a schooling in how to be imaginative and collaborative, and incidentally how to break out of the reliance on auteurism, genre, and periodicity as the three pillars of all programming. Two spring series, “On Resentment” and “Black 90s: A Turning Point in American Cinema,” are brilliant collaborations. “On Resentment,” compiled with Emily Wang, senior editor of Triple Canopy, “features formally daring, thematically ambitious works that wrestle with identity and representation, violence and ownership, revolutions and dead ends.”1 The “Black 90s” series is a result of Clark’s having read Ed Guerrero’s Framing Blackness: The African American Image in Film some fifteen years ago—and finally getting the chance to revisit films of the 1990s through this lens.2 It is a welcome development to have academics and writers entering the curatorial universe, with clearly spectacular results.


Okwui Enwezor, who died of cancer in March at the age of fifty-five, is celebrated as the first non-European to curate the influential Documenta (in 2002) and the first African-born curator to lead the Venice Biennale (in 2015). Nigerian by birth, educated in the United States, Okwui, as he was known, had a keen eye and nerves to match. He converted his outsider status to become the consummate insider, but one who brought the rest of the gang along with him, changing the art world, hopefully forever. He was lauded for bringing diversity and a brilliant sensibility to the international art world, but should be equally noted for bringing film and video—media art in old terminologies, installation work in new—squarely into the middle of the art world, where it has dwelled with vigor ever since. Sometimes that could mean a literal square, such as the commons he created at Venice, a collaboration with Isaac Julien and Mark Nash wherein Karl Marx’s Das Kapital was recited in a series of daily performances.


Curator Okwui Enwezor.  Courtesy of EPA/Frank Leonhardt.

Bruno Ganz, the Swiss actor who became a beloved presence in German cinema, died of cancer at seventy-seven. Best remembered as the angel in Wim Wenders’s fairy tale for all ages, Der Himmel über Berlin (Wings of Desire, 1987), he had a long career both before and after, from earlier Wenders films up to his infamous embodiment of Adolf Hitler in Der Untergang (Downfall, Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2004). He was a favorite actor of many directors. Outside Germany, he appeared in films by Eric Rohmer, Theo Angelopoulos, Francis Ford Coppola, Jonathan Demme, Ridley Scott, and, more recently, Sally Potter (The Party, 2017).

I’ve saved for last the two closest to me: Barbara Hammer (1939–2019) and Carolee Schneemann (1939–2019). Both struggled for recognition throughout their lives, only to attain widespread fame too near the end. Though very different personalities and artists, they both were praised and demeaned for their presentation of the female body in their experimental work and for their embrace of women’s eroticism. Feminists to the core, they refused to compromise. Both triumphed after years of struggle, rewarded with acceptance and even reverence in an era transformed in part by their contribution.


Barbara Hammer in New York, July 2017.  Courtesy of Jacqueline Harriett.

Hammer was part of a thriving lesbian cultural scene in her early years (she came out in 1970), though she was often the sole cinematic practitioner in its midst. The early work remains an emblem of energy, lust, and desire from the white-hot heat of the Californian lesbian movement of the 1970s, while her later work in feature experimental documentary won respect from film-world arbiters who had shunned the early work. Hammer never lost her Pied Piper enthusiasm that led her to encourage women to pick up cameras and be unafraid of what they might show. Nor did she ever surrender her fiery ethics, demanding at the end of her fight against ovarian cancer to be able to choose her own exit from life—on March 16, 2019, in New York City.3



Carolee Schneemann, 1939-2019

Carolee Schneemann was a pioneer on many levels, frequently the only woman in a male art world, an early member of the Fluxus art movement, and a sensualist whose embrace of her own body was scandalous at a time when “performance art” was not yet a category.4 Now that Fuses (1964–67), Meat Joy (1964), and Interior Scroll (1975) have become classics, it can be hard to comprehend the bravery and terror of their original presentations. Fearless, she was a flower child who persisted in celebrating creativity, art, and the body all her life. She took on puritanism and hypocrisy with relish, but she paid a price of exclusion and derision for many decades. In 2017, her Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement awarded by the Venice Biennale changed everything: finally, she had respect at the highest levels, and finally, she could sell her work. How cruel that the breast cancer she’d fought in 1998 came back then. She died in her legendary country home in New Paltz on March 6, 2019.

Holland Cotter’s obituary of Schneemann in the New York Times was exemplary, calling her “one of the most influential artists of the late 20th century” and quoting the text of Interior Scroll—all in all, the kind of obituary that women artists have almost never received in those pages.5 Perhaps the paper’s new feature, whereby it is commissioning “new” obituaries for those long-dead figures who should have been memorialized at the time of their death but were not, for reasons of gender or race or class, has created a new inclusivity in its roll call of death today.

R.I.P. for Agnès Varda

When Film Quarterly put Agnès Varda on its cover recently, there was no sense of creating a memorial. Such is the magical thinking about longevity: instead of acknowledging that nonagenarians or centenarians may be nearing death, there is a contrary belief that they must be immortal. When FQ posted contributing editor Joan Dupont’s conversation with Varda, “The House That Agnès Built,” in December 2018, it was in a spirit of mere celebration. (See Film Quarterly 72, no. 2 [Winter 2018], online at https://filmquarterly.org.) As this issue went to press, though, word came that Varda had succumbed to the cancer that she’d been fighting with such fierce energy.

Celebrated in recent years for the documentaries in which she also starred, Varda spent a lifetime making films that were received with less praise but showed equal flair and at least equal brilliance—from the early realist fictions that helped to spark the New Wave to early radical documentaries to the fiction films that captured with such knife-edge acuity the subjectivities of women who had not been depicted on-screen before her. For her immense influence and her unapologetic championing of women as filmmakers and subjects, her groundbreaking cinema and lavish appetite for life and other human beings, may Varda live on forever in cinemas and hearts (and heart-shaped potatoes) forever.

In This Issue

This edition of Film Quarterly brings together a range of writings on important films, television, and histories. It looks at provocative work that moves between past and present in order to deliver wisdom to its readers.

In her examination of black womanist television in the episodic age, Josslyn Luckett traces a legacy back to the 1990s—specifically, to filmmakers Julie Dash and Kasi Lemmons and their pioneering feature films. Employing what the late great Toni Cade Bambara once termed “empowered eyes,” Luckett rereads Gina Prince-Bythewood’s Shots Fired and Ava DuVernay’s Queen Sugar through a lens of black spirituality. Her revisiting of a shared past adds a layer of history and poignance to the chronicle.

Emma Wilson takes up recent developments in the film career of Claire Denis, a director she has long tracked, and detects a newfound preoccupation with both death and nurturing. Denis, in what has been an exceedingly productive spell, delivers two films for consideration: High Life (2018), her English-language debut, and Un beau soleil intérieur (Let the Sunshine In, 2017). Comparing the two, Wilson points to tenderness as the unifying theme, darkness as motif. Sadness (complicated by Denis’s mother’s death in the same period) is a dominant mood.

For Leshu Torchin, Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You (2018) offers an opportunity to think through a nascent category of economic rights cinema. She contextualizes Sorry within this category, framing the most seemingly ludicrous scenes as apt visualizations, however outlandish or unspeakable, of practices that are already all too present in today’s offscreen carceral society.

Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma (2018) has provoked complex debates over class, identity, and colonialism, even as the film thrilled audiences with its Netflix-backed grandeur at festivals as far-flung as Venice and Havana. Film Quarterly‘s “Special Focus” presents a trio of articles that parse the meanings, aesthetics, reception—even consequences—of Roma. Sergio de la Mora surveys the debates in print and on the web, exposing arguments over the representation of “Cleo” that trace her back to Mexico’s colonial racial hierarchies and to debates over Mexican history. Carla Marcantonio, FQ‘s new book reviews editor, steps in to examine the play of gender and race in the film, as she witnessed personally in the Netflix award campaigns. Amelie Hastie, via her column “The Vulnerable Spectator,” parses the ineffability of Roma as a cinematic experience that nearly rewrites the medium. All three share a sense of the film’s importance at this moment beyond the hype of its Netflix positioning. And Marc Francis’s time-delimited bibliography shows Roma exploding into public discourse, well beyond the usual film reviews or journals.

For FQ columnist Bilal Qureshi, who spent time in Berlin this winter, Transit (2018) and Werk ohne Autor (Never Look Away, 2018) are revealed as two poles of a German argument over representations of the past. For Caetlin Benson-Allott, it’s the Oscar-winning Free Solo (2018), which she claims is less sports documentary than thriller, tantalizing the audience with the possibility of death. Paul Julian Smith’s focus is on the new Mexican television series Malinche, which takes up that most lauded and most despised figure of the same name, picturing her anew in contemporary complexity.

London-based Selina Robertson journeyed to Berlin to report on its changing of the guard in 2019, with longtime Berlinale festival director Dieter Kosslick stepping down after eighteen years at the helm and Berlinale shorts curator Maike Mia Höhne leaving after twelve years. Robertson pays close attention to new films by women directors, singling out those by Angela Schanelec, Teona Strugar Mitevska, and Agnès Varda. But she also attends to the historic retrospective of German women filmmakers during 1968–99 and finds inspiration. I made my annual pilgrimage to Sundance, and bring back reports of new work debuting there, in particular emphasizing documentaries.

Books remain a key part of Film Quarterly‘s mission. Carrie Rickey, FQ‘s lead book critic, praises Amardeep Singh’s The Films of Mira Nair: Diaspora Vérité for its insights and the context it provides for Nair’s body of work. Other reviews take up books by FQ‘s own Raquel J. Gates and by Ann duCille, Nico Baumbach, Gina Marchetti, Aubrey Anable, and collections edited by Barry Keith Grant (on Robin Wood) and by Steven Jacobs, Anthony Kinik, and Eva Hielscher.


1. See the “Interview with the Curators” conversation at http://blog.bam.org/2019/03/on-resentment-interview-with-programmers.html.
2. For the schedule, see http://www.bam.org/film/2019/black-90s-a-turning-point-in-american-cinema?.
3. Masha Gessen, “Barbara Hammer’s Exit Interview,” New Yorker, February 24, 2019, http://www.newyorker.com/culture/the-new-yorker-interview/barbara-hammers-exit-interview.
4. See the tributes by contemporaries in “‘She Was Like a Force of Nature’: Yvonne Rainer, Marilyn Minter, and Others Pay Tribute to the Late Pioneering Artist Carolee Schneemann,” artnet News, March 12, 2019, https://news.artnet.com/art-world/artists-and-friends-pay-tribute-to-pioneering-artist-carolee-schneemann-1483432.
5. Holland Cotter, “Carolee Schneemann, Visionary Feminist Performance Artist, Dies at 79,” New York Times, March 10, 2019, http://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/10/obituaries/carolee-schneemann-dead-at-79.html.

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