B. Ruby Rich
From Film Quarterly, Spring 2020, Volume 73, Number 3
There was a dustup last fall over an op-ed by Martin Scorsese in the New York Times and his earlier interview with Empire magazine.1 Controversy erupted after he compared the movie franchises based on Marvel comic books to theme parks, saying they weren’t cinema, that he’d never go watch them, that they are ruining cinema. Hardly surprising! With the exception of his own delightful Hugo (2011) and his tireless World Cinema Project rescues of global film history, Scorsese is known for his own brand: a cinematic realism of hard streets, hard men, and hard mob battlegrounds, always set in specific pasts (New York, Las Vegas, Atlantic City, Boston) and always etching the DNA of masculinity onto the screen with unfailingly precise craftsmanship.
Why, though, was there such a rush to call Scorsese to judgement, with sides shaping up for or against superhero movies? In part, the reaction probably has to do with fear: by directors, that they won’t be able to find backing for future non-Marvel projects; by critics, that the field of cinema will be further reduced to cartoonish fantasy worlds, devoid of “adult” fare. On closer examination, though, the argument is over what makes audiences leave their houses (and their downloadable/streaming media options) for movie theaters—an argument, then, over “theatricality,” the term favored by Sony Pictures’ Tom Rothman, or what I have taken to calling “liveness.”2 Vox’s Emily VanDerWerff made a further distinction: that the fight is over “cultural product” versus “cultural force.”3 As a debate over choice, fit, the public sphere, and, above all, economics, it has also become—with the voiding of the landmark 1948 Paramount antitrust decision—a debate over vertical monopoly and conglomerate control. These factors have always been in place, of course, but in the age of Facebook algorithmic control, the expansion into Netflix cinemas, Disney+ streaming, or Apple TV, they somehow feel more ominous.
In fact, though, media attention at the end of 2019 was typically more focused on the films being touted for the Oscars and Golden Globes than on the infrastructure of the industry. Oh, and on one other thing: the impeachment of a president. And that is where I began to discern a much bigger problem. In a year of rising fascism, climate collapse, and massive demonstrations, the playlist of movie contenders was stunning: The Irishman, Marriage Story, Joker, Once upon a Time in Hollywood, Ford v Ferrari, Little Women … well, you get the idea.
Really? Beyond the scraps over Marvel movies and Netflix streaming, beyond Disney vertical integration and Apple expansionism, this is what today’s directors, studios, and guilds have decided to offer: history, fantasy, marital drama, adaptation, turbo racing.
Cinema, writ large, has become a wonderful way to reshape the past; television, to escape the present; and Facebook, to determine the future. The cinema is in danger of completely abdicating its responsibility to its own society and historical moment, turning aside from the very real power that adheres to screens and narratives. As of late December, Dark Waters (Todd Haynes, 2019) hadn’t been touted for any awards, yet it is the one current film that takes on contemporary U.S. politics of corruption with urgency, finesse, and an utter absence of sugarcoating. It’s a skillful, earnest Silkwood (Mike Nichols, 1983) for today. Among the frenzy of foreign-language awards contenders, one stands out: writer-director Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, which, in a season of cinematic evasion and denial, examines class conflict, poverty, the violence spawned by inequity, and bourgeois mores, offering up a savage satire that’s sorely needed.
The U.S. cinema’s refusal to stand up and be counted, quickly and desperately, does not bode well for the next election. A determination to focus on genre, production values, and performances is, although traditional, hardly laudable, for if there were ever a genuine, to-the-barricades moment, this is it.
In too many places, cinema’s power to move people through emotions is being squandered … while, far from Los Angeles, Brazil’s fascist president, Jair Bolsonaro, knows the power of film all too well. In a country where, since the restoration of democracy in the mid-eighties, film has had both tangible and symbolic importance, he is setting out to destroy Brazilian cinema. At a moment of its greatest strength, with films by Karim Aïnouz, Kleber Mendonça Filho, Sandra Kogut, and Petra Costa winning plaudits at film festivals worldwide in 2019, Bolsonaro followed his slashing of 43 percent of the country’s cinema funding by ordering the National Cinema Agency (Agência Nacional do Cinema, or ANCINE) to remove all posters of Brazilian films from its walls.
Bolsonaro’s order to strip ANCINE’s walls came in early December. The news reached Brazilian director Kleber Mendonça Filho, on the jury of the Marrakech International Film Festival, and his producer Emilie Lesclaux. Jury president Tilda Swinton decided its members should note the pronouncement by ordering up limited-edition T-shirts, and a commemorative photo of the entire jury in the shirts emblazoned with the banned posters was duly taken. Look here to see Swinton wearing her T-shirt bearing a poster for Edouardo Coutinho’s Cabra marcado para morrer (Twenty Years Later/Man Marked for Death, 1984), and the other jury members in theirs.
Now, a word about the Marrakech film festival from one new to its wonders. It was curated with unerringly excellent taste by festival director (and former Berlinale Forum director) Christoph Terhechte, together with Ali Hajji, Anke Leweke, Rémi Bonhomme—and FQ contributor and curator Rasha Salti. The selection was terrific, combining internationally important films with a solid selection of those from the region, and involving local non-elites by presenting children’s screenings and outdoor shows. There was also a sidebar, the Atlas Workshops, aimed at financing future projects; it was financed by Netflix, an increasingly global presence on screens large and small.
Significantly, the Marrakech festival included films from the Middle East and North Africa that are not shown often enough in the United States; seeing them with Moroccan audiences increased their power exponentially. It’s rare that a non-A-list festival benefits from such a high level of curating and access, and it’s hoped that can continue when Terhechte leaves to take over the DOK Leipzig documentary festival next year.
The jury’s grand prize went to Nicolás Rincón Gille’s extraordinary film, Tantas almas (Valley of Souls). In its Dantesque depths, a fisherman named José travels the Colombian countryside in search of his two sons, Dionisius and Rafael, kidnapped by militias. He’s not out to save them. He knows better; he just wants to fish their bodies out of the river to bury them. His nightmarish journey, set in 2002, delivered a visceral reminder of what the collapse of civilization can look like. Its saga of paternal devotion becomes a stand-in for global horrors just out of reach.
Tunisian-Moroccan filmmaker Maryam Touzani’s Adam, subject of a gala presentation, told an indelible tale, too—not of searching but of finding: specifically, finding a pregnant young woman on the doorstep, destitute, begging for shelter. Based on the true story of a young woman whom Touzani’s family had once taken in, Adam etches a powerful bond between two people: a grieving widow with a little daughter, and a desperate woman who wants to give her baby away upon its arrival into the world. Fascinating setup and adept execution turn what could be a mood piece into a gripping tale, in part due to the playful girl who brings both women into a space of mutual understanding.
Another festival prize went to Abdulmohsen Aldhabaan’s Akher ziyarah (Last Visit), a surprising Saudi drama about the tensions in a father–son relationship exacerbated during a family visit that goes as wrong as one ever could go. No rom-com, it’s a pointed examination of Saudi intergenerational and interfamilial conflicts as they founder on the shoals of religion and modernity. The Marrakech audience, gripped by its tensions, stayed to debate the characters’ choices, joined by producer Mohammed Alhamoud.
“Fatherhood is the great theme,” Swinton wisely observed. Valley of Souls and Last Visit weren’t the only films exploring these tropes of masculinity, just two of the best I saw, but it was fascinating to see how all of them played out in the context of a patriarchal kingdom. Alaa Eddine Aljem’s Le miracle du saint inconnu (The Unknown Saint) started out as a heist movie, for instance, until its side story about a son’s devotion to his father took over, managing to upset the heist and the film’s very title—and to fulfill the theme of paternal importance. Fascinatingly, in the festival’s fifties-era movie house, the post-screening discussion included one audience member haranguing Aljem for that age-old crime: negatively portraying his country—in this case, Morocco.
It took Algerian director Hassen Ferhani’s documentary 143 rue du désert (143 Sahara Street) to turn attention back to a woman again—and what a woman. Malika, an elemental force of nature, sits in her tiny café in the middle of the desert awaiting customers for her limited menu of tea, eggs, and water. An oasis on a barely traveled route, she patiently awaits the arrival of her audience, for that is what each customer quickly becomes, as do the film’s viewers. These vicarious sojourns with Malika are captivating beyond measure for the sheer force of her conversation and personality. (She even finesses Ferhani’s intervention: two interlopers with scripted stories, as revealed in the Q&A.)
Two Marrakech festival elements were particularly compelling. One was the series of master classes with filmmakers ranging from Elia Suleiman to the festival’s tribute guest, Robert Redford. I was particularly fascinated by the conversation with Ukrainian documentary filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa, at the festival with his new film, State Funeral, who chose to analyze his earlier archival documentary Process (The Trial, 2018) for the audience. He was mesmerizing as he chatted, and stopped and started The Trial to reveal that, in Masha Gessen’s words, “the show trial was a show.”4
Another distinctive festival event was the series of nightly outdoor screenings. Yes, festivals from Locarno to Telluride to Bologna stage them, but nothing can compare to the sight of the giant crowds that filled Marrakech’s fabled square, Jammaa el-Fnaa, to see the festival’s offerings. One night, I went to see the Egyptian fantasia Yom lel-Sittat (A Day for Women, 2016) by Kamla Abouzekri, and was dazzled by the view of enormous crowds of women, old and young, veiled and not, massed in the square to see the film and applaud its beloved stars, there in person to wave to their fans. Now, this was moviegoing!
Remake: Frankfurter Frauen Film Tage
Overlapping with Marrakech but with an entirely different clientele, Frankfurter Frauen Film Tage—the “Remake” series of feminist cinema—was staged by the Kinothek Asta Nielsen in Frankfurt, Germany, with a maximum of passion and dedication. The year 2019 marked the last festival under the direction of the two founders and longtime organizers, Karola Gramann and Heide Schlüpmann: they have turned the Kinothek over to co-organizer Gaby Babic, who pledged to carry forward its feminist legacy and archive.
This year, the salutes to historically important figures were a huge success and utterly moving. The tribute to KIWI (Kino Women International) paid homage to an organization that had existed only in 1987–90, the period from glasnost to the breakup of the Soviet Union. Several things made this an irresistible event: a rare screening of Sally Potter’s early documentary I Am an Ox, I Am a Horse, I Am a Man, I am a Woman (1987–88), originally commissioned by Channel 4, poignantly captures that moment of immense hope and captures on film some of the greatest Soviet women filmmakers. Then the lights came up and there in person was Lana Gogoberidze, a central figure in the film and in the KIWI organization. Now ninety-one years old, she had to leave early because her new film (!) was about to premiere at the Tbilisi International Film Festival.
She talked about the KIWI years and about her life as a filmmaker in Georgia. Filmmaking turned out to be a family affair, too: her daughter was at that moment in Hamburg editing the new film, and she revealed that her mother, Nutsa Gogoberidze, had also been a filmmaker, and a contemporary of Sergei Eisenstein and Alexander Dovzhenko. Her mother was forcibly purged and sent to Siberia in 1937, absent all through Lana’s childhood. It was an incredible story, told with equanimity and purpose. Gogoberidze’s greatest film, Ramdenime interviu pirad sakitkhebze (Some Interviews on Personal Matters, 1978), was shown the same day. Surrounded by a warm and appreciative crowd of young people, Gogoberidze began to remember details from the past and regaled the audience with stories and poems.
Also honored at the festival was Heiny Srour, whose early landmark documentary Saat el Fahrir Dakkat, Barra ya Isti Mar (The Hour of Liberation Has Arrived, 1974) has recently been restored and has begun to screen around the world.5 Influenced by early Third Cinema, Srour traveled to eastern Oman in 1971 to film the women guerilla fighters in the revolutionary Dhofar Rebellion. It was a remarkable accomplishment for any time or place and, for a young Lebanese woman then studying at the Sorbonne, one that was fairly unbelievable. Srour vividly recalled the shoots, the circumstances, and the difficulties, reliving those times as she spoke of them. The rerelease of her classic should continue (and, ironically, the death in January 2020 of Oman’s monarch of nearly fifty years, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, should ensure that it does).
Also there in Frankfurt in person was composer and pianist Maud Nelissen, whose new score was performed with Maurice Elvey’s Hindle Wakes (1927), an archival gem (distributed by Milestone in the United States) that preserves Lancashire’s working-class factory life and the spirit of the modern woman whose wage earnings gave her a new independence. Performed and projected in the splendor of the Frankfurt opera house, it was a huge success with a sellout crowd that braved the rain to attend.
Strand Releasing Hits Thirty
Marcus Hu and Jon Gerrans have achieved the almost impossible with their company, Strand Releasing: thirty years in business as an independent distributor, surviving and prospering with panache and dedication, to serve some of the most important filmmakers in the world today. Along with cofounder Mike Thomas, they built an enterprise that has achieved rock-star status on a shoestring. To celebrate, screenings and parties and dinners were held coast to coast, at blue-chip venues—the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Los Angeles’s Billy Wilder Theater—with a cast of greats.
Strand Releasing has always had a touch of genius, and once again, it was evident: a tribute to itself, 30/30 VISION: Three Decades of Strand Releasing, was commissioned. Comprising one-minute iPhone movies, it included among its sixty-second auteurs Andrew Ahn, Karim Aïnouz, Fatih Akin, Gregg Araki, Roddy Bogawa, Catherine Breillat, Brady Corbet, Amy Davis and Jon Moritsugu, Alain Gomis, Bradley Rust Gray, Alain Guiraudie, Lynn Hershman, Christophe Honoré, Connor Jessup, Jon Jost, Isaac Julien, Tom Kalin, So Yong Kim, Bruce LaBruce, Tommy O’Haver, Jenni Olson, Rithy Panh, Daniel Ribeiro, João Pedro Rodrigues, Ira Sachs, James Schamus, A. B. Shawky, Cindy Sherman, Elisabeth Subrin, Athina Rachel Tsangari, Rose Troche, Lulu Wang and Anna Franquesa-Solano, John Waters, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, World of Wonder (Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato), and additions keep coming.
Yes, incredible. But for a final touch that I cannot resist, consider this: Strand’s first release as a newborn distributor was Lino Brocka’s Macho Dancer (1988). Read FQ‘s “Page Views” section and be prepared to salute the serendipity of timing—and good taste, of course.
RIP: Rest In Peace
Philosopher king of film studies, Thomas Elsaesser exercised an oversize influence on the field through his writings, students, and peripatetic presence.6
One of the founding figures of the L.A. Rebellion movement, Carroll Parrott Blue made a mark with her early documentaries long before she became known as a Houston neighborhood activist.
More than Godard’s muse or Rivette’s and Visconti’s actress, Anna Karina was a Danish-French novelist, singer, and filmmaker as well as a symbol forever of modernity and style.7
Theorist and filmmaker, former UCLA professor, ex-husband of Laura Mulvey, Peter Wollen defined the field in its early days, then lost more than a decade to early-onset Alzheimer’s.8
It is, if not a new dawn, at least a new generation (or two or three) in the world of film studies and on the big and small screens. Nothing drives home the realization of the relative youth of this discipline of cinema studies so intensely as does witnessing those who created its memories and inspirations, theories and inroads, leave this earthly plane. Born within five years of one another into vastly different fates, these four have now, as the saying goes, joined the ancestors.
In This Issue
Once again, Film Quarterly gathers exceptional writing, scholarship, discovery, and perspective together in one volume fit for cover-to-cover study.
In “Temporary Accommodation: Joanna Hogg’s Cinema of Dispossession,” John David Rhodes examines the locations of Hogg’s four films to dissect the relationships played out within their walls. He discerns a finely tuned cinematic language of spatial emotion, where resonant dramas emerge from figures moving through space. Informed by a visit to the set during production of The Souvenir: Part 2 last summer, Rhodes traces Hogg’s cinematic methods up through the moment of her 2019 breakthrough.
In FQ’s interview section, Anastasia Kostina introduces readers to the documentary filmmaker and teacher Marina Razbezhkina, who deserves to be much better known internationally. Kostina’s “Hunting for Reality” essay announces a major figure who has made groundbreaking documentaries and established Russia’s first nonstatist school of documentary, where she’s trained hundreds of students in the fine-grain observation of lives lived outside the glare of Putin’s klieg lights.
Edited by Brian Hu and myself, the dossier “Asian American Film at Fifty” undertakes a view of filmmakers and institutions with an eye to history. By no means complete, it represents an effort to mark significant anniversaries of key institutions: Visual Communications (VC) and the UCLA Asian American Studies Center in Los Angeles, CAAM (Center for Asian American Media) in San Francisco, Asian CineVision (ACV) and its Asian American International Film Festival (AAIFF) in New York.
See the introduction to the dossier for a sense of context and historical detail, and then prepare to be dazzled and informed by the perspectives of a new generation of outstanding scholars committed to these histories and the questions they stimulate: Lan Duong, Viola Lasmana, Josslyn Luckett, Melissa Phruksachart, Oliver Wang, and Brian Hu himself. Then learn from the “OG” participants in a revelatory roundtable of New York City history: Roddy Bogawa, Shu Lea Cheang, Daryl Chin, Rea Tajiri, courtesy of organizer-interlocutors Vince Schleitwiler and Abby Sun, and Tajiri herself.
Consider this dossier an initial down payment on the attention that should be paid to these histories, to their participants, and to the new films arriving with new challenges. Worlds overlap: I was in New York City in the eighties and took part in many of the events that the roundtable participants recall. And I was at Sundance in 2002 when Roger Ebert rose up from the audience to defend Justin Lin’s Better Luck Tomorrow from a charge of negatively portraying Asian America. (Note the same charge from a Marrakech festivalgoer; some things do not change.) I remember fights over films and over strategies. These are histories worth excavating.
Columnist Bilal Qureshi weighs in on the state of modern gay romance in his discussion of Lucio Castro’s End of the Century, pointing to the film’s use of Barcelona as a theatrical stage for the star-crossed lovers’ reconnection, and ruminates on the meaning of romance for gay men in the poststruggle universe of easy hookups and complex choices. Manuel Betancourt notes the arrival of indigeneity on Latin American screens via a trio of films comprising native stories and characters (though not always by indigenous directors). Looking at the indigenous characters and tropes in Álvaro Delgado Aparicio’s Retablo, Ernesto Contreras’s Sueño en otro idioma, and Óscar Catacora’s Wiñaypacha, he salutes their long-overdue arrival on-screen.
On the film-festival front, Lucas Martinelli charts the direction of the Mar del Plata film festival under its new director, Cecilia Barrionuevo (in her second outing), and flags the highlights. Looking at gender in this year’s edition, he traces the Ni Una Menos feminist movement through the festival’s forum on cinema and gender, with women participating from across the industry, as well as through some of its film selections.
FQ’s new “Page Views” correspondent Bruno Guaraná chats with José B. Capino about his new book, Martial Law Melodrama: Lino Brocka’s Cinema Politics. In this magisterial study of a pivotal figure in modern cinema, Capino traces the development of the independent Filipino director who wielded popular genres and sexy stars to carve a cinematic path between the coded oppositional politics of the Marcos dictatorship and the sublime erotics of gay desire.
Meanwhile, Carrie Rickey is thrilled by the range and analysis of Jeanine Basinger’s The Movie Musical! She shares her opinion that Love Me Tonight (Rouben Mamoulian, 1932) may be the best musical ever and supports her thesis that in many cases the actors (Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly) were the real auteurs. Praising Basinger’s witty observations, Rickey notes the progression of the musical from early vaudeville to Broadway to a form, finally, all its own. Other reviewers tackle an exceptional shelf of books by scholars Ivone Margulies, Marc Steinberg, Shilyh Warren, Áine O’Healy, Ramon Lobato, and Katherine Groo.
Jonathan Kahana passed away at the age of 53 on December 31, 2019. A professor at UC Santa Cruz and a major force in documentary studies, he was the author of Intelligence Work: The Politics of American Documentary (2008) and editor of The Documentary Film Reader: History, Theory, Criticism (2016). His essay “Cinema and The Ethics of Listening: Isaac Julien’s Frantz Fanon” was published in FQ Winter 2005–06, Vol. 59 No. 2.
1. Zack Sharf, “Martin Scorsese Compares Marvel Movies to Theme Parks: ‘That’s Not Cinema,’” IndieWire, October 4, 2019, http://www.indiewire.com/2019/10/martin-scorsese-marvel-movies-not-cinema-theme-parks-1202178747/; Martin Scorsese, “I Said Marvel Movies Aren’t Cinema. Let Me Explain,” New York Times, November 4, 2019, http://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/04/opinion/martin-scorsese-marvel.html.
2. Quoted in Alex Abad-Santos, “Martin Scorsese’s Fight against Marvel Isn’t Really about Marvel Movies: The Iconic Director Isn’t Mad at Black Panther, He’s Mad at Marvel’s System,” Vox, November 11, 2019, http://www.vox.com/2019/11/8/20950451/martin-scorsese-marvel-movies-cinema-feige.
3. Quoted in Abad-Santos, “Martin Scorsese’s Fight against Marvel.”
4. Masha Gessen, “An Extraordinary New Film Captures the Spectacle of Soviet Show Trials,” New Yorker, January 15, 2019, http://www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/an-extraordinary-new-film-captures-the-spectacle-of-soviet-show-trials.
5. For more on the film, see Jamie Berthe, “History Calling: Decolonizing Cinema at New York’s Film Forum,” Film Quarterly 73, no. 2 (Winter 2019): 80–86.
6. David Hudson, “Tributes to Thomas Elsaesser,” On Film/The Daily, Criterion.com, December 10, 2019, http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/6725-tributes-to-thomas-elsaesser.
7. Xan Brooks, “Anna Karina on Love, Cinema and Being Jean-Luc Godard’s Muse: ‘I Didn’t Want to Be Alive Any More,’” The Guardian, January 21, 2016, http://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/jan/21/anna-karina-on-love-cinema-and-being-jean-luc-godards-muse-i-didnt-want-to-be-alive-anymore.
8. Zack Sharf, “Tilda Swinton Honors Late Film Theorist and Filmmaker Peter Wollen, Dead at 81,” IndieWire, December 19, 2019, http://www.indiewire.com/2019/12/peter-wollen-dead-tilda-swinton-tribute-1202198367/.
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