The Screening Life, Once Removed

B. Ruby Rich

From Film Quarterly, Fall 2020, Volume 74, Number 1

This editorial was written on the Fourth of July, that annual orgy of barbecues and tin-hat patriotism made worse this year by the unprecedented arrival in US cities of bomb-grade fireworks—explosives that shook the ground, sending dogs cowering and possibly softening up the urban population for a battlefield future. This appears, however, in the FQ issue emerging just prior to the 2020 US presidential election, an event destined to change the future of this country and the world and, yes, the film and TV world, in ways that are equally unpredictable, confusing, and terrifying.

The pandemic is approaching half a year in duration, and in the San Francisco/Oakland/Berkeley region (where FQ is published), it is well past the first hundred days of lockdown, at a dire moment that challenges old habits, piling them into a corner like outgrown clothing. The only silver lining is that nobody knows what is to come: there is a leveling of expertise that should grant everyone equal authority. As I’ve grown fond of telling students: you know as much as anyone else about what comes next, so seize the moment. Or as Stuart Hall liked to say, moments of immense change throw open windows of opportunity through which the disempowered can jump—if they act before those windows are swallowed up again into customary hierarchies.

Writing after the police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and the national and international waves of protests and gleams of a new political order—arising out of the actions and dreams of so many passionate demonstrators convening beyond old racial separations that multiply by hundreds of thousands any protests seen in the United States in decades—there is an air of hope not felt in four years or even four decades. Certainly the new movement is a manifestation of intersectionality, one that finally frees the notion from theoretical applications and may open the door to a new body politic. No less a veteran than Angela Davis pronounced the visible emergence of this political mobilization “euphoric,” despite the ongoing tragedies that have propelled and still impel it.

#BlackLivesMatter, yes. The unprecedented political movement set off by these murders is one that ought to have cohered so many years earlier, but even so, its current emergence as a monumental, intersectional force is nothing short of a miracle. All that’s needed now is its continuation and lasting impact.

At Film Quarterly, the mission of publishing the best writing on film, television, and media would be impossible without the divergent perspectives shaped by life experiences, rigorous training, and political will. There is no doubt that the journal has been made stronger because of this commitment and will continue to be so. But the current moment demands more, and FQ will do its best to remain steadfast in its mission, broaden its reach, and continue to provide a model for how film scholarship, research, and reporting can be conducted in an antiracist, world-encompassing manner independent of outdated discipline parameters.


This editorial space has usually been dedicated to reports on festivals, conferences, and other signal events in which I have participated—but not this time. With events canceled, travel off the menu, and activity curtailed, this editorial turns to ruminations and armchair observations.

The shift to online, so fraught only a few months ago, has become more and more accomplished. It is second nature now to schedule online Q&As, premieres, screenings at favorite venues, playlists on services like Criterion Channel or TCM, or even to watch movies together with friends on Netflix Party or other platforms.1 Hybrid forms are evolving every week. Film festivals have adapted, too. I spoke with Tom Kalin and Marcus Hu, both festival awardees, in Zoom conversations that the Ashland Independent Film Festival put together with a number of filmmakers to be packaged online “with” their featured films. An article by Ira Deutchman that appeared at press time prodded exhibitors to get their act together and create a better online platform to share.2 He’s right, too: if the “virtual cinema” is here to stay, art houses need to unite and craft their own breakthrough solutions. Then, in early summer, a press release announced an unprecedented cooperation agreement, complete with a seeming noncompete clause, between the New York Film Festival, Venice, Toronto’s TIFF, and Telluride, pledging that they would work together. If they are serious, I thought, this is a very big deal. In the event, Venice plowed ahead with its plans for an in-person festival, Telluride canceled but issued a what-if list of its selections, and both Toronto and New York prepared hybrid editions, with the NYFF announcing its plan to convert the Lincoln Center plaza into a modified drive-in. Fall is sure to be interesting!

Meanwhile, world events continue to evolve with dizzying insanity, and the atrocities of US policing continue to escalate. To date, film and television in the traditional sense have been largely absent from the scene, while iPhone videos and TikTok videos have been front and center. Seventeen-year-old teenager Darnella Frazier was on the way to a grocery store with her young cousin on May 25 when she pulled out her phone to film Derek Chauvin and fellow police officers as he murdered George Floyd. Holding the phone’s camera like a pro (one continuous shot, thank you very much) while adding her voice to those yelling at the police not to kill Floyd, Darnella Frazier created a document that is changing history.

In 1993, the Whitney Biennial included in its exhibition the video of Rodney King’s beating by George Holliday. Shooting from his own home with a Sony Handycam 8mm camcorder, Holliday was a witness whose delivery of the tape to his local TV news station certainly made history. But the Canadian Argentine British German American was white, not Black; an adult, not a teenager; and he shot from afar, not up close yelling “Stop!” He was in the right place at the right time, and his name entered the history books.

An even greater audience has watched and referenced the video by Frazier, who has already been dubbed Filmmaker of the Year by press pundits and “the Rosa Parks of her generation” by her lawyer. Keep in mind that sadly, tragically, infuriatingly, this was not the first time that video of police killings has been posted and shared and widely disseminated, sparking outrage and editorials, even films and television programs—but with no resulting convictions, often no arrests at all.

In 2020, though, the mood feels different. These two things are interlocked: the videotapes of deaths and the days of lockdown. People at home—fed up with quarantine and with government lies and inaction, glued to their screens—finally have decided to step out of the house and act: young people claiming their moment in history; older adults feeling nostalgic for a time when marching mattered.

And folks have the time for this! With so many millions of Americans out of work, and the lucky ones living on unemployment benefits, time has been freed up to step out of the endless, crushing labor of the relatively new round-the-clock digital workplace and stage a protest against alienation, injustice, and racist savagery. Perhaps it is also the start of a sustained protest against life-as-it-was, work-as-it-was, in favor of a more just and humane society.

I await the intersection of this historic moment with the mediums of film and television and online media that FQ can explore. Right now, I am hoping that all who are involved in media—filmmakers, screenwriters, showrunners, producers—are already at work to make sense and shows out of these perilous times. If the film industry is listening, its responses so far have been muted.

First up is a bit of rage and inspiration. Part of the trend of pertinent videos being revived and recirculated, Viola Davis has a L’Oréal commercial with the slogan “You’re worth it.” But what has really gone viral is Davis’s interview with Tina Brown at a 2018 celebrity event, the Women in the World Los Angeles Salon, when she called out casting practices, racism, and salary limits for women of color in Hollywood. It has blown up.

Viola Davis at the Women in the World Los Angeles Salon in 2018.

Also online in early summer was the rousing March March music video, released by The Chicks (the band formerly known as the Dixie Chicks) to promote a new album, which caught fire when it went online in spring 2020.3 Though its message is slightly off—lyrics champion “an army of one … march to my own drum,” in contrast to the army of millions marching together in spring 2020—the images contradict the lyrics. An archival treasure trove of civil rights demonstrations, contemporary figures (including Greta Thunberg and Malala Yousafzai), and group actions captures the mood of the moment, complete with slogans (#EndWhiteSilence) and an updated list of Black people slaughtered by police. The list, which opens at the video’s 2:35 minute point with George Floyd’s name, speeds up faster and faster to cram in all the names as it approaches its end at 3:42 with Emmett Till—followed by a call to vote and a long list of civil rights and direct-action groups to which one can contribute.

Quieter and calmer but devastatingly enlivening is the series of TikToks by Sarah Cooper that have been thrilling me all spring.4 Cooper is a comedian who carefully selects excerpts from the current president’s speeches and interviews, delivering them with pitch-perfect timing from the confines of her own home while also performing the role of stunned bystander.5 She is a brilliant political analyst, too. Whether delivering “his” lines while hiding behind her shower curtain or showing off the secret words (“Experience!”) he scribbles with a sharpie on fake briefing notes, Sarah Cooper captures the terrifying inanity of his language and simultaneously models her audience’s horror at the spectacle. To watch as his words emerge from the mouth of this brilliant Jamaican American woman is to enter a space of sublime pleasure and gratitude, while cracking up. Personal favorites? “How to Second Term.” “How to Medical.” “How to Empty Seat.” Really, there are too many to name.

Sarah Cooper is part of a new trend of at-home, shorter-than-short video pieces with low production values and high-impact messaging, stoked in this case by the recording revolution that repurposes quarantine into video intimacy: a new domestic genre of artisanal filmmaking with direct address, limited cast (one or two), and serious intention. Some are merely living-room entertainments, like the daily Norah Jones concerts, the daily Sonia Wieder-Atherton cello performances, or the first show the Indigo Girls presented when they broke out of isolation by becoming a “pod” able to perform together again. Just concerts? They testify to the quarantine and become living emblems of its enactment, shared across virtual space when real space is too threatening.

Some are merely silly, though impressive for their ingenuity. Consider the Boss Bitch Fight Challenge, an isolation enactment of a Tarantino-esque fight scene organized by Zoë Bell.6 With Bell wishing she could break out of quarantine to play with her friends in the opening scene, then getting an evil grin on her face, the BBFC switches up the blows as they land from woman to woman and room to room to room, like a Maya Deren film gone mad. And Bell’s well connected. Her cast of pals includes Lucy Lawless, Drew Barrymore, Rosario Dawson, Rosie Perez, Thandie Newton, Scarlett Johansson, Margot Robbie, Daryl Hannah, and more in this delirious dose of isolation antics.

For cinephiles, a remarkable public service has been performed by sometime FQ contributors Leshu Torchin, Dina Iordanova and their colleagues at the Centre for Screen Cultures at the University of St. Andrews: sets of themed playlists to watch at home, assembled by very smart curators and keyed to important dates and issues—the “Black Lives in Philadelphia” playlist, for example, or the “Race and Policing in the U.S. (Documentaries)” playlist.7 Recently, they added a set from FQ editorial board member Patricia R. Zimmermann and her colleague Dale Hudson.

Such pleasures aside, much of the watching has been the ongoing drama of violence and hatred and suffering and deaths enacted across the nation, either out in the streets or in the horror environments of ICUs. Occasionally, events have sent me to back issues of Film Quarterly as reminders of past attentions have surfaced. One such moment occurred over the Fourth of July weekend, when a statue of Frederick Douglass was vandalized, torn from its base in Rochester, New York, where Douglass had once lived and is buried.8 As it happens, an image from Isaac Julien’s video installation Lessons of the Hour (2019), chosen to accompany Kass Banning and Warren Crichlow’s essay on its premiere in Rochester, New York, was the cover image of FQ volume 73, number 4 (Summer 2020).

The base of the vandalized Frederick Douglass statue in Rochester, New York. Photo: Ben Densieski/AP.

In This Issue

In the aftermath of FQ’s dossier this past spring (vol. 73, no. 3) on Asian American media at fifty, which commemorated the founding of key organizations and the evolution of the field, FQ adds two new articles inspired by the public-television series Asian Americans.

Jun Okada offers a comprehensive look at the series, which debuted on PBS in May 2020 and tracks the sweeping scope of Asian American communities and identities over more than a century. In the grand tradition of Eyes on the Prize (the 1987/1990 public-television series that tracked African American history and the civil rights movements), executive producer (and filmmaker) Renee Tajima-Peña invited other Asian American independent filmmakers to craft the individual episodes. Okada unpacks the histories and connections that the series explores, and considers its significance in light of earlier Asian American documentary.

Denise Khor goes straight to the source, interviewing the main force behind the series, longtime documentarian Renee Tajima-Peña, in the process uncovering her long activist history, which began even before the start of her filmmaking. Khor captures her early life as well as the commitment to social justice across racial lines that has long motivated Tajima-Peña’s work, and fills in details about her family and early work that help elucidate her film career.

So Mayer returns to the pages of FQ with a look at two new episodic television shows, Sex Education (Laurie Nunn, 2019–) and Trigonometry (Duncan Macmillan and Effie Woods, 2020–), and details how they break new ground in terms of sexuality and race. Mayer argues that the shows offer not mere inclusion but true representation that flips TV’s former familial, high school, and neighborhood normativities on their head. As she dissects the racial and gender politics of these sex-pioneering programs, Mayer celebrates a “poetics of sexual frankness” made all the more poignant by the power of touch—an affecting detail in this touchless moment.

Chris Berry takes up two recent Chinese sci-fi works—Liulang diqiu (The Wandering Earth, Frant Gwo, 2019) and Chinese contemporary artist Cao Fei’s Xinxing (Nova, 2019), the centerpiece of her gallery installation Blueprints—that could not be more different. The first is a blockbuster hit about an astronaut lost in space trying to return to his son, with a message of sacrifice to the nation, while the latter depicts a virtual-reality world with little to gain, seen through a son stranded in a different space/time sphere from his father: two visions of fractured filiality set in the future.

Back in the present world, FQ hosts a conversation that filmmaker-scholar Jinyan Zeng initiated with the legendary Ai Xiaoming. In exile in Hong Kong, Zeng connects with Ai in her hometown of Wuhan in what Ai describes as “a watershed moment for feminism.” Probing Ai’s work on Lin Zhao in particular, the two discuss gender and documentary in the context of their own activism.

The Special Focus section in this issue, “Powers of the False,” examines the preoccupation in documentary in recent years with figures of fraud and deception—a trend presumably escalated by the example of the current occupant of the White House. Guided by Marc Francis, FQ‘s assistant editor, the writers of this section interrogate a lineup of documentaries that aim to defrock figures of fraud and deception. To start, Dolores McElroy spotlights Sean Young’s self-fashioned CATWOMAN video as a rare instance of self-authored authenticity in a world of deception. Nilo Couret sets the pair of Fyre Festival documentaries within the broader world of debt capitalism, linked to online marketing trends as well as the Netflix model. S. Topiary Landberg takes up the case of Elizabeth Holmes, citing Alex Gibney’s The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley (2019) as a framing of fascinations. Marc Francis christens the trend “bio-con” and analyzes a number of works (including two on Roy Cohn) that look at figures of deception with less than total disclosure of their own ways and means.

Framed as a manifestation of the Trump years, these documentaries also do something else: they frame whiteness, intentionally or unwittingly, as a get-out-of-jail card for perpetrators. What is stunning across these “bio doc” works is the sheer fact of what these fraudsters manage to get away with. Unlike the filmmakers, though, today’s audiences may be more appalled than fascinated by the crimes that have gone unpunished and the criminals who have managed to escape consequences with no fear of mobile-phone cameras exposing their malfeasance. Even before the scandalous pardoning (oops, commutation) of Roger Stone, the unequal scales of justice are made very clear in these less-than-exposés of white crime, sanctioned and forgiven.

FQ columnists are thinking about current events through film (of course) in a variety of ways. For Caetlin Benson-Allott, the moment necessitates a change in her favorite kind of escapism, and she probes her own taste to figure out what’s at stake. For Manuel Betancourt, recent films out of Latin America testify to the emergence of a possible new genre—the class-warfare film—that has been hiding in plain sight during a year of Parasite enthusiasm. Bilal Qureshi, in a column titled “The Last Circus,” offers a sort of eulogy to film festivals in his last-possible-minute immersion in the pleasures of the True/False Film Festival. It’s a fascinating counterpoint to Rasha Salti’s festival report that follows.

Salti reports on European and North American documentary festivals—not on specific films or places, but rather on the phenomenon of the new virtual markets. Chronicling her participation in those hosted by Hot Docs, Copenhagen’s CPH:DOX, and Visions du Réel, she finds the alienation of screens balanced by the unexpected Zoom camaraderie of colleagues. In the wake of such experiences, Salti ties film festivals to a global economy glutted on travel, fossil fuels, and corporatized industry events, and calls instead for valuing the local.

In this issue’s edition of Page Views, Bruno Guaraná interviews Samantha Sheppard about her new book, Sporting Blackness, and the conjunctions of sports, race, and media representations of which she writes. Carrie Rickey reviews Sue Matheson’s anthology, Women in the Western, noting that many of these impressive early actresses and stuntwomen were suffragists, and praises Matheson’s construction of a “post-9/11Western” category. In other reviews, Li Zheng writes on Erin Y. Huang’s Urban Horror: Neoliberal Post-Socialism and the Limits of Visibility, Olga Blackledge surveys Donna Kornhaber’s Nightmares in the Dream Sanctuary: War and the Animated Film, Madeleine Collier discusses Salomé Aguilera Skvirsky’s The Process Genre: Cinema and the Aesthetic of Labor, and, finally, Jeffrey Middents reviews Gerd Gemünden’s Lucrecia Martel, an in-depth study of one of the most visionary filmmakers of our time.


1. Petrana Radulovic, “The 7 Best Ways to Watch Movies Together Online,” Polygon, June 18, 2020, http://www.polygon.com/21295526/how-to-watch-movies-with-friends-together-online-netflix-party-hulu-squad-disney-plus-watch2gether. 2. Ira Deutchman, “How Virtual Cinema Could Help Arthouses Secure Their Future in 7 Easy Steps,” IndieWire, July 1, 2020, http://www.indiewire.com/2020/07/how-virtual-cinema-could-save-the-arthouse-1234570660/. 3. See https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=xwBjF_VVFvE. 4. For an introduction, see Sarah Cooper, as told to Sarah Cristobal, “Comedian Sarah Cooper on How Her Viral Trump Parodies Came to Be,” Instyle, http://www.instyle.com/news/sarah-cooper-essay-trump-impressions. 5. See a compilation video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SUTYsl9TTvA. 6. See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dCO0DXAc0tk&feature=youtu.be. 7. See https://a.wp.st-andrews.ac.uk/category/media-playlists/. 8. Martin Pengelly, “Frederick Douglass Statue Torn Down on Anniversary of Great Speech,” The Guardian, July 6, 2020, http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jul/06/frederick-douglass-statue-torn-down-rochester-new-york-anniversary-july-4-speech?; Michael Gold, “Who Tore Down This Frederick Douglass Statue?” New York Times, July 7, 2020, http://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/07/nyregion/frederick-douglass-statue-rochester.html.

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