B. Ruby Rich
From Film Quarterly, Fall 2022, Volume 76, Number 1
It is impossible to write about the state of the Image Industry in 2022—film, television, or streamers—without reference to the signal event of summer: the hearings conducted by the House committee investigating the January 6 attack, watched more broadly than anyone ever expected. The select committee, which convened those hearings and presented the evidence through in-person testimony with expertly edited digital audio and video materials, delivered the ratings hit of the summer. It was so popular—such dominant water-cooler chat, as they used to say, back when people went to offices—that even channels that had not planned to carry the proceedings abruptly signed on. And the clips and links were everywhere.
The hearings, still ongoing at this writing, marked a pivotal moment in US politics as well as a signal event in the US television production annals. When has CSPAN ever drawn record numbers before, or been joined by networks spontaneously hopping on board? The “limited series” made renegade Republicans into complicated folk heroes, from the still-right Republican Liz Cheney to the heroic career Republican staffer Cassidy Hutchinson. Perhaps even some Democrats will manage a cameo, if committee chair Bennie Thompson rises to the occasion or if Jamie Raskin returns with the same professorial eloquence he showed in July when he quoted Abraham Lincoln and brought him up to date:
If racist mobs are encouraged by politicians to rampage and terrorize, Lincoln said, they will violate the rights of other citizens and quickly destroy the bonds of social trust necessary for democracy to work…. Mobs and demagogues will put us on a path to political tyranny, Lincoln said. As we’ll see today, the creation of the Internet and social media has given today’s tyrants tools of propaganda and disinformation that yesterday’s despots could only have dreamed of.
As the committee members assemble their evidence for the American people, they are counting on being heard, and racing in slow Congressional style to get everything done before the series giant killer entitled “The Midterms” provides their finale.
Watching the hearings, I thought back to the momentous televised moments of the past, from the Kennedy assassination of 1963—if only there’d been more television coverage then, there might have been a view of someone(s) on that grassy knoll—to the slow-motion OJ chase in a white Bronco on the 91 freeway in Los Angeles thirty years later, in 1994.
Both were predated by the earlier set of hearings that Senator Joseph McCarthy infamously staged, with the help of Roy Cohn, targeting alleged Communists and homosexuals, ruining lives and careers with wanton glee. The Army–McCarthy hearings of 1954 finally turned the public against McCarthy and brought him down, thanks in no small part to the rhetorical challenge thrown at him by the Army’s chief counsel, Joseph N. Welch—“Have you no sense of decency, sir?”—and Edward R. Murrow’s CBS reports.
Too young to have experienced those hearings in the fifties, I caught up with them through the archival documentary Point of Order (1963), directed by Emile de Antonio and made in collaboration with Dan Talbot, the majordomo of US film exhibition and distribution. The film was widely shown in repertory in the seventies and eighties, by which time de Antonio had moved on to other political subjects. And so, unexpectedly, did mainstream politics: the Watergate hearings were televised starting in May 1973. The hearings and their widely viewed broadcasts continued for fifty-one days. On August 9, 1974, Richard M. Nixon resigned as US president—also via a live TV broadcast.
Nearly two decades later, on October 11, 1991, the Senate Judicial Committee met to vote on the fitness of Clarence Thomas to join the Supreme Court. It is a matter of his eternal disgrace that then–Senator Biden presided over those hearings. Anita Hill was treated so shabbily that one wondered if the senators even remembered they were being watched. For years, I kept on my shelf a set of VHS tapes that I’d recorded. It was infuriating to see how her testimony was ridiculed and dismissed and to learn later that those ready to corroborate her testimony were never called. Instead, the committee chairman displayed a combination of cowardice, uncertainty, and misogyny. 1 It was the day that US women were betrayed and dismissed, and any woman who watched the hearing live on that date will never forget it. With supreme historical irony, in that moment, Joe Biden delivered his administration, and America itself, into the hands of Clarence Thomas and his vengeful wife.
All these past hearings, and more, are reverberating through my brain today. With a changed landscape of multiplying channels and selective reframings, distortions, and denials, it is obviously a different media world. I have frequently complained in these pages about the film/television/streaming industry’s failure to confront its historical moment. Film and television, streamers and platforms, studios and theaters all have the power to equip their audiences with the analytic and imaginative tools necessary to decipher this new world order.
Clearly there were some congresspeople who thought so too. Thankfully, the House committee “brought on a veteran TV executive to help do the job, hiring James Goldston, the former president of ABC News, to produce the hearings as if they were a docudrama or a must-watch mini-series.” 2 The strategy worked. With their expert deployment of witness testimony, smartphone clips, and other materials, the committee established a new benchmark for its format—a format that was, in fact, more sophisticated than a great deal of campaign materials (at least on the Democratic side of the aisle, which forever lacks even the most basic tenets of messaging that film or advertising pros could provide) and even a lot of films.
In its wake, I have a message for the image industry: stop acting like the police in the infamous school corridors of Uvalde: maximum weaponry, zero courage. The US image industry has all the resources at its disposal—equipment, budgets, talents, reach—but evidently lacks the courage, the will, or the desire to challenge the forces of fascism taking over this country. It has all of the weapons, but none of the nerve.
Surely the calamities of the present day—from active shooters to abortion criminalization to climate degradation—are worthy of the industry’s attention. New genres and characters, new aesthetic strategies and formats, are needed to activate audience emotion, to pierce the glazed distanciation of viewership, to prompt analysis and engagement, to spike emotion into action. But painfully little has materialized. I’ve already discussed Don’t Look Up (Adam McKay, 2021) in this space. It is worthy as far as it goes … but where are the rest? If pressed, I suppose that Patrick Somerville’s Station Eleven (HBO Max, 2021–22), which has been held up as a postapocalyptic saga of life following the global devastation of a fatal flu epidemic, can also be seen as an exposé of the dangers of cults and the cost of following violent false prophets.
Still, I confess to being in need of something far more direct and instructive, something that can spark a franchise of engagement in a world that is fast disappearing. Multiplex entertainment is fine, even traditional, but the times demand more. It is nearly six years since Mr. Trump “won” the election, and the country has fallen deeper into the dark sinkhole that opened then. The image industry has an important role to play in jump-starting its publics and leading a way out of the tunnel before it’s too late. Scribes, get out your keyboards: the time is nigh.
The Elizabethans had Shakespeare (or multiple authors attributed to that name) to bravely confront the corrupt powers that be with the bold brilliance of a provocateur. Corrupt leadership, deranged rulers, wars and dangers, political subterfuge, intrigues in the halls of power … oh, imagine signing that Shakespeare guy to a development deal. What skullduggery he could unearth today and enfold into a screenplay that everyone would rush to see, a series that would keep everyone bingeing and, just maybe, then taking action, organizing new political structures, inventing new platforms to reverse-engineer consumerism into societal participation.
Here’s an idea for all the foundations committed to social change: fund imagination coupled with political will and able to reach a popular audience. Initiate screenplay competitions to jump-start the recalcitrant image industry, new work that can make political action viable and attractive again, movies and series that make it hip to speak out against what is wrong in this country—before it’s too late. If TikTok challenges can get vast numbers of Americans to dunk themselves in water or rub ice cubes and salt on their bodies, then surely a smart film could get folks to emerge from their domestic cocoons and link arms—to save the neighborhood, the country, the planet, their endangered rights, their imperiled lives.
And if it’s considered unreasonable to expect an entertainment industry to have a progressive conscience or mission on its own, to want to rescue a flailing society—it needn’t be. In the column and podcast that he posted recently, “What Casablanca Teaches Us: Heroism in the Face of Fascism,” Robert Reich argued that the movie business used to do better. 3 Unsurprisingly claiming Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942) as a long-time favorite film—he’ll get little argument on that one—Reich simply points to its release date to remind his audience that this was no nostalgic piece capitalizing on war for romance. No, this was a film that took a stand in the middle of a war whose outcome was by no means certain. No, this was romance aiding the war, with antifascism triumphing over attraction, duty over love. It is a film that shows what’s at stake.
Noah Isenberg’s book We’ll Always Have Casablanca: The Life, Legend, and Afterlife of Hollywood’s Most Beloved Movie, was written while Obama was still president and was released for the film’s seventy-fifth anniversary in early 2017. Isenberg points not merely to the date of the film’s production, like Reich, but also to the fact that it was filmed in Casablanca soon after US troops took over the city, and that many in the cast were themselves refugees. Of course, the United States was a different country then—and this was a different war. And as FQ’s associate editor, film historian Rebecca Prime, recently reminded me, Hollywood was actually a deeply politicized and engaged community then in a way that is completely different from today.
Before and beyond being claimed as a mood piece for lost love and fervent causes, with even Woody Allen pledging his allegiance to it once upon a time, Casablanca is a morality play with a fierce antifascist message for its audiences: stand up and sing, and then fight.
In This Issue
Debashree Mukherjee falls under the spell of Payal Kapadia, deciphering the powers of her A Night of Knowing Nothing (2021), which she presents as witness testimony as much as a work of sensory immersion in the political swirl of horrors that fill India today. Kapadia is an insider to these struggles, helping to decode contemporary university struggles, especially in Delhi, along with the legacy of Rohith Vemula’s suicide. A Night combines personal and fictional devices with the evidentiary charge of archival footage, offering up a model for how the personal and the political, the individual and the collective, can be stitched together.
In an unusual format for FQ, two writers—scholar Karen Redrobe and filmmaker Wazhmah Osman—collaborate on an analytic dialogue regarding the highly praised, much-awarded animated documentary Flee (Jonas Poher Rasmussen, 2021) in light of the first-person works by women refugee filmmakers that preceded it. In tracing the similarities and differences in the films and their receptions, Osman and Redrobe probe the hierarchies of gender and nationality that confer success in the film world.
Yasmina Price returns to FQ with a look at a Lebanese film and filmmaker well known in the Maghreb and Europe, but lesser known in the United States. In her analysis of Mohamed Soueid’s The Insomnia of a Serial Dreamer, Price traces the power of the film as gathered through Soueid’s reliance on friendship and happenstance—both long-standing characteristics of his work over decades. In this epic work, he has crafted a receptacle for the Lebanese imaginary, an expertly crafted and hypnotic embodiment of a psychological state with no hope of impending solutions.
Karim Aïnouz is a filmmaker whose skill has long escaped national boundaries. Born to a Brazilian mother and Algerian father, Aïnouz left Brazil for school in New York City before finally settling in Berlin. After making films in all three locations, he finally shot an essayistic autobiographical documentary O marinheiro das montanhas (Mariner of the Mountains, 2021) in Algeria, homeland of the father who didn’t raise him. In her interview, Alisa Lebow traces his career, speaking with the director as an insider, a friend who has seen all his films and understands the code-switching that carries him across genres and nations. This is a conversation for everyone who already loves Aïnouz as much as for those just discovering him.
Alongside the interview is an appreciation of the debut feature, Madame Satã, that brought Aïnouz to global attention in 2002. Bruno Guaraná marks its twentieth anniversary with an assessment of its unique sensibility, poised between the historical figure of João Francisco dos Santos, his gender crossings as Madame Satã, the underworld of Rio in that time, and the interplay of violence and celebration that characterizes his milieu.
Two very different film festivals are visited in this issue. Ana Grgić and Antonis Lagarias assess the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival’s return to theaters and live events, after two difficult years, with the understandable theme of “postreality.” Surveying the documentaries on hand, they point in particular to the retrospective of Latvian director Laila Pakalniņa, pleased that the series allows Pakalniņa to be seen on her own terms, finally, freed from the labels of neorealism or poetic documentary applied in the past. And while they note that her uncompromising style may be difficult for some viewers, they argue that she’s worth the trouble.
And I have filed a report on Cannes in the springtime of its seventy-fifth anniversary, a time when it returned to its May spot on the annual release schedule and when the world seemed to converge yet again on the Riviera to celebrate the art form that the French consider quintessentially theirs. Ruben Östlund’s Triangle of Sadness may have walked away with the Palme d’Or, but it wasn’t the main attraction for anyone in search of meaningful cinema. I explore the films that the festival’s competition jury missed out on.
With this issue, FQ welcomes a new columnist, Laurie Ouellette, to write on television. For her debut column, “Julia Child in Three Acts,” she examines the Julia Child phenomenon as it has exploded in documentary, fiction series, even reality-television forms, and how entwined the Child phenomenon was with the early days of public broadcasting. Ouellette delves into the Child persona, helpfully separating fact from myth over the course of her life and these works.
Rebecca Wanzo uses her column, “What If No One Is There to Care?: Dementia’s Narrative Demands,” to tackle the issue of how cognitive decline is depicted in films and, especially, television. Prompted initially by watching The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey (Walter Mosley, 2022), she considers how representations have changed from the days of King Lear to the diagnostic naming of Alzheimer’s, with both prosaic and inventive shifts in genre treatment.
Manuel Betancourt, in his “The Status of the Close-Up in the Age of the Selfie,” responds to COVID isolation viewing when he wonders “what to expect of faces when they become all one is expected to look at.” Taking Greta Garbo as his starting point, Betancourt looks at Juan Pablo González’s Dos estaciones (2022) alongside Vendrá la muerte y tendrá tus ojos (Death Will Come and Shall Have Your Eyes, José Luis Torres Leiva, 2019)—one a study in restraint, one awash in emotions—and realizes that, consigned to home and its smaller screen, the face has exceeded its own iconic status and become, in fact, a landscape.
In Page Views, Bruno Guaraná discusses television scholar Lynn Spigel’s new book, TV Snapshots: An Archive of Everyday Life, and engages her in a wide-ranging discussion of the intricacies of television that she has traced through American domestic spaces—not, this time, in terms of viewing practices but rather as a material object in the living room. Drawing on her own archive, assembled over the years, Spigel seeks to reframe contemporary understandings of television’s past, leading to surprising discoveries hidden in plain sight in US living rooms. For those wishing to contribute their own family photos for a larger shared study, Spigel has even created a website for assembling a communal photo album.
Other book reviews in this issue cover a terrific array of new releases: Daniel Morgan’s The Lure of the Image: Epistemic Fantasies of the Moving Camera, Chenshu Zhou’s Cinema Off Screen: Moviegoing in Socialist China, Kaveh Askari’s Relaying Cinema in Midcentury Iran: Material Cultures in Transit, Mónica García Blizzard’s The White Indians of Mexican Cinema: Racial Masquerade throughout the Golden Age, Mary Beltrán’s Latino TV: A History, Myles McNutt’s Television’s Spatial Capital: Location, Relocation, Dislocation, Jihoon Kim’s Documentary’s Expanded Fields: New Media and the Twenty-First-Century, and Jonathan Sterne’s Diminished Faculties: A Political Phenomenology of Impairment. With gratitude for enabling Film Quarterly to bring assessments of these books to its readers, thanks to reviewers Pardis Dabashi, Amir Khan, Babak Tabarraee, Ana Almeyda-Cohen, Richard Mwakasege-Minyana, Dana Alston, Nora Stone, and Slava Greenberg.
The sad news of the closure of the San Francisco Art Institute hit the San Francisco Bay Area hard this July, but the pain cuts especially deep for film communities everywhere. 4 Founded in 1871 with a monthly tuition of one dollar, the Art Institute has been a cradle of invention and innovation throughout its history. In 1931, Diego Rivera painted the mural The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City there; Angela Davis taught aesthetics there in the midseventies, when Governor Ronald Reagan made it impossible for her to teach in the UC system; Annie Leibovitz got her start there as a photographer while still a student; and whole fields across the arts have taken root there.
Film was present from the beginning. In 1880, Eadweard Muybridge presented the first public showing of a moving picture with his Zoopraxiscope. 5 Sidney Peterson taught its first film class, Gunvor Nelson taught there for most of her time in the Bay Area, Lynn Hershman-Leeson chaired the film department while Okwui Enwezor was dean, and Kathryn Bigelow is an alum. Other faculty and alumni/ae have included Bruce Conner, Stan Brakhage, Robert Nelson, James Broughton, Jay Rosenblatt, and Craig Baldwin. George Kuchar spent most of his career teaching there and inspiring a generation of students; one of them, Jennifer Kroot, made the documentary It Came from Kuchar (2009). Entire lineages of the US avant-garde and experimental film worlds would not exist without it. What a tragedy that the legendary era of the San Francisco Art Institute seems to be over.
- For a complete excavation of that terrible episode in US history, see Anita: Speaking Truth to Power (Frieda Lee Mock, 2013).
- Annie Karni, “The Committee Hired a TV Executive to Produce the Hearings for Maximum Impact,” New York Times, June 9, 2022, http://www.nytimes.com/2022/06/09/us/the-committee-hired-a-tv-executive-to-produce-the-hearings-for-maximum-impact.html.
- Robert Reich, “What Casablanca Teaches Us: Heroism in the Face of Fascism,” June 15, 2022, https://robertreich.substack.com/p/casablanca.
- www.artforum.com/news/san-francisco-art-institute-to-close-after-151-years-88820. For the entire history, see https://sfai.edu/about-sfai/sfai-history. And for updated news about its financial crises and their aftermath, see other sections of the Art Institute website, as well as future news on the Artforum website: www.artforum.com.
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