B. Ruby Rich
From Film Quarterly, Spring 2023, Volume 76, Number 3
Last winter, Oscar campaigns may well have rolled through a city near you: visiting stars, catered snacks, diligent handlers, lots of hopes and dreams. Occasionally, a film or actor so exceeds the transactional nature of these events that mundanity is set aside for a moment and the event becomes special beyond its PR function. So it was when Michelle Yeoh appeared at a Paris screening of Everything Everywhere All at Once (Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, 2022), on the night of US Thanksgiving no less, and hung out past midnight, chatting with a crowd that might just have included some Academy voters. 1
As this column appears, Yeoh has been rewarded by the Academy (and she was already awarded by the revised Golden Globes) for her remarkable comeback story as one of the most quintessential action heroines ever rendered on-screen, capping a long career in traditional genre pics. In EEAAO, she plays a Chinese laundrywoman who, transformed, has skills to beat even a Matrix Neo as she battles through the metaverse to thwart evildoers and preserve her family. What a long way the cinema has come since that real-life laundrywoman’s daughter Anna May Wong was deemed both too Chinese and not Chinese enough to star on-screen. 2 Hats off to the Daniels for their version of a metaverse that casts mom, dad, and rebel daughter in duels to save not merely the universe but their own family too.
Now if only they could save the metaverse of cinema itself. EEAAO was a rare bright spot in a year of releases that, as it gathered year-end momentum, became more and more overwhelmed by a spectacle of bloated, male-ego driven, narratively old hat, and indefensibly expensive movies. Who came up with the idea that such retrograde “flagship” films were the way to get audiences back into movie theaters? Drum roll, please, for the likes of Amsterdam, Babylon, Pinocchio, Bardo, The Whale, The Fabelmans . . . and I am just warming up (which is more than most of the theaters did).
It struck me, then, as odd that at the very moment that these bro films were failing to make much of an impression, media outlets were all in a lather over poor box-office performance by She Said. Ignoring or forgiving the bro bloodbath, columnists were lambasting this one film—as though doing so could make the #MeToo mess go away and let boys be boys again, in a sad Armageddon of imagination.
But I digress. Kim Masters wrote in the Hollywood Reporter that 2022 was supposed to be “a time for film execs to stanch bleeding, rethink radical change and figure out how to get consumers to magically forget all about that whole direct-to-streaming thing.” 3 It’s no surprise that studios are trying to figure out how to get bodies back in seats. While it may be true, as Masters points out, that “the industry is sharply pivoting away from the fevered pursuit of streaming subscribers above all else and back to the old-fashioned notion of making money,” the fact remains that nobody knows “whether audiences will really start showing up regularly.” 4
France has a partial answer, gleaned from a pandemic-era return to movies in theaters and the country’s ongoing protection of theatrical windows to prevent wholesale defections to streaming. In the good news for 2022, the French (in Paris, certainly) still cherish convening with one another in movie theaters, as in cafes and bistros. In the bad news (for French cinema, at least), the report trumpeting 152 million admissions—nearly 60 percent of the prepandemic audience levels in spite of 138 days when theaters were still closed—noted that those box-office receipts owed their robustness largely to Top Gun: Maverick (opening night at Cannes didn’t hurt) and Avatar: The Way of Water. 5 In another report, the best box office for French films belonged to auteurs such as Dominik Moll, Alice Winocour, Louis Garrel, and commercial releases by Cédric Jimenez and Olivier Dahan. 6
That’s good news for Hollywood’s blockbuster addiction, bad news for all those who still care more about le cinéma. If only there weren’t such intransigent US opposition to regulation, surely this would be the moment to revive the rules against vertical monopoly that came about from the successive antitrust cases of the 1930s and ’40s, culminating in the US Supreme Court decision of May 3, 1948, in United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc., that forced the big studios to sell off their movie theaters. But I am dreaming. This century marks as profound an antioversight, antipunishment, pro-oligarchical time as any I can remember. No such legislation is forthcoming in an age of monopolies, but just for fun, read up on the legal case on the “Hollywood Renegades Archive” section of the Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers’ website. 7
Meanwhile, US movie theaters continue to close. Most recently, filmmaker Renee Tajima-Peña alerted FQ of the loss of her favorite LA neighborhood place, the Highland Theatre, after one hundred years in operation, writing that it “used to be the place all the neighborhood families would see movies but now the families are getting pushed out of the neighborhood.” Once upon a time, gentrification led to the opening of movie theaters, but in 2023, it can also cause the opposite. In San Francisco, the Castro Theatre—built in 1922 and designed by Timothy L. Pflueger—has long been a showcase for all of the city’s film festivals, which have celebrated their big shows, opening nights, even entire schedules in its storied building. In 2008, when Focus Features held the world-premiere preview of Gus Van Sant’s Milk, it was naturally held at the Castro. Every cinephile in the greater San Francisco area has memories tied to particular nights when alchemy transpired in that movie palace.
It came as a shock when the Nasser family, which had built the theater and has served as the steward of its legacy ever since, signed a lease turning the crown jewel over to a live-event entertainment company, Another Planet Entertainment. Soon, word got out that the theater’s seats and raked seating would be removed, making it nearly impossible to continue to hold film screenings there. At this writing, San Francisco’s Historic Preservation Commission had not yet responded to public requests to extend the theater’s existing landmark status to include the interior—and specifically, the configuration of seating. 8
As questions about the future of exhibition rage on, I can’t help but wonder whether my talk of preserving the film exhibition I love puts me in the ranks of those who wanted to hold onto the horse and buggy back when automobiles were invented or those who opposed tearing up the train tracks in California when, yes, automobiles arrived. Sigh.
In other news, film talk was focused for many weeks on Sight and Sound’s once-a-decade poll of great films, with the result that friends and enemies alike were busy quarreling over choices and ratings, particularly over Chantal Akerman’s historic first-place finish with Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. 9 Full disclosure: I was invited to contribute but instead wrote a guest column on why I am no longer interested in the name game of lists and rankings. 10 Imagine my delight recently upon discovering in an old interview that Akerman, too, had once refused to rank films for the famous poll. Still, the reactions continue, including fury over the fact, overlooked by most of the pundits, that zero Latin American films made this year’s top 100 list despite a pantheon of greats represented consistently in film festivals around the globe (a number of them in Latin American itself) and taught in film syllabi. For shame.
The future of film festivals has been a growing concern since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the discussion has escalated since last fall’s precipitous shutdown of the Edinburgh Film Festival and of the building housing it by the charity supposedly overseeing it. Into this dismal scenario rode the Rotterdam Film Festival with a one-day symposium focused on the theme “Quo Vadis, Film Festivals?” It asked about the future of film festivals, providing a space where “film festival and market professionals [could] discuss how festivals can best organize themselves and collaborate with each other amid a shifting industry landscape,” as proclaimed in a press release from the organizers of the festival’s aptly titled “Reality Check 2023.” Stay tuned.
The festival director, Vanja Kaludjercic, new to Rotterdam this year, noted in the same press release that festival staff “cannot escape the challenges of the past two years amid the difficulties of the pandemic. . . . [D]o we simply cross our fingers and hope things return to how they were, or can we organize and work together for a sustainable future for our sector?” She announced that the aim of the symposium was “to propose a way forward for the film festival sector, exploring how to unify and organize professional standards in order to create a deeper and more strategic collaboration between festivals.” 11 The session’s steering committee was blunter: “The genesis of this event happened during the pandemic as we were watching the operation and role of film festivals disrupted to the core.” After surveying forty film festivals, they planned “a day of interrogating the provocative results . . . as we assess the post-COVID status of the film culture called film festivals.”
Finally, note that two venerable US film organizations, one famed for production and the other for exhibition, underwent a changing of the guard last winter. At the New York City flagship nonprofit theater Film Forum, its executive director, Karen Cooper, stepped down after fifty years of leading the pioneering institution, which she had inherited as a tiny loft space in the 1970s when there was no such model, and which she never stopped expanding and leading. 12 She has turned its direction over to deputy director Sonya Chung, an insider with her own curatorial taste and the chops to carry the organization into the next phase.
A new generation also took over at one of the most venerable documentary organizations in the United States. Native Chicagoan Amir George joined Chicago’s Kartemquin Films, which despite its portmanteau name (derived from the initials of its founders) has always been a beacon of clarity and documentary truths as it transformed from a scrappy production team more than fifty years ago into the “brand” of documentary ethics and authenticity that it is today. 13 As its new artistic director, he takes over from Gordon Quinn, cofounder and lodestone in the world of documentary. George is known as a filmmaker but also as a curator at the True/False film festival, cofounder of the Black Radical Imagination touring exhibition, and past programmer in residence at Black Cinema House, at Theaster Gates’s Rebuild Foundation.
It’s so wonderful that new leaders have stepped forward, especially because recent months have recorded the passing of a number of important figures whose mark on film over the course of decades cannot be forgotten. Drum roll, please.
Irene Cara Escalera starred as Coco Hernandez in Alan Parker’s Fame (1980) and became famous for the songs she sang in it— especially “Fame”—as well as for singing and cowriting the theme song “Flashdance . . . What a Feeling” in, yes, Flashdance (Adrian Lyne, 1983). However, she had the nerve to stand up for her rights as a performer and took on the music industry in 1985, suing her manager and record company—and eventually winning the jury case. From then on, though, her career was undermined. She paid the price for standing up for herself at a time when women, especially a Black Puerto Rican/Cuban woman, were not allowed to behave that way. 14
Julia Reichert was an early pioneer of US independent documentary who cofounded New Day Films, the distribution collective that still thrives today. She never stopped leading the charge for films that could trace the lives and histories of ordinary working folks, and women in particular: in the early years alone, Growing Up Female (1971), Union Maids (1976), and Seeing Red (1983). First with one husband/filmmaking partner and then another—Jim Klein for the early films, Steven Bognar for the later ones—she set a standard of documentary that culminated in an Oscar for American Factory (2019), which was also the first release from the Obamas’ new production company. It was a life well lived, according to her principles, and always in collaboration. 15
Carolyn Strachan was an Australian filmmaker best known for codirecting Two Laws (1981). With her then-partner, Alessandro Cavadini, she answered a call from the Borroloola Tribal Council to collaborate on a documentary about the Aboriginal group’s history of mistreatment. Decades before the term “allyship” became a catchphrase, Two Laws changed the course of documentary (and anthropology) so totally that its impact has been compared to that of Jean Rouch’s own films. Codirected with tribal leaders, the film shows how alternative beliefs, law, and storytelling can construct an entirely different way of seeing and narrating history. Strachan lived most of her life in New York City, a vital and vibrant expat to the end. 16
Yoshishige Yoshida (Kijū Yoshida), was a vital force in the Shochiku Nouvelle Vague, along with Nagisa Ōshima and Masahiro Shinoda. He went on to start his own production company, making very conceptual films that threaded radical politics and sexuality together with new film forms, often starring his wife, the actress Mariko Okada. He did television documentaries for a decade or so, but then returned triumphantly to filmmaking (and to Cannes) and made a reputation as a critic and theorist. With deep correspondences to the French New Wave, he was described in the French press at the time of his death as a “revolutionary aesthete” whose work significantly merged theory, sensuality, and emotion. 17
In addition to these figures, known for their films and on-screen performances, the world recently lost four film curators/exhibitors whose work distinctively shaped film culture in the United States in the post-1968 era. They deserve equal respect and remembrance.
Cinema’s Unsung Heroes
Adrienne Mancia (1927–2022)
Adrienne Mancia began working at the Museum of Modern Art in 1964. Consider the date: she started as a secretary, but quickly became an assistant curator, and was named curator of the museum’s film department in 1977. Her career at MOMA lasted for two more decades and coincided with some of the most exciting times in global cinema, which she unfailingly brought back to New Yorkers in epic programs. After leaving MOMA, supposedly to retire, she launched the film-exhibition program at BAM Rose Cinema and continued popping up at film festivals into her nineties. 18
Joanne Koch (1929–2022)
Joanne Koch led the Film Society of Lincoln Center (now the FLC) through most of its modern existence, a time that not coincidentally paralleled some of the most consequential years of cinema, beginning with her arrival in a lower-level job in 1971. She was a true New Yorker, unflappable and committed, willing to go to the mat for what she believed in—and, luckily for the world, that was cinema. She was savvy and had great instincts, could smell a phony a mile away, and had a sixth sense about the movies that mattered. (Her defense of Jean-Luc Godard’s Hail Mary was legendary.) When she stepped down as its executive director, she joined the FLC’s board. She knew how the world-maker and showed several generations how to love and defend the cinema. 19
Bill Pence (1941–2023)
Bill Pence, the cofounder of the Telluride Film Festival—alongside his wife, Stella; Tom Luddy; and the late James Card—was also the owner of Telluride’s Sheridan Opera House, where the festival first showed its films; head of a chain of movie theaters across the Rockies and the West; and a dedicated collector of films and aficionado of archives. 20 Pence also had directed the film program at Dartmouth College and spent more than a decade with Janus Films, the company that formed an early component of Criterion. He was a world-maker in the best cinematic sense of the term, and a showman to boot. 21
Noah Cowan (1967-2023)
Unlike the others, Noah Cowan did not get to live to a ripe old age, due to a Glioblastoma that invaded his brain. Tributes have emphasized his remarkable rise, from a 14-year-old intern in the early years of the Toronto International Film Festival to heading its Midnight Madness shows, functioning as co-director of the festival, and overseeing TIFF’s Bell Lightbox headquarters, cinemas, and galleries. In between, he relocated to New York and co-founded Cowboy Pictures as well as the Global Film Initiative (with the Museum of Modern Art). Finally, he led the San Francisco International Film Society and transformed it over five years into SFFILM, a daring, higher-profile organization. As a critic and curator, his championing of genre films, Asian cinema, queer pioneers, and all things Guy Maddin made Cowan a tastemaker and magnet for an international circle of colleagues (myself included). The disappearance of his good taste, high spirits, raucous laugh, and bottomless energy leave the world a duller place. 22
In This Issue
Christian Rossipal builds on his own research to uncover the career of the Nigerian-American-Swedish filmmaker Madubuko Diakité. Born in Harlem in 1940, active as a filmmaker in the rich era of the sixties, today Diakité is a Swedish immigration lawyer. His film For Personal Reasons, made in 1973, was inspired by Malcolm X and the Black Panthers. Rossipal describes Diakité as still involved in an ongoing and lifelong memory practice, which now includes the discovery and reconstruction of his early work.
Lisa Parks and France Winddance Twine conduct an investigation into the emergent genre of Tech TV, analyzing the dramas that have arisen to capitalize on the fascination with tech culture that has spawned apps, unicorns, and billionaires with startling speed. Looking in particular at the faux-heroic “millennial messiah” figures and their start-up minders and surroundings, their study seeks to expose the discrimination and injustice operative in tech workplaces in general, untouched thus far by TV visualizations.
In a special dossier assembled for this issue, “Black Infinite: New Directions in Black Film and Media,” Michael Boyce Gillespie has brought together a series of essays by scholars intent on updating thinking about black representation through an exacting contemporary lens. Racquel Gates unpacks Walt Disney’s Dumbo to rethink its traditional racial readings, from pointing to the shadow cast by Edison’s early film of elephant electrocution as a lynching corollary to recasting the film as a black mother/son melodrama. Julie Beth Napolin takes up the figure of Bessie Smith as rendered in the early “soundie” St. Louis Blues as well as its queer reemergence in Isaac Julien’s Looking for Langston. Yasmina Price moves the dossier into the Mediterranean with her analysis of the crossings and hauntings in Mati Diop’s pair of films, Atlantique and Atlantiques. Walton Muyumba examines Raoul Peck’s monumental Exterminate All the Brutes for the director’s construction of a global archive based in no small part in Peck’s own familial history. And finally, Gillespie himself parses the “wake work” of Keisha Rae Witherspoon’s short, T, and its remix of funereal mourning and celebration.
Columnists have contributed their expertise on works that look to the past (Manuel Betancourt and Laurie Ouellette) and the imaginary future (Rebecca Wanzo) for clues to personal and political power. Manuel Betancourt, maintaining his custom of looking at three films that together determine the mood of the moment, looks at recent films dealing with political history—No, Nuestra película, and Argentina, 1985—noting that “there will be no revolution without television—or streaming,” and pointing to how images so decisively are “helping draft the ways in which audiences (and citizens and voters and protesters and politicians) come to understand the historical events all around them.”
Laurie Ouellette traces the history of physical fitness and its gendered appeal through the new Apple TV series Physical. Contextualizing the series back in a time “when neoliberal discourses of self-maximizing personhood were taking hold,” Ouellette pinpoints the VCR as being responsible for the “flow of aerobics instruction into the home” and the ensuing campaign to hook women onto fitness as their newest requirement.
For Rebecca Wanzo, Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Woman King is notable for its unprecedented combination of power and sexuality, joining the erotic to the warrior in a brand-new iconography spearheaded, in this case, by Viola Davis. Citing Audre Lorde to argue for a homosocial erotic within a community of Black women, Wanzo sees this conceptualization of “the erotic as power in an action film” as delivering nothing less than a communal experience of joy that deserves a round of celebration.
In contrast, Bruno Guaraná devotes his attention in this issue’s “Page Views” to Hunter Hargraves’s new book, Uncomfortable Television, in which the author explores the extent to which the “so-called new golden age of American television at the turn of the millennium operates according to a distinct affective logic centered on discomfort and other unpleasant affects . . . such as irritation and disgust precisely because they privilege individual address over mass appeal.” Thus affect is demonstrated to be an essential component of narrowcasting at a new stage of televisual corporatization.
Elsewhere in the books section, which is shepherded by Nilo Couret, reviews include Jaimie Baron’s expansive consideration of Jill Godmilow’s polemical Kill the Documentary: A Letter to Filmmakers, Students, and Scholars as well as Hayley O’Malley on Christopher Sieving’s Pleading the Blood: Bill Gunn’s Ganja & Hess; Tanner Benson on Nicholas de Villiers’s Cruisy, Sleepy, Melancholy: Sexual Disorientation in the Films of Tsai Ming-liang; Arcelia Gutiérrez on Monica De La Torre’s Feminista Frequencies: Community Building through Radio in the Yakima Valley; Hannah Zeavin on Tung-Hui Hu’s Digital Lethargy: Dispatches from an Age of Disconnection; and Sam McCracken on Kyle Parry’s A Theory of Assembly: From Museums to Memes. As ever, the robust publication schedule evidences the field’s ongoing vigor and expansion beyond, and within, its legacy boundaries.
Finally: not in print but equally present are the timely articles that appear on Quorum, Film Quarterly’s online column edited by Girish Shambu, which features interventions into contemporary thinking. Quorum articles are available free and indexed in reverse chronological order on the FQ website at https://filmquarterly.org/category/quorum/.
- Thanks to Béatrice Thomas-Wachsberger for arranging this event in Paris.
- At the Paris reception, Yeoh revealed that she is now developing a project about Anna May Wong.
- Kim Masters, “Hollywood’s Year of Wishful Thinking,” Hollywood Reporter, December 16, 2022, http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/business/business-news/kim-masters-hollywoods-2022-year-1235282889/.
- Nicole Vulser, “En France, les salles de cinéma retrouvent plus vite un public que dans les pays voisins,” Le Monde, January 2, 2023, http://www.lemonde.fr/culture/article/2023/01/02/la-frequentation-des-salles-en-france-limite-la-casse-par-rapport-celle-de-ses-voisins_6156357_3246.html.
- Clarisse Fabre, “The Perpetual Resilience of Movie Theatres,” Le Monde, December 27, 2022, http://www.lemonde.fr/en/opinion/article/2022/12/27/the-perpetual-resilience-of-movie-theaters_6009241_23.html.
- See “The Hollywood Antitrust Case: aka The Paramount Antitrust Case,” http://www.cobbles.com/simpp_archive/1film_antitrust.htm
- For the theater owners’ perspective, see http://www.castrotheatre.com/about/.
- See this journal’s tribute to the film in its memorial dossier, edited by B. Ruby Rich and Ivone Margulies and published on the first anniversary of Chantal Akerman’s death, in Film Quarterly 70, no. 1 (Fall 2016): 11–84.
- B. Ruby Rich, “Poll Position,” Sight and Sound, October 2022, http://www.bfi.org.uk/sight-and-sound/features/poll-position-taxing-task.
- Online announcement, IFFR blog, January 5, 2023, https://iffr.com/en/blog/reality-check-2023.
- Sarah Bahr, “Longtime Film Forum Director to Step Down after 50 Years,” New York Times, January 9, 2023, http://www.nytimes.com/2023/01/09/movies/karen-cooper-film-forum-new-york-director.html.
- Addie Morfoot, “Chicago Doc Collective Home to Steve James Names New Artistic Director,” Variety, October 25, 2022, https://variety.com/2022/film/news/kartemquin-amir-george-steve-james-doc-collective-1235413329/.’
- Daniel Kreps, “Irene Cara, ‘Fame’ Star and ‘Flashdance’ Singer, Dead at 63,” Rolling Stone, November 28, 2022, http://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/irene-cara-fame-flashdance-singer-dead-obit-1234636974/.
- For an extensive overview of her career, see Patricia Aufderheide, “Julia Reichert and the Work of Telling Working-Class Stories,” Film Quarterly 73, no. 2 (2019): 9–22.
- Helen Grace, Merilyn Fairskye, Jason De Santolo, and the Borroloola community, “Always Curious, Filmmaker Carolyn Strachan Was Behind Groundbreaking Documentary,” Sydney Morning Herald, September 29, 2022, http://www.smh.com.au/national/nsw/always-curious-filmmaker-carolyn-strachan-was-behind-groundbreaking-documentary-20220919-p5bj6x.html.
- Samuel Douhaire, “Kiju Yoshida, mort d’un esthète révolutionnaire du cinéma japonais,” Télérama, December 9, 2022, http://www.telerama.fr/cinema/kiju-yoshida-mort-d-un-esthete-revolutionnaire-du-cinema-japonais-7013387.php.
- Neil Genzlinger, “Adrienne Mancia, Influential Film Curator, Dies at 95,” New York Times, December 17, 2022, http://www.nytimes.com/2022/12/17/movies/adrienne-mancia-dead.html.
- Alex Williams, “Joanne Koch, Who Led Lincoln Center’s Film Society, Dies at 92,” New York Times, August 23, 2022, http://www.nytimes.com/2022/08/23/movies/joanne-koch-dead.html.
- To add to the profound sense of loss already reflected in these RIP notices, news arrived as this issue headed to the printer that Telluride co-founder Tom Luddy had also died–on February 18, 2023.
- Carly Thomas, “Bill Pence, Telluride Film Festival Co-Founder, Dies at 82,” Hollywood Reporter, December 30, 2022, http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/movies/movie-news/bill-pence-dead-telluride-film-festival-co-founder-1235289277/.
- Etan Vlessing, “Noah Cowan, Former Toronto Film Festival Director and Indie Distributor, Dies at 55,” The Hollywood Reporter, January 26, 2023, http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/movies/movie-news/noah-cowan-dead-toronto-film-festival-specialty-distributor-1235310556/
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