Inflection Points

B. Ruby Rich

From Film Quarterly, Summer 2023, Volume 76, Number 4

As I have often noted here, the US film, television, and streamer industries have failed—now for the sixth year in a row—to deliver any works addressing the toxic political climate or disastrous economics of the United States in the post-2016 era. In early 2023, film festivals survived and prospered, streaming services continued to pour huge amounts of cash into production and promotion (especially Oscar promotion!), yet movie theaters continued to close down.

The cinema closures were not happening only in the United States either. At this writing, a campaign was under way to stop the destruction of two cherished movie theaters in Greece: the Ideal (which opened in 1921) and the Astor, both in central Athens. The announcement of their imminent conversion into an office block and a hotel was greeted with outrage. Costa-Gavras objected, Yorgos Lanthimos protested, even the president of Greece spoke out against it. 1 “Our cinemas, our city” was written on front of the buildings, and over ten thousand signatures protesting the sell-off by the state agency that owns them were collected in four days. 2

What a strange new landscape is taking shape. Is this a return to the “cottage industry” world of a pre–Industrial Revolution era? Have COVID and the rush to remote work initiated a permanent move out of centralized workplaces and into the unregulated isolation of at-home labor? In the film world, the shift has been discussed largely in terms of screen scale, individualized viewing, and student behavior, but perhaps that is too limited. Possibly the shifts that are under way are more far-reaching and permanent than these adjustments would suggest. Just as television signaled a sea change in film aesthetics, pacing, duration, and audience behavior, so today there may well be changes in progress that will become permanent—a cinematic corollary to the cursive penmanship that is no longer legible for a generation raised on text and texting.

A Barclays’ report out of the United Kingdom, however, starkly shows the post-COVID economic reality affecting even more than restaurants and movie theaters. The report, cited in The Guardian in early spring, concluded that “streaming and pay TV subscriptions jumped as cash-conscious viewers switched to nights in” and that their spending on digital content rose more than 4 percent in a single month. 3 Besides years of COVID lockdowns, an attendant fear of congregating, and the very real effects of inflation, which all combined to shut down restaurants and bars as well as movie theaters, pundits tend to blame the abandonment of the big screens on the high cost of tickets and failure of movie theaters to update themselves (with, yes, the Alamo Drafthouse and some other regional screens as the exceptions).

But is that true? I suspect there are other factors at play. Yes, the economics of moviegoing are indisputable, as the Guardian report shows. In Paris, by the way, the French are still lining up for movies, even for matinees; it’s impressive, even if the numbers aren’t quite what they were before. Certainly shifting tastes tied to anxiety, diminished attention spans, and evolving technologies have played a role in the challenges facing theaters, even discounting the lurking danger of new AI evolutions. But maybe the doomsday thinking is wrong. After all, I began to hear more optimistic murmurings from the field. At the Paris cinema in New York, IFC’s John Vanco arrived to head up a new Netflix theatrical division. MOMA was selling out classics on 35mm, Gregg Araki’s retrospective sold out at BAM, Quentin Tarantino’s New Beverly regularly packs the house. While participating in a NewFest online panel earlier this year, I heard that Brooklyn’s microcinema Spectacle inspires religiosity in its fans, and that millennials love seeing movies together in social spaces; in fact, FQ’s Quorum column had predicted that fidelity six years ago. 4 Now I just want all the movie theaters to survive for them.

One other thing: the next issue will contain my final editorial, as I step down after ten years at the helm of Film Quarterly. I’ll have a few more things to say.

RIP Tom Luddy (June 4, 1943–February 13, 2023)

Tom Luddy—curator, archivist, producer, and festival impresario—had been ill for some time, yet his actual demise is somehow unimaginable. Tom was an unstoppable force in modern film culture for over half a century, drawing filmmakers from around the world—first to Berkeley, then to Telluride. At Berkeley, he’d organize campus screenings while studying for his degree (and joining the Free Speech Movement), including a visit from Jean-Luc Godard, hero of the hour. Then he was hired (together with Sheldon Renan) to create the Pacific Film Archive. 5

Always, Luddy was at the epicenter of post-’68 film culture. The legendary Chris Marker valued him so highly that he’d make an exception and visit the PFA despite his boycott of the entire United States. For Nicholas Ray and Glauber Rocha, Luddy did more than screen their films: his house became their crash pad. With Albert Johnson and Edith Kramer and his own indefatigable energy, Luddy built the PFA into a world-renowned destination. 6

Luddy did much the same for his then-girlfriend, Alice Waters, when she launched her groundbreaking restaurant, Chez Panisse. After all, she named it after a character in the Pagnol trilogy of films that Luddy had shown her. He famously brought all visitors, especially filmmakers, to the restaurant; the two remained the best of friends to the end. Most famously, it was at Chez Panisse that the gang gathered after Werner Herzog vowed he’d eat his shoe if Erroll Morris ever managed to finish his film; and he did, so he did, and Alice cooked it. 7

The stories are legendary. And all true. Luddy’s tastes were international: he collected early Soviet films as well as Brazilian Cinema Novo, everything he thought was important, and he collected the people attached to them too. I remember his affection for Cuban and Brazilian filmmakers, his trips to Russia and India, his endless enthusiasm for global (particularly French, of course) film culture. He was a fixture at Cannes and Berlin, always introducing people to one another across national and genre lines.

Luddy then took on two different ventures that would take him away from the PFA. In 1974, barely thirty years old, he started an upstart film festival with collaborators James Card, the archivist at Eastman House, and Bill and Stella Pence, film collectors and theater owners, in a remote Colorado mining town. Almost instantly, the Telluride Film Festival became a destination festival. Not long after, he joined Francis Ford Coppola’s American Zoetrope as a producer—of Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters in 1985 and Agnieszka Holland’s The Secret Garden in 1993, among others.

Tom Luddy at the Telluride Film Festival.

Tom was lively, a man simultaneously in the background and at the center of innumerable films, film events, and cinematic relationships, a guide to people, movies, and life. He’d been an almost-pro golfer in his youth, and I once heard him recommending favorite local courses to a visiting Gus Van Sant. He could be a snob, a ladies’ man, and a generous iconoclast, all in a day’s work. He was a bon vivant too, and a fabulous dancer: in the 1980s, I spotted him way past midnight, in Rio, dancing samba with Sonia Braga. Another time, midway through a local Oscar-campaign dinner, I heard a voice boom out over the conversations: “Ladies and gentlemen, Werner Herzog!” Herzog had arrived between the second and third courses, but Tom wanted his presence noted. Friendship was forever.

He was an entrepreneur with social savvy, a connector of people and ideas, described accurately as “a one-man switchboard” in a New York Times profile, one of the few pieces written about a man who preferred to fly under the radar. 8  The Guardian called him a “quiet titan,” while Telluride’s Julie Huntsinger called him “a sphinx.” Martin Scorsese said: “Tom lived and breathed cinema.” His old pal Coppola called his death “a great loss to the world of cinema.” Obituaries and testimonials poured out. Le Monde called him the “éminence grise of New Hollywood,” while Americans saluted him for his commitment to world cinemas. And he was married for decades to Monique Montgomery.

This year, Telluride will celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, its luster dimmed by the fact that its inventor won’t be there to applaud and be applauded.

In This Issue

This issue leads off with Tiffany Sia’s exegesis of Blue Island (Chan Tze-woon, 2022), setting it within the context of Hong Kong’s post-1997 cinema. Unlike other recent HK political films, it bears the actual name of its director—a filmmaker who still lives in Hong Kong proper, not in exile, not hidden by a pseudonym or protected by the veil of collectivity. The film is a remarkable documentary, a brilliant hybrid that deserves to be studied for how it simultaneously constructs history and deconstructs its own representations.

Emma Wilson takes up All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, the newest documentary by acclaimed documentarian Laura Poitras. After her two prior films, one on Snowden and the other on Assange, what happens when Poitras is focused on a woman activist (and artist) instead? Looking at her collaboration with Nan Goldin leads Wilson to examine how gender and image combine to expose struggle and construct (auto)biography, and how Poitras, in all her films, “has approached the unfathomable.”

Two very different writers take up the movie that so disrupted expectations and conventions last year: the Oscar-winning Everything Everywhere All at Once.

Renee Tajima-Peña’s short essay places the Daniels’ film within the history of Asian American representation, adding it to a lineage that she traces back to Wayne Wang and Justin Lin, and contextualizing the film within intergenerational expectations.

Jason Coe dives deeply into the film’s aesthetic strategies, unpacking its key moments and the “intimate public” that it so successfully constructs. He cites its incorporation of transpacific film-genre conventions into a “multiverse of genre” that relies on code-switching as a transformational power familiar to “Asian American audiencehood.” Even as Coe salutes the film’s many pleasures, especially for him as a youngster raised in the San Fernando Valley, he wonders if representation has reached its limit as a sign of political efficacy.

David Forgacs brings a deep knowledge of Marco Bellocchio and postwar Italian politics to bear on the maestro’s two most recent films, Marx può aspettare (Marx Can Wait) and Esterno notte (Exterior Night), along with his earlier Il traditore (The Traitor), which revisit the past in documentary and fiction modes, as familial autobiography and as national history, all marked by tragedy. Forgacs sees the new work as a sign that Bellocchio may be “mobilizing fantasy and dreams to exorcise his own ghosts and those of the Italian nation.”

Joan Dupont continues her longstanding engagement with French women directors in a profile of and interview with filmmaker Yolande Zauberman, who first attracted attention with the historical feature Moi Ivan, toi Abraham, a period drama about a pair of young boys fleeing pogroms in the pre-Nazi era. Zauberman has mostly worked on documentaries since then, both in Israel and in France, including one on sexual abuse by a rabbi in an Orthodox community and one on the lives of trans Israelis, a fiction film on the wild nights of club culture and another, now in development, on the young Golda Meir.

FQ’s columnists weigh in on the issues of the day with particular insight.

Bilal Qureshi looks at Maryam Touzani’s Moroccan drama The Blue Caftan and charts the significance of the breakthrough Pakistani film Joyland, which brought international attention to first-time filmmaker Saim Sadiq. Qureshi celebrates the “Instagram aesthetic” of Joyland and its view of a buoyant Lahore freed of familial strictures.

Caetlin Benson-Allott studies the confluence of three films— She Said, Women Talking, and Tár—and concludes that they are “less interested in representing individual crimes against women than in interrogating the power structures that countenance them.” She carefully decodes their strategies of representation, noting that “harassment and assault are bad” and don’t need to be depicted on-screen to be denounced.

Laurie Ouellette signals the persistent dangers of a “carceral feminism” that remains attached to a show like Law & Order: Special Victims Unit despite the New York prosecutorial unit’s long history of criminalizing communities of color. She traces the affective attachment back to a sympathy for the victims encoded in its genre’s DNA.

Manuel Betancourt divulges his own attachment to a “gentle cinema” at a time when “big-screen spectacle all but depends on overstimulation.” He cites the “wonder and joy” of Gabriel Martins’s Marte Um (Mars One) and Patricia Ortega’s MAMACRUZ as an antidote. And he points to Manuela Martelli’s 1976 (Chile 1976, 2022) for constructing history through “storied, whispered anecdotes.”

In my report on film festivals in the winter season, I look at outstanding offerings from Sundance, Rotterdam, and Berlin (while sharing an inside look at the Rotterdam festival’s landmark convening, “Quo Vadis Festivals?”) where I saw a number of truly exceptional films that hit festival screens this winter and will presumably migrate to local theaters over the course of 2023. Consider this, then, an early peek at the season to come.

In Page Views, Bruno Guaraná speaks with Laura Mulvey and Oliver Fuke about a new anthology, The Films of Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen: Scripts, Working Documents, Interpretations. Revisiting a pivotal time in ideas about representation, gender, politics, psychoanalysis, and experimental film, Mulvey and Fuke discuss the book as well as their thoughts on film culture in the 1970s and early 1980s.

Other books reviewed in this issue span an uncommonly wide range and continue to push the boundaries of the field. In a lead review, J. D. Connor discusses John Thornton Caldwell’s Specworld: Folds, Faults, and Fractures in Embedded Creator Industries. The analyses that follow include Lauren Treihaft on Tina Post’s Deadpan: The Aesthetics of Black Inexpression, M. Sellers Johnson on Adam Lowenstein’s Horror Film and Otherness, Swapna Gopinath on Samhita Sunya’s Sirens of Modernity: World Cinema via Bombay, Hoor ElShafei on Erika Balsom and Hila Peleg’s Feminist Worldmaking and the Moving Image, Josh Martin on Giuliana Bruno’s Atmospheres of Projection: Environmentality in Art and Screen Media, and Lisa Wells Jacobson on Erica Levin’s The Channeled Image: Art and Media Politics after Television. They offer a great road map to current thinking in the field.


  1. See Helena Smith, “‘An Attack on Culture’: Athens Film Fans Fight Threat to Historic Cinemas,” The Guardian, April 10, 2023, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/apr/10/athens-film-fans-fight-save-astor-ideal-cinemas-development-greece.
  2. Marina Rafenberg, “In Greece, Two Historic Athens Cinemas Are Threatened by Gentrification,” Le Monde, April 7, 2023, http://www.lemonde.fr/en/economy/article/2023/04/07/in-greece-two-historic-athens-cinemas-are-threatened-by-gentrification_6021993_19.html.
  3. Mark Sweney, “UK Households Turn to TV Subscriptions As They Cut Back on Nights Out,” The Guardian, April 10, 2023, http://www.theguardian.com/business/2023/apr/11/uk-households-turn-to-tv-subscriptions-as-they-cut-back-on-nights-out.
  4. See Caroline Golum, “Millennial Movie Myths, Dispelled,” Forum, Film Quarterly, October 26, 2017, https://filmquarterly.org/2017/10/26/millennial-movie-myths-dispelled/.
  5. For more on the history of the Pacific Film Archive (today, BAMPFA), see Film Quarterly 75, no. 1 (Fall 2021), for its tribute and set of articles published on the occasion of the archive’s fiftieth anniversary: Josslyn Luckett, “The Black Film Ambassador: The Ecstatic World of Albert Johnson,” 62–69; Kathy Geritz, “Edith Kramer: A Focus on Cinema, in Her Own Words,” 70–78; and B. Ruby Rich, “Introduction,” 58–61.
  6. See the organization’s official remembrance of Tom Luddy at https://bampfa.org/news/bampfa-mourns-passing-pfa-director-emeritus-tom-luddy-1943-2023.
  7. See Les Blank’s short film Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (1979) for the whole story.
  8. Peter Cowie, “One Man Who Influences Many Movies,” New York Times, August 26, 1984, http://www.nytimes.com/1984/08/26/arts/one-man-who-influences-many-movies.html. Cowie ends by quoting Whitney Green’s description of Luddy as “ubiquitous.”

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