If you had happened to attend the December 8, 1929, screening of Fox Movietone Follies (David Butler and Marcel Silver, 1929) at the opening of the Moulin Rouge cinema in Paris, you would certainly remember the raucous audience that surrounded you. If reports are to be believed, you might have been among the patrons outraged by the poorly written French subtitles—“deplorable” French, really. You may have joined others that night or the following weekend in vandalizing chairs and throwing pieces of furniture at the screen, with shouts of “Shut up” or “In French!” But maybe you were there for a romantic rendezvous, in which case the film and the music and the subtitles mattered a lot less than having your evening marred by unhappy, snobbish viewers. Whatever the hypothetical situation, imagining yourself as a willing participant in Parisian film culture from the era of early sound cinema to around 1950 is nearly inevitable while reading Eric Smoodin’s Paris in the Dark: Going to the Movies in the City of Light, 1930–1950.
In Lino Brocka’s Bona (1980), Filipina star Nora Aunor plays the titular character, who grows infatuated with Gardo (Phillip Salvador), a B-movie actor and stuntman. Bona gives up the comfort of her middle-class home, leaving behind her family and boyfriend, to live with Gardo in a Manila slum. She dedicates her life to serving Gardo full-time, in spite of the many abuses to which he subjects her. Illustrating the imbalance of their relationship, Bona bathes her lover every night, ensuring the water is always warm enough for his liking, even after he brings other women home for his sexual adventures. At the end of the film, after being told by Gardo that she should leave his home, Bona gives him one more bath—this time with boiling water. Bona watches her lover scream in agony as she carries out her vengeance with the same serenity with which she had formerly carried out his bidding. Balancing highly emotional scenes with a quasi-documentary depiction of decaying Manila streets, Brocka reconfigures film melodrama into a defiant political act.
On the morning of August 20, 2019, a man hijacked a bus with thirty-five passengers in Rio de Janeiro, causing a standoff with the police on the bridge that connects that city with its neighbor to the east, Niterói. As the hijacker threatened to burn down the bus with gasoline, helicopters hovered over the scene, and news channels recorded every move they could capture from both parties. A few hostages had been released by the time the hijacker was shot—and killed—by a sniper in the police force.
The tropics really pop in Jean Renoir’s The River (1951), the first film to be shot in Technicolor in India. The film’s photographic depiction of a wet, verdant Bengal prompted Rumer Godden, author of the novel on which Renoir’s film is based, to complain that the film’s backgrounds had “swamped” its narrative with an “overabundance of Indian life and color.”1 In his memoirs, Renoir refers to scouting locations along the banks of the Hugli with his production designer, Eugène Lourié. There, Lourié discovered a palace that belonged to the maharaja of Gwalior, but its grounds were deemed insufficiently green. The lawn, yellowed somewhat by the summer sun, was torn out and a new one sown. Yet even the freshly grown grass wasn’t green enough for Renoir: on the day of filming, Claude Renoir (the director of photography and the director’s nephew) could be seen splashing the grass with green paint.
Paramount was so nervous about the on-location production of Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief (1956) that dailies filmed in the South of France were flown first to London for processing at the Technicolor lab and then to Los Angeles. After executives had reviewed the footage, a cable was dispatched back to France: Hitchcock’s shallow-focus closeups were playing to the weaknesses, rather than the strengths, of the studio’s new and expensive wide-screen format, VistaVision. It fell to the local production manager, C. O. “Doc” Erickson, to mediate the request for wider shots and sharper focus, which would also allow the camera to take in more of what they were all there for: the sunlit French Riviera.
Let there be no ambiguity: the world has turned into a horror show, a modern-day political Grand Guignol of global proportions with an emerging Axis of Evil (Trump, Putin, al-Assad, and now, Bolsonaro in Brazil, to name only a few). Their bases are the virtual spaces of social media, their proscenium the many screens blanketing the planet with news alerts of the latest mass murder, police shooting, war-related atrocity, or xenophobic government policy. It has become all too common to see people look up from their laptops or phones and, with a hand clasped over their mouth, let out a guttural “Oh, my god.”
In 1998, Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner published an essay entitled “Sex in Public,” which now appears as the utopian vision of a bygone era. Drawing from Jürgen Habermas and Michel Foucault, Berlant and Warner called attention to the public mediation of sexuality in the United States and critiqued the heteronormative ideologies and institutions that hinged on a structural delineation of “personal life.” Where a hegemonic public sphere had been constituted by “a privatization of sex and the sexualization of private personhood,” so they argued, queer culture represented a world-making project involving the development of ephemeral, promiscuous, and often-criminal forms of intimacy—ones “that bear no necessary relation to domestic space, to kinship, to the couple form, to property, or to the nation.”
The terrain of history is perhaps nowhere more fraught than in the Israeli/Palestinian context, a highly charged force field of ethno-religious identities, political ideologies, and conflicting territorial claims. Overlaid with collective memories and symbolic meanings, the landscape has borne witness to war and imperial conquest, shifting regimes and borders, perpetual occupation and injustice, and overlapping yet seemingly irreconcilable narratives of past experience. Take 1948: celebrated by Zionists for the establishment of the State of Israel in the wake of the Holocaust, the year is remembered by Palestinian Arabs as the Nakba (“catastrophe”), given the forcible dispossession and expulsion of an estimated 750,000 native inhabitants. And where many Israeli Jews have cast their nation’s founding as a return to political sovereignty after nearly two millennia in the diaspora, Palestinians have sought to assert a counterhistory in a condition of subjugation and exilic dispersal from their land.
For many critical theorists, it has become second nature to view science with a degree of suspicion. Complicit in the most egregious offenses of the modern era, science has been identified with everything from positivism and instrumental reason to essentialism and biopolitical control. Such skepticism came to a head in the late twentieth century, as leftist thinkers in the humanities sought to undermine a realist approach to scientific knowledge; social transformation seemed to hinge on the unsettling of epistemic certainty and the subversion of all normative, objectivist validity claims. Yet, as philosopher Bruno Latour has argued, the “science wars” now appear outdated in light of geopolitical exigencies, particularly the accelerating process of climate change. The language of social construction and cultural relativism must give way to an emphatic defense of scientific consensus and global, albeit inconvenient, truth.
As Catherine Russell observes in her new book, Archiveology: Walter Benjamin and Archival Film Practices, countless moving images are now easily accessible for recycling and remixing. No longer the primary domain of experimental artists, the retrieval and reassembling of audiovisual fragments have become widespread creative practices in contemporary media: “The death of ‘film’ and the rise of digital media,” she notes, “have effectively enabled and produced a new critical language that we are only really learning to speak.”