Project Status Report 2: Finding More Contemporary Film Reviews

2009 August 20
by Zachary McCune

In the futher adventures of finding film reviews, I have been helped tremendously by Brown Librarian All-Star Rosemary Cullen who has got me back on the hot trail to finding all of the Film Reviews of my dreams.

First, Rosemary pointed me to the Josiash subject heading “Motion Pictures- Reviews” which is loaded with goodies. Also of great interest is an online, international database of reviews called MRQE.com. This database brought results that I had missed, including the New York Times review (by my hero Vincent Canby) of “Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion”.

New Sources of Note

- “May ‘68 and Film Culture”

An incredible volume published by the British Film Institute, this text is most special because it contains a number of of contemporary film reviews/essays that compliment the struggle of the students and cineastes in May ‘68. Most helpful is a “History” translated from Cahiers du Cinema, and a 1972 article from Le Monde that traces the interdependence of French Lefist Politics and Film Journals.

- “Grierson on the Movies”

John Grierson was an early film critic and documentary filmmaker. He gets a lot of credit for being the first person to bring “Battleship Potemkin” to the US. In this anthology, we find a great deal of his reviews including a really strong section on Russian Cinema. He has a wonderful essay on “Man With a Movie Camera” in which he discuss the transformative power of Vertov and how “for year’s” he has seen filmmakers come back from seeing the Kino-Eye with a “wild-eyed look.” (Essay on Pages 139-145).

- “Something to Declare, Twelve Years of Film from Abroad”

- Because most of this course’s filmography falls into that prodigious period of cinema that lasts from the mid sixties to the late seventies, this anthology is truly invaluable. While it does represent an American critical perspective (alas that I cannot escape the US) the critic, John Simon, is from Eastern Europe, and his range of reviews is amazing. In this volume there are reviews fo:

— Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion

— The Conformist

— The Sorrow and The Pity

— The Spirit of The Beehive

— 1900

All of these reviews, I believe, were published in New York Magazine.

- “Movies into Film, 1967 - 1970″

1967 - 1970 is the real epicenter of the course, so it comes with great appreciation that John Simon has given us this much  material. In this gem of an anthology, the Yugoslav born, New York bred film critic deals with:

— Teorema - Opening Line of the review, “If Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema is not the worst film ever made, you can’t blame it for not trying.”

— Zabriskie Point

— La Chinoise

— Sympathy for the Devil (Which he HATES)

— Loves of a Blonde

— Closely Watched Trains

So What’s Missing?

In a phrase, an international perspective. Currently, I have been constrained by a certain anglo-american gravity that continually pulls me back into the orbit of the British and American film criticism collections. At best I can manage a few French articles, but beyond that, forget about it. Hopefully some knowledgable Professors in the Italian department can get me some sources, and I will feel content.

Project Status Report: Finding Contemporary Film Reviews

2009 August 13
by Zachary McCune

From the Times of London, an Ad for a Screening of "The Battle of Algiers"

From the Times of London, an Ad for a Screening of "The Battle of Algiers"

In an effort to begin contextualizing the films thoroughly, I will be spending the next couple of days tracking down contemporary film reviews for the selections on the recently completed filmography.

Tracking down contemporary film reviews (contemporary to the film’s release that is) can be really difficult. First, many periodicals have restrictive archives (looking at you Times of London) that protect their old content behind a paywall. Second, my foreign language skills are rather insubstantial, making search French, Italian, and even Spanish newspapers impractical. I am desperately seeking a book/series of books that are called something to the effect of “Italian Film Reviews in English Translation.” Let me know if you happen upon a book of this description.

The best part about digging up the old reviews is taking a look at the larger context the reviews are situated in. For instance, a review in the Times of London on “The Sorrow and The Pity” was followed by several letters to the editor on the same film. These letters situated  a fascinating look at British response to the films, as one profiles a British Colonel’s recollections about France’s collective memory after the war in another part of the country. Also fun is seeing where the reviews are located, as Jean-Luc Godard’s “Sympathy for the Devil” was considered in an article alongside “The Omen.” Probably because they both consider forms of satanic possession (HA!).

Anyway, here’s the stuff I got (with a note that this post will be updated several times to include more content).

Here’s what the New York Times has to offer:

- The General Link to NY Times Film Reviews :: http://movies.nytimes.com/ref/movies/reviews/index.html

The Times of London:

Generally a strong source because they cover lots of different angles of European cinema. Unfortunately, all of the articles are behind a paywall which can be overcome thru Brown’s Database Subscriptions, but for the time being, I will just be linking the entries.

  • [Blow-Up Review] Antonioni builds on a puzzle (Reviews) John Russell Taylor.
    The Times Thursday, Mar 16, 1967; pg. 12; Issue 56891; col C
  • Italy lifts ban on Antonioni film (News) FROM OUR CORRESPONDENT.
    The Times Wednesday, Oct 25, 1967; pg. 4; Issue 57081; col E — Apparently the Italian government banned Blow-Up for some reason (?)
  • The Film Society “The Battleship Potemkin (Reviews)
    The Times Tuesday, Nov 12, 1929; pg. 14; Issue 45358; col D
  • A Revolutionary Film Revival Of “Battleship Potemkin (Reviews)
    The Times Thursday, Jan 21, 1954; pg. 8; Issue 52835; col D
  • [Salvatore Giuliano] Bandit at the end of his tether The Shootist (a), Plaza 2, Salvatore Giuliano (x),
    The Times Friday, Oct 08, 1976; pg. 11; Issue 59829; col B
  • [Battle of Algiers Review] Bartleby (a) Essoldo, Maida Vale joe (x) On release, Battle of Algiers (x)
    The Times Friday, Mar 19, 1971; pg. 12; Issue 58125; col A
  • The Sorrow and the Pity Bbc 2 (Reviews) Barry Norman.
    The Times Saturday, Sep 11, 1971; pg. 9; Issue 58274; col E
  • ‘The Sorrow and the Pity (Letters to the Editor) MAURICE J. BUCKMASTER,, R. A. CLEGG..
    The Times Wednesday, Sep 15, 1971; pg. 15; Issue 58277; col G — Amazing Letters to the Editor debating the credibility of the film and its approaches.
  • The Times, Friday, Sep 17, 1976; pg. 10; Issue 59811; col C
    All hell let loose The Omen (x) Odeon, Leicester Square, Breaking Point (x) Rialto, Seven Nights in Japan (a), ABC Shaftesbury Avenue, Let’s Do It Again (u) Warner West End, Essential Cinema, Wardour Street, Sympathy for the Devil David Robinson. — The Best part of this thematic review is that it starts with The Omen and ends with Jean-Luc Godard
  • The Times, Wednesday, Jul 16, 1975; pg. 7; Issue 59449; col D
    Costa-Gavras on Vichy Melinda Camber.— Not about any on movie, but fascinating.
  • [Hour of the Furnaces Review] The Times, Thursday, Sep 07, 1972; pg. 8; Issue 58573; col D
    A remarkable first feature film from Jamaica The Harder They Come (aa) Gaumont, Notting Hill Gate, The Burglars (aa) Astoria and Metropole, The Hour of the Furnaces, Collegiate Theatre John Russell Taylor.
  • [The Times, Friday, Mar 26, 1971; pg. 11; Issue 58131; col B
    Out of the swim: John Moulder Brown and Jane Asher Skolimowski’s baroque bath-house, Deep End (x) Academy Cinema One, Investigation of a Private Citizen Above Suspicion (x)
  • A Greek ‘odyssey’ The Travelling Players
    The Times Friday, Sep 10, 1976; pg. 9; Issue 59805; col D
  • The Times, Friday, Oct 11, 1974; pg. 17; Issue 59215; col D
    The haunted worlds of childhood Spirit of the Beehive (aa), Mikis Theodorakis (u), Academy Two, Juggernaut (a), Leicester Square Theatre, Fred Wiseman Films, Collegiage Theatre (Sundays) David Robinson.
  • Fernando Arrabal and the hidden depths (Reviews) Ronald Hayman.
    The Times Tuesday, Jan 12, 1971; pg. 9; Issue 58070; col C — Great Interview with the Director, though focused on his theatrical work it is still relevant to his films.

Other Sources

Some Links & Helpful Databases

Teorema: The Enigma of Divinity in the World of Class

2009 August 5
by Zachary McCune
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When Pasolini first released “Teorema” it had a rather perfect effect on Italy’s film-going public. At once lauded and reprimanded by the Catholic Church, the film seemed to be both perfectly Catholic and entirely non-Catholic in the same moment. In a New York Times story from 1969, Guy Flatley reported that “Teorema” was awarded a special citation by the International Catholic Film Office, only to have the award revoked by higher Vatican authorities who saw the film as failing to “respect the sensibility of Christian people.” The left was likewise baffled admitting that the film was “visionary” yet “ambiguous.” It was as if Pasolini had produced a film that managed to thwart the traditional reading of cinema- causing a rupture in the very process of meaning making that could allow a dogmatic institution like the Catholic Church to understand the film in to opposite ways in the same moment. “Teorema” had a perfect effect on Italy’s film-going public in that it resisted a single understanding, producing instead readings that were entirely against one another, a process similair to the film’s central character.

The Visitor

“Teorema’s” visitor is never named. He is not presented with a false identity, his left without an identity. Contrasting heavily with the bourgeoisie family, whose names and behaviors reveal them to the cinematic audience as standard “types,” the visitor is irreducible. He seems to contain parts of all of them, and changes depending on who he is around. When he is around the brother, he becomes fraternal and playful. Around the mother, he is erotic and lustful. Around the maid, he is respectful.  Around the father, he is youthful and obedient. Around the sister, he is trusting and caring.

The Testing of the Bourgeoisie

Reacting to each in the manner they desire of him, the visitor becomes superhuman. He is freed of a single identity, and becomes the sum of the families hopes, dreams, wishes and nightmares. Pasolini has said that this character must be read as a divine being, a person whose character is beyond all characters. If this the case, then like Godard’s “Week-End” or Bunuel’s “Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie,” we might read “Teorema” as a social experiment- a testing of the bourgeoisie by exposure to a certain element, here diviinty. Exposed to this enigmatic divine figure, all of the bourgeoisie family members (plus the maid) react in different manners. Each has a new part of their character brought out by their intimacy with the visitor. When he leaves, each follows a new track, the mother becoming a nymphomaniac, the son an artist, and the daughter catatonic.

Divinity & Devotion

Only the maid and the father persue a lifestyle that is somehow more religious. The maid in particular becomes a miracle-worker, able to levitate and cure illness. She ultimately desires to be buried alive, not to die, she says, but to become a spring. The father, stripping naked, embarks a sort of pilgrimage into the world of the divine as we see him cross the very bleak mountainous landscape that has been used by Pasolini to represent timelessness and divinity throughout the film.

The Overcoming of Class

If one had to take a lesson away from the film, it would seem that Pasolini is commenting on class by means of the fantastic. By employing a mysterious divine visitor, Pasolini breaks the bourgeoisie apart into a number of tendencies and impusles. He reduces them to bodily urges (the mother), priviliged inspiration (the son), inability to cope (the daughter) and ambition (the father). Only the maid, who is not bourgeoisie, is benefited by her interaction with the stranger. She becomes a figure of semi-divinity herself.

“Teorema” is an investigation of the enigma of divinity in the world of class. It asks how a church that worships any one god or force can endorse a stratified class system. Because the divine stranger moves among all of the people in the family, the boundaries of class are shown to be incomensurate with divine reality. Moreover, the complete re-ordering of society that the visitation of the divine enables points at the fact that the true divine would overturn social hierarchies. The best example of this is the behavior of the father, who goes from a prominent industrialist to a born-again figure who gives his factory to the workers, strips himself, and becomes invested in a spiritual quest. He is also the end of the film, for he represents an entire deconstruction of the Italian social order. In awe of the idea of true divinity, it seems that Pasolini is indeed lampooning the church. Imagine, he seems to say, what social re-ordering would be necessary were true supernatural beings to mix in our midst.

Week-End: The Chaotic Subconscious of France

2009 August 5
tags: ,
by Zachary McCune
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Like Bunuel’s “Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie,” Godard’s “Weekend” parodies the middle class by subjecting them to the absurd. But where Bunuel’s bourgeoise characters consistently attempt to preserve their status and grace even in the face of trying social situations, Godard’s protagonists- an adulterous married couple- routinely fall into whatever social situation is demanded of them, even acting more uncivilized and impolite than the working class people they are frequently juxtaposed with.

Godard’s Rhetorical Impulse

In proper Godardian form, “Week-End” is a highly rhetorical film, politicizing the actual process of filmmaking with near-constant political manifestoes and debates being enacted through over-narration. One might say that in “Week-End,” the plot is hijacked by the politics, as the film’s basic premise- a bourgeoisie couple attempting to murder their parents for the inheritance- is overtaken by a series of political vinettes. Just as the bourgeoisie couple are literally taken prisoner by a number of figures in the film, so too is their primary storyline hijacked by God, Lewis Carroll, and anarchist cannibals. It is almost as though Godard’s film is a deconstruction of a the psychology of the bourgeoisie, as he first offers the Freudian reading of bourgeoisie parricide complexes, which might make a straightforward film, only to unravel this plot by subjecting to its political context. In “Week-End” the politics of contemporary France are always pushing back into the film, preventing the isolation and remoteness that the bourgeoisie protagonists desire.

The Chaotic Subconscious of France

Is the film only about class? No. It seems more fair to say that the film is about France, a meditation on the Gaullist regime. At one point in the film, Roland (the bourgeoisie husband) attempts to flag down a car on the road to Oinville. The car stops, but the passenger quizzes Roland about his politics before allowing him in:

“Who would you rather be screwed by: Mao or Johnson?”

“Johnson of course” Roland responds.

“Drive on,” the passenger replies, “he is a fascist.”

This dichotomy is historically the same decision that faced Gaul in 1967. France famously attempted to find a “third way,” which is what this film portrays, the way that is neither Mao nor Johnson. So the dichotomy presented to Roland is actually a false one- either answer is wrong. Roland cannot possibly pick a correct path, and so like France he must wander through the desparate plain.

A Long Lens into the Future

It is difficult not to read Week-End as a sign of things to come. While many films clamor for the title of ‘the foreshadowing of 1968,’ “Week-End” is possibly the most prescient. Not only does Godard recognize France’s impossible position between two options, but he also sees the chaotic elements swirling around France’s attempt at a third way. The spectres of “Week-End,” Lewis Carroll, anarchists, and a man pretending to be God, are all phantoms of 1968, influences or actual social groups that will emerge in the carnage of 1968. Additionally, the frequent scenes of burned out cars, chaotic highways, and deserted roadways prove to be a prescient image. One has to wonder how influential “Week-End” was to the vision of May 68. Wondering how to overthrow order, did the students and the communists remember these haunting scenes from “Week-End?”

In The Loop: The Spin Doctor as Hero

2009 August 4
by Zachary McCune

Armando Ianucci’s “In the Loop” might just be the best movie I’ve seen this summer. In it, a bumbling British minister steps out of his parties line on war, claiming “war is unforseable” and subsequently embroils the United States and Britain in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Like a Butterfly Effect for global politics, “In the Loop” weaves a satire around the power of political misquoting and media spin in the 21st century. The star of the show is undoubtedly Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi) who is never caught without a witty string of curses to put down even the most accomplished American generals and British Politicians. He is the thread that binds the film together, joyous connecting all of the political episodes beneath his attempt to keep the media’s attention on the right subject. Legend has it that his character is based on Alistair Campbell, a British Spin Doctor for Tony Blair.

The Spin Doctor as Hero

What can we say about a political film whose star is a spin doctor? If we consider a study of political cinema through protagonists, we quickly recognize a certain homogeny. Political films often center of political figures (i.e. Costas-Gavras “Z”) a maligned people (Pontecorvo’s “Battle of Algiers”) or a avenging figure of the left (such as in Spider’s Strategem). There are more, but all of these films can be reduced to individuals whose involvement in political reality seems direct and inalienable. They are in the cross-hairs of historical experience, not in the second world of media representation of politics and history. Even when journalists are presented as the protagonists of political cinema (as in The Passenger) they always have to escape the newsroom- their beat is the reality of politics in practice.

It is impossible then not to read Malcom Tucker as a sign of the 21st century’s political reality. In this day and age, power lies not in experience, but in representation. Tucker is a master of controlling the media and thus the comprehension of reality by society at large. He does this by intimating political figures into following the “party line.” While he claims that this service is done of behalf of the Prime Minister’s agenda, we never see Tony Blair, so Tucker seems to act alone. Appropriately, he is an avatar of an unrepresented political power, which is percisely how he employs the politicians around him, manuevering them so that they speak for him.

Revising British History

Simon Foster, the British Minister who first illicits Malcolm’s ire for claiming that “war is unforeseeable,” seems to represent a revisionist history of Britain’s involvement in the Iraq War. “In the Loop” was produced in 2008, and is situated in a political reality that views the entire Iraq War as a mistake, at best, a mistake that was foisted on the Brits by war-hawk American tendencies. Foster is the avatar of this revisionist history, a victim of his own naivete and nonchalance. He is pigeon-holed as a war-monger for a statement on national radio, sent to Washington to talk about the possibility of war, and ultimately positioned to be a major sponsor of the decision to go to war. At this point, Foster balks, claiming he wants no such thing, allowing some vindication of peaceable British interests before the war, and absolving something of the British view of the war, as his partial absolvement places the blame more strongly on the American politicians.

American Politics, The Villainous Side of the Atlantic

Only one character in this film appears highly recognizable to Americans, this is the character of Linton Barwick, an American secretary who holds secret meetings to prepare for war with top Pentagon officials. This character is almost surely a sketch of Donald Rumsfeld, whose war-hawkish tendencies and penchant for the secretive recieve scathing political treatment here.

Conclusions

In all, “In The Loop” is a fun, potent political comedy, that reminds us why humor also needs a place in the world of cinematically adapting politics. For with the humor of the “In The Loop,” one finds himself laughing at the whole nightmare of a world where politicians and media pundits spin out of control towards war, but the laughing always ends with the realization that this joke is from an accident called recent history.

Further Notes

I got to see “In the Loop” as a perk for reviewing films at the Newport International Film Festival this year. The film was offered as the Festival Opening night film, and included an discussion after the film with Mimi Kennedy, who plays a peace-oriented American politician in the film. She had a lot to say about the film’s politicality, saying that it represented a direct commentary on the Bush years and the idiocy of general foreign policy work in the states.

I think this film should be required viewing for DC interns. I am making my brother, who will be working in the DC this fall, go see it this week. In the film, interns are routinely shown to be the real “brains” behind American politics.

Salo: A Nightmare without Pyschology

2009 August 4
by Zachary McCune

salo

There are few films as provocative as Pier Paolo Pasolini’s final twisted masterpiece Salo or the 120 Days of Sodom. Following Pasolini’s penchant for adapting established literature, the film uses the Marquis de Sade’s half-completed “120 Days of Sodom” as a fountainhead for the film’s depiction of deviant, perverse sexuality. Set in Salo, Mussolini’s brief second Fascist state, the film suggests its narrative as a dark political unconscious, although in practice, there is little to remind the viewer of these political implications. Instead, the viewer becomes fixated on the spectacle of sexuality made sinister, slowly adapting to the esclating sexual horrors depicted by the film until the finale seems a foregone conclusion. If anything, this gradual adaptation of the audience to the horror of the film’s content must be Pasolini’s final thesis on popular entertainment as exhibited here by the cinema. Though we initially react with horror to the graphic scenes of Salo, we also quickly allow ourselves to slip into the fiction, escaping our responsibilities to the moral order from which we come by supplimenting the new perverse order of the world that Salo offers. This is the cinema as a critique of cinema, for it is the identification and transition of the “real” spectator into the disembodied spectator of the cinema that allows the shedding of a moral order closely bound into our physical selves. Pasolini has claimed that parts of the film (such as the eating of feces) are commentaries on the consumption of mass produced food, and likewise we may see the consumption of the film as a similiar consumption of the perverse that indicts the viewer. We are the victims of our own appetites.

The Mythology of Salo

In every description I have ever read of Salo, be it the Criterion Collection box, the Netflix entry, or the wikipedia entry, claims are made about the film that position it as profane and provocative. It’s graphic nature is commented on far before any mention is made of plot, cinematographic style, or the acting. It has become an exploitation film, a document of somehting graphic that overtakes any depiction of narrative. In these descriptions, Salo seems to lack any content- it is simply a potently transgressive film.

Given this reputation, I have always regarded Salo with a mix of horror and awe. Because of its universal transgressiveness, I feared the film. Salo seemed to be nothing save an all-out assault on taboo and decorum- leading me to attribute the film a sort of mythical status. Salo, in my estimation, was a film that was transgression. Like the experience of the children in the villa, I felt sure that Salo would be a punishing assault on my social and psychological boundaries. I was sure, in short, that Salo was what cinema always promised to be: a full destruction of the self (this is what Siegfried Kracaeur wrote in Theory of Film). In this, Salo has often been hailed as a sort of divine film- it’s ultimate transgression is the transgression of the film-spectator separation, the one division cinema is never supposed to cross (right?).

Of course, the mythical status of Salo is also aided by the fact that Pasolini was killed just before it was released. His murder, a bizarre series of events, that have been speculated upon with much interest in Italy, sealed Salo’s semi-divine status with the blood of its architect. That Pasolini was unable to produce further films, or explicate this last film furthers the suggestion of conspiracy and enigma underlying the film. Perhaps in a story we might expect from Pasolini himself, the creation of such a transgressive film was a death sentence itself. What we get in this mythology is the collaps of the auteur back into his text, as the auteur becomes a part of the mythological fiction in which we regard the cinema.

The De-Mystificatio: Without Psychology, There is no Humanity

Unfortunately, Salo is by no means as powerful as it is reported. It is graphic, but it is also devoid of psychology, an omission my friend Harry Kashdan noted just after we finished the film. Filmed in Pasolini’s signature ‘fresco’ style, where all of the shots feel highly composed and stylistically balanced, the viewer lacks intimacy with the characters that prevents the psychologocial profiling of the story. So while we are witness to the nightmare of Salo’s sexual humiliation, we never precieve its psychological darkness. We, as viewers, are positioned like witnesses to a crime- we can only guess at the motive.

It is difficult to surmise what Salo would be like with a psychological interest. Imagine if we met the tortured children each night when they went to sleep, imagine if we penetrated theirs dreams: would they be further nightmares of sexual torture or dreams of escape, of football, of Christmas with their family?

Pasolini seems to have intentionally filmed Salo from this distance. Why? Is that he cares not for establishing the psychological duress of the characters, the psychological twists of the four men? Or is it his own homage to the style of cinema verite? A stylistic choice designed to deaden our sense of the fictiousness of the film?

The Silver Bullet of Relativism

It’s hard to say. Salo is not a particularly difficult film to watch, for we are always prepared for it. The silver bullet that kills the threat of Salo is the fore-knowledge that the film will be graphic. It has no foundation of normality, so we are contextualized within the perverse world of the villa rather than a larger social structure. And this prevents us from contrasting the perverse horror of the villa with a village of normality. We are already guests at the villa, and our sense of morals are relative.

The Villa

If the villa is to be read as a symbol, it must be read according to its properties: its decadence makes a sign of the wealthy, its location high above the plane makes in an inassailable fortress, its separateness divides its reality from that of the rest of the Republic of Salo. Like the historic Republic of Salo itself, this villa is a charade, a game that is brief and separate from the reality of World War II. It is a utopia, a “no-place”. It is a puppet kingdom.

Conclusion

Politically, Salo is purely a metaphorical film. To try too hard to connect its deviant sexuality with Fascist tendencies is to miss the point- this is a political film in drag, a film that is dressed up like political film, but without any serious implications for political understandings of Mussolini, or Italy, or Fascists. Like a Disney movie, but for very different reasons, Salo is a timeless story. It bears witness to how relative our sense of morals are, and how quickly in isolation, we might revert to more base instincts and appetites. It offers a dim view of power- a suspicion of the powerful as the manipulative and the perverse, but how is that new?

Project Status Report: Adventures in the Archive

2009 July 30
by Zachary McCune

film_studies_library

The Mysterious Library of Maurice Rapf

Compiling a bibliography for Political Cinema has kept me buried in the B-Level of the Rock all this week (and a good chunk of last week). Down there, in the PN 1993’s to 1997’s, I’ve been able to dig up all sorts of interesting texts, some of which were relevant to the course. Of the material that wasn’t, “Z for Zagreb” proved particularly interesting. A short overview on the Yugoslavian animation industry in the 1960’s, “Z for Zagreb” was interesting not only for its rare content, but for its bookplate, which explained that it was originally part of the “Maurice Rapf Film Studies Library” a part of the “Brown Film Society.” While the Brown Film Society certainly exists today, it has clearly changed dramatically since it had its own private film studies library. Today, the BFS screens recent pop movies (like “Across the Universe”) and does theme shows that focus on the time of year (like a “Home Alone” special or a Halloween Horror Movie show).

As shocked as I was to see that the BFS once had some serious academic clout (though perhaps, given the time period of the 1970’s before a formal film program this is not so suprising) I was more perplexed by the name of the library. Who the hell was “Maurice Rapf”? A little goggling brought out some answers. Turns out Maurice Rapf was a Professor at Dartmouth, founder of their Film Studies program, and a former screenwriter in Hollywood. His communist/union sympathies got him blacklist in 1947, so he was forced into academia and film reviews, something that he became quite apt at apparently. When he died in 2003, the NY Times ran an obituary. One of his most enduring achievements was a popular text-book/introduction on thinking critically about the movies called “All About the Movies.” It is amazing what one little bookplate can teach you.

But all of the connections have not yet been made. There are two outstanding questions that the little bookplate in “Z for Zagreb” prompted of me. The first is how many books are part of the Maurice Rapf “Film Studies Library”? Are they all here at Brown? Do they focus on only American movies? Where can I find a list? The second question is why did Brown get Maurice Rapf’s film library when it appears that he was a lifelong Dartmouth man (attended as an undergraduate, then became a lifelong professor)? I am still trying to find someone in the Brown Library System who can tell me more.

Keeping Track of the Bibliography

Getting back to the real task at hand, I have been somewhat up in the air about which technology to use to compile my bibliography. I have decided to go (for the time being) with a Google Doc that can be found here. I know there are better, more efficient and useful bibliography tools out there, but I have yet to find a really practical one. Again, a question to ask the library staff when I finally corner one.

Rescuing the Missing Books

Whenever I find a book that is particularly notable (does not simply need to be entered into the bibliography, but actually looked over/read/scanned) I check it out to my carrel. Twice now, I have checked out books that the Library Staff said had been missing. Ironically, these were two of the most interesting books I have come across, the first being Leni Riefenstahl’s “A Memoir” and the second a small BFI publication from 1979 on Jean Rouch called “Antropology -Reality - Cinema“. The librarians were thrilled to see these books found (”Two missing books in the same day! Good work! Do you want some candy?”) but I really hadn’t done anything notable. I’ve just been going shelf by shelf, because I don’t know what exactly I want, but I’ll know it when I see it.

Project Status Report: What is the Foundation of Political Cinema?

2009 July 30
by Zachary McCune

It has been a little over a week since I began pulling together textual sources and contexts to compliment the course’s screening material. Approaching this task, I had to wonder, is the primary focus of this course the films, the filmmakers, the history the films present, or the history concurrent with the film’s production. Basically, what is the foundation for an inquiry into political cinema?

There are many possible foundations: one might want to consider political cinema as founded on the very history of the cinema itself. So we might ask, when did politics enter the cinema? When the entertainment of the spectacle of cinema first become politicized? Or more pointedly, when did the cinema become an agent of history? When did filmmaking begin to become a part of the production of history, thus politicizing the past by means of telling one story and not the other?

This is a frequent theoretical topic for historians and media theorists. But it really became alive when I began searching out books that dealt with the history of films in the course, the filmmakers who made them, and the film cultures (national heritages as well as international impulses such as “New Wave”) in which one might consider the films of the course. Such an approach made me fear that I was over-emphasizing the filmic aspect of the course, rather than considering the films as products of a history, a result of interpretation and translation.

For now, I will keep these questions open, as I search for a way to thoroughly consider the tasks of historian/scholar approaching political cinema. A certain premonition tells me that the most effective way of dealing with this question is to consider political cinema in an ecology- a networked series of relationships- that ties filmmakers to history, films to politics, and spectators to historical-social contexts. None of these individual nodes can exist without another, so it is only through moving through the ecology, finding the connections from node to node that one can perceive political cinema. Seen from this vantage, one might understand political cinema not as something to be grounded in a foundational context, but something that is in and out itself a hybrid form- it is politics and history leaking into the entertainment space of the cinema, a blurring of boundaries produced by filmmakers and film audiences, who cannot escape their realities sufficiently to produce non-political films.

Such an inquiry however, hides the   much larger ecology in which the film

Project Status Report: Reaching the Second Stage

2009 July 22
by Zachary McCune

I have now reached the second stage of the research project. At this time, Kostis and I have just about completely finalized the film list, and I am now digging into reading material. This means that I have returned to my research nest in the Rock(efeller Library) and am running trips down to B Level where the film materials live in PN 1993 - 1997.

Not that this means I am done watching films. To the contrary, starting with “This Sporting Life” I am now focusing on building a broader base of ‘contextual films,’ which are essentially films that fill out an understanding of what other political cinemas were being attempted in Europe concurrent to the class’ material.

Tonight, these contextual screenings will reach a new level of difficulty as I will attempt to watch Pasolini’s “Salo, the 120 Days of Sodom.” Notorious for its graphic depiction of the sadistic, “Salo” is a notorious film, revered among film buffs and critics for its cinematic potency. I am both terrified and enchanted by its power. Like a sacred book, “Salo” seems to illicit a visceral response in its reader/spectator. To this end, I cannot help by feel it is an essential watch despite its inevitable disgusting footage.

Some of the other films I would like to watch over the rest of the summer are:

  1. The Firemen’s Ball
  2. Closely Watched Trains
  3. The Lost Honour of Katrina Bloom
  4. The Baader Meinhof Complext
  5. Weekend

With certainly more to come.

I also look forward to catching Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglorious Basterds” which will surely invite a fascinating read from a political cinema perspective. Like “In The Loop” which I saw earlier this summer at the Newport Film Festival, “Inglorious Basterds” will consider political cinema from an underrepresented vantage point- the comedic.

Returning to the reading research, I plan to go through the syllabus chronologically as I search for material. This means starting with Eisenstein and Vertov (both of whom I know there is ample material to consider) and then moving onto Leni Refenstahl and so on. I may also jump forward, to consider the newer additions to the syllabus (like Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion) before it is completely necessary.

Au Revoir!

This Sporting Life: Theatrical Social Drama

2009 July 22
by Zachary McCune
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Lindsay Anderson’s “This Sporting Life” is a theatrical social drama. It follows the story of a coal miner named Frank (played by Richard Harris) who attempts to escape his working class background by becoming a professional rugby player. But despite his success on the pitch, and his ability to achieve his dream of becoming a rugby star, Frank is ultimately unable to escape his working class roots, or to impress his working class love interest enough to woo her. He becomes caught in a tragic isolation between two classes- the first which will not accept him, and the second which will not have him back. Suspended between classes, Frank becomes violent and despondent, disenchanted with a life that had seemed so promising.

In the Kitchen: British Social Realism

Anderson’s motives in this film are almost certainly tied to the mission of the “kitchen sink realists” who had hoped to utilize the cinema as a agent for social change. A part of Britain’s brief New Wave of film, “This Sporting Life” seems to chaste society itself for consuming people like Frank as sports icons, but in the process denying them a human life. Anderson also seems critical of the middle class in this film, who use their power and wealth to transform athletes like Frank into objects or commodities. Finally, the film criticizes the pig-headedness of the proleteriat, whose jealousy over Frank’s success becomes a vengeful willing for his misfortune. Desperately clinging to an idea of their noble impoverishment, the working class (represented by Mrs. Hammond) is unable to validate Frank’s success, seeing him as a “ape on the football field” rather than a man who has made his own fortune. In all of these situations, Frank is inherently de-humanized. This seems to be a theme of the film. From every side, Frank is denied his humanity, which is to say his ability to feel pain, to love, to hope, to desire, to be vulnerable, and in short, to emote.

Against the American Athletic Hero

Watching this film from an American standpoint is particularly interesting. This is because, in the US, the story of the athlete who rose from the working class and became wealthy, is ALWAYS presented as something good. Something amazing. Something to cheer about, like the sporting events these athletes realize. In films like “Jerry Maguire” or “Miracle” or “A League of their own” or “Mystery, Alaska” or even “Space Jam” part of the narrative is always the social transformation of a poor talented athlete into a potent, bourgeoisie sports icon. The cliche is so embedded in American culture, that it would disorienting for the average American film goer to see a sports film where the protagonist is wealthy to start with. Sports are synomous in American lore with social mobility. They represent a will to succeed. They are the modernization of the Horatio Alger story.

But in “This Sporting Life” we read that for the British sports are not a way out of the proletriat. At least, not in 1960. Frank is trapped, and an anxiety hangs over the film as the spectator yearns for something to give. For a scene or two, it seems that Mrs. Hammond will relent on her hatred for Frank and warm-up. But then she goes cold again. At other times, it seems that Frank is finally breaking through, and that he will soon stop clinging to the comfort of the working class world he knows so well.

Angst & Anxiety

Like all social dramas, “This Sporting Life” encourages the spectator to see ways out for the protagonist. But the divide between the cinema and the spectator disallows our transgression into that space to call out “just leave her Frank!”or  “move out!” Anderson intentionally draws out these moments when the spectator most wants to enter the fiction and assist the protagonists. So we become hostage to the drama, voyeurs of the spectacle which is all to familiar. We come to pity Frank, as he seems to want to do the right thing, but ultimately we cannot forgive his violence and lack of understanding. It is his will to succeed that both allows him to achieve his rugby dreams and fails to allow him the compassion to see Mrs. Hammond’s plight. Like a true modern drama, Frank is not a victim of over-reaching, but simply a victim of his own success. He becomes a painful mascot of the working class struggle, as he represents a life where even the successes are doomed to become failures.

Unable to escape his habits of the stage,  Anderson shot this movie as though it were on a stage. The lighting and blocking are straight from the theatre, and the acting is likewise overblown. Harris, himself a stage actor originally, is still projecting his voice. He and Anderson have not yet realized what the film camera is capable of in terms of subtlety. Fortunately, Frank’s loud, boisterous demeanor is complimented by Harris’ theatrical overacting, and the social drama of this film is brought firmly to life by its theatricality.

Conclusions

In all, “This Sporting Life” is of more interest to political cinema as a contextual document than as a end in and of itself. And what the context presented? A certain social observation- a view that may seen as a foundation for work like Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Blow-Up” or Anderson’s second feature “If….”. Viewed from this film, both of those works can be read as nuanced interrogations of class and social structures. Without the context of “This Sporting Life” however, one might miss the forest for the trees- “If….” for instance almost never escapes the context of the upper class, boarding school experience. But that doesn’t mean it is not there. Instead, we must see the setting and the narrative of the film as something that is inherently other from the working class struggle, but part of the same world. The question “why can’t they co-exist?” is one that is answered by their stark seperation: because that is the nature of British society.