Monday, March 22, 2021

Fifty Years in the Dark

It’s a milestone of little importance to anyone but me. I suppose that raises the question, if a milestone tips over in the forest and I’m the only one that hears it, does it matter? At any rate, this month marks the completion for me of 50 years of writing about film. Sometime in March 1971 I published the first of several film reviews for the South Shore Record, a weekly newspaper in my (then) hometown in Long Island. I received the price of my movie ticket and five dollars for each of my efforts. It seemed like a good deal in 1971.

Typically, I chose a western for my first venture, a long-forgotten Burt Kennedy effort that was released here as The Deserter, although it has also been shown as The Devil’s Backbone. (God only knows where or why.) It was not my first published piece – I had been writing some political commentary for a short-lived underground paper published in my high school – but it was the first time I had written on film, and I wanted it to be a good opener.

I might have chosen a better film.  Although Kennedy wrote several excellent screenplays for Budd Boetticher and graduated to some workmanlike directorial efforts in the ‘60s, this was barely a five-finger exercise. Assembled from a spare-parts box that included borrowings from Peckinpah and various Italian western directors, The Deserter was distinguished primarily by the presence of some aging character players from the genre’s better days – Slim Pickens and Ricardo Montalban as bantering scouts, John Huston, Chuck Conners and Patrick Wayne as variegated US Cavalry officers – and an unlikely male lead, the Albanian-Yugoslav actor Behim Fehmiu.

Bekim Fehmiu in search of the writer of The Deserter?

Bekim Fehmiu: the first Eastern European star to work in Hollywood, an effective lead in I Even Met Happy Gypsies (Alexander Petrovic) and an attractive set of muscles in the hilariously misbegotten Harold Robbins epic, The Adventurers. I have not revisited the Kennedy film. I cannot conceive of a reason I would, unless it is to put on a metaphorical hair-shirt for having mistaken Fehmiu’s stolidity for a taciturn ruggedness fifty years ago. I’m sure it’s not the last time I’ve made that category error. (My God, what have I said about Schwarzenegger, Keanu Reeves, and a few others since then?)

In my defense, allow me to point out that this was in the salad days of film study. I was a high school senior and my opportunity for exposure a film like the Petrovic was minimal, even with my proximity to New York City. (It was a 45-minute train ride and I commuted for four years of college.) No VCRs, DVDs, DVRs, very few repertory theaters, although that changed not long after and I began to spend my weekends alternating between various now defunct rep houses and the Fillmore East. On the other hand, given that Fehmiu was better than passable in Happy Gypsies, I probably would have made the same mistake anyway.

Not that it matters in the grand scheme of things. I’m not talking about the really grand scheme of things – the safety of Western Civilization has never depended on my aesthetic judgment or Fehmiu’s acting chops. What I mean is, at least I recognized that Kennedy was, sadly, a spent bullet, a filmmaker who had run out of things to say. A few months later, when I reviewed Rio Lobo, Howard Hawks’s valedictory film, I was clear-headed enough to see it for what I still believe it is, a re-embellishment of Hawksian themes intended for those of us who still cared, not nearly as good as either Rio Bravo or El Dorado, its predecessors. 

So I can honestly say, on reflection, that some learning was going on.

And still is. When I step back and look at the six-plus years I’ve been teaching at Borough of Manhattan Community College, I’m surprised at how my approach to the basic syllabus has evolved. Given that almost all the films on the viewing list for “Introduction to the Moving Image” are ones I knew by heart before I came to BMCC, and the reality that I’ve now seen and taught them about twenty times each, that seems to me a small tribute to my flexibility. On the other hand, it could also be read as a chameleonic capacity for changing sides in any argument.

Temperamentally, I have almost always been a syncretist. I distrust writers who offer a single explanation for everything. In the half-century I’ve been working through cinema I have read many theoretical formulations that I found to have merit. My own focus has always been eclectic, a more refined version of what cricket commentators mordantly call “buffet bowling.” (“Here, try this ball. No? How about this delivery? Just hit whatever you like.”)

It isn’t that I can’t and won’t make up my mind or that I’m prone to adopt the last argument I’ve heard. On the contrary, the filmmaking process is so protean, so multi-faceted and so overdetermined that one explanation doesn’t fit all. I was trained in the Sarris-planted vineyards of auteurism;  when I was a student of his, he used to needle me about being “more royalist than the king,” although I’d like to think that my grasp of genre theory was already pretty good even before the ink on my was dry.  

Today I offer my students a range of analyses that draw on everything I’ve read since the ‘70s heyday of Althusser and Lacan, the rise of feminist theory in the ‘80s and ‘90s, some version of the New Historicism, socio-criticism, semiology and even good old-fashioned Marxism. I suppose in the end it is still undergirded by auteurist biases, but at least I have a better understanding of the limitations of that cognitive grid. If my reading outside the course leads me, increasingly, to examine the development of film as a product of the late Industrial Revolution, Taylorism and modern marketing practices, at least I can still tell the difference between Clint Eastwood and Bekim Fehmiu, even if took a while to see it.


One of these actors is not like the other. . . 


Saturday, March 13, 2021

Cinema of Absence

Film is, perhaps above all, a visual medium and, consequently, relies on the idea of "real presence" as George Steiner put it. In general, the old saw "Show, don't tell" applies here. But what can a filmmaker do when there is nothing to show? Or nothing but ashes. 

The still life painting at the center of Slawomir Grünberg's new film, Still Life in Lodz, is something of an oddity. At first glance it seems rather larger than your average still life. Its shape (or aspect ratio for you film people) is strangely reminiscent of the Cinemascope frame, about twice as wide as it is high. The sheer oddness of the painting would make it stand out in most circumstances. And Lilka Elbaum's fascination, almost obsession, with it would be almost as odd were it not for the personal stories wrapped around the painting. Those stories are the substance of the film.

Lilka Elbaum and the eponymous painting

As Grünberg readily agrees in the interview that is posted here, the tragic dilemma facing anyone trying to make a non-fiction film about the Shoah, the murder of six million Jews by the Nazis and their helpers, is that you care trying to recreate a world that is utterly lost, obliterated. Hence my use of the phrase "cinema of absence." 

Many filmmakers have approached the subject from many angles. By and large, how well the resulting films resonate depends on how well they have coped with that gaping hole in the center of the story. Those who have relied on archival footage exclusively are, I believe, trapped in the need to eschew mere nostalgia, or are forced to skirt the edges of "torture porn." More than that, they are to some extent prisoners of the sheer familiarity and overuse of many of the most potent images, or the inadvertent glorification of the perpetrators at the hands of Leni Riefenstahl and her ilk.

Claude Lanzmann, in his monumental Shoah (1985), devised a singular, unrepeatable solution. He eschewed any footage from the period, relying entirely on interviews with the survivors, a handful of the murderers and bystanders. He built a massive cinematic machine -- almost ten hours in length -- and the result was a sense of a world too much like our own, in which lush green meadows are underpinned by human remains and the only stories we hear are a reminder of the mortality of the tellers. There are monuments scattered throughout the film, but they are merely empty signifiers that underline the absence of the pre-war Jewish civilizations that once existed in the vicinity. The only other reminder is the railroad, still running on the tracks that transported so many to death.

Shoah: The trains are still running . . . 

Shoah was, obviously, a one-off. Nobody was going to commit the time, energy and resources that Lanzmann poured into what was clearly for him a labor of duty. But other filmmakers with other stories of the destruction of European Jewry, not to mention millions of Poles, Roma and Sinti, gay men, union organizers and political dissidents, needed (and still need) to find their own way to show what is no longer there.

Grünberg, a veteran non-fiction film and television director with some forty titles to his credit, created a couple of solutions to the problem that show both ingenuity and an understanding of the dilemma. As you will see from our conversation, he puts the painting at the center of the narrative, as does Elbaum for whom the painting is a vivid reminder of her childhood in post-war Poland. More than that, working with local Polish animators, he is able to create a context for Elbaum and her family that both underlines the tragedies of the war years and the obstinate ordinariness of life even for Jews in the afermath.

Therein lies the other strength of Still Life in Lodz. Elbaum was born after the war. Her two companions in the excavation of memory, Paul Celler, an American Jew whose parents survived the Shoah, and Roni Ben Ari, an Israeli artist whose family escaped to Palestine, are second/third-generation bearers of the memories of the whirlwind that engulfed their forebears and, not coincidentally, their families lived in the same apartment complex as Elbaum's in the once very Jewish city of Lodz.

As a result, Elbaum is very specifically a source of memory, and Celler and Ben Ari fill in a lot of the blanks. 

And yet, the images of decay and destruction are never far away. Lodz, like most of urban Poland, has had hard times aplenty. The neighborhood in which much of the film takes place is rundown, the apartment complex in question awaiting renovations that it badly needs. The courtyard is virtually waste ground and the film's palette is dark and more than a little grim. 

Despite that, Still Life in Lodz feels affirmative, but not in a Pollyanna-ish way. Some scars don't heal, despite generations passing. The film feels a little baggy in structure, in part because Elbaum is the only link between the other two participants, so Grünberg is unable to give the film more unity. That, as any non-fiction filmmaker can tell you, is the risk in making a film without a script, one in which no one knows the ending. Still it's a small inconvenience compared to making a film about a world that no longer is there.

N.B. My conversation with Slawomir Grünberg, which took place last week while he as in Mexico, suffered a little bit from the distance between us. Early in the interview there are a few hiccups in transmission but I think the meaning of his comments is clear.

For information on screenings of Still Life in Lodz go here; you will also find listings of special events including Q&As with the filmmaker and subjects, go here. There are some exciting events coming up, so you should go there right now!

As for Shoah, the main news is that the film, which has long been hard to see, in part I suspect because of its extreme length, is now availableto purchase and rent in the United States and Canada, and will become available for streaming on IFC Films Unlimited in June. It will be available for purchase and rental on the Apple TV app, iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, and Vudu in the U.S. and on the Apple TV app and iTunes in Canada.

Sunday, March 07, 2021

I'm teaching an on-line mini-class on recent Israeli film

The Edlavitch DCJCC, which is also responsible for the Washington DC Jewish Film Festival every year, has been offering a variety of film classes over the past year and I have had the pleasure of teaching several. The latest, Masterworks of Israeli Cinema 2, begins on Monday evening March 15, and there are still openings available. The focus this time around is on recent films, ranging from Alma Har'el's Bombay Beach (2011) to Michal Aviad's Working Woman (2017). (My undergrads are going to have a fit; they're always asking why we don't do more recent films in class.)

If you are interested in seeing me pixilated in a one-inch box, talking about film, here's your best chance.

Ecocide: The Gift That Keeps Taking

 The Oregon hill country is lush with forests. Given the importance to the state's economy of the logging industry, it is one of the last places in the United States that you would expect to find a fight over the wholesale spraying of defoliants. However, as the  new documentary The People vs. Agent Orange  vividly shows, an all-too-common combination of corporate cupidity, married to the vast powers of capital and driven by the thoughtless fecklessness of bureaucrats can lead to the unimaginable. 

Unsurprisingly, the unimaginable had already happened fifty years and four generations ago when a very similar set of lethal chemicals were unleashed on the people of Vietnam. Operation Ranch Hand was a devastating program of massive use of defoliants primarily the eponymous Agent Orange, in quantities that passed 20 million gallons in a brief period of time. As U.S. spokespersons and their corporate counterparts repeatedly told us, this was war, with the unstated concomitant that we barely acknowledged the existence of international treaties banning such chemical assaults. 

Alan Adelson and Kate Taverna, the film's co-directors, co-writers and co-producers, spent over a decade tracing the global settings of this story, following lawsuits, demonstrations and international tribunals as individual activists have tried desperately to secure something like justice for the victims of the use of these chemical assaults. 

Tran To Nga outside a Paris courtroom

Carol Van Strum with rescue animals in Oregon 

The resulting motion picture is not merely an infuriating reminder of the endless price in human suffering and ecological mayhem inflicted by the heedless, profligate use of these herbicides, balanced against a powerfully motivating portrait of two strong women advocates, Tran To Nga in Vietnam, and Carol Van Strum in Oregon, and the communities of support they have mustered. One would hope for nothing less given the story The People vs. Agent Orange tells. Almost as important, the film is an elegantly structured tapestry that travels through fifty years of political and personal stories scattered globally with a large but compelling cast of characters. It is also a handsomely nuanced work formally that utilizes the palettes available in an array of footage to underline the cost of defoliation in visual terms.

The film opened Friday, March 5, and is available on over three dozen streaming platforms around the country. For a listing of available sites, go to the film's website

I spoke with Adelson and Taverna last week and the interview is below.

Tribeca 3: Pride in the City

Tribeca has always been a film festival that focused on diversity and inclusion, from its beginning in 2002.  This year has been no exceptio...