Category Archives: Female Film Directors

What Happened Miss Simone? (2015)

There is a controversy on social media. Zoe Saldana, a light skinned black woman, has been cast to play the singer songwriter Nina Simone, who was a very dark skinned black woman, in the upcoming biographical drama Nina. After having watched Liz Garbus’ brilliant documentary What Happened Miss Simone, I can fully understand why casting Saldana was a bad idea. Nina Simone was black the way Joan of Arc was French, or Dostoevsky Russian, an archetypal figure who can’t be watered down without doing violence to her essence.

Eunice Kathleen Waymon was born in 1933 in Tryon, North Carolina, deep in the heart of the Jim Crow South. As a child she dreamed, not of being a singer, but of being a classical pianist. When she was turned down as a student by the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, and began to play in small, often seedy nightclubs, she changed her name to avoid embarrassing her conservative, religious parents. Eventually the owner of the Midtown Bar & Grill on Pacific Avenue in Atlantic City demanded that she sing as well as play the piano, and she found her calling. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, her popularity grew. She wrote songs, recorded both studio and live albums, and toured throughout the Europe and the United States. She become involved, not only in the Civil Rights Movement, but in the radical, black nationalist wing of the Civil Rights Movement. “I don’t believe in non-violence,” she remarked to Martin Luther King. The Civil Rights Movement, in turn, became involved in Simone’s music, inspiring songs like Mississippi Goddam and “Why? (The King Of Love Is Dead)”, written after King’s murder. Not surprisingly, Simone’s radicalism damaged her career, even as it enriched her art, getting her blacklisted by radio stations all over the United States. When the black nationalist movement she sang for and about eventually got smashed by the federal government and faded away, her opportunities to perform, and her income, were diminished. As her career fell apart, she fell apart, the damage done to her soul by racism, a history of mental illness, and by an abusive, exploitive husband, turning her against her daughter, and herself. She became angry, emotionally unstable, unable to perform without the psychotropic drugs that damaged her ability to play the piano. She died in 2003, well-known but not fully appreciated for the great artist she was.

I could have easily heard Nina Simone play live. I was 38 years old when she died, but to be honest, I had no idea who she was until fairly recently. That doesn’t mean I’ve never heard her music. I grew up hearing quite a few of her songs, but only, and this is important, in cover versions. If Hollywood is about to dilute her memory by casting Zoe Saldana in her fictionalized biography, it’s really nothing very new. In the 1960s and 1970s, Simone was too radical for mainstream radio, but far too great an artist to completely ignore. So they served up her music in white face. I grew up hearing Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood. It’s part of my childhood, but I heard it sung by the British rock and roll group The Animals, not by Simone herself. I had no idea the song Ain’t Got No, I Got Life that Treat Williams performed in Milos Foreman’s film version of the musical Hair had been written by Nina Simone. I’m not knocking Milos Foreman or The Animals, but I was amazed by just how much more depth Simone gave the lyrics than Eric Burdon. I had always through Burdon was singing lyrics he didn’t entirely understand, but it was only after I saw What Happened Miss Simone that I fully understood why.

As different as I am from Nina Simone, I came away from What Happened Miss Simone feeling as if I had been introduced to a kindred spirit, a soul mate I never got a chance to meet. Simone wasn’t just a performer or a singer, but a woman who had deeply wounded by American racism, and could only really stay alive as long as she was able to transform her pain into her art. As the Jazz critic Stanley Crouch remarks midway through the documentary, she was too much of a rebel for the revolution, an outcast among outcasts, a radical among radicals. It’s a testament to a powerful soul that she made it to the age of 70, that she kept pushing against the demons inside her in order to create her music until the very end. It’s also a testament to the radical politics that got her pushed out of the mainstream in the 1960s and 1970s. Perhaps if Kurt Cobain or Amy Winehouse had discovered something to fight for, they might have found a reason to live past 30, even if it had meant another 40 years of pain and emotional anguish.

La Folie Almayer (2011)

Even though the Anglo-Polish writer Conrad was 38 years old when he left the British merchant marine to devote himself to literature, his first novel Almayer’s Folly is a young man’s book. A bitterly ironic story about a Dutch businessman in Borneo who sends his biracial daughter to a Catholic boarding school in the the hope of eventually passing her off as white, it is saved from being overly downbeat by its anti-colonial message, and rich, poetic language. While Almayer’s Folly is not quite as much of a masterpiece as Heart of Darkness or Lord Jim, the “young” Joseph Conrad was so far ahead of his time that today’s “social justice warriors” on social media might even call him a “white ally,” if of course a highly “problematic” one.

No social justice warrior would ever dismiss Chantal Akerman as “problematic,” partly because she’s arguably the greatest female filmmaker who ever lived, but mostly because so few people in the United States have ever heard her name. La Folie Almayer, her penultimate film, which she made 4 years before committing suicide in 2015 at the age of 65, has only three reviews at the Internet Movie Database. Sadly, it’s easy to understand why it’s not likely to find a popular audience. A faithful adaptation, and yet a radical deconstruction of Conrad’s novel, it comes at the end, not the beginning, the deep cold Winter, not the enthusiastic Spring of a long, distinguished artistic career. Akerman strips all the poetry off Conrad’s somber yet romantic anti-colonial meditation, and reveals, not only the delusional thinking of the white imperialist mindset, but her own despair. If Conrad’s novel is pessimistic, Akerman’s film is dark like clinical depression.

Like the young Joseph Conrad, the late Chantal Akerman deserves more attention, if only because her dramatization of the spiritually corrosive effects of white supremacy is so clear thinking and uncompromising. After a surreal, David Lynch-like opening,  we meet Almayer, played by longtime Akerman collaborator Stanislas Merhar. Almayer, who lives in a ramshackle house deep in the jungle — the film was made in Cambodia — is French, not Dutch, as he is in Conrad’s novel, but the basic outlines of his character are the same. He is a white man separated from his own people. Come to the far-East to make his fortune, he has ended up a prisoner in the jungle. A client of a shadowy entrepreneur named Captain Lingard, he has enough money to survive, but not enough to get back to Europe.

A few years before, in exchange for being let in on the ground floor of a gold mine deep in the jungle, Almayer had reluctantly agreed to marry a Malaysian woman named Zahira. Lingard has now returned for Nina, Almayer’s biracial daughter, in whom Almayer had invested most his of his hopes for the future after the gold mine failed. Why Lingard had wanted a European husband for Zahira is not entirely clear, either in the novel or the film, but the marriage has been a disaster. Zahira and Almayer hate each other. Now that Lingard wants a French, Catholic education for Nina the way he wanted a white husband for her mother, Zahira rebels. She grabs Nina and takes her into the jungle, trying to save her from the kind of forced assimilation to European ways Lingard and Almayer had attempted, and failed, to impose on her. But it’s no use. Almayer and Lingard chase them down like wild animals and ship Nina off to the city.

A decade later, Nina, now a young woman in her late teens, returns to Almayer’s compound. Almayer has not seen her since she was a little girl, his submissive relationship with Lingard  evident by the way he had not been able to get his boss to tell him the address of his daughter’s boarding school. Along the way back, she meets a young Asian man in his 20s named Dain Maroola. It is here where the differences between the “young” Conrad and the elderly Chantal Akerman become most evident. For Joseph Conrad, Dain Maroola becomes Romeo to Almayer’s Capulet, the vital young man who rescues the young girl from her imprisonment by the patriarchy. For Chantal Akerman, no man can rescue a woman from European imperialism and from the patriarchy, even if he is a young man of color who kills two white men, and escapes the police with the help of her mother.

Chantal Akerman may have had pale skin and blue eyes, but as the daughter of Polish Holocaust Survivors, strictly speaking, she would not have been considered white. In a long sequence, where Nina attempts to express to Dain just how miserable she was in Lingard’s Catholic boarding school, we begin to see the ambiguous feelings Akerman had towards being brought up as a French woman, raised in a country that collaborated with the Nazis. What makes La Folie Almayer a great film, both in spite of and because of its difficulty, is how it dramatizes a young woman who, at 17-years-old, is already dead, spiritually murdered by European imperialism and patriarchy. Unlike Conrad’s Nina, who declares that she’s in love with Dain and willing to die for him, Akerman’s Nina can’t return to the jungle, can’t be brought back to life by sex or romance. She doesn’t love Dain, she said, “maybe not yet, maybe not ever.” Just like Chantal Akerman, who achieved success as a filmmaker in her 20s, yet still committed suicide 40 years later, Nina’s body may survive for another 50 years, but she may never be able to feel genuinely alive.

Chantal Akerman became a casualty of the Holocaust in 2015. Nina, the daughter of Almayer, a submissive white dupe of empire and racism, has been condemned to walk the earth as a zombie. It’s interesting to think about what Conrad, who attempted suicide in his 20s, would have thought of Akerman’s adaptation of his first novel. My guess is he would have approved.

News from Home (1976)

A year after she released Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, the 26-year-old Chantal Akerman returned to New York City, where she had lived for several years in her early 20s. Akerman, a French-speaking native of Brussels, and the daughter of Polish Holocaust survivors, spent the next several months with her cinematographer Babette Mangolte, wandering through Manhattan with a 16mm movie camera. The result of their labors was News from Home, a fascinating look at New York City in the 1970s.

News from Home opens with an extended stake of the Staples Street Skybridge in pre-gentrified Tribeca. Having lived in Tribeca in the mid-1990s, when the process of gentrification was well underway but not yet complete, I know the area well. I’ve probably stood on every street corner where Akerman and Mangolte filmed. I recognize most of the buildings, but News From Home feels like a report from another universe, or, better yet, the ghost of an old industrial neighborhood haunting the ghetto of the super-rich that Tribeca has become. It is by far the most compelling part of the movie, mostly because Akerman lets the camera linger on the lost history of the city. The lettering on the facades of the old storefronts and factories, the billboards and advertisements long forgotten, even the garbage littering the sidewalks, all of it felt like part of a word where I wished to spend more time.

Akerman and Mangolte also film in Hell’s Kitchen, Harlem, Midtown, and on the Upper East Side, but none of the footage they took uptown had quite the same magic of the early takes in Tribeca. The most frustrating, and yet intriguing, parts of News From Home take place on the subway. Akerman and Mangolte probably spend anywhere from a quarter to a third of the film standing inside various subway cars with the camera pointed, either at the doors, or straight down the middle. They make no effort to record the advertisements on the platform, or the headlines of the newspapers and magazines people are reading. Just about the only way you can tell it’s the 1970s is by looking at what the other passengers are wearing. At times, it feels exactly like a long subway ride. Having commuted from North Bronx to downtown Manhattan on the D-train, I found it tedious.

The more News from Home’s subway footage bored me, however, the more I began to wonder. How exactly did Chantal Akerman do it? While these days a filmmaker as reputable as Akerman could probably get a permit to bring a 16mm camera and a tripod on the subway, it’s hard to imagine her fellow passengers sitting so still, allowing themselves to be filmed without complaint. More likely they’d mug for the camera, ostentatiously duck under the lens to spoil the shot, or start yelling about how they were being filmed without their consent. Were people in the NYC subway really that much different in the 1970s than they are now? Or was Akerman, who died last month, some kind of witch who threw a spell over the 1-Train? Perhaps she just had a cloaking device. Or maybe she was already dead in the 1970s, a ghost floating disembodied between Houston Street and Canal Street recoding the passive, mournful faces of the, far more working-class, New York of the past.

All the time Chantal Akerman is filming her Manhattan street scenes, her mother, still very much alive, haunts News From Home. As the narrator reads the older woman’s letters, almost all of which end with the plea that her daughter write home more often, we begin to see Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles in a new light. In Akerman’s earlier film, a middle-aged woman doted on her son, a morose, self-involved teenager she supported, partly by prostitution. We wonder how much of herself Akerman had projected into the young man, and how much the title character owed to her mother. Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles ends with a senseless act of violence. Jeanne murders a client with a pair of scissors. Akerman’s mother, a Holocaust survivor, is haunted by the worst genocide in human history. She’s terrified that her 22-year-old daughter will meet a sudden, violent end in dark, dangerous, crime ridden New York City. We sympathize with Akerman’s mother. We also sympathize with Akerman. In other to escape the weight of historical memory, she has run away to America, a land with no consciousness of history. Yet compassion for her mother, whom she obviously cares about, means joining her under the weight of the not so distant past, sharing the torment, the survivor’s guilt, of someone who had seen the inside of a Nazi death camp, and escaped to see her adult child leave the nest. We begin to wonder if the subway cars Akerman spends so much time filming are a form of psychic prison, the deep, dark tunnel of a past she cannot escape.

Yet she does. The final ten minutes of News from Home are shot from the Staten Island Ferry, pulling away from Battery Park. Akerman’s camera dwells on the skyline of lower Manhattan — the ghost of the World Trade Center adding a dimension she could not have anticipated – her world getting more and more windy and spacious, memory fading into the distance as a flock of white gulls hover overhead. While we never actually see the Statue of Liberty, that gift from the French that has become a symbol of immigration to the United States, we feel its presence. A newly arrived immigrant in New York Harbor, Chantal Akerman has finally put the old world behind her. Her mother’s voice is gone. News from Home opened with her as the daughter of two Polish Holocaust Survivors. It ends with her as a newly-minted American.

Mädchen in Uniform (1931)

Mädchen in Uniform, a surviving document of Weimar Germany’s gay rights movement, is a film made almost entirely by women. Based on a play by the German-Hungarian writer Christa Winsloe, it was directed by Leontine Sagan, and stars an all female cast. Almost banned and heavily censored in the United States until the 1970s, Mädchen in Uniform would probably qualify as a lost film. It was re-released in the United States in a low-quality VHS edition in 1978, and was shown in feminist groups in the 1970s and 1980s, but nobody really knows how much of the film is missing from its surviving 83 minutes. The only reason I know about it at all is because it was mentioned, but not shown, in a history class I took at Rutgers as an undergraduate in the 1980s. So when I noticed it on YouTube, I decided to watch it before Google took it down. It seems almost impossible to get anywhere else in the United States, although it is available as a Region 2 DVD in Europe.

Having watched Mädchen in Uniform twice, I can say without hesitation that it fully deserves its status as a “cult film.” Its not only a surviving document of the gay rights movement in late-Weimar Germany. It’s a great anti-authoritarian work of art, probably even better than Jean Vigo’s similar, but much more widely known Zero for Conduct. Hertha Thiele and Dorothea Wieck, its two stars, deserve to be better remembered, especially Thiele, whose career was effectively destroyed because of her refusal to make propaganda for Joseph Goebbels. Sadly, both women were 23-years-old in 1931, just coming into their prime the year before the Nazis took power. If it were more widely viewed, Mädchen in Uniform might even be controversial today. In an age of “sex panic,” where corporatist, neoliberal universities like Harvard and Northwestern ban sexual relations, even between consenting adults, a college professor without tenure might think twice before showing it to his or her undergraduates.

Mädchen in Uniform it set at a boarding school for the daughters of Prussian army officers. As you can probably imagine, it’s not exactly a “progressive” institution. On the contrary, it’s more like a prison. Upon arrival, the girls are required to turn in their money and civilian clothes, which are replaced by striped uniforms. Mail is heavily censored. The girls are always hungry. The headmistress, a grimly authoritarian, middle-aged woman named Fräulein von Nordeck zur Nidden, believes that deprivation builds character. “You are the daughters of German soldiers,” she tells her students. “I hope someday that you will be the mothers of German soldiers.” Any resemblance to the Kinder, Küche, Kirche ideology of the Nazis was, I’m sure, purely intentional. Winsloe and Sagan, one of whom was Jewish, and both of whom were gay, wisely left Germany after Hitler was appointed Chancellor.

If Fräulein von Nordeck zur Nidden represents the “bad cop,” then you can’t have a “bad cop” without a “good cop.” As the American film-critic B. Ruby Rich, who’s written what might be the only comprehensive study of Mädchen in Uniform, has pointed out, the young, beautiful, but stern Fräulein von Bernburg, a popular teacher played by Dorothea Wieck, is as important to maintaining the authoritarian power structure as the headmistress. If Fräulein von Nordeck zur Nidden creates a sense of emotional neediness by keeping the girls hungry and confiscating their personal possessions, then Fräulein von Bernburg exploits their emotional neediness by giving just a little back every day, a goodnight kiss on the forehead before they go to bed, a hand-me-down article of clothing, an occasionally wink at some petty gesture of rebellion, like love letters or photos of movie stars on the inside door of a locker. There is nothing explicitly sexual about Fräulein von Bernburg domination of the girls under her charge, but the sexual undercurrents are obvious to everybody but herself, for Fräulein von Bernburg is deeply in the closet.

The school is thrown into an uproar by the arrival of Manuela von Meinhardis, Hertha Thiele. Manuela is a charismatic, yet emotionally needy rebel, an adolescent girl with “no filters.” When she’s told to “curtsy” to the headmistress’s assistant, she shakes her hand instead. She impulsively blurts out “why” whenever she’s told about some arbitrary regulation. She’s a free-spirit and a natural actress. The other girls, especially Ilse von Westhagen, the school’s most vocal malcontent, are immediately to Manuela, who is the disruptive influence they’ve all been waiting for. Manuela is also quite openly gay, making no secret of her raging crush on Fräulein von Bernburg from the first moment she arrives.

Mädchen in Uniform is one movie where the worn-out cinematic technique of “shot reverse shot” works perfectly. The contrast between Thiele and Wieck is illuminating. Even though both actresses are 23, Wieck looks 35 and Thiele looks 14. Wieck is lordly and aristocratic, cold, Prussian, yet dominatingly beautiful with her black hair and chiseled features. Thiele is needy, vulnerable, devouring, a revolutionary, disruptive force underneath the blond school-girl. While Manuela and Fräulein von Bernburg are both individuals, it’s hard to miss the symbolism. Manuela is the German people under Wiemar, starved, defeated, needy. The headmistress von Nordeck zur Nidden is the old imperial order, the Prussian aristocracy. Fräulein von Bernburg is Adolf Hitler, the new charismatic leader, ready to step into the power-vacuum created by fall of the German monarchy.

The climax, and utopian moment, of Mädchen in Uniform comes after Manuela dazzles the assembled students and teachers as the star of the school play, a German knockoff of Romeo and Juliet. The kitchen staff, in celebration, spike the punch with alcohol, a well-intentioned, if misguided gesture on their part. Manuela loses all control, continuing her performance after the play is over, loudly declaiming her love for Fräulein von Bernburg in the presence of all the students and teachers, and, most importantly, the head mistress. If this were a boy’s school, the headmaster would probably just get a few of the older boys to beat up the troublesome rebel, and make him learn his place, but it’s a girl’s school. So the headmistress orders the teachers, and the other girls, to “shun” Manuela, not to speak to her, or associate with her in any way, a cruel punishment that drives the poor girl to the brink of suicide.

But the revolutionary moment has come. The other girls refuse to obey. Sisterhood is indeed powerful. After Manuela climbs up 8 flights of stairs, and threatens to jump to her death, her fellow students run after her and pull her back from the brink. What’s more, Fräulein von Bernburg, realizing that she’s almost caused a 14-year-old girl to kill herself, resigns her position. She loudly denounces the headmistress in front of the entire student body, giving up her emotional control over the girls, even as she admits to herself that she’s gay. The twisted Fräulein von Nordeck zur Nidden walks off into the darkness, her reign of terror at an end. Outside we hear the sound of bugles and marching, the men we never see in the film, reminding us, as B. Ruby Rich points out, that the rebels of Mädchen in Uniform have won a battle, but not the war.

A final note: Joseph Goebbels never outrightly banned Mädchen in Uniform, but he did demand that the film be edited to include an “unhappy ending,” Manuela’s suicide. Much of the film stock was destroyed anyway. What’s left of it largely survives today because Eleanor Roosevelt, yes that Eleanor Roosevelt, spoke up for its artistic merit and prevented it from being banned in the United States. Whatever that says about Mrs. Roosevelt’s own sexual orientation will, of course, remain in the realm of pure speculation.

Goodbye Chantal Akerman (1950-2015)

Chantal Akerman, one of the most aesthetically fascinating and innovative filmmakers who ever lived, was reported dead today. This is a huge loss for the world cinematic community. Other websites and newspapers have already published numerous articles on Akerman’s life, broad overviews of her work, appreciations. I presume they will continue to do so throughout the day. Given how little known I thought she was, the ubiquity and volume of the memorials has been heartening.

Since the other bases are being covered more extensively and faster than I could possibly cover them, I’m going to limit this essay to exploring a single shot.

Dennis Grunes, the spiritual forefather of this website, claimed Akerman’s 1993 documentary D’Est was the 8th greatest film ever made. A nearly wordless series of shots of people waiting for things in places that are never specified, the faces or shadowy outlines of figures give what needs to be given in terms of context.

The shot I’d like to discuss, for those following along at home, takes place, at least in the copy of the film I have, between  31:05 and 35:45, right after this portrait:

This portrait goes on for a solid minute. The old woman’s head tilts slightly to the right. The television plays unclear hyperactive gray scale images as her head continues to very slowly tilt. The specters of the past and future are present but resist solidifying into anything like a point; the woman in the shot in some sense simply is-the sense of a haunting is brought out as just another thing in the room.

This shot is a master class in film portraiture, up there with the portrait shots in Tarkovsky’s Mirror, but it’s the shot after it I’d like to discuss-a long tracking shot taken, I presume, from a bus or a train.

The shot goes on for a while. There’s nothing clever in it; she wasn’t a filmmaker given over to cleverness. She didn’t need it. But for 4 1/2 minutes, with a remarkable smoothness that gives a paradoxical sense of stillness to a shot that technically never stops moving, she follows the surfaces of a town. Snow is falling and the camera, as it moves past it, makes it look almost three dimensional, haze and patient enchantment all at once.

When I first saw this I was mesmerized; I never walked through a snow storm or took public transit quite the same way ever again. I can’t say I learned any special intellectual point from it; I simply learned to see differently. Perhaps this is what film teaches us at its most sublime-to see. The world seems more dynamic for having been cast in genuine straightforward mystery. Like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers’ feet, the effortless complexity of Akerman’s eye patiently dazzles as my own eye learns the steps and by the end dances in unison, changed. She teaches by example, her own eye dancing the intimate simplicity of a tango with the buildings and objects and people she passes.

The silhouette of a man behind the bare trees that line the sidewalk walks somewhere. People go about business we will never know. Signs blink and sometimes mirror each other. Grunes claimed the film was about the Jewish diaspora; others have claimed it’s about the uncertain future after the collapse of the two-state power structure after the Cold War and the uncertain future thereafter. I’m not sure the best way to approach this film is with the presumption it’s about any specific thing. There’s a context, but context takes one out of the simple jouissance, a jouissance that is not simple joy, horror, or anything. It doesn’t play hard to get; I hesitate to call it mysterious as that would imply it actually is headed toward a resolution. This is not the case, despite the tracking shot running right to left.

The shot ends then cuts to a crowd of people waiting.

What are they waiting for? On one level, yes, the bus. But on the level the image is engaging us…we don’t know. They don’t know. And if Akerman knew she had the good sense not to tell us.

The world looks different than it did. That’s enough.

Rest in peace, Chantal Akerman.

Olympia (1938)

(This review originally ran in the textbook Documentary Film: Contexts and Criticism, ed. Carl Rollyson.)

Leni Riefenstahl was in many ways the perfect filmmaker to represent the Nazi regime; her work signifies both the astonishing grandeur and formal perfection of their outward displays, and the heartless technocratic beliefs that lay underneath these sleek surfaces. This aesthetic is played out in all its hollowly technical forms throughout her 3 ½ hour chronicle of the 1936 Olympic Games, Olympia.

Olympia has many elements for which it can be commended; tellingly, all of these elements are purely in the technical realm. Her use of natural light is excellent; the action is never unclear and the surface is so sleek as to make the entire production unerringly smooth in spite of the necessary shakiness of the camera in most segments. She has a fairly set schematic of shots in each event, which varies little outside a couple bravura sequences(such as the ‘flying divers’ montage toward the film’s end.) The extremely abstract montage that begins the film shows Riefenstahl at her most engaged; even in Triumph of the Will, she seemed a filmmaker uniquely fascinated with turning reality into high abstraction; mythologizing it beyond the imperfect and mundane. Here she explicitly compares, by a carefully spliced transition, the glory of antiquity and the impressive physiques of the then current Olympic athletes. This opening; with its soft dream-like lighting, is the film’s peak; here Riefenstahl is allowed to fully explore her obsessions and thoughts without the need to represent reality in all its messiness(if such a heavily staged and orchestrated event as the Olympics can even be dubbed “reality”). Still, despite the impressive technique, her need to blatantly telegraph her meaning in each shot hampers any artistic ambiguity that might have enlivened this spectacle. Riefenstahl is a film artist capable of great displays which captivate audiences, but has little capacity for any sort of critical thought.

Especially troubling here is her portrayal of idealized forms; her focus here is entirely on the body, not the mind or the imaginative expressiveness that differentiates men. Outside some elongated focuses on her boyfriend, none of the athletes photographed seem like distinct people, but rather are just running or jumping meat. Riefenstahl is no Thomas Eakins. She sees no spirituality in motion; her rowers are shot from the back more often than not; no internal liveliness is conveyed. And for all the fuss made about her background as a dancer, she shows none of the sensitivity and smaller moments which define the artistic peaks of that form; her ideal is a purely physical one defined by a masculinely characterized dominance and stoic poker faces. Her women are androgynous with hard expressions, and more delicate and characteristically feminine movements, such as many of the gymnastics events, were purposely cut out of the film.

The ability to capture the unexpected and the extended period of editing that documentary film offer as an advantage over fiction film hold no interest to Riefenstahl. All of her editing is done solely with the intent of manipulating the audience in the most shallow and superficial ways. A cloyingly melodramatic score runs throughout and each event is edited as a rapid series of repetitive actions, which she usually removes from context so as to deliver an aimless surge of adrenaline to the viewer.

To further this end, she cuts to crowd reaction shots, which traverse the spectrum from bored distraction to fervent screams punctuated by violent gesticulation. Far from offering a self-reflexive commentary or meditation on the rather tribal nature of spectatorship in such a setting, she uses these shots to color her previous rushes of motion with a simple and palpable emotion for the audience to feel. Granted, it is a bit excessive to ask for a critical view on the simplifying nature of crowds from the woman who was Hitler’s filmmaker. Were she possessed of such a capability for reflection she might’ve done the ethical thing like Fritz Lang and left before the complete downfall of Weimar Germany.

Though she comes up with a number of gimmicks like digging trenches to create smooth tracking shots and uses some time-worn tricks like reverse angle shots to liven up the repetitions, they still start to wear down even the most sports crazed viewer; this is no doubt part of why she decided to break it into two parts. Even split over several viewing periods, this is far too much of a technical exercise to inspire any more devotion than an uncritical appreciation of aesthetics; a joy at soulless mastery and animal appreciation of idealized forms. If World War II should have shown the world anything, its the dangerous nature of such a combination. It preys on the weaknesses of men’s minds, and tellingly this film’s greatest aesthetic legacy is in advertising. The innovations seen here are now used to create subconscious desire in the masses for Gatorade or underwear. Not unsuccessfully, but one would hope for art to aspire to higher realms than this.

Riefenstahl’s fiercely claims that she was thinking in artistic terms; but this intent doesn’t exonerate shallow art. After all, wasn’t Hitler convinced he was an artist at the academy?

Crackie (2009)

(This is a column I wrote a while ago, hence the reference to the long since passed MoMA screenings. Putting it up for completeness in the archives.)

MOMA decided to use this as the opener to their annual Canadian cinema showcase Canadian Front which is going on this week. At the 4pm, middle of the week screening I attended, supposedly the North American premiere, there were perhaps thirty people in the cavernous downstairs screening room. By the time the film had finished this number had been halved.

And though I’d like to say this was because the audience had been confronted with a visionary piece of cinema they couldn’t handle and would someday years later hail as an unappreciated masterpiece, I can very confidently say this is not the case. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Lifetime Channel picked this up, what with its sloppy sentimentality, faux-profundity and seemingly unending stream of loose-focus flashback shots.

The film details the day to day life of a girl (played competently by Meghan Greeley) named Mitsy who is going to school to be a hairdresser and is inexplicably attracted to a white trash man who works behind the counter at a take-out place named Duffy. Duffy offers her his dog, and to get across the point Duffy is the evil male in this movie, he tosses food in front of this chained up dog. Mitsy has sex with Duffy to get the dog which he originally seemed to want to give her for nothing. The poor dog, unable to take the wholly tone-deaf direction White gave to the rest of the actors, gives the film’s best performance and when it gets shot in the end (since nothing screams emotional profundity and originality like killing a dog at the end of your film), which the script wants us to take as a sign of Mitsy abandoning her self-destructive tendencies, just comes across as the dog being only the latest victim of these dreary melodramatic caricatures that the film wants to pass off as characters. Mary Walsh, as Mitsy’s domineering grandmother, gives a performance that is the most bombastic and unpleasant I’ve encountered this year, with an accent more suited to a stand-up comedy routine or cartoon leprechaun than a serious dramatic performance.

White seems to think that the only way she can get across the tragedy of her characters is to make them all prostitutes or drug addicts and surround them with garbage. This is the worst sort of condescending phony stance one can take with such material.

Also, though in most other films this issue would barely merit mention, this film had absolutely the worst foley work I’ve ever heard. On top of this, music is overused to provide the emotional responses that should’ve come from solid performances and well done photography. Instead we get the bullshit “reverberated acoustic guitar+picture of trees=poetry” Windows 95 screensaver aesthetic that has overtaken more lazy and unimaginative filmmakers as of late.

Why did the MOMA screen this? Is this really the best Canada can produce?

Hester Street (1975)

While there may be some truth to the idea that Jews invented the Hollywood studio system, there’s no question about what ethnic group owns the narrative around immigration. Like a a great ship, The Godfather (1972) and the Godfather Part II (1974) have carried everything in their wake. Organized crime is now the key metaphor for immigration, assimilation, and the American dream, even for non-Italians. Cubans in Brian De Palma’s Scarface, Mexicans in Edward James Olmos’s American Me, and the Irish in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York all follow in the footsteps of Michael Corleone. Unlike Michael Corleone, they all die horrible, violent deaths. But that just goes to show you what happens when an outsider tries to act like a “made” man with connections.

Hester Street, Joan Micklin Silver’s low-budget black and white adaptation of Abraham Cahan’s novella Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto, is a feminist “appropriation” of the immigration and assimilation narrative. Released only a year after Godfather Part II and beautifully shot — It almost looks like a lost, early film by Jim Jarmusch. — it tells the story of four Eastern European Jewish immigrants living on the Lower East Side of New York in the 1890s. Jake, played by Steven Keats, is a superficially Americanized young man with a taste for dancing, women, and smart outfits. He works in a small tailor’s shop sewing clothes. Fast and efficient, he thrives under the “piecework” system. Bernstein, a former Yeshiva student who works in the same shop, is different. He doesn’t care about money, and only does the minimum amount of work he needs to do to survive. He’d rather be home studying the Talmud. Bernstein is bullied, not only by his boss, an ex-peddler who resents educated men, but by Jake, who takes him under his wing as a kind of “greenhorn” little brother. Joan Micklin Silver doesn’t side with Jake or Bernstein. Hester Street is such a quietly subversive little movie that it actually endorses the idea that doing the minimal amount of work you can get away with so you can get home and study is just as good as working your ass off to “get ahead.”

Mamie, Jake’s mistress — He has a wife back home in Russia — is another assimilated Russian Jew. For Jake, whose real name is “Yankle,” Mamie, who speaks English “like a Yankee,” is the American dream. For Mamie, very much the typical American woman, Jake is that sexy bad boy she can’t help but fall in love with, even though he treats her like shit and uses her for her money. Things get more complicated when Jake gets a letter, which he needs read to him because he’s illiterate, informing him that his wife, and little boy, are both on their way to New York. He asks Mamie for a loan of 25 dollars, a lot of money back then, for an apartment, and a set of used furniture. Mamie half suspects she’s being played, but gives it to him anyway. After all, he might be setting up an apartment and buying furniture because he’s planning on proposing marriage. Jake also asks Bernstein to move in with him. He needs the rent money. Bernstein who’s already looking for a room, agrees. A bed in the kitchen and a place to keep his books is all he really needs.

Carol Cane, who was nominated for Best Actress for her portrayal of Jake’s timid, immigrant wife Gitl, is so good she almost throws the film out of balance. In her own quiet way, she dominates Hester Street as completely as Daniel Day Lewis dominated Gangs of New York. But Hester Street is a much better film than Gangs of New York, if only because, unlike Bill the Butcher, Gitl is the hero, the center of Joan Micklin Silver’s feminist message.I would guess her performance comes off even better today than it did in 1975. In 1975, it might have been halfway believable Jake would have preferred Mamie to Gitl. In 2015, however, Jewish Americans have been so thoroughly assimilated into the American mainstream for so long that Jake’s pride in his ability be mistaken for a gentile almost seems a little quaint.

Gitl’s transformation from backward, superstitious Russian immigrant to self-confident American feminist, on the other hand, is a genuinely radical “appropriation” of the story of the American Dream. Silver may have discarded Cahan’s social democratic politics, and Hester Street may be a quiet, understated movie, but both are strengths, not weaknesses. Cahan’s political becomes Joan Micklin Silver’s personal. Gitl’s victory is not the revolution. She gets to marry Bernstein, the man she genuinely loves. She successfully pressures Jake into giving her alimony and child support. Yet it is the revolution. It was difficult enough for a woman to break away from an abusive husband in 1975, let alone in 1892. Orthodox rabbinical courts aren’t exactly known for handing out equitable divorce settlements to women, even in 2015. Jake isn’t a villain, just a clueless working-class man with the wrong values. He gets what he wants, to marry Mamie and to be a real American. But Silver clearly thinks Gitl has better ideals than her ex-husband’s.

I suppose if Hester Street has any weaknesses it’s no fault of Silver’s. Zionism didn’t exist in 1892. So she could hardly be expected to work it into the narrative. But the old Jewish Daily Forward under Abraham Cahan was a social democratic newspaper, not the liberal Zionist newspaper it is today. By not confronting Cahan’s politics, by making the central conflict about “old world Jewish values” and “American capitalist values,” not about socialism and capitalism, Silver opens the door to a kind of chauvinistic Jewish nationalism. If Hester Street has never even remotely threatened the Italian American gangster epic’s hold on the immigration and assimilation narrative in American cinema, it’s not only the fact that it was a small, low-budget movie. It’s that Silver’s nostalgia for the Yiddish speaking world of the old Lower East Side seems almost as quaint as Jake’s pride in his ability to be mistaken for a gentile.

Silence of the Lambs (1991) Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

A decade after having its reputation damaged by the Church Committee and revelations about Cointelpro, the FBI turned to turned to Hollywood. In films like The Untouchables (1987), Mississippi Burning (1988), and The Fugitive (1993), federal agents no longer spy on anti-war-activists or put microphones under Martin Luther King’s bed. On the contrary, they liberate Chicago from the mob, smash the Ku Klux Klan, and help an innocent man clear his name.

Directed by the gifted Johnathan Demme, Silence of the Lambs (1991) is probably the best of the pro-FBI films that came out in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Jodie Foster, who stars as the plucky young Clarice Starling, puts a feminist face on a government agency better known for conservative white men in conservative dark suits. She not only rescues the daughter of a United States Senator from a perverse, wannabee transgender serial killer, she transcends her own working class background, confronts her childhood demons, and lets all the sexist jerks in the J. Edgar Hoover Building know that a new order has come to Washington.

Unfortunately for the 3000 people who died n 9/11, a new order had not come to the FBI. In the 1990s, under the incompetent Louis Freeh, the bureau acted like the same old FBI. They bungled the siege at Waco, managed to turn the Neo-Nazis at Ruby Ridge into sympathetic victims, leaked Richard Jewell’s name to the media after he had been falsely accused of the Olympic Park bombing, and failed to arrest the hijackers who would eventually destroy the World Trade Center.

In Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow tries to do for the CIA what Johnathan Demme did for the FBI in Silence of the Lambs. Bigelow, who had made her own pro-FBI film in 1991, the excellent Point Break, only partly succeeds. Jessica Chastain is an attractive actress, but she’s no Jodie Foster. Where Silence of the Lambs is tightly written and skillfully paced, Zero Dark Thirty is dull, bloated, confusing, frustrating, and overly long. Silence of the Lambs, had not one, but two utterly terrifying villains. With the purely fictional Hannibal Lecter and Jame Gumb, Demme gets to lay it on as thick as he wants, to depict evil in such a broad, vivid, over the top manner that the ghost of Edgar Allen Poe is turning in his grave, not out of frustration, but out of jealousy.

Bigelow, on the other hand, who, apparently, was fed leads by sources within the CIA itself, is writing in chains. Anything she does to play up Osama Bin Laden as an evil mastermind is likely to pale before the real life images of the World Trade Center collapsing onto itself. Any attempt to give us an Arab terrorist as terrifying as the Anglo Saxon Jame Gumb would bring accusations of racism. Compared to Jodie Foster’s interviews with Hannibal Lecter, where she overcomes her fears of white, male domination, Jessica Chastain’s participation in the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” (that’s “torture” for people not in the government or the corporate media) is just dull. Hannibal Lecter is locked up in a glass cage, but his overpowering presence is more than enough to convince us that the word is a dangerous place. When Maya watches a hunky, bearded male CIA operative waterboard a suspected Al Qaeda operative, or lock him up in a box, she’s a mere spectator in a process that looks like simple cruelty, and turns out to be useless anyway. Maya, like Clarice Starling, breaks the case while bonding with a female friend, but after Bin Laden’s location is found, she’s out of the picture. Clarice Starling shoots Jame Gumb herself. Maya watches the Bin Laden raid on TV.

What’s more, in light of Seymour Hersh’s new article in The London Review of Books, we now know that the official narrative about the Bin Laden assassination is every bit as contrived as the official narrative of the Jessica Lynch rescue in 2003. The CIA did not find Osama Bin Laden because a plucky young feminist bulled her way through a sexist male bureaucracy to get to the truth, but because a turncoat Pakistani walked into CIA headquarters to collect a 25 million dollar reward. Back in 2012, Zero Dark Thirty was widely debated over whether or not it was apologizing for torture, but the torture scenes were CIA misdirection. That the CIA used torture was already widely known.

The reason for the misdirection is that Barack Obama’s accounts of Bin Laden’s death were mostly lies. The Bin Laden assassination did not take place under the nose of Pakistani intelligence, but with their reluctant cooperation. What’s more, Obama disregarded the carefully worked-out cover story that would have allowed the Pakistanis to save face. Instead of letting the military take Bin Laden’s cadaver up to the tribal area of Northern Pakistan, where he could have been “discovered” after being killed by a drone, Obama went public with the assassination the day after it happened. Bin Laden probably wasn’t buried at sea, and he certainly didn’t die in a dramatic fire fight while using his wife as a human shield. There was no cache of documents that revealed an ongoing terrorist operation against the United States. By 2011, Bin Laden, whether a prisoner of the Pakistanis or effectively immobilized in his elaborate hideout, was largely out of the loop.

While Zero Dark Thirty does not show Bin Laden grabbing an AK-47 and using his wife as a human shield — the Navy Seals find it still hanging from a wall — it doesn’t show much of anything. Like Clarice Starling’s final confrontation with Jame Gumb, the raid on Bin Laden’s compound takes place in the murky darkness. But it’s crushingly dull. At some point, the viewer wants to say “just kill Bin Laden and get it over with already.” Just about the only thing Bigelow does manage to convey effectively is the now debunked claim of the treasure trove of documents. While the Navy Seals rush to pack up the hard drives, filing cabinets, and VHS cassettes in plastic bags, we’re told that the Pakistanis have scrambled their F16s. It’s probably fiction, but it does not only succeed in building tension, but in convincing us that the Seals found so much information in Abbottabad that they couldn’t get it all out in time.

But if Zero Dark Thirty is a failure as a movie, it does succeed as a bridge between the pro-FBI but liberal and feminist Silence of the Lambs and purely reactionary Lone Survivor and American Sniper. If the SWAT team in Silence of the Lambs is vaguely ridiculous, then the Navy Seals in Zero Dark Thirty are skilled professionals. They will reappear in the mountains of Afghanistan, fighting to survive after a botched raid on a Taliban compound, and then again in the form of the bearded, newly bulked up Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle. If Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling appears at the end of Silence of the Lambs, no longer a trainee but a full-fledged “Special Agent,” then Jessica Chastain’s Maya simply gets on a plane to be flown to a destination of her choice, but one she has not yet decided. The plucky young female FBI agent has established a new order. The plucky young female CIA “targeter” may have found Osama Bin Laden, but there’s no graduation party, no triumph, no final call from Hannibal Lecter indicating more adventures to come. It’s time for her to step aside and let the men take over.

A Dry White Season (1989)

Anybody who’s seen Un Chien Andalou by Luis Buñuel is familiar with the cinematic technique.

A black man is being tortured by two white policemen, but we see him only from behind. We hear his screams. The police taunt him in a bored, indifferent way. We know he’s been water boarded, and, perhaps, beaten, but there’s not very much we can see by looking at the back of his head. The door opens. It’s a black messenger. The two policemen scream at him never to come in without knocking. The horrified expression on the messenger’s face tells us this isn’t the kinder, gentler torture we saw in Zero Dark Thirty. This is hard core Gestapo stuff. Later in the film we see what went on before the camera pulled away. The movie flashes back to the torture we had witnessed earlier, only, this time, we see it from the messenger’s point of view, from the front. The torture victim has had most of his face caved in. His eyeball has fallen out. It’s hanging down onto his cheek. His hands are broken. His body has been contorted so violently that even if he’s released — and we know he won’t be — he’ll spend the rest of his life in a wheel chair. He’s a dead man, moments away from the end.

A Dry White Season by Euzhan Palcy, the first black woman to direct a film for a major Hollywood studio, and the only woman ever to have directed Marlon Brando, is such a vivid depiction of apartheid South Africa that I’m surprised it’s not better known. Rarely have I seen a film that so perfectly captures the viciousness of a police state. Then again, perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. Nelson Mandela’s funeral notwithstanding, we don’t talk much these days about the struggle against apartheid. The film itself, which is about the ways people avoid confronting reality, about the ways we manage to ignore the state violence that’s necessary for our wealth and privilege in a racist, colonial settler economy, is probably the best explanation about why it’s not better known.

The time is 1976, the year of the Soweto uprising. Donald Sutherland is Ben du Toit, a former rugby star with Suzette, a college age daughter, and Johan, a younger son. He teaches history at an exclusive, and, naturally, all white private school. Du Toit is a decent man with a good heart, but, like all white South Africans, he’s learned not to see what’s right in front of his nose. Du Toit’s world is placid, idyllic, sheltered. Soon, reality hits, and hits hard. Du Toit employs a gardener named Gordon Ngubene. Ngubene, in turn, has a son Johan’s age. The two boys are good friends. Ngubene doesn’t want his son getting involved in politics. But in the South Africa of the 1970s that’s easier said than done. Black men and boys don’t have the luxury of being apolitical. Jonathan, Ngubene’s son attends a segregated school. Du Toit is generous enough to pay his tuition, but the curriculum is Afrikaans, not English, an intentional policy that effectively isolates blacks from the larger world, and Jonathan wants none of it. He joins a protest. He’s caned. Gordon comes to du Toit for help, but du Toit doesn’t take him seriously. He doesn’t take the word of a black man seriously. He also knows, keep down inside, that once he sides with the black majority, his whole life will be turned upside down. Let it go, he advises. He doesn’t quite understand that Gordon can’t just let it go. Jonathan participates in the famous protest march that led to the Soweto massacre. The police pick him up. He’s sent to prison, where he dies under torture. Gordon comes back to Du Toit, who agrees to investigate.

The biggest strength of A Dry White Season is how well Euzhan Palcy communicates to us what a momentous event the Soweto protests were. The black majority is viciously repressed. But the white minority is terrified of the inevitable end of the apartheid regime. They close ranks. Du Toit’s white privilege has its limits. He’s warned, subtly at first, then not so subtly, that there’s a line he shouldn’t cross, that, once he does, he puts himself in danger. Du Toit knows this, but, to his credit, he presses on, helping Gordon find his son, and then, after Gordon himself is murdered, trying to get justice. He hires a famous anti-Apartheid lawyer named Ian McKenzie, Marlon Brando in a brilliant, almost forgotten performance. McKenzie, a flamboyant, William Kunstler style radical knows the “justice” system in South Africa is a sham. “Every time I win a case,” he warns Du Toit, “they just change the rules. Nevertheless, he decides to take the case, more for Du Toit’s education than out of any belief he’ll get justice for Gordon. What follows is the film’s best scene, one of the great courtroom scenes in all of cinema. Again and again, McKenzie demolishes the state’s witnesses. Again and again, the judge simply overrules him. Brando is just magnificent. Every once of his then considerable bulk expresses the absurdity of being a lawyer inside a corrupt legal system. His words and his manner have a revolutionary fire you never quite saw in Burn or in Viva Zapata, his 10 minutes on screen such a dominating presence you remember him long after he walks off stage.

But there will be no justice for Gordon. Nothing else in A Dry White Season quite matches Brando’s performance, but Donald Sutherland still manages to convey what it’s like for a man who’s taken the first step out of his gated, all white community, a first step that’s, in effect, a final step. There’s no going back. There’s no fence straddling. You can’t be a liberal in apartheid South Africa. You either stand for justice, and get crushed beneath the full weight of the police state, or you stand with the fascists. Du Toit stands for justice. His young son comes along. His wife and daughter side with the status quo. They just want things to go back to the way they were before the murder of Gordon’s son rudely intrudes on their sheltered existence. Suzette, Du Toit’s daughter, is a reprehensible human being who betrays her own father to the secret police, but, while we don’t understand the way she feels inside, we understand her motives. She wants the impossible, moral innocence in an unjust world. A Dry White Season demonstrates how, by her reluctance to get involved, she becomes one with the torturers, the murderers, and the police.