José Padilha: Truth and Daring

Despite his impressive track record in documentary, Padilha recognizes the benefits of fiction as a wider reaching and more appealing vehicle for conveying what most people prefer not think about.

Padilha on the set of Tropa de Elite
José Padilha on the set of Tropa de Elite (Photo by David Prichard)

José Padilha’s two fiction features about the police who patrol the frontlines of Brazil’s drug war broke box-office records for domestic films in a country dominated by Hollywood-produced fare. The first, Tropa de Elite (Elite Squad, 2007), earned $20-million, the most for any Brazil-made films released that year, as well as garnered the Golden Bear Award at the Berlin Film Festival. Its sequel, Tropa de Elite 2 (2010), was the country’s submission for the 2012 Academy Awards and earned an unprecedented $103 million, more than twice the box-office take of the next highest ranking Brazilian-made film, a gender-reversal comedy starring two renowned telenovela actors; almost three times Dois Filhos de Francisco, a fictional account of the lives of two beloved Brazilian musicians; and more than six times 2002’s City of God, the last Brazilian feature to become an international hit. Still, Padilha would rather make documentaries. In a 2009 interview he told me that he would have made a nonfiction film from the best-selling book co-written by former members of the specialized police force, if he hadn’t feared for his life.

Having studied math and physics in school, Padilha later switched from an unsatisfying banking career to filmmaking, figuring that documentaries would allow him to combine his interests in science and reality. “I thought making a documentary would be easy,” he admits, smiling. He was raised in an elite cultural milieu that included his godfather, playwright Nelson Rodrigues, brother of sportswriter Mário Filho, whose name graces Rio de Janeiro’s storied soccer stadium (nicknamed Maracana). Rodrigues’s provocative plays are credited with modernizing Brazilian theater in the 1940s and have been adapted often for film and television. Rodrigues’s own sons made films and Padilha’s father, a scientist turned businessman, executive-produced two of them. Padilha says he “grew up around film sets,” but when it came time to make his own, no decent film school had yet been established in Brazil.

Padilha’s background in finance helped him to maximize the country’s generous tax incentives, established in 1994, to fund his first project. Knowing it was difficult to raise money in the U.S. at that time, he enticed Oscar-winner Nigel Noble from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts to direct a documentary based on Marcos Prado’s award-winning photo series about charcoal production. Padilha also was aware of Noble’s impatience for television commissioning editors who interfere in aesthetic decisions. “Nigel was famous for throwing a roll of negative at a National Geographic producer. We recognized the same spirit in each other,” Padilha says. Noble agreed to make The Charcoal People and, at the same time, teach the aspiring filmmaker. “It was a naïve move,” says Padilha, laughing. “[It] turned out to be the most expensive film school ever.”

The Charcoal People by Nigel Noble

The resulting documentary is a beautiful, moving portrait of the laborers who subsist making charcoal and an elegy to the forests sacrificed for the process. It went on to compete at Sundance. “We thought it was easy,” he confesses of his budding career. National Geographic’s Explorer Channel then commissioned his next project, to be based once again Prado’s photographs. “Initially, [they thought] who are they? What guarantees these Brazilians won’t take Nat Geo money and run,” Padilha tells me. He called up Noble and asked him to contact the channel on his behalf. Os Pantaneiros, about the vanishing cowboy culture and wildlife habitat of Brazil’s sprawling wetlands, became the most popular doc on Brazilian TV at the time. Padilha and Prado’s partnership, Zazen Productions, has since yielded award-winning documentaries by both directors, Padilha’s Tropa de Elite features, and, expected in April of 2012, Prado’s first fiction feature, Artificial Paradises, about the ecstasy generation.

Padilha is still best-known in the United States for the Emmy-winning Bus 174 (2002). The BBC Storyville-commissioned film makes use of plentiful news footage shot of a bus hijacking in Rio de Janeiro, including the image of police shooting and killing one of the hostages. Padilha reconstructed the chaotic scene and intercut it with a narrative of the life of the hijacker, a street kid who had survived the infamous Candelária massacre in 1993. It is not only a skillful condemnation of Rio police’s bungling and cruelty but also revealed to Brazilians, who were prone to vilify the hijacker, the cycle of poverty that led this hopeless young man to violence. The incident was adapted into a fiction film by Bruno Barreto, Última Parada 174 (2008).

Garapa (2009) covers a different kind of systemic violence. Made to put a human face on the statistics of chronic hunger, it follows three mothers in Brazil’s drought-stricken northeastern state of Ceará as they deal with the prolonged absence of food, drunken fathers, and indifference of politicians who would gain little by helping a population who lack the documents to vote. Padilha shot on 35mm black-and-white film using only available light and finished it with no musical soundtrack, creating a kind of poetic cinema of deprivation. The film, named for the mixture of sugar and water used to stave off hunger, bears intimate witness to these families’ heartbreaking reality. Padilha told me that each family’s story unfolds with few temporal liberties taken, as he wanted to avert criticism of trying magnifying the problem in the editing room. After its premiere in São Paulo in 2009, he told the audience: “I get no pleasure showing this film.” Despite its artistry, the film is very hard to watch. One Brazilian journalist wrote after seeing it, “I’m not a masochist, but to take a beating by Padilha has only been good for Brazilian cinema.”

Padilha.Secrets of the Tribe.Wordpress
Secrets of the Tribe

The next beating was sustained by an academic discipline. Secrets of the Tribe (2010), his second BBC commission, is a rat-a-tat-tat juxtaposition of illustrious talking heads debating accusations of genocide, pederasty, and other atrocities leveled at anthropologists in Patrick Tierney’s book-length exposé, Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon. The interviews quickly digress into childish personal attacks. “Anthropology’s methodology is totally flawed. Each anthropologist finds exactly the evidence to fit their paradigm,” says Padilha. “To destroy the data you have to destroy the person.” The documentary would be comical if the situation wasn’t so tragic for the Yanomami, the native culture that has been the subject of intense study since “first contact” was made in the 1940s. In Secrets, the Yanomami finally get a voice: “You people,” one tribesman says at the beginning, “should be ignorant of us.”

Despite his impressive track record in documentary, Padilha recognizes the benefits of fiction as a wider reaching and more appealing vehicle for conveying what most people prefer not think about. Both of his Tropa de Elite films incited spirited discussions in the national media about the use of force by Rio’s BOPE, the elite squad of the title, which has largely been praised by the middle and upper classes who value their own safety first. Last year, when the city began expelling drug dealers from certain favelas and installing an occupation force, Padilha appeared on a panel news show discussing the pacification process. News footage captured during one of the invasions could have been a scene in either Tropa de Elite: a group of unarmed men, some bare-chested, escaping through the tall grass were picked off from a helicopter by police with automatic rifles. Once you purge the slums of drug dealers, I recall Padilha saying on the program, you are left with the police.

Reflecting on Padilha’s body of work so far, it’s tempting to see a parallel with his godfather, no stranger to controversy himself. Unknown in the United States, Rodrigues wrote what he called “unpleasant theater,” plays that strip away society’s polite veneer, revealing hypocrisy, corruption, and depravity simmering just beneath. That is to say, Rodrigues pissed off a lot of people, in particular the Church’s bishops, and many of his works suffered censorship and critical vituperation. As the world has recently seen club-wielding, pepper-spraying cops assaulting peaceful protesters across the United States, it seems fitting that Padilha’s first project for Hollywood is slated to be a remake of Robocop, whose script is currently in development. Maybe a Padilha-style beating will also be good for American cinema.

—  Shari Kizirian © 2012

Originally published in February 2012 and reposted on Fandor in February 2014 for the opening of Robocop


Marking Cinematic Time in Christian Marclay’s The Clock

The point is quickly grasped—time marches on. Still, the masterful editing keeps the viewer in thrall, waiting for some suspenseful moment to be resolved in the usual way.

The Clock.Wordpress

Three men press themselves into the shadows of a Manhattan garden apartment. The woman who lives there has returned unexpectedly, the clandestine intruders breathlessly watching as she makes her way down a short set of stairs through the living room to the kitchen, reaching out just above the sink to a clock affixed to the wall. This scene from 1967’s Wait Until Dark is further cut into more nail-biting fragments by Christian Marclay for his single-channel video installation The Clock (2010), a 24-hour-long assemblage of movie (and some TV) footage featuring the appearances, both starring and supporting, of timepieces. The suspense of the scene in the original Terence Young crime drama is built around two of the hidden men discovering that the woman (played by Audrey Hepburn) is blind. For The Clock, Marclay replaces that suspense for his own: where is the clock in the scene and what is the time.

Data stored in a hard-drive and controlled by a computer program, The Clock is synchronized with the actual timeframe during which it plays and comprises thousands of clips culled from cinema’s earliest days through today. Back in July 2012, standing on the sweltering New York sidewalk outside the David Rubenstein Atrium waiting to see The Clock, I had a commonplace preoccupation with the time and was pleased to see volunteers managing the snaking queue, fielding questions about what we were about to experience and making projections about how long we could expect to wait. After learning I’d see the inside of the screening room in about two hours (I was lucky that day; the next time I got in line the prediction was five hours), I asked, “Is there a list of clips available?” Even as I asked, I realized any such list would be voluminous as an encyclopedia. None, I was told, is available.

The cinephile in me (some might say pendant) held out hope—a working list of some sort, the mother of all cinematic shot lists, must exist somewhere. Inside the darkened gallery as I watched, first, crook-necked from the floor at the base of the screen and then squashed, alongside three other spectators, in a small sofa with the back cushions removed, I knew, of course, the point was not to identify the clips. But I couldn’t help myself and, as snippets of films both familiar and unrecognized appeared, I continued to wish that my seat-mates were not strangers but rather my knowledgeable moviegoing friends willing to shout out the titles I couldn’t name.

Notwithstanding my impulse to treat The Clock as some sort of trivia game for ubernerds (one I would certainly lose), I found myself glued to my uncomfortable spot for reasons other than cataloguing film titles.

A young boy navigates an underwater world in what looks like documentary or ephemeral footage. He comes across a large, menacing eel. He reaches out to it and, suddenly, a startling noise. I jump, expecting to see the boy’s stump of an arm, a languorous blood stain spreading under the sea. Instead, a door slams behind Stellan Skarsgård as he exits a glass-plated building in some blue-hued world. There’s in fact nothing to be scared of, nothing gruesome to witness. Even the trench coat-garbed Skarsgård, no doubt up to no-good in the original movie, isn’t on the screen long enough to do harm. The split-second fright dissipates and The Clock ticks on.

Ever since Méliès stumbled upon the substitution edit for The Vanishing Lady (1897), a simple cut from one thing to another, and its endless refinements, have provided more than a century of movie magic. Marclay makes use of these classic editing techniques to mash together scenes with otherwise tenuous connections, demonstrating a mastery of continuity. A man opens a door to enter a room, a woman leaves another room through a different door in another cinematic world. Sounds from one scene are overlaid on the next scene from a different movie, constantly subverting expectations. Not only does the eel not bite the hand, but there is no hand, no aquatic boy, no longer any eel. Technicolor jump cuts to grainy black-and-white. Twenty-four frames per second crashes against 18. Widescreen squished next to 4×3. Poor reproduction quality right up against the pristine. Among all the variations, some connective tissue can always be identified: motion, sound, circumstance; the slamming sound (be it eel jaws or door jambs), blue water replaced by the blue gleam of a sky reflected in office-building windows. In The Clock, Marclay wields the tools of narrative cinema much more effectively than in any story film I’ve seen in a long while.

Before you can even identify the technique used—never mind the actors, films, scenes, decades—Marclay is on to the next, and the next. The point is quickly grasped—time marches on. Still, the masterful editing keeps the viewer in thrall, waiting for some suspenseful moment to be resolved in the usual way: “The woman we are ripping off is blind!” “Will the boy escape the eel at the last minute or lose his hand?” But there is no story. Nothing is resolved, no climax, no denouement, no plotline, no payoff of any kind. The doors lead to a nowhere where nothing ever happens. The only narrative satisfaction that could possibly be derived is, oh, there’s the clock and that is the time. Yet, for a bit longer than the duration of the latest Bond film, I sat transfixed. (Editors take note.)

While time nor Marclay stand still, he crafts some extended cinema moments, changing up the rhythm of merely marking time (yes, yes, much in the way we perceive time as elastic, stretching on with boredom or pain, accelerating during the good times). In addition to Wait Until Dark—incidentally by the director of the first James Bond film, Dr. No—I am treated to another Audrey Hepburn film when the party scene from Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961, Blake Edwards) makes a compressed appearance. Marclay keeps the soundtrack in tact—the groovy Mancini music, as well as the conversations and tinkling cocktail party noise—as the camera bobs around the swells and bohemians as in the original. He also uses the watch wrapped around one partygoer’s ankle as a punchline, much in the same way Blake Edwards does in the film.

The strong hope of seeing something familiar, possibly beloved, makes it even more difficult to leave. A clip from something that looks like Paul Fejos’s Lonesome has me trying to spot the silents among the clips. What time does the clock say in Safety Last!? I try to figure it out based on the physics of Harold Lloyd dangling from the minute hand, possibly missing the actual appearance of the clip (2:45 pm according to one still from the film). During my second session (around 11:00 am to sometime after 1:30 pm), Broadway Danny Rose strides down 7th Avenue, past a black-and-white Carnegie Deli to a hotdog cart, in a relatively lengthy sequence rendered surreal as it is stripped of the familiar neurotic patter and American Song Book selections omnipresent in a Woody Allen movie. Another New York food cart quickly replaces it, this one in color. It could be a good time to leave, on a high note. But somehow I don’t. To my delight, I’m rewarded a few clips later, when a younger, longer-haired Woody Allen makes his way up the same stretch of 7th Avenue.

Amid all my attempts to memorize clips and transitions, try to recall a title, my mind does occasionally wander. Is that the best quality clip available? Oh, dear, is that film in danger? How timeless will The Clock prove to be? Will the technology exist in 50 years for it even to be shown? I wonder if the intermittent blinking of tiny blue screens is the audience making sure The Clock synchs with real time—it does, with some minuscule warps—or, more disturbingly, actually checking the time. (As one friend frustratingly exclaimed after another friend could not say when she had left the installation: “There was a big clock on the wall!”) I also wonder if I’m wasting my time, the point having been driven home long ago about elasticity, implacability, tyranny of time. I have more to do today. I really should get up and go. And then, what will I be missing when I do?

I have a split-second epiphany that my fixation to name film titles and remember how the clips are linked might be my way of trying to turn back The Clock, of releasing Marclay’s hold on me, a desire to control time itself. I try to let it go. The next bit recaptures my attention, a huge clock in a black-and-white conference room somewhere in 1970s Asia (late 1960s?), and I’m once again ticking off the minutes to Marclay’s cinematic time.

Even all these months later, I occasionally search the Web for a wiki, dedicated denizens compiling, then verifying, a shot list. Hoping to jar my memory about the clips I saw, perhaps correcting misremembered moments—Was that really an aquatic boy or was it a girl? What time was the Breakfast at Tiffany’s cocktail party? Did I see that in my first session of my second? Can I be mistaking Broadway Danny Rose for some other Woody Allen character on 7th Avenue? I scan the first two pages of Google’s results and then think, what a waste of time.

— Shari Kizirian © 2012

Originally published December 2012 on the editorial pages of Fandor

A Camera in Hand, an Idea in Mind

Eryk Rocha’s archival documentary “Cinema Novo” pulses with the lifeblood of Brazil’s vital cinema movement.

Clip from Carlos Diegues’s Os Herdeiros in Cinema Novo

In the 1950s a group of filmmakers from across Brazil unhappy with the Hollywood-style aspirations of its national industry got together and decided to make a change. The stories in glossy packaging that might seem universal to Paramount and MGM had little or nothing to do with Brazilian reality and helped foster a blindness to it and an ineptness in improving it. Just as upstarts in Italy and France had created two of the most influential cinemas of the twentieth century, Neorealism and the Nouvelle Vague, cinephiles, journalists, critics, film professionals, and aspiring directors in Brazil agitated for a new language. The lightweight cameras, faster film stock, and portable sound equipment that made street shooting possible in all kinds of light freed filmmaking from the studio, and Cinema Novo was born. Nelson Pereira dos Santos, Caca Diegues, Joaquim Pedro de Andrade, Leon Hirszman, Paulo César Saraceni, Glauber Rocha, and others hand-carried their cameras (well, the daring cinematographer Dib Lutfi actually did a lot of the “carrying”) onto city streets, up the steep and narrow favela passageways, out into the vast sertão, coastal fishing villages, and rural backwaters to bring distinctly Brazilian stories to Brazilian screens.

These are the basic facts, which you can pick up in any rudimentary world cinema history or even on Wikipedia. But its spirit, from its heady beginnings, as it matured with the growth of the individual artists, then rebounded in the face of political repression is not something that can be conveyed by chronological bullet points. Eryk Rocha, son of Cinema Novo’s most famous creator, Glauber Rocha, has spent the last decade sifting through archives for clips from this non-doctrinaire school of cinema, which blurred fiction and documentary, put the poor and working class in the center frame, cast black and Indian and northeastern actors as protagonists, elevated folklore, and smashed the myth of a monolithic culture inhabited by an elite descended primarily from Europeans. Rocha selected the familiar and obscure, the black-and-white and color, 4:3 and widescreen, television interviews and production footage, stitching together a history that pulses with the vigor of the movement itself.

For Cinema Nova, which screened in November 2016 as part of the Museum of Modern Art’s Contender series, Rocha worked again with Renato Vallone who edited Rocha’s ode to Brazil’s national pastime, Sunday Ball, and uses some of the same techniques, letting seemingly disparate clips jar each other or seamlessly glide one after the other, juxtaposing themes, matching movement, and allowing the soundtrack from one film to speak for another. In a long, overhead shot, Luíza Maranhão runs frantically through the sand dotted with palms along some unnamed shore, a cangaceiro on horseback cutting through thickets of cactus in the sertão close on her heels from another film. The pursuit continues in yet another film, eventually tapering into the slowing footfalls of a desperate man in a suit jacket breathless in some stark urban locale. Later, Black God, White Devil’s Othon Bathos calls out for “two shots of gunfire” and rifles from two subsequent films oblige, crumbling a large rockface in another film entirely.

In one of the most exhilarating segments of Cinema Nova, a young Fernanda Montenegro reveling in a steady downpour in Leon Hirszman’s A Falecida is spliced into Ana Esmeralda mid-twirl under a rainfall of confetti in Luis Person’s São Paulo, Sociedade Anônima, which in turn segues into a blissed-out, sparkle-faced Anecy Rocha (the filmmaker’s aunt) in Walter Lima Jr.’s A Lira do delírio. The sequence doubles as an homage to the women of Cinema Novo, who are used to their role as muses. In what seems a gentle rebuke to the chauvinism of the time (not just in Cinema Novo), Rocha later lets an interview clip play through to an awkward moment. During a cross-cultural gathering of directors, the Brazilian and French filmmakers are introduced to the camera—including direct cinema pioneers Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin—when the cameraman almost does a double-take before holding on the Venezuelan director of Araya, and the only woman in the room: “Oh, I forgot,” says the interlocutor, “Margot Benacerraf ….” Makers of African descent were even rarer.

Rocha sticks mainly to the films of the 1960s, a period he has correctly said is the most fecund of the movement but also includes snippets from Cinema Novo’s antecedents in the silent era, Mario Peixoto’s dizzying Brazilian classic Limite and films by Humberto Maura (who also made 300 short documentaries during his long association with the National Institute of Educational Cinema). Glauber Rocha called Mauro “the godfather of Cinema Novo” and the veteran filmmaker even wrote the Tupi dialogue for Nelson Pereira dos Santos’s 1971 satire, How Tasty Was My Little Frenchmen. These filmmakers often worked on each others’ films throughout their careers and Cinema Novo captures the shared warmth of these filmmakers with footage of them joking around, having drinks, and playing ping pong (the one always smoking the cigars is Ruy Guerra, director of 1961’s Os fuzis, or The Guns).

The movement suffered a stunning setback when dark conservative forces maneuvered their way into power, ending Brazil’s pro-worker democracy in 1964. The filmmakers still managed to make and release films, even after 1968 when an even harder-line faction within the military, fearful of increasing protests, invoked law and order to further override constitutional protections and tighten control of the country’s resources. It embarked on a deadly witchhunt, imprisoning, torturing, and killing the opposition, which included writers, playwrights, singers, and filmmakers. Cinema Novo directors again changed their filmmaking styles in response—mostly from exile—hoodwinking censors with allegorical films like the above-mentioned How Tasty and the searing satire, Macunaíma, adapted from the 1928 novel by Joaquim Pedro de Andrade after his brief detainment by the dictatorship. Macunaíma features prominently in Cinema Novo, with clips of Grande Otelo dropping from the womb, fully grown, onto a dirt floor and, then later transformed into Paulo José, unleashing an arrow that plummets an overfed specimen into the human feijoada stewing in the pool below.

Some reviewers have expressed frustration that few of the clips are identified. I had to do a bit of digging for some names and moments that I mention here, even as I’ve seen many of the titles over the years. Rocha lists the quoted films in the end credits, but they go by too fast to do anyone any good in the theater. But this is not a film for that kind of note-taking—its purpose is not to itemize but incarnate. Yet you will still leave the theater with enough information in your head to start exploring on your own (Vidas Secas by Pereira dos Santos might be a good place to start). And, you’ll want to, as the documentary has a deep resonance beyond its historical subject matter.

While Cinema Novo was well received by intellectuals at home and abroad, garnering prizes most notably at Cannes, the films rarely made a dent in the theaters of the day. They set out to show Brazil to Brazilians but faced two daunting obstacles: an exhibition circuit dominated by Hollywood imports and public perception that films made in-country were of poor quality. In fact, some Brazilian films released domestically included Portuguese subtitles because sound recording quality was so low. Even as quality increased and the outside world bestowed its imprimatur, the perception remained that these movies didn’t measure up, or, maybe, didn’t reflect back the kind of Brazil audiences wanted to see. Despite governmental support in the form of tax breaks and exhibition quotas renewed with gusto in the mid-1990s, these problems persist today. Brazilian comedies or historical dramas about popular figures made with well-known names do well, but it’s a once-in-a-blue moon film that can outdo the latest CGI marvel. But box office isn’t the only goal and, if nothing else, Cinema Novo and this namesake documentary demonstrate that small ripples eventually make waves.

Completed in a year that saw Brazilian president and former political prisoner Dilma Rousseff impeached for a budgetary sleight of hand that pales in comparison to the corruption of her deposers, this documentary comes at a crucial time for the country and its artists. Introducing the film at Cannes 2016, Rocha, whose own father was marked for death by the military regime for voicing opposition abroad, condemned the impeachment as nothing short of a coup, rightwing forces within the government achieving what they could not at the ballot box. The next day at Cannes another Brazilian film premiered, Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Aquarius, about the ongoing assault of greed on the livability of daily life (which also screened as part of MoMA’s 2016 Contenders series). Mendonça Filho used the opportunity of the red carpet to tell the world the truth about what was happening back home when he and some compatriots (including Aquarius star Sonia Braga and Neighboring Sounds star Maeve Jinkings) held up signs that read: “A Coup d’Etat Took Place in Brazil.” The action earned him the ire of vocal members of a government-appointed committee convened to select the country’s Oscar submission, which later declined to consider his film even as it would have provided a competitive edge. Two other strong candidates, Anna Muylaert’s Don’t Call Me Son and Gabriel Mascaro’s Neon Bull, withdrew from consideration in solidarity. These are small, courageous gestures of the kind that Americans themselves might have to start practicing in the coming years and hope they generate even a portion of the ripples made by Cinema Novo.

— Shari Kizirian © 2016

Originally published November 18, 2016, on the editorial pages of Fandor


Battleground States

Shutting girls off from the world denies them the power to make their own choices. But it also deprives the world of them.

Freeing the sisterhood in Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Mustang

Summer arrives and five sisters in a small town on the Black Sea spurn the final bus ride home from school and walk instead. Along the way they stop to splash around at the water’s edge with boys their age. A close, handheld camera captures carefree faces, loosened uniforms, tousled hair, and the bare skin of arms and legs, the chaos and pleasure of uninhibited play. More afternoons like this seem inevitable, and Turkish-born French filmmaker Deniz Gamze Ergüven creates a jubilant atmosphere full of this promise at the beginning of Mustang, her remarkable feature-length debut. Soon this same camera captures the urgency of the girls as they fight, flee, or freeze in the face of a strict new home-front regime. Their transgression nothing more than growing up.

In punishment, all corrupting influences are banished from the girls’ lives—phones, the internet, makeup brushes, a postcard of Delacroix’s 1830 painting La Liberté guidant le peuple—their bodies put under martial law. Bricklayers and metalworkers are called in to raise the yard walls, install more grates, locks, and spikes, windows shut tight against even summer breezes. Drab frocks now hide brightly colored underwear, hair is tamed into braids. Aunts in hijabs are summoned to teach cooking and cleaning. The house, as Lale, the youngest and the film’s narrator tells us, “becomes a factory for making wives.”

The girls don’t submit quietly—beating on doors, yelling fiercely in each other’s defense. They take increasing risks to feel free—dropping out the window to meet a boyfriend, prancing around the house in a stuffed pushup bra, sex in the back seat with a stranger. One glorious sequence shows the sisters sneaking out and hitching a ride to a soccer game open only to female spectators. (Men have been banned—not for inappropriate fraternization or revealing clothing—for storming the field and attacking players at the previous game. It’s the most harmless hypocrisy in the film.) The girls make the most of this accepted form of expression, and their unbridled joy, stomping in unison with the crowd, a confetti of lights raining down rivals the exuberance of Xavier Dolan’s aspect-ratio sequence in Mommy and Céline Sciamma’s lip-synching scene Girlhood. No joy in Mustang comes without a price, though, and the scene grips your heart tight.

When one aunt calmly and without comment sews up a thigh-high slit discovered in the oldest girl’s dress, we sense the omnipotent power of tradition. All escape routes will be closed. But the aunts also have their little subversions, once causing a town-wide blackout so the men can’t watch the game the girls sneak out to attend. Men aren’t all bad either. A local deliveryman teaches Lale to drive. A male gynecologist defends a young bride’s virginity. Ultimately, the girls have to come to their own rescues and the prepubescent Lale is the mustang of the title who chomps most at the bit, throwing off authority impulsively, as a child would. (Her solution to most things that go wrong is to throw them out the window.) As her sisters are picked off one by one, she learns more restraint, displaying improvisional genius when she turns the very fortress she’s confined to against its captors.

Ergüven’s film can be read as an analogy of the political and cultural tug of war in today’s Turkey, as the country’s religious right clashes with the secular elite over the nature of civilization. Women are often the battleground. Many will be reminded of Sophia Coppola’s cloistered Lisbon sisters lazing about in their rooms in their nighties in 1999’s The Virgin Suicides. However, the situation for Mustang’s girls cannot be pegged as simply a Turkish problem or an Old World problem or a Muslim problem or even a religious problem. Ergüven, who wrote the scenario with Augustine director Alice Winocour, mentions Allah perfunctorily and only in formal exchanges, making clear that women are controlled in terrifying ways without the invocation any god. That they are done in the name of protection comes across as universal.

Cinema has rarely been on our side. Movies in general are still rife with visual lechery, the camera drooling over young female bodies, temptations marked for violent or shameful ends. Luckily, last year alone saw the release of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Ana Lily Amirpour), which makes clear where the danger really lurks, and The Diary of a Teenage Girl (Marielle Heller), with Minnie’s hopeful role model. Unlikely to make an appearance at the multiplex, Anita Rocha da Silveira’s Mate-me Por Favor (Kill Me Please), which premiered at the 2015 Venice Film Festival, is an interesting twist on the good-girls-don’t-die-in-horror-films conceit and it puts teenage (hetero)sexuality literally in your face with extended takes of make-out sessions, dead-center frame.

Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood

And there’s Girlhood, Céline Sciamma’s sublime coming-of-age film from 2014—her third one after Tomboy and Water Lilies—about a young woman of African descent in the Paris banlieues negotiating narrow standards of gender and (very) limited options for independence. In five distinct chapters “Vic” experiments with versions of herself (with hair as important a symbol as it is in Mustang). Rather than the soft color palette and documentary urgency of Mustang, Girlhood is shot widescreen with a fixed camera in strong colors and features several stunning tableaux of banlieue girls posturing, dancing, fighting, talking. Sciamma’s portrayal, however, is no less tender than Ergüven’s film.

Like Girlhood, Mustang has been stockpiling critical acclaim around the world and now competes for the César, an Oscar (representing France), and an Independent Spirit Award. Like Girlhood, its chances for actually winning a major award seem remote. (One member of the Women Film Critics Circle gave Girlhood a 2015 Thrown Under the Bus Award for “being made invisible (again) during awards season.”) Wins or no, nominations might be enough encouragement for many more such films to get made. Shutting girls off from the world denies them the power to make their own choices, their own mistakes, discover the world their way. But it also deprives the world of them. Each of Mustang’s girls are precious, distinctive and Ergüven rips them from the herd cruelly, so it hurts. We get closest to Lale, the one who is capable of looking out at the twisting, winding road to distant Istanbul and still imagine running free.

— Shari Kizirian © 2016

Originally published February 22, 2016, on the editorial pages of Fandor


Vocal Women of the Silent Era

Most women in the early film industry could be found in Hollywood’s cutting rooms, doing in ankle-length Victorian-era skirts what historian Eileen Bowser calls “women’s work.”

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Mary Pickford behind William Beaudine

The auteur theory promulgated by the French cineastes of Cahiers du cinéma channeled film criticism into discussions about singular visions of directors like Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, among others, revealing the art, previously neglected, of popular fare made under studio control. But the theory also had a backfire effect, in that, significant contributions other than the directors’ could go unanalyzed, unacknowledged, unappreciated. Think what Hawks’s films would have been like without just right lithe, quick-tongued female lead. Consider what a Hitchcock film might be like without the career-long collaboration of writer (and wife) Alma Reville, or early Fritz Lang without Theo von Harbou, screenwriter of Metropolis, Woman on the Moon, Spies, two Dr. Mabuse scripts as well as early Murnau scenarios. Imagine how different a Scorsese film might be without Thelma Schoonmaker in the cutting room. Impossible to say, it’s true—but it’s also a caution not to invest simply everything in the directors. This is especially relevant in talking about the first three decades of cinema, when labor divisions were blurred, when many hats were worn by a few, and many of those hats were worn by women. Women were in fact closer to parity in filmmaking in the silent era than they are today. They may not have been auteurs, though some certainly were, but they exercised a powerful agency in creating the art of the film.

Oh Pioneer
By now, enough has been written about Alice Guy that no one in cinema circles can feign ignorance of this founding father who happens to be female. She is not as readily revered as her compatriots, the Lumières or Georges Méliès, but she should be. She took it upon herself to borrow her boss’s camera—Léon Gaumont, who was content to simply set this new gadget among the others in his photography shop—and film test footage on her own time in order to market the equipment better. The result, La Fée aux choux, might well be the very first fiction film ever made. She went on to direct more than one thousand films of all genres and types: actualities, fairy tales, dance films, comedies, war stories, westerns, morality plays, melodramas, etc., and supervised many others. When she married Gaumont’s representative for another new piece of equipment, the chronophone, the couple moved to America and her contributions got forever tangled up with his (think if this had happened to Hitchcock). After patent battles with the Edison-controlled monopoly on movie equipment shut down any market for the Gaumont synchronized sound film system, Guy, whose family money had kept the Blachés afloat, provided the best way she knew how, by making films. Soon, she owned and was running her own studio complex, replete with a lab, a glass studio, a western town, and a lake, all of which she had the habit of patrolling on horseback—Will a vision of a female DeMille in jodhpurs help make her stick?—and where a banner exhorted actors to “Be Natural.” She later moved into feature films, through her and her husband’s own production units, and then eventually became a director for hire. After divorcing, she returned to France before her fiftieth birthday, writing and lecturing about film and her place in it.

Behind Post Doors
Most women in the early film industry could be found in Hollywood’s cutting rooms, doing in ankle-length Victorian-era skirts what historian Eileen Bowser calls “women’s work.” According to another historian, Kristin Hatch, the job required more than following instructions, it involved making creative decisions: “[Cutters] are the women who screened dailies with directors and producers to help decide what footage should be used, what cut, and whether additional footage needed to be shot. They attended test screenings to determine where a film’s pacing flagged, where the drama might be heightened with a close-up, or where a sequence needed to be cut.” Far from Hollywood, in its sister industry in France, another army of women toiled away in another kind of postproduction work, adding color to release prints. Elisabeth Thuillier had a thriving business hand-coloring lantern slides and, when the demand for films increased, grew her company into employing more than two hundred workers (mostly women) hand-painting in big strokes and the very small, frame by frame, the films of Georges Méliès, among others. Watch A Trip to the Moon with color and without to see the great difference Thuillier’s work made. (The American company Selig Polyscope negotiated with Méliès to ship its prints across the Atlantic for treatment in Thuillier’s lab.) A few years later, over in Russia, another woman toiled in postproduction, charged with rendering imports safe for communism. Esfir Shub massaged the storylines and political messages of films by the likes of Fritz Lang and Chaplin, keeping the “outtakes” for herself to tinker with later. In 1927, she finished a feature-length documentary in celebration for the tenth anniversary of the Red Revolution, weaving a fact-based history about the fall of the Romanovs from fragments of features and newsreels made before 1917, putting the ill-fated dynasty in its proper place and elevating the ill-treated people to theirs. Living in a time of great shortages—caused by the privations of revolution, civil war, and widespread poverty—Shub transformed the lack of new film stock into a fresh form of cinema. In the context of this bold contribution, Eisenstein learning how to edit by observing Shub at work becomes a mere footnote in cinema history.

Best Case Scenarios
Many of that massive army of bustle-butted cutters are largely faceless for us today, but scriptwriters—another department populous with females—come down to us in the credits of the films they helped make. Anita Loos (frequent scenarist for Griffith and Douglas Fairbanks), Jeanie Macpherson (Cecil B. DeMille’s right-hand quill), Frederic Sagor (The Goose Woman and The Plastic Age), Frances Marion (favored by MGM and Mary Pickford), and we’ve mentioned already Thea von Harbou and Alma Reville, are among the legions. Back in the silent days, the division of labor was much less distinct than it is today with the reams of black leader requiring entire songs to fit in all the specialized credits. Those interstitial cards with the dialogue, descriptions of action, character motivations, jokes, and sometimes, in the case of director D.W. Griffith and producer June Mathis, some florid sermonizing, had to be written by somebody, and, in a bit of specialization, it wasn’t always the same person who wrote the scenario. Katharine Hilliker came from a journalism background then moved into publicity and script departments at studios in a time before massive consolidation. As a title writer, she often had to reshape the films in the editing room and while at Select pictures, she took the initiative to recut and rewrite titles for a film languishing on a shelf. The new version not only recouped expenses but also turned a profit. She wrote English-language titles for the American distribution prints of Madame Dubarry and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. She went on to work in tandem with her new husband, to earn the trust and acclaim of the era’s best-known directors. One historian clearly explains her success: “if the cutters refused to make the changes she suggested, she would do them herself.” When she became frustrated at MGM trying to work on the troubled production of Ben-Hur and made noise that she would leave, the studio gave her a suite of her own offices and a job to her husband. Still unhappy, she moved over to Fox, where she became a trusted collaborator of both F.W. Murnau and Frank Borzage, titling at least two masterpieces of the late silent era, Sunrise and Seventh Heaven.

Execute a search in the American Film Institute database on the name June Mathis and the results are 113 hits for Writer, and one each for Editor and Cast. But this doesn’t even come close to describing the significance of her role and reputation in the silent era. Her contribution is difficult to evaluate because of that fuzzy division of labor, and her reputation suffered down through history because of her association with the reedit of Erich von Stroheim’s Greed and the debacle that was the first production of Ben-Hur in Italy. But Mathis was in fact a midwife to many films and many careers, a hands-on producer who wrote and cowrote scripts, edited (and reedited) films, discovered talent (the original Latin Lover—when so many foreigners were villains—Rudolph Valentino), nurtured careers (the original flapper, Colleen Moore), and supervised some of Hollywood’s biggest budget films. She was sent to Italy as the studio’s trusted emissary to watch over Ben-Hur and was scapegoated when it went badly. She is what today would be called a studio executive and wielded great influence at major outfits. Virginia Wright Wexman parses it better than I can: “The titles she held at Goldwyn Pictures, Metro Pictures, and Famous Players-Lasky Film Corporation included ‘artistic supervisor’ and ‘editorial director.’ Such positions ceased to exist in the years that followed, but as far as one can tell, they involved overseeing the development of motion picture scripts, supervising activities on the set, and presiding over the editing process, duties studio producers commonly assumed during the 1930s.” If that’s not convincing enough, think that she died of a heart attack, the studio executive’s scourge, when she was barely forty years old. A journalist lamented in an obituary that Mathis’s contribution was already being forgotten: “If we are a people who recognize the immortality of great achievements, as we claim to do, and, further, pledge ourselves to perpetuate the memories of their creators, as we also have done, then the name of June Mathis must live among us for many years to come.”

Funny Ladies
Whichever studio executive said women weren’t funny enough to carry a comedy knows nothing about film history. Before Chaplin or Keaton or Lloyd, or the Keystone Kops even, at least two comedians on film stand out, Mabel Normand and Marie Dressler, both of whom had ’em laughing all the way to box office and back. A former model, Normand was a name before Chaplin made one at Mack Sennett’s famous Keystone Studios. According to Women Film Pioneers research, Normand was “one of the earliest silent actors to function as her own director … also one of the first leading performers to be named in the title of her films … and to have her own studio.” The Tramp? He first came to life on the set of Mabel’s Strange Predicament in 1914. Another of Normand’s Keystone colleagues was Marie Dressler, whose vaudeville act as Tillie, a clumsy, outsize dame, transferred well to the screen in three subsequent films, the first of which was Sennett’s first feature-length release—think about a studio today choosing its first 3D release to be headlined solo by a woman, never mind by one in her mid-forties. Dressler’s career and life had its ups and downs and after help from screenwriter (and Mary Pickford collaborator) Frances Marion, she managed such a successful comeback in the early sound era that exhibitors considered her “more than Garbo, Cagney, or Gable,” writes biographer Matthew Kennedy, “the most profitable film star in the world.” She was sixty-five years old. Normand’s star had faded faster and more permanently. Harmed by an oblique association to scandals in the early 1920s, her comeback sputtered and died. Historians have yet to evaluate her true contribution.

Actresses carried many films to cha-chingdom in the silent era. Pearl White fell off horses, flew airplanes, and faced fisticuffs in her many serials, rising to be 1916’s most popular star. Sisters Norma and Constance Talmadge were voted by American readers of Moving Picture World magazine as the first and second most popular movie actresses in 1921. The list is long. But there’s one who stands out, not only as a bankable actress but also as the builder of an empire so sturdy pieces of it still gird Hollywood’s infrastructure today. I’m talking of course of America’s first sweetheart: Mary Pickford. While dismissed now for playing little girls well past her prime (think of the actors who bound their middles to play Bond, James Bond well past theirs—Pickford didn’t gain weight, she merely bound her chest), her contribution to American cinema cannot be overstated. She made her first films in New York City between gigs on the touring theatrical circuit where she had been an actress since age eight. She did it with disdain, for the money, to help get her mother and two younger siblings through the stage’s offseason. When she found she was good at it—had an innate understanding of how to come across on camera and a gift for negotiating wages and authority—she dived in full and changed “flickers” forever. She worked with every major producer and director in the business, including D.W. Griffith (with whom she had knock-down drag-out fights because she didn’t like his tendency toward the histrionic), Thomas Ince, Carl Laemmle, Cecil B. DeMille, and Adolph Zukor, who all, despite any creative differences, praised her skill and savvy as an actress and producer. Pickford became not only a beloved American icon adorned in a crown of golden curls, but also an industry powerhouse, the first woman in front of the camera with considerably more influence than anyone behind it, choosing scripts, directors, cameramen, writers, costars, set designers, costumers, all major collaborators. Try shushing her in a meeting. She also wrote an advice column in the dailies, used her celebrity to market cold cream and tie-ins to promote her movies (sheet music, puzzles, a doll), got her brother and sister in the business, married a fellow icon (Douglas Fairbanks), scandalizing the first half of the twentieth century in the process. She lured Germany’s most commercial director to Hollywood (Ernst Lubitsch) and was a driving force behind the first major distributor owned and operated by the talent (United Artists) as well as some Los Angeles-based institutions that still form part of Hollywood’s nervous system, including the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. She and her husband dubbed their home in Beverly Hills, “Pickfair,” the first half of her surname joined with the first half of his, creating a concrete place, a ground zero, for the myth of celebrity that still grips American culture today.
— Shari Kizirian © 2015

Originally published November 22, 2015, on the editorial pages of Fandor

Good Cop, Bad Cap: Cinema Has Its Say

Cops might be necessary to the system, but better the lone, almost reluctant crime-fighter, from Marshal Will Kane to John McClane, from the Man with No Name to the Dark Knight, to get the job done right.

Buster Keaton in Cops

In his history of Keystone Studio, Simon Louvish imagines filmmaker-to-be Mack Sennett having the opportunity to see a 1907 Pathé release, The Little Policeman’s Run in which a dog steals a pork chop from a butcher shop and gets chased by police “down cobbled streets, across tram lines, in and out of a cellar, up and down the side of a building … through a sleeping man’s bedroom, into the dog’s kennel … truncheons flailing ….” In what became a classic switcheroo, the dog ends up chasing them, “back down the streets, over a rail fence, up a lamppost, across the town square, and back into their own station,” where the hungry canine has the last shot, topped in a police cap, chomping the chop.

It took six years—Louvish’s best guess, anyway—for the Sennett-run studio to conjure its first Keystone Kop, in 1913’s The Bangville Police and for the phenomenon to pick up steam with In the Clutches of the Gang, released later that December. Borrowing from vaudeville, silent-film comedy now had a clown in a different type of uniform, and mocked the bumbling copper so often and so well that it became sacred gag-writer doctrine. “You can always be safe in hitting a policeman,” Sennett later said. By 1922, when Buster Keaton made the short film Cops, it was a seemingly wrung-out cliché: “I believe that this season will witness their appearance in motion pictures,” Keaton wisecracked to the L.A. Times about his production. Working-class and newly minted Americans, mostly fleeing impoverished pockets of Europe, crowded into the country’s unprepared cities and took cathartic pleasure seeing their daily nemeses, beat cops on “quality of life” patrols, rendered ridiculous in the movie parlors of the day.

The “bulls” and “dicks” of the noir era proved that spending too much time in the demimonde takes its toll. The detectives in The Maltese Falcon, with square-jawed and virtually indistinguishable from each other, were not much help in the crime-solving department—one of them couldn’t wait to railroad Sam Spade for his partner’s death. At the end, when Spade delivers a tear-stained Brigid O’Shaughnessy for the murder of Thursby, he says to the lead detective: “What’s the matter with your little playmate? He looks broken-hearted.” (Not for nothing, the original novel was written by Pinkerton veteran Dashiell Hammett, grown cynical of the “shoot first, ask questions later” methods.)

The quintessential rogue with a badge went urban in Dirty Harry, whose infamous one-liner has been quoted for generations now. Released at the tail end of 1971, while the nation watched activists getting their heads bashed in, Don Siegel’s San Francisco-set film was a hit; did it seem post-racial then that the “punk” who’s asked if he’s feeling lucky is black? J. Hoberman’s book The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties features Clint Eastwood’s Inspector Harry Callahan taking menacing aim with his .44 Magnum on the cover, and describes the film’s schizophrenic reception—both as the right-wing answer to all the unrest and as an antiestablishment narrative (Siegel’s original intent). Pauline Kael famously called it “fascist medievalism,” but also reported that “it was cheered by Puerto Ricans in the audience” for getting rid of the principal bad guy (a serial killer based on the Zodiac, who in reality never was caught) by any means necessary. Audiences are unpredictable that way. Upon the 2007 release of José Padilha’s Elite Squad, which rebukes the Rio de Janeiro special forces that patrol favelas for suffocating potential informants with plastic bags until they cooperate, Brazil’s middle-class missed the point, cheering the real-life troops doing their drills on Copacabana beach.

A couple months before Inspector Callahan shot up American screens, hardboiled NYPD detective Eddie Egan was immortalized as Popeye Doyle in William Friedkin’s The French Connection. Spewing vile epithets, he operates on hunches and fists, and constantly has to be reined in by his more equanimous partner, “Cloudy” Russo. One of the police consultants on the film remembers begging director Friedkin not to have Doyle shoot a suspect in the back, but to no avail. That’s just what we need,” he groans in the DVD extra. The completely fabricated scene—no one was killed or shot in the course of the actual French Connection investigation—became the poster image for the film. Huge at the box office and with critics, it garnered five Oscars, including Best Picture (making it the first R-rated movie to win the big award). Popeye’s racist vitriol (too much even for Gene Hackman; he kept asking for different lines) was overshadowed in time by the codifier delivered through Eastwood’s curled lip. Either way, like the P.I.’s of America’s chiaroscuro years, the good guys have no choice but be bad to get their jobs done.

Americans got another kind of authority figure in Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night, set in a small Southern town. The chief, played by Rod Steiger, is a Bull Connor type, easily pictured setting the dogs on Civil Rights activists. Yet he knows he’s outmatched when a rich citizen is found murdered in his jurisdiction and he’s forced to submit to the help of a Philadelphia homicide detective, played by Sidney Poitier, who happens to be black. Despite its weaknesses, the multi-award-winning film does something remarkable by condemning prejudice alongside its twin malice, ignorance, as Poitier’s Mr. Tibbs calmly employs scientific means to solve the case. (This is the kind of cop that populates the crime series today.) A few years later, a different type of black crimefighter emerged—possessing brains, brawn, and street cred—in the now iconic Shaft, written by French Connection screenwriter Ernest Tidyman.

P.I. Shaft’s a classic loner whose demimonde centers in Harlem. He mistrusts police (with damned good reason) and won’t betray a “brother” to the cops even if he’s done wrong. Shaft navigates all kinds of dubious alliances to battle the Mafia, wrapping up the entire case without the help of any law enforcement. The film was so successful it helped lift MGM out of a deep financial slump. At the time of Shaft’s release, producer Joel Freeman felt perfectly comfortable describing the plan for a franchise this way: “The first Shaft film is aimed much more directly at a black audience. The language is very pointedly black, which is what we wanted. Later on, if Shaft succeeds, we will open the series up and send Shaft anyplace. That’s when we expect to start picking up our real white audience.” [Emphasis mine.] Isaac Hayes’s Academy Award-winning song didn’t hurt bringing Shaft into the white mainstream. Earlier that year the path had been cleared for Shaft’s reception by Melvin Van Peeble’s indie hit Sweet Sweetback’s Baadaasssss Song about a young (and badass) black man unjustly pursued by the cops. Even though that film reportedly grossed ten million dollars and launched the lucrative Blaxploitation genre, its planned sequels were never made.

The death of Bronx resident Eleanor Bumpurs in 1984, shot by cops called to assist with her eviction from a city housing project, was one of several high-profile incidents of excessive and deadly force to hit the headlines in the eighties, including the death of New York graffiti artist Michael Stewart. Spike Lee’s 1989 Do the Right Thing directly references these murders and dramatizes the slow-burn of discrimination that sets off the tinderbox. The cops are rarely in the film, but when they do appear their role is one of disruption, not peace-keeping. In one sequence when the camera goes from Radio Raheem’s head in a chokehold to his involuntarily twitching feet, Lee makes it crystal clear how no trained police officer can mistake the struggles of someone resisting arrest for their struggle to breathe. Yet audiences objected to Mookie’s heroic throwing of a garbage can through the window of Sal’s Famous Pizzeria. As Roger Ebert noted in his essay for the Criterion release, some in the audience “… recoiled from the damage done to Sal’s property but hardly seemed to notice, or remember, that the events were set in motion by the death of a young black man at the hands of the police.”

Unfolding over the course of a single day, just like Do the Right Thing, 2013’s Fruitvale Station finds us back in familiar territory. Ryan Coogler’s award-winning debut feature begins with the cell phone footage of a young father shot in the back by police while lying face down on the ground. The victim, Oscar Grant (portrayed by the warm yet steely Michael B. Jordan), has a temper and we see it manifest several times in the course of the film. The white cop who pulls Grant off the subway car has one too, but he’s allowed his human emotions. The double standard still hasn’t penetrated white consciousness on a broad scale, even as every week seems to bring another extrajudicial slaying captured on cell phones and circulated online. Neither has the footage moved judges or juries to hold many officers criminally accountable (Grant’s killer Johannes Mehserle was convicted and spent less than a year in jail). In all these years since the Keystone Kops, that the truncheons are still flailing against our citizenry is no laughing matter. Yet it’s hardly ever a storyline in all the dozens of law-enforcement stories we have today, from the NCISes through the True Detectives. That’s not just a pitiful lack of imagination; it’s part of the problem.

— Shari Kizirian © 2016

Originally published August 22, 2016, on the editorial pages of Fandor.

Full Frontal Farewell

Now, there’s no other way to watch Chantal Akerman’s “No Home Movie” except as her last.

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Not many had the chance to see this film before she died. It premiered at Locarno in August, Toronto in September, and made its U.S. premiere at the New York Film Festival in early October, two days after, it turned out, that she killed herself. It wasn’t on the original roster of Nos Amours’ two-year long retrospective of her work in London but became the last screening, in a tribute to the filmmaker who’d attended several times to talk to audiences. Reviews had already come in. Rumors of press grumbling had already circulated, booing some said, at Locarno. You can read in the Hollywood Reporter that the film is strictly for Akerman acolytes, which seems neither dismissive or unfair. Aren’t they all.

Now, there’s no other way to watch the film except as her last. No other way but to see her body of work except as bound by the bookends, Saute ma ville, in which she mocks obsessive housekeeping with her own hilariously kinetic—and disastrous— attempts at it and then blows herself up, and No Home Movie, about the last year of her mother’s life, a film that ends with her mother’s death, or rather with her mother’s absence, and now also reads like Akerman’s own farewell.

The title No Home Movie works in two ways. As in “no home,” the lifelong sense of displacement Akerman has dealt with in some way or other in all her pictures, from escaping Brussels, the “my city” of the title Saute ma ville, to the waiting post-Soviet populations in her installation film, D’Est, from the empty corridors of her transient home Hotel Monterey and the view out her temporary Tel Aviv apartment in Là-bas, in which she explicitly tells us she’s never belonged anywhere, and if only her parents had settled in Israel after the war she would have been allowed to play in the street, instead of Belgium, where her traumatized mother, out of love and fear (but still), kept a home hermetically sealed (out of the concentration camp into “a prison” of her own creation, Akerman once marveled) and rarely let her daughter out. A home that many times over Akerman has destroyed and longed for in her films.

The title could also be emphasizing that these are not home movies—not images of birthday parties, family excursions, goofing for the camera, smiles and picnics out. Akerman sets up the camera in her usual way, face-to-face, she’s said before, full-frontal for the viewer, yet from discrete, stationary distances, at the usual chair-level, capturing long shots of the usual rectangular patterns, frames within frames, of the usual rooms, living room, corridors, bedroom, kitchen, the windows on windows onto an outside rarely exposed. How many hours, she’s told us before in films and in interviews, had she sat as a child watching the empty rooms, the repetitive square tiles, repetitive peeling of potatoes, shining of shoes, the idle sitting. The nothing in between the nothings. A Proustian catalogue not of the delights of time regained, but of time irrevocably passing.

After a career recreating this sterile place (of Akerman’s memory), from Jeanne Dielman’s terrifyingly symmetrical apartment to the psychiatrist’s minimalist penthouse in A Couch in New York (what reads now like a plea for her mother to love her messy, nonrectangular self), her camera is now inside her actual mother’s apartment. Any Akerman acolyte cannot help but see the Dielman armoire, the Dielman kitchen tiles, and the Dielman china cabinet. She’s come home, in fact, but not home. The camera rests at these same angles, capturing a decrepit specter moving slowly from room to room, her hand held out before her like an antennae feeling for dangers.

There is conversation. People are sometimes there. The phone rings. A caretaker is overheard. Once in the kitchen over lunch, her mother small and contained eats quietly out of a plastic bowl, and Akerman, her back mostly to us, her side of the table closely mic’d to pick up those hyperbolic arrhythmic clinks we’ve come to know (and dread a little bit). She enters, talks nonstop, gets up loudly. There’s no mustard, oh there’s pickles, clanking her spoon against the ceramic bowl, talking over her mother’s answers, which come too slow or not at all, as Akerman tries, obliquely, for what feels like the last time, to find out what happened to her and her family in the camps and why they chose to settle in Belgium instead of Israel. Remember, Maman, the king was a Nazi. A Nazi? No I don’t remember that. Even now, if she wanted to tell, she can’t and the whole life Akerman waited to finally hear the story is coming to an end. The conversation ends, the waiting continues.

There is love. Over the potatoes, they say how beautiful each other were, still are. Over Skype, Akerman must work, a student is coming soon, but instead they stretch out the goodbye, meandering around other subjects. In the screen, Akerman’s face is a camera pointed at the laptop, surrounded by various adaptors required of a life lived as a nomad, the ubiquitous pack of cigarettes resting on spare tables with lamps not of her choosing, many pairs of scattered sunglasses to block out New York’s light, of which, Akerman says, there is much too much. She zooms into the Skype window, an extreme close-up on her mother’s face who’s already so close to the computer, straining to hear her daughter’s voice, that all we see is her eye. Which Akerman then distorts into an abstraction of light. I want to show there’s no distance anymore, she explains to her mother who still doesn’t understand, never has. But maybe she knows that’s not it at all. It’s something quite beautiful, yes, transient, blurred, revealing of nothing but further unknowables.

Near the end, Akerman and her sister Sylviane are trying to keep her mother awake after lunch—don’t sleep, Maman, talk—and Akerman passes in front of her stationary camera with a separate handheld camera, stumbling into an ottoman and falling onto the floor, still holding the camera pointed at the mother in her big chair, we get the sense, bought special for her comfort in her old age. It often sits askew and is incongruous with the rest of the furnishings. Sylviane, out of view, says I am sick of one of you always falling, and we get another sense of how incongruous Akerman has always felt in this home of ninety-degree angles. Those handheld shots of her mother dozing in that moment are never cut into the rest.

In the end, there’s a shot of Akerman in the guestroom she uses when she’s there. It’s tidy now. Akerman has gotten dressed. She ties her shoe. On the edge of the bed, she puts her head in her hands for a brief moment, roughly pushes back all her hair from her face, sighs that deep sigh we know from her other exasperations in her films and in interviews. It’s brief, heart-wrenching. But she gets up. It’s reluctant but quick, like how mothers tear off Band-Aids from sensitive skin.

Like the details of her Holocaust experience that died with her mother, Akerman’s reason for being unable to get up again those weeks after she finished the film are a story that die with her. Home, she says in the film, was where her mother was. Now home, even with all its sorrows, was gone she couldn’t go on? She tried, I read. Was in hospital being treated for depression for about a week before she died. But her affliction, like her mother’s old age, turned out to be just as fatal.

If Akerman had intended something in her film besides grief-stricken farewell, I can’t see it. Not in the bright green park at the beginning where other people walk and play and sit and relax. Not in the brief bright green patch of lawn in the courtyard of her mother’s apartment. Not in the rain-soaked street below. Not in the car, a go-camera fixed out the window, speeding speeding speeding along somewhere beige and barren. Not even in the love we can feel between them, that Akerman said in interviews she didn’t see until the editing room, her mother already dead. Nor in the mess that the mother doesn’t mind at all—leave it, she tells Chantal, someone is coming later.

Maybe there’s something in the extended opening passage of a desert landscape, a lone tree fiercely pounded by the wind. One critic called the tree, still standing, “a potent metaphor for stamina.” Maybe that is the promised land. But all I can see now is that it is alone, against a scarred, arid backdrop. It has lost half its foliage, and the wind isn’t close to done with it yet.

— Shari Kizirian © 2016

Originally published April 1, 2016, on the editorial pages of Fandor

The Radical Left’s Hollywood Heyday

It’s astonishing to revisit these films and see how much progress America has not made.

Dust Be My Destiny, 1939

In the lengthy clip during Noël Burch and Thom Andersen’s documentary Red Hollywood, Priscilla Lane and John Garfield round the corner in Dust Be My Destiny (1939) wondering where they’ll get breakfast. He’s clinking his few coins together when a milkman on his early morning rounds, cheerfully says, handing over a bottle, “It’s on the company.” When Garfield quips that it’s too bad they don’t make donuts, too, the milkman gets a reaction shot to say, “I’ll bring it up at the next meeting,” as if he has the power to influence company policy. It’s a throwaway but pushes the viewer, with humor, toward a solution. Leading into the scene a title card quotes Garfield’s down-and-out character on the solidarity among “guys who get up early,” while the narrator, L.A. Rebellion director and Andersen’s colleague at CalArts Billy Woodberry, tells us with laserbeam logic, that here near the end of the Depression, on the cusp of another war and before Red-baiters launched their crusade, “the homeless have not yet been excluded.” It is a mournful moment that, despite the cheeriness of the scene, is allowed to sink in.

First seen in 1995 and recently reedited for a long-awaited DVD release, Red Hollywood looks clear-eyed at the films and ideas that got the radical left routed from the movie industry in the 1940s and 1950s. The communists (both lower- and upper-case) and fellow travelers cautious, skeptical, or downright averse to a wholehearted embrace of the capitalist way made films that expressed their carefully conceived viewpoints, created characters snagged on the jaws of a merciless free market, and led audiences to reach moral conclusions at odds with a culture making the permanent switch from citizen (and potential comrade) to consumer. Extended clips from films of the day are divided into broad categories of Myths, War, Class, Sex, Hate, Crime, Death and are allowed to play out long enough for us to absorb their makers’ powerful intended takeaways and, by extension, realize what’s been missing from our national cinema ever since.

In 1949’s Not Wanted, written by the Blacklisted Paul Jarrico (interviewed in the film) and directed by Ida Lupino (for an ailing Elmer Clifton), a single mother holds her newborn for the first and last time and tearfully speculates about how she could keep him: “You could take care of yourself all day while I’m at work, couldn’t cha? Feed yourself, wash your dirty diapers….” But we’ve known the answer even before the nurse handed over the fresh bundle, “He’s all yours. Five minutes.” It’s astonishing to revisit these films and see how much progress America has not made. Watching Red Hollywood, the yawning lacuna begins to glare back.

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Tender Comrade, 1943

Drama is better suited for problems than solutions so the clips highlight few upbeat moments, most of which come in the War section about propaganda films in support of the Allied effort. The clip from Tender Comrade shows four female factory workers figuring that they can pool their resources not only to save money but have a better life. Ginger Rogers adds up their cumulative rents and exclaims, “Why for $93 we could have a living room, dining room, and a bedroom each!” Then, there’s the choral sequence from Thousands Cheer with lyrics and a mood of Technicolor solidarity that’ll drop your jaw faster than the Berlin Wall coming down, not mention give you marching feet. Stunning these filmmakers was their brazen use to bring them down, including Paul Jarrico’s Song of Russia, which portrayed happy Soviet peasants as the recent beneficiaries of American tractor generosity. According to the listing in the American Film Institute’s catalog, when star Robert Taylor balked at taking the role, “an official from the War Production Board came to Los Angeles and, during a meeting with Taylor and MGM head Louis B. Mayer, threatened to thwart [his] navy commission.”

Red Hollywood does not shield us from some of the hopelessly retrograde notions held by these same filmmakers. A segment on the adaptation of William Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust displays the condescending attitude toward African Americans, whose only possible saving grace was well-intentioned whites, and leaves us to imagine what movies could have been like had they not been left out of the conversation. When women, who were once asked to enter the workforce for the good of the country then, when the war ended, to return to the kitchen empty-headed, these writers and directors also largely obliged with suitable storylines (this is also the era of the femme fatale after all).

Today, HUAC has taken on a sheen of foolishness, but those gavel-pounding congressmen knew what they were doing. They knew without the writers and directors to hammer out ideas, or actors to put a face on it, there’d be no reverberations from American movie theaters out onto American main streets. They knew, too, there’d be no one in the film industry’s guilds to pull policies further left. Consider what makes headlines today is the redistribution of the millions at the top rather than fair pay down through the ranks.

Documentaries have tried to fill in the gap and it’s been interesting to watch Michael Moore become radicalized as he tries to get America to play fair from Roger and Me through Capitalism: A Love Story. In Where to Invade Next, he marvels at how much more advanced Europe has been in providing a safety net to its citizens. Europe may have a crazy scary right-wing, too, but many countries also still have a robust and diverse left-wing to help pull things into the center.

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Hail, Caesar!

Socialism at least is finally becoming more than an invective again, courtesy of one very popular presidential campaign, but the ideas, or problems at least, had already begun to bubble up into mainstream movies again. The Oscar-nominated The Big Short deconstructed the corruption in the system if not the system itself. Brad Pitt gave that declaration at the end of Killing Them Softly about how in America, you’re on your own. In the third Dark Knight film, Cat Woman, after purloining her latest necklace, whispers in her tuxedoed victim’s ear something about the one-percent and its greed. Brian Cranston’s Trumbo gives a lesson to his daughter about sharing her toys. As dated and didactic as any well-meaning, heavy-handed 1930s film, maybe, but it’s better than the absolute nothing we’ve had for half a century or more.

The Coen brothers who already alluded to the era’s pitiless horrors in Barton Fink take another approach with their latest, Hail, Caesar! It tells the story America has chosen so far to believe: a blank but loyal cowboy rides in to save the day from a Communist cabal of angry (Jewish) writers and the Hollywood dream factory hums on barely interrupted. Everyone gets a ribbing but the film complicates things with some truths (Hobie vanquishes nothing, merely arrives at the right moment) and delivers powerful takeaways. Extras on the sets stand (or hang) around still as statues, unappreciated, unnamed, underpaid, and under suspicion. A boatful of writers in the nighttime waters row like Roman galley slaves to meet the Soviet subs off the coast of Malibu. And in case those don’t register, they drop in a showstopper of a set piece with longtime collaborator Frances McDormand as a film cutter literally choking on the means of production. The big picture absurdity, of course, is that it all takes place against the backdrop of a big-budget production about the life of Christ, forcing the point that whether Christian or Communist the message is based on the same radical idea. Hail, Caesar! and Red Hollywood, each in their particular way, let that message, suppressed for so long, out into the open air.

— Shari Kizirian © 2016

Originally published May 1, 2016, on the editorial pages of Fandor

Ode to Anna Magnani

Her onscreen charm has been compared to both Brando’s and Garbo’s but those are two perfections. Magnani is all imperfection, charismatic and human.

Anna Magnani in Bellissima

Third time was the charm for Luchino Visconti’s successive attempts to work with the great Anna Magnani. He wanted her for Ossessione, his 1943 adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice, but the actress was pregnant and not available to play the Italian version of James M. Cain’s trapped, treacherous Cora. He did an enormous amount of preproduction work on The Golden Coach—what became instead Jean Renoir’s 1952 love letter to Commedia dell’arte (and Magnani)—before he was yanked off the project by justifiably twitchy producers. (The second-time director had already bankrupt one producer on La terra trema, finally released in 1948.) To make it happen, Visconti sat down with his closest collaborator, screenwriter Suso Cecchi d’Amico, to adapt a Cesare Zavattini story expressly for Magnani. Bellissima (1952) is about a stage mother trying to get her young daughter into the movie business and, according to Cecchi d’Amico, “was tailor-made for her.” Magnani is all the reasons why.

Variously described as a “shameless emotionalist” and “authentic,” Magnani played guitar and sang to help pay her way through a year at Rome’s Academy of Dramatic Arts. She later made a name onstage—as “Nannarella” performing bawdy songs while baring her midriff—and although her movie-director husband Goffredo Alessandrini told her that “she wasn’t pretty, in the movie sense,” she went on to carve out her own cinematic immortality, succeeding relatively late in life in the business that favors ingénues. She brought her comic timing honed with her theater partner Totò. She brought her raw sensuality, her hyperbolic romanesco, her regality, and her realness into every role. “I live what I do, or I believe I’m living it, which is the same thing,” she once said.

Her onscreen charisma has been compared to both Brando’s and Garbo’s but those two are perfections. Magnani is all imperfection, charismatic and human. And such messy hair. There has never been anyone like her. Watch her stumble and fall as she chases after her husband-to-be as he’s hauled off in a German occupation army truck in Rome, Open City (Roberto Rossellini, 1945) or with Aldo Fabrizi a few scenes prior going from slapstick to terrified in a flicker. After seeing Open City Pasolini wrote that her performance “obliterates the song of poets” and spent the next 15 years trying to work with her. Her second film with director (and lover at the time) Rossellini, L’amore (1948), is introduced with the apt title card “An Homage to the Art of Anna Magnani.”

While Magnani was the key to Bellissima, Visconti also wanted to escape the constraints of neorealism, which after two films he complained had “stuck like a tattoo.” Shooting in a real Roman borgate and at the actual Cinecittà studio, he strips any possible glamour from slumming it or moviemaking, revealing the drab armature of the manufacture of dreams. Visconti still filmed in black-and-white and still used nonprofessional actors (the man who plays Magnani’s husband was found brawny and believable shoveling bones at one of Rome’s abattoirs). He also insisted that costume designer Piero Tosi buy off the rack rather than create a wardrobe. Eyeing one woman on the street Tosi asked if he could have her skirt for a film starring Anna Magnani and the woman immediately obliged. “In those days women were willing to undress in the street for La Magnani,” Tosi said years later.

She is nothing but convincing as Bellissima’s quixotic mother, peddling her young daughter to movie directors against all odds. Watch her monologuing about the nature of performance against Visconti’s carefully placed mirrors while shadows of passersby move across her face; and, later, desperately tender, regretful, pressing her petite daughter to her as if they were one precious flesh. She improvised some of the dialogue herself, as she often did, and became Maddalena Cecconi so completely, one film historian wrote, “that she even considered adopting [costar] Tina Apicella.”

Such a creature of the pretend in a cautionary tale about that pretend is an irony lost on no one, and it was a conceit she toyed with throughout her career. After an offscreen beating by her disapproving husband in Bellissima, slumped in a chair, her hair and dress in yet another rumple, Magnani, so close to victory, seems down for the count, pleading to be left in peace, a chorus of supportive female neighbors in full agitato. “Stop acting, Maddalena,” her husband shouts. “I’m not acting!” The second she sees he’s out the door, her tears abruptly cease: “We made it, honey,” she says, grabbing little Maria and giving her a big smacking kiss. “If we hadn’t done all that there’d be no audition.” In her only other collaboration with Visconti she plays a version of herself, the theater star. Perched in a Rome police station clutching her dachshund in the last episode of 1953’s Siamo donne, she holds forth on the injustices of taxi surcharges and ignorance of drivers, charming all the carabinieri within earshot. Winning her case and now late for the theater, her charm’s intact but now takes the form of invective-laced exasperation as she threatens to kill her dresser “if she doesn’t live her in peace right now” to prepare.

Much has made of her emotive abilities. She gave goosebumps to Mastroianni and struck fear into the heart of Marlon Brando who joked about keeping a “fair-sized rock” around for those times she would surely overwhelm him. “They’d have had to mop me up,” he told Truman Capote in 1957 about the possibility of appearing opposite her on the legit stage in Tennessee Williams’s The Rose Tattoo. (Maureen Stapleton, who eventually won the coveted role, said the audience must have thought during her performance, “She’s no Magnani.”) Magnani herself later complained about being typecast—“They wore me out with these eternal roles as a noisy, hysterical popolana”—as if she too had forgotten the subtlety she brought to her portrayals.

Heavily courted by Williams, then experiencing his Broadway-Hollywood crossover, she made four American films, proving Brando right, but for different reasons. She provided the sure center of the movie version of The Rose Tattoo (1955), winning an Oscar, I think, for not using a rock against the ridiculous Burt Lancaster and for a scene in which she unceremoniously tries to squeeze her middle-years flesh (actual fat) into a corset—a move no big-name actress would dare today. In Sidney Lumet’s The Fugitive Kind (1960), she outmatches Brando’s magnetism molecule for molecule while the other cast mates all seem bent on out-Magnani-ing each other (in particular Joanna Woodward). Watch Magnani on the phone seeing Snakeskin for the first time and, before the plot starts to unfold, convey the whole sordid story with a look. Watch her seamless response to the package of pills Brando tosses to her in one of his improvised bits of business with a prop. Then watch her quietly die, her death mask coming to rest between the banister spindles.

Back in Italy she continued to appear onstage, in cinema and television, providing evidence both for her popolana cred and her powerful allure. In the 1962 film she finally made with Pasolini, Mamma Roma, she brings her hand to her mouth in a strange, wrist-first gesture worthy of suffering silent divas. In Made in Italy (Nanni Loy, 1965), she pushes and pulls a chain of children through bumper-to-bumper traffic and, in Tre donne (Alfredo Giannetti, 1971), exits a disco bar a cool, elegant diva. In 1972, she made a brief but potent cameo near the end of Fellini’s Roma. The director, who years earlier had appeared as the silent saint opposite her chatty goatherd in “The Miracle” episode of L’amore, follows Magnani through a plaza to the door of her home, calling her the living symbol of his beloved city: a wolf, an aristocratic bag lady, a dark clown. She chuckles at his idea. “Federico, I am sleepy.” He asks if he can interview her. “No, I don’t trust you.” The door is already closed. Those are the last words spoken in the film and the last she ever said on camera. She died the next year, far too young, at 65.

— Shari Kizirian © 2016

Originally published in September 2016 on the editorial pages of Fandor.